Sunday, October 28, 2007

Magical Thinking: a Common Spell

One of the most prevalent spells that afflict humanity is that of magical thinking. Atheists are familiar with the spell of religion, which they reject, and magical thinking is very much a part of religion. But it goes beyond religious thought and belief. There are even atheists who are guilty of magical thinking!

Before going further, perhaps it would be helpful to define what magic is in order to understand what it means to think magically. Magic is the use of techniques whereby a person expects to exert supernatural power without any assistance from a supernatural being, often a perceived psychic emanation believed to affect or influence the natural world.

The obvious example of magic is the witch, who casts spells or “psychic emanations” to affect health or property of self or others either positively or negatively. In some societies there are those that believe themselves to be witches with abilities to produce magic and the book shelves of the local Barnes and Noble can attest to this fact with titles like Moon Magic and Summer Witchcraft, targeted to western adolescent girls.

Other societies believe that witchcraft exists in others and that being a witch is something to avoid being accused of at all costs. Those accused of being witches in African nations like Mali or Uganda stand a fair chance of being murdered by a frightened and superstitious public.

But neither the suburban, middle-class witches of the Starbucks culture in the west or the West African witches who are alleged to ride banana leaves and abduct people who wander away from the village at night are actually conducting “magic.” The only spell that can truly be at work in either case is that cast by brewing delusion in the cauldron of superstition.

The degree by which believers of either culture’s witches actually perceive witchcraft as real could be debatable, but at least no one in recent times has been publicly executed or lynched for practicing witchcraft in Woodland Heights –or any other suburb of the United States. The same cannot be said for Uganda, where there are actually laws restricting witchcraft practices.

To recognize the more subtle forms of magical thinking, it’s important to first examine some of the main types of magic:

Imitative Magic:
This type of magic is based on the principle that like produces like. IN other words, if you wish to achieve a certain result, you should do something which resembles it. Conversely, if you wish to avoid an undesirable result, you should avoid doing anything that resembles it. If you want rain, for instance, you imitate a thunderstorm by beating a drum; to avoid going into early or complicated labor, a pregnant woman should avoid standing in doorways or lying crossways on a bed.

Contagious Magic:
This type of magic is based on the principle of contact. After two things or a thing and a person have been in contact, whatever happens to one will have a similar effect on the other. AN example might be the use of a voodoo doll, created with an article of clothing or lock of hair from the intended victim –sticking pins into or burning the doll is expected to harm the victim. Another example is wrapping an arrow which wounded a man in damp leaves with an expectation that it will also care for the man.

Incantation Magic:
This is the belief that by reciting the proper words in the proper order will “give power” through chanting, praying, singing or simply saying.
Repetitive Magic: If something worked before, it’s simply repeated. An example might be the “good luck” rituals and talismans of sports figures who always eat the same foods before a game or wear the same underwear.

Written Letters and Words
: these include nonsense words like “abracadabra” and such magical beliefs are used with practitioners of Kabala. Ancient examples might also include the book of the Dead prayers and incantations inscribed into eh tombs of ancient Egyptians.

Magical thinking is most prevalent among ordinary people during situations involving chance and uncertainty. Studies of “baseball magic” revealed that magical thinking may help control anxiety since most use of rituals and “good luck charms” are found among the pitchers where there is the least control over the results of their own efforts and the most complexity, uncertainty and chance involved with their tasks. Outfielders, on the other hand, have the least instances of the use of rituals and chances. They also experience the least complexity in their assigned tasks and exert the most control in the results of their own efforts. Clearly there are several types of magic at work (or at least perceived) in sports like baseball. The repetitive magic of eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and tapping the home plate a certain number of times with a bat are prime examples.

There are even taboos within baseball that are silly when examined closely, such as mentioning a “no-hitter” is in progress or crossing base ball bats (on bat might “steal” hits from the other, implying that there exist a finite number of hits in a given bat!). Even the most skeptical and rationally-minded persons involved in a game won’t violate these taboos, perhaps for fear of having the eventual end of a pitching or hitting streak blamed on the violator. Statistically speaking, all streaks end just as surely as they are predicted to occur.

But lest we leave this post thinking that magical thinking is a spell of over-paid athletes and wannabe Sabrinas of Suburbia, consider the number of people who:

  • find Friday the thirteenth unlucky;
  • avoid walking under ladders;
  • believe bad things happen in threes;
  • that things happen “for a reason;”
  • believe that it always rains when they wash their car (my mother used to say when she hung out the laundry);
  • think that a bride must wear: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

Even atheists cross their fingers, wish on stars and pennies tossed in mall fountains, and speak directly to traffic lights to make them change!

