Basava Premanand (1930-2009)

On October 4 of this year Basava Premanand died.

You may never have heard of Premanand, but in addition to physically reminding me a bit of James Randi, Premanand also had his own paranormal challenge and dedicated his life to debunking “godmen” of India. Just days before he died, according to a special release of the e-zine Bangalore Skeptic, he drafted and signed a statement attesting he was of sound mind and still as skeptical as ever. He didn’t want any tales of death-bed confessions to haunt his reputation, after his death.

If you haven’t ever heard of Premanand, I urge you to look him up and read about him and the sorts of problems Indian skeptics are addressing.

V Goes to Jesus Camp

From behind a Guy Fawkes mask, reminiscent of V, he explains in his first video what we’re about to see as we click on one, and then another, “Camp Trip” video links.

“I’ve made about 300 videos on my [Youtube] channel, and most of them featured me, without any disguise. I started making the videos in September 2008, but after my most recent call to The Atheist Experience, my Youtube channel was suspended fraudulently. The Youtube atheist community is having a very hard time dealing with fundamentalist Christians and apologists, who falsely flag our videos as ‘inappropriate’ or file false copyright claims (which is, in fact, a crime). Once my channel was restored, I decided to play it safe and hide my identity, just to make sure that a cursory examination of my channel and videos would not draw suspicion from my family members or their church. Aside from that, the irony of a Guy Fawkes mask is not lost on me; though he was a Catholic conspirator trying to destroy a Protestant government, my use of the mask mirrors the motive of the V character. I am a strong supporter of free speech, and took up the mantle whilst Christians continue to infringe upon the rights of others on Youtube, and in the rest of the world.”

“Shwanerd,” as he bills himself on Youtube, originally surfaced during a phone call to The Atheist Experience. He gave the call screeners the name “James,” and described himself as a 16-year-old, from a Pentecostal home, living in Canada. Then, like V, live on the air, he proceeded to publicly broadcast his plans: to post a series of home-spun “Jesus Camp” styled videos chronicling his own experiences at a religious retreat over summer 2009.

He explained he had gone to camp as far back as he could remember, and said he had begun seriously investigating his faith only a few years prior to the call, with the intention of defending it against skeptics. Ironically, his research, intended to defend his faith, eventually led him to the conclusion that his faith was indefensible. He soon realized he had deconverted himself.

Asked to describe what he went through during that time, James said:

“My level of religious fundamentalism peaked around the age of 12, when I was watching Kent Hovind seminars and Ray Comfort’s Way of the Master series in church. My critical thinking skills must have been sorely lacking at the time, and much like Matt Dillahunty’s quest to ‘save souls,’ my efforts to reinforce my beliefs only made them less believable. I began to follow the Youtube atheism movement in late 2007, and by 15, I couldn’t reconcile my Christianity with real facts—real evidence.

“I was always interested in science, and when I truly grasped the concept of evolution, I realized how tenuous and foolish my religion was. I couldn’t compartmentalize my beliefs, as so many people do in the face of contradictory evidence. Rather, my whole worldview was forced to change dramatically. In the span of only about a year, I went from young-earth creationism to old-earth deism, ‘wishy-washy’ agnosticism, and finally the kind of ‘strong-atheism’ Matt often describes on the show (at least regarding all gods ever worshipped in human history).

“Even divorced from that scientific refutation of the Bible’s teachings, I was also able to at last grasp the absolute moral repugnance of the God character in the Abrahamic religions. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe or worship such an evil concept.”

The videos are nearly all set to the same melodic, ominous tune. “The music you hear most often on my recent videos is the instrumental version of the song ‘Cells’ by a now-defunct band called ‘The Servant.’ It is more commonly recognized as the theme song for Sin City. I think the music matched well with the current tone of my videos, as well as having a recognizable (and awesome!) guitar riff.”

Most of the clips include brief introductions by James, followed by simple video of the camp activities—consisting mainly of sermons by youth ministers. These preaching sessions are supplemented by religious messages in giant letters, presented on a projection screen on the stage behind the speaker. In the first video, Shwanerd zooms in to show the text:

“Because He lives, I can face tomorrow…Life is worth living, just because he lives.”

Presented to these children as a statement of affirmation, the group appears oblivious to what James is highlighting with his zoom, an ominous indoctrination “message behind the message” that without this religion, the adherent might as well be dead.

In other segments, we’re introduced to more “affirmations” that feature fear and control themes, to which the young audience also seems oblivious. The minister preaches on enthusiastically:

“Just be willing to go where god wants us to go.”

“You can’t have a casual relationship with Jesus…you ask him to come into your life and be your Lord…to be the one who is calling the shots. To be the one who is completely in control of what’s going on in your life.”

To some outside the faith community, these words may be either sad or frightening: a crowd of young people being instructed by a respected authority figure to relinquish responsibility of their choices and actions—to not dare to guide their own destinies. The question these segments present is, “If these young people do not guide their own lives, and there is no god, then who, exactly, inherits control over these myriad young minds?” It is the youth minister who acts as the mouth of god, telling receptive young minds what god demands of them.

Another indoctrination technique demonstrated in the videos includes taking advantage of something called compartmentalization, a mental technique of separating conflicting opinions and never considering them together—as a means to maintain two incompatible concepts within a single mind. In this way, an otherwise reasonable person can become unreasonable in isolated areas of his or her life. An example of this would include a competent professional accountant whose personal finances are in shambles due to poor money management application at home. The accountant has demonstrated money management competency, but fails to consider or apply this competency in a specific situation. Observers may be mystified at how someone so professionally competent with money, can exercise such incompetence in personal financial matters. But contradictions like this aren’t uncommon—demonstrated in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

The minister shouts, “Put Jesus in a category all his own!” He explains Jesus is unique and unlike anything else these children will ever know. He encourages them to put this belief on a pedestal—to not place this belief on par with other beliefs. Other beliefs can be questioned or rejected, but this single, unique belief is special and cannot be viewed like, or compared with, other beliefs. It needs to be set in a specialized and separate compartment, away from other thoughts and ideas. The children can question or put aside belief in Allah. They can question or put aside belief in nationalism. They can question or put aside belief in family loyalty. But they cannot question or put aside belief in Jesus.

The next message James tapes is the minister telling the children that believing in things without justification is a valued attribute, that belief based only on belief, not on evidence or reason, should be their goal. Examples on the video include the following statement:

“Holy Spirit,” the youth minister prays, “…give me faith to believe.”

James understands that his skeptic audience will wonder why any person would request “faith” to “believe.” Beliefs, to the skeptic, are ideas built upon examination of evidence offered by reality—not on merely wishing to beli
eve, what the minister calls “faith.”

The videos are interspersed with visual messages of James’ own, skeptic humor borrowed from Internet sources. He often uses a cartoon image of a soldier in a tank labeled “Occam’s Howitzer: Blowing the [explicative] out of stupidity.” James credits a British Youtube atheist with the original idea.

He uses an unorthodox definition of Christianity that features a “Zombie Jesus” and a “rib woman” (Eve). James recognizes the images and text are inflammatory. He calls it a “crude…very humorous and blunt examination (more like, over-simplification) of the core beliefs in Christianity,” and adds that “it exposes the religion for its absurdity, and pulls no punches.”

Hits on James’ videos number in the thousands, with like-minded viewers posting comments like these:

Xphobe: “I couldn’t listen to the whole thing. I’d rather be waterboarded.”

Mickdornfad: “This is brilliant entertainment. I feel sorry for the people of the future (when religion will be gone) who will only get this sort of entertainment in the cinema.”

Percymate: “You should add a laugh track to this [explicative].”

James’ Youtube frankness is a contrast to his personal life, where most people have no idea what he believes or what he’s doing on the Internet. James’ father, a fellow atheist who only recently came out fully to his son, is also a victim of social pressure, and feels a need, for now, to remain closeted about his (lack of) belief.

“My father is definitely an atheist, albeit taking a less intellectual route in making his decision of nonbelief than I have. When I was a young child he rarely attended church, calling himself ‘Catholic,’ but being one in name only (not in practice). The family moved to my current town, and when my mother joined the largest Pentecostal church in the area, she slowly won my father over. He started attending church again—several years ago. I’d even go as far as to say he began to take Christianity seriously.

“As of late, however, we both confide in each other about our lack of belief. He’s always had trouble with tithing, and could never take Bible stories seriously—Noah’s ark, Jonah and the whale, and so on. Like me, he is ‘in the closet,’ and, so far as I know, doesn’t talk to anyone but me about his atheism. The current situation in my family is our greatest concern; at this time it would be a bad idea to ‘come out’ as atheists, really for the sake of other family members. They would experience unnecessary grief and anxiety at a time when that is the last thing we want to do. It would also make it harder to ‘deconvert’ others in the family, if we wished to do so in the future.”

When I sent this article off to James for review, he added a brief note to his approval notice: “…the only other interesting news I have is the recent deconversion of a friend of mine. He used to be a Muslim and will be making videos that I’ll be posting to my channel. He has to keep things even more secretive, since he knows his family has a ‘moral obligation’ to kill him for Allah if they found out!”

My initial instinct was to assume James was kidding about the killing statement. So, I asked. James wrote back, “Well, he has told me that very thing several times, in a way that seems like he wants to be joking about it—but he’s actually concerned. He’s much more afraid of being ‘outed’ than I am, that’s for sure. He only became an atheist in the past month or so, but he certainly doesn’t think he’d ever revert back to Islam again—knowing what he knows now.”

Don’t misunderstand. I know how parental threats or claims of disapproval can be exaggerated in the mind of a minor. I’d be the first to admit that I think it’s far more likely that James’ friend fears—and would face—a social familial backlash and not actual murder.

For the record, though, James and his friend, living as closeted atheist minors in their religious parents’ homes, do not represent a situation that is as rare as you might suspect. It’s fair to say that this represents one of the more familiar categories of letters we receive regularly on the AETV-list—minors writing in to say “I’m afraid my family will find out,” or to ask “how should I break the news to my parents?”

In the meantime, James will continue posting his sacrilege incognito, and hopefully keep us updated on anything significant at his channel.

Why Martyrs?

Lying: for Fun or Profit?
Once upon a time there was a little boy, apprentice to a shepherd, who lived in a small village. One day his mentor told him he was old enough to tend to the flocks alone. The boy was given a staff and instructions that if a wolf approached the flocks, he should shout out long and loud “Wolf! Wolf!” so that the villagers would know he was in trouble and rush to his aid with pitchforks and axes. But, the boy was warned, this was nothing to take lightly. It was important that such an alarm be raised only in the event of real danger—only upon seeing an approaching wolf.

Do you remember the rest of the story? The shepherd boy thought it would be quite funny to upset the town into chaos and watch the population scurry about excited and scared, running to his aid. And he exercised his new power by calling out “Wolf! Wolf!” in the absence of any real danger—much to the anger of the villagers. In the end, when the real wolf approached, no one answered the boy’s cries as the wolves stalked into the flock and killed the sheep.

The main moral to the story has always been that if you lie, people lose trust in your integrity—which could cost you later, when you need their help and trust. But there is something else to be learned. This is an old story. It’s so old that we can’t really say who came up with it. Certainly the “wolf” in the story is undeniably reminiscent of old European tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. But who knows?

Why did the boy lie? We all know what he lost—but we’ve grown so used to the tale that we’ve forgotten to ask the other central question: What did he gain? Before you read on, seriously, consider this question. On what level does the boy’s lie make sense? What did the boy gain? What was his motivation to lie? Does anyone really ever ask this when they remember this story?

To put it simply, it was fun for the boy to lie. It amused him to think that the villagers could be controlled by a word from his mouth—fooled by a simple shout: “Wolf!” An entire audience at his beck and call. So alluring to his mind, he couldn’t wait to test it out.

What I’d like to call out, though, is that in this old story we have an example of a general understanding of something we sometimes forget: Sometimes people don’t need a material motive or benefit to lie. Sometimes, psychologically speaking, lying is it’s own reward. When the boy lied he exercised control of others and amused himself. Why, when we hear this story, do we not respond, “But I don’t understand—why did the shepherd think the boy would lie—and so warn him not to do so? And why did the boy lie? The story makes no sense.” Nobody says this, because the story does make sense. The boy’s lie makes sense. We have no material benefit, but we totally understand the boy’s motive to lie.

We know that people sometimes lie for “no good reason.” Some people like to lie. Some people like to cause chaos. Some people like the idea of controlling others and being the focus of attention—having that small power over others. And we understand that.

In fact, as Munchausen by Proxy demonstrates, some people will kill their own children, lying all the while by claiming the kid is chronically ill, to get that sort of attention.

These are people who are married, who have jobs, who may be surrounded by friends and family who think they’re caring parents. But deep in their brains, these people are very, very needy—beyond anything I, and hopefully you, can imagine. They have a deep need for attention that overrides everything else—even parental instincts to protect their own children.

They don’t need a large audience, either. The Munchausen crowd usually only has immediate friends and family and some hospital staff at their disposal. Maybe a name in the paper if they’re caught. Just like the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!,” it’s extremely localized attention—but worth their child’s life. All it takes is someone to listen to them—to pay attention to them. And infamy works just as well as fame to fill this emotional void.

Consider the Salem Witch Trials. A handful of girls become the focus of a small community’s attention when they feign fits and attacks by local “witches”—knowingly responsible for the torture and executions of a dozen or so innocent friends and neighbors. And for what? For a game of “let’s pretend,” where the girls get to be the center of attention? Where the village listened to them—paid undivided attention to their every word? It must have been intoxicating—all eyes on them, waiting, breathlessly, for their next tale of terror—waiting to see who would be accused next of flying through the air, consorting with feline familiars or having sex with demons.

