Warsi’s on the War-Path…

Recently, Baroness Warsi presented a speech to an audience at Leicester University.  A speech, which according to sources was not cleared by Downing Street and does not appear on the Conservative Party Website.

No idea is immune to critical analysis or query, least of all her argument that Islamophobia has become ‘socially acceptable’ dinner-table topic of conversation. Islamophobia is a disingenuous and deliberately misleading term which implies that a fear of this backward, narrow and totalitarian belief system is somehow unjustified by those of us who have bothered to give it any real examination.  Baroness Warsi made no mention of the Muslim demonstrations and marches in our streets, with banners denouncing our way of life, our troops and calling for the death of all non-believers (in other words anybody who is not a Muslim or those who dare to call it out for what it is).  What she attempted was nothing short of anti-criticism propaganda aimed at cowing the proportion of the population who are no longer willing to accept anything at face-value.  She did nothing but try to de-value critical thought.

It’s not just that she was selfish and thoughtless in the tone and content of her speech, but her whole attitude toward non-believers is little more than what she describes as Islamophobia under a different mask.  She is even on record of elevating those of the religious persuasion as morally and altruistically superior back in September during the Pope’s visit.  Her claim that there is no such thing as Islamic extremism goes to show how the baroness has blinkered herself to reality and only sees what she wishes to see.  More dangerously, she denied any distinction between the moderate and the extreme.  Moderate Muslims are quite happy to get on with their lives and get along with non-Muslims.  Aside from a worrying lack public of outrage over the attitudes and actions of their counter parts, there is no need to fear them.  Extreme Muslims who demand ‘respect’ (special treatment), have no wish to affiliate with non-Muslims, and attend those venom filled marches demanding for the end of freedom of speech, not to mention the other freedoms which allowed them to march in the first place are the ones we have every right to be afraid of.  Warsi is sorely mistaken if she thinks otherwise.

“Within Government – among ministers, Coalition partners, officials and agencies – there is an endless battle on this matter. It is a fight between those who think that the way to win is to empower nasty people to control even nastier ones, and those who believe that the best way to deal with extremism is to confront it and reward only those who reject it. It is an argument between those who think that only violence need concern us, and those who believe that it is from bad ideas that bad actions spring.” – Charles Moore of The Telegraph.

If Ms Warsi thinks people have not noticed her own past criticisms of her fellow Muslims then she cannot think much of her electorate’s intelligence, potential or otherwise.  Ms Warsi is of the latter group; reluctant to deal with the issue in favour of patching the symptoms when people are hurt due to the negligence and hesitation of those who could have prevented it.  A free country, truly free, needs to live by common values (not legislated morality) and those who refuse to honour those values should be shunned. Extremism in any form is a force-majore, a phenomenon which once it takes hold is contagious and pernicious and does not let go.  It does not listen to reason and any means is justified by the end.   To deny it’s existence as Warsi has done is foolish and dangerous.  She has encouraged the extremist fringe to nurture their supposed grievances (that people are allowed to not be Muslim and not share their lifestyle).

“This refusal to confront bad ideas means, for example, that the public authorities have shied away from having a look at what is preached at university Islamic societies. The security services do not investigate and combat subversion, as they did in the Cold War. Yet we know, from cases like that of the “Underpants Bomber”, that students are often recruited for extremism by contacts at their universities. It is a pity Lady Warsi said none of this to her university audience.” Charles Moore of The Telegraph.

With new free schools and academies increasing in number, it will not just be christian and jewish faith schools on the rise and outnumbering (possibly marginalising) the more secular state schools.  These schools will be state funded despite their freedom to select their students based on the religion of their parents but very little will be known about the background of those setting them up.  Great care must be taken to ensure that  the power to warp young minds is not handed to fanatics along and then the bill sent to the tax-payer.  Muslims are not a singular mass who all think the same way and attacks against them or harassment of them based on their religion is just as unforgivable as the actions of suicide bombers or perpetrators of honour killings: the one does not justify the other.

Let me now be distinct in saying that I do not hate Muslims.  They are people, they have as much right to their own beliefs as I have of mine.  It is Islam I have the issue with: the idea is not the believer.  If this were twenty years ago maybe it is true I would not have been as out-spoken against the terrible ideology of this religion but that is probably due to the fact that it was not as frequently in the public consciousness but I am no less vocal in my criticism of other religions, so Muslims have no need to feel ‘picked’ on by me.  Extremist right-wing groups such as the English Defence League and the British National (Nazi) Party do no favours to those of us who welcome real debate.  Pitting ignorance against ignorance is only ever going to result in more ignorance and it is unfortunate that national papers have thrown their journalistic integrity away in order to use that ignorance to sell their bottom-shelf hack-rags.

Warsi is as much a hypocrite as ever I saw.  Where she acknowledges the importance of distinctions, she wishes us to ignore it.  She wishes people to stop worrying and let others do the thinking for them.  Attempting to persuade the British public to abandon the idea of ‘moderate’ Muslims and replace it with ‘British Muslims’ is all very well but she seems to be ignoring the fact that many British Muslims are not in the least bit moderate having been swayed by international fanatics.  If she wishes to strip them of the title Muslim then she is wilfully ignoring the particularly authoritarian brand of Islam that is being promoted in this country.

