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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/3/20

The Trillion-Dollar Fraud

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Think of the amazing number of supernatural beliefs held by people:

Gods, goddesses, devils, demons, angels, heavens, hells, purgatories, limbos, miracles, prophecies, visions, auras, saviors, virgin births, immaculate conceptions, resurrections, bodily ascensions, faith-healings, exorcisms, salvation, redemption, messages from the dead, voices from Atlantis, omens, magic, clairvoyance, spirit-signals, divine visitations, incarnations, reincarnations, second comings, judgment days, astrology horoscopes, psychic phenomena, extra-sensory perception, telekinesis, voodoo, fairies, leprechauns, werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, warlocks, ghosts, wraiths, poltergeists, dopplegangers, incubi, succubi, palmistry, tarot cards, ouija boards, levitation, out-of-body travel, magical transport to UFOs, Elvis on a flying saucer, invisible Lemurians in Mount Shasta, Thetans from a dying planet, etc., etc.

That's about 60 varieties and you can probably think of others I overlooked.

All these magical beliefs are basically alike. There's no tangible evidence for any of them. You can't test supernatural claims; you're expected to swallow them by blind faith. The only "proof" for them is that they were "revealed" by some prophet, guru, astrologer, shaman, mullah, mystic, swami, psychic, soothsayer or "channeler".

Well, considering the human brain's vaunted power of logic, you'd think that people everywhere would reject magical assertions that can't be verified. But the opposite is true. Billions of people embrace them. Almost all of humanity prays to invisible spirits and envisions a mystical realm. Virtually every leader invokes the deities. Supernaturalism pervades our whole species, in one form or another.

Around the planet, varying from culture to culture, the phenomenon is nearly universal. It consumes billions of person-hours and trillions of dollars. Millions of prayers to unseen beings are uttered every day, and millions of rituals performed. This extravaganza requires a vast array of priests and personnel, and a vast array of buildings and facilities. The cost is astronomical. Americans alone give $70 billion a year to churches, more than the national budgets of many countries. Other supernatural investment is enormous. For example, Americans spend $300 million a year on psychic hot-lines.

In this mighty ocean of spirituality, only a few rebels dare to ask: What if it's all untrue? What if no spirit realm exists, and the whole enterprise is a fantasy? What if people don't live after death? What if thousands of years of kneeling, praying, worshiping, sacrificing, fighting holy wars, torturing heretics and the like was, and continues to be, a monumental waste?

What if the emperor has no clothes?

What if the whole supernatural spectrum and its huge army of practitioners constitute a trillion-dollar fraud?

Well, we skeptics are fairly certain that the entire mystical realm is a delusion, a global self-deception. But few Americans agree with us. We are a tiny fringe, so outnumbered that it's almost forbidden to voice our view. No television network or mainstream magazine or other mass medium would dare say that religion isn't divine. And when we say it, hardly anyone listens.

To make matters worse, we're losing ground in some intellectual circles. In the past, we could feel confident that the most intelligent, educated thinkers regarded miracle claims as bogus. But this former fact of life is being undercut by the trend called postmodernism.

In academia these days, many say that the "truths" of supernatural religion are just as valid as the "truths" of science or the "truths" of history learned through centuries of human experience. Postmodernists proclaim that all knowledge is subjective, merely the perceptions of the perceiver.

Well, I don't want to bog down in deep extremes of philosophy in the abstruse question of whether it's possible to know anything beyond "cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). Descartes showed that all I can know with certainty is that my mind exists and is receiving impressions, and it's only an assumption that the impressions are a valid picture of external reality.

Leaving that enigma aside, and looking at human reality as we live it, I think we can conclude that postmodernism is baloney. In our everyday, practical world, some things are real and others are bogus. Some things are trustworthy, and others aren't. Some obviously work, and some obviously fail. We can see it through simple common sense.

If your child develops pneumonia, you don't hire a witch-doctor to shake rattles and chant incantations; you seek antibiotics and the best professional care. You don't consider one treatment as good as the other. In other words, you believe in science, not supernaturalism, because your intelligence has taught you that one is real and the other is quacko.

Or if your car breaks down, you don't pray for the engine to be healed; you seek a skilled mechanic and a well-equipped garage. You know that prayer is no more effective than rattle-shaking while the intelligent technology of motor repair really works (most of the time).

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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