Star Trek episode no. 65: Plato’s Stepchildren. Captain Kirk kisses Lt. Uhura. Not, as many claim, the first interracial kiss on US television, but one of the first ones nonetheless. ‘The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was an atheist and a humanist’, says Shermer.
Inspired by cycle racing and Star Trek, sceptic and former Christian fundamentalist Michael Shermer rocks the foundations of religion. “The Starship Enterprise is multi-racial. I like that.”
(Een Nederlandse versie is hier te lezen)
“I did really some crazy stuff, like Pyramid power. I slept in a pyramid structure built around my bed. I wanted to find out whether it would make me stronger”, Michael Shermer (60), an American, reminisces about his youth as a professional racing cyclist specialised in ultra-long distance races.
Nowadays, he writes about morals, science and religion and, as the founder of The Skeptic Society, he challenges pseudoscience and paranormal nonsense. “Back when I still raced, I would take mud baths, or live off water, cayenne pepper, garlic and lemons for a week. I subjected myself to extremely uncomfortable enemas – all to no avail, although it was awfully painful sometimes. I was simply curious and I wanted find out what worked, but all it ever did was make my legs weaker.”
However, those lonely hours on his bike gave him the opportunity to learn much more about his brain. “I even saw aliens once during a race, for example. Lack of sleep and stress trigger your brain, which then generates an effect that makes you feel as if you are not alone, as if you’re surrounded by beings or ghosts. It’s as if someone else is in the room – or floating next to your bike, in my case. After a good night’s sleep, I realised they were hallucinations, but it showed me how powerful such experiences can be. There are people who don’t realise that their brains have tricked them. They think that aliens from outer space are real and they are so convinced they tell the whole world about it.”
Shermer was on a difficult climb in Colorado in 1983 when he decided to become a sceptic: “The team nutritionist had given me all sorts of minerals and vitamins and I just peed them straight out again. I had the most expensive and colourful urine in America. That stuff passes through your body without leaving any effect. “This is complete bullshit’, I thought. ‘I’m just going to ride without any fuss and look for evidence.”
Now, Shermer debunks all sorts of pseudoscientific matters and paranormal phenomena. “I investigate every claim with an open mind. If someone says they’re capable of extrasensory perception, I think ‘Maybe’. But no, no one ever produces any evidence.”
Last week, Shermer visited Leiden to talk about his most recent book, The Moral Arc, in which he claims science and secular rationalism are the reasons why the world is improving, slowly but surely. “Reason and logic are decisive forces behind our progress. We have more democracies and governments that function better than ever before. Right across the globe, people are becoming more prosperous.
“There is more and more equality for blacks, women and gays. There’s more focus on human rights. We experiment to find better ways of living together. It’s all part of the Enlightenment’s heritage, which was inspired by revolution in science. Religion is regarded as the driving force behind progress, especially in the United States but I think that’s nonsense.” Shermer was once one of the faithful. “I wasn’t brought up by my parents to be religious, but when I was at secondary school and at university, I was influenced by friends and become a Christian fundamentalist. I read psychology at Pepperdine University, a very conservative and religious college. I only learnt to think like a true academic at California State University’s graduate school in Fullerton. Science is the best tool to use when deciding what’s real, what’s right and what’s wrong. When I realised that, I lost my faith.”
Shermer has many bones to pick with religion. “Especially if it leads to violence or if it’s used to subjugate women. Muslim fundamentalists don’t believe that women should have the same rights as men, and that’s simply a bad idea. I must to challenge that. The world would be better off without religion. The whole concept of a supreme being that created the universe and that we should live according to the laws of that super natural entity just goes against the grain. It pits people against each other.
“Of course, there are some very lovely religious people, but they don’t have a good system: there are no checks and balances, no peer review. We should replace morality based on religion with morality based on secular values. And that’s happening, particularly in the Netherlands. You Europeans are leading the way. But I have high hopes for my own country. The fastest growing group in America are the ‘nones’ – no, not ‘nuns’ – people who tick none on forms when questioned about their faith. It’s twenty percent and rising. And if you take Americans born after 1981, the ‘millenials’, it’s even as much as one third.
“Outside the United States, people have the notion that the country is becoming increasingly religious – but that’s not fair. It’s simply to do with the fact that extremes makes the headlines more easily.” Creationists, who challenge the theory of evolution and demand that children are taught about intelligent design, are a prime example. “Science in America is under attack from those kinds of people. But in reality, they’re not opposed to science; they think their way of life is threatened. Many Creationists don’t have any problem with being ten kilometres above the ground in a plane.” He points to a Smartphone on the table. “They use those too, so they’re not really very anti-science. They think that if you accept the theory of evolution, you must be an atheist, but obviously that’s not true.
“I’m honestly curious as to why people believe in something, whether it’s aliens or God. The only thing religion has to offer that we can’t supply is the promise of life after death. I try to treat them fairly when I deal with them and help them understand why their ideas are nonsense. I tell them that they don’t have to give up anything. Just trust in the science that’s right in front of you. And I hope that one day they’ll reflect on their faith.”
His attitude has drawn plenty of criticism. “Believers tell me that a society without religion does not have any morals. Then I tell them about the Netherlands, for instance, a nation where religion has a relatively small role. You are prosperous and happy here. The Netherlands has low figures of violence, suicide, teenage pregnancy and abortion. Just compare that to the high figures in the intensely religious America. Moral comes from within ourselves. We make social contracts with each other, we are capable of making rules that allow us to live together in relative harmony.”
Shermer is not only inspired by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and scientific developments; in The Moral Arc, he also talks about Star Trek.
“I begin one of the chapters in the book with the episode called Arena in which Captain Kirk is locked in mortal combat with Gorn, a reptile-like creature. Kirk manages to beat his opponent, who is physically stronger, with cunning but shows mercy and refuses to kill him. Gene Roddenberry, the series’ creator, was a humanist and an atheist. The crew of the Starship Enterprise is multi-racial, which is an extremely progressive concept for a series written in the late sixties. And there is so much prosperity, nobody needs any money any more. Now there’s a society I admire.”
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