Thursday, July 31, 2014

Not What They Think It Means

Normally an article like this one wouldn't rise to my attention here on Augoeides. It's just another conservative group protesting same-sex marriage, which has become pretty run-of-the-mill and increasingly ineffective these days. Perhaps in an effort to step it up, the group has called for a 40-day fast as part of the protest, which sounds pretty hardcore. At least, until you get to this part:

Only the “fasting” part of Fasting and Repentance for Marriage, won’t be as dramatic as one would think. In a follow-up, the group added that they “are asking the entire Body of Christ to join us for this feast – giving up physical food isn’t necessary – but feeding on the spiritual food provided is vital.”

Emphasis added. In other words, you don’t have to really fast, just kind of think of yourself as fasting. You know, go through the motions. It’s official: Family Foundation found the laziest form of protesting possible – protest by imagination.

So what they're calling a "fast" is actually a bunch of people pretending that they're fasting? Because the word "fast" does mean to give up food in some fashion. Some traditions with more nuance than Family Foundation's version of Christianity don't give up fasting entirely, but impose limitations during extended fasts such as giving up food during daylight hours. The point is they do something that rises to the level of physical action.

It's profoundly confusing to me how threatening these groups seem to find same-sex marriage for other people. I get that they disapprove on religious grounds, but nobody is telling them who they can and can't marry. Furthermore, the constitutional separation of church and state protects any church from the sort of government intrusion that they imagine might force them to perform same-sex weddings.

So it seems to me that if Family Foundation wants to hold an imaginary fast they can, but everyone involved would probably be better off if they just minded their own business.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Priest Plagued by Texting Demon

Can demons use cell phones? Apparently so, according to a priest who claims an infernal entity sent him harassing text messages following what at first seemed to be a successful exorcism of a young girl.

Father Marian Rajchel from Jaroslaw, in south-eastern Poland, apparently said the evil spirit was irked that the priest had got the better of him so started a harassment campaign by phone.

‘Shut up, preacher. You cannot save yourself. Idiot. You pathetic old preacher’ was one of the messages he received. Another text said: ‘She will not come out of this hell. She’s mine. Anyone who prays for her will die.’

Father Rajchel told local media demons were comfortable with ‘modern technology’ but also admitted the messages were probably sent through a human host.

It surprises me that an actual demon would bother with something as stupid as sending insulting text messages. Can't they throw stuff around rooms, or worse? Even if the demon's power were limited to sending text messages, it seems to me that it could, say, proposition kids on the Internet claiming to be said priest until the authorities showed up and arrested him. That would be a much more effective use of such a demonic power than hurling playground insults.

Here's my guess. The girl wasn't really possessed and her parents were abusive fundamentalists. The priest put her through the whole ordeal of an exorcism at their request, and she claimed to be "cured" just to get rid of him and end the whole thing. Then, she was still upset about it, so she found an anonymous texting service and sent the messages herself to get back at him. It wouldn't be paranormal, but it would serve him right.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Huge Can of Worms

That's what the Supreme Court may have opened up with its recent decision in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby case. The court has made conflicting statements regarding the narrowness of the ruling, so it's not completely clear yet how the whole thing will shake out. But it looks like as in the case of the Oklahoma monument, the folks at The Satanic Temple will be doing a lot of the shaking.

The group, which "facilitates the communication and mobilization of politically aware Satanists, secularists, and advocates for individual liberty," argues that states' "informed consent" laws violate its religious freedom. "An increasing number of states have passed 'informed consent' laws, requiring that women seeking abortions be subjected to state-mandated informational materials that are often false or misleading," the group wrote on its website. "We believe that personal decisions should be made with reference to only the best available, scientifically valid information."

Lucien Greaves, a spokesperson for the group, said that the Hobby Lobby ruling supports their initiative. "While we feel we have a strong case for exemption regardless of the Hobby Lobby ruling, the Supreme Court has decided that religious beliefs are so sacrosanct that they can even trump scientific fact," Greaves said in a statement. "Because of the respect the Court has given to religious beliefs, and the fact that our beliefs are based on best available knowledge, we expect that our belief in the illegitimacy of state­ mandated ‘informational’ material is enough to exempt us, and those who hold our beliefs, from having to receive them."

