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What I Believe —
Science & the Power of Humanity

by Michael Shermer, Sep 08 2009

I believe in the power of science and humanity. Specifically, I believe that biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the environment, although I think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that the environment is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists give it credit for. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive an SUV because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink (in both meanings) as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be unequal. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.

I don’t know why the God question is so interdigitated with political and economic issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s okay to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl.

This is why what we do in this life matters so much — and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the millennia wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the consequences of what we are doing.

I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right’s hypersensitivities and politically correct “tolerance” for diversities of belief — as long as one believes in God — any God will do, except the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in god have had enough of this rhetoric. This is America. We are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.

Religion and politics should be treated as separate entities. Religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the capitol. Don’t go to church to politic, and don’t go to the capitol to preach. That’s a non-overlapping magisterium I can live with.

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What I Believe —
Science & the Power of Humanity
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128 Responses to “What I Believe —
Science & the Power of Humanity”

  1. Tim says:

    Amen…kind of.

    • Tim says:

      I would not say that they are non-overlapping. Religion deals not just with the annoying talking head who says that a football coach should be able to pray with his team while getting paid by the tax payer, but with ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical issues as well.

      In reverse order they believe that the world is not real, that there is a supernatural realm which controls and/or can alter this universe at any moment for any reason. They believe that truth is not discovered through reason, logic, evidence, science, and deduction but rather through revelation, mysticism, and grilled cheese sandwiches. They believe that ethics are not derived through reasonably attempting to ascertain what promotes human life and freedom, but rather morality and ethics come from commandment and dictate. Finally on the issue of politics, which is the implementation of ethics into a system of government, they do not believe that the state and the church should remain separate because they derive their ethics from their religion and therefore they are faced with an impossible and incoherent notion when asked to separate their religiously derived ethics from the implementation of ethics into policy.

      If the Bible says stone to death those who work on the Sabbath and the Hediths say to kill all Muslims who leave the faith then how can you separate that from politics? No Mr. Shermer, the problem is the religion to begin with and when you try to say that the two are separate you will find the same contradictions that arise when you try to say that science and religion are separate. Sooner or later somebody will say that the economy and our society can be intelligently designed. Apply the principle sir, if you believe it for science and religion then it is just as true for politics and religion.

      • Giles says:

        I think when Michael says “Religion and politics should be treated as separate entities”, is his polite way of saying religion is a waste of time and we’re all better off without it.

    • Michael says:

      Hehe, that’s exactly what I said to myself before scrolling down to find your comment!

  2. Kind of a “I’m a bad American” takeoff? ;)

    A while back I found this “Atheist’s Wager” that said some very similar things. I tweaked it a little, and I like posting it around as well. Sort of an answer to pascal’s (horrible) wager.

    Instead, my wager is that if there is a god, and it is a just god, then living a just and moral life will be acknowledged regardless of ones beliefs. If there exists an unjust or immoral god, then I could never satisfy both my conscience and such a god. My wager is that if the christians are right about god being just and all-knowing and all-loving, I will be rewarded if I act in morally sound, justified ways.

    I don’t have any evidence that there is a god. To me, the idea of a god, or even of an afterlife pales in importance to what we experience everyday. Life. Life is the only thing that I “know” I have and when that is gone, I doubt I’ll be around to care, however, others will. I must live my life as I please, and since I believe I will only ever get one chance at it, I want to live it in the best manner that I can and help others do the same.

  3. John says:

    That was better than any sermon I’ve ever heard.

  4. AUJT says:

    Yup! Mr. Shermer, how about running for public office? We really could use people of your caliber running the country.

      • Tim says:

        Come on, a few trips to the Glenn Beck show and he can be running for US Senate in California on the…one of the two parties… tickets. Beck would have him on two, he has Skeptics and atheists on all the time from Penn Jilette to Popular Mechanics people to Yaron Brook, although I have no idea why Beck keeps having them on. Kind of wierd because Beck is a crazy Morman, although when Stossel interviewed him on 20/20 he admitted he is a Morman because his wife would nail him unless he agreed to it. Plus the other day he spoke of Stephen Hawking and said something like “how can you criticize him? Okay, he was an agnostic, but come on, who cares?”

        Come to think of it, why has Michael Shermer never appeared on Beck or any Fox News program for that matter? Oh well, Michael Shermer 2010!

      • Max says:

        Michael could get his own Fox News program. He sounds more and more like one of their anchors in depth and persuasiveness.

        “I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them.”
        “I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be unequal.”
        “As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.”
        “If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the capitol.”

      • Tim says:

        There is that anti-rationalism that we have all come to love and laugh at. The deliberate slicing and dicing of quotes for the purpose of purposeful misrepresentation, the demagoguing of opposition, the argument by mindless ridicule… it really is the sunshine of our days.

      • Beelzebud says:

        You know Tim, no one on this site does as much “demagoguing” as you do. You like to pretend to be above the fray, but your partisan BS is pretty transparent. Anyone who doesn’t see eye to eye with Glenn Beck, Fox News, or The Heritage Foundation is anti-rational according to you.

      • Tim says:

        You see, even after explained they cannot help themselves. Look at the argument. What is it? “I know you are but what am I” accompanied with the typical accusation that your beliefs are no different than the very thing you oppose (while at the same time saying that your position is bad because of those characteristics which you attribute to the thing you oppose and elevating the thing you oppose by saying that it is an argument with merit). They view any disagreement, any conflict as the source of conflict and therefore they constantly work to eliminate conflict. How? They work to prove that right isn’t right. That wrong, isn’t wrong. They work constantly to bring about a philosophy in which no idea or position of any kind is ever thought to be right or wrong and all conflict is eliminated.

        The problem of course is that the ability to discriminate, to thoughtfully choose the better of the available options through a process of non-contradictory identification is the essence of rational thought. Rational thought is how we understand objective reality and operate within it which means that definite answers exist and that definite, uncompromising positions must be taken. So while what is considered right and wrong in conventional society isn’t always correct (religion being a perfect example) so long as that society is governed by rationality it can constantly move forward towards the correct answer making it more compatible with reality and therefore more prosperous, good, and successful. So when taking the anti-rationalist position and always trying to elevate that which is viewed as evil, wrong, and failed while trying to tear down that which is good, right, and successful you will always end up promoting that which is antithetical to life, freedom, and prosperity. The end result of trying to destroy all value from the things that are held as good all the way down to the process of discriminating thought which decides what is good and what is not is a state of ignorance, stagnation, and depravity.

        So when you hear people who say they are atheists yet seem to want to sleep with members of Hamas, when you see people replace logic with ridicule, when you see people who never seem to end their accusations that any position has another side of equal value, and when you see people who seem to distrust reasoning of any kind it is because they have this epistemological sickness.

      • Max says:

        I was getting worried that you forgot to link to the video of that comedian, but I see you posted the transcript.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      I second the nomination, AUJT!

  5. Part of the problem with keeping religion out of politics is that it goes against the philosophy of many fundamentalists and evangelicals.

    To them, religion is not a personal, inwardly-focused belief/practice. It is the single, fundamental, guiding understanding of (all) life, the universe, and everything. It is not a personal choice of how an individual chooses to live, it is the fundamental foundation of how EVERYONE is supposed to live, and what they are supposed to believe.

    ……..enter religion into politics stage left.

  6. Driving to work today, as every morning, I listen to NPR… Imagine my surprise when Garrison Keillor comes on and says, today’s birthdays include MICHEAL SHERMER!!

    Happy happy, from one Sept. 8th er to another!

    I know it’s way OT and has nothing at all to do with your post.

    • Tim says:

      Happy birthday Michael Shermer, the world made it around the sun one more time. I didn’t think it would make it this time, but darnit, if it wasn’t just the little planet that could all over again!

  7. Eric J says:

    Of course instead of sitting around hoping (not even praying) that the Christianist Theocrats will suddenly see the light and do the right thing, a little activism would help, even if it as simple a joining and/or contributing to the Secular Coalition for America.

    http://www.secular.org/

    A small thanks to the ACLU is also in order, one organization that has been fighting the good fight for decades now where it really matters: in the courts with the Constitution. Any possible cherry-picked examples to the contrary not withstanding, what semblance of secular state we have today is thanks in large part to their work and others. I didn’t happen by magic.

