2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and well-written, but don't expect too much
I have the same feelings about this book as I do for Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things." I enjoyed reading both books but felt they were lacking in substance. This book, however, is guiltier of that offense than the former one. In "Why We Believe" Shermer does a good job of conveying his opinion on god and religion and he does present facts and logical...
Published on Feb. 21 2001 by John
3.0 out of 5 stars A very "reasonable" book.
If you are a skeptic or your god is 'reason', then you will get great support from reading this book. I found parts of the book interesting, especially those that talk about the techniques used by fortune tellers (e.g. "cold reading", "warm reading", etc.). The book also discusses the standard arguments for the existence of God, as well as the typical...
Published on Nov. 20 2000 by John R. Peak
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read,
Very well written. It's humorous and poingnant. Very inciteful and informative. Shermer's best yet (that I've read).
1.0 out of 5 stars Nothing new here,
This is a pretty weak book which attempts to delve into some of the deepest philosophical issues of all time. Shermer promises to study them "objectively." The whole rest of the book, Shermer resorts to his background in psychology and simply sets out to psychoanalyze theists for having the beliefs that they do. Now, if Shermer & friends wish to play this game, fine. HOWEVER, they do not have the right to so much as wince if the theists come back & attempt to psychoanalyze them for the beliefs which they have. Shermer almost invites this on pages 236-237:
"I am often asked by believers why I abandoned Christianity and how I found meaning in the apparently meaningless universe presented by science. The implication is that the scientific worldview is an existentially depressing one. Without God, I am bluntly told, what's the point? If this is all there is, there is no use. To the contrary. For me, quite the opposite is true. The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom...."
Hmmmmmmmm.........sounds to me like Shermer needs to be psychoanalyzed, eh? I mean, he can't have it both ways. Either way, the thesis is un-falsifiable & either way nothing can be proved. To me, it is just one big waste of time.
The book is also filled with countless errors. For example, on page 170 Shermer writes that "God and religion are inseparable." Oh, really? And what of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism? All three are categorized as religions, yet none of them have any references to God or gods. Are we all supposed to amend the denotation of our vocabulary just to accommodate Shermer?
On page 17 Shermer writes that "It was barely more than a century ago that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned the words for which he has become so famous [i.e.: God is dead] in a book considered by philosophers to be his greatest work, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." That is complete rubbish. By the time "Also Sprach Zarathustra" came out, the whole death-of-God paradigm was old news. Nietzsche is not famous for the passage Shermer alludes to in "Zarathustra." It was, rather, section 125 of "The Gay Science" (allegory of the madman) in which Nietzsche announces the Death of God. The passage in "Zarathustra" is nothing more than a rehashing of the premise. Any first year philosophy student could tell you that. Is it too much to ask of a skeptic like Shermer that he get his facts straight?
The weakest part of the book is Shermer's token treatment of the traditional arguments of God. In his counterargument to St. Thomas Aquinas' "First Cause" argument, Shermer writes: "God must be within the universe or is the universe. In either case, God would himself need to be caused..." (p. 92). Say again? Why does an omnipotent God need to be "in the universe" or "be the universe"? Because Shermer says so? Here Shermer advertises his complete ignorance of the writings of St. Augustine & so many other theologians. Shermer seems to think that if he can't comprehend something, then it must not be true. Now, whether one buys the First Cause argument is another matter, but it would be prudent to at least understand the argument prior to rejecting it.
Shermer goes on to say that "Perhaps, as cosmologist Alan Guth suggests....it [the universe] just sprang into existence out of a quantum vacuum, uncaused." (P. 92) Now, Guth is a professor of theoretical physics at MIT & is most certainly a smart guy. However, Shermer sounds as though all of the skeptics and atheists of the world should merely uncritically accept Guth's answer and move on. If this is the definition of a "Free thinker" (as Shermer likes to call himself), then I feel sorry for all free thinkers. What gets me about this nonchalant introduction of the topic of quantum mechanics is this: skeptics and atheists have for years complained (rightfully) about fundamentalist Christian websites which attempt to answer the deepest, most puzzling questions with a few sentences of Sunday School rhetoric. However, here we have Shermer trying to answer these same questions with the atheist's counterpart to Sunday School rhetoric. Shermer would like to lead the reader to believe that the atheists always have the final say on everything, and that is complete nonsense. The criticisms of Guth's universe-as-a-free-lunch paradigm are legion. If Shermer did not notice this, then he must not know anything at all about QM (which, considering his remarkable ignorance, would not surprise me in the least). [For further reading both pro and con of "vacuum genesis" read "Atheism, Theism And Big Bang Cosmology" by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith]. Martin Heidegger once said that the question of why there is something rather than nothing is "the darkest question of all." Nowadays, even with all the advancements in physics over the course of the 20th century, that statement remains true.
