The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Penn & Teller’s BULLSHIT! is back

Check out this Slate article (, posted Thursday, April 1st, 2004, at 3:28 PM PT) announcing the return (2nd season) of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! on Showtime, Thursday nights (with multiple reruns throughout the weekend). We be treated to P&T’s unique skeptical style on a whole host of new debunkings, starting with P.E.T.A. which, in my opinion, is a terrorist anti-human organization (even though I support the animal rights movement in The Science of Good and Evil, and build a case for limited rights for some species of primates and marine mammals). I participated in a Bullshit! episode on the Bible. This week’s topic is safety hysteria, where hucksters play on people’s post-9/11 fears (don’t leave home without your high-rise parachute). You can view clips from the show at:

The series is produced by Star Price, who produced my own series Exploring the Unknown (I’m close to finalizing a deal with ABC Disney to obtain the distribution rights to the series—more later). He does great work and utilizes the talents of P&T to the great effect. Congrats to our friends Penn & Teller for getting skepticism back on the air, no small feat in today’s television market. —Michael Shermer

Masters of Disillusionment:
Penn & Teller’s show explains
why everything you know is wrong.

by Dennis Cass

Straight shooters with a sense of humor, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (Showtime, Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET) is out to prove that skepticism doesn’t have to be a dour, tweedy affair. The buttoned-down Skeptics Society, for example, wages a valiant fight against pseudoscience, mass delusion, and general human folly, but its web site features nary a peep from aging rocker and sportsman Ted Nugent, nor does it contain salty phrases like “state-funded knucklehead” or “my achin’ ass!” Professional skepticism says “please” and “thank you” and tucks in its shirt. It does not dress head to toe in leather or throw around words like “motherfucker.”

Now entering its second season, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! avoids the niceties. Last year, the show took on topics as varied as creationism, bottled water, secondhand smoke, and alien abductions, in each case setting out to set things straight. The approach alternates between straightforward TV journalism and vulgar showmanship. In tonight’s season premiere, Penn & Teller use expert sources and detailed evidence to discredit the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but they also dress like leather daddies, make a big show of feasting on chicken and ribs, indulge in more than a little name-calling, and bring in the Nuge to deliver lines such as “Meat. Is. Food. Case closed.” In their live act, Penn & Teller have long practiced a kind of meta-magic that pulls back the curtain on the magician’s craft while simultaneously exploiting all its tricks. Penn & Teller: Bullshit! carries on the same tradition—you won’t find two illusionists more dedicated to exposing the truth.

One of the unwritten rules for winning an argument against an inflammatory, irrational opponent is to calmly adhere to a loftier set of rhetorical standards. Penn & Teller showily throw this notion out the window. On tonight’s episode, they compare PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk to Adolf Hitler, cutting from shots of Newkirk at an animal rights conference to stock footage of Hitler’s youth. “Cheap shot?” says Penn in the narration. “Well, you bet it is. It’s beneath us, but we’re not the first to use the Nazi analogy.” The show then takes PETA to task for its 2003 “Holocaust on Your Plate” action campaign, which juxtaposed images from concentration camps with images of industrial meat processing. I’m not sure which makes me more uncomfortable, PETA’s manipulation of a genocide or Penn & Teller’s breezy character assassination, but the moment made me pine for a less sensational approach. I’m more accustomed to professional doubting Thomases like Skeptics Society director Michael Shermer, whose wonderful book Why People Believe Weird Things manages to debunk all kinds of bad thinking—including that of Holocaust deniers—without resorting to calling anyone a Nazi.

But as P&T: B! wore on, I began to appreciate the show’s street-fighting style. Measured rationality is a powerful tool, but sometimes a well-placed “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” works even better. When Newkirk compares animals in the Western world to slaves, Penn can barely contain his incredulity. After noting that there are still millions of human slaves in the world today and invoking the legacy of slavery in our country, he says, “Do you really want to equate that worldwide shame … to chickens?”

If Penn & Teller: Bullshit! were all bluster, it wouldn’t be as effective or as entertaining. Thankfully, the show is surprisingly good at balancing its histrionics with facts. Using PETA’s public tax records, tonight’s show links the organization to Rodney Coronado, who admitted to firebombing a Michigan State University lab that used animals in its research. Penn & Teller also do a nice number on a PETA vice president whose treatments for Type II diabetes were developed using research on dogs.

