Michael Shermer’s 2015 book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, announces a messianic vision: humanity is naturally evolving into a superior version, one that will be more moral and less religious. He writes,
As a species, we are becoming increasingly moral…we are living in the most moral period in our species’ history…we evolved the capacity to actually be moral animals (3-4; 361).
One of Shermer’s main themes is that formal education and literacy may make people more moral (28-9).
In this review, the phrase “human progress” will refer to this idea: that humanity is evolving in linear time from the past to the future into a more moral, less religious, more atheistic form; that religion is a negative force and a relic of the ignorant past; and that a combination of natural forces and formal education are effecting this improvement in the human species.
Author Michael Shermer is founder of the 55,000-member Skeptics Society. He writes a monthly column for Scientific American and he holds a PhD in the history of science. He makes frequent media appearances representing capital-A Atheism.
The Moral Arc purports to be a take-down of religious belief in general, but it is in fact an assault on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Hinduism, Paganism and Islam are all but unmentioned. Shermer’s work grants a free pass to jihad, gender apartheid, mass female infanticide under Confucian values, and the Hindu caste system.
Shermer likes charts and numbers, but he might want to consult a world map reflective of sex ratios. Females are less likely to survive in Muslim, Hindu, and Confucian societies than in Judeo-Christian ones. By avoiding facts like these, Shermer avoids acknowledging that different religions affect humanity differently.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jared Diamond calls The Moral Arc “one of the best recent books I’ve read…It’s an honest, clear account of morality and justice.” Steven Pinker, Harvard’s Johnstone Professor of Psychology, calls The Moral Arc “thrilling.” Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins says,
There’s no better tool for the purpose [of telling right from wrong] than the style of moral philosophy that’s inspired by science, and Michael Shermer is a master of that.
The Moral Arc is 541 pages, with 85 pages of footnotes and bibliography. It has no underlying structure that takes the reader on a journey that begins on the first page and ends on the last. No developing narrative inspires the reader to keep turning pages. Each chapter significantly consists of a disjointed accretion of one summary of one scholarly study after another. There is, for instance, a rehash of the famous Milgram obedience experiment and then an account of the rise of Whole Foods Market. But no thread connects them.
In a jacket blurb, Arizona State University Foundation Professor Lawrence M. Krauss calls The Moral Arc a “thoroughly researched…work of scholarship.” Real scholarly publications require peer review. Experts in a given field review a text for its ability to meet the current demands of their particular discipline. Scholarly works are also written by trained members of a given discipline. Shermer’s PhD is in the history of science. It is not in the many fields he touches on in The Moral Arc.
Scholarship invites dialogue. Shermer’s scholarship, however, is a triumphalist, zero-sum game: Atheists win; believers lose. In the cover illustration by Felix Parra, Galileo instructs a dense and hostile appearing monk. This image alludes to what Harvard University Press, in a 2010 book title, refers to as a “myth” “about science and religion.” Atheists insist that the Catholic Church oppressed science and that Galileo’s autobiography is proof of that oppression. Historians know that this Atheist myth is not true, but the myth illustrates Shermer’s book jacket regardless of its having been debunked.
Shermer relies heavily on Steven Pinker’s 2014 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Indeed, Pinker calls Shermer’s book a sequel to his own. Better Angels makes the controversial claim that humanity has become less violent than it was in the past. Pinker’s claim has been met with serious criticism, including in Scientific American, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
To believe Shermer’s book, you have to accept his premise that there is an unbreachable wall between science and religion. Shermer praises Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes, all Christians, as if they represent a science that emerged in a distant galaxy where no Christianity exists.
Shermer also rages against the Torah. Over twenty percent of all Nobel Prize winners have been Jews, though Jews make up less than 0.2% of the world population. Shermer insists that the European Enlightenment saved mankind from the religious “Dark Ages.” The science that Shermer celebrates was produced by cultures firmly rooted in or influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Shermer proposes that always and everywhere natural processes evolve the human species into a better, more scientific, atheistic form. And yet those processes have not produced any heroes for Shermer to hold up from three thousand years of pre-Christian Egypt, Hindu India, Confucian China or pre-Columbian America. No. Only cultures influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and its Scientific Revolution produced the scientists Shermer holds up as heroes.
