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100 days of Love and Hate - Day 47 [Nov. 19th, 2006|06:39 pm]
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I have no problem with the concept that, if there's a God, he/she/it/they created the universe and set things in motion so that we would evolve. I also have no problem with the idea that the Big Bang was simply a reaction of various elements with no intelligence behind it, that we're all here through sheer chance and science. Then there's the flying spaghetti monster...

What I think matters is how we treat our world and the people in it, no matter what we, or they, believe.

I've had a few run-ins with skeptics. I'm going to mention the two most interesting. The first was James Randi himself.

Without going into details, I had an interesting bunch of experiences that, as someone who is much more comfortable with science, I found quite challenging and even upsetting. To my mind, what was happening was real, but it didn't make sense. So at best I was mistaken, at worst I was losing my marbles - with a very slight chance that maybe it was real mixed in there somewhere.

Started looking around on the net and got every addle-brained, horoscope reading, otherkin believing, mad bastard spouting their ideas and theories as solid fact. Couldn't find books on the subject either. What I was after was a logical, rational look at what was happening, to try and pick up anything that I had missed.

And then I discovered the James Randi Education Foundation. Always liked Randi, and as I read through the FAQ's and such, a couple of things leapt out at me as important.

"We at JREF never try to impose our beliefs or philosophies on others; we only try to inform them, and suggest that there are alternate choices to be made."

"Authority does not rest with scientists, when emotion, need, and desperation are involved. Scientists are human beings, too; they can be deceived and self-deceived. We at the JREF are skilled in two directions: we know how people are fooled by others, and we know how people fool themselves. We deal with hard, basic, facts, and we try our best to make them known. We try to protect people from influences that might obscure the true danger of uncritical thinking. We often succeed. And we have very substantial and eminent scientific authorities on hand to provide the advice and specialization we require."

"...this is the job we chose to take on, and it has its rewards in the feedback we get from those who have listened, learned, and benefited from our efforts. That's the payoff.

And it's worth the battle."

Remember that line. This is war. A war against blind belief in superstition.

I wrote to the website, never expecting an answer from Randi personally, but from one of the other folks who were a part of his organisation. My life had taken an interesting turn and I was after some perspective on some fairly out-there stuff that I had experienced. What I was hoping for was an outside point of view to say, "Dude, you've missed this huge obvious explanation right here!" I actually would have been quite happy and relieved by that. So I wrote a lengthy email, explaining the situation, my own history of skepticism, loose theories of my own, and asking for fresh perspective. The letter practically begged for a rational explanation, down to and including seeking out a counselor or doctor.

I got an answer within a day from James Randi himself. Not an underling or helper, but the guy who put scientific skepticism on the map. The reply was quite short.

"Go write a book."

That was it.

Now, you who have been reading 100 Days by now know how well I can construct an argument, how carefully I can articulate what I'm thinking. So you have an idea of how I would have approached a letter that was seriously and genuinely asking for rational and scientific ideas as to what had been going on in my life.

What I find offensive about this is not that he blew me off. What I find offensive and sad is that, when asked for rational explanations, Randi took the time out himself for a cheap shot. Now, while for me it meant that I would simply have to do my best to look for rational explanations on my own, for many other people you've just set them on the road to blind superstition. Many people would have been hurt and gone back to searching freak web-sites looking for answers. Some may have started to get drawn in.

What I learned from that small reply was that, just because you're an intelligent, scientifically minded human, it doesn't mean you're not also a thoughtless, stupid, bastard. And if the people who are handing out the rational explanations are thoughtless bastards, and the people pushing the healing power of fossilized dinosaur turds are nice and supportive, who do you think folks seeking answers will go towards?

Maybe he was having a bad day, maybe he'd had one too many freaked out claims or questions and I was the unlucky last in line. It doesn't matter! What he did was wrong. He would have been better off deleting the email rather than replying. The reply was not helpful, and in some cases may have added to the damage.

How many other people requesting a scientific angle in their time of confusion and need have received this treatment?

The thing I have noticed is that a lot of the skeptics who go so far as to join these organisations are extremists, with that same mean-spirited attitude that most extremists carry. They take far-too much delight in attacking and destroying beliefs, rather than trying to gently educate. Which makes them the better people how, exactly?

