Longtime Davis resident Robert Todd Carroll has staked out an unpopular position — he doesn’t believe in angels.
Forget all those sweet stories that abound during the holidays featuring celestial helpers performing miracles — changing tires for stranded motorists in snowstorms, finding lost children in shopping malls, providing envelopes of cash for hungry families at lonely diners — and in each case, disappearing without a trace.
No, Virginia, there are no angels. But then Carroll doesn’t believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, either. He doesn’t have anything against people who do believe, it’s just not his leap of faith.
Carroll, 58, has written a book debunking angels, New Age religions, scientology, Jeane Dixon, creationism and everything in between in “The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions and Dangerous Delusions” (John Wiley, 2003, $19.95).
Carroll is the head of the philosophy department at Sacramento City College, where he has taught students to be critical thinkers for 26 years.
And that means teaching students not to believe in angels, bodiless immortal spirits.
“Since angels are invisible but capable of taking on visible forms, it is understandable that there have been many ‘sightings,’ ” Carroll says. “Literally anything could be an angel and any experience could be an angel-experience.
“The existence of angels cannot be disproved. The down side of this tidy picture is that angels cannot be proved to exist, either. Everything that could be an angel could be something else. Every experience that could be due to an angel could be due to something else. Belief in angels, angel sightings and angel experiences is entirely a matter of faith.”
Carroll grew up in the San Diego area and was raised Catholic. He attended the University of Notre Dame and, as he puts it, received a very good Catholic education. He even entered the seminary for a short time. But he left the seminary in 1965 and finished his doctorate back in California.
“By that time, 1974, I was married and had two daughters,” he says.
His job search brought him to Northern California. He and his family have been living in Davis since 1977.
Carroll teaches philosophy at Sacramento City College and next year will be teaching a new course on critical thinking about the paranormal and the occult.
“We try to encourage students not just to learn philosophers’ names and dates but how to think critically, logically,” he says. He also is the author of an earlier book called “Becoming a Critical Thinker.”
He credits publication of his latest book, the dictionary, to Davis Community Network, which helped him set up his own Web site (www.skeptic.com) in 1994. A San Francisco agent saw the Web site and the pseudo-science articles that Carroll posted online and offered to represent him.
Carroll says his journey of discovery and self-realization took him from Catholicism to Eastern religions with stops in between.
“The more I studied, the more in-depth I thought about religious ideas, the more false and absurd they seemed to me until I got to the position where I actually started to agree with some of the philosophers I’d read like (the existentialist Soren) Kirkegaard,” he says.
“Kirkegaard made a point of saying these beliefs in things like gods becoming men or virgins giving birth — which of course now can happen but at one time was thought to be miraculous — these defy logic, defy rationality and you have to make a leap of faith to accept them, you can’t possibly prove them by any rational means.
“It became apparent to me that he (Kirkegaard) was right, but if you are going to take a leap of faith you can go in any direction you want and you really have no more justification for going one way (believing) than the other way (not believing) so it came to a point where I just found no reasons for belief … just nothing that could be put forth to attract me,” Carroll says.
He now calls Christianity “a nice myth.”
It obviously makes people happy to know that someone has saved them, he says. And he thinks there was a historical figure named Jesus, but beyond that, no.
Yet he says he has great respect for the many believers out there in the world, not just Christians and religious folks, but those who believe in past lives, alternative universes and new ways of thinking about thinking.
“They are very creative and intelligent people,” he says.
The charlatans that really irritate Carroll are those who take advantage of people’s deep grief and claim to speak for the dead and those who cause harm by, for instance, not providing medical treatment to those who need it.
Carroll knows that he won’t change a lot of minds with his book but he has some free advice for the New Age seekers who come to his Web site eager to do battle and defend the psychic hotline.
“You ought to just spend about $30 to take a critical thinking course at a community college,” he says. “You’ll learn a lot more, it will be a lot more useful and it will be much less expensive than what you’re going to spend for the hocus-pocus New Age program you’re about to engage in.”
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