This is all rather vague, but this person has put it all together — 5G towers, chemtrails, smartphones, all the modern stuff, and a few myths — to predict our doom next week.

I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen, though. How are these devices supposed to suddenly kill us? A little more clarity would help.

She has fully embraced the power of the tinfoil hat, though. We’re supposed to wrap all our dangerous devices in aluminum foil and stash them in our cars, and park the cars 200 meters away (will they explode? I don’t know). Then wrap a room in multiple layers of aluminum foil and hide in there on 4-5 October, after which you can emerge into a world cleansed of technology, I guess, and…I don’t know.

How does she come to possess this secret and specific knowledge? The only possible way is if she is one of Them. If we survive next week, we’re going to have to travel the wasteland and hunt her down.

I was not bullied much as a kid, which is surprising given that I was funny-looking, nerdy, and bad at sports. I would have thought I’d be a prime target, but no, I can only think of two incidents.

When I was in middle school, there was a gang of older girls who liked to intercept me as I was walking home from school, and surround me and mockingly tease me — ruffling my hair, telling me I was cute, asking about all my girlfriends, giggling as they made fun of me. It wasn’t your classical kind of bullying, but it hurt just the same, and I would linger by a corner of the school until they’d moved on, or change my route to avoid them. Even today I still feel the sting when anyone compliments me, so don’t. I only mention it for completeness’ sake.

The other incident was in third grade, and better fits the typical mold. There was a huge kid in my class, I’ll call him Huey because he had that kind of physique and was a bit on the dim side, and one day he grabbed me as I was walking home, threw me down, and sat on me and started punching me.

The thing is, Huey wasn’t the bully here — we later got along just fine, in part because I didn’t talk to him or about him. No, the real bully was the principal of the school, Pete Baffaro (his real name, boy did I despise him) who charged over to the grassy lot where I was visibly outclassed, grabbed both of us and hauled us into his office, where he pulled out a wide leather strap and proceed to brutally beat us both to the point I was uncomfortable sitting down for days afterwards.

I learned an important lesson that day. The real bullies weren’t my peers, but the officials who lorded over us and felt they could abuse us with impunity. Ever since, I’ve been deeply mistrustful of the kind of bullying assholes who get on school boards or other elected positions, or who are hired by bigger bullies into positions of power, who just want to control others.

This reminiscence was triggered by an article by AR Moxon, writing about the bullies who want to be elected governor of Missouri. He’s discussing the story of the Republican political candidates who put on a show of using flamethrowers on a pile of boxes, to demonstrate what they’d do to them there woke books if they get elected.

This is nothing new these days, really. Republican office-holders and aspiring office-holders have been burning and shooting all sorts of effigies for years now, indicating the types of things and people they would like to see eliminated in one way or another.

A lot of people are alarmed by this, because they understand that burning and shooting things meant to signify certain people is always the precursor to burning and shooting the signified people.

However, I’m told the difference between burning books meant to signify certain types of people and burning cardboard meant to signify books meant to signify people is a very important distinction.

I agree, actually.

It tells us where the permission levels are right now for our national gang of genocidal bullies, by which I mean the Republican Party.

I look at that photo and I see a bunch of Pete Baffaros, seeing an excuse to batter children in the name of protecting them. Don’t elect them, Missouri. There is no kindness in any of them.

It was over 10 years ago that feminist man and professor of gender studies Hugo Schwyzer revealed his true colors, admitting that he’d had sex with his students, and worse. It was a dramatic and abrupt fall from grace, and even as he was plummeting to his doom, he was trying to schmooze his way back into leftist circles.

My behavior with students from 1996-98 was unacceptable for a male feminist and, for that matter, an ethical person. The question is whether the penalty for that ought to be a lifetime ban from teaching gender studies, or writing about the subjects I write about. Some feminists feel yes, it should be. I disagree, but only because so many wonderful feminist mentors of mine have encouraged me to stay in this work.

Ick. Ooze all the slime you want, we can see right through you.

He did not fall wailing all the way into Hell, but he came close. He’s writing for The Federalist now. He’s defending Lauren Boebert and arguing that women have historically been happy to marry young and get pregnant right away, and that abortion is wrong, and that leftists are all hedonistic degenerates. It is virtuous to get married at 16 and to be a grandmother in your 30s, he thinks…and it may very well be a good and satisfying thing for some women, but not all women. Lauren Boebert just made a mistake, and wasn’t at all acting like his imaginary left-wing self-indulgent sex fiends.

At that Denver theater, Boebert had a foolish human moment. She has rightly apologized. That should be the end of it. But because she is a conservative, and because her life and her politics give witness to her pro-life convictions, her apology is insufficient.

Rather, she must be shamed over and over again. We must see that surveillance video of her fumblings a hundred times a day. And her ordinary human frailties must somehow be connected to her deepest convictions so her embarrassment becomes an occasion to smear those who share the congresswoman’s commitment to the unborn.

As cruel and dishonest as the mockery of Boebert is, it is even worse that the left uses this incident to peddle a basic lie about human happiness. Someone is indeed robbing people of their youth, but it isn’t conservatives doing the robbing. The thieves are those who preach the lie that self-indulgence and experimentation are pathways to fulfillment rather than despair.

First of all, nobody needs to see that video a hundred times a day. I saw it once, and that was enough. It says something about Hugo that he’s watching it that many times.

Secondly, the Left isn’t preaching lies about self-indulgence and experimentation. The idea is that, instead, women should have the same freedoms men have, the same opportunities to pursue a fulfilling life that isn’t necessarily just having lots of babies as soon as they can. I have classes full of young women (that I’m not abusing sexually, so maybe Schwyzer can’t identify) who are thinking about careers in science, who are doing science, and who are aware that a pregnancy would derail all those plans. Fortunately, they are also smart enough to know about birth control and abortion, not because they want to live frivolously, but because they are hoping for the opposite, a serious and productive life that isn’t controlled by men.

On a happier note, the article closes with a brief biography.

Hugo Schwyzer was a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College from 1993-2013. He is now a ghostwriter living in Los Angeles.

