An angry witch and a charge of religious hatred
When I wrote my last blog, I didn’t anticipate that my next one would be devoted to defending it from a charge of ‘religious hatred’ by an angry Wiccan. I’ll call my critic by his Twitter name of ‘Rushyo’, though he does use his real name on some of his comments under my last blog. To introduce him, here’s a clip from his own blog:
As readers of this blog will be aware, I’m currently attempting to put a journal to study witchcraft. In the interests of good research, I openly disclose the fact that I am a) part of the skeptical community and b) part of the Wiccan community. A skeptical Witch.
Rushyo basically has two issues with what I wrote: one is that the blog contained a “horrendously poor skeptical analysis”. The other is that, in my response to his first comment beneath the blog, I’m guilty of religious hatred/intolerance. I’ll try to address both of these.
The post in question contains a spell lifted from a witches’ website. The spell involves writing “a goal you desire” on a bit of paper and throwing it into a river or sea while reciting a rhyme. The spell is accompanied by the categorical statement that “the ink and paper dissolve into the water and the spell begins to work”.
No plausible mechanism by which this spell might achieve the desired outcome is suggested and it struck me that there was some small similarity with homeopathic remedies, in that both appear to rely on water having a power that has not thus far been confirmed by scientific research, in spite of extensive investigation of water at a molecular level.
A further similarity between homeopathy and this particular remedy may be inferred by the claim that the spell begins to work when the paper and ink dissolve, implying an inverse relationship between the degree of dissolution and the efficacy of the spell. The more dilute, the more potent. Sound familiar?
Anyway, I didn’t state this argument in as many words but expected instead that readers would see the point without explanation. I concluded with the suggestion that it wasn’t wrong to call homeopathy witchcraft after all.
In one of his comments below the piece, Rushyo says,
Your argument makes as much scientific sense as someone looking at Western medicine and using the description of the ‘cold treatment’, bringing people back to life, as a justification for calling all Western medicine a sham.
Rushyo’s objection, then, is that I generalised from a single example and, because one spell appears to bear some similarity to homeopathy, I shouldn’t assume they all do. Thus, the evidence I present to support the claim that homeopathy is witchcraft (or vice versa) is insufficient. This is a fair point and, had I been trying to make a serious case that homeopathy and witchcraft are pretty much the same on the grounds that they both rely on the ‘memory’ of water or on the notion that dilution makes things more potent, then I wouldn’t have supported my argument with a sample of one.
However, as most readers appreciated, my blog post was not intended to be taken seriously; not for a nanosecond, did it occur to me that anyone would and, so far as I know, nobody but Rushyo did. And he was so aggrieved by my perceived violation of skeptic principles that he left the kind of snarky comment that just begs for a put-down. Thus, I suggested he calm himself with a frog’s toe special. As a consequence, I found myself accused of “preaching religious hatred”. He even tweeted it.
In his own account of what happened, Rushyo writes:
I made quite sure my dismay was evident when I found somebody mocking witchcraft and comparing it with Homeopathy (something that has been thoroughly proven not to work) which they themselves stated was based on absolutely the most flimsy and pathetic evidence.
This quote suggests that it was more the mockery of witchcraft than the ‘bad science’ that offended Rushyo but, given his emotive comments beneath the article, that was pretty obvious already. Here’s an example:
So, essentially, you just wanted to preach a bit of religious hatred? Don’t mask this as skepticism, it puts the skeptical community to shame. I’m ashamed to be associated with you. Pathetic.
He later adds:
A skeptic that throws skepticism out of the window as soon as Witchcraft is mentioned is no better than Wiccan that turns around and throws the rede out of the window when it comes to issues of scientific interest (such as medicine).
It may occur to some readers, as it did to me, that a skeptic who threw skepticism out of the window as soon as witchcraft is mentioned would end up embracing witchcraft wholeheartedly, as Rushyo seems to have done. A skeptic who embraces and adopts a worldview first and starts a more thorough investigation only after having done so sounds like….well, I hesitate to say ‘an oxymoron’, given that when someone said the same thing on twitter, Rushyo responded first with this and then with this, which doesn’t get us any further.
In case anyone doesn’t get where the charge of religious hatred comes from, Wicca involves the “ritual practice of magic” (wiki). Ergo poking fun at witchcraft is insulting the Wicca religion. In his blog, Rushyo explains further
The insult related to my religion. What makes this attack astounding was that I was not shouting from a religious soapbox – I was shouting from a skeptical one. I felt that the article was the anti-thesis of skepticism for reasons which I will go into later. My argument was completely unrelated to my religious belief. Were I an atheist I would have felt exactly the same.
And there was I thinking that faith — belief without evidence — is the antithesis of skepticism. I’m very surprised to learn that I was wrong and that in fact mocking magic spells is the antithesis of skepticism. Good grief!
Seriously now, I think we can discount the claim that his argument was completely unrelated to his religious faith. Were it not for his religious belief, he would have either seen the piece as nothing more than a bit of fun or, if he really did take it seriously, calmly pointed out that my argument was fallacious. At least, that’s what any other skeptic would have done. By his own admission, what dismayed Rushyo was my “mocking witchcraft and comparing it with Homeopathy (something that has been thoroughly proven not to work)”.
I did indeed poke fun at witchcraft with references to newts’ eyes and making things disappear. And clearly Rushyo also sees the mere comparison with homeopathy as mockery of witchcraft, which I suppose it is, though my intention at the time was only to mock homeopathy by comparing it with medieval nonsense, which is how I view witchcraft. I’m afraid Rushyo’s explanation of it doesn’t make me view it any differently.
