The joys of life without God

Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer explains why Darwin matters, how believing in God is the same as believing in astrology, and why it doesn't take divine faith to experience something bigger than ourselves.

Published August 23, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Michael Shermer has done a fine job in his new book of letting the air out of intelligent design's tires. As you recall, the so-called scientific movement, which says that nifty things in the universe, like human eyes, are so perfect they couldn't possibly have been created by the crude steps of evolution, was rolling along quite nicely through school districts last year, kicking up a chorus of hallelujahs from creationists. Some of Shermer's ivory towerish science pals, like Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould, told him not to bother with the I.D. boosters, that acknowledging them meant going along for their political ride, where the integrity of science was being run into the ground.

But true to his genial nature, Shermer ignored his friends' advice and penned "Why Darwin Matters." With admirable patience and humility, he spells out each of the fancy I.D. tenets, like "design inference," in which only a higher intelligence could have come up with something as cool and ingenious as DNA. Shermer shows how imperfect evolution, and not intelligent design, has been, for generations, the only quantifiable driver behind nature's wonders.

In one way, he didn't have to write the book. You could get the rundown on I.D. by reading Judge John E. Jones' decision in the infamous trial in Dover, Penn., last year, which pitted the local school board, who supported teaching I.D., against evolution experts. The Republican judge spanked the I.D. proponents hard, calling their bedrock assumptions "utterly false," and concluded with a swipe at the "breathtaking inanity" of the Dover School Board. Yet there's no doubt that Shermer's book is a nice ally for science teachers in the perpetual battle against the creationists.

When I met him, I didn't want to get bogged down in the details of his defense. Shermer, 51, is executive director of the Skeptics Society, bold debunkers of all things supernatural; a columnist for Scientific American; and author of a bunch of readable books about why people flock to God or astrology. So while we delved into the real agenda of intelligent design advocates (like techno-guru George Gilder) we also talked about psychics, atheism, why one famous molecular biologist believes in God, and Shermer's halcyon days as a Jesus freak.

The Skeptics Society is situated in a warm little house in Altadena, a tree-shaded town, north of Los Angeles, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, home to Mt. Wilson Observatory, one of the world's pioneering astronomy centers. We chatted around the dining room table, stacked with issues of the latest Skeptic magazine, all about religion.

Why does Darwin matter?

Because we live in the age of science. And the Darwinian worldview is the preeminent and best supported theory for the explanation of the natural and biological world. Marx is gone. Freud is gone. History and data have not supported their theories. But Darwin was right. You have to know evolution to understand the natural world. And that cannot be a threat to people of faith. There's a serious problem if you are forced by your faith to reject the most well supported theory in all of science.

Why do you say evolution shouldn't be a threat?

If you believe God created the world, it's reasonable to ask, How did he do it? What were the forces and mechanisms he used? Why not look to science and see that he started with the big bang, the force of gravity, inflationary cosmology, quarks and natural selection. Those were his tools. To that extent, science is not a threat, it's your best friend. It's the best tool you have for illuminating the grandeur of creation. A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral. I mean, come on, that photo is an actual representation of the reality that God created, if that's what you believe. So why not embrace science rather than fear it?

Why do people fear it?

They've been sold a bill of goods by people who like the warfare model of science and religion, particularly fundamentalists and militant atheists. Both sides want to force a choice and debunk the other side. But it need not be so. It's an incorrect interpretation promoted by extremists. The tendency is for liberals to embrace science and conservatives to mistrust it. Conservatives like technology but tend to be leery about science because it threatens their religions. They fear the Darwinian worldview is the liberal worldview, which says that if there is no God, there is no absolute right and wrong. And without an Archimedean point outside of ourselves that says this is right or wrong, then anything goes, there's no basis for morality. Therefore America will go to hell in a moral handbasket.

What do you say to them?

