Dissent in New Atheistland: Jerry Coyne Takes After Michael Shermer!

At Jerry Coyne’s blog today, Coyne takes after Michael Shermer for being a little too cozy with religion:

It always amuses me when an accommodationist tells the faithful that no, there is no conflict between science and religion, at least not if they stopped believing the things that cause a conflict.  In a Darwin-anniversay piece on CNN, Michael Shermer comes out as an accommodationist, and more:  he suggests that people really should modify their beliefs if they conflict with science.

In New Atheistland, accommodating other people’s beliefs (if you think they are false), and giving too much serious intellectual leeway to the question of whether God actually exists or not, are big no-nos. Such things put you in danger of being in “conflict with science”, and renders you a suspicious citizen of New Atheistland (if you call yourself an atheist). And so Shermer said, among other (to Coyne’s mind) ghastly things about religion, this:

If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe — 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.

To which Coyne retorts:

Who is Shermer, I suggest, to tell people what beliefs should or should not “matter” to them?  Try telling this to a fundamentalist Christian, or a devout Muslim.

But perhaps if Shermer had used the word “need” as opposed to “should”, it would not have raised Coyne’s ire? (As in, “It need not logically matter when God made the world.”) Strictly speaking, theism, evolution, and a great age for the Earth are not logically incompatible.

Of course, evolution and an old Earth are logically incompatible with a literalist reading of the Bible, but the literalist reading is, in any case, blatantly false. The first chapter of Genesis, for example, gives clear structural markers of being written as poetry. Specifically, it is written in poetic parallelism (the 1st day corresponds to the 4th day, the 2nd day to the 5th, the 3rd day to the 6th). What we are reading is a poet laying out the world’s stage (on days 1, 2, and 3) and the things that move (the “actors” on days 4, 5, and 6). To put it in Shakespearean terms, Genesis 1 is a poetic expression of “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women players.” And in this profound sense, Genesis 1 is a reflection of this truth.

What Shermer is trying to make peace with are sensible moderate theists, not fundamentalists. It is the people in the middle, not those on the fringes, who will, ultimately, determine the virulence of religion and irreligion. Shermer is trying to reduce religion’s virulence, not embracing fundamentalist ownership of the Bible, and it’s ridiculous interpretations of it. Shermer is right to reclaim the Bible as part of the Western cultural patrimony, and not leave it to fundamentalists to tell us what it means, and the implications to be drawn from it.

And for this, of course, Shermer runs the risk of being demonized as an “accommodationist”, a “theologian”, and a “faitheist” by the confidence atheists who mentally inhabit that very narrow intellectual peninsula, New Atheistland.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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20 Responses to Dissent in New Atheistland: Jerry Coyne Takes After Michael Shermer!

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Bah, Shermer is an idiot. He’s been bouncing from one true-belief to another throughout his life. He’s no great mind, just someone who’s come to accept and reject ideas based on personal trial an error. He’s a postmodernist, and the kind of faith he is accepting of should offend any real religious believer, and the kind of secular thought he advocates should offend any rational non-believer.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Oh, Andrew!:

    Really, now. Shermer has his human quirks—and he has jumped around from belief to belief throughout his life—but that’s a sign of an active mind. I, personally, am suspicious of people who land on a belief system for themselves at a young age and then never—absolutely never—modify it or switch up. It suggests to me rigidity. Something has short circuited (in my view) if you are thinking about the world in the same terms at 45 as you did at 17.

    And Shermer has been working hard and diligently in the fields of reason for a very long time. He started probably the best secular magazine in the country (Skeptic) and he wrote a great book taking down Holocaust deniers.

    It’s ironic that you’re putting me in the position of defending Shermer, because I don’t particularly like his personality. He seems abrasive and aloof. And I’m an agnostic, not an atheist, and Shermer is adamant in calling himself an atheist. But if I step back and think about what he has done, he is on the very far side of good causes. The talk series at Cal Tech that he organizes alone makes me want to defend him.

    But I’ll give you this: he is shit at debating creationists. Back in the late 80s (as I recall) Gish absolutely destroyed him in a debate. It was embarrassing. But Michael was, ultimately, on the side of reason and he tried.


