Did the Duggars Just Bring A Spotlight on the Quiverfull Movement?

The news story du cycle is the one about a teen Josh Duggar fondling young womens’ privates, including his sisters. But here are a few stories from the periphery of that story, that I ran across in the past couple of days:

The Washington Post is mainstream media. The Daily Beast wants, I think, to be mainstream. And while Right Wing Watch and Gawker should probably be classified as “citizen journalism” (i.e., blogs) or “watchdog organization”, I think they at least try to present news without being completely biased. More importantly, they’re outside of the atheosphere, the cluster of atheist blogs and sites where everyone knows who Hemant, PZ, and the FSM are.

So it may just be that some of the media spotlight may be directed not at Josh Duggar and his family, but at the culture in which the Duggars live: a far-right Christian society in which men are manly, are the sole breadwinners, and make all the decisions; and women are subservient, expected to be pregnant as much as possible to outbreed all the other religions, and be ready for sex whenever their man wants it.

I think the Quiverfull movement is dangerous, with cult-like aspects, and certainly anti-feminist. Maybe this story will help to bring some attention to that.

It’s Still Shamanism

Vatican Radio reports, Reliquary of St. Barbara visits Athens. The silver casket of Saint Barbara, martyred in the 3rd century, has been brought to Athens, where (emphasis added):

People of all ages and social backgrounds waited for hours in the sun for a chance to touch the reliquary, hoping for an answered prayer.  The casket contains the remains of Saint Barbara, who according to legend was martyred in Asia Minor in the 3rd century AD.

Last week the reliquary was taken to the Saint Savvas cancer hospital in Athens, where it was literally mobbed by people seeking a healing.  It’s due to be flown back to Venice at the end of this week, where it’s been housed since the Byzantine Empire sent it there about 1,000 years ago. […]

Worshippers questioned by reporters said that Christianity, and the saints, were their only hope after the failure of politicians and economists to right the world’s ills.

I honestly fail to see the difference between this and going to a shaman to use his healing fetish, other than the officials’ clothes having more gold thread and fewer feathers.

This particular juju happens to be Orthodox, but the Catholic church is also very big on relics, intercessory prayer, and healing miracles. As far as I know, the higher-ups in the church endorse such things officially, or at least don’t do anything to dissuade people from accepting such superstition.

Can anyone familiar with Orthodox or Catholic theology explain to me how sophisticated theology™ can coexist with such primitive superstition?

FDA Homeopathy Circus, Day 2

Yesterday was day two of homeopathy hearings at the FDA. There were some audio and connectivity problems, and again, I was distracted, but I tried to pay some attention.

One or two presenters tried to explain why you can’t perform randomized double-blind clinical trials to demonstrate the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. Apparently it boils down to “homeopathy doesn’t work that way”, though I didn’t catch the specifics. Apparently you can’t test homeopathic remedies on animals because, um… I’m not sure. Also, a homeopath will prescribe a whole array of remedies, tailored to the needs of the individual patient; just like what oncologists do, and somehow that gets in the way of studying homeopathy, but not cancer. And homeopathy often involves evaluating subjective self-reported symptoms, so you can’t study homeopathy clinically, even though doctors study self-reported subjective symptoms like pain all the time. So the upshot of this line of argument was that homeopaths should be exempt from the rules that say you have to demonstrate that your medical treatment actually works.

In fact, one presenter, if I heard him correctly, went so far as to claim that all the other homeopaths have it wrong. This guy had a slide saying that when you dilute a substance, the “Initial substance transits to a new physical condition”. I’ll just leave that authentic frontier gibberish there for you to marvel at.

Another line of argumentation, advanced by several presenters, particularly those on the business end of things, was that homeopathy is big business and growing, and therefore it should not be regulated. I think one person at least tried to make that into a coherent argument by claiming that regulating homeopathy would throttle innovation. You know, kind of like how you never hear from Novartis, Pfizer, or Merck these days because they’ve closed up shop.

Throughout the day, there was a steady drumbeat of “homeopathic remedies are safe”, although usually with an caveat: “properly-prepared homeopathic remedies are safe”. Properly-prepared homoepathic remedies are just distilled water, which I agree is safe. But homeopathy is currently unregulated, or nearly so, and thus no one is checking to make sure there’s nothing bad in your expensive distilled water.

