Book review: How We Believe

by Michael Shermer


Michael Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the director of the Skeptics Society, and host of the Skeptics Lecture Series. I don’t need to tell you what sort of direction this book is going to take. But even knowing what to expect, this was a fun book, well worth the read!

Shermer, noting that 96% of Americans believe in God and 73% believe that angels regularly visit earth, asks this question: Why? Why do even 40% of scientists proclaim a belief in God? Why do more people believe in paranormal phenomena now than 100 years ago? Why do we believe at all, and why must we seek meaning in higher places? What is our fascination with ghosts and séances? Is belief in God genetically programmed? Some kind of “God module” in our brains?

Mankind is a pattern-seeking animal, whether this talent is used to see the Virgin Mary in patterns of light and shadow or to see meaning within the randomness of coincidental events. Mankind is also a storytelling animal. We love our stories, and our stories do more than describe our reality, they help create our realities. So, as we move from pattern-seeking to storytelling, we naturally journey on to mythmaking. Origin myths abound in various cultures. But the journey of humanity doesn’t end there. From mythmaking we jump ahead to morality, from morality to religion, from religion to God. Perhaps we are wired to believe; perhaps there’s a certain inevitability in the way the human experience has evolved.

Shermer presents a number of studies and interviews as he leads us on this journey. One of the most fascinating studies in Shermer’s book compared answers to two questions: “Why do you believe in God,” and “Why do you think other people believe in God?” The answers don’t jibe. Other people believe in God because they were raised that way, or because it brings them comfort to believe, or because people have a need to believe. But what do people answer as to why they believe? Well, because they’ve thought it through, of course; the universe is too orderly, or the experiences they’ve had could only come from God.

Shermer’s approach is scientific, yet controversial. The conclusions are his own; but I guarantee the book will make you think, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy the read.

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