From: Skeptic Mag Hotline
Date: Mon, 16 Nov 1998 15:53:31 -0800

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Michael Shermer

Last night I debated Dr. Doug Geivett, Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, on "Does God Exist? Where Does the Evidence Point?" It was held at the Church of the Rocky Peak in Chatsworth, CA, in the northwestern end of the San Fernando Valley. It was a giant, modern church built that holds 1500 people. Every seat was taken and students were sitting on the floor in droves in front of the dais. The minister of the church, Dr. David Miller, was extremely accommodating, as were his staff (they were running circles around me asking if I needed water, etc.), to the point where I got the impression that he sat them down before and told them "now you be nice to Shermer since he is going to be outnumbered here." And boy was I. He asked for a show of hands of those who came specifically to support me. About 50-100 of the 1500+ hands went up. So, those of you who came, thank you.

Let me cut to the core: I won the debate! How do I know (given that every debater who ever debated anyone thought he won)? Because that is what the minister told a group of about 20-30 people surrounding him after. My mother- in-law was one of them! He said "Shermer won the debate hands down." Actually, frankly, I expected it to be harder. "Their" side really doesn't have that much to offer in the way of "proof."

When we were introduced my standard bio was read, as was Geivett's, but the moderator added a little ditty about how Geivett has "a wife and two beautiful children," to which I blurted out into the microphone at my table: "I've got a wife too!" This got a bunch of laughs. Unfortunately, I found out at the start of the debate that the moderator was a colleague of Geivett, which he even proudly announced to the audience! I couldn't believe it. Yet, he was very fair with the exception of the "wife" remark, which I deflected, and another later when he made a wisecrack about something I said, that got a lot of laughs at my expense. That was inappropriate.

We each got 20 minutes, then 12 minutes, then 8 minutes, then 5 minutes. Geivett went first and burned through the standard arguments: Big Bang cosmology sounds like Genesis 1, the anthropic cosmological principle and the fine-tuned nature of the universe implies a creator, life had to be designed cause it looks like it is, humans are moral and morality could only come from God because if it didn't then no one would be moral, and history proves that Jesus was resurrected. That's it! He added that this is an either-or choice: Either God exists or he doesn't. Either the universe was created or it wasn't. Either life was designed or it wasn't. Either morality is natural or it isn't. Either Jesus was resurrected, or he wasn't.

I opened my 20-minute segment by explaining that there are only two types of theories: those that divide the world into two type of theories, and those that don't. This got a delayed, but good laugh. I spent my 20 minutes talking personally to the audience, telling them how I found Jesus when I was 17, studied the Bible, went to Pepperdine University to study theology, but then discovered science, started thinking for myself, and yada, yada, yada now I don't believe in God. I then provided proof--not for God's nonexistence (since no such proof is possible)--but for the obvious fact that religion and belief in God is a human construction. I covered Bouchard's twin studies showing a roughly 50% heritability of religiosity, Persinger's research in replicating spiritual experiences in the laboratory (with electromagnetic fields), Ramachandran's research with temporal lobe epilepsy-triggered religious experiences, NDE's being replicated in the laboratory (all to show that religiosity and religious experiences are at least, in part, a function of our genes and biology); then I showed all the different flood myths that predated the Noachian flood (comparative mythology), then the recurring Messiah myth, going backwards from Farrakhan's belief that the mother ship in orbit is going to topple the white government and put the black man in power, then Wovoka's ghost dance that the messiah would come to rescue the Dakota Sioux and the Buffalo would return and the whites would be destroyed, and finally Jesus, and how the eternal-return of the Messiah is a common theme amongst oppressed peoples, including African-Americans in the 1990s, Native-Americans in the 1890s, and Jews in the first century.

This must have thrown Geivett off, because in his 12-minute segment he repeated his arguments from the first segment, pointed out that I did not refute them, then sat down after only eight minutes!--a big mistake in debate to give up time. In my 12-minute segment I opened by apologizing that I forgot to explain to the audience that I would debunk Geivett's proofs in the 12-minute segment, because it only takes 12 minutes to do it! That got a pretty good laugh. I then pointed out that I DID provide evidence--evidence that humans created God. Then I hammered away at the cosmological, anthropic, and design arguments, knocking down my ducks one at a time. I then closed by quoting Jesus: "O ye of little faith." Then said that these "proofs" of God are not only an insult to science, they are an insult to God. That seemed to leave a lot of mouths hanging open.

In Geivett's 8-minute segment he did me a big favor by spending the first 4 minutes reading from the masthead page of Skeptic magazine, on what it means to be a Skeptic. His point was that my telling the audience that I thought the whole point of religion and belief in God was "faith," was an endorsement by me that believing things only on faith is acceptable. Then, amazingly, he spent the remaining 4 minutes once again claiming that I had not refuted his proofs of God, and that EITHER God exists or he doesn't, EITHER . . . and so on. Then he ran over his time limit--in the middle of talking about Stephen Hawking's theories about time, the moderator yelled "Time." This was such a great conjunction that I made a little joke about Hawking's book being entitled "A BRIEF History of Time," but I think only a few people got it.