In fact, as we heard in the previous day’s testimony, a lot of times manufacturers will combine things, e.g., take a regular zinc supplement and sprinkle homepathic water on it, and sell it as a hybrid or stick a “homeopathic” sticker on the box. People who have heard that homeopathy, whether it works or not, is at least safe, can and do take more than the recommended dose, and ingest unhealthy amounts of zinc. That by itself should be an argument for regulation and proper labeling.

But perhaps the most depressing aspect of the hearings were the practicing doctors testifying in favor of homeopathy, using the same arguments as everyone else: “I’ve seen it work. And it’s popular. Plus, it’s safe”. These are smart, well-educated people, who every day prescribe medications that have gone through rigorous controls to eliminate things like personal bias and proof by anecdote, committing those very errors.

At any rate, the current phase of the circus is over. With any luck, the FDA will start cracking down on this woo. I’d call it snake oil, but statistically speaking, there’s probably not a single molecule of the original oil left.

FDA Homeopathy Circus, Day 1

Today and tomorrow, the FDA is holding hearings to see about updating its regulations for homeopathy. Or, as NPR puts it, FDA Ponders Putting Homeopathy To A Tougher Test. Here, “a tougher test” means applying the same rules to homeopathy as to every other proposed medical treatment: see whether it works.

So to that end, they’re holding two days of hearings. I was able to stream part of the proceedings, and even hear some of it (though I was busy, and thus missed a lot).

If you want to follow along tomorrow, it’ll be at https://collaboration.fda.gov/hprapril2015.

But first, it might be good to review what homeopathy is. homeopathy.com explains:

Homeopathy’s basic premise is called the “principle of similars,” and it refers to recurrent observation and experience that a medicinal substance will elicit a healing response for the specific syndrome of symptoms (or suffering) that it has been proven to cause when given in overdose to a healthy person.

[…]

Most homeopathic medicines are made by diluting a medicinal substance in a double-distilled water. It should be noted that physicists who study the properties of water commonly acknowledge that water has many mysterious and amazing properties. […]

Each substance is diluted, most commonly, 1 part of the original medicinal agent to 9 or 99 parts double-distilled water. The mixture is then vigorously stirred or shaken. The solution is then diluted again 1:9 or 1:99 and vigorously shaken. This process of consecutive diluting and shaking or stirring is repeated 3, 6, 12, 30, 200, 1,000, or even 1,000,000 times. Simply “diluting” the medicines without vigorously shaking them doesn’t activate the medicinal effects.

In other words, you find a substance that produces a given symptom in healthy people; you dilute that substance in water until there’s none of it left, and you give your bottle of water to a person who suffers from symptoms like what you found earlier.

Or, as Mitchell and Webb described it, “trace solution of deadly nightshade or a statistically negligible quantity of arsenic”:


So the question before the FDA is to determine whether homeopathic substances, which are touted as remedies for everything from gout to nonspecific unease, should be subject to the same regulations as, say, Tamiflu or Ibuprofen or Viagra. The sorts of regulations where if you say that your product is good against X, the FDA comes along and says, “proof or STFU”.

Apparently Michael de Dora of the Center for Inquiry testified early on, but I missed it. His testimony can be summed up as “Science has known for a long time that homeopathy doesn’t work. The US government knows this. Hell, the FDA has said as much. This year. Let’s not support pseudoscientific quackery.”

The first speaker I caught was giving an overview of studies on homeopathy. At first, he couldn’t do better than saying that there are studies that show that it works, and others that don’t. But he was able to drag in other factors, like the file drawer effect (that negative results tend not to get published) and the Hawthorne effect (people who know they’re being watched behave differently) to cloud the issue enough to be able to say that the science isn’t settled. Sadly, he was one of the most reasonable speakers of the day.

Several ideas came up in different people’s testimony before lunch:

  • That homeopathy has organizations of practicing professionals, therefore it works.
  • That homeopathy has a standard reference book, therefore it works.
  • That there’s quality control (i.e., people check that your bottle of 99.99999% water really does contain 99.99999% water), therefore it works.
  • That members of the general public don’t really know a lot about homeopathy (this might become significant, later).
  • That I just know that it works, therefore it works. (Who needs double-blind clinical trials when you have feelz?)
  • That homeopathy is popular, therefore it works.

One speaker made the argument that France has an excellent public health-care system, and that homeopathy is popular in France (therefore, presumably, homeopathy works). He also mentioned, or implied, that it had been approved by Swiss healthcare regulatory bodies. During the Q&A period, he was asked how French and Swiss researchers had evaluated the effectiveness of homeopathy, and in response he went off on a tirade against US regulators. I believe that’s called evading the question.