The narrowest possible interpretation of the Hobby Lobby ruling, extending the exemption already offered to religious non-profits to privately held corporations where all the owners share the same specific religious beliefs, would not be the disaster some activists have claimed. At the same time, the idea that this can apply to beliefs that are clearly scientifically incorrect is a problem because that opens the door to all sorts of nonsense, no matter how limited the ruling finally turns out to be.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Christian Persecution: The Movie!

The Poor Oppressed Christians have been making movies lately, filming a worldview that I hope will one day be looked back upon and mocked as extensively as it deserves. Just like the last of these films I covered, God is Not Dead, their latest effort, Persecuted, is based on a laughably impossible premise that the audience is supposed to find threatening. In this case, it's the government attempting to legislate religion, something Poor Oppressed Christians are totally for until they realize that religious freedom also applies to non-Christians. Then they go off the rails about how wrong and unfair it is that they aren't treated as special and given more privileges than everyone else.

The plot revolves around an evil senator who is obsessed with a piece of legislation, “The Faith and Fairness Act.” It’s never clear exactly what the Act does, but it seems to force all religions to operate under a single umbrella organization, and to allow members of any faith the ability to preach in others’ houses of worship. It thus combines the Religious Right’s fear that liberals are itching to silence Christian broadcasters by reviving the long-defunct Fairness Doctrine, and their resentment that people view them as intolerant for believing their faith is the only avenue to truth and God.

Standing tall against this plot is evangelist John Luther (John Calvin/John Wesley and Martin Luther?). Luther is sort of a Billy Graham figure who has overcome a past of drug abuse to become a national figure. His ministry, we are told, reaches more people than the evening news. Early in the movie, the evil Senator Harrison tries to bully Luther into backing his legislation at a religious rally; when Luther refuses to compromise his faith for the senator’s political gain, Harrison puts in motion an elaborate plot to destroy him. The also-evil president of the United States is in on the scheme: he looks a little bit like Ted Kennedy and sounds more than a little bit like Bill Clinton.

What's so silly about all this is that a law akin to the "Faith and Fairness Act" would be a blatant violation of the First Amendment in the United States, and therefore massively and obviously unconstitutional. For all the Poor Oppressed Christians complain about their lack of special treatment and their resulting victim status, the First Amendment actually protects religious groups from government interference of this sort. So such a law could never be passed, and even if it were the Supreme Court would slap it down immediately. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine a politician who would go to great lengths to "destroy" an evangelist for simply refusing to speak in support of a proposed law. But apparently the Poor Oppressed Christians see both as real possibilities.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Witches and Wizards Versus Boko Haram

Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria have been in the news recently after kidnapping over 200 schoolgirls earlier this spring. According to statements from the group, the girls are being held until the government releases captured militants. Members of the group are believed to be hiding out somewhere in northern Nigeria where they are apparently under attack by "mystical snakes and bees." According to this article, the source of those attacks may have now been identified. Last week the witches and wizards of Nigeria held an emergency meeting, and their spokesman, Dr. Okhue Iboi, issued a statement statement condemning the militant group.

According to him: “Our bi-annual meeting was actually supposed to come up in first week of October, but our fellow brothers and sisters from these three North eastern states made passionate appeal to our general assembly imploring us to discuss Boko Haram matter. Witches and wizards in Adamawa. Borno and Yobe states want us to intervene, to help cage Shekau and his blood-thirsty lieutenants”

Speaking on the outcome of their deliberations, the 55-year-old wizard said the days of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader were numbered. According to him, Shekau will be captured before the end of December, and paraded on the streets of Abuja and Maiduguri for the whole world to see.

“We witches and wizards in Nigeria have sealed the fate of Shekau. His days are numbered. He will be captured before the end of December, and contrary to the image and impression he has been creating that he is a warrior, after his capture, he will start singing like a canary bird.”

While there was no mention of the snakes and bees, it's not hard to see the connection. Witches and wizards are on the job, and their minions are getting it done. While the Boko Haram member interviewed in the previous article believed that the creatures were the ghosts of those the terrorist organization had killed, the fact is that without some actual magical work ghosts don't generally come back for revenge. They also don't usually take the form of snakes and bees.

Let me just add that I think it's fascinating that in Nigeria there's a professional organization for magick-workers, and that they get together to coordinate actions in response to local political issues. I also would love to learn a spell that hurls "mystical bees" at my enemies, preferably out of thin air.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

BREAKING: The Reptilians Are Real!

