Not quite the double standard you were thinking

Hey, kids. Yes, I’m back. Been back a few days in fact. And I’m finally ready to post again, so here’s my first, in reply to a letter received responding to the conversation with Behe fan “Garry” on the last show I did with Matt. Our correspondent begins:

I am an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, and I am a friendly/open-minded agnostic theist. So with my introduction out of the way, here is my email:

In the Problem of Evil debate, skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence formulate their argumentation as follows:

(1) If there were an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God, then (due to His unlimited knowledge and unlimited power) He would be able to prevent gratuitous/pointless evil and suffering that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(2) Because God would have such a capability, and because He is supposedly all-good, he would act on that capability and prevent the gratuitous/pointless suffering and evil that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(3) But, there is lots of evils and sufferings that occur in the world (which have not been prevented by the supposed all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God), and much of it is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good (and therefore seems to be gratuitous/pointless).

(4) Therefore, the conclusion is that there does not exist a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-good.

Now, many theists argue against the argument of ‘The Problem of Evil’ presented above by way of refuting premise (3) and saying that there is no evil that is gratuitous/pointless, and that all evil is logically necessary for adequately compensating goods. One of the ways in which they do this is by presenting ‘The Contrast Response,’ which basically says that if there were no evil in the world, we would not be aware of the good. God then allows evil to make us aware of goodness, since this awareness in itself is a good.

But, many skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence do not accept ‘The Contrast Response’ because they claim that it is not necessarily the case that our minds work this way. Essentially, they believe that we would still be aware of goodness even if there were less (or even no) evil to contrast it. So they say that ‘The Contrast Response’ is logically invalid.

That being said, I am assuming that you (Matt and Martin) are not exceptions (and have the same point of contention in regards to ‘The Contrast Response’).

So if I am actually correct about my assumption and your point of contention and belief that our minds don’t need contrasting things in order to be aware of (or recognize) non-contrasting things, why then (in episode # 660, which occurred on Sunday, 6/06/2010 and while responding to Garry from Manhattan, NY and his example of irreducibly complex systems) did you (Matt and Martin) flip the contrast response (which you do not accept as being valid in the problem of evil argument) around in order to claim (within the context of the argument of creationism) that in order to know if something was created, we have to first have an example of something that wasn’t created to compare it with (or contrast it to)? To me, this seems like a logically fallacious contradiction???

Our correspondent is wrong in his assumption of where I stand on “The Contrast Response.” I don’t reject the notion that a knowledge of the difference between good and evil is a vital element of ascertaining one’s moral positions. What I reject is the notion that an omnibenevolent God is necessary for such an understanding, especially one who would continue to allow gratuitous evils to occur long after the human race had well and truly understood those differences and had established laws to punish them. Why, in this day and age, would God allow (to use the most button-mashing of examples) the continued sexual abuse of children? Are there significant pockets of human civilization (apart from the Vatican) who still do not understand this is a deplorable act, and therefore, children must still be put through the anguish of sexual abuse in order to make those people aware of its evil, and of the goodness of not abusing children in contrast?

Another objection would be that, even if one accepts the notion of God’s allowing acts of evil in the world for the sake of “compensating goods” (and I don’t know that I accept the idea of non-victims of evil realizing how lucky they are to be a “compensating good”), this would still not absolve God of the moral responsibility to stop such acts of evil when he can. Honestly, in what way would God’s refusal to prevent the sexual abuse of a child — thereby presumably allowing us to experience the horror of the act so as to better appreciate it when children aren’t raped — constitute a better “compensating good” than for him simply to blast the assailant to smithereens with a well-aimed lightning bolt? Who would be sitting around thinking, “Gosh, I don’t understand, why did God do that to that poor man?”

Why establish good and evil as concepts if not to enforce them? A common argument in theodicy is that God must allow evil for an understanding of good. But how are we mere mortals expected to reach such an understanding if God doesn’t explain which is which and punish the evil when it happens? Instead, it seems we are meant to work it out for ourselves which are good and evil acts, as God apparently cannot interfere in the interests of not undermining our supposed free will.

The great irony of this form of theodicy is that it ends up rendering God irrelevant. Atheists and secular moralists do argue that we are the ones responsible for determining the differences between good and evil…but that we are perfectly capable of doing this by using our intellects and our empathy to evaluate the consequences of human actions, rejecting those which are destructive.

Any theodicy that proposes a God as the architect of moral precepts, only to immediately take Him out of the picture, leaving humanity to deal with good and evil on our own, pragmatic terms, might as well concede the argument and pack it in. A God who refuses to prevent gratuitous destructive acts for any reason is one who has, if He exists, surrendered His moral authority and is deserving of no thanks from us.

Additionally, even if I am wrong about my assumption [and you guys actually DO accept the contrast response as a good response to the problem of evil—or reject it for another reason that I have not presented above—(and therefore have not contradicted yourselves)], why do you even find the merit in asking a theist to provide an example of something that was not created, anyways? Essentially, asking a theist to provide an example of something that wasn’t created is unfair, because if he/she is a common theist and believes that God exists, he/she also believes that EVERYTHING [including natural things] in our physical universe was created by Him (which would mean that to the theist there would be no example of an uncreated thing that he/she could provide, because no such example would exist).

As such, the theist’s lack of ability to provide such an example does not prove (or even serve to insinuate) that there was no creator (or God). Moreover, it only further begs the question. So essentially, I think that asking Garry to provide such an example was an invalid (and therefore unnecessary) form of argumentation.

This is because, like Garry, you fail to understand that a key component of any scientific hypothesis — which is what ID wants to be — is falsifiability. In order to determine if your hypothesis is even valid in its basic premises, you have to be able to answer this question: “If what I am proposing is not true, what conditions would I expect to find existing today?” Therefore someone insisting that life was intelligently designed must be able to answer, “If life were not designed, what would it look like?” It’s hardly unfair or invalid. It’s basic science.

