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Does Belief Help Us to Survive?

August 2009

I don’t think religious beliefs are different from any other kind of beliefs: political attitudes, commitments to political parties, or economic ideologies, for example. These are all forms of belief. I think at the base of it is this whole idea that we’re pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots — A connects to B connects to C — and often, they really are connected, and that’s called associative learning. All animals do it. It’s a biological imperative; we grow new synaptic connections when we learn something.

The problem is that there’s no baloney detection module in the brain that says, “That’s a true pattern; that’s a false pattern” with some consistent algorithm that helps us discriminate those. We tend to assume all patterns are real and that they’re infused with intentional agency. And that’s where I think the belief in spirits and ghosts and souls and gods and God and conspiracy theories and so forth comes in.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t hidden agents and predators and conspiracies out there. There are. But, yet again, we only have our intuitions from evolution. In many ways, it is adaptive, in terms of forming beliefs — we have to form beliefs — and to that extent, those adaptations are still vital to survival. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of bogus nonsense out there, and we’re susceptible to believing that as well. And that’s where it’s nonadaptive.

It’s a two-edged sword. If we got rid of all weird beliefs, it would mean, really, that we’re getting rid of all beliefs. I wrote a book called Why People Believe Weird Things. Well, why do people believe weird things? Because they have to believe things, and the weird things go right along with them. In that sense, I’ll always have job security. There will always be people believing these things.

Now, I do think that mass education and the age of science and all that does make a difference, compared with, say, 500 years ago. People are a lot less superstitious than they were then. But, nevertheless, people still harbor all kinds of goofy, weird beliefs. For example: 9/11 was a conspiracy by the Bush administration, flying these planes with remote control devices after the passengers were taken off and whisked away to Canada to be gassed. That’s just the tip of the goofiest part of that particular conspiracy. How could anybody believe that? But they do — lots of people do. So it’s still around. Roughly a third to a half of Americans believe in astrology and tarot cards and psychics that can talk to the dead and UFOs and aliens and Bigfoot. The percentages are striking. Still, it’s not 90 percent. It’s better than it used to be.

This article was originally published on Science and Religion Today.

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17 Comments to “Does Belief Help Us to Survive?”

  1. Gustavo Keener Says:

    This remains one of my favorite articles you’ve shared.

  2. Chris Baker Says:

    I know lots of people who believe that the WTC was an “inside job.” Never once have I heard any of them suggest that the planes were flown by remote control or that the passengers were taken to Canada to be gassed.

    One instead might ask why so many people who call themselves atheists make government their deity instead, such as Communists. One might ask why so many people see the government as a fairy godmother who can make all the problems in the world go away simply by magic. One might ask why they expect someone like George Bush or Barack Obama to be their father, who will take care of all their needs from cradle to grave and protect them from boogeymen.

    That wasn’t what Thomas Jefferson believed.

    I never imagined that you subscribed to the religion of Government Worship, Michael. Do you get down on your knees and pray to the government?

  3. Phil Says:

    Chris, you do realize Michael’s a Libertarian, right?

  4. Bill Sorah Says:

    What a boring world this guy lives in. Everything is a scam. Nothing is real. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism however – it’s another thing to assume such an incredible self-importance as to do away with things that one doesn’t understand. Psychology, for example – is a huge scam. The entire psuedo-science is based on bias. Forget about UFO’s and Bigfoot and ghosts etc. Talk to me about the skepticism of such things as the placebo effect, dark matter, quantum theory etc. It appears one could fill a universe with what this guy doesn’t know.

