Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Tapescrew Letters

Here is the final bit of my book Believing Bullshit.

What follows is a cautionary bit of fiction, inspired by C.S. Lewis's fiction The Screwtape Letters, Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, which are fantastically entertaining and often very insightful. I don't claim my mirror letters are as good as Lewis's, but they are offered in the same cautionary spirit.

Just so we are clear, what follows is not supposed to be an attack on religious belief per se. I'm certainly not trying to argue here that all religious folk are victims of deliberate scams, or indeed any sort of delusion. Nor am I attacking the content of any particular religious or other view (incl. some well-known cults).

However, I do think that some religious folk have been encouraged to think in ways that effectively trap them inside a bubble of belief - in an intellectual black hole, as I put it in the book (and plenty of religious folk would agree with me about that, of course). That is the moral of the piece. I am flagging up some of the warning signs of such "black hole" thinking (which, as I go to pains to explain in the book, also crop up in non-religious spheres - atheists too can be guilty, though I also argue that religous belief systems are particularly prone).

I refer in places to specific mechanisms explained in the book, such as "I Just Know!" and Going Nuclear (follow these links if you are interested, or better still buy the book!)
The Tapescrew Letters
Letters from a Senior to a Junior Guru
(Inspired by C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters)

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands. One or two details have been changed to save reputations, but the letters are substantially unrevised and intact.   
Bear in mind that the author—an eminent guru within some minor, recently invented cult—is a charlatan, as are her colleagues. She cannot be trusted to tell the truth, not even to her nephew. Her views about mainstream religion—and Christianity in particular—are clearly cynical and no doubt unreliable. I leave you to judge what is true and what is not.
The letters contain few clues as to the specific teaching of the cult. There is a limited amount of jargon. “Glub” seems to be the name of some sort of deity or god, “Boogle” the name of some particularly evil and terrifying being, and “doob” a term that members of this cult use to refer to outsiders. Glub and and Boogle may be two facets of a single cosmic being, or two separate, competing beings involved in some sort of cosmic battle—it’s hard to be sure.
Be warned—the letters make pretty depressing and sickening reading. Still, they do usefully reveal just how manipulative and scheming some people can be. Thank goodness such deliberate charlatans are few and far between.
Stephen Law
19 August 2010

The Bodgers Centre
2 January 2008

My Dear Woodworm,
How pleased I was to hear of your graduation from our guru training college—and with a distinction too. Great things are expected of you, as I’m sure you’ve made aware. I see you have been assigned to one of our newest recruitment centres—in Oxford. That is also excellent news. There’s plenty of fodder there. But you now need to prove yourself. And that is where I come in. As you know, our Leader prefers Juniors to be mentored by a Senior they know well. As I am your aunt, I have been asked to watch over you and provide assistance wherever I can.
I cannot be there in person, I’m afraid. We are having something of a crisis here at Bodgers—one of our Juniors was caught indulging in some questionable activity with a couple of young recruits and we’re having a hard time keeping a lid on it. It’s all hands to the pump at Bodgers, at least for the next few months. Still, I can correspond with you, and advise wherever I can. Just send me regular progress reports, if you will.
After your intensive training, you will be intimately acquainted with both our aims and methods. And you now possess your own copy of the Handbook (which, I need hardly add, you must guard with your life—it must never fall into the hands of a recruit). We have spent thousands of pounds and a year of our time honing your skills, so you won’t be surprised to hear we now expect results.
Our aim is to ensnare human minds, to make them true and faithful servants of our teaching. Let me focus your attention on our Leader’s opening remarks in the Handbook:
Our aim must be to instil in our patients such patterns of thought that their minds become wholly ours—so that they become impregnable fortresses to anyone else who might try to prise their way in. But we must do this while all the time maintaining the illusion that these ways of thinking are perfectly ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable.’
Creating that illusion, Woodworm, is the clincher, the real trick. We must make minds that are fortresses to those outside and prisons to their occupants. We must forge minds in which we have succeeded in entrenching such effective mental roadblocks and self-perpetuating habits of thought that their owners will never be able to think their way free again. For then they will be our willing servants. But our “patients,” as our Leader likes to call them, must never suspect. The faithful must fall for the illusion that they are the ones whose minds have been set free and that it is everyone else who remains mentally imprisoned!
To become the jailer of another’s mind—what a prospect! An impossible task? By no means. Difficult, yes. But armed with your training, the Handbook, and a firm determination to succeed, let me assure you that you will succeed! I have converted literally hundreds of doobs over the last few years, and I am confident that you will do better still.
Which brings me to our movement’s current Achilles’ heel, and my sternest word of warning. As I say, the key to your success lies in maintaining an illusion—your patients must not suspect, not even for a second, that you are deliberately deceiving and manipulating them, that you intend to become their mental jailer. We have one very obvious disadvantage compared to the promoters of most other self-sealing bubbles of belief. We know we are deceivers. We know exactly what we are doing as we pull our patients’ strings. Your local religious minister may use many of the same techniques as you, but he really believes the doctrines he promotes. He is quite convinced he is doing nothing more than opening people’s eyes to the truth—setting them free. Which means he does not need to fake anything. His voice conveys real warmth. His eyes glisten with genuine fervour. The same is true of the political zealot peddling her leaflets on the street corner. At least she believes the claptrap she peddles. She doesn’t have to pretend.
We, the first generation of Followers, know that the beliefs we are selling are an ingenious fiction concocted by our Leader. While we plan that future generations will be sincere devotees, we, the First Wave, must unfortunately learn to fake that brand of misty-eyed enthusiasm. Take it from me, it’s an illusion difficult to sustain for any length of time.
Knowing you as I do, I think this is what you will find most difficult, the challenge you will have to work hardest to overcome. As that unfortunate incident involving your father’s car made clear, you are not a good liar. And you are prone to overintellectualize. That might have proved an advantage in the academic world of our college, but out there in the real world, it produces pitfalls.
True, because we know we are deceivers, we have a great advantage over our sincere counterparts in other cults. We have studied the techniques necessary to enslave minds coldly and dispassionately—even scientifically—and have thus became far more knowledgeable and skilful than our competitors in their application. But do not underestimate the advantage our counterparts have over us. An advantage that will become quickly apparent to you as you embark on your first project. The truth is, it is only later that the intellectual traps and snares come into play. You will doubtless be eager to apply the bogus arguments, seductive fallacies, and other intellectual sleights of hand that you have mastered so well. But patience, patience! Take that route too quickly, and your victim will smell a rat.
The first step in ensnaring any mind is to focus on your patient’s emotions. Emotion is the unlocked door on which we need only gently push to gain initial entry. Your patient must be seduced into feeling comfortable with you, liking you, admiring you. You must appear to exude warmth and compassion. You must seem to possess both depth and sincerity. You must be able to touch their sleeve, look into their eyes, and make that special connection. If they suspect, even for a second, that you’re a fake, the game is up. Their critical defences will come crashing down and your job will be one hundred times as hard. Fake sincerity—that’s the thing. If only we could bottle it.
Here’s my suggestion. Focus on one patient to begin with. That’s a far more effective way of sharpening your technique. But how to find your first recruit?
My advice is to join some clubs: chess, model making, hiking, dance, acting, that sort of thing. It doesn’t matter what, just so long as there’s plenty of opportunity for one-to-one or small group chat. Strike up conversations with people in cafés and bars. Keep returning to the same places, so that you become a familiar presence. Slowly, you will build a circle of acquaintances. Appear confident and positive. Be fun to be around. And remember—no mumbling into your coffee. Be direct. Above all—make eye contact. Then, without appearing to pry, begin to ask them about themselves. They’ll be more eager to tell than you might imagine. Slowly build up a picture of their emotional life, of their hopes and fears, of what they most care about. Pretend to open up to them, you’ll find that they will then open up even more. The more they come to trust you, the more vulnerable to your wiles they will become. Then, slowly and carefully, begin to draw up your plans.
Good hunting!
Your affectionate aunt,

