The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

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A Case of Stalled Evolution

Seventy-five years ago this month legal and intellectual titans collided in Dayton, Tennessee to begin what would go down in history as the “trial of the century.” Fundamentalist orator and three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan squared off with defense attorney par excellence Clarence Darrow, over whether high school teacher John T. Scopes had violated the law when he taught his students that they had descended from a common ancestor with modern apes millions of years ago.

Scopes, Bryan charged, was in violation of the 1925 Butler Act that made it “unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the state … to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” After days of legal wrangling in the sweltering July heat in this, the first trial ever broadcast on radio and covered by every major newspaper in the land, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 because, of course, he had broken the law. (continue reading…)

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The Evolution Wars

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A review of three books: Ullica Segerstråle’s Defenders of the Truth, Robin Marantz Henig’s The Monk in the Garden, and Jeffrey K. McKee’s The Riddled Chain.

Creationism, in some form, will probably be with us as long as biblical fundamentalists continue their misguided efforts to squeeze the square peg of religion into the round hole of science. But the debate over whether evolution happened was (continue reading…)

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Debunking James Van Praagh & Psychics

Michael Shermer explains how psychic James Van Praagh appears to talk to the dead by using such mentalism tricks as cold reading and hot reading.

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Desperately Seeking Spiritualism

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A review of Martha Sherrill’s The Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction.

There is a humorous scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when his unfulfilled and neurotically Jewish character fails to find meaning in alternate religious expressions after visiting a Catholic church and returning home with a loaf of white bread, a jar of mayonnaise, and a crucifix. The reason, of course, is that the trappings and facade of a religion will not get you to that deeper place where so many desire to go.

Why do people believe in God? Why have all people throughout history, in all cultures around the world, embraced some sort of spiritual expression or religious impulse? Social scientists have attempted to answer the question scientifically through theories and statistics, but humans are storytelling animals and nothing captures the essence of a belief better than an in-depth story about one group’s religious experiences as they struggle with the messiness of day-to-day living in a secular world. (continue reading…)

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Chicken Soup for the Evolutionist’s Soul

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A review of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Humans are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning. Such is the stuff of which myth, religion, history, and science are made.

Sometimes the patterns we find represent reality — DNA as the basis of heredity or the fossil record as the history of life. But sometimes the patters are imposed by our minds rather than discovered by them — the face on Mars (actually an eroded mountain) or the Virgin Mary’s image on the side of a glass building in Clearwater, Florida (really an oil stain from a palm tree, since removed to enable the faithful to better view their icon). The rub lies in distinguishing which patterns are true and which are false, and the essential tension (as Thomas Kuhn called it) pits skepticism against credulity as we try to decide which patterns should be rejected and which should be embraced. (continue reading…)

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