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Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion & Medicine, by Richard Sloan (cover)

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Important Lecture Update

The God Delusion lecture is SOLD OUT

Saturday, October 28th, 2pm
Caltech, Pasadena, CA

This lecture is now sold out. Seating is available on the grass outside of the building for those who want to listen by outside speakers. For those of you who will miss it, do not worry. A couple weeks after the event, it will be available on DVD from Shop Skeptic, and we will make an announcement in eSkeptic to let you know when its ready. In the meantime, the following items featuring Richard Dawkins are available:

SEE LIST of our upcoming lectures at Caltech >

Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine
Simon Singh

Fraser Cain interviews Simon Singh

This week, frequent Skepticality contributor Fraser Cain (publisher of Universe Today) interviews popular British author, journalist and particle physicist Simon Singh (author of Fermat’s Last Theorem and Big Bang, and co-star, with Dr. Richard Wiseman, of the stage sensation Theatre of Science). Dr. Singh discusses the dodgy topic of homeopathy and his work to bring to light some of the dangerous practices of homeopaths in his country. Also, Derek & Swoopy play and discuss some listener voicemail — and provide a sneak peak at next week’s Halloween Special bonus episode!

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In this week’s eSkeptic, we reprint Amos Esty’s interview with Michael Shermer.
Esty, an American Scientist Assistant Editor, asked Shermer about debating advocates of intelligent design, the importance of understanding evolution, and why Americans, in particular, are troubled by this fundamental tenet of science. This interview was first published in American Scientist, October 12th, 2006.

The Bookshelf talks
with Michael Shermer

by Amos Esty

Recently, Michael Shermer has been spending much of his time pointing out the flaws in creationist critiques of evolution. But Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, columnist for Scientific American and well-known champion of science, was once a creationist himself. In his new book Why Darwin Matters (Times Books), he explains why he eventually accepted evolution and tries to convince others to do the same. Shermer also examines the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution and argues that people who hold religious beliefs can embrace the theory without compromising their faith. After all, he writes, “it does not matter whether 99 percent or just 1 percent of the public accepts a scientific theory — the theory stands or falls on the evidence, and there are few theories in science that are more robust than the theory of evolution.”

You write that you used to be an outspoken creationist yourself. How do you go from being a creationist to writing a book called Why Darwin Matters?

I was a creationist not because I thought the creationist arguments were good, but just because I was a born-again evangelical and that sort of went with the package. I was in high school and college, so I hadn’t really given it much thought anyway. And the notion of evolution as it’s presented by creationists sounds absurd. I mean, you have to be a moron to believe in evolution, at least the way they present it.

When I got to graduate school [in experimental psychology] in 1976, I took a course in evolution just for fun. Bayard Brattstrom was the professor, and he was a real dynamo. The scales fell from my eyes, in a sense. I remember sitting there thinking, “Oh my God, this stuff is real. This isn’t at all what those creationists said it was.” He presented, week after week, just tons of empirical evidence for evolution. That’s not what ultimately led me away from being religious — it was for other reasons — but that didn’t help. It told me that there was a certain amount of dishonesty on the part of creationists, who I felt had lied to me about what they said evolution was.

Ever since then I’ve really been a student of the whole debate of creation and evolution. My Ph.D. is in the history of science, specializing in the history of evolutionary thought. My dissertation was on Alfred Russel Wallace and the Darwinian revolution, and I’ve written papers on the creationist movement and now this book. So it’s been, really, a long time coming. I’m well equipped to know their arguments because I used to make them. I’ve debated everybody from Duane Gish, the young-Earth creationist, to Bill Dembski, the top intelligent-design guy. I know their arguments quite well, and I’ve sat and chatted with them over beer and pizza about their beliefs. And, by the way, this is not some ploy, some marketing gimmick to promote their religion; they absolutely believe that evolution cannot explain certain things. Whether that’s self-deception or not, I don’t know, but they’re clearly not just making this stuff up to try to promote their religion.

I wanted to ask you about those debates.
Do they usually go well?

Oh, the debates go well, because I’m a fairly conciliatory person. I’m friendly, and I’m not out to insult or be disrespectful, so that’s not an issue. I guess what irritates me is when there’s a lack of acknowledgment that they’re wrong about certain specific points. The intelligent-design proponents have been around now for more than a decade, and there have been lots of articles, essays, reviews, commentaries and book-length treatments of all of their claims. But they continue to make the exact same arguments as if no one ever responded. On top of that, they whine that no one will take them seriously or respond to their claims. There’s a huge body of literature. My book is just the latest in a line of works completely debunking their very specific claims.

Take the bacterial flagellum argument — this thing has been completely hashed out. You can go online and download thousands of pages about bacterial flagellum. Who cares? Well, they’re hooking their whole argument on this one thing. I debated Jonathan Wells on the radio last week in Denver — he has a book out, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism — and he’s making the exact same arguments as 10 or 15 years ago. I find that really dishonest. The unwillingness to admit that they’re wrong tells us that it’s not science.

