A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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What's the harm?

These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal. »What's the Harm? archives

November 4, 2008. Sharia, Islamic religious law, should be a reminder to Christians and Jews of their inhumane, uncivilized, and undemocratic religious heritage. Stoning people to death, especially women, is required by law in the Old Testament in various places. Unlike Christians and Jews, who conveniently ignore the Abrahamic God's command to stone women to death for such things as adultery or not having blood on their sheets after the wedding night, many Muslims still enforce the will of God. Of course, a rational person, upon hearing of such commands, would not want anything to do with this kind of god. But the Abrahamic religions are faith-based and require obedience to irrational orders. Rather than being embarrassed by this, Jews, Christians, and Muslims wear their faith and obedience to perceived commands, no matter how cruel or absurd, as a badge of honor.

The latest horror to issue from this sacred tradition happened in Somalia last week. A 13-year-old girl was stoned to death for adultery after being raped by three men in the port city of Kismayo. Islamist rebels control the city. It is reported that the girl, Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, was convicted by a Sharia court, taken to a football stadium, and "forced into a hole, buried up to her neck, [and] then pelted with stones until she died." A young boy was shot to death during the melee. The story was reported by the BBC, but it has no reporter in the area. The last one in Kismayo was shot to death in June and it wasn't the first time a BBC reporter was shot to death in Somalia. Kate Peyton was shot dead while on assignment in Mogadishu in February 2005.

A reader in the UK writes:

Unfortunately this kind of savagery is still quite common in the Islamic world.  There have been other incidents of rape victims being executed for "adultery" in Saudi Arabia, Iran and that most mediaeval of societies, Afghanistan....

--Iranian Mullahs Stone 13-Year-Old Rape Victim
--Qatif girl (but see also)

Just as common is the Islamic world's (and to a lesser extent, other religions) other filthy little secret, child brides.....


Saudi Arabia

It is a little hard to take various Islamists' criticism from time to time of the "decadent" secular West.  This must be what they mean by Islamic religious virtue.

Aaron Adelman, Ph.D., replies:

1) Islam is neither Christianity or Judaism.  It is not valid to use what Muslims do to complain about Jews or Christians.  Bringing up Jews and Christians in this article is equivalent to attacking Richard Dawkins for the crimes actions of the atheists Lenin and Stalin.  Neither Jews nor Christians, to the best of my knowledge, have ever advocated or practiced executing a rape victim.

2) "Inhumane" and "uncivilized" are terms which mean only "I hate whomever I am talking about".

3) "Undemocratic" is pointless in this context since ideologies are not democracies.  Science is not a democracy, and neither is truth.

4) There is a subtext that holds that the death penalty is always wrong.  The fact is that "right" and "wrong" have no objective meaning outside the context of a moral system, and all moral systems are matters of opinions.  In a religion, the moral system is normally defined according to the opinion of a deity or a great sage.  In atheism, there is no deity or authority on whose opinion to hang the moral system on, so everyone is free to choose whatever moral system they please, even ones most find appalling, e.g., LaVeyan Satanism.  You therefore have zero cause for attacking any moral system just because you simply do not agree with it.

5) "Stoning" in the Hebrew Bible is not simple pelting someone with rocks.  Please learn Hebrew.  Seqilah involves A) drugging the condemned to eliminate pain, B) tossing the condemned from a height, C) THEN throwing stones on the condemned if he/she is not already dead.  You forget there are other forms of the death penalty, none of which is pleasant either, but death is not normally pleasant to begin with.

6) Where did you get this idea that women are especially singled out for death in the Hebrew Bible far beyond men?

7) Jews do not ignore the death penalty.  The death penalty can only be imposed by a court.  Furthermore, the death penalty is extremely serious business.  There are standards of evidence that must be adhered to, as it would be unjust to execute an innocent person.  There must be at least two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6), and it must be considered whether there is any room for doubt that the accused is guilty (Deuteronomy 22:23-27).  I am extremely sure you never bothered to ask Jews what their religion actually says on the death penalty, and I strongly suspect you have not asked Christians either.  Ask an actual Christian why they do what they do; I do not fully understand them myself.

8) Not to mention that there's something unfair about you finding something abhorrent about unobserved behavior and then attacking people for it.  But I digress.

9) According to Leviticus 20:10, both parties to adultery may get the death penalty, not just the woman.

