What we're about

"The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall." —Thomas Paine (1737-1809) American revolutionary, pamphleteer, and atheist, "The Age of Reason"

Had enough of astrologers, psychics, homeopaths, and spirit channelers? Yearning to talk with someone rational for awhile? Meet up with other local skeptics for some refreshing and sane conversation.

If you've got some kind of event or opportunity that's commensurate with what we're about (as described below), we'd love to hear about it and publicize it to our 1000+ members. E-mail your idea to RichardSRussell@tds.net and we'll either schedule it or explain why not.

What is a skeptic, anyway? It's someone who lives by the Missouri state motto: "Show me!". Does some claim seem too good (or amazing) to be true? Well, that's because it's probably not. Having an open mind isn't the same as having holes in your head.

OTOH, doubting everything makes you a cynic, and suspecting everybody makes you a conspiracy theorist. Skeptics who ARE shown something are willing to accept it. A couple of cases in point:

(1) Even little kids notice that the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa look like jigsaw-puzzle pieces that should fit together. DID they, at one time? In the early 20th Century, skeptics scoffed at the idea. "Just coincidence", they said. And rightly so. There was no known mechanism for how anything that big could be moved. Then Alfred Wegener showed evidence that continental drift had definitely happened, and later Arthur Holmes explained how plate tectonics was the mechanism behind it. With those in hand, skeptics were convinced.

(2) For most of human existence, people believed the Earth was only a few tens of thousands of years old. Skeptics concurred. If the Sun were made of wood or coal or petroleum, it couldn't possibly keep burning for much longer than that. But there was all this other geological evidence that indicated the planet was millions, if not billions of years old. What to believe? Skeptics openly admitted they didn't have the answers. But as soon as we discovered the amazing amounts of energy that could be produced by nuclear fusion, the source of the Sun's longevity was revealed, and skeptics settled in on the proper scientific answer.

We skeptics take our cues from people like the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who pointed out: "I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that's true. It IS possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not, but whether it's going on or not."

In other words, "show me".

Upcoming events (4)

How Would We Know?

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Are we living in a computer simulation like The Matrix? How would we know?

Why is there something rather than nothing? How would we know?

Was the entire world created 5 minutes ago, including each of us with all our memories intact? How would we know?

In Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, 2-dimensional beings living on a flat surface understand length and width but have no concept of height. Are we 3-dimensional beings oblivious to a 4th spatial dimension? How would we know?

Did a supreme intelligence create the Universe 13.77 billion years ago, give it a little shove to get it started, then walk away to let it wind down on its own? HWWK?

What if, every time somebody made a decision, the universe split into two separate timelines, identical but for the decision going one way on one timeline and the other way in the other one? HWWK?

Gravitational measurements indicate that the Universe is about 5% what we think of as normal matter and energy, 30% dark matter, and 65% dark energy. Are we physically occupying the same space with dark-matter people, passing effortlessly thru them without noticing, because their equivalent of protons, electrons, and neutrons have no way of interacting electromagnetically with ours? HWWK?

Notice that these questions are qualitatively different from ones like “What was family life like for our ancestors 200,000 years ago?” (past), “Is my perception of red the same as yours?” (present), or “Will I ever be able to self-levitate?” (future). Those are cases where we can at least imagine a line of inquiry, such as the one about “Is there a Contra-Earth in our exact same orbit, only on the far side of the Sun, where we can never see it?”. The answer to that was “Let’s invent space flight and go look.” (We did, and there isn’t.)

But for all those “HWWK?” questions, we wouldn’t even have a clue where to start looking. This drives some people nuts.

Face it: We human beings are natural prey animals. No fangs. No claws. No armor. No fur. No poison. Crappy camouflage. Slow runners. Poor swimmers. Can’t fly. And, to top it all off, soppily devoted to our offspring, who remain helpless and useless for years after birth. (Contrast that with colts or fawns struggling to their feet within minutes of being born.)

Our only evolutionary advantage is our big honkin’ brains, which let us understand how the world around us works — and gives us language to share that knowledge with our fellow humans — so we can survive, thrive, and reproduce.

But the pathological consequence of this is that some humans just can’t stand uncertainty. They have an itch that must be scratched. They need to know! They must have The Answer!

This is how religion was invented. “What causes the lightning? I’m afraid.” “There, there, Zeus is just angry at Hera again. It’ll go away.” Just because this was complete, utter, totally made-up bullshit didn’t matter, since it had been delivered in tones of calm assurance. The itch had been scratched. That person knew, and thus was to be trusted and believed.

