Michael Shermer from Wikipedia commons courteously of Loxton
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I’m always interested in what makes people tick. In particular, I’m interested in why some people convert to a particular religion while others run away with it. For instance, recently Antony Flew, an atheist most of his life, converted to theism before his death. Evangelist Josh Mcdowell converted from atheism to Christianity. Bertrand Russell, however, remained an atheist his whole life.
Chapter one of Shermer’s How We Believe opens with his spiritual journey from Christian to atheist skeptic. His senior year in high school he accepted Jesus as savior. However, during his years at Glendale College, his faith began to wane because of a number of philosophical issues that eventually destroyed his faith.
Shermer’s spiritual trek is not surprising. Jesus, in his parable of the farmer, foreshadowed such a journey. A farmer scattered some seed along a path. Birds ate some while some fell on rocky or shallow ground that did not allow roots to develop. Some fell near thorns that choked off the seeds. Some did, however, fall on good soil. Shermer’s Christian seed never had any roots because his initial reasons for being a Christian were not sincere; his sister had a friend that he wanted to know better and being a Christian would help. It should be no surprise, then, that winds of doubt that should not have destroyed his faith did indeed do so.
Shermer seems to imply that his critique of Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth was one of the main reasons for his disbelief. Lindsey asserted that Jesus would come back in the 1980s because of Lindsey’s interpretation of the phrase “this generation” in Matthew 24 verse 34 – an interpretation that suggested Jesus would return when the Jews who saw Israel become a nation again in 1948 were still alive. Obviously either Lindsey’s interpretation or the Bible must be faulty as the event has not happened yet.
Shermer’s friend Richard Hardison read Lindsey and hammered out a two-page list of problems with Lindsey’s book. Hardison’s analysis, Shermer says, “shook me up.” He then read what many of the great minds had to say about God with an obvious negative conclusion about God. Obviously this discomfort with Lindsey was part of an ongoing wind that blew the seed of Christianity out of its roots.
Yet, there’s no good reason why Shermer’s problems with Lindsey’s interpretation would or should make such a dent in his faith. A brief look into end-times literature reveals a vast range of opinion on every topic that prophecy touches. It would be foolhardy to pin Biblical interpretation down to just one view that, if disproven, would jeopardize anyone’s Christian faith. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and other commentators argue that the phrase “this generation” would have referred to the Jews alive in Jesus’ day, not a group of them alive in some distant future. However, Thomas Ice argues, quite persuasively, that the phrase “this generation” means “that the generation that sees the events of the seven-year Tribulation period would be the same generation that sees His second coming.” Lindsey’s opinion that Russia is an empire of the north that will invade Israel in the last days has been criticized by Joel Richardson who argues that this king that would invade Israel would be from around Turkey, not Russia. My opinion on the subject remains undecided, and I continue to hold both until persuasive proof one way or another comes along. I feel others should do the same with most areas of prophecy. My opinion of end-times literature is that one ought to take most speculation lightly and not cling to any one interpretation so as to not fall into error.
Shermer believes that God’s existence cannot be proven or unproven and illustrates this in a 1884 narrative from Shakespearean scholar Edwin Abbott of a fictional world named Flatland. In that world, people can only perceive two dimensions and have no conception of “up.” All non-flat geometric shapes in Flatland look like lines (a coin, for instance) and Flatlanders cannot comprehend these shapes. God, in this example, is as incomprehensible as these shapes. Shermer summarizes: “God’s existence or nonexistence cannot possibly be understood in human terms. What cannot be understood, cannot be proved. What is unprovable is insoluble.”
Shermer’s problem is this, then. Shermer believes that the existence of evil presents a threat to believing in a god that allows evil to exist. If God’s existence is insoluble, then, and God’s existence cannot be understood in human terms, how does Shermer know that God must restrain free choice to prevent evil when the Bible clearly does not present God this way? If Shermer is a citizen of Flatland unable to perceive God because God is like a three-dimensional being, then how does he claim to perceive God’s characteristics when God’s existence cannot be understood in human terms? Shermer must either take back his disbelief in God because of evil or admit that God is not insoluble. Which will he choose?
Shermer’s tactic is not a new development in philosophy, and it appears that he is borrowing an older argument against miracles from 18th -century writer David Hume and changing that argument to suit his argument here. In his essay against miracles, Hume argued that “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.” Experience marks the defining point where we separate a miracle from a non-miracle. For instance, he says, it is no miracle that man in good health should suddenly die. However, it would be a miracle that a dead man should rise from the dead back to life (an obvious allusion to Christ’s resurrection). This is because “that has never been observed in any age or country.” Regular everyday experience he calls a “proof,” and testimony of eyewitnesses, when testifying to a miracle, loses out to this proof. If we believe Hume, one can never establish that a miracle, or any supernatural event, can and did happen.
