Links and Comments from Today’s New York Times: 25 Oct 2015

You can’t escape human nature: Norway Has a New Passion: Ghost Hunting.

As traditional religion has faded in many northern European nations, it’s being replaced in Norway by an increased tendency to perceive ghosts at every corner.

Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.

While churches here may be largely empty and belief in God, according to opinion polls, in steady decline, belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging. Even Norway’s royal family, which is required by law to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has flirted with ghosts, with a princess coaching people on how to reach out to spirits.


Arild Romarheim, a Lutheran priest and recently retired theology lecturer, described the conviction of well-educated atheists and agnostics that ghosts exist as “the paradox of modernity” — a revival of old beliefs to slake an innate human thirst for a spiritual life left unsatisfied by the decline of the church.

This “thirst for a spiritual life” is, I think, an artifact for the way the human mind has evolved to perceive the universe in its own terms, not necessarily favoring reality of the actual universe: see the Jesse Bering book linked at Provisional Conclusions: Resources & Bibliography. And this is why I suppose religion and/or superstition, in one fashion or another, will never be completely overcome (despite Arthur C. Clarke, alas).


Frank Bruni on What Family Really Means. He addresses recent debates within the Catholic Church, which like most faiths, is mostly behoven to standards set in holy books written by ancient tribes in eras when life was relatively short and savage, and tribal. If you think about it and twist your mind a bit, you can come to understand the motivations behind all those Old Testament rules about killing brides who were not virgins and men marrying their brother’s widows and masturbation and not wearing certain kinds of clothes as well as, by the way, condemning men who slept with men. Because in those days, it was all about doing everything to maintain the viability of the tribe, which would be endangered by any activity that threatened individual survival or did not promote the expansion of the tribe. (These motives are all understood as very basic evolutionary strategies, given those circumstances, though of course this understanding would be ironically and stoutly denied by the adherents to those religions who think human beings as special creations of a god and not subject to the natural selection forces that inevitably affect everything else in the universe.)

And yet, here is natural selection at work in one of the largest religions on Earth: if the Catholic Church does not change and adapt to modern times (when human life is not so short and savage, if perhaps just as tribal, as it was three thousand years ago), it will continue to fade, and eventually die. Natural selection will choose a modified version of that church to survive, and not the one that has condemned so many (to an imaginary Hell) according to those ancient proscriptions.

And so the current Pope is floating some changes, about divorce and cohabitation and single parenting. Many in the church, especially in Africa (the region of the world most radically opposed to gay rights), resist.

Bruni’s column is a poignant description of ‘families’ he’s know that do not fit the parameters of the traditional Catholic church. As he says,

I’m more impressed by families who are bound by choice rather than blood. For all that I’ve learned about family around my own Thanksgiving table, I’ve learned as much by watching people without dependable parents, caring siblings or nurturing spouses forge clans of a different kind.

I saw this happen time and again in the 1980s and early 1990s, when AIDS ravaged gay America and many sufferers found themselves abandoned by relatives, whose religions prodded them toward judgment instead of compassion. Friends filled that gap, rushing in as saviors, stepping up as providers, signing on as protectors. Where families were absent, families were born.


The latest assault against reason is the resistance to GMOs, genetically modified organisms, which, perhaps ironically, is even more prevalent in Europe than in the US.

With G.M.O. Policies, Europe Turns Against Science

Without a trace of embarrassment, a spokeswoman for Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, admitted that the first minister’s science adviser had not been consulted because the decision “wasn’t based on scientific evidence.” Instead, the priority was to protect the “clean green image” of the country’s produce, according to the secretary for rural affairs, food and environment.

“The worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is as solid as that which underpins human-caused global warming. Yet this inconvenient truth on G.M.O.s — that they’re as safe as conventionally cultivated food — is ignored when ideological interests are threatened.” (My bold.)

(As an aside, not discussed here, is the issue about bananas, which some religious morons claim as evidence of God, for the banana’s supposed ideal design for human consumption; in fact, bananas have been modified over millennia by human beings into what we recognize today; here’s a link that displays what wild bananas were like before human selection intervened.)

Back to the article, which discusses, again, Africa, which promotes wild conspiracy theories about the dangers of GMOs: a crony to Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe claims that “sexual dysfunction is a huge problem in the U.S.A., where males become impotent around the age of 24, at the prime of life” and this is due to GMO foods; and an incident in which the author talked with someone in Tanzania who claims biotech crops would turn his children homosexual [which of course would be a *bad* *thing*].

I think that this is evidence for my general conclusion that science denial is not about consideration of evidence and reaching conclusions that challenge some orthodoxy — it’s about adherence to tribal allegiances. Anything can be denied, at least in public, in order to be straight with your neighbors and social groups, those whom you depend on for day to day life. It’s human nature, and how that differs from the understanding of scientific reality.


Finally, fascinated by ‘NPR Voice’ Has Taken Over the Airwaves. Ira Glass, the whole All Things Considered and Morning Edition staff, Terri Gross (whom these days I listen to almost every weekday).

So different from the tone of anger and outrage that typifies the right-wing media.

And brought to mind classic narrators. Rod Serling, mentioned here. And maybe my favorite: Vic Perrin’s “Control Voice” from the early ’60s anthology show The Outer Limits.

You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits.

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