There’s More to James Randi Than Meets the Eye

The famous magician and skeptic never missed an opportunity to denounce Christ and the Catholic Church.

James Randi in 2007
James Randi in 2007 (photo: ensceptico)

Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge on Aug. 7, 1928, in Toronto, Canada, magician and escape artist James Randi died in Plantation, Florida, on Oct. 20 at the age of 92.

Like me, he was a stage magician and a debunker of those who claimed psychic and other preternatural skills and abilities. We examined the claims of those who inevitably prove themselves to be nothing more than charlatans.

I consulted with him several times while writing my dissertation on charlatanism and secularism. Unfortunately, my conversations with Randi were marked by his self-inflated ego, anger, embittered worldview and a remarkable anti-intellectualism. Again, I’m not judging him as no one has the right to judge others. But to suggest Randi was all sweetness and light would be, in essence, a lie — not unlike the lies of other charlatans he decried publicly.

Randi called himself a “scientific skeptic” but he was in no way qualified to express an opinion on any scientific matter. According to his former colleague Ray Hyman — whom I also interviewed — European universities rescinded their invitations for him to lecture once they found out Randi had no academic credentials. He decried advanced degrees and those who had earned them.

To be clear, Randi was a high school dropout with no scientific training or experience. I don’t fault him for that. I’ve met plenty of people who have extensive degrees who are quite foolish and even undereducated. Some might equate education with moral worthiness or impeccability and I avoid those people. Randi had the opposite problem. Regardless of whether or not someone ultimately agreed with him (as I do) regarding psychics and other nonsense he wouldn’t give the time of day to any who simultaneously believed in God. He classified Christianity as being no better than belief in “healing crystals,” Bigfoot and UFOs. He called anything outside of his strict materialism “woo-woo.” However, he had no ready opinion of Islam he would share.

I pointed out to Randi that everything he ever learned about science or history came solely from books written by men and women with doctorates. This is not an attack on uneducated people. Rather it’s a blow against narcissism of fundamentalist atheists who think themselves smarter than everyone else.

Randi was always impressed with his own knowledge but contemptuous of everyone else’s. He insisted that even people with advanced degrees can be wrong. I pointed out to him that though an expert can be wrong, a non-expert is always wrong unless he were to accidently stumble upon some correct but simplistic explanation. It’s impossible for someone ignorant of a technical subject to know anything in-depth about it. They will always be “armchair scientists” armed with no more knowledge than anyone else who watches a Nova or Animal Planet episode. It’s preposterous to claim that watching TV for 30 minutes a week would magically endow a non-expert with an understanding surpassing that of a published scholar holding a doctorate in his field of research. If this were true, then men like Randi would have created countless and accurate Nova or Animal Planet episodes already.

You can’t simply ape the words of a scholar and demean to be recognized as a scholar equal to the author of original scientific and historical research. One of the most chillingly humbling experience I ever experience was when dealing with a brilliant mathematician who couldn’t get his point across to me because — as he “politely” pointed out — I didn’t have a basic understanding of multi-variable calculus. Readers may rest assured that I struggled at geometry more than most. Advanced mathematics will always be beyond my ken.

Randi never missed an opportunity to denounce Jesus and Christianity. The Catholic Church was on the top of his hit list. In 1968, Randi was sanctioned by New York City radio station WOR for exclaiming "Jesus Christ was a religious nut" during his eponymously named The Amazing Randi Show. In consultation, Randi told me of his fury at an unidentified Catholic priest — an admirer of his — who sent Randi a flattering letter along with a Miraculous Medal. He wrote back to the priest railing he had no need for his “trinkets and good-luck talismans.”

Among his many other faults, Randi was a strong believer in racist Social Darwinist theories for most of his life, but when he came under pressure for such opinions in 2013, he backtracked on them. Not a good look for someone who pretends to “know more than the experts.”

Randi identified himself as an atheist in his essay, “Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright.” He used the pretentious term “bright” to refer to someone he considered “too intelligent to believe in God.” As he wrote, “A belief in a god is one of the most damaging things that infests humanity at this particular moment in history.” Please remember Randi wrote this despite the fact that atheists have killed 320 million people since the Reign of Terror in 1793. This includes the 155 million people killed by atheist communists since the beginning of the 20th century. If he had proof the Catholic Church had killed more in 2,000 years than the atheists did in a single century, he was shy about pointing it out.

As to his general honesty, Randi falls miserably short. In 1986, a 58-year-old Randi met his 24-year-old partner, a Venezuelan citizen and illegal immigrant named Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga, in a Fort Lauderdale public library. The young man was known by all of Randi’s colleagues with thatname and by no other.

After being in a live-in relationship for 20-years, Randi assisted his boyfriend in procuring false citizenship papers, at which point the later starting referring to himself as José Alvarez. In 2012, Alvarez was charged with federal felony charges of identity and immigration fraud in stealing the real José Alvarez’s date of birth and Social Security number. He used this information to illegally obtained a twice-renewed U.S. passport. Randi defended his boyfriend in court saying his was a “victimless” crime. He lied claiming that he always knew Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga to be José Alvarez. This is flatly untrue as he always introduced him by his actual birth name, “Deyvi,” not his assumed illegally-gotten name. This is a falsehood as bad as any of that of any other charlatan Randi exposed and condemned.

José Alvarez, a Bronx teacher’s aide, was constantly in trouble with the IRS regarding his income because both the real and fake José Alvarezs’ paychecks came to the attention of the authorities. The real Alvarez had his bank account periodically frozen and it was phenomenally difficult for him to renew his driver’s license or procure a passport.

As an aside, Randi, age 84 at the time, and his illegal alien boyfriend were “married” in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 2013, immediately after publicly announcing his homosexuality.

Putting aside Randi’s obvious hypocrisy and fraud, a far more disturbing incident plagued him all his life. Recordings of Randi allegedly propositioning teenage boys popped up in the 1980s. Randi never denied the tapes but instead claimed he knowingly participated in the recording as part of an undocumented “police sting” to entrap boys who were trying to blackmail him — none of whom were ever identified or arrested. When I asked Randi the name of the officers who had recruited him, he said he couldn’t remember. Further, there are no police records to collaborate Randi’s story. In addition, he told me that the very boys who tried to blackmail him subsequently burgled his home and stole the recordings from him. It’s odd to think Randi would have unsecured police evidence just lying about his home in the first place. I asked Randi four times as to those allegations and he gave me four different, contradicting stories with enough holes to drive a semi through.

I didn’t write this article to diminish Randi’s work but rather to put it into perspective. His contributions to the field of magic and his dedication to exposing those who lie about God and instead offering paganism and occultist lies are legendary. However, there’s another side to the Amazing Randi which those who defend him are reticent to mention.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]