Daniel Dennett – Breaking the Spell

March 03, 2006

Daniel Dennett, the author of such groundbreaking and influential books as Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), is famous for being a philosophical gadfly, challenging unexamined orthodoxies in our society. He has made considerable contributions to the study of consciousness, the understanding of the development of the child’s mind, artificial intelligence and evolutionary theory. He is University Professor, professor of philosophy, and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, he discusses his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn asks Did You Know?, detailing facts about world religions and their scientific study, Point of Inquiry contributor Benjamin Radford explores beauty and self-esteem, and in the second of a two-part series, DJ Grothe talks with CSICOP’s Joe Nickell about real-life ghost-hunting, focusing on effective investigative methods.

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

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is 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 look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture, focusing on three research areas first, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, we look at what’s called alternative medicine. And third, on point of inquiry, we talk about the intersection of religion and science in our society on issues surrounding secularism, humanism and nonbelief. We do this by drawing on the Center for Inquiries relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I talk with Daniel Dennett, author of the new book Breaking the Spell Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Later in the show, I’ll talk with Cyclopes senior research fellow Joe Niccolò and the second of a two part series on real life ghost hunting. And Benjamin Radford’s going to share his segment, Media Mythmakers. But first, Tom Flynn asks, did you know? 

Did you know that last year over 700000 students took a religion course at around 1000 American colleges and universities? Did you know that Christianity in all its varieties has the largest number of adherents worldwide, about two point one billion people? There are worldwide about one point three billion Muslims making Islam the second largest religion. Did you know that approximately one point one billion people worldwide are secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist, which makes no religion the third largest belief group or nonbelief group as the case may be? Did you know that the Council for Secular Humanism has a program devoted to the scientific study of religion? The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion CSIR has been around since 1983 and is comprised of the leading minds for many fields, all of whom examine religion scientifically. 

I’m pleased to have with us this week on Point of inquiry, Daniel Dennett, the author of such groundbreaking and influential books as Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life, which was the finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Dan, it has made considerable contributions to the study of consciousness, the understanding of the development of the child’s mind, artificial intelligence and evolutionary theory. He’s university professor, professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He’s become famous or infamous these days as a philosophical gadfly who goes around challenging unexamined orthodoxies in our society, which is one reason we like him here at CFI. He’s on point of inquiry today to discuss his new book, Breaking the Spell Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Dan, this. Good to be with you. I wish you were more shows like this. A really refreshing to have this kind of radio in breaking the spell. 

You argue that the time’s come to scientifically examine religion. And I should say that I found your book to be one of the best treatments of the subject that I’ve read in years. But of course, I may be a little biased. So let me start off by asking, why would a scientist try to study religion scientifically? Isn’t religion just simply beyond the realm of science? We often are told that science treats the how and that religion explores the why. 

Well, I think science can certainly look at all of the earthly manifestations of religion to study the structure of the institutions, the text, the rituals, the traditions, the symbolism, the effects on human psychology and so forth. Now, those those aren’t the ultimate question of religion, but those are features of religion that we can certainly study scientifically and we should. 

But in your book, you seem to study more than just those facets of religion. 

You study the study, the beliefs themselves. And and, of course, if you’re going to study the phenomenon of religious belief, you’re going to study whether the beliefs are true or false and what the evidence is for them and whether they’re rationally held or whether there’s other explanations of why people cling to them so much. And I think one of the first things that you are struck by when you look at it in a proper scientific spirit is that religions are brilliantly designed phenomena. They are human institutions that are not entirely human designed. They have evolved over the over the thousands of years. And they’re they are staggeringly well put together when they work well to do the job they do. That’s one of the things that the book is really interested in, exploring sort of reverse engineering religions to see why they work as well as they do. 

So you’re saying religion can and should be studied scientifically? 

It’s a very important phenomenon. I mean, if we’re going to study global warming and global economics and trade and air pollution and all these other important world phenomena, we should certainly study religion with the same intensity. 

The subtitle of your book is Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Jim Underdown you argued that the theory of evolution gives some suggestion as to why people are religious. How does the theory of evolution suggest how religion got here? 

Well, it’s this it’s a multi-stage process. Everything is the way it is. Has it got that way? And when the seeds of religion were first formed, they were formed in the genes of mammals who needed to be on the alert for any competitors or any predators in the area. 

And so we have this natural tendency to say who’s there to think who’s there? Whenever anything startling or surprising or confusing happens, because sometimes there’s somebody there, you should you should know who is very important ecological fact. This is something we share with our dogs and cats. If you’ve ever seen your dog jump up startled and growling when snow falls off the roof, out of the ground, it makes a big thud. For instance, now in us, that is the end of it as it is pretty much for the dog. It bounces around in our brains and creates phantoms that we reflect on and rehearse in our minds and share with our neighbors and friends. Pretty soon we’ve got a whole population of visible ghosts and other spirits. That’s that’s almost certainly the the founding. But of course, that’s not religion. That’s just superstition. For that to turn into religion, lots of things have to happen. Among them, the development of agriculture, the development of written language. Another another steps along the way. 

I want to continue to explore the origins of religion. You spend a good portion of your book talking about the evolution of religion before you start talking about religion today. So what are some other things that evolution tells us about religion or how religion itself evolved? 