He also tries to water down the Anthropic Principle and, like so many atheists, misunderstands its implications. In fact, Shermer writes "...if recent cosmological models pan out it would appear that there are a near infinite number of bubble universes all with slightly different laws of nature." (P. 229) Oh, really? And how, might I ask, does Shermer think these theories might "pan out"? Just like the "God" hypothesis, these wonderful universes are all unfalisifiable and cannot be proven true. [For further reading on this issue, see John Leslie "Universes" and Timothy Ferris "Science And Genesis" (an essay from "Cosmic Beginnings And Human Ends)."
The German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhaur once said of Georg Friedrich von Hegel that his ideas were "three quarters nonsense and one quarter crazy notions." I could say the same for Shermer & this book. If you would like to delve into the big questions of science and / or religion, then by all means read Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Stehpen Hawking, John Polkinghorne, Bertrand Russell, Phillip Kitcher, Ian Barbour, Del Ratzsche, John Leslie, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka and Albert Camus (among others). Don't waste your time with this book.
3.0 out of 5 stars A very "reasonable" book.,
If you are a skeptic or your god is 'reason', then you will get great support from reading this book. I found parts of the book interesting, especially those that talk about the techniques used by fortune tellers (e.g. "cold reading", "warm reading", etc.). The book also discusses the standard arguments for the existence of God, as well as the typical counter arguments.
However, I was disappointed that the author found it necessary to interject his own opinions regarding the existence of God, immortality, etc.
Although Mr. Shermer claims to be an agnostic, I found his opinions to be closer to that of atheism. In fact, it is apparent to me that he chose the agnostic position more out of reason than out of a true sense of humility at what we don't or can't know. I found the book to be very biased due to the emphasis on 'reason' as the only way to valid knowledge.
I found it interesting that Mr. Shermer and I have read some of the same authors, but have come to completly different conclusions regarding what they meant by the word 'God' (e.g. Harold Kusner, Paul Davies). It is clear that we have very different "world views" or mind sets.
If you are a true agnostic, or are looking for any support or warrant for theistic beliefs, this is not the book for you.
4.0 out of 5 stars Note to the Greek below,
Please note that the title of the book is "How we Believe" and not "Why we believe" and this is probably why Shermer doesn't cover the notion that you believe because you think it to be true.
It must be pointed out that there are some 1500 religious viewpoints in the world and they are all contradictory. It goes without saying that only one of them (if indeed any are) could be true and I fail to see, when every believer thinks his religion IS the truth, why Shermer should give preferential consideration to any one over the other. Either he treats all equally in which case it would be a very long book or he treats belief in itself as something worthy to be investigated.
If he pulls arguments from 700 years ago to examine I would suggest that although theists have had millenia they haven't come up with many logical arguments and all the modern ones are essentially variants of the old and hackneyed cosmological, teleological and ontological arguments the which were refuted ages ago. Dress them up all you like but they're still logically flawed.
Claims that Shermer is being unscientific don't hold water, if he glosses over Behe maybe it's because he's heard unlike some wishful-thinking theists, that Behe's arguments were in the process of becoming old hat whilst he was writing them and are evaporating like morning dew with the progress of our understanding. Never believe anyone who can claim that their faith is grounded in reason and science, they've kidded themselves and they're trying to kid you.
4.0 out of 5 stars Digging the We'uns,
When hosting the announcement of the draft map of the human genome, US President Bill Clinton casually discarded over 500 years of human endeavour. Ignoring that since Copernicus the role of divinities in the cosmic picture has become irrelevant, Clinton dragged his god into the ceremony. The past half millenia has revealed a wealth of information from galactic spectra to the operating details of life itself. But the work was done by people, not some ghost. Mark Twain railed at [g]od coming in to claim the credit' after human research effort produced cures for yellow fever and other ills. Clinton must have made the spirit of Twain gyrate furiously when he credited [g]od with creation, and by default, as the cause of the structure of DNA. With so much knowledge of a god's irrelevance confronting him, why did Clinton fall into the trap of giving credit to The Sprite?
