Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes

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What has a tornado in common with prayer in schools and US President Barack Obama? Rhonda Crosswhite. Yes, the Oklahoma teacher praised as a hero for saving several children when a massive tornado ripped through her town of Moore, earlier this week.

And no doubt she was. But there were many other teachers who were heroes that day,  none of whom have become a rallying point for the religious right, as far as I can tell. Crosswhite was, from all accounts I’ve read, the only one to mention praying during the tornado. That comment made her a different sort of hero to the religious right. The rest have generally been ignored.

Crosswhite told media that she prayed while the tornado carved its path of destruction around her.

“I did the teacher thing that we’re probably not supposed to do. I prayed — and I prayed out loud,” she said in an interview with NBC News following the violent storm.

No surprises. Even for nonbelievers, the no-atheists-in-foxholes theory rings true when confronted by big, scary, life-threatening events like tornadoes or wars. When you’re having the bejeezus scared out of you, your mind is not likely parsing the intellectual debate about whether a particular deity exists. And believers of any faith are naturally going to delve into their faith for support in times of crisis. Nothing unusual or conspiratorial about that.

Even her comment that she prayed “out loud” is unexceptional. I suspect I would be very loud in the same circumstance, albeit more expletive-laden than religious.

Of course, it may simply be a biological reaction rather than rational. It might be because of “vesicular monoamine transporter 2” or VMAT2, a protein involved in neurotransmitter functions that geneticist Dean Hamer associated with human spirituality in his delightfully irreverent and thought-provoking book, The God Gene.

Almost immediately, a photo of Crosswhite appeared on the Web with almost her words:

“And then I did something teachers aren’t supposed to do.
I Prayed.
I prayed out loud.”

Not an exact quote (so little on Facebook is…) and subtly different. This was quickly spun by the religious right into a rallying cry to reinstate prayer in America public schools. To be fair, I have no idea if Crosswhite agrees with any of these demands, or likes having her words used for such a purpose. But I have read of no protests by her, either.

Yes, yes, you are wondering as I did what the connection is. But you are using logic and reason to try and understand an issue of blind faith (and right-wing American politics).

Continue reading “Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes”

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The Secret Teachings of All Ages

Secret TeachingsWhen confronted with a problem involving the use of the reasoning faculties, individuals of strong intellect keep their poise, and seek to reach a solution by obtaining facts bearing upon the question. Those of immature mentality, on the other hand, when similarly confronted, are overwhelmed.”

That’s one of the few quotable pieces I’ve found while reading through The Secret Teachings of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall. Originally published 1928, it has gone through several editions, most recently as an oversize, 750-page paperback in 2003. The full, ostentatious title includes this: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolic Philosophy … Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories and Mysteries of all Ages.

Whew. Let’s just refer to it as TSTOAA for now. It’s a rambling, unfocused work that attempts to tie together mythology, pseudoscience, spiritualism, the occult arts, magic, secret societies, mysticism, alchemy, symbolism, music, Freemasonry, the tarot and more into some coherent Christian-influenced unified philosophy, and fails majestically in the attempt.

There are a lot of things to quote from it, mind you – just not things I’d want to share as tokens of wisdom or insight, mostly as examples of nonsense, claptrap, fuzzy logic, conspiracy theory and unverifiable claims. He makes a lot of claims like “According to the mystics…” or “There is a legend…” that are not backed up any source reference. Worse are the “It is probable that…” sentences that begin a wild guess without any historical or scientific proof.

Since copyright was never renewed, you can download a PDF of the tome many places online, including here, here and here. You can read it online here. As always, I recommend you get a printed copy if you really want to wade through it. If you want the larger format (legal-sized pages), it’s also available, but this one is easier to carry and read in bed.

I first came across this oddly curious and wacky but yet fascinating book in 1970. It was a time of credulity, when hippies were exploring alternate philosophies and spiritualities, without applying a lot of critical thought to the content (which is why so many spun off into cults and bad drugs). It was the start of the recent infection of New Age “philosophy,” which led otherwise bright and exploratory intellects into dead ends like homeopathy, reflexology, numerology, astrology, crystal therapy, UFOs, New World Order, the Illuminati and more recently chemtrail conspiracies and anti-vaccination cults.

My obdurate skepticism and need for empirical proof of any claim has kept me from falling for most of this claptrap, but nonetheless, I read a lot of it out of sheer fascination.* Every now and then I return to reading about it, if nothing more than to remind myself how outlandishly silly a lot of this stuff really is.

I really didn’t know much about the author of TSTOAA until this year. According to manlyphall.org,

Manly Palmer Hall (March 18, 1901 – August 29, 1990) was a Canadian-born author and mystic. He is perhaps most famous for his work The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, which is widely regarded as his magnum opus, and which he published at the age of 25 (or 27, 1928)

A Canadian “mystic”? I suppose among all our lumberjacks, hockey players and money-sucking secretive senators, we must have a few. Wikipedia tells us Hall’s mother was a member of the bizarre Rosicrucian order, and, as if that wasn’t enough to warp anyone, she took him to live in Los Angeles at an early age, where he became a preacher. Apparently very intelligent, he taught himself by being a voracious reader, but seems to have absorbed much without really analysing or assessing it.

He started writing pamphlets and later books on various arcane, occult and mystical topics. He was quite prolific, for which, as a writer myself, I tip my hat to him. The scope of his interests is breathtaking, but so was his credulity. For example:

“Through the Gypsies the Tarot cards may be traced back to the religious symbolism of the ancient Egyptians. In his remarkable work, The Gypsies, Samuel Roberts presents ample proof of their Egyptian origin. In one place he writes: “When Gypsies originally arrived in England is very uncertain. They are first noticed in our laws, by several statutes against them in the reign of Henry VIII.; in which they are described as ‘an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians,–who do not profess any craft or trade, but go about in great numbers, * * *.'” A curious legend relates that after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, the large body of attendant priests banded themselves together to preserve the secrets of the rites of Serapis. Their descendants (Gypsies) carrying with them the most precious of the volumes saved from the burning library–the Book of Enoch, or Thoth (the Tarot)–became wanderers upon the face of the earth, remaining a people apart with an ancient language and a birthright of magic and mystery.”

What malarkey! The Romani people emigrated from India in the Medieval era. Tarot and other playing cards appeared in Europe around the same time – Egyptians never had playing cards – all using distinctly European images and symbols, many with recognizably Christian reference (not universal archetypes). The cards were first used for games, although non-tarot decks were used for rudimentary divination as early as 1540. The use of Tarot cards in the modern style of fortune telling stems from the 18th century. Wikipedia notes:

The tradition began in 1781, when Antoine Court de Gébelin, a Swiss clergyman, published Le Monde Primitif, a speculative study which included religious symbolism and its survival in the modern world. De Gébelin first asserted that symbolism of the Tarot de Marseille represented the mysteries of Isis and Thoth. Gébelin further claimed that the name “tarot” came from the Egyptian words tar, meaning “royal”, and ro, meaning “road”, and that the Tarot therefore represented a “royal road” to wisdom. De Gébelin wrote this treatise before Jean-François Champollion had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, or indeed before the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and later Egyptologists found nothing in the Egyptian language to support de Gébelin’s fanciful etymologies. Despite this, the identification of the tarot cards with the Egyptian Book of Thoth was already firmly established in occult practice and continues in to the present day.

de Gebelin was another of those occult hucksters who peddled their shoddy wares to the gullible in the 18th century. Pretty much everything he wrote is claptrap. But people bought it then, just as they buy the chemtrail conspiracies today.

As an editor, Hall’s work makes me wince. His writing is clumsy and amateurishly leaden, although sometimes imbued with a passion. John Colombo, reviewing a biography of Hall, writes of Hall’s early work:

“…the writing was breezy and the details were somewhat repetitious. Stock phrases were used and reused to describe the ancient cultures of the past of the Near, the Middle, and the Far East. Everything was always a little bit “mysterious.” There was no scholarship per se, but there was familiarity with classical texts.”

Breezy? Hall clearly learned density as he matured. TSTOAA is to breezy what a Hummer is to fuel economy. Hall is like an unselective jackdaw, collecting every shiny bit of arcana or esoterica he finds and trying to cram it into his preconceived model of the supernatural world. It’s like trying to build a car with bits of Lego and Mechano pieces and anything else you find in the basement. The result is awkward and ungainly, but his believers seem willing to overlook the obvious flaws.

In his chapter on “American Indian Symbolism,” Hall wrote this embarrassingly condescending, colonialist comment:

THE North American Indian is by nature a symbolist, a mystic, and a philosopher. Like most: aboriginal peoples, his soul was en rapport with the cosmic agencies manifesting about him… The red man’s philosophy of elemental creatures is apparently the outcome of his intimate contact with Nature, whose inexplicable wonders become the generating cause of such metaphysical speculations.

In the 1920s when Hall wrote it, a cultural upheaval was taking place. It was the Jazz Age, a time of new politics, new arts, new dances, new music, new beliefs. The hard-headed, prosaic approach of the late Victorian era gave way to a joyous willingness to belief in almost anything anyone pitched.** Much of the West was undergoing a revival in spiritualism that attracted millions of avid followers to pursue some of the most egregious claptrap ever foisted on civilization by a large number of charlatans and hucksters (like Aleister Crowley and Edgar Cayce). But among them were those who sincerely believed in it. Hall seems to have been among them. A little more critical thinking might have avoided statements like this:

EACH of the four primary elements as taught by the early philosophers has its analogue in the quaternary terrestrial constitution of man. The rocks and earth correspond to the bones and flesh; the water to the various fluids; the air to the gases; and the fire to the bodily heat. Since the bones are the framework that sustains the corporeal structure, they may be regarded as a fitting emblem of the spirit–that divine foundation which supports the composite fabric of mind, soul, and body. To the initiate, the skeleton of death holding in bony fingers the reaper’s scythe denotes Saturn (Kronos), the father of the gods, carrying the sickle with which he mutilated Ouranos, his own sire.

