Tag Archives: superstition

Hell 2.3


IncubusBefore I carry on with my exploration of Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell, I wanted to note that I just got my copy of her other book – the Encyclopedia of Heaven, from Abebooks. It’s dated 1999, so it’s a year later than her book on Hell. Yet it has many related topics – like Goethe’s second Faust. And it has lots of pop culture – like movie references – but nothing post 1999.

Miriam, why not consider a revised, updated “Encyclopedia of the Afterlife” to combine everything in one book? Lots has happened since the last editions. I’d be happy to help… okay, moving along.

Oh, and try not to make this out to be some sort of allegory for local politics. Sure, last term was Hell at times, but that’s not what this is all about. We left off in the letter I…

Incubus (plural incubi), we’re told, is the male version of the succubus. Both are seductive demons meant to lure humans to give in to temptation and have sex with them. Apparently if you succumb to temptation you open the door to damnation. It’s too late for me: flee, save yourselves… should have said that back in the 60s.

Scott doesn’t tell us that incubi are actually holdovers from ancient Mesopotamian religion (Mesopotamia is Greek, by the way, and it means between the rivers, because the civilizations rose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). Thank the river gods for Wikipedia and some “Small Latine and Lesse Greeke” in my education.*

Nor does she mention that incubi can father children (called cambion) and that Merlin, the legendary British wizard, was supposed to have been the child of an incubus and a human woman (in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, a nun) named Aldan. But not all legends tell the same tale, and some are rather more prosaic about his birth. But Geoffrey’s book, the History of the Kings of England, is a delight to read anyway, despite the rather fanciful and fantastic bits.

Some succubi can be impregnated, others merely collect the sperm which the incubi use to impregnate females. Seems artificial insemination was thought of a long time ago. But as Wikipedia tells us, it might not be a fun act for the guys:

It is said that the act of sexually penetrating a succubus is akin to entering a cavern of ice.

That should lead me to a joke about my ex-wife, but I’ll avoid that temptation.
Continue reading

Hell 2.0


Diablo or someone like himI left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material.

First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have come to think of Hell, It starts with the ancient influences – Egypt, Greece, Rome and Judaism – but its main focus is on the evolving Christian imagination. She has a lot to say about the popular imagination and culture, too.

A more comprehensive, and significantly longer work is Alan Segal’s 866-page tome, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Very theologically-oriented and dry, Segal’s work isn’t as much fun to read as Turner’s, but delves considerably deeper into scriptures (Jewish, Christian, and less comprehensively, Islamic).

Neither Turner nor Segal given any attention to non-Western thought. There is nothing on Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, Hindu or other non-Western faiths. Nor do they go far from mainstream religious thought: nothing on any cult or fringe group like Scientology, Wicca, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist afterlife.

And today’s last choice is the fun little book by Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley, The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife. A great intro to the world’s thinking about what happens after death. Just about every faith you can name, from Astaru to Zoroastrianism is covered in short, fun, illustrated descriptions. It’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek in parts, it is actually quite good in describing what are often complex and arcane beliefs.

Anyway, when I left you, I had plowed through Drithelm, Drugaskan and Duat. If you have been following along in your copy, you will remember these are a 7th-century Briton whose visions of Hell made him become a monk; the lowest level of Hell in Zoroastrianism, and the landing zone in Egyptian mythology where the dead arrive to find eternal retribution or rest, respectively.

Ever wonder why we call everyone else’s idea of the afterlife and their gods “mythology” while we claim ours is the only truth, capitalizing everything, like our God but their god? Just our parochial, narrow-minded perspective I suppose. But let’s go on (and save parochialism for another post)

Continue reading

What if you’re wrong?


Great visualization of the now-famous response from evolutionary biologist, author, and well-known atheist, Richard Dawkins, when asked in 2006 about his argument that there is no god, “What if you’re wrong?”

Flying Spaghetti Monster pin“Anybody could be wrong, ” he replies. “We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Teapot.”

