Right, a quick post today, which will cheekily incorporate in the second half a re-post of some material I posted years ago on this very topic, because let’s face it, no one is going to click on a link to read another entry. Many of you know I have great respect for the sceptic writer/researcher Hayley Stevens, especially as she constantly manages to actually get out there and do real research, and to write more than I can. I put it down to my age – “it’s never how it used to be/what happened to all that energy?” Today Hayley has written an interesting piece on a site for young atheists, skeptics and freethinkers, The Heresy Club. I had to have a nose, despite being neither young, nor as it happens an atheist.
As usual Hayley’s article is excellent, well written and informative, and deals with real issues – an issue I care deeply about, the damage that poor research ethics in amateur ghost groups can do when they are let loose in private houses or even businesses and upset or scare people badly. Now I’m not going to quote Hayley’s article in full, because I want you to go read it for yourself. Do that now. No summary I give would be fair, because she makes several points.
However I am notoriously contrarian (freethinking?) so I’m going to disagree with one fundamental thing Hayley wrote, which is at the heart of the article for me, as an Anglican and a “ghosthunter” of sorts. She writes –
Looking back now, on those early years, I can see that the whole culture surrounding ghost hunting that I became involved with was a mish-mash of religious practices and beliefs that were all geared towards convincing the people involved that their very soul was in danger from evil at all times, and that invisible enemies were around us just waiting for us to mess up so that they could attack us psychically.
Now given in the past I have suggested that ghosthunting groups do sometimes take on the attributes of a religious group, and in fact enjoyed once a great discussion on the phone with Jeff Belanger where we talked about this, I can’t disagree too strongly. However, s always I’m going to raise issues.
Number one is the fact that in the sociology of religion defining what a religion or religious group is really proves difficult. Patriotism, political parties and ideologies, even perhaps scepticism or atheism are defined by some as having the same kind of principles involved, and hence “secular religions”. I don’t mean by this the people who used to turn up to sneer on Richard Dawkin’s forum and say “Atheism is a religion: he is your guru.” I’m talking about serious academic sociologists desperately trying to pin down what defines something as a religious behaviour. I happen to have spent a lot of my life as an academic studying religion: so I’m not going to get sidetracked in to a huge discussion of this, which would bore everyone. However it raises another point, which Alex Gabriel has already highlighted in the comments much better than I ever could! We can clearly see the Roman Catholic Church, or the CofE, or various other religions denominations are “religious” because of what they do and their detailed creeds. Yet those groups inpose really strict behavourial codes and ethical requirements on their members, and while I may claim to be an Anglican, many Anglicans might say “hey CJ you are not – you don’t go to Church enough/have shabby morals/dabble in the occult” or whatever. We know what these groups stand for – they are authoritarian in a real sense, and people who don’t do the “right” things get kicked out, or told they are “bad” members of the group.
Now some religions have very little in the way of formal dogmas, theology, doctrine and imposition. Hinduism is incredibly diverse, and hard for me to comprehend as a religion cos I’m used to this rather more authoritarian structure, but there are core beliefs, and social measures to ensure consistency of practice as far as I can see. Wicca is perhaps the best example of a theological anarchy – the various “wiccan denominations” have core theological beliefs, but those outsoide of the formal coven-structures, which in the 90′s I think though do not know comprised most of the self-proclaimed adherents of the Wiccan religion could believe an incredible diversity of things about the nature of the divine, afterlife, and karma etc. This “folk wicca” ran the risk of being mistaken for the coven traditions, and just because a complete loony did something vile in the name of the religion, well it was not in any way the fault of any other adherents of that faith. As Alex Gabriel wrote
“You hear a lot from New Agers and ecumenicals, don’t you, that the coercive and oppressive elements of religion are all from the institutional structures? But this is a brilliant example of how bad beliefs themselves can be oppressive.”
Yes I agree totally, well said Alex, and I’m no fan of heavy authoritarian religion, but I am painfully aware of the dangers posed by liberty of conscience. I absolutely hold the principle of freedom of religious belief and non-belief, but as anyone who knows me know I distinguish between beliefs and practices/behaviours. If a practice is illegal, and damaging to others, your freedom of belief does not make it right in my mind. Still we could disagree on this and still we are no closer to my actual issue with Hayley’s article.
Many ghosthunting groups do adopt a sort of “folk spiritualism”, and in some cases other religious beliefs, In the USA we see a lot of very religious ghosthunters – they often term themselves demonologists, and look at things in terms of a very religious paradigm, because the base culture there is profoundly religious compared with the UK. Yet in all my ghosthunting experience nearly none of the participants have been Christian believers, or held to any of the other mainstream faiths — with the exception of David Carter-Green, and on the social and academic side David Sivier. And in fact, belief in the paranormal does not seem to map well to what most people would see as “religious belief” in any way — in fact quite the opposite.
