Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Bill Maher & Mike Huckabee Discuss Faith

Posted in Skepdude, Video by Skepdude on November 3, 2008

How not to fight religious superstition

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 28, 2008


In the summer of 1835 the editor in chief of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke (a descendant of John the philosopher) started publishing articles relating to the increasingly stunning discoveries of astronomer John Herschel. With his telescope placed in a good observational spot in South Africa, Herschel had unearthed astronomical evidence of lakes on the moon! Over a few days, Locke reported, Herschel’s observations had confirmed first the existence of herds of animals, then of intelligent beings, and finally even of houses of worship on our close planetary companion. The New York Sun’s sales shot up, and New York was awash with talk of the new scientific findings.

Of course, Locke’s reports were actually a hoax, though he was astonished to find out that many people kept believing them even after it was revealed that Herschel (who was, in fact in South Africa at the time, unaware of the scheme) had never made any of the alleged claims. Locke’s was an exercise in ridiculing superstition with the aim of forcing people to realize how gullible and silly their beliefs really are, thereby prompting their abandonment. It failed spectacularly.

What prompted Locke’s experiment was the fact that although astronomy was very popular that year, since Halley’s comet was due to reappear after the summer, many New Yorkers considered it further proof of intelligent design in the universe! You see, obviously God is so powerful that it can throw large celestial objects around as He pleases, the (by then well known to science) laws of mechanics be damned. Locke, much in the fashion of his fellow countryman, Richard Dawkins, thought that the United States was a wonderful place full of energy and promise of change, which would be even better if only Americans could rid themselves of religious nonsense (on the latter point, of course, I am firmly with both Dawkins and Locke). Hence the idea of the hoax, and the sour disappointment that must have followed Locke’s witnessing of New Yorkers’ reaction to it.

The 19th century moon hoax is described in a new book by Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. It may be difficult to imagine people who lived only less than two centuries ago seriously taking a random block of ice as evidence for a divine creator, but it’s likely that readers of the 23rd century will react with equal astonishment to the news that half of Americans at the dawn of the millennium couldn’t see the obvious fact that we are animals closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas.

The serious question, highlighted by the parallels between the two situations — is how do we fight superstition. Locke and Dawkins may be amusing to their respective fellow intellectuals (yours truly included), but obviously their sarcasm doesn’t do the job that they intend for it to do. Just in the same way, one might add, that Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber surely don’t find The Daily Show with Jon Stewart very funny. Then again, on this blog I recently praised the sarcastic approach to religion used by Bill Maher in his recent movie, Religulous. Along similar lines, a recent National Public Radio commentary on Duck Soup, the classic Marx Brothers movie, reminded us of how biting Groucho and brothers’ social satire could be, in that case making fun of the Great Depression that had started only three years earlier, and that among other things had wiped out the Marxs’ savings, forcing them to go back to acting to make a living (who said there was no positive side to the economic collapse of the nation?).

Satire can change the world, which was the point of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where monks who translate Aristotle’s writings on comedy are mysteriously killed because once we can make fun of the gods we do not take them seriously anymore, and all hell breaks lose, so to speak. (You are of course better off reading the book, but Sean Connery was certainly charming in the lead role of the corresponding movie.) It has been said that anyone can write a tragedy, because all it takes is to put black on white the way life actually is. But intelligent comedy about society takes real genius, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Groucho to Jon Stewart.

The trick that some get right, but Locke obviously did not, is to aim the satire at the right level and at the right audience. Maher’s critique of religion is much less intellectual than Dawkins’, and therefore all the more effective. Most people don’t believe in god because of the intricacies — such as they are — of the ontological argument. It is therefore senseless to explain to them why the argument doesn’t work. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?” There is of course a kind of theological gymnastics that can get you out of that one, but the blank stare on the fake Jesus’ face was priceless: it had clearly never occurred to him that there was a chance that he was the one who picked the wrong religion. Oops!

Similarly with the audience. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who watch The Daily Show are cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-reading, Volkswagen Beetle-driving unabashed liberals such as myself (alas, I sold my Beetle when I moved to New York, to reduce my carbon footprint, but you get the point). But his show is so popular that clips of it appear not only on YouTube, but on CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets, thereby greatly enlarging the audience, and likely reaching people who may drink cappuccino but don’t read the New York Times. Some of these people will recognize the commonsense humor that Stewart displays, and may begin to appreciate the absurdity of, say, Sarah Palin’s contradictions on pork barrel spending, and so on.