  5. Paul Adel Says:

    Some people hold strange/unusual or downright bizarre beliefs out of a need to believe something, but I think you are identifying a portion of the population that believes certain things because they are amused by those beliefs. I have a 12-year old son who is particularly fond of saying shocking things because he enjoys the reaction he gets, and (I think) because it lets him feel superior to those gullible enough to take his creations at face value. It’s not just young folks who make use this technique. For example, there are people who say, before the season begins, that thier preferred baseball team is bound to go to the championship. Among other things (like being a good excuse to gamble), this allows for some lively conversation, competition and one-up-manship for the entire season, and if all goes well, tremendous bragging rights at the end of the season. It also provides an outlet for emotional investment that people might not otherwise get. The same phenomenon applies to conspiracy theories to some extent, particularly when a given individual has nothing invested in the truth of the matter. For example, in the absence of proof, it may satisfy a desire to be right while others are wrong about who was at the bottom of the 9/11 attack. Secondly, having a contrarian belief about the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack allows one to advance that belief, for the purpose of shock value, for the purpose of having something to talk about, or to get people to respond (attention getting behavior, ala my 12-year old, or commenting on Mr. Shermer’s essay). Defending a contrarian belief even gives one the opportunity to build a “reasoned” argument, which in itself can be a satisfying exercise (this comment on Mr. Shermer’s essay being a perfect example). Which of these mechanisms can be extrapolated to political belief or religious belief (or skeptical philosophy)? The examples above fall for the most part in the “conscious desire” category (some people like scrabble, some like sudoku or crossword puzzles, some people like solving mathematical problems, and some like the reasoning process in and of itself, for the same reason). Even scientific “belief” can have similar causes when you consider that the average person doesn’t have the necessary breadth of knowledge to defend a scientific theory that falls way outside of their educational experience. Then there is perhaps the most powerful mechanism, the need for conformity. Nothing provides greater incentive to hold a particular belief than the threat of ostracism (this is a survival mechanism that another person could probably show has evolutionary origins). I think religious belief satisfies a variety of emotional needs. So do the beliefs mentioned above. For this reason, in most individuals, religious beliefs deserve as much respect as political or scientific beliefs. Beliefs that that have a self destructive trajectory deserve to be discouraged. Beliefs that have the potential to create social conflict need to be treated with greater care. After all, the US Revolution falls squarely into this category.
    I abhor my own ignorance more than anybody elses. I am willing to consider the possibility that I am wrong about one thing or another, and I welcome any reasoned and tolerant effort to change my opinion. I’m a skeptic with humility. Conjecture and refutation is my preferred pathway through life. In the spectrum of world views, this probably isnt the one that has the greatest survival potential. I think its important to remember that it is a luxury to be able to hold this world view. Civilization has advanced to a point where it is no longer necessary for every member of of the community to cleave to the group dogma in order for the community to compete for survival. There was a time in history where collective belief had a survival advantage, but too recently to have had a genetic impact on the species. The skill to cooperate goes back far enough to have had a genetic impact, but I dont think the capacity to believe is a survival advantage. No doubt the capacity to learn is, but the notion that believing preceeds learning hasnt been demonstrated. Believing may be an unavoidable collateral skill (or weakness depending on your point of view) of the capacity to learn, but good judgment is an outgrowth of the ability to learn, not the ability to believe.
    Spinoza – The purpose of improving the intellect is to distinguish and separate the true idea from other perceptions, and to keep the mind from confusing with true ideas those which are false, fictitious, and doubtful.
    Descartes – For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it.

  6. Martin Smith Says:

    You want weird beliefs look at online gaming… the amount of people who freak out over weird connections thinking people are cheating from game-hacks or level design exploits is incredible.

    Even after the game designers admit opublicly that certain effects are deliberately put in.

  7. soul Says:

    Many of us have lost trust in our system of government a long time ago. And it’s not hard to convince the average person that a government conspiracy was behind an evil deed. However, even though some of those conspiracy theories may have some weight to them. Can we truly believe that our government would attack it’s own country. And kill it’s own people. We would have to ask ourselves, what were the beliefs of those americans who would do such a thing. Men are capable of doing evil things. The mentality of a Timothy McVey on a big scale IS possible, but is it likely.

