Religious Corroboration – Huhtikuism

280px-tas_native-henThe majority of beliefs I write about are relatively mainstream, but I recently stumbled upon the almost unknown Huhtiku belief system. This is a minor Scandanavian religion which went out of fashion over seven hundred years, so our limited knowledge of it relies on a few scraps of text and interpretation of artwork.

What is most notable about Huhtikuism is the claim that it was discovered by two separate groups of people, apparently before any contact had been made between them. As far as I know this is a unique claim – all other religions began in a particular part of the world from where they spread as believers traded or migrated.

Spirits within spirits

Huhtiku believers thought of every object, large or small, as being a spirit, or Tankero, with intentions and personality of its own. This belief stretches from seeds to areas of land or even the entire planet. The result is “overlapping” spirits, some within others, inhabiting the same physical space. So many rock spirits may be contained entirely in a mountain spirit which is within the spirit of the land. Some of the religious artwork looks like a complicated Venn Diagramme. The desires and movements of these spirits are said to account for all the intricate workings of nature.

The Huhtiku creation story is one of bizarre liberation. No one knows where these Tankero-spirits came from. However, at some time in the distant past before the physical world existed, they were uniform, no two different from each other.  The Tankero were unable to change form as they were confined in the bellies of Kaenna, which seem to be flightless birds, possibly chickens. They were only freed from this captivity when a savage fight broke out amongst their captors in which the all the Kaenna perished, freeing the Tankero.  Once released, they took on diverse physical forms and personalities as a way of expressing their new-found freedom.


As the Tankero are everywhere, Huhtiku teaches that it is very easy to offend one or more spirits with any simple action. Planting a seed requires thought of what the seed’s intention is; a rock should not be moved to a place that is unnatural for it. In spite of human efforts, Tankero are often offended and predictably this requires a ritual appeasement, usually by eating birds’ feet. Surely, a pretty unpleasant experience. Flightless birds are also treated with suspicion. To be injured whilst attempting to catch one is considered very unlucky.

Independently invented?

So was Hihtikuism actually discovered or invented independently in more than one place? Western anthropologists have long been aware that Huhtiku beliefs were widespread in Finland during the early middle ages, but it wasn’t until recently that a strikingly-similar belief system was discovered amongst indigenous Tazmanians. These beliefs date from a similar period in history and while Tazmania has no written records of it, numerous rock paintings have been found apparently depicting the Kaenna and Tankero creation story and the ritualistic consumption of birds’ feet. No oral tradition in Tasmania today is specific enough to be linked to Hihtikuism, but there are numerous superstitions around the hunting of the Tasmanian Native hen.

It seems highly unlikely that there could have been communication between medieval Tasmanians and Scandanavians, so what is the explanation for the similarity in their beliefs? For most believers this dual discovery would be a “holy grail” of confirmation that their beliefs came from an external, non-human source. Another possibility is coincidence. It is not unthinkable that two independent cultures could have invented similar creation stories and related practices. Whether or not a coincidence is plausible depends on exactly how detailed and similar the beliefs are. Unfortunately as the evidence is sparse we may never know the real story.

Contrasting Sikhism

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) at night..

It occurred to me recently that I am embarrassingly ignorant of Sikhism – the world’s 5th largest religion. So I’ve been doing some homework to remedy this. Although I’ve never discussed religion with them, I’ve found the few Sikhs I’ve met to be modest, friendly and helpful. Reading their underlying values, this fits with the ideal view of Sikh philosophy.

Apart from my admitted laziness, my lack of knowledge may be because Sikhs are not evangelistic. This contrasts with other religions, most of which find some form of coercion or persuasion tactics necessary to keep their numbers up. In fact Sikhism seems to contrast with its theological cousins in a variety of ways. As it was established in India between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Sikh religion may be viewed partly as a reaction to its religious neighbours. According to Ninian Smart’s book of The World’s Religions, Sikhism’s first Guru, Nanak was a bit of a smarty-pants when it came to other religions:

On Nanak’s journey to Mecca he is reported to have fallen asleep in error with his feet pointing toward Mecca, and so showing disrespect to the Muslim faith. A mullah had woken him angrily, but Nanak’s comment was devastating: “Then turn my feet in a direction where God is not.

Sikhism and other religions

Contrasting with Hinduism, Sikhs believe in a single omnipotent god. However, this differs from Christianity, as the Sikh impression of god is impersonal, seemingly pantheistic.

