More osculation of religion in National Geographic

November 30, 2016 • 1:30 pm


I’ve noted that, over time, National Geographic has gotten more and more fond of religious topics, and is actually sympathetic to faith. I’ll put the cover of this December’s issue here and move on, as I haven’t read any articles (it’s not online, and I’m sure as hell not going to buy it). But it doesn’t look propitious. . .


Here’s their page of news about the issue:

h/t: Jerry M.

73 thoughts on “More osculation of religion in National Geographic

  1. I was also concerned when I saw people report this cover. But I read the article and most is over-exaggeration. The article is really about the placebo affect. I wish they would have used a different caption for the title, but they are trying to create interest and get people to buy. I am watching National Geographic closely in case I need to cancel my subscription, but I think this article is full of truth. Not much to complain about except for the title.

    1. I said I hadn’t read it. But then why the religious image on the cover, and why the distinction between placebo effect, faith, and ritual if it’s ALL placebo effect? Further, if this is the article at issue, it’s touting as placebos all kinds of shamans, native healing, and other stuff. You do realize that even if those things have a placebo effect, they may also deter people from seeking better (i.e. scientific) medical care.

      Here’s a bit of credulous, noncritical reporting:

      Nowhere is the power of group belief more evident than in religious pilgrimages—whether it’s the annual Catholic trek to Lourdes, in France, the annual hajj pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, or, largest of all, the Maha Kumbh Mela, occurring every 12 years. The latest Kumbh Mela, in February 2013, drew an estimated 70 million Hindus to the Indian city of Allahabad.

      Or the pilgrimage to Altötting where I met Richard Mödl. The first documented healing in Altötting was in 1489, when a drowned boy was said to have been miraculously brought back to life. Today the Black Madonna there attracts about a million visitors a year.

      And here’s the final paragraph of that piece:

      When we arrived in the Chapel of Grace, we found it covered inside and out with ex-votos—pictures representing miracles spanning hundreds of years and showing every imaginable ailment. Propped against the walls were crutches and canes left behind through the ages by parishioners and pilgrims whose suffering was relieved by the Black Madonna. The expectation of healing continues unabated.

      “There is a different way of thinking here,” said Thomas Zauner, a psychotherapist and deacon who had moved to Altötting in order to seek a supportive community for his developmentally disabled child. “Prayer seems to actually work.”

      You don’t see any problems with that? The only test of intecessory prayer that was done properly showed no effect.

      I do. That, and the cover picture and title, are duplicitous and enable the concept of “faith” as a religious vehicle.

      Sorry, but I have no truck with duplicitous captions and illustrations, especially for a science-and-nature oriented magazine.

      1. My summation of the article is this: “We can all be conditioned, just like Pavlov’s dog, to salivate in response to the sound of a bell. When we do something we believe will cure us, such as visiting the shaman, saying a prayer, or breaking a mirror; our brain may actually signal our body to produce chemicals that help us; the same chemicals that a pill would induce. I’m sure the article highlights religious beliefs because they are more prevalent in our society. I agree that the cover is deceptive, and that is unfortunate. I also feel that this issue diminishes the credibility of Nat Geo as a magazine of science, but Nat Geo has never been as rigorous as journals when telling stories.”

      2. “You do realize that even if those things have a placebo effect, they may also deter people from seeking better (i.e. scientific) medical care”

        Oh for goodness sake, don’t be so patronsing! People can make their own decisions. It’s only an issue if they neglect medical treatment for dependents like children.

    2. “Not much to complain about except for the title.”

      The title, and cover photo are all most people are ever going to know about the story when they notice it on the rack.

      1. Agreed. Title and Cover. That’s enough to complain about.

        In science, there’s an enormous benefit to fellow scientists to provide a reasonable title, one that reflects the integrity of the paper. When the title is misleading, that’s not only deceptive but often harmful.

        1. And the title and cover displaced the possible title and cover to illustrate one of the other articles. I see what could be a timely article on young Russians and Putin, for example.

      1. That’s right. God is a Skittle. Except you don’t have to pray to Skittles unless you want to and I would never hold it against anyone who did.

      2. Back in the 50s and early 60s my mother worked evenings as a “doctor’s assistant” for the first female doctor in our town (she would be busy at the hospital all day, then see patients at her office until well into the evening!). Occasionally, they’d get a “regular” in; a patient with vague, chronic symptoms and unidentifiable “disorders” who weren’t satisfied until they left with a pill for what “ailed” them. The doctor kept several large glass jars in the back room full of different colored sugar pills just for these people, and God help you if you gave them the “wrong” color: “No, doctor, I have to have the GREEN ones; those yellow ones you gave me last month didn’t do any good at all!”

          1. Interestingly, some studies have shown that the colour of the placebo pill actually is important – some colors are more efficacious than others (I can’t remember which). In addition, the more expensive the placebo pill is the better it works as well. Religion might also be a very expensive placebo!

        1. Well, religion is organized delusion and spirituality is individual delusion, if you insist. There’s a possibility of a god/gods but no evidence. Religion/spirituality is the certainty that there is a god/gods in spite of the lack of evidence.

            1. Hello middlegroundministries,

              I’m curious, what kind of energy is that, how are you connected to it, and how do you feel it? For comparison, in physics, energy is a property of matter like color or velocity, not a thing of it’s own.

              How do you know it’s something different from the nowadays well-researched biophysical processes of your body? (If I understand you correctly.)

              Why do you choose “God” to describe it?

              1. Thank you for asking… I’ll admit, it is a hard thing to explain, but I’ll do my best: First, I’ll answer why I choose God to describe it; it’s because I actually ‘heard’ him when I was six years old – a soft, whispering voice, in the cochlear – it said not to believe everything I heard… “to take it with a grain of salt.” I didn’t know what those words meant, and had to ask my mother to explain it to me; so I didn’t make the words up… they actually came to me, from somewhere. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a very close relationship with this “energy” – now to reply to your comment about energy; energy abosolutely IS a thing of its own… Einstein proved this. It is the only THING that cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed; it simply always has been and always will be. Doesn’t that sound like God?? So, what kind of energy is it? Immense – it encompases the universe… how I’m connected, I cannot explain except to say that I always have been (and I believe we all are, but some just don’t realize it)… how is the internet connected? It’s beyond me. How do I feel it?? Sometimes very physically, (I’ve journaled my whole life because of my experiences)… I’ve also posted videos on YouTube, trying to explain some of these things; if you’d like to check them out, look here: THANK YOU for your questions!

              2. Thank you very much for your answers. To answer yours: The scientific definition of energy doesn’t sound like a god to me, but like a non-intelligent property of the universe like so many others.

                Here are some more questions for you to ponder. You can answer them here (mind “Da Rulez!” #9 though), but it would suffice to me if you just used them to critically question your beliefs, like I try to do myself regularly. 🙂

                Do you think it is the same voice that countless other people claim to hear, telling them very different things, sometimes very harmful to them or others? If so, would it be a good source of advice? If not, how do you assess the validity of “your” voice and theirs?

                Can you think of other explanations for your vivid childhood memories?

                Does the voice’s advice “don’t believe everything you hear” also apply to the voice itself? Did it give you any epistemological tools how to know right from wrong information?

                How much of your today’s interpretation is actually your mother’s? Shouldn’t an universe-encompassing energy-god be able to explain it intelligibly to a six-year-old in the first place?

              3. I appreciate your critical analyzation… however, science has proven that energy AND LIGHT actually possess “intellegence”… god encompassess all ‘properties of the universe’ – and I cannot speak for the voices that other people hear, only my own experience. (Maybe god ‘tests’ people to see if they will do evil things – or maybe they are hearing evil spirits… could be either, in my opinion.) Nonetheless, I believe all “voices” are valid – my daughter was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder at the age of 15 (she insisted they were spirits that came to her because they had had issues to resolve, except the first, who she said arrived when she was 7 and had been raped by a neighbor boy, unbeknownst to me for eight years). She worked ‘with’ them, and is now almost 27, and rarely gets visits anymore from any of them. The words I heard were not a “vivid childhood memory,” they became part of me and who I am. And of course, the advice applies… (thereby the possibility of testing people to do evil); knowing right from wrong is instinctive… no tools are needed. I used to argue with this voice all the time, when he told me I was going to speak for Him one day – now look, I’m doing exactly that. NONE of my interpretation is my mothers – SHE NEVER BELIEVED ME. As for your last question, that’s just silly… WE ARE HERE TO QUESTION AND LEARN! With love, your friend, Dennel

              4. Do you have a scientific source about energy and light possessing “intelligence”?

                You keep referring to your personal experiences. Again, how do you assess the validity of “your” voice and those other people hear, given the error-prone nature of human perception and memory?

                Could some or all of these voices just be imagination, misperceptions, the illusion of memory, or cognitive bias?

