Secular Right | Reality & Reason

TAG | superstition

Jan/18

20

Oprah: The Queen of Unreason

The Oprah moment may have faded for now, but I have little doubt that it will return, in which case this Slate piece by Kurt Andersen (and, no, I don’t agree with his jibe about Reagan) will be one that it is well worth retrieving when Oprah 2020 picks up again.

An extract:

Despite the “magical thinking” reference, neither Williams nor other skeptics have seriously addressed the big qualm I have about the prospect of a President Winfrey: Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

I’m no fan of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering, to put it mildly, but we’ll have to see which, over the longer term, proves more dangerous. There’s also, incidentally, an argument to be made that Winfrey’s own, uh, flexible approach to objectivity reality may have done its bit to contribute to the rise of Trump.

Andersen:

Oprah went on the air nationally in the 1980s, just as non-Christian faith healing and channeling the spirits of the dead and “harmonic convergence” and alternative medicine and all the rest of the New Age movement had scaled up. By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counterestablishment. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized a “channeled” book of spiritual revelation, A Course in Miracles: The author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, had claimed that its 1,333 pages were dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea was that physical existence is a collective illusion—”the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic best-seller. Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his 30s to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization and in 1989 hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.

Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: Rationalism is mostly wrongheaded, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s countercultural relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the oppressive charlatans-in-charge. But now they had become mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”

Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey….

Most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the New Age realm owe their careers to Winfrey…

It’s one thing to try to experience more peace of mind or feel in sync with a divine order. Mixing magical thinking with medical science and physiology, however, can get problematic. A generation after its emergence as a thing hippies did, alternative medicine became ubiquitous and mainstream. As with so many of the phenomena I discuss in my book Fantasyland, it’s driven by nostalgia and anti-establishment mistrust of experts, has quasi-religious underpinnings, and comes in both happy and unhappy versions.

And has been brought to you by Oprah Winfrey.

In 2004, a very handsome heart surgeon, prominent but not famous, appeared on Oprah to promote a book about alternative medicine. His very name—Dr. Oz!—would be way too over-the-top for a character in a comic novel. After Harvard, Mehmet Oz earned both an M.D. and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania, then became a top practitioner and professor of heart surgery at Columbia University and director of its Cardiovascular Institute. Timing is everything—young Dr. Oz arrived at Columbia right after it set up its Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the 1990s.

Soon he was bringing an “energy healer” into his operating room, who placed her hands on patients as he performed surgery, and inviting a reporter to watch. According to Dr. Oz, who is married to a reiki master, such healers have the power to tune in to their scientifically undetectable “energies” and redirect them as necessary while he’s cutting open their hearts. When the New Yorker’s science reporter Michael Specter told Oz he knew of no evidence that reiki works, the doctor agreed—“if you are talking purely about data.” For people in his magical-thinking sphere, purely about data is a phrase like mainstream and establishment and rational and fact, meaning elitist, narrow, and blind to the disruptive truths. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” Oz told Specter, then added a kicker directly from the relativist 1960s: “I have my religion and you have yours.”

After that first appearance on Oprah, he proceeded to come on her show 61 more times, usually wearing surgical scrubs. In 2009, Winfrey’s company launched the daily Dr. Oz show, on which he pushes miracle elixirs, homeopathy, imaginary energies, and psychics who communicate with the dead. He regularly uses the words miracle and magic. A supplement extracted from tamarind “could be the magic ingredient that lets you lose weight without diet and exercise.” Green coffee beans—even though “you may think that magic is make-believe”—are actually a “magic weight-loss cure,” a “miracle pill [that] can burn fat fast. This is very exciting. And it’s breaking news.” For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.

Oz has encouraged viewers to believe that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses—as did Winfrey on her show before him. In 2007, long after the fraudulent 1998 paper that launched the anti-vaccine movement had been discredited, she gave an Oprah episode over to the actress Jenny McCarthy, a public face of the movement. That was where McCarthy gave the perfect defense of her credentials: “The University of Google is where I got my degree from!”

