Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Creationist Fail

Creationist Megan Fox is a woman with a mission. That mission is to save the world from liberal scientists who are working to undermine the perfect Creationist paradise that she's sure is out there just waiting for us to abandon all that pesky investigation. Fox's Google skills could apparently use some work, as she apparently has no concept that conservative scientists actually exist. Thus, she figures that objections to Creationism are politically motivated and have nothing to do with facts or evidence.

Fox recently made a video of herself "debunking" Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History in which she did little to convince her critics that she has any idea what she's talking about. No scientist, liberal or conservative, is ever going to argue that "God did it" is the only explanation we'll ever need. That's not because facts have some sort of liberal bias, but rather because supernatural causality is completely beyond the scope of what the scientific method can explore.

In one example, Fox reads the information panel on an exhibit that details what paleontologists know about some of the first animals to make the jump from the water to land. Fox is incredulous.

“It’s not like their fins fell off and they grew feet! That’s what they want you to believe, that their fins fell off and then they grew some feet and started walking on the land. This is the dumbest theory I’ve ever heard in my whole life. It’s not good, it’s really not good. It’s bad. It’s very bad. Do you know how complex feet are?”

Fox then goes on to explain just how complex feet are (very, very complex concludes non-scientist Megan Fox).

But that's one more reason why Fox's hypothesis (note: not "theory") that "God snapped his fingers" is completely awful. It's not an explanation, it's a fairy tale. And, no surprise, her explanation of what the theory of evolution says about how land animals came to be is totally wrong.

Of course, if the theory of evolution stated that fish one day had their fins fall off and then grew some feet and walked on land, then we might conclude that the theory was “very bad.” Fox is right about that. That’s a pretty bad theory. Fortunately, no evolutionary scientist is proposing a “fins fall off, feet grew out of the stubs” model of how animals began walking on land.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

So Muslims Discovered America?

On November 15th Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech at a meeting of Latin American Muslim leaders challenging Christopher Columbus' supposed discovery of the Americas. Historians now agree that Columbus was not the first European to see or set foot in the Americas. However, Erdogan went on to explain that Muslims made contact with the Americas in 1178 AD, and therefore the Muslim world should be credited with the "discovery." While the Arabic world was more advanced than most of Europe in the twelfth century and a voyage from one of those countries would not have been strictly impossible, we know of no records indicating that one was ever undertaken.

Quoth Erdogan: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus….Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast.” The conservative Turk referred to a mention in Columbus’ diary of a hill in Cuba shaped like a mosque.

Spain was busy ejecting Muslims from Spanish land, pushing them back to the Strait of Gibraltar. The Moorish Kingdom of Granada surrendered to Spanish King Ferdinand V in 1492, the year that lives in infamy among the surviving Taino people in the Caribbean. Columbus would have known what a mosque looked like, but finding Muslims in the “New World” would have been a terrible calamity, since his King was at war with Muslims and his “right” to claim the land and enslave the occupants was based on the Doctrine of Discovery.

Erdogan’s remarks were met with derision among academics and quickly became a partisan political issue in Turkey. On November 18, The Guardian reported that Erdogan was doubling down, quoting him, “very respected scientists in Turkey and in the world…supported his claim. Some youth of our country have begun objecting to this without doing any research or paying attention to discussions.”

There are two serious problems here with Erdogan's assertion. The first and most significant is that America was actually "discovered" by the ancestors of modern day Native Americans, not Europeans. While the dark ages were going on in Europe, both North and South America were already populated by plenty of people. The second problem is that even if Muslims reached the Americas in 1178 AD, the Vikings did it around 1000 AD. They even established a settlement in what is now Newfoundland. The first Viking known to have landed in the Americas was Leif Erickson, who converted to Christianity just prior to his voyage. However, Erickson was following the voyage of Bjarni Herjólfsson, a Norse pagan who is believed to be the first European to see North America.