The Bodgers Centre
4 March 2008

Dear Woodworm,
My congratulations! You have assembled an impressive collection of “friends,” built up a picture of their emotional vulnerabilities, and even selected your first patient. A thirty-two-year-old woman somewhat unhappy at work, few close friends, feeling a little lonely, still waiting, with increasing anxiety, for that “special someone” to come along and fill her life with love and meaning. She looks an excellent prospect. You have even let her half imagine that the special someone might be you!
The idea of the dinner party was a masterstroke, Woodworm. A small, intimate setting in which the conversation can be steered gently in the direction you desire without anyone becoming particularly suspicious. Just you, your patient, and two other Juniors playing the role of “friends.” I have no idea why, but sharing food with someone always helps create a special bond. A little wine to lower the inhibitions, just the right questions asked, seemingly in a casual, offhand way: “Do you think that when you’re dead, that’s it?” I particularly approve of “I used to worry about where my life was headed.”
You say your little fake confession of earlier torment caused a tear to appear in her eye. Luckily, you didn’t overdo it. You gave just a hint that perhaps you had a deep secret, a source of inner contentment and security, of which she had managed to catch a momentary glimpse. And, once her curiosity was fired, you changed the subject, so she got not even a whiff of the fact that she’s the fish on your hook. She was intrigued and left wanting to know more.
Most important of all, she left feeling good. She thought she’d communicated in a special way. She felt she had really been given a rare opportunity to address things that had been gnawing away at her. That feeling, Woodworm, that emotion you caused her to have, is our Archimedean point—the fulcrum on which our whole enterprise now turns.
In a few weeks, you will invite her to the Retreat. But not yet. I want to hear you have made real progress in the meantime. First, she must want to know more about that “inner strength” you seem to exude, that quiet certainty you have. Get her wondering where it comes from? If she could acquire it too? Leave clues. But no details just yet.
Why not? The truth is that the core beliefs of almost any cult or religion, if written down in unvarnished prose on the back of an envelope, will strike anyone unfamiliar with them as ridiculous. “You believe that?” they’ll say, dumbfounded. “Why on Earth do believe that?!”
            That is precisely the reaction you’ll get from this doob if you play your hand too soon. “If only . . .” I often find myself thinking. If only we had access to them when they are children, when their intellectual and emotional defences are so much weaker, while they exhibit such uncritical, sponge-like eagerness to accept whatever a grown-up tells them. One day, I hope, we will have our own schools. Portraits of our Leader will beam serenely down from our classroom walls. Each day will begin with the singing of one of our enervating anthems. The curriculum will devote time every day to the study of our Leader’s inspiring words. Think of the opportunity such institutions will give us! But it’s early days. We don’t have them yet.
What such schools are after, of course, is usually not, as some of you novices seem to think, the opportunity to churn out mindless automata uncritically devoted to the cause. No, no. Desirable though that would be, it is an entirely unrealistic expectation given the unfortunate fact that the little darlings are exposed to so many rival ideas and pressures outside the school gates. Such ideas and pressures have a powerfully corrosive effect on those in which they’re indoctrinated inside school.
No, it’s impossible for a school to achieve a high degree of mindless acceptance without, say, the assistance of a family with very tight control over to whom their children speak and to what ideas they are exposed, a family that reinforces the indoctrination with further psychological manipulation both inside and outside the home, including subtle or not so subtle threats of complete social ostracism should the child ever leave the faith. This is the kind of assistance most faith schools don’t have.
Today’s post-Enlightenment, secular culture is wonderful in that it offers new movements such as our own a voice in the marketplace of ideas. It thus gives us a chance to enslave the minds of the unwitting. But, at the same time, it puts pressure on us to sign up to certain liberal ideals that are, in truth, a great obstacle to our mission—ideals such as that people should be encouraged to think and question, should make their own judgements, should not to be heavily psychologically manipulated as children, and so on. Which is why we have to pretend that we want only to give young people an “opportunity to explore their spiritual side” and other such nonsense.
Mindless followers are, I repeat, not what the schools of the schools of the mainstream religions usually aim for (though some do). They aim merely to till the soil and sow the seeds of faith, seeds that they hope may one day bloom.
