Nonfiction Notes: Michael Shermer’s HOW WE BELIEVE

Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. Freeman, 2000

When I was writing up a post here about Shermer’s first book, Why People Believe Weird Things (post here), I realized Shermer in that book addressed many weird things that people believe in, but didn’t touch religion. (Many people of course have faith in the religion of their community and family, and yet naively wonder why adherents to *other* religions believe *those* weird things.) Then, looking at the list of his books in chronological order, I saw that it was because his second book, discussed here, is devoted entirely to religion. (And his fourth book, The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule from 2004, forms the third of a trilogy about beliefs.)

Still, this one isn’t quite the same as the first book, which spent time looking at logical and rhetorical fallacies (i.e. *why* people believe weird things) and more time looking at specific examples of the weird things people believe (from Edgar Cayce to creationism to Holocaust denial).

This second book exams religious beliefs in the US in broad terms, focusing on surveys and polls of belief in God, the afterlife, and so on, with considerations of Messiah myths, millennial stories, but also a focus on surveys and statistics.

It was published in 2000, so some of its examples are dated (e.g. James Van Praagh, The Bible Code). (The examples keep changing; the credulousness of believers does not.)

I’ll do a bullet-point summary, but also include my full notes, some 5000 words, because many details are worth capturing.

Take-Away Summary by Chapter:

  • Intro. Author, as editor of Skeptic magazine, explains that he isn’t concerned with any particular religious beliefs, but rather takes issue with people claim they can *prove* God, or that their religion is the only right one.
  • Ch1. Author was a born-again Christian in high school (though he had ulterior motives, i.e. a girlfriend – I suspect this kind of influence is more common than many would acknowledge. Heh.) but whose doubts about religion never went away. And so he became a skeptic, and an atheist.
  • Ch2. Author recalls the famous 1966 Time Magazine article, playing off Nietzsche, that asked “Is God Dead?” Its context was the turbulent ‘60s, and science was explaining everything. And yet, decades later, belief in God, miracles, and on, is still high.
  • Ch3. Psychology: How We Believe. Examples of psychic cold-readings, how humans are pattern-seekers, how people in the Middle Ages were superstitious about everything, how mediums like James Van Praagh used cold, warm, and hot readings to persuade audiences he is speaking to departed loved ones.
  • Ch4. More about why. Humans perceive illusions of things that are not there. Is there a God module in the brain (i.e. a congenital bias to believe, never mind evidence or experience?). Or perhaps belief if simply a meme? Author delves deeply into results of surveys about belief, of scientists (some 40% believe), of eminent scientists (far lower), and notes that belief in creationism is almost nonexistent outside the US.
    • Striking points: The survey asked why the individual believed in God, and why the individual felt *other* people believed in God. The result: people have their own belief because of the apparent complexity or design of the universe, while they believed *other* people believed mostly because it’s comforting or provides meaning in life. Another broad trend: men tend to justify belief with (supposedly) rational reasons, women with emotional reasons.
    • Author describes how belief aligns with certain personality factors.
  • Ch5, Author reviews the common arguments for the existence of God (prime mover, first cause, ontological, miracles, Pascal’s wager, and so one) and provides crisp counter-arguments. [[ These counter-arguments have been around for centuries. ]] Similarly for “scientific” arguments for God, how creationism has become “intelligent design,” and an examination in detail the flaws of popular book in the 1990s “The Bible Code.”
  • Ch6, Religion and Science coexist along three tiers: conflicting worlds [[ this would by Jerry Coyne’s position ]], same worlds (in which believers reject any science that conflicts with faith, since faith is always right), and separate worlds (as in Stephen Jay Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria).
  • Ch7, The human species’ tendency to understand everything as stories has led to myths. Author considers how myths work, how morality evolved from reciprocal altruism, and so religion evolved, perhaps through some kind of group selection among rival human communities, and how game theory explains the moral strategy of “tit for tat.” This “morality” is deeply built into the species, and has nothing to do with belief if gods.
  • Ch8 examines the eternal Messiah Myth, with examples of UFO cults, the 19th century Native American Ghost Dance, all about saviors coming to return the world to the “dreamland of youth…the golden age.” The Cargo Cults. How the Jesus story is virtually identical to that of another “messiah,” Apollonius of Ryana, killed in AD 98. How such myths are the result of how there are a limited number of responses to perceived oppression and hardships; how history is a series of generally repeating patterns.
  • Ch9, Millennial beliefs about the end of the world, in 1000 or 2000, often appear among the oppressed or marginalized. Or perhaps out of a feeling of a need for justice [[ the “just-world” fallacy ]].
  • Ch10, (switching gears), about how various scientists have regarded the immensity of the universe and whether or not humanity has a special place in it. Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life in 1989 argued that evolution is so random, humans might never have evolved, were evolution to be rerun; others have disagreed. It’s a debate about what contingency and necessity mean. Author sides with Gould, to a degree, in that release from inevitability provides a kind of freedom, and responsibility.

