As one of the nation’s foremost skeptics, Michael Shermer‘s days as a born-again Christian might seem like another lifetime to him.
Except Shermer doesn’t believe in past lives – just like he doesn’t believe in psychics, UFOs or God.
“Skepticism is just science – just an open-ended, empirical way of looking at the world, asking for evidence, testing, re-checking and reconsidering your assumptions,” he said in a phone interview.
Shermer is also a contributing editor and columnist for Scientific American.
In high school, at a friend’s urging, Shermer became a born-again Christian, eventually teaching Bible study courses. But after enrolling in Pepperdine University to study theology, he gravitated toward science.
A former professor, Shermer is a science historian and author who has questioned psychics, recovered memories, near-death experiences and creationism. He advocates keeping intelligent design – the origins of life theory endorsed by creationists – out of the schools, saying it’s not science.
His recent book, “Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown,” is a series of essays about evolution, the intelligent design debate and virtues of science, among other subjects.
The Los Angeles resident recently talked to us by phone.
Q: What was life like before you became born again?
A: I was raised in a nonreligious home, so I never had an attitude for or against (religion).
I became born again when I was in high school. I went to Pepperdine University to major in theology. And for about seven years I’d say I was pretty seriously into the evangelical movement.
Then I decided to be a science major, and that’s what took me down the road to adopting a scientific worldview. I just liked the openness of it, the democratic sense that anybody could participate and make a contribution. And I liked scientists as my friends more than I liked religious people as my friends.
It wasn’t any awakening one morning. At some point I just felt I was being hypocritical calling myself a Christian, because I didn’t believe the doctrines anymore.
Q: Now do you have a Darwin fish on your car?
A: No, I don’t do that because it’s a little in-your-face. I’m not interested in being a militant atheist and pushy about it.
Q: But you had a fish as a born-again Christian.
A: I did, yeah. Guys wore necklaces back in the early- to mid-’70s – that’s what people did. So I wore not a cross, but a fish. I think a girl gave it to me, so that probably had something to do with it too.
Q: I imagine you get some pretty spirited mail. What kind of hate mail do you get?
A: I don’t get hate mail. Most of what I get is thoughtful letters from people asking me if I’d consider this proof or this evidence, or they’re just writing to tell me that “Jesus loves you and God loves you and please reconsider your position.”
Q: When is not being skeptical a problem?
A: I just think the whole point is to find the balance between being open-minded enough to accept new ideas and challenges when they come and not be so open-minded that your brains fall out and you believe every wacky idea that comes down the pike. We tend to believe hooey more than we should, I think. And that applies to everybody, including scientists and skeptics. The only difference is that scientists have a built-in, self-correcting machinery that requires you to look for biases and mistakes and preferences and things that are going to distort the evidence.
Q: What are some of the other tough things you’ve been skeptical of?
A: A lot of the alternative medicines are pretty big. The last couple of years, prayer and healing have been really huge. That was fairly debunked by a huge study that was published that appeared to show no link between prayer and healing at all. I was kind of glad that happened – not because I don’t want it to be true, it would be nice if it was true. But it’s science at work – getting to a definitive answer with a big, thorough study. And now we can move on to other problems.
Q: Is there anything in science that you’re particularly skeptical about?
A: I was, for the longest time, skeptical of most environmental claims. But global warming is obviously real – you can measure the warming change. The question is what’s the cause? Is it part of the normal fluctuation, up and down, are there some natural causes over an extended period of time or is there a human trigger of global warming?
Q: You write a lot about why there shouldn’t be equal time for intelligent design (with evolution). Should teachers be allowed to say, “Other people think something else, but we’re not going to go into it” or just not mention it at all?
A: Since it’s in popular culture and students have heard about it and probably will know something about it, I think it’s perfectly okay for teachers to bring it up at the beginning of class. The problem with a science class is there’s already not enough time to teach science, so when are you going to get to that lesson plan?