Michael Prescott

Why I’m Not a Skeptic

For the past couple of years, as a sideline to my usual work as a fiction writer, I’ve posted a series of online essays on paranormal phenomena.

The topic is always controversial. Despite massive evidence to the contrary, some people continue to maintain that no such phenomena exist. Those who hold most tenaciously to this opinion characterize themselves as “skeptics.”

Now, as has been frequently pointed out, this use of the term “skeptic” is more than a little misleading. In common usage, a skeptic is someone who maintains an open mind, insisting on evidence for any claim. The more unusual the claim, the more stringent the evidential demands. According to this view, the skeptic has no private agenda, no personal bias, but serves only as a guardian of the truth, who weeds out unsupported allegations and superstitious imaginings. The skeptic is the proverbial Missourian; though willing to be convinced, he says, “Show me.”

That’s the theory. In practice, things are different. Far from being a state of habitual open-mindedness, today’s skepticism is characterized by resistance to any new ideas or new evidence, and unwillingness to critically examine its own biases. These tendencies, in turn, rest on a very definite agenda, promoted by a clear and comprehensive worldview, a philosophy of life. This philosophy is rationalism.

In a 1995 essay, Gene E. Veith ably summarizes rationalism’s basic tenets:

“Coming of age in the eighteenth century, rationalism ‘excluded on principle’ everything that could not be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed. Revelation was ruled out as a means of knowledge, and belief in a supernatural realm that transcended the visible universe was dismissed as primitive superstition. Not only did modernists [i.e., rationalists] believe in the inerrancy of science, they also had a devout faith in progress. The ‘modern,’ almost by definition, was superior to the past. The future would be even better. Modernists genuinely believed that science would answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles would solve all social problems. Through rational planning, applied technology, and social manipulation, experts could engineer the perfect society.” (Veith, 1995).

Here we have not innocent open-mindedness, but a narrow and intolerant creed, which is today often recognized as such. The word “skeptic” is, in fact, increasingly conjoined with “dogmatic,” “zealous,” and “militant.” Some people accuse skeptics of being nothing but cynics in disguise. A few wags have dubbed them “septics.” Admittedly, that’s not very nice – but, truth be told, skeptics have brought such attacks on themselves by repeatedly characterizing their opponents as credulous, gullible, simpleminded, ignorant, irrational, and foolish.

Want proof? Look at skeptic Andrew Stuttaford, a frequent contributor to National Review Online. “A séance,” he writes glibly, “is, by definition, a gathering of the credulous” Stuttaford, 2003b).

Apparently, then, all the researchers who have ever studied mediumship – the noted psychological theorists William James and F.W.H. Meyers among them – were either dupes or dopes. Stuttaford on Crossing Over star John Edward: “He’s a fast-talking psychic with slow-witted fans.” Although he admits, “I have no idea … how Mr. Edward does it,” Stuttaford opines that “it … takes, how can this be put politely, a certain special something in the minds of his subjects. It cannot be put politely. Those special somethings are naivety, superstition, and a problem with rational thought (Stuttaford, 2001).”

Crossing Over fans shouldn’t take undue umbrage. Stuttaford has many other dislikes. Even Walt Disney movies earn his opprobrium. “It’s not easy to decide which Disney character is the most repellent,” he muses. “That simpering Bambi would be better roasted, carved and surrounded by potatoes, gravy and parsnips (Stuttaford, 2003a).”

Stuttaford approaches the world from a rightist political perspective, but happily there is political balance among skeptics. Left-leaning gadfly Christopher Hitchens denounces all spiritual interests and phenomena as a “tsunami of piffle” embraced by the “feebleminded.” He has high praise for Houdini, who “toured far and wide, exposing and announcing the callous hoaxes of the ectoplasm-artists.” Hitchens doesn’t mention the fact that Houdini himself is credibly accused of a hoax; the master magician’s assistant confessed to having planted a suspicious article among medium Mina Crandon’s effects so that Houdini could conveniently discover it later. If Hitchens is aware of this detail, he doesn’t allow it to dim his enthusiasm for the famed “fairy-flattener” (quoted in Shermer, undated).

