Letters to the Editor

The God Engine

I thoroughly enjoyed your article “The God Engine” in the September/October 2018 Skeptical Inquirer.

I felt there was one factor in author James Alcock’s explications of reinforcement of religious beliefs that was not addressed enough for my liking, related to his sixth factor, group identity. I missed seeing a mention of a powerful evolutionary aspect: reproductive advantage.

Religious groups provide social interactions that may provide more mate selection opportunities, and often the religious beliefs themselves contain a directive to be fruitful. This may result in more persistence of religious beliefs because of reproductive advantage, which additionally would have a positive feedback effect producing more and more believers.

Dave Suess
Redondo Beach, California

I just re-read James Alcock’s “The God Engine.” His discussion of some early believers’ taking a more logical view of religion, and rejecting it, as they matured, prompted a question. It seems as if there may be an age range, as with language ability, during which a person’s critical thinking powers can be best developed, after which they become more and more hopeless, if they have not learned to question foolishness by then. Has anyone stated this more definitively?

Joan MacNeill
Portland, Oregon

Thank you for “The God Engine” by James E. Alcock. I enjoyed the description of how normal human thinking can make supernatural belief the automatic default. The article did not mention the role of God and religion in personal self control, especially when people try to change their own behavior.  An example would be the role of spirituality and a “higher power” in twelve-step addiction programs, but this theme is also prevalent in formal religions. I would be interested in reading anything your authors have to say about this aspect of religion.

John Bunnell
Fountain Valley, California

In “The God Engine,” James E. Alcock provides a welcome change from the limitations of the “God does not exist” type of discussion often found in skeptic circles. There were, however, places where I feel a broader approach would have been useful.

First, in enumerating some beliefs of a number of religions, it seemed misrepresentative to characterize Christianity as a form of cannibalism. Yes, Roman Catholicism in particular goes on about “the Body of Christ,” but if we allow a matter of emphasis, the extreme R.C. position historically is trying to differentiate itself from Protestantism. In practice, the Eucharist is often regarded as a ritual meal. The eating aspect may be seen as an inadequate attempt to talk about “absorbing” Jesus in the sense of adopting Christian principles. This is still religion but not without purpose.

Second, prayer could be treated more broadly. While prayer is often described as “talking to God,” it seems quite obviously “talking to oneself.” To what extent might prayer, using religious language but with some problem in mind, be a form of “thinking about” where the decision making occurs subconsciously? It is religious behavior but may lead to positive results.

As to whether religion can and should be eradicated: there is much discussion to be had on the way forward, and scientific insights have a leading role to play.

Peter J. Seymour
Redhill, Surrey, United Kingdom

The fact that humans invented religion, with its premise of a supreme being that created everything and its reassurance that you never really die, has been the object of attention of many intelligent, articulate, and highly qualified analysts, who have produced many books and articles full of five-syllable words that attempt to “explain” why a lot of people “believe” in God and all the rubbish that goes with it. Alcock’s complex and convoluted treatise compels my little addendum. He writes, “In conclusion, belief in the supernatural is a natural consequence of normal cognitive development … ,” which, if I am not mistaken, is a slightly pompous way of saying that we are smart enough to know we’re going to die, and we suspect—and we fear—that it might mean the cessation of consciousness, forever, and to counter the unbearable knowledge of that possibility religion, in its myriad forms, with its promise of eternal life, was imagined. I truly mean no disrespect, but honestly, tomes may be written, but I really don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.

Gene White
Santa Fe, New Mexico

James E. Alcock replies:

These are all interesting comments, but due to space limitations I can make only a brief response to each. Suess raises a good point. Reproductive advantage for the group is one of many factors that can lead to increases in the number of believers—just consider the example of the Roman Catholic Church and its ban on birth control and abortion. However, while important, reproductive advantage is not essential to the maintenance of the belief system. 

 As for MacNeill’s concern, critical thinking is a complicated matter. For example, some people demonstrate excellent critical thinking skills with regard to secular matters but do not apply their analytic abilities to their supernatural beliefs. Bunnell raises an interesting point about religion, self-control, and the use of the religious concept of a “higher power” as an aid in overcoming addiction. Believing in the influence of an external agency can be appealing and effective, especially to those who lack confidence in their own abilities to effect change in themselves. Such belief in the power of an external influence is also reflected in responses to placebos and hypnotic induction.