10) This business about blood on the sheets seems to be Deuteronomy 22:13-19.  Keep in mind that executing anyone requires solid evidence.  Try to imagine the nightmare of proving nothing happened which might explain the lack of blood.

11) You haven't asked Jews, Christians, Muslims, or anyone else why they believe anything; have you?

12) You seem to be misusing "irrational", "cruel", and "absurd" to mean "I do not understand or like this".

13) You completely and utterly missed what is so wrong with what happened in Somalia that was actually irrational!  You focused on your disgust at the situation, missing entirely the unfairness of the situation.  Before punishing someone for any crime, the rational thing to ask is "Did they actually do it?"  What you missed entirely is that under Islam, a woman has no presumption of innocence with regard to sexual crimes, but rather requires the testimony of four (male) witnesses in order to prove her innocence.  As rapes usually do not occur in the presence of witnesses, any woman who is raped in an Islamic country is automatically put at risk of execution.  This is what you should be complaining about!

reply: One point I wanted to make was that Jews and Christians who are quick to criticize Islam for being barbaric should not forget that their own history had its barbaric moments. Another was that irrational faith, which characterizes all three religions, is a bad thing, not a good thing. I don't think 'irrational' means "I hate you." I think it means that you believe things without regard for evidence or things that are contrary to the evidence. I don't hate irrational people. I can't say I truly understand them, even though I was one of them and walked with them for many years as I was growing up in a Catholic household. The best I can say is that it felt good to believe and be special in a community of believers.

I grant that mentioning the undemocratic heritage of the three religions was pointless. It was a great lapse on my part not to remember the history of the tyranny of the majority.

I'll let others concern themselves with subtexts, but I wasn't consciously trying to make any points about the death penalty per se.

I agree that I did miss something truly problematic with the application of Shariah in Somalia: requiring evidence doesn't necessarily mean you are being fair or rational in a trial when the evidentiary requirements themselves are absurd.

November 18, 2008
Another reader, W. David Pattison, replies to Dr. Adelman's last point:

This is an odd argument. Mr. Adleman has the situation exactly backwards. Under Sharia, proving the woman guilty of adultery requires four eyewitnesses - this fact is often cited by apologists for Shariah to prove how humane it is, particularly compared to other law codes in force in the region at the time. Essentially, although adultery is a capital offense under Shariah, the actual requirements, many contend, make it impossible to enforce in practice.

From wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia):

"In accordance with hadith, stoning to death is the penalty for married men and women who commit adultery. In addition, there are several conditions related to the person who commits it that must be met. One of the difficult ones is that the punishment cannot be enforced unless there is a confession of the person, or four male eyewitnesses who each saw the act being committed. All of these must be met under the scrutiny of judicial authority[115] For unmarried men and women, the punishment prescribed in the Qur'an and hadith is 100 lashes.[116]"

Even a cursory amount of research on Shariah would have revealed Mr. Adleman's error. Of course, in practice, as apparently was the case in the specific incident you mention, such legal niceties may often be ignored. But castigating an entire religion and its legal and moral codes on the basis that some who claim to uphold them actually violate them isn't really a valid criticism. There may well be many valid criticisms to make of Shariah and other religiously based legal systems, but those criticisms should be based on verifiable fact, not oddly reversed arguments.

October 30, 2008. It appears that Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish belief system, has contributed to the breakup of the marriage of Madonna, the ex-Catholic-cum-kabbalist, and Guy Ritchie. Madonna has donated millions to the Kabbalah Centre led by Rabbi Philip Berg and recently ordered that their swimming pool and water fountains be filled with kabballah water. Berg claims on his website that kabbalah water is blessed and "has the power to return water to its primordial state of completely positive, healing energy." Ritchie cancelled the order.

Aaron Adelman replies:

Please don't blame the Qabbalah for Madonna's divorce. The Kabbalah Centre has the same relation to the Qabbalah that pseudo-science has to science. Any sufficiently successful ideology eventually spins off flakey imitators, and the Qabbalah is no exception. The Qabbalah is an ingenious mystical system meant to integrate theology and practice into a unified whole, its chief problem being that some of its ideas simply have not panned out. The Kabbalah Centre, on the other hand, is a cult pretending that it promotes the Qabbalah in order to scam people. Needless to say, I have never heard anything positive about Berg or the Kabbalah Centre.

reply: I suspected as much, given Madonna's reputation for depth as a thinker and intellectual.

