Therapeutic Folie-a-Deux

Folie-a-deux can be defined as a paranoid disorder in which the same delusion is shared by two (or more) persons. The delusion is thought to be transmitted from a dominant but paranoid person to his or her dependent intimate(s), and the latter may recover “normal” reality testing after separation from the former.

To my mind the interesting essential of this situation is that the sharing of a belief bonds and comforts its adherents; this feature may be obvious even where the belief is shared by many and would not ordinarily be regarded as delusional. For example, picture a church congregation reciting its creed in unison.

The Comfort of Shared Belief

What is the nature of the comfort so provided? In our prototypical, pathological case, where the belief is a persecutory delusion, the acceptance of the belief by a “significant other” signifies to “the beleaguered one” that he has found an ally or a protector; contrariwise, skepticism creates the kind of anxiety that would be felt by a small child who hears a robber entering his bedroom, but can’t convince a nearby parent to come to the rescue.

The delusional belief can thus function as a probe with which to test the love, loyalty and ready courage of the other. Where the belief is less persecutory (e.g., belief in God), the sharing of it is at least friendly, like sharing a meal; and the belief may seem to be validated by the numbers subscribing to it.

In either case, if a newcomer to the “church” demands evidence, he either misses the symbolic point, or is being deliberately obtuse and distinctly unfriendly. Those of us who are skeptics at heart will hesitate at the church door, having in the past experienced conflict between that social pressure and its opposite, a desire to be the maverick whose superior science will expose the error of the herd.

Or, if we were doctors, thought we had joined another sort of church, whose members sing in unison, credo in unum deum, Reality; and otherwise have to agree only on the means for finding it (the scientific method).

As doctors, we still take a great deal on trust in our human relationship with patients, and find warmth in that relationship that is cemented, without our consciously considering it, by mutual and traditional assumptions (for example about the nature of the roles each is to play). Generally, we assume the patient is trying to be honest, and certainly don’t demand proof for every detail of the history.

By being credulous in that way, we become the parent who will keep the robber, Death, at bay. Sometimes we come running even when we think the robber is imaginary. And after all, how can one be sure? In a case of suspected child abuse, better to call Social Services after a minimal reality check. “Time may be of the essence.” “Better to be safe than sorry.”

Yet there are many situations in which the credulous posture becomes problematic. The simplest of these is when the patient has been identified as “delusional”, which means that the doctor has decided in her heart that she does not believe, does not stand on common ground with her patient in regard to the delusional idea and does not wish to.

In the interests of the alliance, or out of empathy, she may still search for the grain of truth on which they can agree. Might she even disguise her belief for strategic purposes? Perhaps, after all, her patient is repeating in this doctor-patient relationship a childhood experience of being unable to summon a parent in the moment of terror.

Believing the Fantastic: The Problem

An especially muddled situation depending on credulity in the therapist-patient alliance has been the proliferation in recent years of therapies for victims of fantastic post-traumatic syndromes.

For example hypnotherapies for people who have been contacted, abducted or violated by extraterrestrials, or who have suffered trauma in a previous existence. I assume the reader shares my automatic scepticism regarding these trauma and their treatments. In any case, do we need to concern ourselves with this phenomenon beyond perhaps noting it as an interesting example of folie-a-deux?

But if such is their church, and it comforts them, why not leave them to it? Are not all the communicants consenting adults? The phenomenon is spreading. Abduction stories are becoming epidemic and are gaining more credibility in the media.

Another example, which has been closer to home for psychiatry, is the “growth industry” of treatments and conferences pertaining to multiple personality disorder and Satanic ritual abuse.

I say “closer to home” because, according to the sociologist Jeffrey S. Victor, fifty psychiatrists (and two hundred other professionals) attended the conference on ritual abuse he describes in his article, and two-thirds of the audience at one lecture raised their hands when asked if they had treated Satanic ritual abuse. Most seemed to assume that the survivor stories were literally true and that often such abuse had been the etiology of a multiple personality disorder in the surviving adult.

Admittedly such a conference will concentrate believers, but in my everyday work for a large health plan I too have had occasion to discuss Satanic ritual abuse with credulous therapists and to interview patients who presented typical survivor stories.

The contents of a typical ritual abuse story by now are familiar to many readers: perverse sexual activities occurred at length, repeatedly over the years, between Satanic perpetrators and the child protagonist, embellished with black robes and candles and laboured misuse of Christian symbols; the child was forced to take an active role in the murder of another child; blood was drunk or babies were dismembered and eaten; babies were being bred by the cult for the purpose of ritual sacrifice. Satan himself might appear on the scene.

In day-care cases, the lack of disinterested witnesses is explained by improbable transportation of children to a hidden site (by plane, by tunnels etc.), reminiscent of the “night flight” aspect of witchcraft hysteria. Enthusiasts for the theory hold that such abuse is widespread, for example that fifty thousand ritual sacrifices occur yearly, or that Satanic cults comprise a world-wide multi-generational conspiracy.

According to Kenneth Lanning, in charge of an FBI unit investigating Satanic cult crimes, “We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are murdering tens of thousands of people, and there is little or no corroborative evidence, from a law-enforcement perspective”.

As therapists, should we care one way or the other about corroborative evidence? Is it not in the nature of an empathic therapeutic alliance to enter into the spirit of the patient’s experience? Is it not in the nature of the therapeutic process to deal evenhandedly with material drawn from fantasy and reality alike? And when it seems that numbers of professionals are unduly impressed by such stories, perhaps it is only their empathy at work; instinctively recognising that there is no better way of forging an alliance with the patient than to endorse the patient’s view of reality.

Yet, I am concerned that in pursuing this course, the therapist can lose track of how much sacrifice of her own intellectual autonomy is being made on behalf of the therapeutic relationship. Taken to an extreme, this kind of empathy ultimately places the therapist in the position of the dependent partner in a folie-a-deux.

There are other possible formulations of the problem I am addressing. Some ritual-abuse patients may be diagnostically closer to having a factitious disorder than to having paranoia, in which case the involved therapists might be regarded as the susceptible targets of a fraud. For example, I interviewed one patient who had obtained disability income on the basis of her post-Satanic multiple-personality disorder, while working with a therapist who had accepted this history without corroboration.

In the case of an adult who identifies cryptic signs of ritual abuse in a child and then applies for treatment or legal action, I see a parallel with the parent enacting a Munchhausen-by-proxy (in which the child is presented for treatment of an odd physical illness which has been fabricated or induced by the parent). In both cases, the parent usually appears especially devoted and concerned for the welfare of her child and compels the admiration of physicians and others involved, until the true situation is uncovered.

What factors beside empathy may have paralysed our capacity to doubt?

Obligatory belief

We all realise the harm that can result from not taking a sexual abuse story seriously, particularly when it comes from a child. We now practice in a state of heightened vigilance to prevent such abuse, interrupt it, or treat its post-traumatic stress disorder. We bend over backwards to correct Freud’s under-estimate of the true incidence of incest.

