The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Religion and Hucksterism

The Raving Atheist links to an article from the Slate discussing the shift that many noted skeptics are making from pursuing television fortune tellers, psychics and other snake oil sellers to targeting mainstream fundamentalist politicians and their policies. The article notes that with this, they must also shift they're strategy from "debunking" to a more positive defense of science and reason. TRA fails to see the difference:

"The shift in targets is a good development, but I fail to see the distinction between the 'scientific' and 'debunking' strategies. Both employ science to demonstrate that a belief is false. And I think the Slate piece overstates the subtlety of religion. Most of it is pretty silly stuff: virgin births, men rising from the dead, elephant-headed deities. And rarely is any of it offered with even the pretence of proof, or an explanation of how the belief in some dopey dogma dictates a particular moral rule. Gays shouldn't marry because crackers and wine turn into flesh and blood when you eat them? Huh? What?"

I tend to agree with TRA that religion is no less ridiculous than spoon bending or fortune telling but I think the change in strategy is good. However, I think the crucial difference between conventional hucksters and religious leaders is that the latter actually believe what they are saying and that is a dangerous distinction. Uri Gellar knew it was a trick. Dion Warwick's psychic friends know that they can't really predict the future. Even Benny Hinn and other money grubbing TV evangelists know they can't really cure cancer by hitting someone with a coat and are just out to steal money. It's easy to just point out the strings or pull back the Wizard's curtain in these cases. But proponents of religion actually believe the things they say. They are convinced that reason is not always the best way to make decisions and when a person believes that, it is very difficult to change their mind using pure reason. You have to start with proposition that reason and science ARE the best tools for making decisions and constructing a world view. You will never get Pat Robertson or John Ashcroft or any other fundamentalist politician to say "you got me. It was all a lie." just by proving their beliefs to be illogical. First you have to convince them that they shouldn't believe in things that are illogical.

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