Sunday, November 19, 2006


Fill my eyes with that double vision

I often wonder why we accept as piety that which we would consider in other contexts to be symptoms of schizophrenia, or at least delusional disorder.

For example, suppose you had a friend who had a life-changing decision to make, one with which your friend was struggling. Perhaps it was whether to take a new job that required a cross-country move, but that meant he had to leave his home town and his life there behind. And he's not sure what to do.

But one day, he has settled his decision. He tells you that Jesus (or God, or the Virgin Mary) came to him last night and told him what he must do. You might or might not think him somewhat over the top, depending upon your own views. But society, as a whole, would think of this as fairly normal.

If, instead, he tells you that Elvis came to him last night and told him what to do, you'd likely think him a whole lot over the top... and society as a whole would view him as a nut-case.

Even when we reject divine pretension, we have a double standard with it. We consider the likes of David Koresh to be insane at best, but we accept George Bush's claim of being chosen by God to be president as merely a small excess. I suppose how we treat issues of anointment from God depends upon how much political clout the person in question wields, and so, as with many other things, the real double standard on this one is about money.

What is the real difference between a divine vision and a psychotic delusion? Why is it socially acceptable to see God or Jesus or a saint, or perhaps a dead relative, but not Elvis or George Washington or Mary, Queen of Scots?

Of course, any answer to that will be either dismissive of religion or self-referential — it's OK to see visions of things we believe in, because we believe in them. The more people there are who believe in what we say we see, the more acceptable the visions are, of course.

We have a new American saint, as of mid-October, Mother Theodore Guerin, a French nun who worked in Indiana in the mid-1800s. NPR reporter Andrew Yeager begins the story:

For Craig and Julie Smythe, there is little doubt the two-hour trip from their suburban Indianapolis home to St Mary of the Woods, Indiana, was worth it. They stand near a stream of church-goers in this bright sanctuary lined with pink marble columns. The crowd files past a wooden tomb said to contain the remains of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. Craig Smythe says the family prays to Guerin every day. Three years ago an MRI showed spots on his daughter's liver and lungs. But subsequent MRIs have revealed the tumors are gone.
Mr Smythe continues:
The doctors tell us they're mystified by this. Of course, we're not. We know exactly who is responsible for taking those away.
The implication, of course, is that Saint Mother Theodore — or God, with the Saint Mother as His agent — is responsible.

And of course we can't prove it either way, for or against. Believers use these sorts of stories as evidence of divinity. Skeptics say it proves nothing — that the fact that we don't know something doesn't give one cause to attribute it to God and say "So there!" But the point here is that had this been another family, who instead prayed to Elvis, to Satan, to Zeus, or to the Sun and the Moon, we wouldn't likely be hearing about it on the radio, blessed by the Pope with a new canonization. Instead, we'd shake our heads about their magical thinking, and comment that, well, it takes all kinds.

I note that throughout our history we've had one society after another, each with its own system of belief. Each system supplanted the one before, and each time, the new society laughed at the mythology of the previous, but thought that now we know the true answer.

I wonder what will come next.


Maggie said...

I think it just depends on whether it's a shared delusion or an individual delusion, but this is one thing that bothers me about religion: People who believe something without evidence are more likely to believe anything without evidence, and that's just not clear thinking.

Most of my friends who believe in God also believe in ghosts and fortune telling. One very unfortunate woman who lost her 2-year-old son in a drowning accident turned to religion, and then to a fortune teller, who has been trying to separate her from her skeptical (and supportive) family, and has been having her withdraw large sums of money from the bank "to burn," because "money is the root of all evil."

I have to think that if it weren't generally acceptable to believe in god without evidence, that people wouldn't be so quick to accept other nonsense without evidence. And the flip side of that is the lack of understanding about science, and the inability to reason about numerical information, and the inability to draw scientific conclusions from everyday life. I was just privately lamenting yesterday that we have lost so much by having the current administration in office. Not only have we pumped billions of dollars into a needless war, but that money wasn't spent elsewhere. Now we have a huge debt to repay, and again, time and money will be spent on this war. I think we've been set back decades. :-(

Barry Leiba said...

Mm, so you're really saying that magical thinking begets magical thinking. I'd considered that those who engage in the kind of magical thinking that we generally accept... do not tend to go on to the other sort.

On the other hand, there are ghosts and there are ghosts. Catholics may believe in the ghosts of the saints, even if they don't believe in the ghost of dear Uncle Joseph or the ghost of Lizzie Borden. So I see what you mean.

Interestingly, most of the religious people I know do not go on to believe in ghosts, fortune telling, astrology, or the like.

I certainly agree with you that training kids in religion is a way of training kids to accept magical things without evidence... and that that, in itself, is a bad lesson to be teaching.

Maggie said...

I don't see how a person can rationalize believing in one thing without evidence, but not something else, so it seems like you could easily argue with them until they believe in something else without evidence, or give up their original belief, just to be consistent. I think it's a dangerous trend to allow into your own mind. I have trouble trusting the judgement of somebody who will believe something without evidence.

My friend who is an Episcopalian (and I never thought of Episcopalians as that bad, since my grandfather was an Episcopalian minister in a very wealthy town, and most of those church-goers were not bible-thumpers, they almost seemed embarassed to believe, as any good WASP is embarassed to show any emotion ;-) believes that her son sees ghosts, and has actually brought it up with her minister. According to the conversations she's repeated for me, the minister has told her that children are closer to the afterlife, or something like that, and so he probably is seeing ghosts.


Dr. Momentum said...

When I was a boy and a Catholic, we were taught that superstition was wrong. It was wrong to believe in ghosts.

I think that some people see religion as an inoculation against superstition. Some people who, I think, don't actually believe, raise their children in an organized religion so as to avoid their children seeking spirituality along some less-acceptable (to them) path.

I don't know the wisdom of this approach; I guess that if you really get them indoctrinated it does work. However it seems to me that other superstitions are easily rationalized if the person is predisposed.

I think I know why Maggie's experience is as it is: we tend to know a lot of atheists, and they tend not to believe in ghosts. We don't hang around a lot of religious folks, so we don't have a large sample of those. If we did, maybe we'd know a lot of them who didn't believe in ghosts and such.

Fred said...

I'm embarrassed to say I didn't see the link to FSM coming, but I really loved seeing that as your conclusion. Bravo!