What religions of the future will be born out of people claiming to know the answers to all the unanswerable questions listed above? How would we know?

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

Religious Joke Night

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Q: Is nothing sacred?
A: Bingo!

A never-ending source of humor is deflating sacred cows, which, as Mark Twain observed, “make the best hamburger.” And, since nothing is more sacred than religion, it’s a rich source of lampoonable material, despite the outraged protestations of its devotees. Examples:

W. C. Fields, a lifetime agnostic, was discovered reading a Bible on his deathbed. “I’m looking for a loophole,” he explained.

“I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up; they have no holidays.” —Henny Youngman

“It’s fair to say that the Bible contains equal amounts of fact, history, and pizza.” —Penn Jillette

“When I was young, I prayed for a bicycle. Then I learned that God doesn’t work that way. So I stole one and prayed for forgiveness.” —Emo Philips

Tonight everyone gets to be a comedian. Show up with at least one religiously based joke and we’ll go around the room giving everyone a chance to tickle our funny bones. After we’ve gone around once, we’ll ask if anyone’s got second helpings. Don’t be shy!

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

The Future of Nonery

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“Nones” (as opposed to “nuns”) are people who respond “none” when asked what religion they are. They aren’t necessarily atheists, but they’re not active in any organized religion. And there are more and more of them every year. That growth comes largely at the expense of Christianity, with projections from the Pew Research Center suggesting that Christians will probably be a minority in America by 2050 and overtaken as the dominant “religious” group by the nones sometime thereafter.

This trend is discussed in more detail by Hemant Mehta in a “Friendly Atheist” essay. As he writes, “If you’re wondering why religious switching is happening at all, well, hire a sociologist. But some explanations include a push for secularization, anti-women/anti-LGBTQ views held by conservative religious zealots, child sex abuse scandals, religious intermarriage, and the ability for religious doubters to find helpful resources and forums online for their new beliefs.”

But the nones are no more a coherent, unified (let alone organized) group than are religionists in general or Christians in particular. So what will they do once they’re in a position to exert a powerful influence on society and politics? Well, there’s no clear-cut direction, but there’s starting to be some speculation, including in the recent books Secularism: The Basics, from Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau; Secular Surge, by political scientists John C. Green of the University of Akron and David E. Campbell and Geoffrey C. Layman, both of the University of Notre Dame; and The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They’re Going, by Ryan P. Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University. There’s an overview of what they have to say in this article by Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post.

It won’t be necessary to read all these books to participate in the discussion, but you can get some food for thot from the article. One thing we’ll for sure want to deal with is whether the nones will be as cocky and domineering with their numeric superiority as the Christians have been with theirs.

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

2-Minute Christianity

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Bob Seidensticker is a long-time atheist blogger, first at the Christian website apologetics.com, then Galileo Unchained, then with Cross Examined on Patheos, and now under his own byline on OnlySky: onlysky.media/bob-seidensticker/. And he’s taken the highlights of those many years of blogging and boiled them down into an intentionally slim hundred-page book called 2-Minute Christianity: 50 Big Ideas Every Christian Should Understand. Each of its 50 chapters deals with a particular issue in Christianity, on 2 facing pages, intended to be read in about 2 minutes. The book’s unusual layout — with little notes, definitions, cross-references, and quotations off to the side of each page — is part of its appeal.

Here’s how Bob explains the book:

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It’s aimed at open-minded Christians who think that, if Christianity is true, it can stand a little critique. Here are some of the big ideas explored in it:
• #30: God gave Moses two very different versions of the Ten Commandments.
• #14: God defined the rules for indentured servitude and chattel slavery, the same two forms of slavery found in the early United States.
• #35: The Bible documents its own evolution from polytheism to monotheism.
• #36: The “virgin-birth prophecy” referred to in Matthew wasn’t about Jesus and wasn’t even about a virgin birth.
• #46: The God of the Bible was once defeated by another Canaanite god.

The ideas are significant; they aren’t trivial Bible contradictions or copying errors. Each is a fundamental puzzle that questions Christian claims, and each can be read in a few minutes.

The book is in the middle of a slow-motion release. The book and ebook are available now ...
... and I’m giving away the content, one chapter per week for 50 weeks, through the book’s blog ...
... podcast ...
... and YouTube channel ...

You can sign up for email notification of each new chapter’s posting on the blog, which also answers common questions in the FAQ.

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What do we Madison Skeptics think? Successful approach? Or just another attempt to reason with the unreasonable, therefore doomed to failure?

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