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.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Strange angels, watching me

You hear a lot of people talking about angels, and they certainly are popular in art.  They're represented in a variety of fashions, from the imposing, usually serious/serene angels who look like adults (often robed/winged), to the little kid angels popular in Hallmark statuary, to the little-fat-naked-baby "cherubs" so common in 18th century art.

I know angels are referenced a good many times in the bible, and I don't intend to start down the road of questioning that source; what I'm wondering about today is sites such as "Vanessa's Angels."

This site -- one of many like it -- doesn't just take the biblical angle of claiming that angels (numbers, names, and attributes unspecified) are "god's servants" -- it gives huge amounts of detailed information. We are told, for example, that the angel Seraphiel has "the body of an eagle" and has "eyes so many in number that they can't be counted."  Spigliguel is the angel of spring.  (If I was an angel, I think I'd pick a nicer sounding name than "Spigliguel," wouldn't you?)  Azrael, the "angel of death," has "four thousand wings and seventy thousand feet."  (You'd think that'd make it difficult to fly and/or walk -- a clear case, I think, of more not being better.)  Sandalphon "is the twin brother of Metatron" and is so tall that "it would take a journey of five hundred years just to reach from his toes to the top of his head."

So, anyway, of course I'm sitting here wondering, how do you know all of this?  Trained scientists know that the first rule when that question is asked is, "check references."  So I did, not expecting to find much, because it kind of sounded like she was making this stuff up as she went along.  But to my surprise, some of the stuff was referenced -- mostly to Hebrew mystical writings of various sorts, and also to Gustav Davidson's A Dictionary of Angels.  So I decided to take a look at that book. 

Apparently, this book is the be-all-and-end-all of the angelic set.  It's available on Amazon, and is basically a compilation of every mention of angels to be found in mystical writings, folklore, religion, and out-and-out fiction.  It has been the subject of rave reviews, three of which I excerpt below:
Every theologian, occultist, and pious scholar should get this. Virtually every angel, spirit, devil, and lowly demon is named and defined.
And just when you think the sheer amount of entries in this dictionary is amazing, flip to the back. That's right, the Appendix. That's what makes this book amazing, after all. Not only do you have no less than 3 angelic alphabets, you have detailed listings of all known angels, their positions in Heaven, who was their leader, what hour they guarded over, who fell with Lucifer, and so on and so forth.
In this New Age of false teachers it is good to know all the Angels. One third of the angels in Heaven fell and some will represent themselves to true aspirants and disciples as God. Don't be fooled, know your angels.
And I'm still thinking, "But... but... how do you know all of this is true?"

So back I went to "Vanessa's Angels," and I found, in her "About Me" information, the statement, "I have always had a love of angels and feel that they are often around me."  This was followed up by scores of anecdotes of people who "felt" that they had gotten out of sticky situations because of angelic help, had been healed by angels, and so forth.

That's it?  You have a "feeling," and that means we're supposed to believe that Tzaphiel is the angel of Thursdays and Saturdays?  (I know this sounds like I just made that up, but it's really on the website.) 

I thought, "There has to be more to it than this."  So I looked around, and that's the kind of explanation I saw in almost every angel website I looked at -- and I've looked at enough of them that I'm currently praying to Myopiel, the angel of bad eyesight.  (Okay, I did make that one up.)

I've seen a lot of examples of convoluted wishful thinking, but this one has to take the prize.  How on earth has anyone come away with the idea that if you have a "feeling" that something is true, that this has any bearing on its actual truth or falsity?  Since when are feelings reliable guides?  I've been accused, as a skeptical scientist, of having too much faith in the human mind, but actually, it's the opposite; it's because our brains are so easily fooled that we need science, as a rigorous tool for identifying, and studying, what's out there.

Too often, our feelings, and defects in our perceptual apparatus and brain wiring, lead us to false conclusions.  (Witness the famous case, about which I wrote a few months ago, of people exposed to low-frequency standing sound waves becoming convinced that they were in the presence of ghosts.)  It might be comforting to think that you have a guardian angel, or that Barbiel lives in one of the 28 mansions of the moon.  (That one I didn't make up.  Hard to tell the difference, isn't it?)  But I've no real confidence in the proposition that because an idea is comforting, it's true.  In fact, in my experience, the universe is a pretty freakin' uncomfortable place, a lot of the time.

Of course, once you're convinced, that's pretty much that, and I have no doubt that I'll be receiving lots of hate mail from people who think I wrote this because I'm being controlled by Sammael, the fallen angel who tempts unbelievers.  The whole thing makes me feel like I need to appease the angel Javael and go get another cup of coffee.

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