Popular Delusions XI: Satanic Ritual Abuse

One of the surest marks of a pseudoscience is that it stays forever the same, never altering its claims, even as the world changes around it and revolutions in our knowledge come and go. While science evolves over time, with theories becoming refined to more closely track the truth, popular delusions stay the same through the centuries, at most changing their outer robes to match the spirit of the times.

I wrote about this in a past entry in this series, in which the demonic succubi and incubi that were once imagined to haunt sleepers become, in the modern era, gray-skinned alien abductors. Today's post concerns a different topic, and one that has likewise seen its manifestation mutate over the ages: the hysteria of alleged Satanic cults that subject children to horrific sexual abuse and violence. Some people claim to have been victims of these cults; some even claim to be ex-members. As always, Jack Chick provides a handy example of what a large number of Christians and other theists still actually believe.

But, as I said, many popular delusions update their outer trappings to match the times. This is also true of Satanic cult beliefs, which in modern times have taken on the form of secret conspiracies of pedophiles gathering to prey on children. The most infamous example is the 1980s McMartin case, in which a California family who owned a preschool were accused of hundreds of counts of sexual abuse of the children under their care. After a six-year trial and the expenditure of millions of dollars by the prosecution, the case ended without a single conviction. (This story was dramatized in the movie Indictment.)

The McMartin case in particular began with the allegations of one woman, later revealed to be mentally ill, who alleged that her son had been sexually abused by one of the teachers at the preschool. Taking her at her word, the police began a dragnet investigation that culminated with hundreds of children being interviewed by a California clinic, the Children's Institute International. The CII therapists took the approach that abuse was certain and the only obstacle was getting the children to admit it. Under their guidance, children were peppered with leading questions; the therapists described what they thought had happened ("I know that the kids were touched") and pressured the children to agree. When children denied those claims, they were told, "You better not play dumb", or "I don't want to hear any more 'no's", and informed that many of their classmates had already told the truth. When they gave in, they were rewarded. Despite the bizarre nature of the allegations that emerged from this technique (sex with movie stars, sexual abuse taking place in hot-air balloons, one of the alleged abusers killing a giraffe in front of them), these videotaped "confessions" were presented as evidence at trial. It has since been discovered, and is now widely known, that leading questions and high-pressure interviews such as this can readily generate false memories and false confessions, even in adults, and much more so in suggestible children.

Most Satanic panics, including the McMartin case, share the attribute of extremely implausible allegations for which no physical evidence is presented. The scope of the imagined conspiracies is inevitably vast, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to an astonishing two million murders by Satanic cults in the U.S. each year. (As that article notes, the higher estimate would mean that the annual death rate from Satanic cults surpasses the number of U.S. deaths in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.) Abuse and crime on such a massive scale should be easy to demonstrate, and yet no undisputed Satanic cult has ever been broken up and prosecuted, no physical evidence of such astonishing allegations ever presented. As with other conspiracy theories, the absence of evidence is taken by true believers to simply be further confirmation of the conspiracy's scope and power, even though the idea of such a massive cover-up being successful does violence to everything we know about human psychology.

What Satanic panics show, more than anything else, is the malleability of memory. In matters as important as this, we cannot rely solely on testimonial evidence: human beings are far too prone to tell untruths, to confabulate, and to unwittingly encourage others to do the same. The problem of sexual predators that molest children is very real, and all too common. But the idea of organized, underground cabals of devil-worshippers gathering to practice diabolical rites on innocents is a hysterical fantasy, nothing more. This kind of irrational overreaction only ensures that innocents will be unjustly swept up in dragnets of overzealous law enforcement, rather than targeting our legal resources where they are most needed to take on genuine predators.

Other posts in this series:

November 2, 2008, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink41 comments
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Delusions of Persecution

Late last year on Freethought Radio, Dan and Annie Laurie played a remarkable clip from James Dobson, talking on his own radio show about their program:

The problem is that the Christian ethic is literally hanging by a thread. I heard just a few weeks ago that Air America, the very leftist radio entity... have come up with a program that will be aired across the country that is atheistic - admittedly atheistic in nature.

