OK, I think some people are genuinely puzzled by why suddenly CJ the ArchWoo-id of the Dawkins forum has mentioned he sees himself as a sceptic. I therefore have posted the third of my series of Sunday Sermons i wrote for that forum several years ago, in the hope it will clarify much. Of course I hold some religious and paranormal beliefs — I see scepticism as a methodology, not a conclusion! The sermon format was because there was a rule against religious proselytism and sermons on the forum, so I set out to playfully break it — and my user name was Jerome there, so I put my opinions in the fictional Reverend Jerome s mouth to keep up the joke. The reference to Scrubbage minor is actually a reference back to my second sermon I have never posted on the blog, and a few bits may reflect forum in jokes… But for “scepticism as religion” this may take some beating… 😉
Good morning all. It will come as no surprise to regular attendees here at St. Dawkens that I am late: I do wish however that the parish newsletter would stop referring to me as the “late Rev. Jerome”. I am not quite ready for the Elysian fields yet.
Today is of course the feast of three of our most important saints, and that shall set the tone for this mornings discourse, away from the “niceness of God”, and in to more controversial territory. I think we all must first pause for a moment, and meditate silently upon the Bearded One who watches over us — St. James the Randi (1), whose thaumurturgical miracles are known to all of us, and let us first praise his works —
Priest: May he deliver us from Woo.
Congregation: Long live the JREF challenge!(2)
Let us not also forget St. Shermer(3) and St. Gardner(4), for all three have brought much light in to the world, and helped defeat the foul darkness of superstition. And remember that you too are called to be a light unto the world, and to bring joy and knowledge where there was ignorance and despair, and to smite evil. And let us pray briefly for the Queen, and Her Government, who have recently passed a most righteous bill, which maketh fraudulent practices of this sort illegal, and allows the smiting of Evildoers.(5)
And on that note, let us sing Hymn number 451, God Save the Queen, to the exuberant tune of the Sex Pistols. And yes I am aware Scrubbage minor is incarcerated in a straightjacket this week. After last weeks accident I did not want him to face temptation again…
This week I wish us to turn our attention to matters of Doubt and Faith. This morning, I plan to discuss why Doubt is a Virtue, and encourage us in our Scepticism — and in this evening sermon I shall turn my attention to Faith.
Now I am sure we have all sat through many long and tedious sermons on the value of doubt – was it not instilled in us as children, that our teachers should be questioned, authorities constantly checked for signs of pompous glib ignorance and all we were taught checked carefully for signs of underlying ideological bias? If not it bloody well should have been, for that is what differentiates education, which leads to questioning and allows us to learn, from indoctrination, which tells us that “this is how things are and you better believe it johnny or you will get a clump on the head.”
Now of course children have a pernicious and innate tendency to trust adults — something I have noticed many times, and despite our best attempts to teach them that this is dangerous – and if a lady in a sleigh offers you turkish delight to get in her sled for a ride, or a leering old perv offers you sweeties to get in his car, you know the correct answer I’m sure — tell them to F*** right off, shout loudly and run like hell. Still, trusting adults serves a useful purpose – when Daddy says if you put your hand in the fire you will get burned he means it, and you must as a child listen. Well unless you are Thomas Cranmer.
So as children we have a pernicious but actually valuable in survival terms tendency to trust at least some adults. And the sad thing is, some children never grow out of it. As Paul wrote
“Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”(1 Corinthians 14:20)
or to put it another way “Wise up, sucker.” (I have no idea why he was under the misapprehension children were not evil, huh Scrubbage?) Be as, the carpenter said, “As Wise as Serpents, as Gentle as Doves.” In short, use your brains. Otherwise you are going to get fleeced, the fate of most of those who follow shepherds.
Right, so once we are adults, we should be sceptical. It’s our duty and responsibility. And furthermore, without doubt how can we progress? If any here are inclined to agree with me without thinking it through, I must say — I have some prime Attractive Wetland in Florida you might wish to invest in?
