On believing weird things, and post-‘New Atheism’

Believing Weird things: The case of Shermer’s cycling

I have disperately different interests. I like to read Karl Popper on the train; a good date idea for me involves going to a church concert; I love to play Halo, and lately I’ve been fascinated by weight training and improving my general fitness. Having disperate interests gives me a strange identity, where I can fit into a discussion about the influence of 19thC mathematics and physics on Einstein (even when I seemingly know nothing about these subjects) or I’m joking about internet memes such as ‘forever alone’, having that wider insight borrows uniqueness by combining them with each other where they overlap. When I’m reading fitness advice, or diet advice, I’m always cautious about fad diets or the presence of pseudoscience. I was recently reminded of this when I recently read Michael Shermer’s ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’.

In Shermer’s book, the Editor of Skeptic Magazine explores the bases of why people believe in weird things. In doing so he takes a line to debunk certain phenomena and highlights the potential harm they can bring, but also takes a sympathetic view to how and why people believe in strange things. Shermer gives a personal example of his hobby of ultra-marathon cycling. The story goes that he became interested in skeptical matters from the varying advice he recieved as an ultramarathon cyclist. As many people may find in the world of fitness, there are a lot of approaches to things and many of them involve spirituality or just outright bullshit. A contemporary example of this is the ‘power band’ which uses an odious reference to ‘Chinese metaphysics’ as a basis for improving fitness. Shermer describes his ultramarathon experience which involved extreme sleep deprivation and a bout of subsequent hallucination.

Shermer notes how the brain is hardwired to certain belief dispositions, where the brain looks for paterns where there may not necessarily be patterns (patternicity). Patternicity is a useful trait for scientific reasoning, or even in creative outlooks, patterns can be exploited to artistic merit or scientific genius. Patternicity can also be the base for improper reasoning and believing in outright weird things. Shermer’s books are to be recommended, they are a nice contrast to the overtly anti-religious work of the ‘New Atheists’. Methodologically speaking, Shermer uses interesting sociological data as well as uses a genealogy based approach to some of the beliefs and movements that skeptics are typically used to dealing with. Shermer also takes a sympathetic view to the human mind that is not necessarily judgmental about having ‘incorrect’ or ‘irrational’ beliefs. To an extent, Shermer accepts that we all have some rational blindspot and features such as patternicity can be seen as features of our reasoning process inherited through natural selection, where it would have been useful for the proverbial proto-human to see a pattern and run away, than to stare a bit more and become some predatorial prey.

Post-‘New Atheism’

The post-‘New Atheism’ movement as I’d like to describe it, are a good representative of the new lineup from the CFI’s podcasting hosts in Point of Inquiry. Point of Inquiry is one of my favourite podcasts and since the end of last year, DJ Grothe has moved on to the James Randi Foundation, and the new decade has seen a new focus of issues. To some extent this may be because of the post-Bush era, where the influence of the religious right was very much in the liberal focus of critique. The new hosts represent very different viewpoints. Robert M. Price for instance, is a biblical scholar who often deals with textual issues in the Bible, and issues in the evidence concerning the Historical Jesus. This is a very unusual candidate for an atheist, Price is also more accomodating towards religon in his approach. Another host, Chris Mooney, made his name as a journalist, and is linked to a position in the secular movement known as ‘Accommodationism’. One interesting episode with Mooney a couple of weeks ago pointed out how the old Englightenment assumptions of the 18thC are out of date, and the ideals of reasoning with people and convincing them of conclusions by argumentation and reasoning just doesn’t work. In short, you can’t convince someone to give up their faith. There are a lot of cognitive and psychological factors involved with belief that involves a lot more than the rational, philosophical examination of ‘whether x is true’.

In this way, understanding and reacting to those of faith must take a much different tact to the usual approaches of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ of the previous decade. I’d like to consider Shermer as part of this more moderating camp, as he admits to be more a ‘pluralist’ and does not focus on the ‘anti-religion’ aspect of secular humanism, but more the ‘pro-science’ aspect. Shermer also grants that many people can be ‘pro-science’, including those of faith. It’s old hat to point out how derivative the ‘New Atheists’ were on the Englightenment thinkers or the anti-religious thinkers of the late 19thC and early 20thC. It’s much more interesting to consider the more sympathetic approach, the POI interview with Jonathan Kay concerning the ‘Truther’ movement was especially sympathetic, as they identified with the belief that 9/11 was a US plot, removing that belief essentially removes their identity. This gives a much more nuanced view at belief in ‘weird things’. It also gives a more sympathetic view of why people such as Dawkins are seen as ‘extremist’ when they really are not. What is seen as extreme is that atheism is depicted by these authors as an attack on religious and cultural identity, and so such an audience will automatically sound out when considering the arguments and conclusions.

The thought of a post-reasoning aware world is a very scary one. Where we accept that the ideals of good arguments simply don’t work. More and more I feel that this insight will fuel the demagogue.


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