People who lie for attention will kill their own children. People who lie for attention don’t care if their lies cause harm and death to others. People who lie for attention don’t care if it’s just a handful of people giving it to them. People who lie for attention can be your next door neighbor. They’re among us. They’re not all locked in asylums somewhere. They function as working parts of our society. However “abnormal” they may be deep in their brains, they are “normal” enough to be socially integrated until, and unless, they are eventually discovered when they cross a legal line.

The Claim: “Nobody Would Die for a Lie”
Christian apologist Josh McDowell’s book More Than Just a Carpenter, so it’s stated online, has a chapter titled “Who Would Die for a Lie?” If you’re not familiar with this theist argument, here are a few theists explaining it. I like to let Christians speak for themselves when it comes to restating their claims, so I’m not later accused of building or responding to Strawmen. Emphasis throughout this article is mine.

“Nobody would die for a lie knowing that it was a lie. Many have died for a lie, but they did not realize they were dying for a lie. They thought they were dying for the truth. Fact is, all the Apostles, save John were killed for their preaching. Some were speared to death; some were killed with a sword; some were beheaded and some were beaten to death. Why is this a logical and reasonable validation of the New Testament? The answer is they had first hand knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.”
Pastor Bobby W. Leggett in the December 23, 2008, Blanco County News (TX) “Focus on Faith” section, contribution of an article titled “Is the Bible Reliable and Valid?”

If you’re like me, you may have had to read it more than once to realize he was actually arguing on behalf of the validity of scripture. You might have noticed that he rebuts himself when he begins with “Many have died for a lie, but they did not realize they were dying for a lie. They thought they were dying for the truth.” It sounds like something an atheist would say to rebut his later point—that these Christian martyrs believed these things happened, but were simply wrong. Still, his conclusion is not that a martyr’s death demonstrates their conviction, but that it demonstrates that what they were convicted of is true. See his last line.

“…the greatest testament to their honesty was the fact that they were persecuted under the Roman government and died for what they believed in. People may die for the truth, but nobody would die for a lie that they conceived.”
Timothy Minich contributed his article to th
e Christian section of a site called “bigissuegrou.com.” It has an atheist section that includes religious articles actually presenting religious views.
Minich supplies an apologist’s view, above.

Just like Leggett’s claim, Minich claims that it’s impossible that anyone would die for a lie if they knew it was a lie—if they, Minich qualifies, conceived the lie themselves.

“This is one of the reasons, years ago, that I decided that the resurrection must have happened. Otherwise who would die for a lie? These were people who had a passion for the message of Christ, who were willing to take up their crosses daily to spread the word. Who goes into strange lands, traveling hot and dusty roads, with little money, into lands that are unsafe and where they could easily die a painful death, all for a lie?”
–Reverend Dr. N. Graham Standish, September 7, 2008, sermon, online at www.calvinchurchzelie.org.

Above, we can’t dismiss that the very first sentence of this theist’s claim undeniably connects the idea that if a person would die for a claim it is evidence the claim “must have happened.” As he notes, these people “could easily die a painful death”—and he cannot accept a person would be willing to risk that over a lie. He doesn’t even add the caveat that it could have been a lie they believed. But I’ll add that, myself, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s make the claims all as reasonable as possible:

If a person knows their claim is a lie—such as a claim someone made up himself—it is impossible that person would die for it.

I believe this is not only fair, but a generous interpretation of the arguments, as stated, above.

Three Giveaways
I can think of three scenarios right off the bat that defy the claim above. I am going to explain them, and then discount them as “giveaways”—and I will explain why.

Coercion 1: This would be a situation where someone who knows you is being interrogated, and they name you as someone who was running around preaching the resurrection. It is a lie. You know it is a lie. You are brought in and beaten and questioned. You, like many people today who admit to murder due to police interrogations that I will wager are not nearly as horrible as what I would expect to encounter in antiquity, tell them whatever they want to hear to get them to stop beating you. You hope for leniency, but you are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

Coercion 2: This would be identical to coercion except that you know you will be executed. You tell them what they want to hear in order to die, because they are not going to believe you were not preaching, and ultimately you will either die painfully and slowly or be more quickly executed, which you deem is preferable. You confess and are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

Protecting Someone You Love: Someone reports to the authorities that a person in your house was preaching the resurrection. You know it was your child, who is involved with the Christians. You lie and say it was you. You are arrested and executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

In any of the three situations above, somebody would, understandably, die for a lie. They would also be logged as a religious martyr, that is, someone who died for their religion. People would die for lies—even lies they knew were lies. And nobody can deny that people have offered confessions to capital crimes, under coercion, or to protect other people. Such people have been discovered and sometimes exonerated.

But, let’s overlook those demonstrated examples of people who are willing to die for lies they, themselves, have manufactured or understood were lies. Let’s overlook it because the first objection will be that martyrs were preaching the resurrection and refused to recant. So, the above only demonstrates people would die for a lie, but not that the specific Christian examples would have. Honestly, though, if all I do here is put “nobody would die for a lie they knew was a lie” to bed, or make people produce a more supportable and specific claim, I’ll have accomplished something monumental.

So, I give the theists, whether they state it or not, that they meant to offer that a person would not die for a lie without coercion or external pressure of some sort. Now we have a claim that looks more like this:

Nobody would voluntarily, and without external coercion or pressure, offer a false confession to a capital offense, knowing it was false—up to, and including, something he, himself, manufactured.

And I can’t imagine being more fair than that with this claim. I am stretching to give every benefit of reasonableness I can imagine.

My Disclaimer:
In a way I’m torn about even broaching this because some might say the best approach is to question the validity of the tales describing the martyrs. Like any ancient history—any such tale can only be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t mean, with this post, to lend undue credibility to the idea that there were actually “eye witnesses” to a resurrection, or that people who were martyred were actually martyred for refusing to deny a resurrection—versus, for social or religious persecution brought on in the same manner we see religious persecution today. You don’t have to be an eye-witness to be a martyr. And the fact someone dies for a cause doesn’t really tell me what specifically they claimed at trial and if that is the reason they were actually executed. In other words, a person might preach the resurrection, but be tortured and killed as a political subversive.

So, just to be clear, this post is not meant to address the question of whether or not there are legitimate claims of such martyr tales.

This post is only to examine whether or not it is justified to claim that “nobody” would voluntarily face death, without coercion, for a lie they knew was a lie.

As the claim is stated, using “nobody,” means a single example to the contrary, outside our three exclusions, is sufficient to render it failed. But I’m sure the apologists who issue it would want to see at least enough examples to account for multiple martyr accounts. One example will probably be insufficient to get them to lay this down. But we must keep in the front of our minds that we need not address all Christian martyrs. This claim can only be applied to a very narrow subset of historic Christian martyr claims—only those martyrs who we can reasonably claim professed to have seen the resurrection firsthand, refused to recant, and were executed specifically for refusing to recant their claim that a resurrection occurred.

I admit right off the bat that I have not researched the martyr stories. I am familiar with the death of Stephen in Acts 6-7, but the tale says he was arrested on lies against him, and, further, that his testimony that resulted in his execution was that he claimed Jesus had been murdered, not that Jesus resurrected. Just for the r
ecord, that is a very important distinction. And it means that Stephen is discounted as a person who died for the claim that Jesus resurrected.

I have no idea if there are records of early Christians dying for resurrection testimony. But at this point, it is not relevant. I’m only addressing the martyr apologetic, not examining the martyr stories: Are there people who would be willing to lie and put themselves in harm’s way, up to and including facing capital punishment, for an uncoerced absolute fabrication they created themselves?

Facing Execution for Infamy and Notoriety
The following quote is from the paper “False Confessions: Why?” (subtitled “A pathological need for attention, or blurring of reality, may underlie the phenomenon”) by Kathleen Doheny (reviewed by Louise Change, MD), found at the Willams College Psychology Department Web site (Williamstown, Mass.):

“Some false confessors have a pathological need for attention,” Saul Kassin, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and professor at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says to explain confessions like [John Mark] Karr’s.

“That is what everyone is speculating in the Karr case,” he says. “The pathology is such that that need predominates. And everything else fades into the background.” Even the risk of prison or death.

“They are driven by the limelight,” adds Eric Hickey, PhD, professor of criminal psychology at California State University, Fresno, and director of the Center of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, Fresno.

Described above, we have a mind, motivated by an insatiable need for attention, very much like our shepherd boy, the Munchausen mother, and the Salem children—all of whom demonstrated that only a small audience is sufficient. But the individuals Doheny is describing, rather than harming others, are willing to accept harm to themselves, including death. Interestingly, the defense for the Munchausen patient could very well be the apologetic applied to the martyrs: “Surely, nobody would kill her own child and lie about it—just for attention?” And yet, she does. And “surely, nobody would put themselves in a situation where they’re lying and claiming to have done things that are known to result in execution?” And yet, they do.

And while even a small, immediate audience suffices for such a person, what a boon it would be to go down in history as a hero to a religious faith—still recognized for your sacrifice more than two thousand years later. If there were such Christian martyrs, could they have thought they were achieving this sort of fame at the time? Certainly history logged martyrs before Christianity. But, honestly, I couldn’t wager a guess. Suffice to say that I have no reason to doubt that their immediate fame or infamy presented sufficient audience to justify their lies and sacrifices. It is right in step with the examples of those who lie for recognition, listed earlier. In fact, in a few cases I came across in the literature, there was one for murder, and another for robbery, issued specifically to impress girlfriends—an audience of one.

These types of lies, were all the buzz right after John Mark Karr came forward in e-mails claiming to have been with JonBenet Ramsey when she died—earning himself a first degree murder charge. But there is some speculation about Karr’s confession specifically. So, I am not using Karr as a shining example.

During his time in the limelight, though, CBS News highlighted the story and made public the issue of “Voluntary False Confession” (VFC). But it wasn’t the first time the U.S. public had seen this sort of weirdness. From the numbers I came across, 200 or more of these death-wish, attention-seeking liars, living as our friends and neighbors, came forward to take credit for the tragic and historically infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder in the 1930s. In a real ironic twist, the event was labeled as “the biggest story since the Resurrection,” by reporter H.L. Mencken. An event that inspired hundreds of attention-seeking liars to beg for execution is compared to the resurrection. Interesting.

In the CBS story, Alan Hirsch, a professor of legal studies at Williams College and founder of the blog The Truth About False Confessions, stated “As hard as it is to believe, there are just many, many false confessions for many reasons, and so [if] I hear that someone confessed, my reaction is not, ‘Oh, they did it.’”

As we’ve already discussed, Hirsch goes on in the story to say, “Voluntary false confessions can be motivated by a suspect’s desire for notoriety. In high profile cases, it is not rare for multiple innocent people to tell the police they are guilty.”

But lest we get too hung up on notoriety, be warned, that’s far from the only motive for a person to voluntarily tell a lie that could, realistically, get them killed.

VFC to be Heard and Imagination Inflation
Also in Doheny’s article, in talking about VFC, Hickey points out, “Other confessors are angry and want to be heard…They want a voice. They don’t feel like they have a voice.”

Hickey does not speculate this is what happened with Karr, though. He thinks it is possible Karr “wanted to be connected to JonBenet so badly. Maybe he thought about it so much he fantasized himself into believing it.” Kassin describes a situation where a person imagines an event, over and over, and becomes uncertain about whether it is real or not. In Doheny’s paper, he says, “The memory research on this is clear—it’s called imagination inflation.”

We even had a caller on the show not long ago who did this as a child. He imagined a vacation his family talked about very often. When he got older, he talked about his memories of it and was informed he hadn’t been with the family during the trip. It happens—to normal people. I know this doesn’t qualify as a “lie” in our context, but I feel compelled to note that part of religious indoctrination and ritual is repetition—to hear the stories over and over. Think: Imagination Inflation.

VFC for Thrills
But there are more recognized psychological motivations that drive otherwise socially integrated people to be willing to offer a VFC. Doheny’s paper describes something called “duping delight.” In plain terms, this is a rush some people get from lying to other people. PhD and a research psychologist Cynthia Cohen attributes eminent psychologist Paul Ekman with coining the term. Cohen adds, “In putting something over on someone, they get a thrill. It’s almost like someone who likes to do bungee jumping. Someone who has duping delight gets excitement from telling a lie and having someone believe it. Maybe they got rewarded for their tall tales in childhood. Perhaps their friends or even their parents thought the behavior was cute.”

VFC Because of Low Self-Esteem
There’s still more reasons for people to give VFC. The item below is from the chapter titled “False confessions, the Temple Murder Case, and the Tucson Four” from the book The Right to Remain Silent, by Gary L. Stewart, former editor of the Arizona Law Review:


“False confessions derive from several psychological conditions. A suspect may feel guilty about something he has done or failed to do, something completely unrelated to the crime in question.”

Stewart talks about the frequency of such confessions as well:

The frequency of false confessions is a vigorously debated question in the legal world. An even more complicated question arises in trying to determine how many wrongful convictions are based on false confessions. Estimates range from a low of 35 to a high of 840 annually.

Bear in mind that a false confession is not necessarily a VFC. There is a difference. But also keep in mind the Lindbergh case, alone, inspired around 200 immediate VFCs. People continue to confess to the still unsolved Black Dahlia murder. And some, like convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas, keep confessing to murder after murder in which they had no involvement whatsoever.

While I’d like to think we wouldn’t actually convict such a person, the truth is we only know about the ones we know about. If any have been executed, we have no way to know that short of an extremely unlikely post-mortem exoneration. All I intend to offer here is that, based on what we know about reality, it is not unreasonable to reject the claim that “nobody” would, voluntarily, die for a lie, if he knew it was a lie.

