Robert Todd Carroll
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August 17, 2007
In this issue:
Two Mass Media Funk items were posted: one concerns Richard Dawkins hosting a TV program called "The Enemies of Reason" (which you can watch on Google by clicking here) and the other concerns a new Fox TV reality-program featuring the polygraph and invasive personal queries.
An error was corrected on the Edgar Cayce page. I cite Dale Beyerstein as a source for the claim that Cayce was one of the first to recommend laetrile as a cancer treatment, but I was unable to verify that claim with further research. I was notified by a reader that he has read postings on the Internet that have advised discrediting the entire Skeptic's Dictionary because of this "false attribution" to Cayce, which illustrates just how far some people are willing to go to protect their irrational beliefs from criticism.
I posted some reader comments on Ramtha (J. Z. Knight) and the harm that people like her do.A Milestone for the Dutch Translation
Thanks to the work of Herman Boel, the Dutch version of The Skeptic's Dictionary now has more than 150 articles translated. Congratulations and thank you, Herman!
The Portuguese version was one of the first to go up and now has more than 400 entries translated. Thanks to Antonio Ingles and Ronaldo Cordeiro. The French version has more than 125 articles translated, thanks to the Quebec Skeptics. Vlado Luknar has translated more than 100 articles into Slovak. Kim Jeanman has translated more than 400 entries into Korean. George Moustris has translated about 250 entries into Greek. Lovasi Péter has translated about 125 entries into Hungarian. The folks at the now defunct MorgansWelt translated about 20 entries into German and Tobias Budke translated about 125 more articles before he vanished into the webosphere along with the Spanish translators and translations. Dario Ventra got about 25 articles translated into Italian before he got too busy with his studies to continue.
Several readers of the last newsletter disagreed with my claim that religions, for the most part, have had a civilizing and humanizing impact on societies. Here are Robin's observations:
BC replies: I agree that there is something inherent in our nature that drives us to believe in superstitions, religious and secular. I agree with those who trace our tendency to magical thinking to the desire to control things over which we have no control, to impose order where there is no order, to see patterns where there aren't any, and to reduce fear of the unknown. In any case, I don't claim that religions have been the only humanizing or civilizing force on society. Nor do I claim that the only impact on society by religions has been humanizing or civilizing. Nor do I claim that societies need religion to be civilized or humane. Like Dawkins, I wouldn't miss religions if they were all to disappear from the face of the earth. Nor do I deny that many uncivil and inhumane acts have been committed in the name of religion. I don't claim that we should preserve religion because of the benefits it provides. I agree with Dawkins that the benefits of religions, whatever they might be, are irrelevant to the truth of their claims. What benefits there are to religions are either illusory or could be acquired in better ways.
My point was that if one studies the histories of religions from the earliest times to the present, one finds that for the most part religions emerge as unifying and reforming social institutions. They function as promoters of order and they almost always encourage abandoning the "wicked" ways of the past and present in favor of turning to or returning to some imagined golden age of love, harmony, and peace. The reformation hoped for almost always includes such things as charity, love, kindness, and the like. My claim is based on the study of the history of religions, especially those like Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, and Buddhism. Like you, I'm aware of the worst elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even those religions, granting all the evils that have befallen the world because of them, have provided teachers, prophets, healers, or saviors whose inspiration continues to motivate billions of people to live loving and charitable lives.
BC replies: True, but as I said above, I don't claim that the only impact religions have had has been beneficial. I agree with Dawkins that the world would get along just fine without religions, but I don't believe the world would be any less dangerous without religions. What drives wars, genocides, wanton killings, etc., would still be there in the core of our being even if there were no religions left on earth. Dawkins makes this same point in The God Delusion where he says: "I do not deny that humanity's powerful tendencies towards in-group loyalties and out-group hostilities would exist even in the absence of religion" (p. 260).