As a result, many of us have come to feel embarrassed to question any aspect of any story involving sexual abuse, no matter how truly fantastic. Even in the privacy of our own minds, it can seem that belief is obligatory. And when it comes to voicing doubts out loud, we anticipate a consensus to the contrary, or arguments ad hominem that charge our scepticism to our squeamishness, denial or insensitivity.

And here let me make a personal value explicit: that belief ideally rests on evidence that convinces, and that scepticism is a healthy, or at very least, a permissible first response to someone else’s novel hypothesis, especially when that hypothesis involves the supernatural or challenges common sense.

Mass Hysteria

A third formulation to explain therapist credulity is favoured by Jeffrey Victor and other sceptical sociologists. They suggest that the Satanic ritual abuse phenomenon is an example of mass hysteria (a.k.a. moral panic), in which therapists, patients, clergymen, police and others become involved according to individual vulnerability and social context. They support this theory by an analysis of the manner in which the Satanic cult rumours are spread, and by amassing the cases in which no evidence could ever be found to demonstrate a reality behind the rumour.

The content of ritual-abuse stories also lends support to this explanation. For example, some women who seek “deprogramming” claim to have been practicing witches under the domination of Satan. Their scenario of an indulgence followed by repudiation is an exact duplication of that sequence in the behaviour of the children at the core of the seventeenth century witchcraft hysteria in Salem Village in Massachusetts. Beliefs about blood-drinking, baby-sacrifice, perverse intercourse with demons etc were also all represented in such earlier hysterias.

In the three hundred years of European witchcraft hysteria, ending not long after the Salem outbreak, 200,000 innocent men and women were murdered as witches. The hysteria was supported by the establishment, partly because the estates of wealthy “witches” could be confiscated by the court after they had been executed.

It is hard to imagine that three hundred years later, there is any danger of the whole social structure becoming caught up in teh hysteria in the way that it was in those times. It is alarming that part of the contemporary legend is a belief that individual modern cults are part of an ancient conspiracy, whose goal is to “create international chaos in order to allow Satan to take over the world.”

While believers in this theory may never succeed in creating the kind of panic that leads to sanctioned executions, “an unjustified crusade against those perceived as satanists could result in wasted resources, unwarranted damage to reputations, and disruption of civil liberties,” as Kenneth Lanning wrote in 1990. It has happened. Thousands of families in the United States have been needlessly disrupted, even if one can speculate that in some cases distancing the family might have been part of the patient’s agenda.

Causes of Mass Hysteria

The phrase “mass hysteria” describes a social phenomenon not necessarily restricted to people who individually suffer from histrionic or paranoid disorders. Other factors thought to contribute to vulnerability include gender (more often female) and pre-existing social ties. In the case of the Satanic cult hysteria, the “pre-existing social ties” exist within certain sub-groups of the mental-health professional communities. And the law-enforcement contingent at the seminars shares a fundamentalist Christian perspective:

“The most notable circular among cult-crime investigators, File 18 Newsletter, follows a Christian world-view in which police officers who claim to separate their religious views from their professional duties nevertheless maintain that salvation through Jesus Christ is the only sure antidote to Satanic involvement, whether criminal or noncriminal, and point out that no police officer can honourably and properly do his or her duty without reference to Christian standards.”

Many of the participating therapists also share this context.

Modern “local panics” about satanic cults “have almost all occurred in economically declining small towns and rural areas of the country”. Similarly, an analysis of the economic and political factors favouring hysteria can be made on the basis of the location on the Salem map, in 1692, of the homes of the accusers, the accused and their defenders.

It is interesting to speculate about other social causes of such hysteria. One possibility is that many people are interpreting the AIDS epidemic as God’s punishment for sexual wrongdoing, especially as it occurred concurrently with increasing public awareness of the reality of incest. A subgroup of these people may have been conditioned, by religious upbringing or personal history, to deal with anxiety about forbidden impulses through projection and splitting, and the real existence of Satanic cults provided the seed crystal for a conspiracy theory.

Similarly to a conversion symptom, the hysteria also provides the opportunity for disguised expression of sexual and aggressive interests, as the participants can discuss the details of abductions and orgies while claiming to be traumatised or outraged.

Relationship to Real Sexual Abuse

This brings me to the question of just what relationship the Satanic ritual-abuse hysteria bears to real instances of physical and sexual child abuse.

Obviously it can be viewed as a simple imitation of a true abuse situation, which appears cruder or gaudier than the original, as natural imitations generally do. Like the larger and more brightly spotted eggs of the cuckoo, the ritual-abuse story is a winner in the contest for nurturing behaviour.

In some cases, professionals involved in the hysteria have had personal knowledge of real cases of child pornography, incest, physical abuse, neglect, or those rare instances where the sexual molestation of a child was associated with Satanic embellishments (such perhaps was the case of Frank and Iliana Fuster, described by Roland Summit and others). Their subsequent participation in mass hysteria could be viewed as a manifestation of professional shell-shock.

In the New York Times of March 3, 1991, there was a description of a case in which a couple abandoned an infant to death by starvation because of their participation in an extended crack orgy. Three years ago I was involved in a similar case (the mother had been my patient). When her crime was discovered, incredulous friends attributed it to her having been kidnapped by a Satanic cult, which forced her to kill her baby.

This colourful explanation eased vicarious guilt (mine included, at the moments I was tempted to believe it) and extracted a drop of pleasurable drama from what was, in stark reality, an unmitigated horror.

The Satanic ritual-abuse hysteria could well be, in part, the product of that amazing ability of the human mind to transmute pain into pleasure. If so, I can understand why its adherents would be tenacious. Supposing them to have had childhoods studded by such painful episodes, one can hardly begrudge them the soothing balm and spangly entertainment of hysteria; of fictionising and dramatising their trauma at the moment of its emergence into publicity. At one remove, I am doing something similar as I now write.

Let me look a little more closely, though, at the nature of the relief provided to the ritual-abuse patient. It could go like this: if Satan and all his minions ravished her or her child, she was really not to blame. Never mind if mental health professionals had been trying to tell her that for years; when it comes to ground-in guilt, nothing gets it out like a home-made remedy.

How can it hurt to let the patient go on feeling that we validate this version of her story? In some cases that might seem the best course, or is the only alliance the patient will allow. But leaving aside the potential division of a family, within the patient herself, the split is left unhealed. Somewhere deep in her heart, she could still be wondering whether Satan, penis and all, is not a piece of herself, torn like Adam from her own chest.

And to get at that question, she will have to tell the real story — more homely, sad, or embarrassing. It might be a real incest story, but more likely it will be the story of a puritanical childhood, which — as in Marion Starkey’s Salem — allowed exitement only via tales of sin and punishment.

Secondary Gain

And what of the patients who, though now in no great distress, instinctively exploit a mass hysteria? What treatment will divert them from a life of disability under a factitious personality disorder or post-Satanic stress syndrome?