So the first European to see the Americas was pagan, and the first European to set foot on the continent was a recent Christian convert who himself grew up pagan. Christopher Columbus' voyages may have kicked off European colonization of the Americas, but they took place nearly five hundred years later. It's not clear who Erdogan's "respected scientists" are, and if he's going to make extraordinary claims like this he should at the very least name his sources.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Living God" Released from Purgatory

No, that headline is not figurative. It's entirely literal.

Matthew Lawrence, who writes books and sells magical paraphernalia under the name E. A. Koetting, has been arrested on drug and weapons charges in Utah. Koetting advertises himself with the tagline "Become a Living God," which implies that he apparently already is one. But I'm thinking that a real living god wouldn't find himself facing jail time.

As for the Purgatory bit, that's the actual name of the jail in St. George, Utah where Lawrence was arrested - Purgatory Correctional Center. So after his arrest this Living God was indeed released on bail from Purgatory.

Erin Cody Elder, 31, and Matthew Joseph Lawrence, 33, face identical charges: five third-degree felony counts for possession of drugs, one third-degree felony count of being restricted possessors of a firearm, and one misdemeanor count each for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.

They were released from Purgatory Correctional Facility on bail. Their arrest occurred a week after the task force received a tip from a confidential informant, Whitehead said.

After conducting the traffic stop, investigators searched the roommates' residence in the 500 West block of Los Alamitos Drive. The search uncovered cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and other drugs, along with a gun, Whitehead said.

I am of the opinion that the war on drugs has been a complete debacle, and that throwing people in jail for possessing small amounts of controlled substances for personal use is a massive waste of prison resources. That being said, they got busted after a vehicle stop? Apparently this Living God lacks the power to turn his car invisible, or at least as invisible as you can make a car with a spell. Hasn't he read Modern Magick? Even Donald Michael Kraig could do that!

Seriously, though, in cases like this the possibility of police misconduct has to be considered and I expect any such allegations will come out at trial. Koetting bills himself as a Satanist, and Utah is a very conservative and religious state. I'm also wondering if that "confidential informant" is someone from the magical community with a grudge. But if the drug charges turn out to be true, thinking you're a living god is a common symptom of meth use. Could that be the basis of Koetting's entire business model?

I'll keep you all posted as the case develops and more information becomes available.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Egyptian Book of Spells Deciphered

A 1300-year-old handbook of Egyptian spells has recently been deciphered by two Australian researchers. The text is written in Coptic and dates from the centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a period from which few magical texts have survived.

Getting a look at the structure of the spells that the text contains could provide valuable insights regarding the magical practices of that time. Some of the references in the text seem to indicate that it was written or used by the Sethians, a Gnostic sect that was likely dying out by the time the codex was written.

Among other things, the "Handbook of Ritual Power," as researchers call the book, tells readers how to cast love spells, exorcise evil spirits and treat "black jaundice," a bacterial infection that is still around today and can be fatal.

The book is about 1,300 years old, and is written in Coptic, an Egyptian language. It is made of bound pages of parchment — a type of book that researchers call a codex.

"It is a complete 20-page parchment codex, containing the handbook of a ritual practitioner," write Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner, who are professors in Australia at Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, respectively, in their book, "A Coptic Handbook of Ritual Power" (Brepols, 2014).

The ancient book "starts with a lengthy series of invocations that culminate with drawings and words of power," they write. "These are followed by a number of prescriptions or spells to cure possession by spirits and various ailments, or to bring success in love and business."

I would be most interested in evaluating whether the spells contained are more similar to classical goetia or theurgy. Some grimoire traditionalists insist that the latter is a later, strictly medieval development, and finds like this allow us to test that hypothesis. With that in mind, I'm looking forward to getting a chance to read through the text.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Resolving the Marriage Debate

This is another weird landmark moment, like when I posted an article from James Randi's website two weeks ago. Today I find myself in agreement with members of the religious right, at least on one issue. But that's still pretty remarkable; I never thought I would agree with them on anything.

