Shermer was once a fundamentalist Christian, but ceased to believe in the existence of God during his graduate studies. He accepts the labels agnostic, nontheist, atheist and others. He has expressed reservations about such labels for his lack of belief in a God, however, as he sees them being used in the service of "pigeonholing", and prefers to simply be called a skeptic. He also describes himself as an advocate for humanist philosophy as well as the science of morality.
Michael Brant Shermer was born on September 8, 1954 in Los Angeles, California.
An only child, he was raised in Southern California, primarily in the La Cañada Flintridge area. His parents divorced when he was four and later remarried, his mother to a man with three children, who became Shermer's step-sister and two step-brothers, and his father to a woman with whom he had two daughters, Shermer's half-sisters. His father died of a heart attack in 1986, and his mother of brain cancer in 2000.
Although Shermer went to Sunday school, he says that neither his biological parents, stepparents nor siblings were religious nor non-religious, as they did not discuss that topic often, nor did they attend church or pray together. Shermer began his senior year of high school in 1971, when the evangelical movement in the United States was beginning to gain popularity. One night at the behest of his best friend George, whose parents were Christian, Shermer converted to Christianity. The next day the two friends attended the Glendale, Presbyterian Church, where a sermon was given by what Shermer describes as "a very dynamic and histrionic preacher who inspired me to come forward at the end of the sermon to be saved." For the next seven years he evangelized door-to-door as part of his profoundly held beliefs.
Shermer attended an informal Christian study fellowship group at a place called "The Barn" in La Crescenta, California, which Shermer describes as "a quintessential 1970s-era hang-out with a long-haired hippie-type, guitar-playing leader who read Bible passages that we discussed at length." Shermer enjoyed the social aspects of religion, and particularly relished its theological debates.
Shermer was raised with guns. His stepfather was a hunter who took Shermer and their hunting dogs with him on hunting excursions half a dozen times a year, shooting game such as doves, ducks, and quail with shotguns. They ate everything they killed, for which Shermer's stepfather also displayed culinary skills. Growing up, Shermer owned a BB gun, then a pellet gun, then a 20-gauge shotgun, and then a 12-gauge shotgun.
Shermer graduated from Crescenta Valley High School in 1972. Desiring serious theological training, he enrolled at Pepperdine University with the intent of becoming a theologian. He initially majored in Christian theology. In addition to taking courses on the Bible, Shermer studied the writings of C.S. Lewis, and he attended chapel twice a week, which was required for all students. Despite the restrictions imposed on students, such as a ban on dancing and visiting the dorm rooms of opposite sex, Shermer found the university a good experience, and he accepted its teachings as a valid guide for behavior. However, when he learned that the PhD needed to be a professor of theology required proficiency in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, Shermer, who did not find foreign languages to be his forte, switched his major to psychology.
He has stated that at this point he "mastered one of the languages of science: statistics", and that he learned about forming hypotheses, the null hypothesis and testing hypotheses, which led to a change in his thinking. He completed his BA in psychology at Pepperdine in 1976.
Shermer's master's degree in experimental psychology at the California State University, Fullerton, led to many after-class discussions with professors Bayard Brattstrom and Meg White at a local pub—The 301 Club—that went late into the night. These discussions, along with his studies in cultural anthropology, led him to question his religious beliefs. He abandoned his devout religious views, fueled by what he perceived to be the intolerance generated by the absolute morality he was taught in his religious studies; the hypocrisy in what many believers preached and what they practiced; and his growing awareness of other religious beliefs, and how they were determined by the temporal, geographic, and cultural circumstances in which their adherents were born. From this, Shermer came to conclude it is "obvious that God was made in our likeness and not the reverse." By midway through his graduate training, he removed the Christian silver ichthys medallion that he had been wearing around his neck for years. He completed his MA degree from the California State University in psychology in 1978.
