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How We Believe January 7, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Uncategorized.

how-we-believeSo 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.



1. bear - January 7, 2009

Happy New Year!!! right off the bat…I find this..

” 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?”

This is fascinating…but aren’t there more than just these two options? I mean given these two options–I say no to both. I suppose the right thing to do would be to say what other options may be, but I am more interested to see if people are willing to go with just these two.


2. Bill - January 7, 2009

“How we believe”, seems a much different statement rather than “Why we believe”? I am drawn to the latter one, and find it more easily approachable.
If I think to long on “how I believe”…I become a series of neurons and electrons driven by primordial evolutionary processes…I somehow loose my sanity. Life becomes somewhat senseless. This then becomes tied somewhat inexplicably to “why I believe”. I do not see life as senseless, but wonder filled…
I try to backtrack into this wonder filled world and am always left with a very beginning and a governance of it…thus I believe.

3. Antony - January 7, 2009

Lots and lots of things to respond to…I’ll start with just one…

I guess what my problem with work like Shermer’s is that I’m really uncomfortable with the view that religion is really just the misfiring of our developed capacity to recognize patterns (or whatever).

Perhaps, one can counter that Shermer (in all of his sympathies) does argue that this ‘magical thinking’ is NECESSARY. But he means it’s the necessary error term. We aren’t perfect, so we’re better off with false positives concerning pattern-recognition. So yes, ‘necessary’ but not ‘right’ or ‘true.’

I guess, I’m not sure why everything that we might toss into the category of ‘religion’ should be so readily categorized in this ‘necessary’ false positive.

And if the only defense of religion that can be mustered from this position is that it’s one way to make social relations possible, then we return to an age-old argument – Plato’s ‘Noble Lie.’ Religion is the story that we tell our children so that they grow up right and know their place in society. And I find the case for noble lies to be pretty disingenuous. They aren’t necessary because the society always precedes the invention of the myth or ‘noble lie’ – so it can’t just be a means to enable social relations, although it might be a tool of conservatism (keep things as they are).

So before I drift too far on this tangent, I wonder what you all think about this? On the one hand, am I misreading arguments like Shermer’s? And on the other hand, what might evolutionarily explain religion without reducing it to one of these false positives?

4. caseyww - January 7, 2009

(RE: Comment #3)


I can understand your apprehension and I think it’s more a product of reading Shermer through the filter of my blog rather than him being too reductionist. I’ve definitely chosen to focus on what I found most interesting and leave a lot out in the interest of brevity (that’s not to say I’ve misrepresented him, just condensed.)

I don’t think the argument here is that everything associated with religion is the product of a misfiring. Instead, it’s the tendency towards magical thinking and superstition that is ‘necessary but not true’ (arguably both vital components in most religions.) Shermer is exploring why people believe things that aren’t true not saying that everything about religion is automatically false. This is an important distinction. I don’t think that other religious concerns like humility or self-sacrifice would be characterized as a misfiring.

On the issue of the Noble Lie…I don’t know enough about Plato to argue here but I’ll read up on it and get back to you. Initial impression: I don’t think Shermer is talking about the social construct aspect of religion as a ‘defense of religion’ as much as he’s trying to explain its possible utility for pre-governmental peoples.

5. Eric - January 7, 2009

Even if (Casey’s condensed version of) Shermer’s claim is just as Antony worries it is, I don’t see what there is to be bothered about. I can easily imagine a universe in which Shermer’s claim — roughly, that religious belief is a by-product of pattern recognition — is true, and in which some object of religious belief (the Christian god, or whatever you prefer) is also true. In other words, religious belief may not be a “misfire” or a “false positive” but rather a happy coincidence between evolution and spiritual reality. (I’m guessing that Antony would not be happy with this conclusion either, but I want to put this out there to see what he thinks.)

Another way to put my point is this: just because X is an evolutionary by-product of Y does not necessarily mean that X is not independently useful. Let me clarify with an example that I’m familiar with. In linguistics (my field of specialty), there are those who claim that the uniquely human capacity for language evolved as a by-product of various other cognitive capacities, and not strictly out of some need for humans to communicate with each other. Nobody doubts the extraordinary use of language for communication, but that doesn’t make this hypothesis any less worthy of investigation than an alternative hypothesis claiming that communication is the main (or sole) reason for the evolution of human language.

Given that we all seem to agree (some of us perhaps more begrudgingly than others) that evidence for the existence of a deity is at best hard to come by, then there would seem to be little opportunity for a “religious sense” to have evolved other than parasitically in something like the way Shermer claims. Antony, what alternative explanation are you hoping for?

6. bear - January 7, 2009

I am going to read this book.

7. Antony - January 8, 2009

Re: 4, 5

Eric’s right; the “happy coincidence” doesn’t really do it for me. I think the language example Eric uses is good because there is something different in the example. Everybody acknowledges the existence of language and communication exist (and are useful and necessary to what we think it means to be human).

