About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How not to fight religious superstition

In the summer of 1835 the editor in chief of the New York Sun, Richard Adams Locke (a descendant of John the philosopher) started publishing articles relating to the increasingly stunning discoveries of astronomer John Herschel. With his telescope placed in a good observational spot in South Africa, Herschel had unearthed astronomical evidence of lakes on the moon! Over a few days, Locke reported, Herschel’s observations had confirmed first the existence of herds of animals, then of intelligent beings, and finally even of houses of worship on our close planetary companion. The New York Sun’s sales shot up, and New York was awash with talk of the new scientific findings.

Of course, Locke’s reports were actually a hoax, though he was astonished to find out that many people kept believing them even after it was revealed that Herschel (who was, in fact in South Africa at the time, unaware of the scheme) had never made any of the alleged claims. Locke’s was an exercise in ridiculing superstition with the aim of forcing people to realize how gullible and silly their beliefs really are, thereby prompting their abandonment. It failed spectacularly.

What prompted Locke’s experiment was the fact that although astronomy was very popular that year, since Halley’s comet was due to reappear after the summer, many New Yorkers considered it further proof of intelligent design in the universe! You see, obviously God is so powerful that it can throw large celestial objects around as He pleases, the (by then well known to science) laws of mechanics be damned. Locke, much in the fashion of his fellow countryman, Richard Dawkins, thought that the United States was a wonderful place full of energy and promise of change, which would be even better if only Americans could rid themselves of religious nonsense (on the latter point, of course, I am firmly with both Dawkins and Locke). Hence the idea of the hoax, and the sour disappointment that must have followed Locke’s witnessing of New Yorkers’ reaction to it.

The 19th century moon hoax is described in a new book by Matthew Goodman, The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York. It may be difficult to imagine people who lived only less than two centuries ago seriously taking a random block of ice as evidence for a divine creator, but it’s likely that readers of the 23rd century will react with equal astonishment to the news that half of Americans at the dawn of the millennium couldn’t see the obvious fact that we are animals closely related to chimpanzees and gorillas.

The serious question, highlighted by the parallels between the two situations -- is how do we fight superstition. Locke and Dawkins may be amusing to their respective fellow intellectuals (yours truly included), but obviously their sarcasm doesn’t do the job that they intend for it to do. Just in the same way, one might add, that Joe Sixpack or Joe the Plumber surely don’t find The Daily Show with Jon Stewart very funny. Then again, on this blog I recently praised the sarcastic approach to religion used by Bill Maher in his recent movie, Religulous. Along similar lines, a recent National Public Radio commentary on Duck Soup, the classic Marx Brothers movie, reminded us of how biting Groucho and brothers’ social satire could be, in that case making fun of the Great Depression that had started only three years earlier, and that among other things had wiped out the Marxs’ savings, forcing them to go back to acting to make a living (who said there was no positive side to the economic collapse of the nation?).

Satire can change the world, which was the point of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, where monks who translate Aristotle’s writings on comedy are mysteriously killed because once we can make fun of the gods we do not take them seriously anymore, and all hell breaks lose, so to speak. (You are of course better off reading the book, but Sean Connery was certainly charming in the lead role of the corresponding movie.) It has been said that anyone can write a tragedy, because all it takes is to put black on white the way life actually is. But intelligent comedy about society takes real genius, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Groucho to Jon Stewart.

The trick that some get right, but Locke obviously did not, is to aim the satire at the right level and at the right audience. Maher’s critique of religion is much less intellectual than Dawkins’, and therefore all the more effective. Most people don’t believe in god because of the intricacies -- such as they are -- of the ontological argument. It is therefore senseless to explain to them why the argument doesn’t work. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?” There is of course a kind of theological gymnastics that can get you out of that one, but the blank stare on the fake Jesus’ face was priceless: it had clearly never occurred to him that there was a chance that he was the one who picked the wrong religion. Oops!

Similarly with the audience. I’m sure the overwhelming majority of people who watch The Daily Show are cappuccino-drinking, New York Times-reading, Volkswagen Beetle-driving unabashed liberals such as myself (alas, I sold my Beetle when I moved to New York, to reduce my carbon footprint, but you get the point). But his show is so popular that clips of it appear not only on YouTube, but on CNN and other “mainstream” media outlets, thereby greatly enlarging the audience, and likely reaching people who may drink cappuccino but don’t read the New York Times. Some of these people will recognize the commonsense humor that Stewart displays, and may begin to appreciate the absurdity of, say, Sarah Palin’s contradictions on pork barrel spending, and so on.

The world isn’t going to change just because of humor, of course. Nonetheless, today’s New Yorkers really would think it completely silly to look at a comet as proof of intelligent design in the universe, thereby further reducing the scope of supernatural so-called “explanations.” If well done, comedy can help open up people’s minds and prepare the terrain for more serious discourse. But enough of this, I need to go to a comedy club in Manhattan tonight which is featuring The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi. Tickets - $15 (plus mandatory drinks)!


  1. I guess Dawkins and Maher are really addressing different audiences, at different stages in the process of shedding their religious dogma.

    While Maher may be more successful in pointing out just how ridiculous religious beliefs are, Dawkins is more successful in nailing the coffin closed from, what I consider more satisfying, an intellectual point.

    In a weird way the Mahers of the word and the Dawkinses and Hitchenses of the world make a really good tag team. Maher kind of slaps people around and plants in them that seed of doubt, through his comedy and ridicule. Dawkins can take them all the way to the other side with the force of his intellectual arguments.

    I like them both personally, and I think both perform very important, albeit different, aspects of the same job: Rid the World of Religious Insanity.

  2. Now I'm really confused: In previous posts you've said that the problem with Dawkins is that his arguments are too "philosophically unsophisticated." Now you are saying that the reason you prefer Maher is that his arguments are MORE philosophically unsophisticated! Seems like a strange contradiction, perhaps you could clarify.

  3. I think what Massimo was trying to say is that many a believer, or those in the middle ground, are not going to be convinced through heady intellectual arguments, but through Maher's way of going about it.

    On the other hand, if you are going to make intellectual arguments, you should make them well. Here is where I think Massimo is questioning Mr. Dawkins.


  4. Michael,

    you beat me to the punch! That's exactly right. I might hire you as my spokesperson. It comes with the same salary I pay Phil Pollack to edit this blog: a martini once in a while... :)

  5. But what about those people who see themselves as intelligent, but don't have the patience to follow a properly formulated, philosophically sophisticated thesis through to conclusion? They find simplistic pseudo-intellectual arguments the most palatable. You can't deny that there are a large number who fit into that category - perhaps it is here that Dawkins is most useful? :D

  6. Actually, my main beef with Dawkins is that it claims to make a *scientific* argument against god, while in fact he is using a (perfectly valid) *philosophical* argument. In other words, he doesn't give philosophy its due, I don't know whether out of ignorance or intellectual snobbism.

  7. Max, I think that to Richard, philosophy *IS* a branch of science. He's a classical scholar, to whom "natural philosophy" was just early science. (This of Einstein, who never conducted a laboratory experiment in his life; they were all thought experiments; what might actually be called... philosophy.)
    Personally, I think the claim that there is a country called the United States is a big satirical joke. It's clearly two different countries, with the liberals on the coasts, and the Bible Belt in the middle. The USA is really a huge satire created by Europeans as revenge against those uppity enough to think they could govern themselves without recourse to His Soverign Majesty, King George III...

  8. Kimpatsu,

    well, Dawkins may well think that philosophy is a branch of science, but that would show both his ignorance of history (it's actually the other way around) and his disdain for the value of the pretty clear separation of disciplines that has taken place during the last two centuries or more.

    As for the US being two countries, yeah. Bill Maher (the comedian who made Religulous) appeared in the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and made a comment to the effect that the US is a wannabe European, progressive nation which just can't get fully born because it keeps been strangled by fundamentalist ignoramuses living right in the middle of the country.

  9. But when Maher was confronted by a Jesus impersonator who asked him “What if you are wrong?” he simply replied, “Well, what if you are wrong?”


    Dawkins actually has done that...and I think much better than Maher could...

  10. "..a comment to the effect that the US is a wannabe European, progressive nation which just can't get fully born because it keeps been strangled by fundamentalist ignoramuses living right in the middle of the country."

    Being "Progressive" would imply that one aims at being more civil which most progressives really are not. (that is unless one is NOT in support of siding with those who engage in terrorism and people who think that both honor killings and abortion might be okay ...)

    I have no interest whatsoever in us being part of a 'wannabe euro nation'...I AM European. Some of us simply do not share ANY of the ideology and snobbery of those other 'oh so humble' and down trodden countries.

    And strangulation, fyi, always comes from the perimeter, not the interior. Coastal regions tend to have the attitude that anyone with commons sense would live in the upwardly mobile, technologically cutting edge areas. In their shortsightedness, they've forgotten that it is not technology or having everything that makes the world work. It is cooperating and connecting on a meaningful level with your fellow man. If the need for this cannot be understood, well... here you have it...this is pretty much where we are today.

  11. And strangulation, fyi, always comes from the perimeter, not the interior. Coastal regions tend to have the attitude that anyone with commons sense would live in the upwardly mobile, technologically cutting edge areas.

    Absolutely. Take Atlantis as an example. Atlantis would still be standing today, if it were not for the coastal loons!

  12. lol!

    So you thought of the ONE RARE EXCEPTION in ALL OF HUMAN history. Thanks. :) Was it not also thought to be a myth at one time? Atlantis, that is?

    Otherwise, as a rule....well, you know.


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