Word of the Day: Shermer’s Law

Christianity and atheism clash againI propose “Shermer’s Law” for this observation by Michael Shermer: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”1

This observation makes an important distinction between (1) how someone came to their beliefs and (2) how they later defend those beliefs.  People often come to their beliefs for poor reasons—for example, they may be racist or religious simply because they were raised in that environment.

Few will admit as an adult, “Oh, yeah—I don’t believe that for any better reason than that I was steeped in that environment, and I’m now just an unthinking reflection of that environment.”  Instead, they use their intellect (much more formidable now that they’re an adult) to marshal a defense of their beliefs.  The belief comes first, and the defense comes after.  And this isn’t just to save face with an antagonist; it’s to save face with themselves.

We can come up with a defense for just about anything.  It may not be a very good defense, but it’s something, and it may be sufficient to avoid cognitive dissonance (“Surely I believe this for a good reason, right??”).  The smarter you are, the better the defense you will come up with.

All of us do this, and (this may be consolation) the smartest people can do it more spectacularly than the rest of us.  Isaac Newton wasted time in alchemy, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling in vitamin C research, and Nobel laureate William Shockley in eugenics.

No one’s immune, but this is common in Christians who cobble together rationalizations for their beliefs.  “In for a penny, in for a pound” is easier than taking a step back to soberly consider the logic of the beliefs.  And the smarter the Christian, the better they can defend groundless beliefs.

Try to uncover this by asking, “You’re giving me an argument for Christianity, but is this what convinced you?  If not, why don’t you give me the argument that made you a Christian?”

Photo credit: Wikimedia

1 Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (Freeman, 2002), p. 283.

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How Science Works (and How Christianity Thinks it Wins)

Christian apologists like to imagine that science's errors give them an advantageThis argument was made at the Creationism conference that I recently attended: science isn’t trustworthy because every time you turn around, it’s changing its mind.

  • The sun goes around the earth … no, wait a minute—it’s the other way around.
  • Here’s the fossil of an early human … no, hold on—that one’s a hoax.
  • Living things hold a special energy or force—an élan vital—that animates them … nope, that’s passé.
  • Every wave needs a medium, so space must be filled with “ether” for light to propagate through … oops, wrong again.

An early theory of the formation of the moon said that the fast-spinning early earth flung out the moon and that the big circular Pacific Ocean basin is where it came from.  The question of origin of the moon has been an active area of research, and the flung-out idea is just another discarded scientific theory—this was one of the areas of research that was lampooned at this conference.

The Creationist argues that when you turn from changeable Science to Christianity’s unchanging God and an unchanging Bible, you have something solid that you can trust.

Science does change, but let’s notice that the size of any change tends to decrease for a single theory.  When the door is first opened to a new field of inquiry—say by Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of single-celled organisms or Galileo’s use of the telescope—new theories based on insufficient evidence try to organize the chaos.  One theory might quickly supersede another, but as theories become better at explaining more, changes becomes smaller.  Here are some examples.

  • Geocentrism to heliocentrism was an enormous change for the model of the solar system.  Our understanding of the solar system continues to change (new theories about why Uranus is tipped on its side or reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet, for example), but these are comparatively minor.
  • Evolution revolutionized biology, and the changes in biology today are merely refinements to this theory.
  • The intuitive flat earth model was replaced by a spherical earth, and the observation that it’s actually not spherical but slightly flattened at the poles is a small change.
  • Quantum physics continues to change, but new discoveries are not likely to say that matter is not made up of atoms, which are themselves not made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Christians eager to paint the Bible as an unchanging rock in a sea of chaos don’t seem to understand that they point to science’s strength.  Science realizes that new discoveries may obsolete old theories, and every scientific statement is provisional.  And, remarkably, science is self-correcting.  It finds its own errors.

Science changes, and that’s its strength.  The Bible never changes, and that’s its weakness.

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