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Why Darwin Matters to Creationists

by Michael Shermer, Apr 07 2009

On April 2, 2009 I was the keynote speaker for the University of California at San Diego Biological Science Symposium, giving my talk on “Why Darwin Matters” based on my book of that title. Earlier that day I awarded the winners of the “Why Darwin Matters” contest, in which students submitted entries on different ways to express their answer to the implied question in my book title. The winning entry was a fun rap song entitled Holla Atcha Boy Charlie Darwin, by “Missing Link Mel” and “HMS Beagle-licious Brian,” which you can watch here:

Unbeknownst to me, in attendance (among the 900+ students and teachers) was famed “expelled” creationist Caroline Crocker, featured in the Ben Stein film Expelled as having been, well, expelled for simply mentioning Intelligent Design in her college course on cell biology at George Mason University. (You can read about what really happened to Crocker here: I would like to comment on her review of my talk, which you can read in full here:

Crocker says she was “disappointed” in my talk primarily because I discussed religion and especially because I used humor. In my experience, I find that humorlessness is a trait endemic to quacks and pseudoscientists, who take themselves and their unproven ideas far too seriously. Even so, my sequence of editorial cartoons about creationists, along with the string of images of the iconic Time-Life book foldout of the linear sequence of human evolution from apes to us, both serve a larger purpose, which I telegraphed for people like Crocker who missed the point nonetheless: the evolution-creation controversy remains a lively cultural debate that must be addressed (and thus, Caroline, this is why I discussed religion), and the “ladder of progress” lineal descent is wrong (and Steve Gould devoted his life to debunking it and promoting in its stead the “richly branching bush” of evolution) and has led to a standard myth promulgated by creationists along these lines: “If humans came from apes, why are there still apes around?” (I even had a cartoon of this exact question from the B.C. cartoonist Johnny Hart, who is a creationist—Answers-in-Genesis features him here: The answer is simple: we didn’t come from apes; apes and humans came from a common ancestor 6-7 million years ago.

Crocker also upbraids me for an oversimplified characterization of ID thusly (in a non-cartoon slide):

1. X looks designed
2. I can’t think how X was designed naturally
3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally. (God of the gaps.)

Well, Caroline, this may well be a characterization of how IDers argue, but it is true nevertheless. All of the arguments of IDers really do reduce to this simple syllogism, whether X represents the wing, the eye, DNA, or the bacterial flagellum. It all comes down to an argument from personal incredulity along these lines: “Because I, Caroline Crocker, cannot think of how the wing (or eye, DNA, or flagellum) could have evolved naturally, it must have been designed supernaturally.”

But I didn’t just end my discussion of ID with that single slide (although I could have and made the point in full), I devoted about a third of my slides to specific arguments made by William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, and the other ID leading lights. I know because I’ve debated them all and so I just used a facsimile of their slides to illustrate what they argue, then I presented the rebuttals provided by scientists in this debate over the past decade, such that in the end there is nothing left of substance to ID (UCSD filmed my talk and I gave them my powerpoint slides to drop into the video for clear presentation, and they will have that up on their web page soon).

Crocker also whines: “Then Dr. Shermer came to the question that children always ask, ‘Well, if God made everything, who made God?’” Well, if it is such a childish question, it should be easy to answer, no? No. For IDers like Crocker, finding an unanswerable X is the end of the search. For scientists, X is just the beginning of the search. I made this point about dark energy and dark matter: these are just words—linguistic placeholders—until cosmologists figure out what they are and how they operate in the natural world. Analogously, saying that “an Intelligent Designer” did it is not an answer for a scientist; it is just a linguistic placeholder until a natural cause can be found.

I punctuated this point with “Shermer’s Last Law” (“any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God”), as a rebuttal to William Dembski’s statement that IDers make no claims about who or what the designer is (to avoid using the “G” word), and that ID could even be an alien intelligence. My initial response to Dembski is “baloney” (well, that’s the nice word for what I would actually say in private). Dembski doesn’t think that ID is ET, and neither does anyone else, so why make the argument? The answer is the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But my actual answer is that the most we could ever hope to find in search of a top-down intelligent designer of life (who is not an actual omniscient, omnipotent deity) is an ET capable of genetic engineering, cellular construction, and the technological capability of creating life, which any ETI more advanced than us by, say, 500 to 5000 years (following Ray Kurzweil’s logic of the coming singularity) will surely be capable of doing.

Finally, I did not (or did not mean) to say that every last proponent of ID is a Christian (exceptions provided by Crocker include Ben Stein, Anthony Flew, David Berlinski, and Steve Fuller), only that most of them are, most notably ID’s founding fathers: William Dembski, Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, and Phillip Johnson. But don’t take my word for it. Here are their own words:

“Thus, in its relation to Christianity, intelligent design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration.” —William Dembski, “Intelligent Design’s Contribution to the Debate over Evolution: A Reply to Henry Morris,” 2005

On February 6, 2000, Dembski told the National Religious Broadcasters at their annual conference in Anaheim, California: “Intelligent Design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God…. The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ. … And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.”
(Quoted in: Benen, Steve. 2000. “Science Test.” Church & State, July/August, online at

In a feature article in the Christian magazine Touchstone, Dembski was even more succinct: “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”
(Dembski, William. 1999. “Signs of Intelligence: A Primer on the discernment of Intelligent Design.” Touchstone, p. 84.)