The article in question is from First Things, a publication that has been instrumental in pushing for Christian control of the public sphere, a position that I routinely mock here on Augoeides. But in response to the rising legality of same-sex marriage, the article advocates churches getting out of the "government marriage" game. I couldn't agree more.

As the legal reality of marriage changes, we must also act. If the churches continue as if nothing has changed, the message is that for all our strong words nothing really decisive is at stake. It’s now time, then, to think long and hard about what we need to do—or refuse to do. I can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for “Spouse A” and “Spouse B.” Perhaps he should strike those absurdities and write “Husband” and “Wife.” Failing that he should simply refuse the government’s delegation of legal power, referring the couple to the courthouse after the wedding for the state to confect in its bureaucratic way the amorphous and ill-defined civil union that our regime continues to call “marriage.”

Getting out of the government marriage business is exactly what Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz now urge. They’ve formulated a pastoral pledge. It requires ordained ministers to renounce their long-established role as agents of the state with the legal power to sign marriage certificates. I find their reasoning convincing. Easy divorce, pre-nuptial agreements, a general tolerance of cohabitation, the contraceptive mentality—this degrades and obscures the meaning of marriage. But redefining marriage so that male-female complementarity is irrelevant? That’s a fundamental contradiction of the most fundamental meaning of marriage.

What the same-sex marriage debate has exposed is that the way we do marriages in this country is dumb. You apply for a "marriage license" which then has to be signed by either a minister or a civil official after conducting the ceremony. A good friend of mine asked me to officiate her wedding earlier this year, but had I not registered credentials with the state the marriage would not have been legal. That's just silly.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Brain Stimulation and Magical Consciousness

Science News has an article up today about the rising popularity of electrical brain stimulation. The technology is based on solid research, but critics contend that the findings are still preliminary and require more investigation. Many people exploring the field currently make use of DIY techniques and devices, which makes the practice sound a bit fringy, but reading over the article I wonder if I might be seeing a new, more effective method for inducing magical states of consciousness.

The first time Nathan Whitmore zapped his brain, he had a college friend standing by, ready to pull the cord in case he had a seizure. That didn’t happen. Instead, Whitmore started experimenting with the surges of electricity, and he liked the effects. Since that first cautious attempt, he’s become a frequent user of, and advocate for, homemade brain stimulators.

Depending on where he puts the electrodes, Whitmore says, he has expanded his memory, improved his math skills and solved previously intractable problems. The 22-year-old, a researcher in a National Institute on Aging neuroscience lab in Baltimore, writes computer programs in his spare time. When he attaches an electrode to a spot on his forehead, his brain goes into a “flow state,” he says, where tricky coding solutions appear effortlessly. “It’s like the computer is programming itself.”

Whitmore no longer asks a friend to keep him company while he plugs in, but he is far from alone. The movement to use electricity to change the brain, while still relatively fringe, appears to be growing, as evidenced by a steady increase in active participants in an online brain-hacking message board that Whitmore moderates. This do-it-yourself community, some of whom make their own devices, includes people who want to get better test scores or crush the competition in video games as well as people struggling with depression and chronic pain, Whitmore says.

While I am not a proponent of the psychological-only model of magick, altered states of consciousness are part of the process of a magical operation no matter what model you subscribe to. Technological methods such as light and sound machines have been used to alter consciousness for a long time, and as I wrote back in 2006 I was finally able to get eyes-open scrying to work properly by using an alpha-theta meditation program on the Nova Pro. Brain stimulation could offer a more direct method for inducing such states, bypassing light and sound completely.