More recently, I was at a party with a guy from the Australian Skeptics Society. He was a reasonably fun, intelligent, entertaining guy. And then he told the story of another guy he knew, and the way that guy would handle religious canvassers that went around with their children.

When this person would open the door and the folks would start to talk to him about their beliefs, he would invite them into his home. He would get them drinks, chat amiably with them and the child for a while, letting them relax and get comfortable. Then, after about a quarter hour, he would turn to the child and say "There is no God. He doesn't exist. Your parents are living a lie and they have been lying to you for your whole life."

The guy's rational for doing it was that it would plant the seed of doubt, to start breaking the religious brainwashing of the parents. The kid would remember the words.

The ends justifies the means.

This isn't a case where these people have been hounding the guy, this is a case where he maliciously sets them up to hurt something that is a part of their family life. Can you imagine how outraged he'd be if a religious zealot did something similar with his own child? Brought up that there's lots of stuff that science can't answer? Had his child questioning science?

The worst thing was the obvious relish with which the story was told. The chap was telling the story because he admired the behavior of the guy doing this. You could see that he wished he had the ability to do the same thing. So caught up in his enjoyment of it was he, that he totally failed to notice that no-one said anything about it. The body language spoke volumes - people thought this was a terrible thing to have done.

I should add, the other guests were all science-types too, doing interesting things in various fields.

The problem I have with most skeptics is the same problem I have with most fundamentalists - they have an unwavering belief not only that they are right, but that because they are right, they can act as they see fit. It's an arrogance that only belongs to those that truly believe that the people who don't think as they do are worthless.

Most skeptics I have dealt with, like most religious obsessives, take a distasteful glee in attacking those they consider stupid and inferior. They don't try to educate, they try to destroy.

There's an automatic mockery of people who have faith over those that believe in science. However, many of the people who believe in science aren't scientists, don't know how it works, couldn't explain it if you asked them to. They have to have faith in the scientists. And they hold science up just as righteously as the foaming-mouthed fundamentalists do, as a shield through which no argument can penetrate.

It's a very special sort of ignorance.

But of the two I have less time for, and more sadness about, the skeptics.

Because being intelligent, reasoning people, they should know better.

Religious types
I was raised a Catholic. For various reasons I abandoned this, the main one being doing my own research into the sorts of things that church had done over the years. I like to think of myself as an open-minded skeptic. I look for a lot of other reasons for things, but try to listen to all arguments thoughtfully.

I actually really like most religious people. I don't believe what they believe, but I have the strongest admiration for the strength of their faith. As it should be, some of the nicest people I've known have been religious. Interestingly, some of the more religious folks never let on. You wouldn't have known they prayed daily, went to church frequently or whatever. You would only find out if it came up naturally in conversation.

There is a perception that 'dumb-people' believe in Gods. I've known many intelligent and thoughtful and clever people with a range of beliefs. For many people their faith brings them peace, happiness and direction. Yes, there are many religious people who are bigoted, close-minded arseholes, but hell, there's plenty on non-believers I can point to and say the same thing about. I believe what matters is a person's actions. Yes, there are those that act nice simply out of fear for going to hell, but others act nice because they are nice. They've taken their teachings to heart, and it actually brings them joy to help out.

I quite like it when people talk to me about their faith and belief. I like the insight into the person, I like the fresh perspective. I never approach it from the condescending "Well, I believe that you believe it," angle, because I don't think that's right or fair. I've had enough weird shit happen in my life to know I don't know it all, so who am I to look down on these folks? What matters more than whether I think there is a God and whether I think the person is right or wrong to have faith is this - Are they happy? Are they mean-spirited or nasty? Do they treat people around them with kindness and respect?

I remember when I was Santa-ing at Dandenong last year, I was down in the carpark about to leave when I noticed one of the Muslim stall-holders quietly going through his prayer-routine on a mat in the corner of the car park. And while I have no faith as such, I smiled and was happy to see this.

Because with many people it is a good and balanced part of their life, and it enriches the world just by existing. For all the evil and wickedness that is done in the name of religion, there has also been a lot of inspiration, beauty and compassion that has come from it.