Now years ago I wrote a piece I consider one of the most important ton this blog, called “Are Education and Atheism Enemies of Reason”. The title was half joking half serious, but it’s so directly relevant to what we are talking about here i’m going to reproduce it before moving on to discuss the implications…
“The majority of Britons believe in heaven and life after death, new research suggests.” The BBC News story here is well worth reading, and shows some interesting things. Firstly we are a lot less sceptical about New Age ideas and certain fringe practices like astrology and tarot cards than we used to be – what Randi’s people categorize as “woo”. However we are more sceptical about certain aspects of the supernatural than a decade ago in 1998 – in short popular belief in the supernatural is constantly waxing and waning; I think I could have told you that. The popular culture of the 1970′s was far more sympathetic to parapsychology say than the 90′s were – and yet the 2000′s saw a sudden interest in Spiritualism connected with certain TV shows.
I have a rather heretical thought about ‘paranormal’ beliefs, and their relationship to atheism. I originally posed a question on Professor Dawkins forum as it was inspired by his show The Enemies of Reason. I am sure the Professor has better things to do than answer my questions though, (and he didn’t) and so I have revised it and asked it here.
I had been reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983) by noted mathematician, science writer and skeptic Martin Gardner. In 1976 Martin Gardner was a founder member of CSI(COP), which has done a great deal over the years in debunking paranormal claims and fighting the rise of superstition. Many readers of this blog may have his enjoyed his Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science.
In Chapter 3 of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener – “Why I am not a Paranormalist” – Gardner mounts a blistering attack on superstition. It contains many of the themes touched in Dawkin’s The Enemies of Reason, and one curious disagreement.
Martin Gardner, 1983 wrote:
As always with such manias, causes are multiple: the decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated, the resurgence of Protestant Fundamentalism, disenchantment with science for creating a technology that is damaging the environment and building horrendous war weapons, increasingly poor quality of science instruction on all levels of schooling, and many other factors…
I found that first bit fascinating. Now Gardner is not Fundamentalist obviously, he is not a Christian, though he is a Fideist rejecting all special revelation, but remaining a theist. Like most scholars he sees Fundamentalism as arising recently (within the last century pretty much) and a bad thing– but he regards the “decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated” as a key factor in the rise of pseudo-science, cults and superstition?
It in no way justifies religious belief, but it is very interesting as a claim. OK, so I doubted. Gardner is a theist – he must be biased. What are his sources? Luckily he references them. It is the article Superstitions Old and New by William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark in The Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 4, Summer 1980.
Gardner says they
…reported on their surveys of how beliefs in certain aspects of the current occult mania correlated with religious faith. They found people with no professed religion were the most inclined to believe in ESP and extraterrestrial UFOs. Paranormal cults were strongest in areas where the traditional churches were weakest.
Never trusting anyone’s opinions I have just been through the Sheep/Goat tests from my 1993 Paranormal Beliefs Survey of attendees at a lecture series in Cheltenham. The test used by the group was an early Sheep/Goat test which measured some religious claims as well as paranormal ones. Later we adopted the 1979 New Australian Sheep/Goat Test by Michael Thalbourne, but this earlier version suited my purposes. There were 83 respondents, and while I have not had time to perform a proper statistical test – the data is on stapled questionnaires, not in electronic format and it’s too late to type it all in tonight – there does appear to be a very strong correlation between non-belief in God and belief in UFOs as alien visitors, and between non-belief in Jesus as divine and belief in both ghosts & magic, to give a few examples. I recall now being once asked asked if many parapsychologists were Christian – and I said none at all that I knew of, they were all atheists. I have just looked at my “psychics” who I sometimes work with on testing – only one identifies as Spiritualist, two as atheist (Atheism is VERY common among Spiritualists following the example of Arthur Findlay – indeed Roll’s Campaign For Philosophical Freedom is an atheist organization which makes Dawkins look like a vicar) and seven “none”; six more are unclassifiable.
Not one professed belief in any “orthodox” faith. Now I’m sure Dawkins would regard my Anglicanism as just as much superstitious woo as does say crystal power, so this is a false distinction to him: but the evidence seems to suggest to me that the modern irrationalist supernaturalism is inversely related to traditional (non-fundamentalist) religious beliefs. I think whoever misquoted G.K. Chesterton was right, even if as is possible Chesterton never actually said it “when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing: he believes in anything”. Correlation is not causality – and of course the better educated college students are more likely to believe in ghosts etc -
assuming the Skeptical Inquirer is cited correctly! So perhaps the increase in woo is just a by product of the decline of traditional religious belief, increased secularism and atheism, and better education? The evidence certainly seems to point that way???