Here’s the real secret, Woodworm—gain access to the mind of a child and you can apply the anaesthetic of familiarity, enough to last a lifetime. To a child, the barmy doesn’t seem barmy. Get the child to feel that our beliefs are actually perfectly natural and sensible and then, when the child grows up, the harsh, barmy edges of doctrine will no longer stand out like a sore thumb. Our thoughts will seem comfortably familiar, particularly if they have been endlessly associated with powerful emotional experiences and rites of passage—weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and so on, For such an adult, ludicrous beliefs no longer seem particularly ludicrous. In fact, such beliefs can feel like “coming home.”
But I digress, Woodworm. Our own schools remain a fantasy for the time being. I mention them only to flag up a further advantage the mainstream religions have over us on the emotional front. Their schools may not churn out true believers. But they do produce minds that have at least been tilled and prepared, that are at least not entirely unreceptive to their doctrines. Indeed, their belief systems have in many cases successfully been woven into the fabric of the societies they occupy. To nonbelievers raised in such a society, accepting even a ludicrous set of beliefs can seem remarkably “natural.”
The harsh edges of our nuttiest doctrines, by contrast, would be blindingly obvious to our patients to begin with, were we to reveal them—which is why you must keep them under wraps for the time being. Our patient is not yet ready. The emotional soil must first be tilled.
But it’s not all bad news, Woodworm. We do have at least some advantages over many of our competitors. Remember that, unlike that of the mainstream religions, our own teaching will seem alien and exciting. While we lack the advantage of our patients having been previously anaesthetized to the utter barminess of what we teach, we do at least have the advantage that our doctrines, presented in the right way, can seem exotic and new.
So let’s proceed slowly with your patient. Don’t reveal too much. Otherwise the frankly ridiculous character of some of the beliefs we peddle will be detected and she’ll be off. But we do want to convey a sense of the exciting and exotic.
Here’s what I suggest. Randomly drop feel-good words like “peace,” “contentment,” “spiritual” and “moral,” into your conversation rather more often than might be expected. Keep working on exuding that sense of inner strength and certainty that you have been faking so effectively. Radiate warmth. Touch her sleeve. Find some excuse to mention, seemingly only in passing, that you meditate. For goodness sake don’t use the word “pray”—that’s far too familiar and fuddy-duddy. “Meditate” will sound far more exotic, far more mystical, to her naïve ears.
We want her to sense that there’s something exhilaratingly different hidden away inside you—that provides you with a source of inner strength and contentment. Something that, perhaps, she could have too.
The questions will come. . . .
Your affectionate aunt,
Agatha Tapescrew

The Bodgers Centre
23 August 2008

My Dear Woodworm,
Yes, as you say, she is hooked. She has heard you speak the name of our movement and she has not flinched. Most importantly, she has agreed to accompany you to the Retreat to “explore her spiritual side.” Fear not—our people at the Retreat know what they are doing.
The key, of course, is to produce a feeling. I once saw a bishop engaged in a debate on the whether Jesus was “the way, the truth and the life.” The bishop, along with a Christian philosopher, was up against a couple of atheists. The atheists were clearly getting the better of the argument and many of the Christians in the audience were beginning to look uncomfortable. In one or two cases, doubt was creeping in. You could see it in their eyes.
The bishop, as last to speak, was masterful. He forgot about reason and argument and all the trappings of “winning” by intellectual means. He lowered his voice and appealed instead to personal experience—an experience relating to what he called “the meaning of life.”
I’ve seen this done before, but the bishop was particularly good at it. He started with jokes, but then gradually began to speak more softly and with feeling. In our quietest moments, he said, each one of us—yes, even a cynical atheist—is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is . . .
 . . . Jesus!
There was much sombre nodding from the Christian Union contingent. I noticed their eyes were now strangely lit up. When the bishop sat down, there was moment of quiet, reflective calm before the applause broke out.
Now, at the time, I made the dreadful mistake of thinking that the bishop had lost the debate. The arguments had all gone against him. Only much later did I realize that the bishop had won—spectacularly so, in fact. The truth is that the bishop was not out looking for new recruits that day. His real aim was to shore up the faith of waverers—to ensure that the application of reason didn’t result in the raising of significant doubt. And in that he succeeded.
How? By invoking a feeling. It all begins with a feeling. No one really comes to sincere belief in religious doctrines on the basis of an argument. They come because of how they feel deep down inside.
Different cults rely on different feelings. Some focus in anger and resentment. Others on feelings of helpless, insignificance or submission. But more often than not, the feelings that really do the trick are hope and, most importantly, joy.
The bishop reminded his Christian brethren of a feeling. It didn’t really matter what it was. It could be a sense of loss or disappointment. Of a “hole” in their life. A sense of justice, or injustice. It might even be something as tacky and sentimental as “the strength to carry on” that Mariah Carey sings about in the song “Hero”:

