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Every Witch Way But Rational
Just yesterday, at the café I go to in the morning, I had a guy who works as a psychotherapist tell me that there's a god. I asked him why he wasn't in a mental hospital, as he would be if he were convinced there was a tooth fairy. He knows there's a god, because, he said, "I have felt him." Well, there's an explanation for you! And here's Sam Harris to put the ridiculousness of god belief by modern people in the proper perspective:

Imagine being among the tiny percentage of people -- the 5 percent, or 10 percent at most -- who think that a belief in witchcraft is nothing more than a malignant fantasy. Imagine writing a book arguing that magic spells do no real work in the world, that the confessions of bad witches are delusional or coerced, that the claims of good witches are self-serving and unempirical. You argue further that a belief in magic offers false hope of benefits that are best sought elsewhere, like from scientific medicine, and lays the ground for false accusations of imaginary crimes, leading to the misery and death of innocent people. If your name is Sam Harris, you may produce two fatuous volumes entitled The End of Magic and Letter to a Wiccan Nation. Daniel Dennett would then grapple helplessly with the origins of sorcery in his aptly named, Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins -- whose bias against witches, warlocks, and even alchemists has long been known -- will follow these books with an arrogant screed entitled, The Witch Delusion. And finally Christopher Hitchens will deliver a poisonous eructation at book-length in The Devil is Not Great.

What sort of criticism would these misguided authors likely encounter? In the following essay, I present excerpts from actual reviews of recent atheist bestsellers, replacing terms like "religion," "God," and "atheist" with terms like "witchcraft," "the Devil," and "skeptic." Observe how much intellectual progress we have made in the last five hundred years:

"[None of these authors] takes time to consider contemporary [witchcraft] in the light of some of its most sophisticated and heroic practitioners.... Moreover, none of them ever put their weak, confused, and unplumbed ideas about [the Devil] under scrutiny. Their natural habit of mind is anthropomorphic. They tend to think of [the Devil] as if He were a human being, bound to human limitations... [These] authors pride themselves on how science advances in understanding over time, and also on how moral thinking becomes in some ways deeper and more demanding. They do not give any attention to the ways in which [magical] understanding also grows, develops, and evolves... It hardly dawns upon them that [witches and warlocks] have been, from the very beginning, in constant--and mutually enriching--dialogue with [skeptics]... The path of modern science was made straight and smooth by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience--from the number of hairs on one's head to the lonely lily in the meadow--is thoroughly known to [the Devil and his familiars] and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind... [Skepticism] cannot be true, because it is self-contradictory. Moreover, this self-contradiction is willful, and its latent purpose is pathetically transparent. [Skeptics] want all the comforts of the rationality that emanates from rational [sorcery], but without personal indebtedness to [the supernatural]. That is why they allow themselves to be rationalists only part of the way down. The alternative makes them very nervous." --Michael Novak, National Review

"The danger is that the aggression and hostility to [magic] in all its forms... deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/[necromancy] debate. The durability and near universality of [witchcraft] is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking... Does [spell-casting] still have an important role in human wellbeing? ... If [sorcery] declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?... I suspect the New [Skeptics] are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use [the evil eye] in political contexts, they've missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension... but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand."
--Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

"If [magic], by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of [the Great Horned One] be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him. Proving the existence of [the Devil] would be possible only if [he]... were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. [The Devil], however--again if there is a [Devil]--is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require. The criticism made by [skeptics] that the existence of [Satan] cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a [Devil] whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn't be a [Devil]; he would just be another object in the field of human vision. This does not mean that my arguments constitute a proof of the truth of [witchcraft]; for if I were to claim that I would be making the [skeptics'] mistake from the other direction. Nor are they arguments in which I have a personal investment. Their purpose and function is simply to show how the [skeptics'] arguments miss their mark and, indeed, could not possibly hit it."
--Stanley Fish, The New York Times

Posted by aalkon at June 29, 2007 9:43 AM

Comments

Amy's response to someone who sent an (admittedly rude) e-mail to her:

"You're the rudest person I've encountered in recent memory."

Amy's response to someone (a psychotherapist, for what that's worth) who told her that he believed in God:

"I asked him why he wasn't in a mental hospital."

Pots and kettles, anyone?

