God-based Abortion Policy: FAIL (Open thread on episode 719)

I’m going to talk about abortion again this week. This time, I’m taking a completely different tactic. I’m going to apply my own personal moral principles to the problem and see how well I do against those of the religious right, supposedly backed by their god.

Guess which one will come out objectively better? Hopefully, this leaves the question of why an individual atheist is doing better than American Christendom backed by the Author of morality.

Feel free to treat this as an open thread on episode 719.

Postscript: I found out late that Greg Paul was to be a special guest caller on the show, so I wasn’t able to get to my topic. I’ll save it for next time.

How useful is faith for obtaining knowledge?

This is a typical conversation between a theist and an atheist, and in fact something very much like it occurred over a lengthy series of back-and-forth comments on this blog last week. Please excuse this paraphrase; I want to boil the conversation down to its most important features, and I hope I’ve portrayed the theist accurately.

Theist: “God must exist. Unless there is a god, many features of the universe are unexplainable.”

Atheist: “What’s your explanation for God?”

Theist: “Don’t be ridiculous! We can’t explain God. He is outside of time and space, and cannot be understood by mere human minds.”

Atheist: “But then how do you know that a god exists? Do you have evidence?”

Theist: “Of course I do! The universe is evidence for God.”

Atheist: “The universe definitely exists, but that’s got nothing to do with providing positive evidence for god. Your argument about having ‘no other explanation’ is just special pleading, granting yourself the authority to invent something that is also unexplained. Not only does it not solve the problem, it invents new ones. So again: Do you have evidence that there is any such thing as a god?”

Theist: “Don’t be absurd! Since God is beyond our understanding, we must rely on faith.”

Atheist: “That seems like a really bad strategy for actually finding out what is true.”

Theist: “Nonsense! Just think about all the other things that scientists accept without complete evidence.”

The theist then proceeds to list some of the usual suspects, starting with abstract concepts like “Love” and “Beauty,” and then including some of the vaguer outliers of speculative scientific theories such as aspects of quantum mechanics and string theory.

Let me set aside for a moment the issue of how some things are more or less firmly accepted within the scientific realm based on how good the evidence is; how there are “hard” sciences and “soft” sciences; and how the ideas that individual scientists hold to be true personally is often separate from what they claim as scientific knowledge. I just want to ask some stuff about applying faith to claim knowledge.

Is faith sufficient? If you hold a belief in something without evidence deeply, sincerely, and completely, then does it follow that it is true? Or do you require faith and some component of evidence in order to accept something as true? In what ratios do they apply?

If the answer is “Faith alone is sufficient to establish truth” then let me ask this. Suppose that a Muslim comes up to you and says the following:“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet. Allah has no son and there is no other god accompanying Him. All that we know of Him is revealed in the Qur’an. Believers in Christ are heretics and infidels who tell lies about the one true God. The reward for faith in Allah, Muhammad, and the Most Holy Qur’an is Jannah, an eternity of pleasure and sexual delights.”



Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this fellow is sincere and earnest in his belief, and holds his faith every bit as strongly as you hold yours.


My question is: What is it that would compel an outside observer to accept your faith as correct and his as wrong?

Random Thoughts at About.com

I’ve mentioned before that I try to spend time at About.com’s Agnostic/Atheist section hosted by Austin Cline. The site offers a lot of good things, not the least of which is a good atheist community forum and an often-updated blog. Recently I posted a few comments to some of the blog posts there, and thought I’d share. The site, in case anyone is interested is at the following location:

http://atheism.about.com/

In response to the post: “Myth: You’re Not Really an Atheist, You Just Want to be Contrary”

In response to another comment in the comments section:

They are projecting. You’re correct. I had a talk last night about this very thing. Religion is implanted into infants/children. Later, when they “feel god” they don’t understand that it’s an idea that has been artificially implanted. It was drilled in so early on that they think it’s as inherent as “not liking peas” or some such.

Even when they’re confronted with a realization that their “arguments” for god’s existence don’t make sense, they can’t shake that “feeling” that god is “there.” So, even if you can reason them out of all sorts of things, that last bit, the existence of god, still holds tenaciously. This is where we get statements like “I just know there is a god.” Or “I just feel it.” Or the disturbing “I know that I know that I know.” These are people who were used as children as meme depositories–used by a viral idea, spread by other infected adult minds/people.

When you say you don’t “feel” their god or acknowledge it, it’s impossible for them to believe it. (1) They “feel” it. (2) Everyone they grew up with likely told them they “feel” it–all the adults they trusted, mom/dad/sunday school teacher/preacher, perhaps even friends. And (3) they’ve been taught that feeling is implanted by god in every human heart. And that’s the explanation they hold to for how they “feel” it–and why they reject it when you say you don’t share that.

