A Sceptical Inquiry

From Richard Dawkins to the atheist bus, critical thinking has made an unexpected return to popularity. Chris French, editor of the Skeptic magazine, wonders why

A Rael Expert

Volume 15 Number 2, Summer 2002

Rhyme and Reason

Steve Donnelly

To quote the broadcaster, Terry Wogan: "Is it me? or is the world just going mad?"

I am an inveterate listener to BBC Radio 4, especially the flagship Today programme. (Yes, I know Wogan's programme is on Radio 2 -- I listen to that sometimes, as well). In particular, I am always interested to hear scientific topics being addressed by John Humphrys, Sue MacGregor (now sadly retired), and the rest of the crew (despite the occasional inanity of the questions) and it is always good to hear my fellow scientists doing a good job of explaining their interests to 6 million radio listeners. And so, as the redoubtable John Humphrys introduced an item on cloning a couple of weeks ago, I was wondering which academic expert the Today programme researchers would have selected to discuss this scientifically -- and ethically -- challenging topic. Professor Steve Jones perhaps? Or that standard fallback "our science correspondant, Pallab Ghosh"? No, neither of the above -- instead the chosen expert was . . . Rael.


Religious Beliefs

Volume 14 Number 3, Autumn 2001

Rhyme and Reason

I normally avoid getting involved in discussion of religion in the context of skeptics and skepticism. The main reason for this is that I do not believe that there is necessarily any intrinsic conflict between a belief in one or more deities and a scientific approach concerned essentially with falsifiable phenomena. If someone's religious beliefs have no observable and testable consequences on the universe then, in a sense, they are of no interest to the scientist or the skeptic. Therefore, although I do not possess any myself, I do believe that it is possible to hold religious beliefs and, at the same time, to have a scientific and skeptical worldview. And, indeed, there are many people with religious beliefs that, in the main, do not contradict their rational worldview.

Sexual Ethics

Volume 20 Number 3, Autumn 2007

Philosopher’s Corner

Julian Baggini

SEXUAL ETHICS seems such a quaint old subject.
Such has been the success of the almost complete purge of sex from the arena of serious, secular ethical debate that when someone does raise the topic, we immediately suspect (usually correctly) that that person has some conservative or religious axe to grind.

Inside a Camphill Community

Volume 20 Number 4, Winter 2007

Matthew Provonsha reports on his disillusionment with life in a religious commune

LAST YEAR I spent two months inside a Camphill Community along with other volunteers of various ages from around the world, eager to help others and better myself. I was drawn to communal life, but more importantly I was put off by the society in which I grew up. As a teenage atheist and leftist in the United States I was appalled by the vast increase of religious fervor in public life and by our startling move to the Far Right even during my lifetime. Like so many Americans I was laden with a painful sense of hopelessness. I could only watch television, drink or get high to distract myself. Retreat in one form or another seemed to be the only suitable option.
I was quite enamored with British culture, as well, and wanted nothing more than to see the land which had produced so many of my favorite authors, comedians, rock stars and TV shows. The UK almost seemed (to my naïve self ) to be a totally different, more civilized world. So it was that I decided to find someplace in Britain where I could work for food and lodging. In truth I only chose to ‘volunteer’ at the Mount Camphill Community, a school for young adults with special needs in the South-East of England, because it offered the best benefits. In addition to organic food and lovely surroundings it offers a weekly stipend of fifty pounds, weekend outings and ample time off.

An Evening with James Randi & Friends

A review of the special evening with Randi

Published in The Skeptic, Volume 21, Issue 2 (2008)

Jon Cohen remembers the highlights and the stories from the evening which featured James Randi's first presentation to a UK audience in over a decade, and Susan Blackmore's talk of returning to public scepticism and parapsychology.

IT WAS LIKE a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Those lucky enough to have secured seats grasped their booking references tightly like golden tickets. The Willy Wonka of scepticism, the Evel Knievel of debunking, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi was in town. When it was announced that The Skeptic magazine, in collaboration with Skeptics in The Pub, were organizing ‘An Evening with James Randi and Friends’, the five hundred or so available tickets sold out in a matter of days.

Described by some as the founding father of modern day scepticism, Randi, the former escapologist and magician, has done more than anyone else to expose charlatanry and pseudo-science. He has authored devastating critiques of Uri Geller, evangelical faith healers and the writings of Nostradamus, as well as writing the seminal Flim-Flam!, Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions. His longstanding offer of a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled conditions remains unclaimed.

