My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
P 65 Michael Shermer “How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science”
That title is a tall order, and I’m not sure he delivers, but I enjoyed reading it anyway. He provides a viable option that many people might find worth adopting, a sort of “militant agnosticism” as he calls it.
Shermer publishes a magazine called Skeptic, writes for Scientific American and has written several books. He regularly tours the country and debates religious leaders. He is very well known in the atheist community, if there is an atheist community. One thing I found out from this essay is that he spent his early adult life as a born-again Christian, and a rather evangelical one at that. This is surprising since it was not encouraged by his family. He took a course on evolution in college, and says that it was really the open minded discussion that occurred in the nightclub after class that led him to adopt a new label for himself.
He gives two reasons for his not believing in God, he is not convinced of arguments for God, and he is comfortable with not having answers to everything. He follows that with a very interesting discussion of that emotional reason, beginning with:
“Many people become cognitively dissonant with uncertainties and probabilistic world models, and thus they feel the need to close that loop with a definitive answer, regardless of how intellectually indefensible it may be. This low tolerance for uncertainty probably has an evolutionary origin related to the fact that in the Paleolithic environment in which we evolved it was almost always better to assume that everything has agency and intention.”
That is, if you assumed that a rock hanging over your head might have some intention to harm you, you would get away. Even though you were wrong, you survived. Conversely, someone who takes too many risks, including assuming a saber-tooth tiger does not have intentions toward them, would have a less likely chance of survival.
Michael Shermer does not spend much time with the ultimate questions. I find this refreshing. He summarizes the line of reasoning that he comes up against in debates. If you haven’t been in one of these debates, this could save you a lot of time. “The final comeback” as he calls it is when God is proclaimed to be outside of everything and needs no creator, and we can’t know what God is.
The debates usually then turn to ancillary arguments, such as “millions of followers cannot be wrong.” Shermer points out that millions of people believe eons ago a galactic warlord named Xenu brought alien beings from another solar system to Earth, placed them in select volcanoes around the world, and then vaporized them with hydrogen bombs, scattering to the winds their souls, leading to drug abuse and other psychological ailments. This is Scientology, and for a fee they can cure you of these ills.
Michael is sometimes dismissive, but his style is playful and I didn’t feel threatened by it. He has a two part response to the question of God, first the burden of proof is on the believer, otherwise, any God could be said to exist because you can’t disprove them. Second, there is evidence that God and religion are social constructs. He follows with the best two and one half page summary of 10,000 years of human mythology that I have ever read.
In the next two pages, he lays out what he calls Shermer’s Last Law:
“Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”
It is quite a convincing list of observations and conclusions that lead to the possibility of a perfectly natural being having the capability to create a universe.
All in all, this essay was a great read, including his inclusion of a discussion of this Sidney Harris cartoon.