Or this:

It was in recognition of Bacon’s intellectual accomplishments that King James turned over to him the translators’ manuscripts of what is now known as the King James Bible for the presumable purpose of checking, editing, and revising them. The documents remained in his hands for nearly a year, but no information is to be had concerning what occurred in that time. Regarding this work, William T. Smedley writes: ” It will eventually be proved that the whole scheme of the Authorised Version of the Bible was Francis Bacon’s.” (See The Mystery of Francis Bacon.) The first edition of the King James Bible contains a cryptic Baconian headpiece. Did Bacon cryptographically conceal in the Authorized Bible that which he dared not literally reveal in the text–the secret Rosicrucian key to mystic and Masonic Christianity?

Atlantis from TSTOAAHall has an almost childlike naivete or gullibility about his sources, although most have long since been exposed as cons or wingnuts – like Helena Blavatsky, Cagliostro and the Comte de St. Germaine.

Hall gives credence in his 45 chapters to far too many debunked beliefs, superstitions and outright fictions like the Gypsies came from Egypt, Atlantis existed, alchemy, astrology, Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works, and that the Freemasons and Rosicrucians are an ancient order.

Despite the occult content, Hall’s perspective is quite Christian and almost evangelical in places; Christianity has a suggestive superiority among the faiths he describes, with the suggestion that it has deep roots in ancient pagan mythologies (that, in Hall’s telling, are precursors to modern beliefs). Christianity is never seriously questioned in TSTOAA. He often cloaks comments about Chrisitianity thus:

“The existence of interpolated material in the fourth Gospel substantiates the belief that the work was originally written without any specific reference to the man Jesus, the statements therein accredited to Him being originally mystical discourses delivered by the personification of the Universal Mind. The remaining Johannine writings–the Epistles and the Apocalypse–are enshrouded by a similar veil of mystery.”

There are many glowing reviews and uncritically effusive comments about TSTOAA online, but remarkably few negative ones; I haven’t found a single site that comprehensively debunks the voluminous codswallop that packs Hall’s magnum opus. The positive ones don’t surprise me: there’s a remarkable dearth of critical thinking, compounded by a remarkable number of gullible, New Agers online***. But there are also a lot of skeptics, few of whom seem to have tackled this work. Boingboing‘s Gareth Branwyn is one of the rare exceptions, albeit no more than passingly critical:

Manly Palmer Hall has been called the America Madame Blavatsky, which probably isn’t far from the truth. Like the controversial Russian-born founder of Theosophy, Hall seemed dedicated to quantity over quality in his writing (authoring more than 50 books on esoterica and self-help), and like Helena, the troubling smell of snake oil swirled in his rotund wake. Manly P Hall is one of the people principally responsible for the birth of the New Age religious movement in the United States…

TSTOAA is a tough read, but it’s packed with enough ammunition to keep any skeptics and debunkers busy for many a long night and if it doesn’t make you throw it against the wall, it might make you chuckle. I wish someone would take a systematic and comprehensive approach and deconstructed it so that it might not continue to be a force for New Age idiocy today. It belongs in the same literary remainder bin as the Urantia Book in bookstores. Read, instead, the Golden Bough and the works of Joseph Campbell.

~~~~~

* Since the late 1960s, I tended to favour the spartan practice of Zen; stripped away from the mystical brouhaha, with a distinct deficiency of deities, angels, goblins, ghosts and other spirits. Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect for the mystical tradition, for the human drive for introspection and insight into unfathomable things. It has brought us magnificent works of prose and poetry, great stories, music and great art. I just separate the drive from the conclusions formed by believers. It’s the conclusions that cause me grief, not the search itself.

** James Frazer, in his scholarly masterpiece about magic and superstition, The Golden Bough, wrote  succinctly, “In short, magic is a spurious system of natural law as well as a fallacious guide of conduct; it is a false science as well as an abortive art.”

*** “During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics. Indeed, popular anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism are now synonymous.” Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason, Pantheon Books, 2008

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Forgery!

ForgedForgery. It’s something that one normally associates with criminals; passing counterfeit bills, scammers, online pirates, people selling fake relics or fake ID. It’s something I would not normally associate with religion. But it’s a significant problem in the book millions of people cherish as infallible, perfect and absolute: the Bible. At least that’s what Bart D. Ehrman contends in his latest book, Forged.

If you are not familiar with Bart D. Ehrman’s writing, then you are in for an intellectual treat. He writes about a fascinating subject: the development of early Christianity, including all the fringe groups, challengers like the Gnostics, docetists, Marcionites and others, their alternate beliefs; about the development of the canon and the fight to establish orthodoxy.

Gripping stuff, if you are a history buff. But even if not, if you have any interest at all in faith or religion, it is well worth the read. As a lay historian, I find the history of Christianity fascinating. It’s a rich story; replete with politics, murder, armed insurrection, sex, violence, intellectual and philosophical challenges, forgers, liars, cheats, madmen, cults, deception, secret agents, assassination, sorcery and war. Its threads run through all of Western history.

While reading the whole history of Christianity may be a bit much for some folks (but if you’re up to it, start with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 1,000-page tome, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years), Ehrman’s books break down some of the more interesting bits into more digestible chunks. The early bits, that is – Ehrman’s focus is on the first three or four centuries of Christianity. But it is easily the most important period for the development of what we know today as Christianity: he delves into how it developed, how the beliefs were established, what challenges the early church faced, what groups were contending for the upper hand in the battle for orthodoxy, and –  perhaps most critically – the creation of the canon we know today as the New Testament.

I’ve been reading some of the alternate texts and books that either never made it into the Bible or were later cast out, since the early 1970s. Then I came across an odd title called, Lost Books of the Bible and Forgotten Books of Eden. It was first released in 1926, and remains in print today. The description at Amazon.ca says

This is the most popular collection of apocryphal and pseudepigriphal literature ever published.

It was certainly influential for me. It led me to read about and the texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, and various collections of apocrypha and Gnostic writing – books that still fill my shelves today. Some of this stuff is amazing. Some of it is crazy. Some of it seriously challenges existing beliefs; and some of it contradicts the canon in remarkable ways. Some of it is beautiful, some awkward. And some of it is simply too odd and wacky for comfort.

Ehrman’s books (26 in all), along with a few others about the same topic*, answered many questions I had wondered about: who wrote the books of the Bible and when? Who chose what books were included? What books didn’t make it and why? And the answers were sometimes astounding. (NB: You can also get his lecture series called Lost Christianities from The Great Courses – among other related courses – good audiobook stuff!)

I had realized long ago that many of those biblical books were not written by the people whose names they were associated with. In the Old Testament, for example, the books of Daniel, Isaiah and Ecclesiastes were written not by Daniel, Isaiah and Solomon, respectively, but a few centuries after they lived, by now unknown authors.

Most of the “pseudepigrapha” and wrongly attributed works are in the New Testament.** Some of these are deliberate forgeries, Ehrman contends (his blog has even more controversial claims).***

Ehrman’s latest book confronts the issue of authorship and he clearly states that many NT books were forged in the name of apostles or Paul. While that’s not really new, Ehrman is the first I’ve read to call these fakes forgeries, rather than find some philosophical or theological excuse for them. He makes it clear that they were written to deceive readers about theological or liturgical issues. And he both defends his position and dismantles counter-arguments from apologists.

What’s fascinating – for me at least – is the question: who knew? Did the early church fathers who accepted and rejected various books and created the canon (Irenaeus, for example) know or suspect that some of these books were forgeries? And what does that mean to the Bible and its followers today?

~~~~~
* Barrie Wilson’s book, How Jesus Became Christian, Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ among them, both highly recommended.
** Authorship is questionable even in the synoptic gospels, and scholars argue about who actually wrote them. The attribution to the apostles is from early church fathers and based on tradition, rather than evidence.
*** One of the problems for people like me when trying to follow these arguments is that I have never read the Bible. I have, like most of us, read a translation (or rather, several translations) of it, but in order to claim to have read the Bible, one has to have read the actual books – in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

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Foolish words that still resonate

FoolFoolosopher. What a wonderful word. Not much in use these days, but it ought to be. It is a portmanteau word, first used in English way back in 1549*, according to my copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It defines foolosopher as, “A foolish pretender to philosophy.” So foolosophy is therefore the “foolish pretence of philosophy.”

Philosophy comes from the Greek (philo and sophia), meaning, literally, “love of knowledge,” but more generally the word means just knowledge or reasoning (Johnson, 1755).

We suffer from a surfeit of foolosophers, these days, methinks. Thanks to the internet, foolosophers have sloughed the necessity of actually having to think about what they write. It’s inconvenient to actually read what they feel compelled to comment upon. Just think of any public issue or debate and there they are. In the past, foolosophers needed to grab a soap box and stand in a public space to express their rambling ideas and wild theories. Today all they need is a Facebook or Twitter account.