At this point the area of the brain to stimulate in order to induce magical consciousness is not clear. Researchers don't study ceremonial magicians, though some of the studies of advanced meditators might prove analogous. One exciting possibility is that once this area of the brain is identified, it might be possible to evaluate magick in a more controlled fashion by analyzing the correlations between the different levels of stimulation made possible by this method and shifts in probability. This would be a nice complement to research I've proposed that would compare local brainwave analysis with rates of magical success.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Satanic Coloring Book Having Intended Effect

As I covered back in September, The Satanic Temple is now distributing "The Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities" at schools in Orange County, Florida. The book was created in response to a decision allowing a church group to distribute religious materials on school grounds, which the Temple in no way supports. Instead, it issued its own literature to point out to the board how inappropriate the ruling was and essentially embarrass them into changing the policy. According to a recent statement from the board chairman, it seems to be working.

"This really has, frankly, gotten out of hand," board chairman Bill Sublette said during a workshop on Thursday. "I think we've seen a group or groups take advantage of the open forum we've had." Though the board discussed reversing the policy on Thursday, it won't vote on the matter until early next year. The policy allows groups to hand out Bibles and some atheist pamphlets, and the Satanic Temple decided to start handing out its own materials about Satanism to make sure that students are exposed to various beliefs.

"We would never seek to establish a precedent of disseminating our religious materials in public schools because we believe our constitutional values are better served by respecting a strong separation of Church and State," Doug Mesner, co-founder and spokesman for The Satanic Temple, said in a statement under the pseudonym Lucien Greaves. "However, if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students — as is the case in Orange County, Florida — we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth."

See, where I part company with The Satanic Temple is that I'm completely fine with an open forum, if that's what it is. If one religion can distribute materials in school, all others must have equal access to do the same - and really, to my way of thinking that's a better state of affairs than no representation of religious beliefs at all. The problem is that most of the time, these moves are little more than a veiled attempt to secure special access and privileges for Christians, which to members of minority religions like me is just not okay.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Monster Energy Conspiracist At It Again

When I posted the video explaining the Satanic nature of Monster energy drinks, I figured it was a one-off. Christian conspiracy theorists believe a lot of ridiculous stuff, it just usually doesn't wind up caught on video. But as it turns out, the conspiracist in the video, a woman named Christine Weick, is back in the news this week.

On Friday, she disrupted a Muslim prayer event being held at the National Cathedral by admonishing those present to worship only Jesus Christ because America was "founded on Christian principles." She was then quickly escorted out of the building by security, as shown in the video above. Dangerous Minds reports:

So this is not Weick’s first or even second brush with notoriety, it is (at least) her third—she got a Slushie thrown in her face in front of a news crew on Mother’s Day as she held a sign reading, “Thank your mom today for not being gay!”—we just didn’t know her name until now. In the sub-Drudge reader sector of wingnuts within wingnuts, Weick, who lives out of her car and has authored the book Explain This! A Verse by Verse Explanation of the Book of Revelation, is already being held up as a Christian martyr “hero” and not someone who needs to be fucking medicated, stat.

She claims that it was a “thumbs up” from a “strange” clapping woman along her 400 mile drive from Tennessee to the nation’s capitol that she took as a sign from God convincing her that she was doing the right thing. Weick’s husband apparently divorced her over her goofy beliefs. More from WND (where the comments are pure mental midget genius!):

“It was a situation in my life, how God yanked every anchor in my life over the last five years, just everything that would keep a normal woman, a normal mother, at home just got yanked out from under me,” she said. “I have a son and a daughter, and they disowned me. I took a stand against gay marriage and I lost them. That is my heartache. And it hurts me so much. And I wonder what they think now when they see me on the news.”

Weick said she doesn’t know what her next “assignment” will be, but she knows now she can tackle almost anything. “I told the Lord last night, ‘OK, you can take me now,’ but I don’t know,” she said. “I think He may have other plans for me, per Jeremiah 29: 11.”

Oh Lord, please do not take her. Christine Weick is one of the very BEST Christians in America. Maybe THE best. What a fine example of a good Christian to point to (at?). Time will tell what plans God has for this zany lady, but all I can say is watch out Victoria Jackson, you’ve got fierce competition in the Christian dingbat department.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Jack Parsons Miniseries in the Works

Director Ridley Scott is slated to produce a new miniseries on the life of rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons for the AMC television network. The miniseries will be based on the biography Strange Angel by George Pendle. Parsons was one of the founders of Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and among other innovations developed the solid rocket fuel used in boosters for the space shuttle until the program ended in 2011. He was also a Thelemite, a practicing occultist, and a member of Agape Lodge, at the time the only surviving body of Ordo Templi Orientis in the world.