I say you don't need religion, or political ideology, to understand human nature. Science reveals that human nature is greedy and selfish, altruistic and helpful. Conservatives can find family values in nature. We are pair-bonded. We practice serial monogamy. Human infants are helpless for such a long time that it's better to have two parents rather than one to raise them. That's what Darwin gives us. He showed us how we evolved to be cooperative and altruistic within our groups, and competitive and avaricious between them. Within groups, amity; between groups, enmity. That explains a lot about the good and evil in our nature. I'm saying to conservatives, you're right. If you want to use the metaphors of God and Satan, fine, but let's ground them in science.

Why do we reach so hard for a divine force to explain life?

The natural inclination in all humans is to posit a force, a spirit, outside of us. That tendency toward superstitious magical thinking is just built into our nature. What's more, it doesn't cost anything to have a false positive, to assume there's a force behind the lightning or a spirit in the rock. In the ancestral environment, when we evolved, we might think spinning around three times is going to bring rain. Well, once in a while it works and makes everybody happy. And it doesn't cost much to keep doing it. It doesn't take you out of the gene pool.

You sound so benign. Yet your day job is debunking pseudo sciences like rain dances and astrology. There's no harm, then, in me thinking that because I'm a Libra I just might get what I wish for today?

[Laughs] No, for most people astrology is just light entertainment. But the problem with taking it seriously is it can lead to other irrational beliefs. And presumably in an educated democracy we want to have a certain level of education, as Jefferson says, so we can have a serious national discussion about problems. I mean, people who believe in astrology tend to believe all kinds of goofy things. All the pseudo sciences -- astrology, Tarot cards, psychics, mystic healing -- use the exact same principle. They work because we have a selective memory and a confirmation bias. We look forward to finding evidence for what we already believe and forget the rest. In an hour reading, a psychic will make 200 or 300 statements. If a person walks away with half a dozen things the psychic got right, he's ecstatic. It's like Skinner with the rats. You don't have to reinforce them every time. In fact, they'll press the bar even faster if you give them intermittent reinforcement. It's the same with slot machines. You just have to pay off every once in a while and it will keep us pulling the levers.

Do you think the impulse to believe in God is the same as believing in astrology?

Yes, it's a similar foundation of magical superstitious thinking. And our need to be spiritual takes all forms. Given that traits vary in populations, it's natural that some people will gravitate toward New Age spiritualism and others toward conservative Christianity. Even secularists believe in all kinds of transcendent things, such as "mind." This is the Deepak Chopra school. He says, I don't believe that Christian conservative stuff, but the universe is intelligent, it's alive, it knows we're here. What? You're goofier than the Christians!

At the same time, I don't think, as a lot of materialist atheists do, there's something wrong with the brain or genes, and if we could just fix them, we could get rid of all the silly religion. That's not going to happen. Besides, people believe in economic and political ideologies just as fervently as they believe in religious doctrines. Most political, economic, racial -- and racist -- ideologies have no basis in reality at all. They're articles of faith. And the best tool we have for discerning truth from all those false patterns is science.

Do you call yourself an atheist?

I prefer not to use the term. Although I guess I am an atheist. I just don't believe in God. I've always liked Thomas Huxley's term, "agnostic," by which he meant it's an unknowable, insoluble problem from a scientific point of view. By my personality, I'm comfortable with not having the answer to everything. I'm perfectly happy going through my day, thinking, I really wish I knew the answer to that but I don't. I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity. Most people get cognitively dissonant about having uncertainties and need to close that loop and have an answer.

What would you like to have the answer to?

What was here before time? What came before the big bang? Those questions cause people to posit that either God created the universe or some natural forces or some combination. I'm perfectly happy going the natural route. In fact, to answer what came before the big bang, people like Stephen Hawking are playing around with inflationary cosmology and how all of a sudden you get a new bubble universe. They don't have any evidence, but mathematically it's possible.

But when science hits a question mark, that's OK with me. Ultimately, theologians hit the same question mark. We just have to push them one more step when they say God did it. They respond that God is He who need not be created. Well, can't the universe be that which needs not be created? No, they say, it's a thing and has to be created. So isn't God a thing if He is part of the universe? These are old arguments, but at some point a thoughtful theologian has to say, You're right, we don't know. So we make a metaphysical assumption and define God into existence.

