Embarrassed about God

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While eating my lunch the other day I was gingerly approached by a guy in his late teens who, standing next to me, with his head turned down and feet shuffling, said in a tone of voice designed not to travel: “My church are praying for people in the area. Do you know anyone who needs praying for?” His embarrassment was palpable. It was the sort of embarrassment that any degree of empathy makes contagious. After politely telling him that I’m an atheist, he walked away looking visibly relieved. The incident recalled to my mind how I felt when school friends learned I went to church or the embarrassment I used to feel on behalf of members of the congregation who would start speaking in tongues. I felt that way automatically. I had no control over it. I was embarrassed on behalf of others because I sensed that social norms had been broken. I was embarrassed for myself because I felt my school friends would consider me stupid. Why stupid? Because I couldn’t give a good enough account of my beliefs. I knew there was a lot about Christianity that didn’t add up but dealt with it by not dealing with it.

I’ve encountered arguments suggesting atheists are smarter than the religious. I’ve also seen the contrary, that only the most intelligent scholars can understand holy texts. I’m not convinced much is achieved by arguing about IQ. In my experience those who hold religious beliefs do not do so as a result of extensive study into multiple explanations of existence, where the most robust is selected. Some may arrive at their beliefs this way but I suspect that many religious people know comparatively little about other religions or choose not to see how similarly justified they are. I imagine fewer still attempt to engage critically with their own religious ideas. Whether there are compelling rationales for holding religious beliefs or not, as a church-going school kid I had difficulty accounting for my beliefs because they were based on emotion not on reason. My inability to explain my beliefs and the consequent embarrassment were because I believed teachings that appealed to emotion but I didn’t possess the oratory artistry to communicate them. I had no answers to questions about the logistics of the story of Noah’s ark, why the plagues of Egypt weren’t in the history books or why the Bible should be considered any more true than the holy books of other religions. I had school friends effortlessly poking holes in what was supposed to be the word of God. That was embarrassing.

Embarrassment is of course a socially conscious emotion. It has to do with social conventions and our perceptions of how we will be judged by others. Where a religion gets to determine social norms in a particular context, there will probably be less embarrassment when openly discussing and practising that religion. The following clip showing a child named Bethany “receiving the holy ghost” strikes me as profoundly odd. Watching it makes me feel awkward, embarrassed, honestly a little angry but also hopeful. There’s a moment at 1:26 where Bethany’s sister walks into the frame, looks at the camera and shyly rejects an invitation to join in. A hand can be seen guiding her back towards her sister. She waves to the camera and backs out of the scene, clearly embarrassed by the circumstances. I grew up in a fairly secular society and attended a school where the kids had quite a mix of backgrounds. It was against this backdrop that I really began to reflect on how ridiculous some of my beliefs seemed and how odd some of the rituals were.

The experience of embarrassment feels bad so we tend to want to avoid it. This social mechanism keeps us consistent with the group. In extreme circumstances this can have an homogenising and isolating effect but where an influx of new group members is permitted and where there exists a plurality of ideas, embarrassment can serve a useful purpose, showing us when we are out of step with our peers. It has nothing directly to do with truth since majority beliefs and values are not true by virtue of their popularity but it can be understood as a kind of collective-aware course correction. It can also help highlight beliefs and behaviours that are worth reflecting on. Thinking about our embarrassment can help reveal assumptions and values that are so normal that they are only rendered visible through their transgression. If you feel embarrassed, why? Do you feel defiant of embarrassment and what does that mean? Where something might be odd or cause embarrassment in a one context, why is that not the case in another? Have you ever felt embarrassed about God?

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Demon Possession

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Demon possession isn’t a topic that comes up often in conversation but when it does I’m still a little shocked that it’s something people believe. It’s an idea that’s found in many religions and feels like it that belongs to the Iron Age, to a time when it was our best guess at understanding illness. Surely the notion of possession has been consigned to the ever-growing “historical context” that’s excused when examining our holy books. But it isn’t. I recall an acquaintance who insisted that we are all possessed with demons. He is now a minister. An otherwise bright woman I know believes, after attending a lecture by a Catholic exorcist, that the internet is a conduit for demon possession that targets children. Several other people I know have suggested that “messing with the occult” (which can include reading Harry Potter) or celebrating Halloween invites the Devil in. Even members of my family expressed concerns about my investigating witchcraft and Spiritualism while studying social anthropology. The people in these examples were Christians and in the UK Christianity and Islam provide much of the narrative framework for demon possession. The belief system through which possession is realised is interesting because the possessed often recognise its authority.

I’m a big fan of the Exorcist, both the book and the film. It’s a well told story with iconic cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack. When we think of demon possession and exorcism we imagine neck-twisting, spider-walking, levitation and projectile vomiting. Many actual exorcisms have been captured on film. Those who are thought to be possessed exhibit behaviours ranging from blasphemy and vocal intonations, to screaming, thrashing and flailing. Some instances of possession and exorcism are similar to faith healing. A person stands before the congregation defies the power of the religion and priest, gets exorcised and is welcomed back into the flock.

