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Shermer Opening Statement [3]

Dear Rupert,

For our final three rounds on the existence (or not) of God, I will be especially curious to know how you arrive at orthodox Christianity out of your unorthodox theory. As you told my Scientific American colleague John Horgan:

    I believe in God. I am a practicing Christian, specifically an Anglican (in the US, an Episcopalian). I went through a long atheist phase, and began to question the materialist orthodoxy of science while I was still an atheist. I later came to the conclusion that there are more inclusive forms of consciousness in the universe than human minds.

Already, I’m suspicious . . . and skeptical. How convenient that the God you believe in happens to be the same God that most of your fellow countrymen (and, more broadly, your fellow Westerners) believe in. Geography, in fact, is the number-one predictor of anyone’s religion—where they happen to have been born and raised. Had you been born and raised in, say, India, it would be far more likely that you would defend Hinduism as the One True Religion, the god Ganesha as your deity of choice, and employ morphic resonance theory to explain reincarnation and Karma (memory of past lives and deeds).

But let me not presume too much, and await your statement—and in the meantime, inquire why belief in the supernatural (as you have defined and defended it) and belief in God should be conflated at all. Historically speaking, most commentators have lumped the two together, but it seems to me entirely possible that the two could be separate. Although I do not believe this myself, assuming for a moment that you are correct that there is a world beyond the natural world (or, if you agree with me that there is only the natural word, then forces heretofore unaccepted by mainstream science such as psi really do exist), such a world could contain no God, one God, or a multitude of Gods. In principle, psi-like forces could exist whether or not there’s a God. You could be a supernatural atheist in this sense.

Likewise, there could be a God and no supernatural forces. God could just use the known forces of nature (or perhaps some heretofore unknown forces of nature) to perform miracles. And if there is a God, why not multiple gods? There is nothing inherently special about monotheism, save for its historical triumph as a religion—perhaps superior at uniting tribes against other tribes or playing a prominent role in the first civilizations to reinforce group cohesion and act as an enforcer of morals and ultimate punisher of violators. This is, in fact, my theory of the origin of religion (developed in my books How We Believe [W.H. Freeman & Co., 1999] and The Believing Brain [Times Books, 2011]), which I define as a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community. There are multiple lines of evidence that humans created gods, not vice versa.

First, there are many human universals that anthropologists have discovered among all peoples of the world related to religion and belief in deities, such as sacraments surrounding death, supernatural beliefs about fortune and misfortune, and especially divination, folklore, magic, myths, and rituals. With such universals we can presume that there is a genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures, and that these cultures, despite their considerable diversity and variance, nurture these natures in a consistent fashion toward belief in gods and religious rituals.

Second, twin studies have consistently found a strong genetic component to religiosity and belief in God—roughly speaking, about 40–50 percent of the variance is accounted for by genetics. Genes, of course, do not make one a Jew, Catholic, Muslim, or any other religion. Rather, genes code for cognitive and behavioral tendencies that make one more or less likely to believe in supernatural agents (God, angels, demons) and more or less likely to commit to certain religious practices (church attendance, prayer, rituals).

Third, the comparative study of religions leads to this back-of-the-envelope calculation: over the past 10,000 years of history humans have created about 10,000 different religions and about a 1,000 gods. What is the probability that your God, Yahweh, is the One True God, and Amon Ra, Aphrodite, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, Zeus, and the other 986 gods are false gods? As skeptics like to say, everyone is an atheist about these gods—some of us just go one god further.

Fourth, since you are a Christian I must point out that even within the three great Abrahamic religions there is much disagreement. Christians believe Jesus is the savior and that you must accept him to receive eternal life in heaven. Yet, both Jews and Muslims reject this central tenet of your religion. In fact, only roughly two billion of the world’s six billion believers accept Jesus as their personal savior. Most Christians believe that the Bible is the inerrant gospel handed down from the deity. Muslims believe that the Koran is the perfect word of God, and yet Christians do not. As well, while most Christians believe that Jesus was the last prophet, Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet, while Mormons believe that Joseph Smith is the last prophet. Who’s to say which one is right? By what criterion is one to judge among these competing claims? And while they are usually called “faith-based” beliefs, believers in fact hold these tenets of their religion to be really true—actually and factually correct—not just relatively or psychologically true. Given that fact, Rupert, how do you decide which among the many world’s religions is the right one? You’re a scientist—if you believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead three days after being crucified, where’s your control group?

