Marci Hamilton – Religion and the Rule of Law

February 03, 2006

Marci Hamilton is a distinguished constitutional law professor at Cordozo School of Law and is the author of the critically acclaimed book God vs. The Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. She has appeared widely in the media, on shows such as The O’Reilly Factor and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, she explores the harms that are done to society by religion and how these harms are enabled by the courts and law enforcement because of an inaccurate understanding and application of the First Amendment. She challenges the widespread notion that all religious conduct deserves constitutional protection.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn presents Did You Know? detailing information about tax-payer funding of religious organizations, President Bush’s fear of human-animal hybrids, and priestly child-abuse. Also, Benjamin Radford shares his segment Media Mythmakers, and in the second of a two part series entitled Investigating Ghosts and Hauntings, Joe Nickell, CSICOP’s senior research fellow and renowned paranormal investigator, recounts experiences with photographing ghosts and why people might believe in them.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 3rd, 2006. 

Hello, I’m DJ Grothe. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Every week on point of inquiry, we try to draw on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers, and to bring you interviews and commentary focusing on our three research areas. First, we study pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, we treat the growing alternative medicine movement. And third, on point of inquiry, we concentrate on the intersection of religion and science in our society on religion, secularism and nonbelief. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we’re going to be joined by Marci Hamilton, author of the acclaimed book God versus the Gavel Religion and the Rule of Law. Later in the show, I’ll talk with Joe Nicole, Cyclopes senior research fellow and world famous paranormal investigator. In the second of a two part series recounting specific cases of haunted houses and ghost sightings, he’s investigated. And you’re going to learn how you can get a free copy of Free Inquiry magazine. During our regular feature, we call from the pages of also Benjamin Radford. We’ll share his regular commentary, Media Mythmakers. But first, Tom Flynn with a segment we call. Did you know? 

Did you know that a major part of President Bush’s 15 billion dollar AIDS program is support for church groups that are poised to promote abstinence in 15 target countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa? The Bush administration is reserving 200 million dollars specifically for churches with little or no government grant experience. Did you know that among the groups receiving taxpayer money to combat HIV AIDS in Africa is Samaritan’s Purse, which is run by Billy Graham’s son, Franklin? The group’s mission is, quote, meeting critical needs of victims of war, poverty, famine, disease and natural disaster while sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, unquote. Did you know that another group receiving taxpayer funding to fight HIV AIDS worldwide is Catholic Relief Services? It was awarded six point two million dollars to teach abstinence in three countries. Did you know that the group refuses to promote, purchase or distribute condoms as a measure to prevent HIV AIDS? Did you know that despite Bush calling animal human hybrids the most egregious abuses of medical research in his State of the Union address this week? That is already a common occurrence fault. The human heart valves are routinely replaced with ones taken from cows and pigs. Did you know that between 1950 and 2002, 4000, 450 priests were accused of childhood sexual abuse? This according to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Should religion be given special treatment by the government? Should religion be protected from the law even when it harms people? Marci Hamilton, distinguished constitutional law professor at Cardozo School of Law. In an insightful book published by Cambridge University Press entitled God versus the Gavel, Religion and the Rule of Law Argues No. She makes the case that religion should stop seeking protection from the government, that since religion is capable of harming people. It should not be given special legal protection in our society. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Professor Hamilton. 

Well, thank you very much. I want to applaud your program for talking about issues that a lot of people are afraid to talk about, but are well worth doing. 

Well, thanks again for joining us. Let me ask you, why is God so against the courts? 

Well, I actually think that it’s the way the public’s been talking, but that’s not really true. God is actually doing pretty well in United States society right now, especially in the public square. I don’t think we’ve ever had more discourse, more debate about religion. And of course, with all the media outlets between cable television, radio, now satellite radio. There is no shortage of the presence of religion in our lives. And so the notion that God is somehow not doing well in the public square or is not doing well in the courts is just inaccurate. What’s really happening that trigger triggers that kind of hyperbole is that we have an increasing diversification of religious belief. We have many, many types of religious faith is very traditional United States that we have Gizem. And the result is that that diversity has been driving the court to bring the government into an arena of neutrality so that the government stop picking and choosing between all these religions. 

So you’re talking about the government being neutral, but we hear from commentators all the time that the courts are anti religion. 

Well, basically what’s happening is that those who are persuaded, unfortunately, erroneously, but those that are persuaded that this is a Christian country are unhappy about being unseated as those who can control government or who can corrupt government to deliver their messages. And so if there is a tradition of prayer in the public schools, we’ve had decades now of criticism of the Supreme Court for saying that actually school led prayer was unconstitutional. And the reason for that, why it’s unconstitutional, is that the diversification of religion makes it absolutely necessary that everyone thinks they’re a full citizen regardless of their beliefs. And so this neutrality is crucial, saying that the government. All right. Or the courts are against religion is a political statement, but it’s not a factually accurate statement about what’s going on. 

So you’re saying there’s no anti religious bias in the courts. Where does this pervasive argument come from? It seems pretty persuasive on the part of some commentators on the political right. 

