Are You There God? It's Me, CarlCarl Kozlowski (Email to a Friend)
Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind it dies.-- Mahatma Gandhi
As a Catholic guy, I've spent my entire life being told what to think about God. Whether it was my dad drilling me on questions from the Catechism, or priests and nuns leading me in prayer during my 12 years of Catholic school, I learned a distinct way of looking at the world and the universe that I've never been able to shake.
I've had my rebellious phases before. I got re-baptized in a Baptist church in Texas so I could experience being dunked. And as you may have read earlier on this Web site, I spent a week as an online minister to see whether a person really could perform a legal wedding in California after merely clicking a mouse button.
Both times I went right back to the Catholic church, albeit after thorough scoldings by my priests.
But I'd never put myself through anything like the Amazing Meeting, an annual convention of science fanatics from around the globe who gathered in Las Vegas earlier this year to learn about the latest advances in science and the wildest debunkings of such spurious issues as crop circles, ghosts, aliens, magic tricks. dowsing -- and, of course, religion. The attendees consider themselves "Skeptics," the polar opposites of "Believers." Although some are outright atheists, most are merely agnostic -- reserving their final opinion on God until they either look Him in the eye or find that there's nothing there after they die.
"I love science and I want to change the world in terms of making it a more rational, sane place to live, and science is the best tool we have for that," explained Dr. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Society and the world's most prominent supernatural debunker. "I get very discouraged by the beliefs people hold and the percentages of people that hold those beliefs."
Shermer was speaking in the lobby of the Stardust, one of the hotels left over from the classic Rat Pack era of Vegas. He flashed a wry grin and chuckled at the irony that we were celebrating the disproving of myths within the fakest city on earth.
Just as Shermer had surprised me in a previous interview with his wit and sense of fun, he and his Amazing Meeting cohorts -- who included entertainers Penn & Teller, comic actress/writer Julia Sweeney, and Vanity Fair journalist Christopher Hitchens -- were about to upend my opinions of atheists as uncaring hedonists and of science fans as unemotional ubernerds.
"One of the things [the Skeptics Society does] is put a happy face on science. Scientists aren't just dour, unhappy nerds, and we've got to show that by example," says Shermer, a former professional cyclist and, ironically, a former born-again Christian. "It's also fairly simple to derive values from your worldview. We've been doing it for 200 years here in America, where the Constitution says regardless of whether or not you believe in a religion, you've got to follow the rules."
For Shermer, the most important battles aren't over beliefs and morality -- noting that Skeptics don't care if others have religious beliefs, as long as they don't impose them on society through the rule of law.
The Amazing Meeting lives up to its name in many ways, thanks to its founder and organizer, the Amazing Randi -- otherwise known as James Randi, head of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).
A short, white-bearded man with a perpetual grin that makes him look like Santa's wilder brother, Randi has devoted his life to showing that science can be fun. And when you consider that this most unusual convention offers everything from fresh photos from the Saturn moon of Titan to elaborate fake séances, numerous magic shows doubling as scientific lectures, and star power in the form of comic duo Penn & Teller and other celebrities, Randi, Shermer and their supporters have more than succeeded.
One man who's a key figure in all the fun -- yet who's also particularly furious at the religious battles in society -- is Penn Jillette, who's better known as the taller, talkative member of Penn & Teller. Seeming nearly 7 feet tall and sporting long-flowing hair that makes him look like a cross between a hippie and a mad scientist, Penn claims to have been an atheist ever since he was a child.
"My parents weren't well to do, but if I was wanting something to do with science, they always made the sacrifice to support it," recalled Jillette, 49, who attended the conference and led a Q&A in which Teller actually spoke. "I had learned to juggle at 12 and saw the mentalist Amazing Kreskin doing experiments on TV when I was 13. I thought his ESP set was a science thing, so my parents got it for me."
