So, loaded question here and one I’ve always resisted asking on this blog: where do you stand on religion, alternative medicine and other such spiky subjects?
I wrote this on my other blog (which I forgot existed, whoops) and am reposting it here. It explains my stance on such matters.
I’d marry James Randi, if he weren’t such a funny colour. He’s had the skin of a cadaver since he was born. The reason he grew that beard was to discourage people poking him on the chin to see if he moved.
He’s also gay, three times older than me and about a thousand times more clever than me.
Here he is in an exquisite takedown of Uri Geller and Peter Popoff:
And in a lovely lecture:
I’m a skeptic. I’m an atheist. I often tone down my opinions on such things in polite company, just as I try not to rant about atheism into the face of theists. I especially toned it down on my other blog, leaving nary but one huge rant and a few subtle links in the sidebar to give me away. It was mostly to avoid showdowns with people who had mental health problems who felt they were helped by such things. I have no right, and no interest, in doing anything to despoil that. Even if every other day I received emails- ranging from well meaning to what the fuck- exhorting me to turn to god to be healed, or have I tried this homeopathic remedy? It’s water, but, y’know. Or the seminal: DIET AND EXERCISE! FRESH FRUIT! EAT IT! EAT NOTHING BUT! I couldn’t be arsed in the end.
For the record, I think psychics, dowsers, fortune tellers, faith healers, aura readers and their ilk are all either deluded or charlatans. Ghosts don’t exist. There is no such thing as a soul. Hypnosis is suggestibility. I think that homeopathy and most alternative medicine is dangerous bullshit. I want to spit every time I remember that it’s funded by the NHS. And yes, they do belong under the same branch as psychics, because it is the same principle: it is ego driven (like most professions), it’s unproven and it encourages cyclical, irrational thinking. I would never stop anybody doing it (I have no right, and I’d hate to have the right, if it helps people, then, it helps), but I would slam my fist into their mouth if they- white, middle class, respectable- started wanking on about the wisdom of the Far East, tradition, herbs and shit that isn’t even widely practised in their native lands but is in richer enclaves of suburbia. “But it’s traditional! It’s an ancient remedy!” Because it’s “traditional”, it doesn’t make it right. Stoning women who commit adultery (to use a particularly hysterical example) is traditional in more hardline Muslim countries and it doesn’t make it right.
Alternative medicine and homeopathy is fine for the sniffles which would resolve itself anyway, but not in cases like this. I don’t think the placebo effect is worth funding so extravagantly. You do get it on the NHS. Just ask any reassuring GP who has a nice fifteen minute chat with someone who has a bad cold.
But I’m completely fascinated by it all. It isn’t with the snotty nose holding of a snob. I’m just childishly hooked on it. I could spend a happy few weeks reading about nothing other than homeopathy. I love learning the tricks of psychics. And I also love reading religious texts (and if you’re interested, which I doubt, I am against the banning of burqas. It isn’t purely an OMG SYMBOL OF OPPPRESSIONSSSSSS! For many women it’s an expression of their identity).
I am co-owner of a tarot deck. It was chosen via superstition. Robert had been messing around with his friend’s tarot deck, and kept repeatedly- seemingly randomly- finding himself with, “The Fool”. On an afternoon wander into a woo-woo shop, he picked up a deck of tarot cards, and the first card he pulled out was, aye, the Fool. And even though he doesn’t believe in the Tarot, he bought them anyway.
The tarot deck I have is a beautiful object. I don’t have it on me at the moment, but I think it’s the Golden Tarot. Tarot, like horoscopes, are just vagaries that could apply to anybody, at any time. And even though I know that, my heart still stops for a second when I get this card:
You can make anything fit you if you want to (they’re called Barnum statements, and, since I like mental health, it also has a hand in self diagnosis), and that’s the fun! Playing with Tarot cards is like mental chewing gum. For example, you can have an online tarot reading here. I have just asked,
“Is Girl Cat plotting?”
Here’s what I got:
I’ve had some good chats when playing with Tarot because where else is something going to make you discuss, “A state of joy and abundance that is shallow and fleeting”? Even though I usually COUGH if I get a reversal and pretend I don’t notice.
I’ve always loved the fact that the fervert debunker of all things paranormal, “The Amazing Randi”, was a magician. John Edward (the American medium with an Easter Island face), refused to take part in Randi’s $1m Challenge on the grounds that he refused to be tested by, “someone with an adjective for a name”. Someone, however, did take his $1m challenge, and failed. It was the Baby Mind Reader.
