Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Getting ready to take on monsters next. I'm waiting on some research responses for the ghost chapter, so it might even be the last one to get written. But monsters is what I'm going to tackle, when I'm done wading through the Good Book.

Of all the stuff in this book I would most like to be real, I'd like for it to be monsters. And, I suppose, in a way, they are. New species are uncovered all the time - but that's not the same as an honest-to-goodness mythical monster. Monsters and ghosts were my first foray into the "paranormal." And when I'm out in the woods I still keep alert for Bigfoot.

I have a plan for the day I run into Bigfoot. Everyone who sees him is terrified of Bigfoot. If they have a gun, they never shoot him - if they have a camera they always seem too afraid to snap a good photo. Not me. When I see Bigfoot I'm going to come at him like white on rice! I'm going to leap on Bigfoot and throttle him with my barehands. Then I'm going to load him into the trunk of my car and drive back to Washington, and right up the middle of the National Mall, honking my horn and shouting - with cops trailing behind just like in the Blues Brothers.

And then I'm going to drive right up the steps of National Museum of Natural History and dump Bigfoot's corpse in front of those big brass doors and demand my goddamned Nobel Prize.

Harsh, you might say? Yes. But I'm sick of screwing around with Bigfoot. He's so damned cute and coy, sneaking around like he does. Thousands of people have seen him and he's left behind tantalizing hair and poop samples and, of course, those giant footprints. But that's it!! No fossils, no bones, no hard evidence. Well, if Bigfoot runs into Jerry, his days are numbered! I want my Nobel Prize!

OK. Time to calm down...back to monsters. The key difference between "monster hunters" - or cryptozoologists, as they like to be called - and "real" scientists is, of course, faith. The monster hunters believe that what they're looking for is real. They have faith that the thing is out there - they've made up their minds that Bigfoot or Nessie is a real creature and they've convinced themselves that if they just look hard enough, they'll be the one to find them. In this respect, they're just like the Biblical archaeologists that search for Noah's ark - they have faith that the events of the Bible are real, therefore the ark simply has to be out there somewhere.

Of course, science doesn't work that way. Scientists study a holistic environmental system - whether it's unexplored caves or unexplored island jungles. They are accumulating knowledge about a whole host of intellectual concerns, and if they find a new species as a result, bonus points!! Cryptozologists are trying to prove a point - they're tring to affirm their faith into reality. That's why monsters deserve a chapter in a book on faith.

But as for Bigfoot - I'm watching you, dude.

Taking on the Bible

It's been awhile, I see, since I last updated. Been busy as hell actually researching and writing the book! It's going a bit slower than I'd like, as I had a little bit of health trouble for a month or so and I'm in the middle of moving out of our big house and into an apartment in Alexandria. Never mind all that - there's always reasons for not getting a thing done, but it's getting done and I'm quite proud of the end result. But I will be happy to have the third chapter behind me this week. The rest will come much faster and easier.

The first three chapters have largely been about religion. Religion is the mother of all faith-based thinking. I spend a lot of time delving into the science behind religion and why we have evolved to believe the way we believe. I take the "New Atheists" to task in these chapters. They argue that religion is a delusion and an intellectual aberration - but I make the opposite argument. Religion is an evolved norm. Just because the stuff people believe isn't factual, doesn't mean there's not a good reason for believing it. I try to unpack the reasons behind belief in a way that appeals to the everyday reader. Cognition is my thing, so it was a bit tough getting that into laymen's terms.

Right now I'm taking on the Bible. It's a challenge - not because the Bible is hard to refute, but because it's so damn easy to refute. There's absolutely NO archaeological or documentary evidence to support virtually all of the major events in the Bible. Heck - the Jews didn't even invade Canaan. Modern evidence indicates that the Jews, themselves, were Canaanites and they created their origin story around their shared belief in YHWH while they were held in captivity in Babylon.

My Bible chapter, for the most part, could be one page long - or a thousand. How minutely do you refute every unsubstantiated story in the Good Book? How do you deal with the existence of a historical Jesus - after all, there's no evidence that he even lived. As historians we need evidence to make a case, but in the case of Biblical history, we take it all on face value.