Freethought Radio was on the air for some time before it was picked up nationally by Air America, but never mind that. What I find most amusing is Dobson's claim that Freethought Radio's debut has left Christianity "hanging by a thread". When last I checked, there were more than 2,000 religious radio stations in America, many of which play Christian programming twenty-four hours a day - not to mention the Christian TV channels, magazines, book publishers, megachurches, private colleges, evangelism programs, political lobbying organizations, and so on. Who'd have thought that this multibillion-dollar infrastructure was so fragile that one hour a week of radio pitched explicitly to freethinkers could bring it all to the edge of ruin? Shades of David and Goliath!

Dobson isn't the only one making noise like this. Last year, Ed Brayton reported on a hysterical column written by Janet Folger of the right-wing site WorldNetDaily, in which she imagines a future where Hillary Clinton has become President and has outlawed Christianity. No, I'm not making that up. In a similar story, the creationist Discovery Institute complains about the "unprecedented wave of persecution" it has suffered from nasty, mean scientists - as if academia's refusal to take them seriously was the worst thing that had ever happened to anyone. And again, Greg Laurie of WorldNetDaily wrings his hands over "the ugly results of banning God from the culture".

Another right-wing site, Hal Lindsay's Oracle Cartoons, has comics with titles like "Jail For Jesus", in which the cartoonist fantasizes about Christianity being outlawed worldwide and himself and other Christians being jailed, persecuted and tortured. In fact, judging by his strips with titles like "Another Illegal Cartoon", he seems to have persuaded himself that this is already in progress.

This is not to say that fears about the restriction of speech are entirely meritless. There are some legitimate threats to free speech in the world, and these need to be treated with the seriousness and gravity they deserve. What we do not need is the shrieking hysteria of Christians who treat the situation all out of proportion to its seriousness, as if their entire religion was on the very edge of being stamped out. A rational person would take the view that, while persecution of individuals is still atrocious where it exists, Christianity constitutes one-third of the population of this planet and commands a substantial portion of its wealth and power; it is not in danger of dying out any time soon. Even worse is the odious, conceited belief held by many Christians that everyone is against them and that their religion is the only one whose free speech is under threat. (Most tyrants suppress differing views indiscriminately.)

There is no global tide of persecution poised to sweep down on Christians, as these people ridiculously imagine. They should recognize that protections on free speech have always been a patchwork at best. Some nations are strong bulwarks of free speech; others allow it in some cases but restrict it in others; and in a handful of totalitarian states, there is no free speech at all. Every infringement on free speech is serious, but to assume that Christianity as a whole is in dire peril or is prevented from communicating its message is a delusion in stark conflict with reality.

March 12, 2008, 7:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink38 comments
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Emptying the Haunted Air

Almost two hundred years ago, the English Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem, "Lamia", in which he lamented that the advance of scientific understanding would rob the world of its beauty and wonder. Keats' chief villain, though not named in the poem, was Isaac Newton, whose use of the prism to split white light into its component colors was viewed by Keats as akin to desecration:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow...

(It helps if you read "awful" as "awe-inspiring". Like species, languages evolve over time.)

Keats' charge of "unweaving the rainbow" was answered by Richard Dawkins, whose book of the same name argued persuasively that understanding how the world truly works enhances, rather than diminishes, its beauty and our awe. This strikes me as a more than adequate reply. But as far as I know, Keats' other point hasn't been answered in detail, and I'd like to do so.

To this charge, I answer as follows: Yes, science will empty the haunted air. And the sooner, the better. That is not a thing to be lamented, but a long-awaited liberation from an especially harmful set of lingering and poisonous superstitions.

Throughout history, religious believers have been obsessed with the idea that human beings are constantly under assault by devilish powers. Christianity's most famous evangelist, Paul of Tarsus, was one of the chief proponents of this demonic paranoia:

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

—Ephesians 6:12

And likewise the pseudonymous author of 1 Peter, who compared the Devil to a predator forever waiting his chance to strike:

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."

—1 Peter 5:8

These believers, and many others, had demons on the brain. In everything they did, they saw evil spirits swarming invisibly around them, always seeking to bring about the downfall of the faithful, always plotting how best to tempt them into eternal damnation, and always ready to strike at any believer who let down his guard for even an instant. This superstitious phobia, which survives to the present day, has produced incalculable fear, suffering and misery.

