How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. Michael Shermer. xvii + 302 pp. W. H. Freeman & Co., 1999. $24.95.
Those who enjoyed Michael Shermer's acclaimed Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (1997) will welcome the extension of his critical but balanced study of belief in God. Social scientist Shermer—publisher of Skeptic magazine, a born-again Christian, atheist and now agnostic—is uniquely equipped to carry out this comprehensive analysis of the nature of belief from many viewpoints, especially the scientific. Contrary to Nietzsche's proclamation and Time magazine's 1966 rephrasing of it as the question, "Is God dead?" and to the ascendancy of science, technology and secular education, Shermer presents evidence that "God is alive and well."
In 1998 Shermer and MIT social scientist Frank Sulloway conducted a comprehensive survey of more than 1,700 respondent members of the Skeptics Society, which Shermer directs, to answer the question of how and why people believe in God, followed up by a similar exhaustive poll of 10,000 randomly chosen Americans. People say that they believe in God because of the good design, beauty and complexity of the universe but that other people believe in God because of emotional need and comfort. Shermer explains this finding through attribution theory: We attribute our success to hard work and intelligence but others' success to good fortune. The results are presented and analyzed in this thought-provoking book, which includes detailed data, statistics and graphs.
British Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar has described science as the "art of the soluble," but Shermer, in the book's longest chapter, which cogently presents 10 philosophical arguments (each accompanied by a counter-argument) for the existence of God, concludes that "the 'God question' remains as insoluble today as it ever was." From both personal and professional experience he attests to the futility of trying either to prove or disprove God's existence. His primary focus is not whether people believe or not but how and why they have made their particular choice. He also explores the relation between science and religion, how the search for the sacred originated and how it can thrive in our present "age of science." He concludes that "people believe in God because we are pattern-seeking [even when such patterns do not exist], storytelling, mythmaking, religious, moral animals."
Shermer discusses the various calendars, the millennium, millennial groups such as those of David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite, apocalyptic prophecies and Christian eschatology in a most timely chapter.
Shermer concludes that our existence is not a necessity (the predestination concept that is an inherent part of many fundamentalist religions) but is a contingency (the result of chance circumstances and events). "The universe," he writes, "takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us—indeed, that it was not designed at all."
Shermer ends his insightful, intriguing and enlightening study on an affirmative note. When asked by believers why he abandoned Christianity and how he finds meaning in the apparently meaningless universe presented by science, he says: "The conjunction of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself."—George B. Kauffman, Chemistry, California State University, Fresno