More About Guilt
The guilt complex motive was one that interested me immediately, since Christianity and guilt have a well-known and often humorously portrayed love-affair dating back to its Hebrew religious roots, but amplified with the resurrection story. Anyone would be hard pressed to try and claim that people who feel unworthy aren’t drawn like files to a religion that preaches redemption that one cannot access through one’s own worth. A religion that specifically reinforces a reality that all humans are wretched would offer a great deal of appeal, in the form of relation and identity, to someone with deep-seated self-esteem problems.

Someone recently referred to this as the “I am the Universe” fallacy on our tv list. The idea is that however I feel, whatever I think, whatever I would do, it’s the same for everyone. It’s not a rare perspective to exhibit. And I do get the irony of my next comment which is to say I can’t imagine that anyone hasn’t made this mistake at least once in their life. You generally get a heaping helping of reality slapped onto your plate after you make such a universal assumption, and find yourself corrected by someone who isn’t exactly like you. A mild example would be that you buy a chocolate cake for a dinner party, plop it down on the table and say, “Doesn’t everyone love to eat chocolate cake?!” The hostess replies, “I’m afraid I’m allergic to chocolate,” and you have a Eureka! moment where you realize that you are, in fact, not the universe, and probably should not have presumed something about others, without checking.

But if I’m riddled with self-esteem issues that I can’t free myself from, how could I even imagine a person without such issues? The fact is, someone who is motivated by jealousy will assume that they can make others jealous (that we all suffer that same fault). We think “this would motivate me, so it should motivate you.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. But if I am horribly insecure and can’t imagine what it’s like to be secure, odds are I will suspect the world, like me, is also insecure. And the religion that says, “Don’t we all realize, deep down, that we’re just not good enough, that we need a savior?” will reach into my brain and light me up like Christmas. It will speak to me and echo my self-imposed, delusional reality. And it will ring true—for me.

The guilt motivation for a VFC—a way of punishing myself—fits Christian martyrdom like a glove. If I think I’m a wretch who deserves hell fire, and that I killed the uniquely good messiah with my wickedness, then paying with my life while I witness to god would be the most glorious death imaginable.

Would a Christian saint lie, though? Someone so devoted to god? Absolutely, yes, if they were suffering from these issues. Good Christians have lied without gaining notoriety, redemption, or a rush. Every scribe that ever doctored a canon text to make it a little more orthodox is guilty of lying for the cause of Christianity. I’m sure they were aware it was dishonest. But a higher cause, a nobler goal was prompting them. The texts were revised. We have the notes in our Bibles today describing which passages have been added or altered from older or better manuscripts. Quotes were “fixed.” Characters were made more consistent or gentler. But it was all to improve on the message—all for the greater good.

Yes, people who subscribe vehemently to a doctrine will lie and die for it—even if the doctrine promotes honesty as a virtue. It’s weirdly hypocritical and contradictory—but since when have religious zealots (or any of us, for that matter) been immune, as humans, from hypocrisy or contradiction? Aren’t these, ironically, some of the very flaws Christianity says we’re all subject to? On that note, how ironic that an apologetic would be built around the idea that a human being couldn’t possibly act in a way that makes no sense. We see it all the time. The Bible condemns us for it and calls it sin and fault. I call it being human.

Would a reasonable person die for such a lie? No. But since when are humans—even most humans—reasonable? Where in the world was that fantasy bred?

Other researchers also noted the guilt motivator in VFC. In “The Psychology of False Confessions,” Richard P. Conti, PhD, Department of Psychology, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ, writes:

“…Other possible motives for voluntary false confessions include an ‘unconscious need to expiate guilt over previous transgressions through self-punishment,’ (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985, p. 77). Gudjonsson (1992) points out that a previous transgression can be either a real or an imagined act. Gudjonsson further states that the transgression does not necessarily have to be identifiable, ‘some individuals have a high level of generalized guilt, which is not related to a specific transgression, and this may influence a range of their behaviours [sic], including their need to volunteer a false confession.’”

The Link Between Guilt and Depression
The following quotes come from psychologist, Dr. Craig Bennell’s paper “Voluntary False Confessions: An Overview.” Among other things, this paper explains that the guilt that drives some people is actually part of depression—a very common psychological disorder that afflicts huge numbers of people:

“In cases where severely depressed individuals falsely confess, the confession is viewed as an attempt by the individual to relieve intense feelings of guilt. It is proposed that the guilt is generated by past events and experiences and is projected onto some external event [eg. a crime] which becomes the focus for the patients guilt (Gudjonsson, 1992, p. 241). To relieve this guilt, it follows that the individual is motivated to seek out some kind of punishment. In the case of falsely confessing to a crime
they did not commit, this punishment comes via fines, prison sentences,
even death. These individuals seem to believe that once they confess to their
misdeeds and are publicly punished, their guilt will finally cease (Gudjonsson, 1992).”

“It has been proposed, in cases of personality disordered individuals, that the false confession is motivated by a need to enhance an important psychological need, commonly one s self-esteem (Gudjonsson, 1992). Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) suggest that ‘the individual has a pathological need to become infamous, even if it means having to face the prospect of punishment…’

“Certainly, in cases of voluntary false confessions where the confessor is clearly disturbed, perhaps even confessing to crimes that do not exist (Gudjonsson, 1992), the task of assessing the legitimacy of their confession, though time consuming, would seem less complex. However, for those voluntary false confessions that are more difficult to identify, it would be beneficial to have a system for predicting which individuals were falsely confessing—herein lies the problem. For as long as false confessions have been the studied, researchers have recognized that people, including those who deal with deception on a regular basis (Ekman and O’Sullivan, 1991), are not good at detecting whether or not someone is being deceptive (Horvath et al., 1994; Kohnken, 1987). This is not to say that research hasn’t identified observable behavioral differences between ‘truth tellers’ and ‘deceivers,’ only that the ability of people to recognize these differences is not very impressive.”

I’d Know If Someone Were Lying to Me
And here Bennell hits on something really interesting. Humans are not very good at recognizing liars. Remember that CBS News story? Hirsch, during that story said, “The rule of thumb is that everybody does overreact to a confession—there tends to be an assumption that it’s true.” In fact, in my reading on this topic, I read research demonstrating that people will say they would not be influenced by a confession if they found it was coerced; but when presented with a coerced confession, as the only difference in evidence in mock trial experiments, they convict more often than they did without the confession.

People’s brains love confessions. And people’s brains don’t work well when it comes to weeding out good ones from bad ones. No wonder the martyr argument sways so many. Apparently, even if I were able to show that all the martyrs ever recorded were killed due to coerced confessions—whether we’re proud of it or not—we’d still have a lot of people arguing that the martyrs were telling the truth about a resurrection.

But even more painful than the reality that we strongly tend to believe whatever lies and delusions flow from another person’s mouth, there is an embarrassing inverse correlation between how well we tell fact from fiction versus how convinced we are that we’re good at telling fact from fiction. The following breakdown comes from a paper titled “I’d Know a False Confession if I Saw One’: A Comparative Study of College Students and Police Investigators,” by Saul M. Kassin, Christian A. Meissner, and Rebecca J. Norwick, published in Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 29, No. 2, April 2005. Pay attention to the following, and don’t just let your eyes gloss over. This study asked convicted criminals to give both true confessions of their crimes and false, scripted confessions. They asked students and police investigators to review the confessions and judge whether they were true or false.

“Across participants, conditions, and items, the overall accuracy rate was 53.9%—a level of performance that is both unimpressive and nonsignificant relative to chance performance (z-test for proportions = 0.87). In signal detection terms, the hit rate (the percentage of inmates whose true confessions were correctly identified as true) was 63.6% and the false alarm rate (the percentage of inmates whose false confessions were incorrectly identified as true) was 56.1%. On a 1–10 point scale, the overall mean confidence level was 6.76. Interestingly, judgment accuracy and confidence were negatively correlated…”

In plain English, the research found that none of the subjects did very well at recognizing fact from fiction. In fact, the results were so dismal that you’d have done just as well if you didn’t hear or watch the confessions and just categorized the “true” and “false” tapes using eenee-meenee-minee-moe. Law enforcement officers felt more confident than the students that they could tell a true confession from a false one. But the students, who were less certain, judged better.

In the end it’s my guess that the martyr argument persists for the following reasons:

1. The “I am the universe fallacy.” I am not the type of person who would die for a lie. And I don’t know people who would die for a lie. Ergo, nobody would die for a lie.

Even though we can easily demonstrate that “some people would face execution for a lie” is a realistic claim, it’s simply hard to get people to accept that it’s a big world out there with a lot of diversity, especially if you’re into a religion where diversity is condemned and conformity is rewarded and constantly reinforced. Who hasn’t heard that “atheists don’t ‘not believe’ in god—they know there’s a god. They’re just being defiant”?

“I am the Universe” lives! And I don’t see “I am the Universe” going away just because I posted this article; but, I hope to have demonstrated the claim “nobody would die for a lie” can absolutely not stand unchallenged in the face of demonstrated VFCs. “Nobody would die for a lie,” is along the same lines as arguing that “no woman would stay with a man who hits her.” If I didn’t know that this actually occurs in reality, certainly I would be inclined to agree it was reasonable to assert nobody would continue to live with someone who beats them if they could leave. It sounds reasonable. It makes perfect sense. And yet, every one of us knows it’s false and does not correlate to reality.

2. We put a high value on confessions, and we think we can tell when someone is offering us an honest or dishonest confession, even though we really can’t. And the more we believe we can, the more likely we can’t.

So, all a martyr has to do is make a confession. Right off the bat, some people will believe the martyr, simply because people believe confessions. Further, even if it’s a lie, a lot of people won’t be able to tell, but will feel confident they know the confession is true. In one article, it noted that some people will convict on a confession of guilt, even when confronted with compelling evidence of innocence. Our brains simply like to believe confessions. And the apparent validity of the confession and whether or not it correlates to the evidence is, to an uncomfortable degree, irrelevant to our brains.

Simply stated, a who
le lot of people tend to believe what other people confess—too much and for horrible reasons—even for no reason at all.

In the end, though I have one rhetorical question about the martyr argument: What would be the point of any Christian dying for the truth? According to the stories, God knows whether you believe or not—doesn’t He? Would merciful Jesus condemn you to hell for avoiding torture by lying to evil men—and going on to spread his Word and save others, later? If you believe, repent, confess and ask for forgiveness—isn’t salvation guaranteed? “Not martyring yourself,” and “lying” are not unpardonable sins. What is the gain of martyrdom in Christianity? How, in the world did that catch on?

A Blasphemy Against Humanity

The Austin American-Statesman yesterday ran a New York Times editorial by Nicholas D. Kristof. It began:

“Karachi, Pakistan–Afterward, they comforted each other with the blasphemy: ‘It was God’s will.'”

So, how could I not be intrigued, especially because most Christians I know have a vague notion of god as all-powerful, all-knowing, and the creator of all things, that would make the phrase “it was god’s will” a logically inescapable conclusion and necessary description of any event occurring in this universe. I had the feeling that whatever Kristof would describe would be absolutely within the realm of this “god’s will”–according to the model of god most believers seem to put forward. But I wanted to see for myself, so I read on.

Not surprisingly, I was correct. The story is about the family politics of a pregnant woman’s husband–and the politics of many women’s families in this region. The $3.75 ride to a hospital was considered far too extravagant when the time came for the baby to arrive. Lest your sympathies get the better of you, one aunt said that if the family had known the child was going to be a boy (which it was), they’d have paid far more for the cab fare. It was less a question of poverty than one of concern. No the family is not well off, but their logic was that it was silly to waste money on a hospital.

While the article was more about a misogynistic society (which I feel sure a fundamentalist religion based on the great “He” doesn’t help), I kept looking for the “blasphemy” in the statement about god’s will. After the child dies (the mother lives), the mother is devastated, and the father says, “It is God’s will. There is nothing we can do.”

I agree with Kristof’s call of “bullshit” on this one. But where is the blasphemy if I were to call myself a believer? As a nonbeliever, I want to call this one blasphemy against humanity, if there can be such a thing. Certainly it was our will for this child to die–humanity’s will. It could have been avoided by human intervention. It was not necessary in a purely human world without gods. But the child died. And humans are responsible. To say that what humans do and allow–whether good or bad–has anything to do with gods is a blasphemy against our own species. But it’s no blasphemy against god. If god is what people claim god is in many cases, it’s a reality–a truth–to call any event “god’s will.”

Did god create everything–a universe where we cannot escape cause and effect? If so, this child’s death was written into the “stars” (if you will) the moment the singularity popped, or the moment he spoke it all here 6,000 years ago. If he didn’t create it, he’s off the hook. If he did, he killed this child as surely as the child’s own family.

Does god know everything? Did he know what he was doing? Does he understand the universe or not? If he built it and had so little understanding of what he was doing, he’s off the hook in much the same way a mentally challenged person might be off the hook for a double-homocide. He still caused the harm; he’s just too irresponsible to be held accountable for what he caused. If god built it and understood it–this god has no excuse. He actually produced the universe in such a way that this child would die, and either did not care, or meant it to be so.

Does god have the power to alter anything in this universe or impact human events? If god was aware of this child’s plight, and was able to intervene, but did not, then he’s just as guilty as the family members (ironically it was the men in the family) who felt the hospital was the best place for this mother, but did nothing to enforce their preference. If there is a god who is aware, cares at all, and can help, who does not, then this child’s death was as much that god’s choice as the family’s.

Is it blasphemy to say god is not the creator? God is retarded–as gods go? Or that god lacks the power (is too castrated) to intervene in our lives?

Does our society truly embrace a god that keeps players safe at sporting events, but can’t be expected to help a woman in difficult labor to be healthy and well and have a live baby in the end? It sure looks that way.

When I say “god did not create the universe,” or “there is no god that is all powerful and gives a care,” or “there is no god that knows everything”–or “there is no god,” I’m sure to be lambasted by Christians everywhere for my arrogance and, well, blasphemy. They may not call it “blasphemy” much in these times, but that’s what it is and why it offends so many believers to say such things.

