The Charlatans

Derren Brown, Ghosts, James Randi, Medium, Psychics, Religion, Sally Morgan, Sceptic, Spirituality

There are a few things that I can be certain will happen in my life at least monthly: I will watch an episode of The Office, I will go on a Radiohead binge, someone will tell me I look like Matt Bellamy, someone will mention that my name is similar to the Terminator protagonist. One of the most frequently occurring events is becoming embroiled in a debate around religion/spirituality/’psychics’.

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and belief. However, what many fail to acknowledge when it comes to freedom of speech and belief is that it cannot impinge on the well being or freedom of others. I hate religion. That is not to say I hate religious people – the majority of my family are religious, at least to an extent – but I hate religion as a concept, as a practice, its “values” (or lack thereof), its indoctrination, its abhorrence of logic, reason and science. It is not a solid moral ground – it is the opposite of morality. It is the antithesis of progress. I hate it.

To clarify, when I use the term “religion”, I do not mean simply the belief in a higher power, or “faith”; I mean the actual, literal, text-following practice. Admittedly, I do not see how one could believe in a book written by a higher power but not follow it by the word, as if it is written by God it is infallible and, if you do not believe it to be entirely 100% true, then it is fallible, cannot be the word of God, and therefore has no value whatsoever.

However, what aggravates me possibly even more than religion, even more than practically anything else in society, is “the psychic world”. Psychics – either those who can predict the future, read other peoples’ minds, or speak to the dead – are frauds. Those things are scientifically unverifiable and impossible. They do not happen, and the “psychics” know that they do not happen. This is not a case of “let people believe what they want, it’s not harming anyone”. Psychics are extremely cold, harmful charlatans. They prey on the vulnerable for money.

I do not believe in ghosts, I believe in science and quantifiable things (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence etc. etc.). If you believe in ghosts, so be it; that is not dangerous in and of itself (except as a threat to sense and logic). A belief in psychics is a different matter. Psychics use cold reading (see the wonderful Derren Brown for fantastic expositions of this), Barnum statements and, often, simple earpieces/stooges, or other such fraudulent methods. And, using those things, the best they can ever come up with is “your Grandmother’s mentioning that you have a jacket with a loose button”, or “did your Aunty have a cat called Mittens?” Yes, forget questions about the afterlife, let’s get down to the real issues.

By using such methods, they appeal the gullible who will pay £30-50 for tickets to listen to such bollocks and, more distressingly, the weak. Like “faith healers” targeting the physically incapacitated for their own brand of bullshit, psychics and mediums unceremoniously target the grieving, and exploit them for personal gain. There have been instances of parents spending their entire savings to visit mediums following the tragic loss of a child. These are cases of the morally bankrupt financially bankrupting others. They take the memories that people have of their loved ones and trample all over them, unconcerned about the wellbeing of those that they see, inventing stories about real people who have died, to feed to real grieving family and friends, all for a few quid. These mediums are not harmless, they are fully aware of what they are doing. ‘Psychic Sally’, one of the country’s most popular mediums, has been caught as a fraud, has contacted “dead people” who are still alive in the audience, and asks people to put slips of paper with details of their dead relatives into a glass bowl before each reading. Ooo, I wonder what magic she uses to come up with the readings? Must be psychic, right?

No doubt Psychic Sally can read my mind anyway, so I don’t need to express my thoughts about her. She knowingly lies to the bereaved, charging them extortionate amounts to see her shows, and stomps all over their true memories of their loved ones. Occasionally, I wish religion was true, because there would be a special place in Hell reserved for her and her ilk.

