Jewish Journal

A skeptic looks at why we believe

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on May. 24, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Based on firsthand experience, I can say that if you find yourself in a room with Michael Shermer, he’s likely to be the smartest guy present, and I do not mean in the Enron sense.  Shermer, author of “Why People Believe Weird Things” and “The Science of Good and Evil,” among other books, is the founder of Skeptic magazine, and a fearless and tireless advocate of rationalism in the face of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. And he brings a scalpel-sharp and laser-focused intelligence to his work as America’s arch-skeptic.

“When I call myself a skeptic I mean simply that I take a scientific approach to the evaluation of claims,” he writes. “Science is skepticism and scientists are naturally skeptical.”

Shermer’s latest book is “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts to Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths” (Holt: $28), a wholly fascinating account of how our brains are hard-wired to turn raw data into true belief. Indeed, Shermer argues that the brain is a “belief engine,” and he shows us exactly how and why the capacity to believe may be the most important distinction between homo sapiens and all other forms of animal life. 

“Here I am interested in more than just why people believe weird things,” he explains, “but why people believe anything at all.”

Shermer offers a bit of personal background to frame his inquiry. He was raised in a nonreligious home, briefly embraced born-again Christianity as an adolescent, then put aside childish things to devote his life and work to science. “For a materialist such as myself, there is no such thing as ‘mind,’ ” he insists. “It ultimately reduces down to neurons firing and neurochemical transmitter substances flowing across synaptic gaps between neurons, combining complex patterns to produce something we call mind but is actually just brain.”

That’s not to say that Shermer dismisses the power of belief. Quite to the contrary, he shows how our beliefs, whether true or false, shape not only our own lives but also the world we live in and even our destiny as a species. A rustle in the tall grass on the plains of prehistoric Africa might have been understood as a gust of wind, or the breath of God, or a tiger preparing to attack, and evolutionary biology favored the hominid who entertained the belief that it was a tiger. “[P]eople believe weird things,” he writes, “because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.”

As he drills down ever deeper into the fundamentals of human brain function, Shermer offers a wealth of surprising information and insights — why we love sweet foods and rich foods even though they make us fat, why a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio is sexually attractive, why incest taboos are genetically imprinted and why we are hard-wired to see faces in photographs of distant moons and planets. None of these characteristics were bestowed upon us by an Intelligent Designer, he argues, but we are here today because all of them favored the survival of the fittest among our far-distant progenitors.

But he also shows how the wiring of the human brain provides the “cognitive basis” for a whole range of beliefs that can be seen as barriers to reason, including not only “shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms,” but also alien abduction, astral projection, conspiracy theories, the search for UFOs, telekinesis and much else besides, all of which he dismisses as “superstition and magical thinking,” and even plain madness.

For anyone who cares about religion, whether as an artifact of human civilization or a source of moral instruction or even a divine revelation, “The Believing Brain” will be challenging but also illuminating and enriching. “Why do so many people believe in God?” Shermer ponders. “Your culture may dictate which god to believe in and which religion to adhere to, but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world as an indispensable part of a social group is universal to all cultures because it is hardwired into the brain.”

That’s not to say that Shermer reduces all of human experience to biochemistry and evolutionary biology. The fact that he does not believe in a supernatural deity or an afterlife only sharpens his appreciation for life in the here and now: “If this is all there is, then how meaningful become our lives, our families, our friends, our communities — and how we treat others — when every day, every moment, every relationship, and every person counts. ...”

To which even a skeptic can say: Amen!

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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