Dr Michael Shermer was the second to speak against the Oxford Union debate motion, This House Believes in God. Previous speakers had been John Lennox and Joanna Collicutt, for the motion, and Dan Barker, against.
Almost immediately there is a pulse-quickening puzzlement! Shermer seems to be heading madly for an argumentum ad populum – in reverse. He opens by quoting the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia to the effect that 5.9 billion people – 84% of the world’s population – belong to a religion. Why inform us of a huge consensus when you are about to tell us they are wrong? Is this a double-bluff to heighten our interest? No.
The reasoning that he produces goes like this: there are thousands and thousands of religions, cults and sects. As they can’t all be right, this proves there is no God. Got that? Has he noticed that though there are many different types of car, Detroit exists? After a little to-ing and fro-ing it is after all argumentum ad populum because anyone who adheres to one liturgy is therefore at odds with all the billions that don’t.
So now we have it straight. A believer outnumbered by all those whose belief is slightly different must be completely wrong. A non-believer outnumbered by believers is nevertheless right, presumably because believers accumulate an unassailable store of wrongness every time they are outnumbered by other believers. Good: I’m glad we cleared up that doubt.
Speaking of doubt, he wears on his lapel a brooch in the shape of a word – Skeptic. You may think this appropriate for the founder of the Skeptics Society (I hope that is a plural and not evidence that they don’t believe in apostrophes either). I regard myself as a sceptic (I spell it the English way): I cleave to the quotation from André Gide, “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” My trouble is that I find in his total conviction evidence that he is actually not a sceptic at all. If he was saying “I don’t believe it, and here’s why…” his position would be much more respectable than what he appears to offer, “It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it”.
As a speaker he is actually not bad at all. While he is churning out the statistics of all the religions of the world for the first minute of the speech, he is constantly referring to a sheet of paper. Some readers might be surprised that I applaud this. If you are obviously quoting from another source, being seen to read what you are quoting adds verisimilitude. At around 1:15 he puts the paper down and starts shooting from the hip. He presents what I call a Contents Page, outlining how he proposes to state his case, and this will be in two sections. Off he goes on the first section as fluent as can be, and reaches its end at 7:25.
At this point everything changes. It appears that his first section was a familiar module whereas the second less so. He turns to the dispatch box, picks up a stack of papers and transforms into a talking head for an essay. It is a really stark illustration of the difference between speaking and reading. Yes, there is plenty of material in this section when he again is quoting other sources but for five minutes with his face glued to a script a huge amount of his engagement of his audience evaporates. Just before 13:00 he puts the paper down for half a minute and back comes the engagement! And these stripes of engagement and non-engagement happen again – and always they are caused by paper. He is brilliantly supporting the message I constantly repeat.
The moral for him and everyone could not be clearer: learn how to bin your paper!