BC replies: I agree. What drives art, music, and literature would still be there were there no religions. Even if there were no art inspired by religion, however, I would still maintain that religions have had a civilizing and humanizing effect on society. And while I agree that the vast majority of philosophical literature in the Western tradition devoted to religious themes is inane and represents a colossal waste of human intellect and passion, the schools that were established to pass on theology and philosophy had a civilizing and humanizing effect on society. That does not mean that secular universities wouldn't have been better and less wasteful. Nor does it mean that universities would not have existed without religion.
BC replies: I don't claim that everything religions have done has been civilizing and humane. It's shameful that churches in the U.S. are not taxed on their property and their profits. All social institutions and organizations, including religions, have their share of parasites.
BC replies: Of course I agree that there is no virtue in the evil done by pederasts and child molesters, whether they be priests, church members, Boy Scout leaders, teachers, coaches, athletes, bosses, psychiatrists, senators, hospital workers, or whatever. Give some men power over women or children and you will see sexual abuse. Abuse of power by those higher in the hierarchy is not something peculiar to religion. It is abuse of power that leads to the kind of evil you're referring to here.
BC replies: This one puzzles me. I guess we could get into a contest over Newton's religious ideas as they relate to his science, scientific discoveries by priests like Julius Nieuwland, other religions (like Tibetan Buddhism) that have no quarrel with science, etc., and the overall weighing of good versus evil deeds by religions, but I don't think anything good could come of it. I don't deny that there has been suppression and repression by certain religious persons and groups, but I don't see how this refutes my point. Again, I don't claim that everything religious is humanizing and civilizing.
BC replies: I don't think you really mean to say that nobody anywhere at any time has been civilized or humanized by any religion. What about Malcolm X and the thousands of black Americans whose lives were greatly humanized and civilized by the black American version of Islam. To call attention to the evil deeds of Elijah Muhammad or the evil words of Louis Farrakhan is irrelevant to whether thousands of people were uplifted and given a dignity otherwise denied them by a country steeped in racism since slavery times. Many people wonder why former slaves and descendents of slaves would join Christian religions, since it was mainly Christians who enslaved them. Christians led the abolitionist movement and Christianity offers something to American blacks that its democratic government could not offer: equality. The idea of being equal in the sight of god "provided hope and sustenance to slaves,"* and that qualifies in my book as having a civilizing and humanizing effect. The fact that the claim is false and delusional is irrelevant to whether it had a humanizing or civilizing effect.
Another example is Muhammad and the civilizing and humanizing effect of Islam on millions of people in the Arab and African world for about 500 years after his death. Even today, despite what is going on in Iraq, most Muslims are humanized by their religion. They are not putting bombs in their vests and going to the mall to kill strangers. They are more likely to be running soup kitchens for the poor, down the street from their Sikh and Christian neighbors, than they are to be running with bombs.
Another example of a religion that has had a humanizing effect on many people is the Bahá'í faith. Rather than oppose all religions, I suggest it would be wiser to oppose religious groups that oppose religions like Bahá'í and Tibetan Buddhism, and oppose religious groups that threaten to disrupt the civil order. That said, I don't plan to convert to any religion at any time and I recommend that you not do so either. I agree with Dawkins that the best kind of liberation theology would be liberation from all things theological.
Another reader, Daniel, agrees with Robin and writes:
BC replies: I don't think the evidence for my claim is self-evident. Obviously, Dawkins knows that religions must have some value, or can't be completely destructive in nature, or they wouldn't have evolved and flourished as they have. It seems likely that they must provide more than comfort and a few satisfying myths to have endured. Some have gone extinct and it is worthwhile examining why the ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse religions, for example, are not dominant religions anymore. Just because the religions we hear about the most these days in the Western world are big on their books, bombs, and beliefs, shouldn't obscure the fact that religions involve many other beliefs, practices, and rituals. There may be some semantics involved, too, e.g., are meditation, chanting, fasting, or the call to charity humanizing activities?
