Words of wisdom: James Randi

I found this several-year-old essay today from James (“The Amazing”) Randi. Randi’s thoughts on religion from SWIFT, the online newsletter of the James Randi Education Foundation:

Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright.
This week’s page will be devoted entirely to religion. I’ve reached the point where I just have to unload on this subject that until now I’ve felt was just outside of the matters that the JREF handles. Since religion shows up as a part of so many arguments in support of other fantastic claims, I want to show you that its embrace is of the same nature as acceptance of astrology, ESP, prophecy, dowsing, and the other myriad of strange beliefs we handle here every day. Previously, I’ve excused myself from involved discussions of this pervasive notion, on grounds that it offers no examinable evidence, as the other supernatural beliefs actually do — though those examinations have always shown negative results. Religious people can’t be argued with logically, because they claim that their beliefs are of such a nature that they cannot be examined, but just “are.”

Rather than argue or try to reason by their standards, I’ll settle for pointing out, briefly, how unlikely, unreasonable, bizarre, and fantastic their basic claims are, dealing for the most part with those I’m more familiar with, from personal experience.

I frequently receive criticisms from offended believers in psychic matters and religious dogma, accusing me of being one of those dreaded “materialists,” or of being unable to accept the wonders they choose to embrace because I’m “locked into” a world-view that accepts only the “unyielding” and “orthodox” scientific version of how the world works. These words in quotation marks are taken directly from recent scoldings I’ve been offered.

First of all, the word “unyielding” cannot possibly be applied to the genuine scientific view. My favourite concise definition of science, one which I admit I invented, is:

Science is a search for basic truths about the Universe, a search which develops statements that appear to describe how the Universe works, but which are subject to correction, revision, adjustment, or even outright rejection, upon the presentation of better or conflicting evidence.
Science is a discipline that yields frequently while attempting to closely approach that elusive goal called “truth,” but knowing that any conclusion it can arrive at is merely the best one of the moment. Any statement — s = ut + ½at2, for example — is “true” when applied to cannonballs dropped from leaning towers; however it does not accurately describe the interaction of very small or very large objects such as electrons or galaxies. That doesn’t make it “wrong,” it merely makes it limited. More comprehensive statements such as relativity or quantum concepts, better describe a larger spectrum of physical interactions, but buried in those more advanced statements we can find the former simpler one — which I trust my reader recognizes as one of those given us by the chap named Newton.

The structure of Science itself is also in a constant state of development; ideally, it does not have an “orthodox” state into which it settles down comfortably and complacently. It only takes something like a new statistical standard or an observational innovation to change its approach to any event or decision with which it was formerly — tentatively — satisfied, but the true scientist does not regret nor refuse such improvements in approach or technique, rather embracing them and adjusting to the new-and-better understanding of the world that is now available. Religion, in contrast, is repelled by honest doubt, preferring naïve, unquestioning acceptance.

It is the willingness to adjust that provides a genuine glory to Science, in my amateur opinion. It is in distinct contrast to the axioms of religions, which proudly flaunt their inflexible “truths” to demonstrate that they “know” certain things with certainty. Yet, the Earth is round, not flat, nor is it the center of the Universe; those revelations were promptly accepted, absorbed, and applied by science — as primitive as it was at that moment in history — and no pain was felt by those who incorporated it into their world-view, though in many cases there must have been some discomfort and surprise, followed by delight.

“Eppur, si muove.” Even if he didn’t say it, I’m sure he wanted to….

Yes, I’m a materialist. I’m willing to be shown wrong, but that has not happened — yet. And I admit that the reason I’m unable to accept the claims of psychic, occult, and/or supernatural wonders is because I’m Iocked into a world-view that demands evidence rather than blind faith, a view that insists upon the replication of all experiments — particularly those that appear to show violations of a rational world — and a view which requires open examination of the methods used to carry out those experiments. The decision to be a materialist is my own, I made it after many years of consideration of what I observed, and after reading Bertrand Russell and others. Since it was not a mere reaction to incoming information, but the result of examining that information, I’m proud of my decision.

(Aside: I’m proud of being an American, a skeptic, and a bright. I only take pride in those things that I accomplished, not those that I was born with or was given. I chose to be an American, and I earned that distinction, I became and remain a skeptic though it was difficult and still gives me problems, and being a bright is flying in the face of those millions who label me inferior because I’m not superstitious like they are. I don’t care; I know and accept the real world.)

