A Skeptic in Paris

My plans for a blog entry this week were supposed to be around an advertisement for a perpetual motion machine that I had seen whilst watching a match earlier in the week. Unfortunately there was a death in my girlfriend’s family and I had to travel to Paris for the week. This by the way is my excuse for the delay in my post. The trip did however bring up a lot of skepticism related topics that ranged from homeopathy, dowsing and my all time favourite subject Religion. When it comes to subjects such as this I think of myself as one of those old water features you see in Japanese movies. The ones where the water drips slowly into a container until finally it reaches the point where it is heavier than the counterweight keeping it in place, and the water spills over. For me, the drip, drip, drip of pseudo-scientific claims and religious observances take their toll in the same way.  The murky waters of woo eventually overcomes the resistant counterweight of tolerance and topples the container. The question is did I manage to prevent that happening whilst doing my utmost to support my girlfriend in her time of need. Well let’s see…..

I knew going away that with a catholic ceremony ahead of me there was going to have to be some lip biting and tolerant nodding on my part. This is usually quite difficult for me as I have an especially low tolerance for religious bullshit at the best of times and the temptation to pipe in with even modest criticism is usually a stepping stone to scenes of me spewing a constant stream of argument at an unsuspecting believer. This tends to be punctuated only by whiskey travelling at the same rate in the other direction with predictable consequences. I have to mention this is also not helped by my limited grasp of the French language. Not only does it result in many things getting lost in translation but the scent of a discussion related to any sort of ‘Woo’ is very seductive when your previous five conversations have revolved around such lofty topics as the weather, me being Irish and how tall I am. (It’s my fault entirely to be fair, I’ve had 6 years of French in school and a girlfriend who teaches French for an addition 6 years and yet I learn nothing). Faced with this religious ceremony I took care to ensure I was respectfully dressed in my best (and only) suit and that my diplomacy dyke, as Tim Minchin would put it, was as strong as it ever was.

The first drips started soon. With the ceremony in French I was insulated from a lot of the language of the mass but my familiarity with the whole ordeal from my time as an altar boy, six years to be exact, left me with a rosetta stone of bullshit with which to decipher what was being said. It was the usual servile crap about the wisdom and beauty of god and how we are merely granted time in this world at his pleasure. The donation basket was bandied around the church with obvious intent. Like religion does best, it was taking advantage of people at their most susceptible. The majority of the people in the room, my girlfriend assured me, were actually Atheists. Some believers I’m sure were there but when we were asked to place our hands on the coffin to pray, everybody complied irrespective of their beliefs. Everybody that is but me! I admit that at first I was going to join in so I wasn’t making a scene but I held back and luckily there was no, discernable, reaction. The next part of this grandiose ceremony had the holy water being passed around with what looked like a metal baby-rattle for us to all douse the coffin with. After my heroic stand (shut up it was) against the last peer pressure ceremony, I reluctantly took the magic stick and sprinkled the magic water on the coffin. Honestly, I just didn’t want to give the impression that I was showing disrespect. I barely knew my girlfriends grandfather but I knew enough about him and what kind of person he was to respect him greatly. Cracks were forming in my respectful facade, however, and eye rolling was becoming an unconscious and all too frequent response. I was far from breaking though and even managed to resist saying something ‘disrespectful’ as the numerous ten euro notes were placed in the collection basket as people left the church.

Onto the short journey home with my girlfriend, her father, her mother and myself in the car ,where a conversation had started between them about a friend of Fanny’s mother. I will qualify this story with a description of Fanny’s mother first. Angel is her name, pronounced On-Gel, and she is, without doubt one of my favourite people. She is a genuine, caring, intelligent and remarkably loving person. She holds beliefs that are completely opposed to me but never condemns me as close-minded or zealous, which is something all too common amongst most true believers. Angel does however hold a lot of superstitious beliefs. She visits a psychic and gives readings herself to people over the phone. This is not with the aim of getting money out of them, I will add, but with the aim to help them. She is also a big proponent of homeopathy which I know can’t be true, never mind just being improbable. For homeopathy to be true, physics and chemistry have a lot of explaining to do. The story of Fanny’s mother friend, you with me?….ok, we’ll call her Suzie for convenience sake, is that Suzie has cancer and a pretty aggressive form of it. The conversation in the car revolved around how it was horrible that Suzie needed to take over 50 pills a day. I sympathised and asked what she was on. (I take methotrexate for Arthritis and knew it was used in some cancer treatment but, honestly, I really just wanted to have something to say). The pills however turned out to be most homeopathic, or in other words, fucking useless. I raised my concerns about this slightly hoping not to rock the boat. No real response! The conversation passed on as the drip, drip, drip continued, albeit quietly, in the background.

