Why is religion given a pass in skepticism?

March 5, 2014 • 11:10 am

We had an intimation of this yesterday when Guerrilla Skeptic Susan Gerbic weighed in, and I definitely sensed this when I attended the Randi Foundation’s The Amazing Meeting (TAM) last summer. Criticism of religion was definitely an issue subsidiary to criticism of other forms of faith. In fact, after my TAM talk on the incompatibility of science and religion, I was followed back to the Speakers’ Lounge by an ex-minister, who harangued me for half an hour about my misunderstanding of religion. I found it amazing that a minister would even be at TAM.  Is God off limits, but Bigfoot not? Perhaps I’ve brought this up before, but it still confuses me.

The skeptical movement is concerned largely with phenomena like homeopathy, alternative medicine, paranormal issues like ESP and telekinesis, cryptzoological claims like those of Bigfoot and Nessie, UFology, and so on.  Yet it’s largely unconcerned with religion, or at least doesn’t deal much with it. In fact, it doesn’t deal with it to such an extent that I suspect that it’s avoiding dealing with it.

This puzzles me. Religion is every bit as unevidenced as Bigfoot, homeopathy, or astrology.  And it’s certainly one of the most harmful of all these superstitions, probably exceeding alternative medicine in its inimical effects on society. So why, as the world’s premier superstition, and its most harmful, does the skeptic movement largely avoid taking on religion? I wouldn’t like to think it’s because so many people are religious, and we don’t want to offend them, because, after all, skeptics should be dealing with unevidenced claims in proportion to their harmfulness and prevalence. We’re not supposed to shy away from faith-based beliefs just because they’re common.

I have no answer to the question posed in the title, but thought I’d solicit the opinions of our readers. Or perhaps I’ve got the priorities of the skeptical movement wrong—but I don’t think so. In the end, all claims investigated and decried by skeptics, whether they involve Bigfoot, UFOs, paranormal phenomena, or religion, are undergirded by faith, and it’s faith—belief without good reasons—on which skeptical organizations should focus.

226 thoughts on “Why is religion given a pass in skepticism?

  1. Maybe because religious belief isn’t always empirical? I think the sceptic movement deals a lot with the parts of religion that are readily empirically disprovable (creationism, faith-healing, etc) but the less positivist bits of religion aren’t really scepticism’s province (though the critical-thinking skills sceptics encourage should hopefully lead people towards atheism).

    1. I’m unaware of any substantive claims of common theists not already thoroughly empirically disproven. On the short list are always dualism and some sort of miracle, and beer disproved the first millennia ago whilst science can fairly be described as the neverending failed search for miracles. If there was a loophole even the tiniest of loopholes, we’d have long since found it by now.

      See Sean Carroll for more on that last bit:



    2. Precisely. God is not a proposition, therefore evidence is irrelevant; God is a subjective experience and one does not “prove” a subjective experience. One may, of course, discuss precisely what it means (if and only if you have experienced the thing in question), but if you are treating it as a proposition for which the evidence can be considered, you’re asking the wrong questions.

      There are some propositions that are sometimes made by religious people (e.g. creationism) and skepticism is appropriate towards those.

      1. What sort of ‘subjective experiences’ do you have in mind? Some feeling that God exists? Hears your prayers? Your neighbor’s dog, Sam, instructing you to kill prostitutes? These are phenomena, and either a deity caused them, or your imagination did. Claiming the former is a proposition. There’s empirical data indicating the latter.

      2. Most God believers would disagree with your definition of God. To you God may be a subjective experience (though why you would choose to call a subjective experience God is beyond me), but historically God is a human-like being (who experiences jealousy, anger and pleasure), but with supernatural, superhuman powers. He used to live in the mountains then humans climbed mountains and found no God(s). Then he lived in “the heavens” until space exploration. Now many describe God as being outside the universe. But this God is still a conscious entity with very human-like characteristics. What this God most definitely is not is a “subjective experience.”

  2. I think there are two answers to this, strategic and tactical.

    Generously, it’d be because there’s no shortage of organizations that directly tackle religion; in a parallel, the ACLU, for example, doesn’t need to defend Second Amendment rights because there’s already the NRA for that and so the ACLU can focus on the rest of the Bill of Rights.

    Cynically, it’s because the overwhelming majority of the (American) population holds to religious superstition, and the anti-UFO people don’t want to scare them away.

    I can have a bit of sympathy for both positions, but I can’t honestly adopt either for myself. I’m happy for them to take up that part of the cause of reason, so long as they don’t throw us atheists under the bus. But I’d personally rather focus my attention on the root cause — rejection of science in whole or in part — than particular symptoms of the disease.


    1. I’m also happy that they take on the issues they take own. But I think the cynical option (afraid to offend the faithful) is the real reason. I agree with Jerry’s sense that the bogosities of religious faith are purposefully avoided by many people in “The Skeptic Movement”.

      1. I’d say it has far more to do his money. The JREF doesn’t want to lose the donations they get from their religious donors. I suggest that this is the primary reason for why they give religion a pass. This and their history of exploring other, non-religious claims, most of them by now pointless (disproving bigfoot). The most worthwhile work they do is to discredit the anti-vaxxers and various alt. med quacks and their claims. This saves lives. And I’m all for skepticism in every part of life.

        However, many in the skeptics movement, despite being atheists themselves, are very married to the skeptics’ tradition and happily diss atheists if these atheists insist that religion should fall under the purview of skepticism. This territoriality of traditional skeptics, in addition to the money issue I mentioned above, is what seems to drive many skeptics who don’t want atheism in their movement. Any other explanations they offer ammount to apologetics.

        1. “JREF doesn’t want to lose the donations they get from their religious donors”

          Then they should modify their policy just a bit more and bring in some donations from homeopaths.

    2. The landscape that is defined by organizations or loosely bound groups of people that directly attack religion has, so far, not been well defined. Atheists, for example, come from very different walks of life and as Weinberg points out they are much like cats, mostly keeping to themselves.

      The Skeptics Movement has their tradition, mostly innocuous, that seeks to set people straight about superstition. Hopefully the landscape will direct their movement to focus on religion. Posts like this quizzical one are a good place for Skeptics to think introspectively that they should start sharpening their reason-tools for religion.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I’m sure I didn’t manufacture my now-disproven hypothesis out of whole cloth, though, and I’m left wondering where I got it from….


    3. “Cynically, it’s because the overwhelming majority of the (American) population holds to religious superstition, and the anti-UFO people don’t want to scare them away.”

      There’s another cynical possibility: we already know agnostics and atheists are pretty much indistinguishable in epistemology, but agnostics don’t like to be described as atheists. It’s possible that many skeptics are similar: atheists who wish to distance themselves from the label, and therefore go out of their way to avoid it.

    4. Another strategic point: the Skeptics are already more or less organized now, not exactly like a bunch of wild cats anymore, they have kind of smallish nests and some (I assume it is not very grand) regular noms.

      According to the Art of War, when you are smallish player, you should not attack big players wantonly … they might crush you, you know ..

      Better snip on the smaller noms here and there, and avoid attacking the Royals on the Hill.

      (and snap at some unruly youngish acolytes who might annoy the kingpins)

      .. it is a dog-eats-dog world out there ..

      1. What you are saying, in essence, is that they are so used to eating chicken that they can’t take on beef for fear they might be stepped on by a cow.

        I’m not convinced. Somehow the rest of us non-skeptic skeptics are quite comfortable examining the entire menu.

        (No, I haven’t started eating meat!)

        1. Culinary equivalent, kinda ..

          BTW, kindred spirit, I don’t eat red meat, too .. not vegan though, kind of nutritarian.
          (you know, the G-BOMBS – Green, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Berries, Seeds)


    5. The ACLU and my hometown favorites the FFRF have that kind of overlap on religious issues, but I don’t think either defers to the other, it’s a first-come-first-serve kinda thing, if I remember right.

  3. The generally stated reasoning is that the skeptical movement is concerned with “testable claims.” When religions make testable claims, such as creationism or faith healing, the skeptical movement has no qualms in going after them. But nebulous wishy washy faith has nothing to test.

    Whether this policy is actually driven by unstated political concerns, I couldn’t say.

    1. I have found this explanation to be completely ad hoc rationalizing.

      The accommodationist TAM skeptics have no problem branding the untestable parts of homeopathy or UFO culture as “not even wrong”, but when it comes to religion the untestable claims mean that as a whole religion is HANDS OFF.

      All gnu atheists I know are using the wrenches of skeptical tools on the nuts and bolts of religion they same way the Skeptics do on superstition, but the bad PR atheism has inherited always makes them try to say we are not part of skepticism or that skepticism is not part of atheism.

      1. I agree completely, John. There’s the money motivation, too – at least with the JREF. They want to distance themselves from atheism so they don’t lose their religious donors. This is a huge part of their accommodationism. The other reasons they give are, as you say, ad hoc rationalizations or, as I stated above, a form of apologetics. It’s also known as lying, though they probably believe their own rationalizations in the same way religious apologists believe their own BS.

    2. I think Reginald has it right, religious claims about heaven, hell, souls etc. can only be countered with a request for evidence. There is nothing to test. But a specific claim such as healing through prayer can be tested and debunked.

      1. Religious claims about heaven, hell, and souls all do great violence to the known laws of physics and can (and should) be as thoroughly and unequivocally dismissed as claims about the astral plane or telepathy — and for the exact same reasons.

        Evidence certainly could be presented to the contrary, but it would of necessity be evidence demonstrating that all of humanity, especially science, has been the victim of a most elaborate and subtle conspiracy.


  4. We’re culturally encrypted and deeply embedded in the semiotics and narrative of Xianity. It will take more than a JREF challenge to put a dent in this level of white noise.

  5. While believers in Bigfoot are no doubt serious in their beliefs, they are not numerous even if vocal (and they don’t seem to be that vocal, or perhaps I’m watching the wrong channels).
    While believers in homeopathy are reasonably numerous and are vocal, at least in defense of their beliefs, they don’t tend to proselytize.
    Moreover, it’s easy to marginalize each of these groups. [I just picked one from each category, you may make your own substitutions and I think the argument will remain the same.]
    But when you take on religion, unless you are taking on something truly marginal, you are taking on a numerous, vocal, and frequently proselytizing group; in many instances, a group that sees their religion as their core. Cognitive dissonance allows many/most religious people to ignore the “nonsense” (I’ll use that for lack of a better word or long explanation) part of their belief and otherwise operate quite functionally. Put these two together, and it may well seem to skeptics that it is better to fight the easier battle, and from the point of view of those such as the authors of, say, Science-Based Medicine, the more important one to win. From their point of view, if you can persuade people to vaccinate, their religious beliefs are irrelevant.