And y
es, this question has been answered in regards to evolution, and very simply. When asked what he thought would falsify evolution, biologist J.B.S. Haldane answered simply, “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian.” If anything in the fossil record were not where it was supposed to be in the timeline, this would be a problem. But it has not been a problem. Indeed, evolutionary theory has been validated many times in its predictive power, another important factor establishing scientific validity. Tiktaalik was found right where paleontologists were sure a certain transitional fossil of its type would have to be found if it existed at all.

If insisting that Garry state the way in which ID or any other design hypothesis was falsifiable was “unfair,” it can only be in the way a scientifically illiterate fellow set himself up to be humiliated in his ignorance on live television. But that’s hardly our fault. If some creationist calls us, trying to peddle an inferior product, and proceeds to lecture authoritatively on a subject about which he is in fact ignorant, a little humiliation is the least he has coming.

The “Ressurection” Guy Writes Back

The young man featured in Martin’s last “resurrection” post wrote back to me on a response I had offered him. My original response wasn’t nearly as long and thorough as Martin’s. I had only asked a simple question:

To paraphrase: “Many Christians assert the resurrection stories align perfectly, and this is evidence of their truth. You are writing to say they are not aligned, and this is evidence of their truth. My question is: How do we identify a falsehood if stories that are either consistent or inconsistent are both evidence of truth?”

Since other people as well replied, I didn’t expect an answer from such a brief note from me. But when he wrote back he explained he’s in a confused state where he doesn’t know what to believe, and he’s contacting us mainly as a sounding board to see what we say to evidence and reason that seem convincing to him currently. He even added that what we said, he thought, “made a lot of sense.” I admire that he’s even asking questions. And I also understand how indoctrination can make nonsense sound sensible. So, even though the rebuttals seem obvious to me, I do get that he really doesn’t see them.

His point back to me was to issue another question. He thinks it is valid to consider that many parts of the Bible are myth, and not all literal. I agree. The difference between us is that I classify anything that isn’t demonstrated in reality (or conflicts with demonstrated reality) into the “myth” category, while he is trying to sort out which of the things that defy reality are “literal.”

He expressed that he has heard that god wrote to Hebrews in terms they could understand—to the mind of an ancient Hebrew—and that’s why the content is sometimes wrong or less than perfect. He asserted further that if the Bible is concerned with how to get to heaven, rather than how the universe works, then it’s not right to judge the problems it presents in its less-than-accurate models of reality. He gave me a quote from Galileo to support this. It is ironic the quote he offered was from Galileo—a man who dispelled more than a few erroneous Christian beliefs, some of which were supported by Biblical texts. Nobody would know better than Galileo that the Bible got it’s “reality” a bit muddled. But he excused it by saying this isn’t the point of the Bible’s divine message.

Again, I asked the same question (again to paraphrase): It is either the case that you are right, and a god wrote a book using ancient Hebrews, that was riddled with the misconceptions and ignorance we would expect to find in the ancient Hebrew mind, or it is the case that it actually is a book written by ancient Hebrews including all the misconceptions and errors within it we would expect to find in an ancient Hebrew mind, but attributed to a god in the same way many other cultures have developed similar stories about gods that sound like their own minds. If this book contained correct and advanced scientific statements, would you then consider it’s not from god, since it doesn’t sound like an ignorant Hebrew? Really, I think that if it had that sort of really good and sufficiently advanced grasp on reality within it, you’d be writing to say anyone should see no ancient Hebrew could have produced such knowledge out of his own head without an advanced intelligence to guide him. So, I’m back to the question: If god writes books that sound just like books ignorant people write—how do we tell books written by gods from books not written by gods?

I also suggested he do some research into the canonization process to make his own assessment about whether that sounds like a good strategy for a god to use to get his message to mankind.

What’s interesting to me, as well, is the emphasis this young man puts on the idea that god inspired the Bible. He’s putting the cart before the horse. The question of whether or not god inspired the Bible can only be relevant after the question “Does a god exist?” has been answered. And I did bring this up with him as well—that I don’t see any reason to believe a god inspired anything until I see some demonstration of gods in reality.

Eventually, I’m betting, he’s going to get to that point—to the realization that the real question here isn’t what god does or does not do, but whether there is a god at all. We can start the dialog at the middle or the end, but until that question is resolved, no claims about god—god’s actions or attributes—matter.

And I wonder how long it will be before we get to ID? To the point where I’m asking the same question about the universe: How do we tell a universe without a god from one with a god where god makes it look like he’s not there? There’s an old saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” I would like to change the ending to “then why would you assert it’s a god disguised as a duck, rather than a duck?”

I’ve said before that it’s a testament to the awesomeness of nature that so many people can’t believe what they see before their very eyes. It reminds me of Matt. Yes, I agree he’s awesome; but that’s not what I’m driving at. Matt does magic tricks. The last one I saw was a really good one where he sat me down with zener cards and “I” was able to predict all of the cards before he turned them over, on a table right in front of me—supposedly a “test” of my “psychic abilities.”

I joked with Matt that one problem with the trick is that he can’t do it without me—since psychic powers like mine are demonstrably very rare from even a cursory survey of reality. I don’t know many people who could do what I just did sitting at that table—successfully predicting every card without so much as breaking a sweat!

Of course, we all know it’s a trick—even if we never find out how it was done (and no, he didn’t tell me, and I knew better than to ask). But what a testament to the wonderful illusion of that trick if someone was thoroughly convinced that it had to have been done through magic—real magic: “No mortal man could possibly have done what I just saw. Matt has magic powers, the ability to draw out my psychic capacity in some way.”

If I walked away convinced of that—what a trick that would be! Now, it would pay no homage to Matt’s real skill as a magician in one sense, since I failed utterly to appreciate the work that really went into creating such a brilliant demonstration of mental manipulation. But in an odd way the fact I would seriously doubt his skill as a magician, and become convinced the trick is real, demonstrates how well the trick was executed.