October 16, 2008. Prosecutors in West Bloomfield, Michigan, charged the parents of a 15-year-old severely autistic daughter with rape and child abuse on the word of a practitioner of facilitated communication. The mother, Thal Wendrow, spent five days in the Oakland County jail before she was released on a tether. The father, Julian Wendrow, spent 80 days in jail without bond before prosecutors dropped the case.

According to the Detroit Free Press: "Although facilitated communication had been widely discredited by major universities and researchers, the Wendrows were hopeful it would help their daughter and insisted that Walled Lake schools train a paraprofessional to become a facilitator."

A physical exam showed the girl's hymen was intact, but that fact did not stop prosecutors from going forward with the case. The Wendrows filed a lawsuit in Oakland County Circuit Court, alleging 38 counts of wrongful imprisonment, invasion of privacy, violation of their due-process rights, malicious prosecution, and other misdeeds. Lawsuits on behalf of their daughter and her 13-year-old brother, who was repeatedly interrogated by police, are expected to be filed as well.

October 15, 2008. A 16-year-old boy, Neil Beagley, died from heart failure due to complications of a urinary-tract blockage. A simple medical procedure could have saved his life, but his parents tried to heal him with prayer. 50-year-old Jeffrey Dean Beagley and 46-year-old Marci Rae Beagley are members of Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City, Oregon. They've pleaded not guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide.

update: 14 Jan 2010. The Beagleys go on trial this week. The Oregonian reports: "The Beagleys are also the grandparents of Ava Worthington, whose 2008 death prompted last year's high-profile trial of Ava's parents, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington. Raylene Worthington, who is the Beagleys' daughter and Neil's sister, was acquitted in that case. Her husband was convicted of criminal mistreatment." He was sentenced to two months in jail.

Under Oregon law, children 15 and older are allowed to obtain medical treatment without parental permission. That fact raises compelling questions for jurors in the Beagley case.

At a hearing last month, the Beagleys' attorneys said that Neil knew he could go to a doctor at any time but decided to rely on the faith-healing practices endorsed by his family and his church.

update: The Beagleys were found guilty of criminally negligent homicide. They were not taken into custody. They were to be sentenced Feb. 18, but sentencing for has been delayed until March 8 due to their attorney being involved in another case.* The maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide is 10 years, but the Beagleys likely will receive no more than 18 months in prison and could be sentenced to probation.*

update: 9 Mar 2010. Presiding Judge Steven L. Maurer sentenced Jeffrey and Marci Beagley to 16 months in prison. "The fact is, too many children have died. Unnecessarily, needlessly, they died," Maurer said. "It has to stop. This has to stop."

August 31, 2008. Tribesman in Baba Kot, a remote village in the Jafferabad district of southwestern Pakistan, shot five women and buried them alive because they defied a tribal custom and wanted to choose their own husbands.

In Islamabad, Senator Yasmeen Shah informed the Senate that five women had been buried alive in Balochistan in the name of honor. She called it a violation of human rights. Balochistan Senator Israrullah Zehri asked Senate members not to politicize the issue, as it was a matter of safeguarding tribal traditions.

August 5, 2008. The folks at Holford Watch and Bad Science columnist Dr.Barbara Nash Ben Goldacre have recorded numerous cases of harm done by people calling themselves nutritionists or  "nutritional therapists." The latest episode in this sordid drama, which is played out all over our supposedly advanced civilization, involves one Barbara Nash and her victim Dawn Page. Page suffered permanent brain damage from severe sodium deficiency after going on the Amazing Hydration Diet (drink 6 pints of water a day and cut down on salt) on Nash's recommendation. Nash also reportedly told Page that the severe vomiting she was experiencing was "normal" for the detoxification program.*

Goldacre sums up my sentiments exactly in words I wish I could summon as easily as he seems to:

Promoted, endorsed, trained and buoyed, Barbara Nash had good reason to think that what she was doing was sensible and correct. Dawn Page, for all that you might think, in an unkind moment, that she was a little gullible, similarly had every reason to believe that Nash was competent. They were both reinforced in these views by the College of Natural Nutrition, the British Association of Nutritional Therapists, Central TV, and every single journalist, editor, commissioner, and producer who has shepherded this bizarre world of made up nutritional nonsense into our lives.

