Science Moms: Fighting Fear with Facts and Empathy

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Science Moms is a short but important documentary that provides a calm, measured, evidence-based response to the many irrational, anti-science narratives that try to sell fear to parents and which are perpetuated by groups like Moms Across America and by individuals like Zen Honeycutt and Vani Hari (aka the “Food Babe”). The brainchild of Natalie Newell, one of the hosts of The Science Enthusiast Podcast, the documentary brings together a group of five women who are both scientists and mothers to counter bullshit in a non-threatening, accessible, and relatable way. In doing this, Science Moms helps fill a conspicuous gap; the vast majority of popular-level documentaries and websites that gear discussions about vaccines and GMOs toward parents are made by uninformed or dishonest people who understand how well fear sells, and who therefore rely on gross misrepresentation of scientific facts to push their narrative.

The exceptions to this trend are notable for their rarity. One such rare offering is Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s 2016 documentary Food Evolution. Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, this film presented the scientific facts concerning GMOs and the benefits of their use in food production with an engaging narrative style. Science Moms premiered in October 2017 at the annual QED (Question, Explore, Discover) conference in Manchester, England, and is poised to stand alongside Food Evolution as an example to scientists of what science communication and outreach should look like.

“Nature Will Kill You Really Quickly”

Science Moms opens with a quote from actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who said in an interview for the July 2013 issue of the British Cosmopolitan magazine, “We’re human beings and the sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you? I don’t think anything that’s natural can be bad for you.”

This is followed by a flat cut to plant geneticist Anastasia Bodnar saying, “Wow! I can make a list for her!” One can very easily and quickly come up with such a list of all the ways nature can kill you. In fact, the sun is one of them. The sun causes cancer, as neuroscientist Alison Bernstein points out in the movie. Being mauled by bears, lethally breaking your bones, freezing in extremely cold weather, burning to death in a forest fire, being poisoned and eaten alive by insects and spiders, and being ravaged by toxic bacteria are just a few of the ways that, as Kavin Senapathy remarks, “Nature will kill you really quickly.”

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It is abundantly clear that Gwyneth Paltrow did not think about what she was saying. And yet she’s not alone. The naturalistic fallacy, which is the often-instinctive association in many peoples’ minds of the word “natural” with that which is good and the word “unnatural” with that which is bad, is prevalent and commonplace. Ironically, the appeal to nature is frequently capitalized on by groups and individuals who are trying to sell products that are unconventional as far as mainstream science is concerned. This is especially the case in the organic food and “alternative medicine” industries. Parents are a favorite target demographic of the “all-natural” peddlers, who are typically fond of romanticizing traditional practices and “the way things used to be.” One particularly troubling and dangerous example of this neo-Luddism is the natural childbirth movement, whose advocates completely ignore the maternal and neonatal mortality rates that were extremely high prior to the advent of modern obstetrics.

When natural childbirth first came to America, the goals were very laudatory […] most especially to be able to bring a support person in with you when you were having a baby. And those were really good ideas. And by the early 1980s, the natural childbirth movement had achieved all its objectives. But instead of declaring victory and going home, they moved the goalposts. So before what was a birth that, you would have it your way essentially, now became a very stylized kind of thing. And they began promoting what they called ‘normal birth,’ which they believe recapitulated birth in nature. It really doesn’t, just like nothing we do recapitulates nature.

–– Amy Tuteur, obstetrician and author of Push Back: Guilt in the Age of Natural Parenting, on The Science Enthusiast Podcast (#019, September 28, 2016)

The Science Moms movie helps shatter the popular idealization of “natural parenting” and in the process, bridges the socially-constructed gap between scientists and the public. Like the five women she profiles in the movie, Natalie Newell is herself a mother. Like Gwyneth Paltrow, the six of them are “here as a mother” to care about giving their children the best life they can have. But unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, they have a passion for evidence-based parenting that doesn’t take privilege for granted and that’s informed by the best that modern science and technology offers.

Scientists Are People

The Science Moms’ origin story begins in August 2015, when a group of celebrity moms publicly took an anti-GMO stance, calling for the mandatory FDA labeling of GMOs on food products. One of these prominent celebrities was actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who in August 2015 went to Washington, DC to push the Just Label It campaign’s “Conceal or Reveal” petition for mandatory labels. “I’m not here as an expert,” she stated. “I’m here as a mother, an American mother, that honestly believes I have the right to know what’s in the food I feed my family.” In other words, her privileged status as a popular celebrity is the only thing that afforded her the opportunity to speak in front of lawmakers without bringing any actual scientific expertise to the table.

In response, a group of mothers who were all scientists or science communicators – women who were not just mothers but, unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, were also knowledgeable about GMOs – wrote an open letter to these celebrities. The “#Moms4GMOs” letter, posted on Kavin Senapathy’s Grounded Parents blog, explains in layperson terms the basics of plant breeding and genetic engineering, why they oppose mandatory labeling, and how we can all be confident GMOs are safe and beneficial. The authors begin their letter not only by stating their credentials, but also by laying common ground:

Dear Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ginnifer Goodwin, Sarah Gilbert, Jillian Michaels, Jordana Brewster, and other celebrity moms speaking against the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act:

We are scientists, science communicators, and farmers. We come from varying educational backgrounds, work in different careers, live across the country, and are of different ethnicities. Like you, we are moms.

. . . Please, don’t co-opt motherhood and wield your fame to oppose beneficial technologies like genetic engineering. . . . We, like millions of other Americans, line up to see your movies, and respect your occupation. Though our jobs differ, we share a common goal: to raise healthy, happy, successful kids. As moms we feel it is our responsibility to use the best available information to protect our children’s health, and to let the best science inform the choices we make for our families. We ask you to take the time to learn about how genetic engineering is being used by farmers, and the potential it has to help other moms raise healthy, happy, successful kids.

Included among the signers of the letter were the five women profiled in the Science Moms movie: Dr. Anastasia Bodnar, Dr. Alison Bernstein, Dr. Layla Katiraee, Jenny Splitter, and Kavin Senapathy. This letter came to the attention of Natalie Newell, who has a degree in psychology and has been interested in scientific skepticism since the time she took an irrational behavior course as an undergrad at Connecticut College. She has worked in the field of early childhood education as a Montessori preschool teacher and as a private school principal. Having worked with children and parents on a regular basis, she is no stranger to the culture of fear and misinformation that crops up in conversations about parenting in these environments, including unsolicited and scientifically-dubious advice given to her about how she should raise her own little ones. When I talked to Natalie on my podcast, she recounted the story of how she found encouragement and solidarity from reading the Grounded Parents letter while feeding her son in the middle of the night and what prompted her to begin the process of making her own film:

“I’m reading this letter thinking, ‘Oh okay, there are other moms and women out there who feel the same way I do about food and about these issues. That’s really cool.’ . . . I kind of connected with that in the moment. And then as I was thinking about it, and thinking about the whole narrative around parenting, which is so based in fear, here are these women doing something different. Is there a way to shine a little bit of a spotlight on them? And I contacted them and just said, ‘I think you guys could be a movie.’ So that’s what it was. And so Kavin and Anastasia, Jenny, Alison, and Layla, they were like ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ And so this documentary project was born.”

Science-loving skeptics who are fans of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be disappointed to learn that Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is counted among the celebrities who took a public stand against GMOs and signed the “Conceal or Reveal” petition. All five of the moms featured in Science Moms happen to be Buffy fans, and hearing some of them describe their reaction to Gellar’s promotion of anti-GMO propaganda is just one example of many that could be cited of how the movie makes these moms relatable to the public. “People perceive scientists as being these very serious people, maybe off working in their labs,” says Kavin Senapathy in the movie. “But, I mean, scientists love Buffy too, you know.”

“Layla and I are both huge Buffy fans. Huge Buffy fans,” says Alison Bernstein at one point. “So when we saw that Sarah Michelle Gellar had spoken out against GMOs, one of us said that we were slain.”  (Although, it turns out that the year before promoting the mandatory GMO labeling petition, Gellar helped co-found a cooking company called Foodstirs that produces baking kits containing only organic and non-GMO ingredients and which are unsurprisingly expensive.)

In the movie, Dr. Layla Katiraee talks about another piece of popular culture that inspired her to pursue a career in science. “When I was in high school, Jurassic Park came out. And I loved Jurassic Park. The scientists in there were doing awesome things, and I started wondering, you know, was any of that possible? I never actually became a genetic engineer, I became a molecular biologist. But those were the things that led me down that path.”

Scientists are people too with day-to-day lives, hopes, dreams, and interests that anybody can relate to, and within its first five minutes, Science Moms profiles more than just women who are scientists ensconced in a lab. It profiles the other aspects of who they really are. These scientists are moms. They like fun things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jurassic Park, and they care about their families just as much as any other parent. This movie humanizes them and connects them to all of us. Alison touches on this nicely very early in the film:

“Scientists are not portrayed well in TV shows and movies. We’re real, normal people. So I wrote this whole article about all the things about me that are normal. Like, I play tennis, I have two cats, I like to cook, I like to do arts and crafts, I have two kids. I just happen to, for my job, do science.”


Kavin Senapathy opens the movie’s section on food health and GMOs by quoting Vani “Food Babe” Hari, a popular blogger and video producer, who became infamous for stating in her 2015 book The Food Babe Way that “there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever.” Without any scientific or medical training whatsoever, Vani Hari presumes to dole out advice about food and nutrition and has built her popularity on a foundation of fear surrounding “hidden toxins in your food” and baseless chemophobia. She has enjoyed immense success in the art of instilling fear of chemicals in many people. “The fact is,” Kavin points out in the movie, “everything is made out of chemicals, and chemicals are everything.” When the organic industry tries to sell something by marketing it as “chemical-free,” they are lying to consumers. But people who have been misled by the Food Babe are the people for whom this marketing ploy works so well. The individuals and groups who make products claiming to be chemical-free are profiting on misinformation and scientific illiteracy.

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The movie launches into an accessible and non-intimidating discussion of transgenesis and other processes that use GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in food production and the benefits they confer to public health, the environment, and the economy. It also clears up several popular misconceptions and urban myths that have grown up around the issue of GMOs and food.

And these myths are everywhere. Kavin remarks, “If you put into Google, ‘what is a GMO,’ the first few Google results are bullshit. They’re not science-based, they’re not reputable sources, they’re going to be websites that are sponsored by the organic industry to scare you about your food.” To witness multiple cringe-inducing examples of the kind of fearmongering to which Kavin refers, one need only run a Google Image search for “GMO.” This will yield images of a fetus being grown inside a tomato, tomatoes with stitches, and tomatoes and other vegetables being injected with liquids of various colors from a hypodermic needle. Like watching a bad, B-grade movie, these images would be hilarious if not for the sad fact that they are made and viewed by people who believe this is how GMOs are made.

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“Genetic engineering does not involve syringes with needles. It’s just not how it works,” says Alison. “I mean, it might be kind of like people inject marinade into their turkey breast when they cook. That might be what you kind of get when you inject something into a tomato.”

Another common food myth that Science Moms addresses is the claim that the organic industry never uses pesticides in its processes. The fact is that if someone wants to avoid pesticides, they are not going to do so by eating only organic produce. In fact, several of the pesticides used in organic farming are worse for the environment and for human health than the pesticides typically used in conventional farming, which has become sophisticated in its regulatory practices. Meanwhile, the only practice at which the organic industry has become sophisticated is in convincing the public that organic is pesticide-free to the point that the claim is more often assumed to be true than questioned at any length.

In the cultural debates about food health and safety and the controversies over “natural” versus synthetic food, we often forget just how privileged we are as consumers in modern-day life to have access to an abundant food supply. In the developed world, farmers who have devoted their lives to producing food and scientists who have devoted theirs to finding ways to enhance that food through biotechnology have afforded the rest of us the power of choice. Too often we take that choice for granted. First-world consumers who fall for marketing campaigns that promise “pure” or “100% clean” food products have been afforded the privilege of choosing that expensive lifestyle because of the efforts of scientists and conventional farmers whose work completely debunks that “purity” standard over which people obsess. Purity in food does not exist. All farming and food production relies on artificial and synthetic processes. We are no longer hunter-foragers who eat what nature offers raw, and as a result we live longer than 30 years. The fabled Garden of Eden never existed in nature, and the science of genetics has demonstrated that there is no such thing as a perfect platonic form of anything nature offers us. The food traits we all find the most desirable and attractive – such as the nonbrowning trait that has been bioengineered into Arctic™ Apples, to take just one example that plant geneticist Anastasia cites in the movie – are all the result of modern biotechnological processes, which are unnatural by definition. Ignorance and irrational fear of science is what mediates and catalyzes peoples’ failure to place their privileged situation in context by appreciating just how abundant and safe our food supply is compared to poorer countries. “And that’s where it doesn’t become about us living in the United States in our comfy houses,” Layla points out in the movie. “It becomes about other people in distant lands that we may not know and are genuinely suffering from hunger.”

The movie also seeks to highlight the often-overlooked farming profession and open lines of communication and understanding between farmers and the people who rely heavily on them, including both scientists and laypeople. This is important because communicative barriers between groups of people is what has allowed anti-GMO ideologues to demonize various technologically sophisticated farming methods. For example, when anti-GMO activists push the oversimplified narrative of “factory farms,” as in Robert Kenner’s popular documentary film Food, Inc., their motivation is to dehumanize the process by which the food we eat makes its way into our grocery stores. In contrast, Science Moms takes a refreshingly humanizing look at the farming industry, highlighting the humanity of the people who are growing food. This is another way in which the movie is intersectional and breaks down the walls people build between each other out of fear or loyalty to our tribe.

Once somebody believes that you have the same values that they do, and that you care about things similar to them, then all of the sudden their barometer on, ‘Is this a person trying to convince me of something?’ is way, way lower. They’re much more like, ‘Hey, this person is like me, I’m okay with hearing what they have to say, hearing their information, and maybe I could take that information on.’

 […] I go talk to farmers a lot, and one of the pieces of advice that I’m always giving them is, if you show up to a disagreement about the safety or quality of the food, and you say, ‘I’m a farmer, listen to me,’ they won’t listen to you. But if you show up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got kids,’ or, ‘I have a family, I drink water, I care about the environment, I love being outdoors,’ then all of the sudden people are like, ‘Oh, you’re like me, and you’re a farmer, and I’m much more interested in hearing that.

–– Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto, on The Science Enthusiast Podcast (#012, August 10, 2016)

Farming is by and large a generational and family-oriented vocation. The land on which they produce food belongs to them, and they have very strong incentive to remain solvent in business, which necessitates having some knowledge of biotechnology and economics. This is why the anti-GMO narrative of the “simple farmer” who is fooled by biotech corporations like Monsanto into poisoning their land is ridiculously false. Contrary to the misinformation being propagated by activist groups, Monsanto does not own farms and are not planting seeds themselves. This is an important point that Anastasia brings up in the movie:

“When you come down to it, people aren’t farmers because . . . it’s not like venture capital or something like that, where you’re just in it to make money. They’re there because they love it, because they love producing food. And so whether it’s the corn that goes into making corn syrup or some heirloom tomato that you get at the farmer’s market, it’s love that’s coming to you through the farm.”

Science Moms is also clearly a labor of love; it speaks directly to people who may be easily convinced by fear-based antiscience memes by seeking out common ground as a starting point and meeting concerned citizens where they are. Its central, overriding message is that parents do not need to be scared or paranoid about food and medicine. And the moms in this movie understand these fears and empathize with them. Alison talks candidly about when, during pregnancy, she used to be afraid and paranoid of anything that wasn’t organic or BPA-free. Jenny, whose child has a peanut allergy, talks about times she has experienced irrational fears about what her child is exposed to and reassures the movie’s target audience that “it’s normal to freak out.”

Alison and Jenny both learned that keeping children safe, healthy, and happy does require turning oneself into a nervous and paranoid wreck of a person dominated by stress. With just a little critical thinking, they were able to avoid going the debilitating and unstable route of Sophie, a character played by actress Zoe Lister-Jones in Consumed, a poorly-written and ill-conceived drama film which tells the story of a single mother who slowly descends into complete paranoia and insanity as she searches for answers to the mysterious persistence of her young son’s rash symptoms. Along the way, she experiences a nervous breakdown in a grocery store, rips open her bed with a letter opener with which she later threatens her own mother, and throws rocks at the window of a junkyard crane. The movie ends in the stands of a football stadium, where Sophie is trying to enjoy watching a sporting event with her mother and son. But when she takes note of all the people around her eating terrible food, the camera zooms in slowly on the look of sheer, paralyzing terror that comes over her face while the woeful strains of Jim Reeves’ classic country song “Welcome to My World” plays suggestively in the background. Then the credits roll.

This is not some exaggerated caricature of a crunchie mom written by a snarky science-savvy humorist. Sophie is supposed to a protagonist in what the writers of the film, which includes Lister-Jones herself, intended to be a serious cautionary tale. The anti-GMO, organic-only movement wants you to be afraid of everything. I have never been a parent myself, but I feel fairly confident in asserting that this is not a good way to go about parenting and that a fear-based mindset can only result in making both parents’ and children’s lives miserable. Jenny, who is a parent, can back me up on this:

“There’s just only so much you can do. So you may as well just enjoy being a parent … other than like the basic safety stuff, which you can fit on a half a page, you do not need to be freaking out about when you introduce solids or whether they do baby-led weaning or not … When your kids are 10, 12, no one’s talking about whether they were breastfed on the playground or when you picked them up from school. You don’t get to, like, carry the medal with you throughout parenthood. So just don’t worry about it, you know?”

Parents want what’s best for their children, and knowing how to tell the difference between reliable, trustworthy sources of information and anti-science bullshit can be a daunting task if all they hear are the voices of cynicism and fear who have an investment in selling bullshit and who take advantage of the fact that parents are an easy target. “If you can scare a parent,” says Kavin in the movie, “then of course they’re going to shell out extra for the alternative.” Later in the movie, Jenny adds, “Moms are a big, high-spending demographic, because people are willing to spend money on their kids.” Individuals and companies invested in selling bullshit understand this all too well. They are very adept at using buzz words that strike a chord with moms, making them feel not just afraid, but also that they are doing the right thing by buying organic or avoiding GMOs. This is why anti-GMO activist Jeffrey M. Smith, an outspoken apologist for nutritional woo, stated in a 2015 lecture delivered to the Hippocrates Health Institute that, “Our Institute for Responsible Technology is now gearing up an education program, not focused on the Whole Foods shopper, but on the Wal-Mart shopper. . . . We need to go to the more receptive demographic groups. Moms – you give information to a tiger mom, you get out of the way. Moms are a key demographic.”

Science Moms takes an important stand against this cynical and demeaning attitude toward mothers, which is infuriatingly common among purveyors of organic-only marketing campaigns. The women in this movie take scared mothers by the hand and tells them, we understand your concerns, and we want to show you a better way to take care of your children and yourself, because you are a human being who doesn’t deserve to be exploited by an anti-science movement that wants to keep you constantly scared and stressed out.

Every parent wants to feel like they are doing everything within their power to keep their kids safe, healthy, and happy. Science Moms validates these feelings in the best way possible: by refusing to call the intelligence of young mothers into question – something which cannot be said of Jeffrey Smith and his ilk – and gently explaining that the fruits of modern science, once understood and utilized, have the potential to empower mothers of young children. Most young parents fall for the anti-GMO, “all-natural” propaganda simply because it has been so popularized by the organic industry. This is an industry that is happy to take advantage of the fact that many of them simply don’t have the time or energy to wade past all the bullshit in the first few pages of Google results and devote serious effort to find and read the peer-reviewed information about biotechnology and food safety. Jenny makes this point early in the film:

“I feel like a lot of people I meet, actually they’re not so anti-GMO. They haven’t had time to research it because they’re busy and they’re not that interested in it. So they just figure, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll just pick the organic option, because I’ve heard, I have some vague sense, that maybe that’s better for my kids.”

