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Those Were the Days... PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

No matter how much we write, lecture, or complain, it's easy to think that we've made little progress. Do you remember 1981? I do. I was as sophomore in High School, and I loved the occult. There was a little shop in Salem, MA where I grew up called Crow Haven Corner. It was run by the "Official Witch of Salem," Laurie Cabot. Yes, that Salem. I grew up near where the witches were hanged and attended Witchcraft Heights Elementary School.

They sold potions, amulets books, etc. It was the only shop of its kind in town, right across from the Witch House, which is the former home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges during the witch trials.

Fast forward nearly 30 years, and Salem has become witch and psychic mecca. Crow Haven Corner has moved to a bigger location, and faces competition from a dozen or more similar shops.

Despite all the work of Steve Allen, James Randi, Arthur C. Clarke, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, etc. etc. etc., these beliefs persist and thrive, and dishonest or at least deluded people still make money on them.

But all is not doom and gloom today. We have made considerable progress. By "we," I include science and technology, because they're on our side. That's the side of progress and reason. To illustrate this point, I'd like you to watch the attached YouTube video. After you're done, please continue reading.

Yes, that was only 30 years ago. Now, you probably get most if not all of your news from a computer, and it takes a few seconds to load. You can gain knowledge, talk to and see people a world away, and visit places you've never been, all from the comfort of your chair.

In 1981, the only way to do those things was to actually be psychic. Now, the "psychics" are using applied science in the form of the Internet to bilk more people. Science has advanced, and psychics have merely tagged along. In thirty years, psychic abilities have yet to be reliably detected, let alone improved anyone's life. So, if you want to be able to gain new abilities and perform wonders, look to science and technology to make those things happen. "Ancient wisdom" isn't going to get the job done.

It's good to remember that we are making progress. There's still a lot of work to be done, and there probably always will be, but reason and science will win the day.

 

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written by José, January 27, 2009
One thing that's always struck me as odd about Salem becoming a mecca for wiccans, is that they seem to forget the fact that all the people that were executed in the witch trials were not witches. In fact, if all those wrongly accused in the trials were to judge a modern day wiccan, they'd probably fight over who gets to fit the noose.
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written by JeffWagg, January 27, 2009
Ooops, had the wrong video linked. Sorry!
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Attack of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
written by w_nightshade, January 28, 2009
I am reading Scottish crime author Christopher Brookmyre's book Attack of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks (AotURD) and it is an excellent examination of this phenomenon (as well as a brilliant subversion of all one's preconceptions about psychics & sceptics, as well as a cracking good story). I would highly recommend AotURD to any readers of SWIFT.
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written by TDjazz, January 28, 2009
Good article, Jeff. But in the penultimate paragraph you state, "In 1981, the only way to do...those things was to be psychic." I politely beg to differ--psychics at that time had no such power to "...gain knowledge, talk to and see people a world away, and visit places [they've] never been, all from the comfort of [their] chair." They were delusional charlatans as they are today, with no psychic power at all.

I understand what you intended to say, but that sentence still struck me as odd.

(Great video! Good thing online newspapers are more "spiffy looking" today--and take less than two hours to load. smilies/wink.gif)
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witches
written by MadScientist, January 28, 2009
The witch hunts were aberrations in history; they were widely denounced and quickly outlawed. It is always good to read comments on the subject written in the same era; many people knew back then that belief in witches was superstition and that witch hunts were cruel and evil. The witch hunters and their supporters were always a minority in the USA (although popular fiction would seem to train people to believe otherwise).
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 28, 2009
"The witch hunts were aberrations in history; they were widely denounced and quickly outlawed."

The European witch hunts lasted for centuries, from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Were you referring only to the American version? They lasted about two years or so in the 1790s. Can't trust my memory as I was just a child then.

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Anachronism
written by pxatkins, January 28, 2009
Salem witch trials occurred in 1692; there was no USA then.
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written by Cuddy Joe, January 28, 2009
Oops, 1690s. Thx, px.
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written by MadScientist, January 28, 2009
@pxatkins

Yes, no USA then, but Massachussetts is part of the USA now and so is Salem, Baltimore, etc, and the witch hunts are part of US history even though it predates the war for independence; it's not as if all the people in those areas packed up and left when independence was declared, many descendants of the people affected by the witch trials would have been among the first citizens of the union. There just weren't many witch hunts in the geographical region which is now the USA; how many witch hunts have there been in Louisiana and Alabama? I don't know about tribal practises though - maybe they had witch hunts. So the British colonies of that region (later the USA) generally condemned the witch trials. It would be incorrect to believe that everyone was unenlightened and that the witch trials were common or even accepted by the general public. What is frustrating is that about 100 years later people like Benjamin Franklin wrote profusely in condemning such superstitions and ignorance in general, and over 200 years later the war against ignorance rages on. For examples of the modern terrors which superstition seeks to inflict on people, just have a peek at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's website.
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Cotton Mather
written by mackhitch, January 28, 2009
Actually, Cotton Mather, no intellectual slouch of his time, believed in witches. He attended one attempt to discover if a woman was a witch in which the water test was employed. If she floated she was a witch. If she drowned, innocent. Because of her abundance of clothing and underclothing she floated like a lily. Most of the Wicca interest is simply because it is camp. When I was in Roswell, NM, I purchased some trinkets from one of the eight flying saucer stores. And even when my car's compass stopped working while passing the supposed crash site, I didn't become a believer.
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written by Kuroyume, January 28, 2009
@MadScientist:

