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Michael Shermer

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Shermer heads the Skeptic Society [1] which publishes Skeptic magazine. He has authored Why People Believe in Weird Things, How We Believe : Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God and other popular books.

Related to the latter book, an excerpt from the Shermer's newletter, the 'Skeptic mag hotline'...

GOD DEBATE II

This is another edition of the Skeptic mag hotline. Permission is granted to reprint, repost, or forward it.

Last night at the Marriott hotel in San Diego I debated Barry Minkow, pastor of the Community Bible Church in Mira Mesa and former inhabitant of the Hardbar Hotel for bilking thousands of people out of millions of dollars in the famed ZZZZ Best carpet cleaning scam. While in the big house Minkow found God and, of course, he plays this for all he can, with the oft-told standard "down in the dumps" conversion story, couldn't have made it out without God, wretched soul without Jesus, without God all morality reduces to "I screw you, you screw me, we all screw so easily" (hey, maybe there's a song here), and so on. He wrote a book about it: CLEAN SWEEP: A Story of Compromise, Corruption, Collapse, and Comeback. The Inside Story of the ZZZZ Best Scam...One of Wall Street's Biggest Frauds. The debate subject and format was the same as before: DOES GOD EXIST? with Minkow taking the affirmative. There were about 1,200 people there, standing room only.

I went first and asked for a show of hands of who believes in God. Needless to say nearly every hand in the place went up. I then asked how many people believe in the Greek god Zeus, the Roman god Jupiter, the Norse god Odin, the Aztec god Titlacahuan, the Armenian god Tir, the Finnish god Egres, the Roman god Lactanus, or any of the Hindu gods. Not a hand went up. So, I pointed out, all of you are atheists when it comes to these gods. They nodded in agreement. I then noted that an anthropologist from Mars surveying Earth's flora and fauna, would find roughly 30 million species, one of which evolved a big enough brain to conceive of incorporeal monsters, beasts, spirits, demons, gods, and the like. In the past 10,000 years, the Martian anthropologist discovers after doing his research that this one species had devised roughly 100,000 religions based on roughly 2,500 gods. So, the only difference between me and the believers in the audience was that I am skeptical of 2,500 gods whereas they are skeptical of 2,499 gods. We're only one God away from total agreement. I then read from the book of Mormon (it was in my hotel room next to the Gideon bible), talked about the golden plates, the 11 witnesses to the plates and Smith's testimony, etc., and inquired how many believed it. Not one Mormon in the group. Why not? I then launched into a discussion of how obvious it is that religion and belief in God is socially constructed, historically contingent, and psychologically driven. David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, Jesus, Moses, what's the difference? They were all egomaniacal, delusional characters who developed fanatical followers who exaggerated their claims, mythologized their lives, and canonized their words. (I mentioned the new L. Ron Hubbard museum on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, and the new WHAT IS SCIENTOLOGY? book, all directed toward exaggerating, mythologizing, and canonizing Elron for posterity.) I pointed out that there are two creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, Adam and Eve were created twice, the first time together and the second time Eve from Adam's rib. I noted that there were a lot more than four gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Love, the Gospel of Wisdom, etc. Therefore, the Bible was obviously an edited volume. (For all their Bible thumping, Born Again Christians tend to be remarkably ignorant of the Bible. I suspect most have never actually read it but rather read only selected passages they are told to read.) I wrapped up with a general plea that they try thinking for themselves and that they should not allow themselves to be convinced by either Minkow or me.

I fully anticipated that Minkow would be orders of magnitude livelier than my last debate opponent, who was a theologian and college professor, and that he would listen to the tape of that first debate and cue off of it. I was spot on for both assumptions. Minkow walked the dais using the portable mic, was remarkably histrionic, and had a number of pre-planned jokes, as well as some rather clever and funny lines that came up spontaneously. He's obviously skilled in the art of public persuasion, and throughout the evening, when all else failed, he would simply spout something about how he knows he's right because the Bible says so, or because Jesus loves us and died for our sins, or some other born again platitude, and the audience went wild. I mean they really went wild, hooting and hollering, standing ovations, whistles...the works. These people reminded me of the scene in the animated film version of Animal Farm, where the sheep were blathering "four legs good, two legs bad" over and over. It was almost that bad. Pathetic, closed-minded, bigotted wretches spouting biblical passages chapter and verse like automatons.

(Okay, there's a little hyperbole here, but not much. It took me nearly 24-hours to recover from the shock of being, in the words of Moses {and later Heinlein} a stranger in a strange land. {Yes, it was Moses who first coined the phrase, if you can call it that, although I suspect the original Hebrew doesn't have quite the same ring, but I could be wrong.} So let me give this caveat: Yes, I know most religious folks are decent people equally repulsed by the holier-than-thou attitude of the Fundies and Thumpers who KNOW they have the Absolute and Final Truth and want nothing more than to cram it down your throat. Most people keep their religion to themselves, and with them I have no bone to pick. So why is it that these decent folks don't go to debates like this? My guess is that they are not interested in "proving" their faith. They know damn well that God cannot be proven and that the whole point of faith is that it is personal and subjective. So, to all you privately religious readers on this list, my brush is not so wide.)