Have you found during these public debates that you’ve been able to change people’s minds, or do they seem to have their minds made up one way or another before the debates begin?

I would say a third are true believers who are never going to be swayed, and a third are scientists or skeptics who accept evolution and are there just to bolster their arguments. But it’s the middle third, the people who have heard something about the debate, who have a sense that there is something intuitively sound about intelligent design, it’s that vast middle ground that we’re after. That’s the battle for the soul, so to speak, for the people that haven’t made a commitment one way or another.

Some scientists have been hesitant to address advocates of intelligent design, perhaps in part because they feared it would lend credibility to the movement. Why did you decide to tackle the issue head-on?

Obviously it’s been in the news a lot, and it’s something I know a lot about. There were certain arguments I hadn’t heard made before. For example, the broader issue of science and religion and whether they really conflict, and what scientists can say about “the God question.” More generally, I think my chapter on why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution is fairly original.

I think the approach to take is not to say, “I’m asking you to give up your whole religion.” If you give somebody a choice of Darwin or your entire family and social life, forget it, no one’s going to give up all that for some scientific theory. So a better approach, I think, is to say, “Look, you don’t have to give up anything. Science is your friend. If you believe in a creator, then there’s no better way to illuminate the glory of the creation than through science. That’s what science does, it illuminates the details of nature. So why not embrace it instead of denounce it?”

Why is it so important that people understand evolution?

It’s the founding principle of most of biology, it’s one of the half-dozen most important theories in the entire history of science, and it’s really one of the foundational theories of a couple of questions that we care the most about, such as “Where do we come from?” and “What’s our place in the universe?” That’s why cosmology also fascinates us — it deals with those big, ultimate questions. Those two subjects, cosmology and evolution, are at the forefront of the evolution wars because they bump up against traditionally religious turf. Theologians feel like that’s what they deal with, and scientists say that they can have something to say about this, too. That’s what makes people nervous.

What I’m trying to do in Why Darwin Matters is show that you don’t have to be nervous, there’s nothing to be afraid of. No one should be afraid of the truth about reality, and science is the best tool we have for illuminating the truth about reality. And so even though it’s always changing, and the truth is a small “t,” it’s still the best method we have.

Evolution is, of course, a complex subject. How much do you think the average person needs to understand about evolution?

I don’t think the general public needs to know a lot. It’s not, well, it’s not rocket science. This isn’t general relativity with lots of equations. It’s pretty simple stuff, really. But there are a few myths that have to be debunked. The most common one is that this is all an accident, that evolution is random. It isn’t. Richard Dawkins’s definition of evolution is a useful one, and I have it in the book: random mutations plus nonrandom cumulative selection. It’s that “nonrandom cumulative selection” part — that’s where the action is for evolution. Random mutations are just the jumbling up of genes between sexual gametes. That’s not particularly interesting, that’s just a mechanical process. But the natural selection part occurs with that cumulative selection — that’s where there’s a certain amount of directionality to evolution. If it was random, the creationists are right, we wouldn’t be here. But it’s not random, and no one ever said it was. It’s just one of those urban legends that gets passed along by word of mouth.

Related to that is the myth that we came from monkeys or great apes. We didn’t come from monkeys or great apes. The great apes, monkeys and humans all came from a common ancestor millions of years ago. It’s that “ladder of progress” concept that goes from bacteria at the bottom to us at the top, and it’s completely wrong. It’s so wrong it’s not even wrong. That’s one of the things that [Stephen Jay] Gould devoted his life to explaining. It’s a richly branching bush, not a ladder. I think if we can just get the general public to understand those two things it would reduce the number of questions I get in question-and-answer sessions by half. Pretty much every talk I ever give includes those two questions.

You may have seen in Science in August a paper comparing Americans’ acceptance of evolution to that of a number of European countries and Japan. The U.S. was ahead of only Turkey in its acceptance of evolution. What does it say about our country that so many Americans reject this fundamental tenet of science?

What it says is that creationism isn’t science. Science is true no matter what country you’re doing it in. The fact that creationism is almost strictly an American phenomenon, the fact that it’s so geographically isolated and directly related to a particular religious belief, that tells us right off the bat that this has nothing to do with science. There’s no scientific evidence for intelligent design or creationism. It’s obviously political or religious. And the fact that theories of evolution are the same everywhere you go around the world, that tells us that it is science, just like geology or physics.

You write that religion and science can coexist. But is the particular form of Christianity that is so popular in the United States mutually exclusive with evolution?

Sure, if you insist that your biblical canons be read literally and you want to take the six days of creation each as a literal day, not an epoch, then obviously there’s going to be a conflict. If you’re reading the Bible as a science book, well, it’s pretty lacking in scientific rigor and accuracy. So that’s going to be a problem. But most thoughtful people don’t read it that way. I don’t see how you could anyway.

