Mark Smeltzer Replies to Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer’s article “Religion and Politics…and Science” attempts to present a narrative of religion becoming obsolete in the political sphere the same way he thinks it’s becoming obsolete in the scientific realm.  HIs reason for thinking it’s becoming obsolete from politics may be due to his neglect of moral theory.  As a consequence, his campaign misses the mark and his celebration seems premature.

Shermer sets out his thesis like this: “I argue that morals and values can be established and defended through science and reason.” Interestingly, however, this is actually not a political claim but an ontological one.  Moral ontology is central to any moral theory because it addresses the question of the foundations of moral truths. Shermer claims that atheism provides an adequate basis for morality but overlooks most of the hard challenges of spelling out how.

The challenge naturalists face in providing such a foundation for ethics is formidable. Many secular ethicists remain undaunted by the challenge, though, offering a variety of naturalistic attempts at ethical foundations. An evolutionary biologist may theorize that our DNA and the evolutionary development of human beings produced such behaviors that end up facilitating some type of cooperation for survival, rewarding those with such adaptive behaviors with a higher chance of survival. This assessment of our biological origins may be correct.  But even if this is right, this account of the genesis of various behaviors would not illuminate anything about moral ontology.

According to the grand naturalistic narrative, the universe came into existence several billion years ago with no explanation, then the earth formed, then life on earth.  So what is there within the atheist’s story and resources that can function as an objective moral reference point to ground, explain, or otherwise make sense of value judgments?  Even many atheists are gradually coming to admit that objective, authoritative moral facts would be strange entities in a purely physical world.

If atheism is true, humans are complicated arrangements of elements from the periodic table.  Naturalists are hard pressed to account for our intrinsic worth if this is true.  Values of any kind are hard to account for.  Richard Dawkins, at least at this time, agreed. “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . . We are machines for propagating DNA. . . . It’s every living object’s sole reason for being.”

In this light, the paragraphs of Shermer’s recent piece that are most interesting for present purposes start when Shermer begins to argue that the principles of the Declaration of Independence “were in fact grounded in the type of scientific reasoning that Jefferson and Franklin employed in all the other sciences in which they worked.” Shermer cites the famous statement that certain truths are “self-evident” as an example.  Shermer imagines that this “self-evident” reference is actually produced from scientific reasoning. He points out a quote from Walter Isaacson, who cites an edit made by Franklin.  “By using the word ‘sacred,’ Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.” Shermer seems to conflate rational with scientific.

It is true that self-evident truths are not assertions of religion.  Nor are they assertions of science, as Shermer suggests.  There is nothing scientific about them.  Scientific knowledge is an a posteriori venture while self-evident knowledge is a priori.  (Robert Audi gives an empirical account of moral intuitions rooted in our feelings, but the point is that value judgments must rely on more than purely scientific claims.) Reasoning draws from both at any given time.  And the sort of self-evident truths the founding fathers referenced were moral truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Self-evidence is how we come to know something and leaves open the question of what makes the truth in question true. Our having been made by God in His image and for His purposes provides a powerful explanation for human equality; what the ground is for Shermer’s conviction in such a self-evident truth remains in need of explanation. To say the answer is “reason” is more assertion than argument, and rather unprincipled at that.

As David Bentley Hart argues persuasively in Atheist Delusions, the idea that humans have equality—a notion that most people in the past have vociferously rejected—is historically based in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its emphasis on God’s having stamped His image on all people.  And because people are His image bearers, no one is more morally valuable than any other; all of us are equal in moral worth and possess great inherent dignity, value, and worth. On the other hand, if atheism is true, what good grounds are there to believe that human beings are essentially equal? Or that they possess inherent dignity and worth? It is no coincidence that societies without such sturdy convictions are much more likely to engage in the grossest of human rights violations. So Shermer was right in this sense, only in reverse: there are indeed, ultimately, large political repercussions for a lack of strong metaphysical foundations for morality. Most atheists are better than their worldview, and nowadays most would strongly affirm their belief in essential human equality. Whether they know it or not, though, this is due to our religious heritage. Equality remains part of the air we breathe in the West, but it came from an anthropology informed by robust theism. But as Nietzsche predicted, the rejection of belief in God will likely, in time, make its presence felt, perhaps even calling into question reasons for treating others equally.

Shermer seems less interested in promoting science as in preaching scientism. Christianity, contrary to a negative stereotype some try to perpetuate, is, at least at its best, in fact interested in promoting science. A diverse range of thinkers, including Stanley Jaki, has chronicled the role the Christian worldview played in promoting a dispassionate scientific analysis of the empirical world. Most of the first scientists were Christians and theists.  Newton closely studied the Bible and claimed to know that a logical God made the universe in an orderly way, thus providing the basis by which experiments could be carried out and provide predictions; in contrast, atheism and science are neither historically nor inherently linked.  And there is nothing in Galileo’s writing to suggest he was not a Christian.  Dennis Alexander’s book Rebuilding the Matrix provides an interesting read on this score.  From the beginning, the scientific enterprise has needed the Christian worldview.  Scientific thought depends upon certain assumptions about the world and Christianity. As the famous philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, Christianity made it acceptable to have “faith in the possibility of science” which came prior to the development of actual scientific theory. One obviously need not be a Christian to be a scientist, but Christian philosophy facilitated the scientific enterprise.

Part of Shermer’s recurring mistake here is eminently understandable. Atheists can apprehend moral truths as clearly as anyone, but they are mistaken when they assume that what they apprehend is explicable and articulable with the resources of their worldview. As they are not inclined to reject either commitment, they tacitly assume they are consistent, when in fact they are not—or at the least atheism fails to provide the most effective explanation of objective moral facts and humanistic ideals.

In light of the obstinacy with which Shermer pushes his point and assumes what is not in evidence in his battle against theism, one wonders whether his rejection of theism is rooted in rationality. Thomas Nagel, an atheist professor of philosophy and law at NYU, is a rare example of a transparent atheist on this point, writing, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.  It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief.  It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Shermer may be of the same mind, but without admitting it.


Photo: "We hold these truths to be self-evident" by P. Lloyd . CC License.