Thursday, June 27, 2013

Creation Museum in Trouble

I guess Jesus riding a dinosaur may not be so awesome after all. Kentucky's Creation Museum, a tourist attraction dedicated to illustrating the tenets of Young-Earth Creationism, is facing financial problems due to declining attendance. The museum has placed plans to build a gigantic replica of Noah's Ark on hold, and has been adding attractions with wider appeal in an effort to get more people in the door.

In hopes to draw repeat customers, the museum has added zip-lining and sky bridge courses to their attractions this summer. But when confronted by critics who wonder what the zip-lining and sky bridge attractions have to do with the museum’s message, Mike Zovath, the museums co-founder and vice president, says that the extra activities are irrelevant.

“No matter what exhibit we add, the message stays the same,” Zovath said. “It’s all about God’s word and the authority of God’s word and showing that all of these things, whether it’s bugs, dinosaurs or dragons — it all fits with God’s word.”

In their opening year, the Creation Museum garnered around 400,000 visitors, but that number steadily decreased in the following two years, with just over 254,000 visitors showing up this last year.

One wonders how many people showed up that first year just to see how messed up the place was. Obviously, such folks won't be coming back. At this point it's probably just the true believers. Creationism has also been under attack for years now in the media by both actual scientists and evangelical leaders who favor a more realistic approach to the Biblical narrative, and it may be that this has led to a decline in support. At least, one can hope.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Do The Practice, Get The Results

A subject that gets discussed a lot among magicians is the role of belief in spiritual and magical practice. The chaos magick paradigm emphasizes belief as the engine that makes magick work, but many adherents of other schools take a more nuanced approach. In my experience you can't treat belief like a quantity that you can have "more" of, but rather the key is that during the time in which you are performing a practice you will get the best results if you remove all doubt in it's effectiveness. It seems to me that the better hypothesis here is not that you need to cultivate "more belief" but rather "less doubt" to get the best magical results. This is a self-reinforcing process, since nothing removes doubt like success.

In Liber O vel Manus et Sagittae, Aleister Crowley writes the following:

In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist.

It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.

A number of atheists have in fact taken up practices such as meditation and prayer, having discovered the value of working with their minds in terms of how they function in their daily lives. Practices such as meditation do in fact work whether or not you believe in any sort of supernatural or even paranormal level of reality, as they focus on the powers and properties of the mind itself.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It's Possessed!

Ancient Egyptians believed that statues could house the souls of the dead. Some are now suggesting that a statue housed at the Manchester Museum may be serving such a purpose, as it has been recorded moving on its own. This video shows the statue's mysterious rotation inside its locked case.

The 10-inch tall statue of a man named Neb-Senu was originally an offering to the god Osiris and has been in the museum for 80 years. Up until a few weeks ago, the statue had appeared to be stationary. "I noticed one day that it had turned around," curator Campbell Price, 29, told NDTV. "I thought it was strange because it is in a case and I am the only one who has a key."

Price told the Sun this week that "most Egyptologists are not superstitious people," and said when he first noticed the object had moved, his first instinct was to wonder who moved it. “But the next time I looked, it was facing in another direction — and a day later had yet another orientation," he told the Sun this week. Price returned the statue to its original position and set up a time-lapse video, which he says shows the statue moving without the help of humans.

As physicist Brian Cox notes later in the article, there probably is a mundane explanation for the movement - vibrations from the foot traffic of museum visitors. If you watch the video carefully you can see that when more people are present walking through the room the rate of rotation increases in direct proportion. Toward the end of the video during which fewer people pass its case the statue still turns, but much more slowly.

Why the statue would start turning now, as it has occupied the same shelf for 80 years, is another question altogether. Something as simple as the building slowly settling over those decades might account for a slight shift in the statue's orientation, but perhaps something more mysterious than that is indeed at work.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Lord's Prayer Mystery

I've written previously about how the mistranslation of the Greek word metanoia into the Latin paenitentia and from there into the English term repentence has had a profound effect on Christian theology. It turns out that metanoia is not the only problematic Greek word in the Gospels. Scholars have debated the meaning of another term that is found in the Lord's Prayer, epiousion, for centuries. This article from the Archdiocese of Washington explains the mystery.

The mysterious word occurs right in the middle of the prayer: τὸν ἄρτον ἡμῶν τὸν ἐπιούσιον (ton arton hēmōn ton epiousion) which is rendered most usually as “give us this day our daily bread.”

