Monthly Archives: April 2012

Skepticism Is A Dangerous Business

Why continue? Because we must. Because we have the call. Because it is nobler to fight for rationality without winning than to give up in the face of continued defeats. Because whatever true progress humanity makes is through the rationality of the occasional individual and because any one individual we may win for the cause may do more for humanity than a hundred thousand who hug their superstitions to their breast.
— Isaac Asimov

Miracle_at_Mumbai_churchIt’s an amazing universe we live in. And now is probably the best time to be alive to marvel at the wonders that science is revealing, and the incredibly better lifestyle that we enjoy thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists in all areas of human effort.

It seems to me that the last hundred years or so has been the most fruitful for scientific development, and even in the last fifty years, the advances that have been made are simply incredible. I can remember the days of black and white television (only two channels), and that seemed fantastic enough at the time. But since then, science has delivered everything from space travel to the Internet, not to mention huge advances in medicine, together with the extended life expectancy most of us can now expect almost as a matter of routine.

And yet, despite all of that, there are those who are hell bent on returning us to the dark ages. “Science doesn’t know everything,” is a regular mantra from the proponents of all manner of woo. These people don’t understand that science knows that science doesn’t know everything (which is why we still have it) – but science knows a lot more than they do.

In a certain sense, I don’t really care if some people want to believe nonsense, but I do object to those self-styled “experts” who make claims of paranormal or supernatural activity without evidence. These are the people whose enthusiasm far outweighs their knowledge. These are also the people who are trying to undo everything that science has achieved. These are the people who actively promote ignorance. And they really seem to think that their vacuous claims trump everything that has been discovered about the universe since the Enlightenment.

The advantage these people have at the moment is that they are under no obligation to prove any claim that they make. Even better (for them) if they are called out on their unsubstantiated claims, they merely have to wave the threat of legal action at their critics. But that won’t work much longer. (It won’t work on this blog, either) The UK government has recognised that libel laws need a radical overhaul, and reforms are in the pipeline to protect writers, including bloggers, from spurious threats of legal action.

It’s a pity, though, that the mere threat of legal action is enough to silence many of those who have the temerity to challenge irrational nonsense. At a cost of upwards of £250 per hour to hire a libel lawyer to fight off a bogus claim, it’s easy to see why paranormal charlatans get away with it.

They don’t always get away with it, of course. It was the bully boy tactics of the British Chiropractic Association against the science writer Simon Singh that led to the present reforms, and free speech will be the beneficiary – as it was when the ridiculous blasphemy laws in this country were done away with.

20120410_1_1Still, things could be worse. A lot worse. Right now, an Indian sceptic is facing the possibility of jail because of blasphemy laws in India. It turns out that Sanal Edamaruku, an Indian rationalist, was invited by a TV station to travel to Mumbai to examine a supposed miracle – water dripping from the feet of a crucifix. When he took a close look, however, he found the source of the water – nothing more than a leaking drainpipe. Capillary action transferred the water to the statue, and the excess formed droplets that then dripped from the statue’s feet.

The local Catholic Church weren’t happy with that, and demanded that Sanal retract his findings. When he wouldn’t do that, the clergy contacted the police to invoke blasphemy laws and have him arrested! (Pity they weren’t so fast to call in the police when they knew their priests were raping children)

The stupidity is clear: this event is no miracle; it is just a chance happening without any need to assume divine intervention. And yet the believers won’t face the obvious: whether miracles are real or not, this particular event is not miraculous. But they have to persecute someone who has done no more than point out what should have been obvious to anyone who could have taken a few minutes to take a closer look before proclaiming a supernatural cause for a chance event.

More on that story can be found here.

So, sceptics still have to be wary. Just a few hundred years ago, anyone who claimed paranormal or supernatural abilities could be burned at the stake (more precisely, they just had to be accused of having those powers). Yet nowadays there is a whole paranormal industry dedicated to parting the gullible from their money, and the people who speak out against it – just pointing out that there is no confirmable evidence – are the ones who might face legal sanctions. There’s something wrong there.

But the fight has to go on. It’s difficult to sift the deluded from the out and out frauds, of course, but they are all in the same boat. Claims of the paranormal or supernatural are rife, but not a single example has ever been confirmed. We need a system where those who make paranormal clams are required to show us their evidence, not their legal muscle.

It’s a crazy world where anyone can claim to be a psychic or an expert in matters paranormal and actually get away with it. Protected by law, even. No training, no accredited qualifications – just mumbo jumbo forced on us in newspapers, magazines, books, TV programming and all over the internet. The struggle for rationality is going to go on for a while yet.

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How Do You Choose A Religion?

scarlet_aI was recently informed that Jesus loves me, and wants to save me from an eternity in Hell. This was from an acquaintance of mine I have known for a number of years, but until now I had no idea she had any religious affiliations. More to the point, I was told, I should submit myself to God and renounce my life of sin, thereby ensuring for myself an eternity of bliss. Couldn’t I just feel the presence of the Lord? Right at that minute?

Well, no; at that minute I was feeling a creeping sense of irritation. It’s always the same with these bible bashers. They feel entitled to start droning on and on about their religion, but they can’t seem to understand that not everyone else shares their enthusiasm – or even believes a word they say.