IO9 has an ominous report up today on data compiled by the CongressEdits Twitter bot. This ingenious program sends out a tweet every time Wikipedia is edited from an IP address owned by the United States Congress, and was created in response to a wave of Wikipedia edits being made by Congressional staffers. According to the data, someone at one of those addresses edited the Wikipedia article on "Reptilians." What did they modify? See for yourself, with the edited portion shown here in bold:

The idea of reptilians on Earth was popularized by David Icke, a conspiracy theorist who says shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies. Icke has claimed on multiple occasions that many of the world leaders are, or are possessed by, reptilians ruling the world. These allegations are completely unsubstantiated and have no basis in reality.

In politics it's not the lie that gets you, it's the cover-up. And clearly that's what's going on here, which likely means there's something worth covering up! After all, "no basis in reality" is exactly what a crafty Reptilian would say when asked to comment on its own existence, right? Unfortunately the bot only identifies IP addresses rather than individuals, so it's impossible to tell who might be in on this fiendish conspiracy. Clearly we need to explore who has the most to gain from slapping down the otherwise completely reasonable assertion that the United States is ruled by evil extraterrestrial lizard people with the mysterious power to look just like the rest of us.

I'm no fan of the surveillance state in general, but stuff like this is flat-out priceless. It goes to show that when you watch the watchers, you generally catch them up to something.

UPDATE: Just when I was thinking this story couldn't get any funnier, as of today Wikipedia has blocked Congressional IP addresses for a period of ten days due to "persistent disruptive editing." It sounds like the Reptilians have had enough.

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.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Yoga Endangers Your Soul?

Not this again. Father Padraig O'Baoill, an Irish Catholic priest, has warned his parishioners that practicing "yoga, tai chi, or reiki" puts their souls in danger. As usual, the idea is that even secular versions of these practices incorporate religious teachings from Eastern spirituality. Now I can't speak for reiki, but I have taken yoga and tai chi classes, and none of them included anything religious. So clearly teaching that way is possible, and my understanding is that outside Asia it's quite common.

He told parishioners in his weekly bulletin: “As followers of Jesus Christ, we shouldn't be taking part in any activities that are in conflict with our faith. Therefore don't take any part in yoga classes, tai chi or reiki. Do not endanger your souls for the sake of such unsavoury activities.”

Fr O'Baoill, who is on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, has refused to comment further. His Bishop Philip Boyce was also “away” and unavailable to comment. However, another priest in the same Diocese of Raphoe insisted: “Eastern pagan worship and practices are contrary to church teachings.”

He added: “Perhaps he shouldn't have made such a fuss about it but most priests, myself included, would agree with him.”

The idea that simply holding postures, stretching, or exercising slowly are somehow "unsavoury" is just plain silly. Obviously devout Christians should avoid classes in which students are expected to pray to Hindu deities or something, but I've never encountered a yoga class like that. Furthermore, it's easy enough to just get up and leave if you happen upon one and are concerned that it conflicts with your faith. This whole "fencing" idea leads a lot of people to distrust organized religion, and not just Christianity.

Forbidding activities on the grounds that they might lead to some sort of sin or violation shows up in many religious traditions and is predicated on the assumption that even serious religious practitioners are too stupid to know when they're actually doing something wrong. So authorities need to create a set of harsher made-up restrictions to keep them in line. Over the years this concept has been applied to all sorts of things not even mentioned in scripture like music, film, and other aspects of popular culture, which just makes religious leaders look out of touch with the modern world.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Vampire Hunter Faces Weapons Charges

I haven't seen much in the news about a plague of vampires descending upon Sweden, but that didn't stop an unnamed Swedish man from arming himself to fight them off. When police arrived at his home, they found a handmade crossbow pointed at the door. The man explained that he built the crossbow to kill vampires. There's no mention in the article of what made him suspect that hordes of bloodsucking fiends were out to get him.

A man in Uddevalla, western Sweden, hated vampires. He hated them so much that he built a crossbow at home and had it aimed at the door.

The man had a history of weapons violations, and police were on their way to pick him up for a trial relating to a breach of knife laws. Upon entering his apartment they discovered that a crossbow, with arrow at the ready, was pointing straight at the door.

"Today I am going to go out and kill vampires," the man had written on his Facebook page. Other social media statuses included "Garlic!" and "What do you do when the blood is all gone?"

