Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. Skepticism is a method, not a position.
by Chris Edwards, author of Spiritual Snake Oil
Too many people see non-material philosophy as harmless. No doubt billions of worshippers are comforted by religious or spiritual ideas. Why not leave them alone?
First, in order to increase human happiness we need to make the world a better place. To put this another way, we need to create conditions that will lessen human suffering. There is nothing to be gained by abandoning the logic and rationality that have solved so many of humanity’s problems. What if Thomas Edison and Louis Pasteur had spent their time chanting “Om” rather than perspiring in their labs?
Second, non-materialistic thinking clouds the mind and prevents us from seeing real solutions. Entire societies sometimes get infected by the religious virus. Instead of inquiring, thinking, and experimenting, such societies becomes static and run the same religious program, through ritual and indoctrination, over and over again like broken machines. The spiritual outlook on the world has never been helpful and has instead been a hindrance to understanding the world around us. The atheist/materialist/scientific outlook has always been helpful. So why, then, should we use a spiritual model to study something like consciousness or near death experiences when it has so consistently failed us in the past? Who benefits?
Well, the guru does. I don’t buy the idea that religious beliefs are viral “memes.” Instead, they are forms of manipulation. Gurus, priests, and preachers benefit in status and wealth if they have believers/followers. They gain power when people believe in their words and the people usually only believe if they are kept ignorant.
There are thousands of little old men on mountaintops in the “guru literature,” and they always say things that are so vague that the gullible consider them wise. The easily impressed assume that a guru knows the answer to the question being asked, but wants the inquirer to struggle with the question in order to arrive at some kind of wisdom—and that is why the guru won’t give a straight answer. The truth is that he won’t give a straight answer because he’s clueless. The purpose of ambiguous answers and metaphorical stories is not to convey any message of truth, but to preserve the aura of mystery and wisdom that the guru or master has so carefully cultivated around himself.
By giving shamans and gurus, priests and preachers respect, we help to cultivate future generations of people who believe that spiritualistic forms of thinking are respectable. By doing this, we as a society deprive ourselves of the intellectual capital that could provide real solutions to real problems. The history of scientific understanding can be read like tree rings. Sometimes the rings (additions to scientific understanding) are large and at other times they’re small. We should attempt to provide the best type of growing conditions for the scientific enterprise. Trees grow well when there is plenty of water and sunlight, and ideas grow well when the environment favors free inquiry and is uninhibited by dogma or anti-scientific notions. Non-materialist thinkers want us to turn away from the only form of thinking that is helpful to us, and they want us to do so because it benefits them. Logic and science, conversely, benefit all.
- Speech: Michael Shermer, “Why People Believe Weird Things” (amercier4.wordpress.com)
- Asking Michael Shermer: Why is mythology more popular than science? (communities.washingtontimes.com)
- Michael Shermer Explains Skepticism to Elon Students (skyebellenisportfolio.wordpress.com)
- “Testable Claims” is Not a “Religious Exemption” (skepticblog.org)
- Author and professor Michael Shermer speaks at Elon University about skepticism and skeptics role in science (ccavanaugh2.wordpress.com)
- Secular VIP of Week: Michael Shermer (richarddawkins.net)
- Harvard Doctor Debunks ‘Bad Science’ Behind 12-Step Programs (radioboston.wbur.org)
- Zen and the Art of Fallacious Reasoning (seesharppress.wordpress.com)