Michael Shermer – Why Darwin Matters

September 22, 2006

Michael Shermer is one of the most well-known skeptics in America. He is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American, and is the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. He is also the co-host and producer of the Fox Family TV show, Exploring the Unknown. He is the author of many books, including Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, and Why People Believe Weird Things. Since founding the Skeptics Society in Southern California and Skeptic magazine, he has appeared widely on TV and radio advancing the scientific and skeptical point of view, on shows such as 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah, Unsolved Mysteries, and many more.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Shermer discusses evolution and Intelligent Design theory, Darwin’s impact on the world today, the conflict and the compatibility of science and religion, and the meaning of life without God.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn asks Did You Know? about Darwin, sharing facts and trivia about one of the most influential scientists of the modern era.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 22nd, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I am DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and now Washington, DC. In addition to 11 other cities around the world every week on point of inquiry, we try to examine the implications of science for the big questions facing us in society. We do this by drawing on CFI, his relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, social critics and thinkers, public intellectuals and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to welcome some new CFI campus groups. These are groups of college skeptics and humanists who work with us to advance science and reason at their schools. So a big welcome to this month’s new groups at Vasseur at University of Idaho, South Dakota State, Indiana University and University of Texas at Arlington, and the other groups in the 13 new groups that we’ve helped found since the beginning of this month. If you’re at one of these schools or you’d like to work with CFI to start a group at your school, go to W w w dot Campus Inquirer dot org and sign up now on this week’s point of inquiry. We have Dr. Michael Shermer, one of America’s most well-known skeptics. He’s going to talk with me about his new book, Why Darwin Matters. But first, Tom Flynn is here to ask us, did you know? 

Did you know that 50 years before a Nobel Prize winner, Francis Crick code discovered the structure of DNA? His grandfather, Walter Drawbridge Crick, was a pen pal with another seminal figure in the field of biology. Charles Darwin. The last paper Darwin ever published, just 13 days before his death appeared in nature and resulted from correspondence between Darwin and Walter Drawbridge. Crick, did you know that Darwin never coined the phrase survival of the fittest? Herbert Spencer did what Darwin actually said was in the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment. Did you know that Captain Robert Fitzroy, who commanded the HMS Beagle on Darwin’s famous journey, was also a meteorologist? He devised a storm warning system that was the prototype of our modern daily weather forecast. Did you know that around every February 12th in cities all across America and around the world, skeptic humanist science and atheist groups host Darwin Day celebrations where people come together to defend science and have fun together, exploring the implications of Darwin’s discoveries for the modern world. Events include Darwin Day fish fries, marathon readings of the Origin of the Species, and lectures and debates from scientists and educators about scientific literacy and the theory of evolution. 

Hi, I’m Barrie Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We published what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquire. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. The July August issue is now on shelves at better bookstores and can be ordered online at W w w Saikat dot org or by calling our toll free number one 800 six three four one six one zero. We are open Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 Eastern Time. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And so sure that you love this magazine that I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about, to get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin. And The Skeptical Inquirer. Thank you. 

I’m really pleased to have this week’s guest on Point of Inquiry. Michael Shermer, he’s one of the most well-known skeptics in America, working tirelessly for many years and in many ways to advance the scientific outlook in society. He’s a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American and he’s the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture series at Caltech. He’s also the co-host and producer of the Fox family TV show Exploring the Unknown. He’s the author of many books, including Science Fiction, Where the Known Meets the Unknown and Why People Believe Weird Things. Since his founding of The Skeptics Aside in Southern California and The Skeptic magazine, he’s appeared widely on TV and radio, advancing the scientific and skeptical point of view in our society. He’s been on shows like 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, Oprah, Unsolved Mystery and many, many more. He joins us on point of inquiry today to talk about his new book, Why Darwin Matters. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Michael. 

Well, thanks for having me. 

So your new book is Why Darwin Matters. Why do you write this book? Why does Darwin matter? 

Well, it Darwin represents the theory of evolution and evolution is part of science is the preeminent world view of our age. 

I mean, we live in the age of science. And the theory of evolution presents the best documented, I guess, narrative theory based on fact of where we came from and our origins and where we fit into nature and so on. 