Well, one of the striking features of the evolution of religion is this is the really striking change from folk, religion, the earliest sorts of religion. And we still have traces of those today in tribal religions, preliterate, tribal religions. And there’s a huge difference between the features of those religions and organized religion. For one thing, the. People in tribal religions have no sense that the religion at all. This is part of what everybody knows as far as they know they don’t have they don’t consider themselves to be practicing their religion. They have no concept of faith or anything like that. These are later sophistications that arise once religion becomes organized after the dawn of agriculture. 

And you’re saying that they arose because they had adaptive or or evolutionary purposes? 

Well, they they arose because they had adaptive purposes for themselves. Whether these are the purposes that are good for human beings is another matter. But the religions themselves have their own fitness. Some religions spread like wildfire. And so religions spread slowly in some religions. 

Go think the Shakers, for instance. The Shakers is a nice example because, of course, one of the features of Shakr religion is that you should be celibate. Everybody, not just the priest. Well, you might think, well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the Shakers went extinct. 

If they if they sort of neutered themselves by adopting the religion. But in fact, the Shakers were doing quite well for a long time because it was a very, very powerful proselytizing religion. And there was a large supply of widows and orphans who who needed community, who needed shelter. There wasn’t the sort of welfare system or safety net for people back in the 19th century when it really thrive. It was only once a welfare system came in that the Shakers could no longer attract enough converts to stay ahead of the fact that they weren’t making shaken babies. 

By all accounts, Dan, you’ve made big contributions to the study of some of the most sacred cows in our society, consciousness and belief in the soul, even belief in freedom and freewill. 

And your book Freedom Evolves. Have your studies of consciousness and the soul naturally led you to the study of religion? Or are you casting a critical eye at religion now for other reasons? 

Well, it’s a bit of both. Once I got deeply into the study of religion in the last few years, I was pleased to see that a lot of the work I’d done before fit quite naturally into it and prepared me, gave me lots of ideas and questions that I thought were the right questions. And I knew some of the literature on this pretty well. But it was also a serious new embarkation for me. I certainly plunged into a world that I had never studied properly before, and it’s fascinating. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a discounted copy of Breaking the Spell at our website point of inquiry dot org. Dan, you explain religion in terms of evolution, but are you really just wanting to explain away religion rather than just explain religion? 

Are you explaining it away? What I’m getting at is do you have an ax to grind? Why should a religious person think that you’re not anything but just an anti religious atheistic scientist with an ax to grind? 

Well, I’m not antireligious. I am atheist. But I think that if religion is a good thing, let’s find out why. I’m not at all convinced that religion should be abolished or even changed in any major way. I want to find out first. So I think that religious people should be willing to engage in the same inquiry. They are very sure that religion is a wonderful thing. They’re probably right. Let’s find out. I propose methods for objectively asking and answering questions about what religion is good for and why and why it’s so important. And I would think that any religion worth the reverence and love that it commands should survive such an inquiry with flying colors. 

A lot of people say religion should be off the table, that it’s beyond examination or inquiry. You’re inquiring into it. Before we get into some of that inquiry. Let me ask, what’s the reaction been? Personally, have you. You know, anybody poking your eye out over the over the inquiry? 

None. Nobody taking a swing at me yet. But there there’ve been there have been two sorts of several reactions. Actually, more than two that have fascinated me. They have surprised me. One is delighted me. A lot of people said to me before the book was published, when I was working on it, they said then, this is quixotic. This is unrealistic. Religious people just won’t be able to read such a book. No matter how carefully you try to reason with them and encourage them to engage in this in this rational process, they just won’t be able to do that. That turns out to be wrong. There are a lot of religious people that can and do and are getting a lot out of it. I’m getting some wonderful mail on this, and that’s very reassuring. Turns out I was right that a lot of a lot of atheistic scientists in this world were hugely underestimating the capacity for reasonable religious people to examine their own faith from a new perspective. But, of course, some can’t. And some people really lose it. I expected that. I knew there was going to be some anguish in horror and dismay. And I was going to get called a lot of names. And sure enough, that’s happening, too, but not in such amounts that I can handle. 

Did you write the book for religious people? Is this an argument to religious people? 

It is. I, I absolutely didn’t want to just preach to the choir. I didn’t want to talk to my fellow agnostic atheist, my fellow brights, about about religion. I wanted to reach out to those people who were deeply religious and talk with them. And that’s that’s a tall order. And I tried to guide my process by inviting very religious students to read a draft of the book and others, very religious people in general. And quite a few of them read the book and draft and gave me lots of advice, which I took. And if I’ve succeeded in writing a book that that thoughtful religious people can read from cover to cover and benefit from it in large measure, due to the wonderful advice, editorial advice I got from my students and my other readers. 

One criticism your books received while I mentioned it earlier is that in your attempt to explain religion, you’re just trying to explain away religion, that you’re a nasty reductionist and that you’re just ignoring the real substance of religion. For most people, religion is the most important thing in their lives, central to their marriage, child rearing. It gives them ultimate purpose. I mean, someone, Dan, can look at you deep in your eyes and tell you that they have had a real religious experience, that they’ve definitely felt the presence of God, that miracles have happened. Religion is real for the majority of people on our planet. Are you ignoring this is the criticism that you get? Are you ignoring the substance of religion by reducing it to a natural phenomena? 

I don’t think I’m ignoring it at all. What you say is absolutely right. There’s a lot of people that have very deep and important religious experiences. And I don’t I don’t deny that for a moment. And I don’t deny that views are very important to people. And I want to put those very facts into the into the inventory of the things we have to understand about religion. 

But I’m not prepared to put into the into the inventory of things we know is that these experiences get at the truth about the way the world is in a way that is beyond science. 

They may. Let’s find out. But I’m likely to assume that at the outset what bothers a lot of people is that I’m assuming a neutral and objective scientific standpoint. Now, for many people, that means it’s not objective, it’s not neutral. It’s against. If you’re not for us, you’re against us. I say, no, no. Come on. This is this is what objectivity is. Now, that’s not been the tradition. In fact, that’s the spell I’m trying to break. The tradition has been to grant the presumption to those who have strong religious faith that they do have the truth in their heads and that they have a special kind of truth, that it may be true, that they do. But we’re not that are granted. There’s a presumption at the outset. They’re going to have to demonstrate that kind of along the same lines. 

I’d be interested in your opinion of those thinkers who go maybe just one step more than you do. And rather than explaining, religion is a natural phenomenon. They make natural phenomena of nature a religion. I’m thinking about people like Ursula good enough in her book Sacred Depths of Nature. 

Well, it it’s a testimony to the power of the idea of religion as a wonderful thing, that some people then say, oh, well, then I’ll take whatever I think is really wonderful and they’ll call it my religion. It’s funny is that there’s a mirror image here. 

It’s surely no accident that some of the new religions that have come up in the last hundred and fifty years, let’s say, have been a Christian Science and Scientology. This is a very clever use of advertising. Science has a wonderful reputation in general. So if you can put the science of religion together, that makes a winning combination. Well, some people also are attracted to the move in the other direction. And to say, well, well, science, that’s my religion. I don’t myself think that’s a wise move. I think science is importantly not a religion. There are many things that importantly aren’t religions that are nevertheless very valuable things and that have their own their own ideals and standards. And I think it’s important to keep the distinction. 

So evolution explains religion and explains that it was useful, adaptive for species at one point. 

Actually, that’s not what I claim. This is actually very instructive. The natural assumption when anybody says that that evolution explains religion, say, oh, it explains what religion is good for, what kind of an adaptation for human beings religion is. But that is just one possibility and not, I think, the right one to begin with. 

So you’re saying it was adapted for religion, but not for necessarily the species who had it? US. 

That’s right. I can’t tell you how many times in the last few weeks people have said to me, OK, you say that religion evolved. What’s it good for? I mean, every human population that’s ever been studied has religion. So it must be it must be doing some some good. What good is it doing this? Well, that is one question, but I don’t accept the presupposition. There’s another entirely different way of looking at it. After all, every human population that’s ever been studied has also had the common cold. What good was that? The fact is that colds evolved because they can. And religions have evolved because they can. Now, religions have evolved depending on human beings as their vectors, as their carriers. And the question is, are they good for us? Are they neutral? Are they bad for us? What effect did they have on our biological fitness? And since that’s not a very important question. What other effects that they have for us? I don’t think anybody thinks that the importance of religion is that this helps us have more grandchildren. That may be one of its effects, but that’s, of course, its impact on biological genetic fitness. But that’s not really what’s the point of religion. 

So what do you think the usefulness of religion is? I mean, you’ve written this book. Where do you come out on that? 

I come up with a complicated answer because because, as usual, when you adopt a sophisticated evolutionary approach. It’s not simple. There’s all sorts of interactions. Many features of religion are features that have evolved because they help people with the problems that people face. No doubt about that. Other features of religion, I submit the evidence is pretty good, have evolved mainly just because they help religions evolve. They just keep religions in the competition with other religions. Keep them fit in in the in the struggle to to win over the minds of other people. 

Now, that is not in itself either good or bad. It’s just interesting. About about the religion, it’s in that regard that religions are like like colds or viruses. They they spread from person to person. They depend on people for being reproduced. The ones that reproduce the best, the ones that spread to the most minds are the ones that will go to fixation in the world population. We just better hope that the ones that do are the ones that are actually better. 

So religion evolves and there are some aspects about religion that benefit people. The neoconservatives, whom some would say are more in charge in the United States than the religious conservatives are. While some neo conservatives might agree with you that religion evolved, that it’s a natural phenomenon to simplify a little, Leo Strauss, the father of the neo conservative movement, argued that sure, there’s no God but that you need religion, that religion is a useful tool to keep society organized, to keep people in line morally, even politically. Now, I’m thinking of Karl Rove’s religious scare tactics in the 2004 presidential election over gay rights, how it mobilized so many of these in quotes, moral values voters. Some people say it made the difference for Bush in the election. Now, what I’m getting at is this. If everybody read your book and is persuaded by it and everybody concludes that religion is just a natural phenomenon and explained by evolution or that it evolved, won’t society fall apart? Doesn’t society need religion for it to work properly? 

I don’t think so at all. And I have several chapters devoted to just this sort of issue. I think that what we need to do is to protect religions from being exploited for political purposes, which has been done for millennia and in the history of religious wars. 