… Discussing my book a couple of months ago on Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up, I was arguing that the realm of Fantasyland is, when it comes to politics, highly asymmetrical—the American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true, a fact of which President Donald Trump is a stark embodiment.

Say what you will about Trump—go for it—count me unconvinced that the “American right much more than the left has given itself over to belief in the untrue and disbelief in the true…”

In fact to believe quite that so firmly is to suggest that Andersen may be just a little guilty of what he so eloquently (and rightly) condemns.

· ·

Jan/18

12

Oprah and McMartin Preschool ‘Retrials’

Cross-posted on the Corner.

In a post yesterday, I mentioned the contribution made by Oprah Winfrey to the ritual satanic abuse witch hunts of the 1980s. One of the most notorious cases of that era was the McMartin preschool trial, and I quoted this from an article last year by Philip Terzian in the Weekly Standard (my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

Eventually that case collapsed, but I was unaware of this particular  postscript. Here’s Howard Rosenberg, writing in the LA Times in January 1990 (my emphasis added):

It was a dream.

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner did not drop charges against five of seven people accused of molesting children attending the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach. There was never a McMartin trial that lasted 2 1/2 years. There was never a McMartin verdict acquitting the remaining two defendants of 52 counts of child molestation.

Yes, it was all a dream. At least that’s the impression you get these days from watching some of television, where former McMartin students and their parents have succeeded at last in doing what they have been unable to do in the courts:

Convict the McMartin defendants…

Even in trying to address child molestation trials as a generic issue, the [Geraldo]  show was overwhelmingly concerned with the ordeal of the children caught up in the McMartin case. No one would reject that as a legitimate concern. But what about the ordeal of the seven original defendants, especially Buckey and his mother, who each spent years in jail?

That question was not addressed on “Geraldo.” Nor was it addressed on two earlier TV retrials of the case, on “Oprah” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.” Compared to them, “Geraldo” was as judicious as the Supreme Court.

A smaller number of former McMartin students and their parents were on stage in Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago studio along with Greg Mooney, the attorney who represents many of the McMartin families, and Colleen Mooney, director of the South Bay Center for Counseling, which treated some of the McMartin children.

Speaking by satellite from Los Angeles–and as electronically disadvantaged as the satellite guests on “Geraldo”–were McMartin Judge William Pounders and Brenda Williams, the most articulate of the McMartin jurors who have gone public after the verdict. The level of fairness here was typified by Winfrey’s admission that she would have made a poor McMartin juror because “I would say, ‘The children said it; all right, you’re right.’ ” The studio audience applauded.

Their truth, presumably.

Rosenberg:

Winfrey’s show is a perfect vehicle for emotions, which she brings out with great sincerity. That’s her strength. Yet her show has difficulty reaching the stories beneath the surface tears, and, like much of TV, it strips away nuances and tailors complexities to its own time constraints.

Winfrey to a former McMartin student: “What did you tell the jury?” That’s right, capsulize 16 days of testimony in a few sentences.

Again to the same student: “How old were you when all of these things allegedly happened?” And now to the student’s mother: “How did you at first find out that something was allegedly going on at the school?”

Using allegedly here was like trying to mend decapitation with a Band-Aid.

Of all of TV’s talk show hosts, Winfrey is perhaps the least inclined to play devil’s advocate. She could have asked Pounders about the propriety of his multiple talk show appearances, but didn’t. She could have demanded evidence when one of her guests accused McMartin defendants of “terrorist tactics,” but didn’t.