    • Tim says:

      I HATE the ACLU, I despise them very much. However, their contributions cannot be ignored. The ACLU has done a great deal to preserve religious liberty and the separation of church and state and need to be thanked. I do wonder where their concerns have gone since the change in administration (well actually I don’t wonder because I understand the ideology of the leadership of the ACLU).

      Nevertheless, my hat is off to the ACLU for their many years of service.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Actually the ACLU has opposed the administration on wiretapping, immigration VISA policy, his decision to keep Bush era torture documents secret, detainee torture photos, and a few other issues.

        Why the HATE?

      • Tim says:

        The HATE exists because their opposition to the wiretapping, the National Security Letters, and many other old Bush policies is passive at best. The HATE exists because the ACLU showed photos of undercover CIA agents to the terrorists they were representing committing treason. The HATE because the same principles (or alleged principles) that they claim for freedom of speech, religion, and organization are the very principles they actively seek to destroy when applied to employment, buying, and selling (or any economic activity for that matter). I HATE them because they are HATE worthy.

      • Tim says:

        Actually, Bill O’Reilly (who follows the ‘I’m uncomfortable with everything’ philosophy)) is supposedly covering the treason of the ACLU tonight at 8:00. I never watch him, but tonight I will make a point to watch him to see what kind of job he does. If Matt Lauer can surprise me by covering vaccines right then maybe O’Reilly can surprise me too.

      • Beelzebud says:

        You never watch him? Do you just see the promos for his show while watching Glenn Beck, or something?

      • Tim says:

        Basically.

  8. Brian M says:

    If you are so open to people having an equal opportunity to being unequal, then you will just have to suck down a piece of your own rhetoric when dealing with religion and politics. If you think everyone has the right to be impoverished because the majority doesn’t care, then learn to deal with the consequences of the religious right ruling over policy. If everyone should be unequal, then there should be no church/state separation.

    I’m of the opposite, non-hypocritical position. Thanks.

    • Tim says:

      Because the majority doesn’t care? Are you saying that other people are morally responsible for your actions? Are you saying that you are morally responsible for the actions of others, that your first duty first and foremost is not to yourself, but to the service of others? These things are the premises which you must accept for you to put forward your argument. More over your morality and philosophy suggests that indeed you have the moral right to hurt other people, financially or otherwise, to make them comply with this duty.

      Your philosophy abolishes the very notion of rights. You have no right to private property, you have no right to liberty, you have no right to reject in your own mind the notion that you are the private property of everyone and no one in a world in which property is theft. The contradictions are almost endless in this philosophy of yours which permits you to make a statement such as “because the majority doesn’t care.”

      For your claim that a belief in liberty means a belief in tyrannical theocracy, this statement is incoherent. Both cannot be true at the same time and in the same respect. As for your statement that if everyone should be unequal then there should be no church/state separation, that is a moronic thing to say. One does not logically follow the other. Mr. Shermer states clearly that he believes that we should all be equal in our rights which means that we will be unequal in our outcomes. If Mozart is free to make music and I am free to make music then by definition Mozart would produce more and better music than I. You cannot have freedom of thought and action with equality of outcome; you can only have freedom of thought and action with equality under the law in rights.

      I do not know if you are a hypocrite, but I do know that you are incoherent and I do know that you are wrong.

      • Brian M says:

        *sigh*

        If it is everyones right to have more money, or more property, so that there is an impoverished sect of society, then there should be no protection from religion either. That is, if there is no protection from the rich or the majority from taking advantage, then there should be no protection from religious majorities taking advantage of the lesser folk (us non-theist) either. Mob rule, sounds very libertarian to me.

      • Tim says:

        That statement doesn’t make any sense. The production of one thing does not take anything away from anybody else. If I have no home and you have no home then we both have no homes. If I build a home and you have no home then there is one more home. I didn’t take anything away from you to build my home, I added the home. Religion in the state however does take things away from you (and I). The state uses force. That is what the state does by definition. So when religion can impose itself through the state then it takes away my liberty. However my acquisition of food, housing, and yes, even luxury through voluntary interaction takes nothing away from anybody.

        Of course the issue is not whether or not I have a right to more money (the notion of MORE being bad suggests that there is a definite, finite, static amount of wealth which I may have no more of) but rather whether you or anybody has the right to take something away from me. You see anybody (you, me, anybody) can earn anything we like, grow anything we like, manufacture and trade anything we like without anybody else’s permission or in spite of their condemnation, so that cannot be the proposition. The burden of proof lies on those that make the proposition therefore isolating the proposition is key to any discussion. Here the proposition is whether or not it is ethical, moral, and proper to initiate force against somebody because we don’t like what they are doing. So there is a very clear difference here when speaking of the accumulation of wealth through voluntary interaction and the imposition of religion through force and coercion.

        Now if you mean the rich and the wealthy taking advantage through force and coercion like GE is attempting to do by allying with the Obama administration to funnel billions of tax dollars (collected through force and coercion) into their company through these “green bills” then obviously your point is valid. However if you are just condemning people who have things just for having things and saying that their gaining that wealth through voluntary interaction is the same as taking things away from people or making people believe things at the point of a gun then your argument simply has no merit. Mob rule? Mob rule is what you are suggesting sir with the mob picking up pitchforks and stealing what other people have because they want it. Libertarianism is the opposite of that. I don’t know if your position comes out of ignorance or malice, but either way you are completely wrong.

  9. Steven Olsen says:

    I liked this one a lot. I’ve always been astounded that politicians even let people ask about their religion. Its such a personal thing. I would probably smack people around if they asked me about my religion. Then, call them some names. If they still wanted to know I might talk to them about my religion, but it would be contingent on me beating them up some more.

  10. Coert Visser says:

    Hi Michael,

    I agree with nearly everything you write here (atheism, secularism, important role for science, equal rights for gays, importance of biodiversity while claims of environmentalists sometimes exaggerated).

    There is one thing though I am skeptical of and that is your fiscal conservatism. Of course, I don’t know exactly how you mean it but I am geuessing you’re in favor of low taxation? Here is something to challenge that.

    Economist Jeffrey Sachs is outspoken on the issues of taxes: “The United States has built in, like most rich countries, a lot of entitlement spending, especially on pensions and on health. Those are the two big items, the Medicare and the social security. We want to run our country without paying taxes, that’s the other side. So, this is the tension that they’re agonizing over. ‘We’re al going to go broke because we have all these medical bills and pensions! What are we going to do?’ Well, what we’re going to do is grow up and pay taxes. And we will be more like Europe, more like The Netherlands. And taxes, as one of our great Supreme Court Justices said: “Taxes is the price of civilization. And this is something that was forgotten in this country since Ronald Reagan..[..] To sneer at paying taxes, that is really one of the things that is wrong in America. [...] But there is no tragedy ahead. The thing that lies ahead is higher taxes. But that is because American taxes are the lowest of all of the high-income countries in the world. That is our -quote- pride. It is just very short-sighted.”

    Another challenge to the low tax idea is presented by Robert Frank who explains in his columns and in his latest book The Economic Naturalist’s Field Guide that lowest government spending does not equal maximal efficiency for the economy as a whole. In fact, government spending can actually increase overall efficiency within an economy.

    This link http://bit.ly/2jOYk1 contains links to those sources.

    • Tim says:

      The analysis by Mr. Sachs was both simplistic and elitist, however the worst thing I can say about it is that it is wrong. First in that quote he sets up a strawman argument by describing anyone who disagrees with him as being opposed to taxes while being in favor of still having the same size government in all its roles and girth. He then proceeds to (in true elitist fashion) mock those people with a ficticious quote that would come from somebody with the vocabulary of the lower masses. After that simple minded review Mr. Sachs sticks his nose in the air and reveals his true opinion of the unwashed masses by describing us as children who need to “grow up” by “paying more taxes.” Here his opinion is as simple minded as his insults which is made evident by his assumption that the only reason that people do not accept higher taxes is because they are children who cannot appreciate his higher ideals.

      In reality higher taxes serve to reduce government revenue by curtailing productivity. As taxes are increased costs are increased (by definition) and profitability is reduced which means that prices increase due to the higher costs of paying taxes and quality decreases from the decline in competition due to the reduction in incentive to participate in the market. Now there is 100 years of economic data documenting this link but people continue to make this simple error in new and old ways. Sach and Frank are among them. Frank operates on the foolish and repeatedly disproved idea that government spending yields higher returns than private industry. If this were the case then the Soviet Union of course would have won the cold war which they did not. In order for government to get money it first has to take it away which means that all money it has is simply transferred from the private sector to the public sector. In order for government to have a net positive affect on the economy not only does it have to be more efficient than the private sector, but it has to be more efficient to the degree that it can cover the costs of the IRS and then some in order to have a net positive effect.

      Now the reason that government cannot achieve this is not because we do not have a ‘strong man’ in charge, it is an institutional problem that stems from the nature of government. Government is an institution of force, not reason. Government is the police who arrest people and the military who fights our enemies. Government is the IRS that says pay your taxes or go to jail. In contrast business, no matter how big it gets, no matter how monopolistic it is, no matter what intentions it has, business cannot MAKE you do something. Business must use only reason and persuasion through salesmanship or financial incentive to get people to work for them, to get people to buy from them, and they can only use reason to invent and provide their goods or services. Government can MAKE you do something. Government can say do it or we throw you in jail. Government does not deal with people by convincing them of things because it doesn’t have to. Government doesn’t have to reduce costs because they can raise money coercively. Government doesn’t have to produce anything of quality because they can make you accept it. Government doesn’t have to compete because it makes the rules and laws which govern competition!

      The dynamic nature of private businesses interacting voluntarily is what brings down costs and produces profits (which is to say they produce more than they consume). The static and coercive nature of government interacting forcefully with others is what raises costs, brings down quality, runs deficits (not lack of taxes, but excessive spending), breeds corruption, and destroys liberty. Government cannot increase overall efficiency in the economy for those reasons and the evidence makes that much clear.

      P.S. The statement “I’ve never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him” was validated here. I had never heard of scholarpedia.org until clicking on the link. I mean the opinion piece on science that this blogger wrote was garbage as was the article on economics, but I now know of an information source that I didn’t know about before.

      • Coert Visser says:

        Hi Tim,

        Thanks for taking the time to write such an elaborate response. I just noticed I mentioned the wrong link in my comment: http://bit.ly/hFioi. Sorry about that. I am afraid you don’t do Sachs and Frank justice; I don’t see how their their argument nor their tone of voice is elitist or simple minded at all. In fact, the contrary is the case, I think. Regarding their argument: these two world renowned economists have published many books and articles and back up their argument very specifically. Maybe you can click on the link and check their work. “You can see links to the interview with Sachs and links to the book by Frank. Really, this stuff is very fact based, recommendable and not elitist nor simple minded at all.

        Again, thank you for challenging my point and taking the time to respond.

      • Tim says:

        That is not much of a rebuttal. All you did was say “nuh uh” using bigger words. I own one of Mr. Sachs books (End of Poverty) and I have seen a few interviews and speeches and I disagree with reasoning and his conclusions. While we are breaking out the arguments by authority (which can be used informally as a supplement, but when used stand alone as you did it is simply fallacy) I too have a degree in economics. That’s not an argument though. Mr. Shermer teaches economics, but that is not an argument. Mr. Frank and Mr. Sachs are wrong for the reasons given, their positions do not cancel each other out because they are both experts (Mr. Shermer and these clowns).

        Your welcome for challenging your opinion. You don’t have to thank me for the sarcasm though, that is on the house.

      • Coert Visser says:

        Hi Tim,
        Your sarcasm is ok, by all means use it if you think you need it or if you think I deserve it. I am neither thankful for it nor offended by it.

        In the comment you posted below you said that you want to be right. The next thing you might consider is reading Sach’s Scientific American review and Robert Frank’s books.

      • Tim says:

        Again, not a rebuttal. Condescension yes, but not a rebuttal. I just told you that Sachs and Franks are wrong and I gave reasons. I remember one video of Franks I watched in which he was talking about drive up ATM machines with numbers in brail. For the blind! He asked why that was and then rather than giving an answer after looking it up, he makes up an answer, speculates it, and then assumes it to be true and moves on attributing the phenomenon to some weird thing that happens in capitalism. The real answer however is the Americans with Disabilities Act forces businesses to put those drive up ATM’s in brail and so they do it out of coercion. Indeed Matthew Perry has a fine book on the subject called “Disabling America” which goes over all the various unintended consequences of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

        Frank and Sachs are elitists who look down their noses at the poor and who don’t care about poverty. Their objective is power and expansions in the role and size of government.

      • tmac57 says:

        Tim,
        What functions do you believe that the Government should legitimately perform, and how should they raise the money to perform those functions without use of force (taxes)?

      • Coert Visser says:

        Good question, tmac57!

        Here is what Jeffrey Sachs says in his Scientific American column: Paying for what government should do: http://bit.ly/4wnXHH

      • Tim says:

        I think the government should protect our rights to life, liberty, and property (don’t kill me, don’t violate me, don’t rob me). Government should use force to stop/punish murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, counterfeiting, fraud, etc. Anything beyond that requires the government to engage in one of those activities.

        How to finance it? The FairTax proposal is the best and fairest method of taxation, although I do not believe taxation is required for a state to function. However my opinion on taxation has nothing to do what is true in objective reality. I mean, I hold my current convictions because I believe they correlate to realty (which is to say that I think they are correct), but I am certainly open to counter arguments and if I am wrong on something I want somebody to tell me. I don’t want to walk around with the wrong opinion, I want to be right. I look at one person taking something away from another person through initiation of force and it just doesn’t seem right to me. I do not believe the ends justify the means. If I am wrong, tell me why.

      • Max says:

        What justifies the means? Your personal sense of what “seems right”? Sounds awfully subjective, not objective. What kind of evidence would falsify your convictions? Would it be enough to show that the means that seem right to you lead to a lot of suffering, or do you not care about the ends?

      • Tim says:

        What justifies the means is the conversation to have. That is the moral and ethical question. Do I ‘sense’ my way to an answer, no; I reason my way to an answer being as objective as I can possibly be. I’m not quite sure what you mean when you ask “what kind of evidence.” Do you understand what evidence is? It has a definition, it has a meaning. I don’t know what kind of “suffering” you are talking about, you are not very specific. I am against the inducement of suffering which is justified (ironically) to prevent hypothetical suffering. Do I care about the end? Obviously I do because the means are an end. If you mean am I terribly concerned with how the status quo is affected by justice being done then no, I am not too concerned with it. Do justice and let the heavens fall. However if your justice system seems to produce those contradictions, that an action will be morally right but practically wrong (which is to say out of sync with reality) then I would say check your premises because either your analysis of the situation is wrong or your justice system is wrong.

      • tmac57 says:

        In a Libertarian society, if a company managed to buy out all of the electric generating facilities in the U.S., and once accomplished, started charging exorbitant prices, would the government be able to do anything about it under your above stated principles?
        BTW, during the debate in Texas about deregulation, I once heard an energy broker (Enron spokesperson) say that if the spot market for energy caused an average homeowner in Houston to receive a $10,000 monthly electric bill, then that would be Ok, because then it would cause them to use less energy. The scenario seems unlikely, but the spot market actually did reach (was manipulated) that extreme level, which prompted the question.

      • Peter says:

        Max asks “What justifies the means?“. The first thing you need in order to answer the question is to know what “justifies” means. Would you (Max) agree that any attempted “justification” necessarily consists of argumentation—”the methodological process of logical reasoning”—as opposed to the use of violence? (Otherwise you can justify anything at all: “might makes right!”) So you can’t justify anything by violence.

      • Peter says:

        In a Libertarian society, if a company managed to buy out all of the electric generating facilities in the U.S., and once accomplished, started charging exorbitant prices, would the government be able to do anything about it under your above stated principles?

