Guest Post: The Fascinating World of Ghosthunting

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


ghosts

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 , , , | 1 Comment

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


deconversion

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.


NOTES

[1] Jonatan Rying Larsen, “Eksperter: Vi ved ikke, om HPV-vaccinens virkning er varig,” TV2 Nyheder, May 18, 2015, http://nyheder.tv2.dk/2015-05-18-eksperter-vi-ved-ikke-om-hpv-vaccinens-virkning-er-varig. 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, http://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/one-stop-shop-science-myth-debunking-gardasil/.

[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: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f5906.

[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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25882168.

[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: http://www.ssi.dk/Smitteberedskab/Sygdomsovervaagning/VaccinationSurveillance.aspx?vaccination=5&xaxis=Cohort&sex=0&landsdel=100&show=Graph&datatype=Vaccination&extendedfilters=True#HeaderText.

Statistic from the same source showing how many girls have received their last Gardasil shot: http://www.ssi.dk/Smitteberedskab/Sygdomsovervaagning/VaccinationSurveillance.aspx?vaccination=6&xaxis=Cohort&sex=0&landsdel=100&show=Graph&datatype=Vaccination&extendedfilters=True#HeaderText.

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, https://laegemiddelstyrelsen.dk/en/sideeffects/side-effects-from-medicines/hpv-vaccination/adverse-reactions-from-the-hpv-vaccine.

gardasil

Posted in Guest Post, Pseudoscience, Skepticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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

backwardmessages

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]

spellbound

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.

subliminal-seduction

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:

“Eldorado”
Electric Light Orchestra
,
Eldorado

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]

eldorado

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.


NOTES

[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, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAJ_xPJ2ncg&feature=relmfu (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, http://jeffmilner.com/backmasking/nature-trail-to-hell-backwards.html (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, http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_shermer_the_pattern_behind_self_deception.html (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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Why the Devil Has the Best Tunes: Rock Music, Satanism, and Religious Fear

They say I worship the Devil / They must be stupid or blind / I’m just a rock ‘n’ roll rebel.
~ Ozzy Osbourne [1]

the-baptistry-of-san-giovanni-detail-of-satan

In the summer of 1990, heavy rock music went on trial for murder.

Five years before, two young adults named James Vance and Raymond Belknap of the small town of Sparks, Nevada spent a winter evening in December drinking, smoking marijuana, and listening to the album Stained Class by the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. According to the story later told at the trial, something in the music prompted the two young men to make a suicide pact. Armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, Vance and Belknap headed over to a church playground. Belknap, age 18, was the first to follow through with the pact, dying instantly after placing the shotgun under his chin and pulling the trigger. Twenty year-old Vance was not so lucky. He sustained severe facial injuries from his self-inflicted shot but survived, his face permanently deformed for the next three years before finally dying of medication complications in 1988.

The parents of the two young men, with the help of personal-injury attorney Kenneth McKenna, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in 1990 against the members of Judas Priest, charging the band with being responsible for the deaths. [2] Summoned to a Nevada courthouse in July, the members of Judas Priest found themselves in the midst of a bizarre interrogation in which they were forced to defend themselves against charges of nothing less than supernatural mind control coupled with cult conspiracy. The plaintiffs’ lawyers asserted that the young adults’ suicide attempt had been triggered by the phrase “Do It,” a command they believed to be subliminally embedded in the Judas Priest song “Better by You, Better than Me,” the band’s cover of a number originally performed by Spooky Tooth.

“In a case like this . . . it’s always difficult because you’ve got the image of heavy metal against you, and it’s had a lot of bad things thrown at it in the last few years,” Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton said in an interview for the documentary film Dream Deceivers, which chronicled the trial. “I know one thing I’ve learned from this court case: I’d hate to go into court with something to hide. I’d be scared to death.” [3]

In the end, reason prevailed over superstition. Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled in the metal band’s favor. “The scientific research presented,” Whitehead stated in his decision, “does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.” The court further concluded, “There exist other factors which explain the conduct of the deceased independent of the subliminal stimuli.” [4]

Judas Priest came out of the Reno trial unscathed by the metaphorical fires of the modern-day inquisition. But thousands of rock record albums did not escape the literal flames of zealous religious conservatives in the bonfires held at many fundamentalist churches across America. During the decade prior to the Judas Priest trial, many fundamentalist Christians and other conservative religious believers had made a cottage industry of spreading dire warnings about the evils of rock music. The heavy metal genre was an especially favorite scapegoat of these fundamentalist crusaders, but their polemics were not limited to that easy of a target. Within the emerging youth countercultures of the 1960s, interest in Eastern philosophy and religion invaded Western popular culture, influencing musicians and artists experimenting with avant-garde styles and forms of expression. This wave of interest in Eastern mysticism and the expansive concepts of universalism and inclusiveness that lyricists and album cover artists played with outraged the ultra-orthodox and conservative sectors of Protestant Christianity in America and instigated much of the panic that arose within the fundamentalist ranks about rock music.

This fear was exacerbated by the founding in the late 1960s of the Church of Satan by a carnival musician named Anton LaVey. And while the Beatles were promoting Eastern philosophy and mysticism, The Rolling Stones were coming out with album titles like 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request and 1973’s Goats Head Soup, and singing songs expressing “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was enough to make the fundamentalists’ proverbial heads explode. The anti-rock crusaders were fond of pointing out that the Stones performed the latter song at the Altamont Speedway Free Concert in December 1969, a notoriously violent event in which four people died and dozens more were injured. Footage of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” piece at this concert, culled from the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, featured in the presentations of several anti-rock lecturers who attempted to make a connection between Satanism and violence. They saw great significance in Mick Jagger’s offhand comment, spoken to the Altamont Speedway crowd in an attempt to lighten the growing unease and tension, that, “Something very funny happens when we start that number.” [5]

LaVey’s Satanism did not believe in or worship a literal Prince of Darkness, but rather revered Satan as a libertarian symbol of freedom from the herd mentality. They also denounced murder and senseless violence, and LaVey’s Satanic Bible contains an explicit condemnation of literal human sacrifices. [6] But this did not stop the Christian fundamentalists from convincing themselves that LaVey and his followers were taking guidance and direction from a very real Satan who was out to destroy the human race. They saw the world in black and white; instead of recognizing and acknowledging the variety and complexity of the melting-pot of religious and spiritual beliefs that had invaded American culture, everything was to them divided into one of only two camps: Christ and Satan. In their imagination, the Eastern mysticism that became popular in the 1960s counterculture movement was a front for Satan’s grand conspiracy for world domination. This view did not diminish in intensity in the ensuing decades. In 1991, fundamentalist preacher Joe Schimmel told an audience at Tetelestai Church in Torrance, California that “Krishna is basically, I believe, just another term for Satan.” [7]

During the 1970s, the fundamentalists’ written and spoken attacks against rock music had very little impact on the wider culture, being heeded for the most part only by the already-converted. The 1980s, however, suddenly saw a sharp and dramatic increase in anti-rock literature, lectures, and media presentations that affected the wider culture in profound ways. Mark Sullivan, writing for the journal Popular Music, suggests that the new political environment was primarily responsible for this dramatic increase. “The incoming Reagan administration signalled an atmosphere conducive to numerous conservative causes, including Christian fundamentalism . . . various right-wing organisations seized the opportunity, tapping what they, at least, saw as a new market.” [8] The same black-and-white “us versus them” mentality was stronger than ever, as fundamentalists continued to see Satan in every kind of secular music. For example, in his 1989 documentary film Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, evangelist Eric Holmberg laments the popularity of new and alternative forms of musical expression that emerged on the scene in the 1980s, epitomized by such artists as The Cure, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galás, and Lords of the New Church:

Like other artists within this genre, and unlike the jackbooted flagrancy of heavy metal, the message is married to the most dangerous catalyst for satanic insurrection: a sense of religious and poetic transcendence. In this, the Devil may lose an occasional human sacrifice, but he gains something that, from his perspective, is of much greater value.” [9]

The concern felt by Holmberg and other fundamentalists was borne of a fear of losing their imagined monopoly on transcendent truth. Like the Priests of Syrinx in Rush’s 2112 rock suite, the anti-rock preachers feel threatened by all forms of artistic expression that strayed from what their ideology dictate because they know they cannot exercise the control over human creativity that they crave.

