America today is a country facing numerous troubles, both internal and external. Externally, our leaders seem intent on maintaining the United States’ position of international peacemaker, no matter the cost in terms of human lives, and no matter what the cost to our prestige in the eyes of our allies. President Obama’s determination to involve us in a war in Syria is merely the latest in a long string of foreign interventions dating back to the end of the Second World War that have sapped our country of its energy and cost us so much of the global respect we once enjoyed. Corresponding with this moral decline is an intellectual decline that has dramatically increased in exact proportion to the rise of fundamentalist religion. One cannot dismiss the two as unrelated; as our country moves further and further to the right of the political spectrum, there is a corresponding emphasis on the imagined importance of religion in our daily lives. Along with this renewed push toward fundamentalism, there has been an increase in crime, a decline in the numbers of highly educated Americans, a decrease in the quality of our public schools, the rapid disappearance of the middle class and an ominous rise in gullibility. People seem more and more willing to believe absurdities if they are cloaked in the imagined “time-honored” vestments either of religion or of some other manifestation of magical thinking. At a time when salaries of educators, scientists, and other professionals are increasingly failing to reflect the value we should be placing on them, we are also seeing sports contracts being signed in the hundreds of millions of dollars. What has gone wrong?
I contend that if there is one over-riding problem facing intellectual America today, it is what I call a credulity crisis, meaning there are more and more people willing and even enthusiastically embracing the most far-fetched ideas and schemes that in earlier times would have placed them on the fringes of society, or else locked up for their own protection. Increasingly, people are believing in ridiculous things not only without supporting evidence, but often in the face of clear-cut evidence refuting them. Emotions rather than logic and common sense are guiding people’s actions.
This tendency toward credulity assumes many forms: belief in gods and in other outrageous religious claims, belief in miracles, extra-sensory perception, psycho-kinesis, the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda triangle, space aliens, demonic possession, are only some of the phenomena that contradict not only the evidence of the senses, but plain old common sense itself. All have been subjected to rigorous critical scrutiny, and all have been found wanting. Facts, of course, are irrelevant to the mindset of the true believer, who will deny, lie, obfuscate, and do anything else rather than admit that they are living a lie. Let us examine a few of these phenomena.
First, with respect to gods, no concrete definition has ever been offered as to just what a god is. This is not surprising; since gods do not exist anywhere but in the mind of true believers who are thus free to create their gods in any way they desire. The first step in “proving” the existence of anything is to describe what it is; failing in this, the atheist need not even consider any of the various rationalizations offered up for the existence of a god, i.e., the first cause rationalization, the design rationalization, etc. Whether the believer likes it or not, however, wish cannot replace reality; no amount of faith can make an untrue statement true. Believers can wax poetic in attributing various positive personality traits to their imaginary best friend in the sky but, as we learned in elementary school, verbs and adjectives must have a qualifying noun. In other words, before a god could do anything, it must first be something, and to be something means to possess certain identifiable and definable traits, which of course believers cannot do. The burden of proof is on the believer to provide us with concrete, non-contradictory essences about what this god of theirs actually is. Failing in this automatically removes their claim from serious intellectual consideration. The atheist position therefore logically prevails.
Belief in gods would no doubt have died out long ago were it not for the fact that most people are terrified at the thought of their own mortality. Death is not comforting to contemplate, and can be anxiety-provoking. However, the idea of personal immortality, like the idea of gods and other supernatural phenomena, cannot withstand critical scrutiny. True believers refuse to address the hard questions: Where exactly is this “hereafter?” How can one exist in any way without a physical body of some kind? How old will you be in your post-death existence? The age at death? At birth? At some other particular age? How about if you die in the advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease? Will you spend eternity in that state? These and countless other questions expose the silliness of supernatural belief but, as with belief in a god, facts will not dissuade the true believers.
Along with such beliefs, all contained within the paradigm of organized religion, is the idea of a soul which, not surprisingly, believers cannot describe in any meaningful, non-contradictory way. Here, science comes into play for scientists are well aware of the fact that consciousness depends upon the physical existence of a brain or some other kind of central nervous system that generates awareness. If an individual suffers brain death, then they are no longer aware of their surroundings. So by what possible stretch of the imagination can anyone possibly be aware if they do not have a brain at all? As with other such questions, the believer will say something like “god will find a way” which is nothing more than a tacit admission of the paucity of logic in their argument.