The problematic word is epiousion. The difficulty is that the word seems to exist nowhere else in ancient Greek and that no one really knows what it means. Even the Greek Fathers who spoke and wrote Greek as their mother-tongue were unaware of its exact meaning. It occurs no where else in the Bible (with the exception of the parallel passage in Luke’s version of the Our Father in Luke 11:3). It appears nowhere in wider Greek literature, whether Christian or Pagan. The early Church Father Origen, a most learned and well read man, thought that Matthew and Luke, or the early Church had “made up” or coined the term.

So, frankly, we are at a loss as to the exact and original meaning of this word! It’s actually pretty embarrassing when you think of it. Right there in the most memorable text of Christendom is a word whose meaning seems quite uncertain.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Completely Shameless

I've gone on and on over the years about the ridiculousness and theological bankruptcy of "Green Gospel" Christianity, but this latest example is the most shameless I've come across in a long time. Texas pastor Ira Hilliard recently sent a letter to his congregation seeking funds to upgrade the church's helicopter. In the letter, he explained that God will help those who donate obtain a new luxury vehicle within the year. Hilliard is now being accused of blasphemy by another pastor, Saiko Woods, who advocates a form of Christianity in which donating to your church and appearing on a game show are two completely different things.

“Do you need better transportation?” New Light Church Bishop Ira V. Hilliard asks in a letter obtained by The Smoking Section. “Do you have a dream vehicle or luxury automobile you long to purchase?”

“We have an urgent transportation need that the Lord said can be an opportunity for you to see His favor and His wisdom released to help you,” he continues. “Scripture teaches when you give to a Kingdom need God will raise up someone to use their power, their ability and their influence to help you.”

Hilliard says that he was excited when the “small voice of the Holy Spirit” told him that God would “release favor” for anyone who helped upgrade the blades on the church’s helicopter.

I grew up going to a large Lutheran church here in Minnesota that I'm pretty sure didn't even have a helicopter. You see, generally speaking, a church is a building that stays in one place and at which people gather. It's not like it needs to be flown anywhere. In addition to criticizing the framing of the letter, Woods also noted how wealthy the New Light Church actually is and questioned its need for donations in the first place. Besides the helicopter, the church owns a jet and an aviation hangar.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

There Are Limits

A British woman who attempted to test "breatharianism," the idea that it is possible to live on sunlight and water without eating food, has ended her experiment at Day 47. On the one hand it's pretty easy to scoff like many skeptics on this forum are doing in the comments because the whole concept seems so outlandish, but at the same time I'm impressed that she would be willing to put this to the test in such a public fashion.

After dropping about 20 percent of her body weight, Naveena Shine, the 65-year-old Eastside woman who got worldwide publicity for trying to just live on light and no food, is calling it quits with her grand experiment. Monday was Day No. 45 of no food, just water and tea “with a splash of milk.”

Shine had dropped to 126 pounds from her original weight of 159 pounds on her 5-foot, 4-inch frame. She says she’s quitting on Wednesday in part because she’s run out of money, and part because of the public reaction.

What I find remarkable here is that I think I would lose a lot more than thirty or so pounds if I didn't eat for a month and a half. Hunger strikers generally start dying at around 50 days, and Shine only dropped to what is still considered a relatively normal weight for her height during that time. We do know that meditation can slow metabolism and little of her spiritual practices have been reported, so perhaps a mechanism like that may have come into effect.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Worst Psychic Ever Loses Lawsuit

Spoiler: Nope!

Remember the 2011 story of the Texas psychic who filed a bogus tip with police about the bodies of murder victims buried on a property outside Houston? After the story was picked up by the media the couple who owned the property were treated as potential child murderers. Once it became clear that the "psychic" was completely and utterly wrong and no criminal activity had taken place there, they sued for defamation and won. A judge has now ordered the psychic to pay a $7 million judgment. A better psychic presumably would have seen this coming a mile away when first targeting this couple.

Instead, she labeled them as mass murderers — falsely, as it turns out — and now a judge has ordered her to pay them $7 million for defamation, reports the Houston Chronicle. The strange case began in 2011 when Presley "Rhonda" Gridley called police to say that she had a vision of a mass grave on the property of Joe Bankston and Gena Charlton.

At the time, police were looking for some missing kids in a high-profile Amber Alert case, notes Houston.culturemap. When the psychic told them the kids could be found in the alleged mass grave, cops acted on the tip and mounted a search. The media got wind of it and, voila, Bankston and Charlton were in the news as potential child-killers.