Fifth, the study of comparative mythology leads to the recognition of commonalities among flood myths, virgin birth myths, and resurrection myths, all of which converge to the strong inference that they are not unique to your religion but were—like God—invented by humans.

Flood Myths: The Noachian flood story is predated by the Epic of Gilgamesh by about four centuries. Warned by the Babylonian Earth-god Ea that other gods were about to destroy all life by a flood, Utnapishtim was instructed to build an ark in the form of a cube 120 cubits (180 feet) on all sides, into which he was instructed by god to put one pair of each living creature.

Virgin Birth Myths: Among those conceived sans a biological father were Dionysus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Krishna, Horus, Mercury, Romulus, and, of course, Jesus. The Greek God Dionysus, for example, was born from a virgin mortal mother impregnated by the king of heaven. He was said to be able to transform water into wine (he was, after all, the Greek god of wine), and it was he who introduced the idea of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the creator, not the Catholics centuries later.

Resurrection Myths: The ancient Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility, Osiris, first appears in the pyramid texts around 2400 B.C. Widely worshipped until the compulsory repression of pagan religions in the early Christian era, Osiris was not only the redeemer and merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, he was also linked to fertility, most notably the flooding of the Nile and growth of crops. The kings of Egypt themselves were inextricably connected with Osiris in death, such that when Osiris rose from the dead, so would they in union with him. By the time of the New Kingdom, not only pharaohs but common people believed that they could be resurrected by and with Osiris at death—if, of course, they practiced the correct religious rituals.

Since you are a Christian I presume that you believe God to be all-powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all good (omnibenevolent); who created out of nothing the universe and everything in it; who is uncreated and eternal, a non-corporeal spirit who created, loves, and can grant eternal life to humans. I do not believe in this God. That makes me an atheist. Yes, I know, technically speaking I cannot prove a negative—I cannot prove God does not exist. But neither can I prove that Zeus does not exist, and yet I don’t believe in him, either.

And as I showed above, I can provide strong evidence indicating that it is very likely God does not exist except in the minds of people. (That God is very powerful indeed, as he can get people to fly planes into buildings and to blow themselves up in crowded squares.)

As well, I can show that the traditional arguments for God’s existence are refutable—and have been refuted, starting with Hume’s devastating critiques. The first cause, prime mover, and cosmological arguments, the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe, the argument for the origin and intelligent design of life, the moral origin argument, the origin of consciousness argument, and the like, all have equally plausible (and in most cases more probable) explanations from science, and in any case constitute what is called the “god of the gaps” style of reasoning—anything that science cannot currently explain (a gap in our knowledge) is best filled with God as the explanation.

There are several fallacies with this line of reasoning. First, the either/or fallacy, or the false dilemma, is the tendency to dichotomize the world such that if you discredit one position it means the other position must be correct. Not so. It is not enough to call out the weaknesses in a theory; you must also provide evidence that your alternative theory is superior—that is, it explains more data than the alternative.

Second, science is young and there is much we still do not know. Before we say something is out of this world, let’s first make sure that it is not in this world. We have some cogent natural explanations for the origin of the universe, life, consciousness, and morality, but much remains unknown.

Third, what will happen to the God hypothesis that relies on these gaps when the gaps are filled by science?

Finally, there is one God I could believe in based on a purely naturalistic worldview. In honor of Arthur C. Clarke and his famous three laws, I have called this Shermer’s Last Law: any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) is indistinguishable from God. (Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

My gambit is based on three observations and three deductions:

    Observation I. Biological evolution is glacially slow compared to cultural and technological evolution.

