Monday, January 24, 2011

Extreme Claims and Faith

Amongst people of faith that I've dealt with in my life I've noticed a disturbing trend. Even more disturbing is that this trend often extends to people who cannot be labeled as fundamentalists. Even intelligent people who know an awful lot about the world can be conned. We're not immune to gullibility, even those of us who are skeptical about a great many subjects. There have been great minds and vast intellects throughout history who fell prey to pseudoscience and superstition. The best example I can give is that of Isaac Newton. It isn't Newton's theism that I necessarily want to disagree with her but his belief in Alchemy. That's right, Newton, one of the most brilliant minds in history, believed in something as hokey as Alchemy. I've had numerous theists bring up Isaac Newton because Newton was a theistic scientist and they want to suggest that because an intelligent person believe in god that gives god claims some validity it didn't have. This idea is crushed when I bring up that Newton believed in Alchemy as well.

History is filled with this story time and time again and it truly shows the pervasive desire our species has to believe in the supernatural, or merely to believe. We want to believe but through trial and error and mastery of language we've learned not to accept most claims on faith. Oh sure I'll accept the idea that I exist and you exist, we must have some fundamental assumptions in order to get anywhere at all. I'll also accept basic information that is non-extraordinary, like if you tell me you shower daily or had a sandwich for lunch. The more mundane the information the more likely we are to believe it which is why lying is so effective.

So what drives otherwise rational people to believe the wildly unfounded claims of religion or of psychics and mediums and pseudoscientists? What causes them to abandon reason in favor of faith and why do they think this is ever acceptable?

(infamous photos of fairies which managed to convince famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite having dreamed up the always logic bound Sherlock Holmes Doyle was a spiritualist and believed these photos were genuine).

The More Extreme the Claim the MORE Skeptical we should be

When I discuss someone’s religious beliefs with them I sometimes get a statement that God must believed on Faith. That we ought to just “let go” and “believe” in God. It is as though the God concept, for whatever reason, receives a free pass. This bizarre “Get out of Criticism Free” card is played at different times but is used almost universally by religion. It is as if the people who use this KNOW full well that the claims of religion are not compelling enough to stand up to reason or scrutiny. Like many such beliefs these rely on emotional states. Someone having a really bad week or a really bad life might be excited to hear that Jesus loves them. A person wracked with guilt may hear that Jesus loves them regardless of their misdeeds and leap at the chance to be “washed in the blood”. I went through a great deal of just such emotional vulnerability growing up and each time I felt miserable religion was there to give me a little comfort. The false emotional high was sometimes enough to stave off the doubts, the guilt and the confusion that my beliefs had left me with.

In truth the more extreme and extraordinary a claim the MORE we should be skeptical of it. Claims involving the supernatural, magic, the occult, or non-mainstream “scientific” conclusions are worthy of scrutiny. There is a reason why mainstream science is mainstream, it’s been proven. There’s a reason pseudoscientists are ostracized or ignored by the actual scientific community and it has nothing to do with conspiracies of silence.

If you claim to talk to the dead, perform miracles or be in contact with God himself than you should be under MORE scrutiny and not less. I’ve often seen followers of various gurus and personalities give the person a pass when scrutiny is made. A classic example is David Icke. I have been known to criticize the claims made by Icke and his followers in regards to Reptilian shapeshifters and I often get a statement that reads something like:

“Say what you want about the Reptilians BUT...”


“Icke may not be right about everything BUT...”

This sort of defense works if you’re defending, let’s say, a politician who has made some good decisions and some bad ones. It does not work when someone is making wildly unfounded speculative claims about the supernatural, or, in Icke’s case, the completely batshit crazy.

(Was Jesus a Reptilian? If not than why is there is a lizard called the Jesus Christ lizard that can perform a miracle by walking on water?)