Randi doesn’t get to the UK often so, when his visit was announced, the organisers of the event decided on Conway Hall as a suitably sized venue. The unassuming building nestles in a quiet London square and is home to the South Place Ethical Society as well as the recently inaugurated London branch of the Center for Inquiry.

Believe it or Not

Published in The Skeptic, Volume 20, Issue 4 (2007)

Sally Marlow interviews Mark Vernon about life, the universe and everything – but mainly agnosticism.

IT WAS A GOOD START when I contacted Mark Vernon to ask for an interview and he suggested we meet in a bookshop. Not a specialist or academic bookshop, but Books etc on Victoria Street. I had a feeling I would be dealing with someone fairly down to earth, and I was right. In the event the lunchtime meeting was rescheduled to a café, the nature of life being such that sometimes you have to feed your face before you can feed your soul. We sat surrounded by civil servants and House of Fraser employees, and I tried to get a feeling for what Vernon means when he describes himself as an agnostic, and whether the headline-grabbing fact that he is an ex-vicar contributes to that meaning. Vernon is one of the breed of philosophers who claims that philosophy is to be lived, not merely thought about. How then can agnosticism, which seems to rely so heavily on the idea of “not”, be an active philosophy for life? Vernon attempts to put the case in his book, and he tried to explain it to me over coffee. I need to come clean here. I am not a philosopher, or a theologian. I am a psychology undergraduate having just completed my first year at Goldsmiths College. What this means is that he had to start at first principles and explain his ideas to an absolute beginner. In my defence, I had already read his book Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, and had found it truly absorbing and possibly life-changing.

The first thing that struck me about Mark Vernon in person was that he was much younger than I expected him to be, and somehow much hipper. His book had brought the image of a wise old man to mind. In truth, I was expecting a cross between Rowan Williams and Gandalf. Our expectations are often shaped by stereotypes, and the tag “ex-vicar” had led me to expect, well, I’m not sure exactly what, but not the man with the funky glasses and linen jacket who sat in front of me.

It is fair to say that his book on agnosticism has attracted a healthy amount of attention, possibly stemming from the same place as my own curiosity about Vernon’s previous life in the church. Who could not be intrigued to read a celebration of agnosticism written by an ex-cleric, who reached his version of not knowing via a spell as an atheist? Possibly much of the attention is to do with the fact that there have been no serious works on agnosticism since TH Huxley first coined the phrase – an obvious gap in the publishing market. Or possibly it is that sometimes the time is right for a book, and Vernon has hit on something which is fundamental to living through the ages, and particularly now. Religions of all types are centre stage at the moment, although our awareness seems to be mostly of their more fundamentalist aspects and leaders. In retaliation, scientists and atheism have taken an increasingly polarised stance. The God Delusion (Dawkins, 2006) has sold over 200,000 in hardback in the UK alone, and you can buy it at Tescos next to the Halal meat and the Matzo crackers. Some have coined the word Scientism to describe the use of science to explain how the world works, almost as though it has become a religion it itself. Perhaps surrounded by all this dogma, and all these people who are so convinced that they are right, Vernon’s brand of uncertainty has tapped into something important and of the moment. BBC Online picked up his ideas immediately, and on the day they featured an interview with him, that interview received 250,000 hits, more than any other subject.

Stupid Sceptic Tricks

Sceptics using unfair arguments? Surely not!
Published in The Skeptic, Volume 16, Issue 3 (2003)

David W Owens advises his fellow believers on how to avoid being bamboozled by their devious opponents …

DO YOU EVER get into an argument with a sceptic only to end up exasperated and feeling you’ve been bamboozled? Sceptics are often highly skilled at tying up opponents in clever verbal knots. Most sceptics are, of course, ordinary, more-or-less honest people who, like the rest of us, are just trying to make the best sense they can of a complicated and often confusing world. Others, however, are merely glib sophists who use specious reasoning to defend their prejudices or attack the ideas and beliefs of others, and even an honest sceptic can innocently fall into the mistake of employing bad reasoning.

In reading, listening to, and sometimes debating with sceptics over the years, I have found certain tricks, ploys and gimmicks which they tend to use over and over again. Here are some of them. Perhaps if you keep them in mind when arguing with a sceptic, you’ll feel better when the debate is over. Shucks, you might even score a point or two.

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