“The mere fact that someone is a Muslim tells you nothing about their moral character, sexuality, political attitudes or even wealth. Baroness Warsi is no more typical of her religion than David Cameron is of his. With such a broad general term, being prejudiced in favour is as silly as being prejudiced against.” Andrew Brown – The Guardian

When I see a woman in a burka, I see victim of Stockholm syndrome.  I see a woman who has deliberately isolated herself from society and then displays that isolation because she has convinced herself it is her choice to be separate.    It turns them into a faceless black shape with no singular identity.  It removes their individuality so completely that it is almost as if they have ceased thinking of themselves as people.  This is why I am for the banning of the oppressive garment, not as an ‘insult to Islam’ but out of respect for (and view to protect) the physical and psychological well-being of the women made to wear them.



What Happens at an Exorcism and Why It Should Worry Us.

“There were only a small number of priests who had any real expertise, and they were getting calls from all over the country.” So many attended the conference, he said – “They must have requests.” Bishop Thomas Paprocki

Bishop Thomas Paprocki - The organiser of this October's Conference on Exocorism 

In October 2010, a Catholic conference was held in Baltimore, Maryland (preceding yet another) attended by 56 US Bishops and 66 Priests.  That Bishops had bothered to attend was indeed a novelty because the annual conference is normally only attended by Priests. What the focus of this conference is certainly surprising considering that it was held in a (theoretically) civilised country.  None the less, these Priests and Bishops find reason to gather every year to discuss exorcism.

While all Catholic priests are permitted by the Vatican to perform these ceremonies, very few American are trained and able to. Though how much training does it take in order to become ‘proficient’ in bullying, manipulating, and terrifying and further brainwashing an already troubled individual into first believing that their troubles are due to a demonic possession and secondly that their lifestyle had allowed the possession to occur in the first place.  The conference was meant to train priests in the ‘art’ of exorcism and was organised by the Bishop Thomas Paprocki who is also the chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance.

Paprocki is of the view that there is an increasing demand for exorcism in the US despite the lack of data on the subject: But when has real evidence had anything to do with what the Catholic church believes or how they decide to act.  Out of the 68 million Catholics in the US, only an estimated 6 to 14 are ‘trained exorcists‘ though the church seems determined to rectify this issue and plunge America further back toward the Dark Ages of Europe and the reign of tyranny and fear exerted by the Inquisition.  One of those exorcists is the Rev Gary Thomas of Saratoga and the subject of The Rite.  (The book by Matt Baglio and forthcoming film starring Sir Anthony Hopkins)

Paprocki’s feeling is seconded by Rev. Thomas.  Exorcism is being requested by parishioners who have family they believe to be in need of this ‘service’ yet there is no mention of any clerical recommendation.  I am sure these family members are well-meaning but the greatest harm is often caused by the best intentions (Thanks to Terry Goodkind for that one.).  The Rev. believes the cause of this demand is an increase in paganism and ‘idolatrous activity’ by Catholics.   This is, of course, garbage and garbage of the sort spouted by the likes of Michael Voris.  The Church feels threatened by its lack (or loss) of privilege in the developed world and is trying to increase their influence by any means necessary.  When you consider that even the president of the National Federation of Priests, Rev. Richard Vega, has not heard of any requests at all.  He speculated that immigrant Catholics, who were probably more familiar with the practice, may be making requests.  He also reported to the Guardian that it is Canon Law requires every diocese have a trained exorcist.  That many do not, he blames on a post Vatican II church.  In 2005 Pope John Paul II wrote to all US Bishops instructing them to train an exorcist.  Rev Thomas was asked when the initial candidate declined and despite his own reservations that it was not what he had ‘signed up for’, he took the course while in Rome on a sabbatical.

“Some demons are very strong,” he said. “So it needs repeated prayer and fasting and penance.” People breaking up relationships don’t always make a clean break. “The relationship didn’t develop overnight and is not broken overnight.”Paprocki

An exorcism requires discernment to determine whether or not the person ‘brought in’ is really in need of one or if their family just thinks they are.  The ritual is not just performed on demand (apparently) but it seems a rather convenient idea that a person may not realise they are possessed and may be subjected to this treatment against their will by the very people with a vested interest in the belief in the practice.  The initial discernment is carried out by team including a physician, a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist who (should all know better) are all practising Catholics.  Rev. Thomas claims that only five out of one hundred requests (again gave no real indication of the number of requests) result in an exorcism and that the exorcist is an ‘ultimate sceptic‘ (doubtful) based only on the idea that they do not just assume that all those who ask for the ritual need one.  This is NOT a sceptical outlook because they STILL believe in demonic possession despite the lack of evidence in favour of it and they STILL practice an outdated, unnecessary and harmful (extreme stress) practice.

“The person who is possessed may not even realise it. It’s more frequent that someone would bring a person in,”Paprocki.

