The Raving Theist

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The New Skepticism

July 11, 2005 | 21 Comments

I once noted that “I don’t go after astrology, psychic phenomenon and other pseudoscience because those forms of irrationalism are not usually protected or favored by the First Amendment, and have no constituencies pushing to have such beliefs enacted into law.” According to Slate, some noted skeptics are shifting their focus in the same direction. Instead of pursuing television fortunetellers, they’re targeting mainstream fundamentalist politicians and their policies. And rather than public “debunkings,” they consider it more fruitful to employ a “positive” defense of science and reason:

Michael Shermer, the historian of science whose California-based Skeptics Society hosted the conference in Pasadena, also avoids the D-word. He’d rather talk about why people are fooled by supernatural hoaxes than spend his time debunking them. His group has doused the activism of CSICOP’s early days with a program of research, lectures, and meetings.

* * *

Intelligent Design theorists and deniers of global warming may very well be phonies and scoundrels, but no one is going to debunk them in the classic sense. You can’t reveal their hidden microphones or mimic their tricks with sleight of hand. Intelligent Design, after all, is an attempt to recast (even to “rebunk”) Creationism in scientific terms. The best weapon against it isn’t dramatic expos


21 Responses to “The New Skepticism”

  1. Jason Malloy
    July 11th, 2005 @ 7:13 pm

    Skeptics were insane to think John Edwards was a more important fraud than Jesus and the Pope; I’ve always been resentful of that, it was a misuse of intellectual resources. In a sense I disagree with you that God genes and memes are not an important area of focus, because atheists have to know what the source and nature of deep conviction are before they can effectively act to change them. Traditional “appeals to reason” don’t appear to work very well.

    The difference between the “scientific” and “debunking” strategies, btw, is that Geller used physical tricks that can be physically exposed in a manner that lay-people understand (props and sleight of hands can be “caught on tape”, failures to perform can be demonstrated, etc.). Meanwhile, the average person doesn’t understand how to figure out who is bullshitting when it comes to arguments over carbon 14 dating or point mutations*, and the problem with “debunking” Creationism is that is impossible without a certain amount of ability and initiative on the part of the persons you are trying to convince. Most don’t have this initiative and many certainly don’t have the ability.

    * Even if able, few people even have the time to familiarize themselves with a scientific issue, so they can know every side of it (a car mechanic needs to know how to fix a car so he can have a family. Taking time to read genetics texts is going to steal time from his ability to earn or enjoy his short life). At this exceedingly superficial stage of knowledge many sides can seem plausible and who are you going to trust – your family, church, friends and loved ones (who all believe just like you do) – or strangers with coarse tongues and foreign beliefs and values?

  2. Jason Malloy
    July 11th, 2005 @ 7:21 pm

    Also I seriously doubt the old-time dubunking ever did much good either. People believe what they want to (witness the increasing membership of Jehova’s Witnesses *after* repeated failed prophecy).

    People don’t need to know why one psychic is a fraud but why the entire edifice of superstition a) is *epistemologically* wrong and b) why they should care. Isolated debunkings say little about the foundation of wrong belief. We appreciate science despite its failures, and people appreciate “God” or “The Psychic Hotline” despite their failures too. They just don’t understand or care why those failures are of a very different nature.

  3. hermesten
    July 11th, 2005 @ 8:32 pm

    “People believe what they want to…”

    Reminds me of something The Amazing Randi did: he went on TV in Australia as a practicioner of crystal and pyramid power. When he later revealed himself as a hoaxer people refused to believe he was faking it, some even insisting that he had been tricked or brain-washed into a false confession.

  4. boywonder
    July 12th, 2005 @ 1:49 am

    Mr. Raving Atheist, do you have a particular strategy in mind that you consider to be a correct or superior approach to simultaneously debunking religion and spreading scientific reasoning? Or do you just disagree with the approaches in this article?
    Jason Malloy, I thought you had several good points in your previous posts. There were a few things there I hadn’t considered from that point of view.