One of the most eye-opening things to me when I began to get outside the religious box was understanding atheists who were secularly raised did not have the things I’d been taught are inherent such as “feelings” a god exists or “supreme fear of death.” Many churches teach you’re born with an innate sense of “god” and later, as an evil/flawed adult you “sear” your conscience–and drive it out. But if that’s true, why work so hard to instill it into children? And why do secular kids not express this “feeling” even in their youth?

It’s a lie, but one that children are immersed in to the point it really does become the only reality they know. Breaking that spell is a task, for sure.

In response to the post: “Passive vs. Aggressive Atheism – Should Atheists Be Passive or Aggressive?”

I think a lot depends on where a person lives (how much influence religion exercises over his/her life in his/her region) as to whether a person is motivated to “engage” or be critical.

I’ve been asked a lot: “Why do you care what theists think?” Beyond 9-11, I can list a slew of crap religion is doing to impact the state in which I live, Texas. It’s not “benign” in my state. And if we didn’t constantly slap down the tentacles of religious invasion into state law, state education, and state politics, it would creep along invading every aspect of our lives here. What would stop it if not people standing up in opposition?

But I have learned as well that no small number of people refuse to reason and aren’t interested in dialoging rationally about ideas. These people won’t be reasoned with, and whether I adopt a kind or harsh approach seems to result in the same thing–that they won’t reason and they maintain their stance regardless of evidence in opposition to their beliefs.

This person, whether they’re “abused” (verbally, not physically) or treated kindly, I don’t care. Neither method will impact them any better. BUT, people listening and watching the exchange ARE impacted, and what I’ve seen is that if stupid ideas are taken to task in a harsh way, many people who are “reachable,” but who share similar views will contact us and say, “I saw the episode where you lambasted that creationist. I was raised creationist, and never questioned it until I saw how foolish that caller looked during that exchange.”

Even though this viewer shared the same ideology–he was able to watch safely from the sidelines as his perspective was criticized, and objectively consider whether it sounded reasonable. And when he saw fair mockery of the irrational nature of the idea, he felt no sting of personal attack, and assessed the content of the statements without being offput by the “meanness” of the responses.

For every person publicly attacked, I’ve begun to find (because I hear from them daily) there are MANY others who benefit from such attacks–by having the benefit of being able to view them and consider their own positions from the sidelines. One such person “made example of” can be publicly “strung up” metaphorically–as a lesson to others to be more critical of their own beliefs.

The scathing approach has a great benefit. And until I got more involved in the atheist community, I probably wouldn’t have seen or acknowledged that. I am, naturally, a fairly kind person. I am often harsh in response to abstract concepts, but far more friendly when I engage an actually human being–again, generally.

But many atheists I work with are less kind, and I have seen the responses to them, and outside of the individual who is being assaulted (again metaphorically), they _do_ have demonstrated beneficial results that I can’t deny. I can’t argue with success. And seeing people write in to say “that lashing you put on that caller really made me think harder about what _I_ believe.” That’s priceless. That helped someone.

“Unknowable” basically means “who cares?”

Occasionally we’ll hear a believer define his god as an “unknowable” being. Bizarrely, these folks tend to think that’s a real gotcha! moment, because obviously, that means we cannot disprove its existence, and so unless we want to be “closed-minded,” then we must admit there is at least the tiniest possibility that it might exist, because we don’t know everything, now do we.

This is pretty much the most desperate form any apologetics can take. For one thing, it reduces “god” to the smallest and most insignificant thing it could possibly be: a thing that cannot be known or comprehended at all by our “feeble” human minds. (Yes, I know, why would a god waste his time creating us at all if he just wanted to give us “feeble” minds?) God could not be any more useless than to be indistinguishable from something that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t even exist. Moreover, when an apologist starts arguing like this, you’d do well to point out he’s pretty much at variance with Christianity and every other major world religion, as they emphatically are run on the premise that their deities can be comprehended just fine, thank you.

Here’s part of a recent exchange with a theist emailer I’ve been having, which illustrates how wrong this line of thinking is.


The fellow starts:

I am composing this letter in an attempt to prove god exists. I believe god is an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others. According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, and because we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of how everything was created in the first place, I also believe that god is inherently unknowable.

Have I just described something that does not exist? How did I do that? If you could tell me that my god does not exist how could you do that? Better yet how could you even think that? I understand this is an agnostic theist point of view however I cannot see how it is in error.

My first reply went like this:

All you’ve done in this argument is come up with a new name for the electron: God. It’s like new-age people who call “the Universe” God. All they’ve done is come up with a new word for universe.

If someone were a sun worshiper, and told me in all seriousness the sun was his god, then yes, I suppose I’d have to concede his “god” exists, though I would disagree that the sun possesses any sort of divine powers. And if he agreed with me the sun had no supernatural powers, he’s just happy worshiping it as God, then he’s simply come up with another word for “sun.” What you’re demonstrating by your argument is that theists really do create gods as an exercise in trying to understand things they don’t otherwise understand, and making the universe more superficially comprehensible by anthropomorphizing it. Conceptually, “God” is a placeholder for ignorance. (And yes, gods typically are defined in ways that defy direct examination, allowing them to retain their divine mystique because “you can’t prove it DOESN’T exist!”)

