Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Event Report: Create your own Cult, the Scientology Way

Create your own cult, the Scientology way
Speaker: Martin Poulter (http://infobomb.org/ - @mlpoulter)
October 10, 2013

For our first event of the year, we were lucky enough to have Martin Poulter come and speak to us on Scientology - from a pretty funny and skeptical point of view.

Scientology might have started out as part of the American landscape, but there is no denying that England has not escaped Lafayette Ronald Hubbard's cult. Just think about the Scientology bookshop on Tottenham Court Road, and just think about the fact that the followers of Scientology are pushing for religious recognition in the United Kingdom - Scientology has come to this country, and it is here to stay.

Scientology has achieved media recognition via different means. It has sparkled Internet wars, and it has gained the approval of key A-list Hollywood celebrities, and it has accumulated enormous quantities of money - but how did it all begin?

Poulter, a self-described cult-watcher, knows much about Scientology - and what he had to share with us amused and horrified us in equal measures. He gave us a checklist of key points to keep in mind if we ever decided to create our own successful cult, by analyzing, in a humorous, insightful manner, the beginning and evolution of the cult of Scientology - born from the mind of a man who knew how to create and sustain a myth worth millions of dollars.

The Scientology method is an onion-shaped construction that relies on deception, hard work, layers upon layers of cult beliefs and spiritual undertakings, the preference of the strong over the weak, and the crucial recruitment of new followers through any means necessary - be it preying on victims of disasters or faking being a helpline.

If you wanted to start your own cult, all you'd have to do is follow a number of simple rules: create a myth. Make following your cult a difficult but rewarding job. Interpret the doctrine for your followers. Give your followers layers upon layers of steps to undertake in the workings of your cult. Make your followers work for a productive living.

Poulter sketched out for us an intensely funny vision of Scientology as a cult that should invite not only derision but also a sort of keenly unwanted respect - for all they have managed to achieve, often in underhanded ways, in so few years. And remember - if you ever felt like creating your own cult, do not forget to remember about the power of the Internet - and try not to make the Internet your enemy.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Event Report - An Introduction to Skepticism

Deborah Hyde, editor of The Skeptic Magazine, came to give a fun and informative talk about what skepticism is and its place in the modern world. Hyde first emphasised that skepticism is a diffused and diverse movement. There are many magazines worldwide that specialise in the topic and they communicate with each other. Groups such as the Westminster Skeptics are interested in skeptical issues in law and government, while the Soho skeptics focus more on science. Hyde's online alter ego Jourdemayne specialises in superstition, religion and the supernatural. Hyde explained how she first became interested in skepticism through her research into the supernatural. She realised that there are people that believe as fervently in vampires as in God.

She explained skepticism as denying the possibility of knowledge in a particular sphere. Humans have perceptual and cognitive limits, and these limits must be understood to gain a better understanding of reality. Skeptics believe that knowledge must be supported by evidence, and they are not the same as cynics, as some things can be established as true.

In practise most skeptics tend to be atheists also, but this is not essential as people can hold these two ideas in their minds at the same time.

The issue of the spellings of 'skeptic' vs. 'sceptic' was addressed. The 'skepticism' movement began in the US, meaning that international members of the movement use the American spelling. It began in the 1970s when new age beliefs were in fashion, with figures such as Uri Geller gaining popularity.  There was a motivation to debunk these ways of thinking, with James Randi drawing attention to the flaws in Uri Geller's act. Another reason to use the spelling 'skeptic' is that 'sceptic' can be used more generally such as a '9-11 sceptic', and these opinions are totally separate from the skepticism movement.

Hyde stressed that the movement is not centralised in any way, it's a grass roots movement where people meet like minded others to start projects they're interested in. The movement also doesn't include a body of knowledge - only a dedication to the scientific method.