Who gets to say what is blasphemy in the world of believers? To many, It’s blasphemy to claim god doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of the whole universe, as Kristof implies. But to Kristof, when one injustice occurs, it’s blasphemy to say god had any knowledge or power to alter events. What sort of ineffectual god does Kristof imagine, I wonder? I have to think he imagines something, because he brought up the “god’s will” phrase twice in a small article, and called it a blasphemy both times; and the story itself had precious little to do with gods, and everything to do with humans and human society.

I wish he would have clarified it was only a blasphemy to humanity, and could not possible be a blasphemy for any god model that would matter in this universe. I wish Kristof would have explained what he means by “god.” But he did neither, unfortunately. But I think, disappointed as it makes me, he meant it in the same ludicrous apologetic way we hear it used all the time: With god all things are possible, but, somehow, helping an infant, unable to help itself, was way too much to ask–way beyond god’s scope.

It’s called having your cake and eating it, too. And it’s logically impossible. But try telling that to someone who’s been sufficiently indoctrinated. If that is really what Kristof meant, he’s as guilty as holding to irrational, unhelpful beliefs as the culture he’s writing to criticize. Like many Christians, he would be promoting that it’s OK to devote some part of one’s worldview to a logically inconsistent, impossible god who helps us not at all–and credit that god with all things good while blaming humans for all things evil. And that sort of hosed up religious belief is a part of the foundation that ultimately killed this child of a Muslim world, isn’t it?

Perhaps instead of writing about gods and blasphemies, he should have “kept it real” and just said, “People could have helped this child. People did not. Dragging god into this as a ‘will’ or a victim of ‘blasphemy,’ helps us not at all. It adds nothing to this equation that can only possibly examine what people can do, what they did/did not do, and what other people could have/might have done to impact the reasons for these poor choices and tragic outcomes.” And if I can add, reasons like holding to irrational beliefs about women and gods that led to this child’s death.

I’m not sure how much impact a writer like Kristof can have in cutting the rope of irrationality that holds these people to unhealthy decisions, while he’s involved in actually braiding more of that same rope. It’s not reasonable to condemn real-world injustices that are the result of a god model I personally support.

I can’t know that Kristof doesn’t have some minority deistic ideology. But I can know that many people reading what he wrote–and he would know this as well–are interpreting it as, “That’s right, my loving creator-of-all-things, all knowing, all powerful god would never allow something like this; how dare anyone blame this evil on god.” It would escape them that the fact that this event actually occurred should be evidence that, if their god model exists, it would and did allow such an event–and therefore becomes logically inconsistent and, tah-dah, nonexistent. But I will almost guarantee you that hundreds of
thousands read his column, held this model of god, and condemned this “blasphemy” in like manner. They want their cake, but they want to eat it, too. And that’s impossible. And the scariest part is that no matter how much you try to explain that eating the cake will result in the cake being gone, they will insist that you are the one who simply does not get it.

To some, unfortunately not so small degree, it truly is a mad world.

Year One: Not Quite What I Expected

Alert: Spoilers are included in this article.

I have been working at my job pretty close to nonstop for several weeks and needed a break and some levity. I sometimes enjoy mindless humor and was interested in seeing either Land of the Lost or Year One. Since nobody I know is interested in seeing Year One, I decided that if I was going to see a film alone, that would be the one to see. So, I went to the local Alamo Drafthouse where someone else could cook dinner for a change and I could have a drink and watch something that required no thought. (I feel compelled to mention I parked right next to Matt D’s car, but I had no paper with me and was unable to leave a note. I didn’t ever see Matt, but just to say, “Hey Matt! I saw your car last night!”)

While I can’t say Year One actually prompted too much thought, and it was about what I expected from Jack Black and Harold Ramis, it was not what I expected overall. I thought it was going to be a confused film about an ancient man in the ancient world with a thin plot about whatever. What it was, was a statement about religion and belief (or more to the point, unbelief and the reasons for unbelief). Since I had not the slightest clue I would be writing about this film, I made no notes. Any quotes I offer are purely paraphrases to the best of my memory. And most likely I’ll have to visit IMDb to get the characters’ names.

The theme of the film was very reminiscent of Life of Brian: A man, confused as being god’s messenger, stumbles through a series of loosely written Bible tales, crossing paths with Old Testament legends and giving them a bit of a reinterpretation from an outsider’s perspective.

In the film, the main character Zed is a tribe member in a group of hunter gatherers who live in an unspecified forest region. He is no hunter. He is no gatherer. But he is charming and funny and sometimes lucky (but mostly unlucky with a lucky twist). He has a way of making lemonade from life’s lemons. His friend, Oh, may represent “Oh” in the “Eureka” sense. Of the two “Oh” is the one most likely to see the reality of what is actually happening or likely to happen; but what he can’t predict are the random twists of fate that consistently turn Zed’s harebrained plans into successes, even while things appear to get worse and worse for them.

Zed gets tired of the status quo and decides to shake things up. He can’t be the best “male” in this society where brawn and physical prowess are that standards of quality, but he can be the smartest guy–just not with his current level of intellect. So, Zed decides to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the film, the tree is not about good and evil, but simply knowledge. Certainly the fruit looks magical enough, eerily florescent golden apple-like somethings. And Zed eats it despite the warnings of his friend, Oh, that it’s “forbidden.” Oh can’t answer Zed’s questions about why the fruit is forbidden–it’s simply forbidden. And you don’t eat forbidden things. That’s not good enough for Zed. Clue number one that there were going be to some things examined: Someone was immediately challenging the idea that “forbidding” things without any understanding of why, is not justified.

Zed believes the fruit endows him with super-knowledge, but in reality there is nothing to demonstrate he is any more intelligent than he was before he ate it. He asks Oh to test him and he pretty well fails in the capacity to wisely answer any question Oh throws at him. “Where does the sun go at night?” Zed replies with “Pass. Next question.”

Zed is found out and meets with the village shaman who tries to explain “forbidden,” unsuccessfully, as well. But in the end Zed is banished and Oh ends up going with him. Oh explains there is little point in walking anywhere, because they’ll only end up at the edge of the world–it’s “general knowledge.” When they come to the edge of a large canyon where they can see far out over the horizon, Oh realizes Zed was right to question the assumption about the world’s edge.

They first meet Caine and Abel, which is somewhat uneventful except that it is the guys’ first time seeing a “farmer” and someone who works in animal husbandry–forms of subsistence unfamiliar to them. And this is part of the film as well: As Zed travels, he begins to learn that there are many different views on topics thought to be “general knowledge.” Caine is a bit bi-polar and ends up killing Abel and “inviting” Zed and Oh to dinner with the family–including Adam and Lilith, a lesbian–who represents yet another new view Zed has never encountered.

Caine takes Zed and Oh away, explaining that when Abel is found, they will be suspected as the killers, since they are “two drifters.” They get their first ride on a cart and see, for the first time, a wheel. Caine is struck in the head by lightening, which leaves his famous “mark.” But rather than be disappointed, Caine is excited: “Wow! What are the odds of that?! It didn’t leave a mark, did it?”

Later Zed and Oh encounter “slavery” when they are sold by Caine as slaves. They run into some of the old villagers who have been taken as slaves as well, and Zed explains he has been chosen by god–referring to god as “He.” One of the women from the village asks “Why do you assume god is a ‘he’?” to which Zed gives Oh a condescending “do-you-believe-this-chick?” eye roll and says, “What do you even say to that!”

Zed, in a cage-cart traveling to the home of his new masters, asserts “Nobody can own a human being–except, I guess, for the guy who bought us.” This brings up the question of moral rights versus the reality of a situation and reminded me of the scene in Life of Brian where one of the men rallies for the “right” of men to bear children.

The slave train is raided by Romans, and Zed and Oh escape and run up a sand dune. Later they decide to try to find the slaves, who are on their way to Sodom, and free them, since some of them were from their old tribe. They lose the caravan, and wander the desert, where Abraham comes into the story. It isn’t hard to make Abraham look like a nut job without deviating all that much from the actual Bible stories. We first meet him as he’s building a sacrificial pyre with son, Isaac. “Where is the sheep, dad?” Abraham replies, “The Lord will provide.”

As Abraham begins to bind Isaac’s wrists, Isaac says in a nervous voice, “What is this, dad? Is this some kind of magic trick?” When Abraham picks him up to put him atop the woodpile, Isaac begins to panic and says, “Is this about me not cleaning my tent last Thursday?! Because I’m really sorry!” Abraham insists god has commanded him to kill Isaac, to which Isaac rightly replies, “If god told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?!”

The irony here is that we so often see the foolishness of what Isaac asserts–“would you jump off a bridge if so-and-so told you to?” But we, as a Christian culture, think nothing of idolizing a historic figure who would do far worse. Isaac’s example of jumping off a bridge is nothing compared to what Abraham is about to do. Obviously Abraham is mad, and, since he would murder his own son, it’s a safe bet he also would jump off a bridge for god.

Abraham raises a large knife and says some sacrificin’ words, and just then we hear “STOP!” It’s Zed and Oh. “What are you doing? Are you going to kill that kid?!”

Abraham looks embarrassed, half-heartedly tries to hide the knife, and says, “No. This is my son. We were just playing a game. It’s called burneyburney, knifey knifey.” Then he plucks up more courage and asserts god told him to sacrifice the boy, asking Zed, “Do you speak for the Lord?” To which Zed lights up and answers sincerely that he has been chosen by god, and that yes, he does speak for the Lord. Abraham accepts Zed’s claim and praises god for sending a messenger to stay his hand and save Isaac. He invites them to dinner where he regales them with stories of the wicked twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and warns them that god has promised to destroy the cities. They are cities where people eat, drink, engage in all manner of debauchery, and where the streets are filled with whores. “Which city has the most whores?” Zed asks, “Uh, just so we know which one to avoid the most.”

After a good feast and a lot of wine drinking, Abraham takes Zed and Oh and Isaac to a ridge where he announces that “all this land” has been given to him by god. Zed and Oh are impressed, but the cynical Isaac adds, as an aside to the strangers, “Yeah, but god forgot to tell anybody else about it–so, we’re constantly having to fight somebody over it.”

Abraham then announces that as a pact with god, he plans to circumcise all the males in his group, starting with himself, Isaac, Zed and Oh. “Circumcise? What is that?” Abraham describes what he intends, to which Zed and Oh are rightly appalled. But Zed, always rolling with the punches, says, “You know, Abe. We all had a lot to eat and drink tonight. And I’m sure this circumcision thing seems like a really cool idea to you right now. But why don’t we sleep on it? In the morning, you know, we can always cut it off then, if you still think that’s what you want to do…”

Zed and Oh escape, but hear poor Isaac screaming as they run off over the desert hills. Later Isaac catches up to them and leads them to Sodom if they promise to buy him drinks when they get there. Isaac explains that he and his buddies are always sneaking off to Sodom, loosely portrayed as an ancient Las Vegas, for a good time. Isaac abandons them at the gates and they are immediately arrested for disturbing the peace and find themselves facing a scary punishment at the hands of a particularly large, intimidating, and sadistic guard whom they continually encounter throughout the film.

They are saved by Caine, who has become a member of the Sodom guard and identifies them as his “brothers.” They also become members of the guard. And one day, Zed fails to kneel when the procession of a beautiful princess passes. She notices this and admires it. Her step-father is the king of Sodom. Sodom is suffering from a drought that the high priest, advisor, and king are all concerned with. And in order to end the drought they are sacrificing virgins left and right, a “waste of perfectly good virgins!” according to Zed and Oh. Zed and Oh try to understand the sacrifice, and they ask about it. “So, it hasn’t rained in a long time. And you need it to rain. So, you’re burning women who have never had sex to death? How does that work, exactly?” To this, one bystander complains, “Look, I’m just here to enjoy the sacrifice with my family.”

In Sodom there is a temple with a “Holy of Holies,” which, in the Bible is actually part of the Hebrew temple. But like the temple in the Bible, anyone who enters the Holy of Holies will die. Zed’s first introduction to the room is when the princess explains that she knew when he did not kneel that he was a man chosen by god who could enter the temple, without dying, and plead for an end to the drought–and that god will certainly hear him. Oh’s first encounter is from the high priest who tells him that anyone, but the high priest, will die upon entering the room.

Oh: “Wow, so, you kinda hafta wonder whether the guys who finished building it died then, right? I mean, did they get like a grace-period second to get out of there or did they just die instantly as soon as they laid the last brick?”

The priest in perfect apologetic style answers, as though he knows, that “There was a four-second grace period.”

Oh: “So, does it just kill people or does it kill animals as well? Like, if a fly gets in, would it just drop dead on the floor the second it enters?”

The priest confirms that it kills even animals.

Oh: “So, there are just dead bugs all over the floor in there?”

No, the priest explains, because they are “vaporized.” They are vaporized, apparently by a “deadly vapory vapor thing that turns them to vapor.”

It reminded me so much of my discussions with many theists.

Young Oh ends up in the temple hiding from the oppressive and gay high priest. Zed ends up in there at the prompting of the princess who feeds into his belief that he is special and chosen, and who promises to help free his friends if he will help her end the drought.

Zed takes it very seriously. Finally, the moment for which he was chosen has arrived–to meet and speak to god. He did not die upon entering the room. Clearly, he is the chosen one. Until he sees Oh hiding behind a pillar. Zed reasons that Oh is not dead because he is a friend of the chosen one. Oh, alternately, suggests he is alive because, perhaps there is actually “nothing” in the temple. And a serious, and loud, argument ensues.