  3. andrewclunn says:

    Oh, perhaps I should clarify. I’m an Objectivist, and see the “New Atheist” movement as new age spirituality masquerading as rational thought. Shermer is perhaps the worst because he is openly a postmodernist.

  4. santitafarella says:


    That’s an interesting way of looking at the New Atheist movement! New Age spirituality? Hmm. I’ll have to think about that. Shermer, if I’m not mistaken, was enthusiastic about Sokol’s takedown (in the 1990s) of postmodernism, so I’m not following your notion that Shermer likes postmodernism.


  5. santitafarella says:


    As for Rand, I’m an Obama liberal, but I have always liked Rand. I don’t like her views on the emotions or on aesthetics, but I like her self assertion and Lockean ideas about individualism. I also think she is utopian in her notions concerning the state. But she’s a good counterweight to Hobbes and Hegel, and so I say, “God bless her.”


  6. Jim Lippard says:

    Santitafarella: I’ve discussed that subject with Shermer personally at the Atheist Alliance International conference in October, since I’m currently in a Ph.D. program in Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology (also known as Science and Technology Studies), where social constructivism and various kinds of anti-realism and postmodernism are rampant. I’ve known him since 1994, and I’ve never seen any indication that he has positive regard for postmodernism.

    For example, in an interview he said that “The postmodernist approach is just as bad, if not worse, than an approach to knowledge based on faith or revelation.”


    Perhaps Clunn is making a faulty inference from Shermer’s criticisms of Objectivism.

  7. andrewclunn says:

    I’m not attempting to derail this comments section regarding Objectivism. it’s just that in Shermer’s case he has argued against it using ad homioms and equating taking everything Rand ever said as truth to be Objectivism. Also his rejection of the very idea of objective morality is founding on postmodernist arguments used to discredit materialists or anyone insisting that there is even an objective reality. He conveniently interprets morality not to mean a code of conduct, but instead conflates it with ethics to use wordplay as a stand in for a rational argument.

    Here’s are his words to show what I mean:

  8. santitafarella says:


    I was at the same conference! We probably crossed paths on that Saturday (the only day I attended). I agree with you: Shermer is an enemy of postmodernism.


  9. santitafarella says:


    Don’t worry about derailing threads. I’m happy to talk about Objectivism. I don’t think of threads as places where you have to stay on topic. Whatever evolves, evolves. I like contingency (except when I don’t).


  10. Pingback: Michael Shermer - Skeptic – Realist, not “Accommodationist”: What is the “right way” to respond to theists? - True/Slant

  11. andrewclunn says:

    Might I request a link to where I can buy a text, watch a video, or read an article that would show Shermer not to be a postmodernist, because the conflation of the lack of certainty in personal testimony and referral of judgment to scientific authority figures is something that has bothered me about the Skeptical movement (and Shermer in particular.) But it also seems at odds with the notion of rejection of moral certainty, even when causality can be shown. This entire advocacy of relative certainty without the willingness to take a hard stance coupled with insistence of some principles (implicit within the positions of skepticism) seem to push moral and ethical judgments while hiding behind the veneer of post modernist arguments as a means of dissuading criticism.

  12. andrewclunn says:

    I just reread my post, and it’s way to heady. I sound like a postmodernist there ironically. So let me restate that. Skeptics say that science is better than person experience in knowing things. This implies that there is something that we can know things about. Yet, they insist that they are not making moral judgments, and that science cannot give us morality. There are implicit moral judgments in some of the positions that they take (for example that seeking the truth is a noble cause.) They fervently deny any politically testy implications that this might have outside of a few selected areas. Sometimes they even make accommodations for unscientific beliefs on the grounds of, “Well, we can’t know for sure.” That is innately hypocritical.

    A sure sign of a cult is when they don’t present their beliefs honestly up front. Shermer’s soft view on religion is disingenuous.