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 11:42 AM

Not in the least. Larry you missed the point of her statement. If the belief in god is perfectly normal then why is not the belief in the tooth fairy. She's not being rude she asking him to think. If the belief in a tooth fair makes you crazy why dosn't the belief in an equally untangible being not. He feeling god presence does not make him crazy, however if he drowned his kids because god told him to he's crazy.
Had she said because you believe in god you should be in a mental hospital that's different. Unless I completly misread her intentions, if so sorry.

P.S. Amy where can I read the letter that actually offended someone with a skin thick enough to blog.

Posted by: Vlad at June 29, 2007 1:54 PM

Is this be-shitty-to-Amy day? Are you and Spider's friends or something?

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 1:55 PM

Vlad: I didn't miss the point of her statement at all. If was "asking him to think", as you say, fine. I'm all for thought and reason and debate. But she asked (or wrote that she asked, anyway) "why he wasn't in a mental hospital." In other words, she told him he was insane. A bit outside the bounds of polite discourse, wouldn't you say?

Crid: I have no idea who "Spider" is. Nor am I being shitty to Ms. Alkon. Just pointing out that I see a bit of an inconsistency in her (correctly) calling someone else on their rudeness, and then being insulting towards someone whose beliefs she does not share. Are only those who think just like us entitled to courtesy?

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 2:30 PM

Maybe she takes rationality a little more seriously than you do. The guy's a college-edjumicated psychotherapist, and apparently a social pal of hers, one perhaps friendly enough to withstand a little pointed ribbing. We'd expect a psychotherapist not to fall into tears the moment a passing redhead challenges his belief system. In fact, we should expect everyone to be able to handle such topics. "Courtesy" doesn't mean handling every human heart like it's delicate porcelain. Hearts that break so easily are going to crack anyway.

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 2:50 PM

Larry the person Amy called rude disparaged her relationship called her boyfried a coward and less than a man and insiuated that she should have sex with him instead.

Now how is that comparable to asking a person who locks delusional people away why beilf in god without proof is more rational than beliving you have a personal relationship with the toothfairy?

Why is god told me to kill those peoplemore exceptable than the talking invisible spider that sits in my ear told me to kill those people?

Posted by: lujlp at June 29, 2007 3:01 PM

Crid: I doubt Ms. Alkon take rationality more seriously than I. It's a commodity in deplorably short supply these days, and that's a terrible thing. As to the guy being a social pal of hers, I wouldn't know. She doesn't say so in her story, and from other bits of her writing, I know she's not shy about telling people who aren't "social pals" exactly what she thinks of them, or their actions or thoughts (and she's often quite justified in doing so). So maybe it was just ribbing, in which case it's a different story, but her story doesn't say that. And you're right to say that everyone should be able to handle such topics. But there's no need for them to be broached in deliberately insulting terms. And where, by the way, did Ms. Alkon say that the psychotherapist fell into tears?

Courtesy doesn't, as you say, mean "handling every human heart like it's delicate porcelain." But one can challenge another's ideas and beliefs without being intentionally rude. It's the rudeness that bugs me here, not Ms. Alkon's lack of belief in a deity, or even her challenging those who have such a belief.

Lujlp: The man who elicited the response I mentioned from Ms. Alkon was unspeakably crude and rude, and Ms. Alkon was right to tell him so. From her account of the exchange, it seems to me that she did so in an admirably restrained manner. All kinds of foul invective on her part would have been justified, as far as I'm concerned.

The rest of what you're saying amounts to setting up a straw man and then knocking it down. Ms. Alkon described the man who professed faith as a psychotherapist. You extrapolate from that that he's "a person who locks delusional people away." Maybe, maybe not. It's harder to commit people than you seem to think, and a "psychotherapist" could describe a C.S.W., or someone with an M.S.W., a Ph.D, or an actual M.D. Who knows? Not me, not from reading her account. And where did you get from anything I wrote that I believe that "god told me to kill those people" is acceptable? Or believable? Or evidence of anything other than insanity?

Finally, sorry, folks, but equating all belief in God with belief in the tooth fairy, invisible spiders, spaghetti monsters, magic, invisible pink unicorns and so on is, in fact, insulting, and is, in my experience, usually meant to be so by the people using those terms.

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 6:07 PM

Larry,

Ever read anything by Thomas Szazs? It is a lot easier to have someone locked up based on a mental disorder in the USA.