Strength in Numbers Fallacy

Another thing I see from theists again and again is this idea that they don’t have to justify their god belief or back up their claims that god(s) exist because a great deal of other people believe in it too. This is also known as an Appeal to People or Argumentum ad Populum. I find it truly amusing that Christians attempt to cling to their numbers as a support when they make up only one third of the world’s population. The majority of people on this planet are non-Christians, the majority are also non-Muslims, non-Jews and non-Hindus. There is no religious group that has more than two billion members and thus none form a majority.

Even if the majority existed that doesn’t bolster the fallacy, it only makes it worse. The prevalence of idea amongst the people is not contingent upon how correct the idea is. It was once widely believed that demons cause illness and that the sun revolved around the Earth. Both of these ideas are patently absurd by our standards today yet they would have passed for common knowledge at one time.

While theists in general do have a majority in the world they differ vastly in their opinions on god(s). Even two Christian theists will disagree on some doctrinal details or about their deity. The number of people who believe something does not lend it credibility and the fact that many people believe in the same God as you does not set your God free of the scrutiny of logic and skepticism.

One wouldn’t want to argue that because the majority of Nazis supported Hitler that Hitler was a good leader would they? (I’m not sure what the German citizens thought of Hitler, I’m just making a point).

Mediums, Prophecy and Astrology

In a similar vein with David Icke there is a wave of New Age sweeping the nation. In fact such beliefs are not new and spiritualism was fairly common as far back as the 1800s. The occult has always interested me mainly because I was never tempted to believe in it. Even back when I was a Bible believing Christian the occult seemed utterly preposterous. Even as my Father and other Fundamentalists warned me that Astrology and the occult could lead me astray I was already dismissing the claims of psychics and new agers. It was only later that I found my skepticism was well worth it.

Mediums are cons. Many of you may be aware how Cold Reading works and how masterfully some practitioners do it as they jump from person to person in a crowd. The crowd wants to believe already or else they wouldn’t be there. That isn’t to say skeptics cannot fall for the con but that the process works best with emotionally vulnerable and gullible people. If you WANT to be convinced chances are you will be as cold reading turns zero information into seemingly detailed contact with the dead in moments all with simple linguistic tricks and vague leading questions.

Vagueness, I would argue, is the key to all three of these things. Astrology and Prophecy thrive on being exceedingly vague. I noticed this first as a Christian when I would read so-called prophecies in the Bible and try to line the up to current events or ancient events and found it was easy to stretch the vague verses to fit almost anything. Astrology works in a far more general way, it is written to conform to the lives of thousands of readers. You are given the general dull dim prediction and than you attach meaning to it just like the person in the crowd attaches meaning to whatever comes out of the Medium.

When prophecies are too specific they set themselves up for failure.

False Comfort?

One of the defenses I have heard both for belief in God and belief in psychics, spiritualists and Astrology is the idea that it gives people hope, joy or comfort.

I agree. It gives people comfort in the same way that believing in Santa Claus made Christmas more fun as a kid. Taking a comfortable fantasy away from a child is one thing but taking a comfortable fantasy away from an adult is a worthy cause indeed. At some point you should be able to grow up and learn that Santa isn’t real and neither is the Easter Bunny. At some point the fairy tales and magic stop and you have to fly back from Neverland and leave the lost boys behind.

The false comfort of God beliefs are not worth all of the negative side-effects. Setting aside the millions who have died in the name of various god(s) these beliefs often hold back our current social progress. How many six year old Santa believers do you see protesting gay marriage? Yet we see grown men and women denying their fellow citizens equal rights by the mandate of an invisible magical being.

Of course you don’t see many Mediums holding back social progress either... they’re too busy conning grieving widows out of their money and filling people’s heads with false hope of an afterlife that may never come. It may not be as bad as discrimination but it is unethical. I’m talking here of those Mediums who know they are being dishonest, not those who are just as self-deluded as their customers.

Don’t Buy the Snake Oil

My conclusion - The greater your desire to believe a claim the more you should scrutinize it. I’d like to believe in a god of some sort and even in an afterlife (after all who really wants to die?) but that desire is a reason to become MORE skeptical of those selling a glimpse at God or a snippet of information from beyond the grave. Don’t be fooled and whatever you do DON’T BUY THE SNAKE OIL!

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