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Response To Positive Atheism's
December, 1999, Column
'Atheism & Fundamentalism'
Michael Shermer

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We sent an early draft of our December column ("Atheism & Fundamentalism") to several people, including Michael Shermer, whose discussion of the meaning of the word atheist is mentioned therein. On November 14, 1999, He submitted the following response:

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As I try to make clear in my book, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, the word atheist no longer means what George Smith describes as "a-theist," or "without theism." As I discuss in Chapter 1 and the Bibliographic essay, the word atheist has come to be associated with a number of pejorative meanings, most commonly someone who is immoral, possibly a communist (though this is changing now that the "evil empire" is gone), and a social degenerate.

We must always remember that dictionaries do not give the meaning of a word, they give the usage of a word, and usages change. This is why one of the most valuable books ever published is the Oxford English Dictionary because it gives the history of a word, not its "true" meaning, which does not exist. I would not, for example, call myself a "feminist," because that word has been so mangled and adopted so many permutations and pejorative associations (e.g., Rush Limbaugh's portrayal of feminists as either "feminazis" or harry-legged intellectuals taking over college campuses in their sandals). The word atheist, a perfectly good word, has been ruined, mostly by theists, but occasionally by atheists who can best be described as militant or, fundamentalist. I wrote the following clarification after my book was published, to clear up some confusion.

Nontheist is a much better word because it is neutral, so I use that when I have to, but mostly I avoid labels altogether. It is best to just say "I do not believe in God."

Reconsiderations and Recapitulations
Since the October 1999 Publication of How We Believe

I have had a number of heated discussions with my fellow skeptics, some of whom still do not accept my claim that God is insoluble or, especially, my conciliatory attitude toward religion. One wrote me: "Religion is a bad idea. Belief in god is a bad idea. These ideas should be self-evident to any rationalist. That religion/belief is common is not a reason to avoid such statements. That religion/belief will perhaps always be with us is not a reason. That religion/belief is old is not a reason. That religion/belief may at times do some good is not a reason. None of these statements are reasons to avoid clearly stating the truth. Anything less is duplicitous, disingenuous, appeasing -- and ultimately, helps the other side by providing approval where disapproval should instead be offered." Another spelled it out even clearer: "I won't let anyone who believes in god in my home. I won't sleep with them and I have none in my social circle. But I can do more."

Such truculence and pugnacity aside, I have given the subject reconsideration, and even changed some of the "offending" passages (to some) in the first chapter of How We Believe. Perhaps the following four points will help further clarify (and recapitulate) the debate:

1. God and Epistemology. By making the argument that there is no evidence for God's existence, atheists are keeping the concept of God in the epistemological arena of the empirical sciences, as if they are open to the possibility that one day they could be persuaded that there is a God, if the evidence was presented and they were convinced by that evidence. My problem with this position is that if God was created by humans and not vice versa (as I argue at length in my book), then God is not in the epistemological realm as a testable, empirical question (although one can, as I do, present evolutionary and historical evidence that God is a product of human evolution and history). There is no possible experiment you can run, or set of arguments you can present, that would allow the majority of observers to reach a conclusion that, yes, there is a God, or no, there is not a God. By keeping God in the realm of the empirical sciences we weaken the position of skepticism and the humanist philosophy of living life without a belief in God, by implying that we could be convinced otherwise, a disingenuous position for most of us to adopt.

2. God and Karl Popper. If God is a soluble problem, then it is reasonable to ask: what evidence would we accept for God's existence? That is, in Popperian language, what criteria for falsifiability could we establish to determine God's existence or nonexistence? Believers' claim that "there is overwhelming evidence," or atheists' claim that "there is no evidence," is not a test. If we want to make this a scientific question that can be decided by empirical evidence, the burden of proof is on both believers and nonbelievers to establish operational definitions and quantifiable criteria by which we can arrive at a testable conclusion. What is the operational definition of God and what quantifiable criteria should we use to accept or reject the null hypothesis of God's nonexistence?

3. God and Aliens. When communicating with believers in UFOs and aliens, it seems to me, we are better off talking about what is the cause of their belief and how it is reinforced, as opposed to simply saying "there is no evidence for aliens." Likewise God. By helping believers understand how they come to their beliefs, how religion is a product of long term and deeply ingrained evolutionary and historical forces, how the concept of God is generated by a brain designed by evolution to find design in nature (a very recursive idea), they can draw the conclusion themselves, although it may take them some time. Just telling someone "there is no God" is about as useful an exercise as telling alien abductees "there are no aliens." The point is made in the very process of explaining to them why their beliefs in aliens and God come from within and not from without.

4. God's Actions as Testable Hypotheses. Having said all this, I will concede that the "insoluble God" I speak of can only be a God who does not act on the world, a God with no divine providence, a God who created the universe (or whatever it is He did) then stepped back and did nothing more. A God who acts on the world, however, allows us to ask what it is He did, how He did it, and if what it is that is being claimed for God's providence might be better explained through natural phenomena. Was the Shroud of Turin, for example, the burial cloth of Jesus, as believers claim in offering this holy relic as evidence for God's existence (or at least for the veracity of the resurrection story)? Carbon-14 dating says no. The Shroud, whatever it is, is no older than the fourteenth century. The Shroud as evidence of God's divine providence is a testable hypothesis. It has been tested. It failed the test.

Believers claim that intercessory prayer can effect healing. That is, subjects do not know they are being prayer for and recover (or not) from illness or disease faster than those who are not the recipient of prayer. To date the handful of studies that have found positive results have been deeply flawed, such as not controlling for age, socioeconomic class, or condition of health before entering the hospital. More troubling is the impossibility of controlling for subjects in the control group receiving prayer. How could this possibly be controlled, since these are real patients with real families who care deeply for them? The experimenter cannot go to the families of his subjects and explain "now look, your guy is in the control group of this important study on prayer and healing, so please do not pray for him." Such experimental controls would likely be met with derision and outright rejection. Prayer as a form of meditation or acknowledgment (celebratory prayer) can certainly effect one's disposition and therefore well-being, as the knowledge that people are praying for you might instill a feeling of confidence and good will. But strictly controlled prayer studies, as a testable hypothesis of God's divine intervention in our health, has failed the test.

Michael Shermer
Publisher, Skeptic magazine
Director, Skeptics Society

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Michael Shermer has kindly granted us permission to reprint excerpts from his new book, Why We Believe. Two studies went into making this book, and we were quite astonished by some of the results of those studies. Michael was likewise impressed by those results. The implications could (and should) seriously impact how organized atheists approach activism. We will feature this prominently in next month's issue.

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