March 26, 2008

Do They Really Believe What They Say They Believe?

The epigraph to chapter 12 of Mark Twain's Following the Equator reads,

There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."

Twain attributes the quotation to "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar."

And while in Paris on May 7 1879, Twain wrote in his Notebook, "Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of."

I know one, now retired, clergyman who in the middle of his ministry realized that much of what he was preaching was false. But he was stuck. He had children in college and no other training that would feed his family without considerable disruption. The choice was between keeping faith with his family and breaking "faith" with his congregation. So he continued to preach every Sunday a message that he believed to be nonsense. He prayed for the sick knowing that there wasn't a shred of evidence that it did any good and he performed the sacraments believing that they were not sacrosanct. His retirement lifted a weighty burden from his shoulders. He was finally free to act morally in the world without hypocrisy. I have suspected that there were several others of my acquaintance that were just going through the motions or who spent considerable amounts of time trying to defend, at least for themselves, what they knew to be false. Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu's (Mother Teresa) well publicized struggle with her own faith provides a high profile example. She soldiered on. By the way, I am not actually all that critical of these folks. Much of Mother Teresa's work had positive secular value, as did the work of my unbelieving minister friend.

But there are those who clearly do believe or at least will go to extraordinary lengths to make us think that they believe. Pandit Surinder Sharma, an Indian tantrik, seems to be such a person. Earlier this month, he tried to demonstrate the power of his faith on Indian television.

He [Pandit Surinder Sharma] claimed that he was able to kill any person he wanted within three minutes by using black magic. Sanal [Sanal Edamaruku, a skeptic] challenged him to try and kill him.

The tantrik tried. He chanted his mantras (magic words): “Om lingalingalinalinga, kilikili….” But his efforts did not show any impact on Sanal – not after three minutes, and not after five. The time was extended and extended again. The original discussion program should have ended here, but the “breaking news” of the ongoing great tantra challenge was overrunning all program schedules.


After nearly two hours, the anchor declared the tantrik’s failure. The tantrik, unwilling to admit defeat, tried the excuse that a very strong god whom Sanal might be worshipping obviously protected him. “No, I am an atheist,” said Sanal Edamaruku. Finally, the disgraced tantrik tried to save his face by claiming that there was a never-failing special black magic for ultimate destruction, which could, however, only been done at night. Bad luck again, he did not get away with this, but was challenged to prove his claim this very night in another “breaking news” live program.

During the next three hours, India TV ran announcements for The Great Tantra Challenge that called several hundred million people to their TV sets.

The tantrik now began to use everything in his tool kit: fire with color changing magic stuff; writing Sanal’s name on a sheet of paper, tearing it to small pieces, dipping the pieces into boiling butter oil and throwing them into the flames; burning peacock feathers while singing.

. . . Sanal smiled, nothing happened, and time was running out. Only seven more minutes before midnight, the tantrik decided to use his ultimate weapon: the clod of wheat flour dough. He kneaded it and powdered it with mysterious ingredients, then asked Sanal to touch it. Sanal did so, and the grand magic finale begun. The tantrik pierced blunt nails on the dough, then cut it wildly with a knife and threw them into the fire. That moment, Sanal should have broken down. But he did not. He laughed. Forty more seconds, counted the anchor, twenty, ten, five… it’s over!

Millions of people must have uttered a sigh of relief in front their TVs. Sanal was very much alive. Tantra power had miserably failed. Tantriks are creating such a scaring atmosphere that even people, who know that black magic has no base, can just break down out of fear, commented a scientist during the program. It needs enormous courage and confidence to challenge them by actually putting one’s life at risk, he said. By doing so, Sanal Edamaruku has broken the spell, and has taken away much of the fear of those who witnessed his triumph.

Now Pandit Surinder Sharm's attempts to make Sanal dead surely appear to demonstrate faith in the face of ever growing negative evidence. Sharma must have truly believed this stuff, otherwise why would he risk exposing himself and his religion to public humiliation? Or is it the Sharma hoped the test would end in a way that would allow him to use one of those familiar copouts: some other god is interfering; nonbelievers or skeptics somehow keep things from working correctly; etc. He actually tried the first of these.

So you think the "black magic" of the tantrik is different from the activity of some other clergyperson who invokes a god or gods to do his or her perhaps more benign bidding. Don't be so sure.

And yes, I am familiar with the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. You'd expect the magic of a Yahwistic prophet to prevail against the magic of the prophets of Baal in something redacted (or wirtten, if you like) by a Yahwist. But how would Elijah's magic work against the godless or even the open minded skeptic?

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars

Posted by Duane Smith at March 26, 2008 7:44 PM | Read more on Religion |

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Nice post. But you do know that you're going to burn in Hell for it, right?

Ariel Glucklich has an interesting take on Indian Magic in a book called "The End of Magic." Some of his case studies are intriguing, even unsettling at times. He covers sleight of hand all the way through spirit-possessions and exorcisms. Throughout the book he tries to develop a sort of cognitive-phenomenological approach to the whole experience of magic while also outlining all the other major approaches to magic. It's hard to get one's head around it all and his approach may not even be all that convincing in the end, but it's a cool book. I think I'm in a better position to sympathetically imagine Mesopotamian magical practices having read it.

Posted by: Alan Lenzi at March 27, 2008 7:47 PM

Hey Duane - an article in English!! No Ugaritic today - blessings to you. I wrote a response here (but didn't mention the tantrik - what a great story - Indian Reality TV!)

Posted by: Bob MacDonald at March 27, 2008 9:07 PM

There is still one more explanation for the results of the experiment: That the atheist truly is worshiping another spiritual being who is providing the protection. Not to say that I am advocating this, that or the other position, but I am a skeptic regarding atheism.

Posted by: Looney at March 29, 2008 9:09 PM

Thanks for a good post, and thanks to to Bob for a good response. I'd only say that anyone: "who invokes a god or gods to do his or her perhaps more benign bidding" risks idolatry, the great unfaith to which we humans are highly prone. So highly that we all do it, though some of us believe that we ought not to!

Posted by: tim bulkeley at March 30, 2008 4:55 PM

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.
Send me an email if it is important.