116 of 125 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
To me the title of this book suggested a treatise essentially on the psychology of belief systems. Indeed we are presented with quite interesting material in this regard. Mr. Schermer uses the fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology, amongst others, to help explain belief systems.
While I found that almost all the book held my interest, it seemed somewhat disjointed. Some of the material is also quite controversial. While such matters only serve to entertain me, others may get offended - Christians may take umbrage at having their beliefs repeatedly referred to as "myths".
The book presents intriguing survey results on why people believe in God. What is most fascinating is that respondents felt that other people believe in God for reasons that differ considerably from their own. Shermer moves on into a discussion of evolutionary biology and a "belief module" (more controversy). Then, surprisingly, we move into a section concerned with traditional philosophical arguments (primarily those of Thomas Aquinas) for belief in God. When you get right down to it, no one embraces religious belief purely on the basis of philosophical arguments. Creationists will be offended by a section on their beliefs. A chunk of the book is given to the Indian Ghost Dance of the 1890s, and we read a discussion on a mathematical refutation of the recent best seller The Bible Code. Good stuff, but its like reading a collection of essays that are not often obviously related to each other.
The final chapter had me scratching my head the most. It's a section discussing the controversy surrounding Stephen Jay Gould's theories of evolution regarding necessity/contingency/chance. While poring through this I kept wondering what it had to do with religion. My question was never answered satisfactorily. Shermer forces this subject into a paean to the wonders of living in a contingent universe. He states that his abandonment of religion allows him to bask in the beauty of our magnificent universe. I get annoyed with concept that if you are religious you can't appreciate science and nature. Not every religious believer is constrained by fundamentalist young earth/intelligent design theories. I am an agnostic who was brought up a Catholic. My intense curiosity and admiration of nature was as strong when I was a believer as it is as a non-believer today.
64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 1999
As one goldfish said to the other, "if there is no god, who changes the water?", Michael Shermer gazes through the bowl at the possibilities and the distorting refractions caused by it and tries to get a clearer picture. I can't imagine a better summary of such a vast amount of material on such a universal subject. Why so many people have always believed in a divine being based on so little evidence other than the fact that we're constantly amazed by our own consciousness and the "orderly" world around us is his main interest. He discusses these issues so that almost anyone paying attention can understand all the facets of this multifaceted subject and how the arguments have played out down through the ages right up to the present day. I'm sure he must have left something out but after I put the book down I couldn't imagine what. He gives you all the basic imformation you could ever want and just leaves you with yourself to wonder and think and reach your own conclusions. I can assure you that your conclusions will be of a higher quality after having read this book than not. Enjoy.
65 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 1999
One of the finest and most comprehensive books I have ever read on our beliefs and why we believe the way we do. I truly have to give Michael Shermer the utmost respect for being so rational and not going out to bash, but to unearth reality. Michael Shermer is truly a person whom has well researched his information and made his study, research, and findings understandable by showing how we as human beings have become the way we are. At the same time, prepared his information in an understandable way that focuses on logical thinking, not mythical, which so many of us like to do so often. The bottom line, this book illustrates how we have created a very mystical world to help us better cope with life. Hey, Shermer does not feel it is bad to believe in a supreme being as it offers many people needed comfort, at the same time, he urges us to "Think for Yourself"-Cogita tute, which is absolutely one of the greatest messages within this book because it points out some serious errors humankind have made in their belief organisms, in turn, generating great pain and affliction that could have been circumvented through placing trust in themselves by using good old common sense and by thinking for themselves. Shermer does not ask you to take his word for it, he simply states, you shouldn't believe what I say or anyone else, "Think for yourself" and if it makes sense then, believe. This is a definite read!
130 of 145 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2000
Michael Shermer is the founder and leader of the Skeptic's Society, and in this, his most recent book, he takes on religion in a collection of essays. Although his direction seems to meander, the research that went into this book provides an excellent aggregation of facts and ideas that explore why people believe in anything or anybody, from James Van Praagh to God himself. Shermer's proposal of a Belief Engine is an interesting one and explains how humans, as pattern-seeking creatures, could have evolved an inherent propensity to believe. Unfortunately, I feel that this book will offend religious folk (rather than create skeptical converts), despite Shermer's claims that he means only to understand.
In my opinion, the religious and the skeptical are always at one another's throats because neither accepts the other's criteria for acceptance of an idea. The skeptic relies on science to discover the truth; the answers to his or her questions are things to be discovered. Someone with a more religious outlook starts at the opposite end of the spectrum. That is, all answers can be found through faith in God and it is up to us to conform our worldview to confirm that philosophy. With one group seeking an answer and the other starting with the answer, it's no wonder that both wouldn't mind seeing the other ousted from schools, government, and other positions of influence.