  5. Mookie
    July 12th, 2005 @ 12:19 pm

    JM, 1&2, good defense of memes and the like. Getting to the root cause is the first step in eliminating the meme. Understanding how and why it spreads is very important.

    People often tell me “but their belief doesn’t hurt anybody, it makes them feel good, so let them!”. On a small scale, I suppose it only hurts the individual, but when the meme is spread, it makes the problem spread. Why is the belief in the supernatural and/or unverifiable bad? Because it solves nothing, and allows superstition and ignorance to thrive. How useful is something that is nonsensical? How useful is information that cannot be tested or verified? Basing solutions on false facts leads to problems, big problems. It makes more sense to use the scientific method to procure information and solutions from our environment. Making up silly stories to explain away natural phenomena is counterproductive, especially when these stories prevent understanding of more correct and useful information regarding these phenomena.

    Ancient cultures had various gods that kept tabs on natural cycles. Apeasing these gods would grant the humans favors. While it is a good thing to respect nature, to appreciate it, it is not a good thing to demean humans (and nature) by throwing our petty whims on something that does not relate to human behavior.

    Why does it rain? 1. God did it. or 2. Rain is the result of a complex hydrological cycle that, when understood, allows us to make fairly accurate predictions as to its behavior. Yes, 1 IS an answer, but, even if correct, it does us no good whatsoever. We could assume 2 is false but still find it useful in making important predictions, but that makes no sense either. If I want it to rain, I check the forecast to see if it will or not. A rain dance or two will not encourage clouds to form and rain to fall. There is no causal relationship. Believing there is is counterproductive, as I could be doing something more productive with my time than trying to appease a natural cycle that exists as a result of natural, universal laws, over which I have very little control.

    Understanding how and why the idiocy spreads allows us to formulate a solution. People seek answers to explain natural phenomena. The answers we give determine how people learn to interpret the world around them. Give them lame, useless answers like “god(s) did it” and they will grow up fearing this dark and mysterious world. Give them useful, verifiable and scientifically derived information, and they will be better equipped to understand and deal with the world. Filling young minds with idiotic ideas is immoral, a slavery of the mind. It reduces the potential that person has, not only for themselves, but for any possible contribution they may make for the rest of humanity.

    “But their belief doesn’t hurt anybody, it makes them feel good, so let them!”

    No, I choose to counter the forces of ignorance and apathy. False ideas hurt us all, directly and indirectly.

  6. curt
    July 12th, 2005 @ 5:03 pm

    I think we need another Scopes-type confrontation, but in an online debate format. A dream team of scientists, philosophers, etc. could represent naturalism/evolution, and the IDiots could pick their own “A-listers.” No time limit, no draws; this one would hash it ALL out to the very bitter end. I think an online debate would allow for relatively quick responses (as opposed to print publication), but would also allow for everyone to marshall all the resources available to them, research every point as needed, and hone their arguments to the best of their abilities.

  7. Lucy Muff
    July 12th, 2005 @ 6:48 pm

    dream team of scientists is right because they is all dreamers. As einstine said, science is lame without religon, and he was knowing a lot about it so should be listened to in this matters. There MUST be religious input for the dabate to have meanings over what is interpreted from “facts” and other things that are not full understood. All answers are in bible in one form or another, like “love thy neighbor” for instances. If all neighbors are loved then maybe people stop throwing posion and shit into all ours air.

  8. Debbie
    July 13th, 2005 @ 1:24 am

    Lucy Muff articulates a popular theist’s position quite well. There is little point arguing with people who hold such beliefs, even those who are sincere, or who have a grasp of the English language above second grade, as their view of what constitutes rational debate is very different from ours. I know a number of theists who believe the bible to be literally true in spite of all the physcial evidence around them. Their rationalization is that the bible is true and therefore there is something about all we see around us that we somehow do not ‘understand’.

