Science, Religion and the Moral Arc: An Interview With Michael Shermer

03/03/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Is the world becoming more just?

Michael Shermer thinks so. Shermer is the editor of Skeptic magazine, and has long been a strong advocate for science and rational thinking, since they are the best ways we have for understanding the way the world works.

Yet he has come to believe that not only is science our best source of truth for the natural world, it is also the best source of our morality, as well. In his new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity to Truth, Justice, and Freedom, he makes a strong and compelling case that scientific thinking has helped individuals and society become more free, more prosperous, and more compassionate.

I had a chance to ask him a few questions in preparation for a conversation he and I will be having on Saturday. March 7th on "The Genius of Good and Evil," as part of the 92nd St. Y's "7 Days of Genius" Festival.

Ultimately, I wondered: can science truly make the world better? And if so, what role does religion play?

GM: Your main argument in your book is that scientific thinking--our ability to reason abstractly, to employ experimentation and critical thinking, and to propose an outlook beyond "God said so"--has made our world significantly better. Yet the very title of your book, "The Moral Arc," comes from a phrase by a man of deep faith, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. So how do you see the relationship between science and religion? Are they potentially complementary, or do you think they are inherently in conflict?

MS: In fact, I open and close The Moral Arc with quotes from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the greatest "moral geniuses" in all history. But in his autobiography King himself said that he rejected most traditional theology and was heavily influenced by the more liberal (socially) theologians, and especially by Gandhi, who most certainly was not religious in the Western sense. In any case, the movements that both Gandhi and King led were well organized and carefully orchestrated to bring about social, political, and economic change that had more to do with the larger trends in the 20th century to end colonialism (in India in Gandhi's case) and segregation and discrimination (in America in King's case). King's rhetoric in his famous speeches was sprinkled with religious tropes and references but undergirding the movement was Enlightenment natural rights language: people should be treated equally under the law, people should never be treated as a means to an end but are an ends in and of themselves, people are born with natural rights by virtue of being human, and the like.

As I show in all rights revolutions (the abolition of slavery, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, animal rights), religions in general and religious people in particular are late to the party in supporting social and political change like this, usually being a force for conserving the status quo. Yes, the Quakers and William Wilberforce agitated for the abolition of slavery, but the Quakers had next to no effect and it took Wilberforce decades to bring about the abolition of the slave trade in England, and in both cases their primary opponents were their fellow religious people, who argued for the justification of slavery from the Bible, from the "fact" that everyone knew blacks were an inferior race, that it was an economic necessity, that blacks were better off in slavery than they were in Africa, etc. There was no revelation from God, revealed in some new-found holy scripture, declaring "Though shalt not enslave thy fellow man for all are equal in God's eyes." And when you look at the language the abolitionists used it was grounded in rights' theory and rhetoric.

We can see how this unfolds in the current rights revolution we're undergoing right now with gay rights and same-sex marriage. It has been vehemently opposed by nearly all religions (with the exception of the more liberal religious people such as Reform Jews, Episcopalians, and Unitarians/Universalists), and led by secularists, nonbelievers, free thinkers, and the religious unaffiliated (the "nones"--those who check the survey box for "none" under religious affiliation). But this revolution will likely end legally in the U.S. this year when the Supreme Court votes on whether states can prohibit same-sex marriage, and social attitudes everywhere will then change such that by 2020 to 2025 virtually everyone will support same-sex marriage and we will look back on 2015 like we now look back on the 1950s and 1960s when interracial marriage was a lively debate. Say what? Yes, in 1959 only 4% of Americans supported the right for blacks and whites to marry. What were those people thinking?

GM: One argument you make in your book is that the today's morality is much more sophisticated than the Bible's morality--if we were to follow the Bible literally, then we'd be stoning our children and executing people for minor transgressions. Instead, you propose a "Provisional Rational Decalogue," with tenets such as fairness, responsibility, and liberty.

Yet while the ideas you propose are certainly not exclusive to religion, many religious communities have been teaching them for centuries. For example, your first suggestion--the Golden Rule--has been the foundation of almost every religious tradition (Judaism even teaches that "What is hateful to you, do not do to another" is "the whole Torah.") So do you see your "Provisional Rational Decalogue" as something radically new, or as a new way to think about and talk about more traditional ideas?