Even at their most convincing, though, Penn & Teller are careful not to belabor their points. And herein lies the show’s charm. By refusing to take their opponents—or themselves—too seriously, the duo celebrates idiocy as much as it tries to set idiots straight. Shermer’s book, after all, is fundamentally inquisitive and corrective. He wishes people didn’t believe weird things. But Penn & Teller make themselves quite clear: They wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.M

Darwinian Religion

The following book review, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, by Mark Oppenheimer (Yale University Press, 2003), (originally published in the Los Angeles Times) ran in yesterday’s (4/1/04) Los Angeles Times Book Review. I used the book review to further support the group selection thesis proffered by David Sloan Wilson in his book Darwin’s Cathedral, as well as my own analysis in The Science of Good and Evil, to explain the success of religion. It was published as Countering the Counterculture. My original title better describes my thesis and what the book is about. But it is an unalterable law of nature that all book review and opinion editorial editors must change the author’s original title or else they will go to editorial hades. —Michael Shermer.

Survival of the Fittest … Religion

a Los Angeles Times Book Review by Michael Shermer

In April, 1993, in his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pope John Paul II acquitted Galileo for his heretical belief that the earth goes around the sun, explaining that “the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences.” Three years later, in his October, 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, this same Pope avered that Darwin was right because the theory of evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” and assured believers that it is possible to be both a Christian and an evolutionist because “truth cannot contradict truth.”

Scientists who perceive religion as a dinosaurian relic incapable of adapting to an ever-changing cultural landscape should take note. Religion is inescapably Darwinian, evolving to fill empty niches and mutating to compete with cultural competitors. No where is this adaptability more apparent than in America, where the separation of church and state has forced religion to compete with other cultural traditions and social institutions for the minds, souls, and dollars of consumers. A spiritual free market has produced a mélange of cults, sects, and religions, from Mormons and Moonies to Scientologists and Southern Baptists, all of whom have adopted the uniquely American style of advertising and marketing their products and services.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the secularization of society, mandatory public education, and the rise of modern science, over the past century Americans have become more religious than ever before. Pundits who call for America to return to the good ol’ days of our Christian foundation have their history bass ackwards. Historians and sociologists have demonstrated that belief in God, religiosity, and church attendance have all steadily increased over the past two centuries. This is the American religious paradox, resolved if we think of religions in Darwinian terms as social organisms competing for limited resources to try to pass on their ideological genes to the next generation.

A splendid test of this theory is how religion faired in the turbulent 1960s, the subject of Mark Oppenheimer’s insightful and charming cultural history in Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. In Europe, where religion and government are inextricably intertwined, change comes about glacially, if at all. “The Lutheran Church in Sweden is not much affected by rebellious youth culture or the fall of foreign governments; the Church of England is anemic whether the radio is playing the Beatles or Oasis,” Oppenheimer asserts. “But American religions must constantly sell themselves, and the ones that last are the ones that discover ways to exert imaginative sway.”

Busting the myth that mainstream religions suffered irreversible blows from their 1960’s countercultural competitors, Oppenheimer demonstrates that, for example, Catholics, Mormons, and Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God saw their membership rolls swell. From 1963 to 1976 the Southern Baptist Convention grew by 2.5 million members, while Unitarians saw their ranks bulge by 30 percent (from 147,000 to 191,000 members), and Catholics by 15 percent (from 43 million to 49.5 million). The perception of the 60s as an era in which Americans dropped out of mainstream religion in order to hitch rides “on the paisley bus of religious experimentation” (in one of Oppenheimer’s many clever phrases that break up copious statistics) such as TM, EST, and Silva Mind Control, is simply wrong. Americans may have experimented with alternative religions, but they did not inhale.

In a 1973 study conducted in San Francisco, for example, only one percent said they knew a lot about Hare Krishna while 61 percent knew nothing; three percent knew a lot about Zen Buddhism, 27 percent knew a little, and 70 percent knew nothing; only 8 percent had participated in yoga, 5.3 percent in TM, and 2.6 percent in Zen. “In other words,” Oppenheimer deduces, “in a famously liberal, iconoclastic city, a random sampling of the population revealed low, even minuscule, levels of familiarity with prominent alternative religions.”

What did happen in the 60s (itself something of a myth, Oppenheimer argues, since the decade of social and cultural turmoil is more like 1967 to 1976) is that traditional religions evolved to remain “the spiritual homes for most Americans.” Although “many people pass through periods of religious seeking, often shopping at different churches, they finally settle into membership at one.” Oppenheimer defines religion, in fact, as “a sacrificial system whose adherents do not ascribe to another religion.” It is one thing to be titillated by alternative belief systems (and maybe even briefly sample one or two), it is quite another to tithe a percentage of your hard-earned income to one. Oppenheimer defines counterculture as “a self-sustaining alternative model of culture.” Alternative religious movements were not truly countercultural because, for the most part, they did not displace mainstream religions. Instead, what happened is that traditional religious cultures evolved just enough to survive and outlive their would-be competitors (whatever happened to Silva Mind Control?)