Buh-bye, Hugo. I hope you too are living a fruitful and fulfilling life, but the fact that you are reduced to writing for the Federalist suggests otherwise.

Lately, I’ve been having these odd dreams in which I’m traveling to Quito, where I’m expected to take a ride in the space elevator. I’m oddly anxious about it, and I don’t know why, and I don’t board the silly thing. The End.

Anyway, this morning I discover that Angela Collier has a video about space elevators, and she dismantles the concept with math and engineering, which was very satisfying.

Very convenient. Next time this dream pops up in my subconscious playlist, I’ll just dismiss it and say it’s not possible, go away, and get back to that nice dream where I can talk to spiders.

Could a disease arise that killed half the human population? And that inflicted horrifying neurological effects as the victims slowly died? Sure could. It’s happened in other animals. It’s happening right now in moose.

Minnesota saw a 58% decline of the moose population in the northeastern part of the state between 2006 and 2017.

If you’ve ever seen a moose, you know they’re huge and intimidating — you don’t want to tangle with one. The bulls are temperamental and cranky, the cows are fiercely protective, and you really don’t want to have to deal with a 700kg angry beast. But here’s what’s bringing them low.

A primary driver of the decline is brainworm, a parasite that affects the animal’s nervous system ultimately leading to paralysis and death. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa recently discovered evidence that moose in Minnesota consume species of gastropods —slugs and snails—which are known hosts for the brainworm parasite (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis).

This massive die-off is a consequence of climate change: the worm is moving north as the weather warms, migrating with resistant deer populations whose range is overlapping with that of moose. When people talk about new diseases accompanying climate shifts, this is the kind of thing we’re talking about.

It can happen to us, you know.

I do sometimes wonder if Republicans have been eating snails.

Conscientious objectors attending an agricultural course in Essex, UK, under the Ministry of Agriculture's labour training scheme

On 16 February this year, seven Just Stop Oil protesters were found guilty of peacefully blocking the distribution of oil from the Esso Fuel Terminal in Birmingham. All were sentenced to 12 months conditional discharge with costs of up to £500. However, it was the views of District Judge Wilkinson, in sentencing them, that caught the news. “It is abundantly clear that you are all good people,” he said. “It’s unarguable that man-made global warming is real and we are facing a climate crisis. That is accepted and recognised by the scientific community and most governments (including our own).” Nevertheless, Wilkinson was forced by his position to conclude: “If good people with the right motivation do the wrong thing it can never make that wrong thing right.”

When is it morally justified to assert the primacy of the individual conscience against the law of the land? My interest in this question emerged from my research into the moral dilemmas caused by pacifism during the First and Second World Wars. Like the Just Stop Oil protesters, conscientious objectors (COs) to military conscription were doing the “wrong thing” (breaking the law) in order to do what they believed to be the “right thing”, provoking an often hostile response from the general public.

In her 1987 book Troublesome People, writer and historian Caroline Moorehead charts the history of pacifism in Britain between 1916 and 1986. Among other harrowing stories, she describes the degrading brutality exercised against vulnerable young men who on ethical or religious grounds refused to put on uniform or carry weapons during the First World War.

“You are not old enough to have a conscience,” was the verdict used by the tribunal chairman at Kingston Barracks to dismiss one man’s appeal. These young men were old enough to die, but not to ask why.

Of 16,000 men summoned to tribunal during the First World War, around 6,000 were arrested and court-martialled (some as many as six times); 819 had spent over two years in prison, much of that time on bread and water and in solitary confinement; 69 were dead; and 39 had, in Moorehead’s words, “gone mad”. This is partly why she described pacifism as “the most lonely of beliefs, held for the most part in private, and sustained in isolation, often in the face of powerful opposition”. Ostracised by other family members, spat at in the street, in prison they were often kept in solitary confinement in cells without bedding, and starved. In one incident, 35 men were sent to France to face a mock execution for desertion.

However, Moorehead’s grim account is tempered by Cyril Pearce’s more recent study, Communities of Resistance: Conscience and Dissent in Britain During the First World War (2020). The book notes that some COs were supported by “an extensive and vigorous local social, religious and political culture”, in which dissenting views were allowed to flourish. Such supportive cultures kept the spirits of those imprisoned alive, reassuring them that they were not alone. Pearce argues that there was a “geography of dissent”, related to the strength of local political and religious movements, whether it was the Independent Labour Party, the Quakers or some other affiliation.

The ideals of pacifists, whether the “absolute refusers” or those prepared to drive ambulances, fire-watch or undertake farm work, were a mixture of religious, political and other beliefs and affiliations. The absolutists were likely to be of an unbending religious faith. In Battles of Conscience, Tobias Kelly’s recent study of British Second World War pacifism, he notes that tribunals were readier to accept the arguments of those who took their position on the basis of religious injunction – predominantly Methodists, Anglicans, Brethren, Quakers, Baptists, Christadelphians and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yet this was also a time when rationalist and humanist values were being advanced through the writings and anti-war activities of people such as Fenner Brockway and Bertrand Russell, founding fathers of modern humanism. Imprisoned as a war-resister for six months during the First World War, it was Russell who famously and bitterly wrote that “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”

Communities of dissent

We can see in the early pacifist movement the seeds of a culture of dissent and protest which was to gain ground in the 20th century. War resistance was the clear forerunner of the modern discourse of human rights, of which conscientious objection to military conscription was an early demand, now recognised by governments throughout the world, in word if not in deed. Moreover, the forms of non-violent resistance pioneered by pacifist and anti-war movements – described in Václav Havel’s famous essay as “The Power of the Powerless” – were later emulated by Gandhi in India and the civil rights movement in America. They have since been adopted by many other social movements, for example at Greenham Common, in relation to women’s rights and the treatment of refugees, and later by campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil.