  8. Mike Duquette Says:

    Chris Bakers statement about the government expected to magically solve our problems is not a fair comparison. No one expects magic from government. They do expect unrealistic results though. The government helping to solve big problems of society is a real possibility where gods solving big problems is an impossibility. Focusing on impossibilities wastes time and effort that could be used in constructive measures to solve societies problems.

  9. Maxx Says:

    I am of the opinion that this short essay neither posits nor refutes anything. In short, it says nothing. People believe all sorts of weird beliefs? We have our intuitions from evolution? O.K., how does this somehow exempt the writer of this essay from the factors he is positing himself? Are these “intuitions” determined? If so, as posited by the author, then this article itself is purely subjective and begs the question.
    Our beliefs are adaptive? Who’s? Mine, or yours, or both? Then who holds the privileged ground? You, or me?
    “If we get rid of weird beliefs, we’re getting rid of all beliefs,” Then I can confidentially get rid of the belief of this essay. Of course, skepticism is, according to this essay, a weird belief. Or not?

  10. Araz Says:

    Well said Maxx.This essay is a double edged sword. To a certain point it contradicts itself.

  11. Deborah Williams Says:

    I’m not really addressing the question of whether belief helps us to survive, or commiserate about our sad lack of a built-in bull-shit filter, and the consequences of the evolutionary development of concepts that create our current reality but, I would like to comment on the notion that reality is either/or scientific or mythological or that one type of thinking has more value than another.

    Personally I know that I operate in a two brained manner (or at least that’s how it feels to me), part of me operates scientifically and part of me doesn’t. When I am working I function in a very logical and methodical way: my writing is technical, my thought process is organized and I want the facts. However, when I wish to create something new I have to enter another psychological state in order to do that. I need to repress my organized, rational, and structured thought process, so I can create…so I can tap into that flow. I do this by meditating, reading philosophy and religious/spiritual material, etc in order to get there; to turn that other part of my brain on. Both types of thinking are necessary for me and I want them both.

    I don’t believe that any of us have the ability to realize the ultimate nature of reality, in a way we are very fragmented beings. It is no more valid to me to make the statement that God does not exist than it is to stand in a classroom and teach creationism, thereby completely denying the scientific facts regarding the nature of evolution and the development of species. Where is the ‘truth’ in either of those stances?

    The pursuit of knowledge allows us, as a species, to make rational decisions and to solve problems related to our survival as humans and to improve our life experience. We all know this. These are facts based on historical precedence. The more factual knowledge we have about the nature of life in all of its infinite complexity, the better decisions we make. The problem with us is not that we believe irrational stuff (irrational thinking is creative)…our problem is in thinking that what we believe is the ultimate truth, and to make any decisions based on those beliefs (whether they be scientific or mythological).

    Our real difficulty as a species is our egocentric view of ourselves in the world and our need to ‘be right’. We are all running around waving our flag and yelling our truth, trying to drown out everyone else so we can win. It is amazing that we have survived this long with such a terrible flaw.

    What would be a nice development is that we humans come to accept that we can’t know truth and that we just need to come to the table together, bring as many facts as we can to the decision making process, accept that we won’t be able to see the whole picture from where we sit, but to try to sift through everything and make the best decisions for all of us based on the information at hand.

  12. Charles Says:

    Dr. Schermer,

    I feel myself fortunate having just stumbled upon your website and read this astute article.

    Have you ever extended your analysis into the investigation of human comfort or the cognitive underpinnings of why people “buy into” various causes or beliefs?

    Being skeptical of “Mr. Skeptic” I wonder what would happen if we all jettisoned our beliefs and then worked to reconstitute them based upon scientific trial and making of provisional statements.

    Being a bit of a skeptic myself, I find myself questioning whether it is better to be the quality control who picks apart the half-truths of convention (to support a more objective reality) OR the minister promulgating the half-truths with the goal of helping others (a more comforting reality).