As it turns out, anti-science groups who are heavily invested in the organic industry do not need to do much of the legwork to spread their misinformation. Once the “natural equals healthy” meme has been planted in the popular imagination through very little effort, concerned parents will perpetuate the “vague sense” they have acquired that GMOs are dangerous in the way they talk to other parents. This creates a cultural environment conducive to what social psychologists call “group polarization.” In his book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (Virgin Books, 2008, p. 136), Canadian journalist Dan Gardner provides the following explanation of this phenomenon:

Decades of research has proved that groups usually come to conclusions that are more extreme than the average view of the individuals who make up the group. When opponents of a hazardous waste site gather to talk about it, they will become convinced the site is more dangerous than they originally believed. When a woman who believes breast implants are a threat gets together with women who feel the same way, she and all the women in the meeting are likely to leave believing they had previously underestimated the danger. The dynamic is always the same. It doesn’t matter what the subject under discussion is. It doesn’t matter what the particular views are. When like-minded people get together and talk, their existing views tend to become more extreme.

The results of group polarization are not pretty, and it has doubtless contributed to many scary and highly dangerous practices that parents inflict on their children in the name of “alternative medicine.” Science Moms addresses this subject as well, moving on from discussing the safety and benefits of GMOs to a discussion of the real dangers that come from eschewing vaccines and relying on the empty promises of homeopathy and other alternative medicine practices.


It is a sad fact of life that irrational fear, coupled with an aversion to conventional medical science, can make parents capable of doing downright insane things to their young children. I asked a group of science-minded parents in a Facebook group to share with me some of these practices they have heard about and investigated, and the list is long and horrifying: baby teething tablets containing belladonna, celebration of childhood illness as a natural phase by throwing “chicken pox parties,” mothers taking extreme measures to avoid formula by buying other mothers’ breast milk with which to feed their babies, industrial-grade bleach enemas to “cure” autistic children (incidentally, this is something Alison Bernstein has been speaking out against and raising awareness about), allowing chiropractors to “align” the spine of infants, and a wide range of other “alternative and complementary medicine” (CAM) practices that children are exposed to without choice. In Alberta Canada, a 19-month-old toddler died of meningitis in 2012 because his parents tried to treat him with natural remedies such as ginger root, olive leaf extract, and maple syrup. They also took him to be treated by a naturopath instead of a qualified doctor. Sadly, people do not always learn from their mistakes, even when the same tragedy occurs in the same region and for the same reasons. A year later in Alberta, a seven-year-old boy died of a severe strep throat infection and meningitis because his mother did not take him to a doctor, relying instead on dandelion tea and oil of oregano as natural home remedies.

Children die because of the poor decisions made on their behalf by adults who buy into bogus and ignorant claims about medicine and health that are based not on evidence but on exploitation of fear. When the modern snake-oil merchants of junk science and woo begin offering their unqualified advice on medicine and health, they cross a line from disseminating bullshit that is relatively benign to disseminating highly dangerous bullshit that can and does result in the death of children. This is why it is necessary for those of us who care about science and the lives of other human beings to tread into the potentially uncomfortable and tricky waters of talking critically about “alternative medicine.” Science Moms does this with its critical discussion of homeopathy.

Who would believe that the cure for whatever ails you is a substance that causes or exacerbates the symptoms of whatever it is you are suffering? Who would believe that the “mechanism” by which this is achieved involves diluting that the ingredients of said substance in water over and over again until literally none of the original ingredients remains in the water, not so much as a single molecule? Finally, who would believe that the reason this is supposed to make sense us because water somehow retains a memory of the substance it contained prior to repeated dilutions?

These are the beliefs lying at the foundation of homeopathy, one of the most popular and widely-embraced alternative medicine products in the world. When Alison tries to explain homeopathy in the movie, she clearly has a difficult time keeping a straight face (and who can blame her?). But very few people who buy homeopathic remedies are even aware that these are the actual claims being made by professional homeopaths. Most seem to think it is simply another one of the many “natural” medicine products available. People do not need to be stupid or superstitious to fall for the oblique marketing approach of homeopathic remedies. In fact, homeopathy grabs hold of even very highly intelligent people, as we find out in Science Moms when Layla relates her experience with homeopathy: “As embarrassing as it is, I tried it when I was a first mom, because I genuinely didn’t know. And then later on, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s why it didn’t work.’ . . . I basically just gave them sugar water, which I could have made at home, and saved myself a couple bucks.” Here is a mother, who also happens to be a molecular biologist, reassuring viewers that she is just like any of them in being susceptible to error and showing them that knowledge empowers us all to make better decisions. In much the same way as the cult religion Scientology does not succeed in winning converts if potential initiates know from the start what kinds of beliefs it involves – i.e., belief that all humans are possessed by the spirits of long-dead alien beings who were brought to Earth and hydrogen-bombed in volcanoes many millions of years ago by an evil alien being named Xenu – I submit that if more people understood the actual origins and beliefs of homeopathy, it would not sell nearly as well as it does.

Homeopathy is a fitting subject with which to introduce a more general discussion of CAM, because the fact that homeopathic solutions contain nothing more than water means that they are no more effective than a placebo in alleviating symptoms. This turns out to be the case with the vast majority of CAM treatments and products. The fact of the matter is that there simply is no “alternative medicine.” Any alternative to conventional medicine that turns out to be safe and effective after surviving the gauntlet of rigorous scientific research and testing is simply medicine. Adding qualifiers like “alternative” or “complementary” to medical treatments is even more meaningless than the “organic” and “non-GMO verified” labels are when the latter are applied to food products and leads to just as much needless obfuscation and confusion in the public. Almost by definition, any treatment or product that claims to be alternative is one that holds a damning investment in taking shortcuts around the scientific method. And yet, people in the United States spend upwards of $34 billion per year on unregulated and untested “alternative medicine” products, while simultaneously feeling afraid and even hateful towards hugely beneficial and life-saving medical advances like vaccination, which is demonstrably safe and effective at preventing the spread of fatal diseases.

Ironically, when people who are opposed to vaccination urge others, especially parents, to “do your research” on vaccines, they are not speaking from a position of knowledge or expertise acquired by doing research of their own. Their opposition to vaccines rests on a series of unsupportable claims, all of which have been conclusively shown to be false by numerous peer-reviewed studies. The appeal to nature fallacy that we encountered before is used to encourage parents to fight their children’s disease “naturally.” Anti-vaxxers are also fond of downplaying the seriousness of certain diseases that vaccines are designed to ward off, and in so doing display their ignorance of history. Alison makes this point very well in the movie, bringing her own personal family history to bear on the seriousness of the matter:

“I think if most of us asked our grandparents, who were alive before the polio vaccine, and you talked to them about vaccines, their perspective on vaccines is hugely different because they all knew someone who died of polio, who died of measles. This isn’t vaccines, it’s antibiotics, but it’s similar. My great-grandparent had a child between my grandmother and her older sister who died of scarlet fever, which is strep throat. So, do we really want to go back to a time when children die of strep throat? I don’t.”

In the late 1990s, scientists failed to replicate British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield’s hypothesized progression of infectious measles replication in the gut to a neuro-inflammatory response in the brain resulting in autism. But the modern anti-vaccination movement that Wakefield almost single-handedly helped create did not give up. They held up Wakefield as a hero, even after it was revealed by an independent investigation that Wakefield’s article linking the MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. They also changed tactics, for example by fabricating false conspiracy-theory narratives about Big Pharma plotting to experiment on children to make a profit. Wakefield’s downfall as a credible medical doctor did not end with him being struck off the medical registry for his fraudulent actions and ethically questionable research methods and stripped of his license to practice medicine. He was scraping at the bottom of the barrel in 2014 with the release of an anti-vaccination propaganda film he made called Vaxxed which perpetuates one such conspiracy theory, this one involving an alleged cover-up by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to hide the link between vaccines and autism. This conspiracy theory was based on nothing more than snippets of recorded phone conversations taken out of context by a biased interlocutor who clearly had a conflict of interest and a grudge. Yet another tactic of the anti-vaccination movement has been to push the claim that the main culprit for autism in young children was the dangerous chemical ingredients alleged to be contained in the vaccine, such as mercury or thimerosal. These claims were also debunked, and so the anti-vaxxers have shifted the goalposts yet again. The current popular myth going around is the idea that children are being unnecessarily bombarded by vaccines “too many, too soon,” a myth that has unfortunately gained much traction in popular culture in recent years.

The number of antigens – the number of actual things that your immune system has to react to – has gone down dramatically in the last 60 years. So it’s been a continuous decrease process. Even though the number of shots has gone up, the challenge to the immune system has actually gone down. And that’s because we’re no longer giving whole killed cells; we now know what it is that the immune system needs to recognize. We only give that one particular component to the immune system to generate the right kind of antibodies that are going to protect us against that disease. So the antigenic load has actually gone down. It’s gone opposite to whatever trend they think autism is experiencing. . . . And again, how does this all work in the absence of other factors? How is it that “too many” is resulting in any kind of negative outcome? But of course it gets echoed around. Donald Trump tweeted out that hey, maybe we shouldn’t cram them full of so many vaccines. There you go.

–– Science communicator and vlogger C0nc0rdance, on The Science Enthusiast Podcast (#026, November 23, 2016)

It’s a sad commentary on the state of science literacy and critical thinking in the United States and elsewhere that scientists have been obliged to spend their valuable time and energy responding to misinformation that has deadly consequences. Scientists and educators have struggled to counter anti-vax propaganda effectively, because anti-vax propagandists are adept at communicating in ways carefully designed to strike at raw emotions and fire up peoples’ amygdalae. The challenge for people who care about reaching people who need to be exposed to critical thinking is to resist the inclination to provide just the facts. Extra steps are necessary to connect science and skepticism to the core emotional values that people hold near and dear. Yes, the facts are the facts. They are arrived at through the convergence of multiple lines of evidence that is freely available for anyone to see and understand for themselves. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe and beneficial, that vaccines are safe and effective at preventing and potentially eliminating deadly diseases, and that alternative medicine cannot be relied upon to keep ourselves alive and healthy. Unfortunately, however, human nature is such that presenting just the bare facts is usually not sufficient to change the minds of people who are on the wrong side of the science. The psychological literature on why this is the case is enormous, but even the more reductive field of neuroscience has proved itself capable of touching on this subject in illuminating ways. One such illuminating study, published in 2009 by neuroscientist Sam Harris and colleagues, showed that the region of our brains which is used to form and hold beliefs, namely the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is the same region used to process ordinary facts. What this means is that beliefs and facts are processed in our brains in essentially the same way.

Science Moms seeks to break through this entanglement, not only by explaining the science in a non-intimidating and accessible manner, but also by injecting a personal touch to the topics being discussed. The movie’s approach is encapsulated in its simple and straightforward title. The women in this movie are scientists and they are mothers. Scientific information is being provided while an immediate personal connection is formed. Any mother who watches this movie, including those who shop at Whole Foods, believe in homeopathy, or are afraid of vaccines, can find at least that basic common ground of what it’s like to be a mom. Using common ground as a starting point for educating the public about science lowers emotional defenses and makes people more receptive to information that they may have ignored or rejected if it had been stripped down to the level of cold, hard facts.

In addition to serving as an educational outreach tool, Science Moms also offers encouragement to science-minded people who already have a grasp on the information being presented. It’s a much-needed reminder to parents who accept the science that there is a community of people who are enthusiastic about evidence-based parenting. If you are a skeptical parent and/or science communication activist who feels a sense of isolation or estrangement from being surrounded by junk science and nonsense beliefs about food and health in your corner of the world, this is the movie for you. You will find encouragement from knowing that you are not the only person who is not afraid of trusting credible conventional pediatricians or of feeding your children processed foods. Let the women in Science Moms embolden you to speak out and often in support of science and following the evidence where it leads.

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The Passion of the Christ: Torture, Anti-Semitism, and Ideological Fantasy


During the filming of Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, the actor portraying the character of Jesus (Jim Caviezel) was struck by lightning twice, in two separate incidents and in two separate places. Apparently the filmmakers, most of whom were Catholic, did not take the hint. The movie was finished and released to the public on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004. Now, I am an atheist and a thoroughgoing naturalist. I do not believe that an actor getting struck twice by lightning constitutes a supernatural sign or omen, even when that actor is portraying Jesus Christ. But as pious Catholics, most of the filmmakers and Caviezel himself should!

The entertainment news media back in late 2003 made much of the fact that The Passion of the Christ was going to be an extremely gory film with heavy amounts of violence. But connoisseurs of American entertainment are, I think, so accustomed to the media generating much empty hype over movie violence and also accustomed to some people overreacting as a result. The collective, unspoken assumption on the part of the moviegoing public seems to have been that, with Christians doing most of the talking about the violence aspect, the movie couldn’t be all that bad.

But The Passion of the Christ ended up shocking the moviegoing public and taking them by surprise. The highlight of the movie is the scene in which Jesus gets scourged, a scene that is surely one of the most difficult scenes in cinematic history to sit through, regardless of one’s beliefs. In the movie, the scourge is a large whip with small chunks of spikes, pieces of glass, and cat o’ nine tails affixed to its tip. These accouterments work over the body of Jesus in loving slow-motion detail as his flesh is literally ripped to shreds.

Does the extremely violent and bloody content in this movie serve a larger point? In one sense, perhaps, it does. As a pious and devout Catholic, Mel Gibson’s motivation in delivering a shock-and-awe spectacle to viewers was theological in nature; he wanted viewers to feel the intensity of what their sin did to Jesus. This is the function that Passion Plays since the Middle Ages have always been intended to serve. But in making this movie, Gibson was being creepily overzealous. In the final analysis, knowing when that point of theological shaming and guilt comes across is largely a matter of one’s own personal judgment (as opposed to an objective limit) to decide whether watching thirty minutes of someone being flayed alive on screen gets the intended point across any more effectively than, say, four or five minutes of it. But for most people, 2 hours and 6 minutes of a bloody and violent theological guilt-trip is overkill. How do these 126 minutes break down? Well, for about the first five minutes, Jesus is physically fine, if not emotionally stable. For the final few minutes, he is optimally healthy in his resurrection body. But every single minute in between, he is constantly and mercilessly beaten into blood-soaked hamburger meat.

This film is sure to take the wind out of anyone who watches it for the first time, and the viewing experience does not get any less unpleasant on multiple viewings. But does The Passion of the Christ work as a piece of film narrative? I for one am not convinced that it does, for two reasons. The first has to do with the purely ideological motive that drove the production. If anything is clear and obvious about this movie, it is that Mel Gibson was making this movie for Christians. Months before it was released, the evangelical Protestant Right – which is not a group usually seen allying themselves with “those Mary-worshippers” like Mel Gibson – were making the rounds in news editorials and reviews strongly rallying support for the film and talking enthusiastically about what a powerful conversion tool they anticipated it would be for their cause.

More importantly, the other reason The Passion fails as meaningful narrative is that it is devoid of context. The movie begins in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is arrested at night by Roman guards and hauled off in chains. Then the beatings begin. Now, while there is such a thing as too much exposition, this movie had none whatsoever. There is very little actual storytelling involved, and the viewer is not provided any context whatsoever for why all the bloody violence is happening or even why we should care. Those who go into the movie not knowing much about Jesus or Peter or Mary will not understand it and will be completely lost from beginning to end.

Of course, the argument can be made that most of the people who walked into theaters to see this movie, especially in America, were already more than sufficiently familiar with the Jesus story. Certainly all Christians are familiar with it (or should be), and in fact most thoughtful and well-read atheists know the Jesus story even better than most Christians. Therefore, one might say, the lack of context perhaps should not be viewed as a big problem. However, if we examine The Passion strictly as a film narrative – that is, on its own internal merits and independent of external assumptions supplied by viewers – it is problematic that the movie provides no context for why a man is being beaten mercilessly to a bloody pulp for two straight hours. The movie fails to establish Jesus Christ as a character, that is, establish who he is, what he does and why exactly it is that he angers both religious and secular authorities so much that they literally beat him to death.

It seems that what Gibson did not want was just another Jesus movie that conformed to the same old formula and motifs that have characterized nearly all the other Jesus movies (i.e., Jesus is born in a manger, as a man he wanders about teaching and performing miracles for two hours or so, dies a heavily sanitized and nearly bloodless death before the obligatory dramatic resurrection scene at the end, etc.) Instead, part of Gibson’s intention was to focus on just the final twelve hours of Jesus’ life, highlighted by his scourging and his crucifixion. However, this actually does not make Gibson’s vision original or unique in any way. He is not breaking any new or bold ground here, because The Passion of the Christ is essentially just one more Passion Play to be added to the thousands that have been written and performed for centuries. Indeed, one might even say that pious Catholics of many past generations have wanted very much to produce a Passion Play as bloody and violent as Gibson’s but that they simply did not have the necessary funds or technology to achieve such great “special effects.”

Another interesting issue about this movie has to do with the transition from source material to script. The general rule in scriptwriting is that one page translates into one minute of screen time. One minute of screen time per page of script means that a standard film script is about 120 pages. Now, the total verses in the Bible that describe Jesus’s execution comprise much less than 120 pages. Even if a screenwriter were to combine the passion narratives of all four Gospels together, they still do not come anywhere close to filling two hours of film. Thus, The Passion of the Christ contains a great deal of filler, resulting in a movie that is slow, plodding, and overly deliberate at times. One of the longest continuous scenes in the movie, the 20-minute scourging sequence, is based entirely on a single verse: “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him” (John 19:1).

The filler in the movie consists of material not found in the Bible. In fact, the biblical passion accounts are not even the movie’s main source of inspiration. The movie’s script borrows heavily from the writings of the nineteenth century stigmatic and mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote a lengthy account of her esoteric visions of Jesus’ suffering and death in a work posthumously titled The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ[1] Emmerich’s influence largely accounts for the presence of several scenes in Gibson’s movie which are not found anywhere in the Gospels or elsewhere in Scripture. In one interview, Gibson said of Emmerich, “She supplied me with stuff I never would have thought of.” [2] One noteworthy case in point is what in my opinion constitutes the most bizarre scene of the entire film, the sequence in which Judas Iscariot (played by Luca Lionello) is hounded by little demonic children who torment him all night and in the morning drive him out into the countryside. This scene was based on the following passage from Emmerich’s work:

Then, but too late, anguish, despair, and remorse took possession of the mind of Judas. Satan instantly prompted him to fly. He fled as if a thousand furies were at his heel, and the bag which was hanging at his side struck him as he ran, and propelled him as a spur from hell; but he took it into his hand to prevent its blows . . . I again beheld him rushing to and fro like a madman in the valley of Hinnom: Satan was by his side in a hideous form, whispering in his ear, to endeavour to drive him to despair, all the curses which the prophets had hurled upon this valley, where the Jews formerly sacrificed their children to idols. [3]

However, there is one common theme running through the movie that unites both the biblical accounts and Emmerich’s work and which both sources have in common, namely anti-Semitic bigotry.

Anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ

At several points throughout her book of visions, Emmerich refers to the Jewish people using epithets that are not flattering, to say the least. Very early in the planning and pre-production stages of the movie, many reports began circulating which expressed concern that The Passion was going to be a horribly anti-Semitic film. This concern was based on the information that early drafts of the script were drawing from Emmerich’s writings, not just standard traditional texts like the Gospel of John, which is anti-Semitic enough on its own. Abraham N. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, described Emmerich’s work as “an anti-Jewish account [which] distorts New Testament interpretation by selectively citing passages to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism” [4]

This was by far the biggest source of controversy surrounding Gibson’s movie, even more so than the extreme violence. The movie features a large cast of bad Jewish characters, with only a few good Jewish characters thrown in here and there as a concession. On the other hand, there are plenty of bad Roman characters, including two particularly despicable human beings who glean a great deal of pleasure in their work of torturing and tormenting Jesus (reportedly, Gibson’s direction to these actors was to act as if they were throwing a baseball while bashing Caviezel). However, it is very telling that the high-ranking, important Romans are portrayed very charitably in this movie. Pontius Pilate (played by Hristo Shopov), the Roman prefect responsible for issuing the final order to crucify Jesus, is here depicted as a very courteous and well-mannered man. He does everything within his power to avoid condemning Jesus to crucifixion, but his hand is forced by a rather bloodthirsty mob of Jews. And this portrayal is in fact very consistent with and faithful to the Bible’s account. Chapter 19 of the Gospel of John has the Jewish mob crying out “Crucify him, crucify him” in unison, and also taking personal responsibility by declaring, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die” (vv. 6, 7). This declaration comes immediately after Pilate tries to tell them that he can find no basis on which to condemn Jesus. Thus, The Passion does remain true to the biblical story, in this regard at least. But it is worse than that; Gibson goes out of his way to really focus on this angle. Not only are the important Roman characters portrayed in the best possible light, but a strong case can be made that the high-ranking Jewish characters are portrayed in the worst possible light, as a cruel and bloodthirsty lot. In fact, just about every horrendous thing that happens in the movie is ultimately the fault of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest (played by Mattia Sbragia).

