Monday, July 30, 2007

Psychic Wins the $50,000 Paranormal Challenge?

On May 6, 2007, the Independent Investigations Group conducted a public test of the psychic Nigel Britman (and yes, that's me keeping score at the chalkboard). The audience was shocked to find Mr. Britman choosing from five Zener cards with a much higher success rate than would have been expected. Did he win the $50,000 paranormal challenge prize? Was he cheating? How should tests of paranormal ability be properly conducted? Read the report and watch the entire event to find out.

Getting The Religion Beat Out Of Us

William Lobdell is a respected local [Southern California] journalist who I've listened to often on my favorite station, KPCC. What I didn't know is that he used to be the religion beat reporter for the LA Times. In this poignant article in a recent Sunday edition, William Lobdell describes the process that led him to find faith, to report on religion, and eventually to lose his faith. I use the words "faith" and "religion" carefully here, because it was the church's abuses, and not some aspect of his personal walk, that led him away from belief.

Though he was eager to write about religion, and found many positive things to report on, Bill Lobdell was shocked to encounter what my pastor refers to as "the three-ring circus of God stuff." Sexual abuse by priests - the church's campaign to cover their tracks and intimidate victims into silence - a priest's avoidance of child support on a technicality - the exorbitant excesses of the TBN Network and false healers like Benny Hinn. All of this gave religion a bad taste in Lobdell's mouth, and provided him an excuse to attend church less and avoid committing as a member of the Catholic Church. He came to see his past religious experience as the product of being ground down and made emotionally raw at a vulnerable time in his life.

I admire Lobdell's writing and his honesty, and respect the path that has lead him to become "an agnostic, leaning toward atheist" (as he described himself in a live chat following the article's publication). I was intrigued, however, by his approach to disbelief and how different it was from my own. When I set out on my own process of questioning, I made sure to separate out the actions of fellow believers. I wasn’t interested in examples of hypocrisy, or how others had treated me (Dr. Laura Schlesinger, for example, switched from Judaism to Christianity because she didn’t like how the Jewish community treated her – a terrible way to choose a belief system), or even the success or failure of Christian communities. I was more interested in the truth claims themselves (miracles/providence/resurrection/prayer/angels/biblical inspiration/virgin birth), and how well they meshed with the real world – all that other stuff seemed ancillary. It was the factual and logical truth that really mattered to me. After all, if there really is a God, and Jesus is his son, no amount of hypocrisy by co-religionists should keep a believer from being a follower of Christ.

As a result of his approach, it seems like Bill Lobdell is still on shaky ground – he wants to believe, but simply can’t. He says in the transcript, “I got a lot of crap from atheists for using the phrase ‘gift of faith,’ but that's how it feels to me. I just don't have it anymore.” Though I have no desire to give him crap, it seems Bill Lobdell has what Daniel Dennett would describe as “belief in belief.” It goes something like this: “I don’t personally believe, but I think believing in general is a good thing, and I recommend that others aspire to having faith.” In other words, he just hasn’t thought hard enough about the reality of the truth claims involved or grappled with the tough questions toward a conclusion. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why would a loving God allow his representatives to commit such abuses of power? When one truly disbelieves, there is no envy for the 'gift of faith.'

My guess is that a significant portion of the world shares Lobdell's "belief in belief" - floating somewhere between fully believing and fully disbelieving. It seems to me like Lobdell is just weary and [understandably] scarred by the whole subject, and I don’t think he’s settled yet on what the truth is. Here's hoping that he's able to find some solid answers, and some happiness along the way. (Thanks to Wendy for the link, and to Paul for kicking off the discussion)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Santa Fe Ghost: Less than Meets the Eye

I was listening to a recent episode of Skepticality (another great podcast I heartily recommend) in which Derek and Swoopy interview Benjamin Radford about his investigation of the Santa Fe Courthouse ghost video. The original footage of an orange blob moving across the field of a courthouse security camera achieved insta-fame on YouTube, where it garnered over 100,000 hits in its first month online. The only problem is that the shape looks more like a small spider crawling on the camera lens than anything paranormal. It has tiny little legs and moves from one edge of the frame to the other without disappearing or flickering.

Instead of casually dismissing the footage (as I just did in the above paragraph), Benjamin Radford decided to test the "bug" theory by replicating the same effect on the same camera at the same time of day. He used a ladybug (which required him to obtain and bring tons of the critters), and replicated the footage quite convincingly. Now that's what I call an investigation.

Kudos to the Irvine Mosque

When I see leaders of the Islamic community interviewed on radio or TV, they are frequently accused of silence in the face of terrorism by their co-religionists. The question usually takes the form of, "Why didn't you release a public statement denouncing that attack?" The response is, "We did, but no one picks up those stories." It seems the underlying sentiment is that Muslims in America are sympathetic to acts of terrorism, or perhaps are worried that they might draw the ire of other, more militant Muslims by speaking out against them.

After hearing this sort of exchange numerous times, I was heartened to hear about the leaders of the Islamic Center of Irvine. After Craig Monteilh, age 44, converted to Islam and joined his local Mosque in Irvine, he began making references to Jihad and showed willingness to partake in attacks on U.S. military targets. Instead of ignoring his behavior, or encouraging it, Mosque leaders notified officials and obtained a restraining order against Monteilh.

My hat's off to the Muslim community in Irvine for doing the right thing. Read more at