John Earman explains that Hume’s methodology makes it impossible to discover anything contrary to prevailing belief, much less a scientific discovery. Earman brings up an interesting story of an Indian prince who would be justified, based on his experiences and Hume’s anti-miracles philosophy, in believing that ice would never freeze. Obviously since water does freeze, then experiences aren’t always a valid justification for holding on to a belief, and Hume does not have valid room for the role of eyewitnesses in discovering unusual occurrences that may be miracles. Earman says
Hume pretends to stand on philosophical high ground, hurling down thunderbolts against miracle stories. The thunderbolts are supposed to issue from general principles about inductive inference and the credibility of eyewitness testimony. But when these principles are made explicit and examined . . .they are found to be either vapid, specious, or at variance with actual scientific practice.
Whereas Hume argued that miracles violate our everyday experiences, and therefore we can never have convincing evidence for them, Shermer just rules out knowing anything about God. Either way, God is unknowable.
Like many atheists, Shermer tries valiantly to explain the tendency of people to be religious, and he cannot accept that some people may have legitimate reasons for being that way. They must be religious for some other reason other than the fact God created them to be that way. Shermer leans on several possibilities. First, he says our brains evolved a “belief engine” that leads to “magical” thinking. We are also skilled at thinking in terms of patterns and often see them where none exist. It’s no surprise that our brains will play tricks on us and convince us that a line is bent when it is straight or imagine we see what looks like a face where none exists.
I agree with Shermer that people do have these tendencies. But what of it? I could criticize his evolutionist beliefs the same way because he attributes all life to one pattern of mutation and natural selection. So why mention it? It’s because Shermer wants to believe the religious have brains that fool them into believing in what is not there. However, everybody has a tendency to find patterns, and therefore religiosity can’t be ascribed to that. In fact, being religious is just another way mankind’s natural need to find patterns finds its expression, and this can’t automatically rule out religious beliefs as false. As always we must test truth claims for their accuracy or falsity.
In his book Why Darwin Matters, he also advances other faulty reasons people have for being religious: a general resistance to science, a belief that evolution is a threat to religious tenets, the fear that evolution degrades our humanity, and equating evolution with nihilism. Next he lists the six most common reasons people believe in God: the good design of the universe, the experience of God in everyday life, the comforting nature of belief in God, the acceptance of the authority of the Bible, and the need to believe in something. The top six reasons why people think others believe in God very closely mirror the reasons they believe in God.
His first claim of a resistance to science is an objection I’ve heard often. Perhaps Shermer missed John Ashton’s book In Six Days that is composed of fifty scientists who accept Biblical creation. If these individuals have such a disdain for science, why are they scientists or, at least, have highly prestigious scientific degrees? What Shermer is doing is conflating evolution with science to suggest that belief in science necessitates belief in evolution. However, that is not so.
He must have also missed one of the most successful Christian apologetic books: Josh Mcdowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Mcdowell’s claims that Christianity is true don’t rest on pattern seeking (unless you’re talking about the pattern that many of Christianity’s truth claims are true) or fear of science. Rather they rest on exploring the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, whether prophecies come true, and whether historical events in the Bible happened. Any skeptic can find some problems with McDowell’s methodology (as no apologetic is foolproof), but one can at least admit that Mcdowell isn’t a Christian because of the minimal reasons Shermer cites. Some Christians believe for very sophisticated reasons other than feelings these beliefs give a person.
In his critique of ID, he misunderstands the extent to which creationists and intelligent-design theorists invoke God.
Creationists and Intelligent Design (ID) theorists explain natural phenomena by turning immediately to supernatural forces operating outside this world. Following that thinking, there is no point in searching for medical cures in the natural world; we should throw out all medical knowledge and turn purely to prayer, without trying any treatments.
This is a ridiculous way of characterizing how these people think, and I don’t know any of them who would resort to prayer over medical solutions much less immediately jump to invoking God whenever an unknown is present. If Shermer really believes what he says, then how do we explain William Dembski’s Explanatory Filter – a scientific search methodology where someone must travel through two other possibilities (whether natural law explains or chance explains something) before we can discover the possibility of design.
