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.
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.