Why I Am a Skeptic

“I want to say to young people…go to church,” President Clinton said, and my attention was arrested. I was listening to the president’s state of the Union address with my usual admiration. The president was talking about the high crime rate and how the government alone would be unable to stem it unless parents inculcated humanitarian values in their children. It was in keeping with this sentiment that he said:”…young people… go to church.”

This particular statement so bothered me that I have no recollection of what the president said after that. My first thought was that the president was confusing the practice of religion with the practice of moral, ethical and just plain humanitarian values. Prayer and worship do not necessarily augment any of them. History is replete with so many examples that I will not elaborate. However, I will jog the reader’s memory with two names…Jim Bakker and Jerry Falwell. (More like jolting than jogging the memory.)

As I pondered the consequences of the statement “go to church” from such an influential person as the president of our nation, I became a little despondent. I felt that once people realize that the president backs going to church, it will gain prestige. Evangelical cult leaders will make hay. Human nature being what it is, gradually and quite automatically church goers will feel superior to temple goers or mosque goers who were not mentioned in the presidential address. Problems due to differences in religious doctrines will surface causing unnecessary friction and yes, superstition will regain its lost ground, bringing to naught the painstaking work of science educators.

This scenario may seem far fetched, but it is not. The words or the language used to foster an idea make a considerable difference in its application. In time those words shape the nature of things to come. This is exactly why feminists resent “male” words such as “fireman,” “chairman,” etc. and rightly so. Educators need to point out that people, especially those wielding social influence, need to use terms that are not associated with any given religion if they are to make reference to an all-pervading being. If President Clinton had instead said, “I want to say to young people, go to any place of worship,” I would not have been disappointed in him. If he had said, “Keep going until you have gone to mosques, temples, synagogues and universities so you may discover the fundamental principles with which to guide your life;” I would have been ecstatic. It is not the existence or otherwise of God that matters, but the discovery of life-sustaining principles that does.

As I pondered the president’s words, my mind wandered to one of my favorite interests; i.e., introducing a healthy dose of skepticism in myself and my students. I try to make my students think about the profound issues that face our society so they can make rational, life-sustaining decisions. I do not wish to make them atheistic or agnostic, but a little skeptical.

Several months ago, a fellow KASES member (Dan Phelps, if my memory serves me) requested other members to express their thoughts as to why they are skeptics. He said (and I am wildly paraphrasing here) that he can see why we would want to stop people who are minting money by selling false hopes, but he could not see why we would want to debunk the supernatural stories told by small guys who do no harm and make no money.

While I understand the sentiments which prompted the questions, I am of the opinion that fraudulent stories of miraculous happenings distort thinking and foster inappropriate belief systems. Especially if the miracle-mongers claim that their god is the only true god and their way of belief is the only recourse. There is no such thing as a “harmless” false belief. False beliefs do immeasurable harm. Often not only to the individual who clings to them but to a large segment of the society due to ripple effects.

Often, people do not understand the impact a belief has on life-events and life-choices made by the individual. I could give any number of examples from belief-mediated Voodoo deaths and conversion disorders (Hysterical illnesses) to suicide pacts between forbidden lovers who anticipate a joint life in the glorious hereafter. Beliefs are guidelines that individuals use to steer themselves through life’s conflicts. Belief systems affect everyday trivial choices as well as life’s major goals, such as the choice of career, mating, and reproduction. Society as a whole suffers because false beliefs lead its members to making incorrect life choices which seem logical from the perspective of the choice –maker.

Even bright people who very readily see the flaws in the belief systems of others and who actively challenge and pressure others to change still maintain their own idiosyncratic beliefs which hamper their lives. The following anecdote exemplifies this point.

About eight years ago, I was at a graduation party. I was introduced to a Catholic nun, a high school teacher, who said she had just returned from India, the country of my origin. In the course of the conversation, she talked of a very bright young scheduled caste (an underprivileged ethnic group) village girl. Apparently, this girl was removed from a school a little before she turned 16, even though she was an excellent student. Her father feared that if she got further education he might be unable to find her a suitable husband…a real fear in his social circle.

He simply wanted her to stay home and help with chores until it was time to give her away in marriage. The nun tried everything she could do to pressure these people into continuing the girl’s education, but to no avail. The girl herself refused to come back to school because she wanted to marry, and this the nun could not accept.

