Tuesday, March 3, 2015


"...it is surprising how petty some of the "supernatural" miracles now seem. As with spiritualist seances, which cynically offer burblings from the beyond to relatives of the late deceased, nothing
truly interesting is ever said or done."
--Christopher Hitchens, god Is Not Great

"And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
--Mark 9:42

Let me tell you of a few incidents I have had with a co-worker. Easily one of the largest people I have ever met, the stature of this native of Samoa is surpassed only by his religious assumptions. Not only does he (let's call him Stephen) assume everyone with whom he comes in to contact is religious, Stephen also seems to have forgotten every conversation we have had on religion and super-nature. I have both stated my skepticism of religious claims and challenged his personal beliefs. Yet, he still assumes I pray...

Just before Halloween of last year, another co-worker (let's call her Stephanie) announced that she had seen a super scary movie: Ouija. As she described her terror, which she assures only worsened when the movie ended, and how she had to sleep with the lights on for fear of dark forces assembling against her, Stephanie pointed out that films about monsters and slashers don't scare her as much as dark supernatural movies. Films about demons and black magic and the dead communicating with the living via a children's toy made by Mattel are totally different and much scarier because they "could actually happen."

Since this occurred before any patients were awake (I generally avoid these conversations in front of patients), I poked fun at Stephanie's pronouncement that such magical things could really happen. This led to an interesting conversation with several co-workers who all seem to think black magic and Ouija boards are real. Seriously, I was literally the only person who did not believe that Ouija boards could relay messages from the dead.

I explained group-think mentality and how one's desire to believe a proposition influences one's perception of events. I explained how the ideomotor effect can lead a group of people to believe that their collective involuntary movements are really a demonic influence.

I even pointed them all to a specific episode of Penn and Teller's B.S., wherein the two veteran magicians thoroughly debunk Ouija boards by blindfolding participants and changing the position of the board. The test subjects collectively moved the board piece to where they thought certain words were located on the board--not where the words actually were. If the board was communicating with dead spirits, the testers would have moved to where the words actually were, rather than where they thought the words were.

To put it simply, there is ample evidence that Ouija boards do not communicate with the dead. So, I asked the rational follow up question: if there is a reasonable natural explanation for a given phenomenon, why would you accept a supernatural explanation?

Not to be out done by reasoned argumentation, Stephen shared an experience he had within his own family. Stephen's cousin, who is also quite large, went on a visit to Samoa. Upon returning, Stephen's cousin was "not himself". He was distant, and full of rage. Stephen's aunt swore that while on his trip, Stephen's cousin had been possessed by a demon. Stephen offered to help, and, with another cousin, he attempted to exorcise the demon.

During the ritual, Stephen's cousin thrashed about and threw Stephen and his other cousin across the room a few times. Stephen reported that his cousin's eyes were pure black and he couldn't focus on Stephen or anyone else in the room. It was all very intense. I do not doubt that the facts of the story (Stephen being tossed around and his cousin's eyes being black and vacant, etc.) all happened more or less as Stephen described.

You see, Stephen works with mental patients. He witnesses rage and vacant eyes in patients at work and doesn't immediately assume it is demonic in nature. It seems that the main reason Stephen assumes demonic possession in the case of his cousin is because his cousin tossed him across the room--something which rarely happens to a man of Stephen's size. But, as I pointed out, Stephen's cousin is also quite large. It would be more impressive if Stephen had been thrown by a small child, rather than another 350 pound Samoan.

I shared an experience I had with a patient who claimed to be possessed (she also had black, vacant eyes, and was quite strong). After her ordeal (she stabbed her wrist with a pencil over 40 times and bit off chunks of her arm, which she either spit at me or swallowed--all while asking to be taken to a church), a debriefing was called for staff with the resident psychiatrist.

The doctor explained the psychological process of mental dissociation (becoming completely disconnected with one's surroundings, often hallucinating). The patient was not actually possessed and there is a clearly understood scientific explanation for her behavior and physical symptoms. So, again I asked: if there is a reasonable natural explanation for a given phenomenon, why would you accept a supernatural explanation?

Stephen never responded to my counter argument, but clearly he understood that I do not agree with him on supernatural claims. Surely he would not be so quick to assume in the future that my position on supernatural phenomena is the same as his. Surely...

A few weeks ago, Stephen got in to an argument with a patient about god. The patient, who is a minor, revealed that she doesn't pray because she doesn't believe in god. Stephen took it upon himself to convince her that there is a god (Mormons...). To be clear, the company for which we both work frowns on this.

Stephen asked her why she doesn't believe in god. The patient responded that for the first ten years of her life she was abused physically and sexually. She prayed every day for god to save her, but nothing happened.

Undeterred, Stephen pointed out that god answers prayers in different ways: yes, no and maybe. He then looked right at me and said, "Isn't that right, Matt?"

With a tone of surprise and fluster, I responded, "Don't ask me!"

I was furious, but I did not intervene because I had confidence that the patient could hold her own. After all, platitudes are small comfort to victims of abuse.

The patient responded that she still wasn't sure of Stephen's assertion. So, Stephen offered the following anecdote to further prove that god answers prayers:

A man is stranded on top of a house during a flood. As the water rises to dangerous levels, a boat approaches the man and offers to save him from certain death. The man declines the offer and says, "Don't worry, god will save me!" Another boat comes and offers to save the man, and the man declines again in the same way. "God will save me!" A third boat comes and the man declines yet again. The man dies.

Entering heaven, the bewildered man approaches god and cries, "god, why didn't you save me?"

God replies, "Save you? I sent three boats after you!"

This is the evidence Stephen offers a seventeen year old girl who doesn't believe in god because, for the first ten years of her life, she cried to god to save her from daily sexual and physical abuse, but never received an answer.

She was unimpressed by Stephen's story, and seemed to just want the conversation to end. In essence, Stephen told this young woman that god did answer her prayers; she just didn't recognize it. This is classic blaming the victim.

If I had knowledge of a child being raped right now, and I had the power to stop it, I would be under a moral obligation to intervene. If I did not do everything I could to stop it, I would be a monster worse than anything in Stephanie's scary movies.

God allegedly sees every child being raped at this very moment and he has the capacity to end it. Yet he doesn't. Why does god get a pass? His ways are higher than ours? He is mysterious? Our morality doesn't apply to god? He has a greater purpose in mind? To preserve the free-will of the offender? What about the free-will of the child being raped?

Basically this line of reasoning suggests that god uses rape to teach children valuable life lessons. Disgusting. Ah, but god will help you find your misplaced car keys, or align all the traffic lights to be green on your way to work...

I admit that there is a difference between the morality of Stephen's god and my own morals: my morals are better.

There is only one moral answer to a child suffering this kind of daily abuse. It is not "no, you will learn a lesson which will make you stronger"; nor is it "maybe, we'll see"; it isn't even sending metaphorical "boats" which the child must recognize in order to be useful. There is only one ethical, acceptable answer to a child asking an all-powerful being to spare them abuse: "yes, I will stop it immediately." Anything short of this is evil.


Penn and Teller debunking Ouija boards:

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