Jeremy had this to say about my comments on Dawkins and religion:
BC replies: I don't claim that Dawkins denies religion has had any civilizing effect. I claim that I believe he's wrong to want to do away with religion for two reasons. One, it's hopeless. And two, "For the most part, religions have had a civilizing and humanizing impact on societies." I agree that some religious people or institutions may get in positions of power and hinder science and technology. Those are religions we should oppose.
BC replies: As I said above, whatever drives humans to create art (or destroy art and people) would drive them even if they had no religious motivations. Jeremy is right in noting that I have no way of knowing whether such art would be better or worse than what was produced in the name of religion. However, if the drama produced under Mao in "atheistic" China is any indication, I'd say we are lucky that Shakespeare did not live under Mao. In any case, I am not implying that we should weigh the good art against the evil deeds of religions to tally up the score and declare religion humane only if creativity outweighs destruction.
BC replies: Religions did not evolve to provide scientific explanations of reality. That may be one of the things that some religions claim to do today but it is not the main driving force that brought about religions in the first place nor is it what brings most people to religion today. There are some loud ultra-fundamentalists who think the Bible is a science text and who spend their entire lives trying to fit or distort what scientists have discovered to their understanding of some ancient text. These characters are not doing science and they are as irrelevant to the scientific enterprise as the millions of illiterate peasants who live and die without ever opening a theology or science text but who may certainly be called "religious".
BC replies: Why wouldn't I envy Dawkins? He is the brightest science writer and popularizer on the planet. His books and documentaries are wonderful, thoughtful, and intelligent. I don't see how any knowledgeable, fairminded person could disagree with Dawkins's assessment of the Bible as an unacceptable model for morality. But I think he realizes that the best we can hope for is to provide some intellectual and emotional succor to those who have been trapped in religions by circumstances largely out of their control. (See Convert's Corner on RichardDawkins.net.)
Regarding the red herring charge: I wasn't trying to create an irrelevant diversion by comparing the negative effects of religions to the negative effects of governments. I was trying to illustrate my claim that despite all the harm an institution might have done, overall it could still have had a civilizing and humanizing effect. I could have used science as an example, but I thought the government analogy would be more effective. The culmination of decades of brilliant science brought more death and destruction in two days than all the religions of the world have wrought in the past two thousand years. (Before anyone writes to tell me that they have done the math and I am wrong by a factor of x, please note that I do not make this claim as a statement of fact but for its dramatic impact. It may be hyperbole but that is what heat stroke will do to a fellow.) The world now has something like 400,000 times the destructive bomb power the U.S. had in 1945. (That claim is from a documentary called "White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.") We have untold amounts of chemical and biological weapons made possible by science and the technical application of scientific knowledge. Yet, despite all the harm done thanks to science and technology, overall science has had a civilizing and humanizing effect. There has been a lot of Bad Science over the centuries and a lot of Bad Government and a lot of Bad Religion. We don't need to call for the elimination of science and politics, and we don't need to call for the elimination of religions. Simply put, not all religion is Bad Religion.
I will end this response with a quote from physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson. In his essay "Can Science Be Ethical?" (which you can find in his wonderful collection of essays The Scientist as Rebel), Dyson notes that the environmentalists are right in claiming that technology has brought about many disastrous consequences to our environment. His hope, though, is that environmentalists would divert their energy from opposing technology and channel it toward fostering technologies that supply "the needs of impoverished humans at a price they can afford." "If we are wise," he continues, we shall also enlist in the common cause of social justice the enduring power of religion. Religion has in the past contributed mightily to many good causes....Religion will remain in the future a force equal in strength to science and equally committed to the long-range improvement of the human condition."
See also "Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens" By Michael Shermer, Scientific American September 2007 issue.