But in Shermer’s example, the distinction is that “magical thinking” (by the way, that is already loading the deck – it’s a pretty dismissive term) does not refer to something ‘real.’ That is, there is an unstated assumption here that the whole universe is understood within nature. There is no need for the supernatural at all. The supernatural is the invention of our ‘magical thinking.’

What bothers me about this is that the assumptions (the supernatural is just ‘magic thinking’) determine the outcome. And I know that I’m sure Shermer is a little delicate about this than that, but his conclusions seem inevitable from the assumptions.

Thinking about Eric’s last question: what alternative explanations am I hoping for? The answer is that I don’t know – I am unhappy with the dichotomy, but couldn’t really think of viable alternatives.

I think I would be happy if someone explained to me how they defined ‘supernatural’ and why it’s necessarily magical (i.e. not true). Maybe that’s a start…

8. caseyww - January 8, 2009


Of course you’re right, there are two perspectives here. The first, which you are defending (why?), is that the supernatural is true, in which case this entire argument is null. The answer to all these questions about why people believe is that they have all discovered truth. (However, true or not the supernatural is still magical, it’s still causation from outside a natural realm, I don’t think the label magical ‘determines the outcome’ of the discussion.) I agree that I would be very interested in hearing peoples’ specific definitions for supernatural so we don’t start misunderstanding each other. What is yours?

The second option is considering that peoples’ behavior may be explained by natural means instead of supernatural. This is where Shermer’s argument that pattern-seeking can lead to magical thinking is rightly placed (even though I don’t know how one could deny that our propensity to see Jesus’ face in toast isn’t evidence that we make mistakes that lead us to beliefs in error all the time?).

9. hicks - January 8, 2009

“I agree that I would be very interested in hearing peoples’ specific definitions for supernatural so we don’t start misunderstanding each other. What is yours?”

(I’m going to take the liberty of putting my two cents in, although the last comment was addressed to Antony….)

Let me be start by saying I’ve always been skeptical about the existence of God. I can’t say that these discussions don’t trigger the rational side of me that thinks I’m absolutely crazy to believe the supernatural is true. But at the same time, given what I’ve seen with these skeptical, rational eyes, I’m loathe to try and explain away God as 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.”

Here are couple examples of things I’ve seen that I would call “super-natural.”

1) While praying for a quiet tiny Thai girl who would barely make eye contact or speak in public, she jumped from her chair and ran around the room screaming in a deep male voice exorcist-style like it was coming from a mega-phone. There is nothing I can call it but demon possession.

2) My mentor, a 50 year-old lady, had back problems for years and it got so bad that the doctor told her even a simple fall could paralyze her. She had to stop wearing high heels because of the risk. She got prayer, her back is fine. Completely healed, no therapy, no surgery. Perfectly fine.

3) I had a skin infection for months that wasn’t responding to various medication. I gave up and got prayer and it immediately cleared up. No medication.

Now, Casey, you and I have had the discussion about how hard it is to question people’s subjective experiences, like dreams or encounters with God, or things God “says” to us and these things can’t be submitted as something valid that can or cannot prove God’s existence. So I’m not trying to prove God existence to the world with these stories, I’m just wanting to share about my journey. When you literally watch someone who was blind receive sight as they are being prayed for I don’t think I was just looking for patterns in clouds and so therefore I have to reject the argument that it “is a product of our evolutionary origins instead of an actual measure of reality.”

At the same time, I will READILY admit that in many of the Christian circles that I’ve frequented there have been rational explanations for things people label as “healings,” and over-emotional people who have acted out and people tried to cast demons out of them when they weren’t possessed. I’m nervous about healing seminars and Benny Hin, who try to take the supernatural put a formula on it. Because if we could predict and conjure up miracles in some sort of controlled environment with verifiable results and rational explanations, then I would say that we were potentially just imagining patterns and we could explain away the supernatural.

But in my experiences, the thing that frustrates me most about the miracles I’ve seen is probably what makes them the most legit–is that they defy patterns. While my my mentor’s back was healed, another guy who works down the hall has had debilitating back problems for over ten years, has gotten prayer and not been healed. I learned though that my discouragement when someone doesn’t get healed, does not negate the reality of the supernatural things that I have seen.

So in my world, there’s been a bit of both: the “real supernatural,” and the “pattern-seeking,” “magical thinking.” Although I don’t think the latter negates the former, I excited about the interesting discussion it sparks.

10. caseyww - January 8, 2009


Dang, thanks for sharing. I appreciate the comment.

I have a couple of ideas about the experiences you put out there. Like you said, I’m always apprehensive about criticizing people’s personal experiences because they’re exactly that, personal, so I hope the following isn’t inappropriate.

