Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.


Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.

Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

(Click for more Unusual Quotations on Science and Belief)

Expanded GUIDE TO SITE PURPOSE AND LAYOUT is in the lower blue section at the bottom of every home page.

Preaching sanity to religion

In AIDS, belief in the HIV paradigm seems driven more and more by a religious zealotry rather than any rational scientific cognitive process. The rote phrase “overwhelming evidence” is repeated like a religious mantra, evidently reflecting the absence of firm proof that HIV is the cause of AIDS—of any good evidence at all for the idea, and a multitude of reasons for rejecting it, if the skeptics are right.

Without any proven scientific basis for the belief, in the form of a peer reviewed paper in a respectable journal that can be referenced, the believers fall back on stating their belief loudly and angrily, and invoke outrage at the harm that the skeptics’ questions might lead to. To those that demand proof, this looks very much like the evasion of religious believers when asked for evidence of miracles.

As a matter of fact, the scientist in us is becoming more and more convinced that the religious impulse is far from beneficial in any sphere today. That is why we were fascinated by a remarkable segment featured by CSPAN2 on Saturday night.

A young man with a pleasantly lucid style was addressing a congregation in a large synagogue in Irvine, southern California, and informing them quite straightforwardly that the dogma in their religion and indeed all institutionalized religions was sheer bunk. Not only that, but such dogma comprised a huge danger to the future of human society, and should be done away with.

Yet instead of rising up in indignant wrath, the audience lined up to ask respectful questions.

As we listened, we understood why. Finally, it seems, the book on the problem of religion that the world has been waiting for has been written in the clear and persuasive style nnecessary to get the messsage across. Sam Harris, the young Stanford neuroscience student and philosophy graduate giving the talk, has written what all of us have been thinking but few have dared to say quite so frankly. His book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, published last year, fearlessly applies reason to religion, or at least, to the myriad petty or grand superstitions that encrust the worldÂ’s major religions like barnacles on ocean liners.

Even to write such a book in the present cultural era in the US seems like an act of courage, even foolhardiness, given the fact that this society gives religionÂ’s critics such short shrift that it is not so long ago that the most famous atheist here was murdered.

Harris, however, writes boldly and without fear or favor, and this may be because he feels that the time has come. For it is 9/11 and the Iraq aftermath of escalating terrorism that have prompted his analysis, and the solution he offers. What Harris is saying is that it is the set of myriad unique beliefs which distinguish one religion from another that are lighting the religious fires that are threatening to consume the world.

Petty or large dogma ranging from the virgin birth and Christ being the Son of God in the Christian world, to the 72 virgins awaiting martyrs in the Muslim paradise, are the root cause of conflict, he says, because they are what distinguish one religion from another and excite tribalism.

In believers fueled by the fervor of religious passion, these false and irrational superstitions reliably lead to airliner missiles and suicide bombers. Without them, one religion would be much the same as another, and the world could join in global ecumenicalism. Worst of all in the belief in a heavenly afterlife, which justifies martyrdom and devalues the threat of death.

What is so satisfying is that Harris mercilessly points up the absurdity of dogma in such a calm and non-combative tone that even the intensely religious are unlikely to be offended, as the CSPAN segment showed (the event was a reply from January 18 this year).

On Amazon, the breakthrough volume has received a huge amount of readers reviews, 242 at last count. Surely the intense response aroused by his work reflects the great need that exists in the hearts of many to bring reason and faith together. But what is also noticeable is an odd fact, which exactly proves his point. Time and again, those of a particular faith or religious sympathy find that the book is slanted against them.

Of course, there are other places where reason has been brought to bear ffectively against religious beliefs. The monthly magazine Free Enquiry, published by the Center for Enquiry of New York, reliably features heretics such as Christopher Hitchens and Oxford scientist Richard Dawson in its pages, lobbying hand grenades against the obvious absurdities and inconsistencies of blind faith. But the magazine in general smacks of an adolescent earnestness and a picayune preoccupation with logical fallacies which the religious scorn as minor and easily ignored or refuted, even if they donÂ’t immediately know how to do so.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there is the brilliant work by the Oxford philosopher Simon Blackburn, “Think”. In a mere twenty or so pages he demonstrates what all good philosophers now know, pace Thomas Aquinas, which is that any religious belief which posits an all powerful God inevitably implies an impersonal being with no concern for human welfare, one utterly irrelevant to human lives.