Thigpen and Cleckley, the authors of The Three Faces of Eve, believe that full-blown multiple-personality is extremely rare. Most patients seeking the diagnosis are histrionic personalities with a capacity for some dissociation, and a desire to promote that capacity “to … gain attention, or maintain an acceptable self-image, or accrue financial gain, or even escape responsibility for actions.” Multiple personality is almost unknown in England, where sensational biographical accounts of such patients are less available.

Fahy et al suggest treating multiple personality and lesser degrees of dissociation as symptoms of personality disorder. “It is our contention that sanctioning the dissociative behaviour, by concentrating on symptoms or encouraging symptomatic behaviour, may lead to reinforcement and entrenchment of the relevant symptom.” (The same argument applies to preoccupation with the ritual-abuse story.)

In a personal communication, Bessel VanDerKolk reframed the “attention-getting” motive I have here attributed to the multiple-personality or ritual-abuse patient. He takes a therapist’s sense that a patient is exhibiting or “getting off on trauma”, to be a marker for the presence of narcissistic issues in that patient, such as would derive from a childhood that was lacking the minimum essential mirroring from the parents. The resulting hunger to feel important to someone is appropriately gratified by an outraged therapist, even if the trauma is mislabelled by both therapist and patient.

There is a lively dialogue on the subject of therapist scepticism regarding multiple personality in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. I wonder if professionals polarise over endorsing this diagnosis because of personal values regarding responsibility vs. dependency.

Physicians tend to be responsible, counterdependent stoics; as such we face a continual choice between envying the apparent ability of the dissociative patient to escape accountability, or merging with this patient in order to enjoy vicariously the gratifications he seems to achieve in that way. It is possible to shift between the two positions, but most will have a tendency toward one or the other.

Iatrogenic Contributions to Mass Hysteria

We must finally confront the fourth, and least palatable form in which therapist particiption has contributed to mass hysteria: case-finding therapists have been playing a role analogous to the witch-finders of earlier hysterias.

Of course then, the witches were not so much found as created, often by quite deliberate fraud with an obvious profit motive; I had presumed the therapist motivation to be more complicated, including for example the understandable pleasure of sharing the limelight falling on such a case.

An article on Satanic ritual abuse in the April, 1992 issue of The Psychiatric Times describes a case of a therapist who allegedly pressured her patient into telling the ritual abuse story. The patient explained, “It was never just enough to tell her that my grandmother had abused and tortured me. It always needed to be worse.”

This was a harbinger of the flood of false-memory retractions now appearing in the United States. Such zealous therapists would be the dominant partners of the folies-a-deux, the parents in a Munchausen-by-proxy, and the driving force behind hysteria. The past year’s work of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation would suggest that numbers of recanting accusers feel they had been pressured by their therapists in just this way.

The profit motive must now be taken more seriously. It is not necessarily unethical to pursue a specialty which meets the need of fashion, even if one does so with the covert through, “there’s money to be made from this”. Consider for example a hypnotist who decides that because of new anti-smoking laws, a smoking-cessation practice is likely to succeed. It is perfectly possible that he is sincere and zealous about this practice which also happens to be profitable. Yet, if somehow it turned out that hypnotism were more harmful than cigarettes, we would begin to wonder just how long the practitioner might have secretly stilled the doubts now shared by all.

Education or Tolerance?

It will not be possible to eradicate this type of mass hysteria, which has such a strong appeal and is so nearly adaptive for so many. Indeed, a fifth and final reframe for the phenomenon was suggested to me by the anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern (director of the Laboratoire des Rumeurs, des Mythes du Futur et des Sectes at the University of Paris). She believes that the satanic-abuse survivors and their convert therapists comprise an American possession cult.

Labeling mass hysteria in this way, reminds us of the adaptive and comforting aspects of religion, and blames no one (not parent, nor patient, nor therapist) for a phenomenon that springs from some widespread cultural source.

Yet (along with Ms. Mulhern) I remain concerned about the dangerous and counter-therapeutic aspects of cultic religions, in which vulnerable individuals may feel too much pressure to conform and to renounce family ties that might still have been a net positive resource.

And I feel bewildered to walk into my scientific church and find a significant portion of the congregation busily sacrificing a scapegoat on the altar.

Part of our role as doctors is to educate. We can make an effort to enlighten those of our colleagues who are treating factitious and conversion disorders without recognising them as such, and to come to the aid of those who sense the symptomatic nature of the story-telling but are confused as to what “empathy” requires in that situation.

Empathy need not disable the therapist’s observing ego, nor its faculty of critical thought. That is what generates the full list of diagnostic hypotheses and assesses the quality of the evidence available for choosing between them, so our empathy will be attuned to the real source of pain in a particular patient.

Institutionally, we can make more conscious choices about limiting clinical resources such as hospitalisations, especially where the relevant symptom is fully ego-syntonic or factitious. And finally, I think we need to examine the role played by ritual-abuse conferences, courses or therapies in feeding hysteria or proselytising for a new religion.

On a Mission from God

Australian creationist Peter Sparrow toured New Zealand recently.

Peter Sparrow is a black-bearded, bespectacled, bear of a man. He is cheery, articulate, and an excellent spokesman for the Creation Science Foundation (a “faith-funded” organisation with a presence in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Britain), under whose auspices he recently toured New Zealand. Originally from Australia, he has been touring that country for a number of years spreading a similar message to the one he delivered here.

In his travels over a three-month period, he addressed 53 meetings throughout the country. My brother John and I caught up with him on the 50th such occasion, at the East St Apostolic Church in Hamilton. Also present was Graeme Williams, a temporary maths lecturer at Waikato University, whom I had contacted through the Usenet newsgroup, and perhaps a hundred of the faithful.

The talk began with a brief account of Sparrow’s own conversion to the cause. At school, he said, he had been convinced that science had proven God did not exist, and that the secret to success in life was survival of the fittest. This he understood to mean walking over everybody else to achieve his goals. His life became complicated, however, when he met and fell in love with a Christian girl, who wouldn’t accept his arguments.

Confused, (he felt that for humanists there should be no such thing as love, since this meant giving something of yourself, making you weaker) he fled his native Adelaide for New Zealand where, to cut a long story short, he was converted to creationism — and two seconds later to Christianity — by listening to some creationist tapes while doing the dishes. The tapes made him realise, he said, that God had made him, and therefore owned him, and had the right to make rules over his life.

A belief in evolution provided no such rules for living, and led to a life of lawlessness, devoid of meaning, and a tolerance of such evils as homosexuality, pornography and abortion. Creationism, by contrast, required an acceptance of laws and standards, and gave meaning to life. The story of Adam’s Fall was also necessary to provide meaning for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross: if there were no Fall, and if humanity were not born into sin, then Christianity was without foundation.