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four canonical gospels in the New Testament that goes out of its way to cast the Jews in a negative light. The scholarly consensus is that John was the latest of the four canonical gospels to be penned, having been written close to the year 100 CE, some 70 or 80 years after the events related. The gospel did not begin to be circulated abroad in earnest until well into the second century. The other three gospels place little blame on the Jews (Matthew 27:25, the infamous “blood libel” verse, is the striking exception). But John’s Gospel even goes so far as to put words in the Jews’ own mouths to the effect that they personally want to see Jesus crucified and that their own law demands it, as in John 19:6-7. By this point in late first-century history, Christianity was catching on with great success as a new religion. But with this success came pronounced embarrassment for the Christians when the vast majority of Jews were, to say the least, not wholeheartedly in favor of its message. As Thomas Whittaker writes,

As the orthodox Jews did not enthusiastically receive the new Gospel, or “glad tidings,” the responsibility for the death of the promised Redeemer began to be cast upon them, and withdrawn as much as possible from the Roman governor. Prophecies of the destruction of Jerusalem, and parables prefiguring the rejection of the unbelieving Jews from the promised kingdom, were put in the mouth of Jesus. The new sect turned more and more to the Gentiles. The feast is for all except those men who were first invited . . . [5]

Supposedly, Christ came to reveal himself as the “King of the Jews,” but the Jews responded with proper skepticism and doubt. Thus, the writer of the gospel attributed to John had ample political and theological motivation to portray the Jews as a villainous, murderous people, a portrayal that again is relatively absent from the other three canonical books. A strong case can be made that the author of John approached his gospel-writing project with a very specific and heavily propagandistic perspective on the events he describes. That is, the author seems to have had a vested interest in providing his readers a reason not to consider the Jews to be credible in their well-founded refutations of Christianity: they were responsible for Jesus’ death, and were henceforth a fallen people.

To the extent that Gibson’s Passion mirrors the anti-Semitism of John’s gospel, it is an ideological fantasy. It is not merely historically inaccurate[6] but overtly and pointedly ahistorical. This is especially seen in the movie’s characterization of Pilate. Extra-biblical historical sources inform us that the Pontius Pilate of history was a bloodthirsty tyrant who was actually recalled from his post in Judea for being too forceful in putting down religious dissent and keeping the Judean populace under the yoke, and also for ordering the crucifixion of too many people. Pilate even managed to offend and alienate the Emperor Tiberius with his extreme ruthlessness. This is significant, because Tiberius himself had a reputation for overseeing mass murder, and he is infamous to this day for his statement, “Let them hate me, so long as they support my government” [7]

In Chapter 18 of John, Jesus is arrested in the middle of the night and hauled away to Caiaphas, who proceeds to interrogate him. The gospel’s description of this interrogation reads just like a scene out of a mob movie. As Jesus is being questioned, a small number of Caiaphas’ henchmen stand around him. Whenever Jesus spouts his signature smart-ass answer in response to the high priest’s questions (i.e., “Well, as a matter of fact, I am the son of God”), the priestly henchmen are there to rough him up.

Then Jesus is taken before Pilate, and immediately a stark contrast is presented. Pilate displays a very gentle disposition toward Jesus, and they even come very close to engaging in philosophical discourse! The overall impression we get of Pilate, both from reading the biblical account and from watching Gibson’s movie adaptation, is that he is a misunderstood and tormented man who feels pressured by external forces working against him to crucify a man he believes is innocent. The late philosopher and skeptic Paul Kurtz, in his review of the film, notes that, “In the depiction of Emmerich and Gibson, the Jews come off as the main enemies of Jesus, provoking the Romans not only to crucify him, but to torture him and inflict maximum suffering. I think the point in the film is even more anti-Jewish: it’s that Pilate tries to placate the Jews with the beatings, but they won’t be satisfied – some real blood-thirstiness here!” [8] We will have more to say about the Barabbas scene later.

By consciously taking inspiration from Emmerich’s visions and from the Gospel of John, Gibson definitely committed himself to the bigoted direction in which his cinematic vision was to go. Still, several of Gibson’s defenders have argued that Gibson is not blaming the Jews specifically for Christ’s torture and death in this film, but rather pointing the finger at corrupt bureaucrats, i.e., people who are in charge or in positions of great political power, regardless of status as Jew or Roman or anything else. For example, Gibson’s supporters are quick to draw attention to the very poignant scene in which a Jewish bystander on the Via Dolorosa is ordered by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross. This he does against his will at first, but then feels an unspoken bond to Jesus by the time they near the crucifixion site. And yet I cannot help but suspect, cynical as the suspicion may be, that the underlying message in this scene is that the Jews who hold positions of power and influence – i.e., the ones actually involved with promoting the Jewish religion – are evil and villainous at heart. Members of the Jewish peasantry, like the man who assists Jesus in carrying his cross, are patronizingly viewed simply as “little people,” who simply go about their daily lives and mind their own business, ignorant of their status as naïve pawns in a corrupt religious system. We can point to the Caiaphas character as a counter-argument to Gibson’s defenders. Caiaphas serves as something of a composite figure, representative of the collective group of Jewish elders in the Temple as a whole. And they are all unambiguously and unmistakably depicted as the main villains in Gibson’s movie.

Finally, it is highly significant and telling that the self-directed curse uttered by the Jewish mob in Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us, and on our children”) is actually included as a line in the movie. Gibson had claimed that he removed the line from the movie’s final cut, but in reality the only thing he removed were the subtitles for the line. Viewers who understood Aramaic quickly caught on to this little “Easter egg.”

Those who do not already harbor anti-Semitic prejudices going in will most likely not end up becoming anti-Semitic going out. And yet, people who do feel such prejudices will certainly be able to garner a great deal of ammunition for their already-existing anti-Semitism by watching this film. Charging Gibson’s movie with anti-Semitism should be accompanied by an acknowledgment that the anti-Semitism we are reacting to does not start with him. There is plenty of fuel for anti-Semitic sentiment in the pages of Scripture. The problem is that devout, Bible-believing people who do not consciously hold repugnant anti-Semitic views have nevertheless unthinkingly committed themselves to saying they believe every word of the Bible to be true. This they do not knowing that the Bible contains many ideas and viewpoints that most people in civilized society today would never want to associate with. Most people who say they believe the Bible to be a perfect guide to life simply have not read the whole book. They have just heard from their preachers that they are supposed to accept the whole book as truth in order to avoid hellfire, so they say they do.

More Historical Errors and Embellishments

We have seen that the movie’s portrayals of Pontius Pilate and of high-ranking Jewish characters such as Caiaphas are ideological in nature and not based on history. This is decidedly the case with all the other characters featured in the movie. In this section, we’ll examine some prominently-featured characters and take note of the artistic license and embellishments Gibson indulges in for each one, starting with Jesus himself.


Throughout history, it has been typical for passion plays to represent the Christ figure as being distinctly European, even Anglo-Saxon, in appearance. The “European Christ” is the most traditional rendering that originated, of course, with the Roman Catholic Church. It remained a staple feature of most all Passion Plays for many centuries, and the vast majority of Hollywood’s portrayals of Jesus owe much to the Roman Catholic Church in this regard. There is hardly anything new about it.

The Passion of the Christ is certainly no exception and breaks no new ground in this area. While actor Jim Caviezel in his role as Jesus looks somewhat Semitic, he does so only in the modern sense. The movie’s make-up artists did not manage to capture what Jews in first century Palestine probably looked like. If a historical Jesus existed, he would most likely appear to all eyes as a nondescript Arab peasant. Any attempt by dramatists to make the Jesus character stand out from the crowd, and especially to be a white Caucasian, is therefore highly inaccurate.

A common tactic that has often been used in Passion Plays throughout history was to make Jesus appear almost Aryan, complete with blue eyes and beautifully-groomed blonde hair, as a point of contrast to the villainous and very Semitic-looking Jews. Such depictions belied either ignorance or apathy toward the fact that Jesus, assuming he existed, would himself have been a practicing Jew. This prejudicial typecasting has a long history. Even in paintings from a thousand years ago which depict crucifixion and other passion scenes, we see a distinctly Aryan Christ surrounded by people who are clearly made to conform to the popular prejudicial stereotype of what a Jew looks like. And while some people will make more of it than others, there are indeed a lot of “hooked noses” so to speak among the shouting mobs in The Passion of the Christ.

It should be noted that Jesus’ physical appearance is not described anywhere in the Bible, and there is not even much detail to be found anywhere, biblical or otherwise, concerning his heritage. Even if we had good, solid, rock-hard evidence that a man fitting the basic description of the biblical Jesus existed and that all the things claimed of him actually happened historically, no one knows for certain what his appearance would have been. This includes the Nazarenes who believe they have special knowledge of Jesus’ hairdo. The fact remains that virtually all visual representations of Jesus made throughout history were intended to serve the purposes of dramatic effect, not historical accuracy.


The appearance of Satan as a character in Gibson’s movie is another very interesting spin that confirms the ahistorical and pro-mythological nature of the movie. Satan is here played by a woman (Rosalinda Celentano), who looks to the uninitiated viewer to be either a very effeminate man or a very butch woman. The physical appearance of Celentano’s Satan is indeed very gender-ambiguous, an effect that was enhanced by altering the actress’s voice (which she consciously made an effort to deepen) with a harmonizer to render the voice more metallic. [9] This gender-ambiguity applied to the Satan character holds underlying ideological significance. Catholic doctrine has traditionally taken an especially strict stance on gender roles, such that failure to fit into a well-defined gender category is condemned by the Catholic worldview as evil. [10] In fact, presenting Satan as an androgynous figure, whose closest approximation to any predefined gender is one of either effeminate male or butch female, may even have been a very subtle anti-homosexual commentary by Gibson on particular marriage equality controversies current in the early 2000s.

But subtle underlying politics aside, it is interesting to visually experience the Devil as a presence throughout the movie, especially the scene near the end which has Satan screaming in rage from the pits of hell as a representation of the spiritual defeat he suffered when Jesus completed his self-sacrifice. But this also means that The Passion of the Christ is pure fantasy, not history.

Herod Antipas

I want here to point to the movie’s portrayal of the Jewish King Herod Antipas (played by Luca De Dominicis) as a data point further supporting the point I alluded to briefly above that The Passion contains an underlying anti-gay message. Gibson has been accused of blatant homophobia ever since his 1995 movie Braveheart, which controversially depicted the Prince of Wales (who became King Edward II) as an effeminate homosexual whose male lover is thrown out of a high window by the prince’s father Edward I. This trend, if understated, continues in The Passion of the Christ, which clearly did not make any strides towards making the homophobia charges against Gibson go away. In The Passion, Herod is made up in a terrible wig and is depicted as extremely flamboyant. This characterization of Herod is also found in Emmerich’s book of Passion visions, from which Gibson derived his primary inspiration. Emmerich describes Herod in that work as a “luxuriant and effeminate prince.” [11]


Most people are familiar with the passages in the Gospels that refer to the politically-conciliatory tradition, allegedly maintained by the Roman government, of releasing one prisoner every year at Passover as a way of keeping those “uppity Jews” from turning their drunken religious revelry into an all-out uprising and insurrection. There is no evidence that the Romans in general or Pilate in particular did any such thing, and it would make very little sense for them to do so. The alleged custom of releasing a prisoner every Passover is likely yet another Gospel fiction, designed to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and exonerate the Romans. [12] But the historical circumstances of the time tell a different story. A very substantial garrison of Roman soldiers was maintained in nearby Caesarea. Reinforcements from this large garrison were brought into Jerusalem every year at Passover, this being a time when revolutionary fervor among the Jewish populace tended to peak. The presence of this substantial Roman military presence renders any apologetic defense of Pilate’s actions invalid.

Further, the name “Barabbas” is a dead giveaway that the character is a fictional contrivance. “Barabbas” ultimately derives from the Aramaic bar-abbâ, literally meaning “son of the father.” Thus, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman suggests that “the story of the release of Barabbas is a story about which kind of ‘son of the father’ the Jewish people preferred. . . . In these Christian recollections, the Jewish people preferred the murdering insurrectionist to the self-sacrificing savior.” [13] The Passion of the Christ perpetuates this distorted and anti-Semitic Christian recollection.

The Barabbas story, it should be mentioned, is the one and only bit of comic relief to be found in Gibson’s movie – it is rather amusing to watch Barabbas (played by Pietro Sarubbi) strutting around the crowd upon being released and gloating in wild excitement over being let off the hook.

Judas Iscariot

Bible nerds who are bothered by the two opposing and contradictory accounts we find in the New Testament of the manner in which Judas Iscariot dies may want to see The Passion of the Christ. The answer they are seeking, according to Gibson’s Gospel, is that Judas hangs himself, as related in Matthew 27:5: “And he [Judas] cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” Gibson doesn’t even attempt to harmonize this with the conflicting version found in Acts 1:16-19, according to which Judas threw himself off a cliff with the result that he “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” The fact that Gibson does not choose to harmonize the two conflicting accounts of Judas’ death is quite surprising, since Emmerich, the stigmatic mystic nun upon whose passion visions the movie is based, did attempt an imaginative resolution to the discrepancy. According to her vision, “Overcome by despair Judas tore off his girdle, and hung himself on a tree which grew in a crevice of the rock, and after death his body burst asunder, and his bowels were scattered around.” [14]

Given the over-the-top nature of the rest of the movie, I must confess I was a bit disappointed that the filmmakers opted for just a plain hanging, instead of the “human landmine” version where special effects would treat us to the awesome spectacle of actor Luca Lionello literally exploding and spraying the screen. In fact, if it were up to me, I would definitely have chosen to use the variant version of Judas’ death preserved by the early Church father Papias:

Judas walked about in this world a sad [literally translated ‘great’] example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out [literally translated ‘were emptied out’]. [15]

Indeed, there exist many bizarre non-canonical and folkloric stories about the Judas character dating from just the first few centuries CE that Gibson could have chosen. Scholars are not even agreed on just how many legendary and mythical elements have found their way into the various Judas cycles. A strong scholarly consensus interprets the whole character of Judas, including the name itself, to be a metaphorical cue designed to symbolize the Jewish people as a whole. Christianity’s depiction of Judas as a treacherous betrayer stems from a deeply-rooted anti-Semitism. The English word “Jew” is derived from the Latin word Iudaeus. This root word in turn is very similar to the Greek Ιουδαίος (Ioudaios), usually translated as “Judaean.” The Gospel of John, which we have seen is the second most influential source of Gibson’s inspiration for his movie, goes further than any of the other three canonical gospels in portraying Judas in the most evil manner possible. [16] And it is highly probable that either the original writer or a later redactor/editor of John’s gospel went out of his way to construct a parallel between Judas, the land of Judaea, and the Judaean people (or Jews), for example in 6:70-71. This would suggest that the similarity between the name “Judas” and the word for “Jew” in the various European languages has been instrumental in facilitating and encouraging anti-Semitism among the orthodox branches of Christianity. [17] As for the name “Iscariot,” this is thought by some scholars to be a Hellenized epithet possibly identifying Judas as a member of the Sicarii (the plural form of the Latin word meaning “contract-killer” or “assassin”). The Sicarii, a band of Jewish Zealots, were one of many extremist rebel groups that existed in ancient Palestine. [18]



Due to the copious amount of publicity and pre-release hype, The Passion of the Christ made $26.6 million on opening day. It pulled in $117.5 million in its first five days of release, making it the second-biggest five-day opening of all time (coming in just behind 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which made a record $124 million in its first five days). Mel Gibson enjoyed a release screening before an audience of 3,000 for a movie that would certainly have suffered an early death in art houses had it not been a movie about Jesus Christ. Not only is The Passion a foreign language film, it is a dead language film with subtitles, making it a movie accessible only to the literate. On top of this, the movie is hyper-violent and received an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America when it should have been given an NC-17 rating for its level of violence if the MPAA rating board had treated it impartially. Again, the fact that the movie is about Jesus is likely a large part of the reason it avoided that NC-17 rating. Domestically, the film topped off at close to $371 million, half of which went directly into Gibson’s pocket.

All this goes to show that there is no better publicity for a movie than when great controversy surrounds it. That controversy is the only thing that makes the movie interesting and culturally relevant, and I think every atheist can get something from watching it. On top of this, I believe the movie actually works well as a potent antidote against conversion to Christianity for fence-sitting nonbelievers. [19] Gibson’s Passion in many ways forced the American public to come face to face with the uncomfortable yet undeniable fact that Christianity has, as its foundation and basis, an extremely violent and bloody event. In fact, Christianity celebrates a bloody and barbaric human sacrifice as its central and defining tenet. This can also be seen in the hundreds of devotional hymns written specifically about the blood of Jesus, hymns with lyrics like “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” [20] and “Are you washed in the blood, In the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb?” [21] This should be revolting to anyone who takes a few moments to reflect on what exactly is being praised. And is it not true that the believers who take seriously the bizarre doctrine of transubstantiation when they partake of communal bread and wine are actually engaging in cannibalism, if what they believe is really true?



[1] Anne Catherine Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ ([1833] New York: Cosimo Books, 1923).

[2] Peter J. Boyer, “The Jesus War: Mel Gibson’s Obsession,” The New Yorker, September 15, 2003, p. 71.

[3] Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, pp. 174, 175.

[4] Anti-Defamation League, “ADL Concerned Mel Gibson’s ‘Passion’ Could Fuel Anti-Semitism if Released in Present Form,” (ADL Press Release, August 11, 2003), (accessed April 19, 2017).

[5] Thomas Whittaker, The Origins of Christianity: with An Outline of Van Manen’s Analysis of the Pauline Literature, Fourth Edition (London: Watts & Co., 1933), pp. 38-39.

[6] Many historians have been able to pick up on the numerous historical inaccuracies that find their way into the movie. To take just one example, the movie has Roman soldiers speaking a colloquial street Latin when (to be historically accurate) they should have been speaking Greek, the official language for administrative communication. See Dr. Andrea Berlin and Dr. Jodi Magness, “Two Archaeologists Comment on The Passion of the Christ,” Archaeological Institute of America (March 2004), (accessed April 17, 2017).

[7] W. Francis H. King, ed., Classical and Foreign Quotations: A Polyglot Manual of Historical and Literary Sayings, Noted Passages in Poetry and Prose Phrases, Proverbs, and Bons Mots, Third Edition (London: J. Whitaker & Sons, Limited, 1904), p. 238.

[8] Paul Kurtz, “The Passion as a Political Weapon: Anti-Semitism and Gibson’s Use of the Gospels,” in in Jorge J.E. Gracia, ed., Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2004), p. 93.

[9] Angela Baldassarre, “A Very Passionate Celentano,” Tandem News, March 21, 2004, (accessed April 20, 2017).

[10] See, for example, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., “A Conservative Catholic Point of View,” Catholic Planet, n.d. (last updated January 7, 2012), (accessed April 20, 2017). Of course, this narrow and bigoted view of gender roles has unfortunately not been restricted only to Catholicism of late.

[11] Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 195.

[12] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), pp. 171-73.

[13] Ibid, p. 173.

[14] Emmerich, The Dolorous Passion, p. 176.

[15] Fragments of Papias, Fragment III, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume I – The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenæus (American Reprint of the [1885] Edinburgh Edition), eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and Arthur Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950-), p. 153.

[16] Matthew O’Neil, Judas (Atheist Republic, 2015), pp. 8-10.

[17] Hyam Maccoby, Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 14.

[18] Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 179.

[19] I have argued that a similar “conversion antidote” case can be made for the massively popular Christian end-times fiction series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. See Nathan Dickey, “A Critical Analysis of the ‘Left Behind’ Series,”, October 19, 2014, (accessed April 24, 2017).