Unitarians and Gay rights, Roman Catholics and the folk mass, Jews and communal worship, Episcopalians and feminism, and Southern Baptists and Vietnam War protestors are Oppenheimer’s case studies in how remarkably adaptable religions are even in the most turbulent times. Oppenheimer chose these five religions because they are well established enough that, in his pragmatic definition of mainstream, “adherents can run for office without having to explain their religion.” How each of them adapted to these challenges to their orthodoxy determined, in part, how well they survived into the post-60s world. Unitarians (so called because they reject the trinity), for example, with a history of liberal support for progressive causes, took well to feminist, antiwar, and civil rights movements, such that an openly Gay minister would quickly find succor in most Unitarian churches (with feeble resistance from southern and midwest congregations). As a cultural species, Unitarians were already well-adapted for the countercultural challenges and thus they passed through the crisis unscathed.

As did the Jews, who had already undergone profound changes earlier in the century under Reform Judaism, and whose essence was more cultural than religious. “Jews are Jews because of descent,” Oppenheimer opined, “they don’t have to be under a synagogue roof, in communion with other Jews, or in good standing with a religious hierarch. They were always freer to experiment outside the established religious bodies.” Which they did with the havurah, a counterculture movement of small communities who gathered to study or worship outside a synagogue and away from the rabbi. As an example of religious plasticity, even in what constitutes religion per se, Oppenheimer notes: “Jews could be profoundly, traditionally Jewish while rebuking Jewish institutions.” This is how to survive a cultural crisis.

Episcopalians and Southern Baptists were not nearly as liberal as Unitarians and Jews, so the feminist movement for the former and Vietnam War protestors for the latter were not so easily incorporated. Yet in these case studies one can find in religion a certain controlled tolerance, even if it is implemented for the purpose of preserving power and control (in the former) and gaining additional members (in the latter). The Catholic Church is a case in point when it abandoned the Latin Mass in 1967 in order stop the bleeding of weekly Mass attendance, which was declining an average of two percentage points a year throughout the decade. Both Catholic school enrollment and conversion rates were dropping, along with vocations to the priesthood. Pope John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento, or updating, of the church came none too soon. Vatican II was the result. Mass would be celebrated in the vernacular rather than in Latin, the priest would face the congregation, and dry Gregorian chants would be replaced by the innovative sounds of the electric guitar.

Rock of ages.

Secular Passover Haggadah
Time to Rewrite the Script:
A Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews

by David Voron

Do you change your mind in response to new evidence? “Of course,” you say. But what if the new evidence contradicts your most deeply-held convictions? And what if these convictions are embedded in a set of beliefs shared with like-minded others in a social network that provides a sense of family and community? In other words, if the evidence threatens the warm fuzzy glow of group identity, does the evidence have a chance? Let’s find out.

If you’re Jewish (as I am), would you stop celebrating Passover if you were presented with evidence that there was no Exodus? Maybe you would hedge, and instead of giving it up entirely you would reinvent the traditional Haggadah and convert it into an instrument of education. Maybe you would convey a sense of Jewish peoplehood to your children by sparking their interest in the historical and archaeological evidence that addresses how this story came to be. Perhaps you would discuss the whole idea of triumphal tales of group origins with your children.

It is in this spirit of openness and evidentialism that I present the following Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews. Participants sitting around the table can take turns reading aloud one paragraph at a time. Readers are invited, of course, to edit to their taste, and blend the ritual (or not-so-ritual) meal with the readings in whatever way the participants find mutually agreeable. Total reading time is approximately fifteen minutes.

Passover Haggadah for Secular Jews

Tonight millions of Jews all over the world are sitting down to celebrate the first night of Pesach. Passover is by far the most popular of Jewish holidays, observed by even more Jews than the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Why is this? “Tradition!” resoundingly replies Tevye of Fiddler on the Roof. We were taught the sacredness of Pesach by our parents, who were so taught by their parents, ad infinitum. But if the story isn’t true to begin with, handing it down from generation to generation doesn’t make it any truer. We believe the story because it was told to us by people we considered important and authoritative, mainly our parents and religious teachers. In addition, we were surrounded by people who believed the same story. Is the Passover story true? As Wordsworth said, “to be mistaught is worse than to be untaught.”

