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How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

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How We Believe: God in an Age of Science

How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

Belief in a god is ubiquitous in America today. Given that such belief has been integral to society and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, it is worth asking: why do people believe and how does that belief proceed? Why do people retain their religion instead of abandoning it? This is the basic topic of “How We Believe,” a book from the founder of the Skeptic’s Society, Michael Shermer.


Title: How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science
Author: Michael Shermer
Publisher: W.H. Freeman
ISBN: 071673561X

•  Enjoyable, easy to read, good for non-experts
•  Survey information about why people believe not found in most such books

•  Mistaken explanation of atheism

•  Exploration of the reasons why people believe and/or are religious
•  Analysis of surveys about why people believe
•  Exploration of interaction between religion and society


Book Review

Shermer does not have a problem with people believing in a god, but he is interested in why they believe. Theism and religion are aspects of human culture employed to answer to questions about morality, purpose, origins, and more.

Unlike many books on this topic, Shermer doesn’t limit his discussion to speculation about why people believe. He includes data from surveys to actually find out what people think — and the results are surprising. The most commonly cited reason for being religious and believing in a god are variations on the cosmological and design arguments.

In other words, people say they believe not so much because of faith, but because of reason — specifically, because they find that religion and theism answer questions they have about the origins and nature of existence.

That isn’t so surprising. It has been my experience that when atheists and theists debate the existence of God, theists usually offer cosmological and design arguments early on. Obviously, such arguments seem convincing enough personally that they should also convince others.

Curiously, the same people don’t cite the same reasons when asked why they think others believe. Both believers and nonbelievers tend to say that other people believe because belief provides things like comfort, solace, meaning, purpose, etc. Why this difference? According to Shermer:

    “As pattern-seeking animals, we seek causes to which we can attribute our actions and the actions of others. According to attribution theory, we attribute the causes of our own and others’ behaviors to either a situation or a disposition.”
    “We when make a situational attribution, we identify the cause in the environment (“my depression is caused by a death in the family”), when we make a dispositional attribution, we identify the cause in the person as an enduring trait (“her depression is caused by a melancholy personality”). Problems in attribution may arise in our haste to accept the first cause that comes to mind. ...I would argue that there is an intellectual attribution bias, where we consider our own actions as being rationally motivated, whereas we see those of others as more emotionally driven.”

This sounds very plausible. It has not been my experience that anyone using the cosmological or design arguments has had their belief altered much at all when those arguments are refuted or at least shown to be weak. Those arguments are the end-stage of belief, not the origin of belief. People seem to start with a Need (for purpose, for comfort, etc.) which is met by Faith; that, in turn, searches for a Reason — and the reasons are provided by the arguments. Thus, refuting the cosmological and design arguments can serve only a limited purpose.

How We Believe: God in an Age of Science

How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

Refuting may cause one to reconsider their beliefs, but it is unlikely to cause one to abandon their beliefs. Instead, fundamental needs have to be addressed — so long as a person thinks that only religion and/or theism provide for those needs, believers are unlikely to put them under serious questioning.

Shermer’s book wasn’t written to provide ways to do that, but it does provide an engaging and informative survey of how religious beliefs are structured, how they interact with other aspects of society (like science), and the ways in which people support and justify those beliefs. It is not, however, without some flaws.

The most obvious and earliest is his inexplicable definition of atheism. I say “inexplicable” because he acknowledges that the Oxford English Dictionary defines atheism as “disbelief in or denial of gods,” but after that all we hear about is “denial of gods.” Hey, what happened to “disbelief”? He knows it’s there, so why drop it? Other comprehensive dictionaries include “disbelief” as well — a word which means “not believing in,” yet Shermer insists that atheism does not include simply “not believing in gods.”

As I said, inexplicable — but it’s a minor point in an otherwise interesting and enjoyable book.

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