Tag Archives: Religion

Nye Eats Ham

Picture source - Answers In Genesis

Like many other people, I was wary of the idea of Bill Nye (The Science Guy) engaging in a public debate about evolution with Ken Ham (Creationist, and founder of Answers In Genesis).

Public debates like this certainly don’t resolve important issues, and usually each side claims “victory” anyway. No doubt the creationists who viewed it will think that Ham came out on top, but it doesn’t really matter what they – or   Nye’s supporters – think. The big question is whether either participant was able to sway those viewers who watched the debate without any firmly held beliefs either way.

Overall, I think that Nye won this one hands down. His strategy was to explain science – what it is, and how scientists find out and verify the knowledge they accumulate, using examples and illustrations. And he also underlined the point that America’s prominence economically depends on its ability to stay at the forefront of scientific discovery.

Ham’s strategy, on the other hand, can be summarised as : “God did it.” The Bible says it, he believes it, that settles it. He offered no science himself, but let’s face it – “creation science” is a self-contradictory term anyway. For Ham, there are no mysteries – all you need to know is, God did it – which is not actually an illustration of one’s knowledge, but an illustration of one’s ignorance. It explains exactly nothing.

For me, though, there was one key point that brought the whole debate into sharp focus. This was at the end of the debate when Nye and Ham were taking questions from the audience. The question – for both men – was breathtakingly simple: “What would change your mind?”

Believers in religion and the paranormal always accuse scientists and sceptics of being closed-minded – so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they are just not going to admit that they might be wrong. But now Ham was put to that test and failed miserably.

Ham answered first and was visibly flustered. Asked what would change his mind, he put his faith first, and confirmed what everyone knew anyway: there is absolutely nothing that will change his mind. Ham’s own closed-mindedness was put on display for all to see.

Nye, however, was in no doubt: (confirmable) evidence will change his mind. It’s what scientists do every day. They do not hold on rigidly to cherished beliefs when contradictory evidence arises – they embrace it and investigate it. And when you think about it, how could science have made such huge advances if it was not willing to change in the light of new discoveries?

America is a leader in science, but that is despite religion, not because of it. The Constitution requires separation of church and state, and for that reason religion in the form of creationism is not allowed to be taught in American state-funded classrooms. If creationism ever were allowed into science classes, then Americans can kiss their scientific lead goodbye.

Bill Nye did a first class job and deserves to be lauded for it.

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Teenage Kicks For Jesus

So what’s the latest in exorcisms these days? Oh, yes, teenage karate experts kicking demonic ass!

As the BBC reports:

Brynne Larson and Tess and Savannah Scherkenback are all-American girls from Arizona, who enjoy martial arts and horse riding. But something sets them apart from most teenagers – they perform public exorcisms and often appear on TV chat shows.

Teenage kick-ass ninja exorists

Brynne just happens to be the daughter of famous (or infamous) “exorcist” Bob Larson. I’m not going to link to his website, but it won’t take you long to find him if you feel so inclined. And when you get there you will be able to apply for a test to find out if you are possessed or just mentally ill. Maybe you will find out that there is nothing at all wrong with you (in which case, why would anyone bother with any of this in the first place?)

I find this pretty shocking, really. Exorcisms are causing death and injury around the world on a daily basis, but now we have exorcism as entertainment. You might even say it’s becoming glamorous.

The teenage exorcists are greeted on stage as if they were celebrities. There is applause and they announce to the audience that they look forward to “kicking some demon butt”.

This is from America, of course, and the girls are regulars on the TV chat show circuit. They travel the world with their show, but they do have their eyes on the UK in particular – a “hotbed for witchcraft” because of the Harry Potter books:

“The spells and things that you’re reading in the Harry Potter books, those aren’t just something that are made up, those are actual spells. Those are things that came from witchcraft books,” says Tess.

Fortunately for the possessed, these home-schooled teenagers are on the case. Satan must be quaking in his hooves.

No doubt it’s just a matter of time before TV producers create a show based on the “real-life” exploits of the girls. They could call it something like, Teenage Kick-Ass Ninja Demon Slayers.

At least they look happy in their work. There must be a lot of job satisfaction from making money from mugs saving souls from Hell.

Alien Invasion Might Be More Horrific Than You Thought

I found an amusing takedown of another bit of credulous UFO apologetics. Yeah, UFOs must be real because you can’t prove they’re not. Sceptics are just awful.

I’m old enough to vaguely remember the beginning of mankind’s exploration of space, starting with Sputnik, and I’ve grown up with the fantastic advances in science and technology that we have all seen and gained the benefit of. In fact, for me, this is the most exciting time to be alive, and I hope that, before I snuff it, life elsewhere in the universe will be confirmed.

