Why small problems create the most difficulties for Christians

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has some interesting things to say on the importance of details in establishing credibility of any knowledge system. In his Reply to a Christian he points out how central it is to religious beliefs that one avoids any kinds of details that might lead to refutation, something that I have also been writing about for some time. His essay is worth quoting at length.

Christians regularly assert that the Bible predicts future historical events. For instance, Deuteronomy 28:64 says, “The Lord will scatter you among the nations from one end of the earth to the other.” Jesus says, in Luke 19:43-44, “The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” We are meant to believe that these utterances predict the subsequent history of the Jews with such uncanny specificity so as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. It is on the basis of such reasoning that 44 percent of the American population now believes that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.

But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, “In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet.” The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.

Take a moment to imagine how good a book could be if it were written by the Creator of the universe. Such a book could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight the earth has ever seen. Instead, the Bible contains some very obvious mathematical errors. In two places, for instance, the Good Book gives the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter as simply 3 (1 Kings 7: 23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4: 2-5). We now refer to this constant relation with the Greek letter pi. While the decimal expansion of pi runs to infinity-3.1415926535 . . .-we can calculate it to any degree of accuracy we like. Centuries before the oldest books of the Bible were written, both the Egyptians and Babylonians approximated p to a few decimal places. And yet the Bible-whether inerrant or divinely inspired-offers us an approximation that is terrible even by the standards of the ancient world. Needless to say, many religious people have found ingenious ways of rationalizing this. And yet, these rationalizations cannot conceal the obvious deficiency of the Bible as a source of mathematical insight. It is absolutely true to say that, if Archimedes had written a chapter of the Bible, the text would bear much greater evidence of the author’s “omniscience.”


Why doesn’t the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book. There was room for God to instruct us on how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. Please appreciate how this looks to one who stands outside the Christian faith. It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience. (my italics throughout)

All these are good questions. But as cogently as Harris argues, I do not expect him to convince the believer. This is because, as professor of religion Deepak Sarma pointed out during the panel discussion on the tsunami, all religions contain an MWC (“mysterious ways clause”) that can be invoked as a last resort to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it. As long as believers are willing to invoke the MWC, there is nothing that can shake their beliefs.

Scientists can and do also hold on to theories in the face of counter evidence. They too often consider unsolved problems to be solvable but yet unknown. The difference is that for them, they do not accept this as the final word. They keep chipping away at the unexplained, generating new evidence as they go. For scientists, there is always a tipping point at which the weight of new evidence is such that it shifts the balance sufficiently that the entire scientific community rejects the old theory. That is why scientific theories keep evolving.

In the case of religion, though, there is no such collective tipping point. There are too many political and economic interests vested in religion for any religious leader (say the Pope) to say something like: “You know, after thinking about it, I’ve realized that this idea of god does not really make any sense. Maybe we should try to understand how the world works without invoking god.”

Religious and political leaders have too much vested interest in maintaining religion, whatever their private views might be. So it is up to individuals to decide for themselves how much counter-evidence they can encounter and still maintain their faith. But we are mistaken in thinking that evidence and reason and logic are the decisive factors in how such decisions are made.

Next: The important role that emotion plays

POST SCRIPT: Keeping people locked up forever without trial

Once again, we have to look for comedy programs to tell us the truth. Stephen Colbert looks at the outrageous scandal that is Guantanamo and the fraudulent arguments that are used to keep people there indefinitely without access to basic legal and human rights.

Thoughts on Mark Twain’s The War Prayer

Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain’s story The War Prayer fits into the latter category.

The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its basis is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through. The key section about the nature of such prayers is revealed when he writes:

For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.

Twain accurately points out that often such prayers always carry with them a dark underside. Prayers that ask for victory in war always carry with them the wish that god will destroy the other side. The losing side in a war must necessarily suffer death and destruction but prayers never explicitly ask god to do this. That would be too crass. But Twain says that whether we put those sentiments into words or not, that appeal is always present.

Twain carries this argument even further and says that even appeals for seemingly benign help for one person (such as rain for his crops) may prove to be a curse for someone else.

Twain’s point seems to be that any prayer that seeks special benefits for any one group is also a request to deny that same benefit to those who do not belong to that group. When people pray asking god’s help to help find a cure for cancer, aren’t they implicitly also asking him/her to not find a cure for AIDS or Alzheimers or any other of the countless diseases that afflict living things?

