the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:

E Pluribus Unum for all faiths and for none

December 2011

Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that America is fast becoming a theocracy. No fewer than three of the remaining Republican candidates (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann) have declared that they were called by God to run for the country’s highest office. Congress recently voted to renew the country’s motto of “In God We Trust” on nothing less than the coin of the realm. And this year’s Thanksgiving Forum in Iowa (co-sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage) featured most of the major Presidential candidates competing for the title of God’s quarterback.

Rick Santorum, for example, in the course of denouncing Islamic Sharia law, inadvertently endorsed the same as long as it is a Christian on the Judge’s bench: “Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law.” Not content to speak in such circular generalities, Santorum targeted his faith: “As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.” God’s law? That is precisely the argument made by Islamic imams. But Santorum was only getting started. “Gay marriage is wrong. The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.” Christian values only, of course.

The historically challenged Michele Bachmann minced no words when she declared: “I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says.” A Bachmann administration would apparently consult the Old Testament for moral guidance because, she pronounced with her usual hubris born of historical ignorance, “American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law.” Really? Where in our laws does it prohibit belief in gods other than Yahweh, ban the manufacturing of graven images, forbid taking the Lord’s name in vain, bar us from working on the Sabbath, require us to honor our parents, and interdict the coveting of our neighbor’s house, wife, slave, servant, ox, and ass? Even the notoriously difficult to follow 7th commandment is not illegal, much to the relief of candidate Gingrich.

Surely the pluralism of America’s religious diversity is what makes us great. Not so, said Rick Perry: “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.” But don’t politicians owe allegiance to the Constitution? Alas, pace Perry, no. “Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the President of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers.” You mean the values and virtues of the atheist Thomas Paine and the Deist Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whom rejected Jesus, the resurrection, and all miracles as nonsense on stilts, and yet who nonetheless insisted on building an impregnable wall protecting religion from the encroachment of state abuse?

Finally, the erudite Newt Gingrich was more specific in his plan to bring about a Christian nation through legal means, starting by redacting the 14th Amendment: “I am intrigued with something which Robby George at Princeton has come up with, which is an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, in which it says that Congress shall define personhood. That’s very clearly in the 14th Amendment. And part of what I would like to explore is whether or not you could get the Congress to pass a law which simply says: Personhood begins at conception. And therefore—and you could, in the same law, block the court and just say, ‘This will not be subject to review,’ which we have precedent for. You would therefore not have to have a Constitutional amendment, because the Congress would have exercised its authority under the 14th Amendment to define life, and to therefore undo all of Roe vs. Wade, for the entire country, in one legislative action.” If the 14th Amendment can be averted on a technicality, what about the others?

If you are a Christian, of course, this is the mother’s milk of nursing privilege. Power to the (Christian) people. It’s the oldest trope in history—religious tribalism—and it’s being played out in the land of liberty. So it is prudent for us to educe that other national motto found on the Seal of the United States first proffered by the founding patriarchs John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782: E Pluribus Unum—Out of many, one.

How many make up our one? There are 300 million Americans. Gallup, Pew, and other pollsters consistently find that about 10 percent of Americans do not believe in God. That’s 30 million Americans. That’s not all. A 2008 study by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) revealed that between 1990 and 2008 the fastest growing religious group in America were the “Nones,” or people who responded “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, or Secular” in the survey. Remarkably, this group gained more new members (19,838,000) than either Catholics (11,195,000) or Protestants (10,980,000), and totals 15 percent, or 45 million Americans.

Read that number again candidates! If you are elected President of these United States are you really going to dismiss and openly refuse to represent 45 million people living under the same Constitution as you? And that’s just the Nones. Tens of millions more Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Jains, Taoists, Wiccans, New Agers, and other law-abiding loyal Americans—many serving in the armed services protecting our liberty—are non-Christians who hold the same dreams and aspirations for what this country has to offer as do Christians. In fact, at most Christians comprise 60–76 percent of all Americans, which means that somewhere between 72 million and 120 million U.S. citizens are non-Christians no less deserving of representation in this democracy.

It’s time for candidates and politicians to stop the God talk and start acting like true representatives of the people—all of the people. It’s time for the 45 million Nones to demand both respect and representation no less than any other American, and for presidential candidates, when asked about their religion, to reply something along these lines:

I understand why you are curious about my religious beliefs, but I am not running to represent only Americans who happen to believe what I believe about God and religion. I am running to represent Americans of all faiths, and even the tens of millions of Americans who have no religion. If elected, my allegiance is to the Constitution and my duty is to uphold the laws of this great land, which are to be applied equally and without prejudice to all Americans no matter their color or creed. I realize that some candidates and politicians pander to their religious voting block in hopes of gaining support by tapping ancient tribal prejudices, but that is not my way. I get why other candidates are tempted to appeal to those deep emotions that are stirred by religious unity against those who believe differently, but I am trying to do something different. If elected I fully intend to represent all Americans under my jurisdiction, not just those Americans whose beliefs I happen to share. I am trying to build a better America for all Americans, not some. The original motto of this country is E Pluribus Unum. It means “Out of many, one.” It means that we are stronger together than separate, united by our common belief in liberty and the freedom to believe whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. As a candidate for the highest office of this noble nation my faith is in its people—all of the people—and what we are able to do together to make the world a better place to live.