“Christians in the twentieth century have been playing defense. They’ve been fighting a defensive war to defend what they have, to defend as much of it as they can. It never turns the tide. What we’re trying to do is something entirely different. We’re trying to go into enemy territory, their very center, and blow up the ammunition dump. What is their ammunition dump in this metaphor? It is their version of creation.”
(Phillip Johnson, quoted in Benen, Steve. 2000. “Science Test.” Church & State, July/August, online:>.)

Johnson was even blunter in 1996: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science…. It’s about religion and philosophy.”
(Quoted in Jay Grelen, Jay. 1996. “Witnesses for the Prosecution.” World, November 30, online at:

“Johnson calls his movement ‘The Wedge.’ The objective, he said, is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’”
—Description of Phillip Johnson’s Wedge Program, “Missionary Man.” Church & State magazine, 1999

Q.E.D. This is all about religion and thus should be handled on this level.

65 Responses to “Why Darwin Matters to Creationists”

  1. Brian M says:

    Awesome. I hope we can see this lecture online some time soon!

  2. Paul Caggegi says:

    Yes, I enjoy your online lectures, as I find no sign of you coming to Australia any time soon. :( I guess there’s not really a demand for this sort of thing “Down Unda” since the ID and creationist movement seems predominantly (there are exceptions – put aside Islamic creationism, and the fact that Ken Ham came from this sunburnt country) an American movement.

    Speedily post the lecture! Shermer Rocks.

  3. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Dr. Shermer,

    Thank you for fighting the good fight. I have read your books, subscribe to Skeptic, read your blog posts, and just this morning relistened to your interview on the SGU from a year or so ago. I just bought my ticket to TAM and am looking foreward to hearing you speak.

    Hope to see this lecture soon on the UCSD site.

    It is really interesting to see how deep the anti-science sentiment really goes. Science is perceived as a huge threat to religious dogma. Keep educating in your friendly way. Maybe we’ll make some progress. Thanks.

  4. I’d like to see Shermer guest star on The Simpsons where he could debate Ned Flanders:

    “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins the movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don’t want to know. Important things!”

  5. Max says:

    1. X looks designed
    2. I can’t think how X was designed naturally
    3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally. (God of the gaps.)

    Isn’t that similar to SETI?

    1. Narrowband signal X looks artificial.
    2. I can’t think how X was generated naturally.
    3. Therefore, hypothesize that X is artificial.

  6. Jeff says:


    The difference is that designating a signal as “artificial” (or non-natural) is only reached after every possible explanation is exhausted. Even then, it is only proposed to be a man-made/non-natural source to a degree of certainty. Astronomers are/would be reluctant to label it as such because the burden is very high. Very different from most Xtians, “I don’t get it…Goddidit!”

  7. MadScientist says:

    Correction: Johnny Hart *was* a creationist unless he has a ghost which still believes in the creation myths. I thought it was quite sad that in Harts’ later years BC had more of a religious tone, but it was one of the great comic strips of the century. Of course Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County leave it for dead, but it was still one of the better comics.

    I remember that BC cartoon too and I thought it was funny because it was so wrong; I didn’t think at the time that the author might have meant it.

  8. AL says:

    It’s gonna be pretty low of me to make fun of someone’s name, but seriously, Crocker is just too ironically eponymous.

  9. gwen says:

    I attended your awesome lecture in Fremont, CA a few weeks ago (complete with an annoying creationist with whom you exhibited an incredible amount of patience). I hope to see your lecture in SF as well!

  10. Jeannette says:

    I found Caroline Crocker’s blog interesting in a negative way (and yes they are humourless, aren’t they). For example she wrote: “Our experience with the world shows that if something that is highly complex and ALSO conforms to a pre-existing pattern or contains information, then it designed by an intelligent being. Therefore, when we see these features in naturally-occurring objects, we posit that an intelligent being may have played a part in designing them.” This could equally be “Our experience with the world shows that naturally-occurring objects can be highly complex things conforming to pre-existing patterns or containing information, and our own creations (ie designed by us intelligent beings) are a pale imitation of these; indeed our (late-learned) ability to create complex objects may just be because we are ourselves part of this naturally-occurring but complex universe”.

    It seems to me that the debate with ID believers just goes round in circles; they are totally caught up in confirmation bias. I think the split between sceptics and believers (about anything) is genetic, and have a theory that irrationality is biologically adaptive.

    I’m in Australia too, but we probably don’t need you as much as the yanks do.

  11. One quibble: it always bugs me to hear people say that humans didn’t evolve from apes, but rather both evolved from a common ancestor. After all, that common ancestor was an ape.

    I think the reason why people often say “humans didn’t evolve from apes” is because they’re actually thinking of the statement “humans didn’t evolve from chimps” (which is true), and are substituting “apes” for “chimps” without thinking.