And what about the phrase “God bless America” that is now such a staple of political life that politicians routinely end their speeches with it? Fourth of July speeches are full of such appeals. What exactly is being asked for here? That god look out for the interests of Americans and withhold blessings from the people of other countries? What would justify such a request? Do such people really believe that God prefers Americans to other people? What kind of God would check the nationality of people before responding to prayers?

All such intercessory prayers are premised on an authoritarian/subservient model, with god as a kind of despot who has limited rewards at his/her disposal, and whose favors have to be curried by making special appeals, in the manner of kindergarteners with their teacher. Since most religious people also believe in a god who omnipotent and has the capacity to answer any intercessory prayer, and even knows the prayers before they are prayed, it does not make sense to ask for limited rewards benefiting a restricted subset of people. But this obvious contradiction is not perceived. It requires an astute observer like Twain to point it out.

Perhaps the only intercessory prayer that can be justified is the one I saw on a bumper sticker that said “God bless everyone. No exceptions.”

It is noteworthy that Mark Twain knew that he was asking for trouble with this story, writing it as he did during a major war, when strong and unthinking appeals to patriotism are used to brush aside any opposition, just as was done in during the preparations for the attack on Iraq.

Twain wrote The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper’s Bazaar rejected it as “not quite suited to a woman’s magazine.” Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish “The War Prayer” elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.

Mark Twain seems to have had a healthy skepticism towards religion that was not shared by his family and those who were charged with executing his estate.

In later years, Twain’s family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916, although there is some scholarly debate as to whether Twain actually wrote the most familiar version of this story.

Given that Mark Twain had achieved iconic status in his own lifetime and was so well-known and liked, his own apprehensions about whether this story could be published is indicative of how powerful a hold this combination of religion and patriotism has on people. Challenge those twin pillars of dogma and you become an outcast fast.

POST SCRIPT: Hunting endangered animals

Did you know that there is a hunting group that actually seeks as trophies endangered animals? And that one of its members was nominated last year to fill the position of acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

The organization in question is the Safari Club International (SCI), described as “an extreme trophy hunting organization that advocates the killing of rare species around the world.” A press release put out by the Humane Society of the US says:

The Arizona-based SCI has made a name for itself as one of the most extreme and elite trophy hunting organizations, representing some 40,000 wealthy trophy collectors, fostering and promoting competitive trophy hunting of exotic animals on five continents. SCI members shoot prescribed lists of animals to win so-called Grand Slam and Inner Circle titles. There’s the Africa Big Five (leopard, elephant, lion, rhino, and buffalo), the North American Twenty Nine (all species of bear, bison, sheep, moose, caribou, and deer), Big Cats of the World, Antlered Game of the Americas, and many other contests.

To complete all 29 award categories, a hunter must kill a minimum of 322 separate species and sub-species—enough to populate a large zoo. This is an extremely expensive and lengthy task, and many SCI members take the quick and easy route to see their names in the record books. They shoot captive animals in canned hunts, both in the United States and overseas, and some engage in other unethical conduct like shooting animals over bait, from vehicles, with spotlights, or on the periphery of national parks.

What is the matter with these people? How can anyone be so competitive that they will actually increase the risk of extinction of rare animals just for the sake of getting a trophy?

The War Prayer by Mark Twain

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. Coming at a time when the mood of the country is being whipped up to mobilize and support yet another attack on another country (this time Iran) I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain’s lesser known works.

I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain’s work and about Twain himself. Tomorrow I will look at what Twain is trying to say in this piece and the background to it. For today, I’ll let this remarkable piece of writing speak for itself.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

POST SCRIPT: Strange statues

Take a look at this collection of strange statues from all over the world.

The devil in the details

In one of the classic Peanuts cartoons, Linus says that when he grows up he wants to become a great doctor and rid the world of illness. His sister Lucy tells him he can’t because he doesn’t care enough about humanity. An indignant Linus responds, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”

I remembered that cartoon as I was writing the recent series of posts about the difficulties with believing that the mind/soul is a non-material entity that can exist independently of the material body and brain. I wrote about how Descartes struggled with how to understand the actual working of the model.

