Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ethics and Apostasy

Following on from the spiritualism post and, for that matter, the atheist bus post, I've been pondering the nature of apostasy; the ethics that surrounds the acceptance or otherwise of someone's intention to leave their religion. Many religions stigmatise such a move, and from their "we're right, everyone else is wrong" perspective that's understandable, if not always appropriate. An individual who waves the banner for their particular faith or creed, demanding universal respect will not necessarily hold back in criticising those who, for reasons however valid, realise that the religion is no longer something that they can feign or sustain a belief in.
It's a curious discrepancy; it's not just that people demand a freedom of religion for themselves, they will happily allied themselves with members of other religions in their fight against what they perceive as secular encroachment. But the idea of converting from one religion to another remains an act whose severity shows the loose foundations on which such alliances are built. Unless of course it's someone converting in.

Here, as I see it, is the problem. You're dealing with salvation. Whichever religion you pursue, you own a dream ticket, be it to heaven, a higher vibration, valhalla or whatever. Your friends and family have the same ticket, and the importance of the ticket goes above and beyond any earthly concerns. If someone turns their back on their religon then, to the faithful, they are not only insulting their godhead or prophet, but are selling themselves down the proverbial, condemning themselves to damnation of one flavour or another. So it's understandable from the perspective of the faithful, for such a departure to be heavily criticised; criticised more than pretty much any sin going. Thus we get religious shunning, and in less progressive regimes, execution.

What we have here are two conflicting pressures - the faithful generally recognise that other religions exist, and have a right to exist. Some may even acknowledge that atheism and secularism does too. But they also "know" that their religion is right; that the other paths have a right to exist, but are nevertheless wrong. So when someone of their flock decides that Jehovah, or Allah, is not for them, then that decision tends to lead to a fair amount of conflict. The question we must ask ourselves is, where do we draw the line - when do we view someone's decision as valid. It's an awkward question, because it can't be imposed without placing a judgement on someone else's values, thinking and beliefs. We can't even draw the line, even in the sand, without falling foul of the conflict we're attempting to avoid.

Sadly, though, these things aren't even thought through. The faithful will go with their gut instincts, their moral compass (ho ho) and act accordingly. It seems to me, from the security of my atheism, that the best someone can do is to let go but to keep the lines of communication open. Maybe the decision-making hasn't been done in earnest; perhaps it's just that there are a few border-line acceptable sins (homosexuality, shellfish, usury...) that the person wants to have a crack at. Maybe, though, the decision has been long thought about through agonised and sleepless nights. Maybe, and here is the sign of greatest courage, maybe they are right, and it is you who are wrong. To cast out one's apostates, to ignore them, runs the risk of missing the truth when it finally comes around.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I Believe in Public Transport

The so-called "atheist bus campaign" rolled out recently and the predictable flood of complaints has begun. The ASA, who handle complaints about advertising in the UK, have received 150 or more messages from disgruntled members of the public. According to the Guardian 39 of them weren't even about the ads themselves, but about reportage covering the campaign.

The more valid complaints have been about offensiveness, and more of that in a moment, but the ever-hilarious Stephen Green of Christian Voice notoriety has decided to plump for a "truth and misleadingness" basis for his grumble. This is an interesting tact to take. Sadly, many of the commentators who have suggested that the arising adjudication will hinge on Green, or anyone for that matter, proving the existence of God, are mistaken. The advertiser has to prove its claims, and not the plaintiff. However, the claim in question is that there "probably is no god". Demonstrating the improbability of the existence of a deity will be much more straightforward than proving the inexistence of one, something Green seems not to have realised, blinded, no doubt, by his own faith.

What I find more interesting is the idea that the ads are offensive. The claim is not specific to any religion, something which is perhaps muddied a little by being in uppercase - the sentiment is clearly that there is likely no lowercase-g god. It may be that to a member of a particular religion that this makes no difference - no god logically means no Jehovah, no Allah, no Krsna, no Thor, no Mithra and so on. Where it does become significant is as part of the wider picture. Here's an ad for a church. Its suggestion is that Jesus is real, and alive today. It's advocating a God that is false in the eyes of other religions; and yet these ads do not receive complaints from members of other religions. You won't find many column inches decrying this blasphemous bit of advertising.

