Early on in The Moral Arc Michael Shermer quotes Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” (7) It’s clear that Shermer likes this quote because he returns to it on several occasions. At one point he offers a different translation: “Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust.” (105)
By contrast, Shermer’s secular gospel promises salvation from absurdities and the atrocities that they make possible: “One path (among many) to a more moral world is to get people to quit believing in absurdities.” (7) Here is Shermer’s secular Gospel laid bare:
“For tens of millennia moral regress best described our species, and hundreds of millions of people suffered as a result. But then something happened half a millennium ago. The Scientific Revolution led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and that changed everything.” (5)
But did it change everything? Does Shermer’s secular gospel really save us from absurdities and the atrocities they make possible?
God Science for the Atom Bomb
In 1981 Paul Fussell wrote his famous essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” in which he justified the annihilation of 100,000 civilians in Hiroshima as a straight up calculation to minimize sentient suffering. Shermer isn’t interested in thanking God for the atom bomb, but he certainly will thank science.
And part and parcel with thanking science he offers an apologetic for the indiscriminate slaughter of 100,000 civilians:
“As to the morality of dropping the bombs, by the definition of morality in this book–the survival and flourishing of sentient beings–then not only did Fat Man and Little Boy end the war and stop the killings, they also saved lives, both Japanese and American. My father was possibly one such survivor.” (p. 72-3)
And if the actions ultimately reduced the carnage, they were morally justified. Shermer then proceeds to give us some numbers:
“Truman’s advisers estimated that between 250,000 and 1 million American lives would be lost in an invasion of Japan. […] By comparison (cold though it may sound), the body count from both atomic bombs–about 200,000 to 300,000 total (Hiroshima: 90,000 to 166,000 deaths, Nagasaki: 60,000 to 80,000 deaths) –was a bargain.” (73)
A bargain? Yup, that sounds cold all right.
Hiroshima at Ground Zero
In 1946 John Hersey published his bestselling book Hiroshima (New York: Knopf), a harrowing account of the bomb and its aftermath as told through the stories of six individuals. I have a valued first edition of the book and I thought we might be in a better place to consider Shermer’s moral reasoning if we considered Hiroshima from ground zero based on the reporting of Hiroshima.
Our first excerpt is drawn from the account of Dr. Sasaki:
“Before long, patients lay and crouched on the floors of the wards and the laboratories and all the other rooms, and in the corridors, and on the stairs, and in the front hall, and under the protecochere, and on the stone front steps, and in the driveway and courtyard, and for blocks each way in the streets outside. Wounded people supported maimed people; disfigured families leaned together. Many people were vomiting. A tremendous number of school girls–some of those who had been taken from their classrooms to work outdoors, clearing fire lanes-crept into the hospital. In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt.” (34-5)
And then there are the haunting recollections of Mr. Tanimoto:
“he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns–of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.” (39-40)
And now for the experience of Miss Sasaki:
“Miss Sasaki could not move, and she just waited in the rain. Then a man propped up a large sheet of corrugated iron as a kind of lean-to, and took her in his arms and carried her to it. She was grateful until he brought to horribly wounded people–a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn–to share the simple shed with her. No one came back.” (44)
At this point we can return to the hellish account of Mr. Tanimoto:
“Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit. He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard. They did not move and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.” (60)
And finally we turn to the nightmarish experience of a priest, Father Kleinsorge, who encountered the living dead gathered in a park:
“On his way back with the water, he got lost on a detour around a fallen tree, and as he looked for his way through the woods, he heard a voice ask from the underbush, ‘Have you anything to drink?’ He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.” (68)
No doubt Michael Shermer assumes that he doesn’t believe any absurdities. He only believes in reason and evidence. His secular gospel and its utilitarian ethic are, in his view, perfectly rational calculations speeding us toward the moral arc of history. The religiously motivated torture and execution of suspected witches, he abhors. By contrast, the eradication of tens of thousands of civilians in the name of geopolitics and utilitarian ethics are perfectly reasonable steps on the long moral arc.
The irony is that through it all Volatire’s dictum just may be vindicated. After all, Shermer’s view of reality strikes me as perfectly absurd.