Left, Right, Center, Lunacy Is Still Lunacy

December 2, 2009 | By | 7 Replies More

Several years ago at a science fiction convention I saw a charlatan in the dealers room fleecing people with bogus “kirlian aura” photographs.  The person in question had constructed an elaborate chair with complex armrests with hand-shaped inserts and cables.  The victim sat in the chair, placed the hands on the plates, and a photograph was taken (a polaroid) that showed a bust portrait int he midst of swirling colors.  I got a glimpse of the set up—there were mirrors on either side of the lens reflecting brightly-colored streamers that flanked the magic chair.  Somehow, this created a lens flare of multi-hued cloudiness.

I am a photographer by training.  I know a little something about Kirlian “aura” photographs, enough to know that (a) you can’t take them in full light and (b) Polaroid never made a film sensitive enough in the format this person was using to record the faint electrical tracings.    You also couldn’t run enough electricity safely through a whole human body to create even a thin outline much less the solar flare explosion these prints displayed.  They looked nothing like a Kirlian photograph.

But people were buying them, fifteen bucks a shot, and I expect the photographer in question made nice change that weekend.  When an acquaintance of mine was showing hers off later I made a couple of remarks about the fraudulent aspects of it and all I got for my trouble was frostiness and dismissal as a hopeless skeptic.  I confess I took that as my cue to say nothing further.  I did not unmask the fraud, which would have been brave and ethical, but might well have gotten me pilloried as a spoil sport.

This past year I sat on a panel about alternate religions and mythology at another convention.  I was the only self-professed atheist on the panel.  When I made my introductions and stated my position, a co-panelist asked me “So you’re not a Christian?  What are you then?”

Image by Richardsharp at Flickr (creative commons)

Kirlian Image of a leaf by Richardsharp at Flickr (creative commons)

I was a bit dumbfounded.  Did she not know what the word Atheist meant?  I expounded.  “I’m a humanist and rational materialist.  I think all religions are essentially the same.  Some are more benign than others but all of them are based on assumptions I can’t accept.  So I’m not only not a Christian, I am not a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or any variety of Pagan or New Age mystic.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re all bunk.”

I was not pilloried.  We had a good discussion.  I chopped up every religious assertion regardless its source and we all had a rousing good time fencing with each other and I was even congratulated later for having the guts to state my position clearly and forcefully.

But afterward, the same co-panelist who asked my what I was if not a Christian came up to me and pressed me further.  Do I believe in reincarnation?

“No.  There’s no proof for it.  It seems to me to be the same sort of wishful thinking all the rest of them embrace and I have no use for it.”

I think she was offended at that point.

Thinking about it now, I’m beginning to realize why we have such difficulty in public forums discussing religion, especially religion in our political life.  Many people who might be described reasonably as counter to the religious right nevertheless waffle over the subject of religion because, while they aren’t themselves fundamentalist Christians (or Rightwing Nutjobs, more accurately), they may embrace any of a number of muzzy-headed notions about the ephemeral—astrology, Tarot, reincarnation, Gaia, any of a variety of pagan notions, even alien abduction and visitation, not to mention telepathy, past life regression, Atlantis, Mu, scientology, and so on and so forth.  They are handicapped, therefore, at a basic level, because they can’t just dismiss the foundations of fundamentalist believe as poppycock since they more or less embrace something equally ludicrous.  So they go after Extremism as the only worthy target of rejection rather than address the fact that, while many believers never would and never do resort to violence in the name of their religion, it is a logical result of those religious dictates if read in a certain way.  In other words, you can’t actually claim that people who fly into buildings or bomb clinics don’t represent their religion—they do.

How does this relate to the public discourse?  Well, Roger Ebert, who is one of the few film critics I’ve ever respected, has addressed this in an article here.  He’s concerned about the upcoming presidential election and what will and will not be said in defense of certain basic beliefs.  And he is unsparing.  Yes, the Right has coddled and incorporated a set of principles from Christianity that are often downright loony, but, he points out, the Left is no less at fault for maintaining equally loony ideas that just happen to not be Christian.  What needs to be discussed is Looniness, not which brand of it is better for the country.

But will it be?  Probably not.  Note that in many instances the “gentleman” who recently hacked into the University of East Anglia’s databases and “liberated” a boatload of private emails and put them out there in public, the media are all about what the emails revealed, but few if any have said squat about when this man is to be arrested and tried for theft and libel.  (I’ve seen comparisons made to Watergate and the more recent ACORN scandal, but in both cases the tapes and other communications were subpoenaed, lawfully.)

The media, basically, is all about what generates viewers.  They aren’t about to tackle an issue in such a way that might turn people off.  So while something might be said about the difference in religious outlook between the candidates, the actual content of those beliefs will not be examined very much.