It is important as an atheist blogger for me to do my part in spreading rationalism while standing up for scientific naturalism and critical thought. But I find it helpful to remember that magical thinking is a human trait and, very likely, one that is evolutionary in its origin.

Related Posts

  • The Scientific Study of Religion

  • Five Stages of Religious Evolution

  • Friday, October 26, 2007

    BlogRush Bigotry: Freethinker, Humanist, and Atheist Blogs are "Hate Speech"

    So I arrive back in country yesterday and finally jump on the net to read some of my favorite blogs and start working on a couple of posts I've been considering. Checking my email, I discover that Blogrush has inactivated my account with them. Not a problem. I was planning on deleting their silly "widget" from my blog anyway since it 1) hasn't really brought me any traffic, and 2) Google Adsense doesn't like it.

    But the email I received from Blogrush said I was "inactivated" because of "[i]nappropriate Content Or Advertising: Hate Speech or Anti-Racial" content.

    What!? "Hate speech?" "Anti-racial?"

    Clearly, the dumb asses running Blogrush are clueless. If you're still hosting their "widget," you might do good to ditch it. Not only does it not work (and that's according to many, many blogs out there ... just google it), but if you use Adsense, you risk not getting a payout. I emailed Google Adsense just before leaving last week and their reply was in my inbox just under Blogrush's inactivation notice. According to Google Adsense:

    While we're unable to comment on any particular program or service, we do not recommend the use of any program that artificially drives traffic to your site. Use of these programs may lead to activity on your site that artificially inflates an advertiser's cost or a publisher's earnings, which would violate the AdSense program policies ( and Terms and Conditions (
    I'm guessing what Blogrush didn't like about my blog is that it questioned superstition and challenges religious delusion. Since I've never made any racial comments or even discussed race or racial issues, it seems clear that this is their reason. This is supported by their failure to include channels for science or freethought, two HUGE blogospheric realms with significant numbers of interested bloggers and readers. This might lead one to believe that Blogrush is run by the superstitious who are offended at having their superstitions questioned or criticized.

    Not a problem. I'm not interested in any service that puts my Adsense pay-outs at risk. This blog doesn't contribute to a large degree to my Adsense account yet, but it doesn't need to. My other blog gets about 1200 hits/day and pays well. And the ads are not intrusive nor blatant. They're simple links like I use here.

    I advise anyone that is using the Blogrush pyramid scheme to drop them if they also use Adsense. If there's any doubt, email Adsense yourself if you don't trust the quote above. Not only is Blogrush a risk to your payouts, but their classification of atheist blogs as "hate speech" marks them as bigots as well.

    UPDATE: I've added the following filter to my AdBlock plugin for FireFox:* If you use FireFox, you should truly get the AdBlock plugin. If you have it, just copy the url in above and paste it after clicking "New Filter." That way, you'll never have to look at another silly BlogRush Widget again.

    Friday, October 12, 2007

    Atheism for Kids -a warning by the Catholic League

    Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, an organization that bills itself as an "anti-defamation league" for the Catholic Church (as if one can truly defame fantasy and superstition), is protesting the new Nicole Kidman film, The Golden Compass, which is produced by New Line Cinema and Scholastic Entertainment.

    The League apparently finds it to be:

    “Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells," said Mr. Donohue.

    He continued: "The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was written to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism. The target audience is children and adolescents. Each book becomes progressively more aggressive in its denigration of Christianity and promotion of atheism."
    Donohue warns that "the movie is bait for the books." Hell, I didn't even know about the movie until I read the news item about the protest. Thanks, Catholic League! This is a don't miss movie for December for me! I might even get the books!

    Seriously, protests like this always seem to create interest rather than drive people away.

    Thursday, October 11, 2007

    Christians Tired of Turning the Other Cheek to the New Atheists

    In a recent article on the Christian Post website, Christians are being urged to "not turn the other cheek" with regard to atheists who are entering the public square with books like The God Delusion.

    The author reviews What's So Great About Christianity by author Dinesh D'Souza, in which he calls for Christian apologists to "come to center stage" in defense of Christianity against the "new atheists."

    D'Souza's book and the article reviewing it are indicative of the effect that atheism is beginning to have on Christians. Authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens are starting to make them sweat, apparently:

    The atheistic arguments – that Christianity goes against reason and science and is based on blind faith – are resonating with people, D'Souza noticed, and hitting bestseller lists.