The world isn’t going to change just because of humor, of course. Nonetheless, today’s New Yorkers really would think it completely silly to look at a comet as proof of intelligent design in the universe, thereby further reducing the scope of supernatural so-called “explanations.” If well done, comedy can help open up people’s minds and prepare the terrain for more serious discourse. But enough of this, I need to go to a comedy club in Manhattan tonight which is featuring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi. Tickets – $15 (plus mandatory drinks)!


Superstition, pattern seeking and loss of personal control

Posted in Rationally Speaking by Skepdude on October 7, 2008


A couple of days ago I went to see Religulous, the investigative documentary by Bill Maher into why people believe weird things about religion. I enjoyed Maher’s laid back approach much better than the Dawkins-Hitchens style hard nose atheism, unfortunately so popular among some atheist groups. The difference is not one of substance (though Maher claims not to be an atheist, he comes very, very close), but of style. And yet style makes all the difference where belief isn’t just a matter of cold rational analysis, but also of messy human emotions.

Think of Maher as a comedian-turned-social commentator in the style of Jon Stewart (though Maher was doing his Politically Incorrect show on Comedy Central and then ABC before the Daily Show got started. He is now the host of Real Time on HBO). Maher, much like Stewart, takes on the role of a modern day Socrates. He admits he doesn’t know much (though, just as in the case of the Greek philosopher, it’s clear that he actually knows a lot more than his self-important, shallow targets do), and goes around “simply” asking questions. The questions we encounter throughout Religulous, however, are devastating. Posed to rabbi, priests, ministers, Jesus impersonators and just every day folks, they are meant to expose the ignorance that underlies much religious faith, as well as the tendency of some religious “leaders” to take easy advantage of their flock.

After the movie, though, I got into a conversation with my friend Phil (the editor of this blog) about whether religion is a cause or a symptom of society’s maladies. Neither of us went for the simplistic Dawkinsian scenario that religion is the root of all evil, and we probably agreed (I’m not entirely sure, after having shared martinis) that religions are at least co-causes, enablers, if you will, of much human suffering. If we were to somehow eliminate (not by force, of course, but by persuasion) religion from human culture things would likely get better, possibly much better, but we still would be very far from living in an earthly paradise, so to speak.

This is of course related to the questions of where religion comes from and what function, if any, it plays at the social or psychological level, both of which have increasingly been under the scrutiny of science. In my next entry I will deal with a recent study of the sociology of religion, but here I’d like to comment on research addressing its psychology. A paper in Science (3 October 2008) by Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky reports on experimental evidence that links lack of control by individuals to their proneness to find patterns where none exist, and to develop superstitious behavior.

Lacking control over one’s circumstances is a well known source of anxiety, a situation that activates the brain’s amygdala, the roots of the fear response. And it is also understood that there is a correlation between unpredictability of events and superstition: for instance, people have studied tribes of fishermen fishing at increasing distances from the land, hence in deeper waters and faced by more unpredictable dangers, and have found that the farther out one goes the more the tribe develops superstitious rituals related to fishing. (A similar phenomenon occurs in sports, where there is a correlation between the unpredictability of one’s role in the game and personal superstition: baseball pitchers, for instance, are particularly prone to it.)

Whitson and Galinsky put their subjects in a variety of experimentally induced situations where they had different degrees of control, to see how they reacted to a variety of perceptual tests. The results were stunning: people who felt little or no control over a given situation were much more prone to see patterns where there were none, make up superstitious scenarios, and invent conspiracy theories to explain their situation! Why on earth should this be? The authors conclude that inventing patterns is a cognitive way to regain psychological (certainly not real) control over events, thereby reducing stress. Interestingly, however, another way to achieve the same result was to allow individuals to contemplate and affirm their values, after which their proclivities toward conspiracies and non-existing patterns regressed toward those of the control subjects. Indeed, Whitson and Galinsky suggest that this may be one reason psychotherapy works: the goal of the therapist is precisely that of allowing the patient to construct a narrative that puts him back in charge of the unfolding of his life, with a focus on his personal guiding principles and values.

The lingering question, of course, is why would making up an imaginary pattern or explanation be effective psychologically. After all, one isn’t about to gain real control over events, only an illusory one. But here perhaps we enter into the area where sociological explanations may be helpful, and I will refer the reader to my next installment on this topic. Meanwhile, tell your friends to go see Religulous, or at the least to sign up for therapy.


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