Well, what’s happened is that the religious right has been able to set the agenda for discourse, and that’s partly because of the Bush administration’s ties. But it’s also because they’ve been very astute politically and very adroit with their ability to get their message out. And they have dominated the debate. It’s their view that they should be able to have the government deliver their messages. And it’s their view that the United States has always been a pro Christian regime. They’re factually wrong. But when you have the first statement, when you set the agenda in the public debate, the result is that it’s harder to get other debates going. And it’s hard to get any debate going. But what’s really happening is not believers against nonbelievers, which is the way that they’re characterizing it as religion against secularism. What’s really happening is there’s a group of believers and nonbelievers who don’t believe in the separation of church and state. And then there’s an even larger group statistically of believers and nonbelievers who do believe in the separation of church and state. That latter group has been largely silent and has not been articulating its principles very well until the last couple of years. 

Professor Hamilton, even as an orthodox religious person, you stand strongly in defense of separation of church and state. Why is that? 

Well, I think we need to go back to the framing to get some kind of perspective on the issue as a step out of politics for a while. And maybe there’s something to be learned from history when the Puritans, some of whom were Congregationalist, came over and settled in Massachusetts, they were the established church. Baptists also settled in Massachusetts. They were not the established church with the Baptist. Learned was that their religious practices, for example, their belief in total immersion as part of baptism, could not be practiced because the church that owned the reins of political power, the established church, was able to get laws passed to suppress them, was able to divert the tax funds to itself. And so the Baptists were severely suppressed. And what they learned and what they became most articulate about was that unless you separate church and state, you would not have religious liberty. And to this day, we have the Joint Baptist Committee. We have many Baptists who remember that history and understand that religious liberty will not thrive unless church and state are capped at some meaningful distance. 

I want to begin exploring the question that you treat in your book. This question should religion be protected from the law, even if it might harm people? You once wrote that exercise of religion should trump most governmental regulation. Have you changed your mind on that? 

Yeah, actually, in chapter one I say that I quote that and say that was a mistake. That was a statement I made early in my career when I was a Pollyanna about religion. Everything I knew about religion, I learned in Sunday school where everybody behave themselves and everybody was nice. It took a tremendous amount of pragmatic education in the real world to learn and to be taught that there were plenty of circumstances where religious entities either abused their political power or they hurt others. And if we have a regime where the religious identity has the automatic leg up over the laws, there are too many people, especially children, that get hurt. And so that was an early statement. I’ve turned on at 180 degrees. 

Can you give me some examples of religious organizations that might be trying to avoid the law to get away with what you would argue is harming others? 

Well, I mean, there are, of course, a number of cases in the United States right now involving what is called clergy abuse circumstances, where churches have covered up pedophiles who are clergy members within the church. And the result is that children have been molested when nobody knew that the clergy member that they admired was, in fact, a predator. And it’s not just the Catholic Church. Catholic Church has gotten a lot of press, but there are other religious organizations who are in litigation as well. And what I’m seeing in this litigation is that they frequently argue that the First Amendment protects them from having to produce any discovery, from having to show their employment records, which would tell us what really happened. They’ll use arguments against laws that create rights for victims. They frequently try to use the law and the victims who are already victimized the first time into being revitalized by the religious institutions. 

You’re talking about the no harm rule in law. Can you explain to us what that is and more specifically why you advocate it? 

Well, the no harm rule was really something that was most clearly articulated by John Stuart Mill at the end of the 19th century. And it is a principle that American culture has absorbed to a degree that it’s kind of odd that I had to write a book to say that it ought to be applied to religious entities. It’s the basis of our criminal law and our tort law. And the principle is that your personal liberty extends to the point when you start to hurt others and it but if you harm others, you have accountability and responsibility to them. So in the clergy abuse examples, the law should be applied to hold a religious institution accountable if it is hidden pedophiles that have been harmed children. That’s just a common sense understanding of all of our tort and criminal principles. And the whole point of God versus the gavel is to point out that not harming others. The central principle in American culture is just as applicable and just as sensible when it’s a religious entity that some of the harm it does seem obvious that the no harm rule should be applied when you’re talking about pedophilia. 

But what are some other examples? 

Well, the first example is the there are laws in the states that provide exemptions for the medical neglect of children if the reason you don’t treat your child is because of your faith. And that is something that was fostered in the Nixon administration. Certain members of his administration were members of the Christian Science Church, and they were able to get a federal law passed that prompted the state to pass exemptions for faith healers if they medically neglect their children. That is a situation that’s been turning around somewhat as children have either been disabled or some have died, and there are activists for children desperately trying to protect the children in those circumstances. So there’s something that’s shocking to the conscience that few people know about. And but is is absolutely on par with the no harm doctrine. I guess less shocking is the concept of can a landlord who owns apartment building that he’s renting out to the general public if his religion as opposed to living out of wedlock. Can he refused to rent to an unmarried couple? Or can he refused to rent to a homosexual couple? There are states that permit the person who as a landowner to do that because of his religious beliefs. There are other states that don’t. So there is another arena where the question is, should the law permit this religious believer to refuse to rent apartments to those who need them? 