In contrast with some aspects of Budhism, Sikhism advocates family life, working for a living and being part of the world rather than living as a hermit.

sikh_temple_manning_drive_300Unlike Christianity, Sikhs believe to some extent in the idea of Karma – actions having consequences – both now and in later lives. Sikhism says that belief alone is not what affects a person’s destiny.

Contrasting with Judaism, Sikhs do not believe they are a chosen people of god. Anyone, they say, can reach salvation. In fact they’re quite adamant that all people, male and female, are equal, which contrasts with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and no doubt many others.

Unlike almost every modern religion and religious sect, Sikhism doesn’t have priests, mullahs, rabbis or any equivalent. Enlightenment and salvation are available to any individual with or without an authority to guide them.

Contrasting with Islam, Christianity and most others, Sihkism does not claim to be the only path to salvation. It does however claim to be the simplest. Here’s a line from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib the like of which you won’t find in many other religions,

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false.”

So I guess they’re all for comparative religion classes? Sounds good, but you can’t simultaneously believe the claims of contradictory holy books to be true. Interesting, worth reading, maybe. But they can’t actually all be true. Surely that is beyond the abilities of even the most devoutly religious mental gymnast? I’m wondering how they manage to mesh Karma and reincarnation with a pantheistic deity.

A (very) brief history of Sikhism

Sikhism began around the year 1500 in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. The beliefs evolved over the next 200 years as ten sucessive gurus guided the faithful, after which the holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, was declared the enduring guru. Sikhs suffered at the hands of both the Islamic Mughal Empire and later the British Empire. However, Sikhism is still going strong, with the main populations of Sikhs located in India, Britain and Canada.

Sikhs are expected to meditate on God, be generally decent human beings and adhere to a fairly strict dress code:

The 5 items are: kēs (uncut hair), kaṅghā (small comb), kaṛā (circular iron bracelet), kirpān (ceremonial short sword), and kacchā (special undergarment). (from Wikipedia)

In modern times the five Ks as they are called have caused several disagreements. One issue has been over the difficulty in wearing a motorcycle helmet and a turban simultaneously. There was also concern that a turban could unravel at high speeds, presumably leading to some gory Isadora Duncan-type incident. One dedicated Sikh biker proved this to be wrong by racing around a track on a motorbike with his turban firmly in place.

Asking Questions

sikhguard300Much of my research has been at, which provides extensive FAQs with some interesting ideas and quotes, all phrased in a refreshingly un-authoritative tone. It may not be completely representative of modern Sikh thinking, but it makes for interesting reading. I particularly liked how they begin their answer to the question, “If Sikhism, is the true religion. How come it was created/revealed 300 years ago, and not at the beginning of time?“:

Which religion was created at the beginning of time? ….

However, the answers to the tougher questions get disappointingly woolly. Further reading shows some typical misconceptions about atheism and a rather weak answer to the problem of evil which amounts to little more than “Evil does not exist, only the absence of good. In any case, we don’t know what’s good for us, while God does.” (I paraphrase).

All in all Sikh beliefs make for interesting reading, with an impressive moral system and a dizzyingly eclectic collection of ideas. However, I’ve yet to see any great arguments for the truth of the supernatural claims. There are plenty of claims of the importance of truth,

“Realization of Truth is higher than all else.
Higher still is Truthful Living.” (Guru Nanak, Sri Rag)

What is missing is a reliable way of determining whether Sikh beliefs are true.

Being A Curious Skeptic


The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.


However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

Review: Why Truth Matters

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom addresses how, in recent times, truth has often been put aside for the sake of other concerns and discusses why this is a problem.  It covers the postmodern view that many different truths are in some way acceptable and that there are useful “ways of knowing” besides science. I hoped and expected that Why Truth Matters would provide insights into many dubious claims and show how harmful woolly thinking can be in the real world.

My expectations were only partially met.

I can’t say I disagree with the authors’ aims. In the course of writing and researching this blog, I’ve certainly found plenty of people who, whether knowingly or not, see the truth as a secondary concern. Why Truth Matters provides some fascinating examples of this, many of which were new to me, for example the historical revisionism that has been associated with Afrocentrism and the widespread dislike of certain ideas within sociobiology.

Others, such as the creationist dilemma of nineteenth century naturalist Philip Gosse, were more familiar, although the commentary frequently added some fresh insights. For example.

