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Superstitions Old and New

Library of CongressRaw Story:

Televangelist Pat Robertson advised a mother on Monday that she could cure her son’s stomach pains by finding someone to cast out demons that were possibly caused by an ancestor who practiced witchcraft. In an email, a viewer named Dianne told the TV preacher that her son had “painful shock-waves thru his body” that originated in his stomach while she was praying for him and calling on “the name of JESUS.”

“My son said it felt like something hit him very hard in the stomach,” the mother wrote. “I know this is not of God. He is a Christian. Can Christians be attacked by demons?”

Instead of recommending that the mother seek medical attention, Robertson said that the boy could be “oppressed or possessed by demons.”

“You need to get somebody with you who understands the spiritual dimension and doing spiritual warfare,” he continued. “If I were you, I would look back in your family. What in your family — do you have anybody involved in the occult, somebody in witchcraft or tarot cards or psychic things?”

“Has there something been there that you don’t know about. Some grandparent, great grandparent or something. Look into the family tree, and then get some people in there and cast this stuff out. But that does not sound like normal.

Laura Helmuth, writing in Slate:

Most paranoid, grandiose, relentless conspiracy theorists can’t call a meeting with a U.S. senator. Then there’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr. A profile of Kennedy in this weekend’s Washington Post Magazine shows that Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Bernie Sanders listened politely while Kennedy told them that a vaccine preservative causes autism.

It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country has evaluated the evidence and concluded that the preservative thimerosal is safe. The question is settled scientifically. Thimerosal, out of an abundance of caution, was removed from childhood vaccines 13 years ago, although it is used in some flu vaccines. And yet Kennedy, perhaps more than any other anti-vaccine zealot, has confused parents into worrying that vaccines, which have saved more lives than almost any other public health practice in history, could harm their children.

Mikulski and Sanders, to their credit, both politely blew Kennedy off.

That’s a sign of great progress: Not that many years ago, Rep. Dan Burton held congressional hearings on the entirely made-up dangers of vaccines. I’m especially proud of Sanders, who represents Vermont, a state with one of the highest rates of vaccine denial and misinformation.

But the more people dismiss Kennedy, unfortunately, the more obsessive and slanderous he becomes. Keith Kloor describes some of Kennedy’s recent outrageous claims in the Post profile:

The more Kennedy talked on the subject, the more his rhetoric became hyperbolic. During one 2011 segment on his Air America radio show, he accused government scientists of being “involved in a massive fraud.” He said they skewed studies to demonstrate the safety of thimerosal. “I can see that this fraud is doing extraordinary damage to the brains of American children,” he said.

Last year, he gave the keynote speech at an anti-vaccine gathering in Chicago. There, he said of a scientist who is a vocal proponent of vaccines and already the object of much hate mail from anti-vaccine activists that this scientist and others like him, “should be in jail, and the key should be thrown away.”

I got a taste of Kennedy’s delusions last year. After Slate’s Bad Astronomy blogger, Phil Plait, criticized Kennedy for speaking at an anti-vaccine conference, Kennedy called me to complain, and I wrote about our very one-sided conversation. He told me scientists and government agencies are conspiring with the vaccine industry to cover up the evidence that thimerosal is “the most potent brain killer imaginable,” and journalists are dupes who are afraid to question authority. He claimed that several specific scientists had admitted to him that he was right. I called these scientists up. Here’s one representative answer, from a researcher who preferred I not use his name because he gets death threats from anti-vaccine activists: “Kennedy completely misrepresented everything I said.”

To recap: Kennedy accuses scientists of fraud, which is pretty much the worst thing you can say about a scientist. He distorts their statements. He says they should be thrown in jail. He uses his powerful name to besmirch theirs. That name, the reason he has power and fame, is inherited from a family dedicated to public service. He now uses the Kennedy name to accuse employees of government agencies charged with protecting human health—some of the best public servants this country has—of engaging in a massive conspiracy to cause brain damage in children.

And this nonsense has consequences:

The number of measles cases in the United States tripled last year—an entirely preventable disease whose resurgence has been made possible in part by Kennedy’s tireless efforts

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God, Secretive Pundit

Also via the Huffington Post:

Christian conservative leader Pat Robertson says he has a secret straight from God: He knows who the next president of the United States will be.

“I think He showed me about the next president, but I’m not supposed to talk about that so I’ll leave you in the dark — probably just as well — but I think I know who it’s gonna be,” Robertson said Tuesday on the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club.”

Robertson then went on to recite the message he claimed to have been told by God. According to Robertson, God doesn’t support President Barack Obama’s agenda and says that only “overwhelming prayer” can bring a new leader who will stop the country from “disintegrating”:

Okey Dokey.

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Human compassion has produced the usual generous outpouring of aid to devastated Haiti.  Meanwhile, Obama has shown himself in a statement today to be a standard American politician, having included among the admirable qualities of the Haitians the fact that their faith has been unwavering.  Why is holding on to religious faith in the face of contradictory evidence a virtue?  In any other field—climatology, say–maintaining a belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary would be seen as a lamentable failure of rationality.  If a human being had foreknowledge of, and the capacity to prevent, a coming disaster like the Haitian earthquake and yet did nothing, he would be viewed as a monster.  Pat Robertson’s interpretation of the Haitian earthquake as divine punishment for voodoo and for an alleged  “pact with the devil” has been universally mocked, but it at least represents an effort to explain why God, who had both knowledge of the earthquake and the capacity to prevent it, nevertheless chose not to act in this particular instance, though he  acts to save other lives all the time, such as when keeping America safe since 9/11 or answering a family’s prayers for a cancer victim.  Interpreting the source of divine displeasure that gave rise to natural disasters was a regular function of preachers before secularism cut religion in the West down to size (on May 26, 1703, for example, during the most destructive storm in British history, the vicar of Cheshunt preached a sermon entitled: “The Necessity of Repentance Asserted: In order to Avert those Judgements which  the Present War, and Strange Unseasonableness of the Weather at Present, Seem to Threaten this Nation with.”).  Obviously, anyone who interprets God’s will is going to fill it in with his own biases (if seeing retribution for breaking the first two commandments is a bias).  But I’d rather have consistency in the inclination to ascribe meaning to events in God’s universe than a retreat into obscurantism–“the human mind cannot fathom God’s reasons”–when the candidates for a meaning are unacceptable.  The mind cannot supply any possible reason for God’s inaction here that doesn’t either grotesquely violate one’s sense of fairness or imply fault on the side of the sufferers, yet a reason there must be, according to our demand for a God who rules the world not by caprice but according to good cause.   And however politically incorrect Robertson’s interpretation of the consequences of idolatry currently is, that interpretation has an impeccable pedigree in the Bible and has never been officially repudiated.  Contrary to the assertions of believers, it is easier to understand how unmerited suffering can arise in an undirected universe than in a directed one and requires less torturing of reason and perverse implication of fault.  And though we may live in a universe of random injustice, the human capacity to conquer such injustice grows by the day, thanks to the tireless application of the scientific method to nature. 

Many are undoubtedly now praying to God to save the earthquake victims, an act of empathy arising out of human love that thousands of other humans, believers and unbelievers alike, are acting on.

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