Witchcraft is the act of invoking power beyond the material world defined by science, often linked with a spiritual element, intended to perform a tangible task with a particular stated goal. As practised by Wiccans, Witchcraft is used to invoke the power of the Gods through prayer and ritual.
Interestingly, while Rushyo evidently thinks witchcraft isn’t a legitimate target for mockery, he seems to think homeopathy is. He says,
Homeopathy is the subject of ridicule because it has a weight of scientific evidence against it. Witchcraft does not (surprisingly!).
The claim that there is a lack of scientific evidence against witchcraft is arguable, to put it mildly but, even if it were true, should the fact that there is a lack of evidence against it protect it from mockery? I mean, if there hadn’t already been hundreds of trials of homeopathy, if it hadn’t already been proven to be a crock, would we (and by ‘we’ I mean people who identify as skeptics) treat it with any more reverence because it was untested? Of course not, because it’s scientifically implausible; it contravenes scientific laws and is therefore ridiculous. Just like witchcraft.
By the way, I have since seen a few other spells from the same source and concede that they don’t all rely on an unknown power of water, thereby undermining my original contention that witchcraft is homeopathy, which I happily withdraw, seeing as I didn’t really mean it in the first place. However, the spells do all involve some element of magic, as do homeopathic remedies, so the comparison — and, indeed, the reverse contention that homeopathy is witchcraft — aren’t as outrageous as Rushyo would have us believe. And they’re both suitable topics for skeptical humour, as are any number of other ridiculous quack therapies or ‘weight-loss eating plans’ making claims for which there is no evidence either way. These are mockable not so much because they haven’t been properly tested but because, if true, their claims would force us to re-write all our physics and chemistry text books.
So it seems Rushyo’s understanding of skepticism differs somewhat from my own. For the record, it was the explanation of skepticism on UK-skeptics that first resonated with me, leading me to adopt the label. It points out that skepticism is not a world view but a methodology. It starts with doubt and applies it to everything. Claims — whether they be about global warming, quack therapies or supernatural powers — are not taken at face value but must be supported with good quality evidence before they will be accepted:
assuming or holding the provisional position that a claim is false until proven otherwise is also the correct approach to take
As he is a scientist, I don’t think Rushyo could disagree with this, any more than I would disagree with the definition of skepticism Rushyo quotes from wiki (see below). What I do disagree with is his claim that he is attacking from a perspective of skepticism and that those of us who disagree with him are betraying true skeptic principles. From his comments:
I would give the topic the gravitas I feel it deserves. Call it a ‘Galileo complex’ if you like. The value of establishing facts over adopting society’s wider views has become a core tenant (sic) amongst Witches. Something I was under impression us, as skeptics, were supposed to champion as well.
If I may quote Wikipedia:
“Scientific skeptics attempt to evaluate claims based on verifiability and falsifiability and discourage accepting claims on faith or anecdotal evidence.”
and “Scientific skeptics do not assert that unusual claims should be automatically rejected out of hand on a priori grounds.”
Were I an independent observer I would surmise I was not talking to skeptics – in fact I might reasonably surmise I was talking to the polar opposite given those definitions.
As I said, I would agree with both those extracts from wiki and I don’t know why Rushyo feels they make some sort of case for him. To repeat, the starting point for skepticism is doubt. We don’t look at a proposal that claims throwing a bit of paper into the sea while uttering a spell will work in achieving a desired goal in life and think: “Hmmm….there’s no evidence against this idea so we should wait until it’s been tested before we mock it.” Rather we would argue that everything we know about the natural world indicates that this proposal is absurd and unworthy of investigation. That’s not to say we won’t change our minds if a scientifically plausible explanation were offered but, in the meantime, the proposal is worthy of ridicule. And if it were being funded on the NHS, it would, like the similarly implausible homeopathy, be a campaigning issue for skeptics.
To aid our understanding of why my ‘frog’s toe special’ suggestion qualifies as religious hatred, Rushyo helpfully provides the criteria by which he defines religious hatred/intolerance (he treats these words as synonyms) and proclaims that my comment to him meets every one. A perfect fit!
a) It has to be for the purpose of insulting.
b) It has to relate to a religion
c) It has to reference the person’s religion belief
d) It should display ignorance/prejudice
…to meet all these criteria for insulting a Muslim you might need something like the following: “Don’t worry, I’m sure your Mother and Father Mohammed will calm you down, Mohammed.” This statement would meet the above criteria – and it would similarly be considered unacceptable. In most circles.
Well not in mine because I don’t even understand it and my Muslim friends are pretty chilled about religious insults. (Less so about racism, say, because they recognise that religion in adult life is a choice, ethnicity isn’t.)
If I’m being totally honest, offending people’s religious sensibilities isn’t something that bothers me too much. This isn’t religious hatred, it isn’t religious intolerance, it’s religious indifference. We each of us choose our different worldviews and none of them should be seen as exempt from ridicule. If ridiculous ideas are to afforded special protection just because they are part of someone’s religion, can someone tell me where we would draw the line? Would the ‘religious ideas’ of someone who decides to invent a new religion over breakfast be entitled to the same protection?
In conclusion, ‘hatred’ is a strong word and certainly not something I feel for mildly eccentric people and their barmy religion — as long as they do nothing to harm others. And, while I am grateful to Rushyo for making me think this one through, I don’t think his claim that he is criticising from a skeptic’s perspective stands up to scrutiny His argument amounts to no more than special pleading that witchcraft should be exempt from mockery and because it’s part of his religion and, as one commenter here already said, that’s just creepy.