Link blog: funny, sally-morgan, murder, jo-yeates

A Much More Exotic – The bad kind of murder

“A call to restrict porn is, in effect, a call for more women to be murdered. It’s a good thing we have a government that’s not afraid to take tough decisions.

Starting next week, this LJ account will be syndicated on Comment is Free and Feministing.”
(tags: porn rape murder jo-yeates media guardian satire)

Testing psychics « Derren Brown Blog

Derren Brown carefully avoids libelling Sally Morgan while pointing out that, well, all the other psychics were frauds…
(tags: derren-brown psychics woo woo-woo simon-singh sally-morgan sally morgan)

A suggestion for Dr. Dawkins | Alethian Worldview

‘Dr. Dawkins should challenge God to a debate. There should be an empty chair on a stage somewhere, and Dawkins should stand up beside it and say, “Well then, I believe that according to William Lane Craig’s rules of engagement, I am now entitled to declare that God is afraid to face me because He knows He’s wrong.”’
(tags: funny religion richard-dawkins william-lane-craig debate god)

The demon-haunted world of the Conservative Party

Via pseudomonas, I got the news that Conservative high-flyer Philippa Stroud founded a church that tried to ‘cure’ homosexuals by driving out their ‘demons’. The Observer quotes a couple of people who were on the receiving end.

If you engage with Christians about philosophical arguments, where, say, God is advanced as the best, most elegant explanation for creation or the order in the universe, it’s easy to forget that both evangelical and Catholic Christians are committed to belief in the existence of Satan and his minions. For some reason, these Christians tend to downplay this aspect of their belief when evangelising. I’ve previously mentioned the slippery slope that someone might go down, from intellectual arguments for deism, to the Christian Trinity, to a pantheon with angels and demons and bears, oh my.

Those Christians who do believe in the Adversary can be further distinguished by how readily they’ll invoke him as an explanation. My former church saw the Prince of this World as primarily a tempter, not as someone who might possess a person: it might be the Devil’s fault if you had, you know, urges, but I don’t recall anyone attributing illness or even homosexuality to the actions of the Beast (as opposed to the generally fallen state of the world).

It sounds like Stroud’s church is a charismatic church, where people expect to have spiritual encounters, both with God and with the Evil One, much more directly than at more conservative evangelical churches.

Christian blogger and author Adrian Warnock tells us he plans to vote Conservative, partly based on Stroud’s influence on the party. He’s not talking about demons, though, but about social justice: both in Warnock’s article and the Observer‘s, it’s obvious that, in Stroud’s church, the hair-raising stuff about demons is married to a genuine concern for the poor, which I think can only do the Conservative party some good.

Still, I can’t help but think there must be alternatives where the party both wants to help the poor and doesn’t have its social policy written by people who believe demons cause The Gay.

Edited: Iain Dale writes that Stroud has been smeared by the Observer, and quotes a statement from her in which she denies that she thinks homosexuality is an illness. I think questions remain, though: after all, the Observer article didn’t say she did think it was an illness, did it?

Edited again: Andrew Brown chimes in with a utilitarian argument for Stroud.

And again: odd that the media isn’t reporting this one, isn’t it? Pam’s House Blend talks about why, and also has this comment from one of the people the Observer interviewed.

The Devil went down to Cambridge OR Attacking the Darkness

The ever-reliable Cambridge Evening News reveals that dark forces are gathering in Cambridge: “Magus Lynius Shadee, self-named King of All Witches, has announced he will open in the city centre by December 24” (I don’t know what it means for a magus to “open in the city centre”, but I’m not sure I want to stick around to find out). Local church leaders aren’t too pleased about this, and warn of bad juju.

This set me thinking about the time the vicar at my former church told us that educated Cambridge Christians hadn’t taken the stuff in the Bible about demons seriously enough. Basic theism is all very well at first, but inevitably you move on to the harder stuff. Initially, you’re all “everything that begins to exist has a cause” but before long you start thinking that the Resurrection is pretty good evidence for Christian theism (after all, as the Christian sort of God exists, it’s likely that he would raise Jesus from the dead, therefore the Resurrection is not terribly unlikely; therefore, given the New Testament evidence, the Resurrection happened; therefore the Christian sort of God exists).