    Observation II. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty, so the probability of making contact with an ETI is remote.

    Deduction I. The probability of making contact with an ETI who is only slightly more or less advanced than us is virtually nil. Any ETIs we would encounter will either be way behind us or way ahead of us.

    Observation III. Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century than in the previous hundred centuries. Moore’s Law of computer power doubling every 12 months applies to dozens of other technologies. If Ray Kurzweil is right in his book The Singularity is Near (Viking, 2005), then the world will change more in the next century than it has in the previous thousand centuries.

    Deduction II. Extrapolate these trend lines out tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years—mere eye blinks on an evolutionary time scale—and we arrive at a realistic estimate of how far advanced an ETI will be.

    Deduction III. If today we can engineer genes, clone mammals, and manipulate stem cells with science and technologies developed in only the last 50 years, think of what an ETI could do with 50,000 years of equivalent powers of progress in science and technology. For an ETI who is a million years more advanced than we are, engineering the creation of planets and stars may be entirely possible. And if universes are created out of collapsing black holes—which some cosmologists think is probable—it is not inconceivable that a sufficiently advanced ETI could even create a universe by triggering the collapse of star into a black hole.

What would we call an intelligent being capable of engineering life, planets, stars, and even universes? If we knew the underlying science and technology used to do the engineering, we would call it an Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; if we did not know the underlying science and technology, we would call it God.

Either that God already exists, or we are becoming that God. Either way, the mere contemplation of the possibilities simply blows one’s mind. If you want to be awe-struck by a religious-like experience, turn to science.



Sheldrake Response

Dear Michael,

Our most fundamental disagreement is about consciousness beyond the human level. As a materialist and atheist, you regard it as impossible or at least highly unlikely, unless it takes the form of extra-terrestrial intelligence in a civilization with technologies far more advanced than our own. What you call Shermer’s Last Law is that “any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” You imagine humanoids that have become omnipotent through science and technology “engineering the creation of planets and stars” and “even creating a universe by triggering the collapse of a star into a black hole.” And after developing your fantasy scenario, you conclude, “If you want to be awe-struck by a religious-like experience, turn to science.” But this is science fiction, not science.

Nevertheless, we have several areas of agreement. Like you, I do not think that psychic phenomena such as telepathy are evidence for God or a supernatural realm. As I pointed out in our last dialogue, I see psi phenomena as part of the natural world; they have evolved in many species of social animals. The existence or non-existence of God is a separate question. Many psi researchers and religious people agree with us. Several leading parapsychologists are atheists: they accept the existence of psi but not of God. Meanwhile, some believers in God disbelieve in psi phenomena, or disapprove of them. One of the founders of organized skepticism in the US, Martin Gardner, was a theist who was vehemently opposed to research in parapsychology because he thought it was “tempting God” and seeking “signs and wonders.”

We also agree that there are similar features in different religious traditions, including stories of floods, virgin births and resurrections. I see these themes as archetypal, reflecting fundamental ways of understanding the world, or as cultural memories. Flood myths may well be related to the actual floods that happened at the end of the last ice age when sea levels rose dramatically. One aspect of virgin birth myths is their emphasis on the creative power of the life-giving mother. No doubt the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches inherits aspects of pre-Christian goddess worship, in which the Great Mother gave birth to gods. I do not see this as a problem. In fact, I see it as a strength of the Christian tradition that it includes pre-Christian elements such as pilgrimages and seasonal festivals. Many Christian sacred places were sacred to older religions first: for example, the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico was built over the temple of the Aztec mother goddess. Religions evolve, like everything else.

The theme of death and resurrection is common to many traditions, and is an archetypal feature of rites of passage. But dying and being born again is more than a myth or symbol: it is an actual experience for people who have had a near-death experience.

I think that John the Baptist was a drowner. A person being baptized in the river Jordan, if held under water just long enough, would have had a near-death experience through drowning. In other words, baptism by total immersion could have been a simple, rapid, and effective way of deliberately inducing a near-death experience. Dying and being born again would have been a life-changing personal experience. John may sometimes have gone too far, and some people may not have come back. But that was before liability litigation.