For just one example, I wrote earlier this year, in "Rebuking the Devil", of a Pentecostal church in the Congo that still thinks mental illness is a sign of demon possession. Rather than effective psychiatric intervention to help its sick patients, this church's "treatment" consists of chaining them down and beating them, interspersed with faith healing and prayer. Whole sites also exist that are devoted to the idea of "deliverance" from demonic attack and curses in every aspect of life.

But it's not just small fringe sects or Third World countries where demonic superstitions persist. These beliefs are still defended by large, established churches and respected religious spokespeople, and they are still causing harm to real people in the world today.

Consider this comment from a column on Catholic Online:

Those Catholics involved in deliverance ministry who are versed in the aspects of the occult inform me that curses of this type are very hard to complete.

Note - hard, not impossible. Evidently, this Catholic writer really believes that it is possible to cause harm to another by invoking occult aid. And he's not some random nobody, representing only himself, but an ordained priest and a featured contributor on a large and popular Catholic news and opinion site.

Likewise, consider the evangelical Dr. Gary Collins, a highly qualified clinical psychologist and president of the 15,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, who was handpicked by apologist Lee Strobel for his book The Case for Christ. In a stunning interview with Strobel, Collins reveals his belief that malicious demons exist and are actively possessing people in the world today. Even more amazingly, he implies - like the Pentecostals of the Congo - that he thinks this should be the basis for treatment of at least some of the mentally ill:

"From my theological beliefs, I accept that demons exist... there are spiritual forces out there, and it's not too hard to conclude that some might be malevolent."

"I haven't personally [seen evidence of demon possession], but then I haven't spent my whole career in clinical settings... My friends in clinical work have said that sometimes they have seen this, and these are not people who are inclined to see a demon behind every problem."

"People who deny the existence of the supernatural will find some way, no matter how far-fetched, to explain a situation apart from the demonic. They'll keep giving medication, keep drugging the person, but he or she doesn't get better. There are cases that don't respond to normal medical or psychiatric treatment." (p. 204)

Vast suffering has been inflicted on people as a result of these irrational beliefs. Vjack of Atheist Revolution tells us about his friend Tony, who was kidnapped by his parents' conservative evangelical church and "exorcised" against his will until he was emotionally broken. Another anonymous story, even more horrifying, adds the element of carving a cross into the unwilling exorcism recipient's skin. Children and others have died during abusive exorcisms.

No good has ever been brought about by demon beliefs. They have only ever caused fear, suffering and misery, both for the people who are imprisoned, abused and tortured and for the genuinely mentally ill who are discouraged from getting the real treatment they need.

Thankfully, after millennia in darkness, we finally have an opportunity to recognize these falsehoods for what they are. As the light of true understanding spreads, the supernatural is retreating. We have learned that our world is not a demon-haunted place, with malicious spirits lurking in every corner, but is governed by stable, orderly natural laws, as majestic and impersonal as clockwork. There are no leering demons waiting to menace us; those creatures are nothing but the fevered dreams of a superstitious and ignorant age. In the daylight, they have no more substance than shadows, and melt away just as quickly.

So, Keats was correct: philosophy and science will empty the haunted air. He saw this as a lament, but we should view it as a blessing. Once we have finished clearing out the grotesque supernatural visions that have threatened and terrified so many people, we will be free to turn our attention fully to the needs and concerns of this world, which are the only real or important things.

October 27, 2007, 11:47 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments
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Claiming the Mantle of Victimhood

The Roman Catholic church is the oldest, largest, and very likely the richest denomination of any organized religion on the planet Earth. It has over 1 billion believers worldwide; controls its own sovereign country ruled by the Pope; is the only religious denomination with permanent observer status at the United Nations; has its own radio broadcasting service, its own official newspapers, and numerous TV channels; owns hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and property worldwide; and still exerts tremendous influence in many countries worldwide, including the United States, where five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic.

In light of all this wealth and power enjoyed by the Catholic church, as well as many other sects and denominations, claims like the following from this article from the National Catholic Register look especially ridiculous:

Today, believers are the besieged "rebels" whose position has been persecuted and threatened.