The woman in this clip was part of a Christian community who believed she was possessed because she used to tell fortunes using tarot cards. The exorcist (Bob Larson) guided the woman through a sort of confession that ends in invocations, screaming and freedom from her burden. This is fairly typical of possessions and exorcisms caught on camera. It doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the horror movie representation. In order to find this credible you need to believe that the body and mind are separate, that there is a realm of the immaterial and that the immaterial can impact in the material. You would have to accept that aspects of the immaterial world are hostile to people and control them. You need to believe the proposition without questioning the mechanics. Conversely, you might reach the conclusion that the woman felt guilty (was made to feel?) and as though she didn’t belong, she wanted to belong , found a mechanism to do it and did it.

Leaving aside the assumptions one has to accept to be swayed by the idea of demon possession, let’s spend a moment thinking through what a demon achieves by possession. The idea is that a demon seizes control of a person who has neglected their religious observation. In some religions a person can be possessed regardless of their religiosity. What do demons do with this control? It seems that they replicate the symptoms of mental illness in people. One of the difficulties of believing that demon possession is real and that exorcism might be a good way to deal with it is that it can offer a bad explanation and solution for the behaviours of already vulnerable people. Where a person is in distress it might not be appropriate to respond by trying to cast out demons. Perhaps what they need is a safe space and professional help. Another consequence is the temptation for believers to demonize those who are different to them or hold views they don’t subscribe to. A good example is provided by the street preacher Jesse Morrell in a video showing the angry reaction to his preaching at Gay Pride in Houston. Morrell spreads his view that homosexuality is immoral and characterises a man who argues with him as hateful and possessed. There is something extremely sinister and potentially dangerous about the kind of mindset that literally demonizes. It’s a mechanism by which one can dehumanise and disassociate. It’s the removal of the demonized from the same mental category as the demonizer.

Of course I’m not suggesting that everyone who believes that demons are real or that people can be possessed are bigoted but I do think it’s an idea that is routed in a fear of unknowing. For a person who believes in spirits and demons, the night really is fully of terrors. Magic, witchcraft, astrology and fortune-telling are viewed as efficacious and powerful antecedents of possession. Demon possession looms in their imagination in the neck-twisting and levitating representation rather than the variety recorded by Bob Larson. The irony is that while fearing control from the murky unknown, those who credit demons and possession as real are arguably allowing their view of the world to be shaped by ancient superstitions.

On the Writing of Deepak Chopra

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I had intended to write generally on the topic of pseudo-profundity and bullshit. The subject was discussed last year by Pennycook et al. in their article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit“. Put briefly they argue that pseudo-profound bullshit involves using buzzwords to make statements that are syntactically plausible and give the impression of imparting profound knowledge, while actually communicating little or no meaning. They suggest that bullshitters are motivated by a wish to impress and bullshittees are inclined towards uncritical belief. A name that inevitably arose in connection with pseudo-profound bullshit was Dr. Deepak Chopra. The mini-bio that accompanies Chopra’s writing includes the claim that he is a “world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation” and states that “The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Dr. Chopra #40 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine”. Just allow that to sink in. He currently has about 2.8 million Twitter followers. A significant number of people take him seriously and the marketing of his ideas has made him very wealthy. So instead of writing generally about pseudo-profundity I would like to take a look at Chopra’s current work.

Diving straight into his most recent post entitled “How the Universe Solved the Hard Problem by Intent” we’re immediately told that consciousness is a secret, that there is a reason for this that can’t be explained and that consciousness is responsible for its own secrecy:

“For some inexplicable reason the most common element in every possible experience–consciousness–has kept itself a secret.”

It turns out that the Wikipedia entry for consciousness is over 10,000 words and has 162 references, so even in plain terms it isn’t as mysterious as it’s made out to be. Suggesting that consciousness can engineer its own secrecy implies that consciousness has consciousness. It’s treating consciousness as an entity rather than a property of an entity. He goes on to suggest:

“If we were unconscious, the world would literally disappear in a puff of smoke. This obvious fact implies something that isn’t so obvious: Maybe consciousness and the world appeared at the same time.”

This unsupported “fact” simply isn’t true. People are unconscious from time to time and world continues just fine. We can be fairly confident from geology and archaeology that the world pre-dates people. What Chopra is getting at here is his view that reality is a kind of collective mental projection. He proposes that:

“A cosmos devoid of consciousness isn’t conceivable, and yet the reason for this exists completely out of sight.”

If it feels like it’s hard to get at the meaning of the sentence quoted above it’s because it is hard. Most writers seek to communicate their ideas as clearly as possible but the literary style Chopra uses frustrates quick comprehension. You can restructure the sentence to make it easier to read: We aren’t able to see the reason why we can’t imagine a cosmos without consciousness. We can see from the restructured sentence that although a bunch of words are used, not much meaning is communicated.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to let you know that Chopra is a licensed physician and former chief of staff at a hospital in the United States. He isn’t shy about using his title M.D. when promoting his ideas. Keep this in mind while reading the following quote from the same blog post:

“The difference between being blind and being able to see lies in the mechanics of how the brain processes sunlight—that much is clear. Yet the step in the process that matters the most, converting sunlight into vision, is totally mysterious.”