  6. I think you answered the question: religion’s pervasiveness and acceptance by people from all walks of life rather inoculates it from criticism. And the issue of emotions are tied into the mix as well. Children are indoctrinated with religious ideas, but I’m not aware of anyone saying to a child, “You must believe in UFOs and Atlantis.” Of all the unevidenced claims, only religion has deep emotional roots. Unless someone is really far gone, there simply isn’t a comparable emotional investment when it comes to believing in astrology or ghosts or ESP.

    So, yes: religion is, without question, the “world’s premier superstition”. (If you know him, maybe you could run your question by Michael Shermer.)

    1. Well said. So many people’s worldviews are based on religion that it’s seen as “wrong” to even question it.
      There’s just so much social support for faith in religion that I sometimes think it’ll never go away.

      1. And “impolite”.

        Funny how no person has ever said, “How DARE you criticize my belief in telekinesis!”

        1. They definitely do get that way about a really frank assessment of their quack medicine beliefs.

    2. Interesting take. That there is less tolerance for questioning of “indoctrinated” beliefs than of “optional” quackery.

      Indoctrination (by its nature) is deeply embedded into an individual’s identity. If done properly, the indoctrinated feel that their very SELF is being attacked and we are asking them to forfeit a piece of themselves.

      I agree with Jerry, however: It may be difficult, but it doesn’t excuse the lack of focus on the issue, unless one simply hopes to stay alive by not rocking the religious’ boat?

      But that’s a bit of indoctrination in itself, isn’t it? Have the religious (through action and threats through the ages) indoctrinated us to not question for fear of losing a bit of our selves (life) if we challenge them?

    3. This is consistent with Sastra’s (where’s she been, lately?) point that religious faith is all tied up with character in our culture. It’s not a big deal to most people if you flip-flop your belief regarding homeopathy. But a lot of people will see it as a moral failing if you lose your religious faith.

  7. I think that one of the factors is that religion has acquired a “personal conscious” labeling as a consequence of separating “church and state” across the Western world. This loosely-held ‘theistic non-aggression pact’ makes it easy to label religion as talking about ‘religious issues’, which are a personal matter, and somehow not the same as talking about psychic powers because talking about psychic powers is making a ‘real world claim’.

    In essence this is a partial recognition that religion is ‘made-up stuff’, but a recognition that prohibits considering the implications of religion being ‘made-up stuff’ because ‘every religion’ is granted a “not talking about nonsense” label ‘in public’. Hence the easy elide into “it is metaphorical” and “you have to listen for the meaning” when an obviously factual claim by a religion is questioned. (This also shows a cultural and frequently personal failure to recognize that what we experience is not always the same as what happened….a failure which religion has a safe harbor in.)

  8. When a delusional belief system reaches a certain critical size, then it becomes an important political factor and the forces of political correctness then act to suppress criticism. It is perfectly acceptable, politically, to criticize a cult until it gains the critical mass to become a culturally accepted religion.

    The church of Scientology is one faith that occupies the middle ground in the transition from cult to religion and they are struggling, for instance with the use of celebrities, to try and push themselves over the top so that they can become a culturally accepted and political force. That would likely bring with it a certain immunity to criticism and less interference with their business interests, in line with the more established religions, such as Catholicism.

    1. Scientology is in an interesting position; they’re trying to become a dominant religion at a time that society is moving away from religion in general. They may be able to get a larger slice of a shrinking pie, but it seems just as likely that they’ll simply get shouldered out.


      1. Yes – Also, I reckon that more modern religions have a harder time being generally accepted, since we’ve grown up with and have become somewhat accustomed to the older ones, and for that reason they don’t seem so odd.

        On the face of it (observing the last US election from the UK) Mitt Romneys’s magic underpants and belief in the planet Kolob are no more absurd than many Christian rituals such as the Eucharist. But our attention becomes more focused on those Mormon issues, because of their unfamiliarity – Certainly, at least from a European perspective it was worrying that someone with those beliefs might have the power to start a nuclear conflict. Scientology faces similar issues, since its origins are more recent than Mormonism and Hubbard’s eccentricities are even better documented than those of Smith.

        1. I got the distinct sense that Mitt’s Moronism was considered off-limits due in no small part to fear that people’s own idiocies would be similarly exposed…which is why the other candidates weren’t called out for their explicit embraces of Creationism, for example.


      1. Interesting quote from Ann…”Carl really was an agnostic, truly. He felt that people who say that they know how the universe came to be, who made it or didn’t make it, are kind of foolish in a way, whether they are believers or atheists. Carl believed that in a universe that is so vast, and for a species as young and ignorant as we are, the only reasonable position to take on these ultimate questions is agnosticism.”

        It’s not about authority. It’s about acknowledging that another intelligent, informed person’s “critical thinking” may well lead them to a different stance than your own. The “respect” Ann speaks of actually makes her more effective as a spokesperson for science itself… not less.

        1. But it is such a pedantic, pedestrian point to make. Atheists, for the most part, don’t believe there is a god for the same reason they don’t believe there are fairies (as the interviewer tries to points out). Is that “kind of foolish”? – I don’t think so.

          The reason we use the term atheist is not because of certainty, but because the term “agnostic” often leads to the 50/50 fallacy i.e. that because we don’t know then both sides of the question are equally probable or it suggests that the hypothesis of god has at least some merit.

          Language is rarely perfect, but on balance, it makes more sense to use the term atheist rather than agnostic if you are a tooth fairy atheist as Carl Sagan surely was.

          So much hot air has been expended on what is a minor semantic issue that surely is understood by most people who call themselves atheists.

          1. I think her point is well made, that “certainty” can be “kind of foolish in a way” regardless of what side you take or how you choose to label yourself.

            Keep in mind one important difference between most god conceptions and fairies/monsters/teapots. The latter are ostensibly material entities (albeit elusive)… evidence for their existence would/should be material in kind, and thus available for examination.

            Questions about observable material entities are relatively simple to answer, compared to questions about the “ultimate” nature of reality (where it matters far more that any answers we come up with are inherently constrained by current, limited, human perceptual and cognitive abilities).

            I appreciate the point for another reason. One problem with overstating a claim is that you lose credibility for the valid aspects of your claim… the “other side” stops listening. You cause even more polarization between yourself and the minds you [optimally] hope to change.

            The more negative your assumptions, the more positive their assumptions tend to become, in direct response. And vice versa. Is it effective to play this way? Reminds me of politics. Human nature, I guess.

            That said, Carl’s stance (as described by Ann) does not amount to accommodating demonstrably false beliefs. It amounts to trying to avoid the possibility of false beliefs in oneself. It’s easy to notice when other people fail to distinguish between what they actually have evidence for, and what they are merely assuming… much harder to notice when we do it ourselves.

          2. Let me introduce you to my friend the invisible pink unicorn. Unlike the teapot, it isn’t an ostensibly material entity. Nevertheless when I pray (in the correct manner) to her I am filled with divine grace.

            I welcome you to join me in worship of her divine pointy-horn pinkness. And please don’t forget to send in your contribution to help spread the good word to the less fortunate. We don’t try to convert atheists, but there are some good skeptics out there who will join because they can’t address complex questions like this with their limited human perceptual and cognitive abilities.

          3. Pink unicorns are imaginary material entities (they can be described/pictured as having a particular extent/shape and color… though color is particularly incompatible with being invisible, unless you meant it’s only selectively visible).

            Regardless, epistemic humility brings you not closer to but farther from accepting claims and assumptions without evidence… even your own claims and assumptions.

          4. All gods “can be described/pictured as having a particular extent/shape and color”. Certainly Christian ones can. Go visit St. Peter’s sometime. Or any Catholic church. The same is true of Allah, although if you actually do picture him or his prophet you may be killed.

            And my invisible pink unicorn is ever-present and non-changing. It is always pink and invisible. It is a miracle. She works in mysterious ways. Have you sent your donation yet?

          5. gbjames,
            Do you have evidence to back your claim that “all” god conceptions can be described/pictured as physical objects? I’m highly skeptical of that claim.

            In response to the idea that we might ALL try not to hold unjustified beliefs, you offer an example of something virtually everyone would call an unjustified belief.

            As I said, epistemic humility (within oneself) brings you not closer to but farther from accepting claims and assumptions without evidence (including your own, but not just your own).

            The point is to avoid overstating how much about reality we humans currently know. You are not obliged to agree with Carl and Ann (they’re just other humans).

          6. @ Bea

            > Do you have evidence to back your claim that all god conceptions can be described/pictured as physical objects? <

            Suggest one that cannot be, then!


          7. Sagan also reminded us that it’s good to keep an open mind, but not one so open that your brains fall out.

            There are a great deal of facts about the world that we can have near-absolute confidence in. The Sun will rise in the East tomorrow. An unsupported object near the surface of the Earth will accelerate towards the center of the Earth at about ten meters per second per second until some other force acts upon it. All life on Earth outside of Craig Venter’s laboratories shares a common ancestor who lived a few billion years ago. The Higgs Boson has a mass of about 125 GeV.

            When you start to put those facts together, they all fit with each other in a very tightly-woven and cohesive whole that lets you draw all sorts of other conclusions, the foremost of which is that magic isn’t real. We know as certainly as we know that the electron has a charge of roughly 1.6E-19 C that there are no souls, no afterlife, no Creation, and no gods that Created or did or do anything else.

            Now, one can always posit that we’re deluded by some sort of conspiracy theory, such as that alien mind rays are controlling our thoughts or that we’re just subroutines in some computer simulation or the like; and, as soon as you do, you can then reasonably extrapolate absolutely anything and everything your heart might desire…but that would mean letting your brains fall out. Worse, even if there are some parochial gods that fit the descriptions of whichever cult you might care to cite, those gods face the same problem: they themselves are equally incapable of ruling out the possibility of conspiracy theories — so what kind of sense does it make to declare even the gods as any sort of ultimate anything?

            Even if his widow might not agree with everything I just wrote, I’m very confident that Carl would have.



          8. Religion is most likely “given a pass” in skepticism simply because true skepticism is incompatible with certainty on ANY front. Like it or not.

          9. There’s certainty and then there’s certainty.

            Many religious folk will express absolute certainty in their faith. “I know that my redeemer liveth,” for example. This flies in the face of the skepticism you’re calling for.