All of these refer to various arguments used to illustrate the weakness in faith-based statements and arguments.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism) was, according to Wikipedia, created as a satire against creationists (a group notoriously shy of a sense of humour…):

The “Flying Spaghetti Monster” was first described in a satirical open letter written by Bobby Henderson in 2005 to protest the Kansas State Board of Education decision to permit teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. In that letter, Henderson satirized creationist ideas by professing his belief that whenever a scientist carbon dates an object, a supernatural creator that closely resembles spaghetti and meatballs is there “changing the results with His Noodly Appendage”. Henderson argued that his beliefs and intelligent design were equally valid, and called for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism to be allotted equal time in science classrooms alongside intelligent design and evolution. After Henderson published the letter on his website, the Flying Spaghetti Monster rapidly became an Internet phenomenon and a symbol used against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

The FSM has its own website and a huge following. You can buy FSM pins, T-shirts and other accessories from Evolvefish.com. You could even become an ordained FSM minister for a few dollars. Continue reading

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

Continue reading

Religion, Logic, and Tornadoes


Facebook image
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

Quackery and Big Bucks Infect Health Canada


Homeopathy cartoonHealth Canada has allowed an increasing number of useless “alternative” healthcare (alternative TO healthcare in most cases) products to be sold in Canada over the last decade, despite the lack of proper (or in some cases, any) research data to prove their claims, effectiveness or safety. Most recently, however, Health Canada went further into pseudoscience and licensed homeopathic vaccines, proving that the agency has bowed to corporate pressure and given up trying to protect Canadian health.

According to the BC Medical Journal,

“…Health Canada has licensed 10 products with a homeopathic preparation called “influenzinum.”[8] According to providers, in­fluenzinum is for “preventing the flu and its related symptoms.”

Homeopathic vaccines are available for other infectious diseases as well. Health Canada licenses homeopathic preparations purported to prevent polio, measles, and pertussis.”

The author, Dr. Oppel, concludes with the reason behind this astounding act that seriously discredits both the once-respectable Canadian healthcare and the agency itself:

Natural health products are big business, and the voice of providers is never far from the ear of government. While patients are free to make health decisions, government has a duty to ensure that false or misleading claims do not interfere with consumers’ ability to make an informed choice. Nowhere is the case more clear than in the realm of unproven vaccines for serious illnesses. When it comes to homeopathic vaccines, Health Canada needs to stop diluting its standards.

Homeopathy is not medicine. It is not science. It is codswallop. It was invented by a charlatan named Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. According to Wikipedia

Hahnemann believed that the underlying cause of disease were phenomena that he termed miasms, and that homeopathic remedies addressed these. The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance in alcohol or distilled water, followed by forceful striking on an elastic body, called succussion. Each dilution followed by succussion is said to increase the remedy’s potency. Dilution usually continues well past the point where none of the original substance remains.

Get that? The dilution continues until all you have is… nothing. But “nothing” is not harmless. It can be very harmful. As in death. Wikipedia continues (emphasis added):

Homeopathic remedies have been the subject of numerous clinical trials. Taken together, these trials showed at best no effect beyond placebo, at worst that homeopathy could be actively harmful. Although some trials produced positive results, systematic reviews revealed that this was because of chance, flawed research methods, and reporting bias. The proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are precluded by the laws of physics from having any effect. Patients who choose to use homeopathy rather than evidence based medicine risk missing timely diagnosis and effective treatment of serious conditions. 

Continue reading

The Dreamtime


Dreaming...I don’t dream very much, Susan once said to me. We were having a talk about some crazy dream I was recalling. They’re always crazy, of course. But the conversation was about whether we dream – all of us – whenever we sleep.

I argued yes, we all do. We just don’t always remember them. I remember a lot of mine, at least for a few minutes after I awake. It helps if I talk about them right away, otherwise they evaporate pretty quickly.

That’s the nature of dreaming: it’s just the random firing of neurons that activate memory, but isn’t intended to stay. Humans simply connect these unrelated memories and put them into a sequence that has some sort of narrative nature.

Dreams are, as I understand them, just the random but necessary effects of sleep in mammals. They may occur in other animals like fish, birds, etc., but I don’t really know. I suspect that old reptilian brain buried deep in our grey matter is the source. I know that my dogs and cats dream, because I’ve watched and heard them dreaming.

We dream, as I understand it, because our brains need the time to clear the buffers. Just like computers. For the same reason, we reboot our cable modems every few weeks; to clear it and reset the buffers. Humans do it nightly. Without sleep and dreams, we have simply too much “stuff” in our consciousness to handle and we’d become psychotic.

