Monday, September 29, 2014

"...wide appeal for those predisposed to believe..."

The following is a letter to Farrell Till in the mailbag section of *The Skeptical Review*, 1995 May-June issue:

As one of your fans, I can't resist the urge to toss a few words and ideas in your direction. I warn you; I have a problem with brevity. 

I like the quotation on your banner: "It is wrong, always, and for everyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (W. K. Clifford). That reminds me.... One way to attack nonsensical religious ideas seems all too obvious to me, yet it's one I have never heard. It's highly intuitive and goes like this: 

ONE: We can be quite sure Jack Ruby shot Oswald. A number of people were present and saw it happen. Millions of people saw it on TV as it happened. Video tapes are available for review. It's a non-arguable point. 

TWO: We can be only partly sure that Bruno Hauptmann kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, since there were no eyewitnesses. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence, such as the ladder, which pointed to his guilt. A jury convicted him, yet some say he was innocent. It's an uncertain matter, at best. 

THREE: We really can't be confident that young George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. There is no supporting evidence and only he and his father, so the story goes, would have had direct knowledge of the event. It's an appealing story but really can't be relied upon. It's a popular legend. 

FOUR: The story of Jesus of Nazareth being born of a virgin has no supporting evidence whatsoever. It arises out of hand-me-down stories. Only one person could have had direct knowledge of the event, and the only written accounts were drafted many years after her death. Like the cherry tree story, it has wide appeal for those predisposed to believe it, and for that reason it has endured. It has all the earmarks of a myth. Now think of it. One of the major religions of the world turns on an event for which there is no supporting evidence. Christians love to beat on the Mormons and the Joe Smith tales and the Mormons' silly ideas of advanced civilizations in the Americas many centuries ago. They sneer because there is neither supporting evidence for Smith's claims nor for the civilizations. Yet the same folks will swoon and rattle their beads over the event recounted as #4 above. 

TSR brings me the recurring idea that extreme religiosity destroys the reasoning power of the minds of the believers. Isn't it a good thing that Jonas Salk was born into a Jewish home that respected learning and inquiry instead of a Christian "Science" household? Has a Christian fundamentalist ever made an information-based contribution to the world? I can't think of any.... 

(Thomas T. Wheeler)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Wheeler is making essentially the same point about historical information as Richard Rich did in an earlier "Mailbag" column (Winter 1995, p. 13): people tend to accept ancient records of ordinary events, which are possible or probable, even though they aren't necessarily true. As I noted in "Evaluating Historical Claims," pp. 9-11 (this issue), Thomas Paine made this same point in Age of Reason : reasonable people accept ordinary claims that were recorded by ancient historians but reject the fantastic or extraordinary. As the article also noted, the works of early historians like Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, etc., all contain accounts of miraculous events that no rational person can believe really happened even though they are no more fabulous than many biblical stories. This should tell Bible fundamentalists something, but of course it doesn't. Nothing can budge a confirmed bibliolater from his irrational belief that all events written in the Bible happened exactly as recorded.

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