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1

Fool is a word that doesn’t get as much traction as it deserves these days. In an invective-dense culture, fool seems almost cutely antiquated, a little prim and schoolmarmy. When 10-year-olds drop the F-bomb with practiced ease, calling someone a fool lacks verbal punch. The word has such a range of meanings: there’s a world of difference between “my foolish heart,” “where fools rush in,” “fooling around,” “April fool’s” and Mr. T’s exclamation, “Fool!”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, fool has a long genealogy:

…late 13c., “silly or stupid person,” from Old French fol “madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester,” also “blacksmith’s bellows,” also an adjective meaning “mad, insane” (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis “bellows, leather bag” (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person.” Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- “insane,” lit. “windy, inflated with wind.”…
Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested late 14c., though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll. As the name of a kind of custard dish, it is attested from 1590s (the food also was called trifle, which may be the source of the name).
There is no foole to the olde foole [Heywood, 1546]
Feast of Fools (early 14c.), from Medieval Latin festum stultorum) refers to the burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year’s Day in medieval times. Fool’s gold “iron pyrite” is from 1829. Fool’s paradise “state of illusory happiness” is from mid-15c. Foolosopher, a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus. Fool’s ballocks is described in OED as “an old name” for the green-winged orchid.
fool (v.) mid-14c., “to be foolish, act the fool,” from fool (n.). The meaning “to make a fool of” is recorded from 1590s. Also as a verb 16c.-17c. was foolify. Related: Fooled; fooling. Fool around is 1875 in the sense of “pass time idly,” 1970s in sense of “have sexual adventures.”
fool (adj.)
“foolish, silly,” considered modern U.S. colloquial, but it is attested from early 13c., from fool (n.).

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Samuel Johnson defined fool as “one whom nature has denied reason.” To play the fool, he wrote, was to, “act like one void of common understanding.” Both come easily to the mind when contemplating how some current issues are portrayed by various commentators.

In Scots, a marvelllous language**, there are several words for fool: bawheid, cuif, gawky, glaik, gumf, ouf, and tawpie. Foolish is daftlike; to act foolishly is dyte, gype, gypit, menseless, taupie, and unwicelike. Daftlike is another word that appeals to me; daft is a word I heard a lot when growing up, sometimes in reference to me, but generally to the contemporary political situation. It still fits today, don’t you think?

Fool has different meanings in the Bible. In the Psalms, it says,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

According to this site, the Hebrew word nabal translated here as “fool” suggests a lack of perception of ethical and religious claims. It’s used in a moral sense, not an intellectual one. It would be used to describe people who, for example, lie or deceive – making bad moral choices and deliberately misleading people – rather than people of little wit. But clearly fool has other meanings in the Bible. For example, this line from Ecclesiastes 10:14:

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

That’s the King James Version, a poetic reading but one laced with translation problems. The more modern English Standard Version is:

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

That’s actually a pretty powerful line; one that can easily be read into many issues, national to local. Foolish words sometimes do multiply, don’t they?

Proverbs has several good lines about fools (ESV):

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:2

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26:3-12

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
Proverbs 29:9

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Proverbs 14:7-9

Now I’m not a biblical scholar, and my Hebrew is more than a bit rusty, so I can’t say if the same word, nabal, is used in all of these sayings. There were other terms translated as “fool” in the Bible, including ewil (also evil) and kesil meaning thick and stupid, or letz, meaning scoffer (or scorner) and pethi (plural: pethaim) meaning simpleminded. These terms don’t all share the implications of evil or wrongdoing associated with nabal, yet all are frequently translated into English as “fool.”

Ship of fools

In Shakespeare, fools – sometimes referred to as clowns – are often people who play the mythic role of the Trickster, like Loki, Mudhead and Raven. They may provide the springboard for dialogue or action. He also referred to fools in the professional sense: jesters whose job it was to entertain courts, nobles and royalty.

The fool in Shakespeare often acts as an important counterpoint to the drama of the play. Sometimes the fool is the smartest on on the stage, pointing out what the playwright wants the audience to see. Sometimes, he’s just a clown, there to emphasize how much smarter everyone else around him is.

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out…
-The Fool, King Lear, I.4.640

and then Shakespeare deflates the fool’s pretensions…

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It, V.1.2217

Perhaps it’s simply my age and upbringing that retains the potency of the epithet “fool,” and gives weight to the term “foolosopher.” They drip with contempt in a way mere profanity cannot. When I read some of the drivel I encounter online, I can’t help but think of these words and no better description seems to fit.

~~~~~

* Another useful word from that era is “knavigations” (OED 1590), which Samuel Purchase used to describe the false claims of navigators. It could be used equally well today to describe the false claims on some websites and blogs.
** Perhaps it’s from my mother’s Scottish heritage that I like Scots. Our talk at home was peppered with Scots words that I didn’t realize until many years later were not common English – when I used words like ken and ilk and produced blank stares.

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America’s Intolerant WBC Fundamentalists

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=2JAErHl7lZ4]
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I watched this. laugh because Russell Brand* just runs circles around these guys from the Westboro Church and they don’t seem to realize when they are being mocked. Fish in a barrel, I suppose. Cry because they obviously believe their hatred; they obviously believe that their narrow, bigoted and violent take on their scriptures is not only right, but the only one. I don’t think they got the message Brand was trying to push on them: they are too righteous in their prejudice for alternative ideas. Or maybe they do and they just don’t care because mockery doesn’t synch with their rigid ideology.

This is hardly new stuff, of course. Michael Moore did a piece on the Westboro Church’s religious hatred towards gays back in 2008, again with his usual humour and in-your-face tactics:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ra_fAYl4Th4]
This morning I did some researching online. I was surprised that I knew so little about a group that has had so much attention given to it.

Before this video, I had paid little attention to the Westboro church. I had seen the name in news items, of course, but since they protest in the USA, I didn’t give them a second thought. I recall they hate Canada too, and most were barred at the border from entering this country to protest at a funeral of a man slain on a bus in Manitoba. Being kept out made the church very angry about the “faggy-Nazi regime” in Canada:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTVH0r6D8i4]

I’m not sure why the Westboro Baptist Church spews all this hatred, but there are dozens of videos about them on YouTube, including some disturbing documentary stuff. These folks are scary in the way the KKK, or the Neo Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood are scary, but even more dangerous. They almost make Scientologists look normal, and you have to be pretty far out on the fringe to do that.

The church has long been subject to reporting, study, commentary, analysis and conjecture. And a lot of ridicule, anger and even hatred, especially online. But I didn’t find a lot that explained them.

In 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote about the church’s late pastor and founder, stating that (based on testimony from his own children) Fred Phelps was abusive, violent and manipulative:

In a series of newspaper and television interviews over the years, three of Phelps’ children — the only three who are estranged from their father — have alleged that they were attacked both physically and psychologically.

Fred Phelps, they say, meant to hurt his children and to turn them against the rest of the world.

Mark and Nathan Phelps and sister Dortha “Dotti” Bird offer plenty of brutal details — details that their father has long dismissed as “a sea of fag lies.” Nathan told the Intelligence Report that he was beaten with a leather strap regularly. Then, he says, Fred Phelps switched to a mattock handle — like an axe handle — and beat Nathan until he “couldn’t lie down or sit down for a week.” The three charge that Phelps also beat their mother, forced the children to fast and more.

But Phelps’ alleged violence — which his nine loyal children deny — never really caught up with him. A child abuse case was brought against Phelps for abuse of Nathan and his brother Jonathan, Nathan says, but was dropped when the children refused to cooperate with the prosecutor, fearing their father’s reprisals.

The estranged children say that most of the family has stayed loyal because their father has filled them with the fear of God. “He would tear you down and make you feel terrible and there wasn’t any way but his way,” Dotti said.

Looking what they do to their own children in these videos, it’s not inconceivable:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlcbgnHtnQY]

Pretty sad that children are brought up like that, as the brainwashed child soldiers in a bizarre war against reason and values they clearly don’t understand. It’s clearly a cult, and the children are their hostages.

The interviewer below gets some good points that Nat Phelps can’t answer, about contradictions in how they interpret scripture:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqyUU66qNuE]
But of course, the hypocrisy doesn’t seem to make itself through to the interviewee.

I can’t understand how they aren’t shut down for hate speech, and promoting hate crimes. If I stood on a corner spouting such homophobic drivel, I’d be arrested at least for disturbing the peace. Why aren’t they? How can hate speech be protected by the Constitution?

Gay men and women aren’t their only target, either (although they are certainly the top of the hate list, but the list is long: it basically includes everyone not within their own church circle).

Jews are given time on the hate roster and may be a close number two:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAeJC9_UWOQ]
Catholics are targets. So are American soldiers. The church eagerly and joyfully pickets funerals of American soldiers who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, glorifying in their deaths because, as their church teaches them, these deaths are punishment for Americans being lenient towards homosexuality. “Soldiers die, God laughs” say their signs.

They also carry signs that read, “Thank God for 9/11,” celebrating the deaths of workers in the Twin Towers. They’ve protested in front of girls’ schools, too, with anti-gay, anti-abortion, and anti-Obama signs. They delighted in the destruction and deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy, calling it the “wrath of God” in tweets from their new leader, Shirley, daughter of the late Fred. They celebrated the deaths of miners in West Virginia as sign of their deity’s displeasure.

They glorified the shooter at the Batman movie for killing members of the audience and picketed the prayer service for the slain. Tweets from church members after the massacre read, “God is at work in Colorado” and used the hashtag #ThankGodForTheShooter. They protested at Whitney Houston’s and Steve Jobs’ funerals. (ironically tweeting about it from their iPhones…).

Any and every death, tragedy, natural disaster and accident in America is cause for them to openly and loudly celebrate and express their hatred. Pretty sick, pretty twisted by any standard within a wide range of normal.

Every documentary about the church amazes and disconcerts me:
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMbfQ117Jts]
Look around 12:40 and 14:40 and see brief clips of film from the church about Jews that is almost identical to those produced by the Nazis prior to WWII. And how is this not hate speech?

Now, I’m not an expert on Christianity by a long shot, but when I look at their posters lauding death for American soldiers dying in the Middle East, and hear their comments about how they hate America and American soldiers, I think of Islamist radical fundamentalists, rather than Christians.

I think of similar comments I’ve heard and read in the past from Al Qaeda, from the Taliban, from Hamas, from Hezbollah, from Fatah, from Iranian clerics and leaders. The only difference I can identify is that the Westboro group says they are Christian, not Muslim.

Maybe it’s all play acting. Maybe they are an Al Qaeda cell disguised as Christians trying to infiltrate the religious community and get publicity for their cause. It’s easier to believe that than to believe these people are in any way Christian, at least according to what I think of as Christian teaching (compassion, sharing, caring, tolerance).

Or they could be a cell of Satan worshippers trying to discredit the Christian faith by showing it as a malign, unpatriotic voice of evil?

Of course there may be another explanation. This church consists mostly of members of a single, extended (and rather prolific) family from small one part of Kansas, and I can’t help but wonder if inbreeding plays a role in their collective mental development. That’s also not a new idea – just Google it and read any number of conjectures about the family being inbred.

Freedom of speech is a right, but it has to come with responsibility, too, otherwise it can become mere hate-mongering. You shouldn’t be able to say just anything you want – but these folks can, apparently. They can make the most horrific, nasty, demeaning, bigoted and malevolent statements without fear of legal or social retribution.

In 2006, they picketed the funeral of Matt Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with their horrific signs saying “Matt in Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The upset father sued the church, and they were found guilty of hate speech not covered by the First Amendment. The court ordered the church to pay $10.9 million to the father.
[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9dD9v2cIMU]
The church used the judgment to get more publicity, then appealed. They won their appeal in 2011 on “protected free speech.” The Supreme Court then ordered the bereaving father to pay the church’s legal bills.

That is a stunning injustice and condemnation of the First Amendment

Subsequently, 42 states have put restrictions on picketing at funerals to prevent them from getting so close again. Meanwhile, they use the internet and social media increasingly and with greater sophistication to spread their venom.

But it’s not all mockery and derision on social media and YouTube. The video below is the first of an eight-part documentary on the family and the church, and it’s actually quite chilling to watch. Hannibal Lecter was easier to view onscreen, at least from my perspective. Perhaps that’s because I knew he was just an actor, but these people are real, yet more twisted than I could have ever written about in fiction.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmIr9P-vkSQ]

Watch all the parts. Each one will reveal to you yet another disturbing facet of their madness. In part three, around 2:30, you’ll see them protesting a local hardware stores for selling Swedish vacuum cleaners, because Sweden allegedly jailed one of their supporters. Try to unravel that logic.

Now I know quite well that this family doesn’t represent all of America, doesn’t represent all Christians, and doesn’t even represent most fundamentalists. They only represent themselves and their twisted, malevolent, diabolical views. Still, I’d have a lot more respect for American fundamentalist Christians if the rest of them collectively disowned this group and made a public statement that Westboro is a cult. It is neither Christian nor their ideologies supported by other Christian groups.

