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

Michael Shermer
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

13 Jan 2000
This text explores what drives us to believe, to have faith, and to create and flock to religions the world over. Throughout, Michael Shermer is interested in the how and why rather than the right or wrong, proving or disproving. This analysis is designed for anyone, whether devout believer or devoted agnostic, spiritual searcher or armchair anthropologist.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd (13 Jan 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 071673561X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0716735618
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 444,484 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Michael Shermer founded 'Skeptic' magazine and website ( and is a contributing editor, and columnist, for 'Scientific American'. Michael Shermer frequently appears on television and radio as a scientific expert.

Product Description


"Michael Shermer's latest contribution is an insightful tour de force that will no doubt provoke virtually everyone who reads it."
--Donald Johanson, Director, Institute of Human Origins, author of "From Lucy to Language"
"Those who enjoyed Michael Shermer's acclaimed "Why People Believe Weird Things" will welcome the extension of his critical but balanced study of the belief in God . . . Insightful, intriguing, and enlightening."
--"American Scientist"
"This book will convince and delight all who are not chronically averse to opening their minds and thinking for themselves."
--Richard Dawkins, author of "Unweaving the Rainbow"
"Well-researched, comprehensive, and persuasive. "How We Believe" is especially notable in stressing the great power of narration as the vehicle of complex thought . . . . The humanistic, evolutionary explanation may in fact be ready to break out of the intellectually remote domain in which it has been developed and too long hemmed-in."
--Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winner, author of "Consilience,"
Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University
"[How We Believe] is unusually useful . . . . It sheds unique light on the interior life of a well-informed atheist today, and may foreshadow a new spirit of amity and mutual inquiry."
--"Washington Post Book World"
"[Shermer] brilliantly explores our propensity to be story-telling animals."
--"Natural History"
"[Shermer's] discussion ranges eloquently and learnedly over broad areas of philosophy, theology, and science. In the end, whatever the reader's own thinking, she will probably discover that she has learned a lot about the opinions other people have on 'the God Question' and why they hold those opinions."
--"Scientific American"
"Although Shermer's arguments will probably not be decisive for debates between nonbelievers and believers, both will be able to appreciate this readable and g --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the author of "The Believing Brain," "Why People Believe Weird Things," "The Science of Good and Evil," "The Mind Of The Market," "Why Darwin Matters," "Science Friction," "How We Believe" and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of "Skeptic" magazine, the editor of, a monthly columnist for "Scientific American," and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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In my senior year of high school I accepted Jesus as my savior and became a born-again Christian. Read the first page
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Explaining the We'uns 25 Jun 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
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 the fact that since Copernicus the role of divinities in the life has become irrelevant, Clinton dragged a 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 `god coming in to claim the credit' after human 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, 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 supernatural?