Perhaps paralleling Stuttaford’s animus toward Walt Disney, Hitchens has his own bete noir in the person of Mother Teresa, the target of his scathingly polemical pamphlet The Missionary Position. Reviewing this 98-page “book,” one critic takes note of “Hitchens’ genuine hatred of Mother Teresa. He uses anything and everything to paint her as a phony … This isn’t a reporter examining both sides of an issue; this is a guy with a vendetta (Milner, 1995).”

People who dislike Walt Disney and Mother Teresa must have some heroes of their own. And they do. Well-known skeptic Michael Shermer reports that, although he regards Ayn Rand’s philosophy as a cult, nevertheless “I actually have a photograph of Rand on my wall, next to other photographs including Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, [James] Randi, [Stephen Jay] Gould, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Frank Sulloway, G. Gordon Liddy, Houdini, [and] my wife (Shermer, op. cit.).”

What can we learn from Michael Shermer’s wall? His heroes can be divided mainly into professional skeptics (Martin Gardner, Penn & Teller, James Randi, and Houdini) and scientists or science writers of a sharply rationalistic bent (Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, Frank Sulloway). What connects the people on Shermer’s wall is not politics. Asimov, a committed liberal, wouldn’t have found much ideological common ground with Watergate felon Liddy. Nor is it a shared view of human nature. Sulloway, who applies Darwinian methods to the study of siblings’ birth order for the purpose of explaining human behavior, would scoff at Rand’s romantic view of man as “a being of self-made soul.” Nor is it any particular point of agreement on scientific issues. Gould, an innovator in the field of evolution, vigorously disputed Dawkins’ old-fashioned, unreconstructed Darwinism.

No, the overarching theme of Shermer’s portrait gallery is something deeper. It is the same basic worldview summarized in the quotation from Gene Veith above. For the most part, the thinkers on Shermer’s wall are rationalists – arch-rationalists, one might say – who do indeed “exclude … everything that [cannot] be seen, measured, and empirically analyzed.” Certainly most of them rule out mystical insight “as a means of knowledge” and “dismiss … as primitive superstition … [any] belief in a supernatural realm.” (Martin Gardner, a philosophical theist, is an exception to the latter point.) They “believe in the inerrancy of science” and have “a devout faith in progress.” They “genuinely believe … that science [will] answer all questions and that the application of scientific principles [will] solve all social problems,” allowing “experts” to “engineer the perfect society.”

It is this shared commitment to Reason with a capital R that unites these otherwise disparate opinion-shapers. One may even call it a shared faith, though the appellation will not be met with approval by those on whom it is bestowed.

Of course, there’s more to this rationalist faith than the positions already laid out. Rationalism takes its most clear-cut, dramatic, and bracingly simple form in its view of history.

For thousands of years, the story goes, the forces of reason have been doing battle with the forces of unreason, and the rise and fall of civilization follows the victories and defeats in this ongoing war. The ancient Athenians first enshrined reason as the basis of culture and politics, and in so doing, they created the first democracy and the first great literature and art. But Athens fell to the uncultured, unphilosophical Spartans and later to the boorish Macedonians, and the light of reason was nearly extinguished – until the Roman Empire, scavenger of subjugated cultures, adapted Greek philosophy to its own ends. Rome built a complex technological society that endured for centuries. But the Romans made the fatal mistake of adopting Christianity, a move that catapulted them directly into the Dark Ages.

The poverty, superstitious ignorance, and utter stagnation of medieval times persisted until the rebirth of reason known as the Renaissance. This opened up a new era of optimism, prosperity, and scientific progress, all made possible by the burgeoning philosophy of secular humanism, which reached its zenith in the Enlightenment.

Since that time, the forces of unreason have staged an increasingly successful counteroffensive. America is now under assault by a variety of pseudoscientific or openly irrational movements that fall under the rubric of the New Age. If these pernicious ideas consume our culture, then our society will go the way of the Roman Empire, and our future will be a new Dark Age. In this apocalyptic battle of ideas, nothing less than the survival of civilization is at stake.

As you can see, the rationalist version of history is an exciting story, full of high drama, complete with a cliffhanger ending. Will civilization commit suicide? Will all be lost? Tune in next week …

Great stuff. The only problem is, it’s not quite the whole story. In fact, a lot of it isn’t even true.