            Any good scientist is going to have error bars accompanying any statement about certainty. Oftentimes, those error bars are negligible, such as with respect to where the Sun will rise tomorrow morning. At other times, they’re equally negligible — but in the opposite direction: nobody actually knows how to reconcile Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics, though many have pet theories. But those with theories will be the first to tell you that they really don’t know, even as they’re trying to figure it out.

            That’s what true skepticism looks like: when your certainty is proportional with a rational analysis of the empirical observations. Whenever those two don’t line up — and nowhere in society do they fail to line up more spectacularly than in religion — that’s a failure of skepticism.

            Whether or not you think that’s worth addressing in a skeptical context is up to you.



          10. ‘But those with theories will be the first to tell you that they really don’t know, even as they’re trying to figure it out.’

            Since these scientists admit they don’t know if their notions match with reality yet, I wish to hell they would call them hypotheses, guesses, hunches, surmises, WAG’s — anything instead of theories.

          11. I can certainly appreciate a longing for more precision in that particular linguistic arena…but, honestly, that’s something that we’re stuck with. The usage is — like it or lump it — dependent upon context. Whenever there might be any doubt, the prudent authors and speakers will be sure to provide necessary clarification.


          12. I fear you are correct but hope it will not always be so. I hear the misuse more often than I read it, especially as I listen to as many as five science programs a week. The other day I got around to an older Skeptics With a K episode that featured two guest scientific experts, separate segments, neither present on the stage where the live recording was conducted.

            One was careful with hypothesis, WAG, and theory, and the other used theory ubiquitously. I know that program gets wide viewership in the UK, and I wondered if the difference between the usage demonstrated by the two would have any impact on “teach the controversy” if USA society heard a consistent application from pro-reality spokespersons.

            Set me down the old scold trail, it seems. No offense intended toward you.

          13. I hear you. Again, if you don’t have anybody playing “Gotcha!” games, there’s nothing to worry about; and, if you do, there’s almost assuredly nothing more important to do than to explain the precise meaning of the terms and the fact that people speak informally.


          14. “We know as certainly as we know that the electron has a charge of roughly 1.6E-19 C that there are no souls, no afterlife, no Creation, and no gods that Created or did or do anything else.”

            I don’t know… you sound pretty certain yourself.

          15. How certain are you that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow? Close enough to absolute as makes no difference, I’m sure — assuming, of course, you’re sane.

            If you’d like me to demonstrate that there’s no magic…well, it might help if you start by roughly laying out that which you’d be comfortable stating near-absolute certainty about. Quantum, Newtonian, and Relativistic Mechanics over their applicable domains? Any reasonable doubts about that? Any sneaking suspicion that, maybe, just this once, if you drop the apple it won’t fall at roughly 10 m/s/s?

            Let me know where your own personal bounds of confidence lie and we’ll see where we can take it from there.


          16. OK, Bea… I’ll cop to being a little less precise than I should have been in my comment. “All gods” should have been something like “all gods worth talking about”.

            Why? Because if a god has no interaction with the universe then there is nothing to talk about and anyone saying anything about such a deity is wasting their own and everyone else’s oxygen.

            All the rest of the gods, because they are purported to interact with the universe we live in, can be characterized in some measurable way. If it is asserted that they respond to intercessorry prayer, well we can test for that. If it is asserted that they live on Mount Olympus, we can check that out.

            So, as Ant has requested, please provide an example or two of gods for which this is not the case.

          17. Why? Because if a god has no interaction with the universe then there is nothing to talk about and anyone saying anything about such a deity is wasting their own and everyone elses oxygen.

            An entity that has no interaction with the Universe is, by definition, non-existent — assuming, of course, we’re (as is only sensible) using Sagan’s definition of “Cosmos”: all that is or ever was or will be; all that is real.


          18. “The latter are ostensibly material entities (albeit elusive)… evidence for their existence would/should be material in kind, and thus available for examination.”

            Whereas the former are mystery entities, defined only by the desire to avoid inquiry. “They’re not material”, “they’re not physical”, “they’re beyond human comprehension”. Then what are they, exactly, and where is this knowledge of them coming from? Nowhere. They’re pure arguments from ignorance. If someone says “a god created the universe” and then when pressed describes the god as “something whose nature cannot be understood by mortals” and who acts in “mysterious ways”, then what exactly does “god created the universe” describe exactly? “The universe exists as the result of that which I do not understand acting in ways which are a mystery to me”. Or “I don’t know how the universe exists” for short.

            Someone attempting to present that as an explanation of anything is expaining nothing at all; likewise, someone who dismisses it is rejecting nothing in particular; nothing but the premise that one has actually been provided. They’re just recognizing that they’ve been handed a cipher.

            And there isn’t a limit to how many of those ciphers can be generated. You can have ultraparanormality, superduper natural; a new mysterious force behind whatever force people insist is supreme. As long as people can say “I bet there’s some other mysterious thing responsible for this”, you have room for religion. People don’t want to die, so some mysterious thing keeps them alive. People want to be healed, so some mysterious thing is given the ability to heal them. But every time a previously mysterious thing is identified, the irrelevance of religion is shown; there is no more room for it but to insist that whatever was discovered relies on some new mystery, or to cling to their old ignorance. They had behind having nothing to offer, and mistake this for having nothing to criticize.

            In reality, it should just warrant a few decent “what the fuck are you talking about?”s.

          19. Either you think that human senses and intellect have grasped everything there is to know about everything… or you do not.

            I’m with Ann and Carl (and many others) in the latter camp.

          20. Kindly list a few people who “think that human senses and intellect have grasped everything there is to know about everything”.

            I’ll reciprocate with a list of all the people who live inside active martian volcanos.

          21. Curiously enough, not a few religious people have made exactly that claim — that they have a direct pipeline to all the knowledge there is to know.

            Scientists? Not so many. Scientists tend to be very confident about certain things, of course…but what they’re generally most confident about is how much or little confidence they should have in any particular statement.


        2. I am under impression that Carl Sagan felt the universe is so vast, and humanity is so young, there might be a lot of intermediaries toward the One True One. The Engineers. Even the Idiot God’s Lab.

          Read Sagan’s novel Contact (not the movie).
          Had he live longer, the God Delusion might be written by him, not the English One.

          Sagan’s position is as respectable as any. Understand where we stand in the universe.


        3. And yet Carl’s “The Varieties of Scientific Experience,” compiled by Ann from transcripts of talks Carl gave it the 1980s fit right in with the other “New Atheist” books of the mid to late 2000s – The End of Faith, The God Delusion, God is Not Great. Like these works, Sagan’s book is pretty hard on religion, regardless of whether he identified as an agnostic or an atheist.

  9. People who get together to tackle some issues of common concern can get more accomplished if they focus on what they agree upon. And the feeling of unity and shared purpose makes for a more pleasant social encounter, a sense that we are all “in this together”—whether it is the teaching of accurate science, promotion of public health via vaccination, protection of Constitutional rights, whatever.

    By avoiding topics that tend to divide the group, perhaps subconsciously, people preserve that group mentality. I’ve seen this this selective focus at work in readers of a book I wrote that criticizes my former Christian fundamentalism. It doesn’t stop with the craziness of my old sect, but also points out the problems with Christianity itself. Some people who weren’t happy with aspects of the sect (e.g., its ban on birth control) were quite eager to read and accept those parts of the book that dismantle what they were already inclined to discard, but wanted to remain Christians of some type. One even reported to a friend of mine that he stopped reading when he got to the more general criticisms.

  10. Am guessing, based on a “follow-the-money” approach, that accommodationism and vague (some would say harmless) spirituality exists to an appreciable extent, even among the TAM folks. To lay down a hard line and start criticizing religion, or dualism itself is probably a tent-splitting move that could result in decreased revenue. They are probably taking their cues from the late Paul Kurtz’s brand of accomodationism… and might even have some opinion data from their own ranks, for all I know.

    1. Last year, 2013, TAM had Jerry and Michael Mann. In 2011, the keynote was Richard Dawkins. James Randi started this whole thing to stop Uri Geller, not the Pope. Later he added Silva Browne and others that he felt were doing great harm both emotionally and financially to people. TAM is expanding adding exposing medical quacks to the ongoing lineup. TAM is not avoiding religion it has its hands full with the original purpose.

      1. You’ve read this whole post, right? … the part where Jerry plainly states he was directed not to talk about what he wanted to talk about: the incompatibility between science and religion? To just talk about… golly… creationism is not science? You saw Jamy’s talk, right? I think that’s a pretty good encapsulation of the state of affairs… which is fined, if you ask me. From what I know of movements that are trying to grow, you stay away from divisions. Just ask the geniuses at FTB how the A+ debacle worked out for them. I stand by what I said.

    2. To avoid challenging religion in the interests of accommodating vague and (some say harmless) spirituality may be good for the tent but it is itself, I think, a form intellectual fraud… failing to draw the obvious conclusions from the very practices you are advocating.

  11. I’ve noticed this with the skeptical movement as well and I wonder if it is because skepticism has been around longer than a movement like new atheism. I know that sounds weird, but it wasn’t until the New Atheists that atheists started feeling it was OK to outwardly and directly call out religious practices and beliefs as bunk. Skepticism most likely developed under the old way of thinking that saw questioning religion as rude. I wonder if it hadn’t developed past this.

    1. The skeptics movement (Randi, et al) is older than New Atheism by quite a bit. They tackled only UFO and quacks and ghosts but not really mentioning religion. The skeptics movement within physics departments, 1960s-1990s, was largely old school scientists who look(ed) like Nye and want to be nice, like 1950s nice, to people. So they have their tradition and it is separate from one that criticizes religion. Maybe someday they will merge as old people do tend to die and younger ones adopt a new zeitgeist.

      1. Cough.

        A lot of us Gnu Atheists are somewhat older folk, too. Our tradition was, until ten years ago or so, to be polite. We learned to push back. There’s no excuse for skeptics who give religion a pass, IMO. They can learn to push back, too, or face the ire of those of us who are willing to question faith.

        1. Yes, I agree. I was raised as a good atheist that shouldn’t call out religion but thanks to Hitch, Dawkins, Harris and many others I learned it was okay to do so.

        2. I meant to emphasize that a lot of young skeptics that I see today are afraid to criticize religion. This is endorsed by the tradition of their movement. Hopefully that will change so the focus is religion. And gbjames, you are wise and courageous, and the skeptics movement could use little of both of those qualities.

