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Writer's Block

Rather conscious of not blogging much in the past few weeks, which is partly due to holidaying, but also because of edits I'm doing on my book Randi's Prize. A publisher suggested I cut it down a bit, and he's right. Even though I struggled to keep it under 100,000 words it ballooned to over 120,000, and at the time I thought, what the hell - if that's what it takes to explain the issues. But readers aren't necessarily going to stick with it that long. So the trick is just to keep what's needed to make the points, and move on.

I think it's the same experience Chris Carter had when he published his book Parapsychology and the Skeptics - having to cut down the original, with the total projected to appear as three separate volumes. The problem we have is that this is just such a large subject - or rather several related subjects, and it's hard to know how to divvy it up without losing coherence.

But it goes a bit further than that. To illuminate sceptical approaches and arguments, I want to cover a range of different psychic phenomena. But in each case - mediums, psi experiments, out-of-body experiences, etc - I need first to introduce the subject, create a feel for what people experience and then describe what investigators say about it. That can take a while, as the issues are a bit complex. Only then can I start making comparisons that show how little the sceptics really understand. By that time, I've run out of space, and I need to move onto another subject, otherwise I won't keep readers' attention. But I still haven't started to put it into context and explain what it all means. Does psychism equate with survival of death? What are the issues?

The most recent draft had a longish chapter on this. But although I got quite into it - evolution, consciousness, mystical experience, hallucinogens, artificial intelligence, all that good stuff - it still wasn't enough.  I could have written a whole other book. So now I've cut it out and just referred to the debate in a very general way in the last chapter.

That's where I'm a bit stuck - what final conclusions to draw. Not that I haven't got plenty to say, I'm just not sure what direction to go in. If I've managed to persuade readers that the whole enterprise of explaining away has failed, what then? Where do we go from there? Because deep down, the ideas that the Randis and Hymans and Blackmores articulate correspond to what an awful lot of intelligent people actually feel. If you tell them, sorry, they don't stand up, they can of course disagree, and chuck the book across the room, or not bother to buy it in the first place. But if you've carried them along with you, and they think you might just have a point, what sort of adjustments are they going to make?

This is something I think about a lot, and I don't think it's really been discussed that much. With most controversies, we don't necessarily have much of a personal stake. Does globalisation create prosperity or destroy communities? Is string theory true or false? Is climate change really happening? I don't mean that these things don't affect us on some level, but if we're having to investigate something it means we aren't really that involved - you wouldn't be asking the question about globalization if overseas competition had lost you your business, for instance. But this is a controversy where the outcome really could make a big difference to individuals. If you've gone for much of your life blithely believing the claims of leading scientists, that the paranormal is bunk, and you're confident that when you die that will be the end of it, and then you find there's just a smidgeon of a possibility that mediums are talking to real spirits after all - how are you going to react? Does it mean you've suddenly got to become religious or go all New Agey?

You could argue that there's no need to react, and it will just sink in naturally. But I'm not so sure - if a person has really grasped the point, a vaccuum has opened up. This is before we start to even imagine what a society could be like in which psychism is fully acknowledged, making survival of death that much more likely.   How does it effect the relationship between the state and religion, and a raft of issues like abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, which we get so steamed up about?

Of course I'm making assumptions about my persuasive skills that may turn out to be totally unmerited. In any case, a book like this will be read by people who already feel that its claims are probably true, and for whom the conclusions are self-evident. They won't need to make adjustments, because they are already there. But it would be a pity not to reach out beyond that audience. I like to feel that I could chip away a bit at the certainties of those people who do actually think that James Randi is the great expert on the subject - because he so obviously isn't. And if I succeed at all, I can't really duck the questions that follow.

There, got that off my chest. Now I have to go back and try to figure this thing out!

Religion and Terror

One of the big puzzles about Islamic terror is the idea that the truly wicked things the terrorists do might be somehow commanded by God. Like most people (I hope) I've struggled to understand how exposure to Islamic teaching could make a person think it's a good idea to go and blow up a train full of commuters. It seems that for certain minds, the infidels are so excluded from God's love that the rules are relaxed and they can do what they like with them, even things that they themselves are expressly commanded not to do. 

The dissonance this has created since September 2001 is fierce, and underlies tracts such as Sam Harris's The End of Faith. I had mixed feelings about the book when it came out.  I like a good polemic - it's passionately written, and less predictably doctrinaire than Richard Dawkins, for instance. I was also impressed, and also slightly surprised, by his openness to psi phenomena - he has read Radin and Sheldrake, and thinks that Stevenson's work may even suggest evidence for reincarnation. He would like to see mystical experiences explored with an open mind, while 'shedding the provincialism and dogmatism of our religious traditions in favor of free and rigorous enquiry.' (p. 41)

But I was deeply sceptical about his thesis that, because the Koran contains passages that urge violent acts, the rise of Islam means we're doomed. My impression is that many if not most devout Muslims ignore the objectionable bits in the Koran just as most Christians sensibly overlook the Old Testament demands for people who work on Sundays to be put to death. People who are on a spiritual path respond to the best in religious teaching, because it resonates with the best in themselves. The other stuff just gets filtered out. That may not make much sense to a logical mind like Harris's, but in practice it's the way most humans are - thank God.

So I was fascinated by the findings published today by MI5 about the relationship between religion and terror. The spooks have apparently made in-depth studies of several hundred individuals known to be involved in, or associated with, religiously inspired violence in Britain.  And guess what? They aren't really religious at all, in any meaningful sense. Far from being zealots, the study says that British Islamic terrorists don't practise their faith regularly. Many are not literate in their religion, and should be considered novices at best. Very few have strongly religious backgrounds  and tend more often to be recent converts. Some even take drugs, drink alcohol and visit prostitutes, ignoring the Koranic proscriptions.