Michael Shermer has made a significant effort to detail the background thinking [or lack of it] that sustains the concept of The Sprite so firmly in the American psyche. How does the idea of a divine creator persist when the logic supporting it weakens with every forward stride of knowledge? Why do so many Americans, supposedly the most literate nation on earth, retain such adherence to superstition? Who are the believers and why do they believe?
Half a century ago, Robert Nathan wrote a delightful social satire, DIGGING THE WEANS. Archeologists from a future Africa crossed the seas to learn about the extinct people known as the US. In particular, they sought answers to why the US seemed so different from other people. One wonders what Nathan might think today. Since his time 'globalization' has become a smokescreen term for Americanization. How these new imperialists think is a compelling issue. Shermer's book has provided insight to one facet of that thinking. It's of particular meaning to those of us living elsewhere. If there's a serious flaw in this book, it's a failure to make some valid comparisons with other people and their faiths.
Still, Shermer tries valiantly to fulfill the mandate he's given himself. How Americans believe is depicted by numerous quantitative studies. How many PhDs, bank managers or trash collectors, burdened with fears of the afterlife [or lack thereof] cling to the image of The Sprite? Shermer can't truly extract which of these is hopeful of something better on The Other Side, or simply fleeing an envisioned post-perish punishment. We can't blame him for this, since the faithful probably can't express, either.
Shermer's attempts to provide insight into WHY so many Americans are so persistent in their piety fall rather flat. The studies quoted seemed rather simplistic, but the question can only be, do you believe in The Sprite, or not. The discussions about agnosticism, non-theist or theist are engaging, but don't address the difficult question: why does the nation with the most Nobel winners remain the most superstitious? Perhaps Shermer would have done better to simply beg off attempting the question as too difficult. At least in only 290 pages. Yet, the question arises repeatedly. It titles the fourth chapter and an appendix and is the theme of Chapter 5. He uses it as a subtopic and for table headings, but we never find out why such a powerful people need to escape reality for the elusive solace of neo-Christianity.
The cure for yellow fever [and smallpox and polio] came from science workers, not faith[ful] healers. Twain wanted priority recognition for those researchers and instead watched the credit go to [g]od. With such a high proportion of Americans expressing faith, it's inevitable that even scientists will find themselves in different camps. In one of the strangest sections in this book, Shermer launches an assault on Daniel C. Dennett's critique of Steven J. Gould. Gould, co-author of the 'punctuated equilibria' mechanism of evolution, is particularly deft at disclosing Gould's mental gymnastics in expressing his ideas. In this context, Gould sells Shermer on eschewing the term 'random' in favour of 'contingency' in describing evolution's process. Dennett, following Richard Dawkins, rightly sees Gould introducing 'skyhooks' in his attempts to modify Darwin's theme of natural selection. Shermer is clearly unhappy at this tarnishing of his hero, firmly chastising Dennett at 'protesting overmuch'.
Why does Shermer take off on Dennett so strongly? Is it merely because Gould forwarded his last book? Shermer awards Gould too much credit for giving 'contingency' a deep philosophical meaning in contrast to 'random', a quirky and apparently less definable term. Gould rises in his own defence of contingency, wrapping the evidence in the term 'sequence' in his definition of evolution's modus operandi. This seems to give 'contingency' a respectability lacking in 'random'. The presentation is convoluted and the evidence misleading, however. Random necessarily avoids sequence; otherwise it's no longer random. Nor is contingency sequential - unless, as in this case, evolution makes it so. Saying Dennett 'doth protest overmuch', Shermer ignores the stature of Gould as America's best-known science writer. If Gould gets it wrong, the impact will be widespread. And he got it wrong.
2.0 out of 5 stars Not getting there,
If you're looking for a well-written book, which will give you a basic understanding of religion and faith in our time, you'll get what you need by reading this one. Shermer unveils for the reader the mechanics of the belief engine of the human mind, and he fairly describes the role of belief in the post-modern society. However, he is using the works of other scholars who addressed this issue, too extensively. This relates to one of the basic flaws of the work, as it lacks a coherent theory which should lead the reader towards the expected answer to the riddle which seems to be the cause for writing the book: the victory of religion over rationalism in the twenty-first century. While Shermer's tendency to focus on himself and account numerous incidents from his personal experience as the head of Skeptic Society, may be part for his writing style, it gives the reader a taste of a newspaper article rather than of a scholastic work. For myself, as a person who believes that religion is a dangerous social structure, I was disappointed not to come out of the reading process with a comprehensive understanding as to what is wrong with human society.