For instance, the view that ancient Athens was a stolidly rationalistic society is a nineteenth century myth that has long since been exploded. We now know that, as early as the seventh century BC, Black Sea commerce had opened Greek society to Eastern mystical ideas. Asiatic teachings of soul-body dualism, reincarnation, and metempsychosis were picked up by leading Greek thinkers, most notably Pythagoras.

Although the intellectuals of Periclean Athens – the Athens of the fifth century BC – were undoubtedly more committed to the primacy of reason than earlier generations had been, Athens remained a hotbed of competing intellectual currents. The same leaders who praised reason also relied on oracles for guidance. The same tragic playwrights who brought powerful psychological insights to their studies of human nature also infused their tragedies with gods and monsters. Euripides’ last and arguably greatest play, The Maenads, is a celebration of the wildly irrational religion of the god Dionysus, whose intoxicated followers frolicked naked in the woods in orgiastic abandon.

The admixture of rationalist and irrationalist ideas in Athens helps explain the Hellenistic period which followed, when occultism again gained the upper hand. Had Athens been as uniformly rationalistic as its admirers suggest, the Hellenistic practitioners of alchemy and astrology would never have had a chance. (For a full discussion, see Dodds, 1951.)

What about the decline of the Roman Empire? True, the eighteenth century historian Edward Gibbon argued at very, very great length that Christianity was responsible for sapping the Romans’ manly pagan virtues and leaving them open to attack by more vigorous barbarian hordes. Like other rationalists of an aristocratic bent, Gibbon waxed euphoric about the heyday of the Empire: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he could, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (quoted in Pagels, 1988).”

Undoubtedly these years, from A.D. 96 to A.D. 180, were a time when at least one portion of the human race was “happy and prosperous” – namely, adult males who enjoyed the benefits of Roman citizenship. They were, however, a minority of the population, the majority being made up of women, children, resident aliens, and slaves. For them, Gibbon’s golden age was decidedly less lustrous. Elaine Pagels writes, “Within the capital city of Rome, three quarters of the population either were slaves – persons legally classified as property – or were descended from slaves. Besides being subjected to their owners’ abuses, fits of violence, and sexual desires, slaves were denied such elementary rights as legitimate marriage, let alone legal recourse for their grievances.”

Did anyone stand up for these marginalized people? One group did – the Christians. Pagels observes that Clement of Alexandria, an influential second century Christian, “attacked the widespread Roman custom of exposing abandoned infants on garbage dumps, or raising them for sale: ‘I pity the children owned by slave dealers, who are dressed for shame,’ says Clement, and trained in sexual specialties, who were sold to gratify their owners’ sexual tastes. Justin, in his Defense of the Christians, complained that ‘not only the females, but also the males’ were commonly raised ‘like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep,’ as a profitable crop of child prostitutes … Many Christians were themselves slave owners and took slavery for granted as unthinkingly as their pagan neighbors. But others went among the hovels of the poor and into slave quarters, offering help and money and preaching to the poor, the illiterate, slaves, women, foreigners – the good news that class, education, sex, and status made no difference, that every human being is essentially equal to any other ‘before God’ … (Pagels, op.cit.).”

When Gibbon declaims on the glory that was Rome, it is best to keep in mind the “profitable crop of child prostitutes” and the abandoned infants languishing in garbage dumps. And when he insists that Judeo-Christian religious values “weakened” Rome or made it “effeminate” and “soft,” it is worth remembering what casual, everyday atrocities the pagan world was capable of.

But did Christianity weaken Rome in a military sense? Did it cause the Empire’s downfall and bring about the Dark Ages? Although Gibbon thought so, more recent research has widely discredited this idea. In a recent book, Greg S. Nyquist observes, “Those who … regard Christianity as responsible for the collapse of Roman Civilization fail to realize that only the Western half of the empire fell. The Eastern half, which was every bit, if not more, Christian than the West, remained a viable political force during the entire period of the Middle Ages. While Western Europe suffered through centuries of abject poverty and feudal anarchy, Byzantium persevered amid a veritable sea of enemies (Nyquist, 2001).”

As with any large-scale historical event, the actual reasons for Rome’s fall are complex and numerous. The Empire was overextended and difficult to defend, and the Romans were eventually obliged to employ Germanic tribesmen as mercenary soldiers to patrol the borders. Unfortunately, the emperors and the senate were notoriously stingy in paying the mercenaries’ wages. As a result, the mercenaries periodically rose up against the authorities. One of these rebellions ended in the overthrow of the emperor in AD 476.

That date is often cited as the official fall of Rome, although the Empire, in a somewhat altered form, actually persisted for another two centuries. It collapsed only after the advancing Islamic armies took control of the Mediterranean Sea and made it, in the words of historian Henri Pirenne, “a Moslem lake.” The end of Mediterranean commerce sent shockwaves through eighth century Europe, from which the continent’s economy could not recover. (This theory is elaborated in Pirenne, 1974; I’m indebted to Nyquist for bringing Pirenne to my attention.)

Perhaps the most cherished chapter in the rationalists’ historical overview is that the long, dreary interlude of the medieval period was brought to an end by a glorious rebirth of reason.

Again, the truth is more complicated. In fact, the medieval period blends rather seamlessly into the Renaissance. There were small businessmen, merchants, engineers, artists, philosophers, even nascent scientists in the late Middle Ages, just as there were astrologers, witches, spirit mediums, and religious fanatics in the Renaissance.

Jean Gimpel, in The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, explores the often neglected technological and commercial innovations of the medieval period. “The Middle Ages,” he writes in his preface, “was one of the great inventive eras of mankind. It should be known as the first industrial revolution in Europe … Between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, western Europe experienced a technological boom … Capitalist companies were formed and their shares were bought and sold … Many of the tasks formerly done by hand were now carried out by machines … There was a marked increase in the general standard of living.”

Later he writes, “It is an astonishing concept to the modern mind that medieval man was surrounded by machines … The most common was the mill, converting the power of water or wind into work: grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, tanning leather, making paper …” A survey of England undertaken in 1086 by William the Conqueror reported 5,624 water mills. “On rivers like the Wylye in [the county of] Wiltshire the concentration of mills is remarkable: thirty mills along some 10 miles of water; three mills every mile.”

Readers who prefer to get their history through historical novels might want to look at Michael Crichton’s Timeline, which incorporates a great deal of recent research into its picture of the medieval world (Crichton, 1999).

If the Middle Ages was less mystical than rationalists suppose, the Renaissance was less rationalistic than they would like to believe. Rationalists sometimes credit the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle with laying the foundation for the new progressive spirit of the Renaissance. A case can be made that at least equal credit belongs to Aristotle’s polar opposite, the semi-mythical ancient Egyptian known as Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes Thrice-Great. The corpus of occult writings attributed to this figure, known as the Hermetica, first returned to Western European hands in 1460, when Cosimo de Medici acquired some Hermetic texts from Byzantium. More texts turned up, and by 1593 a complete volume was published in Italy.

The Hermetica is crowded with occult lore of all kinds – astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, magical rituals, invocations of pagan deities. Interlaced with this rather banal material is a more uplifting mystical vision of a hierarchical, purposeful cosmos in which the human spirit is continually evolving toward reunion with the godhead.

Renaissance intellectuals were fascinated by the Hermetica. Such leading figures as Giordano Bruno and Pico della Mirandola became deeply committed to this occult philosophy, which has many similarities to the mystical traditions of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism – and nothing at all in common with classical rationalism. If we want to find the inspiration behind the works of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and perhaps even Shakespeare, we would be better advised to look at the Hermetica than at, say, Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

It is true, of course, that rationalism eventually became the dominant mode of thought among intellectuals in the West, a trend that culminated in the Enlightenment in the middle to late 1700s. Even this development was less triumphal than contemporary rationalists make it out to be. The climax and apotheosis of the Enlightenment was not the American Revolution, which blended rationalist and religious sentiments in a common-sense mixture, but rather the French Revolution, which began as a revolt against the privileged but evolved swiftly into a radical onslaught on all religious beliefs, customs, traditions, and values. If you want to see the spirit of the Enlightenment, and therefore of scientific rationalism, in its pure, unadulterated form, look at Paris in 1793.

In that year the Jacobin party, in control of the Revolution, outlawed the Bible, closed all churches, and decreed the death penalty for anyone found guilty of practicing Christianity. The cathedral of Notre Dame was stripped of Christian symbols and transformed into a Temple of Reason, in which an actress made up as the Goddess of Reason received obeisance from the assembled mob. The local bishop was forced to declare that he worshipped no God, but only Liberty and Equality. An ass dressed in priestly garments, with the Hebrew Bible and New Testament tied to its tail, was paraded through the streets to its destination – a huge pile of religious books, which were ceremonially burned.

