Tuesday, May 17, 2011

She was suffering from religion

A very strange story (strange even in the weird world of religious belief) came to my attention yesterday.
    It was reported in The Washington Post on March 31, 2009 ("Deal Includes Resurrection Clause," by Dan Morse, with subtitle "Mother to go free if son rises from dead"):
Accepting a plea bargain that her attorney described as unprecedented in American jurisprudence, a 22-year-old Maryland woman yesterday agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of other defendants in the death of her son under the condition that charges against her be dropped if the child rises from the dead.
    She was charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in the death of her son Javon, who was deprived of food and water because he didn't say "amen" before breakfast.
    Even more curious (perhaps) is the fact that, after Javon died,
he was placed on a couch while everyone knelt down and prayed. Ramkissoon [Javon's mother] also danced around her son, prosecutors said. The boy's body was later moved to a back room.
    At one point, two members measured Javon's body and bought a suitcase. Members believed that if the body could travel with them, it could be resurrected at a later date, said Steven Silverman, Ramkissoon's attorney. The group members left the suitcase with a man they had befriended. Police eventually discovered it in his shed in Philadelphia.
    The canny prosecutors tried to protect their part in the plea arrangement by stipulating that
Ramkissoon could not get out of her obligations if she asserted that Javon came back as anything other than himself.
    "This would need to be a Jesus-like resurrection," Margaret Burns, the spokeswoman, said after the hearing. "It cannot be a reincarnation in another object or animal."
I learned of the Ramkissoon case from Sam Harris's latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, which I am currently reading. On p. 158, he comments:
The boundary between mental illness and respectable religious belief can be difficult to discern...Despite the fact that this band of lunatics carried the boy's corpse around in a green suitcase for over a year, awaiting his reincarnation, there is no reason to believe that any of them suffers from a mental illness. It is obvious, however, that they suffer from religion.
    Harris had, on p. 157, already put this in the context of what constitutes a delusion:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders...defines "delusion" as a "false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everyone else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary." Lest we think that certain religious beliefs might fall under the shadow of this definition, the authors exonerate religious doctrines, in principle, in the next sentence: "The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith)" (p. 765)...As any clinician can attest, delusional patients often suffer from religious delusions. And the criterion that a belief be widely shared suggests that a belief can be delusional in one context and normative in another, even if the reasons for believing it are held constant. Does a lone psychotic become sane merely by attracting a crowd of devotees?
     Richard Dawkins, too, for his 2006 book, The God Delusion, was cautioned by the psychiatric profession about his use of the word:
The word "delusion" in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about...I need to justify my use of [the word]. The Penguin English Dictionary defines a delusion as "false belief or impression." Surprisingly, the illustrative quotation the dictionary gives is from Phillip E. Johnson: "Darwinism is the story of humanity's liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself." Can that be the same Phillip E. Johnson who leads the creationist charge against Darwinism in America today? Indeed it is, and the quotation is, as we might guess, taken out of context. I hope the fact that I have stated as much will be noted, since the same courtesy has not been extended to me in numerous creationist quotations of my work, deliberately and misleadingly taken out of context...The dictionary supplied with Microsoft Word defines a delusion as "a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder." The first part captures religious faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion."
For the sake of "full disclosure," I'll tell you that I myself suffered from a religious delusion (involving the deity Universal Intelligent Energy, whom I knew as "Youie") during the summer of 1989, when I was so convinced that I would win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes that the day my name was to be announced that evening on network television (NBC, as I recall) I boxed up all of my personal belongings at IBM so that I could resign and leave quickly the next day.

Fortunately for Ms. Ramkissoon,
If she testifies truthfully against the other defendants...prosecutors will recommend that she be released from jail, placed on probation, and provided treatment that could include "a process of deprogramming."
    I overcame my own tendency toward religious delusion, first by learning (with the help of my wife) to monitor and control my mood swings, then, fifteen years later, by reprogramming myself through applied skepticism to finally opt out of religion altogether.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Overlooking the Black Sea

I've been sorting photographs of our trip to Bulgaria for several hours, and I'm pooped and simply don't have the energy today to share more than one photo.
    For sentimental reasons, I've chosen the dessert that I had at the Palace of Queen Marie of Romania, or, more precisely, at the Guestroom of the Queen Restaurant at the University Botanic Garden in Balchik.
    [Note: We weren't having an early lunch. The time shown in the corner of the photograph is North Carolina time; it was seven hours later in Bulgaria. For the trip, I used my wife's Nikon Coolpix P100 digital camera.]
    Well, I guess I have to show you a view of the Black Sea from our table:

    And the menu cover, which identifies the establishment as the Restaurant Corona or Crown Restaurant:

    Our table is to the left in the foreground.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Feeling superstitious today?

This morning at work, the receptionist seemed a bit concerned that it was Friday the Thirteenth, as though things might not go well.
    I of course laughed at such superstitious nonsense—as a way, I hoped, of reassuring her.
    But I hastened to add (with particular jocularity) that being superstitious about Friday the Thirteenth will surely cause bad things to happen.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pricklings of thought from yesterday

"Time unremembered," I said. It's time unremembered and unrememberable, but not entirely temps perdu. A century ago Proust searched his memory and largely found his own lost time, and yesterday we imagined our lost time before our history began to be recorded. We imagined that animal sacrifice predated history's recording. And, of course, there are archaeological records.

"Their God," I said, referring to the god of Arab Muslims. I realized overnight that the monotheistic god of the Abrahamic religions isn't the same "one God" for each of them. The idea that they all three have the same god had always been seductive. "I mean," one explains, "they're monotheistic religions. One god. So, of course, the same god."
    Seductive it may be, but not so.
    The original "God of Abraham" was the tribal god of a wandering people, his chosen. Yahweh (or Jehovah) was fierce and jealous and vengeful.
    The three-in-one god who emerged from all of the theological and pastoral intrigue of the early Christians was benevolent and forgiving (except of the Jews, of course, for whom the case was made that they were the murderers of Christ and deserved everything they would have coming to them).
    And Allah is..., well, a god to whom his people still sacrifice other people.

The number of possibilities when it comes to the number of gods is huge. One? Two? Three? Poly, poly? Or...zero?