  12. David Nicholson says:

    The common ancestor was not an ape. It was an animal which was equally pre-ape and pre-human. As with many species, its offspring branched off in different directions. Two of those branches were apes and bi-pedal critters, which in turn produced more branches. Some of the branches died off. Those which survived are sharing the planet today, including us.

  13. Roeland Heeck says:

    Michael Shermer,

    Ever heard of the Reli-Razor of Ockham ? :
    “If there are two explanations, let us say for instance regarding the existence of a soul, then reject the one that endangers your faith.”

  14. @David Nicholson: no, the common ancestor was definitely an ape.

    First, consider the nearest common ancestor of humans, chimps, gorillas and orang-utans. Being the nearest common ancestor of chimps (which are apes) and orang-utans (which are apes) it simply has to be an ape. You can’t deny this without implying that apehood evolved multiple times, independently.

    Now consider the nearest common ancestor of humans and chimps. Defining an ape now becomes more slightly more semantically open, but not very much, because there’s no question that if a modern-day human saw such a creature they would call it an ape. All the facts about how humans classify fauna lead inevitably to that conclusion.

  15. Jeff White says:

    Calling the universe the creation is a circular assumption in itself, as the word creation implies a creator. But evolution theory (as science in general) involves describing the causality of change. If one acknowledges that events have cause, then the word Creator need only be changed to the word Causer (or Cause, a less anthropomorphic word) to bring us full circle back to a belief. As far as the existence of the universe is concerned, either word, Creator, or Cause are the semantic equivalent of God. While the Causation of the universe may not be as pictured in sacred books, one would have to deny the belief in causation itself to be a complete non-believer; that is unless his atheism is restricted to sacred books only.

  16. John Grant says:

    Michael writes: “. . . this may well be a characterization of how IDers argue . . .”

    I think you mean “caricaturization”.

  17. Geoff Cowan says:

    I would love to see Micheal Shermer come to Australia too ! We need someone like him to start shaking up the religious establishment and to start making people in this country think about religion and creationalism especially, as unnecessary intrusion into our life and culture. Keep up the GREAT work !!

  18. Bryce Hand says:

    We’re descended from apes as surely as living apes (and we) are descended from more primitive mammals…and from synapsids (“mammal-like reptiles”)…and from fish…and (ultimately, along with everybody else) from bacteria. Modern apes, of course, aren’t our ancestors. But that observation is as trivial and as irrelevant as pointing out that my second cousin isn’t my ancestor.

  19. RockDoctorJ says:

    Anthropologists and Geologists broadly agree that we are descended from Apes. Indeed, our genus (homo) and family (hominoidea) are subgroups of early apes. Today, the modern hominids include only four species of the ape family (common chimpanzee, pygmy chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan). The human (Hominidae) family appears to have branched from the early apes somewhere between 5 and 8 million years ago. Thus, we are certainly evolved from apes, as are modern members of the ape family. For a very good treatise on human evolution for the non-specialist, I refer you to the standard Historical Geology text, “Earth System History” by Steven M. Stanley, published by W.H. Freeman. Human evolution is covered in a complete yet easily accessible fashion in chapter 19, which looks at the Neogene Period (23 million years ago to the present) of geologic time.

  20. CTew says:

    The tragedies of Johnny Hart were that he prostituted and blurred his characters for his faith, and in choosing his faith he chose such a limited, narrow-minded version that even many US Christians were excluded – more reasons to be very careful when hiring house painters.
    Hart’s successors – relatives – immediately ended the flagrant preaching after Hart’s death, but the spark of genius (which Hart had from the beginning, long before his conversion) only occasionally ignites the current strip.

  21. Umkomasia says:

    This thread about apes is pointless and was settled by the cladistics. The common ancestor of humans and apes was an ape because humans ARE apes too! If you recognize gibbons, oragutan, gorilla, and chimps as apes but don’t include humans, you have created a paraphyletic group. Paraphyletic groups are not real evolutionary units and have no meaning. This is standard cladistics people!

  22. Rick Roscoe says:

    You are a beacon of rationality! Keep up the good work. I am a recent subscriber and try to read everything on your important website. I also try to talk to friends about the points you have carefully researched.

  23. bill babishoff says:

    It doesn’t matter if we came from apes or not, it’s all speculation anyway. It seems far more important to ask the question “are we currently evolving?” When you look at humans of just a few decades ago the answer is clearly YES! Look how much taller we are as a whole. If we are evolving now wouldn’t this be an evolutionary pattern going back to the beginning or is this a new phenomenon? If it is new, what suddenly happened that caused us to go from a static state to an evolutionary one and when did that happen? It matters more what we are evolving into than what we are evolving from. personally adopting the creationist theories seems more like de-evolution to me. No thank you, I prefer to evolve. Growth is good.

  24. Scout II says:

    The discussion of cartoons and humans-as-apes brings to mind the cartoon Sherman’s Lagoon about a shark who lunches on human swimmers that he calls “hairless beach apes.”

  25. Tony Barron says:

    The most obvious point for me against “Intelligent Design” is how unintelligent and imperfect our design is. Why do so many women die in childbirth? Why are there autoimmune diseases? For that matter, why is there any disease; why aren’t out immune systems perfect? Why are out knees and lower backs so badly under engineered? Why is there not a better way to deal with an unrealized conception than menstruation? And dozens more similar shortcomings.

