If it’s sauce for the goose, it’s sauce for the gander.

Michael Shermer intuits a pattern. Our brains are “belief engines” that naturally “look for and find patterns” and then “infuse” them with meaning. This debunks the idea of a deity. What’s ironic is Shermer intuits a universal pattern that everyone infuses patterns with meaning. He can’t have it both ways. If it’s sauce for the goose, it’s sauce for the gander.

“Beliefs come first; reasons second.” That’s the message of Michael Shermer’s new book, The Believing Brain, and it’s spot on. Augustine said the same thing—credo ut intelligam, “I believe in order to know.” Shermer is the founder of Skeptic magazine and in many ways the book is brilliant. He lays out what modern cognitive research is unearthing—our brains are “belief engines.” His conclusion is that we operate by “belief-dependent reality.” Belief dependency allows Shermer to debunk the idea of a deity.

This becomes apparent in the chapter “Belief in God,” which Shermer places alongside “Belief in Aliens” and “Belief in Things Unseen.” It’s obvious he doesn’t take religious faith seriously except to debunk it. God is simply the result of humans infusing patterns with explanatory meaning on an epic scale. “As a back-of-the-envelope calculation within an order-of-magnitude accuracy, we can safely say that over the past ten thousand years of history humans have created about ten thousand different religions and about one thousand gods,” he writes. Many gods means no God.

C.S. Lewis would suggest that a thousand different religions and gods points in the other direction, to one God and faith. The rest get at least part of the story right. “I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true. In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity.”1

The irony is that Shermer’s atheism is intuitive. The patterns that he claims to see emerge from his experiences. Yet Mr. Shermer says the brain doesn’t work this way. He claims it infuses patterns with meaning; everyone imposes their beliefs on patterns. Shermer can’t have it both ways. It is true that our brains tend to confirm our beliefs and ignore information that contradicts beliefs. Shermer however extends a particular truth to a universal pattern afflicting everyone—except himself. If it’s sauce for the goose, it’s sauce for the gander. Could his skepticism be influencing what he’s seeing?

There is another way to imagine patterns. Sociologist Peter L. Berger called them “signals of transcendence,” human experiences that are instinctive yet assume and require answers that lie beyond themselves.2 C.S. Lewis noticed a universal pattern, how “human beings, all over the earth have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.”3 Hollywood screenwriter Robert McKee describes another pattern, “the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness”—the way life is.4 Everyone intuits ought-is. We hear another pattern in the stirring speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1964. He said people can make a difference when they refuse to accept that “isness” renders us incapable of reaching for “oughtness.” Ought-is-can. Even the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche intuited a pattern. “All joy wills eternity—wills deep, deep eternity.”5 Ought-is-can-will.

Patterns prove nothing. But they can be pointers. As a skeptic, G.K. Chesterton noticed how children naturally express gratitude on Christmas day. These signals pointed him to God. “If my children wake up on Christmas morning and have somebody to thank for putting candy in their stockings, have I no one to thank for putting two feet in mine?”6 For C.S. Lewis, hunger is a pointer. In The Weight of Glory, he wrote:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.7

Augustine would suggest that reality isn’t “belief-dependent” but belief-discerning. Reason isn’t dependent on faith. Faith and reason work together, discerning patterns and detecting prejudices. Augustine said faith leads to reason, but reason is indispensable to faith: “Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals! Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.”

Shermer lacks discernment because he doesn’t detect his prejudices. He claims to intuit a universal pattern. But if everyone imposes meaning on patterns, so does Shermer. Someone should remind him that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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1 C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 54.
2 Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels (New York, NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1990), pp. 59-65.
3 C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 7.
4 Robert McKee, “Storytelling That Moves People,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003, p. 6.
5 Thus Spake Zarathustra, 286.14-16
6 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Reprint, 1995)
7 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1949), p. 6.

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2 Responses to “Sauce for the Gander”

  1. Brody Bond says:

    Perhaps this is obvious, but the implications of this research and this way of thinking are drastic when it comes to marketing and advertising.

    Or maybe that’s just what I’m infusing because of my career and the story I write and the patterns I look for.

  2. merrill says:

    This is great Mike. When I heard Shermer talking I thought “he’s using something that proves there is a God to try to show that there isn’t one.” I definitely prefer CS Lewis’ interpretation to Shermer’s, but that’s probably just because of my belief-dependent reality.

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