That the Skeptics should not tackle religion

by Barry Williams

At the Australian Skeptics National Convention in June 1990, a debate was conducted on the proposition “That Australian Skeptics Should Tackle Religion”. The proposition was put by Robert Macklin, and this is the text of Barry Williams’ reply.

There is very little of substance in Robert Macklin’s presentation with which I would personally disagree. My point of departure from his views lies in the methods we should apply to problems we both acknowledge.

The primary aim of Australian Skeptics is to “investigate claims of pseudo-scientific, paranormal and similarly anomalous phenomena, from a responsible, scientific point of view”. That is a worthwhile purpose, we do it well, and it is what I believe we should continue to do.

Among the things we do not do are the investigation of shonky car dealers, economic predictions, ordinary (non-paranormal) confidence tricksters, political promises, advertising hyperbole or any of the myriad other dubious claims, or claimants, at large in the community. While these areas are undoubtedly worthy of investigation, there are other organisations which deal with such matters, and no doubt they do it a great deal better than we could.

As a general statement of purpose, we have always eschewed the pleasure of investigating religion per se , considering that it lies outside the ambit of our published aims. I believe that we do this for very good reasons, both from a philosophical, and more especially, from a pragmatic standpoint, and notwithstanding Rob’s very persuasive case, as this paper shall seek to demonstrate

Let us first consider what is meant by the phrase “tackling religion”. At what level is it suggested that we tackle it?

  • Does it mean that we should investigate religion as a social phenomenon?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate the mundane practices of religious organisations?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate the fundamental beliefs and dogmas of religions?
  • Does it mean that we should investigate specific claim made by people, in the name of religion?

I believe that we can dispose of the first two options very quickly. Religion, as a social or psychological phenomenon is, and always has been, a fertile field of study for social scientists. There is no doubt that, throughout human history, people have involved themselves in religious practices and, I strongly suspect, people always will. In this context, the impulse to religion is a bit like masturbation; if it did not satisfy some real need within the human species, then it is unlikely that so many people would indulge in it. That aside, there is nothing pseudoscientific or paranormal about the phenomenon of religion. Much as some Skeptics might regret it, religion is an all-too-normal human activity.

The second option, the mundane practices of religions, are equally outside our terms of reference. Many Skeptics may consider practices such as compulsory celibacy, fasting, circumcision, ordination or non-ordination of women, ritual cannibalism, etc, as being curious, even outrageous, but they are not paranormal or pseudoscientific activities. To an objective observer the rituals of religious organisations are no more peculiar that are those of football clubs, political parties or of any of the multitude of other organisations in which people involve themselves. That religious organisations attract to themselves certain privileges, bestowed by the body politic, and which are not available to other organisations, is a matter of concern to many Skeptics. I agree with that concern, but religious organisations are not alone in attracting privileges, which also apply to sporting bodies, trades unions, service organisations and many others. They are likely to continue to do so while politicians perceive that there are votes in it. Therefore, to address these problems requires political activity, which also lies outside the ambit of the Skeptics’ aims.

Next, we must address an area that lies quite clearly in the realm of the paranormal; the fundamental beliefs of religions. To approach this subject, we must consider just what it is we are discussing.

There seems to be no doubt that we, the human species, have a great need for certainty in our lives and that we are the only species, so far as we know, which has the certain knowledge of its own mortality. That is no easy burden to bear, regardless of how rationally we may like to view the world.

Little wonder then that the majority of religions have, as a fundamental tenet of their beliefs, some form of survival of the death of the corporeal body. Whether this survival is in a spiritual form in some sort of “paradise”, as many religions hold, or whether it is accomplished through reincarnation, as others assert, very little in the way of testable evidence is ever offered in support of the proposition. More of which later.

The existence of deities is a further common factor in many, though not all, religions. The evolution of deities matches the evolution of human societies. Our tribal ancestors had a simple, animistic, religion, in which spirits controlled every animal, object and natural phenomenon. These spirits were used to explain almost everything that happened, and were very personal to the people. As civilisation developed, these natural spirits also became more formalised into the polytheistic pantheons of such cultures as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Norse (and, of course, many others). These gods did not inhabit individual items but tended to be associated with somewhat more abstract concepts, such as the state, or war, or love, or the family. They were more formalised than the nature spirits, but nonetheless retained personalised attributes.