The new anti-rock market reached a frenzied peak in the early-to mid ‘90s as moral denouncements of rock spread beyond the fundamentalist religious sector and affected the beliefs and attitudes of secular legislators and activists, who began to take notice of all the connections being made by the fundamentalists between social taboos and rock music. Fundamentalist preacher Fletcher Brothers, for example, concluded his 1987 book The Rock Report with the following bit of pious arithmetic:

Sex and drugs equals rock and roll. Rebellion, Satan equals rock and roll. Homosexuality, incest equals rock and roll. Sado-masochism, mutilation equals rock and roll. Suicide, alcohol equals rock and roll. Hopelessness, anti-godliness equals rock and roll. Murder, occultism equals rock and roll. The list goes on and on. [10]

It is little wonder then that Brothers declares at the outset of his book, “I make no apology when I say that I believe that rock music . . . is public enemy number one of our young people today.” He goes on to complain, “I can’t think of one good thing to come out of the recent trend in rock music other than the revenue it provides to our free enterprise system.” [11] For Brothers, the capitalistic benefit is not enough to counteract the harmful effects he perceives rock music to be wreaking upon society. He openly and explicitly advocates censorship in The Rock Report, a book he intended to serve as a “quick, ready reference guide” for knowing which music parents and activist organizations should work toward banning.” Religious conservative David Noebel flatly states, “Rock music is evil because it is to music what Dada and surrealism are to art – atheistic, chaotic, nihilistic.” [12] And in 1989, a 400-page anti-rock polemic written by evangelist John Muncy was published with the title, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? Muncy, founder and president of Jesus Cares Ministries, maintains that the latter is true of his subject. He charges rock music of being primarily responsible for an increase in society of rebellion, sexual promiscuity and deviance, alcohol abuse, drug use, “false religions,” violence, suicide and Satanism. [13]

The last item in that list is by far the most common bogeyman of Christians who rail against rock music. In the documentary Hell’s Bells, Eric Holmberg has this to say about the ties between occultism and rock music:

Like an invisible cancer that inevitably leads to death, so the satanic seed in rock and roll has culminated in a blatant obsession with the occult. Cryptic allusions to the Devil in the music of Blues artist Robert Johnson a generation ago have given place to an open worship of Satan and hell that comes complete with the symbols, liturgies, rituals, and messianic personalities that attend any religious order. No longer the stuff of small underground cults, millions of young people have been caught in its evil sway.

Spoken over footage of Ronnie James Dio performing his metaphor-heavy song “Heaven and Hell” in a 1984 concert at The Spectrum arena in Philadelphia, this statement by Holmberg is a consequence of taking artistic expression in popular culture far too literally. It also constitutes a classic case of projection. Conservative anti-rock alarmists who complain about the lyrics and imagery in rock music being replete with bloody violence and supernaturally-oppressive themes never apply these same criticisms to several of the most well-known hymns of the Christian faith. For example, any objective assessment of the lyrics contained in the famous hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood?” will not fail to call to one’s mind a mental image of people bathing themselves in human blood. Using the metaphor of a lamb sacrifice, the hymn makes reference to Christianity’s literal doctrine of a human sacrifice. Similarly, the hymn “There is Power in the Blood” contains a clear reference to a flow of literal blood which possesses occultic power to erase “sin stains.” Coming just short of raising images of gushing blood, the hymn speaks of blood that was shed on a crucifix from a literal human sacrifice. Again, the well-known and much-beloved hymn “Nothing but the Blood” makes reference to a “fount” of human blood that flows from Jesus’ body. Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Saved by the Blood” tells us “We’re saved by the blood that was drawn from the side of Jesus our Lord, when He languished and died.” Here too, Crosby’s hymn describes that blood as a fountain, “where the vilest may go and wash their souls.” All this bloody and occult imagery in Christian hymns, which actually are sung as liturgy in the context of the Christian ritual of communion, would fit right in with the motifs of any black- death- or heavy-metal rock band.

Themes of the occult and of Satanism in rock music, especially heavy metal and associated subgenres, are almost always nothing more than a theatrical act as a money-making gimmick or simply a case of the rock artists being poetic. Only fundamentalist Christians and “cult cops” tend to take the imagery and lyrics in metal music seriously. One reason they do so is because they feel a psychological need to imbue everything, secular or not, with the same religious significance they afford to their own religious rituals. Their interpretations of secular rock music are filtered through a specific religious orientation with the result that the original intent of the artists is distorted and taken out of context. Vance Ferrell’s book Inside Rock Music claims, “The rock group, Black Sabbath, has been known to make altar calls to Lucifer in some of their concerts.” [14] But it is highly doubtful that Ferrell has been “inside” rock music sufficiently enough to actually attend a Black Sabbath concert to confirm his unfounded suspicions. Besides, Ferrell seems to forget that freedom of religious expression is constitutionally protected in the United States, so even if it were true that the band members in Black Sabbath were bona fide Satanists, they have a constitutional right to make altar calls to Lucifer.

But of course, the band members in Black Sabbath are not and never have been Satanists. “Satanism as practiced by most heavy metallers had very little to do with black candles and incantations,” writes heavy metal historian Ian Christe. “In fact, their beliefs were astoundingly in tune with red-blooded American values – only their voices were more self-aware and honest.” [15] When rock and heavy metal artists sing about sex, drugs, rebellion, violence, and hopelessness, they are merely being more forthright in confronting the issues and concerns of postmodern society in the throes of disillusion about the upheaval of an evolving culture. And when these same artists incorporate images and references to Satan, they are merely putting a face to all these cultural and social fears.

Thus, when Ozzy Osbourne performed the song “Suicide Solution” on his Blizzard of Ozz album, he was neither encouraging nor glorifying the act of suicide, as many conservatives believe. The perceptive listener, as well as anyone who takes the small effort to actually read Bob Daisley’s lyrics, will find that the song’s title actually refers to alcohol as a liquid solution that leads to self-destruction when addiction to the bottle sets in.

Wine is fine but whiskey’s quicker
Suicide is slow with liquor.
Take a bottle, drown your sorrows
Then it floods away tomorrows. 
[16]

The fact that the song clearly has nothing to do with suicide itself did not stop the parents of John McCollum from filing a lawsuit against Osbourne in 1986, alleging that their 19 year-old son was listening to the song “Suicide Solution” when he shot and killed himself. [17] The parents were legally represented by Kenneth “Do It” McKenna when the case went to court two years later.

Pop and rock music of all kinds has always prided itself in pushing socially-tolerated boundaries by being provocative and often euphemistically, if not overtly, sexual. This has been the case since the inception of “rock and roll” music, and little has changed in this regard. In an earlier generation, sexually repressed conservatives denounced musicians like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley as an evil influence on the youth. When Elvis performed for his third and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957, television producers were pressured into avoiding showing any footage of him below the waist. His gyrations were that offensive to the millions of concerned and repressed conservatives in the viewing audience. Back in the 1930s, English clergyman Montague Summers, who professed belief in witches, vampires and werewolves, noted that “some acute observers have shrewdly scented the devil’s own orchestra” in jazz music. [18]

If the moral crusaders of bygone generations looked askance at unconventional forms of musical expression because of cultural and ethnic prejudices, the offense felt by modern moral crusaders went far beyond mere prudishness. They showed their disapproval of the rock culture by painting it as being even more radically “other” – they convinced themselves that rock music originated in a supernatural realm of spiritual darkness. For example, Pastor Schimmel warned his Tetelestai audience about the satanic influence of Elvis: “You would have never heard of Elvis Presley as a rock star if he was not demon possessed. I believe that one hundred percent. People that are being moved by Elvis are not being moved by the man Elvis.”

In one sense, this tinfoil-hat assertion is a testament to the artistic talent of Elvis and all the other singers and musicians who have been accused of being possessed by a supernatural entity. Fundamentalists like Schimmel are apparently so impressed and awestruck by the performances of rock and roll artists that they feel compelled to attribute their talent to a force more powerful than the artists themselves, namely Satan himself.. In his Hell’s Bells documentary, Holmberg states that “both the Scriptures and church traditions suggest that music comes quite naturally to Satan, that very possibly before his fall, he was in charge of music in heaven.” [19] Pastor Jacob Aranza, one of the most vocal anti-rock evangelists of the 1980s, went even further and asserted that rock music was specifically invented by the angel Lucifer at the time of his rebellion against God in heaven, presumably before the earth was created. “Lucifer is the only angelic being mentioned in the Bible to possess a musical ministry,” he writes. “At one point in time, he used his musical abilities for God’s purposes, but now he uses them to exalt evil and draw men away from God. Having been created with musical abilities, it is not hard to believe that Satan indeed influences music today . . . Party music goes back a long way! Ever since Lucifer’s fall, music that incites the flesh to fulfill its lusts, and encourages mankind to sin has always been played.” [20] Aranza even cites the account of the Israelites singing to and worshiping the golden calf in the absence of their desert-wandering leader Moses (as told in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus) as one of the very first rock concerts in human history! [21]

Pastor Fletcher Brothers agrees with this highly-imaginative interpretation. He notes that in Exodus 32:17, Moses is said to have heard the Israelites shouting as he descended the mountain on which he had sojourned alone with the desert god Yahweh. The verse also speaks of the “noise of war in the camp.” Brothers wonders to what this passage could possibly be referring, since there were no guns or bombs at that time in history. He proceeds to speculate that the verse referred to the beating of drums, such as those used in war. He notes the references to “dancing” in verse 19 and to “singing” in verse 18. He also highlights the passages that speak of the mischief and corruption of the Israelites and concludes,

Could this have been the first recorded “rock concert?” Who knows? But we do know it was music or singing. We do know that the people had “corrupted themselves.” They were naked, and . . . leave the rest to your imagination. We know the “singing” sounded more like “screaming” and “screeching.” Whatever was going on was “bad news”, because as you read on you will find that many people lost their lives. [22]