Notice also how the fact of consciousness depending on physical existence absolutely demolishes the idea of a god. How can a god think without a physical brain? How can a god perform even the simplest of tasks without a physical body? Faced with the illogic of their position, the true believer will supply answers that are not answers at all, but mere evasions: don’t think, just believe; just have faith; god will find a way, logic isn’t everything, and so on.
Closely aligned with this mindset is the idea of miracles. Miracles, while not necessarily conjoined with organized religion, still reflect the credulity of its advocates. Religious miracles are often trotted out as “proof” of a specific religion’s veracity. The fact that these events supposedly occurred some two thousand years ago is irrelevant to the true believer. Pointing out that these alleged miracles were written by scientific illiterates in a more ignorant age by men who thought it was possible to walk on water and that diseases were caused by demons will not dissuade them from their intense desire to believe. Interestingly, these same people, when confronted with the miraculous claims of other religions, suddenly do a complete about face and become diehard skeptics more than willing to use logic to refute those religions!
Some believers claim to have “witnessed” miracles themselves. However, convincing oneself of that which one desires to be true can hardly be said to be credible objective evidence. Instead, it simply reflects the mindset of the credulous and their enthusiasm in embracing the irrational and non-existent. Claims of personal experience are conveniently untestable. But if untestable, they are useless as arguments and cannot be introduced as “evidence” in support of their claims.
We see this same mindset at séances, and in the claims of the appearance of ghostly apparitions and hauntings. No contact with the dead has ever been made under controlled conditions. Likewise, no ghostly apparitions or hauntings have ever been verified under controlled conditions. Apparently, ghosts, mediums and conjurers refuse to perform under such conditions. It should be obvious why.
Belief in the existence of the Loch Ness monster has always been popular. Even though the lake was dredged years ago and no trace of “Nessie” was found, this has not dissuaded the true believers. Again, this reflects a certain type of mindset, one that refuses to allow facts to interfere with fantasy.
The same applies to those who believe we have been “visited” by extra-terrestrials. Contemporary science has shown that there is no possibility of any advanced life form existing anywhere in our solar system. If intelligent life does exist elsewhere, it is so far removed from us in space that, considering the accepted age of the universe, a violation of the laws of physics would have to occur for them to transcend this spatial gap and visit us. Once again, desire trumps the facts with the true believer.
Any alleged miracle, in order to be verified, must in principle be verifiable and falsifiable. If the believer refuses to submit their claims to scrutiny or critical examination, their beliefs need not even be considered. Their refusal to do so is a tacit admission that they are being intellectually dishonest.
Believers and skeptics alike observe the workings of nature and have at least some understanding of cause and effect. The difference between them is that the rationalist seeks answers to life’s questions, while the credulous seek mysteries. These mysteries serve an important function for them: they create an atmosphere conducive to the irrational, allowing them to indulge in their own specific fantasies.
Like it or not, there has never been, in the course of human history, a single instance of a miraculous occurrence of any kind that has withstood critical examination and empirical verification.
If magical thinking were harmless, there would be no reason to oppose it. Unfortunately throughout the world, manifestations of magical thinking, in the form of religious fundamentalism, are killing off countless numbers of innocent people, all based on subjective truth claims. And, in a perverse reversal of the way things should be, belief in supernatural nonsense, in all its multifarious forms, is accorded a respect it most certainly does not deserve. In these United States, the single most powerful political entity is the Religious Right, who have milked the credulity crisis for all its worth. They have for all intents and purposes, taken over the Republican Party and are dedicated to overthrowing democracy, eliminating individual rights, and forcing everyone to support their pre-rational view of existence and of how the world operates. Obviously, they will not put it in these words, but their intentions become crystal clear when one reads their literature or listens to their speeches. One of the many negative consequences of this is that we are currently importing scores of scientists from third-world countries to compensate for the dearth of qualified scientists emerging from America’s own universities. Virtually all the leading Republicans in the country today are religious fundamentalists, including two of the most recent presidents, who believed in a literal Armageddon involving mass destruction and countless millions of deaths. Under the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, this ideology formed the foundation of their foreign policy. The Christian Right is actively engaged in making this biblical prophecy a reality. If the human race is to survive, it must get its priorities straight and fight the evil inherent in magical thinking, however it manifests itself.