Being part of communities of dissent could mean ostracism by society at large. But this was not always the case. In my research, I came across one inspiring incident in a collection of reminiscences published by Essex Quakers who had refused conscription during the Second World War. In 1940, hospital worker Albert Pike was sent to Romford Labour Exchange to find a job. He was a conscientious objector, having registered himself as unwilling to fight after Britain and France invaded Germany the year before. “All eyes were on me when I walked forward to answer the clerk’s shout of ‘Where’s that CO?’” he recalled. “Afterwards a number of men came up to shake my hand. I am sure the clerk was as surprised as I was at the reception I got from the crowd.”

Pike went on to help establish a farming community in Essex, with a group of other COs, some of whom were Quakers. I was so taken with the story, I wrote a book about this movement: No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen: Back to the Land in Wartime Britain. Frating Hall Farm, in Colchester, was one of a number of communities formed during the Second World War, as pacifists turned to land colonies, smallholdings and the resettlement of vacant farms as an alternative to taking up arms. Designated as a “reserved occupation”, farm work was an alternative to joining the armed forces.

One reason COs were treated more leniently during the Second World War was that many were themselves war veterans. Three of Frating’s mentors – Max Plowman, John Macmurray and Richard Rees – had fought in the trenches and been decorated for bravery. They had seen the worst and were not prepared to see it happen again, and their war records gave them the moral authority to say so. This support for the back-to-the-land movement was shared by their friend Vera Brittain, whose war memoir and elegy for a lost generation, Testament of Youth, stirred the national conscience when published in 1933. Brittain helped finance the Frating community in its early days. Her daughter, Shirley Williams, later to become a Labour cabinet minister, worked there for a year as a young woman as “second cowman”, recalling it as one of the happiest times of her life.

Those I interviewed about the Frating community had been there as children and remember it as a time of enormous freedom and even privilege. While some experienced a degree of hostility or scorn at school as a result of their parents’ beliefs, it was much harder for the adults. They were widely viewed with suspicion and on occasions ostracised, encouraged by a hostile press, compounded by their decision to offer shelter to foreign refugees and even former prisoners-of-war. The Frating farmers understood that it wasn’t enough to be against something, one had to be for something better. Going back to the land not only provided a legitimate means of helping others while holding fast to unpopular beliefs: it also allowed them to create an enclave of dissent and fellowship.

What is evident in the work of Kelly, Moorehead and Pearce is the intransigence of certain political and religious formations in resisting the overweening power of the state and popular opinion in times of extreme crisis. “In theory, conscience could be secular or religious,” Kelly argued in Battles of Conscience, “but since the Reformation, if not earlier. . . to talk about conscience was to talk about religion and a very particular religion at that; conscience seemed to walk most comfortably in Britain in the footsteps of Protestant forms of faith.”

Yet conscience is not the exclusive domain of religion. The connections between pacifism, political resistance and humanism were made in two now famous talks by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. The first was Russell’s lecture to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall on 6 March 1927, published as Why I Am Not a Christian, and later described by New York Public Library as “among the most influential books of the 20th century”. Russell’s argument against the existence of God was eloquent and even-tempered. While understanding the need for a redemptive power that could ameliorate the carnage of war, Russell concluded by reasoning that humankind must find a way of making the world a better place without recourse to divine intervention, particularly when it came to war. From then on Russell became an international figurehead of the peace and humanist movements right up to his death in 1970.

Battles of conscience

Sartre’s talk in Paris on 29 October 1945, published as Existentialism Is a Humanism, seized the imagination of a generation. Though Sartre later came to regret its simplistic reasoning, his short book made sense to many young readers – myself included, many years later. Starting from Ivan Karamazov’s provocative assertion in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov that “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted,” Sartre argues that it is precisely because there is no God that each individual has to take responsibility for her or his own actions.

The lecture was delivered within months of the end of the Second World War, at a time of national introspection. Sartre posed the problem of a young man who cannot decide whether to join the French resistance against the Nazi occupation or stay at home caring for an ailing parent. Although Sartre himself joined the Resistance, and fought with the French army, he provides no answer, only observing that in weighing up any such decision we are required to understand more precisely who we are, and whether we are living an “authentic” life, or what the “secular but spiritual” Václav Havel was later to describe as “living in truth”. More recently philosopher Lea Ypi, writing of her childhood in communist Albania, argues that in the face of oppression and political corruption, “We never lose our inner freedom: the freedom to do what is right.”

What might we learn today from these battles of conscience? One lesson is that doing the right thing is hard when you are in a minority, though it helps if there is a supportive culture of dissent.

Soon after lockdown ended, I got in touch with David Lambert, an old friend I’d promised to visit before Covid struck. In the four years since we’d last seen each other, he had spent the first three with Extinction Rebellion, and was working out where the environmental movement goes next. Even XR’s “end of life as we know it” message had not really cut through, he thought, and the political parties had managed to deflect its sense of urgency. For two weeks in April 2021, David and others appeared at Southwark Crown Court charged with criminal damage to the Shell Building. In the journal Self & Society he wrote that in court he and his fellow protesters decided, “We would tell our truth, share with the jury not just our grief and anger, but also our uncertainty. We admitted we did not know whether what we did was the right thing to do; we believed it was but we were offering it to the jury to decide.” All were acquitted. It seems Judge Wilkinson was not alone in his courtroom sympathies (although, it should be noted, it has not played out this way for everybody, with harsher anti-protest laws introduced in the two years since then and jury verdicts varying).

The old story of “going after the bad guys” no longer had traction in the face of the enormity of the climate crisis, David told me. Better to admit to the grief and uncertainty of the sixth great extinction, and let others decide how they are to live with that radical uncertainty. He quoted an early XR slogan, “Hope dies; action begins”, citing American scholar Joanna Macy’s distinction between the practice of what she calls “active hope” and an increasingly desperate hopefulness that we can continue as we are. The more that radical social change is framed as a binary conflict between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, he said, the less people will listen or “own” the environmental crisis, let alone the need for change.

In my book about Frating Hall Farm I described how the community’s children remembered idyllic years, while aware that their parents struggled with hard work, lack of experience, poor conditions and personal and ideological differences. Yet none of the adults appear to have regretted the experience. In later life they remembered the friendship, discussions, concerts, the summer harvest evenings and suppers, and forgot the winter’s cold and the wet days pulling up cabbages. More importantly, their children were proud of them, and still are 70 years later.