Full Summary [[ with Comments ]]

Preface: The God Question: A Moral Dilemma for Dr. Laura

Author describes how readers of Skeptic wondered why Dr. Laura Schlessinger (a radio talk host) was the magazine’s board of advisors. His answer is basically that he’s not concerned with anyone particular religious beliefs; rather, Skeptic addresses problems when people claim they can *prove* God, or that their religion is the right one. The issue went away when Dr Laura resigned, insisting that science can’t address such questions.

He goes on to repeat his stance, and then to outline the book.

Part I: God and Belief

Ch1: Do You Believe in God?: The Difference in Our Answers and the Difference it Makes.

Author describes how as a high school senior he accepted Jesus as his savior and became a born-again Christian… though perhaps he had ulterior motives (a girlfriend). In college in read Hal Lindsey (an evangelist who predicted that the Rapture would occur in the 1980s; it didn’t). He enrolled in Pepperdine. Yet certain doubts never went away. He talked with a Presbyterian minister, and a professor about the problem of evil. He found no answer to this that seems satisfactory. Explanations were word parsing at best. He describes fallacies in Lindsey.

He goes on to describe how certain topics are “insoluble.” Recalling Huxley’s term agnostic, and the term atheism. Those who say the God question is the wrong question, in that it assumes a kind of answer aside from what people “believe.”

And describes Abbott’s Flatland, and how trying to understand God is like a 2D being trying to understand the 3rd dimension.

Why is belief in God so high? What does it mean to say it’s based on “faith”?

[[ But saying you believe just because have you “faith”, as if that answers anything, is a simplistic ploy, an escape from any obligation to justify your belief. It doesn’t answer, Why this and not that? ]]

Ch2, Is God Dead?: Why Nietzsche and Time Magazine Were Wrong

Recall lines from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra; has the holy old man not heard that God is dead?

In 1966 Time Magazine famously ran an article with the cover headline: Is God Dead? The thought was partly a symptom of the turbulent ‘60s, with assassination, campus rebellions, drugs, the Vietnam War. Other symptoms: Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, in which imminent doom didn’t stop people from living their ordinary lives; John Lennon’s song “Imagine”; Clarke’s novel and film 2001. The gist of the article was that religion was no longer needed as an explanation for the world. [[ My response to the question: how would you tell? Whether God was alive or dead, that is. ]]

So, has God disappeared? No, polls still show a high rates of belief in god, p21, and in miracles, heaven, angels, and so on. [[ My take is that it’s default to believe in things people around you believe; most people don’t think about it independently. If they did… ]]

However some people have non-traditional notions of what “god” means, e.g. the universe, their own private god, etc.

Why has religion not disappeared? Its diminution has been anticipated since the early 20th century. Two ideas: competition among religious made them try hard to attract adherents; and the inescapable facts of death, and hope. So church attendance is still high. Some people attribute belief to near-death experiences (NDEs). Thus the belief in miracles. Thus the Promise Keepers, a group of men who pledge various religious promises (and who are/were anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-feminist, and anti-science). Thus the prevalence of TV shows and bestselling books on religious themes.

Perhaps, recalling how the in the Bible becomes less and less on-stage, it’s about the search for “God’s hidden face.”

At the same time the rise of popular science books, by Sagan and Hawking, reflects a similar yearning for “myth” or some higher purpose as religion. Example of how Hawking was venerated at a Caltech appearance. These scientists ask the same big questions that religion thinks it has the answers to.