Also, your discomfort level in comparing gods to imaginary friends is not a legitmate form of an argument. Ever heard of the burden of proof is based solely on the believer? The lack of physical evidence? What does the believer offer instead? Emotionally charged metaphors as a substitute for reality. Don't kids do that with tooth fairies, imaginary friends, monsters under the bed, boogey men and so on? Its called dualism of the mind. For some reason adults who show a strong sense of religiousity are continuing a similar belief system/pattern towards the imaginary beings that were a 'fact of reality' as kids. Ever read anything from Dr. Paul Bloom of Yale University? Google: Paul Bloom and read his piece for the Atlantic if you are interested in such topics. But beware, it may further raise your discomfort levels too.

Can a person be informative, insulting and curteous at the same time?

Posted by: Joe at June 29, 2007 7:02 PM

I've actually been harrassing Amy along exactly those lines for years. Pick just about any month of comments in her archives, and enjoy. I think she can be harsh to religious people through her stereotypes about them, not through anything she's ever said to one. It's a very mild offense.

And it's no less offensive to be clucked at for hurting people's feelings... especially by uninvolved third parties who project their own fantasy of defending the defenseless. I actually think that's a lot worse.

Think of all the shit that's going on in London at this hour, and on the surface of the globe generally. Nothing is more frightening than the insistence by so many of our own comfortable, coddled citizens that we drape every encounter with soppy, infantile expressions of mutual tolerance and inclusive feeling. There is a war on... It's not just some mechanism by which Karl Rove can extend his power base. We have boundaries that have been grotesquely violated. We're going to be fighting this thing for a least a century, and people need to be clear about which team they're on.

Amy's picked a good year to help people draw the line. In 2007, the public mind (especially in places like Amy's coastal city, populated as it is with successful, degreed, book-reading people) is giving a lot of attention to the impact of religion on all our lives.

Public life is the arena, no matter who you happen to encounter in the ring. If you can't handle this, then you should --in Paglia's brilliant wording-- stay home and do your nails.

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 7:11 PM

Finally, sorry, folks, but equating all belief in God with belief in the tooth fairy, invisible spiders, spaghetti monsters, magic, invisible pink unicorns and so on is, in fact, insulting, and is, in my experience, usually meant to be so by the people using those terms.

But it is equatable with belief in these things, since there's no evidence any of them exist. I agree with Daniel Dennett: "Give religion no more respect than you’d accord to animal husbandry."

Now, I'm not finding religious people coming out of church, chasing them down, and volunteering that their beliefs are unfounded and silly. But, a guy who tells me he believes in god, and as Crid wisely pointed out, probably isn't going to burst into tears at me questioning his beliefs when he confesses them...what's wrong with honestly challenging them?

Why is the utterly silly belief in the supernatural the one area we aren't allowed to question?

Spider made presumptions about my relationship, with no information whatsoever behind them, and maligned my boyfriend. Question my views on marriage, tell me I'm an idiot for believing in what I do, and explain why you think my thinking is flawed, and I won't have a problem in the world with you. Understand the difference, Larry?

And thanks, Joe and Crid for clearing things up.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at June 29, 2007 7:21 PM

Joe: Here's the thing -- I'm not making an argument, so I don't have a burden of proof. I'm not making an argument in favor of religious belief, I'm not arguing against it. That said, I think debate on the subject can be productive and informative for people on both sides of the issue, and I'm all for it. But there will not be a debate if people insist on using insulting language. There will be a shouting match, and that doesn't advance anything one inch.

And yes, I have read Thomas Szaz. Not recently, but I have, at least if I'm thinking of the right person. He's the (small "l", as far as I know) libertarian psychologist or psychiatrist, right? But I haven't read Bloom. I'll look into it. Thanks for the tip.

As to your question "Can a person be informative, insulting and curteous at the same time?", I think the answer is no. "Insulting" and "courteous" are mutually exclusive, for one thing, and for another, insulting language tends to distort the signal-to-noise ratio of a conversation, or a debate, to the point where the informative part gets drowned out.

Crid: You say that "Nothing is more frightening than the insistence by so many of our own comfortable, coddled citizens that we drape every encounter with soppy, infantile expressions of mutual tolerance and inclusive feeling." I couldn't agree more. "Inclusive feeling" and "mutual tolerance" are repellent to me. Should we tolerate every repulsive and barbaric excess committed by those who act, or claim to act, in the name of religion? Of course not. Tolerance of the intolerable is inexcusable. But nobody ever refuted an idea simply by insulting those who hold said idea.

