Of Victims and Psychics

Of Victims and Psychics February 21, 2022

 

Wm. Fletcher Barrett
Sir William F. Barrett (1844-1925)
Wikimedia Commons public domain image

 

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The invaluable Jeff Lindsay has posted an interesting item on his blog regarding the portion of the Book of Mormon that is set in ancient Arabia:

 

“An Update on Maps of the Arabian Peninsula Showing Nahom-related Names”

 

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Some time back, I was deleting some old computer files when I came across a curious item.  I’m not quite sure where it came from, nor who wrote it nor when, but it’s addressed to me:

 

“If you want to know if Mormonism is hurtful – listen to the critics. Validate their experiences, don’t diminish them. Don’t blame their trauma on their faithlessness.

“Invalidating people who are really struggling with religious issues tends to increase their self doubt and hopelessness. They feel broken and alone for not fitting in with the indoctrination.

“I would recommend that you Dan Peterson recuse yourself from any such conversations in the future. Your own talk shows that you have the smell of blood on your hands if not the stain.

“Speak to struggling members leaving the JW or Christian Science or other faiths also being disrupted by the Google age. Mormon bitter apostates are no less traumatized.”

 

I suppose that I’ll respond to it here, since I can’t recall whether or not I responded directly to its author and since it expresses sentiments that I’ve encountered more than once.  (I won’t bother with the hyperbolic claim that I have blood on my hands, nor with the unreasonable demand that I should never again enter into discussions of the merits or demerits of my church and faith.)

 

First of all, yes, it’s important to respond to earnest and suffering people with as much charity and sympathetic understanding as one can muster.  That, I think, goes without saying for any serious disciple of Christ and, for that matter, for any reasonably decent person.

 

Having said that, however, I don’t think that listening to critics is the only thing that one must do in determining whether Mormonism is “hurtful.”  Don’t the voices of those who seem to be satisfied with their Church membership count, as well?  And don’t we need to try to sort truth from falsehood?  Might some sociological and statistical and other data not be useful?

 

At the height of a messy and angry divorce between two people who have been one’s good friends, it would seem to me to be unfair and unwise simply to take at face value the complaints or allegations of one spouse about the other.

 

Talk of “validating,” and of not “invalidating,” the experiences of people who claim to have been hurt seems to me a reasonable request if it signifies taking them seriously and responding empathetically.  If, however, it means that one must believe everything such people say and grant its complete accuracy without question, then it strikes me as a form of emotional blackmail and as remarkably cavalier and indifferent toward truth.

 

To take a dramatic parallel:  There are, of course, genuine rapes.  And rape is a terrible crime.  Moreover, rape victims have often, historically, been treated with cold and wounding skepticism.  I should hardly need to say that such responses are horribly wrong.  On the other hand, not every allegation of rape is true — and those who are accused of the offense are also entitled to a fair hearing and to justice.

 

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I’ve never been overly interested in paranormal phenomena — what’s sometimes called psi — such as clairvoyance, ESP, and spiritualism.  My worldview doesn’t demand that they be authentic or true.  Pretty obviously, though, their authenticity, if confirmed or even strongly evidenced, would tend to undermine certain reductionist materialist dogmas in a way that would be congenial to things that matter much more, and much more directly, to me.

 

In recent years, I’ve begun to wonder whether I shouldn’t take a more serious and open-minded look.  I had long thought that such things had been definitively discredited, but now I’m not so sure.  The first inkling that I had in that direction was a brief discussion, in one of his books (I no longer remember which) by the prominent Anglo-American philosopher John Hick, who had spent some time reading through the publications of England’s Society for Psychical Research.  He had emerged from that reading much more impressed than I had expected he would.

 

Then, several years ago, I read The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death, by Gary E. Schwartz, and I was more impressed than I had expected to be.

 

Thereupon, I read Extraordinary Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inexplicable Powers of the Human Mind by the late Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, and, again, I was surprised and impressed.

 

I’ll probably never get around to it, but it would be fascinating to seriously read through the publications of the London-based Society for Psychical Research, which may well have been relegated to the academic fringe not because its work wasn’t sound and rigorous but because its conclusions are ideologically incompatible with certain reigning dogmas.

 

I’ve been thinking about the SPR again since I read Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality by the controversial psychologist and professor Dr. Dean Radin.  Think of him what you will — he, personally, isn’t my focus at the moment — his brief discussion of the Society for Psychical Research is interesting.

 

The Society was founded around 1882 by, among others, the physicist Sir William Barrett, of the Royal College of Science in Dublin, Ireland.  Its members included the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, who became famous for his contributions to wireless telegraphy; the physicist Baron Rayleigh, brother-in-law to the British prime minister Arthur James Balfour and eventual winner of the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the inert gas argon; the astronomer Samuel P. Langley, director of the Smithsonian Institution; the great Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James; the astronomer Simon Newcomb, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the German physicist Heinrich Hertz, the first person to provide conclusive proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves (who died sadly young at 36); and Edward C. Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory.

 

The British physicist J. J. Thompson, who won a Nobel Prize in 1906 for his discovery of the electron, served for thirty-four years as a member of the Society’s Governing Council.  The French physiologist Charles Richet, who later won a Nobel Prize for his research on anaphylaxis, served as president of the Society for a time.

 

And so forth.

 

These weren’t mere pseudoscientific crackpots, lightly dismissed — and they believed that they had found solid evidence for psychic phenomena.  My sense is that many of their studies haven’t been refuted.  They’re simply out of fashion and no longer read.

 

Perhaps it’s time to dust some of their volumes off and take another look at their work.

 

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I close, though, with a pair of items from the Christopher Hitchens Memorial “How Religion Poisons Everything” File©:

 

“A religious upbringing may fuel academic success. Here’s how: New research explores the link between ‘intense’ religiosity and high school GPAs”

“The larger value two national journalists see in Latter-day Saint missions”

 

 


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