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One Voice of the JREF PDF Print E-mail
Written by Hal Bidlack   

As part 2 to the follow up to the now infamous Denny's article, I asked Hal Bidlack if I could republish a piece he did in 2003. Instead, he sent this, which encompasses a more up-to-date understanding from him. Hal's voice is not the only voice, but he IS representative of the some of the people involved with the JREF. He has served on the Board of Directors, and has spoken, performed, and hosted at every single Amaz!ng Meeting and an Amaz!ng Adventure or two. His Wikipedia entry is here. Please consider what he has to say. You can also listen at this Skepticality link (scroll down to episode 57 from July 2007.) - Jeff Wagg

As a person who has spent quite a bit of time in recent years working on promoting the skeptical movement, I am troubled by the degree to which I now find myself feeling pushed away from that very thing. In a society in which religious belief, particularly in recent years, has intruded significantly on individual choice and freedom, I have ironically chosen to align myself with a segment of society least accepting on issues of faith.

I understand the militancy in some areas of atheism is a ‘blow back' from the strong Christian fundamentalism seeking to limit our choices, tell us what we must believe, and most dangerously of all, to breach the wall of separation between church and state. Few issues concern me more in the political world, for I am a political junkie, than this effort to vanquish this vital protection for all Americans. Thus, it pains me to find myself growing increasingly uncomfortable in the company of skeptics, who seem sometimes intent on bringing an equal and opposite fundamentalist passion to issues of faith.

At TAM5, no less than three well-intended individuals attempted to ‘save' me from my non-atheism, one even had pamphlets, with no less ardor than religious zealots bring to their cause. Some of my dear friends attempt to somehow make it "ok" for me to be a Deist by trying to convince me that it's really just the same as atheism, I just don't quite understand it correctly. They apologize on my behalf, and condone my naiveté, sure that I will come around some day.

My belief in a non-intervening god is, they tell me, just the same as not believing in God at all, and therefore we are on the same side. I sharply differ, in that the key issue for me is God/no-god, not the form therein. I believe I should be able to decide what I believe. I am tired of being told I am stupid, but I can get better.

Thus a great passion in my life, skepticism, is becoming more and more difficult. I find myself more and more drawn to the mission, and more and more estranged from those who walk the path with me. It is not without irony to note that the methods of religious extremists push moderates away from a particular faith. Within the skeptical movement, those who insist that atheism is the only single correct worldview, and that that view must be the lens through which all critical thinking issues are viewed, push me away. Perhaps it is not great loss; it is hubris to suspect one person really matters. But it saddens me, for I do not believe that my Deism renders me unable to be of service.

I am delighted to be here with you. I remain humble and deeply appreciative of the opportunity to speak here today. I count many dear friends in this audience, and frankly, some of the smartest people on the planet are sitting in this room, and that is a tad bit intimidating. Months ago when we first were talking about TAM4, and what I might say, I suggested that it might be interesting for me to offer a few remarks on my non-atheism, and then it might be interesting to have a panel discussion. Mr. Randi said he thought that could be interesting. He said, "ok, Hal, you talk, and then we'll have a panel of nine brilliant atheists, and you."

Given the intellectual gravitas of my fellow speakers, several weeks ago I asked for some advice on how to properly present my views. The insightful Mr. Randi suggested I simply start my own international foundation, endow it with a million dollars, and grow a beard. The very model of the erudite scholar, Mr. Hitchens told me all I needed to do was speak with a flawless British accent, and write brilliantly in a major magazine. Penn kindly offered that juggling fire was usually the way to win an audience over and impress the ladies. The beautiful and brilliant Ms Sweeney said that all it took was to give a great speak was to first have a sold out one-person theater show, win a west coast Tony award, then take it to New York, get rave reviews, and then give the talk while wearing your Tony as a medallion. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman said I should just blow something up, then shoot it with a frozen chicken.  Finally, the kindly Dr. Shermer told me that I'd just have to hold the audience's attention with the brilliance of my oratory. Then he burst out laughing, not quite sure what that was about.

But in any case, I am pleased to be here. I deeply treasure my relationship with Mr. Randi and his life's work. I remain honored that he calls me friend, and it has been my pleasure to take part in each of the TAMs thus far. And being Linda Shallenberger's friend makes almost every day a good one.  I'm especially pleased my son is here today, as is my older brother.  They are both named Chris, as we Bidlacks are strong believers in recycling.