Jillette experimented with his parents to try and make the ESP work, but after a few weeks of no results he picked up a book at his local library which explained how Kreskin was fooling people "and I was crushed." So crushed, in fact, that he suddenly hated all science and magic, and even dropped out of high school altogether. But at the age of 18, he had the most fateful meeting of his life when his friend Teller introduced him to The Amazing Randi. Randi offered a counterpoint to people like Kreskin.
"Randi convinced me that I could be good and ethical while doing magic," says Jillette. "I started performing with Teller shortly after that, and our atheism and skepticism have grown stronger as we've grown older."
In fact, the duo's work has taken them beyond frequent Letterman appearances all the way to a highly lucrative long-term Vegas run and their own reality series on Showtime. Now entering its third season, Bullshit! has taken on such issues as talking to the dead, radical environmentalism, circumcision, Mother Teresa's reputation, and feng shui.
"We're trying to get the message out that [a supernatural worldview] is the wrong way of thinking, and the smarter the demographic such as physicists, the less likely they are to actively believe in God," Jillette claims. "I'm very optimistic that people will get smarter and learn more as time goes on -- especially after the World Trade Center disasters, people came to realize that if you really believe in a god, you're flying that plane into the World Trade Centers. And if Bush didn't spend his time like most white liberals, saying Muslims were an OK religion and these terrorists were a few bad apples, we'd be much better off. Any belief that lends itself to an interpretation where terrorism is acceptable is just evil."
There is more, however, to being a Skeptic than poking holes in religion or aliens -- and the presence of Christopher Hitchens at the Amazing Meeting is a perfect example of where a Skeptic's approach to the world can be valuable even if one doesn't agree with their views on religion.
Hitchens is one of the most respected and controversial journalists on the planet, best known for his monthly exposes in Vanity Fair. He was once a poster boy for the political left, but much like comic Dennis Miller, Hitchens radically changed his political allegiances after 9-11 to actively support President Bush's so-called War on Terror.
"I can see with my own eyes that what the majority of what the press is saying is not the truth and is dangerous. It's left to me to write a second version and take another look at history," said Hitchens, the very picture of an insouciant British journalist in his rumpled suit.
"Ever since the war in Bosnia in the mid-90s. I have felt that the Left is becoming a status quo force and has no active program for anyone's future. They were opposed to engagement there, and in the last couple of years, faced with the challenge of Islamic theocratic extremism, a very large element of the Left believes that there isn't a war going on or believes that there shouldn't be. It means there's no Left even to leave, they're nonexistent."
Indeed, Hitchens makes it clear that he harbors outright contempt for what he perceives as a lack of ideals and leadership on the part of Democratic leaders like John Kerry and Bill Clinton. Even greater is his dismay at those who would compare the Iraqi jihadist insurgency with the soldiers who fought for American freedom in the Revolutionary War.
"There were a lot of believing Muslims killed in the World Trade Center. It was impossible not to kill some Muslims if you took out a big building in New York, but they didn't care about that," said Hitchens. "They weren't the 'right kind' of Muslims for the radicals."
Yet while he proudly claims that he's an "anti-theist," Hitchens' prove-it-to-me worldview carries an undercurrent of hope that parallels the shiny happy faces of the most ardent believers.
And so it goes that we spin onward through the universe on a planet that has so much diversity in its cultures yet largely one view in favor of a supreme being of some sort. And as long as each of us can keep our views from being so fervently held that we feel a need to war over our interpretation of God or force it upon everyone else, Michael Shermer, The Amazing Randi, Penn Gillette, Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the Skeptics don't really mind. After all, they can't prove God doesn't exist, either.
"There is a pretty clear sign that the tendency to believe in some sort of transcendent being is hardwired into us somehow, because almost everybody has it in all cultures," said Shermer.
"The problem isn't religion per se, but extremism. When [extremists] try to enforce it by fiat – through state or bureaucratic legislation – then it becomes dangerous. And that's where it's our duty to say something in Skepticism. It's easy to target religious fundamentalists after 9-11 but secular fundamentalists like Marxists or Communists also have been only too willing to kill in honor of their ideology. Extremism wedded to power is where it gets dangerous."