And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you
Of course, the Muslims and Jews in the audience had such feelings too. But when they looked deep inside, they found Allah, or Yahweh or whatever. And the atheists, puzzled, could find nothing more than a feeling. I could see them sitting there, scratching their heads, wondering what on Earth the bishop was on about.
But of course the bishop wasn’t interested in them. His concern was with only the Christians in the audience. The bishop spoke softly and with sincerity and conjured up a feeling—and then reminded the assembled Christians of what they already knew in their hearts—that this inner light is Jesus. And why did this work? Because calling such feelings “Jesus” is such a familiar part of their cultural landscape. They have so often felt such feelings and had it suggested to them that they are experiencing Jesus, that, when they have such a feeling right now, well that’s just how it seems to them. They know it’s Jesus. They can just see him there, deep down at the bottom of their soul, glimmering. Nothing could be more obvious to them.
That, my boy, is how the bishop won. At the Retreat, your patient will be isolated and disorientated. Her mind will be messed with. She will be taught a little about Glub. But, much more importantly, we will ensure that she has feelings. The fasting, music, chanting, incense, meditation, ritual, the sense of community, of belonging, of that special, felt connection with others that is so rare nowadays—all these things will combine to produce powerful and unusual feelings in her, particularly feelings of hope, and above all, joy. Then, when she is deep in a reverie of such emotion, you will take our patient by the hand, look deep into her eyes and say, in a calm, steady voice, “My dear, in your quietest moments you’re aware of something, aren’t you? You might try to deny it, but you know there’s something down there, at the bottom of your soul, don’t you? It’s a light, isn’t it? A small, still light. Can you see it there, glimmering, like the evening star? Look closer. . . . Closer still . . . See . . . ? Can you see what it is yet . . . ?
It’s Glub, isn’t it?”
And as she looks more and more closely, the recognition will finally break over her: “Oh my gosh! Yes . . . yes. . . . it really is Glub!”
Once she knows through personal experience the truth and reality of Glub, she will very probably be ours forever. No mere argument will ever be able to loosen our grip on her. For whenever any such intellectual threat pops up, we need only gently remind her of what she already knows deep in her heart! When critics present her with rational challenges to her belief, she will quietly and confidently reply with the words of Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”
Of course, I am simplifying. The recipe we cook up at the Retreat is a complex and heady brew into which is mixed many other important ingredients.
For example, the patient will be shown the good works our Followers do—the compassion they exhibit, helping out in their local community, providing food to the homeless and so on. That will further lower her guard. “These are good people!” she will think. “So much more generous and caring than the people I have spent my life with up to now.”
And then we will repeatedly ask her the question: “But what if this teaching were true? How wonderful would that be! What a prospect! And you have nothing to lose, do you? So why not make the bet? Why not at least give it a try? Go on take the plunge!”
Chances are, she will take the plunge, particularly if she’s surrounded by others whom she sees joyously jumping in. Who wants to be the sad, solitary frump standing at the poolside when everyone else is in there splashing about in delight? She’ll jump. And then we’re in!
But as, I say, it is above all the cultivation of the feeling that we must focus on. Without the feeling, she’ll may only take a quick dip. What we require is a lifetime’s immersion.
Your affectionate aunt,