    I can tell you’re very good with the “how” we do our thinking, but if you can’t recommend a (factually based) emotionally supportive substitute system of beliefs I doubt you’ll ever achieve mass adoption.

  13. Christian Says:

    Dr. Shermer,

    I think more meaningful to you, is that I respect who you are what what you are doing. However, I do not see where you really addressed the question here. Can you show me my point of error?

    If you can for a moment, fall back on your psychology and explain what you would suggest or recommend to a person who presents with a lack of self-concept and no guidance for life’s big decisions.

    Thank you for your time.


  14. Scott M. Tomasello Says:

    I tend to agree with you my friend, however the only thing Ive been able to come up with is that I refuse to put God in a box,or for that extent free will itself. I concider myself fortunate that I can see into the 24th layer of dimentional reality where super string theory and quanta break down. I understand it intuitively. And the extent of our understanding is actually nothing when looked at in its entirety. We are floating around the cosmos on a speck of dust it amazes me that we inflate our self importance to the level it has become from hitler to stalin to the meekest janitor. All I really can say is that its a beautiful world and I truly hope things will be better for all involved if people will let God be God. Why loose the sense of wonder even as adults. I am not ignorant to mans dark side either however the best I can judge is that we are capable of immense beauty or disrtuction. Godbless all of you even if you dont believe you can decide to rip me apart if you wish however Its just one persons belief and I respect and value your posts also I can say that I think psychology is truthfully a educated crock of **** Godbless and Godspeed….

    Scott M Tomasello

  15. Cris Says:

    I don’t understand the trolls coming in here to bad-mouth the article and Mr. Shermer. If you disagree then fine, but go elsewhere and keep your opinions to yourself.

    All he’s trying to point out is why people believe things at all. Unless we develop a reasonable BS filter then we end up subscribing to all sorts of nonsense (and in some cases downright weird) that in no way benefit humans, whether those beliefs are Bigfoot, WTC conspiracy or God.

  16. Jan Johansen Says:

    I fail to see the purpose of your “service,” since true science needs no defense, and progress in science comes from those who are not skeptical, but open minded.

    Sound skepticism has its place in the research/ testing phase, simply to find out what works or not. In the idea phase you apply imaginations as freely as you can (think outside the box). Your “religion” seems to be opposite, out of fear, and every time I meet these atheists, and they come across just a religious as Hindus.

    Yes, people believe a lot of things, so what? They might be “victims” of religious – and other con artists, they might learn to look out for themselves that way. The so called “educated classes” believe a lot of things too, which cause more problems for society, then folklore, for they are often in power.

    Still the worst con artists do operate within so called “scientific establishments,” simply to rip off tax payers, on scale other con artists could only dream about. Here you have job to do, but you go after those, who do not get such funding, they spend their own money, as Einstein did early on, the ultimate outsider. Could that be your motive to protect the cash flow for the establishment of which you are part of?

    I personally got very sick, but refused to take so-called modern medicine, simply because it is a scientific fact, that at best it suppresses symptoms, just create others. Even medical doctors acknowledge placebo, and it’s not that difficult, the body has its own health care system. Through meditation, and changing of mental and emotional habits, I regained my health and strength at 60 +, and I did not feel as well in my 20ties. Some might call this energy medicine, of which you are skeptical about. I don’t know, I just read a pamphlet, and then experimented. The effect was almost instant, first I got better, then much worse, and obviously I got rid of a lot of toxins. Then I just got better and better, stress and tensions dissipated.

    So did I fool myself? Who cares if you are skeptical? I am engineer by profession, thus I have a scientific education, but in our profession we are used to test, and see what works. Should we start out as skeptics, we would not solve a single problems.

  17. selami pek Says:

    Something maybe untouchable and you cannot hear or see or smell it but can be proven like electricity, magnetic field etc… Likewise we can reach to God and can’t behave like everything is what we see.