There are great sceptics and debunkers – James Randi is a master of the art, and Derren Brown is phenomenal at providing astonishingly accurate ‘psychic readings’ while informing us that he has no supernatural powers, and that he is simply employing the cold reading tactics used by psychics ( and doing it much better). Derren Brown’s piece where he sends multiple people around the world “psychic readings” which they deem to be incredibly accurate, before revealing they all have identical readings, is fantastic (as is this conversation with Richard Dawkins):

These people deserve the acknowledgement and credit for providing us with scientific measures and progress, trying to move past ridiculous notions of witchcraft and the supernatural. One should remember Occam’s Razor – at no point would my mind go past fraud, lying, guesswork etc. to “the dead are returning to speak to their loved ones about trivial incidents through a middle aged woman on stage”.

And before anyone says “you aren’t being open-minded” – being open-minded is being open to the facts and making an impartial judgement based on reason. Believing everything you see or read is idiocy. One should remember this oft quoted advice: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out”.

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He’s not the Messiah…

AA, Addiction, Nigel Farage, Religion, Revolution, Richard Dawkins, Russell Brand, Spirituality

There are few nobler exploits than a genuine attempt to improve society. For this, Russell Brand should be congratulated. Whereas many may use radicalism as a method to garner attention, fame and money, he already has these by the bucket load, and there is little reason to believe his motives are not honourable.

However, Brand currently presents a threat. As Farage is to the right, Brand is to the populists, a foghorn of haphazard ideas and loosely constructed whims, berating problems that we know exist with no actual solution. His Newsnight interview, when he was questioned by economist Evan Davis, was telling. Davis did not leap on his victim like Paxman may have done, instead choosing to circumnavigate, stealthily stalking his prey before going in for the kill. Brand had the problems, he had the rant ready but, when pressed for alternatives, he was sorely lacking, and his comments on a possible 9/11 conspiracy were ill-judged. Inspiring a revolution may be enticing to Brand, but he should perhaps study past uprisings before lunging into this one. Yes, the figures that he chastises are dangerous, but so is Brand himself. Anyone looking to embark on such a history lesson could do worse than look at previous examples of the disenfranchised masses latching onto radical figures. It may be bad now, but it could be worse.

Do not get me wrong, it is excellent that Brand is generating this discussion at all, but the worry is that people, particularly Brand’s loyal fans, will see this not as a conversation starter, but as a viable political movement. He is eloquent (if a little wordy and Will Self-lite), intelligent and, in my opinion, a talented comedian, but his radical ideas evoke those that would be thrown around the Sixth Form Common Room. Unless he can devise a few solutions, they should be taken with a handful of salt.

Brand advocates spirituality and religion as a cornerstone for this “free-thinking” movement. There are few things I can bring to mind that are less free-thinking than religion, and any notion that uses it as a foundation is a worrying one. He accuses Richard Dawkins of “atheistic tyranny”, and while he may have a point to an extent, this does not mean that a society founded on pantheism is the way forward (do I even need to explain why?)

Atheistic tyranny may not be ideal, but religion should not be off limits. Blasphemy does not exist if there is no God and, frankly, it deserves to be ridiculed because it is moronic, and deserves to be condemned because it is extremely dangerous. Brand claims that religion is not at all homophobic, and simply endorses the “union of all mankind”. Well, Russell, that simply isn’t true is it? Religious people do tend to pick and choose scripture to support their arguments, but this is either completely ignorant or a bare faced lie. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (and believe me, that is one of many, many examples from religious texts). I refuse to accept that dangerous figures simply distort religion to suit their needs – religion in and of itself is an ugly, ugly thing. Brand can accuse Dawkins of tyranny, but he propagates his own views through a self-help style outlook, describing his own battle with narcotics as a starting point for this wider fight, and one cannot help but be concerned by the AA type stance. The AA is a cult, and I don’t use the word lightly, masquerading as a support group, where the only salvation is to relinquish all power to a superior being (a method with a 5-10% success rate). Religion should be the basis for nothing that even wants to pertain to logic and reason, let alone progress.

Then again, spirituality and religion is quite an apt cornerstone for Brand’s ideology. It has the odd nice, idyllic element, but it is pie in the sky, extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence and, beneath the hopeful, positive exterior, could actually prove tremendously perilous.