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.
- 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.)
- Not all change in Christianity has been in response to outside forces: consider the Arian controversy, for example.
- 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.