  26. bill babishoff: “It seems far more important to ask the question ‘are we currently evolving?’ When you look at humans of just a few decades ago the answer is clearly YES! Look how much taller we are as a whole.”

    I dunno Bill. I’m the same height now as I was decades ago.

  27. Feralboy says:

    Doesn’t speciation happen when a small group of animals gets split geographically from the bulk of the population and begins to adapt to its new environment? If the bulk of the population is still living in the original environment that they adapted to, wouldn’t they change much less rapidly than the splinter group evolving to meet the challenges of the new environment? The old species and the new species would both exist simultaneously in different environments.
    I don’t really understand why the creationists are even threatened by evolution, since an eternal, omnipotent being can pretty much be used to explain anything. Perhaps God created the system we call evolution. If I was designing a life form to live in a dynamic universe, I would include that feature. And I’m just some guy.
    Creationists seem to be suffering from a lack of creativity. That may be the result of literally interpretating an ancient book assumed to be somehow infallible.

  28. bill babishoff says:

    Devils advocate,
    I’m actually shrinking as I get older!
    Seriously we are, as a race, taller now than we were at the turn of the twentieth century according to statistics (I doubt they measured everyone!). I only used that as an example, the point is this, if we are evolving now, when did we start evolving and what triggered it? What in this world doesn’t evolve? That which becomes extinct. Even religion itself has evolved. Look at all the christian movements that have been born from protestant belief. Christianity today is quite different than christianity of Martin Luthers days. Evolution IS survival.

  29. Troythulu says:

    Hello, Dr Shermer. Good post. Even to a nube like me, it seems that there really is a general lack of humor among pseudoscientists…and antiscientists. I’m reminded of my old discussions with a New Age ‘magical theorist'(Urrh!?) a little over a year ago and his habit of sidestepping any attempts to lighten up the discussion with a joke or two. I finally quit my end of the conversation when he just started recycling the same old arguments and upon getting it through my head that his ‘feet were firmly planted in midair,’ and that nothing I or anyone else said was going to sway him from something he had devoted over twenty years of his life to. I’m currently going through my (signed) copy of Why People Believe Weird Things, and it’s a good read. Keep up the good work.

  30. Kevin says:

    Related to the sub-thread (humans are descended from apes – which seems trivially obvious to me) can anyone shed some light on a similar question that has been bugging me for years – since I read it in more than one Dawkins book…

    ..When Dawkins says that humans (and the other apes) are not descended from monkeys is he making some narrow technical point that I don’t understand? Or he is just wrong?

    The same logic seems to apply – old-world monkeys are more closely related to apes than to new-world monkeys – but the fact that monkeys are not a true clade (apes are not monkeys) confuses matters (for me at least).

  31. Leland Witter says:

    I rarely wade into this pool, but @Jeff White’s comment reminds me of some of my “logic” arguments with the nun’s in grade school about creation vs. evolution.

    I would as a child argue that evolution (or the big bang) does not preclude God given what they taught. Since God was omnipotent, then he could create the universe without any problem. Since he was omniscient, then he knew that events would unfold and man would become an intelligent being.

    One snap of his finger and the whole thing is set in motion. No need to take all that time creating individual animals and such.

  32. lalalala says:

    Does evolution prove God doesn’t exist? Is that a scientific question to be answered by scientists untrained in even basic Helenistic thought or those who are trained in philosophy? Does Newtonian planetary motion prove God doesn’t exist because God is not actively spinning the planets? If I believe God exists, am I automatically a creationist? If someone believes in God and accepts evolution (as many do, and the whole debate to them is hohum/whatever), is that good enough for the self described rationalists? Or isn’t it possible to just teach and study the science (which never endangers humanity) without adding some reductionistic baggage (which always endangers humanity)?

  33. Mark W. Budwig says:

    One is left to wonder whether William Dembski and others who believe as he does regard Catholics as authentic Christians. The Vatican, having observed that evolution is more than just a theory, is willing to let God decide how to go about doing His work of creation, and Catholic academia is, of course, home to innumerable believers in evolution.

  34. James Ward says:

    I think one of the huge problems that lies behind ID and creationism is that many Americans simply can’t wrap their minds around the vast stretches of time and distance that are commonplace in the sciences. My sense, based on conversations with both religious people and many of my students (I’m a political scientist) is that many people just tune out when scientists start talking about billions of years and cosmic distances. That’s why many people are persuaded by the bogus argument that if evolution is true, we should see one species changing into another in a very short time.

    Also, don’t forget the unbreakable hold of the old line: “Evolution’s just a theory.” The scientific concept of ‘theory’ simply doesn’t make sense for most people, who will forever think that a ‘theory’ is just an opinion and a guess. Here ordinary language trumps science.

