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

From Abracadabra to Zombies


Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Skeptimedia replaces  Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.

Woo-woo is alive and well

10 Dec 2009. A new survey by the Pew Forum found that beliefs in woo are holding steady or rising in the land of the rich and the free. A 2005 Gallup poll found about 20% of American adults believe in reincarnation. Pew puts the number at 25% in 2009. Pew also found that 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation, evidence that many are cherry-picking their religious beliefs rather than following the strict dogma of a traditional Christian sect. Reincarnation is the belief that when one dies, one's body decomposes but something of oneself is reborn in another body. It is the belief that one has lived before and will live again in another body after death. The bodies one passes in and out of need not be human. One may have been a Doberman in a past life, and one may be a mite or a carrot in a future life. Some tribes avoid eating certain animals because they believe that the souls of their ancestors dwell in those animals. A man could even become his own daughter by dying before she is born and then entering her body at birth. The belief in past lives used to be mainly a belief found in Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but now is a central tenet of much woo-woo like dianetics and channeling. In those ancient Eastern religions, reincarnation was not considered a good thing, but a bad thing.* For many New Age and New Religion westerners, this life is a dress rehearsal for a series of dress rehearsals. What if this is it? Is this belief doing anybody any harm?

One bad thing that issues from belief in reincarnation in America is that it opens the door to past life regression therapy, which seeks the causes of today's psychological problems in the experiences of previous lives rather than in current physical conditions and this-life experiences. It may fulfill someone's delusions to think they were wounded in a gladiatorial contest two millennia ago (and that explains their current irritable bowel syndrome), but it encourages anti-scientific thinking, which we already have too much of. On the bright side, the more people who believe in reincarnation, the fewer there are who believe that psychics are getting messages from the dead. Well, that would be true if people were averse to believing logically contradictory statements. Apparently, many aren't.

The Pew Forum found 25% professing belief in astrology and 26% saying they believe in spiritual energy located in physical things such as mountains, trees, or crystals. Astrology, in its traditional form, is a type of divination based on the theory that the positions and movements of celestial bodies (stars, planets [except the one you are born on or those in other solar systems], Sun, and Moon) at the time of birth profoundly influence a person's life. In its psychological form, astrology is a type of New Age therapy used for self-understanding and personality analysis (astrotherapy). In all forms, astrology is a manifestation of magical thinking, as is the belief in spiritual energy in inanimate objects. Animism is an ancient belief that may have been offered as an explanation for the difference between a thing that is alive and that thing when it is dead. It may have been offered also as an explanation for appearances of people in hallucinations or dreams. In modern times, animism is popular with New Age folks. It is especially popular with people who find solace in traditions like shamanism, perhaps because they are attracted to the notion of altered states  of consciousness. Child psychologist Jean Piaget held that animism is one of the tendencies in the thought of the pre-rational child. Animism is evident in many fairy tales, most cartoons, and in some  television commercials, where even toilet paper might speak with a conscience. About one-fourth of the Christians surveyed said they believe in animism and astrology.

Some of the questions asked in the Pew survey are ambiguous or vague, so it is impossible to know what to make of the answers people gave. For example, about 3 of 10 surveyed, including 3 of every 10 Christians, said they "felt in touch with someone who has died." This could mean many things. At one end of the spectrum, even atheists who don't believe in any kind of afterlife might feel "in touch" with a dead loved one. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are hallucinating and having conversations with the specter at the end of the bed. A similar confusion arises when we're told that about half of those surveyed have had some sort of religious or mystical experience. Likewise for the fact that about one in fifteen of those surveyed have consulted a fortuneteller. One can have "mystical" experiences or consult a fortuneteller without believing much of anything about spirits or psychics.

For those who are interested, you can still manipulate about 15% of American adults, Christian or not, by pretending to give them the evil eye.

For technical details about the survey, click here. For the full report, click here.

update 19 Dec 2009. A Nielsen poll has found that Australians are nearly as credulous, superstitious, and gullible as Americans. More than two-thirds of Australians believe in some sort of God or Universal Spirit. About 50% believe in angels and psychic powers, while 41% believe in astrology. Some 63% believe in miracles, and 53% believe in life after death.

While 22% of those polled, and 35% of Christians polled, say they believe in witches, there is some encouraging news: 24% say they don't believe in any gods or universal spirits.

On the other hand, I don't know what to make of a poll or a nation where 34% of the non-believers think the Bible is literally true.

Still, the US and Australia are shining lights of rationality compared to Uganda, where 94% consider themselves religious and 95% strongly oppose the legalization of same-sex relations, making manipulation of the masses child's play.

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