          1. What’s the matter with those young whippersnappers?

            (I’m going to have that put up as a quote on the wall in my office so people I’m video-conferenceing with at work will see it!)


        3. Is this true? Asimov, Sagan and Clarke had no problem criticizing religion. True they class acts but they would very politely tell you there is no god or debunk the claims of the bible.

          1. They certainly did plainly state their atheism, however what is different is the New Atheists encouraged everyone to speak just as plainly. This, to me, is a hallmark of the New Atheists.

      2. That’s a good point. And, unfortunately, Martin Gardner, who preceded Randi and was one of the first to tackle issues in pseudo science & woo on a popular level, did actually have theistic beliefs of his own.

        1. Did you read what I wrote? I did not say that “skeptics have always ignored religion,” for crying out loud. I said that they pay disproportionately less attention to religion than to other claims that also involve “faith.”

          1. I think the problem is, Dr. Coyne, that state that you don’t think you misunderstand he priorities of the skeptical movement, and that means that skeptics avoid religion as a topic. Randi’s book is a great example why I think this is not the right way to look at it. Neither Randi, nor many other skeptics I know, are afraid to take on issues of faith. They want to take it on based on a couple of principles. To me (as both a skeptic and an atheist), the principles I care about are testable claims and consumer protection. Where religion falls into these camps, it’s open season. Randi’s book definitely approaches it from a consumer protection angle, since these faith healers were frauds and bilking people out of millions. People who put atheism in front of skepticism are more free to challenge areas of faith where no testable claims are made. As an example, someone in the comments mentioned Heaven, Hell and the Soul as being against the laws of physics, but rarely do religious people make the claim that they are part of the physical world. When they do, like the folks that claimed they could weigh the soul as a person died, skeptics are more than happy to call “bunk!” I know I am, and pretty much every skeptic I know is. And a few of them, particularly in India, have risked their lives taking this approach. They were challenging the claims, however, not faith itself, and I think that’s maybe the major difference.

          2. Jerry, sorry for the delay in this reply.

            I actually meant this to refute Kevin’s point up above that Skepticism never took on religion in the past.

            I didn’t mean it as a disagreement, in fact, I’m inclined to agree with you and I think that the skeptic movement is less inclined to take on religion that it used to be.

            I needed to include some more verbiage to make that aspect clear, and I failed to do so. Sorry for the confusion.

      3. It hasn’t always been uniform. Paul Kurtz is of course a founder of both some of the humanist movements and skepticism movements, and he always seemed to want to be “big tent”. But even his friend (my undergraduate teacher) Mario Bunge (also involved in both) disagreed. I *have* noticed that Bunge’s own writings get more and more antitheistic and and antireligious as time goes on, though.

        As for the root question, I think it is precisely: “easy stuff first”. I don’t think that makes sense, and is related to my biggest complaint about most skeptical writings. That is, many refuse to explain the background which makes so many claims implausible and to save the time and money and just not worry about the “several Nobel prize” ones until evidence really accumulates (which it never will, we think). Homeopathy, creationism, etc. are in this category. IOW, too much empiricism. (More rationalism would help discredit religion too.)

  12. In the past calls have actually been made by prominent members in the skeptical community (and to an extent affiliated with TAM) that religion should effectively be regarded as off limits at TAM. It is also noteworthy to mention that some of these people were/are religious themselves. The reason given for these counter-intuitive statements was that gods, or religious ideas, cannot be derived, or investigated, by using the scientific method, and therefore falls outside the purview of TAM. What they have conveniently omitted in this reasoning is that whenever any gods or other aspects of religion are said to intersect with the physical or natural world, it becomes eminently investigatable (is that a word…?) by scientific means. And when science does the investigations religion and gods always come off badly.

    Just a few minutes on google and one can read several discussions on this particular problem regarding TAM. For instance the discussions at this link:

    1. There seems to be a difference between UK. And US experience.

      At the last TAM London meeting, some of the content was anti-religion, and there were relatively few (less that 5%) religious people there (it was a direct question to the audience at some point – along with a not-too-pointed remark that there was som inconsistency there).


    2. Yet TAM 9 included Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Bill Nye, and Lawrence Krauss. Not to mention Penn Jillette.

      1. Absolutely. Things are improving.

        When I said “In the past…” I did mean in the past. A few years ago very clear statements towards giving religion a pass have been made. This has elicited quite a few responses in protest from other skeptics, and since the pro-religion members had no real arguments to exclude religion, subsequent meetings have been showing clear improvement.

        While I’m at it… I’ve been following these discussions and would just like to add some follow up comments.

        A few commenters have raised the points of empirical vs rational investigation. Indeed, when religions make claims about effects of their beliefs spilling over into the observable natural world it is the skeptic’s duty to investigate and seek evidence in favour of, or against religious claims, and establish conclusions accordingly. However, when any of the non-testable belief claims are made it does not mean that skeptics should stand back and let those pass unchallenged. This is where the rational investigations come in. Empirically untestable religious claims can most certainly be investigated for consistency – logical, moral, etc. The problem of evil, or suffering, stands out as a key example of how claims of gods are logically inconsistent given the list of omni’s as accurate descriptors of said gods.
        Any inconsistencies would argue that religious beliefs are non-sensical and thus not worth considering as valid in any way.

        Several commenters seem to formulate atheism/agnosticism and skepticism as separate intellectual pursuits, thereby justifying the softball approach to religion. This is most certainly not the case. Skepticism is, in general, the effort to establish whether truth claims are based on independently verifiable evidence. If not, then acceptance of such claims is unjustified. The scientific method is a very specific formalized version of this effort, leaning heavily on an empirical approach, but not excluding the rational approach.
        And since god-claims are quite often truth claims it would place atheism/agnosticism as a subset of skepticism. Thus, the thoughtful atheist is inherently a skeptic. Furthermore, atheism and agnosticism are also by no means mutually exclusive. Atheism is a statement or conclusion based upon one’s beliefs – either you do not hold a belief in gods, due to lack of evidence, or you do believe that gods do not exists, based upon clear definitions of said gods and lack of supporting evidence and/or evidence to the contrary. Agnosticism is a statement or conclusion based upon knowledge. Given the nature (or should that be un-nature) of gods, such knowledge is commonly unobtainable.

        Some skeptical investigations seem to be regarded as of greater value or impact than others. Eg. bigfoot or UFO’s vs alternative medicine or religion. The first two are usually seen as fringe claims supported by a very small minority. The latter two are more culturally ingrained and often have massive support. Furthermore, people usually have much greater investment (socially, emotionally, financially) in altmed/religion than in bigfoot/ufo’s. This often leads to the argument that, for maximal societal impact, ‘true’ skeptics should rather focus their attentions on the heavy issues as opposed to the frivolous fringe issues.
        However, I would argue that there is significant value in investigating the fringe topics. For novice skeptics, these topics serve as models of how such investigation should be executed. With all possible scientific rigour. And since these topics normally lack the emotional, cognitive or other baggage associated with religion or altmed, these novices are less likely to have their prior biases interfere with their development as critical thinkers. Once a rigorous investigative mental framework has been established these newly minted skeptics will be less prone to cognitive biases once a loaded topics comes under investigations. Bigfeet, ufos, and other oddities are actually very important training exercises on which skeptics can establish and also regularly exercise their critical thinking skills and then go and apply those skills on the heavier subjects that will truly improve the world.

          1. Yes. And in fact this is why I’m planning on taking two teenage Catholics to TAM. Plus, of course, the zip lines down on Fremont Street.

  13. Thanks for asking a great question.

    I’d like to venture some thoughts.

    If you read up on the history of the skeptical movement (I think I got my details from http://www.skeptic.com/downloads/Why-Is-There-a-Skeptical-Movement.pdf by Daniel Loxton), it has it’s roots among clergy. They wouldn’t have been terribly interested in investigating their own claims, and for any non-theists to be able to cooperate with them, and benefit from information-sharing, they’d have to avoid religion’s turf. If you catch my drift.

    Something I picked up I recall not where, is that when the church had power, it attempted to get rid of any and all competition. Astrologers chose to go underground, but magicians decided to come clean. To convince the church that they really, TRULY were not doing ACTUAL magic, they had to explain their tricks in detail, and have never recovered fully since.

    Magicians seem to have played an important role in the skeptic movement. This is mere speculation on my part, but maybe they carry resentment towards those that got away, and Stockholm Syndrome toward religion?

    1. IANA expert, but I was interested in magic (stage magic, not to be confused with magick, which is similar with wicca) as a teenager and I’ve read a fair amount about it.
      Christian magic (tricks illustrating Bible miracles, for example) is a fairly big part of the craft, so there would be a big disincentive to be openly dismissive of religion at the local magic shop or convention.
      As for exposing psychics and such, that is a tradition that goes back at least to Harry Houdini. In the 1920’s, with all the deaths from WW1 and the Spanish Flu, there was a big fad in seances, which many con-men and women cashed in on. Houdini spent a lot of time exposing these parasites, and it has been kind of a mark that you are both a good magician and a good person ever since if you can do the same.

    1. The battle cry of those willing to delay justice. Mind you, I understand we ALL must do this at some point. But I’ve gotten to a point where I have to call people out (including myself) on the inherent decision embedded in those 3 simple words.

      “I’m willing to tolerate injustice in order to have self preservation/advancement/ease.”

      It is a survival thing, no doubt.

      1. I’m missing the point of the “Choose your battles” argument. Is it that skeptics should continue to go after Bigfoot and continue to grant a pass to religion, just as they have been doing? Is it that they’ve been choosing the wrong battles?

        I don’t understand where you are trying to go here.

        1. Just noting that Picking Battles vs. The Wedge is a difficult process.

          Whichever is chosen, you have to realize you ARE making a choice.

          I don’t choose one side or the other. They each have their place.

          1. I still am missing the point. You don’t need to choose, you say. So in what way is it a difficult process?

            Everyone who battles picks battles. It can’t be helped. One might “pick” more or one might “pick” fewer, but you can’t “do” battle without choosing to do so and then you have picked a battle.

            This seems like a non-choice that you don’t have to make.

        2. Randi understands cold readings. He understands slight of hand. He tries to expose people who are stealing money from people. He can sit with Johnny Carson and expose fraud. These are the battles he is fighting. With more resource (people) coming to his meetings he can add medical quacks and other scams to his list of battles. Considering the number of new scams each year it is questionable if he is winning.

