Friday, 17 February 2012

A History Of Bizarre Belief

Disbelief in evolution is but one of a long line of religiously inspired disbelief in scientific ideas and principle now taken for granted by anyone with even a rudimentary education and normal intellectual faculties.

There is a very familiar pattern of fallacious arguments attempting to prove a primitive religious notion from a holy book associated with each one. The holy text is always asserted to be correct and all the contrary evidence is dismissed as false, misleading, or deliberately falsified by evil scientists or thinkers to entice you away from your faith.

Leading proponents of it have invariably had a vested, often pecuniary interest in promulgating it, just as with creationism.

The Flat Earth.

Flat Earth Drawn by Orlando Ferguson 1893. Note the biblical references.

When they assert that the earth is round, Ptolemy and Pliny do not add to the evidence, collected on the spot, they simply make a conjecture based solely on reasoning

Cannon Zacharia Lilio of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, 1496

That was written four years after Columbus had sailed to the New World, not, as many people wrongly believe, to prove that Earth was a globe, but to prove that going west was the quickest route to China.

In 1849, Samuel Rowbotham writing as 'Parallax' produced two pamphlets entitled, Zetetic Astronomy and The inconsistency of Modern Astronomy and its Opposition to the Scripture in which he argued for a flat earth. He also produced the results of studies purporting to show that the illusion of ships disappearing over the horizon was due to the laws of perspective. In 1883 he founded the Zetetic Society and published a challenge in the New York Daily Graphic which offered a donation of $10,000 to charity if anyone could prove the earth rotated on an axis, to his standards, naturally.

Foremost amongst his arguments were:
  • There are rivers that flow for hundreds of miles towards the level of the sea without falling more than a few feet — notably, the Nile, which, in a thousand miles, falls but a foot. A level expanse of this extent is quite incompatible with the idea of the Earth's convexity. It is, therefore, a reasonable proof that Earth is not a globe.
  • If the Earth were a globe, a small model globe would be the very best - because the truest - thing for the navigator to take to sea with him. But such a thing as that is not known: with such a toy as a guide, the mariner would wreck his ship, of a certainty!, This is a proof that Earth is not a globe.

In 1906, a Pentecostal church leader and flat earther, Wilbur Glenn Voliva, established a community in Zion, Illinois and preached a flat earth from 1915. Teaching a globular earth was banned in its schools and its radio station WCBD preached a flat earth. In 1928 he announced that the lost airship Italia had sailed over the edge.

The founder of the fanatical fundamentalist Nigerian Islamic sect, Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf is a flat-earther and some Islamic sects in Mauritius also still adhere to the belief.

More examples of 'Flat Earth' arguments can be seen here.


Geocentric System. Bartolomeu Velho, 1568 (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)
The persecution of Galileo Galilei for promulgating a heliocentric view of the solar system is well known and has been extensively written about.

Accounts of modern geocentrism can be read here.

Between 1870 and 1920 various members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod published articles disparaging Copernican astronomy, and geocentrism was widely taught within the synod. In 1967, Dutch-Canadian schoolmaster Walter van der Kamp (1913–1998) circulated a geocentric paper entitled "The Heart of the Matter" to about 50 Christian individuals and institutions and founded the Tychonian Society.

Modern geocentrists hold that a literal reading of the Bible is an accurate account of creation and so requires a geocentric world view. They are, of course, also creationists. They point to passages in the Bible:

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

Ecclesiastes 1:5

Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

Joshua 10:12–13

[Needless to say, modern biblical geocentrists never explain why only the Hebrews seem to have noticed this momentous event which would have been visible to a world-wide audience.]

Fear before him, all the earth: the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.

Ecclesiastes 16:30

Astoundingly, a 1990 Gallup poll found that 16% of Germans, 18% of Americans and 19% of Britons hold that the Sun revolves around the Earth. In 2005, Dr. Jon D. Miller of Northwestern University, found that about 20% of adult Americans thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Demonic Possession.

The superstitious belief that illness, and especially mental illness is cause by possession by demons was once common. The author of both the New Testament of the Christian Bible and of the Qur'an certainly believed in them.
  • The demon possessed Gerasene(s): Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:2-20; Luke 8:26-39
  • A demon possessed mute man: Matthew 9:32-34; Luke 11:14-26
  • A demon possessed blind and mute man: Matthew 12:22-28
  • The Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter: Matthew 15:22-28; Mark 7:25-30
  • An epileptic boy: Matthew 17:15-21; Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:38-43
  • The man in the synagogue at Capernaum: Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:33-36

An interesting account of this belief in Islam and how it has hindered progress in mental health care can be read here. Mental Health & Jinn Possession Amongst Muslims.

Now one of the major misconceptions those working in mental health need to battle is this association with mental illness and demonic possession, with all its undertones of moral weakness which 'allowed the demon to take over' in the first place. This gives rise both to shame and resistance to acceptance of the problem on the part of the victim and to the social stigma which accompanies mental illness which so inhibits rehabilitation in particular

In former times in the more enlightened parts of the world, and still today in some of the less enlightened areas, this lead to the large Victorian institutions into which mental health victims were cast and kept away from public view and where the care more closely resembled the penal regimes of prisons than the medical care of a hospital. In the UK even in fairly recent history, 'moral weakness', which for many young women meant having a sexual relationship outside marriage or, even worse, becoming pregnant whilst unmarried, was often sufficient reason for them to be confined to a mental hospital for life.

And still today, medical conditions like cancer are spoken of in hushed tones and professional 'faith healers' make a living casting out demons. One recent report even tells of Pope John Paul II carrying out an 'exorcism' in the Vatican.

Recently the Archdiocese of Chicago appointed a full time exorcist!


There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

Deuteronomy 18:10-12

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Exodus 22:18

Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn From the mischief of created things; From the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; From the mischief of those who practise secret arts; And from the mischief of the envious one as he practises envy.

Qur'an 113:1–5

And they follow that which the devils falsely related against the kingdom of Solomon. Solomon disbelieved not; but the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind sorcery and that which was revealed to the two angels in Babel, Harut and Marut ... And surely they do know that he who trafficketh therein will have no (happy) portion in the Hereafter; and surely evil is the price for which they sell their souls, if they but knew.

Qur'an 2:102

And persons from among men used to seek refuge with persons from among the jinn, so they increased them in evil doing.

Qur'an 72:6

Allah created the angels from light, created the jinn from the pure flame of fire, and Adam from that which was described to you (i.e., the clay.).

Imam Muslim, author of the second Hadith, quoting Mohammed.

Belief in witches or witchcraft is a form of the belief in demonic possession but here the possessed person is assumed to be a willing agent or even a demon incarnate. It has been used through the ages to persecute especially women and to give clerics and politicians power through hysteria and paranoia. A defence to the charge of being a witch was almost non-existent since any protestations of innocence were to be expected and even confirmation of guilt.

Witches were (are) believed to cast spells in the belief that somehow words have magical power and can bring about change. The same belief is behind praying and especially organised recitation of 'sacred' prayers where exactly the right words need to be said for the desired effect.

Witches were often portrayed as being close to nature and natural forces and to work through a 'familiar' such as a cat or a toad. They were sometimes said to feed their familiar via a special nipple, so a wart, mole or other blemish was often 'proof' of being a witch.

Witch hysteria reached a peak in Europe in the 14th & 15th centuries when 12,000 people, overwhelmingly women, are known to have been burned for witchcraft. Some estimates put the actual number of executions at between 40,000 and 100,000.

Hanging the Pendle Witches
In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued his notorious Papal bull: Summis Desiderates. It was used as a preface to the book Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), published by two German Catholic Inquisitors in 1486. In it, it described in detail ritual satanic and sexual aberrations as practiced by witches - women in particular.

In England in 1612, twelve people who lived in the area around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft and tried along with the Samlesbury witches and others, in a series of trials that have become known as the Lancashire witch trials. Of the eleven individuals who went to trial—nine women and two men—ten were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.

The notorious 'Witchfinder General' Matthew Hopkins, operated in England from 1645-1647 during which some 200 people are thought to have been executed for witchcraft.

Salem Witch Trial
In 1645, in Springfield, Massachusetts Bay, then an English Colony, experienced America's first witchcraft trial when Hugh and Mary Parsons accused each other of witchcraft. Hugh was acquitted, while Mary was acquitted of witchcraft but sentenced to be hanged for the death of her child. She died in prison.

About eighty people throughout England's Massachusetts Bay Colony were accused of practicing witchcraft, thirteen women and two men were executed in a witch-hunt that lasted throughout New England from 1645-1663. Probably the best known example of a witch hysteria in America is the Salem Witch Trials held between February 1692 and May 1693.

In Islamic fundamentalist Saudi Arabia the death penalty for sorcery is still in use. Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft in 2006. In 2007 an Egyptian pharmacist working there was accused, convicted, and executed. Saudi authorities also pronounced the death penalty on a Lebanese television presenter, Ali Sabat, while he was performing the hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) in the country. In April 2009, a Saudi woman, Amina Bint Abdulhalim Nassar, was arrested and later sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. She was beheaded in December 2011.

In the UK in 2012, the authorities were unable to bring charges again a Christian Pastor, Dieudonne Tukala, for accusing children of witchcraft and praying for children to die because this is not illegal in England.

Today, in Nigeria and in other parts of Africa, Christian priests often participate in ritual abuse of children accused of witchcraft as can be seen in this Guardian video. As this New York Times articles shows, they are not without support in America. Needless to say, Pentecostal preacher, Helen Ukpabio, draws thousands to her revival meetings. Last August, when she had herself consecrated Christendom’s first "lady apostle", Nigerian politicians and Nollywood actors attended the ceremony. She has of course written books and produced DVDs which explain how Satan possesses children, and which she sells to those credulous enough to buy them.

Just as with the flat earth, geocentrism, demonic possession and witchcraft, so creationism is a remnant of superstitious belief which almost certainly pre-dated the writing of the holy book into which it became incorporated and which is now, or was until recently, used to justify its persistent belief in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.

They have also all been used by individuals and authorities to gain power or to make money out of the credulous, ignorant and superstitious just as creationism is being used today by Christian and Islamic apologists in league with right-wing politicians as can be seen most noticeable today in the USA where creationism, Christian fundamentalism and Bible literalism are all being used to promote the religious right and heirs to what in former times had been the preserve of white supremacists and segregationists.

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  1. This is marvelous to have all of this together in one place. Thank you! Might I suggest that you correct a few typos for those who wish to e-mail this to others (Pentecostal, the second Ecclesiastes reference is actually to 1 Chronicles, twice "it's" should be "its" and the year 1012 should be 2012).

  2. Rosa, forgive me responding to some things so old, i have been browsing your blog, and following some of the 'You may also Like...' links, and being frustrated at times because IE thinks it needs to modify pages prevent Cross-Scripting...

    Nonetheless, i came across your words above:

    Spells, Prayers, and, upon discussion with another in this household, Wishes...

    Really all equally absurd, and all equally capable of having the same amount of effect upon reality, altho the film and TV industry are happy to make $$$$ from the concept!


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