One wonders if Aranza and Brothers had spent a bit too much time listening to the thrash metal band Exodus while high on the drug of religious fundamentalism (I am sure metal lovers would love to see a music video in which the bloody massacre of the calf-worshiping heretics at the hands of Moses’ soldiers is set to Exodus’s song “Bonded by Blood” – I know I would). The “first recorded rock concert” interpretation of the 32nd chapter of Exodus is a prime example of an all-too-common practice among biblical inerrantists and literalists, that of superimposing ancient biblical narratives onto modern-day issues and interpreting said issues accordingly.

~~~~~

Holmberg, Aranza, Brothers and company are of course wrong about music’s origin. Music is a human invention, the product of creativity and emotions stemming from experiences that ultimately have physiological bases, however transcendent they may subjectively feel. The devoutly fundamentalist believer cannot bring himself to acknowledge this, because to deny the emotional high he feels from worshiping his personal deity in sacred song would be highly problematic to say the least. He finds it unpalatable and distasteful to think that he and his fellow humans are nothing more than “bags of matter creating musical art,” to quote the caricature employed by one evolution-denying fundamentalist on YouTube. [23] So these believers convince themselves that the emotions felt while worshiping in music are transcendent and supernatural. And when they encounter raucous and provocative rock music, their natural inclination is first to recoil in horror and then to denounce such music as the work of Satan himself. To these believers, rock and heavy-metal music cannot simply be the harmless product of human imagination. It must be transcendentally evil and a danger to the eternal souls of the youth whose attention they feel they are competing with secular forces to capture. Thus, the anti-rock crusaders try to find ways to connect social ills such as teen suicide, murder, or substance abuse to the music they fear.

But the imagined connections are almost always dubious or nonexistent, and otherworldly influences are a poor substitute for human responsibility. No supernatural force, good or evil, was subliminally whispering the words, “Do It” in the ears of overzealous parents, teachers and pastors who brought hundreds of rock albums to their churches, threw them together in large piles, and burned them in collective fits of righteous indignation. The directive to toss music records into the flames was a product of the religious torch-wielders’ own irrational fears. Perhaps they were ultimately afraid of perceiving a distorted but nevertheless distinct image of themselves in the lyrical imaginations of rock artists. At one point in his Hell’s Bells documentary, where he brings up the specter of the pagan god Pan and what he sees as its connection to rock music, Eric Holmberg was in one sense unwittingly talking about himself when he said,

Half-human and half-goat, Pan remains one of the most enduring and compelling symbols for the Antichrist. . . . It’s worth noting that possession by Pan, from which we get the word “panic,” often results in an obsession with sex and a need for immediate gratification.

Throughout the three-hour Hell’s Bells presentation, it is Holmberg who exhibits panic about his subject. He is just as obsessed with sex, if not more so, than the rock artists he spends a considerable time denouncing as sexually perverse and promiscuous. And while Holmberg explicitly states that he does not condone record burning, his own need for “immediate gratification” is reflected in the numerous impatient and unreflective leaps of logic and in the sloppy research he presents in his narration.

Recall Ian Christe’s point about heavy metal musicians being more self–aware and honest in their voices than the fundamentalists who denounced them. The bands who made use of satanic imagery in their lyrics and performances understood that they were simply being theatrical. Meanwhile, fundamentalist Christians sang hymns about the literal blood of Jesus being used in a rite of human sacrifice. They also partook of bread and wine that symbolize cannibalistically consuming the flesh and blood of their scapegoat messiah. But they were unwilling to admit that what they were doing was just as theatrical as using satanic imagery and symbolism for dramatic effect.

And this is why the devil has always had the best tunes.


NOTES

[1] Ozzy Osbourne, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel,” on Bark at the Moon (Epic Records, 1983).

[2] Ian Christe, Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2003), pp. 296-97.

[3] David Van Taylor, Dream Deceivers: The Story behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest (First Run Features/Tapestry Intl., 1992).

[4] Vance v. Judas Priest WL 130920, 2nd Nevada District Court, 1990. Quoted in Anthony R. Pratkanis, “The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion,” Skeptical Inquirer 16, no. 3 (Spring 1992): 260-72.

[5] David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter (Maysles Films, Inc., 1970).

[6] “Under NO circumstances would a Satanist sacrifice any animal or baby! . . . There are sound and logical reasons why the Satanists could not perform such sacrifices. Man, the animal, is the godhead to the Satanist. The purest form of carnal existence reposes in the bodies of animals and human children who have not grown old enough to deny themselves their natural desires.” Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon Books, 1969), p. 89.

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

[8] Mark Sullivan, “’More Popular than Jesus’: The Beatles and the Religious Far Right,” Popular Music 6, no. 3 (October 1987): 319.

[9] Eric Holmberg, Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989). Gratifyingly enough, and against the intentions of Holmberg’s ministry, this documentary has become something of a cult classic among rock music enthusiasts.

[10] Fletcher A. Brothers, The Rock Report (Lancaster, PA: Starburst Publishers, 1987), p. 141.

[11] Ibid, p. 13.

[12] David A. Noebel, The Legacy of John Lennon: Charming or Harming a Generation? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982), p. 42.

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

[14] Vance Ferrell, Inside Rock Music (Altamont, TN: Evolution Facts, Inc., 2006), p. 85.

[15] Christe, Sound of the Beast, p. 244.

[16] Ozzy Osbourne, “Suicide Solution,” on Blizzard of Ozz (Epic Records, 1980).

[17] McCollum v. CBS, Inc., California Court of Appeals, 2nd District, 3rd Division, 1988.

[18] Montague Summers, A Popular History of Witchcraft (London: Kegan Paul, 1937), p. 153.

[19] Actually, nothing in either the Jewish or Christian Scriptures even hints that a being called Satan was once an angel who rebelled or that he invented music.

[20] Jacob Aranza, More Rock, Country and Backward Masking Unmasked (Shreveport, LA: Huntington House Inc., 1985), pp. 18-19, 20.

[21] Ibid, p. 20

[22] Brothers, The Rock Report, p. 140.

[23] NephilimFree, “Bags of Matter Creating Musical Art” (video), YouTube, October 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMegqJseoKw (accessed October 16, 2016). The creationist fundamentalist in this video encourages his viewers to watch a video of Simon and Garfunkel performing their song “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” in a 1969 concert. He calls this performance “astonishing” and states, “I believe even every atheist in this world, if they were to watch this video, and see the creativity and thoughtfulness of these two human beings performing this song, they would feel ashamed, whether they would admit it or not . . . they will feel shame for telling people and wanting us to teach our children that we’re merely soulless bags of matter that arose from pond scum.”

This statement essentially denies that humans are by themselves capable of doing “astonishing” things and thus betrays a very low regard for human potential that is more demeaning to human worth than anything any atheist evolutionist has said. As an atheist myself, I felt quite the opposite of shame when I watched this performance. The realization that through the entirely unguided and eons-long natural process of evolution, we as a species have developed the cognitive tools necessary to undergo cultural evolution in addition to biological change and thus to manipulate abstract concepts into works of art is far more awe-inspiring than the small-minded belief that such ability was merely programmed into us by a supernatural designer. At best, the latter scenario reduces our creative talent to mere robotic mimicry. Arising from pond scum (which does not accurately represent what any evolutionary scientist thinks about our origins) is by far a more dignified origin than that.

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The Birth of a Skeptic (Guest Post by Niels Böge Nothdurft)

This is a guest post written by Niels Böge Nothdurft. Hailing from Denmark, Niels is a former member of the Zeitgeist Movement, the organization spawned by Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist series of conspiracy-theory films. In this post, Niels relates his experience being a part of this movement and what led him to discard the organization and become an advocate of science-based skepticism and critical thinking.


It’s around two years ago I left The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM), so why not celebrate it with a blogpost about my time in TZM?

I first joined TZM around mid-2013. I was another person back then. I was utterly frustrated with society and I had a serious lack of critical thinking skills, which meant that I believed in almost any kind of woo you can name. If some claim had a YouTube documentary to support it, it had definitely met its burden of proof for me back then.

My frustration with society led me into Facebook groups for other frustrated people and of course the comment sections on news articles. It was on a comment section that I encountered the third Zeitgeist movie. When watching it I had an epiphany. What the movie said made sense to me, so I watched the other movies as well and got into contact with the Danish branch of TZM.

I got into a regional chapter, which mainly consisted of me and two other guys. We met once in a while, had a good time, and talked about a Resource Based Economy (RBE), which is a societal model promoted by TZM. I won’t go into any details in this blogpost about what a RBE is, since it requires a blogpost of its own.

We of course talked about what we can do to spread awareness about RBEs. The awareness was mostly Facebook-based, which means that we posted in comment sections and made posts on our Facebook page about anything from societal issues to science. There was one exception to this in our awareness spreading, which was a speech one of us gave at a political party and grassroots movement meeting in the city of Århus.

In the spring of 2014 I began to get more interested in science and skepticism, mainly because I wrote a lot of Facebook posts about science. New technology, science, and the scientific method for social concern was officially promoted by TZM, but the reality was another, which I found out later. I began to read books like The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. It quickly purged my mind of any belief in the supernatural and woo I had held until then. I had been a firm believer in all kinds of woo and supernatural claims most of my life. I now began to see the world in a different way; I questioned things and demanded a more rigorous burden of proof before I accepted a claim as true.

Soon after this I began to question TZM. In the beginning it was the small things, like why the first movie was promoted by some TZM chapters when it clearly was shite. After a while I stopped promoting the second movie, since it had some things in it that were clearly dubious, like a conspiracy theory about economic hitmen, backed by nothing but the testimony of one man. It was during that time I encountered other likeminded, skeptical TZM members, like Matt Berkowitz who came to play a big role later that year.

I continued to be a member of TZM and promote RBEs, in some way, until the fall season that year. I kind of rationalized my involvement with TZM with the thoughts that the goal was noble, so it didn’t matter if what we were promoting and selling wasn’t all true, and that our official TZM information material, like the second movie, had serious flaws.

There was trouble in TZM in 2014. Matt Berkowitz, who was a prominent coordinator in a Canadian chapter (a chapter that for once did something serious in TZM), had posted a video in which he promoted critical thinking and scientific skepticism. All hell broke loose because of that video. TZM had at that time (and probably still has) a lot of members who are into conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and other unsupported claims, so the video got rough reception by a lot of TZM members. To make a long story short, Peter Joseph (PJ), who is the leader of the supposedly leaderless TZM, got involved and erased Matt and his video about critical thinking. I find it a bit funny since some people call PJ “Peter Joseph Stalin” due to the similarities between communism and RBEs, the joke being that Joseph Stalin erased his former friend Trotsky and PJ basically did the same thing.

Shortly after that I left TZM, as did many other skeptics who were once a part of the movement. We were basically fed up with all the pseudoscience in the movement, and now when it was clear that the “leaderless” movement had a leader who was against critical thinking, we had had enough.

So was my time in TZM wasted? Besides the obvious waste of time promoting a RBE, I would say that I had a great time. I met some nice and cool people and it led me down the road of skepticism. My time in TZM also made me interested in society and politics, which eventually led me to learn more about them and gain some understanding, so that I don’t feel as frustrated anymore.

Learning critical thinking skills has definitely been a good thing for me. Critical thinking is a tool you can apply to all aspects of life and it helps you understand the world, so I really appreciate getting that tool. And I appreciate the people who helped me get it, like Carl Sagan, one of my biggest heroes, and of course Matt Berkowitz and Philip Blair (both ex-TZM members), who introduced me to a lot of great YouTubers. And I appreciate these YouTubers, people like Matt Dillahunty, C0nc0rdance, Potholer54, Martymer81, and of course The League of Nerdsa podcast starring James Gurney and his co-host/friend Myles Power, who besides doing that podcast also makes his own YouTube videos.

bertrand-russell

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Spirit of Paranoia: A Critical Analysis of “Zeitgeist” (Part III)

howard-beale