Let me begin by clearly stating, I'm a bit odd.  I like to think that I'm a skeptic, that for the most part, I practice reasonable critical thinking skills. But there are folks who argue, with a range of intensity, that one can not truly be a skeptic unless one is also an atheist. In my time with you today, I will speak to this issue, and if you will indulge me, I'll offer my thoughts on how I rationalize this seeming contradiction to myself.

I regret that to explain myself, I must discuss this issue in rather personal terms. I don't like that, I've a very private person, and I feel discussing one's own feelings and emotions in public is at best awkward and at worst self-indulgent. I am not comfortable talking about these things. But for this issue, the issue of what are usually called religious beliefs, I find I must delve into the personal, and for that I beg your pardon. To me, matters of such beliefs are intensely personal, intensely private. Plus, this speech is basically unfair. It is unfair because it is, to a large degree, based on emotion and feelings. Such things are not often the stuff of clear critical thinking. But unfortunately, for me, this issue is about emotion, about feelings, and thus I am trapped into such pursuing such a path. As I first typed these words my mind flashed back to the lesson I teach on Dr. Sagan's Demon Haunted World chapter on logical fallacies. If you are keeping score, appeal to emotion will be a recurring one for me today. But as we are all friends here, I shall chance it.

I suspect that only a very few are able to move through life with unwavering belief systems. I am not one of those people. I am, in many things, inconsistent. But I take some comfort in the words of Aldous Huxley, who wrote "Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead."  It is almost trite to talk about spiritual journeys. I confess I don't really know what a spiritual journey is. I think most people ebb and flow in their views, their beliefs. The most perfect explanation of this process thus far, I think, is Julia Sweeney's magnificent "letting go of God," a show I've seen five times, and from which I learn more each time.

When I was a little kid, my parents thought it best to expose my brother and me to organized religion, so that we could make up our own minds. We briefly attended the United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, and I sang in the youth choir as a 10 year old. I don't remember any real spiritual epiphanies during that time. I do remember once literally looking for God. We were sitting in the church during a Sunday service, and I remember clearly thinking that God must be here, because it was a Sunday in church. And I remember looking for some testable and replicable evidence of his presence. I looked up in the light fixtures first, assuming that he would be hovering up there, I guess. I saw nothing, I felt nothing. Not too long after that, we stopped going to church at all.

As I aged, I remember being a bit jealous of classmates with a deep, traditional religious faith. How comforting it must be, I remember thinking, to know absolutely what's true about life, the universe, and everything. In a sad effort to impress a young lady, I went with her to her church's evening revival service, and observed people, including her, talking in tongues and flailing about. There was not a second date.

But I longed, and still long, to know more, to learn more, about, well, everything. But people who know with absolute certainty that they are right, and with the same absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong about such things disquiet me.

And now I must say something that may shock you. When I was in high school, I was a bit of a geek, with a nerdish veneer.  Yes, it's true.  I really and truly was president, at different times, of both the Audio-Visual Club and the Astronomy Club. I'm the guy who ran the planetarium. A shocking revelation, I know. So, as you can imagine, I spent a good deal of time alone, thinking about things, feeling sorry for myself, and pondering the great questions of the universe. That, while wearing Nehru shirts and checkered pants. Ah, the glory that was the 1970s. It was also about this time that I first had a chance to see a bearded magician on the Tonight Show, and to learn a bit about his work.

I suspect that like many people, perhaps even most, I've felt like an outsider much of the time. And I know enough psychology to know that most people, at some level, would like to feel accepted, feel like part of something greater than themselves.  I am nearing the end of over 25 years of service as an officer in the United States Air Force. I spent that entire time as a Democrat and a non-Christian, and that can definitely make you feel like an outsider. I'll have a great deal more to say about that issue on September 2nd, the day after I formally retire.

I started college as an astronomy major, switching over to political science a couple of years later due to my decision to enter the Air Force, as well as my life-long passion for politics. And it was about this time, my junior year that the most amazing thing happened: I met a woman willing to go out with me a second time. So I married her. And we had three wonderful kids, and made a home together. All was reasonably well for the next 20 years or so, up until the Spring of 2001. And it is the events of the past four years or so that brings me to my view of things theological, and causes me to say I'm a deist today.

