Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 19, 2015

Skeptical about skepticism

Filed under: religion,skepticism — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm

Michael Shermer

On Salon.com you can find an article titled “Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress” by Michael Shermer that is an excerpt from his book “The Moral Arc”. He draws a contrast between what some have called “the sky religions”, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are tribal in nature rather than universal, and all those great conquests of Modern Civilization such as goodness, justice and truth. He writes:

Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why?

Today, of course, most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that moral principles are universal and apply to everyone, but this is because they have inculcated into their moral thinking the modern Enlightenment goal of broadening and redefining the parameters of moral consideration. But by their nature the world’s religions are tribal and xenophobic, serving to regulate moral rules within the community but not seeking to embrace humanity outside their circle. Religion, by definition, forms an identity of those like us, in sharp distinction from those not us, those heathens, those unbelievers. Most religions were pulled into the modern Enlightenment with their fingernails dug into the past. Change in religious beliefs and practices, when it happens at all, is slow and cumbersome, and it is almost always in response to the church or its leaders facing outside political or cultural forces.

I have to wonder if many people reading this article know that Shermer is a prominent spokesman for The Skeptic Society that publishes Skeptic magazine. Like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Shermer is a frequent guest on television talk shows arguing against religion, superstition and other challenges to the Enlightenment and Modernity.

Over the years, I keep running into him like a bad penny.

When I was doing background research on Napoleon Chagnon and the Yanomami, I discovered that Shermer took up Chagnon’s defense.

My conclusion is that Chagnon’s view of the Yanomamö is basically supported by the evidence. His data and interpretations are corroborated by many other anthropologists. Even at their “fiercest,” however, the Yanomamö are not so different from many other peoples around the globe. Yanomamö violence is certainly no more extreme than that of our Paleolithic ancestors, who appear to have brutally butchered one another with abandon.

The subtext for this, of course, is that as mankind advances beyond religion and superstition, we grow more Civilized. The notion that the closer we are to our hunting and gathering roots the more murderous we are is widespread among sociobiologists like Chagnon, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker. Writing for Scientific American on “The Liberal’s War on Science”, Shermer practically makes opposition to sociobiology (or evolutionary psychology, the most recent nomenclature for what originated as social Darwinism) tantamount to creationism or belief in ESP:

As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

Twelve years ago, long before I began blogging, I wrote about skeptics. I is worth reprinting what I wrote at the time especially since—surprise, surprise—it involves the question of Islam desperately needing a “Protestant-like Reformation”. I should mention that the article concludes with a jab at Michael Shermer from Ziauddin Sardar, my editor when I wrote for Critical Muslim.

Skeptical About Skepticism

Yesterday’s NY Times had a interesting profile on the 76 year old professional skeptic Paul Kurtz. It leads off:

“These are some of the things that Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and publisher of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer, does not believe in: parapsychology, holistic cures for animal illnesses, the universal effectiveness of chiropractic, extraterrestrial beings, alternative medicine, Bigfoot and organized religion.

We learn that Kurtz’s operations have an annual budget of $11 million and that the center has small branches in Los Angeles and Montclair, N.J., with about 40 employees overall. There are affiliated groups in Russia, France, Peru, Germany, Africa and other locations. He also maintains a small empire of skeptical publications, including The Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice and others. His publishing house, the aptly named Prometheus Books, puts out about 100 books a year. In addition there is a sponsored student organization called the Campus Freethought Alliance, plus a secular alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous called S.O.S. (for Save Ourselves).

While Kurtz was left-wing in his youth during the depression, he became an anti-Communist while on duty with the US army in Europe. It seems that Russian slave laborers had refused to return to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, thus proving that Communism was a hateful system. Perhaps these Russians had heard through the grape-vine that a jail term awaited them in the USSR. In keeping with the draconian defense policy of WWII, Stalin had decided that anybody who had even been taken prisoner was insufficiently devoted to the defense of the motherland. One might also suspect that Kurtz’s indoctrination under Sidney Hook at NYU in the early 1940s might have had as much to do with his subsequent evolution.

We also learn that Paul Kurtz has joined people like Bernard Lewis and Thomas Friedman in the ideological war against Islam:

Islam desperately needs a Protestant-like Reformation,” he continued. The Islamic system is the product of “a nomadic, agrarian society, pre-modern and pre-urban, which they are trying to apply to the contemporary world.

When you go to Kurtz’s website, you discover that the enemies of science are not just people looking for the Yeti (an interesting aside–one of the lead anthropologists on the Kennewick Skeleton investigation has been on expeditions to find the Yeti, or abominable snowman). They include those of us who have an irrational fear of Genetically Modified food.

