Modern European Witchcraft – not pleasant

Witchcraft, and accusations of witchcraft, with all its horrific tortures and murders, is coming back to Europe after centuries of quiet. The media find it difficult to deal with the issue systemically, and only go case by case, because of the racism aspects that get brought out when you acknowledge that all the problems stem from non-European immigrants, especially Africans.

Magical thinking - witchcraft, exorcisms, etc - lead to torture and murder

March 5th, 2012: a Congolese couple (Eric Bikubi and Magalie Bamu) are given life sentences in London.

Background: in December 2010, five children come from Paris to visit their older sister, aged 29, and her boyfriend, 28. The man, backed by the woman, accuses three of the kids of using witchcraft and of coming to kill them. Two girls are let go after admitting to witchcraft, but their 15-year-old brother is severely tortured for several days, and finally killed on December 25th.

Not just tortured and killed: the irony is that having accused the boy of witchcraft, the couple use witchcraft exorcisms and all kinds of other magical thinking to justify their attacking him “with knives, sticks, metal bars, ceramic floor tiles, bottles and a hammer and chisel by Bikubi and Bamu who also used a pair of pliers to twist his ear. He drowned after he was placed in a bath for ritual cleansing.” (Per the BBC report.)

Eradicating such “magical thinking” in adults might have saved the boy’s life. Perhaps the man would not have behaved in that way.

Or perhaps the man is genuinely insane, and he would have tried to behave in this way even if he had not been brought up to believe in witchcraft and to think in those terms when solving problems. But if his girlfriend didn’t think in witchcraft terms either, she might have worked to prevent to insane attacks, might have listened to the pleas of her sisters.

But in any case, there needs to be an organized effort to educate the most primitive immigrants out of their preliterate thinking. And to punish them in such a way as to deter other from such crimes. And if that means targeting a racial or national minority as the best means of achieving such education, so be it.

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Magical thinking and Jesus

Context. Without context, a star can hover over a house, because that’s the way our creative understanding works. In the context of astrophysics, that star idea is nonsensical. Without context, Jesus was a Christian and the Jews hated him. In the context of his time and place, there were no Christians. He lived in the middle of an area occupied by pig-eating, beard-shaving, idolatrous Westerners. He lived in the middle of 200 years of constant uprisings by religious fundamentalists. Reading his words in context, it is obvious that he was a Jew, he hated the Romans, most Jews loved him, and Romans hated him.

Paul's legacy: nonsensical magical thinking

The genius of Paul was in seeing that by removing context and putting everything into the mythic realm, a universal religion could be created that wasn’t tied to the foibles of its anointed fountainhead. In this case, by decontextualizing Jesus, he became no longer a Jew (John says things like “Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him” – John 5: 18). He became no longer an adversary of Rome, no longer a Zealot, no longer gay… he becomes instead a mythic god, independent of the realities of history, independent of the laws of the universe. “Magic Jesus“, in the song by Tim Minchin.

Whether Paul understood this consciously and deliberately planned it, or whether he believed the visions from his own epileptic seizures, we may never know. But Paul is the creator of the post-Jewish “Christianity”.

The Gospels are written in an episodic way, highlighting some aspects of Jesus’ teachings, camouflaging other uncomfortable aspects, turning Jesus’ Jewishness upside down to make him more acceptable to Roman listeners and the Roman Empire, blending him with Mithras and Apollo. The Gospels swaddle him in miracles not just “from birth to death”, not even just “from womb to tomb”, but, in words originating in another context, “from the erection to the resurrection”. The very bookends of his life are so unbelievable that many people nowadays suspect he never existed at all.

So Jesus becomes a myth, a spiritual reality, an archetype. Like others before him in the preliterate world, he attains godhood. The historical person didn’t, of course – the historical person is dead and buried. But the story lives and grows and transmutes, constantly evolving to resonate more deeply with more people. All this is natural, inherent in human tendencies, and can be very useful for personal growth…

But magical thinking is a lousy basis for government policy decisions. Especially regarding the science curriculum for schools and universities.

Magical thinking and the Star of Bethlehem

The trouble with the Star of Bethlehem story is that stars are not what they appear to be to children and the uneducated. Yes, they look like fireflies or distant candles, and therefore can be imagined to float through the air like glowing fairies to hover over a house and point it out as special. Maybe they can think. Talk. Smile.

A star. (Note: not entirely credible, scientifically...)

However, being a minimum of 25,000 times the mass of our planet, this isn’t something that they can actually do. They only look like fireflies because they’re trillions of miles away. They’re pretty big, really.

Humans are designed for pattern recognition, and to seek out cause and effect, and to think visually, and to construct explanatory narratives and stories. “Sing me a song! Tell me a story! Read me a book!” A simple story is the most effective way to communicate an abstract concept – that’s why Jesus told parables. But this excellent intellectual tool of ours also has a downside: when our perception is limited or our understanding is incomplete, we use imagination to fill the gap. And our imagination springs from the dream world, not the physical world.

So we have no difficulty with the idea of Santa visiting all the world’s children in a single night. Or with the idea that, if we just get into the right frame of mind, we will be able to hear speech (in our own language!) from animals and trees. Or that we could walk around on the clouds if we could jump up there. Or that when people and animals die and get buried they are still around, you can still see them and talk with them under the right conditions. Or that we can influence the future with a rhyme or a ritual, control dice with a thought or a wish, produce rain by prayer…

We are born with that magical view of the world. It is very effective in keeping us optimistic, healthy, social and creative. Internally, it works. But externally? Sadly deficient.

Enjoy the stories that resonate with you, think about the images that feel powerful, give thanks (to the power of evolution) for the songs and landscapes that you love… but don’t conflate internal emotional power with external physical reality. Carlos Castaneda never turned into a crow, no matter how much peyote he consumed. There is no Easter Bunny. Nor angels, nor talking snakes, nor people ascending up in the air to live in “heaven”.

And regardless of how vivid your imagination is, nothing that has 25,000 times the mass of the Earth is going to hover over a house. Not in the real world. Sorry.

“Sacrifice” – “giving away” or “making sacred”

To sacrifice something is to give it away, often to prevent a larger evil or to achieve a greater benefit. In primitive cultures where the word originated, it means you make something sacred by dedicating it to the gods for their use alone. You do this typically by preventing it ever being used by anyone else, i.e. you kill it or destroy it. It may be a young child, or a prisoner, or a prized horse or farm animal, or a sword or jewelry. You invoke the gods, then kill or break the sacrifice, or throw it somewhere irretrievable like the sea or a volcano.

God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

Here’s a story out of rural India, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

A seven-year-old Indian girl was murdered in a tribal sacrifice and her liver offered to the gods to improve crop growth, police in the central state of Chhattisgarh said on Sunday.

The body of Lalita Tati was found in October a week after her family reported her missing.

“A seven-year-old girl was sacrificed by two persons superstitiously believing that the act would give a better harvest,” Narayan Das, the police chief of Bijapur district, told AFP by telephone.

So what words come to mind? “Murder… tribal… black magic… witch doctors…”? Yes, those all show up in the rest of the story as reported. But how about “Abraham… God… sacrifice…”?
Sacrifice is nothing more than an attempt to bribe the most powerful force you can conceive of, so that it will reward you instead of punishing you. It makes ‘love of God’ into a mere manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome.
The Roman Empire, although hosting gladiatorial contests and public executions, found human sacrifice obnoxious “to the laws of gods and men”. That the three great monotheist religions trace their common ancestry to Abraham, and to his willingness to kill his son in order to appease the voices in his head, is not something that any Jew, Christian or Muslim should be proud of.

The Miracles, 1 – Water into Wine

Generally considered Jesus’ first miracle, “turning the water into wine” has captured popular imagination as a casual display of miraculous power – something of a party trick. Which perhaps it was.

Jesus turning water into wine

Here’s the story: Jesus attends a wedding. His mother says they’ve run out of wine, can he help? She tells the servants to do whatever he says. He says to fill some pitchers with water; the liquid is then taken to the Steward of the feast, who congratulates Jesus on saving the best wine for last, i.e. this wine is better than the stuff they had earlier – normally the good stuff would be served first, before everyone is too sozzled to notice the difference.

But remember that Palestine was part of the Roman Empire by this time. Consider how Romans served wine at feasts: wine was shipped around the Empire as a concentrate, which reduced shipping costs. The wine steward at a feast had the task of adding the appropriate amount of concentrate to the jars of water, producing something that was the appropriate strength for the company and for the state of the party.

If the concentrate was already in an otherwise empty jar, which you then filled with water… Well, it would be a good party trick, especially if it came out at a good strength, and if your guests were village simpletons who weren’t used to attending Roman-style events.

Or perhaps everyone knew that it was nothing special, just a bit of fun – and that the only miracle was in having better-tasting (stronger) wine at the end of the party than at the beginning!

In The Gospel According to the Romans there is an assumption that Jesus uses street magic to provide an illusion of the miraculous, to reinforce the spiritual lessons he teaches – just as Indian holy men do today.