    2. Yes, choose your battles: given finite energy, abortion rights and the teaching of evolution are each more important than Bigfoot. The question is whether you’re picking what’s important (either globally or in your own life), or what’s easy.

  14. Its like making a scathing review of a universally agreed upon bad movie.

    You can be mean, because the people you talk to are either deluded true believers or committed frauds (or both), you have the facts on your side because UFOs, Bigfoot, and the like, make claims based on physical evidence that is more amenable to analysis, and thus you can come away with the great feeling of winning an argument really easily, without having to worry about the fight, and people will pat you on the back for taking on a crank.

    Now, criticizing religion, you have a much greater number of people who will argue back, who will not necessarily have any physical evidence, or even feel the need for it, and a lot of believers are smart, smarter than you. And even if you win, you may not get any acclaim at all for it.

    1. UFOs, Bigfoot, etc. seem low-hanging fruit, like cops issuing speeding tickets instead of investigating burglaries.

      Also, exposing some putative ‘ectoplasm’ as month-old dog vomit does little or nothing to change the thought process of the person who jumped to the conclusion that it must be ectoplasm.

      The primary goal must be to instill critical thinking in people. When we still our tongues just because an irrational proposition is couched in religion, we fail.

  15. Randi has taken on faith healers, but I’m not familiar with anyone taking on miracle claims otherwise.

    1. Miracles tend to be one off events, so they can’t be falsified even in principle – who knows what a bunch of people saw a few k years ago outside a tomb?

      At least faith healing satisfies one aspect of the scientific method – that the healers claim their results can be replicated. And if when tested their claims don’t add up, at least one can appreciate that they exposed their claims to refutation.

      1. By now, and for quite some time, the proposition that one-off miracles are possible amounts to a claim of a conspiracy theory. We have overwhelming evidence of the regularity of nature and the trustworthiness of science. The only way a miracle could happen is if everything we think we understand is fundamentally flawed, such as if saucer aliens are controlling our thoughts with mind rays or if we’re only subroutines in some computer simulation.

        Of course, that can’t be ruled out empirically, but there’s really nothing to be gained by that sort of paranoia, either.


        1. Especially since the so-called miracles were not documented by contemporaries but written down by story tellers decades or centuries later.

          1. True in these particular cases, but there’re also all sorts of modern-day reports of miracles by eyewitnesses. And some of them are even sincere….


      2. Miracles are not one off events, they are assertions about one off events.

        I just swallowed an full-sized giraffe and flew, large belly and all, to Mars and back. I’m back to normal now. It was a miracle!

      3. But they can be addressed by the background knowledge. This rationalistic component to science, and the “inference(s) to the best explanation” that it allows is the single most poorly understood part of science, IMO.

      1. Edamaruku seems like a brave man.

        I would hope to have his courage if need be, but I’m glad I live in a time and place where I can express my views w/out looking at prison-time or worse.

        “On 3 March 2008, while appearing on a panel TV show, Edamaruku challenged a tantrik to demonstrate his powers by killing him using only magic.[2] The live show on India TV where the tantrik chanted mantras and performed a ceremony received a large boost in ratings. After his attempts failed the tantrik reported that Edamaruku must be under the protection of a powerful god, to which Edamaruku responded that he is an atheist.”


        Would I be so certain that the Tantrik couldn’t kill me? I just hope I would.

        1. If Tantrick is a sufficiently skilled magician and has access to fast acting poison, I might worry he’d pull off some sleight of hand puncture insertion on stage and hope to get away with it. It might be worth a try for a prideful performer, depending on how interested India authorities are in a careful autopsy of an atheist. An anti-authoritarian, vocal atheist, to boot.

          Once the tv show is over, from what Wiki says, is when Edamaraku’s guard really needs to stay up. If ol’ Tantrik doesn’t get him in revenge, he still has a lot of easily offended fundamentalist fanatics in his homeland to worry about, and religious leaders who have the ear of the justice system.

          1. Yep. Most of what they say Black Magic is combination of sleight of hands and fast-acting poisons (chemicals or biologicals).

            Dangerous move this Indian fella took ..

      2. I wondered if anyone would mention Sanal.

        Driven from his country under blasphemy laws for exposing yet another Miracle of the Weeping Jeebus as a Catholic fraud.

  16. With all due respect, this post could not be more incorrect and off base.

    Testable religious claims are not given a pass, period. At every TAM I’ve been to (9 in total) there is always talk of religious claims.

    @13 You mischaracterize what Barbara wrote.

    1. Sorry, Mr. Brady, but you are rude and YOOUR post is off base. I didn’t say there was NO talk of religious claims, just that they are deemphasized. And this is something that many people recognize. When I was asked to talk at last year’s TAM, I was definitely steered away from what I wanted to talk about (the incompatibility of science and religion), and toward evolution and the debunking of creationist claims. I talked about religion nonetheless, and got some pushback for it–unlike at atheist meetings.

      Since you’re a first-time poster, let me importune to to be more polite than you were in your initial comment.

  17. Religion is said by many to be like a personal characteristic, like being gay or black. It’s not, of course, but a lot of people act as if you even question their religious beliefs, you are somehow attacking them, themselves. 1. You have a right to believe what you want; 2. You yourself are respected as a person; 3. The things you believe, the beliefs themselves, if they have no evidence to back them up, then they deserve no respect at all and won’t get any. The minute you start saying “I believe this-and-such” you are laying yourself wide open to being questioned and challenged about the beliefs. What shocks most people who hold beliefs is that no one has ever questioned them before–they take this as a personal affront!

  18. I’ve been a reader of The Skeptical Inquirer
    since 1985 and a member of CSICOP off and on also.

    Reginald Selkirk’s comment at #3, “The generally stated reasoning is that the skeptical movement is concerned with “testable claims.” When religions make testable claims, such as creationism or faith healing, the skeptical movement has no qualms in going after them”, pretty much sums up the Sceptical movements take on Religion.

    Also many members of CSICOP are religious or harbor a “Spiritual” side ala ground of being.

    You don’t rock the boat when half the occupants holding the oars are Non Boat Rockers

    Look up Martin Gardner and his leap of faith

    1. Should add that CSICOP is affiliated with the American Humanist Association, they handle the God side.

      1. This is true. For years Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry have have been published parallel to each other. The latter took on religion, primarily, and the late Christopher Hitchens was a regular contributor. I subscribed to both of them for a long time. I think the fact there were two magazines suggests that the domains of skepticism and humanism were best handled somewhat seperately; the one dealing with science-based claims, the other more from a humanistic/philosophical standpoint. So that while each was rooted in a critical-thinking approach, they had different emphases.

    2. Look up Martin Gardner and his leap of faith

      And look up Sagan’s reaction to Gardner’s leap of faith for a very close parallel to Jerry’s (and my) position….


      1. And I don’t disagree at all.

        CSICOP was my intro to atheism and why I’m not involved with them anymore.

        Religion is the big scam and danger to society, bigfoot and UFOs are a symptom of the irrationality promulgated by religious belief

        1. I’m also a former CSICOP member. It was good for a while, but I got tired of all the inconsequential debunkings of mostly harmless and fringe hogwash, and took my limited shekels elsewhere.

    3. But… “Genesis” (x2 stories)? Global “flood”? “Adam and Eve”? … and on and on.

      1. Most Christians, if push came to shove, could be willing to let go of the entire Old Testament, and significant amounts of the New.

        Where they generally draw the line is Jesus’s own Resurrection and their own after-death accommodations.

        Demonstrating that the Resurrection is a myth involves demonstrating the whole of Christianity is a myth, and there’s no ten-second soundbite way to do that.

        But it’s very easy to demonstrate the inseparability of brains from consciousness: just point out alcohol and other psychoactive drugs on the one hand, and traumatic brain injuries of all varieties on the other. We don’t know all the details, granted, but we know that we can turn somebody gentle into a monster by cauterizing this bit of brain, and make somebody hyperactive by administering a stiff dose of caffeine, and turn a genius into a slobbering idiot by cutting out this part, and so on. Each and every bit of who you think you are is trivially subject to modification (and generally not in a good way) by effecting specific physical changes upon your brain. And with 100% reliability, too.

        There’s no room for the soul in the face of that evidence. You are your mind, and your mind is your brain. When your brain stops, so do you.

        If we could address that one critical supernatural claim — that there is something more to you than your brain — then I think we could readily enough solve the overwhelming majority of other problems caused by the various superstitions.



        1. “If we could address that one critical supernatural claim — that there is something more to you than your brain”

          Our winning personality and good looks won’t do it???

        2. I’ve been recently floating the idea that even to experience a momentary lapse in consciousness, even once in your lifetime, is a disproof of dualism. (i.e. a dreamless sleep, fainting spell, etc.) In only very few cases did I see a light bulb go on at the suggestion… and they might’ve been merely acting nicely for all I know.

          1. You’re right, but I think you might have better luck with beer.

            Wait — that’s not how I meant that to come out…but fuck it. Bring on the beer!


          2. Under 800 miles away! I could be there before sunrise….

            (Seriously, one of these days I’m going to do some sort of road trip, and there’s no way I’d be able to do something like that without swinging through Colorado. The question would be when….)


          1. I know that’s a common apologetic answer, but it fails in two regards.

            First, again, the argument from beer. Anybody who’s ever had a beer knows that it changes you, your thoughts, your feelings, your personality — and the more you drink the more it changes you. Even if there’s some sort of puppet master pulling your strings, that puppet master clearly can’t be you; you’re the one feeling drunk.

            Second, there’s the specificity and consistency across time and across people. Different substances and different changes to different areas of the brain all act differently. If it was just a matter of messing up reception, then there’d just be a uniform degradation of perception, not radically different and fundamental changes in personality. Unless, of course, again, you are an entirely separate entity from the soulful puppet pulling your strings.

            Last, there’s modern physics, which has conclusively ruled out even the theoretical possibility of any sort of interaction of an outside entity with the brain that could have escaped detection by now.

            Now, of course, you can still stick with a paranoid delusional fantasy…but, if you’re going to do that, you might as well say that the beer interferes with the alien’s mind rays as attribute it to a Christian soul. Both are equally plausible at that point — and equally batshit fucking insane, of course.



  19. I can but agree.

    skeptics should be dealing with unevidenced claims in proportion to their harmfulness and prevalence. We’re not supposed to shy away from faith-based beliefs just because they’re common.

    Skepticism should, yes. Skeptics are socially involved, and they may opt to be less than neutral and/or objective skeptics.