They are caught and sentenced to be stoned to death. But Zed saves them when it dawns on him to ask the king, who is present at the stoning, a clever question: “Why didn’t I die in the Holy of Holies? Because I’m the chosen one!” He manages to whip up the crowd so that the king is advised not to kill Zed and Oh, but they are sentenced to hard labor instead–which is portrayed unmistakeably as a scene right out of the classic film, Ten Commandments. Oh stomps mud in a pit, ala Charlton Heston, with another man who explains he’s not a slave, but a “volunteer.” This was reminiscent of the apologetic that slavery was so much nicer back in the day. Yes, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to sign up!

Volunteer: “The mud is really great for your skin. Look how great my skin is. Ask me why I have such great skin. Go on, ask me.”

Oh (in a tired, uninterested voice): “Why do you have such great skin?”

Volunteer: “The mud!”

Oh: “Yeah. I knew you were going to say that.”

The volunteer then stretches and adds, “Man, gotta love bein’ outside!”

The king then decides to sacrifice the princess and her two handmaids (fellow villagers of Zed’s and Oh’s), and Zed tries to save them. In a series of mishaps, he brings down a huge scaffolding, and Oh sees his opportunity, “A sign! It’s a sign!” In the mayhem that follows, eventually none of the women is thrust into the fire (a firey bull’s head), but the high priest ends up falling in covered in oil. A huge fireball results. The crowd is stunned and there is a moment of shock that Zed takes advantage of: “How about that by the high priest?! What a sacrifice he just made! Let’s hear it for the high priest!” And he begins to clap. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the idea of “sacrifice” and what it meant to be a high priest in days of yore when your “sacrifice” consisted of someone else’s life! But tossing yourself into the fire? Now that would be a real sacrifice.

I can’t promise everyone would like this movie. If you can’t stomach Jack Black, don’t even try. I can’t claim it’s deep or offers anything you probably haven’t already considered. But I do think it offers a second look at some events that seem too familiar to too many. Christians who idolize Abraham for trying to kill his son should take note of what they might think, or have thought, if they had encountered this act as Zed did. Would they intervene or let this take place? “Well, I mean, if god said ‘do it,
‘ I guess, go for it…?”

I have a feeling the film won’t play long. But there is nothing visual about it that won’t translate perfectly well to small screen. You won’t lose anything by waiting for DVD release if you think you might like it. And, if you’re up for a lighthearted view of religious history, you might find it entertaining.

What Is an Atheist?

Someone contacted the list with the following claims:

Assertion 1: An agnostic is someone who is neither a theist (someone who believes a god exists) nor an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists OR someone who denies a god exists).

While I agree with this, I soon found out I have different reasons for doing so. I go by the theologically classical definition of agnostic as someone who addresses knowledge regarding god, and finds it lacking, versus the Gnostic, who believes that knowledge about god is accessible and perhaps even that he has such knowledge. The person making claim 1 above, however, asserts that an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves that a god exists. They wished to use that definition alone because it is what their friends agreed was right, and it was listed as a “colloquially” acceptable definition in his dictionary, some version of Merriam-Webster.

I already knew the dilemma this person was creating for himself. To define the agnostic off the bat as not being a person who believes a god exists leaves little room for then trying to defend that the agnostic is someone who does not believe a god exists. I think most people would see the problem with the position even before it unfolds:

If a “senior” is defined as one who is at or over 65 years old, and you assert that I am “not a senior,” there is no escaping that you have just indicated I am not at or over 65. And the writer does agree that a theist is a person who does believe a god exists. Thankfully he understands at least one significant definition in theological terminology.

I knew he was going to encounter difficulty, then, in defending his claim that this agnostic is no atheist. Literally, anyone who is not a theist (someone who does believe a god exists) is an atheist (someone who does not believe a god exists). And this person who contacted us, let’s call him “J,” for brevity, agreed that the atheist is correctly defined as “someone who does not believe a god exists.” In fact, he agreed to this during a call to the show–on the air–recorded for posterity, before he wrote to us.

So then, his argument begins with this:

The agnostic does not believe a god exists (or else he’d be a theist), but he also does not, not believe a god exists (or else he’d be an atheist). So that this magical being, the agnostic, both does “not believe” and also does not “not believe”–which is a logical impossibility. I can no more accomplish this as a human being than I can both be a senior and not be a senior.

I accepted the writer as merely a person who is ignorant regarding where the term “agnostic” originated and how it is used in actual theological discussion of these issues. The Gnostic movement is one that concerned itself with knowledge about god. Certainly knowledge is a subset of belief, but one that was the focus of the Gnostics that separated their ideology from broader definitions of belief. And I do not claim this distinction is without problems.

The term that defines the response to Gnosticism, “agnosticism,” was coined by Thomas Huxley, in the mid-1800s, to describe his rejection of Gnosticism, and subsequently all claims to knowledge regarding gods. He was not claiming that no one has belief in gods and that belief in gods is unavailable to people. He was making a statement about a subset of belief, knowledge–which is usually far more narrowly (and problematically) defined.

The idea that an agnostic is simply someone who is wishy-washy about their belief in god is a misconception that has grown as discussion of “atheist issues” has become more common. And the reason it grows is that people love to talk about religion, but they don’t seem to like to actually research it or inform their opinions before they open their mouths.

In short, it’s like the word “founder,” which means to have trouble staying afloat. The word fell out of common usage and began to be “replaced” with “flounder”–a type of fish. One suggestion is that people equated it to “flopping around” and being unable to move well, and that’s why they began to describe something that doesn’t progress well as “floundering,” more and more often. Today, when you look up the word “flounder,” it actually does generally have a secondary definition that makes it synonymous with “founder.”

Dictionaries are wonderful tools. They inform us both of classically correct usage, but also must reflect common usage–which can become correct usage over time. With “agnostic,” we have a common misconception that may one day find its way into a secondary form of correct usage. But it carries with it the problem of making all such defined agnostics atheists. And there was a moment when J began to realize this as a necessary conclusion, when he accused me of trying to say that all agnostics were, in fact, atheists. I honestly replied that I do not use his definition of “agnostic,” and that I know many agnostic theists; but that if I am compelled to use the term “agnostic” by defining it off the top as a person who is not a theist, and, by necessity, then, a person who does not believe a god exists, then I cannot agree to the second half of the definition–which is logically impossible–that he also is not an atheist and not someone who does not believe a god exists. A human cannot be both someone who does “not believe” a claim and someone who does not “not believe” a claim.

So, this, I chalked up to ignorance and misconception on J’s part. I did so, at least, until it went on for more than a few exchanges and I began to suspect there was more here than just simple correction of a misconception required. J was defending, not honestly communicating. A person honestly communicating would have, at or before this point, pretty well have said, “Maybe I hadn’t thought this through, and it appears I might be working under some misconceptions.” But not J. J has something to prove, which leads to his next assertion:

Assertion 2. The atheist is making a positive claim and we can extrapolate other atheist beliefs from the position “I do not believe a god exists.”

Specifically, when J first called us, J wanted to be able to say that we can know what atheists do believe, by knowing what they do not believe. And that is simply not the case. And I should add that it’s no more the case than me claiming I can know what someone believes when they claim they do believe a god exists. I have no idea what they mean by “god” nor what impact their god has on anything, including on themselves. But, more specifically, he thinks he knows what an atheist thinks of universal origins, according to his call. His argument is along the lines of this: Either a god created the universe or a god did not. If you don’t believe in a god, then you must believe in naturalistic origins (and I assume that would lead to the common misconception that all atheists believe big bang, which I know to be false).

The idea here goes something like this: “I assert that fairies created the universe. If you do not believe in fairies, then I know how you think the universe was created.”

Obviously that would be ludicrous. But as is so often the case, the theist can’t see how absurd it is when you use “god” instead of “fairies.” But using fairies, anyone should be able to see how ludicrous this claim becomes. Of course you could assert you know that however I believe the universe came to be, it is a non-fairy model. That much is fair–but as far as asserting tha
t you have some insight into what I do think pumped out the universe (if I’m not obstinately holding to steady-state theory, and asserting that the idea it was “produced” at all is nonsensical to me)–what I do believe about it–is unjustified.

Here I should note that J does not dispute the broad definition of atheist on the surface. If you show him a dictionary that indicates that the atheist either does not believe in the existence of gods OR believes no gods exist, J will say “OK.” However, I don’t think J really comprehends what he’s agreeing to here–or at least he didn’t at first.

The idea that I say you can be “one or the other” means that the “one” is not the “other.” And while I think anyone could understand that, J is, apparently, not just anyone. I happened to pull a definition that read “disbelieve” rather than “does not believe,” and J decided to fly with this. In fact, he tried to fly this to the moon. “Disbelieving,” he asserted, is not at all the same as “not believing” something. I kid you not. This was his response.

Bear in mind that if I knew “disbelieve” would trip him up so badly, I’d have pulled a valid authoritative dictionary from the start that said “does not believe”–because they are out there. But since J had agreed during our call that an atheist is one who does “not believe” a god exists, it did not occur to me he’d now try to claim “does not believe” isn’t valid since this one dictionary I pulled had “disbelieve.” So, back-peddle number one is that he tried to duck out of his initial agreement that it’s fair to label someone who does “not believe” a god exists is an “atheist.”

And here we have a lesson in definitions. And by that I don’t mean that there are not myriad dictionaries that will support than an atheist “does not believe” (if it’s “disbelieve” that is all that is freaking you out) or that there are not myriad dictionaries that assert that “disbelieve” does include “not believe,” but we need to see something here about broad and narrow definitions, in general, and how they must be understood by any fair and honest person:

If I assert that Word-X means “A” and you assert you are using it as “B,” and I say you are wrong to claim it means “B,” and we look it up in 6 dictionaries, and some say “A” and some say “B” and some say “A or B” or “A, B and sometimes C,” then I am wrong even though “A” is not incorrect. I did not assert I use it as “A” and you use it as “B.” I asserted it is incorrect to use it as “B.” And I am wrong. And in our discussion about agnosticism, despite my knowledge that he was abusing the term by using a definition that represents a common misconception, I still agreed to accept it and roll with it. That’s what people do when they are trying to have a fair and honest dialogue to understand what you think and why.

It is possible to find dictionaries to support that “disbelieve” means to reject belief in a way that condemns the claim (in this case, “a god exists”) as false. But to claim that “disbelieve” does not mean “not believe” is to ignore all of the other dictionaries that assert that “not believe” is an acceptable usage of the word disbelieve. It is to tell me I am wrong to use “B”, while “B” is supported by myriad authoritative sources. In order to stop me from rightly using a valid definition, the burden would be on you to demonstrate why those definitions are incorrect and the sources are faulty, or to demonstrate why those definitions might not apply in the context of our particular discussion. In this particular case, however, I even used J’s own dictionary–Merriam Webster–to demonstrate “disbelieving” as “not believing.” And he was still unwilling to to admit the words can validly be said to carry the same meaning.

At this point I could not give the benefit of the doubt–that this was ignorance rather than pride– any longer, so I asserted rather that dishonesty might be involved in some way as a motive. But it would be more true to say the motive for his unwillingness to accept what was in front of him was defensiveness. This, in my book, includes being willing to make ridiculous assertions in the face of rock-solid, contrary evidence, by way of lying to oneself and/or others. I think J was insulted by the “dishonest” comment–but it was that or “stupid,” and of the two, I would think “dishonest” would be the more complimentary. However, admittedly, I might have gone for duplicitous, hypocritical or disingenuous.

Hypocrisy 1:
Eventually J stated that the agnostic does not believe god exists “on the face of it”–and I have no idea what difference it makes. If he does “not believe” a god exists, he is an atheist. If he does “not believe” because he’s uncertain what to believe, because he’s investigated and found it to be unjustified to believe, because he’s drunk and it’s Wednesday–it really doesn’t matter. As long as we can honestly say this person does “not believe” a god exists (and if we agree, as J and I did, he’s no theist, then we can), and as long as we can say that an atheist does “not believe” a god exists (and J agreed to this initially, and a dictionary survey and history would support this), then we cannot deny that this person is an atheist, while he is not a theist.

It no more matters why I don’t believe in god than it matters why I do believe in god. And here is where we get into the sort of hypocrisy that could stir me to righteous indignation if I were to allow it.

Can you imagine how ridiculous and presumptuous it would be, if I went to a theist e-list and began asserting that only theists who believe a god exists because god has personally spoken to them are theists–and that anyone else doesn’t really “believe” and is an “agnostic”? What if I asserted that those at the e-list who believe only because of what they’ve read in their Bibles can’t be labeled “theists”?

Where do I sign up to cherry pick for theists which reasons for “belief” are valid reasons under the theist definition, “someone who believes a god exists”? Would J think that was rational of me, to go and tell theists that if their belief is based on “A,” then it counts, but if they believe for reason “B,” then their belief isn’t really “belief” under the theist definition? The reason they believe is not relevant. All that matters is that they believe. The definition of “theist” doesn’t have an asterisk leading to a note indicating that “if you believe for the following reasons, then ‘theist’ is not what you are.” You can believe for any reason. And a you can not believe for any reason. You still believe or you still disbelieve. And whether you believe or disbelieve is all that matters to these definitions–not “why.”

Hypocrisy 2:
In a context of a particular field, it is possible for definitions to have agreed upon meanings. For example, the term “stripper” in publishing used to mean a person who worked in preparing materials for pre-press. This is very different than what the general population thinks of when they think of “strippers.” And I think we understand this pretty well. In theology, where theists equate “belief” with things like “faith,” we are often confronted with models of the martyrs–those who exhibited such deep conviction to their views that they would suffer and die for
them. Theists make quite a verbal dog and pony show, often becoming offended at any slight to their “deeply held beliefs” or their “god,” in which they believe and whom they “revere.” This “belief” they speak of is important, sometimes life-altering, something they teach their children, something to spread to the far corners of the world, something that brings them great “joy” and “peace” and “happiness.” Theists make it known that “belief” is no small thing. In fact, in the Bible it says that if a person “believes,” they can be saved–receiving eternal bliss with god.