The bishop Paprocki strongly believes in the need for exorcism and tried to explain possession it in terms of a relationship between a human and a demon having turned sour.  He states that it may have gone bad due to the human having realised their error.  This idea is highly speculative and even dubious, when accuracy is brought into question.  It is absurd, obtuse and fatuous to contrast an imagined demonic possession (based entirely on superstition and ill-conceived dogma) to real human relationships.  Paprocki is a fool to believe this rubbish and a dangerous fool to be promoting the practice and spreading his belief.  The Rev. Thomas says that he has performed 40 exorcisms over five years on five people.  Two gave up the ‘project’ due to time constraints.

When asked what was involved after the discernment, Thomas told The Guardian that it consists of a set of prayers meant to break up the relationship between the possessed and the demon (so a fake problem is solved with a fake cure.  It sounds about right for the church)  in order to force the demon out.  Even Thomas won’t call the work rewarding, and is reluctant to even go so far as to call it meaningful, he calls the work arduous and time-consuming with little chance of success.  Never thought that it’s because none of it is real and you have based at least the last 15 years on lies and half-truths, good Reverend?

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

The demand for exorcism – as seen in Hollywood films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose – is growing in the US. Photograph: ScreenGem/Everett / Rex Features

Both the Bishop and the priest have found themselves having to reassure people regarding the nature and risks of possession; correcting mythology with more mythology to the people who have already been misled into believing Christianity at all.

“Possession is not an involuntary thing. It’s not contagious. The person themselves has to open the door,” Paprocki said. To those who come to Thomas asking, “‘How do I protect myself from being inhabited by a demon?’ I say if you have a prayer life, if you have a sacrament life, if you have a faith life – you have nothing to fear.”

This is assuming that those brought in (or anyone) believe in either demons or possession.  The bishop believes that demons must be invited but are always looking for a way in.  80% of those brought to the Bishop have been sexually abused by a family member or ‘someone else’  and this abuse, the Bishop says, leaves the victim vulnerable to the possession of demons.  It just emphasises the church’s tendency to externalise blame, hold the victim responsible for the actions of others, and typical of this barbaric and outdated religion of ridiculous superstition.

Exorcisms which have made the news are those that have ended in tragedy but were dismissed by the Bishop as having been carried out by untrained amateurs who resorted to beatings drownings and asphyxiation in order to ‘drive the demon out’.  Forget the need for training and more of these pointless rituals,  there is a need for a worldwide ban on the practice.  We only hear about the handful that are even reported but how many tragedies go unmentioned?  How many of these people are permanently damaged or injured by this practice?  We don’t hear about them for the same reason we didn’t hear of the widespread (and current) practice of protecting paedophiles for so long: the church do not regard themselves as subject to the man-made laws or morals that contradict their own idiotic philosophy.  It is in the interest of public safety that the practice is halted entirely rather than escalated.  When you consider that there are some who regard the ritual to be dangerous to the exorcist but the danger was also dismissed by the Bishop (who has never performed one) who put the deaths down to the ignorance of the untrained.  He added that the ‘unofficial’ exorcism were merely ‘ineffective’ and that “Jesus is more powerful than the Devil”.  Not the first to close their eyes and mind to reality but his influence on this subject makes him dangerous.

The Bishop’s dismissal make little impact on the Reverend who believes that the danger to exorcists is very real.  They can be attacked emotionally, physically and psychological but added that he had never experienced a physical attack (I wonder why? duh) but his celibacy is often attacked.  Often? 8 a year for 5 years is often?  Heaven for bid he ever quit the church and get a real church: the shock would probably induce a stroke.  Paprocki and Thomas both refer to demons and devils in the plural and the singular but the Bishop seems proud (isn’t pride a sin?) to admit this as if he was showing off some expertise on the matter.

“I use those interchangeably,” Paprocki said. “Sometimes a person can be possessed by more than one devil.”

According to these paranoid papists, a demon is a spiritual being who has rejected God and is being punished eternally for that ‘crime’ and the trick to a successful ritual is to learn the demon/devil’s real name while remaining aware that the Devil is the Prince of lies.  That simple huh?  The knowledge of this grants the exorcist power over the demon and the ability to banish it.  They have both noted that this cannot be done in one session so one wonders how much the church charges for their time.  It also begs the question of why the exorcist would believe a word spoken by/through the possessed?  The rarity of exorcism is, claims Paprocki, due to the rarity of real possession (no shit, Sherlock moment?).  The Bishop went on to say that the Devil’s ‘real’ game is temptation (aside from his earlier claim that demons are always looking for a way in) so it is a mistake to assume that the only danger lies in possession.  The devil is no more real than God, Jesus or any other mythology for that matter and it is foolish to fear mere characters in stories.

Polish exorcists gather in Warsaw

The national congress comes as part of a policy by Poland’s Catholic Church to lift the veil on what was once a secretive practice Photo: CORBIS

Clearly these men (and those who follow his promotion of exorcism) are deranged and should be removed from positions where they can influence the ideas and actions of others (and possibly placed in psychiatric institutions?) so they can do no further harm.  Regardless of the improbability of their claims and ideas, people DO listen to these men and change their minds according to what their local clergy tell them to think so these insane and parasitical ideas of demons, devils and possession are being spread and have more than merely the potential to cause very real and lasting (if not permanent) harm.




Genesis; The Nasty Little Book That Man Wrote.