This is the crux of the dispute… What should trump what. Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not…

What’s wrong with the book is not so much the content and the thinking behind it, as the way it is presented. Yes, there are some intriguing quotes and reports and the book certainly has a naturalistic theme, but you never get the feel of an argument being constructed. The examples, while interesting, are arguably too long and I found I often lost track of the thread of the chapter’s argument. The book  is billed as being “accessible and exciting” and at under two hundred pages I hadn’t expected to have to do any extra homework to follow it. However, much of it seems to rely on knowledge of previous philosophical writers that I would consider outside of the mainstream.  The style of writing varies from the lucid to the impenetrably convoluted. There are some sentences “so clear you could swim in them”, as the Independent review described, but there are others which frankly, made my brain hurt. For example, chapter three “The Truth Radicals” opens with

Neopragmatism, a postmodernist view of pragmatism which sees truth variously as, in the words of its best-known exponent, Richard Rorty, ‘a rhetorical pat on the back’ or ‘whatever one’s contemporaries let one get away with’, began in the backwash of the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Morris Dickstein points out that the revival of pragmatism is a complicated phenomenom with a lot of cross-currents; among them he cites a ‘new impetus to radical thinking’ in the 1960s, the shift of that impetus to the universities after the New Left collapsed, and the renewed disappointment with Marxism which caused apocalyptic thinking and ‘the grand narratives of earlier systems’ to go out of fashion, at which juncture the work of Rorty ‘formed a bridge between a Deweyan faith in liberal democracy and a postmodern antifoundationalism’.

Erm… what?

To be fair this is probably the worst example in the entire book, but there are lesser incidents where names are dropped in without introduction and unfamiliar schools of philosophical thought are referenced with little explanation. I’m not sure if these are examples of philosophical showmanship or merely a difficulty empathising with dilettantes such as myself. Either way, it makes parts of the book almost incomprehensible.

To conclude, Why Truth Matters is a mixed bag. It contains some insightful content cleverly disguised in a confusing structure and overly-academic prose.


Hell: What am I going to do about it?

Over on Christ-Centred Blogging recently I have been arguing about the injustice of hell. Assuming for the sake of argument that hell exists and that Christians are right about how to avoid it, my point is that the doctrine is unreasonable given that the majority of the world’s population does not have the knowledge required to avoid it. In effect ignorance is a crime against God. Commenter Demian Farnworth asked:

Eshu: I think the important question now is: You know about the possibility of hell. What are you going to do about it?

Which is a fair question. I suspect Demian’s next point was going to be that I have not (yet) taken heed of the warnings or hell, so it doesn’t matter that not everyone is aware of the choice Christianity presents. Many people have heard it and ignore it.

Ignorance, however, is only part of the problem. We’re no doubt all aware of a variety of religious ideas, mythical stories and superstitious warnings. We don’t and can’t heed them all. It doesn’t matter how scary they sound or how comforting the alternatives they offer might be. We need to know whether or not they’re real. A point often overlooked, it seems.

Consider the following analogy for example.

Let’s say I’m wandering down the street and a man accosts me on the street and says that if I don’t hand over my cash, then his friends will drop a nuke on my house.

A pretty scary (albeit unlikely) scenario. So what am I going to do about it?

Many people would just ignore him, but I’m a curious skeptic and while it seems far fetched I’d like to find out what’s going on. Does he really have powerful friends who could render my house even more untidy than usual? Who are they? Are they really at his beck and call?

It sounds like he’s crazy or making it up. Then again, you might think that in the circumstances it would be simpler to just give him the ten pounds I have in my pocket and not take the risk. But even then I don’t know where it will lead. He might demand more money from me. Other people might start issuing similar threats. Unable to pay them all I’d have to guess at which one (if any) actually had the ability to turn my home into a radioactive pile of rubble.

First I’m going to make some assessment of whether it’s likely. If he’s just making this up I ought to at least report him to the Police and put a stop to this intimidation. On the other hand if it’s true that this guy has nuclear capabilities and isn’t afraid to use them, then I should probably negotiate with him to see if we can work things out without any nukes getting dropped.

Before I can do any of that I need to decide whether it’s true or not. As far as I can tell, Christianity and the doctrine of hell is nonsensical, self-contradictory and therefore untrue. Until anyone can iron out those howling inconsistencies, I can only ignore it.

Cosmic designer – simpler or easier to understand?

Cosmology is hard to get your head around. So is evolution. For a start the time-scales involved are mind blowing for even the smartest creatures with a mere 80-odd years to get their heads around it. Frankly, it’s humbling to consider.

