Faith-based healing kills kids: this time U.S. gets it right and Canadians screw up

November 15, 2014 • 10:31 am

One of the worst aspects of the science-vs.-religion conflict involves medicine, in particular the tendency of some groups to abjure scientific medicine in favor of either religiously-based healing or unsubstantiated methods of folk or spiritual healing that are also based on faith. It’s especially invidious when “faith healing” is given to children.

In many parts of the U.S., and apparently in Canada, it’s okay to withhold medical care from your children if you do so on religious or “traditional medicine” grounds. A chilling report from the U.S.’s National District Attorney Association lists, state by state, how you can get off for killing your kid by relying on prayer for healing.  As the report says:

37 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have laws providing that parents or caretakers who fail to provide medical assistance to a child because of their religious beliefs are not criminally liable for harm to the child.

But of course if you fail to provide medical assistance on nonreligious grounds, you can be criminally liable, so this is a completely unwarranted privilege “enjoyed” by the faithful. Not only that, but it’s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of childrens and newborns (you can abjure midwives and obstetricians) who are given prayer instead of medical care.

I write quite a bit about this in The Albatross, because it’s not only an example of the incompatibility between science and faith, but because it’s widespread in America, and because laws exculpating faith-healing parents were passed by state legislatures (and originally mandated by the Ford administration as part of standardizing child-abuse regulations throughout America), so that we’re all in a sense responsible for the many deaths and injuries to innocent kids. (The federal government eventually withdrew the requirement for religious exemptions, but it was too late: they had already become law in many states.)

And even when parents are prosecuted, the confusing tangle of laws, and the unwarranted sympathy that judges and juries have for religious parents, often mean that convicted parents get off virtually scot-free, sometimes even with unsupervised probation.

This privileging of religion has to stop: all desperately ill children should be required to be given real medical care and not prayer or untested herbs; and parents who don’t give it should be prosecuted just as strongly as parents who are abusive for nonreligious reasons. The Christian Scientists are the most guilty of this kind of neglect (I have a chilling story in The Albatross), but there are many religious sects that rely on faith healing, and there’s at least one estimate that as many as 81% of children who die after given faith-healing could have been saved by conventional medicine.

But this week the U.S. got it right in one case, as reported by in Oregon. Fortunately, that’s one of the states that has no religious exemptions, but does have a plethora of evangelical Christians who hold to faith healing:

After four hours of deliberating Monday evening, a Linn County jury found both Wenona and Travis Rossiter guilty of manslaughter in the first and second degree.

The couple is accused of recklessly and negligently causing the death of their 12-year-old daughter Syble last year, who died from diabetic ketoacidosis. The state argues the parents should have been aware of the girl’s health problems, and that a reasonable person would have sought medical care. The Rossiters claim they thought their daughter had the flu, which is why they did not bring her to a doctor.

The state also presented testimony to the jury that indicates the Rossiters belong to the Church of the First Born in Brownsville, a group that believes in faith-healing. Though Travis Rossiter says in his police interview that he believes it is a sin to see a doctor, Wenona Rossiter testified on Monday that the case was not a question of their religion because they were not aware that Syble had type one diabetes. She also told the jury that she once before took her husband to the emergency room.

The couple will be sentenced on Dec. 19.

Juvenile diabetes is a disease you come across over and over again in cases of faith healing. Parents simply pray while their children die, usually in agony, and yet the condition is easily controlled with insulin. And really, how credible is it that the parents didn’t know that the kid had diabetes? A kid in the last stages of the disease needs to go to a doctor, stat, and not get prayed over because of a suspected case of “flu.” We’ll see whether they throw the book at the Rossiters, as they should, for this is a case where deterrence of others is important. And we need to revoke every religious exemption law for vaccination or faith-healing in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Canadians have yet to learn this lesson, for a court in Ontario rejected a hospital’s plea that a leukemia-stricken “aboriginal” girl (I guess that’s the term Canadians have for what we call “Native Americans”; they also use “members of “First Nations”) be given chemotherapy instead of the traditional and ineffective herbal medicine that her parents” are using.

As the CBC reports:

A judge rejected an application from a Hamilton hospital that would have seen the Children’s Aid Society intervene in the case of the girl whose family had stopped her chemotherapy at the hospital in favour of traditional medicine. The girl has been undergoing treatment for leukemia in Florida.

