I decided to write this summary of Michael Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird Things partly for myself to review what I’d read (it took me a month of off and on reading to get through it), and to hit some of the highlights for my wife who told me that she didn’t think she’d be able to get all the way through the book based on my description of it. This is by no means a complete summary. Shermer talks about a wide range of weird beliefs, ranging from Holocaust deniers to UFO abductees, and a lot in between.As I began reading the book, I was anxious to get to the final chapter where Shermer addresses the question of “why smart people believe weird things”. So I’ll cut to the chase and give you the answer: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” (page 282) After reading the whole book that made a lot of sense to me. Everyone typically arrives at weired beliefs in the same ways, it’s just that smart people are better at finding ways, and especially obscure patterns, to support and defend their weird beliefs.
Shermer says that “myths are not about truth. Myths are about the human struggle to deal with the great passages of time and life – birth, death, marriage, the transitions from childhood to adulthood to old age.” (page 130) In discussing the tension between evolution and religion in some people’s minds, he says that “evolution theory cannot replace faith and religion, and science has no interest in pretending that it can. The theory of evolution is a scientific theory, not a religious doctrine. It stands or falls on evidence alone. Religious faith, by definition, depends on belief when evidence is absent or unimportant. They fill different niches in the human psyche.” (page 135)
So what are some of the reasons that people believe weird things? Here’s Michael’s list:
- It feels good: “More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to. It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling. Skeptics, atheists, and militant anti-religionists, in their attempts to undermine belief in a higher power, life after death, and divine providence, are butting up against ten thousand years of history and possibly one hundred thousand years of evolution (if religion and belief in God have a biological basis, which some anthropologists believe they do).” (page 275)
- Immediate Gratification: “Many weird things offer immediate gratification. The 900 number psychic hot-line is a classic example. Deep insight and improvement may take months or years. Delay of gratification is the norm, instant satisfaction the exception. By contrast, the psychic is only a telephone call away.” (page 276)
- Simplicity: “Immediate gratification of one’s beliefs is made all the easier by simple explanations for an often complex and contingent world. God and bad things happen to both good and bad people, seemingly at random. Scientific explanations are often complicated and require training and effort to work through. Superstition and belief in fate and the supernatural provide a simpler path through life’s complex maze.” (page 277)
- Morality and Meaning: “At present, scientific and secular systems of morality and meaning have proved relatively unsatisfying to most people. Without belief in some higher power, people ask, why be moral? What is the basis for ethics? What is the ultimate meaning of life? What’s the point of it all? Scientists and secular humanists have good answers to these good questions, but for many reasons these answers have not reached the population at large. To most people, science seems to offer only cold and brutal logic in its presentation of an infinite, uncaring and purposeless universe. Pseudoscience, superstition, myth, magic, and religion offer simple, immediate, and consoling canons of morality and meaning.” (page 277)
- Hope Springs Eternal: “It is my conviction that humans are, by nature, a forward looking species always seeking greater levels of happiness and satisfaction. Unfortunately, the corollary is that humans are all too often willing to grasp at unrealistic promises of a better life or to believe that a better life can only be attained by clinging to intolerance and ignorance, by lessening the lives of others. And sometimes, by focusing on a life to come, we miss what we have in this life. It is a different source of hope, but it is hope nonetheless: hope that human intelligence, combines with compassion, can solve our myriad problems and enhance the quality of each life; hope that historical progress continues on its march toward greater freedoms and acceptance for all humans; and hope that reason and science as well as love and empathy can help us understand our universe, our world, and ourselves.” (page 278)