He replied today, and here is his letter with my responses in bold.

Hello Martin,

Thank you very much for responding . I am not sure you understand what I have stated in my letter. I have offered an explanation for and thereby proof god exists in that god is the totality of everything. I believe it fits quite nicely the definition of god.

Well, like the new-ager I described in my previous response, it looks to me like you’ve simply come up with a new word for “the totality of everything.” My question would be, how is this helpful? What is the utility of doing this? Does calling “the totality of everything” a “god” increase your understanding of this totality? Does it help you comprehend plasma physics, dark energy, the way in which the expansion of the universe appears to be accelerating rather than slowing down? What does this label “god” contribute to any of this? What do I gain in insight or knowledge by thinking that the atoms in the lettuce in the salad I’m eating right now are somehow “god”? Or is it a label you like for emotional reasons?

At this point I find myself wondering if your only definition of god is “something that simply does not exist”. If this is the case then it seems to me this is a closed minded point of view. Is atheism a closed minded point of view? If so, I find it less likely that it is an intelligent view, thou it still may be the correct point of view.

If you admit it might be a correct view, why would be it be less intelligent? Usually one’s intelligence can be measured by how correct one’s views are. A person who thinks 2+2=4 is more intelligent, in my estimation, than a person who thinks 2+2 might equal 4, but might also equal, for arcane reasons, 728.

As an atheist, I do not define god. All I can do is respond to the definitions (and there are many) of god that are presented to me by believers. I examine those to see if 1) there is evidence to support them and 2) if they provide anything in the way of practical understanding of the world, that could not be achieved through the time tested means of the scientific method. I have to confess that I’ve not yet heard a definition of god that passes those tests.

But that hardly means I’m ‘closed-minded’. Terms like ‘closed-minded’ and ‘open-minded’ are thrown about very loosely by believers who want to rebut skeptics, but I don’t think they understand the terms. It is not ‘open-minded’ to believe claims that lack evidence simply because those claims are emotionally appealing; it is simply gullible. It is not ‘closed-minded’ to demand strong evidence for claims before choosing to believe them; it is simply rational. Skeptics are indeed open-minded, but note that it’s the ‘mind’ in that term that counts. What we are open to is evidence.

Now, looking at your definition of god, it’s problematic for a few reasons, and hardly the “proof” you think. First, you simply slap the label “god” on everything that exists, down to the subatomic level, rendering the word basically meaningless. If every molecule, every atom, every gluon, every cigarette butt on the pavement is “god,” then it means nothing to be god, and every religion in the world might as well pack it in.

Then you make your big mistake: after offering that definition, you promptly do an about face and declare god “inherently unknowable,” something “we feeble minded humans could not possibly conceive of.” Setting aside my disagreement with your low opinion of human intellect, if god were really “inherently unknowable,” then nothing whatsoever can be said about god. You haven’t even got any justification to say god is “an electron orbiting the nucleus of a hydrogen atom in the brain you are using to analyze this letter, as well as every other thing in existence or has existed or will exist in this universe or the others if there are others.” Because to say that means you’re claiming to know something about god, which you could NOT do if god were unknowable. “Inherently unknowable” means exactly that. There is nothing at all that can be said about an inherently unknowable concept, because it is inherently unknowable.

And this brings us to yet another problem: what exactly is the difference between an “inherently unknowable” thing, and something that does not exist at all? Practically there is none. Now, that isn’t proof that something unknowable couldn’t ever exist. But as we could not study it, evaluate it, observe it, or say anything about it whatsoever, then for all intents and purposes, it’s as good as nonexistent anyway. So why care?

“God” is either something, or it is nothing. If it is something, either it is something we can know (and all the world’s religions pretty much run on that premise) or cannot know. If the latter, its existence is of no relevance, as it cannot be distinguished from a nonexistent thing in the first place.

You state that “god is a
placeholder for ignorance”. Is there something wrong with that? We have finite minds and therefore could not possibly understand completely this concept that humans have called god.

Read what you wrote here again and see if you cannot answer your own question. What exactly is the sense in embracing a concept that you admit “we cannot possibly understand” as if it were some kind of valid explanation for things? (I think you’ve seen, to a small degree, the problem with your position, which is why you’ve slipped the qualifier “completely” into the sentence above.)

You’re basically saying this: “There are things about the universe I am ignorant of, and so to explain them, I will conceive of a thing called ‘god’ that itself cannot be explained, let alone understood.”

How is that a better way of grasping reality than A) finding out the real answers to those questions, and B) if there are no answers yet, simply accepting that. If you don’t know the answer to a question, the honest thing to say is “I don’t know,” and then making that a springboard for continuing to study. It is not honest simply to place your ignorance on an altar and call it “god.”