The Bodgers Centre
4 October 2008

My Dear Woodworm,
Everything appears to be going swimmingly. The Retreat has worked its magic. Your patient has a new circle of friends, and is becoming immersed in the new, structured, lifestyle that we had created for her—the endless round of meditation classes, talks, socials and so on.
As we planned, the patient believes she is finding value, meaning and purpose within the social, intellectual and moral framework into which she has now firmly been plugged. She has entered what must seem to her to be an enchanted garden. Of course, the enchantment will eventually wear off somewhat. She will begin to see that it’s not all wonderful inside this cosy world we have created for her. Which is why we must now begin to cultivate another emotion: fear. Even if she comes to see that not everything inside the garden is entirely rosy, she must learn to fear what lies outside its walls. She must eventually become so emotionally dependent upon our garden that the prospect of leaving it must appear to her to be a truly terrible thing. While joy may be what brings them in, it is often fear that keeps them here. Our patient must feel that to leave would be to fall from the light back into darkness—into the cold, lonely, meaningless oblivion from which we have rescued her.
But now to a more specific concern of mine. You write in your last letter of how you have been reasoning with the patient, thereby convincing her of the truth of some of our doctrines. Well, you are a gifted and able thinker. I don’t doubt that this naïve doob, entirely untrained in philosophy and the dark arts of persuasion, is putty in your hands. But you are making a terrible mistake if you place too much emphasis there.
Don’t misunderstand me. Yes, it is desirable that she believes reason is largely consistent with our doctrines, perhaps even supports our doctrines to some extent. But don’t go beyond that. For then she may end up supposing our doctrines rely on reason for their acceptability.
Which, reading between the lines, seems to be precisely what you have been suggesting to her, you fool. Once she believes that it’s only reasonable to believe such things because they are reasonable, well then we are in big trouble. The next time some smart aleck doob comes along able to pick apart these dainty confections of intellectual bullshit you have been serving up to her, her faith will crumble in a minute!
You have been teaching her unqualified respect for reason. That is not the right attitude to instil. A better attitude is fear. She should fear applying reason, particularly on her own, unsupervised by an appropriate authority such as yourself who can set her back on track should she err. At the very least, should made to feel uncomfortable or guilty about “going it alone” with reason.
I don’t mean she should be concerned about applying reason generally, of course. There’s no reason for her to think twice about applying reason when filling in her tax return, calculating how many tiles she need for her bathroom or any other mundane matter. There’s no harm, either, in her respecting the role of reason in science. At least up to a point. But get her to acknowledge that there are limits to what reason can reveal. Quote Shakespeare at her—“There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.” That sort of thing. But also imply something further. Imply not just that reason cannot properly be applied beyond a certain boundary, but also that it is wrong even to try. It is arrogant and sinful to attempt to exercise reason and freedom of thought beyond a certain point.
Take a leaf out of this book written by these two Jewish scholars, for example:
We have been commanded not to exercise freedom of thought to the point of holding views opposed to those expressed in the Torah; rather, we must limit our thought by setting up a boundary where it must stop, and that boundary is the commandments and the instructions of the Torah. . . . if a person feels that the pursuit of a particular argument is seriously threatening his or her belief in what is clearly a cardinal principle of Judaism, there exists an obligation to take the intellectual equivalent of a cold shower. . . . [Jewish scholars quoted by Solomon Schimmel in his The Tenacity of Unreasonable Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 47]
Note this idea of setting up a boundary in the patient’s mind. She must feel that, as she approaches this boundary armed with reason, warning bells are going off and red lights are flashing. She must feel that reason, fine in everyday contexts, is downright dangerous when applied to matters of faith.
Remember those Bible Belt church signs that read, “A freethinker is Satan’s slave”? Preachers erect those signs to encourage the belief that, when it comes to thinking freely about matters of faith, Satan will be at our elbow in a moment, leading us away from the Truth. Such preachers want their followers to suppose that, when it comes to their religion (it doesn’t matter about other religions, of course) a freethinker is a fool whose arrogance will lead him to hell. A simple, trusting faith must prevail.
True, we have no Satan or hell with which to threaten our Followers. But we do have the reverse side of Glub: Boogle. Talk about Boogle to her. But remember, fear works best when aimed at something hidden and mysterious. Once the monster in the sci-fi film is seen, its terrifying qualities are inevitably diminished. Monsters from your own Id are always far more terrifying. Boogle must remain a cipher in the shadows. Hint at the existence of Boogle, but be vague. That way, her imagination can take over. Boogle will become her own Room 101.
Actually, none of this is to say that the patient should suppose her powers of reason can never be applied to our doctrines. They can be used, but only in the service of those doctrines, to deepen our understanding of them, not to challenge them! Given the tiresome, post-Enlightenment respect for this overrated thing called “freedom of thought,” people will eventually accuse us of thought-control—“You want to enslave minds, even children’s minds. You want to turn off their ability to think and reason.” To this, we can, truthfully, if very misleadingly, reply: “No we want individuals to be able to reason and think well! In fact, we encourage them to question! Come along to one of our sessions and you’ll see.” What we don’t mention, of course, is the boundary: the boundary that we have set up in the minds of our Followers, the boundary that is marked by a sign that reads: “By all means think as freely and as often as you want, but up to here and no further!”
And of course, having officially signed up to the virtues of reason and freedom of thought, we have the perfect excuse to endlessly fire off at our opponents what our Leader describes as the Blunderbuss. “Look!” we can say to our new recruits as we let off salvo after salvo of irrelevant or invented “problems” at the unbelievers. “See how they struggle to answer our questions! Their respect for ‘reason’ is ironic, don’t you think, when they cannot use it to answer us? You see, in the final analysis, both our belief systems are faith positions. Both require a leap of faith!”
Let our opponents try to dig themselves out from under that load of ordure.
Your affectionate aunt,

