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Why Do We Believe? Part 2

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Believing in God/religion continues to survive despite steady improvement in human intelligence and the incessant challenges to faith presented by science and its unaccommodating new discoveries. Contributing to the kinds of things we believe in are factors such as the environment in which we live, family and peer pressure, culture, and life experiences. It seems that believing in God and consequent adherence to a religion is your choice by default. No matter where you live, you have to identify yourself by the type of religion you are born into. It is very unfashionable to resist religious beliefs that have been guiding and practically controlling almost every aspect of people's lives for so long, especially people who live in a deprived society. Dr. Michael Shermer writes in his book The Believing Brain that "the majority of our most deeply held beliefs are immune to attack by direct educational tools, especially for those who are not ready to hear the contradictory evidence" (p. 4). Religious beliefs are so deeply ingrained in the doctrinaire minds of so many people who have held onto them as God-given institutions that it is almost impossible to question or criticize the reasonableness of their elements, let alone rid ourselves of them. Thus, patronizing and acquiescing to the group mentality is a politically correct strategy that shields non-believers from being ostracized.

While Dr. Shermer believes that the "God question is insolvable" and both religious scholars and scientists hit epistemological barriers when it comes to this question, he also believes that he has "built a strong case [throughout his book] that belief in a supernormal agent with intention [God] is hardwired in our brain, and that the agent as God was created by humans and not vice versa." In recent decades, science and technology have revolutionized our world and have unraveled so many mysteries previously believed to be the work of a supernatural being. Most of such discoveries have happened during the last few hundred years of human history. With such swift advancement in scientific explorations, imagine the possibility that in the not too distant future we or extraterrestrial beings, who already may be ahead of us by millions years, could create a universe. "What would we call an intelligent being capable of engineering life, planets, stars, and even a universe? If we know the underlying science and technology used to do the engineering, we would call it an extraterrestrial intelligence; if we did not know the underlying science and technology, we would call it God." [P. 180] So believing in God is the progeny of our inability to explain the unexplainable; but "the fact that we cannot fully explain a mystery with natural means does not mean it requires a supernatural explanation." In other words, while belief in the supernatural is due to our inability to explain some phenomena, it does not mean that a supernatural power really exists. "Four hundred years ago the paranormal included what in large part is science now. That is the fate of the paranormal--it becomes science, it becomes normal. Or, it simply disappears under the scrutiny of the scientific method" (p. 93). Shermer contends that it is most conceivable that progress in science will explain even more things we once considered miracles or the work of God.

Over the past few centuries, scientific discoveries have offered alternative explanations of unsettled phenomena superior to those found in religious scriptures. As stated by Shermer: "The universe really did begin with a big bang, the earth is really billions of years old, and evolution really happened, and someone's belief to the contrary really is wrong" (p. 7). Likewise, as economic prosperity strengthens, the level of income surges, and the standard of living becomes the focus of our attention, demand for religion will grow weaker as the opportunity cost of believing rises. Unquestionably, with the passage of time, science will gain higher legitimacy, but we need to be patient with science. "The problem we face is that superstitions and belief in magic [and miracles] are millions of years old whereas science, with its method of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives [do not believe in God but God really exists], is only a few hundred years old. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; science requires training" (p. 63). Shermer poses a number of questions. Given the phenomenal progress of human brainpower and universalization of moral values, do we really need God, or his self-proclaimed representatives on earth, to tell us what is wrong and what is right? Shouldn't moral principles be sound per se and external to God? Certainly, we are not born or predisposed to steal, lie, break a promise, demonize or kill other people, or commit other heinous acts. Do we really need God to tell us that such deeds are wrong?  

Promoting superstitions and imposing rigorous rituals have benefited the religious rulers in many countries by enabling them to patronize diehard extremism and thus winnow loyal believers from believers in name only. Those who truly believe in the often nonsensical rules will do whatever the clergy tell them to do, including sacrificing their lives for the sake of their beliefs. Although there are many people who fake devotion, there are just as many who really follow those strict codes fanatically and will likely to do whatever they are told to do, even to the point of killing innocent people and disrespecting the rights of others for the sake of their beliefs. Regrettably, to this day, some people still exploit God by whimsically punishing and killing other people if they do not agree with them or refuse to comply with their arbitrary rules.

Shermer advances his argument. Even if God exists, why should he be worried about us not believing in him? Why would belief matter at all, unless God was more like the Greek and Roman gods who competed with one another for human affection and worship and were filled with such human emotions such as jealousy (p. 54) Shouldn't the all-knowing, all-merciful God be more concerned about how we morally and ethically conduct ourselves in this world instead of how intensely we worship him? Regardless of a punishment and reward scheme, h uman fascination with God has survived since the dawn of hunter-gatherer societies, despite scientific discoveries that question the existence of God. People continue to believe in God whether they can prove his existence or not.

