Ye Olde Webblogge

The Veil of the Raelians

If you’re not familiar with the Raelians, here’s the rundown: A religious cult started by a Frenchman named Claude Vorilhon (who now goes by the name Rael, so you know where he put himself in the organization) back in the ’70s. Pros: they’re pretty sex positive. Cons: their symbol is a Star of David with a swastika in the middle. Controversial? Yes, and I suspect deliberately so.

The thing I find interesting is their theological position. It is their assertion (and I’m greatly simplifying here) that the Bible and the Koran and all the holy books are true, but when you see the word “God” or “angels” or any other supernatural reference, what they really mean is that they are advanced space aliens named the Elohim. Bronze Age man was apparently too impressed by technology and called these emissaries from the stars “Gods.” The Elohim, it seems, are so very concerned about inaccurate PR that they contacted M. Vorilhon, a French racing journalist, to set the record straight for the rest of humanity. And they aren’t even paying him to buy some air time. He’s got to rely on humans for funding his message. Or maybe he’s saved every receipt since ’73 and the Elohim are totally good for it. The literature is unclear on this point.

But just think about this for a second: without changing a word the genre of the Bible went from being a Swords and Sandals epic to a Sci-Fi saga! Not even the Watchtower Organization pulled that off. The best they could manage was to turn a cross into a post. Now we can put the Bible on the shelf next to Dianetics and the Book of Mormon.

The first time I saw The Matrix I remember thinking, “Oh my god! Someone made a screenplay about one of my marijuana-induced conversations with Al and Jamie from the early ’90s” Which, I really thought at the time, was a unique experience to me. Nope… turns out I was really a cliché. Innocence is always the first casualty in the War on Bullshit.

Of course it wasn’t unique to me! These ideas are what the philosopher Karl Popper referred to as unfalsifiable beliefs and everyone gets them. They seem true, because it’s set up in a way so that they can never be false. The CIA is reading your thoughts via satellite, and only those with the highest security clearance have the proof; All your troubles are part of a vast conspiracy, and you could prove it if you ever got into one of their secret meetings; Jesus knows when you masturbate, which only the dead can say for certain.

Yet one also experiences statistically improbable bouts of good fortune which is proof that your dead Grandma is looking out for you; Proof that the Illuminati have bigger plans for you; Proof that prayer works. What these all have in common is that it makes one’s self the object at the center of a vast metaphysical or organizational network deeply concerned about the individual in question. That’s probably why, in a world full of things that make one go hmmmm, no one has ever suggested that the dog is telekinetic.

How often to we drop our imagination over reality, like a veil of bullshit that adheres to every object we touch with our eyes? And with every confidence we have a working model of the universe filed in our heads?

All the time. More than we are aware.

The Grief Vampires

Grief vampire. Even if you never heard the term before, understandable considering it’s only now starting to gain weight in the common vernacular, one can’t help but know exactly what is meant by that term. Certainly it may conjure up the image of some predatory pimp waiting at the bus stop to greet the runaways as they arrive. “Hey, cute thing, you need a ride and a place to stay?”

Certainly that fellow fits the fits the vibe of the term, but he is but the tip of the iceberg.

It is interesting to note that Wikipedia article for “Grief Vampire” is simply a link to their article on psychics. I think that’s unfair to psychics but only for the crime of singling them out when they are not alone in that enterprise (Hello? Faith healers?). But yeah, they totally are.

So what is a grief vampire? One could say someone who profits from the misery of others. But then wouldn’t hospitals and doctors fall in to that definition? So let’s refine it to: a person or organization who profits from the promise of relieving misery while perpetuating that misery.

Africa is being ravaged by AIDS, and for comfort some are turning to (n.b. read in a sinister Scottish accent) The Church who are telling them to avoid condoms. Some parents aren’t vaccinating their kids because they DON’T want them to get sick. People are voting for economic policies that will make them poorer just so they don’t lose their job. Last, but not least, people who make terrible life decisions are being advised by people whose own life decisions are suspect under the rubric of having psychic powers that see into the unknown.

Here’s the only problem I have with the term “grief vampire”: it suggests an evil intent, Malice as they say in British Law, when really, the vast majority of grief vampirism is done by people with the best of intentions. Consider this thought experiment:

You’re walking in downtown Calgary and this guy comes up to you holding what appears to be a cocktail napkin with something written in red crayon on it’s face. He tells you it’s the deed to the Peace Bridge and he’s willing to sell it to you for the low, low price of $1000. He is going to relieve your misery about money but letting you buy valuable riverside property with a lot of foot traffic for a bargain basement price. You can install a toll booth and your income problems are over!