We need myths, and science creates its own. The Big Bang theory, for example, is a version of the ancient creation myth of the hatching of the cosmic egg. As the primal egg cracked open, the universe emerged from it, just as it emerged from the primal singularity of the Big Bang.

I agree with you that one of the major predictors of people’s religion is where they were born and the family and culture they were born into. The same goes for atheists. In communist countries, children were indoctrinated into atheism, and many believed what they were taught. In the Soviet Union, the state-sponsored League of the Militant Godless had 5.5 million members by 1932, and campaigned for the closure of churches, and for their bells to be melted down for industrialization. Parents were warned, “Religion is poison, protect your children!” Such propaganda campaigns were very effective. By 1940, 25 regions of the Soviet Union were declared completely churchless, and fewer than 1,000 churches, chapels, and monasteries survived, compared with 54,000 at the time of the Revolution in 1917.[1] In East Germany, where the communist state vigorously promoted atheism from the 1940s to the 1980s, a survey in 2008—19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—showed that 52% of the population were atheists, compared with 10% in West Germany. Clearly, people educated to be atheists are more likely to become atheists than those with a non-atheist education.

No doubt some Christians, Muslims, Hindus—and atheists—think that theirs is the One True Faith, but in practice the vast majority do not. I lived for seven years in India where Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Parsees, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and tribal animists coexist and have done for centuries. Most Indians simply accept that different people follow different religious paths, without feeling the need to convert everyone else to their own religion. Likewise, in North America and in Europe, many religions coexist, as do many Christian churches. Some are bigoted, but most are not. In Britain, where I live, I hardly ever encounter religious fanatics, although I sometimes come across zealous atheists.

Most people who follow a religious path accept that other people have different paths, just as speakers of English, Turkish, Tamil, or Mandarin accept that other people speak different languages. They do not believe that other languages are false. The existence of different religions does not refute religion in general, any more than the existence of different languages refutes language in general.

You rightly point out that religions serve important social functions, including cooperation between members of a community. But this does not prove that they are nothing but human inventions. Religions have arisen not through philosophical arguments or priestly deceptions, but because many people experience a consciousness greater than their own.

Moreover, the fact that some features of religion are found in many different cultures does not mean, as you suggest, that “we can presume that there is a genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures.” In his book, Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Daniel Dennett proposed a similar and more detailed hypothesis. He proposed that when people in ancient cultures were sick and went to see shamans for a cure, the most credulous would have had the biggest placebo effect and therefore would have tended to survive more. Hence, natural selection would favor genes for credulity and they would be passed on to subsequent generations, increasing the frequency of credulity genes in the population, thus promoting religious belief. But all this is evidence-free speculation. No credulity genes have been found.

Finally, we disagree about gods and God. I think you wrongly conflate them. In polytheistic societies, gods have specific roles, like the god or goddess of the sun, the god or goddess of the sea, and so on. No one imagines that any one of these gods or goddesses or spirits is the ultimate supreme reality, precisely because there are many of them. I agree with you that they are personifications or cultural interpretations of different powers of nature, or of archetypal patterns of experience. But there is a difference between the multiple powers represented by gods, goddesses, spirits, or angels, and the unified source of all things. Even in the most polytheistic of contemporary religions, Hinduism, many Hindus agree that there is a unified source, a supreme conscious reality, one Indian name for which is satchitananda, being-consciousness-bliss.

The unified source and sustainer of all things is not just “one god further,” but is more fundamental than the many gods and spirits recognized in different religious traditions. Energy provides a scientific parallel. There are many kinds of energy in the universe: the energy in fire, in glucose molecules, in light, in falling rocks, in lithium batteries, in flashes of lightning, and so on. They are all derived from the fundamental energy of the universe, which can take many forms, including the dark energy that propels the expansion of the universe and the evolution of the cosmos. From a religious point of view, this universal energy is a manifestation of divine power. In the Christian tradition, it comes from and is sustained by the power of God. In the Indian tradition, it is called shakti.