Back to the debate: What did Minkow actually say? Unbelievably, he debated the tape of my previous debate! (I knew he would listen to it and plan his strategy on it, so I intentionally changed my presentation.) Even though I never once mentioned evolution (I mean it--the "E" word never left my lips), Minkow said (I wrote it down and it is on tape), that I said "random evolution" is how life formed, that I said I "know evolution is true," that I said "if there is a God more intelligent people would believe" (I never said any such thing and never even mentioned the subject), and that the Panda's thumb and male nipple are examples of bad design, not good design (again, all from the first debate, never mentioned here). It was amazing, he just stood up there and lied. I don't know if he was thinking that his own followers are so stupid they wouldn't remember I never said those things just minutes before, or that I was so stupid I wouldn't point that fact out. (So, of course, I did.) He then fast forwarded through the design argument, the weak anthropic principle, irreducible complexity, and "intelligent design," then finished with this absolute gem of a quote (I don't recall the source) with the preface that this sums up the problem today: "We have educated ourselves into imbecility."

In my 12 minute rebuttal I pointed out the absurdity of that final quote on the heels of a string of educated arguments for God's existence and that it sounded pretty imbicilic to me to make such a contradictory remark. I then noted that the topic of the debate is God's existence, not the origin and evolution of the universe. If that was the topic, then the speakers should be Kip Thorne from Caltech and Stephen Hawking from Cambridge, because the subject of the origin and evolution of the universe is an important and fascinating one in science. Ditto the origin and evolution of life, the origin and evolution of humans, etc. None of these questions have anything at all to do with God's existence. I asked him to please offer us some positive evidence of God's existence since we had yet to hear any. I also noted that even if scientists are completely wrong about the current theories of the origin and evolution of the universe, life, humans, etc. it is a logical fallacy to then assume God's existence. A's falsity has nothing to do with B's veracity. But for the record, I explained, no scientist EVER said evolution was random. Evolution is anything BUT random. (Oh, and he used the idiotic analogy that gets passed around faster than an internet conspiracy theory--the 747 spontaneously forming out of a junk yard.) I finished up by encouraging them all to learn something about a scientific field before passing judgment on it, and that I hoped in the remaining time that Minkow would tell us what proof he had for God's existence.

Since there is none, and I trumped him on the cosmology/evolution arguments, Minkow was reduced to the tautological argument that the bible proves god exists (but how do we know the bible is right?--because it was inspired by God, thus the circularity). He said that because Stalin and Hitler (nonbelievers) killed more people than the Inquisition (believers), there must be a God (uh?). He quoted G. K. Chesterton who said something like: "skeptics can't be trusted" and then wrapped up with the old chestnut "without God there can be no basis for morality."

In my next rebuttal I explained that the only reason Stalin and Hitler killed more people than the Inquisition is that Torquemada (sp?) didn't have gas chambers and machine guns. I then nailed him on the "you can't be moral without God" argument, announcing in my deepest alpha male voice I could muster, that this was BULLSHIT. This was probably a mistake (there were some youngsters in the crowd), but I thought I would experiment with strong language to see how it sounded. In any case, I reiterated that they should think for themselves, I suggested that they read books--lots and lots of books, and that, just for fun, try NOT believing in God for a day or two just to see how liberating it can be. That got the room really, really quiet! Probably not the most dramatic ending I could have devised, but that was it. Minkow finished with a dramatic quote from a WWI atheist soldier in a fox hole who found god. This, I guess, was the long awaited for proof of God's existence. But then HE blew it by rambling on after the quote, when he could have gotten the big ovation there. So I don't think either one of us finished strong.

The Q & A was the best part as far as I was concerned, because this is where you get to hear people get passionate about their beliefs and hear what they are thinking (more data on why people believe . . .). And there were some beauties. One Jewish guy said he knows God exists because of what the Jews have been put through for 4,000 years. I said that any God who is supposedly all good and all powerful would do that to a people, is no God I want any part of. (God is a Nazi? What can this argument possibly mean? I'm baffled.) Another guy actually said (I'm not exaggerating) that if he had not found God and believed in Jesus he would probably kill me after the debate (then he sort of snickered and said maybe he would have just beaten me up). There is nothing scarier than a monomaniacal religious fanatic with a mission to rid the world of perceived evil. That one was enough to make me think I should swear off doing any more of these debates. However, I was a little encouraged by a couple of dozen people who filed past after with kind words and encouragement, and a couple of e-mails today from people who said I got them thinking. So maybe planting a little seed of doubt is worth something. I don't know. But for the most part it sure seemed discouraging looking out at so many people so certain they are right and everyone else is wrong. So at this point I can't help but wonder if this sort of activism isn't a waste of time and limited resources.

Michael Shermer

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A reader had questioned whether in fact Shermer was atheist, provding the following quotes:

In his book Why People Believe Weird Things he states, "Gish refused to retract his characterization of me as an atheist. As Darwin said, 'An Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind'" (135-6).

In How We Believe, Shermer states, "As for my part, I used to be a theist, believing that God's existence was soluble. Then I became an atheist, believing that God's nonexistence was soluble. I am now an agnostic, believing that the issue is insoluble"

To resolve the question I asked Shermer directly. He responded:

"As a statement about the universe I am agnostic, in the sense that God's existence or nonexistence is neither provable nor disprovable.

"As a statement about my personal beliefs and habits, I am a nontheist. I assume and act as if there is no God.

"Based on this place me where you will."

External link

Collection of audio and video files featuring Shermer discussing science, skepticism and belief: [2]