Of course, no one who reads my posts is so bumpkin-esque as to fall for that old gag, you savvy sophisticates, you.

BUT if we are truly rational thinkers, we would be compelled to admit that this man is one of two possibilities:

  1. He’s clearly a con artist and not even a good one. I mean, red crayon on a cocktail napkin?
  2. He’s clearly so stupid and unsophisticated that he legitimately thinks he is selling a deed printed on a cocktail napkin in red crayon that legitimately gives him the right to sell property that he legitimately owns

Of course, for all we know that cocktail napkin changed hands a half dozen times since it was first forged through a series of yokels, each thinking they’re the next Donald Trump (and they wouldn’t be far off considering the real estate deals he’s made).

As many of us know, the Dunning-Krueger Effect is when the stupid don’t know they’re stupid because… well… they’re stupid. I know that sounds elitist but let me just add that we all have our DK moments, especially me. Growing up is about learning your limits and sometimes that means trying things that are only theoretical to us. I’m reasonably certain there’s a lot of people out there that are pretty sure they could land a 747 in a pinch based purely on their cinematic experiences.

How about when we decide, without any mental health training, that we can be the White Knight for that Hot Mess, or perhaps that one who has so much potential if only they had someone to guide them? How about when we try to be hard asses to get control of a situation, only to escalate that situation? How about when our compassion becomes enabling? Are we not grief vampires then? How about our inability to kick some of out unhealthy habits because we derive a degree of comfort from them? Are we not our own grief vampires then?

Lest I be accused of humanizing the terrible people amongst us, let me introduce some nuance. True, while it may be difficult to distinguish the charlatans from the challenged, I find it is the charlatans who recognize it’s a scam and are therefore better at it (See: Tyler Henry; Benny Hinn, Gov. Mike Huckabee).

There are no faith healers who invite scrutiny so that atheists can have the proof of Jesus that they seek (It’s not a vending machine!). No psychic who charges money will even bother doing a reading for a skeptic. No libertarian wants to see a comparison of Somalia vs. Sweden. No naturopath wants to see scientific rigour of their products published to the masses.

Deep down, they know… they know.

For the Love of Prohibition

100 years ago, families were being torn apart by the scourge of alcoholism. The religious right’s answer was to prohibit alcohol, and it was a shit show of epic proportions. It made terrible men like Al Capone rich. It filled jails with otherwise law-abiding citizens. The resources needed to police this policy presented a heavy burden on the tax payer. The resulting wars between bootleggers resulted in innocent people getting injured or even killed in orgies of violence. Not to mention the scores of folks who were blinded or died as a result of drinking alcohol made by amateurs instead of professional distillers.
Now the religious right is galvanized by the prospect of prohibiting abortions. If they get their way, it will once again be an unmitigated disaster. A procedure that is done by medical professionals and is statistically safer than gall bladder surgery will be performed by amateurs and will be as dangerous as getting stabbed by a rusty knife. It will put money in the pockets of people who may be acting out of concern, or out of the prospect of easy money, but whom nonetheless should not be performing medical acts. It will fill our jails with middle aged midwives and desperate teens. And trying to police this policy will place an undue burden on the taxpayer on behalf of organizations that do not pay taxes. We know this because that’s what happened the last time abortion was summarily banned.
Let me just say that abortion is awful (I say this as someone who started life as an unwanted pregnancy). Any woman having an abortion is having a terrible day. Fortunately, we know how to reduce abortions. In places that teach comprehensive sex education and grant access to free birth control (like Scandinavian countries) the abortion rate is much lower than jurisdictions that teach abstinence and restrict sexual health facilities (like the Bible Belt).
One would think that the religious right would embrace these policies since they result in their stated goals. But no, that is not the case. That’s because this isn’t about protecting the unborn, it’s about policing “slutty” girls. It’s about making certain that women who spread their legs out of wedlock suffer penalties, and that the spectacle of a young girl’s life being ruined will send a message to other girls about the perils about having sexual agency.
Matthew 7:16-20 King James Version (KJV)
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
And yet, these people often turn a blind eye to their own initiatives. Such is the nature of cult dynamics. 

The Sidney Crosby Fan Club

Every group of humans who are united for whatever reason… maybe co-workers, maybe a street gang, maybe a clique in high school, maybe even fellow travellers united by snarky Facebook posts… all yearn for that sense of togetherness, of strengthened social bonds. What the military might call “Unit Cohesion.”

