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21st February, 2011

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Beware the full moon rising

A few days ago the author attended a meeting of a special committee of the local council. Discussion immediately centered on a recent outbreak of vandalism. After a few comments from committee members, the chairman chimed in, "Get ready for Saturday night; it's a full moon!" The same man - one of the most knowledgeable men I know - had made similar comments on a number of previous occasions in other contexts, but I had always assumed he was speaking tongue-in-cheek. It suddenly hit me; he's serious. He really believes that a full moon effects human behavior. He's not alone. A little bit of digging with Google quickly demonstrated two things:

•  Belief in lunar effects (BILE) is ancient and widespread. According to one report, over 50% of university students believe that full moons cause outbreaks of psychiatric disorders (lunacy), while an even higher proportion of health workers, especially nurses, subscribe to the idea;

•  Statistical and scientific studies almost unanimously demonstrate no correlation between human behavior and phases of the moon.1 No, casualty wards at hospitals do not experience an influx of patients suffering mental disorders; in fact, the admission rate probably doesn't increase at all. When it comes to possible health effects of lunar cycles, one intriguing correlation has been found: "A significantly higher (p less than 0.001) incidence of urinary retention was observed during the new moon in comparison with other phases of the lunar cycle."2

In short, the belief that the full moon impacts human behavior (dubbed the Transylvania Effect) has almost no basis in fact; belief in the idea can only be regarded as a superstition, along with belief in the folly of walking under a ladder and the sinister power of black cats. Yes, we can be forgiven for thinking that a link may occur, inasmuch as the intensity of light coming from the moon obviously varies with its phase. In theory, it's plausible that the extra light of the full moon may affect some people by disturbing sleep patterns. But the evidence doesn't support our intuition in this case. (Just how a drop in light levels at the new moon may cause a mild increase in urinary tract problems is anybody's guess.)

All harmless enough, perhaps, to believe something in

error. But where do you draw the line? When does mere ignorance become something more sinister? When does superstition become sin? That is actually quite a difficult question to answer biblically. Many people, including many Christians, believe in water divination. While BILE at least has a veneer of scientific respectability due to variation in lunar light intensity, water exerts no force on a metal or wooden rod. Physicists have a pretty clear knowledge of forces on planet earth, and, unlike the moon which sends electromagnetic radiation pulsing our way, water exerts no force other than gravity. The notion that an aquifer can pull a rod downwards is superstition of a much higher order. And when a believer tells me that they have divined and that it works, I get worried. What is making the rod bend down? Are we at this point beginning to wander into forbidden territory? Scripture is quite explicit in its condemnation of all things "sorcerous":

There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord. (Deut. 18:10-12).

Contrary to popular misconception which brands the Bible as "superstitious", the Bible actually condemns all dabbling with. well. what should one call it? The problem that faces those who sincerely seek to understand the mind of God should not be underestimated. Figuring out precisely what each of these condemned practices entails is no small feat. Oh, sure, the general idea is clear enough; adhere to "the law and the testimony" (Is. 8:20) and flee from everything. well. superstitious. But as for the details, that's another matter. You see, we don't really know what these words mean.

The big question lies in figuring out how far "downwards" these words go on a scale of evil to benign practices. Does water divining come under the head of witchcraft or soothsaying? How about wearing amulets around your neck to protect you from electromagnetic radiation? You probably know Christians who have done that. What about putting little devices on your water faucets to line up the water molecules and supposedly impart special properties to the water? Or attaching little boxes (that you buy from an accredited dealer, of course) to the engine block in your car to improve fuel efficiency? This is a matter that desperately needs some serious study by Bible students.

1Although research on the topic yields hardly any peer-reviewed papers that support a correlation, you will find one or two studies that do seem to support a weak connection between moon phases and visits to the doctor, but not for psychiatric reasons. See "The effect of the full moon on general practice consultation rates" for example. Possibly people simply are more active when they can see more easily.

2Urinary retention and the lunisolar cycle: is it a lunatic phenomenon?


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