The creationist cause was therefore fundamental to the church’s fight for its very survival: according to Sparrow, evolution represents an attack by Satan at the church’s foundation. His main message, then, was that Christians should not be fighting at the level of issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, since these were only symptoms of the underlying evil of evolutionary theory, whose amorality was progressively eroding society. It was necessary to get children out of the state education system into Christian or home schooling, to use creationist material in evangelical work, and to show up the flaws in the evolutionary model.

This he attempted to do at first by way of an analogy: he told a story of a printing press exploding and a completed book assembling itself page by page from the wreckage. Not surprisingly no-one believed the story, yet, he maintained, this was the sort of thing evolutionists expected people to believe. Chance and random processes produced only chaos, but evolutionists clung to the belief that they could produce order because the only alternative was creation and this required God.

He next produced examples of apparent design in nature: a nettle hair that was more complex than a hypodermic needle, velcro-like hooks on a plant leaf, and bacterial cells, which were far more complex than the needle point (looking very rough and blunt in the electron micrograph) on which they were sitting.

He showed photos of cliffs and canyons, produced in a day or two by the eruption of Mt St Helens, and argued that this showed that Noah’s Flood could have created massive sediment deposits, and carved out landforms such as the Grand Canyon. Finally, he attacked the textbook picture of horse evolution, maintaining that since all the species of varying sizes in one picture he showed all lived at the same time, they could not represent stages in a line of descent, any more than a girl could be the same age as her grandmother.

The talk was followed by the screening of a 1977 film, The World that Perished, a well-made if unintentionally hilarious retelling of the Flood story. (One small point: we were told how Noah sealed his Ark with pitch, then later that the petrochemical deposits were formed as a result of the Flood. Pitch is a petrochemical: where did Noah get his pitch from?)

Sparrow then went on to promote the books, magazines and tapes he had with him. These covered three tables, and included children’s books, the CSF’s Creation magazine, books on the scientific evidence for creation, and one with the answers to the most frequently asked questions creationists have to face. This one, he said, explained how the tuatara got to New Zealand from Mt Ararat. It actually spoke about the platypus in Australia, but, he assured us, change the name, and the argument still applied. This I had to see, so I headed straight for it. Predictably, it talked about land bridges. Across the Tasman Sea? Which is two miles deep? When according to the creationists the sea was at its shallowest during the flood and has only got deeper as the land masses rose up and the sea floor fell?

To his credit, Sparrow allowed plenty of time afterwards for discussion, and seemed a little flustered when I collared him on this one, hedging that maybe as things found their new levels a land bridge could still have existed temporarily. It was difficult to pursue any line of argument for too long, however, as there were only three of us surrounded by several of Sparrow’s supporters. I feel we handled ourselves quite well, and would like to think we planted some doubts in the minds of a few listeners. I was able to point out that descent of species should not be confused with descent of individuals, so comments about granddaughters and grandmothers, with respect to the horse family, were inappropriate.

I also went some way towards dealing with the matter of “random processes” in nature, showing that the notebook I was holding predictably moved downwards when released, rather than heading off in a random direction. The point was that there are natural laws and processes at work in the universe which make non-random things happen all the time, and that this applies to living things as well as everything else. He seemed to accept the fall-back position which was offered, that God could be responsible for these natural laws in the first place (you will never get a creationist to abandon belief in God, better to concentrate on Genesis), but wouldn’t accept that this was quite a different matter from asserting the Book of Genesis was literally true.

Meanwhile, John was involved in a lengthy discussion on the validity or otherwise of teleological and ad hoc arguments. He also pointed out that whereas scientists argue constantly in journals over how evolution occurs, there is no disagreement over whether it does: to the scientific community, creationism is a dead issue. And Graeme had brought along some very impressive papers on self-replicating molecules, including DNA strands of only six bases. These clearly worried several in the audience, and completely floored one fresh-faced creationist who was about to launch into an argument on the statistical improbability of long nucleic acid chains ever forming.

Issues that never got properly addressed were the proper interpretation of “survival of the fittest” in a human context — that our primary strength as a species is our ability to get along with one another in complex societies, and the matter of the argument from design. The argument that if a needle is designed, then anything more complex than a needle must also be designed, is logically invalid. What about a snow crystal? (See previous comments on non-random processes.)

In any case, most of the audience had gone home before this discussion session began, and it is sobering to think of all those newly fired-up creationist evangelists who may have been spawned by this tour. With hindsight, I realise that it would have been better to notify other Skeptics around the country as soon as I learned of this, so that others may have been able to attend meetings, perhaps find out Sparrow’s itinerary, compare notes, and prepare sticky questions for him. I was unaware until the night that the tour was so close to its finish. The meetings were not at all well publicised outside of the churches (I learned of them from a friend’s home-schooling newsletter), and were clearly targeted at the converted. Hopefully next time an event like this happens, we may be better prepared for it.

Fire-Walking: Fiji Revisited

Visitors to Fiji are still being told that village people have the hereditary ability to walk on white-hot stones. This is quite untrue (see Hot Footing it in Fiji,Skeptic 26). A tourist promotion video for airline passengers features the ceremony. It is pretty obvious to the discerning viewer that the stones are not white-hot, but how many tourists give more than a cursory glance?

I had heard that another kind of fire-walking was practised in Fiji, but it was difficult to discover any hard facts about it. In 1994 it received some publicity, a very unusual event.

Nearly half the population of Fiji are described as ethnic Indians. However, this is a far from homogenous population. Although originally from that subcontinent, they do not all share a common religion, nor a common language.

Some of these people come from regions where fire plays an important part in religious life. These are sometimes described as “fire-worshippers”. This is misleading, but to them fire-walking is an important religious ritual.

Just before our last visit, some members of this religion had visited from the homeland. This caused a big celebration including a fire-walking ceremony, which a reporter described, and a photograph was included.

“Indian” fire-walking in Fiji is a private religious matter; it has not been commercialised into a tourist attraction.

As far as I can tell it is nearly identical with “Western style” firewalking as practised in New Zealand. Our tradition has reached us in a very roundabout way, but possibly India is the original source. I was not able to attend the ceremony, but, judging by the photograph and the reporter’s description, the ceremony was very similar to that practised by New Zealand skeptics, with extra prayers.

The Fiji indigenous style obviously has an independent origin. It probably was invented on the island of Beqa as the legend says. Originally it was also a religious act. Now the villagers are Christians (nominally at least). Their ceremony has lost its connotations and they wish to distance themselves from the Indian method. Walking on hot stones is less spectacular than walking on glowing embers, hence the insistence that the stones are “white hot”.

The Old Testament, still regarded as setting a code for human conduct by some Christians, anathematises fire-walking.

There are examples in Kings and Chronicles of children being “passed through the fire” (2 Kings 16.3 “he [King Ahaz] even passed his son through the fire”). This is described as a wicked practice of the surrounding nations. It is forbidden by Deut.18.10. “Let no one be found among you who makes his son or daughter pass through fire.”

Walking on hot stones avoids the biblical prohibition on fire-walking and thus is acceptable to these fundamentalist Christians. Walking on glowing embers is something done only by heathens.

