Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at http://www.oxford-union.org/debates
Dr. Michael Shermer gives his argument against the existence of God at the Oxford Union. Watch more at http://www.oxford-union.org/debates
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.
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.
In this YouTube video series for Mahalo.com, Michael Shermer answers 34 questions about belief and rationality. Mahalo.com is an education-based website revolving around original video content filmed in Santa Monica, CA. The site aims to help people learn how to do anything and everything.
Among the 34 videos, you’ll find:
Below is the second of the 34 videos. The entire series (total running time: 50 min. 32 seconds) can be viewed as a playlist on YouTube.
Mr. Deity seeks help from Michael Shermer to make his creatures more gullible.