Ch3, The Belief Engine: How We Believe

Author tells example of an Indian guru’s radio appearance, in which callers asked for predictions about their lives, and got remarkably on-target answers! In fact, the guru was the author, using a phony name, doing “cold-readings” based on the questions callers asked, and knowing that there is a small number of issues most people are concerned about.

Humans are pattern-seeking animals; we see images of the Virgin Mary in a window reflection, for example. (Photo p35). Other familiar examples. Polls show high belief in astrology and similar matters. Are we hard-wired to think magically? The brain has evolved over 3 million years. Pinker has suggested “modules” in the brain for specific purposes; others think the mind is more general-purpose.

Human pattern-seeking entails Type 1 and Type 2 errors: the former believing a falsehood, the latter rejecting a truth. Similar there are Type 1 and 2 hits. The process of forming beliefs may come from natural selection, or may be a spandrel result of something else. Author discusses three anthropological examples of primitive human cultures. The evidence shows that such primitives believe many things (and often form rituals around them), some true and some imagined. How they apply these depends on their environment.

[[ This issue is my generalization that it doesn’t matter whether most people understand the extent of workings of the universe; they can believe all sorts of superstitions and still get on with the day to day lives. Being wrong about many things doesn’t matter. ]]

In the Middle Ages most people were illiterate and held numerous superstitions; there were plagues etc.; most believed in astrology, with only religion being a more powerful alternative. Things changed by the end of the 17th century (p45t) with developments in science, with city planning and sanitation, with the beginnings of medicine.

In modern times we understand that this belief engine is part of human nature, and will not be escaped from. (Examples recall Hutson.)

Prominent example: the medium James Van Praagh, who presumes to speak to the departed loved ones of people who come to his performances. Author spent some time watching him. The attraction to him, even though he’s wrong most of the time, is like that of gambling: it only takes a few hits to convince many people to play (pay). He illustrates the standard techniques of cold, warm, and hot readings (where the last is cheating, obtaining knowledge of a person beforehand). Author wonders if JVP is self-deceiving, or if he knows exactly what he’s doing. People ask what is the harm? Author responded to a person who asked, and his published answer got a condemnation from JVP himself. Author now responds with what a true comforting response to someone who’s lost a parent should be.

[[ And yet here in 2021 the trend in conventional religious belief *is* downward, with the rise of the “nones,” though I suspect it reflects movement away from traditional churches and not vague ideas about belief and spirituality. ]]

Ch4, Why People Believe in God: Empirical study on a deep question.

Author discusses the Extropians, a loose organization of people devoted to various futuristic potentials, like life extension, machine intelligence, artificial life, etc etc., and calls them quasi-religious. Author cites Nicholas Humphrey (Leaps of Faith, (US 1996) which I read back when published) about the need to believe in something higher.

Examples of patterns in nature that suggest things that aren’t there; the square illusion on p62.

Is belief in God genetically programmed? Twin studies show there is a strong correlation, but only for about half. Environmental factors are equally important.

Is there a God module in the brain? A 1997 paper suggested a neuroscientific basis for belief, how magnetic fields generated by earthquakes could trigger mystical experiences, even OBEs. (Author himself tried it in an experiment.)

Or is God a meme? Discussion of Dawkins, Lynch, Blackmore, noting how they seem especially hostile to the god meme, but not memes for other things.

So the author and others conducted surveys, first of scientists, finding that a remarkable 40% expressed belief in god. Yet, considering just “eminent” scientists, belief was far lower. (How the sample is selected makes a big difference.) Belief is lower in other countries; creationism almost nonexistent outside the US.

Then a survey of members of the Skeptics Society, p74, where again a significant minority expressed belief. A general survey followed. People in the survey were also asked what their primary reasons for believing were, and what they thought were the primary reasons of others.

–Remarkable finding: in both groups, people have their own belief mostly because of the apparent design or complexity of the universe, while *other* people believed most because it’s comforting or provides meaning in life.

Other analysis showed additional trends: belief declines with age; liberals are less likely to believe; there’s a high correlation with “piety” with a variety of other tendencies, p81.7: authoritarianism, dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, etc.