The tired old cliché came out for an airing, based again on the above misunderstanding. Would the campaign have been given the go ahead if the slogan had been "there probably is no Allah"? That is already what the campaign says; the Humanists do not want to single out any particular god - it'd be a wasted opportunity, and would misrepresent their beliefs. The rebuttal to the cliché would be "if this was a campaign for Allah, would you still find it distasteful and offensive?"

For whatever illogical reason, there is something more inciteful about an atheist campaign, and whatever that might be, the complaints arising from the ads, if upheld, will open the floodgates for atheists and others to complain about equally offensive and unsubstantiated pro-religious ads. I suspect that the ASA will be aware of this too, and rather than creating a de facto ban on any form of religous advertising outright, will choose instead to tell the complainants that they really need to be a bit more tolerant about other people's beliefs, and that, really and truly, it's not always about them.

EDIT - 21/01/09 The ASA decided not to pursue the complaints.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Giving Up The Ghosts

Readers of this blog will not find it at all surprising that I don't envy Scientologists, be they public or staff. Between damaging practices such as auditing (which can lead to psychotic breaks) or the purification rundown (which involves dangerously high vitamin doses), practices such as disconnection, the harrassing marketing strategies, and the subtle threats and pressures that come about from the existence of case study files and the RPF, their lives can very easily stray from the "good roads, fair weather" front they are supposed to maintain. But that's not what this post is about. It's about something much much closer to home.

I recently had something of an awakening. It's not usual for me to post about myself, but in this instance, it's appropriate, and I hope you'll see why. I was raised in a spiritualist environment. This "raising" was by no means a harsh, controlling regime. It really just amounted to an active belief that the dead are with us still; trips to a church that followed fairly mainstream Christian dogma, but also involved a spot of platform mediumship at the end. My most vivid memory of this mediumship was of a woman who burst into tears on being told by a medium of the bizarre image of a "rhubarb sandwich". Even then I was aware of the ridiculousness of a medium asking a crowded room if anyone knew of a person in spirit called John. Here I had tangible evidence that mediumship was real - a stranger calling out an obscure snack that was such a potent image that it brought tears to the person for whom the message was received. This became something of a touchstone for me through my adult years; without having much in the way of encounters with the Spritualist church, whenever I caught myself doubting the existence of the afterlife, I would think to myself "ah, but what about the rhubarb sandwich", and my belief would remain intact.

Spiritualism, you see, prides itself on being evidence-based. Where other Christian faiths will talk about Heaven and immortality, Spiritualism serves it up at the end along with sweet tea and biscuits. What a draw!

A few years ago, however, I took up another childhood interest for a second time, that of conjury. As a result I read Hiding the Elephant by Jim Steinmeyer. This charted the development of stage illusions, the eponymous effect being Houdini's vanish of an elephant on the stage of the Hippodrome. Wanting to learn more about Houdini I read a biography and learnt about the work he did to expose fraudulent mediums. I, with my spiritualist head on, thought this was no bad thing. I knew there was a difference between reproducing the appearance of a séance and disproving that genuine séances existed, but much of Houdini's exposure involved specific mediums who were, for one reason or another, clearly fakes. Perhaps it was the submergeance in biography and history, but I began to view the Spiritualist movement from a chronological perspective. I had revelled in the antics of the golden age mediums; those that could produce ectoplasmic entities and other more physical phenomena. This seemed a world away from the necromantic messaging service I had witnessed. But the trouble was, once a method of reproducing such effects was presented to the world, by Houdini or Robinson or whoever, although the mediums who practiced such arts objected, those particular phenomena died out. Rather than devising ever-more thorough tests that did away with fraudulent methods, the spirit activity was withdrawn.

And how did the Spiritualist movement get started in the first place? It emerged from the following of three girls, the Fox Sisters, who began to experience ghostly encounters in their Hydesville home. These encounters seemed to follow the girls around, and soon they were giving audiences with people determined to have answers, seemingly, from beyond the grave. From the Fox girls we get the rapping codes so popular with entertainment programs such as Most Haunted. In fact Most Haunted seems to present an interesting return to the older methods of fraudulent mediumship, with its focus on channelled voices, and its love affair with ideomotor driven phenomena such as table tipping and talking boards.

