Amardeo Sarma is the Former Chair of the European Council of Skeptical Organizations. He is a prominent and respected individual in the skeptical movement, who has a host of other associations and qualifications. Here we cover a wide range of topics in an exclusive interview.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family background in humanism or rationalism for you in the family?
Amardeo Sarma: No, because both my parents were moderately religious. So, the answer is no. In fact, to give you an example, when I grew up, my father was a Hindu, I am half Indian, my mother is Christian, German. When I was growing up, my dad was liberal in that sense.
He said you can become whatever you like. If you want to be a Hindu or a Christian, fine. Even if you want to be a Muslim, that’s fine because we lived in India where there were a lot of Muslims. But then I do not think he reckoned with me deciding to be nothing.
In a way, I became a skeptic before I became an atheist or humanist. That’s because of my reading. I used to read a lot of books when I was a kid. When I was 16, 17, I came across a number of books such as Charles Berlitz: The Bermuda Triangle or other of his books.
I found them quite fascinating. One of the books that got me thinking was a book by Larry Kusche who wrote the Bermuda Triangle Solved and I found it fantastic for somebody to take pains to go into everything and find out that a lot of the claims are wrong.
That got me into skepticism and at some stage, I stopped buying into the diffused beliefs that I had done before. So, the quick answer to your question is no, there is no family background of it.
Jacobsen: Your parents did not reconcile with you having non-belief?
Sarma: Well, they did in the sense that they accepted it. I do not think they were particularly happy, but they did not make a fuss about it.
Jacobsen: For other friends growing up around where you lived, was it different?
Sarma: Yeah it was different because most of them stayed religious. My brother had a similar path even though he’s not so engaged in the skeptical movement as I am. He was one of the founders with me together, but he hasn’t been active. He’s been a skeptic even before me and he’s also a non-believer or none or whatever you would call that.
Jacobsen: There are plenty of names, irreligious, nones, non-believers, etc.
Sarma: I am not an atheist in the sense that I do not go around preaching non-belief, I am an atheist in the sense that I do not believe in God or any superior being, which is not the same as positively stating that there is no God. It is up to the believers to prove their case that there is a God, not mine to prove that there isn’t. Also, atheism not my motivation. Being a skeptic is, and that means promoting science and critical thinking, which is what I have been doing the last, over, 30 years.
Jacobsen: And as the leader of the German Skeptics Group, what are some of your tasks and responsibilities that you take on board?
Sarma: I have been responsible for the overall strategy and direction we are going and what topics we choose and so on. Also making sure that the organization grows. There is a lot of administration as well.
So, we are quite happy that the last 30 years the organization has had steady growth. We now have more than 1600 members. Additionally, about two and a half thousand subscribers to the magazine Skeptiker. It is been growing steadily. So, I try to make sure that the skeptics’ organization is on the right path and keeps growing.
Specifically, I have been involved in some topics as well. In the past, it is been homeopathy and also the methods of science: how to do investigations, how to do tests. In the earlier stages of the organization, in the 90s, I organized and designed tests together with James Randi, so that was quite an experience at the time.
So at the moment, I have been looking more into things like climate change and global warming as well, so that’s been one of the new topics. We hope to be taking up broader science issues that are part of the public discussion.
Jacobsen: How is German culture in regards to skepticism? What is its attitude towards it? What is the level of critical thinking too?
Sarma: On face value, everybody says, “Yes, science is good and critical thinking is good,” but when it comes to topics like homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine, people claim to be in favor of science but they are not into critical thinking in that sense.
If you look at it this way, compared to the US and Canada as well, there is not as much of a pro-science sentiment in general in the public. It is more difficult to get across the point of view even though people on face value are in favor of science and critical thinking. Of course, everybody thinks critical thinking is a good thing.
But they seem to look at it not in the point of scientifically investigating these claims but being critical about things. being critical means denying whether something is true or not and that’s what the difference is. It is difficult to get across that we need more than that: Both claims and criticism need evidence and should not forget that they cannot ignore the rest of the body of scientific knowledge.
But we’ve been making some progress especially as far as homeopathy is concerned. We’ve been able to turn the tide here in Germany. If you look at the reports in the newspapers and some of the magazines, the tone has changed.
Whereas 10 or 20 years ago, many of the reports on homeopathy would be positive, pro-homeopathy, in the meanwhile it is not us but many journalists or other bloggers have been writing much more critically about homeopathy. Also, sales of homeopathic medicines are down for the first time and medical doctors are getting more reluctant to promote homeopathy.
This is a hard task, but this shows you can change things if you bring convincing arguments forward. We are also grateful to the rest of the global scientific and skeptical community that has been effective of late and that has been a huge asset.
And also it is important to be sympathetic in the way you bring it across. Be nice and do not attack people, attack ideas. Make sure you’re firm in your position or scientific standpoint but not trying to insult others, which there is always a tendency for some skeptics to do.