Author goes on about the five factors of personality:

  • Openness to experience
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Neuroticism

(These are similar to, but not quite the same as, Haidt’s five or six “moral sentiments”)

And how these relate to religious belief. E.g. the higher ranking of openness was associated with lower levels of belief. Just as people who are more conventional (not open to new experiences) are, almost by definition, more likely to be firm believers.

Another broad trend: men tended to justify their belief with rational reasons, women with emotional reasons, 83.8.

Why the differences in what people say and what they think other people believe? Perhaps what’s called intellectual attribution bias, p85.

Examples of comments from the surveys. [[ all very naïve ]].

And citation of the famous comment in Edward Gibbon’s decline and fall, about Rome: beliefs “were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; by the magistrate as equally useful.”

Ch5, O Ye Of Little Faith: Proofs of God and What They Tell Us About Faith

Author recalls a debate about the existence of God (at a church not far from where I lived in the ’90s, in Chatsworth), where his opponent laid out what he thought were various “proofs” of God and the audience expected author to refute them point by point. Author said none of those are proofs; at best they’re “reasons to believe” having already made a commitment by faith. [[ This seems similar to the allow vs. must reasoning when people confront evidence for or against something they want to believe. ]]

So do any of these claims prove God’s existence? No. Author then describes the various philosophical arguments for God and provides counterarguments.

  1. Prime Mover Argument. These first few go back to Aquinas. Basic counterargument: then what moved God?
  2. First Cause Argument. Counter: again, what caused God?
  3. Possibility and Necessity Argument. Counter: why is the universe necessary?
  4. Perfection/Ontological Argument. Counter: word play. Why not suppose there is something the worst, and therefore…
  5. Design/Teleological Argument. Counter: In fact, nature is not as ‘designed’ as believers think.
  6. Miracles Argument. Counter: a miracle is just a name for something we can’t (for now) explain.
  7. Pascal’s Wager Argument. Counter: it doesn’t prove anything, and the ‘nothing to lose’ part simply isn’t true
  8. Mystical Experience Argument. Counter: they are easily explained by brain psychology.
  9. Fideism Argument. That is, to believe because it is consoling. (This is what Martin Gardner claimed.) Counter: it doesn’t prove anything.
  10. Moral Argument. Counter: so if there was no God, you would murder and cheat and steal? Either way the argument is over.

[[ My rebuttal to Pascal’s Wager is that he thinks there are only two possibilities. Given different conceptions of god, and claims about various messiahs throughout history, there are hundreds or thousands of possibilities. ]]

[[ And the moral argument is easily refuted a couple ways. First, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t believe in (the conventional, Christian) god, and they do not in fact run around murdering and stealing. Second, the reason people are ‘moral’ most of the time, is that a core morality (a nice term from Alex Rosenberg) has evolved in humanity as part of its socialization, as a necessity for cooperating in large groups. Religious tenets reflect this core morality, which came first. ]]

Scientific arguments for God. Recent discoveries in cosmology have been claimed as evidence for a creator. Of course these arguments start with, rather than conclude with, belief in God (i.e. motivated reasoning). Scientists themselves are not so simplistic. Author goes through examples:

  1. Stephen Hawking. His unfortunate line about “knowing the mind of God” (at the end of A Brief History of Time) was metaphorical, yet believers love to take it literally. In fact, Hawking proposed a no-boundary model of the universe, with no beginning or no end, analogous to how on the Earth, once at the north pole, there’s nowhere further north. So it is with time.
  2. Paul Davies. His conclusion was that belief in God was a matter of taste, and has no explanatory value.
  3. Frank Tipler. His bizarre theory about the Omega Point and the eventual resurrection of all mankind has little support.
  4. Samples of what others, David Deutsch and Lee Smolin, have written.

The New Creationism. These are arguments against evolution in favor of an ‘intelligent designer’ who would of course be God. A popular example of Behe’s “irreducible complexity” is the eye. But this is a simplistic fallacy. Four reasons: it’s not true that removing any function of the eye would render it useless [[ and how many of us wear eyeglasses! So much for godlike design ]]; the eye has been shown to have evolved from simple eyespots sensitive to light to more advanced forms; there are many example of unintelligent ‘design’ e.g. the actual anatomy of the human eye; and language used in such arguments employs bait-and-switch logic and how various terms are used.

