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I think I was around fifteen years old. The elderly Christian Brother teaching us Religious Studies brought us all downstairs to the video room. The lesson for the day would be a documentary on Our Lady of Garabandal, a supposed “apparition” of Mary somewhere in Spain. The key message from the programme was the Blessed Virgin’s unhappiness with the world. Unless we started saying the Rosary pretty darn quick, terrible unspecified things would happen. No discussion, no criticism. We were expected to accept all of the programme’s premises at face value.

This was a major downside of an Irish Catholic education in the 1980’s. Alongside fairly solid subjects such as maths, science and the foreign languages, we were schooled in rank superstition. This was not educational, it was anti-educational. We left school in possession of a rather toxic mindset: that if a person was wearing the right clothes or had the right prefix before his name, or the right suffix after his name, then you were expected to accept that he was telling the truth, no matter what rubbish he was uttering from his mouth.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when friends of mine were discussing alternative medicine cures for various ailments. There was no analysis, no criticism. The proof was in the anecdote and the anecdote was the gold-standard.

Then there was the hubbub at Knock a few months ago, attracting thousands to witness Joe Coleman muttering nonsense into the middle distance. Many of us might laugh, but it served as a reminder that the Ireland of the moving statues hadn’t gone away, you know.

Pick up any local paper and you will find ads for peddlers of the most outrageous woo, from Chinese medicine to homeopathic treatments to new age crystal remedies. And how could we forget the pyramid schemes and the property bubbles that hit the country over the past few years? It all points a vulnerability common to us all. You might not beat the Irish, but fool us you can, and fool us you do. Every single day.

It’s all quite depressing stuff. If you want to make make a fast buck using nothing but smoke and mirrors, Ireland is as good a place as any to try your hand.

Now, I know that belief in the miraculous, the supernatural and the magical is a worldwide phenomenon. Most societies are steeped in it and it will be with us as long as our species breathe on this planet. Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be good for all of us if our kids were better prepared to accept things more on evidence than on hearsay? Wouldn’t it be better if we were taught how our brains can play tricks on us and how to avoid the more common mistakes? Wouldn’t it benefit us to quickly recognise manipulation by others? Our education system somehow avoided this aspect of our schooling and the results are everywhere to be seen.

The Irish education system, or should I say, the Catholic education system of Ireland (sadly these expressions are synonymous), didn’t dwell too much on such questions, lest we peered too closely at the shaky foundations of Catholicism’s own dogmas and diktats. We were, of course, taught to think critically, but critical thinking had its limits.

I would love to say that the system has improved greatly since I left school and that we are turning out school-leavers who have a much better handle on reality, but I fear that change has been glacially slow. I stand to be corrected in this regard.

It’s another reason why a Catholic education is not necessarily the best education for our schoolchildren. We deserve better. It’s time we got better.

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The creationists are right. We need academic freedom. We can’t just have one view, pounded into us by those pesky scientists. Schools and universities must be forced should be allowed to teach alternative views to their students side by side with science. That’s what education is for, isn’t it? We need Academic Freedom in our schools and we need it NOW!

Here are the principal areas that our educators need to focus on right away:

1) The Earth is Flat. When I go outside the door, it’s flat. Even when I climb a mountain (and I did that once) it still looks flat. Even when I go on a plane, (and I’ve done that too), it’s flat. So the earth being flat is a legitimate scientific view and must be taught in science classes alongside the (rolls-eyes) “oblate spheroid” dogma.

2) The Moon, the Sun and all the stars revolve around the Earth. Well, they do, don’t they? All rising in the east and setting in the west just like they are meant to by God. This Copernican stuff doesn’t wash with me, it didn’t wash with countless popes until 1992, and it shouldn’t wash with you either. So let’s teach the controversy and make sure that those Galileans are knocked back in their corner.

3) If waves need water to pass through to splash on us, then there must be a similar medium in which light passes through in space! It’s called Aether and it deserves a shot. Better than that weird quantum electrodynamic stuff (and far more understandable too, IMHO). Down with Quantum Mechanics! BOO! Up with Aether!