Jack Parsons, born into Pasadena wealth in 1914, began experimenting with explosives at a young age. Although he never graduated college, his self-taught proficiency with incendiary devices led to both his working at an explosives factory and appearing as an expert witness. The conviction of a Los Angeles police captain for the 1937 car bombing of a private investigator relied largely on Parsons's forensics testimony.

Parsons championed the then derided idea of rocketry. After establishing an off-hours collaboration at Caltech, Parsons worked to create liquid fueled rockets which he launched from Pasadena's Arroyo Seco. The group won a wartime government contract to invent jet assisted take off (JATO), which would enable airplanes to launch from aircraft carriers using shorter runways. Parsons's creation of a solid fueled engine with uniform burn properties was key to the project's success. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was established in the Arroyo shortly thereafter.

While Parsons as the passionate outsider driving technological advancement is in itself a compelling story, the plot twists of his personal life make it truly fascinating. As was the case for many intellectuals in the 1930's Parsons frequented communist gatherings, though he never joined the Party. His quest for alternative viewpoints led him to attend a Gnostic Mass at Hollywood's Agape Lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, run by followers of Aleister Crowley. Parsons came to join and eventually lead the Lodge.

Parsons died in 1952 in a laboratory explosion that was either the result of an accident or deliberate sabotage, depending on who you ask. The television series Mythbusters tested the official theory, that the explosion was caused by a dropped vial of fulminate of mercury, and found that dropping or even throwing a vial to the ground would not set it off. However, a chemist I spoke with after I put up that post told me that there are numerous other ways in which the explosion could have been accidentally triggered.

Parsons' contributions to the American space program were highly regarded by his peers, but perhaps because of his occult interests he has not received much of the recognition that he deserves. Hopefully increased exposure from Scott's miniseries will remedy at least some of that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Slovenian Hunter Bags Unicorn

No, that's neither a joke nor a typo. A hunter in Slovenia recently killed a roe deer with a single antler growing out of the center of its head. Unicorn goats can be created by surgically relocating the cells that produce horns into a single central patch, there was little evidence that anything similar happened naturally. That is, until now.

So you read that right, folks. Unicorns are officially real. The animal's actual skull is shown in the image above, and National Geographic will be running a feature on it in the December issue.

Shot by a hunter in Celje, Slovenia, in August, the roe deer has an extremely rare type of antler deformity, likely caused by an injury early in the antlers' development. Such injuries are common in deer and often lead to antler abnormalities, including bizarrely shaped racks. The abnormal antler on this Slovenian "unicorn" is so unusual that scientist Boštjan Pokorny, who verified the animal's authenticity, said he's never seen anything like it in nature.

"In this species, only males grow antlers, which are bilateral and usually symmetrical bone structures that appear from two antler pedicles, i.e. extensions of the skull," Pokorny, assistant director of the ecological research institute ERICo Velenje, said in an email. "However, in the case of this very untypical and interesting buck, both pedicles, which should be separated, grew up together in one large pedicle."

This is another case showing that most mythology is at least partially rooted in fact. In the middle ages, unicorns were believed to exist but were thought to be rare. The "unicorn horns" that have survived from the period generally come from narwhals, a species of whale with a single large hornlike protrusion. But the existence of this deer suggests that perhaps one like it was seen from time to time roaming European forests, which would have reinforced the myth or possibly even started it off.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Unknown God Discovered in Turkey

Archaeologists working at a 2000-year-old site in Turkey near the city of Doliche recently found a basalt stele that appears to depict a previously unknown deity. Enough is known of ancient religious practices that such discoveries are relatively rare, and this one appears to be from Roman times, a period for which a fair amount of historical documentation exists.