    Many who don’t have a sacred text with revealed truth still find meditation, faith healing, horoscopes etc. to give their lives ‘meaning’.

    I have often entered debates with theists who claim either:
    (1) that knowledge in the bible has been validated scientifically or that physics shows the need for a creator, or
    (2) simplistic views that there are inherent contradictions in science, such as entropy being at odds with evolution.
    They often hold both of these views (i.e. science as validator of religion and science as inherently flawed) simultaneously! When you explain why their arguments are wrong, I have never EVER had a theist admit that I had corrected their understanding of the science involved … instead they will change the argument with a ridiculous statement such as “you can argue all you want but one day you will realize that the bible is true”.

    What I find most disturbing is how people with a robust scientific education, and who in other respects are highly rational, hold religious views such as Catholicism that incorporate demons and other irrational silly primitive ideas.

    All we can do is articulate a rational humanist argument and make it accessible for the theist with an open mind. Some theists will be prepared to read and listen, the majority will stick with their Bronze Age belief system.

  9. simbol
    July 13th, 2005 @ 11:37 am


    At first I thought of yours: “what a good idea”!!

    Then I thought: We can win !!

    Then: what will be the rules? Perhaps this is not very difficult.

    then: who will be our dream team?. We have to be very picky and make a very tough test.

    Then: who will be the Judge and the Jury? Here began the problems.

    Then I thought: What doest it mean “to win”?

    More problems because maybe the measure ought to be what party gain more adepts in net terms and as a percentage. Because you cannot exclude that atheist can lose some constituency since not all atheist would pass the “real proof” of atheism: flying a nose diving plane that surely will crash, without crying “God, help me”. If the relation now is, say, 90:10, we will win if we finish with more than 10% of atheists and they with less than 90% of believers. But I’m not sure of this criterion.

    Then, who and how are we to count the ballots. I don believe in internet or the media for that count. We must no accept, under any circumstances the electoral authorities of Florida

    Then, maybe the criterion shouldn’t be so astringent: maybe we should include in our side those who become deist or agnostic since this will be a lost for organized churches.

    Then I became afraid: suppose we win, and the mullahs put a fatwa in our dream team, because I don’t expect to convince even one mullah. I’m not sure even of myself if they put a fatwa on RA of, say, 50.000 bucks

    Then I became suspicious: What about if we win and then catholics make a “miracle” and reverse the outcome?. You know some of this miracles have happened recently.

    Friend Curt, I’m very worried about the feasibility of your idea, but I like it very much even when I think it is risky, but as you know “no risk no win”. Maybe you can elaborate a little bit more about it, so that we can advance this wonderful proposition.

  10. simbol
    July 13th, 2005 @ 11:49 am

    I suggest you to manoeuvre for putting Lucy Muff in the “dream team” of believers. You know: the fifth column.

  11. Viole
    July 13th, 2005 @ 5:31 pm

    Wouldn’t be much of a fifth column. Lucy’s incompetence would be enough to keep her off a team for anything. I’m sure we could find a fake-theist who can actually spell, and make seeming-rational arguments.

  12. hermesten
    July 14th, 2005 @ 11:15 am

    Viole, a theist who could actually spell AND make rational (even seeming rational) arguments would be an atheist. Sometime’s Lucy’s language “skills” are a little over-the-top, but sometimes Lucy sounds just like the Christians I am exposed to –with far greater frequency than I would prefer.