In a statement posted on a Six Nations community newspaper Friday night, the family of the girl at the centre of the case says the “stress our family lived until today was uncalled for” and that they would never compromise the child’s well-being, saying plans that included monitoring blood work was part of a care plan.

Excuse me, but that’s total garbage. The family’s “treatment” will kill the girl, and the judge will have her blood on his hands.  The doctors estimate that the girl has a 90-95% chance of survival with chemotherapy, but without treatment she’ll die.  And yet the “right” of aboriginals to do what they want to their sick kids is celebrated as a triumph, and is protected by law:

Judge Gethin Edward has presided over the complicated and potentially precedent-setting Brantford, Ont., court case  since it began on Sept. 25

“I cannot find that J.J. is a child in need of protection when her substitute decision-maker has chosen to exercise her constitutionally protected right to pursue their traditional medicine over the Applicant’s stated course of treatment of chemotherapy,” Edward said, as he read his ruling aloud.

Constitutional protection of religion is one thing, and something I favor, but where is the constitutionally protected right to abuse your children by withholding scientific medical care? Children can’t decide for themselves, and if their religious parents want to pray over them instead of taking them to the hospital, the right of the State to protect the child’s life supersedes, in my mind, the “right” to exercise your religious dictates.  The CBC report continues;

Edward, citing the testimony of two McMaster Children’s Hospital doctors, agreed the child wasn’t capable of making her own medical decisions. But he found it was the mother’s aboriginal rights — which he called “integral” to the family’s way of life — allow her to choose traditional medicine for her daughter.

. . . Judge Edward reiterated that no one, including the doctors from McMaster Children’s Hospital who have called for legal intervention, has suggested that the girl’s mother is negligent.

“Nobody is suggesting DH is anything but a caring, loving parent,” he said in his ruling.

“Aboriginal rights”? To treat a dying child with a vegetable diet and “positive attitudes”? That’s positively obscene. Click on the screenshot below to hear the 11-minute video giving infuriating arguments by advocates for “traditional” medicine:

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.02.41 AM

There is no “aboriginal right” that justifies withholding proven medicine in favor of woo. When the child dies, let us recall how this court’s decision and deference to “aboriginal rights” led to her death. The gloating is disgusting:

Outside the court, Six Nations Chief Ava Hill and New Credit First Nations Chief Bryan Laforme welcomed the ruling, saying it has broader effects across Canada.

Supporters of the aboriginal side in the case that was being heard by Judge Gethin Edward hold up signs outside the Brantford, Ont., court. (John Lesavage/CBC)

​”This is monumental,” said Laforme. “It reaffirms our right to be Indian and to practise our medicines in the traditional way.”

Hill said the mother is “overjoyed,” with the news.

When asked about what specific treatment the girl is receiving now, Hill declined to say, adding that was between the family and the girl’s traditional healer — which Hill said involves the same confidentiality of a doctor-patient relationship.

The mother, Hill said, “has the right to do whatever she wants to try and save her child.”

The hospital, sadly, will not appeal. A child’s life will be taken away by misguided respect for “First Nation” strictures, which deserve no more respect, in terms of children’s welfare, than U.S. “religious rights.”

I have a lot more to say about this issue, which infuriates me, but I’ll do it in The Albatross. All I’ll say now is that spiritual/religious healing and “traditional medicine” are both instantiations of faith that contravene science, and that while parents can choose their own treatment, they have no right to inflict death-dealing woo on innocent, uninformed, and often brainwashed children.

Religion is good for society, you say? How many children’s deaths will it take to counterbalance the so-called beneficial effects of faith?

h/t: Stephen Q.Muth, Butter’s staff

David Brooks and his weakness for the sacred

September 6, 2014 • 8:59 am

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, is one of the less noxious conservatives on their staff (think of Ross Douthat, for instance). Although he was in favor of our invasion of Iraq, and supported John McCain, he’s also not nearly as anti-Obama as are other right-wing columnists.  I still think, however, that the Times could produce a better stable of conservative columnists—unless good ones simply aren’t out there.

Brooks’s column on Thursday,”The body and the spirit,” looks as if were phoned it; an idea he had—a bad one—that he expanded into the Procrustean bed of his column.  His topic is why Americans are so revolted at the beheading of others, including the two journalists recently beheaded on video by ISIS.  His answer is because the human body is imbued with spirituality—he calls it “sacred”—and beheading degrades that sacredness. But what he’s doing is simply trying to inject religion (in the guise of “spirituality”) into a phenomenon that has other explanations. It’s not irrevelvant, I think, that Brooks is a believer: a Jew.

