The 2000 Years War

I was raise as an Episcopalian, a church usually noted for being liberal. My church had a pretty diverse congregation, mostly middle class and professional. The folks there were devout in their way, but they were also very comfortable with the science and technology of the modern era.

One preacher wanted to hold healing services. She was hustled out the door pretty quickly.

So when I read something like Dan Delzell’s post about the magician known as Dynamo, I’m completely gobsmacked. Part of me doesn’t want to believe that people still think like this:

Whether the levitation is experienced by young girls playing a dangerous occult “game” at a slumber party, (“Light as a feather, Stiff as a board”) or by street magicians as shown on YouTube videos, paranormal things happen when people engage in practices that are rooted in sorcery, magic and witchcraft. Many magicians and other occultists have experienced levitation and various forms of supernatural power. These sorcerers typically cast spells or perform other rituals in an attempt to conjure the power to accomplish these feats. It is becoming more and more commonplace to see such expressions of magical performance.

What most of these magicians do not realize, however, is that the power to do such things only appears to be under their control. These magical performers are actually being duped by beings with superior intelligence to their own. Just as some magicians engage in illusion, so do the spirits which seduce magicians to go deeper and deeper into their craft. It is incredibly enticing, especially when the performers start to get high on the attention it brings them. While the spellbinding feats such as levitation are very often real, these “abilities” are not under the ultimate control and power of the magician.

Delzell honestly believes that Dynamo is transgressing the laws of physics using the power of supernatural entities. This is a view of magic that goes all the way back to the Roman world. Magic is done by persuading, or compelling, spirits to do your bidding.

The Christians tweaked it a bit by lumping all the spirits together as evil rather than simply capricious. They also lumped all the Greco-Roman gods into the same category. These daemons were guiding people away from the true God, and they had to be fought with the power of Jesus.

I could have hoped that this worldview would have died in the Enlightenment but apparently not. I expect to see it cropping up among Pentecostals like Cindy Jacobs, who are intentional throwbacks to pre-modern times, but Delzell is a Lutheran.

Bart Ehrman has pointed out that apocalypticism is an idea that goes back to the beginnings of Christianity and continues to pop up today. Karen Armstrong has argued that there is an vein of misogyny that runs from the Patriarchs to modern Christians. Perhaps this kind of “spiritual warfare” theme is just one more ancient legacy that Christians are stuck with.

  • trj

    I once saw a magician turn water into wine. I realize now that it must have been a trick of the devil and that such magic tricks are to be condemned.

  • evodevo

    As a science educator who grew up in the 50′s-60′s when science was being emphasized in the popular press and school system, the return to the Age of Ignorance has appalled me. No, this is not an unusual mindset and not necessarily confined to Pentacostals. I do blame the revival of the evangelical/megachurch phenomenon in the US (and Latin America/Africa) for the rise of superstitious, but I know Baptists and what otherwise seem to be sensible people who subscribe to this nonsense. The popularity of “guardian angels” and “prayer miracles” has not abated, and the continuing assault on public education/schoolteachers doesn’t help. I don’t know what the solution is, but I intend to continue fighting it as long as I can. Carl Sagan saw this coming 20 years ago.

    • kessy_athena

      I still can’t quite wrap my head around the way that the Republicans have become outright anti-education in recent years. How can you be against education? I don’t get it. To me, that’s like being against police and firefighters…. The GOP seems intent on shedding its image of being the “stupid” party by becoming the crazy party instead.

      • pennyroyal

        anti-college education, a la Rick Santorum and many other
        soon only the wealthy will be educated.

        • grindstone

          Winner, winner. Only the wealthy will be educated and we will have a very large, very poor, very hungry lower class. We won’t, or likely won’t, have the jobs to keep them alive, unless we become the “cheap labor” destination and the sweatshops come to us.

