[Published in the Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 23, no. 1, January/February 1999, pp. 62-64.]

Science, Religion, and Believing in Weird Things

Wayne Anderson's article "Why Would People Not Believe Weird Things?" (September/October 1998) made the interesting and important point that members of our society are generally ill-prepared to distinguish between the relative value of the various sets of religious, pseudoscientific, and scientific beliefs with which they are confronted. One reason put forth by the author is that the acceptance of Biblical miracles predisposes society to be credulous toward contemporary paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.

Unfortunately, in making this point, the author recites a sampling of Biblical miracles in a belittling tone, then pejoratively characterizes them as "far-fetched," "silly," and "unreasonable," and as something which "might be entertaining in a Star Wars movie." He states, "Their claim to truth should make any thinking person blanch."

As persons active in promoting the skeptic movement on the local, national, and international level, we wish it to be publicly known that we consider skepticism to be pro-science, not anti-religion, and that such rhetoric is both unnecessary and counter-productive to promoting critical thinking among the general public. Signers of this letter include believing skeptics, non-believing skeptics, and those in-between and undecided. They are troubled by the writer's automatic equation of all Christianity with Biblical literalism and find this both inaccurate and unnecessarily divisive. All agree that regardless of their personal views on the validity of the statements, the same ideas could have and should have been expressed in a less inflammatory manner.

Moreover, Mr. Anderson does not properly distinguish between faith and knowledge. He talks about Christians believing that Jesus walked on water based upon flimsy evidence. This is wrong--most Christians who believe this believe it upon faith. (By contrast if anyone claimed possession of testable evidence proving Jesus walked on water, their claim would certainly be amenable to skeptical analysis.) The content of beliefs, whether religious, New Age, or scientific, is irrelevant. What matters is whether a belief is based upon faith or upon logic and evidence. If a claim is based upon faith then our role as skeptics is to label it as such, and to point out that faith is outside the realm of science and can only be held by personal choice. If a claim is based upon evidence, then the full weight of skepticism can, and should, be brought to bear.

The signers feel Mr. Anderson's article is unintentionally harmful to skepticism, because it criticizes religious belief based upon a scientific standard. Such behavior tends to blur the necessary boundary between science, which deals with testable claims about the physical world, and religion, which deals with faith and intangible questions such as the meaning of life. Making such a distinction clear is critical to the mission of CSICOP and the logical skeptical groups to promote scientific thinking in a public arena.

Daniel Barnett, David Bloomberg, Tim Holmes, Peter Huston, Paul Jaffe, Eric Krieg, Scott Lilienfeld, Jim Lippard, Rebecca Long, Lori Marino, Rick Moen, Steven Novella, Bela Scheiber, and Michael Sofka. (Signers' organizations and cities omitted by editor for space.)

[Note added 25 November 2007 by Jim Lippard: Today, I would quibble over a few details. I don't think religion respects such clear boundaries between faith and evidence, and much religion does make empirical claims that can be tested and refuted. Further, science itself doesn't admit to a clear demarcation between science and non-science based on testability or falsifiability. Practically speaking, however, it is a good idea for skeptical groups to stick to falsifiable claims and avoid entanglements with religion--skeptical groups have and should continue to have broader appeal than atheist groups. One of the motivators for this letter besides the article it was a response to was Paul Kurtz's combining of secular humanist and skeptical activities with Centers for Inquiry.

BTW, the affiliations and cities were (I believe): Daniel Barnett, North Texas Skeptics, Dallas, TX; David Bloomberg, Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land, Springfield, IL; Tim Holmes, Taiwan Skeptics, Tanzu, Taiwan; Peter Huston, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Schenectady, NY; Paul Jaffe, National Capitol Area Skeptics, Washington, D.C.; Eric Krieg, Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, Philadelphia, PA; Scott Lilienfeld, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Jim Lippard, Phoenix Skeptics and Tucson Skeptical Society, Tucson, AZ; Rebecca Long, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Lori Marino, Georgia Skeptics, Atlanta, GA; Rick Moen, Bay Area Skeptics, Menlo Park, CA; Steven Novella, New England Skeptical Society, New Haven, CT; Bela Scheiber, Rocky Mountain Skeptics, Denver, CO; and Michael Sofka, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, Troy, NY.]