Still, Scepticism is much misunderstood. Often when Bob tells us that the reason he was found with his trousers down in the attractive widow Jenkins bedroom by his wife, it was because indeed his belt had failed, his motorbike subsequently struck the good widows fence, and he was hurled bodily through her open bedroom window and just happened to end up on top of her in the compromising position in which he was found, well we like his good wife doubt. I’m sure Bob’s explanation was a perfectly reasonable one, as we all agree, but rightly we question…
Too often scepticism is regarded as mere “nay saying”. There are no ghosts, ghoulies, or invisible pink unicorns. UFOs did not abduct Edna Mullins along with the Church Missionary Fund, and leave her on a beach in Majorca, but sadly kept the money. Some have even doubted my explanation about that unfortunate episode with the supermodel, the clothesline and the riding crop — all perfectly innocent, despite the video. The camera frequently lies, and I’m sure you accept the testimony I was watching the Grand Prix with my good friend Max at the time…
NO, scepticism is NOT simply saying “No” or being a professional contrarian.The sceptic is the person who questions, without pre-judgement, every issue. They make a considered judgement, based upon the evidence presented for and against the claims, and the rational coherence of this, often tested against their own experience. Of course sceptics usually disagree with one another — because all of this requires a subjective input — but what form of knowledge does not?
Of course there are pseudo-sceptics, heretics I’m afraid, who differ from this path of righteousness. I plan an open air barbecue and marshmallow toasting this Wednesday, to which any who hold this position are cordially invited. Bruing your own stake – er I mean steak… The a priori sceptic denies that a certain category of phenomena are at all possible, and will consider no evidence whatsoever in support of that hypothesis. Hence we can see that blind faith and dogmatism persist, even after religion has declined! These folk often assign a value of impossible to anything put in the category “paranormal”. As the category is so wide and nebulous as to include all manner of silly things, I am not surprised, but clearly the truth of otherwise of each phenomena therein should be tested on its own merits. If I do not believe in Werewolves, that tells me nothing of the reality of Giant Squid. I recall some sceptics who claimed ghost hunters were creating “orbs” with Photoshop a few years back. Piffle! The orbs were there, and perfectly natural. A good explanation was not long coming, and the phenomena ceased to be regarded by any intelligent person as “paranormal” in almost all instances. Yet a priori scepticism had made some people blind to the real causality – they were right they were not paranormal, but completely wrong in their reasoning!
Nope, the true sceptic keeps an open mind, questions authority, and doubts. Of course we accept certain doctrines on faith — my knowledge of physics suggest to me that it would be unnecessary to study every perpetual motion device suggested, unless the inventor can show me how it breaks the Holy Writ of Physics. If my understanding of the doctrines of physics are wrong, then I rejoice to have been proven wrong, and we can all benefit, and move on, building better models and increasing our understanding.
Now how do I decide which doctrines to accept on faith? I note that a huge body of work by learned divines exists, building upon the work of earlier divines. In Physics the doctrines are built upon for the most part things one can test oneself, and where it goes beyond that in to speculatively theology, as in Quantum Mechanics and Cosmogeny, we can at least test the maths by seeing how it relates to what we already know. That is the great thing about Science — it’s claims are provisional, and change with new data, and testable, and provide us with useful benefits in terms of technology. I will talk more about these issues in tonights sermon on faith however.
So, as I have rambled on long enough – doubt is a virtue, and scepticism a wonderful methodology for testing ones claims, and approaching truth. The process is never ending, and yet that does not prevent us reaching provisional conclusions, or making judgements on how we see the evidence – we are not forever trapped in Fortean (6) agnosticism.
As a final word however: beware hypocrisy! For if we are truly sceptics, then we must be willing to openly question our own Sacred Dogmas, and barbecue our won Sacred Cows. Even those Holy Doctrines which seem most certain to us, like the Laws of Physics, must be revised in light of new evidence – for if we had piously accepted Newton or Galilieo or Darwin as the final Prophets in their fields, where would be now? Questioning those eminent Holy men led us forward, and Fort was right to remind us those damned uncomfortable facts are exactly what lead us in to questioning, and overthrowing accepted wisdom with new and exciting breakthroughs.
So Doubt is a virtue, and i am minded of the words of Aleister Crowley, who wrote
““I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning.”
Tonight we shall discuss why Faith too is a virtue.
We shall end with Hymn no 21, “Mr. Crowley” by the Right Rev. Ozzy Ozbourne.