A candle in the dark

A while ago I found a blog posting by someone who’d experienced sleep paralysis. Perhaps you’ve had the experience (it happened to me a few times when I was a kid): you’re asleep, you partially wake up, but find yourself unable to move, and often feel there’s something evil in the room with you, possibly crushing you. The poster didn’t know what was going on. She was terrified, thinking that someone or something had attacked her while she slept. My own comment explaining sleep paralysis came in the middle of a bunch of similar comments. I hope we reassured her.

When I was younger, I think I’d worked out that the feeling of being unable to move meant I wasn’t fully awake, so I should concentrate on trying to move and discount the sensed presence and crushing feelings until my body came back under my control. This was confirmed years later when I read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, in which Sagan describes sleep paralysis and theorises that it’s behind some modern “alien abduction” experiences, as well as older beliefs like the old hag. This sort of explanation is all to the good. The world has enough real scary things in it without making up more of them.

So, when I happened across a stupid_free posting mocking some teenage witches complaining that their spirit summoning spells don’t work, I was annoyed to see some commenters saying that these neophytes should be careful with the summoning, because you don’t know what you’ll get. The commenters were telling the teenagers to leave the summoning spells to pagans with more experience points (who get better Will saves). I thought that spoof Wikipedia edit about Wicca was a joke, but some of them really do think they’re living in an episode of Buffy. The pagans don’t appear to like people who point this out, alas.

There may be an argument that young people should not get into this occult stuff because they might give themselves a bad scare, even though magic isn’t real. But it’s not an argument you can expect supernaturalists to make, because they’re committed to the idea that this stuff might actually work. Christians have the same sort of problem. I remember my old vicar telling us that he thought we rational Cambridge Christians might have become a bit too skeptical about things like demons. From denying the reality of demons, it’s a short step to wondering about God, I suppose. (Conversely, scribb1e says there’s some teaching within Buddhism about weird stuff you might experience during meditation, which is that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to it, basically).

Sagan wrote: “We would surely be missing something important about our own nature if we refused to face up to the fact that hallucinations are part of being human. However, none of this makes hallucinations part of an external rather than an internal reality.” People who experience sleep paralysis or see their recently deceased relatives are not crazy, but it’s unlikely that are they being abducted by aliens, seeing ghosts, or fooled by demons either. Beliefs which were born in our ignorance won’t help re-assure these people. Our brains do play tricks on us, but these tricks fade when examined in the light.

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The Archbishop is a Harsh Mistress

Poor old Rowan. In an interview and speech characterised, in a very real sense, by his habitual turgid sesquipedalianism, someone managed to find the statement that Sharia law “is unavoidable” in the UK. If you think my ability to provoke religious flamewars is impressive, you should see the BBC’s Have Your Say forums (or, you know, don’t), or the Graun‘s Comment is Free, right now.

Unexpectedly, the same bunch who voted in favour of the religious hatred legislation a few years ago suddenly found something wonderful, and opined that they weren’t sure public beheadings were such a good idea (though I’m not sure that position is a vote winner: Daily Mail readers would probably be in favour, as long as it wasn’t the Muslims doing the chopping).

All of which is beside the point, really, because ++Rowan (that’s “1 more than your current Rowan”, geeks) wasn’t advocating any of that stuff. After struggling through all 8 pages of his grey prose, I can tell you that Rowan’s a sci-fi libertarian of the sort you sometimes get in Ken Macleod’s books, or maybe Heinlein’s, or Neal Stephenson‘s. What he wants is for people to be able to voluntarily affiliate with a court system for the resolution of some disputes. In an attempt to preserve his right-on lefty image, Rowan claims he’s a little nervous about the unpleasant whiff of the free market about this, but I think we all know he’s secretly itching to set up ++Rowan’s Greater Anglican Communion franchulates all over the world (er, hang on a minute…), strap on a katana and set out on his motorbike for a showdown with Dawkins.

What’s less clear is what he wants for Muslims which isn’t already available. In an article about Jewish courts in the UK, the BBC says that “English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute”. Does anyone know whether there’s anything stopping Muslim courts doing something similar to the Jewish ones?

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