Michael Shermer’s Inadvertent Argument for Christianity

Michael Shermer's inadvertent argument for Christianity
Michael Shermer
(Image source)

A reader wrote and asked me if I had seen Michael Shermer’s Salon article, “Bill Maher is right about religion.” I hadn’t. The article is subtitled, “The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress.” I found it, well, ridiculous.

Misguided Criticism of Normal Human Groups

There’s too much wrong there to respond to in one blog post. His main point, concerning religions’ moral history, will be part of the first topic I plan to take up with the new Thinking Christian blogging team once we get it established in a few months, so I’ll set that aside for now. In lieu of that I’ll point out an even more fundamental error he makes. He doesn’t understand the nature of groups. Let’s look at this, for example:

But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.

The Scientific Community as a Normal Human Group

It is the nature of groups to define themselves by their membership and their norms. Shermer takes this to be a damning accusation against religion, but consider science. The scientific community is tribal: you can’t enter without an initiation process. It regulates moral rules within its community. It excludes humanity outside its circle, not by saying “keep out!” but by means of its esoteric gnosis. It forms a clear identity of “those like us:” just try pretending you’re a scientist among scientists, if you are not really one of them. Change in scientific belief in practice is slow and cumbersome–just ask Thomas Kuhn–and it is almost always in response to unwelcome forces from within or without.

So is science bad for being that way? Heavens, no! This is not a description of badness, it’s a description of the way virtually all humans are in all groups!

The (Hypothetical) One True Religion as a Normal Human Group

Now, suppose there were one true religion. Maybe you think there is, maybe you think not. If not, then take it as an idea to entertain hypothetically. What would you expect it to be like? Would it define itself clearly enough so one could know (generally speaking) whether one was a member or not? I think so. Would it regulate moral rules? Obviously. Would it seek to embrace humanity outside its circle? I certainly think so; more on that in a moment. Would it agree with Enlightenment values? The advance of knowledge, yes; secularism, no. Would it change its beliefs and practices readily? Probably not; more on that, too, in a moment.

In other words, Shermer’s condemnation of religion turns out to be a great description of what one true religion would look like, if there were one.

Unscientifically Misclassifying Human Groups

Before we explore that further, though, we need to take a close look at his other great error in understanding groups. Notice how he lumps all religions together. This is really quite naive. Buddhism is as different from Islam as Christianity is from Hinduism. That would be true even if none of them were remotely true. Sure, they hold some things in common, including a belief in transcendence, a sense of direction for life beyond this life, and the rejection of philosophical naturalism (the belief that nothing is real except matter and energy interacting in law-like and chance ways*).

What then does Shermer mean by “religion”? Is there any more substance to the term than, people who disagree with me on philosophical naturalism? Maybe as a scientist, then, he would support taking up the study of the category every animal that isn’t a mammal. He would find it most confusing to discover what’s true about starfish and spiders and wasps and snakes and dinosaurs, and what they all have in common that isn’t also true of mammals. More likely, though, he would stare at the person who suggested the idea, and ask, “Are you nuts or something?”

It’s equally nuts—and equally unscientific—to treat all religions as one undifferentiated category. The category, those who disagree with philosophical naturalism makes as much sense as all animals that aren’t mammals.

Christianity and the Test For the One True Religion Human Group

Shermer is talking through his hat, in other words. Nevertheless, he did manage to stumble on a reasonably good description of what one true religion might look like, if one existed. I said I would come back to a couple points in that description, and now is the time for that. In fact, let’s tick off his whole list, and see how Christianity fares.

  • Tribal: √ Yes, as would be expected of the one true religion (TOTR). Christianity defines itself clearly enough so that one could know whether one was a member or not.
  • Xenophobic: √ No, as would be expected of TOTR. Shermer is wrong about that, with respect to Christianity. Christianity was originally a local religion in Palestine. Now it’s gone global. The typical Christian today is no longer a white farmer outside of Atlanta, but an urban apartment-dweller in China, or an engineer in Nairobi, or a teacher in Brasilia. How did that come to be? By Christianity’s large-scale inclusiveness. We go everywhere, looking for people to invite in. We don’t call everyone a Christian, but we (by Jesus’ authority) will accept anyone who wants to join us in following Christ.
  • Regulating moral rules in its community: √ Yes, as would be expected of TOTR.
  • Not seeking to embrace humanity outside its circle: √ Not true of Christianity, as noted already. But since Shermer included this in the same sentence with regulating moral rules, maybe he meant, not accepting morality that contradicts Christian morality. But if Christianity contradicted its own moral teaching it probably wouldn’t be TOTR. Christianity passes that test. (√ again.)
  • Embracing Enlightenment secularism: √ No, as expected of TOTR.
  • Embracing Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge: √ Absolutely yes, except for the false implication that it was an Enlightenment invention. There’s some misguided history behind Shermer’s beliefs here. Christianity passes this test.
  • Slow to change religious beliefs: √ Yes, as expected of TOTR. Consider the statement, “The chief sign of a true religion must be that its doctrines are constantly improving.” It doesn’t fit, does it? If there were one true religion, one mark of its truth would be the stability of its beliefs. If it’s true today, why shouldn’t it be true tomorrow? It is a mark of science’s credibility that its knowledge grows daily. That same mark does not apply to other areas of human interest. Why should it?
  • When it changes, it’s in response to outside political or cultural forces: Yes and no; mostly no.
    1. Christianity has been a chief driver of cultural change in the world, so Shermer has the change process defined backwards in some cases, especially his own purported examples of slavery and women’s rights. (We’ll cover those topics again when we get the team blog going.)
    2. Not all change in Christianity has been in response to outside forces: consider the Arian controversy, for example.
    3. It’s not necessarily a mark against a group that it would respond to outside cultural forces. Not to do so would be really “sclerotic,” to borrow Shermer’s own term.