The trouble is that in 1888 Margaret Fox admitted that their mediumship was bogus. Reasons have been put forward for this; that she was impoverished by this point and had been offered a large sum of money to make a false confession. Such conspiratorial imaginings run riot to this day, with the notable disparity that whistleblowers always come from those practicing allegedly paranormal abilities, and never from conspirators debunking such powers. Spiritualism to me became a movement that was founded on a lie, was furthered by more lies, and as faiths went didn't have much in the way of a unique selling point as a result. Nevertheless I was still left with the miracle of the rhubarb sandwich to cling to in hope.

If this were a movie, we'd now be in a montage, where I would be flicking through books, looking at evocative woodcuts and doing my best "smell the fart" acting, before addressing a close personal friend with my discoveries; ferven whispering in medium close up. That is not how it happened at all. It was a slow and steady transformation in my thinking, and not a straight line. It was more like mulling over a jigsaw puzzle, piece by piece, and then suddenly realising that it had already been solved.

Platform mediumship is something like a comedy circuit. You get bookings from a number of churches up and down the country, but with the added benefit that congregations remain fairly stable. But your source of work isn't just at the platform. You also have private clients. You'll get many of these private clients directly from members of the congregation that you address, from people who either received messages, or were impressed by the messages others received (and felt a bit left out). So what happens is the touring medium will be in a position where she receives private clients who she performs one-to-one sessions with, and consciously or unconsciously cold reads them. When she does platform mediumship, she will (out of courtesy) let her private clients know when she has a demonstration in their area. The platform medium is playing to a congregation some of whom are her private clients...

Which means the rhubarb sandwich is a lie. It was too long ago for me to confirm it in this instance, sadly, but mediums know what buttons to push to get certain responses from people. They cold read the crowd, but should they need a "convincer", something that confounds our understanding of how cold reading works, will come out with a "bolt from the blue" piece of information that not only couldn't have been guessed at, but gets a strong emotional response from the person that understands what it means. That information comes from previous knowledge gleaned, sometimes quite openly, from private sittings.

There is also, I suspect, still in existence the "blue book" - a system of mutual assistance where clients details are shared amongst mediums. With the advent of social networking sites, too, the amount of information that can be gleaned from someone's Facebook or MySpace page far outweighs what can be read from them on that first or second sitting.

So bye bye, rhubarb sandwich. Bye bye evidence of an afterlife. I still hope it exists, but I relinquish anything approaching certainty that it does. This has been (and I'm tempted to say "literally") soul destroying. I've gone from being an immortal being to someone that has, at best an outside chance of a life everlasting, and that's not an easy thing for me to deal with. Tears have been shed; sleep has been lost. But I'm getting through all that. Along with the anxiety is an odd sense of freedom. I think of life as a search for some kind of deeper truth about the universe we live in, and I've now dispensed with some blind alleys; I've finished checking the attic. That can only be a good thing. Ironically, I feel more open minded now than I did before. If that sounds odd, I can understand. I want to believe; I want to know, but the evidence for the belief and knowledge I once had is lacking. My newfound openness is in the assessment of the evidence. An open mind, but open eyes too.

Dispensing with the afterlife does new and interesting things to your perspective, I have found. It makes life a thing to be more greatly valued. Picture, if you will, someone who is suffering from a brain tumour. It's inoperable, and the only hope he has is chemotherapy. But chemotherapy is no picnic, so does he go ahead with it, or does he let the tumour take him? Whatever your take on this question is, it seems clear that the belief in an afterlife has a huge effect on that person's decision, and in what way. I often find myself wondering if suicide is considered such a terrible act by some religions simply as a preventative, something to counter this effect belief in an afterlife can have.

But I digress. I in no way consider myself the victim of a cult, but I do find myself in a "floating" state. Along with notions of necromancy, I bought into various ideas about subjective reality and magical thinking. I'll sometimes catch myself, in a run of bad luck, wondering if some outside force or agency is at work. What's worse is, these thoughts feel safe and familiar; they feel like the embrace of an old friend. I recognise them as sirens.

