Yet scientists are required to back up their claims not with private feelings but with publicly checkable evidence. Their experiments must have rigorous controls to eliminate spurious effects. And statistical analysis eliminates the suspicion (or at least measures the likelihood) that the apparent effect might have happened by chance alone.
Paranormal phenomena have a habit of going away whenever they are tested under rigorous conditions. This is why the £740,000 reward of James Randi, offered to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal effect under proper scientific controls, is safe. Why don't the television editors insist on some equivalently rigorous test? Could it be that they believe the alleged paranormal powers would evaporate and bang go the ratings?
Consider this. If a paranormalist could really give an unequivocal demonstration of telepathy (precognition, psychokinesis, reincarnation, whatever it is), he would be the discoverer of a totally new principle unknown to physical science. The discoverer of the new energy field that links mind to mind in telepathy, or of the new fundamental force that moves objects around a table top, deserves a Nobel prize and would probably get one. If you are in possession of this revolutionary secret of science, why not prove it and be hailed as the new Newton? Of course, we know the answer. You can't do it. You are a fake.
Yet the final indictment against the television decision-makers is more profound and more serious. Their recent splurge of paranormalism debauches true science and undermines the efforts of their own excellent science departments. The universe is a strange and wondrous place. The truth is quite odd enough to need no help from pseudo-scientific charlatans. The public appetite for wonder can be fed, through the powerful medium of television, without compromising the principles of honesty and reason.
- "Human gullibility beyond belief,— the “paranormal” in the media". The Sunday Times. 1996-08-25.
I can't stand atheists – but it's not because they don't believe in God. It's because they're crashing bores.
Other people, most recently the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton in his new book, Faith, Reason and Revolution, take to task such superstar nonbelievers as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and political journalist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist.
My problem with atheists is their tiresome – and way old – insistence that they are being oppressed and their fixation with the fine points of Christianity. What – did their Sunday school teachers flog their behinds with a Bible when they were kids?
Read Dawkins, or Hitchens, or the works of fellow atheists Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), or visit an atheist website or blog (there are zillions of them, bearing such titles as God Is for Suckers, God Is Imaginary and God Is Pretend), and your eyes will glaze over as you peruse – again and again – the obsessively tiny range of topics around which atheists circle like water in a drain.
First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists). You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, but atheists say the problem is persecution so relentless that it drives tens of millions of God-deniers into a closet of feigned faith, like gays before Stonewall.
In his online Atheist Manifesto, Harris writes that "no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that ... God exists." The evidence? Antique clauses in the constitutions of six – count 'em – states barring atheists from office.
The US supreme court ruled such provisions unenforceable nearly 50 years ago, but that doesn't stop atheists from bewailing that they have to hide their Godlessness from friends, relatives, employers and potential dates. One representative of the pity-poor-me school of atheism, Kathleen Goodman, writing in January for the Chronicle of Higher Education, went so far as to promote affirmative action for atheists on college campuses: specially designated, college-subsidised "safe spaces" for them to express their views.
Maybe atheists wouldn't be so unpopular if they stopped beating the drum until the hide splits on their second-favourite topic: How stupid people are who believe in God. This is a favourite Dawkins theme. In a recent interview with Trina Hoaks, the atheist blogger for the Examiner.com website, Dawkins described religious believers as follows: "They feel uneducated, which they are; often rather stupid, which they are; inferior, which they are; and paranoid about pointy-headed intellectuals from the East Coast looking down on them, which, with some justification, they do." Thanks, Richard!
Dennett likes to call atheists "the brights", in contrast to everybody else, who obviously aren't so bright. In a 2006 essay describing his brush with death after a heart operation, Dennett wrote these thoughts about his religious friends who told him they were praying for his recovery: "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" With friends like Daniel Dennett, you don't need enemies.
Then there's PZ Myers, biology professor at the University of Minnesota's Morris campus, whose blog, Pharyngula, is supposedly about Myers's field, evolutionary biology, but is actually about his fanatical propensity to label religious believers as "idiots", "morons", "loony" or "imbecilic" in nearly every post. The university deactivated its link to Myers' blog in July after he posted a photo of a consecrated host from a Mass that he had pierced with a rusty nail and thrown into the garbage ("I hope Jesus's tetanus shots are up to date") in an effort to prove that Catholicism is bunk – or something.
Myers's blog exemplifies atheists' frenzied fascination with Christianity and the Bible. Atheist website after atheist website insists that Jesus either didn't exist or "was a jerk" (in the words of one blogger) because he didn't eliminate smallpox or world poverty. At the American Atheists website, a writer complains that God "set up" Adam and Eve, knowing in advance that they would eat the forbidden fruit. A blogger on A Is for Atheist has been going through the Bible chapter by chapter and verse by verse in order to prove its "insanity" (he or she had gotten up to the Book of Joshua when I last looked).
Another topic that atheists beat like the hammer on the anvil in the old Anacin commercials is Darwinism versus creationism. Maybe Darwin-o-mania stems from the fact that this year marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth in 1809, but haven't atheists heard that many religious people (including the late Pope John Paul II) don't have a problem with evolution but, rather, regard it as God's way of letting his living creation unfold? Furthermore, even if human nature as we know it is a matter of lucky adaptations, how exactly does that disprove the existence of God?
And then there's the question of why atheists are so intent on trying to prove that God not only doesn't exist but is evil to boot. Dawkins, writing in The God Delusion, accuses the deity of being a "petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak" as well as a "misogynistic, homophobic, racist ... bully." If there is no God – and you'd be way beyond stupid to think differently – why does it matter whether he's good or evil?
The problem with atheists – and what makes them such excruciating snoozes – is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering. Atheists seem to assume that the whole idea of God is a ridiculous absurdity, the "flying spaghetti monster" of atheists' typically lame jokes. They think that lobbing a few Gaza-style rockets accusing God of failing to create a world more to their liking ("If there's a God, why aren't I rich?" "If there's a God, why didn't he give me two heads so I could sleep with one head while I get some work done with the other?") will suffice to knock down the entire edifice of belief.
What primarily seems to motivate atheists isn't rationalism but anger – anger that the world isn't perfect, that someone forced them to go to church as children, that the Bible contains apparent contradictions, that human beings can be hypocrites and commit crimes in the name of faith. The vitriol is extraordinary. Hitchens thinks that "religion spoils everything". Dawkins contends that raising one's offspring in one's religion constitutes child abuse. Harris argues that it "may be ethical to kill people" on the basis of their beliefs. The perennial atheist litigant Michael Newdow sued (unsuccessfully) to bar President Obama from uttering the words "so help me God" when he took his oath of office.
What atheists don't seem to realise is that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses. So, atheists, how about losing the tired sarcasm and boring self-pity and engaging believers seriously?
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.