My guess is, it would surprise even non-believers how little evidence actually exists in support of the historical events of the Bible. Will that stop people believing in it all? Nope.

Belief is about hope and trust. It doesn't matter what you believe in - you're putting your faith in something bigger than yourself. It's my job as a skeptical historian and as an expert in the psychology of epistemology to help people understand why they believe what they believe. Those folks who believe that literally every word in the Bible (or the Koran, for that matter) is totally factual really are deluded. The Bible, itself, makes it obvious that there are contradictions within the text. The Bible is a mythical history. My goal is to help readers understand that.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


The worst mistake any writer can make, is attempting to read every damn word ever written on the subject about which they're writing. Can't be done. You've got to read deeply. But at some point you just have to stop.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Chapter Outline!!

25-27 pps.
It is said that faith can move mountains and make the blind see. For millennia scholars, theologians, and philosophers have wrestled with what it means to “have faith.” The word “faith” evolved from the Latin word fidem which means simply “trust.” But with time, the concept of faith took on a broader definition: the persuasion of the mind that something is true, often without supporting evidence. Faith is the fundamental mechanism of belief and it can both help us and cause us great harm. The same psychological mechanism that tells us that the sun will rise tomorrow, when employed uncritically can also tell us that it is righteous to blow ourselves to pieces in defense of our religion.

Faith is a misunderstood and controversial subject that weaves its way through almost all human thinking. Chapter one deconstructs the “F Word” by shining a light on the history of faith, the evolutionary and psychological processes that enable it, and the dangers of faith when we begin to believe things unquestioningly. This chapter provides the background and philosophical vocabulary that will guide the remainder of the manuscript.

CHAPTER TWO: The Man Upstairs
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Religion is the mother of all “faith-based” belief systems. A belief in god or gods has permeated human history since the very advent of culture and seems inexorably linked with our species. The philosopher Voltaire once famously stated that “if God did not exist it would be necessary for us to invent him.”

For more than ten thousand years, the belief in gods has served humanity – to explain why the rains came, how the earth moved through the heavens, why we die and where we go afterwards, and to allay our fears of all of these things. In the pre-scientific world, the existence of supernatural deities gave order to a world that could seem unexplainable and terrifying. But religion is a powerful cultural institution. It helps us manage our fears and for the unscrupulous, it can provide a pathway to great power and wealth.

Science today gives us a more accurate understanding of how the universe works, but for the vast majority of human beings, it is not a better understanding. We have made a conscious choice to hold on to our religious beliefs even when we no longer need them. This chapter explores the history of god, gods, and religious faith and seeks to understand why we desperately cling to these artifacts of our primitive past.

CHAPTER THREE: Because the Bible Tells Me So
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“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” This is an old saying common among fundamentalist Christians. Many people of faith believe in the inerrancy of their holy books, particularly within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions. The sacred text among these creeds is taken as nothing less than a direct correspondence from god on high.

This interpretation leaves little room for historical or philosophical nuance. So-called “creationists” stumble around creek bottoms in central Texas attempting to prove that man and dinosaurs lived at the same time, while zealot millionaires fund expeditions to the Middle East in search of Noah’s ark and artifacts from King Solomon’s Temple. And a recent US President so believed in Christian “end times” prophecy that he shaped international foreign policy to help facilitate the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

These believers fail to understand how their holy books came into being. The Jewish Torah was written down generations after it was said to be composed and no one named Moses had anything to do with its creation. The Christian Bible was not the product of a divine author, but originated due to a shady backroom political dealing designed to solidify the power of an ambitious Roman emperor and the newly-minted Catholic Church. The Qur’an of Islam did not come into existence until two hundred years after tradition holds that it was first written down.

In every case, the holy books of the great Western belief systems were written not by God, but by fallible men years, if not centuries, after the events described within them. As such, these books can hardly be considered a reliable telling of history, much less the basis for a system of morals and ethics. A modern equivalent would be an American of 2010 attempting to recreate the contents of the US Constitution based on nothing but word of mouth!

This chapter deconstructs the “holy writ” of the three great Western faiths, based on the latest historical, archaeological, and philological evidence. This complex and enthralling story will set to rest any notion that these works came from the “mouth of God.”

