James Randi: Our skeptical angel

By Justin Doran

This past Monday, the Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers hosted two complementary avatars of modern skepticism; a meeting which proved to be microcosmical to the broader Atheist dialogue in America. Also, there were magic tricks. In fact, as far as godless functions go, it was downright festive. This could easily have been because one of the speakers was professional entertainer James Randi, renowned debunker of the paranormal, exposer of grift and mythical Gnome-king. Even the other speaker, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard J. Roberts, told at least two jokes. For comparison: The average chemist makes 6.02214179 jokes in his or her entire lifetime.

The titular subject being addressed by Roberts and Randi was “Science, Magic, and Belief.” That was about right, provided that we include organized religion somewhere at the nexus of magic and belief. What was most interesting to me about this lecture was the recapitulation of certain topics that arise over and over again in atheist discussions. How should we think of religion and religious people? How should we feel about being evangelized? How many quantum dots fit on the head of a pin? Although I have misgivings about how qualified we are to answer these questions, this event acutely captured the plethora of beliefs atheists tend toward.

The first act was billed as the story of Richard J. Roberts’ journey from a passive Christian to an active skeptic and atheist. In actuality, Professor Roberts seemed more interested in discussing how his conception of science and religion leads naturally to atheism, which is a similar project I suppose. And although his understanding of the history and methods of science was impeccable, his idea of religion was a little peculiar. In fact, the source of his theories on the origin and evolution of religion was so unclear that the audience may have come away with the mistaken belief that he was speaking from a scientific consensus.

As far as I could tell, everything he said was the product of his own speculation. Which included a rather unusual description of how schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and a low IQ could have contributed to the formation of religious beliefs about nature. It’s not worth repeating, mostly because it’s unsubstantiated, but this marks one unfortunate trend among atheists: they like to believe they know what religion is all about. It was especially telling when an audience member asked the (reasonable) question, “What is your level of education regarding religions?” To which Professor Roberts listed his years in comparative religion in the British educational system. That’s like me saying I’m a constitutional scholar because I passed civics in high school.

I almost wish there was a giant [citation needed] bubble floating above his head. But the next best thing was having James Randi speak immediately after him. As far as atheists’ ideals go, a strong affinity for skepticism is one of the most sacred. And James Randi absolutely embodies this. He has spent much of his adult life seeking out the supernatural and throwing it under the merciless wheels of scientific investigation. Most famously this has involved a 1 million dollar prize for anyone who can display supernatural abilities in a controlled, double-blind test.

Randi’s speech focused on one central theme: how reasonable, intelligent people can be tricked. This includes trained scientists. In fact, as Randi pointed out, assuming the world and other people operate in a manner conducive to scientific investigation is a dangerous misstep. We must constantly be skeptical of the world around us, and to do any less would be to backslide on the empiricist tradition that has so greatly propelled the human species.

By far the most important quality exhibited by these two men was openness to the possibility of being wrong. Even though Professor Roberts is probably attached to his personal theory of religion, if its inadequacy could be demonstrated to him I have no doubt that he would abandon it immediately. And this, I think, is the quality that should continue to define atheist communities in the United States.

Because although we might like to think our worldview naturally permits revision and progressive reform, it is not unthinkable that we could unknowingly stifle a fruitful hypothesis.

Justin is a senior in religious studies, and a member of the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers.