My Centripetal Force Joke: A True Story

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In the Summer of 2014, with many other science teachers, I took a four-day-long A.P. Physics training session, which was definitely a valuable experience, for me, as a teacher. On the last day of this training, though, in the late afternoon, as the trainer and trainees were winding things up, some of us, including me, started getting a little silly. Physics teachers, of course, have their own version of silly behavior. Here’s what happened.

The trainer: “Let’s see how well you understand the different forces which can serve as centripetal forces, in different situations. When I twirl a ball, on a string, in a horizontal circle, what is the centripetal force?”

The class of trainees, in unison: “Tension!”

Trainer: “In the Bohr model of a hydrogen atom, the force keeping the electron traveling in a circle around the proton is the . . . ?”

Class: “Electromagnetic force!”

Trainer: “What force serves as the centripetal force keeping the Earth in orbit around the Sun?”

Me, loudly, before any of my classmates could answer: “God’s will!”

I was, remember, surrounded by physics teachers. It took the trainer several minutes to restore order, after that.

Ten Easy Ways to Oppose Secular Superstitious Nonsense

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It is a common mistake for skeptics, such as myself, to focus too much attention on religion. Do I understand why so many people lack religious belief, due to a lack of evidence to support it, and/or bad experiences with religious fanatics? Yes, I do. However, I also understand that the First Amendment, which protects my right to live my life without religious belief, equally protects the right of believers to practice the religion of their choice — and I recognize that it is unreasonable to expect one of those protections to exist, without the other, for both are important. If no one tries to force their religious beliefs on me (and very few people do), what harm do those beliefs do to me? Also, I know many people who find comfort in religious belief, especially in difficult times. I have no wish to deny others that particular form of comfort, even though I am incapable of experiencing it myself. To do so, after all, would be cruel. The world has plenty of cruelty already, and it certainly doesn’t need more.

When referring to myself, I prefer the term “skeptic,” over “atheist,” even though both labels are accurate. The reason is simple:  “skeptic” covers more ground. It’s a broader term, and using it reminds me that the world is (still) filled with superstitious nonsense which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. What’s more, non-skeptics are generally far less tied, emotionally, to the beliefs they hold which are non-religious in nature. If skeptics wish to persuade others to abandon beliefs they do not share, therefore, increased attention to non-religious beliefs offers a greater chance of success, combined with a much lower risk of alienating and/or offending people.

With these things in mind, then, I offer this list of ten easy ways to oppose, by example, some of the many secular superstitions which have not — yet — been abandoned.

  1. When a mirror is accidentally broken, by yourself or others, remain calm, and simply clean up the mess, so no one gets cut by broken glass.
  2. Deliberately open umbrellas indoors, after checking to make certain no one is close enough to get struck by the umbrella in the process.
  3. When you see a ladder leaning against a building, and it is safe to do so, casually walk under it, without comment.
  4. Ask people in tall buildings to help you find the thirteenth floor, after checking for the (usually missing) “13” button in the elevator. (If the building actually has a floor numbered “13,” though, just wait for another tall building.)
  5. Adopt a black cat. (The cat, itself, will take care of the “crossing your path” part of the superstition.)
  6. If you are ever offered homeopathic “medicine,” ask for at least twenty doses, to take all at once. (Twenty or more, times zero, is still zero, and homeopathic products are nothing more than harmless-but-expensive placebos.) 
  7. Stare directly into a mirror, with witnesses present, and say “redrum,” or “bloody Mary,” repeatedly.
  8. Each time you are asked for your astrological sign, refuse to give any answer, other than “skeptic.”
  9. Don’t throw salt over either shoulder, ever. Why waste perfectly good salt?
  10. Have your children vaccinated.

I saved the most important one for last.

James Randi, on the Limited Effectiveness of Belief

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James Randi, On the Effectiveness of Belief

One of the high points of my life was the day I got to have several conversations with James Randi. I enjoyed them. Some others who were there, though, not so much.

An example of how one of the question-and-answer sessions went:

Question: What happens to us after we die?
Randi’s answer: What happens to a computer after you turn off the power?

Apparently the questioner was rather upset by this reply, but I didn’t figure that out myself, even though I was present. I learned about it later, from others. Randi’s response simply made sense to me.

“Give us reliable evidence and we will change our minds.”

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This is a good way to explain the viewpoint known as agnostic atheism. A lot of people don’t realize this, but most atheists are also agnostic, simply because we don’t claim to have absolute certainty that no deities exist. We are atheists because we possess no beliefs in any gods, and we are also agnostics because we are willing to admit that we could, possibly, be wrong.

What’s more, many agnostic atheists find the other type of atheist (gnostic atheists, who are few in number, and who do claim certainty that no deities exist) quite irritating. It simply is not rational to claim that one knows, without doubt, that there are no gods, for one simple reason: lack of supporting evidence. There is no evidence that no gods exist. There is also no evidence for the non-existence of, say, leprechauns.