Jacobsen: Also, do you think by the nature of the beliefs that there is a hypersensitivity on the part of not necessarily practitioners but believers in the practitioners when discussing these issues?
Sarma: Yes, much so. In particular, in the case of alternative medicine and homeopathy for example, it seems to be almost easier to discuss with a believer in God or Christian and be critical about the Bible and things like that than to discuss with somebody who is a believer in homeopathy [Laughing].
Apparently the people, I do not know about them in the US and in the Americas in general but in Europe, theologians and believers have got used to being criticized and they still get along with you. Even atheists get invited to church or events organized by the Church to get the other point of view.
They are much more open in a way to critical thinking even from the point of view of atheists than many believers in homeopathy are. At least they mostly do not begin to yell at you. On the other hand, I have had cases where even friends get up and leave when you start discussing homeopathy critically.
Again the short answer is yes; people are sensitive. Belief in things like homeopathy can be as strong or even much stronger than belief in God. They are held much more strongly, with much more resistance to criticism.
Jacobsen: You mentioned Skeptiker.
Sarma: Skeptiker, yes.
Jacobsen: The name answers itself.
Sarma: That’s a magazine. We started publishing that in 1987, so it is been 30 years now since we started. In the beginning, it was a small magazine but that’s grown now. It is now comparable to any other published magazine. We publish it 4 times a year and the contents are good.
Jacobsen: Not biased on the matter at all?
Sarma: [Laughing] No, not at all. But we get good feedback from other skeptic groups in other countries when they compare it to their own magazines. They say the way it is done up and the topics we address, that it is quite good.
Jacobsen: What are some of your ongoing activities outside of the magazine and work in combatting things like homeopathy and dowsing in Germany through the skeptics’ group?
Sarma: To give you an example, at the end of every year, we evaluate the predictions of astrologers and soothsayers. We collect, at the beginning of the year, whatever has been forecast to happen. At the end of the year, we show what happened and that’s quite sobering.
At the end you see that the predictions turn out to be wrong most of the time of course. The results are as you would expect by chance. If you would do random predictions, you’d probably end up with a better score than the astrologers because some of the predictions they make are basically impossible.
For example, one of the predictions they made was there is going to be a landing on Mars next year. To make this happen, the spacecraft should have already started. So, some of the predictions they made are completely impossible and they couldn’t ever turn out to be correct unless somebody had sent out a Mars mission in secret or something like that.
But apparently, this does not affect the astrologers much. They continue to make their predictions even if they are also faced with our criticism at the end of it. Apparently, it is advertising for them. They get attention and they do not care if it turns out or wrong at the end of the year.
Jacobsen: Maybe, it is the same comfort that some American megachurch pastors feel in that they will be criticized to the ‘ends of the Earth’ ha, ha, ha. Was not the flat earth theory a Christian thing?
To the end of the Earth, but the followers will still “forgive them” and allow them to restart a whole new church even. For instance, a case of someone who is taking advantage of hyper-masculine preaching by the name of Mark Driscoll in the United States.
He was one of the fastest growing churches. He got caught up in a scandal. He got shut down. It was called Mars Hill Church. He is now opening up another one. He was in Seattle and is now opening one up in Arizona, something called Trinity or something like that church. He’s starting up all new and that’s a common phenomenon.
Sarma: It is incredible that can happen, but it does. James Randi had a good term for it: the Rubber Duck Phenomenon. If you put it underwater, it pops up again.
Jacobsen: He’s right about that. Europe was historically a “Christian” continent?
Jacobsen: However, things happened. The critical thought began to seep in. However, the two biggest sects of Christianity are Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. So, how are they in Germany? What is their stance on a lot of issues that would be relevant to a more modern, secular state? Are there issues or concerns?
Sarma: Yes. For example, marriage was so far constricted to heterosexuals and it opened up completely again to homosexuals as well. So, the marriage for all is one of the things that passed German parliament a few days ago. That’s the thing that the Catholic Church would be against.
As far as issues such as same-sex marriage is concerned or abortion and any assisted suicide, they are completely against them. Those are the issues that they are against. Those are the not issues we deal with as skeptics but the humanists do so, and many skeptics, though not all, are also humanists.
The Eastern Orthodox Church isn’t strong here in Germany. We are about half and half Catholic and Lutheran, Protestant Lutheran, and there have been some interesting investigations because we have a completely different system here. People are part of the church and they pay taxes, church taxes.
That is something that is different and there are a lot of people in the Church who do not believe in God or any superior being. So, that is the strange thing that came out of one of the investigations by a group called FOWID and they found out that about 20 percent of Protestants do not believe in God and 10 percent of Catholics do not.
So, apparently, they seem to reconcile their religion in some way with being a Catholic or Protestant and at the same time not believing in God. They are probably in the Church because of completely different reasons. They want to be there because it gives them some community.