MS: No, my Provisional Rational Decalogue is not radically new; in fact, most of it can be found in various secular (and even some religious) literature from the past couple of centuries. If you type into the Google search engine the text stream "alternative ten commandments" you will find lots of examples similar to my own. I am not a moral teacher and I don't pretend to have some special insight into right and wrong. My point in that section in the book is to suggest how we might think about moral principles from a rational and scientific perspective. In fact, elsewhere in The Moral Arc I show that we have already been doing this for centuries--ever since the Enlightenment, in fact--and that we should keep doing so.

There is this meme myth among secularists and scientists that one cannot infer an "ought" from an "is", and David Hume is always quoted as laying down the law on that one. The way something "is" cannot tell us the way it "ought" to be. Baloney. In Chapter 1 I show how and why we already do this (and should do more of it), and in dialogue with Sam Harris I summed up my argument thusly:

I employ a public health analogy. I argue that if you agree that it is better that millions of people no longer die of yellow fever and smallpox, cholera and bronchitis, dysentery and diarrhea, consumption and tuberculosis, measles and mumps, gangrene and gastritis, and many other assaults on the human body that hardly even enter our conscious awareness today, then you have offered your assent that the way something is (diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox kill people) means we ought to prevent it through vaccinations and other medical and public health technologies.

By extension, I then make the case that social problems such as homicide and violence ought to be--and in fact are--treated as public health issues. Over the centuries the rates of violence in general and homicide in particular have plummeted, primarily as a result of better governance, better policing, and numerous other social policies grounded in reasoned arguments and empirical data. If you agree that millions of lives have been saved over the past couple of centuries by a reduction in violence due to improved technologies and policies, then you might well concur that applying the methods of the social sciences to solving problems such as crime and violence is also something we ought to do.

Why? Because saving lives is moral. Why is saving lives moral? Because the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is our moral starting point.

GM: I think it's pretty obvious that morality and religion are not necessarily linked--we all know plenty of people who are religious but not moral, and plenty of people who are moral but not religious. And while people will continue to argue about whether religion creates more good or more evil in this world, I think that's a less important question than how people can use religion as a tool to make ourselves and our world more just. So in your mind, how can and should religion be used as a way to (in your words) "improve the survival and flourishing of sentient beings"?

MS: Religions that went through the Enlightenment came out the other side relatively peaceful compared to before. Islam did not have an Enlightenment. In Western countries where Muslims live and practice their religion, Islam is indeed a religion of peace. But in other parts of the world, as we've seen recently, Muslims hold very different beliefs about how best to bring about social and political change--violently instead of nonviolently. Obviously I'm thinking about ISIL here. What could be more brutal and barbaric than beheading people and burning them alive? And yet in early modern Europe that is exactly what deeply religious Christians did: beheading Jews for killing Christ (along with poisoning wells and causing plagues, among other things), and burning to death women whom they believed cavorted with the devil to become witches, which everyone knew caused plagues, bad weather, crop failures, and calamities of all sorts. So it is not so much that these people were immoral (although by today's standards they certainly were), as that they were mistaken. They held an incorrect understanding of causality, which was eventually replaced by a rational scientific understanding of causality.

What religions do best today is social organization to do anything from manning the soup kitchens and providing disaster relief and aid to victims of calamities to reminding their parishioners to go out into the world and do the right thing. I applaud the work that people such as yourself and others in different religions do to bend the moral arc even more toward justice and freedom. As I wrote at the beginning of my chapter on religion in The Moral Arc:

"To that end we would do well to emulate the ecumenicalism of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who appealed to all religious faiths to join scientists in working to preserve the environment and to end the nuclear arms race. He did so because, he said, we are all in this together; our problems are "transnational, transgenerational and transideological. So are all conceivable solutions. To escape these traps requires a perspective that embraces the peoples of the planet and all the generations yet to come." That stirring rhetoric urges all of us--secularists and believers--to work together toward the common goal of making the world a better place."


We hope you will join us on Saturday, March 7th at 7 pm at the 92nd St. Y for "The Genius of Good and Evil" for a fuller discussion with Professor Shermer as we look at questions surrounding science and religion -- and how both can help us understand the questions of good and evil.