Why magic doesn’t work for/on non-believers: More Mormons

So the Mormon missionaries have been paying me weekly visits and they stopped by today to harass me on my spring break (I say “harass,” but I really enjoy speaking with them, which is why I let them keep it up). Anyway, I’d tried praying a few times to no avail, and then I did some research and studied up on the neurophysiological effects of religious experiences and presented them with alternative hypotheses as to why they feel so sure God speaks to them during their gab sessions and posited that maybe my brain just doesn’t work that way. Since then they’ve been trying to convince me that prayer really works, and these past two weeks they’ve brought in a friend who is not a missionary but is a member of their church and also has a knack for explaining away contrary evidence. Today he tried explaining to me that my prayers weren’t answered because I went into them already believing that I wouldn’t receive any answer that couldn’t be explained through natural phenomena, and in order for prayer to work you have to actually believe that it can work.

This seems to me to be the ultimate ad hoc hypothesis simply because it can be applied in any situation in which magic is involved: if my magic doesn’t work for you it’s because you don’t believe it can. This is rather frustrating, because the way I seem to be wired is that I require some sort of solid evidence before I can bring myself to believe something. (I also found it rather coincidental that they brought up this argument today, since last night I watched Skeleton Key for my nightly shitty horror movie. Perhaps it is synchronicity? Maybe God’s trying to tell me to become a Jungian New-Age therapist.)

Obviously, this sort of argument falls flat on non-believers, because the obvious rebuttal is that the supposed magic is just some psychological side-effect of the belief in the ritual. I pointed this out to them and they began describing something that sounded like priming, which hardly seems magical or godly to me. Sounds like a lot of superstitious magic-believers fooling themselves.

I guess the upshot is that if I have to believe that God is real in order for his magic to work, I don’t have to worry about his divine wrath since he’s obviously impotent when not dealing with one of his followers. This seems like an adequate rebuttal for when the pious frauds threaten me with fire and brimstone if I don’t convert to their brand of magical thinking.

The nice thing about this new guy is he actually listens to evidence, or at least he realizes that when I have contrary evidence it takes a lot more than some teenagers and their fairy tales to convert me. He began by trying to convince me that religion leads people to be more altruistic until I found empirical evidence to the contrary (theists and atheists are just as likely to be altruistic). He also tried to argue that spirituality helps people reach their true potential, but I pointed out that since I began therapy I’ve gotten back to school, back on the dean’s list, offers for scholarships and graduate programs, and a job offer. Obviously secular therapy with a secular humanist helps me with my problems just fine. (Pristiq helps, too.)

One thing these folks seem adamant about is that their received wisdom is the only certain knowledge in the world, which I thought was rather amusing because they were never able to offer me any proof that it was certain. (I like to think that being a clear-headed individual I would convert in an instant to any religion that could offer me proof that their belief system was indubitable.) Really, I think spirituality is less certain than science. Science at least uses some form of logic, whereas spirituality is all about people receiving magical telepathic messages from extradimensional beings. Call me crazy for believing in microscopes and graduated cylinders over telepathy.

Anyway, the point is that if you are a believer of any sort of supernatural or pseudoscientific/pseudohistorical mumbo-jumbo trying to convince a non-believer that what you believe is true, you’re probably going to need some empirical evidence that is universal and easily quantifiable. You may like to live by your gut, but when leaders trust their gut we tend to find nothing but senseless wars and economic catastrophe. Maybe it’s time to give reason a try. As Richard A. Weatherwax once said, “You don’t need the Bible to justify love, but I know of no better tool to justify hate.”

A chat with some Mormon missionaries

So, I’m very interested in anomalistic psychology as well as the critical analysis of religious texts (the origin of the science of linguistics is in the study of religious texts), so last summer when some Mormon missionaries came through my neighborhood looking for recruits I invited them over for a chat in hopes of getting a free copy of the Book of Mormon. It worked, and I agreed to let them come back for as long as they felt like and teach me about their religion (Americans are notoriously ignorant of Mormonism, which to me is simply another silly form of Christianity). They stopped coming after I got short with them when I was in a bad mood and began attacking their religion. Anyway, they came back tonight after a few months’ absence to see if I have been praying. I told them no, they taught me how to pray their way (insisting that it’s the only right way), and then we had a discussion about God.

The thing about our discussion about God that really struck me was not the fact that my argument for agnosticism went over with a thud, but the fact that we apparently have very different ideas of what the nature of a perfect being might be like. I asked them why they thought God demanded to be worshipped and prayed to and such, and they explained to me that it was an issue of humility. God is our creator, so he wants us to know it. I found their use of the word “humility” very interesting, because my conception of a perfect being is one who is the epitome of humility (among other things). This is the very reason why I think the concept of a perfect being who demands adulation is self-contradictory. I was struck by the difference of opinion. It doesn’t help that perfection is largely subjective (although most people’s ideas of perfection converge on many points). I’ll have to read up on concepts of perfection and synthesize a definition for myself. Honestly, my own conception of perfection comes purely from my own imagination; aside from a few major philosophers who’ve written on the subject, I’m not that well-read in the literature of perfection.

The missionaries are coming back next Saturday and I told them I’d try praying their way. I highly doubt it’ll work, but seeing as it’s simply talking to myself, as long as I don’t do it in public, what harm can it do? I’ll humor them simply to see how it goes.