I do not know if it is the same in the Americas, but here it is quite an interesting phenomenon. Not everybody who is a Protestant or a Catholic necessarily believes in God.
Jacobsen: James Randi is American-Canadian. He’s one of the two. He may have had to give up his citizenship with Canada, but I still consider him Canadian. There is a minister in the United Church of Canada named minister Gretta Vosper.
To give you a bit of history, the UCC, they were the first Church in Canada to allow women ministers. So, they are the progressive Christian group. I look at them almost like a benchmark or litmus test for how far progressive values will be allowed within Christianity in the country.
LGBTQs are a thing there too. Vosper went from a theist to an atheist over a significant period of time and her congregation stayed for the most part and late 2016 she was under review for “suitability” to be a minister in the UCC by the higher-ups.
I assume most of the higher-ups are still men. So, it is an issue here with regards to non-belief and being a leader in the church. However, I do not know about being part of the congregation and not believing in some form of higher power. But I do know there are things put out by IHEU.
For instance, by Bob Churchill who puts out this enormous amount of work with the Freedom of Thought Report every year; and in Canada’s one, we are doing okay but bad in some respects. One of them would be not taking God out of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or something like that.
The “one nation under God” is something like this. There are some ways we are doing good in the culture. If we could talk about it, people can be openly atheist. At the same time, there are issues about leaders in some churches being atheists as well as within the constitution, small things.
Or in the anthem, that was recently an issue. But things are changing. My sense from what you’re saying with Germany is it is further ahead. The freedom is further ahead.
Sarma: I do not know if anybody who is one of the leaders of any of the churches who openly confesses to not believing in God or in a higher power but this is definitely the case for a number of people in the congregation, in the general congregation of course.
That’s where the poll was done. They asked for belief and non-belief and so on. But in the German constitution, there is still a reference to God for example and it does not exist in the some of the state constitutions and every now and then there is an attempt to either remove God or add God to the constitutions of some of the state constitutions.
That’s been an ongoing issue and even though most of the German population would be, I mean this is a guess, they aren’t so strongly in favour of having God as part of the constitution, with reference to God or in God we trust or whatever.
This is difficult to get through to parliament because the Churches and the state in Germany are close. I do not know exactly what the situation is in Canada but there is a mutual influence that goes both ways.
This makes it difficult to change. Anything that relates to the privileges of the church. To come back to something that you mentioned before, there is a lady here who has become the first Imam and has started her own thing.
Jacobsen: I read about this. I thought that was cool.
Sarma: But she was getting death threats and things like that. So, there are some interesting developments going on.
Jacobsen: So that leads to the things that are harder to get a metric on or get proof of, socio-cultural stuff. If there is prejudice in a constitution, it is a privilege of one faith or set of faiths over another faith or non-faith.
Sarma: Yes, exactly.
Jacobsen: You can mark it in the constitution. If it is socio-cultural, that’s a lot harder to touch on. The history of our country, our first prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald. Repeatedly, we have quotes of him calling the indigenous population “savages.”
‘We have to bring Christian civilization to them’ and the Pope at the time put out a papal bull saying, ‘Yeah, go on over and convert or kill.’ They did some maneuvering with the language in later bulls, but some of the earlier ones were bad.
So there is a string of, Christian supremacism is a little too strong, but something like that in a modern form where there can be bullying of those who have a non-belief or humanists, skeptics, rationalists, atheists, agnostics, the non-religious in general by historically and presently the dominant faith.
So, being a leader of the skeptics’ group there as well as being the treasurer in ECSO, what are the stories that you have heard or read of not quite second-class citizenship treatment in socio-cultural life but an as if?
Sarma: That, yes, some people do not like the way we approach the claims that are made by many proponents of these pseudosciences and so on. We do not generally get involved in belief issues directly, belief in God issues unless there are specific claims.
For example, in the case of the Shroud of Turin, or some of the other miracles that have been claimed again. We keep strictly to claims that can be tested, that can be investigated by the scientific methods. In fact, if you look at our organization we do have, there is a minority who are members of the church and they still do a good job as far as science is concerned.
As far as the skeptic’s organization is concerned, our main target relates to promoting science and exposing pseudoscience and antiscience. We want to be pro-science, pro-critical thinking. Sometimes, I do find it must be hard for religious believers to reconcile their beliefs with their work in science. But that is their problem.
If you look at Martin Gardner, he was not an atheist either, but he was an extremely good skeptic. Some of these contradictions we have to live with.
Jacobsen: Perennial issues around acceptance of modern scientific ideas. Whether Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Big Bang, or the standard scientific ideas, how is it in Germany?
Sarma: The basic ideas of evolution, for example, and the Big Bang theory as far as people know about them, some people do not know what that’s about, but there is no strong opposition to either. The evolution of the Earth, the evolution of life and the humans, that’s not seen as a problem. They are accepted by the official Protestant and Catholic Churches.