People forget that. And strangely, I suspect we would have come up with reasons to do a lot of the bad stuff even if we didn't have religion in the world.

[User Picture]From: tikiwanderer
2006-11-19 07:51 am (UTC)
Just wanted to say that I loved both these topics.

I don't think you ever told me about the James Randi one, or if you did I'd forgotten. Hmm.
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[User Picture]From: battblush
2006-11-19 08:18 am (UTC)
I entered this post with the expectation that you'd bag the religious types and applaud the skeptics. Thank you for your even-handed approach to the topic. I am religious. I have a very deep belief in God. I don't have any particular way in which I direct that belief, but I'm working on it. I was justifying my need to believe today to Lee (a confirmed skeptic) and my belief that children are better off if they're raised in a balanced spiritual environment. In the end we decided to talk about the weather.

I'm really glad you didn't put 'religion is evil' but approached your thoughts in such an articulate way. This post rocks.
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[User Picture]From: purrdence
2006-11-19 09:43 am (UTC)
Yes, I agree with you. Having a husband who is a firm believer in Science and is not afraid to say so (loudly at time) and me believing there is more to just science and usually not saying much about it around him because I know I'll get the "are you serious?" look, it is refreshing to hear someone who will look at both sides of the story. I have my issues with some of the religious types I have encountered in my lifetime, which has resulted in a tendency to heckle (I am not that proud of this now, and I am working on it), I also have my issues with those on the other end of the spectrum.
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[User Picture]From: strangedave
2006-11-19 08:39 am (UTC)
The Randi one is interesting. Randi has a long time reputation of a guy who might well be right, but is kind of a jerk. But I've mostly taken it as personal.

And hey, the bit about religious canvassers? You might think its rude (and it is certainly sneaky), but I'm not really sure why its ruder than being a canvasser. The canvassers themselves are the ones who involve their children, and explicitly bring them along for a religious debate. Sure, the skeptic would be outraged to find himself in the same situation -- only he didn't go door-kocking to invite conversations about religion with perfect strangers, did he? Perhaps because thats exactly the sort of response he would expect?

On the whole, while there are some obnoxious atheists, by and large the secular humanists are more polite. They don't knock on peoples doors, and they politely decline when faced with those who do.

I'm not saying what he did was what I'd do, but I can't see that its any worse than canvassing in the first place, or, when it comes down to it, much more than just a slightly blunter version of exactly what the canvassers are allegedly asking for.

FWIW, I like religious people in general too. I think on the whole the deeply religious are often worthwhile people, and that for most religious people religion is a worthwhile and positive influence on their lives.

Hell, same goes for me too - its just that my spiritual beliefs are far weirder than the norm.
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[User Picture]From: purrdence
2006-11-19 09:32 am (UTC)
I often have kids in my class that get busted for mucking around, talking in class etc and then protest that the other kid talked to them first. I tell them they had the choice whether or not to talk back to the other kid.

In regards to the skeptic and the canvasser, both adult parties had a choice whether or not to participate. In my opinion, the skeptic had a greater choice. The skeptic didn't have to invite them into his house. He didn't have to talk to the canvassers. He could have just shut the door on them. Instead he went out of his way to be obnoxious, in particullar to the one party that had little choice to be there. I try to imagine how the kid would be thinking and I'd probably question my faith more if I had 50 people refuse to talk to us than 1 rude man would did. In fact, that 1 rude man would probably piss me off and make my faith stronger.
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[User Picture]From: king_espresso
2006-11-19 08:52 am (UTC)
Oddly enough I encountered a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses on my doorstep this morning. Maybe it's a sign of impending maturity that I just smiled and said "No thanks, I'm an atheist" and they went away.

I admit that I find a belief in the supernatural bemusing. I was never infected with a religious meme at an early age. Attempts were made, but when I asked a teacher during the old mandatory religious instruction lesson how a bronze age guy in the Middle East got kangaroos onto the Ark, this cogent question was not well received.