Right now, NASA is sending probes out into space to try to detect life; in particular, there are machines on Mars designed specifically to find out if that planet could have supported life in the past, or even if there might be the remnants of actual life there now. And the SETI Institute is constantly scanning the skies in the hope that we might detect signals from other civilisations.

All of this is being done very publicly, and there are some excellent documentaries being broadcast that deal with the latest ideas in science that discuss the likelihood of alien civilisations being out there, and the possible ways that other life might have evolved. It’s not settled yet, of course, but the laws of physics apply all over the universe: it’s likely that life is abundant. If life could arise on Earth, there is no reason to assume that the same couldn’t happen elsewhere.

(By the way – I mentioned “excellent documentaries”: I mean things like Wonders Of The Universe, not unmitigated cobblers like Ancient Aliens or UFO Files. )

“”Ufology” – a pseudoscience if ever there was one – is like any other aspect of paranormal investigation, and totally unlike any real science. The existence of the claimed phenomenon is inferred from the fact that the paranormal investigators just can’t think of (or accept) an ordinary explanation. A light in the sky? No idea what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy (ASFAG, as I call it – not UFO, which by definition is something that has not been identified).

I’m not claiming it’s impossible for aliens to be here, just that it’s highly unlikely. If it’s true, then we need confirmable evidence, not the say-so of a few cranks who write uninformed magazine or newspaper columns, have books to sell and/or a profitable career to pursue on the UFO lecture circuit.

Despite the various science fiction scenarios we are all familiar with –- flesh-eating aliens, creatures that want Earth’s natural resources, the assimilation of this planet into some galactic empire, and so on, there could be something worse in store for us if and when these aliens do arrive. What if (shudder) these “people” have got… RELIGION?

Just think of it for a moment. Instead of spaceships with alien scientists and anthropologists on board, there might be exotic craft heading our way full of Missionaries! (Aaaargh!)

It might seem incredible to think of an advanced civilisation worshiping any gods. After all, the one thing that stands in the way of scientific progress here is religion. Some of the more liberal religious people accept much of their religion as being largely allegorical and metaphorical, without taking away their belief in a creator, which allows science to progress without too much interference (some scientists are religious, but at least they do tend to be deists rather than theists). Fundamentalists, however, will not accept science if it contradicts their religious beliefs. In fact, there are many fundie organisations that say categorically that anything that contradicts their dogma (especially science, which happens to be testable with no faith required) must be rejected. Creationists are trying to get their beliefs taught in science classes as though there is anything remotely scientific about any of it. If they get their way, then real science will be destroyed, along with any hope we might have of ever reaching the stars ourselves.

Given the history of religious strife on Earth – an enterprise that has turned countries into graveyards, the possibility of aliens being evangelicals is a thought that is quite horrifying.

Then again, aliens, if they arrive here, will (I hope) have probably ditched religion eons ago, but they might just clear off as soon as the fundies start knocking on their spaceship doors to “spread the good word” – or worse – “destroy the infidels.” The aliens might conclude that their search for intelligent life has drawn a blank in this backwater of the Milky Way.

No one knows for sure what’s out there; we can only say that alien life probably does exist, but is probably not here.

For an illustration of the probability of human/alien interaction, this is a good analysis (with thanks to xkcd):

I’m going to be optimistic on this one. If aliens still have religion, then they will very likely have done the same as the fundies on this planet have historically done, i.e., tortured and killed their best thinkers. Maybe they have been successful in replacing science with religion in their science classes. If that is the case, then there is no chance that they will have been able to develop the science that would enable them to cross the immense void of space to get here just to do the same thing to us. But if they have been able to outgrow a concept that belongs in the infancy of any advanced civilisation, then perhaps there will, one day, be meaningful contact between them and us without the barbarity that has afflicted humankind throughout its history and is still with us “thanks” to religion.

On our little planet – this pale blue dot — history is quite clear: religion delivers intolerance, death and destruction; science delivers computers, the internet, medical wonders, the beginnings of space exploration – and the actual possibility of travel across interstellar space.

But if aliens really are on their way here,  we had better just pray hope that they don’t have religion.

Creationism Is Not Science

 Creationism vs ScienceMy previous post was a parody of religion and its malign influence on humanity. In particular, I was pointing out the way that superstition in the form of religion stops progress, and also the fact that it is only science that has enabled humanity to leave the caves and have the potential, at least, to live long and healthy lives in comfort and safety.

It can hardly be denied that religion has caused untold misery through the ages, and even now, thousands are being killed and maimed in the name of religion. But not only are people being murdered by the thousands, vaccination workers in Pakistan are being targeted and killed. Millions of lives have been saved through one of science’s greatest triumphs, and yet the ignorance and anti science of religion is managing to kill even more people by killing the very people who could have saved their lives.

All of that is bad enough, of course, but even in the western democracies there is a pernicious wave of anti science trying to worm its way into educational institutions – creationism. This is dangerous and has to be stopped. No one is trying to to prevent the religious from pursuing their beliefs in their places of worship or in the privacy of their homes, but there is no place in a science class for something that is not only not science, but is overtly the enemy of science.

I wrote the previous post after looking through some of the comments left on earlier threads. One of my creationist commenters said:

1) You believe that Creationism is unscientific.
2) Creationists believe that Creationism is scientific.
3) Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data. Both sides believe the other side is wrong.

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

There are few things I claim with certainty, but one thing is certain beyond any shadow of doubt: creationism is unscientific. Let me deal with the above points:

Point 1: The problem with creationism is that it works in completely the opposite way that science works. The thing that marks creationism as unscientific – even outright anti science – is the fact that it starts with the conclusion it wants to prove. Consider the fact that there are thousands of religions, each with its own creation story: each one has a different conclusion for which evidence has to be found. It’s easy to find evidence that supports a belief, but is the evidence falsifiable? If not, it is not science.

Point 2: Yes, creationists believe that creationism is scientific; in this post I will show why they are wrong.

Point 3: “Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data.” Except for one simple fact: creationists do not discover any evidence or data; real evidence and data are found by real scientists, and creationists can only attack the scientific evidence. They produce nothing original themselves. In any case, if evidence is open to wildly different interpretations, then you need better evidence.

The last point (not numbered) is either an expression of ignorance or an aspiration to overthrow science. It also sounds vaguely threatening.

One thing that can be said about creationism is that its proponents are profoundly ignorant about science. It is not what they think it is. In the simplest way I can think of stating it, science is a three stage process: observation; formulation of a hypothesis; testing the hypothesis. (It’s more involved than that, of course, but as an outline it covers the basics.)

Science begins when a phenomenon is observed. Whether it is something mundane or something totally unexpected, a curious person wants to know what is going on. Next, a possible explanation (the hypothesis) for the phenomenon is formulated – an explanation that is at least plausible. Then the hypothesis is tested to see if it does, in fact, explain the observation.

But here is the unexpected thing (which creationists cannot seem to grasp): the hypothesis is not tested to try to confirm the hypothesis, it is tested to try to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, a scientist tries to prove that the hypothesis he (or she) thinks is true is actually false (that’s called the null hypothesis). If it is false, then the scientist goes back to the original observation and formulates a new hypothesis to be tested. But even if the hypothesis is confirmed, it is held only tentatively – more testing needs to be done.

 

The principle of falsifiability in science is crucial. If a hypothesis is false, then there must be a way to prove it. This is not the same as trying to prove a universal negative. It is not possible, for example, to prove that psychics aren’t real. Even if a psychic fails a properly conducted test, all it tells you is that that person failed that test on that day at that time, but hey, they might get it right another time. No, falsifiability means that the parameters of any hypothesis should include a way to tell if the hypothesis is wrong. Although some people claim that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable, for example, all it would take to falsify it would be (as someone famously said) to find a rabbit fossil in the precambrian. And there are many other possible ways to falsify evolutionary theory if it happened to be wrong.

Here’s the crunch – creationism does not provide much in the way of testable hypotheses. Ask a creationist how to test the hypothesis that his or her particular deity created the world and what do you get? Apologetics – in other words, a list of excuses to try to say why any particular creationist belief is not testable (but they still claim that creationism is scientific).

Here’s an example: Young Earth Creationists (YECs) insist that the Earth is no more than six thousand years old. Now that’s a hypothesis that can be tested.
Carbon 14 is a radioactive isotope that is abundant in nature and absorbed by all living things. When a plant or creature dies, it no longer replenishes that C14, which then decays at a known rate. By measuring the amount of C14 in an organic sample, the age of that sample can be calculated. The technique can measure age up to about fifty five thousand years, after which there is not enough C14 left to be measured. The technique has been tried and tested and is reliable.

If any material is dated that is older that six thousand years, then the hypothesis that the Earth is no more than that age is falsified. And that is what happens routinely (not even counting other types of radiometric dating that can go back billions of years).

Can the creationists accept these scientific findings? No, of course they can’t. God must have created the world with the “appearance” of age. Or perhaps Satan planted those fossils in the ground to beguile godless scientists. Even the speed of light must have changed in the last few thousand years just to make it look as though the young universe itself is old. All said with a straight face and no evidence whatsoever. If creationism really were scientific, then those YECs would accept that the Young Earth hypothesis had been falsified. But it isn’t, and they don’t.

It gets no better with any other aspect of religion. Hindus, for example, believe that there are an infinite number of universes – past, present and future, each lasting for trillions of years until they are all reborn. The latest measurements from science reveal that our universe is about 13.82 billion years old, but there is no way to test (falsify) the Hindu hypothesis (more accurately, faith), so the claim is not scientific (whether it is true or not).