The third and final part of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist is by far the most fascinating – and perhaps the most delusional and paranoid – of the film’s three sections. Part III, titled “Don’t Mind the Men behind the Curtain,” takes a decidedly darker and more sinister turn. In the film’s previous chapter, we were assaulted with a barrage of media clips, sound bites, and images full of people breathlessly exclaiming that 9/11 was an inside job because of this or that anomaly. It contained very little commentary from Joseph and had no apparent connection to anything that was discussed in Part I. At the end of Part II, we finally learn what the whole point of this middle portion of the film is supposed to be. The events of 9/11, says Joseph, were a massive false flag operation perpetrated by the U.S. government in order to further their agenda for total control over the population and inaugurate their New World Order. Is it too late to grab a tinfoil hat?

Two money-related theses are argued in Part III. One is that all debt in the United States is created by a seemingly never-ending money supply that the Federal Reserve produces out of nothing. The second is that the federal income tax was created not only as a means of paying off this debt, but also as a means of enslaving people to perpetual debt. The subject of war is also explored. Joseph argues that World Wars I and II and the Vietnam conflict were provoked by central banking interests for monetary gain. The film then disastrously veers off the deep end when it reaches its conclusion, which posits a coming One World Government à la Logan’s Run that tracks every single person on the planet via an ID chip that locks all people into a control grid.

Much of the content in the third part of Zeitgeist originates from two primary sources. The first is the various anti-government militia movements that cropped up in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. The other source, ironically enough, is evangelical Christianity. Many adherents to Christian faith believe that a personage they call “Antichrist” will someday emerge on the world scene and create a One World Government, complete with a one world currency, over which he will rule with an iron fist. Beginning around the late 1970s, such ominous and dystopian right-wing predictions managed to grow beyond fringe status and achieve wide circulation, as evangelicals and fundamentalists came out of the woodwork to preach their expectations that a One World government was imminent. This expectation is still alive to this day, and now the fundamentalists are joined in the paranoid chorus by secular conspiracy theorists, people who do not embrace any particular religious ideology. Like the 2,000 year-old belief that Jesus will “soon” return to Earth, anti-government conspiracy theorists are today proclaiming nothing essentially different from what their counterparts in past generations have warned. Even before the political rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, the neo-conservative movement of the Sixties and Seventies spawned a culture of paranoid anti-government activists. Today this community enjoys a stronger public voice than they had in earlier decades, thanks in large part to the Internet. Zeitgeist is just one such voice clamoring for attention. Let’s see what, if anything, it has to contribute to the cultural discussion.

 

Central Banks

So who are the “men behind the curtain” referred to in the title of Part III? It turns out they are the rich and powerful banking magnates of Wall Street, the giants in the world of Big Finance. In the following quote from the film, Joseph sets the scene by essentially poisoning the well, portraying central banks as a scheme by the rich and powerful to enslave the populace to perpetual debt:

A central bank is an institution that produces the currency of an entire nation. Based on historical precedent, two specific powers are inherent in central banking practice: the control of interest rates and the control of the money supply, or inflation. A central bank does not simply supply a government’s economy with money, it loans it to them at interest. Then, through the use of increasing and decreasing the supply of money, the central bank regulates the value of the currency being issued. It is critical to understand that the entire structure of this system can only produce one thing in the long run: debt.

The main justification for having a central bank has to do with practical economics and is actually far less sinister than Joseph makes it out to be. The currency of small independent banks during the “free banking” era of the mid-nineteenth century was not based on anything other than the credit they had stored in their vaults in the form of gold or silver. Without a centralized banking system in place to shore up their assets, these small independent banks tended to survive an average of only five years before going bankrupt because of the unpredictable vicissitudes of the market, including seasonal fluctuations in interest rates. [1] By setting a fixed loan and interest rate, centralized banking provides a level of stability that allows markets to trade internationally.

The main catalyst for the creation of a centralized bank in America was the Bank Panic of 1907. [2] This major financial crisis was sparked by the United Copper Company’s failed scheme to artificially inflate stock prices through aggressive purchasing of shares and the subsequent runs by depositors on banks in imminent danger of bankruptcy. Zeitgeist touches briefly on this event:

[. . .] J.P. Morgan, publicly considered a financial luminary at the time, exploited his mass influence by publishing rumors that a prominent bank in New York was “insolvent,” or bankrupt. Morgan knew this would cause mass hysteria, which would affect other banks as well, and it did. The public, in fear of losing their deposits, immediately began mass withdrawals. Consequently the banks were forced to call in their loans, causing the recipients to sell their products, and thus a spiral of bankruptcies, repossessions, and turmoil emerged.

No, J.P. Morgan was not responsible for inciting the Panic of 1907. The Knickerbocker Trust Company, the third largest commercial bank in New York City at the time, was primarily responsible for sparking the panic, as the company provided funds for the United Copper Company’s designs. In a matter of a few days, the price of the metal increased from $37 per share to nearly $60 per share, placing a burden on short sellers that couldn’t be satisfied. The panic kicked into full gear on Monday, October 21 when the National Bank of Commerce announced that it would no longer clear any checks from Knickerbocker, leading to depositors making a run on the bank to withdraw their funds. [3] In short, the mass withdrawals happened because banks began calling in their loans. The threat of imminent insolvency was not a fabrication or a rumor.

Zeitgeist briefly discusses the other big market crashes of the early twentieth century, making similar claims about the stock market panics being “manufactured” by wealthy and powerful bankers. According to Joseph’s narrative, J.P. Morgan, J.D. Rockefeller, and other household names in the banking industry fabricated all the scares, intentionally trying to spread panic and cause banks to fail so they could buy up rival banks at a discount. But there is no evidence to suggest that Morgan ever published fraudulent rumors of about banks going bankrupt. In fact, the opposite is true. Morgan, along with an informal team of trust company executives he organized, attempted to halt the Panic of 1907 and rescue the economy. He purchased large amounts of falling stock from financially-sound companies in order to stabilize the market. [4] “Thanks to Morgan and the other New York bankers,” writes historian John Steele Gordon, “the crash of 1907 did not mark the onset of a period of severe depression, as the crashes of 1873 and 1893 had. But it did make clear that the country simply could no longer do without a central bank. A man of the stature and probity of J.P. Morgan might be able to avert financial calamity in the future, but there was no guarantee that there would be such a man available.” [5]

A similar strategy was employed in an attempt to curtail the economic crisis ignited by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the most devastating crash in U.S. history. On October 24, 1929, a day that has come to be known as “Black Thursday,” 11 percent of the market value was lost and an unprecedented 13 million shares were traded on the Stock Exchange by panicking sellers desperate to cash out of the speculative bubble they had created before it burst. Because of the heavy volume of trading, brokerage offices were hours late in reporting prices on their ticker tapes and mass chaos ruled the day on Wall Street. A consortium of leading bankers, among them the heads of Morgan Bank and Chase National Bank, decided to stem the selling frenzy by infusing hundreds of millions of dollars into the Stock Exchange. They enlisted Richard Whitney, acting president of the Exchange, to act as their intermediary. Whitney went to the U.S. Steel trading post and purchased 10,000 shares of U.S. Steel at a price well above their market value. [6] As planned, the market stopped plummeting. But unlike the 1907 solution, it was only temporary. The panic stopped for that day, but the bankers’ efforts were not enough to stop the events of Black Tuesday five days later, a day that has lived on in the American psyche as the benchmark between the high and giddy prosperity of the Roaring Twenties and the squalor of the Great Depression that followed for the next decade. [7]

All this information is missing from Joseph’s film, for the simple reason that it does not fit the narrative he is feeding us. It would not be convenient for Joseph to inform his viewers that the big names in the world of early twentieth-century finance tried their best to save crashing markets, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully. The Morgans and Rockefellers of the world stood to lose just as much as the depositing layman if the market crumbled. But Zeitgeist instead paints a picture that flies in the face of plausibility, claiming that “a few months before October of 1929, J.D. Rockefeller, Bernhard Barrack, and other insiders quietly exited the market, and on October 24th, 1929, the New York financiers who furnished the margin loans started calling them in en masse.”

This is completely inaccurate. These banking insiders did not withdraw their money before the crash happened. They took their money out and left the market during the crash, which makes practical sense. They did all they could to rescue the market but it still began to collapse around them. What rational person wouldn’t take out their money at this point?

Virtually all conspiracy theories surrounding the passing of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913 would have people believe that very few individuals knew about the act, and that it was passed under very secretive circumstances by only a handful of people. Zeitgeist is no exception. The narrator states,

After this bill [the Federal Reserve Act] was constructed, it was then handed over to their political front man, Senator Nelson Aldrich, to push through Congress. And in 1913 with heavy political sponsorship by the bankers, Woodrow Wilson became President, having already agreed to sign the Federal Reserve Act in exchange for campaign support. And two days before Christmas when most of Congress was at home with their families, the Federal Reserve Act was voted in, and Wilson in turn made it law.

This is a gross distortion of the facts. The majority of Congress was present, not “at home with their families.” Further, the majority of Congress voted for the act, and it was democratically passed into law on December 22, 1913 with 298 yeas against 60 nays. This was after four months of debate and discussion. [8] A total of 76 Congressmen present did not vote, which means that even if all 76 had voted against the bill, the yeas would still have been in the majority. The Act then passed the Senate vote the following day, 43 yeas to 25 nays, with 27 not voting.

The film claims that in later years Woodrow Wilson regretted signing the Federal Reserve Act into law. In support of this claim, the film quotes passages from two speeches written by Wilson. In the first quoted speech, Wilson said, “A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is privately concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men who, even if their action be honest and intended for the public interest, are necessarily concentrated upon the great undertakings in which their own money is involved and who necessarily, by very reason of their own limitations, chill and check and destroy genuine economic freedom.” [9]

In the second quote given in the film, Wilson said, “We have restricted credit, we have restricted opportunity, we have controlled development, and we have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated, governments in the civilized world–no longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and the duress of small groups of dominant men.” [10]

The problem is that Zeitgeist is representing these quotes dishonestly. Both quotes actually come from Wilson’s 1912 campaign speeches. They are hardly statements of regret about passing the Federal Reserve Act into law, because he said these things before the Federal Reserve Act even existed. Joseph must know he is lying through his teeth when he represents Wilson as saying these things “years later.” These two speeches, along with several others, were later collected into a book titled The New Freedom, published in 1913.

Congressmen Louis McFadden and Charles August Lindbergh have been discussed by conspiracy theorists more than any other figures involved in the Federal Reserve Act debates, and they figure prominently in Zeitgeist’s discussion as well. McFadden and Lindbergh both strongly opposed the Act and attempted to establish an impeachment case against those primarily responsible for creating it. Very few of the many people who express admiration for these two men realize that McFadden’s opposition to the Act stemmed from his belief that the Federal Reserve was part and parcel of an international Jewish conspiracy to undermine the economic integrity of the United States. McFadden was an extremely shady individual who believed that the Jews not only controlled the American economy, but that they were also responsible for a number of major economic upheavals and changes, especially in the United States. [11] He was also a strong supporter of Adolf Hitler and promoted a number of Nazi policies that were specifically anti-Semitic in nature. Most notably, he supported Hitler’s attempts to put an end to alleged Jewish control of all aspects of the German infrastructure. [12] When McFadden tried his hand at running for president in 1936, he ran on a platform of anti-Semitism, one of his campaign slogans reading “Christianity instead of Judaism.” [13]