CHAPTER FOUR: There Be Dragons
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Since earliest history, human beings have seen “monsters.” Giants, dragons, sea creatures, great apes, and all manner of beasties permeate our culture. A fossil dinosaur bone might have led an ancient person to believe that a dragon was nearby or that the land had once been populated by a race of giants, while the hump of an unknown species of whale surely would have terrorized early mariners. But in the modern world of invasive human civilization and technology, there are few corners of the globe left that could hide a population of monsters. Yet people continue to believe in them.

It is certain enough that new species are discovered all the time, typically in the deep ocean, in underground caverns, or in remote jungles so far off the beaten path that the scientific community has yet to fully explore them. But, what are the odds that a giant sea monster cruises a Scottish loch which at any given time, is surrounded by thousands of tourists? Can an unknown species of great ape really be wandering around the Seattle suburbs?

The belief in monsters tells us more about our own psychology and cultural history than it does to help us explain the natural world. Monsters are an echo of our primal fears and they hint at untapped mysteries that might still remain in a world that has become, perhaps, too well-trodden and familiar. This chapter will not only explore the existence of monsters, but seek to explain why they still exist as a part of our cultural story.

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Everyone is afraid to die. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or has a serious psychological problem. The innate fear of death is an important tool for successfully preserving our species. Humanity has sought to deal with its fears of dying and the inevitable oblivion that follows by inventing a whole host of possible explanations for an afterlife. Perhaps the most widespread and persistent belief in survival beyond the grave involves the existence of ghosts, remnants of the dearly departed.

Belief in ghosts is unusual in that it cuts across the educational and religious demographic. Studies show that well-educated, non religious persons have a strong tendency to believe in ghosts. It takes faith to believe in life beyond the grave, and in this day and age institutions of popular culture have capitalized on the belief. “Ghost hunting” television programs are found on the dial all over the United States and Europe and cities such as Edinburgh, UK and Gettysburg, USA have added “ghost tourism” to their already booming menu of local historical attractions.

The belief in ghosts is ancient and universal to human culture and in the twenty-first century, that act of faith has become big business. The spectral phenomenon will be examined and debunked. I will attend a ghost hunt with a famous ghost hunting team and collect data on why they believe in order to get at the heart of the human need to have faith that the “other side” truly exists.

CHAPTER SIX: What’s Your Sign?
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Astrology is the queen of all hokum, the jewel in the crown of flim-flam. The notion that the movement of the stars and the planets dictates human fate is an ancient belief system. However, in light of modern astronomical discoveries it is patently ridiculous. Astrology, however, remains a booming billion dollar industry which preys on those who feel they can be guided by the objects in the heavens.

Astrology in many ways has always been a con game, from the court magi of the Middle Ages who flattered their aristocratic patrons with favorable horoscopes, to the modern soothsayers that appear in daily newspaper columns and on television and who even have the ear of world leaders. Astrology grew out of two innate human psychological tendencies: the need to explain how the universe works and the tendency to find interconnected patterns between objects when no patterns exist. Both of these adaptations have helped us to survive and evolve, but adding blind faith into the mix gave rise to the fallacy that is astrology.

Chapter six will expose the fraudulent history of astrology and use it as an object lesson in understanding how the human mind’s natural tendencies can lead to deeply mistaken and unfounded beliefs. The same evolutionary adaptation that allowed our ancestors to see a hidden big cat blending into the savannah grass causes us moderns to see the image of gods and monsters splayed out across the stars. Yet one phenomenon is real and the other a dangerous trick of the mind. This chapter will inform the reader on how not to be caught in the trap set by a simple psychological phenomenon called pareidolia, which lies at the heart of astrology.

CHAPTER SEVEN: I Want to Believe
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Fox Mulder, the hero of the 1990’s television hit “The X-Files” had in his office a poster of an unidentified flying object inscribed with the phrase: I WANT TO BELIEVE. People want to believe that ETs exist, sometimes desperately so. And why not? Through the famous equation that bears his name, the astrophysicist Frank Drake demonstrated that it is not only possible, but quite likely that our universe is teeming with life. How much more of a stretch is it to believe that aliens are visiting the Earth?

In reality, it is highly unlikely.