It’s a joyful kick in the bollocks to those who argue that skeptics want to strip the world of wonder. Some of the most prominent skeptics are renowned magicians- like Penn and Teller. They used to terrify me when I was younger, because their magic seemed so brutal. Most people know they’re being tricked when they watch a magic act. It’s part of the fun. The open-mouthed. “How the fu…?” The protesting that you can definitely see a wire. I have no fucking clue how the classic, “woman being sawn in half” trick works. Even though it is a thorn in my little feminist paw, I still don’t want to know. I read about everything else, but never about how magic tricks are done. It’d ruin it.
As for psychics, I’ve always been less accepting of their trickery.
The rational explanation for psychic mediumship is a combination of a few things: the main one is cold reading. Cold reading is…
…a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, mediums and other con artists to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion,hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.
If you’re even vaguely skeptical to begin with, once you know about cold reading (and its more contemptible sister, hot reading, which is often responsible for those, “How did he know that?” moments in mediumship), it’s very difficult to take any psychic seriously. It becomes painfully obvious, even with the good ones (the telly ones are obviously subject to favourable editing).
I’ve never had a psychic reading myself, but my mum has. She’s a great believer in all of this, and I’ve never really had the heart to argue with her. The furthest I’ve gone is a shaking-head sigh at the, “Crossing Over with John Edward” book propped upon her bedstand. Apart from the fact that as a good Catholic woman she’s going to burn in hell for this and I’d rather not frighten her, I also don’t really discuss it because it does give her obvious comfort. I’d be a bell end to toss her a book on cold reading then blow her a kiss before I fuck off on my motorbike with James Randi giving her the wanker hand from the sidecar.
She had recorded a session she had with a psychic medium, and played it to my sister and I, as proof that there was something in it. Without exaggeration, it went something like this,
*crackling tape sound, then a warbly woman’s voice* “I’m getting a man here, an older man”.
Mummy: “Yes….” (At this point, I think she actually went to say a name, hence…)
WW: “I’m getting a James. Jimmy? Jim? John?”
WW: “Joe, that’s right”.
M: “Yes! Joe!” (crying already)
WW: “He was your father…”
M: “My husband’s father…”
WW: “Yes, he’s saying he misses you and his son…He loves you both. He wants you to be happy”.
M: “My husband’s dead”…
WW: “Aw. Yes, he’s passed on now, it was very quick, wasn’t it? Very sudden. He was young, too young. I’m getting a James…”
Eventually got to P, naming my dad’s brother Patrick, before she hit on Paul (my dad’s name). There was much jubilation and my mother gasping in disbelief and delight, through tears.
My sister and I sat and listened to this, profoundly disgusted at the exploitation of our mother’s grief, but also completely stunned that, as we gawped, she nodded and wiped tears from her eyes. Our aunt did likewise.
“Mummy- she’s talking shite, you realise this? She just listed random names”.
But mummy had sincerely forgotten, even in the same second as she heard it, that this woman had missed on so many occasions. It was doublethink. She took from it what she wanted, and what she needed, and disregarded the rest. Our aunt- a califloured hair woman who could make a nun punch her with her face- immediately turned on us. Hadn’t we heard? Wasn’t that proof? She said Paul. She said Joe!
There was absolutely no point in protesting. Because, “she knew it was real”. As my mum, I think, more desperately wanted to believe it was.
As fascinating as I find it, as academically as I can understand it (in a Wikipedia PhD kind of way), I think I probably hate psychics as much as I hate alternative practitioners who encourage cancer patients to abandon conventional treatments for their more expensive ones. I don’t think all psychics are knowingly fraudulent. I’m *breathes knuckles on self, wipes on shirt* passable at cold reading because I’ve read so much on it and sneakily practiced it in a non psychic way. It’s sometimes useful. If I was a bit unwell and was even better at it (and, oh, had never read any of this, and wasn’t being generous with the “passable” up there), I’d probably believe I was psychic. Some people are just highly intuitive and unknowingly “read” people. Some people are delusional. Some people are, in a misguided way, trying to be nice. Some people are just bored. But some- I’d say a rather large “some”- are using tactics such as cold reading to deceive, and for personal gain.
If you’re honest about it, then it’s a wonderful trick. Very good honest psychics (like, and I wish I could think of someone else but my brain has turned to bollocks, Derren Brown) turn it into a spectacle. It’s great, and confusing, and astounding.