  13. santitafarella says:


    I agree with you that the New Atheists are sometimes too deferential to scientists as authority figures, and I also agree with you that the New Atheists frequently speak in ways that suggest an impatience with metaphysical and epistemological questions. Perhaps they do this because it would make atheism seem less “scientific” if metaphysics and epistemological assumptions were laid bare in too obvious a fashion. It would force a confrontation with their own leaps of faith.

    In terms of ethics, I think that is a big problem for atheism as well. Once you kill off god and telos, you flounder in the realm of ethical justification, which Nietzsche recognized, but which most New Atheists, perhaps having yet to read their Nietzsche, have not. I’m thinking now of Nietzsche’s comfy atheist “last men.”


  14. JimC says:

    A person who talks about trial an error should not be calling someone else an idiot.

  15. Pingback: Atheist Michael Shermer, in the Huffington Post, Quotes Me « Prometheus Unbound

  16. Jim Lippard says:

    Andrew: Rejecting absolutism and infallibilism doesn’t entail postmodernism. Nor does rejection of moral realism, for that matter, though that’s a bit closer. Postmodernism is associated with views that consider all norms to be local, relative, and changeable, as well as rejecting correspondence truth for a social consensus/constructivist notion of truth.

    Shermer clearly thinks that science really does get a lot of things right, in a correspondence-to-reality notion of truth, though he’s (quite rightly) a fallibilist–we don’t have it all right, and we don’t know exactly how theories may be revised in the future to improve them.

    In Shermer’s very article on Objectivism he writes “I believe (and here I speak strictly for myself and not for the Skeptics Society or any of its members) that reality exists and that reason and science are the best tools we have for understanding causality in the real world. We can achieve an ever-greater understanding of reality but we can never know if we have final Truth with regard to nature.” That’s not postmodernism, that’s fallibilism.

    On morality, he appears to advocate some form of intersubjectivism rather than objectivism. That is possibly compatible with but doesn’t imply postmodernism. For instance, he could hold a view something like the contractarianism of David Gauthier’s _Morals by Agreement_, which is not a postmodernist view of ethics. I haven’t read Shermer’s book, _The Science of Good and Evil_, but I suspect that’s where you’ll find his views on ethics. (A quick look at the reviews suggests that it is an evolutionary psychology-based view, which appears to me to have an objective but contingent component in human biology.)

    FYI, Shermer’s account of Objectivism while Ayn Rand was alive is consistent with Murray Rothbard’s 1972 “The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult”; Rothbard, unlike Shermer, was actually a member of the group.

  17. andrewclunn says:

    Jim Lippard,

    The section I was referring to was this, “… no absolute morality is scientifically or rationally tenable, even that which claims to have been derived through pure reason, as in the case of Rand. The reason is straightforward. Morals do not exist in nature and thus cannot be discovered. In nature there are just actions–physical actions, biological actions, and human actions. Human actors act to increase their happiness, however they personally define it. Their actions become moral or immoral when someone else judges them as such.”

    Here he defines morality as not existing without the consent of others, conflating morality with ethics. Then he goes on to say, “We create standards of what we like and dislike, desire or not, and make judgments against these standards. But the standards are themselves human creations and not discovered in nature… Thus, male ownership of females was once moral and is now immoral, not because we have discovered it as such, but because our society has realized that women also seek greater happiness and that they can achieve this more easily without being in bondage to males. A society that seeks greater happiness for its members by giving them greater freedom, will judge a Hitler or a Stalin as morally intolerable because his goal is the confiscation of human life, without which one can have no happiness.”

    He’s defending modern morality as a discovery of the optimal way to allow for individual happiness, and states that people are driven toward their own happiness, but uses post-modern arguments to sidestep the obvious conclusion that morality is all about happiness. However, I shall read the The Science of Good and Evil as you’ve recommended.

  18. Pingback: Michael Shermer, Responding to Jerry Coyne’s Accusation that He is a “Faitheist”, Quotes Me as More Properly Characterizing His Position « Prometheus Unbound

  19. Pingback: A Golden Rule for the 21st Century? And a Quote That Rivals Anything in Shakespeare or the Bible? « Prometheus Unbound

  20. themayan says:

    Scorpions always eat their young.

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