During the afernoon session, several more ideas came up several times:

  • Homeopathy works in conjunction with other treatment (I had a headache, so I took an aspirin and a homeopathic remedy; my headache went away; therefore, homeopathy works).
  • Homeopathy is popular, therefore there’s no need for stricter regulation. (I wonder if that argument also applies to heroin.)
  • Homeopathy is big business, therefore there’s no need for stricter regulation.
  • Homeopathic remedies are already marked “homeopathic”. What more do you people need? Informed customers (which morning testimony said many people aren’t) can make an informed choice.

One shining light was Luana Colloca of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She actually cited studies and showed empirical results, and even graphs with error bars, mirabile dictu! She gave an overview of the power of the placebo effect, though I’m not sure what her point was. Was it that hey, placebos lessen people’s pain, therefore let’s let people have their sugar pills?

But beyond that, the theme seemed to be that things are fine the way they are; informed consumers can caveat emptor their way through drug store aisles. And besides, it’s popular, and big business. So why should Big Alt-Med be regulated the same way as Big Pharma? Unfair!

What I found notably missing from the proceedings, and which I would gladly have welcomed, was anything along the lines of “Yes, homeopathy is effective against X, Y, and Z. And we have the double-blind, statistically-significant clinical trials to prove it.” I suppose that was too much to expect. Ah, well. I still has feelz. And a tall drink.

I’m Moving to Indiana, Land of Freedom

By now we’ve all heard about Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Law, which

says that the state cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it is furthering a “compelling government interest”

And already we have the First Church of Cannabis moving in on the grounds that pot is a sacrament in their religion, and is less dangerous than alcohol, which is legal even in Indiana, so the government doesn’t have a compelling interest in stopping them.

But why stop at goofy, ad hoc recently-invented religions? I keep being told that atheism is a religion (also here, here, here) and that atheists can’t know right from wrong (also here, here, here, here). So obviously Indiana’s Religious Freedom law says that I can do pretty much whatever I want.

I can double-park. I can pee on the lawn in front of the capitol in Indianapolis. I can bring outside food to baseball games. I can fail to pick up my dog’s poop. There is no end to the debauchery I am permitted in Indiana.

I’ll let you know when to start collecting boxes for me.

Not Impressed By the “Power of Prayer”

This past week, Bill Donohue took a break from complaining about perceived slights to his religion of choice, and posted something more inspirational, entitled The Power of Hope and Prayer. He tells of a family whose newborn son had a heart disease, but who was cured thanks to hope, prayer, and the best medical care that a Fox News anchor’s salary can afford.

Here’s a sampling of what Donohue has to say about the power of prayer:

[…] Bret and Amy were not alone—they were one with the Lord. Bret’s prayer was quintessentially Catholic: he was not angry with God—he thanked the Lord for the gift of his son and asked for his help. But most of all, he did not despair. By praying for Paulie’s “recovery that will follow,” he evinced optimism and hope.

Jesus said at the Last Supper, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.” How can this be? […] New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan put it in a way that really drives home the essence of Jesus’ words. He explored what he called “the theological reasons for laughter.” Why are people of faith happy, he asked. “Here’s my reason for joy: the cross. You heard me right: the cross of Christ!” The death of Jesus was not the last word. His resurrection was. After Christ was crucified, Dolan says, it “seemed we could never smile again…But, then came the Sunday called Easter! The sun—S-U-N—came up, and the Son—S-O-N—came out as He rose from the dead. Guess who had the last word? God!” […] It is a theology grounded in hope, and hope is the natural antidote to despair.

When Pope John Paul II died, I happened to be at the studios of the Fox News Network in New York City. I knew he was dying, but I had no idea that I would be the first guest to go on the air when he passed away. When asked by Shepard Smith what my thoughts were, I answered, “On the one hand, great sorrow. On the other hand, great joy. Sorrow that he’s no longer with us. Joy that he’s with God, with his Lord.”

For those who skipped past that, he basically says that prayer makes people happy and gives them hope. Basically, pretty standard inspirational-chain-email stuff.

I can’t help noticing that he fails to mention any kind of medical benefit or, indeed, any benefit to the patient. All of the benefits he mentions could, it seems, be provided equally well by prayer to Krishna, or a sacrifice to Dionysus, or even by meditation.

People can get these benefits of Donohue’s religion even if they’re not true. It’s enough that people believe them. In other words, from everything Donohue has said, Jesus might as well be an imaginary friend.