Does this matter in the political arena?  Well, Mike Huckabee is being floated for another run at the presidency in 2012.  Consider: he pardoned the man who recently shot four police officers in Seattle.  Why did he pardon him?  Because he bought into Maurice Clemmons’ testimony that he had been saved.  His religious convictions had led him to commute Clemmons’ sentence and others, one of whom was the infamous Wayne Dumond.

Yet in other instances Huckabee (and other so-called Christian governors) have failed to look at cases of misapplied justice, even when clear miscarriages have been involved, because there is no argument from faith being made.  Or so it seems.

Yes, it matters.  It matters deeply to begin recognizing the loon factor on both sides of the ideological divide.  You cannot argue from a position of strength that Intelligent Design and Creationism are bunk and that the Apocalypse is not coming when you yourself consult a psychic and read the horoscope for guidance.  They are part of the same fundamental misapprehension of reality.

The so-called New Atheists have been under attack for supposed stridency and, amusingly, fundamentalism.  But all that can be seen in truth about this is that the New Atheists are simply stating the obvious.  How is it fundamentalism to point and say the emperor is naked?  The flip side of this is to keep silent and “be polite” and let the idiocy go unchallenged.  Mustn’t offend anyone, now, that’s not the way to win friends and influence people.

Except when you do not challenge an assertion that is essentially a neurotic challenge, a way for the claimant to force you to concede his or her viewpoint, you win no friends.  You simply aid and abett.  And for anyone standing by listening, you do a disservice.

On a tangential topic, once, I found myself the only person in a room willing to speak my mind on the subject of the draft.  In a room full of young men, all of whom had a relationship with the daughters of the man to whom most of them were, essentially, sucking up, I listened to men my age who’d never been in the military going on about how they thought the draft should be reinstated, that it would do people good to be made to serve, it would “make a man” of them, etc etc, one cliche after another.  Finally it was my turn and I said  “I’m sorry, but slavery is illegal in this country and as far as I’m concerned forcing someone into basically indentured servitude, regardless of the reason, is slavery.  I believe it’s unconstitutional.  Besides, the idea of tearing down an individual’s personality in order to rebuild one that is unquestioningly obedient and willing to kill or orders is, I think, immoral.”

The conversation ended.  I could tell most of them never thought about it.  Not only not that way, but frankly not at all.

I was the goat, of course.  (Later on, the “dad” took me aside and expressed his appreciation for my stating my position.  Don’t know if he agreed with me, but I had his respect.)

Reagan’s wife consulted an astrologer on behalf of her husband.  George Bush prayed every day and made national decisions based on whatever his faith is.  The others paid at least lip service to the idea of religion as a necessary component of public life.  The mainstream media never challenges any of this, no matter how innocuous or virulent.  So when a Huckabee or a Palin start making policy based on their religious beliefs, we ought not to be surprised when their decisions turn out bad.  We collectively failed to challenge them on the loon factor.

Bush once was asked about the End Time philosophy behind many of his foreign policy decisions—unquestioned support for Israel, his wars, and so forth—and he laughed.  I don’t believe he understood the question.  I don’t for a minute think he was smart enough to have conducted his policies according to such ideas—I don’t think he was smart enough period—but I do believe smart people who did believe such nonsense were feeding him advice and because they may have been “men of faith” he never thought to challenge them.  See what we have reaped, not only in foreign relations but environmentally.

If the world is only 6000 years old and Jesus is coming back this century, why worry about pollution, global warming, or even nuclear disarmament?

Likewise, though, if you have to wait while your psychic advisor reads your cards before deciding whether or not to sign a trade deal….

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, Current Events, hypocrisy, ignorance, Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, War

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (7)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    "There’s no proof for it. It seems to me to be the same sort of wishful thinking all the rest of them embrace and I have no use for it.”

    I know that you said this about reincarnation but, it seems to be the essential position of atheism. Fair enough but, do you have to insist that all religious belief is therefore ludicrous or some form of lunacy?

    I don't know that Christian fundamentalist beliefs are "poppycock" but, I don't adhere to such beliefs. I don't call your beliefs ludicrous or lunacy because my system of belief about freedom allows for others to not believe in God.

    Anyway, I hope my belief in "invisible friends" doesn't keep us from a rich regard for each other.

  2. Tim,

    I suppose the polite answer is that it depends on a continuum on the part of the believer as to how much of his or her beliefs intrude into their ability to discern reality from myth and act accordingly.

    Religion, in my view, is a powerful aesthetic. It appeals mainly on that level and because we tend culturally to pay little critical attention to how aesthetics work and how we use them, we don't have a solid grasp on where aesthetics ends and, say, logic begins. (Everything, of course, has an aesthetic component, but depending on the discipline in question it is more or less important to our attachment to a given set of ideas.)