I find this both interesting, amusing, and deeply ironic.
So I wrote a few years back, and I have discussed at length elsewhere the issues. What concerns me is that actually while Hayley as a rational sceptic may be an excellent investigator, “atheism” as a non-belief does not actually necessarily imply scepticism of any claim but the existence of a God. There are plenty of loony and not bright atheists, just as there are plenty of loony and thick as two short planks Christians out there. Furthermore, rationality does not always map to good personal ethics, as I think we all recognize, and even rational people make mistakes – though like the Christians who confess they are crap at it by definition (we are all sinners), they may spot the problem and be able to do something about it.
Still, it’s peoples right to believe what they like, and no one has a monopoly on how to investigate spooks etc, or say what we should believe. The actions/behaviours/practices which are damaging to others should however clearly be subject to scrutiny, and I’m absolutely in favour of higher ethical standards in the field. I just don’t think that religiosity, in the normal sense, is much to do with a lot of this — and I hope I have somehow made that point. Yes my personal research ethics may be terrible, as I often joke, but that stands completely independent of the actual religious framework I exist within (Church of England liberal, in case you wondered.)
So as Martin Gardner said, I think the decline of traditional religious belief may actually underlie, rather than be the opposite of, this explosion of popular ghosthunting. Still a great article by Hayley, and got me thinking as normal. Now I really must go do some work!
A brief post for me, but a very important one. I know (from emails and comments) that a large number of ex-Richarddawkins.net forum members are passing this way in search of information. After a few days of gracious hosting from Rationalia.com and Thinking Aloud Forum, we now have a new forum of our own — Rationalskepticism.org
I am a mod over there (yes a Christian mod on a sceptic site!) and would like to take this opportunity to invite any of my readers, atheist, agnostic or religious, and anyone who enjoys good debate and good company to come join us there. It’s been a hectic few days, and I am still recovering — the British media have taken up the story, but I’m happy to move on and make something new. (I also have ghosthunting forum - email me if interested in such matters)
Thanks for reading! I really must move on to other topics soon. For very intelligent commentary on the affair (saying things I as a theist dare not!) from an atheist activist perspective do see Gurdur’s blog at Heathenhub.
(Title nicked from brilliant Twitter post by someone, mentioned on Rationalia.com The image is by Gurdur)
OK, OK, I know I said I would not write on this tedious topic any more. But the despondency of this morning at seeing a lot of hurt unhappy people and musing over ‘rationalist’ websites ability to explode has no turned to mild good humoured amusement. Richard Dawkins managed to cheer me up – not because I agree with him or anything he says on this topic; completely the opposite — but because it was good old bellicose belligerent Dawkins coming out fighting, and because now we know not to blame Josh. PZ Myers has washed his hands of the matter, not wanting to get dragged in, but Richard Dawkins has now posted on his forum (shame nobody else can!) You can read his modest opinions on there…
A Message from Richard Dawkins about the website updates
Imagine that you, as a greatly liked and respected person, found yourself overnight subjected to personal vilification on an unprecedented scale, from anonymous commenters on a website. Suppose you found yourself described as an “utter twat” a “suppurating rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk that’s been shoved up a week-old dead rhino’s twat.” Or suppose that somebody on the same website expressed a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails” down your throat. Also to “trip you up and kick you in the guts.” And imagine seeing your face described, again by an anonymous poster, as “a slack jawed turd in the mouth mug if ever I saw one.” (More there…)
All of the quotes he ascribes to posters are not from the few minutes between the letter being posted and the locking of the forum – they are all from Rationalia.com I can’t get on rationalia at the moment – the server is overloaded, but you can see there a discussion of how each quote was originally framed, and I note that many of them applied to Josh the administrator, not Richard. I’m not apologising – I never said any of those things.
Richard says in Ruth’s piece
‘I do think that the cloak of anonymity under which so many posters on the internet hide does encourage a culture of rudeness and extreme language which people would never indulge in if they were writing under their own name. I think anonymity does have bad consequences and we see them all the time. On the other hand, there are times when people genuinely need to be confidential. So I can see why, for example, people in America who lost their faith and do not want their families to know, or perhaps more seriously, people of an Islamic background who have lost their faith or become Christian, have every reason to be anonymous. But the culture of anonymity whereby the default expectation is anonymity does encourage rudeness.’
Following the bizarre collapse of the Richard Dawkins forum, I posted this on the excellent Rationalia and Thinking Aloud Forums. It will be my last blog entry on atheist forum politics I am after all not actually an atheist!
