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Photograph by Wesley Law
At 14, D.J. Grothe joined an evangelical church founded by an ad man; at 16, he became a professional magician, and magic taught him skepticism. Halfway through Bible college, he realized he’d become an atheist. In graduate school at Washington University, he co-founded the Washington University League of Freethinkers (slogan: “Be a WULF, not a sheep.”) Grothe now hosts the radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry and travels the country performing magic and mind reading—not to deceive, but to teach the dangers of deception. Last month, he became president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes critical thinking.
What were you taught as a kid?
My parents were kind of self-educated;
neither graduated high school. I remember my mom always stressing critical thinking, always asking me tough questions. We’d have debates—not quarrels, just fun debates.
How did joining an eccentric, evangelical religion affect you?
I’m not one of those folks who was battered and bruised by religion and wants to spend the rest of my life attacking it. The religion worked for me. It satisfied all sorts of psychological and existential needs. Like the Mormons, it had a Christology that said Jesus was a person like us—and we could become like him. I could be a god someday and have my own planet. It’s straight out of science fiction, but to a 14-year-old, it was pretty damned cool.
Yet you got interested in magic—which I’m sure your religion thought was Satanism!
Yeah, but it’s really fun, so I didn’t listen. I even had a show called “The Magic of God’s Love.” Then I started doing magic tricks dressed up as psychic powers—like making a watch stop by looking at it.
I’m not even going to ask. I still haven’t forgiven physics for explaining rainbows.
Hey, there were even scientists at Wash. U. who were duped by a couple of young magicians. Scientists are trained to look for some things, but not others. And there was a frenzy of parapsychology research in the 1970s, where the simplest precautions were not taken.
Why is it so easy for magicians and psychic entertainers to deceive us?
We are hard-wired to believe in unseen causes. There is a desire, a need, to believe.
How do you teach people not to be gullible?
Rather than teaching people to look outward and see all the BS, I’d teach them to look inward and see what they believe that might be incorrect. If I’m going to buy a car and I don’t want to be snookered, I’m going to kick its tires and look under the hood. No one should have the right to believe nonsense unchallenged.
What do you believe?
That we live in a natural universe, not a supernatural one. That God isn’t around, never was, but through the brute facticity of nature and this highly unlikely thing called evolution, we are around. So let’s live fully. Not hedonistically, but in a way that benefits all.
Why does the supernatural fascinate us?
It’s all wrapped up in a fear of death. It’s: “This world isn’t just natural, it’s supernatural, so when I die, I’m still alive.” Then there’s a kitsch, pop-culture satisfaction: It’s fun, like ghost stories are fun. It’s a way to spook yourself and get those tingly feelings left over from evolution, when the big mountain or the crashing storm would scare us for good reason.
Is that what E.O. Wilson meant when he said, “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology”?
Well, our big brains evolved to help us survive on the Serengeti, not to figure out the riddles of the universe. Our origins as a species have to do with seeing unseen causes everywhere. That kept us safe. But we’ve outgrown the need for it.
Yet even former President Jimmy Carter claims he saw a UFO.
I think he did see a UFO—which just means he saw something in the sky that was not identified. Unfortunately, he did what a lot of people do: He saw something he couldn’t explain and then he explained it. Very smart people often connect dots between things that don’t exist.
We’re all so eager to figure things out…
That’s it. So much of this belief stuff is a function of people wanting answers to the big questions. Religion in its origins was nothing more than rudimentary science; it was the best guess as to how things happened. People want life to be meaningful. That’s where this work comes in: I believe there’s no more satisfying view of the universe than the naturalistic view that says we are incredibly lucky to be here, life is precious, we may only be here for 70 years, but my gosh, we are here!
You came across Free Inquiry magazine, which you later edited, by reading one of your bible college textbooks?
Yeah, it was a “know thy enemy” sort of mention. And I started reading it, and I realized I identified with that nonreligious, ethical way of facing the world.
