How We Believe January 7, 2009Posted by caseyww in Uncategorized.
So I’ve put the holidays to good use and finished reading Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God. You may have noticed his quotes creeping into Valence over the past couple of months as one or two of his ideas stood out to me. In How We Believe Shermer challenges us to consider that the origins and practices of belief themselves reveal a natural explanation for what many hold to be supernatural or paranormal experiences. That is, understanding ‘how we believe’ is essential to correctly evaluating if ‘what we believe’ is true.
Refreshingly, Shermer treads the landmine littered battle ground that is the science-religion war by questioning faith without overtly attacking it. That is, his experience as a fundamentalist Christian believer (he’s now a renowned skeptic and no longer a believer) enables him to speak with a subtle compassion towards faith while still illuminating the many ways it goes wrong. Confronted by statistics showing that the vast majority of Americans maintain a belief in God and the paranormal, Shermer is interested in asking:
…why, in the most secular society in history, when God is supposedly dead, belief in Him has never been so high?
I suspect that many Christians would answer this question by assuming that belief in God is on the rise for the undemanding reason that God is simply a reality. It’s logical for an ever increasing majority to recognize His existence, right? In fact, this increasing majority of the faithful may even be seen as evidence for God’s existence itself. Thy kingdom come?
I’m not so sure.
Shermer sees ample evidence that the tendency towards mystical and supernatural beliefs is a product of our evolutionary origins instead of an actual measure of reality. Humans are pattern seeking animals who have survived by our ability to connect causal relationships between events (ie. learning!). However, our stunning ability to construct patterns from our environment has a down side in that we often find ourselves seeing patterns that aren’t real.
Just think, your brain is equipped to recognize and sort hundreds of faces in an instant (family, friends, enemies), however, it’s this same cognitive equipment that makes it easy for you to pick out faces or shapes from random patterns in clouds. One is real, the other imagined. The rub here is that there is such a strong evolutionary benefit to being right about our family’s faces that it’s worth the risk of being wrong about seeing faces in the clouds. Extending this example a little deeper into the origins of religious belief, could it be that the benefit of, say, recognizing the real pattern of seasonal rains may have been worth the cost of also seeing an imagined pattern between them and our dances or sacrifices to deities? Shermer argues yes:
We make…errors because we need to make…hits. We have magical thinking and superstitions because we need critical thinking and pattern-seeking. The two cannot be separated. Magical thinking is a…necessary by-product of the evolved mechanism of causal thinking.
Add to our pattern seeking tendency strong communal involvement and an uncanny ability to mimic our elders and it’s not hard to imagine how full-fledged beliefs and superstitions can start to propagate through the generations. In fact, Shermer outlines a natural progression from pattern-seeking to religion.
Humans may be well adept pattern-seekers but our information is useless in a social context unless we can communicate it. Shermer thus notes that the first step towards religion from pattern-seeking is the act of storytelling. Storytelling allows us to frame complex arguments or hide raw useful data in the context of easy to remember narratives. We are often drawn to let our stories extend into symbolic communication which explain events in supernatural or extraordinary ways, that is, mythmaking.
Anthropologists studying modern hunter-gatherer societies, for example, have found that problems are often couched in the language of stories, myths, and other symbolic narratives, such as songs and poems.
The next component Shermer adds to the mix is morality which he asserts “most likely evolved in tiny bands of 100 to 200 people as a form of reciprocal altruism, or I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.” The problem is that keeping track, person by person, of who you can trust to reciprocate generosity or good deeds is nearly impossible in a society any larger than a couple hundred people. As human society grew we needed a more general yet still reliable method for determining who deserved our trust. As mythology and morality intersect, presto, we get religion.
Religion is a social institution that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and reciprocal altruism, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of the community. That is to say, religion evolved as the social structure that enforced the rules of human interactions before there were such institutions as the state or such concepts as laws and rights.
Shermer argues that this entire transformation is knitted together by the strong idea, even if imagined, of God.
God is a pattern, an explanation for our universe, our world, and ourselves… God is a myth, one of the most sublime and sacred myths ever constructed by the mythmaking animal. God is the ultimate enforcer of the rules, the final arbiter of moral dilemmas, and the pinnacle object of commitment. And God is the integrant of religion, the most elemental of all components that go into the making of the sacred… People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling, mythmaking, religious, moral animals.
Lest we try to separate ourselves from this humble heritage, Shermer includes examples of modern day beliefs that are actually ancient myths being replayed countless times over. Most interesting is his evaluation of multiple messiah myths, including the Ghost Dance and Cargo Cults, and their striking similarity to the Jesus narrative.
I find myself really intrigued by what to make of this recycling of messiah myths (and Shermer’s similar treatment of apocalyptic myths). Is it because we all supernaturally share a ‘God shaped hole’, a la Christian ethnocentrism, wherein all people unconsciously yearn for the Christian messiah specifically? Or is it because there is a natural similarly evolved tendency to hope for miraculous rescue when in crisis or oppression which is common to the human animal? In light of the compelling case Shermer makes for the natural origins of belief itself in How We Believe I have to admit that I tend toward the latter.