And nature is exactly the same. What a testament to nature’s amazing presentation that so many walk away convinced that what they see happening each day, before their very eyes, is completely impossible without magic.

We Can’t Please Everyone

It’s pretty obvious that Jen and Russell received mixed reviews on the theist guest experiment. I will let the viewers continue to figure out their feelings about it.

But the event also triggered some e-mail responses, and one in particular was from “a fan of the show” who also notes he is “a Christian…currently in school studying Apologetics and Philosophy.”

The gist of the letter was that a pastor really is not a good representative to interview about Christian doctrine and belief. Just to clarify, “if you guys are going to put Christians on the show to represent Theism I would really like to see a trained apologist or philosopher…the Pastor has degrees in councilling and phsycology, which is fine but would not represent Christian Theism nearly as good as those who are actually trained in philosophy and apologetics.” [sic]

I replied to him on the list, and was asked if I would share the response on the blog. So, here it is:

First, thanks for writing, and sorry for the delay in a response to your letter. Since I wasn’t a co-host on this particular program, I didn’t want to jump in too quickly to speak for Jen and Russell. But they have spoken for themselves at our blog if you would like to see those discussions:

Having some history with the program, and the benefit of an insider’s view, I can share a few thoughts on how I perceived your note initially. I was surprised by it.

Our show is available to educate the population about atheism, foremost. We welcome callers to contact us with questions or differing view points so we can talk about what an atheist is, or talk about what they believe and why. This would seem like a fair format—however we take pretty constant criticism for this each week. One criticism we often receive is that it is wrong and cruel to talk to Christian laymen live on the air, because they come across as stupid and uneducated. Believe it or not, we get this criticism from both atheists and theists, pretty equally, and both are just as blunt in calling our callers “uneducated” and “stupid.” We generally respond that our callers are just regular believers who call us, and even we don’t insult our own callers on that level—except on the rarest of occasions. I can’t say “never”; but I can say I, personally, never have referred to any caller as “stupid” or “uneducated.” But this is what people claim to think of Christian laymen—who are generally the theists who contact the program.

Next, we get criticized pretty consistently, and in line with the above criticism, for not having good Xian representatives on, even though we’re an atheist program and have no requirement to represent the broad majority religious view (which is represented in pretty much most aspects of media/society without our assistance). Why don’t we put on a preacher or someone who understands these things better than the stupid “regular” Christians who call—is normally along the lines of how this is expressed.

So, for reasons expressed at the blog, Russell decided to bring on a professional, educated man who also works as a leader in the local Christian community. He hosted an actual pastor. And what do we get almost immediately? A letter saying a pastor with an education, an actual Christian leader, doesn’t “count” because he doesn’t have the “right” education to be up there with amateur counter-apologetic hobbyists. Remember, please, that nobody on our show is a “professional” counter-apologist with any sort of counter-apologetics degree. So, the pastor was not in the company of anyone on that set who could even begin to claim his own level of professional credentials to talk about his religion. In fact, of the hosts, Jen and Russell may have the least background with Christianity. Just being a professional leader in the Christian community should have put the pastor at a decided advantage over either Jen or Russell in talking about god or Christianity.

Next, what struck me was that you say you are a student of apologetics, but nothing [in your e-mail] offers us any thoughts on what this Pastor said that was wrong or could have been better stated. You don’t “correct” any errors he made about your beliefs. And you don’t counter Jen and Russell’s questions yourself—even though you say this is your personal area of education. The reason this strikes me as something that stands out, is that whenever any of the co-hosts on our program makes a misstatement about some fact in science, we are immediately barraged with letters from science students and amateur science hobbyists offering not only criticism but, more importantly, correction of the error. If the pastor did a poor job of explaining how your doctrine works—please feel free to represent, and explain what he might have presented differently or better.

Finally, I was surprised by your note, because it begged an important question to me: If regular Christians aren’t able to understand or explain Christian beliefs correctly, and a paid, educated Christian in a position of leadership within the religion isn’t able to understand or explain Christian beliefs correctly, and a student of theology and apologetics in these beliefs can’t offer constructive critique of someone else’s flawed responses about his own doctrine and beliefs as a Christian, who, then, has any justification to believe this doctrine—since it’s obviously outside most people’s capacity to even understand it correctly?

And that’s basically all I had to say about that.

Should we believe what we can’t disprove?

We received a letter from a viewer asking about how some theists interpret evidence. In his view, it appeared some people don’t care about evidence, and I agree. I also note that this is nothing limited to theists. But in my reply, I noted that it’s important to know whether someone cares about evidence before you expend too much time correcting factual or informational errors presented to you by the other party. In his last reply, he added this:

“The question to ask the faithful is, how would you distinguish the difference between faith in something true and faith in something false without evidence?”

This reminded me of the question I have often asked, “How does a theist know the god he believes in is moral, if he asserts that humans are not able to judge his god’s actions when they appear to be wrong?”

But it also put me in mind of a recent conversation I had over the holiday. A theist asserted that it’s not reasonable for people to assert there is/is no god, since there’s no way to prove or disprove it. It’s an old, tired, and well-rebutted refrain, but, somehow, it never seems to lose steam. The interesting thing about this particular exchange is that the theist rebutted herself in short order.

I replied, “Of course we can prove if a thing exists. It’s like Big Foot. First we have to have a clear definition of what it is we are claiming exists: a great ape. Then we define how it manifests—in this case, where this thing can be discovered: North American woodlands. Then we go looking for a great ape in the North American woodlands. If it’s there, eventually the evidence to demonstrate it exists should become available—and when it does, we can say it exists.”

To this she replied, “But what if you don’t find any evidence?”

To which I replied, “Well, then I would wonder why these people were asserting that a great ape lives in the North American woodlands.”

And here is where it got interesting. AE viewers will understand, probably, my take on Big Foot. You will grasp that my question was along the lines of the Dragon in my Garage: Without any manifestation—there is no rational reason for someone to assert something is there.