It was clear that she, her studio audience and the McMartin kids and their parents were on the same side…

· · ·

Jan/18

11

Oprah, Subjective Truth and Salem 2.0

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Over on the homepage Philip Devoe rightly laments Oprah Winfrey’s fondness for pseudoscience and New Age ‘thinking’. It would only be fair to also mention the role she played in the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic. Writing in the Houston Press in 2015, Chris Lane recalls the contribution made to this disgrace by the book Michelle Remembers (my emphasis added):

 

Michelle Remembers describes the therapy sessions that a Canadian psychiatrist named Lawrence Pazder conducted on a patient. The book is the first written on Satanic ritual abuse, which his patient, Michelle, “remembered” through lengthy hypnosis sessions. It’s one of the first books popularizing the idea of repressed memories of victims of Satanic abuses, and largely influenced the ensuing panic. Michelle Remembers was hugely profitable for both Pazder, who co-authored the book, and Michelle Smith, but the stories of abuse seem to have been largely or entirely false, with many contradictions and factual errors cropping up. Michelle’s recovered memories were horrific, involving rituals she was forced to take part in at the age of five. According to Michelle, these included being locked in a cage, being sexually abused and tortured, and being covered in the blood and body parts of victims who were murdered as part of the rituals conducted by a satanic cult.

The book sold well, and was heavily promoted by the media, including talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, and propelled the idea of widespread Satanic ritual abuse into the mainstream. Michelle Remembers also created a template that many other subsequent cases would use, and was instrumental in shaping how law enforcement agencies responded to allegations of occult crimes. The book’s influence was huge, and it seemed to withstand criticism of its accuracy until it was thoroughly debunked many years later, sadly after much damage was already done.

Indeed it was.

Writing in the Weekly Standard last year, Philip Terzian turned his attention to one of the most notorious cases of that era, the McMartin preschool trial (again, my emphasis added):

The police were quickly persuaded that ritual satanic sexual abuse—a popular preoccupation of the era—was a regular feature of life at the McMartin preschool, and social workers prompted and (in many cases) badgered their 3- and 4-year-old witnesses to affirm and repeat increasingly fantastic accounts. This was the pre-social-media era, to be sure; but the national press and assorted TV personalities—including future Presidential Medal of Freedom laureate Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, and newsman Geraldo Rivera, among many others—seized on the story with particular relish, and a nationwide hunt began. In the subsequent decade, the McMartin case was followed by many more spectacles—featuring comparably outlandish, and curiously identical, tales—involving dozens of nursery schools across America and hundreds of day-care employees, mass arrests, prosecutions, and deliberately long prison sentences.

A quick glance at some old YouTube footage of Winfrey on that topic (some of it, appallingly, seemingly still being used by conspiracy theorists) will show that her interest in ‘your truth’ rather than the truth is nothing new

It’s worth remembering how that worked out for those imprisoned on what would, in saner times, have been literally incredible grounds.

· · ·

Jul/17

23

UFOs and The ‘Religious Mind’

Writing in the New York Times, Clay Routledge notes the interesting, if unsurprising, fact, that someone’s religious instinct doesn’t disappear simply because he or she has rejected ‘established’ religion:

Just a couple of decades ago, about 95 percent of Americans reported belonging to a religious group. This number is now around 75 percent. And far fewer are actively religious: The percentage of regular churchgoers may be as low as 15 to 20 percent. As for religious belief, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.

Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt the death of religion, or at least the death of what you might call the “religious mind” — our concern with existential questions and our search for meaning. A growing body of research suggests that the evidence for a decline in traditional religious belief, identity and practice does not reflect a decline in this underlying spiritual inclination.

Ask yourself: Why are people religious to begin with?

Well, there was that Minnesota study of twins reared apart described in this Wall Street Journal article a few years back (I posted about it here):

The Minnesota study’s IQ results hit a nerve years before their publication in 1990, overshadowing other controversies that might have been. Many of its findings are bipartisan shockers. Take religion, which almost everyone attributes to “socialization.” Separated-twin data show that religiosity has a strong genetic component, especially in the long run: “Parents had less influence than they thought over their children’s religious activities and interests as they approached adolescence and adulthood.” The key caveat: While genes have a big effect on how religious you are, upbringing has a big effect on the brand of religion you accept. Identical separated sisters Debbie and Sharon “both liked the rituals and formality of religious services and holidays,” even though Debbie was a Jew and Sharon was a Christian.

I eagerly looking forward to what Routledge had to say about the “religious mind” as something that is inherited, an aspect of the ‘God Gene’, yet another by-product of the evolutionary process.