The deity is depicted on the stele as a bearded man surrounded by what appear to be images of leaves and vegetation, suggesting that the deity was associated with plant growth and fertility. They may also indicate an association with a particular plant. Some ancient cults grew up around the use of entheogens, and I can see where the image of the god emerging from the leaves might allude to the use of some such plant in a ritual context. Or perhaps the god was associated with a particular crop grown in the region.

The sanctuary’s grounds reveal much about the continuity of religious beliefs over time, as it is made up of various constructions and renovations of different time periods – from a wall from the Iron Age, and the Roman-age foundations from 2nd century A.D., through to its use as a Christian monastery in the time of the crusades. The excavation has revealed finds from all periods of the site’s history, now including a basalt stele featuring a unique Roman relief and depicting an unknown god.

The stele measures one and a half meters (five feet) and was being used as a buttress in a wall of the Christian monastery on the sanctuary site. Archaeologists suspect the image represents a fertility or vegetation god. AlphaGalileo quotes Dr. Michael Blömer from the Cluster of Excellence, describing the find, “The basalt stele shows a deity growing from a chalice of leaves. Its long stem rises from a cone that is ornamented with astral symbols. From the sides of the cone grow a long horn and a tree, which the deity clasps with his right hand. The pictorial elements suggest that a fertility god is depicted.” The beard composition and arm posture echo back to similar Iron Age depictions.

My first thought from the original description was that the "tree" to the deity's left might be a vine and that the "chalice of leaves" suggested Dionysus, but none of the leaves appear very grapelike and there are no actual grapes depicted on the stele. So that's most likely incorrect.

Assuming that the leaf images are not generic, identifying the particular plant they depict could provide some insight into the deity's true nature. Hopefully, as the excavation continues more evidence will come to light that will help archaeologists learn more about this unknown god and the practices associated with his worship.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Unleash the Beast

I first came across this image awhile back and figured that it had to be a joke. The "skeptic society" tag at the bottom sold the deal; it had to be a parody of how the irrational thought processes of conspiracy theorists associate all sorts of coincidental nonsense with grand, evil plans.

I kept a copy because I thought it was funny, but as it turns out it's not some made-up spoof. Apparently, sincere conspiracy theorists actually believe that the Biblical account of the apocalypse is really all about a brand of energy drink. As implausible as that last sentence sounds, now there's a video that's been making the rounds on the Internet.

There are a couple of things I completely fail to understand about this concept. Let's say that all the "symbolism" is deliberate. Does it matter? As a practicing occultist I can tell you that it takes a lot more to enchant something than writing a few Hebrew letters on it - you know, if that's even what they are. So drinking out of a can with some symbols on it is not going to harm anyone.

And let's say that Monster Energy is really what the prophecies in the Book of Revelation are all about. That sure would constitute a whole lot of effort on the part of God, John of Patmos, and the church to make sure people knew ahead of time that this particular energy drink would exist. If this is indeed the case, wouldn't it make more sense if God's been putting us on the whole time with this apocalypse business?

"Two thousand years of hype, and there you go! It comes in a can!" Cue celestial laughter.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Battle Over Bigfoot

Buzzfeed has an article up today covering the split in the Bigfoot hunting community between legitimate investigators and scammers like Rick Dyer. Dyer has pulled off two Bigfoot hoaxes that attracted media attention, including here on Augoeides. Melba Ketchum, who I likewise have covered, is another example of either an incompetent or an outright fraud.

But not everyone researching Bigfoot sightings is a confidence artist out to make a quick buck. A few serious scientists are involved as well, and while they are often criticized by their peers, they insist that they are simply looking to get to the bottom of whatever is prompting all the sightings. I know that it's far less believable to me that all of the evidence and reports are completely made up than that there's some sort of living creature behind at least a few of them.