Having said all that, I wonder if anyone's mind will actually be changed by this book, or if it will serve only as a rallying point for like-minded skeptics as a sort of skeptical equivalent of _Evidence That Demands a Verdict_. No matter the eventual outcome of the science-religion conflict, this book provides a solid intellectual foothold for the skeptic.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
As in his Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer makes it clear that people who believe in God are not stupid. He breaks important ground by making a home for two types who have been lately rejected by the mainstreams of Skepticism and Religion: those who believe in God even though they know that they cannot prove God's existence empirically; and those who simply refuse to answer the question.
Shermer makes an excellent case for an alternative form of Skepticism with this book, based on the premise that if there is a God, He/She/It is of such a character as to be beyond human knowing. God, Shermer reminds us, is supposed to be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere), and omni-potent (all-powerful). We human beings are none of these things: so how can any of us claim to be certain of this other beings existence or nonexistence?
It is a premise which will make those who want empircal proof for their beliefs unhappy: neither the Creationist or the Atheist will be satisfied with Shermer's formula. Yet, I think, that thinking people of spirit and nonspirit will appreciate Shermer's liberating observations. He is consciously trying to create a world-view about religion for the coming millenium and, I dare say, his is the most realistic and sensible that I have seen so far.
From this beginning, Shermer goes on to discuss the human creation of religion, an artifact which is separate from the question of whether or not God exists. Shermer contends that we humans are, by the grace of natural selection, pattern-seeking animals. Religion is an attempt by us to make sense of the chaos and the uncertainty which is always there. He concludes his discussion by establishing his view as an independent theory of religion, offering it to religious scholars and others who are seeking a common-sense position about the way we believe.
The concluding section, about the theory of Evolution and its relationship to issues of modern faith, has been cited by some as superfluous and out of keeping with the rest of the book. I contend, however, that it is a logical conclusion to Shermer's epistemology given that nowhere has the conflict between the Godless and the God-inspired been so evident as it has been in this debate. Shermer pulls evolution and Science as a whole out of the political void created by this conflict and sets it where it rightly belongs: as an objective, well-grounded explanation of the fossil evidence which does not tell us a thing about whether or not God exists. This question, Shermer believes, cannot be answered by we mere humans. We are best served by realizing our limitations, he concludes, and accepting empirical Truth as limited to what we can find out with our own senses.
It was appropriate that this book appeared in the first month of the year 2000. It is a book to guide epistemological debate in the next millenium.
62 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 1999
In the Preface, which is titled "The God Question. A MoralDilemma for Dr. Laura", he talks about how Skeptic magazine usedto get letters from people complaining that DL was on the editorialboard. He then talks about the fact that skeptics could care less about what a person's faith is, UNLESS that person begins telling others that their faith can be proven with facts, then the skeptic will challenge them to do so through rational arguments and empirical evidence. He gives a short synopsis of how DL came to be on the board (she was invited due to her outspokeness on the failed recovered-memory movement), and how she asked to be immediately removed after a Skeptic issue about "The God Question." Shermer called her to see what's up, and she basically said that anyone (past or present) who questions God is "arrogant." And after more discussion she told him there is only ONE God--the God of Abraham. From here he leaves her behind (with her own 'arrogance') and gets into what the book is about which he outlines as: "(1) Why people believe in God; (2) the relationship of science and religion, reason and faith; and (3) how the search for the sacred came into being and how it can thrive in and age of science." He notes at the end of the preface that skeptics use the stance that was so eloquently put by Spinoza: "I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Such a stark contrast to the dispassionate stance of DL.
I suppose DL would throw Spinoza into her vague, catch-all conspiracy theory about 'liberals'. This also-faith of hers about 'agendas', 'conspiracies', 'indoctrinations', 'pseudo-religions', etc., are therefore demanded by the skeptical position to be proven rationally and empirically, because she is saying they are facts. She hasn't provided any credible evidence, and probably never will, i.e. she'll never put up nor will she shut up.
Anyway, the rest of the book is for those who seek to understand, and it succeeds amazingly.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
In the preface to "How We Believe," Michael Shermer thanks his family for raising him in an atmosphere free of pressure regarding either religious or secular beliefs. I feel the same gratitude toward my family, and greatly enjoy the game of truth-hunting without having to drag along the millstones that childhood indoctrination can attach. Shermer's book covers a lot of ground, ranging from general philosophical commentary on belief systems, to Cargo and Messiah Cults, to the author's personal intellectual journey and conclusions. Along the way (Chapter 4) we are shown interesting results from a study, co-designed by the author, in which selected groups of individuals were asked to explain and interpret their own religious views. Shermer is able to deduce some fascinating, revealing, and occasionally amusing generalizations from the survey data.