However, this theist took it as a statement of my own assertion that I accept something must be there, otherwise, people wouldn’t have asserted there was something there. She thought I was presenting the theist fallacy, the argument from popularity. “If lots of people assert it is true, it must be true.”

But her reply was priceless: “Well, in ancient Greece, there were lots of things people claimed lived in the world that I’m pretty sure don’t exist.” And “pretty sure” was put forward with a chuckle—in the same way we might assert we’re pretty sure that W.C. Fields wouldn’t turn down a drink. It was a positive statement that “people assert all sorts of nonexistent things exist—like satyrs, winged-horses, and wood nymphs of the ancient Greeks.”

Of course, the beauty of this is that she just asserted that she accepts these things don’t exist—despite the fact that nobody has ever “proved” they don’t exist. And wasn’t her initial statement that this was an ignorant position for someone to hold?

To frame it in terms of the initial query from the viewer mail: “How does this theist distinguish between the thing that doesn’t exist and the thing that exists but manifests in exactly the same way as the thing that doesn’t exist?” Obviously, she feels confident she has reasonable basis upon which to reject some of these claims of existence of supernatural beings, while she accepts other such claims—but, without being able to “disprove” either, how does she differentiate? And further, why would she criticize the atheist for a more consistent application of a standard she clearly uses herself: In the absence of a conclusive demonstration of existence, it’s reasonable to dismiss inconclusive evidence and unsupported claims, and assert your disbelief (of Greek supernatural beings)—even if you can’t or haven’t “disproved” the claim.

I wish I would have thought more quickly. This particular theist doesn’t believe in the existence of ghosts. Ghosts would have been far more appropriate to the dialogue in this case, as it is something far more people believe in than Big Foot, and for which much “evidence” and “testimony” is, and has been, presented from eye-witnesses and “researchers” in paranormal fields. And yet, she has asserted to me on numerous occasions that she understands such things do not exist.

I still don’t know how she differentiates.

What Constitutes Contradiction?

I was hanging out over at Austin Cline’s place online when I came across a comment in the blog section from a theist who offered this, “Similar to political writers of today, I believe the authors of Matthew and Luke put a ‘spin’ on their accounts that would best appeal to their intended audiences.”

The context was one that all of us ex-fundamentalists will be familiar with: how to handle Biblical contradictions. This particular Rabbit Hole is one of those rides where I just have to come right out and declare, “If you haven’t experienced it—you just can’t know what you’re missing.”

The Problem
The Bible tells a story in one place. Then in another place, it retells or references the same story. This story might appear in more than two locations, but the idea is that unbelievers will claim the story contradicts from one telling to the next. As faithful fundamentalists, however, we weren’t allowed to believe the Bible contradicts, so we had to offer an explanation for these events.

The Solution
The explanation offered is the one you see above. In fact, when I was in church, it was explained thus: “Suppose you were on a street corner, and you observed an accident. Well, when the police take your statement, it will be very different than the statement of, say, one of the drivers involved in the accident.” So, I might say “the red car ran the light and hit the white car,” but the driver of the white car will say, “the red car came straight at me,” and so it goes. It’s the same story—but the different vantage points mean we get varying descriptions of it. You might also be familiar with the analogy of the five blind men and the elephant—all describing different parts of the same animal—while none of them sound like they’re talking about the same thing at all.

It is a reasonable explanation for why two stories may sound different, when, in fact, they’re the same. I would expect vantage point to play a role in relating almost any event. But it is also reasonable to recognize that at a certain point, a difference in the story can present an irreconcilable contradiction. So, if a red van and a white truck collide, and I describe a black convertible and a white van colliding, something is amiss, and “vantage point” can’t really fix this level of contradiction.

Surely if such contradictions did exist—errors so blaringly obvious nobody could miss them—Christians would be aware. Fundamentalists memorize Bible passages for fun, for goodness’ sake. Unless it were some really minor issue tucked away in some remote corner of some irrelevant passage—they’d have discovered it by now, surely?

I can see how a person not raised as a fundamentalist might think this would have to be the case. But let me share a secret: Fundamentalists, for the most part, don’t ever do side-by-side readings of their texts. When they read about Jesus’ birth or resurrection, they read from one story at a time. They don’t take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and read them in a parallel fashion. But let me tell you, the first time I did this, my fundy head blew clean off. It didn’t blow so much as a result of finding a contradiction, as it did the reality that I was thoroughly familiar with these verses, but I had never noticed any discrepancies in them at all. It had never occurred to me to even try to read the stories side-by-side to see if they aligned. And it wasn’t that I didn’t perceive these passages as contradictory once I read them—it was that I didn’t ever notice these discrepancies were even in there—after years of Bible reading and Bible studies.

It was epiphanies like this that really drove me the hardest during my years of deconversion. It was the many times I recognized I’d been trained not to think and not to question. I recognized I was wearing blinders, I had no idea were ever put on me. I don’t pretend that no Christian has seen what I’m about to show you. And I don’t pretend no Christian—even ardent literalists—offer no explanations for what you’re about to read. But I will tell you that this is one of those things that most lay Christians—however carefully they read or scrutinize their Bibles—don’t know is in their Bibles.

What is the crux of the Christian religion? Upon what does their specific sales pitch hinge? The Resurrection. This is the single most significant event in the evolution of Christianity. It is their sign of assurance of an afterlife, the means of man’s redemption and reconciliation with god, and the main and most important signal that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God. And I guarantee you that nearly every theist you will ever meet has not done what you’re about to do in this post: Read the Resurrection tales side by side.

Don’t groan—they’re surprisingly short stories. But I invite anyone who has never done this—atheist or theist—to take a moment and do it. And I’m putting the tales right here, to make it easy for even the laziest minds. I’m not going to offer up any personal critique or assessment of what follows. I’m not going to tell you what problems I think exist in these texts. You read them. You be the judge. You decide.