As to your comment that "And it's no less offensive to be clucked at for hurting people's feelings... especially by uninvolved third parties who project their own fantasy of defending the defenseless. I actually think that's a lot worse," maybe, but that doesn't apply here. Yes, I know that there's all kinds of nastiness going on in London and all over the world. That doesn't mean I don't get to call Ms. Alkon on rudeness. I do. She puts her ideas, and her language, out there, and invites comment by including a place for that very purpose on her blog. I have absolutely no issue with her atheism whatsoever. It's just that I'd rather hear substantive arguments for her position than gratuitous insults that are devoid of meaning. As you yourself say, "Public life is the arena, no matter who you happen to encounter in the ring. If you can't handle this, then you should --in Paglia's brilliant wording-- stay home and do your nails." You're absolutely right. If Ms. Alkon is going to insult people, she should be prepared to have people call her on it.

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 7:38 PM

Are insults really, really that devastating to you? Do you really think that's what human nature is like?

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 7:41 PM

And for the record, I think insults can be tremendously useful. People who can't handle them in the moment are usually taking themselves (or the distant psychotherapists whose girly hearts they dream of sheltering) far too seriously.

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 7:43 PM

Amy, I'll pass over the first paragraph of your post, because I've gone over that kind of thing enough already, and skip right to the last.

You say: "Spider made presumptions about my relationship, with no information whatsoever behind them, and maligned my boyfriend. Question my views on marriage, tell me I'm an idiot for believing in what I do, and explain why you think my thinking is flawed, and I won't have a problem in the world with you. Understand the difference, Larry?"

I do understand the difference. Remember that I said above that "the man who elicited the response I mentioned from Ms. Alkon was unspeakably crude and rude, and Ms. Alkon was right to tell him so. From her account of the exchange, it seems to me that she did so in an admirably restrained manner. All kinds of foul invective on her part would have been justified, as far as I'm concerned." You were dead on in your response to him.

And I say to you: Question my views on religion, tell me I'm wrong (not an idiot, or insane) for believing in what I do, and explain why you think my thinking is flawed, and I won't have a problem in the world with you. I might even learn something, or (gasp!) change my mind. And I'll repeat what I said to Crid. Insulting language tends to distort the signal-to-noise ratio of a conversation, or a debate, to the point where the informative part gets drowned out, which would be a shame.

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 7:45 PM

Crid: You ask "Are insults really, really that devastating to you? Do you really think that's what human nature is like?"

No, I can pretty much handle them just fine. I'm not that temperamental. Or thin-skinned. Once again, I just think that insulting language tends to distort the signal-to-noise ratio of a conversation, or a debate, to the point where the informative part gets drowned out, which would be a shame.

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 7:47 PM

Joe: I just read Bloom's article "Is God an Accident?". Excellent article, I must say. Thought-provoking, intelligent, well-reasoned, convincing. Not much in there I would disagree with, actually. He makes a few factual errors (for example, although he says "For Jews and Christians, God willed the world into being in six days, calling different things into existence," that's simply not the case. Some subsets of Jews and Christians believe that, to be sure, but hardly all), but overall I enjoyed reading it.

And not one insulting word in the whole piece. See? It can be done.

Posted by: Larry McKenna at June 29, 2007 8:05 PM

> insulting language tends to
> distort the signal-to-noise
> ratio

How would you know? Sometimes, calling someone a candy-assed motherfucker is the signal.

> which would be a shame.

And I'm like, riiiigggght. As suspected, this was always about the need to cluck: "And I just think it's kind of a sad commentary on today's vulgar youth..." etc.

Why are people (almost always white, almost always middle-class) so eager to think that life should be approached like cotillion?

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 8:06 PM

Know what I hate? Rhetorical questions! So I apologize for that last one.

People hate the bourgeois because it's presumed that they don't have to work very hard, and that they live in a condition of artificial comfort by settling for a little less excellence in their lives: A little less cleverness, a little less conflict, a little less flavor, a little less sexual vigor. Right? Right.

Authentically poor people (and authentically rich ones) know instinctively that to get anything done in the world, you have to butt heads occasionally. Being polite is an admirable first posture, but if that doesn't get your needs met...

Posted by: Crid at June 29, 2007 8:47 PM

And I say to you: Question my views on religion, tell me I'm wrong (not an idiot, or insane) for believing in what I do, and explain why you think my thinking is flawed, and I won't have a problem in the world with you. I might even learn something, or (gasp!) change my mind.
The problem here is that you are insulted when an atheist asks you what the difference is between the belief in the Xian God and in the Tooth Fairy. The atheist is not deliberately insulting you, however. It's your choice to take offence.
Just like some Muslims take offence if you look at them sideways.
In any case, freedom of speech means nothing if it does not include the right to offend, even deliberately.

