A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions


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Editor's note

3 December 2008

A little over six years ago while net surfing I discovered Bob Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary. If I were a believer and the site had been, say, the Discovery Institute's, it would have been a halleluiah moment. As it was, it was more like a homecoming. Most of those reading this note will know what I mean. The remainder, the believers in woo ancient or du jour, will know I'm a close-minded soulless skeptic on a fast freight to hell. If you're among the former, pleased to meet you; if the latter, be comforted that my tenure here is unlikely to have much consequence in the larger scheme of things and that given my years you're likely to outlive me. Please feel free to celebrate when the time comes, as I have asked my family and friends to do.

As a simple retired scrivener who suffers when he sees infelicity of expression or inconsistent formatting, I eventually proffered my humble services as a copy editor. Copy editors help "their" authors find, maintain, and expand their unique voices while ferreting out and thwacking the niggling errors that creep into every writer's work. We make suggestions and issue ukases, and usually our authors agree, but not always. One of my heroes, Mark Twain, submitted the manuscript of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to his publisher without punctuation. His copy editor wrote back in fury and Twain responded with a few pages of punctuation marks, inviting the editor to put them wherever he wanted them. We can be pretty sure that the author had a distinct preference for exactly where those pages of punctuation might end up. Bob, unlike Twain, either makes the suggested changes or quietly ignores them. We both end up happy and Bob embarrasses me by naming names on occasion. Also, he's doubled my salary twice since we've been working together. Okay. Since I've been working for him. Okay. He doesn't pay me. That's the deal I offered him, and I'm sticking to it.

Like Bob, I've believed the incredible in the past, nonsense from psi to prophecy and UFOs to telepathy. Also like Bob, I grew up. If you're a believer, there's hope for you, too. Even my lifelong conventionally Christian mother, about six months before she died in her 80th year, said, "It's all a crock." She expanded on that theme a bit, but that's the gist. Today I believe only that which is supported by the evidence, so I'm always prepared to be persuaded by the evidence that anything I believe or disbelieve requires revision or reversal.

Therein lies the rub. Most people are willing to suspend disbelief for at least a few things, no matter what the evidence. Similarly, some are willing to believe anything enthusiastically. Now there's a word for you: it comes from the Greek meaning "possessed by a god." My hospital administrator days taught me it's not unusual for people with diseases like schizophrenia or a manic disorder to believe they are possessed by a god or are god. Observing such people, it's impossible to deny they believe it, but they always fail when you put their belief to the test, as one patient did when he said he understood all languages. He responded cryptically, smilingly trying to convince me he understood Spanish, German, and American Sign Language, but he clearly had no idea what I said or signed, even when the words were scatological.

Bob invited me to write the occasional essay particularly because of my "expertise" on Islam and Arab culture. That's not a claim I make, but a few years on the ground in an Islamic Arab country, including attending the Friday sermons at a local mosque, does enable a perspective. From time to time I shall offer a paragraph or three on some facet of my understanding of these matters. I hope you find those interesting and informative.

John Renish

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