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Skeptical Inquirer

By Michael Novak

Sunday, February 13, 2000; Page X05


The Search for God in an Age of Science

By Michael Shermer

W.H. Freeman. 302 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Michael Novak

Although Michael Shermer is a professional atheist -- public debater, television guest, editor of Skeptic magazine -- and although religious people frequently irritate him, he bends over backwards to be as fair as he can, and he makes important concessions. Having read this book in early draft, one of his friends, an atheist and a scientist, said to him: "You seem to be saying that it's okay for people to believe in God." Shermer concedes that he does -- as long as religious people don't claim to prove that there is a God. As long as they stay outside the bounds of what Shermer considers "reason," his attitude toward them is inclusionary; he even has a couple of them on his board of editors at Skeptic.

Shermer is a retailer of atheist thought, not a creator, and a journeyman debater rather than an inventor of new insights, but he is not without originality. For instance, with academic help, he conducted two empirical surveys exploring what people believe about God and why, and one of these sampled 1,700 readers of Skeptic magazine, a surprising number of whom do believe in God (while even larger numbers think well of the good effects of religion). Shermer's studies show that those who believe in God generally do so for intellectual reasons -- a sense of design in the universe or harmony in themselves -- yet, ironically, hold that most others believe in God for emotional reasons, comfort, say, or consolation. (This finding seems typical of political beliefs, too; most people, even in print, seem to suggest that their own views are rational and those of others emotional or self-interested.)

Shermer divides his book into two parts, the first on the surprising universality and persistence of belief and why people believe, and a brief survey of the 10 traditional arguments for the existence of God and their weaknesses. Shermer concludes that believers want to make belief in God rational but fail to do so; he argues that they should be content to have faith, to make a leap of faith. He points out to atheists that this instinct is part of human nature, and that the thesis that the increasingly educated world is becoming secular, the facts show, is false. He argues that it is likely to remain false; human nature tends toward religious belief. This, he insists, is not because religion gives true knowledge -- for Shermer, only naturalistic science does that -- but because it satisfies needs. For him, "faith" is not knowledge but hope, comfort, other satisfactions, all very good in their place.

In part two, Shermer tries to separate the two realms, religion and science, by confining each one to its place, and by offering some theories about why religion persists: the human storytelling impulse, the connections of stories and myth to morals, the persistence of oppression and hope for a messiah, etc. In his last chapter, he lovingly defends Stephen Jay Gould's book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History against its critics; for Gould's poetic sense of the cosmos as a "glorious accident" and a brilliant, scintillating arena of chains of contingency and self-organizing complexes, contingently but deeply affected by their circumstances and their history, profoundly touches his mind and heart. Shermer is intent on keeping a sense of the sacred and the wondrous for atheism, too, and here Gould is a good friend. For Gould is not the old-fashioned rationalist in love with cold logic and its icy causal necessities but a newer sort of priest, whose vision is of fire, streaking meteorites, stunning happenstance, and darkling connections of chance.

Shermer is also forthright about his own biography: how he was a bored adolescent and then was converted to Christ, witnessed (albeit uncomfortably) to others during his college years at Pepperdine, and then was converted to atheism by later readings in philosophy and science. He retains a kindness toward his religious past, pointing out in various contexts how many acts of generosity and goodness spring from faith and must be counted in the balance against the historical evils typically attributed to religion by its secular opponents.

His book is unusually useful, but perhaps for a reason the author did not intend. It sheds unique light on the interior life of a well-informed atheist today, and may foreshadow a new spirit of amity and mutual inquiry. By Shermer's account, atheists, non-theists ("don't believe, don't deny"), and theists have a great deal in common. We all try to understand human origins and our place in the cosmos. "In fact," he writes, "science is a type of myth, if we think of myths as stories about ourselves and our origins (and not in the pejorative sense of myths as things 'untrue'). Many gain considerable emotional, even 'spiritual,' satisfaction from reading scientific articles and books by geologists about the creation of the Earth . . . and especially by cosmologists about the origins of the universe. Tens of millions of people watched Carl Sagan's 1980 Cosmos series with rapt attention."

I wish Shermer had shown as much care in trying to understand the arguments of, say, Aquinas as he does in ferreting out what Gould must have meant by "contingency." It takes some work to understand what "mover" meant in the 13th century and what it might mean in modern terms. Is not the "self-organizing complex" of Stuart Kauffman, whom Shermer describes as "one of the pioneers . . . in explaining the self-organization of complex systems," a kind of "unmoved mover"? Not exactly, but the lead is worth following up; analogies spring to mind. Perhaps, too, one should not think of "movement" as physical but intellectual, like the unrelenting drive to inquire, and of "unmoved" as understanding at rest, when all questions have been answered. One should not so easily believe that intellectuals of the 13th century were as simpleminded as Shermer's replies to their arguments require.

Finally, it is a mark of Shermer's generosity of spirit that he pays respectful attention to two statements by Pope John Paul II, one in favor of evolutionary science and the encyclical "Faith and Reason." Yet here, too, Shermer finds "contradictions" where a little more study would carry him to a viewpoint from which he could see the distinctions at stake. For instance, when the pope praises "science" in one passage and warns against "scientism" in another, he means two quite different things. Science is a method for gaining important forms of knowledge; scientism is the reduction of all forms of knowing to scientific method.

Shermer certainly comes perilously close to the latter. Still, he tries valiantly to maintain a sense of the sublime, the sacred, even the mystical, as in describing his exchange of eternal love with his soulmate over lit candles inside Chartres Cathedral, or standing "beneath a canopy of galaxies, atop a pillar of reworked stone, or inside a transept of holy light," when "my unencumbered soul was free to love without constraint" and was "emancipated from the bonds of restricting tradition, and unyoked from the rules written for another time in another place and for another people." The beauty of being Shermer is that he faces no Judge, undeceivable, transcendent of nature, and within him as well as beyond him; and stands in no long pilgrim community, struggling down the ages, falling, rising, and throwing cathedrals like Chartres up against the sky cathedrals. He is a free rider.

Michael Novak is the author of "Belief and Unbelief," "The Experience of Nothingness" and, with his daughter Jana, "Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter's Questions about God."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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