The history of demagogs and dictators and political people of all sorts riding the horse of religion in whatever direction they wanted to ride, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, that the power of religious adherents of religious loyalty is a tremendously strong political force. And it’s not surprising that politicians of every stripe have like to harness that power. The more the better. We understand that, I think the better we all will be. And if it makes it harder for religious for for political forces to exploit religious love and devotion in hurtful ways, that’s so much better. I think that seriously reflective religious people should welcome the exposure of those those features and religion, those those vulnerabilities in religion. And that’s one of the things the book tries to do. 

I’d like to remind our listeners that you can get a discounted copy of Breaking the Spell at our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Dan, in your book, you quote one of my favorite gems from Mark Twain. It was. Here’s the quote. It was the schoolboy who said Faith is believing what you know ain’t so. And that’s how you introduced the subject of what we should be telling our children about all of this. I’m good friends with a nice atheistic Jewish couple who send their kids to temple because that’s how they think their children will best learn right from wrong to learn that religion is how their kids would best learn morality. So goes the thinking. Many people indoctrinate their children in a religion because they want their children to develop a healthy set of values. You argue in your book that there is morality apart from religion. So how can children be taught what’s right and wrong without religion? 

I think, in fact, the children can go right on getting their religious education from their religions and from their parents as long as they also learn about other religions. One of the proposals, one of the few proposals I’m really to make. No, since I say I don’t know enough about religion to have a have policy recommendations here except for a few preliminary ones. But there’s one that I’m really sure is important and I’ve been putting it out and getting very interesting reactions to it. 

And that is that we should have a national curriculum of world religions for all school children from primary grades to high school. There should be a curriculum where kids in America, whether they’re homeschooled or in private school or public school, just as they learn reading, writing and arithmetic in American history, they also learn about world religions. 

It’s like learning your geography or your social studies. They should learn the histories of all the major religions and of course, some of the minor religions. They should learn the text, the holy texts. They should learn about the symbolism, about the rituals, about the prohibitions, about the beliefs. And this should be presented not. Proselytizing, not with any evaluation. This is these are just facts about the world. This is this is the way the world is now. I think that any religion that can’t survive having the children of that religion learned those facts probably doesn’t deserve to survive because it means they can only survive by enforced ignorance of children. And I think that’s that’s indefensible. Now, this proposal is, I would say, practically libertarian in it. He says as long as you or your kids get exposed to this factual material, just facts, then you can teach your kids whatever you want, whatever you want, as long as you also teach on this. I think this is a an entirely reasonable proposal. It is in line with our democracy. It is simply a moderate extension of the policy that we already have, which requires that school homeschoolers and and private schools provide some basic factual materials and basic skills. And I think these are part of the basic skills we can demand of our of our people. And the idea that the parents have the right to enforce ignorance in their children strikes me as a home of the kind of child abuse. So it almost it is a kind of child abuse. It is enforced ignorance. We wouldn’t we wouldn’t permit parents to lots of kids in the dark. Well, that’s what some religions are trying to do. Now, I find many religious people who agree with me immediately about this. 

They said absolutely right. This is a very a very good idea. I wish I wish all of our kids knew about about Hindus and Confucianism in Buddhism and Islam be a lot better. Then there are the people that are scared stiff of this idea. And I think they should examine their conscience and see if they really want to defend a religion which cannot sustain the allegiance of its members without keeping them in the dark about the alternative. 

So unlike some knee jerk, curmudgeonly atheist, you say religion does belong in the curriculum, but it’s the study of religion, not indoctrination in religion. 

That’s right. I don’t think that religion is harmful to children as long as they get a proper education. I think that I think it’s a good thing, too, to learn the traditions. 

I certainly was was was raised with a with a strong dose of hymns and carols and Bible verses. And I think it’s wonderful. I’m glad I have that education that like I wish my own kids had had more of it. They’ve got some of it. I think that it would be wonderful if children in our schools learned the music of the art and they had pageants where they where they participated and learned these songs. And so I think that would be first rate. 

Dan, we’ve talked about how religion may have evolved. Is it still evolving? What what’s religion going to be like a hundred years from now? Do you think? 

Yes, it certainly is evolving. 

And that’s that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, is I couldn’t figure out how and I thought we better we’d better step back and see where it’s come from going, see better where it’s going. There’s no end of punditry out there about what’s happening to religion. For instance, Alan Wolfe at BYU is written some interesting reflections on this, and he’s done a lot of recent research on religion in America. And he and many others see that there’s a sort of evaporation of creed and a lot of religions and much less important. Exactly which which doctrines you you professors claim to believe as that you have to act in certain ways and that you you express a devotion, say, to Jesus. 

But don’t worry about what the Trinity means. Don’t worry about the points of doctrine. These are not all that important. So in some religions at least, the element which is often thought of as just the absolute root and heart of religion, namely the specific beliefs about the nature of the theory. Those are now being quietly he raced, leaving behind love and allegiance and tradition and text. But that’s about all. 

Do you think there will ever be a time when religion isn’t a significant part of most people’s lives? 

I have no idea whether that’s the time that will that will descend on human civilization before the planet ends or the son dies or whatever happens. I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that. And I’d like to say to that. Suggesting that that evaporation of crede is a certain trend. This is one trend among many. I just give it as an example of one of the things that could happen. 

Dan, to conclude, if people are persuaded by your book. If the spell is broken for them and religion is explained by evolution. And they want to do something about it. Do you have any advice for them? 

Well, first of all, that may leave them in a wonderful position where things that they had been feeling sort of guilty and puzzled about for a long time and sort of nervous about now they’re explain. Oh, OK. I can I can more wholeheartedly participate in my religion now because it no longer seems quite so, so freaky and mysterious to me. I’m a good naturalist, but I still have these deep affections and desires to participate in a religious life. And now I know why. I know how. And it’s all fine. I know also how to protect the religion that I love from the toxic forms that it might fall into if we didn’t understand it. You know, there’s there have always been religious reformers. 

Always. Are you one of them? 

I’m not specifically a religious reformer. Because because I’m not. I don’t have any one allegiance to any particular religion. I want to point out that religious reformers have, with the best of intentions, tinkered with their religion for thousands of years, sometimes with very bad results. Sometimes they’ve they’ve led to the really to the to the extinction of their own creed or to the breaking up into little sect and then go off and have various trajectories. The more we understand about how religions are put together, the more we can actually fix what’s wrong with them without making matters worse. 

Right. In that sense, I was asking, are you a religious reformer? Are you trying yourself to reform religion? 

Certainly. Certainly. I’m trying to make the environment for religion a healthier place for every through both a healthier place for healthy religion. 

I would I would like to see I think that religion scares many people today, even if they’re deeply religious, they’re scared of other religions because they see the is the intensity of the devotion to religion and the irrationality that that can closter as especially in this age of nuclear weapons. 

A really scary proposition. And they would like to see some benign revisions that could eliminate the wylder. Excrescence is of religion. Is that possible? Can religion. Can religion be made somehow safer and tamer for the world so that we can all get along? That’s what I’d like to do. 

Dan, thanks very much for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks a lot of good questions. I appreciate it. 

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And now a 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. 

Good self-esteem is something that everyone wants. Most people have. And yet most people think that others lack. I’ve often spoken with women who told me that while they are comfortable with themselves and don’t buy into the so-called beauty myth, they are certain that they are the exception rather than the rule. Most other women, I’m told, are not satisfied with their looks. Awareness about self-esteem was highlighted at the 2006 Super Bowl when soap maker Dove aired a spot from its Campaign for real beauty advertising effort aimed at debunking stereotypes about beauty. The ad featured close ups of several young girls with captions like Thinks She’s Ugly. Wishes she were blond and afraid she is fat. The inspiring images set to the Cyndi Lauper song True Colors encouraged young women to feel good about themselves. The 2.5 million dollar commercial address. The common concern that most women and girls in particular suffer from low self-esteem. Bridget Jones Diary, the best bestseller turned film, followed one young woman’s continual doomed quest for self-improvement, mostly obsessing about her weight in her thighs. Elle magazine stated that the novel reflects a lifestyle that is, quote, universal and horrifyingly familiar to women. Mary Pyper, author of Reviving Ophelia, the bestseller about teenage girls, claims that, quote, Research shows that virtually all women are ashamed of their bodies. And, quote, Katie Couric even declared, I hate my body with the destructive mantra of the 1990s. Yet these blanket claims are hard to reconcile with the facts. In contrast to conventional wisdom and unlike Bridget Jones, polls and surveys find that most Americans are generally happy with themselves. In 1998, USA Weekend conducted one of the largest surveys ever taken of American youth titled Teens and Self Image. It surveyed over a quarter of a million students. More than half of them female in grades six to 12. Among the results, 93 percent of teens report is feeling good about themselves. A 1999 Gallup poll found that 54 percent of respondents described themselves as average in looks, while 42 percent describe themselves as above average. Only three percent said they were below average in attractiveness. Of course, statistically, the average person should be average in looks, and it should not come as a surprise that few people describe themselves as either extreme of either beautiful or ugly. In 2000, the British Medical Association issued a report titled Eating Disorders Body Image in the Media. They concluded, quote, The majority of young women, 88 percent say that they are of average or above average self-confidence. With only 12 percent saying they’re not very confident. And quote, When girls were asked what makes the most attractive, half chose not appearance. But it said personality. Body shape was rated at only eight percent. These girls knew that they were more attractive for who they are than how they look. Despite the popular myths, the vast majority of women are quite satisfied with their looks. In fact, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauties own 2004 survey. The Real Truth About Beauty. A global report found that only 10 percent of women were, quote, somewhat or very dissatisfied with their beauty. The DOE Web site contains factoids like 92 percent of girls want to change at least one aspect of their parents. Yeah, this question is so general as to be meaningless if asked, virtually anyone could probably find at least one aspect of their appearance. They would like to change. That doesn’t necessarily indicate low self-esteem. The idea that America’s teen girls are ashamed of their bodies will likely come as a surprise to millions of parents who have seen their daughters wearing less and less each year since the late 1990s. One would expect the young women with poor body image will try to hide their bodies with baggy clothes. But instead, exactly the opposite trend has occurred. Hip hugging, belly baring, low rise jeans cling to the curves of millions of teenagers who are supposedly so ashamed of their bodies. This trend, often dubbed the Britney effect, is supposedly caused by young women falling, hyper sexualized trendsetting pop idols. Most people try to hide or compensate for attributes that they’re ashamed of. Short men, for example, will wear lifts to appear taller, or women wear black clothes or vertical stripes for more slimming look. It’s unclear why young women who are so ashamed of and disturbed by their bodies would go out of their way to publicly expose and emphasize those bodies. This is not to ignore the minority of girls who are unhappy with their appearance. As the Dove commercial correctly points out, every girl deserves to feel good about herself. Obviously, few people are completely satisfied with every aspect of their appearance. It’s natural and beneficial to be dissatisfied with ourselves in some ways. Efforts by Dove and others to instill good body image and healthy self-esteem are valuable and important. But it seems their battle has largely been won. Most girls women do feel good about themselves, and that’s good news for everyone. Think about it. 