Chemist Charles B. Thaxton, author Nancy Pearcey, physicist Scott Locklin, sociologist Rodney Stark and others have argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided unique soil for the Scientific Revolution to take place. Shermer does not address this idea. He writes as if science arose fully formed out of the sea, like the mythical Venus.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is not separate from reason in the way Shermer wants it to be. Jesus famously said, “Judge a tree by its fruits.” Peter advised believers always to be ready to give answer. Catholics invented universities. Catholics from Aquinas to Benedict XVI (in his 2006 Regensburg lecture) have famously detailed how and why reason is the partner of faith. Catholic clerics gave us everything from Occam’s razor to the heliocentric universe to the Big Bang to genetics. Scholars cite Jewish emphasis on literacy and Talmudic study when seeking reasons why Jews score so high on intelligence tests. Shermer’s insistence on a complete separation between Jewish and Christian faith and reason is inaccurate.
Shermer’s concept of human progress is not new. Human progress has a controversial intellectual history and a catastrophic history of application. But Shermer does not mention this fact. That lack of mention of the previous incarnations of his main idea is an intellectual and moral lapse. If you are recommending an idea that has been used to support genocide, you must show why your reiteration of the idea is immune to its previous failings.
The concept of human progress through linear time, from the rejection of religion to increasing science and atheism, goes back at least to the nineteenth century French philosopher Auguste Comte. The human progress idea flourished in the work of Karl Marx and Edward Burnett Tylor, dubbed the Father of Anthropology.
Previous incarnations of the idea of human progress, perhaps unavoidably, involved elitism and contempt. More evolved humans, Atheists with greater formal education, looked down on less evolved humans, “primitive” “savages” and “peasants” who practiced religion. This was certainly the case with human progress as outlined by Edward Burnett Tylor and those he influenced, including Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, and Sigmund Freud. It was the case with Karl Pearson and Carl Brigham, scientists who gave us statistics and SAT IQ testing, respectively. These are fields Shermer mentions repeatedly. Surely he is aware of this tainted history.
Shermer describes medieval Europeans and modern Third World residents with mockery, impatience, and sensationalism (e.g. 103-6). He reports that humans in primitive places like Medieval Europe, and modern day Nepal and Africa, uncritically believe in witchcraft. Past believers in the human progress concept similarly lumped all “primitive” people together. Africans, Asians, Native Americans, cultures thousands of miles and thousands of years apart, are all significantly identical to human progress thinkers. In Sherman’s world, primitive people are all not like us. They are all inferior. They are unevolved. They believe in magic and religion. They need more advanced people, us, to drag them into atheism and science. It’s for their own good.
In his classic work, The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer argued that the “intellectual progress” “the growth of science” and the “spread of liberal views” among religious “savages” and “primitives” justified conquest, empire, and slavery.
Madison Grant, an American conservationist who helped save the redwood and the bison and co-founded the Bronx Zoo and Glacier and Denali National Parks, took a more direct approach to human progress. Grant argued that Christian morality, with its insistence on an immortal soul created in the image of God, blinded humans to the scientific truths of Darwinism. Some humans are superior and evolved; others are inferior and less evolved. Grant worked to prove this by exhibiting a human being in the Bronx Zoo. Ota Benga was meant to be a low, less evolved human comparable to an ape, and suitable for zoo display. Christian clergy complained. The New York Times defended Grant’s decision, saying that the display of a human being in a zoo edified the public in the facts of evolution. Grant went further. He recommended that “unfit” un-evolved humans be “eliminated.” In a fan letter, Hitler declared Grant’s book Passing of the Great Race to be his “bible.”
No, Michael Shermer is not Madison Grant. The problem is that Shermer never so much as mentions the previous history of the human progress idea. He never explains how his iteration of human progress will avoid its past catastrophic applications.