                If knowing right from wrong is instinctive, why do people’s views about it deviate so much? How do you know your instincts are right if other peoples instincts tell them otherwise? If the voice don’t have to give you any epistemological tools because your instincts suffice, why speak to you/anyone at all?


                Do you question your voice?

                Given our relatively short lifespan, shouldn’t our teacher not be as explicit as possible and perfectly distinguishable from illusionary inner voices? (I.e. by telling verifiable things none else could’ve known before.)

                Why does your voice need you to speak for him instead of just speaking to everyone directly?

                If you are to spread his teachings, shouldn’t the voice bring you into a position where many people will listen to you? (I.e. making you a Nobel laureate by telling you a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s desease.)

                How do you know it’s a “him”? So he does possess a sex? Is there a “her” like him? Do they have offspring? Are they themselves offspring … of whom? Is there a whole people of them?

                Again, you don’t have to answer all these questions to me here. They’re meant mostly to give you even more to question and learn. Have fun with them. 🙂

              5. Honestly, I’m happy to provide you answers… I love talking about this kind of stuff. But for this message, I’m going to stick to your FIRST question: I do, actually have lots of sources that prove this… Scientists have done many experiments since 1920 with regard to this subject; it’s discussed in several of my school books and scholarly articles (so I’m not just blowing smoke); but for a quick tutorial, I would refer to you: Original Double-slit Experiment
       Double-slit Experiment (only about 6 minutes long). Then you want real scientific evidence, watch the TSC conference: (TSC – Consciousness Affects Matter) *This is actually a conference of scientists discussing this experiment, they added a new twist using modern technology for recording the data = it proves that light particles are intelligent. Shows all of the actual results and analyses; experiment ran over the past three years, repeated again and again and again (using humans and robots). Amazing results…lengthy but complete. If you want to investigate even further; more mysterious evidence is provided by: Wonderful Weirdness of the Quantum World
       Quantum Entanglement

              6. First, The conservation of energy (and momentum) is simply an implication of the fact that physical processes are invariant to translations in time and space (Noether’s theorem.) Nothing mysterious.

                Second, have you not wondered why, out of billions of people on a speck of dust in a universe that is 93 billion light-years across, god would whisper “take it with a grain of salt” in the ear of a six year old? Do you really believe you are that special? Are there not more likely explanations for your experience?

              7. “I’ll admit, it is a hard thing to explain…”

                Have you actually thought through carefully what it means to explain something? Given experiences we as human beings have, how do we make sense of the diverse inputs to create a reasonable picture of the world outside ourselves? Where does your personal experience/revelation fit into the overall experience of humanity? What do you think about people who have divergent experiences? Do we accept the first images that appear to us, or should we investigate critically to find out what others experience has to offer?

              1. As I see it, physics and natural selection are works of God…the tools that are used to intellegently put everything together so that it works the way it is supposed to. To me, it is clear; I’m sorry if it is not for you. But you are welcome to your beliefs… just don’t bash mine, or others.

            1. Why do you consider the Fibonacci series in plants to be proof of intelligent design? Clearly it is the result of the natural process of evolution by natural selection as well as physical principles of the plant’s structure. The fact that nature is describable by mathematics is an interesting fact, but not one that forces you to imagine an intelligent designer or God.

              1. Simplifying things to their most basic level –
                1 + 1 = 2, therefore, God.



                (The Fibonacci series in plants is an interesting property of packing geometric shapes in a flat plane. Not sure how that indicates a designer… )

              2. How about the hexagonal shape of every snowflake?

                a) God
                b) molecular geometry of H2O
                c) 6 is a magic number
                d) 5 was too small, 7 was too big

              3. Yep, I like hexagons. The only other regular solids that will ‘pack’ a plane are, I think, squares and triangles. But hexagons are the neatest.

                (So in that sense, 5 was indeed too small and 7 too big 😉


              4. I guess we’ll just agree to disagree on that position – to me, it is clear evidence that nature was precisely calculated by some kind of intellegence…even light has been shown to have “intellegence.”

              5. I’m sorry to say, that’s not enough. If you can’t persuade me that you’re right, I’ll just have to disagree. There’s no there there.

        2. Remember that part of “religion” is apologetic which actually does deal with the likelihood or possibility of there being a God or Gods, and it is part of the bullshit. Spirituality is one of those terms used in many ways and adds nothing evidential to belief in deities.

  2. Much more intriguing than the faith and healing story is the second story. Just how does a warming relationship between Cuba and the US relate to orangutans at risk?