Let’s start with the prequel to the Exodus, the story of Joseph and his family. Excavations in the eastern delta of the Nile have revealed a gradual increase in Canaanite pottery, architecture, and tombs, beginning about 1800 B.C. As explained by Donald Redford, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Toronto, in his book Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, these findings are broadly consistent with the tale of Joseph, the visits of his family to Egypt, and their eventual settlement there. 1 Archaeologists have identified the site of Avaris, the Egyptian city of that period that was the capital of a people known as the Hyskos, a name which translates from the Egyptian as “rulers of foreign land.” Inscriptions and seals bearing the names of Hyskos kings indicate that they were Canaanites. Although the Egyptian historian Manetho, writing in about 300 B.C. from an Egyptian perspective, asserts that Egypt was brutally invaded by the Hyskos, archaeologists believe the takeover was peaceful. However, the forceful expulsion of the Hyskos as described by Manetho is supported by other archaeological and historical sources. The most reliable evidence, according to Redford, suggests that Pharaoh Ahmose and his forces attacked and defeated the Hyskos in Avaris, and chased them out of Egypt into southern Canaan in 1570 B.C. 2

The Roman-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, citing Manetho, equates the expulsion of the Hyskos from Egypt with the Exodus. As Abba Eban points out, “this is plainly impossible,” 3 in the context of the Biblical chronology. The Book of Exodus states that Hebrew slaves built the city of Pi Ramses (“House of Ramses”). According to Egyptian sources, the city was built during the reign of Ramses II, who ruled 1279-1213 B.C. In other words, the Biblical Exodus would have had to have taken place 300 years after the expulsion of the Hyskos. Of course there is also no evidence that the Hyskos were ever enslaved—or even Hebrews. Again quoting Abba Eban, “few modern scholars would go so far as to assert that the Hebrews and the Hyskos were the same people.” 4 If the Hyskos were not the Hebrews, what then, is the earliest non-Biblical reference to this people?

About a century ago, archaeologists found 350 tablets covered with cuneiform writing in the Akkadian language in the Egyptian village of El Amarna. These tablets, dating to the 14th century B.C., contain numerous references to a people whose name is Habiru (or alternatively Hapiru or Apiru) in the Akkadian language. The obvious phonetic similarity to “Hebrew” suggested to early scholars that the Habiru of the Amarna tablets and the Hebrews were the same people. However, subsequent archaeological findings as described by Niels Lemche, professor of Old Testament studies at the University of Copenhagen, in his book Prelude to Israel’s Past, indicated widespread use of this term throughout the near east over many centuries during the mid-second millennium B.C. The context of this usage makes clear that ‘Habiru’ “should not be understood as an ethnic group, but as some kind of social segment.” There is no reference to the religious beliefs of the Habiru. The totality of ancient documents discovered, reviewed in detail by Lemche, suggests ‘Habiru’ is best translated, depending on the context, as ‘bandit,’ ‘outlaw,’ ‘highwayman,’ ‘refugee,’ ‘fugitive,’ or ‘immigrant,’ without any suggestion of ethnicity. 5 Thus, despite the phonetic similarity, the Habiru of the Amarna tablets are not the Hebrews of ancient Israel.

The earliest known non-Biblical reference to Israel is on the 27th line of inscription on a 7.5 foot high granite slab found in Thebes, Egypt, and dating to 1207 B.C. 6 This commemorative stone monument was commissioned by the son of Ramses II, Pharaoh Merneptah, to commemorate his military victories in Canaan, and is known as the Merneptah Stella. Israel is listed as one of eight “border enemies” vanquished by Egypt. The literal translation of the relevant line of Egyptian hieroglyphics is “Israel is stripped bare, wholly lacking seed.” Although this claim is obviously an exaggeration, it is evidence that a group of people named Israel was living in Canaan during the reigns of Merneptah and presumably his father, Ramses II. What is most important, though, is the point emphasized by Israel Finkelstein, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and his colleague Neal Silberman, in their book The Bible Unearthed: “We have no clue, not even a single word, about early Israelites in Egypt: Neither in monumental inscriptions on walls of temples, nor in tomb inscriptions, nor in papyri.” 7 Similarly, William Dever, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, states in Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?: “no Egyptian text ever found contains a single reference to ‘Hebrews’ or ‘Israelites’ in Egypt, much less to an ‘Exodus.’” 8 The ancient Egyptians were such compulsive chroniclers, albeit biased, that it is inconceivable that they would not record any version of an event as momentous as the Biblical Exodus. We should at least expect some self-serving or biased accounts of this extraordinary event, but there is absolutely no reference to any exodus of Hebrew slaves in the voluminous Egyptian writings.