  35. Peter Smith says:

    I’m a newbie here and truly am a skeptic. Anyhoo, reading the points of view above has been quite interesting, but we seem to bang the same drum over and over. Is there really anyway to connect with creationists? My spouse is an fervent creationist (even believes that the flood was a real event) and, believe it or not, she’s an educated, smart lady. When I point out the problems and inconsistencies with biblical literature, we always ends up at the same spot in our “discussions”: she says her belief in her christian god rightly or wrongly makes her feel better, so, she asks, what’s my problem with it. Good answer I think: so what if creationists got it wrong or just don’t get it – at least they’re not blowing themselves up in god’s name. So, is there any real harm to us atheists that these people have silly (i.e., scientifically unsupported) views?

  36. bill babishoff says:

    well said. I agree let others believe what they want. The problem starts when they try to teach it in schools. But I have to correct you religious zealots ARE strapping bombs on and blowing people up. Remember the christian inquisition. This is what happens when too many people believe in a particular religion and try to force those beliefs on others. If your wife is as smart as you say I’m sure she’s having difficulty justifying her religious beliefs, she’ll come around most likely, just give her some space and keep having healthy discussions with her.

  37. Joshua Boedeker says:

    Once again Mr. Shermer Great Post!

    This is in response to comment by Peter Smith…

    “So, is there any real harm to us atheists that these people have silly (i.e., scientifically unsupported) views?”

    First off congratulations on being able to sustain a relationship with somebody that holds a differing view on this issue than you! That always seems to be a nail in the coffin for me; most of the time. And I really don’t care either way. But this isn’t about my dating history.

    But back to the question at hand…I’ve wrestled with this issue multiple times. I was the same way, when I was younger, I would argue with people, “Well, its not hurting you that I believe in God. So why does it matter to you? Yet, really all I was doing was metaphorically closing my eyes and putting my hands over my ears and screaming Loudly. Really, I didn’t want to hear anything else because like most people I had a fear of death and the belief in God made it easier. Yet, there was something chewing away at me. In the back of my head, I just couldn’t get over the fact that things didn’t add up. I started to realize that it made more sense that things evolved and weren’t created. People want to use the beautiful sunset or the rolling forests as examples of God’s work. But forgetting other natural things like Cancer and Tornadoes or Tsunamis, which if God “designed” everything those would part of its plan too. Basically, what I’m getting at is there isn’t really any harm to us as Atheists or people of science. And I know that I’m going to do a blanket observation but I’ve noticed that we as a group try to find multiple answers or review differing arguments to come to a conclusion and don’t turn to a 2000 year old book or a Imaginary friend for answers or help. The only harm that is getting done is to themselves, for not wanting to see both sides of the argument…and sitting back and relaxing and thinking all their problems will melt away, if they fold their hands at night and whisper into the darkness or give away 20 percent of their income to someone who tells them fables on sunday.

    I know I don’t have all the answers but to someone that thinks they can find them all in a book is living life with blinders on.

  38. Rick Mutton says:

    @Joshua regarding “The only harm that is getting done is to themselves, for not wanting to see both sides of the argument…”

    Joshua – ignorance DOES cause harm to others.

    At an individual level, indoctrination into religous belief systems can and do cause great harm, including but not limited to:

    – families being torn apart due to different outlooks
    – forced marriages (or the prevention of inter-religious marriages)
    – suicidal bombings
    – marital rape
    – female circumcision to prevent sexual pleasure
    – wife burning / killing
    – child rape (just look at the record of Catholic Church Priests)
    – intolerance – eg. for the gay community
    – death – eg. children dying because they have not been given blood transfusions

    At a societal level, religion is equally poisonous

    – great potential political leaders are culled from the process because their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) will not garner enough votes
    – rational political decisions are influenced by ignorance – for example the effect on stem cell research
    – religious dogma contributes to the overall dumbing down of society. I would add that Oprah is now just as dangerous
    – ignorance cause by religious dogma has caused innumarable deaths and suffering through history – and continues to this day
    – the Catholic attitude toward condoms as birth control has directly caused death and suffering – particularly in Africa

    So… to say that “they are only doing harm to themselves” is to ignore the very real suffering that ignorance and religious dogma causes worldwide.



  39. Spenser Smith says:

    To throw out a few simple clarifications-
    @bill babishof: “It’s all speculation anyway” That humans diverged from chimpanzees within the last million years is rather more than speculation, it’s supported strongly by every line of evidence available (phylogenetics, comparative morphology, fossil record, and more).

    Increases in average height in developed countries over the last few centuries is almost certainly a product of improved nutrition and health care rather than evolutionary change. There are plenty of clear-cut examples of recent evolution available, of course, for those interested in looking.

    There is nothing wrong with holding logically unsupportable beliefs, or with expressing them. It’s a fundamental right enshrined in the US constitution, in fact. The problem (well, one of them) comes from people claiming to be conducting science and then ignoring all of its precepts. It’s counterproductive and deceptive, and unfortunately instills misinformation deep in the public consciousness where it is difficult to root out.

  40. Spenser Smith says:

    To correct myself:
    I should have said that humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor in the last million years. My bad!

  41. SDR says:

    lalalala, I’ve never heard a single scientist, including Richard Dawkins, claim that science proves God doesn’t exist. What it does do, though, is that every new scientific discovery shows that a God is less and less needed as an explanation.