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, recently told Salon that he believes in God, the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus. "If you believe in God," Collins said, "and if God is more than nature, then there's no reason that God could not stage an invasion into the natural world, which -- to our limited perspective -- would appear to be a miracle."

What does he mean by miracle? If God is intervening into our world, he must be doing so in some measurable way. That's what we do with science. We measure. OK, Francis, where's your data? There was just a big study done on prayer and healing. If praying to God is supposed to heal people, this was the best, most rigorous study ever done, conducted by a world-class scientist who believed he would find a positive result of praying. Here's what he found: zip, nada, nothing.

So, OK, Francis, what else have you got? The virgin birth? I mean, come on. The resurrection? Now we're talking about mythic events, we're not talking about science. What he's doing is rehashing old theological arguments that have been hashed out by evangelicals for a long time. The bit [from C.S. Lewis] that Jesus can't have been a liar or a lunatic and so therefore he's the Lord? That's not science, that's creating straw men you can knock down to leave the one standing you already believe in. It's an example of the hindsight bias we're all susceptible to. We've already made a decision and then we go back and justify it. Scientists like Collins are just particularly good at it.

What's your best answer for why there is no God?

It's not why there is no God, it's why there's not compelling evidence to believe in God. That's a better way to put it. And from my perspective, it's just not there for me. With training in science, I have high standards of evidence. If you said God is real, and you sent your evidence to the journals Science or Nature for publication, you'd be laughed out of the room; you wouldn't get past the first reviewer.

On the other side, the best evidence that there probably isn't a God is that belief in God is so deeply culturally embedded. When you study world religions, it's obvious that, throughout time, all of these different people are making up their own stories about God. If you lived 1,000 years ago, hardly anybody would be a Christian. If you were born in India, you'd likely be a Hindu. What does that tell you? From a Christian perspective, it means we need to get more missionaries over there to tell them the truth! From an anthropological perspective, it's another case. Christians today might say, I don't believe in Zeus, that was a silly superstition. Yet for many people that was a real god.

So it turns out there are 10,000 gods and yet only one right one. That means we're all atheists on 9,999 gods. The only difference between me and the believers is I'm an atheist on one more god.

So you're comfortable that humans are just products of physics and chemistry?

The electric meat -- that's us! I don't mind that at all. If anything, it's even more awe-inspiring to think that out of physics and chemistry we're able to get consciousness and thought, and you and I can sit here and have a conversation about electric meat and chemistry. That itself is miraculous.

Earlier this summer, George Gilder, the supply-side economist and guiding light to the techno-libertarian crowd, wrote an essay in National Review. He's a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, the foundation, as you know, that promotes intelligent design. In the essay, "Evolution and Me," he argues that physics and chemistry will never yield insight into the origins of life or consciousness. He says complex life results from a preceding intelligence. He's pretty hard on you Darwinists. He writes, "As an all-purpose tool of reductionism that said whatever survives is, in some way, normative, Darwinism could inspire almost any modern movement, from the eugenic furies of Nazism to the feminist crusades of Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood."

That's completely absurd. He's listing all the liberal issues and wants us to see them as fascism. That's the typical right-wing response. What a political or ideological or racist movement does with a scientific theory is quite independent of the scientists. It's hardly fair to blame Gutenberg for the printing press that allowed "Mein Kampf" to be distributed. Science is just a tool, a way of understanding the natural world. We've got to get past this idea that science is a thing. It isn't a thing like religion is a thing or a political party is a thing. It's true that scientists have clubs. They have banners and meetings and they drink beer together. But science is just a method, a way of answering questions. It's a verb not a noun.

Gilder claims "intelligent design is merely a way of asserting a hierarchical cosmos." He says there's a higher form of information than physical compounds, like DNA, and that higher information is "independent of its physical embodiment or carrier."