OK, I think I’m giving up on the whole atheist forum thing. I’ll tell you why, then move on to other topics tomorrow…
Firstly, I am still shocked, saddened and miserable about the demise of the wonderful RichardDawkins.net/forum. The problem is I have seen it ALL before, and not so long ago. If I thought this was Josh Timonen’s fault, or Dawkins, I could just laugh and move on, and help fight. The thing is I can’t any more. It’s something fundamental and deeper.
Years ago I knew a wonderful cryptographer, medium, and cynic, who I will call James. James joined a psychic research group I belonged to, and noted that every group tends to do the same thing: the leadership cock it up, it fragments, and two new groups appear. A few years later the pattern occurs again. James was an atheist spiritualist (there are a LOT of them, and one often sees their stuff cited by other atheist who are unaware of their rather strange ideas to modern atheists minds) and in a thoughtful moment he confided in me that exactly the same was true of every atheist group he had belonged to. I guess it’s true of gardening clubs, poetry societies, fan clubs and stamp collectors as well. As he noted, there must be something wrong with human nature. (In fact one sees it less in religious groups – because they can appeal to external authorities and impose their will by divine mandate, which makes them even nastier when it all goes tits up). Of course many groups do survive and prosper, but one thing ghostthunting groups (not parapsychological organisations) and atheist forums have in common is this incredible failure rate.
Now in fact Old Soul posted on my blog entry, and reminded me of something. We have seen this all before, just two years ago. Here is the Encylopedia Dramatica version of events back then on IIDB – http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Iidb The interwebs are serious business.
Many of the IIDB exiles fled to RD.net, and discussed what was happening there: and in fact the response was largely one of disinterest, mild sadness, and modding to stop the fight spilling over on to our forum. In fact it is much like the very ambivalent if not positively unsympathetic responses one sees from the JREF today – http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=168039 (There are of course many deeply sympathetic JREF members, including tsig and Darat, and RD.net exiles should seriously consider registering there>)
Let’s face it, its the internet. No one will die of this. Still we can learn a lot from it, maybe…
Now Internet Infidels and Secular Web had a history going back to 1995, and were absolutely huge. I think it is fair to say that IIDB was in its day the largest Atheist site on the web – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Infidels- and it’s collapse left a vacuum that RD.net quickly filled, along with the Rational Response Squad. The RRS had its own problems in 2008/2009 including a highly publicised (physical, literal) punch up and a falling out with Richard Dawkins over allegations of his having an affair (even if true, who gives a f*ck, and it wasn’t anyway…) However the IIDB melt down,mass deletions, sacking of mods and general shittiness gave birth ot a number of forums, including Rants n Raves, a splendidly irreverent place which is sort of 4chan meets Atheism — http://www.rantsnraves.org/
All of this may seem by the by, but in fact you probably really need to look at this whole mess on IIDB, that we all chose to ignore.There are threads on RD.net – maybe someone with access to the database can find them? However the same things happened – admins sacked, mods dimsissed, members expelled, complete meltdown.
Hey there must be people here who lived through all this, and know first hand what happened? Old Soul wrote on my blog –
In 2007, the Internet Infidels Inc, a nonprofit educational group, shut down their extremely popular “IIDB” Internet Infidels Discussion Board, driving away thousands of people, many of whom had donated money to the group for both its regular operations and the upkeep of the forums. When the II, Inc. began banning and silencing its forum users, it lost very little real revenue, as the major donors who supported the organization did not care one bit about the teeming masses on the message board. The II, Inc. did not lose any real income or its reputation amongst the atheist elite. It sold the IIDB to a woman from New Zealand, who changed the forum name and continued to silence all dissidents. The II, Inc. did not suffer any loss or long-term damage after divesting itself of its forum. No problem there, either.
Yep, that was my understanding.He also has a very long term perspective –
Decades ago, Madalyn Murray O’Hair shut down every chapter of American Atheists, alienating thousands of people, but doing no long-term harm to herself or the group. No problem there.
I suspect the young and British influenced RD’ers may not all know about the tragic and bizarre story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madalyn_Murray_O%27Hair Some of the links like the Time article are REALLY good reads. Anyone spot similarities with how AA was run and the current situation? OK, we don’t have claims of fraud and dodgy accounting, or blatant theft. Yet we have exactly the same pattern of self-proclaimed atheist leaders fleecing members, f*cking over the organisation and so called rationalist acting like compete arseholes.