I agree with you that the experiences you shared wouldn’t fall into the same category as seeing faces in the clouds. I don’t think that this is quite the argument though. Pattern-seeking is being spoken of negatively by everyone here but this is kind of missing the point…it’s a great benefit because it allows us to identify relationships between events and reason through experiences. Shermer is saying that sometimes this benefit gets out of hand and we see evidence for the supernatural that isn’t there.

For example, I believe your experience with the Thai girl was certainly extraordinary (I don’t know about supernatural) but you’re still using pattern-seeking and reason to explain it. You saw a very reserved girl who had a drastic change in disposition. Pattern. She started yelling in a voice that seemed too deep for little girls. Pattern. You’ve heard of these things happening before from people. Pattern. You’ve read about demons and demonic symptoms. Pattern. Rightly so, you connect the dots. I just don’t know if I agree that interpreting this pattern as supernatural is the right conclusion. It may seem unnatural but this is different than conceding a demonic kingdom which has taken control of children, ie supernatural.

What do you think?

11. bear - January 9, 2009

Hicks, thanks so much for sharing these stories…I agree it would be a good idea to define supernatural…


12. hicks - January 9, 2009

Casey–Just so you feel better (even though I know you don’t really care) your comments are not inappropriate–I put myself out there to spark discussion. And since my post was long, I’m going to see if others respond before I jump in again:)


13. caseyww - January 9, 2009

Fair enough. I didn’t really think you’d be upset.

By the way, you pretty much made my day by saying were going to read How We Believe. I would love to hear what you think as you read it!

14. Antony - January 9, 2009

What is ‘supernatural’? As Casey’s picked up on, I’m actually defending a position that I don’t hold. I (usually) don’t believe in the supernatural. [I’ll get there in a second.]

What I’m struggling with is finding a way to talk about these things that might allow room for the supernatural to be real, even if I don’t think it is. That is, I’m worried about building a system that precludes all possibilities but the one that I or anyone else wants to defend. I’m wondering if there’s a position that we could take that doesn’t have to begin with the assumption that God and the supernatural are real OR with the assumption that the supernatural is not real. Can a person take in the world without first making one of these assumptions?

So, to my definition of the supernatural. The philosopher in me wants to qualify the heck out of this: there are many possible definitions, each somewhat true but not complete in themselves, etc.

But, into the deep end: The supernatural is that which is caused by something beyond what is explainable by nature itself.

I think that this definition is a pretty high standard. Much of what we want to attribute to God or to describe as ‘miraculous’ is probably perfectly natural (though more or less probable) – even if we don’t quite understand the natural causes.

I think that this especially true when we talk about miracles, healings, etc that involve people. I think Casey’s right, we want to recognize patterns, and so we – as both witnesses and experiencers – make the world conform to what we think is possible or probable in a given situation.

Would you think that a healing was miraculous if it was sudden, but the person did not receive prayer? How often does that happen to people? The body heals itself. And it heals itself in certain ‘regular’ ways that we come to expect, but it also seems capable of suddenly correcting itself as well – as sensing pain is a mental phenomenon and not always attached to what you might call actual sensory pain. For example amputees often feel pain in their ‘phantom limb.’

Thus, given my definition, I think that there is nothing supernatural (beyond nature). If there is a God and if he interferes in the universe, I don’t see why he would have to use super-natural means. Nature is awesome with the potential for so much more than we understand, lots of ‘miracles’ can take place within the bounds of nature.

15. bear - January 9, 2009

Antony, HELLO! and, when you say,

“If there is a God and if he interferes in the universe, I don’t see why he would have to use super-natural means. Nature is awesome with the potential for so much more than we understand, lots of ‘miracles’ can take place within the bounds of nature.”

This is really interesting. For me it seems clear– I mean if He is God, then why would he have to interfere with the natural if he made it? Or is he manipulating it? Or what does he need to insert anything “super” at all? This is oversimplified: So am I naturalist if I beleive this? And of course I will go to Lewis in order to clarify what I say is the even greater challenge–to perhaps–those who get valenced. Lewis says,

“The Naturalist (one who believes that all is Nature) simply takes anything labeled “supernatural” and calls it a part of Nature.”

Lewis tries to deal with this by looking at the source of things — or rather, the initial cause for things.
This is where the Supernatural comes in–when the source gets involved.

So I would say, Antony, that I agree that lots of miracles (some I think I have seen) take place within the bounds of nature–maybe the Supernatural part is when God–at least for the sake of this discussion–stretches those ‘bounds’ because 1)he is rleational with his people 2) he can.


16. Faithful Inauguration « valence - January 22, 2009

[…] I actually do see this as an important role of religion in the public sphere.  Like I argued in How We Believe, part of the role of religion at its origins may have been as a complex signaling mechanism that […]

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