Posts Tagged ‘John Keel’

‘I’ Review of Book on the Alma Fielding Poltergeist Case

October 12, 2020

Last Friday, 9th October 2020, the ‘I’ published a review by Fiona Sturges of the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Fielding was a woman from Croydon, who in 1938 found herself and her husband haunted by a poltergeist, the type of spirit which supposedly throws objects around and generally makes itself unpleasant. The review states that she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, in particular Nandor Fodor. Summerscale came across the case while going through the Society’s files.

I’m putting up Sturges’ review as I’ve friends, who are members of the Society and very involved in paranormal research, as are a few of the great peeps, who comment on this blog. Ghost hunting is also very big at the moment, and there are any number of programmes on the satellite and cable channels, as well as a multitude of ghost hunting groups across the UK, America and other countries. Despite its popularity, there’s a big difference between serious paranormal investigation of the type done by the SPR and ASSAP and the majority of ghost hunting groups. The SPR and ASSAP contain professional scientists as well as ordinary peeps from more mundane professions, and try to investigate the paranormal using strict scientific methodology. They contain sceptics as well as believers, and are interested in finding the truth about specific events, whether they are really paranormal or have a rational explanation. They look down on some of the ghost-hunting groups, because these tend to be composed entirely of believers seeking to confirm their belief in the paranormal and collect what they see as evidence. If someone points out that the evidence they show on their videos actually is no such thing – for example, most researchers believe orbs aren’t the souls of the dead, but lens artefacts created by floating dust moats – then the die-hard ghost hunters tend to react by decrying their critics as ‘haters’. Many of the accounts of their encounters with the supernatural by the ghost hunters are extremely dramatic. They’ll describe how members got possessed or were chased by the spirits on their home. I’m not saying such events don’t happen at all. I do know people, who have apparently been possessed by spirits during investigations. But the stories of such supernatural events put up by the ghost-hunters seem more likely the result of powerful imaginations and hysteria than genuine manifestations by the dead.

Academic historians are also interested in spiritualism and supernatural belief in the past because of what they reveal about our ancestors worldview and the profound changes this underwent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychical research emerged in the 19th century at the same time as spiritualism, and was founded partly to investigate the latter. Both can be seen as attempts to provide concrete, scientifically valid proof of the survival of the soul after death at the time science was itself just taking shape and religious belief was under attack from scientific materialism. As the review says, spiritualism and psychic research were particularly popular in the aftermath of the First World War, as bereaved relatives turned to it for comfort that their loved ones still lived on in a blessed afterlife. One famous example of this is Conan Doyle, the creator of the arch-rationalist detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a spiritualist, who helped, amongst other things, popularise the Cottingley Fairies in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. Another of his books in this area was Raymond, an account of his contact with the spirit of his son, who was one of those killed in that terrible conflict.

But the history of spiritualism is also interesting because of what it also reveals about gender roles and sexuality, topics also touched on in the review. Mediums stereotypically tend to be women or gay men. At the same time, historians have also suggested that there was an erotic element to seances and investigations. More intimate physical contact between the sexes was permitted in the darkness of the séance room that may otherwise have been permitted in strictly respectable Victorian society. At the same time, there is to modern viewers a perverse aspect to the investigation of the mediums themselves. In order to rule out fraud, particularly with the physical mediums who claimed to produce ectoplasm from their bodies, mediums were tied up, stripped naked and examined physically, including in their intimate parts. Emetics could be administered to make sure that their stomachs were empty and not containing material, like cheesecloth, which could be used to fake ectoplasm.

The review, ‘Strange but true?’, runs

In February 1938, there was a commotion at a terraced house in Croydon. Alma and Les Fielding were asleep when tumblers began launching themselves at walls; a wind whipped up in their bedroom, lifting their eiderdown into the air; and a pot of face cream flew across the room. The next morning, as Alma prepared breakfast, eggs exploded and saucers snapped.