This is how the theist frames theistic “belief.”

Further, during our call with J, Matt said belief was “acceptance of a claim as true,” and J agreed. Later, the e-list exchange, we used a definition of “conviction of the truth of a claim,” and J did not take issue–at first. The definition went along, accepted by both parties for a few exchanges. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, J decided that the sort of “belief” we were discussing, the belief in god that distinguishes a theist, was this sort of “belief”:

Me: “Where is Tammy?”
You: “I’m not sure. I believe she said she was going to the store–but I might have not heard her correctly.”

His point was that you can have varying degrees of belief in god–that not having conviction doesn’t mean not “believing.” So, the agnostic is like this–he is unsure and sort of “believes.”

Beyond back-peddling–literally going back and saying that a definition he accepted twice isn’t working out as well as he’d hoped, so he’s now going to just reject it and claim I’m the one being unfair–there are two huge problems with J’s assertion:

First of all, if this truly is “belief,” then we have a problem with J’s Assertion 1: If I believe a god exists, I’m a theist by definition–using any source you want to pick. And that means that, according to J, this person is no longer an agnostic, because he has belief in god, and, therefore, must be a theist (which J asserted his agnostic is absolutely not). If there can be “little” belief–then his agnostic would be correctly labeled a “theist”–and J must say there is no such thing as an agnostic. He would actually be saying that anyone who has doubts about the existence of gods has some small “belief”–and those who have no doubts and think a god does not exist, are atheists. So, rather than defend his agnostic, he has successfully defined his agnostic right out of existence.

But secondly, and even more pathetically and dishonestly, J is now taking his belief in god (he is a theist) and throwing it under the bus, in order to salvage his sorry position. No longer is “belief” a conviction or accepting a claim as true. No longer does god require deep faith and the courage to live and die by that conviction that He exists and came to save the world from sin. No longer does god demand worship and reverence and commitment. It seems that when the Bible talks about believing and being saved–it only means not being sure god doesn’t exist. If that’s the case, many atheists will be thrilled to learn they’re saved according to the Bible–for they believe. And that’s apparently what theists mean by “belief”–according to J.

Why is this surprising though? Why should it be a shock that when it supports a theist’s argument for how wonderful it is to be a theist, belief is a conviction that can fulfill your life, but the moment you want to say that without that conviction, a person can’t be said to “believe,” then belief becomes nothing more than the thinnest shred of a doubt about the false nature of the any claim? In other words, I should say I “believe” fairies exist, according to J, because I have to admit that, logically speaking, I cannot “know” they do not exist, even though I really, really, really, really doubt they exist, and feel fair saying “I do not believe in fairies.” I still “believe fairies exist” according to J, because I have to acknowledge that it would be logically unsupportable for me to assert that I know they absolutely do not.

And J keeps asking me why this is so hard?

From where J stands, it isn’t possible that he’s twisting in the wind. I sometimes have pity on him because it’s hard to see a person humiliate himself repeatedly on this level; but then he acts like this is a debate or honest disagreement we’re having, rather than me trying to educate an ignorant, defensive individual, and I get my perspective back.

This brings us back to “one OR the other.” If these doubts constitute “belief,” then we have a problem with the definition of atheist, with which J took no issue. J agrees that the atheist is either someone who disbelieves/does not believe a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists). And here’s the rub: If “disbelieve” means to accept a claim is false, and if “believe” means to be anything but 100 percent sure the claim is false–then what is the difference between “disbelieve/not believe” and “believing no god exists/denying god exists”?

J, who does not claim to take issue with the definition of “atheist” that reads, someone who disbleieves a god exists OR someone who believes no god exists (denies a god exists), is now trying to say that “disbelieving” and “believing the opposite” represent the same condition, thus rendering the “OR,” and the definition of “atheist,” nonsensical. In other words, while he claims to take no issue with the definition, J is actually trying to assert that an atheist is only someone who denies a god exists, and that a person who disbelieves a god exists is actually no different. In my last communication, I asked him what he imagines the dictionary (his Merriam Webster) is trying to demonstrate as the difference between “disbelieve” and “believe the opposite”? I just sent it this morning, so I can’t report on the answer to that head-scratcher.

But I must say that I reject any claim that it is honest to assert that I “believe” fairies exist. I am unable to logically defend that it is impossible for a small race of magical woodland winged creatures to exist. Do I believe fairies exist? If you think it’s reasonable to say I do, I know this guy, J, you really need to meet, because I suspect the two of you will really get along. But I do not expect anyone will ever find a fairy. I do not accept that all the writings about fairies are a compelling reason to think they exists. And if someone presented me with one, I would have to admit I have been “wrong” regarding the existence of fairies. But why? If J is correct, I always believed in them, since I always was willing to admit that I could not be 100 percent certain they do not exist.

Also, J rejected that agnosticism had anything to do with knowledge. And I submitted that theism and atheism addressed belief, not knowledge. And he never took issue with this. Meanwhile, he seems to be saying the atheist has to assert knowledge (certainty), and I don’t see that in the definition. Surely an atheist could feel certain there is no god. But I simply note it is not necessary to be an atheist.

I sent J, several e-mails back, a link to a wonderful series of articles written by Austin Cline, who has been for many years the host of about.com’s Agnosticism/Atheism section. I don’t think J read the articles. That’s too bad. If this is an issue that interests any of you, I encourage you to do some further reading at Cline’s site. Here are a few links you might enjoy:

At his main page is a link to “Atheism 101,” a series that talks about these same misconceptions.

Dictionary Definitions of Atheism”“Definition of Atheism in Reference Books”

h1 = document.getElementById(“title”).getElementsByTagName(“h1”)[0];h1.innerHTML = widont(h1.innerHTML); Here are a few quotes I thought were very appropriate to this discussion:

“Atheists are simply those who do not accept the truth of this claim — they may deny it out right, they may find it too vague or incomprehensible to evaluate properly, they may be waiting to hear support for the claim, or they may simply not have heard about it yet. This is a broad and diverse category and there is no particular counter-claim made by all atheists.”

“Many have trouble comprehending that “not believing X” (not believe gods exist) doesn’t mean the same as “believing not X” (believe gods do not exist). The placement of the negative is key: the first means not having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is true, the second means having the mental attitude that proposition X (gods exist) is false. The difference here is between disbelief and denial: the first is disbelief in the broad or narrow sense whereas the second is denial.”
“A belief is the mental attitude that some proposition is true. For every given proposition, every person either has or lacks the mental attitude that it is true — there is no middle ground between the presence of absence of a belief. In the case of gods, everyone either has a belief that at least one god of some sort exists or they lack any such belief.”


“A person who is an agnostic, who does not claim to know for sure if any gods exist, still either has some sort of belief in the existence of some sort of god (believing without knowing for sure is common in many subjects) or lacks a belief in the existence of any gods (not believing without knowing for sure may be more common). Confusing the definitions of atheism and agnosticism is a popular tactic with some religious theists because it allows them to essentially define the territory of debate in their favor. They should not, however, be permitted to misdefine and misrepresent basic categories in this manner.”
I still am stunned at the presumptuousness of a theist calling an atheist public outreach program to argue with the hosts about what an atheist is, writing to an atheist educational foundation to assert they don’t understand the definition of agnostic or atheist, and potentially going to Austin Cline’s section to say that a person who has dealt in atheist issues for longer than I’ve been an atheist (and who has extensively handled this question particularly) doesn’t have a clue about atheism. I would never dream of contacting the Baptist Convention to say they don’t know the first thing about what a Baptist is. In fact, if I did get into a discussion with the president of a Baptist educational foundation (as J disputed with Matt D as well), and he told me that I misunderstood some aspect of what it means to be “Baptist,” and dictionaries and reference sources largely supported his assertions–why wouldn’t I back down and own up to my misconception? Austin Cline has a thought on that in one of his Atheism 101 articles:

“Another reason for insisting that only the narrow sense of atheism is relevant is that it allows the theist to avoid shouldering the principle burden of proof. You see, if atheism is simply the absence of a belief in any gods, then the principle burden of proof lies solely with the theist. If the theist cannot demonstrate that their belief is reasonable and justified, then atheism is automatically credible and rational. When a person is unable to do this, it can be easier to claim that others are in the same boat than to admit one’s own failure.”

I think this pretty well nails it.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

I recently had a conversation with a man who had lost his son. He answered the phone and was pleased to hear from me after many years. We had a wonderful conversation and I was glad that I called. He told me what had happened. He talked about how he was doing. And he waxed philosophic on the meaning of it all.

“How someone can look at a tree or a human body or even a human eye, and not see that there is some design to all of this,” he thought out loud. He went on to describe the wondrousness of nature and his theistic leanings, and to express bewilderment at how anyone could accept evolution and other things our public schools and universities are teaching now-a-days. “It’s so much easier to believe in god—so much easier to believe a god did all this.” Yes, he actually said that. And yes, he did use the human eye example.

Obviously I don’t share his views. But I do share, to some small degree, his loss and his hope that things can and will get better as we all come to grips with the death of a loved family member and all that the young man had come to represent for each of us—whether as a fond childhood memory or a son.

We often get letters from atheists asking how to handle social situations where theistic ideas are laid bare to them from those they love or respect. Whether other atheists agree or disagree with me, there is no way I was going to address my opposing views to this man in this circumstance. He wasn’t asking me what I thought. He wasn’t requesting my approval. He was communicating feelings and simply wanted to be allowed to do so. And if I could help him feel comforted by merely listening in this moment, without expressing judgment, I felt I could offer him at least that much.

So, I continued to listen. And he finally began to talk about other things. He is an impressive man of many talents. Not complicated or intellectual—but interesting and clever. He owns some land where he raises orchards and honey bees. Not a large farm, but enough to keep him busy in his mid-70s. And being a garden enthusiast myself, I found I was quickly drawn into some of the most interesting conversation about nature I’ve had in awhile.

I need to try grafting—he insists. I have an apple sprout. When it gets to be as big around as my finger, I can cut it just so, and add a fruit apple stem to the stalk, in order to grow the fruit variety of apple on this useless sprout. And, as it turns out, I can keep on grafting different varieties, and they will all grow on the same apple tree. He has in his garden an apple tree upon which he now boasts 21 different varieties of apples growing on a single trunk.

Many people don’t realize that most of the plants that supply us food don’t exist in the wild. If I grow an apple tree sprouted from seed, it may never fruit. And if it does fruit, there are nearly perfect odds the fruit will be bitter, small, and inedible. Growing an apple tree from a Red Delicious apple seed will not yield you a Red Delicious apple tree. Some of you may have known that—but I’m guessing many of you may not have. To grow Red Delicious apples, you have to graft a Red Delicious apple stem to an existing apple tree trunk—of any variety (even a rouge like the one I have sprouted). The graft will produce Red Delicious fruit. You can’t grow modern domestic apple strains from seed. I don’t know if there are exceptions to this—but in general, this is the rule with much of our fruit bearing domestic crops. They don’t exist in the wild. And if all we had was seed, we would have to rebreed it from existing stock—re-engineer it, genetically, using a lab or evolution and artificial selection to recreate “Red Delicious” apples again.

Not only is the man on the phone aware of how this works—he knows more about it than I do. The only way to create something like a Red Delicious apple, in the days before genetic modification in a lab, was to use evolution and artificial selection to make it happen, yourself. You had to direct nature away from natural selection and use artificial selection to get what you wanted. Most people understand this is how we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from dogs and wolves in the wild. In fact, we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from other dogs in other people’s homes.

But he understands we breed strains of plants that become unable to reproduce themselves without human intervention. And he knows how it works and takes great pleasure from actually doing it—from diving into nature and taking control and directing nature and making nature do all sorts of weird and “unnatural” things that, ironically, only nature can do for him. He knows nature. He works nature. He sees nature with his own eyes.

But he doesn’t believe nature.

This same man has seen firsthand how nature can change and produce and reform and repurpose, how it can be made to stretch with agility and be tortuously forced to produce extremes of diversity through such minor interventions as a cut in a limb or picking this type of parent stock over that one. He has seen nature.

But he doesn’t believe nature.

“Who could believe evolution?” he sincerely wonders. And for now, I won’t reply to him. Now is not the time to argue with a bereaved parent. But in my own mind I cannot help but ask, “Who can see nature and do what you have done with nature, and still not believe what nature can do?” The diversity, flexibility and novelty of nature is something to behold. To see someone else behold it and then reply, “it’s so much easier to believe a god did it,” is hard to fathom. Perhaps it is a compliment to nature that what it does is so unbelievable to so many that they think something more must be involved?

To see nature do it, and then say “nature can’t do it—it must be a god,” is interesting to say the least. I’ve never seen a god, let alone seen a god do anything amazing (or anything mundane for that matter). So, how could it possibly be easier for me to identify a god as the cause of what I observe that nature does, than to identify nature as the cause of what I observe nature does? How did “god” come into this equation? At what point do we employ a touch of god to get the grafting to work or to breed the new spaniel? Which step was “add a bit of god” in that?

The fact is, there is no “add a bit of god” step. And everyone who works with nature knows that it does what it does how it does it. If we didn’t understand that much, we would be unable to guide it and use it as we have and as we do. We know, to some useful degree what nature is, what it does, and how it accomplishes those things. That’s how we put it to work for us. And still, it manages to come up with new and interesting things nearly every day to continue to amaze us with its revelations.

If we understand a process, why should we employ god—an unnecessary, extraneous step—to explain it?

And if we don’t understand a process, I must still wonder why should we employ god to explain it?

