This paper first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), pp. 1-2.
The absurdities of life provide rich material indeed for the student of human psychology. There is scarcely a limit to the degree to which people - you and I and everyone else - may be persuaded to behave and think in ways that are illogical, meaningless and bizarre while believing the opposite to be the case.
There are no boundaries, other than those imposed by the human condition, to the range of ideas and beliefs that people are willing to accept and the variety of behaviours they are willing to engage in under persuasion from others, even when neither coercion nor any immediate profit, such as financial reward, is involved. The intelligence of the participants is hardly an issue.
There are two arenas of human activity in which these observations are peculiarly apposite, namely religion and healing. The capacity of both enterprises to generate such a rich diversity of nonsensical and non-productive human activity is astonishing. Two events appeared in the news recently that serve to remind us of this.
As I write, the General Synod of the Church of England is engaged in a protracted and passionate debate about whether women should be ordained as bishops. All protagonists in this debate share a belief that the universe was created by a uniquely divine being - God - who, amongst all of the matters with which he concerns himself, the sexual identity of Anglican bishops on Planet Earth is of particular import and he has conveyed his wishes on this matter through a book - the Holy Bible.
I sometimes wonder if these preposterous, self-indulgent, self-importantly silly people ever ponder on the utter irrelevance of their little drama to the day-to-day realities of the rest of humankind, terrestrial and beyond. Do they ever remind themselves that the Earth is an unimaginably small speck of material in an unfathomably expansive universe? To be sure, it is inhabited by around 6 billion people but, in the throes of their blathering and posturing, do they at any time pause to think that the vast majority of human beings have not the remotest interest in, or indeed knowledge of, what they have to say or do and what decision they will eventually arrive at?
The second news item combines both religious faith and healing, so we can be sure we are in for an extra-sized dollop of human silliness. First, though, I must issue a warning. During this narrative there comes a point when the reader is put at risk of falling to the ground in convulsions. Accordingly I shall provide a warning to you of its imminence so that you may take a tight grip on your chair.
I read this story in the July 4th issue of the Times and it was headlined 'Spiritualist world splits over failure to expel charismatic healer who raped his patients'. Pause, if you will, to admire this wonderful headline. It is so replete with meaning and profound truths about human nature as to constitute a short story in itself. I am tempted here merely to state, 'Reader, I rest my case' and leave it at that. But bear with me a little further.
In 2006 Mr Mervyn Wright, renowned in several countries as a charismatic healer, was appointed President of the International Spiritualist Federation, a post first held by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mr Wright, now 62 and a former lorry driver from Hornchurch in Essex, claims to offer healing through the spirit of a 1,000-year-old Chinese medicine man and a 300-year-old Native American called Cherokee. On his website he proclaims, 'A wonderful Chinese doctor from the spirit world, Dr Lu, treats patients through me. He can take over my subconscious and nervous system which enables me to become Dr Lu's personality.'
Mr Wright was especially popular with his female patients and specialised in 'naked (Chi) energy massages'. His former wife, Maria Ottersson, who is president of a spiritualist group in Karlstad, Sweden, explained, 'Women find him very attractive. He is a very charming man and very charismatic'.
Months after his election by the international federation he was charged with sexual assaults against seven patients, the youngest of them a 14-year-old girl, while he gave them massages. The offences took place at various centres in Sweden. He selected his victims for their 'special energies' and told them to remove their clothing to facilitate contact with the spirit world.
He was eventually jailed for 5 years for indecently assaulting and raping girls and young women between 2003 and 2006. However, the International Federation decided to inform him only last month (June 2008) that he faces expulsion, after a vote by members. A leading woman spiritualist said: 'It was a very emotive debate. His followers are totally besotted. Most of them are women and many of them are in love with him. They are genuinely convinced that he could not do anything wrong.'
Those victims who did threaten to complain were warned by Mr Wright that they would be punished by contracting fatal illnesses from the spirit world. Indeed, his wife, Ms Ottersson, had suspicions about his activities during their marriage: 'I noticed he had an interest in young, pretty girls and he seemed to spend more time in trances and giving them massages'. However [Warning: please would you now take a tight hold of your chair] he used his connections with the spirit world to convince her that she was wrong. 'When I complained he would put himself into a trance and have the spirit world talk to me. I now know it was just him talking.'