The article also doesn't mention the "breach of knife laws" for which the man was facing trial. Was he previously planning on decapitating the undead? According to vampire folklore, cutting off heads is more reliable than staking because a decapitated vampire can't be reanimated. However, a crossbow is safer because it doesn't require you to get as close. And let's face it, according to television and movies vampires are scary fast.

Police did test-fire the crossbow, which worked quite well. It's apparently not clear whether or not it's illegal to own a crossbow in Sweden, and the man has asked for it to be returned. Without it, I suppose he fears he may be powerless against the marauding undead.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

BBC Reducing Scientific "False Balance"

Occasionally in political discussions someone will suggest that we should bring back the "fairness doctrine" for American news programs that was eliminated by the FCC in 1987. Usually the idea is that a return to said doctrine would lead to more balanced news coverage, but the problem there is that news programs do it anyway, sometimes with ridiculous results. The problem with trying to present "balance" is that these days it's pretty easy to find somebody who represents "the other side" on just about any issue, whether or not they're even remotely qualified to comment on the subject.

The BBC is now moving to reduce this sort of "false balance" in science coverage, in which unqualified individuals are given airtime to discuss views contrary to established scientific conclusions. While this is a broad brush that will likely reduce the coverage of fringe subjects such as paranormal phenomena, it's also true that said phenomena are paranormal precisely because they haven't been verified by formal science. Also, most of the "experts" who get airtime on those subjects are people like media psychics who don't have much to say about it anyway aside from self-promotion.

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues. The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’ “The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.

“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.”

Friday, July 4, 2014

More Bigfoot DNA Sequenced

I covered the Melba Ketchum saga here on Augoeides back when it was taking place, including the founding of her fake academic journal and independent testing of her "bigfoot DNA sample" that revealed it to be possum rather than primate. One point, though, made by her DeNovo Scientific Journal web site is fairly accurate - mainstream science has an uncomfortable relationship with anything considered paranormal, from psychic abilities to unknown species to alternative medicine.

While it's true that most of the time when such things are investigated by scientists they turn out to have normal explanations, that's kind of the point. We are talking about paranormal phenomena, after all, and I'm a big fan of this sort of research whether or not it turns up an unusual or unexpected explanation. That's why I was happy to see the Ouija board study from last week, and also was quite pleased by today's story.

A research team from the University of Oxford led by chairman and professor of human genetics Bryan Sykes put out a call for bigfoot hair samples. They received 57, both from museums and individuals. After determining that 36 of the samples were suitable for testing, they were able to extract recovered DNA from 30 of them. They did not find any anomalous primate DNA, but the results were quite interesting nonetheless.

After weeding out plant matter and glass fibers, they selected 36 for genetic analysis. Over half came from the US; the rest are from Russian and South Asia. The team methodically cleaned 2-4 centimeter shaft samples, and then amplified the ribosomal mitochondrial DNA 12S fragment -- a snippet commonly used for species identification. Some failed to yield DNA sequences, and the team ended up with 30 recovered sequences, which they compared with GenBank data. They got a 100 percent match for each one.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Drugs, Not Demons

Last week I covered the story of three young women who were allegedly "possessed by demons" after playing with a Ouija board. A video widely circulated with the story shows one of the women growling just like Linda Blair in The Exorcist and then cracking up, as if she were trying to emulate a possessed character in a movie but having trouble doing so with a straight face.

The real story turns out to be more sinister than mere play-acting, but it also has nothing to do with possession, demons, or the Ouija board itself. It turns out that the three were given a tea prior to their session with the board made from Brugmansia or "Angel's Trumpet" flowers. Brugmansia is a toxic indigenous plant that contains scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and several other tropane alkaloids, powerful drugs that can induce auditory and visual hallucinations.

New details on the story reveal that Alexandra Huerta, the girl in the video, is 16 years old, not 22 as first reported. What’s worse, the drug was knowingly referred to her, her brother and their cousin by Maria Camaño, the girl’s legal guardian, who admits she was “helping” the orphaned girl and boy contact their dead parents. They boiled the flowers in a tea that they drank an hour before the session and its subsequent problems. Mrs. Camaño is the same woman who went to a priest first to perform an exorcism rather than getting medical help for the hallucinating teens.

