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The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Sam Harris to Speak about
Free Will for Skeptics at Caltech

Beckman Auditorium, Caltech
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The Skeptics Society is pleased to add Sam Harris as a bonus to its Spring 2012 Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. Dr. Harris will speak on the topic of Free Will, the title of his new book, which he will be signing immediately after the lecture.

The Skeptics Society already has a debate scheduled that date: “Has Science Refuted Religion?” featuring Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll and Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer v. MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza

The debate will still take place as planned at 2:00 pm, followed by the Harris lecture and book signing, which will start around 3:45.

This lecture is

Please call between 12:00 and 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. The Caltech ticket office asks that you do not leave a message.

Order your tickets right away at the Caltech Public Events office as this event will sell out! The price of admission for both events remains the same: $10 Skeptics Society members/ Caltech/JPL community; and $15 for everyone else.

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, The Moral Landscape, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. His new book is short (96 pages), to the point, and will change the way we all view free will, as Oliver Sacks wrote: “Brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive—Free Will shows that Sam Harris can say more in 13,000 words than most people do in 100,000.” UCSD neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran notes: “In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings.”

Don’t miss this spectacular day of disputation and debate!

Sum Ergo Cogito
I Am Therefore I Think.



Skeptic Magazine 17.1: SCIENTOLOGY

Order a subscription to Skeptic magazine and get the Scientology issue as your first issue! Topics in this issue include:

Skeptic magazine volume 17, number 1 (cover)
  • Is Scientology a Cult?
  • New Revelations on the History, Future, and Reformation of Scientology
  • 9/11 Controlled Demolition
    Conspiracy Debunked
  • Can Science Deliver Eternal Life?
  • Was the Resurrection a Grief Hallucination?
  • Body Language Baloney?
  • The Secret Behind
    Outstanding Teaching
  • A Biologist on the Meaning of Life…
  • Is Psychology a Science?
  • Do J. K. Rowling’s Novels
    Undermine Religion?
  • a special section on life after death
  • Junior Skeptic: Fossil Fakes Part 2
  • book review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature
  • book review of Richard Horne’s A is for Armageddon: A Catalogue of Disasters That May Culminate in the End of the World As We Know It
  • plus more…

Current subscribers should receive this issue by mid-February 2012. This will be available for purchase as a single back issue in a couple weeks.



ÉPOCA Magazine Interviews Michael Shermer

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Peter Moon’s interview with Michael Shermer on why people believe weird things. This interview first appeared in Portuguese in the magazine ÉPOCA on January 16, 2012. Thank you to Michael Silva for translating the interview.

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People Like to be Fooled

interview by Peter Moon
translation by Michael Silva

The psychologist and American writer, Michael Shermer, says that it’s easier to believe in weird things—like mediumship, horoscopes and flying saucers—than to think and question. The difference between a magician and a medium is that the magician confesses that he uses tricks, while the paranormalist says he has powers that enable him to read minds, predict the future or talk with the dead. “All a medium must say is that he has powers and people will believe him. It is part of human nature”, says the psychologist and American writer Michael Shermer, 57 years old, director of the Skeptic Society and Skeptic Magazine. “We didn’t evolve to doubt or have a skeptical view. This requires education and reflection. Believing is easier.” In this interview, he talks about the themes in his book Why People Believe Weird Things and attacks the farce behind the belief in flying saucers, witches, chiromancy and mediumship.

ÉPOCA: Why do people believe in weird things?

Michael Shermer: The basic reason lies in our brain, programmed by evolution to see our environment in a certain way and find supernatural reasons to explain natural events.

ÉPOCA: Please give an example.

Shermer: In tribal societies, the witchdoctor is the person who has the knowledge that can save the members of the tribe in decisive moments. The witchdoctors are the ones who know which plants and roots have special curative powers. It is they who decree that a certain region is taboo, making it into a prohibited zone and giving the fauna time to regenerate. Years later, in a moment of shortage, it is the witchdoctor that has the power to send the hunters to the location, saving the tribe from hunger. That kind of power was always exclusive of magicians, witchdoctors and priests. Therefore, believing in your emissaries meant one’s own salvation. When the witchdoctor said that he could see the future, that the members of the tribe should hunt or collect water in a certain region and that the salvation of everyone depended on doing what he said, everything he said was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s as simple as that.

