By H. V. Grey
Door-to-door religious proselytizers are the unwitting lab rats in my ongoing religious experiments. For example, two unfortunates were recently test subjects for my "Are you calling my mama a liar?" protocol.
Religious Proselytizer: "Oh, no!"
Me: "But you're claiming what you say about religion is true, which means that people like my mother, who say the opposite, are telling falsehoods. So either you're calling my mother a liar, or else crazy or incredibly stupid. So which is it?" (You in the South now, boy. Callin' my mama a liar is only a step above callin' my mama a ho!)
Rather predictably, there were no converts in either direction, but at least no one risked being beheaded for apostasy.
My latest experimental ploy is actually a variant of this: "You seem to be calling my mother a teller of falsehoods on the basis of your unsupported claim to have psychic ability." Ding dong. . . .
RP: "Hi. We'd like to give you some literature--"
Me: "Ah! Psychics. I always become very suspicious when anyone claims to be psychic, because there has never been any hard evidence whatsoever to support such claims. Indeed, there's a million-dollar prize awaiting anyone who can prove any kind of psychic ability--dowsing, clairvoyance, precognition, you name it--under conditions which don't allow cheating. Perhaps you'd like to go for it. At the very least, you should be able to tell me how many fingers I'm holding up behind my back."
RP: "Oh, no, we don't claim to be psychic!"
Me: "Of course, you do. How else do you know that the bible--internal contradictions notwithstanding--is truly the revealed word of God?"
RP: "The bible makes predictions, all of which have come true."
Me: "Specific dates, times, locations, names? No, of course not. Just ultra-vague generalities like the so-called predictions of Nostradamus that can be interpreted any way you want. If I predict that 'something bad is going to happen sometime in the next hundred years,' gee, duh, is it any surprise that my 'prophecy' is fulfilled? That's all your alleged biblical prophecies amount to. They're no better than Delphic-style oracularity that cover all possibilities."
RP: "Well, archaeology supports--"
Me: "--Only evolution, which you don't believe in, do you?"--vigorous head shaking--"and the claim that the bible is no more than a work of historical fiction. If I write a novel set in Elizabethan England, the fact that I get all my references to Queen Elizabeth correct in no way proves that any of my fictional characters ever did or said any of the things I attribute to them or even existed. The bible drops a few names--Hittites, Egyptians, Herod, Augustus Caesar--and gets some of its geography correct, but so does any half-decent work of historical fiction. But that in no way proves that Noah or Moses or Jesus or any of the rest of them actually existed or are anything more than creative fictional constructs in a historical setting."
RP: "The bible itself says it's the Word of God made manifest."
Me: "So does the Koran. But you're firmly convinced it's fiction." Vigorous head nodding; at least there's something we can all agree on.
"So how do you know it's not the Koran, or Bhagavad Gita, Urantia Book"--blank looks--"or some other religious book that's the true revelation and that your bible isn't simply another work of human fiction posturing as divine revelation just like the Koran--unless, of course, you're psychic?"
RP: "We believe the bible is the unerring Word of God."
Me: "That's the whole point. You believe--on the basis of what? That someone else told you it was genuine revelation? How do you know they were telling the truth and not lying to you outright, or just telling you what they assumed was the truth because someone else who had heard it from someone else who had heard it from someone else ad infinitum simply told them it was the truth without in any way proving it--any more than the person who told you it was the truth proved it? How do you know they weren't mistaken because they were duped by forceful personalities in positions of power? Millions of Muslim parents sincerely tell their small, helpless, gullible children the Koran is infallible, but you're sure they're mistaken, even if they aren't consciously lying. In your view, Muslims are wrong to believe unsupported claims, but you're not. What makes you so special, if it's not that you're claiming to be psychic?--to have knowledge or abilities through means that defy all natural law. They're making the exact same kind of claim to know psychically that they're right and you're wrong. You don't believe their unsupported claims that they're psychic; why should I believe yours?"
