Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Wrong Rite Reviews

My local newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, recently started adding movie reviews by regular people to supplement its professional reviews. Last Friday, two of them reviewed a horror movie called The Rite. It's been panned by critics (currently 17% on RottenTomatoes) and it got one star in the U-T. But remarkably, both "citizen reviewers" not only liked the film, but treated it practically as though it were a documentary.

First up is a 63-year-old guy who says the movie is "based on real experiences ... and presents what I believe is a theologically accurate picture of the battle between the forces of good and evil." The movie does claim to be based on true events, but it's absurd to take such extravagant assertions at face value, especially when the parties involved have a monetary interest in selling the story.

The second reviewer is a 14-year-old girl, who's even worse. "I enjoyed learning a lot about exorcism because I never knew anything about it before. I got the chills when I imaged what 'the possessed' must go through," she says. "I would recommend this movie ... if you like learning about the world of devils, demons and exorcism." She seems to be accepting the views presented by a fictional movie as if they were facts taught in a classroom.

It genuinely saddens me to see that the thinking of so many people is apparently stuck in the Dark Ages. We have a pretty good idea of why claims of demon possession exist: they result from a potent combination of mental illness or drugs, communal reinforcement, and the placebo effect. Stories of such events can also be exaggerated due to faulty memory (very common in high-stress situations) or transmission from person to person, and fabricated to gain attention or strengthen faith.

Demon possession is already an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence, but since we can already explain why people think it happens, that need for evidence is compounded. So what should the believers do? Get the James Randi Educational Foundation or a team of impartial psychologists to observe an exorcism. Get video footage of people's heads spinning around and furniture flying through the room that couldn't have been plausibly faked. Or preferably, do both at once. But don't pretend that anecdotes from heavily biased religious sources are even remotely convincing.

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