So you’re making the case that religion should stop seeking protection from the government. But we hear a whole line of argument that seems persuasive on the other side of the fence that says, wait, free exercise of religion is protected in the Constitution. 

Well, the free exercise of religion is certainly protected in the Constitution. And government may not single out any religious group for bad treatment. It must act in ways that are neutral and generally applicable. And so any law that it passes that singles out a religious group is usually almost always unconstitutional. And I think that’s exactly right. The question is, when should we permit religious groups to break the law? That’s the fundamental question. And I think there are times when it’s perfectly permissible and it’s I. Is furthering religious liberty through an exemption from a general law to be a good thing. 

For example, should millet’s the military, should men who want to wear their yarmulke when they’re working in offices, should they be prohibited from wearing Oceanica? It seems a little silly to prohibit the wearing of a yarmulke just because it violates the headgear of law. And certainly no office activity is being interfered with by this very small thing on their head. And what the court has said is that that’s not something that is mandatory, that the military doesn’t have to create that right. But the legislature can. And I think that’s the right system. And what happened is, is a Jewish man went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said, no, this is not the place. The free exercise clause doesn’t mean that. And then he went to Congress. Then what happened is he got an exemption not just for Yamaka, but for all religious headgear in many circumstances. So I think there are lots of circumstances where religious liberty should be valued and it should be the Trumps. But it should only be when others are not harmed. 

I’d like to remind our listeners that a discounted copy of Professor Hamilton’s book can be purchased on our Web site Point of inquiry dot org. Professor Alden, there’s a lot of alarm in our society about secularization. You hear a lot of talk about the secular left and secular humanists, about the denuding, the gutting of the public square, of all mention of religion. You talked a little about this earlier in the show. But I just ask you, are you concerned about the the gutting of the public square of all mention of religion? 

Now, once again, this this discourse that pits secularization or the secular against the religious is political. But it is not factual. In fact, we have a tremendous amount of debate in the public square, which is where the media is. And you can say just about anything you want, about religion, about your religious beliefs, about others. I mean, you can have everything from Pat Robertson, you know, weekly saying who is it that God is angry with to show that atheists are putting on to talk about why they don’t believe in God. All of that is out there. There is just no shortage of religious discourse. There’s never been more in the history of the United States. 

So the public square itself, wherever the debate is, not between secularists and the religious. The debate is between believers and nonbelievers. On the one side, debating believers and nonbelievers on the other side. So you’ve got citizens who are a mix of faith, who believe in the separation of church and state. And you have a set of believers who don’t believe in the separation of church and state. So what’s wrong with that secular versus religious divide is that it is hiding the fact that there are religious believers who are actually on both sides of the debate. And so we’re not really secularism versus religion. It’s really one world view against another. And that is a different issue. 

In America, we have this tradition, a separation church and state, which is unique in Europe. There are state churches. It’s paradoxical that there’s such a robust and vibrant religiosity in America. Why do you think that is? 

Well, I think the very reason for it in the United States is that the government has not force anybody to believe anything in particular. And we have this very strong tradition of schism. I mentioned earlier, which is that Americans are very independent about what they believe. And part of the reason for that is that the First Amendment protects your right to believe anything you want. Absolutely. The government may not tell you to believe anything. And it’s an absolute right to believe whatever you want. That has fostered thousands of religious sects. But it’s also fostered this sense as well as my religious organization doesn’t agree with me. Well, then we’ll engage and give them and we’ll go up and believe what we’re going to believe. We started with that very early in our training with Anne Hutchinson leaving the Puritans and moving on into Rhode Island. And Roger Williams in the same way. This is just an American tradition. So we have religious liberty. We have tremendous diversity. But it’s because the government has stepped out of the way of religious beliefs and has been forced to regulate neutrally and not to regulate. Just because someone is a believer of a particular faith. 

So you’re saying church state separation is actually been better for religion? 

Or I think I think that’s absolutely true. And in the United States. The statistics seem to indicate there are about 86 percent believers. That’s an enormous number. And then even on top of that, there are those who are still questioning whether they might be believers. You can’t walk down the street without bumping into a believer in the United States. In Europe, I’d be pretty easy to why? I do not need a believer for quite a long stretch of road. And I think primarily the reason is, is that religion was co-opted by the government or the government with co-opted by religion in the unity of the church and the state and many of the countries. And the end with corruption. What the framers fundamentally understood is that any entity that holds power is likely to abuse it. And when you combine those entities that hold power, there’s going to be even more likelihood that they will abuse that power. And when you have the two most authoritative structures of human existence, religion on the one side and the state, and they combine forces, the result is often oppression and corruption and human nature is innately negatively impacted by that kind of oppression. And so religion does not do well when it holds the reins of political power. 

I want to talk to you a little about the December 2005 ruling in Dover, Pennsylvania. Activists on the Christian right say that that’s a perfect example of God being against the courts or actually they would say the courts being against God here. They say an activist. Judge kept free inquiry into central scientific questions from happening. 

