The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

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The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by zorba » Tue Aug 16, 2011 4:14 am

This is a great book; it is more than worth the purchase price for the first three chapters alone. The first chapter tells the story of a bricklayer who has an unusual spiritual experience which changes his life.

The second chapter tells the story of Francis Collins' conversion from atheist to born again, Bible believing, Evangelical Christian. As one of the world's most famous and brilliant scientists, Dr. Collins has retained his hard nosed, evidence demanding attitude, and seeks to develop a theistic theory of evolution. The story reveals Collins to be an open and intellectually honest man as he tells his personal story.

The third chapter is autobiographical and tells of Michael Shermer's journey from a teenage born again Christian to an agnostic skeptic, and research psychologist. Shermer is very honest and open, and he reveals painful and deeply personal experiences as he tells his personal story.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the question, Why and how do we believe what we believe? Shermer's thesis is that we believe what we believe for a variety of psychological, cultural, and personal reasons. The logical reasons which justify our beliefs come afterwards, almost as if they are window dressing. Much of the book is devoted to recent brain research and how that is related to belief.

Shermer includes the results of several interesting surveys which were conducted in Canada, the U S, and Europe. Survey questions included questions like, "Do you believe in the existence of a personal God?"; "Do you believe in an afterlife?", in heaven?; in hell?; in evolution?

Shermer is very thorough in his efforts to answer his questions about belief, and he doesn't try to avoid any of the really tough questions. But one aspect which I thought he could have addressed more thoroughly is how strongly people hold their beliefs and how consistently do they try to live according to their beliefs? He also doesn't address adequately the intellectual compartmentalization and denial in which many people who hold religious beliefs engage.

For instance, a survey in the US might reveal that 80% (I forget the actual number) of Americans say they believe in the existence of a personal God. But what does this actually mean most of the time? Often, it means very little in a person's daily life. He says he believes in God, but lives most of his live as though God does not exist or is irrelevant to most of his life. He seldom prays, goes to church, reads the Bible, thinks about God, or talks about God as though God is an important part of his life. He may drop the kids off at Sunday School so that they can receive basic instruction in the beliefs of his church. He come to church to worship a few times a year with his family, and comes to church for weddings, funerals, and for maybe a few social events. His church may say that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but he knows only a few Bible verses, the 23rd Psalm, and the Lord's prayer. He is not sure about what doctrines his church teaches and is likely to have quite a few personal beliefs which are contrary to the the teachings of his church.

Of course there are millions of believers in the US whose lives are centered around their religion. But I think that in the US, the nominal membership in a church and the compartmentalized belief in an irrelevant God is pretty much the norm for many Americans who claim to believe in God. It's likely that this nominal affiliation with a religion, and worship which mainly amounts to observing the customs of the society in which they live is what "believing in God" means for most Americans. How significant are these beliefs and how much effect do they have?

Shermer did not set out to answer these questions, so I'm eagerly awaiting his next book wherein he addresses the psycholocgical, sociological , and cultural aspects of belief in more detail.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Tom Palven » Tue Aug 16, 2011 7:21 am

This book apparently examines why people have blind faith in Jesus or Islam, or other religions-- why they believe that The Lord works in strange and mysterious ways, His wonders to perform; and so far, so good. But as a one-trick pony here, I wonder if he addresses the questionn of blind faith in government?

I'd like to ask my perpetual question, why do otherwise relatively ntelligent and open-minded people here have blind faith in Big Brother? Why do you believe that Big Brother works in strange and mysterious ways, His wonders to perform? Why don't you question the efficacy of Cash for Clunkers, or Quantitative Easing (formerly called "currency debasement"), or the practice of murdering people half way around the world with drones piloted from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada? How has the free market become a bete noir and a belief in a centralized command economy become an article of faith to the extent that some people apparently believe that Big Brother invented and implemented electric power and beaches?
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Jeff D » Tue Aug 16, 2011 8:03 am

