Thursday, October 04, 2007

Angels and demons

P.Z. Myers comments on a couple of professors defending the literal existence of angels and demons. Intelligent design advocate and Discovery Institute Fellow William Dembski on angels:
Peter Williams' The Case for Angels is about…the theological rift between a Christian intelligentsia that increasingly regards angels only as figurative or literary devices, and the great mass of Christians who thankfully still regard them as real (a fact confirmed by popular polls, as Williams notes in this book). This rift was brought home to me at a conference I helped organize at Baylor University some years back. The conference was entitled 'The Nature of Nature' and focused on whether nature is self-contained or points beyond itself. The activity of angels in the world would clearly constitute on way nature points beyond itself.

Why is it important to know about angels? Why is it important to know about rocks and plants and animals? It's important because all of these are aspects of reality that impinge on us. The problem with the secular intelligentsia is that they deny those aspects of reality that are inconvenient to their world-picture. And since the intelligentsia are by definition intelligent (though rarely wise), they are able to rationalize away what they find inconvenient. This is what Bishop Sheen was getting at with the previous quote when he referred to the intelligentsia rationalizing evil, and this what Williams is so successful at unmasking in the intelligentsia's rejection of angels.

There exists an invisible world that is more real and weighty than our secular imaginations can fathom. I commend this book as a way of retraining our imaginations about that reality.

Can Dembski point to any genuine evidence supporting "the activity of angels in the world"? Does his "design inference" allow us to distinguish such claims from projection, pareidolia, wishful thinking, and delusion?

And Biola University philosophy professor and Discovery Institute Fellow J.P. Moreland on demons:

Recently, a hairdresser was arrested for performing cosmetic surgery on several “patients.” When this happens, the results are usually disastrous. Do fraudulent “surgeries” mean there are no legitimate cosmetic surgeries? Of course not.

Recently, a man and woman were caught trying to exorcise a demon from a little child in Arizona. The police found the three covered in blood inside a barricaded bedroom. The man died upon arrest. Do fraudulent, ignorant “exorcisms” imply that demons aren’t real and all exorcisms are bogus? You do the math.

A vast literature supports the reality of demons, and three criteria have been developed for distinguishing demonization from mere psychological trauma: (1) the universal presence of certain symptoms, including satisfaction of biblical criteria, along with responsiveness to the name of Jesus, all of which take place uniformly throughout the world, including cultures that know nothing about the Bible or Jesus; (2) the presence of supernatural power evidenced by such phenomena as moving material objects; (3) the revelation by the demon of detailed, private and embarrassing information about the exorcist in front of others that no human could have known.

These phenomena occur widely. In fact, in a recent alumni publication of the university at which I teach, the cover story featured faculty members—intellectually sophisticated professors with doctorates from top institutions—who have experienced such demonic phenomena. During an exorcism, one professor saw metal objects fly across the room. Another professor has seen this very sort of phenomena in his own condominium in conjunction with a demonized person moving in next door. During another exorcism, a different professor experienced the sort of embarrassment mentioned above. A demon accused him in front of the entire prayer team of specific sins that were detailed, including time and location. I know of others who have seen the same thing.

The fraudulent, crazy exorcisms are the only ones that get reported in the press, but don’t be fooled. The real thing is very different from the bogus ones.

It sounds like Moreland is inferring supernatural explanations for a combination of natural phenomena (perhaps a student accusing a professor of specific acts that had been observed, or phony poltergeist phenomena, usually caused by teenagers whose cleverness exceeds the observational skills of the adults they are fooling) and fabricated claims. Can Moreland even provide a reference for the faculty publication he refers to, let alone the "vast literature" that "supports the reality of demons" or the specifics of the criteria he mentions?

His analogy is bogus--we have ample evidence of real cosmetic surgery, including schools for it and doctors who can perform it on demand (for some cash). There is nothing of the sort for angels or demons, which are somehow resistant to the presence of cameras and skeptics.

UPDATE (October 5, 2007): The Pharyngula article linked from the J.P. Moreland quote above also links to a Biola University (Moreland's institution) article titled "Exorcising Our Demons: Many Evangelicals Are Too Skeptical of the Demonic" which includes this paragraph:
Dr. Doug Hayward — a professor of anthropology and intercultural studies at Biola — team-teaches a spiritual warfare class with Arnold (New Testament) and Dr. John Kelley (psychology) — a class that considers theological and psychological explanations for people who believe they are under demonic attack. Over the years, Hayward has prayed with a number of such students. In rare cases, students have growled at him or become violent.
"People who believe they are under demonic attack" sounds like a class of people no different from "people who believe they are under the influence of CIA mind control devices" like Cathy O'Brien, "Brice Taylor" (Susan Ford) who are either delusional or simply lying. (I briefly discuss O'Brien and Taylor in this blog post on Kola Boof, who has made similarly outrageous claims minus the CIA mind control aspect.) There's a serious lack of skepticism problem here, not a "too skeptical" problem, and I don't expect we'll see these evangelicals make the slightest attempt to dig deeper or apply scientific methods of investigation.

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