  13. jahrta
    July 14th, 2005 @ 11:25 am

    I think the perpetrator being the Lucy Muff fiasco believes that by intentionally mispelling every single word that s/he will be exposing the stupidity of theists at large. is this really necessary? I think most of us here already know the “mentality” at work in those who fully embrace their theistic beliefs and are unable or unwilling to accept empirical evidence when it bites them on the ass. all it does to come here and pose as a theist who can’t spell is to make the rest of us look stupid for responding to this individual as if s/he is a real person. any true atheist would drop the ruse – it’s far more entertaining to bash the true theists who come here looking to start a fight. I’ve never understood that, by the way – isn’t that like David Duke taking the mic at the Apollo? Or a spokesman from the KKK atending a Holocaust survivor’s conference?

    many of us who made the switch to atheism did so because of deep personal reflection and painful moments in our lives. Some of that pain came directly from religion, so what do the religious nuts suppose they’re going to accomplish by screaming religious dogma and bible verses at us like we’re supposed to give a shit? i’m glad my atheism pisses off religious people. i like to watch them waste their time and energy trying to convert me. i can handle it. as long as they’re preoccupied with me maybe there are some kids out there they’ll forget to brainwash.

  14. schemanista
    July 14th, 2005 @ 12:18 pm

    I want to see Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier take on Gary Habermas.

    On the “ID” side of things, we could assemble an impressive list of contributors, but the Discovery Institute folks just wouldn’t show.

    In any debate with a proponent of ID, just ask them “Rev. Dr.” Lenny Flank’s questions. Then sit back and enjoy the sounds of crickets chirping.

  15. curt
    July 14th, 2005 @ 1:33 pm

    Simbol–I think you have in mind a much more formal debate than what I’m proposing. I guess online “exchange” or “confrontation” would be more like it. No judges, juries, literal scorekeeping, or anything like that. Just both sides definitively and comprehensively putting their best arguments and rebuttals forward in a forum that’s easily accessible to the public. Richard Dawkins and Richard Carrier would be two of my first picks. Let’s face it–the scientific community’s refusal to dignify creationism and ID with a response has only allowed it to flourish and seize ever-increasing political power. “Not dignifying it with a response” is no longer a luxury we can afford, and to continue down that path is the height of irresponsibility. When any number of hair-raising policies (on abortion, stem-cell research, sex education, etc.) have essentially the same literalistically biblical roots as creationism, this is a problem that MUST be addressed, as decisively as possible.

  16. msf
    July 14th, 2005 @ 3:52 pm

    How about high quality science education in the high schools? Not just the material itself, which at least in some schools seems fine (my son’s high school science texts are surprisingly good – thanks Red Hook NY school board!) but some meta-science or philosophy of science or theory of knowledge or history of science – no, not Wittgenstein or Popper or heaven forbid, deconstruction, not that stuff – but things like:

    Why scientific evidence should be believed (or not believed) – for example, why tests of statistical significance are meaningful. Instead, most people think that “Everyone lies with statistics.” Another example is how scientific results in unrelated fields can combine to confirm or disconfirm particular hypotheses (for example, how geology and paleontology have combined to describe the extinction of dinosaurs). And sure enough, people need to be educated that scientific results are always provisional and can turn out to be wrong, but that indeed, over time, can become extremely well confirmed. Think of the countless people who believe that Darwinism is “just a theory.”

    How science works – peer review, professional skepticism, the ever-present possibility of disconfirmation. Instead, people get watered-down crap from the media, quoting a single, often unreplicated study, “Scientists say that….” and sure enough, sometimes the scientists are wrong. So people end up disregarding what scientists say.

    An historical appreciation of the success that science has had since the Enlightenment in broadening our knowledge of just about everything, as compared to superstition and mythology (ie religion), which have attempted to keep us ignorant.

  17. St. Teabag
    July 14th, 2005 @ 4:35 pm

    Although I can barely prevent myself from laughing when anyine tries to defend “Intelligent design” or whatever they call it these days, the phrase “just a theory” bothers me. Quantum theory is “just a theory”, but it’s a damn good one. String theory is just a theory, and at the moment it has as much physical evidence to back it up as creationism (although nothing so far to falsify it), but we don’t pour scorn on the string theorists.

    Ultimately everything is just a theory, and one day we may come to see evolution in a very different light and think how cute Darwins theory was. So, I think it is fair to say that Darwinism is just a theory. The real denate should be the relative merits of certain theories, and in that context the theory of darwinism is a much much better theory than intelligent design or creationism.