The Bodgers Centre
12 February 2009

Dear Woodworm,
Your last letter is a source of serious concern. Her brother is visiting for a week, you say. Bad news indeed. And not just because our patient will be reminded of positive features of her old life, her old habits, her old ways of thinking.
The brother is clearly aware that we’re up to something. He is not a religious man. And he has been asking questions, you say. Questions rather more direct and to the point than we usually get.
This man clearly fails to pay the kind of respect that’s usually accorded any sort of “spiritual belief.” The impertinence. This is a critical time for us. Even now the patient could escape our clutches. The arrival on the scene of someone our patient clearly likes and respects, someone who treats our teaching as if it were just a set of beliefs like any other, could wreak havoc.
The brother must be disarmed. You say you have been invited round for dinner to meet him? Here is your opportunity.
As that first glass of wine is poured, he will probably say, ever so innocently, something like this: “So, you are the person that has introduced my sister to these new beliefs she has been telling me such about?” If you are not forthcoming with any details, he will eventually follow this up with a series of simple, straightforward questions, apparently expecting straightforward answers.
Do not, under any circumstances, give them. Our patient is not yet so caught up in our mindset that she will be entirely immune to the patent absurdity that a succinct and unvarnished statement of our teaching is likely to reveal. Yes, we have cast our spell over her, but the magic has not yet fully set.
I suggest you employ the strategy that our Leader calls Moving the Semantic Goalposts. Turn to the Handbook and reread that section with care. Whenever the brother matter-of-factly asks, “So you believe so-and-so, do you?” Suggest, slightly condescendingly, that he has misunderstood our teaching. For example, you might say, “Oh dear! You appear to have taken us literally. That’s not what we mean.” Do not, however, edify him. Do not tell him clearly and succinctly what we do mean. That’s for us to know, and him to find out!
If he tries yet again, just continue to move the goalposts around some more, “Ah, I see you have again misunderstood.” Perhaps add, “Of course, you must remember we are using the language of metaphor and analogy—it’s rather foolish to take such language at face value, you know.”
If he asks exactly what the analogy is, waffle. Use words like “spiritual,” “transcendent” and “ultimate” a lot. Wave your arms around in a vague way and look up, as if you are have some profound insight, and searching for just the right words to convey it, but can’t quite succeed.
In this way, you can endlessly give the brother the run around. True, in some contexts, that you are employing such a sleight of hand with words would quickly become clear. However, some things really are difficult to express properly, aren’t they? Our subjective experiences, for example, can be difficult to articulate. How we feel about something can often only communicated to others in a rather fumbling and imprecise way, which allows much scope for misunderstanding. There’s no denying that saying, “Ah, but that’s not quite what I meant,” is sometimes an entirely reasonable response to a criticism.
Use this to your advantage. Your patient believes she has had an experience of the transcendent, of the “other.” You must stress that our access to what lies beyond is inevitably restricted. We can at best catch only glimpses. It’s all very much “through a glass darkly.” Admit that it’s hard to capture using our everyday vocabulary. And of course, because what she had was a feeling, it very probably is very hard for her to put into words! So your excuse will look plausible.
If any picture you paint of what lies “beyond” is inevitably vague and impressionistic, then it will inevitably be vulnerable to misinterpretation. But then any criticism of what we teach about what lies beyond can conveniently be put down to some misunderstanding on the part of our opponents.
Indeed, try saying this: “You see, what we ultimately believe is ineffable, is beyond the ability of language to express.”
Trust me—this works. I have applied this same wheeze over an extended period of time without it ever dawning on my opponents what I was really up to. Do the same!
A little character assassination can enhance the effectiveness of Moving the Semantic Goalposts. Remember to imply at every opportunity that her brother is being terribly crude and unsophisticated in his ham-fisted attempts to characterize and criticize what we believe. Notice I said, “imply”! Your patient no doubt loves her brother and may not respond well to a direct accusation. So never explicitly accuse her brother of being an unsophisticated, unspiritual twit. Rather, adopt an air of calm intellectual and spiritual superiority. Be just a little bit condescending. But—and here’s the key—even while adopting that air of superiority, it’s important to keep reminding them both how terribly humble you are. Admit that you cannot articulate the essence of that in which you believe, that you are struggling vainly to express in mere human language what you nevertheless know in your heart to be true.
Your humility will be sure to impress the patient, and the contrast between your calmness and the brother’s mounting anger and frustration as you endlessly shift the goalposts about will become more and more obvious to her. You will seem humble and open minded. The brother will increasingly appear dogmatic, unspiritual and, I very much hope, aggressive.
This exercise in character assassination will be nicely rounded off with a suggestion of arrogance—get the patient thinking that her brother is being arrogantly dismissive of things that he doesn’t even properly understand. Remind them both that there are “more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamed of in his philosophy. Shouldn’t her brother be showing a little humility? Notice the delightful switcheroo we pull here. We are the ones claiming certainty, yet we end up appearing humble while he is portrayed as the arrogant know-it-all! You’ll enjoy the delicious irony! But remember—don’t be caught savouring it.
There is a second strategy that will also prove invaluable in dealing with the brother—the Way of Questions. Look it up in the Handbook and study it well. Don’t let the brother be your interrogator. You must become his. For every question he asks you, ask him three back. Get him on the back foot.
Of course you must not come across as inquisitorial. Pretend your questions are merely for “clarification”—you just want to understand more clearly where the brother is coming from, so you can properly address his concerns. But here’s what you actually do: hit him with a series of thorny philosophical puzzles with which he’ll inevitably struggle. I recommend two in particular:
1. Ask him why he supposes the universe exists. Why there is something rather than nothing.
2. Ask him how he is able to know right from wrong. How is he in a position to say that something truly heinous, such as slavery, is wrong? Or, better still, the Holocaust?
If the brother is an atheist, or agnostic, he’s not going to have pat answers to these Big Questions. As you will know from that training in moral and religious philosophy we gave you, they are awfully deep and difficult questions to which there are no simple, easy answers (one of the reasons we provided that training is precisely so you can use it to tie people like this irksome brother up in knots).
The fact is, we don’t have good answers to these questions either. But we pretend we do. We say, Glub is the explanation for why there is anything at all. We say, Glub provides us with our moral compass in this otherwise treacherously uncertain and increasingly morally depraved world.
Our patient will be impressed by the fact that, while her brother struggles with such tricky moral and metaphysical questions, we do not. We offer quiet, calm, simple, certainty. As your patient looks back and forth between—on the one hand—your serene, wise and confident expression and—on the other hand—the look of exasperation creeping across her brother’s face as he struggles and fails to provide an adequate justification for condemning the Holocaust, your job will be more than half done. Indeed, the thought might even cross your patient’s mind that her brother is morally rudderless!
Even if the brother manages to deal successfully with your first round of questions (which, he almost certainly won’t) you can just ask another “clarificatory” question, and then another: “Ah, I see. But then let me ask you this. . . .” “Hmm, that’s interesting, but what do you mean by. . . .” This will tie him up in knots, very probably leaving your patient with the impression that you are the winner in this little intellectual exchange. The truth, of course, is that you never dealt with his penetrating questions. But the chances are your patient won’t even notice this, or even remember what his questions were, after half an hour or so of the Way of Questions!
At the very least, if you combine these two techniques, the patient will be left with the impression that the debate between you and her brother is all square—that neither side can be said to have achieved a decisive victory. And that is all the space we need in which to operate.
Your affectionate aunt,