Yeah, so there's ultimately a God. That's what he's arguing. God creates information and then the whole thing gets started. But even without God, that's a too simplistic view of the origins of life and information. What came first, life or information? In a way, it doesn't matter because the beginnings of information in life are not going to be one big step but millions of incremental steps. They both came first, they're interactive. In other words, the whole system is auto-catalytic, self-driving, so the information gives rise to a little more complex life, and more complex life gives rise to more information, and they feedback on one another, and it just drives itself.

The best example of that is, in fact, DNA, and the increasing complexity of genomes. This is what [University of Massachusetts biologist and author] Lynn Margulis has shown us. In the past 35 years, she has definitely shown that we are the product of this simple cellular world that spontaneously and naturally got more complex just by putting energy into the system, and a type of symbiogenesis, cooperation among cells, led to more complex cells. Besides, information cannot exist without a storage medium. What would that be? Your soul? What is the medium of storage for the soul when your body is gone? What carries it on into the far future? The soul discussion stops right there. Without a medium of transference of data, why would the information exist on its own?

Intelligent design boosters say that if life only develops by random chance, as Darwinists say, then we're living meaningless lives.

Right, that's the moral meme. But they're confusing human meaning with natural meaning. There is no natural meaning in the universe. Nobody, Christian or otherwise, would look at a star and go, What's the meaning of that? It doesn't mean anything. It's a bunch of atoms. Believers and non-believers alike are comfortable saying human life has meaning because we make it so. That goes for Rick Warren and Dr. Phil. They say, hey, look, man, you got to go out there and do it yourself. You got to volunteer and help the poor. We give our life meaning by being helpful and sociable.

Well, that's Darwinian. We evolved as a social primate species in which we had to cooperate to get along. It's not random, there are parameters defined by our own human nature. If these guys want to say, well, that's how God did it, OK, that's fine. But let's keep studying it scientifically to understand why that would have come about through natural forces.

In the end, you don't need a top-down entity to give life meaning. If anything, if nobody is out there, it is much more important to find meaning ourselves. Instead of this world being a mere staging for the next world of eternity -- meaning it doesn't really matter what we do now -- it's better to realize there is no eternity, that this is it. In that case, we better be careful what we do, make our choices consciously, treat people kindly and be moral because this life is what really counts.

Stephen Meyer, one of the vice presidents of the Discovery Institute, says, "Contrary to media reports, intelligent design is not a religious-based idea but instead an evidence-based scientific theory." You write in "Why Darwin Matters" that the "veneer of science in ID theory is there purposefully to cover up the religious agenda." How do you know that?

Because I asked them and they told me. I know these guys. I have debated Meyer at conferences and gone out to beers with William Dembski, another major I.D. theorist. They're all evangelical born-again Christians. They all believe in Christ as their savior. They believed it before they got into all this stuff. I've asked them that if the main tenets of intelligent design turned out to be false, would they then give up their belief in Christ? No, they say. And that's because they believe in Christ for reasons that have nothing to do with their theory.

They fit the science to match their beliefs?

Yes, in my opinion, that's all they're doing.

So what's the real agenda of I.D.?

They want the Judeo-Christian worldview accepted into American public life as policy. But the First Amendment says you're not supposed to do that. America is based on a diversity of beliefs and was founded on the principle of religious freedom. The conservatives want to blend public life with private life. But religion is private. It's nobody's business. Politicians have to announce they believe in God, and God bless America. But religion as public policy leads to a reduction of liberty and freedom for those who don't believe. It makes it harder for us to express our own beliefs without fear of condemnation.

Let's say that we passed legislation that requires the teaching of one dominant religion in public schools, which right now is Judeo-Christian. Hooray! Everybody's happy. Now let's say that Islam is the dominant religion 500 years from now. It most likely will be Europe. You still want that law on the books? Girls in public schools will have to wear burqas and, in fact, there will be no education for them after sixth grade. You still want the dominant religion legalized in America? No way!

Are you trying to talk people out of their faith by showing them the science?

No, just the opposite. First of all, I don't think you can talk people out of their faith. It's an utter waste of time. I learned that from Darwin himself. He said he learned early in life to stay out of those kinds of public debates. The only thing you can do is promote good science.