If he’d left it at that, I wouldn’t have bothered writing this. But he had to throw in some digs at atheists:

The Baiers are practicing Catholics. What would they have done had they been atheists? It must be tough going it alone, and indeed the evidence shows exactly that.

Note that he doesn’t actually mention what any of this evidence might be.

And in case you were wondering about ellipses, above:

Jesus said at the Last Supper, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy.” How can this be? It is not something atheists can grasp. It eludes the secular mind. New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan put it in a way that really drives home the essence of Jesus’ words. He explored what he called “the theological reasons for laughter.” Why are people of faith happy, he asked. “Here’s my reason for joy: the cross. You heard me right: the cross of Christ!” The death of Jesus was not the last word. His resurrection was. After Christ was crucified, Dolan says, it “seemed we could never smile again…But, then came the Sunday called Easter! The sun—S-U-N—came up, and the Son—S-O-N—came out as He rose from the dead. Guess who had the last word? God!” There is probably nothing more baffling to an atheist than this “theology of laughter.” It is a theology grounded in hope, and hope is the natural antidote to despair.

I know that Donohue has been around long enough, has spoken to enough atheists that this can’t be dismissed as simple ignorance. He’s going out of his way to insult a class of people with whom he doesn’t agree.

And coming from the guy who throws a fit every time someone dares point out some bad about his religion, that’s pretty rich.

The Blaze Warns of New Threat to Christian Televangelists From Atheist Roku Channel

Over at Glenn Beck’s The Blaze (so you know it’s sane and rational), Billy Hallowell warns, “Do Christian Televangelists Have Something to Fear? Atheists Reveal New Effort to Impact Culture”.

By this he means that American Atheists have announced that they’ll be launching an atheist TV channel for the Roku set-top video-streaming box. So yeah. I have a Roku, I’m happy with it, and I expect it’ll be something like The Young Turks or one of the more popular cable-access-ey YouTube channels.

But the headline asks whether Christian televangelists have anything to fear. From what? From one Internet streaming channel on one device, somehow sneaking past your kids’ defenses and indoctrinating them into godless atheimism and satanic debauchery or anything? Well, I suppose that’s something to worry about. I mean, it’s not as if there are any religous channels on Roku already, is it?

Unless you count

Those are just the religious channels that were added in May and June 2014 (Sources:1 2 3 4 5 6)

Yes, how can Christians possibly compete with one atheist channel? They’re obviously doomed. Doooooooomed.

Lowering the Bar for Christian “Persecution” Yet Again

(Yes, I know I’m late to the party. I’ve been battling floods and a cold. Give me a break.)

The American Family Association-owned One News Now has a sad. A very deep sad, because their religious freedom is under attack, yet again!

See, Mississippi recently passed the Religous Freedom Restoration Act, which basically says that if you have religious objections to the existence of gay people, then you don’t have to serve them in your establishment open to the public. In other words, you can’t put up a sign that says “We don’t serve your kind here” but you can have one that says “Jesus doesn’t want us to serve your kind here.”

Mississippi sticker
But some businesses in Mississippi have evidently decided that they love Mammon more than Jesus, because they’ve started putting up stickers that say, “We don’t discriminate. If you’re buying, we’re selling.” Can you think of a more anti-American sentiment than that? No, you can’t. Shut up; I’m telling you, you can’t.

This is not the sort of thing that the AFA is going to take lying down:

Buddy Smith, executive vice president of Tupelo-based American Family Association, offers his take on the sticker campaign.

“It’s not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign,” he says, “and it’s being carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.

“They don’t want to hear that homosexuality is sinful behavior – and they wish to silence Christians and the church who dare to believe this truth.”

Yes, a sticker that doesn’t tell anyone what to believe, or what to say and what not to say, is an attempt at silencing Christians. That’s how insidious they are!

I’m still working on figuring out what “freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture” refers to. Possibly the freedom to stone gay people to death; the freedom to live in a town where no one dares to admit that they’re gay. Something like that, probably.

Imagine, if you will, the anguish that these people are living: of knowing that somewhere out there, there are people who don’t believe exactly as they do! Shall we shed a tear of sympathy for their suffering?

No, let’s not.

Dead Pope Prankster

Part 1

Achievement unlocked: Attain sainthood
There’s a story being repeated uncritically all over the Net, about a woman who had a brain aneurysm, but didn’t die of it because a dead pope magically healed her.