I think this might be part of the reason why some people end up believing creation stories with a simpler narrative structure. We like stories. Our whole culture is based on stories. They’re easy to remember and pass on. Much easier to follow than, “Big bang, abiogenesis, evolution”. Much more satisfying than, “I don’t know”.

But are creation myths actually simpler? Consider, if you will, the following analogy.

Why do sub-atomic particles hang around together?

Let’s say we’re wondering why it is that protons and neutrons stick together in the nucleus of an atom, while electrons orbit much further out. For the sake of argument let’s pretend that we genuinely don’t know why this happens. We could suggest a few hypotheses. For example,

  1. The particles are held together or repelled by some kind of forces, like gravity or magnetism.
  2. The neutrons and protons stick together because they are friendly to each other, but the electrons are unfriendly, so they keep further away.

For now I’m not concerned with which hypothesis is closer to the truth, so all you eager physicists can put your hands down. I’m interested in which hypothesis is simpler. The reason I am considering this is because of Ockam’s Razor which suggests that simpler explanations should be preferred.

“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”

At first glance, hypothesis one is far from simple to me. I’m not a physicist and I don’t have a thorough understanding of sub-atomic particle and forces. However, in my experience, gravity doesn’t repel objects and only has a small effect on lightweight objects. Secondly magnetism only affects certain metallic materials like iron, and this sub-atomic effect occurs in all atoms, not just iron.

The second hypothesis however, I get completely. I could tell my friends about it over a drink and I’m sure they’d get it too. Surely that makes it simpler. Wouldn’t Ockam approve?

In one sense, perhaps.

The trouble with hypothesis two as an explanation for why neutrons and protons stick together is that we need to assume a whole raft of things to make it work. We need to assume that sub-atomic particles have desires and feelings, personalities even. We need to assume a whole new level of complexity to explain these personalities and apparent conciousness on such a minute scale. Suddenly this explanation is looking anything but simple. As a result we’ve added more complexity to the problem. There are even more explanations needed than before. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but an extraordinary claim like hypothesis two would need a lot of evidence to back it up.

As it turns out, we can explain the motion of the electron in terms of the electromagnetic force. The discovery of the residual strong force allows us to understand how the nucleus of an atom staying together. It’s not child’s play by any means (in fact if any real physicists would like to refine my crude understanding please do so below!), but it does mean we don’t have to invent a whole new field of sub-atomic psychology to account for it.

Who designed the designer?

hubble-deep-space-clipThis seems relevant to the argument from design which uses the apparent design of living things or the universe to infer the existence of a designer. Believers say that all the order and complexity in the world seems unlikely to have come about by chance. So they infer the existence of an intelligent being who brought it about intentionally with some great purpose in mind.

Unfortunately the thinking stops there; for some reason they don’t wonder at how the complexity of this intelligent being came about? Such a hypothetical being, with purpose, intent, goals and obviously huge power is quite a complex thing. At least as complex as the universe it is alleged to have created. So the intelligent designer hypothesis doesn’t explain anything, it only adds to the complexity. I’m sure he can’t have been the first, but Richard Dawkins expresses this more succinctly as “Who designed the designer?”.

In the general case, a hypothesis or theory can be said to be powerful or useful according to what it explains versus what it has to assume in order to work. This observation was reported in the context of evolution by Dawkins recently, so I recommend his article on the explanatory power of theories.

(Hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist).

Many apparently simple theories demand large numbers of additional, complex assumptions. We should be careful not to confuse the ease of understanding something with its simplicity. Being easy to understand does not make something more likely to be true.

Religion Causing Offence

fool_hath_said_posterI came across an offensive advertisement on my way to work recently. It was put there by the Trinitarian Bible Society. I’ve seen a variety of other Bible verses in their adverts, but the one pictured to the right caught my eye.

“The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.”

That’s not an argument for the existence of a god. It’s not even a statement of belief. It’s an insult. An ad hominem attack – something intended to sully an opponent’s character and by association, their opinions. That is, unless this is intended as an isolated story about one particular fool with no wider context. In which case it’s hard to see why the Trinitarians are so keen to let hapless commuters know about it. As it is, the idea seems to be to tell passers by that “Atheists are fools and well, you’re not a fool, are you?”. Trying to convince people to agree with you by insulting those who disagree is only slightly better than telling them they’ll suffer eternal torment for disagreeing.