In my 8-minute segment I ran through my arguments for the evolution of morality (evolutionary ethics) going from the selfish gene/inclusive fitness arguments to recipricol altruism, and how religion probably evolved, in part, as the social structure that enforced the rules of cooperation; as well as serving as a means of demonstrating your commitment to the group, pointing out that the Old Testament is based on an in-group morality, where you are to "Love Thy Neighbor" as long as it is your immediate in-group neighbor, but that it is perfectly okay to rape, pillage, and destroy those bastards on the other side of the river. That got some shocked looks, so I told them (these were mostly evangelical xtians) that it might be a good idea if they read the Old Testment after the first couple of chapters of Genesis. I then closed by noting when someone says "you can't be religious without God," that they should speak for themselves.

In the final 5-minute segment Geivett reiterated that God exists, Jesus died for us, and that God gives us great comfort in times of grief, and then related a story about how his wife got cancer and they were greatly consoled by their belief in God. In my 5-minute segment I read the closing passage from a chapter in my God book, entitled "Gould's Dangerous Idea," about how the universe is an undesigned, contingent place. I have reprinted it at the end.

For me the most interesting part of debates is the Q & A because then you get to hear what some of the audience is thinking. Again and again the question of morality came up. I was asked that, since I don't believe in God, if I think it was perfectly acceptable what Hitler did to the Jews. Incredible! That really is one of their favorite arguments. But I deflated the morality "proof" once and for all with a no-win question I posed first to the individual, then to Geivett, then to the whole audience: IF THERE IS NO GOD, WHAT WOULD YOU DO MORALLY? WOULD YOU KILL ME?

The first guy said that if he found out there is not God, he was not sure whether he would kill me or not. I said, "Well, that tells us a lot about the depth of your character. Stay far, far away from me." Geivett said that was an unfair question, but that he too was not sure if he could be moral without God. I repeated my admonition that one would be well advised to steer clear of people who have so little character that, without the threat of eternal punishment they have no self control." I then addressed the entire audience, and said: "if you cannot be moral without God, doesn't that imply that, in reality, you are not a moral person at all? That you have no courage, no conscious, and no character? And if you would be moral without God, doesn't that refute the argument that you cannot be moral without God? Think about this. Who would you rather marry? A person who says "I will not cheat on you because it is a sin and I don't want to go to hell," or someone who says "I will not cheat on you because I love you, I respect you, I promised that I would not do so, and I have the courage and character to live up to my promises." I think (I hope) the point was made.

In one of the answers Geivett gave to a question (including a real beaut when someone asked him what it meant that the Waffen SS soldiers had on their belt buckles "God is With Us." (Does anyone, by the way, have the correct German version of this?), he said that "we still do not know what Dr. Shermer thinks about the proofs of God." I responded, in a very strong, but controlled voice, "Look folks, Dr. Geivett keeps asking what Michael Shermer thinks. It doesn't matter what Michael Shermer thinks. YOU SHOULD THINK FOR YOURSELF!"

And that was the point of my participation in this debate--to get people to think for themselves.

One final humorous incident: after the debate there was a bunch of folks hanging around, and some guy launched into the creationist argument that sexual reproduction could not have evolved because you would need both a penis and a vagina at the same time but neither could have evolved without the other, bla, bla, bla, but he finished his question with this: "so how can a male and female come at the same time?" God delivered him into my hands (to quote Huxley from the 1861 Oxford evolution debate with Wilberforce). I said: "Well, I find foreplay and communication to be really useful."



Finding Meaning in a Pointless Universe

I am often asked by believers why I abandoned Christianity and how I found meaning in the meaningless universe presented by science. The implication is that the scientific worldview is an existentially depressing one. Without God, I am bluntly told, what's the point? If this is all there is, there is no use. To the contrary. For me, and for many of my colleagues, quite the opposite is true. The conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, I was free to live life to the fullest extent possible.

For me, and not just for me, a world absent monsters, ghosts, demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity and eternity knowing that no one is looking back. The universe takes on a whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained, that it was not designed for us, indeed, that it was not designed at all. If we are nothing more than star stuff, how special life becomes. How inspiring it is to share in the sublimity of knowledge generated by other human minds, and perhaps to even make a tiny contribution toward that body of knowledge that will be passed down through the ages, part of the cumulative wisdom of a single species on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star on the remote edge of a not-so-unusual galaxy, itself a member of a cluster of galaxies millions of light years from nowhere. For me, the Hubble Telescope Deep Field photograph WFPC2, revealing as never before the rich density of galaxies in our neck of the universe (and reprinted in countless magazines, including the cover of Skeptic, Vol. 4, No.2), is as grand a statement about the sacred as any medieval cathedral.

Skeptics and scientists cannot experience the numinous? Nonsense. You do not need a spiritual power to experience the spiritual. You do not need to be mystical to appreciate the mystery. When I stood in Chartres cathedral with my soul mate, lit candles, and promised each other our eternal love, it was a more sacred moment than any I ever experienced. My unencumbered soul was free to love without constraint, free to use my senses to enjoy all the pleasures and endure all the pains that come with such love. I was enfranchised for life, emancipated from the bonds of restricting tradition, and unyoked from the rules written for another time in another place for another people. I was now free to try to live up to that exalted moniker--Homo sapiens--wise man.

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