However, unit cohesion is further divided into task cohesion (completing a team-based task efficiently) and social cohesion (strong social bonds based on commitment to the group’s core values). Most leaders would like to have both attributes high in their group: No social cohesion may undermine trust and affect the team’s efficiency during an emergency, and no task cohesion will leave you with a social club that is mired in corruption. However, these two goals may sometimes come into conflict given the right circumstances and personalities involved. I would like to illustrate my point with a fictional account of a fan club.

Imagine a small town. In this small town are three friends: Alice, Brenda, and Charlie (A, B, & C). They all share one thing in common, a love of Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby. So much so that they formed the local chapter of the Sidney Crosby Fan Club to extoll the virtues of Sidney Crosby to the public at large, but is really just an excuse for three friends to meet in the pub every second Thursday and chat about hockey over a few pints.

One night, Alice proposes a toast over their beers: “I would like us to raise our glasses and drink to Sidney Crosby, the best player on the Pittsburgh Penguins!” Everyone raises their glasses with murmurs of “to Sid” before imbibing.

Then Brenda proposes a toast: “To Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL!” Charlie is enthusiastic, but Alice was hesitant for half a second. She finds that a bold statement, but she really doesn’t have the stats on hand to compare, and this IS the Sidney Crosby Fan Club after all and she doesn’t want to make waves, so she says “What the hell, best in the NHL. I’ll agree with that,” and downs her beer.

Next is Charlie’s turn. Charlie doesn’t think he has a lot going for him right now, and he doesn’t feel like he’s particularly good at anything except being a fan of Sidney Crosby. His wardrobe is mostly Penguins merchandise. His home is filled with artwork and bobble heads and any number of assorted objects that have some connection to Crosby and/or the Penguins. He once verbally insulted a stranger who had the audacity to wear a Philadelphia Flyers jersey in his presence.

Charlie stands up, raises his beer glass and says, “My friends, let us hoist a drink to the best hockey player, not only in the history of the NHL, but in all of human history including those centuries when it was played exclusively on frozen ponds!”

This causes Brenda to pause a bit, but she goes along anyways because it’s not a big deal and she just wants everyone to get along anyways. Alice, however, takes issue. “Charlie,” she says, “I get that you love Sidney, everyone here does. But when you make outrageous statements like that it makes us look like fanatics and we could lose legitimacy in the eyes of other fan clubs and the Penguins organization. I mean, best in the history of the NHL? You’re old enough to remember Gretzky. And that stuff about frozen ponds? That’s a pretty big claim to make when you can’t prove it one way or the other. C’mon, man, dial it back a bit.”

Charlie, surprised that he’s getting any pushback in trying to be the Best Crosby Fan Ever in a Sidney Crosby fan club, lays into Alice for her lack of commitment to the group’s values. “You either love Sidney Crosby with all of your heart or you don’t. This club has no room for someone who questions the greatness of Sid the Kid!” Clearly Charlie feels that Alice should emulate him more if she wishes to be taken seriously as a fan, and if she can’t do that then she should shut up before her negativity rubs off on Brenda.

Speaking of Brenda, she is the tie-breaking vote as to whether the Sidney Crosby Fan Club is to be inclusive so Alice can stay, or pure  so that only the true believers benefit from membership. Who will win her loyalty: Alice or Charlie?

I submit to my readers that it entirely depends on what kind of season Sidney Crosby is having. If he is playing at the top of his game, and his excellence is on display for all to see, Brenda will side with Alice because there is nothing to lose.

However, If Sid the Kid is having a lousy season, plagued with injuries, missed opportunities and lost games, it will be because he is not enjoying the full support of his fans due to watered-down enthusiasm. The dissenters need to go if they cannot fully commit to showing as much love as possible. In those circumstances, I am not only confident that Brenda will choose Charlie, she will even vilify Alice and stop being friends outside of the fan club… depending on how much she wants to please Charlie in his role of leading the charge to bolster their hero.

If the task of the Sidney Crosby Fan Club was to inform the masses of the awesomeness of Sidney Crosby, or even if the goal was as unambitious as providing friends with a chance to hang out over beers and discuss hockey, then siding with Alice will manifest task cohesion. However, the disagreement between Alice and Charlie might make for some socially awkward moments and make things so tense that new members might shy away, thus destroying social cohesion.

If Brenda sides with Charlie, then an orthodoxy of thought is prioritized over the ability to function as a club, and any new members have to pass an ideological test lest doctrine becomes watered down, thus compromising task cohesion in favour of social cohesion.

The remarkable thing is that Charlie has no plan or grand strategy for becoming the de facto leader of the club. He’s just an insecure guy whose insecurities drive him to position himself as deserving to be in a club that is the only source of meaning in his life. He sees himself as an influencer, not a leader, and as such is not concerned about the consequences of decisions made due to his influence. It’s not his problem if people listen to him, he’s just another member like everyone else.