[20] William Cowper (1772), “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” (accessed April 16, 2017).

[21] Elisha A. Hoffman (1878), “Are You Washed in the Blood?” (accessed April 16, 2017).

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Doing It Wrong: Addressing Common Anti-Porn Arguments

Sex Shop.jpg

1. Introduction: Opening Up and Revealing

Pornography has elicited at least as many heated words as it has orgasms. While the etymology of the word is clear and uncontroversial, defining pornography in a clear and unambiguous way has proven difficult. The word derives from the Greek compound porne (“prostitute”) and graphos (“to write”).[1] This compound word denoted “the depiction of whores”[2] and was originally used to describe the lifestyle and mannerisms associated with prostitutes and “later came to include any text that is specifically designed to elicit sexual desire.”[3] So the word “pornography” is a loaded one that, from the get-go, often places anyone who argues that it serves a beneficial role in society in the difficult position of having to fend off emotionally-based accusations of perversion. As psychologist Karen Ciclitira notes, “Researchers’ apparent bias regarding the negative effects of pornography has influenced (and is influenced by) the way pornography is defined.”[4]

However, the word “pornography” has today come to refer to such a wide range of sexually explicit materials that generalized definitions on the one hand are often inadequate and specific examples on the other do not take into account its far-reaching applications. The result is that “different definitions and genres of pornography have been employed in research studies, thereby complicating a coherent synthesis of key findings” and that “the operationalization of terms, or the lack thereof, has been a common critique and limitation of many studies.”[5] The elusive nature of the term is readily explained by the fact that any exercise in defining pornography depends upon cultural, historical and social factors, as well as upon the experiences and beliefs of individuals.

Defining “obscenity,” which refers specifically to the legal aspect of pornography, is just as thorny an issue to pin down, because societal reactions to breaches of perceived boundaries are determined by public taste and the public’s designation of the particular style employed by those labeled “deviant,” not by the actual content of any given law or set of laws. This was demonstrated by R. George Kirkpatrick in his study of two major anti-pornography crusades in the 1960s, in which he highlighted “the relationship between the size of the community, the division of labor, the degree of mechanical solidarity and the style of the deviant and his act in determining the degree of insult to the collective consciousness, and the degree of mass hysteria and the severity of the social movement which tries to reconstitute the disturbed collective entity.”[6]

With these caveats in mind, and for the sake of clarity in this essay, philosopher Michael Rea’s definition will suffice:

[B]y far the most pervasive definitions in the literature on pornography are those that hold that the defining feature of pornography is that it is intended to produce sexual arousal or in fact has the effect of producing such arousal.[7]

The importance of including both intention and effect in approaching a coherent definition is highlighted by, for example, the 1922 court case of Halsey v. New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, in which the judge stated that selections ranging “from Aristophanes or Chaucer or Boccaccio or even from the Bible” in all likelihood contain many passages “which taken by themselves are undoubtedly vulgar and indecent.”[8] There is a reason why arguments about the ill effects of culture seem to be applied only to forms of culture that fall on what are perceived to be lower scales, such as comic books, video games, cartoons and, of course, pornography. We see this classist bias in the way the word “porn” has come to a popular pejorative euphemism for the cheap and easy, the pulp at the bottom of the cultural barrel. As Laura Kipnis points out,

The violence of high culture seems not to have effects on its consumers, or rather, no one bothers to research this question, so we don’t hear much about how Taming of the Shrew expresses contempt for women, or watching Medea might compel a mother to go out and kill her children; when a South Carolina mother did recently drown her two kids, no one suggested banning Euripides. When Lorena Bobbitt severed husband John’s penis, no one wondered if she’d recently watched Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, the Japanese art film where a male character meets a similar bloody fate. Is that because the audiences of Euripides and Oshima have greater self-control than the audiences of pornography and other low culture, or is this a class prejudice that masquerades as the “redeeming social value” issue?[9]

This strange cognitive disconnect between attributing possible undesirable effects to low art while leaving possible similar effects of high art off the hook is why, for example, Gerard Damiano’s pornographic movie The Story of Joanna (1975) induces laughter on the part of its viewers whenever a supposedly high-class, aristocratic character speaks about sex in lower-class terms, i.e., “I want you to lick my pussy.” It is also why the extremely dirty and deliciously obscene “Aristocrats” joke known by many professional comedians works so well, as documented in Penn Jillette’s and Paul Provenza’s 2005 film The Aristocrats. But the popular distinction between “high” and “low” art is mostly arbitrary since there is no line of demarcation where one ends and the other begins. Art historian Lynda Nead points out that, “Art and pornography are caught in a cycle of reciprocal definition, in which each depends on the other for its meaning, significance and status.”[10] In the absence of pornography, art dies, and vice versa.

Developing an adequate and accurate understanding of pornography and debunking popular myths and misconceptions about it is important in light of the fact that both sexuality and art are crucial aspects of the human condition. Porn therefore has much to teach us about ourselves as an interpersonal species. “Pornography is the royal road to the cultural psyche,” writes Laura Kipnis. “So the question is, if you put it on the couch and let it free-associate, what is it really saying? What are the inner tensions and unconscious conflicts that propel its narratives?”[11] The “study and existence of pornography [may] elucidate our sexual desire and the function of pleasure and power, enhance sexual equality, diminish sexual inhibitions, nurture essential dreams and fantasies, and promote the freedom of speech to express sexual difference,”[12] and this means that addressing unwarranted modifications made to the term “pornography” by anti-porn feminists, conservatives and status-quo conformists is also important. The belief that erotic material precipitates sexual violence and the degradation/objectification of women has manifested itself in attacks on pornography which potentially threatens freedom of expression in the arts. Such crusades have also threatened even the science of medicine.[13]

Moralistic crusades against pornography may also have unforeseen negative effects on the rate at which technology advances and the subtle yet potent incentives that set that drive those advances. The high demand for pornography is such that it is often the first to test and use new and cutting-edge media technologies. Cultural critic Jack Beckham II argues that “Pornography has always been inextricably tied to technology and innovations in technology,”[14] and this means pornography also facilitates technological advancement and progress in ways few people have considered. Law professor Peter Johnson puts the point well. “Porn, like its subject matter, is always eager to experiment. It is also free from ideological and sociological baggage. Its design is, simply, to get to market as quickly and easily as possible. When new media offer new markets, porn spies them quickly and rushes to fill them, like an amoeba extruding a new pseudopod where its skin is thinnest.”[15] This is not a new phenomenon; this technological immediacy has been noted by sociologists and media historians to have been present from pornography’s earliest manifestations. Laurence O’Toole notes that “the folk history of nude photography suggests that the day after the guy invented the camera he had his girlfriend come round and persuaded her to get naked for the sake of record.”[16]

It is useful to invoke the power (and fear) of technology along with the power of narrative in this regard. In his classic essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that technology, far from being merely a mechanized means to an end, represents a particular “way of revealing.”[17] For Heidegger, modern technology should be conceived of in the context of its original Greek meaning, a “bringing-forth” that is linked to the concept of knowledge. Technology in this sense means a simultaneous opening up and revealing. Pornography opens up and reveals much more than intimate body parts.

In what follows I cover the most common arguments presented by anti-porn activists and why, based on my research of the relevant literature, I maintain they fall short of the mark.

2. Four Common Myths and Misconceptions about Porn

  • Claim 1: “Pornography degrades and objectifies women.”

As we have seen, pornography is laden with a complexity that defies simple denouncements such as that it is somehow a product of patriarchal, male-centered heteronormativity and that it is categorically degrading to and objectifying of women. Laura Kipnis notes,

[T]he presumption that only low culture causes ‘effects’ starts to look more and more like a stereotype about its imagined viewers . . . Pornography isn’t viewed as having complexity, because its audience isn’t viewed as having complexity, and this propensity for oversimplification gets reproduced in every discussion about pornography.[18]

As an example of this oversimplification, one may consider the common charge that sexually explicit materials treat the persons portrayed as “sexual objects,” or that pornography “objectifies women as sexual objects.” Besides the ironic fact that it is the person making this claim who is being sexist and heteronormative by implying that only women can be objectified, there is also a subtle contradiction in terms at play in such accusations. Objects do not possess any inherent sexuality, but people do. This is precisely why we never see anti-porn rhetoric accusing pornography of treating people as sexual beings. Of course, we can and do imbue and project sexual meaning and significance to inanimate objects (dildos, strap-ons, plugs, whips, chains, paddles, hairbrushes, bananas and various elongated vegetables, even various medical supplies,[19] etc.), but these things are not possessed of any inherent sexuality. “Having a body is just as much a part of being a person as is having intelligence or emotions,” writes philosopher of science and ethics Ferrel Christensen. “Since real objects have no sexuality, regarding a person as being without a sexual nature would come closer to treating him or her as a mere object.”[20]

But even if we grant that the concept of objectification of human bodies makes logical sense, there is still no good reason to view it as a social problem. A YouTube vlogger named Alyssa states this point quite well in one of her videos:

When a guy is thinking about the girl he saw on the subway earlier that day, or whatever favorite celebrity of his, and pleasures himself, no one is getting hurt in that scenario. If anything, good for him, because there’s a lot of health benefits to masturbation.

I think the idea that objectification is wrong and needs to be stopped is a modern version of the Christian dogma that it’s a sin to look at a woman who’s not your wife with a lustful heart. It’s teaching men to be ashamed of their sexual thoughts and feelings and women that they shouldn’t want to feel sexy or enjoy their sexual feelings. It’s just sexual repression all around.[21]

There is a curious double-standard at play in the objectification argument against porn, which Alyssa also points out in her video. “When I reflect on radical feminist standards of objectification, it makes me wonder what they think of nude paintings in major art museums. Like, if Édouard Manet were around today painting prostitutes, would he be accused of objectifying them and being an evil member of the patriarchy or something?” This hearkens back to the arbitrary distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture we discussed above.

Pornography does not contain any inherently regressive or backwards philosophy towards either women or men. Just the opposite is true. Pornography evolves and has seen the emergence of new and novel forms that are liberating to the sexual autonomy of women and minorities. The ubiquity of and demand for pornography is directly responsible for these trends, and it was inevitable that a female-centered pornography, in which man serves as the so-called “sexual other,” would grow and is beginning to become just as ubiquitous and commonplace as so-called “male-centered” porn. Developments in popular culture have come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s in legitimizing the concept of women’s porn.[22]

  • Claim 2: “Pornography has ties to organized crime and sex trafficking”

Another oft-voiced concern has to do with the “snuff” element of pornography, i.e. the notion that pornography is associated with layers of organized crime that specializes in the actual of oppression of its women subjects unbeknownst to average consumers who are under the impression that what they are seeing is consensual acting. This myth was promoted in the notorious 1976 cult film Snuff. A slasher film loosely based on the Sharon Tate murders, the film concludes with footage of its director hacking a female production assistant to pieces after making sexual advances on her. In addition to bordering on the level of a conspiracy theory, this notion is an exaggerated one intended by its claimants and promoters to frighten the public. Numerous erotic models and actresses have gone on record in response to this charge to say that genuine mistreatment is very rare. In fact, these models and actresses have testified to the effect that they are treated with a great deal of respect, and even that they enjoy a much higher salary than men do in the business, which is by far not the case for women in the workplace elsewhere.[23] This is a factor that is often overlooked or denied by academics and scholars, including the famous linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky. In an interview for a 2008 documentary on pornography and relationships, Chomsky compared the consensual pornography business to sweatshops that mistreated “consenting” women employees, and then proceeded to compare pornography to child abuse:

“Suppose [there is] a starving child in the slums, and you say, ‘Well, I’ll give you food if you’ll let me abuse you.’ . . . Well, after all, you know, the child’s starving otherwise, so you’re taking away his chance to get some food if you ban abuse. Is that an argument? The answer to that is: stop the conditions in which the child is starving. And the same is true here. Eliminate the conditions in which women can’t get decent jobs, not permit abusive and destructive behavior.”[24]

This reasoning is grossly flawed because it overlooks the fact that the wages made by women who work in pornography (as well as in prostitution) are far above the wages earned by women in ordinary, so-called “legitimate” work. This has been the case since the early twentieth century, when the English physician and social reformer Havelock Ellis wrote, “No practicable rise in the rate of wages paid to women in ordinary industries can possibly compete with the wages which fairly attractive women of quite ordinary ability can earn by prostitution.”[25] Back in the 1950s, Judge John M. Murtagh and Sara Harris reported, “There are call-girls who earn between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars a year.”[26]

The data for the past 100 years demonstrates yet another way in which pornography serves a beneficial role in society; the metaphor of the “glass ceiling,” useful for illustrating occupational segregation and gender wage inequality in the workplace, refers to the socially constructed barrier that, while transparent and thus without any overt suggestion of being discriminatory, limits upward mobility for women. This barrier is built and maintained by, among other things, the system most companies develop and utilize to determine salaries. The reason society often undervalues, for example, paid care work in the home as well as care work in the workplace often has to do with the value our capitalistic society places on women in general. Not so in the pornography business, where there is no glass ceiling and where women enjoy a higher wage than men. While some may retort by pointing out that women who want to move beyond the porn industry and break out into a more mainstream and respectable career are often not granted that opportunity because of the stigmas attached to their current work, this is a failure of society to see through the stigma and take into account women’s individual merits, not something that pornography itself can be faulted with.

“Look,” writes pornographer Lisa Palac, founder of the cybersex magazine Future Sex, “if someone presented me with a genuine snuff film there’d be nothing to defend. I would be horrified and sickened. But no one ever has and no one ever will because snuff films, as some kind of readily-available, black-market commercial enterprise, don’t exist. They’re an urban myth.”[27] Such urban myths and legends are the natural consequence of any frowned-upon industry coming into its own with a decent level of organization and hierarchy. An analogy that works in dispelling the “organized crime” perception of how pornography operates is organized religion; if religion were illegal (as it has historically been in some corners of the world) then according to this logic religion would constitute organized crime.

  • Claim 3: “Pornography is addictive and damages relationships”

A growing number of studies on the relationship between pornography use and socioemotional intimacy between couples is beginning to break away from traditional assumptions that drive many researchers to posit negative correlations between the two. “Many women feel that the guy who looks at porn must harbor some hostility toward women,” says journalist Liza Featherstone. “Yet research hasn’t established a link between pornography consumption and misogyny. One 2004 study found that porn users actually had slightly more positive and egalitarian views of women than other men did, though porn users were also more likely to hold stereotypical beliefs—for example, that women are more moral.”[28] Miodrag Popovic’s research found that many men’s “socioemotional closeness and pornography consumption were associated in a way that was not often brought to light. Compared to male pornography non-users, male pornography users reported higher total closeness numbers and scores.”[29] The results of this study, obtained using a non-clinical sample of 164 males to distill the potential effects of two carefully-measured variables (socioemotional closeness and pornography use), showed that “pornography use was not just an escape from intimacy but also an expression of the search for it.”

Previous studies examining the relationship between intimacy/closeness with significant others and pornography use have tended to overgeneralize gender power inequalities, focusing on pornographic web sites rather than the users themselves.[30] Another tendency in such studies has been to emphasize adverse effects of frequent and habitual pornography use, thereby misattributing resultant relationship problems to pornography rather than on overuse and overindulgence itself.[31] But overuse and overindulgence wreaks adverse effects on relationships regardless of what they are exercised upon and says nothing about the inherent goodness or badness of the object of overindulgence itself. As Christensen remarks, “It is a truism that anything can be carried to excess, [but] those who make the mental health charges are usually in a poor position to judge what is excessive or inadequate in regard to sex.”[32] Thus, the charge that use of pornography is corrosive to intimate and lasting relationships between men and women is highly subjective. As Featherstone points out, “How couples intensify their sexual relationship differs radically depending on the individuals and on the dynamic between them. But fantasy is certainly a part of a healthy sex life, and porn does contribute significantly to the archive of sexy scenarios in our heads. It can also inspire couples to experiment more.”[33]

Unbiased examination of the literature on sex addiction yields no evidence supporting the case that pornography is addictive. Studies exploring the economics of pornography, such as the one by behavioral economist Fabio D’Orlando, find that models of addiction that have traditionally been used in examining the demand for pornography do not fit nearly as well as models that posit healthy hedonic adaptation. “The hedonic adaptation framework is founded on the empirical finding that people adapt to life events . . . Hedonic adaptation is sometimes called ‘habituation’, and the existence of a baseline level of wellbeing towards which actual wellbeing tends to return is a crucial characteristic of this approach.”[34] The hedonic adaptation model is able to explain very well the desire for variety and novelty among pornography consumers, a common desire which significantly influences the demand for pornography. According to D’Orlando’s interpretation, people experience habituation when viewing pornography, a process which reduces the potential level of wellbeing they can gain from a given type of pornography. But this reduction is balanced out by the simultaneous skill accumulation they gain, which is gleaned from “harder” material. In searching for this “harder” material through the process of escalation, pornography users necessarily consume ever-growing amounts of pornography in order to find the harder content (this in part explains why, for example, web sites which provide large quantities of free material such as, and has not come close to making pay pornography obsolete).[35]

According to D’Orlando’s research, “Having purchased this new material, people actually achieve an increase in their wellbeing, but habituation soon forces them back, once again, towards their baseline level of wellbeing. Only creativity, i.e. the capacity to go on finding ever-new types of pornography, can offset habituation.”[36] Pornography, therefore, is highly conducive to the creative impulse, and as such is a natural engine of diversification. “So-called sexual addiction may be nothing more than learned behavior that can be unlearned; labels such as ‘sex addict’ may tell us more about society’s prejudices and the therapist doing the labeling than the client; scientists who have undertaken scientifically rigorous studies of exposure to sex materials report that despite high levels of exposure to pornography in venues such as the Internet, few negative effects are observed.”[37] Negative effects that are not observed include violence and aggression towards women. As per the “safety valve” or substitution hypothesis, pornography may defuse more strong urges than it instills in the consumer.

There also exists a body of research that indicates a positive correlation between adults’ socioemotional closeness with significant others and pornography. Kingsley Davis’s study of the sociology of prostitution in the early 1970s, for example, demonstrated that prostitution ameliorates the conflict between sexual dispositions/urges and the expectations and requirements embedded in social contracts. Arguing that the goals of sexual behavior in humans are not inherently social, Davis shows that the institutions of marriage and family are society’s way of attaching a makeshift association of sexuality and social goals. Thus, prostitution and pornography, both of which, on an intuitive level, seem to stand adamantly opposed to marriage and family, actually support them. This explains why society has not completely repressed prostitution and pornography; they are retained as sexual alternatives because they serve necessary functions. The sociological evidence strongly indicates that increases in sexual freedom among women of all classes do not reduce the role played by prostitution. Therefore, “we find ourselves admitting that increased prostitution can reduce the sexual irregularities of respectable women . . . Such a view seems paradoxical, because in popular thought an evil such as prostitution cannot cause a good such as feminine virtue, or vice versa. Yet . . . there is a close connection between prostitution and the structure of the family.”[38] In his book Hustlers, Beats, and Others, the late sociologist Ned Polsky proposed that Davis’s theories concerning prostitution apply equally well to pornography: “. . . prostitutes and pornographers are stigmatized because they provide for the socially illegitimate expression of sex, yet their very existence helps to make tolerable the institutionalizing of legitimate sex in the family.”[39]

  • Claim 4: “Pornography presents unattainable fantasies and instills unrealistic expectations in its users”

Actually, hardcore porn usually strives for raw realism, even when employing fantasy scenarios. A strong case can be made that this is actually a redeeming feature of pornography. The “debasement” element of pornography that is so often cited by its condemners is in this sense a desirable and positive one. Detractors’ condemnations are nothing more than a reaction against unrestrained visibility that threatens outwardly-projected personal preferences. As Lynda Nead writes,

[Pornography] is imbued with an ideology of realism; it is regarded as a transparent medium, offering more or less direct access to its image. Within Platonic terms, the visual image is less removed from corrupt reality (and therefore is more debased) than the written word which is regarded as the medium of imagination and self-expression.[40]

The genre of pornography to which this idea can be most readily seen in action is in adult spanking, or erotic domestic discipline, which falls under the very broad category of the Dominance & submission (D&s) and Bondage/Discipline, Sadism/Masochism (BDSM) scenes. This genre, more than any other, has gone a long way toward shifting pornography closer to the center dividing line where fantasy and reality meet and stare at each other across the proverbial fence. Greta Christina, in her interesting analysis of this blurred line, makes the case that crying is to spanking porn what cum shots are to “regular” porn:

Crying is like cum shots because it’s proof that what’s happening is real. It’s proof, not only that the actors are physically engaging in the sexual acts they’re portraying, but that they’re feeling them.

