Recent public opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans still believe in God and a universal spirit, almost nine out of ten people according to the latest Gallop poll published in 2011. The same polls show that a great percentage of people surveyed also believed in miracles, heaven, afterlife, hell, and the devil. Although these percentages have diminished since 1994, the numbers are perplexing in the wake of modern scientific discoveries.
Human beings have always believed in supernatural things, even those that may defy conventional wisdom or are considered scientifically refutable. Scientists and theologians have offered different answers to the question of why people believe in general, especially why they believe in strange things. In his newly published book The Believing Brain, author Dr. Michael Shermer, who is the founder of the Skeptic Society, tries to provide answers to this and similar questions by relying on scientific analyses. The central theme of Shermer’s book is that people first believe in what they want to believe and then search for justification afterward. In other words, “beliefs come first; reasons for beliefs follow in confirmation of the realism dependent on the belief.” This is the persistent theme of his book. Based on the scientific analyses he presents, he claims that our brain is the manufacturer of beliefs by default. Belief in the supernatural, such as God and an afterlife, is the direct result of what Dr. Shermer calls patternicity and agenticity—our desire to find a pattern and assign an agent to all events whether they are meaningful or not. People continue to believe in what they want to believe, indicating that whatever the driving forces behind believing are, they must be compelling and pervasive. However, believing, no matter how ubiquitous, does not confirm that what we believe is true and really exists.
We have an innate tendency to connect the dots and believe in patterns, even those that happen to be untrue. For example, we automatically assume that there is a ferocious beast behind the trees when we hear a rustling sound simply because we fear the tragic consequences if, in fact, our assumption is correct. In Shermer’s words, we are susceptible to patternicity, which is our “tendency to find meaningful pattern in both meaningful and meaningless noise.” This leads us to another error, agenticity—intentionally creating an agent that is in charge and in control of every situation, and hence our life. Throughout his book, Dr. Shermer tries to provide scientific validation for his disbelief concerning the existence of the supernatural. His explanation of patternicity and agenticity is really compelling and scholarly. He asserts that “our brains are belief agencies, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meanings out of the patterns [true or false] we think we see in nature.” In other words, because we are designed by natural selection to be inherently risk averse, we choose to play it safe when confronted with a risky situation and we respond conservatively by choosing the option that protects us in case the pattern we think is true happens to be true. We strive to avoid making a Type I error—the presumption there is a “dangerous predator” that may kill us even though it turns out to be false. Patternicity is the human inclination to inculcate a pattern, connect the dots, and assign intentional agency that controls the events. The agents may not even exist, but we think they are in control of the world. Examples include an intelligent designer, extraterrestrials, conspiracy, and even government, which we believe can solve our economic problems by implementing policies for the economy. However, most of the agents we have created so far have not existed, but we keep believing in them anyway. “There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them” (p. 88).
By the same token, when it comes to believing in God/religion, we employ a similar slanted way of thinking. We even use the scheme of cost benefit to make sense out of it. The cost of believing in God is allegedly nil while the consequence of not believing is unbearably harsh. The expected reward for believing, however, is enormously worthwhile and enticing, offering a life of eternal bliss in another world. Accordingly, believing in God is a rational, riskless economic choice that makes sense when weighing the costs and the benefits. Of course, this kind of reasoning is not new. A few centuries ago, a French philosopher, Braise Pascal, crafted this innovative argument to rationalize believing in God. Unable to come up with concrete proof for the existence of God, he argued that whether God exists or not, believing in him is a good deal. You lose little or nothing if you believe in God even if it turns out that God does not exist. However, if there is God, you would be rewarded handsomely with an endless, lavish life in heaven. As appealing as it may sound, this argument is flawed for three reasons.
First, believing does entail profound costs, monetary and non-monetary. The monetary costs could be significant, especially if you are a committed adherent of a strict religion like Islam. Being devotedly pious, you are obligated to pay religious taxes, such as tithes and Khoms (an Islamic tax levied on wealth, a 20% flat rate), and to contribute to charity. That may not sound too burdensome, however, consider the seemingly non-monetary costs such as the opportunity cost of your time and forgoing possible income due to spending precious time following rules and fulfilling stringent requirements. You have to spend time preparing and conducting daily prayers and other time consuming rituals over your lifetime. Imagine, if you are a highly paid professional, how much income you would have to sacrifice as a result of believing. Abiding by rules and guidelines and avoiding forbidden activities generate the heaviest costs of devoting yourself to a religion. The more restrictive the religion is, the higher the cost of compliance. Compared to Islam, Christianity is a more flexible and less strict religion, making the cost of believing lower for its devotees. Perhaps, that is why it is a popular religion in Western countries in which economic prosperity, income levels, and cost in terms of time matter. In other words, high-income people are attracted to Christianity because it makes sense economically; it is a low cost option for them.
Less restrictive religious rules promote flexibility, tolerance, and freedom, and discourage fanaticism. On the contrary, adhering to a more restrictive religion, with high opportunity, becomes an inexpedient choice for more affluent people. In addition, imposing rigorous rules and infusing superstitions enables a religion, like Islam, to set apart its marginal followers and its zealous believers, those who can be taken full advantage of to function as the foot soldiers for its religious rulers. Promoting superstitions and rigorous rituals also help Mullahs to winnow the loyal faithful from the pretentious believers. Those who really believe in often nonsensical rules will do whatever Mullahs tell them to do, including sacrificing their lives for the sake of their beliefs. Although there are many people who fake devotion, those who really follow these strict codes are deadly serious and are not faking it. They will likely to do whatever they are told to do, even killing innocent people and disrespecting the rights of others for the sake of their beliefs. Furthermore, added restrictions may serve as a needed strategy, albeit cynical, to effectively boost the credibility of a religion among naïve believers. One can argue that the economic cost of organized religion is even more serious from a social stand point, even if it may appear trivial for individuals. The negative correlation between strict believing and economic progress in Muslim countries, for instance, has been observed and is validated by some researches. It is like a two-way reinforcing correlation. Muslims are poor because they live in Islamic countries. Poor people are drawn to Islam because their low level of income makes the opportunity cost of compliance low and thus affordable.