Faced with this I considered writing a letter of complaint to the advertising company. I can imagine the outrage if someone put up an advert with the equivalent slogan, “The idiot has told himself there is a god”. Thinking about it later it I realised I was overreacting. I don’t have a right not to be offended. No one does. No one has the right to veto something simply because they find it offensive. For one thing what people find offensive is subjective, so to outlaw the causing of offence would be something of a blank cheque.

The parallels with the reactions to recent atheist advertising are predictably the next section of this post. The bus adverts paid for by public donations to the Atheist Campaign are now on the streets of the UK. As the amount raised was in excess of what was expected, a series of “tube card” adverts, like the one below, are also being shown on the London Underground.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently offensive about the statement on the card shown nor the other freethinker quotes that were used. However as I agree with the sentiments in this case it’s hard for me to judge whether they would offend people. According to Ariane Sherine, who came up with the idea, the email response she’s received has been almost all positive. With the exception of a few extreme examples, I think most religious people in the UK would support atheists’ right to free speech even if they find it offensive. Some have even said that they welcome the debate.

So I’m not going to follow the great British tradition of writing a stiff letter (presumably on cardboard?) to complain about being called a fool.

Free speech is there to protect offensive speech and controversial ideas, as Greta Christina wrote when she was offended recently:

“What Buckley failed to realize is something blindingly obvious, something many, many people have said before me: We don’t need the First Amendment to protect the radical assertion that puppies are cute and apple pie is delicious. We don’t need the First Amendment to protect popular speech. We need the First Amendment to protect unpopular speech.”

It doesn’t matter how offensive the eye of the beholder finds someone else’s opinion. If some belief system’s representatives put up adverts saying “All those who disagree are hopelessly stupid and criminally insane” they should still be allowed. I don’t think it would help their cause much, however. There are plenty of good reasons not to offend people when you communicate – it can backfire and create hostility and turn the offender into the bad guy – and I’m certainly not convinced by a religious group who thinks that one of their best arguments is to call atheists fools. I think it’s pathetic, but I support their right to say it.

One Man’s Experience Of The Alpha Course

I don’t often write posts waxing lyrical about something I found on the interwebs. There are plenty of freethinking blogs out there who do an excellent job of covering topical issues that are of interest to the non-religious.

However, this case is of particular interest to me.  I have toyed with the idea of going along to a local Alpha Course and asking all sorts of awkward questions. For a while I’ve been badgering yunshui to come along with me, you know, to hold my hand. I thought it would provide an insight into the psychology of believers, both new and old.

Then, a few weeks ago yunshui came up with the perfect excuse. He sent me a link to Stephen Butterfield’s “Alpha Course Reviewed” blog. This is a detailed account of the author’s time as a curious skeptic on the Alpha Course. He was granted permission to make audio recordings of their sessions including the DVD presentations featuring Nicky Gumbel and the group debates which followed. Much of the conversation is transcribed word-for-word, with exception of the other attendees’ names. As a result the 11 blog posts are each rather long, however I found them compulsive reading. The blog shows how thin the arguments presented on the course are, and how nonsensical Christian doctrine is accepted regardless. For example, here’s an extract from the final session which includes a typically protracted discussion of evil and free will.

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”

What is especially impressive is the Stephen’s patient questioning, even when he is forced to repeat himself or listen to lengthy heartfelt testimonies. He seems to get along pretty well with the other members of the group – most of whom were already Christians.  He manages to avoid antagonising the other attendees while pressing his points and picking apart their rationalisations.

For those who aren’t Christians it’s well worth reading to understand the Christian mindset. For those who are, Stephen’s questions may help you to understand why so many people find it hard to accept your beliefs as true.

Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure […] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

Testimonials and Research

If you visit the website of any pseudo-scientific practitioner one thing almost always displayed is a list of testimonials – effusive endorsements from previous clients. For example, here’s an extract from the website of Cynde Van Vleet, a Tellington T Touch practitioner from California:

My experience with Cynde and her TTouch work has been nothing but wonderful, rewarding, and informative.  Cynde is a most gentle  and intuitive animal lover who conducts herself professionally at all times, yet exudes warmth and kindness as well.  I have great respect and admiration for Cynde and the work she does with animals. Her knowledge of TTouch and the world of dogs is impressive, and I have learned a lot from her in our brief history together…

Similarly, here’s an example from alleged psychic Philena Bruce’s website:

“I came to Philena when I was in a very dark place. Through her patience, guidance and gentleness, I genuinely left feeling hopeful. She held me together emotionally and spiritually throughout this time. She lit the candle in my mind and let my spirit guide me to light. She has a wonderful personality and in my heart I know our paths were meant to cross.”
K.K., London, Project Manager

In most cases testimonials are intended to establish the credibility of the practitioner. In Philena’s case, the long list she provides also pushes the “entertainment only” disclaimer – which all psychics in the UK are now legally obliged to put on their literature – far out of the view of the casual visitor.