The wave of interest in fire-walking that swept out from the US a few years ago started as New Age religion and evolved into commercial exploitation. But many religions are not averse to commercialism.

Indigenous Fijian fire-walking followed a similar path, but at least one religious version has resisted change.

Pseudoscience in the FOREST

Lately — my last few airline flights — I’ve been listening to the in-flight comedy channels. This was how I discovered Bob Newhart and his monologues. These are things where he takes one side of a conversation and leaves you to imagine the rest. There’s one that shows up quite often, where he takes one side of a conversation with Sir Walter Raleigh, who has just discovered tobacco and is sending eight tons of it over to England as an early sample.

Now, as Newhart points out, the uses of tobacco aren’t exactly obvious: you stick it up your nose, or roll it up in paper, stick it in your mouth, set fire to it, and breathe in the smoke. One wonders exactly how these uses were discovered. But these days smokers are a persecuted species, we know that. And I have a suggestion: I think smoking should be reclassified as a religion. In some ways this is already beginning to happen in any case.

Take FOREST, for example. According to FOREST, there is no medically proven link between passive smoking and lung cancer. Twenty years ago, the tobacco industry generally was saying the same thing about smoking itself, even, as the 1970s book Smoke Rings points out, in the face of medical evidence showing the opposite. This article of belief is both pseudoscientific and incomplete: lots of other medical conditions such as heart disease and emphysema are either caused by or worsened by exposure to tobacco smoke, and the children of smokers are well known to have more bronchial and respiratory problems. But point this out, and you run the risk of being labelled a “health fascist”, although this term is mostly reserved for government ministers and doctors who set targets for reducing smoking.

Reclassifying themselves as a religion would solve a number of problems for smokers at a stroke. For a start, there could be no more talk of government proposals setting targets for reducing smoking: we don’t set targets for reducing the numbers of Jews, Christians, Muslims, or even Hare Krishnas, who like smokers practice their religion publicly and sometimes disruptively.

Medical practitioners who refuse to treat smokers for illnesses linked to smoking would be guilty of religious persecution. Better still, smokers could have their own medical practitioners, just like Christian Scientists do, who understand and cater to their religious practices.

Best of all from the smokers’ point of view, they would be able to make a persuasive argument that the government would have to stop taxing cigarettes and tobacco, since that would be equivalent to taxing religious practices. The money thus saved could be collected by the temples smokers would set up for their religious services (which would no doubt replace singing hymns with ritualistic smoking) and used to fund a variety of smoking community needs.

All this would have useful implications for other types of drug use and addictions. Marijuana smokers, for example, could claim status as a heretical sect, as could crack smokers (these might be the dangerous fanatics that all religions have to have). Alcoholics would have to found their own religion, of course.

All this would mandate changes for the self-help movement, too, some of which already has some religious aspects. Members of any 12-step program, for example, call on the help of a Higher Power (defined however each individual member likes, so it doesn’t have to be specifically a god-like figure) to help them stop doing whatever destructive things they’ve been doing — drinking, gambling, overeating, smoking, or inflicting their chaotic emotional states on their loved ones.

Such self-help groups rarely talk about scientific evidence: telling someone smoking or drinking is bad for them generally doesn’t help them stop in any case. They rely instead on shared experiences first of all to show that quitting is possible and second of all to help members with specific problems by giving them a chance to hear how other members have coped with the same problems.

In this sense, reclassifying smoking as a religious practice merely confirms the setup we already have, except that smokers and anti- smokers could battle it out among themselves without reference to anything or anyone else. They don’t need science for this, and don’t use it. The time society at large now spends getting wound up in these battles could be given to finding homes for the conscientiously objecting non-smoking children of smokers, say. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry would be saved a lot of marketing costs, since the temples would obviously want to do their own missionary work to find new members; they could take over the third-world outreach work already set in place by the tobacco companies.

They would do well to take as their role model in all this the Catholic Church, which deems the health risks of pregnancy and overpopulation irrelevant in its campaign against birth control on moral grounds. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether that’s better or worse than their present role model, which seems to be those creationists who insist that “evolution is only a theory” and classify their own theories as scientific.

Hokum Locum

NZ Qualifications Authority

An editorial in the Christchurch Press (23 Nov 94) was critical of the Universities who are seeking approval from the NZQA and argued that they should continue to set their own high standards.

The Aoraki Polytechnic has applied to the NZQA for recognition of a Bachelor Degree of Applied Science (Naturopathy). Naturopathy can mean anything from treatment with homeopathic remedies to colonic irrigation. I wrote to the NZQA and was told that the Aoraki application “involves review by a panel of peers…having a mix of professional and academic backgrounds.” I await the decision of the panel with considerable interest as the thought of a Bachelor of Applied Science (Naturopathy) holding equal weight with say a Bachelor of Applied Science (Biochemistry) is completely ludicrous.

Recovered Memory Syndrome

“ACC payments of $10,000 to three women who recalled `memories’ of rape and abuse as children are to be re-examined after aquittal of their father.” However, unbelievably, ACC’s Fred Cochram says “it is possible for people’s suffering to be deemed valid for compensation even if abuse was disproved in the courts! (Dominion Oct 5 1994)

It is absurd that at a time when ACC is making it more and more difficult for victims of genuine accidents to gain adequate compensation, they continue to provide money for the fraudulent activities of an army of counsellors who are poorly trained and following their own feminist agendas.

Sporting Excesses

I have previously commented on the insane activities of athletes who take performance enhancing drugs which in many cases do enhance phsyique but have no more than a placebo effect on performance. (Skeptic 28)

A former Russian gymnast alleged that her trainers forced her to become pregnant and then have an abortion because “the body of a pregnant woman produced more male hormones and could therefore become stronger.” (Christchurch Press 24 Nov 94)

There has been much speculation about possible illicit practices by Chinese athletes. I think we can reasonably discount anything other than a placebo effect from a secret elixir containing “turtle blood, ginseng and other spices” used by China’s track team. Why “turtle blood” for runners? Surely it would be more logical to give it to their swimmers? In fact it doesn’t really matter what the product contains because the Chinese expect to sell about 20,000 bottles of the quack tonic in Japan.

Eleven of China’s long distance runners have had their appendices removed because “they were getting sick and having toxicological problems.” Leading sports doctors were reported as being puzzled and amazed. (Marlborough Express 13 Oct 94) I am neither puzzled nor amazed as China continues to be a rich source of medieval superstition and quackery such as acupuncture. Medical history tells us that it was widely believed that “toxins” were a cause of many ailments and as a result people were purged, had all their teeth removed, tonsils extracted and any organs such as the appendix were also removed. In some cases patients had their entire large colon removed and enjoyed diarrhoea for the rest of their lives. When history is ignored it tends to get “rediscovered”.