    So Christianity passes this test for TOTR. √

Conclusion: Michael Shermer’s Inadvertent Argument for Christianity

In other words, Shermer has unknowingly and inadvertently described several conditions for recognizing the one true religion, and with a √ on each of them, Christianity meets all those conditions. Isn’t it odd how that happened when he was trying to show all religions were wrong?

*Technically, naturalism may also include belief in abstract objects like numbers and physical laws. Philosophical materialism may be a better term in some ways, but I’m finding that the belief I’ve described here is labeled naturalism more often than not.

Comments 13
  1. GM

    Salon is an unmitigated disaster when it comes to talking about religion. I get more out a CNN Belief Blog post, and that thing is an embarrassment in of itself.

  2. Bill L

    Tom,

    I’m just curious as to which major religions would not pass the one true religion test.

    In other words, Shermer’s condemnation of religion turns out to be a great description of what one true religion would look like, if there were one.

    I think this could also be stated:

    In other words, Shermer’s condemnation of religion turns out to be a great description of what one true religion would look like, if people believed there were one.

    It’s equally nuts—and equally unscientific—to treat all religions as one undifferentiated category. The category, those who disagree with philosophical naturalism makes as much sense as all animals that aren’t mammals.

    You may be happy to discover that Shermer doesn’t really do this, but you would have to read more than just one of his short articles to know this. I think what he is doing is taking the factors that are common among religions, and looking at those. As a botanist, I certainly do that with “all plants.” That’s been his usual mode in the past anyway. I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.

  3. Tom Gilson

    I think Shermer’s description could fit most religions. This isn’t so much an argument for Christianity against other religions as it is a demonstration that Shermer’s approach is way off base.

    I can’t think of any reason it would be necessary to change what I wrote to “if people believed….” Sure, it would be possible to state it that way, but it’s also possible to state it the way I did.

    I’m glad Shermer doesn’t always make the mistake he made here. I hope that’s true, at any rate.

  4. BillT

    Not seeking to embrace humanity outside its circle:

    Actually, one of early Christianity’s most important distinctives was it’s outreach to the poor and sick. Not it’s own poor and sick (that was a given) but the poor and sick from other religions. In fact, it’s been a hallmark of Christianity throughout it’s history.

    Embracing Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge:

    As Tom hinted at the “Enlightenment pursuit of knowledge” was actually a Christian invention. The Church founded the first universities and was the intellectual and philosophical bedrock for the founding of the modern scientific enterprise as well as providing a few of it’s lesser lights like Copernicus, Kepler, Bacon, Galileo and Newton.

  5. DJC

    The key difference between religious groups and science groups is the regulation of morality. Religion defines and regulates morality, science does not. Those who don’t accept a religion’s moral teachings are often classified as immoral. Those who are immoral can easily be seen to be less important and less deserving of fairness and freedom from harm. All religious tension or conflict can be traced to this.

    Science does not define and regulate morality at all but, rather, regulates particular methods for avoiding human error (i.e. replication, peer review, blind studies, etc.). If you’re not a scientist, you’re not automatically less moral, you’re just in a different line of work. If you don’t use scientific methods, your contribution to knowledge may be given more error bars but it is not immoral.

  6. Billy Squibs

    So, your not a fan of Sam Harris then, DJC? I ask because this is the world famous neuroscientist and philosopher who wants to:

    a) ground morality in science
    b) has determined that an excellent scientist like Francis Collins is (to coin your phrase) ‘less deserving of fairness and freedom from harm’ because he is a theist.

    The problem is that science doesn’t happen without people and it’s these same people who may choose to shun and exclude those who are deemed to bring heterodox views to the table. Sorry, but your comment is too simplistic (and possibly off topic).

  7. Travis

    @DJC #5

    The allegation that those who are secular are “immoral” is a misconstruing of the proper point. It isn’t that they are morally “bad” or somehow evil- It is that their wordview lacks the framework to construct anything approaching morally objective statements and sucessfully ground them. They are “amoral” not “immoral.”