But are testimonials useful? Can we use them to work out how effective a treatment of practitioner is? Should we as consumers pay any attention to testimonials?

The most obvious problem with most testimonials, especially those you might find on websites, is with authenticity. It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to make up your own testimonials and in most cases it would be difficult to prove that they were fake. However, I doubt many of the testimonials I have seen have been faked. It seems more likely that they came from customers who were genuinely pleased with the service. I’ve no doubt that they have plenty of satisfied customers – I’ve met some of them.

However, we should keep in mind that testimonials are highly selective. They give us no indication of the percentage of customers who were satisfied with the service. Those who were not pleased with the service may not have given any report. They may have felt foolish for having tried it, so rather than write a negative testimonial, they may forget about it and get on with their lives. Even if they did write to complain, surely no one attempting to establish their credibility is going to publish their views. I’ve visited the personal websites of quite a few spiritual healers, fortune tellers and other sellers of pseudo-science, but I have yet to see a single negative testimonial. I think it unlikely that no customer has ever been dissatisfied with the services any of them provided.

How about if we independently collected testimonials from every customer who visited a particular therapist or fortune teller? Even then, we still wouldn’t be able to say with any certainty whether on not they had genuine abilities. We might be able to tell that they were friendly, professional, helpful and so on, but judging whether the treatment worked is something else. It has been well documented that people are more likely to judge something to have been a success once they have invested substantially in it – whether emotionally or financially. I suspect this is why payment or gift-giving always has to be part of the process of Reiki. Perhaps on some subconscious level people say to themselves:

“I’ve paid more than my weekly grocery bill for this treatment. Only a fool would do that for something which doesn’t work. I know I’m not a fool, so it must have worked!”

This effect is brilliantly explained in Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson’s book, Mistakes Were Made.

It seems testimonials are a pretty unreliable guide to whether a medical treatment is effective or whether a psychic prediction is accurate. Certainly they are a very poor substitute for research. They are a selective form of anecdotal evidence.

So why do they get used at all? I think there are several reasons.

Firstly, there are times when use of a testimonial is valid. It’s not just treatments with dubious efficacy that print praise from former clients. Testimonials are commonplace in all sorts of marketing – child carers, home builders, restaurants and so on.

In any situation where the customer is in a position to judge whether the service or treatment was effective a testimonial can be useful. For example, if the testimonial relates to a novel, film or restaurant, then the aim is entertainment and the customer is best qualified to say whether they have been entertained.

Secondly, testimonials are easy to understand. A clinical trial is not something that most people are willing to wade through. Doing so takes considerable effort and even an intelligent reader might not be able to judge the strength of the research.

Thirdly, testimonials are easy. All you need is a few satisfied customers to say you’re warm and friendly. A full research project is beyond the means of most independent therapists.

Lastly, testimonials are human. What other people tell us is how we gain most of our information, so it feels quite natural to read what other people say about a service or therapy.

None of these are especially good reasons to trust testimonials.

Mircoscope and clipboardPharmaceutical companies have to put all their products through clinical trials before they can be marketed. I don’t think that other treatments should be subjected to any lesser scrutiny.

In an ideal world each therapists’ techniques would be independently evaluated with something akin to clinical trials, before an official regulator’s endorsement could be given. The next best thing would be for their methods to be independently reviewed and researched to discover whether they can work. However, the money to do this research has to come from somewhere, perhaps a jointly-funded regulatory body whose research and methods are made public.

Alternative therapists have told me that clinical trials are biased and corrupt due to the companies pursuit of profit above all else. There have certainly been some cases where this is true and there’s a case for improving accountability and publication of medical research in general. However, I imagine the situation would be much worse if the pharmaceutical industry could validate new medicines simply by gathering testimonials.

I’ve also been told that using testimonials instead of research is acceptable for alternative treatments because laying your hands on someone or reading their palm doesn’t have harmful side-effects that ingested medicines can. However, the purpose of clinical trials is twofold; to ensure there are no dangerous side-effects and to ensure the treatment is effective. Giving someone an ineffective treatment – even for free – is irresponsible and dangerous in itself.