4) Now the “scientists” are always drumming up silly ideas like atoms and molecules when there was a perfectly legitimate theory in place before this new fashioned stuff came into play. It was called Phlogiston Theory. A cool name, eh? Every time you burn something, Phlogiston is released! When you burn an every day object: a match or a heretic perhaps, the weight afterwards is less than the weight before, and the difference is Phlogiston. Academic Freedom dictates that we see Phlogiston get equal treatment to chemistry. 

5) Of course medical doctors are always going on and on about saving people with antibiotics and vaccines and using approaches involving “studies” and “evidence” to find a cure, when there are lots and lots of alternative theories with the great advantage that you don’t need to perform any proper studies at all! Much cheaper, no need to learn tough mathematics like statistics and many of them feel nice and tingly. All you need to do with your chosen therapy is to believe that it will work. If it doesn’t, there are lots more to choose from. We have therapies that give dilute water magical healing properties, that control the flow of chi in your body and that shield us from toxins that cause imbalances. Some of the theories conflict with each other completely but hey, you can choose what theory suits you best! All you need is a big wallet and a mind unbridled by critical oversight. 

So let’s put science in it’s place for once and for all! Let’s ensure that every half-baked hypothesis we have ever dreamt up has legitimate pride of place beside scientific views in our schools and colleges. Just because a theory has “weighty evidence” and “a solid scientific consensus” around it, just because it been tested a million times and has never been disproved, doesn’t mean it should be treated any more seriously than its rivals no matter how off-beat and nonsensical they are. So, let’s take a moment and celebrate the great wonder of ignorance. It beats reality anytime.

(Inspired by this article)

Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.

Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company. 

So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.

My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.

In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities. 

I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.

A local evangelical minister slipped a message in the door today, announcing that there would be a kiddies’ show in the green by the house next week, while I’m out at work. Games, fun and bible stories for all the family. This kind of stuff makes my blood boil.

I’m not easily upset by many things, so I’m trying to understand why this stuff is such an affront to me.

1) It feels dishonest that people would dress up good ol’ bible-bashing with games and parties. Really what they want to do is to convert kids to their thinking when they are young and impressionable, so the whole fun and games thing is merely a device – a cloak – to enable them to reach out to children. To me, that’s just grubby.

2) There is a respect problem here. Surely parents should decide what is acceptable for their children, and what beliefs their children should have? This is a naked attempt to gain influence when none is invited.

3) There seems to be a pushiness about evangelicalism that requires them to go out and convert others to their ways. This only puts people’s back up, not because “Satan” is trying to lead us in another direction, but because we are entitled to our own personal views being considered and appreciated. Maybe “we” are right and “they” are wrong, but it’s not something that seems to be considered by them. They give the impression of talking, but not listening.

4) Evangelicanism feeds on human frailties and vulnerabilities. The tactic seems to be to catch people at a low ebb in their life, or to catch people who are too trusting for their own good. To me, this just feels wrong. Similar tactics have been used in other parts of the world by other ideologies, with sometimes devastating results. It’s so much about emotion, and less so about logic and reason.

Finally, (and possibly most importantly)…

5) Anyone with a modicum of scientific understanding of the world would realise that Evangelicalism is based on utterly false premises. Something is very wrong with a world-view that repudiates evolution and believes in a 6,000 year old Earth, the creation of the world in literally 6 days, the absolute inerrancy of the bible, the division of humanity into sinners and saved, and this utopian idea that all will be well if we follow the Bible. It’s a view that belongs in the Dark Ages, and yet it’s a view that is gaining currency in the supposedly enlightened developed world. It deserves to be lumped into the same bucket as astrology, crystals, faith-healing and soothsaying should be.

I guess those are the main reasons I feel annoyed about this. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I’m off base in some of my criticisms, but I do genuinely feel, given the complexities of this world and the challenges that we face, that all we need are people throwing religion into our face and telling us that all will be ok if we submit to the Law of Jesus Christ.

Please, blog to your heart’s content on the Internet, minister as you wish to your congregations, do good things for charity, pray to your god in whatever way you wish. But keep our kids out of it.

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