I think it’s incredibly important, in fact, of the three big names of his era. Darwin, Marx and Freud, only Darwin still matters because Freud and Marx were wrong. I mean that the data to simply have not supported their theories. And so they’ve gone by the wayside except as historical curiosities. Whereas Darwin is still quite relevant. And even though there’s still rigorous debates within circles of evolutionary biologists about this aspect of that aspect of the theory of evolution, the core of Darwin’s theory, natural selection is the driving force behind evolutionary change remains intact. And I think that’s remarkable. Just to almost a century and a half after the publication of the Origin Species, that it’s it’s still a theory strongly going. There’s hardly any in science that are that robust still. 

Michael, you anticipated my next question. You and your book by saying something I really liked, you say Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it’s the preeminent story of our age. An epic saga about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Here’s the question. Is science just a story, just an epic saga? Critics from the far left say that science is just one mythic narrative, among many others. It’s no better than maybe religion. 

Yeah, right. Well, you know, I’m familiar with the the left critiques of science is just another way of telling a story or just another, I guess, hegemonic form of knowledge, control by those who are in power at the elite universities or some such thing. 

I really do talk like that. 

I mean, there’s some truth to the fact that obviously science is conducted by scientists or people who have political views and, you know, they have personal lives and they have biases in their religious or not religious. Yeah, of course, all that’s true. And and to a certain extent, especially in the social sciences, what’s popular in society at the time does determine a lot of what gets researched, like, you know, gun control and crime or race and IQ or, you know, a lot of sort of hot potato. Political issues related to science in which science appears to be kind of subjective, usually are in areas in the social sciences, not in the physical or biological sciences. And they’re way out there on the social sciences where we don’t really have a lotta developed rigorous techniques yet that are agreed upon by scientists to get to that. That’s where it gets kind of subjective. 

So science is not just one mythic narrative like many others. It is a story, but not just a story. 

That’s right. Yeah. I mean, it’s a story in the sense that, you know, you got to write something down. But in reality, it’s the best system we have for understanding the nature of the world, because unlike all other stories or forms of knowledge or whatever, science has a built in machinery, self-correcting machinery that requires you to look for the errors in your theory, to look for the disk confirmatory evidence that contradicts your ideas. And if you don’t do it, somebody else will with great glee to funk you. Science is, you know, it’s a pretty tough field to go into. I mean, you have to be thick skinned, maybe not quite as thick skin as politics these days, which is pretty nasty business. But scientists could be pretty competitive. And to get a paper published in a respected journal, it’s not easy. Most of them, you know, like over 90 percent are rejected and they’re rejected by your own peers who just rip you apart. So, you know, before you even submitted for publication, you have to be pretty cautious and really look for the your own errors and biases. And that’s one of the beauties of science, at least at least as some gets published. You know that it’s gone through subjects and balances where that is not the case with things like politics and religion. 

I’d like. To let our listeners know that you can get copies of Dr. Sherman’s books, including Why Darwin Matters through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Michael, doesn’t the plain truth that there is design in the universe demand that there was a designer, even an intelligent designer? 

Yeah, I’m I’m willing to concede that the use of the word design is so common. Why try to change it into something else? It is design. But the question is who’s who or what is the designers of it? Does it look more like a top down architectural design by an intelligence of some sort? Does it look like a bottom up tinker design called natural selection? The overwhelming evidence is for the latter that it looks like it sort of cobbled together out of the available parts at the time. And if it were the other way, if it was the top down intelligent designer, I think it would look rather different. I mean, we wouldn’t have all these vestigial Oregon’s, all these sort of poorly designed, suboptimal systems and so forth. So if you make that argument, which they used to make, then we went that one hands down pretty easily. It’s obviously evolved and it’s obviously suboptimal in most cases. Now, their new strategy is to say, well, we never said it had to be perfectly designed or optimally designed. This is the intelligent design argument like by Damski. Now he counters and says, well, I’m just interested where the design came from in the first place, even if it is suboptimal. So then that’s just as to the question of who are what is this top down designer? Because if you really did find let’s say we found evidence that DNA was design, we actually found like, say, a crash spaceship or an experimental lab on the moon or something. And it turned out that that DNA was designed by Martians or vegan’s or whoever some intelligent design is. Interesting is that would be and boy, the Setit people would sure like it. 

He would just beg the question for people that study the origins of life. Well, OK, so DNA was made, but where did those guys come from? Those aliens, those extraterrestrials at some point? You have to get to a natural bottom up, cobbled together origin of the whole system in the first place. So finding an intelligent designer doesn’t really answer the question at all. Of course, we know what they’re really up to. They they think they intelligent designers is a god of some kind. But I contend that that still doesn’t answer the question. You’re still left with the same exact same set of questions. You would if it was an E.T.. That is who we are. What made this guy or this intelligent designer? 