I believe that we can however take some comfort in the fact that so long as our mind are open that we can live better lives through the small amount of understanding that we have of god.

We’re still talking about this “god” you say is “inherently unknowable,” right? Sorry, but you’ve singly failed to explain how we can “live better lives” by choosing belief in some “unknowable” concept in lieu of increasing our actual store of knowledge. I think history will show that we humans are much better off with the greater knowledge of the world we have today through science than otherwise. People in medieval Europe didn’t exactly take much “comfort” in their unknowable god while they were dying in their millions from plague and famine. How does ignorance and reliance on belief in the “unknowable” offer a “better” life than one where your worldview actually conforms to reality?

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:

http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2010/01/post-show-thoughts-for-110.html

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.

Bogus miracles, fake news, intellectual and moral cowardice

Okay, this is fun.

The other day we got an email from a fellow who described himself as an atheist, but who professed he was a bit taken aback by a miracle claim that had come his way, about a Florida doctor who is supposed to have prayed a man back to life. He pasted a news story into his email, and some quick Googletronic Googlefication confirmed my suspicions: that this is one of those stories making the rounds in fundagelical circles, that they email one another as a big social reinforcement exercise, but for which there are no accounts — either confirming or disconfirming — from a secular source anywhere.

I tracked the story down to one website (which probably isn’t the one that originated it, but they’re certainly spreading it), Australia’s Catch the Fire Ministries. Here you may read the 2007 story in full. It is written in the form of a press release, but it comes from Assist News Service, one of those phony Christian “news” services that feeds press releases to the likes of the 700 Club, and probably WorldNutDaily, the AFA’s One News Now, and so on. The medical “conference” at which this miracle testimony was given is — you guessed it — a “Christian doctors’ conference”. If it dismays you that there are people out there with at least enough going on between their ears that they can pass eight years of med school, eight years of residency, go on to become M.D.s, and who are yet gullible and nonskeptical enough to swallow bullshit about Jebus doing miracle resurrections in the ICU, it should. And really, they’re everywhere.

Anyway, in response to the first comment on that page I linked to, where some dimwit tries to say that “…unbelievers will ignore the doctor’s eyewitness testimony and will cite the fact that they have never witnessed such an event,” I wrote:

No, we will point out that there’s not a shred of evidence that this anecdote is true. A Christian doctor gives a testimonial in front of other Christian doctors abut praying a man back to life, and hallelujah! they believe him. Big surprise there. No religious confirmation biases at all, nosiree.

Christians have a little problem understanding that the plural of anecdote is not data.

You should not be surprised that my comment was not approved. Unlike atheist sites, many Christian sites are completely closed to comments from dissenting voices. (This is perhaps the one regard in which Ray Comfort can be said to be better than most of his ilk. But then, baiting atheists is really the only shtick Ray has.) We only turn moderation on to prevent outright spam and trolling from guys like Dennis Markuze. But we love it when guys like Seth R. in the Mormon thread, or “MrFreeThinker” drop by to mix it up.

But that isn’t the most fun part. Guess what is. Catch the Fire Ministries sent me a concern-trolling evangelizing email! They wouldn’t let my comment through, but they will use my email address for stuff like this. Hilarious.

May the one true living God bless you Martin, atheists and all people with His Saving Truth and Everlasting Love! (John 3:16-21)

We at Catch the Fire Ministries will keep praying for you to believe the Bible (Word of God) as the mighty Voice from Heaven that calls, “I died on the cross for you and rose from the dead to save you from eternal death, hell and destruction! Repent of your unbelief / doubt and surrender your life (past, present and future) to Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord before it is too late!”

Time is running out as we will soon stand before Him face to face as our Final Judge! (Revelation 20:11-15)

Say, ‘Yes to Jesus, Yes to Heaven Forever!’

Say, ‘No to Jesus, Yes to Hell Forever!’

Make the Right Choice, Your Eternal Future Depends On It!

I wrote back:

Hello, and thanks for writing.

So, it’s the usual thing, in other words. Lacking evidence, Christianity must resort to threats to compel belief. Most atheists have heard this tiresome routine before, and it always makes us shake our heads sadly that you do not realize how much it confirms both how intellectually and morally adrift your religion is.

And anyway, I notice that in your zeal to evangelize you utterly failed to refute or even respond to my point. Where precisely is the evidence that this doctor prayed a man back to life? “Uh oh, gotta thump my Bible harder!” is not a way to deal with tough questions.

So, what else you got?

Martin

PS: I noticed you refused to approve my comment. The kind of cowardice that suppresses dissenting opinions and hard questions rather than addressing them is indicative not of righteousness, but insecurity and weakness.