    Furthermore, you claim that scientists must be trained in philosophy or religion to be able to make such claims. That is ridiculous. I am scholar in the field of religious studies. I am very well trained in religious philosophy, and I see no reason why a scientist must be. They help, but if someone is making a claim about a being that can affect the natural world, that is a natural claim and therefore one testable by science, whether the scientist is trained in religious philosophy or not. They are making a scientific, fact based, determination. That is completely separate from philosophy, yet a question that can absolutely be looked at completely scientifically.

  42. opinionated old fart says:

    The question “If humans evolved from apes, then why are there still apes?” deserves a better answer than to just point out that it was a common ancestor to modern apes and humans. After all we did evolve from fish too but there are still fish around. It should be understood that there is no reason that the whole population of our common primate ancestor species had to go extinct. They just happened to. An isolated population of “googlemonkeys” could speciate away from the rest of the “googlemonkeys” of the world. Generations later there could still be “googlemonkeys” and their cousins the “hairless upright google-not-monkeys.” Think of those Galapagos iguanas and the South American ones they came from.

  43. epicurus says:

    Dr. Shermer, if this is all about religion then don’t waste your time arguing for evolution. Next time you face IDers just tell them I will believe in your God if can prove he exists. I don’t have to disprove God because it is self-evident that what is invisible, intangible, inaccesible to sensory perception and scientific measurements, and inexplicable to science and natural phenomena must be non-existent. The burden of proof lies on those who claim that something obviously unreal must somehow be real.

    Peter Smith, there’s nothing seriously wrong with having silly views as long as you know it’s silly. If believing in God makes you a better person, then believe even if God is a delusion. After all why do we watch movies or read fiction books or think of loved ones or remember fond memories? Aren’t these delusions? Humans can feel good by merely imagining things. That’s what makes us different from intelligent robots. To be silly is human. Celebrate humanity!

  44. Rilo says:

    Epicurus – I’ll take your thought a step further. To be religious is indeed to be human. Perhaps religion – that is, our perpetual need to conjure answers for unanswerable questions – is (or at one stage was) an adaptive response to the human condition. Humans have the rare ability to conceptualize death. Since man first developed the cognitive ability to “think” death has hunted us. Survival is the evolutionary mandate, and thus we are programmed to avoid death at all cost. So thinking man constructs a way to avoid death. At the core, isn’t this the same thing that all religions offer in one way or another – death avoidance. We can fight/argue peripheral battles over Creationism, ID etc… but isn’t the fallacy of religion exposed with a basic understanding of its origin?

  45. I suspect that ‘religion’ was created when the first human figured out he could score chicks and free food if he pretended he knew what caused lightning, thunder, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, death, etc. His answers were nonsense, but they were completely unfalsifiable. Most of religious claims remained unfalsifiable for all but the past few millenia, and the most foundational religious claims are inherently unfalsifiable (doess God exist?).

    By the time science falsified so many religious claims, say, the period of the last couple centuries, religion had so completely and thoroughly saturated human cultures it is proving near impossible to dislodge.

    I don’t think religious beliefs are the result of adaptation so much as a matter of credo consolans over 40,000 years (or whatever) coupled with socio-cultural inertia.

  46. My apologies to women everywhere for assuming the world’s first religious con artist was a man.

  47. epicurus says:

    I suppose, like all human inventions, religion can be used for good or evil. It can be a tool for survival or a tool for deception. If it is used to cope with emotional stress and leads to blissfulness, then it’s good. If it’s used to extract money from gullible fanatics or sex from young boys, then it’s bad.

    It may be fallacy to say religious dogma is true. But it doesn’t have to be true to work (placebo effect). It’s just one of the many silly things humans do. We risk our lives climbing Mt. Everest, we spend millions to go to space, we kick each other in mix martial arts combat, we watch nasty heavy metal concerts, we ride big bikes pretending to be easy rider, we pay others to scare us in thrill rides, we drink booze to feel good, etc. I just hope believers don’t take their beliefs too seriously that it leads to a bad end like suicide bombing.

  48. Retired Prof says:

    epicurus says: ” it is self-evident that what is invisible, intangible, inaccesible to sensory perception and scientific measurements, and inexplicable to science and natural phenomena must be non-existent.”

    Aren’t you forgetting dark matter and dark energy? As mentioned in another post, these words are just place-holders for “what is invisible, intangible, inaccesible to sensory perception and scientific measurements,” having been proposed to explain anomalous motions in the heavens. They may exist, or not. Some other explanation may be found.

    In fact, the current Scientific American has an article, “Does Dark Energy Really Exist?
    Or does Earth occupy a very unusual place in the universe?” by Timothy Clifton and Pedro G. Ferreira, exploring the possibility that the apparent acceleration in the expansion of the universe is a trick of perspective.

    Of course, dark matter and dark energy are merely inexplicable given our current state of knowledge, not by definition, as is the case with god. Still, I can’t hold your faith that we can, somehow or another, detect everything that exists, any more than I can hold my sister’s faith that angels exist.