All I Ask:
Before you rush to look up the apologetic that will somehow attempt to reconcile what I’m presenting below, read the passages for yourself and then honestly answer this simple, single question: “If four different people told me the same stories I just read—and I didn’t already believe these stories can’t contradict—would I consider them contradictory?”

And we’re off…

Luke 24:1-10
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.

Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.″Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Matthew 28:1-10
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, goin
g to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

John 20:1-16
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Make up your own mind.

The Bible Code

I think it was Don who once described an apologetic method of debate as something along the lines of coming into a room, dropping a huge pile of feces on the floor, and then leaving the skeptics to sort out the mess.

We were recently hit by such an apologist on our AE TV list who wrote to give us “60 pages” of evidence for god’s existence. Not that I’m not interested in giving evidence a fair review—but please have mercy and some sense. We get hit with loads of requests from theists and atheists to “please look at this and tell me what you think about it.” Yes, we have a small team of people—but we are all volunteers with real lives outside of AE. And while most people understand and respect that, some seem to think that we’re obligated to read (actually in most cases reread) anything they want to dump on us for their god. Fair enough that we should consider claims before dismissing them, but how about doing what Matt sometimes asks: Give me your very best argument or evidence.

This way we can start with what you think is most compelling and examine that first. Then, if I don’t find it compelling, there is no reason for me to have to wade through the other 59 pages of crap that you admit isn’t quite as compelling. Fair enough? At any rate you’d have to admit it would be a big time-saver that benefits both the apologist and the counter-apologist.

Well, this apologist wrote to some others on the list. Some things I read, some I didn’t. But with me, she was very interested in the Bible Code. It had been a few years since I had encountered anyone serious about the Bible Code. In fact, it’s so infrequently used by apologists who contact us (and for good reason), that I thought other counter apologists may or may not have ever had any reason to investigate this “code” for themselves. I had read a bit back when I was a theist, but I investigated it just enough to find it utterly uncompelling, and that was that. Since I already believed in god then, it really didn’t matter.

So, I was a bit rusty in my responses to the latest claims, and had to do some refresher reading, which I did. And to be fair, I learned some things I didn’t recall from my prior reading, which is always nice. To be honest, though, what I learned made me even less inclined to accept this code as anything but hogwash.

Torah Code?
My first complaint about the code is the actually name: Bible Code.

At least in the West, when we see the word “Bible,” we think of books that contain basically what is contained in a standard King James anthology or, perhaps, a Catholic version. In fact, while I was dialoguing, I mentioned the New Testament more than once. She never corrected me to let me know that, in fact, the “Bible” Code has nothing to do with the Christian content of the “Bible”—it only applies to restricted portions of the Hebrew holy texts—the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy). This means that if there is any reason to think that a book containing codes is the handiwork of any god, nothing in the Christian “scriptures” would be demonstrated as text from god, due to this code. In fact, another name for the Bible Code is “Torah Code”—which I hold to be more honest. When a Christian calls it “Bible Code,” that’s misleading, unless they also clearly note that none of what has been considered compelling in any of the research—the codes in the main debate over what is generally considered the context of the “Bible Code” issue—applies to what they would usually mean when they use the word “Bible.”

Where It All Began and the Koran Code
Although the idea of finding Bible codes goes back a ways, the real hot button came when, Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips and Yoav Rosenberg (WRR) published a paper titled: “Equidistant Letter Sequences in the Book of Genesis” in the journal Statistical Science. The main criticism from me is that we have no original manuscripts from which to work. So, we begin any such examination for divine codes with a copy, and with little means of demonstrating that copy’s firm adherence to any original version(s).

Ironically, Muslims have noticed this same problem. There is also, not surprisingly, a Koran Code, and one of the reasons given for the superiority of the Koran Code by Muslim proponents is that the Koran text is closer to “original” than any Bible text could ever hope to be. While the Koran does have a history that leaves room for translation “adjustments,” the claim that it is closer to “original” is not without a bit of merit. I should note that I do not claim the Koran Code is ELS-type code. It’s somewhat variant. But as long as the Torah guys can make up their code rules, why not the Muslims? At any rate, it seems anyone can have some sort of superhuman, magical code in their holy book from god. But here is a link to a Muslim making his case for why the Koran Code beats the pants off any Bible Code:

And here is a load of info if you’re interested in what impresses some Muslims about the Koran Code:

And here is an article in the Egypt Daily News, talking about the miracle of the Koran Code, in which Meer Hamza, who has a Ph.D. in software engineering from University of Paisley in Scotland, says it “will be one of the main reasons to make non-Muslims turn to Islam.” In fact, the team who “cracked” the code claimed, “no person on earth, not even a computer software is capable of writing even one word abiding with the Quranic mathematical code”:

I include this, not because I find it any more compelling that the Bible Code, but because I was told, by the apologist with whom I was dialoging, that they’d never heard of any such “Koran Code.” Not only is it there, but it’s hailed as an undeniable “miracle” by the Muslims who subscribe to it. And if you’ve ever argued with a Muslim, you know they have what can only be called “a thing,” for number-play in the Koran.

Forgive me for one sideline. I know I go long. But I’ve heard people claim the Koran doesn’t contain prophecy. (It’s funny how many Christians make claims about the Koran, that are hotly disputed by Muslims I encounter.) As I was looking up the code material last night, I found a Koran prophecy for the Apollo Moon mission:

What makes me laugh is how much like Christian prophecy this Koran prophecy works. It predicts so much—after it has already happened. It’s very rare to find someone hollering for extra security at some political event because Isaiah or Moby Dick or the Koran or Nostradamus predicted an assassination attempt. How many disasters have been averted by someone recognizing an embedded prophecy before such a prophecy took place? And as I toss this out as rhetorical, watch someone find me an example! It seems there’s always someone.