4.0 out of 5 stars Being is believing - but can you choose wisely?,
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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading for any Sentient Being,
By A Customer
If you combine this book with Richard Dawkin's "Unweaving the Rainbow" then you have armed yourself with more knowledge than the vast army of idealogues will ever have amongst themselves combined. There are things in this book which will annoy both fundamentalist dogmatists and militant athesists alike. But this is the book's great strength-- that it deals with the subject of Religion with compassion and sensitivity (which annoys atheists) and that it sets firm limits upon which Religion should not be allowed to tread will annoy the fundies. Normally I would only give this book four stars instead of five, since it is more about WHAT weird things people believe rather than WHY. But anything that annoys fundies rates an extra star in my book.
4.0 out of 5 stars a bunch of bright ideas,
By A Customer
As usual, Shermer covers of hodgepodge of related topics in this work as has been his style in previous writings. The subject matter is, in a word--nebulous. God, religion, belief, politically incorrect topics in an age where variety of ideas about these topics abounds. Basically, Shermer puts forth the thesis of an evolutionarily evolved human pattern-seeking system which compels us to find meaning in the endless static. This conceptualization is broad enough to explain the basics of religious though, as well as our ability to be taken advantage of by frauds masquerading as scientists--a subject that Shermer, the high priest of skepticism, is quite familiar with. In the end, the book as a whole is an intriguing read, however it could have been improved with better editing. The middle chapters contain loosely tied together concepts and often get off-topic. However, Shermer makes up for this by writing a brilliant summary (and defense) of Stephen Jay Gould's writings on science and religion in the last chapter.
Shermer believes that the question for God in insoluble and therefore sees nothing wrong with religion and belief in the numinous. However, as a skeptic, Shermer, in other writings, espouses the basic tenet that one should believe the simplest scientific explanation for a given phenomenon. From a purely scientific viewpoint, God is unnecessary and therefore a superfluous concept. However, Shermer's willingness to allow for an "expection to the rule" in this instance may be viewed as slightly hypocritical. Nevertheless, while logically inconsistent, I thing Shermer comes to the right conclusion.
2.0 out of 5 stars Not without merit, but falls short of the mark.,
The fatal flaw that makes the tires fall off the Shermer Skepto-mobile is that he always, always, always fails to question HIS OWN philosophical assumptions. Agnostic materialism can try to tell us why we do things. But it can never, ever tell us why we SHOULD do things. A consistent evolutionary materialist can only say he FEELS something is wrong, not that it IS wrong. Only problem is the guy on the other side of the moral fence can say the same darn thing:.........
The parts on Hal Lindsey and Van Praagh and the Bible Code are good. But a previous reviewer was correct in saying the book is a bit disjointed.
The cursory looks at the arguments and counterarguments for God's existence were, no disrespect to the author, almost laughable. Shermer's response to Aquinas' "First Cause" argument is unbearable. Shermer says that it is possible that the universe "sprang into existence out of a quantum vacuum, uncaused." Shermer (like Bertrand Russell, who also tried to weasel out of Aquinas' chain of reasoning) makes THE ABSOLUTELY FUNDAMENTAL ERROR OF LOGIC, and that is violating the Law of Non-Contradiction: A cannot be A and not-A at the same time and in the same relationship. Self-creation is a violation of this law. Van Praagh may be a fraud, but at least his theory of talking to the dead is not a blatant contradiction of a fundamental rule of philosophy. A self-creating universe is a contradiction in terms and a surprising number of otherwise mentally astute people seem to entertain this theory.
Antidotes for this book, if anyone is interested: "Not A Chance" by R.C. Sproul; ANYTHING by Aquinas; "Creation and Change" by Douglas F. Kelly; "Written On The Heart" by J. Budziszewski; and the essay "The Poison of Subjectivism" by C.S. Lewis.
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How We Believe, 2nd Edition: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael Shermer (Paperback - Oct. 1 2003)
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