Well, they’re just wrong. But the problem with their debate is this. And actually, the problem with the public debate over intelligent design is that it’s really a false debate. The question in that case was whether or not intelligent design or creationism, wherever you want to call it, can be taught as part of a science curriculum. And the court asked a very rational question. Is it science? Was it science? And it belongs to the science curriculum. If it’s not science and the only purpose for it to be there is religion. And if that’s the only purpose, if it is government’s only purpose and this has been true for decades, the government’s only purpose is to further religion. That’s unconstitutional. The court ruling was was very sound. It was very sensible. And so basically, he said intelligent design does not belong in a scientific classroom. He did not say that. You can’t teach intelligent design. You certainly can teach intelligent design. You could have a course designed around the concept of the beginning of man. You could teach intelligent design, you could teach teaches distinction from creationism. You could teach Roman the theology to teach Greek mythology. You could teach some of the more ethereal view held by scientists. You have a creation course, but that would not be a scientific course. So God is not being shoved out of the school. What is the academic who were arguing vociferously against intelligent design in that case were saying is you can’t water down the definition of science just to get your beliefs in the building. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a debate about those representations. You certainly can, but it can’t be in a science classroom. So in the end, I think that it was an obvious result and and clearly with the right result. 

Agreed. I think that there is a place for religion in the curriculum, but it’s not in science classrooms. Indeed, the proper place of religion in education is the study of religion, not the indoctrination in religion. 

I think that’s right. And I think it’s unfortunate. In the United States, we have such inadequate teaching about history because anybody who would have learned closely about Galileo and his experiences with the Catholic Church would understand that, in fact, sometimes religion suppresses good science and would’ve been more careful. 

But we do not have a clear sense of history in the United States because we’re a relatively young country. And I think that does contribute to some of the misunderstandings in the debate. 

I’d like to again remind our listeners that this kind of copy of Professor Hamilton’s book can be purchased on our Web site. Point of inquiry, dot org. Professor, skirmishes regarding church state separation seem to be on the upsurge. We seem to be talking much more about these kinds of conflicts these days than ever before. Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? 

I think that the tension between church and state and between the power that’s held by the two of them is just built into the American system. And we will always have some tension and debate about where you draw the line of power between those two institutions. You think it’ll get worse? 

Well, I don’t. The question is whether or not it will get more unpleasant. I think having the debate is a great thing. The question is whether or not it becomes unpleasant. And actually, I see the pendulum swinging. And I would mark the beginning of that swing with a Kerry Scheibel vote in Congress. Congress apparently was very surprised to learn that after they rushed to Washington to pass a law for a religious viewpoint in order to overturn repeated statewide determinations, they were very surprised to learn that almost 80 percent of the American people thought they should have stayed out of it once they learned that they’ve stepped back a little bit. And you seem a little bit less pandering to the religious right and the American people saw with that the president will win just to sign that bill. 

The American people saw the enormous power that was being exercised by a relatively small group of believers who have entree in to Washington. And we’re seeing a backlash. And as we see that, we’re going to see a balancing. American politics always works on the pendulum principle. And so I don’t think it’s going to get more unpleasant. But I do think that the balance of power is shifting. 

Right. You see those same kinds of arguments being advanced by other religious believers like Jimmy Carter. He he believes in the imminent return of Jesus, believes in miracles, heaven, hell. But he believes in the separation of church and state. 

Exactly. As someone whose specialty is religious groups to break the law, I don’t think I’ve given an interview or a talk in the last 10 years in which I haven’t had to say at one point, by the way, I’m a religious believer. Does that shock people? It shocked some. It infuriates those who think that if you’re a religious believer, you should be in favor of religious domination of the Covenant. But that’s that’s their political perspective. And my reading of the history is that that that’s a relatively dangerous viewpoint. 

Are you changing many minds, do you think? 

I have had a tremendous number of people contact me both through e-mail and mail to thank me. And it’s really been heartwarming, actually, because they feel like their viewpoint has not had any place in the public debate. And they are the silent majority. I mean, there are so many people who are of mainstream religions who are neither extremely liberal or extremely conservative, but have a healthy respect for meaningful separation of church and state. And their viewpoint has not been well represented in the last several years. So I yes, I seem to have not just changed the mind, but I’ve also kind of awakened some people that actually they can say what they believe in the public square. 

What’s something our listeners can do if they’re concerned about the issues you’re addressing? Church, state separation, say a listener is in the category you just identified, neither far left nor far right. Some kind of believer, but alarmed by these trends, what can they do? 

