Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain” & “Why People Believe Weird Things”

the believing brain

Michael Shermer has written two books, “The Believing Brain” and “Why People Believe Weird Things”, which have been life-changing reads for me.

There are several key points made in these books which can help a person understand Scientology, and Scientology-like experiences, in brand new ways.

For me, a key point came early in “The Believing Brain”: Shermer writes that research has repeatedly shown that a person first adopts a belief and THEN justifies why that belief is true. That sequence is very important.

In “Why People Believe Weird Things”, in a chapter called “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”, he expands upon this idea.

He writes:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.’

“That is to say, most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning (that, presumably, smart people are better at employing).’

“Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming.’

“All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it through both talent and training. Some beliefs really are more logical, rational, and supported by the evidence than others, of course, but it is not my purpose here to judge the validity of beliefs; rather, I am interested in the question of how we came to them in the first place, and how we hold on to them in the face of either no evidence or contradictory evidence.”

After this was pointed out to me, I could see that the process of justifying a belief comes after having adopted it. And I saw that this process of justifying the belief can continue forever – despite any evidence that the belief is true.

While reading the book my own belief in the afterlife was continually challenged and I watched myself arguing against those challenges continually as they arose. I even observed myself in an interesting situation, adopting a new belief and then imagining challenges to it. Then I saw myself automatically responding to those challenges in my mind. I caught myself doing this, and I almost crapped my pants.

I realized that I have been doing this all my life.

It is justifying a belief after having adopted it, which creates your own prison of belief.

These books forced me to re-evaluate a whole lot of things that I believe. They forced me to come to terms with just how important, and how unimportant, beliefs actually are in the whole wide scheme of things.

I realized at one point that, as a former cult member, I was still suffering from “BELIEF-ITIS” – the swollen assertion of ones’ beliefs, way out of proportion to their actual value.

After a whole series of struggles and self-examinations, I finally reached the point where I came to see that having a happy life is more important than having true beliefs.

Why seek knowledge, why believe anything at all, if it does not contribute to a happy life?

Members of cults eventually are forced to change their beliefs because cult membership is ultimately unsustainable. And the beliefs holding their membership to the cult will cause their own lives to become unhappy. But cult members will often change their beliefs only to the degree that the destructive elements of cult membership are eliminated, never actually changing their beliefs in any fundamental ways – no matter how much evidence exists to negate them.

Every human being is limited and must have beliefs to survive. We can not know everything.

So the key is to have beliefs which can create a happy life and which can be sustained to keep it that way.

Because human beings are not capable of omniscience, knowledge and belief exist only to service happiness, not the other way around.

Another great idea from Shermer’s books is the idea of “militant agnosticism”.

Agnosticism is the position that “I don’t know”.

Militant agnosticism is the position that “I don’t know. And neither do you.”

I still believe in the afterlife, mostly because it makes me happy to do so, not because of any evidence which supports, or negates, such a belief.


Because I don’t know.

And neither do you.

3 thoughts on “Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain” & “Why People Believe Weird Things””

  1. Since leaving scientology, I find the phrase ¨I DON´T KNOW¨ to be utterly poetic and musical.
    I can change my mind! I can live with mysteries!
    I no longer have to confuse CERTAINTY with KNOWLEDGE!
    And good fucking riddance to adding ¨NESS¨ to verbs!

  2. “After a whole series of struggles and self-examinations, I finally reached the point where I came to see that having a happy life is more important than having true beliefs.

    Why seek knowledge, why believe anything at all, if it does not contribute to a happy life?”

    So true, Alonzo, so true. Nice job on your website.


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