Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Victim of Drunken Channeling

Channeling as a form of alleged spiritual communication is one of the foundational practices of many New Age religious movements. One of the most successful of these channelers is J. Z. Knight, who claims to channel a spirit who calls himself Ramtha. Knight's group was behind the New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which did quite well in theaters for an independent documentary even though most of the scientists who appeared in it stated that their comments had been taken out of context.

Years ago the joke in the occult community was that Ramtha was pretty much a "master of the obvious" who somehow managed to collect huge speaking fees. I never could understand the appeal of paying thousands of dollars to hear anyone, spirit or not, deliver insightful life lessons like "Love one another!" Clearly, though, I just don't get it, because Ramtha books outsell mine and Knight's organization is both large and wealthy.

At any rate, the latest controversy surrounding Knight/Ramtha clearly demonstrates why channeling is best done sober. Back 2011 Knight took a shot at it while drinking, and the "Ramtha" she contacted let loose a tirade of racist and homophobic declarations. Sometimes contacting spirits does go disastrously wrong, but Knight's problem now is not only that this incident occurred, but that it was posted online.

These are not the kind of cosmic revelations that have drawn students to Knight for 38 years. For the most part, RSE students are thoughtful and well-educated, not apt to embrace a bigoted guru. For decades, the message had been more about finding the god within than disparaging minorities, and the blend of science and New Age Gnosticism made J.Z. Knight millions well before the drunken homophobic, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic racist rants began to make their way into her preachings.

What happened at RSE would have stayed at RSE had it not been for the Internet. In 2012, livestreamed videos of Ramtha’s hate speech were posted to the Web, first by ex-students Virginia Coverdale and David McCarthy, then by a libertarian-leaning think tank called the Freedom Foundation that is based in Olympia. The excerpts from that wine ceremony left Thurston County residents shocked and wondering if there was a more sinister side to their kooky neighborhood cult.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ken Ham Versus Heathen Space Aliens

Ken Ham of Creation Museum fame has to be one of the stupidest human beings on the planet. While I realize that to my readers this isn't exactly a revelation, his recent comments pretty much take the cake. According to Ham, we should stop spending money exploring space and searching for alien life because the aliens are all going to hell anyway.

“Life did not evolve but was specially created by God, as Genesis clearly teaches. Christians certainly shouldn’t expect alien life to be cropping up across the universe,” he continued. “Now the Bible doesn’t say whether there is or is not animal or plant life in outer space. I certainly suspect not.” But regardless of whether there was life in outer space, Ham asserted that it could not be truly “intelligent.”

“You see, the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation,” he explained. “Jesus did not become the ‘GodKlingon’ or the ‘GodMartian’! Only descendants of Adam can be saved. God’s Son remains the ‘Godman’ as our Savior.”

Let me detail the ways in which this makes absolutely no sense, and bear with me, it'll take awhile. First off, Genesis doesn't explicitly state that God only created life on earth. From Genesis 1 (King James Version):

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Note: "the heaven and the earth."

2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And then the beginning of verse 2 sets the context of the narrative that follows with "And the earth." Thus, from verse 2 on it's specifically the earth being talked about. No other planets are mentioned. So there's nothing in the text that precludes other planets also being created by God - at least, not if you possess basic reading comprehension skills.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Welsh Police Seek Stolen Holy Grail

It sounds like the next Dan Brown blockbuster. Police in Wales are on the trail of thieves who made off with the Holy Grail - well, one of them at least. The artifact in question is called the Nanteos Cup, the remains of a small wooden bowl that is rumored to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper and is thought to have magical healing powers. The cup was stolen from the home of a seriously ill woman to whom it had been loaned by its owners, the Steadman family.

The Nanteos Cup – an ancient wooden chalice, which is named after the mansion where it was once kept near Aberystwyth – was rumoured to have been carried over to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, years after the crucifixion of Christ. The revered Catholic figure later founded a religious settlement at Glastonbury and legend has it that the 'grail' then came into the safekeeping of monks.

The Cup came to Nanteos Mansion, near Aberystwyth, with seven monks from Strata Florida, Ceredigion, on the dissolution of the Abbey in the reign of Henry VIII. The Powell family was left in possession of the sacred vessel after the last of the seven monks died.

Over the centuries the mysterious wooden bowl was said to have magical healing powers and, in later years, it came into the ownership of the Steadman family, who kept it in a bank vault in Wales. But it is understood the cup has now been stolen by burglars after being temporarily loaned to a seriously ill woman connected to the Steadman family at a property in Ross-on-Wye.

If this were Dan Brown, he'd save the twist for the end. But here it is: the cup is almost certainly not the actual cup of Christ. Aside from the issue of the Gospels' historical accuracy, the cup was dated to the fourteenth century and matches the design of bowls used during that same period. There's also the point that the first mention of the Holy Grail is in the twelfth century, and while it is an important artifact in Arthurian literature there's no evidence that it has anything to do with early Christianity.

Still, it makes for a good story.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Weird Al" Versus The Illuminati

"Weird Al" Yankovic has just released his fourteenth album, Mandatory Fun. Among other things, the album's title alludes to the end of his conventional recording contract, which may mean that this will be his last studio album.

So perhaps that's why, in the video for his new parody song Foil shown above, he feels free to expose the truth about the Illuminati, New World Order, and Reptilians. Either that, or the more likely explanation that people who believe in the bizarre interlocking conspiracies surrounding this stuff are just so damn funny. Watch the whole thing, it's hilarious. It only starts out looking like a trite infomercial.

If there was ever a definitive sign that all the music industry Illuminati speculation is fake, it's that it's now being parodied in a Weird Al song. And before the true believers come out of the woodwork and start quoting, "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win," let's be clear that when people laugh at you it doesn't automatically mean you have a valid point. Most of the time, it means that what you're spouting is flat-out nonsense.

