Links and Comments: Michael Shermer, Science and God, Religion vs Education, Your soul

Michael Shermer’s new book

As mentioned a couple posts ago, Michael Shermer has a new book out this week (I got my copy yesterday), The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, which addresses a theme of one of my ‘provisional conclusions’ about the arc of human history, expanding social and moral acceptance, and progress; but no doubt covers much more, which is why I’ll be interested to read it.

So Shermer is publicizing his book in various places; he was a guest on an LA NPR station’s weekday talk show Air Talk last Monday; and he had an op-ed, The influence of science and reason on moral progress in the LA Times the same day. (And today, as I post this, he had an interview with the Bay Area NPR station, KQED: Michael Shermer on How Science and Reason Shape Morality.)


To what should we attribute this moral progress? Understandably, most people point to religion as the primary driver, given its long association with all matters moral. But the evidence shows that most of the moral development of the last several centuries has been the result of secular forces, and that the most important of these are reason and science, which emerged from the Enlightenment.

Over time, we have expanded the moral sphere of who we consider a member of our community worthy of respect, dignity and equal treatment. We’re still working at it, but it is only a matter of time before all are included.

And the other day I came across an interview with Shermer on Sam Harris’ blog, which addresses themes of the new book.

Harris: What role has religion played in our moral progress?

Shermer: I like to paraphrase Winston Churchill in his description of Americans: You can always count on religions to do the right thing…after they’ve tried everything else. It’s true that the abolition of slavery was championed by Quakers and Mennonites, that the civil rights movement was led by a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., and that gay rights and same-sex marriage were backed early on by some Episcopalian ministers. But these are the exceptions, and for the most part people who opposed abolition, civil rights, and gay marriage were (and still are, in the latter case) their fellow Christians. In my debates with Dinesh D’Souza, he holds up William Wilberforce—the British abolitionist—as an example of how religion drives moral progress. But when I looked into that history a bit more carefully, it turns out that Wilberforce’s opponents in Parliament were all his fellow Christians, who justified slavery with religious and Bible-based arguments. (Plus, as I note in my book, “Wilberforce’s religious motives were complicated by his pushy and overzealous moralizing about virtually every aspect of life, and his great passion seemed to be to worry incessantly about what other people were doing, especially if what they were doing involved pleasure, excess, and ‘the torrent of profaneness that every day makes more rapid advances.’”)

The gay rights revolution we’re undergoing right now is a case study in how rights revolutions come about, because we can see who supports it and who opposes it: The vast majority of conservative and fundamentalist Christians have opposed (and still do oppose) same-sex marriage and equal rights for gays, whereas secularists and non-religious people support the movement; and those religious people who do endorse same-sex marriage are members of the most liberal and the least dogmatic sects.

So, while I acknowledge that many religious people do much good work in the world, manning soup kitchens and providing aid to the poor and disaster relief to those in temporary need, religions overall have lagged behind the moral arc, sometimes for an embarrassingly long time.

Science and God

No, the former isn’t proving the latter. In The New Yorker, Lawrence M. Krauss (an actual scientist) responds to a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” by one Eric Metaxas (a writer and TV host and not a scientist). The WSJ article took various observations from astrobiology, and the so-called ‘fine-tuning’ of universal physical constants, as evidence that the universe must have been rigged (by ‘God’ of course) to enable humanity’s existence. Krauss takes his arguments apart, e.g.

In fact, one of the most severe apparent fine tunings often referred to by creationists like Metaxas is that of the so-called cosmological constant, the energy of empty space that has recently been discovered to be causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate over time. It remains one of the biggest mysteries in physics, as it appears to be over a hundred and twenty orders of magnitude smaller than our theories suggest it could be. And if it were as large as the theories suggest it should be, then galaxies, stars, and planets would never have formed.

Is this a clear example of design? Of course not. If it were zero, which would be “natural” from a theoretical perspective, the universe would in fact be more hospitable to life. If the cosmological constant were different, perhaps vastly different kinds of life might have arisen. Moreover, arguing that God exists because many cosmic mysteries remain is intellectually lazy in the extreme. The more we understand the universe, the more remarkable it appears to be. Exploring how this remarkable diversity can arise by potentially simple laws has been one of the most successful, and intellectually beautiful, efforts in human history.

Religion vs Education

Here’s another news item that supports one of my provisional conclusions, #7, in which I mention that resistance to greater understanding of the real world exists because religious and ideological groups consider them threats to their group’s narratives… from political isolation to religious inculcation.

Here’s a scary example: Jehovah’s Witness Leader Rants Against Higher Education, Saying It’ll Lead to “Spiritual Disaster”.

Rather than sending kids to secular universities, Morris advises parents to encourage their kids to learn a trade like carpentry. There’s nothing wrong with learning a skill like that, of course, but to demonize knowledge that might contradict one’s silly beliefs is one of the obvious problems with religion. To people like Morris, ignorance is bliss and fact-based education is kryptonite.

Your soul

On another topic, Salon has an excerpt from a new book by Julien Musolino called The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. That is, the mind is the brain; there is no ethereal, incorporeal “soul” that exists independently from the the functioning of the brain.

This is not news; it’s been an apparent conclusion of neurobiological studies for decades. What’s remarkable is I’ve never seen it spelled out so bluntly in a popular media essay. (Also, it makes an initial point by describing an obscure SF story. And it quotes Lawrence Krauss.)

This entry was posted in Atheism, Culture, Evolution, Morality, Religion, science fiction. Bookmark the permalink.