Note: as Holford watch reminds us, dieticians are highly trained professionals and should not be confused with people calling themselves nutritionists. Dieticians are trained to follow evidence-based science; nutritionists are free to follow whatever they feel like following, no matter how wacky.

August 5, 2008. Twenty-six albinos have been murdered in Tanzania this year. So-called "witchdoctors" use the body parts of albinos in potions they claim will make people rich, according to the BBC. The only ones making money in this gruesome business are the witch doctors and the ones they buy the body parts from. So far this year, 173 witchdoctors have been arrested after President Jakaya Kikwete ordered a crackdown the ritualistic killings for riches.

update March 15, 2009. At least eight people have been arrested in Burundi in connection with a trade in human body parts from people with albinism, says the BBC. Some 200 people have been arrested over the albino body-parts  trade in neighboring Tanzania but none have been convicted, raising fears that senior officials could be involved.

June 17, 2008. A teacher's assistant reported to the Children's Aid Society in Barrie, Ontario, Canada, that one of her autistic pupils was being sexually abused. Her evidence? Her psychic told her there was a girl whose name started with a "V" who was being abused by a young man. The mother of the child says a Children's Aid official who visited her home called the report "ridiculous." The mother has removed the child from the school and is considering legal action.

May 21, 2008. Eight women and three men between 80 and 96 years old were accused of being witches and burned to death by a mob in the west of Kenya. The witch-killers apparently found a book at a local school that they interpreted as the minutes of a witches' meeting.

May 12, 2008. Bringing democracy to Iraq has proved impossible so far. One reason might be that some of the people follow ideas that were popular a thousand years ago, such as the idea of honor. Rand Abdel-Qader of Basra was stamped upon, suffocated, and stabbed by her father for violating a rule against meeting with men in public.  A total of 47 women died in so-called honor killings in Basra alone last year. "You are in a Muslim society and women should live under religious laws," said a law-enforcement officer as he congratulated the killer for his honorable deed. According to the Observer, "nowhere in the Koran or Hadith (traditions about the life of Muhammad) is there a scripture or text that legitimises 'honour' killing, and Muslim leaders say it is forbidden."

The victim was a 17-year-old whose capital offense was falling in love with a British soldier she met while working on an aid program.

April 7, 2008. According to the Guttmacher Institute,10,000 women die every year in Nigeria from unsafe abortions and account for one sixth of the total number of women who die worldwide from procedures carried out by untrained people in unsanitary conditions. Worldwide, 48% of all induced abortions are unsafe. Worldwide, an estimated five million women are hospitalized each year for treatment of abortion-related complications, such as hemorrhage and sepsis. Approximately 220,000 children worldwide lose their mothers every year from abortion-related deaths. In 2003, there were approximately 41.6 million abortions worldwide. There were probably about 80 million births worldwide in 2003.* According to Ben Stein, the deaths are due to evolution and the births to intelligent design.

April 7, 2008. In the "advanced" civilizations it is the psychics who dupe people into believing they can relieve them of "curses" and multiply their wealth. In the "backward" civilizations it is the traditional healers who dupe people into believing they can relieve them of curses and multiply their wealth. Police in Pretoria, South Africa, arrested several Ugandan herbalists who have been operating in the city and duped customers into thinking that ancestors would multiply money left in their (the herbalists) care. The ancestors must be on strike.

April 4, 2008. Father Francesco Saverio Bazzoffi, founder of the House of the Sainted Archangels in Florence, Italy, is under investigation for defrauding believers of $6.5 million by performing fake exorcisms.

He's accused of doing stage-act exorcisms before crowds and collecting donations from the faithful. Last year, the archbishop scolded Bazzoffi for being a bad boy and told him to stop it.

March 29, 2008. An 11-year-old diabetic girl died from complications of her disease because her parents believed prayer was all she needed. They even prayed Madeline Neumann, 11for a resurrection over their daughter's dead body. The parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann of Wausau, Wisconsin, told authorities that they are not "crazy religious people." They blame themselves for their daughter's death, though. They believe the fault was their lack of faith, not their lack of common sense for failing to get medical help for their child.

The parents will probably not be prosecuted because in Wisconsin religion gets a free pass to kill children, as long as the killing is passive, not active. The state has a law against failing to act to protect children from bodily harm but the law exempts "treatment through prayer."