Matt Nisbet is a regular columnist for Kurtz publications, a self-described X-generation person, and a student at Cornell University. In an article titled “Caught in the Ag Biotech Crossfire: How U.S. Universities Can Engage the Public About Scientific Controversy“, he gives the kind of advice that would fit right in at the Monsanto public relations department:

Universities are therefore confronted with a public communication dilemma. When dealing with an issue like GM agriculture that is heavy with political controversy and scientific uncertainty, and a technology that is closely tied to institutional research and resources, what strategies of successful public engagement and communication can the universities pursue? Several courses of action based on past research in the social sciences can be recommended. They include: 1) sponsoring participatory public forums; 2) acknowledging uncertainty and strategically framing messages; 3) targeting specific publics through specific media; and 4) carefully monitoring public reaction and media coverage.

Oddly enough, for an outfit so devoted to science and reason, there is little engagement with the science of genetic modification itself. This is not surprising since this intellectual current seems either totally innocent of ecological science, or determined to sweep it under the rug. The moniker Prometheus that Kurtz has given to his publishing outlet suggests an unreconstructed vision of 19th century Progress. Needless to say, this dovetails neatly with the kind of philosophical pragmatism he embraces, which appears totally at home with the agenda of US imperialism.

The other big mover and shaker in the world of skepticism is Michael Shermer, who is much younger than Paul Kurtz and is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine. While targeting all the usual suspects (UFO’s, Bigfoot, ESP, etc.), Shermer has also investigated bogus history. He is the author of a book focusing on the libel case against David Irving, a holocaust denier.

Just as with Kurtz, Shermer casts a wide net in his crusade against the forces of anti-scientific darkness. Such forces include those who believe that there is a Gulf War Syndrome and that silicone breast implants might be harmful.

In a somewhat critical review of Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s “Leftist Science & Skeptical Rhetoric: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science”, Shermer does find himself nodding in agreement with their hostility to Marxism:

Where the academic left (driven by outdated Marxist theories of class oppression) presents science as nothing more than a social construction designed to support the group in power (usually white males), Gross and Levitt rightly point out that “science is, above all else, a reality-driven enterprise” where, for example, “the set of plain truths that science (in the guise of, say, penicillin) works just as well for Australian aborigines (male and female) as it does on Englishmen (and women).” And, I would add, it works for all classes.

This view of science is consistent with the one found in Paul Kurtz. It is a throwback to 19th century positivism and positively innocent of how capitalism shapes the scientific agenda.

In a review of Shermer’s “The Borderlands Of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense”, that appeared in the Aug. 14, 2001 Independent, Ziauddin Sardar is underwhelmed with Shermer’s call to reject bogus beliefs:

It’s good, sensible advice. It will be of immense use to people who accidentally missed primary education or left their brains in their mothers’ wombs. I suspect that most of these will be Americans, as the kind of non-science that Shermer exposes originates largely from North America.

But are people who believe in alien abduction, aura reading and past- regression therapy open to any kind of scepticism? And who is the bigger nut: the person who believes in “remote viewing” (the ability to travel in mind and give detailed descriptions of a person, place, process or object) or the person who devotes endless time to exposing it as fake?

There are more fundamental problems with Shermer’s scepticism. It is firmly of the Eurocentric kind that believes science was invented in Europe 300 years ago. He lumps acupuncture and yoga with dowsing and channelling, unable to distinguish between bodies of knowledge thousands of years old, with their own system of rationality and evidence, and a recent new-age fad. Moreover, his knowledge filter and boundary-detection kit cannot really tell the difference between an ancient and sophisticated medical system such as ayurveda and the schemes of Deepak Chopra, designed for California buffoons who will believe in anything.

Worse, Shermer’s scepticism is directed towards soft targets. When it comes to science, it turns into dogmatic belief. His understanding of history is less than rudimentary. When discussing the problems of ethics and morality in science, or the issue of cloning, his language becomes irrational and paranoid. Every argument is dismissed as a “historical common rejection of new technologies”.

To top it all, Shermer’s view of science is totally obscurantist. An old-fashioned believer in facts, he is quite unaware that ignorance has now become an integral part of science. We now appreciate not just that science seldom solves problems in neat packages, but also that there are always extra bits that cannot be solved. As in the case of nuclear waste, these messy bits of science are typically neglected — by many scientists as well as professional sceptics. Only someone ideologically sold on the Victorian notion of science as absolute truth would insist that it should be the yardstick for measuring all reality.


  1. His magazine still has scientific racist Frank Miele as senior editor. What is it about these atheists and skeptics and their affinity for race and intelligence studies?