In April of 2001, my second tour as a faculty member at the Air Force Academy in Colorado was ending, and I needed to find a new assignment. Martha and I talked, and given that the next fall would be our son's senior year of High School, neither of us wanted to move him and our daughters. So it was decided that I would accept a transfer to Washington DC, and she and the kids would stay in Colorado until I could retire at the 20 year point, then some two years hence. So I took a job at the State Department, working as the military advisor to the ambassador charged with helping the former Soviet States. As I was homesick for my wife and kids, I admit I had some trouble sleeping, and was feeling the effects of that problem. So, I called over to the Pentagon medical clinic, which took care of the military folks in town, to see if I could get an appointment. They told me to come over the next day at 8:30 am, September 11th, 2001.  And so I went there that morning.

I will spare you any details or vivid stories. Basically, I was drafted to help with the triage area, dealing with burns, head wounds, ambulances, and such. I don't like talking about that day. It was a very bad day, and now four years later, just thinking about it brings back the images to my mind as if it was yesterday. I'm not proud to confess that I later developed a sleeping problem with nasty nightmares most every night, that continues to plague me to this day. When you have seen something like that, or more viscerally stated, when you have felt, endured, lived through something like that, you want there to be someone, something to which you can appeal.  I close my eyes and it is as real, as immediate, as it was that day. I can still see the smoke, still see the fire, the wounded building and the wounded people.

In discussing the resulting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with a therapist, something, by the way, that made me very uncomfortable, I came to understand that the dominate emotion I feel regarding 9/11 is guilt. We were ordered to evacuate the building, and I did. But to this day I feel guilt over not running into the fire, rather than away from it. I'm a big guy, I might have been able to help someone. This is not, of course, a rational thought, but I can't think rationally about that day. As I stood my post near the triage area, we were warned a second aircraft was on the way. I stood my ground, of course, as that was my post, but I was very afraid, I'll admit. And to me the most vivid memory of that day is not an image, but the horrible, horrible sound of the metal roof caving in. I should have been in there, in case there was someone I could have pulled out in time. Guilt is a terrible mistress, and I desperately wanted something greater than myself to be in charge, to make things better, to grant absolution. But, nothing does.

Not too many weeks after that day, on a Friday, Martha called me to tell me she had returned from the doctor and they had told her that she had cancer. Never in my life have I felt so helpless, so inadequate, so alone. I longed to hold her, to support her, to be there for her, but I was two time zones away. After a tearful call, I began to make plans for my immediate return home. And I prayed. I prayed harder than I had ever prayed in my life. I begged God to let her beat this illness, to please, PLEASE make it all ok again. Even then, I don't think I ever thought those prayers mattered at all, I never thought they would work, but I prayed anyway. Why? I think it is because I was human, confronted with something far beyond my control. I paced back and forth in my apartment for what seemed like hours, trying to find a way to fix this. I'm an American male, we are conditioned to fix things, to make things better, to be in charge. But I couldn't do anything. I wanted something to help, since I could not.

I think we can bifurcate our brains, to a degree. There was always a rational part of my intellect, a small voice in my head reminding me of the rational, of the scientific, of the real. But as the illness became more advanced, I prayed harder. The Air Force sent me back to Colorado, and for a few months, we thought we had the cancer beaten. But it returned. As Martha endured first radiation and then chemo, I prayed. I felt so helpless. As apparently often happens during terminal illnesses, I prayed first for her recovery, but eventually for her comfort, for her dignity.

I will spare you details, but suffice it to say that despite the hard work of the medical professionals, the illness was very rough. At one point near the end, she said to me through the tears, "if you've ever loved me, you'll make the pain stop." I talked to the doctors, insisting on more pain medications that I knew could not fully work. And I prayed for the pain to stop. I know that that is not rational, but I did pray. I begged a god I did not believe could intervene to do so.  The pain, of course, did not stop.

At the same time, I was fighting other battles. An early hospital roommate was an evangelical Christian, whose preacher came to pray, loudly, on the other side of the curtain. Because they were basically good people, they were pained by Martha's suffering, and started to pray for her and came to me to ask my permission to pray actively over her in her bed.  Such bellowing caused Martha discomfort, so told them no, and asked them to quiet down, please. The nurses were kind enough to move us to a private room that evening. Later, I found one of Martha's best friends, a woman of deep religious passion, holding her hand and praying passionately for a miracle.  I took her aside and forbad any further such efforts. I turned down a well intended but bizarre offer of a blanket filled with magnets. One person, through her own cigarette smoke, urged me to buy a particular type of herb, which, she told me, could cure cancer.