Furthermore these are arguments from ignorance: e.g. if science can’t explain everything, therefore God. These are ‘god of the gaps’ arguments, where whatever is currently not understood is taken as evidence of the divine.

The Bible Code. A classic example of the misapplication of science. This appeared in a 1997 book by Michael Drosnin that got much publicity. The flaws of its approach are easily shown: the supposed patterns depend on the layout of the pages; missing vowels can be presume to be whatever the researcher wants; and it can be falsified, e.g. by showing how other patterns can be found in, say, Moby Dick. And of course, the Bible is a concoction of texts written by different people. Also, Drosnin’s book was translated from the Hebrew and so claims are partly based on mistranslations. Finally, do the supposed prophecies of these codes mean human actions are predetermined and can’t be changed? (Not to mention that the prediction of the end of the world in 2000 or 2006 did not occur.)

The real meaning of arguments for god: believers want to take scientific credit for what they believe by faith. It doesn’t work that way; the scientific claims don’t work. Science and religion use different methodologies.

Part II: Religion and Science

Ch6, In a Mirror Dimly, Then Face to Face: Faith, Reason, and the Relationship of Religion and Science

Science changes very fast compared to religion. Thus how long it took the Church to acknowledge Galileo, and even evolution, Pope John Paul II was relatively liberal along these lines, writing in 1996 about acceptance of evolution, with the rationale that evolution produces the human body, while God provides the soul.

There is a three-tiered model of religion and science. First, the Conflicting Worlds Model, in which science and religion are at war with each other. [[ This is Jerry Coyne’s position. ]] Second, the Same-worlds Model, in which religion and science are two ways of examining the same reality, and that they therefore must agree—which is taken by believers to reject any science that doesn’t agree with their faith. (Example p132, claims that the Bible proves science, and science can’t support the “false religions” of atheism, evolutionism, pantheism, humanism, etc.) Finally there’s the Separate-Worlds Model, popularized by Stephen Jay Gould, who considered science and religion to be “nonoverlapping magisteria.” Michael Ruse agrees. Recall that there are two primary purposes of religion and belief in God: to explain the world and its origin; and as a guide to human life and morality. And so we can take science as explaining the world, and religion as a guide to life, with neither impinging on the other. Author seems to agree.

P135, Fides et Ratio. John Paul II followed in 1998 with an encyclical about faith and reason being complementary and both necessary). But his reasoning was circular, even contradictory.

P138, Moral Courage and Nobility of Spirit. Author describes being on a tour of black Baptist churches in the south, and witnessing various religious service rituals. Hard not to be impressed. Thus author supposes that religion will never die away, and quotes EO Wilson on the same point. Skeptics and scientists will never have much effect on believers.

Ch7, The Storytelling Animal: Myth, Morality, and the Evolution of Religion

Author recalls seeing Madonna on TV talking about what the death of Princess Diana meant. Of course it didn’t “mean” anything, but humans prefer an interesting story to dry statistics. Michael Gazzaniga called this brain mechanism an ‘interpreter.’ Why did it evolve?

The convergence of evidence is that humans evolved, and we can understand the reasons that, say, fruit tastes good. Evolutionary biology has been supplemented by ethnology and then by evolutionary psychology. Wilson quote about epigenetic rules, how gene-culture evolution works in tandem.

From pattern-seeking to storytelling. Example of a lawyer whose success was telling stories. Misia Landau claims stories even create our realities, e.g. creation stories.

From storytelling to mythmaking. Urban legends are prime examples. They serve to represent dangers in the world. Science fiction like Star Trek is an example of a modern myth.. Joseph Campbell on the range of what mythology does. They have four functions: mystical, explanatory, normative (to validate the moral order), and guidance (through the stages of a useful life).

There are plenty of types of myths, from political myths, to psycho social myths, descriptive myths of future states of the world, and so on. We can understand how different myths arise, e.g. involving snakes, how dragons came to be, and werewolves. P156 long Wilson quote.

From mythmaking to morality. Classic myth of Beowulf, how it reflects the values of its time, how communities only grow to a couple hundred people before splitting, reflected in how we only know well about 150 people, p160.