Over the next few days, visiting journalists witnessed lumps of coal rising from the fireplace and barrelling through the air, glasses escaping from locked cabinets and a capsizing wardrobe. As far as they could tell, the Fieldings were not responsible for the phenomena. One report told of a “malevolent, ghostly force”. The problem, it was decided, was a poltergeist.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the writer Kate Summerscale, best known for the award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, was in the Society for Psychical Research Archive in Cambridge looking for references to Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian émigré and pioneer of supernatural study, who investigated the fielding case.

She found a dossier of papers related to Alma, compiled by Fodor, containing interviews, séance transcripts, X-rays, lab reports, scribbled notes and photographs. The file was, says Summerscale, “a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination.”

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a detective novel, a ghost yarn and a historical record rolled into one. Blending fact and fiction it is an electrifying reconstruction of the reported events surrounding the Fieldings, all the while placing them in a wider context.

The narrative centres of Fodor, who at the time was losing faith in spiritualism – the mediums he had met were all fakes, and the hauntings he had investigated were obvious hoaxes. He was increasing convinced that supernatural occurrences were caused “not by the shades of the dead but by the unconscious minds of the living”.

But he was intrigued by Alma, who now experiencing “apports” – the transference of objects from one place to another. Rare stones and fossils would appear in her hands and flowers under her arms. Beetles started to scuttle out from her clothes and a terrapin appeared in her lap. She would later claim to be able to astrally project herself and give herself over to possession by spirits.

Summerscale resists the temptation to mine the more comic aspects of the story. She weaves in analysis on class, female emancipation and sexuality, and the collective angst of a nation. At the time, spiritualism was big business in Britain, which was still suffering the shocks of mass death from the First World War and Spanish flu. Seances to reach the departed were as common as cocktail parties. There was dread in the air, too, as another conflict in Europe loomed.

Alma became a local celebrity, released from domestic dreariness into the gaze of mostly male journalists, mediums and psychiatrists. Chaperoned by Fodor, she made frequent visits to the Institute of Psychical Research, where she submitted to lengthy and often invasive examinations.

We come to understand how Fodor stood to benefit from the cases, both in furthering his career and restoring his faith in the possibility of an afterlife. You feel his pain, along with Alma’s, as the true story is revealed.

It sounds very much from that last paragraph that the haunting was a hoax. There have been, unfortunately, all too many fake mediums and hoaxers keen to exploit those seeking the comfort of making contact once again with deceased relatives and friends. There was even a company selling a catalogue of gadgets to allow someone to take a séance. But I don’t believe for a single moment that all mediums are frauds. There is a psychological explanation, based on anthropologists study of the zar spirit possession cult of one of the African peoples. This is a very patriarchal culture, but possession by the zar spirits allows women to circumvent some of the restrictions of women. For example, they may be given rings and other objects while possessed through the spirits asking, or apparently asking, through them. It’s been suggested that zar possessions are a form of hysteria, in which women, who are frustrated by societal restrictions, are able to get around them. The same explanation has also been suggested for western mediumship and alien abductions. Many of the women, who became mediums and who experience abductions by aliens, may do so subconsciously as these offer an escape from stifling normal reality.

I also believe that some supernatural events may well be genuine. This view was staunchly defended by the late Brian Inglis in his history of ghosts and psychical research, Natural and Supernatural, in the 1990s. As an Anglican, I would also caution anyone considering getting involved in psychical research to take care. There’s fraud and hoaxing, of course, as well as misperception, while some paranormal phenomena may be the result of poorly understood fringe mental states. But I also believe that some of the supposed entities contacting us from the astral realms, if they exist, are deliberately trying to mislead us. The great UFO researchers, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, came to the same conclusion about the UFO entities. One of Keel’s books was entitled, Messengers of Deception. There’s also the book, Hungry Ghosts, again written from a non-Christian perspective, which also argues that some of the spirits contacting people are malevolent and trying to deceive humanity for their own purposes.

