Monthly Archives: August 2012

Cost of ignorance: another death by exorcism

We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things: and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavour to erase them.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is the 21st century, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell when you come across stories like this. A thirteen year old girl was not just killed, but tortured to death by a so-called pir (exorcist) who is now on the run from police who intend to charge him with murder.

The report of an autopsy performed on Salma, 13, stated that she had died from suffocation. It said the girl’s breathing was hampered by blocking her nostrils with cotton buds and holding her mouth shut.

The autopsy, carried out at Cheechwatni tehsil headquarters (THQ) hospital, confirmed that her skin was burnt with a hot iron rod. The report said there were bruises on the girl’s arms, face and chest.

The girl’s parents are not being charged with anything, apparently, but I think they should be. It seems incredible to me that this case only came to light because of a tip-off to the police; the child’s father had accepted his daughter’s death as “…the will of God,” and would not have taken any further action had it not been for someone else reporting it.

It isn’t clear what, exactly, convinced the girl’s father that his daughter was possessed by a djinn, but the exorcist recommended to him was someone who didn’t charge money for his services, so it must have seemed like a bargain at the time.

According to the girl’s father, at the end of the exorcism:

“The pir said we could take her away and warned us against uncovering her body, wrapped from head to toe in a piece of white cloth,” he added.
He said the pir immediately left the room afterwards. “He had fled by the time we found out that she was dead,” he said.

But this is the cost of ignorance and superstition. And it is still going on today. Exorcisms are not confined to third world countries where education is severely limited; it goes on even in the so-called advanced western democracies. Deaths by exorcism –and subsequent prosecutions – have also been reported in the UK. Incredibly, even in a UK newspaper, this dangerous nonsense is promoted as if it were real. If you don’t believe me, then have a glance at this series of articles in The Shields Gazette: here, here, and especially here.

Superstition goes hand in hand with ignorance, of course. And the problem with ignorance is that the more ignorant a person is, the more certain they are that they are right. And the more certain that they are right, the more certain it is that someone is going to be hurt or even killed.

On the other hand, when someone does die of a botched exorcism it can just be claimed it is the will of God. Problem solved. But that’s the useful thing about religion: whatever happens, just say it is God’s will and you are absolved from all personal responsibility. That’s handy – so long as you can find people stupid enough to believe you.

It’s little comfort to the victims of exorcism and their relatives, but at least in our secular society, there is a chance that the criminals who advocate and perform superstitions that lead to the death of innocent victims will be caught and jailed. Unfortunately, it is only serious harm or death that will attract the attention of the authorities. Exorcism cannot be regulated by any accredited governing body because so-called possession cannot be confirmed by any objective measure. It therefore cannot be confirmed as being a real phenomenon, and like everything in any religion, it comes down to faith; in other words, a belief without any supporting evidence.

That’s fine for consenting adults who go to their places of worship and conduct whatever rituals they deem necessary to commune with their particular god or gods. But it is different for children and other vulnerable people who find themselves under the control of religious fanatics who have decided, through their own particular interpretation of their holy writings, that they have the answer to what they think is a supernatural intervention in their everyday lives.

prayer2Astonishingly, these exorcists who, by their own admission, (and in fact) are mere mortals, think that they can overcome and beat into submission supernatural beings who, by definition, have powers beyond normal human comprehension. They do it through their particular god or gods by simply calling upon their deity to do the job for them. (OK, there has to be a lot of ritual and associated mumbo jumbo to satisfy the faithful – and themselves.) I am sure there are many supposed cases of “possessed” believers being informed that they are possessed and then, through some ritual, believing they have then been “freed from demon possession.” The same can’t be said for the unfortunates who end up dead or seriously injured – physically or psychologically.