Interestingly, the promise of an afterlife as a spur to suicide attacks doesn't seem that significant either. There's no sense that would-be suicide bombers are strongly attracted to the idea of virgins in paradise - most who are over 30 have steady relationships and children - so the stereotype of the sexually frustrated young man up for an eternity of shagging is quite wrong, although the report says some may find psychological security in a belief in future rewards. Nor are the terrorist groups at all picky about who they recruit. The report says they are remarkably tolerant of individuals with serious criminal histories, even if they continue to be involved in drug trafficking, assault and even rape.

From MI5's point of view, the findings aren't terribly helpful. It seems the terrorists are not obviously mad or bad, and can come from any ethnic group or race, and any level of education, which means there is little that makes them stand out from the crowd and easier to catch.

I suppose one should be concerned by that, but the report leaves me personally feeling a bit reassured. Deep down I've never really accepted that a person who by any conventional measure is religious - says prayers, attends services, keeps God's commandments, and so on - could be a cruel fanatic bent on creating orphans and widows.  Of course this only applies to Brits, and a different dynamic may apply in Muslim countries. But it's good to know that the link between religion and terror is perhaps not as strong as we've been led to think.

Madeleine's Return

Madeleine McCann is back in the news, after the Portuguese police released their files of the case to the parents. They include pictures of the Algarve holiday apartment from which the four-year old was snatched, and detailed sightings that for some reason were never publicized at the time.

Most of the time I have filtered out this heart wrenching story, and probably would have managed to ignore it again, were it not for the book I just happen to have been reading in the past few days. This is Carol Bowman's Return from Heaven, which Tony M mentioned in comments on an earlier posting (Moksha, June 3), and which I wanted to check out.

These silly titles often aptly match the contents, but as Tony points out, this is a credible book by a serious researcher. Not on the level of Ian Stevenson, Erlendur Haraldsson and others: her cases are more anecdotal, and she doesn't really question the reincarnation hypothesis - her interest is more in the spiritual and therapeutic aspects for the individuals and families concerned. But there's plenty of detail, and her accounts match those in the more detailed research, so I take them to be part of the same phenomenon.

What makes Bowman's work so interesting is that it provides examples from our own culture. The Asian accounts are strongly coloured by unfamiliar names, environments and social customs which make them a bit hard to get to grips with, and for critics, easier to dismiss. These American cases by contrast could have happened to ourselves, or to anyone we know. Bowman came to hear about them having written about her personal experiences in an earlier book; her correspondence led to her creating a lively website, where people discuss their children's statements seeming to refer to a past life. (There's an interesting one here of a four-year old girl who appeared to remember a life as a pilot in the first world war.)

Obviously these are more common than one might ever have suspected. The phenomenon is clearly not just limited to countries and cultures that believe in reincarnation, and one might conclude that the reason we don't hear about these things is because our society has no framework to make sense of them, as was once the case with near-death experiences.

Another interesting thing about Bowman's cases is that they are mostly within the family. One of the earliest documented cases I heard about of this kind is the British case of the Polluck twins some years ago, who died (in a road accident, I think) and whose parents subsequently had two more twins, who had relevant birthmarks and made statements referring to their dead siblings (Stevenson describes it in Children Who Remember Previous Lives). At the time I agreed with sceptics that it was all a bit too neat - the father seemed a strong believer in reincarnation, and could have prompted the second pair of twins' 'memories'. But that's not an obvious explanation for Bowman's cases, where the statements mostly come as a complete surprise.

She describes children being born to a mother at the second attempt, the mother having previously had an abortion, or children dying early or as young adults, and returning to the same mother or to another family member. The sense is of interrupted relationships being picked up, bringing fulfilment to the child and a sense of closure to grieving parents or grandparents.

Seeing pictures of Maddie again this week suddenly made all this alarmingly real. From the experiences that Bowman describes, the McCanns would be prime candidates for this kind of repeat birth. If they decided to have another child, or Kate got pregnant by accident, they might find themselves reunited with Madeleine after all. They would then hear from her own mouth what happened to her, and it might bring them a sense of closure to the whole nightmare.

On the other hand these sorts of reflections make me uneasy. I've no doubt that amid all the spurious 'sightings' or 'spirit communications' by psychics that their daily postbag brings the McCanns there may also be a few well-meaning attempts to console them by suggesting that Maddie may one day be reborn to them. If so, it must strike them as mail from the madhouse. The idea that reincarnation spontaneously happens is one thing. That a couple might look forward to it, or actively try to make it happen, is something else. 

As it is, I doubt that the idea will get much of an airing. British tabloids love heart-warming stories about angels and near-death visions, but reincarnation is still taboo, as we know from its violent reaction to celebrity statements about karma. But it seems likely to me that this won't always be the case.

Thinking along these lines, I often wonder what would happen if parapsychologists got their wish, and psi was accepted as genuine by the scientific community. And perhaps as a follow-on from this, research into such things as reincarnation was universally accepted as valid, and confirming the likelihood of survival of death. 

What sort of news stories would there be if there was the absolute expectation that little Maddie was having a break in 'heaven', and was already booking a return trip, that the McCann's were doing less grieving and more love-making to facilitate the reunion? The idea of the media midwifing the event, anxiously looking out for signs of pregnancy and then for news of the child's first words, is an appalling thought, and personally I'm in no hurry to see it happen.