When I put up the original story, some commenters thought that Gridley might have honestly believed what she was reporting. I find it strange, though, that apparently police took her accusation seriously in the first place because she seemed to know particular details about the property. This suggests that there may have been some personal connection between her and this couple that prompted her to level an accusation against them. The facts of the civil case have not been reported, but if this was in fact a willful attempt at defamation that might explain why the judgment leveled was so high.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Best Apology Ever

The Church of Scientology is famous for threatening legal action against anyone issuing even mild criticisms of its teachings and methods. I still remember back in the days of Usenet how the alt.scientology newsgroup changed its name to alt.butthead.religion.sue.sue.sue in response to demands that the term "scientology" be dropped from the name. Up until now most mainstream news organizations have been cowed by these threats and have published very little negative coverage of the church. However, a recent flap involving the London Sun suggests the tactic's influence may be on the wane. In response to demands for an apology over a story connecting Scientology to a UFO sighting, the newspaper dutifully offered one - to the space aliens.

UK airport authorities said a Boeing 777 pilot first raised the alarm at 8.53am after spotting "two flat silver discs", followed minutes later by a Boeing 767 and an Airbus 319 which saw the same "saucer-like" shapes. The 777 crew said they looked "man-made" and "toylike".
The Sun spoke with investigators, who had considered the objects might be balloons or kites - a notion dismissed by Mr Pope, who said "none of the theories hold water".

When the newspaper published the story with a Photoshopped picture of Scientology's West Sussex property, the church sent a letter of complaint, requesting an apology. The Sun duly published it's apology yesterday:

"In an article on Saturday headlined 'Flying Saucers over British Scientology HQ', we stated 'two flat silver discs' were seen 'above the Church of Scientology HQ'. Following a letter from lawyers for the Church, we apologise to any alien life forms for linking them to Scientologists".

It's worth noting that the Church of Scientology hardly ever sues anyone. Rather, in accordance with a policy that was established by founder L. Ron Hubbard, they use the threat of legal action to manipulate people and organizations into giving in to their demands. The trouble with this approach is that everyone eventually gets wise to the fact that you're all bark and no bite. Given the response of the London Sun, it's clear that this is finally starting to happen. So I see only two real ways forward for the church. They can actually start filing lawsuits and risk losing in court, or better still they can just give the whole thing up.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Flying Spaghetti Monster Approves

The Kansas State Board of Education put itself on the map back in 2005 when creationists voted to allow the teaching of "intelligent design" as an alternative to the theory of evolution. The vote spawned one of the most memorable Internet memes of all time, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This satirical deity was invented by Bobby Henderson in a letter sent to the Board as a public comment prior to the vote, in which he explained the beliefs of the "Pastafarian" religion which parody those of creationists.

Henderson's ploy seems to have worked. After the Flying Spaghetti Monster attained Internet stardom, the Board voted in 2007 to once more reject the teaching of intelligent design as science. Creationists were furious, of course, but so far they have never been able to repeat the results of their 2005 vote. As Phil Plait reports on Slate, this year the Board has once more voted to keep real science standards in classrooms as it has every year since 2007.

There are standards for quite a few fields of science, like chemistry, physics, astronomy… and biology. Of course, fundamentalists went ballistic about this, and a few years back sneakily got creationists elected to the BoE. They twice voted to severely weaken the teaching of evolution. This—rightly—made Kansas the laughing stock of the planet.

In 2006, more moderate folks were elected to the board, and sure enough, soon thereafter, years of far-right religious damage was undone in Kansas when the BoE voted to put evolution back in the science standards where it belonged. And now, in 2013, it’s happened again—the BOE approved science standards that support evolution and its wonderfully coherent and cohesive explanations of biology. I looked over the old (2007) standards and the new ones where they discuss evolution, and they look pretty good to me. Creationists have also attacked such things as the Big Bang and, of course, global warming, but I see those are in the science standards as well.

It's not that there's anything wrong with metaphysical speculation. As an esotericist and ritual magician I engage in it all the time. But it's extremely important to keep in mind that such musings are not scientific until they can be conclusively demonstrated according to the tenets of the scientific method. As such, they have no place in science classes, which should focus on teaching experimental investigation of the natural world.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Your Brain on Yoga

Aleister Crowley was one of the first Western teachers to recommend a simple, practical regimen of Hatha yoga to his esoteric students. While his system includes only a handful of postures rather than the hundreds you can learn today at your local yoga center, it is remarkably complete in that it does a good job of including one posture of each general type. In Confessions, Crowley wrote that one of the functions of his yoga method was to allow the student to produce genius at will, and according to a new study it appears he was onto something. The study found that after twenty minutes of Hatha yoga practice students performed better on various brain functioning tests.

Researchers found that people did better -- both speed-wise and accuracy-wise -- on brain functioning tests after just 20 minutes of Hatha yoga, compared with aerobic exercise.