        The question displays such ignorance of economic realities…

        OK; (I’m not Tim, but) no, the government couldn’t do anything while remaining “libertarian” (note: the word “libertarian” is not capitalized, unless you’re referring to the political party of the same name). Is government action the only possible solution, do you think? :)

        I once heard an energy broker (Enron spokesperson) say that if the spot market for energy caused an average homeowner in Houston to receive a $10,000 monthly electric bill, then that would be Ok, because then it would cause them to use less energy.

        If the spot market price of electricity was such that the average homeowner received a $10,000 monthly bill, what could the government possibly do about it? [Presumably we're talking about costs to maintain current usage levels; the average homeowner would never actually pay that much, obviously (the average income is lower than his annual power bill...he couldn't if he wanted to); he'd use less electricity and pay less; but let's assume they actually pay $10k/mon:] The price would be that high because, for whatever reason, it cost a lot to generate electricity! (Another possibility is inflation such that 10000 inflated dollars equal the current average power bill) But the government can’t magically make it cheaper to generate electricity (they can stop inflating. But they won’t!). The most they could do would be to increase taxes and subsidize the supply; but if the average householder is paying $10k a month, that’s also the average taxpayer: you can’t subsidize everyone without taxing them them the same amount: they’d just be paying $9800 a month in extra taxes and $200 a month power bills or whatever!

      • Peter says:

        they’d just be paying $9800 a month in extra taxes and $200 a month power bills or whatever!

        (Of course, that’s unrealistic: a good chunk of the tax take would go elsewhere, so make that about $15000 a month in taxes for $200 a month in power)

      • tmac57 says:

        Peter said-”The question displays such ignorance of economic realities…”.
        And Peter’s reply displays such arrogance of economic belief that I have come to expect when a reasonable question is posed to a libertarian. Monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior such a price fixing and gouging is a valid concern in an economic arena where there are no rules, and no checks and balances. Corporations have no conscience or morals, only profit motive.

      • Peter says:

        Monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior such a price fixing and gouging is a valid concern in an economic arena where there are no rules, and no checks and balances.

        False. Monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior can only exist in a regulated economy. That is, it is possible for a single seller to exist in a particular market segment (“monopoly”) in a free market, but it gains no advantage thereby (and if you draw the lines in the right places, there’s no such thing as not-monopoly anyway…e.g., XYZ Corp is, by definition, the only seller of genuine XYZ Corp widgets!)

      • Peter says:

        Corporations have no conscience or morals, only profit motive.

        Corporations are made of people…just like governments! They have the same conscience and morals as the people who make them (which is more than can be said for governments, since the incentives for good behavior go the other way — companies have to make their customers happy to make their profits; governments get theirs through taxation!)

      • SicPreFix says:

        Peter says:

        Corporations are made of people…just like governments! They have the same conscience and morals as the people who make them (which is more than can be said for governments, since the incentives for good behavior go the other way — companies have to make their customers happy to make their profits; governments get theirs through taxation!)

        Stating that corporations must make customers happy to make their profits is just so much public relations, marketing deceit. And while corporations may be made up of people with morals (often debatable), corporations are not guided by those people. Corporations are guided by faceless investors, for whom, through the abstraction of hands-off distance, morals do not play a part.

        Through advertising, public relations, and marketing campaigns, corporations manufacture a need for a (usually un-needed) product that must be met. Here is a perfect example of a coropration’s approach to manufacturing need: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/business/13habit.html?_r=4&sq=so&oref=slogin&scp=1&pagewanted=all

        And, it is the filling of the emotional gap created by that manufactured need (not making quality product, not customer satisfaction) that the corporation must meet.

        Corporations are mandated by law to provide profit for their shareholders (and tangentially, their executive branch), at almost any cost — environmental damage be damned; social damage be damned; unemployment be damned. And those laws that enable them to carry on as they do are the result of generations of lobbying, favour buying, coercion, blackmail, and all sorts of nearly bottomless skullduggery carried out by said coroprations.

        Libertarians labour under a remarkably naive non-reality wherein they appear to envision corporations as somehow becoming our beneficent buddies of free, free trade overnight as soon as the few constraints on their behaviour that do exist are removed. Balls! Absolute naive idiocy.

        I spent a lot of time at that ludicrous website, the Mises group, or whatever the heck it’s called — “Mises Minions of Revisionistic Fantasy”, or somesuch. Reminds very, very much of the nationalistic revisionistic fantasy nonsense of the signs, flags, and posters of the post-cultural revolution in China. Talk about mad sloganeering! Talk about mad avoidance of reality! Sheesh.

        I think libertarians are working under very much the same kind of delusion that theists and other True Believers work under. Fantasize the reality you want to live in and it will come. Indeed. Calling all Dorothies!

        Joel Bakan’s The Corporation is just one of several relatively recent books that expose the kind of socially, culturally, environmentally, economically damaging, morally obscene practices that the vast majority of major corporations practice — the pages and pages listing the repeated fines paid by GE (which they continue to pay so that they can continue to make huge profits with immoral and illegal practices), is a good eye opener.

        And it must be repeated that the laws and regulations that enable corporations to fleece the rest of us in any way they see fit are the result of said corporations lobbying and buying favour from governments for generations. Without the few limitations that governments do enact to constrain the runaway greed that corporations exhibit, i.e., if the vaunted precious libertarianism became political fact, corporations would be free to do any sort of damage they could so long as it enhanced the profit margin.

        It has been shown time and time again in research, study, and real-world practice that power corrupts, and that the powerful will adopt any method they can to maintain and grow their power, at any cost to the rest of us. How many of these studies, and how much real-world endless evidence must be repeated for libertarians to understand that their philosphy is little more than vacuous fantasy and attempted wish-fulfillment?

      • Max says:

        Peter,

        companies have to make their customers happy to make their profits; governments get theirs through taxation

        By that logic, governments have to make their constituents happy in order to stay in power. For example, H. W. Bush paid for breaking his promise not to raise taxes.

        When health insurance companies look for any trivial excuse to drop cancer patients, are they thinking about profits or about making customers happy?

        Moreover, the people who make up corporations and governments put their own interests ahead of the interests of their employer. This can be as high-profile as the Lewinsky scandal, or as low-profile as a computer programmer writing deliberately confusing code to ensure job security for himself.

        I recommend the book In the Name of Profit by Robert L. Heilbroner. It puts the human face on the faceless executives who made irresponsible decisions.

      • Peter says:

        By that logic, governments have to make their constituents happy in order to stay in power.

        But you get to vote for or against corporations on a daily basis through your decisions about what to buy or not buy, and you have complete choice among the available options. With governments, you only get the choice once every 4 years, you can’t choose not to buy (i.e., not to pay taxes), you only get to choose one of two barely-distinguishable options, and your vote doesn’t count anyway!

        Imagine everyone getting to vote every 4 years whether to shop at WalMart of K-Mart; once the votes are counted, everyone has to shop at the place chosen by the majority, like it or not, and you have to pay a certain minimum amount every month, like it or not.

      • Peter says:

        Through advertising, public relations, and marketing campaigns, corporations manufacture a need for a (usually un-needed) product that must be met.

        *eyeroll*

      • SicPreFix says:

        Before you get your eyes stuck rolling them around in credulous exclusion, did you even click on the link to the New York Times article? Amongst other things it quotes a psychologist working at Proctor and Gamble saying:

        “For most of our history, we’ve sold newer and better products for habits that already existed,” said Dr. Berning, the P.& G. psychologist. “But about a decade ago, we realized we needed to create new products. So we began thinking about how to create habits for products that had never existed before.”

        Now, where in that article and that explanation of P&G marketing etc., does it counter my claim that through advertising, public relations, and marketing campaigns, corporations manufacture a need for a (usually un-needed) product that must be met.

        Your lack of awareness in standard contemporary corporate policy and practice, and/or perhaps naive belief in general corporate beneficence renders your arguments, in my view, thin and impoverished of credibility.

      • Max says:

        Peter,

        But you get to vote for or against corporations on a daily basis through your decisions about what to buy or not buy, and you have complete choice among the available options.