The book of Genesis is the first, and one of the most hotly debated, books of the Bible.  It opens from where Christians believe God created the universe and everything else stems from this huge and groundless assumption.  The main action of the book is the supposed (and highly unlikely) conversation between God and Abraham and then his descendants. It is not merely Christians who are expected, and claim, to believe this but the rest of us are too and it is still treated as the height of bad manners to disbelieve it but to openly admit our disbelief and challenge their faith in unprovable stories and parables is considered a gross insult.  Tough.  I refuse to be bullied into submission over a set of ideas which places unthinking obedience (Because, let’s face it, religion has little or nothing to do with morality) over considered thought and questions.  We are meant to believe that an all-knowing god needed to test the faith of a single desert dweller over that of entire populations, and comparatively more advanced, societies in China or Rome.

This is but one of the stories meant to describe the meaning of life, the origin of the universe and deserve unreserved respect from believers and non-believers alike.  The psalms regularly speak of God’s creative streak and he is often portrayed as being on a constant campaign of self-defence against questioning.  One example of this is a five chapter long rant in Job (38-42).  Job is not alone in this and it does much to explain the grossly over-done and frequently exhibited persecution complex.  The book of Isaiah (45:9-23) does much in a laboured attempt to answer preempted charges of unfairness and unfaithfulness.  Could it be that those ancient men had anticipated the ungainliness of their fraudulent claims of wisdom and authority?  Did they realise then that they would be called out on their tall tales by those who were not so credulous as to swallow their lies?  What better way to stamp out such unbelief and non-conformity than to make it a sin and inspire fear in/persecute those who don’t accept their authority at face value?  These religions began as a con and as such they continue to be.

“1 LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
in the heavens.
2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?[c]

5 You have made them[d] a little lower than the angels[e]
and crowned them[f] with glory and honor.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their[g] feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

9 LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Psalm 8

The anticipated defence often consists in depicting humanity as uncomprehending and incapable of understanding either God or his creation.  The act of keeping the congregation humble and dependant is a foundation stone of this ancient con.  It also centres on the fact that not only are we incapable of understanding this but that we should not even try to because doing so usurps the position of God.  If we had heeded this absurd idea (of power-hungry self-interest of the church) we would still be in the dark ages blaming demons for our ailments and witches for our woes.  The Gospel of John also refers back to Genesis and echoes the assumption that God claims the creation of the universe as his achievement.  This may go a long way to explain the ever so Christian affection for circular ‘reasoning’ and disregard of empirical evidence when defending their own beliefs (John 1:1-5).

“1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.” – John 1:1-5

Genesis does not state facts. It states only what was the acute misunderstanding of the world at the time.  It is nought but an ancient creation myth.  The basis of that understanding is known to be drastically flawed because it was limited by the knowledge of the time and should have long ago been disregarded.  The traditions of the bible are nothing unique.  They are derived from older mythologies at best and plagiarised at worst.  While the similarities are both numerous and striking the differences are equally.  The Gods of the Greek (The Romans emulated the Greeks to such an extent that they even adopted the mythology) and Egyptian pantheon were both portrayed and acknowledged as hypocritical, capricious, malevolent, selfish and frivolous.  However much they were worshipped and their believers attempted to appease Ra, Osiris, Ptah, Zeus, Ares, Athena, Artemis and Apollo or Hera (to name but a few) they did so only under duress: the fear that if they did not, all manner of ills would befall them and thus rendering their acts of worship little more than mercenary acts of self-interest.

The Christian mindset of working only for god and to earn ‘his’ love is nothing new but the God of the Bible seems to be immune from the criticism afforded to the afore mentioned deities by the followers of said cults.  Those ancient gods were also often regarded as an example of how not to behave.  The idea of a God’s representative on earth is also one which far pre-dates those stories of the bible.  I have lost count of the times I have heard people claim to follow the ‘ways of Jesus’.  They may as well claim to follow in the ways of Heracles (Hercules is the Roman incarnation) or Prometheus for it would just as little.  There is no proof that God exists so the argument that an ancient Jewish carpenter was his own father (actually God in human form) who was sent to us to be sacrificed in order to atone for the ‘sins’ of all mankind (before and after his lifetime) and impress himself is not only ludicrous but sickening.  There is also no more evidence that Jesus existed than there is of Heracles, Perseus or Ra and if people expect to be taken seriously they need first to start realising that their beliefs are not immune to scrutiny and second, to stop stamping their feet and throwing tantrums whenever a contrary idea is expressed in public.

Neither the quantity of these stories, nor the similarities between them grant them any truth by any stretch of the imagination.  The god of the bible, along with the ancient gods, are no more than characters in very old stories.  Interacting and interfering in human affairs (Prometheus and fire and Pandora’s Box), the Christian god is no different in its attempt to hold humanity in its subordinate state.  The common thread in creation myths differs from Genesis in one very particular manner.  While Genesis goes out of its way to reiterate the peaceful origin of our world, the others depict violent conflicts between deities and titans, petty squabbling among deities, and catastrophic natural disasters.  Also, the relationships between gods and mankind is often unfriendly with humanity created as a race of slaves to God or gods.  Even though the a few relationships may have positive elements, the majority are little more than the systematic bullying of a subordinate (behaviour which would merit an employment tribunal under modern western civil law).