    Comment by Inge Omori — January 19, 2015 @ 6:56 pm

  2. Ziauddin Sardar totally eviscerates Shermer. What a shame that the Left’s anticlerical tradition has been hijacked by schoolboys who think they’re clever for picking fights with psychics and kooky Imams.

    Comment by Adrian — January 19, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

  3. Turns out our skeptic had something in common with Bill Cosby:

    “I ran into Shermer in the hallway,” Smith said recently, speaking publicly for the first time about what happened that night. They began talking, and he invited her to a Scotch and cigar party at the Caesars Palace hotel. “He was talking about future articles we could write, and he mentioned this party and asked if I could come, and I said yes.” At the party, they began downing drinks. “At some point,” Smith said, “I realized he wasn’t drinking them; he was hiding them underneath the table and pretending to drink them. I was drunk. After that, it all gets kind of blurry. I started to walk back to my hotel room, and he followed me and caught up with me… He offered to walk me back to my room, but walked me to his instead. I don’t have a clear memory of what happened after that. I know we had sex.”


    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2015 @ 8:49 pm

  4. Yeah nice to get it all in one place. Shermer loves the debunking role but then declares neoclassical economics to be a science. I didn’t realise he was into the evolutionary psych nonsense but it doesn’t surprise me.

    Comment by Shane H — January 19, 2015 @ 9:16 pm

  5. Curious they claim GMO skeptics to have “irrational fear” but they don’t go after the really irrational fears of the libertarians who refuse to get their kids vaccinated and rail against flouridated water today as vociferously as John Birch Society members did during McCarthyism.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 19, 2015 @ 11:28 pm

  6. It occurs to me just now that the Protestant Reformation was really a reaction to the corruption of church leadership, not to the backwardness of the doctrine, and is in some ways analagous to the various purification movements that have occurred within Islam from time to time.

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 5:27 am

  7. The Protestant Reformation did in fact react against and change church doctrine in striking ways. I am speaking here for the most part of what is called Reformed Protestantism, not the entire Reformation, but many of the principles apply across the board.

    Catholics had–and I guess still have–seven sacraments (rituals during which God was thought to be effectively present), including penance, marriage, and the Last Rites, which could only be administered by ordained priests. Reformed Protestants have two, baptism and holy communion (the Eucharist). Indeed, Ulrich Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Zurich and the third great man of Reformed P., argued vehemently against Luther that the Eucharist was merely symbolic. While a minister may officiate at baptism and the Eucharist, the presence of a minister is not a requirement for the efficacy of the rituals, and the minister has no “cure of souls” or power of absolution.

    Catholicism has a consecrated priesthood who are meant to be able to receive confession, impose penance, and grant absolution from sin. Reformed Protestantism has no priesthood (ministers are not, strictly speaking, priests) and each Reformed Protestant is alone with her conscience and whatever status God may grant her. Presbyterians are taught to confess directly to God in silence, never to a priest.

    Most significantly, the Church itself, which for Catholics is governed by a succession of popes beginning with Saint Peter (the Apostolic Succession) constitutes a direct source of spiritual authority in addition to Scripture. Ecumenical councils and the so-called Fathers of the Church have authority equal with Scripture. Indeed, since 1870, the Pope himself has been held be be infallible when he speaks from the throne of the Bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church claims the power to bestow a special and magical category of sainthood on particularly holy dead people, whereas for a Reformed Protestant, the term “saints” merely designates God’s predestined elect (all those who are saved).

    For Protestants, only the Bible is authoritative in the Church. Everyone is encouraged to study Scripture in modern languages (although for scholarly reasons, Presbyterian ministers are, or once were, required to read and understand the original languages of Scripture). In contrast, in the Catholic Church at the time of the reformation, Scripture was held to be dangerous to ordinary people (who luckily could not read Latin), and its use was explicitly confined to the “religious” in the Catholic sense.

    A Catholic can be redeemed by good works; a Reformed Protestant cannot.

    These are some of the differences between Catholics and most Protestants. To say that the Reformation was not a reaction against doctrine is simply untrue unless one takes the position that Church doctrine is so inconsequential that no position regarding it can have any real value as a motive for human acts–or that differences of doctrine within Christianity are insignificant in view of core Christian beliefs.

    If this is so, it’s a remarkable fact that so many people–including Zwingli himself–died in warfare ostensibly over church doctrines.

