Michael Shermer is a professional skeptic. He is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, the director of the Skeptics Society, and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things (1997) and How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (2000). Finally, he has a regular column in Scientific American magazine; the column is called "Skeptic."
Being a professional skeptic may sound like a satisfying job. You get to expose the follies of the credulous and the tricks of the hoaxter, to which you are of course immune. Alas, not everyone is cut out for this line of work. As Shermer observes in How We Believe, "To focus the narrow and intense beam of scientific light into this often dark and murky corner of the human condition can be blinding at first. As I have discovered in the course of conducting this empirical study, to most folks there is something mildly unsettling about being asked personal and penetrating questions about their most deeply held and cherished beliefs." Ah, those "folks." We know them, don't we—we see them standing in line ahead of us at the supermarket.
But there's a downside to the skeptic's job. Its demands are relentless. You can't just be skeptical some of the time. No, to live up to the job description, you must shine that "narrow and intense beam" into every nook and cranny, nor are you ever permitted to turn the switch off for a while—unless, that is, you are going to cheat, and practice selective skepticism.
And of course that is what most skeptics do. Consider for example Shermer's most recent Scientific American column, titled "The Gradual Illumination of the Mind." A subtitle proposes that "The advance of science, not the demotion of religion, will best counter the influence of creationism." Shermer begins thus:
In one of the most existentially penetrating statements ever made by a scientist, Richard Dawkins concluded that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."
No wonder, then, given "this reality" (as Shermer puts it), that so many Americans persist in the folly of creationism. They just don't want to face the truth so penetratingly expressed by Dawkins.
But not to worry, Shermer says, for the rejection of evolution rests on a simple misunderstanding:
The reason we are experiencing this peculiarly American phenomenon of evolution denial (the doppelganger of Holocaust denial, using the same techniques of rhetoric and debate) is that a small but vocal minority of religious fundamentalists misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions. Given this misunderstanding, their response is to attack the theory. It is no coincidence that most evolution deniers are Christians who believe that if God did not personally create life, then they have no basis for belief, morality, and the meaning of life.
Now this is puzzling on several counts. First, just a couple of paragraphs earlier, Shermer had noted the deplorably high percentage of Americans who reject evolution. How did they suddenly become a "small but vocal minority"? Second, what is the point of the comparison to Holocaust denial? By Shermer's own account, most creationists are well-meaning but deluded types, whereas most Holocaust deniers are anti-Semites. And how exactly do creationists and Holocaust deniers use "the same techniques of rhetoric and debate"? To be compared to vicious anti-Semites is a serious charge; doesn't Shermer need to spell out the parallels? Or is the drive-by slur sufficient for the readers of Scientific American, who—the idea seems to be—will delight at the provocative comparison.
But the most serious puzzle goes deeper. Why, having started the column with that quotation from Dawkins, does Shermer say that creationists "misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions"? If in fact the universe "has precisely the qualities we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference," then creationists—and, for that matter, fellow believers who accept evolution, but not on Dawkins's terms—would hardly be mistaken in seeing a challenge to their fundamental convictions about the nature of the universe.
I thought that perhaps in the next paragraph, Shermer would take a stab at clearing up this confusion. Maybe he would employ some of the language he used at the end of How We Believe, where he explained that he finds the prospect of the "apparently meaningless universe presented by science" profoundly liberating. That still wouldn't explain why such liberation should accord with familiar notions of good and evil. In the universe as described by Dawkins, isn't it ultimately meaningless to speak of the Holocaust, say, as "evil"?
As it happens, Shermer doesn't even take note of the apparent contradiction. Rather he devotes the next paragraph to mocking the intelligent design movement, from which he segues to his concluding peroration. "To counter the nefarious influence of the ID creationists," Shermer says, "we need to employ a proactive strategy of science education and evolution explanation." What on earth does he think is going on in thousands of classrooms across the country? This is supposed to be something novel, a bold new plan? (It would be novel to go to local school boards and explain the exciting new science curriculum that offers students an uncompromising exposure to the "blind, pitiless indifference" of the universe. Someone send a memo to Eugenie Scott.)
But the topper comes with the quotation from Charles Darwin with which Shermer concludes his column:
It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science.
Did Shermer read what he had written before it went into print? Did anyone at Scientific American read it? I know the magazine has been going downhill, but this is embarrassing stuff. Remember that a moment ago Shermer was saying that creationists "misread the theory of evolution as a challenge to their deeply held religious convictions." But now, disabusing people of their Christianity and theism is the end product of the "illumination" offered by science; how to go about it is just a matter of tactics.
One final note: How does a professional skeptic, of all people, come by such a faith in "the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science"? Skeptic, heal thyself.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Shermer's article, "The Gradual Illumination of the Mind | The advance of science, not the demotion of religion, will best counter the influence of creationism," appears in the February 2002 issue of Scientific American.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)
'We Now Know' | The boast of imperial science. (Dec. 3, 2001)
"24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (Nov. 26, 2001)
"Discovering" Islam: The Intellectual Challenge | There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. (Nov. 19, 2001)
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)
Play Ball | Baseball, leisure, and worship. (Nov. 2, 2001)