Archive for April 2010
Fond as I am of The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and other such devil movies, I can’t claim any great expertise on the question of who may—or may not—be a likely antichrist. On the whole, I don’t think that Obama is a terribly plausible suspect.
But if those who believe that the current inhabitant of the Oval Office is the antichrist are lost in one myth, those who believe that large numbers of Americans think just that are spreading another. This barely less idiotic legend cropped up during the 2008 election, and I blogged about it over at the Corner at the time. Sadly, it has now risen its horned head again, only to be nicely debunked by ABC’s Gary Langer here:
Whatever profoundly negative things people might think about Barack Obama, a new poll out today demonstrates splendidly how not to measure them.
It nails the negativity, all right; this project purports to tote up responses to a list of harsh criticisms of the president – e.g., that he’s “anti-American,” “a racist,” “wants… an excuse to take dictatorial powers,” “is doing many of the things that Hitler did” and “may be the Antichrist.”
Hot words, those. The survey, done by Harris Interactive, apparently was designed to test the theories in a book claiming the “lunatic fringe is hijacking America.” The purpose seems to have been to see how many people the pollsters could get to agree to pejorative statements about Obama. Quite a few, it turns out – but with what I see as a highly manipulative approach to questionnaire design.
I’ll lay off the sampling, though this survey was done among people who sign up to click through questionnaires via the Internet in exchange for points redeemable for cash and gifts – not a probability sample. Been there before. This time let’s just look at what it asked.
Go and look for yourselves. The results are fascinating.
The idea of the supernaturally flavored “near-death experience” (shining lights, angels, cheerily waving, long-dead relatives and so on) is one that seems to have been gaining traction in recent years. And that’s no surprise; they make for a good story and their generally reassuring message is in line with much of modern “spirituality”. For my own part, I’ve always assumed that these brief visions of the afterlife were the result of oxygen starvation or, perhaps, the general jumbling of the brain (to use a thoroughly unscientific phrase) that might be expected in the event of a possibly terminal medical crisis.
Here via the Daily Telegraph is another explanation:
…scientists believe they have uncovered the secret behind so-called ‘near death experiences’. Rather than a religious experience, as many believe, researchers think that the phenomenon could be a simple trick of the mind, caused by a chemical reaction in the body. People with high levels of carbon dioxide in their bloodstream were more likely to experience the visions, they found.
Previous research suggests that very high levels of the gas can trigger hallucinations in some people. Many people who have had the experience say that they saw bright lights, a tunnel, or even deceased loved ones beckoning them.
Dr Zalika Klemenc-Ketis, from the University of Maribor, in Slovenia, who led the study, said: “Several theories explaining the mechanisms of near death experiences exist. “We found that in those patients who experienced the phenomenon, blood carbon dioxide levels were significantly higher than in those who did not”. “Some earlier studies also showed that inhaled carbon dioxide, used as a psychotherapeutic agent, could cause near death- like experiences.”
Well, young doctors at least. I have a post analyzing the data over at Discover Blogs. Young doctors are inverted from the American population, with about twice as many self-identified liberals as conservatives. In fact, a plural majority are liberal!
If true (can the Dutch have gone quite so crazy?), this is the story (via the Daily Telegraph) of a scheme so loopy that Orrin Hatch could probably be persuaded to use taxpayer dollars to fund it over here:
Dutch prisons are using psychics to give jailed criminals guidance by putting them in touch with their dead relatives. Paul van Bree, a self-styled “paragnost” or clairvoyant, has been hired by the Dutch prison service to teach prisoners how to “love themselves”.
“I tell them that dead relatives are doing well and that they love them. That brings them peace. Big strong men burst into tears,” he said…
… The Dutch employment service has also looked beyond the normal to use “regression therapy” and tarot cards to help the jobless.
Uncooperative welfare claimants have been told they will lose benefits unless they accept the guidance of a regression therapist to help them get in touch with their past lives.
In 2007, 42,500 Dutch people signed up to state funded spiritually-based “personal development programmes”.
Not long after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 I remember hearing accounts of how the victorious Khmer Rouge was smashing up radios, gramophones, televisions and other consumer goods. It was at that moment I felt certain that Cambodia would turn out to be one of the worst of the Communist tyrannies. On taking a city, most successful armies (even the most well-behaved) indulge in at least a little looting, but the young (sometimes very young) Khmer Rouges for the most part did not. They were something else together, so indoctrinated, so disciplined, that they were prepared to wage war not only against technological progress (thus the later move to the countryside) but, more sinisterly still, against some of the simplest of human pleasures.
Seen in that context, this news from Somalia (to be sure, foreshadowed elsewhere by, say, the rule of the Taliban) makes ominous reading:
MOGADISHU — A hardline Somali Islamist group issued a 10-day ultimatum Saturday to Mogadishu-based radio stations to stop playing all kinds of music or face unspecified penalties, an Islamist leader said. The Hezb al-Islam group, which controls patches of the war-riven Somali capital, said playing music on radio stations was evil.