Common interests of skeptics and subjects covered in The Skeptic magazine were discussed. Cryptozoology, urban legends, conspiracy theories, the paranormal, UFOs and alternative medicine are issues which interest skeptics. Skeptical campaigns which have gained attention include the libel trial of Simon Singh vs. The British Chiropractic Association. The BCA attempted to sue Singh after he labelled some of their claims 'bogus', but the case was eventually dropped. The 10:23 campaign challenged homeopathy, with skeptics taking a mass overdose of homeopathic remedies to draw attention to their complete ineffectiveness. This aimed to inform people who weren't sure of what the remedies really were and bought them casually. The pharmacy Boots has admitted that they sell homeopathic remedies which have 'no evidence' of effectiveness.

Skeptics also challenged the popular psychic Sally Morgan. After rumours of her using earpieces at performances to feed her information she was offered a chance to test her powers under controlled conditions. She obviously refused.

Finally, Hyde stated that she hopes that one day the term 'skeptic' will be redundant, as society will accept the scientific approach as the best way to discover knowledge, and will be better educated against bad arguments.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Event Report - Circumcision Debate

We had two fantastic guests to discuss the issue of male circumcision. Jonathan Arkush, barrister and Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, represented the argument that male circumcision is ethical. Antony Lempert, GP and Chair of the Secular Medical Forum argued against it.

Jonathan Arkush began by stating that he is a proud member of the Jewish faith. He sees Judaism as a way of life with a set of values that go back four thousand years. Circumcision is part of these values due to the bible, when God commanded Abraham to circumcise his son. Arkush emphasised that it is possible to decide which traditions you keep, and that he chose to abide by circumcision. Circumcision (called Brit Milah in the Jewish community) is a covenant, which is a promise between man and god.

Arkush argued that circumcision is a safe and simple procedure with virtually no incidence of complications. As it is such a long tradition it is highly regulated and performed to the best standard and skill possible. In reply to the objection that circumcision is carried out on babies who cannot give consent, Arkush emphasised that there are many things that parents decide for their children. These include medical procedures, vaccines and ear piercings. Also, parents decide to bring up their children in an environment of faith or lack of faith. In addition, the safest and kindest age to circumcise a child is eight days old as in the Jewish tradition, meaning that letting a child decide at eighteen will lead to additional discomfort.

Arkush believes that to ban the practise of circumcision is unwarranted as it is not socially harmful. Instead, it should be regulated, allowing people for whom this is a religious practise to have equal treatment and respect.

It was then Antony Lempert's turn to put his point across. He first stated that parents have many rights over their child, but these rights are limited by the need to keep the child safe from harm. Parents do not own their children's bodies. Circumcision is not comparable to vaccines which are proven to protect against childhood illnesses and cannot be postponed until adulthood. Lempert used the General Medical Council's guidelines for doctors as the foundation of his argument. Doctors are urged to make the care of their patients their first concern and do no harm to them. In addition, the bases of medical ethics include autonomy; the right of a patient to decide their own fate. Doctors should maximise a child's ability to decide for themselves. Lempert thought it ridiculous that people feel that their religious beliefs are under threat if they can't cut another person's body. Freedom of religious belief is important, but its expression must be limited by its harm to others.

Lempert compared circumcision to tattooing, which if performed on a child is classed as criminal assault. A doctor must sometimes make decisions for a patient who is not able to give consent, but must ask themselves whether their incapacity will be long term. In the case of a child, it is possible to wait until they are old enough to give their consent.

Lempert then confronted the effects of circumcision on health. Historically, the supposed benefits included reduced masturbation as sensitivity in the penis is lessened. In terms of harm, there are instances of scarring, urinary difficulties, and one in five children experience a narrowed urethra. Lempert cited some tragic incidences where children died in the process of circumcision, which were legally treated as an unforeseen accident.

The foreskin is an important sexual organ. It has been theorised that the most sensitive part of the penis is on the foreskin which is unfortunately lost. Circumcised men often report sexual difficulties including their partners having difficulties reaching orgasm. The foreskin also offers protection from infection and is naturally stuck to the glans in early childhood.