          • Yoav

            I have the evil suspicion that this is the plan. Many people have got rich by selling Americans cheap crap made by Chinese slave labor, as the population in places like China and India become better educated and more and more can afford to send their kids to school instead of iPod assembly lines the way to keep the money flowing is to destroy the American education system and eliminate child labor and safety regulations so they can get richer by selling the Chinese cheap crap made by American slave labor.

      • Yoav

        Many of them are also against having a publicly funded police and fire department, if you’re too poor to afford paying the private firefighters you’re toast (literally), because of freedom and the magic of the free market.

    • AnamDuine

      Right on. The bulk of my compulsory education was in the 1980s. The country was still greatly optimistic about the endeavored pursuit of science and technology. As students, we were steered towards applied science. Space Shuttle launches, Haley’s Comet, watching the solar eclipses, and other fantastic stuff proved how cool it really was. These were the candles in the dark to guard against the demon haunted world.

  • Michael

    So “Light as a feather, Stiff as a board” involves demons producing magical antigravity? Boy did I miss out.

    • Noelle

      My friends and I tried it at a sleep-over as young teens, but it didn’t work right. I guess we didn’t invite the right demons.

      • kessy_athena

        Okay, I realize this is going to seriously annoy a bunch of people, but I feel obliged to say it anyway. Obviously, what Delzell is saying is silly and stupid, thinking that illusionists are performing real “supernatural” feats. They deserve to be mocked for it. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be overly flip about it.

        I know you guys are generally convinced that spirits and demons and such are purely figments of the human imagination, and I respect that. But can I ask you to take a step back from that conviction for a moment? Just for a minute, let’s set aside the origin of these beliefs and the sillier extremes of some of the stories about them and the logical incoherence of the idea of the supernatural and the politics of religion.

        When it comes to things like young teens at sleepovers trying to summon demons or playing with ouija boards or things like that, I think it’s a very bad idea and should be strongly discouraged. What they are trying to do is summon entities that are purported to be at best capricious and unpredictable, at worst outright malicious. Even if you’re certain there’s nothing to be summoned, is it really a good idea to taunt Murphy? To me it seems sort of like shouting an open invitation for anyone who wants to come mess with you. There are certainly humans who have taken advantage of these sorts of things, right?

        The universe is huge in scale and scope and complexity. We’ve only managed to light up a small corner of that vast night of the unknown. I think we should really approach the unknown with a bit more respect. You never know when something new and unexpected will appear out of the darkness, and sometimes those things will be dangerous in one way or another. So maybe there aren’t goblins lurking just out of sight, but there could still be something out there that will eat you. And I just really think it’s unwise to be shouting challenges into the darkness. We shouldn’t be fearful of the darkness, we should continue to explore and light up more of it. But we should be cautious and respectful in how we approach it.

        • Kevin R. Cross

          Human beings have been shouting challenges into the darkness as long as there have been human beings. I don’t believe in any sort of supernatural existence, but even if I did, I would still say that to explore and discover is worth any risk. Should we find any supernatural reality, we should put it in it’s place – at our feet, doing our bidding.

          • kessy_athena

            “At our feet, doing our bidding?” Seriously? You know, there is such a thing as hubris, even after you get rid of the divine retribution aspect. Do you think the natural world is at our feet, doing our bidding? Umm, natural disasters? Anywhere from lightning strikes to the Indian Ocean Tsunami a few years ago… Diseases, unexpected side effects of everything from drugs to radiation to chemicals to entire technologies, racoons nesting in people’s attics…

            The natural world is not under our control. It does as it pleases, and it periodically seems to take a certain perverse pleasure in putting humans in their place. What’s the quote from the Christians’ book? Something about humans having dominion over the earth and all its creatures? As usual, the Christians have it dead wrong.

            There is a difference between exploring and discovering and shouting challenges to the darkness. I am saying that we should approach the world and the unknown with respect. With an attitude of, “I just want to see what’s here, knowing that I’m just one small and unimportant part of a much larger universe full of things with as much right to be here as I have.” Striding arrogantly and shouting to all the world, “I own you and I’m going to make you serve me or else!” is just asking for trouble.