    I don’t think it is fear as much as:

    a) Some of the best science rejecting religious omnipotent claims, at least what I am aware of, are much more recent than against generic small scale scams. E.g. evolution (speciation), quantum mechanics (no hidden variables), astrobiology (abiogenesis fast and simple), cosmology (creationism worse than homeopathy), ‘completed’ phylogeny (an UCA) and completed standard particle model (no mind dualism).

    b) Aggressive accommodationism. By playing to the least common denominator, skeptic organizations have had a much wider recruitment basis. Some major “skeptics” are religious!

  20. Lots of good points. I’ve been a member of skeptic, humanist, and atheist organizations for many years (and have attended every TAM.). There is indeed an accomodationist strain running within all 3 — though it’s probably most pronounced in the skeptic groups.

    I think there are a variety of reasons. Part of it has to do with division of labor. The most significant history for this involves what is today called the Center For Inquiry. An umbrella organization, it split the paranormal criticism off from the religious criticism, thus forming two different turfs with their own guarded specialties. Religion wasn’t being given a “pass:” that was just someone else’s department.

    Another reason though involved a confusion over what was — and what wasn’t — “scientific.” The skeptic groups routinely deal and dealt with many obviously testable religious claims: the Shroud of Turin, prayer studies, miracles, creationism, and so forth. But many skeptics buy into the theologian’s argument that “God” and therefore religion is metaphysical … and thus unfalsifiable … and thus outside of their purview. It’s faith — and now it’s no longer a testable claim about nature. Science is limited to testable claims about nature.

    And they buy this even though the existence of those ‘obviously testable religious claims’ shows that faith is an immunizing strategy as opposed to a genuine component of a concept. Science is limited only to reality. If ESP worked, it would be a demonstrable supernatural claim.

    In a Q&A after a talk I once asked Michael Shermer what the difference between the “paranormal” and the “supernatural” was. His answer, as I recall, was “not much.” I think that really needs to be considered deeply.

    The guiding principle of accomodationism is that matters of faith are off limits as long as they stay out of science and government. As Prof. Pedant points out at #7, the idea is that it’s “just fine” to believe whatever you want as long as it personally helps you. Just don’t try to prove your beliefs are true, or act like they’re true, or expect others to act like they’re true, when you’re in public — and the skeptics will gladly leave you alone.

    A happy truce is thus modeled on the ecumenical system of mutually assured destruction and thus tolerance for “all paths.” No conversion, no harm; no harm, no foul. Religion gets to take on the mantle of a personal identity — and it’s bigoted to try to “change people” into being like you. You don’t want to “take away” the faith that sustains them. Therapist mode/Anthropologist mode allows the skeptic to justify an academic distance.

    But of course that’s ignoring the forest for the trees. “Faith” is not an announcement that what follows is deeply personal like a taste, preference, identity, moral principle, or emotion. It indicates that we’re about to encounter an empirical claim which wants to be skeptically approached AS IF it were a taste, preference, identity, moral principle, or emotion. In other words, arrogance on stilts — not modesty creeping humbly along the ground. Religion and God are the Big Enchilada, the foundation for why it’s not just allowed, but positively virtuous for smart people to believe weird things.

    The skeptics have occasionally and with justice complained that atheists have too often given a pass to stuff like alternative medicine. If atheism is to be consistent and science-based then it can’t carve out a special niche where science doesn’t count. True.

    But we atheists can turn that one around. Giving a pass to religion “as long as it’s kept personal” is like giving a pass to homeopathy “as long as it’s kept personal.” Sure, one can always choose to limit a personal criticism if you’re dealing with a friend, relative, or colleague. But using this Dinner Table Diplomacy strategy as a guiding principle for an issue is inconsistent with a scientific approach to reality.

  21. Maybe its just easier for the average skeptic to take on low hanging fruit like Bigfoot, whereas with religion u have to deal with issues like creationism and philosophical mumbo jumbo.

  22. Another skeptic whose blog I like to read is David Colquhoun( D C Improbable Science). He is a (retired) Professor of Pharmacology and blogs a lot about daft claims for drugs, alternative medicine etc as well as going after universities which teach nonsense such as homeopathy. You, on the other hand, blog about religion a lot – as you remind us, religious belief is the biggest barrier to accepting evolution, your area of expertise. My point being that maybe people tend to focus on matters which clash very obviously with their speciality rather than “dealing with unevidenced claims in proportion to their harmfulness and prevalence.”

  23. Skeptics tend to be engineering oriented. They like subjects that are conceivably possible. UFOs could exist, but it is relatively easy to show all accounts for them are false. Alternative medicine could work, and when it does we call it medicine. Likewise, Bigfoot and Nessie, although not true, they could have conceivably been true. Saying their is no God is a different matter, even if there is no evidence, it is metaphysical, and, worse, it might be offensive to someone if you tell them they are not going to see baby Jesus when they die.

    Personally I think the subjects skeptics are trying to debunk (I hate that word) are rather boring. Religion is the best game in town for Skeptics to tackle. They would do a lot better dismantling the contradictions that permeate the greatest number of citizens on our planet, and those come from religion, not crap like ESP.

  24. That’s certainly my perspective. (That is, I tend to scrutinize religious tenets more than other claims because they’re more impactive.)

  25. At some point this became the official position and it is probably due to religious donors.

    It is sad because the humanist skeptic predecessors of the JREF like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke had no problem criticizing religion.

    Saddest of all is the mental gymnastics they go through in justifying this blind spot


    This is probably due to the sore lack of actual scientists at the JREF.

  26. Round here the typical response is it is because our culture is largely based on christian values, and that we need to acknowledge the good as well as the bad.

    Therefore religion doesn’t get criticized as a whole, but individual religious proselytizers might get a good bashing if they say something silly….which happens from time to time.

    If I speak honestly and thus bluntly about my feelings on religion, I’m being pushy and just as bad as the thing I’m criticising.

    It’s kind of a paradox really; Religious values are the foundation of our modern society, but we’re not really supposed to criticise them because they aren’t bothering anyone anymore.

    But fuck me if I’m gonna be grumpy about that….at least we’re not in the trenches fighting off creationism……yet.

    1. Well put. Apparently the main thing which atheists are supposed to hate about religion is its attempts to proselytize. Fundamentalists are people who go around saying “my religion is right and your beliefs are wrong” when really — can’t we all just accept each other and get along?

      But that’s not our main problem with fundamentalism (or religion.) Saying “I’m right and you’re wrong … and I’ll show you why” is a significant aspect of the glorious and grand progress of humanist values and knowledge. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to change someone’s mind about some issue. We don’t think the fundamentalists are bad because they’re “pushy,” and so the charge doesn’t stick when they turn it on us.

      Instead, we think the problem is:

      1.)No, we’re right and they’re wrong.


      2.) They don’t show us why and debate fair.

      In religion, there’s no bottom-line honest attempt to persuade the other side through reason and evidence. Either the reason and evidence are poor — or they revert to an opposition-denigrating “faith.” Or both, with the second one following suspiciously quickly when the first one doesn’t work.

      1. I usually end up explaining, also to fellow atheists, that religion of all sorts are inherently passive-aggressive no matter how much emphasis is put on love and compassion simply because they aren’t true.
        They’re a blueprint for cognitive dissonance, subconscious fearmongering and always based solely on argument from authority/subjective experience.

        This is where we buy another round of beer and move on to other subjects….

      2. Sastra,
        Agreed that a lot of people have picked up the notion that the cardinal sin is ‘to proselytize’. It drives me up the wall. Like the Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons are particularly bad because they go door to door, not because they deny their kids blood transfusions or shun them for being gay.

        I think it comes from the Enlightenment idea that ‘a man’s religion is strictly his own concern’ in reaction to the European wars and persecutions. I support the important concept that we don’t try to force our religious beliefs on others, and by extension we don’t use government to advance our agendas, but it has bled over into this feeling that religion is simply off limits and beyond criticism.

        I think it’s ludicrous that some people think I will go to hell for not sharing their beliefs. But I’m not mad that they would try to persuade me to their side when they sincerely believe it is for my own good.

        1. I think part of the modern liberal distaste for ‘proselytizing’ is based on the idea that religion is a very personal part of one’s identity. Someone who tries to get you to abandon your religion and adopt theirs is automatically being insulting. They’re trying to make you become ashamed of your faith and thus change you into another kind of person than the one you are.

          There might also be a confusion over the difference between rational persuasion and religious persuasion. The second one uses all sorts of sneaky techniques and tries to demonize the opposition, who is never just mistaken but mistaken in a morally culpable way. Proselytizers aren’t trying to change minds; they’re trying to change hearts.

          Which is damned insulting.

  27. I suspect a principle reason is that there are theists who disbelieve or are skeptical regarding homeopathy, alternative medicine, the paranormal, and tall, furry, bipedal creatures with oversize feet. These skeptical-about=everything-but-their-own-religious=beliefs would be left out if religion were not given a pass. Given the strife that religion foments and the thousand injustices it imposes, that is a poor excuse not to criticize religion.

  28. One part of this (not the whole story) could be the fear of appearing “racist.” Criticize Islam and you risk being called an anti-Arab bigot, criticize Judaism and you’re an anti-semite, point out that indigenous beliefs (Native American creation myths, etc.) are nonsense and you’re imposing cultural imperialism on an oppressed people, etc.

    Another thing is that you risk hurting people who are genuinely good. I think that Christians are wrong, but I don’t despise them. Most of my friends and family are Christians and they are decent people. They aren’t stupid, or crazy, or a bunch of fanatics who stagger through life glassy-eyed; they are normal people holding down jobs, raising families and contributing to the community. I would not want to insult them unnecessarily.

    1. Speaking of decent people who hold jobs and raise families and contribute to the community…

      Let me offer this very moving story about growing up in a Hezbollah community.

      “Genuinely good” people can be in a very dark place as a consequence of faith.

    2. I don’t like to post to other sites all the time but I actually wrote about this cultural imperialism thing so I’ll link to it instead of repeating myself. Often you hear “it’s culture not religion” as a way to shut you up as well. I think Britain suffers from the same desires to have a multi-cultural society as Canada does but in so doing, gives bad ideas a free pass when they should be criticized. You can have a multi-cultural society while still calling out bad practices, beliefs, etc. Here is more of what I said.