Second, believing in God/religion just for the purpose of personal gain is a categorically corrupt argument. The expectation of personal rewards for piety promotes narcissism and will change a religion, like Islam, into a self-serving belief system, and self-interest will become the central impetus behind religiosity. Such a narrow-minded way of thinking will, indeed, undermine the power of the moral imagination and the worldview of ordinary believers. Muslims, for example, have been transformed into a group of egoistical people (Umma) who are obsessed with their specialness and engrossed in a self-interest mentality, especially when it comes to dealing with the followers of other religions. If this world is the audition stage for the next world, as religions tell us, then we are all just a bunch of marionettes that are here to be manipulated and tested for eligibility for afterlife salvation. Your beliefs then become a set of self-serving tools that help you to achieve that purpose. If you consider your earthly life as preparation for the next life, why would you pay attention to anything else, including your economic success and the well-being of others?
Third: there is also logical ground to argue that the expected value of reward for believing is not that great either because the probability that you will end up believing in the right god, the right religion, and accomplish the necessary requirements correctly, frankly, is nil. Even if you comply with all the requirements as prescribed, there is no guarantee that you will go to heaven because there is no proof that heaven exists. From the beginning, all religions have told us that they know what it takes to be saved and attain a place in heaven. According to the claim of Muslims, there have been 100,000 messengers and each and every one of them has claimed to be the chosen prophet who completed the mission of the one before him. Religions have all told us that they have the right formula for eternal salvation. Shermer claims that “over the past ten thousand years of history humans have created about ten thousand different religions and about one thousand gods.” To make matters more complicated, each of these religions has numerous denominations. Christianity alone has in excess of 33,000! So, the probability of choosing the right god is 1/1,000, and the right religion is at most 1/10,000. Assuming that you are lucky enough to choose the right religion, what is the chance that you will find the right denomination? If you are a Christian, the probability of that is 1/33,000. Assuming you get lucky and choose the right God, the right religion, and the right denomination, what is the probability that you will follow the needed rituals correctly? Even if you have no problem following religious guidelines, what is the probability that heaven really does exist as depicted by religions? I am not a statistician; however, I can surmise that the probability of being right in all these things is close to zero. It is easier to find the proverbial needle in a haystack, or Osama’s body at the bottom of the ocean, than to go to heaven. Does this mean that no religion can guarantee you a place in heaven? I suspect so.
Nonetheless, because anytime we are confronted with what looks like a life and death situation, we are careful not to leave any stone unturned and will naturally choose an option having low or no risk, but has a remunerating outcome. To prevent a catastrophic incident, various experts will thoroughly examine an airplane before takeoff because the slightest malfunction may have fatal consequences. However, before riding a bike, a quick visual observation may be enough to avoid the worst that can happen if something goes wrong, and if you carry your bike home with you, there is no serious injury. Believing in God is like preparing an airplane for takeoff. It is like buying an insurance policy with absolutely no deductible.
Dr. Shermer argues that scientific researchers have shown that “whenever the cost of believing that a false pattern is real is less than the cost of not believing a real pattern, natural selection will favor the patternicity—the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and false noise” (p. 62). That is so because we are not able to assign correct probability, and recognize valid cause and effect relationships from imaginary ones. The reason we often surrender to false patterns is because they are needed for our survival and continued reproduction. However, religions have exploited these human tendencies designed for other purposes, such as survival, group belonging, and reproduction in order to control and to muster power.
Dr. Shermer also claims that what we believe in is a function of various factors that shape our perception of the world around us. “What happens is that the facts of the world are filtered by our brains through the colored lenses of worldviews, paradigms, theories, hypotheses, conjectures, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through living. We then sort through the facts and select those that confirm what we already believe and ignore or rationalize away those that contradict our beliefs” (p. 36). “Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by media’s miscommunications of science and the scientific process” as well as the inability of ordinary people to winnow fact from fiction, and understand how scientific validation comes about and how beliefs are formed, persist, are nourished, reinforced, and possibly become extinct. Because our evolution is based on “tribal tendencies,” we have a natural inclination to believe what the like-minded members of our group believe, and tend to oppose any beliefs than are incompatible with our own.
Believing is a potent mechanism that can rationalize everything that can happen because events are seen through the lens of religion which offers convincing justifications for them. “Everything happens for a reason and God has a plan for each and every one of us. When something good happens, God is rewarding us for our faith, our good works, or our love of Christ. When something bad happens, well, God works in mysterious ways.” Dr. Shermer characterizes himself as a skeptic. As he confesses in his book, “What I want to believe based on emotions and what I believe based on evidence and empirical data may not coincide. I am a skeptic not because I don’t want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true or what is actually true” (p. 2)? Dr. Shermer succumbed to skepticism after his girlfriend, Maureen, was critically injured in an auto accident and he appealed to God for her healing. “What finally tipped my belief into skepticism was the problem of evil—if God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good, then why do bad things happen to good people?” “A just and loving God who had the power to heal would surely heal Maureen. He didn’t. He didn’t. I now believe, not because God works in mysterious ways or he has a special plan for Maureen, but because there is no God” (p. 45).