Well, to a large degree, the reason that there has been such a large usurpation of power by religious entities are the legislative process. And the political process is because so much goes on behind closed doors. I’m sure nobody was aware in the States when they were passing laws that were going to create exemptions for parents to medically neglect their children. That’s not the sort of thing that anybody advertising is, the sort of thing that is easily passed because legislators are overly sympathetic to request by religious entities. And that’s why I wrote Guide versus the Gavel. I think we should have religious liberty to be highly respected, but I think our elected representatives are not being critical enough when they’re being asked to create special rules for religious group. So what I. Everyone I speak with and I always urge them to monitor what’s happening with their elected representatives. And if they see a law that has been passed in favor of religious entities to force their representatives to answer the hard question. And a hard question is, even if it’s good for religion, is it good for everybody else? And so there is a there is a strong movement afoot in the United States. I’m lucky enough to be a part of it, persuading state wide. Later, that they should give clergy abuse victims and child abuse victims an opportunity to sue those who harmed them. The religious institutions that harmed them. There is movement afoot as it just happened in New Jersey. It’s starting in Massachusetts to get rid of charitable immunity, which was a rule that if you are a charitable institution, including a religious institution, you couldn’t be held liable for the talks of your employees or your volunteer. There are lots of different ways that people can write the balance. But I think the main way is to hold our elected representatives responsible for asking the hard questions and don’t let them get away with passing laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sounds like a wonderful thing. But when you look at it in its real core, it’s not. It actually ends up harming people in too many circumstances and the American people need to start being more critical. 

Before you go, let me just ask what’s one question that you’re working on that you expect your or you’re hoping that your research regarding God and the courts will answer in the years ahead? 

Well, I have been struck in the public debate about this whole notion that it’s secularism versus religion, that it’s separation of church and state versus the secularists. And I’ve done quite a bit of reading, of course, at the time of the framing since that’s my field and my current investigation, which is turning into an article in probably a book eventually, is the fact that the principles that we recognize in the separation of church and state today, the ones that are supposedly antique God, can all be traced back to theological perspective by particular religious groups. 

The Quakers introduce tolerance into the system. The Presbyterians introduce equal treatment as the Puritans introduced the separation of magisterial and church power, that Baptists introduced the concept of separation of power between church and state. These are all basic theological principles. So it is a completely false way of characterizing the debate to say that it is religion versus secularism. It’s really a collection of religious, theologically based principles that have been derived into the separation of church and state. And so that’s that’s that’s my passion right now. And that’s what I’m spending a lot of time on. 

Professor Marci Hamilton, thanks for joining us today. 

Thank you very much. 

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Every week on point of inquiry, we bring you a segment called From the Pages of This Week. It’s from the pages of Free Inquiry magazine. The Magazine Celebrating Reason and Humanity. This is the February March 2006 issue. If you’d like a sample copy of Free Inquiry magazine, you can get one by calling one 800 four five eight, 13, 66 during normal business hours and mentioning point of inquiry. We’ll get one right out to you in this issue of Free Inquiry magazine. There’s an article by Hector Avalon’s entitled Twisting the Scripture When Translators Distort the Bible. Mario Bungay, the Canadian philosopher in a piece entitled Enlightened Solutions How We Can Win the Global Culture War. And in a regular department of the magazine called Leading Questions, we have a discussion with Herbert Holtmann, the Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, who talks about his experiences at a recent City College of New York conference when he created quite a stir by arguing that belief in God is incompatible with being a good scientist. He discusses that over 90 percent of the members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences are atheists or agnostics. And he concludes by suggesting that we would be better off if scientists were more open about their skepticism about God’s existence. So if you’d like to get a free copy of this issue of Free Inquiry magazine, please call one 800 four five eight, 13, 66 during business hours and mentioned point of inquiry and now point of inquiry. Contributor and Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford brings us a segment entitled Media Mythmakers, offering criticism and insight into how the media sometimes deceives the public. 

So far, most of my commentaries have been about media issues. But today I’m going to mix things up a bit and discuss the recent rediscovery of a rare woodpecker down in Arkansas. The ivory billed woodpecker, last known to exist in 1944, was cited in eastern Arkansas in 2004. A blur of video clip showed the bird distinctive size and markings. The sighting prompted a massive follow up search on a 16 square mile area of Arkansas forest when the bird was allegedly found. The discovery spawned international headlines and also an article in the journal Science. The rediscovery of the woodpecker was touted by Krypto zoologists as proof that animals, long thought extinct may in fact exist. Cryptozoologist are people who search for mysterious or unknown creatures like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. They often point to the example of the Seela camp, a prehistoric fish thought to be extinct for 70 million years. In 1938, in the Comoros Islands off the coast of Madagascar, in Africa, one was caught. A second was caught 14 years later. This discovery is important to monstrousness, after all. They claim scientists were wrong about this. They may also be wrong about Bigfoot. Yet there is a huge difference between a population of thousands of giant unknown man like creatures for which no hard evidence exists in finding a surviving member of a relatively small species. Long confirmed to exist, the woodpecker investigation is interesting for what it did not find Bigfoot. The search for the woodpecker took months of intensive research in rural Arkansas. One common response as to why Bigfoot evidence is so sparse is that few people are actually out actively looking for them. This is a perfect counterexample. Knowledgeable researchers with sophisticated equipment in the field for extended periods of time. Arkansas is known as Bigfoot territory, and yet no reports of unidentified Bigfoot creatures emerge from the team’s recordings and observations. It’s true that they weren’t specifically searching for Bigfoot, but that’s irrelevant. New discoveries often occur when searchers are looking for one animal but find others. It’s hard to believe that so many trained eyes and ears with so much equipment could have missed the hairy man like creatures living in and roaming through the woods. New searchers may yet still find Bigfoot this winter. Cornell scientists and researchers renewed the search, scouring thousands of acres using global positioning system equipment, binoculars, digital video cameras and cell phones, tree mounted digital cameras capable of taking time-lapse motion detection, infrared and High-Definition photos. High tech audio units able to record sounds up to 200 meters away should be suitable for capturing both woodpecker taps and Bigfoot vocalizations. Surely such a sustained, well equipped scientific effort in an area known for Bigfoot sightings will yield some evidence for whatever elusive creatures may lurk in the woods. Of course, if no evidence for Bigfoot is found, this won’t deter believers. But it will remove the excuse that no sustained, well-equipped search teams have spent long periods of time deep in Bigfoot territory. As for Bigfoot, I don’t know if they’re out there or not, but are waiting for good evidence, the lack of evidence speaks for itself. No lie one’s no dead ones. No teeth, no bones, no hair, no nothing, including the Seela canthe and the ivory billed woodpecker. The manages to never leave any hard evidence of its presence. Think about it. 