There’s another problem with Shermer’s contemptuous lumping together of all traditional people so un-evolved that they still believe in magic and religion. Shermer is an armchair scholar. So were Tylor, Frazer, and Freud. Armchair scholars don’t live in the cultures they comment on. They merely read accounts written by others. In anthropology, the concept of human progress as supported by armchair scholarship was supplanted in the last century. Franz Boas introduced cultural relativism that inspired respect for traditional cultures. Bronislaw Malinowski’s participant observation demanded that conclusions about cultural forms arise from life in that culture.
If you are going to talk about magic beliefs in Nepal, you move to Nepal, learn to speak Nepali, and understand those magic beliefs in context. If you are going to talk about the witch craze in Europe, you need to do enough reading to know that it didn’t occur during the Middle Ages, as Shermer repeatedly and mistakenly says, but during the Early Modern and Enlightenment periods. Once you do this, you will come to realize that Nepalis are not less evolved than modern Americans, and their belief in magic serves complex community needs.
Shermer does not exercise the respect of Boas’ cultural relativism or the intimate knowledge acquired through Malinowski’s participant observation. He practices an obsolete, contemptuous form of anthropological commentary. He occupies his armchair, reading accounts of distant primitives behaving in a way he finds distasteful. Like Tylor, Frazer, and Freud, he prescribes his worldview: un-evolved religion is the monocausal problem; human progress, in the form of science and atheism, is the universal solution.
Shermer says that morality improves as “prescientific” peasants, who “manipulate plows and cows” become “postscientific” white collar workers who “manipulate words, numbers, and symbols” and “view the world through scientific spectacles.” “Intelligent but uneducated” persons of an older generation carry “typical prejudice.” Now, “Each generation is producing not only better abstract reasoners, but better moral reasoners as well.” Shermer demonstrates his view of human progress through the work of psychologist Alexander Luria. Luria studied Russian peasants. In Shermer’s quote from Luria’s work, peasants are depicted as comically ignorant, the kind of people Shermer previously assessed as handicapped in making moral distinctions (22-24).
My parents were Slavic peasants. In this country, they and other immigrants were dismissed as ignorant beasts by human progress thinkers like Carl Brigham and Madison Grant. My parents’ rough clothing, manual labor, and awkwardness in America’s foreign culture certainly might convince a shallow person that they were ignorant beasts. My mother, who like many immigrant women, cleaned houses for a living, was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Smarter, even, than Michael Shermer.
Shermer wants to show that people are evolving for the better. Alexander Luria, the scientist he cites above, was trying to prove just that. Luria was commissioned by the Soviet Union to show how Soviet education improved primitive peasantry. A biographer reports that Luria’s job was to prove the value of “state sponsored evolutionism.”
Civilizing the masses of pre-modern sorts who made up the majority of the population after the revolution – and doing so quickly and permanently – was a task upon which the success of the entire revolution depended.
The goal was “to usher the entire population through the Marxist timeline of historical development” to prepare humanity to “merge together under communism.” Peasants needed to be “transformed into productive moderns” (Ephron 40-1). The Marxist human progress agenda behind Luria’s research must be considered when assessing his work.
Shermer insists that the regimes inspired by the same human progress idea he is espousing are alien to his ideas (137). These human-progress-inspired regimes include Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, Revolutionary France, and Maoist China.
The French Revolution’s reign of terror, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot all held these ideas: humanity is evolving for the better. Religion retards progress. The future is better than the past. There is no God and no soul, and therefore no absolute foundation for morality. The sooner we can get to the improved future the less human suffering there will be. Mass killing of less evolved humans who adhere to destructive ideas like religion is an ethical good. One excellent book that irrefutably documents this process in Nazi thought, Richard Weikart’s Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, should be in Shermer’s bibliography. It is not.
Shermer quotes SS chief Heinrich Himmler (308), but he misses some of Himmler’s more telling quotes:
We will have to deal with Christianity in a tougher way than hitherto. We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict… We shall once again have to find a new scale of values for our people: the scale of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the starry sky above us and the world in us, the world that we see in the microscope.