Bible Codes, the Later Years
Believe it or not, there is a guy who came after WRR, Michael Drosnin, who says he found a prophecy in the Torah Code before it happened—the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Since Rabin was successfully assassinated, I have to note that this prophecy must not have been very clear, since it was of zero use in averting a tragedy it supposedly foretold. Drosnin claims he tried to report the threat. If so, that would be to his credit. It’s too bad there wasn’t sufficiently specific information in the prophecy to make a warning more useful. Armed beforehand with a name of the assassin, a specific date and a few more details, and someone in authority could have perhaps helped Rabin avoid being killed. How was this “prophecy” even helpful? And how many future events will be “found” in the text-
-like the name of Rabin’s assassin, said to have been found after he was already identified? That’s painting a target around my arrow after I’ve randomly hit some tree.

But Drosnin was so impressed with himself that he went back looking for other, unhelpful and useless, historic assassination prophecies, and—surprise, surprise—found them. Of course, they were all “encoded” in different ways—it appears there is no set method in this code of expressing that someone will be assassinated. You sort of have to know how to read it in various disguises. But, it’s there, says Drosnin—if you know how to look. This sort of sloppy work is a trademark of Drosnin, though. It is examined in sufficient detail in Marvin V. Zelkowitz’s research paper, “The Bible Codes,” found at the University of Maryland website:

It’s slightly painful to read Zelkowitz’s responses, because it’s hard to accept anyone could be as careless as Drosnin, and still be hailed as a hero by so many gullible followers. Drosnin, to be fair, doesn’t claim to be either a scientist or a researcher. He’s just a writer—selling books about the Torah Code. Nothing wrong with being a writer, unless your writing about something that rests upon research data, and you don’t understand good research methods.

The first thing to understand about research with something like the Torah Code is how data can be bias. Here’s a simple example of something you have to understand about numbers and how they impact interpretations of data:

Coin Experiment
I am going to do a study. In my study I have a subject who will flip a silver dollar. I won’t tell him why (I want to keep it “blind,” so my subject won’t skew my results). I also want the coin to land on the floor—I don’t want the subject to touch it after he’s tossed it—in order to make my results as random as I can. After all, I want to be fair. My hypothesis, known only to me, is that I believe the coin toss experiment will reveal that I get “heads” as a result far more often than “tails.” My subject tosses the coin into the air—and it lands, exactly as I predicted! Heads up! I thank my subject and write my paper demonstrating that “not only did I get heads more often than tails, but I actually achieved a much greater result than anticipated: I achieved heads 100% of the time!”

I did nothing to manipulate the data. I blinded the study and removed myself as a potential factor that could bias the data. And I inserted something in my method to make the result random. And I was very honest about the data I gleaned from my research.

I’m guessing you can see the problem with my conclusion that coins, when tossed, will most often (maybe even 100% of the time) land on heads.

Sample Size
Sample size impacts results. How many coin flips did I test? One. And that sample size invalidates my findings. Obviously I need more coin tosses. So, next time I do my research, I do two tosses. And I get heads both times. Have I fixed the problem? No, because we all know that it’s possible to get what is called a “run” with things like this. Even though over an extended period of tossing the coin, I should get heads something close to 50% of the time, I could, theoretically, get heads for 100 tosses in a row. It would be funny, but not impossible.

What was the sample size in the original Torah Code experiment? How many books other than the Torah did they test? None. They ran multiple codes, but only on the Torah. They didn’t run those codes on other similar samples. And, as we’ll discuss, that’s more of a problem than just “sample size.” But to be fair, there is some debate from what I read about whether the results held up as “statistically significant,” after other researchers ran the codes on other, similar books as samples. We’ll address that later.

Repeatability, Part I
Beyond increasing sample size, repeatability is also good thing. Instead of doing one experiment where I toss the coin 100 times and calculate the rates, I now decide we’ll do ten 100-toss experiments. As I increase my sample size to something more reasonable—100 tosses per experiment, rather than two—I will more and more start getting results closer to 50% heads. But since I recognize it’s still realistically possible to get an anomaly like a 100-head-result run in one experiment, it’s a good idea to do the experiment more than once. With the Torah Code, if there is demonstrated statistical significance, we still have to understand, this could be our 100-head run. So, I see high results found in one book, as potentially not even relevant. If I run the test on 100 books, I expect to see some hit high, some low, and some closer to center. If we can’t explain how one book generated higher rates—the fact that it did so could be nothing more than our 100-head run. The simple fact is: Nobody knows.

The way to demonstrate that the high hit book is significant, and not just a possible anomaly, would begin by offering a plausible explanation for how it hits so much higher than the other books, something for which we could test. “God” could not be offered as a cause in a universe where no gods have yet been demonstrated to exist, since things that do not exist cannot be the cause of other things. To posit god as an explanation, would first require a study to demonstrate there are gods and that those gods would be inclined to produce book codes. A daunting task. But short of any actual plausible explanation available to us, we would be left only with a high hitter and no means demonstrate how it hits so high.

But I will share with you a statement from Robert Aumann. Aumann is a Game Theorist. He was impressed by the codes at the time he said, “for many years I thought that an ironclad case had been made for the codes; I did not see how ‘cheating’ could have been possible.” However, when the research was critiqued by other researchers, Aumann had to admit that “Though this work [in reference to published criticisms of the code methods] did not convince me that the data had been manipulated, it did convince me that it could have been; that manipulation was technically possible.”

What Is a Code?
Aumann’s statement leads us into our next issue, which requires an understanding of how the codes are generated. A method known as ELS is used—but you could apply loads of different patterns. Any pattern could be a “code.” But in ELS, the researcher gets to pick a starting point in the manuscript—which may or may not be the first letter. Then he gets to choose another number (so far the researcher has manipulated two variants) that he then “skips” until the next letter in the manuscript. So, let’s say every tenth letter is selected after your chosen start number. The fact you can configure it however you like is a big part of the problem. There is no “prescribed” matrix that we know will work to find secret messages from god in books, so it’s up to the researcher to start picking numbers. With no known “correct” matrix for finding secret messages from god in texts, we all have free reign over how we build out favorite matrices.

