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Why Michael Shermer’s “Case for Scientific Humanism” Fails

Scientific Humanism

In his farewell article this month in Scientific American, long-time columnist Michael Shermer once again confuses science with atheism, and inexplicably claims that science can support humanism. He even uses the term “scientific humanism” to describe his position.

Shermer tries to rewrite history by insisting that science is built on atheistic assumptions. He states: 

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism — the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world.

Three Problems

There are a myriad of problems with this statement, but let me point out three: 1) scientific naturalism as defined here is atheism, which arose as a significant movement only after the Scientific Revolution; thus it could not be the basis for the rise of modern science; 2) many historians of science have shown that theism rather than atheism provided the intellectual foundation for the Scientific Revolution, because the existence of a rational Creator gave thinkers a reason to expect a rational universe (and not coincidentally, all of the major figures in the Scientific Revolution would have rejected “scientific naturalism” as Shermer defines it); and 3) by this atheistic definition of science, many prominent scientists, such as Newton, Kepler, Faraday, Mendel, Pasteur, Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, and many more, apparently did not understand the scientific enterprise.

Science and Moral Progress

If Shermer’s definition of science as essentially atheistic is problematic, even worse is his failed argument that science is responsible for human moral progress. According to Shermer, “Human progress…has principally been the result of the application of scientific naturalism to solving problems, from engineering bridges and eradicating diseases to extending life spans and establishing rights.” John Locke, the author of The Reasonableness of Christianity, would have been quite surprised to learn that his notion of natural rights flowed from atheistic assumptions that he rejected. So would Thomas Jefferson, who penned the immortal words: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Worse yet for Shermer’s argument, over the past couple of centuries many atheists and other secularists themselves have argued that science and/or atheism undermines all objective morality and human rights. I provide many examples of this in my book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, but let me proffer just one poignant example. Harvard biology professor E.O. Wilson, in an article co-authored with philosopher Michael Ruse, stated, “Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” Wilson, and many other like-minded scientists, present science as undermining morality and human rights, not providing a foundation for them.

A Myopic Vision

Shermer also argues that the social sciences have discovered that people want freedom, that a market economy is superior to a command economy, and that the death penalty is ineffective. These things, Shermer assures us, are rooted in human nature, and science has discovered them.

Aside from the fact that Shermer’s political and social positions, allegedly based on science, are still rather controversial, this myopic vision of the application of science to society forgets some important details. Shermer mentions all the nice things humans do and desire (at least they are things he thinks are nice, though not everyone agrees with him). However, he neglects to mention that the social sciences also show us that humans fight wars, commit genocide, oppress each other, cheat each other, lie to each other, sexually abuse others — need I go on? Further, science and technology can be harnessed for good, as Shermer emphasizes, but they can also be the tools of evil (warfare, poison gas attacks, computer hacking, government surveillance, etc.). When applying their science to society, scientists have provided the justification for all kinds of evil, including racism, eugenics, human experimentation, etc.

Shermer is right that science has done great things for us, but only because it was developed and applied within a culture that embraced the value of human beings, human rights, and objective morality. These are not virtues that can emerge from a mindless, purposeless universe.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life and Hitler’s Religion.

Photo: Michael Shermer, by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0].