Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Humanists win debate on religion and meaning at the Oxford Union

Spirit Possession in Uganda

Posted: 29 Nov 2010 10:32 AM PST

Spirit possession is common in Uganda, as it is in many parts of the world – especially impoverished areas. It’s a complex syndrome, however, with different spirits have different effects.

In Runyankore, the local language spoken by the Banyankore of Southwestern Uganda, possession by evil spirits is known as Okutembwa and can result in the patient talking in another voice. Possession by the spirits known as Okugwa leads to shaking and falling down. Other spirits can induce a trance-like state.

When asked to explain the causes of possession traditional healers, who are experts in spirit possession, usually give cultural explanations (e.g., neglected cultural obligations and rituals, ancestral spirits, bewitchment) or blame sociocultural conflicts (e.g., disputes over unpaid dowries and land ownership).

But Marjolein van Duijl, who has spent the past 5 years as Head of the Department of Psychiatry at
Mbarara University, noticed that many of the features of spirit possession match up with what Western psychiatrists call dissociation – a disconnect between experiences, thoughts and feelings. It can often result in the feeling that you have been “taken over” by some outside force.

The interesting thing about dissociation is that it’s often caused by traumatic events. So van Duijl set out to discover if traumatic events were the true cause of spirit possession.

With the help of a local team, she interviewed 119 villagers who had been recently treated by local healers for spirit possession, and compared them with a similar group who had not been possessed. She assessed them for symptoms of dissociation, and also quizzed them on traumatic events in their past (using a couple of standardised questionnaires that have been developed specifically for this purpose).

She found that those who were suffering spirit possession did indeed score highly on dissociative symptoms. What’s more, they had experienced far more traumatic events.

You can see an example of what she found in the figure (it’s just a subset of the full findings, to give you a flavour). Pretty much all of the items on this particular trauma questionnaire (the Traumatic Experiences Checklist) were more frequent in those who were possessed (Parentification, by the way, means having to care for your parent when you are only a child – in effect making a parent out of the child).

Traumatic events that directly threatened the life of the individual concerned were particularly common among the possessed.

Click for larger version

The strange thing is that the locals were not at all aware of this link. They consistently gave reasonings like “because cultural rituals have not been performed,” or sometimes they blamed obstruction by “the Christian generation,” or said that “It can be a result of unresolved conflicts which the spirits try to settle.”

But if van Duijl is right, then the true cause of spirit possession is, in fact, traumatic experiences that occurred in the patient’s past.

Does the misdiagnosis matter? Are these patients having their suffering added to as a result of the misdiagnosis? Maybe not.

“Spirit possession” seems to be a culturally embedded way for a person to manifest their multiple psychological traumatizing events. The rituals around possession may provide a way for the healer and the sufferer to work together to provide a cure. As van Dujil points out:

This also does not imply that all spirit-possessed patients will need their traumatic experiences to be addressed in order to feel better … Remarkably, the vast majority of patients in our study group felt that the treatment by the traditional healer had helped them well (45% felt better and 54% completely healed after treatment).

Given the terrifying situations that so many Ugandans have been exposed to, and the lack of access to modern psychiatric healthcare, the traditional healers seem to be doing a remarkably effective job. They accepting the culturally-embedded interpretations of their patients symptoms, and work with them to effect a cure.

One last thought on all of this. One of the things that struck me was the high levels of trauma experienced even among the controls. To give you an idea of the sorts of harrowing experiences that the people in this study had to deal with, I’m going to leave you with a case that van Duijl reports in the paper:

A 33-year-old woman came to our mental health clinic accompanied by her sister. For many years she had regularly suffered from attacks in which, according to her sister, she displayed aggressive and strange behavior, after which she started talking in different voices, which were not recognized as her own.

These attacks occurred when the family prepared to go to Christian church or to say prayers. During our session, the client shifted into a trancelike state, and started to move her hands like claws and made animal-like noises, after which she began to speak in a strange language and voice. Her sister explained that this was the voice of an uncle who had died many years ago. This uncle still valued traditional cultural beliefs, while their father had turned to Christianity. There had been an unsolved conflict between their father and this uncle as their father refused to perform rituals for the ancestors.