~~~~~~
* Because I watch so little TV, I didn’t know who Russell Brand was before I saw this video. Thanks to my Facebook friends for enlightening me. I also read the Wikipedia entry about him. I have to admit I’ve never seen any of his movies or his TV shows, with the exception of 3 Lions (which I bought in London last fall…) And yes, I know of Katy Perry, his ex-wife and I’ve even heard some of her music, but I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to what or who the glitterati are doing, so I didn’t make the connection with her until I read the article.

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How to Survive the Mayan Apocalypse

Bizarro cartoonHow will anyone survive the “end of the world” predicted for December 21, 2012? Easy: by breathing. That’s because it won’t happen. That the Mayans never predicted it would seems to have bypassed a few of the tin-foil-hat brigade.

The complex Mayan calendar simply ends one of its long cycles – just like ours ends its annual cycle on December 31. Just like we end decades, centuries and millennia on Dec. 31 with a year that ends in zero (10, 100, 1000). But most important: it’s a calendar, fer cryin’ out loud. It’s not a Magic 8 Ball. You think the free bank calendar you picked up last week is going to predict anything?

This is bad news for Bugarach, of course. The tiny French hamlet has been identified by the cohorts of believers in faux-Mayan silliness as the only place on Earth that will survive the imagined apocalypse:

 …Bugarach – population 176 – has been earmarked by some of the doomsday cultists as the only place in the world which is going to survive Armageddon, scheduled for December 21 this year by an ancient Mayan prophecy.

The canny residents of Bugarach are making the most of the sudden influx of loony souvenir hunters by overcharging for everything that’s not nailed down:

Souvenirs include ‘authentic Bugarach stones’ from Pic de Bugarach’s rock-face itself, on sale for €1.50 (£1.20) a gram, and ‘natural pyramids of pyrite iron’ from underground.
Meanwhile, a bottle of water from the local spring, which can apparently cure a range of ailments, costs an eye-watering €15 (£12).
One landowner is even offering up his four-bedroom home with close up views of the mysterious peak for £1,200 a night.
But for those on a budget, he can offer camping space in his field (tent not included) for 400 euros a night.

As the Daily Mail noted in late November, the waves of gullible tourists has caused a local crisis:

In France, the authorities have been forced to ban access to a sacred mountain, rumoured to be a haven from the apocalypse, because hordes of believers have been flocking to the region in recent weeks.
Legend has it that the Pic de Bugarach in south-west France will burst open on that day revealing an alien spaceship which will carry nearby humans to safety.
A hundred police and firefighters will also control approaches to the tiny village of the same name at the foot of the mountain, and if too many people turn up, they will block access there, too.

“Legend” has it? Not quite. According to Wikipedia that is the belief of a small group of New Agers on a nearby commune. They seem to be growing in number (and are possibly planning a mass suicide), but it’s not a local “legend” as the Daily Mail suggests. It’s a recent delusion. And as the exasperated mayor of this hamlet, Jean-Pierre Delord says, authorities should ban visitors until at least December 22 because it would prevent,

“all these idiots turning up in sandals walking up a snowy mountain, that we then have to rescue”.

Seems, however, that Bugarch isn’t the only place that will survive, however. Sirince, a small town in Turkey, has also be deemed a safe haven by the New Agers, and locals are cashing in on the waves of gullible fringies who are arriving:

Sirince, a small town of 570 — with a bed capacity of around 1,000 — is now expected to host more than 60,000 people trying to avoid the apocalypse as the date of Dec. 21 approaches.
Normally a one-day accommodation at a hotel in the village costs around TL 100-500. Following the prophecy, costs of accommodation hit a new record. Prices per single room are currently TL 3,000 and could reach as high as TL 6,000. Moreover, around 3,000 members of national and foreign press will be in the village for a live broadcast.

Dork Tower cartoonDeja vu: who can forget the thousands of witless celebrants flocking to world sites at great expense to see in the “new millennium” arrive on January 1, 2000. All that proved was that idiots are bad at simple math – the millennium actually began in 2001. But the tourist operators weren’t about to correct these fools, at least until their cheques cleared. (They may flock to Guatemala this time, however, if the Guatemalan government has its way.)

There are apparently many people who believe this improbable “apocalypse” will really happen, although you can never be sure online whether someone believes or is just riding the trend of popular attention. Or that they’re not just pulling your leg. For example, on 2012apocalypse.net – a mishmash of all sorts of pseudoscience, superstition, New Age spiritualism, aliens, Nostradamus, and related claptrap – the writer says:

Many Great Prophets, Religious Scriptures, and Scientific evidence point to a possible apocalyptic event happening in the year 2012.

Well, you can already see the flaws in this argument. First you have to believe in the validity of any prophet, and of the literality of any religious scripture, or in this case, apparently every religious scripture. But the science? Nah. Not there.

The end of the Mayan calendar coincides with a galactic alignment, in which the Sun will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Not quite, it’s actually about 6 degrees north of the galactic centre line on Dec. 21. But so what? It’s an annual occurrence. As NASA notes:

Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy but that is an annual event of no consequence.

NASA goes on at great length to explain the so-called alignment, stating, “…the sun appears to enter the part of the sky occupied by the Dark Rift every year at the same time, and its arrival there in Dec. 2012 portends precisely nothing.”

Precisely nothing is exactly the amount of credibility in the entire Mayan apocalypse conspiracy. Coincidentally it’s the same credibility you find in crop circles, UFOs, magic crystals, astrology, numerology, angels, psychics and ghosts.

That hasn’t deterred the believers. In fact, little seems to dent the armour of their belief. One man in China (about as far from the Mayans as anyone could be), spent his whole life’s savings to build an ark to escape the expected destruction, according to the Daily Mail:
Daily Mail

Other wingnut sites promote the idea of a rogue planet – “Nibiru” or “Planet X” – or maybe a brown dwarf star suddenly appearing in the solar system on that date and hitting Earth. Or maybe just changing us irrevocably by dumping hostile aliens on us, as one (wacky conspiracy-theory) site suggests:

Nibiru will not bring worldwide destruction, although we could say that life will change as we know it. With all the attention that our extraterrestrial family is paying to earth, it’s unlikely that we will visited by the Anunnaki to further enslave us… or that we be destroyed… we’re already a totally enslaved planet. Everybody in our universe eventually turns to the Light, and this is the case with Anunnaki.

And this is not the wackiest of the lot. Over at this site, you’ll walk the path of the furthest edge of the lunatic fringe:

Without a doubt, Planet X is bombarding Earth with flaming fireballs from its debris tail, which, blown by the solar wind, billows directly toward Earth. Blazing hunks of junk from this tail are hurled at us with increasing regularity.