“We call on the local radio stations to stop broadcasting the songs and all music as well. We give them a 10-day deadline and any radio station found not complying with the orders… will face sharia action,” said Moalim Hashi Mohamed Farah, a senior Hezb al-Islam official, referring to Islamic law.
In the same report, we see another characteristic of much of today’s Islamic wave, its rejection of nation and nationality in favor of a universalism that trumps all and bodes ill:
“We also issue orders banning the local media from using the word ‘foreigners’ to refer to our Muslim brothers coming from outside the country to help us fight against the enemy of Allah,” he [Farah] told reporters.
The idea that fecund religious fundamentalists will (eventually) take over the world is not a new one, but it gets a fresh airing in a new book by Eric Kaufmann discussed in this interesting (if vaguely leftish) piece from the UK’s New Humanist magazine (yes, it’s a mildly depressing title for a magazine, but what can you do?).
It’s always necessary to be careful about population projections, but statistics such as these are indeed striking:
In his American chapter Kaufmann goes to some lengths to describe the huge, and hugely unexpected, growth rates of sects we might have imagined would be obliterated by modernity. Thus the Hutterites, Anabaptist followers of 16th-century dissenter Jakob Hutter, who shun the modern world and live quiet communal lives in rural Middle America, have grown from a colony of 400 souls in 1900 to 50,000 today. Since they do not proselytise this is all internal growth. In the same period the buggy-driving Amish have grown from 5,000 to 250,000. That will double by 2050.
Right at the end of the piece, Kaufmann is quoted as saying that he wishes to “force a certain rethink of the idea that we are moving naturally toward secularism”
If people do indeed still have that idea (at least if we equate “secularism” with a lack of religious belief, which is, of course, not necessarily the case), they are seriously misguided. The future, like the past, will be religious. The only question is what shape those religions will take.
I’m not entirely sure how this fits into Derb’s discussion below (if at all), but here, FWIW, is this:
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — MIT neuroscientists have shown they can influence people’s moral judgments by disrupting a specific brain region — a finding that helps reveal how the brain constructs morality.
To make moral judgments about other people, we often need to infer their intentions — an ability known as “theory of mind.” For example, if a hunter shoots his friend while on a hunting trip, we need to know what the hunter was thinking: Was he secretly jealous, or did he mistake his friend for a duck?
Previous studies have shown that a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) is highly active when we think about other people’s intentions, thoughts and beliefs. In the new study, the researchers disrupted activity in the right TPJ by inducing a current in the brain using a magnetic field applied to the scalp. They found that the subjects’ ability to make moral judgments that require an understanding of other people’s intentions — for example, a failed murder attempt — was impaired.
The researchers, led by Rebecca Saxe, MIT assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of March 29. The study offers “striking evidence” that the right TPJ, located at the brain’s surface above and behind the right ear, is critical for making moral judgments, says Liane Young, lead author of the paper. It’s also startling, since under normal circumstances people are very confident and consistent in these kinds of moral judgments, says Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
“You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior,” she says. “To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.”
Read the whole thing.
Believing too fervently in your own political party’s mythology can sometimes backfire. Here is a nice example of this from the UK, where the Labour party’s insistence in treating the 1980s as a period of Thatcherite terror appears to have backfired in a most satisfactory manner.
That early Christianity was a highly syncretic religion is no great revelation (so to speak), nevertheless this Guardian piece on the pagan traditions incorporated within the Easter celebration is (if you discount the irritating hints of nature worship lurking in its penultimate paragraph) a good read.
In particular, I didn’t know this:
In an ironic twist, the Cybele cult flourished on today’s Vatican Hill. Cybele’s lover Attis, was born of a virgin, died and was reborn annually. This spring festival began as a day of blood on Black Friday, rising to a crescendo after three days, in rejoicing over the resurrection. There was violent conflict on Vatican Hill in the early days of Christianity between the Jesus worshippers and pagans who quarrelled over whose God was the true, and whose the imitation. What is interesting to note here is that in the ancient world, wherever you had popular resurrected god myths, Christianity found lots of converts.
In the meantime, I’m glad to report at least one restaurant in New York City yesterday afternoon was serving hot cross buns (a traditional English Good Friday Treat), and very good they were too…
A Lebanese man sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for sorcery has been given a temporary reprieve, his lawyer says. Ali Sabat’s execution was scheduled for Friday but his lawyer, May el-Khansa, told the BBC she had been assured by a Lebanese minister it would not happen. Mr Sabat, who is in his 40s, was the host of a satellite TV programme in which he predicted the future. He was arrested by religious police while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in 2008 and convicted of sorcery.