In Genesis the antagonist is alone in his malevolence though, and free to claim all credit for the creation of the universe (Light on day one but no sun until day 4?  So where did the bloody light come from?).  There may be no squabbles between gods with only a single god but there is great animosity between the God of the Bible and his immortal adversary (Formerly an immediate subordinate and once an angel, but weren’t angels also supposedly created to be slaves? The all-powerful wasn’t doing such a great job really) as well as the conflict sanctioned between rival tribes.  In this case the all-powerful seems capable of doing little more than banishing and ineffectively imprisoning his rival though there is not much of a story if the antagonist is too easily defeated.

The Genesis story has less literary content to offer than any title by Dan Brown (and that’s saying something) and reads like a badly written fantasy novel.  The apparently perfect lone deity organises the sun, moon, earth, and stars with the intention of sharing it with his imperfect creations.  Like the gods in older stories this god requires that his creation worship him in return for protection from his own acts of cruel violence (much like a Mafia protection racket) but the book still goes out of its way to explain the innate goodness of the acts of this immortal ‘provider’.  The assumption that every word of this dreadful story is the literal truth is crass beyond belief.  Genesis is not a challenge to the perceived or accepted origins of our universe because we do not know what they are yet.  Anyone who claims to know that answer is either deluded, a liar, or both.  It cannot even be claimed to be an accurate examination of the culture at the time and is proof of nothing more than the people who wrote it had developed to the stage of using a written language (something which the Egyptians had achieved several millennia before hand).  Genesis, and the rest of the bible,  does little more than attempt to arrest human development by discouraging natural curiosity in the provision of a flimsy answer which does not stand up to scrutiny.  It achieves little more than the flattery of human arrogance by granting our short lives some specific significance in some cosmic plan.



William James on Mystical States and Agnosticism

Mystical States

“One may say truly, I think, that personal religious experience has its roots and centre in mystical states of consciousness,” William James

Our tendency to ‘pyschologise’ our experiences may well have grown since the time of William James but I rather think that now we know more about the works of the human mind, we tend to at least try to attach natural explanations before leaping feet first into the realms of the mystic and supernatural.  Ecstatic states that apparently provide sustenance for a human need for personal affirmation should not be merely issued with unquestioned validity.  Believing something that makes you ‘feel good’, or provides consolation or even offers comfort to the bereaved, does not make it accurate or true in any sense.

Childishly clinging to any imagery is a hindrance to meditation as any instructor will tell you.  So why should we be expected to maintain religious imagery for the sake of tradition? We shouldn’t.  These religions offer us nothing and have now reached the point that the followers of such now struggle to justify the existence of said religion.  This is so much so that very few can do more than bluster about the ‘marginalisation’ of Christianity and how they are being persecuted, waffle on about their country’s tradition being rooted in Christianity (despite all evidence to the contrary), and then parrot what they heard on Fox News the night before.  Tradition, by the way, is no reason to continue any practice, it is merely an excuse used to justify the continuation of a dubious habit.

James acknowledged that mystical experience has a lot to do with emotion along with memory and awe so even he admitted that these experiences are affected by the subject’s own cultural knowledge.  He also admitted that the experiences must be filtered through the subject’s conscious scrutiny so as not to attribute it wrongly to mysticism.  Mr Vernon only gives this acknowledgement a passing mention.  James did not however, believe that the correct means of assessing the truth of these mystical experiences was that advocated by who he referred to as the ‘medical materialists’ for whom mysticism had no meaning other than to suggest hysterical and semi-hypnotic states in an intellectually limited and superstition-biased mind.  Indeed, they would have been the ideal people to test the ideas as they had no interest in their truth.

James’ theories are now at odds with modern conventions of psychology and scholars of mystical experience.  He believed it had little to do with time or place but rather emphasised a need for dialogue of the experience and examination of the historical context in order to distinguish between a real experience and a mere imagining.  James’ interest rested in the individual’s experience more than in the communal as he viewed the former as the ‘real and positive’ version.  The shift in perspective between what is real and what is imagined does little more than add to the religious delusion; because one felt small and alone before, they involuntarily invented an event which allayed a negative and uncomfortable emotional state.  This still does not prove that these experiences were in any way mystical.  However much James wished for there to have been truth to the claims of mysticism, it does not grant them that truth and for or those people to have experienced any positive effects from their moments of epiphany, they would have to have had a negative view of their lives beforehand.  Unless we know their state of mind, what they were doing or how they were living prior to their visions, it is impossible to do anything more than take James at his word that the changes were positive.  It is also likely, considering this was in 19th CE America, that James himself had a preconceived and strict idea of what constituted a good lifestyle and whatever did not fit into that mindset, did not qualify as ‘good’.

Even the great mystics do not claim that their good deeds prove the truth of their visions but instead that misdeeds invalidate them. James’s propensity to disregard the influence of prior knowledge or experience leaves him vulnerable to other charges of biased investigation such as side-lining historical context.  James attempted to judge these accounts based on reasonableness and how well it fit within existing and articulated systems of belief and went on to stress that it is the overall consequences for the individual which matter: the quality he thought of as ‘saintliness’.  I agree that the consequences matter but only in the sense that those who experience these episodes should seek help from the psychiatric profession rather than the church.