How’d people react when you started WULF?
One of my professors said, “C’mon, this is Wash. U. Why do you need a group like that?” But a lot of professors were pretty naive about all the fundamentalist groups that were influencing kids, even there. Campus Crusade for Christ has a $400 million–plus operating budget.
Yet atheism seems to be increasing.
There are more people openly, explicitly skeptical of the God claim than at any time in our history. There are more atheists and agnostics in this country than there are blacks.
Why do atheists make people of faith nervous?
Because they’re afraid that if someone doesn’t believe in God, there will be no practical morality. People say, “You’ve got to believe in God or the country is going to fall apart.” There are atheist thinkers who say, “We need to cultivate religious faith in the masses as a means of social control.”
And you don’t agree?
I’ve debated God’s existence on scores of campuses, and it’s always a dramatic moment when a Christian apologist makes the claim that without God, all things would be permissible. I say, “So if you concluded there was no God, you’d turn into a rapist or a murderer, and there would be no reason to love people?” And there’s always this pause…
Is there anything you miss from your religious days?
Yes. I miss a sense of being part of a family, a community. I miss thinking that wherever I am in the world, these people are my tribe. The challenge everyone has now is to conceive of the whole human race as our tribe.
We have a hard time doing that, though—the scale’s too big, and we’re more comfortable with people who are like us.
That’s the way we are wired. We’re very good at caring about families, communities, maybe our country, but not the rest of the species.
Isn’t some of our lack of empathy just a failure of imagination?
We can’t conceive of faraway people being at all like us, because we can’t imagine them at all. They are not on our radar screen. If you travel the Third World, when you come back, you are going to live in a different way.
What else do you miss about religion?
Thinking that there is this omnipotent god who’s there for me. The best we can get from science is that the universe is not on our side. All the better reason for us to organize and help each other out! But in the religious view, not only is the universe on your side, but it’s a gift—it was made for you.
So what’s the danger in that?
The hunger for the supernatural is a way to deny this life, and sometimes even to deny what’s good about it. Religion helps people deal with suffering, but it also turns some people into sufferers. They are only looking to an imaginary heaven. I think that’s the biggest tragedy in religion: You are denying the real meaning right in front of you.
Your Facebook page says you’re interested in happiness studies.
That’s where godlessness comes into it. If there is no God, and you are only around for 70 or so years, would you not try to have the best possible life?
But aren’t people in strong religious communities turning out to be the happiest—as well as the healthiest and longest-lived?
Yes and no. Quakers, for example, rate among the very highest in a battery of tests of happiness. But sociologists think that has very little to do with their religious faith and a lot to do with the strength of their community. They take care of each other and maximize benefits for all. The secular societies of northern Europe also measure much, much happier than Americans, and they’re the lowest churchgoing group in the world, with the highest social welfare.
I guess social welfare’s a form of community, in that you belong to a group of people that is going to take care of you.
And Scandinavia has the highest rate of suicide, but that’s because their definition includes euthanasia. People here call it “a culture of death,” but it’s a culture that respects the good life and says, “If you want to say goodbye and go out on your own terms, our society respects that.”
When you became skeptical of magicians, preachers, and psychics, who else did you become skeptical about?
Politicians. Anyone who uses the power of words to persuade.
How well do you do with the “willing suspension of disbelief” the arts require? Can you enjoy theater and read fiction?
Sure. And I’m a Marvel comics fan! In the Marvel universe, you have really complex and interesting back stories; it’s not just good guy/bad guy. That gets to the core of so many things that interest me about life—secular, practical ethics. It’s not “Wham! Pow! Kazoo!” It’s “How do you be fair in the world?” In the Marvel universe, gods are characters you can fight with, and there’s a whole pantheon of them. It’s a kind of anti-indoctrination.
You’re not wild about teaching little kids elaborate stories about the existence of Santa Claus. But what about the natural pretend games all kids play?
Pretending is different than being indoctrinated.