Saturday, March 28, 2009

Do we give the supernatural power?

There have recently been a number of instances of mass hysteria in South African schools. In this episode, about 51 pupils in one school were admitted to hospital, behaving if they were "possessed by demons", and in Pretoria 25 pupils were treated for hysteria.

Every time something like this happens, there is much talk of Satanism and demon possession. This is understandable. Such events are incredibly scary and mysterious, and they seem to confirm the common belief that there is a supernatural realm, consisting of supernatural creatures and magical forces, that has influence and power over us. Some African cultures, for example, hold the belief that traditional medicines (called muti), prepared by witchdoctors, can be used to ward off evil, curse adversaries with bad luck, or assist in finding love.

As a skeptic, I've always been quite fascinated by episodes of mass hysteria, claims of demon possession, and stories of curses and spells. Two things have always interested me: (1) the fact that such episodes are generally experienced by specific people who share particular beliefs; and (2) that such episodes can be controlled by 'secular' interventions, such as medication and counselling.

Regarding the first point: I've spoken to a few of my black colleagues about the use of muti in their respective cultures, and one thing that has arisen in these conversations is the perception, among those I've spoken to, that muti isn't very effective on white people. One has to ask why this is the case. Most whites don't consider belief in muti as part of their culture, so could it be that muti only 'works' for those who believe in it?

The second point revolves around something like demon possession. In the past, demon possession was quite widespread, but now we know how to control epilepsy with medication. One has to ask: why are demons scared by few pills of Epilum? Could it be that possession is not caused by the supernatural, but by chemical problems in the brain?

I've often wondered if the supernatural does indeed have power over us. I think it does, but humans are the ones that give it power. In other words, the power that magic, demons, ghosts, and spells have over us doesn't stem from the supernatural itself, but from our belief in such things.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A non-religious marriage speech

I'm honoured to speak at this wedding of these two wonderful people. Before I toast the bride and groom, I want to address them and briefly remind them of the values that they have decided to live by in this partnership. I hope that they will cherish and celebrate these values for the rest of their lives together.

Emphasise love, not duty
Marriage is a partnership, not a hierarchy. Be careful not to fully mould your relationship according to the expectations of religion, your respective families, or society. Although these institutions can be a source of great help, how you define your roles or pursue happiness together should be decided by the two of you and nobody else.

Enjoy sex
The primary purpose of sex is not to have children, or to fulfil some obligation or duty, but simply to have fun. Experiment and explore with each other as much as you like; bring out and excite the passions that form the basis of erotic love.

Keep your promises

But the most important thing in your relationship, dare I say even more important than the concept of monogamy, is trust and honesty.

With regards to trust: protect the marital boundaries that you have negotiated as a couple, by keeping the promises and agreements that you have made to each other.

Remove the power of secrecy
You might find it difficult to be honest with each other. For example, as you live out your married life, it will often happen you will be attracted to other people, and you might even fall in love with someone else. Despite what most believe, being attracted to others outside your marriage is not a reflection of an unhealthy marriage, but rather a reflection of the fact that you are wonderfully human.

But what may be sign of an unhealthy marriage is if you don't tell each other about such feelings and emotions.
You will not achieve anything by keeping secrets from each other on issues that have the potential to affect your relationship. If you both strive towards the value of honesty in your marriage, you will remove the power of secrecy and be able to work through problems as a team.

Change is good
Finally, there should be no absolute rules defining your marriage. As you both change as individuals, so your marriage should change also. In time, you will both feel the need to renegotiate your boundaries and adapt your roles. This is okay. Just remember to do it together.

With these values in mind, will everyone please stand and raise your glasses in a toast. . .

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Evolution and me: a personal story (part 10)

Part 10: Layers in a trifle

After taking a break from my Evolution and Me series, I've decided to resume with this post by considering a trifle. The interesting thing about this desert is all those layers
they all tell a story. My mom, for example, might make a trifle as follows: first at the bottom of the bowl, add a layer of finger biscuits or sponge cake. Next add a layer of custard, then fruit, then jam, then mince. Finally, top it all off with some whipped cream (yum!)

Next time you sit down, ready to enjoy this desert, look at the various layers and ponder the question: which layer was placed down first? It only seems logical that the bottom most layer in the above example (i.e., the finger biscuits) was first, followed by every consecutive layer. The uppermost layer, the whipped cream in this case, is logically the youngest layer of the lot. If you understand this, then you understand what geologists call the Principle of Superposition: that any layer must be older than the one above it.

Long before Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species, geologists noticed that the Earth's rock is structured in much the same way, into distinct layers, or strata. And interestingly enough, most strata contain their own distinct fossils of living organisms now long extinct. But what is even more interesting is that these fossils, when taken as a whole, tell a very perplexing story.

Increase in complexity
One element of this story is that the very earliest layers contain the remains of simple creatures, and as you work your way up to the upper layers, fossil remains generally become more complex in structure. If you accept the Principle of Superposition, you would logically conclude that simple creatures were placed down first, followed by more complex creatures. One would have to ask why complex creatures are absent in the oldest layers.

Observed linkages?
But most interestingly, fossils do not appear randomly across various layers. They seem, in many instances, to follow a pattern that suggests that fossils between layers are linked in some way. We often observe that the characteristics of newer fossils seem to be modified forms of earlier fossils. How do we explain this?

If we look at these, and many other, patterns in the fossil record, one is left pondering why we observe what we observe. I believe that evolution is the best idea that we have come up with that can make adequate sense of these patterns.

In my next post, I will focus on some of these observed linkages, examples of what palaeontologists refer to as transitional fossils.

Next post: A long line of photographs
Return to the table of contents for 'Evolution and Me'

Sunday, March 08, 2009

With God, anything is permissible

I'm busy working through Philosophers Without Gods, a collection of essays by academic philosophers who happen to be atheists, who reflect on their lives and struggles as non-believers. I found the following point in one of the essays quite interesting, written by Edwin Curley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan. It revolves around the age old question of whether something is right because God commands it, or because it is right for its own sake. He critiques divine command theory on page 88:

If there is a God who is liable to command anything, and if our highest loyalty must be to this God, there is no act - save disobedience to God - that we can safely say is out of bounds, no act of a kind that simply must not be done, not even genocide, to use a crime I think most of us would shrink from committing, even if we believed God had commanded it. If this God exists and we must obey him unconditionally, then anything whatever might turn out to be permissible. This view is destructive of morality.