If you are interested in psychical research, therefore do it properly using scientific methodology. And be aware of the possibility of deception, both natural and supernatural.

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Sci-Show Explains the Psychology of Alien Abductions

October 7, 2019

A week or so ago I put up a post stating that when it comes to alien abductions and entity encounters, I subscribe to the ‘psycho-social hypothesis’. Roughly stated, this considers that they are internal, psychological events which draw on the imagery of space and science fiction for their content.

This video from Sci-Show on YouTube uses the same explanation for the phenomenon. The presenter argues that it probably arises from some strange, apparently inexplicable experience. There are many of these, but one favourite of psychologists and researchers is sleep paralysis. This when someone wakes up from sleeping, but elements of the dream and sleep state still persist. They find themselves paralysed, often with feelings of dread and the sense that there is an invader in the room. Sometimes there are feelings of bliss. Looking back, they may misremember elements of the experience, drawing on others they’ve had. The presenter here takes care to state that those who claim to have abduction experiences are no less sane and able to cope with normal life than anybody else.

But they are more prone to misremember things. He goes on to argue this using an experiment in which two groups, one of people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and another, which wasn’t, were shown lists of words. They were shown lists of words and asked to remember them. Then they were shown another list of words. They were then asked to remember the words in the first list. The individuals, who believed they’d been abducted by aliens were significantly worse at remembering the words from the original list, confusing them with those in the second. It’s called a source attribution error. Psychologists believe that this is the same mechanism that explains alien abductions. People have a psychological experience, and then mix it up with things they have seen elsewhere, like a monster they saw in a movie. The presenter makes it very clear that this study is not definitive, as it’s very difficult to find groups of people, who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens, who are willing to take part in psychological experiments.

This experiment is one of a number, which shows how fallible human memory is, particularly in the case of eyewitness accounts and especially if the witness is asked leading question. The presenter concludes with the statement that abduction experiences don’t have much to say about life out in space, but they do say much about life down here, in the human skull: consciousness.

Part of the problem with the abduction phenomenon is that many of the researchers do use untrustworthy techniques to try to recover what they believe is hidden or lost memories. One of these is regression hypnosis. This has been used by Bud Hopkins, Leo Sprinkle and a number of others. It was first used by Dr. Walter Benjamin on Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple, whose experience is the archetypal alien abduction. They were travelling back from a holiday in Canada, when they found themselves shadowed by a strange light, which then landed in a field. They got out to look, and then Barney screamed when he saw strange creatures in the craft. They then had an experience of missing time, getting home much later than they’d anticipated. Over the next few days they suffered from various strange psychological problems and sought help from Dr. Benjamin. Benjamin hypnotically regressed them, during which experience they remembered being taken aboard and medically examined by the aliens. Betty was shown a star map by the aliens, which supposedly showed the location of their home world. This was identified by a friend of Betty’s as Zeta Reticuli. Hence the belief in the abduction mythology that the hated and feared Greys come from this star.

With respect to the couple, sceptics have argued that this is likely to be a false memory. The aliens they described under hypnosis were very similar to an alien creature that had featured on an science fiction show a night or so before. Hypnotic regression is also certainly not a sure way to recover lost or suppressed memories. The FBI investigated the use of hypnosis back in the 1950s as a way of recovering useful details from witnesses. They abandoned it as far too unreliable. Hypnotic subjects were prone to confabulating – inventing details and memories – in response to questions from the hypnotist. Parts of the ufology milieu in 1990s, like the Magonians, were horrified at some of the tales of sadistic aliens and general hopelessness related and felt by abductees after they had been hypnotically regressed. They therefore banned its use. The Magonians went further, and savagely attacked the whole mythology of alien abductions and the culture that had grown up around it, and demanded it’s immediate stop. And with very good reason. But it seems that some UFO groups and abduction researchers are still using it.