To win the respect of the next generation is no small achievement. How many of us will be able to say the same? Or will future generations look back at us as the cohort who failed to act on our principles, who let the world go to ruin? When Joe Watson, a former steel-worker and pacifist, helped establish the community at Frating in 1943, he wrote in a newsletter that “We did not wait, because there was nothing to wait for.” Sometimes you just have to do the right thing.

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

'Jonah and the Whale' by Pieter Lastman, 1621

Michael Shermer is the founder and editor of Skeptic magazine and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is “Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational”. He’ll be speaking at the philosophy and music festival HowTheLightGetsIn London 2023, on 23-24 September. New Humanist readers get 20% off full festival tickets using the code NEWHUM23.

You’ll be speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn about the way in which, although established religion has been in decline in the west for a long time, spiritual or supernatural beliefs have persisted. How do those beliefs manifest today?

In the late 19th century, there were predictions that with mass public education, industrialisation and so forth, religion would decline. But that didn't happen until post-World War Two, when it happened in Europe, but not in the United States. It didn't happen in the United States until really the last 15 years or so…

Today, there's this thing called the “replacement hypothesis,” [which posits] that without religion, people still need something, so religion will be replaced by … some secular version, such as Marxism or feminism. I think it's a mistake to think about it like that because it suggests that there's a hole that needs to be filled in human nature that religion has filled, and it has to be something like religion [to fill it] … Religion has filled some roles that we need but ... but there's nothing magical about religion or belief in God. [Living a happy life] really comes down to having a social circle, family, people that care about you, and having goals in life …

The idea that you have to have religion to have morals is also falling away. People realise that without religion society is not going to just collapse. People are still for the most part good and they're not getting that from religion. They're getting that from our genes, our sense of right and wrong, our parents, our peer groups, our teachers and mentors and culture at large. The idea that you should just be good for goodness’s sake, which has been a humanist line for decades, is finally catching on.

And yet we still see among younger generations beliefs in things like horoscopes and spirituality. What's driving that?

“Spirituality” is a loaded word because it means so many different things to different people but roughly speaking it's having a sense of awe and wonder about your place in the world, taking yourself out of your own self and your ego … Scientists have studied this and what they find is that you can do this in many different ways – a walk on the beach, a hike in the mountains, dancing, music, literature. Meditation is huge now and it’s not replacing religion but it’s just another way of finding some kind of peace and wellness, you might say. On dating sites people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” ... It's a way of signalling, “I'm not religious but I have some character and morals and values and I care about things deeply” …

I like going to cathedrals. My wife is from Cologne, so we go to the Dom whenever we visit her family, and I find great senses of spirituality and awe and wonder there – even though I'm an atheist, I don't believe any of the stories behind it … It’s the exact same feeling when I go into an observatory … It just reminds you that the universe is a vast place, and it takes you out of yourself and gives you some reflection and gratitude.

Your most recent book is on why the rational believe the irrational. What's the short answer?

My next book is called Truth and it takes this concept much larger. A lot of what people say they believe as being true is not [meant] in the empirical scientific sense.It's "true" in some other sense – it's mythically true or psychologically true or religiously true or politically true. It's [a case of] "this is what I believe because I'm part of this team." For example, "I'm a liberal, so I believe in supporting immigration and abortion rights and free speech". [Which is different to] whether or not it’s “true” like you could run some experiments [to prove it]…
I've been writing about the resurrection of Jesus … When people say they believe it, do they really believe it like ... some empirical truth? No, I don’t think so. I think they mostly believe it because that's their religion. "That's part of what I believe as a Catholic" ... It’s mythically true …
I think most religious claims are in that area. Biblical archaeology is a waste of time – you know, “we’re going to prove once and for all that King David existed” or “how Jonah got swallowed by a whale and survived for three days”. That’s missing the point of the story.

How does that tie in with conspiracy theories?Most people, when they say they believe some conspiracy theory like the deep state or QAnon or Princess Diana was murdered or whatever, they don't mean that literally in the sense that "I checked it out myself and I believe it."I think it's more like "this is what my team believes. I'm a Republican so I think there is a deep state" or "I just don't trust big government agencies to tell the truth" because they lie a lot, which is true …
Most of us can't fact check most things so we just accept it or else you’d never be able to get around and do anything … [We] have to assume [a lot of things] … that are not empirically verifiable …

One of my favourite papers on this is called “Dead and Alive”, in which people who ticked the box that said they think Princess Diana faked her death and is still alive somewhere were also more likely to tick the box that said she was murdered. Well, she can't be both dead and alive. So what are they saying when they tick those contradictory boxes on a survey? In a way they’re saying, “I don't trust the media. I don't trust government to tell me the truth.”

Is belief in conspiracy theories growing?

Not really, actually. Conspiracy theories have been around forever, going back to ancient Rome. What's happened is the speed with which conspiracy theories spread and the number of people that can be affected overnight with this kind of mind virus. That's the difference that social media and the internet has made ... But the number of people who say they believe in conspiracy theories, that’s been pretty much the same since the polling agencies started asking people about it.

Let's talk about aliens, which are everywhere at the moment, including the US Congress, which took witness testimony during an unprecedented hearing on the issue back in July. What explains the enduring appeal of this idea?

I’ve just started a 500-page book called UFO about the history of that subject in the United States. And I tweeted a picture of the cover saying “here's a 500-page book on the history of a subject we don't even know exists. How long can this be sustained?” And then I posted a picture of the Bible.

I do think, in a sense, the whole thing is driven by this kind of religious impulse to think we're not alone, that there's something out there besides us … It's an incredibly interesting subject. You know the whole search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and the Drake equation [developed by astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate the number of advanced civilisations likely to exist in the Milky Way] and all the Carl Sagan stuff, looking for aliens – you'd have to be brain dead not be excited about that idea. But is it true?

