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Michael Shermer in An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar is a feature documentary about the world-famous magician, escape artist, and world-renowned enemy of deception, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi. The film brings to life Randi’s intricate investigations that publicly exposed psychics, faith healers, and con-artists with quasi-religious fervor. A master deceiver who came out of the closet at the age of 81, Randi created fictional characters, fake psychics, and even turned his partner of 25 years, the artist Jose Alvarez, into a sham guru named Carlos. But when a shocking revelation in Randi’s personal life is discovered, it isn’t clear whether Randi is still the deceiver – or the deceived.

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E Pluribus Unum for all faiths and for none

Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking that America is fast becoming a theocracy. No fewer than three of the remaining Republican candidates (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann) have declared that they were called by God to run for the country’s highest office. Congress recently voted to renew the country’s motto of “In God We Trust” on nothing less than the coin of the realm. And this year’s Thanksgiving Forum in Iowa (co-sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage) featured most of the major Presidential candidates competing for the title of God’s quarterback.

Rick Santorum, for example, in the course of denouncing Islamic Sharia law, inadvertently endorsed the same as long as it is a Christian on the Judge’s bench: “Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law.” Not content to speak in such circular generalities, Santorum targeted his faith: “As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.” God’s law? That is precisely the argument made by Islamic imams. But Santorum was only getting started. “Gay marriage is wrong. The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.” Christian values only, of course.

The historically challenged Michele Bachmann minced no words when she declared: “I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says.” A Bachmann administration would apparently consult the Old Testament for moral guidance because, she pronounced with her usual hubris born of historical ignorance, “American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law.” Really? Where in our laws does it prohibit belief in gods other than Yahweh, ban the manufacturing of graven images, forbid taking the Lord’s name in vain, bar us from working on the Sabbath, require us to honor our parents, and interdict the coveting of our neighbor’s house, wife, slave, servant, ox, and ass? Even the notoriously difficult to follow 7th commandment is not illegal, much to the relief of candidate Gingrich.

Surely the pluralism of America’s religious diversity is what makes us great. Not so, said Rick Perry: “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.” But don’t politicians owe allegiance to the Constitution? Alas, pace Perry, no. “Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the President of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers.” You mean the values and virtues of the atheist Thomas Paine and the Deist Thomas Jefferson, the latter of whom rejected Jesus, the resurrection, and all miracles as nonsense on stilts, and yet who nonetheless insisted on building an impregnable wall protecting religion from the encroachment of state abuse?

Finally, the erudite Newt Gingrich was more specific in his plan to bring about a Christian nation through legal means, starting by redacting the 14th Amendment: “I am intrigued with something which Robby George at Princeton has come up with, which is an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, in which it says that Congress shall define personhood. That’s very clearly in the 14th Amendment. And part of what I would like to explore is whether or not you could get the Congress to pass a law which simply says: Personhood begins at conception. And therefore—and you could, in the same law, block the court and just say, ‘This will not be subject to review,’ which we have precedent for. You would therefore not have to have a Constitutional amendment, because the Congress would have exercised its authority under the 14th Amendment to define life, and to therefore undo all of Roe vs. Wade, for the entire country, in one legislative action.” If the 14th Amendment can be averted on a technicality, what about the others?

If you are a Christian, of course, this is the mother’s milk of nursing privilege. Power to the (Christian) people. It’s the oldest trope in history—religious tribalism—and it’s being played out in the land of liberty. So it is prudent for us to educe that other national motto found on the Seal of the United States first proffered by the founding patriarchs John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782: E Pluribus Unum—Out of many, one.

How many make up our one? There are 300 million Americans. Gallup, Pew, and other pollsters consistently find that about 10 percent of Americans do not believe in God. That’s 30 million Americans. That’s not all. A 2008 study by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) revealed that between 1990 and 2008 the fastest growing religious group in America were the “Nones,” or people who responded “None, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, or Secular” in the survey. Remarkably, this group gained more new members (19,838,000) than either Catholics (11,195,000) or Protestants (10,980,000), and totals 15 percent, or 45 million Americans.

Read that number again candidates! If you are elected President of these United States are you really going to dismiss and openly refuse to represent 45 million people living under the same Constitution as you? And that’s just the Nones. Tens of millions more Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Jains, Taoists, Wiccans, New Agers, and other law-abiding loyal Americans—many serving in the armed services protecting our liberty—are non-Christians who hold the same dreams and aspirations for what this country has to offer as do Christians. In fact, at most Christians comprise 60–76 percent of all Americans, which means that somewhere between 72 million and 120 million U.S. citizens are non-Christians no less deserving of representation in this democracy.

It’s time for candidates and politicians to stop the God talk and start acting like true representatives of the people—all of the people. It’s time for the 45 million Nones to demand both respect and representation no less than any other American, and for presidential candidates, when asked about their religion, to reply something along these lines:

I understand why you are curious about my religious beliefs, but I am not running to represent only Americans who happen to believe what I believe about God and religion. I am running to represent Americans of all faiths, and even the tens of millions of Americans who have no religion. If elected, my allegiance is to the Constitution and my duty is to uphold the laws of this great land, which are to be applied equally and without prejudice to all Americans no matter their color or creed. I realize that some candidates and politicians pander to their religious voting block in hopes of gaining support by tapping ancient tribal prejudices, but that is not my way. I get why other candidates are tempted to appeal to those deep emotions that are stirred by religious unity against those who believe differently, but I am trying to do something different. If elected I fully intend to represent all Americans under my jurisdiction, not just those Americans whose beliefs I happen to share. I am trying to build a better America for all Americans, not some. The original motto of this country is E Pluribus Unum. It means “Out of many, one.” It means that we are stronger together than separate, united by our common belief in liberty and the freedom to believe whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others. As a candidate for the highest office of this noble nation my faith is in its people—all of the people—and what we are able to do together to make the world a better place to live.