As Dyer has become a wily villain in the Sasquatch scene, he has drawn outsize media attention, swarms of paying customers and fans, and loathing from the many people who consider Bigfoot a living creature. After a hoax earlier this year, a petition was posted on demanding that he be charged criminally (he has not been). Loren Coleman, the cryptozoologist and author of Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, describes Dyer as a “disgusting phenomenon” who just won’t go away.

For this second variety of Bigfooter, the search for Sasquatch is a serious endeavor. They are modern-day explorers, amateur investigators, and even academically credentialed researchers who have sought to not only bring science to Bigfoot, but Bigfoot to science. While no bones, body, or DNA have been discovered, they argue that there is considerable circumstantial evidence that Bigfoot is real.

For these dedicated few, Rick Dyer is more than an entertainer — he’s a danger to a field of study that already has credibility issues. That they all toil under the same big tent is one of the great oddities of a subculture that is as crowded and fractious as ever, one that can seem like an amalgam of a cult and an earnest explorers club, with competing camps of believers and skeptics, hoaxers and hunters, self-appointed experts and serious-minded scientists, all seeking to advance, in their own peculiar way, the mystery of Sasquatch.

The article is much longer than this brief summary, and if you're interested in the subject you should read the whole thing.

As I've written before, my personal opinion is that the living creature behind Sasquatch sightings is probably the black bear. A lot of people don't realize that black bears, despite the name, come in a variety of colors. Also, much of the classic "bear shape" is produced by the animal's coat. When suffering from conditions like mange which cause them to lose most of their fur, they become unrecognizable as bears at a distance. And they do sometimes spend significant amounts of time walking around on their hind legs in a manner that looks surprisingly human-like.

For example, take a look at the trail camera footage above that was submitted to the Bigfoot Field Research Organization. I'm convinced it's genuine, but I don't think it's an ape. I think it's a bear. You can't see the face to tell for sure, but look at the proportion of the legs to the torso and how it's down on all fours. Note that It's not as "bear-shaped" as you might expect because it's lost a lot of fur. Now imagine seeing it standing up, through the woods, at a distance, maybe from behind. Sasquatch for sure!

But of course I could always be wrong. The range that Bigfoot sightings cover is vast, and it's possible that a small population of large, unknown animals could inhabit it. If that's indeed the case, people like Dyer and Ketchum are doing all sorts of damage to the push for answers by making Bigfoot enthusiasts look like a bunch of clowns.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Secular Humanism Ruled a Religion

Atheists often refute the notion that unbelief constitutes a religion, any more than, say, a lack of interest in golf constitutes a sport. While this is true, many atheists also subscribe to Secular Humanism, a system of philosophy that among its tenets rejects supernatural forces. Last week a judge ruled on a case brought by a federal prisoner that, for legal purposes, this philosophy should be treated as a religion and entitled to the same rights and protections as faith groups and churches.

On Thursday, October 30, Senior District Judge Ancer Haggerty issued a ruling on American Humanist Association v. United States, a case that was brought by the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Jason Holden, a federal prisoner. Holden pushed for the lawsuit because he wanted Humanism — which the AHA defines as “an ethical and life-affirming philosophy free of belief in any gods and other supernatural forces” — recognized as a religion so that his prison would allow for the creation of a Humanist study group.

Haggerty sided with the plaintiffs in his decision, citing existing legal precedent and arguing that denying Humanists the same rights as groups such as Christianity would be highly suspect under the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which declares that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

“The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” the ruling read. The decision highlights the unusual position of the Humanist community, which has tried for years to obtain the same legal rights as more traditional religious groups while simultaneously rebuking the existence of a god or gods. But while some Humanists may chafe at being called a “religion,” others feel that the larger pursuit of equal rights trumps legal classifications.

As I see it this ruling is a proper reading of the Establishment Clause, since my take is that it was created to ensure freedom of conscience. Secular Humanists have a clearly defined set of shared beliefs, even if one of them is the rejection of supernaturalism, and those beliefs should be respected just like those of everyone else. It should be noted, though, that this still does not imply that atheism as a whole is "religious" in any coherent or meaningful sense. Not all atheists are Secular Humanists, and anyway the law does not judge the content of the beliefs that it protects.

