Category Archives: Religion

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.

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.

The End of the World is Nigh… Again


666 TattooSigh. And you though 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.

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.

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.

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.

Bad Lao Tzu meme adds to growing list of mis-identified quotes online


This bad meme is going the Internet rounds:

“If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself, if you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation.” Lao Tzu

Well, although deep – if a bit saccharine – it’s not from the Tao Teh Ching, the only work that the Old Master (the literal translation of his name) ever produced.

The Tao Teh Ching is a notoriously difficult book to translate. Although it consists of a mere 5,000 Chinese characters, translations can vary wildly. Compare this one with the one linked above for example. One site compares three versions (Legge, Suzuki and Goddard). This site has 175 translations of the first verse alone, dating from the late 19th to early 21st centuries, which indicates the numerous, complex ways translators have approached this work and how many ways there are at trying to wrestle the meaning from it.

Hua Hu ChingThe quote actually comes from a translation of another Taoist work called the Hua Hu Ching (Huahujing), which although attributed to Lao Tzu, is actually a forgery. According to scholars, the Huahujing was actually written some 500 years after Lao Tzu lived, by Taoist Wang Fou, ca. 300 CE. Apparently he wrote it as an anti-Buddhist polemic after he was defeated in debate by the Chinese Buddhist monk Bo Yuan. The earliest text was only one section, but by the beginning of the eighth century it had been expanded into ten or eleven.

Historical Chinese records suggest it was first produced in the late third century CE. Some scholars give it a later date because the earliest reference to to the work is from the period of 420–477 CE. The oldest extant version is from a slightly later period. The content suggests it is much later than Lao Tzu because it contains references to all sorts of later Taoist practices such as herbal medicine, feng shui, tai chi and sex:

A person’s approach to sexuality is a sign of his level of evolution. Unevolved persons practice ordinary sexual intercourse. Placing all emphasis upon the sexual organs, they neglect the body’s other organs and systems. Whatever physical energy is accumulated is summarily discharged, and the subtle energies are similarly dissipated and disordered. It is a great backward leap. For those who aspire to the higher realms of living, there is angelic dual cultivation. Because every portion of the body, mind, and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Where ordinary intercourse is effortful, angelic cultivation is calm, relaxed, quiet, and natural. Where ordinary intercourse unites sex organs with sex organs, angelic cultivation unites spirit with spirit, mind with mind, and every cell of one body with every cell of the other body. Culminating not in dissolution but in integration, it is an opportunity for a man and woman to mutually transform and uplift each other into the realm of bliss and wholeness. The sacred ways of angelic intercourse are taught only by one who has himself achieved total energy integration, and taught only to students who follow the Integral Way with profound devotion, seeking to purify and pacify the entire world along with their own being. However, if your virtue is especially radiant, it can be possible to open a pathway to the subtle realm and receive these celestial teachings directly from the immortals.

The Tao Teh Ching has none of this material: it was added later to his teachings.

Hua Hu ChingThe Hua Hu Ching is a work of Taoist philosophy and practice also known as “the scripture of transforming the barbarians.” That’s because it’s recounts a fictional journey by Lao Tzu out to the “Western Regions” and into India, where, the legend goes, his teachings formed the basis of Buddhism. The work seeks to position Taoism as the supreme philosophy over other beliefs, especially Buddhism which at the time it was written was challenging Taoism for popularity among the Chinese populace:

The world is full of half-enlightened masters. Overly clever, too “sensitive” to live in the real world, they surround themselves with selfish pleasures and bestow their grandiose teachings upon the unwary. Prematurely publicizing themselves, intent upon reaching some spiritual climax, they constantly sacrifice the truth and deviate from the Tao.

Hardly objective: it’s a strong, often angry, political stance about the superiority of Taoist beliefs. The message is clear: there’s a fight over the hearts and minds of the populace here. To prove their superiority, Taoists had to portray Buddhism as a weakened, distorted version of Taoism.

The fault of attribution lies both with the people who repeat this quote online without checking its source, and the translator. This verse is from a translation by Brian Walker. The full verse (no. 75) reads:

Would you like to liberate yourself from the lower realms of life? Would you like to save the world from the degradation and destruction it seems destined for? Then step away from shallow mass movements and quietly go to work on your own self-awareness. If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself. If you want to eliminate the suffering in the world, then eliminate all that is dark and negative in yourself. Truly, the greatest gift you have to give is that of your own self-transformation. So find a teacher who is an integral being, a beacon who extends his light and virtue with equal ease to those who appreciate him and those who don’t. Shape yourself in his mold, bathe in his nourishing radiance, and reflect it out to the rest of the world. You will come to understand an eternal truth: there is always a peaceful home for a virtuous being.

People have cherry-picked from the work, taking lines out of context. It’s actually an interesting, deep and complex work, well worth reading for its historical and political context. You can’t simply remove lines without losing some of the meaning. In this case the verse exhorts the reader to find a suitable teacher and submit to his/her discipline in order to achieve self-transformation. It also assumes the reader’s beliefs are in concert with Taoist and Chinese beliefs about “lower realms.” Similarly other verses refer to the “immortals.”

Walker attributes the work to Lao Tzu, which is a surprising statement given the easily available research on its origins. A lot of material is available in English to explain when and why the book was written. In his 1993 introduction, Walker wrote,

The Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu is … believed among Westerners to be Lao Tzu’s only book. Few are aware that a collection of his oral teachings on the subject of attaining enlightenment and mastery were also recorded in a book called the Hua Hu Ching (pronounced “wha hoo jing”). The teachings of the Hua Hu Ching are of enormous power and consequence, a literal road map to the divine realm for ordinary human beings. Perhaps predictably, the book was banned during a period of political discord in China, and all copies were ordered to be burned. Were it not for the Taoist tradition of oral transmission of sacred scriptures from master to student, they would have been lost forever. I am permanently indebted to Taoist Master Ni Hua-Ching for sharing his version of these teachings with the Western world after his emigration from China in 1976. My work here is largely based upon his teaching.

Walker’s work is skillful, poignant and poetic, but scholarly writing I’ve found contradicts his attribution to Lao Tzu. He suggests it only exists in oral form, however, a copy was found in 1997 in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, China, dating from around the late 4th or early 5th century CE. Walker seems to ignore the inconsistencies in the text or its evident political stance.

One of the problems that oral traditions face is that transmission from one generation to the next is seldom if ever entirely accurate. Memories fail, ideologies intrude to change the message, people can mishear a word. verses handed down orally for 1,500 or more years is bound to be corrupt when compared with a written version. Walker’s work has to be read with that in mind.

An alternate translation of the book, by Hua-Ching Ni, is much longer than Walker’s version, and retains the debate format so it reads as a series of question-and-answer dialogues between a young prince and a learned Taoist master. It, too, incorrectly attributes the authorship to Lao Tzu despite the very obvious references to later practices and beliefs that post-dated Lao Tzu.

Here’s another bad quote mis-attributed to Lao Tzu, this one from Facebook, mis-identified as coming from Lao Tzu:

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

This is actually from the New Testament (Corinthians), not Lao Tzu. Once again the problem is that lazy people don’t check sources to confirm the author, and simply attribute it to whomever they decide seems like a likely source. Never assume that what is posted online – especially anything posted on Facebook – is accurate. Always research the content before you spread another bad meme or urban myth.