During her illness, Martha once asked me, alone at night in bed, if I believed in Heaven. I had promised her I would never, ever lie to her about her illness, her prognosis, or anything, so I answered honestly. I said I didn't know, but I hoped so. But in any case, I was not worried by death. I asked her how the 4.5 billion years after the Earth formed but before she was born had been for her. She smiled. Later, near the end, I was laying with her in her hospital bed, talking. She had lots of conflicting things being said to her by nice people trying to help. She quietly asked me "am I going to die?" and I held her hand and said "yes." She didn't cry, she didn't fuss. She just said "ok." She was accepting, she was finally at peace. She was an atheist, by the way.

We lost Martha on October 20th, 2003. And that was also the very last day I ever prayed. I am sometimes asked why I say I'm a deist, and not a theist. The answer is very simple: I can not believe in a god that would torture such a lovely woman to death, through the horror that is cancer. I can not believe in a god that would undo such an illness simply because a particular prayer was offered. I believe Martha's cancer came from a biological misfire, not from a divine test of faith.

To paraphrase the well-known quote, I do not believe in a god that alters the laws of physics, chemistry, of science generally in response to the appeals of a single person. Kierkegaard said, "Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays." I suspect that's correct. It made me feel a tiny bit better to pray. It made me feel a tiny bit less helpless to pray. And when I finally did lose her, it didn't work at all any more.

So if I am a deist, what the heck to I believe? I must confess, I really don't know. For whatever reason, be it self-delusion, immaturity, echoes of my youth, or whatever, I have this odd sense of something greater than myself, of being part of a remarkable universe. I still am thrilled by the sights at the end of a telescope lens, by pictures from the Hubble, or Mars. I guess I believe a bit like Jefferson, in the possibility, the possibility of a cosmic clockmaker, winding up the universe untold eons ago, to wind randomly and unplanned down through the laws of science and probability.

I have absolutely no idea where the big bang came from, and I don't for one moment claim that only god could have been behind it. But it gives me a bit of comfort to hope so.

And let me be very, very clear on something. I am NOT talking about the nonsense that is called "intelligent design." ID is, well, crap. I am talking about the merest possibility that there was some force, something at some point back in time that maybe gave physics the slightest little push. And from that moment on, the only laws that controlled where stars formed, where planets coalesced, were amino acids formed were the laws of physics, of chemistry, of science. To me this is the core of deism. A theist, as I understand it, believes in a god that can and does intervene, that designs, that acts in the lives of people. A deist, I think, believes none of that, merely that there is a chance that there is, or was, or might have been something out there. Pretty weak, isn't it. A friend once told me that a deist is just an agnostic without guts. Maybe.  I agree with Albert Einstein who wrote "I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil." And with  Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote "I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time."

I joked earlier about the panel that follows my talk being stacked nine to one for atheism. On some level that's true. But I suspect I agree with my learned colleagues on far more things than we disagree. So let me clearly state some things I stipulate to:

  • There is no, absolutely no, empirical, replicable, valid evidence for any god
  • I readily admit that I may be simply deluding myself, for frank psychological gain and comfort
  • As a deist, I do not believe in an active god, one that interacts in any way at all with humans. I do not believe the laws of science or probability are altered in response to the special pleadings of one person
  • I specifically claim that my beliefs, unsettled though they are, are inherently un-testable. Any religious claims involving such god/human interaction are testable, and therefore falsifiable
  • There is no scientifically reliable evidence for life after death. I have no expectation of being reunited with Martha, I do not think she watches over the kids or me. I admit I do hope there is an afterlife, but I doubt it.

And so, I am a convoluted, inconsistent pile of contradictions. I am absolutely certain about nothing at all.

I have been very fortunate in life to have had a remarkable collection of people be willing to be my friend. I have been privileged to be closely involved with two non-profit educational organizations in my adult life: The Windstar Foundation and The JREF.

Windstar is an environmental education and outreach organization founded by the late John Denver. We had annual meetings, much like TAM, in Aspen each August for ten years. John was a wonderful man, and I'm honored to have been his friend. But John to some degree, and quite a few Windstar people to a much larger degree, were religious, but in a very non-traditional way. They usually preferred the term "spiritual."  At Windstar conferences when I was a speaker, I was accused of being too rational, too literal, too limited in vision, too tied to science, logic, and evidence by those who thought of this planet as Mother Earth and did a lot of humming. At JREF, my deist status makes me just the opposite, the irrational fellow who thinks silly fluffy things. All that changed was who I stood next to.  But I find value and friendship in both groups.