But if you’re dishonest, then, y’know, you’re a cunt, and not only a cunt, but you’re a cynical cunt.
As it stands, I think my mum’s belief in psychics has not helped her move on from my dad’s death. Since his death, her parents have also died, so she has even more grief to cope with, and the psychics have even more money in their coffers. The last time I saw her she said she’d been reading less of her John Edwards and Colin Fry and Derek Acorah. (My greatest regret is that I sat behind Derek Acorah at a gig and only modestly irritated him by booting his seat, when I should have launched into a full-on possession of a Liverpudlian ghost into his concrete hair). But I don’t believe her.
*** (It is later)
Anyway, last night, I was basking in the warm glow of the computer screen playing, “The Enemies of Reason” in order to break up my awake day. I’m not one of the slavish Dawkins followers. I agree with almost everything he says (which is ANNOYING, because it’s hard to be a vocal atheist now without just sounding like you’re repeating most of what he says, because he kind of articulates everything. Instead of sounding like an intelligent, questioning person, I end up sounding like a BAAAAAAAAAAH Dawkins devotee), but he often irritates me in the way he says it. I know someone who says, “Oh my Darwin!” instead of, “Oh my God!”, and, lovely as he is, I want to drive his teeth into his throat. Evangelical atheism is as equally irritating (though, nowhere even near as dangerous) as Evangelical Christianity. But irritating I can handle, and I get a bit evangelical sometimes. There is the argument that it takes a lot of intellectual arrogance to profess your atheism, because you can’t 100% know. But I’m 99.9% atheist. My 0.1% is the little Catholic ten year old clutching her red Gideon bible and reciting bits of the New Testament to anybody who’d listen. In the same way I only came down quite hardline on pseudoscience after reading so much about it, I only became an atheist during my formative years at a convent school while reading the bible.
I hadn’t seen that part of Enemies of Reason before, and I wanted something to keep my attention, for it is short. He’s not as hellfire as he is in The Root of All Evil. He’s focused, transfixed sometimes. At the end, he eulogises about the majesty of the world. I’m nodding here. The world is majestic. It is more majestic, more beautiful, when I think of how it was created. Even thinking of the Periodic Table. And utterly mindboggling, still. The thought of how, and- oh fuck- why- is still enough to send me spinning and gasping for breath. This world. And life! The thought that- bloody hell- I am this machine built by evolution, with a heart pumping, with waterproof skin and- oh go on Dawkins, say it- obscenely lucky to be alive, in this finite moment, in this blink of time…the things that had to happen for me, and you, to exist. He looked like he was going to blow up.
Lurching through my Smug Atheism was a bout of Nausea. The kind of thoughts you get at alone with fractured sleep, that used to be in the dark. I started panicking. I wished I believed in god, because I didn’t want to be a brief spark, here, then not here. That didn’t seem fair… or enough! I want more time! For everyone! This can’t be it! It’s meaningless! Fuck you, Dawkins! Fuck your splendor! We are dust! That’s all! “ARRRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”
….which was coming from outside my flat.
It was about six in the morning by this point. The hip-hop and ska nightclub a few doors down had emptied its Rude Boy contents onto the road but was still BSSH BSSH BSSHing. I, ever nosey, went to the window and pulled back the curtains. I expected to see a fight.
There were a lot of people crowded around a young man, in a suit. He was lying on the road, next to a car, its bonnet dented. Some of those milling around were anxiously playing with their phones- one, a cunt who I hope gets hit by a fucking meteorite- was filming it and laughing to himself.
His dad was there. “What about his mum?” “He ain’t got one!”, shouted back, angrily.
I watched, wondering if I were any better than cunt and a phone, hovering over their heads, pecking greedily at the scene- the approaching ambulance wailing, the dad, wailing. Some wee rude boy swaying at a police officer, who very nearly gave him the back of his hand. He slumped off, hands in his pockets.
The young man seemed alright, he was awake, with his head being held up, and was eventually put into the back of an ambulance, which lingered for a while. The noise died down as people sorted out who was going where, and for what. And I’m up at my window, with my glasses off, with my head down, saying a prayer. I didn’t even stop when I realised what I was doing because it made me feel like I was doing, and not just watching. I managed to stop believing in god but never really abandoned praying.
I hope he was alright. He’s not in the news, online or elsewhere. Since the ambulance loitered for so long, I think that’s a good sign.