Another zany New Age site has all sorts of bizarre stories about this mysterious planet that apparently only its believers can spot and photograph, since it eludes the equipment of skeptics and astronomers alike:

Many pictures and videos of “Second Sun” sightings are being captured on cameras by people all over the world. Alberto Cardin in Italy gets excellent captures of Planet X in the sky. How does he do it?
Alberto says it is easy to do. He uses the film cut from an old floppy disk as a filter and closes the the camera lens (having a good view). He also uses classic Mylar and orange colors. As can be seen in Alberto’s pictures, using different color filters to repress the Sun’s glare brings out different features. Due to the red dust in Planet X’s tail, a red filter allows more of this color to come through and yellow is close to red in the spectrum (ZetaTalk and Poleshift.ning).
You cannot cover-up a second sun in the sky!
The citizens of earth have a right to know about the catastrophes and earth changes Planet X brings and what the future holds for Earth, so that all, and not just a select few, can prepare for what lies ahead, in their own way, as as best they can. It’s time for the truth.

The truth is that your tin-foil hat is on too tight.

And don’t even get me started on the self-described “psychic” Nancy Leider, who claims to be channeling aliens from the star system Zeta Reticuli. Leider, who is nuttiness incarnate, claims she was abducted by gray extraterrestrials, the Zetas, when she was a child. They implanted a chip in her brain to allow them to communicate telepathically with her, which she spews forth on her website, Zetatalk (when the aliens are not channeling their anti-Israeli political diatribes through her, it seems). For example, the Zetas made this comment on Dec. 1:

We have described the location of Planet X since 2005 as being within the orbit of Venus and moving slowly outbound.  It is moving in a retrograde orbit, pushing the Earth back from when it was stopped in its orbit in 2003 in the December position. It was in the September position in 2009 and then by 2012 had moved to where it will remain until the Pole Shift –  the August position. Meanwhile, the cup has tightened. Venus has pushed closer to the Earth, the Dark Twin has fallen behind the Earth and is trying to pass the Earth in their shared orbit, and the Earth’s wobble has gotten more severe and violent. It is the very crowding of these planets in the cup in front of Planet X that causes the slow pace of Planet X as it tries to move outbound away from the Sun in its retrograde orbit.

She goes on to say that NASA is covering this up, but President Obama will make the announcement that Nibiru is real, later this month, once he escapes from their scientific clutches. It’s fascinating, disturbing reading, but ultimately entertaining, even if it’s not really polite to laugh aloud at the hard of thinking. I love a good conspiracy theory and can’t help myself reading this stuff (local conspiracy theories have become thin and worn of late, and could benefit from a dose of Mayan apocalypse drama).

In 1995, Nancy Leider originally predicted this imaginary body would hit Earth in 2003 and wipe out mankind, but when it failed to happen, she changed the date to 2012, and her hapless followers… well, they followed her like the sheep they are. Does this remind you of Harold Camping and his “rapture” of 2011?

NASA says (and you can read the sigh and shaking head in the response):

Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist. Eris is real, but it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto that will remain in the outer solar system; the closest it can come to Earth is about 4 billion miles.

Wacky New Age siteSome loonies thought Nibiru was going to crash into the Earth on November 21. NASA scientists apparently “confirmed” it, they told us. Maybe you missed the impact. Or maybe it just passed by us in 2003 (Nibiru, the writer says, is the home of the Anunnaki, a reptilian super race, “…evil, lustful, incestuous, bloodthirsty, deceitful, jealous and domineering. They are also carnivorous and are often cannibalistic. They also demand human sacrifices of virgins from those they conquer and from their own kind whom they enslave.”). I seem to have missed the “earthquakes, tidal waves, severe flooding, food shortages due to climatic conditions, diseases, meteor fire storms, volcanic eruptions and the like” that the near-hit created.

Or maybe Planet X never existed at all and the astronomers are right! That would mean either the hoaxers were deliberately misleading people or are complete fruit loops who have lost all contact with reality (both of which traits are found in creationists, by the way). I’m never sure whether to be amused, entertained or frightened by these people, their wild claims and their equally wonky followers.

No amount of debunking can allay the fears of the superstitious twits, however. In response – no doubt to the frustrating necessity of denying the end of the world so often – the US Government actually released an official message saying “don’t worry“:

False rumors about the end of the world in 2012 have been commonplace on the Internet for some time. Many of these rumors involve the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 (it won’t), a comet causing catastrophic effects (definitely not), a hidden planet sneaking up and colliding with us (no and no), and many others.
The world will not end on December 21, 2012, or any day in 2012.

The Center for Disease Control was a little more humorous, in posting a satiric blog piece about the impending zombie apocalypse. Why not? It’s as likely as the imaginary Nibiru or some other fancified end-of-the-world mechanism. Or the “Anunnaki” – an invention way beyond mere crazy. If people actually believe that, it’s no wonder we can’t teach science in schools.

I know what I’ll be doing on December 22, too: blogging “I told you so” to all the gullible New Agers who bought into one more internet hoax.

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Evolution, Creationism, and Elections

Jesus and dinosarsEarlier this summer, Gallup released the results of its latest poll on American belief in evolution, creationism and “intelligent” design. The results are among the most depressing numbers ever posted about the decay of American thought and education. Yet although this should set off the warning bells to both US presidential candidates that something needs to be done to stem this problem, none of this has been raised in the debates or on the campaign trail.

How can this have happened in one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world? How is it that the only nation to put a man on the moon, a nation that can put a rover on Mars or a satellite into orbit around Saturn with pinpoint accuracy, has so many superstitious dunderheads?

American fundamentalism is becoming increasingly pronounced in the political process, and has interfered at many levels in the education system to force its beliefs into curricula. Surely some of the American policy makers recognize this disturbing trend, but none have, so far, addressed it.*

In the excellent TV drama, The Newsroom, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) attacks the American fundamentalists in politics – the so-called Tea Party wing that has hijacked the Republican party – calling them the American Taliban. It’s easy to see the parallels between them – they both want a faith-based curricula, to punish non-believers in their particularly myopic faith, to merge that faith with the political process, and to repeal women’s rights and return them to a subservient role as chattel. McAvoy’s statement, made in the final episode of series one, is easily understood by anyone who has been watching recent US election campaigns.

The question about belief in evolution or other notions has been asked by Gallup since 1986 and the results have been fairly consistent. Gallup asked the following questions. The current and historical results are charted below.
Gallup poll on evolution vs superstition
Forty-six per cent of respondents believe in magic and myth rather than the copious scientific proof for evolution. That is nearly half of all Americans! That number has not dipped below 40% since Gallup started asking the question. A third of Americans (32%) believe humans evolved, but under their god’s guiding hand.

Gallup has asked Americans to choose among these three explanations for the origin and development of human beings 11 times since 1982. Although the percentages choosing each view have varied from survey to survey, the 46% who today choose the creationist explanation is virtually the same as the 45% average over that period — and very similar to the 44% who chose that explanation in 1982. The 32% who choose the “theistic evolution” view that humans evolved under God’s guidance is slightly below the 30-year average of 37%, while the 15% choosing the secular evolution view is slightly higher (12%).

The American belief in the science of evolution**, as a natural process independent of deities or magical intervention, has never risen above 16%. It’s at 15% today. Only one in seven Americans believe in one of the most important, most most heavily documented and evidenced laws of biology. So why isn’t this failure of education in the front lines of the presidential debate?

Some of this is the result of the unrelenting political and social campaigns and lobbying by the Christian right and its anti-science organizations to reinforce their fundamentalist grip on US politics. And they seem to have succeeded in getting may of their supporters into office.

The presidential candidates are likely too scared to confront this army of ignorant believers – especially Romney, whose Republicans make up the largest group of superstitious believers, as Gallup noted:

Majority of Republicans Are Creationists
Highly religious Americans are more likely to be Republican than those who are less religious, which helps explain the relationship between partisanship and beliefs about human origins. The major distinction is between Republicans and everyone else. While 58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, 39% of independents and 41% of Democrats agree.

But Obama is equally silent on the issue to, maybe because the poll showed 41% of Democrats are equally superstitious and believe in creationism.

Yet both candidates (and see here) have admitted they believe in evolution, not creationism, and oppose teaching creationism in schools. So why don’t they say so on the campaign trail, especially in states that have brought this nonsense into schools?

No one, it seems, wants to confront the idiots who support creationism, and rub their noses in their ignorance. And by not doing so, politicians have allowed the fundamentalists to set the political agenda.

Madness. I’m not the only one concerned about how the religious right as hijacked the political debate – almost any topic from abortion to gay marriage to science to other faiths comes with a heavy doze of fundamentalist disapproval. As Katherine Stewart recently wrote,

The far right’s fixation on same-sex relationships is so ludicrous that it defines a sub-category of camp. But let’s take a step back for a moment. The big question, the one that keeps coming back in every one of these skirmishes in the culture wars, is: why is the loudest religion in American politics today so much about hate?

(A comment on the GOP’s religiously-fuelled policies over women’s rights and abortion can be found in a recent HuffPost blog by Ethan Rome.)

Can you imagine an elected politician who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee making a statement that evolution is a lie “straight from the pit of hell”? But that comment came from Republican Rep. Paul Broun last month.

An ultraconservative congressman whose district includes the University of Georgia campus, Broun told a Baptist church last month that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory were lies spread by scientists out to erode people’s faith in Jesus Christ. He also claimed the Earth is roughly 9,000 years, a view held by fundamentalist Christians based on biblical accounts of creation.

