Longform

James Randi has been worshiped by nonbelievers and doubters. So what will free thinkers do when he's gone?

Page 5 of 6

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 that 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 that 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 since Randi's 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 that Randi surreptitiously affects the outcome in his favor. He has been accused of both having paranormal powers and of 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 it. 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 for 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," says Randi. "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."

Geller says: "Most people are believers. Most people are religious. Most people want to believe there's a creator. Most people want to believe in spirituality. Most people want to believe there is something out there. Seven billion people can't be wrong. Whether you call it a god or Buddha or religion, there is some kind of spirituality out there. The skeptics are a tiny, tiny minority. They're insignificant. They are molecular nothings."

To illustrate how easily spiritual leaders can garner followers, Randi and Alvarez, a visual artist, perpetuated a hoax on Australian national TV in 1988. Alvarez pretended his body was inhabited by "Carlos," a 1,500-year-old fortuneteller. Within days, Alvarez had thousands of followers. "It was just so easy," Alvarez says. "It's sad and remarkable."

During most of the Amazing Meeting in July, Alvarez pushes Randi's wheelchair around the expansive Las Vegas resort. Some days, Randi feels great. Some days, he can't lift the phone to his ear. Doctors have put his five-year prognosis at 50-50. Medical science, though, is the one thing this old skeptic actually has faith in. Two weeks after the conference, Randi will start a regular routine of chemotherapy. He will lose the soft white hair around his head, his bushy, expressive eyebrows, and the beard he hasn't shaved in more than 25 years. "That's fine," he says. "Growing hair is something I'm good at."

Still, the cancer hasn't changed his views on death: "One day, I'm gonna die. That's all there is to it," he says matter-of-factly. "Hey, it's too bad, but I've got to make room. I'm using a lot of oxygen and such — I think it's good use of oxygen myself, but of course, I'm a little prejudiced on the matter."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael J. Mooney