  49. epicurus says:

    Retired Prof, are you claiming that dark matter and dark energy are real in the same way believers claim God is real? If you are merely acknowledging their possibility and believers feel the same way about God, then there wouldn’t be any debate between believers and skeptics. Ask your sister if she thinks God is like dark matter, just a word we use to substitute for our ignorance.

    I believe in extraterrestrial intelligence but I do not claim it is real. Until we detect it, ETI is non-existent no matter how much I want to believe it. It would be more laughable had I said ETI exists because we cannot detect everything that exists. If imagining ETs fulfills my fantasy and makes me happy (I suspect SETI astronomers do this all the time) I suppose believers can do the same with God. Don’t you think?

  50. Bobby Rhodes says:

    Since the universe is so vast and so little can be proven in comparison. Why is there such passion in our arguments? Regardless of your point of view (ETI, GOD, ET, SETI, Evolution) it is a “Faith on Faith” argument. If you could prove either point indefinetly; there would be no argument. No one has infinite wisdom. Just like an adrenalin junky we get a rush from arguing. A sense of satisfaction from being in the spotlight. A “richly branching bush” theory is only true from each perspective. Because even people of different “faiths” dont agree on all points. We thrive on differing opinions and thus each person creates a different “branch”. Iron sharpens Iron. Isn’t life fun!? I love this website.

  51. Julian says:

    “If you could prove either point indefinetly; there would be no argument.”

    I agree. If we could ever definitively prove 9/11 occurred as the US government says it did there would be no argument.

    Seriously, though, you’re a tool.

  52. Bobby Rhodes: “Just like an adrenalin junky we get a rush from arguing. A sense of satisfaction from being in the spotlight.”

    It is a fallacy of logic to assume what moves you moves all.

  53. SimonM says:

    @Jeff White: if I’ve understood a little correctly, causation seems to break down at the quantum level. Quantum events are more or less probable so predictable in aggregate but not in particular. So “Cause” perhaps retreats to “Probability”. That’ll put bums on seats! :-)

    It’s sad but inevitable that the “debate” still centres on the existence or non-existence of one or more deities as causative factors in the physical world. What gives the religious position its tenacity seems to me to be the intense linkage between the holders’ certainty in their detailed beliefs (particularly in areas on which religion is unqualified to comment; particularly the nature and behaviour of the physical world) and the maintenance of their sense of meaning in life.

    For me this is the heart of the matter in all senses of heart. Remove god(s) from the universe and, it seems to me, for many people meaning goes out the door as well. THIS is the conundrum for education: how do we help kids relate scientifically to the appropriate aspects of their world AND create a meaning for themselves which sustains them (and doesn’t do too much violence to their heritage). And how do we educate to allow even the distinction to be made?

    I’m in OZ (Sydney) so any of you Oz posters wanting to make contact can look me up on facebook. How’s that for geo-locational-centricism? Actually I’m pretty tolerant of the rest of you who don’t have the privilege of residing here. After all, some of my best friends (and relatives) are foreigners. :-D

  54. epicurus says:

    If we knew everything, there’s no need to argue or do science. On the other end, if everything is unknowable and just a matter of faith, there’s also no need to argue or do science. We argue and do science precisely because neither know everything nor know nothing. If not for science and passionate arguments, we would still be living in the Stone Age. Have a little faith in our little knowledge. Yes life is fun! I don’t feel guilty.

  55. I think what gives the religious position its tenacity is unfalsifiability. when religion began, it was all unfalsifiable. As science has progressed, it has knocked the legs out of many religious tenets, rendering them unbelievable except to the most blinded fundamentalists. but the main tenet, the trunk from which extend the thousand branches of religion, remains unfalsifiable: Is there a God?

    While all previous religious ‘facts’ or truths have been necessarily morphed by believers into metaphor – or less – due to contrary scientific discoveries, as long as that last, most basal, and currently unfalsifiable question remains, there will be tenacious religious believers.

    Education efforts would do well to include pointing out that just because a religious personn cannot see how he or she would derive meaning or purpose in life without a God, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Available are alternative philosophies currently unknown to them (or unpalatable while god remains on the menu).

    We also need bear in mind that abandoning religious beliefs, if that includes the implied end of church attendance, also means abandonment of what has often been a generations-old social and community network, most of which does very good work in the community. For the typical first world religous believer and church attendant, abandonment of belief in God means abandonment of far more than just that belief.

    As for science, we do that because it works.

  56. epicurus says:

    I think a lot of believers are not as foolish as non-believers would like to believe. I think a lot of them don’t take their faith seriously (of course there are also a lot of fanatics). They cling to religion because it gives something that science and other secular philosophies cannot give. It may be the cozy feeling of belongingness or some divine purpose in life or the sense of righteousness and immortality, whatever. It may be a fallacy or an illusion but it works. Science is cold but it works. Religion is warm and it also works.

    Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche held that religion is opium because it destroys the mind. However, opium is also a pain killing medicine. Moderate dosage can kill pain. Over dosage can kill you. Same is true with religion. Scores of people swear that God healed them, at least emotionally. Scores of people also got killed in the name of God. Throughout history, much more people had been killed in the name of God than in the name of Satan. But this is hardly the fault of God, especially a non-existent one. Humans were doing all the killings. It’s like blaming opium for opium addiction. Like opium, religion is awesome as it is dangerous.

