The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

“The Passion” Difuses
Anti-Semitic Passions

Film made people re-examine their views,
less willing to cast blame, survey finds

an article by Don Lattin at the San Francisco Chronicle

Despite fears that it could promote anti-Semitism, the new film by Mel Gibson “The Passion of the Christ” may have made Americans less likely to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, according to a new survey.

Among those interviewed for a new national poll who had seen or knew about the film, 83 percent said the movie and its surrounding controversy had no effect on the extent they believe contemporary Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. Only 2 percent said the movie made them more likely to blame Jews, while 9 percent said the movie made them less likely to hold Jews responsible.

The poll by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco surveyed 1,003 randomly selected adults from March 5 to 9. The margin of error was 3.7 percentage points.

Gary Tobin, president of the institute, called the findings “good news.”

“While the film may have a different impact elsewhere in the world, so far ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is not producing any significant anti-Jewish backlash,” Tobin said.

Even before the film’s Feb. 25 release, some Jewish leaders predicted that Gibson’s depiction of the last day in the life of Jesus could provoke anti-Semitism.

Those fears rose after the movie opened and was condemned by some critics for what they called a negative, stereotypic characterization of the Jewish community during the time of the crucifixion.

But what actually happened, Tobin said, was a widespread discussion in the news media, churches and synagogues about the role of the Jews and the Romans in the trial and execution of Jesus.

“People have had to think and reflect on their beliefs,” Tobin said. “This film was absolutely healthy for religion in America.”

Others are not so sure.

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the San Francisco office of the Anti- Defamation League, said the poll earlier this month was conducted too soon and did not sample enough viewers.

“The core issue with this film may not be who was to blame for the death of Jesus, but its overall anti-Semitic stereotypic images,” Bernstein said. “Those images will stick with people forever, just like we think of Charlton Heston when we think of Moses.”

Bernstein said his office has gotten a couple dozen hateful phone calls since the film came out. Jewish children, he said, have been called “Christ-killers” on school campuses.

Tobin defended the poll, which included 146 people who had actually seen the movie. Of those, 5 percent said they were now more likely to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, compared with 12 percent who were less inclined to do so.

Tobin said the pollsters had asked questions designed to measure anti-Semitic opinions beyond the “death of Jesus” issue.

“They (anti-Semitic views) were all down compared to two years (ago),” he said.

E-mail Don Lattin at [email protected].

Adam and Eve but Not Adam and Steve

If this doesn’t just figure into the grand scheme of Americana… —Michael Shermer.

Read the article by Associate Press below.

County Wants to Charge Homosexuals
Rhea County Once Convicted Teacher for Teaching Evolution

Associated Press article from March 17th, 2004

Dayton, Tenn. (March 17)—The county that was the site of the Scopes ”Monkey Trial” over the teaching of evolution is asking lawmakers to amend state law so the county can charge homosexuals with crimes against nature. “We need to keep them out of here.” —J.C. Fugate

The Rhea County commissioners approved the request 8-0 Tuesday. Commissioner J.C. Fugate, who introduced the measure, also asked the county attorney to find a way to enact an ordinance banning homosexuals from living in the county.

“We need to keep them out of here,” Fugate said. The vote was denounced by Matt Nevels, president of the Chattanooga chapter of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “That is the most farfetched idea put forth by any kind of public official,” Nevels said. “I’m outraged.”

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy laws as a violation of adults’ privacy.

Rhea County is one of the most conservative counties in Tennessee. It holds an annual festival commemorating the 1925 trial at which John T. Scopes convicted of teaching evolution. The verdict was thrown out on a technicality.

The trial became the subject of the play and movie “Inherit the Wind.” In 2002, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional the teaching of a Bible class in the public schools.

Superstition Bash in Glasgow

The following article was written by Mario Di Maggio, Staff Scientist: Planetarium Glasgow Science Centre ([email protected]). The event at the Glasgow Science Centre takes place from February 13th—17th, 2004.

Superstition—Science Fact or Fiction?
Special event at Glasgow Science Centre

by Mario Di Maggio

I’ve always wanted to try this. I first heard of such a ‘superstition bash’ in 1997, and the idea appears to have caught on with sceptic groups worldwide—not only because it’s an entertaining way of poking fun at superstitions, but also because it provides the media with a great story for Friday 13th!

