Tuesday, April 10, 2012

God Really Needs to Speak Up

I suppose that at my age I shouldn't be at all surprised to read something that makes me shake my head in disgust.  Honestly, by now I should be used to all the junk science on the web and it shouldn't make me angry anymore; but I'm not and it does.

The most recent example of complete junk science comes from this article on the NPR website, which in terms of scientific evidence ranks just above the jewels one might find buried in the bottom of a full litter box.  I know that seems harsh, but I'm incredibly disappointed with NPR.  Normally I have such respect for the way they present the news; as a matter of fact, it's one of my favorite websites for news.  The problem is that I was under the impression that they would do a far better job of asking questions than this!

Following the standard format for NPR, the article is one part advertisement for a book, "When God Talks Back" by anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann (PhD), and one part interview with the author.  The setting begins with an evangelical church where several members of the congregation admitted that god had spoken to them - and spoken to them on more than one occasion.  (The article also quickly mentions that the church has 600 other branches across the country, so let's assume it's not your quaint little white church on the corner.)  And it was this personal auditory relationship with the almighty that Dr. Luhrmann examined in her book.

Let's get to it then, with a quote from Dr. Luhrmann:
"The way I think about it as an anthropologist, I don't have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or whether God is not real."
Okay, I'll buy that.  I'm not in a position to pronounce whether god is real or not, nor would I ever suggest that I do.  However, I can pronounce that god is as probable as an invisible purple dragon in my garage.  Dr. Luhrmann continues:
"They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind.  They're also invited to pretend that God is present."
Now Dr. Luhrmann, I'm not an anthropologist, but doesn't the word, "pretend," raise red flags for you?  Surely you recognize that one of the things that human beings do really well is fantasize.  Whether it's dreaming about talking to god, or dreaming of schools of witchcraft and wizardry, or dreaming of a sexual partner you wish you had, the human mind is extremely effective at imagining very, very vivid representations of settings that are nothing but pure fantasy.  Given this fact, it seems telling to me that these groups are encouraging impressionable and unsuspecting people to blur the line between fantasy and reality by making the assumption that god really IS present.  This is, by definition, psychological manipulation.

Anyway, let's get straight to the heart of the issue here with yet another quote from Dr. Luhrmann:
"If you read Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life", it reads from one perspective very much like a cognitive behavioral therapy manual.  He's trying to get you to see yourself from God's perspective."
There it is.  We've officially reached the point where it's time to quietly and carefully step away from the crazy.  Give me a break.  Anyone that suggests that a Rick Warren book is worth reading, and that Rick Warren would have advice worth following, has officially lost my confidence in their subjectivity.  Seriously, the only thing that Warren has perspective on is how much money he's able to make off of gullible people.  Plus, it's starting to appear to me that the good Dr. Luhrmann is committing a cardinal sin in science: she's starting with a result she wants, and then goes looking for the data she thinks will support it.

Given my revelation about Luhrmann, I decided to see what Dr. Google had on people who hear the voice of god.  I was able to locate this, and this, among many others.  Note the following, taken from the Mental Health Foundation website:
"Hearing voices are still considered by psychiatry as an auditory hallucination and as a symptom of conditions such as schizophrenic disorders, manic depression and psychosis."
My sentiments exactly.

A group of evangelical protestants that suddenly proclaim that they are hearing the voice of god does not qualify as a proper basis for a scientific hypothesis.  Haven't you gotten the memo?  People have been making that claim for centuries, where god delivers either messages of love or messages of destruction.  Hell, we even have several very popular religious books that were written years ago that are FILLED with this kind of nonsense, right?  Not to mention that there are a number of obvious problems with Dr. Luhrmann's suggested, "theory of mind," new age garbage that the NPR article didn't even bother to ask.  For example:

  1. Is this a two-way conversation, or is god always the pitcher and a person always the catcher?
  2. Does god ever bother to provide anything useful, like a cure for cancer, or HIV?  Or is it always some vague sense of love, some vague message of peace, or some other standard religious clich√©?
  3. Why is the voice of god not audible to more people at the same point in time?  In other words, do several different people report exactly the same message, word for word?
  4. As a scientist, how do you intend to collect data to reject the null hypothesis?
  5. Also, how is your hypothesis - that an evangelical person has trained themselves to perceive god's voice - any different from other similar notions from the past?
And so on.

I'll wrap all this up by presenting the one quote where Dr. Luhrmann and I agree:
"There were many different ways to be in the world, and Christianity then became a buyer's market. People chose if they were going to be Christian and what type of church they would join. And churches like The Vineyard see themselves as trying to offer a God that's quite different from the one who terrified poor James Joyce."
Well, no lie!  Churches are consistently losing their grip on people, and given enough time their religion will go the way of Zeus, Thor, and Ra.  So, of course they're changing their marketing...  Any good business understands when it's time to re-engineer the product.

So speak up god!  Your product desperately needs the celebrity endorsement!

(P.S. And is it me, or is that book cover creepy enough to make you hear voices?  <SHUDDER>)

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