Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Beware of mermaids

It is an open question how much respect should be accorded to someone's beliefs and actions based simply on whether those form part of his/her religion.

"It's my religion" is, in many ways, a "Get Out Of Jail Free" card.  It stops conversation, it stops questioning.  Somehow, we're supposed to tiptoe around the subject, and not view beliefs labeled "religion" through the same critical lens as we would (for example) scientific or medical claims.  According to many, religious statements do not need to rise to the same standard of evidence as anything else; they are by nature personal, impossible to analyze, beyond the realm of logic. 

This is one of the major beefs that Richard Dawkins has with religion, and he goes into it in some detail in his book The God Delusion.  It is also, I think, why he rubs so many people the wrong way.  I remember a student telling me, "It's not even that I necessarily disagree with what Dawkins is saying.  It's just that he's kind of an asshole about it."  I think this view has a lot to do with the pervasive multiculturalism that is now the Flavor Of The Day in the media and in schools; we're supposed to unquestioningly respect, not respectfully question, the beliefs of others.  And that respect is supposed to be given regardless of whether the belief has the remotest connection with reality.

Because this is serious thin ice for a lot of people, and because I really would rather not get any more hate mail and death threats than usual, let me take just one recent example in the news that takes it out of the realm of what most of us come into contact with. 

This particular story (source here) comes from Zimbabwe, where some workers on a new reservoir were scared off the site by "mermaids."  The Minister of Water Resources, Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, told a parliamentary committee that the workers were refusing to go back to work because of their encounters.

The belief in spirits, including water spirits, is common in Zimbabwe, where many nominally Christian people combine their Christian beliefs with traditional animism.  So the mermaid encounters were definitely within the realm of what I'd call a religious belief, not a simple paranormal claim (such as if an American said he'd seen a UFO).  And Mr. Nkomo's suggestion in response to the workers' claims makes that point even clearer; he recommended to the committee that shamans be hired to brew traditional beer and carry out rituals to appease the mermaids.

My question is, why on earth wasn't the response, "Dear Workers:  There's no such thing as 'mermaids.'  Get a grip on reality.  Also get another job.  You're fired."  It may well be that Mr. Nkomo shares those beliefs -- it certainly seems likely, given his response -- but everyone seems to be going out of their way to respect the beliefs of the workmen, instead of saying, "Those are fairy tales."  And lest you think that this sort of thing only happens in deepest, darkest Africa -- just last year, a factory worker in Georgia was fired because he refused to wear for one day a badge that said, "666 days without an accident," because 666 is the mark of the devil.  He sued for damages and back pay -- and won.

Just to make it clear, I have no issue whatsoever with people believing whatever they want, as long as they don't mandate that I go along with them.  If you'd like, you can believe that the world is a flat, triangular plate resting on the back of a giant flying wombat.  (Go ahead, try to tell me this is more ridiculous than mermaids in reservoirs.)  But why does labeling this belief a "religious statement" immediately accord it respect?  By demanding that we hold religious statements to the same standard of critical thinking as we do anything else, does this make Dawkins "an asshole?"  (He may be an asshole in other regards, I don't know him personally and am unqualified to make that judgment.)

Anyhow, that's the question of the day.  I know that even asking it makes a lot of people wince -- and I do wonder why that is. 


  1. Dawkins is a bit of a jerk. The problem with atheists generally, is that they talk about God too much.

    Religion is one of the things people use to cope with the hard things in life. That people they love suffer and die, that they will die someday, that shit happens overall. Studies have shown that religious people are generally happier.

    The price they pay for that extra bit of happiness is that their adjustment to reality may be non-optimal. Some beliefs are more crippling than others, might interfere with, say, one's ability to make a living. This works best when there are a diversity of religious views, so that if your construction project is haunted, it's possible to find lots of local workers who don't care. Those who fear mermaids can still find work at the local Famous Dave's franchise (where others who object to the consumption of pork might be unhappy).

    I have no objection to people believing whatever they like. I only feel I have to stand up to them when they try to turn their beliefs into public policy, or can't resist proselytizing me.

  2. I like the cut of your jib, Tyler.

    However, if an atheist talks about God too much, then why does every science-based, online article I peruse, Yahoo for instance... turn into a theological debate when the thumpers want to turn "Scientists discover more planets in the 'Goldilocks Zone'", into a Religious discussion.

    When was the last time a PHD stormed a church to refute the sermon?

    Science has always had to prove itself to Religion.
    To say it another way:
    Reality has always had to prove itself to spirituality.
    It's completely ass-backwards.

    Dawkins only sounds crass because science has to be so vehemently defended to be seen as legitimate in the face of mysticism. The group with the biggest megaphone is the group who holds the monopoly on "truth."

    Newton should have carried around a bucket of apples and anyone who wanted to challenge gravity should have been pelted in the head with one.
    "See, after it bounces off your cranium, it falls to the ground... Gravity!"