Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge


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Freedom, just around the corner from you.
But with truth so far off, what good would it do?
Jokerman, Bob Dylan

February 10, 2004. Yesterday, a colleague asked if I'd watched 60 Minutes last night. Frightening, wasn't it? we agreed. "I thought of you," she said. And I thought of me and all the other skeptics of the world and what we're up against.

The Rev. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have written a series of runaway bestsellers known as the “Left Behind” novels. All together, there are 40 million books in print, and another 17 million in spin-offs. Plus, “The Kids” series, audio books and comic books are worth $100 million in annual revenue.

You could stack up all the books sold by Gardner, Randi, Shermer, and every other skeptic on the planet and they wouldn't come close to 40 million. Even though these "Left Behind" books are fiction, they are apparently taken as based on facts. What facts? The book of Revelation. If these novels were merely for entertainment, skeptics would not need to be concerned. But there are apparently millions of rational adults who believe that some day soon the righteous of the earth will simply disappear, leaving behind the schmucks who have not accepted Jesus as their own personal Savior. And those left behind will be in for a hell of an unpleasant ride. 60 Minutes was able to get several evangelicals on tape, including Gary Bauer, Don McWhinney (an oil executive from Dallas), and the Rev. Todd Wagner of the Watermark Community Church in Dallas. They all believe that some day soon loads of people will just disappear and be taken to heaven by God. The only question in their minds is whether the righteous will leave with their jewelry and clothes intact.

We're told that some 70 million Americans hold beliefs in the rapture, as the evangelicals call the disappearance of the righteous, and Armageddon, the name for the horrible end times where good and evil battle to the death and where people like myself are left behind because we don't believe in God and therefore can't accept Jesus or anyone else as a personal Savior. Marvin Minsky might call these beliefs The Mother of All Whoppers. What could top these weird beliefs? L. Ron Hubbard's alien battles or Zecharia Sitchin's aliens experimenting on apes don't hold a candle to these faith-based whoppers.

Because the belief in the book of Revelation is faith-based, there is no point in arguing with those who believe its message. Yet, those who do believe in its message are more than willing to share their belief with others, including an American Airlines pilot who recently asked Christians on his flight to identify themselves and suggested the non-Christians discuss their faith with them. It is probably pointless to note that such end-times (or millenarian) movements have occurred many times in the past during troubled times. (And when haven't there been troubled times?) This stuff is good business. Social psychologists study these millenarian movements and theologians have their own branch of theology, known as eschatology, devoted to the study of the end times. One could hope that this too will pass., except for the fact that the President of the United States and his Attorney General are evangelicals. Even this might not be cause for alarm if there were other superpowers to hold the U.S. in check. I have no idea how many evangelicals are in Congress, but there doesn't seem to me much opposition to the President's game plan so far. Gary Bauer claims that two-thirds of those who go to church regularly vote Republican and that two-thirds of those who don't go to church regularly vote Democratic. Not everybody who goes to church is an evangelical, but 70 million is more than 20% of the population. If these figures are accurate, they are cause for alarm.

It will not be difficult for evangelicals to find abundant confirming evidence for what they think are prophecies in the book of Revelation. It will be like shooting fish in a barrel, like cold reading by an expert. The ones interviewed on 60 Minutes seem to relish the thought of the end of the world. The thought of it doesn't bring terror to their hearts; it brings joy. They believe they'll be taken up in the rapture. Should our President and a few other evangelicals with a love for the "Left Behind" books start seeing themselves as part of prophecy we may be in the deepest kind of trouble.

Now, on the bright side, while 60 Minutes showed President Bush in prayer amidst all this talk of rapture and the end times, they did not provide any evidence that Mr. Bush has read any of these "Left Behind" books or that he personally believes we are in the end times and that he has found his role prophesized in Revelation. There is no evidence, to my knowledge, that Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program is in any way related to the "Left Behind" books. Of course, the lack of evidence is not evidence of a lack. And, anyway, things could change. On the other hand, the President seems genuinely concerned about the economy and maintaining tax cuts. Those do not seem to be the kinds of ideas of a man bent on bringing about the end of the world. What good would a booming economy or more tax cuts be if the end of the world was at hand? Even the most devout evangelicals aren't sure that you get to take it with you when you go to heaven.

Also, the term "evangelical" is a broad one, and while all or most evangelicals might accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, not all accept the "Left Behind" version of Revelation. Still, it is a frightening thought that millions of Americans believe that loads of folks will instantly vanish and that the billions left behind will suffer unspeakable torments. The scary part is that these thoughts bring joy to the believers' faces.

If heaven means spending eternity with these folks, leave me behind, please!

February 7, 2004. Sacramento's Darwin Day celebration today will feature Taner Edis speaking on intelligent design (ID), the theory that everything in the universe might have come about by accident, except for a few things like the flagellum of a bacterium. That little wiggly propellant has too many parts that would be useless on their own, say the ID folks. Those parts are only useful together; therefore, the flagellum must have been designed by an intelligent creature. Other things in Nature might be the result of natural forces and laws working without a plan, but not the flagellum. That's special.

An article in this morning's newspaper about a child born with craniopagus parasiticus made me think of the ID argument. To be born with an additional-- though not fully developed--head is to be born with a part that certainly would be useless on its own. It is unfortunate that several teams of doctors practicing conventional medicine removed the extra head in a very long and costly surgical operation. (I don't know why they didn't call in a naturopath or a homeopath, but that is another story.) Now we will never know what important role the extra head was supposed to play.