  18. Mookie
    July 14th, 2005 @ 6:47 pm


    A theory is a way of describing how things work. The theory of gravity is a theory because there may be cases where gravity does not apply. So too with evolution. We must remember, though, that just because there MAY BE CASES where the theory does not apply to the evidence – or vice versa – it does not mean that there ARE cases where the theory falls apart.

  19. No One Important
    July 14th, 2005 @ 9:30 pm

    but we don’t pour scorn on the string theorists.

    You must not work in physics. String theory’s lack of testability gets mocked mercilessly — and in print too. It earns some respect as promising as somewhat useful, but the scorn gets poured by the gallon too.

  20. Mark Plus
    July 16th, 2005 @ 12:32 pm

    Regarding the intellectual fad of attributing religious belief to “god genes,” “god parts of the brain” and the like, how do the advocates of these ideas account for the explosive growth of religious nonbelief in the past 100 years? Antireligious communist regimes had something to do with it, but belief has also spontaneously imploded in much of Western Europe without any deliberate effort to bring it about. According to a recent NYTimes article about nonbelief in Spain, the home of the Inquisition, a catholic clergyman complains that among Spaniards atheism now conveys “social prestige”! The theory of a biological basis for religiosity also hasn’t dealt to my satisfaction with the fact that you have to learn of these beliefs from your social environment, otherwise you wouldn’t independently think them up. Children learn about god in the same way they learn about Harry Potter, so if they never receive exposure to the god idea, what happens to their “god genes/neurons”? Do they go unemployed?

  21. boywonder
    July 19th, 2005 @ 8:25 pm

    Mark Plus, “…the explosive growth of RELIGIOUS NONBELIEF..” What the hell is religious nonbelief? I think you are a little confused. Yes, there are still many questions not yet answered to our satisfaction concerning a god gene or god center in our brains. Much of it is still conjecture. Neurobiology is in its infancy. I think the basic concept is that the average human brain is suited for mental adaptation just as the body is suited for physical adaptation. The physiological adaptation of the brain to suit our needs is not in dispute . The brain stem is referred to as our reptillian brain for a reason. The rest of the brain was developed over time as a result of the advantages a larger brain gave us in terms of natural selection. Hominids with larger brains tended to fair better than their stunted counterparts. What I think you are questioning is where did religiousity come into play during the formation of our brains. This is still up in the air. I think when we became smart enough to understand our environment, and mainly when we started to become ‘conscious’ of our own existence, our brains had to adapt with an answer to understanding death. Why do you think most people believe that without god, there is no meaning in life? Why do people still commit suicide? What about depression? Those last two questions have multiple answers, but the no god question hits a nerve. Somewhere in our collective past, it became advantageous to be hard-wired to believe in a god. It relieved stress, anxiety, and fear associated with death and misfortune. Death and misfortune are still around, so our need to believe is still there. But now we have a better understanding of death and this is slowly replacing the necessity for belief in a god or gods. That is why less and less people are believing. I think it is the next step in our evolution (or one of many steps anyway) to no longer need a god. God is a security blanket we are throwing away in the switch from adolescence to adulthood, metaphorically speaking.
    One other factor that speaks for the existence of a god part of the brain is how religion developed independently in nearly every civilization in history. It doesn’t matter what the individual tenets were of each religion. The point is everyone had the inclination to believe or want to believe. If we are only 1% or so different in genetic makeup then it is reasonable to assume our cognitive faculties are comparable. It is for the same reasons civilizations developed their own languages, arts, and technologies. Every society had the brains to do those things. Religion was no different. The religions you see now are refined (and still refining) versions of those past religions. They are keeping up with the times and trying to adjust to critical bombardment from science and society on a global scale.
    I know this is an oversimplified explanation and you are probably not satisified with it. If you have more questions, let me know. I’ll try to answer them the best I can.

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