(And before some creotard latches onto my PS, thinking he’s found a “gotcha” quote exposing atheist hypocrisy about intelligent design, be aware the scientific community has addressed ID, comprehensively, and shown it to be vacuous and utterly nonscientific rubbish. It’s kind of what the whole Dover trial was about.)

Christianity is peddling an inferior product. Its adherents know this, and yet they cannot allow their reason to overcome their emotional investment in the fear of death and desire for a celestial daddy who’ll keep them safe from the monsters under the bed. So this is why, when you ask a tough question, many times they’ll just stick their fingers in their ears and sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a loud voice until you’re done, at which point they’ll switch on Witnessing Mode, ignoring everything you’ve said. I know the answer to my last question: they got nothin’, and they’ll prove it by writing me back (if they do) with just more Bible quotes, more emotional appeals, more veiled threats of the dire fate that awaits me if I reject God’s “love,” and ad infinitum into the moral wasteland and rhetorical cul-de-sac that is evangelism.

If they do write back, I will naturally let you know.

Antichrist gonna getcha

This morning I was listening to Christian radio. (Yeah, I still do that. I’m not going to apologize for it, he said defensively.)

Thanks to my long commute, when I’m bored of the available audiobooks and podcasts, I occasionally switch to NPR or Christian talk for a few seconds to check if they say something interesting. In this case I caught a brief mention of Doubting Thomas, which was enough to hold me there for a while.

Christians love the Doubting Thomas myth, because (1) they get to claim that Jesus once provided incontrovertible evidence of his divinity, and (2) they get to chastise you for looking for any REAL evidence outside of the story. (“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”) Thus, the whole thing is an exercise in encouraging gullibility. In this particular case, the preacher was stating that it is not only a mistake to seek evidence, but it is also dangerous.

In particular, he repeatedly used the phrase “signs and miracles” to denote stuff that you should definitely not be looking for. Why? Because the antichrist’s a-comin’, and he’s going to have all the same outward superpowers as Jesus. And he’ll fool you.

I heard him refer to the antichrist as “the devil’s Superman” and say something like, “He’ll convince you that black is white, up is down, evil is good.” Then he spun a scenario: You pray to god asking for a sign that you are in accordance with his will. Then a really awesome miracle occurs, fire across the sky or something, and you think you’re covered.

But you die, and you never pledged your soul to Jesus. Oh noes! You go to hell, screaming all the way that you thought God gave you a sign. Ho ho, the devil chortles. You fool, that was ME!

Now this story provides some interesting insight, because I am often asked “What would it take to convince you that God was real?” And I usually say that if God knows me well, a fairly impressive personalized miracle (i.e., stars spontaneously rearranging to form words, with multiple witnesses verifying that I am not crazy) or even a personal visit from someone who appears to be demonstrably omniscient would probably go most of the way toward changing my mind. And I still say that.

But here’s the problem… Satan can fool you by performing the same tricks. Which would certainly put me in an awkward position, of course, but it seems that the Christians are just as bad off. Because if Satan is such a perfect deceiver that anyone can be fooled, who’s to say that he didn’t write the Bible?

How to Stack a Deck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion fails to provide believers with sound epistemological tools

Wow. That original correspondent from the email I dissected in Wednesday’s post, whose name I now know but will not reveal out of courtesy, has replied. She’s written a very lengthy, sincere, eloquent, and almost entirely misguided letter in which she basically confirms an opinion I’ve held for a long time (and one which I share with blogger Dawson Bethrick): The reason religious people so readily accept the silliest beliefs, and defend them so earnestly even when they are shown to have no sound basis in fact for holding their beliefs, is that religion in general and Christianity in particular fail to provide believers with the right epistemological tools for distinguishing fact from fantasy. This is all over this correspondent’s latest letter, to which I’m replying in parts due to its length. Here’s the first bit. Hopefully you’ll find some of this an interesting insight into the believer’s mind, and my replies to be worthwhile explanations as to how and why they get so much so wrong.


She begins:

Thank you for writing. Do you mind if we continue? I’m going to assume you are okay with that. I really do enjoy a good debate. It does not threaten my faith at all. I have walked this road already. I have demanded God tell me, show me and some things He has and sometimes He has said, No, just like any good father who really knows what his child needs.

I would not continue this debate if you were not a man of reason, but you are, and so…

1. “Whether this god that believers wants us to believe in is wise, creative, loving, vengeful, long suffering, or however (and one thing we always see is that believers define God in a way that makes God most appealing to them personally, which is why your God is kind and long suffering and the God of, say, Donald Wildmon is a total homophobe and the God of white supremacists is a racist), none of God’s supposed character traits matters. Describing a being for which we have no credible evidence in appealing ways is not in and of itself evidence. It doesn’t make the being more worthy of belief just because it’s a really really nice being.