Here’s the problem: there is absolutely no objective evidence whatsoever that possession by demons, djinn or any other proposed supernatural entity is real. To determine whether a person is “possessed” by a supernatural entity, it would be necessary to determine whether that person is mentally ill or not. According to the believers in possession, the possessed are not mentally ill, therefore the aberrant behaviour exhibited by them can be explained only by possession. On that basis, only an exorcism can cure the problem.

Now consider this: the diagnosis of any physical or mental illness can only be carried out lawfully by a qualified medical professional who is licensed to practise. Anyone who is not so qualified is committing a criminal offence if they make any such diagnosis. A doctor – in particular, a psychiatrist – has the necessary qualifications to make an informed decision about a person’s mental health and is also qualified to diagnose and treat that particular affliction with the best available science and evidence based treatment. There is no recognised medical or psychiatric diagnosis that comes under the heading “spirit possession” or anything like it.

Only people who believe in possession are likely to claim it as the explanation for someone’s unusual behaviour. But if someone – an exorcist – claims that someone is possessed, then they have made a diagnosis about a person’s mental condition that they are not qualified or legally entitled to make. This is extremely dangerous for at least two reasons: 1) a person who has a mental health problem is not going to be cured by any religious ritual, and without proper treatment their problem is going to worsen; 2) the victim of an exorcism could be injured or killed – as is happening regularly around the world.

I sometimes wonder how many deaths by exorcism have not been uncovered. As in the case above, superstitious believers are very unlikely to make an official complaint when a loved one is killed by an exorcist. It is almost a license to kill, with the easy get-out that if a possessed person dies then it is the will of God.

Nothing I can write, of course, will convince believers that they might just be wrong about about spirit possession. We can only hope that this kind of dangerous nonsense will start to die out as future generations become better educated and scientifically literate. (It will take a long time, though, and there will be a rising body count before it happens.)

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$5m grant to probe nonsense

The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
– H. L. Mencken.

I see The Templeton Foundation is at it again – throwing good money after bad. This time, giving five million dollars away to find out if there is life after death. (More specifically, is immortality real?) Oh, right.

As Roy Stemman says on his blog:

“So I am overjoyed to report that the wonderfully philanthropic John Templeton Foundation has given a grant of $5 million (£3.19m) to enable an American professor, John Martin Fischer, to set up the Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).”

Research into life after death has been going on for something like a hundred and fifty years, by some very big names in the field (including highly qualified scientists) with absolutely nothing to show for it. Think about it for a moment: what, exactly, has parapsychology contributed to scientific knowledge in all that time?

Bugger all, actually.

If (real) science had had the same level of success as pseudoscience, then we would not be enjoying things like electricity, a clean water supply, medicine, the internet, etc. All of those things and more are real (and if you want to deny it, then leave a comment on this blog, thanks to  the internet, with the benefit of your computer that was developed thanks to the continual efforts of science over a long period of time). Whichever way you look at it, science delivers, pseudoscience does not.

Now, however, five million dollars is about to be wasted over the next three years on what seems to be more of a philosophical junket than anything approaching a scientific investigation. As you can find out here, the money awarded to philosopher John Martin Fischer will pay for research projects (no details specified), a couple of conferences, a website… and Professor Fischer also has a guaranteed book deal thrown in. I have no psychic powers myself – just like everyone else – but my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that the good Professor is a shoo-in for the Templeton Prize in the not so distant future.

“We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions,” Fischer said. “Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.”

Well, that’s vague enough. But that research has already been done, and all of the properly conducted research that has been done to date suggests that near-death experiences are, in fact, biologically induced, with no need to introduce supernatural explanations. There is no need to “find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked.”  It’s already been done to death (as it were).

(Picture credit: xkcd.)

My own (non-psychic) prediction is this:

  1. The afterlife – and specifically immortality – will not be proven by any standard acceptable to science.
  2. The professor will produce a popular book about the project that will get rave reviews from Roy Stemman and other believers in an afterlife.
  3. After the project is complete, the professor will be a candidate for the Templeton Prize (but not a Nobel Prize).
  4. At the end of this project there will still be organisations out there trying to bring a better quality of life to people who are dying because of the lack of basic resources, and who could actually do some practical good with the five million that is about to be wasted chasing a chimera.