Turbulent Priests

A rather extreme Catholic school principal and priest has refused to give his pupils a combined vaccine because it was obtained from cell culture originally obtained from an aborted foetus in the 1960’s. I have no argument with any religion provided it does not interfere with the state but the Catholic religion has an unenviable reputation for continually interfering with public health issues.

A more recent example is their attempted sabotage, along with Muslim extremists, of the recent global conference on population planning. (Marlborough Express 27 Oct 94).


Correct me if I am wrong, but I think it was GB Shaw who said that the main distinguishing feature of humans from animals was their desire to take medicines.

Health expenditure in Switzerland reached 18 billion pounds last year of which drugs were 10.7 percent. About 60 percent of all drugs are available over the counter (OTC) and the Swiss are at the top of Europe’s self-medication league. (The Lancet Vol 344 p322).

The New Zealand drug bill shows a healthy annual growth rate and is rapidly approaching the NZ$1 billion mark. One Government attempt to control these excesses was thwarted by GP’s who simply prescribed more drugs on each prescription. If people wish to poison themselves with drugs I think we should follow the Swiss example and make them available OTC. People can then personally pay for their drugs which will not detract from the health vote. The oral contraceptive is incredibly safe for OTC availability, however there is an excellent case for requiring a prescription for cigarettes.

Prozac is a new antidepressant drug which may be safer than exisitng drugs but is also much more expensive and has been already grossly over-prescribed in the US. There is already considerable pressure to allow its unrestricted use here in New Zealand.

Christmas Shopping Blues?

A major trial has found that the drug Fluvoxamine prevented compulsive shopping in all seven patients. Fluvoxamine is frequently used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder which causes people to repeatedly wash their hands, pull out their hair or to hoard strange objects. It could also help doctors who repeatedly over-prescribe drugs.


The medical model applied when I went through medical school suggested that patients had either an accepted organic illness or something less well defined such as “conversion disorder” ie. stress producing symptoms and signs. (eg. RSI or OOS) The evolution of investigative technology means that this model has the potential to be mis-applied.

I will quote in full an item from the BMJ Vol 309 p420). Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition where people complain of abdominal pain and constipation for which no cause is found.

“Six patients with the irritable bowel syndrome between them had 29 operations and 46 investigations, says a report in the Scottish Medical Journal. It warns that other studies have shown that around one third of patients with the disorder have appendicectomies and half the women have major gynaecological operations.”

I recently saw a woman with a clear history of hyperventilation syndrome (over-breathing, similar to what happens when blowing up a balloon) which causes neurological disturbances. The patient had had a CAT scan and an electroencephalogram after which a (foreign) neurologist prescribed Tryptanol (an antidepressant), Prednisone (a steroid anti-inflammatory) and Dilantin (an anti-epileptic)! Presumably this lethal cocktail was prescribed “just in case”.

Sickness Benefit Abuses

As I outlined in a previous column (Skeptic 32), all that is needed to get extra money when unemployed is a certificate from a doctor saying that you are “sick”. Not surprisingly there has been a steady growth in the benefits industry since most doctors derive their income from signing forms. In 6 years the number of people on sickness benefits went from 20,000 to 34,000. When combined with the invalid benefit this costs nearly 1 billion dollars annually. (Evening Post 18 Nov 94)

The cause of this fraudulent activity is the discrepancy between income support and invalidity benefit. A British GP (BMJ Vol 309 p673-4) noted that 23 out of 24 of his drug addict patients were receiving invalidity benefits despite guidelines that GPs should not issue sick notes to drug users unless they have a co-exisitng medical or psychiatric condition. In New Zealand I have known of drug addicts getting both sick notes and their drugs from the same doctor!

I am pleased to see that our own Social Welfare Minister has acknowledged that the numbers on such benefits falls once a more consistent policy is taken to assess eligibility.

Breast implants

A judge in Alabama has approved a US$4.25 billion compensation deal for more than 90,000 women worldwide with silicon breast implants. Many women have suffered proven ill-health but those who have difficulty finding an excuse to get their pot of gold can claim for “silicon disease”. This only requires at least five of a range of symptoms, including rashes, chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and memory loss. These are of course very vague symptoms and could be attributable to a wide range of other conditions such as CFS and alleged chemical “poisoning”.

NHS goes bananas?

GPs in the UK National Health Service (NHS) have won a partial refund for their patients who are spending $1250 on transcendental meditation courses. TM is an invention of an Indian guru and has no legitimate place in any health system. The Beatles flirted briefly with TM but became disillusioned when the guru persisted in making sexual overtures to their girlfriends.

Smoothing away the years

Need a face-lift? Look no further than CACI (computer aided cosmetology instrument). CACI delivers a tiny current to the skin and muscles in order to “re-educate muscles”. It is allegedly FDA approved. I have written to NCAHF to check this claim and will report in due course.

Best wishes for the New year to all readers and don’t forget Fluvoxamine if you feel a Christmas shopping compulsion. If Christmas awakens repressed memories of ritual satanic abuse at the hands of Santa I recommend a $10,000 payout from ACC will also help with the shopping.

Songs from the Skeptical Choir

Yes, Rhesus Monkey

(Tune: “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”)

Rhesus monkey, this I know,
that the Bible Belt must go.
Trusting to authority
must give way to “test and see”.

Yes, rhesus monkey,
Yes, rhesus monkey,
Yes, rhesus monkey,
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkeys in the jung-
-gle think Darwin’s work was bung-
-gled, for evolution’ry
progress seems delusion’ry.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkey, don’t get madder;
evolution is no ladder.
It’s a bush and we are twigs —
you of dates, and we of figs.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkeys in the lab
wonder who picks up the tab;
ask, Who put man at the top,
Who says we must get the chop?

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.

Rhesus monkey, give us time,
Homo sap. has far to climb,
Evolutionists are giants
compared with creation “science”.

Yes, rhesus monkey, (x3)
The Bible Belt must go.


by Hugh Young

Demons, Drought and Bullfeathers

Pull up a chair and hearken to the tale of the Great Drought of ’94

“Skeptical?” piped up the old timer. “Of course I’m flaming skeptical, ye addlepated mudfish!

“Aye, but it wasn’t always so. I was a dour and solemn Presbyterian from birth onwards, and bar the whisky, gossip columns, loose floozies and muckraking, a devout one too! But all this changed suddenly in the winter of ’94, twenty years ago, when Auckland was struck by drought.

“It was a fearful time. The people were downcast and grimy, and dirt and dust grew on the city like a blight, until you could scarce tell a regional authority from a whorehouse, resulting in all manner of dire ruction and scandal, driving middle-management to the limits of despair and provoking the wrath of the waterblasting community.

“I sought spiritual comfort during the crisis by moving into the Protestant and Trumpet Pub, where I followed the drought’s progress by radio and word of mouth, buttressing myself against evil with 17 barrels of ale and religious austerities.

“It might have been a straightforward drought, but a gimp appeared in the scenario when the North Shore City Council imported a wizard from the pagan South Island wop wops to perform rain-making ceremonies. A simple measure, you might think, to divert the suffering masses from their woe.