In addition, archaeological excavations do not support the Biblical Exodus story. Modern archaeological techniques are able to detect evidence of not only permanent settlements, but also of habitations of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world as far back as the third millennium B.C. However, there are no finds of a unique religious community living in a distinct area of the eastern delta of the Nile River (“Land of Goshen”) as described in Genesis. In addition, repeated excavations of areas corresponding to Kadesh-Barnea, where the Biblical Israelites lived for thirty-eight of their forty-eight years of wanderings, have revealed no evidence of any encampments. Finkelstein and Silberman point out that, although the sites mentioned in the Exodus story are real, archaeological excavations indicate that they were unoccupied when the Biblical Exodus would have taken place. For example, the Bible refers to messengers sent by Moses from Kadesh-Barnea to the king of Edom asking him to allow the Hebrews to pass through his land. However, the nation of Edom did not come into existence until the 7th century B.C. 9 Melvin Konner, anthropologist and teacher of Jewish studies at Emory University, sums it up this way in his recent book Unsettled, An Anthropology of the Jews: “Except for the Torah text, there is no decisive proof that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, that they rebelled and walked away from the place, or that a leader such as Moses arose and took that people into the desert.” 10 Futhermore, what evidence we do have, as discussed above, contradicts the Biblical account. How, then, did this fable come to be written?

Finkelstein and Silberman present the plausible thesis that the Deuteronomistic version of the Exodus, which brings together and embellishes the chronicles in the first four books of the Torah, was written during the 7th century B.C. The intent of the story was to rally the inhabitants of Judah against Egypt, which had become its most powerful enemy as Assyrian hegemony waned. Finkelstein and Silberman believe that the evil pharaoh in the Exodus story was actually modeled after the domineering Psamethicus I, who reigned from 664 to 610 B.C., approximately during the time that the Deuteronomistic version was written. This account was “powerful propaganda” that created “an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dreams” in order “to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead.” In fact, the Egypt described in the Deuteronomistic account is “uncannily similar in its geographical details to that of Psamethicus.” 11

According to Redford, the memories of the Canaanite Hyskos ruling Egypt and subsequently being driven out (though not enslaved and not Hebrew) most likely formed the basis for the Exodus story. 12 The sequence of plagues in the Exodus may be related to the ancient Egyptian belief that the inability to worship multiple gods causes illness. The Amarna tablets indicate that Akhnaten imposed monotheism on polytheistic Egypt during his reign between 1372 and 1354 B.C., allegedly causing the populace to suffer a variety of maladies, which abated with the restoration of polytheism by Akhnaten’s successor. 13 14 Jonathan Kirsh notes that the basket-in-the-bullrushes infant-Moses story is clearly a “cut-and-paste” plagiarism copied almost verbatim from a Mesopotamian text. 15 In the words of Daniel Lazare, the stories of infant Moses, the plagues, and final exodus are “unconnected folktales,” linked together “like pearls on a string.” 16 What we have, according to David Denby, is a “self-confirming, self-glorifying myth of origins,” with Moses as “the hero of the greatest campfire story ever told.” 17

Let this eccentric Passover Haggadah be your exodus from ignorance. Emancipate yourself from the enslavement of illusory beliefs. Our parents and grandparents didn’t know the Passover fable they passed on to us was totally contrived. We do. We can still celebrate our peoplehood, but we need to change the script. To quote a line from historian Isaac Deutscher’s essay, The Non-Jewish Jew, “the Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry, belongs to a Jewish tradition.” 18

References & Notes
  1. Redford, D.B. 1992. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 412.
  2. Ibid, 129.
  3. Eban, A. 1984. Heritage: Civilization and the Jews. New York: Summit Books, 20.
  4. Ibid, 20.
  5. Lemche, N.P. 1998. Prelude to Israel’s Past. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 139-141.
  6. Shanks, H. 2001. “A Centrist the Center of Controversy,” Biblical Archaeology Review, December, 41.
  7. Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N.A. 2001. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York: Simon and Schuster, 60.
  8. Dever, W.G. 2003. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 12-13.
  9. Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001, 68.
  10. Konner, M. 2003. Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews. New York: Viking Penguin, 3.
  11. Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001, 283.
  12. Redford, 1992, 412-413.
  13. Kirsch, J. 1998. Moses, A Life. New York: Ballantine, 179.
  14. Denby, D. 1998. “No Exodus.” The New Yorker, December 7 & 14, 185.
  15. Kirsch, 1998, 47.
  16. Lazare, D. 2002. “False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible’s Claim to History,” Harper’s, March, 41.
  17. Denby, 1998, 186.
  18. Quoted by Konner, 2003, 197. 3/3/04
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