Perhaps limited by our brain power. Morality evolved from reciprocal altruism within these groups, in a way that wouldn’t work in big cities where everyone is unknown to you. You learn who to trust by telling stories, i.e. gossip. The word derives from ‘akin or related.’ We gossip especially about family and our social group. Why then about celebrities? Because we hear so much about them they seem like relatives.

From morality to religion, p162. And so religion evolved … to promote myths, encourage altruism, and enhance cooperation among members of a community (longer phrase 162t). Long before governments or constitutions. How did it evolve? Dawkins’ selfish gene model accounts for altruism and cooperation among families. Religion, and morality, evolved where individual competed and cooperated with one another, as individuals formed families, communities, societies. Chart of Bio-Cultural Pyramid:×547.png. The family endures; it’s not about to go away (conservatives). Width of pyramid indicates strength of ethical sentiment. 164b.

There is also research suggesting a role of group selection, 165t. Despite the controversy, e.g. Dawkins and others. Yet analysis shows natural selection can operate at more than one level of a biological hierarchy, 165b. Part of the debate is how terms are defined and how we tend to think in either-or terms. Fuzzy logic might help. Then we get into game theory: the prisoner’s dilemma, and the strategy of tit for tat. This is reciprocal altruism. And so ‘morality’ may just be the consistent application of these strategies. So religion is a way to prove loyalty and commitment to the group, 167.5 – trust. [[ exactly what I’ve preciously concluded ]] It’s difficult being a cheat for long. Repeated behavior even leads us to think our actions really are moral, our clan really is special.

So, contra those who think without god there’s no basis for morality, there is an epigenetic rule underlying religion and morality that precedes the social contracts of the Enlightenment. Thus nationalism, each side citing religion against the other side.

From religion to god. There have been so many reasons given for why people need religion and believe in God. Examples. Author summarizes his biocultural theory of religion 169m, with evidence from various branches of science. But this doesn’t explain the particulars of any given religion. But key to all this is God, as the explanation for everything. “People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling, mythmaking, religious, moral animals.”

[[ p162 is this consistent with my conclusion about the use of religion? Check, and revise to make sure these points are covered ]]

Ch8, God and Ghost Dance: The Eternal Return of the Messiah Myth

Author tells about being on black radio station in LA, the token skeptic on a show about UFOs. On one occasion there were many phone-in callers who believed in a messianic “mothership” circling earth that would release hundreds of smaller ships, in 1999, to invade human cities. They’d been told this by Minister Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam. Reagan and Gorbachev knew about it, of course. The ships would replace “white government” by a black man. How could Farrakhan believe this nonsense?

It occurred to author that this was the equivalent of the 19th century Native American Ghost Dance, to displace the white and place Indians in charge. And there are many such myths about saviors or messiahs who would free the oppressed. The messiah myth. The radio host insisted he believed in the Ghost Dance. The myths are similar enough.

In 1889 there was a total eclipse of the sun across North America. The Ghost Dance movement began in 1970, following drought and epidemic. But the buffalo were killed, the movement faded, the US government tried to absorb the Indians. (pages of history) Wovoka became a Christlike figure, had a vision during the eclipse. The new religion spread among many tribes. Whites got alarmed about Indian rebellion. The battle at Wounded Knee.

The Eternal Return of the Ghost Dance. It’s about “the world’s dreamland of youth …the golden age” and a redeemer to take them there. [[ just like Maga and Trump. ]] There are examples from around the world. The Xhosa. The Maori. Siberia.

Cargo Cult Ghost Dance. The cargo cults of the South Pacific began centuries ago as visits, in ships and later airplanes, came from white men. John Frum in Melanesia.

Jesus as Messiah Myth. Jesus as messiah, p186, just like a similar case about Apollonius of Ryana, killed in AD 98, p186b. Jesus’ theology was unique, p187: the idea of kingdom; that anyone was fit for this kingdom; that it should involve a mix of people. Did he think he was the messiah? Writers of the Bible said he did. 2000 years later a billion people think he’s due to return any moment. Long example from 1997, p188ff, about 8 of 167 “converging clues”. Earlier in 1997 a millennial cult, Heaven’s Gate, some 40 members committed suicide, to attain the “evolutionary level above humans”.