Finally we reached the stage of having a “world” god, responsible for everything that happens, or has happened. Many people claim to have personalised relationships with such deities, but it is, to my mind at least, a claim that is impossible to sustain at any level of the intellect.

In this fleeting brush with the history of deism, one trend is obvious. Gods are invented to explain those things we do not understand. As we learn more about the natural world we inhabit, then our cultural gods are forced further into the realms of mysticism. “God of the gaps” is a term which I believe is applied to this phenomenon.

To the Norse, Thor with his hammer was perfectly reasonable explanation for thunder, but it is unlikely to be given much credence by a modern meteorologist. A great flood which covered the whole world, and from which an elite group was rescued by their deities, may have meant something to the Babylonian citizens of a riverine culture, but it is not sustainable in the light of our present knowledge.

Which gets me back to my point of departure into the thickets of theological speculation.

Most Australians (around 85% is the figure I have seen), when asked the question, “Do you believe in God?”, will answer “Yes”. When called upon to elucidate on that assertion, most of them, at least in my experience, retreat into mumblings and scratchings of the toes in the dirt.

Believers in gods, to a very large degree, will not (or can not) tell you the mass, temperature, volume, pressure, viscosity, reflectivity, colour, or indeed any other physical attribute of their god. If, as seems likely, gods are without physical attributes, then they are in fact abstract concepts, and, as such, are no more testable in a “responsible, scientific manner”, than are other such abstract concepts as love or beauty.

I suspect that there are as many perceptions of “god” as there are people doing the perceiving. Stephen Hawking, in a recent TV programme, is quoted as saying that if God represents all the underlying natural laws of the universe, then he believes in God. I find that proposition difficult to dispute. If God is used as a shorthand term for the underlying laws of nature, fair enough, but, if this pantheistic concept is accepted, it disposes of any sort of personal god, which is sure to antagonise the adherents of most religions. This sort of god does not punish you for breaking its laws because there is no way in which you can break them. You can of course be punished for attempting to break the laws, as anyone who steps off the top of a very tall structure will quickly discover.

The same applies to surviving death. Of course, we all do survive death, in the sense that our constituent atoms do not cease to exist, just because we cease to breathe, but this is not very satisfactory as a religious concept.

Which is all a rather long winded way of getting to my point that, while the fundamental beliefs of religions may well be paranormal, their very lack of specificity leaves us with no sensible way in which we can test them.

We could, of course, indulge ourselves in long, and ultimately fruitless theological debates, just as people have been doing for as long as they have been human, but we have to ask ourselves what does theological speculation achieve? To a large extent, theological debates resolve themselves into ever more esoteric rehashings of old arguments, without ever reaching any sort of conclusion. To my mind, the legendary debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin is one of the more serious examples of theological argument.

That may be a naive view of the topic, but I do believe that if we were to adopt Rob’s views we would reduce Australian Skeptics to the status of a theological debating society, a fate which I believe our organisation is far too valuable to deserve, and a regression that I, for one, would find most distressing.

This brings me to my final option. Should we investigate specific claims, made by people, in the name of religion?

To this question, there can be only one answer, “Yes”. That is precisely what we have always done.

In broad terms, every paranormal claim is made in some sort of religious context. The believers in astrology, numerology, et al clearly believe what they believe as an act of faith. Their beliefs are updated versions of primitive animist religious concepts. However, the adherents of these beliefs do make testable claims and those claims can be, and are, tested by Skeptics, and are frequently shown to be baseless.

The same can be said of many claims that are made in a more directly religious context. It has never been the case that those who make dubious, but testable, claims can cloak themselves in some sort of mystical shield called “religion” and thus avoid the scrutiny of the Skeptics.