The thought struck me that it is often easy for us to accept the big picture as long as we ignore the details. For example, if you ask people whether they believe in a god who is all-powerful and can and will respond to people’s prayers, most people will unhesitatingly answer yes. If you ask them whether there is a heaven, they will say yes. If you ask them whether they believe in the existence of an immortal soul, they will say yes. If you ask them if they have free will, they will say yes.

None of these things are really that hard to believe in, as long as you stay solely with the big picture. The problem comes when you try and work out the details. It is when you ask questions like: If God exists, where is he located? How does he act in the world? Why is it that his actions seem to be indistinguishable from random chance or the workings of natural law? Where is heaven? What happens there? What is the relationship of the soul to the brain? How does the soul influence the brain?

Such questions are very difficult to answer and despite the fact that religions have been around for thousands of years, no convincing answers have yet been provided. The religious believer is invariably reduced to saying that such things are impossible for mere mortals to comprehend and that they have to take it on faith that there are answers that will be revealed to people only after they are dead. So believers in religion are essentially told: Believe in the big picture and don’t ask questions or expect answers about the details.

As a methodological attitude, this is what makes it hard for religion to be compatible with a scientific approach. Science, like religion, also deals with big questions: How did the universe get created? What is it made of? How did it become the way it is now? Science seeks answers to those questions and in the process creates universal laws and theories such as the conservation of energy or the theory of evolution.

As with religion, it is easy to believe in big picture ideas, even bizarre ones. Multiple and parallel universes? Going backwards and forwards in time? Access to unlimited energy from the quantum fluctuations in the vacuum? All these ideas have their appeal and are believed in by people.

But there the similarity with religion ends. Such broad beliefs do not become part of science if they remain purely at that level of generality. Scientific answers to the big questions and the universal laws themselves are found by looking at the details, at how these things manifest themselves in specific concrete situations which can be studied under controlled conditions. There is no question that is in principle seen to be beyond the scope of investigation or beyond human understanding. Any scientist who proposed a grand scheme and failed to articulate how it would play out in specific concrete isolated situations would not be taken seriously.

If one looks at the history of science, it is the accumulation of answers to questions of detail that have determined which theories of science should be retained and which should be overthrown. The transition from the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system to the Copernican heliocentric system did not occur because the latter model was seen as being clearly better. Conceptually, it is just as easy to believe in a geocentric model as it is in a heliocentric model. The change happened because over time, the detailed working out of the consequences of each model in specific instances (such as the motions of specific planets) seemed to be more compatible with the Copernican model than the Ptolemaic one.

This attention to detail characterizes academic discourse in general. I recall one historian saying that this is why they try to locate original documents, however boring and mundane they might seem. For a historian, a book of receipts and invoices from a store that was in existence three hundred years ago may allow her to piece together and corroborate a more reliable account of life in those times than (say) a book written during that time that seeks to describe life then. This is because books are written with a broad purpose in mind and this can distort its contents. But people doing their daily book-keeping in a store are simply recording actual events for their own use, not with an eye to history. Hence there is less chance of unconscious bias.

This is also why anthropologists and archaeologists focus so much on collecting raw data that to the rest of us seems like it has little value. The work of the people who painstakingly analyzed the layers of pollen and vegetation and bones deep in the soil of Easter Island enabled them to arrive at a more reliable and comprehensive accounting of how that community collapsed than the accounts of travelers to that island. (I will write about the fascinating story of Easter Island in a future posting.)

So while seeking the answers to big questions is the ultimate goal, in science and in most other areas of knowledge we arrive at those answers as a secondary consequence of finding answers to small, detailed questions. In religion, however, we are simply told by authorities the answers to the big questions and told not to expect answers to the detailed ones.

POST SCRIPT: The Mind and the Brain

I wrote recently (here and here) about the relationship of the mind to the brain and how the neuroscience community views this question. In a recent article, Paul Bloom, professor of Psychology at Yale talks about brain studies using fMRI and confirms my belief that the brain is all there is. He says:

But we know, scientifically, that the physical activity of the brain is the source of our mental processes. It’s one of the first things the professor says in any intro psych course: The mind is what the brain does, and so every mental event, from falling in love to worrying about your taxes, is going to show up as a brain event. In fact, if anyone were to find an aspect of thought that did not correspond to a brain event, it would be the discovery of the century, as it would be the first ever proof of hardcore Cartesian dualism.

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUS.com.)