For instance, a survey in the US might reveal that 80% (I forget the actual number) of Americans say they believe in the existence of a personal God. But what does this actually mean most of the time? Often, it means very little in a person's daily life. He says he believes in God, but lives most of his live as though God does not exist or is irrelevant to most of his life. He seldom prays, goes to church, reads the Bible, thinks about God, or talks about God as though God is an important part of his life. He may drop the kids off at Sunday School so that they can receive basic instruction in the beliefs of his church. He come to church to worship a few times a year with his family, and comes to church for weddings, funerals, and for maybe a few social events. His church may say that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but he knows only a few Bible verses, the 23rd Psalm, and the Lord's prayer. He is not sure about what doctrines his church teaches and is likely to have quite a few personal beliefs which are contrary to the the teachings of his church.
This is the state of affairs that I like to summarize by saying that in America, religious faith or religiosity is, on average, three thousand miles wide and half an inch deep.

Even the best-designed surveys, like ARIS 2008, don't drill down into this phenomenon with the degree of detail that I'd prefer. What zorba (or Shermer) is describing seems to me to be "believing in belief," pretending or contriving to believe in a vague something labeled "God," and going through the motions of occasionally practicing a few obvious rituals, because the practitioner or believer-in-belief has a social or emotional stake in doing so.

Incidentally, the ARIS 2008 survey included a new question that was not in the 1990 and 2001 surveys. Here are the 2008 results from that question:

Beliefs about God among U.S. Adult Population 2008

Regarding the existence of God, do you think . . . ?

There is no such thing 2.3%
There is no way to know 4.3%
I’m not sure 5.7%
There is a higher power but no personal God 12.1%
There is definitely a personal God 69.5%
Refused 6.1%
n = 1,000 100%

So, assuming the accuracy of the sample (54,461 respondents), the number of Americans who say they believe in a personal (intervening, interested-in-humanity) deity is a little under 70 percent. In response to a different question (about religious affiliation), the number of respondents who said they were "religious" was about 80 percent. The number of respondents who described themselves as having no religious preference or as atheist or agnostic (and who did not simply refuse to answer) was 15.0 percent, an increase from 8.2 percent in 1990 and 14.1 percent in 2001.

My book-buying budget is much smaller these days than, say, 3 years ago. So far, I have not read or heard anything about The Believing Brain that suggests it covers significant new material that was not in Shermer's earlier book, Why We Believe.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by zorba » Tue Aug 16, 2011 7:19 pm

This is the state of affairs that I like to summarize by saying that in America, religious faith or religiosity is, on average, three thousand miles wide and half an inch deep.
That's a pretty accurate summary, IMO. When people start talking about "the man upstairs", you know they aren't really serious about it anymore. But I think even this superficial nominal commitment to religion has a huge impact on our culture. It reminds us that most people have a deep need for truths expressed in the form of myth. These myths seems to form a foundation for many of our customs, beliefs, and cultural assumptions. And for many, they provide a feeling that life is meaningful.

I remember a quote from the 1960's: "Religion is the spit in the glue of the establishment." I don't remember the source, but Malcolm Boyd comes to mind.

Thanks for including the survey. The greater number of choices makes it more helpful in explaining more accurately what people believe about God.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by vanderpoel » Tue Aug 16, 2011 7:26 pm

Higher power?
Nah, that's just a question of positioning.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by zorba » Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:17 am

Higher power?

I think the question was referring to numbers which have a large exponent.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Lausten » Wed Aug 17, 2011 5:10 pm

JeffD wrote:It's likely that this nominal affiliation with a religion, and worship which mainly amounts to observing the customs of the society in which they live is what "believing in God" means for most Americans. How significant are these beliefs and how much effect do they have?
I think there is general agreement with what you say and that question is a big one. That 10% or so that really believe they are the chosen ones have an amazing ability to motivate the 80%. Their belief may not be deep, but it still hurts if you poke into it. They may not be comfortable claiming Tea Party affiliation, but they are willing to let them be and can't seem to understand why you wouldn't. The only analogy I can think of is the army. It takes thousands of people, cooking, moving fuel, doing paperwork, etc. to support a few that are actually doing any killing. On the homefront we try not to think too much about what it really means when we say "support the troops". Maybe that's a bad analogy, I don't know.