There is only one true God and so just like your belief that there is no God discredits the one true God so does anyone else’s false beliefs, such as the man-made God of the white supremacists or Donald Wildmon’s (don’t know who he is) homophobe god. These false gods do not cause the one true God not to exist they simple muddy the waters. Let’s say an car accident happens. There are five witnesses. Each gives a different testimony because of their vantage point at the time of the accident, maybe because of their selfish desire to gain from the accident, etc. Did the accident still happen or do we say the accident didn’t happen because all five testimonies are different?

This is what is known in military terms as a “target rich environment.”

My replies:

It’s going to take a while to respond to your latest email, since it’s lengthy and will require a lot of detail. It’s nice of you to write, and I enjoy these debates too. What I will say, and in the friendliest possible way, is that, like most other believers who contact us or call our show, you seem to confuse and conflate a lot of issues. You seem to think emotion is a cognitive tool, when it isn’t. You don’t really seem to know how knowledge works; you confuse knowing something with pretending to know something. You also take for granted the existence of your God, which I’d expect you to do, but then you use this as the basis for a number of your arguments (relying on “God of the Gaps” in many instances), which is the wrong way to go about things completely, because you need to realize that before you can base an argument on “God says…” or “God wants…”, you have to prove your God’s existence first. Arguing with a nonbeliever from the assumption that God exists means you’re going to be talking past one another the whole time.

I’ll start with the first couple of questions, do the rest in a second email. I’d appreciate it if you’d hold your responses till I answer all your questions, because otherwise I’m put in the very time-consuming position of replying to your next set of replies as well as the rest of the first set.

There is only one true God

See, here you go with your first mistake right out of the gate. You have NOT established this claim as factual. I understand about your faith, and how believing this has given you emotional fulfillment, and all that, and you have taken those personal and subjective feelings as some sort of validation of the truth of your beliefs. Yes, that’s how religion works. It bypasses the rational mind, goes straight to the limbic system, and confuses the irrational and the rational in believers’ minds. But we need to cut through all that here, and just stick to basic fact finding. As I said in my last email, a fact is a fact regardless of how you feel about it.

So, in order to establish the above as factual, you need to:

A) Define what you mean by God. What kind of being is this? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Does it have metabolic processes? Does it eat and sleep? However you answer those questions, you have to then explain HOW you know, and present me with means by which I can independent verify your answers. (Hint: “Prayer” doesn’t count.) This is called testing a claim’s falsifiability, and it’s a key factor in determining scientific truths. And whether you like it or not, the claim “there is one true God” is one entirely appropriate to examination by the scientific method.

B) Define what you mean by “one true God.” Once we establish what a God is in the first place, how do you arrive at the distinction between a true one and a false one? What you don’t understand is that you only happen to think the Christian God is “true” because you grew up in a Christian culture. If you had grown up in a Shintoist culture you’d have a very different idea of what “true God” meant, and you’d be just as devout and insistent about that as you are here. I’ll go into more detail below.

and so just like your belief that there is no God discredits the one true God so does anyone else’s false beliefs, such as the man-made God of the white supremacists or Donald Wildmon’s (don’t know who he is) homophobe god. These false gods do not cause the one true God not to exist they simple muddy the waters.

Again, what epistemological tools are you employing here to determine that their gods are false and yours is “true”? Shall I give you a hint? You’re not employing any. This is a perfect example of what I was trying to explain to you, when I said that emotions do not help you determine facts in any way, nor are they something you “have to” bring to bear when faced with gaps in your knowledge.

Now, you might offer such “evidence” as “God has spoken to me” or “God has answered my prayers.” But here’s the kicker. All those people you think worship false gods come back at you and say the same thing! Uh oh! Now where are you? Will you continue to insist that their gods are false, and therefore any message these people may have thought they heard from their gods are merely demonic deceptions, or simply those people talking to themselves? Whoops! Here they go again, saying the same thing about you! Dangit!

This is a serious problem you’ve got here, and I think you need to take time to think it over. From what I’m reading here, and from (many!) similar conversations I’ve heard from other believers, my conclusion here is that your religion (religion in general, actually) does not provide its followers with the right tools to tell facts from comforting fantasies. You certainly don’t seem to have those tools.

I’m not trying to be mean, just honest. In order to get past this problem (and this will be difficult for you), you real
ly need to ask yourself how you would explain to someone like me, for instance, how it is possible to distinguish that your god of choice is the “true” one and their god of choice is the “false” one. And (here’s the difficult part) you need to divorce your emotional commitment to your beliefs from the process, because the methods you provide need to be independently verifiable by pretty much anyone, especially people who have a far different emotional history and character than you. So strip away the subjective and concentrate on the purely objective.

Let’s say an car accident happens. There are five witnesses. Each gives a different testimony because of their vantage point at the time of the accident, maybe because of their selfish desire to gain from the accident, etc. Did the accident still happen or do we say the accident didn’t happen because all five testimonies are different?

You do love your analogies, don’t you? :-) Just make sure the one you’re employing is an appropriate fit for the argument you’re making. This analogy fails on a basic point.