On the other hand, I suppose if Patton Oswalt is really a Reptilian it would explain why he has such stubby arms.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Acupuncture Skeptics Losing Ground

It's been awhile since I've seen an all-out skeptical tirade against acupuncture. Back in 2012 I posted a study that found clear evidence of its effectiveness in response to an article attacking the practice. Since then, I've put forth the idea that acupuncture may work by affecting elements of the lymphatic system, and according to a new study published in the journal Molecular Neurobiology I wasn't that far off. Researchers tracked the precise biochemical changes that accompany acupuncture treatment, and have identified what could be a totally scientifically verifiable mechanism.

The secret is in the biochemistry. M2 macrophages are an important source of IL-10 (interleukin-10), an anti-inflammatory cytokine that plays an important role in immune responses. Cytokines are proteins released by cells that regulate reactions between cells. Manual acupuncture successfully downregulates M1 macrophages and upregulates M2 macrophages thereby promoting the release of greater IL-10 concentrations. As a result of IL-10 release, pain and inflammation significantly reduce.

This study measured responses in muscle tissues and confirmed that M1 to M2 macrophage phenotype switching is triggered by acupuncture stimulation. Acupuncture literally flips a switch wherein initial inflammatory responses are reduced and the secondary healing responses are promoted. M1 macrophage downregulation and M2 macrophage upregulation triggered by acupuncture was positively associated with reductions in muscle pain and inflammation.

The researchers tested the biochemical process by adding an IL-10 blocking agent in the laboratory experiment. When IL-10 was chemically blocked, acupuncture did not reduce pain and swelling. However, when no blocking agent was applied, acupuncture successfully reduced both pain and swelling. The M2 macrophage upregulation by manual acupuncture successfully created a greater source of IL-10. The researchers note, “These findings provide new evidence that MA (manual acupuncture) produces a phenotypic switch in macrophages and increases IL-10 concentrations in muscle to reduce pain and inflammation.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Because Demons are Contagious!

After a making a handful of reasonable statements pointing out the silliness of young-earth creationism, Pat Robertson is back to his old form. According to the popular evangelist, in addition to picking up demons at the thrift store, you can also inherit them from ancestors who dabbled in "witchcraft or tarot cards or psychic things." It's not clear from standard Christian theology why this would be the case, but then the whole fundamentalist concept of demons is pretty weird in the first place - and that's coming from me, a ceremonial magician who does work with spirits.

In an email, a viewer named Dianne told the TV preacher that her son had “painful shock-waves thru his body” that originated in his stomach while she was praying for him and calling on “the name of JESUS.”

“My son said it felt like something hit him very hard in the stomach,” the mother wrote. “I know this is not of God. He is a Christian. Can Christians be attacked by demons?” Instead of recommending that the mother seek medical attention, Robertson said that the boy could be “oppressed or possessed by demons.”

“You need to get somebody with you who understands the spiritual dimension and doing spiritual warfare,” he continued. “If I were you, I would look back in your family. What in your family — do you have anybody involved in the occult, somebody in witchcraft or tarot cards or psychic things?”

This is the most dangerous sort of fundamentalist nonsense, ascribing spiritual remedies for physical medical conditions. This might be something like the adrenal glands activating in response to stress or anxiety, which does feel like the symptoms described, but it could also be a much more serious condition that should be checked out by a doctor before concluding that it's due to demons and must be addressed spiritually rather than medically. The former is pretty damn unlikely, unless the symptoms are primarily psychosomatic. Only an actual doctor can determine that, not a television evangelist with no medical training.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"Rapture" a Nineteenth-Century Invention

With all the press it gets and popular culture it inspires, it's tempting to think of the modern Christian concept of "the Rapture" as a remnant of some much older religious tradition that retains some fantastic elements. However, that thinking would only be correct if by "much older" you mean "within the last two hundred years." That's right, for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian tradition nobody believed anything even remotely like it. This article from CNN goes over the real history of the theology, and how it came to be accepted by many fundamentalist Protestants. It doesn't date back to ancient times, but rather to the dispensationalist movement that began in the 1830's.

The rapture notion goes like this: Jesus is coming back, and when he does, he will first return before a time of so-called tribulation begins, calling up into the clouds with him those who are "saved." Horrible suffering will then occur on the miserable Earth for seven years. Then Jesus will come yet again, for a final judging. There are many different versions of this scenario, so it's difficult to summarize. It's fair to say, however, that only fundamentalist Protestant churches bother to think about the rapture at all. (Catholics discount the idea completely.)

The rapture concept is relatively new. It started with an Anglo-Irish theologian, who in the 1830s invented the concept. This may come as a shocker to many, but it's a fact: Before John Nelson Darby imagined this scenario in the clouds, no Christian had ever heard of the rapture. The idea was popularized by Cyrus I. Scofield, an American minister who published a famous reference Bible in 1908, one that developed the idea of an elaborate series of final periods in history known as dispensations. Scofield, like Darby, read the Book of Revelation as a vision of the future, not a fiery dream of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.

The latter view remains, in fact, the most common interpretation of the Book of Revelation by mainstream theologians and was described recently by Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels in "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation."

So to the future Harold Campings of the world and their potential followers, keep in mind that the Left Behind series is pure fiction and the idea of the Rapture has little to do with Biblical teachings. Instead, it's part of an imaginative re-interpretation of the Book of Revelation that flies in the face of the professed literalism of the very churches that support it. Not only that, but since the Millerites of the 1840's the history of dispensationalism is made up of one false apocalypse prediction after another. If religion were scientific, the entire Rapture hypothesis would have been discarded long ago.