 With respect to Seymour’s comment about cannibalism, I am simply saying that the Eucharist is unlikely to seem peculiar to someone raised as a Christian, even if one is now an apostate. However, someone not raised in that faith and lacking any deeper understanding of it may well wonder at the seeming cannibalistic nature of the ritual, just as non-Hindus may consider bizarre the ritual of rubbing clarified butter on a representation of a god’s phallus.

Finally, in response to Gene White, an abundance of psychological research shows that supernatural belief develops long before children have any understandings of, or worries about, survival after death. While fear of death may indeed inspire adult fidelity to religious beliefs and practices, it is most certainly not the reason that such beliefs develop in the first place. Complex and convoluted or not, the finding that supernatural belief is a natural consequence of normal cognitive development is important for an understanding of how we grow up to understand the world around us.

See also the article in this issue by Gregory S. Paul and James Alcock’s extended response following it, pp. 42–49.—Editor

Rethinking Radiation and Nuclear Power

The article by Jeanne Goldberg is an essential contribution, not just on unjustified fears related to radiation but on the role of nuclear energy in climate change mitigation (“From the Spectral to the Spectrum: Radiation in the Crosshairs,” September/October 2018).

Anti-nuclear paranoia has been the principal reason for the failure of climate change policy over the past decades. In Germany, the populist decision of the government to phase out of nuclear power has kept emissions high with Germany failing all its set targets. Germany, as some other regions of the world, continues to uphold the 100 percent renewable illusion.

A major part of the problem is that too many climate scientists, unlike climate science pioneer James Hansen, have joined the anti-nuclear bandwagon and put their belief in a completely unsubstantiated 100 percent renewable future. We have come to a climate orthodoxy that goes well beyond climate science per se and encompasses other fields.

Climate scientists have correctly challenged denialists because accomplished scientists in other fields make sweeping claims beyond their field of expertise. However, strangely some prominent and competent climate scientists in Germany do not realize that they are doing the same when it comes to topics that they are not expert in. They oppose nuclear power as an obvious mitigation strategy because of alleged risks that are blown entirely out of proportion. They also talk about a 100 percent renewable future without the slightest idea of how energy systems operate. Some generally good websites on climate science have even abandoned critical thinking on nuclear power and renewable energy by feeling obliged to defend an indefensible belief system on the only mitigation path promoted by a partisan community.

I laud the Skeptical Inquirer for giving a voice to Jeanne Goldberg, who as a radiologist has precisely the kind of solid background needed when talking about the claimed dangers of radiation. She has brought us to ground reality far from the anti-nuclear scaremongering we have all become accustomed to. We need the advice of the real experts in each of the relevant fields if we want to address climate change seriously.

Amardeo Sarma
Chairman, GWUP (German skeptics)
Rossdorf, Germany

Jeanne Goldberg’s excellent article on radiation is marred by reference to Chernobyl and Fukushima as “disasters” (the latter twice). A disaster typically kills very large numbers of people. As Goldberg says, none of the Fukushima workers who died were killed by radiation, and no deaths or cases of radiation sickness could be documented, but more than 100,000 people were needlessly evacuated, causing more than 1,000 deaths, and suicide rates increased. As for Chernobyl, about thirty people were killed more or less instantly by the explosion (not a nuclear explosion) and another thirty or so died as a result of the initial intense radiation. There is no evidence that anyone else at all has died as a result of the accident. Certainly, Chernobyl was tragic and should never have happened, but it would have attracted far less attention and would now almost certainly be forgotten if it hadn’t involved radiation. An appropriate comparison would perhaps be with the thousands killed in Chinese coal mines every year, attracting almost no attention.

One of the greatest tragedies of our time is that the first most people heard of nuclear energy was its use in weapons, leading to the belief that radiation is something alien and sinister. It is depressing to read that over 70 percent of Americans think all radiation results from human activity rather than being a fundamental part of the nature of the universe. As Theodore Rockwell, quoted by Goldberg, says, we “live in a sea of natural radioactivity.” A trip to Cornwall, England, would give you a bigger dose than all the radiation ever released by human activity, either intentionally (nuclear weapons) or unintentionally (accidents), and eating a big banana would result in about the same dose as going through a full body scanner at an airport!