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I’m pleased to have back in the studio. Dr Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator. Using his varied background, he’s become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries and hoaxes. He’s been called the real life Scully after that character and X Files, if you like, watching TV documentaries on the Discovery Channel, Court TV, Science Channel, all those cable channels show those documentaries you’re gonna see. Joe Nichols, since he is the person who’s always given the last five minutes of those documentaries dealing with the paranormal, he gives the skeptical scientific point of view on shows dealing with psychics and ghosts and UFOs, Loch Ness Monster crop circles and on and on. He’s the author of 20 books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, the Real-Life X Files and The Mystery Chronicles. He’s on point of inquiry today for the second of our two part series on investigating ghosts. Joe, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks, T.J.. Good to be back. And good to talk about my favorite topic, investigating the paranormal. 

Last time you were on Joe, we talked about, well, how would you characterize a pseudo scientific methods of investigating ghosts? 

Right. We talked about some of the ways that people have tried over the years to to provide evidence that there are ghosts. And they they’ve done it through collecting ghost tales and their whole books of these. 

Sometimes they go with a psychic and the psychic gets impressions. And that’s considered evidence of of contact with the spirit world. And then there are these so-called ghost hunters that now are ubiquitous and they are going around with scientific equipment, infrared imaging devices, electromagnetic field devices and so forth. And they are getting evidence that they claim is proof that something is unusuals happening at haunted sites. 

And they’re claiming that they’re they’re contacting ghosts because they’re genuine scientific equipment is going off. It’s beeping or the or the needles are moving. But you’re saying those are pseudo scientific method. 

Right. And in some cases, they don’t even know how to use the instruments properly. For example, they’re using some of these electromagnetic field meters to they’re using them in their hand. And you’ll watch them suddenly swing around excited about something the psychic said. And, of course, the needle moves. I mean, it’s just it’s just folly. If you would even just read the instructions of some of these. All right. I’ll tell them not to do this. Not to do that. They have no controls. We have to we have to realize that we can’t start with the assumption that ghosts exist. And therefore, if we find some artifact, we can say that’s proof of a ghost. That’s where the pseudoscience is. We don’t actually have from a scientific standpoint, we’ve never authenticated science, has never authenticated a single ghost, not a single not a single ghost. And in fact, I don’t know about you, but I need my brain to think with. Can we imagine that if your brain. All the things that that we that make you what you are, that make you who you are, that your personality, your intelligence, your motor functions, all those things that we destroy your brain. And that doesn’t matter in the spirit world. You don’t need a break. You can walk and talk and say, boo. Well, this is ridiculous. This is this really is a really contrary to what what we know from science does not absolute proof against it. But it should give us pause that this idea of ghosts is one we must be very careful about, just assuming that our spirits leave our bodies and go over into this other realm and that we can therefore find evidence of it. 

So if those are pseudo scientific methods, not scientific but pseudoscientific, what’s the real scientific method? What’s what’s the real scientific approach to investigating ghosts? 

Well, unfortunately, much of the scientific approach is to ignore it. Scientists, a lot of scientists would say we have better things to do all right. And that it is so unlikely that somehow you can be sort of nonphysical and physical at the same time that. Science just doesn’t look at science, scientists might might point out about the brain. They might point out they go sometimes are totally nonphysical and walk through through a wall. 

But at other times or cause a physical and they leave heavy, noisy thudding footsteps. Those seem kind of contradictory or that the so-called life energy which ghosts are supposed to represent. And that allows us to sometimes see them that that nevertheless ghosts are wearing clothing, which is not a life energy, which is inanimate. So science could understand all that. Science would say. There’s just no evidence for ghosts. And these are products of the human imagining. 

So one way is just to point out the logical inconsistencies of ghost sightings. 

Right. And and so so it’s not a matter that science has much taken up the investigation of haunted houses. Not much. But but obviously, there have been some of my predecessors, Milburn, Christopher, for example, who the magician. The Magician, and following in the great tradition of Whodini. He was a member of the Occult Investigating Committee of the Society of American Magicians. 

And Mr. Christopher wrote some very good books and was in haunted houses. And I. I like to think I follow in in that tradition. And I think what what we have to do is, is show up at a haunted house and sort of treat it like a crime scene, sort of the CSI approach only in this case, since we’re CFI, we say CFI approach. 