The Bodgers Centre
28 June 2009

Dear Woodworm,
I have not heard from you for a while. Gibbons tells me (yes, I have my spies in Oxford) that you haven’t been into our Oxford centre much over the last few weeks. I very much hope that is because you are beavering away with your patient, whose brother, I anticipate, has now been dispatched?
Let us hope so. If you suspect the patient is having doubts, and if the other techniques I recommended are not proving effective enough to allay them, then let me share with some further thoughts passed on to a select group of us Seniors at one of our Leader’s training sessions held in the South of France last week.
First of all, our Leader says he wants us to focus attention more on morality. He believes we have been missing a trick there. We must get our patients thinking, first of all, that morality depends on religion. That’s to say, get them thinking people won’t be good without religion, that religion provides us with our only moral compass. Take that compass away, and society will eventually slide into moral degeneracy.
Of course, that morality depends on religion is something your patient probably believes already. That is because the mainstream religions hijacked morality long ago. They created the myth that morality is their invention. They took the basic universal prohibitions against stealing, lying, murder and so on, rigidly codified them, added a few idiosyncratic prohibitions of their own (typically concerning sexual practices and foodstuffs) and said “Voila! Religion has created morality! Without us, there is no morality!
Never mind that there’s growing scientific evidence that our morality is in large part a product of our evolutionary history. Never mind that the least religious Western democracies—Sweden, for example—are in many respects the most socially and morally healthy. Never mind that in traditional Chinese society—in which the dominant cultural force was not religion but a secular ethical doctrine, Confucianism—levels of ordinary morality have been much the same as in parts of the world dominated by transcendental religion. Because “morality depends on religion” has been endlessly repeated by religious folk—it is the one mantra they all share—it has, in many corners of the world, become a factoid, an unquestioned part of the cultural landscape. No one really thinks about it. They just accept it. Even many atheists (some of whom, while not religious, nevertheless suppose religious belief is therefore desirable in others—especially those lower down the socioeconomic ladder, who might otherwise burgle their house).
Take advantage of this widespread myth. Say, “Yes, morality does indeed depend on religion.” Then add, “But of course, it has to be the right religion, doesn’t it?”
As I endlessly repeat to you—the key to recruitment is not reason but emotion. However, the fact is that the emotions on which we rely change. As I have already mentioned, we seduce new recruits with joy, but, as they begin to mature into seasoned Followers, we must increasingly come to rely on fear. Fear of loss of friends. Fear of loss of meaning and purpose. Now our Leader wants us to add another fear to the mix—fear of moral oblivion. Get our Followers holding tightly onto nurse, for fear of finding something worse. Our Leader wants our movement to achieve official status. He wants the state to recognise it as an important moral beacon—providing moral guidance to young people who might otherwise fall into degeneracy and sin. This way, we may even receive government funds. Certainly, there will no longer be any official resistance to our starting our own schools.
At the conference (which, I must say, was lavishly catered for—never have I tasted such smoked salmon) our Leader spoke of something else too. What we ultimately want, he forcefully and inspiringly reminded us, is what he calls the Vision Thing.
The vision of which our Leader spoke, is not, of course, a vision—of heaven, or a religious figure descending, or anything like that. No, no. Not that there’s anything wrong with our Followers having that sort of vision, of course. Sometimes they do. But our Leader meant something much less trivial. He was speaking of the all-encompassing mindset. He gave us various examples.
Sometimes a conspiracy theorist will become so enmeshed in their theory that they can just “see” that it is true. Wherever they look, they find their theory fits. Of course, what they are really doing is finding a way to make it fit. They interpret whatever they experience in such a way that it “makes sense” on their world-view. They also develop no end of moves to explain away anything that might look like a rational threat to their belief system. Anything that might seem not to fit—that the conspiracy theorist can’t fully make sense of—is put down to the powerful and sometimes mysterious and inscrutable forces and plans of the conspirators. The conspiracy theorist supposes that he is the one whose eyes have been opened to what the rest of us cannot see. He turns on his TV of an evening, and discovers that each news item only further confirms his worst fears about the spread of the Conspiracy. He looks out of the window and sees agents of evil spying on him from that parked car across the street. Eventually, the Conspiracy becomes so obvious to him that he is astonished the rest of us can’t “see it” too, especially after he has pointed it out to us in some detail. So he supposes that we must be part of the Conspiracy. Either that, or our minds have been “got to” somehow. By them.
The Vision Thing is not uncommon in the political sphere, of course. Witness the Marxist who, wherever he looks, finds that Marx’s theories account for what happens. It all fits. It all makes sense. So obvious does it become to our Marxist, in the end, that she’s astonished we cannot see what’s going on in front of our eyes. Have we somehow been blinded by the forces of capitalism? Perhaps our senses have been dulled by the opiate of the masses?
The religious person too, can achieve such an all-encompassing vision. Indeed, people often say that religious faith is something like a perspective on the world, a way of viewing it. We fling open our curtains in the morning and see sunlight. They fling open their curtains and see the glory of God flooding into their room. It’s so obvious to them, they wonder why we can’t see it too. They suppose we must be defective. “Perhaps,” they think, “it is because they have been corrupted by sin? Or led astray by devils?”
The Vision Thing can be produced in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it is a product of long immersion in a political ideology, or some internet-based conspiracy theory mindset. Sometimes it is a result of drug abuse. Sometimes it is caused by a mental illness. Sometimes it happens quite spontaneously. Occasionally, people look at the world and suddenly, apparently for no reason at all, just “see” that it is imbued with a kind of cosmic radiance.
Of course, others look and are suddenly consumed by a very different vision—a vision, say, of the world as the product of some awful cosmic malignancy. Those who have the latter sort of experience—and they are more common than you might imagine—tend to be put on medication. Those who have the former sort of experience tend to put on a dog collar. Had we the advantage of being one of the established, mainstream religions, many of those spontaneously having the first sort of experience would walk in through our doors, already converts!
What we are after with every patient is, our Leader helpfully reminded us, the Vision Thing. Our patients must come to see—with their hearts, if not their eyes—that our teaching is the Truth—that it accords in every last detail with everything they have ever experienced. They must find that it ultimately makes sense of everything.
I am concerned by the lack of communication, Woodworm. Get in touch. Now.
Your aunt,