Remember folks, it’s the power we deny, or are unaware we have, that we ultimately abuse.

 

The Skeptic’s Dilemma

Let’s conduct a thought experiment about an ethical dilemma.

For the sake of argument, in this story you are a world traveller and you have the resources and contacts to go anywhere on Earth for any amount of time.

Eventually your travels take you to a place that is furthest away from modern civilization… perhaps the interior of a vast rainforest or an isolated island in the Pacific far away from shipping lanes. Upon arrival you discover a village full of wonderful, generous, but unsophisticated people. They greet you and invite to their ceremony where they worship and provide offerings to their God Alistair, whom they report can make fire from his fist and reveal what the afterlife looks like.

Intrigued, you follow them to their worshipping spot, where out of a hut pops a man who appears to be from your home country. He holds up a Zippo lighter and the villagers drop to their knees. He pulls out a smartphone and plays a video on it and the villagers gasp in awe. (Before you ask, he has a solar powered charger.)

“Kneel before me and offer your tributes!” he demands.

One by one the villagers give him 10% of their food, backing away on all fours as to not anger Alistair. You notice he has so much food that some of it is rotting by his hut, which is the biggest in the village. You also notice that the prettiest girl who’s also fresh out of adolescence has been made his wife. Alistair is clearly taking advantage and living it up at the expense of these kind and hospitable people.

What do you do? You could play along, offering Alistair 10% of your rations and address him as “My Lord” which would endear you to the tribe and make for a pleasant stay. You could confront him or tell the villagers how they’re being taken for a ride, which might backfire on you since Alistair holds sway over their hearts and minds and could order them to kill you for your blasphemy if they don’t believe you. Or you could follow his example and take your own lighter and smartphone and go to the next village to live like royalty at the expense of those people.

Which choice is the most ethical?

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret about skeptics. If you’ve been a skeptic long enough, and had enough frustrating conversations with people who insist on believing something to the detriment of their own interests, eventually you begin to say to yourself, “To Hell with these rubes! If they’re not going to listen to reason, I may as well start my own psychic hotline/television ministry/Bigfoot research center/Homeopathy shop and take their money since they are determined to throw it away! And I’ll be awesome at it because I know how the trick is done!”

Fortunately, most of us are ethical enough that it never goes further than mere ranting. But not everyone… which is why these places exist in the first place.

Relativity

I have given it some thought.

Now I appreciate if your position on the “everyone’s kinda right a bit, I guess, and so we shouldn’t challenge that” kind of vibe you’re throwing out there. And that attitude does maintain a level of civil order and strengthening of community bonds. I suspect you are the kind of person who tries to make friends with just about everyone because you have such a giving heart and you’re very “love” oriented. Back in the 80s, the D&D crowd might’ve call it “Chaotic Good”.

I don’t know if that’s true, not knowing you, but if it is… that’s awesome. The world would have fewer tragedies of more of you were in it.

But here’s my thing: Factual truths are defended with facts, logic and reason, and they are tethered to reality. Emotional truths (aka Bullshit, which is not the same as a lie) are free to mutate like a virus to ensure it’s survival, and sometimes that virus is deadly.

The past 12 months have seen numerous child deaths because they were denied medical treatment. These were not abusive, mean parents. They were loving parents who gave their child prayer/homeopathy/traditional medicine/essential oils instead of so much as First Aid. As someone who cares about humanity and the number of body bags were filling, that concerns me.

Every year hundreds of thousands of children in Asia and Africa die or go blind from vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice would go a long way in reducing those numbers, but the Anti-GMO forces delay it’s progress. This is despite that the scientific consensus on it’s safety is the comparable to the consensus on global climate change or the hazards of smoking. It seems to be more about hating Monsanto.

And how did Monsanto become the Nickelback of corporations? I can think of several off the top of my head who deserve it more. United Fruit Company comes to mind. Their involvement in Columbia… THAT’S evil shit.

And how did Nickelback get to earn so much hate? That’s emotionally extreme. It’s just a band, and they would’ve disappeared long ago if they were ignored.

Anyway, just some food for thought. Respond… don’t respond… it’s all good. Chew on it for a few weeks, whatever.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I had heard the same argument maybe a dozen times in my life, and usually under these circumstances.