Happily, that’s exactly what happened in Scotland over the February 2004 mid-term schools break. Our superstition event received extensive coverage on national morning television, Scottish TV news, BBC Radio Scotland and Clyde 1, as well as several newspapers. My marketing colleagues have described it as our largest media event second only to the science centre’s opening three years ago. What’s more, we are apparently the first science centre in the world to host such an event.

Numerous photos and video clips of the event can be seen here:

I’m delighted to have promoted sceptical thinking with thousands of our visitors over five busy days. We tried to accomplish this in six ways:

  • Superstition Obstacle Course—a trail consisting of 13 superstitions supposedly bringing bad luck if disregarded. Visitors were encouraged to deliberately ignore them or do the exact opposite (eg. smash a small mirror; walk under a ladder; mix red & white flowers; ignore a single magpie; open an umbrella, etc). In the process interesting details about the supposed origin of these superstitions were shared. Participants received a certificate to celebrate their courage, and were asked to leave feedback.
  • “Do You Feel Lucky?” science show—an entertaining live performance centered on Dr Richard Wiseman’s four principles of luck. Activities included a member of the audience winning a coin; a powerful ‘psychic’ demonstration (reveled to be a trick, yet without the explanation); a large mirror smashed with a sledgehammer; and a mass umbrella opening (all in an attempt to invoke copious ‘bad luck’).
  • “What’s Your Sign?”—a live planetarium show about astrology. How did astrology originate? How accurate is the concept after 3500 years? What will happen to astrology when we colonise other planets? Included a fun astrology horoscope with the full 13 signs.
  • Fascinating Facts (taken from Richard Wiseman’s research)—bytes of information for visitors to read while queuing at the ticket desk eg. did you know that Scotland is the most superstitious country in Britain (46% of the population)—compared with England (42%), Wales (41%) and Northern Ireland (40%)?
  • “Mystery Investigators” handout (—available throughout the event, which included articles about the number 13; the Loch Ness Monster; astrology; as well as an Origami star activity.
  • Coffee & ‘misfortune’ cookie special—in our restaurant, with biscuits in the shape of number 13.

Over the five days the science centre received approximately 1200 visitors per day—with at least 60% attempting the Superstition Obstacle Course (unfortunately we only had 540 small mirrors for smashing, and had to limit these to one per family). In total around 500 people attended the science show and about 200 the planetarium show.

In the end we enjoyed the greatest success with this event, even though we tried to call down all the bad luck in the world! I believe this theme is popular because it’s all about our deepest fears and private thoughts, making it a very human story. The reactions of visitors were fascinating to watch – some thought we were totally crazy, while others were thrilled to publicly demonstrate their disregard for superstitions. Of course we witnessed more than one spat between disagreeing partners! It was also something refreshingly different for our staff, who particularly enjoyed the media attention.

It works, and we’re definitely going to run it again (in fact, we’ve already started stockpiling old mirrors).

Why don’t you try something similar? The next Friday 13th occurs this August. Feel free to contact me for free advice and information.

Evil Opinion Editorial

It is too simple to blame evil people for horrifying acts of terror, says psychologist and science historian MICHAEL SHERMER. —Toronto Globe and Mail

The Following article was written by Michael Shermer and appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Saturday, March 13th, 2004 (Page A21).

Something Evil Comes This Way

by Michael Shermer

I once had the opportunity to ask Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s List, what he thought was the difference between Oskar Schindler, rescuer of Jews and hero of his story, and Amon Goeth, the Nazi commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp. His answer was revealing. Not much, he said. Had there been no war, Mr. Schindler and Mr. Goeth might have been drinking buddies and business partners, morally obtuse, perhaps, but relatively harmless. What a difference a war makes, especially to the moral choices that lead to good and evil.

Ever since 9/11, the discussion of good and evil has migrated out of the departments of philosophy and theology and into our social and political discourse. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair generously sprinkle their public orations with the terms, describing Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as the embodiment of pure evil.