The Bodgers Centre
14 September 2009

Finally, a missive from you. But I would rather not have received it. The brother, it turns out, is a skeptic – someone who insists on subjecting claims of a supernatural or extraordinary nature to close critical scrutiny before accepting them? And the patient shows signs of becoming one too? She has even signed up for a class in critical thinking? How could you have let this happen, you oaf? Now we discover why you have been so quiet of late. You have failed catastrophically.
Had I been forewarned that the brother is a skeptic, well, we could have made plans. We could have at least prepared to Go Nuclear. But now it is too late.
Remember, at the end of the day, all we have got is a collection of extraordinary claims for which we can provide scarcely a shred of evidence. Other than that we say they are true. That’s it!
Of course, all other cults and religions are in the same boat, yet that has not stopped them from flourishing, sometimes spectacularly so. How do they achieve such extraordinary success? Rule Number One is this: They manage, by one means or another, to obscure the fact that the evidence for what they believe is simply that they say it’s true. Either that, or they succeed in neutralizing this fact by making it seem unimportant. They insist that the truth of what they say is known, not on the basis of evidence, oh no, but in some other, deeper way—“with the heart,” or some other codswallop with which they fob off their respective followers.
Ultimately, you had one simple, basic job to do: to deal with the otherwise obvious thought that the only real reason our patient has got to believe any of this twaddle is that we say it is true. Which is hardly much of a reason, is it? That, Woodworm, is the one thought that, above all, you should have suppressed or neutralized. Yet that is the one thought you have allowed to pop—nay, explode—in the patient’s head, and with devastating consequences!
You say she is now doubting even the “experience” we worked so carefully to cultivate at the Retreat? You say she thinks we have been playing with her mind? She supposes she may merely have felt certain powerful emotions that she mistook to be some sort of revelation? Good grief. We are sunk.
How on earth is our cult to expand if it has to rely on gurus as incompetent as yourself? The consequences of such an error will be serious, my boy. Our Leader does not forgive failure. You were warned.
Your bitterly disappointed aunt,


Corny said...

"However, I do think that some religious folk have been encouraged to think in ways that effectively trap them inside a bubble of belief - an intellectual black hole, as I put it in the book (and plenty of religious folk would agree with me about that, of course)."

I agree, but couldn't we say that about anyone?

I know of sports fanatics who actually think that they can give their team luck just by wearing a specific shirt to a game, in fact look at this article from ESPN that states 1 in 5 fans try to improve the luck of their team by superstitious acts.

Article states:

"WASHINGTON -- It didn't take Heather Pate long to figure out why her beloved Auburn University football team had begun losing. It was the pink toothbrush.

Pate, a lifelong fan of the school, has long refused to own anything with even a hint of red, the color of archrival Alabama. That puts her among the one in five sports fans who say they do things in an attempt to bring good luck to their favorite team or avoid jinxing them, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday.

The survey showed no real difference by gender, race or education in whether people try finding a way to help their team win. But those who do tend to be younger and make more money than those willing to risk letting the athletes determine a game's outcome. They also are more likely to be single.

A nurse from Eldridge, Ala., Pate said she refuses to own a red car or purchase anything crimson. So when she recently had to spend time in a hospital after the birth of her twin sons, she was aghast when she noticed someone had brought her a pink toothbrush. Auburn promptly dropped two straight games.

It was all because of that "red toothbrush,'' Pate, 28, said this week after responding to the AP survey.

There was no significant difference among the fans of various sports in how superstitious they were, the poll showed.

Twenty-four percent of college basketball fans admitted to trying something lucky to help their team and 20 percent of professional basketball followers said the same thing. Fans of professional baseball, and of college and professional football, fell in between.

Other fans who answered the poll had their own techniques for influencing the final score.

Lisa Rawlinson, 40, a pharmaceutical sales manager from Huntington, W.Va., won't watch crucial Cleveland Indians games on television. She didn't watch Sunday night but her Indians somehow lost the decisive game anyway against the Red Sox, allowing Boston to creep into the World Series, which starts Wednesday.

Todd Williams, 33, of Lexington, Ky., likes to watch University of Kentucky games clad in Kentucky blue-and-white apparel -- and clutching his lucky basketball. For Yankees fan Paul Hegyi, 31, of Sacramento, Calif., it's a lucky bat -- which failed him last week when the Indians bumped New York from the playoffs.

Mario Alvarado, 40, of Houston leaves Houston Texans' football games if they are trailing. He did so Sunday and by the time he turned the game on at home, the Texans had taken a lead -- only to lose as the Tennessee Titans kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.

"If I hadn't turned it on, I probably wouldn't have jinxed them,'' he said.

The poll was conducted from Oct. 16-18 and involved telephone interviews with 1,013 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points"


Corny said...

As a New York Yankee fan myself, I remember the days where NY and Boston fans would speak of the "curse of Babe Ruth" before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, heck to this day there are still some Chicago Cub fans that think a black cat is the cause of their 100 year draught of never winning the world series.

Now I am looking to get your book, because I am certain now that you were not out to bash religious people, however I'm curious on your take here with these sports fans. 1 in 5 fans is a significant number.

Stephen Law said...

Nice story, Cory - thanks.

Well don't forgive me too soon as I do suggest religions are particularly prone to producing IBHs. Which is not the same as saying they are all IBHs.

Jan said...

Do not buy this book from Amazon. They do not pay UK corporation tax.