Michael Shermer, Of All People, On Tolerable Atheism

In response to the various militant atheists who have been insufferably gloating it up over the rather obvious lack of an active god in the world, Michael Shermer posts this open letter in Scientific American:

Rational Atheism

He pretty much gets it right, I figure. If you stand back and tap your foot and think about it on starkly physical-reality criteria, it’s not much of an intellectual feat to recognize the powerful unlikeliness of a supernatural ordering personality. Crowing around the town about how you’ve got that one figured out and therefore everybody who isn’t you must be mentally stunted doesn’t actually reflect that highly on your brain capacity. Try taking the next step and asking “why is it that so many people don’t see it my way? is the world other than me just demographically biased towards stupid or could there be other things at play?”. If you don’t see that or some other shades of gray complexity lurking at the edges then you may just be the stupid-biased one.

I’m surprised to find Michael Shermer as the temperer of pugnacious atheism. He’s closely associated with Skeptic Magazine, which has always struck me as the rallying redoubt for self-important puncturers of the more obvious myths of the world. Maybe I had him wrong. And check out this quote from his wikipedia entry:

‘In May 2004 Shermer debated young Earth creationist Kent Hovind at UC Irvine, and spoke to defend evolution before a predominantly creationist audience. However, in his online reflection of the debate while explaining he won the debate with intellectual and scientific evidence he felt it was “not an intellectual exercise,” but rather it was “an emotional drama.”[8] While receiving positive responses from creationist observers Shermer concluded “Unless there is a subject that is truly debatable (evolution v. creation is not), with a format that is fair, in a forum that is balanced, it only serves to belittle both the magisterium of science and the magisterium of religion.”‘

Seems like the sort of thing that someone who was in it find out and not just to win would say. I think however that I disagree with part of this point from his open letter:

“5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.”

But religion does threaten science, quite routinely, and presumably the other way round too. Not necessarily in catastrophic ways, but the daily, homely tension between religious and scientific approaches to understanding the world are one of the reasons that this topic is interesting at all. Sure and absolutely, people have a right to believe what they want, but claiming those beliefs don’t sometimes conflict and frustrate each other is like claiming that any of the other fundamental human rights are divinely designed to never conflict with each other. It’s a cheery notion that just don’t play. Our ability to navigate the compromises those conflicting rights necessitate is what makes us good at living collectively, or not.

So here’s my leader board for the superstars of the current atheism vs. religion semi-furor:

  1. Michael Shermer (who knew?)
  2. Sam Harris
  3. Dawkins Dawkins Dawkins
  4. Hitchens (what a dick!)

with Dennet as an unranked dark horse, who I’ve only ever heard introducing talks by Dawkins. Maybe I should read him. Or maybe there’s no point, I know what I think, there’s probably more to learn from why my smart religious friends persist in such a seemingly strange position. Maybe I’ll go listen to some flobots instead.


This was an interesting post. I have to say, I have never experienced science threatening my religious beliefs and have only been confused by the rigid and literal interpretations of scripture that those pious few who feel threatened by science seem to hold. It frustrates me to no end that the Church universal continues to encroach on scientific discovery and continues to bash evolution. And I agree with Sherman that continuing to debate this subject belittles both groups. It’s a lesion that could still be leaned by the UM biology department. I was shocked when the profs got to evolution and even bothered to bring up reasons for disputing creationism. Seems to me we only legitimizes it as some sort of valid counter-argument when we bring it up in the class room as some sort of theory in need of defeating. Anyway, great article and I’m glad you give those of us with seemly strange positions the benefit of at least a little doubt:)

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