Randi tackles religion vs. science

This could easily become fodder for GD, but I really wanted to keep it lighter and just voice Humble Opinions and speculation.

In James Randi’s latest weekly column, Swift 07/25/03, he tackles a subject head-on that is often avoided in skeptic circles, the incompatability of science and religion.

I urge you to read the essay; it’s long, but my guess is Randi has been carefully writing this for a long time. I am glad that he has the balls to bring the topic out in the open.

I have attended may CSICOP, Shermer, etc. seminars, and often notice how religion is not given the same attention as “other fantastic claims.” Sometimes, speakers and audience members state that they are scientists, and have carefully weighed the evidence for UFOs and fairies and found it wanting. But they also claim that they are card-carrying church goers. Apparently the same intellect they use during the week is discarded on Sunday.

I have good friends and relatives who are math teachers, physics professors, and computer consultants. We often have discussions of their specialty topic and we speak the same language – proof, testing of a concept or theory is paramount. But if the subject drifts to a religious matter, their “proof” is that someone placed, in an ancient book, a statement that is accepted without question!

Part of my job is to write and test software. If it doesn’t work, I apply logic to find out why and fix it. There is no other way than rigid logic. Software is full of “If this is true, then that happens.” And it has to happen 100% of the time, everytime. Every step, every module, every day, every computer. The same logic was used to create and manufacture complex hardware. How could you design a computer chip with only faith that it will work? Impossible!

In contrast to Randi’s essay, I recently was handed a book,* A skeptic’s search for God,* by Ralph O. Muncaster, subtitled: “Convincing evidence for his existence.” Mr. Muncaster is a very engaging writer, and knows how to hold his audience with stories and examples. He claims to have been a skeptic as a child, but after much research, has become convinced that Jesus is our Saviour, God is the creator of everything, the Bible is inerrant, etc.

Seldom have I seen such an comprehensive example of faulty logic, long-refuted creationist claims, and speculation presented as fact. If I were teaching a logic class, this book would be the textbook. I would challenge the class to find and identify all the errors and persuasive techniques used (it wouldn’t be hard!). Someone should put this book on the web with copius links to Bob Carroll’s skepdic itemized logic fault descriptions.

While we’re (slightly) on the subject, here’s another of my favorite Randi Speeches that I recommend. I happened to have been at Caltech when this was given in 1992, and it was a joy to hear him speak:

OK, I’ll shut up now. As Dennis Miller says, “But that’s just my opinon. I could be wrong.”

I don’t want to see James Randi turn into another Madalyn Murray O’Hair . . . I agree with just about everything he says, but his crotchety use of silly words like “bright” (for atheist) and “credophile” (for religious) is unecessarily mean-spirited.

Other than that, though, I find it hard to find much in his article to disagree with.

You’re right and Randi’s right. Not many people are going to contradict you here, and if they do this’ll be in Great Debates before long.

On preview: Eve, I very much support the use of the word “bright” and would refer to myself as such more often if Swedish had a good word for it. “Bright” doesn’t mean atheist, it’s narrower than that.

As for “credophile”, I think it perfectly describes what it’s meant to describe.

So, who’s Madalyn Murray O’Hair?

She was an, umm, “outspoken” atheist and head of the American Atheist Association. She did some important work, but she was—even her supporters agree—the most abrasive, mean-spirited bitch you’d ever want to meet. One of those people you sort of wish weren’t on your side.

The problem with the word “bright” is that its opposite implies “not so bright,” which is just, well, impolite to call anyone.

“Bright,” as in “I am a bright,” is a coined use of the word:

Richard Dawkins seems to be one of those behind the push to make this word part of common vocabulary.

Personally, although I hope I fit the description, I cringe at hearing the term. It sounds too much like a holier-than-thou appellation and is bound to offend those that consider themselves otherwise intelligent but not atheists.

Yeah, because everyone knows that Christians like Blaise Pascal and Gregor Mendel couldn’t possibly be very intelligent.

You’ve hit the nail on the head. But I do feel that this most recent essay is more carefully worded than many of his columns.

I might be Randi’s biggest fan and I have bent over backwards to communicate with him politely. But even I have been taken aback with the attitude that comes through some personal communications the two of us have had. (Not a philosophical difference, by any means, but just an “edge” that I though was unjustified.)

And Randi’s attitude towards what he considers the obviously absurd strikes many as dogmatic rather than skeptical. But I think we must consider his extensive experience before condeming him, and this has been discussed here before.

Example/analogy: Let’s say you are an auto mechanic. For 30 years, you have been designing custom cars, building and modifying them. You have seen big motors, small ones, simple ones and complex ones. You’ve written books, taught classes and are a recognized expert on the subject. Everyday you are up to your elbows in the innards of engines. You could assemble a Chevy block from individual parts in your sleep with one foot, while backwards, upside down and downing a beer.

Then along comes some dude who makes the claim, “All automobiles use hamsters, for motive power! Really! You can’t prove me wrong!” And he gathers a following who chant, “Hamsters, not cylinders, hamsters, not cylinders!”

What would be your reaction? How likely would it seem to you, the mechanic, that the hamster crowd had even the slightest chance of being right? How much of your time should you allow to examine their claims? Wouldn’t you think, “How absurd, these hamster-lovers are absolute, total idiots!”

That’s how I think Randi approaches paranormal claims. His background in magic, the “science” of fooling people, is equivalent to the mechanic’s knowlege of engines, and the hamster claims, equivalent to his challengers. He’s seen it before, many times. It would be very difficult to take a milder, more neutral, stance.

Of course, we all know that hamsters are the motive power for SDMB. Maybe that was a bad analogy. :slight_smile:

Randi, like so many anti-religious people, has a far too limited view of what religion(s) and religious people are like. He says things like “Religion is reprelled by honest doubt, preferring naive, unquestioning acceptance,” and “I found, early on in my observations, that religious people were very fearful…” Well, I happen to know from my own observations and experience that there are plenty of religious people who are not motivated by fear, and who do encourage doubt, questioning, and thinking for oneself.

Many of the particular religious claims Randi goes on to attack are hardly fair representatives of Religion as a whole. If some particular scientific theory (or explanation, or popular view, or misconception of such a theory) were shown to be bogus, would this cast Science into disrepute? Should we judge science and scientists based on high school chemistry students, junior high science fair participants, or mad scientists working on their crazy experiments in isolated laboratories?

“Religion is behind so many of the major tragedies of humanity,” Randi says, bringing out another oft-used but unfair attack against religion. I think it’s more accurate to say that human nature is behind so many of the major tragedies, and that religion is one of the tools or excuses it often uses, one of the outlets it often takes (though not always—see, for example, communist China and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century). But Randi wants to “believe in the basic goodness of my species,” so he needs a scapegoat to blame for all the evidence to the contrary, and for this he finds religion comes in handy.

I like reading Randi’s essays a great deal, but the use of the word “Bright” as a description for themselves strikes me as a wee bit egotistical. One would think such folk would have better things to do with their time than coming up with words that describe how scientifically enlightened they are.

I was rather dissappointed with Randi’s latest essay. It attacked the rather obvious storytelling that makes up a great deal of religious tradition and ignored the great “What came before” questions that I have.

Well, I guess we are headed for GD after all. Had to happen.

I agree, the Randi/fear thing may be a little strong. But do you really feel that religions in general “encourage doubt and questioning?” Isn’t this anathema to the status quo? How much encouragement did the church give to Galileo to question dogma? How often do you hear the church tell people to make up their own minds about birth control instead of following the Pope? And I don’t mean to be singling out Catholics, these are just some examples that come to mind.