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A frequent guest on Point of inquiry, Dr Joe Nickell, is joining us again today to continue the discussion. We started last week on ghosts and haunted houses. Joe Nickell is the world’s leading paranormal investigator. A former professional stage magician, he was resident magician at the Whodini Magical Hall of Fame for three years. He’s also been a private investigator for a world famous detective agency. Dr Nicol taught at the University of Kentucky before joining PSI Cop as senior research fellow, using his very extensive background and a number of fields. Dr Nicol has become really widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries and hoaxes. He’s been called the modern day Sherlock Holmes and the original Ghostbuster, author of more than 20 books. He’s a veteran of literally hundreds of TV and radio appearances. In fact, he just finished a dozen or so episodes for National Geographic’s new series entitled Is It Real? Joe, thanks for joining us again. We’ll continue the discussion on ghosts and haunted houses. My pleasure. Good to be back. We were talking last time about the Mackenzie house and we also talked about Amityville Horror. You referred to as the Amityville Hoax. You’ve investigated more haunted houses, looked into more ghost claims than any other person I can think of. Have you ever run across claims that gave you pause, that made you skeptical of your skepticism? 

I have not. In more than 30 years of being and more haunted houses than Casper, I have I have found that when we carefully look at the evidence, we can invariably find a more plausible explanation. Now, that doesn’t mean we always know what somebody experienced. If someone says I heard a noise. What was it? Well, I don’t know if when I go there, the noise won’t repeat itself. I’m kind of like the auto mechanic that is listening to someone who says, well, it goes like this and they imitate the sound. And if it doesn’t do it for the mechanic, he’s he’s at a disadvantage. But there was one TV show where a family heard banging noises. And when this program aired on Discovery Channel, you heard the interview with a couple and then you heard these banging sounds. And it was quite humorous because they said, is this the ghost? And then the next scene showed me Outback with a loose shutter here back and forth that no is just Joe again. I had a good time at that haunting, but that was the Myrtle’s plantation down in Louisiana. But one can postulate, certainly in many cases when you’ve looked into it, you can find a possible or plausible explanation for formost phenomenon. 

It seems like a lot of the claims of those who believe in ghosts. A lot of the claims of those who say their houses are haunted have to do with physical manifestations of the ghosts. People feel something or they hear something or they see something. A number of occurrences are sightings of ghosts, sightings of apparitions. What explains that? If someone looks at you in the eye and says, Joe, I saw a ghost. I saw an entity in my basement. I saw it moving toward me. What explains that? 

Well, I take people when I can. I take them at their word. And although there are hoaxers and and I’ve had to catch a few ghosts recommended a few times in my career. Most people are sincere and people do see maybe in quotation marks goes in further quotation marks. But when you ask the question, what were you doing or when did this happen, you find their patterns. The most common one we talked about this in part one is people wake up and they see a ghost at their bedside. Right. 

Common phenomenon can only Godric or hipping a pompous states. 

Yes, I like to call them waking dreams because it best describes what’s actually happening there in the twilight between being awake and asleep. But how can we explain when someone in normal waking activity is sane and honest, a sensible person sees a ghost? Well, it turns out that when we examine the circumstances, we find a couple of things. One is that. This tends to happen more when people are performing, let us say, routine chores where maybe they’re polishing the brass or they’re making beds in a haunted inn and their minds tend to be more on kind of daydreaming mode. When you’re doing routine chores, other things are when people are daydreaming or they’re tired, ready for bed. That sort of thing. Altered state of consciousness. And in that state, some from the subconscious images can well up momentarily onto the visual domain and be seen almost like a mental double exposure. 

So it has to do with the boredom of what they’re doing. 

It lets their minds wander that something like that. Yes. And that seems to be the explanation for for many sightings of ghost people. They mostly get a sort of mental double exposure. And it seems very real to them. It’s it’s interesting not only that these sightings happen under certain circumstances, but there’s also a difference in the kind of people involved. This this occurred to me many years ago. I investigated a lot of hauntings. But that time and I remember being in a particular hotel, it was haunted in Colorado. And I was finding that there were people there that you could divide into a couple of camps. There was, for example, a bellman who’d been there, something like 20, 25 years. And he had never seen a ghost. And I asked him if he believed ghosts. No, he didn’t. You think, well, what’s wrong with him? This place is wanted. 