Note - not Catholics, nor Christians, but believers. Apparently, atheists have become the majority overnight without anyone noticing, and we are now using our superior power and influence to "persecute" and "besiege" theists. No doubt there are many believers who will nod their heads seriously at this story, never even considering its patent absurdity.

These laughable claims of oppression are another indicator of the way Christianity has grown beyond anything its founders ever envisioned or anticipated, as I wrote earlier this year in "A Religion Not Made for Success". The first generation of Christians believed that the end of the world was imminent, and that Christianity would remain a small, outcast sect until then. Therefore, one of the things Jesus said is that Christians would be persecuted, and so today's Christians, unwilling to deny these words despite their obvious falsehood, simply insist in the face of all evidence that they are a persecuted minority. The image of themselves as the victims, rather than the oppressors, is built so deeply into Christian consciousness that many apologists find it irresistible.

Also, I think there's another reason for believers trying to claim the mantle of victimhood for themselves, one that works in symbiosis with the other. Namely, people like the underdog; we want to root for the underdog. No famous book or movie, for obvious reasons, ever depicted the heroes as prevailing against a much weaker, more cowardly, more poorly armed foe. We tend to feel sympathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed, and we naturally want to rally to their side. And if the persecuted group is one we feel identity with, so much the better. Nothing convinces people to circle the wagons and band together like believing that their group is under attack from outsiders.

This more than anything is why religious groups, Christians in particular, want to depict themselves as the persecuted minority. If anything, the more powerful and influential a religious group is, the quicker they are to cry persecution whenever they meet with opposition. It's a cheap and dirty tactic for rallying the troops and winning sympathy for their cause, and the fact that it's a claim with no basis in reality usually matters not at all. And by depicting themselves as the persecuted ones, it diverts attention away from legitimate claims by groups that actually are being oppressed and discriminated against. I suspect many religious leaders fear the consequences of a widespread realization that if any group truly is the underdog today, it is the atheists.

August 13, 2007, 7:34 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments
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Thirsting for Persecution

In the United States of America today, Christianity, and specifically right-wing fundamentalist Christianity, is enjoying a resurgence. The religious right controls all three branches of the federal government, commands the allegiance of tens of millions of followers, broadcasts their message constantly on TV channels and radio stations that they exclusively control, and operates thriving tax-free megachurches across the land that draw thousands of worshippers every week. They possess enormous wealth and influence, probably unmatched by any other interest group or segment of society.

And yet, to hear the hysterical rhetoric emanating from some quarters of the religious right, one would think Christianity is a beleaguered minority teetering on the brink of extinction. Such was the theme of a right-wing conference, titled by its organizers "The War on Christians", that was reported on by the Washington Post in two recent articles, here and here. Some of the over-the-top claims made at this conference have to be heard to be believed, such as this introduction by conference organizer Rick Scarborough of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay:

"I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ," Scarborough said, introducing DeLay yesterday. When DeLay finished, the host reminded the politician: "God always does his best work right after a crucifixion."

In case you were keeping track, Scarborough in that quote compared DeLay's indictment for violation of money-laundering laws, and subsequent resignation from office, to the crucifixion of Jesus. He also argued that DeLay was being persecuted for his outspoken religious beliefs. The fact that two of DeLay's top aides, Tony Rudy and Michael Scanlon, as well as DeLay's close associate Jack Abramoff, have already pled guilty in a widening investigation into corruption, embezzlement and bribery charges did not even seem to be on Scarborough's radar; as far as he was concerned, DeLay was being persecuted for his faith and nothing more.

Some other remarks from the article are also worth commenting on:

"We are after all a society that abides abortion on demand, that has killed millions of innocent children, that degrades the institution of marriage and often treats Christianity like some second-rate superstition. Seen from this perspective, of course there is a war on Christianity," [DeLay] said.