In 1932, McFadden and Lindbergh spearheaded impeachment proceedings against President Hoover in addition to conspiracy charges against the Federal Reserve Board. Congress took it to a vote, and the impeachment resolution was defeated 361 to 8. Only eight people in Congress voted with McFadden and Lindbergh. [14] Even Ron Paul draws in better votes in Congress with his unpopular fringe ideas.

Historically speaking, opposition to the Federal Reserve was rooted in anti-Semitism. Of course, most people who want to see the Federal Reserve eliminated in the present day are not anti-Semites. The problem is that most of them do not realize that anti-Semitic motivations are what drove the initial oppositions to the Federal Reserve Act. And to portray figures like Louis McFadden as heroes for freedom, as Zeitgeist does, is to display an ignorance of history.

Today, much of the public’s opposition to government-run finance industries such as the Federal Reserve has its roots in a fear of the Central Bank concept. The many conspiracy theories that this fear has inspired, including those concerning the Rothschild family, the Bilderberg Group, and the Trilateral Commission, virtually all stem from a fear of banking in general, an anxiety that is experienced even by rational, common-sense individuals who have their head on straight. I myself have little confidence in banks, and while I have no reason to distrust extremely wealthy people in financial industries, I do not particularly trust them either. However, this does not justify making up “facts” and grossly misrepresenting the process by which money is created, as Zeitgeist does. The film argues that money comes from nothing and has no basis. This is incorrect; while there is no physical thing one can point to and identify as the basis for money, the monetary concept itself has a well-grounded foundation, albeit a needlessly complex one. [15] Desiring a system that is both easier to understand and more trustworthy is quite understandable. It is also easy to sympathize with the desire to end the private status of the Federal Reserve, and it is legitimate to ask why anyone should trust a private industry to uphold and protect the best interests of the people. However, to suggest that the Federal Reserve and central banks in general are evil entities that are out to intentionally harm and enslave us is an unwarranted and unfounded conclusion with no basis in reality.

Moreover, people who harbor paranoid notions of iron-fisted government control tend to grossly underestimate the power of the democratic process wielded by the people. There is an obvious psychological reason for this fear. The participation of “we the people” in the election of politicians to government offices has a great deal to do with overall trends in and evolution of public opinion surrounding national politics, and it is surprising how often this fact is either under-emphasized or not acknowledged at all by the general public. For example, the United States was treated to heavy doses of neoliberalism as a result of democratically electing Ronald Reagan to the office of president. We are to some degree still experiencing the effects of this political philosophy today, particularly in the maximization of the disproportional influence of the private business sector in outlining the economic priorities of the state. This development can ultimately be traced to the will of the people, not to a conspiracy on the part of a shadowy and elite class of bankers who control us like puppets. There are no “men behind the curtain.” And when neoliberalism or whatever other political philosophy may be trendy at some given time fails to deliver what the majority of people want, the psychological basis underlying the public’s underestimation of democracy comes into play. Rather than placing the blame on the individual we elected or taking responsibility for electing him or her, we tend to instinctively blame other people outside our sphere of influence. The irrational mindset inherent in this attitude is that we as a people never vote wrong, so a conspiracy must therefore be taking place against our collective will.

 

The Gold Standard

The current economic system of the world is one of the most highly prioritized concerns of the Zeitgeist Movement (TZM), the advocacy organization spawned by Joseph’s film. TZM members strongly advocate for abandoning the current fiat-based economic model and replacing it with a resource-based economy. According to the TZM mission statement, the group’s defining goal is “the installation of a new socioeconomic model based upon technically responsible resource management, allocation and design through what would be considered the scientific method of reasoning problems and finding optimized solutions. This ‘Natural Law/Resource-Based Economy’ (NLRBE) is about taking a direct technical approach to social management as opposed to a monetary or even political one.” [16] Because this proposed revolution in world economics is such an overriding concern among Zeitgeist’s most loyal fans, it is worth our time to critique what the film has to say about the gold standard in America in the 1930s:

Now, having reduced the society to squalor, the Federal Reserve bankers decided that the Gold Standard should be removed. In order to do this, they needed to acquire the remaining gold in the system. So, under the pretense of helping to end the depression came the 1933 gold seizure. Under threat of imprisonment for 10 years, everyone in America was required to turn in all gold bullion to the Treasury, essentially robbing the public of what little wealth they had left. At the end of 1933, the Gold Standard was abolished. If you look at a dollar bill from before 1933, it says it is redeemable in gold. If you look at a dollar bill today, it says it is legal tender, which means it is backed by absolutely nothing. It is worthless paper.

The only thing that gives our money value is how much of it is in circulation. Therefore the power to regulate the money supply is also the power to regulate its value, which is also the power to bring entire economies and societies to its knees.

Peter Joseph has a poor understanding of what a fiat-based economy is. In a fiat-based economy, the value of money is not determined by the amount of money in circulation. Rather, the value is determined solely by the dynamics of a country’s economy, specifically the relationship between supply and demand. Fiat money is not based upon or backed by any physical commodity but instead is based on an estimate of “all taxes, customs, and other public dues” that the government will receive the following year. [17]

In the United States, the gold standard was adopted in order to relieve the Great Depression. In the first of his “Fireside Chat” radio addresses delivered on the evening of March 12, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt detailed the series of steps his administration was taking to bring an end to the banking moratorium (euphemistically referred to as the “banking holiday”) and identified the massive withdrawal of money from panicked depositors as a social ill to be remedied:

Let me make it clear to you that the banks will take care of all needs, except, of course, the hysterical demands of hoarders, and it is my belief that hoarding during the past week has become an exceedingly unfashionable pastime in every part of our nation. It needs no prophet to tell you that when the people find that they can get their money — that they can get it when they want it for all legitimate purposes — the phantom of fear will soon be laid. People will again be glad to have their money where it will be safely taken care of and where they can use it conveniently at any time. I can assure you, my friends, that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress. [18]

Less than one month after this address, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102 into law. Under this executive order, everyone who owned more than $100 worth of gold (equivalent to $1,500 in today’s money) was required to hand over the excess gold to the Federal Reserve on or before May 1, 1933. In exchange, the Reserve would pay $20.67 per troy ounce of gold thus delivered (adjusting for inflation, this was equivalent to about $378 today). [19] Thus, contrary to what Zeitgeist claims, the public were not robbed at all. They were compensated.

executive-order-6102

Zeitgeist is also incorrect in stating that the gold standard was abolished in 1933. What actually happened was that in January 1934, the government artificially raised the nominal price of gold to $35 per troy ounce under the Gold Reserve Act while simultaneously devaluing the dollar by 41 percent of its previous value to balance out the scales and to spark inflation. This price change stimulated a huge inflow of gold to the United States from foreign investors, resulting in a significant increase in the gold reserves of the U.S. Treasury. [20] While it’s true that U.S. money is now on the free-floating fiat system and therefore no longer backed by gold or any other materials, this change did not happen during the Great Depression. The convertibility of US dollars to gold was ended by President Richard Nixon nearly 40 years later. As of August 15, 1971, “the government would not redeem its foreign dollar obligations with gold. Within the domestic economy, gold had not had any such relationship since 1935, so the Act did not change any current realities between gold and the domestic dollar. However, the new policy had the indirect effect of eliminating any reason for denying ordinary citizens ownership of gold for their own use.” [21]

 

Income Tax

Zeitgeist is equally cynical about states’ power of participation in the ratification of federal laws, an attitude that emerges in the way the film treats the subject of income tax laws. Peter Joseph doesn’t like paying taxes, so he opts to place the blame on a shadowy conspiracy that transcends due process of law. The film claims that there is actually no law in America that requires anyone to pay income taxes to the government and that enforcing income tax is unconstitutional:

It’s worthwhile to point out that the American public’s ignorance towards the federal income tax is a testament to how dumbed down and oblivious the American population really is. First of all, the federal income tax is completely unconstitutional, as it is a direct, unapportioned tax. All direct taxes have to be apportioned to be legal based on the Constitution.

Joseph is the one who is “dumbed down and oblivious” if he actually believes his own statement about tax apportionment. Before the passing of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, taxes on income acquired from personal property had always been indirect and thus exempt from apportionment. The Sixteenth Amendment simply eliminated the direct apportionment requirement, making the source of income an irrelevant factor. [22] The amendment does not actually impose any direct tax at all.

Secondly, the required number of states in order to ratify the amendment to allow the income tax was never met, and this has even been cited in modern court cases.

“If you . . . examined [the 16th Amendment] carefully, you would find that a sufficient number of states never ratified that amendment.” – U.S. District Court Judge James C. Fox, 2003.

Both Joseph and James C. Fox are wrong (yes, even district court judges can make statements in error). By February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified by a total of 36 states. Since there were 48 states at this time, this number just exceeded the three-quarters majority required for the amendment’s ratification. [23]

Joseph goes on to make a claim that has the potential to cause serious financial hardship for those who take his arguments seriously. He states that “there is literally no statute, no law in existence, that requires you to pay this tax, period.” The film then shows two former IRS agents talking about their failure to find the income tax laws, leading to their decision to leave their job:

“I really expected that, ‘of course there’s a law that you can point to, in the law book and code that requires to file a tax return. Of course there is.’ I was at that point where I couldn’t find the statute that clearly made a person liable, at least not me and most people I know, and I had no choice in my mind except to resign.” – Joe Turner, former IRS agent.

“Based on the research that I did throughout the year 2000 and that I’m still doing, I have not found that law. I’ve asked Congress, a lot of people, we’ve asked the IRS Commissioner’s helpers. They can’t answer, because if they answer, the American people are gonna know that this whole thing is a fraud.” – Sherry Jackson, former IRS agent.

Joe Turner and Sherry Jackson go on to say that they have not filed their federal income taxes since leaving the IRS. Somebody needs to teach these two how to use Google. The income tax laws actually do exist, and one does not have to look very far before finding them. Sections 6012 and 6151 of Title 26 of the U.S. Code clearly lay out the requirement for every individual to file a general tax return.[24] Section 6072 of the same title specified further, requiring every citizen to file income tax return. [25] How Joe and Sherry were not able to find these laws is beyond me, and I suspect it is an outright fabrication on their part.

Of course, this idea that there is no law in America requiring citizens to pay income tax did not originate with Zeitgeist. The same claim was promoted by Kent Hovind, a fundamentalist young-earth creationist and Christian evangelist. To quote Hovind directly,

“I have not filed an income tax in 28 years. If there’s a law requiring me to file something, I would like to see it. [. . .] This is something I read a lot on, because I want very badly to be right with God. The Bible says, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.’ I agree. It does not say, ‘Render to Fred that which is Caesar’s.’ [. . .] the IRS is tied into Communism, socialism, and evolution ultimately.

The government gives corporations the right to exist, and that’s what has happened in the last hundred years. Many churches have become incorporated. If a church is not incorporated, it’s just a real, true, New Testament church. They answer directly to God. The church does not have permission from God to give away God’s authority. So since our ministry here, Creation Science Evangelism, is under the auspices of Faith Baptist Fellowship, an unincorporated church, I don’t have God’s permission to put God under some other sovereign. It’s a sovereignty issue.” [26]

I bring this example up not only because of the irony in the fact that Hovind’s religious fundamentalism is something that Peter Joseph would certainly scoff at and reject, but more importantly because Hovind ended up serving nine years in federal prison as a direct result of acting on his views about income tax by not only failing to pay taxes, but also structuring his transactions and obstructing federal agents.

No one should take Zeitgeist’s claims about tax laws seriously for the very same reason no one should take Hovind’s views seriously. Denying the existence of the easily-accessible income tax laws is just as stupid as denying the existence of transitional fossils in the geological record.

 

War

Having planted an image of the Federal Reserve as the Great Satan in his viewers’ minds, Joseph next turns to the subject of war. Every major conflict in the twentieth century, he asserts, was planned, engineered, and orchestrated by the international bankers in order to increase their wealth:

Now, the control of the economy and the perpetual robbery of wealth is only one side of the Rubik’s Cube the bankers hold in their hands. The next tool for profit and control is war. Since the inception of the Federal Reserve in 1913, a number of large and small wars have commenced. The three most pronounced were World War I, World War II, and Vietnam.

Blaming war on the wealthy and powerful elite makes for a compelling story, and it is par for the course in conspiracy-theory lore. But aside from not having any basis in reality, it also strikes me as redundant. Zeitgeist spent a considerable portion of Part III weaving a tale about elite bankers controlling the world’s economy and enslaving the world’s populace to perpetual debt. If they pulled this off successfully, why do they need war

Starting with the events that led to America’s entry into World War I, Zeitgeist pulls a quote by Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary of England, out of context to argue that he masterminded a plot to intentionally send the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, carrying American passengers, into hostile territory in order to spur America into the war:

So, on May 7th, 1915, on essentially the suggestion of Sir Edward Grey, a ship called the Lusitania was deliberately sent into German-controlled waters where German military vessels were known to be. And, as expected, German U-boats torpedoed the ship, exploding stored ammunition, killing 1200 people.

To further understand the deliberate nature of this setup, the German Embassy actually put advertisements in the New York Times, telling people that if they boarded the Lusitania, they did so at their own risk, as such a ship sailing from America to England through the war zone would be liable to destruction.

Joseph’s film makes it sound as if the advertisement was intended to warn the Lusitania specifically. Actually, the advertisement that appeared in the New York Times and other leading New York newspapers (pictured below) was a general warning cautioning that any Allied ships that venture into the war zone around the British Isles were liable to be destroyed. The notice contained no particular reference to the Lusitania.

notice

The appearance of this warning in New York newspapers does nothing to prove that the Lusitania disaster was deliberately planned. To the contrary, in fact, the advertisement serves as evidence that there was no conspiracy. If the “powers that be” had wanted to maximize the extent of the disaster they allegedly planned, why would they provide adequate warning to potential travelers?

Two other facts further weaken the premeditation hypothesis. First, this advertisement was printed again the day after the Lusitania was sunk and was slated to appear a third time when the German Embassy advised the newspapers to discontinue its publication. [27] The second is the signed date on the advertisement. According to Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States at the time of the Lusitania disaster, the notice was originally scheduled to be published on April 24, a mere two days after the signed date. As Count Bernstorff related in his memoir, “By one of those fatal coincidences beloved of history, it happened that owing to technical difficulties the communiqué was not actually published until May 1 – the very date on which the Lusitania left New York Harbor.” Indeed, the unpredictable contingencies of history often militate against conspiracy on the sort of grand scale envisioned by Zeitgeist. Count Bernstorff went on to point out in his memoir that, “To the best of my belief technical factors render it impossible for a submarine commander to make any one particular ship the object of his attack, so that the officer responsible for the sinking of the Lusitania could not have been certain what vessel he had to deal with.” [28]

On May 7, 1915, six days after the warning notice was printed, the Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20 and sunk off the coast of Ireland. America had not yet entered the war at this time, which at this stage was mainly fought between France and England on one side and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. Zeitgeist incorrectly claims that the sinking of the Lusitania was the catalyst that immediately propelled America into the war:

In turn and as anticipated, the sinking of the Lusitania caused a wave of anger among the American population and America entered the war a short time after.

This statement is technically inaccurate and very misleading. The United States declared its participation in the war on April 2, 1917, nearly two years to the day after the Lusitania was sunk. [29] A bit of background is in order here. The sinking of the Lusitania by the German U-boat was widely condemned by the international community, including even the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Woodrow Wilson was still reluctant to involve his country in the war, and the worldwide uproar over the tragedy helped bring about a development that Wilson had been diplomatically pushing for. As historian Thomas A. Bailey writes, “One immediate and highly significant effect of the Lusitania affair was to bring about a blunting of Germany’s U-boat campaign. Two days after the sinking, but unknown to President Wilson, the Chancellor persuaded Wilhelm II to instruct the Admiralty to avoid any more attacks on neutral vessels. On June 6, 1915, almost one month after the tragic event, the Kaiser issued a secret order that required German submarine commanders to spare all large passenger ships.” [30] Wilson also had to wrestle with the fact that it was not in the best interests of Britain for the United States to enter the war. Since the start of the war in 1914, the United States had been supplying war supplies to Britain. “If the U.S. entered the war, those guns and ammunition would be needed to build up America’s standing army, a process that the State Department estimated would take a year or two. A U.S. declaration of war would, initially at least, result only in the diversion of supplies that the British desperately needed.” [31] Incidentally, one of the primary reasons the sinking of the Lusitania has generated more debate, analysis, and controversy than any of the hundreds of other Allied ocean liners destroyed by the German blockade is the fact that the Lusitania was a carrier of contraband munitions:

The ship’s cargo space was – just as the Germans claimed – being used to carry American munitions to Britain. As Lusitania prepared for her last voyage, 1,248 cases of 3-inch artillery shells – four shells to a case – and 4,927 boxes of rifle ammunition – each case containing 1,000 rounds and the total weighing 173 tons, which included ten tons of explosive powder – had been placed in the liner’s cargo. [32]

It was not until the Germans reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare into the danger zones in January 1917 that the United States finally took an interest in the war. Even then Wilson remained hesitant to declare war. The final nail in the coffin of U.S. neutrality was actually unrelated to German destruction of its merchant ships. In January 1917, British Intelligence intercepted and decoded a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman that invited Mexico to join in a military alliance with Germany in the event that the U.S. joined the war. The American public was outraged and frightened at the threat this proposed alliance posed, and Congress was finally convinced to declare war on Germany three months later. [33]

Through a series of misused and out-of-context quotes and historical inaccuracies ranging from subtle to blatant, Zeitgeist proceeds to argue that World War II and the Vietnam conflict were engineered by power-hungry banking elites. For example, the film claims that on December 4, 1941, three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, “Australian intelligence told Roosevelt about a Japanese task force moving towards Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt ignored it.” The idea being pushed here is that President Roosevelt wanted the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor because he “was very sympathetic to the interests of the international bankers” and “nothing is more profitable for international bankers than war.”

The problem is that the only evidence for an advance warning of the Japanese attack is anecdotal in nature. The only non-conspiracy source for this story that I could find is a single New York Times obituary from June 29, 1989. The obituary reports the death of one Elliot R. Thorpe, who in December 1941 “was a military attache in Dutch-controlled Java when the Dutch broke a Japanese diplomatic code. One of the intercepted messages referred to planned Japanese attacks on Hawaii, the Philippines and Thailand.” According to this article, when Thorpe was told about this message by an unnamed Dutch officer one week before the December 7 attack, he immediately sent a cable to Washington warning of the coming attack. [34] Assuming all this is true – which is generous, since Thorpe’s story was modified and reworked in later years – it is not surprising or damning to the U.S. administration that Thorpe’s extremely vague and as-yet uncorroborated warning went unheeded.

 

Microchips and a One World Government

Zeitgeist pulls out all the stops in its conclusion with a brief and highly paranoid discussion of microchips. Here the film claims that the coming One World Government will utilize microchip technology in tracking the every move of every single person on the planet. To quote the film directly,

In 2005, Congress, under the pretense of immigration control and the so called “war on terrorism,” passed the Real ID act, under which it is projected by May 2008 you will be required to carry around a Federal Identification card which includes on it a scannable bar code with your personal information.

However this barcode is only an intermediary step, before the card is equipped with a VeriChip RFID tracking module, which will use radio frequencies to track your every move on the planet. If this sounds foreign to you, please note that the RFID tracking chip is already in all new American passports. And the final step is the implanted chip, which many people have already been manipulated into accepting under different pretenses. 

In the end, everybody will be locked into a monitored control grid, where every single action you perform is documented. And if you get out of line, they can just turn off your chip, for at that point in time, every single aspect of society will revolve around interactions with the chips. This is the picture that is painted for the future if you open your eyes to see it: A centralized one world economy where everyone’s moves and everyone’s transactions are tracked and monitored. All rights removed.

The notions here entertained of tracking modules and implanted microchips that lock all people in a centralized control grid derive from postmodern interpretations of apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios, many of which have been promulgated by adherents of dispensationalist Christianity. However, there is nothing particularly diabolic or draconian about a standard national ID card. Virtually every other industrialized country in the world has already implemented a national ID system in one form or another. The United States itself has adopted some forms of national ID, including Driver’s Licenses, Birth Certificates and Social Security cards. In similar innocuous fashion, the real intent of the REAL ID Act is not essentially any different from any other form of nationally-implemented ID system. The intent is simply to make available a national standard that works everywhere in the country. REAL ID does not give the government any more control over people than does a Driver’s License. In fact, the only difference between the two is that REAL ID establishes a national standard that renders information scanning a smoother and more streamlined process that minimizes the occurrence of mistakes. As matters currently stand, ID standards differ from state to state. Of course, this more convenient single nationwide standard that Congress envisioned has not yet come to fruition, and the May 2008 date of implementation predicted by Zeitgeist has come and gone.

The views of right-wing religious organizations and personalities, such as the John Birch Society and Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, constitute a primary source of the general fear felt by a surprising number of otherwise rational people of a One World Government or New World Order actually coming into existence in the real world within their lifetime. The connection to Christian end-times doctrine is clear: this New World Order, it is believed, will be headed by the Antichrist who will require world citizens to bear some kind of identifying mark – a tattoo placed either on the hand or forehead according to older conspiracy theories, an implanted microchip in the telling of more modern interpretations. Without this mark, a person living under the rule of this global government will not be allowed to buy or sell goods and services, a policy enforced by the Antichrist in order to maintain his one-world currency system.

Given the concordance that exists between Christian end-times belief and the fears promoted in Zeitgeist, it is ironic that most of the people who embrace the Zeitgeist Movement are actively opposed to Christianity or, at the very least, do not identify as Christian. And while it is true that there is no necessary connection between Christian end-times beliefs and notions of a One World Government using microchips to control the masses, the discussion of the subject in Zeitgeist betrays an undeniable resemblance to well-known interpretations, preached as absolute truth by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, of the thirteenth chapter of Revelation in the New Testament. [35] Following are just two examples of fundamentalist end-times theorizing that are nearly identical in nature to Zeitgeist’s claims on the subject. The first is from Robert Van Kampen, the late banking magnate (!) and fundamentalist Christian minister, and the second from the popular author and Christian doomsday evangelist Hal Lindsey:

We do not know how the mark will be imprinted on the hand or the forehead. Given modern technology, however, there are numerous ways this could be accomplished. A tiny microchip, for example, could be imbedded just under the skin in the palm of the hand. Whenever anyone wanted to buy or sell something, he could be required to wave his hand over a scanning device that would “read” the chip, identify the buyer or seller, and validate or invalidate the sale. [36]

~~~~~

This prophecy [Revelation 13:16-18] says that the Antichrist is going to require every person on Earth to receive this mark, which will contain the number of his name . . . today we can do exactly that. With today’s technology, a miniaturized computer chip about the size of a sesame seed can hold not only your own personal ID number and name, but also a file on your personal history. These can be injected under your skin and powered by the energy generated by your body. Now, these little chips can be linked together and tracked by satellite. Satellites linked with computers can now track a person with a PC chip implanted in his body anywhere in the world . . . this prophecy says that unless you receive the number of the Antichrist’s name, 666, you can’t buy or sell. Well, everyone has to have a personal number. What they apparently do is, when you swear allegiance to the Antichrist as being God, then you are given a prefix number of 666, which then validates your personal number. [37]

Notice that in trying to apply an ancient religious text to modern-day technology, Lindsey is forced to provide a rationalization for the use of the Bible’s number of 666. But wouldn’t the use of such a number as a validating prefix be a dead giveaway? If the Antichrist or the secular equivalent really is going to orchestrate and carry out exactly what is described in the Book of Revelation, how is it that this world dictator expects no one to immediately take notice? The “mark of the beast” idea has been featured prominently in popular culture and in countless sermons for laypeople. How could any aspiring Antichrist or world ruler reasonably expect anyone to accept his or her system? “The government has chosen the number 666 to be the validation code prefixing everyone’s personal ID number? Wait a minute, where have I heard that number before?