      1. Nice. I, too, hate the “culture not religion” claim. As if religion wasn’t a cultural thing in the first place.

      2. “no bad ideas should receive a free pass” – exactly so and religion is a bad, bad idea as history shows again and again – unless of course you cherry pick yer history like yer BuyBull

  29. I’ve tended to view the reason as being that Skeptical organizations, such as the JREF and CFI rely on financial contributions from the public. Ruling out mainstream religion as a target for movement skepticism allows them to solicit contributions from a far larger public pool than simply the non religious skeptics.
    It’s an accomodationist approach and like the majority of these it has to rationalize its reasons (“you can’t test metaphysical claims”) in order to avoid stating the underlying reason (we can’t antagonize religious donors and still manage to stay in business.)

  30. I get that Pamela Gay is charming, and funny, and can explain why the Universe is 13.5 billion years old. Is she the only speaker available that meets those criteria? Just how is the skeptical movement furthered by relying on someone who openly refutes the core tenets of skepticism?


    ” A belief in God is a belief in something frustratingly untestable. I can make no testable predictions using religion, but instead find myself faced with having to make an opinion-based judgement. I have made the choice to believe…. [I]n the absence of data, I have made the choice to believe in a God.”

    “Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God. Being a skeptic simply means I have to admit that there are things I know are scientifically true and based on evidence (such as the age of the universe), and there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God)…. And in the absence of data, there is room for belief. I don’t have laboratory evidence of a God, but I choose to believe in one….”

    For Gay, apparently, ‘belief’ is synonymous with ‘wish.’

    Dawkins and Stenger have both make compelling cases that the existence of God is indeed testable. Gay ghetto-izes Science as something-one-does-in-the-lab. Once she’s punched the clock at the observatory, Gay tosses the Scientific Method in favor of whatever stories make her feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In this, she differs little from Francis Collins.

    Not only do we not need Pamela Gay, we can’t afford her.

    1. Just how is the skeptical movement furthered by relying on someone who openly refutes the core tenets of skepticism?

      I get your point, but “rely” on her? She’s not the foundation and doesn’t make this point her main topic. Nor is she really refuting the core tenets: she’s making an unjustified exception. The most common one.

      I think that as long as others in the skeptical movement are allowed — even encouraged — to point out where and why and how this special pleading is indeed wrong, then I think we can “afford” Pamela Gay.

      If nothing else, she helps us hold up a mirror to ourselves — and ask the right questions.

      1. The essence of skepticism is reliance on evidence, with suspension of belief where evidence is lacking or uncertain. No exceptions. Faith — belief without evidence or in the face of contrary evidence — is incompatible with skepticism.

        Gay’s Christian God hypothesis is eminently testable, and has been disproved. Yet, even were it untestable, as she asserts, then a true skeptic would form no belief.

        Gay’s frequent and public advocacy of Faith, and her quarantine of skepticism to hard science, promotes the widespread adoption of irrational thought. The willingness of the several skeptics’ orgs to employ people like Gay, and to give religious faith a free pass, undermines the very principles they allegedly promote. In attempting to broaden the tent, they have merely rent it, allowing the woo to pour in.

        1. Does Gay frequently and publicly advocate Faith? Or does she only explain it weakly when she is confronted and pushed by skeptics in situations where she has been hired to give a talk on something else altogether? I had thought it was the latter.

          I’m not sure I’m buying the argument that the skeptic orgs are giving religion a “free pass” when they let Gay talk about astronomy … and then in the same convention have another speaker (or 2 or 3) specifically talk about why and how the God hypothesis is eminently testable. That’s a pass with some major strings. Instead of “broadening the tent,” they may be seen as starting out with too broad a tent to begin with and narrowing it down the way scientists do: not with purges, but with rational argument.

          There’s someone else who is a curious fit at the TAMs. One of the experts on UFOs is also a global warming denier — and apparently a self-fancied expert on that too (which is not what Gay claims as far as I know.) I thought the JREF played that one well: they had a panel on global warming and allowed the nice gentleman to join it as the sole contrarian and be publicly crushed by a majority of actual experts.

          I think it would be awesome to get Gay to agree to a setup like that. Awesome — but unlikely. As I said, I don’t think she makes her faith a vital part of her identity.

    2. The atheist movement could say the same about Bill Maher, still he is a great speaker and fun to listen to.

      1. Not a good analogy, IMO. Bill Maher actually is an atheist. He’s not that good at general skepticism what with his anti-vax views. But he is a real atheist.

        The question is whether someone is a real skeptic if they refuse to turn their powers of reason and observation on their own religious faith. By “skeptic movement” standards, apparently the answer is “yes”. From my point of view the answer must be “no”.

        1. Question: has Bill Maher said anything anti-vax since 2009? Pro alt med?

          I’ve been watching in a lazy sort of way, but haven’t seen anything.

          As for “real skeptic,” I’d rather use the term “real good skeptic.” Gay’s not that. But as long as she’s not making a big song and dance about her religious views, I’m willing to grant her a personal pass.

          1. I’ll save the links & quotes I’d previously collected on Gay for the blog post I previously hadn’t gotten around to finishing. I’ll just note here that Gay actively promulgates her religious views, including her support of NOMA, that fine-tuning implies a creator, that christian scientists are best-suited to teach science to the masses, and that doing science is akin to worshipping God. She does so via her blog, in print and podcast interviews, and at frequent speaking engagements. Gay participates in theological seminars, recruiting sessions, and conferences sponsored by orgs such as the Templeton Foundation and the evangelical American Scientific Affiliation.

          2. Okay, I was not aware of that. It makes your case more compelling. I’ll think it over.

  31. I think it’s largely because religious beliefs, unlike belief in UFO’s, Nessie, Homeopathy, etc, are so vague or general.

    If someone says they believe in the Loch Ness Monster, it’s pretty clear what their claim is. The same with flying saucers. But if someone says they’re a Christian, that could mean so any things. Even if they say they believe something more specific, like “Jesus saved us from our sins”, that can be interpreted in so many ways.

    How often do we hear, “that’s not the true Islam” etc. When Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, he was heavily criticised by “sophisticated” theologians for attacking a “wrong” version of God. This is part of the great genius of religion, it can twist and turn and take on any shape it likes.

    1. True, but keep in mind that all sorts of woo suffers the same fate. Randi has described many times the most frustrating part of the $1 million dollar challenge: getting claimants to CLEARLY state what they can do, under what conditions, and with what level of accuracy. They can twist and turn and take on different shapes for months … if not years.

      Clarity is not the strong suit of the non-skeptical believer, period.

  32. Religious claims are subject to the skeptic movement – James Randi didn’t back off investigating Peter Popoff because he claimed divine authority, nor did Joe Nickell refrain from investigating the Shroud of Turin. So it would be empirically wrong to say that religious claims are beyond the domain of skepticism.

    But the contention, I think, is over what could be characterised as “metaphysical” propositions. How are we meant to look for evidence for or against something so incoherently conceived that evidence isn’t going to matter one way or the other? It’s a limit of scientific skepticism that there are claims that are beyond scientific investigation – at which point, what is there for the scientific skeptic to do?

    I think you’re right that religious claims often resemble pseudoscientific claims, and that in principle it’s hard to see why it is the muddled claims of astrologers are part of a scientific investigation while religious claims of the same nature are excluded via “methodological naturalism”. In general, though, since specific claims are investigated by skeptics and conceptual issues are dismissed as not even wrong, the focus on religion is trying to move away from specifics and towards the conceptual – in effect shifting the domain where the movement has historically been active in.

    1. “what is there for the scientific skeptic to do?”

      Unfalsifiable claims are to be dismissed out-of-hand. Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

      Most religious claims don’t even bother with pseudo-scientific trappings — evidence is deemed unnecessary, with revelation via scripture or prayer sufficient (indeed, trumping any evidence). That as a principle is antithetical to skepticism, and should be vigorously confronted.

  33. I think the reason skeptics mainly deal with non-religious issues is because religion is so normal and mainstream that an attack on it makes the attacker (the skeptic) automatically appear to be the nutty one. It’s like saying: Gravity is not real, you know, and by the way, homeopathy is bogus.

    It seems like the best strategy may be for “atheists” to attack religion and for skeptics to attack everything else, but if asked, skeptics should say religion also seems to be bogus.

    1. Having said that, it bugs the heck out of me that skeptics (in podcasts) are so often conspicuous in their avoidance of religion – specifically the claim that religion is somehow beyond the scope of skeptical (scientific) inquiry.

  34. Another possibility occurs to me: conflating criticizing faith with harassing the faithful. That can go wrong from either side.

    Consider the issue from a different angle. The question is “are religious people welcome in the skeptic movement?” And the grand answer I think is “depends on what you mean by ‘welcome.'”

    With this shift in focus there’s now a third position. Religious people should be welcome in the same sense that homeopaths, astrologers, climate deniers, and psychics are welcome. Hi there! It’s great if you’re eager to apply scientific reasoning in some particular specialty area or areas. Good for you. Let’s hear it.

    But don’t expect your special area to get the same pass from others which it gets from you. If an atheist speaks at TAM regarding their specialty area, tough. If they feel this doesn’t make them feel “welcome,” then they don’t belong.

    What gets dicey though is what happens at the individual level. How much leeway do we give particular people who say they do not, personally, want to get into a debate over their silly beliefs — even when they’re at a skeptic convention? Or heavily involved in the skeptic movement? They’re not pushing them, they’re not making any overt claim in front of people, they just don’t want to talk or debate about it because it’s private.

    That’s tougher.

    Am I going to refuse to hear a great speaker dissecting alternative medicine because she is a Catholic? Walk out? Shout her down? Demand in Q&A that she justify Catholicism or stfu? Demand that she not be invited in the first place?

    And what about a truly brilliant, funny, and well-loved skeptical leader who is also a Deist (note: more actual history here which explains some of the heavy baggage this issue carries)? Should they not be allowed to lead because they aren’t sufficiently pure? Because they won’t debate — no matter how hard and often they are pushed and pushed and pushed?

    I suspect that some of the people who seem to want to give religion a “pass” aren’t necessarily arguing that skepticism shouldn’t attack religion (some of them are, of course.) They’re actually following this subtext of being courteous to the semi-skeptical, hoping perhaps that constant exposure to the ideas and methods will eventually percolate into their sacred cow. In the meantime, make them welcome. Don’t attack them, don’t bully them.

  35. I think the main reasons are already given above; choosing one’s battles, not wanting to insult, being accustomed to ignore religion.