I’ve seen plenty of spanking porn where the spankings themselves were obviously real — you could hear the sounds of the slaps, you could see the impacts and the reddening bottom — but where I had no idea whether the person on the receiving end felt anything at all about the matter. I’ve seen plenty of spanking porn where the recipient was so silent, so stiff, so unresponsive, that even with the sights and sounds of the smacks, I still had no idea whether the performer was feeling helpless, or defiant, or turned on, or anything at all except bored. The sights and sounds might as well have been done by special effects. [. . .] But if the recipient is crying… I know they’re feeling it. [. . .] And that makes it easier for me to project myself into the fantasy.[41]

This analysis of a fetish practiced by consenting adults who feel real pain, but for whom pain is pleasure effectively dismantles the charge that pornography is about superficial fantasies that instill unattainable expectations in the minds of its viewers. It is more accurate to posit that when anti-porn activists condemn pornography as unattainable fantasy with no parallel in real life, they are actually reacting to something they do not want to be real.

Consistency would oblige those who condemn pornography on the basis of a perceived lack of verisimilitude to also condemn exhibitions in animal zoos. Zoos are after all pornographic by nature, and while they necessarily oversimplify factors such as natural habitat, few would argue that zoos misrepresent the creatures on display or place them in a wholly unrealistic environment. Environmental philosopher Ralph Acampora tries to persuade us that the “broad analogy between zoos and pornography is useful because, if it holds true in the relevant respects, the comparison casts a new and decidedly critical light on the debate over keeping and breeding animals in the wild in captivity.”[42] But he is one of the very few academics who actually manage to remain consistent by arguing this, which only serves to highlight the difficulty of his position.

Coda: Gemeinschaft and Chill

Far from presenting unattainable fantasies, pornography provides an important and emulative narrative counterpart to our real life as sexual and social animals. More than that, pornography democratizes human sexuality by challenging sexual status quos, which is the primary reason it has been unfairly blamed for a wide array of social ills. So how do we go about understanding it better? One way is to progress beyond what German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called Gesellschaft. Commonly translated as “society,” this refers to a category of social ties characterized by formal, indirect and impersonal social interactions, as opposed to Gemeinschaft (“community”), in which the personal and communal aspect of social roles, values and beliefs place a diverse array of human activities in context. “In the most general way, one could speak of a Gemeinschaft comprising the whole of mankind,” Tönnies wrote. “But human Gesellschaft is conceived as mere coexistence of people independent of each other.”[43] This progression beyond mechanistic and parochial classifications of pornography is achieved by placing cultural labeling itself under scrutiny. This allows us to see pornography in the light of the larger context of other discourses and categories of human interactions. By using this approach in her extensive research in pornography, media scholar Feona Attwood has found that “By stepping back from pornography in this way, its functions as a ‘melodrama’ or ‘allegory’ for a given culture are thrown into sharp relief.”[44] Gemeinschaft reveals that it is “the particularly explicit way in which porn depicts sex and bodies, its flaunting of boundaries, its perversity and its irredeemable ‘lowness’ that are often used to justify its condemnation.”[45] And such appeals to traditionalism are no justification at all.

Not only must we stop looking away from explicit sex, we must also start looking at sex in a more balanced manner. Murray S. Davis explains that social scientists too often look at sex either presbyopically or myopically, both of which are exaggerated distances from which to coherently view the subject. “Sociologists like Kinsey looked at sex from so far away (as though with the wrong end of a telescope) that they observed only an exterior behavior without human meaning. Psychologists like Freud looked at sex so closely (as though with X-ray eyes) that they saw through it to observe only an inhuman and meaningless interior instinct.”[46] We are today in a position to bring interpretations of sexual behavior (aka porn) and shared human experience into a more balanced and sharper focus. In doing so we restate the question of pornography’s place in society in anti-authoritarian, liberating, and reasonable terms, and along the way come to understand that aspect of us that is perhaps what makes us most human.


[1] Brenda Love, The Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices (London: Greenwich Editions, 1999), p. 215.

[2] Karen Ciclitira, “Researching Pornography and Sexual Bodies,” The Psychologist 15, no. 4 (2002): 191-194.

[3] Love, Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, p. 215.

[4] Ciclitira, “Researching Pornography and Sexual Bodies.”

[5] Jill C. Manning, “The Impact of Internet Pornography on Marriage and the Family: A Review of the Research,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 13, no. 2-3 (2006): 131-165.

[6] R. George Kirkpatrick, “Collective Consciousness and Mass Hysteria: Collective Behavior and Anti-Pornography Crusades in Durkheimian Perspective,” Human Relations 28, no. 1 (1975): 63-84. (accessed February 21, 2017).

[7] Michael C. Rea, “What is Pornography?” Noûs 35, no. 1 (2001): 118-135. (accessed February 21, 2017). Emphasis mine.

[8] Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin and Paul H. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia and London: W.B. Saunders Company, 1953), p. 671. For a no-holds-barred tour of the Bible’s most perverse and obscene contents, see J. Ashleigh Burke, The X-Rated Book: Sex and Obscenity in the Bible (Houston, TX: J.A.B. Press, 1983).

[9] Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 176.

[10] Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 91.

[11] Kipnis, Bound and Gagged, p. 162.

[12] Anne G. Sabo, “Highbrow and Lowbrow Pornography: Prejudice Prevails against Popular Culture. A Case Study,” Journal of Popular Culture 42, no. 1 (2009): 147-161.

[13] See, e.g., April Haynes, “The Trials of Frederick Hollick: Obscenity, Sex Education, and Medical Democracy in the Antebellum United States,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 4 (October 2003): 543-574.

[14] Jack M. Beckham II, “From ‘Seedy Roms’ to DVDs: Virtual Sex and the Search for Control,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 24, no. 3 (May 2007): 225-32.

[15] Peter Johnson, “Pornography Drives Technology: Why Not to Censor the Internet,” Federal Communications Law Journal 49, no. 1, Article 8 (November 1996): 217-226. (accessed February 21, 2017).

[16] Laurence O’Toole, Pornocopia: Porn, Sex, Technology and Desire (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998), p. 61.

[17] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 12.

[18] Kipnis, Bound and Gagged, p. 177.

[19] “Medical Fetishism,” Wikipedia, (accessed February 22, 2017).

[20] F.M. Christensen, Pornography: The Other Side (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990), p. 28. Emphasis mine.

[21] PoorOldKilgore, “’Objectification’” (video) YouTube, May 24, 2016, (accessed February 19, 2017).

[22] Clarissa Smith, “Pornography for Women, or What They Don’t Show You in Cosmo!” Journalism Studies 8, no. 4 (2007): 529-538.

[23] Sheldon Ranz, “Interview: Nina Hartley,” Shmate: A Magazine of Progressive Jewish Thought 22 (Spring 1989): 15-29.

[24] Challenging Media, “The Price of Pleasure – Noam Chomsky on Pornography (Extra Feature) – Available on DVD” (video), YouTube, July 23, 2008, (accessed February 19, 2017).

[25] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. 6. – Sex in Relation to Society (Philadelphia: Davis, 1913), p. 263.

[26] John M. Murtagh and Sara Harris, Cast the First Stone (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957), p. 2.

[27] Lisa Palac, The Edge of the Bed: How Dirty Pictures Changed My Life (Canada: Little, Brown & Company, 1998), p. 147.

[28] Liza Featherstone, “You, Me and Porn Make Three,” Psychology Today 38, no. 5 (Sep/Oct 2005): 84. Available online at (accessed February 22, 2017).  The 2004 study cited is by Sheila Garos, et al, “Sexism and Pornography Use: Toward Explaining Past (Null) Results,” Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality 16, no. 1 (2004): 69-96.

[29] Miodrag Popovic, “Pornography Use and Closeness with Others in Men,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 40, no. 2 (April 2011): 449-456.

[30] For an example of this overgeneralization, see Ian Cook, “Western Heterosexual Masculinity, Anxiety and Web Porn,” The Journal of Men’s Studies 14, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 47-63.

[31] For an example of this kind of misattribution, see Jennifer P. Schneider, “A Qualitative Study of Cybersex Participants: Gender Differences, Recovery Issues, and Implications for Therapists,” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 7, no. 4 (2000): 249-278.

[32] Christensen, Pornography, p. 103.

[33] Featherstone, “You, Me and PORN Make Three,” p. 85.

[34] Fabio D’Orlando, “The Demand for Pornography,” Journal of Happiness Studies 12, no. 1 (2011): 51-75.

[35] The creators of Comedy Central’s South Park show cleverly highlighted this concept in the episode “Over Logging” when they had one of their characters say, “I need the Internet to jack off. I got used to being able to see anything at the click of a button, you know? Once you jack off to Japanese girls puking in each other’s mouths, you can’t exactly go back to Playboy!” Throughout the remainder of the episode, this character explores such categories as “interracial gang bang,” “shemales” and “Brazilian fart fetish porn.”

[36] D’Orlando, “The Demand for Pornography.”

[37] Daniel Linz, “Online Pornography Is Not Addictive,” in Emma Carlson Berne, ed., Online Pornography: Opposing Viewpoints (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2007), p. 66.

[38] Kingsley Davis, “Sexual Behavior,” in Robert K. Merton and Robert Nisbet, eds., Contemporary Social Problems, 3rd Ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 350.

[39] Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1967), p. 188.

[40] Nead, The Female Nude, p. 97.

[41] Greta Christina, “Tears,” Greta Christina’s Blog, March 19, 2010, (accessed February 20, 2017).

[42] Ralph Acampora, “Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices,” Society & Animals 13, no. 1 (2005): 69-88.

[43] Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society, trans. Charles P. Loomis (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1957), p. 34.

[44] Feona Attwood, “Reading Porn: The Paradigm Shift in Pornography Research,” Sexualities 5, no. 1 (February 2002): 91-105.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Murray S. Davis, Smut: Erotic Reality / Obscene Ideology (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. xxvi.

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Guest Post: The Fascinating World of Ghosthunting

This is a guest post written by Niels Böge Nothdurft from Denmark.


Long before I learned about critical thinking and became a skeptic I was fascinated by all kinds of what I would call woo today. That fascination hasn’t stopped, just my perspective on it. One of the things that fascinated me a lot – and still does – is ghosthunting. So let us dive into the fascinating world of ghosthunting.

We humans regularly experience things that we can’t explain right away and we have a tendency to ascribe agency to our experiences. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors couldn’t see how the wind moves, didn’t understand why it rained. Even in our modern age, we don’t always know why there are strange noises coming from the attic. If you can’t explain the examples I just mentioned and you lack scientific knowledge or critical thinking skills, chances are that you would probably think that they are caused by an invisible agent of some kind. Sometimes an invisible agent can be a god, but it can also be magical beings, like gnomes, fairies, or ghosts.

Add to that that a large number of the population believe in ghosts. According to polls, 45 percent of US citizens believe in ghosts and in the UK its 34 percent. In my own country of Denmark the number is 20 percent. So it’s not hard to imagine that hearing noises or experiencing other things they can’t explain makes a lot of people draw the conclusion that they are haunted.

A ghost is typically defined as the spirit of a dead person, who hasn’t moved on to an afterlife and therefore haunts an area for various reasons. But there are also claims of animal spirits and “nature” spirits haunting a place, and of course the more sinister demonic spirits. Some people even ascribe certain traits or abilities to different kinds of ghosts. The more benign spirits are those who smack the door once in a while and the malevolent are those that are demonic and attack people or possess them.

So who are people gonna call, if they think they might have a ghost problem? A ghosthunter of course. I have noticed that there are differences between ghosthunters in the US and Europe. Here in Europe they tend to be psychics, while the American ghosthunters rely more on technological gimmicks. Let us look at both types of ghosthunters.

The psychics are those I’m most familiar with, since I live in Europe. They tend to not be too dramatic about their ghosthunting. Things they have in common, regardless of where they live, are that they claim to be able to feel and communicate with ghosts, remove “bad energies”, or help ghosts cross over to an afterlife. They also typically believe in some sort of New Age religion. As I mentioned before, they aren’t very dramatic about their ghosthunting. They go into the house, “feel” the ghost, and persuade it to go “into the light”. Afterwards they tell a story about the ghosts, usually about some bloke who died unhappy some centuries ago. Finally they charge you for up to a few hundred bucks.

The American ghosthunters seem to rely more on technological devices and in some cases Christianity and they seem to be more interested in documenting ghostly activity than in removing it. The technology they rely on consists of various pieces of equipment that they claim can document ghost activities. When hunting for ghosts, they take their equipment with them out in the “field” to look for clues about ghost activity. The equipment they use typically consists of:

  • A tape recorder: To record EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), claimed to be the voices of ghosts. Often it’s just static that is interpreted as speech or interference from a radio.
  • A camera with night vision: To record shadows, movements, and ghostly “orbs”. Orbs are often dust on the camera lens or due to some kind of minor camera malfunction, and movement and shadows can of course be caused by all sorts of things. It is hard to know without controlled conditions.
  • An EMF meter: To measure where there is ghostly activity. It is claimed that ghosts produce an electromagnetic field. The problem is though that we know that electronics and electric wiring have an electromagnetic field and that modern houses are full of electrical appliances and wires, so it’s easy to pick up a lamp and interpret it as a ghost.

Despite all the efforts by ghosthunters through the ages, no credible evidence for the existence of ghosts has been produced. The evidence put forward either lacks proper controlled conditions or is easily explained by things other than ghosts.

If the American ghosthunters decide to remove a ghost, they tend to do it a bit differently than Europeans. I have seen American ghosthunters use psychics in some cases, but in many cases they seem to fall back on Christianity, so they use priests instead. The stories about ghost removals in the US also seem to be a bit more dramatic than the European stories. It is not unusual to hear claims that the ghost attacked the people who tried to remove it or that it had possessed somebody, so that the priest had to perform an exorcism.

I can’t help but notice that the religiosity of people seem to play a role in ghosthunting. European countries tend to be less religious than the US and religious Europeans tend to adhere to a more deistic or New Age notion of a deity, while the religious Americans hold a belief in the Christian god.

I want to compare the removal of ghosts to exorcisms. They both employ the power of suggestion. In both cases you have an individual, or more, who is very convinced that what they experience and interpret as supernatural phenomena is in fact supernatural. There is also an authority figure, like a priest, who steps in and confirms that belief. The mood is now set for a sometimes dramatic experience, when the priest starts to perform a ritual to cleanse a person or a house from an evil spirit.

If like me you have an interest in ghosthunting or my post has made you curious about ghosthunting, I would like to recommend a few things for you.

I would highly recommend that you look up Derren Brown Investigates. Derren Brown, an English illusionist and skeptic, has made some interesting documentaries about supernatural claims. Derren Brown Investigates consists of three episodes, one of which is about ghosthunting (but check out his other stuff as well, he is awesome!). I would also recommend that you look up some of the American ghosthunting TV shows. They can be over-the-top at times, but they give you an insight into the pseudoscience of ghosthunting and also how people who believe in ghosts think. They are also a good exercise for your critical thinking skills, and the over-the-top stuff can give you a good laugh as well. And finally, if you love profanity and cheap magic tricks, you should look up the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode about ghosthunting (season 3 episode 10).


Posted in Guest Post, Pseudoscience, Religion, Skepticism, Superstition | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

I Was a Teenage Apologist: My Journey from Christianity to Atheism

Do not demand that your belief [in a personal God] be reasonable. You will be threatened with the loss of your faith. You may well lose your faith. Those who have lost their faith in God are generally those who have felt the need for good reasons, for evidence, for argument. Better that you should take as your slogan ‘credo qui absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is absurd.’ That’s a far surer basis.
~ Alex Rosenberg


In February 2010, shortly before my 23rd birthday, I realized I was an atheist. This is simply to say that I do not believe any gods exist because I find no evidential or logical reason to believe. I find the very concept of god, as traditionally defined by the three great monotheistic religions of the Western world, to be logically incoherent and a wholly unnecessary postulate in a universe that looks just as we would expect it to look if there were no supernatural beings or forces. In this autobiographical article I set out to tell the story of my deconversion from fundamentalist Christianity and how I started down the path of critical self-reflection and skeptical evaluation that eventually led me to discard my faith and become the liberal, science-loving atheist I am today.

I was raised as a Baptist Christian and grew up attending a small church at least twice every week. I was homeschooled by loving, well-intentioned, and sincere parents, and the education I received was heavily informed by the religious training I was exposed to at church. I was not taught that Christianity was one religious worldview among many, or that I should wait until I was old enough to assess the beliefs of Christianity for myself in order to make an informed decision. Rather, whether the authority figures in my life realized it or not, I was taught that Christianity was simply the correct view of the world, that all the doctrinal tenets of Baptist Protestantism were factually true, and that the enemy of the faith, which my pastor and Sunday school teachers called “the world system,” was wrong (and, of course, evil). This meant that when I declared myself a Christian at the age of seven, I did so thinking about Christianity not so much as a faith, but as something that was simply a factually-true worldview.

In the months and years after I was formally baptized at church at age eight, I repeated the so-called “salvation prayer” several times. I had a very strong and sometimes nearly debilitating fear of eternal, fiery torture in hell after my death or at when the end of the world came, whichever came first. Even as a very young child (from about the age of five) I had extremely vivid dreams that I still recall clearly to this day. As soon as I started thinking about Christianity seriously enough to start calling myself an adherent, the nightmares about hell began in earnest, stoked in no small part by the Chick tracts I consumed. The end of days was also very important to my family and my church’s teachings. When I was about eight years old, I remember seeing a doomsday book by Hal Lindsey my mother had in her personal library bearing the title Planet Earth – 2000 A.D. Will Mankind Survive? I remember thinking seriously about whether I would live past my 13th year on Earth. Frightening visions of the Rapture and Tribulation also made their way into my childhood dreams. One of the most vivid that I can recall to this day involved me discovering that I was the Antichrist supposedly foretold in biblical prophecy, and there was nothing I could do about it because prophecy was prophecy, after all.

Hellfire and the deranged end-of-the-world visions of the Book of Revelation were not the only items from the Christian scriptures that my church taught in the most literal manner possible. The creation and flood myths in the Book of Genesis were also interpreted as literal historical fact and taught as much. To interpret these passages allegorically or symbolically while accepting what science tells us about origins was viewed as heresy. Thus, young-earth creationism featured strongly in my earliest exposure to the science versus religion debates.

I recall having a strong interest in science as a young child. The first time I became aware of this thing called science was, I think, my reading of books on anatomy and physiology that I found at the library when I was as young as five years old, and I remember being utterly fascinated by the thought that the human body could be studied in detail piece by piece. I also discovered books on dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures and fostered a fascination in that subject as well, as do most young children. Also like many small boys, I enjoyed catching insects and spiders, and came to learn of a field of science devoted entirely to the study of insects called entomology, which I decided was something I wanted to be. I read books like The Way Things Work by David Macaulay and even began reading my family’s encyclopedia set from the beginning.

Because of my church community’s preoccupation with biblical literalism, all of this science I was discovering was filtered through a young-earth creationist viewpoint, which I was taught was a matter of fact rather than of faith. Here, then, was the point of entry to my embracing creationism. The church my family attended had a set of seminar lectures on VHS cassettes by the famous young-earth creationist and fundamentalist preacher Ken Ham and played them for the whole congregation. When I was nine years old, my family attended a series of such lectures by Ken Ham when he visited our city, and I remember meeting him in person.

Fast forward five years. When I was 14 years old, I once again renewed that old “salvation prayer.” This was in the summer of 2001, when I joined a group of other 13-15 year-olds on a week-long excursion with a small evangelistic organization to learn how to evangelize young children and get them to convert to the faith. That September, when the most devastating terrorist attack in the United States’ history took place, a new preoccupation took hold of me in addition to my interest in studying creationism. I began to read about and study Christian beliefs about the end of the world and the final judgment, the subject that was the source of so many nightmares during my preteen years. In addition to reading commentaries on the Book of Revelation, I read end-times books by self-professed doomsday gurus like Hal Lindsey and dug my teeth into the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye. My church taught that we were “clearly” living in the last days and so, being still in the throes of irrational belief, I felt the need to inform myself about what my particular faith community believed about the end of the world. This served to reintroduce the same species of fear that troubled me about hell as a young child. Based on what several adults in the church were saying about the “signs of the times,” I began to believe that I may not live to see adulthood before being suddenly whisked away to the heavenly realm or, if I somehow didn’t make the cut, left on earth to die a horrible death at the hands of an angry deity. Tragically, my early childhood interest in science had been drowned out by this new fear-based preoccupation.

By the time I was 17, my fear-driven and morbid fascination with end-times theology had subsided, most probably due to a period of normal teenage angst and sexual frustration. I can remember clearly sitting in church during an evening sermon and being distracted by the sudden thought that while I knew what I believed, I didn’t know why I believed it. Accepting claims made about ultimate truth on the word of authority figures suddenly did not seem like any kind of reason to hold onto any worldview. I decided I needed to find a way to make this religion my own. The questions I asked were similar to the questions posed in the song “After Forever” by the band Black Sabbath:

Have you ever thought about your soul, can it be saved?
Or perhaps you think that when you’re dead you just stay in your grave
Is God just a thought within your head or is he a part of you?
Is Christ just a name that you read in a book when you were in school?

It was about this time that I discovered a book that my mother had acquired for a high school-level homeschool course that dealt with Western philosophy (from a Christian perspective, because of course). But the book was a catalyst for the eventual road to unbelief I ended up taking. The book was called The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog by James Sire. I found it utterly fascinating and read the whole book twice and some chapters more times than that. As the subtitle suggests, this book discussed the history and philosophy of the major worldviews that competed in Western culture, including theism, deism, atheism/naturalism, Marxism, nihilism, existentialism, Eastern religions, New Age philosophy, and postmodernism. I had never before been exposed to the wide range of beliefs and worldviews that were on display in the marketplace of ideas. Although the author was an orthodox Christian theist and apologist who failed to subject his treatment of theism with the same level of critical scrutiny he applied to the other worldviews, the book nevertheless opened my eyes to the need to defend my faith rationally in the face of all these other beliefs about truth if I was to find a legitimate answer to the question of why I believed in Christianity.

Thus began my interest in Christian apologetics. I fostered this interest both at home in the school curriculum I worked on and at a church class that an aspiring Christian apologist from our church community taught. I knew that I wanted to defend my religious belief rationally, without having to resort to blind faith or the circularity of basing my justification for belief on the word of scripture. At age 18 my parents very kindly made it possible for me to travel to Seattle to attend a week-long Christian apologetics conference called Worldview Academy, where young people around my age went to listen to career apologists discuss how to defend major tenets of orthodox Christianity (creationism, biblical history, the reliability of scripture, the historicity of Jesus, etc.) and engage in workshops in which we practiced talking to each other as if we were talking to nonbelievers. We even went to the campus of the University of Washington to try out our defense of Christian theism on college students and professors. It was at this conference that I met the apologist Bill Jack, whose videos and books I had seen and read at home and who invited me and a few other aspiring apologists to have lunch with him.

This was the beginning of the end of my belief in Christianity and the existence of a god. Ironically enough, my attempt to defend the faith by doing heavy research into the various claims made by Christian theism is what ultimately led me to discard Christianity and theism entirely. I lost my faith precisely because I tried to find a rational and evidence-based justification for it.


At the age of 19, I renewed my commitment to Christ for what would be the final time. I was at this point an aspiring Christian apologist; I wanted to make it my mission to defend the faith, and so I decided a final plea for salvation was in order. But although I did not admit to myself, I felt absolutely no supernatural presence of any kind. I now know this was because I was not talking to anybody. I was in reality talking to myself and trying desperately to convince myself that the Christian god was listening.

That same year, 2006, I took a states standard test, received my high school diploma, and graduated at a ceremony with other graduating homeschooled students at a local religious college. One of the first things I did as an aspiring apologist was to write an op-ed for my local newspaper, which was published, in which I argued that religious teachings, including creationism, could be reconciled and made compatible with modern science. I cringe a little when I think about writing that op-ed. I don’t recall all the details of what I set down on paper, but I have no doubt if I read it again today, I would not recognize myself in those words. Being as equipped with all the knowledge and education I have accumulated since then, I would now be able to refute and debunk my own arguments.

I moved away from home, attended a community college where I took a course in the History of Western Civilization, and started reading philosophical and scientific works by thinkers and scholars who did not believe in Christianity, as a means of getting to “know the enemy” so as to better defend my own beliefs. First, I went to libraries and bookstores and read everything I could get my hands on about evolution, because creationism had again become a central concern to me when I rediscovered my old love of science. I read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, as well as books by Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse, and others.

The result was a powerfully eye-opening experience. I was completely taken aback by what I was not told about evolution and geology by my creationist teachers growing up. I came to understand that the amount of scientific evidence in favor of evolution and the 4.5 billion-year age of the Earth were overwhelming and simply undeniable by any honest seeker. The sheer elegance of evolutionary explanations for the diversity of life revealed to me the weakness and intellectual dishonesty of the creationists’ attacks on the science. I soon came to understand that the claims of creationism are unsupportable and felt I had been lied to by the religious figures like Ken Ham, Bill Jack, and Henry Morris who I looked up to in my teenage years and whose arguments I repeated. This was more than a feeling; I really was lied to by these people and the anti-science community they represented. They lied when they taught me that there were no transitional fossils. They lied to me when they said the noxious spray of the bombardier beetle proved intelligent design. They lied when they said evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. And they lied when they told me I should consider an ancient book to be a superior guide to truth than the findings of modern science.

So I discarded creationism and accepted that evolution is a verifiable fact. But I still held onto my god belief. I acquainted myself with the community of theists who accepted the reality of evolution but maintained that a supernatural being directed and guided the eons-long process. But the more I read and studied the issue, the more I realized that this idea of god-directed evolution was unnecessary at best and incoherent at worst. Evolution is by definition an unguided and natural process. There is no need and no warrant for positing intervention by a micromanaging deity in order to account for changes in allele frequencies over time. Saying a god is needed to direct the course of evolution is akin to saying that a god is needed to direct the force of gravity. No, Intelligent Gravity is not a thing, because gravitation is a natural consequence of the mindless laws of physics. But it is very telling that if the writers of antiquity who wrote what would eventually be collected in the canon of Jewish and Christian scripture had felt inclined to claim that god personally pulled objects to the earth, there would today be an Intelligent Gravity movement attacking the natural physics understanding. After all, the reason there are people today in the 21st century who actually believe that the Earth is flat is because there are several passages in the Bible that clearly describe Earth as a flat disk encased by a dome.

Theistic evolution is a compromise; it is a symptom of the failure of creationist accounts of life and the universe in the face of the scientific discoveries and advancements that started with Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the nineteenth century. Theistic evolutionists are attempting to hold on to their belief in an intervening god while at the same time admitting that the evidence for evolution makes any denial of it dishonest. But naturalistic evolution already explains the diversity and development of life. Adding a god on top of that explanation is burdensome and redundant, especially in light of the fact that theists have not been able to provide any mechanism by which a god could either jumpstart the evolutionary process or guide it.

My faith was further eroded by my study of the historical claims of Christianity. I read the works of Bart Ehrman, Richard Elliott Friedman, Elaine Pagels, and other skeptical Bible scholars and historians of religion and the early church. For the first time, I learned about the historical unreliability of sacred scriptures. We do not have access to the original manuscripts and what we do have is riddled with both scribal errors and blatant alterations and distortions that favored particular religious persuasions and censored others. By following the primary sources and references of these scholars, as well as by reading the Bible itself with a new objectivity, I also saw that the Bible is clearly full of contradictions. I came to see that the defenses put forth by the Christian apologists whom I had read and heard from as a teenager and at the faith-based Worldview Academy conference amounted to little more than ad-hoc rationalizations of what the historical and textual evidence clearly demonstrated. Apologists are in the business of defending the indefensible, which is the very definition of “apologetics.” They are not offering any new insights or discoveries of their own, but rather going on the defensive and attacking the work of reputable scientists and historians whose findings are considered dangerous by the faithful.

The same is of course true of “Intelligent Design” (ID) advocates, those creationists who seek to disassociate themselves from the term “creationism” in order to make themselves appear more intellectually respectable. But only the name has changed; they are still creationists whether they admit so or not. ID advocates have not contributed any original scientific research, discovery, or insight of their own. Instead, they leech off the work already done by reputable biologists, chemists, and geneticists and pass it off as evidence of supernatural tinkering in nature. They do so by intimidating their audiences with lots of complicated scientific-sounding jargon, pretending to have expertise and pretending to know what they’re talking about, and then attacking the foundational, unifying principle, namely evolution, that allowed the knowledge they are parasitizing to be developed in the first place.

It became clear to me that the Book of Genesis could not be trusted as a literal historical account of how the universe and life came into existence, that the Gospel accounts in the New Testament were not reliable eyewitness accounts, and that there was much reason to doubt the historicity of a person called Jesus.

And so, at the age of 20, I knew I could no longer accept Christianity as a valid belief system.

But I was not out of the woods yet. While coming to the conclusion that Christianity was not true, I still believed that there was a god of some kind out there, even if I didn’t know what kind of god it was. I even held onto the idea that maybe there was some value to be found in Christianity as a symbolical or allegorical story, even if it was not a literal accounting of life, the universe, and everything. As we will see, I have discarded that notion as well.

So I no longer knew what I believed in, if anything. In addition to researching evolution and biblical criticism, I started researching other religions. For example, I read the Bhagavad-Gita, the holy book of Hinduism, and attended a service at a Hindu temple. I researched Islam and Buddhism. I even read The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals by Anton Szandor LaVey, who in the 1960s founded the modern Church of Satan. I did not find these religious traditions to be very compelling. At that point in my educational journey, I could easily discern that all religions are man-made constructs designed to make people less afraid of a natural world that frightened them and to help assuage the fear of death.

Philosophy became my abiding interest, and I decided that was what I wanted to study when I went to whatever university I ended up attending. I read the works of several of the great philosophers, including such an eclectic mix as Plato, René Descartes, David Hume, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell. I started thinking deeply about the “Big Questions” in a new light that was no longer filtered through the lens of religion, and philosophy as a method of evaluating these questions held out great promise to me for figuring out who I was and what I should believe in. Philosophy remains an abiding interest to me today.


In 2008, at age 21, I explored a new belief system that I had not devoted much time to before. This was the year I left my home state of Idaho and moved to Oregon, not far from the west coast. In May of that year, before enrolling in Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon, I joined an environmentally-conscious work program called Northwest Service Academy, an AmeriCorps program in which participants engage in service projects throughout the Pacific Northwest geared toward environmental restoration and conservation. There were about 45 other people in this program, all of us in our early- to mid-20s. We were split up into different groups that traveled all over the Pacific Northwest doing our various service projects, while we lived for six months at a ranger station campus in Trout Lake, Washington that served as home base.

It was in this program that I was introduced in a big way to New Age mysticism by one of the members in my working team (interestingly enough, this individual turned out to be the nephew of the famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig). He was the very picture of the “tree-loving, acid-dropping hippie” archetype and had brought along a whole box of New Age books with him. Learning of my interest in philosophy, he told me that “isms are dead.” He loaned me his books to read and showed me his various spiritual exercises, including the Hare Krishna chant, meditation, and praying to Gaia, the primordial earth goddess. On his dorm room wall, he displayed a drawing he had made of a bright point of light in the center of an otherwise darkly-colored vista, and claimed this was his reconstruction of what he saw that one time he had a vision of the afterlife.

“New Age” is an umbrella term having reference to a body of spiritualistic belief which asserts that a separate holistic reality, fundamentally pervaded by a single cosmic consciousness of which all human minds are a part, lies beyond the material world. While reading the New Age books my team member gave me and considering what he said, I found this belief system very unconvincing and unappealing for several reasons, first and foremost being that New Age philosophy was not friendly to objective knowledge. This individual told me that I should “read less books” and ignore philosophy, and also that intellectual pursuits were a waste of time. I even took acid with him because he said I was in desperate need of a spiritual experience. I ended up not experiencing anything more interesting than seeing the patterns in the kitchen floor swirling around, and he suggested that this was because I was too skeptical. This anti-intellectual attitude was extremely distasteful to me, having just a year or so previously having left a religion precisely because of what I learned through my intellectual pursuits. For all the talk of “mind expanding” that New Agers talk about, it is very telling that they find the pursuit of objective knowledge about the world to be threatening or dangerous.

I was also introduced to UFOlogy during my time in AmeriCorps. Trout Lake is considered to be a UFO hotspot by local residents as well as by UFO buffs from all over the country. There is a ranch in Trout Lake where UFO seekers and spiritualistic thrill-seekers visit to watch for UFOs. This so-called ECETI Ranch (standing for Enlightened Contact with ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is owned by James Gilliland, a self-professed New Age guru who claims to be in contact with a race of extraterrestrial beings and purports to be the medium through which these beings convey their messages of peace and love. Gilliland has written several books which he claims were dictated to him by an interdimensional alien being called Cazekiel. He claimed that Mount Adams was hollow and served as an alien base.

I met this eccentric Gilliland fellow in person at his ranch one afternoon and talked to him about his beliefs. I went to his ranch again on the evening of July 4, 2008 for his annual Independence Day UFO-watching event. A few hundred people were gathered there that night from all over the country. But while many of them were excitedly pointing to the night sky and exclaiming that the UFOs were out in good numbers, I saw absolutely nothing but a few stars. And this was the same night I took acid! Here was a large group of people who had primed themselves to see what they so desperately wanted to see. It struck me that this same self-deception very likely also occurred during the religious experiences of adherents from other more mainstream faith traditions. If it could happen with people who wanted to believe there were intelligent alien beings living inside a nearby mountain that could easily be investigated to see if there were any entrances leading to an alien base, how much easier is it to delude oneself into believing that a religious figure like Jesus, the details of whose existence is obfuscated by two millennia of scrambled and distorted oral accounts, is personally communicating with you in a special and intimate way?

I returned to Ashland, Oregon that October more skeptical and disillusioned than I had ever been about all things supernatural. I enrolled in Southern Oregon University, where I majored in journalism with a minor in philosophy. During my freshman year, I read a book called Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions by James Randi. This book influenced me in a huge way. Here was a world-famous magician debunking all manner of pseudoscientific beliefs and claims, not only by subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny under laboratory conditions, but also be replicating the tricks employed by psychics, mediums, spoon-benders, water diviners, and other charlatans. This book had a whole chapter devoted to UFOlogy, in which Randi concludes,

The Flying Saucer Delusion belongs in this book as another example of wishful thinking, poor research, and outright fraud. It joins the other species of nonsense and deserves the same kind of exposure given to other irrationalities. There is no proof whatsoever that UFOs are any more exciting than the TWA flight from New York to San Francisco. And the latter phenomenon is miracle enough for me.

Randi did not address religious claims in his book, but I could see that the methods of scientific testing and rational evaluation that he employed against the various woo beliefs he did address could also be applied to religion. This realization was eye-opening; throughout my childhood and teen years I had been repeatedly told by my teachers, both in church and in my homeschool “science” textbooks (which of course were written from a creationist point of view) that God could not be put into a box, could not be studied inside a test tube. But this, I now realized, was all wrong. Science really is in a position to weigh in on the supernatural, and it violates no jurisdiction by doing so. On one level, establishing the truth of this argument is very simple: If a claim concerning God or other supernatural entities contains any testable elements, then the validity of that claim can be scientifically tested. For example, if the claim is made that any two Christians who pray to their God can physically move a mountain from its place and cast it into the sea, then we have before us an obvious empirical test that can be performed. Moreover, if a personal god exists, one who takes actions and tinkers with the universe and who is claimed to have an effect on our lives, then he/she/it should be detectable by the physical effects his actions makes on the natural world. A supernatural being that participates in and interferes constantly with the physical universe should at least leave a straightforward statistical trace. But no such trace is to be found.

Randi’s book was my introduction to the skeptical movement, of which I knew I wanted to be a part and to which I wanted to contribute by applying the techniques of investigative journalism that I was learning in college. I went on to read all of the other books written by James Randi, as well as books by other movers and shakers in the skeptical community, such as Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner, Paul Kurtz, and Ray Hyman.

So I was at this point a skeptic of religion and the supernatural. I was very close to identifying as an atheist, but in the year before that happened, I called myself a deist. This is to say that I while I completely rejected all religions as false, misguided human inventions and rejected the notion that any personal god who interacts with its creation exists, I still maintained that perhaps an impersonal, non-interventionist higher being existed whose only role was to initiate the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, then leave the universe to run on its own without his involvement. Maybe, I thought, this being wasn’t necessarily supernatural at all, but rather just a natural being that was nevertheless far more advanced in intelligence and creative power than we humans could ever be.

But of course, not being content to settle on a conclusion without researching the question to the depth the subject warranted, I read up on what physicists and cosmologists had to say on the subject. I read the work of particle physicist Victor Stenger and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, both of whom I had the opportunity to meet and talk to in person, and both of whom showed that the best models of universal origins, developed by some of the greatest scientific minds in the field, did not require the insertion of a god or creative force of any kind in any part of the equations. In his 2006 book The Comprehensible Cosmos, Stenger himself worked out with mathematical rigor his own version of a scenario originally developed by theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin by which our universe “tunneled” from a previous universe through a process called quantum tunneling. And in his lecture titled “A Universe from Nothing,” presented at the 2009 Atheist Alliance International conference – and which I watched several times over – Krauss showed that our universe could have come into existence completely by accident without violating any known laws of physics, due to the symmetries of the preexisting void being highly unstable and thereby collapsing spontaneously into something – a universe. In that lecture, Krauss makes the following wonderful statement:

Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than [the atoms in] your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics. You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution – weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if the stars were kind enough to explode. So forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

This scientific poetry is not based on mere conjecture or speculation, and it is not based on faith of any kind. This is poetry that is based on hard knowledge that can be and has been tested and verified by rigorous, peer-reviewed methods of investigation performed by thousands of scientists. The creation fables of religion look primitive and tawdry in comparison to the truths that science reveals to us about our origins and place in the universe.

The weight of the evidence from the best cosmological models to date indicates that the universe began in a state of maximum chaos, or what physicists call “maximum entropy.” This would mean that the universe had no structure at the point of its inception. This means that if the deist’s god did set off the spark that created the universe, no memory or trace of that god would be preserved in the current universe. So while not completely ruled out, due to its non-falsifiable (and therefore unscientific) nature, deism has been ruled irrelevant by the mere fact that maximum chaos dominated at the moment the universe was born. It would seem that even god is subservient to the laws of thermodynamics. At any rate, I then asked myself, in what possible way is a god who does not interact in any way, shape, or form with its creation indistinguishable from a completely nonexistent god? If everyone were a deist, wouldn’t we all be living as if we were atheists anyway?

The more I studied and learned about history, philosophy, and science, the more the god I had once believed in vanished from sight. Another great influence that helped me further along the road of erasing god belief from my life was a show that one of my philosophy professors was a fan of called The Atheist Experience, a weekly public-access television show that broadcasts from Austin, Texas and streams over the Internet. Hosted by members of the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA), The Atheist Experience is a program that has discussed just about everything related to the theism/atheism debate. The show’s hosts take calls from people all over the country to hash these issues out on the air, and they prioritize calls from theists who either want to challenge atheism or who have honest questions about atheism. Matt Dillahunty, who was president of the ACA when I first started following the show and who continues to be a prominent spokesperson for the organization, started out as a fundamentalist Christian like me before discarding his faith. His story connected and resonated with me and the discussions he and others on the show engaged in with believers served as a great resource for me. Matt Dillahunty has often said, “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.” I have taken that to be my own personal life philosophy.

Then, in the beginning of my sophomore year, god disappeared completely from my worldview and I began publicly identifying as an atheist.


It has been nearly seven years now since I came to terms with the realization that there is no god or any other supernatural force in the universe. I now have an insatiable appetite for knowledge from a wide and eclectic range of subjects, from history, philosophy, and especially science. Discarding my belief in gods and magic has been of immense and indeed immeasurable benefit in this pursuit of knowledge. I no longer have to try to force square pegs into round holes, also known as “apologetics.” I no longer need to fit all that I learn into the small box of religious belief. In my past, when I subscribed to creationism, I was exhorted by my teachers to be defeatist in my pursuit of knowledge, to throw up my hands and give up trying to seek out a scientific explanation for life and the universe. “It’s all so complicated, let’s just say ‘goddidit’ and be done with it.” This attitude discourages avid curiosity and the striving toward new knowledge. To assume an unproven answer such as “God did it” not only bypasses and dismisses principles of observable, testable, repeatable and falsifiable evidence, it seeks to halt science in its tracks. If scientists accepted wholesale such “God of the Gaps” assumptions, the drive to continue investigating and seeking answers would die, for the unproved Supernatural Being that is assumed to exist is simply inserted into every unknown ever encountered and matters are left at that.

Now, I am free to critically evaluate all claims and worldviews using the tools of philosophy and science, and I am free to change my mind in light of the objective, observable evidence and/or modify my existing beliefs to satisfy what reality tells me is true based on testable, repeatable, falsifiable, and predictable knowledge. There is nothing too “sacred” to be investigated. To the best of my ability, I strive to live an evidence-based life, something that is not possible under the religious theism that dominated my thought processes as a child and as a teenager and young adult.

My life as an atheist is orders of magnitude more meaningful to me now than it was while I was religious. For one thing, the fact that there is no soul and no afterlife to look forward to makes the one life I have here, which really is just a blip of consciousness wavering between two eternal oblivions, that much more meaningful and worth living to the fullest. For another, think about what the theist’s overriding purpose in life is. By their own account, their purpose is to be in total and complete servitude to their god. The Christian religion I was a part of demands enslavement to god as a prerequisite to salvation. The idea of total servitude and surrender of one’s will, emotions, and intellect to an outside source, and the casting-off of personal responsibility for one’s own actions, is one that I find morally repugnant. Under fundamentalist Christianity, people are told to “lean not on your own understanding,” or in other words to embrace the ignorance that faith demands and eschew knowledge. Under fundamentalist Christianity, great humanitarian efforts are dismissed as “filthy rags” while murderers, rapists, and child molesters are welcomed into the fold at the first hint of a vocal declaration that they’re “saved.” This is how Christianity, and religion in general, robs people of their humanity. It reduces them to a puppet controlled by the fiat will of a deity that they believe communicates with them directly and gives them direction for their life. The most devout theists are wasting the only life they will ever have in service to an imaginary being.

When theists tell me that without god, my life has no ultimate or transcendent meaning or purpose, my response is, “Yes; so what?” We all live in an unimaginably vast, unforgiving, and indifferent cosmos. There is no ultimate reason for anything that happens, but this is the reality that we all must deal with. Trying to find objective meaning in the universe is little different than spilling the innards of chicken and sheep and “reading” the entrails to see what cosmic truth they reveal, or reading tea leaves or palms. These things do not mean anything, and neither does the universe. The nineteenth-century Scottish poet James Thomson expressed this in a surprisingly beautiful way in his poem The City of Dreadful Night:

This little life is all we must endure,
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.

We bow down to the universal laws,
Which never had for man a special clause
Of cruelty or kindness, love or hate:
If toads and vultures are obscene to sight,
If tigers burn with beauty and with might,
Is it by favour or by wrath of Fate?

I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlighted ever by the faintest spark
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.

The indifference and impersonal nature of the universe is all the more reason to jettison magical and supernatural thinking of all kinds from our minds. As Carl Sagan famously said near the end of his life, “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

My life as an atheist has whatever meaning and purpose I assign to it. As a social primate, I want to serve my species, to spend the only life I will ever have learning as much as I possibly can about reality and using that knowledge to make the lives of others better in whatever way I can. My atheism makes me value my fellow humans far more than religion ever did, because without a higher being watching over us and micromanaging every detail of our lives, all we have is each other to make life in this cold, indifferent, and inhospitable universe just a little more bearable. This is the “meaning” I find in my godless life, and it is a meaning that is subjective and self-created, which is the only kind of meaning anyone can find. And that’s okay.

Posted in Atheism, Bible, Christianity, Creationism / Intelligent Design, Religion, Science and Religion, Skepticism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Dangers of Anti-Vaxxers and Bad News Reporting (Guest Post by Niels Böge Nothdurft)

This is another guest post written by Niels Böge Nothdurft from Denmark. In this post, Niels discusses the popular fears surrounding the Gardasil vaccine in Denmark and how inaccurate and sensationalistic reporting in the news media contributed to these fears and helped promote dangerous anti-vaccination pseudoscience.

The number of Danish women who get the HPV vaccine known as Gardasil has been in a huge decline the last 1-2 years. I want to tell you the story about how a country that has had around 70-80 percent of its 12 year-old girls vaccinated each year to prevent a deadly disease suddenly experiences such a dramatic decline in the vaccines given, such that only 11 percent of all 12 year-old girls got their last Gardasil shot last year.

The lack of trust in Gardasil appears to originate in the spring of 2015, when the second largest Danish news station, called TV2, began to bring in reports on several anecdotes. The anecdotes were from young Danish women who claimed that they had acquired various illnesses and problems from their HPV vaccinations. The anecdotes were told as their own stories, but a total of 47 anecdotes were also featured in the bottom of a series of articles about Gardasil and the alleged danger it pose.

Some of the problems they claim they have gotten from the vaccine are: dizziness, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), headaches, sleep problems, acne, infections, dandruff, claustrophobia, gluten allergy, cooking salt allergy, sleeping problems and various pains. Anecdotes are themselves useless as evidence if you want to come to a scientific conclusion. And a claim that a vaccine has caused an allergy to cooking salt, gluten-allergy, and claustrophobia should really make people raise an eyebrow.

I will return to the anecdotes when I talk about the science surrounding Gardasil later in this blogpost. But first I want to cover the news reporting of TV2.

As you might know, it is normal for news reporters to present “both sides,” which makes sense if you are making a news story about politics. But it doesn’t make sense when it comes to science. That is simply because there only is one side when it comes to science and that side is the one supported by the weight of the evidence.

So it is not surprising that TV2 did the thing with both sides when they reported about Gardasil. I would argue that TV2, besides bad reporting, also is to blame for the whole Gardasil “controversy” in the first place. If they hadn’t started to bring articles on a regular basis about the alleged dangers of Gardasil, the “controversy” would probably not have started in the first place.

In their articles about the alleged dangers of Gardasil, TV2 has been using mainly two anti-vaxxer groups from Denmark. They are called Vaccinations Forum and HPV Update.

Vaccinations Forum is a typical anti-vaxxer group, claiming that all vaccines are dangerous, while HPV Update is mainly focused on HPV vaccines like Gardasil, while promoting alternative treatments to people who blame their problems on Gardasil. The treatments they recommend include homeopathy, reflexology, acupuncture and something called Vega test. If I understand Vega test correctly, it is a kind of E-meter test, in which the tester wants to find out what herbal medicine the “patient” needs. A very worrying treatment they recommend is a vitamin-C treatment that is provided by a Danish doctor who is on an authority watchlist because he provides a vitamin-C treatment and is an anti-vaxxer.

I think it is worth mentioning that TV2 brought an article about a radio interview with two famous anti-vaxxers named Diane Harper and Lucija Tomlenovic, both of whom can be seen in various anti-vaxxer YouTube documentaries. The article, with some parts of the interview in it, had the title, “Experts: We do not know if the HPV vaccine’s effect will be lasting.” I have provided a link to the article so you can get a headache from reading it, as I did. [1]

When TV2 wanted to show both sides of the story, they used spokespersons from both the Danish Health Authority (Sundhedsstyrelsen) and the Danish Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse). When they were interviewed, the spokespersons tried to calm people down by repeatedly saying that there is no link between the claimed side effects and the vaccine. The spokespersons did a good job in my opinion, but they were sadly not given much space in the articles to make their case. The main focus was always on the controversial side.

So what about the science?

The science was almost completely absent during the whole Gardasil “controversy,” which is a shame because it clearly shows that there is no controversy in the first place. I could compile a whole list of studies that clearly show that Gardasil is both safe and effective, but the blog Skeptical Raptor has already done that for me. [2] Ironically, one of the studies on the list is a massive cohort study of 1 million Danish and Swedish girls that showed no increased risk of getting 53 different illnesses from Gardasil. [3]

Let’s return to the anecdotes from Danish women, who claim that Gardasil has given them several different illnesses and problems.

Anecdotes can be very appealing and full of emotion, which they were in the case of the Danish women. But emotional appeal doesn’t make an anecdote true. If a claim only has anecdotes to support it, you should be very skeptical about the claim, especially if the anecdotes contain some wild claims, like some of the anecdotes from the Danish women did.

The anecdotes and media coverage were apparently enough for the Danish Health Authority to take the claims seriously. They asked the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to launch an investigation of Gardasil and create new hospital units to take care of women who think they have been damaged by the vaccine. The EMA investigation of course found that (surprise, surprise!) there is no evidence that people get sick from Gardasil. But that was not enough to convince the anti-vaxxer groups and a Danish doctor called Jesper Mehlsen, who thinks that Gardasil is dangerous. Mehlsen and some others published a heavily criticized case report study, with only 35 women and no controls, [4] trying to prove that Gardasil has caused POTS.

Besides the health authorities taking the claims about vaccine dangers seriously enough to create new hospital units, thus spending a lot of tax money, the Gardasil “controversy” has had quite severe consequences for Denmark and especially for Danish women in general.

An obvious consequence is that public trust in at least one type of vaccine has been damaged, very likely beyond any repair. The number of 12 year-old girls who get the first Gardasil shot has dropped from 78-92 percent in previous years to 42 percent last year and only 13 percent so far this year. The trend is no better when we look at the amount of women who complete their HPV vaccination. In previous years, 68-79 percent completed their vaccination, compared to only 11 percent last year and only 1 percent so far this year. [5]

A very sad consequence of this is that we will see an increase of cervical cancer. Each year 376 Danish women get cervical cancer and each year 99 Danish women die from it, which is a tragedy that doesn’t have to happen, because we have an effective and safe vaccine to prevent it!

Another sad consequence was the panic that followed the Gardasil “controversy.” Many women feared for their health after getting the vaccine and many women reported side effects to the authorities. The reported side effects boomed in 2015, after all the news coverage. [6]

The panic also reached one of the largest political parties in Denmark, called Dansk Folkeparti (DF), or Danish People’s Party (DPP) in English. Being a highly populist and scientifically illiterate party, or in other words the Danish version of Donald Trump, they almost immediately stated that all vaccination against HPV should be stopped. The DF got some well-earned flak for their statement from organisations like the Danish Cancer Society and the Danish Medical Association, but it doesn’t change the fact that the second largest political party in Denmark now wants to stop HPV vaccination, based solely on some anecdotes.

The consequences of the anti-vaccination movement, bad news reporting, and a lack of skeptical thinking skills can be tremendous and fatal for some of the people, who would have been protected by a vaccine or herd immunity. They lose their lives to a horrible disease. Other people and their families will needlessly suffer physically and psychologically, and people like the 47 women who believe they got sick because of Gardasil will stop looking for answers and instead blame an ingenious product of science for all their problems. Anti-vaxxers makes us all lose.


[1] Jonatan Rying Larsen, “Eksperter: Vi ved ikke, om HPV-vaccinens virkning er varig,” TV2 Nyheder, May 18, 2015, If you can’t read Danish, you can use Google Translator, which gives a readable and understandable translation of the article.

[2] The Original Skeptical Raptor, “Gardasil Safety and Efficacy – Debunking the HPV Vaccine Myths,” Skeptical Raptor, October 3, 2016,

[3] Lisen Arnheim-Dahlström, et al., “Autoimmune, Neurological, and Venous Thromboembolic Adverse Events after Immunisation of Adolescent Girls with Quadrivalent Human Papillomavirus Vaccine in Denmark and Sweden: Cohort Study,” British Medical Journal 347 (October 2013): f5906. doi:

[4] L.S. Brinth, K. Pors, A.C. Theibel, J. Mehlsen, “Orthostatic Intolerance and Postural Tachycardia Syndrome as Suspected Adverse Effects of Vaccination against Human Papilloma Virus,” Vaccine 33, no. 22 (May 21, 2015): 2602-2605. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2015.03.098.

[5] A Danish statistic from the Statens Serum Institut (the Danish version of the CDC) showing the percentage of women born a specific year who have received their first Gardasil shot:

Statistic from the same source showing how many girls have received their last Gardasil shot:

Word translations to the Danish statistics:

Vaccinationstilslutning = vaccination coverage
Køn = gender
Kvinder  = women
Fødselsår = birth year
Færdigvaccineret = finished vaccination
Landsdel = region
Kommune = municipality

[6] Lægemiddelstyrelsen (Danish Medicines Agency), “Adverse Reactions from the HPV Vaccine,” June 30, 2016,


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Rock ‘n’ Reverse: Skeptical Lessons from the Backward Masking Scare

“Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.”
~ Radiohead, “There There”


In the campy 1986 horror film Trick or Treat, directed by Michael Martin Smith and written by Rhet Topham, a devil-worshiping rock star named Sammi Curr meets an untimely death in a mysterious hotel fire. His biggest fan, a high school student with no friends and an obsession with heavy metal music, finds consolation in being the sole recipient of the only copy of Curr’s final, hitherto unreleased album. He is shocked to discover that he can communicate directly with the spirit of the deceased rock star when the acetate disc is rotated backward and played in reverse. He soon learns he can use this otherworldly communication to his advantage, calling on the diabolical power of Sammi Curr to torment and terrorize the bullies who victimize him on a daily basis.

For many fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s and 1990s, the movie Trick or Treat may as well have been a documentary. To them, rock albums are not just harmful to young people when played normally on listening devices. According to the moral crusaders against popular culture, rock albums contain sinister hidden messages discernible only when they are played in reverse. “Backward masking,” a perceived phenomenon which, beginning in the 1980s, captured the imagination of rebellious youth and anti-rock evangelists alike, is the process of playing music records in reverse to find the hidden subliminal messages hiding in the grooves.

The scare began in earnest early in 1982 when a fire-and-brimstone televangelist named Paul Crouch devoted a segment of the January 14 broadcast of his Praise the Lord (PTL) show to a discussion of demonic messages in rock records. Crouch’s guest that day was a self-described neuroscientist named William H. Yarroll, who stated that rock stars were joining forces with organized Satanism and were “placing hidden messages on records in reverse so the subconscious mind could grasp the ‘secret’ or subliminal communications.” [1]

This claim immediately captured the collective imaginations of religious anti-rock activists. Anti-rock evangelist Jacob Aranza wrote two whole books on the subject of backward masking, calling it “a technique that rock groups are using to convey satanic and drug related messages to the subconscious.” [2] The main thesis of his 1983 book Backward Masking Unmasked is that the technique is the “missing link,” the elusive factor that directly ties rock music to the occult. “This was to become a channel for satanically infiltrating the minds of unsuspecting people!” [3]

Most of the evangelists who preached on the alleged presence of hidden messages in rock records believed the messages to be a supernatural phenomenon, not just the engineering work of devious tricksters. Jack Chick, a cartoonist and prolific propagandist for Christian fundamentalism, not only added backmasked rock music to his long and constantly-growing list of cultural and social evils to be combated, but imbued it with supernatural significance. In his Crusaders comic book “Spellbound?” Chick spins a lurid tale in which Satan’s forces recruit witches and Druids to encode rock records with subliminal spells and incantations. Only after a group of powerful witches have summoned Satan’s top demon to bless the master record was the music ready for production. The cursed records then serve as vehicles to hypnotize listeners and consign their souls to eternal damnation. [4]


A scene from Jack Chick’s comic book “Spellbound?” (The Crusaders, vol. 10)

To Chick, the premise and storyline of this comic is not fantastic fiction à la Lovecraft or Topham. He believes it to have a basis in reality. In 1985, his publishing company produced a book entitled The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth about Rock by author Jeff Godwin. A comprehensive condemnation of rock music, Devil’s Disciples purports to expose it as part of Satan’s global master plan to enslave the minds of everyone on earth. Godwin declares that “the voices we hear on these songs in reverse are actually the sounds of the demons themselves!” As proof of this, Godwin offers the following anecdotal account from a woman identified only as “Elaine,” who claimed to be a former Satanist who was personally involved in implanting her dark lord’s destructive message on music records:

Satan is real! Demons are real! . . . Like so many other things, the whole movement of Rock music was carefully planned and carried out by Satan and his servants from its very beginning. Rock music didn’t “just happen,” it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself. . . .

I attended special ceremonies at various recording studios throughout the U.S. for the specific purpose of placing satanic blessings on the Rock music recorded. We did incantations which placed demons on every record and tape of rock music that was sold. At times we also called up special demons who spoke on the recordings – the various backmasked messages. Also, in many of the recordings, we were ourselves recorded in the background (masked by the overall noise of the music) doing chants and incantations to summon up more demons every time one of the records or tapes is played. As the music is played, these demons are summoned into the room to afflict the person playing the music and anyone else who is listening. The purpose of all of this? Mind control[5]

Did the anti-rock crusaders promoting these claims have more sober and credible sources than Chick and “Elaine” to which they could turn for support? Many thought they had found their man in an academic named Wilson Bryan Key.

“Backward masking or metacontrast,” suggested Key, “is another technique which, though not purely subliminal, does affect both conscious and unconscious perception.” [6] Key, the late psychologist and communications theorist, was largely responsible for reintroducing into the public consciousness notions first advanced by the social critic Vance Packard in the 1950s about subliminal messages in media content, especially advertising. [7] He also testified at a 1991 trial in which a wrongful-death suit was filed against the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. Key defended the plaintiffs’ case that a subliminal backmasked message on the band’s Stained Class album had triggered the suicide of their teenage son James Vance. [8]

Key believed the word “sex,” along with various taboo four-letter words, was embedded in nearly all advertisement media and in many other places as well. The paperback cover of Signet’s 1981 reprint of Key’s 1973 book Subliminal Seduction features a photograph of an ice-filled cocktail with the caption “Are you being sexually aroused by this picture?” He claimed to have detected the image of a naked woman copulating with a dog embedded in an ice-cube emblazoned on a Sprite ad. He also thought he saw skulls, beasts, devils, and male and female genitalia hidden in Sears catalogues and on boxes of Ritz crackers, on the NBC evening news and on the Sistine Chapel.


The cover of Signet’s 1981 reprint of Wilson Bryan Key’s influential and controversial book.

Many culture warriors looked to Key’s work in their search for reputable scholarly confirmation of their irrational fears of rock music. Key asserted that the insertion of what he called “subaudibles” into rock records influenced listeners to crank the volume up in order to hear them. He said that the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the 1973 horror film The Exorcist incorporated subliminals, cleverly mixing in sounds of buzzing bees and of squealing pigs at various frequencies. [9] Of particular interest to many of the evangelistic “culture warriors” was Key’s borderline dualistic account of brain function, in which he stated,

Experiments have demonstrated that humans can receive, process, and transmit information which makes no conscious appearance at any stage of its passage through their nervous system. Indeed, the unconscious can operate quite independently from the conscious mechanism in the brain. The two perceptual systems often appear to be operating in opposition to one another. [10]

As with all arguments that lean toward a dualistic account of consciousness and its operation, Key’s account lacks both predictive and explanatory power. Key does not tell us what specific “experiments” he is referring to, and he does not explain how humans can “receive, process, and transit information” subliminally if the unconscious and conscious are indeed operating independently of each other. How is interaction between conscious and unconscious mechanisms possible in such an independence model? If Key’s followers want to say there is no interaction, they have no basis for asserting that subliminal messages in rock music, for example, have any effect on its listeners, harmful or otherwise. In order for such alleged effects to be observable and measurable, they must manifest on a conscious level. In the early 1990s, Robert D. Hicks, a criminal justice analyst for the state of Virginia, commented on the tendency of promoters of the backward masking notion to avoid such explanations:

Cult cops cite backmasking claims as factual, and proven. Interestingly, they never address the crucial questions: How does your average consumer manage to play the messages backwards on a common record player or tape recorder? Assuming the messages are there, what mechanism allows a listener to perceive them, consciously or unconsciously, when the music is played forward at the correct speed? Even assuming that a listener somehow absorbs the messages subliminally, so what? What effects do such messages have? Cult cops never bother to raise such questions, and neither do those who claim to have studied the backmasked comments . . . neither the cult cops nor their fundamentalist Christian sources will ever cite definitive scientific studies that address the crucial questions and demonstrate that such messages, if they do exist, influence people’s behavior[11]

The question of whether backmasked and/or subliminal messages have the effect ascribed to them by the anti-rock crusaders is more important than the question of whether or not such backmasked messages actually exist. In a 1985 research report, cognitive psychologists John R. Vokey and J. Don Read, both of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, show the fallacy inherent in the notion that mere presence necessarily implies effectiveness. “Is there any evidence to warrant assertions that such messages affect our behavior? Across a wide variety of tasks, we were unable to find any evidence to support such a claim.” [12]

Subliminal backward masking, even if present, does not and cannot exert any effect on human behavior. But there are several psychological and cultural factors that do impact our thought processes and influence belief formation in profound ways. In this essay, I explore three such factors that contributed to the development of the backward masking hysteria. These factors are suggestion, narrative, and agenticity.

The Role of Suggestion

The specific role played by suggestion and suggestibility in the finding of hidden satanic lyrics was carefully examined by Stephen B. Thorne and Philip Himelstein of the University of Texas at El Paso. Their findings were summarized as follows:

When large numbers of listeners report that they can indeed hear the demonic hymns, a reasonable hypothesis is that suggestion is playing an important role. There is ample experimental evidence to suggest that, when vague and unfamiliar stimuli are presented, [test subjects] are highly likely to accept suggestions, particularly when the suggestions are presented by someone with prestige or authority. [13]

Evangelist John Muncy, an outspoken anti-rock activist, had much to say about both the obvious and the subliminal in rock music. In 1984, Muncy appeared as a guest on Something Beautiful, a Christian television show broadcasting from KYFC-TV in Kansas City, to present his years of “research” on backward masking. Armed with a tape player and his collection of backwards recordings, Muncy played several songs in reverse for the host, prominent among them a song by Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) called “Eldorado.” Following is what Muncy had to say about this song in his book The Role of Rock, published five years after his appearance on the show:

Electric Light Orchestra

Forward: “Here it comes/Another lonely day/Playing their game/I’ll sail away on a voyage of no return, to see, if eternal life is meant to be.”

Backward: “He is the nasty one, Christ, you’re infernal/Though it is said/we’re dead men/Everyone that does have the mark will live.” [14]

When Muncy played his backward recording of this ELO song on Something Beautiful, the garbled rendering was very indistinct. Muncy stopped the tape and said, “Tell you what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna play this again to slow it down just a little bit more. Watch how clear these phrases come out.” He proceeded to do so, this time repeating back to the viewing audience exactly what they were supposed to be hearing as the recording played. Despite the fact that he found it necessary to engage in blatant suggestion while the recording played at a slower pace, Muncy went on to state, “Now, you got to remember, that’s playing backwards. That is remarkably clear when you take in consideration that’s backwards!” He went on to proffer an explanation:

If you had set down on a piece of paper and write out those words and read it backwards, it wouldn’t say, it wouldn’t make any sense. But it’s the way phonetically it was being pronounced. These guys just went into a recording studio and just started singing a song that’s really kind of . . . doesn’t make much sense. But when that song was played backwards, it comes out a whole different thing. [15]

This was the only “evidence” Muncy offered to support his claim that the backward message on “Eldorado” was the result of supernatural, demonic manipulation of the recording, a manipulation he claimed was orchestrated without the knowledge of the musicians and studio techs. But the fact that he has been shown relying on suggestion to build his case, spelling out to his audience what they were supposed to be hearing, undermines his whole case. In this, the backwards “Eldorado” does not stand alone as an outlier. This was demonstrated by journalist and physicist William Poundstone, who used his own studio, equipment and team of researchers to investigate 20 alleged cases of backward messages on a total of sixteen record albums. Of the “Eldorado” song rumors he writes, “Reversed, this passage [‘on a voyage of no return to see’] becomes the expected syllable salad – no one hearing it cold would describe it as anything but reversed music. Only if you listen while reading along with what you’re supposed to hear will you get anything.” [16]


A screenshot from Eric Holmberg’s documentary Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989).

The Role of Narrative

It is far more plausible and likely that the alleged backward phrase “He is the nasty one, Christ, you’re infernal . . . Everyone that does have the mark will live” originated in the fertile imagination of a religious moral crusader who harbors certain distinctive theological notions. In fact, the role played by suggestion and preconception are apparent when one examines the content of the alleged backmasked messages. As obscure, esoteric, or downright nonsensical as the backmasked messages sound, they often turn out to be informed by a combination of the interpreter’s beliefs and his knowledge of some piece of trivia about the reversed song. One of the best examples of this is in the backward reading of “Hotel California,” the hit song by The Eagles. When played in reverse, the lyrics, “This could be heaven or this could be hell” supposedly turn into:

Yes, Satan, he organized his own religion. . . . It was delicious. . . . He puts it in a vat and fixes it for his son and gives it away. [17]

Anti-rock conservatives who thought they heard this message were primed to interpret the reversed Eagles song in this way because of a rumor that spread within Christian evangelical circles in the 1980s. According to the long-since-discredited conjecture, “Hotel California” referred to a building in San Francisco that Anton LaVey – organizer of the modern Satanist religion – purchased and converted into a temple for his Church of Satan. [18]

People are most vulnerable to suggestibility when the content of suggestion is linked to an enticing narrative that speaks to our fears and purports to offer an explanation. This is well illustrated in the case of the hidden message allegedly contained on the Beatles’ eponymously-titled 1968 record, popularly referred to as the White Album. When the song “Revolution 9” is played normally, we hear the words “Number nine, number nine, number nine” chanted over and over again. But when the song is played in reverse, backmasking theorists tell us that we hear chanted words that are entirely different from the song’s forward-moving lyrics: “Turn me on, dead man; turn me on, dead man.” [19] At the time the recording was released, Beatles fans were provoked by persistent rumors that Paul McCartney had died. These rumors led many of the band’s most devoted fans to search in earnest for any confirming clues they could find as to the details of Paul’s alleged secret demise. Thus, the “cult cops” and self-described “experts” on the occult found in the fertile imagination of Beatles fans a great opportunity to come up with an interpretation of noise which, once suggested as being implanted in the record, would catch on quickly and be readily believed by the “Paul is dead” clue-seekers. But of course, there is no evidence to suggest that the phrase “turn me on, dead man” is in fact what we are really hearing.

In just a little over a decade, backward masking evolved from a quirky urban legend about a cultural icon to a full-blown mythology that evoked the cosmic struggle between good and evil on acid. The most famous example of alleged backmasking is the one purportedly contained in Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven.” Played forward, the lyrics can be clearly made out: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by / But in the long run / There’s still time to change the road you’re on.” When this portion of the song was played backward, many came to believe they heard the words, “Here’s to my sweet Satan.” It was not long before devil-hunters were attempting to interpret longer passages from the reversed song. One result is the following creepy word salad:

Oh, here’s to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. He’ll give those with him 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer. Sad Satan.

Belief in this claimed phenomenon was not limited to fringe Christianity or cult followers. The backwards interpretation of “Stairway to Heaven” attracted the attention and concern of Phil Wyman, a Republican assemblyman serving California. In May 1982, not long after Paul Crouch popularized the “my sweet Satan” reading of the song on the PTL show, Wyman proposed Assembly Bill 3741 in the California legislature. This state law would require the placing of warning labels on any records that contain discernible messages when played in reverse. He suggested the label should read, “Warning: This record contains backward masking which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when the record is played forward.” [20] Similar bills were proposed by conservative legislators in Colorado and Arkansas.

The cultural anxiety occasioned by the backward masking mythology was viewed by some anti-rock Christians as a failure to properly prioritize concern, especially in light of the conspicuous lack of evidence to indicate any psychological effects of backmasking. As Eric Holmberg comments in his anti-rock documentary Hell’s Bells, “You don’t need backmasking to pollute someone’s mind and heart. The regular frontwards music is more than enough to take care of that.” [21] But most moral crusaders found the backward masking mythology much too appealing to be discarded. Even Holmberg wasn’t willing to let the issue off the hook entirely. For he goes on to say, “The real question we need to ask here is not, ‘can a listener subconsciously hear a backmasked message?’ but instead, ‘How did it get there?’” Holmberg considers three possibilities: either the backward message is (1) intentional, (2) accidental, or (3) spiritually manufactured. Not surprisingly, he opts for the third choice.

The conspiratorial strains embedded in the “spiritual backmasking” mythology provided Christian anti-rockers with a narrative that allowed them to do more than express outrage at the content of rock lyrics. It gave them an argument that ostensibly avoided sticky issues of free speech and censorship and allowed them to pretend that they had uncovered a sinister plot that they believed should be taken seriously by anyone who values personal freedom and self-determination. In his anti-rock comic-book tract “Angels?” Jack Chick had claimed that “heavy metal has turned millions into rock-a-holics. . . . They’ve become zombies.” [22] Assemblyman Wyman echoed this sentiment when he told the press that rock music “can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the anti-Christ.” [23]

But intentionally-engineered backmasking of messages can and has been done, and there is nothing subliminal or otherwise sneaky about them. For example, in response to allegations that Electric Light Orchestra’s album Eldorado unwittingly played host to satanic propaganda, the band’s frontman Jeff Lynne took pains to show what backmasking properly engineered really sounds like. The song “Fire on High” from ELO’s 1975 album Face the Music contains the following deliberately-placed backmasked message: “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!” [24]

The religious prophets of backmasking tend to be far less interested in such deliberate instances of the technique, for obvious reasons. For one, most purposeful uses of backmasking responded in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the fear-mongering directed toward imagined backmessaging, and thus had a distinctly snarky edge to them. Take the song “Detour Thru Your Mind” by The B-52s. When played in reverse, Fred Schneider’s voice is clearly heard scolding the Satan-seekers: “I buried my parakeet in the backyard. No, no, you’re playing the record backward. Watch out, you might ruin your needle.” [25] The song “Nature Trail to Hell” by comedian and parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic contains the hidden backward message, “Satan eats Cheez Whiz.” [26] Even the Christian rock group Petra made a jab at the backmasking controversy. Between two songs on their 1983 album More Power to Ya, they inserted the backward phrase, “What are you lookin’ for the devil for, when you oughta be lookin’ for the Lord?” [27] This message speaks to the non sequitur inherent in the widely-held assumption that a hidden message is necessarily malevolent in nature if it’s embedded backwards.

But more importantly, positing backward messages that appear without the knowledge or effort of either the artists or music engineers implies (in the mind of the faithful, at least) supernatural manipulation by demonic forces. As Pastor Joe Schimmel tried to explain to a congregation at Tetelestai Church in his lecture “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution,”

I’m not talking really about backwards masking; I’m talking really about backwards messages. In fact, one way to do it, which wouldn’t require demons or higher intelligences to intercede, would be just to take straight words – take seven or eight words in a song – and reverse them. . . . So when people talk about how backwards masking is done in the studio, yeah that kind of backwards masking is done in the studio. No problem. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about when you hear music and lyrics forward, and then you hear those same lyrics backwards, and it’s a message forward, and those same words are a message backwards.

We’re talking about a song that wasn’t engineered to be heard backwards, but came right from the spirit world automatically . . . you could hear a lot of these same things on live albums backwards, because it’s demonic spirits using these human beings. [28]

Notice that while Schimmel acknowledges the fact that studio-engineered backmasking can be and has been carried out, he is seemingly unable to admit that meaningless random noise also exists. Schimmel goes on to claim that “Led Zeppelin were just four puppets. Satan could have used any four and formed Led Zeppelin. It was Satan’s music.” Schimmel is here invoking a conspiratorial narrative that attributes purpose and intent to the imaginary patterns he thinks he has discerned and of which he is deeply afraid.

Patternicity, Agenticity, and the Intentional Stance

Skeptics can provide simple, naturalistic mechanisms from psychology and neuroscience that account for why people hear what they believe they are hearing when they reverse music recordings. The backmasking phenomenon is a textbook example of what Michael Shermer calls patternicity. In February 2010, Shermer presented a short lecture for the prestigious “Technology, Entertainment, Design” series (TED) on the subject of self-deception and the human tendency to seek out patterns, whether they exist or not. “Essentially,” said Shermer, “we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots: A is connected to B; B is connected to C. And sometimes A really is connected to B, and that’s called ‘association learning.’” Shermer elaborates:

I call this process “patternicity” – that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it’s not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is. . . .

Now the problem here is that patternicities will occur whenever the cost of making a Type I error is less than the cost of making a Type II error . . . We have a pattern detection problem; that is, assessing the difference between a Type I and a Type II error is highly problematic, especially in split-second, life-and-death situations. So the default position is just believe all patterns are real – all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not just the wind . . . there was a natural selection for the propensity for our belief engines, our pattern-seeking brain processes, to always find meaningful patterns and infuse them with these sort of predatory or intentional agencies. [29]

During this talk, Shermer displayed a series of pictures on an overhead screen that are, at first glance, somewhat undefinable. When Shermer suggests what should be seen in the pictures, those suggested visuals become immediately discernible to the viewer. This is the same technique to which fundamentalist promoters of backmasking resort in their efforts to convince the public of the dangers of rock music. We have already covered the phenomenon of suggestibility, which turns out to be a very basic principle of pattern-seeking tendencies applies well to backward masking in music. When we are told what we are supposed to be listening for, we find it very easy to hear just that, whether the claimed effect is actually there or not. But there is more to the story.

When our minds are tricked by suggestion, we often attribute what Shermer calls agenticity to puzzling or frightening phenomena we encounter. Agenticity is “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency . . . sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.” [30] In the case of belief in backward masking, people have been prone to prematurely conclude that what they think we are hearing could not possibly be there by accident or coincidence. We all possess a tendency to erroneously attribute our collective pareidolia to what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance”:

Here is how [the intentional stance] works: first you decide to treat the objects whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its belief. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in many – but not all – instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do. [31]

Dennett goes on to qualify his description of the intentional strategy. “The next task,” he speculates, “would seem to be distinguishing those intentional systems that really have beliefs and desires from those we may find it handy to treat as if they had beliefs and desires.” [32] The belief that secret messages with sinister and manipulative meanings lurk in the grooves of rock albums for the purpose of seducing youth to join Satan’s fold via subliminal indoctrination is an extreme example of the failure to appreciate Dennett’s distinction. It is also a clear indicator of where a person’s or group’s concern really lies. In the research report by Vokey and Read cited above, the authors conclude that “the apparent presence of backward messages in popular music is a function more of active construction on the part of the perceiver than of the existence of the messages themselves.” [33] Tom McIver, writing for Skeptical Inquirer, calls backmasking claims “the precise equivalent of Rorschach inkblot interpretations,” and concludes:

Thus in most cases the alleged subliminal messages indicate not the secret intent of a music or advertising conspiracy, but the concerns and obsessions of the interpreter: sex, death, media conspiracy, and corporate greed for Key; sex, drugs, immorality, rejection of Christ, and Satan worship for the prophets of backmasking. [34]

The list of rock songs that have been cited as containing sinister or subversive backmasked messages is very long. Among the groups and musicians routinely accused of either consciously or unwittingly embedding satanic messages backward into their music are the Bee Gees, Blue Öyster Cult, Rush, Pink Floyd, Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, KISS, Hall and Oates, and many others. In The Devil’s Disciples, Jeff Godwin declared, “More and more backmasked Rock abominations are being discovered every week by dedicated Christian groups and outreach ministries throughout the country. . . . What a backlog of Devil-Rock songs and albums there must be out there just waiting to be discovered!” [35] In other words, decoding hidden messages in rock records quickly ceased to be a matter of careful investigation on the part of self-styled “expert investigators.” Now it was everywhere a concerned conservative cared to look. And by the same token, it was nowhere.

The lists produced by preachers like Godwin stirred up a significant number of credulous parents, teachers and pastors to zealous action. In fits of righteous indignation, several congregations across the United States brought hundreds of rock albums to church, threw them together in large piles, and literally burned them. In doing so, the anti-rock crusaders were performing a primitive ritual to appease an invisible agent they believed was warring against the evil mastermind behind rock ‘n’ roll. It was the end result of a psychological tendency to attribute agenticity and an intentional stance to the cultural objects of their anxiety.


[1] R. Serge Denisoff, Tarnished Gold: The Record Industry Revisited (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1986), p. 408.

[2] Jacob Aranza, Backward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1983), p. 1.

[3] Ibid, p. 12.

[4] Jack T. Chick, “Spellbound?” The Crusaders, vol. 10 (Ontario, CA: Chick Publications, 1978).

[5] Jeff Godwin, The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth about Rock (Chino, CA: Chick Publications, 1985), pp. 343-44.

[6] Wilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (New York: New American Library, 1973), p. 34.

[7] Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: David McKay Co., 1957).

[8] Timothy E. Moore, “Scientific Consensus and Expert Testimony: Lessons from the Judas Priest Trial,” Skeptical Inquirer 20, no. 6 (November/December 1996): 32-38.

[9] Key, Subliminal Seduction, pp. 31-32.

[10] Ibid, p. 38.

[11] Robert D. Hicks, In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 305, emphasis added.

[12] John R. Vokey and J. Don Read, “Subliminal Messages: Between the Devil and the Media,” American Psychologist 40, no. 11 (November 1985): 1231.

[13] Stephen B. Thorne and Philip Himelstein, “The Role of Suggestion in the Perception of Satanic Messages in Rock-and-Roll Recordings,” Journal of Psychology 116, no. 2 (January 1984): 246.

[14] John Muncy, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? (Canton, OH: Daring Books, 1989), p. 272.

[15] John Muncy, “Backward Masking and Subliminal Messages #6” (video), YouTube, August 12 2011, (accessed October 21, 2012).

[16] William Poundstone, Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983), pp. 203-204.

[17] Tom McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts about Music,” Skeptical Inquirer 13, no. 1 (Fall 1988): 52-53.

[18] Bob Larson, Rock (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1980), ch. 6; Kenneth Stoffels, “Minister Links Rock, Sympathy for the Devil,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 28, 1982: 6.

[19] Aranza, Backward Masking Unmasked, p. 6.

[20] Yardena Arar, “Does Satan Lurk in the Backward Playing of Records?” St. Petersburg Independent, May 24, 1982: 3A.

[21] Eric Holmberg, Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989).

[22] Jack T. Chick, “Angels?” (Jack T. Chick LLC, 1986).

[23] Quoted in Denisoff, Tarnished Gold, p. 408.

[24] R. Gary Patterson, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses (New York: Fireside, 2004), pp. 173-74.

[25] Ibid, p. 174.

[26] “Weird Al – Nature Trail to Hell,” Jeff Milner’s Backmasking Collection, (accessed October 21, 2016).

[27] Paul Baker, Contemporary Christian Music: Where It Came from, What It Is, Where It’s Going (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), p. 177.

[28] Joe Schimmel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution (Fight the Good Fight Ministries, 1993).

[29] Michael Shermer, “The Pattern behind Self-Deception” (video), TED Talks, February 2010, (accessed October 21, 2016).

[30] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011), p. 87.

[31] Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), p. 17.

[32] Ibid, p. 22.

[33] Vokey and Read, “Subliminal Messages,” p. 1231.

[34] McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts about Music,” p. 56, emphasis added.

[35] Godwin, The Devil’s Disciples, p. 152.

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