    "I do think that we are seeing a more self-confident and perhaps even militant atheism," he noted. "Atheists are kind of on the war path, out to attack religion, demean it, drive it out of the public square, and remove all religious symbolism from American society. So something odd is going on here."
    What's odd is that it's amazing that wide-spread delusion and superstition has to date received a free pass from criticism. And now that critics are emerging, the deluded and the superstitious don't like having their beliefs questioned or criticized.

    But D'Souza's call to arms will backfire if Christians take him up on it. The reason is that religion doesn't stand a chance against logic and reason. When faced with sound and cogent arguments, religious believers can only respond with fallacy. As I wrote earlier, circular reasoning, false cause, straw man arguments, arguments from ignorance, and weak analogies (among others) are the best most who argue for religious belief can muster.

    If Christians start firing back at skeptics and critics, no reasoned mind will accept their arguments as valid. Unless, of course, they've already been affected by the spell of belief to the point that they're able to hold contradictory beliefs in their heads at the same time. Take Zion Oil & Gas for instance. The entire board is made up of educated and smart people -engineers, mathematicians. The companies stock is up. They're drilling for petroleum and employee geologists and geophysicists using the latest geoprospecting tools like seismics, gravimetrics, and magnetics to locate petroleum reserves that were originally deposited millions of years ago. But they're also deluded by Judeo-Christian dogma and claim to use the Bible to locate oil. Ask anyone of these people, and I'm sure they'll concede that oil is made of deposits million of years old. Ask anyone of these people, particularly CEO John Brown, and I'm sure they'll agree that the Bible is inerrant and the world was created less than 10,000 years ago.

    Further evidence that Christians will be shooting themselves in the foot by taking critics and skeptics on in the "public square" is the fallacious bit of D'Souza's book that the articles author revealed in the form of so-called "myths" about the atheist position:
    Myth #1: Atheism is growing and more people are choosing it over church

    Pews might be empty in some urban parts of America, but the world is witnessing a huge explosion of Christianity, says D'Souza who notes Christianity as the fastest-growing religion in the world and that the number of unbelievers is actually shrinking.
    I'd almost be willing to bet that if one were to look in the endnotes of the chapter that includes this "myth," the source of info is a religious one and subject to confirmation bias. The Barna Group has found that adult evangelicals in 1994 was 7%. In 2004, that number was still 7%. The US population grew but the number of evangelicals did not. They also found that the Protestant population with drop below 50% of the national population if the trend toward a decline in Christianity continues.

    An ARIS (2001) study determined that the number of Christians in the US declined from 85% 1990 to 77% in 2001.

    Of course, if we look at data from church sources, the numbers are higher. Such data is skewed because of a host of factors -poor controls for cross-memberships, people who attend church for social reasons rather than religious, etc.

    Also, according to ARIS, the greatest increase in absolute as well as in percentage terms has been among those adults who do not subscribe to any religious identification; their number has more than doubled from 14.3 million in 1990 to 29.4 million in 2001; their proportion has grown from just eight percent of the total in 1990 to over fourteen percent in 2001.
    Myth #2: Religion has caused history's wars, murders, and violence

    The number of people killed in religious wars such as the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition is infinitesimal compared to those killed during modern atheist regimes, the author notes. "We have to keep a sense of proportion," he says.
    This is a fallacy of False Cause. D'Souza is implying the same tired argument used by those deluded with religious dogma that Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler et al committed their atrocities because they were atheists. The truth is that these people were dogmatic and it was dogma that informed their decisions to kill, go to war, commit genocide, etc. There's also an ad hominem tucked away in D'Souza's argument here, implying that atheism equates to immorality, when this simply isn't true. Indeed, there is absolutely no reason to believe that morality is informed by religion and not the other way around. Religious believers have the distinct ability to exclude morals that conflict with their dogma, humanists who live secular lives do not. If they choose to be immoral, they do so because they're greedy, inconsiderate, lack compassion, ignorant, lazy, etc. In other words, because they're human.
    Myth #3: There is no such thing as a human soul

    Atheists use science to argue that there is no soul, as there is no physical evidence of one. "If the atheist universe were true, there would be no free will in it," says D'Souza.
    This is a straw man fallacy since it miss-characterizes the general opinion of most atheists. At least those who rely on science to inform their position on the alleged human soul. The more appropriate argument that scientific naturalists who, perhaps, are atheists use with regard to a soul is that there is no reason to believe souls exist -particularly those of the Judeo-Christian description. Moreover, I find the "free-will" argument ironic since there is less chance of "free-will" existing in a universe created and maintained by an all-powerful, all-knowing god who "has a plan" than in a universe where "souls" do not exist. Indeed, one might say that there is second fallacy here, which is the slippery slope since D'Souza's conclusion that "free-will" can't exist if atheism is correct is quite the leap.