Here are his actual words:

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Another recent member of that committee was Missouri Rep. Todd Akin, who claimed victims of “legitimate rape” were unlikely to become pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with American politics in 2012: the religious right. It’s also what is particularly wrong with the Republican Party. And for the life of me, I can’t find anything to disprove Will McAvoy’s statement.

~~~~~

Let me close with a few quotes from this American Taliban:
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship.”
“This is God’s world, not Satan’s. Christians are the lawful heirs, not non-Christians.”
Gary North (Institute for Christian Economics)
“When the Christian majority takes over this country, there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody the right to practice evil.”
Gary Potter (Catholics for Christian Political Action)
“I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”
George Bush Sr. (former President of the United States)
“The Christian community has a golden opportunity to train an army of dedicated teachers who can invade the public school classrooms and use them to influence the nation for Christ.”
James Kennedy (Center for Reclaiming America)
“Evolution is a bankrupt speculative philosophy, not a scientific fact. Only a spiritually bankrupt society could ever believe it…Only atheists could accept this Satanic theory.”
Jimmy Swaggart (Jimmy Swaggart Ministries)
“Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody’s pseudo-right to worship an idol.”
Joseph Morecraft (Chalcedon Presbyterian Church)
“I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women today, we wouldn’t have to vote.”
Kay O’Connor (Kansas Senate Republican)
“Anybody that believes in separation of church and state needs to leave right now.”
Star Parker (Coalition on Urban Renewal & Education)

~~~~~

* In Canada, when PC-then-Alliance-politician-then-Conservative cabinet minister, Stockwell Day, was exposed as a “young-earth” creationist in national media, he was widely ridiculed and criticized for for holding both a top political job and erroneous ideologies. In 2008, an Angus Reid poll showed  “58 percent (of Canadians) accept evolution, while 22 percent think that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” That’s better than the US, but still way too high.

** Without evolution, almost everything we know and understand about biology fails. It would be like astronomy without believing in the speed of light – which is exactly what creationism is, because without the time required by Darwinian evolution, the distant galaxies can’t be millions of light years away. Cosmology fails without evolution because it means everything we have learned or posited about the development of stars and planets is false.

CreationistsThe law of entropy, which governs all physics – the second law of thermodynamics – is repealed under creationism. We need a new model to teach us how energy behaves. If creationism is correct, then the entropic effects we have measured in stars and galaxies can’t have happened, since they require millions, even billions of years to occur. Einstein’s relativity, too, goes out the window.

Creationism means humans and Mesozoic dinosaurs co-existed. Humans and Permian dimetrodons co-existed, too. Paleozoic trilobites crawled in the shallow water while humans walked the shore, although no fossil record of them exists after the great Permian extinction. The sea giants megalodon, the giant shark, swam in the oceans with reptilian plesiosaurs, mosasaurs, pliosaurs and the giant armoured fishes of the Devonian, the placoderms.

Woolly mammoths preserved in the Siberian ice during an Ice Age that must not have happened, walked the earth while pterosaurs (extinct 65 million years ago) sailed in the skies above them and Tyrannosaurs hunted on the plains. Humans walked under lepidodendrons, the giant Carboniferous fern-trees we thought extinct along with the trilobites, 250 million years ago. Silurian Eurypterids, the giant sea scorpions, hunted in the shallows. Human-ancestor primates like Australopithecus and other species of humans like Neanderthals, must have also shared the earth with modern humans, if creationism is true.

Creationism means no fossils millions of years old. All that life preserved in rock lived no more than 10,000 years ago (and in some schools of creationism, 6,000 years ago). It must have been a frighteningly dangerous time, with all those giant predators on land, in the sea and air. And all of these creatures disappeared from the planet before 3,600 BCE, when the world’s oldest writing system was devised. Why? Because there is no written record of any of these plants, fish, arthropods, dinosaurs and giant mammals.

Or is there? Some creationists believe that nonsense, and have gone to many great lengths to “prove” the impossible: that humans and dinosaurs co-existed before written history. Claptrap. This is not better than the early creationists who claimed fossils are nothing more than natural formations of stone that look like bones, or that their deity inserted millions of fossils into the rocks to test believers’ faith. Some even claim scientists make fossils from plaster in factories in China! (Note that some museums have plaster casts made from authentic fossils.)

Such crap. Unadulterated, mindless, stupid crap.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlqDu2cDT0A]

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Do “psychics” make you laugh or cry?

Crystal ballA small handout for a local “psychic studio” that arrived in my mailbox offers “Superior PSYCHIC and Spiritual Cleanser.” I never know whether to laugh at the silliness of these people or cry over how they continue to bilk gullible, superstitious fools. We are still so Medieval in our thinking, in so many ways.

Here’s an entire “studio” – apparently a one-stop shopping centre for balderdash where you can go and get all your superstitions cleansed, or whatever it is they do (aside, that is, from cleansing your wallet…).

Apparently having a “studio” is all the rage among “psychics.” You can’t just have a table in your living room, maybe some Wal-Mart Hallowe’en decorations scattered around for atmosphere. You need a whole studio. Maybe a ‘no-waiting, no appointment necessary’ studio where numerous “psychics” are anxiously waiting for you to roll up and open your wallet. Yes, I found some of those advertised online.

I Googled “psychic studio” and came up with 11,600,000 results. I spent an hour or so reading the outrageous claims of dozens of charlatans and hucksters selling their “psychic” wares: “…experienced clairvoyant medium who works directly with your guides and angels to give you the guidance that you are seeking. Each session is unique, guided by the invisible realms and tailored to suit your individual needs.” What undiluted claptrap!

But turning back to the flyer, despite my skepticism about the subject matter, I had to chuckle over the wording and the bizarre, seemingly random capitalization on the handout:

“She will READ you like an open BOOK and tell you why You came and what You need to know with No Questions asked.”

Why can’t “psychics” read grammar books as well as “READ” people? They must get their language lessons from cell phone text messages. Maybe her angel or spirit guide doesn’t give guidance in punctuation or language usage. Apparently writing properly or competently is not a skill set necessary for “psychics.”

“Do you or someone you Love have Problems with Drugs, Alcohol, Legal Matters, Immigration, School, Work or Financial Problems.”

Not even a question mark to end that question. She sure covered just about all the bases, though, but I’m not sure people have many problems with financial problems. Unless they’re taking accounting courses.

“I Can and Will help you.”

Better, I suppose than “I can, but won’t help you.” Or “I can’t but will help you.”

What happened to the third-person “she” of the first sentences? Now it’s in the first person. What gives with the change of voice? Are there two voices here? We’re told she is “Professional and accurate.” Obviously not if you want a written reading from her, because any grade-school kid can write better.

What exactly is a “professional psychic”? One who charges the same rates as lawyers and architects? Is there some university degree I am unaware of for “psychics” that shows they have studied for years and achieved some academic success? I Googled that term and came up with more than 2.7 million hits, but could not find anything related to training, standards, testing, scholarship or a program of recognized education. One site tells me,

Being a professional intuitive can be a very rewarding career. There are many positive and exciting benefits, including helping people by offering them insight into their lives, working from home, and setting your own hours.
But becoming a professional psychic involves a lot of commitment and training. While it’s helpful if you have a genuine gift for intuitive insight, many training programs can help anyone to increase their natural skills regardless of your present level of psychic ability…
In addition to the four main skills, you may want to learn specific applications of those skills, such as:

  • Psychometry
  • Soul Reading
  • Telepathy
  • Healing/Medical Intuition
  • Mediumship
  • Channeling
  • Dowsing
  • Past Life Regression

So a “professional psychic” is someone who knows all the scams, the cons, the nonsense? Is there a professional organization that tests your ability to bilk customers?

Psychometry is a bit confusing here. There is a real, academic discipline called psychometry, which refers to, “the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments.” (Wikipedia).

What the author means is the non-academic, unverifiable flimflammery that goes by the same name: “…also known as token-object reading, or psychoscopy, is a form of extra-sensory perception characterized by the claimed ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object. Supporters assert that an object may have an energy field that transfers knowledge regarding that object’s history. Psychometry is commonly offered at psychic fairs as a type of psychic reading. At New Age events psychometry has claimed to help visitors “meet the dearly departed” (a form of spiritualism).” (Wikipedia)

“With over 25 years Experience there is NO PROBLEM TOO BIG OR SMALL One visit will convince you she is superior to all other PSYCHICS.”

Whew. So many mistakes. Not sure why the italics, or why there isn’t punctuation after “SMALL”. It’s a mess of random capitalization. Does the writer somehow think that by writing in big letters makes a problem bigger? So why isn’t it written as BIG and small?

The sentence, or rather the latter portion, supposes that the reader has been searching for answers from all sorts of snake oil sellers in the past and found them wanting. Otherwise, how would you know the difference between a superior and inferior “psychic”? Is it dependent on how much money they get you to spend?

Our local “psychic” professes to specialize in several fields: “Palm, Tarot Cards, Crystal Ball, Planetary re-alignment, Chakra Cleansing, Handwriting, Face, Meditation, Aura, Astrology, Spiritual Healing, Water and Candle.”

Planetary re-alignment? I thought that took the effort of the Olympian gods. Even NASA with all its technology and space vehicles can’t budge a small asteroid, yet here’s a woman who can move planets around like marbles. Mars lost its oceans to a planetary realignment a billion years ago. Imagine the power of this woman who can do this all by herself!

You have to wonder how anyone specializes in face or palm. I suppose in the same way one cam specialize in elbow and big toe. Ditto with water and candle. I suppose if I can specialize in tequila, a “psychic” can specialize in water. But candle? I prefer specializing in light switches.

Meditation? Is this woman a Buddhist? Or has she learned meditation from a Buddhist or Hindu teacher? How can one specialize in meditation without years of training and practice? Meditation requires effort, practice and training, just like writing. You might be able to learn some of its basic principles from a book, but it’s like learning carpentry from books. I am reluctant to believe that anyone engaged in the “psychic” game would read any serious books on Buddhism. After all, a serious study of Buddhism – which encourages free inquiry and intellectual investigation over blind faith – might point out too clearly the real nature of the “psychic” racket. Perhaps there are New Age comic books that teach meditation for psychics instead.