Posted by: Norman at June 30, 2007 8:42 AM

Your welcome, Amy.

Larry,

I meant the 'burden of proof' is on the believers. Personally, I do not know your own religious affiliations. Also, I don't care.

When the person, as in the case with the psychotherapist, claims to know a god exists and only offers an emotional metaphor for proof. Wouldn't it make the believer's claim seem idiotic??? What gives it creedence or validation? A religious text that is 'x' amount of years old? The warm and fuzzy feeling when someone extends their personal narcissism to the cosmos?

Not all opinions or beliefs are equal in merit. Some are well thought out, use critical thinking, evidence and are well articulated in the delivery. Religious testimonies disqualify themselves in this particular criteria, but at the same time demand equal treatment in this day and age.

Hence, ridicule is a viable option among many to place an increasing pressure on the religious to back up their claims. So get use to it.

Also, you missed the point with Bloom's article and concentrated on insignificant details of the genesis myth and instead of the evolutionary psychology of the faithful. Surprise, suprise. But your comments do validate his research on how the religious have a defective thought process when it comes to critical inquiry.

Posted by: Joe at June 30, 2007 10:22 AM

So, in other words, it's impossible for Amy to be rude, because she's in the right. Got it.

Posted by: RMc at July 2, 2007 8:30 AM

Do you really not understand the difference between rationally challenging somebody's belief in an imaginary man in the sky and somebody making the assumption that my boyfriend is not really a man and fears "commitment" based on zero information about my relationship other than the fact that I'm not married?

One of the sad things about those who believe is the inability to reason well since reasoning well would negate their believing in that which there is no evidence for.

Humans have the capacity for rational thought. A pity so few put it to substantive use.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 2, 2007 9:03 AM

Do you really not understand the difference between rationally challenging somebody's belief in an imaginary man in the sky

In the words of Ellen Foley, "Stop right there...!"

Suggesting someone is deranged for believing in God (or anything) is not "rationally challenging" them, it's just plain bein' rude. Here's what a rational challenge would look like:

Him: "I believe there's a God."
You: "Really? I don't. I just don't think there's any evidence."
Him: "Well, (gives his evidence)"
You: "Well, here's what I think...(your rebuttal)"

See? No nastiness, no suggesting the other person is a moron, no worries that you're going to get your face slapped (or, if you're male, your face punched). It's entirely possible to think your opponent is dead wrong without being snide about it. Indeed, why waste the energy being nasty in the first place? Life is short.

I'm guessing you get a lot of crap from fundie nutfudges who think you're a-goin' straight to H-E-double hockey sticks, ya harlot. But all religious people aren't like that, or even close. There's no need to grab for the sharp knives the moment someone brings up the G-word. Really. Chill.

Posted by: RMc at July 3, 2007 3:54 AM

> It's entirely possible to
> think your opponent is dead
> wrong without being snide
> about it.

Sure, it's entirely possible, but why would you want to?

Why why why? Why are people such pussies? Everyone who clucks at Amy for being harsh comes off like some tea-sipping, crumpet-eating, pinky-extended, toothless, old, never-been-fucked seventh cousin by marriage to the Queen of England, without even the lineage to back it up.

This takes fear of conflict to a compelling new extreme. They think powerful feelings and strong expressions are dangerous... Because they violate decorum. Golly!

> There's no need to grab
> for the sharp knives

How coddled, how pussified, how docile a life does a person have to live to regard a pointed verbal exchange with a competent adult in a public setting as a 'sharp knife'? Amy only responds to her environment, people. She's not a busybody. You have to do something stupid in her presence (change a baby's diaper at the table in a restaurant, drive irresponsibly, or chirp glibly about the existence of God) before you get much attention. And we've never heard of her actually wounding anyone. It's "entirely possible" that the other party in each of the encounters she's described her over the years went home to full night of uninterrupted sleep... Amy picks on thick assholes, not tender fools, so this would not surprise.

Friends, conflict is an important part of life. You're going to have several of them this week, and probably a few of them today. Whatever your cosmology, conflicts are a big part of what you've been put here to do. It's silly, infantile, counter-Darwinist and a few other things to pretend that you can, or should, minimize conflict as a habit.

> Really. Chill.

Truly. Bite.

Posted by: Crid at July 3, 2007 11:49 AM

...described here etc....

Posted by: Crid at July 3, 2007 11:51 AM

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