In a traffic accident, there will be physical evidence of the event. Eyewitnesses my be interviewed, but ultimately, their testimonies won’t have to be the only things relied upon to determine the facts of the accident.

And this is your big stumbling block: Your religious beliefs have only testimonies and unsupported claims backing them up. Determining whether they are true or false is just about as opposite a process from investigating a traffic accident as you can conceive. Like, 180 degrees the other way.

Her next point:

2. “See, you might as well ask, “Why wouldn’t you want to believe in a loving and sweet magical pink flying unicorn who will give you rides to the Candy Mountain?” The same answer applies: What is the sense in embracing such a belief?”

We both know that comparing God to unicorns or fairies is like comparing Christopher Columbus to bugs bunny. There is real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns. There is credible testimony and proof for God. Creation is proof and Jesus is testimony, to name just two examples. Yes you have to believe his testimony and the testimony of his followers just like you have to believe the testimony of the witnesses at a trial and Jesus already told us that there will be some who refuse his testimony and the testimony of his followers and Jesus knows there is nothing that will change their opinion in heaven or under the earth. Free will has a way of doing that. Have you ever been a witness to something? Have you ever had your testimony refuted. Did it make your testimony false just because that person wouldn’t believe you. Or on the other hand, did your testimony become true just because someone believed it?

Creation offers proof everywhere. From the magic of new life to the decay of the old and how it all works, from the earth’s exact position from the sun and it’s revolution. Where does all the energy from the sun come from? We know that energy naturally slowly depletes. And if we really need to go back to the beginning to find out how God came into creation then you need to use that same argument for your belief. Where did the first primortal sludge or neutron or gas or whatever you believe was the first thing to start evolving, come from?

Don’t you love us here at AE for dealing with this stuff? Here are my replies to #2.

We both know that comparing God to unicorns or fairies is like comparing Christopher Columbus to bugs bunny.

No, it’s like comparing Bugs Bunny to Daffy Duck. Christopher Columbus was a real historical figure, for whose life the evidence is sound. There is no good reason to think of God as any less a fictional character than unicorns or Bugs. (Certainly none that you’ve provided.)

There is real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns.

Uh, I’m going to assume you meant “There is NO real credible testimony or proof for magical pink flying unicorns.” Otherwise, I’d really start to worry about you.

There is credible testimony and proof for God. Creation is proof and Jesus is testimony, to name just two examples.

Nope, and here’s why. We have no verifiable, extra-Biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. (The passages in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews are widely held to be later insertions.) Personally, I happen to think the character was likely inspired by a real person. But beyond that, we have no way to verify any of the claims concerning Jesus, particularly the supernatural claims, as conveyed in the NT.

Since I know how you’ll probably respond to this, let me save you trouble. How can we decide not to trust historical claims about Jesus, and yet accept them about other historical figures, like George Washington or Julius Caesar? The basic answer is we cannot take all those at face value either, and historians know this, which is usually why a number of sources are pooled in order to get to any kind of approximation of truth about historical people and events.

In the case of Washington, we can pool a great number of direct records about his presidency, but then we get to dismiss the popular myths, like chopping down the cherry tree, when we realize they’re not supported and are extremely fanciful anyway.

In the case of Jesus, even if we had ironclad evidence of a real person’s existence right now, how do we confirm the supernatural claims? (Hint: “The Bible says…” doesn’t count.) Walking on water? The virgin birth (borrowed from at least two previously existing religious traditions at the time of Jesus)? The 500 witnesses? We only have Paul’s word about them. Why didn’t he give us their names, allow them to write their own accounts? The resurrection, which all four Gospels give a radically different account of?

Without any possible way to verify these things independently, we have to bring in our understanding of myths and legends of the time. People routinely created these kinds of stories about prominent figures in those days. Supernatural stories about the gods anointing Roman generals before battle were told, and fervently believed, by Roman legionnaires. All throughout history, certainly long before the development of the scientific method, people have sought to explain what they otherwise cannot through the creation of myths and legends.

Your beliefs are no different.

Yes you have to believe his testimony and the testimony of his followers just like you have to believe the testimony of the witnesses at a trial and Jesus already told us that there will be some who refuse his testimony and the testimony of his followers and Jesus knows there is nothing that will change their opinion in heaven or under the earth.

All of this is hopelessly wrong.

I don’t have to believe a thing that isn’t supported by credible evidence. There is no requirement for a jury to believe the testimony of witnesses at a trial, because witnesses can lie, just as in the traffic accident analogy you gave above. Eyewitness testimony is, in fact, not held to be reliable on its own in court, and is called “hearsay” for that very reason. (Actually, I made a slight error here — see addendum for details.) It’s the physical evidence the prosecutor is going to have to show, if he wants to win his case. You’re insisting I have to accept your religious beliefs on hearsay. Sorry, no sale. No more than I would simply rely on hearsay to send a guy to jail for life.