"It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," study researcher Neha Gothe, a professor of kinesiology, health and sport studies at the university, said in a statement. Gothe conducted the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities," he added.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

1985 Sends Its Regards

Yes, it's true. Pat Robertson is still talking about the evils of Dungeons & Dragons. I had mistakenly assumed that, like everyone else out there, he had forgotten about it. Gary Gygax died in 2008. TSR Games was bought up by Wizards of the Coast who cashed in big with Magic: The Gathering, and is no longer an independent company. In the overall culture the game long ago lost the faddish popularity that it enjoyed in the 1980's. But Pat is still at it, as if the last two decades never happened.

In a segment of “The 700 Club” related to the suicide of the daughter of a Southern Baptist leader, Pat Robertson linked teen suicide to “demonic” games like Dungeons and Dragons, as well as to anorexia and bulimia. “The pressure on [teens] is just incredible,” he said.

Robertson has previously called the role-playing game “evil” and part of the “occult.”

I've mentioned this anecdote on this blog before, but it bears repeating here. Back around 1985 in response to the original allegation of a link between role-playing games and suicides, a reader of TSR's Dragon Magazine took the estimated number of players at the time based on real sales figures, divided it by the number of suicides that conservative Christians claimed were linked to Dungeons & Dragons, and concluded that even if those numbers were accurate they demonstrated that the gamers had half the suicide risk of people in the general population.

The lesson there? Never expect a wargamer to be confused by statistics. If you do, you'll wind up looking like an idiot.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Florida Lifts Ban on Pagan Masons

Religious discrimination has no place in Masonry. In fact, it seems to me that the entire Masonic system is set up as an institution that allows people of different faiths to interact spiritually without conflicts based on sectarian differences.

Last year, though, the Grand Master of the state of Florida seems to have forgotten this simple principle. Back in November, he issued an edict stating that "Paganism, Wicca, Odinism, and Gnosticism" were not compatible with membership in the fraternity. Fortunately, the rest of the Florida Grand Lodge recently did the right thing and overturned the edict.

Happy to report that, on May 28th, 2013, the Grand Lodge of Florida overturned Ruling and Decision #3 on the advice of their Jurisprudence Committee, and that all Masons affected by said Ruling are now fully restored to membership.

Exactly why this Ruling was made in the first place is a bit beyond me… I’m not a Mind-reader. But, my guess is that the Grand Master wrote it in a fit of pique, without consulting his Jurisprudence Committee (which is certainly his Right, but rarely a smart move). As others on the Net have pointed out, his stated reasoning on this was ENTIRELY out-of-line with Masonic History, its Ideals, and its Laws. A simple chat with his Chairman of Jurisprudence would have set him straight.

In some ways the most bizarre part of this whole story is the inclusion of Gnosticism. Perhaps the original intention was to single out classical Gnostics who follow Demiurge theology, but much of the Masonic approach is related to cultivating direct, personal spiritual realization - that is, Gnosis. There are a number of Pagans and Wiccans in the lodge I belong to up here in Minnesota, and they are just as good Masons as those who belong to more mainstream religions. If you take the universalism out of Masonry, what you're left with seems to me rather sad, and I'm glad to see that the Grand Lodge of Florida has now refused to do so.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Cygnus and the Giza Caverns

The discovery of a network of caves under the pyramids of Giza suggests a possible new astronomical alignment for the various archaeological elements found on the Giza Plateau. For a long time, many archaeologists have believed that the three major pyramids were meant to represent the belt of Orion at a particular point in time, more than ten thousand years ago. However, Egyptologist Andrew Collins worked out an alignment that fit more closely with one key exception.

Collins discovered another group of stars in the constellation Cygnus that matched with the same perfection that was the trademark of the Egyptians. By superimposing the stars of Cygnus over the three pyramids he could see that one star, Deneb, was not aligned. Looking where something should be -- a pyramid or temple -- there was nothing. Perhaps time had destroyed it? Perhaps it was buried? Or perhaps it was a sign that something else was under the plateau, waiting to be discovered.

Collins later found clues left in the 200-year-old memoirs of British diplomat and explorer Henry Salt. Salt wrote how, in 1817, he and Italian explorer Giovanni Caviglia had investigated cave "catacombs" at Giza for a distance of "several hundred yards" before coming across a "spacious" chamber. This chamber linked to three others of equal size, from which went various labyrinthine passages, one of which the Italian later explored for a distance of "300 feet further".

Collins decided to look for these caves in the area where the unmarked star of Cygnus would align in relation to the three pyramids. He discovered a series of catacombs, as Henry Salt had described, but no sign of any caves. Then, as he was about to leave the site he noticed a break in the catacomb wall which eventually revealed the entrance to this huge complex network of caves.