Later during our conversation one leg of the client made involuntary shaking movements. This was distracting the client’s attention. I asked her what her leg was trying to tell us. By bits and pieces the history became clear: The client had been in love for many years with a Muslim man, with whom she had a child. Her father despised the man because of his religion, and her child was forcefully separated from her by her father.

The church attributed her attacks of possession trance states to activities of ‘‘the devil.’’ She had participated in prayer sessions to get rid of these attacks but it had only helped for a short period. We suspected that her attacks, which often occurred when religious activities were performed, were an expression of suppressed anger against her Christian father who had ruined her life because of his rigid principles. Different options for treatment were discussed including traditional healers, counseling and prayer sessions. Although we regularly discussed and referred our patients to traditional healers, in this case the patient preferred to attend counseling sessions to learn to control her attacks and to focus attention on the underlying experience of traumatic loss.

ResearchBlogging.orgDuijl, M., Nijenhuis, E., Komproe, I., Gernaat, H., & Jong, J. (2010). Dissociative Symptoms and Reported Trauma Among Patients with Spirit Possession and Matched Healthy Controls in Uganda Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 34 (2), 380-400 DOI: 10.1007/s11013-010-9171-1

Creative Commons LicenseThis article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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SCA: Faith-Based Initiatives Hearing Written Testimony

Posted: 29 Nov 2010 10:21 AM PST

Congressional Testimony on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships by Sean Faircloth
Written Testimony of Sean Faircloth, Executive Director, Secular Coalition for America

Submitted to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties
Committee on the Judiciary

For the Hearing on “Faith-Based Initiatives: Recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships and Other Current Issues”

November 18, 2010

Thank you Chairman Nadler and the other members of the Committee for this opportunity to submit written testimony as you consider the recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships.

The Secular Coalition for America is the leading organization promoting the viewpoints of nontheistic Americans and their federal policy concerns. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., and founded in 2005, our mission is to increase the visibility and respect of nontheists in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all Americans. Secular Coalition for America calls on Congress and President Obama to overturn all faith-based initiative executive orders and end the culture of preference for faith-based organizations as conduits for social service funding.

Historical separation between federal funds and religious social services
In 1811, President James Madison—Father of the U.S. Constitution—vetoed a congressional bill that incorporated an Episcopal church in the District of Columbia and gave the church authority to care for the poor and to educate poor children. Even though the legislation allocated no public (federal) funds to the congregation, Madison said to would “be precedent for giving to religious societies, as such, a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civic duty.”

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first Executive Order that banned government defense contractors from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin in 1941. The prohibitions against discrimination were expanded to all government contractors in 1965 via Executive Order by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

‘Charitable Choice’ trashes wall of separation
In 1996, “Charitable Choice” was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act. Charitable Choice altered existing law to permit taxpayer-funded social services to be funded through houses of worship. Charitable Choice became a complete reversal in the way the federal government had previously approached contracts with religious organizations. As interpreted during the Clinton Administration, such federal and religious organization partnerships still meant the creation of independent entities, such as 501(c)(3) organizations, and there was no commingling of government funds with the religious organization’s sectarian programs nor the religious nature of the organization with the government-funded social programs. Also during the Clinton Administration, organizations that had an exemption under Title VII were barred from receiving these funds.

In 2001, during the Bush Administration, Charitable Choice received considerable expansion by the Executive Branch through the White House Office of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. Then in 2002, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that allowed churches and other faith-based organizations to have easier access to federal funds—by exempting them from specific anti-discrimination laws.

Repercussions of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives
Since 2001, houses of worship and other religious organizations have been able to directly receive federal funds rather than creating a nonprofit 501(C)(3) service organization to separate their sectarian and secular service activities. Additionally, under the faith-based initiatives program houses of worship and other religious organizations have been able to do the following:
• Receive grants without segregating the funds from private sources.
• Provide services in spaces replete with religious symbols.
• Discriminate in hiring practices in favor of co-religionists.

