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, September 30, 2011

Witches, vampires, and irrationality

My mom, although she was generous to a fault with her friends and family, was very suspicious of strangers.  I blame this in part on the fact that during the last ten years of her life, she watched the show Cops every night.  If you expose yourself, even willingly, to a continual parade of thieves, arsonists, murderers, and other no-goods, you're bound to come away with the view that the world is a pretty shady place, and most of humanity unscrupulous at best and dangerous at worst.

It is perhaps an occupational hazard of writing a blog such as this one that I often find myself wondering if humans are honestly capable of any shred of rationality.  I realize that, like my mom, I'm deliberately opening myself to a skewed viewpoint -- every day I seek out examples of weird beliefs and bizarre behavior, so I shouldn't be surprised that I come away with the jaundiced attitude that my fellow humans are, by and large, a bunch of wingnuts.  Still, some of the stories I ran into this morning leave me shaking my head and wondering how natural selection hasn't replaced us with a more sensible, intelligent dominant species.  I think that dolphins, for example, might well make better Lords of the Earth, given some of our behavior.

For example, we have a murder case in Florida, in which 18-year-old Stephanie Pistey is accused of killing 16-year-old Jacob Hendershot.  All of which would be tragic but not relevant to today's topic, except that Pistey maintains that she killed Hendershot because she's "a vampire-werewolf hybrid."  According to the reports, Pistey "talked calmly and rationally" about her beliefs, which included the fact that "bloodlust is just part of who we are."

Of course, I'm sure that when Pistey comes to trial, her defense will try to prove that she's mentally unbalanced.  Which is clearly a true statement, but then, how mentally unbalanced do you have to be before you're honestly not responsible for your actions?  It's hard to believe that anyone who had not completely lost touch with reality (and there's apparently no evidence that Pistey is schizophrenic) would be so convinced that she was part vampire, part werewolf that she would kill someone.  But that's evidently exactly what happened here.  Clearly Pistey believes that vampires and werewolves are real, and it's to be assumed that she didn't come by that belief on her own.

Just yesterday, we had news that a couple in Oregon were found guilty two days ago of second-degree manslaughter for allowing their premature newborn to die.  The couple believed that praying for the child, and anointing him with "blessed oil," would cause god to save his life -- teachings promoted by their church, the Followers of Christ Church in Oregon City.  Amazingly, the judge agreed to a "religious exemption" -- meaning that the couple will likely spend less than 18 months in jail for the offense.  One has to wonder what other homicidal lunacy might become excusable as long as it's based on religious grounds.

Speaking of which, we have the cheery story that our allies in Saudi Arabia have beheaded a Sudanese man for witchcraft.  The man, Abdul Hamid bin Hussein Mostafa al-Fakki, was arrested in 2005 for "casting a spell to reconcile his divorced parents," and found guilty of sorcery, which is a capital offense in Islamic religious law.  He was executed by beheading last week.  And lest we think that such medieval beliefs are limited to the Middle East, we have a story from Uganda that four people were banished from their village for witchcraft, and a businessman in Indonesia is currently awaiting trial for using "dark magic" to harm his competitors in the marketplace.  Apparently, the fact that there's no such thing as Black Magic doesn't mean that you can't be convicted of it in a court of law.

I think I'll end with a story about an archaeological dig in Piombino, Italy.  Archaeologists searching for the tomb of St. Cerbonius, alleged to be in the vicinity, came upon the bones of a woman, who was between 25 and 30 years old at her death, which occurred in about 1200 C.E.  What caught the attention of the researchers was the fashion in which she was buried -- she had several nails driven into her jawbone, and there were more nails struck into the ground near her body.  (The cause of death is as yet undetermined, and it's to be hoped the nails were hammered into her after she'd died -- but that's not certain, unfortunately.)  The archaeologists stated that according to writings from the time, this was the way the bodies of witches, warlocks, and vampires were treated -- the nails were intended to keep them from coming back from the dead and harming the living.

How far we've come in 800 years.

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