As a child, I was told to believe that savages were doomed to boil in molten sulfur if they did not accept the “merciful” deity that was described to me, even if they had no opportunity of knowing about him/it! That deity, from what I was told, suffered from many serious defects that I was told to avoid. He/it was capricious, insecure, jealous, vindictive, sadistic, and cruel, and demanded constant praise, sacrifice, adulation, and ego-support, or the penalties could be very severe. I found, early on in my observations, that religious people were very fearful, trembling and wondering if they’d committed any infractions of the multitude of rules they had to follow. They were — and are — ruled by fear. That’s not my style.

But it was the incredible stories I was told, that really made me rear back in disbelief. For examples, they told me, some 2,000 years ago a mid-East virgin was impregnated by a ghost of some sort, and as a result produced a son who could walk on water, raise the dead, turn water into wine, and multiply loaves of bread and fishes. All that was in addition to tossing out demons. He expected and accepted a brutal, sadistic, death — and then he rose from the dead.

There was much, much, more. Adam and Eve, they said, were the original humans, plunked down in a garden to start our species going. But I didn’t understand, and still don’t, that they had only two children, both sons — and one of them killed the other — yet somehow they produced enough people to populate the Earth, without incest, which was a big no-no! Then some prophet or other made the Earth stop turning, an army blew horns until a wall fell down, a guy named Moses made the Red Sea divide in two, and made frogs fall out of the sky….

I needn’t go on. And that’s only a small start on one religion! The Wizard of Oz is more believable. And more fun.

I keep hearing, from the parapsychologists, the religious, and the occultists, about this unwillingness they point to, a reluctance by certain skeptics to consider the evidence. There may well be skeptics out there who match that description, but I don’t know of any. I’ve heard that the skeptics’ postulated refusal to believe, parallels and even exceeds the dedication of the most ardent reincarnation enthusiast, spoon-bending buff, or UFO devotee. I’ve also seen attempts to delineate the more or less nonrational bases that underlie such extreme positions.

It’s said, quite correctly, that the human mind needs to form an understandable picture of the universe in which it lives; pattern-seeking is a basic survival technique hard-wired into us. We also seek to have an understanding of our own existence, and we often find that adopting what can be described as a religious or a “religious-metaphysical” world-view seems to make it easier to make sense of the perceived riddle of existence. I find that skeptics, generally speaking, eschew belief in metaphysical, untestable, unscientific hypotheses, but credophiles prefer to believe that — when pressed — we skeptics will confess to having adopted at least some degree of metaphysical outlook. This can only be the credophiles’ desperate attempt at wishful thinking, a declaration that they cannot believe that not everyone is credulous. It’s just something they can’t relate to, nor accept.

Here is how the credophiles see us skeptics, and how they try to make themselves appear rational, in contrast to our giddy ways: They will admit that many of them have adopted unorthodox religious positions — and they may include in that list such obvious and ridiculous straw-men as Theosophy and Scientology, just to show that they’re not totally bereft of common sense. They say that while many skeptics disclaim any religious proclivities, yet, they add, upon careful examination, they too may often be seen to have a profound belief in what the credophiles see as the “metaphysical doctrine” that they call, “materialism.” This doctrine, they say, denies the existence of such entities as minds, souls, and spirits, and asserts that the physical universe constitutes the entirety of reality. They point out that as materialism cannot be said to be scientifically or philosophically proven, this embrace on our part may be due to a reaction to certain events and trends in the history of science.

This is a cart-and-horse inversion, in my opinion. To digress momentarily, let me provide here a view and an approach that I have given before. Readers will be aware of the million-dollar prize that is offered by the JREF. Many — a majority — of the applicants for that prize challenge us to disprove their claim(s). We point out that we make no claims, and we only require them to prove theirs; we do not, and will not, attempt to disprove that which they claim is true. Similarly, skeptics do not attempt to prove materialism. It is simply the best, most logical, reasonable, explanation of the universe. That’s using parsimony. And materialism can be tested — a feature the credophiles often say is not acceptable nor necessary within their supernatural world-view.