The UFO phenomenon is a recent one, scarcely more than a century old. The first visitors “arrived” in the 1870’s in the backwoods of Texas and the American Midwest, traveling in balloon-like airships. It was not long before the ETs had entered popular culture and their technology – shockingly – seemed to advance along with our own. By the 1950’s the airships had become “flying saucers” and today the visitors travel in chevron-shaped craft that silently stalk cattle and rural villagers the world over!

For many, the faith that alien visitors are not only visiting our planet, but have sculpted the development of our history, has taken the place of more traditional religious belief. Where once “the gods” had all the answers, now the ETs provide much the same. Many Ufologists are even convinced that the aliens inspired our ancient beliefs in powerful deities.

However, at the end of the day, the science simply does not add up. The distances to travel to the Earth are great and the physics (“thou shalt not travel faster than the speed of light”) is virtually impossible to surmount. Plus, even the famous Drake Equation has a flaw: though the universe may be covered with life, the chances of intelligent, space-traveling life forms in close proximity to us, developing at the same time as humanity is virtually nil. Chapter Seven will explore the notion that the visitors - like the gods before them - emerge from our inner minds, not from outer space.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Full Faith and Credit
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In your retirement portfolio you might own a government bond or Treasury bill. Somewhere printed on it is likely a statement affirming that the value of that piece of paper is “backed by the full faith and credit” of the issuing authority. It is an interesting statement, for as it turns out, much of how the global economic system works is a matter of pure blind faith: faith in the markets, faith that creditors will remain stable, faith that borrowers will repay their debts, faith that employers will pay their workers, and faith that workers in turn will buy products for the price demanded. Following the end of the Cold War and the liberalization of Communist China’s economic policies, Western-style capitalism is the dominant global political zeitgeist – more so even than democracy.

Modern economics has taken on the guise of both a religion and a science. Social critics speak of the “cult of the markets;” there is even an idol of a golden bull standing erect on Wall Street in New York City. Serious-minded economists use scientific lingo when speaking of the “iron law of wages” or the “production-possibility frontier.” Economists are eligible for a Nobel Prize in the same manner as a physicist or chemist. During the George W. Bush administration, the US government even considered using financial markets as a means of predicting the next terrorist attack!

But economics is pseudo-science at best and a dangerous cult at worst. Those who put their faith in the market are apt to get hurt, as the recent “Great Recession” has proven. The global bubble simply burst when people were no longer willing or able to pay the prices for goods (especially houses) that were demanded. Products and currencies only have value when people believe they do. Free market economics is unique – though it involves the tangible real world, it can only operate smoothly when workers and consumers have faith in it.

This chapter will explore the “cult of the market” and explain how Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is no more tangible than Bigfoot or Jehovah. The market depends on our belief and devotion to work. As such, the great flaw in the system is what happens when we all lose faith.

CHAPTER NINE: Heal Thyself
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There is a global conspiracy afoot that is making you sick and keeping you that way. It is sponsored by various world governments and the conjoined medical-pharmaceutical community. However, you can break free from the crushing grip of this conspiracy and heal yourself with simple all-natural remedies that can be purchased for mere pennies a day.

This is the story the “quacks” want you to believe. And if you believe it and buy into their so-called medical miracles, you are probably going to get sicker and you might even die. The cemeteries of the world are full of the unwary who put their faith in quackery instead of science and paid the ultimate price.

Chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture, Reiki, therapeutic touch, supplements, fad diets, and more are all being sold to us as magical cures that will fix what is wrong with us, despite our best understanding of how the body really works. Touted as “ancient,” “holistic,” and “all-natural” they often rely on some mysterious unknown “energy” to bring the body “back into balance.” Despite the fact that virtually none of the quack solutions have any demonstrated efficacy, the faithful continue to pour their money into these scams, risking their health in the balance.

Structured diets and drug rehab programs are no more effective than going it alone “cold turkey.” A fist full of vitamins is no better for you than an apple and a glass of milk, although it is a lot more expensive. Chiropractic can actually kill you, while homeopathy and therapeutic touch simply do nothing.