There’s two separate questions: Are they out there? Have they come here? Most astronomers think "surely we're not the only ones". I mean there's something like [700 quintillion] planets in the entire cosmos …

But have they come here? Very likely not just because it's mostly empty space, it’d be next to impossible to find us … As for the sightings, the UAPs [Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena], 95 per cent of them are totally explainable. I’ve spoken to ufologists, who totally believe we’re being visited, who say themselves that 95 per cent of these things are balloons and drones and swamp gas and Venus. So we're really only talking about 5 per cent of anomalies. And what do you do with anomalies? Nothing ... There's always a residue of unexplained anomalies in any field and it doesn't mean that the field is broken; it just means that we can’t explain everything …

But I'm happy to be proven wrong! You know, if a US government politician comes out and says "here it is, here's the body, here's a spaceship" … alright, I’ll concede. But that hasn't happened. I started Skeptic magazine in ‘92. I've been hearing about a coming disclosure every year for 31 years. Where is it?

What role will conspiracy theories play in the 2024 US presidential election?

The rigged election conspiracy theory has been driving a portion of the GOP for sure, but here's a good example of what I was talking about. Was the election rigged? How would I know? I wouldn't even know who to call, but you know who would know? The Department of Justice. And so, when attorney general Bill Barr, life-long Republican, voted for Trump, appointed by Trump, said "you know what, we looked into it and we just couldn’t find anything" – and he would have been motivated to find something – that's the end of the story for me.

Christopher Hitchens used to like to say “if you hear the Pope saying he believes in God today you think "well, the Pope’s doing his job again". But if you hear the Pope saying, "you know I’m starting to doubt God's existence", you think "oh, he might be on to something!” Motivated reasoning is huge. The only thing you can do to counter it really is what we do, like at Skeptic, is post “Here are the claims, here are the counter arguments to those claims, you decide” … All we can do is point [the contradictions] out and hope that people, when they go down the rabbit hole, can climb out.

How does understanding how these beliefs work help us to build solutions?

There is research on de-biasing programs. You can actually do something called “pre-bunking”. The US government did this on the eve of Putin invading Ukraine. The State Department issued a statement saying “there are going to be some videos online, posted by these Russian trolls, saying that the following is going to happen and this is why we have to invade” … That was an attempt at pre-bunking. [Telling people] “you're about to be sold a bunch of bullshit and this is what it's going to look like”. And the research shows that does seem to work. If you alert people of what to look for that seems to help.

Also, teaching people about the cognitive biases. "Here's the hindsight bias, the confirmation bias," and so on – there’s dozens of them. People really do get better at identifying them. Although there's a biased bias in that they're better at identifying it in other people [and] it’s still hard to see in themselves.

So the solution is just to keep reinforcing the norms of truth telling. That the truth really still does matter. That we don't live in a post-truth world. Because if we did, how would you know? Because the people that claim we live in a post-truth world have arguments. They're using reason. So apparently the truth still does matter.

HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s largest philosophy and music festival, returns to London this 23-24 September. Renowned as a hub for world-leading thinkers, philosophers, scientists, politicians and artists, this year’s festival theme is "Dangers, Desire, and Destiny". Expect to see Alastair Campbell, Rory Stewart, Ruby Wax, Michio Kaku, David Baddiel, Carol Gilligan, Martin Wolf, Peter Singer (via Zoom) and more lock horns over a packed weekend of debates, talks and performances. We’re delighted to offer our readers 20% off full festival tickets with the code NEWHUM23. Get your discounted tickets here. If you can't attend in person, don't worry. The festival's online platform IAI.TV has a wealth of festival content to enjoy.

A Just Stop Oil protester is arrested outside Esso Birmingham Terminal

On 16 April 2019, I superglued my hands to the pavement outside the headquarters of the oil company Shell in London. I tried to get to the main door but fell short as I was surrounded by dozens of neon-jacketed policemen. I had been a legal adviser in the United Nations climate negotiations for nearly 30 years – but that Tuesday I decided it was time to join those who had chosen to break the law [Yamin was not charged].

It might have seemed like an unusual thing for a lawyer with my profile to do. For over a decade, I have been using my legal training to help governments (primarily of small island states) negotiate and implement commitments under treaties, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, and through national laws. Such treaties and laws provide a crucial framework for action. Alongside my activism, I have continued this kind of professional work. But while it is necessary, I have come to understand that it is no longer enough.

It is not only that this work is taking too long. While climate litigation ratchets up the pressure, these cases tend to ask governments to control air pollution, or do a little more mitigation of greenhouse gases, for example, rather than asking for systemic, radical change. They also shy away from seeking reparations for loss and damage already running into billions of dollars, the burden of which is on the poor. Litigation can also leave plaintiff communities feeling disempowered when the lawyers involved are not connected to the social movements and political demands of the communities they seek to champion.

I have come to the conclusion that any solutions the courts can deliver right now will not be fast or sweeping enough to deliver the transformational changes we need in the next few years, unless and until they are accompanied by people rising up in a global movement that is powerful enough to take on polluters and complacent politicians. This movement cannot rely on petitions, marches and elections every five years to do the job. It has to embrace breaking the law and be based on peaceful civil disobedience. It must have many different components, a movement of movements.

When I think about my 30 years as a lawyer in the climate field I am filled with sadness and rage. In these very years the crisis has accelerated. I did not appreciate the scale of destruction. Nor how richer countries would export their dirtiest industries, such as textiles and manufacturing, to China, India, Bangladesh, and my home country, Pakistan. Like many in the climate movement, I worried about how I would look talking about “global elites” and saying something as radical as “the system is broken.” I played by the rules.

It took something of a breakdown – personal and political – to come to a new realisation. I had been somewhat paralysed, burnt out by the annual cycle of UN climate summits, known as “COPs”, and trying to get the 2015 Paris Agreement implemented on the basis of climate science. I was also suffering from a deep depression triggered by the untimely deaths of my mother, father and brother in close succession. All the hopes and hard work I had put into the Paris Agreement seemed to be unravelling, particularly with the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017.