Ray Ward
London, United Kingdom

I read with interest Jeanne Goldberg’s “Radiation in the Crosshairs.” The articles referenced were all “recent”—the earliest dated 1998. My mother, Miriam Finkel, PhD, published a paper in 1958 in Science 128 (3338): 1580–1585. That paper was a survey of her radiation research from the 1944 Manhattan Project to the then-current 1958. In that paper she wrote that her research showed that the dose-response curve was not linear; a small amount of radiation is not harmful. This paper was very controversial in 1958, and today there are still researchers who believe in a linear dose-response curve.

Barry S. Finkel
Chicago, Illinois

Jeanne Goldberg replies:

Amardeo Sarma provides a clear description of how anti-nuclear paranoia in Germany has eliminated nuclear energy as a promising tool to address climate change. He points out that even many climate scientists inappropriately oppose nuclear power in favor of attempts to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy future, likely an impossible goal. The recent release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was indeed timely and sends a strong message that there is an urgent need to address climate change. Nuclear energy plant installations require large up-front capital expenditures but certainly would offer the safest, most efficient method to provide energy for a rapidly expanding global population. We need to address the anti-nuclear paranoia that Sarma refers to in his letter. Nuclear energy mitigation strategy needs to be placed back on our radar screens.

Ray Ward states that the word disaster, referring to Chernobyl and Fukushima, is inappropriate due to the fact that this term usually applies to events or accidents where large numbers of people are killed. He makes an excellent point that these two accidents attracted attention largely because they involved radiation, regarded with fear by the public, whereas the thousands of Chinese workers who die in coal mines each year escape notice. 

Barry S. Finkel’s letter is fascinating, referring to published research that his mother performed in the 1950s, disputing the LNT (linear no-threshold) radiation risk model. Despite not having access to our modern molecular and cellular radiobiological data, her controversial conclusion, based on her studies, is largely supported in scientific, if not regulatory, circles today.

Advocating Science to Religious Believers

The commentary by Davidson, Hill, and Wolgemuth recommends that the way to persuade creationist believers to give up that belief is to use persuasion from those who understand science but prefer to remain Christian (“We Need a Paradigm Shift for Science Advocacy,” September/October 2018).

As a marketing strategy this is probably useful, on the basis that science with mild Christianity is less dangerous to society than is unadulterated creationism. But does the combination of science with mild Christianity produce a workable tool for this purpose? For someone who fails to understand the illogicality built into this combination it may work, as it has for many who were brought up in that belief. But does it work for someone with creationist beliefs? Even doing only this requires destroying creationist beliefs. Might it not be more effective to persuade by applying the incompatibility of religious belief with that of scientific knowledge? Thus doing the larger job but with a bigger weapon.

Destroying religious belief does not necessarily result in nihilism. A close relative of mine is trying to persuade me to start enjoying life by adopting her Catholicism and, it seems, adopting what she considers guilt. I wrote to her:

There is no evidence that any supernatural objects exist in our universe. The arguments for such have been disproved. If such exist outside our universe, then they are irrelevant to us. The fact that mankind are social animals with the power of speech provides a reason why mankind invents gods. So, why bother with concepts that have no objects?

Does this absence of supernatural objects, gods and such, imply that life is worthless? In one sense it does: the universe doesn’t care for the human race. But in another sense it doesn’t: human beings live in a web of life, loving and learning from parents, relatives, and society, and passing love and learning onto the children of all of these. I’ve nearly finished playing my part in this story, and I am satisfied that, despite my faults, my contribution has, on balance, been worthy. [I am eighty-eight years old] Rather short and to the point. One can, for anyone, consider their life as a series of acts, some good and some bad, but what I have written in the previous sentences covers the essential point about the value of life: life is valued as part of the history of society.

John Forester
Lemon Grove, California

Davidson, Hill, and Wolgemuth are right. Skeptics need new approaches that take advantage of more accurate understandings of the American population.

     We devote resources to combating Christianity, supporting political efforts to prevent Christians from practicing their values publicly. I have personally engaged in formal creation debates because that is my competence. But on a personal level I’ve had more results from reminding Christians that most atheists are liberal atheists and the rudeness comes from the liberalism, not the atheism.