Humans find meaning in pattern, and see patterns in everything. If we can find images of Jesus in the burnt bread of a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s hardly surprising we find a story in a dream. That’s just our pareidolia. It’s how we’re built.

Last night I dreamt we were in England. London, in the summer. I was walking Keppie and Pico – our Flat-coated Retriever and Long-haired Chihuahua of 20 years ago, along the sidewalk. I was at the edge of a park (Kew Gardens?), a great green space, waiting beside the road for Susan to join us. Keppie was panting and eager, and sat down. I lifted Pico onto a low brick wall along the roadside to watch the traffic while we waited for her to arrive. She was on a bus. It came down a hill, around the corner and stopped in front of me, and I got on. Inside, it was all done in white, like our kitchen, with cupboards and cabinets. I started speaking to the passengers and found we were going to Mexico City. The bus went up a hill, and into a different city, a busy, crowded place. It stopped at a junkyard, and we got out. The dogs were gone. It was dangerous, but a man got out with us and told us it was perfectly safe. We entered a store that became a house where the owner – a young mechanic in a sleeveless T-shirt who was cleaning something – told us again it was safe and he would introduce us to people who liked Canadians. I was hot, and wanted to remove my leather motorcycle jacket, so I went into another room to do it, but my arms got tangled in the sleeves and I couldn’t get it off. The room was also almost all white. Everyone was waiting for me to come back so they could continue on. I struggled with the sleeves. Then I awoke.

Meaningful? Not likely. More like a stew of random memories.  I have fond memories of Mexico, England, my (now departed) pets, and, of course, Susan. Stepen LaBerge writes:

Whether awake or asleep, the brain constructs a model of reality-consciousness from the best available sources of information. During waking, those sources are external sensory input in combination with internal contextual and motivational information. During sleep, little external information is available, so consciousness is constructed from internal sources. These include expectations derived from past experience, and motivations-wishes, such as S. Freud observed, but also fears. The resulting experiences are what we call dreams. In these terms, dreaming is perception free from external sensory constraint, while perception is dreaming constrained by sensory input-hallucinations that happen to be true.

Dreams are simply an artificial and undirected construct – a fantasy world built from random snippets of memory and associations. Any meaning we ascribe is arbitrary. Dream interpretation is, Freud be damned, mostly fraud and snake oil sold by wanna-be psychics and hucksters.

That doesn’t mean dreams don’t contain meaningful information, just that the interpretation is usually stretched or even bogus. Interpreting dreams is akin to seeing animals in clouds, or Jesus in grilled cheese. You can find a pattern if you look for it, because we’re biologically evolved to find patterns in everything, but like the “Face on Mars” we imagine more than we actually see.

As for meaningful information – there’s no magic or paranormal in any of the associations. They all have an explicable, logical source. As for my dream…

I’ve been to Mexico many times, including Mexico City and Morelia. I’ve been to England, and spent a couple of weeks in London. We recently discussed another visit there to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. My visit to England still resonates with me, every time we watch a BBC show – which we see far more often than we watch American TV.

My affection for dogs I enjoy every day. I recently scanned some photos of our previous dogs – including Keppie and Pico – from a box of photos I pulled out of the basement a few weeks back.

Leather jacket? One of my old motorcycle garments: we were discussing passing along or selling my bike wear when we clean the basement this spring, since I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford another bike.

The bus with the white interior? Our kitchen, renovated last year and part of my daily life, just transposed into a vehicle. Buses? probably from the recent budget deliberations. Or a memory of transit rides in England. Or more recently some trips in Toronto and Ottawa.

There’s nothing odd or paranormal in any of the images, or the memories; only when seen as a whole and you’re looking for narrative does it seem strange. What intrigues me is the mix of relatively old and new without any recognizable or logical connection. It shows me that the brain stores memories that the conscious may forget, but which can be brought to the surface any time. And that it doesn’t give a damn for coherency or narrative.

If you’re looking for meaning in your dreams, don’t look any further than your own memories. Those websites that offer to translate your baffling dreams into coherency for a “small” fee are just skinning your cash. The rest are just codswallop. Especially those that use the words “psychic” or “astrologer” with their descriptions. That’s just malarkey piled on more malarkey. There is some real psychology in dream interpretation, but not on those sites.