Thanks for the review. I wasn't sure about that one, but it sounds worth it.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Jeff D » Wed Aug 17, 2011 6:08 pm

It's likely that this nominal affiliation with a religion, and worship which mainly amounts to observing the customs of the society in which they live is what "believing in God" means for most Americans. How significant are these beliefs and how much effect do they have?


Lausten erroneously but innocently attributed this text to me; actually it was in zorba's opening post.

But the first sentence is roughly equivalent to what I meant when I wrote that on average, religious faith in America is 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. Most Americans who feel compelled to answer (when asked) that they "believe in God" (here I am talking about Lausten's 80 percent) never feel a similar need to closely examine or to state in detail what those three words mean, whether these people really share substantially similar concepts of "God" and God's attributes, what the basis of this "belief" is, and what its practical implications are. It's really not much more than social signaling, a way of declaring that one belongs to an amorphous group, and therefore is a trustworthy, cooperative citizen to some modest extent.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by rickoshay85 » Wed Aug 17, 2011 9:29 pm

When people start talking about "the man upstairs", you know they aren't really serious about it anymore. But I think even this superficial nominal commitment to religion has a huge impact on our culture. It reminds us that most people have a deep need for truths expressed in the form of myth. These myths seems to form a foundation for many of our customs, beliefs, and cultural assumptions. And for many, they provide a feeling that life is meaningful.

There are those who believe in sympathy and guidance and there are those that believe in plotting their own courses. It depends on how comfortable one feels with his belief.

The fact that a great many people believe something is no guarantee of its truth. W. Somerset Maugham
What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is WHAT WE DO. John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)

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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by vanderpoel » Wed Aug 17, 2011 11:24 pm

zorba wrote:Higher power?

I think the question was referring to numbers which have a large exponent.
Couldn't be, nobody questions higher power. :shock:
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by vanderpoel » Thu Aug 18, 2011 12:09 am

Our actions are heavily influenced by what Malcolm Gladwell has described as enablers, connectors, mavens and salesmen. In fact, they are the reporters, pundits and bloggers in our lives, and advertisers target these enablers. Because of their high profiles they are sitting ducks, they can be found and influenced the same way doctors are found and influenced by medical reps, and disc jockeys are located and persuaded by music reps.

The most prolific enablers are those nice devout men in their long robes, who
influence their communities from the goodness of their hearts and their pulpits.
They seem to have no problem spamming for god or using the latest and most sophisticated extortion software that will get them in your pocket.
They are heaven's mavens, enabling the flourishing businesses of soul herding,
tithing and money laundering. Now that is something to be blue about.

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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by zorba » Sun Aug 21, 2011 9:40 pm

Another aspect of belief which Shermer did not discuss as much as I would have liked is the way people can compartmentalize different world views and conflicting beliefs and keep them separate as though they came from 2 different universes.

I knew a physicist from Los Alamos labs in NM where they do some of the most advanced scientific research in the world. (It's where the first atom bombs were designed, near the "secret city" of Los Alamos.) He was involved in pure research about nuclear fusion. He studied the origin and the birth of stars and the fusion processes which keep them producing enormous amounts of energy for millions of years. He did many of the calculations on some of the fastest super computers in the world to calculate what the universe was like one millisecond after the Big Bang. Then on Sunday, he would go to a small fundamentalist church which preached that the Bible is inerrant, the universe was created in literally 6 days, and that all species were created in their current forms (The Theory of Evolution is false.)
In a study which was recently completed at the University of Chicago, scientists concluded that 54% of all statistics are just made up.

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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Tom Palven » Sat Aug 27, 2011 11:56 am

There's a long op-ed article in the Times-Union, Jacksonville, FL, today reprinted from the LA Times, by Wesleyan University Macroeconomics Professor Bill Craighead, titled Deficits the Solution, Not the Problem,

You guys don't like magical thinking when it comes to relgion, but you'll probably like this. It's a work of macroeconomic art. Titled differently at the LA Times, below.