In terms of creative content the book's most important contribution is Chapter 10, "Glorious Contingency." Here Shermer expands on a theme credited to S.J. Gould, the central idea being that the evolutionary chain leading to H. Sapiens (us) was contingency-intensive, and therefore probably irreproducible if a repeat trial could somehow be arranged. Gould attributes the irreproducibility not primarily to true randomness or asteroid-type disasters, but rather to overwhelming practical uncertainties rooted in the sensitivity of final outcomes to initial conditions and early events in lengthy, complex processes. As the author points out, recent trends in Chaos Theory lend support to such a conclusion. After addressing some criticisms of Gould (primarily from Daniel Dennett), Shermer introduces his own concept, Contingent-Necessity, which is generalized to cover not just biological evolution, but any historical sequence or process. He proposes a shifting balance (bifurcation) between contingency and necessity that could clarify the nature and genesis of events ranging from punctuated equilibria in evolution to the great social upheavals in human history.
A common complaint about Shermer's books is that he tends to ramble; that is, every chapter is not centered on the book's title subject. True enough, but I don't see a serious problem if the material is at least related to the book's main theme. One Amazon reviewer saw no satisfactorily-explained connection between religion and the above-described Chapter 10. It seems to me that in the chapter's last section ("Finding Meaning in a Contingent Universe"), the connection becomes clear enough: To evaluate intelligently any religion's view of how and when we got here, one requires more than passing familiarity with what science, with its built-in BS detectors, can tell us about the very same subject. On the critical side, I have to agree with the reviewer who found Shermer's reference to science as "a type of myth" quite annoying. The problem isn't so much the statement itself as the author's assumption that no supporting explanation was necessary.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
This is an extraordinarlity brilliant book. It achieves the one major thing that I think a book like this must achieve: it is thought-provoking. If people on both sides of the believer vs. athiest, science vs. religion would give this book a chance, eyes would be opened. Of course, what are the chances of that?
I am a scientist and a Christian. I am a teacher of math and physics with a firm faith in God. I am comfortable with who I am. How did that come about? I can see my own path but it is interesting to read about some of the sociological and psychological paths of faith-development.
I also like Shermer's stress on the difference between the techniques of science and processes of faith--something which I often comment on myself. Why do theologians (and, more often, pseudo-theologians) feel the need to apply scientific rigor to matter of faith? Conversely, why do scientists attempt to assert scientific "certainty" on things that lie outside the realm of the measureable which is the heart of science. These fields certainly have things to offer each other but they are different and require different techniques.
Shermer covers a lot of important ground in what is a relatively brief book. As a summary of the state of the secular vs. religious conflict alone it is a valuable book. He also does not equivocate about his own beliefs but still manages to give a fair hearing to both sides, pointing out where each side tends to step over the line into the ridiculous. Of course, this is Shermer's quest and one he handles well. It's people like him who make the rest of us shore up our arguments and stay intellectually honest. Read this book and agree or disagree with Shermer but don't just close your mind to it because he (or anyone) thinks differently than you.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2002
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Why people believe in the things they believe has always interested me. Shermer, who is the head of the Skeptics Society, takes a deep look into questions of "faith" and reason, and discovers answers that may surprise you.
Personally, I found this book both lucid and elegantly written... almost reminded me of Sagan. (And that is a huge complement coming from me.)
While Shermer treads lightly on religion, his message remains clear.
I highly recommend this book to anybody who either has an open mind, or wants one.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2000
How We Believe is a disjointed compendium of various topics, many taken from previous articles in Skeptic. Much of the material is useful and interesting for the reader who has not already seen it in the magazine. It is debatable whether Shermer succeeds in delivering the explanation promised in the title.
Shermer gives us a brief summary of the most popular arguments for the existence of god, and shows how each is flawed. He himself would appear to be a closet atheist. He calls his position "nontheism" which on close examination is essentially identical to negative atheism, i.e. absence of belief in god.
Yet Shermer bends over backwards to be very, very, nice to religious believers and practitioners. But he is not too shy about misrepresenting science (just what does he mean by statements such as "science is a type of myth" or "deep and sacred science"?) and belittling atheists and humanists (dimissing them as fanatical, or unrealistic, or overly obsessed by clarity and logic). He tells us over and over and over that "God" is certainly not dead, as if equating widespread belief in god with confirmation of his/her/its reality. He implies that that widespread belief will always be with us, and that's cool.
The great flaw in Shermer's worldview is the specious way in which he separates science and religion in order to let the latter off the hook. He fully endorses S. J. Gould's NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) view according to which science and religion are relegated to distinct separate domains, thus avoiding conflict.
Nevertheless, Shermer does have some important things to say. In the book's last, and best, chapter, Shermer discusses the interplay of chaos and order -- or contingency and necessity as he refers to them -- in evolution, in the flow of history and in the unfolding of an individual's life. In the course of this discussion he responds to those who claim that their religious beliefs are necessary to give meaning to their lives. On the contrary, Shermer argues, the freedom to think for himself and to take responsibility for his own actions is what allows him to give meaning to his life and to live it to the fullest.
[ A more complete review is available on-line. E-mail me for the URL if interested. ]