A few excerpts:

But the revulsion aroused by beheading is mostly a moral revulsion. A beheading feels like a defilement. It’s not just an injury or a crime. It is an indignity. A beheading is more like rape, castration or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.

But what is this sacred thing that is being violated?

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter.

It’s not clear what Brooks means by “spiritual”, but clearly the word “sacred” has religious connotations, as if we had a soul.  In fact, he directly appeals to humans’ metaphysical dualism as a reason for this beheading.

Most of us, religious or secular, have some instinctive sense that there is a ghost infused in the machine. And because the human body is a transcendent temple it is worthy of respect. It is offensive to treat it the way you would treat an inanimate object. Even after a person is dead, the body still carries the residue of this presence and deserves dignified handling.

Where does he get the idea that nonbelievrs think there is a ghost infused in the machine? Has he done a survey? Does he not realize that we secular folks are just as revolted as religious people at seeing this, even though we have no truck with souls or God or sacredness. Perhaps that should tell Brooks that there is an explanation for our revulsion that is more general—one that doesn’t involve the numinous.

My alternative explanation is that beheading is a particularly gruesome and brutal way of killing someone, it is not instantaneous, and there’s a lot of suffering and blood. We have an instinctive revulsion for that kind of killing, perhaps from our evolutionary history. (I do note, though, that in medieval times people loved gruesome public torture and execution, so perhaps some of that revulsion is, as Steven Pinker maintains, a cultural change in morality.) If the state murders someone, we now prefer it to be quick, clean and bloodless. And Americans are much more willing to accept killing if it involves remote drones rather than a bullet in the head by a sniper.  We want to remove ourselves from the gruesomeness of death, but beheading puts us right there with the sawing knives, spurting blood, and gurgling as the victim tries to scream. Further, the severing of the head—the body’s command module and repository of personality and memory—is particularly upsetting because we know that only a few moments before that head was thinking and feeling.

But perhaps Brooks sees the “ghost” only as the memory of humans who once were alive, whose loss we mourn. We secularists treat the dead with respect not, I think, because we see them as having been sacred, but because there were humans: fellow species with which we could once communicate, or whom we liked or love. And now they are gone and all we can do to show our affection or affirm our common humanity is treat their remains with respect.

Brooks goes on to accuse the zealots of having no respect for the sacredness of the body because “physical reality is not important”:

Our revulsion makes us different from the religious zealots who are prone to commit or celebrate acts like beheadings. The zealots often hew to a fringe of their faith that holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other. They have a tendency to extreme asceticism, to seek to deny themselves pleasures of the living world, to celebrate the next world at the expense of this world, to oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses. It doesn’t matter to them what they do to their enemy’s body, because this physical reality is not important.

Well, maybe he’s partly right here; I think that Islamic martyrs or jihadis might value their earthly existence less than other people, simply because they are so sure that they’ll get Virgins in Paradise. But I’m dubious about Brooks’s take beyond that. There are many Christian sects that do indeed see the body at war with the spirit (Catholicism is one, for instance, as it repeatedly tells people that their corporeal desires are sinful, and so is fundamentalist Protestantism that decries all the pleasures of the flesh). Further, Christian Scientists see the physical world as an illusion.  But none of these sects come close to the kind of brutality of fundamentalists Islam instantiated in ISIS. My view is that they degrade the body of their enemies not because his physical reality is not important, but because they know it will have a particularly horrible effect on their enemies, perhaps terrorizing them into submission and, in the case of the beheaded journalists, forcing America to make concessions. (That doesn’t work.)

In the end—and I’m spending too much time on a column I consider trivial—Brooks goes off the rails completely, taking it upon himself to tell us what “true” religions really are. And, in passing, he admits, without sensing the irony, that ISIS is “spiritual”:

If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam.

The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

I love these people who think that they know what the “truest version” of faith is. In reality, I’d say the truest version of, say, Judaism would be the most brutal and misogynistic version, one adhering strictly to the strictures of the Old Testament. Indeed, Christians also take the Old Testament as scripture, too. Have you read Deuteronomy lately? And why is liberal Christianity, which embraces the material world, “truer” than fundamentalist forms of Christianity that abjure dancing, drink, premarital sex, and even coffee? Those “lows” don’t yearn for the highs. As for “every human body having some piece of the eternal,” I have no idea what Brooks means here, unless he thinks we have souls or afterlives. Perhaps he’s speaking metaphorically, but if so is he’s also speaking obscurely.

No, there are no “truer” versions of faith than others. There are versions that are “truer” to their scripture than others, but that’s not how Brooks is construing “truth.” If adherence to scripture were the criterion, the truest versions of Islam and Christianity would be the most brutal. What he means by the “truest” faith is “the faith that I, David Brooks, find most congenial.”

In the end, faith is faith, all of it is based on revelation and wish-thinking, and it’s all a delusion.  Are some delusions truer than others? I doubt it.


Frank Bruni at the NYT discusses Sam Harris’s new book

August 31, 2014 • 12:17 pm

As I’ve mentioned before, Sam Harris has written a new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, which will be on sale September 9.  Full disclosure: I’ve read it and given it a blurb: “As a neuroscientist, Sam Harris shows how our egos are illusions, diffuse products of brain activity, and as a long-term practitioner of meditation, he shows how abandoning this illusion can wake us up to a richer life, more connected to everything around us.”

As my blurb notes, it’s a wide journey through the land of spirituality, ranging from the latest findings of neuroscience to a chapter on gurus Sam has known. He recounts his experiences with drugs, and tells us what he’s gained from his own many years of Buddhist study and meditation.

The book will surely anger or confuse those people who think Sam has gone soft on religion, but take my word for it, there’s not an iota of sympathy for the divine in the book. And, having taken psychedelics in my youth, I have considerable sympathy for trying to understand what the brain is really capable of, and how our perceptions can be altered. (I myself am really glad I tried those consciousness-altering substances, for such experiences are both perceptually stunning and potentially life-changing.)

At any rate, New York Times writer Frank Bruni, in a Sunday op-ed piece called “Between Goddiness and Godlessness,” discusses Sam’s book, and, I’m glad to say, with considerable sympathy. An excerpt:

IN books and lectures since “The End of Faith,” Harris has increasingly redirected his energies from indicting organized religion — “I’ve ridden that hobbyhorse,” he told me — to examining the reasons that people are drawn to it and arguing that much of what they seek from it they can get without it. There is the church of Burning Man, he noted. There is the repetition of mantras. There are the catharsis and clarity of unsullied concentration.

“You can have spiritual experience and understand the most thrilling changes in human consciousness in a context that’s secular and universal and not freighted with dogma,” he said when we spoke on the telephone last week. It was a kind of discussion that I wish I heard more of, and that people should be able to have with less fear of being looked upon as heathens.

I’m not casting a vote for godlessness at large or in my own spiritual life, which is muddled with unanswered and unanswerable questions. I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word. We hear the highest-ranking politicians mention God at every turn and with little or no fear of negative repercussion. When’s the last time you heard one of them wrestle publicly with agnosticism?

During my conversation with Harris, he observed that President Obama had recently ended his public remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which wraps itself in religion, with a religious invocation: “May God bless and keep Jim’s memory, and may God bless the United States of America.” That struck Harris as odd and yet predictable, because in America, he said, God is the default vocabulary.

“There’s truly no secular or rational alternative for talking about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears,” he said.

There should be. There’s a hunger for it, suggested by the fact that after Harris recently published the first chapter of “Waking Up” online as a way of announcing the entire volume’s imminent release, readers placed enough preorders for the book that it shot up briefly to No. 22 on Amazon’s list of best sellers.

Some of those buyers, as well as many other Americans, are looking for a different kind of scripture, for prophets purged of doctrine, for guides across the vast landscape between faithlessness and piety, for recognition of this fecund terrain. In a country with freedom of worship, they deserve it.

It’s good to see this kind of discourse, especially in a paper that, to me, shows unwarranted sympathy for religion. Although Bruni won’t admit to being an atheist, he does admit that he’s confused, and it’s refreshing that he’s even encouraging discussion about religion and whether religion is a justifiable practice, although this phrase by Bruni leaves me feeling a bit queasy: “I’m advocating unfettered discussion, ample room for doubt and a respect for science commensurate with the fealty to any supposedly divine word.”  Commenurate? Commensurate? To any rational person, respect for science and the truth it has given us, and the improvements not only in our own lives, but in our intellectual understanding of our origins and our universe—that far outweighs any “fealty” to superstition. Nonetheless, Bruni does point out that even agnosticism is poisonous for politicians in our faith-soaked country.

I expect that, as usual with Sam’s books, the atheist community will be divided on this one. But I also expect it will sell well, for anything that smacks of “spirituality” in a day when, as Bruni notes, many of the “nones” are seeking spiritual alternatives to conventional religion, will be of interest.  And, indeed, the book is doing well more than a week before it’s even appeared. The Amazon rankings a few minutes ago:

Screen shot 2014-08-31 at 3.09.02 PM

If you’re interested but don’t know if you want to take the plunge, Sam has published the first chapter for free on his website.  Have a look.

The cover is good, too:


When good skeptics go bad: Isaac Chotiner interviews Barbara Ehrenreich about her mystical experiences

April 22, 2014 • 5:53 am

Barbara Ehrenreich has written 14 books, many of them on the economic difficulties of average Americans or the role of women in history, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) two of them: Nickled and Dimed and (especially) Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. She’s always seemed to me rational and level-headed, but that was until her latest book came out, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. Judging from her prepublication interviews, and now a personal interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, it looks as if this is her attempt to become the Thomas Nagel of autobiography: an affirmation that there is Something Out There beyond naturalism.

In a previous post, I described Ehrenreich’s mystical moment that she experienced as a teenager (the subject of a piece she wrote for The New York Times), seeing the whole world suddenly take on a lovely flame-like appearance. Rather than attribute it to the exhaustion and hypoglycemia she had from skiing, she chose to see it as something numinous—a reflection of a higher plane of reality and consciousness. And that’s the theme she’s pursuing in her new book. Its summary on Amazon includes this:

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience”-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.

In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, Ehrenreich reconstructs her childhood mission, bringing an older woman’s wry and erudite perspective to a young girl’s impassioned obsession with the questions that, at one point or another, torment us all. The result is both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping-a searing memoir and a profound reflection on science, religion, and the human condition. . . .

It sounds bizarre, as did her NYT piece, and my suspicions that all is not well are reinforced by yesterday’s interview of Ehrenreich by Isaac Chotiner, “Barbara Ehrenrich: I’m an atheist, but don’t rule out ‘mystical experiences’.” Go read it: it’s short, very strange, and, at times, almost incoherent on Ehrenreich’s part. The strange thing is that, as an atheist, she is absolutely sure that there is no God, yet at the same time she’s convinced that her personal experience with the numinous points not to some glitch in her brain (as she thinks the religious have), but to something real about the universe beyond the ken of science. A brief excerpt will suffice:

IC: It’s interesting that you call yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic.

BE: I am insistent on atheist. If we are talking about a monotheistic, benevolent God, I know there is no such thing.

IC: How do you know that there is no benevolent God when you think there might be spirits talking to me?

BE: It depends on what I have experienced. I have many areas of experience which show there is no giant benevolent force.

IC: But some people claim to experience a monotheistic God.

BE: That is not my experience.

IC: But we don’t make these grand judgments based on our own experience. [Pause] Do we?

BE: Yeah.

IC: We do?

BE: To an extent. Where is the evidence for a benevolent God?

IC: I agree with you. But there isn’t evidence for spiritual figures in the room either.

BE: Well, we need to find out.

Granted, this was a phone interview, and perhaps Ehrenreich wasn’t at her most eloquent. Nevertheless, the fact that she’d write a book on this—one that reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s strange antimaterialistic and pro-religious Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self is just weird. I don’t know what to make of it, but if anyone reads it, send a report.


Oh, and one more thing. If Ehrenreich is an atheist, why does she sneak the word “God” into the title? I suppose that that, combined with an atheist’s claim for the transcendent, will help the book sell briskly.

Barbara Ehrenreich had a vision, suspects it may reflect realities beyond our ken

April 7, 2014 • 10:51 am

Barbara Ehrenreich (b. 1941) is a very good writer, an atheist, and someone who seems eminently sensible. I was surprised, then, to see her piece in Sunday’s New York Times, “A rationalist’s mystical moment,” describing a shattering spiritual experience she had.

That experience occurred to in Lone Pine, California, the most beautiful town in the Owens Valley, flanked to the west by the near-vertical rise of the Sierra Nevada, and to the east by the barren deserts leading to Death Valley. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and it’s a good place for a “spiritual” moment, if you construe that misused word as “deeply moving.”

But Ehrenreich’s experience was far more intense:

Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

Well, I’d ascribe that to some physiological reaction, as Ehrenreich suggests, but she suggests that it indicated something numinous—something out there that was real:

An alternative to the insanity explanation would be that such experiences do represent some sort of encounter. It was my scientific training, oddly enough, that eventually nudged me to consider this possibility. Sometime in middle age, when I had become a writer and amateur historian, I decided that the insanity explanation may have been a cop-out, that I could have seen something that morning in Lone Pine.

If mystical experiences represent some sort of an encounter, as they have commonly been described, is it possible to find out what they are encounters with? Science could continue to dismiss mystical experiences as mental phenomena, internal to ourselves, but the merest chance that they may represent some sort of contact or encounter justifies investigation. We need more data and more subjective accounts. But we also need a neuroscience bold enough to go beyond the observation that we are “wired” for transcendent experience; the real challenge is to figure out what happens when those wires connect. Is science ready to take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences?

Science, I think, has always been ready to “take on the search for the source of our most uncanny experiences,” and we already know the source for some of them: mental illness, drugs, the power of suggestion, a trance-like state induced by meditation, and so on. What we don’t need is simply more subjective accounts, but more neuroscience.  And, indeed, if there were something transcendent that produces these experiences, presumably science would be interested in it. Perhaps, as Jeffrey Kripal suggested, our brains are radios picking up spiritual signals coming from other brains. And perhaps those brains are in dead people. Well, we could test that, by looking for reliable information from the dead, or even for evidence of ESP or other forms of inter-mind connections.  Yes, those could be tested, and have been. And they’ve shown no evidence for a non-natural, non-material source of our “uncanny experiences.” Still, we can’t rule them out completely, but, after so many searches, one reaches a point of diminishing returns, and loses enthusiasm for that search.

Ehrenreich continues:

Fortunately, science itself has been changing. It was simply overwhelmed by the empirical evidence, starting with quantum mechanics and the realization that even the most austere vacuum is a happening place, bursting with possibility and giving birth to bits of something, even if they’re only fleeting particles of matter and antimatter. Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Or it could have been sleeplessness and hypoglycemia.

I’ll be very interested to see how Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up: a Guide to Spirituality without Religion (coming out on Sept 9.) deals with such experiences. I’m hoping he’ll discuss Ehrenreich’s piece on his website.

h/t: Merilee

In chat with Diana Nyad, Oprah Winfrey channels Krista Tippett

October 16, 2013 • 9:54 am

Is it any surprise that Oprah Winfrey is a sucker for faith? She’s pitched all kinds of woo on her show, and although I know she’s done some great charity work, gotten people to read books, and done other useful things, I could never watch her for more than five minutes.  She was just too earnest, too saccharine—too eager to show the world that she was its nicest inhabitant.

Oprah’s most cloying aspects, a least vis-à-vis faith, are on tap in the following four-minute interview with athlete Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida—at the age of 64!

As you’ll hear below, Nyad admits that she’s “not a God person” and is in fact an atheist. Sadly, she also says, “My definition of God is humanity—and the love of humanity,” which sort of spoils her admission. Why, if you’re an atheist, must you to give the name “God” to anything? It’s a sop to the faithful. And Oprah snaps it up, telling Nyad that because of her spirituality she must not be an atheist after all.

The video:

Here’s part of the transcript from Dave Niose, in a piece at Psychology Today called “Why Oprah’s anti-atheist bias hurts so much”: 

In the interview [Winfrey] is chatting with endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, who recently swam from Cuba to Florida at age 64. Nyad unhesitatingly identifies as an atheist when asked about her beliefs, then adds that she sees no contradiction between her atheism and her ability to experience awe, or in her words to “weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity.”

Oprah, however, apparently found this description unsettling, for it seems that in her view atheists must be cold, emotionless rationalists. “Well I don’t call you an atheist then,” Oprah responded to Nyad’s disclosure. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

But note that that’s what Nyad herself calls “God”! Oprah also finds solace in Nyad’s admission that she, Nyad, is a spiritual person, and snaps at that bait as an admission of religiosity. Nyad finally claims, despite being an atheist, that humans have souls that live on after their deaths—souls created by “energy”—despite the fact that the body “goes back to ash.”

But what Niose chooses to kvetch about is Oprah’s marginalization of atheists:

What is most alarming about Oprah’s revelation is that she doesn’t even realize its invidiousness. Atheists, to her, don’t feel that deep, emotional connection to the universe. She has drawn a circle that includes people of all faiths, but excludes atheists, thereby confirming negative attitudes toward nonbelievers.

To those among Oprah’s legion of loyal viewers who may have held anti-atheist prejudices, this now validates their bias. That’s right, those atheists just aren’t like the rest of us, they can now say, nodding their heads.While we religious people of the world are appreciating the wonder and awe of life, those atheists are just one big buzzkill!

. . . Oprah, exalted by so many but oblivious to the fact that she is dehumanizing atheists, does more to perpetuate negative attitudes toward nonbelievers than Pat Robertson or James Dobson ever could. The general public takes comments from Robertson and Dobson with a grain of salt – but Oprah, as a media tycoon and a beloved celebrity whose opinions are taken seriously by millions, has just confirmed that atheists are “the other,” outsiders who just don’t belong in the in-group. (And the evidence is clear that atheists are indeed widely, and wrongly, scorned in America. With commentary such as Oprah’s, we can see why.)

This gets it exactly backwards.  What prejudiced viewers will really say after hearing this interview is “That’s right, those atheists are exactly like the rest of us—they, too believe in God. They just give Him another name.”

In truth, I think that more damage to atheism was done here by Nyad, eloquent though she was, than by Oprah. After all, Winfrey makes just one short claim about the issue, denying that Nyad is an atheist because she believes in wonder, awe, and humanity.  In contrast, Nyad calls those feelings “God”, admits the existence of souls that exist after death, and says that she has no problem with believers, even those who accept the existence of ghosts. In other words, she’s an atheist who, like Oprah, accepts woo.

It’s really time for us to discard the word “spirituality.” All it does is give believers a reason to say, “See, you’re really one of us after all.” The never-ending series of Templeton-funded papers by Elaine Ecklund, which implicitly equate spirituality with religiosity, testify to the invidious nature of this confusion.

Let the word “spiritual” be reserved for the faithful. Why can’t we atheists just say that we’re “moved” or “in awe” or “deeply touched” by sunsets, music, and scientific discoveries?

I much admire Nyad for her athletic prowess, her open lesbianism, and now her overt atheism. But I still prefer the honest anti-religious invective of a Christopher Hitchens to the numinous gushings of Diana Nyad.

Tanya Luhrmann recommends prayer for atheists

August 4, 2013 • 8:59 am

Shades of Alain de Botton!  First we’re told, as atheists, that we need churches; now Tanya Luhrmann, in a post today’s New York Times, “Addicted to prayer“, tells us that atheists need prayers, too. And she’s not just talking about the physical and mental benefits of meditation: she suggests invoking an imaginary, non-existent God to whom we should pray.

We’ve met Luhrmann before. She’s currently the darling of the “atheist-but” crowd after her recent book, When God Talks Back, about an evangelic Christian sect, became a best seller (see my reviews here and here).   Since then, Luhrmann’s been writing op-ed pieces showing the benefits of faith, even though her own religious beliefs remain obscure. (See here and here for two of her pieces.)  Funded by Templeton for her work on the book, her activities are turning her into a latter-day Elaine Ecklund and a staple of the liberal faitheist media. Here are some bits from her column.

As evidence accumulates about the many health benefits of religious practice, prayer is looking better and better. Some atheists have even gone public with their own prayer-for-health’s-sake practice.

Take Sigfried Gold, the subject of a recent article in The Washington Post. He’s a thoughtful, articulate man who lives in Takoma Park, Md., and turned 50 yesterday. He is passionate about philosophy and long ago decided that there was no stuff in the universe that was not physical — no supernatural, no divine.

But he also smoked too much, and more than anything else he ate too much. He was worried that his weight — a good 100 pounds of excess fat — would kill him. So he joined a 12-step program to control his food addiction. One of the steps is to turn your problem over to a higher power. So Mr. Gold created a god he doesn’t believe exists: a large African-American lesbian with an Afro that reached the edges of the universe. (Those who find this ridiculous, if not offensive, should read “The Shack,” by William P. Young, in which the Holy Trinity is a black housekeeper, a Hebrew handyman and a mystical Asian gardener with windblown hair. “The Shack” was a runaway New York Times best seller.)

Every day Mr. Gold dropped to his knees to pray, and every day he spent 30 minutes in meditative quiet time. These days Mr. Gold, who calls himself a “born-again atheist,” doesn’t smoke. He doesn’t drink. And, at 5 feet 7 inches, he weighs 150 pounds.

So is there a downside? Should we all drop to our knees and pray? In general, I have to admit I’m impressed with the evidence.

To be sure, Luhrmann then admits that there’s a “downside” to prayer addiction, be it spiritual or atheistic.  She claims to have seen evangelical Christians addicted to prayer almost to the point of insanity. Her secular equivalent is the game “World of Warcraft”, which for some reason she sees as an activity analogous to prayer:

The anthropologist Jeffrey G. Snodgrass and his colleagues set out to study this complex social world. They found people who were relaxed and soothed by their play: “Sometimes I just log on late at night and go out by myself and listen to the soothing music.” Others felt addicted: “Once I start playing it’s hard to tell whether or not I’ll have the willpower to stop.”

What made the difference was whether people found their primary sense of self inside the game or in the world. When play seemed more important than the real world did, they felt addicted; when it enhanced their experience of reality outside the game, they felt soothed.

Prayer works in similar ways. When people use prayer to enhance their real-word selves, they feel good. When it disconnects them from the everyday, as it did for the student, they feel bad.

The imagination is a double-edged sword. It is, from a secular perspective, at the heart of what makes Mr. Gold’s god sufficiently real that he treats it as more than himself. But the capacity to make something real is not the same as the capacity to make it good or useful. That’s a caveat to bear in mind for any kind of prayerful life.

What, exactly, is “sufficiently real”? Is that something like Santa Claus? How can something in which you don’t believe be “sufficiently real”? At best it can be “imaginary but efficacious.”  Well, whatever floats your boat. If believing in an African-American lesbian God can help you stop smoking, fine. Just don’t ask us to believe in it, too.  In fact, I find it disturbing that people can actually create something “sufficiently real” that is as ludicrous as Gold’s God. How does that work? And how does Luhrmann know that it wasn’t just the meditation itself, not the black lesbian God, that helped him stop smoking.  And she’s “impressed with the evidence” for the power of secular prayer. What, exactly, is that evidence?

But what’s more disturbing is Luhrmann’s slight and superficial message, which is basically just her take on prayer, lacking any kind of scientific or statistical analysis (she’s an anthropologist at Stanford).  Her message is simply this: “go ahead and pray, even if you’re an atheist, but don’t get too into it.”  Is that really worthy of a column in the New York Times?

Well, the Times, like most liberal media, shows a disturbing respect for religion these days.  But even that paper is supposed to have journalistic standards. Luhrmann’s piece says exactly nothing. It’s as if she wrote a Times piece on how eating donuts can make you feel good—but don’t eat too many or you’ll get addicted. But the difference between donuts and God is that donuts exist.


Professor Ceiling Cat’s Unholy Trio of Famous Female “Believers in Belief”

Tanya Luhrmann
Elaine Ecklund
Krista Tippett

Sun, moon, and man

January 5, 2011 • 6:43 am

If any astronomical photo is gonna make you go all “spiritual”, this is the one. It was taken by Thierry Legault during the partial solar eclipse on Jan. 4, and shows not only the sun and moon, but a space vehicle. Here’s how Thierry describes it on his webpage:

Image of the solar transit of the International Space Station (ISS), taken from the area of Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman on January 4th 2011 at 9:09 UT, during the partial solar eclipse. Takahashi FSQ-106ED refractor on EM-10 mount, Canon 5D mark II. 1/5000s exposure at 100 iso.

Transit forecast calculated by (many thanks to Arnold Barmettler for his help).Transit duration: 0.86s. ISS distance to observer: 510 km. Speed in orbit: 7.8km/s (28000 km/h or 17000 mph).

(Definitely click on image to enlarge):

Note that Thierry had less than one second to snap this photo before the ISS went out of range!

You can see other fantastic pictures of the ISS docking with the space shuttle Atlantis here, as well as a one-second video of that transit across the Sun’s face, showing how precise Legault had to be to get these shots.  Do go to that link; you won’t regret it.  There are other great photos on his web page, Astrophotography.

Legault is an engineer and astronomy buff who lives outside Paris. Here he is with his gear, poised for that shot:

h/t to Thierry for permission to put up this photo, and to Matthew Cobb for calling it to my attention.

UPDATE:  Phil Plait talks more about the photo on Bad Astronomy.