Another Daniel had some things to say about my comments on the story about the "courageous" Chihuahua (a grandparent claimed that her dog jumped between a rattlesnake and her grandchild with the intention of sacrificing himself for the kid):
BC replies: The Chihuahua story was a lead-in to the story about the cat who foresees death. Both stories give the animals too much credit for conscious, intentional behavior. The cat story was published in a medical journal, which should be ashamed of itself for not commenting on such things as selective use of evidence, confirmation bias, lack of controlled observations, and a host of other things important to the scientific enterprise.
Another reader had this to say about the dog story:
BC replies: I had this vision of the Chihuahua carrying a pack before I realized that was not what Daniel meant. Who knows what the Chihuahua was doing or thinking? I don't know that understanding the history of pack animals or guard dogs is going to bring us closer to the answer.
Before we leave the subject of dogs, check out this before/after photo of a lovely dog that has been treated with bioresonance (and as Tim notes, has helped the photographer focus better). Bioresonance is the latest incarnation of radionics. The ideas behind these energy medicines is that everything emits energy, that healthy cells emit a different kind of detectable energy from sick cells, and that somebody has developed a machine that not only can tell the difference but can rearrange the energy and fix the problem. The problem is that there is no evidence that there are sick and healthy energy frequencies nor is there any machine that can detect such energies. There are plenty of people selling machines that alleged can do these things. There are plenty of people waiting in line to buy them and there are plenty of satisfied customers. Even so, the whole enterprise is bogus. Nobody in this kind of racket does double-blind, randomized, controlled studies. Their evidence is always anecdotal. It would be a poor physician or vet who can't point to dozens of cases of people or animals that improved after getting some treatment. Most cases resolve themselves. A lot of these characters seem to be admitting this by claiming that they or their machines don't really do the healing: they just make it possible for the body to heal itself. But they have nothing to compare their successes to except their own failures and the failures of others with other types of treatment, which may not have been failures had they waited long enough before trying something new.
Still, try to explain to someone whose dog got better after going to a naturopath or a bioresonance therapist that the treatment given by the alternative vet may not have been effective and they will laugh at you for not seeing the obvious: their pet is better now! What more proof do you need? They've achieved a reduction in anxiety by having their pet healed; they don't need you to add to their vexation by reminding them that if something else happens to their pet, the same treatment may have no effect. They are at peace because their pet is better and they have hope for the future should another illness occur. They want the healer to be right. The healer offers hope and reduction of anxiety. You who demand better evidence offer confusion and discomfort. What are your chances of getting such people to re-evaluate their experience?
Sometimes I think nothing will surprise me. I am sure that I have seen the lowest depths of human gullibility. Then, as if some spirit is watching over me, I am led to another deep wrinkle in the fabric of space and time, which leads to another and another. Once again I am able to experience the joy of being surprised by what people will believe.
The spirit guide who awakened me from my skeptical slumber was a character named Jaime Licauco, a writer for Inquirer.net. Jaime writes about a "nameless psychic power" that is "so rare that researchers have not even invented a name for it." How could I not be intrigued?
Understandably, Jaime can't describe how this power works, but he has several examples. Most of his examples are hearsay, which is not surprising. But he claims he was an eyewitness to this power in 1994, along with about a thousand others. In Düsseldorf, Germany, he saw Uri Geller make radish seeds germinate in his palm within minutes "simply by mentally commanding them to grow." Oh, yes. He saw it with his own eyes. Apparently, if Geller told Jaime that he brought a rabbit into being just by willing it to appear in a hat, Jaime would believe he had witnessed a nameless psychic power rather than a magic trick. Why do some people believe in psychic power rather than conjuring when they witness such a trick? It fits with what they already believe or want to believe. Even if Geller told them it was a magic trick, some would still believe he used psychic powers. The reality-based world is just too much for some people to take, I suppose.
With Uri Geller as the paradigm, you can imagine the quality of Jaime's other examples of this mysterious power.