ÉPOCA: There are those who say they can see supernatural things and others who say they can hear angels singing and dead souls mourning.

Card reading is acting, which requires talent and practice. It doesn’t matter what the reader says, what matters is that it sounds convincing.

—Michael Shermer,
Science Friction (2005)

Shermer: We are social animals and the brain was programmed to recognize faces and facial expressions. Therefore, we have a tendency to see faces hidden in the clouds, in spots on a shroud or on rocks on the surface of Mars. For the same reason, all we have to do is look at clouds to recognize the forms of various animals. This is also an evolutionary inheritance since for millennia the ability to recognize the existence of an animal hidden in the landscape could mean the difference between life and death. Any person can say that he speaks with the dead. It’s nothing special. The hard part is getting the dead to answer. Claims such as these that were seriously investigated ended up revealing the existence of microphones hidden in furniture, in walls or in the oven. No photograph allegedly taken of a flying saucer survived a detailed examination. They are all false allegations, concoctions created to elude. Although it is possible that some claims of paranormal, UFOlogical, or psychic events might turn out to be true, but the truth is that so far all of them are false and probably most of them are nothing more than pure farse.

ÉPOCA: Why do women seem to believe more in weird things than men?

Shermer: That isn’t true. Men and women, indistinctly, have the same tendency to believe those things. What changes is the type of weird thing. Women believe more in mediums, spiritualists, fortunetellers, witchcraft, amulets, alternative medicine and healers. Men prefer to believe in the paranormal, pseudoscience, creationism and UFOs.

ÉPOCA: Why do people differentiate a professional magician who does magic tricks from a medium that says he’s using the paranormal?

Shermer: Because the magician confesses that he does a trick, but doesn’t reveal the secret. This has historical reasons. Magic is as old as the art of predicting the future. Many centuries ago, during the Inquisition, the magicians who earned a living following the regional fairs in medieval Europe were sensible to declare that they weren’t witches. They confessed that they used tricks so as not to end up in a bonfire. Their confessions withdrew from professional magicians a supernatural aura that they have never, to this day, been able to get back.

ÉPOCA: How about fortunetellers?

Shermer: Most of them ended up in a bonfire. Fortunetellers and mediums today were persecuted because they alleged having supernatural powers. They claimed to predict the future and influence people’s destinies. Now, those were exclusive Catholic Church attributes. The same inquisitors that were soft on magicians weren’t as forgiving with fortunetellers and diviners, all of them labeled as witches, followers of black magic. Mediums and charlatans of today don’t confront those same risks. Therefore, they can say without fear that they have visions, that they talk with the dead, see the past, present and future; or alleging that they can read the future or influence your destiny looking at Tarot cards, the lines on the palm of your hand, the alignment of the planets of an astrological chart, the reflections of a crystal ball or the blotter on a cup of coffee.

I copied an astrological chart and said that it was of a woman in front of me. I guessed a lot about her life and I was correct half of the time.

—Michael Shermer,
Science Friction (2005)

ÉPOCA: Why do people insist on believing that those allegations are true?

Shermer: Because mediums say they are true. All mediums, witchdoctors and saints have to say is that they have visions and can predict the future so that people will believe them. It’s part of human nature. We didn’t evolve to doubt or question. Developing a critical mind and having your own view of the world takes education, reflection and time. Having faith is much easier. People prefer to be deceived.

ÉPOCA: Those who require money in exchange for a good or service that doesn’t exist can be prosecuted. Why doesn’t this apply to the “professional work” of fortunetellers and mediums?

Shermer: Because fortunetellers and the paranormal protect themselves behind universal rights and freedom of speech, expression, assembly and religion. It is very hard or almost impossible to prove that someone doesn’t hear inner voices or talks to angels if he says does. The religious and believers of official religions could be investigated and prosecuted exactly for the same allegations, because their religions accept donations of money just like fortunetellers. Their members also allege having a direct contact with the supernatural like the fortunetellers.

ÉPOCA: Why do intelligent people believe in weird things?

Shermer: For the title of the book I chose to call the bunch of beliefs and deceptions claimed by mediums and paranormal of “weird things”. A more correct word would be farce or deception. They are acts usually created to elude and deceive. In certain circumstances, they can be classified as delusions, when their devotees believe that they lived or live an extraordinary experience, inexplicable and extra sensorial. However there is as explanation for everything. Whoever is informed and believes in those fantasies does it based on two possibilities. Or he is someone who is an accessory in the farce or he is someone who has lost his mind, is a Schizophrenic and therefore sick or had a hallucination. The altered state of consciousness can be a consequence of the ingestion of a hallucinogenic like ayahuasca, mescal or LSD. Psychotic episodes can also be caused by sleep deprivation and by extreme fatigue. For everything there is a logical explanation. If it convinces a believer or a sick person is another question.

ÉPOCA: What do you think about religiosity and human syncretism?

Shermer: I am an Atheist and an optimist. Until the middle ages we were a species controlled by faith and dominated by certain beliefs and fears. Today, tens of millions of people in rich countries declare themselves atheists. Religiosity, at least in Europe and the United States is in retreat year after year.

ÉPOCA: It isn’t that way in Brazil and other developing countries.

Shermer: As your standard of living increases, higher education and science education will reduce the percentage of the religious in the population. It is inevitable. All governments must do is invest in high quality education.

ÉPOCA: An argument often used by the religious to disqualify atheists is that they chose not to believe in a God and that is their belief.

Shermer: If the religious want to believe in a kind God, in a paradise with 100 thousand virgins or whatever, I don’t really care. The religious don’t interest me. What interests me are the hundreds of millions of people that don’t follow any religion and never go to church.

ÉPOCA: This means that in your view religion is inoffensive?

Shermer: The problem begins when the religious followers use religion to attack skyscrapers with airplanes, explode bombs in abortion clinics (in the United States), mutilate women, restrict individual freedoms and change legislation to prevent the teaching of evolution.

Skeptical perspectives on pseudoscientific beliefs…
cover The Believing Brain
by Michael Shermer

In this, his magnum opus synthesizing 30 years of research, Dr. Michael Shermer presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. Essentially: beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations.


cover Astrology: True or False?
by Roger Culver and Philip Lanna

Explains sun signs, house divisions, the zodiac, influences, the “Age of Aquarius,” and many other pseudoscientific astrology claims, giving the reader explanations for all major claims, including the all important “astrology works.” It doesn’t. GET THE BOOK.

cover The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience
Michael Shermer, Pat Linse, Eds.

Two volumes include and A–Z debunking of all things paranormal and pseudoscientific including case studies and in-depth analyses, a pro and con debate section, plus historical documents on many topics. This was published as a library reference book. Save over $50.00 off the price charged to libraries. GET THE SKEPTIC ENCYCLOPEDIA.

cover Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants
by Richard Wiseman and Robert L. Morris

Palm readers, astrologers and those who claim they can talk to the dead make the rounds of national talkshows. Even police departments enlist the services of “psychic” detectives. But what proof do we have that any of these claims are real? Richard Wiseman and Robbert Morris provide helpful and professional guidelines to help health professionals, law enforcement agencies, cult investigators, scientists, and the public at large assess those who make psychic claims. GET THE BOOK.

cover Why People Believe Weird Things
by Michael Shermer

A no-holds-barred assault on popular superstitions and prejudices, this book debunks these nonsensical claims and explores the very human reasons people find otherworldly phenomena, conspiracy theories, and cults so appealing.

Rescuing People from Aliens

In this week’s Skepticblog, Daniel shares insights from Susan Clancy’s study of alien abductees, and asks what we can do to make skepticism a safe space for vulnerable people who need reliable information about paranormal topics.




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  1. Lisa Schmidt says:

    Is it possible to make you magazine available as an e-publication and to subscribe to that. It would make it easier (and better for the trees) for overseas subscriptions and also the way more and more books and magazines are available.

  2. Chris says:

    I am disappointed in Michael Shermer’s interview. While I would agree that atheists are more right about the world than those we consider religious, his open disdain for people who are religious is offensive. More troubling than that is the lack of critical thinking evident in his explanation as to why he finds religion offensive. Apparently even the best skeptics can be seduced by their own intellect.