Should creationism be given equal time in science classes? It’s easy to see one major problem: add together the number of creation stories from the thousands of religions that exist, then divide the number of hours dedicated to science in schools by the number of creation stories there are, and you would be lucky to have more than just a few seconds per week when science can be taught. And it goes without saying that each religion will have strong objections to anyone else’s religion being taught.

And that is what would happen – science classes would be replaced by religion, and the in-fighting in schools between those religions would just mirror the upheavals that have dogged mankind for thousands of years. No more scientific progress, just religious warfare but on a classroom level.

Creationism is not scientific, nor is it compatible with science. If religions ever did apply science and, more to the point, accepted scientific findings, then religion would just die out. Planets follow their orbits according to well established laws of physics, and there is no need to suppose they are being pushed by angels. Earthquakes happen because of tectonic movement, not because of some god’s wrath to visit punishment on wicked people. In short, the laws of nature follow regular and predictable patterns; gods are an unnecessary hypothesis.

I’ll mention one more thing: creationists point to the fact that many scientists, past and present, were/are religious, as if that proves that science and religion are compatible. The simple fact is this: scientists do not get their scientific results from prayer, even if they do have religious beliefs. Even if Isaac Newton was a devout believer in a divine creator, he saw himself as merely describing what he believed his god had put in place. (He did, apparently, believe that his god inspired him, but the bottom line is that he still had to do his own working out.)

That, in fact, is very important to keep in mind. Science is an endeavour that describes nature rather than trying to explain it. Newton described the laws of nature from his observations and calculations. But the supernatural as an explanation is something that cannot be tested scientifically. Newton and many other scientists may well have believed (and many still do)  that a god or gods are the ultimate explanation for everything that exists, but however religious a scientist might be, he or she can only describe the facts of what is going on out there, they cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity that might or might not be behind it all.

My correspondent said:

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

But it’s not going to be much of a science exam where the answer to every question is, “God did it.”

That would be the end of science and a return to the dark ages.

Creationism – A New Theory

A few tens of thousands of years ago, there might have been a prehistoric man standing at the opening of his cave, idly scratching his arse as he gloomily surveyed the scene around him: a barren landscape with dry and withered crops. He and his fellow humans were almost on the point of starvation because of drought.

Then, a single raindrop fell on his face. Then another, and another. Within a few minutes there was the beginnings of a shower. And then there came the full rainstorm. He ran to get his friends and brought them to the cave entrance, where they began to leap around with joy – because even in those early days of humanity, long before the invention of science, they had worked out the connection between rainfall and the growth and blossoming of plants. This was the miracle that would save their lives.

And so that small tribe of early humans, having realised that there are certain connections in nature, certain causes and effects, started to work out and practise ever more elaborate ways of scratching their arses. Each year, they would go through the prescribed rituals that they determined would bring rain. After all, the leader of that particular tribe had noticed the fact that after he scratched his arse, the rains came. And others who witnessed it had no choice but to agree. What else could explain it?

Elaborate religious ceremonies evolved ever more complicated methods of arse-scratching. There were high priests of arse-scratching, and a carefully organised hierarchy of arse-scratching clerics.

The people who could bring the rains each year were revered. This was so important that the people willingly gave those clerics absolute power: their very lives – their crops – were at stake. Soon, the whole of that society was organised around the arse-scratching cult; huge shrines were built and adorned with arse sculptures and paintings. Those lucky people who happened to have a big arse were deemed to be blessed by the arse god, and the most pious of the arse priests developed the divine power to even talk out of their arses.

There was some dissent, however. Some people questioned the arse cult, not believing that scratching one’s arse did anything more than get rid of an itch. For their trouble, they were accused of heresy or blasphemy and faced torture and death for daring to defy the arse god.

These heretics were seen as a danger to the stability of the arse church, and the arse bishops of the church found that they had to explain why the arse-scratching ceremonies did not always bring the life-giving rain. They reasoned that sometimes, the arse-god was angry. Yes, that must be it. Other times, they realised that their arse-scratching ceremonies had not been done in the correct manner, so if the arse god was not properly appeased, he would not send the rain.

No one who wanted to stay alive questioned the existence of the arse god; whenever the ceremonies failed to bring rain, the arse priests could always think of a reason why the arse god did not respond to their arse-scratching. Sometimes, they would point at one of the villagers and accuse her (it was always a woman) of some kind of sorcery, and drag the wretched woman out to be questioned. She would be given a fair trial and then burned at the stake. And if the rains came the next season, that was proof that the witch had been the cause of their misery.

As time went on, however, a small number of people started to make their own observations. They noticed that the weather could be capricious. Even when they wanted sunshine and avoided scratching their nether regions for just that reason, it might still rain – sometimes causing huge floods that killed thousands of their citizenry. When they started to keep records of the weather, they found that it followed regular patterns – it could even be predicted for several days ahead, and annual weather patterns were worked out. Different crops could be planted at different times and cultivated in certain ways to get the maximum yield; not only that, but irrigation ditches could be dug in order to bring water from rivers when the rains did not appear.