Oh, and this allows the dead pope to level up. From HuffPo:

Mora, her doctors and the Catholic Church say her aneurysm disappeared that day in a miracle that cleared the way for the late pope to be declared a saint on April 27 in a ceremony at the Vatican where Mora will be a guest of honor.

Now, one might reasonably ask, how do we know that this was really magic? Floribeth Mora presents this compelling line of evidence:

Acknowledging that many people would be highly sceptical of her recovery, and of the whole concept of miracles, she said that “people can think what they want – what I know is that I’m healthy.”

“There are always people who don’t believe me, who say I’m crazy, but what counts for me today is that this ‘crazy woman’ is cured.”

So we know that she was cured because she said so. With evidence like that, who needs to see X-rays or MRIs or lab results? Besides The Telegraph writes:

Even her neurosurgeon seems to be convinced. “If I cannot explain it from a medical standpoint, something non-medical happened,” said Alejandro Vargas Roman. “I can believe it was a miracle.”

But here’s what Reuters wrote last year, when the Catholic Church approved Mora’s cure as the second in the two-miracle-minimum needed for John Paul II’s promotion:

The neurosurgeon who admitted and diagnosed Mora, however, denies he gave her a month to live. Alejandro Vargas says he forecast only a 2 percent chance Mora could bleed into her brain again within a year of her diagnosis, possibly killing her.

“She was sent home with medication that would reduce her blood pressure and was advised to improve her diet so as not to raise her cholesterol levels and thus decrease the chance of her having a second bleeding episode. She was sedated because the headaches were too sharp,” he told Reuters. “We didn’t send her home to be sedated and wait until she died in her sleep.”

That’s all well and good—how many people can you name who survived a disease with a 2% mortality rate?—but how do we know that Dead Pope was involved? Religion News Service:

She claimed her prayers were answered when John Paul II appeared to her in a vision on the day he was beatified — the first step on the road to sainthood — after he was credited with his first miracle.

“When I woke up in the morning, I looked at the magazine cover which showed Pope Wojtyla with his arms outstretched.

“I felt a deep sense of healing. I heard his voice say to me, ‘Get up and don’t be afraid,’” she said, recalling one of John Paul’s signature lines.

I don’t know what else you doubting Thomases want. If you can’t trust someone who’s just been stressed out by a hospital stay, is on new meds, and has a thing in her brain, whom can you trust? There’s no way she could possibly be mistaken!

But she was cured, right? And both Mora and her doctor said that they don’t know how she was healed, so therefore they know how she was healed (it was Dead Pope Magic) (Dead Pope Magic is the name of my next webcomic). That’s just logic.

Okay, so she was dying (but not really dying) of an aneurysm, and now it’s gone. And she can’t think of a better explanation than the one that she really really likes (Dead Pope magiced her back to health), so obviously that explanation must be the correct one. And she won’t provide any solid evidence because, well, doubters gonna doubt.

I’m sold!


Part 2

But apparently there’s some kind of Law of Conservation of Pope Magic, because on the same day that the Catholic church was celebrating Dead Pope John Paul II healing that one woman… Well, I’ll let Italian news agency ANSA tell it:

(ANSA) – Brescia, April 24 – A young man in northern Italy was crushed to death Thursday by a falling crucifix that was built to honor pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Brescia. The 21-year-old’s death comes just three days before John Paul will be canonized in Rome.

Does this count as JP2′s third miracle?

Worldliness Makes Baby Jesus Cry

So the other day I was listening to Mark Driscoll’s series on James the brother of Jesus, and heard:

When he’s [James] talking about “the world” here and worldly conflict, let me give you a simple definition of what it means to be worldly: worldly means that things are put together in a way that Satan likes.

That’s all that it means. It means that things are put together, organized, brought together in a way that causes Satan to be glad and causes Jesus to grieve.

It’s when anything is put together and Satan’s, like, “That’s the way that I wanted it” and Jesus is, like, “That’s not the way that I wanted it.”

And all this time I thought the expression “X makes baby Jesus cry” was just a cheap shot at unsophisticated bible-thumpers, not something that anyone would actually say; and certainly not a prominent preacher with probably a few decorative degrees and a megachurch and such. But apparently I was wrong.

(Oh, and Pastor Mark, in case you stumble upon this: unless you’re a thirteen-year-old girl, using “to be like” as a synonym for “to say” makes baby Jesus cry.)

All the etcetera that's fit to read.