      To me it is obvious that New Age is the ascendant and more relevant religion we should target. It is the religion of the young. Its followers are more illogical than the most ignorant of Christians. It is threatening public health and hindering economic growth. Five hours a night, 365 nights a year there is a program on national radio promoting New Age nonsense of every imaginable stripe. No Christian preacher in American history ever had such an audience. I constantly send in corrections and refutations. Perhaps dozens of other skeptics do. There should be thousands. When, rarely, skeptics appear as guests on the program their preparation and presentation often leave something to be desired. This is inexcusable.

      Why can’t we produce podcasts and videos that consistently exhibit professionalism, production values, and courtesy rather than self-indulgence or immature vulgarity and condescension? How is that working for us?

Norman Carlson
Busti, New York

Publications such as the Grand Canyon book mentioned and the recent God’s Word or Human Reason book on evolution written by a similar group can be persuasive and useful to those willing to accept evidence other than revelation.

It is a good idea to downplay aggressive confrontation. However, it is difficult to do this when it is basic to science that evidence matters while many on the contrary side admit that no evidence from science or history will sway them. Whatever the real extent to which the “faith trumps all evidence” is prevalent in the United States, I foresee little gains to be made in that portion of the population. Even religious people who don’t agree with their sectarian beliefs have been labeled as “not real Christians.”

Literalistic interpretations of biblical passages, and additional corollaries drawn from them, are contradicted by the observations made and conclusions drawn by geologists, biologists, paleontologists, astronomers, and cosmologists. None of the anti-evolution, young-earth, and Noah’s-Flood-really-happened posts I’ve read on the web are based on what scientists would recognize as a preponderance of evidence. They are a pretend scientific justification for those alt-history beliefs.

I don’t see how anyone with contrary ideas can establish rapport with such people.

Robert Rettke
Lake Charles, Louisiana

Authors Gregg Davidson et al. reply:

We are glad to learn that our contribution to Skeptical Inquirer was read and engaged. We heartily agree with one reader who advocated for more civil discourse between those of differing worldviews. Respondents shared a common misgiving about using religious scientists to reach members of their own faith traditions, suggesting (or insisting) that science and religion are inherently at odds, and therefore a more honest or more effective approach is to attack the roots of religion itself. Given adequate space, we might take issue with the presuppositional belief that science precludes any action of the divine, though that would likely require a full essay. We could also challenge the misperception that reconciling science and Christian faith requires a watered-down religious view—another essay. Instead, we will make just one observation that is more directly relevant to the point of our article.

            Justified or not, equating modern scientific understanding with materialism validates popular suspicion that secular scientists are not motivated by what they find in nature but rather by a philosophical agenda. This effectively vaccinates the religious public from even considering the scientific evidence. If the one delivering the message is not considered trustworthy, the evidence gets ignored. In contrast, when the same evidence is presented by someone who affirms religious beliefs, we have seen many Christian believers not only consider the scientific evidence but embrace it. If this is not considered a win by science advocates across the board, one has to ask what  the objective is.

Challenging Homeopathy

In the September/October issue, Kendrick Frazier describes comparison tests of high-potency homeopathic preparations that a German skeptic group plans to conduct.

I think that uninformed readers will be greatly confused by the term high potency. Homeopaths use the term to describe a treatment that has great effect, whereas a scientist would consider it the weakest possible strength. This is because the greater the dilution of the active ingredient, the higher the potency they claim! So if the German test is to distinguish between various high potency remedies, the subjects will be comparing samples consisting of more or less pure solvent, probably quite difficult.

For those not familiar with homeopathy, a remedy is considered high-potency if it has a dilution of the active ingredient of 30C (1/10030) or more.  For comparison, a pinch of salt in the ocean would be about a 12C (1/10012) dilution. Oscillococcinum cold remedy has a 200C (1/100200) dilution (unachievable, since there are estimated to be only 10080 atoms in the universe). The Cold-Eze cough remedy has a dilution of 2X (1/102); equivalent to 1C. Yet the box of both products states that they are homeopathic. The latter can definitely be bioactive, whereas the former is certainly not (assuming that the solvent is absolutely pure). Thus, homeopathic is a term of marketing art, not one of science.