These people, however, were reviled. The arse priests would have none of their so-called “science,” and had them rounded up and put on trial for their blasphemy. Their holy scriptures, handed down for hundreds – even thousands – of years from the earliest arse prophets could not be wrong. It was an article of faith that the arse god created and controlled the world, and it was the job of the arse priests to make sure that the arse god was worshipped as he required. For centuries following, the streets of the towns and villages were pervaded by the aroma of roasting meteorologists.

Eventually, however, the church of the holy arse saw a decline in its influence as rationality started to emerge in the human psyche. The godless scientists had developed an understanding of the world that enabled them to produce great wonders: electricity, computers, medical breakthroughs that saved thousands (even millions) of lives each year. And yet, despite the enlightenment of rational thought, there were still millions of people who clung desperately to their superstitious beliefs, unwilling to accept that the arse god was just a fantasy. For them science was still the evil anti-arse and they continued to believe in their imaginary deity; it still didn’t matter that their arse-scratching went unanswered, so long as they could rationalise their beliefs in their own minds and rally the faithful to continue to protect their religion against rationality and anyone who could think for themselves.

It was true, though, that in the most modern age, people wanted the best of all worlds. Those religious folks would accept and use any aspect of science that did not threaten their religious beliefs – things like computers and the internet, just so long as they could use the fruits of science to denounce, erm… the fruits of science.

Even though science had by now unravelled many of the mysteries of the world, and indeed the universe, the church of the sacred arse would not accept any of it. No one in the now secular society was denying them their freedom to follow their religion, but the arse worshippers wanted their religion to have the control that they had lost to the dark forces of reason. They would not accept evolution as a valid theory, and demanded equal time in science classes to promote their religious creation stories. When that got nowhere, they repackaged creationism with a new name: Intelligent Scratching – and called it “scientific.” But verily, it was cobblers.

And so a stalemate was reached. The science that had freed mankind from the dark ages because of the Enlightenment was still under threat from religion that was hell bent on taking humanity backwards to a new Endarkenment.

Will creationism win?

Only if the rest of us fart about with nothing better to do than scratching our arses.

You’re Not Mad–They Are

thCA150FN4I was hoping that possession and exorcism would be a subject that I would not be returning to for a while, but I find that things are worse than I thought. It’s one thing for well-meaning but ignorant religious zealots to propound their personal superstitions, but it turns out that there are religious zealots in the UK who are actually in a position of real authority and who are ready and willing to impose their beliefs on certain vulnerable people.

There is a serious warning in this excellent blog post at Leaving Fundamentalism. Believe it or not, there is an organisation of medically qualified people that includes doctors who believe that mental illness can be, and often is, according to them, possession by demons!

Medical science is based on empirical research – testable, repeatable research that is not allowed into medical practice until its safety and effectiveness has passed the most rigorous tests. A candidate who wants to become a doctor has to undergo strict training over many years, and when he or she passes their final exams even that is not the end of it; there is still ongoing supervision and training and a requirement to keep up to date with the latest medical science.

For some medics , however, it seems that the science they learned can now be ditched in favour of their (Christian) religion. For a possible mental illness, forget the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), go to the Bible instead:

“However, we also need to recognise that not all human problems will be explicable by medical science. The New Testament tells us that Jesus has commissioned us to ‘ drive out demons’ (Mk 16:17), and we must be ready to respond to this commission if and when we are called to do so.”

And this:

“It would seem, therefore, that the exercise of a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12: 10) would be likely to be more useful than the application of medical knowledge when a person is demon possessed, although a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.”

I wonder what people would think if their gas engineer disregarded his training and did their annual safety check using prayer and incantations instead of well established methodology? If their house blows up later, would it be sufficient to say that it must have been God’s will? (That’s usually the excuse when exorcists kill their  victims clients, after all.)

That’s pretty much what is going on here with people we are supposed to be able to trust to work within the  scientific parameters they have been taught.

It seems to me that if mental health workers – in particular doctors – come across something that is not (currently) “explicable by medical science” then that should open up a new area of empirical research to get to the bottom of it. Knowledge does not advance by calling on superstitious beliefs; it advances by objective research.

In the second quote above, these people are clearly relegating medical science to a second-class status when they say, “…a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.” Science is “of value”? Well, thanks for that. But they also think that exorcism – “…the exercise of a spiritual gift…” – is better than medical knowledge when a person is “demon possessed”?

And by what objective criteria do they decide that someone is possessed by demons? They don’t say, and I would bet that none of this crap has been published in any accredited peer reviewed scientific journal.

It just beggars belief.