Why the myth matters. These events are similar perhaps because there are a limited number of responses to perceived oppression and hardships. History is a series of generally repeating patterns: wars, genocides, social movements all recycle throughout history with remarkable periodicity. The specifics vary, but there are a limited number of general rules to channel events.

[[ These examples are very good insofar as they show that the Christian messiah was just one of many, that still recur. ]]

[[ And now the US has had its Trump and MAGA movement. Another cult-like messiah who will save America from those elites who would oppress the ‘real’ Americans. ]]

Ch9, The Fire That Will Cleanse: Millennial meanings and the end of the world

Author recalls the stock market crash of October 1997—seemed like the end of the world. But it quickly bounced. For many signs of the end of the world are biblical. In 1980 there was a sect in Montana expecting nuclear holocaust, in which a third of earth’s population would die and this sect would return in 2000 to repopulate the world. How did its leader know this? He had a vision in prison.

Common end-times imagery in art and poetry. And pop songs. And film. What can we learn about how such phenomena developed in 1000, and what to expect in 2000?

A millennium is 1000 years. There are two types of apocalyptic scenarios: religious, and secular. Both follow destruction by redemption. These resonate with humans who see time passing and know the inevitability of death. Including the sun’s, and the universe’s.

The Book of Revelation: Lakes of fire. How will we know when we are nearing it? War, natural disasters. But these things happen all the time. Reagan in 1971 foretold the end. There are different versions of the end-times, e.g. whether Jesus will return first, or not. Or whether a better world must be established first. Examples with Hal Lindsey and Elizabeth Claire Prophet. [[ And everyone always thinks it’s about to happen in *their* generation because they suppose *themselves* to be special. ]] Some thought the world would end in 6000 years, because Bible. Similar timelines in Jewish tradition, from Augustine, from Martin Luther. Even Christopher Columbus. Many of these are based on datings of events of the Bible. Bishop Ussher, 4004 BC. That would imply the end of the world in 1996. Or maybe 1997, since there was no year 0.

When prophecy fails—AD 1000. We don’t know a lot, because Dark Ages; but in recent centuries it’s been imagined people then were hysterical. But there’s little evidence that was so. And evidence shows anticipations of apocalypse in other years, for various reasons.

When prophecy fails—AD 2000. We can make some predictions. We know how cults react when their predictions fail: they go on, revising their predictions. Recall Festinger and his idea of cognitive dissonance, and the kinds of rationalizations they make, p202b. Recall the Great Disappointment of 1843, which later inspired the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses, lots of failed prophecies. A more recent one in 1998, God’s Salvation Church. Jamestown put a positive spin on committing suicide. Then the Branch Davidians, led by David Koresh, who predicted “the fire that will cleanse.” They all failed.

The Lure of the Millennium. It’s not just cultists; a 1997 poll found that 66% of Americans think Jesus will return someday. What’s the appeal? Two reasons. First, we see patterns that aren’t there. We find patterns in present day events that recall famous episodes of history. Second, we tell stories about the those patterns. Together these two make for dramatic millennium stories.

Another inclination is the beautiful people myth, about beautiful people who lived in harmony with nature, etc. Until European white males showed up and ruined everything. And so there’s the dream of returning to that golden past. The Greeks recalled the Age of God. The Jews and Christians, before the fall in the Garden. Medieval scholars, the days of Moses and the prophets. Even Newt Gingrich had his version.

There are ideas of heaven on earth in numerous books of the Bible. E.g. Isaiah.

Secular heavens: there are similar ideas, e.g about living in harmony with the environment. Or notions of capitalism and communism. Francis Fukuyama. Ayn Rand. The end of patriarchy. Or how paleolithic hunting gave way to Neolithic farming.

Holding the center: how to explain such diverse yet similar ideas? It’s not always about being oppressed or marginalized. Millions of white Christians are not. Perhaps it has to do with the need for justice. [[ The “just-world” fallacy ]] The feeling one is a part of a deep, unfolding plan.

