Saturday, December 03, 2011

Michael Shermer: the skeptics' David Barton

It's amazing how someone who fashions himself a skeptic can be so credulous when it comes to cultural questions involving religion. Michael Shermer, founding editor of Skeptic magazine and author of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies--How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, has constructed a skeptical belief about the role of Christianity in America and reinforced it by a wide selection of quotes on his recent blog post from skeptics who have taken exception to Charles Colson's recent remark that America is a Christian nation.

The comments catalogued on Shermer's blog are a litany of largely boneheaded statements on the issue, the unimpressive nature of which is testimony to the lax intellectual standards of professional secularists like Shermer. But Shermer unaccountably finds them impressive, or maybe he thinks that the sheer volume of sophistry demonstrated by them somehow renders the whole post more cogent.

I'm inclined to think that large quantities of bad reasoning renders someone's case weaker, not stronger. But maybe it's just me.

Evangelical writer David Barton, who has attracted attention recently because of his connections to Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, comes under frequent criticism from fundamentalist secularists like Shermer (I haven't seen any comments by Shermer himself on Barton, but they're fairly common among those of his ilk) because of his oversimplifications, occasional inaccuracies, and sometimes fallacious reasoning--as well as for the many of the correct things he says--about the Christian influences on American history and culture. So its kind of ironic that Shermer would employ such a low threshhold of tolerance when it comes to what he includes on his blog.

And it's not just the things he includes on his blog written by other people. Shermer wrote an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times last month criticizing the decision by the U. S. Congress to reaffirm the national motto "In God We Trust." No one observed the strange irony that a man who believes America is a secular nation would be upset because the most significant legislative body of that nation had just reaffirmed a blatantly religious motto by a vote of 396-9. But the irony was lost on the blissfully ignorant Shermer.

On the other hand, maybe that's why he doesn't mention his secularist America thesis in the op-ed, since the congressional vote is at least a prima facie rebuke of it. In any case, the article is a bizarre conglomeration of red herring arguments. He talks about the philosophical problem of evil posed by natural and not so natural  disasters (e.g. 9/11) and talks about the benefits of trust between individuals and society.

And these are arguments against the social benefits of religious belief in society ... how?

The David Barton's of the world could be excused if they assented to basically every factual and philosophical assertion in Shermer's piece and still wonder what they have to do with whether the nation having a religious motto is a good thing, since none of the reasons Shermer offers would contradict it.

"It's time to drop the God talk," says Shermer, "and face reality with a steely-eyed visage of the modern understanding of the origin of freedom on which the United States was founded and continues to be secured. God has nothing to do with it."

Secularist atheists are all about having a "steely-eyed visage." Just look at the photo that graces the inside flap of the (intellectually suspect) books of Sam Harris. There he is, looking like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel: defiant, rationalistic, ruggedly handsome, and ... and ... oh, what's the expression? ... "steely-eyed."  The problem is that, while a few secularists like Harris can pull off the "steely-eyed" thing, others, like Shermer, look like way too professorial and grandfatherly for the part. And besides, most of these kinds of secularists are of the politically leftist type that Rand would consider wimpy.

Maybe we ought to be thinking of the code heroes of the Hemingway type. But, alas, neither Shermer nor Harris have shot themselves yet. And clearly, if after arguments like the ones Shermer himself articulates in his Los Angeles Times piece and which he includes from others on his recent blog don't cause secularists to shoot themselves, I don't know what will.

On the other hand, maybe its just because these people are all opposed to the possession of firearms. In fact, we ought to be glad (those of us with a compassionate bent) that the L.A. Times copy editor did not have a pistol close by when she realized that she had approved the Shermer sentence quoted above, which perpetrates unspeakable violence on the rules of competent expression. Apparently secularism extends to disbelief in the gods of rhetoric too.

In regard to the comments that grace his blog post (or plague it, depending on your perspective and knowledge of logic), we have:

  • David Schumacher: that some of the "Christian founders" were involved in the Salem witch trials (an argument which, if "founders" is supposed to refer to anyone involved in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, ignores the fact that anyone participating in the Salem witch trials of 1692 would have been dead by that time)
  • Adam Qureshi: who asks, "What the heck did we do before Christianity came along a mere 2 thousand years ago?" (Answer: Oh, let's see: enslave, kill, oppress, have government sponsored public games in which people of a certain religion were fed to lions, engage in child sacrifice, and generally disregard human rights because the concept historically required Christianity to formulate. But come to think of it, we still do sacrifice children, don't we? It's called abortion, and most secularists support it)
  • Eric Lawton: who is under the impression that "Christianity plunged us into centuries of dark ages, superstition and theocracy." (Nevermind the fact that the Church was virtually the only civilizing and institutional presence in the West after the fall of Rome and was solely responsible for saving Western civilization by preserving the great works of antiquity without which there literally would have been no Renaissance, no scientific revolution, no "Enlightenment", and ... no modern secularists) 
It goes on.

Colson was spot on in his response to Shermer:
According to Shermer, what really makes people feel free and secure are things like “the rule of law,” “education for the masses,” the establishment of “fair and just laws” and the “equitable enforcement of those fair and just laws.”
What Shermer doesn’t tell us is that things like the rule of law, mass education and the other things he credits with making our freedom and security possible didn’t spring fully-formed out of nowhere. They are part of Christianity’s legacy to the West.
To argue that these the things didn't, as a matter of historical fact, arise from the influence of Christianity is just historical ignorance.


Francis Beckwith said...

Colson is not so much better when the only Christian he cites for the defense of the "rule of law" is John Calvin. Sheesh! This seems to provide Shermer some fodder, namely, until the ascendancy of the Rennaisance and the movements that were allegedly borne of it (as the secular narrative goes)--e.g. the Reformation, the Enlightenment--the West was just a bastion of ignorant superstition and barbarism.

A much better source that debunks Shermer is the work of my Baylor colleague, Rodney Stark.

Evangelicals like Colson seem to want to make the Reformation the beginning of Christianity.

Buford T. Justice said...

"... while a few secularists like Harris can pull of the 'steely-eyed' thing, others, like Shermer, look like way too professorial and grandfatherly for the part. And besides, most of these kinds of secularists are of the politically leftist type that Rand would consider wimpy."

If you engage secularism at the level of caricature then you talk in an echo chamber. Happy hunting.

I'd like to say more, but my wrists are tired.

Martin Cothran said...


I recommend reading the rest of the post.

Melissa said...
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