In this era of rising health care costs which are imperiling the social safety net both in the United States and Europe, people are turning en masse to so-called “alternative” therapies. Unscrupulous quacks are willing to take advantage of them. Chapter nine debunks some of the most pervasive examples of medical quackery and exposes what drives people to seek them out. Readers will learn how to spot quackery and to develop the thinking skills that will allow them to avoid it.

CHAPTER TEN: I am the Ape Man
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The development of the theory of evolution by natural selection by Charles Darwin was a sea change in human understanding about the universe and our place in it. But it represents even more than that – the popular response to evolutionary theory over the past century has helped to drive a wedge between the world of science and the world of faith. When Galileo demonstrated that the Earth was not at the center of the universe, he deprived humankind of one of our claims of cosmic importance. Darwin, in showing that humans are just like any other animals, took away the rest.

Darwinian evolution proves that we did not need a creator to come into being – in fact evolution seems almost self-evident, retrospectively. It is such a powerful and revelatory discovery that the forces of religious faith the world over have declared war on Darwin. Since his initial publication, Darwin has been a pariah figure, but virtually no medical or biological science could work without his important theories.

In this final chapter we will review the human need to be “special” and attempt to understand why we fear our place among the animals. The “god hypothesis”, for millennia, was a guess as to how human beings originated. Charles Darwin, however, led us toward a definitive answer. Yet the power of faith and the need to believe causes our societies to cling to a faulty worldview. Can science and faith – fact and belief – ever be reconciled in the wake of Darwin’s awesome and powerful discoveries?

Down to Business

Spent the weekend polishing off the research for chapter one. Since each chapter basically functions as a kind of stand-alone essay, I'm handling them in "bites." We eat the tofu elephant one bite at a time, right?

Chapter one is going to be the most difficult, as it's the "psychology" and "vocabulary" chapter. Not only do I have to define what faith is, I have to explain how it works within the human brain and as a function of our shared culture. But this needs doing. I'm unhappy with the "New Ahtheists" in the way they define faith. Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have invented their own definition of the term (que the Strawman) and then proceeded to attack that new term. I'm taking a more holistic approach. We're going to define how the term has been used in history and how it is presently used by theists and skeptics as well as in the broader context of what we believe.

Once the drudge of the first chapter is out of the way, from here on out it's fun stuff.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why I'm Writing This Book

I just saw this story from my home state of Texas:

Yes, I grew up in this den of perpetual goofiness. Don't get me wrong. I love Texas. I love Willie and Shiner Beer and the Alamo and even the Dallas Cowboys. What I don't love is the crap the political establishment does to keep Texans dumb.

Highlights from the poll:

"38 percent said human beings developed over millions of years with God guiding the process and another 12 percent said that development happened without God having any part of the process. Another 38 percent agreed with the statement 'God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago.'"

"Did humans live at the same time as the dinosaurs? Three in ten Texas voters agree with that statement; 41 percent disagree, and 30 percent don't know."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The F Word

The lovely Tim Hirst of Hirst Books (in the UK) is going to publish my latest literary effort, which I'm calling: The F Word: Where Faith Meets Fact. Tim has a wonderful little press that is publishing both entertaining and important reads. His model is the future of publishing and it's going to be loads of fun to be doing this project with him. So, for kicks and grins, I've started this blog so that potential readers and all my friends and colleagues can keep tabs on this project as it comes to fruition!

So, what is The F Word, anyway? The fruition of a lifetime of research and involvement as a skeptical investigator of "claims of the paranormal." More than a hobby, it's a passion, which from time to time bleeds into my academic scholarship.


What do God, Bigfoot, the Roswell aliens, homeopathic cough syrup, and the housing market all have in common? It takes faith for them to exist. It is said that faith can move mountains. But it can also make us believe in things that simply aren’t real.

The F Word takes a skeptical look at some of our most commonly held “faith-based” beliefs, including religion, monsters, ghosts, astrology, medical quackery, the free market economy, anti-evolutionism, and many others in an effort to understand why we believe what we believe. Does faith help us or hurt us? It can do both. The F Word unmasks the scoundrels who take advantage of our willingness to believe and cultivates the thinking tools that help us to make good “reality-based” decisions.

Once you read the F Word you may never take anything simply “on faith” again!

I'll be posting some chapter summaries over the next few days so you can see what to expect!