    The problem is that he seems to blame religion for terrorism, acts of violence and the restriction of freedoms. This is totally false and is an assumption that Shermer makes based on a correlation between religion and these acts. But the true cause is not the religious teachings. In the cases of violent acts and terrorism, the root cause is always someone acting out who feels that an injustice is being perpetrated and this is their only way to fight back. In the case of restrictions on freedoms, this is always the result of too few people having too much power and influence over others. Religion is just the cloak that shrouds these people and many other things have been used in the same way. Race, Ethnicity, Nationalism/Patriotism, Tribalism,(Even just political affiliation in some cases these days), Sex, or any number of other divisions that allow us to define ourselves as different groups. If arrogant atheists continue to hold “believers” in open disdain and continue to take an aggressive exclusionist path it may be atheists who end up being the next intolerant terrorist group. I can only wonder when we’ll first here of an athiest bombing a school board for teaching creationism.

    In fact just as people use religion as a cloak for bad intentions, it can also be used to inspire good. As an athiest I hate to admit it but in my community it is the Christians that do the most to contribute back to their neighborhood by donating to the poor, helping those in need and holding fundraisers to help those in the community and around the world.

    So yes, let’s be critical thinkers, but while preaching your message please be sure to check yourself from time to time.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Wow. I didn’t get that at all. I think Dr Schermer’s point was that he has no problem with religion as long as it isn’t used to harm people. (And he probably feels the same way about lotsa other things). It is so easy to ‘read into’ things.

      Also, I have given interviews, and they don’t come out the same as when one writes an essay or Op-Ed piece. The interviewer controls the flow of the dialog and that can alter the ‘flavor’ of the message. Also, often the responses are edited down. Still. Schermer must have thought the interview was good enough to allow it to be posted here.

      • Chris says:

        Well in fairness to Schermer, I don’t know him and don’t know everything he’s written and my comments are based solely on the interview. It’s also a good point that quotes can come out quite differently than intended when edited by an interviewer. I know I’ve read my own quotes before and felt very uncomfortable about how I “came off” in print.

        So, I have nothing personal against Schermer. However I still say the last line in particular “The problem begins when the religious followers use religion to attack skyscrapers with airplanes, explode bombs in abortion clinics (in the United States), mutilate women, restrict individual freedoms and change legislation to prevent the teaching of evolution. ” shows a basic misunderstanding and misconception. It seems to imply that without religion these people would not do the evils that they do when in fact they would probably do the same or different things under the name of race, nationalism, tribalism, etc. etc.

        • Bad Boy Scientist says:

          Yeah. I can see how you could read it that way.

          I, myself, didn’t read it the same way you did. But this
          is a great example of why we need to be very careful in
          presenting ideas & opinions on such topics as religion.

          Schermer’s comment could have insulted many religious
          people and alienated them from taking a more reasoned
          approach to things. This is true whether or not Schermer’s
          intent is as I read it or as you read it. Either reading is

    • JönO says:

      What you originally said on January 25, 2012 at 6:36 am I couldn’t agree with more. As a non-religious person (not just an atheist), I find myself constantly trying to not criticize those with other belief systems. But, having said that, I keep asking myself the same question…would we (the human race) have been better off (or not) if we never had created religion? I say this because I believe that religion, like myths and other supernatural practices are essentially just human constructs. I.e. we made them up to answer our need to explain things which we couldn’t understand.

  3. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    ” An argument often used by the religious to disqualify atheists is that they chose not to believe in a God and that is their belief.”

    Shermer didn’t really answer the question, if that was a question. However, the point was more framed as an invitation to comment than as a blunt question.
    Still, too bad Shermer didn’t tackle it.

    The now “classical” argument (mostly used by apologists) is that those who affect not to believe in God are actually expressing another kind of belief, and “choosing” another kind of belief. Of course we all sense that is a preposterous claim, and that we are being hoodwinked by such a play of words.

    And rightly so, since there’s a built-in fallacy in such an argument, related to the nature of illogical propositions.
    The belief in God is a positive assertion, with the definition of God at the charge of the believer, with the assumption that this “definition of God” does make sense, and proof and evidence to be presented by the believer himself or herself.
    The atheist, the non-believer, comes in second position, and is simply rejecting the evidence propounded by the believer, claiming that the “definition” makes no sense and the “proof” not grounded on any real basis or evidence.

    Claiming that the non-belief of the non-believer is another kind of belief belongs to the same bag of tricks that magicians and tricksters are using, except that this time the deception involves a distortion of logic and semantic definitions to fool the naive and uneducated.
    Does the axiom of incompleteness and the name of Gödel ring a bell? Or the conundrum of the librarian who sets up a catalogue of all books that don’t list themselves? Does this librarian’s meta-catalogue belong to that list?
    These examples will ring a bell only in the context of that higher education Shermer mentions being the effective way to overcome the naive gullibility of believers. Is the rejection of religious beliefs another kind of “religious” belief as well? Pure nonsense.

    Nevertheless, even in higher education and in science, the new question pops up over whom to trust when we receive information from experts.
    Scientists and experts transmit their knowledge, in which we do have to trust, since the masses of educated people (like Shermer and the readers of this e-letter) have to take these sources of information at their words, and it is impossible for the educated person to physically re-examine all the scientific and empirical evidence built in our modern civilization, a huge accumulation of facts and concepts started by the Ancient Greeks who discovered critical thinking and scientific knowledge.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      +Roo. You have found the crux of the matter:

      The issue isn’t a belief in god vs a belief in no god – the issue is the competing methodologies for arriving at beliefs or conclusions. Science relies on evidence-based reasoning (AKA critical thinking – but it is more descriptive and sounds nicer).

      In fact, the word ‘believe’ is a loaded term that suggests how this position was obtained – science teachers are counseled to avoid using it because it can mislead. E.g. Scientists do not ‘believe’ the Universe is 13.7 Gyr old – they have concluded that it is that old based on evidence.

      • Chris says:

        No, that’s not the Crux of the matter at all. No one is arguing that point on the other side. I fully admin that Atheism is not a religion, not a “belief system” and that the scientific method is really the only valid tool we have if we want to discover the truth about the world we live in. My argument was that these principles were ignored when Schermer seems to blame religion based solely on a correlation and without showing any causation.

  4. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    “If arrogant atheists continue to hold “believers” in open disdain and continue to take an aggressive exclusionist path it may be atheists who end up being the next intolerant terrorist group. I can only wonder when we’ll first here of an athiest bombing a school board for teaching creationism.

    Isn’t it funny? Chris uses the same kind of argument that was proposed to Shermer and ignored by him, this time about opponents of terrorism suspected of being potential terrorists themselves!

    You’re opposed to religious terrorism, hence you belong to the set of potential terrorists.
    You’re opposed to X, hence you belong to the set of X.
    Can a non-X belong to the set of X? that is the question.
    Is a non-beleiver another kind of believer? Is an opponent to religious terrorism another kind of religious terrorist? Please Gödel come and rescue us from those syllogical fallacies.
    Or can “higher education” come to the rescue if Gödel, our modern reluctant Elijah, does not deign to come back for us and deliver us from false dealers in pseudo-logic?

    • Another Point of view says:

      I’m an Atheist because I came to the conclusion that believing in the supernatural made no sense. I do not belong to a group of Atheists nor do I represent Atheists nor does anyone. We are individuals who have come to similar conclusions. There are all kinds of people who have come to these conclusions, but the conclusions drawn after this first one are not always the same. I believe that there is a morality that allows each of us to live a more fulfilling life. This morality cannot use force except as the response to force or the open threat of force. I have a convoluted form of the golden rule that I believe in. What you do to others indicates that you will allow others to do to you. If you kill then others (Society) have the right to do that to you.
      I believe that one of the things in religions favor is the sense of community, but that same sense of community, us against them is also its greatest weakness.

  5. Chris says:

    You went all StrawMan on me… “The now “classical” argument (mostly used by apologists) is that those who affect not to believe in God are actually expressing another kind of belief, and “choosing” another kind of belief. Of course we all sense that is a preposterous claim, and that we are being hoodwinked by such a play of words.

    … and then went on to argue that point. The only problem is, that isn’t what I said.

    The point was whether religion causes terrorism or whether it’s just the form that social frustration takes. Rich Muslims living in Beverly Hills don’t blow themselves up in Whole Foods stores. It’s not religion that turns Muslims into terrorists, it’s their frustration with their standing in the world.