I suspect the low calibre of the writing probably mirrors the calibre of the advertised meditation skills.

I find most modern Western descriptions of chakras a garble of pseudo-science, New Age obscurity, and pseudo-Hinduism; a mix of poorly defined notions. This millennial-old belief has, like so many ancient beliefs, been usurped by the New Agers and turned into a farcical practice based on gibberish, looneyism and balderdash.

I have read both ancient Hindu texts and more modern explanations of the chakras – the imagined energy centres of the body. Personally, I have no faith in their existence. My own skepticism needs empirical evidence before I accept claims about things that cannot be clearly seen, touched, measured, photographed under controlled conditions, or otherwise identified. Chakras, angels, spirit guides, auras, demons, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot… all sorts of imaginary things fall under my skeptical microscope. I have yet to find proof of any, but I’ve only been searching for about five decades.

Here’s a quote from one site about so-called chakra clearing:

“Practice clearing your chakras in the bathtub or shower at least once each week. By being in water, you will be able to rinse your hand after each chakra releases. You will notice a lightening of your vibration and an overall easier sense of well-being. If you are working with someone else, rinse your hand into a bowl of water after each chakra clears. Water is fluid and the energy will just be released easily into the water without any effect on you or the person you may be working with.
• Place your open hand, palm side down, on your forehead. Men will use their right hand and women will use their left hand. Spread your fingers wide open to receive the energy easily. If you are working with someone else, place your open hand about two inches above each of the chakras, being cautious not to actually touch their body.
• Now tell yourself to release into your hand every single thought, feeling, and emotion that you have never been able to show or express. Releasing this energy may feel like thousands of tiny ‘hits’ on the palm of your hand. Leave your hand over your forehead until you are certain there is nothing more to be released.
• Next, move your hand above your throat. Release into your hand all the times that you have been killed in the past for speaking your truth, all the times that others have criticized you for sharing your words, all the times that you wanted to scream, and all the times when you did scream and no one heard you. Also release all the words you regret speaking and all the words spoken to you that you wish you had not heard.
• Just release all that energy into your hand, from your throat, from the back of your neck and from your shoulders.

Yeah, me too. My eyes rolled around in my head when I read that silliness. Do people actually believe this or are they all sharing some private in-joke, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster? But I digress. Back to the mini-flyer.

Handwriting? After reading this poorly-written and awkward piece, I wonder why someone with such poor literary skills would advertise handwriting as a specialty. Perhaps she writes by hand better than she types?

Anyway, the best part is at the bottom (the shouting is in the original): “AVAILABLE FOR HOME BLESSINGS & HOUSE PARTIES”. “Psychics” and house parties; what a mix. That really defines credibility, doesn’t it? Come on over for a party Saturday night… We have a keg of beer, a DJ and dance music, a case of Jack Daniels, a little weed and a “psychic”…

And, of course, “All Help is Guaranteed with Results in 24 hours.” How one guarantees help provided by a “psychic” is an amusing discussion all by itself. So why the 24 hour wait? What, your crystal ball has a wait time? It’s on dial-up to the spirit world? Come on…

Laugh and cry. That’s what this little flyer did for me. Laugh at its poorly written presentation, cry because I know,as you do, dear reader, that there are those who will take it seriously and waste their money on such nonsense.

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The End of the World is Nigh… Again

666 TattooSigh. And you thought election time was silly season. The last year has certainly been silly season for apocalyptic predictions. From the so-called Mayan end of days to the failed “rapture” of Howard Camping, it’s been a great time for conspiracy theory and cult watchers.

The latest prediction for the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) is from Jose De Jesus Miranda, a US-based fundamentalist religious preacher (of course).

According to Miranda, the world will end on June 30, 58 days from today (as I write this). A story in the HuffPost noted that Miranda predicts a massive earthquake and other catastrophes will make a lot of the continents disappear, except for a place for the “elect.”

But Miranda is bringing his own unique twist to the Apocalypse-faithful. While promising the “complete destruction of the bad seed,” the minister promises that he will emerge as a sort of superhero — with the power to fly and even walk through walls

Miranda is quite a guy. He’s apparently the messiah, having passed through being an apostle along the way:

What we do know of Miranda is that he was, in fact, born mortal — in Puerto Rico in 1946. By his own account, Miranda was visited by Jesus in 1973 — apparently the Messiah walked up to him and entered his body.
Hence, De Jesus.
From there, his pronouncements have only gotten more interesting.
In 1988, Miranda disclosed that he was actually the Apostle Paul. Not long after that, Miranda took it to the next level, calling himself both Jesus Christ and the Anti-Christ — a one-stop shop for all your Reckoning needs.

On his website, linked above, in a video he says that he “governs the earth” with technology.

He seems to have attracted quite a following – the story goes on to say how his followers are tattooing the number “666” on their skin to mark the doomsday event, just like bikers and criminals. but, Miranda tells them, it’s really a positive symbol. from this Doomsday blog:

He even goes far enough to say that the numerical value of 666, most notable referred to as the sign of the devil is actual the symbol for the anti-Christ; meaning the second coming of Christ or new Christ. In the interview with a CNN correspondent, José Luis De Jesús Miranda says, “666, the Antichrist, do not put your eyes on Jesus Christ of Nazareth… put it in Jesus Christ after the cross”. Mr. Luis De Jesús Miranda Miranda then goes on to say, “thats him, [the anti-Christ].”

If everyone who has a 666 tattoo is going to heaven, Miranda is sure going to have a hard time explaining what those Hell’s Angels are doing in paradise…

Even among the more rabid fundamentalist Christians, Miranda is too far gone in his nutiness to be taken seriously: “According to 1st John 2:22, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda is a LIAR and an ANTICHRIST. To no surprise, he uses reverse psychology, openly admitting to being an “Antichrist,” which confuses his victims. But one thing Mr. Miranda won’t admit to is being a BIG LIAR. Anyone who perverts the Gospel message, or denies the Lord Jesus Christ is a LIAR! 1st John 2:22 calls Mr. Miranda a “LIAR.””

Strong words for a Christian, I suppose. I have others I’d use that are less polite. What’s a polite synonym for scam artist?

Despite the evident silliness of his claims, Miranda seems to have a strong, passionate and equally loony following. In a 2007 story from CNN,

De Jesus says he learned he was Jesus reincarnate when he was visited in a dream by angels.
“The prophets, they spoke about me. It took me time to learn that, but I am what they were expecting, what they have been expecting for 2,000 years,” de Jesus says.
Followers have protested Christian churches in Miami and Latin America, disrupting services and smashing crosses and statues of Jesus. De Jesus preaches there is no devil and no sin. His followers, he says, literally can do no wrong in God’s eyes.The church calls itself the “Government of God on Earth” and uses a seal similar to the United States.
If Creciendo en Gracia is an atypical religious group, de Jesus also does not fit the mold of the average church leader. De Jesus flouts traditional vows of poverty.

Well, so does every fundamentalist US preacher I’ve ever read about, but Miranda is pretty showy even compared to the typical tvangelist. Ostentatious display of the money he’s bilked from gullible followers is not what makes Miranda special, however. Nor is it his slick self-promotion, his advertising, self-aggrandizing cable TV show, or his claims of divinity. It’s rather than he claims there is no sin, so you’re basically free to be a hedonist, a la Aleister Crowley. I wonder if there’s a Hedonism beach resort reserved for Miranda’s followers.

As the Houston Post reported:

His message is simple (you know, once you get over the whole “I am Jesus” thing). All sin died with Christ on the cross. Anytime a priest or a preacher calls you a sinner, he’s a liar who’s trying to steal your money. In fact, other churches should be picketed, which is something his followers have done in Miami and Latin America.

I wonder how his culties will feel on July 1, when the rest of America is waking up on that Sunday morning, thinking nothing has changed. Probably like ol’ Howard Camping’s followers who sold all their belongings and quit their jobs for the ‘rapture” that never came. I’d like to own a tattoo removal franchise in Miranda’s home town next July.

I guess I just don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who follow – and fund – wingnuts like Miranda.

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Analytic thinking can decrease religious belief

I read a story in Science News today about a study that shows, “analytic thinking can decrease religious belief, even in devout believers.”

“Our goal was to explore the fundamental question of why people believe in a God to different degrees,” says lead author Will Gervais, a PhD student in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “A combination of complex factors influence matters of personal spirituality, and these new findings suggest that the cognitive system related to analytic thoughts is one factor that can influence disbelief.”

The findings, Gervais says, are based on a longstanding human psychology model of two distinct, but related cognitive systems to process information: an “intuitive” system that relies on mental shortcuts to yield fast and efficient responses, and a more “analytic” system that yields more deliberate, reasoned responses.

“Our study builds on previous research that links religious beliefs to ‘intuitive’ thinking,” says study co-author and Associate Prof. Ara Norenzayan, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “Our findings suggest that activating the ‘analytic’ cognitive system in the brain can undermine the ‘intuitive’ support for religious belief, at least temporarily.”

HouseHmm, I mused to myself. Is the reverse therefore equally true? Does lack of religious belief lead to more analytic thinking?
Perhaps instead of trying to de-program cult victims, we can just get them to do sudoku puzzles. In fact, if I were in charge, I’d start putting sudoku puzzles in hymnals and church programs right away…

Okay, more seriously, what does this mean for psychology and genetics? That people with lower capacity or ability for analytic thinking are more likely to be religious, and will pass that tendency down the generations? Will the same hold true when two analytic thinkers mate? That raises the spectre of the old nature-vs-nurture debate.

I would like to see that experiment done with the fringies – the people who believe in pseudoscience like psychics, ghosts, astrology, crystal healing, magnetic therapy, homeopathy and other claptrap. See if the results still hold true.