But no, to Mr. Routledge, the “fundamental nature” of the religious mind is:

[O]ur awareness of, and need to reckon with, the transience and fragility of our existence, and how small and unimportant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. In short: our quest for significance.

Count me out of that “quest”, but each to his own…

But then Routledge moves into more interesting territory:

Evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

Or at least an acceptable facsimile of meaning for the individual in question. ‘Meaning’ in this sense can only ever be subjective.

Routledge:

The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?

Well, it’s not up to ‘society’ to decide on this one way or another, but, if Routledge is correct (which, I think he is, if not quite for the right reasons) , the religious impulse is not going anywhere soon. That suggests that much of atheist rage—itself an expression, I suspect, of religious feeling—against organized religion is misdirected.

Organized religion can be a device for channeling the innate religious impulse in a positive manner. It can be, but very often is not. Those who either lack or have little in the way of a religious mind should oppose the more destructive forms of organized religion (there are plenty of examples to choose from) while welcoming the existence of those that are relatively benign.

As I’ve noted here before, the more or less agnostic Winston Churchill said that he was not a pillar of the Church of England, but a buttress, ”supporting it from the outside”. I feel much the same way.

To repeat myself from that earlier post:

At its best, the C of E…is in some ways as close to perfection as religion—a man-made thing—can come to perfection, benign, kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma.

Beats a UFO cult any day.

· ·

Feb/17

20

Dr. Paltrow Presumes: Iodine

The Independent:

Another week, another piece of questionable advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.

This time, however, the website may have made its most dangerous recommendation yet, as a doctor has called out the latest post saying: “Almost everything in this article is wrong and potentially dangerous.”

In the Goop piece titled ‘Why We Shouldn’t Dismiss Iodine,’ the lifestyle site speaks to “Medical Medium Anthony William” who apparently heals people’s illnesses “using wisdom passed on to him from a divine voice he calls Spirit.”

William claims he “was born with the unique ability to converse with a high-level spirit who provides him with extraordinarily accurate health information that’s often far ahead of its time.”

So yes, Goop appears to be taking medical advice from a ghost.

In the interests of fairness, I went over to Williams’ website, medicalmedium.com. There’s plenty there to see, and there’s plenty to buy, including the book Life-Changing Foods (my emphasis added):

Life-Changing Foods: Save Yourself and the Ones You Love with the Hidden Healing Powers of Fruits & Vegetables delves deep into the healing powers of over 50 foods—fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and wild foods—explaining each food’s properties, the symptoms and conditions it can help relieve or heal, and the emotional and spiritual benefits it brings. I also arm you with the truth about some of the most misunderstood topics in health: fertility; inflammation and autoimmune disorders; the brain-gut connection; foods, fads, and trends that can harm our well-being; how angels play a role in our survival, and much more.

Scroll on down and you’ll find an endorsement from Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University (and Uma’s dad):

“Anthony’s book [Medical Medium] is truly ‘wisdom of the future,’ so already now, miraculously, we have the clear, accurate explanation of the many mysterious illnesses that the ancient Buddhist medical texts predicted would afflict us in this era when over-clever people have tampered with the elements of life in the pursuit of profit.”

So much New Age Groupthink crammed into one blurb: the reverence for “exotic” ancient texts, the fear of “mysterious” illnesses, the grumbling about “the pursuit of profit” and the reference to “over-clever people” and the rejection of reason that that implies.

But back to The Independent:

William explains that he thinks we should all take iodine supplements to boost our immune systems, help with thyroid hormone production and even prevent cancer.

According to Canadian doctor Jen Gunter though, this is all wrong.

In a retort to the Goop article on her website, Dr Gunter spoke with board-certified endocrinologist, Elena A Christofides, to stress the point that William’s advice is not an accepted scientific method, he has no medical training and has not published any data.

She completely shuts down William’s advice:

“Mr. William’s spirit must not know too much about iodine because he swings and misses right off the bat. He says, ‘Iodine is essential for two main reasons: (1) your immune system relies on this mineral to function, and (2) iodine is a natural antiseptic.’

“Later on he says, ‘while iodine does also help with thyroid hormone production, that’s one small aspect of why iodine is important for your health.’

“The body needs iodine because without it you can’t make thyroid hormone and then you will slowly die. It will be a long and drawn out process. All of the symptoms of iodine deficiency are related to resulting thyroid dysfunction and 70-80% of the body’s iodine is stored in the thyroid. This is not a ‘small aspect’ this is THE ASPECT.”

Dr Gunter calls out William’s assertions as “bulls***. I just don’t know any other way to say it.”

She also reveals that Dr. Christofides has seen just one case of iodine deficiency in 19 years. And it’s nowhere near as common as William’s tries to make out:

“While iodine is essential, we actually need very little because it’s a micronutrient […] basically eating out even a couple of times a month gets us enough iodised salt to suffice.”

…According to Dr Christofides, taking excessive iodine with a normal thyroid actually “blunts the thyroid and actually causes hypothyroidism.” She has even seen women take so much iodine that they give themselves the condition. So yes, taking too much iodine actually causes the problem William says it will prevent.

“Almost everything in this article is wrong and potentially dangerous,” says Dr Gunter.

“We need very little iodine, that little bit is important but if you eat a healthy diet and have a little iodised salt here and there you will be just fine.

“If you take iodine supplements when you do not need them you could actually cause hypothyroidism, develop an autoimmune condition, or even get cancer.”

She stresses that iodine is not an internal antiseptic or immune booster as Gunter claims.

Goop includes a disclaimer at the end of its Q&A with Williams:

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

On the other hand, The Independent notes that Gwyneth Paltrow has said that William’s work feels “inherently right and true”.

Feels.

Post-modernism + superstition > science.

· · ·

Oct/16

30

Morrigan’s Hotel

ritualWriting in The Guardian, Alex Mar explains how making a documentary film “about a handful of fringe religious communities around the country” led her deep into the pagan world.

The article is an interesting account of where the search for meaning (whatever that may be) can take the credulous and the restless, and, beyond that, of the eternal appeal of the divine – and the break from the banality of everyday existence that comes with celebrating it.

The ritual was a devotional to the Morrigan, the heavyweight Celtic goddess of war, prophecy and self-transformation. In the center of the circle, surrounded by her ritual crew, stood Morpheus, with all eyes on her.

At the time Morpheus’ day job was working for a federal environmental agency, not, perhaps the most thrilling of line of work. Being possessed by an ancient Celtic goddess on the other hand….

Dressed in black, in a leather corset and a long skirt slit up each side, she wore her hair in elaborate, heavy braids that hung to her waist. She stalked the circle’s edge, flapping the vulture wings she’d strapped to her arms and staring into the crowd. Her slender body doubled over, as if suddenly heavy, and began bobbing up and down as if something was bubbling up inside her.

The sight of a possession, for those who’d never witnessed one, was alien, impressive. After what felt like a long time, she raised her head up and in a growling voice not her own, announced that she was Morrigu! Badb Catha! The roomful of witches circled closer, tightening around her, and a fellow priestess lifted a heavy sword above our heads: she directed us to take a vow. “But only if it’s one you can keep. Don’t take it lightly.”

As Morpheus (or the goddess she was channeling) continued heaving, breathing hard, hundreds of people crowded in, taking turns to raise their hand up and touch the tip of the blade.

I was one of them.

Mar, who also went on to write a book (Witches of America) on this topic, argues that there are now as many as a million “self-identified witches (typically called pagan priests and priestesses)” in the U.S.

In the past, it may have been tempting to dismiss this community as Earth-loving crystal collectors or velvet-wearing goths. In fact, the dozens of esoteric but related traditions share a spiritual core: they are polytheistic, worship nature and hold that female and male forces have equal weight in the universe. Pagans believe that the divine can be found all around us and that we can communicate regularly with the dead and the gods without a go-between. They don’t believe in heaven or hell; many subscribe to some version of reincarnation, or a next world called the Summerland.