It is possible that the extra head was the work of an intelligent designer and that the purpose of the additional cranium was to test the skills of practitioners of conventional medicine. Of course, the purpose might have been personal: to test the faith of the parents of the unfortunate child. They seem to have passed the test--if it was a test--for it is reported that they said a prayer over the baby and said "May God be with you" as the infant was wheeled into the operating room. Of course, the search for these kinds of purposes is fruitless, since they are infinite in possibility and our finite minds don't have access to the divine mind that might be pulling the strings. Even the search for good reasons for bad things might be a test: Whoever can find more ways to justify the ways of God to man gets the highest grade on the test and may receive some sort of award in the end.

Another question we might ask is whether it is more likely than an extra head was designed by Nature or some very intelligent being? It seems to be just the kind of thing one would expect were Nature in charge. Such a condition seems more likely the result of blind and indifferent forces governed by pitiless laws and determined by multiple conditions that sometimes produce horrible results. On the other hand, maybe the intelligent designer who put together the bacterium's flagellum is still experimenting? Maybe this designer is still putting parts together to see how they work in conjunction. Or maybe this is just one of Nature's "mistakes." Who knows? Perhaps the answer is tucked away in some sacred book somewhere. Meanwhile, the operation is over and at last report the child was recovering. Her doctors say it's possible she will develop normally. If she does, will it be due to a divine miracle? Or will it be due to the scientific knowledge, technology, skill, and dedication of human beings?

Unfortunately, the child died. What conclusion should we draw from that?

January 30, 2004. State superintendent of schools for the state of Georgia, Kathy Cox, has proposed that the word 'evolution' be removed from all science curricula and books. In its place she would like to see the expression 'biological changes over time.' According to Fox News, Jimmie Carter called the proposal an embarrassment.
[thanks to Keldon McFarland]

I sent the National Center for Science Education, Inc. a link to the Fox story and heard back almost immediately from Deputy Director Glenn Branch. He writes:

We've been working behind the scenes for months with concerned Georgia scientists, teachers, and citizens at large, and will continue to do so.  We're cautiously optimistic about evolution's being restored to the draft standards -- I say "restored" because the standards were taken from a set of model standards drafted by the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science].

The grassroots Georgia Citizens for Integrity in Science Education (GCISE) has set up a petition that you can sign.

further reading

January 26, 2004. A California Assemblyman from San Francisco has been nominated for a "Nosey Award" by another assemblyman who presents the award each year for the most intrusive legislation introduced in California. According to WorldNetDaily, Leland Y. Yee "has introduced a resolution that would urge state officials to include the principles of feng shui in the California Building Standards Code, which is used in the design of public buildings."

Yee's press secretary, Adam Keigwin, claims that the benefits of feng shui have been "scientifically proven." I have written the following letter to Mr. Yee:

Your press secretary has been quoted as saying that the principles of feng shui have been "scientifically proven." This is news to me. I would like to know what scientific proofs he has in mind. As I understand feng shui, it is a philosophy, not a science. But if I am wrong I would like to be corrected.

I'll let you know if I get a response.

January 25, 2004. Experts at the National Museums of Scotland and Yale University have decided that a fossil found near one of the greatest golf courses on earth, Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, is the remains of the oldest creature ever to live on land. The one-centimetre millipede was lifted out of a 428-million-year-old siltstone bed. At least that's what the BBC reports. Scientists at the Creation Research Institute (CRI) have concluded, without doing any study of the specimen, that it is actually only 428 years old.

January 20, 2004. Maybe I don't understand cloning, but a man who knows how to get publicity has claimed he cloned a human being. The media, the Pope, some anti-abortion group leader, and a few others think he says he cloned a human being. The article I read says he claims to have taken DNA from a man's skin, transformed it, and fused it with a woman's egg. That doesn't sound like cloning. It sounds like alchemy but what do I know.
[thanks to Keldon McFarland]

January 19, 2004. For those interested in the topic of Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, here are several recent articles you might be interested in reading:

[thanks to Tom McKeon and Loren Pankratz]


While I was at the JREF Amazing Meeting II in Las Vegas, it seems that Uri Geller called a press conference to let the world know that he hypnotized Michael Jackson three years ago and asked him if he'd ever had sex with children. Michael said something to the effect that he hadn't. This not only proves Michael Jackson's innocence of the current charges of child molestation made against him by Tom Snedden, but also proves Geller's clairvoyance.

Not only that, but almost simultaneously in a kind of harmonic concordance or synchronicity, a service promising to answer people's prayers with a text message apparently sent by Jesus was shut down after complaints by Finland's mobile services watchdog. The heavenly service offered answers from Jesus in response to a text message prayer at the cost of a $1.52 per message, but lasted less than a month.

"These kinds of services are against basic norms," Ville Nurmi, ombudsman for Finland's mobile content watchdog, MAPEL, told Reuters Friday.
[thanks to Lewis Haymes]

I wonder if it would be against basic norms to hire John Edward (now that his Crossing Over show will not be renewed) to get the messages from Jesus and then transmit them to the the Finns at the gate. How well do you think he'd do over there? (I'm getting a Michael or Mike, a Mick, Michelle, Muh, a Muh sound, M, anybody know anyone with an M in his or her name?)

©copyright 2003
Robert Todd Carroll

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