        Sounds good in theory, but how easy is it to do something as simple as closing your Facebook account after you’ve accumulated a large network of friends?

        and if you draw the lines in the right places, there’s no such thing as not-monopoly anyway

        Well, the government draws the line where monopolization starts doing more harm than good. Without it, there’s no reason why a mini-monopoly can’t grow into a huge monopoly, just as a local warlord in an anarchy can grow his tribe until he becomes a dictator.

      • Peter says:

        Sounds good in theory, but how easy is it to do something as simple as closing your Facebook account after you’ve accumulated a large network of friends?

        No idea. No problem for me: I don’t have a Facebook account. If there’s no way to close your account, you can always just stop logging in. What does this have to do with the topic?

        Well, the government draws the line where monopolization starts doing more harm than good.

        Google the works of Dominick Armentano :)

        Without it, there’s no reason why a mini-monopoly can’t grow into a huge monopoly,

        Monopoly, in the sense you mean, is caused by government. Without it, it couldn’t exist.

        just as a local warlord in an anarchy can grow his tribe until he becomes a dictator.

        Umm…”anarchy” means there are “no rulers” — if there’s a “warlord”, it’s not anarchy, by definition! In this non-anarchy with the warlord, why do his tribe follow him?

      • Peter says:

        SicPreFix: whatever; even if you assume your (patently ridiculous) assertion that advertising somehow takes over people’s brains and forces them to buy things they don’t want or need (though I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I went out and bought myself a Barbie doll or a bottle of Round-Up, say, though I see both advertised often enough..somehow the former only seems to affect the brains of young girls and latter those of farmers) and otherwise put the worst possible spin on things, how does your position not apply even worse to government? (They even advertise, around elections!)

      • SicPreFix says:

        Peter said:

        “… even if you assume your (patently ridiculous) assertion that advertising somehow takes over people’s brains and forces them to buy things they don’t want or need….”

        Yes, that would be ridiculous. If that were my assertion. But that is not my assertion.

        “… how does your position not apply even worse to government?”

        To be fair to you, you are right, I don’t think my position does not apply to government.

        While I am clearly not a supporter of Libertarianism, nor in general libertarians, neither am I a supporter of the familiar machinations, deceits, and generally mendacious process of government.

        Unfortunately, I am niether so learned, nor so wise, nor politically creative enough to posit something better. I can only speak to what I perceive as wrong-headed political ideas.

        That being said, I do (naivley no doubt) believe that the democratic process, if it were carried out with a reasonable level of honesty and legitimate representation would be a far better process than what I perceive to be the political process of what I’ve read about Libertarianism.

  11. Kenn says:

    We’ve seen the consequences of state religious orders — it’s not a pretty sight. We’ve also witnessed the secular governments, viz Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s Red China. They are down right ugly.

    Ghettoizing members of the religious right to their houses of worship may clear the playing field secularists to dominate. But it poses two problems: First, it violates the essence of a free society where all (black, white; Holy-roller) have their turn at the soap box and, second, it’s not going to happen.

    So we welcome Sarah Palin to the mix, hope she gets the GOP nomination and try to imagine how refreshing it will be for our nation to be embarrassed by a tongues-speaking Head-of-state rather than a green-horned socialist.

    Concerning our founding documents being birthed from the womb of the secularist enlightenment, let’s remember that America was founded by persons who were mostly fundamentalist Christians — whisky drinkers, but fundamentalists nonetheless. The mindset of the time was awash with the religiousity of those who presumed we were created (not evolved) equal.

    Why shy away from that reality?

    I find it odd that we are so eager to consign America’s heritge to religious loons when discussing slavery or the Salem witch trials. But when the topic turns to something as sacrosanct as the founding documents, we see nothing but secularism.

    • Grr, this was supposed to be a reply to, not post #12…

      Kenn, you mistake the attrocities of the Soviet and Red China (or Pol Pot, or whatever strawman you want to bring up) with an actual enlightenment.

      The governments of the countries cited in your example were forced athoritative governments that substituted a cult of personality for religion. Their methodologies were the same as religion, but in the name of a person that was the embodiment of some sort of ideal.

      If you want to look at a secular nation, that became more so through actual personal enlightenment, why not pick the happiest country on earth? Denmark. And look at the other Scandinavian nations.

      You also repeat the misonception (lie) that our founders were evangelicals or even christians. First you are framing them in a modern frame as opposed to the time they lived in. Secondly, the main architects were at most deists, with Jefferson wholly rejecting the divinity of jesus. And isn’t it kind of hard to even accept evolution, when the theiry wasn’t to come for several generations? Where in the Constitution does it even mention any gods or divinity? Again, I think you are projecting a lot more than you actually know about history or the founding documents.

      • Kenn says:

        Larian,

        Thanks for your thoughtful response.

        Michael Shermer has an excellent article on Confirmation Bias you will want to consider. Take not that none are exempt.

        Just as religious folks don’t care to own up to the Inquisition, non-religious folks don’t care to accept the fact that communism’s horrors were committed by committed atheists. Redundant for effect. Suffice it to say that Fidel Castro caused more suffering in our (or my) lifetime than did the papists.

        The American colonies were constituted by-and-large by religion. Massachusetts was Puritan, Maryland Catholic, etc. Even New Jersey was split east and west to accommodate feuding religious orders.

        In my humble opinion, the most momentous event in human history occurred when Roger Williams set foot on American soil. He set about annoying the Puritans who promptly ejected him to the hinterland where he found refuge with the Indians and, in time, favor with the King of England. Williams established the Rhode Island colony and created a government which was to be the model for the nation and resolution for religious conflict, at least among America’s Christians.

        Rogers employed the notion that, rather than a government church (or established religion, as stated in the U.S. Constitution), there would be an effective round table approach at which all had a seat.

        That concept was adopted by the constitutional framers who phrased it, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

        The revisionists would have us believe their intent was for government to never endorse religion.

        How odd.

        When Thomas Jefferson first coined the phrase “wall of separation between Church & State” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he immediately endorsed religion by stating,

        “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.”

        Jefferson said he would pray for the Baptists, referred to God as a common father, referenced his belief in biblical creationism and noted that he respected and esteemed (endorsed?) their religion.

        Had it not been for the precedent set by Williams, our continent would have remained divided into religion conclaves, an unlikely alliance to confront King George. With all due respect for Mr. Shermer, our liberties can be traced to the fact the Roger Williams was not sequestered in a house of worship, but involved himself in the roots of government.

        Had Roger Williams never set foot on American soil, Neil Armstrong never would have set foot on the moon.

  12. Kenn, you mistake the attrocities of the Soviet and Red China (or Pol Pot, or whatever strawman you want to bring up) with an actual enlightenment.

    The governments of the countries cited in your example were forced athoritative governments that substituted a cult of personality for religion. Their methodologies were the same as religion, but in the name of a person that was the embodiment of some sort of ideal.

    If you want to look at a secular nation, that became more so through actual personal enlightenment, why not pick the happiest country on earth? Denmark. And look at the other Scandinavian nations.

    You also repeat the misonception (lie) that our founders were evangelicals or even christians. First you are framing them in a modern frame as opposed to the time they lived in. Secondly, the main architects were at most deists, with Jefferson wholly rejecting the divinity of jesus. And isn’t it kind of hard to even accept evolution, when the theiry wasn’t to come for several generations? Where in the Constitution does it even mention any gods or divinity? Again, I think you are projecting a lot more than you actually know about history or the founding documents.

  13. Jacob Stein says:

    I would argue that atheism is a religion. It simply teaches that a non-intelligent god called evolution created us.

    I would suggest that if we knew for certain that there is evolution, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the years wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no evolution and act accordingly.

    It may be argued that atheism simply means analyzing things rationally while “religion” means believing in things which are obviously fictional. In other words atheism is true and other religions are not. Of course many adherents to other religion believe this as well.

    • Max says:

      Following that logic, atheism is in fact polytheistic! Because there’s the god of evolution, the god of plate tectonics, the god of chemical reactions, the god of star formation, the god of weather. Every natural process is a god.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        That actually might be correct.