Actually, Shermer does mention Dembski’s filter and lofts two objections to it. First, Shermer says that just because we have eliminated chance and law, we can’t automatically assume what we are studying was caused by design. “Design requires positive evidence, not the rejection of negative evidence.” Well, here I agree with Shermer although to a modest point. Once we eliminate chance and law, there are no other options. However, for us to conclude that a particular designer did the designing, there must be some match between what we would expect the designer would or could do and our observations. Shermer also claims that we should apply the logic of the Explanatory Filter to the designer’s designer, but this would be ruled out if the designer were divine with no beginning and end (as in the God of the Bible). Shermer suggests the design inference is too subjective because it often leads to false positives. Yet, that’s true of the design inference applied to anything we consider designed whether it’s made by humans or God. This does not mean we abandon the design inference altogether; it just means we hone our methods and recognize where we may not be sure of our conclusions.
He lastly claims the ultimate answer to the Explanatory Filter resides in the many examples of self-organized emergence in nature revealed in the following:
If you look at that list you notice that the last three occur because of the intelligent planning of humans (intelligent design maybe?), and that is the only reason these things have emerged. Shermer includes water in this list, but water is the one substance in this list with an observable natural emergent property. Shermer, like many evolutionists, likes to sneak in intelligently created things in lists of those that supposedly come from a natural evolutionist process so they can bolster the claim that evolution produces ongoing and continuous order and complexity.
Shermer should also eliminate consciousness from that list because he most likely does not have sufficient knowledge about it to infer that it is an emergent property. Consciousness is not a property at all because properties give us details about something. Consciousness is an active force (for lack of a better description) that causes something rather than being about something. My experience with scientists and philosophers of science is that they don’t have enough information to fully explain consciousness much less its origin, and Shermer is doing nothing better than slapping the label “emergent property” on consciousness so as to believe he has explained it while not explaining anything. I could slap the label “emergent property” on this essay and have accomplished just as much in explaining its origins as Shermer does in slapping that label on consciousness.
Shermer thinks that atheist beliefs are not depressing as some Christians think but a cause of liberation.
To the contrary. For me, quite the opposite is true. The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest. This is not to say that those who are religious cannot share in these freedoms. But for me, and not just for me, a world without monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back.
Shermer is not the only skeptic or atheist (or whatever they choose to call themselves) to announce such an emotional attachment to these beliefs. Bertrand Russell has said “Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.” I’ve found that many, if not all, evolutionists have tried to make a religion out of evolution if for no other reason than to have a religion to fill the void left by God.
What we can say of Shermer, then, is that it appears the traditional religionists he criticizes are not the only pattern seekers. He is one as well. Rather than spend over 200 pages casting doubt on the traditionally religious, he ought to perhaps write that many pages attributing atheist beliefs to wishful thinking and pattern seeking. Now that would be a book I would like to read.
Shermer and Intelligent Design
Shermer suggests convergence of evidence as a test for evolution. I agree. In fact, that’s exactly how I feel about Christianity or any religion that suggests a number of truth claims.
For his evidence for evolution, he, like many evolutionists, uses negative theological arguments. What I mean is that he concludes that God does not exist because, if God existed, He could not create life and the universe the way they exist. One biological fact he uses is the presence of vestigial organs (organs that do not have any use but may have in the past).
However, his scientific philosophy is wrong. Shermer, first of all, can’t use negative theology because, in his previous book How We Believe, he suggests that belief in God is insoluble. Obviously we can’t know anything about God and, if that’s true, we can’t know anything about what God would or would not create. How does Shermer know God would not create vestigial organs?
Second, these organs may not be vestigial after all. An article in the Scientific American quotes an article in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology that claims more animals have an appendix than just humans and that the appendix is not merely a remnant of a digestive organ called the cecum. The book “Vestigial Organs” Are Fully Functional lists more. Does Shermer know enough about all these organs to know for sure they have no use? Cornelius Hunter makes roughly the same point:
The very use of the term vestigial begs the question, for vestigial structures serve as evidence for evolution only if they are indeed vestigial. But we cannot know they are vestigial without first presupposing evolution, because we cannot directly measure their contribution to the organism’s fitness. Therefore when evolutionists identify a structure as vestigial, it seems that it is the theory of evolution that is justifying the claim, rather than the claim justifying the theory of evolution.
Lastly, vestigial organs can’t be used as evidence because evolution does not predict them. Evolutionist theory merely accommodates them. In his debate with Dr. Theobald, Ashby Camp says “Moreover, even Neo-Darwinism does not demand vestigial genes; it simply accommodates them. If they did not exist, it would mean that an incapacitating mutation never occurred or never occurred in an environment that was selectively neutral in terms of the gene’s function. If they did exist, it would mean the opposite. Any result can be fit within the scheme.” In order words, according to evolution, we should expect vestigial organs, but if they don’t appear then the correct mutation simply didn’t come along to cause them. Either event is explained by evolutionist belief.