Michael Shermer has made a significant effort to detail the background thinking [or lack of it] that sustains the concept of The Desert Deity 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  64 reviews
115 of 124 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does This Book Really Answer The Question 6 Jan 2000
By Bucherwurm - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
To me the title of this book suggested a treatise essentially on the psychology of belief systems. Indeed we are presented with quite interesting material in this regard. Mr. Schermer uses the fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology, amongst others, to help explain belief systems.
While I found that almost all the book held my interest, it seemed somewhat disjointed. Some of the material is also quite controversial. While such matters only serve to entertain me, others may get offended - Christians may take umbrage at having their beliefs repeatedly referred to as "myths".
The book presents intriguing survey results on why people believe in God. What is most fascinating is that respondents felt that other people believe in God for reasons that differ considerably from their own. Shermer moves on into a discussion of evolutionary biology and a "belief module" (more controversy). Then, surprisingly, we move into a section concerned with traditional philosophical arguments (primarily those of Thomas Aquinas) for belief in God. When you get right down to it, no one embraces religious belief purely on the basis of philosophical arguments. Creationists will be offended by a section on their beliefs. A chunk of the book is given to the Indian Ghost Dance of the 1890s, and we read a discussion on a mathematical refutation of the recent best seller The Bible Code. Good stuff, but its like reading a collection of essays that are not often obviously related to each other.
The final chapter had me scratching my head the most. It's a section discussing the controversy surrounding Stephen Jay Gould's theories of evolution regarding necessity/contingency/chance. While poring through this I kept wondering what it had to do with religion. My question was never answered satisfactorily. Shermer forces this subject into a paean to the wonders of living in a contingent universe. He states that his abandonment of religion allows him to bask in the beauty of our magnificent universe. I get annoyed with concept that if you are religious you can't appreciate science and nature. Not every religious believer is constrained by fundamentalist young earth/intelligent design theories. I am an agnostic who was brought up a Catholic. My intense curiosity and admiration of nature was as strong when I was a believer as it is as a non-believer today.
64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive synthesis of a vast amount of material. 23 Oct 1999
By Wilson H. Wessells Jr. - Published on
As one goldfish said to the other, "if there is no god, who changes the water?", Michael Shermer gazes through the bowl at the possibilities and the distorting refractions caused by it and tries to get a clearer picture. I can't imagine a better summary of such a vast amount of material on such a universal subject. Why so many people have always believed in a divine being based on so little evidence other than the fact that we're constantly amazed by our own consciousness and the "orderly" world around us is his main interest. He discusses these issues so that almost anyone paying attention can understand all the facets of this multifaceted subject and how the arguments have played out down through the ages right up to the present day. I'm sure he must have left something out but after I put the book down I couldn't imagine what. He gives you all the basic imformation you could ever want and just leaves you with yourself to wonder and think and reach your own conclusions. I can assure you that your conclusions will be of a higher quality after having read this book than not. Enjoy.
65 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding! 25 Oct 1999
By T. Lemon ( - Published on
One of the finest and most comprehensive books I have ever read on our beliefs and why we believe the way we do. I truly have to give Michael Shermer the utmost respect for being so rational and not going out to bash, but to unearth reality. Michael Shermer is truly a person whom has well researched his information and made his study, research, and findings understandable by showing how we as human beings have become the way we are. At the same time, prepared his information in an understandable way that focuses on logical thinking, not mythical, which so many of us like to do so often. The bottom line, this book illustrates how we have created a very mystical world to help us better cope with life. Hey, Shermer does not feel it is bad to believe in a supreme being as it offers many people needed comfort, at the same time, he urges us to "Think for Yourself"-Cogita tute, which is absolutely one of the greatest messages within this book because it points out some serious errors humankind have made in their belief organisms, in turn, generating great pain and affliction that could have been circumvented through placing trust in themselves by using good old common sense and by thinking for themselves. Shermer does not ask you to take his word for it, he simply states, you shouldn't believe what I say or anyone else, "Think for yourself" and if it makes sense then, believe. This is a definite read!
129 of 144 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bound to offend somebody 18 Jan 2000
By R. Todd Ogrin - Published on
Michael Shermer is the founder and leader of the Skeptic's Society, and in this, his most recent book, he takes on religion in a collection of essays. Although his direction seems to meander, the research that went into this book provides an excellent aggregation of facts and ideas that explore why people believe in anything or anybody, from James Van Praagh to God himself. Shermer's proposal of a Belief Engine is an interesting one and explains how humans, as pattern-seeking creatures, could have evolved an inherent propensity to believe. Unfortunately, I feel that this book will offend religious folk (rather than create skeptical converts), despite Shermer's claims that he means only to understand.
In my opinion, the religious and the skeptical are always at one another's throats because neither accepts the other's criteria for acceptance of an idea. The skeptic relies on science to discover the truth; the answers to his or her questions are things to be discovered. Someone with a more religious outlook starts at the opposite end of the spectrum. That is, all answers can be found through faith in God and it is up to us to conform our worldview to confirm that philosophy. With one group seeking an answer and the other starting with the answer, it's no wonder that both wouldn't mind seeing the other ousted from schools, government, and other positions of influence.
Having said all that, I wonder if anyone's mind will actually be changed by this book, or if it will serve only as a rallying point for like-minded skeptics as a sort of skeptical equivalent of _Evidence That Demands a Verdict_. No matter the eventual outcome of the science-religion conflict, this book provides a solid intellectual foothold for the skeptic.
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why We Cannot Know God 17 May 2000
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As in his Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer makes it clear that people who believe in God are not stupid. He breaks important ground by making a home for two types who have been lately rejected by the mainstreams of Skepticism and Religion: those who believe in God even though they know that they cannot prove God's existence empirically; and those who simply refuse to answer the question.
Shermer makes an excellent case for an alternative form of Skepticism with this book, based on the premise that if there is a God, He/She/It is of such a character as to be beyond human knowing. God, Shermer reminds us, is supposed to be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere), and omni-potent (all-powerful). We human beings are none of these things: so how can any of us claim to be certain of this other beings existence or nonexistence?
It is a premise which will make those who want empircal proof for their beliefs unhappy: neither the Creationist or the Atheist will be satisfied with Shermer's formula. Yet, I think, that thinking people of spirit and nonspirit will appreciate Shermer's liberating observations. He is consciously trying to create a world-view about religion for the coming millenium and, I dare say, his is the most realistic and sensible that I have seen so far.
From this beginning, Shermer goes on to discuss the human creation of religion, an artifact which is separate from the question of whether or not God exists. Shermer contends that we humans are, by the grace of natural selection, pattern-seeking animals. Religion is an attempt by us to make sense of the chaos and the uncertainty which is always there. He concludes his discussion by establishing his view as an independent theory of religion, offering it to religious scholars and others who are seeking a common-sense position about the way we believe.
The concluding section, about the theory of Evolution and its relationship to issues of modern faith, has been cited by some as superfluous and out of keeping with the rest of the book. I contend, however, that it is a logical conclusion to Shermer's epistemology given that nowhere has the conflict between the Godless and the God-inspired been so evident as it has been in this debate. Shermer pulls evolution and Science as a whole out of the political void created by this conflict and sets it where it rightly belongs: as an objective, well-grounded explanation of the fossil evidence which does not tell us a thing about whether or not God exists. This question, Shermer believes, cannot be answered by we mere humans. We are best served by realizing our limitations, he concludes, and accepting empirical Truth as limited to what we can find out with our own senses.
It was appropriate that this book appeared in the first month of the year 2000. It is a book to guide epistemological debate in the next millenium.
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