Thursday’s bombings in Madrid added another layer. Mr. Bush called them “a grim reminder that there are evil people in the world who are willing to kill innocent life.”

I understand the political rhetoric, but when millions of people around the world celebrate 9/11 as a triumphant victory over what they perceive to be an evil America, or when others see the horror inflicted in Spain as a means to their goals, we need to move beyond politics to arrive at a deeper understanding of good and evil.

The myth of good and evil is grounded in Christian theology and the belief that such forces exist independently of their carriers, either directing the course of history toward benevolent or nefarious ends, or within individuals driving them to perform good acts or evil deeds. As adjectival modifiers, good and evil well describe many acts and people. But as nouns, they imply autonomous existence, as in forces-of-evil.

In a scientific worldview, however, there is no such thing as good and evil as supernatural forces operating outside the realm of the known laws of nature and of human behaviour.

Good and evil are human constructs. A shift between two tectonic plates that causes the earth to make a sudden movement is not inherently evil. It is the effects of the earthquake that we judge to be evil. Likewise, bacterial diseases are not intrinsically evil. By causing humans to sneeze, cough, vomit, and have diarrhea, bacteria are simply doing what evolution designed them to do to survive and propagate. As their human hosts, we may label the effects of a disease as evil, but the disease itself has no moral existence.

Humans, however, do have a moral existence. We evolved to be moral animals, but by no means always moral. Individuals in our evolutionary ancestral environment needed to be both co-operative and competitive, for example, depending on the context. Co-operation leads to more successful hunts, food sharing, and group protection from predators and enemies. Competition leads to more resources for oneself and family, and protection from other competitive individuals who are less inclined to co-operate, especially those from other groups.

Social psychologists have well demonstrated how moral behaviour is tractable, and that there is a range of potential for the expression of moral or immoral behaviour. Which direction any one of us takes in any given situation depends on a complex array of variables. A number of historical contingencies drove Oskar Schindler to travel down a morally different path from Amon Goeth, even though he could just as easily have gone the other way. From there, the cascading consequences of each decision took each of them down their alternately chosen tracks; the moral road not taken makes all the difference.

An obfuscating aspect of the myth of good and evil is an asymmetry that exists in our moral observations about human nature. In our assessment of what people are really like, we have a tendency to focus on evil acts and ignore the fact that most of the time, most people are gracious, considerate, and benevolent. For every act of violence or deception that appears on the nightly news, there are 10,000 acts of kindness that go publicly unnoticed. In fact, violence and deception make the news precisely because they are out of the ordinary.

The purpose of this exercise in ethical debunking is to shift the focus from good and evil as metaphysical Platonic essences to quantifiable human behaviours that can be scientifically studied, causally understood, and ultimately modified. If pure evil exists, how can we hold people morally culpable? The deepest problem with the myth of good and evil is that it implies that if only we could rid the world of the evil, then good would triumph.

As one who would know from his experience with the gulags of the Soviet Union (surely a den of evil if ever there were one), Alexander Solzhenitsyn explained why the myth is so perilous: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Eliminating the world’s Osama bin Ladens, the Saddam Husseins or the perpetrators of this week’s latest carnage will not put an end to evil. But debunking the myth and taking a more scientific approach to understanding good and evil will start us down the path of immoral extrication and moral enlightenment.

(Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of The Science of Good and Evil).

A Positive Review of The Science of Good and Evil!

Sorry to seem self-indulgent here, but reviews this positive don’t come along often.
—Michael Shermer.

The following review by Michael Pakenham was published on February 22nd, 2004 in The Baltimore Sun.

The Science of Good & Evil:
The Head Skeptic at His Very Best

a book review by Michael Pakenham

To enthusiasts of debunking quackery, Michael Shermer is a premier skeptic — a dauntlessly questioning writer and lecturer who is wonderfully clear in thought and language. His work is a paragon of popularized science and philosophy. That reputation is confirmed by his latest book, The Science of Good & Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (Times Books, 350 pages, $26).

