Giving the Devil his due – review

I’m not sure where I’d be if not for Michael Shermer. I had a never been a theist, but following the publication of Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt and subsequently Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, I realized that atheist was a pretty good thing to identify as. As a twenty-something I was bouncing around in the YouTubes. This was in the glory days when fresh debates with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens were being uploaded regularly. And while I enjoyed them, listening to the same bad ideas they were forced to engage with over and over again was lightly infuriating. Eventually I stumbled onto Michael Shermer, and then a debate he had with the Young-Earth Creationist Kent Hovind. Hovind is a complicated character who has since spent several years in federal prison, but he was my first experience seeing a Young Earth Creationist being given a platform and I was invigorated… these bad ideas needed to die.

Michael Shermer has carved out an interesting niche in thee skeptical world. He is a recovered evangelical Christian who has a PhD (I forget in what and I’m too lazy to check) and teaches university courses. But he is also the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, which means that he simultaneously has credentials, but is able to take on the role of hobbyist skeptic. So whereas someone’s reputation could be tarnished by association with wacky fringe ideas, Shermer gets to explore so you don’t have to. This might be interviewing Holocaust deniers or UFOlogists and bringing their ideas to light… so that he can then explain why they’re wrong.

His latest book his this:

It’s a collection of previously published essays, arranged into several sections:

  • Free Speech
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Humanism
  • People

I don’t know what to call them other than chapters, even tough each grouping is a set of stand-alone essays.

Given that I’ve established my respect for Michael, I’ll lay my objections out at the front. As a collection of essays spread over multiple publications and several years, the overall collection is a bit disjointed and in places fairly repetitive, in particular the section about Free Speech. The length of the individual chapters also limits the depth of the arguments. Reading this collection feels more like watching a series of YouTube videos; interesting, but this light and frothy compilation jumping from topic to topic is not Michael Shermer at his best. If you are new to his work, a more substantial volume like The Believing Brain or The Moral Arc, would be a better choice. And if you are a price conscious consumer, then there is little here that you wouldn’t get from an afternoon of bouncing around Shermer on YouTube. I was still perfectly happy to read it, but those might be deal breakers for you and you can stop here if you want.

The titular chapter has to do with Freedom of Speech. Why does the devil need his due? It’s a reference to the Robert Bolt Play A Man for All Seasons. The discussion is about trying to “get” the devil and whether that may be worth some ethical shortcuts, circumventing a few laws to do it. Well… If you remove the protection of the law to get the devil, then on the day them come for you, the laws won’t be there for your own protection. So Give the Devil his due… something like that.

Michael is a staunch defender of old-school Free Speech, as opposed to the new fangled social justice version which might be called FreeSpeech*. Where the asterisk gives a series tools for silencing ideas that I/You/They/Someone might disagree with. Michael is absolutely has this one “right”. His arguments are compelling and he is a forceful critic of offence/victim/safe-space culture. If the best defence you can muster against an idea you disagree with is “But you can’t say that!” then the first person who can string a sentence together will be able to mop the floor with you.

The chapter on religion was quite interesting. One thing I will single out is a wonderful point he makes about the “first cause” argument. In short, if God hadn’t created the universe, why is there something rather than nothing? Two which Michael skillfully points out — and it boggles my mind that in all my time on atheist YouTube, I had never come across — how can you have a state of affairs where God exists, but call that “nothing”? Will definitely be using that one.

The politics chapter is interesting because Michael doesn’t have mainstream politics. He is somewhere between a staunch libertarian (which he defines as a cross between socially liberal and fiscally conservative), and confesses he has moved towards classical liberalism, which is a term which has gotten rather confusing to use because “Liberal” when attached to a political party means different things depending on what country you happen to be in. But it’s necessary to distinguish oneself from what Maajid Nawaz dubbed “The Regressive Left”. The discussion there is interesting regardless of whether you happen to agree with him or not. Michael still possesses the now-rare skill of having pleasant conversations with people he disagrees with.

The people chapter is where the book shines. Essayists always run the risk of being a little dry, but one thing that brings out the humanity in everyone is watching them talk about their heroes. This includes discussions of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Kurtz and was absolutely delightful to read.

Given that this was a rather eclectic collection, I don’t really have anything to say in summation. But perhaps you’ll give Shermer his due and dig into the book.

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