So, we end up with a string of random letters, which we then go over with a fine-toothed comb looking for words that we get to label as “meaningful” (to us) or not. Obviously we can expect to find loads of “words” or “strands” of words—but only the ones we decide “count” will be selected. So we get to keep and toss whatever we think fits.

As you might imagine, this is a big no-no. In relation to my coin toss experiment, let’s say that 25 times out of 100, the coin bounces off a wall before it lands on the floor. Would it be a problem if I said, “anytime the coin bounces off the wall and lands on tails, I am going to say it doesn’t count toward the final 100; but
anytime it bounces off a wall and lands on heads, we’ll count that”? The answer is “yes, it would be a problem.” It would skew my results. Each time I hit the wall and don’t get my desired heads, I get to do it over again, which increases the chance I’ll get heads more often over tails. In these codes, whatever words the researchers find that don’t mean anything to them, they don’t have to report as a “miss.” But whatever they find that they have predetermined will be “meaningful” to them—literally whatever they call meaningful—they get to report as “hits.” So you ignore the garbage, and just report the positive findings.

If meaningful phrases are evidence of the existence of a code, then why isn’t “noise”—random letters with no discernable meaning found in the code (to a large degree)— counted as evidence against the existence of a code in the text? In other words, if a bit of “not crap” = “coded,” then why doesn’t “crap” found all over in these codes demonstrate “not coded”? Why does this magical code include any crap at all? What’s the crap for? Why doesn’t it tell a cohesive story using all the code letters with no noise? I suggest something that starts with “Congratulations, you’ve cracked my secret god code! I have so much to reveal to you…” and on from there.

In the original study, though, the words that the researchers decided would be counted were words connected with biographical data about famous rabbis. The findings were interesting and the researchers claimed success. In subsequent criticisms, it was demonstrated that by manipulating the matrix settings, you can increase or decrease the level of significance. It would be along the lines of discovering that if you start your coin flip with the coin on tails, you are more likely to get heads as a result. As Aumann says, you may not have intended to start more of your flips on tails, but if you did, however unintentionally, it could still potentially skew your results. Even without meaning to, the moment you select which letters and numbers to use, you have already influenced the results. And this is only one way to subjectively, and problematically, “tune” your results. More later.

Repeatability, Part II and Statistical Significance
For now, let’s go back to my Coin Toss experiment and the idea of “repeatability.” Most likely I will get some variance if I increase my sample size to 100 tosses within my single experiment. For example, I may get heads 30% and tails 70% in one experiment. So, it’s good to “repeat” the experiment. The second time, I get heads 48% and tails 52%. So, I repeat and repeat, and eventually I get 52% heads after 10 experiments of 100 tosses each, plus or minus a few points for error rate—which we would all recognize as a more realistic expectation for a Coin Toss result.

This “plus or minus” consideration is what determines something called “statistical significance.” In other words, if we get 52%, that’s still in line with results we would expect from random chance for a two-sided coin flip. The two percent is not considered “significant” to us. It is not be impressively outside the range of our expectations. If we had a good sample size, and we did the experiment repeatedly a good number of times, and somehow we kept getting heads “significantly” less than tails, like only 2% of the time, we’d consider something was not in line with “chance.” Either our experiment was somehow biased, or there’s something else influencing the flips that we must identify. But what is “significant”? Is there a way to determine whether the variance we’re seeing is “chance” or something else at 53%? 55%? 60%? In fact, clever researchers have worked out methods of figuring this out. It’s not a guess. You don’t get to say, “Well I just can’t believe we could get these results by chance—so it must be significant!” Your level (or my level, or their level) of credulity is not how statistical significance is measured:

What you find personally significant or impressive, as far as assessing results, is meaningless, because human beings are biased. What can be demonstrated as significant, in research, is something else entirely.

Using Controls
Sometimes you can figure out if something is beyond the norm with what is called a “control.” “Controls” are handy. A control would be helpful, for example, in a drug trial. Let’s say I make a drug to cure disease X. X kills 5,000 people each year in the U.S. within one year of infection. Nobody who dies from X lives past the first year. And anyone who survives it simply exhibits natural immunity and survives with no further detectible infection. But there is no known effective medical treatment currently for curing X once you contract it.

I take 100 subjects infected with X and give them my drug protocol within the first few days of diagnosed infection. At the end of one year, 50 of my subjects are still alive and show no signs of infection. I announced that of 100 people infected with X, I successfully cured 50 with my treatment.

Should we celebrate that we’ve made a dent in medical treatment of X? If you think “yes,” slap yourself—very hard.

Before we pop the champagne, there’s something we forgot to consider: Each year in the U.S. 10,000 people become infected with X. And if I would have used a “control” group—a group of people who weren’t treated with my drug—I would have discovered 50 out of 100 subjects alive in that group as well at the end of the year—all with no signs of infection. And the study would have failed to demonstrate my drug helped anyone in that case. It’s simply a fact that half the people who become infected with X are able to fight it off successfully through their own natural immunity. The other half die within a year. Unless we get better results in future research, my drug appears to be wholly ineffective.

A “control” in the case of the Torah Code would be using other books—the more the better—to run patterns to see what I get. And in fact, the lack of controls was not ignored by critics. In 1999, in a paper published in Statistical Science (Brendan McKay, Dror Bar-Natan, Gil Kalai, Maya Bar-Hillel [MBKB]) there were a list of criticisms against work done by Code proponents (WRR), that included a control test claim. The claim was that a Hebrew copy of War and Peace had been tested and achieved high levels of statistical significance. I won’t lie to you. In this debate—as in all religious debate—there are claims and counter claims and counter-counter-claims. For every person I find claiming “statistically significant” data, I find someone else claiming they have demonstrated that same level somewhere else, or have demonstrated that the first level was achieved using faulty methods. I will let the “experts” hash that one out. All I can say is that the original data did not include controls, which other researchers had to add later. And the initial lack of control in the research should be counted as a demonstration of sloppy method.