Drips continued over the day in the form of references to the afterlife and granddad looking down on us. The kind of thing you can brush off and allow as the day to day approach that a lot of people have. So, dinner done with, and Fanny off to bed after a long day, Alain, Fanny’s father, and I had our usual drink and discussion about life the universe and everything. This is where the cracks really started to show. Now, Alain and I agree on a lot of things and he is a very rational man but occasionally we come across a topic that we both hold firm positions on and things can get heated a little, however when they do, a level of respect always keeps it just below the boil. Further to the drips of the day that lay lingering in the background, there was the addition of a dousing session by Angel using a pendulum and chain to predict to future. Add to that a large quantity of alcohol, consumed by yours truly, and my cup overfloweth.( The dousing  by the way was explained to me as Angel’s body’s intuition, feeding information to her brain which then travelled to her arm and manifested as a circular pendulum motion for yes or a back and forth motion for no. Questioning why she couldn’t just intercept it when it got to the brain was met with no reaction. That comment was a sign that I was already teetering on the verge) Alain and I went on to talk about science and the emergence of society and culture and whether it existed outside of the human species and to what degree. You know, the kind of light and fluffy topics that pepper most nights of drinking. This continued with varying degrees of success due in part to alcohol and in part to the language barrier. So it went on until we reached the topic of homeopathy and vaccines. Now, having listened to a lot on both these arguments I have a fairly good command of the facts. I know the facts of herd immunity and the fabricated controversy over thimerosal that was regularly fuelled by ignorant irresponsible celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy until it was eventually removed and shown, as predicted, to have no fucking effect. Because of this information I am particularly susceptible to reaching a, what’s a good way to put this, agitated state. These fuckers are ignorant of what the truth is and they are endangering people because of it. It’s amoral and it’s supported by the TV evangelists like Oprah who preach it to their slavish followers. The same ignorant masses that depend on the opinions of these morons so they can decide what clothes to wear and what books to read. The blood boiled as similar ideas ran through my head and they, unfortunately, came out in my conversation with Alain. He was giving credence to the idea that homeopathy was scientifically invalid but still felt it had a place in medicine because Fanny was always treated by a homeopathic doctor. Pointing out the non-validity of anecdotal evidence and the logical fallacies in his arguments only drove us deeper into our positions. The accumulation of two days of ‘grin and bare it’ led to a proper row with him doubting vaccines and supporting homeopathy, and me, driven by what I considered a justified position, arguing against him and calling into question his morals.

Ok, so that was a bump on the road to being the supportive non-judgement boyfriend, here to help, that I wanted to be. Fortunately, Alain and I are practically impossible to offend. We hold our opinions out of what we at least imagine is a reasoned position and we respect that the other person holds that view for their own reasons, even if we disagree. So things moved on. That was Wednesday and I worked for the next couple of days from their house in Paris and in that time I got into a few discussions on twitter. With twitter, I generally seek out those people who hold opposing views to me. I love debate and more importantly I always want to put myself in the mindset of the person who believes in something that I can’t believe in. The arguments are usually futile to be fair but they do give you a unique insight. On twitter you are occasionally faced with people who will never change their minds about something. This is mostly due to the fact that I generally argue with fundamentalist Christians and there is rarely any place for facts in their philosophy.(I like to say that debating fundamentalists is like playing charades in a straight-jacket, unless the answer is crazy, you don’t stand a chance) It did, however, draw a comparison for me with the discussion with Alain. After days of suppressing my skeptical muscles I was entrenched in that mindset. Not voicing it just made it all the louder in my head. The reason I saw this was because, in our discussion, Alain was not voicing his objection to vaccines in the way that the moron Jenny McCarthy does, he was actually looking at it from a statistical risk perspective. I still think he was wrong but I didn’t see his argument for what it was at the time. I was too determined to vent some of the pent up frustration of the previous two days and because of it I defaulted into what I had read before about this argument. These were positions that Alain knew about but just didn’t agree with. Now, just to be clear, Alain is wrong regardless of the reasons why, so don’t think that I am justifying his position. The point is, that because of my blurred perspective at the time, there was no hope I would ever turn him around to see my position. I wasn’t arguing his points, I was fighting Jenny McCarthy. I was referencing my book of information to dismiss his position without really listening to it and because of that I was as bad as the guys who quote verse to me over twitter. Skepticism and a natural offshoot of that in my opinion, Atheism, are both reliant on reasoned discussion. That’s what this blog is about for me. Learn the arguments and know how to convey them. Don’t memorize the lines but instead learn the subject so you can help other to understand it. There are many paths to the wrong understanding of something and because of that it’s not just one battle of ‘Us against Them’. ‘Them’ is a group of people who believe something that we might see as unreasonable but possibly for very different reasons from each other. Unless those reasons are addressed specifically we will never change minds.

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2 thoughts on “A Skeptic in Paris”

  1. Top post, cheers for that!

    I’ve experienced similarly fraught familial situations as regards ideological differences, but luckily never had any real moments of friction. Most of my family is agnostic / atheist / completely indifferent, with the exception of my grandparents, who are spiritualists. I’ve never been shy about expressing my distate for religion, but I largely kept my gob shut around my parents – I never felt there was a need to dissect their beliefs given that, a) shifting the religious faith of people that age was mostly pointless, and b) they were never pushy about it, mostly kept it to themselves, and they were sufficiently intelligent and practical that they never deferred to faith over reason when it came to making day-to-day decisions.

    When my grandad died last year and we were heading out to the funeral, my mum, knowing that my second eldest sister and I can be particularly vociferous about this stuff, politely informed us that the reverand conducting the service was also a medium, and that we should shut our faces if we knew what was good for us 🙂 Fortunately, neither of us were about to start an argument at a funeral … neither the time nor place. Even when at the wake my nan made, in reference to the existence of life post-death, the slightly sarcastic comment, “I’ll prove you wrong one day!” the two of us just chuckled politely (my mum, worried, murmured “we’re not having this conversation” … she really needs to have more confidence in us) 🙂

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