So what if Jesus is supposed to have warn
ed that people would not believe him? This fact alone does not establish the truth of anything. I could say right now, “Yesterday I flapped my arms and flew to Mars, but most people will say I’m crazy and nothing on earth will change their minds.” That still wouldn’t prove I actually flew to Mars.

I’m trying to explain to you how we know things, and how we differentiate that what what we only think we know, or from what we simply believe or want to be true. I don’t if it’s sinking in, but I hope I’m being clear all the same.

Free will has a way of doing that. Have you ever been a witness to something? Have you ever had your testimony refuted. Did it make your testimony false just because that person wouldn’t believe you. Or on the other hand, did your testimony become true just because someone believed it?

You’re kind of confusing your argument here, because it’s no longer clear whether you’re arguing that testimony alone should be good enough (which is what you started arguing), or if you’re suddenly agreeing with me that it isn’t, and that evidence also must play a role. I’m going to take a wild guess and continue here on the basis of the former.

If I were in a situation where it was my word against someone else’s, I would have to realize that 1) I may be right or I may be wrong, and 2) even if I’m confident I have my facts straight, I will NEED TO PROVIDE STRONG EVIDENCE IF I WISH MY TESTIMONY TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

I hope you’re noticing that every example you give comes back to this: eventually it all comes back to evidence. You are trying (very earnestly, I’ll give you credit for that!) to construct an argument in support of the position that in the absence of evidence, it’s right and proper to fall back on emotions and faith to determine the truth. What you are in fact doing is presenting me with examples that always have me leading you back to evidence, regardless of whatever your emotional investment in the outcome might be.

Since you are fond of analogies, let me give you one relating to your courtroom example: Let’s say you’re on a jury where a guy is on trial for murder. Let’s say the crime scene was compromised and there was no good physical forensic evidence pointing to the accused. But there are several witnesses on the stand, and boy, they’re all very sympathetic. They’re crying a lot, and they really seem to be decent, upstanding, sincere people. They may even go to church! And they go on and on about how they always knew the accused and the victim really didn’t like each other, and had had loud arguments in the past, and so on. And so based on this very sincere and heart wrenching testimony, you vote to convict the guy, even though all the prosecutor had was hearsay. Five years later he’s put to death.

A few years after that, it turns out that DNA evidence is recovered from a weapon belonging to another person entirely, and both that person’s DNA and the victim’s DNA are on the weapon. Furthermore, more physical evidence has arisen that puts the poor chump who just got executed 20 miles away at the time of the killing. It’s official. All that emotional testimony, sincere emotional testimony from decent people, was horrifically wrong. And now an innocent man has been executed for it, for which you’re partly responsible.

This may seem an extreme example. But situations like it have happened. And I hope, if nothing else, you can see just how wrong you are to insist anyone “has to” trust eyewitnesses in a trial, because without real confirmation, the results can be wrong, and have horrible consequences. Emotion is clearly not the bridge we must use to cross gaps in our knowledge. It can lead us astray in the worst possible ways!

Creation offers proof everywhere. From the magic of new life to the decay of the old and how it all works, from the earth’s exact position from the sun and it’s revolution. Where does all the energy from the sun come from? We know that energy naturally slowly depletes. And if we really need to go back to the beginning to find out how God came into creation then you need to use that same argument for your belief. Where did the first primortal sludge or neutron or gas or whatever you believe was the first thing to start evolving, come from?

Since I don’t have time to run you through a full battery of remedial science courses, I’ll simply mention that there are very highly developed fields of scientific endeavor, peopled by well educated professionals with a true sense of awe about the universe and everything in it, who have dedicated their lives to the study of these questions and what evidence might point to.

Do we know everything there is to know about the universe? Not even close. But that is the greatest strength of the scientific method. One must always be open to new ideas and see where the latest evidence takes you. Sadly this is an openness you have closed yourself off to, since you opened this letter with the statement “It does not threaten my faith at all,” which is pretty much an admission you aren’t willing to accept the possibility you might be wrong. (And the irony of your demanding that I be “open minded” to belief in God while in the same letter boasting of your own closed-mindedness has been noted.) I will say in all confidence that, yes, I and every working scientist alive are a lot more open minded to new evidence and answers than you are, by your own declaration. The thing is, it has to be evidence in the first place.

More replies later, maybe tomorrow. Remember, do me the favor of holding off replying until I get them all in, so that I’m not backtracking and having to keep track of two sets of replies at once.


Her email had a whopping 15 numbered points. I probably won’t have to time to do each and every one, but I’ll continue with the salient ones soon enough.


Addendum: Actually, uncorroborated eyewitness evidence presented in court is not quite what’s defined legally as “hearsay.” That term refers to statements made outside of the court that one side or the other is attempting to present, without the speaker having been under oath when the statement was made.