The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Desperately Seeking Spiritualism

written April 2000
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A review of Martha Sherrill’s The Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction.

There is a humorous scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when his unfulfilled and neurotically Jewish character fails to find meaning in alternate religious expressions after visiting a Catholic church and returning home with a loaf of white bread, a jar of mayonnaise, and a crucifix. The reason, of course, is that the trappings and facade of a religion will not get you to that deeper place where so many desire to go.

Why do people believe in God? Why have all people throughout history, in all cultures around the world, embraced some sort of spiritual expression or religious impulse? Social scientists have attempted to answer the question scientifically through theories and statistics, but humans are storytelling animals and nothing captures the essence of a belief better than an in-depth story about one group’s religious experiences as they struggle with the messiness of day-to-day living in a secular world. (continue reading…)

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Chicken Soup for the Evolutionist’s Soul

written February 2000
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A review of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning. Such is the stuff of which myth, religion, history, and science are made.

Sometimes the patterns we find represent reality — DNA as the basis of heredity or the fossil record as the history of life. But sometimes the patters are imposed by our minds rather than discovered by them — the face on Mars (actually an eroded mountain) or the Virgin Mary’s image on the side of a glass building in Clearwater, Florida (really an oil stain from a palm tree, since removed to enable the faithful to better view their icon). The rub lies in distinguishing which patterns are true and which are false, and the essential tension (as Thomas Kuhn called it) pits skepticism against credulity as we try to decide which patterns should be rejected and which should be embraced. (continue reading…)

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Harum-Scarum: Decoding the Bible Code

written July 1997
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A review of Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code.

In 1859 John Taylor published a book entitled The Great Pyramid, in which he discovered that if you divide the height of the pyramid into twice the side of its base, you get a number close to Π. This, and other relationships he found to be deeply meaningful. Soon after, others began to turn up similar “discoveries”, such as that the base of the Great Pyramid divided by the width of a casing stone equals the number of days in the year, and that the height of the Great Pyramid multiplied by 109 approximately equals the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Humans are pattern-seeking animals. At Skeptic magazine we routinely receive calls from people who see the Virgin Mary in the shadows of a tree, the face of Jesus in a partially burnt tortilla, Mother Teresa in a sweet roll, or a face on Mars. JFK lives in stone profile in Hawaii. Eagle Rock sports a giant winged boulder overlooking the city. Patterns are everywhere. But which patterns are meaningful and which are not? (continue reading…)

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Bicycles, Baseball, Bacteria & Bach

written October 1996
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A review of Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin.

For the past 15 summers I have either competed in or directed the 3,000-mile, nonstop, transcontinental bicycle Race Across America; for the first decade the transcontinental record plummeted from 12 days 3 hours to 7 days 23 hours, but for the past five years it hasn’t budged even though half the field now routinely breaks earlier records. Why? Some of the pioneers, not surprisingly, believe that they were simply better; current riders claim weather conditions and other variables. I now know that both sides are wrong, thanks to the work of paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and trend setter (and observer) Stephen Jay Gould, whose new book, Full House, explains how systems change over time — from the history of life to the history of sports. (continue reading…)

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