Contrary to the Judeo-Christian idea of the human soul,
Man is nothing special at all…He has no idea how a fly is constructed – however unpleasant, it is a miracle – or how a blossom is constructed. He must once again look with deep reverence into this world. Then he will acquire the right sense of proportion about what is above us, about how we are woven into this cycle…We, Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude towards animals, will also assume a decent attitude towards these human animals.
Nazis, like others mentioned here who espouse human progress, wanted to eliminate the Judeo-Christian tradition, sometimes by mass murdering Jews and Christians themselves, and replacing the purged people and ideas with a value system rooted in biological nature.
Shermer says that these murderous regimes were different from his value system because they were not scientific (137). Nonsense. He says the Soviet Union did not practice real science. But he himself cited a Soviet scientist, Alexander Luria, to prove his own point that formal education makes people smarter and better.
Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg was one of the many world-class scientists active in Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany produced genuine scientific research so valuable that over 1500 scientists’ Nazi pasts were expunged and forgiven through the United States’ Office of Strategic Services’ post-war Operation Paperclip. One Nazi scientist, Werner von Braun, dubbed “the greatest rocket scientist in history,” went on to NASA superstardom. Nazi research on the impact of cold temperatures on human beings was so valuable that post-war scientists struggled to access and use it, even though the research was performed on Auschwitz and Dachau inmates, often killed, in horrifically cruel ways, in the course of experimentation.
Revolutionary France was no less scientific. It replaced Catholicism with Reason. One of Shermer’s heroes, atheist Denis Diderot, pioneer of the encyclopedia – a great leap forward in learning (206) — famously said that mankind will never be free till the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest – a great leap forward in the eloquence of genocidal hatred.
Shermer quotes, with approval, alleged atheist David Hume’s recommendation that books of divinity or metaphysics be burned (125). Voltaire was one of Shermer’s French Enlightenment heroes (7, 46, 104, 205). Shermer quotes Voltaire as saying, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (7). He describes Voltaire as understanding, through reason, why slavery is bad, though a Jesuit priest seems not to understand that (204-5).
Shermer does not mention, and may not know, that Voltaire himself applauded atrocities – as long as they were atrocities committed against the devoutly Catholic, “backward and primitive” Poles. “It is pleasant to destroy the people and to sing of them,” Voltaire wrote of the destruction of Poland. It is impossible to draw a line between the Enlightenment’s love of reason and the Revolution’s love of death – its willingness to guillotine Carmelite nuns, its eagerness to demolish the magnificent Chartres Cathedral. This atheist demolition of one of the humanity’s greatest artistic achievements was prevented only when the would-be, God-free purifiers of the corrupt, old regime realized it would take years to cart away all the rubble of the destroyed cathedral.
The author of The Moral Arc says that the states he attempts to distance from his own atheism did not believe in the Enlightenment ideal of the equality of people and races (137). Tell that to Nobel Laureate and atheist James Watson, who unapologetically states that scientific testing proves that blacks are less intelligent that other races.
Michael Shermer is not strangling priests or exhibiting black men in zoos. But his intellectual forbears did, no less than my religious forebears burned witches. Christians, true to the ritual of confession, have examined themselves, confessed their failings, and worked for the righting of wrongs. Shermer’s proposal for an atheist ethic will never be anything but terminally flawed until he and other atheists and believers in human progress acknowledge the crimes of the past and propose how new applications of their ideas will not repeat those crimes.
Shermer cites the European witch craze as evidence that religion is bad and science is good, and that humans are naturally evolving into a superior form. Religion is the monocausal source of the witch craze. Science is the sufficient and necessary solution.
Almost everything that Shermer says about the witch craze is wrong, and it is refuted by scholarship that Shermer does not cite. For instance, recent scholarship has overturned previous assessments of the witch craze. Influential books include Lyndal Roper’s “Witch Craze,” Robin Briggs’ “Witches and Neighbors” and Brian Levack’s “The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe.” Shermer does not cite these books or their ideas, except for one quote from Levack on numbers of victims. Shermer misspells Levack’s name (512).
The witch craze was not, as Shermer wants it to be, medieval. It was not, as Shermer wants it to be, caused by the pope, by the Dominican priest Heinrich Kramer, or by one line from the Torah, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” The witch craze was not ended by any inevitable march of science.