“But plagues from heaven upon me if as soon as the news broke the blasted Christians didn’t arise in a spluttering fit of hellfire and damnation, claiming that such heretical pranks were proof that the country had gone to the Devil, and forthwith raised such an almighty hullaballoo of scriptural vociferation that by the time the wizard landed the Council had already taken heed of the Christian catchcall, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and quelled the pitchfork and torch uprising by cancelling the performance.

“I was flabbergasted, and even the publican, Haggis McDonnagle, was visibly shaken, stating right then and there that he was considering changing the name of the pub to the Secular Humanist, for in all his born days he’d never seen a witch, wizard or soothsayer with any more flair for the miraculous than a card shark, and to ban such blarney was nothing short of idiocy multiplied.

“But the wizard wasn’t unemployed for long. The barbarian villages north of the city thought it madness to let an available wizard slip through their fingers and thereupon hired him, leaving the North Shore City Council looking like a prize-winning jackass.

“By now the Christians were nigh delirious with joyous condemnation. It wasn’t often they got a chance to go rabid over devil worship and they meant to make the most of it.

“For days the talkback lines ran hot with seething Born Agains, witnessing for the Lord and staking their souls on the blood of the Lamb that the whole country was in the grip of Satan, and unless we clung to the True Vine and threw ourselves down at the feet of the Lord, the Deceiver himself would drag us into the black pits of Hell wherein we would rot in unspeakable anguish until the end of time.

“By now it had been raining for several days. I tell you, if the cat wasn’t among the pigeons now it would never get much closer, for lo and behold — both sides claimed responsibility for the miracle!

“The Christians held that the extra energy they had to put in to counteract the forces of darkness brought forth the Mercy of God. And forsooth, the Presence was strong! The halls of the pentecostals were abuzz with the Unknown Tongue, and rumour has it even non-pentecostals were heard to glossolate, and I’d be prepared to bet money — I take that back, Haggis would be prepared to bet money — that the Graph of Visions and Apparitions showed an upward curve through this period.

“The wizard himself took no credit; the peasants did it for him. He departed secretly, as fast as possible, saying little but to remark that if fools were kiwifruit we could start a new export industry, or something to that effect, for between the jet engines, caterwauling Christians and the Morris dancers it was hard to hear much of anything, and all told the whole dadblanged circus was such an unearthly blaze of flailing sticks and Biblical injunctions that objective observation may not even be applicable in this case.

“Me and Haggis drank a tragic amount of whisky thinking about these things and ten days later resolved, as witnessed by Mrs McDonnagle, to suspend judgement on the Tree of the Unseen until it yielded a visible persimmon; arguing that invisible anti-persimmons didn’t constitute enough evidence to lynch tarot card readers.

“As I say, it was many years ago and the details are hazy; but by crikey, I’ve been on the alert ever since. So hark ye doorknocking gospelizer — if you or any other evangelical hot-air agent ever darkens my front porch again, I’ll flatten your cursed head with a spade.”

Contradictory Belief Systems

A friend of mine once visited a faith-healer, one of the religious variety from the United States who periodically come to New Zealand to swell their bank balances. She attended the meeting because of a persistent pain in her elbow. Despite my suggestions that it was only tennis elbow, she was worried and thought perhaps the pain was serious. She had an aisle seat near the front and during the proceedings the “healer” approached her and asked about the pain in her arm. Apparently she hadn’t told anyone why she was there. She was impressed.

“How did Pastor S. know that I had a pain in my elbow?” my friend asked. “I hadn’t told him? He knew exactly what was wrong with me. He told me, well, all of us,” she said, “that pain is caused by evil spirits moving around the bloodstream. When they stop, they manifest themselves in the form of pain. Mine had stopped in my arm. He could tell. He had the gift.”

“Oh, come on.” I replied, “You used to teach biology. You know that pain is not caused by evil spirits. What about when you break a bone?”

(I should perhaps explain here that my friend had given up teaching biology because she felt the whole syllabus, including the classification of plants and animals, was based on evolutionary principles, and this contradicted her strong belief in creationism.)

“If you didn’t have evil spirits inside you when you broke a bone,” she responded curtly, “you would not feel the pain.”

She was deaf to my suggestions that perhaps the spirits were not all bad, since without pain indicating that something was wrong we might not attend to our hurts.

“All pain is bad.” she insisted.

“What else happened at the meeting?” I asked.

“I had to go and stand at the front, with other people who had pain or sickness. Pastor S. laid his hands on my arm and demanded, in the name of God, that the evil spirits leave my body. He drove them out.” Her eyes shone as she brought back the memories.

“How does the arm feel now?” I asked.

“Oh, much better, thanks,” she smiled, “Pastor S. said the pain would go quickly now, but I could help by resting it.”

Of course the pain did lessen. Tennis elbow is susceptible to rest. Despite my protestations, my friend insisted it was due to Pastor S., driving out evil spirits. The devastating part of the whole story for me is that though she has been scientifically trained, has a university degree in fact, she is content to go through life holding two mutually exclusive beliefs — one based on common sense and rational thought, where it applies to everyday events and can’t possibly undermine long-held views, and another resting on superstition and religious arguments for its authority. All credit to her, though, that she finds it possible to remain friends with a “sinner” such as myself.

Science Teachers

Having taught for many years, in four schools and one university, I have met quite a number of science teachers. Being insatiably curious (many would say intrusive) I take every appropriate opportunity to talk to them about their beliefs. Despite their education, the holding of two mutually exclusive belief systems by science teachers is common.

In an informal survey I considered some of the science teachers I have known well enough to discuss matters of belief over the last few years. There have been 21, whom I categorise as follows;

  • 7 “Standard” Christians, who attend a mainstream church on a regular basis at least a few times a year. One in fact is an ordained Anglican minister
  • 4 “Fundamentalist” Christians, who meet in religious gatherings at least once a week
  • 5 Theists, who hang on to belief in a god but do not attend any religious meetings
  • 1 New Ager, who, surprisingly, believes in such things as aromatherapy, homeopathy, and the like
  • 1 into Transcendental Meditation
  • 1 Anthroposophist
  • 1 Theosophist
  • 1 Atheist, with strongly-held views

At least 14 of these, I suggest, hold mutually exclusive belief systems. For example, the majority of them believe that miracles have occurred at some time or other, despite this contradicting scientific laws they promulgate every day in the classroom.

Most avoid providing explanations for miracles, but some believe that God has the ability to suspend scientific laws to accommodate them. More logically perhaps, some suggest that scientific knowledge at present is not profound enough to provide adequate explanations for miracles. I have included under the heading of miracles, virgin birth and resurrection.

So, where does that leave us? All of us, I think, expect the natural laws of science and logic to apply to everyday events, but many of us subscribe to an additional belief system that transcends common sense. This second system allows the unthinkable to happen. It can be important to us, especially when we are apprehensive about the future. In such cases we can “cross our fingers and hope for the best”, even for a miracle to occur.

