Word of the Day: Shermer’s Law

Christianity and atheism clash againI propose “Shermer’s Law” for this observation by Michael Shermer: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”1

This observation makes an important distinction between (1) how someone came to their beliefs and (2) how they later defend those beliefs.  People often come to their beliefs for poor reasons—for example, they may be racist or religious simply because they were raised in that environment.

Few will admit as an adult, “Oh, yeah—I don’t believe that for any better reason than that I was steeped in that environment, and I’m now just an unthinking reflection of that environment.”  Instead, they use their intellect (much more formidable now that they’re an adult) to marshal a defense of their beliefs.  The belief comes first, and the defense comes after.  And this isn’t just to save face with an antagonist; it’s to save face with themselves.

We can come up with a defense for just about anything.  It may not be a very good defense, but it’s something, and it may be sufficient to avoid cognitive dissonance (“Surely I believe this for a good reason, right??”).  The smarter you are, the better the defense you will come up with.

All of us do this, and (this may be consolation) the smartest people can do it more spectacularly than the rest of us.  Isaac Newton wasted time in alchemy, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling in vitamin C research, and Nobel laureate William Shockley in eugenics.

No one’s immune, but this is common in Christians who cobble together rationalizations for their beliefs.  “In for a penny, in for a pound” is easier than taking a step back to soberly consider the logic of the beliefs.  And the smarter the Christian, the better they can defend groundless beliefs.

Try to uncover this by asking, “You’re giving me an argument for Christianity, but is this what convinced you?  If not, why don’t you give me the argument that made you a Christian?”

Photo credit: Wikimedia

1 Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (Freeman, 2002), p. 283.

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Jesus and Santa Claus

What is Christianity?  And how does Santa Claus help?Harriett Hall (the SkepDoc) wrote a clever story about two kids trying to figure out whether the tooth fairy really exists or not.  Inspired by that, and in keeping with the season, I’d like to imagine two kids arguing about Santa.

It was early December, and little Jerry had begun to doubt the existence of Santa Claus.  He made his case to his younger brother Kyle.

“I don’t think Santa is real.  I think it’s just Mom and Dad buying us presents,” Jerry said.

“Prove it,” Kyle said.

“Okay, why are there all those Santas on the street corners ringing for money?  How can Santa be at all those stores at once?”

“They’re not the real Santa, just his helpers,” Kyle said.  “And maybe they’re just testing us to see if we’ll still believe.  I’m going to believe, because if you don’t, you don’t get presents.”

“But I recognized one of them—it was the father of one of my friends.”

“Then those are just ordinary people imitating Santa, raising money for a good cause.  Anyway, I’ve seen Santa on TV at Thanksgiving—everyone has.”

Jerry sees that he’s not making any progress, so he gives up.  On Christmas afternoon, he’s alone with Kyle and tries again.  “Remember that video game that you told Mom about and then you forgot to tell Santa?” Jerry said.  “But you got it anyway.  Mom must’ve bought it and written on the package that it came from Santa.” 

“Mom just told Santa,” Kyle said. 

“But how can Santa get around the world in one night?”

“My friends all say that Santa is real.  Anyway, Santa has magic.  And the cookie plate we leave out for Santa always has just crumbs on Christmas morning.”

“With the Junior Detective kit that I got this morning, I dusted the cookie plate for fingerprints, and they were Mom’s.”

“Mom set out the plate, and Santa wears gloves.”

Jerry gives up for the year.  On Christmas afternoon the next year, he tries again.  “Lots of the older kids don’t believe in Santa.  They say that their presents only come from their parents.”

“Sure,” Kyle said.  “Santa only gives presents to those who still believe in him.”

“A few months ago, I was snooping in Dad’s sock drawer, and I found every letter we ever wrote to Santa.”

“Why not?  Santa didn’t need them anymore and each year just gives them to Mom and Dad for keepsakes.”

“The only fingerprints on our presents are Mom’s or Dad’s.” 

“Mom and Dad always get up early on Christmas.  They could’ve rearranged them.”

“Last week, I found all our presents hidden in a corner in the attic.”  Jerry pawed through some of the torn wrapping paper.  “I wrote my initials on the bottom of each package.  And look—here they are.  That proves that Santa didn’t bring them here last night.”

“I asked Mom, and she said that Santa is real.  Anyway, how do I know you didn’t write your initials on the wrapping paper this morning?”

Like little Kyle, if you’re determined to believe something, you can rationalize away any unwelcome evidence.  (By rationalize, I mean taking an idea as fact and then selecting or interpreting all relevant evidence to make it support that idea.)

It’s tempting to list the many ways Christians rationalize.  They rationalize away contradictions in the Bible, the oddity of a hidden God, or why so much bad happens to the people God loves.  They can find a dozen reasons why a particular prayer wasn’t answered, even though the Bible promises, “Ask and ye shall receive.”  But the Christian says that he’s simply defending the truth: “I’m not rationalizing; I’m right.”

In five minutes we can see flaws in others that we don’t see in ourselves in a lifetime.  Perhaps this episode with Jerry and Kyle will encourage us to see our own rationalizations.

I recently came across the Galileo Was Wrong; The Church Was Right blog.  That’s right, it argues for geocentrism, an earth-centered universe.  With a little work, even the nuttiest theory can be given a scholarly sheen, so imagine what a few thousand years of scholarly work can do to a religion.  Any Christian can point to centuries of scholarship to give a patina of credibility to their position (but, of course, so can Muslims, Hindus, and those in many other religions).

I can’t prove Santa doesn’t exist.  Nor can I disprove the existence of leprechauns, Russell’s Flying Teapot, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or God.  The thoughtful person goes where the evidence points rather than accepting only the evidence that supports his preconception.

And Jesus is Santa Claus for adults.

Photo credit: Robot Nine