We hear from the cultural competitors of the theory of evolution, intelligent design theorists or creationists, religious political activists. We hear that evolution is a theory in crisis, that there are a lot of controversies in evolution. Doesn’t that suggest that we should listen to all views about origins, not just this theory that has a lot of arguing and bickering about mechanisms? 

Right. Well, any science worth, its worth, its salt would have debates it. If it doesn’t, then there’s probably something wrong if there’s too much consensus and it means there’s probably something wrong in the science. If you do go to an evolutionary theory conference and a conference of evolutionary biologists, whatever, and it’s quite exciting to to listen to the debates that they have and argue among themselves about this or that. Of course, no one’s arguing about whether evolution happen. They’re simply arguing about the various nuances of it. You know, natural selection vs. sexual selection or the target of natural selection by the individual or the group or the genome or the chromosome or whatever. 

You know, there’s lots of interesting debates like that tempo and mode of evolution, gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium, but none that discounts the fact that evolution happened and also intelligent design as yet another one of the alternatives that might be debated has to bring something to the table. That’s debatable or testable or somehow testable hypotheses. When you go to one of these conferences, all the different ideas that are bandied about and debated, they’re all testable. 

And so what happens after conference is everybody runs back to their lab and they try this or they try that variable to see what works. And the problem with intelligent design is they’re not giving us anything to do elsewhere. All they’re doing is saying, oh, you have this complex structure X, whether it’s DNA of the bacterial flagellum of the eye or the wing or whatever, and we can’t figure out how it came about. 

Therefore, you know, it did at the intelligent designer did it. Well, how do I go back to my lab to test that, to see if that’s true? And the answer is, well, you can’t. Well, then, all right. So you’re not really doing science. And that’s the end of the conversation. 

One of the organizations that make that argument that evolution is a theory in crisis and therefore we should learn about alternative views, about origins. It’s called the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Tell me what the wedge strategy is. 

Right. Well. The Web strategy is their highly publicized long term goals of moving beyond the so-called science that they think they’re doing into the realm of social, cultural and political influence. So the first strategy that see the problem here, if we go back in time a little bit to the whole evolution creation debate is controversy. He’s gone through four stages. The first stage was banning the teaching of evolution, and they lost all those courtroom cases, including the Scopes trial. 

And so the second strategy then was to demand equal time or pass equal time laws for Genesis in Darwin. And they lost those cartoon battles because of the First Amendment. You can’t teach Genesis in public schools, OK? So the third strategy in the 80s was to demand equal time laws for evolution, science and creation, hype and science. 

They just put a hyphen and stuck the words science on the end. 

And they lost those courtroom battles, including the the most important one of all, the 1987 Louisiana case. Louise State of Louisiana passed an equal time law that mandated teachers teach creation science. The ACLU challenged it. The Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the law. And then on appeal, I went to the U.S. Supreme Court. They voted 72 to uphold Louisiana’s Supreme Court’s decision to ban those laws. So that was a great victory. 

By 72, Scalia and Rehnquist said that creation science can’t be taught. OK, so that I thought that would be the end of that. So out of that, out of the ashes of that came intelligent design and their strategy of dumping all that creationism stuff, which they feel is old and outdated and introducing a whole new idea, this intelligent design. But what’s behind that is a larger movement of first infiltrating academia through universities, colleges, conferences, the publication of peer reviewed journal articles, essays, commentaries, opinion editorials, monographs, trade books, textbooks, and so on. And that’s the first five year plan. And they’re sort of wrapping that up now, kind of, I guess, still doing that. 

And that’s outlined in the wedge strategy. 