Comments Off
topics in this post: , , , , ,

Paleolithic Politics

December 2011

Has there ever been a time when the political process has been so bipartisan and divisive? Yes, actually, one has only to recall the rancorousness of the Bush-Gore or Bush-Kerry campaigns, harken back to the acrimonious campaigns of Nixon or Johnson, read historical accounts of the political carnage of both pre- and post-Civil War elections, or watch HBO’s John Adams series to relive in full period costuming the bipartite bitterness between the parties of Adams and Jefferson to realize just how myopic is our perspective.

We can go back even further into our ancestral past to understand why the political process is so tribal. But for the business attire donned in the marbled halls of congress we are a scant few steps removed from the bands and tribes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and a few more leaps afield from the hominid ancestors roaming together in small bands on the African savannah. There, in those long-gone millennia, were formed the family ties and social bonds that enabled our survival among predators who were faster, stronger, and deadlier than us. Unwavering loyalty to your fellow tribesmen was a signal that they could count on you when needed. Undying friendship with those in your group meant that they would reciprocate when the chips were down. Within-group amity was insurance against the between-group enmity that characterized our ancestral past. As Ben Franklin admonished his fellow revolutionaries, we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.

In this historical trajectory our group psychology evolved and along with it a propensity for xenophobia—in-group good, out-group bad. Thus it is that members of the other political party are not just wrong—they are evil and dangerous. Stray too far from the dogma of your own party and you risk being perceived as an outsider, an Other we may not be able to trust. Consistency in your beliefs is a signal to your fellow group members that you are not a wishy-washy, Namby Pamby, flip-flopper, and that I can count on you when needed.

This is why, for example, the political beliefs of members of each party are so easy to predict. Without even knowing you, I predict that if you are a liberal you read the New York Times, listen to NPR radio, watch CNN, hate George W. Bush and loathe Sarah Palin, are pro-choice, anti-gun, adhere to the separation of church and state, are in favor of universal healthcare, vote for measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich in order to level the playing field, and believe that global warming is real, human caused, and potentially disastrous for civilization if the government doesn’t do something dramatic and soon. By contrast, I predict that if you are a conservative you read the Wall Street Journal, listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News, love George W. Bush and venerate Sarah Palin, are pro-life, anti-gun control, believe that America is a Christian nation that should meld church and state, are against universal healthcare, vote against measures to redistribute wealth and tax the rich, and are skeptical of global warming and/or government schemes to dramatically alter our economy in order to save civilization.

Research in cognitive psychology shows, for example, that once we commit to a belief we employ the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirming evidence in support of it and ignore or rationalize away any disconfirming evidence. In one experiment subjects were presented with evidence that contradicted a belief they held deeply, and with evidence that supported those same beliefs. The results showed that the subjects recognized the validity of the confirming evidence but were skeptical of the value of the disconfirming evidence. The confirmation bias was poignantly on display during the run-up to the 2004 Bush-Kerry Presidential election when subjects had their brains scanned while assessing statements by both Bush and Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Half of the subjects were self-identified as “strong” Republicans and half “strong” Democrats. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. The brain scans showed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiet. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex that is involved in the processing of emotions, the anterior cingulate that is associated with conflict resolution, and the ventral striatum that is related to rewards.

In other words, reasoning with facts about the issues is quite secondary to the emotional power of first siding with your party and then employing your reason, intelligence, and education in the service of your political commitment.

Our political parties today evolved out of the Paleolithic parties of the past.

Comments Off
topics in this post: , , , ,

As Far As Her Eyes Can See

December 2011

A review of Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (Ecco, 2011).

LISA RANDALL HAS BEEN JUSTLY APPRAISED by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential people in the world” for her work in theoretical particle physics. From her position at Harvard University, she often travels: to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, CERN, in Switzerland, where her theories are being put to the test in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC); to speaking engagements with professional and public audiences about her work in particular and the awe and wonder of science in general; and to rock formations where her chalked fingers can find ways to defy gravity. On the side, she writes popular books, such as her acclaimed Warped Passages1.

In Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Randall picks up the story from where she left off when the LHC was years away from first collision, expanding her horizon from, as she poetically puts it, “what’s so small to you is so large to me” to “what’s so large to you is so small to me.” In other words, the book ranges from the smallest known particles to the entire bubble universe, from 10−35 meters (the Planck length, where quantum gravity rules) to 1027 meters (the entire visible universe, 100 billion light-years across, where dark matter and dark energy dominate), a stunning 62 orders of magnitude. (Randall correctly notes the age of the universe at 13.75 billion years, clarifying her apparently paradoxical figure of 100 billion light-years thusly: “The reason the universe as a whole is bigger than the distance a signal could have traveled given its age is that space itself has expanded.” She unpacks that sentence in the book.) (continue reading…)

read or write comments (4)
topics in this post: , , , , ,

Sacred Salubriousness

December 2011
New research on self-control explains the link between religion and health
magazine cover

Ever since 2000, when psychologist Michael E. McCullough, now at the University of Miami, and his colleagues published a metaanalysis of more than three dozen studies showing a strong correlation between religiosity and lower mortality, skeptics have been challenged by believers to explain why—as if to say, “See, there is a God, and this is the payoff for believing.”

In science, however, “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis. Inquiring minds would want to know how God did it and what forces or mechanisms were employed (and “God works in mysterious ways” will not pass peer review). Even such explanations as “belief in God” or “religiosity” must be broken down into their component parts to find possible causal mechanisms for the links between belief and behavior that lead to health, well-being and longevity. This McCullough and his then Miami colleague Brian Willoughby did in a 2009 paper that reported the results of a metaanalysis of hundreds of studies revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as visiting dentists and wearing seat belts, and are less likely to smoke, drink, take recreational drugs and engage in risky sex. Why? Religion provides a tight social network that reinforces positive behaviors and punishes negative habits and leads to greater self-regulation for goal achievement and self-control over negative temptations. (continue reading…)

read or write comments (14)
topics in this post: , ,

Is America a Christian Nation? Readers Respond to Chuck Colson

November 2011

On November 4, the Los Angeles Times published my Opinion Editorial entitled “What’s God Got to do With it?” (which I also posted on Skepticblog) about Congress reaffirming our national motto “In God We Trust.” I argued that trust does not come from God but from very specific social, political, and economic institutions.

Chuck Colson, the one-time special counsel for President Richard Nixon, one of the Watergate Seven who also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in his attempt to defame the Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg, and the man who found God and Jesus just in time for his jail sentence in federal prison, now blogs on political and social issues from a Christian perspective and has attempted a smack-down of my Op-Ed by arguing that “God Has a Lot to Do With It.”

His argument is summarized in his own words thusly:

It was Christianity, you see, that taught the West that all human beings are created in the image of God. Without that understanding, the very words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” could never have been written.

Most of all, our ideas about what constitutes a free and secure society are derived from Christianity. Political scientist Glenn Tinder has written about how much of what we celebrate in our society, like the “respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings,” has “strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity.”

Before I respond in my next blog with a deeper historical analysis of how equality, liberty, prosperity, and trust arose well ahead of religious doctrines (see, in the mean time, Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature for a thorough history of this development), I tweeted the link to Colson’s rebuttal and asked my readers to respond in their own way, which they did with some very cogent points:

Nicholas Johnson writes:

Those poor Greeks and Romans. They knew nothing, apparently.

Nathan George writes:

It should be pointed out that Colson seems to dismiss science by saying “the science Shermer puts so much stock in” as he types this very statement on his computer which science, not Christianity, is responsible for.

David Carmer writes:

It is the height of hypocrisy to say that we, as a nation, trust in a deity. If we truly had sincere trust we’d need no army, no judicial system, no anti-trust laws, no prison system, no government oversight, and so on. An honest deep felt trust in God would logically lead to us living in a lawless state wherein we expected our benevolent protector to handle the details and to keep us safe. To embrace the motto, shouldn’t we get rid of all those laws and government organizations that are designed especially because we cannot trust in divine intervention? 

Hans Van Ingelgom writes:

The biggest problem I face when discussing Christianity is that I don’t know what it stands for. Christianity is subdivided in countless branches, often with opposing views. You can’t simply discuss somebody’s views just by knowing he’s a Christian. Does respect for the individual include the right of gay marriage? Should the state be neutral to religion, respecting individual choices? It depends on what Christian you ask.

David Schumacher writes:

You might remind Colson that some of the Christian founders were still using spectral evidence to put people to death as recently as the witch killings of Salem.

David Allen writes:

The response to Chuck is easy—Christ was a wise man and Christian values are good, but no god is needed to come up with those values. And as for him citing the Declaration of Independence and the words “All men are created equal”—those words were written by men who held slaves, so the words ring hollow.

Mark Bowermaster writes:

Yeah, because nothing says free and secure like an omnipotent cloud wizard demanding your allegiance by threat of never ending immolation.

Adam Qureshi writes:

His argument does not even pass the null hypothesis. What the heck did we do before Christianity came along a mere 2 thousand years ago?