Shermer believes the universe is poorly designed because it contains empty space. If belief in God is insoluble, how do we know what kind of universe God would create? Again, Shermer invokes a lot of knowledge about God for someone who claims we can’t know anything about God. Why exactly would we expect or not expect empty space?
Shermer takes on scientific and cosmological arguments for God’s existence, one of which he calls the “prime mover” argument – an argument that claims the universe cannot exist on its own and God must have created it because God is the only timeless entity available to do so. Shermer says the universe is all there ever was and therefore God must be within the universe. If God does not need to be created, then not everything needs to be created. Why can’t the universe be the entity that is uncreated?
However, Christian apologists don’t claim that God is in the universe. They claim that God is somehow outside or beyond the universe such that God can or cannot create the universe by choice and freedom to do so at will. This Christian apologetic is common and I don’t know how Shermer could have missed it.
Later in his critique of intelligent design in Why Darwin Matters, Shermer argues that creationists should accept evolution.
Belief in God depends on religious faith. Acceptance of evolution depends on empirical evidence. This is the fundamental difference between religion and science. If you attempt to reconcile and combine religion and science on questions about nature and the universe, and if you push the science to its logical conclusion, you will end up naturalizing the deity; for any question about nature, if your answer is “God did it,” a scientist will ask such questions as “How did God do it? What forces did God use? What forms of matter and energy were employed in the creation process?” The end result of this inquiry can only be natural explanations for all natural phenomena. What place, then, for God?
First, belief in God does depend on a specific amount of religious faith, but that faith is bolstered by and given validation by empirical evidence. That’s why Christians often embrace near-death experiences as evidence of their belief in body-soul dualism (a belief that an immaterial soul coexists with our bodies and survives death). To Christians, this is empirical evidence. They also find confirmation of their beliefs in archaeological discoveries that corroborate Biblical events. I demand evidence for my Christian beliefs and I don’t know why Shermer would think we don’t.
Second, Shermer suspects that when you claim God did something, you must discover a natural way for God to act that uses nature’s laws, rules, forms of energy, matter, and events. That he calls “naturalizing the deity.” Creationists don’t argue like that because they accept that the works of God are often beyond comprehension because of our limited nature. We are human, after all, while God is divine. We do, however, look for evidence, where it is possible to gather it, and use that evidence to bolster our beliefs.
As a result of evolutionists’ round-peg-in-a -square-hole philosophy, they often contradict themselves to my immense amusement. Such is the case with Shermer who compliments creationists as people who seek truth just as much as evolutionists do. This comes after Shermer claims people only believe in God because of poor emotional reasons. Why? The reason is because in one part of his book he wants to fault creationists and in one part he wants to compliment them because he wants them to believe in evolution. In much the same way a country that is at war with another might compliment its enemy as a country that wants peace. If you want to gain somebody’s approval even though you fundamentally agree with them theologically and philosophically, you can’t win them over to your side by criticizing them.
I looked through Shermer’s list of reasons why creationists should accept evolution – many of them dealing with moral demands – and none of them seem to represent a reason to believe in evolution more than creationism. For instance, Shermer says the benefits of adultery are obvious, but the risks outweigh the benefits.
I have two questions for Shermer, though. First, why do many atheists and humanists develop moral conclusions exactly opposite what most people would consider moral behavior? I will devote an essay later on the immorality of liberalism and other secular thought, but for now I can immediately think of one example: the racism and eugenic movements in the early 20th century were propped up by evolutionist thinking and certainly weren’t reflective of conservative Christian thought or anything Shermer would probably agree with now. Similarly, secular humanists quite often push for more sexual freedom in all areas without limits while the Church (large C) frequently is more restrained in those matters. If his fellow humanists draw immoral conclusions from their evolutionist beliefs, why does Shermer think he can draw conservative ones?
Shermer and Darwin’s Failings
What I find interesting is what Shermer does with evidence that might throw a damper on evolutionist claims. I grant that there are many unsolved problems with evolutionary theory, but probably many problems that cannot be solved because there is no evolutionist process to solve the problem. When there are things he doesn’t know that are not just unknown but are instead evolution’s impossibilities, he calls them “problems” and nothing more.
The origin of life is just one area where IDists say that evolution’s problems are insurmountable because of what we know, not because of what we do not know. Shermer devotes very little to this issue except to suggest, quoting Antonio Lacano, President of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, that cells came before RNA. So how did cells first arise? IDists say that we can’t and shouldn’t expect an answer to how life arose from non-life because DNA is a code and codes only come from intelligent sources. We would be as foolhardy attributing one of Shermer’s books to natural processes. It’s time to change the scientific paradigm.