Ch10, Glorious Contingency: Gould’s Dangerous Idea and the Search for Meaning in an Age of Science

Carl Sagan spoke of the immensity of the universe and how thinking humanity has a special place in it is pathetic. P215. Steven Weinberg said something similar (“…seems pointless”). Is our existence a necessity? Or a contingency? Most scientists think the latter, contradicting all the religions. Is there a middle ground? Without a god and a designer, rewinding the tape of life and we would not be here. But contingency can be both liberating and empowering.

If the tape were played twice. Author recalls studying the postmodern, deconstruction movement, and because of it abandoning philosophy. Then he read Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. Gould contrasted the Burgess shale fossils and how if the tape were replayed humans would likely never have evolved. The butterfly effect illustrates this. Others reacted: Stuart Kauffman, Cohen and Stewart, Kevin Kelly, Dennett. Some thought many things would repeat; e.g. from principles of self-organization.

The mismeasure of contingency. The criticisms were often misunderstandings of what contingency means: not random or chance. Nor does contingency preclude necessity. Examples of Cohen and Stewart, p218. Similarly Dennett: contingency does not mean chance. There is also incumbency, or path dependency, e.g. how the QWERTY keyboard has survived. Thus Gould’s principle: the pathways of history guarantee that organisms etc cannot be designed optimally.

The problem of emphasis. Gould sometimes equivocates by changing emphasis. Dennett speaks of skyhooks and cranes.

Contingent-Necessity. These issues speak to free will and determinism, fate and destiny, our place in the cosmos. There are general rules about some things but not others. Hempel: there are not general laws of history.

Author cites the model of contingent necessity, p225.3. There are six corollaries. Chaos reigns early. Order reigns late. It’s easier to look back and reconstruct, than to say what will happen next. Historical pathways are cut gradually and deeply. When historical pathways change, they do so quickly and only when unbalanced. And, historical channels are driven by forces within and without. p226.

And so on; gets a little thick. These principles underlay chaos theory as well.

Glorious contingency: a little twig called homo sapiens, p228. Note Gould responding to Shermer’s model (where did that model first appear?). So, would homo sapiens appear if evolution were rerun? Likely not; there are too many contingent steps along the way. Is the cosmos contingent? No one knows. Certainly earth-like planets would likely appear after a new Big Bang. And we do know that many different primate species have lived over the past 10 and 30 million years. Yet why did only a few survive? Why did only one become intelligent as us? [[ Harari would say that we killed them off. ]] Perhaps then we are a fluke, a ‘glorious contingency.’

The full impact.. p231. Yet some scientists still perceive that humans are inevitable, that evolution ‘moves’ in our direction. Dyson, Tipler. But this is wrong. Gould’s Full House discusses the Genesis myth, the idea that things were better in the old days, in trends like baseball; but the opposite is more true, e.g. that all players are better now so no one stands out as much. This is a bias of thinking, to reduce a broad spectrum of events to a single essence. Change, like evolution, is the result of the whole system expanding, not a march ‘toward’ something.

Contingency and freedom, 233. What this means for human freedom: “action taken with an ignorance of causes within a conjunction of events, that compels and is compelled to a certain course of action by constraining prior conditions.”

It’s a wonderful life. How the movie illustrates Gould’s point. [[ One could apply this to sf alternate history stories in general. ]] So we never know which actions will matter or not, we might as well assume the former.

Finding meaning… 236. Thus setting religion aside doesn’t imply a meaningless universe; it provides a sense of freedom and responsibility. The universe takes on new meaning when you know it was not foreordained, not designed, p237t. examples of Hubble galaxies, a cathedral, Machu Picchu.

Appendix 1, How scientists study religion scientifically. It’s easy to make guesses and find supporting data, e.g. Marxist interpretations of history, even of evolution, which have been shown to be wrong (many factors, not just social class, influence events). [[ such Marxist research we would recognize now as motivated reasoning. ]] Thus scientists proceed statistically, looking for significant correlations. Example in Chapter 4. The p value, and so on. [[ Dennett defense of studying religion was 2006. ]]

Appendix II, data and statistics, behind the survey in chapter 4.

Then p256, a bibliographic essay (sources used or recommended)

[[ Passing thought: the deepness of our understanding of reality is inverse to the number of people aware of it; the beliefs people hold are as shallow as they are widespread. ]]

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