Materialists share with religious people a belief in a unity underlying all the phenomena of nature. The difference is that religious people believe this ultimate unity is conscious; atheists believe it is unconscious.


Note to Sheldrake’s Response

1. Nick Spencer, Atheists: The Origin of the Species. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014; Chap. 4.


Shermer Reply

Dear Rupert,

In my final epistle I would like to pull back and consider the bigger picture across both space and time. We are in the middle of the 2,015th year of the Common Era, a sliver of time that amounts to a mere one-150,000th of the lifespan of our species, one-10,000th of the epoch of our civilization, one-500th of the Age of Science, and one-100th of the Age of Einstein, who discovered that space and time are indivisible. To think that you or I or any of the other seven billion people alive today, or anyone among the 100 billion people who lived before us, has (or had) enough knowledge to know where the universe came from, how life began, the nature of consciousness, the existence of God, the afterlife, and the soul, or what the future holds for humanity, would be hubris enough to make a Greek god blush.

Presuming that our species does not go extinct anytime soon through weapons of mass destruction, global climate change, overpopulation, pandemics, a nanotech grey-goo plague, an evil AI or ET, a super–volcano eruption, or a rogue meteor strike on the order of the stone that killed the dinosaurs, we can project ourselves into the future by an amount comparable to these past milestones and imagine what people will know about these great mysteries a century from now in the year 2115, or in half a millennium in the year 2515, in ten thousands years in 12015, or 150,000 years from now in the year 152015. Unimaginable. Literally. Given the current accelerating rate of change in which the world has transformed more in the past century than it did in the previous 10 centuries, and will change in the 21st century more than it did in the previous 100 centuries, it is impossible to know what people “in the year 2525” will know (to quote a once-popular song), much less our descendents in the year 9595—the exordium et terminus of this civilizational journey.

A brief survey of the history of science alone should humble us into acknowledging that the answers to these existential questions may not be forthcoming anytime soon, and that our current best theories—as well supported as some of them are—may one day go the way of Aristotelian physics, Ptolemaic astronomy, the flat-earth theory, the hollow-earth theory, the expanding-earth theory, phlogiston theory, the miasma theory of disease, the four bodily humors theory of medicine, phrenology, preformationism, creationism, alchemy, astrology, the luminiferous aether, the Rutherford model of the atom, the steady-state theory of the cosmos, and vitalism. Among the many good reasons to want to live a long and healthy life, or even be cryonically frozen and brought back to life centuries from now, would be to find out what we were wrong about in the 20th and 21st centuries. As we look back on these erroneous scientific theories from centuries past with disdainful dismissal, what will scientists in the 26th—or the 260th—century think about our current models of the cosmos, life, and consciousness? Will they look down upon us as we do medieval physicians who believed that the four bodily humors (black bile, phlegm, blood, and yellow bile) were linked to the four elements of nature (earth, water, air, and fire) that caused the four personality temperaments (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric), all of which were linked to the zodiacal signs in the heavens?

That said, when I am ill I opt for the best medicine available in 2015, not 1515, because we really have learned something about the human body over the past half millennium. The same assumption of cumulative progress in science applies to cosmology, physics, biology, and psychology—our current models really are better than our past models, and the fact that some of these theories were wrong does not mean all current ones are mistaken (and thus every alternative theory must be taken seriously). Your alternative theories about the human mind and consciousness may in centuries hence turn out to be right, but the odds are long against it.

Still, as I document in The Moral Arc, one of the greatest discoveries of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment is that free expression and the open marketplace of ideas where everyone is welcome to proffer their beliefs without state censorship has been one of the driving forces behind both scientific and human progress. I’m skeptical of your theories, Rupert, but I defend your right to publish and present them in public forums such as this, where they can be exposed to the bright light of science—the most important invention ever made in the history of our species.


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