Right off the bat, in chapter one and chapter two of Genesis there are two creation stories. In chapter one, Adam and Eve are created at the same time, both out of mud; and then in chapter two there’s another creation story — Adam is created first and there is no Eve. He names the animals, gets lonely, talks to God, and God says, “Okay, I’ll provide you with a companion.” Adam falls asleep, God takes his rib out and Eve comes from the rib. Everyone always says that those are two versions of the same creation story, that you can’t read them literally. Fine, then why insist on taking the six days of creation as six days? Why can’t that be an interpretation also? Maybe each day is a geological epoch, or something like that. Or, more likely, it’s a 4,000-year-old creation-myth story no different from all the other creation-myth stories around the world written at that time. As long as you’re willing to take it all metaphorically or allegorically, there’s no issue, or there doesn’t need to be.

How much of the problem, then, is the baggage that people associate with evolution, such as materialism and amorality? Is that a bigger problem?

That is a bigger problem. I mean, believe me, no one cares about bacterial flagellum or whether DNA came from RNA or some pre-RNA world or some other structure we don’t know about. What they want to know is if their kid, if he learns this Darwin stuff, is going to be an atheist. It’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll and “Oh my God, we’re going to hell in a handbasket.” Well, that’s a different issue.

I wrote a book about the evolution of moral sentiments, The Science of Good and Evil [Times Books, 2004]. We have a very good understanding now that we’re a social primate species and we have to be good to survive in a competitive environment. The fact that we have within-group amity and between-group enmity is all explained by Darwin. That is what gives us a human nature. The same human nature that conservatives already believe we have — that we’re good and evil — Darwin explains it. That’s why we’re very tribal and xenophobic and tend to be very in-group oriented.

Finally, the whole meaning question is the wrong question. What meaning does the universe have? None. No one thinks it does. A star is just a blob of plasma. Of course it has no meaning, it’s just atoms doing what they do under heat and pressure. So the meaning comes from what we put into life, what we make of it. I fail to see what belief in God adds to meaning in life, other than just sort of waiting for some next life that may or may not be there. But all the more reason either way that we should make this life meaningful.

So if people had a better understanding of evolution, that might be one key to depoliticizing the issue.

I think so. If you’re a believer, why not just say that evolution is the way God did it? No one makes a big fuss about the origins of the solar system anymore. That gap has been filled by science. No one feels threatened by it in terms of their religion. That’s all I’m trying to do with evolution, to say that it’s the same thing as the origins of stars and planets, it’s all a historical, physical process. If you want to believe that that’s God’s way of doing it, then that’s perfectly fine with me, as long as you don’t try to interfere with the teaching of science.

You have an interesting discussion in your book of why people hold religious beliefs. You found in surveys that most people attribute their own beliefs to rational thought, but that they attribute other people’s faith to fear or habit or acculturation. What does that say about the nature of religious faith?

It says that it’s very culturally bound and psychologically driven and it’s fraught with cognitive biases. It’s not just religion, by the way — politics, too, are all wrapped up in these cognitive biases. I can’t prove there’s no God, but you can certainly see all the evidence for the fact that religion is culture bound. There have been thousands of gods created over thousands of years. It’s possible that the Judeo-Christian God is the one true god and that all the other ones are false gods made by people. But maybe they’re all made by people. It certainly looks that way.

Why is it that, close to 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species and 80 years after the Scopes trial, we’re still having this discussion?

I know, it’s hard to believe. A couple of things: One, the only place the debate is really going on is the U.S., so there is something peculiar about American public life related to religion. But also, evolution does hit home a little closer than, say, the Copernican revolution did. The Copernican revolution was about our place in the solar system. That’s interesting, but not quite as important, because it’s easy to rationalize it and say that as a life form we’re special. What Darwin said is that, well, no, we may be special on some level of complexity or consciousness or language, but we’re still animals. And I think that bothers some people to a certain extent.

I think that’s in part because they’re sold a bill of goods by believers who feel that evolution does somehow take away morals and meaning. In fact, this is counteracted by the evidence of what religion really does in terms of making a nation healthy. We just published an article in Skeptic summarizing cross-national comparisons of religiosity among the 18 other developed democracies around the world. The U.S. is far and away the most religious of all the developed democracies, and we also have the highest homicide rate, by far, and the highest rates of suicide, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. If religion is such a wonderful moderator of moral behavior, why isn’t it working here, in the most religious democratic nation on Earth? Now, it’s possible that these things have other causes that have no relation to religion at all, but if religion is supposed to be a prophylactic, as it were, against these immoral behaviors, what’s going on there? So if I were religious I would not make that argument, because the data don’t look good at all.

Do you think we’ll still be having this debate in another 50 or 100 years?

Probably. The details will change, but these ultimate questions will always fascinate.

also of interest…

If you didn’t catch the aforementioned debate between Michael Shermer and Jonathan Wells that we linked to in last week’s eSkeptic, or read Skeptic magazine’s feature article Religious Belief and Societal Health by Matthew Provonsha (based on an article in the Journal of Religion and Society, entitled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies), you can check them out now:

WATCH the Shermer/Wells debate >

LISTEN to the Shermer/Wells debate >

READ the Skeptic article on Religious Belief & Societal Health >

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