Raoul Drapeau
Ashburn, Virginia

Homeopathy’s fraudulent, unscientific nature was challenged in the United States, India, and the United Kingdom with prize money. No one would come forward. Where they did, it was total failure. James Randi and Abraham Kovoor (in India) withdrew the challenge amount after waiting for decades. The British government is withdrawing its financial support to homeopathy. Good. Where homeopathy is supported by some prominent persons, including press people, they fail to undergo homeopathy treatment; they opt for scientific medicine when they are personally affected!

The only way is to insist that homeopathy prove its credibility by accepting scientific methods. I have not come across anywhere in the world where homeopathy has undertaken even a scientific survey of their results. It is notoriously populistic make believe.

Innaiah Narisetti
Brookeville, Maryland

We asked GWUP’s Norbert Aust to comment on Drapeau’s letter. He replied, in part:

In Germany we consider every homeopathic potency above 24X or 12C as high potency, at least we skeptics do, because from those points onward the original mother tincture is completely washed out. So we set this as a threshold for the minimum potency to be tested and refer to this as “high potency.” In our understanding, and Raoul is right here, high potencies do not contain any particle of the original mother tincture. Even when homeopaths agree to that fact, they insist they are able to achieve effects determined by the nature of this mother tincture. They spend a lot of effort to establish if, for instance, Apis mellifica 30C, Natrium muriaticum 30C, or Arsenicum album 30C is the proper remedy for the patient. If they would prescribe the wrong one it would be useless for the recovery of the patient … . Prove us wrong, show us that homeopathy might have some basis in reality after all and earn € 50,000. Thus, we made it as attractive as we could for homeopaths to join in.

Creating an Apparition

The September/October issue of Skeptical Inquirer contains a three-page special report (“Ghostly ‘Black Monk’ or Random Tourist?”) responding to newspaper accounts of the appearance, in a photograph of a castle in Kent, of a hooded figure that the photographer does not recall noticing when he took the picture and which he therefore believes to be supernatural. That article may be an over-reaction to a minor observation; British ecclesiastical ruins are prime sites for more direct spectral encounters.

Several decades ago my wife and I visited the massive ruin of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire with our two teenage daughters. The day was overcast and there had been occasional showers. As the closing hour approached, we and a busload of middle-aged German ladies were among the few visitors remaining.

Suddenly one of the bus ladies gasped and pointed out through a window opening. Some distance away two hooded figures, palms piously pressed together before reverently bowed heads, drifted across the field of view. From the excited comments of the tourists, it seems likely that many long Teutonic winter evenings for years to come would be enlivened by Grandma’s tales of that apparition of medieval nuns at a ruin in England.

Our daughters did not view the apparition, having temporarily disappeared, wearing dark hooded raincoats, a short time earlier.

Daniel Atkinson
Medford, Oregon

Readers’ Myopia on Pinker

Regarding the reader comments (Letters to Editor, September/October 2018) on Steven Pinker’s earlier article, “Progressophobia”: Do you hear yourselves? “I hate what the world has become in my lifetime.” “I can’t accept his statements because they directly contradict my long experience.” “The situation now is worse than any I have seen in my lifetime.” Friends, your myopia is showing!

         Before us stands the epitome of a true man of science whose contributions are of the highest quality in terms of thorough research and addressing views from all relevant perspectives, including those expressed by you. If I were king, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now would be required reading for every adult on the planet.

         And so, I want to challenge you to read one or both of these books and then express your disagreements. Any supporter of science and skepticism will recognize Pinker’s profound contribution, with little doubt that he has handled the subject skillfully, thoroughly, and thoughtfully. I am deeply grateful that Professor Pinker has decided to compile and share such knowledge and insight with me.

         One letter writer accused Pinker of wearing rose-colored glasses. No, sir: Steven Pinker is wearing those amazing spectacles provided by science. If you are using the same prescription, it’s time you cleaned your lenses.

Joseph DeRosa
Reno, Nevada

The God Engine I thoroughly enjoyed your article “The God Engine” in the September/October 2018 Skeptical Inquirer. I felt there was one factor in author James Alcock’s explications of reinforcement of religious beliefs that was not addressed enough for my liking, related to his sixth factor, group identity. I missed seeing a mention of a …

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