Good Skeptics / Bad Skeptics

Part 4: Bad Skeptic Melanie Phillips is Not Perfect
by Guy Lyon Playfair

Melanie Phillips is a familiar name to readers of the Daily Mail and listeners to BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze.

She is also the author of such books as All Must Have Prizes, an exhilarating counterblast against the ‘political correctness gone mad’ to be found in our education system, and Londonistan, in which she exposes the British government’s inability to control the infiltration of Islamist extremists. She comes across as a lively, provocative and well-informed campaigner for truth, decency and common sense, and a bitter opponent of the pernicious divisiveness of ‘multiculturalism’. She has received the Orwell prize for journalism.

However, nobody’s perfect. She has her moments of opinionated irrationality, which can lead her to write tendentious nonsense. Here is part of what she had to say in the Jewish Chronicle for 17 October 2008:

“We are living in a deeply irrational age where millions are putting their faith in such mumbo-jumbo as astrology, parapsychology, paganism, witchcraft or conspiracies between sinister groups and extraterrestrial forces. All of which goes to prove the truth of the old adage that when people stop believing in God they will believe in anything.”

Here we see an example of a favourite Bad Sceptic’s trick – stuff everything you don’t agree with, or that makes you feel uncomfortable, in the burn-bag and chuck it on the bonfire. The implication seems to be that if you don’t believe in God, you are at best a bit loopy and at worst a menace to society.

She may have a point regarding the first and last items on her list, but seems unaware that ‘paganism’ or Wicca is a well established nature religion whose roots in Western Europe predate those of Christianity, and that wiccans, despite the bad press they get from the likes of her either as devil-worshipping monsters or fairy-loving idiots, generally play a decisive and positive role in society. Their spiritual path, as a wiccan friend of mine puts it, is based on ‘self-development and responsibility within an all-encompassing world of nature’. Sounds to me like a path well worth following, as does that followed by secular humanists, who by definition never did believe in God, yet do believe in the values, capacities and worth of human beings. To imply that wiccans or secular humanists are ‘irrational’ is insultingly patronising.

As for parapsychology, this, in case she doesn’t know, is the scientific study of phenomena related to the human mind that await explanation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science does know this, which is why it accepted the affiliation of the Parapsychological Association back in 1969. The Anglican church doesn’t seem to have any problem with the subject either. The Bishop of London, no less, is one of the patrons of the Churches’ Fellowship for Spiritual and Psychic Studies, which publishes a quarterly journal entitled The Christian Parapsychologist. Those involved, one assumes, believe both in God and in the validity of research in parapsychology, as have such recent members of the Society for Psychical Research as an archdeacon, a Unitarian minister, and a warden of a synagogue.

Finally, Melanie Phillips might bear in mind that a good many of today’s terrorists are firm believers in their particular God, in whose name they regularly blow up trains and buildings and commit mass murder of innocent civilians. We might be better off if they abandoned that belief and adopted those of entirely peaceful wiccans or secular humanists. A belief in God is no guarantee that you have anything positive to contribute to society. Nor does it automatically make you a better journalist.

See Part 5 Below: