We have all seen the unfortunate person on street corner babbling incomprehensibly (to us) to some invisible imagined being. And we have all seen people praying before (and to) statues and worshiping invisible deities. And the difference is . . . ?
I recently found my self in a social situation in which my obsession with realism nearly overwhelmed my social manners (are these situations occurring with greater frequency?). I have addressed matters of “belief” elsewhere in these pages over the years [ 26.5; 37.7; 54.3; 59.7, among others] and, I (at least) think, I have come to the position that, while I agree that people should be free to believe what they are inclined or choose to believe. That is a fundamental freedom—if it even is so private a matter that a freedom is the wrong way to classify it—that, in my opinion, should only be bounded by concerns where its exercise enters a public sphere. Here I reference my opinion that evangelism is the odious behavior of arrogant assholes. If I respect your right to believe what you like, you respect my right not to have to listen to it.
But, unfortunately, it isn’t as simple or relatively benign as all that.
Believing is something we need to be allowed to do; but we must also recognize that it is inherently a dangerous activity because belief is not the same as the truth, yet humans have been conflating the two since, way back when, Dyk, the shaman of the Rock people, maintained that rain was the Sky God pissing on his people because Urd refused to let Dyk screw Urd’s wife, Yummi. Or, something like that. But my point is not that all the guys wanted some action with Yummi,1 but that belief often becomes a source power. The cross has the same shape as the swords, and the crescent as a simitar.
So what’s my angle this time, you might be asking?2 Well, to return to my lead sentence, it’s this. While surveys have been showing that increasing numbers of (mostly young) people have been indicating that they belong to no formal religion, and it appears that atheism and agnosticism are also gaining a little ground, their might be something slipping into the credibility void.
It began when a person introduced herself as a (and I am not making this up) “certified heart guide and angel intuitive.”3 Not having encountered these occupational categories the four, my only response was the noncommittal “oh, that’s interesting.” The first part sounded faintly cardiological, but when she explained that she helps people find answers in their lives and to connect with their angels, my metaphysical alarm bells went off. I explained that I was a rationalist and did not put much stock in those sorts of things and another woman at the table, with whom I was slightly acquainted, offered that she nevertheless saw me as a person with a “spiritual side.”
I have been alleged to be “spiritual” before, but I have never been sure what this slippery and highly connotative term really means, although I am certain at this point that I am not a hauntingly unphysical entity. On the other hand, it just might have been a reference to the fact that I have attempted to do some creative writing and musical composition, reflecting a side of me that is what was referred to in the 1980s as “right-brained.” Where it means something equivalent to being “religious”, then you need to count me out.
Nevertheless, the conversation such as it was, was not necessarily with reference to religion, and certainly not in a sectarian or denominational forms. What it was, to attempt to classify it in some recognizable way, is what probably is commonly referred to these days as a “New Age” alternate reality way of looking at existence that is, to use my own terms for it, “epi-rational,” an outgrowth of the self help, and inspirational speaker movement the boundaries of which may loosely be drawn around Scientology, EST, Tony Robbins, and some of the fluffy “if you believe it you can make it come true” sort of spiritual-psychobabble one can run into on Oprah, or even on the pledge programming of your local PBS affiliate.
I remarked that the some of this new supernaturalism reminded me in some ways of prayer and that I am skeptical of what I call “the efficacy of prayer.” Although it is difficult to prove or disprove whether prayer works (I am speaking here of what I call “supplicative prayer”; prayer where one is requesting a result) it can be questioned on logical grounds. Here I offered an example from an interchange with my own dear mother years ago. My mom used to offer a little prayer to St. Anthony, the patron saint in the Roman Catholic Church for lost articles, when she lost or misplaced something.
Me (on the phone): Ma, I can’t come over to see you just now because I can’t find my car keys.
Ma: That’s okay. I’ll say a prayer to St. Anthony and he will help you find them, she replies confidently.
I hang up and return to searching for my keys, eventually finding them hiding from me under my hat and gloves.4
Me (calling again): Mom, I found my keys; I’ll be right over.
Ma: Of course, I prayed to St. Anthony. See you soon.
There you go. No point in asking my Mom if she considered that my searching had anything to do with finding my keys. (Maybe what St. Anthony really does is get you up off your ass to look for things.) There’s always an explanation: you have to pray more; Saint Anthony is busy finding a lot of lost iPhones; Saint Anthony works by inspiring you to go and look where he knows the keys are; etc. In fact, the Saint Anthony situation is merely a minor part of a more comprehensive system of supernatural causality that can be shortened to the universal explanation that “everything happens for a reason,” or is the consequence of an antecedent action. (Which would mean, of course, that I am going to get some pay off, for good or ill, for my Remarks about Saint Anthony, who is probably already hiding my car keys.)
So, like a proper rationalist I asked for some confirming evidence from my the ladies at the social gathering. I wanted something scientific to confirm the efficacy of prayer. Surprisingly, I was referred to a “scientific experiment” reported in a book titled Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One, by Dr. Joe Dispenza. Joe is a doctor of Chiropractic and, although he apparently did not conduct the “experiment” he reported it in his book. A group was given a list of names to prayer for, and here is result (screenshot from the sample pages in Amazon.com):
How about that sentence in italics? Never mind that nothing of the important scientific variables and conditions of this so-called experiment are provided—just the “results”—but please tell me how there is a means of confirming a causal connection between events in the past and prayer in the future. To allege that this can be confirmed inferentially in a statistical analysis is only possible if the (unprovided) data is falsified (and probably was). Anyone who has studied philosophy of science or statistics would laugh this chiropractor pretending to be a neuroscientist right out of the room. Moreover, to make the spurious connection between this phony baloney experiment and quantum mechanics indicates that he doesn’t understand Einstein or Heisenberg either.
Maybe all I had to do is pray in the present that my keys had never been misplaced in the past and problem solved.5
This sort of pseudoscience has been called “Tooth Fairy” science by skeptics. Still, when the studies show that prayer doesn’t heal or that applied kinesiology or dowsing doesn’t work under controlled conditions their advocates don’t reject their beliefs, but stick with their anecdotal evidence that if the money replaced the teeth the Tooth Fairy must exist.
So, why am I getting my “knickers in a twist” (heard that in a movie and liked it) over this stuff? Like I said above, let people believe what they choose to believe. But I don’t ignore the dangers of belief systems that are plucked out of thin air (or fears, or commercial prospects) that threaten our scientific understanding of the universe. Goofy belief systems about finding one’s angels, praying to heal people in the past, of un reasonable faith in the powers of “intention” and “belief,” and other paranormal beliefs and behaviors threaten not to only the obvious present dangers of climate change and medical concerns such as vaccination, but lure the gullible into false hopes, and worse, and fads 6 and cults that can be both personally and socially deleterious. Science is now regarded, for example, in the creationist quarters as indefensible as just “another belief system” such that any unproven hypothesis is co-equal with scientific proof.
So I’m not giving a genial pass when angels, intending hearts and Tooth Fairy science arise in polite conversation. Too many scientists and other rational thinkers have given too much time and effort overcoming the superstitions of the past that have done so much harm to give way to their New Age reincarnations. Our grip on reality is far too tenuous to embrace a form of divine schizophrenia [ 10.2].
© 2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 6.14.2015)