            • Kevin R. Cross

              No, we don’t have control over the natural world…yet. But we know what we need to do to change that. In some cases, we choose not to – which is why there are still Raccoons TO nest in people’s attics. In other cases, we don’t as yet have the power to change it, but our power grows with every passing day.
              Arrogant? Yeah, maybe. But I don’t see any limits to humanity or our reach save what we choose to put on ourselves. And I see no good reasons to put any on.

            • kessy_athena

              And this is how things like global warming and other environmental disasters happen. There are always consequences to anything we do. Humans are not special; we do not occupy a privileged position in the universe. We are a part of a vast and complex world, not its master. We forget that at our peril.

            • Kevin R. Cross

              And that’s where we disagree, I’m afraid. Yes, there are risks to becoming whatever it is we’re becoming. But if we destroy ourselves by aiming too high, well, better to have tried and failed than to have done less than our best. And if we DON’T die – the universe itself will be ours for the taking.

        • Noelle

          I always figured our attempt at levitation didn’t work because we had the wrong number of people to pull it off, and stiff as a board wasn’t perfect because of the giggling. You need 4 people to evenly distribute the weight around the volunteer. Just some simple physics

        • aar9n

          Is this the part of the campfire story where Bob jumps out of the bushes to scare us?

    • Yoav

      Maybe NASA can use antigravity demons to lift payloads into orbit.

  • pennyroyal

    nevermind, the new incarnation of COSMOS will be airing soon and we can draw a breath knowing some real science is getting public attention.

  • kessy_athena

    @Kevin R. Cross:

    And is “taking” the universe the real goal? Is trying to subjugate everything and everyone else aiming high? Or is it just extending human social hierarchies to the rest of the universe without thinking it through? We need to carefully think about what we’re trying to accomplish and what the consequences will be, and simply trying to be king of the hill is not helpful to that.


    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. As for your question, it depends on what exactly you mean by servility and deference. I don’t tend to look at the universe in general as having a hierarchy analogous to human social structures, so I’m not real inclined to look at it in those terms. I mean respect both in the sense of recognizing that there are and always will be things out there that can do us real harm, and also in the sense of remembering that self interest always needs to be enlightened.

    For something like Hawking’s comments, I would take a risk benefit approach to deciding on what we should and shouldn’t do. I see very little risk associated with something like Voyager’s golden record or Pioneer’s pulsar map. Those probes are (unavoidably) on ballistic trajectories, which are as much a return address as any message we put on them. As for more general attempts at attracting attention like beaming radio signals at random stars, I think there’s a pretty low probability of them having any result at all, and I’d say it’s a tossup whether a result would be good or bad from humanity’s perspective. The idea strikes me as being motivated primarily by impatience. I think we’d be better served by studying the universe and working on improving our own society. When we make contact, we’ll be best served by having our own act together as much as possible.

    My attitude toward potentially dangerous beings or phenomena is basically, “Don’t poke sleeping dragons.” Observe carefully from a distance, learn as much as you can, assess the risks, and only meddle when you have a clear goal in mind. This is, of course, just a general rule of thumb, and has to be evaluated on a case by case basis. So I’d say caution, not fear; respect, not servility.

    • sam

      Thanks, I think we’re on the same page.

  • aar9n

    In the church I was brought up in, I was told stories of little girls who played with Quiji boards only to become possessed by a demon that killed the girl. Then there was the story of the Christian who “accidentally” joined an occult circle, and felt “electrocuted” when they started praying to satan. After he feel down from the apparent “electrocution”, everyone left the room. He came back into the room to get something and found that the candles had been blown out and the bible in the room had been closed when no one was in there. Then there was the guys who have a friend whose house was possessed by demons until the pastor came and prayed them away. Then there was a Haitian missionary who told us about how he could feel and had experienced the demonic presence of voodoo in the country. This was all in a non-charsmatic church; I can only imagine the absolute chaos that must go on at charismatic churches.