As I've written many times before, I would rather not see religion in general driven from the public square. I just think that representation should be given to minority religions and those unbelievers who seek it out. Hopefully this ruling will facilitate the latter.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

One More Reason We Need Skeptics

I never thought the day would come that I would posting something here from James Randi's website. I honestly can't stand the guy. He's smug, dismissive, and not nearly as "skeptical" as he claims to be. I remember him railing against the pointlessness of meditation back in the late 1990's, even though by that time neuroscientists had published a number of solid studies demonstrating its cognitive benefits. He's not pro-science, he's "pro-science-that-he-happens-to-like."

But unfortunately we still need people like him, and here's why. Remember this story about efforts to exorcise a supposedly haunted house in Indiana? I say "supposedly" because soon after I posted my article about the exorcism it was revealed that the ghostly image in the above photograph was faked using a popular iPhone photo manipulation app. Check the link there - it's not even a clever fake.

One of the things I don't like about Randi's approach is that he always starts with the presumption of fraud whenever paranormal events are reported, but at the same time once you know that fakery is involved it throws everything into question. According to reports, the Ammons family moved into the home and immediately began experiencing paranormal activity. There were no previous reports of anything paranormal at the house, which is unusual for a legitimate haunting.

Hauntings tend to stay put for a couple of reasons. Much of the time the activity is being produced by something in the environment rather than ghosts. Poorly-shielded wires can produce excessive electromagnetic fields that can make people feel uneasy, or in cases of extreme sensitivity even hallucinate. Mold can trigger various cognitive effects. Unusual noises made by the house can be mistaken for ghostly activity.

But what all those things have in common is the house itself. It also is true that in most cases that appear to be genuinely paranormal, the activity tends to be associated with the property. There's a reason, after all, that the "haunted house" is such a common trope. One the other hand, paranormal activity can be faked just about anywhere, and that's what appears to be going on in this case.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Werewolf Skull in Macedonia?

This is another of those creepy stories that seem to surface around Halloween, when local weird news items can command worldwide attention as long as they are spooky enough. Halloween is now over, but here at Augoeides I'm happy to report on them regardless of the time of year.

Recently in Macedonia a farmer named Trayche was plowing his field when he hit something. The object turned out to be a box that was chained shut. Like any good horror movie victim, the farmer unchained and opened the box, and inside found a skull that looked part wolf and part human. He told student Filip Ganov that he believed the skull came from a werewolf.

Trayche wouldn't part with his werewolf skull but he did let Ganov take pictures, which were presented to a wildlife expert in Bulgaria who speculated that it was indeed from a wolf but not necessarily a werewolf.

Instead, he surmised the wolf was suffering from Paget's disease, a genetic disorder (also common in humans) that can cause misshapen bones and enlarged skulls. Paget’s disease can be caused by canine distemper virus, a common virus in wolves and dogs.

The skull definitely looks both canine and human and a little baboonish, which would probably cause some consternation among Bulgarians and Macedonians raised on Eastern European folklore. The chain around the box is a good indication whoever buried it believed it was a creature they didn't want roaming around again.

In fact, wolves suffering from Paget's disease might have something to do with how the werewolf myth got started in the first place, just like how many experts think that bears with mange make up a large percentage of Sasquatch sightings. Ganov was unable to obtain a sample of the skull for DNA testing, which could set the issue to rest once and for all. Not only could scientists determine if the skull came from a wolf, but as Paget's disease is genetic they could even confirm or disprove the wildlife expert's hypothesis.

Of course, the weirdest outcome would be to find a mixture of human and wolf DNA. Since humans and wolves can't interbreed, that would mean the perhaps before its death the creature could indeed transform from a man into a rampaging beast. That would certainly explain why its skull was chained up and buried.