        Looking at the world around us, there seem to be endless separate and even conflicting forces – rain, wind, fire, the sun, the moon, plants, animals, disease, birth, death, etc. The conclusion drawn by most people in earlier times was that each of these forces was controlled by a superhuman, but not supremely powerful, being and these beings were constantly interacting with each other and even fighting with each other. Humans might hope to appease these gods through sacrificial offerings or various rituals. This was the early paganism still practiced in some places today.

        Modern man laughs at this; however actually, modern science is not much different. The modern scientist still believes that the universe is controlled by laws of nature. If you ask a scientist, what causes lightening, he will not reply “Thor did it”, but rather he will reply that the laws of physics cause a lighting flash, however he will still be at a loss to explain where these laws come from and why they exist. Some laws of nature seem to be contradictory, such as the laws of quantum mechanics and general relativity. The attempt to create one theory of everything is still very elusive. So instead of gods who must be appeased with sacrifices, we have today laws of nature, which we must simply try to understand and cope with as best we can.

        Judaism from day one has taken an entirely different approach: “Know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.” Deuteronomy 4:39. We are not at the hands of bizarre superheroes or mysterious forces of nature. Rather, behind the scenes, there is one lord and master who is orchestrating everything.

      • Max says:

        Rather, behind the scenes, there is one lord and master who is orchestrating everything.

        In other words, Thor did it.
        What does your synagogue depend on for protection from lightning? God or a lightning rod?

      • Jacob Stein says:

        No, God did it. And God frequently does things in a certain pattern called the laws of nature. So if I both pray for food and I eat food.

      • How often in history has a supernatural expalanation been replaced by a natural explanation? I’m sure we would lose count.

        How many times has a supernatural explanation replaces a natural explanation? Precisely 0.0

        And the laws of physics are not as fine tuned as I am sure you think. I suggest you read the works of Victor Stenger on this subject. You’d be surprised. Also, we as humans haven’t been looking into this field that long. Just because we may have to say, “I don’t know.” is not a reason to automatically fall back on the supernatural. Sometimes it takes more courage and intellectual integrity to admit a lack of knowledge, than the cowardly route of assinging something supernatural to something we don’t understand.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        “How often in history has a supernatural expalanation been replaced by a natural explanation?”

        How do you define “natural” and “supernatural”?

        If you mean, “How many times has the Hebrew Bible been proven false by scientists?” I would say 0.

      • Max says:

        For the sake of argument, let’s say supernatural requires divine intervention and natural doesn’t.
        For example…
        Supernatural: “Lightning is caused by Thor/Zeus/YHWH. It can be prevented by praying and ringing church bells.”
        Natural: “Lightning is caused by a build-up of electric charge in the atmosphere. It can be grounded out by a lightning rod.”

        Young Earth Creationism is based on the Hebrew Bible, and has been thoroughly refuted by scientists.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        I’m an old earth creationist. My blog has more details on that.

      • tmac57 says:

        “If you ask a scientist, what causes lightening, he will not reply “Thor did it”, but rather he will reply that the laws of physics cause a lighting flash, however he will still be at a loss to explain where these laws come from and why they exist.”
        Just as a believer will be at a loss to explain where God came from and why does ‘he?’ exist.

      • Max says:

        I wouldn’t say “just as a believer”, since the scientist can prove that the laws of physics exist and can conduct research to figure out where they come from.

      • tmac57 says:

        Good point Max. Delete “just as”, computer.

    • Sorry jacob. The only people who are debating that evolution happens are adherents to Bronze Age fables. Any scientist that is qualified to speak about biology or fields that have any understanding of the theory and what it says (or even an understading of the word theory in a scientific sense) do not argue about it. They may argue about specific mechanisms involved in evolution, but that is not in any way arguing about it as actually happening. All that wasted ink is from a concerted effort by dishonest liars and charlatans trying to deny 200 years worht of scientific advances by mankind.

      And you repeat in essence pascal’s wager. A bit of hack philosophy that has been trounced in so many ways that I’m surprised that you would even bring that into a discourse with intelligent people. See my “answer” to Pascal’s wager in post #2…

      The thing that really separates atheism from religion is the search for answers that have not been handed down from on high. Any scientist worth his salt would like to unseat Darwin’s theory of evolution with something better (like Einstein did to Newton with gravity). They would RELISH it. In religion, you don’t see that. Instead, prinmitive writings are handed down as TRUTH with no questions asked.

      You have a poor understanding of what makes a religion, and what constitutes actual corntoversy.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        “Any scientist that is qualified to speak about biology or fields that have any understanding of the theory and what it says (or even an understading of the word theory in a scientific sense) do not argue about it.”

        I have a friend who is an Orthodox Jew and biologist who doesn’t believe in evolution. I have a brother who is agnostic who has a degree in geology from Swarthmore and doesn’t believe in evolution.

        “All that wasted ink is from a concerted effort by dishonest liars and charlatans trying to deny 200 years worht of scientific advances by mankind.”

        Have you ever read “The Jews and Their Lies” by Martin Luther. He can’t believe how infernal Jews deny his savior. I guess somethings never change.

        “The thing that really separates atheism from religion is the search for answers that have not been handed down from on high.”

        True, atheism believes that our creator, evolution, has no intelligence and therefore does not speak to us. I don’t really see what’s so impressive about that.

    • Chris says:

      From Oxford:
      Religion, 1. the belief in a superhuman controlling power, esp. in a personal God or gods entitled to obedience and worship; 2. the expression of this in worship; 3. a particular system of faith and worship; 4. life under monastic vows; 5. a thing that one is devoted to (e.g, “football is their religion”). [The last is obviously somewhat metaphorical.]
      Atheism, the theory or belief that God does not exist.

      The first definition of religion is too narrow, as it would exclude Buddhism, generally considered a religion, but 3 is probably the best for these purposes. The key word here is “system”. “Atheism” is not really a system of belief, rather indicates one particular belief. So, no, atheism is not a religion, any more than pantheism or monotheism are religions. You can speak of “atheistic religions” perhaps, you might even have a case that Secular Humanism is a religion (by the way, you can be a Secular Humanist without being an atheist).

      For the same reason, “Atheism” doesn’t teach anything. One can be an atheist and not believe in evolution, just as one can be a Christian and believe in evolution.

      There are those who argue that science is a religion, but I would disagree, because a key principle is provisionalism: accepting that any particular “tenet” is open to question and revision in light of the evidence. This is directly contrary to religions, which hold their “truths” to be eternal. (I admit I am not an expert on religions and cannot swear that all religions take this position, but certainly every religion I am aware of does.)

      Finally, I question your depiction of evolution as a “non-intelligent god that created us”. That is about as meaningful as describing gravity or thermodynamics in the same terms. What is commonly referred to as “evolution” is just a description of a process, specifically the process of change in organisms over time, and the factors that affect this process. As to the “philosophical debates” about evolution, they exist only in the minds of creationists. From the point of view of science, we don’t “know” anything for certain (see my point above). But it does not make sense to assume there is no evolution and act accordingly. Especially, for instance, if you are trying to address a problem like drug-resistant bacteria. Better by far to assume the paradigm with the greatest evidential support is true and act accordingly until it displaced by a better one. It’s not perfect, but it is playing the odds. (As the saying goes, the race is not always to the swiftest, nor the battle to the strongest…but that’s the way to bet.)

      • Jacob Stein says:

        “One can be an atheist and not believe in evolution”

        Can you name one?

      • Chris says:

        Any Stalinist. Any atheist before Darwin. My point is that one does not entail the other.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        Evolution was taught in the Soviet Union (my wife’s Russian, incidentally). There were very few atheists before Darwin and I’m referring to present day atheists.

        Atheism is a religion which teaches that the Biblical God does not exist and evolution created us.

      • tmac57 says:

        How can atheism be a religion, when it isn’t even a belief? Its just a DESCRIPTION of someone who does NOT believe that there is any such entity as a god. If you encountered a person that had never even heard of the god concept, that person by default would be atheistic. Would that make them an adherent to the atheistic ‘religion’ in your view? Non-belief. Get it?

      • Chris says:

        I was referring to Lysenkoism, under Stalin. Which is not the same as what we now consider evolution (i.e., natural selection). Politically, Darwin’s position was not compatible with “the new Soviet man.” After Stalin, the Soviet Union became a bit more sensible.