    This is because they ultimately ground their sense of what the “good” is in subjective human opinion. Nietzche recognized this and is a great example of an atheist willing to follow the logical conclusions of his worldview to their bitter end.

    That end being that any decision you make about “morality” and any attempt to logically justify it are going to be based on your arbitrary preferences. Much of the time people will try to take the idea that the wellbeing of conscious creatures is an axiom of the good- but why should this be so? We could just as easily say it is bad. The idea is based on nothing more than subjective preferences.

  8. Billy Squibs

    Correction in my post. The opening line should be “So you’re…” and not “So your”.

  9. JAD

    From the OP:

    Tribal: √ Yes, as would be expected of the one true religion (TOTR). Christianity defines itself clearly enough so that one could know whether one was a member or not.

    I disagree that Christianity is “tribal” in the ordinary sense of the word, which is rooted in race and ethnicity—in biology not just religion or ideology. Merriam-Webster defines tribe as ”a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs.”

    I have argued here before that the moral-ethical teachings of Jesus have contributed to our concept of universal human rights. That is clearly a non-tribal concept.

    The whole modern conception of human rights can be traced back to the teachings of Jesus who clearly taught the equality of man. For example, the parable of “The Good Samaritan” by implication argues against ethnocentricity. Jews and Samaritans [who were ethnically and tribally distinct] hated each other. Jesus’ teaching that God expected that they help one another out of love was absolutely revolutionary. This is reinforced by the so called Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20 ) where Jesus commands his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” It is further reinforced by the teachings of the apostle Paul who writes in Galatians 3:26-28 that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    The modern concept of human rights could not exist without these ideas which in the ancient world were unique to Christianity.

    https://www.thinkingchristian.net/posts/2011/10/does-dawkins-believe-atheists-actions-have-no-connection-to-their-beliefs/#comment-30841

    Atheist philosopher Jürgen Habermas agrees. He writes:

    “Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” (Jürgen Habermas – “Time of Transitions”, Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151, translation of an interview from 1999).

    http://habermas-rawls.blogspot.com/2009/06/misquote-about-habermas-and.html

    It appears to me that Shermer does not trace the evolution of human rights morality back far enough. If he had done his research as a fair minded scholar he would have discovered this on his own.

  10. Sizzle-d

    But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle.

    The religion of Atheism/Secularism/Secular Humanism fits this description

    (yes, the chart gets some things wrong like merging Atheism and Agnosticism, Christianity and Catholicism, but you get the general idea).

  11. DJC

    Tom,

    Since things are slow, I’ll comment further. Has Shermer described several conditions for recognizing the one true religion, if one existed? Sure, if “one true religion” is understood at least in part as “moral laws handed down from God”. If one entertains the possibility that moral laws are handed down from a supreme being, one should be happy to check off all the points on your list.

    But how does one get to the view that moral laws are handed down from God? That’s a giant step requiring considerable evidence of both God’s existence and his vital concern with human social behavior. The step from God and moral law to the one true religion is minuscule by comparison.

  12. scblhrm

    “Science does not define morality at all.” (DJC)

    The many reasons that is true are why philosophical means and ends simultaneously reveal the silliness of scientism while supplying the *proper* metaphysical *treatment* of *evidence* in such arenas. Anti-realism on abstractions removes Platonism from the table. Truth predicates find only two solutions remaining. One seamlessly coherent, the other self-negating. The latter tends to perpetually conflate and equivocate to avoid the *certainty* of its own truth predicates ending in its own (nihilism’s) *incoherence*. Else God. Discussions of Truth with those with that sort of an a priori commitment rarely get any farther than Scientism (huh?), Nihilism (huh?), and *God*. Of course, that’s as far as that sort of dialogue *can* go. Once there – at ‘God is’ – then it’s a matter of staying *within*, say, “Christianity’s metaphysical regress”, or, if one wishes, to stay *within*, say, “Pantheism’s metaphysical regress”. That of course rarely happens, and when it does happen it’s at best difficult for the Critic to examine a *whole* meta-narrative. An interesting and relevant side note recalls that C.S. Lewis found all but two metaphysical regressions whether theistic or non-theistic wholly unworthy of reason’s embrace. The two regressions offering any promise where Pantheism (Hinduism comes closest) and Christianity. Given Pantheism’s inability to call Man’s painful fragmentations of moral darkness as *actually* laced with *real* metaphysical *ought-not*, we find in Christianity’s meta-narrative a vector far more coherent with Mankind’s brutally repeatable moral experiences of love and lovelessness within the seamless frame of the immutable love of the Necessary Being. Being and Mind, Mind and Matter, Matter and Abstraction, Abstraction and Being, the whole show through and through, finds singularity and the beautiful simplicity which such a seamless T.O.E. justifiably grants.

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