Tragically, for some people even that’s not enough. Not satisfied with a Trinity, they crave other supernatural beings. From there, it’s a slippery slope to “I had doubts about the validity of that Resurrection argument / fancied that boy/girl/sheep / had a bit of a funny turn late at night: SATAN DUNNIT!”

When I was a lad, the school Christian Union leaders told us Dungeons and Dragons was a doorway to danger, a gateway into Satanism. I’d like to suggest that Christianity is a gateway to Dungeons and Dragons. This isn’t a completely new idea: arkannath suggested it in the comments of one of my old posts, which you might also enjoy.

Father David Paul’s (Cleric level 1, patron: Papem, god of guilt about sex) warning that “People who go to these things often end up with mental problems” is best read as a caution to people with poor Will Saves. Rev Ian Church is clearly some sort of adventuring cleric (level 3, patron: Jeebus, god of circular arguments) on a quest to put a stop to Shadee (Wizard level 5, necromancer). Our hero has tracked the villian to his underground lair, wherein “there were several ritual and seance rooms and what really struck us was the intense and extreme cold in the rooms”. Church (by the way, am I alone in thinking that naming your cleric “Church” is only one step up from calling your characters “Bob’s fighter 1”, “Bob’s figher 2”, and so on? Not sure what the DM was thinking with “Shadee”, either) neglects to mention how he turned several undead and avoided some tricky pit traps while he was down there, but we can assume he’s just being modest. There were plenty of XP given out that day, I can tell you. Still, it looks like Shadee escaped, and now the campaign is coming to the streets of Cambridge. The local peasants are pretty excited by the prospect.

Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins

Dawkins has published the complete interview he did with Derren Brown for the Enemies of Reason programme: it’s available on YouTube (in several parts, but that link is to a playlist which should play them in order). It’s mostly Brown talking about the techniques used by mediums, with occasional questions from Dawkins. I’m a fan of Brown, so I enjoyed it.

Like all the best people, the inestimable Mr Brown is an ex-Christian. The final part of the video re-iterates the first chapter of Tricks of the Mind, where he describes how he turned to rationality. He learned about hypnosis, which his fellow Christians claimed would allow in demons (keen students: from the teaching on demons in Matthew 12, or otherwise, show that this is What The Bible Says [5 marks]). He got into stage magic and learned how psychic powers were a con, and that believers in it were only interested in evidence in favour of their beliefs (this is what he calls “circular belief” in the book and video), and would discount or forget the evidence against them.

The young Brown realised this circularity applied to his own Christianity as much as it did to the believers in the psychics. As Brown says, it’s hard to see a difference between these sorts of claims, other than that religious claims have a certain gravitas from having been around for a long time. After all, you could probably construct plausible reasons for the psychic “misses” or why the people who are in contact with aliens can’t provide a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, just as you can for why God is silent (in fact, variants of “it doesn’t work because of your scepticism” and “you wouldn’t believe me anyway” are already common to all of them).

These beliefs rely on rear-guard actions against those who explicitly deny them, coupled with a personal conviction that the belief must be true. There’s little positive evidence in favour. We saw this in the case of Christianity, recently, when looking at Keller’s reasons for faith, much as Brown found when he investigated his former faith for himself.

Both Brown and Dawkins seem surprised that people don’t actually want to know that psychics have been debunked. Randi debunked Peter Popoff, but Popoff is still pulling in the donations. Although I’m occasionally irritated by Andrew Brown’s “New Atheists: UR DOIN IT WRONG” stuff, I think he’s right to say that most people don’t think the way Derren and Dawkins do, whether they’re theists or atheists:

It’s not natural to suppose that our emotions should be in line with our intellectual representations of the world and consistent and coherent over time: but as an ideal it’s tremendously important. Even as an ideal it has to be transmitted by a culture: as a discipline, it needs years of education and of practice. You might call it thinking for yourself, in a rather silly clever way, if by that you meant not independence from society, but using thinking as a tool with which to build yourself. Getting to that point is just about the central task of education, moral as well as intellectual, which means that almost everyone pays lip service to it. Yet the evidence suggests that most people, certainly most believers, don’t entertain it as a serious possibility. But neither do most unbelievers.

It’s all a bit depressing really. Perhaps Plantinga is right and rationality doesn’t necessarily have a survival value.

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.