Something else many people don’t know: theists (that is, religious believers) also come in the same two types. Agnostic theists believe in at least one deity, but don’t claim absolute certainty in that belief. Gnostic theists, by contrast, are believers who do not doubt, nor question, their religious beliefs. They claim to know they are right — and, in that one way, they are just like gnostic atheists. Gnostics, of whatever type, aren’t willing to admit there is the slightest chance that they might be wrong. It’s much easier to have reasonable, productive conversations with agnostics than with gnostics — regardless of whether they are they are theists or atheists. Also, when it comes to debate, there’s simply no point in debating anything with a gnostic. One might as well argue with a rock, for a rock is exactly as likely as a gnostic to have a change of opinion.

(Note: unlike most images on this blog, this picture is not one I created myself. Only the words below the image, in this post, are mine.)

“Strong Grape Juice”

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My earliest memory of a church service involves a trip to visit relatives, and I started discovering how different from others I was at a very young age. This is one of the episodes which played a major role in that discovery.

I was only four of five years old, and had already developed an intense hatred of being bored. Ignoring the sermon seemed like an even more boring prospect that actually paying attention to it, so I consciously chose the latter, which I’ve observed is often not the choice young children make.

This church’s denomination is one of those that teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful. They are also Biblical literalists. This, of course, poses a problem, for there is a lot of drinking of wine to be found in the Bible. This preacher didn’t avoid the contradiction, though. His task, that Sunday morning, was to deal with it head-on, and he did so with the following claim: when Jesus, his disciples, and numerous other people from the Bible are described as drinking wine, that wine actually contained no alcohol. It was not wine as we know it today. It was, rather, merely “strong grape juice.” Those were his exact words.

Even at that young age, I had already started working on building, in my own mind, the best crap detector I could possibly create. (Improving it is still something I work on today.) I didn’t yet realize that real wine would be far safer, before refrigeration existed, than grape juice, simply because alcohol, at the concentrations found in wine, kills lots of disease-causing bacteria. However, that morning, I had learned enough to instantly recognize this “strong grape juice” claim as absolute crap.

Dismissing the preacher as not worthy of further attention, I stood up in our pew, and turned around to face the back of the church. We were sitting near the front, so this let me see most of the congregation. I didn’t need to speak to them — I just wanted to look at them. I remember being stunned by what I saw. Nearly everyone appeared quite attentive to the sermon. Some mouths were half-open, and numerous heads were nodding in agreement with the preacher’s droning nonsense. I figured it out: they were actually accepting what this man was saying as the truth, and were doing so without question! They believed him! At first, I felt dizzy, and then, later, I felt sick. The more I thought about the experience, the worse I felt, and I could think about nothing else for a long time after that church service finally ended.

I’d been exposed to religion many times before, but it always seemed to me that adults didn’t really believe what they were saying, any more than when they told children my age about the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. At that moment, though, I realized I had been mistaken. This was no act. These people, in that church that day, actually believed what they were told. Why? I didn’t know. I still don’t. If that man told them that two plus two equals six, would they believe that? I suspected they would.

I was surrounded by a herd of sheep. That moment of clarity, when I realized this fact, scared me. It made me wonder, and not for the last nor first time, if I had been secretly planted on earth by aliens, as a baby, and without a guidebook.

This is only one of many experiences that convinced me of the importance of skepticism.
The fact that it is so clear, in my memory, leads me to think it was one of the more important of those experiences. It cemented, in my mind, a scary truth: the world is infested with large numbers of incredibly gullible, deluded people. They weren’t like me. I didn’t understand them. They were everywhere. I wasn’t anything like them, and didn’t want to be, either. I was, however, stuck here with them.

I was stranded on the wrong planet, with no prospect for escape, any time soon. That was over forty years ago, and I’m still here.

I Prefer “Skeptic”

If there is one thing people who are not religious have proven they know how to do, it’s quibble over labels.

Atheist. Agnostic. Anti-theist. Non-believer. Non-theist. Non-religious. Bright. Pastafarian. Freethinker. And so on. They don’t all mean the exact same thing, of course, but there are common similarities, such as rejection of religious orthodoxy.

Some of those words apply to me, and some do not. The most familiar, to the largest number of people, is “atheist,” and it’s also a term that can turn a lot of people off in a hurry. Some of us who are atheists avoid using the term for that reason.

I have a different reason for my growing dislike of the word “atheist.” It’s really starting to bug me that the word doesn’t go far enough. It is simply too narrow in focus for my tastes.

All “atheist” really means is that one lacks any belief in any deity. It is possible, therefore — and yes, it happens — to be an atheist, and also believe in all sorts of irrational nonsense which has nothing to do with the divine. For example, there are atheists (not many, but some) who actually accept, and “use,” astrology, homeopathy, numerology, and their own (delusional) superhuman abilities. Even more numerous are the atheists who buy into one or more conspiracy theories. Merely putting a red “A” on one’s Facebook profile-pic does not immunize a person from error.

I don’t want to accept anything as valid without sufficient cause, and there is no reason to focus this attitude exclusively towards religion — nor anything else.

What is sufficient cause for accepting a proposition as valid? Well, mathematical proof certainly works, as does the scientific method (with the latter subject to later revision, of course, but only based on evidence).

I chose my preferred label in reaction to astrology, something I have disliked, intensely, since early childhood.

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Skepticism is an attitude, and it is all-encompassing. It protects the skeptic from accepting the invalid as valid — when correctly and carefully applied, of course. It includes, but is not limited to, skepticism about religious claims. There is, after all, no good reason to have such a limitation.