According to the RNBI age related macular degeneration is by far the biggest cause of blindness in adults in the UK. The WHO cites glaucoma then macular degeneration as the biggest causes of blindness in the world. These are conditions of the eye not “mechanics of the brain”. Chopra is just plain wrong about blindness and sight but arguably worse is the fact that the assertion is coming from someone identifying himself as a medical doctor.

I could go sentence by sentence, assertion by assertion through the whole post but the point is that Deepak Chopra puts across vague points using vague language in a pattern that can appear to some to be profound but in fact carries little meaning. When encountering a statement that looks complex but profound, the actual profundity of a statement can be assessed by breaking it down and looking at its parts. If Chopra just wants people to be impressed by him and people want something impressive-sounding to believe, what’s the harm? Okay, well we might object to the idea that the money that finds its way into Chopra’s pockets could be better used to solve concrete issues. Maybe we feel that as a medically trained professional Chopra could be making a tangible, beneficial difference. We could take issue with the notion that the sorts of ideas he circulates are used as a basis for alternative “healing“. In fact Chopra is sponsoring the Consciousness Field Project that is investigating the potential for transmitted intention statements to enhance peoples’ lives.

“The intention statement is imbued by the team during deep meditation into a crystalline electronic device and broadcast thousands of times each day to participants.”

The project is also partly funded by participants who will each contribute $33 a month (a total of $600). I think this is the first study I’ve seen that charges people to participate. If anyone feels that they need some pseudo-profundity in their life, the satirical wisdom of Chopra website can generate some for you for free.

We Are All Born Atheist

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That’s right, even the zealous, the pious and the most committed of religious characters were born without any beliefs in gods. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion”, children don’t have religions their parents do. We are born without knowledge of our culture, without an understanding of social stratification and without superstition. Children don’t inherit characteristics of social division, they are labelled with them. We ascribe them to them. They have to be learned and are invariably taught. In fact a quick search for “Christian preschool” will return a host of results for places children from 2 to 5 years old can learn about Christianity  while learning to grip a pencil, identify colours and count to 20. Hazel’s Christian Preschool  takes the view that…

“Through creative exploration and “hands on” approach, each child is supported emotionally,cognitively, physically, social growth and foundational opportunities to know God as our loving creator and friend.”

Which apparently works since one happy mother wrote:

“This is the absolute best Christian Preschool! I moved my 4 year old daughter from another Christian preschool because I didn’t feel like her faith was growing. On her very first day she started praying on her own!”

4 years old?! Also, I’m not the sort to judge grammar and spelling too harshly. I’m sure I make mistakes and typos all of the time, but then I’m not an educational institution or teacher. The Hazel’s (Hazels? hazel’s? Hazel’s?) Christian Preschool  site is filled with glaring language errors that should warrant more concern than the growth of a 4 year old’s faith.

This Religionising of children’s education is not particular to Christianity of course, but common to many religions. This quote from littlecaliphs.com makes the point for me:

“We strongly believe that early learning exposure of Islam in children will leave a long lasting impact in their life towards realizing and accepting that Allah is their Lord and Sustainer, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is their teacher and role model and Islam is the way of life.”

They’re right of course. If you teach children from a young age that magic and gods are real, if you reinforce the idea that specific holy books are indisputably factual, then those children are more likely to grow up believing whichever religion they have been taught.

A parent’s concern with their young child’s religious education comes, I believe, from a good place. If you think eternal torment is in store for non-believers and rich rewards for believers, then you want to make sure that your nearest and dearest are on the path to a happy ending. There’s a difficult (and upsetting) question religious parents no doubt ask themselves about what would happen to their child in the afterlife if they were to pass away. According to Islam, all children of Muslim parents who pass away before reaching puberty go to paradise. The question of what happens to children of non-believers has many answers in Islam but judgement on the matter is usually reserved. Back to the Bible, a Christian website, tackles this difficult question by suggesting that all children go to the Christian heaven by default until they are able to understand right and wrong (legally 10 years old in the UK). After the age of 10 they had better be committed Christians though. There seems to be some appreciation that young children aren’t intellectually mature enough to be judged on religious beliefs but in what sense are children who have just hit double digits free or able to make an informed decision? If they have been taught religion as fact since they were toddlers then the extent to which they are “informed” is disputable.

Regarding the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit there are no easy answers. On the one hand it seems reasonable to teach your kids about your religion if you’re a parent who whole-heartedly believes that it’s in your child’s best interest to learn about your beliefs. On the other hand, where that belief manifests in narrowly restricting a child’s social interaction, instilling intolerance and depriving educational opportunities, the implications start to look less harmless. The fact is parents aren’t formally trained in the craft of parenting and the home lives of children vary. It may be that a child’s home life is dominated  by religion but school should be a space where they genuinely can acquire the intellectual tools to make informed decisions. Nowhere should a school be teaching religion as fact or presenting one religion as superior to others. If after learning about religions as part of a broad curriculum that is centred around language, maths and science, a child grows to decide (when they are mature enough to do so) that they believe and wish to follow a particular religion, then they have made a meaningful choice. Conversely, choosing to believe the only choice you’ve been given is no choice at all.