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.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poe's law, absurd beliefs, and demon sex

There's this idea called "Poe's Law."  Named after Nathan Poe, the first person to set it down as a rule of thumb (although certainly not the first person to notice the phenomenon), Poe's Law states that a sufficiently well-done parody of a ridiculous or extreme belief is indistinguishable from the belief it is parodying.

Poe's Law, coupled with a lack of rigorous research, almost certainly explains how comedian Stephen Colbert got invited to be the keynote speaker at the Presidential Press Dinner during George W. Bush's presidency, probably selected by a staffer who was fired one microsecond into Colbert's speech, and whose job is now giving rectal exams to walruses in Barrow, Alaska.  The speech was a combination of funny and excruciating, as he stayed in his ultraconservative persona for a full twelve minutes while slyly lambasting the president, vice president, Chief Justice Scalia, and just about every Republican politician in office at the time -- right in front of their faces.  Poe's Law also explains how stories on the political parody site The Onion have suckered real, legitimate news reporters from Pravda and Xinhua, and have more than once spawned outrage (remember the firestorm that occurred when a story on The Onion claimed that the last Harry Potter movie was being split into seven separate films?).

So, parody, when done well, can fool you.  But that is part of what parody's function is, isn't it?  It's to take every flaw, every foible, every odd claim, every trope of what's being parodied, and exaggerate it just enough to make it look ridiculous.  And done well, it can be a powerful force for showing crazy beliefs for what they are.

The problem is, of course, that Poe's Law also works the other way.  A sufficiently crazy (but seriously held) belief can be so out there, so bizarre, that it looks like a parody.  We read about it, and stop, smile a little, and say, "No... really?  No, come on, no one can possibly believe that."

The problem is yes, often, someone -- and a lot of someones -- do believe that.   Fervently.

I ran into a perfect example of this yesterday, in the online magazine Charisma.  Far from being what it sounds like -- a magazine about romance, makeup, clothing, or something of the sort -- Charisma is a magazine featuring stories by, and about, devout Christians.  From their "About" page:
To passionate, Spirit-filled Christians, Charisma is the leading charismatic media source that inspires them to radically change their world. Since 1975, Charisma magazine has been a trusted source of news, teaching and inspiration to help spread the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As the voice of the charismatic movement, Charisma has steadily combined award-winning news coverage of what the Holy Spirit is doing around the world with relevant, timely messages from leaders in the Spirit-empowered community. Yet even from its earliest days, Charisma has always been about more than what's on the pages of a monthly magazine.
All of which sounds like pretty standard Christian fare -- until you start looking at specific articles, many of which fall into the "Backing away slowly, keeping my eyes on you the entire time" category.  In fact, the article that I came across yesterday on their website is entitled, "Can You Be Raped By The Devil?"

Well, I'm sure you've already guessed that just by having this question as the title of the article, the author, Cedric Harmon, thinks the answer is "yes, of course."  It is, he says, "more common than you think."  (Well, given that I think the number of times it has happened is zero...)  To research this phenomenon, Harmon interviewed Contessa Adams, a stripper turned devout Christian who thinks she had sex with a demon not just once, but many times.  "Unless you're strong enough to rebuke it, they'll keep coming back," she says.  "You must speak the Word of God, knowing you have power in the name of Jesus."

So, what is the consequence of all of this satanic bow-chicka-bow-wow?  Harmon says that when people are tricked into having demon sex, it can change them in a variety of ways:
  • It can make you not want to have sex with an actual human.  Demons, apparently, are that good.
  • It can lead you to practicing voodoo or SanterĂ­a.
  • It can make you a homosexual.
Yes, dear readers, you read that right; Harmon believes that one way a person becomes gay is by fornicating with a demon.

I think this was the point that I did the "No... really?" thing.  Was this a parody, slipped into Charisma magazine by a parodist to see how absurd a belief they'd actually print?  The answer, apparently, is "No."  It appears that however absurd it sounds, Harmon seriously believes this stuff -- and so do many (although, thankfully, not all) of the people who left comments on the story.  As frightening as this is to me, there are people who read this sort of thing, and basically say, "Oh, of course.  That makes complete sense."

The eminent evolutionary biologist and science writer P. Z. Myers, in his awesome blog Pharyngula, recently wrote a piece called "No More Poes" in which he says:
I heard several announce “He’s a poe” or “he must be a poe”. Dear god, but I’m sick of that stupid word. It’s become a standard response to batty stupidity — lately, it doesn’t matter how ordinary a comment is or who said it or how well verified it is — there’s always someone in the crowd who has to show off how insightful or cynical they are by declaring that it must be a pretense.

Look, people, we live in a country with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Joseph Farah as prominent media sources; where Akin and Broun and Jindal get elected to high office; where every newspaper is full of common folk writing in to complain about those gays or those socialist commies or those egghead liberals. There is nothing unlikely or unbelievable about a down-home ministry that announces you’ll go to hell for believing in science. Bat-buggering bullshit is routine.
If you needed a good example of exactly that, look no further than Charisma magazine.  Parody, after all, is hardly needed when the people in question have descended so far into absurdity that they seem to be engaged in self-parody.


  1. I remember watching that Colbert speech for the first time... sorry, I need a moment here.

    It was BEAUTIFUL.

  2. By their own admission, the complete works of God are already put to paper. If it isn't in the Bible, it either doesn't happen or isn't relevant. But by all means... Be a Christian and make a monthly rag where you tell people what YOU think. That won't undermine Jesus or God... no, not at all. It's not like the Bible made a strong implication that the word of God could get muddled if too many people took liberties with it's interpretation... and it's not like the Bible warned about the antichrist being an "insider" who would steer people away from the Bible with alternate narratives that seemed innocuous only to turn out to be diabolical.

    If the architects of this magazine were interested in their own salvation, this magazine would be one page, with one sentence on it.

    "Read your Bible."