    One, perhaps minor, reason I also think is that most all claims being tackled by sceptics are “contemporary”: UFO videos, nessie photos, homeopathy and alternative medicine. This in turn means they can be examined and debunked “immediately”.

    Religion’s core claims are usually quite far in the past, so there’s less room for this.

  36. Religion is thought to benefit society by taming humans (accept God and king, who are similar), and benefiting individuals, who may live longer and happier with faith than otherwise. More “modern” thinking is: doesn’t matter which religion you pick, but not what we call not a religion: superstition, cult, pagan; all “approved” religions are helpful.

  37. I have avoided reading other comments until after I post this. Now I’ll return to the comments to see what others have to say.

    I think it is not faith, but a lack of critical thinking that is a major driver of today’s harmful superstitious movements.

    The various organizations attacking these superstitions are mostly historical. James Randi is a magician and he was appalled by the claims made by psychics. He started his million dollar challenge, which in no way prohibits faith healers from applying. Randi is a gay man, yet he wants JREF and TAM to focus on the fakers and not broaden the mission to include other social issues.

    I first started going to TAM from friends I made at atheist conventions in Dublin and Burbank. The Burbank meeting in particular awarded Bill Maher for his work for atheism despite his anti-vax and other views.

    While I have been an atheist for over 50 years, the motivation for activism came more from seeing a lack of critical thinking in general rather than religion per se. (George Bush’s policies has probably been the driving force in my being a more active atheist.)

    From an engineering perspective what we are seeing in these various organizations comes from root cause analysis. That is, many groups from Freedom From Religion to JREF to University Biology Departments see and work on different heads of the Hydra. In some venues we must stay on topic, but there is nothing stopping us from belonging and/or contributing to several causes.

    So if the root cause being a lack of critical thinking is correct, where should we focus our efforts? I would argue that the Austrian Economists – Paul Krugman’s “Serious People”™ is a bigger threat to our well-being than the Sophisticated (and unsophisticated )Theology ™. However, like Randi I fight the battles I am capable of fighting.

    Fortunately, this is not a democracy. We can each fight a different head of the Hydra. Indeed many, probably most, of us are fighting several heads.

    Did I mention I’m also a tree-hugging environmentalist?

    Bob Johnson

  38. “Religion is every bit as unevidenced as Bigfoot, homeopathy, or astrology.”

    Catholic schools, church picnics, and religious hospitals aren’t “unevidenced”. It’s safe to say that they exist. There is also evidence that have had positive effects.

    1. There is also evidence that they have negative effects, while the positive effects, like feeling part of a community etc are not religion dependent.

    2. “Religion is every bit as unevidenced as Bigfoot, homeopathy, or astrology.”

      “Catholic schools, church picnics, and religious hospitals aren’t “unevidenced”.”

      No one can be this bad at reading comprehension. Astrological columns in the paper also exist. Quit trolling.

  39. Only had time to skim all the comments here (enjoying quite a few punny sub-threads), but it looks as if most of the likely answers to Jerry’s title question have already been posted.

    Just reminds me of an anecdote. Pre-internet one of the only US sources of skeptical and atheist support was Paul Kurtz’s empire, clearly divided into two main entities, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP–pronounce it!), and the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism. The former was strictly limited to traditional non-religious-related skeptical inquiry (and much more widely known than CODESH, which did extol atheism).

    A younger Richard Dawkins inadvertently did something to violate the separation (I believe he gave a speech on the occasion of receiving an award from CSICOP in which he touted atheism?) and was rather taken to the woodshed by Kurtz. (Though my memory of the details is obviously sorely lacking, I do remember thinking it was great heresy at the time on Richard’s part. 😀 )

    1. This reminds me of Damian Thompson’s (good) book Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History

      …where Thompson is very good on the general bollocks that is out there but hie is a Roman Catholic & ignores religion as Counterknowledge.

    2. I can’t help but observe that the distinction being used to separate the “anti-paranormal” from the “humanist” organizations is arbitrary and, to my mind, bogus. What’s the point if not to allow religious folk to pretend to be critical thinkers because they can recognize the hokum of spoon-benders?

  40. Maybe beyond the obvious desire to not pick battles with so large a majority, it has to do with the specificity of the claims. Bigfoot, UFOs, all of those are very specific claims by backers who pretend it’s based on evidence. So they’re easy to defeat with better evidence, at least among listeners who are rational.

    And people who specifically bilk followers with fake but very specific “skills” like talking to dead relatives or quack spiritual cures to real world illnesses, those again can be fought with better evidence even if it’s backed by religion. Peter Popoff waved the flag of Jesus all over his quackery and Randi still took him down.

    Religious claims are just too vague and varied to fall into the same easily debunked ballpark. But when people of back to the specifics and start teaching what the Bible actually says (young Earth creationism, Noah’s flood, etc) skeptics do go after them.

    But it’s not so easy to debunk the idea that some abstract spiritual being conjured the world through the laws of physics, or that a cracker becomes a vague metaphor of the divine when you eat it, or that the Bible reflects spiritual concepts that become “true” on some higher level.

    1. “it’s not so easy to debunk the idea that … a cracker becomes a vague metaphor of the divine when you eat it….”

      A fundamental principle of Cosmology is that the laws of physics are the same throughout the entirety and duration of the Universe. A Catholic cosmologist (at least one who accepts the doctrine of the transubstantiation of the host) makes a decidedly un-vague claim: ‘every Sunday morning, at approximately 9:25, the laws of physics are in abeyance inside my mouth.’

      1. The vagueness I’m talking about is the fact that for the more scientifically minded practicing Catholics out there the ritual has a symbolic spiritual meaning. You can easily show that the cracker isn’t literally turning into human flesh, but it’s not so easy to prove it’s not being endowed with the unmeasurable essence of an invisible being’s spirit body. If you can’t measure something or its effects then it doesn’t exist to science. It can be safely ignored and shown to be highly improbable, but cannot be specifically debunked.

        It’s like debunking the existence of God when people can interpret that existence any way they want, from a literal alien being in the sky to a spiritual entity living outside the Universe to a human emotion like love to general goodness.

        1. Right. So either a claim specific enough to disprove, or one so vague as to dismiss. JREF ardently pursues the former approach, and scrupulously avoids the latter.

  41. I don’t get the impression that the skeptic movement as a whole is unconcerned with religion. JREF doesn’t tend to address it, hence your experience at TAM, and I’m sure I remember reading something from Randi or another JREF leader one time where they explicitly said they welcome Christians in their ranks.

    But as for the wider movement, at least my experience of it online, a lot of skeptics are just as passionate in debunking traditional religion as they are in debunking the more new age, alternative stuff.

  42. I’ve been a member of JREF for many years and became keenly aware of the soft-touch religion got there. While this disappointed me, it’s Mr. Randi’s organization and he can run it as he sees fit, and I support that. Readers should be aware that there’s vigorous discussion in the JREF forum’s Religion section — both pro and con, so religion (of all stripes) doesn’t escape close scrutiny.

  43. On skeptic.com in August last year they had a video debunking claims that you can talk to the dead & get responses. I thought it was spoilt by the debunker’s claim toward the end that there is an afterlife.

    Michael Shermer was kind enough to explain to me why my concern was misplaced.

    I don’t have any problems with Miklos’s video and his statement at the end. He’s not making any truth claims whatsoever.

    He just says that he’s sorta kinda a believer in some sort of higher power/being/force and that therefore he believes (but can’t prove in any way) in an afterlife. To this end he’s indistinguishable from Martin Gardner’s beliefs, and Martin is considered one of the greatest skeptics in history.

    We are only interested in challenging claims made that can be tested, or arguments people make claiming to support some belief with evidence and reason and logic.

    Could just be that some skeptics think that religion is not making testable claims? Even one with 3 X PhDs!

    1. There’s a lot of people who think religion is poetry. End of story; I read a book years ago called _The Sciences and the Humanities_ with that thesis. I dare say the thesis insults believers. There is *content* to their beliefs; they don’t find the poetry of X or Y congenial.

  44. I agree that skeptics are much less likely to be confront religion as such.

    That said, may I suggest that the reason skeptics are less likely to critice religion is because they are skeptics. The notions of testability and falsifiability so important to skepticism were designed to limit the claims of science to describe reality. The underlying notions in materialism that the universe is what there is and that it is intelligible in terms of impersonal principles.

    Skepticism denies these as epistemologically unwarranted. Skepticism is opposed to scientific realism and philosophical materialism. Atheism and its unwarranted claims to know there is no God or other religion is scientism, hence (by their lights) the need to emphasize testability and falsifiability, coherent concepts that preempt the errors of scientism.

    It seems to me that there is internal tension between the more consistent skeptics consciously struggling against scientism, such as a Massimo Piglucci and Ross Douthat versus Pinker and weit, and others who are not as versed in skeptic epistemological concerns. So maybe I’m underestimating the number of covert atheists who more or less ignore the ideas underpinning their daily practice?

    The confusing part is the atheists who agree with the skeptics that science doesn’t really describe reality, and can’t really prove anything. If that’s what you believe, all that remains is quarrels over probabilities. That is a very difficult field. And even if you did manage to put out numbers? Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. And after that, everybody is still entitled to buck the odds!

  45. A general response to comments about choosing battles and division of labor:

    Both sides of the accommodation debate have their merits. Though not opposed in principle to pragmatic approaches, imo most accommodation does more net harm than good.

    The battle I choose, therefore, is to vigorously defend the principle of evidence-based reasoning. To concede that position is to lose the war.

    As to division of labor: I see JREF, The Skeptics Society, SCICOP, et al., limiting their focus (despite lip service) to ‘testable’ paranormal & supernatural claims. I see groups like FFRF combatting organized religion and, along with outside groups like AU, defending church-state separation. Where are the groups promoting skepticism as an all-encompassing approach to every question?

    Cutting off hydra heads has been put forth as an analogy. An unintentionally accurate one. Strike rather at the heart of the beast: irrational thought.

    1. It wasn’t unintentional. You will note that my post claimed the beast to be a lack of critical thinking. Very similar to your irrational thought. I’d love to solve the bigger problem, but how?

      In the mean time we are left with confronting the many heads from Whole Foods woo to Vatican woo.

      1. Indeed, Bob, I appreciated your identification of lack of critical thinking as the most harmful agent.

        I’d say tackling the ‘hydra heads’ as they sprout is necessary but not sufficient. Discussing how to best go after the lack of critical thinking would take an whole other thread, but to be brief, I think we must vocally confront it wherever and whenever it appears.

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