I’ve suffered this sort of scenario many times, but once a believer starts going on about it, the ending is never a happy one. I’m never rude when I find myself being accosted by the religious, but getting out of such a situation without upsetting anyone is well nigh impossible. I usually explain gently that I am not religious and that there wouldn’t be any point in pursuing the matter. Unfortunately, however tactful I try to be, the response I get is usually one of indignation, followed quickly by growing anger and then outright condemnation: it turns out that I am, in fact, going to roast in Hell, and this religious person is going to enjoy the rest of eternity by watching me burn and scream as I undergo never ending torment. This lady tells me she is going to laugh endlessly at me from her safe, Heavenly vantage point. (Oh, and she, along with many others, hates me now that she has found out I am an atheist)

One thing got me thinking, though. As is often the case, I was told that the day will come when I will need God’s help and I will call out to him.

Really?

This claim always seem to imply that I might find myself in a life or death situation some day, and with no way out, I will pray to God to save me. But that idea raises a few problems; which god? There are thousands to choose from, after all. No doubt the lady in question is referring to her own personal deity, but for me it raises some intriguing questions.

Suppose, for some reason, I did decide that I needed religion – not necessarily because of some impending calamity – the first problem is going to be how to decide which religion it is going to be. How does one do that?

One thing that comes to mind is that I would have to shop around, as it were; see what’s on offer, and what’s in it for me. That might seem a little selfish, but so what? If everyone else claims their religion makes them happy, then I think I should be happy. The problem there, however, is finding a religion that will actually give happiness; what makes one person happy will not necessarily make someone else happy.

First thing to consider is the fact that I do not actually hate anyone – and hate seems to be a necessary condition for the faithful. The main religions hate each other, and in some parts of the world they are currently trying to wipe each other out. Even within a single religion, various sects are trying to destroy other sects deemed not to have their theology straight. I couldn’t go along with that.

Personally, I think everyone has the right to live their lives as they see fit, the only caveat being that no one is allowed to do harm to others. But if I join a religion, it seems that I will suddenly have to hate whole sections of society. I don’t hate people who have a religion, I don’t hate gays, I don’t hate women; in fact I don’t hate anyone just because their lifestyle is different from mine. And hating – or trying to hurt – anyone because some minister claims that God wants it that way is just out of the question. I prefer to be able to think for myself.

It seems to me that if any religion has a claim to being the “true religion” then it should be self evident. Instead, there are thousands of religions, and even those religions are divided into various factions. Christianity, for instance, has Catholic and Anglican divisions, which in turn have innumerable sub divisions – Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, etc., etc., etc. All of them claim to be right and everyone else is wrong.

How do they know that? Really, it comes down to faith – and a particular interpretation of a particular set of holy scriptures. But faith means believing without evidence, which really is bad thinking. It seems incredible to me that religions – at least in a (mostly) secular country like the UK – can (sort of) tolerate each other just so long as other adherents can be described as “people of faith” (even if it’s the “wrong” faith). And the rest of us – atheists – are still demonised by all of them for being without faith in a deity.

Hmm. The more I think about this, the less likely I am to ever turn to any religion. I was brought up as a Christian, but as I got older I started to realise that the things I was taught did not match what I actually observed in the real world. There are no miracles, just faith in a god (or gods) that do not deliver what is promised. No evidence is needed, whatever happens. Someone prayed-for recovers from an illness, halleluiah; someone else dies despite prayer, halleluiah, the lord decided to take him to heaven (never Hell). It doesn’t matter what happens, praise the lord either way. God takes all the credit, but never any blame. It almost beggars belief, but I have even come across people who have died despite prayers being offered on their behalf who themselves have been blamed for “not having enough faith.” Right.

In a system where nothing can be questioned, but everything is deemed to be the will of a deity, people have to give up their ability to think for themselves, and instead surrender to ignorance. Then again, religion allows people to commit the worst atrocities and still claim the moral high ground. Whether it is flying aeroplanes into buildings, bombing abortion clinics or generally destroying the human rights of individuals or whole sections of society, religion allows people to commit horrors and feel good about it because they do all that in the name of their particular god.

It’s strange, though, isn’t it? People’s gods seem, in fact, to be very powerless. The horrors that some people inflict on others are done by people, not gods. Whether it is an appalling act of terrorism, or just a promise to laugh at an individual burning for eternity, all of it is done by people in their deity’s name and therefore individual religious “activists” are somehow absolved from any personal responsibility. That must be handy for a person’s conscience: commit the worst atrocities imaginable, and just say it is the will of God. (God, clearly, does not do his own dirty work nowadays.)

No, I’m going to have to give this a bit more thought before I consider the possibility of me ever turning to some invisible guy in the sky who cannot do anything himself. Thousands of gods; billions of believers; lots of hatred; no miracles; death and destruction to the infidels; smug self righteousness from ignorant followers: but atheists like me being vilified because we don’t believe without evidence.

Even better (or worse, depending on y0ur point of view), I have found myself being accused of being a “militant” or even an “extremist” atheist.

With thanks to The Oatmeal here is what real extremists are:

Just in case you think the above cartoon is just displaying stereotypes, you are right. Some atheists do not necessarily drink microbrews, and they might not all agree that Tesla > Edison. But they won’t be killing each other to decide the matter.

Orson Welles On Cold Reading

This is how it works

How very true.