The nun complained bitterly that the girl’s “Hindu belief system” was ruining he life and that she was wearing “blinders”. I was annoyed by the nun’s tactless statements. However, I gently pointed out that if the girl wanted marriage, then it was hardly ruining her life, and since her father was going to see that she got a respectable husband, she might actually be better off than many American teen-age single mothers who think they are in love only to find themselves in deep trouble. The nun changed the subject.

I must have been more offended than I let on at the party. On my way home, I was imagining the following retort instead of the mild answer I actually gave. It went something like this: “So, the Hindu girl wore blinders. What about the blinders you wear, Sister? You have not even met your wired-in sexual drive, let alone experienced the joys of giving birth, suckling, holding and comforting your off-spring! Nature meant for us to have those pleasures. You gave up all those wired-in motivations and remained celibate in the hope of pleasing God the Father, who as far as my knowledge goes, is supposed to have commanded you to ‘go forth and multiply.’ Yes?”

Ever since that time I found that I actually started feeling sorry for nuns, not just Catholic nuns but Buddhist and Hindu celibates as well. What is life if you live it without meeting your basic instincts? Life is a success if you meet your requirements in style and then some! What “Almighty” is going to fault you for seeking what you were designed to seek?

The nuns and monks are one extreme; at the other are many who hold that because the Good Book says that God wants you to “go forth and multiply,” not only does He banish those who abort to eternal hell, he frowns even on the prevention of pregnancy. This belief has not only caused stress in the lives of women who bear unwanted children year after year, but also in the lives of the many children they produce. It is near impossible for a mother or a father to give each child its due attention in over-sized families.

Neglected and uncared for children not only suffer emotionally, but often grow up to be problematic to society. The only way to nip such problems in the bud is to ensure that families are of manageable size and all those who are born are wanted by their parents.

This philosophy sounds like a reasonable, practical perspective on life. But, alas, it is not necessarily so. Just take a look at the new monster produced by modern science, the above ideology, and the remnants of an ancient belief system in India.

As a woman, I cannot help but make observations on the bizarre consequences of the behaviors of a group of people who accept some modern ideologies while still hanging on to age-old, baseless beliefs. The case in point is a belief that a son, i.e., “Putra,” saves one from going to a specific state of misery known as “Pu.” Though today’s “educated” Indians do not admit holding this belief, they still hang on to it emotionally by their strong desire to have more sons than daughters.

Mingled with new ultrasound technology and the drive to have small families, the drive for sons has led many Indians to check the gender of the fetus and keep it if male but abort it if female. What about the “hell” they will have to pay for aborting? Eternal Hell is not part of the Hindu belief system. The traditional literature of India contains references to abortions and infanticides without condemning the perpetrators to eternal hell.

Mental states fraught with pain, or rebirth to a lower status in life, are thought to be the punishments. Also, one can mitigate such punishments by performing meritorious acts, penance or worship. There are several myths which explain the tortured lives of otherwise righteous women in terms of the wrongs they had committed in their pervious lives— their torturers being the souls they had wronged previously. Hindu epics recount an almost unending saga of vengeance and rebirth. But then again, today’s Hindu hardly admits to a belief in reincarnation. So the modern Hindu is punished neither by society nor by his Gods for either the prevention of pregnancy or for the abortion of female fetuses.

Abortion is legal in India; small families are desirable. So what’s my beef with selective abortion?

What bugs me is that the evolutionary machinery took millions of years to produce a primate like us and to keep the numbers of the two sexes in balance. To keep our species from extinction, we must reproduce. To reproduce and raise our offspring with proper care and nurture, we need both a man and a woman devoted to that child. Any behavior that throws off the balanced numbers of our species, takes us one step closer in the direction of the breakdown of family and the extinction of our species. Even alligators know enough to lay some eggs in a warm place and some in a cooler one so they can produce both male and female offspring!

To me, being a skeptic who favors practical and thorough reasoning before making major life decisions does not automatically mean being an atheist. Granted that frequenting a place of worship means believing in a God and seeking His/Her grace by various means. Who is to say that there is a God and what evidence do we have that this being benefits us in any way? Not much and we all know it.

Why, then, do I say it would have been wonderful if President Clinton had said “go to church, temple or mosque?” Why do I believe in any Higher Power at all?

First, in learning everything I could about the functioning of the human brain, I learned that we are wired-in to seek spiritual enlightenment and adhere to moral values. Wow. This is a strong statement. I can already see several “Cerebral Primates” with advanced language skills getting ruffled and outright violent because of this statement. Let me explain.