I’m not saying the psycho-social hypothesis is a complete or the final explanation for alien encounters. There may be some accounts that are genuine experiences of encounters with paranormal entities. John Keel and Jacques Vallee in their books UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and Passport to Magonia – showed how UFO encounter narratives were similar to traditional fairy lore. They weren’t UFO sceptics, however, but believed that the same phenomenon that had created fairies in the Middle Ages was now responsible for UFO experiences. It may be that UFO encounters, or some of them, are based on real encounters with such Ultraterrestrials, as Vallee calls them. But I believe that the psycho-social theory provides a sound explanation for the majority of alien encounter and abduction experiences.







































My Review of Russian UFO Conspiracy Book Now Up At Magonia Blog

September 12, 2019

My review of Nick Redfern’s Flying Saucers from the Kremlin (Lisa Hagen Books 2019) is now up at Magonia Review of Books. Magonia was a small press UFO magazine, which ran from the 1980s to the early part of this century. It took the psycho-social view of the UFO phenomenon. This is a sceptical view which sees the UFO phenomenon as an internal experience generated by poorly understood psychological mechanism, whose imagery was drawn from folklore and Science Fiction. It took the name ‘Magonia’ from Jacques Vallee’s groundbreaking UFO book, Passport to Magonia. Vallee, a French-American astronomer and computer scientist, along with the American journalist and writer on the weird and Fortean, John Keel, took the view that UFOs weren’t real, mechanical spacecraft piloted by beings from other worlds, but were created by the same paranormal phenomenon behind encounters with fairies and other paranormal entities. The name ‘Magonia’ itself comes from a statement by a sceptical 7th-8th century Frankish bishop, that the peasants believed that storms were caused by men in flying ships, who came from a country called Magonia.

The magazine didn’t just discuss UFOs. It also covered other paranormal phenomena and subjects, such as witchcraft. It provided a very necessary sceptical corrective to the Satanism scare of the ’80s and ’90s. This was a moral panic generated by conspiracy theories, largely from the Christian right but also from some feminists, that Satanic groups were sexually abusing and ritually sacrificing children. The Fontaine Report, published by the British government over 20 years ago now, concluded that there was no organised Satanic conspiracy. This effectively ended a real witch-hunt, which had seen innocent men and women accused of terrible crimes through warped, uncorroborated testimony. It needs to be said, however, that sociologists, social workers and law enforcement authorities do recognise that there are evil or disturbed individuals responsible for horrific crimes, including the molestation of children, who are or consider themselves Satanists. But the idea of a multigenerational Satanic conspiracy is absolutely false. See Jeffrey S. Victor’s excellent Satanic Panic.

Nick Redfern is a British paranormal investigator now resident in Texas. In this book, subtitled ‘UFOs, Russian Meddling, Soviet Spies & Cold War Secrets’, he proposes that while the UFO phenomenon is real, the terrible Russkies have been manipulating it to destabilise America and her allies. This comes from the Russians attempting to interfere in the American presidential elections a few years ago. In fact, the book doesn’t actually show that the Russians have. Rather it shows that the FBI, Airforce Intelligence and CIA believed they were. Prominent figures in the UFO milieu were suspected of Russian sympathies, and investigated and question. George Adamski, the old fraud who claimed he’d met space people from Venus and Mars, was investigated because he was recorded making pro-Soviet statements. Apparently he believed that the space people were so much more advanced than us that they were Communists, and that in a coming conflict Russia would defeat the West. Over here, the founder and leader of the Aetherius Society, George King, who also channeled messages from benevolent space people on Venus and Mars, was also investigation by special branch. This is because one of the messages from Aetherius called on Britain to respond to peace overtures from the Russians. This was seized on by the Empire News, which, as its name suggests, was a right-wing British rag, that denounced King for having subversive, pro-Commie ideas and reported him to the rozzers. King willingly cooperated with the cops, and pointed out that his was a religious and occult, not political organisation. But he and his followers were still kept under surveillance because they, like many concerned people, joined the CND marches.