There are some studies that show that on basic ethical questions, atheists score at least as highly as religious people. Maybe most of us are wired with an innate sense of decency, which has a number of evolutionary advantages. But my analysis is that religions are started by con-artists (ala Hubbard) and perpetuated by the marks that the con-artists convince. There's less challenge to being good if you think someone (or something) is watching you all the time, than to do so when you know there isn't.

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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-11-19 10:02 am (UTC)
I hope I'm not an exception to that in terms of skeptics (I've recently joined the Aus Skeptics and went to their con today). I know there are skeptics like you've described, but I just assumed they were the more extreme example, in the same way that in any group of people most are fine and there's just a few bad apples giving them a bad name.

In fact at the dinner I went to a couple of months back I discussed this with one of the committee members. He agreed that some people do take it to an extreme, which is a shame.

Randi's response really sucked, and I'm surprised that he would do that.

Re JWs - if they come to my door, I tell them that my dad's a priest so they're unlikely to have much luck :)
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-11-19 12:04 pm (UTC)
Aust. Skeptics is the sort of thing I'd be interested in joining, but every time I meet one, they are just closed-minded in the opposite direction. When they don't have an explanation, they stick firmly to science in the same way people stick to their faith.

Oh, and if a skeptic who is a school teacher and looks a bit like a monkey gets interested in you - run a mile!

But it's nice to see more people I can respect becoming skeptics. Especially when they are so good looking :)
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[User Picture]From: thinarthur
2006-11-19 11:38 am (UTC)
Very interesting story, though now of course I want to hear your neo-Twilight Zone experience, maybe you can claim the Skeptics million dollar prize! I have heard several similar things about the Amazing Randi & the Skeptics crowd in the past, they sound all reasonable and understanding in the publicity but you ask them for a rational explanation of your weirdo event and they'll call you a fraud or loony. In all fairness to A.R his experienece with the paranormal is a bit llie your with Lameo, but you actually would have got a similar repsonse if you asked him about chiropractors so don't feel too bad. If your feeling up to it go along with Kath to their next meeting, the local crowd may be a bit more reasonable, though I do seem to recall that they hounded out one time skeptic of the year Dr Micheal Archer (of Riversliegh & Zencon fame)when he seriously suggested cloning Thylacines from Museum specimens ala Jurassic Park.
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[User Picture]From: kaths
2006-11-21 02:52 am (UTC)
Might be a bit hard, we're in different states now :)

I'll have to ask about the cloning Thylacines thing, dunno why they'd hound him out for that...
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[User Picture]From: arcadiagt5
2006-11-19 11:56 am (UTC)
Oh Applause!

Danny, have you read "The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox" by the late Stephen Jay Gould? If not I can lend it to you and I think you'll appreciate it even more than I did.

It is subtitled "Mending and Minding the Misconceived Gap Between Science and the Humanities"
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[User Picture]From: ghoath
2006-11-19 12:31 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you point out that the extremists at both ends are just as bad as each other, it's something I feel strongly about. Nobody should be thrusting opinions on other people, regardless of what they are. At the end of the day we all think our beliefs are valued, the only difference being that these extermists think that everyone should feel as strongly about their opinions as they do.

There is a perception that 'dumb-people' believe in Gods.

I'm glad you've pointed this out. I used to be scared of telling people I was religious through fear of them deciding I was stupid based on that one fact.

I used to be a Catholic but left not just because of the things they've done to people, but because they couldn't explain the unexplainable. I suppose you could say in the same way that Randy didn't explain the unexplainable.
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[User Picture]From: drjon
2006-11-19 01:30 pm (UTC)
I'm tempted to linkfrenzy this post. It's a damned good one.
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-11-19 08:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks dude, really appreciate the comment.

Link away if you think it's relevant enough.
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[User Picture]From: threemonkeys
2006-11-19 05:40 pm (UTC)
A few years back, I joined the NZ Skeptics. I was impressed by their pitch of being dedicated to the scientific method which requires testing and validation of claims. What I found was rather different. Yes there were individuals who were dedicated to rational analysis and testing, but the overall tone of the organisation was one of "rubbish the fringe types". Reading their newsletter was particularly frustrating as at no time did I see anything approaching rational analysis - just a series of emotional polemics against various fringe activities, mainly medical. I did not renew my membership.