        Repeating your point doesn’t make it so. You did not address anything in my post.

      • Peter says:

        There were very few atheists before Darwin and I’m referring to present day atheists.

        Obviously, there were no present day people at all before Darwin, therefore no present day atheists :)

        How do you know there were few atheists before Darwin? It’s not like people could come out and say they were atheists (in most societies they would have at least been arrested; in some, executed!)

        Is a “present day atheist” supposed to be something different from atheists of the past? (Do you mean by “atheist” only people like Richard Dawkins, who write books about it and argue with religionists on TV, etc?)

      • Jacob Stein says:

        I don’t believe the Soviets denied Darwin, however they did believe to some degree in the inheritance of acquired traits.

        Before Darwin, atheists were at best a few crackpots.

        “Remember that in 1850 virtually all leading scientists and philosophers were Christian men. The world they inhabited had been created by God, and as the natural theologians claimed, He had instituted wise laws that brought about the perfect adaptation of all organisms to one another and to their environment. At the same time, the architects of the scientific revolution had constructed a world-view based on physicalism (a reduction to spatiotemporal things or events or their properties), teleology, determinism and other basic principles. Such was the thinking of Western man prior to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. The basic principles proposed by Darwin would stand in total conflict with these prevailing ideas.”
        Ernst Mayr
        http://www.biologie.uni-hamburg.de/b-online/e36_2/darwin_influence.htm

      • Robert Elessar says:

        If by “believe in evolution,” you mean “believe in evolution by natural selection, as described by Darwin and Wallace,” then any and all atheists who lived before 1859 were non-”believers” in evolution. But speaking for myself, I am an atheist and I do not “believe” in evolution…I am convinced that it happened based on the evidence. This is evidence that I have both seen and explored with my own senses and the compilation of huge amounts of data from many fields of inquiry that have been subject to peer review by people who really enjoy proving each other wrong about facts and reasoning, and who can gain considerable prestige and success by successfully showing the shortcomings of a well-established theory. I believe in evolution only in the same sense that I believe in the principles of aeronautics.

      • Max says:

        If you accept that intelligent life didn’t always exist, and you reject a supernatural creator, doesn’t this imply some kind of evolution in the broad sense?

      • Jacob Stein says:

        “I am convinced that it happened based on the evidence.”

        I don’t doubt your sincerity, however believe it or not this is no different than what the millions of adherents of dozens of other religions would say. Read for example “The Jews and Their Lies” by Martin Luther. Luther, no moron by any means, is thoroughly convinced that the evidence is completely on his side regarding Jesus being our lord and savior.

      • Max says:

        Jacob, are you saying that evolution by natural selection specifically is no different from religion, or that ANY theory is no different from religion? How about the theory of gravity or the theory that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust?

      • Jacob Stein says:

        I would say that any set of beliefs concerning the origin of the universe, the soul, the afterlife, our purpose in the universe, morality and ethics is a religion. Atheism fits this description. On questionaires about religion, atheism is often an option. US courts consider atheism to be a protected religion. The core belief of atheism is that the Biblical God does not exist and evolution created us.

        Saying “My beliefs are based on reason and logic.” does not automatically make it not a religion. Many religious people claim that, including me.

      • tmac57 says:

        “I would say that any set of beliefs concerning the origin of the universe, the soul, the afterlife, our purpose in the universe, morality and ethics is a religion. Atheism fits this description.”
        Sorry, Jacob, you don’t get to define atheism just to fit your argument. In the broadest sense, atheism is simply the ABSENCE of belief in deities,period. Atheists MAY subscribe to other various philosophies surrounding that non-belief, but those are a separate matter, and there is no coherent set of attributes that uniquely defines a belief system know collectively as atheism.

      • Peter says:

        The core belief of atheism is that the Biblical God does not exist and evolution created us.

        That’s not true. Atheists don’t believe the Biblical God exists. But atheists don’t believe Odin or Zeus exist, either. It’d be just as (un)true to say “the core belief of atheism is that Zeus does not exist” (in fact, people were arrested in ancient Greece on a charge of atheism for believing just that! And I doubt Diagoras, or Socrates, believed that “evolution created us”, either)

      • Perspective says:

        I am an atheist, no one taught me to be an atheist, everyone of importance in my life taught me that the beliefs of the Catholic church were the only truths. It took many years of questioning and reason to allow me to break that bond. I think the majority of atheists have had the same kind of struggle to overcome their childhood indoctrination. It is very difficult.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        “atheism is simply the ABSENCE of belief in deities”

        How would you define deity? For example, let’s say a gigantic, incredibly intelligent being made dark energy would be capable of creating a galaxy in a few seconds. Would that be a deity? If not, why not? Is so, how do you that something like that doesn’t exist?

      • tmac57 says:

        Jacob-”If not, why not? Is (sic) so, how do you (sic)that something like that doesn’t exist?”
        I don’t know if something like that doesn’t exist. I don’t know if something like that DOES exist either. ‘I don’t know’ = ABSENCE OF BELIEF. Why do you have such trouble understanding this key point about atheism? It appears that you insist on the false dichotomy of you either believe in something or disbelieve.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        Atheism denies the existence of any intelligent being other than man? I haven’t heard that one before. Sources?

        And if atheists will accept the existence of intelligent extra-terrestrials, then where does one draw the line between them and a “god”?

      • Max says:

        Michael Shermer’s “Last Law” states that “Any sufficiently advanced alien intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

        However, we haven’t seen any good evidence of such an advanced alien intelligence.

      • tmac57 says:

        Jacob, after your last post it is now clear to me that you are being deliberately obtuse, and there is no further point in engaging in a debate with you. Your counter arguments display intellectual dishonesty, at worst and reading comprehension problems at best. Good luck to any others who try to reason with you.

      • Jacob Stein says:

        “we haven’t seen any good evidence of such an advanced alien intelligence”

        Most other people do. It’s the Biblical God.

      • Max says:

        Most leading scientists don’t, and in my book of logical fallacies, argument from authority beats ad populum.

    • Peter says:

      I would suggest that if we knew for certain that there is evolution, we wouldn’t have great debates about it

      And yet, we do, and we do!

  14. TryUsingLogic says:

    So, on your birthday you give us a good dose of common sense and reason!

    Well done…Thanks, and Happy Birthday!

    TryUsingLogic

  15. Ron says:

    I am a Christian and a Skeptic. I accept evolutionary theory, and love to read about it, and I reject ID. I realize this may sound self-contradictory but I do not find it to be so since all truth is God’s truth, whether I’ve worked out all the details or not; thus, truth is to be embraced regardless of how “inconvenient” it may be.

    I agree that what is important is how we live this life because I live by faith (not knowledge) that if there is an after-life, we can deal with this when we get there (a questions we’re all dying to have answered). Also, if I am a good life student, I agree that if I take care of the subject material the final grade will take care of itself; accordingly, I feel that heaven (assuming I’m right) will be filled with people who are surprised to be there (such as many Skeptics, Communists, Atheists/Agnostics, Moslems, practicing Jews, Hindus, etc.), and that hell (assuming there is one) will be filled with “surprised” so-called Christians. If you read the New Testament carefully, you will see that Jesus judged people (Jews and Gentiles) according to they “hearts” rather than whether or not they had said some “magic words” or had a good dunking.

    Why am I posting this? Because I want my fellow Skeptics to know that there are legitmate, caring people who agree with and support the belief system as expressed by the other Skeptics on this site who are also Christians – it is possible! I love the same things you love, and I hate the same things you hate. I also take some “incoming” from Christians (I presume they are – they tell me they are) for my beliefs, just as you do, and I do not back down, just as you don’t. I would also remind you that the behavior expressed by Skeptics is typically much more in adherance with the actual teachings of Jesus than the behavior exhibited by the “Christians.” Accordingly, I find myself standing more with Skeptics than the religious establishment.

    In summary – please don’t equate Christianity (or any other religion)with stupidity or ignorance. It is possible (I hope) to believe in God and yet live a moral, responsible adult life.

