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Being a Skeptic Doesn't Take a Leap of Faith

May 25, 1999|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Was God the Earth's architect or was there a pattern of evolution that occurred without the help of any deity? Were humans preordained to exist or were we the result of a glorious accident?

While many probably took advantage of Saturday morning's clouds to sleep in, members of the Pasadena-based Skeptics Society met at Caltech to ponder these and other heady questions at its annual conference.

The society of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians and teachers was founded in 1992 by Glendale Community College professor Michael Shermer to investigate claims about a variety of theories including creationism, cults, religion, Holocaust revisionism, conspiracy theories, mass hysteria, life after death, urban myths and more.

If this all sounds a bit too "X-Files," remember that Skeptics members, unlike the television show's Fox Mulder, do not believe. Most are nonreligious, choosing instead to take a "rational" view of the universe.

More than 400 gathered at the annual conference to hear what moderator Frank Miele referred to as "the country's foremost know-it-alls" discuss how evolution is not just a small matter of historical debate, but a larger issue that affects how we look at life itself.

"I always try to pick a subject for the conference that is very topical, and this creationism debate has been rip-roaring," Shermer explained.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, set the stage for the discussion of evolution as a theory in crisis when she quoted a Gallup poll that found less than half of Americans believe in Darwin's theory that species of plants andanimals developed from earlier forms with slight genetic variation. Her remarks were met with groans from the audience, which was further dismayed when she said more than 40% of those polled in the United States believe God created man in his image.

Scott said the problem with selling Darwin's theory to the U.S. (which has the highest church attendance of any developed nation) is that most people think believing in evolution means you can't believe in God.

"What's the use of omnipotence if you can't do what you want with it?"

She urged the audience (which included many science teachers) to rise to the challenge of teaching evolution in a way that allows people to still have a purpose in life.

Shermer, the director of the Skeptics Society, said he used to be a born-again Christian. Now, he said, he rejoices in the beauty of life. He shared with the audience how he finds meaning without religion.

"With the knowledge that this may be all there is, life becomes more special. I am free to live unencumbered by beliefs from another time, for another people."

Like Shermer, Dustin Maggard has also rejected religion. He and his wife traveled from San Diego to attend the conference.

"[We] have committed ourselves to teaching our children using evidence rather than belief," Maggard said. "We are challenging the notion that you can't raise good kids without religion."

Others were curious about the Skeptics, if not yet converts. Alicia Loggie of Pasadena explained it simply: "It's nice to be exposed to another way of thinking."

For information: http://www.skeptic.com.

Booth Moore can be reached by e-mail at booth.moore@latimes.com.

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