From my own perspective I would be overjoyed if a wealthy organisation could donate five million dollars to save lives in this world. There is no testable, confirmable evidence that there is another life after the one that we already have, and this project is unlikely to be any more successful than any research into the supernatural that has been produced in the last century and a half.

Bishop calls for blasphemy laws (or – bring back the inquisition)

330px-Touched_by_His_Noodly_AppendageOnce you attempt legislation upon religious grounds, you open the way for every kind of intolerance and religious persecution.
– William Butler Yeats (Irish poet) – remarks on the adoption of the Irish Constitution of 1937

The UK took a step forward a while ago when the blasphemy laws of the country were finally ditched. And other countries in Europe have also gotten rid of the same anachronism. But there is a renewed call for blasphemy laws to be introduced – this time in Germany. The story is here.

“Those who injure the souls of believers with scorn and derision must be put in their place and in some cases also punished,” said Bamberg Archbishop Ludwig Schick on Wednesday.

Punished? I wonder what he has in mind – thumbscrews? The rack? Burning at the stake?

I think some religious people look longingly at those countries where politics and religion are the same thing. Islamic countries in particular have what they want – torture and death to the infidels. But Bishop Schick would probably think twice if the Pope decided to send him to Iran, say, to do a bit of missionary work. Or maybe Saudi Arabia, where the mere possession of a bible is a criminal offence. One man’s “true” religion is another man’s blasphemy, after all.

The religious lose sight of the fact that it is only in a secular society that everyone has the right to follow their particular religion without interference. Indeed, religious people have the protection of the law to carry on their faith unhindered, although they also have to put up with the inconvenience of not being allowed to punish those who do not share their faith.

When you get down to it, any religion (or lack of it) is blasphemy to any other religion. And of course, in this case, the bishop must have his own religion in mind when he is calling for blasphemers to be punished. He cannot really have Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and every other religious persuasion at the top of his list when he calls for new blasphemy laws. He himself is a blasphemer according to other religions.

When the church was in charge of things in England, it was a time of terror. When the Catholics had the upper hand, they were burning Protestants; when the Protestants were in charge, they were burning Catholics. People with old scores to settle could accuse their rivals of blasphemy (or witchcraft) and see the state carry out their dirty work for them. The same kind of thing goes on today in other countries, but in Europe, at least, the Enlightenment helped us to start to outgrow the intellectual backwardness that is religion.

We are living in what is called a multicultural society nowadays, which means that there are many diverse beliefs out there. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs as long as they do no harm to others, but we have to make sure that there is no possibility of a return to the dark ages. The bishop’s proposal for blasphemy to be a criminal offence seems mild, though, compared to the intention of  others to make the whole world an Islamic republic. Everyone wants their own religion to be in charge, and punishment (even death) to everyone else.

Even though the bishop claims he wants protection for all religions in order to “preserve human dignity,” it seems like a contradiction in terms to me. What dignity is there in being punished for speaking out against, or satirising, or just not believing in religion?

Religion is bunk – ask any religious person if they think the other fellow’s religion is the “true faith” and see what reaction you get. How much protection do these people really, really think should be afforded to religions which, by definition, are pure blasphemy in relation to their own religion?

Religions, however, are united by one thing – a common hatred of atheists. They see no problem with attacking non-believers. Some religious people of my acquaintance have wasted no time in condemning me – telling me in no uncertain terms that I am hell-bound and they are looking forward to watching my unending torment for eternity from their blissful vantage point in heaven. Charming, I’m sure So what about legal protection for atheists?

Oh, yeah, we – and every religion – got it when they scrapped the blasphemy laws. Let’s keep it that way.

In the meantime, for your entertainment …

Not the penultimate supper