Exit to Cultural Atheism

Michael Shermer
Thursday, March 1st 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

I wasn't raised in a religious home at all; my folks were what you would call a-religious. In the early 1970s when I was in high school, the whole born-again Jesus movement was going, and I got swept up into that. I was hardcore. I went to Bible study classes, I led Bible study classes, and I went to Pepperdine University to major in theology. I took courses in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the life of Jesus, the writings of C. S. Lewis, and so forth.

Pepperdine was a very conservative Church of Christ school. We weren't allowed in the girls' dorms, there was no dancing on campus, and we had President Ford come speak. It was a bastion of conservatism’I think sort of the start of the conservative Christian movement. In any case, I switched my major to science because I was better in science than I was in philosophy and theology. I adopted a scientific worldview, and when I looked at religious claims through the perspective of a scientific worldview, it just didn't make sense for me. I didn't think there was evidence for a deity, and I was bothered by a number of problems, including and especially the problem of evil and the fact that there are still some unexplained gaps. That's pretty normal in science. In any case, that didn't bother me in terms of a worldview, such as how you explain the origins of the universe. Well, the Big Bang. Where did the Big Bang come from? It's okay to have an infinite regress, because theologians have the same problem with asking where God came from. I was comfortable with just leaving it open, having the scientific worldview, and being, I guess, an agnostic. "Skeptic" is what I prefer, since I have a magazine called that, which I began in the 1990s along with Skeptic Society as a hobby. It took off and became my full-time job as writer/editor, and I'm something of a spokesman for atheism, although it's sort of a weird thing because I'm just really pro-science. I'm not anti-God or anything like that.

There were some personal things as well. My college sweetheart was in a bad car accident and broke her back. At the time, I was kind of fading from my religion and had largely given it up. I turned to prayer one last time, because if anybody deserved to be healed from a broken back and paralysis, it was my sweetheart. She was a great lady, and there was no reason why this should happen to her. It wasn't due to human evil or human free will or anything like that; it was just a fluke accident. Of course, nothing happened; she's still paralyzed today. That was not the defining moment, but it was just one more straw that broke the camel's back. I do still think the problem of evil is a serious problem for believers, like the tsunami and earthquake in Japan. What possible moral homily, story, or value is that supposed to have for humans if God allows that to happen? Why does he allow it to happen?

I'd have to say I'd be pretty surprised if it turned out there was a God. But in any case, what does that even mean? Just some sort of a higher power that's capable of genetic engineering and creating planets and universes? That's really an engineering problem. It's just something like us that's scaled up considerably. Take Moore's Law and carry it out for 50,000 years, and you get essentially what is a deity. God could be defined as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent supercomputer. We're on our way to becoming that anyway.

So what would it mean to discover that there is a God? It really wouldn't mean anything to me. But in any case, I'm not particularly worried about it, because why would a deity care one way or the other whether I believed or not? Isn't it more important how you comport yourself in life, how you treat other people, how you behave? It's the classic debate about how you get to heaven: works instead of words. And even if there isn't a God, shouldn't we be doing these nice things to help other people, be moral and honor our word and our commitments and truth-telling and all that stuff? I think everybody would answer, "Well, yeah, of course." So what difference does it make whether there's a God or not?

Thursday, March 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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