Lempert related the experiences that a Jewish person might expect from objecting to the practise of circumcision, including feeling isolated and threatened, and finding it hard to talk about a matter so private. Finally, Lempert asked for consideration of the rights of the child. A child should have freedom of thought and religion and protection from harm. Parents have a right to guide their child, but this must not include acts which cause physical and emotional harm.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Event Report - Prophecy and the Experience of Time

We were excited to welcome Jason Dittmer of UCL Geography, who gave a fascinating and entertaining talk on perceptions of time and prophecies of the end of the world. He began by summarising historical theories on the nature of time. Nietzsche thought of time as cyclical 'the eternal return of the same'. This attitude could be attributed to the closeness of people at the time to the changing of the seasons and how plants come and go with time. In contrast, Einstein described time as a quantitative entity, which could be measured with a number and conformed to our travel through space. Bergson took a more personal approach, emphasising that time goes in one direction only, and memories are the conjuring of the past into the present in a kind of virtual reality. He referenced the subjective nature of time: time seems to travel faster as we grow older, and can seem to go by incredibly slowly if we are experiencing something unpleasant.

Dittmer then moved onto the subject of prophecy. The problem solving technique of 'mythos' can explain how prophecy watchers come to their conclusions. If a person fits the information they receive into a narrative that they are comfortable with, this is mythos. The mythos of a prophecy watching Christian is based on the narrative of the 7 dispensations, taken from the bible. This is a constant pattern of humans making mistakes, being punished and then god's forgiveness. Dittmer postulated that since the bible is a fixed entity that cannot be updated, it becomes increasingly hard to address modern problems with its teachings. This means that confabulations happen, making the narrative more resilient.

Some Christians believe that we are currently living in the 6th dispensation. This period began with the appearance of Christ, and will end with the appearance of an Antichrist. As he rises to political power the earth will suffer natural disasters and he will eventually rule for three and a half years. After this, faithful Christians will defeat the Antichrist and there will be a thousand years of peace and happiness.

This mythos has led to many people watching out for signs of the Antichrist's rise to power, in anticipation of the end times. The internet has enabled them to share their ideas and gain comfort and encouragement (this can be compared to conspiracy theorists). This is especially common in America, as it could be said that its citizens can see the country as having a privileged role in the world, meaning that any important cosmic events will take place there.

Online prophecy watchers collected relevant information and found numerical patterns to justify the theory that Barack Obama was the Antichrist, during his campaign in 2008. Obama's race encouraged these assertions, as well as the belief that he was a Muslim. His seeming appearance from nowhere, his 'otherness' and his charismatic character made him a target.

Dittmer invited us to consider how we would experience time if we believed that the world was soon coming to an end. Would time seem slower as the date approached? He emphasised the bodily impact of this belief by the fact that Harold Camping died of a stroke three days after the 'rapture' he predicted did not happen. Also, people often die after Christmas, as if their bodies felt the significance of this special time.

Dittmer concluded his talk by suggesting that instead of people being divided into 'believers' and 'non-believers', they should be considered as either looking to the future with hope, or looking into the past.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Event Report - Survivor's Voice Europe

Sue Cox began her talk with the moving and inspiring story of her life so far. Born in rural Lincolnshire, she experienced a strict Catholic upbringing. She was taught that practically everything was sinful, and the family household revolved around the church. At the age of 5, she had to take part in praying for her cousin to die, since he was going to marry a divorcee. Cox described the brainwashing of confessions, guilt and ritual, such as sleeping with your arms across your chest, as touching your body was sinful. 
As her parish was poor, there was no vicarage, meaning that the priest lodged at the family’s house. The neighbourhood’s attitude to the clergy was that they could do no wrong: as they were so close to god, their hands were sacred, meaning that they could do no work and should be served by everyone. The local priest was often ill and was replaced temporarily with others, one of which abused Cox from the ages of 10 to 13. 