Even after the great October Purge, when many of us left, I eventually drifted back to RD.net. TAF and Rationalia split: I can’t help but being reminded of the South Park episode Go God, Go! where the United Atheist Alliance (UAA) fight the United Atheist League (UAL) and the Allied Atheist Allegiance (AAA) –sure it was a shit episode by South Park standards, but there was more than a grain of truth in it.
Old Soul really hit the nail on the head though when he wrote
This is just business as usual for atheist organizations, why are you all so surprised? This is how it is done. Richard Dawkins will not lose any face. He will not suffer a publicity backlash. As far as his staff is concerned, you are all ungrateful for complaining about not being able to use the forums any more. Guess what? They do not care. They will make new websites, write new books, and speak at new conventions. Where thousands of you dare not tread, thousands more unsuspecting atheists will fill the seats you won’t occupy, and buy the books you won’t read, and visit the websites you won’t support. No problems.
It gets bleaker
There are millions and millions of atheists worldwide and no major atheist group has ever lost any money by not accommodating all of them. For every hundred of you who leave in disgust, two hundred more will take your place. For every post that is deleted… the same. The outcry of atheists who are offended by being silenced is not a problem in the grand scheme of organized atheist groups.
These groups operate in a realm that none of you occupy. It is a world in which *you* do not exist, and none of them (on the national or international level) are focused on “atheist community” or “the needs of nonbelievers.” They are money-making operations supporting authors, lecturers, philosophers, and publicity hounds, all in the name of atheism, and all for naught.
If you are operating a large atheist organization, shutting the internet out of your atheist group will not hurt you in the long run. This is demonstrably true, and the RDF staff certainly knows it. Now you all know it too. Visit this page again in 2 years, when Dawkins’ books are selling like hotcakes, his lectures are standing-room-only, and his new website discussion area is busy and bustling with passionate atheist activity. All of this complaining is not going to change anything.
There will be no problem for the RDF. Atheist herd migration will not disrupt the activities of any major atheist group, certainly not the biggest moneymaker of them all.[
He is indeed a wise old soul.
This has seemed I am sure to many of you yet another betrayal, but really, I am deadly serious. If we can’t get it together, are we (and I guess it’s not really we is it, I’m a Christian, but I count myself as one of you lot in that I remain a loyal member of the Richarddawkins.net internet community) any better than the religious groups etc? Sorry, it seems that the loss of the forum is irrlevant to most atheists, and will remain so, based on the examples of history. We will be a footnote ina wiki article, and spawn threads on a few secular websites, but no one is listening, and the RDF will laugh all the way to the bank. If you think people really care, look again at the JREF thread, or look at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe one – http://sguforums.com/index.php?topic=26298.0 Think about how much you heard, or cared, about the demise of IIDB – now sucessfully running as a series of small forums from what I can see, with new names, and a new identity.
People don’t just not care, THEY DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. It’s just like us at RichardDawkins.net when IIDB went down – some one lese politics, proof the rationalist dream crashed when it meets the reality of messsed up humans. Good people will carry on and have a laugh, but the majority of the atheist population will just say “shut up and stop whining”. Bleak I know, but do a Google search and you will find its true… http://www.sciforums.com/showthread.php?t=99807
In fact even the blogosphere only returns Darkchilde, myself and Peter Harrison’s blogs. This is not going to hurt the RDF, or makke any difference; We lost, people got treated like shit, and no one will care outside of TAF and Rationalia.
I have had enough. I’ll find better things to do with my time
Got in late tonight, and started looking at the atheist forums — think I was in a silly mood.
An American poster on RD.net wrote
Q. “At what time in our nation’s history, thanks to the ideals and precepts of Christianity, does this nation need to return to? When, in your estimation, because of Christianity, were things the closest to Christian ideals?“
CJ replies –
A. Prior to 1776. You should immediately surrender to Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, or failing that, me.
Allow me to explain. Jesus only endorsed one economic governmental system.
He said “render unto Caesar what is Caesars, what is God what is Gods”.
In doing so he clearly endorsed the governmental situation in colonial Roman occupied Palestine, that is taxation without representation of a subject people by an Imperial authority.
In other words the American situation under the British, prior to 1776.
However the British were in this situation under Canute’s Danish Empire, so as a Dane in Britain I figure we may as well just save everyone hassle by paying me danegeld, preferably in attractive young ladies – a sort of maiden tribute. Alternatively I’ll consider BigMacs or cash sums in lieu of formal taxation.
Now we have cleared this up, just pm me for my paypal details.
Another poster in a different thread on how atheists were the elite lamented –
“Many theists I know seem to have a negative view of individuals who could be considered more intelligent than them.”
My reply was simple - ” I don’t — I worship Him”
Hope they realize I was joking and I’m not quite that arrogant!