  16. Mark Hausam says:

    Michael Shermer wrote, “If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the millennia wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly.” It is a fallacy to argue that the existence of disagreement over an issue must indicate that there is a lack of available evidence to determine the issue. People disagree about evolution also, as Jacob Stein pointed out in comment #13. People disagree about whether Michael’s agnostic attitude towards the afterlife (and towards God) is rational or not–does that mean we should say we can’t know whether it is rational or not? If we all abandoned every position we hold that is contested by other people, we wouldn’t know very much (or anything at all–heck, some people wonder whether there really is an external world or whether they really exist!). There can be other reasons for persistent disagreement besides lack of available evidence to decide an issue–such as confusion, bias/prejudice, unquestioning attitude, apathy, hatred of the truth, etc.

  17. oldebabe says:

    Dr. Shermer,

    Yes, no, yes, and yes. And BTW, happy most-important-day of your life.

  18. kabol says:

    i am reading a book called “mountains beyond mountains” by tracey kidder, and i can’t put my finger on it (because i’m obviously not smart enough), but the theme of this book is how the roles of science(medicine)/religion/politics(healthcare) are inexorably intertwined in causing and combating poverty, disease and oppression.

    is the whole religion/science thing insurmountable (and/or just plain moot) from an anthropological standpoint? what’s a budding skeptic to do?

    ok – now i’m giving myself a headache, so i won’t be singing happy birthday, but happy birthday.

    • You seem to be looking at two different things here.

      There is a difference between the impact of science/religion on society and the veracity of science vs. religion.

      Religion and science play huge roles in society (both positive and negative). That is what the book you are reading is looking at. When people start talking about science vs. religion, they are not talking about the impact religion has (although it’s a huge talking point in and of itself), but the Truth of the two subjects. Is religion true? If so, how do you know? How do we separate fact from fantasy? That is what we are discussing. When it comes to using logic, evidence and reason, science wins hands down. Religion isn’t even playing the same game (screw being in the same league).

      What’s a budding skeptic to do? Follow the evidence to wherever it leads. Think, ask questions, verify the answers you are given. A budding skeptic may not find easy answers, but he will know why he knows what he knows and be all the better for it.

      ~Ben

  19. I have long wondered why otherwise rational atheists still believe in the god of the state, and why otherwise rational anarchists (“libertarians in full-bloom”) believe in supernatural gods.

  20. Cambias says:

    I’m a second-generation atheist myself, yet I’m offended by attempts to equate all religious belief with terrorist fanaticism or superstitious ignorance. Not only does it ignore the fact that our secular society was born of Christianity (specifically Protestant Christianity), but it’s just plain stupid.

    Why alienate 80% of the population? Religion can be a powerful weapon AGAINST superstition and quackery — I believe it was Chesterton who pointed out that for many people the loss of religious faith just leads to the embrace of some new irrationality. Scientology is a good example: you don’t see devout Christians turning to the prophet Ron, you see people who have lost (or never had) their faith but still hunger for meaning.

    I find that too often there’s an undercurrent of irrational hostility toward religion among many skeptics (coupled with an Ahab-like fascination).

    • TryUsingLogic says:

      When a Christian calls Scientology [or some other belief] superstition and quackery…isn’t that a little like the pot calling the kettle black? They all share one thing in common…clearly knowing every detail about an unbelievable man made faith.

      Our secular society was born from our individual freedom to believe.

      Cambias says…”I believe it was Chesterton who pointed out that for many people the loss of religious faith just leads to the embrace of some new irrationality.” Since there are over 10,000 religions that is probably an accurate thought, but being a non-believer, I feel much less drawn to superstition and quackery than my fine religious friends. I do get a little offended when they try to equate all non-believers to Satan, Communists or idiots…..it kinda goes both ways, you know?

      TryLogic

  21. Free Onions says:

    Amen. What we have in common is more powerful than what separates us.

  22. Michael, o matter how much you write, I can read more. Thank you.

  23. damn. there should be an “n” in front of that lonely little “o”.

  24. Tom Bowden says:

    Michael – Happy Birthday and Bravo – well said. I also enjoyed your article proposing libertarianism as the way forward between liberal and conservative extremists. Maybe if we renamed it libertervatism, we could get a lot of support from middle of the roaders plus a few dyslexics here and there, and capture the White House someday.

    You also state that if we cannot know whether god or heaven exist, we must therefore act in the here and now as if it was all that mattered. I agree, and would add that all the religious extremists trumpeting their certainty and scolding the skeptics, if they were honest, and rational (as if!), would have to admit that in their certainty they deny the very existence of faith, for in the absence of doubt, faith has no meaning. Religion becomes science, but without the debate and peer review.

    BTW – Ever hear the one about the agnostic dyslexic insomniac who stays up all night wondering if there really is a dog? (oldie but goodie, worth repeating)

    • Chris says:

      Sadly, libertarianism is not the way forward between liberalism and conservatism. I say sadly because it is probably the closest of the three to my own position; however, libertarianism has only been able to affect political rhetoric, not political action. (Notice how Republicans always talk about “small government” but when they are in office actually increase government spending? The talk is to attract libertarians, whereas the action is for the “real” conservatives. You may see Democrats pick up that trick, since so many libertarians were alienated by the Bush regime, err, presidency. It was an election, not regime change.)

      There are extreme libertarians, too, such as those who would privatize the military (we used to have that: they were called mercenaries and led to endless wars during the Renaissance). Sadly, we seem to be living Santayana’s dictum and repeating the history we do not learn from.

  25. Luke says:

    More passion of the skepticism! I like it. A kind of wing it approach to this one, though I hope your “What I Believe — Science & the Power of Humanity” isn’t really fully explored here. Most of the themes I’ve become familiar with, though without the power or depth of a “the soul of science” ideal.

    For many of the same reasons you (Michael Shermer) have laid out here to come to your conclusion, the more “non-overlapping magisterium I can live with” is between science and religion! Forwarding a Noma approach is the same as claiming a belief in god in certain atheist circles these days (perhaps worse), and if I say I am an atheist there will come something of “an atheist, but…” charge as if that says anything at all for me. What’s worse is the misrepresentation of Noma (though I’m not arguing its in perfect form anywhere, or could be), however it is now shorthand for “accomodationism” and claimed that it muzzles science to say anything about religious claims, including faith healers, the Shroud of Turin etc. etc. As you know, Gould has it say no such thing. I may go on but I notice you’ve decided on pointing out “anti-atheist” arguments ;) (which of course this is not, just an observation on some of your latest targeting).

  26. Ravi Jha says:

    A lot has been said against religion but I would like to point out some advantages of it.
    I think religion evolved as a phenomenon of internal conflict within our species where clans, tribes and societies fight with each other to increase their genetic footprint on the basis of ideologies. As we can observe that conflicts between individuals, are mainly to get control of more resources and increase their genetic footprint, we(humans) did so by raging wars on the basis of ideologies, because we learned to Reason. People felt this urge to do things that otherwise they would not like to do within their own clan or tribes like raping the women, killing the young ones and enslaving the men. This cognitive dissonance led to the invention of god, where in the individual justifies its acts of spreading its genes as rightful and done under the divine supervision and influence of god which otherwise is immoral if practiced within the local gene pool. Moreover, As human mind evolved it became more and more empathetic and platonic. In every society almost simultaneously there was an advent of moral values which ranked materialistic desires as depraved. So, humans needed reasons that went beyond materialistic or sexual desires to run into conflicts. And conflicts are very important part of our life system, since they serve as a mechanism to control population and increase competition. In absence of conflicts we could never have reached this age of technology and science.I think you will agree that most of the technologies that make our day to day life more convenient and safe were once funded by military, right from internet to the nuclear energy lighting our streets. If every society in the 300 B.C would have accepted Buddhism and did nothing but meditate and eat fruits, then you might not have been sitting in front of a Computer today and reading a reply written by someone in India to a blog posted by someone in America.

    Thanks for reading.

  27. Rachel says:

    what about pascals waiger?

  28. Oh look! A troll! Isn’t it cute? OMG! It’s got a hollow head!

  29. John says:

    That was pretty ordinary