Yeah. So that’s different. Like, if you want to change culture, you have to do it through high culture. You can’t do it through pop culture, low culture. You have to do it through the academic world, through to the academy. So that’s why they’ve gone for conferences at universities, for example, or textbooks or trade books published by major publishing houses, rather than either self publishing houses or Christian publishing houses like Damski is published with Cambridge University Press. Michael Behe publish with a free press. These are major publishing houses. These are not like those Christian publishing houses that the old creationists used to do. So then the second strategy is to take take it to the streets, so to speak. You know, through the teachers association, through newspapers, through politics. And now the ultimate goal is to break down the wall separating church of state and return America to the Christian nation that is supposed to be at least as they see it. So that’s why this is really a pretty serious challenge. That’s why Darwin matters, in a sense. I mean, that’s why I wrote the book is like, hey, this isn’t just a question of science. We know it has nothing to do with science, of course, but. But why should anybody care? Well, because these guys want a theocracy, a Christian theocracy. And I have very one simple argument against why they don’t actually really want that. And when I make this argument, everybody agrees with me, including Christians. And that is once you’ve passed the laws that that make it OK or mandatory for the government to support the dominant religion of the nation, which at the moment is Christianity. So Christians like that idea. But let’s say 50 years from now or 100 years from now. Islam is the dominant religion of America. Now, most Americans would say, oh, that’s nonsense, that can’t happen. 

It’s already happening in Europe within 20 to 30 years. 

Islam will be the dominant religion in all of Europe and in Europe are using the institutions of democracy to advance Islam like evangelical Christians or other Christian activists are in America. 

Yeah, exactly. And so when Islam becomes the dominant religion, say, of America, you still want those laws on the book that says the government’s supposed to help and assist the dominant religion? Well, Christians all unanimously responded that hell no, right? 

That’s right. We have to keep them separate. Absolutely. 

For your own sake, for the own sake of the freedom of Christians and the Christian religion, you have to keep government out of it. 

Church state separation is best for religion. I want to switch gears a little and talk about religion in general, not necessarily evangelical Christianity. Some thinkers argue that science talks about one set of human experiences religion. Another set of our experience that when it gets down to religion and science are not incompatible because they have non overlapping just. Syria view that Stephen Jay Gould advanced at Harvard. Thinkers like Richard Dawkins and others passionately argue against that point of view. They say that science and religion are not compatible. Where do you come out in that debate? 

It depends entirely on the particular claim being made. Most of what religion does does have nothing to do with science. I mean, when you talk about like religious organizations going to New Orleans to help the victims of Katrina or raising funds to help stop AIDS in Africa or to help hunger in Africa is poverty in South America. You know, these kinds of things. Science doesn’t do that. But the claims of religion. Yeah, but we have to understand first that religion is a huge thing. So there’s you can’t just say religion is X and therefore it’s in conflict. Well, it isn’t just X, it’s a whole bunch of things. So very specific claims about religion, like the earth is less than 6000 years old. If you make claims like that, obviously there’s a conflict that can’t it cannot be a conflict or that prayer affects healing, something like that. As soon as an empirical claim is made about the natural state of the world, then that’s the turf of science and. And science is going to win. And thoughtful people who are religious in theology and so on recognize this. And they almost always go with science. For example, the Dalai Lama’s new book. He says right there in the first chapter that where there appears to be a conflict between Buddhism and science, we must go with science. Buddhism has to change. Even Francis Collins new book, The Language of God, who he is an evangelical Christian, and yet he accepts all of science, all of it a, you know, evolution happened. Intelligent design is nonsense. Here it is, four point six billion years old. STEM cell research is great. Pro-Choice on abortion. I mean, that is right down the line on all issues. The only thing he wants to argue is that the moral law means there is a God. And and he can’t he can’t get over the anthropic find two myths of the universe. Therefore, that’s where God energy. Okay, fine. I mean, I’m willing to sort of tolerate that. I don’t agree with that. But, you know, hey, what the heck? You know, he’s he’s an evangelical on our side and virtually every issue that counts. So I think it’s best if we kind of just be a little more tolerant and have a bigger tent to try to get more people on our side to that extent. 

And so strategically, it makes sense. I understand that strategically we don’t want to burn our bridges with those who agree with us on the majority of our issues or the issues. But here’s here’s the question. Doesn’t it just show that people can be inconsistent if you’re devoutly religious and you believe you believe the claims of your religion? And you also believe in the theory of evolution? 

Well, I suppose it depends how far you want to go down. The ultimate questions, issues like where did it all come from in the first place? I mean, that that’s what we’re where the rubber meets the road. Right. You know, I see nothing wrong with somebody who’s a theist wanting to say, I completely accept all of science and this was God’s way of creating. All right, fine. I would counter. Well, yeah, maybe. But what like can’t the universe itself just have principles of self organization and you don’t. You don’t even need the God hypothesis at all. 

And but ultimately, I can’t prove that and I can’t prove the God question. 

