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Michael Shermer Speaks to SDARI

By Edvard A. Hemmingsen

Surveys have shown that more than 90 per cent of the population in this country believes in God. Some of this belief is soft; that is, when questioned further many admit that they are uncertain about the existence of a god. Still, the number of real believers is remarkably high, even among skeptics as we shall see.

Why do people believe in God? Dr. Michael Shermer attempted to answer this question at the November 28th meeting of SDARI to an overflow audience. It was the largest turnout ever for a SDARI meeting, to no surprise. Shermer is the founder and president of the Skeptics Society, publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine, and one of the most prominent spokespersons for skepticism today. He is a charismatic and entertaining speaker who projects a forceful message.

Much of Shermer’s talk was centered on the issues he discussed in his book, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, published recently by W. H. Freeman and Co., New York. His book grew out of a survey of readers of Skeptic magazine in which he found that a surprisingly large fraction of the respondents, about one-third including self-declared skeptics, had some degree of belief in God. The main reasons they gave for their belief were that it is comforting, gives meaning and purpose to life, and offers a way to understand the beauty and complexity of the world and the universe. Some mentioned that they had experienced God in everyday life. These reasons are similar to those given in surveys of the broader populace.

Behind these beliefs is a long historical evolution of religions and of concepts of God. Shermer contended that in the earliest, primitive societies, religion was introduced to establish rules for self-protection, the fundamental purpose of ethics. Religion was a means to find out who you could trust and if somebody was a true member of the community. Religion evolved into a social institution where the concept of God satisfied inquiries into why we are here and where we are going. Although this evolution was dealt with only briefly in his talk, it is well researched and discussed thoroughly in his book.

Shermer made the point that humans are story-telling animals who create great myths and stories to explain natural phenomena. Myths with common themes appear in different cultures and religions. Biblical literalists often get themselves into trouble by accepting myths as historical fact. The story of Noah's Ark is a myth about rebirth. To assert that it is true is to miss the point of the story. Shermer also pointed out that humans are good pattern seeking animals and like to weave patterns into beliefs. That is why people often believe in weird things and also use religion to explain patterns.

Parts of Shermer’s talk concerned the role of religion and God in our modern society and how it permeates and affects many human endeavors, even science. So much of the Bible, for example, bumps up against scientific facts. This has led many to question the validity of science but only in selected, specific areas. Most prominent is the campaign by some Christians to replace evolution with creationism, and its latest variant "intelligent design theory". Shermer provided a brief refutation of these ideas in his talk and referred to his book for a more in depth treatment.

Among the many other subjects Shermer discussed was a recent study of healing by prayer. He pointed out several flaws in the study, such as the lack of controls for age and socioeconomic status and, most importantly, the impossibility of assuring that the control group was not prayed for by anybody or any group.

Overall, the lecture was informative and challenging. However, it left me with one puzzle. Shermer stated that he did not know if there was a God or not; he believes that this question is insoluble. He is not an atheist as this would imply denial of the existence of a God, nor is he an agnostic since this term is taken to mean that he is unsure or has not yet made up his mind. He prefers the term "nontheist" which means that he does not believe in God. But many people, perhaps including Shermer himself, judging from his book, believe that God is a creation of the human mind since no evidence to the contrary exists. And like other ideas that only exist in the human mind without objective manifestation and support, there is nothing to prove or disprove them; they become non-issues that are abandoned or discarded. Is there an inconsistency in Shermer's approach to the God-question?