    If it is aesthetically important to you to have a religion and it adds value to the journey you make through life, I find nothing lunatic about it. It is an extension of personality. It is no less (and no more) important to individuals than the music they love, the art they find most evocative, the books they prefer, the films that resonate most powerfully, and so on. These are all aesthetic forces that do much to form our personalities and dictate the internal landscape from which we operate in relation to others. On that basis I see religion as one more (philosophical) aspect of what might be called our individual gestalt.

    That said, we think nothing of telling someone who is passionately in love with a band or a book or a movie that if they express the opinion that these manifestations represent the ultimate reality (as opposed to truth) they are, in fact, a bit out of touch and maybe ought to seek help. Once they cross the line from an apprehension of Smetana's music as sublime to accepting Smetana's own belief that he was god, it has moved from an aesthetic of some value to a delusional elevation of nonsense to a foundation for decision making.

    So, yeah…once you say to me that you voted for XY or Z because god told you to rather than for any recognizable grasp of the nature of the problems of the polity, I'm afraid I start to label that lunacy. If you dictate your children's life choices and forbid them educations or the freedom to decide for themselves because of some holy book, yeah, I regard that as lunacy. If you advocate the elimination of sex education in schools and the abolition of contraception because of what St. Paul said, even in the face of clear evidence that such actions would only exacerbate the problems, I question your ability to recognize the real from the unreal.

    A recent debate, which was linked to in another post recently, on the question of whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world came to the conclusion that it is not. The difficulty here is the quite clear good that does get done in the world by people espousing a religious motivation. The question—which may be unanswerable, even though I know how I feel about it—is if all this good has been done because of the religious motivation, or are these simply actions taken by good people who happen to espouse a religion and merely use the machinery of their religion to do the good? Given the unbelievable misery the Catholic Church has caused in the last couple of centuries purely on the basis of its so-called moral position on sex and birth control, I'd have to say in that instance the Church has much to answer for and if any good in that area is done by Catholic operatives it is done in spite of church doctrine. The church gets the credit, though, making it a difficult thing to tease apart.

    Personally, I believe people have a right to believe any damn nonsense they wish to believe. They will, no matter what I or others might say. And often these things make their lives more interesting, for themselves and others. They produce delightful interactions and are the source of much that is enlivening and even good in the world. That such things may have a positive outcome here and there doesn't make them any less loony or more defensible.

    But just as I would challenge someone who would change our air traffic control system to one run by Tarot card readers and psychics, I would challenge anyone who wishes to apply their personal lunacy to real world solutions on any level. I would savage any serious political suggestion to strip women of their rights because letting women work and dress as they wish and associate how they like, but I would redouble my efforts to attack the notion if the basis of it came from a religious source. Lunacy. It should be called such.

    And yet we are culturally trained to respect religion.

    I respect individuals until they demonstrate they do not deserve it. I reserve my respect for ideas, though, until they prove themselves worthy of merit.

    I hope this answers your question.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: Thanks for the many deep insights. I've followed your writings for years, and this is yet more proof that you're not even close to being out of ideas.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Mark, I see your perspective as even more generous than my own; I believe that we are required to tolerate others until they show they do not deserve it. Respect is earned.

    But, I do query whether your respect for any given individual is immediately lost because they may adhere to any religious belief?

  4. I was once cornered by a man who insisted on showing me photographic "proof" of a manifestation of Mary from Medjugorje. I could see clearly it was no more than a double exposure of a statue over a tree, but he was very insistent. I was forced finally to either concede that I couldn't explain it or tell him he was full of shit.

    That constitutes a circumstance under which I lose respect.

    Just telling me you attend services at such and such a church doesn't do it.

    Are we good now?

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Mark, I agree, but it must also be said that the extremists are the minority in all cultures. Most of our ideas about other cultures are based on the media depiction of members of those cultures. The pop media portrays Arabs as crazy suicidal Muslim fundamentalist terrorists. There are a few that might be described that way, but plays down the positive roles by Arabs and Arab-Americans.

    It would surprise most American to know that Saudi Arabia, one of the most fundamentalist Muslim nations and our ally, disliked Saddam Hussein because, under his rule, the country became very westernized and secular.

    Then too, America's image to the rest of the world is distorted in our own media. For example, in college, I once had a Nigerian roommate who honestly believed that he could approach any woman in this country, ask her to go to a motel with him for sex, and that she would go with him. He got the idea from watching American movies.

    I find it interesting to research "American" jokes from other countries. Once I've culled out the generic "insert cultural here" type jokes, the rest of the world views us as a bunch of air-heads, obsessed with conspicuous consumption, partying, and exporting our lack of culture to the rest of the world. We are also viewed as a very arrogant, pompous and obnoxious nation.

  6. Tim Hogan says:

    Never bad dude, just trying to get a handle on where I stand as one of our resident deists who is also a practicing Catholic.

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