Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The spectrum of nonsense

If you're looking for a new job, the Roman Catholic Church has announced that it's holding a training session in Baltimore for exorcists.

I suspect you have to be a priest first, however, but I don't know that for sure.  What's certain is that you have to have your level of credulousness set on "Dark Ages."

"There's this small group of priests who say they get requests from all over the continental U.S.," Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, said, adding, "Actually, each diocese should have its own exorcist."

I'm certain that's true in the diocese I grew up in, down in southern Louisiana.  Demonic possession seemed to run rife there, with people taking off the majority of their clothes, running in the streets, throwing things, and howling.  Oh, wait... that was Mardi Gras.  Never mind.

If you're interested in becoming an exorcist, the first step, apparently, is to recognize demonic possession.  The signs, say church officials, include "scratching, cutting, or biting of the skin; profound displays of strength; and a strong or violent reaction to holy water."

No mention, I might add, was made of rotating your head a full 360 degrees or puking up pea soup.

There seems to me to be a spectrum of nonsense in this world.  There is the ridiculous-but-basically-harmless (believing your favorite shirt will bring you good luck), to beliefs that get in the way of your own life but don't hurt anyone else (buying into global conspiracy theories), to beliefs that cause widespread harm (believing that you have a mandate from god to kill others).  If you inserted a belief in demonic possession in there, it'd probably come between the conspiracy theories and the jihad against unbelievers -- wasting time with flinging around holy water delays, or perhaps prevents, the subject of the exorcism from getting the psychiatric help (s)he probably needs.

Whenever I'm critical of religion, it makes some people cringe.  "It's my religion" has been seen as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card -- you can say what you want about beliefs in other venues, but religion is some sort of "other realm" which is, and should be, free from examination by the critical lens of skepticism.  My question is:  why is this so?  If the tenets of religion are true (presumably one particular religion, as they are mutually contradictory in their beliefs), then it says something pretty profound about how the universe works -- and that profound underpinning should be reflected in all levels.  Put another way, if some religious view of the universe is correct, its effects should be detectable and analyzable, whether or not you believe in it.

But most people don't see it that way.  Beliefs that would strike people as completely ridiculous are somehow shrugged off if they've become part of an accepted religious scheme (try considering the practical details of how the whole Noah-and-the-Great-Flood story would have worked, and ask yourself, for example, how the wombats got from Australia to Palestine in time to catch the ark, and then back again when the flood was over.  Not to mention the somewhat larger question of "where did all the water go?")

Likewise our Roman Catholic Demon Evicters.  Most folks who read the story, which came out this weekend, seemed to say, "Oh, well, it's part of the Catholic religion," instead of doing what I did, which was to smack my forehead and say, "What century are we living in?"

I know that I'm fighting a losing battle, here -- most people are unlikely to stop and ask the question of whether someone else's religious beliefs make logical sense, whether they are consistent with what we know about how the universe works.  They are even less likely to do it with their own beliefs.  I keep hoping that stories like the "Help Wanted: Exorcists" piece that came out this weekend will jolt people into stepping back and saying, "Hey, is all this stuff actually true?" but I think I'm fated to be disappointed once again.

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