This book has been highly praised, so I started it with considerable expectations, but I ended it with a sense of disappointment, even though I was to quite a large extent in sympathy with Shermer's attitude to his subject. This was mainly because I found his scope rather narrow, too exclusively focused on religion in the USA. No doubt this is understandable, for Shermer is American and is the publisher of 'Skeptic' magazine and director of the Skeptics Society, both of which may well feel rather embattled in view of the overwhelming tendency of Americans to declare themselves to be religious. But Europeans may find themselves somewhat marginalized by his approach.
In part, the book is based on two surveys of people's attitudes to religion. One was of a highly self-selected group: members of the Skeptics Society. The other was a random sample of almost 1000 Americans. Among the Skeptics, 22 per cent had no belief in God and 32 per cent said they were definitely atheists. Almost a fifth (18 per cent) thought there was definitely or very probably a God. There were, however, some ambiguities among the responses in these categories.
The General Survey, not surprisingly, showed a much higher proportion of believers in God: 64 per cent. However, this is a lot less than the figure that has emerged from most surveys of Americans, in which over 90 per cent usually indicate belief. Shermer thinks that this was due to the fact that the people surveyed were more educated than average; levels of education are positively correlated with disbelief. An interesting fact which emerged from these surveys is that respondents who believed in God tended to say that their reasons for doing so were intellectual, whereas they thought that other believers' reasons were emotional.
The book has two parts: God and Belief, and Religion and Science. However, both cover more or less the same ground, and in general the book seems to revolve round certain themes rather than to pursue a definite progressive course; in fact, I wondered if it originated as a collection of only loosely linked articles. Shermer starts by looking at the question of God's death and concludes that reports of this event were premature: God is alive and well, in the USA at least. Next, he considers what he terms the Belief Engine: we are pattern-seeking animals, he says, and religions arise because we see patterns in Nature whether they are there or not. I think this is true, though it is scarcely original. Variants on this theme that Shermer touches on here are Ramachandran's idea that the temporal lobes of the brain contain wiring that produces religious experience (again, not a new idea) and descriptions of religions as memes. Shermer devotes several pages to demolishing mediums who allegedly provide messages from the dead to grieving relatives; an easy target, one might think, and not very relevant to the rest of the chapter.
There is a chapter on philosophical attempts to prove the existence of God, which are dismissed as invalid—a view that most although not all modern philosophers would agree with. Shermer has more time for what he calls scientific arguments for God; here he cites eminent scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Paul Davies, and Frank Tipler, all of whom have written in various ways about the relevance of modern cosmology for religion. The trouble with this, however, is that although these cosmologists are highly respected in their own fields, their views on philosophy and especially theology often verge on the naïve. Why not quote, for example, A.R. Peacocke, another physicist who has made a more convincing attempt to relate modern science to theology? There are others who might be mentioned as well, including members of the school of Process Theology that originated with A.N. Whitehead. But all we get here is science in relation to Bible-Belt theology. The chapter closes with sections on Creationism and the so-called Bible Code; more easy targets. I suppose they have to figure in a popular book for an American audience, but I skipped them.
We return to the subject of science versus religion in Part Two. Creationism reappears (the Scopes trial and Pope John Paul II's attitude to evolution), and then we are back to Man the Pattern-making Animal, here described as the constructor of narratives. Shermer's view is that religion is a social institution that evolved to create and promote myths, encourage altruism, and increase cooperation among community members. He illustrates this by telling the story of how the 'Ghost Dance' arose among North American Indians at the end of the nineteenth century as a modern myth in response to the destruction of their culture by the white man. There is, he suggests, only a limited number of ways in which people can respond mythopoeically to repression, one of which is by construction of a 'messiah' religion; other examples are the Pacific Island cargo cults and, of course, Christianity. This leads to a chapter discussing ideas of apocalypse and the Millennium.
I found Shermer's explanation of the recurrence of the Messiah myth in different societies as response to oppression to be over-simple. It may account in sociological terms for the appearance of the myth at a particular time and place, but it does not explain the existence and form of the myth itself; for that we need to look at its history. Nearly all modern Messiah myths presumably are inspired by Christianity, which is one of the largest and most widespread religions today. Christianity inherited the idea of the Messiah from Judaism, but where did Judaism get it from? There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that it entered Judaism from Zoroastrianism, along with the near-dualistic notion of Satan as the opponent of God. Ancient Iranian religion contained the idea of the Saviour, the Saoshant, who will be born of a virgin and will return at the end of time to redeem humanity (see Mary Boyce, 'Zoroastrians'). We don't know how Zorastrianism originated but there is little to suggest that it was as the result of external oppression.
The book is certainly readable if occasionally ungrammatical (Shermer confuses 'imply' and 'infer' and uses 'lay' when he means 'lie'). But it is very parochial; 'Christianity' for Shermer refers almost exclusively to American Christianity, which evidently differs in a number of respects from Christianity in the rest of the world. There is hardly any mention of European writers in the text (though a few are cited in a final 'Bibliographic Essay'); Nietzsche is touched on very briefly, but not Kierkegaard. We hear nothing about more recent writers on the status of theology, such as John Robinson, David Jenkins, or Don Cupitt. Mircea Eliade's writings on the mythology of religion are mentioned briefly, but there is nothing about C.G. Jung, whose theories inspired Eliade and who put forward one of the most comprehensive accounts of the psychology of religion; whether one agrees with his views or not, they surely require at least a mention in any discussion of the origin of religious mythologies.
At the beginning of his book, Shermer declares himself to be an agnostic, which places him within a small minority of Americans. What he gives us is really an examination of what it means to be an agnostic in modern America. As such, it is successful, and this I think explains the warm reception it has received from American critics with a similar outlook. Europeans, whether religiously inclined or not, may well find it interesting for the light it throws on the differences between the American and the European outlooks on religion, but its relevance to their own circumstances is rather limited.