The final step in Shermer's abandoning religion came when his college sweetheart, Maureen, was in an automobile accident that broke her back and rendered her paralyzed from the waist down. Shermer relates:
When I saw her at the Long Beach Medical Center ER, the full implications of what this meant for her begin to dawn on me. There, in the ER, day after dreary day, night after sleepless night, I took a knee and bowed my head and asked God to heal Maureen's broken back. I prayed with deepest sincerity. I cried out to God to overlook my doubts in the name of Maureen. I willingly suspended all disbelief. At that time and in that place, I was once again a believer. I believed because I wanted to believe that if there was any justice in the universe — any at all — this sweet, loving, smart, responsible, devoted, caring spirit did not deserve to be in a shattered body. A just and loving God who had the power to heal, would surely heal Maureen. He didn't. He didn't, I now believe, not because "God works in mysterious ways" or "He has a special plan for Maureen" — the nauseatingly banal comforts believers sometimes offer in such trying and ultimately futile times — but because there is no God.
After earning his MA in experimental psychology in 1978, Shermer was unable to secure a position in a PhD program, and landed a job writing for a bicycle magazine in Irvine, California. His first assignment, a Cycles Peugeot press conference featuring John Marino, who had just ridden from Los Angeles to New York in 13 days, one hour, and 20 minutes, made a deep impression on Shermer. He bought a bike and entered the Yoplait Yogurt 50-kilometer race through Griffith Park in Los Angeles the following weekend. His interest grew rapidly, and within a short time he had completed his first century ride (100 miles). Before long he was riding hundreds of miles a week.
Shermer began competitive cycling in 1979, and he spent a decade as a professional rider. Shermer's best known bicycling is in the very long distance ultramarathon road racing discipline. Shermer is a founding member of the Ultra Cycling Hall of Fame.
During the course of his cycling career, Shermer worked with cycling technologists in developing better products for the sport. During his association with Bell Helmets, a bicycle-race sponsor, Shermer advised them on design issues regarding their development of expanded-polystyrene for use in cycling helmets, which would absorb impact far better than the old leather "hairnet" helmets used by bicyclists for decades. Shermer advised them that if their helmets looked too much like motorcycle helmets, in which polystyrene was already being used, and not like the old hairnet helmets, no serious cyclists or amateur would use them. This suggestion led to their first model, the V1 Pro, which looked like a black leather hairnet, but functioned on the inside like a motorcycle helmet. In 1982, Shermer worked with Wayman Spence, whose small supply company, Spenco Medical, adapted the gel technology Spence developed for bedridden patients with pressure sores into cycling gloves and saddles to alleviate the carpal tunnel syndrome and saddle sores suffered by cyclists.
During the decade in which he raced long distances, he helped to found the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America (known as "RAAM", along with Lon Haldeman and John Marino), in which he competed five times (1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1989), was an assistant race director for six years, and the executive race director for seven years. An acute medical condition is named for him: "Shermer Neck" is pain in and extreme weakness of the neck muscles found among long-distance bicyclists. Shermer suffered the condition about 2,000 miles into the 1983 Race Across America. Shermer's embrace of scientific skepticism crystallized during his time as a cyclist, explaining, "I became a skeptic on Saturday, August 6, 1983, on the long climbing road to Loveland Pass, Colorado", after months of training under the guidance of a "nutritionist" with an unaccredited PhD. After years of practicing acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, negative ions, rolfing, pyramid power, fundamentalist Christianity, and "a host of weird things" (with the exception of drugs) to improve his life and training, Shermer stopped rationalizing the failure of these practices. Shermer later produced several documentary films on cycling.
Shermer still cycles actively, and participated in the Furnace Creek 508 in October 2011, a qualifying race for RAAM, finishing second in the four man team category.
Shermer has written on the subject of pervasive doping in competitive cycling and a game theoretic view of the dynamics driving the problem in several sports. He wrote specifically about r-EPO doping, which he saw as both widespread and well known within the sport, which was later shown to be instrumental in the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong in 2010.
While cycling, Shermer taught Psychology 101 during the evenings at Glendale Community College, a two-year college. Wanting to teach at a four-year university, he decided to earn his PhD. Because Shermer's interests lay in behaviorism and he did not believe he could make a difference in the world by working in a lab with Skinner boxes, he lost interest in psychology and switched to studying the history of science, earning his PhD at Claremont Graduate University in 1991. His dissertation was titled Heretic-Scientist: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Evolution of Man: A Study on the Nature of Historical Change.
Shermer later based a full-length book on his dissertation; the book, titled In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History, was published in August 2002.
Earlier that year, in his book The Borderlands of Science, Shermer rated several noted scientists for gullibility toward "pseudo" or "borderland" ideas, using a rating version, developed by psychologist Frank Sulloway, of the Big Five model of personality. Shermer rated Wallace extremely high (99th percentile) on agreeableness/accommodation and argued that this was the key trait in distinguishing Wallace from scientists who give less credence to fringe ideas.
Shermer then became an adjunct professor of the history of science at Occidental College, California. In 2007, Shermer took a position as a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate University. In 2011, he took a position as an adjunct professor at Chapman University, and was later made a Presidential Fellow. At Chapman, he teaches a yearly critical thinking course called Skepticism 101, in which he tries out new ideas on students.
In 1992, Shermer founded the Skeptics Society, which began as a hobby in his garage, but eventually grew into a full-time occupation. The Skeptics Society publishes the magazine Skeptic, and organizes the Caltech Lecture Series. As of 2008, it has over 55,000 members.
Shermer is also a scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH).
Shermer is the author of books which attempt to explain the ubiquity of irrational or poorly substantiated beliefs, including UFOs, Bigfoot, and paranormal claims. In 1997, he wrote Why People Believe Weird Things, which explores a variety of "weird" ideas and groups (including cults), in the tradition of the skeptical writings of Martin Gardner. A revised and expanded edition was published in 2002. He writes in the Introduction:
So we are left with the legacy of two types of thinking errors: Type 1 Error: believing a falsehood and Type 2 Error: rejecting a truth. ... Believers in UFOs, alien abductions, ESP, and psychic phenomena have committed a Type 1 Error in thinking: they are believing a falsehood. ... It's not that these folks are ignorant or uninformed; they are intelligent but misinformed. Their thinking has gone wrong.
In How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, Shermer explored the psychology behind the belief in God. In its introduction, Shermer wrote "Never in history have so many, and such a high percentage of the population, believed in God. Not only is God not dead as Nietzsche proclaimed, but he has never been more alive."
Since April 2001, he has written the monthly Skeptic column for Scientific American. He has also contributed to Time magazine.
In February 2002, he characterized the position that "God had no part in the process [of the evolution of mankind]" as the "standard scientific theory". This statement was criticized in January 2006 by the scientist Eugenie Scott, who commented that science makes no claim about God one way or the other.
In May 2002, Shermer and Alex Grobman published their book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, which examined and refuted the Holocaust denial movement. This book recounts meeting various denialists and concludes that free speech is the best way to deal with pseudohistory.
Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown was released in 2005. His 2006 book Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design marshals point-by-point arguments supporting evolution, sharply criticizing intelligent design. This book also argues that science cannot invalidate religion, and that Christians and conservatives can and should accept evolution.
In June 2006, Shermer, who formerly expressed skepticism regarding the mainstream scientific views on global warming, wrote that, in the light of the accumulation of evidence, the position of denying global warming is no longer tenable.
The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics was released in 2007. In it Shermer reports on the findings of multiple behavioral and biochemical studies that address evolutionary explanations for modern behavior. It garnered several critical reviews from academics, with skeptic Robert T. Carroll saying: "He has been blinded by his libertarianism and seduced by the allure of evolutionary psychology to explain everything, including ethics and economics."
In February 2009, Shermer published The History of Science: A Sweeping Visage of Science and its History, a 25-hour audio lecture. In May 2011, Shermer published The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.
Prior to work on science and skepticism, Shermer published books on cycling and others on child education in the math and science disciplines. These include collaborations with Arthur Benjamin.
In January 2015, Shermer published The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.
Shermer appeared as a guest on Donahue in 1994 to respond to Bradley Smith's and David Cole's Holocaust denial claims, and in 1995 on The Oprah Winfrey Show to challenge Rosemary Altea's psychic claims. Shermer made a guest appearance in a 2004 episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, in which he argued that events in the Bible constitute "mythic storytelling", rather than events described literally. His stance was supported by the show's hosts, who have expressed their own atheism. The episode in question, The Bible: Fact or Fiction?, sought to debunk the notion that the Bible is an empirically reliable historical record. Opposing Shermer was Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University.
Shermer made several appearances on NBC's daytime paranormal-themed show The Other Side in 1994 and 1995. After getting to know that show's producers, he made a formal pitch to their production company for his own skepticism-oriented reality show whose aim would be to present points of view of both believers and skeptics. His proposals were not fruitful, but several years later, one of the executives of that company went to work for the then-newly formed Fox Family Channel, and impressed with Shermer's show treatment, requested he pitch it to the network. The network picked up the series, Exploring the Unknown, of which Shermer became a producer and cohost. The series, which was budgeted at approximately $200,000 USD per episode, was viewed by Shermer as a direct extension of the work done at the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, and would enable Shermer to reach more people. The equivocal title was chosen so as to not tip off guests or viewers as to the skeptical nature of the show. Various segments from Exploring the Unknown can be found on Shermer's YouTube channel. In 1999, Shermer produced and co-hosted the Fox Family TV series Exploring the Unknown.
Shermer has been a speaker at all three Beyond Belief events from 2006 to 2008. He also spoke at the 2006 TED Conference on "Why people believe strange things". In 2008, he delivered the commencement speech at Whittier College, which awarded him with an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters. He is also an occasional guest on Skepticality, the official podcast of Skeptic.
Shermer has debated Deepak Chopra on multiple occasions, including during their March 2010 appearance on the ABC News program Nightline. He has named Chopra his personal favourite debating partner.
On August 21, 2010, Shermer was honored with an award recognizing his contributions in the skeptical field, from the Independent Investigations Group during its 10th Anniversary Gala.
As of 2007, Shermer lives in Altadena, California. He married Jennifer Graf, a native of Köln, Germany, on June 25, 2014. The ceremony was performed by Shermer's sister, Tina, who was ordained online for the occasion.
Politically, Shermer has described himself as a lifelong libertarian, but after changing his mind on some issues during his research for the 2015 book The Moral Arc, stated that he should never have called himself a libertarian. The first president he voted for was Richard Nixon in 1972, which, in light of the Watergate scandal, he calls his "most embarrassing vote".
In 2000, he voted for Harry Browne to "vote his conscience", on the assumption that the winner of the Al Gore – George W. Bush contest would be irrelevant. He later regretted this decision, believing that Bush's foreign policy made the world more dangerous, and he voted for John Kerry in 2004. Shermer has named Thomas Jefferson as his favorite president, for his championing of liberty and his application of scientific thinking to the political, economic, and social spheres. He says of Jefferson, "When he dined alone at the White House there was more intelligence in that room than when John F. Kennedy hosted a dinner there for a roomful of Nobel laureates."
Shermer once opposed most gun control measures, primarily because of his beliefs in the principle of increasing individual freedom and decreased government intervention, and also because he has owned guns for most of his life. As an adult, he owned a .357 Magnum pistol for a quarter of a century for protection, although he eventually took it out of the house, and then got rid of it entirely. Though he no longer owns guns, he continues to support the right to own guns to protect one's family. However, by 2013, the data on gun homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings convinced him that some modest gun control measures might be necessary.
Shermer also previously favored capital punishment, primarily in sympathy for victims' families, but later he came to oppose the death penalty, partially out of a resistance to giving the government too much power – in light of the hundreds of executed individuals who were later revealed to be innocent – and partially from his view that retributive justice is driven by humanity's baser instincts, and it does not effect restorative justice. He later changed his mind about the issue during research for The Moral Arc, reasoning that "[Capital punishment] is one of these barbaric practices that we need to get rid of. [The United States of] America is really the last of the 19 industrialized democracies to have the death penalty. (...) The Italian enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria, on his book On Crimes and Punishments, put forward the idea that the punishment should fit the crime and that the criteria should be whether it keeps people from committing crimes, and the Death Penalty does not do that."Fellow, 2001, Linnean Society of London
California State University, Fullerton Distinguished Alumni Award, 2002
NCAS Philip J. Klass Award, October 2006
Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Whittier College, 2008
Exploring the Unknown (1999)
"Michael Shermer and Out of Body Experiences"
"Michael Shermer on How to Fake UFO Photographs"
"Michael Shermer on Spoonbending"
"Michael Shermer Firewalking Across Hot Coals"
"Michael Shermer Tests the Polygraph and Lie Detection", Parts 1 & 2
"Michael Shermer Learns the Art of Con Games", Parts 1 & 2
"Michael Shermer Decodes the Bible Code"
"Michael Shermer Explores Graphology/Handwriting Analysis", Parts 1 & 2
"Michael Shermer Remote Viewing Experiment", Parts 1 & 2
Other television and film appearances
August 1983 news segment on Shermer bicycling in Race Across America
Unsolved Mysteries, James Van Praagh segment, 1994
The Phil Donahue Show, 1994
Charlie Rose, April 1996
"The Power of Belief", ABC News, 1998
Politically Incorrect, December 22, 2000
20/20, December 5, 2003
Dennis Miller, May 19 and May 20, 2004
"The Bible: Fact or Fiction?", Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, 2004
The Question of God: Sigmund Freud & C.S. Lewis, 2004
The Eyes of Nye on "Pseudoscience", 2005
The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, October 4, 2006
"Doomsday 2012", Decoding the Past, 2007
Larry King Live, July 13, 2007 and January 24, 2008
Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, 2008
"Does God Have a Future?", Nightline, ABC, March 23, 2010
"What Were You Thinking?", Dateline NBC, April 25, 2010
"Did You See That?", Dateline NBC, July 16, 2010
The Colbert Report, August 21, 2007
The Colbert Report, July 11, 2011
Paranormal Challenge, Linda Vista Hospital, August 26, 2011
Conspiracy Road Trip: UFOs, BBC Three, 15 October 2012
Stossel, Fox Business Channel, December 13, 2012
The Agenda with Steve Paikin Feb 28, 2013 "The Anti-Science Left"
Merchants of Doubt, 2014 documentary
StarTalk, National Geographic Channel, November 15, 2015
Shermer, Michael (2009), The History of Science: A Sweeping Visage of Science and its History (audio lecture) (Audio lecture of 1991 course)
Shermer, Michael (2009), War: History, Causes, and Solutions (audio lecture)
Shermer, Michael (2013), Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist (audio lecture), The Great Courses
Coast to Coast AM, September 1, 2007 and May 21, 2011
Mr. Deity and the Skeptic. YouTube. September 15, 2009
Mr. Deity and the Believing Brain. YouTube. August 3, 2011
KGO, May 25, 2011
The Rubin Report, January 22, 2016
The Joe Rogan Experience, March 7, 2016, May 16, 2017
Roaming Millennial, January 26, 2017
TED (February 2006). "Why people believe weird things"
TED (February 2010). "The pattern behind self-deception"
TED (March 13, 2015). "Reasonable Doubt"
"The Moral Arc of Reason", Reason Rally (March 24, 2012)
"Science Refutes God" (December 5, 2012). Intelligence Squared