At some point we do end up at a level of of ignorance that neither one of us has an ultimate answer to. And at that point, you really have to decide what level of ambiguity and uncertainty you’re willing to live with. For me personally, I don’t have to know where the matter came from that banged and the big bang or before the bubble universes started or before the oscillating string theory, quantum fluctuation foam things started, whatever the correct answer is going to be where all that stuff came from. You know, I don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe God did it. Maybe there is no God. Maybe it’s the universe’s turtle. I don’t need to know to live my life in a satisfactory way. Most people do. And I guess that’s where it comes down to personality. How much you need that notion of God for an ultimate answer or not. 

So not to belabor the point, Michael, but you’re saying science and religion are incompatible. If religion makes any claims whatsoever about the universe in which the data don’t support it. 

Yes. Right. 

Any claims that are inconsistent with modern with contemporary science? 

Right. Well, on one level, there can’t be a conflict if you’re honest about it, because with the notion of God, we have to be dealing with a supernatural being, any being that is in our space and time and only in our space time, who operates it really is indistinguishable from an. Terrestrial intelligence of great power. So here’s what I call Sherman’s last law, because I don’t believe in naming laws after your first shall be last of the last shall be first. 

This is a column I wrote in Scientific American Sermon’s last law. 

Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God. This, of course, is a spin off from Arthur C. Clarke’s first law technology. 

Yeah. So but if you think about it, it has to be true. 

Let’s go back to this notion of trying to find an intelligent designer that the most that these guys will ever find is an E.T. because if you extrapolate out, say, Moore’s Law and you apply it to whatever field you want, any extraterrestrial intelligence we’re gonna encounter is not going to be just 20 years ahead of us or 50 years ahead of us or a couple hundred years ahead of us. We’re certainly not going to encounter any teeth behind us. They’re going to be way ahead of us. Fifty thousand a hundred thousand million years ahead of us. And look at what we’ve been able to accomplish in the last century or even half century in terms of computer technology, genetic engineering and so on. Think of what we’ll be able to do in another 50 thousand hundred thousand years. Of those those trends. If we make it that far. Yes. I mean, we make it that far. We could we could easily, completely construct a whole genome. Make cells create complex cellular life. Perhaps we could even create planets in stars and in the most wild scientific science fiction scenario. We could perhaps even cause stars to collapse into black holes and create new universes with certain configurations of laws that would give rise to life something like that. How would that be any different from what we what most people think of as God is an ambition omnipotent, being the creator of all things visible and invisible life and the universe and so on? 

Well, Michael, most people don’t think of God just as that they see God as this omnipotent creator of the universe with whom they have a personal relationship and who expects certain kinds of behavior from them. 

Yeah, right. Well, there there you get to questions of faith in science. There’s no evidence through science that that that that actually occurs. And wherever there have been attempts to prove it. Those attempts have failed, most recently with the prayer and healing studies with the eighteen hundred cardiac bypass patients in which there was no effect at all. So this to me is that is a big mistake that religious people make, is trying to use science to prove something. They’re going to fail. They always do that. 

Those attempts always fail to use science to prove God or religion or any religious tenet. 


Yeah. So science and religion are incompatible. If religion makes any claims about the universe inconsistent with science. Yeah, that’s right. But they’re not incompatible. If if you’re a weak deist or if you’re a religionist who’s willing to give up all of the supernatural claims. 

That’s right. A is a. And the attempt to make a nun a can’t work. And whatever God is, he can’t be in our space time. Therefore, he’s he’s not part of the whole a as a universe that we live in. He’s he’s supernatural and science simply can’t say anything about that. Now, how you can access the supernatural is beyond me. I can’t see a way to do it. For me, I’m a strict materialist and rationalist. And I don’t I don’t see how that can happen. But obviously some people do. I can’t prove there is no God. But on the other hand, to me, it seems like there’s pretty overwhelming evidence that God and religion are human constructions, socially embedded, culturally designed, historically determined. So I I think, you know, without pushing it too far, we can make a pretty good case for man making God instead of vice versa. 

So if you can make a pretty good case that God is a function of human needs or desires or in other ways created by man, and you are a skeptic about those claims about God and the supernatural. And you also don’t believe that people have souls that when we die were dead, that there’s no heaven, hell, paradise when you die. Well, Michael, that’s a pretty darned bleak view of humankind’s place in the universe. And you seem to be saying that all of this springs from your understanding of Darwinian evolutionary theory. 

The irony is bleak at all. Actually, I find it incredibly uplifting. Liberating, in fact, that if this is all there is. Holy moly. I really better live a rich life by which I don’t mean eat, drink and be merry for the end as night. But I mean developing deeper relationships, doing things that really count for the species, for for myself or my family, for my extended family and friends, for this society, for the planet, for the species. You know, the whole thing to me, not figuring that there’s something in the next life means that this life counts even more. So instead of being bleak, actually, I think it’s quite the opposite. The idea that it is bleak is sort of a bill of good. I think we’ve all been sold that we need to. It’s a marketing issue, we need to get over that. 

So even if life is a result of the processes described by Darwin’s theory of evolution, it does not follow. You’re saying that life is meaningless even if there is no God. Life can have meaning. 

It can have all the meaning that we give it. In fact, I claim that that religious people do the exact same thing the rest of us do. If you listen to what they say brings meaning to their lives. I mean, first they’ll say something like Go Jesus brings me meaning or God being mean or something like that. But when you press a man. Well. But what is it exactly that you do on a day to day basis that gives you gives your life meaning? They say the same things I do. Well, I you know, I love my spouse, my kids, my family, my extended family, meaningful work and career, helping other people. My my exercise, my spirituality. I get from walking in God’s beautiful creation, whatever they use slightly different language than I do. But in fact, those are the very things that research shows us do make people happy. That is, married people are happier than single or divorced people. People with kids are happier. People that have meaningful careers, that set goals that have worked, that they enjoy, that have challenges, that they enjoy taking and overcoming obstacles. You know, all those things. Those are the things that indeed actually bring happiness and purpose and meaningfulness to all lives. It doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or non-religious. I think religions have stumbled across those things over thousands of years by trial and error. And now science is doing the research on it. Had this whole business of happiness research, it turns out, hey, that’s it. That those are the things that it isn’t money after all. It is helping other people. And you don’t have to listen to preachers talk about this. Dr. Phil will tell people, hey, you should go help the victims of Katrina. Go help the poor. Help your neighbors or friends, you know, move or whatever. Just getting outside of your own skin and doing something for other people actually is fulfilling. And Darwin explains that. I mean, we live where social primate species, we need to be cooperative with our fellow ingroup members. And and that that does bring great satisfaction. So I think I think there’s an overlap there. 

It sounds like you’re talking about some sort of humanism, whether religious humanism or secular humanism. It’s concentrating on the needs and the flourishing of humankind. 

Yeah. Absolutely right. I actually think religious humanism, secular humanism are not so different or even most religious people we have to atheists and skeptics tend to harp on the sort of hard core, simplistic fundamentalists who get the most press or that kind of the most obvious of them, the loudest, the most obnoxious and the most influential. Right. So those are the areas we need to stand up when there’s political challenges, something like that. Courtroom challenges, classroom challenges. But most people, most religious people are very quiet about it. They don’t bug us. You know, you you mind your business. I’ll mind my business. And and those are the people, I think the vast majority, in fact, who aren’t really so different from us that those are the people, I think of it as a big tent. You know, we we we need those people if we want to save the environment. And this is Carl Sagan’s larger vision, why he didn’t go after religion in his harsher way as a Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, because he realized that if you start a dialog with somebody and say, listen, I believe that all your deepest, most cherished religious beliefs are just bullshit. 

Hey, now let’s talk about saving the environment or preventing nuclear war. 

Well, you know, you’re not going to get a lot of positive response there. So if there’s a way to have a bigger tent and be a little more conciliatory in order to achieve some more important goals, such as saving the environment or or more liberty and freedom for more people around the planet, I think that’s that’s a worthwhile way. And I think there are ways around those potential areas of conflict. If we can get off the hook, this whole fundamentalist business of religion trying to determine what’s absolutely true about the natural world, that’s not really what religion does anymore. Science does it. 

So even if it’s not intellectually honest, it is more strategic for us to have that big tent work with others to advance common goals rather than just, you know, the atheist getting together in an assembly line on their kitchen table, acting out in God. We trust on all their dollar bills. There are more productive ways to do it, you’re saying? 

Yeah, well, I don’t think I have to be intellectually dishonest to also have the big tent. Let’s be strategic. Now, there is I don’t think you have to sit there and lie to yourself. God, okay. I’m going to swallow my pride here and not push this guy on the ontological question of God’s existence and just be nice. You don’t have to do that. I mean, I think there’s ways to work around this where, for example, if a believer really believes that God is all powerful and an eternal. What difference does it make when he did the creation 6000 years ago, six billion years ago? It’s just it’s just a bunch of zeros after the one. The first digit. It’s six more zeros. Nine more zeros. Twelve more zeros. A thousand more zeros. To do any eternal being, the zeros are meaningless. Oh, yeah, that’s right. OK. It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t have to be 6000 years ago. Maybe the Bible can be read metaphorically. Fine. Good. Do it. Read it metaphorically. 

And if if you believe an all powerful guy, what difference does it make how he did it use gravity, electromagnetism, natural selection, whatever. These are just God’s ways of creation for four most thoughtful religious people. They will nod and say, yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t matter. Science is fine. There’s no conflict there. And are you really being intellectually dishonest by saying that? I don’t think so. I mean, we can’t ultimately prove at this point anyway way where the laws of nature came from it, that really at this point is a metaphysical question, not a scientific question. So I don’t think you’re being intellectually dishonest to say that you’re not being intellectually dishonest. 

If the religious person is the one reading their sacred text metaphorically. But if you’re talking to a fundamentalist who believes the claims of that holy book, the Koran or the Christian Bible, the Hebrew Bible, literally. Can they really fit in the big tent? 

Well, it depends on what they want to do. 

I mean, if they want to fly planes into buildings that they want to blow up abortion clinics. Yeah, obviously, no, that’s you know, that’s not going to work. I mean, we have the laws of the land and things. We allow the amount of diversity we’re willing to tolerate within the Constitution. I mean, you know, politics is already dealt with this. We’ve dealt with this for centuries now. And I think the American experiment is pretty damn good. Mm hmm. Although eternal vigilance is the watchword of freedom. We have to fight for that. We can lose it. But but that’s why we have political groups on the left who can challenge the right and so on. And that’s why we we we have social activists like like the secular humanist. And to that extent, you know, I want to comment on that. You mentioned about, you know, in God we trust on the money or something like that. I think it’s that we need to pick and choose our battles carefully. I think some are more important than others. I personally am not offended by the in God we trust on the money or it’s kind of ceremonial deism, as they say. Yeah, it’s I mean, you know, who cares? I’m much more worried about, you know, Bush’s theocratic notions and what how that influences our Middle East foreign policy. I mean, to me, that’s you know, that’s orders of magnitude by a thousand orders of magnitude more important than what’s on my money. 

I’d like to remind our listeners that you can get copies of Dr. Schumer’s books, including Why Darwin Matters and Why People Believe Weird Things through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Michael, to finish up, if someone read your book, Why Darwin Matters, the case against Intelligent Design, they’re persuaded that Darwin matters and they want to do something. What’s something they could do to get involved with? If you’re talking about cultural competitors, those who defend and promote the scientific outlook in our society? 

Well, I. I think, first of all, just any of the groups that are involved in this whole thing, our own group, you know, the Skeptic Society Psychopathy Group, Jeannie Scott’s National Center for Science Education. You know, those those kinds of groups are good to support because they’re actively involved in very specific cases, like especially Jeannie Scott’s group with with local politics and courtroom fights around the country over the teaching of good science versus creationism. And, you know, those are the kind of things that matter. I think more than almost anything else or, you know, political action groups, that kind of thing are important. So, you know, that’s one way to do it. And of course, just learning the sciences is important. I think one of the most disturbing things I’ve noticed over the last 20 years of being involved in the whole evolution creation business is people just don’t even know what evolution is. They are completely shocked to hear that. You mean it’s not completely random? What know, we didn’t come from the apes. What? I mean, they have no notion. And when you’re probably little bit deeper, you find out they’ve never even been taught evolution. I think I think just the very teaching of the basics of science are still we’re still woefully lacking in this country. 

Thank you very much for joining me on today’s point of inquiry, Michael. 

You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. I’d like to remind you that if you want a sample copy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, the magazine for Science and Reason, go to our Web site Point of Inquiry dot org. You can also subscribe to Skeptical Inquirer by calling eight hundred sixty three, four, sixteen, ten and mentioning point of inquiry. You’ll get a discount. Join us next week for another discussion with one of our leading thinkers when we explore some of the big questions facing us. And we look at those questions through the lens of the scientific outlook. If you want to get involved with an online conversation about the topic of today’s episode, Michael Shermer and his new book, Why Darwin Matters, go to w w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our website point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalan. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan, Debbie Goddard and Tom Flynn. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.