The new “Revolutionary Calendar” removed all references to Christianity, renaming Christmas as “Dog Day,” and All-Saints Day as “Goat’s-beard Herb Day.” Other holidays included Virtue Day, Genius Day, and, of course, Reason Day. The months of the year were renamed for the seasons and harvests – the month of Mist, the month of Frost, the month of Heat; the months of Seed, of Blossom, of Fruit. Even clocks were remanufactured to count out ten hours to each day, with one hundred minutes to each hour – apparently a more logical approach.

Finally a truly rational society was at hand, or so the reformers thought. But at the very time when the Jacobins were outlawing religion, and perhaps not by coincidence, they were also instituting the Terror – the indiscriminate murder of thousands by means of that shiny, new, technologically efficient killing machine, the guillotine. The dream-turned-nightmare came to an end in 1799 with a coup d’etat that established the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Still, this was hardly the last effort to wipe out all vestiges of tradition and build a new, utopian society on a purely “scientific” basis. The Nazi ambition to establish a master race was founded on the new science of eugenics, while the Marxist attempt to mold the New Soviet Man relied on behavior modification through incessant propaganda and reeducation camps, policies justified by the “rational, scientific” theory of Marxism itself. It has been aptly said, by theologian Thomas Oden, that “modernity” lasted exactly two hundred years – beginning with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In making these points, I don’t mean to suggest that the pursuit of reason has had no beneficial social consequences. This is obviously untrue and would be just as much of an unwarranted oversimplification as the rationalists’ contrary position. What I am saying is that the pursuit of reason as an absolute, an end in itself, can lead to outcomes quite different from those that rationalists expect.

History is complicated. It is not a simple matter of good and evil, with the forces of good exemplified by reason, and the forces of evil exemplified by mysticism. It is more like a balancing act, in which both the rational and the nonrational aspects of human nature must find some degree of fulfillment in a stable social order. When the balance tilts too far to one side or the other, instability results. An excess of nonrational impulses can engender stagnant tribalism or despotic theocracy. An excessive commitment to reason as the be-all and end-all of life can usher in the chaos and madness of 1793.

Rationalists will have none of this. For them, all the ills of the world are the product of irrationalism and can be defeated by the systematic application of science, logic, and technology. This, they feel, is self-evident, and anyone who doesn’t see it is either dishonest or stupid. Since a great many people don’t see it, rationalists feel a certain contempt for the masses – contempt mixed with fear, since in a democracy the masses have considerable power.

All this is very much in line with the black-and-white mindset that typifies rationalists. There is reason, and there is its opposite, and never shall they meet. The ambiguities and complexities of the real world, the multiple causes underlying massive historical events, the nuances and subtleties of human nature are all quite alien to their streamlined and simplified vision.

For that matter, even some of modern science is alien to rationalists. This may seem odd, since rationalists are, if anything, champions of science. But if you examine them closely, you’ll find that they are often more committed to the scientific outlook of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth – or the twenty-first.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of rationalism in science. It was the age when Newtonian physics seemed on the verge of explaining the universe. It was also the age when Darwinian evolutionary theory seemed to have solved the mysteries of life itself. Not surprisingly, rationalists still feel at home in that era.

But science has undergone momentous changes in the past century. The Theory of Relativity and, even more so, the advent of quantum physics have undermined the old Newtonian world picture. Where Newton saw the universe as a great machine humming along in a neat and orderly fashion, following laws that could be mathematically calculated, producing results that could be predicted with pinpoint accuracy, the new physics sees the universe as a place of paradox and ambiguity. In the quantum world, a subatomic particle can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. The distinction between the observer and the observed, so crucial to the classical outlook, has dissolved, and it now appears that the observer can directly affect or even bring about the events under observation. Entities are able to influence each other over vast distances instantaneously – a multiply verified observation that has given rise to the idea that this is a “nonlocal universe,” a universe in which, at a fundamental level, space and time do not exist. Physicist David Bohm has compared the universe to a giant hologram, a multidimensional image projected out of a two-dimensional wave-interference pattern at the quantum level. Superstring theory argues that the essence of things is not any material object, but cosmic vibrational frequencies.