What’s his prob? Yeah. Everyone else is saying, why is he dead? A lot of people were. And course, the psychic has an explanation. That person’s not attuned to it or. Well, that a psychic expert. 

That is what people would would often say. I’ve found that that several people in this haunted in our direct to me, to a particular young woman who had been there very long but was having repeated experiences. And as I talked to her, I could tell she was different. And the difference didn’t seem to me that she was more psychic. We’ve tested psychics endlessly and found found no good evidence. 

So you’re saying a particular kind of person is the kind of person that sees ghosts more more often than not? 

Obviously, anyone could have a waking dream. Anyone might have any ghostly experience. But people who tend to see see ghosts vividly under more normal waking activity, not being asleep, who do it repeatedly and who have other vivid experiences like that tend to be different, like this woman in Colorado. 

Absolutely. And I could I could sense that she was different. I didn’t have a way to measure it. I sense have learned a whole lot about what’s called a fantasy prone personality, which is perfectly these are sane and normal people. They represent maybe four percent of the public, but they’re highly imaginative people. 

So it’s not a mental illness. You’re not being perfectly sane. 

And almost they just maybe are over at one end of the spectrum of where it’s highly imaginative. There are a number of traits associated with this. For example, being easily hypnotized, possibly having an imaginary playmate as a child, having vivid dreams or number of traits. I have some of these traits. I’m a poet and they’re not bad to have if you’re creative. The thing is that, though, that people who believe in ghosts prone tend to have those personality traits. That’s right. And they may manifest themselves in a haunting experience with seeing ghosts and communicating with ghost. Someone else may or may have a an encounter with an alien, but these people are highly imaginative. And I developed a questionnaire and I began it assessed two things. One is how haunted are you? And secondly, how many of these traits do you have so not how haunted is the house? 

How haunted is the person? 

That’s right. In other words, have you had any ghost experiences if you have not and don’t believe in ghosts. So where do you get a zero? On my scale. If, on the other hand, you you not only believe in ghosts, but you have several experiences. You’ve seen the ghost several times and interacted with it. Maybe it spoke to you something like that repeatedly. Then you’ll get a high score. And I worked this out. My friend Robert Baker, the psychologist, helped me with this. It’s not hard science. It’s not perfect. It’s dealing with people. It’s very fuzzy. But it does give us an indication and I started using this and some of my haunted house investigations and I found that when people had these very vivid and repeated experiences, I could pretty much predict they were going to score high on the other end. And they did. There was a pretty good correlation. I think it’s a useful data that was clean. People say, well, couldn’t that just be that they’re more psychic is why they have these experiences? Well, but these traits are not traits for psychic power. They are traits. For fantasy cronies and not the one who invented that that that Kavin Senapathy right. 

Some of these people you’ve designated as fantasy prone personalities. Are you saying they hallucinate? Do they actually see something? Are they inventing something or are they misunderstanding something they’re actually seeing and naming it? 

Well, we have to be very careful about using that term fantasy prone, because I know skeptics will sometimes use it to just anybody who they disagree with, who has an experience because they’ll just dismiss it out of hand, saying, oh, that person Annison, in fact, in fact, he really they’re very specific markers. And you must you must show that person has several of those markers to even be valid. So I use a very limited Lee and very judiciously. But in fact, this type of person is sincere and they actually have had some kinds, some kind of experience where they will describe, let’s say, seeing a ghost and communicating with it in the best way. I have been able to to sort of understand that myself is to think of it as a sort of adult version of the child’s imaginary playmate. Okay. We’re all familiar with people who let’s say or are trance mediums and they talk to a red cloud and their spirit guide in the other world. Right. Or someone there. Many of these visionaries who talk to the Virgin Mary on certain occasions are founders of this or that religious tradition. 

Talking with God or range or angels. 

Yes. Or people who are contact these or abductees who bring back to us messages that the aliens have related to us. Now, these things I used to think these were all very different things. I now think, no, there’s a pattern here. We have we have a type of person. This person we can often show is a fantasy prone person. The what they’re seeing is it is a entity that others can’t see the communication. Others can’t see it. But it’s very real to them. These people tend to be sane and normal. Some of them are also charlatans. There’s not they’re not mutually exclusive, but some are quite, in my opinion, sincere. And they’re they’re not crazy. 

They’re not believe it themselves. They’re not hallucinating. They don’t have a brain lesion. They’re not absolute panic. 

Yeah, right. You know, they’re they’re certainly a people who fit these criteria, who are reporting these unusual things. And it’s very similar to when a child has an imaginary playmate. And what’s that about? Well, they have this vivid a bit of this ability to imagine and that which they imagine seems very real to them. 

Yeah. No one tells the six year old at the imaginary playmate. You’re mentally ill, you’re crazy or you’re a charlatan and a Forcier. 

Exactly. We we understand that they have a rich ability to imagine and that they are able to do this in a way that’s so vivid to them that it’s like real. 