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/24 ... g-20110824" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

To borrow from Oleg: If macroeconomics got us into this mess, why is it reasonable to expect that macroeconomics will get us out?
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by landrew » Sat Aug 27, 2011 8:42 pm

The fallacy here is to take the pathology of the "believing brain," and to apply that diagnosis to those who believe differently than yourself. This is no less a threat to intellectual freedom than censorship.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by OlegTheBatty » Sat Aug 27, 2011 9:22 pm

Tom-Palven wrote:There's a long op-ed article in the Times-Union, Jacksonville, FL, today reprinted from the LA Times, by Wesleyan University Macroeconomics Professor Bill Craighead, titled Deficits the Solution, Not the Problem,

You guys don't like magical thinking when it comes to relgion, but you'll probably like this. It's a work of macroeconomic art. Titled differently at the LA Times, below.

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/24 ... g-20110824" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

To borrow from Oleg: If macroeconomics got us into this mess, why is it reasonable to expect that macroeconomics will get us out?
J. K. Galbreath's take on it.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Tom Palven » Sun Aug 28, 2011 11:59 am

OlegTheBatty wrote:
Tom-Palven wrote:There's a long op-ed article in the Times-Union, Jacksonville, FL, today reprinted from the LA Times, by Wesleyan University Macroeconomics Professor Bill Craighead, titled Deficits the Solution, Not the Problem,

You guys don't like magical thinking when it comes to relgion, but you'll probably like this. It's a work of macroeconomic art. Titled differently at the LA Times, below.

http://articles.latimes.com/2011/aug/24 ... g-20110824" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

To borrow from Oleg: If macroeconomics got us into this mess, why is it reasonable to expect that macroeconomics will get us out?
J. K. Galbreath's take on it.
It's not surprising that James has come to the defense of his father John Kenneth's, macroeconomics. He lays blame on Standard & Poors, the President, Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, and Paul Krugman for being "bizarre and inconsistent," but in all those pages of macroecomic equations of his, why doesn't he have some that address the fact that governments and politicians are quite often bizzare and inconsistent, and the existence of such human frailties as an aversion to sweating and slaving to provide income for the government? The macroeconomists want to apply a carrot in some situations sometimes, and a stick in other situations sometimes, and why don't people just obey? Why won't the politicians listen?
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Tom Palven » Sun Aug 28, 2011 2:19 pm

landrew wrote:The fallacy here is to take the pathology of the "believing brain," and to apply that diagnosis to those who believe differently than yourself. This is no less a threat to intellectual freedom than censorship.
No, I don't care what people believe so long as they don't want to force their dietary and sexual mores, and their ways of worship on me, or force their political attitudes about closing borders, killing people with drone aircraft, and so on, on me and then expecting me to pay for it through coercive taxation. Just because individuals are generally forced into involuntary servitude to pyramidal hierarchies doesn't mean that these systems are either ethical, beneficial or inevitable. Are these views somehow a threat to your intellectual freedom?
If one can be taught to believe absurdities, one can commit atrocities. --Voltaire
I may not agree with the what you say, but I will defend your right to say it. --Voltaire
Mankind will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. --Denis Diderot
I haven't abandoned my vices. My vices have abandoned me. --Denis Diderot

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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by landrew » Sun Aug 28, 2011 2:30 pm

Tom-Palven wrote:
landrew wrote:The fallacy here is to take the pathology of the "believing brain," and to apply that diagnosis to those who believe differently than yourself. This is no less a threat to intellectual freedom than censorship.
No, I don't care what people believe so long as they don't want to force their dietary and sexual mores, and their ways of worship on me, or force their political attitudes about closing borders, killing people with drone aircraft, and so on, on me and then expecting me to pay for it through coercive taxation. Just because individuals are generally forced into involuntary servitude to pyramidal hierarchies doesn't mean that these systems are either ethical, beneficial or inevitable. Are these views somehow a threat to your intellectual freedom?
Not at all. I think all ideas should receive a fair hearing where they can be debated and weighed, but not be promulgated to the masses like some sort of "self-evident truth." There is no such thing as that. Anything can be questioned, because there's simply nothing to lose by doing that. If it's false, you can discard a false belief; if it's true, it only gains weight as a result of being questioned.
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by nmblum88 » Sun Aug 28, 2011 9:01 pm

