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Michael Shermer is Concerned

Michael Shermer is concerned.

As if it weren’t bad enough that one of his more famous books is just a paraphrase of Pinker’s The Blank Slate or that his PowerPoint presentations are so awful as to be considered crimes against humanity under the Geneva Convention or that he insists on promoting his libertarianism in every talk, no matter how irrelevant to the topic, he’s apparently taken to concern trolling now.

The facts are these. Shermer wrote a rather bland article about religion and evolution for CNN. Jerry Coyne quoted two paragraphs of Shermer’s conclusion and explained why it represents both an arrogant and unrealistic view of people’s religious beliefs. But he called Shermer an “accomodationist”, which is an apt descriptive term for someone who feels, as Shermer evidently does, that religion and science can coexist — accomodate one another, if you will. In response, Shermer threw a hissy fit about the big, mean Jerry Coyne being a big, mean meany head to him.

At no point in Shermer’s whine does he bother to explain why his position is not, as Coyne claims, profoundly arrogant. He just quotes a couple of commenters and has a good laugh about how superior he is to Jerry Coyne and how enlightened he is, even while he digresses to say that “there is more than one way” and suggests that even the unwashed, unsophisticated, rabid mongrels like Coyne and Dawkins might have a place. There might be some use for that, he says, then quotes someone else who says that Shermer’s approach will “reduce religion’s virulence”. I see that asserted all the time. I’d like some kind of demonstration, at some point, that it actually works.

Because this is the part of Coyne’s post that Shermer ignored to focus on the term “accomodationist”:

Who is Shermer, I suggest, to tell people what beliefs should or should not “matter” to them? Try telling this to a fundamentalist Christian or a devout Muslim. To these folks, scripture is scripture, and it matters that it is true. If, as recent work suggests, prayer doesn’t work, should Shermer tell the faithful that it doesn’t matter whether or not they pray?

That’s a good question. Coyne’s use of fundamentalists for his example was inapt, though. The question applies just as equally to any believer. How is Shermer telling someone, “Oh, you can believe in this kind of god but not that kind of god?” any better than what Shermer sees as Coyne’s “head-on, take-no-prisoners, full-frontal assault”. How is it any less offensive? I’d argue it’s not. It’s just that Coyne and Dawkins and PZ Myers have the honesty to admit what they genuinely believe — that there is not evidence for the existence of a god — rather than pussyfooting around it saying, “Well, I don’t think there is, but you can think there is, and I won’t say anything about that as long as you believe everything else I think you should.”

The bottom line is, Shermer’s mockery is all out of proportion with the fact that Coyne raised a good point. And for that matter, Shermer doesn’t acknowledge the fact that he is, in fact, despite his own protestations to the contrary, attempting to dictate what is and is not an acceptable form of religious belief. Which is fine, if for fuck’s sake you just have the integrity to admit that you’re doing it.

  • Blake Stacey

    I think one of your hyperlinks was meant to point to Jerry Coyne’s post.

    I remember Shermer reading this, or something effectively equivalent to it, when he visited Harvard to book-talk his Why Darwin Matters:

    If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe — 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.

    Oddly enough, it was at that exact moment when my brain realized that it shouldn’t expect any profound insights into the human condition from this Shermer fellow.

  • Joshua

    Yikes, I also used the wrong image entirely. Fixed both errors. Now we have a happy little LOLshermer to lead off the post.

    Anyway, I recall attending the same talk and being similarly unimpressed, though I can’t say quite so precisely what part of the talk unimpressed me the most.

    It was his TAM6 talk (which is to say, “PowerPoint recitation“) that really put me off the guy forever.

  • Blake Stacey

    On the subject, had you read this from a few months ago?

  • Joshua

    I hadn’t, I don’t think, but I definitely will now.

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