  57. Religion = credo consolans, the consoling belief that something is in charge of all this seeming chaos (life) and further, that ‘something’ loves and cares for me. Inculcated since infancy, it is easy to believe and impossible to falsify.

  58. Beelzebud says:

    It’s nice to see you doing something related to science, as opposed to being a preacher for the free market. I like your science based work much better than your free-market worship.

  59. epicurus says:

    Is God falsifiable?

    My hypothesis is there’s no need to disprove an imaginary thing, which we have absolutely no factual knowledge of, because the probability of its existence is in principle nil. Having no factual knowledge means the possibilities are endless or without constraints. The probability that one possibility is true out of an infinite number of possibilities is one divided by infinity equals zero. There’s a need to prove or at least gain some factual knowledge of the imaginary thing to make its probability non-zero.

    A good example is dark matter. It is also an imaginary thing but our factual knowledge is not zero. We know something about dark matter like it has mass because it exerts gravitational force to the stars; it is not luminous because we cannot see it with optical telescopes; it does not emit strong or any electromagnetic waves because we cannot detect it with radio telescopes; its mass cannot exceed the total mass of the universe; it is made up of natural matters that obey the laws of physics, etc. In short, there are constraints to dark matter hence the possibilities are finite and the probability is non-zero. In contrast, everything we know about God is not factual but completely speculative, the product of pure imaginations.

    If my hypothesis is wrong, then Pascal’s Wager is valid and Pascal was correct in saying that it is better to bet that God exists because the infinite reward (eternal life) far outweighs the small (but non-zero) probability that God is real. The expected reward value of Pascal’s Wager if God has non-zero probability is infinite because infinity multiplied by any positive number (no matter how small) equals infinity. Even if we subtract the cost of believing as Richard Dawkins suggested, the expected reward value is still infinity because infinity minus any finite number (cost of believing) equals infinity.

    I believe my hypothesis is correct but I welcome scientists, mathematicians or anyone to challenge it so we can come up with a better hypothesis. If you want to know how I disprove Pascal’s Wager, read on.

    Pascal’s Wager says the infinite reward to be gained by believing in God far outweighs the low probability of his existence so it’s better to bet that he is than to bet that he is not. Pascal’s Wager can be simulated by drawing an object from a jar. A black ball represents God. If you draw a black ball, you win an infinite reward. If the jar contains one white ball and one black ball, the probability of drawing the black ball (God exists) is ½. The problem is we don’t know what’s inside the jar. It could be empty (probability of God is zero) or it could contain any object (many possibilities, low probability).

    So we have to postulate the possible content of the jar. If this is a real draw in the real world, we can limit the possibilities to any object that exists on earth and can fit inside the jar. However, Pascal’s Wager is not a real draw, it is an imaginary draw. God itself is not a real object that fits the description “any object that exists on earth and can fit inside the jar.” Hence, the imaginary jar can contain any imaginary object. If I assign a positive number to each object I can imagine, the number of possible imaginary objects would be as many as the set of counting numbers, which is endless or infinite. Therefore, the probability of drawing a black ball under this scenario is one divided by infinity equals zero. The magnitude of the reward is irrelevant because the probability of winning is zero thus the expected reward value is always zero.

    Pascal’s Wager dissolves into nothingness, which is hardly surprising since this whole game is just a figment of Pascal’s imagination. The conclusion is you cannot gain anything by merely imagining it. The mathematics may be deceptive like the Monty Hall problem but the conclusion is plain common sense.

  60. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

    Yea, Ukomkasia! We are great apes! Please support the Great Ape Project to enhance other great apes protecitions as New Zealand and Spain now do!
    The trouble with the Wager is that it has no horse! In horse races, there are more than one horse, such than one of them can win whereas with the Wager there is only the horse. life as we know it. Without any other horse ,this one wins by default.
    And thanks to PZ Myers, William B. Provine and Jerry Coyne for their efforts to make known that the real debate is between secular reason and faith rather than between creationism and science! Theistic evolution is an oxymoron.

  61. Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

    Sorry for the typos. apes’ protections horse, life
    it has only one horse [rather than no horse]

  62. tmac57 says:

    Pascal also committed the false dichotomy fallacy. Why is the choice only between God as commonly understood, and no God?. Why not at least one other possibility of say an anti God ? That is to say,one that would give you eternal life only if you did not believe in Pascal’s God. You could devise other such scenarios endlessly, but you get the idea.

  63. Not to mention which God.

  64. Kennypo65 says:

    Does anyone else find it odd that Fundamentalists believe that the bible is the absolute truth, yet also believe in the rapture. The rapture is not in the bible, but is an 19th century invention.

  65. Febe says:

    It’s through Methodological naturalism that the conclusion should be Creation and not chance. You can,t put God in a test tube, true, but you can put all your Conclusions and theories in one and the conclusion points to an intelligent designer, not chance. Cause and effect. what started the process,and when you find out, then what caused it, then when you have figured out its origin, than what started that process ,ect.If you say that it started on its own then it is chance and Logically logic laughs at such a notion. It’s scientifically in possible.