Skeptics do not allow the invention of convenient but untestable situations or entities to establish a claim, nor do they accept that mental or spiritual properties can be ascribed to physical matter, which is the origin of the idea of holy relics and locations. Buddha’s tooth, the Shroud of Turin, Lourdes, the Black Stone of Mecca, are examples. Aristotle, upon whose teachings much of Christianity is based, taught that there were “crystalline spheres” that carried the planets and stars on their celestial voyages, and that they were associated with incorporeal, undefined “movers” that provided the forces that kept them in motion. He thought that these “movers” were spiritual in nature, and that the relationship of a mover to its sphere was like that of a soul to its body. This view was amplified by later interpreters of Aristotle such as Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century who taught that baser matter was likewise conceived to have psychological properties.

Aristotle wrote that a terrestrial object fell to the ground due to its “aspiration” to reach its “natural place.” This animistic view of the universe is also found in the work of William Gilbert, the English physician. He endorsed the ideas of the Greek philosopher Thales, who attributed magnetic attraction to the action of a “magnetic soul” in the naturally magnetic mineral known as lodestone, the attraction brought about by the emission of a “magnetic effluvium” by the mineral. Gilbert also believed that the Earth itself had a magnetic soul. In its position so near the Sun, he said, the Earth’s soul perceived the Sun’s magnetic field, and reasoned that its one side would burn up while the other would freeze, if it did not act, thus it chose to revolve upon its axis, and then decided to incline its axis at a slight angle in order to bring about the variation of seasons.

Do not err by condemning Aristotle and Harvey as poor thinkers; they were not. Other matters they wrote about were well handled. It’s likely that if they’d had access to the improved knowledge that was developed after their period of existence, they would have accepted and celebrated that input; they were scientists, though the strict discipline of that profession had not been arrived at when they declared their conclusions. The fact that these fantastic animistic views of the matter constituting the Universe have now vanished as a result of scientific advances, must not lead us to disdain the ideas of the ancients; they did the best they could, and because of the freely-created inventions of their religions — virgin birth and loaves-and-fishes stories always spring to mind — they found no difficulty with their arguably less fanciful assumptions. However, it seems high time for the paranormalists, occultists, and religious enthusiasts of today to accept that their own assumptions are also no more, and no longer, acceptable. We need to grow up.

Religion is behind so many of the major tragedies of humanity. A new book by Jon Krakauer is titled, “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.” The current perception of Islam as a particularly militant religion — officially fanned and embellished to justify our presence in Iraq, in my opinion — invokes horrid memories of the Branch Davidian cult fiasco and the Aum Shinricko nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway of a few years ago, and of the 1978 “doomsday” suicide of the faithful in the Jim Jones’ People’s Temple sect. These are just a few dramatic instances of the effects of religious zeal that made the more conservative believers recoil and perhaps even doubt — momentarily — the wisdom of their faith.

It need not have taken such sudden, bloody, high-profile events to call our attention to this problem. Other more pervasive, ongoing situations to which we seem to have become accustomed because of their constant presence in our lives, should command equal alarm. The Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, the Catholic-Protestant war in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka’s Tamil-Sinhalese feud, and the Hindu-Muslim atrocities that daily take lives and bring terror and agony to so many, are only continuations of the ages-old confrontations between varieties of religious delusions. Desperate efforts to sustain — by any means — the rule and power of in-place religious systems that insist they have The Way to salvation and eternal life, as so well demonstrated in the bloody Catholic Inquisition that released us not too long ago, illustrate equally well that so much of our conflict is a direct result of the presence of religion. And, in cases of such minor events as local elections, the religion card can and often is played, with great success. We cherish our mistakes, and we defend them. Often to the death.

And the attitude that superstitious beliefs such as religion are harmless, is quite wrong. Richard Dawkins recently observed, in http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/dawkins.html:

I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate. Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion. And who, looking at Northern Ireland or the Middle East, can be confident that the brain virus of faith is not exceedingly dangerous?
I have always differentiated between “blind faith” and “evidence derived faith.” From now on, I’ll use the word “faith” and not insert “blind.” Rather than “evidence derived faith” I’ll use “confidence.” I have confidence in the rising of the Sun tomorrow — or, more correctly, the turning of the Earth to face the Sun! — and I have faith that George W. Bush will eventually cease appealing to a deity or invoking prayer in every one of his public appearances….

The credophiles try to establish a parallel between science and religion. This is a useless pursuit; these ideas are exact opposites of one another. No, as Dawkins also writes, “Although it has many of religion’s virtues, [science] has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence.”