Neither logical approach seems likely to influence the average believer in a personal God, however, let alone the committed Catholic or Muslim.

What the youthful Harris does so helpfully, however, is nail the distinctive irrationalities in major religions to the wall, show that they conflict with other religious belief systems, and demonstrate how little they have to do with fundamental spiritual values. This is a rather clever approach, because it is one that believers can listen to and if they wish, take action.

They can, if they like, abandon their faith in particular beliefs that go against reason, without necessarily abandoning the comfort of a general belief, however questionable that may in fact be. This will be all to the good, as Harris points out. For these are the needless differences which lead everyone to insist that their own bible is holy writ, and informs them that people with different texts must needs be misguided infidels who should be killed.

Whether Harris’s thesis will have any influence is hard to predict, but one can say that reading the first few pages of his work feels like breathing a refreshing breeze of fresh air and lucidity amid the reek of the sentimental claptrap that passes for religious talk these days.

It is this “I’m OK You’re OK” misplaced mutual tolerance of nonsense which leads, in Harris’s view, to the very clashes those who express such goodwill think they avoid. As a matter of fact, the book is worth buying simply to see his own tight rope act performed, where he manages with exquisite verbal accuracy both to respect religious belief as an impulse and to expose it as irrational at the same time, thus combining tact with illumination. Harris is so unerring in his language that he has only to describe some wrongheaded notion to defeat it.

Of course, as noted, he is alienating nearly everyone in the world with what he writes because almost every believer takes offense at what he writes about his or her own group, while delighting in what he criticizes about its rivals. One Amazon review saying he is a Jew hating Muslim will be followed by another perceiving he is a Muslim hating Jew—proving his point that these ideologies are primed for tribal responses and warfare.

Actually he seems merely a thoughtful, engaging, even tempered young guy who has the fine attribute of coolly analyzing various ways of thinking without precopnceptions, then and only then formulating and offering his own. Admirable. This kind of objectivity about what other people think allied to objectivity about what you think yourself is what will save the world. It is entirely non–tribal, independent, and constructive—the opposite extreme from the religious fanatic, whether suicide bomber or the typical HIV-AIDS believer.

Would that minds like this would turn to examining the irrational and inconsistent beliefs of HIV-AIDS, which in this regard is behaving exactly like any other major religion. What a contribution they could make.

If there is any flaw in his book, it may be that as a good skeptical analyst Harris too much emphasizes beliefs themselves and whether they make any sense, instead of the fundamental problem. That deeper problem he points to is the egregious tendency to make beliefs of all kinds tribal badges. Too often religious beliefs are barriers to our common humanity, for this reason. Once they are communal and tribal, nearly everyone marks those with different beliefs as antagonistic. This phenomenon is very apparent in AIDS HIV believers, whose comfort zone does not include those who ask them why they believe as they do.

As several documentaries about the Isreal-Palestine problem have pointed out, it is our children that show us the way. When Jewish children mix with Palestinian, these films show, humanity easily triumphs over different beliefs. Evidently the power of religious beliefs to engeder tribal fears of people who are different is as powerful as skin color in engendering prejudice, yet as the children show us, it is all so needless. It is as Harris argues. If all of us followed reason and abandoned unreasonable beliefs, we all could be brothers under whatever we may conceive God to be.

There is an interesting interview with Harris on line.

The most interesting thing of all about Harris may be his manner, which enables him to appear before a variety of church audiences and win them over with reason. Apparently reason is not entirely dead, even in the congregation, if it is approached in the right way. The overriding truth may be that a fine analyst with tact can win over religious audiences and persuade them to abandon their particular beliefs for the general ones we can all subscribe to. If so, he will deserve the Nobel peace prize.

Harris is already being put on a par with Oliver Sacks and even Lucretius as having written a seminal book. We prefer to compare him with Bertrand Russell, whose excellent essays on this topic he recommends Why I Am Not a Christian : And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects by Bertrand Russell

With most of his Amazon reviewers, we say, Long live Sam Harris!

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