Some of these people who see ghosts, well, they give you hard evidence. They take pictures, they present photos of this apparition or this visitation. 

We do have to say that just because someone has a photograph and they don’t know what the photograph shows, perhaps a white sinuous line, perhaps some struggle, lower lying. Yes. Called Orb’s or a misty shapen, a misty form in one side of the photo or something that we have to keep in mind that just because we may not know what the explanation is in a given case, I can’t just because you have me a photo, know what conditions it was made under or what it might be showing out of out of the frame of the picture, that that just because we don’t know something doesn’t mean therefore it’s proof of a ghost. People say, well, what is this? You say, I don’t know. Ah, see? Well, what they mean is see, therefore it’s it’s you don’t know. Therefore it’s proof of a ghost or something. This is a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance. You can’t say I don’t know and then say therefore you can’t draw a conclusion from. I don’t know. But people do this widely with the paranormal and they do it maybe especially with ghost photos. In fact, fill the gaps of their knowledge with belief. They do. And they they assume that if we don’t know what it is, that it implies that a ghost has made the photo a butt. And ghost photos could be the subject of an entire discussion Sunday. It’s got a wonderful, colorful, long history, but goes used to look like transparent people and now they tend to be orb’s. And you wonder how goes really changed and they more. No cameras have changed. And photographic technology has changed. And most orbs are are reflections of the flash from particles of dust or droplets of moisture. Most star. There are a few other explanations. None of them ghostly. Sometimes you’ll see a sinuous strand in a photo. I remember a young couple who had some such forms and they brought them into my office where they came in with their. Children, they were quite concerned about maybe ghosts would harm their children something. And I looked at them and I didn’t know the explanation. I had not seen pictures like that. And I asked the lady if she would leave with me. Her camera, the film and the negatives. And I went out and experimented. 

And I found that, in fact, if you’ve got the cameras at risk trap in the way it bounced the flashback so that the wrist strap of the camera was in front of the flash and the reflection from the flash was imprinted on the right photograph. Right? Negative. 

You just get it in front of The View. Most of the cheap cameras, the viewfinder didn’t you didn’t actually look through the lens. And so you didn’t see that your wrist strap was lacking in front of or that you’d pushed it in front. So you didn’t see that it was there. And when the flash hit it, it it shows up quite even though the wrist strap is often dark or black, which which puzzled me at first, but I realized, no, this the flash has to be on and then you produce this effect. So I called the family back and I laid these pictures out on the table on my desk. And the young woman looked at him and she said, That’s it. That’s it. What is that? And I showed her and she believed me immediately. I showed her because I had made I had made these pictures myself. You see? So she was open mind. She could see this as she could see that my pictures were basically like her pictures. What was causing that? And when I explained it, she said, oh, I feel so silly. I said, no, ma’am, no, you don’t have anything to feel silly about. It’s not your job to investigate paranormal phenomena. And certainly I didn’t know and I had a lot of experience with with such things. I didn’t know what was causing this. This is sort of a new thing coming along as if you were concerned about your children, as you should be. 

So she was being a good mother. Absolutely. Absolutely. 

And so that’s how that case was closed. And the wrist strap phenomenon has this since my article and Skeptical Inquirer become very well known as some so-called ghost hunters advise now taking the risk strep crumbed so that I can claim that. And they’re looking for other effects. 

You just mentioned ghost hunters. There’s this phenomenon on TV where people are investigating Ghost, but doesn’t seem to be the same way you’re doing it. They have their instruments and their Geiger counter is different. Right. What do you have to say about that kind of ghost hunting? 

Well, that’s the subject of a whole a whole other discussion, I can imagine. Basically, they are starting with an answer or they assume that ghost exist and that therefore all they have to do is find some scientific means to validate it. And they have scientific equipment. They have cameras or infrared imaging devices, electromagnetic detection devices, something like that. 

The problem is they really scientific. Those those devices, those devices, of course, are not made to detect ghost. 

They may be perfectly. Some of these are excellent scientific instruments. They’re not made to detect ghost. And they shouldn’t be used by amateurs who have no idea what those instruments are actually recording. No. No way. No knowledge of how to use them properly. So they’re really guilty of a kind of pseudo investigation. OK, a real investigator will actually look to see what the phenomenon is that’s being claimed to then try to, first of all, explain that. 

So you don’t use any of those kinds of devices. You investigate like a crime scene, investigate. 

Absolutely. What are you reporting? And then what’s the explanation for that as opposed to I don’t care what you’re reporting, I’ve got this this fancy. This is. No, the day that I brought it. We’re going to see if there are ghosts here. And that is that is folly at his foolishness. 

Well, that is a topic. Maybe we should explore at a future date. I appreciate you coming on the show yet again. You’re contributing a lot to our discussions about the paranormal. Thanks for being our guest again. That was fun. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week to hear my discussion with Richard Dawkins on his controversial new documentary criticizing religion entitled The Root of All Evil Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed by Michael Quailing. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Paul Kurtz, Benjamin Radford, Joe Niccolò, Sarah Jordan and Lauren Becker. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.