So, with all that said, does a person have to be an atheist to be a good skeptic? Frankly, I don't know, but I don't think so. It seems to me that whenever a person makes a testable claim, be it about dowsing, or talking to the dead, or about spiritual matters, we are in the realm of things where the JREF challenge makes sense. Mr. Randi does not attempt to test the untestable.

And, you will note, I have carefully crafted my little deist world in such a way as to have not testable claims therein. If I believed prayer reduced Martha's pain, that would be testable. If I believed a faith healer could cure an illness, such a claim would be testable. If I believe in any theistic view involving divine intervention in daily life, that intervention could well be testable. Water to wine? Testable. Stigmata? Testable. Praying for a hurricane to miss a town, or, more recently, for god to strike down the good citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, not testable. In short, if the claim is falsifiable, it is likely testable. If not, no dice.

I believe Mr. Randi is very wise to set religious issues aside, for the most part, in the formal work of the JREF. As the core claims of faith are inherently non-falsifiable, there is little to be gained in wading through that minefield. The JREF relies on voluntary contributions to keep going. And the vast majority of the potential donor base does not embrace atheism.  According to a study entitled "American Religious Identification Survey" by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in 2001,

81% of American adults identify themselves with a specific religion:

  • 76.5% (159 million) of Americans identify themselves as Christian.
  • 52% of Americans identified themselves as Protestant.
  • 24.5% are Roman Catholic.
  • 1.3% are Jewish.
  • 0.5% are Muslim, followers of Islam.
  • The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca -- Numbers of adherents went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months.
  • 14.1% do not follow any organized religion.
  • The unaffiliated vary from a low of 3% in North Dakota to 25% in Washington State.

Thus I argue that an organization dedicated to the larger issues of critical thinking and skepticism would be unwise to declare its mandate to include atheism as a core requirement.

I said a little ways back that people who have absolute certainty about matters such at this, in either direction, make my uneasy. I do admit that one of my favorite bumper stickers reads "militant agnostic: I don't know and you don't either." But some atheists, some whom I think of as good friends,  seem to argue that to believe in god in any way at all is to somehow be spoiled, not true to the calling, tainted, impure, and, not a real skeptic.

Some declare with militant certainty that there is no god. Not that there is no evidence of god (I agree with that), but that there is not now, and has never been, god. They sometimes say this with a passion that seems, at least to me, to echo the vehemence of fundamentalists of various faiths around the globe. I do not say that to be insulting, but rather to hope for a willingness to agree to disagree about those things we must, and to work together on those things we can.

And remember, dear friends, I willingly confessed a moment ago that I have carefully constructed my little belief system, or security blanket, or self-delusion, or what ever you like to call it in such a way as to be untestable. As Karl von Clausewitz wrote, "Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating." Perhaps I am fascinated by wondering about something greater than myself. Perhaps I muse on something less meaningful and substantial than the echo of a shadow. I don't know. There is a great deal I don't know.

I guess it kind of comes down to a much misused and misunderstood word, "believe." I don't know what I believe. I do know what I accept. I accept replicable and verifiable scientific results. I accept gravity, I accept evolution, I accept plate tectonics. I stand ready to reject any of those ideas should valid conflicting scientific evidence come forward. I think that is the key to critical thinking, the willingness to discard old theories when a more parsimonious explanation comes along, and then to be willing to discard that one if the weight of new evidence becomes compelling. But, I believe in god. I know it is not scientific, I know it is not testable. I know that. But I still do.

I can't answer the question for this talk, and for the panel that follows, "can a skeptic believe in god?" So you must decide the question, can a person such as me really be a skeptic? In part, the discussion is mere semantics. But at another level it is more. I believe educational efforts like the JREF are best when they are most inclusive, most outgoing and outreaching.

So the question really becomes not "can a skeptic believe in god?" as I think I am such a person.  The question becomes, can we all sit down together?

I think the JREF tent is a large one, and can help us educate, reach out, and motivate critical thinking in so many areas. I do not think that difference on untestable claims need permanently divide us. I think we can disagree on god, but still agree that John Edward is the biggest ________ in the universe.

I'm so pleased to be part of JREF, I'm so honored that he lets me speak to you today. I am reminded of the words of Woody Allen when he said, "To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition." Maybe I'm just that. My thanks to Mr. Randi, to Linda, to Kramer, and the entire JREF family. Thank you very much.