Vernon, wrote in his article that there is an agnostic sentiment in James’ writing.  This may be, but only if he was an agnostic with a desire to believe.  A claim of knowledge which is based only on a religious vision can not truly be taken seriously in scholarly circles.  We have already established that James had become convinced that these visions were helpful to mankind regardless of any ill effects and probed the accounts he had collected in an attempt to prove his case.  One of his observations in from his 18th lecture was that mysticism was too private and varied a matter to be able to claim any form of authority of any overall positive effect on mankind as a species.

“Can philosophy stamp a warrant of veracity upon the religious man’s sense of the divine?” William James

But what is religious philosophy and how does it have any bearing here?  James believed very much that it was a secondary consideration to experience because he felt that humans were driven by passion and emotion rather than reason that drove human this area of inquiry.  He deemed philosophy a necessary, but not sufficient, means of exploration and explanation.  He also had quite a scathing view of intellectualism, describing it as a “preference for concepts over reality” and an insidious means of becoming a spectator of life rather than a participant.  In summary, he felt it encouraged speculation for its own sake with mere ‘intellectual bubbles’ as it’s result.  James detected this intellectualism within religious circles in attempts to prove the existence of God as a fact  but decided that these ‘proofs’ were sought by those who felt the need to separate themselves from what they saw as the randomness of the world.

James charged the Cardinal John Henry Newman of being a ‘vexed spirit’ with a ‘disdain for sentiment’ though considering James’ own disdain for reason and rationality in examining what he believed to be mystical encounters, I do not feel this accusation is entirely a fair one.  Newman made a clear distinction between ‘notional assent‘ and ‘real assent‘ and believed that to determine a belief using only philosophy is to give it only notional assent.  The Cardinal believed that this was an inadequate way to think about such things because it only engaged the rational and that real assent required more than reason.  He also stressed that he believed that in order to achieve a real understanding of mysticism the subject must examine all the evidence and experience as a whole – rational, emotional, cultural and observational.  Though each, on its own, are not conclusive proof of anything but added together, he believed, they supported the truth of a powerful belief.  Newman used the an allegory of a cable to symbolise the elements of religious beliefs.  If one strand is broken then the cable remains intact.  But the more strands that break the weaker the cable becomes until it eventually breaks and thus the individual is freed from the yoke of belief.  The tactic employed by the leaders of organised religion is that they aim to keep their congregations attention away from the man behind the curtain (as it were) by focusing on other issues; the supposed ‘persecution and marginalisation’ of Christianity, for instance. Real assent implies that God is a fact rather than a mere hypothesis and requires a complete suspension of disbelief in order to just accept it as a possibility.

belief in God is “an action more subtle and more comprehensive than the mere appreciation of syllogistic logic”, John Henry Newman

In his essay, ‘The Will to Believe‘, James drew upon the tenuous preoccupation with belief which doctrine requires of its adherents. He admits to the absurdity of the idea that a belief in God can simply be willed.  The essay seeks instead to justify individual belief in God even when those individuals have not been coerced into them.  He began by attempting to define religious belief.  Firstly the beliefs must be ‘real’ to count as such and secondly those individuals must consider those beliefs to be real possibilities.  For example, the subject must consider adherence to a religion and a set belief system to be a viable option for themselves.  They also had to affect the subjects’ outlook on life to be considered ‘religious’.  In the same essay James makes reference to Pascal’s wager, the hypothetical argument in favour of a belief in god, which many have taken seriously in the years since.  The wager is, as James saw it, based upon the logic of the gaming table.  James however had failed to see the wager for what it was; based upon very long odds indeed.  Instead James took it to mean that Christianity was a valid option for the French philosopher and mathematician despite the obvious objections to the suggestion that one may even feign belief if the odds favour a positive result for doing so.

instead of being powerless, [it] seems a regular clincherWilliam James

The wager did not work for Pascal any more than it should have worked for James (it didn’t) or for anyone else for that matter.  Pascal may have had a will to believe but that ‘will‘ does not render one capable of submission to religious belief for to do so we non-believers and agnostics would have to consciously and deliberately ignore all of the evidence and education we have accumulated over the course of our lives (and over human history).  The form of objectiveness demonstrated in the wager does not work in the case of religion because religion requires that we voluntarily lay aside our reason, independent thought and rationality, and our will to question ‘authority’ (rendering objective thought impossible) in favour of becoming a form of intellectual slave to ancient superstition.  That does indeed require a certain willingness but it is not one that I, or anyone in my non-believing activist circle, are in possession of.


William James on The Psychology of Conversion and Saintliness

The Psychology of Conversion

William James reported the case of 14 year old Stephen Bradley who purportedly saw a vision of Jesus.  It is said to have lasted only a second (so obviously, the boy was certain of what he saw in detail, and the vision was not at all a result of his indoctrination?) but he was certain that Christ was in his room and from that day on he called himself a Christian.  When, in his 20s, he visited a revivalist meeting and it left him cold he became troubled as he had considered himself religious.  That evening he had another experience even more pronounced than before.  The symptoms he reported were palpitations, feelings of both elation and self deprecation, apparently a stream of air passed through him (hysterical reaction).