In other words, it’s nonsense, but to each his (or her) own…

And then we get to the key point:

Throughout my life, most of my friends have been fashionable atheists of the creative classes, but it was becoming clearer to me that this does not exempt anyone from the very human need for meaning. As someone with a strong “religious impulse” but without a practice to relate to, I’d long been envious of people whose lives are structured around a clear system of belief. It seems like a tremendous relief, to be able to wake up everyday with a shared sense of purpose versus the low-level existential pain of living without something to believe in, a religious tradition to guide and ground you.

Most people, it seems do indeed feel that way: It’s hard-wired within and some of the more evangelistic atheists (for whom, I suspect, atheism is, in all probability, a surrogate religion) would do well to remember it. Religion will always be with us.  What matters is the form that it will take.

But note my reference to ‘most people’. There is another group, a happy few (or perhaps not so few) who find the absence of any overarching ‘meaning’ to be something of a relief, and that, far from being a source of “low-level existential pain”, “living without something to believe in” (at least ‘believe’ in a capital B sense of the word) can be a pleasantly liberating experience.

Transcendence, no thanks.

· · ·

the-exorcistThe Daily Telegraph:

sharp rise in the number of people dabbling in Satanism and the occult is fueling a growing demand for more exorcists on both sides of the Atlantic. Speaking in tongues, levitating and vomiting nails may seem far-fetched to most people, but experts from the Catholic Church in Italy and the US claim there is an urgent need to recruit more priests as exorcists in order to combat sorcery and black magic.

Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican, described as an “emergency” the lack of priests capable of fighting the forces of evil.

“The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting,” he told La Stampa newspaper.

Dr Cascioli teaches courses in exorcism at the Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum, a Vatican-backed university in Rome. “The number of exorcists has increased in recent years, but there are still not enough to deal with a dramatic situation that affects, above all, young people who use the internet a lot.

The Internet, always guilty….

Back to the Telegraph:

“There is a broad spread of superstitious practices, and with that a growing number of requests for help from people who are directly or indirectly struck by evil.

“It is dangerous to underestimate a phenomenon that is caused by the direct actions of the devil, but also by a decline in faith and values.”

He called for the establishment of a permanent training college or university where Catholic priests would be taught how to counter the malign influence of the Devil. “There doesn’t exist a training institution at university level. We need an interdisciplinary approach in which science collaborates with religion, and psychiatrists work with demonologists and exorcists.”

He said it was important not to confuse cases of diabolical possession with psychiatric illnesses. Only one per cent of people who claim to have problems with demons have real need of an exorcist, he said.

Still, one percent represents, I suspect, quite a number.  Who knew?

Father Gary Thomas, whose training in Rome was chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, and Father Vincent Lampert, whose work has featured on the television show Paranormal Witness, said demonic possessions were the result of an increase in drug and pornography addiction.

That the former can be associated with severe psychological problems is, of course, only a coincidence, while the reference to pornography as, in a real sense, an ‘addiction’ is a sign that we have entered territory where the science is not—rigorous.

The Telegraph:

They also pointed to a rise in the  popularity of “pagan activities”, such as using a Ouija board to summon the dead, the failure of the mental health care system, a spiritual void in the lives of Americans and the diminishing authority of the Church.

It’s worth paying attention to that reference  to the ‘diminishing authority of the church’. There’s some truth to that. The decline of established religion has meant that people are willing to go elsewhere to satisfy their spiritual needs, and on occasion, sadly, to some highly unsavory destinations. But Satanism is not proof of Satan.

What we do see in this  story is the church using the Devil as an argument against behavior, from drugs to porn, to overdoing it on the Internet, of which it disapproves.

And, none too subtly, it is, in a  way, also using the Devil as a recruiting sergeant to fill its own pews.

That’s not to argue that many senior churchmen do not believe in the Devil (some more literally–and, so to speak, frequently–than others) but sometimes all that talk of the threat Old Nick allegedly represents does seem very convenient.