This is the crux of the matter. Shermer has a lot of fun quoting former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as saying there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Shermer obviously claims that the origin of life is an unknown unknown, but we can convert that to a known unknown. But how does he know that? I could apply the same criticism to him as he does to creationists when Shermer claims the design inference is subjective. Well, the difference between the claim that some things that are unknown can be known and the claim that some things that are unknown can’t be known is too subjective also. So how does Shermer distinguish between the two? Is it possible he just chooses to believe the unknowns of evolution can be eventually known?
His treatment of Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution is another case in point regarding how he deals with problems with the teachings of evolution.
Wells treats us to several examples of faulty supposed evidence for evolution, and this evidence has appeared in textbooks as evidence without being corrected. These evidences include the false fact life can arise from non-life, that Darwin’s’ tree of life exists, peppered moths demonstrate evolution, and so forth. Shermer responds that
First, the old creationists’ saw that mistakes in science are a sign of weakness is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of science, which is constantly building upon both the mistakes and the successes of the past. Science does not just change, it builds cumulatively on the past. Scientists make mistakes aplenty, and in fact this is how science progresses. The self-correcting feature of the scientific method is one of its most powerful assets.
Well, if Shermer wants to drone on regarding creationist misunderstandings, let’s first begin with Shermer’s misunderstandings of Wells’ point. Clearly in the case of the many textbooks that Wells talks about, science does not build upon mistakes in the past by making corrections. In the case of evolutionist orthodoxy, old mistakes remain and are not eliminated. No scientific progress occurs, or very little, when it comes to Darwinism.
Wells begins his book by telling us that during his undergraduate years, he believed everything he read in textbooks. When he was finishing his Ph.D. in cell and development biology, he noticed all his textbooks dealing with evolutionary biology contained the misrepresentation of drawings of vertebrate embryos showing similarities that are supposed to be evidence of common descent. His assessment of drawings was confirmed in 1997 when British embryologist Michael Richardson published an article in Anatomy and Embryology comparing textbook drawings with real embryos. Richardson was later quoted in the American journal Science as saying “It looks like it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology.” Soon after Wells noticed that other textbooks contain similar errors. Wells discovered that other biologists have noticed such errors but they have been ignored. This pattern, he says, suggests more than simple errors. It suggests “that Darwinism encourages distortions of the truth.”
That’s exactly the problem with evolutionists like Shermer. They so badly want you to believe in evolution because they so badly want to believe themselves, and they are willing to distort their reasoning and evidence as well as that of their opponents to fit their intellectual round peg in an intellectual square hole. This requires us being skeptical of not just the religious but people like Shermer even more.
So the answer to the question of why Shermer believes weird things is this: because he wants to believe them.
Jeffrey Stueber firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Matthew 13.
 Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (New York, W. H. Freeman, 2000), 6-7.
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et. al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996), 445-447
 Tim Lahaye and Ed Hindson, ed., The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2004), 117.
 Joel Richardson, The Islamic Antichrist: The Shocking Truth about the Real Nature of the Beast, (Los Angeles, WND Books, 2009).
 Shermer, 15.
 V. C. Chappell, ed., The Philosophy of David Hume (New York, The Modern Library, 1963), 363.
 John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles (New York: Oxford, 2000), 70.
 Shermer, 62.
 Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (New York, Henry Holt, 2006), 30-31.
 John Ashton, ed., In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, Green Forest: AR, Master Books, 2000).
 Ibid, 63.
 What I mean by that is that we can observe water as the result of the joining of hydrogen and oxygen every day, but we cannot observe the naturalistic origin of language, law, and the economy. Those only come from agents that already have conscious intelligence.
 Shermer, How We Believe, 236-237.
 Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian (New York: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975), 22.
 Shermer, Why Darwin Matters, 12.
 The web site https://creationtoday.org/product/vestigial-organs-are-fully-functional/ has this blurb describing the book: “What do the coccyx, tonsils, appendix, cecum, and goose bumps have in common? These comprise a partial list of what evolutionists still assert are useless remnants or “vestiges” which functioned only in evolutionary ancestors. Bergman and Howe review these arguments and emphatically explain that these pseudo “remnants of evolution” actually perform extremely important roles in living organisms. This book provides a must read of the true facts for medical doctors and students who have been exposed to the vestigial organ argument in support of evolution!”
 Cornelius Hunter, Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001) , 33.
 Shermer, Why Darwin Matters, 56.
 Ibid, 123.
 Ibid, 84-85.
 Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?: Why much of what we teach about evolution is wrong (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000)