    The final "myth" revealed from D'Souza's book by the article's author is also a gem:
    Myth #4: Where is God when bad things happen?

    D'Souza turns this question around and asks where is atheism when bad things happen? At the tragic event of the Virginia Tech shooting in April, there were nonstop memorial services and everyone began to speak a very religious language of healing and spirituality, he noted. "Atheism has absolutely nothing to offer us at moments of life that matter the most – birth, marriage, death, suffering."
    Not only is this argument fallacious, but it is patently false. D'Souza is implying that only the religiously deluded offered assistance at Virginia Tech and other human tragedies. While its easy to concede that religious groups did offer help and comfort to their fellow persons and to each other, it is a false cause to assume that they did so because they were religious. We know this because of public displays of piety -the religious are very quick to speak of their delusions at times of crisis -indeed, some like to blame crises on the victims based on religious delusion (i.e. Pat Robertson). But there is no reason that we should know that the people caught on camera handing out water bottles, food, blankets, hugging victims, etc are atheists or non-religious. Whatever they are, whether they are secular or religious, at that moment they're humanists.

    In the last part of that quote, D'Souza said, "[a]theism has absolutely nothing to offer us at moments of life that matter the most – birth, marriage, death, suffering." I agree with that statement, but not for the same reason as D'Souza. Atheism doesn't inform morality. Atheism isn't a dogma. Atheism isn't an institution that is organized to provide humanitarian aid, deliver babies, marry couples, or bury the dead. Atheism is a lack of delusion in the gods of humanity.

    Being atheist doesn't automatically imply rationalism, humanism, morality, common sense, good judgment, intelligence, or an ability to accomplish world peace. It simply means that you don't subscribe to religious superstition.

    However, there are plenty of atheists that have given birth and have been fantastic parents. There are plenty of atheists that have successfully delivered babies. There are plenty of atheists who have joined couples in marriage and atheists who have long and healthy marriages to each other. There are atheists who have died well and without fear; helped their loved ones through the grieving process; and participated in very touching and moving but secular memorial services. And there are a multitude of atheists that are doing their very best to ease the suffering of their fellow humans as policemen, firemen, EMTs, doctors, soldiers, Peace Corps volunteers, etc.

    If these "myths" are an example of what we can expect when Christians begin to meet atheists in the "public square," I say, bring it on! They'll be their own worst enemies.

    Related Links and Sources

  • Christians Urged to Meet Atheists in the Public Square [Christian Post]

  • American Religious Identification Survey [.pdf] (ARIS 2001)

  • See also: Barna Group (2005) Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America’s Religious Beliefs and Practices. Found online at:

  • Baylor Update: "Expelled" after all

    A couple of posts back, I mentioned the Baylor University Professor that was supposed to have had his creationist webpage removed from the universities server. The professor is Robert Marks and I wrote that his webpage seemed to be still available. However, it seems that he had another page that *is* missing, so it seems that Baylor did, indeed, remove a faculty member's site (link at the top of the page)from their server based on its content.

    So it looks like Evolutionary Informatics Lab on the Baylor server was actually sacked. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, its nice to see even a Christian university recognize that there is no place for creationism in genuine academic discourse; on the other hand, its difficult to accept that they are willing to censor a member of faculty's personal views.

    See Pharyngula for a better analysis and opinion than I can provide -his insight is far greater than my own in this field and with the players involved.

    Related Posts and Links

  • Expelled or Exposed? [Breaking Spells]

  • Baylor Episode is Getting Wider Circulation [Pharyngula]

  • Baylor Has a Stalker [Pharyngula]

  • The Dumbest Argument Against Atheists

    This comes by way of John M. Lynch at Stranger Fruit, who sums up the argument found in this article on Answers in Genesis.

    1. Reasoning involves using the laws of logic.
    2. Laws of logic are God's standard for thinking.
    3. The atheist's view cannot be rational because he uses things (laws of logic) that cannot exist according to his profession.