Why do you think scientists who have studied anthropology and science believe in God?

Because they believe for non-smart reasons. Smart people believe weird things because they're better at rationalizing the beliefs they arrived at for emotional, psychological or personal reasons. The No. 1 predictors of anybody's religious, political or social attitudes are those of their parents and the home where they were raised.

That doesn't seem to be true for you. You confess in "Why Darwin Matters," "I became a creationist shortly after I became a born-again evangelical Christian in high school in 1971 and I argued the creationist case through graduate school in 1977." Were your parents religious?

They were neither religious nor non-religious. They were neutral on the subject. It never came up at home. I was in high school when one of my best friends talked me into being born again. So I just went along with it, and it seemed to work for me, although my stepbrothers and -sisters always gave me a hard time about being a Jesus freak.

Still, I felt that if I'm going to take this seriously, I should be proactive about it. That includes challenging people and speaking out. I even went door-to-door in Malibu. Although it was anxiety-producing to walk up to strangers' houses and say, "Hi, I'm here to tell you about Jesus." You were also supposed to tell people that you loved them. I remember telling that to a girl who actually liked me. And she took that the wrong way. I had to correct her. No, I don't mean it that way, I mean it in the agape way, the kind of love that C.S. Lewis talks about, the love for your fellow humans. I can't believe I did that. Although I guess in a way I'm doing the same thing, only now I do it through public lectures and books: "Hi, I'm here to tell you about Darwin."

What caused you to see the light about evolution?

Taking a class in it by Bayard Brattstrom at Cal State Fullerton, where I got a master's degree in experimental psychology. He was an evangelical evolutionist and his class met Tuesday nights and then adjourned to the local pub and continued until closing time. He would just hold forth, like Socrates, sitting around with beer and ale, and talking about God, religion, the big bang and cosmology. He was a dynamic speaker. It was great stuff. I was just sitting there stunned, like, Oh my God, this stuff is real. I had no idea. I didn't really know anything about science.

Like most creationists, you just know what you read in creationist books. When you read them, it makes the theory of evolution sound completely idiotic. What moron could believe in this theory? When you actually take a class in the science of it, it's a completely different picture. That's also when I realized I enjoyed the company of scientists and science people much more than religious people and theologians. It was this exciting, open-ended, participatory process that I could be involved in. We're all in this search together, and there's an actual method to do it, and a community of people who practice it, and a way of determining whether something is true or not. I fell in love with that.

How did you feel when you first stopped believing in God?

The process came about pretty slowly. A girlfriend gave me a silver ichthus, the Christian symbol of the fish, and I wore it on a chain around my neck. This is when guys used to wear chains. It was so obnoxious but everybody did it. I remember at one point, after Bayard's evolution class, looking at the ichthus in the mirror and going, You know, that's kind of hypocritical, I don't really believe in this stuff anymore and I don't think I should be wearing this. So I took it off. That was a defining moment. It was liberating to be intellectually honest about what I felt. I didn't feel hypocritical anymore. Now, as I've gotten older, I try not to define myself by what I don't believe. I think that's a fruitless enterprise. We should define ourselves by what we do believe in.

What do you believe in?

I believe in the indomitable human spirit and the amazing capacity we have for understanding the world; for love, joy and happiness. Science not only does not take away any of those things, it adds to the sum of human knowledge. When I look through my little telescope in my backyard at the planets, moon or Andromeda galaxy that is 2.9 million light-years away, I can enjoy the beauty of the night sky and appreciate it on an emotional level. Then I can think that the photons of light that are landing on my retina left 2.9 million years ago, when we were just barely bipedal hominids in Africa, and are just now arriving tonight. Boy, that's just awe-inspiring.

To me, that's what it means to be spiritual -- what makes your spine tingle. It's what gives you a sense of awe and wonder and transcendence. It doesn't matter to me if you call it God or the cosmos. We're all talking about the same thing, whether it's religious people or New Age spiritual people or Buddhists or scientists. We're all talking about having a sense of awe and wonder at something grander than ourselves.

By Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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