No, but this is exactly Randi’s point. Theories can be shown to be bogus – although sometimes they are merely shown to be limited, not wrong – and science doesn’t collapse as a result. It adjusts and becomes stronger. How often does this happen with religions? Sure, dogma changes, but very slowly, and not as a response to new discoveries, but only to overwhelming pressure. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the church formally forgave Galileo? They only did that when their views had become irrelevant and ridiculous.

In contrast, I can think of two examples of theory-concepts having major changes. Significant rewriting of the field was needed, but science didn’t fall apart: plate tektonics, and big bang/steady state theories of the universe.

I have in my library a book from around 1950, a collection of essays by Gamow, Hubble, Sagan, etc. Half the essays said the universe was always here, always will be, new galaxies are constantly being created & destroyed, but everything was “steady state.” The other half said the universe began at once and may collapse one day and do it again (the big bang theory). Both sides had good arguments (based on the current technology) and powerful proponents. But look what has happened – tests were done, facts came to light, and the big bang theory gained greater acceptance based on the evidence. Steady-state devotees are darn rare in scientific circles nowadays, but astronomy is stronger than ever.

That’s a good point. Actions that are intolerable if done for no good reason (The Crusades) can become admirable if done “in the name of” a cause or deity. But while this is a fascinating exercise in psychology, I don’t think it lets religion off the hook. To use a faith-based excuse for an atrocity doesn’t excuse the atrocity.

It seems like you may have had the same knee-jerk objection to the word that I had. But some people felt that a new word was needed that encompasses more than just “atheist” with its negative connotation to some people. I’m just not sure Bright is the better word, tho.

Interesting. I confess I don’t understand what you mean by the last sentence. Are you asking about religious history and how dogma was developed over time? Could you elaborate on those “what came before” questions?

And just a thought – **Blackclaw,**would you describe yourself as religious? If so, are you taking Randi’s essay as a personal attack on your beliefs?

So, of course, for the good of society, the Brights must build reeducation camps to put all the credophiles in, since credophiles are actually sub-human, since what idenfies a Bright is the quintessence of what being a true human is.

Brights vs. Credophiles
Ubermenschen vs. Untermenschen
The People vs. Capitalists
Lovers of Freedom vs. Communists
Christians vs. Paynims

Whenever possible, put a convenient label your opponents as a group. It will make it easier to dehumanize and kill them, later.

Ergh. The problem with the word “Bright” isn’tt hat it’s a bad vocabulary choice, it’s that the clear and unmistakable intent is to characterize the speaker’s group as Being Really Smart, while the opposing group is characterized as Beign Really Stupid. It’s kind of hard to miss the intent there.

While I will agree skepticism is smarter than mysticism, characterizing a group that includes the likes of Pascal, Descartes, Mendel, Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, and scores and scores of modern-day great thinkers, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, masters of literature and the arts and various other all-round geniuses as “Stupid” and the opponents of “Brights” is not “bright” at all, it’s freakin’ idiotic. Do you really want your self-appointed name to be offensive and combative?

I think religion and human nature are so closely intertwined that they cannot be separated. For whatever reason, the leap to the supernatural is ingrained in human cognition (I have called it a “placeholder explanation” in other posts on these boards).

Oh, and I’m an atheist who, like Randi, puts the same stock in resurrection and transubstantiation as I do in astrology and pet psychics. I’m just not as harsh about it, because I can see why religion is so important to so many people. I have no great desire to tear everyone’s faith away. I just wish people could think more clearly about it, so they don’t get taken in by con artists like John Edward, and I wish they’d understand why I don’t need it.

Oh, and Dogface:

There aren’t enough :rolleyes: in the world for that.

Labeling people is the first step in dehumanization.

“Those <<label>> can’t be trusted, they all think the same.”

Randi is not being very objective about religion. His observations are not up to par. He hasn’t done his homework. Shame on him!

I don’t at all mind scientific criticisms of the irrationality of religion, but I do expect them to be unbiased.

My religious views are probably irrational. It remains to be seen whether there is a point at which science and religion intersect and all will be revealed. :wink:
I admire skeptics with open minds and high standards.