Take action now
While a presidential candidate, President Barack Obama outlined his vision of government partnerships with religiously affiliated organizations. At a campaign event in Ohio on July 1, 2008, he said “First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help, and you can’t discriminate against them—or against the people you hire—on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs.”

More than two years later, however, much of the original Bush presidency policies remain in place. This Subcommittee can send a strong statement to the rest of Congress and the Administration to end this unconstitutional abuse of federal money. We suggest the following steps be taken:
1. The Administration should prohibit religious organizations from discriminating in hiring on the basis of religion within federally funded social welfare projects.
2. The Administration should require houses of worship and other religious institutions, in which religion is so integrally infused that it cannot be separated out, to create separate corporations for the purpose of providing secular, government-funded social services.
3. The Administrations must end the “case-by-case” approach to determine whether an organization is entitled to an exemption to the religious nondiscrimination laws, and instead the Administration must adopt new and objective standards.
4. The Administration must adopt the recommendations of the President’s own Advisory Council that ensure there are secular alternatives to social services provided by religious institutions. These religious institutions should also be required to ensure that beneficiaries are made aware of these alternatives.

Secular Coalition for America calls on Congress and President Obama to overturn all faith-based initiative executive orders and end the culture of preference for faith-based organizations as conduits for social service funding.

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Humanists win debate on religion and meaning at the Oxford Union

Posted: 29 Nov 2010 10:11 AM PST

Oxford students last night voted 272 to 47 against the motion that ‘This House Believes that a World Without Religion is a World Without Meaning’. BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson, along with two BHA Distinguished Supporters – psychologist and broadcaster Dr Susan Blackmore and philosopher and best-selling author Dr Julian Baggini – opposed the motion. The speakers in favour were Tim Stephens, the Bishop of Leicester and leader of the Bishops in the House of Lords, Anil Bhanot, Director of the Hindu Council UK, and former Daily Telegraph Social and Religious Affairs Correspondent Martin Beckford.

The opposition argued against the idea that meaning was something ‘ultimate’ tied to the purpose of the universe, and argued instead that the universe was without discernible direction, purpose or meaning. But, they argued, this fact is irrelevant to the things that make life worthwhile and give us a sense of purpose – family, friends, relationships, work, hobbies, curiosity, love, social action, and all the other diverse ways in which people make meaning in their real lives. Reducing human beings to the faint after-image of some omnipotent deity, or trying to give human life meaning by postponing real fulfilment to some post-mortem paradise, they argued, can actually threaten to rob real life of its meaningfulness.

In his speech, Andrew Copson said, ‘Meaning is not something written into the universe like some cosmic knitting pattern or recipe for living. It is something we make in the here and now, for ourselves and in community with others.’

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‘Tis the season: 11/29/10 Atheist Cartoon

Posted: 29 Nov 2010 08:36 AM PST

You should see her wrists: 11/26/10 Atheist Cartoon

Posted: 29 Nov 2010 08:34 AM PST

Rewriting the Bible . . . again

Posted: 28 Nov 2010 08:38 PM PST

The Bible, we are told, is the inerrant word of God. But what word is it? And how should that word be translated into English? One might think there are straightforward answers to those questions, but there are not. Just last week, in fact, a brand new English translation of the biggest-selling Bible, the “New International Version” (“NIV”) was announced.

All-new and improved from the last version, published in 2005, and the one before that, in 1984. HarperCollins, the publisher, moves millions of these products every year; it’s good for business to toss in changes periodically, like auto manufacturers do, to help meet sales targets.

All the better if the changes arouse controversy. In 2005 there was a storm of protest, as HarperCollins made sweeping changes to more gender-neutral language than God had originally used. For example, right at the outset, the 1984 edition has God saying “Let us make man in our image.” In 2005, this was politically corrected to read “Let us make human beings in our image.” So were thousands of other similar references, like “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” which was changed to “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” The 2005 model was so hip, HarperCollins even advertised it in Rolling Stone magazine.