It’s at this point that Redfern repeats the Sunset Times slur about the late Labour leader, Michael Foot. Foot also joined these marches, and the former Soviet spy chief, Oleg Gordievsky, had declared that Foot was a KGB spy with the codename ‘Comrade Boot’. It’s malign rubbish. Redfern notes that Foot sued the Sunset Times for libel and won. But he prefers to believe Gordievsky, because Gordievsky was right about everything else. So say. Actually, Gordievsky himself was a self-confessed liar, and there’s absolutely no corroborating evidence at all. And rather than being pro-Soviet, Foot was so critical of the lack of freedom of conscience in the USSR that he alarmed many of his Labour colleagues, who were afraid he would harm diplomatic relations. The accusation just looks like more Tory/ IRD black propaganda against Labour.

Other people in the UFO milieu also had their collar felt. One investigator, who told the authorities that he had met a group of four men, who were very determined that he should give his talks a pro-Russian, pro-Communist slant, was interrogated by a strange in a bar on his own patriotism. The man claimed to be a fellow investigator with important information, and persuaded him to take a pill that left his drugged and disorientated. Redfern connects this the MK Ultra mind control projects under CIA direction at the time, which also used LSD and other drugs.

But if Redfern doesn’t quite show that the Russians are manipulating the phenomena through fake testimony and hoax encounters, he presents a very strong case that the Americans were doing so. During the Second World War, Neville Maskelyn, a British stage magician, worked with the armed forces on creating illusions to deceive the Axis forces. One of these was a tall, walking automaton to impersonate the Devil, which was used to terrify the Fascists in Sicily. Redfern notes the similarity between this robot, and the Flatwoods monster that later appeared in America. The Project Serpo documents, which supposedly show how a group of American squaddies had gone back to the Alien homeworld, were cooked up by one of the classic SF writers, who was also a CIA agent. And the scientist Paul Bennewitz was deliberately given fake testimony and disinformation about captured aliens and crashed saucers by members of the agency, which eventually sent the poor bloke mad. He was targeted because he was convinced the saucers and the aliens were kept on a nearby airforce base. The American military was worried that, although he wouldn’t find any evidence of aliens, he might dig up military secrets which would be useful to the Russians. And so they set about destroying him by telling him fake stories, which he wanted to hear. And obviously, there’s more.

It’s extremely interesting reading, but Redfern does follow the conventional attitude to Russian. The country was a threat under Communism, and is now, despite the fact that Communism has fallen. He is silent about the plentiful evidence for American destabilisation of foreign regimes right around the world during the Cold War. This included interference in elections and outright coups. The most notorious of these in South America were the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile by General Pinochet, and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. He also doesn’t mention recent allegations, backed up with very strong evidence, that the US under Hillary Clinton manufactured the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2012 to overthrow the ruling pro-Russian president and install another, who favoured America and the West.

If you want to read my review, it’s at



The US Intelligence Agencies’ Plans for Mind-Control Implants for the Public

January 28, 2017

Magonia was a small, sceptical UFO magazine running from about the 1970s to the first years of the present century. It took the psychosocial view of UFOs- that they were, in the phrase of Carl G. Jung, ‘a modern myth of things scene in the sky’. They were misperceived objects, and the reported encounters with aliens were internal events produced by poorly understood psychological processes whose imagery was taken from the culture around them. It followed John Keel and Jacques Vallee in considering that in previous ages, the mechanism responsible for producing UFO sightings had used the imagery of gods and faeries. Now that society has become industrial and technological, and the supernatural at least ostensibly given way to scientific rationalism, the beings reported by those experiencing these sightings are spacecraft and aliens as the new, psychological symbol for the cosmic Other.

It has published some of the most interesting and intelligent articles on UFOs, and other visionary experiences in contemporary urban culture. Like many small mags, it’s been overtaken by the internet and is no longer published in hardcopy. There is, however, a Magonia blog, reviewing books on the weird and paranormal at Also on-line are archives of the magazine and its predecessor, MUFOB, as well as notices of forthcoming books on the subjects it covers.