But it means that. Okay, look, Prue, ghosts are are are a loaded subject and people are very biased for and against and so forth, but lets us. Find out because there is a there is something going on or people wouldn’t be reporting. So we do genuinely, I would say, have a mystery. We have a mystery. Something’s going on. Something that merits your or its investigation. If if many of the public are thinking their houses are haunted. That concerns me because I am involved in humankind. I care about that. And these these people are often very nice people, their family and friends even so fine. We have a mystery and we care about getting them out of the mystery. So we go to the scene and we we do what one of my early cases, which I think we talked briefly about once, was at McKinsey House in Toronto. And I went there you go to the you go to a haunted house. You ask yourself, what are the claims here? And then you investigate those to see if you can explain them. Notice the difference. The ghost hunters would have gone to Mackenzie House and they said, well, we don’t need to ask any questions. We’re just going to bring in our scientific equipment. Keep quiet, folks. Stand back while we put our meters out and we take these pictures and we’ll see if there and he goes here. My approach would be at Mackenzie House as well. Why do you think there’s a ghost here? What what is happening? Well, we woke up at night and we saw we saw a figure standing to the bed. Okay. Well, we know that could be a waking dream. That’s a very realistic seeming dream that happens in the twilight between being awake and being asleep or as we were going to sleep or as we were lying in bed, we heard these heavy thudding footsteps on the stairs. Now, that interested me at Mackenzie House because we had multiple ear witnesses and it struck me that maybe indeed there was something going on that call for an explanation, ghost being near the bottom of the list. But nevertheless, it was on very judge. It’s on the list. It’s always possible I could be wrong. This science could be wrong. We’re going to keep looking at something. But I look at it. Not that is 50/50 or just as likely as not or even worrying a lot about the prioritizing of it, but that we absolutely have a mystery and mysteries ought to be solved. That’s the way I deal with it. And so I found out to make a long story short, that there was a parallel iron staircase in the building next door and the late night cleanup crew and others, the caretaker and others going up and down those stairs could create the illusion when you’re lying upstairs in bed begins the house that there were ghost walking down your staircase because the staircases were only 40 inches apart, roughly. So that that with my magicians background told me that illusions can be very deceptive. And you know this. So my approach there didn’t involve laughing at anyone or or calling anyone a hoax or a liar or or anything of the sort who’s saying, okay, you have these experiences. Now let’s see if we can find an explanation for them. And I’ve done that now around the country and around the world. 

You mentioned the McKinsey house and that you’ve done this all over the world. You’ve been in more haunted houses than anyone I know. More than Casper. Even more than Casper. Right. 

What are some other cases? Share some other cases with our listeners that illustrate this scientific investigative method. 

One that I’m I’m happy to talk about is what’s known popularly as the House of Blood Mystery in Atlanta occurred in 1987. And that was a case in which blood was said to be an elderly couple lived in the house. It was said that blood sprang out of the floor and out of the walls. And in fact, the police had investigated. There was blood all over the place. There was blood all over. It really was blood. It was real blood. It was human blood and so forth. And so. That case got a brief moment of attention and then it sort of went away for a while. And this is a common pattern. And then some time later, it’s begun to get in the province of the mystery mongers, the people writing mystery books and stuff. And they started touting it as an unexplained mystery and that science had dismissed it quickly and so forth. And Lewis suggested to me by more than one person that I should look into it. So next time I was in Atlanta, I arranged to meet with the Atlanta Homicide Task Force and persuade them to let me see the crime scene photographs in that case. And they did. And when I looked at them, from my knowledge, I have some general knowledge of forensic science and subsequently became coauthor book Crime Science. I’m not a forensic expert, don’t play as a scientist, but have a little familiarity. And it looked to me like that if I had a blood pattern analyst look at these blood spatters and so forth in the pictures, that maybe they could solve the question because it didn’t look to me like that. This blood, it sprung up out of the floors and walls, but that it had been squirted onto it. That’s what it looked like to me again, that my my opinion doesn’t count for anything. So I got through Freedom of Information. I got copies of those crime scene photographs. And I might say that sort of privately the police thought this case was a hoax. And so but but I’m not supposed to talk to to to public. So don’t tell anyone. Right. And I had those analyzed by Judith Bunker, who’s one of the nation’s top blood pattern analysts. And Judy examined them and absolutely concluded that the blood was squirted on like from a strange or something like that or snipping the corner of a blood bag or something and was squirted on. And and that and other information that I developed showed that it was a hoax and it was not a credible story. So that almost literally was a CSI approach. I mean, this is we it was treated as a crime scene at one point. And and I just picked up on that. And the police were no longer interested once they found out that no crime was committed. This was just a bizarre thing. And people that seemed to be looking for attention, they weren’t interested anymore. They have better things to do, whereas that was a starting point for me. And I just picked up right where they left off and proceeded then to to try to explain that case, to solve the mystery, solve the mystery. So that’s that’s a good example of that. Joe, what are some other cases? Well, one that comes to mind is the Myrtle’s plantation down in Louisiana, because that’s been billed as America’s most haunted house. And Discovery Channel called and ask if I would like to spend the night in America’s most haunted house. And I said, indeed I would. A witch. Which house is that? I ask. 

And they said, Well, Myrtle’s plantation. Nice it. I don’t think it’s the most haunted house. And they said, well, which one do you think is. I said, well, I don’t I don’t know that any of them are. I put it my friend, Dr. Baker, who said that there are no haunted places, only haunted people. But nevertheless, I expressed a willingness to go to the Myrtle’s plantation to see if indeed it was a very haunted place. And I’m proud that I spent the night alone. They arranged for me to be the only person, only me, and, of course, all those ghosts in the Myrtle’s plantation. 