If I have never seen a god and don’t know what a god is or how it functions and operates and what actual impact it has on anything—how do I employ it and use it to produce explanatory function for anything in nature? How is what cannot be observed, examined or understood, useful or helpful in understanding anything? If I don’t understand natural process Y, and I say it’s the result of undefined function X—what have I learned? What have I explained or added to our knowledge? How does that help at all? And why would I put such a baseless thing forward as useful or real?

How can a person so involved in nature and natural processes accept that a divine cause is required for what he can plainly observe nature doing—apparently, by all observation, unaided?

Ironically, most creationists would respond that I’m stripping god of his rightful credit by endowing nature as its own source. But really, if I go by what is supported via the evidence and reason, it’s clearly the other way around. Nature, a wonder to observe (and, importantly, it can be observed) is not served by handing credit for all it does and all it can do, to god-X (and note that, importantly, god-X cannot be observed). Fortunately for nature, it does not appear to have an ego to bruise. But if it did, it might wonder, “on what grounds can any reasonable person assert that I can’t do what I clearly do? How does anyone know what I can do, but by observing what I do before their very eyes?” And if there were some world behind the world, how could we reasonably credit it, while it works in shadows, hides its hand, and pretends to not exist—putting forward a façade that nature can do all this hidden world is supposedly “really” doing? If there were such a hidden world, there would be nothing to observe or examine to make anyone think it exists.

How would that be easier to believe than what can actually be seen, examined, and understood? For me, it’s not hard to believe what I can observe and examine and come to understand. But it’s very hard to believe that which is supported by nothing I can see and examine—and which, due to that, could never be understood, and therefore never believed, because there is no way to reasonably assert belief in things we cannot or do not understand.

George Tiller: Death by Propaganda

In today’s Austin American-Statesman, there was an editorial that included a photo of a church marquis letting us know that George Tiller died the same way he lived. I believe the inferred connection there is intended to be “murder.”

The first article I read about this was in the June 1 edition. President Troy Newman of Operation Rescue responded to the murder by saying he was “shocked” and that “Operation Rescue has worked for years through peaceful, legal means, and through the proper channels to see him brought to justice…We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning.”

In fact, Tiller was, actually, “brought to justice” where justice, it seems, acquitted him of charges that he had illegally performed late term abortions without a proper medical second opinion.

In addition to seeking peacefully to bring Tillman—a man who was found to be breaking no laws—to justice, Operation Rescue also featured a “Tiller Watch” at their Web site. I guess now they can take it down. It’s work here is done, as the saying goes.

It didn’t get done right away, though, because it turns out that Tiller was actually the victim of a similar shooting in 1993, when another life-affirming, anti-choice, protestor—a woman—managed to get within range. I wonder if “Tiller Watch” was up back then as well to inspire her—or if it was put up after the first attempt failed to achieve the goal?

When I read Newman’s comments about his “shock”—I was, ironically, shocked myself. I turned to my friend and said, “If you go around screaming that someone is mass murdering babies—what do you think will happen?”

And this was before I had read down to the part of the article where Operation Rescue Founder Randall Terry had actually called Tiller “a mass murderer.”

Everyone has a breaking point. I don’t care who you are. You have one. Seriously, let’s say you sincerely believed your neighbor was mass murdering children in his home. You call the cops, frantic, and explain to them that he’s torturing and killing young children—you’re absolutely sure of it! But the dispatcher just says, “Yeah–that’s totally his right. We really don’t come out for things like baby killings.” You keep calling back. Surely they didn’t understand you the first fifty times you called? But the response is always the same. And here you are, on the phone, wasting time, while the monster next door is killing more and more innocent children! My god, man! What do you do?!

If this was actually happening, and you knew it, and nobody was stopping this killer, at what point—if out of nothing more than pure altruism (if there is such a thing?)—would you finally say, “I don’t care if I die for this or go to prison for the rest of my life—someone has to do the right thing and stop this monstrous freak!”

Groups like Operation Rescue consist of members (and apparently leadership as well) who make a point of publicly labeling these doctors, and their patients, as “baby killers”—literally mass baby killers. And maybe it’s just me—but if someone actually is going around mass murdering children—I don’t think I would be “shocked” that someone stepped up and killed that person. So, why is Operation Rescue expressing “shock,” if they know this man is a baby killer? Are they “shocked” that by labeling such a person a “baby killer,” that someone might think he should be stopped by any means necessary? I mean, would it shock you if you believed what they believe? What, exactly, do they think happens when you whip up masses of (often already emotionally driven) people with something like that?

We’re all supposed to play along, I guess, that they never expected anything like this to happen as a result of merely calling someone something so benign and harmless as “a mass murderer (of babies)”? Who would have thought people would be all “up in arms,” literally, and excited over something like that? Apparently not Newman. But I think most other people could have seen it coming light years away. And I can’t really bring myself to play along that Operation Rescue is “shocked.”

I have a saying when someone asks me to believe obvious bullshit. I say, “Either you’re stupid—or you think I am.” And like most people, I don’t appreciate it when someone, or in this case some organization, communicates to me like I’m an idiot. It doesn’t upset me, but I find it hard to play along. No, Operation Rescue, you’re not shocked. Please stop pretending, and have your victory celebration unapologetically.

I guess that would result in some really crappy P.R. But, still, how refreshing to see some noble honesty for once?

“Mass baby killing.” There’s the trigger. Pun not intended, but wholly (holy?) appropriate in this case.

Most people agree with rule of law. If they didn’t we’d have far more chaos than we do. But I don’t think there is anyone who does not understand that at some point, we would all be willing to defy the law in order to do something we consider morally necessary.

Yes, it’s cliche’, but I’m going to use an example from Nazi Germany until a better example comes along—which will, hopefully, be never. But, if I lived in Nazi Germany—I hope I would not turn someone in if I knew they were a hiding Jew. I hope I would, like I hope many of you would, end up breaking the law, and maybe even dying, myself, or potentially killing someone, to protect others from people I view as utterly wrong and dangerous. So, it’s no “shock” to me, and probably not to you, either, that if you whip up huge numbers of fundamentalist-thinking people with things like “godless baby killers!” you’re going to get not a few individuals (I’m surprised they don’t get more) who go ape-shit and fly completely off the rails in the worst way.

I don’t think Operation Rescue crosses a line against free speech—such as someone who might say, “Somebody needs to put a bullet in these doctors. Can I interest you in further details?” would be doing; but, when they try to divorce themselves from a natural—and, let’s be honest here, pretty predictable—consequence of their influence—that’s where I want to cry “hypocrite.” Not “foul.” Not “lock you up for what you said.” But “Don’t talk to me like I’m stupid—that did not shock you.” In fact, if it shocked any one of you, you don’t get out enough.

This isn’t a video game about killing doctors. This isn’t a music CD about killing doctors. This is a group of real human beings calling other real human beings “baby killers” and then saying they can’t believe that simply being consistently and publicly labeled as a “baby killer” would make someone want to kill you. I mean, he was just a baby killer—nothing to get all worked up about and start shooting people.

Really? Can’t imagine how an agenda of working nonstop to convince (many already deluded) people this guy was a baby killer, could result in someone getting hurt?

Are you stupid, or do you think I am?

What’s sad, though, is that if they were really shocked—then this man died for some mysterious agenda. “Shocked” means you don’t really think what he was doing was something a person might kill another person over. And that means you don’t believe he was a mass baby killer—because who wouldn’t expect a mass baby killer might be, himself, killed by someone one day? So, what is going on over at Operation Rescue, where they aren’t at all responding like they believed he was a mass baby murderer? What if they had some other, ulterior motive—and this guy died as collateral damage for some superficial propaganda blitz? That would really be hosed up, wouldn’t it?

But—other than their inexplicable, “shocked” reaction—why would anyone think Operation Rescue wasn’t since
re about their claims that abortion doctors are committing mass infanticide, unhindered within our own borders?

Well, here’s my theory: If they truly believed what they say they are convinced of, then abortion in the U.S. is probably the largest, mass infant murder movements in history. I’m going to assert that they’d all be shooting doctors. And, I would hope that if I really, truly, sincerely believed there was a mass child killer on the loose and nobody was stopping him or her—that just maybe I would courageously do the same thing—if I really believed it. Of course, if I just wanted to emotionally manipulate a huge bunch of people, and I didn’t really believe or care about what I was saying, then I’d be doing exactly what Operation Rescue does—taking my time in courts, standing on corners with signs, taking people’s money, telling them who to vote for, and watching them hang on my every recommendation as I play on their fear and hate.

The fact that groups like Operation Rescue stop short of reaching the, not only logical, but obvious conclusion of what needs to be done if their claims are believed—and human children are being slaughtered in droves—demonstrates to me, or to anyone, a lack of genuine belief in their own propaganda. I think, like most religious views, they “believe” it in some weird way on some odd, superficial level where it hits emotional response (and, I mean, come on, how easy is that?), but doesn’t ever sink down into thought centers, where it would normally ruminate and ferment into a more cohesive and fully formed “idea”—with actual implications and repercussions and consequences. But they obviously don’t believe it on that sort of level—on the sort of level where any real, proportional “action” would necessarily follow—as I would expect action to follow if any real, thinking human being believed unhindered mass murder was happening unabated?!

Where is the courage of conviction here?

Where is any conviction here?

What the hell do these people honestly believe?

And why did this guy really die?

A Co-Dependent Worldview

There are many misconceptions about co-dependents and co-dependent behavior. Many people still consider co-dependents to be merely “enablers” or people in relationships with addicts. But if we define a co-dependent person in such a way as to require that they be in a relationship with an addict (or with anyone) in order to qualify as “co-dependent,” that would be like defining an alcoholic as someone who is actively drinking—so that when the alcoholic is sleeping, we might rightly say he’s not an alcoholic. A co-dependent, like an addict, is identified by his mental perceptions—how he envisions his interactions, not who or what he’s interacting with in the moment.

This is not to say that if someone offers a definition of a co-dependent using a relationship model that there is no place for that. Certainly, if I were a family counselor, I would likely lean very hard toward a working definition that addressed my model of therapy in a way that would help my patients understand their roles in the situation. That’s fine. But I’m not defining “co-dependent” here in order to target a working treatment model. I’m seeking to understand a mental mindset that results in the dysfunctional relationships co-dependents gravitate toward due to a developmental disorder.

“Co-dependency is defined as a psychological disorder caused by a failure to complete one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood, that of establishing psychological autonomy. Psychological autonomy is necessary for the development of the self, separate from parents.”
—Barry K. Weinhold, PhD, and Janae B Weinhold, PhD, co-authors, “Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap.”

It is then, literally, to be blunt, a childish worldview that was never outgrown. This deals with boundaries, especially psychological boundaries, that the co-dependent has either weakened or lost. Just as a child who stubs his toe on a piece of furniture might become angry and hit (blame) the chair, so does the adult co-dependent not see the clear divide between himself and other people and things outside himself. And he sees his emotions as being at least partly dictated by people and things outside himself. He believes others have the ability to affect his emotional state, without his consent, to some degree. And to the level he accepts this, that is the level to which he is engaged in co-dependent thinking.

In order to address this problem, the following was suggested: “…to treat and heal the suffering and dysfunction of co-dependence, we first realize that we are powerless over others. We are powerless over their beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions and choices, and their behavior. But we discover that we are powerful over ourselves, our own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors.”

And in order to offer a useful, broad definition (not narrowed for specific treatment programs), “…we can define [co-dependence] briefly as any suffering or dysfunction that is associated with or results from focusing on the needs and behaviors of others…it may be mild to severe.”
—Charles L. Whitfield, MD, (both quotes above) from his book “Co-Dependence, Healing the Human Condition. Whitfield is certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a former instructor at Rutgers Univeristy.

In other words, if I experience unpleasant or unwanted responses (“any suffering”) based on my observations of the actions of another (“associated with the behaviors of others”), that is a co-dependent perspective. And that last bit is important. This is not an “all” or “nothing” measurement. The level to which you relate to this worldview dictates the level to which you are co-dependent—mild or severe.

In the section of their book entitled “Healthy Ways to Handle Feelings,” Drs. Weinhold write, “own your feelings and take responsibility for being the source of your feelings.”

My posts are long enough, but that bears repeating: “take responsibility for being the source of your feelings.” As long as I continue to hold to a model that there are sources, other than me, for my emotional responses, I’m feeding into a mindset born of a developmental dysfunction.

“CBT treatments have received empirical support for efficient treatment of a variety of clinical and non-clinical problems, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and psychotic disorders. It is often brief and time-limited. It is used in individual therapy as well as group settings, and the techniques are also commonly adapted for self-help applications…In cognitive oriented therapies, the objective is typically to identify and monitor thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that are related and accompanied to debilitating negative emotions and to identify those which are dysfunctional, inaccurate, or simply unhelpful. This is done in an effort to replace or transcend them with more realistic and useful ones.”
—Wikipedia entry on “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)”

In other words, the goal is not to avoid situations where unwanted emotions arise and it is not to learn to live with these emotions and contain or suppress them. The goal is to teach people how to choose more appropriate, beneficial emotions over ones that are causing problems for them in their lives—because we can, and do, choose our emotional responses. A person suffering from anxiety disorder can actually learn to stop feeling anxious. This is achieved by heightening the person’s awareness via teaching him to monitor what is happening in his own mind, and make better choices in his reactions—including emotional reactions. We can choose appropriate or inappropriate emotional responses. However, most of us don’t really consider our mental reactions and responses. We take them for granted and let them move along without much interference unless and until something really bothers us enough to the point we need to learn how to take a more active role in controlling our mental, intrapersonal dialogues.

A quick word about avoidance: If you go to the local book store and pick up a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you will find that in treating emotional disorders, such as anxiety, avoidance is a behavior the therapist must try to interrupt. It is not uncommon for people to suffer from anxiety in particular environmental situations. In order to avoid the anxiety, the patient avoids the situation (for example, driving a car). The problem here is many-fold. The patient is heading for phobia and soon will be not just someone with anxiety disorder, but someone with anxiety disorder and a phobia of driving.

The patient is misattributing the environmental stimulus as being the catalyst for the anxiety he feels. In reality the catalyst is his misinterpretation of the environmental stimulus: He sees driving—a mundane activity—as irrationally threatening and fearsome. What he doesn’t understand is that his anxiety and fear are not brought on by driving, but are rather brought on by his mentally defective interpretation of driving. The event occurs and is nonthreatening. But the patient’s mind interprets it as a threat, and he then responds with fear, panic, and anxiety to his imagined and unjustified mental model of what is happening. So, his emotional reaction is not in response to anything outside his head. It’s a response to a distortion within his head. If the distortion can be addressed, so that he regains a more realistic perspective of driving, then he will find he can choose an emotion other than “anxious” when he drives. But he first has to be able to make a rational evaluation of the event (while he’s in the event). He has the capacity to do this, as do we all, but he does not know how to do that at the time he enters therapy.

In communication psychology and intrapersonal communication, there are two thing
s I learned that have served me extremely well in life:

1. Nobody and nothing can make me mad.
2. Emotions tell us nothing about the world outside our own minds.

This is not to say I never get angry. The key word is “make.” When I become angry, I know I must accept responsibility for the anger I emote. Choosing anger as an appropriate emotional response is not the same as being forced to be angry. Likewise, choosing anger when it is an inappropriate response is not the same as being “made” angry. As an honest person I must admit I became angry—of my own free will. I was not force or made to be angry—no matter how tempting it might be to blame others for my own lack of judgment or unwillingness to exercise self-control.

And that is very difficult for some people to grasp, because not everything in reality is intuitive. Some things are actually counterintuitive the more deeply we study them. And it is often to our detriment that our emotional reactions are not intuitively understood for a great many people.

Something good happens—someone gives me a birthday present—and I feel good. Something sad happens—my dog dies—and I feel sad. Something scary happens—I step on a snake—and I’m scared. What could be more simple? A child can make this connection, right? Well, right, a child could make this connection, but the child would be wrong to say the events were the catalyst to his emotional reaction. It is not these events that evoke these emotions. It is our mental models and interpretations that evoke these emotions. How can I know this? Because, fortunately, we sometimes have cases we can examine where our mental models don’t correspond with environmental realities. And when that happens, which one of those things (our environment or our noncorresponding interpretation) do you imagine our emotions align with?

Well, when we consider it that way, it becomes intuitive again, doesn’t it? Would anyone fail to rightly guess that our emotional reaction will align with our interpretation of the environment—and not the environment? If there is nothing to fear in my environment, but I believe there is something to fear, I will feel corresponding fear. But corresponding to what? To reality or to my interpretation?

This becomes relevant in religion when people use emotional response as an affirmation of their belief that god is interacting with them in their lives. They “feel” god—and for many people that reinforces that there really is a god “out there” beyond their minds, creating these emotional impulses. But their model is flawed and actually a prime example co-dependent thinking and misattribution.

In other words, if I hear a strange noise in my house—and I believe someone is trying to break in—I will react emotionally as if an intruder is trying to enter my home (even if it’s just a branch scraping my window). My cognitive self confronts existent reality, interprets that reality, and then relays that interpretation, which is fed into another part of the brain that kicks out an impulse—emotional or otherwise. That response then goes to my cognitive self and I must decide whether or not the response is appropriate. If I deem it appropriate, I will unleash it. If I deem it inappropriate, I will send a new message back to my brain letting it know that isn’t an acceptable response, and I will choose another. And all this can happen instantaneously. In fact, this internal dialogue is happening in each of us, nonstop, all the time—whether we pay attention to it and acknowledge it, or not. We actually can tune into it—we just generally don’t bother.

This process can take milliseconds or years to produce a change in emotional response. And in very few cases, we may not have time to cognitively assess our response at all. Something might not frighten us slowly—but, instead, very quickly. This would be an emotional “spike,” and the immediacy of it would make it difficult or impossible to process and restrain in the moment. But we are, most of us, rarely confronted in daily life with such immediate and extreme levels of emotional impulse. You might think of it as walking along normally and stumbling over a tree root. Ninety-nine percent of the time you are in immediate control of your walking. That doesn’t mean you spend your energy focusing on it and monitoring each move—but you still understand you are the one controlling your movements as you walk. You don’t have to concentrate and think about it, because you’ve done it for so long that it’s nearly automatic. But hit that tree root and you look like you have lost any and all control over your legs and body. It’s a glitch for sure, but the exception and not the rule.

We take our emotional responses and psychological control for granted. And how many times do we hear people claim outright that we can’t control how we feel, who we love, what we like, what we hate, sometimes even what we do? These are excuses to unburden ourselves of our responsibility for our own reactions—literally to not take responsibility for our very selves.

Many, many things can show us that we have the capacity to adjust our emotional responses toward things—to change how we feel about them. If we are reasonable, someone might present a good argument or evidence that contradicts something we thought we understood previously, but now realize we did not. And we decide that maybe our attitude about a particular situation is perhaps not appropriate. So, we adjust it. Who hasn’t had that experience? Just as well, we might have a sudden and impactive emotional experience or trauma that changes our view. Maybe we nearly die, and it makes us realize that we should take more joy in our lives while we’re here. And we really do enjoy life more after that. Or maybe there is no trigger. Maybe I go to a party that I felt obligated to attend. I’m committed to be there for five hours and it’s pure tedium. I’ve served two hours of my hell-party sentence sitting in a chair by myself, when I simply consider that maybe if I tried to go and meet a few people it might not be so horrible. I go out and mingle, and whether I find any interesting people or not, I find the night is at least somewhat improved over brooding in a corner for three more hours.

In all of these cases, there are common denominators. One is that I agreed to consider another view—and ultimately to adopt another view of my situation. The person who gains new information can’t say that anything outside his own mind changed. The situation is the same. The information he gained wasn’t “not there” before. He simply was unaware of it. But reality didn’t change, only his view of it broadened. He now can consider “more” of it and has a different feeling about what he’s looking at. The man who nearly died did not come back to a new wife, a new son, a new job. He simply gained a new view of it all. And the guy at the party didn’t find a way to change the party. He just changed his view of it—all on his own. He recognized that he had zero control over the party, over the people, over the refreshments, over time, but he discovered, as Whitfield pointed out, that he was powerful over himself, his own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors. Over himself, his actions, his attitude, he had total control. And by exercising it, he went from frustrated, angry and bored, to at least somewhat interested. He went from a co-dependent view of himself as a victim, obligated to a hateful five-hour torture session, to someone in control who was willing to take responsibility for his evening and whether or not he enjoyed it on any level.

Another common denominator in these three cases is that any of these men could have refused to agree to adopt a new attitude. I could get new and contradictory data and still hold tenaciously to my perspectives. I could nearly die, and come back and be the same complacent, joyless ass I was before. I could go to the party, wall
ow in my piss-poor mood all night, and go home thinking about how I’ll never get that evening back. It’s completely up to me. I am the only one who can control my attitude—and I can change it to a polar opposite view if I deem doing so is justified.

But whatever I do, as the Drs. Weinhold note, I must own my feelings and take responsibility for being the source of my feelings. I can’t be held accountable for everything that happens to me in life. But I can very well be held to account for every reaction express—so long as I’m enjoying a normal level of mental health.

Co-dependent attitudes are so prevalent, mainly, I would wager, due to some of the issues noted above—being so used to having near-automatic, appropriate emotional responses that we hardly notice them or feel a need to exercise restraint or control over them, and also, understandably, misattributing our emotions to things outside of our own minds, because so often, for the most part, our mental models are close enough to the Real McCoy that we don’t stop to examine whether our emotional reactions are toward the models or the reality being modeled.

According to Whitfield, “Co-dependence is the most common of all addictions: the addiction to looking elsewhere.” Whitfield acknowledges we “live in a world where nearly everyone is acting co-dependently most of the time.” In other words, this thinking, based on a developmental flaw, is extremely pervasive and common. It is so common in fact, that some co-dependence evaluation questionnaires have people answer with a scale like this one, (Almost Always = 4, Frequently = 3, Occasionally = 2, Never = 1), where the low score would be the least co-dependent attitude. Note there is no setting for “0.” In other words, nobody gets out of that test with zero level of co-dependence.

It may sound unfair, but it’s true. Examples of these evaluations appear in Weinholds’ and Whitfield’s books, and in many other places. I guess the message is that it’s simply too much to hope that a person could actually take full responsibility for himself. While I’d love to recoil, I can’t say that I don’t see a lot of this attitude in people. And I can’t say that I don’t have to police it in my own head. Road-rage anyone? But when I recognize it, I can say I don’t defend it as being beyond my control. Not controlling myself, certainly, is not the same as not being able to control myself—and not the same as not being responsible for controlling myself. I do what I do, because it’s what I chose to do—whether in the moment or after careful consideration is irrelevant. It is my reaction, and I must own it—since nobody else can. My mental and physical reactions are mine and come out of my human experience and worldview. If I can’t defend them, then I should reconsider them—in the moment or after careful consideration.

All this said, I admit fully that without religion, there would still be co-dependent people. And, actually, at least one religion, Buddhism, appears to give people props for exercising mental control and taking as much responsibility as possible for their own mental reactions. So, that said, not all religions feed into the “co-dependence trap” (as the Weinholds’ labeled it). Even Hinduism, with its self-defeating caste system and karma, contains an example in the Bhagavad-Gita of the self exercising control of emotional impulses. The process is compared to a charioteer driving a team of horses, and the analogy is meant to illustrate the value of exercising measured self-control over the mind’s impulses.

And isn’t this supposed to, somewhere, touch on religion a bit more?

With that, let’s have a word about compartmentalization. Consider Whitfield’s earlier statement, “we are powerful over ourselves, our own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors.” His point in a nutshell is to take responsibility for you reactions, and stop blaming others for things that should be your responsibility as part of your life. Be the captain of your own destiny! And the Weinholds’ appear to agree. Intrapersonal communication models, based on research in communication psychology, also concur, and CBT demonstrates it as a working, demonstrable model as well. So, how does one explain statements like the following from Co-dependents Anonymous’ 12 Steps? Is this funny or sad?

Step 2: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”

I refuse to elaborate on the discrepancy here, because to do so would be an insult to the intelligence of every reader. If you can’t see the glaring hypocrisy of these steps in a program to help people who are having trouble taking responsibility for themselves and their own lives and personal reactions—as Foxworthy might say, “You just might be” a co-dependent.

Here’s what’s even spookier. Dr. Whitfield promotes and advocates this 12-step program in his aforementioned book. The same man who says my problem is that I am not acknowledging I am the source of power over my own life, advocates letting go and letting god, by throwing me into a program where I am immediately told I must accept I am powerless—beyond whatever power god, in his mercy, is willing to grant me.

How is that any better than being powerless over myself except for whatever power someone else or my environment grants me? In any of those scenarios, I still haven’t taken responsibility, I’ve merely shifted the responsibility for my life from one source that is not me to another source that (I believe) is not me. Where exactly did I gain any power from this shift?

But as if this weren’t disturbing enough, isn’t this pretty well Western religion in a nutshell? Conservative fundamentalists preach “responsibility,” then co-dependently slough off responsibility for everything in their lives to a mental model that does not represent themselves. Again—oh, the irony. They absolutely rail against people who they perceive to not be taking responsibility for themselves, and they preach out of that same mouth, the doctrine of fully crippling, co-dependent salvation (because I just can’t rely on myself to run my own life).

But let me add one last thing. Let’s end on an atheist note. We get many letters. And for every letter we get saying X, I can promise you we get just as many saying –X. One topic particularly that I find funny is “Matt’s attitude toward callers.” Matt could get 10 e-mails a day on this subject, and I promise you that five would scold him for being too mean and nasty, and the other five would praise him for his patience and kindness toward callers (some even scold him for being too kind). Some go on to say Matt, and the rest of the hosts/cohosts are no better than fundamentalist Christians in how we pig-headedly shove our opinions down the throats of others.

How do we stack up with this question from the “Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence”?

“I attempt to convince others of what they ‘should’ think and how they ‘truly’ feel.”

Let it be known that for myself, I understand that I have no control over what someone else thinks and feels. Without their consent to dialogue, consider, and ultimately change their mind, I can do nothing to impact them or their views. The power is fully, 100%, with them. They own that realm utterly.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t invite them to dialogue, consider or change their views. Whether t
hey think they should or can or will—is not within my power. I don’t lose sleep over it. An invitation is not an attempt at coercion. Anyone can refuse—no threats or fear of reprisals. Anyone can turn the channel, not call, or not e-mail us. Anyone who interacts with us has, of their own free will, and under their own power and cognition, chosen to engage with us for whatever reason of their own. And whatever they get out of it, they own it. Whatever they feel about it, they own that as well. If someone is offended, it’s not because of something I’ve said, it’s because they maintain such fragile ego models that even words manage to make them feel threatened. Whatever, they express or send to us—they own it. None of that belongs to anyone at AE. It’s completely the sender’s.

Own yourself. Empower yourself. Live your life and don’t lose out by thinking you have anything less than total control of what you put into it—mentally and physically. Whatever you have, you can give—100%—if you choose. Or you can be a walking, talking reaction—wandering through your life feeling powerless and victimized, waiting for your sign from your partner, environment or god model, before you’ll dare to make your next move. But I’m not telling you what you “should” do. I’m just inviting you to expand your perspective to consider what you “could” do. The power is only ever yours, whether you use it or convince yourself you can give it away.

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won’t examine that particular episode, but I’d like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal “experts.”

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren’t “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says
“get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I u
nderstand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I’m attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I’ll find what I’m looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.