We find religion in so much of our history, our philosophy, our everyday lives, and our legal system. Miscegenation was banned based on Biblical rules, slavery was justified by the same book. It’s convenient to have an ancient set of rules to back up odious actions and behavior, especially when it can be argued that a certain amount of “interpretation” — though never outright denial! — is necessary for them to properly be applied to any given situation. In that regard, I reject the tired arguments that try to excuse perfectly obvious errors and blunders of religion by insisting that “it doesn’t really mean that.” It means what it says, and no amount of alibi-ing and explaining will convince me that they didn’t intend the faithful to actually believe that the Universe was created in seven days. Make up your mind: either it’s right, or it’s wrong.

Spare me the argument that we owe so much of our art and culture to religion; that’s a misattribution. The great architecture, paintings, music, and sculpture that poured forth in adulation of saints, deities and their offspring, and the blessed deceased, were commissioned, sponsored and paid for by those who offered them as sacrifices, penance, homage, and public relations. Those offerings were items of insurance, appeasements, and bribes, to neutralize transgressions or to obtain a better position on line. They were prompted by fear. I agree that we’re better off for the wealth of creative work that we’re able to share as a result of this apprehension, but I often think of how much better it could have been if the work had been directed to, and designed for, our species — rather than for mythical beings in the sky or under the ground.

Well, I thank the mythology for giving me Handel’s “Messiah,” but that doesn’t make up for the suffering, grief, fear, and the millions of dead that need not have been….

Consider: a man believes — beyond any doubt — that his god is the only god, is all-powerful and all-knowing, has created him and the entire universe around him, and is capricious, jealous, vindictive, and violent. That same god offers the man a choice between burning in eternal agony in a fully-defined hell, or living forever in a variety of paradises — some of which involve streets of gold and others an ample supply of virgin delights. Is there any choice here? Will the man fail to carry out any command or whim of this deity? How can we doubt that religion is a compulsory system that absolutely rules its adherents? It’s a tyranny, a trap, a disaster of infinite size and scope. I’ll have none of it.

Examine the notion of a “loving god.” This god only loves you if you follow the rules. No questions, no doubts, no objections, are allowed. “Because I said so, that’s why.” He/she/it loves you as a farmer loves a draft-animal; you’re useful, you obey, and you’re docile. If you stray, your firstborn will be murdered, if you don’t follow a capricious order, you’re a pillar of salt. This is “love”? If so, I’ll take indifference.

Unlike the religious, who have it all cut-and-dried, predigested and served up to them, I’m willing to be shown. But I will not entertain the argument of threats and fear, I will not fall for the “we don’t know everything” throw-down, and I haven’t the time to argue the endless anecdotal tales of which the faithful are so fond.

What do I believe in? I believe in the basic goodness of my species, because that appears to be a positive tactic and quality that leads to better chances of survival — and in spite of our foolishness, we seem to have survived. I believe that this system of aging and eventually dying — a system that is the result of the evolutionary process, not of conscious effort — is an excellent process that makes room for hopefully improved members of the species, in an increasingly limited environment. I believe that if we don’t smarten up and get a sense of reality and pragmatism, our species will do what they all eventually do: it will cease to exist, prematurely. I also believe that we will get smart, because that’s a survival technique, and we’re really pretty good at that….

I also believe in puppy-dogs and a child’s sparkling eyes, in laughter and smiles, in sunflowers and butterflies. Mountains and icebergs, snowflakes and clouds, are delights to me. Yes, I know that this perception is the result of hard-wiring in my brain, along with the added input of experience and association, but that does not subtract a bit from my appreciation of phenomena. I know that others, both of my species and not, may not share my awe and acceptance of these elements that so please me, because they have different needs and reactions. A cloud is a mass of condensed water-vapor in the atmosphere, I know. But it can be a sailing-ship, a demon, an eagle, if I allow myself to be a human being, and though many will doubt it, I frequently do.

Author Krakauer, in his book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” dealing with the premise that violence and fanaticism can be found readily available in religion, writes:

Although the far territory of the extreme can exert an intoxicating pull on susceptible individuals of all bents, extremism seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperament or upbringing toward religious pursuits. Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a critical component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God . . .
“Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a critical component of spiritual devotion.” That says it all.

Next week, my throat cleared, I’ll be back to the usual items….

This entry was posted in animal behavior, editorial, environment, evolution, life, Links, overpopulation, skepticism and science. Bookmark the permalink.

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