    Here, FYI, is an account by his successor, Bullinger, of Zwingli’s death at the hands of Catholics following the battle of Kappel in 1531

    So some approached who did not know him and asked him, since he was so weak and close to death (for he had fallen in combat and was stricken with a mortal wound), whether a priest should be fetched to hear his confession. Thereat Zwingli shook his head, said nothing and looked up to heaven. Later they told him that if he was no longer able to speak or confess he should yet have the mother of God in his heart and call on the beloved saints to plead to God for grace on his behalf Again Zwingli shook his head and continued gazing straight up to heaven. At this the Catholics grew impatient, cursed him and said that he was one of the obstinate cantankerous heretics and should get what he deserved. Then Captain Fuckinger of Unterwalden appeared and in exasperation drew his sword and gave Zwingli a thrust from which he at once died.

    How surprised Fuckinger and Zwingli would have been to learn that they had no important doctrinal differences!

    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 20, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

  8. Source for story of Zwingli’s death:


    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 20, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

  9. But all of those differences that you mention had to do with the power of the clergy, which they were well-known for abusing. But in most ways the Protestant reformers still strike me as pretty reactionary, which is why it seems odd to hold them up as some sort of model to cure whatever ails the Islamic world.

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

  10. In fact you could argue that they already have had their reformation, which resulted in things like Isis. Not that I plan on arguing this…

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 7:32 pm

  11. But yeah it’s true that they believe different stuff and used to fight about it a lot. I guess I should have made in clear in advance that I’d heard something about that.

    I dunno, something sarcastic seemed warranted and that’s pretty much all I got.

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 9:17 pm

  12. Well, by contemporary standards, the Reformed Protestant clergy were reactionary. Who wasn’t? However, in the context of the times, the Reformed Protestants probably created the model of the modern individual with universal rights–however contradictory the context. Presbyterians were taught that the only earthly authority to which they owed/owe final deference was/is that of their own consciences. This was revolutionary then, despite the mass of contradictions in which it was embedded, and however reactionary the idea has become since.

    Who’s holding up Protestant reformers as a model for Islam, anyway? Not me, certainly. I think that’s what is called a straw person. I look forward today when nobody needs any of these opiates. That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t appreciate the history.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 20, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

  13. Unlike you, you dimwitted fuck.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 20, 2015 @ 9:55 pm

  14. Who’s holding up Protestant reformers as a model for Islam, anyway?

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 9:59 pm

  15. Speaking of Catholicism and the news, the Pope had a nice pithy quote the other day:
    “Curse my mother, expect a punch.”

    And this time I will make it clear in advance that I know the background to that quote is not necessarily admirable, but it’s still strikes me as something one should learn to bear in mind.

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 10:06 pm

  16. Also: magna carta.

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 10:13 pm

  17. Also, C of E kept the hierarchy intact. OK I’m bored with this.

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 10:19 pm

  18. (also voltaire)

    Comment by godoggo — January 20, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

  19. Novody denied that “C. of E. kept the hierarchy intact.”

    You’ll never learn to write, but you could try to learn to read.

    My apologies for trying to engage with this troll.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — January 21, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

  20. Sorry, sorry, let me start again. Comment #9 should have simply read, “I stand in awe of your massive swinging history dick.”

    Comment by godoggo — January 21, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

  21. To dismiss religion you have to, for instance, dismiss the inspiration for Michelangelo, JS Bach and the architecture of Notre Dame. In politics, it means you have to dismiss SCLC and the Rev. MLK.

    Clearly there is more going on with religion than just ignorant superstition.

    Comment by jay — January 22, 2015 @ 8:18 am

  22. […] Skeptical about skepticism (louisproyect.org) On Salon.com you can find an article titled “Bill Maher is right about religion: The Orwellian ridiculousness of Jesus, and the truth about moral progress” by Michael Shermer that is an excerpt from his book “The Moral Arc”. He draws a contrast between what some have called “the sky religions”, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are tribal in nature rather than universal, and all those great conquests of Modern Civilization such as goodness, justice and truth. + Oddly enough, for an outfit so devoted to science and reason, there is little engagement with the science of genetic modification itself. This is not surprising since this intellectual current seems either totally innocent of ecological science, or determined to sweep it under the rug. The moniker Prometheus that Kurtz has given to his publishing outlet suggests an unreconstructed vision of 19th century Progress. Needless to say, this dovetails neatly with the kind of philosophical pragmatism he embraces, which appears totally at home with the agenda of US imperialism. […]

    Pingback by From guestwriters — February 3, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

  23. […] and pro-GMO as this would indicate. You can find out more about how rancid these skeptics are in my article on Michael Shermer who is one of its leading lights. Although I haven’t done any deep […]

    Pingback by Is Jill Stein anti-science? | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — August 1, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

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