In an era of rising fundamentalism, good, clear, rational thinking is becoming increasingly hard to find. All the more reason to fight for the skeptics in our midst, whether they be political, ideological, theological or all-purpose. Surely, Dr. Michael Shermer is among the grandest of these: founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, director of the Skeptics Society, host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at Caltech and a contributing editor of and monthly columnist for Scientific American. Shermer is the skeptic’s skeptic. We spoke by telephone with the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Denying History, The Borderlands of Science, How We Believe, and Science Friction on topics ranging from superstition to the state of skepticism in America.
conduit: Regarding those who can’t take uncertainty, do you think there’s almost something hot-wired into the brain, a kind of human instinct for belief?
dr. michael shermer: A God module? Yeah, there’s a field called neurotheology, where these guys do functional MRIs, scans of the brain, while people are meditating or praying or chanting or whatever. Their research seems to indicate there’s something to what you say. Personally, I think the brain is hot-wired for a number of things, one of which is searching for causal explanations—and one of the causal explanations that people seem only too willing to offer is this sort of transcendent, spiritual world that explains things. Whether it’s animism, polytheism, monotheism, these are all really the same category of causal explanation—there’s some mysterious force at work that we can’t see. That’s hot-wired into the brain, all people do that, and the reason it’s still there—even if there is no spiritual, animistic being inside the rock—is it doesn’t kill you. We need to learn, we need associative learning, A to B, connect the dots, that’s how we survive. But in many cases, it’s okay to connect A to B even if there’s no connection at all. So, whirling around three times counter-clockwise isn’t going to make it rain or not, but it’s not going to get you killed either. As a result, we have these “spandrels” as [Stephen Jay] Gould calls them, these sort of free-riding things that go along with adapted characteristics, that are just part of the package of being human, and I think God just comes along with that. I think religion is a slightly different thing. We’re hot-wired there to be a hierarchical, social, primate species; we need some sort of set of rules to enforce cooperation and pro-social behavior and to discourage excessively greedy and competitive behavior because it hurts the group when that becomes too strong. So we have built into us the moral sentiments. We tend to be fairly cooperative and nice most of the time to most people and we’ve managed to find a balance between that and selfish greediness. What happened about 7,500 years ago was the rise of state societies and organized religions, both informal means of behavior control. What we evolved with didn’t work with big, anonymous groups of thousands or tens of thousands of people, so religion and government were the first two institutions on the scene to codify these rules and say, “Well, look, shunning doesn’t work when people don’t know each other, so we’re just going to write down the rules and you better do it or else.” And the “or else” could be “God’s going to punish you in the next life” or “we the government are going to punish you in this.” So really government and religion are the same thing in a sense—they are a way of getting people to get along. That’s all in my new book The Science of Good and Evil. It’s a whole evolutionary theory about the origins of morality and how to be good without God.