Just nitpicking, but at the time it was known as the American Colonies. The United States of America didn't exist until the Declaration of Independence. And that was 'tentative' until Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown and the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781. I don't go around calling it the "Italian Empire" when it is the "Roman Empire" even if modern Italy and earlier Rome existed in the same place. smilies/smiley.gif

As already noted, witch hunts went on for several hundred years in Europe for such things as the Black Death and other misfortunes. See Elizabethan England, Germany, and Denmark for some more objectionable witch/warlock hunts. The Reformation was particularly effective at instigating witch hunts since it was so fundamentalist. The Roman Catholic institution wasn't quite as fervent but may have participated in such so-called 'witch hunts' as part of its Grand Inquisition.
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written by skywolf, January 28, 2009

written by José, January 27, 2009
One thing that's always struck me as odd about Salem becoming a mecca for wiccans, is that they seem to forget the fact that all the people that were executed in the witch trials were not witches. In fact, if all those wrongly accused in the trials were to judge a modern day wiccan, they'd probably fight over who gets to fit the noose.

But thats how mecca worked too they saw a huge black rock said that looks cool lets pray to this. praying at something is in all religion might as well make it significant
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written by qbe9584, January 28, 2009
Just to point something out, for a lot of the analysis of belief and superstition, I think the point is being missed. Societies evolve. Why would societies evolve religious and dogmatic structures if they were so harmful? Beliefs can even survive when the core belief has been debunked. So, belief structures, unlike conceptual models are not informational. Nobody is part of the Phlogiston Liberation Front. So if you are wondering why belief structures seem to be expanding, maybe the questions should be focussing on what people do better with a belief system, and how that would give them an advantage. Then see if any movement based on Enlightement values can use the same features to create a movement that is intellectually honest, and similarly advantaged.
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written by José, January 28, 2009
Why would societies evolve religious and dogmatic structures if they were so harmful?


You could make the same point about why we crave fatty foods and sweets. If you're living in society where calories are scarce, the drive to feed that craving can be essential to survival. In a society where there's no shortage of calories, these same cravings can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and a whole host of other nasty things.
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written by José, January 28, 2009
@skywolf
But thats how mecca worked too they saw a huge black rock said that looks cool lets pray to this. praying at something is in all religion might as well make it significant.

Not quite. Muhammad was actually born in Mecca and the city has a long actual association with Islam. Salem has no actual history with witches. It's just a place where some paranoid/corrupt anti-witch zealots once accused other anti-witch zealots of witchcraft.

And I'm not defending the merits of venerating any religious site. I'm just pointing out that there's a bit of irony involved as far as Salem and Wiccans are concerned.

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written by phiend, January 29, 2009
Yes, that was only 30 years ago. Now, you probably get most if not all of your news from a computer, and it takes a few seconds to load. You can gain knowledge, talk to and see people a world away, and visit places you've never been, all from the comfort of your chair.

In 1981, the only way to do those things was to actually be psychic.


So in 1981 you had no way of seeing people a world away, or of talking to them? When were television and the telephone invented again?
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written by bosshog, January 29, 2009
Jose:
"You could make the same point about why we crave fatty foods and sweets."
Good point. We crave fats and sweets not because we consciously, willfully and rationally respond to scarcity in the food supply but because we are, due to countless generations of natural selection, hard-wired evolutionarily to stock up on calories when they are available against future famine.
There have been theories put forward to the effect that the will to believe is hard-wired into our brains in much the same way and that it takes a conscious effort to overcome this instinctive pull, just as it takes a conscious effort to resist fatty foods when they are available. Perhaps belief serves as a safeguard against the endless theorizing and contemplation that would cause us to fall prey to the saber-toothed tiger in the cave entrance while we studied him and his habits. Any explanation that serves to free us for effective action is valuable to our survival, whether it is actually true or not. When we engage in incest God punishes us by giving us deformed babies. Very well - incest is forbidden.
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written by Alan3354, January 29, 2009
We've made very little progress. As evidence, there are still churches being built. Large buildings at enormous expense, and people go to listen to fairy tales, and then give money to the witch doctors/ministers/priests.

The ONLY difference between religion and superstition is $$$$$.
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written by oodiesmith, February 01, 2009
This is sort of funny. Crow Haven Corner and Laurie Cabot were instrumental in making me the skeptic I am today. I've always been of a skeptical nature, but in recent years i have become a more passionate and hardened skeptic. In 1990 I visited my American family in New Hampshire. My uncle drove me to Salem, just to do the tourist thing. We went to Ms Cabot's shop; she was very nice, polite, and not in the least bit nutty. I bought, just for fun, a set of tarot cards. When I returned to Australia i learned how to read these cards. Later, when i was at university, i would read the cards to tourists at the night markets by the beach near my home. It was just to help me pay the rent.I honestly thought that most people understood this was entertainment of a sort. But more and more often i found myself across the table from someone who believed, really BELIEVED this stuff. Their belief, their intensity, their sheer wide-eyed neediness was very frightening to me. I had never experienced this sort of thing before. At the time i wasn't familiar with the term "cold reading", but that was what i was doing, and i thought it was obvious that i had no psychic powers. But no, people would tell me "Wow, you really got that right, how did you know?" I used to tell them i didn't know, that i had asked them questions, and they had told me the answers. This was in a small town where i was sort of well known, and it wasn't long before these believers were knocking on my front door, offering me more money to bull**** them for an hour or so. I really didn't have the heart to take their money, and so i stopped reading tarot cards and began washing rental cars instead. Anyway, it was kinda cool to see Crow Haven Corner mentioned on this, my favorite skeptic's site. smilies/smiley.gif
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