Shermer repeatedly uses the words “medieval” and “Middle Ages” to talk about the witch craze (e.g. 6); in fact the witch craze was a product of Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe. Shermer placing the witch craze in the medieval period matters for a couple of reasons. Anti-Catholic polemicists have long used “Dark Ages,” “Medieval” or “Middle Ages” as misnomers for an alleged period of Catholic-imposed ignorance and suffering. The Enlightenment, an era named by its own enlightened ones, was meant to be the antidote to the Dark Ages. Historiographers have refuted this combination of slur and marketing, but it lives on. Thus, revisionists have it that Catholics burned witches during the Middle Ages and scientists stopped the burning in the Enlightenment. This is not true. In the so-called “Dark Ages,” the Catholic Church repeatedly rejected and condemned belief in witchcraft. Contrary to Shermer’s model, things did not go from bad to good with the advance of knowledge; things went from good to bad.
Modern scholarship suggests that stresses, including societal breakdown in the wake of the Reformation and the Little Ice Age, exacerbated existing social tensions. Neighbor turned against neighbor; the spiteful, vengeful and paranoid against the vulnerable and isolated. In some cases, Catholic priests, indeed the Inquisition itself, intervened to stop witch crazes. See for example the career of the Catholic priest and Spanish Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias, who was known as the “Witches’ Advocate” (Henningsen).
Shermer diagnoses a monocausal explanation for the witch craze: religion. Brian Levack, witch craze scholar, specifically rejects monocausal explanations, insisting that conditions in a given time and place must be cited (Levack 2006). Levack specifically rejects the notion that Shermer advances that any given pope or all popes were responsible for the witch craze, describing popes as typified by “skepticism” and “restraint” (Levack 2009).
That the witch craze was a response to societal stresses and not solely a problem of religiosity or lack of evolution is evidenced in Poland. Catholic Poland was known as a “state without stakes.” People were free to practice their religion without fear of persecution. During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the witch craze suddenly flared in Poland. Why did conditions go from good to bad? Because Poland was attacked by Swedes, Ukrainians, and Turks, then menaced by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Social breakdown lead to social violence.
Violence breaks out in response to social chaos and concomitant urges to purge society of imagined evils. Is this process restricted to religious societies, as Shermer would have us believe? Is the cure to eliminate religion? No. Recent scholarly estimates of the total number of victims of the entire witch craze, from 1450-1750, range between forty and seventy thousand. That Enlightenment project, the French Revolution, managed to massacre over forty thousand people during one year. Yes, that’s correct. Enlightened, educated, science-hugging, Reason-worshipping, anti-religious, atheists newly freed from the shackles of religion managed to kill, in a metaphorical witch hunt, as many people in one year as bad, old, primitive religious believers managed to kill in their literal witch hunts that lasted for hundreds of years. Stalin’s 1937-38 purges killed one thousand people a day.
Shermer insists that one foundation of moral action is “the principle of interchangeable perspectives” (19). “Any preference for my group’s interests over yours must be justified by some unbiased, disinterested ethic.” When voicing this principle, Shermer gets in a dig at conservative radio talk show host Michael Medved. Shermer causes his “European friends” to “roll their eyes” at Medved’s love of God and country (19).
Shermer himself, though, violates his own principle never so much as in his discussion of Judaism and Christianity.
The 1940 film “Jud Suss” was probably the single most successful piece of Nazi propaganda. It was shown to Nazi soldiers before anti-Jewish aktions. Shortly after he is seen worshiping in a richly detailed synagogue scene, the Jewish main character says, “We Jews have a God. An avenging God. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.” With that justification, the Jew rapes an Aryan woman. That Jews worship a vicious, irrational, Old Testament God, that Jews follow an ethical system that encourages them to consider only their own needs and to treat non-Jews as subhuman, are perennial themes of anti-Semitic material.