Shermer, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has a Ph.D. in history. He has written five previous books, and edited others. This volume is the third in a series that began in 1997 with Why People Believe Weird Things, which was followed in 1999 by How We Believe. Both were powerful, learned and scientifically disciplined explorations of the nature of belief and truth. Why People is the most persuasive debunking I have ever read of popular mass mysticisms, from faith healing and pyramid power to astrology. In this latest volume, he focuses intently on the capacity of humans to want to do good, and indeed to do it—without ignoring or glossing over their capacities for evil. This raises the most personal and fundamental questions that can be considered by the human mind.

“Evolution,” he writes, at the core of his thesis,

generated the moral sentiments out of a need for a system to maximize the benefits of living in small bands and tribes. Evolution created and culture honed moral principles out of an additional need to curb the passions of the body and mind. And culture, primarily through organized religion, codified those principles into moral rules and precepts.

Note: religion “codified,” made formal—but did not originate. Shermer’s contention is that human goodness evolved and prevails independent of the existence of—or belief in—a God or gods.

At the core of this primal dispute is the meaning and nature of religion. Shermer defines it as

a social institution, one that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and cooperation, to discourage selfishness and competitiveness, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community.

He is not a believer. Today, he terms himself an “agnostic nontheist” though earlier in his life was a theology student and a born-again Christian. But beyond the question of personal faith, he flatly rejects the many traditional and modern arguments that without a deity, “all ethical systems are reduced to moral relativism or moral nihilism.”

This, of course, rejects the most basic argument of proselytizers for every faith and denomination. Recognizing the historic and immediate role of religious practice in formulating moral values, Shermer raises the obvious question:

Can we lead moral lives without recourse to a transcendent being that may or may not exist? Can we construct an ethical system without religion?

His answer, it should come as no surprise, is yes, on both counts. Shermer does not ignore or trivialize human propensities to be selfish, cruel and bloody, but he is powerfully convinced that the scientific history of the human race demonstrates it is overwhelmingly more natural to be good than to be bad.

In rejecting the necessity of religion as a foundation for morality, Shermer states flatly that he has logically demonstrated that

evolutionary ethics can be ennobling and morality transcendent by virtue of the fact that the deepest moral thoughts, behaviors, and sentiments belong not just to individuals, or to individual cultures, but to the entire species.

Many believers will not accept that declaration. But if you do, or if history proves it true, it is the best possible news for the human race. Shermer insists that it means an inevitable evolution that

will lead to greater amity toward members of our own group, and a long historical path toward more liberties for more people in more places, whether they are members of our group or not.

Shermer is convinced this progressive utopianism does not clash with faith. The backbone of this book is that moral principle and propensities “are the result of laws of nature, forces of culture, and contingencies of history.” He contends that

believers need not feel alienated, however, since if there is a God, it is acceptable to believe that He created and utilized the laws of nature, forces of culture and contingencies of history to generate within humans a moral sense, and within human cultures moral principles.

He explores a wide swath of notorious or celebrated occurrences that can be seen as having acute moral implications: The student massacre at Columbine high school, John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate Precedent Reagan, wars in specific and in general and more.

In many cases, the most engaging elements of these examinations are the arrays of obviously “wrong” explanations that emerged from public debate and even from official investigations. Most of those false attributions arise clearly from the preconceptions of the attributer — failure of parental discipline, violence in entertainment, diet or fanatic fads. Shermer leans toward the simplest or most obvious explanations — and accepts that evil does lurk in the soul of mankind.

His erudition is immense and yet modestly applied; I found not a line of bombast or a hint of cant in the entire book. It is reasonable, while passionately reasoning. There is an exhaustive and valuable bibliography and endnotes that meet scholarly standards. The main points are made in a step-by-step, explanatory manner, rather than by making declarations and then piling on arguments with the sort of triumphalism that so taints most tendentious arguments for everyone but true believers.

Throughout, Shermer writes with a measured voice. He is unequivocal about what he believes and about what he rejects, but he is never cruel in his dismissiveness, except when there is unquestionable evil involved. For a book that oozes sophistication, this work is usually happily conversational. Its most important concepts are, of course, enormously abstract and elusive—human nature, the existence or nonexistence of deity, the meaning of social values and more. But Shermer, a paragon of skepticism (“thoughtful and reflective inquiry”), goes about making them accessible with extraordinary patience, precision and persuasiveness.

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