What Does Quantum Mechanics Show Us?

Attempts to interpret the results of quantum mechanics in ways people can understand can themselves lead to confusion.

Some physicists and philosophers conspire to waste intellectual resources on pseudoproblems with no empirical consequence — notoriously, quantum interpretations. In the process, it is perhaps not surprising that some more ancient conceptual cul-de-sacs put in an appearance.

Some of the words that get thrown around often are “determinism”, “causality”, “reality” and so forth. Some pictures, like Bohmian hidden variable interpretations, are best seen as attempts to preserve the viability of certain labels, though empirically the whole enterprise remains vacuous. However, since interpretations are useful only as conceptual tools if at all, certain conceptual perversities introduced can be grounds for criticism of an interpretation beyond its inconsequentiality.

Bohmian pictures typically preserve a classical-like sense of reality, universality of causation (there are no fundamentally uncaused events), and, provided standard quantum mechanics is retained, determinism. Note, however, that these terms refer to nothing of any possible empirical consequence, and are but descriptive of a particular language used to describe the physical content. The conceptual perversity enters in confusing idiosyncratic features of descriptive language with information content.

To illustrate, let us go back to some venerable theology (actually quite an apt comparison for some pathologies of theoretical physics). One of the classical “proofs” of God invokes the notion that everything must have a cause. This would appear to be a perfectly good generalization from our experience, and we would of course like to extend this to a universal statement instead of having unseemly exceptions to the picture. Even if all in the universe is in a causal chain, it as a whole cannot be explained by causes internal to it.

So, instead of leaving the totality of everything uncaused, we declare it to have an external cause, and equate this to God. To terminate the potentially infinite causal series there, we call on the total self-sufficiency or self-causedness of God. This is basically the classical cosmological argument. There are many reasons for its failure, one being that no coherent self-sufficient God-concept can be found.

Is “God” Useful?

But let us ignore such problems for a second, and ask if any information is being conveyed by the God explanation for “it all”. The answer is none: the whole argument is driven by the principle that everything must have a cause, and “God” merely serves as an empty label to provide us with a cause, within this argument. Instead of inventing spurious entities to save principles, it is better to acknowledge the notion of uncausedness. It is intimately related to patternlessness, i.e., randomness, and it is inescapable. The cosmological argument merely points to a deficiency in our conceptual equipment.

It is not only theology that ties itself into knots over causes, but philosophy as well. Interpretations of quantum mechanics that have no empirical consequence whatsoever, but restore the notion of full causality by invoking permanently hidden variables and non-communicative superluminality, similarly convey no information while preserving the universality of causation.

The necessity of causation is a conceptual deficit that has been embodied in theology, which has regularly offered pseudo-explanations for cases where no pattern existed. Randomness is one of our psychological blind spots, in areas having little to do with religion as well; even a so-called “hard” science has its troubles with it (not only in QM, but in statistical mechanics also).

It is in this sense that interpretations can be pernicious, beyond being a waste of time. Taking them seriously as anything but inessential conceptual tools dictated by convenience leads to the pretense that predictions of consequence can be obtained from them.

Consciousness or holistic connectivity can be invoked in consequence-free ways, but it is regularly stretched to the point where one can pretend that empirically relevant forms of these words naturally have a place in the physics. They do not, unless some very important modifications are made in quantum mechanics. It will not do to propose revolutionary ideas merely by resorting to information-free, obfuscatory philosophizing.

In his Minority Report (1956), H.L. Mencken summed it up well:

“Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians … of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology.”

Predicting the End of the World

Vicki Hyde suggests (Skeptic 30) that we are in for a lot more doomsday predictions as we approach the year 2000. I am afraid she is right, but why should fundamentalists get so excited about a round number of years?

They believe that the world was created in six days, and a very ancient prophesy is that it would last six thousand years because “…one day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). That seems logical enough.

This prophecy originates from the first century when it was believed that the world was already around four thousand years old. It is contained in the Epistle of Barnabas1 chapter 13, and The Secrets of Enoch2 chapter 33. The former letter had as good a claim to be in the New Testament as several books that were included. Some early Christian writers believed it had the same author as the Epistle to the Hebrews.

This is thus a very ancient prophesy, but it is difficult to decide just when the 6,000 years are up. Our system of dating which identifies this year as AD 1994 was invented in AD 525 by Dionysius Exiguus. He tried to start his system from the birth of Jesus but miscalculated.

The Roman republic had counted years “AUC” (Ab Urba Condita, the year of the city). Afterwards they counted “in the year of the Emperor”. Dionysius added all this up, but missed the four years from when Octavian won the battle of Actium (31 BC) until he accepted the title of Emperor Augustus (27 BC).

That is the real reason why Authorised Versions of the New Testament claim that Jesus was born in 4 BC. If Dionysius had counted correctly he would have started his system four years earlier. Of course, that means that the world should end in 1996 rather than 2000. It is later than you think.

Relax again, that is not the only alternative. Dionysius’s near contemporary, Victorius, produced a system of dating years from the Passion of Jesus. This was taken to occur in the year we call 28AD, and the system should have great appeal to fundamentalists (although I doubt that any have heard of it), the Passion being much more important than the birth of Jesus.

Consequently, many old dates may have an error of 28 years, because it is not known which system was being used. And the end of the world may not be due until 2028 — what a relief!

The popular idea that there was an end-of-world panic around AD 1000 is almost certainly a myth. There are (so far as I am aware) no contemporary references to such agitation. But at that time probably nobody knew the date. Although the system of Dionysius was nearly 500 years old it was rarely used. The world of Islam counted the years since the Hegira. Much of Europe counted “in the year of the Emperor”, and the Catholic church counted “in the year of Pope”. In Western Europe few outside the church were literate or numerate. According to Barbara Tuchman3, even as late as the fourteenth century in Western Europe no two writers ever agree about the date.

To go back to the beginning — literally — all these predictions are based on the world’s being created in six days. We know this is not true. It is not just geology and biology that refute the biblical creation story, geography does too. Try reading Genesis 1. The creation account assumes a flat Earth, for only a flat Earth can experience the “mornings and evenings” described. A spherical world has neither a date nor a time. There is always a morning somewhere, and always an evening somewhere else.

1. English translation in The Lost Books of the Bible, New American Library [text]

2. English translation in The Forgotten Books of Eden, New American Library [text]

3. A Distant Mirror

Great Skeptics of History, No. 6

John Jewel was Bishop of Salisbury during the reign of Elizabeth I.

It is hardly credible what a harvest, or rather what a wilderness of superstition has sprung up in the darkness of the Marian times. We found in all places votive relics of saints, nails with which the infatuated people dreamed that Christ had been pierced, and I know not what small fragments of the sacred cross. The number of witches and sorceresses had everywhere become enormous. The cathedral churches were nothing else but dens of thieves, or worse, if anything worse or more foul can be mentioned.