How Do We Interpret the Data?
I said at the outset that I had learned this is about the “Torah” Code, and not the “Bible” Code. I was dismissive when the apologist on the list used an Old Testament verse in her examples, because there is something interesting about Old Testament manuscripts that I was already aware of, that, in my mind, makes them extremely suspect—if not entirely useless—in a setting like the code studies. The writing contains no vowels.

Why is this important? Consider this: Let’s say we run our code on a regular book and we get a strand that includes these letters: T H E R A P I S T. The codes use no punctuation and you get to decide not only if this set of letters is “meaningful” in your g
reater context, but how to interpret it. Is it “the rapist” near a set of letters that look like “bundy”? Or is it “therapist” next to a set of letters that look like “freud”? Or if it is in close proximity to “bundy,” do you only consider it as “therapist” (and fail to see the “rapist” possibility) and find no link to “bundy” (who was a rapist, but not a therapist) nearby—so you toss it out as a “miss”—instead of a “hit” or even an identified error in your code? If the code says “bundy” was a “therapist”—shouldn’t that be reported as an error in the code? Does the code say erroneously that “bundy” was a “therapist”—but you manipulated it and made “bundy” a “rapist” and wrongly attributed a “hit”? What if in 10 years, a famous therapist arises named “Bundy”? Which “bundy” does the code mean? Maybe neither; maybe the “bundy” reference is just noise? How do we tell? Even with benefit of vowels, it’s a subjective mess.

Speaking of undesired outcomes of the code—meaningful misses—it’s hard to overlook the humorous work of Dr. James D. Price, professor of Hebrew and OT at Temple Baptist Seminary, Chattanooga, TN, who found repetitive “self-contradicting” codes, and “negative codes” with messages like “there is no god” and “Satan is Jehovah”:

But back to the problem of “no vowels.” Here’s what happens when we don’t have to deal with vowels: Using English as an example, let’s say we find an “R” in the code. Just an “R” in a strand of letters. Since I get to add the vowels at will, here is a sample of what I can do with just an “R” and my choice of vowels:


And if I add an “S” after the “R” (R and S are, after all, common letters in English):


And so on.

I think you get my point. It’s incredibly subjective and easy to manipulate. In fact, it isn’t just the case that I can manipulate this data. Since there are no vowels, and I am trying to make words from this mess, I must manipulate this data. This is bad, bad, bad. I’m not just interpreting the results now—I’m actually creating the results I want. And this is called “bias,” and it’s every research paper’s worst nightmare. If I can demonstrate reasonable room for bias in your methods, you have seriously compromised your right to label your results “valid.”

Believers as Critics
As I wind this down, something interesting I also found was that some of the most damning critics of the Torah Code are religious people or, at least, people who are sympathetic toward it. Remember Zelkowitz, I mentioned earlier? He actually thinks there is something to the work done by WRR. He says in his Bible Code criticism, in fact, that WRR’s results had yet to be “satisfactorily explained.” But he still went on to shred Drosnin’s claims from just about every angle imaginable. Again, I make no claims about WRR—you can read the debate on your own if you find any of this potentially compelling. Zelkowitz published the same year as MBKB’s criticism of WRR—so I have no idea if he had a chance to read their criticisms by the time he published or not.

Also, remember Dr. Price, at the Baptist University? Here’s a comment posted by him at an online list:

“In any segment of Scripture literally thousands of such codes can be found on thousands of words. One may pick and choose among them to imagine any message he desires. The same is true for secular Hebrew literature. Hundreds of false and self contradictory statements have been found. The alleged ‘statistical’ proof has been seriously challenged by expert mathematicians. In my opinion, the topic is not worthy of serious thought. It is a waste of one’s time.”

Some other religious folk who take the codes to task include the Web site “,” with their posting of “Does the Bible Code Bear the Signature of God?” by Ed Christian Ph.D., Department of English, Kutztown University, Kutztown, PA. Christian’s answer is pretty clearly “no.”

And at the site (Spiritual Counterfeits Project), actually a religious site dedicated to the truth of god’s word, they have a multipart shredding of the codes called “Bible Codes, or Matrix of Deception?” Again, after reading a bit of it, I’d say the conclusion I’m supposed to come to is “matrix of deception.” Of course, religious people have their own bones to pick with why these types of Bible parlor tricks are blasphemous. I’ll leave them to sort that one out as well.

Meanwhile one really uplifting tale I found on the Internet was the story of a current theist, Lori Eldridge. Lori is dedicated to the lord and runs a Bible study site. Lori used to be extremely dedicated to the defense and support of the truth of the Torah (Bible) Codes. At her site today, however, she has only this to say about her past as a defender:

“I used to be the owner of the Tcode mailing list where some of the top notch Torah Code experts in the world discussed the Bible Codes. The majority of us finally came to the conclusion that the codes cannot be of God because they were not statistically relevant and you can even fine ‘bible codes’ in the daily newspaper. And, most important, even Jesus’ name (in Hebrew) was not found in any book of the Bible.”

Well, if it doesn’t say “Jesus,” then it can’t be from god, right? In jest, I have to ask, is it possible it doesn’t say Jesus as a message from god? I guess what I find hopeful about Lori’s statement is that she was finally able to see past a falsehood that would have supported her beliefs about god. She had every biased reason, any other believer would have, to hang on tightly no matter how ridiculous the claim or how sorry the “evidence,” but ultimately somebody, somehow got Lori to understand how research works and how the Torah Code fails. While she is still a believer, she changed her mind about at least one piece of evidence when honestly confronted by other compelling evidence to the contrary. And I respect that and applaud her for it. That’s a heck of a fine character trait in any human being—theist or not.

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 “” 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

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.