To make things more awkward, my mother and my sister both work in the psychic industry, to a lesser or greater degree. They are firm in their beliefs, which makes some conversations and encounters very difficult, and my most morally sound path difficult to identify. People can believe what they like, but when those beliefs tip over into practices that are harmful, that needs to be addressed.

So here I am, with little in the way of pointed indoctrination and control, struggling with my exit from a fairly simple and straightforward belief system. It's not an easy thing to do; it's genuinely transformational, has taken courage, has caused me pain. But it's nothing compared to what a someone in a cult is up against when they start mulling over their own jigsaw puzzle. They are often in an environment where the doubt itself, let alone the discussion of it, is utterly taboo. This is not a place where they can test their faith and have it grow stronger. I have awkward conversations with my family, but on leaving a cult, people will find they may have no conversation at all with the family and friends that remain behind. I'm not saying members of cults should stay where they are; leaving a cult is a way of embracing your own quest for truth, knowledge and wisdom. If I didn't think it was worth all the pain and heartache and regret in the world, then I'd be back chasing delusions at church in an instant. What I am saying is that critics need to keep in mind that it isn't an easy sacrifice. There are no ruby slippers.

There's a parrallel here, in a way, with drug addiction. Realising you have a problem is the "big step" but it's not the only step. Critics need to realise that barking out ridiculous bits of scripture, logical fallacies and factual inaccuracies may, on occasion, plant doubt in people's minds, but it's not the whole journey. A great deal of sensitivity and support and space (from the cult and the criticism alike) is also required.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Is Now a Good Time?

Just a few sketchy notes about the death of Jett. The internet is a hive of discussion about it all. This is just my two cents.

1) The press, and critics, claimed that the Church of Scientology is against psychiatry. Scientologists have claimed this is not the case, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Let's look at some of it briefly:

  • CoS-founded and co-ordinated organisation the CCHR have a museum exhibit entitled Psychiatry: An Industry of Death
  • Church leader David Miscavige (remember him?) discusses the "global obliteration" of psychiatry
  • Lisa McPherson, clearly suffering from psychiatric problems, was retrieved from hospital into the care of CoS.
  • The Introspection Release Form, which Scientolgists sign as part of the Introspection Rundown, states the following:
Scientology is unalterably opposed, as a matter of religious belief, to the
practice of psychiatry, and espouses as a religious belief that the study of the
mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from
religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.

Now it could be that this document is a forgery. If this is the case, then declare the opposite! Go one better and state that anyone who has seen and/or signed such a document has been duped and should feel free to disregard it. If CoS wants to claim this is misinformation, then they need to start handling the misinformation properly. I've never seen a court case for defamation. Seen a few for copyright violation, though...

It's been said elsewhere that Scientology is only worried about the abuses that sometimes take place in the psychiatric field. I hope the Church can see why people might assume that their criticism extends to the field as a whole.

2) Is autism, epilepsy, or any seizure-inducing disorder considered a psychiatric disorder? Virtually every bit of PR that CoS has put out over the last few days has focused not on the advice given or the position taken on these conditions. It has been only to state that the church advises its followers to seek medical help for medical problems. This is a grey area, and it needs addressing directly. Tory Christman states that she was advised to stop taking her anti-seizure medicine. Comments have been posted by Scientologists who know other Scientologists (they're from Canada; you don't know them) who take anti-seizure medicine with full approval of the church. This disparity could be because:
  • One or other of the parties is lying,
  • or there is some confusion within the church itself of the position it takes on seizure disorders.
Again, an explicit public statement would clear this up in an instant, so how about it?

And just for clarity, I'm not saying that CoS have to do this, just pointing out that by not doing it, not answering the questions that have been raised when their own set of beliefs are being so publicly scrutinised, they play into the stereotypes they are so often accused of being.

On the flipside:

Neither the Travoltas nor their lawyer have stated, at least in the last few days, that Jett suffered from seizures as a result of Kawasaki Syndrome. Kawasaki Syndrome is a self-limiting condition, so if he was diagnosed it at aged two, it is unlikely that he still had it aged 16.