Brugsmansia, also called Angel’s Trumpet for its poisonous flowers, has long been used in South American cultures as a topical remedy for pain relief, arthritis, infections and as an anti-inflammatory. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause death when ingested in large quantities, but it has also been used internally for spasms, pain and asthma. It is known to cause visual and auditory hallucinations and was traditionally given to misbehaving children who were told the visions they had were dead ancestors coming to scold them.

So rather than simply acting out, Huerta was actually under the influence of drugs, and for some reason her guardian decided that what she needed was an exorcism rather than medical attention - even though she knew about the Brugmansia and in fact supplied it. Why she expected an exorcism to resolve the situation is something of a mystery, though perhaps the real reason the priest refused to perform one was that he figured out something was up.

So no, Ouija boards aren't dangerous, some hallucinogenic drugs are - but we knew that already. Huerta and her relatives did recover once the drugs were out of their systems, but as the substances also induce amnesia she has no recollection of what she experienced under their influence or whether any of her behavior at the time was stereotypical acting-out.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Recrucifying Christ?

Crucifixion was employed by the Romans as a means of execution for the Empire's worst criminals because it meant a long, drawn-out, and torturous death. Political prisoners who threatened the Roman hegemony were generally elevated to this "worst" classification, and according to the Biblical narrative it was for this reason that Jesus was crucified. Even though this supposedly took place nearly two thousand years ago, some modern Christians have decided that there are activities so utterly and irredeemably evil that they rise to the same level as the crucifixion itself.

What could be so utterly awful that it rises to the level of torturing an innocent human being to death? According to Pastor John Piper, it's not theft, rape, murder, or anything that obvious. In fact, it's apparently so unbelievably terrible that Jesus himself was unwilling to speak of it, preferring instead to teach on more pedestrian wrongdoing like exploitation or demonization of the poor - which, by the way, some modern Christians have no problem doing. No, this unspeakable evil is the sin of watching nudity on television.

A listener named Adam emailed Piper, asking, "Pastor John, what would you say to a Christian who watches the cable TV show Game of Thrones?"

What proceeded were a dozen heartfelt, challenging questions Christians should ask themselves before considering watching shows like Game of Thrones, noted for their graphic sexual content.

"Christ died to purify his people. It is an absolute travesty of the cross to treat it as though Jesus died only to forgive us for the sin of watching nudity, and not to purify us for the power not to watch it," Piper explained.

"If we choose to endorse or embrace or enjoy or pursue impurity, we take a spear and ram it into Jesus' side every time we do. He suffered to set us free from impurity," Piper concluded.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mystical Snakes and Bees Stalk Boko Haram

How do you terrorize a terrorist? If this story from Nigeria is to be believed, all you need to do is conjure up some "mystical" snakes and bees to hunt them down. Captured members of the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram reported to authorities that they were under attack by the ghosts of those they had killed, who took the form of the deadly creatures in order to take revenge upon them.

According to Nigerian newspaper Vanguard, the captured insurgents claimed the creatures -- possessed by ghosts -- had killed many Boko Haram members.

"We were told that the aggrieved people who had suffered from our deadly mission -- including the ghosts of some of those we killed -- are the ones turning into the snakes and bees," one militant told Vanguard. "Our leaders fled, too."

Boko Haram made headlines worldwide for the kidnappings of 220 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, last April. The girls are being allegedly smuggled to Cameroon and Chad and sold as brides to militants for 2,000 naira (£7). Others are being forced to marry their abductors.

Some Boko Haram members believe the insects and reptiles are hunting the insurgents to punish them for the mass abduction. "We decided to flee when almost all our comrades are leaving the Sambisa [Forest] because of constant attacks by snakes and bees, which we were told was as a result of Chibok abducted schoolgirls," one insurgent said.

It would perhaps be overly skeptical of me to point out that encountering snakes and bees is a likely consequence of having to hide out in more remote parts of the African jungle, as Boko Haram members have been forced to do since they attracted international attention by abducting the schoolgirls. Many poisonous snakes can be found in such areas, and African bees are far deadlier than the more docile European honeybee. Not only do they swarm aggressively if disturbed, they also can sting many times without injuring themselves.

But who knows? Whether the attacks are the actions of vengeful ghosts or a natural consequence of going deeper into hiding, it's fair to say that they are a consequence of the abductions either way. Clearly the whole operation was a bad idea from the start.