Meanwhile, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection is increasingly seen as incomplete. Some biologists postulate a new view of evolution, “punctuated equilibrium,” in which new species emerge suddenly in response to environmental pressures. Other theorists apply chaos theory or quantum physics to the problem, while still others suggest, ever so carefully, that there may be something to the old Lamarckian notion that animals pass along acquired characteristics and thereby accelerate the evolutionary process. The origin of life remains a complete mystery, in which every proposed theory has been discredited and no new theories are thought to be in the offing. Molecular biologist Michael Behe, in Darwin’s Black Box, argues that cellular organization represents an “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained, even in principle, by evolutionary theory. Behe points out that even the simplest cell carries out millions of chemical reactions every second, in a meticulously choreographed array of sequences, and that all this activity is necessary if the cell is to metabolize nutrients, eliminate waste, and (most daunting of all) successfully reproduce. How the first cell ever developed out of nonliving antecedents is unknown, especially since examination of some of the oldest rocks on Earth has shown that microbes came into existence much earlier than previously believed.

In many respects, science is evolving into a more open-ended discipline, one that allows for and even celebrates the enigmas, paradoxes, and ambiguities of the universe. Rationalists are unhappy with this development. They resist it. They gripe about it. They make fun of it. They cannot come to terms with it.

Nor is this surprising. For the most part, the rationalist mindset is simply not flexible enough to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Although rationalists themselves would vigorously deny it, their worldview is essentially religious in nature – not because they believe in God or the supernatural, but because they believe that they have identified absolute truths and that virtue consists in defending those truths at any cost. Their contempt for religion as a mere “belief system” blinds them to the fact that their philosophy is itself a belief system, subject to the same bias and incompleteness as any other set of beliefs. Philosophically, they have committed themselves to a simple, straightforward theory of everything, and are unable or unwilling to see that this theory, like any theory, can never be more than a rough approximation of the truth.

The quest for truth is an ongoing process, a journey, not a destination. Indeed, science – and reason itself – can be best understood not as a final answer but as a method, a tool. If science is seen as a set of answers with which one must agree in order for one to be deemed “rational” – a viewpoint for which the term “scientism” has been coined – then any new information that challenges the existing scientific worldview is a threat to science and to rationality itself. In that case, one must be perpetually on guard against such threats, by assiduously debunking any new ideas or new observations that fall outside the established paradigm.

On the other hand, if science is seen simply as a method leading to provisional answers that are always subject to revision, then new ideas and new observations are no threat at all.

So now we can see, I think, why the more militant rationalists become militant skeptics – i.e., militant debunkers. Their penchant for denigrating and discrediting the paranormal is not simply a tic of the personality, but the ineluctable consequence of a certain fundamental view of life, mind, and the cosmos.

Unfortunately, people with a powerful personal agenda do not make the best skeptics – at least not if skepticism is understood as the exercise of unbiased objectivity.

Self-doubt – or at least the admission of same – is not characteristic of the skeptic, who prefers to radiate an aura of unshakable assurance. To admit any doubt is to cede territory to the forces of unreason – the primordial enemy, which, as we have seen, must be resisted by any means.

And here we come to what is, as I see it, the real problem with skeptics. They wish, above all, to be certain – and when reality doesn’t oblige them by offering clear-cut answers, they turn away from reality and seek refuge in pre-existing theory.

They oversimplify history as a battle between good and evil, and miss its complexities and subtleties. They resist modern developments in science and cling to outdated, nineteenth century conceptions. They jump to prearranged conclusions and shut their eyes – and their minds – to anomalous data and alternative explanations.

In their quest to prove themselves right, they lose sight of the ambiguities and paradoxes of life. In their desire to be safe and sure, they turn away from anything interesting and new.

They are creatures of comfort and routine, not explorers. They cannot think outside the box. They will, in fact, deny that there is or ever could be anything outside the box – and they’ll heap scorn on anyone who suggests otherwise. They’ll call names, cry fraud, and holler that civilization is in danger and the barbarians are at the gates. They’ll do anything, really – except examine their own assumptions with a remotely critical eye.

And that’s why I’m not a skeptic.


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