The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer
Science, not silence

Science Makes America Great

April 21, 2017

Dear President Trump:

Fifty-five years ago this week President John F. Kennedy hosted a dinner honoring Nobel Prize laureate scientists, remarking:

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

In fact, Kennedy added, the author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd President of the United States “could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”

From the earliest days of our nation, science has been at the forefront of what makes America great. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams and many of the other founding fathers were either practicing scientists or were trained in the sciences. They deliberately adapted the scientific method of gathering data, running experiments, and testing hypotheses to their construction of our nation. Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them to develop a political system in which doubt and disputation were the centerpieces of a functional polity.

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How Might a Scientist Think about the Resurrection?

April 14, 2017

IMAGE ABOVE: The Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Mechernich, Germany (near Köln), built 2005–2007 following the plans of the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Photograph by Michael Shermer

For the world’s two billion Christians, Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion death at the hands of the Romans. It is the resurrection that sets Christians apart from all other religions. In fact, as denoted in 1 Corinthians 15: 13–14: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

Did Jesus die and come back to life? In the parlance of current events, is this a fake news story, an alternative fact invented by the followers of Jesus, or did it really happen?

As a scientist who was once a born-again evangelical Christian I have given this question much thought. Although I am no longer a religious believer, I think there is reasonable evidence that a man named Jesus probably did exist, and that there are good reasons to believe he was crucified by the Romans, which was a common tool of capital punishment at the time, employed against even common thieves, such as the two men crucified on either side of Jesus. Whether or not Jesus “died for our sins” is a pure theological dogma untestable by science, but the matter of his resurrection is open to scrutiny. There are reasons to doubt the claim.

First, Jews and Muslims, along with the world’s other four billion religious people, do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. This is especially noteworthy in the other Abrahamic religions, given that Jews and Muslims worship the same God. And although the veracity of a truth claim is not determined by majority rule, if there were compelling evidence for this all-important event wouldn’t it at least convince some in a few other religions? That Jewish Rabbis and Muslim Clerics are so well educated and professionally trained in the art of evaluating arguments and evidence speaks volumes to their skepticism of the resurrection. (continue reading…)

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If There is No God, is Murder Wrong?

April 11, 2017

On the popular online site Prager University, the conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager recently posted the video “If there is no God, Murder Isn’t Wrong.”

Nearly two million people have heard his argument that without God, anything goes.

I’ve known Dennis for many years and have been a guest on his show a number of times. He’s a smart guy, and we agree on many issues, but on this one I think he is wrong.

Prager’s belief that without God there can be no objective morality is, in fact, a common one many people hold. It’s wrong for 4 reasons.

1. Divine Command Theory is Fallible

The argument that our morals come from God is what philosophers and theologians call Divine Command Theory, well captured by the popular bumper sticker:

God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

This argument was refuted 2500 years ago by the Greek philosopher Plato, when he asked, in so many words:

“Is what is morally right or wrong commanded by God because it is inherently right or wrong, or is it morally right or wrong only because it is commanded by God?”

For example, if murder is wrong because God said it is wrong, what if He said it was okay? Would that make murder right? Of course not! (continue reading…)

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Science for All

March 28, 2017

On 22 March, 2017 I posted on my Twitter account (@michaelshermer) a link to this article titled “Science march on Washington, billed as historic, plagued by organizational turmoil,” which chronicled the “infighting among organizers, attacks from outside scientists who don’t feel their interests are fairly represented, and operational disputes.” The article went on to note that “Tensions have become so pronounced that some organizers have quit and many scientists have pledged not to attend.” Predictably, politics was the divisive element, most notably identity politics involving the proper representation of race and gender diversity, and immigration, obviously in response to the election of Donald Trump. The website of the march felt the need to post an official diversity policy that reads, in part, “We acknowledge that society and scientific institutions often fail to include and value the contributions of scientists from underrepresented groups.”

My initial thought was this: So let me get this straight. As the Federal government prepares to cut science budgets across the board, and in an era of fake news and alternative facts, instead of marching to proclaim how important science is to the American economy, not to mention human survival and flourishing, along with our commitment to facts and reason, you want to send a message to the public in general and the Trump administration in particular that science—the most universal institution in human history—is a failure when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

But then I realized that this had nothing to do with the ideals of science, which I articulated in a tweet posted shortly after the link to the article: (continue reading…)

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Dying To Go To Heaven

March 27, 2017

What the Heaven’s Gate Suicides Teach Us About Islamic Martyrdom

This op-ed appeared on on March 24, 2017.

It was 20 years ago this week, March 20-26, 1997, that 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult “graduated” from this life to ascend to the UFO mothership that they believed would take them to an extraterrestrial paradise. I’ll never forget it. I was on book tour for Why People Believe Weird Things, and neither I nor any of my peers who study belief systems had ever heard of the cult. It was hard to fathom. Now, as I look back 20 years later, I believe the mass suicide has a deeper lesson that goes far beyond the confines of New Age fringe cults, and has relevance to understanding the motivations of today’s suicide terrorists.

But first, let’s revisit the story. Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1975 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles after they met in a psychiatric hospital. They fell in love and believed their pairing had been foretold by extraterrestrials. In the 1980s and 1990s, they recruited several hundred followers, many of whom sold their possessions and lived in isolation, disconnected from their family and friends. They practiced living in dark rooms to simulate space travel and considered sex sinful, with six male members voluntarily undergoing castration. (continue reading…)

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