Religion is a delusion, which by definition is a fixed, false belief held in the face of opposing evidence (even proof). It seems that in this instance, the “qualified” people are the very ones who should be having the psychiatric treatment they would deny to others in favour of exorcism.

There is a big problem when bad thinking takes over. If religious superstition really worked, there would be no need for doctors or hospitals. In cases like this, if your doctor suggests a religious solution for whatever ails you, it’s time to find another doctor. And after you do so, make a formal complaint about your former witch doctor to the British Medical Association. (Assuming you are in the UK, of course; for everyone else, complain to your nearest medical governing body.)

Mike Hallowell on the Jinn–A reply

 

In my last post, here, I wrote about possession, and I referred to this Shields Gazette article written by Mike Hallowell. In it, he details his belief in possession, but I disagree with him that it is a real phenomenon; at least there is no objective, confirmable evidence to support it.

Mike has replied to that post, but in order to give him a full reply, I have to do so by creating this new post. That’s because images I need to use to support my points cannot be embedded in the comments thread.

I would recommend that you read my previous post (and Mike’s reply) and the Gazette article before you go ahead reading this reply of mine to Mike.

My reply to Mike Hallowell:

Mike,

 
I know that hanging was the usual punishment in England, but I referred to the UK in general, not England in particular. Scotland was the place to go for the burnings. In any case, crimes against the state were so often synonymous with crimes against the church.

Some religious people have, of course, made great scientific leaps forward, but they did it using science, not religion. Isaac Newton was a devout Christian, but he did not explain his findings in terms of divine intervention in the movement of celestial bodies, he explained their movement with mathematics, even if he thought that a god existed and created the laws of physics he was measuring. He also went off the rails with his pursuit of alchemy, but he kept that research quiet until his death because he knew that he himself would face execution if anyone found out about it.

Science and religion are incompatible. Young Earth creationists insist that the Earth is no more than between six and ten thousand years old. They are wrong – demonstrably so. Faith healing does not cure disease – medical science does. Prayer does not suspend the laws of physics in favour of the person who prays.

 
I am not “condemning religion on the basis of what some psychopathic extremists once did,” (and still do, for that matter).

As for the Soviet Union – you might even be thinking of Joseph Stalin, an atheist – you might also like to note that even he did not kill the millions he undoubtedly did in the name of atheism. He killed millions because he was an evil dictator. Now look at all the killings being done around the world right now in the name of religion.

I will go along with your notion that extreme acts are done by psychopaths who might not necessarily be representative of most of their contemporaries. They are also done by otherwise sane people who believe they are carrying out the will of their particular deity.

As for the use and misuse of science, scientists do not make political policy. Science has been warning of the dangers of man-made global warming, for example, but some countries – the USA in particular – are going ahead with policies that are making things worse. The world does indeed suffer from poverty, crime and so on, but that is despite science, not because of it.

You mention religious-minded scientists again, but again, those religious scientists get their results from using scientific methodology, not prayer. One man’s superstition is still superstition.

“Antiquated” opinions are those old ideas that are held despite evidence that disproves them. The Earth is not 6000 years old, for example, it is more than 4.5 billion years old.

I do not try to curtail anyone’s free speech. I’m not on a campaign to have your Shields Gazette column stopped, nor do I try to prevent you from publishing your books. You might even notice that I have published your comment here in full and without any editing of it. And I’m also not demanding that you stop expressing your opinions.

Teaching the paranormal and creationism in schools and universities? Not in science classes. Science deals with hypotheses that can be measured and tested objectively. Faith is not required.

You mention free speech again, but I’m all for it. As for your readers, they are not all the same. Some of them probably believe everything you write, others are more discerning.

You are playing with words when you say you do not believe in demons. You are certainly talking about alleged supernatural beings that supposedly invade a person’s body and/or mind. It doesn’t really matter what you call them. If, as you claim, demons and the Jinn are entirely different phenomena, I look forward to you demonstrating first of all that they exist, and secondly how you tell the difference between someone who suffers a mental health problem and someone who is possessed.

Then again, I said that there is no objective evidence that these alleged entities exist, and your response was, “To the best of my knowledge this is correct.” If you agree that there is no objective evidence that these things are real, then there is no need to believe in them.

Yes, indeed, I said, “If someone has the right to promote superstition, then others have the right to challenge it.” But it’s not up to me to supply any facts; you are making the claim, so it is up to you to prove it. But you said that you agree that there is no objective evidence to support your claim. By your own words, you are saying that you cannot prove the claims you are making. That’s what I’m getting at. But prove it and I will change my mind.

Regarding your “certain local blogger,” are you referring to me? I know you have never “promised” to release your evidence, but the fact that you keep on claiming that you have evidence supporting your claims gives your readers a sense of expectation that never seems to be fulfilled.  That’s sort of the point, really; you never do promise to reveal your evidence. And you have certainly claimed to have sent evidence away for analysis, and which has returned startling results.

