Sunday, August 27, 2006

Shermer: The joys of life without God

Learned about this fine interview with Michael Shermer from Randi. Excerpts:

Why do we reach so hard for a divine force to explain life?

The natural inclination in all humans is to posit a force, a spirit, outside of us. That tendency toward superstitious magical thinking is just built into our nature. What's more, it doesn't cost anything to have a false positive, to assume there's a force behind the lightning or a spirit in the rock. In the ancestral environment, when we evolved, we might think spinning around three times is going to bring rain. Well, once in a while it works and makes everybody happy. And it doesn't cost much to keep doing it. It doesn't take you out of the gene pool.

You sound so benign. Yet your day job is debunking pseudo sciences like rain dances and astrology. There's no harm, then, in me thinking that because I'm a Libra I just might get what I wish for today?

[Laughs] No, for most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs. And presumably in an educated democracy we want to have a certain level of education, as Jefferson says, so we can have a serious national discussion about problems. I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle. They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.

Do you think the impulse to believe in God is the same as believing in astrology?

Yes, it's a similar foundation of magical superstitious thinking. And our need to be spiritual takes all forms. Given that traits vary in populations, it's natural that some people will gravitate toward New Age spiritualism and others toward conservative Christianity. Even secularists believe in all kinds of transcendent things, such as "mind." This is the Deepak Chopra school. He says, I don't believe that Christian conservative stuff, but the universe is intelligent, it's alive, it knows we're here. What? You're goofier than the Christians!


What's your best answer for why there is no God?

It's not why there is no God, it's why there's not compelling evidence to believe in God. That's a better way to put it. And from my perspective, it's just not there for me. With training in science, I have high standards of evidence. If you said God is real, and you sent your evidence to the journals Science or Nature for publication, you'd be laughed out of the room; you wouldn't get past the first reviewer.

On the other side, the best evidence that there probably isn't a God is that belief in God is so deeply culturally embedded. When you study world religions, it's obvious that, throughout time, all of these different people are making up their own stories about God. If you lived 1,000 years ago, hardly anybody would be a Christian. If you were born in India, you'd likely be a Hindu. What does that tell you? From a Christian perspective, it means we need to get more missionaries over there to tell them the truth! From an anthropological perspective, it's another case. Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god.

So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

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