* * *
The national skeptics organization CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), and its regional affiliates, to one of which I have belonged for nearly a decade, limit their formal efforts to debunk religion to tangible artifacts such as weeping icons and Virgin Mary water stains, because substantive religious claims (e.g., existence of god[s] and authenticity of revelations about the supernatural) are inherently untestable. These are considered matters of "faith" and, therefore, beyond the jurisdiction of science.
But what is "faith" other than a claim to have psychically-acquired knowledge? The sin of omission I believe these skeptics are committing is letting the religionists off the hook because the substance of their claims cannot be tested, rather than scrutinizing their methodology.
The supernatural content of religious faith does not exist independent of the human being making the claim to have psychic knowledge, whether it's the original revelatee or the second-hand authenticator. For example, suppose a religious guru named Trevanian claims to have had a revelation from God about supernatural phenomena. Note that it contains no testable information or precise predictions whose fulfillment would defy chance.
Close associates affirm Trevanian must be telling the truth because:
1) He has a carefully cultivated charismatic personality that inspires confidence.
2) They have never caught him deliberately telling a lie before.
3) It doesn't occur to them that neither he nor any of them has any way of knowing what a genuine revelation from God about the untestable supernatural would be like (as opposed to hallucination, imagination, wishful thinking, or a sham revelation from a deceptive demon).
4) While they themselves have never actually had what they imagine a genuine revelation from God would feel like, they believe without external corroboration that they are involved in two-way paranormal communication with their god(s) and, in addition, have a limited psychic ability which allows them to accurately assess the psychic supernatural claims of others.
Subsequent generations do not have direct experience of #1 (Trevanian's charm) or #2 (hand not caught in cookie jar), but have what they feel is reliable character information about their own informants. Plus they, too, are not bothered by #3 (is it a true revelation or Memorex?) and firmly believe in #4 (their own unproven psychic ability).
But, of course, like my friendly neighborhood religious proselytizers, they cleverly only claim to be "psychic" about things that can't be tested. Their modus operandi is a lot like the would-be clairvoyant who knows full well he has no psychic knowledge about the existence of gold coins in sealed boxes blindly randomized on a table, but immediately becomes 100% confident the instant the boxes are thrown irretrievably into a deep ocean trench.
The religious psychic's knowledge of his god(s) is of identical caliber to those lost boxes at the bottom of the sea--and of about as much value. But an important difference between these two kinds of psychic claimants is that the clairvoyant doesn't generally blow people up as a consequence of his faulty belief.
The religionist's claim to be psychic only about things that can't be tested leads to the obvious question--or at least obvious to the rest of us: If there's no way you can ever test your alleged psychic ability, how do you know you have it? Why, because they're psychic! They know they're psychic because they psychically know they're psychic. It is as pretty an example of the logical fallacy of circular reasoning--presupposing the very thing you're trying to prove--as you're ever likely to see. All that's missing are the bootstraps.
When my mother (it's all right for me to call her a liar) claimed to know with certainty that God exists, she was lying. She was essentially claiming knowledge based on her alleged psychic powers, but refusing categorically to prove them--to me or even to herself. That's blatant dishonesty. That's fraud. If you take money or services for it, that's larceny by fraud.
In the face of nuclear-age religious terrorism, atheists are realizing that the heretofore "politically correct" attitude of uncritical tolerance of religious psychic claims is nothing short of suicidal. Religious psychic claimants are literally getting away with murder on a daily basis all over the globe.
Over 700 people have vied for the James Randi Educational Foundation's $1 million prize for proving psychic ability under conditions that don't allow cheating. At least those people had the courage to submit to testing, whereas religious con artists do not. The latter should be publicly identified as psychic claimants on a par with palm readers, channelers, dowsers, Tarot card fortune tellers, and crystal power advocates.
All deity-based religious arguments comprise two parts: Claim A based on Methodology B. The content of Claim A is always cunningly beyond the scope of empirical test because it's ostensibly "supernatural." Methodology B involves human abilities as they exist within the natural world, and is thus the exposed link in the chain we can get at and attack. It's time we identified religious faith for what it is: superstition based on unsubstantiated claims of psychic ability.
Foundation member HV Grey, of Florida, is the author of the atheist novel, The Suicide Squad.