But now the empire is striking back. The new, improved 2010 model throws women back overboard, with God saying “Let us make mankind in our image” and Jesus saying “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Still, male cheerleaders remain disgruntled. Take I Timothy 2:12, which used to read “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Now it is toned down into “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

Some of the attempts at compromise simply produce bad grammar. Revelations 3:20 now reads: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” I’d have had sore knuckles if I turned in a sentence like that to my 4th grade grammar teacher.

Choosing Sources

The first step in translating the Bible is to decide what source to translate from. This is no easy task, because there are hundreds of different early versions of the Bible to choose from, each one a little different from the others. In fact, according to Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman,there are more variations among the different early versions of the New Testament than there are words in the New Testament.

The committee of God experts in charge of producing the latest model for HarperCollins to sell says that “We use what Bible translators call an ‘eclectic text’ drawing on all the major published original texts, but making our own decisions about the textual variants found in those traditions.” In other words, they pick the parts they like from each one, and toss the parts they dislike, based on their personal knowledge of what God really thinks.

Take for example the story of the woman found in adultery, where Jesus says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” This story does not appear in any of the earliest versions of the New Testament. When it does start to pop up, hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, it lands in different spots within the Gospel of John – one early Bible even plants it in the Gospel of Luke. It is virtually certain, therefore, that this little gem was not actually written by the author of the Gospel of John. So did the HarperCollins team leave it out, because it is not authentic? Of course not, because it’s the sort of thing the character they want to portray would have said, if he had only thought of it. Besides, they would sell fewer books that way.


Once the sources are combed for “all the news that fits,” the work of translation begins. The earliest Gospel texts we have are written in Greek, a language not spoken in 1st century Galilee. These were translated into Latin, the language of the western half of the Roman Empire, by Jerome in the 4th century, in a work that became known as the “Vulgate.” When the humanist scholar Erasmus began comparing the Vulgate with the early Greek texts in the 16th century, though, he found it riddled with simple errors – at the rate of better than one per page. So he produced a new, far more accurate translation, dedicated to Pope Leo X. Though Leo seemed pleased, others in the hierarchy were outraged, because it was different from what they had learned. Who cares about accuracy? At the Council of Trent, Pope Paul IV condemned Erasmus as “the leader of all heretics” and sought to have all of his books burned. Jerome’s inaccurate Vulgate remains the official Latin text used by the Catholic Church today.

One person who did like Erasmus’ work was Martin Luther, who translated it into German. When he got to parts that didn’t fit his peculiar theology, though, he simply changed them, or deleted them. The whole Epistle of James, for example, he dismissed as “apocrypha.” At the critical point of Romans 3:28 [KJV], “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” Luther chose to insert the word “only” in front of “faith,” since Paul had erred by not going quite far enough in driving home the point Luther wanted him to make.

Gender issues

Today’s gender issues are not at all new. Many Bible publishers have gone to great lengths to downplay the role of women, sometimes in the pettiest of ways. Acts 17:4, in the NIV and even in King James, says “And some of them were persuaded and joined with Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the pious Greeks, along with a large number of prominent women.” Prominent women? How un-Christian! Lots of Bibles, such as the “God’s Word” version, translate this as “And some of them were persuaded and joined with Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the pious Greeks, along with a large number of wives of prominent men” – putting women in their proper place.

Then there is the famous passage from I Corinthians 14 [1984 NIV]:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

Ehrman and other scholars make a persuasive case that Paul never actually wrote this passage, and that it was written in later by a misogynist. It sticks out like a sore thumb, because the verses before it and immediately after it deal with rules of etiquette while someone is prophesying, such as not interrupting in mid-prophecy, and these words interrupt the natural flow. Moreover, some of the best early texts put this passage at other places in the Epistle, suggesting it was a later insertion like the story of the woman found in adultery. Most importantly, in the very same Epistle, just three chapters earlier, Paul says that women should wear veils on their heads while they are prophesying in church. How can they be prophesying in church if they are remaining silent? I guess that’s what is called a “miracle.” It would be even more of a miracle if the God experts rewriting the Bible decided to leave rubbish like this out of the books they are trying to sell – and we all know that the age of miracles has passed.

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