Twelve or thirteen years ago, while I was doing my course work in neurosciences, I came upon the real-life story of a Mr. Ed, who suffered from Geschwind Syndrome due to a massive brain tumor in the temporal lobe, and became a religious fanatic as a result. In general, a person with this syndrome suffers from hyper-phagia, hypersexuality, hyper-graphia and hyper-religiosity.

When reading the biographies of mystics, saints and the like, I often wondered how many of them suffered from temporal lobe malfunction. Although hyperphagic and hypersexual saints are uncommon, hypophagic and hyposexual saints are quite the norm. Nonetheless, the point remains that our brain has a region called the temporal lobe which seems to mediate spirituality or thirst for that being we call God. We also know there are “moral emotions” such as guilt, shame, compassion, and so on, which children experience by age three. This is relatively early in a life span of 100 years, and is not likely to be totally experiential. If so, there must be some reason as to why this particular brain function exists.

There are two possible reasons: One is that it exists because there is a God and He/She/It wants us to discover that.

The second possible reason is the argument William James forwarded for the existence of what we call the Mind. James professed that the mind itself evolved because it aided survival. In other words, we have areas of the brain reserved to seek an almighty being, or become righteous and moralistic, because there is survival value in it.

In any case, why wait until you die to find out that there is a being which expects you to seek it and do the “right thing”? Why not do both? At best it will help you negotiate turbulent times; at worst, it will be another interesting and fun thing to do as you live your life.

Why go around saying there are no “supernatural” phenomena? After all, not every claim of divine intervention can be a total falsehood. Where there’s smoke, there must be fire.

Unless once experiences paranormal phenomena and seeks alternate explanations, one should neither accept nor reject the supernatural. It is very easy to dismiss someone else’s subjective experience, but not all that easy to dismiss one’s own.

The incident I want to relate here happened sometime in 1983. I had at this point severed my ties with my temple going friends and had openly become an agnostic, and was at times an outspoken atheist. At this time it so happened that a certain close friend betrayed my confidence in her. A certain other person at work was also causing me grief. The stress of an assistantship, course work, raising children, house work, and lack of financial stability, all caused me —and no wonder—to be extremely irritable. I went around doing my normal tasks, but at the slightest lack of active involvement, my cortex would latch on to the broken record of my anger and disappointment with my “friend”.

In all honesty, I would now describe my mental state as on of “mixed anxiety depression” with a tinge of “obsession”.

The following week, my husband had some work out of state and suggested we make it a family trip. Since he was not agnostic, he suggested we visit a famous temple enroute. After much argument, I reluctantly agreed because the architecture would be worth seeing. As we drove to the temple, I carried on a one-way conversation with “God”. I said, in effect, “If you exist, give me a sign, something to show me that you exist.” I remember being intense about this.

The temple was crowded. A throng of devotees had lined up to see the deity, and we joined the line. Suddenly, one of the officiating priests came out of the sanctuary in a great rush carrying a crown in his hand. There were several people in the queue in front of me, a queue not in single file but three or four people wide. The priest stopped a foot or so past me, leaned past the others and placed the crown on my head!

At that moment, all my anxiety, depression, anger and hate vanished. I was tranquil. As quickly as he placed the crown on my head, he removed it and went to someone else in the line.

I wondered at the time if this was a random event, and if it was the crowning that calmed me, or it was the camphor-flavored holy water given me by another priest a few minutes before, that had done the calming (Camphor is a central nervous system stimulant). At that moment, the priest quickly turned on his heels and rushed back toward the sanctuary and then towards the queue. Again, he disregarded others in the queue and placed the crown on my head, and the heads of my husband and children!

It took me a long time— years actually— to accept this as something more than a coincidence. I later discovered that placing the crown on a devotee’s head as a blessing is part of the routine at that temple. What intrigued me was that the priest should put it on my head twice even with such a large crowd waiting for it. Some people were clamoring for it, but the priest rushed past them. I was not expecting this double crowning, much less hankering for it, but I had asked for a sign. Was this that sign?

There have been other incidents which could pass for coincidences, but might not be. Reflecting on these experiences, I am of the opinion that something out there cares for us, all of us, and wants for us to get to know it. Why that task is so difficult, I do not know.

Providing correct information is one of the responsibilities of science and science educators. That is what I do. I talk about evolution and any scientific knowledge I’ve gathered, but I admit that there is a lot that science does not know yet. Accepting science does not mean rejecting the Creator or Creatoress. It does mean scrutinizing every claim, whether made by scientists or non-scientists, and continuing one’s efforts at seeking the true nature of life.