Bradley claimed to have rushed to his neighbours to discuss the experience.  This is something which he was supposedly unable to do before.  He also challenged the deists and atheists to shake his faith.  That’s right, the blind faith of the credulous urges them to make a challenge to which they intend to automatically reject all evidence to the contrary (For a really good demonstration of this imbecilic attitude, go to YouTube and have a look at some of ShockofGod’s videos.).  William James conceded that Bradley may well have had a ‘religious experience’ but also took a look at similar cases which showed a sense of regeneration, reception of grace, or a gift of assurance (delusion of grandeur and hallucination expressed in familiar imagery).  The difference between the religious experience and the more ordinary decisive changes we make to our outward persona is the depth of the change.  It is quite normal human behaviour to partition our characters so we have one mode of behaviour at work and quite another at home or in social circumstances.  However, the religious conversion is, whether slow or sudden, a stable change.  Whether it be from being religiously apathetic to religious, between religions, or from religious to non-religious, the change goes on to dominate other aspects of the personality.  James believed it was personal drama that lead individuals to become religious, but also that the unconscious mind can play a considerable role in the life of an individual.

“Enlightenment is not imagining figures of light but making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Gustav Jung

The damaging influence of the unconscious is an idea which stems from Sigmund Freud (a psychologist who has now had a number of his ideas discredited).  Freud viewed the unconscious as a force to be suppressed and be wary of as a disruptive influence on our conscious mind, whereas James (as do I) sided more with the Norwegian, Carl Gustav Jung (pronounced yoong) who believed that the unconscious provided us with an ability to problem solve and a way to filter information and memories.  According to Jung, within the ‘collective unconscious’ exists images and symbols that have given rise to the multitude of fairy-tales, mythology, and legends that have been passed through the generations.  Jung called these symbols archetypes. Why did conversion matter to James? It was for more than mere personal religious reasons. He recognised that the only ‘evidence’ of God’s existence was rooted within personal psychological experience.  He attempted to explore and discuss the testimonies of experiences in ‘The Varieties’ and does well to mention that in reality one’s belief in God’s existence is as personal as one’s taste in literature, art and music.  There IS NO solid evidence for god’s existence and it is a logical fallacy to claim that there is.

“This means it will always be contested, though to reduce extraneous argument and focus on the evidence that is mostly likely to be illuminating, James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.” – Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon, of the Guardian’s Comment is Free, claims that this is why it will always be contested, but I disagree.  For there to be a contest on this subject there must be solid, testable and observable evidence in favour of those assertions of God’s existence.  There isn’t and personal testimony based on personal psychological experiences will not suffice.  James’ examination on this subject was inefficient because he relied entirely on personal accounts of religious conversion.  These do not prove the existence of God, these accounts only prove that people have converted to being religious.  If James was correct, that religious belief is comparable to taste in music, then it makes sense that some will be more susceptible than others. Vernon claims that statistical methods tell us that the broad mass of ‘religious phenomena’ will tell us as much but statistics only show correlation and correlation does not equate to causation. Statistics can be applied to ‘prove’ any claim no matter how dubious.  Vernon squirms through his peace by trying to claim that conversions are not even possibly delusions and that James presented these accounts without “forcing them into a frame that prejudged the significance of the experience, one way or the other”.  What this does not do is rule out all known natural causes before attaching a ‘supernatural’ explanation.

“They maybe excellent persons, servants of God in practical ways, but they are not children of his kingdom.” – William James

James also questions why some people at least appear to be immune to the process of conversion.  In order to be converted you need to want to be.  The same way that you have to want to give up smoking in order to be successful in the attempt.  Religious faith is, quite simply, a form of psychological delusion and requires an individual to believe absurdities on the say so of others.  We must remember though that religious delusions are a merely symptom of cultural conditioning, not an outright disorder, BUT those that have a hand in that conditioning also have a invested interest in our conversion; they believe that THEY will be granted an eternal reward in return for converting as many people as they can.  They knock on our doors, not out of their concern for our welfare, but concern for their own.  Those converts you hear of, who were formerly atheists and lived good lives while being so, were bullied into their conversions: it was merely the fear of the unknown that inspired them to make otherwise noble acts of altruism into acts of mercenary self-interest.  I disagree with William James, while remembering that he was a product of a Victorian upbringing himself, in that these accounts were anything more than psychological episodes which had been improperly diagnosed due to lack of understanding in what was then a relatively new field of study.  I would urge Mr Vernon not to attached any more meaning to his findings on the matter than that.  We are more than just the passive recipients of sensory information.  In order to make sense of that information and react according to a given situation our minds rely on previous knowledge and experience.  This knowledge includes cultural references and any religious imagery we might have tucked away in the back of our mind.  (Isn’t it funny how ‘visions’ of religious icons nearly always look like well-known and widely circulated works of art?)