    It’s the incorrect assumption that religious people are more likely to do evil than Atheists that I object to. It’s not the attack on Religious people that offends me, it’s the lack of critical thinking espoused by my fellow Atheist and Skeptic that annoys.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:


      I agree that religion does’t necessarily instigate acts of terrorism, pogroms, crusades, inquisitions (well, those were pogroms), etc. However, religion is a powerful tool for rallying the troops to conduct these atrocities.

      Religion may not have *motivated* the World Trade Center bombings (there were repeated attacks on those buildings before 9/11) but it certainly facilitated them. It is difficult to get young men to die for socio-economic equality but easier to get them to die for their god.

      To be fair, young men will die for god and country, too. It wasn’t religion which kept the Manhattan project on track through WWII and lead to dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. The crews of those bombers weren’t religious zealots doing this deed for heavenly rewards: they were warriors doing their duty to their country. Patriotism (just tribalism with nicer clothes) causes at least as much suffering as religion does.

      But this goes back to my previous comment – the issue is the conflicting world views: evidence-based reasoning and magical thinking. When they recruit soldiers they don’t motivate them with cool, hard facts – they pump them up with abstract things which aren’t accessible to evidence based reason…. things like honor, duty, glory, etc. I’m not bashing those things, they are very important – but they are easily abused since they cannot be illuminated by the light of reason. How often has honor been conflated with revenge and kept a feud running? How many atrocities have been committed in the name of avenging some prior atrocity?

      When we rely on evidence-based reasoning a lot of this sh!t stops.

  6. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    Perhaps we should remember the simpler views from times past, say the Enlightenment — when there was less knowledge and less sophistry to obfuscate people’s minds — and which could go straight to the nuts of the matter. Religion, with all its excesses and dangers, was perceived more clearly, opposition to religion was never confused with it, and religious persecution and violence not subject to word plays:

    “Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust.”

    Often rendered more sharply as:

    “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
    Voltaire (Questions about miracles, 1765)

  7. Chris says:

    My favorite Voltaire Quote
    “A witty saying proves nothing.”

    The “leap of faith” that you are taking is that it is a foregone conclusion that the earth would be a better place if everyone were Atheists. There is no proof or even evidence of that.

    I’m certainly not promoting religion myself but the fact is that much bad has been done in the name of religion but so has much good. For everyone empowered to do evil in the name of a religion there may be a an equal amount who were restrained from doing so or even empowered to do good. (I don’t claim to have statistics on this)

    Just because you are a “smart guy” who understands the importance and significance of the scientific method doesn’t mean you are any more or less likely to have compassion for other people or are going to be any more or less selfish in nature.

    • Roo.Bookaroo says:

      However, Voltaire’s comment on the power of religious beliefs to control human minds was no witticism at all. Voltaire was not a stand-up comedian always cracking jokes or making witty comments. He was a dedicated fighter against the odious rule of the Christian Church in Europe, and put his brain, his own personal safety and his fortune where his mouth was.
      “Questions on Miracles” is not a funny tract, but a complete examination of the insanity of beliefs in miracles, discussed in 20 letters over 250 pages. Voltaire was publishing and financing his own Skeptic magazine for the 18th century.
      Here is is the full context of the quote:

      “Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. In truth whoever is able to make you believe in absurdities will also be able to make you commit atrocities. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.” (Voltaire, Questions on Miracles, 1765.)

      Here in this forum, we use “religion” in a very abstract, incorporeal, sense. Not so for Voltaire. “Religion” was a formidable organization with hundreds of thousands of employees, all occupied with regimenting the minds of the population and being financed by the rest of the working public. Religion was an army of officials, books of dogmas, and the power to incarcerate and condemn to death.
      What we mean here by religion is a very mild, ungrounded concept of “beliefs” anchored nowhere. That is not the real religion that Voltaire was facing. And this religion was not the source of “morality”, on the contrary, and that was his major point. The source of morality, for him, can be found in the personal intuition of how to deal with his/her surrounding society that every human being possesses in his/her mental set-up, what Voltaire called above “the God-given understanding of your mind.”
      This was the set of rationalist beliefs in the “natural religion”, a view known as “deism”, that people have access by personal intuition and reason to the principles of human morality, with its source in the Creator of a universe subjected to natural laws, without the intercession of a mediator, holy books, or any organized Church with its hierarchy of priests and their superstitions. The objects of ethics or “natural philosophy” were human happiness and “progress” in improvement of society. Voltaire was also such a deist.
      These non-Christian views became prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, and notably among some Founders of the US, such as Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, who constructed his own cut-and-paste “Jefferson Bible”. All four, along with Lincoln and Grant, were described in John E. Remsberg’s “Six Historic Americans”, (New York, 1906), as famous Americans rejecting the dogmas of the Christian Church and the belief in a Jesus Christ Savior of mankind. Voltaire was a honorary member of that club.

      shared by many founders of the American Republic. Morality is not controlled nor dictated by “religion”, but is the expression of personal intuitions granted to each human being.

      • Chris says:

        Voltaire, Shmoltaire.

        A great man but irrelevant to the point of this conversation. It’s OK to to respect a man but it sounds like you worship the guy. Be careful, you might just start your own religion.

        • Roo.Bookaroo says:

          I beg to disagree.
          The point is that Voltaire did a much better job in the 18th century with his own self-produced Skeptic Magazine and slow-mail letters than Shermer with his 21th century e-magazine. Shermer avoids some questions that Voltaire has the guts to tackle.
          Anyway, the title to this article is grossly misleading. It claims that Shermer’s big thesis is “People Like to be Fooled”. Voltaire pooh-poohs the idea, and is much sharper than this interviewer. “Like” implies that the pleasure centers are activated, and believing is a factor of such activation. Which Voltaire always dismissed. People are fooled because they are manipulated by smart cookies.
          And in fact the text of the article corrects the title by adding that “it is easier to believe in weird things—like mediumship, horoscopes and flying saucers—than to think and question.” So the point is not activating the pleasure centers, but the spontaneous naivety in swallowing the tall tales of religion and others that requires the least effort from the brain.
          And that is exactly the position of Voltaire: believing is immediate and requires no effort, and that’s why you get fooled by churches. You swallow your religious beliefs with your baby food.
          By contrast, questioning requires effort and pain, time and information, a costly effort in terms of resources. Critical questioning is a much more difficult task than simply going to church and dozing during the sermon.
          The fact is, critical thinking is not a natural propensity of the human brain. Believing is natural and immediate. Critical thinking took thousand of years to develop since the Ancient Greeks, and the establishment of the Christian religion in Europe has instantly focused on muzzling critical thinking all over the West, and still does.
          Critical thinking and questioning still need to be nurtured for each new generation with constant education to seed it in natural minds more prone to believing than critiquing.
          And for sure, diplomas don’t guarantee any real ability of critical thinking, or morality, for that matter.
          Voltaire’s books were instantly put on the Index, and Voltaire constantly threatened with imprisonment. Few people have done more to instill critical thinking in our Western civilization since the 18th century than Voltaire in order to combat injustice and intolerance.
          He certainly does belong to this discussion. If he were alive, he would have a field day over the multiple scandals or our religious personalities and churches.

          • Chris says:

            It’s so strange to listen to someone sing such praise for critical thinking while simultaneously trampling over those very principles. For example you say “People are fooled because they are manipulated by smart cookies”, but where is the proof?

            How do you explain that many people with high IQ’s are religious? Or how do you explain that fact that many people who were atheists or non-religious while young turn to religion as they grow old? This seems to very strongly suggest that their is some pleasure, or at least relief, that is gained from allowing oneself to believe.

            I actually don’t find being an Atheist hard work at all and critical thinking doesn’t take work it just comes naturally. I know many people who are religious and they work damn hard at it. Again it seems that there is a very obvious mental benefit people are receiving from this aspect of their lives.

            I think if you took the time to actually understand why people choose to become religious you would see that it’s not as simple as being mentally lazy at all and that people tend to seek out religion actively.

            Yes, of course I agree that they are wrong about all of that stuff, but I actually disagree with your boy Voltaire on this and I do think that people are fooling themselves by choice.

            My point was “So What”? All Humans rely on some sort of mental constructs in order to maintain sanity in a world that none of us truly understand. Some of us are more comfortable admitting that we just don’t know the answers to the big questions and we can find our balance in other ways. That doesn’t make us better people and it doesn’t necessarily make the world a better place.