 
In fact I did prove it with a link on another blog. Unfortunately, since then, on your web page I linked to, your reference to “startling results” has  been changed to  “extremely interesting results.” Here are the screen shots:

Before:

Startling results 01

“Can you tell us more about the audio recordings?”

“Some of the audio recordings have already been subjected to analysis with startling results, which will hopefully be detailed on the forthcoming documentary.” (Emphasis added)

And after:

Startling results 02

“Can you tell us more about the audio recordings?”

“Some of the audio recordings have already been subjected to analysis with extremely interesting results, which will hopefully be detailed in the forthcoming documentary.” (Emphasis added)

Why did you change it? Anyone following my link to there would see something entirely different to what I directed them to.

 
As for the “salon ghost,” here’s a link to the original newspaper item:

http://www.jarrowandhebburngazette.com/news/local-news/is-this-the-face-of-the-salon-ghost-1-1303932

The reporter wrote:

“Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.”

Any reasonable person would take that to mean that you yourself told the reporter that your pictures had been “sent off to be analysed.” (Emphasis added) If the reporter has misreported what you said, or worse, just made it up, then you should take that up with the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction.

Like you, I keep records too. I found out a while ago that your website is unreliable as a source to link to. Apart from the fact that you have changed a crucial point that I referred to earlier, many of my bookmarks now go to dead pages (error 404) or have different content entirely. But I make it routine to archive every web page I visit. The same goes for video.

I like this point of yours:

“Oh, and as for those “unqualified, self-appointed” experts you speak of, as you’re presumably an expert yourself could you give me just one example of such a person who has truly proclaimed themselves as an expert as opposed to being lauded as an expert by others?” (Emphasis added)

Yes, Mike – you. Have a look at this comment you made on Curly’s blog:

http://curly15.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/exorcisms-on-the-rates/#comment-23600

“…we’re experts in the field and you’re not.”

As you requested, just one example. And they are your own words, answering your own challenge.

That’s something of a paradox, though. On your own website, the veteran paranormal writer  Guy Lyon Playfair describes you as amateurs. I’m including a screenshot before you change that page as well.

Experts Playfair

“…amateurs like Mike and Darren…” (Guy Lyon Playfair)

And remember, on the Shields Gazette website:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/community/columnists/wraithscape/we_re_worlds_apart_on_ufos_1_3441571

(All of the comments are now removed for some reason but here are a couple of screenshots): I asked you what qualifications you had, and you told me that qualifications are not necessary:

Expert 03

“…as we live in a democracy, one is entitled to call oneself a Paranormal investigator without having a single qualification at all.”

Expert 05

“For your edification, Skeptic, paranormal investigators do not have any “authority” and do not need any, just as you don’t need any “authority” to engage in any of your own interests and pass-times [sic].”

Additionally, you say here about you and your colleague, Darren Ritson, “Well we are not scientists and have never claimed to be”:

http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/south-shields-view-from-minefield_25.html

(Just scroll down to the section, “Findings should be presented in a calm, scientific manner…”)

So, in your own words, you have no relevant recognised qualifications or authority, and yet also in your own words, you claim to be an expert. You also say in your own words that you are not a scientist. In response to me saying that the supernatural beings you refer to have no objective evidence for their existence, in your own words: “To the best of my knowledge this is correct.”  And Playfair describes you as amateurs on your own website.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the paranormal. On the other hand, I recognise a claim that doesn’t fit in with what science knows about the universe. I know that when people talk about supernatural energy, or whatever, then the well established laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are being challenged. But again, it is up to the person who makes the claim to prove it. Anyone who makes a claim that contradicts well established science is likely to be challenged. That’s OK, though. Sometimes there are some theories in science that turn out to be wrong – or, more likely, incomplete rather than totally wrong – but if you can overturn what science thinks it knows, I don’t mind if you can prove your claims of the supernatural, paranormal or anything else you write about.

The number of books and articles and radio and TV shows and all the rest of it that you take part in is neither here nor there. The fact that you write about weird things does not make them real.

I know there are some mental health workers who consider the possibility that possession is real, but I see that as an indictment of some faulty training they must have had. When you get down to it, though, no psychiatrist is going to diagnose possession in a person and then refer them for an exorcism. If you know of any who do, please report them to the General Medical Council. Urgently.

No, I haven’t read the Qur’an (well, not much of it, anyway). But any holy book is self-referential. Every religion refers to its own religious writings to support its beliefs. Everything makes sense for the religious when they view the world from their particular religious perspective, but there are thousands of religions in the world, and all of them think they have it right and everyone else is wrong. They can’t all be right.