How many chess puzzles do you have to solve before you suddenly wake up and realize, “Hey, I don’t actually have an aura! It’s all bunk!” And then start wondering why you’ve been paying that charlatan for years to “read” nothing…

How’s this idea: make anyone who has posted any saccharine, “inspirational”, warm-n-fuzzy quote or image on Facebook have to complete a test on algebra before they are allowed to post anything again. That includes any sayings with images of puppies, kittens, bunnies, centaurs, angels, or Gandalf.

Future studies will explore whether the increase in religious disbelief is temporary or long-lasting, and how the findings apply to non-Western cultures

The study was done at the University of British Columbia with 650 participants. The original UBC press release is here. I’m going to have to get that issue of Science to read the whole story.

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Psychiatric help would be better than exorcism

The ExorcistThe headline reads, “Exorcist Expertise Sought After Saskatoon ‘Possession'” At least the editors of the CBC News story had the good sense to put the word possession in quotes to indicate it is alleged, not a fact. As did the Toronto Star.

However, both news agencies took the story seriously enough to write it up. And then it got picked up by the Huffington Post. Must have been a slow news day (surely there was something about the F35 or robocalls to fill the space…)

Like ghosts, spirits, pixies, goblins and other imaginary beings, demons are figments of our own minds. If people believe they are real and controlling their actions, then they need medical and psychiatric help.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia describes exorcism:

Exorcism is (1) the act of driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable to become victims or instruments of their malice; (2) the means employed for this purpose, especially the solemn and authoritative adjuration of the demon, in the name of God, or any of the higher power in which he is subject.
…exorcism is a strictly religious act or rite. But in ethnic religions… exorcism as an act of religion is largely replaced by the use of mere magical and superstitious means, to which non-Catholic writers at the present day sometimes quite unfairly assimilate Christian exorcism. Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.

I find it a bit disingenuous to suggest that everyone else’s exorcism is superstitious bunk, but their is legitimate. Outsiders may not see much difference between them. I see this statement as circular reasoning: “…the conclusion of an argument is assumed implicitly or explicitly in one of the premises.”

Sure, an exorcism may have a placebo effect. But like “faith healing” the effect is usually temporary and not a cure. A lot of con artists like this one prey on gullible people by pretending to cure them this way, usually bilking them of considerable cash along the way.

Placebo effects work because people have faith in them, which means that the placebo is as much a part of the problem as the solution. In other words, you can’t get help from an exorcism unless you believe in demons, hell, and all the trappings of the religion in the first place. An atheist cannot be possessed by something he or she does not believe in, any more than a conservative can be possessed by socialism.

The placebo effect itself is problematic. Most studies that have examined it are inconclusive because they begin with the assumption that the placebo itself effected a cure, and other potential causes are ignored. These are “false impressions of placebo effects.” More recent studies have also found “little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.” The effect is, at best, inconclusive.

Things like natural regression of a disease, or the “natural history of a disease (that is, the tendency for people to get better or worse during the course of an illness irrespective of any treatment at all)” are overlooked in many studies.

The preconception of a result plays a big part in both placebo and medicine, which is how “faith healers,” palm readers, homeopathists, psychics, crystal “therapists” and other New Age wingnuts manage to con people.

One study of the effect of Prozac concluded that “…the expectation of improvement, not adjustments in brain chemistry, accounted for 75 percent of the drugs’ effectiveness.”

Thus if someone believes he or she is possessed, then he or she will also believe that an exorcism will be a cure because the two are emotionally and psychologically linked in the user in same casual relationship as a painkiller is with pain.

As noted in the Skeptics’ Dictionary article:

A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment, combined with their suggestibility, may have a significant biochemical effect, however. Sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness. But it does not follow from this fact that if the patient has hope will she recover. Nor does it follow from this fact that if a person is not hopeful she will not recover.

There’s an ethical question here, too. Is it ethical for a doctor to deliberately deceive patients by providing a placebo? If a priest has any doubts about the actuality of demons or possession, is it ethical to perform a medieval ritual as a cure for mental disorders?

I was somewhat mollified to read that the whole thing isn’t just a Hollywood-style exercise in spectacle and ritual, but rather the church has a more cautious approach. Apparently a commission has to first determine “…whether there’s some kind of psychological or psychiatric explanation to a situation.” The commission’ however, remains “open to the possibility of demonic possession.”

Anglican priest Colin Clay told the CBC that “…the topic of exorcism touches on questions that go back centuries. The issues revolve around the nature of evil and how to respond to people who claim they have the devil in them.”

Evil as an external force rather than an internal one is, for me anyway, very problematic. It requires some outside agency to establish what is evil, which therefore implies an outside agency also establishes what is good. And that suggests some absolute good and evil, rather than a situational one: good and evil are not based on our own actions or value judgments, or measured by the circumstances but rather by what an outside force has established a priori to the act.

Let me provide an example. Is is evil to kill a child? Most people would say yes, of course. But is that always true? What if that child is in a hospital full of other children and strapped with enough C4 to kill hundreds of people? Is it evil NOT to kill that child before it pushes the trigger and kills many more people? Are both acts inherently evil? Or is one heroic?

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, you need to learn to be good or bad depending on the necessity of the circumstances. Good and evil are not simply the creation of external agencies, they are choices we make according to the situation. This has been explored in many great works of literature – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (when is it right to kill a tyrant?), Les Miserables (is it right to steal to feed starving children?) come to mind.

No one in the article ever seems to ask what the circumstances are that would cause someone to believe in possession so deeply that he acted it out. Let’s face it: if he had not been inculcated with the belief in demons and possession before hand, he would not need an exorcism. The cure is part of the problem.

Clay said some churches will say, “Well that’s the devil, and the devil is at work in the world and we’ve got to deal with it,” while others would say “there’s certainly evil in the world, whether there’s an actual Satan or devil, there’s certainly evil in the world, and it has a terrible effect on people’s lives,’ and so we’ve got to respond to it.”

Yes, by all means respond, if that response is part of a larger program that includes psychiatric and medical help, counselling and observation. If the placebo effect will help the patient, then use it, but not by itself. No “faith healer” has ever cured a broken bone or cancer – it still needs medical treatment and monitoring. By itself, I see exorcism as unethical and deceptive.

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Why does Canada need an “Office of Religious Freedom”?

Religious Freedom?Why did the Harper Conservatives establish an “Office of Religious Freedom” within the Department of Foreign Affairs? I don’t get it. Was there some pressing issue in Canada where religious rights were repressed, so it needed a multi-million-dollar government agency to oversee compliance with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

That charter clear states, in section two, that all Canadians have four “fundamental freedoms:”

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

Well, since the ORF is within the DFA (excuse my initialisms), it must mean Canadians are going to enforce religious freedoms outside our own borders, right? So we’re going to become the faith police for the world? Do we send in the army when someone’s faith is being oppressed? Or just mail hurt and sad diplomatic notes? Perhaps something like this one will appear in a Taliban mail box soon:

“Dear Mr. Taliban:
We are truly distressed and hurt that you want to enslave women and turn children into suicide bombers in the name of your religion. We also feel we must protest against the destruction of those irreplaceable, millennia-old Buddhist statues you had dynamited and shelled in the name of your religion. And we are really, really upset that one of your followers threw acid into the faces of young school girls because he was angry that women were being educated. Finally, it was very naughty of you to execute those women for shaming their families by being raped. Stoning goes against our Canadian values.

We sincerely hope you won’t do any of this again.

In the name of love and peace,
Canada.”

Yeah, that’ll change them. One look at a warning letter from Canada and these frothing mad religious zealots will just crawl back into the Dark Ages whence they came. Right.

Given the fundamentalist-right leanings of some of the Conservatives, I am leery of this government – any government, in fact – overseeing rights and freedoms of any sort. But having them oversee religious freedoms is to me like letting the fox guard the hen house. I can’t quite believe a Christian evangelist is going to be fighting for the rights of persecuted Muslims or Buddhists in some developing nation. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect they’re more likely to try to convert them…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an advocate for religious freedom. As a non-believer, I still support the right of anyone to believe anything they want, no matter how silly, stupid or humorous – right up until the moment it interferes with another human being’s life or rights. Sure, you want to believe the world is going to end and you’ll get carried away safely in a spaceship, go ahead. That’s your right. But you don’t have any right to demand anyone else drink the Kool-Aid with you.

Your religious freedom extends as far as your own skin, and not a millimeter further. It doesn’t allow you to tell anyone else what to believe, what to read, what to think.

protesting TibetansBut why, I ask again, does the government need an office to enforce religious freedom? Will it have its own police force? Will it, for example, send diplomats to Tibet to protest the ongoing, brutal Chinese oppression of Tibetan religious freedom – or just send the PM to Beijing for some chop suey and photo ops while inking some more trade deals and to hell with the Tibetans?

In mid-March, Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the government how this office was formed, who wanted it, what its mandate was, and what it could cost Canadians (full text of her question and the response is here).

The government’s nebulous response was, basically bafflegab, but it did state the office (or rather, as the reply noted, the Office of Religious Freedom Office) would get $5 million a year for a staff of five, for at least the next four years. One million dollars per person per year. Wish I could tap into that salary… This new expenditure comes at a time the government has announced budget cuts in health, food, safety, heritage and the CBC, among others.

Is this all government balderdash, as several bloggers (like this one) think? Just pandering to the Conservatives’ Christian roots, while scoring extra points in the multicultural communities for looking pro-active (of the six-member panel created to consult with religious groups in closed-door sessions, four were Christian. None were Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist).

Should our government even inject “religion into a secular foreign policy” as the Toronto Star asked. I just can’t help but feel – given the government’s history and makeup – that this is just being used to further another agenda.

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