“Even late in life some thaw, some release may take place, some bolt be shot back in the barrenest breast, and the man’s hard heart may soften and break into religious feelings.” – William James


Nietzsche believed that Christianity was dehumanising and demoralising, that encourages a slave mentality within it’s adherents and rendered all humanitarian acts worthless due to the demand from the established Christian authority, of serving others in return for the love of God and Jesus.  He was right.  Christianity has always demanded credit for basic human sympathy.  It twists a normal instinct for empathy into a demand to act for selfish reasons and demands  respect for its own sake which it does not deserve.  Nietzsche believed that the human desire to ‘do good’ and the instinct to take pity on those less fortunate was really a desire to make them indebted to us rather than to another (sounds like debt consolidation companies to me).  He believed that pity enables humanity to set itself above those who are suffering and, though we may not congratulate ourselves for our ‘goodness’, it may well be that we prefer helping to relieve the suffering of others than to face our own dilemmas and problems.  This is where my agreement with Nietzsche ends.  He also thought that it was better that individuals deal with their suffering on their own but not in isolation; to learn to accept their lot and rejoice in it in order to ensure that the suffering is not spread.

“The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals,”

This conclusion worried William James considerably and he devoted 5 lectures to challenging the idea.  The problem he had was not the insensitivity of merely allowing someone to needlessly suffer when there is some practical help we can offer, but that James was attempting to show religious experiences as a positive influence on humanity and that they were morally helpful and not at all damaging or selfish.  He set out a lengthy case to try to prove his point but his case was limited to the church’s account of the behaviour of the saints and tries to claim sanctity as the true motivator in acts of humanitarian aid.  It is a delusion of a spiritual existence outside of humanity which inspires people to believe that they are part of a cosmic plan greater than their own self-interest.

“Religious experiences are so powerful and positive a moral force, James argues, because they have an ability to overcome the inhibitions that prevent most from behaving in morally exemplary ways. “Few people who have not expressly reflected on the matter realise how constantly this factor of inhibition is upon us, how it contains and moulds us by its restrictive pressure almost as if we were fluids pent within the cavity of a jar.” Moreover, inhibition is typically a subconscious force. So counterbalancing subconscious forces, such as those that are religious, are required to release the individual from their withholding impulses.”

William James argued that religious experiences are a powerful and positive moral force because they allow us to overcome inhibitions which prevent many of us from behaving in ‘morally exemplary’ ways (Like what?  Not systematically dismantling the state safety net designed to protect those who have found themselves in hard times, you mean? How about NOT making cuts to public spending that will cost 500,000 people their jobs and then cheering that prospect?  Okay, dig against Christian majority coalition over).  Again, I will correct Mr Vernon, by pointing out that religion owns neither morality, nor kindness.  People are quite capable of behaving humanely and offering assistance to those in need without being steered their under the yoke of an oppressive religion.  Where altruism ceases to be noble is when it becomes either expectation or compulsion and in so doing  Christianity is guilty of trying to own and control the basic instincts that make us human.

It is not that Religious experience is alone in being able to warp an instinct to do the decent thing for another person for the sole reason that it’s the right thing to do.  Soldiers are paid to follow orders which require a great deal of personal courage in the face of very real danger and their experiences bring them to closely identify with their comrades on a level in which civilians are ill-equipped to do so.  Religious experiences have been granted a level all of their own, and are deemed by the religious to release the unconscious mind to the fore.  Like the soldier who chooses to submit their will to the training, so does the religious convert, but the soldier does not pledge to serve the military for the rest of their lives in the hope of a reward once they have died.  James’ study led him to conclude that these experiences can radically change someone but I do not believe he took the study far enough.  It seems to have stopped there with not even an attempt to explore how ‘natural’ experiences and periods of high stress can also inspire a person to change their outlook and behaviour.  If he did, then Mr Vernon has not alluded to it.

“the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspiration from above” David Hume

The power of these accounts of mystical and spiritual enthusiasm is not what repels us, the critics of religion.  What repels us is the demands made upon the individual to live a life, subjugate ourselves to a force for which there is no evidence, merely forget reason and rational thought in favour of merely being told what to think, believe and to say, and more importantly to adhere to ‘morals’ which we find more than merely objectionable. James’ saints have not earned their adoration for being magnanimous, they earned their high esteem by saying supportive things about the church and Christianity for there is plenty of real humanitarian work going on which is not attributed to godliness or even claimed to be divinely inspired and yet it is the do-nothings such as Mother Teresa and her so-called missionaries of charity who are granted far more respect than they are due for merely perpetuating a problem.  Nietzsche’s ‘strong-man’ may very well be the ruin of humanity but so equally will be the prostrated and artificially humbled slave to religious dogma.

Even James admitted that devoutness is followed by fanaticism and that religious piety has a pathological element to it.  As yet where religious experience can be of true benefit to the world is still in the Undiscovered Country (to steal a phrase from a rather old Star Trek film).  There is no better way to see how religion is a harmful influence on the world in general by simple observation of the conflict in world around us.  It is no coincidence that most of the world’s poorest, war torn and disease stricken countries are the most religious.  Where the Church and other religious institutions have a strong enough hold on the people, misery follows.  India’s caste system hasn’t helped their people out of hardship but the influx of refugees into large cities like Calcutta has been caused by sectarian clashes and warfare.  These are but a few examples and it would be arrogant in the extreme for Christianity to claim that all converts are Christian converts.

Vernon claims that these moral ‘geniuses’ provide ample demonstration of the helpfulness of religion.  I say they fail entirely because what he claims that William James has ‘proven’ neither squares with what I already know nor with what we see in the news every day.