Your reference to Doctor and Egyptologist Maurice Bucaille is a simple appeal to authority. So what if he thinks the Qur’an is scientifically accurate? Perhaps you can tell me what you think of this video of an Islamic scholar explaining that the Earth is flat and that the Sun revolves around the Earth and the Sun is smaller than the Earth, and a number of other things. His authority is the Qur’an, so do you believe it? I’m not sure what to make of it myself; he is saying something that is directly opposed to science.

The Earth is flat–Islamic science from the Qur’an

 

Thank you for your offer of a public debate, but I will decline it. I think it is much better for us to put our views in writing rather than have everything we say forgotten or misremembered by a live audience. Having our “good-natured and civilised debate” like this on blogs and websites is much better.

And, of course, you will be able to copy and paste screenshots and anything else I post, and use it against me at a later date. (And I probably won’t even threaten to sue you for doing so.)

You are wrong when you say my mind is completely closed to the possibility of Jinn possession. I’m a sceptic and you can change my mind by proving what you claim. It was you who said that Muslims are the ones who are not going to change their minds.

As for your suggestion that I remove this post, the answer is no. You had the right to publish your views on the subject in the Shields Gazette; I have the right to criticise it; and you are quite welcome to post your rebuttals here. I don’t see how I could be any fairer than that. Free speech is a valuable commodity, and I protect my free speech by helping to protect the free speech of others – including you. If you think your arguments are sound, then there should be no need for you to request, demand or even issue legal threats to have opposing opinions removed from here or any other website or blog.

Of course you let your readers know who you are – you need publicity because of the very nature of what you do. But those critics of yours who put a name to their posts could be anyone – anyone at all. You don’t know who they are, either – just like I don’t know the identity of the improbably-named “Fred West” who sprang to your defence on the above Shields Gazette UFO article, and who, by the most remarkable coincidence (it could almost make one believe in synchronicity, even), had the same problem you suffered: his same comment being repeatedly posted. Astonishing.

No, I’m not a coward, but your name-calling doesn’t strengthen your arguments.

The story behind Jinn possession – an exercise in belief over objectivity

the-exorcistIn those parts of the world where learning and science have prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in those parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue.
— Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784)

In a western secular democracy like the UK, everyone has the right to pursue their religion without hindrance, and that is the way it should be. The same freedom applies to atheists, who are not forced into following a state religion that will apply torture and even death to any non-believer or anyone of a different faith.

In this country we are quite lucky, if you think about it. In times gone by, when the Catholics were in charge, Protestants were burned at the stake. When the boot was on the other foot, Protestants were burning Catholics at the stake. But both sides would quite happily kill anyone thought to be guilty of witchcraft. Or heresy. Or anything else that did not agree with the prevailing dogma.

One of the greatest perceived enemies of religion has always been science. It’s pretty significant, I think, that you will not find any historical accounts of astronomers banding together and marching out to burn the religious to death, but the aroma of roasting scientists was not exactly uncommon in the medieval era. Contradicting religious dogma was a dangerous business. (It still is, in some parts of the world.)

Then the Enlightenment happened. Science gained a foothold and superstition started to be replaced by objective study of the world – and the universe – around us. I hardly need to start listing the benefits that science has brought to the world – everything from electricity to medical expertise that routinely saves millions of lives worldwide. It’s amazing.

And yet, even in this day and age, there are those who still try to force their antiquated superstitions on us. That’s the price of free speech, of course, but free speech is a two way street that is open to everyone, and we cannot let superstition take us back to the dark ages.

I found an article in the Shields Gazette that promotes exorcism  (yet again, ad nauseam) as though it is a real method for driving out the demons (or Jinn) that the author – Mike Hallowell (who announced his conversion to Islam in June 2011) – believes can possess some individuals. I’m not going to do a full critique of the article (you can read it, and shake your head in exasperation, by clicking on the link), but I will make a few points.

There is no objective evidence that demons (or whatever name you want to give them) are real, nor is there any confirmable evidence that those who have the symptoms of a mental illness are possessed by such alleged entities.

In the article, there are some points in particular that are worth mentioning:

If you haven’t seen a Jinn-possessed person up close and personal, you have no right to pontificate on the matter.

Wrong. If someone has the right to promote superstition, then others have the right to challenge it.

“In the West, some health professionals want everything their own way.”

That would be the scientific way. Obviously we can’t have that, can we?

Most significant, perhaps, is this gem:

Both sides need to learn from this and be prepared to understand each other a little better.

Which sounds fair and conciliatory, except it is followed immediately by this (bold added for emphasis):

Muslims are not going to change their belief, substantiated by the Qur’an, that the Jinn exist and occasionally possess people.

In other words, “It doesn’t matter how much science and objectivity you bring to bear, our beliefs will not be altered. The Qur’an says it, I believe it, that’s the end of the matter.”

In view of such closed-mindedness, the fight for rationality obviously has a long way to go yet.

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.)

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