This debate did an excellent job bringing high-quality audience questions to the participants. This one (about 1 hr 40 min. in) and Shermer’s response to it was very interesting.
The questioner suggested (in effect) a notion that scientific thought might be just the latest manifestation of cultural imperialism or colonialism. The actual words were: “You wish for a world without religion. Isn’t that position a way to erase cultural identity whether it be Muslim, aboriginal, black, or Asian identity and colonializing it under the hood of enlightenment western thought?”
Initially during the friendly laughter about the potentially thorny issues in this quesion, Shermer quipped (laughing): “yeah … a couple of middle-aged white guys telling everybody what they should believe …”
But then he went on to give (I think) an excellent response, conceding that he’s rather “libertarian” about these things and is not out to take things away from people (whatever helps them “get through the night” as he said somewhere else in the debate). “I don’t want to take away anybody’s identity; [but] I care about what’s true.” It isn’t just about interesting cultural differences … If there are truth claims with consequences, we want to see evidence. (I think that is a fair summary of Shermer’s initial response here.)
What really caught my attention here though was in Shermer’s initial “toss-away” quip: “a couple of middle-aged white guys telling everybody what they should believe!” For a moment there I think Shermer (via a significant “Freudian slip” if I may) lumped the whole agenda of both parties present into a unified whole! [well, not unified in a very important respect of course, … but read on…] Does anybody else find that interesting? I know – I make much of a single line carelessly thrown out in the moment, and Shermer would not in that brief moment have packed into those words everything that I now pack into them here, but I think his “slip” might be more significant, not less for its lack of crafting .
Shermer and McGrath do represent different agendas: Shermer wanting to advance science as our best way to know anything and to live by that, and McGrath, while not opposed to any science, thinks there is something higher and beyond where our science can reach. So while Shermer sees significant differences between himself and believers, yet suddenly these two (very distinct) agendas got lumped together in his mind (peas in a pod, even if only as quarreling brothers) when confronted with an accusation over cultural imperialism. I think THAT makes for an excellent springboard to a conjecture I’ll make: I suggest that new atheism (far from being a sort of non-category default in a hypothetical non-religious world as Shermer seems to suggest) is rather a symbiotic (and very categorical) position that only derives its strength, and indeed its very existence to the theism it rejects. I.e. I’m not at all convinced that there would be such a thing as any recognizable “new-atheism” or “nones” identity if it had no monotheisms to provide all the necessary sustenance. Atheists can rightly respond that “of course there wouldn’t have to be any ‘anti-this or that’ movement if the silly ‘this-or-that’ hadn’t become such a thing in the first place.” Yes – true enough, but what I’m really poking at here is the implicit notion that if we could just press a button and give the world a magical “fresh start” free of traditional religious thought that then a libertarian skepticism or some sort of “free-thought” (and yet appropriately skeptical) utopia would then ensue just by default, with no theistic beliefs to come along and poison it. I think real history shows us well enough that robust atheism (or denial of anything/anyone objectively transcendent to the universe) is in short supply all through history and can only come into its own when it has a robust positive theism against which it can rail. If theism would die, so would atheism. I don’t mean it would disappear in the trivial tautological sense. No – as in … (and Lewis suggested this somewhere) … if you remove a transcendent belief system such as Christian theism, you won’t be left then with skeptics who believe things only in proportion to the supporting empirical evidence available. You’ll end up with populations that believe almost anything and everything. Science will not fare well, if indeed it could survive at all, much less get brought to maturity in such a world.
It is anecdotally revealing to me that most of the new atheists we hear about (like Shermer) seem to have emerged from an earlier season of theistic (often Christian) belief. Why is that? Could it be that they never really did fully “emerge”? Do they still have theistic fuels coursing through their intellectual veins energizing their very rebellion against it? Shermer’s quip, “a couple of us telling everybody else how to think…” I think reveals that he still identifies with a matrix that is animated by theistic belief and does not (never will?) enjoy any substantial existence independently of that matrix. Shermer rightly declares an allegiance to the truth – an allegiance that McGrath fully shares, and can in fact claim that his tradition aspires to tap into its very source. In that moment of the debate, that allegiance united them towards that very noble and good quest to acknowledge and pay respect to that objective, and yet thoroughly non-scientific transcendence.
[grammar edits and other re-wordings profligately added]