Way back in issue 58 in January 1997, it published an article by Mark Pilkington, ‘What’s On Your Mind’, examining the belief reported by many schizophrenics that their minds are being controlled through tiny electronic implants. Similar delusions that others are controlling their minds and their thoughts through machinery have afflicted the mentally ill down the centuries. I have a feeling that there was a book reviewed by the Fortean Times about a decade or so ago about the first such recorded case. This was in the late 18th or early 19th century. The sufferers in this instance was a gentleman, who believed his mind was being controlled by a group of Jacobins determined to overthrow the government, using a machine he called ‘the air loom’.

Unfortunately, such devices have for many decades most certainly not been merely the fantasies of the psychologically ill, or of writers of spy and science fiction. Mark Pilkington’s article also briefly traced the notorious experiments carried out by the American intelligence agencies into mind control from the early 1950s under a series of covert projects such as Artichoke, Bluebird, Pandora, Mkdelta, Mksearch and Mkultra. The projects researched a variety of different methods, including drugs, hypnosis and electro-shock treatment in a variety of grossly unethical experiments. And one the avenues they explored was electronic manipulation of the brain. This resulted in the creation of the ‘stimoceiver’, a type of electrode which could be inserted into the brain to control or modify a creatures’ behaviour. Its inventor, Jose Delgado supposedly demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention by using it to stop a charging bull. Research into the electronic control of the brain was taken still further by Bryan Robinson, of the Yerkes Primate Research Laboratory, and Dr Robert Heath.

Mark Pilkington writes:

Dr Robert Heath, a neurosurgeon at Tulane University, claimed a world record after implanting 125 electrodes into a subject’s body and brain, and subsequently spent hours stimulating the man’s pleasure centres. Both scientists concluded that ESB [Electronic Stimulation of the Brain] could control memory, impulses, feelings, invoke hallucinations, fear and pleasure. Heath, and many of his colleagues, considered ESB a potential ‘cure’ for homosexuals and other ‘socially troublesome persons’; this could, of course, be you…Joseph A. Meyer, of the National Security Agency, America’s most secretive defence group, has proposed implanting electronic tags into all those arrested, for any crime, in order to monitor their behaviour at all times. He uses New York’s Harlem district as the model in his proposal. (p.4).

He then goes to discuss further refinements of the technology, and the possibility that the whole abduction phenomenon, or at least part of it, was a screen for the military testing of such technology for their possible use in warfare.

I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of the poor souls, who believe their minds are being controlled by electronic implants, whether put there by the terrestrial intelligence agencies, aliens or whoever, are simply mentally ill. Just as I similarly don’t believe that anyone has ever been physically abducted and taken aboard an alien spacecraft to be examined and abused.

But the technology to control people’s minds and brains artificially certainly does exist, and its use was promoted by senior members of the intelligence community, whose views represent a very clear and present danger to the personal freedom of just about everyone. Starting, of course, with the fringe and marginalised – like criminals, Blacks and gays, before getting to anyone else they consider socially deviant and needing necessary mental correction.

Unfortunately, the threat posed by this kind of technology is taken seriously largely by extreme right-wing paranoiacs like the infamous conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, on Infowars, with his bizarre fantasies about demonic entities, alien invasions and the coming one world superstate. And Jones is a Libertarian, who has given his vocal support to Donald Trump, who represents the very same, predatory, exploitative corporate elite Americans and the world’s citizens need protection from.

Which goes to bear out the old phrase: ‘Even paranoiacs have enemies. They just don’t know who they are.’

It also shows that organisations like the CIA and the NSA are also actively threats to human rights and personal freedoms, quite apart from the Agency’s role in overthrowing democratic regimes and installing subservient Fascist regimes across the world since the end of the Second World War.