The God of Skeptics

Heretics, nonbelievers, and doubters worship the Amazing Randi. So what will free thinkers do when he's gone?

Geller doesn't see it that way. "Without the skeptics, I wouldn't be Uri Geller," he says. "They made me. They created me. They kept the aura, the legend, the mystery, the mysticism around Uri Geller. I owe them bouquets of flowers for keeping my career alive. If they wanted to finish me off over three decades ago, all they had to do is not talk about me. They should have shut up."

Randi, of course, has offered to test Geller, to give him $1 million if he can prove his claims. But Geller always declines, saying anything that would quiet skeptics — and by extension make him less controversial — would hurt his career. "If someone wants to stay in the business of being a psychic," he says, "they should simply ignore the skeptics."

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James Randi
C. Stiles
James Randi
Randi (left), Penn, and Teller pose in thought during a panel discussion on magic and skepticism.
Bill Hughes
Randi (left), Penn, and Teller pose in thought during a panel discussion on magic and skepticism.

Enticed by the warm weather, Randi moved to Florida in 1985, two years before he became a U.S. citizen. He wanted an organization of his own from which he could launch his lengthy investigations of paranormal claims. He established the nonprofit James Randi Educational Foundation out of a split-level white Fort Lauderdale building with Spanish tile, stained glass over the entrance, and peacocks frolicking in the yard. Images of flying pigs hang on the walls next to old posters, magazine clips, and a letter from Johnny Carson (it accompanied a $100,000 donation). In the "Isaac Asimov Library" are shelves of books about all things paranormal, from phrenology to faith healing, and a portrait of the writer friend for whom the room is named.

The truth is, Randi's obsessions with incredulity and prestidigitation flowered from the same seed. He has always delighted in watching the stunned faces of audiences as he makes them believe — perhaps only for a moment — they've witnessed something impossible. At lunch, for instance, he makes the saltshaker vanish under a napkin, and when his tablemates finish applauding, he says, "Yes, yes, great dinner entertainment, horrible table manners. Now, has anyone seen the salt?" He gets the same giddy satisfaction making the careers of psychics disappear.

But even before the cancer diagnosis, Randi had faced recent challenges. Like many nonprofits, the James Randi Educational Foundation has taken a severe financial hit over the past year. The foundation is funded through sales of books and DVDs, grants, conferences, donations from wealthy friends, and Randi's speaking engagements, which command as much as $30,000.

According to tax records, Randi's organization lost nearly a quarter of its $2 million overall worth last year. (The $1 million for the challenge is held in a separate, Goldman Sachs account.) Randi takes an annual salary of about $200,000, which he justifies by saying it's in line with what he was making as an entertainer and hasn't been adjusted much in the 13 years since the foundation was started.

Critics of Randi — and he admits there are hundreds who write to him every month — call him the charlatan. "Mr. Randi, admit you're a fraud, that your offer's a fraud," demanded Greg Price, a Minnesota man who claimed he could dowse, in a video he sent to Randi. "Your foundation should be disbanded immediately!"

In the 40 years Randi has been putting up money to test paranormal ability, nobody has made it past the initial testing stage. The vast majority of failed or debunked applicants complain Randi surreptitiously affects the outcome in his favor. He has been accused of both having paranormal powers and violating the showbiz brotherhood by trying to expose a lack of paranormal powers in others.

He has also been accused of having inappropriate relationships with his apprentices. The accusation went public on an episode of Oprah in which Randi was asked to debunk psychics. One of the psychics accused him of improper relationships with young boys. Randi denies the allegations. "She was referring, of course, to my apprentices," Randi says. "I've had many fantastic apprentices over the years."

Those closest to Randi are fiercely loyal. His longtime companion, Jose Alvarez, met Randi 20 years ago, not long after Alvarez was involved in a cult. "Randi showed me that reality — the real world — has a very special kind of beauty," says Jose, now 41 years old.

The other frequent criticism of Randi is that he's just wrong. Like many of the psychics Randi encounters, Geller says reality is composed of paranormal events every day, though science can't yet understand or quantify them. Geller contends that everyone, Randi included, has some psychic powers. "It's simply not developed in everyone," Geller says. "We all have a sixth sense, because we are animals. It's a part of our chromosome buildup. It's a part of our DNA. There are too many synchronicities in your life to ignore it as coincidence."

The critical-thinking movement is all about examining explanations to the paranormal from multiple angles, questioning the accepted reasoning. That's also why the movement is made up mostly of atheists. "Religion is the biggest scam of them all," Randi says. "You go into the voting booth and you're going to depend on a spirit in the sky, some old guy with a beard, a jealous, vindictive, very-uncertain-of-himself, provocative, angry god? No, I don't think that should be your driving force."

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