No, Michael Shermer is not an anti-Semite, and he has no anti-Semitic agenda. Of that I am certain. The problem is that anti-Semites could happily quote his material. He describes the Torah as a vicious, destructive, irrational text without redeeming value (159). I described Shermer’s take on the Torah to Arthur Green, the Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Religion and Philosophy and Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. I must emphasize that Green’s response, which he permits me to quote here, is a response to my summary of Shermer on the Torah, not Green’s reaction to having read The Moral Arc himself. Green wrote,
The Hebrew Bible was written about 2500 years ago. The Jewish approach to that text is one of reverence but constant reinterpretation. Already in the second century of the Common Era there were rabbis saying that the most basic rule of Torah is that we treat every human being as the living image of God. Love of God and awe before the wonders of His creation are the basis of Judaism. To “accuse” us on the basis of Biblical texts that have long since been reread is as distorting as accusing Jews of deicide, a charge from which we suffered over a great many centuries. Now that most Christians have reformed their views of Judaism, we do not need atheists to take up the ancient anti-Semitic banner.
Shermer says that nowhere does the Bible state that human beings are equal (165). In fact there is a significant trend of universalism in Jewish ethics. Abraham is the first historical Jew. When God calls Abraham, he promises that “all nations will be blessed through you.” Not just Jews will be blessed. All nations will be blessed. Shermer bemoans Jewish ethics’ lack of concern for non-Israeli, outsider Moabites (151). He does not mention that one of the most famous books in the Bible, Ruth, is dedicated to a Moabite, who became ancestress of David and Jesus. He does not mention the Talmudic interpretation of the creation of Adam and Eve. Why did God create only one Adam, the Talmud asks. God created only one Adam to teach us that to destroy one person is to kill the whole world. To teach us that we all descend from one man, and none of us is any better than any other.
Shermer counsels that one take the perspective of the other. He claims that he champions women oppressed by the Bible (155). He says that, as an ethical person, he is worried about prejudice. Christians are said to be the one group on earth right now most likely to be persecuted, including unto death, because of their religious beliefs. In our own country, scientists have denied Christians university jobs on the basis of their religious beliefs. By misrepresenting my scripture and my mind, Shermer is oppressing me, a Christian woman. He could have easily shot an email to a real, live Christian or Jew. Evidence of hearing our perspective is nowhere to be found in his attack on our faiths. Shermer insists that Judaism is misogynist. Where are Jewish feminists like Rachel Adler, Daniel Boyarin, Judith Plaskow, or Elyse Goldstein in Shermer’s lengthy bibliography? The names are not there. The perspectives are not there.
Shermer insists that Christians who support gay rights cherry pick, selecting some scripture and not others (156). I am a Christian who supports gay rights. My essay “Homosexuality and the Bible” is readily available on the web. It walks through a Biblically supported pro-gay rights position. It’s not unique. Virginia Ramey Mollenkot, Bruce Bawer, and John Boswell, all prominent gay Christians, are not in Shermer’s bibliography. Shermer’s Christians are either intolerant, or ignorant, or hypocritical. Christians who do not fit his stereotype are erased.
I must leave to others to address Shermer’s retelling of history such that Christianity played no significant role in the abolition of slavery. I will mention only a few points. The central narrative of the Torah is “Let my people go.” There is no comparable narrative in any other myth, including atheist ones. The supreme and sole creator of the universe loved lowly people so much he entered into history to free slaves. To understand this narrative’s shattering power, we should read Ancient Greek novels, reflective of Pagan values, which treat slaves as objects. Gods in the Ancient World cared about rich, pretty, powerful people, not slaves. The God of the Old Testament was the God of Harriet Tubman, who sang “Go Down Moses” and the God of Fannie Lou Hamer who sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow understood the Torah, even if Shermer does not.
Shermer applauds Voltaire for writing a 1756 essay revealing that he had come to understand, through reason, that slavery is bad. Shermer never mentions Bartoleme de las Casas who risked his life for enslaved Native Americans centuries before Voltaire. “I leave in the Indies Jesus Christ, our God, scourged and afflicted and beaten and crucified not once, but thousands of times,” de las Casas wrote. Shermer never mentions Peter Claver, who, a hundred years before Voltaire, spent his life in the galleys of slave ships. The captivity of Slavic people gave European languages, and Arabic, words for “slave.” The martyr Adalbert sacrificed his life to his work, including freeing Slavic slaves, almost eight hundred years before Voltaire wrote his essay.