I would very much like to know what society DeLay is talking about, because it is not the one I live in. In the country where I live, the media and politicians cannot possibly pay Christianity any more fawning respect and deference than they actually do. Politicians expressing their faith loudly, publicly and often is practically a prerequisite for office, and just about every TV show that touches on Christian beliefs in any even tangential way goes out of its way to point out that in the end it is always a matter of faith, lest someone be offended. Any even brief appearance by nonbelievers in popular culture is met with contempt, insults, and threats. As for his other comments, it is true that our society's laws are not exactly as DeLay and his ilk would prefer; but then again, no one is forcing Christians to have abortions or marry gay people. Apparently, in DeLay's mind, the fact that other people of different beliefs are not forced to live under Christian law constitutes a "War on Christianity". This is logic roughly comparable to Adolf Hitler's claim that Germany's invasion of Poland was an act of self-defense.

Another notable instance of this persecution fantasy can be found in a right-wing ministry's response to a pro-atheist documentary, The God Who Wasn't There, released by filmmaker Brian Flemming:

Will Christianity be outlawed in America? If atheists are successful at removing God from America's public life, the answer is "yes". Find out how American Vision is going to answer a major atheist propaganda DVD called The God Who Wasn't There and how you can help!

Notable here is the assumed link between "atheist propaganda" and the outlawing of Christianity, which seems to be taken as self-evident. For whatever reason, these Christians interpret any criticism of their beliefs as the spearhead of an attempt to ban their beliefs. They seem incapable of comprehending the idea that atheists would want to foster a debate about religion for its own sake, rather than as a prelude to stamping out religion by force.

Part of this tendency may be due to apocalyptic beliefs. People taught by their scriptures to expect a repressive, Antichrist-led totalitarian state just before the end of the world naturally become paranoid and begin to see the first glimmerings of that state everywhere they look. However, it is tempting to speculate that a more important cause is psychological projection. It would seem that many right-wing Christians will never be happy until they completely control society and force everyone to live according to their preferences. DeLay said as much above - if the mere availability of abortion, gay marriage or divorce represents a "war on Christianity", then clearly that war will not be ended until those things are outlawed. No peaceful coexistence is envisioned here. Perhaps, then, these Christians are unable to conceive of people less fanatical than they themselves are, and so they assume that all other groups want what they want: to gain secular power and use it to write their opinions into law.

And of course, we should not forget the chief purpose of right-wing cries of persecution: convincing the flock to open their wallets. As far as the religious right is concerned, fostering an atmosphere of perpetual outrage is good for business. Theists who believe their faith is under attack from all sides will pour out their money to support it, regardless of the relationship of those claims to the truth. The only depressing thing is that the lay believers do not seem to have caught on no matter how many times this trick has been played on them.

In reality, the manifest absurdity of American Christians claiming persecution should be obvious to every observer. Christians in America today are less persecuted than they have ever been at any other time or place in history. To compare their experiences to the suffering of the genuine victims of religious persecution around the world is arrogant and insulting. The only thing that causes some of them to complain about persecution is that they are not allowed to force their beliefs on others - it is the whine of a bully who cannot have everything his own way. A progressive minister from the Washington Post article puts them in their place:

"This is a skirmish over religious pluralism, and the inclination to see it as a war against Christianity strikes me as a spoiled-brat response by Christians who have always enjoyed the privileges of a majority position," said the Rev. Robert M. Franklin, a minister in the Church of God in Christ and professor of social ethics at Emory University.

Finally, consider the "Night of Persecution", an event staged by a Christian youth ministry to give believers "a chance... to experience a small sample of what believers in persecuted nations endure on a daily basis". Participants in the event role-play converts in an oppressive regime, where they must hold prayer meetings in secret and are "forced to give account for why they believe in Jesus Christ". (One is inclined to doubt that this process involves any real discomfort, much less the actual tortures used by repressive regimes against minority faiths.) If young believers really want to experience persecution, I suggest they instead try to role-play an atheist living in the Bible Belt.

It is harder to decide how to view this event. If it helps American Christians realize that claiming victimhood is ridiculous, and that the citizens of repressive regimes around the world - not just Christians - are the true victims of persecution, then I hope this project is a success. However, I am inclined to be more pessimistic: I suspect it will instead encourage delusions of persecution among the far-right set that already tends to view the world in this way. There is probably no hope in persuading these people of the obvious truth that Christians are not being persecuted, but I do not think it is too much to hope for that atheists and other nonbelievers can find common ground with progressive religious believers to work against these dangerous and self-deceived ideologues.

April 12, 2006, 8:00 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink15 comments
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