Throughout his book, Shermer sticks to his central motif that our mind is like a sophisticated machine that is designed to detect patterns and assign agents to them, leading us to believe they are genuine. However, it is mainly because of a change in the chemical activity in our brain that we not only accept them as true, but also think that understanding them is beyond our comprehension and thus resort to superstitions to explain them. Shermer explains how the increase in dopamine reinforces our brain's pattern-detection ability and even generates hallucination. "Too much of it and you are likely to make lots of Type I errors--false positives--in which you find connections that are not really there. Too little and you make Type II errors--false negatives--in which you miss connections that are real" (p. 121).

Religious beliefs are reinforced by creating distinctiveness. Just as business firms create a brand name and popularize it to muster loyalty, so do religions. For example, Shia (one of the two main branches of Islam) instructs followers to believe earnestly that Imam Ali, whom they believe is the first successor to the Prophet Mohammad, was so special that he was born inside Kaaba, the holiest place to Muslims. His pregnant mother was circling around Kaaba when a wall was opened by the order of God so she could enter and give birth to Ali. As inspiring and reassuring such stories are, we don't have any scientific proof for them. The inability to provide valid evidence for religious stories leaves believers no choice but to invoke miracles and supernormal powers to explain them. "Can anyone actually levitate, turn invisible, walk through walls, or view hidden objects remotely?" Obviously not, Dr. Shermer asserts. Indeed, many stories considered to be miraculous by believers, such as the resurrection of a dead person after brief lifelessness, may in fact have a logical explanation in medical science. Even if not, "The fact that we cannot explain every cancerous tumor that has gone into remission does not mean that miraculous supernatural forces occasionally eliminate cancer. It just means that modern science has yet to catch up with the wonders and mysteries of the human body" (p. 162).

On the matter of an afterlife, Dr. Shermer sums up his opinion as follows: "Is scientific monism [unity of the physical body with the soul] in conflict with religious dualism? Yes, it is. Either the soul survives death or it does not, and there is no scientific evidence that it does or ever will." Science does not support this dualism. In chapter 8 of his book, Dr. Shermer explains how belief in God is built into our brain, supporting the pioneering work of Dr. Dean Hamer presented in his book The God Gene . Shermer explains the difference between believing in God and believing in the kind of religion you are devoted to. The latter is the product of cultural factors, "but the belief in a supernatural agent who operates in the world as an indispensible part of a social group is universal to all cultures because it is hardwired in our brain" (p. 168). Research by genetic scientists supports the fact that it is the changes in our brain chemistry that control the degree of our spiritual belief. More specifically, "dopamine is involved in this belief, as in so many beliefs, thus supporting his [Hamer's] book's thesis that there is a belief engine in the brain associated with specific areas that generate and evaluate beliefs across a wide variety of contexts" (p. 172).

Dr. Shermer tries to present evidence in support of his claim that "humans created God not vice versa." Over the past 10,000 years, we have created nearly 10,000 religions and 1,000 gods. He asks: "even within the three great Abrahamic religions, who can say which one is right?" The fact is all these religions share so many similarities that create suspicion they may be manmade. Shermer points out that flood myths show similar cultural influences, virgin birth myths likewise have sprung up throughout time and geography, resurrection myths are no less culturally constructed, and the Abrahamic religions all share these stories. They are gripping and perpetual, and "the propensity to tell such stories is hardwired into our brains."

While we cannot prove the existence of God, we cannot disprove the gods of the major religions either. However, our inability to disprove these gods in no way makes them legitimate objects of belief, "let alone worship." Shermer argues, nonetheless, that the burden of proof concerning the existence of God rests with those who make such a claim. He keeps reiterating that "God and religion are human and social constructions based on research from psychology, anthropology, history, comparative theology, and sociology." Obviously, religions cannot provide concrete evidence for the existence of God; if they could, they should have come up with it by now given the fact that they have been challenged by science and non-believers for thousands of years. The best hope, he writes, rests with science, which is relatively new. Dr. Shermer believes that those who believe in God are either afraid to challenge his existence or have "their skepticism reduced enough to allow their minds to connect to such a [paranormal] source."

Shermer maintains that his skeptical outlook gives us a better and a more meaningful prospect for our life in this word. If this world is the trial stage for the next world, as religions tell us, then we are all just props making preparations for afterlife deliverance. So, how you live in this world becomes irrelevant. You should just strive to build a God-accepting report card for afterlife salvation. Your beliefs then become a set of self-serving tools that merely serve to achieve that purpose for you. If you consider your worldly life as preparation for the next, why should you pay attention to anything else, including your economic success and the welfare of others? Conversely, if this world is the only thing there is, we become more concerned with our life and our betterment. We are no longer an inmate of the worldly prison, waiting for the jail sentence to end so we can enter the eternal life of tomorrow. We are here and now a part of this world and a "valued essence" that is here to excel and live for now, not for an uncertain afterworld. "We create our provisional purpose," not a bunch of clergy who may have no scientific world vision. "Awareness of this reality elevates us to a higher plane of humanity and humility, as we course through life together in this limited time and space--a momentary proscenium in the drama of the cosmos" (p. 163).

 

Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
 

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yet I have only heard one person define the word i... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Aug 15, 2011 at 11:27:42 AM
First, interesting, if the belief in God is "genet... by BFalcon on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 4:12:10 AM
The author's enthusiasm for what you call scientif... by Peter Duveen on Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011 at 11:01:29 AM