    And if you think John was oversimplifying the Answers in Genesis argument, go read it for yourself. Found in this extra-special gem of delusion is this:

    he atheist might say, “Well, I can reason just fine, and I don’t believe in God.” But this is no different than the critic of air saying, “Well, I can breathe just fine, and I don’t believe in air.”
    No different? Their god, for which no evidence exists, compared to air, for which an abundance of evidence exists, is a very, very weak analogy. A stronger analogy would be to compare belief in the Christian god with belief in garden gnomes. With this analogy the quote would read more like:
    he atheist might say, “Well, I can reason just fine, and I don’t believe in God.” This is no different than the critic of garden gnomes saying, “Well, I can reason just fine, and I don’t believe in garden gnomes.”
    Such an analogy works just fine. Which is the reason why those deluded by religious beliefs refuse to actually use sound and cogent arguments. Weak analogies, circular reasoning, and false cause arguments are their stock and trade. Reason simply doesn't work when trying to justify delusion of any kind -including the religious.

    Thursday, October 4, 2007

    Suck it Jesus and God Damned Wars: the Clip

    I've gotta tip my hat to Ain't Christian where I noticed this YouTube clip of Kathy Griffin's appearance on Larry King:

    I've always been a fan of Kathy Griffin since I first noticed her on Suddenly Susan. On that show, Brooke Shields was the lead actor, but it was Griffin that stole the show in my opinion with her snarky and sarcastic wit. In the clip above, she pokes fun at both the entertainers that attribute their achievements to a mythical being and the entertainment establishment that panders to their superstitions by censoring comments that are deemed "offensive" to the superstitious.

    Featured on this segment is the uncensored clip of what Griffin actually said (it *was* funny, btw) as well as the comment by Sally Field that was censored where she said, "let's face it, if the mothers ruled the world, there would be no god damned wars in the first place!"

    Funny stuff from Kathy Griffin:
    Griffin: "Bill O'Reilly called me a pinhead. That's a badge of honor."
    King: "Does Bill thank Jesus for his program?"
    Griffin: "He should.... you know what I'm saying?.... and a lot of other people...."

    Expelled or Exposed? ID’s Latest Martyr Might not Be

    WorldNut Daily is running a story about how a Baylor University Professor has been forced to remove his website that contains creationist and anti-evolutionist rhetoric. To quote the article:

    A professor whose research could be the foundation for a major challenge to Darwin's theory of evolution and his historically Christian employer are at odds over that work, with Baylor University ordering Professor Bob Marks' work taken off the Internet.

    The article then quotes Walt Ruloff, the executive producer of Premise Media, which produced "Expelled" with Ben Stein:

    As many of you have heard, Marks, a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been conducting research that ultimately may challenge the foundation of Darwinian theory. In layman's terms, Marks is using highly sophisticated mathematical and computational techniques to determine if there are limits to what natural selection can do," he wrote. "At Baylor, a Christian institution, this should be pretty unremarkable stuff. I'm assuming most of the faculty, students and alumni believe in God, so wouldn't it also be safe to assume you have no problem with a professor trying to scientifically quantify the limits of a blind, undirected cause of the origin and subsequent history of life?

    Interesting so far. The article also mentions that WorldNut Daily spoke with a representative of Baylor University who said there are "ongoing legal discussions that we hope will be resolved to both party's mutual satisfaction."


    When you go to Bob Marks' webpage, it appears that all of his creationist
    nutbar nonsense is intact. It's all still there and doesn't appear as though it was ever changed. Even a review of the page's cache from July shows it to be the same page.

    So what's going on?

    Martin Hafner at molecular B(io)LOG(y) may have the answer. It seems that there was a poster at that went by the handle "Botnik" (as in roBOT NIKname?) that posted an alleged email from Baylor's president which outlined the removal of his website from the Baylor server. The quoted email's was posted on UD with the word "Parody" preceding it. But apparently UD posters didn't get the joke according to Wm. Dembski himself:

    In retrospect, it's clear that this piece of tomfoolery went too far. I'm therefore removing the thread. I hope Baylor and President Lilley take its removal as a gesture of goodwill on the part of UD as they reconsider what to do about Robert Marks and his Evolutionary Informatics Lab.

    If Baylor never took down Marks' anti-evolution nonsense; and if it's all an admitted hoax gone too far, who did WorldNut Daily actually speak to at Baylor and why is WorldNut Daily reporting that Marks' anti-evolution pages are down (they're clearly still up) and that his job is in danger?

    Could it be that WorldNut Daily was suckered by another bunch of religious nutters? Or could it be that Baylor actually decided to take action after the "parody" was played out on

    Should the article at WorldNut Daily (Darwin challenged, research censored) disappear; I think we'll have our answer.