The Neumanns have three other children.

update: May 29, 2009. I was wrong about it not being likely that the parents would be held accountable for their inaction. Both were charged with second-degree reckless homicide. Mrs. Neumann was found guilty in a jury trial. She showed no remorse and said that "the real issue is our local and national government is turning more and more anti-God." Mr. Neumann will be tried separately in July.*

update: 3 August 2009. Dale Neumann was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide and faces up to 25 years in prison. "If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God," said Mr. Neumann.

update: 7 October 2009. Dale and Leilani Neumann were sentenced to 6 months in prison and 10 years probation for their faith healing killing of their daughter. Actually, the judge sentenced them to 30 days a year in jail for each of the next six years. One is to serve time in March and the other in September. One of the conditions of their probation is that their surviving children undergo regular and random health checks until they reach the age of 18. The Neumann's have been ordered to seek medical attention if their three surviving children become seriously ill or injured.

Marathon County Judge Vincent Howard told the Neumanns that they "are very good people...who made a bad decsion." Even so, Leilani Neumann told judge Howard that she doesn't think they were treated properly. "We feared showing remorse for the prosecution taking it wrong," she said.*

They're not in jail yet, though, because they've appealed the ruling.

further reading

Death by prayer

update: May 1, 2008. The parents were charged with second-degree reckless homicide.*

March 18, 2008. Tarot card reader bilks clients with curse removal scam. According to the local sheriff, "Tracy Tan would convince the customers that they had a curse on them and (that) she was the only one who could fix their problems." Tan had some great testimonials posted on her website along with the claim that she'd been giving psychic advice online since 1981. There is reason to believe that she was not telling the truth, the whole truth, or anything like the truth. Tan, 37, has been charged with eight felonies, including theft, forgery, and possession of fraudulent identification. Her husband Eric was also arrested and charged with possession of fraudulent identification.

The Tan couple are being held in lieu of $750,000 bail in Naperville (near Chicago), a very high and unusual bail for psychics. Let's hope this becomes a precedent for other jurisdictions.

March 16, 2008. Mercy Ministries, said to have direct links to Gloria Jean's Coffees and the Hillsong Church, has been deceiving troubled young women, many mentally unstable, into signing up for Bible studies and exorcisms. Three former residents have blown the whistle. They claim that they entered the program as independent young women and left broken and suicidal, "as Mercy staff had told them repeatedly that they were possessed by demons and that Satan controlled them." The women claim it took several years of psychiatric care to bring them "back from the edge."

update: June 6, 2008: according to the Sydney Morning Herald, "Mercy Ministries, the Gloria Jeans and Hillsong-supported religious program under investigation for its controversial use of exorcism to treat mental illness, has announced its Queensland home will close."

March 14, 2008. It is perfectly legitimate for a priest to solicit 40,000 euros from an elderly woman with mental problems to help support the church. It is illegal, however, for a man to fake being a priest to solicit 40,000 euros from an elderly woman with mental problems. The latter happened in Genoa, Italy, where a man with a criminal record posing as Fr. Filippo convinced a woman he had ties to the Vatican and needed money for a "long-distance exorcism" of "obscure presences." [Something may have gotten lost in the translation here.] The fake friar got caught by Italy's postal and telecommunications police who, for some reason, were looking at the woman's payments to various credit card companies. A news report says he was charged with "taking advantage of the woman and her 'mental incapacity'."

March 12, 2008. A man from Blacktown in New South Wales was sent to prison for 19 years for strangling a woman he had told "he had psychic powers and could remove her evil spirits by having sex with her." The man's common law wife was also sent to prison as an accomplice. The three friends liked to dabble in the occult.

larrow.gif (1051 bytes) What's the Harm? archives

* AmeriCares *

The Skeptic's Shop

About harm

It is difficult to assess the harm done to society and the world at large by the spread and encouragement of anti-scientific, irrational, and magical thinking. It is also difficult to measure the extent of harm done to individuals and their families who give up thinking for themselves to follow some guru, astrologer, psychic, or cult leader.

It is impossible to calculate the losses to those bilked because they are ignorant of basic logical and psychological principles. Even so, Tim Farley gives it his best shot.

For those cancer patients who are thinking of trying an untested alternative therapy, please read Dr. Stephen Barrett's A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments.

Read this book and you will wonder no more about the harm done by false beliefs


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