Conspiracy theorists often try to support their fear-mongering about government-issued microchips by making dubious comparisons to the methods of control employed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Zeitgeist jumps on this bandwagon as well, for it draws comparisons between the Bush/Cheney administration and Hitler. In this way Zeitgeist perfectly fulfills the predictive principle of Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies, an Internet adage which states,

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. [38]

Rather than showing that any such comparison is accurate or sufficiently warranted by evidence, the point of Godwin’s Law is that comparisons involving Hitler or the Nazis appeal to people who have an interest in demonizing the person or idea that has offended them. As Godwin later explained in a 1994 Wired article,

[T]here are obvious topics in which the comparison recurs. In discussions about guns and the Second Amendment, for example, gun-control advocates are periodically reminded that Hitler banned personal weapons. And birth-control debates are frequently marked by pro-lifers’ insistence that abortionists are engaging in mass murder, worse than that of Nazi death camps. And in any newsgroup in which censorship is discussed, someone inevitably raises the specter of Nazi book-burning.

But the Nazi-comparison meme popped up elsewhere as well – in general discussions of law in misc.legal, for example, or in the EFF conference on the Well. Stone libertarians were ready to label any government regulation as incipient Nazism. And, invariably, the comparisons trivialized the horror of the Holocaust and the social pathology of the Nazis. It was a trivialization I found both illogical (Michael Dukakis as a Nazi? Please!) and offensive (the millions of concentration-camp victims did not die to give some net.blowhard a handy trope). [39]

When enough anti-government activists and conspiracy theorists demonize microchip technology and personal ID cards, there comes a point at which such paranoid missives matriculate into the general population, with the result that more and more people start becoming needlessly concerned about being tracked wherever they go at all times. This anxiety would be justified if there were any evidential grounds for suspecting that such a program is in the works. But this is far from clear. More importantly, neither Hitler nor Stalin required implanted microchips in order to find people and kill them. They managed to carry out these actions quite efficiently without such means, and they obviously lacked the level of technology we have today.

This means that even if “the State” wanted to wield control over every aspect of the life of every individual in the population, they would not need to track the every move of each person at all times in order to do so. Indeed, any technological measures undertaken to achieve that level of control would be a huge waste of resources. Consider for a moment what would be required to insert microchips in every single person on the planet, not to mention subsequently tracking every person’s move at all times. The amount of financial investment needed, the level of networking required, the kind of infrastructure that would need to be constructed, the size of the central control establishment that would need to be built and maintained, all yield staggering figures when calculated. It would be perhaps the most impractical scheme ever conceived. It would require thousands if not millions of tech personnel and other specialists and trillions of dollars to put in place. How would the government ensure that all the tech and engineering personnel are paid off sufficiently to remain quiet about the ultimate goal of such a massive endeavor? If the Watergate scandal could not be kept under wraps, a plan to track every single person on the planet is certainly not going to remain secret for too long. Why would the global or even national elite even want to go to such lengths to control us? Would we really buy or sell any more or less than we already do? What more would we have to offer the controllers once we are locked into their grid? Ultimately, it would be an utter waste of massive amounts of money for a plot that the conspirators would never receive a return on in the future.


 

NOTES

[1] J. Lawrence Broz, “Origins of the Federal Reserve System: International Incentives and the Domestic Free-rider Problem,” International Organization 53, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 39-70.

[2] Ellis W. Tallman and Jon R. Moen, “Lessons from the Panic of 1907,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Economic Review 75 (May/June 1990): 2-13.

[3] Robert F. Bruner and Sean D. Carr, The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market’s Perfect Storm (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).

[4] Vincent P. Carosso, The Morgans: Private International Bankers, 1854-1913 (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), chapter 15.

[5] John Steele Gordon, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 280.

[6] Barrie A. Wigmore, The Crash and Its Aftermath: A History of Securities Markets in the United States, 1929-1933 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 7; Gordon, An Empire of Wealth, p. 315.

[7] Ric Burns (director), “Cosmopolis (1919-1931),” New York: A Documentary Film, episode 5 (Arlington, VA: PBS, 1999).

[8] U.S. House Report no. 69, Changes in the Banking and Currency System of the United States, 63rd Congress, 1st session (Washington, D.C., September 9, 1913).

[9] Woodrow Wilson, The New Freedom (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1913), Ch. VIII.

[10] Ibid, Ch. IX.

[11] Robert Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 180; Gulie Ne’eman Arad, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 174.

[12] Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism, p. 186.

[13] Ibid, p. 142.

[14] “National Affairs: I Impeach. . . .,” Time 20, no. 6 (December 26, 1932). Online at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,744826,00.html (accessed May 31, 2015).

[15] For a detailed explanation of the basis for money, see Edward L. Winston’s review of Part I of Zeitgeist: Addendum (the sequel film) at http://www.conspiracyscience.com/articles/zeitgeist-addendum/part-one/ (accessed May 31, 2015).

[16] The Zeitgeist Movement, “Mission Statement,” http://www.thezeitgeistmovement.com/mission-statement (accessed September 25, 2016).

[17] Sixty-Third Congress, Second Session, Chapter 6, December 5, 1913, p. 265; U.S. Code Title 12 § 411.

[18] Amos Kiewe, FDR’s First Fireside Chat: Public Confidence and the Banking Crisis (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), p. 4. Audio of this speech is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6nYKRLOFWg (accessed September 25, 2016).

[19] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Executive Order 6102 – Requiring Gold Coin, Gold Bullion and Gold Certificates to Be Delivered to the Government,” April 5, 1933. Available online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=14611 (accessed September 20, 2016).

[20] Christina D. Romer, “What Ended the Great Depression?” The Journal of Economic History 52, no. 4 (December 1992): 757-784.

[21] Richard H. Timberlake, Constitutional Money: A Review of the Supreme Court’s Monetary Decisions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 218.

[22] Boris I. Bittker, “Constitutional Limits on the Taxing Power of the Federal Government,” Tax Lawyer 41, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 3-12.

[23] Steve Mount, “Ratification of Constitutional Amendments,” U.S. Constitution Online, http://www.usconstitution.net/constamrat.html (accessed June 8, 2015).

[24] “26 U.S. Code § 6012 – Persons required to make returns of income,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/6012 (accessed June 14, 2015); “26 U.S. Code § 6151 – Time and place for paying tax shown on returns,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/6151 (accessed June 14, 2015).

[25] “26 U.S. Code § 6072 – Time for filing income tax returns,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/6072 (accessed June 14, 2015).

[26] Christian Science Evangelism (producer), College Level Course 103, class 6 [DVD]. Video available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZTroN66ixE (accessed September 18, 2016).

[27] The New York Times Current History, Vol. II (June 1915), p. 413.

[28] Count Bernstorff, My Three Years in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920), p. 138.

[29] Woodrow Wilson, War Messages, 65th Cong., 1st Sess. Senate Doc. No. 5, Serial No. 7264, Washington, D.C., 1917; pp. 3-8, passim. Available online at https://wwi.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Wilson’s_War_Message_to_Congress (accessed September 24, 2016).

[30] Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy (New York: The Free Press, 1975), p. 231.

[31] Robert D. Ballard, Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History (New York: Warner Books, 1995), p. 194.

[32] Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 530.

[33] Thomas Boghardt, The Zimmerman Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America’s Entry into World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).

[34] “Elliott Thorpe, 91, Army Attache Who Warned of Japanese Attack,” The New York Times, June 29, 1989. Available online at http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/29/obituaries/elliott-thorpe-91-army-attache-who-warned-of-japanese-attack.html (accessed September 24, 2016).

[35] Revelation 13 (Revised Standard Version), Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+13&version=RSV (accessed June 7, 2015).

[36] Robert Van Kampen, The Sign: Bible Prophecy Concerning the End Times, Expanded Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p. 231.

[37] “End-Time Prophesies (Microchips) – Dr Hal Lindsey” (video), YouTube, March 20, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7M1z-Gfnyk (accessed June 14, 2015).

[38] Mike Godwin, “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies (and Corollaries),” Electronic Frontier Foundation, January 12, 1995. Archived from the “Net Culture – Humor” section of EFF.org, http://w2.eff.org/Net_culture/Folklore/Humor/godwins.law (accessed June 15, 2015).

[39] Mike Godwin, “Meme, Counter-meme,” Wired 2, no. 10 (October 1994), http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/2.10/godwin.if_pr.html (accessed June 15, 2015).

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