I was outside a watering hole having a cancer stick when I was joined by another patron, a man in work clothes and steel toe boots, and sporting a magnificent red beard that offset the slight paunch acquired from 30 odd years of draft beer and upper body-intensive labour. He seemed like a pleasant enough chap as we exchanged truisms about the weather and the fortunes of local sport teams. That is, until we were distracted by a young man under 21 years of age wearing sunglasses driving a convertible 25 year old sports car much too fast and much too loudly (if your car doesn’t sound like farm equipment, you won’t have to turn the stereo up) for a residential neighbourhood at that time of day. If that is not enough for you to register disgust, I’ll add that he was also proudly wearing an exceptionally garish Ed Hardy tee shirt. If not a douchebag, he was certainly a douchebag trainee.

Of course such a display in front of working class middle-aged men will inevitably lead to a discussion on what’s with these kids today and why are they always on my fucking lawn. It’s a phenomenon as regular as gravity and it always ends the same way.

“You know what these kids today need that we had?” asked my smoking companion.

“Proper instruction on how to function in society?” I answered… incorrectly it seems. Also, did we have proper instruction?

“Respect!” he spat out. “We had respect for our elders. And I’ll tell you why: because if I back-sassed my Old Man I would’ve gotten a smack to the face.”

Yes, of course! This has been mentioned to me ever since I was the young whippersnapper at the heart of such debates. How could I get that wrong? But the more I thought about it, the more I kept thinking of what I didn’t hear.

For example, I’ve never heard anyone say they were loyal to a company because the boss punched them in the face. I’ve never heard anyone say the reason they revered Nelson Mandela was because he backhanded them. I’ve never heard anyone say they “back the blue” because a police member bitch-slapped the smile off their skull during a routine traffic stop.

You know what else I have never heard? I have never heard anyone finish that sentence off with, “… because my Dad was a decent man,” or, “… because my Dad worked hard to benefit the community,” or, “… because my Dad ended a lot of people’s suffering.” I’m sure those folks exists, but they rarely have a cigarette with me outside of bars. I suppose that my be an argument against my lifestyle choices, and I will ponder those implications as I stare at the ceiling during my next bout with insomnia.

It occurred to me that my partner in addiction was trying to justify his loyalty to a man with anger-management issues, or perhaps justify his own child-rearing techniques. I decided to exercise a modicum of caution.

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “that what you’re describing is fear?”

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

“Just ask the citizens of North Korea,” I replied.

“Fuck the North Koreans!” he said at he flicked his butt at the parking lot and hurried inside to his pint of draft.

Sin and the Sinners Who Sin Them

As an atheist, I’m sometimes confronted by believers who refuse to believe that my position is one of logic and reason. At the top of the list of their alternate theories is that I “just want to sin.” I admit I cannot deny this accusation, but not in the way they suspect.

First of all, we need to define sin. Most people define it as “going against the wishes of God(s).” This seems pretty straightforward, yet it can be an incredibly nebulous concept upon application. Not to mention unavoidable.

Every “Holy Book” in the Abrahamic Box Set can be broken down into two rules (not including those meant to strengthen communal bonds like rituals, genital mutilation, etc.): Be a decent person, and; keep society exactly the way it was at the time and place of the Holy Book’s writing. These are two concepts that are destined to conflict with each other. If you focus on the former, you’re a moderate. If you focus on the latter, you’re merely orthodox (aka extremist). A violation of either of these principles is considered a sin, yet the tension between the two becomes greater the further in time and space from the original writing you get.

To be sure, sin is not the same as as a crime. Sometimes it is, in the case of theft, but often it isn’t, such as homosexuality. Also, there are crimes which are not listed as sins, like slavery and genocide. So is a sin worse than a crime? I guess it depends on who is the victim and who is the transgressor.

Let’s take for example Evangelical Christianity’s favourite target: slutty girls. Young ladies are made to feel terrible for the “sin” of dressing immodestly, having sexual or romantic agency, or controlling their own womb. The level of vitriol and anger directed at these fellow citizens (who have committed no crime) is off the charts.

On the other hand, if you’re a priest or pastor who sexually violates a child or embezzles church money (which are crimes for you non-lawyers out there) and your organization does a terrible job of covering it up, then sin is a way to lessen your comeuppance. “I have sinned against God and I have received His forgiveness” is often employed as a way to explain why you didn’t deserve jail time, let alone unemployment. If you get on your knees and pray to your imaginary Skydaddy who totally sees things your way, then you’re OK to re-enter society. It’s not like you wore a halter top or anything.

As for the sin I personally partake in every day, it is the only unforgivable sin listed in the Bible. Murder, rape… these things the Great Alpha Male of the Universe can cut you some slack, but NOT opting out of the cult. Denying the divinity of Christ is the ONLY thing that is unforgivable. That is the sin I commit every day,and to be honest, it feels AWESOME!

“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.” Matthew 12:31 KJV