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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 13

The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired. --Seneca

October 8, 2002

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      1)   New or revised entries
      2)   Feedback
      3)   News


 1) New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge: Since the last newsletter, I


 2) Feedback

Gordon Kingman had a few choice words for the business management student who offered statistical proof that God was there on September 11th (see Newsletter 12) by noting such things as that many people survived and the airplanes weren't full.

I'm sorry, but I have to comment. The letter shown in your newsletter (#12) simply irritated me beyond holding my tongue. Those statistics simply show that the writer hasn't been paying attention (or has been, but to the wrong sources). Addressing the aircraft first, the reports I tuned in to suggested that those lightly loaded planes were chosen for a reason: to allow the hijackers to manage the passengers more easily. The flights had been previously scoped and chosen for that purpose, among others. As for the buildings, I don't know how many people were in the buildings at the onset of the attacks, but there was an hour's worth of evacuation going on before the final collapse. Those emergency workers saved a tremendous amount of life that day, often at their own expense. As for "Where was God?", Islamic extremists would say He was right there, piloting the aircraft into their targets. God is in the mind of the perpetrator.

To which, some might add: Amen. Dave from Pennsylvania agrees with Gordon.

Regarding the stats (N. Illinois Univ. letter) which described large planes carrying relatively few passengers: I think the terrorists deliberately avoided crowded flights to minimize the possibility of being foiled by passengers. I'm not certain that the terrorists were actually able to determine which flights were booked solid, and which weren't -- an inside man at the airport perhaps -- but in my book, it's got a greater likelihood than the existence of God.

I'm not an expert in statistics, but I'm sure we'll have no trouble finding someone who is and who will tell us exactly what the odds are. Some things are easier to figure out, like what are the odds that the Lotto numbers on 9/11 in New York would be 9, 1 and 1? The odds are 1000 to 1. (Some people think the odds of such a coincidence are astronomical and wondered loudly what could possibly be meant by such a concurrence of events.) What are the odds that anyone's birth date will occur in sequence in the random digits of pi? Mine occurs at position 12,294,940 counting from the first digit after the decimal point. If I only use the last two digits of my year of birth, my birth date occurs at position 26,200 counting from the first digit after the decimal point. Now, figure out how old I am. To find where your birth date occurs in pi, go to Pi-Search.


3) News

On October 7th I attended a candlelight vigil and prayer meeting. Some of you may wonder what an atheist does at a candlelight vigil and prayer meeting. Well, he stands there silently and listens to others give testimony to God's blessings. Silently, he is amazed as one person thanks God for helping him deal with the death of a son in a car accident, another thanks God for helping him travel from Vietnam to Washington D.C. to witness the death of his newborn son, others thank God for the good people who have helped them cope with their mental illnesses. I'm amazed at their resilience and at how they are able to repress any thoughts that God might have had something to do with their troubles. I know it's a coping mechanism, but I think there's more to it than that.

You might wonder why an atheist would attend a prayer meeting. For the past several years, I have attended the opening ceremonies of our county's Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). The ceremony is followed by a potluck dinner at a refuge for the mentally ill known as Haven House. The ceremony is held near the county courthouse and is sponsored by the local affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. My wife, the good person in our household, does a lot of volunteer work for the local group, including maintaining their Web site. (If you look at the site, you'll see she is also the creative one in the family.) She recruits me each year to attend the opening ceremony as a kind of token body to swell the size of the crowd. Truth be told, if my wife didn't volunteer me to do good deeds, I probably wouldn't do any. But this year the group decided to combine their annual candlelight vigil (which I had been able to avoid volunteering for until now) with the potluck dinner. So, there I was, a withering atheist among all these bright flowers giving testimony to God's blessings. Never mind that half of them suffer from debilitating mental illness. They give testimony. I want to stand up and say if there is a God, then you people are It. Your courage in dealing with your diseases is beyond admiration. The world scorns you, abuses you, mistreats you, hates you, but you carry on. You suffer as none of your abusers do. Yet, they suffer from a disease much worse than yours. For, they suffer from the worst disease of all: ignorance.

But, of course, I don't say anything. I watch in admiration. A friend of mine points out a person in the crowd. The person he points out is neatly attired, with trim beard and beaming smile. "That's the minister I had a run-in with awhile ago," says my friend. "He thinks the mentally ill are demonically possessed." My friend is on a mission. I met him several years ago, shortly after his son, a Navy veteran, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It's a horrible disease and greatly misunderstood by the public, thanks in part to Hollywood's and journalism's love of the "crazy killer." A person with schizophrenia is much more likely to commit suicide than murder. But I digress. As I said, my friend is on a mission. He is not a wealthy person by any means, but he bought a property and built a meeting place for mental health activities. He hopes to open and run the only board-and-care facility for the mentally ill in his town. Some of the neighbors are not too happy with him. They don't seem too worried about crazed killers, but they are upset that their property values will go down if people with mental illnesses move into the neighborhood. Another part of my friend's mission involves a ministry outreach program he created. He knows that often the first person a mentally ill person will contact is a priest, a rabbi, a minister. But, many religious leaders are terribly ignorant of mental illnesses. They are not trained in medicine and they often don't know where to refer the troubled people who call them or knock on their doors. They tend to see things in spiritual terms and think prayer and self-control, or hard work at beating back Satan, are the tools needed to deal with mental illness.

Some time ago, my friend asked me to help with his program and I explained to him that I didn't think the ministers would take too kindly to an atheist trying to instruct them on anything. He understood and let me off the hook. Let me say that had he not decided to let me off the hook, I would probably be going church to church recruiting ministers into his program My friend is relentless. When he sets his mind to do something, beware those who stand in his way. He doesn't understand the expression "you can't do that."

It was inevitable at one point in the evening my friend and I would talk about religion. He made no headway with the minister who thinks mental illness is demonic possession. The minister drove away one family from his ministry and my friend tried to counsel the family, but to no avail. Now, they don't want anybody's help with their mentally ill son. They don't trust people who claim they are there to help. Well, the minister was at the potluck and he heard the testimonies of the mentally ill, and maybe they had some impact on him. Who knows. (In case you are wondering, he was there because the person he was with received an award at the ceremony.)

At one point in the evening, I commented to my friend that it amazed me that so many people are thanking God for their blessings as they detail the horrors that have happened to them. My friend looked me in the eyes, and when he looks into your eyes you feel as if he is able to penetrate to the depths of your soul (if you had one, of course). "Bob," he said. "You know I feel the same way you do about how religion has caused more misery than just about anything else in history. But, the way I look at it is, if it makes them a better person, leave it alone." My friend is retired but he's helping out with the corn harvest and he'd spent the previous twelve hours dealing with harvesters, trucks, and trailers. Yet, he was ready to talk philosophy. "You know what I think this is all about? The search for meaning. They're all just trying to make some sense of it all."

The next speaker was a woman I know whose young daughter died recently of a brain tumor. She'd been misdiagnosed many times as having this or that mental illness. Most of the little girl's life had been marked by illness. Yet, her mother spoke of her love of life and how she always wanted to fly, and that now she could fly with the angels without fear of hurting herself and making another trip to the emergency room. Her belief in angels and God makes her happy and allows her to cope with the harshest of realities. It also gives meaning and significance to her life.

Leave it alone. If it makes them a better person, leave it alone. Wise words from a wise man.