I encountered James Randi once when he was touring the country. He came across as a showman more interested in entertaining the audience with magic tricks rather than any dedication to inform.
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-11-19 09:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this. This has very much been my experience of the various skeptics groups. I'm hoping kaths experience is much, much better.

Randi is just a guy, I still like what he stands for, just a shame that my experience of him was one where I could see how he'd drive people away from the rational by being so dismissive.

I wonder if he realises that his attitude, and the attitudes of some of his members, help the 'other team'? Be kind of funny if they were able to see that.
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[User Picture]From: king_espresso
2006-11-19 08:59 pm (UTC)
Here's a quote from Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan that shows the angry edge of the realist coalition.

Yeah. I'm calling your "faith" bullshit. This man needs medical help if he can't get through his life without something invisible to believe in. Y'know, I wouldn't mind all this half so much if there was some historical truth in it. This whole concept of "faith"— of believing in something that isn't fucking there— was invented by a man to cover up the cracks in the "christianity" he cobbled together with the Romans. This whole god thing comes from the days when our brains weren't as connected up as they are now, and we all hallucinated daily!
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-11-19 09:35 pm (UTC)
I actually agree with him, more or less. But I also don't think anyone has all the answers, so there has to be room for honest doubt and open-mindedness, otherwise you're just doing yourself and others a disservice.
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[User Picture]From: strangedave
2006-11-20 05:45 am (UTC)
Oh, on the subject of skeptics being no better than those they condemn, of some note is Australian geology professor Ian Plimer, who wrote an amusing, if somewhat savage and a little sloppy, book on creationism, "Telling Lies For God" -- and then later went on to become a global warming critic, in the process going at least partway to becoming the sort of self-important, mainstream science rejecting, crank he so vitriolically attacked previously.
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[User Picture]From: arcadiagt5
2006-11-20 06:57 am (UTC)
I was greatly amused by "Telling Lies For God" but (showing my ignorance here) didn't notice any grossly sloppy bits.

Anything in particular that I should be aware of?
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[User Picture]From: thinarthur
2006-11-20 09:50 am (UTC)

Fortean Times

This would be a pertinent time to bring up the magazine Fortean Times, it's the paranormal equivalent of New Scientist and the only magazine I buy regularly these days. Named for Charles Fort, epic chronicler of all things bizarre, its attitude to strange phenomena & events is similar to what most of you seem to be saying. The articles range from the credulous to the skeptical and its overall tone is not to push a party line but let you work things out for yourself. The website is http://www.forteantimes.com/ but you can get it at all good newsagents & crappy ones as well.

Re the "Telling Lies For God" book, my favourite bit was where he showed a noted Geologist who was a prominent Fundamentalist speaker worked for Texas Oil companies as his day job, which meant he had to accept current geology theory or else he'd never find oil ! On the subject of Global Warming, haven't the right wingers done an Orwellian backflip on that in the last year?

It is also worth noting that prominent Skeptic & Scientist Richard Dawkins is married to Lalla Ward, apparently he is the closest thing you'd get to Tom Baker's Doctor in real life. Interestingly his "Selfish Gene" theory is remarkably like the ancient Greek "Personal Daemon" belief, which is where the Christian concept of Guardian Angels arises from.
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From: tillianion
2006-11-20 09:55 am (UTC)
What you said about being concerned about how people live their lives really resonated with me.

I believe in God, and I believe not only in a faith basis, but I've reasoned it, studied it at university, and for me it makes sense. My husband, however, does not. Yet at the end of the day, we have the same sense of justice, the same sense of what is right and wrong. We get incensed over the same things, and can forgive the same things. Whether he believes in God or I do, doesn't matter at this basic level. We believe in people the same way.

Although I look forward to the day that we die, and he has to turn around admit I was right all along :)
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[User Picture]From: tosk
2006-11-20 05:21 pm (UTC)
I suppose you may already have read it, but if you're interested in a Skeptic's view of the unexplained/uncategorized/unknown, try Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson, or Prometheus Rising by the same author.

They seemed to work well for me.
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[User Picture]From: dalekboy
2006-11-20 08:15 pm (UTC)
Ta for that, will add them to my reading list :)
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