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Mr. Deity and the Believing Brain

Mr. Deity seeks help from Michael Shermer to make his creatures more gullible.

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Biblical Patternicity


Last night, April 28, 2009, I debated Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana from Reasons to Believe (RTB), an evangelical Christian organization whose mission it is to give people “reasons to believe” beyond the usual faith-based reasons. In this case, it is to scour the annals of scientific discovery in search of findings that seem to gel well with biblical passages; and even if they don’t seem to fit, these gentlemen are adroit at massaging both the research and the scriptures such that in the end they will fit come hell or high water.

I blogged about my previous debate with the RTB boys before, so I won’t repeat their arguments and my rebuttals here, but this was most definitely a larger venue and audience — the basketball arena at the University of Texas at Austin with over 3,000 in attendance — so I made sure that my presentation was especially poignant and lively (first and foremost, I believe, a public speaker must be interesting, have something to say, and say it in a manner that gets people to pay attention and remember). For example, I nailed Ross right off the bat on his claim that the RTB “day-age” model of creation is correct when he said that the use of the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis means “epoch” (and therefore no matter what scientists discover about the age of the origins of life, the Earth, and the universe, they can say “see, our model predicted that correctly”).

No, sorry gentlemen, yom means “day,” as in, well, a day, a 24-hour day. Yom Kippur, for example, is the “Day of Atonement”. Yom Kippur is, in fact, the 10th and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur does not mean the “Age of Atonement,” the “Epoch of Atonement,” the “Geological Age of Atonement,” or the “Cosmological Constant of Atonement.” As I pointed this out I could see Mssrs. Ross and Rana scrambling through their Bibles and other works of reference they had on the table with them, but they never did respond so I presume that they have conceded the point.


I also made the general point that their RTB creation models are based on postdictions, whereas science depends on prediction. That is, the RTB models start with what we already know about nature, then search for biblical passages to match them, then predict that we’ll find more of the same. This is exactly what the Nostradamians do, as when they “predicted” 9/11 … after it happened! Sorry gentlemen, that’s not a prediction; that’s a postdiction. For RTB to be science, they must make predictions about things we do not already know!

Ross claims that the Bible — and only the Bible — has a creation story to match that of modern cosmology; that is, the creation of the universe out of nothing, that the earth was without form and void, etc. That’s not true, and I provided several examples from the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. But I also found this one that I added to the collection, from the Tao-te Ching 25, 6th century B.C.E.:

There was something undifferentiated
and yet complete,
which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless,
it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere
and is free from danger.
It may be considered
the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.


At one point in my presentation I pointed out the supreme irony of an atheist having to explain to theists how to properly read the Bible. The book of Job, for example, is about suffering and the problem of evil and why bad things happen to good people. It is not a book of cosmology. Further, I noted that Bible scholars of all stripes (most of whom are deeply religious) agree that the Bible is an edited volume written by many authors over a long span of time. This helps explain why, for example, in one passage Noah is instructed to take two of every kind of animal on the Ark, and in another passage he is instructed to take 7 of each kind. One version has the flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, another passage says 150 days. In one passage Noah sends out a raven to find land. In another passage he sends a dove. And on and on. By adopting the methods of Reasons to Believe, you are forced to dismiss all of this scholarship and miss the real meaning of the Bible. The Bible is about how people should get along with one another and about morality and ethics and meaning. By trying to make the Bible fit the current estimates of the Hubble constant (to pick just one among many examples), me thinks you are missing the point of the book, and thus (in your world view) you are missing God’s message.

Is that supreme irony, or what?

In a form of what I call “Literary Patternicity” (patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise), in the following passage from the great poet John Donne, it would appear that he anticipated the discovery of the double helix as the basis of life and reproduction:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

Wow, incredible, how could John Donne have anticipated the discovery by Crick and Watson centuries later? But more importantly, my point in this exercise in literary patternicity is that you will miss the beauty and power of Donne’s poetry if you try to read into it modern scientific discoveries.

I closed with a set of challenges to Ross and Rana, asking them to tell us, from their scriptural readings, the answers to the following unknowns in science:

  1. Did Neanderthals have symbolic language, and what caused their extinction?
  2. Is RNA the precursor to DNA, and what came first, cells or self-replicating molecules?
  3. Did eukaryotic cells come from prokaryotic cells?
  4. When did ID/God intervene in the history of life — never, occasionally, always?
  5. Why doesn’t God heal amputees?
  6. If it turns out that your testable RTB models are refuted, will you give up your belief in Jesus as your savior?

Interestingly, although Ross said that if his RTB models were refuted he would give up his belief in both God and Jesus, there erupted in the audience a loud chorus of “no” voices, which made my point beautifully: this is not, never was, and never will be about science, because no scientific evidence would ever dissuade believers from their belief. Why? Because such beliefs are not based on science in the first place.


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Faith Healing

A torrid tale of quackbusting in 1920s America
sheds light on modern medical scares
book cover

A review of Pope Brock’s Charlatan. America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.

Human cognition has a problem — anecdotal thinking comes naturally whereas scientific thinking does not. The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism illustrates this barrier. On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine’s ingredients. On the other are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms appeared. (continue reading…)

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