The point is not that Christians are better people. The point is that Christians have a standard that prompted them to resist slavery in significant ways. Imperfect Christians failed to live up to that standard, but the standard did not change, and those Christians who did live up to it changed the world. One of them, William Wilberforce, Shermer mocks as an obnoxious, ineffectual prude (198). Christians and Jews have been devoting their reason to puzzling out the right thing to do for thousands of years. If Shermer really wants to increase morality in the world, he needs to unite with us, not malign us.
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Scholar Barbara C. Sproul put it this way,
Most Westerners, whether or not they are practicing Jews or Christians, show themselves to be heirs of this tradition by holding to the view that people are sacred, the creatures of God. Declared unbelievers often dispense with the frankly religious language by renouncing God, yet even they still cherish the consequence of the myth’s claim and affirm that people have inalienable rights as if they were created by God.
Poet Jim Valvis, in a recent Facebook debate, put it this way: Atheists put on “God goggles” when they want to assert the inherent value of human life.
Christians and Jews know why human life matters. We believe in one God who is the absolute standard. This God loves each human life and created each life in His image. Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Jesus said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brethren, you do to me.” Not all Christians or Jews live up to this standard. When we fail, there is a standard by which we can be judged.
Shermer does not meet Dostoyevsky’s challenge. He outlines fine ethics for nice people, but he can’t give any reason why atheists should follow them. He says his ethics are based on “nature’s laws…morality is real…in nature” (12-14). Nature’s laws, of course, include infanticide, rape, and war. Himmler also strove for a morality based on nature’s laws.
Shermer cites atheist ethicist Peter Singer (18). He does not mention Singer’s proposal that parents should be allowed to kill their own children, or his position on euthanasia of the elderly, necrophilia, or bestiality. Shermer would never kill his own child, because he’s a nice guy. For people who aren’t so nice, atheism cannot supply a moral absolute. The Moral Arc is no exception.
A disclaimer: Michael Shermer and I engaged in a yearlong email correspondence ten years ago. I felt affection for him then, and I feel that affection now. It’s challenging for me to write so critical a review of someone I like. At the same time, I know that the author of The Moral Arc is a tough competitor and a smart man. If he ever were to read this review, I know he would appreciate the respect I show him by being honest with him.
I say this because there is a troubling aspect to how this book is being received. A double standard is at work.
Michael Shermer has been accused of rape. Like anyone accused of a serious offense, he is innocent until proven guilty. Here’s where the problem lies. Discussion of this accusation in the blogosphere has revealed revolting misogyny in the capital-A Atheist community. One can easily find transcripts of threats that Atheist men have sent to Atheist women.
If a Catholic priest were accused of rape, and if he were a member of a community where men sent women vile, threatening messages, and if that Catholic priest published a book on ethics, insisting that his community somehow held the key to ethical behavior that so far everyone else had missed, that Catholic priest would be asked very tough questions.
I don’t see that happening in reaction to The Moral Arc. No, Shermer should not be assumed to be guilty. Yes, capital-A Atheists should be called to defend their ethical system. If they are going to tell us that we religious folks have been doing it wrong, and that they have it right, we have the right to ask them to show proof of their ethical superiority.
Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete.
Noah J. Efron. A Chosen Calling: Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
Sir James Frazer. The Golden Bough. MacMillan, 1922.
Gustav Henningsen. The Witches’ Advocate: Basque Witchcraft and the Spanish Inquisition. University of Nevada Press, 1980.
Brian P. Levack. The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe Routledge, 2006.
Levack, Brian P. Book Review of Witchcraft and the Papacy: An Account Drawing on the Formerly Secret Records of the Roman Inquisition by Rainer Decker; H. C. Erik Midelfort. Church History 78.4 (2009) 899-901.
Sproul, Barbara C. Primal Myths HarperOne, 1979.
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