I felt powerless and angry: I withdrew from work because I felt we had failed, and that it was too late to do anything useful. But I was surrounded by a loving family and had the good fortune to take several courses and spent time in wilderness. I read Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, which is addressed to activists and focuses on how they can keep going in tough times. I allowed myself to grieve. I read the histories of social movements that had overthrown slavery and colonialism; tackled disenfranchisement and violence against women, gay and transgender people; and got legislation passed to protects workers’ rights, including access to healthcare and social welfare.

Finally, at the age of 55, I have found my voice and the courage to speak my truth as a mother, as a migrant, as a lawyer and as an activist. Lawyers are often rightly seen as part of the establishment, but we also have a special part to play in mobilising mass movements. Look, for example, at two of the greatest movement-builders of the 20th century: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Both were lawyers who first worked within the law, launching campaigns based on petitions, marches and litigation.

But they came to understand that no court could overturn the complex mix of social norms, rules and systemic political abuses of power that entrenched discrimination across so many levels of Indian and South African society. Ultimately, they chose law-breaking as the key, decisive tool in their successful opposition to imperialism and apartheid.

We must understand, as they did, that the necessary change will not take place if we stay within the rules.

This is an edited version of a chapter in the anthology “The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated” (OR Books), published in the autumn 2023 issue of New Humanist. Subscribe now.

The cover art for Shattered Nation shows an empty supermarket trolley

Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State (Verso Books) by Danny Dorling

The fundamental concept of social geography is seemingly simple. If you look at the map of most cities, there are certain lines – sometimes easy to pick out, like a river, a park or a hill, and sometimes as subtle as a postcode change – that demarcate a rather remarkable shift: for some reason, people living on one side of this line are much richer than those living on the other.

Danny Dorling, a professor at the University of Oxford, has devoted his career to explaining the reasons this might be so. Raised in Oxford, he watched his town go from being fairly homogeneous in economic terms in the early 1970s to one where “the neighbourhood that once had the cheapest private housing – where the majority of homes were originally owned by car-factory workers – is now too expensive for most university academics to afford”.

Dorling’s Shattered Nation starts from his home streets, finding them full of shocking levels of homelessness where there used to be almost none, and a growing divide between the international class of the super-rich that sends its children to be educated at the university, and a local population whose fortunes increasingly reflect those of the most deprived towns and cities found on these islands.

The book doesn’t depart much from Dorling’s previous work. The collection of harrowing anecdotes mixed in with a wealth of data extends the legacy of rigorous examination of social issues found in books like Inequality and the 1% (2014).

But Shattered Nation comes at a critical point in time: following the 2008 financial crisis and 13 years of Conservative governments, the book captures the picture of a nation that feels hopelessly broken. It’s evident all around us: the gutted public services, the crumbling infrastructure and the bankrupt councils forced to sell their assets – from public libraries and children’s centres to what remained of their housing stock (as Slough did in 2022). Now, those lines on the map are becoming blurry. The decline is coming for everyone but the very richest.

Dorling argues in Shattered Nation that we are witnessing the “Americanisation” of the British economy, with the degradation of public services, and the consequent rise in inequality following the patterns that the US saw in the second half of the 20th century. In Dorling’s opinion, this is not the fault of the Conservatives alone. From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, the book traces the fiscal and social policy choices that brought us to where we are today. But the effects of the David Cameron government’s austerity policies enacted after 2010 are central, he says, to the breaking of the British state.

The book brings together stories from across the four nations. There is a particular emphasis on the housing crisis, which has only become more pronounced since and now threatens to engulf the middle classes – a development that the book predicts with some clarity, warning that even those asset owners that the state has done the most to protect will find themselves the victims of rentier capitalism run amok.

But perhaps the most important insight of the book comes later, and it’s one that might be hard to stomach: the effects on the psyche of the people living through this country’s decline. We may be faced with what might be described as a manifestation of collective bad character, as “gross inequality creates destructive uncaring competitiveness”. This is a dynamic Dorling describes as founded in anxiety as much as greed, as those who are “wealthy but fearful” feel that “there is never enough money to guarantee financial security.”

Is the damage too deep to reverse? Dorling has argued elsewhere that Britain is actually witnessing “peak inequality” and things should eventually start showing signs of improvement. First, however, we’d have to admit that the picture that Shattered Nation paints is real. And that admission, if it comes, will be a painful one.

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

Andrew Tate carries a copy of the Koran as he is escorted by police

Natasha, a literature and language teacher in a high school in Karachi, has had more than her fair share of challenges. She regularly gives pastoral care to her students, and once prevented an all-out war between rival clans of teenage boys in the school corridor. But now she believes she is facing her biggest challenge yet. Over the past year in particular, even the most mundane of her classes have seen heated debates escalate into highly vicious personal attacks. Male teenage students have called Natasha a “whore” and a “feminist Nazi”. Female students, the targets of similar attacks, feel so humiliated that they regularly miss class. One student has stopped coming into school for the past four months.

Natasha’s descriptions of her classroom aren’t atypical. Indeed, they provide an acute insight into a growing problem around the world – namely, the proliferation of hyper-aggressive misogynistic online content, known colloquially online as the “Red Pill”. It’s a term you may have initially heard in the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix. The protagonist, a computer hacker named Neo, discovers through taking the Red Pill that the world he lives in is a computer simulation. In the mid-2000s, the term was appropriated by “pick-up artists”.

These days, “becoming redpilled” is less related to seducing women, and much more likely to be to do with right-wing politics – in particular, a belief in the damaging falsity of liberalism, modernity and equality politics. And it only takes a few scrolls on social media to find one character at the forefront of this so-called “Red Pill movement”: balding, burly, often seen in a tight blazer jacket and, regardless of the weather, always wearing sunglasses.

By now, even people with minimal exposure to internet culture will have heard of Andrew Tate. The 36-year-old former professional kickboxer and reality TV contestant was, until he was banned in the summer of 2022, one of the most popular influencers on TikTok. He is currently under house arrest in Romania while prosecutors investigate him over allegations of rape and human trafficking, which he denies.