    1. If Cubans are hostile to orangutans, and the tourists are American orangutans, then of course they would be at risk.

    2. Editorial cockup? One article’s headline and a different article’s summary?

      Frankly I wouldn’t believe, on principle, anything National Geographic said about faith, Cuba, Putin or Russia.


    3. It’s a cock up in the December press release – I think they prepare the press release for the new month using the previous month as a template. They changed the November article titles & pics, but didn’t see they’d left one article summary as it was for November.

      That particular summary comes from the November story called “Changing Cuba: Here Comes the Wave” by Cynthia Gorney

  3. It’s true that National Geographic had once put an interview with Francis Collins highlighting his emergence of faith and science, and there you might pick on some objections, but I don’t see a problem with this issue. The title of the healing power of faith seems like it’s one chosen to catch eyes and capture the interest of the reader to delve in the topic (eventually buy the magazine) and the explanatory notes under the title clearly mention those healing powers as “placebos, rituals, and mystic experiences”, which are things that you’d agree may produce healing sensations, especially the placebo effect. I don’t see a major objection to be decried here.

    See my answer above as well.

    1. I’m not sure it will attract the right kind of reader. I’m fascinated by the placebo effect but a headline about ‘faith’ over a religious image isn’t going to draw me in, while it sounds like the religious would be disappointed.

        1. I was going to suggest the same thing, rickflick. And instead of a religious painting, an illustration of a brain in some form, either MRI, photo of a real brain, etc. Maybe a molecule of one of the hormones known to elicit happiness…

    1. … except the darn tourists are going to eat the same shit wherever they go.
      And there may (or may not) be palm oil plantations in Cuba but I don’t seem to recall any orangs?


  4. Long before Murdoch bought up NatGeo, they have been doing TV documentaries on religion that are somewhat uncritical.

    One really notices is this if you see the really good TV documentaries on religion that show up on British television, and the occasional ones on PBS (which for the most part they shy away from- seeing as how they still get a bit of tax-payer money and all.)

    I especially like the religion documentaries produced for BBC and Channel 4 by Robert Beckford such as “Who Wrote the Bible?”, which no American network would touch with a 10-foot pole (in spite of Beckford still identifying in a very loose and broad sense as a Christian.)
    See also PBS’s 1998 superb “From Jesus to Christ”.

    Compare these first-rate films with the bland pablumesque stuff put out by NatGeo like “Secret Lives of the Apostles” and “Inside the Vatican” (Heck, some practicing Catholics have written more hard-hitting stuff on the Vatican than NatGeo.)

    The hedging in the writing in this article is not an honest noncommittal-ness. It’s fudging. One COULD write an article on this with mostly the same data that says “I’m not sure if this is placebo or spiritual” in a more honest way, but the phrasing in this case is a tad evasive.

  5. 🙂

    You, sir, have a degenerate and morally reprehensible mind. (I know ‘cos I’ve got one of those myself)


  6. As I suggested last time, try the Canadian Geographical. For 40 years, I’ve found very little of scientific interest in Nat. Geo.

    But maybe I’m a bit unfairly unimpressed by being influenced by claims of so-called American exceptionalism (certainly true in the sense of US being the unique exception as a ‘1st world western country’ with a fairly recent history of slavery—and apparently a bunch of voters hankering back to that!) However it’s interesting that it took ownership by an Australian to make it an order of magnitude worse than before. But Murdoch had practice doing that to TV when I thought TV ‘news’ couldn’t possibly get worse!

    Anyway, Nat. Geo. always seemed like a very nice photo mag., but little else.

    And, at least recently, their TV science popularizations are nearly the worst, to this cranky old hearing-impaired man, for having the whole soundtrack overwhelmed with assinine computer-generated ‘music’! But even Nova can be infuriating that way.

  7. A disappointing issue. I looked all the way through it and they never got their kit off. What kind of deep anthropological mining is this?

  8. After many years my wife has finally cancelled her subscription with this edition. It’s not just the religious thing – the magazine has become an advertising vehicle for the TV channel.

  9. I had to look up the word “osculation” and can’t seem to find an official definition that fits the way it’s used in the title here. It seems to mean the literal act of kissing, or describes the point where two arcs meet, or any type of adjoining. Also, an intermediate form between two taxonomic groups.
    As JC uses it here, it seems to mean coddling or to show preference or agreeableness to.
    Please enlighten me if I’m wrong. Is there another ‘street’ definition that works here?

  10. “Osculating the rump” is a polite way of saying “kissing the arse” (or “ass” on PCC(E)’s side of the Atlantic).

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