And and we could either decide that it wasn’t very haunted. There are no ghost running loose there and so forth, or that I’m just not very good at seeing them or finding them. But I tried everything. I even got up in the middle of the night and went around with an infrared imaging device to see if I could see them and so forth. No evidence at all. When two documentary aired, it was kind of funny because they talked. They interviewed a couple. They talked about hearing this banging noise and they recreate that. Bam, bam, bam. And while the couple was talking and they said, is that the ghost? 

And then they said, no, it’s just Joe again. They showed me out back of the house taking aloose, shuttered, slamming it to show how you might create a sound like. 

So you were haunting the Myrdal? 

I was I was guilty. I was guilty of of investigation. They’re testing a hypothesis, but it’s typical of a lot of places that once we get the idea that a place is haunted, then almost anything that happens, a strange noise or someone has a nightmare or someone plays a prank. We settle into the foundation almost anything. Yeah. Creaking like that. 

This is attributed to the ghost and is is not evidence that there are ghosts. And it’s certainly not a scientific approach to simply go in and try to find glitches and claim their ghosts. What you have to try to do is say, well, can this be explained? It quite often. It can be. 

I’ve worked with you a number of years here at CFI and I’ve heard you on a. Occasions actually tell people you’ve caught a few ghosts. How have you caught a ghost? 

I have I’ve cut some ghost Red-Handed and of course, whenever I say that ghost is in quotation marks, when I say that, I’ve caught them. Well, in one case, I was at the hand hotel up in the in the Rocky Mountains at the little town of mining town of Fairplay. 

There’s a very old haunted hotel. And I was there with some high school students and their teacher and they’d ask if I would go with them as they were doing a very interesting project dealing with paranormal. And I’m all for that. And and I went and then we were we were congregated in the lobby, which is a spooky looking place of an old chandelier and bear skins and stuff. It was just great ambiance. We’re getting ready to go out for dinner and all of a sudden the chandelier lights flickered mysteriously. And maybe the girls, especially when you and I just happened to be looking in the right place at the right time. And I noticed the guy at the desk flicking the light switch. I just caught him doing it. 

And fortunately so we don’t have just my word for it. The teacher also saw. He saw that we saw him and he gave us this sheepish look like, oh, well, everybody wants a ghost. I give you one. So that was a ghost I caught. Does that make you mad or is that it just. Is that just a whale? You know, a little bit, but but I’m always happy when I catch one. And you often have to have a little amnesty, for example. 

Dr. Baker and I. Robert Baker, the psychologist, and I went to an Indiana farmhouse once where some mischief was going on and noises upstairs and so forth where the kids slept. And Dr. Baker was gently questioning as one little boy who had taken his side and the little boy suddenly blurted out, You aren’t going to tell you. And we had to have a little amnesty in that case. And then another one is a hotel in Ohio. And I have to have a little amnesty there. So I’m not going to mention the details of which places where some day I hope to write about it, but. There was a mystery of one of the upstairs rooms had pictures on the wall that would often be found askew. 

And really, it was hard to explain it. You could think maybe big heavy trucks going by outside Byberry to the walls and the pictures. You know, pictures are often askew a little bit because of minor vibrations. But these seemed extreme. It seemed hard to explain. And so but I happened to to be speaking in the area and I happened to be staying in that hotel. I’d arranged to stay there. And after my lecture and everything I got in, it was probably, you know, in the near midnight or something of the time after dinner and everything the evening. And I talked to the desk clerk and she she told me how boring it was to be on the the desk, the night shift and learning how superstitious the cleaning crew was. She decided occasionally to slip upstairs and get things ready for them to come in the next day and find that the ghost room had had another visit. So there’s been several ghosts that I’ve caught like that. 

That’s great. Catching ghosts red handed. Joe, you mentioned the psychologist Robert Baker a couple times today. He died last year. How was he as a Ghostbuster? 

Well, I had a chance to work with him personally. And his obituary mentioned that he was a famous Ghostbuster. He and I did a book together called Missing Pieces on how to investigate such things. And we we were on various cases together and always compared notes. And he was my mentor and my very best friend in the world. So his loss was was quite a loss for me. But maybe the best way to understand him is, is a case that that he did one of his early cases before I was involved with him and a case of the ghost girl. And I tell this in one of my children’s books, The Magic Detectives, but it was a case of a little a little girl ghost that would show up. This couple had called Dr. Baker and they had this these visitations by this little ghost child. And he went to see the family and was found out very quickly that only the lady of the house saw the ghost. The husband never saw the neighbors never saw it, although the ghost would be playing in the yard. She would be washing the dishes and she would see the ghost girl and so forth. And this is typical of Bob’s approach. Very sensitive person. He started getting away from the topic of ghost to the person, their personal lives, finding out about them. And he found out that the woman wanted very much to have a child and could not. Bob was very wise about such things and he figured out what was going on. And he counseled them to adopt a child and they did. And the ghost girl went away forever. And that’s the kind of wisdom that he had as a ghost taught her that kind of knowledge of people. And. And he was a very insightful ghost hunter. 

Therefore, that’s a very touching story. I see you’re tearing up. Joe, thanks for being on point of inquiry. My pleasure. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week to hear my discussion with Paul Kurtz about skepticism of the third kind. 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 Donnally 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 Emmy Award winning Michael Whalan. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Lauren Becker, Benjamin Radford, Joe Niccol, David Capsule and Sarah Jordan. 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.