Claims made for the Turin Shroud, faith healing, and the sad joke that is Creation science’ have always been investigated by Skeptics and should continue to be so investigated.

Finally, let us get away from the esoteric morass of theological speculation altogether and rejoin the real world of newspapers, politicians, football commentators, public relations consultants, economists and fashion designers. This is the area that someone has cleverly referred to as the “marketplace of ideas” and it is in this marketplace that we Skeptics have to sell our wares.

Our “product” is rational thinking and that is not necessarily an easy product to sell. Australian Skeptics is operating in this marketplace and has, through the efforts of our quite small membership, developed a reputation as a responsible organisation.

Where once we had to fight for recognition, now our views are sought, particularly by the media. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that we have denied ourselves the pleasure of being dogmatically and raucously offensive to those whose ideas we dispute. We are perceived as being a tolerant, moderate and reasonable organisation, capable of giving a sound, rational response to dubious claims.

This is important in the ideas market, in which perceptions count for a great deal. We have to sell the concept of a rational, scientifically based, view of the world, to an audience to which that view does not necessarily come naturally. One way to make the job harder is to alienate 85% of your potential market before you utter a word.

As I mentioned earlier, around that number of Australians profess some sort of belief in some sort of deity. It is probably a reasonable speculation to say that more than half of these people are only nominally religious: functionally they are agnostic. However, one of the best ways to force a nominal member of some religion to defend his loosely held faith, is to make a frontal attack on it.

There are other organisations whose main purpose is to tackle religion and, to be frank, they are very seldom heard from in public forums, while the Skeptics’ views are much more often heard in those same forums.

I believe this is so because we do not arrogate to ourselves any concept of ideological purity, but, instead, maintain an attitude with which any reasonable individual can identify. I doubt very much if we will advance our cause by one millimetre by adopting a stance of being “Unholier than thou”.

Before you damn me as the ultimate unprincipled pragmatist, let me suggest that, by promoting a general idea of Skepticism in the areas we do encompass, we are automatically encouraging people to apply critical analysis to other areas of their lives as well, be the religious or any other. Critical thinking is a difficult concept to learn, but it does get easier with practice. That is the practice we have always adopted and that is the practice I believe we should continue to adopt. Rob used analogy brilliantly in equating the Christian gospels with cricketing reportage. Let me also conclude with an analogy derived from another favourite pastime of our species – war.

Consider two generals, neither of them particularly engaging personalities, each in control of huge armies, each trying to win a war for his side. The major difference between them was their approach to the unpleasant job they had. They also one other thing in common, the name Douglas.

Douglas Haig thought that victory on the Somme could achieved by sending countless men to their deaths, charging into massed machine guns.

Douglas MacArthur, for all his faults, was considerably less profligate with the lives of the men under his command. His island hopping strategy in the Pacific, leaving large garrisons of his enemy behind him, out of reach of logistical support, undoubtedly saved many lives.

I have no doubt that Australian Skeptics will suffer if we insist on making frontal assaults on well entrenched opponents who hugely outnumber us. Much better to encourage a climate of critical thought in which they will wither on the vine, while never forgetting that they have the right (and are likely to continue) to believe in anything they please, regardless of how foolish those beliefs may appear to us.

While I agree with many of Rob Macklin’s concerns, to do as he suggests will require that Australian Skeptics become a fundamentally different organisation from what it is now. We would become just another player on the stage of sectarian disputation, indulging in tendentious, and ultimately futile, theological speculation. We would waste our energies in chasing the will-o-the-wisp of seeking answers to the unanswerable. We would distract our attention from that which we do well – testing the testable.

I believe that Australian Skeptics is far too valuable an organisation for us to debase our currency in this way. I believe that what we do now makes far too valuable a contribution to the life of our community for it be diluted by indulging in esoteric arguments we are unlikely to win. I believe that we will continue to be regarded as a voice of reason while we continue to focus on that which we do best; calling into question dubious, testable claims and providing reasonable explanations. That is what we should continue to strive for, not to be seen as some niggling fringe group, with a pure philosophy and no audience.

I am sure that all you rational people will agree.