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Sep/16

16

The Clowns of Salem?

twilight-zone-season-1-22-the-monsters-are-due-on-maple-streetOnce upon a time it was alien abductions, and not so long before that, the Satanic panic of the 1980s, a wave of hysteria that spilled over into some of the child abuse  prosecutions of that era with sometimes appalling consequences.

Now there is this.

The Independent reports:

Sightings of creepy clowns trying to lure children away are spreading across the US, with no-one sure whether the whole thing is a hoax or a terrifying new trend in abductions.

Four states have now reported the sinister sightings.

They began in South Carolina, before spreading to North Carolina and have since surfaced in Georgia and Alabama….

In Georgia, police said they had received numerous reports of clowns trying to talk to children as well as a threat by someone promising to dress up and kidnap school pupils….

Officers finally solved part of the mystery on Thursday, saying they had charged two people with making false police reports after they say the pair called 911 to report that people dressed as clowns were trying to lure children into a white van.

Police who responded to the calls found found two people in a white van who had run out of gas, and found no clown masks or costumes, and the 911 callers admitted the whole thing was a hoax.

The reports are not entirely new, however.

Bakersfield was among the towns in California that was gripped in2014 by dozens of reports of clown sightings including some saying they were armed.

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Sep/16

8

Ayahuasca and the D’Ohs of Perception

flammarionCross-posted on the Corner:

Madness, too much time in the desert or just the right hallucinogenic concoction all seem to be reasonably reliable routes to mysticism. Ayahuasca is (the New Yorker reports) “an intensely hallucinogenic potion made from boiling woody Banisteriopsis caapi vines with the glossy leaves of the chacruna bush” an—bonus—it comes with added ‘indigenous’ chic.

The story begins with some Americans wandering through the Amazon (of course it does) in the early 1970s (of course it did).

[T]he travellers found themselves in a psychedelic paradise. There were cattle pastures dotted with Psilocybe cubensis—magic mushrooms—sprouting on dung piles; there were hammocks to lounge in while you tripped; there were Banisteriopsis caapi vines growing in the jungle. Taken together, the drugs produced hallucinations that the brothers called “vegetable television.” When they watched it, they felt they were receiving important information directly from the plants of the Amazon.

The McKennas were sure they were on to something revelatory, something that would change the course of human history. “I and my companions have been selected to understand and trigger the gestalt wave of understanding that will be the hyperspacial zeitgeist,” Dennis wrote in his journal. Their work was not always easy. During one session, the brothers experienced a flash of mutual telepathy, but then Dennis hurled his glasses and all his clothes into the jungle and, for several days, lost touch with “consensus reality.” It was a small price to pay. The “plant teachers” seemed to have given them “access to a vast database,” Dennis wrote, “the mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.”

Hyperspatial zeitgeist. Consensus reality. Plant teachers. The mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.

The New Yorker:

Most people who take ayahuasca in the United States do so in small “ceremonies,” led by an individual who may call himself a shaman, an ayahuasquero, a curandero, a vegetalista, or just a healer. This person may have come from generations of Shipibo or Quechua shamans in Peru, or he may just be someone with access to ayahuasca.

Naturally, wicked Western materialism takes a  knock:

Ifcocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.

We  are?

Well, you will:

The majority of users vomit—or, as they prefer to say, “purge.”

The New Yorker:

The process of making ayahuasca is beyond artisanal: it is nearly Druidical. “We pick the chacruna leaf at sunrise in this very specific way: you say a prayer and just pick the lower ones from each tree,” a lithe ayahuasquera in her early forties—British accent, long blond hair, a background in Reiki…She and her boyfriend serve the ayahuasca—“divine consciousness in liquid form”

A background in Reiki.

The New Yorker:

When a person drinks ayahuasca, a plant-messenger molecule targets the neurons that mediate consciousness, facilitating what devotees describe as a kind of interspecies communication.