Cox described her horrendous experiences and the effect they had on her later life. The death of her father, the Catholic environment and the abuse by a priest led to her becoming disturbed: self-harming, suffering from an eating disorder and an alcoholic. After a violent first marriage Cox found herself with six children. Remembering the inaction that followed her rape, she slowly distanced herself from the church, and began her recovery with the help of support from her friends, education and a job in counselling. 

As well as a successful career as an addiction councellor, Cox became involved in telling her story as part of the campaign to expose the damaging actions of the Catholic church. A documentary appearance led to a speech at a rally, and making links with the Italian anti-clerical Radicali Party. At a party meeting, the stories told by fellow survivors inspired Cox to co-found her organisation Survivor's Voice.

Survivor's Voice aims to empower survivors with information and support, rather than being involved in fundraising and campaigning against the church. 

Check out their website for more information: http://survivorsvoice-europe.org/ and thanks to everyone who came!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Event Report - The Young Atheist's Handbook

Alom Shaha gave an interesting and personal talk about his book the Young Atheist's Handbook and his insights on the matter of religion. He wanted to write a book that would be accessible for young teenagers and answer their questions about atheism, but the idea of incorporating his own story and experiences made the book more personal. Shaha stressed that the book is not anti-religious, but that it aims to make people think about what they believe. However, at the heart of belief is a feeling rather than an intellectual argument - even in the case of atheists. Belief may come from a human need to find patterns and meanings in a meaningless universe.

Many school students have accused Shaha: 'you don't believe in anything!' He counters that he believes in finding your own morality based on justice, equality and empathy. Humans can live as if they have purpose - with the help of love and work they can accept the pointlessness of life.

Shaha stated that he doesn't like debating whether god exists or not, but only has a problem with the concept  of god if it is used to excuse oppression and prejudice.

The fact that he comes from a Muslim background gave Shaha problems when publishing the book. Publishers thought that this combined with atheism would cause controversy and backlash. Shaha believes that this is a reflection of how Muslims are viewed by society - as fundamentalist and all the same. This may be because people don't mix with Muslims enough, as people do not have diverse social circles.

Thanks to everyone who attended! Don't forget to buy society membership to enjoy future events:

Friday, 12 October 2012

Event Report - Climate Change, Gossip and the Evolution of Our Big Brains

We continued our events this term with a talk from Mark Maslin, UCL climatology professor and researcher. Maslin gave a fascinating and fun exploration of how modern humans have evolved – through processes not quite involving ribs, clay and evil snakes.

Our oldest ancestor is around 6-7 million years old, and our defining characteristic was in fact upright walking rather than a large brain. The importance of this trait can be seen by the fact that it takes a human infant a whole year to learn to walk. Walking is a good travel solution as humans can walk upright all day without tiring too much. Maslin explained how modern humans developed in the East African Rift system, a rift valley with open landscape that helped development. Changes in brain sizes can be charted through the discovery of skulls in this area.

Maslin’s research in East Africa is concerned with finding the explanation for primitive humans’ leap in brain capacity. The solution may be in the frequently appearing and disappearing lakes along the rift. Rapid shifts from wet to arid conditions may stimulate competition and evolution. Other human species developed large jaws to eat more types of food, whereas we developed larger brains.

But how did this help us survive? Larger skull sizes can hugely impede survival as birth is so difficult and dangerous. Maslin postulated that our brains are tools for dealing with the complex social situations arising from a tribe of around 150 individuals. Keeping track of other individuals’ activities (gossip) is an advanced task which allows the creation of valuable affiliations. These alliances can help protection against predators and the accumulation of resources.

This enlightening talk was followed by questions from the audience which prompted whole new areas of discussion, continuing in the pub. Join our facebook page to keep track of further events, we’ve got lots of great things planned for this term!