Eric Lawton writes:

The ancient Greeks were just as much a source of all these values such as the rule of law. Christianity plunged us into centuries of dark ages, superstition and theocracy. Of course those people, the early Protestants, who helped us to restore these values through the enlightenment were Christians, because it was pretty much illegal not to be. But it doesn’t prove that it was because they were Christians that they did that; otherwise it would have happened much earlier. It was the beginning of our escape from Christianity and a return to secular values which got us where we are, and is one of the reasons for the separation of Church and State in the U.S.

Peter McCully writes:

And what has Christianity given us concerning the rights of homosexuals, women, slaves or even animals? Most, if not all of the advances in human rights over the last two hundred years or so have been a gradual unpicking of the stitches in Christianity’s fabric. Nice of the church to take credit for it though.

David Serbin writes:

Colton is both right and wrong. Education, laws, and enforcement of laws do have some root in religion. But what Colton forgets is that these were bad things. Education for centuries meant hitting children, dress codes, and other awful practices that are only practiced today by private religious schools (although as we’ve seen with Penn State and other teacher’s scandals, public schools aren’t great either). Another problem is that citing the law from the Bible begs the question: which laws? Laws that stone adulterers or ban gay marriage? Surely those laws don’t make society any better off. Finally, Colton says that God is responsible for freedom of the individual, equality, and security. But banning gay marriage does not increase individuality nor equality. The Founders were of varying religious beliefs, but they fled in part due to the Church of England and they would be rolling in their graves if they saw the way that Christians have abused their 1st amendment right of freedom of religion to try and make this country a theocracy by using the state to put God on the pledge, the dollar, and anywhere and everywhere possible.

Jerry Jaffe writes:

When the bible tells us to stone our neighbors to death (Deut. 17 2–5) and we don’t, is that because we know right from wrong without reference to the bible, perhaps?

Andi Wolfe writes:

How very convenient that Colson forgets that the Declaration of Independence did not apply to slaves and women. If you really want to invoke a religion that values all humans, respects individuals, and promotes the essential equality of all human beings, look to the Buddhists. They actually live their lives as if their beliefs have meaning.

Will Colon writes:

You might be inclined to point out that if religion—specifically Christianity—is in some way responsible for the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans, why is it that historically theocratic nations or nations endorsing a particular religion have been home to some of the most illiberal treatment of humans in our species’ history. The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch is a good book that touches on this; specifically it highlights how the absolutism of religion—again, specifically Christianity—lends itself to scenarios like the Inquisition and the injustices that dovetail along with it. It’s also worth noting that while many of our Founding Fathers did hold some belief in a creator—a common belief of the time—a great number of them were Deists who were deeply skeptical of the Christian god.

Bob Makin writes:

As to the claim that a free and secure society is derived from Christianity, may I enquire as to what the practice of slavery, the Inquisition and pogroms against the Jews have to do with freedom and security? I would think that the capriciousness of that religion does more to inject a great degree of uncertainty into any civilization which finds itself under its influence. Given that God has been a merciless and cruel dictator given to fits of rage, widespread destruction of entire societies, not to mention the annihilation of the entire population of the earth, I fail to see that being created in his image is any kind of recommendation.

David Kaloyanides writes:

Colson ignores the foundation of democracy in Athens more than 500 years before Christianity existed. He ignores the code of Hamurrabi, which is our oldest codified set of laws that governed the behavior of humans. He also ignores the teachings of the New Testament where Christians were called upon to obey whatever governing authority existed at the time as such was established by God. Colson also ignores the amazing educational progress of the far east where most people were literate while the early Christians were not. Colson also equates the West’s scientific pursuits to Christianity when in fact it was the Renaissance—the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman culture and science that spurred the growth of both science and political thinking. Finally, the founders of our nation were “Christians” loosely speaking. But they were nothing like a Colson Christian. Nothing in Christianity supports democratic thinking. Rather, it promotes totalitarianism form of theocracy. It does not support capitalism, as Christians are expressly taught to shun the material and share all worldly possessions in common. The language of the New Testament lends itself more to a communist than capitalist economic world view. But as the New Testament was not interested in politics or economic policy, Colson is just wrong about how its teachings promoted our system of government today.

Joe Seither writes:

There is simply no expressly religious language in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights—except the parts that make absolutely crystal-clear that religion and politics should remain independent from one another. Now, this is a really important point, given that many of the founders were theists, but also with some deists, freethinkers and freemasons in the mix. Given this, it’s no accident or trivial point that they enshrined in the very first amendment a separation between government and religion. The fact that some or many of the founders were men of faith adds much gravity to the proposition that the anti-establishment principle and language they agreed upon—and signed their names to—was no mere accident. It was intentional.

Comments Off
topics in this post: , ,
next page »