His videos showcased his life of opulence, including tours of his remarkably empty mansion on the outskirts of Bucharest. The videos that really went viral were those that gave “life advice” to the growing number of young men wanting to imitate him. Some of these show him staring down a camera, telling young men to “stop being lazy” and go to the gym, or provide esoteric advice, such as espousing the health benefits of caffeine and cigarettes.

But other videos take a significantly darker turn. In one, he answers a question about how to respond to a partner’s accusation of infidelity by saying: “Bang out the machete, boom in her face and grip her by the neck. Shut up, bitch.” In others, he has made statements about women being the “property” of men while in relationships. This sort of content has led to Tate’s account being banned from most social media networks, including Meta and TikTok. But it’s also driven his global popularity. His fans often reproduce his content on their own social media channels. They also translate his videos into different languages.

The conversion to Islam

I came across Natasha on a Facebook group for young teachers. The group, set up in 2013, aimed to give advice to new teachers, and share resources like worksheets and lesson plans. Now, the group is overwhelmed by how to deal with the impacts of content made by Tate and his copycats. Teachers in the group, based around the world, share stories of arguments – even physical fights – that have occurred because of misogynistic online content, or recall stories of promising students slowly becoming radicalised.

Teachers are unsure how, or even if, they can intervene. Many express concerns about their female students, whom they have seen lose confidence in the classroom, and who are often afraid of expressing any opinion that might be deemed feminist.

One teacher recently commented that the intrusion of Red Pill content has even made the process of giving out assignments difficult: “I asked my students to write an essay about wages and inflation,” the high school economics teacher from Toronto wrote earlier this year. “The student gave me back an essay on why women earn more money than men and why the ‘wage gap’ was fake. He then accused me of politically disagreeing with him when he was given a low score.”

Feelings of persecution and victimhood are central components of Red Pill content online, suggests Annie Kelly, a UK-based researcher specialising in far-right digital cultures and a co-host of the podcast QAnon Anonymous. In Tate’s online life-improvement course, Hustler’s University, “Tate pioneered a ‘post-deplatforming’ social media strategy”, Kelly explains – one which is difficult to regulate. Even if Tate was banned from all social media platforms, his course provides financial incentives to subscribers to reproduce and share his online content, from podcasts to video, promising that this will bring them advertising revenue. Couple that with far fewer moderation policies on these platforms in the non-western world, and it’s clear how Tate’s message has spread so rapidly.

At the same time, Tate’s global reach has also had an impact on him. A couple of months before he was arrested, Tate converted to Islam. This was a shock to some of his most ardent supporters in the west, particularly right-wing figures including Tommy Robinson, formerly the leader of the English Defence League. Others who expressed disappointment were Christian ethno-nationalists, who believed that Muslims, and other ethnic and sexual minorities, were destroying the west. But the move was perhaps not as surprising as it first might have seemed. By converting to Islam, facilitated by well-known conservative Muslim influencers Mohammed Hijab and Ali Dawah, Tate had opened up the online Red Pill movement to non-white and non-western people, giving them space in a movement that once saw Muslims, along with feminists, as their ideological enemies.

Tate had expressed his interest in Islam for months prior to his conversion, sparked by his growing fanbase of Muslims, frequent trips to Dubai, and his assertion that conservative Islam was the only religion that truly embraced “traditional” values and gender roles. Kelly adds that Tate’s conversion mirrors a broader trend in religious conversion in online Red Pill communities. Notable figures such as the notorious pick-up artist Daryush Valizadeh, known as “Roosh V”, have converted to Orthodox Catholicism, in reaction to both feminism and a growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities in the west.

“Many of these manosphere conversion stories will themselves situate their religious awakening within this context,” Kelly says. She also notes that even after their conversion, these influencers rarely engage with theology at all. Which is one reason why Tate, even after his conversion, has fetishised Muslim women. In one video, he speaks of marrying an “Islamic-ass wife” who he’d keep next to a pile of rocks in case “she gets fresh”.

'A mix of misogyny and aspiration'

Tate’s new-found religious identity has sparked tensions between some Muslims over the legitimacy of his conversion, and whether becoming Muslim should mean that his past transgressions should be forgiven.

While most Muslim fans of Tate’s would not speak to me for this article, those that did believed that Tate’s public persona, and the bravado that came with it, should be seen as a performance, separate from his real character. As one UK-based Muslim man, Hamza, 23, said: “You have to watch enough of his videos to know which ones are serious and which ones aren’t. I can’t really explain it to anyone who hasn’t done that but you can tell. That’s why I focus on the positives – his business advice, his advice about going to the gym, about treating people properly and, now, to worship Allah. I was really happy that Allah guided him to Islam.”

Whether Tate’s conversion is legitimate or not, Natasha has noticed that among her students in Karachi, his new status as a Muslim influencer is having a clear effect. They see in Tate a religious ally in the west who “can promise them the world.” Ryan Broderick, the editor of the internet culture newsletter “Garbage Day”, notes that Tate’s fanbase is growing in other countries too, such as India and Brazil.

“His appeal is just a very simple mix of misogyny and aspiration,” Broderick says. “It’s very seductive to tell young men in the global south that hating women and mistreating them and, in Tate’s case, literally allegedly trafficking them, is the secret to a successful life. It’s classic fascism, but because it’s cloaked into a cartoonish macho man aesthetic and not directly linked to any particular politics, we don’t treat it as such.”

Natasha finds herself stuck at a crossroads. She admits that there’s a part of her that is considering leaving the teaching profession. The other part wants to fight the influence of Tate and his imitators. She and other teachers have discussed strategies to help de-radicalise students, most of which require a great deal of patience, as they try to encourage them to think about what they choose to watch on the internet. It won’t be easy, but this fight reinforces why Natasha wanted to become a teacher in the first place. “I grew up in a family where men told women they shouldn’t study. . . I was told I should stay at home and learn how to cook for my husband,” she tearfully remembers. “I will not let anyone – anyone at all – say the same thing to my students.”

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! Public confidence is difficult to earn and easy to forfeit. Which makes you wonder what the WHO (that’s the World Health Organization) was thinking in using its social media platform to promote “natural medicine” (and homeopathy in particular). CFI’s Nick Little explains why the WHO’s embrace of …
This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …

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Two quick bits of news.