First, there's Oscar Estebany who, says Jaime, "had been shown by scientists to have the ability to hasten the healing of deliberately inflicted wounds in experimental mice under controlled laboratory conditions." He is referring to studies done by Dr. Bernard Grad, a retired professor of psychiatry from McGill University and a parapsychologist popular in magical healing circles but unpopular with rodents and rodent lovers. In 1957, Estebany served as the primary healer in Grad's studies on the effect of laying-on-of-hands on laboratory animals and plants. The rest of the world yawned while parapsychologists and some nurses hailed the studies as demonstrating "that such healing was not due to suggestion but was basically dependent on a bioenergetic interaction between healer and organism being healed."* Grad seems to be the first to have claimed to have scientific evidence that gifted healers can alter the molecular structure of water by reiki, a notion made popular by Masaru Emoto in the film What the Bleep Do We Know?. I have tried to explain why alternative healers and their satisfied customers persist in their delusions here and here and here and here and countless other places in The Skeptic's Dictionary.
Jaime is not alone in his gullibility about Dr. Grad and Mr. Estebany. From the Yoga Esoteric site we have this:
Another version is that this kind of healing works because the validation of it is completely subjective. The good doctor looked at the wounds and saw that the healer's mice did better. Subjective validation never fails!
Jaime is also convinced that our "unnamed psychic power" was demonstrated by the Brazilian pharmacist Thomaz Morais Coutinho when he made unfertilized chicken eggs "hatch into live chicks in less than 10 minutes." He didn't witness this bit of magic but he does name his source, Lee Pulos, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist. Pulos didn't witness the chicken trick either but he published a book (Miracles and Other Realities) in which he claims without the slightest hint of skepticism that "in 1982 in presence of several friends and observers including a physician, a psychiatrist and local judge, in a restaurant setting [Thomaz] accelerated embryonic development of unfertilized chicken eggs."
Pulos is an instructor at a swell place called the Haven Institute where he teaches courses in "the biology of empowerment" and "adventures in consciousness." In the latter course, Pulos says you will learn "self-hypnosis as the basic tool to explore different octaves of consciousness." That claim is an octave below my lowest level of consciousness, I'm afraid, so I have no idea what it means. These are tough courses, as you can imagine. Here is a description of the rigorous grading technique used: "A student/participant who attends a minimum of 90% of the total course sessions shall receive a "Pass" grade. A student/participant who is absent for more than 10% of the session will receive an "Incomplete" grade and credit will not be granted." No refunds, either, I bet.
Jaime says that nobody knows how Thomaz did it. Pulos, however, mentions in his book that "when Thomaz was 12 years old, lightning struck his bamboo fishing pole as he fished in a lake." According to Pulos, Thomaz had an out-of-body experience and "heard a voice that told him he was especially protected by varied forces and that he would perform strange phenomena and help people, but he couldn't use his powers for his own benefit." Thomaz speculates that these forces were extraterrestrials. Ah, now we have a viable explanation for how he hatched chicks from unfertilized eggs. As a bonus, we also have an explanation as to why psychics never win the lottery. It's not allowed by the extraterrestrials. (Don't you sometimes find yourself asking if these people really are members of your species?)
I can think of at least two other viable explanations, however, but I don't want to spoil it for the Jaimes of the world nor do I wish to awaken the wrath of the extraterrestrials. I must give Jaime credit, though. How he or anyone could read an entire book by Pulos is as incomprehensible as the Trinity. Only some unnamed mysterious power could account for how anyone could read page after page like the following:
Maybe, but it's the end point for me. I'd rather have another prostate biopsy than read more Pulos.
Like the Creation Museum after which it is patterned, the Unicorn Museum "brings the fantastical and highly implausible to life" and provides a "fully engaging, sensory experience for intellectually undiscerning guests." There the similarity ends. Enjoy this mockery of Hamland.
Even more hilarious is the attempt by some Christians to explain away the mention of unicorns and satyrs in the Bible. The word 'unicorn' has been stripped out of the American Standard version of the Bible, but it appears nine times in the King James version. Nine, of course, is a very special number, but more of that anon!
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