If the plant really is talking to the person, many people hear the same thing: we are all one. Some believe that the plants delivering this message are serving their own interests, because if humans think we are one with everything we might be less prone to trash the natural world. In this interpretation, B. caapi and chacruna are the spokesplants for the entire vegetable kingdom.

Ecologically aware too. Is there anything that ayahuasca is not?

In any event, if you are interested in this sort of thing (I am) it’s well worth reading as a fascinating, accidentally revealing look at the appeal of ritual, superstition and the cult of the pre-modern.

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Jul/16

2

Demons On The Couch

late-15-cent-demon-conjuredWriting in the Washington Post, a psychiatrist (Richard Gallagher) essentially gives up on the ability of his profession to understand the complexity of the human mind. Some cases of ‘demonic possession’ are, he has come to believe, real.

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions….

The Vatican does not track global or countrywide exorcism, but in my experience and according to the priests I meet, demand is rising. The United States is home to about 50 “stable” exorcists — those who have been designated by bishops to combat demonic activity on a semi-regular basis — up from just 12 a decade ago, according to the Rev. Vincent Lampert, an Indianapolis-based priest-exorcist who is active in the International Association of Exorcists. (He receives about 20 inquiries per week, double the number from when his bishop appointed him in 2005.) The Catholic Church has responded by offering greater resources for clergy members who wish to address the problem. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized a meeting in Baltimore for interested clergy. In 2014, Pope Francis formally recognized the IAE, 400 members of which are to convene in Rome this October. Members believe in such strange cases because they are constantly called upon to help. (I served for a time as a scientific adviser on the group’s governing board.)

… But I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.)

I have not witnessed a levitation myself.

Hmmm…

Back to Gallagher:

We are not dealing here with purely material reality, but with the spiritual realm. One cannot force these creatures to undergo lab studies or submit to scientific manipulation; they will also hardly allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment, as skeptics sometimes demand.

This is very reminiscent of the arguments used by the Harvard psychiatrist John Mack (I wrote something about him in National Review back in the day) who, at the height of America’s obsession with ‘alien abductions’, began to see such stories as, to a greater or lesser degree, a spiritual phenomenon. That allowed him to dispense with normal scientific discipline and even to caricature it as somehow retrograde, evidence of a narrowly ‘western’ mindset.

Gallagher’s comment about video equipment also reminds me of a joke from that era.

Q: What’s the best way to stop yourself being abducted by an alien?

A: Install video cameras at home and set them to record.

Gallagher:

 But anthropologists agree that nearly all cultures have believed in spirits, and the vast majority of societies (including our own) have recorded dramatic stories of spirit possession. Despite varying interpretations, multiple depictions of the same phenomena in astonishingly consistent ways offer cumulative evidence of their credibility.

Not so much. Demons, like gods, are a product of the human mind, an evolutionary by-product, an end in themselves, or a bit of both: It would be astonishing if they did not recur in society after society. We are all human.

Gallagher:

In the end, however, it was not an academic or dogmatic view that propelled me into this line of work. I was asked to consult about people in pain. I have always thought that, if requested to help a tortured person, a physician should not arbitrarily refuse to get involved. Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require, either by failing to recommend them for psychiatric treatment (which most clearly need) or by not informing their spiritual ministers that something beyond a mental or other illness seems to be the issue. For any person of science or faith, it should be impossible to turn one’s back on a tormented soul.

Yes, delusion can be used combat delusion (think of exorcisms as a kind of placebo), but the psychiatrist who takes the reality of demonic possession seriously is taking on a heavy responsibility, not only with respect to his patient but, by promoting a belief in this phenomenon, to the vulnerable elsewhere.

Jung talked a great deal of nonsense, but, he was right when he wrote this:

The Middle Ages, antiquity and, prehistory have not died out, as the “enlightened” suppose, but live on merrily in large sections of the population. Mythology and magic flourish as ever in our midst and are unknown only to those whose rationalistic education has alienated them from their roots.

Well, he was not so right about that last bit. A rationalistic education will not, of itself, lead to enlightenment.

Human nature is stronger than that. As Richard Gallagher reminds us.

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