Someone asked if religion discourages doubting. I don’t know. Which religion? Sometimes you can’t control what you believe and what you don’t believe. I do find it a little refreshing that St. Paul admitted that he had doubts.

On the contrary! No camps required. Think, and you shall be free! Come, join us in the year 2003. You need not worry about cameras stealing you soul or demons causing tooth decay. You won’t fall off the edge of the world. Its okay, really! Here, have a loaf of bread. We put yeast in it. It works better that way.

“Lets get them meek bastards NOW!

So who’s going to sign up for Bright Eye for the Credophile Guy?

Gag. What a steaming pile. I’d be embarassed to have such a pathetic arguer on my side of any issue. My impression of Randi just went down another notch.

His argument is full of strawmen, ad hominem, false dichotomies and simply erroneous facts. Shall we list some?

Oops. Not this religious person.

Not this religious person. I am certainly not ruled by fear. And I teach a Sunday School class and emphasize every single weak the motivation of love.

Oops, there goes the ad hominem.

Though I think too much greek thought has influenced Christianity, I don’t know anyone who would make this claim.

Oh please. I don’t know anyone who believes that God is like this. Indeed, this Mormon believes (and it is official LDS doctrine) that God intends no less than to elevate us to His level if we so desire it. Also, this is the same tired argument that the logically-impaired use: cite someone’s death as evidence of how bad God is. It is a weak-minded refusal to honestly address God in the context of eternity–that is, that death is not in fact the problem a materialist believes it to be if you posit the existence of God and an afterlife (at least the Christian concept of it).

Wow, will the condescension never cease?

But the whopper of the whole thing is Randi’s definition of science:

which elevates science to a religion. Science has nothing to do with “basic truths”. Science is the method of developing models of the universe with which we can make accurate predicitions. Period. End of story. Believing that everything can be determined by the scientific method requires as much blind faith as any religion. Having confidence in the scientific method’s propensity for creating useful and testable models is another thing entirely.

A clear-thinking scientist should realize that most religion is orthogonal to science. Scientific claims from religious arguments should be ignored unless they can be substantiated with scientific research (and by that I mean real research, not selective research).

The biggest problem today in discussing science is religion is this kind of sloppy, arrogant reasoning. We need the critics of something to stop with the strawmen–if you’re going to criticize religion, make sure it’s something that people actually believe. If you criticize scientific results, point out the errors in the science. This grandstanding by Randi is pathetic and counterproductive.
To address the OP:

I have a degree in Computer Science from UC Berkeley (with good grades, I might add). I currently am employed designing, writing and testing scientific modeling software for radiation oncology. My program logic has to be correct, along with my physics and math, or people can die (strictly speaking, my code doesn’t actually treat patients, but if a doctor isn’t paying attention, a code error could result in a radiation treatment that could maim or kill). I doubt my training in logic or scientific rigor is less than yours. Given that, I’m stunned that you didn’t see the huge problems with Randi’s argument. It is no more carefully thought out than the last several thousand threads in GD.

Randi needs to read a bit more philosophy and a bit less polemic. Religion (okay, let me limit that to Christianity since it’s what I’m most familiar with) presents issues which by definition cannot be tested scientifically. Objective observers are impossible if the primary goal is a personal relationship with God, if God’s influcence varies from person to person and especially if God does not deign to submit to an experiment.

But that shouldn’t bother the skeptic. What should bother the skeptic and the believer alike are spurious claims made in the name of science or religion, or the incorrect (and often illogical) claims people make to defend one or the other. Both science and religion have histories of people tenaciously holding to ridiculous claims instead of openly examining evidence which contradicts existing theory or belief. To ignore that is fallacious.

Has the doctor bled you recently?

Maybe some other views, albeit soundbite style, would be appropriate here. Most of these seem to support Randi’s thesis, perhaps because I collected them myself:

And finally, perhaps my favorite: