Article 1574 of sci.skeptic:
From: Rick.Moen@fidogate.FIDONET.ORG (Rick Moen)
Subject: Skeptics and Religion
Date: 27 Oct 89 20:39:43 GMT
Posted: Fri Oct 27 16:39:43 1989
Organization: KKSF, San Francisco CA (415) 391-2657
Following is an article from the May 1986 "BASIS", an issue devoted
to the Bay Area Skeptics' expose, with magician James Randi, of
"faith-healer" Peter Popoff. (I participated.) The entire Popoff
story was told on April 22, 1986 on the Tonight Show (and can
frequently be seen in reruns).
BAY AREA SKEPTICS AND RELIGION
by Mark Hodes
Bay Area Skeptics is a diverse organization. Our Board of
Directors, consultants, and subscribers include men and women of
differing religious and non-religious persuasions, persons
affiliated with religious institutions and persons not so
affiliated. The position of Bay Area Skeptics on religion is,
simply, that we have no position. The claims and attitudes of
religious organizations and individuals, with few exceptions, are
neither offered nor taken to lie in the domains in which scientific
inquiry is effective or applicable. Therefore such claims
generally do not engage our attention.
Exceptions, however, do occur, and they fall into two overlapping
I. Religious claims whose proponents assert
scientific justification for their truth.
II. Religious claims that, if unchallenged,
exact grievous societal costs.
This is a touchy subject involving, at the least, highly subjective
judgment, if not downright prejudice. Allow me to illustrate these
categories with three specific examples:
1. The Shroud of Turin is a paradigm for Category I. The Shroud
is a linen wrap that surfaced in France in the 1350s, and carries
an image supposed to have been scorched into the fabric by
radiative emission from the crucified body of Jesus. In 1978 a
team of dozens of American and European scientists subjected the
Shroud to an impressive battery of sophisticated tests, and were
widely reported to have proclaimed the Shroud authentic!
Once the question of the Shroud's authenticity had entered the
scientific literature, that question and earlier work on it became
fair game for the critical evaluation that attends all surprising
and and significant results in science. The more surprising the
outcome, the more meticulous and compulsive the scrutiny it
receives. This is the conservative side of science, but note that
this same scrutiny leads sometimes to the astonishingly rapid
acceptance of those rare revolutionary ideas that stand up to it.
As the purpose of this essay is not to review the Shroud
literature, I refer you to the notes for further information.
2. A topic that spans categories I and II is creationism, so-
called Creation Science. Creationists offer what they profess to
regard as empirical justification for their beliefs. This places
them in Category I. However, they misrepresent the nature of their
beliefs, seek to promulgate their dogma in public school classes,
and pursue political means to effect this goal. The costs to
society of weakening the science curriculum are manifold and
manifest. In a broader context, the Constitutionally mandated
separation of church and state is as crucial a safeguard as freedom
of speech, and is a foundation of academic freedom. The case
against creationism has been made elsewhere, and so I refer you
again to the notes.
3. The sensitive subject of faith healers falls squarely in
Category II. Faith healers' numbers are legion, and their annual
"take" is exceeded only by the extravagance of their claims. Peter
Popoff, the subject of other articles in this issue, is not
exceptional either in his apparently cynical exploitation of those
who place their faith in him, nor in his apparent lack of regard
for the unnecessary health risks to which his followers may be
exposed. Here the connection with religion is wholly incidental.
The substance of our criticism is not against anyone's religious
beliefs, but what may be the use of state magic of the mentalist
genre, clothed as a religious service, to perpetrate possible
medical fraud. Again, religion PER SE is not the issue.
Certainly situations will arise in which our intuitions will differ
as to whether to become involved. Ambiguity is among the usual
costs of dealing with complex issues. My point is that Bay Area
Skeptics is neither antagonistic toward nor supportive of religion
in general, or the religious beliefs of individuals in general.
We do take interest in controversial subjects that enter the
scientific literature, and in areas where the penalties for
uncritically holding beliefs are unconscionably severe.
1. A good place to start reading about the Shroud of Turin is "The
Skeptical Inquirer", vol. VI, #3, Spring, 1982. This issue
contains carefully researched articles by Maavin M. Mueller and
Steven D. Schafersman, each including a large bibliography.
2. For the case against creationism I suggest Godfrey, Laurie R.
(ed.), "Scientists Confront Creationism", W.W. Norton & Co., New
York, 1983. This volume, introduced by Richard C. Lewontin,
contains essays by 15 distinguished scientists, including Stephen
Jay Gould. The essays carry individual bibliographies, and the
collection includes a detailed cumulative index.
With the passage of three years, the references to the Shroud of
Turin have become dated. However, I am uploading this article to
sci.skeptic because of the religious issues I have seen debated
here. The folly of discussing, under the rubric of skepticism, the
merits of Joshua 10:12's alleged cosmology, or of generalising from
Scientology to theism as a whole, should by now be apparent.
I would suggest that skeptics' legitimate concern lies with
testable claims of fact, not with matters of faith. Accordingly,
religious issues, per se, are NOT on our agenda.
Further, the less-fair critics of the skeptics' movement (e.g.,
Robert Anton Wilson) commonly attempt to undermine its credibility
by attributing to any of various ideological agendas. "Skepticism
= atheism" is one of them. So, I would like both to dissociate the
skeptics' movement from the anti-religion crowd and to make certain
this criticism is not justified.
Rick Moen, Secretary
Bay Area Skeptics
Rick Moen - via FidoNet node 1:125/406