  8. Todd F says:

    Atheism is not a belief, and certainly not a “belief system.” What you have when you have no tangible, repeatable, sensibly integrable evidence is non belief. Lack of belief is not denial of the existence of that for which there is no evidence. It is rejection of belief. That’s enough. It’s the end of intelligent inquiry along that particular line.

    Further, atheism is non discriminatory. It doesn’t single out religion for non belief and as a target for ridicule. Rather it denies belief in hordes, in millions of mystical, supernatural and superstitious claims. They are all treated equally, whether belief in demons, angels, ghosts, or ET’s. When there is no evidence that is worthy of the name, the rational person doesn’t believe in it. Period. End of subject. This is atheism.

    And yes, the absurdities and contradictions of any mystical system, whether ancient conventional religions, new inventions such as Scientology, or psychic contract with remote superior races are fair game. They are all full and rich targets, which the pious protect with a convenient social taboo wall, while the atheists are not so inhibited. All mystical and magical beliefs deserve at least a snort of amused rejection, then relegation to oblivion. Some cases deserve a convulsive, rolling on the floor, whole body expression of hilarity.

  9. Chris says:

    Todd, if you read before you posted you’d realize that you’re preaching to the choir here. Everyone here already understands what Atheism means. And we also get that you think you’re incredibly smart for understanding this most basic of scientific principles. Yay for you!!

    But as a human species we’ve got some difficult challenges to face if we want to keep on evolving and progressing as a civilization. Our brilliant little selves have come so far that we now have any number of ways we can wipe ourselves out.

    Simply eradicating the entire concept of a “belief system” from the human race isn’t necessarily anything to go around patting yourself on the back for. Atheists can be selfish jerks, sh!tty parents, murderers, drug dealers, terrorists or even lawyers! ; )

    In other words, being a good critical thinker means you are probably better than most at getting what you want since you don’t waste time on silly distractions. However it says nothing about your morals and your overall contribution to the human race.

    “Just because you are good at getting what you want doesn’t mean that what you want is good.” – me (today)

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:


      I see your point (I think) – it has to do with glass houses.

      Being an atheist doesn’t necessarily make a person kinder, more compassionate, etc than a religious person so it is off base to bring up the cruelty and violence of certain religious persons and groups. In fact, it is foolish to open that can of worms since the advocates of religion can point to atrocities of two big opponents of religion: Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung.

      • Chris says:

        Well, yes, that’s pretty much it. My main point to sum it up is just science 101. “Don’t claim that religion is the cause of terrorism if you can’t prove it. Just because you can draw a correlation doesn’t mean that causation exists”

        But your example is excellent and does make it very clear. After all, if a Christian were to say that “Stalin” and “Mao Tse Tung” were as oppressive as they were BECAUSE they were opponents of religion, I’m sure atheists would dismiss that out of hand.

        • Bad Boy Scientist says:

          Right. We skewer ESP advocates for presenting anecdotes as evidence but we give anecdotes when it comes to the connection between religion and terrorism (or just plain violence).

          Are there any actual studies looking into this connection?
          If so, why aren’t skeptics citing those instead of anecdotes?

  10. BaronPike says:

    If the book is simplistic about why we are in fact ignorant, as if we evolved to be ignorant, save your money.

  11. David S. says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more arrogant group of over-educated, self-congratulatory, circular-thinking so-called “Brights” in one place at one time.

    Religion isn’t the source of the world’s problems: people are. Evil people have always used whatever excuse they could find to do evil; for hundreds of years, the best excuse was religion. (Now it’s science or politics.) If you claim that higher education and science are the only way to avoid this sort of problem, please look into the eugenicists of the 1920s. This was a movement among the educated elites of America and Western Europe to eradicate the ills of society by culling out “the unfit”, claiming to base their evil on scientific principles. Hitler’s scientists eagerly followed their work — I’ve read excerpts of their actual letters to American eugenicists, praising them and asking for more information — and simply took their best ideas to their logical conclusions.

    If you believe you’re any better than another human being because you have a degree on your wall and understand syllogisms, then you’re more ignorant than they are.

  12. Chris says:


    I think you took a more aggressive stance on it than I did but that was one of the things I was getting at in my original point.

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