First, The Royal Society have kindly given me the prestigious David Attenborough Award. This is a lifetime achievement award for my work promoting psychology and critical thinking, and focuses on my research combatting pseudo-science and examining the psychology of magic. Previous recipients include Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor Alice Roberts, and I will give an award lecture about my work in August 2024.

Second, I have a new academic magic book out! It is part of the well-known Arts For Health series and reviews work examining how watching and learning magic is good for your wellbeing, including how it boosts confidence, social skills, dexterity, curiosity and much more. It was lots of fun to write and also includes interviews key practitioners, including Richard McDougall (Breathe Magic), Julie Eng (Magicana), Mario the Maker Magician (USA), David Brookhouse (UK), David Gore and Marian Williamson (College of Magic), and Tom Verner (Magicians Without Borders).  More details here.

From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! Bertha Vazquez, CFI’s director of education, is a tireless advocate for science education (and science educators). Her love for science and sense of wonder are contagious. In a recent interview discussing the launch of CFI’s new Generation Skeptics education program, she said, “science doesn’t try to prove …
This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …
This thread has been created for thoughtful, rational discussion on subjects for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion threads, the most …
Richard-Wisemans-On-Your-Mind-1080x1080

I am delighted to say that the second series of our On Your Mind podcast has launched today!!

Each week, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will explore aspects of the human psyche, including astrology, how the clothes we wear influence our thoughts, attraction, friendship, dreaming, mind control and much much more.  We will also be joined by some special guests as we attempt to answer all of your questions about psychology. The first series reached No.1 in Apple Podcast’s Science charts, and so we hope that you can join us. 

Our first episode looks at creativity and explores how to have good ideas and whether children are more creative than adults. You can listen here.

everybodys-magic-1I am excited to launch a new fund raising initiative for the amazing College of Magic in South Africa. The College is a non-profit community youth development organisation that uses magic to offer hope to young people in and around Cape Town.  They do incredible work and for the past two years I have been working with them and Vanishing Inc (the largest magic retailer in the world ) to produce a unique  magic booklet and custom deck of cards for budding magicians. 

everybodys-magic-11This gorgeous full-colour booklet involves students from the College teaching magical illusions, and tells inspirational stories of diverse historical magicians. Both the booklet and cards showcase great artwork by South African illustrator, Ndumiso Nyoni, and readers have special access to videos of the students teaching the tricks and offering top tips.

everybodys-magic-4All the profits raised from the sale of the booklet and deck of cards will go towards furthering the important and wonderful work of the College. It’s a lovely gift for friends and family and it would be great if you can support the project.

To find out more, please click here

Richard-Wisemans-On-Your-Mind-1080x1080I am very excited to announce that I have a new podcast out!

Each episode, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will be exploring one of my favourite psychological topics, such as happiness, lying, laughter, and luck. We will be taking a deep dive into the research and revealing simple ideas that could help to improve your life.

We launched yesterday and have already reached the Number 2 slot on the Apple Science Chart! Thank you so much to everyone who has listened so far. During the episodes we will be answering 1000 questions about the mind, so feel free to post your questions on my blog. 

It’s called Richard Wiseman’s On Your Mind and the link to the podcast is here.

My thanks to Podimo and TellTale studios for supporting and producing the podcast.

Screenshot 2023-01-28 at 16.53.58A few years ago I had the idea of making a comic devoted to three of my favourite topics: Magic, psychology and the paranormal. I teamed up with ace comic book artist Jordan Cullver, writer Rik Worth and colourist Owen Watts, and together we created 5 issues of Hocus Pocus.

Each issue introduces true stories of amazing feats, describes astounding psychic investigations, celebrates the history of magic, and examines the psychology of the paranormal. Not only that, but we included lots of interactive elements, including tests of your paranormal abilities, magical illusions,  psychic readings and much more. The comics were well received and even ended up being nominated for a prestigious Eisner award! As a result, many of the issues sold out and are now unavailable.

This week, those nice folks at Vanishing Inc have kindly put all five issues into a lovely, full colour, hard backed book.  Not only that but it contains some extra material for HOCUS POCUS fans:

A new introduction by me
A beautiful Cover Gallery showcasing Jordan’s fantastic artwork from all five issues
“How we made HOCUS POCUS: The Secrets Revealed!” — Rik spills the beans all our deceptions.
The complete live HOCUS POCUS issue used as an interactive element from Lawrence Leung’s The Davenport Séance reprinted here for the first time.
PLUS, pick up your copy from Vanishing Inc and you’ll also receive a copy of the exclusive, one-of-a-kind “Hiding the Elephant Puzzle” comic. Not only will you learn the history of one of Houdini’s greatest illusions, you’ll make an elephant vanish as you do so. While stock lasts.

I hope that you enjoy it, and the book is available here.

Someone contacted me hoping to find young atheists who might be interested in being part of a new series. I’m not particularly interested in having my mug on TV, but I would love to have some great personalities represent atheism on the show, so I offered to repost his email on my blog: My name […]
All throughout my youth, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wrote all the time, about everything. I watched TV shows and ranted along with the curmudgeons on Television Without Pity about what each show did wrong, convincing myself that I could do a better job. I flew to America with a dream in my […]
A friend linked me to this. I was a sobbing mess within the first minute. I sometimes wonder why I feel such a strong kinship to the LGBT community, and I think it’s because I’ve been through the same thing that many of them have. So I watched this video and I cried, because, as […]
UPDATE #1: I got my domain back! Many thanks to Kurtis for the pleasant surprise: So I stumbled upon your blog, really liked what I saw, read that you had drama with the domain name owner, bought it, and forwarded it here. It should work again in a matter of seconds. I am an atheist […]
Chadwell writes: I’m a 16 year old in highschool and I guess my natural cynicism lead me to question the dogma and ignorance of religion. I was a christian but I just figured that why would god send the only salvation to man kind to a single area and practically turn his all-mighty back on […]
@davorg / Tuesday 26 September 2023 12:07 UTC