How science, reason lead humanity to truth by Stephen Hirtle

“Skepticism with a smile” was originally published May 11 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is reprinted with permission.

By Stephen Hirtle

It has been less than 100 years since women were guaranteed the right to vote in the United States. The change was a result of the 19th Amendment, which was ratified in August of 1920. Most today would wonder how any moral society would not allow basic electoral freedoms to all its citizens.

In his latest book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (Henry Holt and Co., $32), science writer Michael Shermer examines cultural changes that have created a more decent and ethical society.

The title draws on the words of Martin Luther King, stating that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” However, he parts ways with King by stating that it is not religion that bends the arc, but scientific advances, logic, and reason, which has lead to the moral progress that we have witnessed over the past 500 or so years.
Mr. Shermer goes on to argue that religion has often held back progress, and instead has been the source of societal wrongs ranging from witch-burning to the justification of slavery.

A proficient author, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and popular speaker at TED, Mr. Shermer uses various psychological studies and cognitive theories to inform his analyses. For example, science has shown that we are particularly bad at inferring long-term trends from data and instead focus on anomalies.

Our human tendency is to attribute cause to an unusual event, such as winning the lottery twice in one week, when it is most likely just a matter of chance. Superstition, or bad science, have lead to claims that witches must be possessed, women can’t be trusted with the vote, or gay couples should not be given the right to marry. Bringing science and reason to the table allows these claims to be examined clear of biases. This in turn leads to a more just society.

Mr. Shermer forcefully argues that it was scientific studies that made clear that cognitive superiority is not dependent on race or gender. He goes on to show that the more religious western nations, including the US, are in fact the most dysfunctional when it comes to rates of incarceration, teen pregnancy, suicides and other measures of the overall quality of life.

The shrinking human scale that technology provides has also helped bend the moral arc. Humans have always protected their families and their tribes from the outside. But what is the outside? Is it the next village, the next state, a foreign country?

According to Shermer, as our moral sphere grows to include larger communities, more type of individuals, and even other species, our empathy grows. In fact, it is virtually impossible to imagine political differences between the northern and southern US states that would lead to another Civil War.

As diplomacy replaces the gun, the moral arc in societal relations continues to bend toward compassion. Mr. Shermer also provides insights into why moral progress may fail. For example, there is a ghastly analysis on how Nazi Germany was able to conduct unspeakable atrocities in the name of the state through a series of small steps that escalated in unspeakable ways during the war.

The book also speculates on issues such as animal rights, retribution and the future of moral progress. This is not to say that the book is without some problems. At points, the arguments become repetitive. The support provided varies from detailed analyses to less supportive anecdotes and stories.

At the same time, most chapters stand on their own, so even a partial read of the book would be worthwhile for the interested reader. As for the ultimate goal of human moral progress, Mr. Shermer argues that it is not one of utopia, but protopia, where each year is a little better than the last.

We see this today as more governments are questioning whether capital punishment is a just and fair punishment, more jurisdictions are giving rights to groups that did not have them before, and fewer people are dying from preventable diseases.

The Moral Arc is an intriguing book that gives us insights of how best to proceed along this noble path.

Stephen Hirtle, chair of FFRF’s Executive Board, is a professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

Freedom From Religion Foundation