landrew wrote:
Tom-Palven wrote:
landrew wrote:The fallacy here is to take the pathology of the "believing brain," and to apply that diagnosis to those who believe differently than yourself. This is no less a threat to intellectual freedom than censorship.
No, I don't care what people believe so long as they don't want to force their dietary and sexual mores, and their ways of worship on me, or force their political attitudes about closing borders, killing people with drone aircraft, and so on, on me and then expecting me to pay for it through coercive taxation. Just because individuals are generally forced into involuntary servitude to pyramidal hierarchies doesn't mean that these systems are either ethical, beneficial or inevitable. Are these views somehow a threat to your intellectual freedom?
Not at all. I think all ideas should receive a fair hearing where they can be debated and weighed, but not be promulgated to the masses like some sort of "self-evident truth." There is no such thing as that. Anything can be questioned, because there's simply nothing to lose by doing that. If it's false, you can discard a false belief; if it's true, it only gains weight as a result of being questioned.

I agree with you despite my suspicion of references to "the masses..."
A group, to the extent that it can be defined, that in my experience (which could certainly be different from yours although mine does certainly include some wild and unfounded proprietary references to "the masses") always refers to people we think of as either lesser than ourselves in insight, intellect, judgment and general enlightenment, or more prone to easy manipulation than we are ourselves.
And not that I would propel myself into the foreground to be held up as any kind of useful example, the longer I live, and the more I recognize how many errors in judgment I have myself made in matters both of the mind and the body, and combinations of both, the more I see myself as a member (in more or less good standing) of that very "mass" to which you refer.
Which is to say, powerless in the face of power and obtuse, even ovine, in the face of the stupidities thrust upon us all in the world we never made.
In other words, my sympathies lie more and more with the herded than with the herders.
Although I do admit that my sense of being unique and therefore more valuable, was more intense and much more satisfactory when I thought of the world as "the masses" on the one hand, and myself and a select band of brothers, on our own Sinai sonorously reciting our brand of truth to the multitudes on the other.
Of course, I'm working on it , and would probably be doing better if it were not for the frequent impediments to rationality that are put in our common way by the persistent and now obviously deliberate attempts to 'dumb down' America by the concerted efforts of religious influences gone berserk in the employ of a suspiciously dangerous hegemony of the rich and powerful, who themselves have no religious identity any more than they have any genuine national loyalty.
So that when the obtuse and the ill-informed, those crippled by poor education and negligible opportunity for better foisted upon them become the majority, then we are all in the soup together, and the belief that we are different is not going to help keep us from being turned into pottage along with "the masses....'
(The recipe is already pasted on the wall over the stove, and the cooks are already stirring the pot.)


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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Tom Palven » Sun Aug 28, 2011 10:42 pm

I'm a little bit at a loss, so I think I'll have another drink or two and promulgate some allegedly self-evident truths to myself. :redwine: :wink:
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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Frank Hoffman » Thu Feb 28, 2013 2:31 am

rickoshay85 wrote:When people start talking about "the man upstairs", you know they aren't really serious about it anymore
I don't think there is any correlation. Religious folks have complex ideas (or rationalizations, if you prefer) and can have a very informal relationship with their god... especially if they are deeply committed to their religion. Such informality can be shorthand when speaking within a group of persons with differing levels of commitment, it is an inclusive statement to make all members comfortable with the conversation.

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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by Dot » Thu Feb 28, 2013 5:08 am

Does Shermer consider or refute any kind of genetic component as a contributing factor? For that matter, is anyone familiar with any studies to that end? I'm curious. I was reared in one of those fundamentalist churches that rose out of the US 19th century reformation period. My whole family was religious, devout even. I was about 14 when the god concept began not making sense to me. Reason outweighed faith. I left the church at 16 and the rift between me and my family was begun. From every account I can envision, I should be a believer, but I'm not. Sometimes I really wish I could be.

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Re: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

Post by HonestySeeker » Sun Sep 22, 2013 6:45 pm

In the book " The Believing Brain" there is a chapter that explains what you ask with reference to the Book titled " The God Gene: How faith is hardwired into our genes" by Dean H. Hamer

Basically yes, your tendency to be a believer should be high based on your family's genes and in the environment you grew up in.
But it is only a tendency and there is always the minority that is deviated from the standard.
Skepticism is a method to find new and better alternatives of belief