God is everywhere

(Since today is the Memorial Day holiday, I am taking a break and doing a repost.)

There is a famous and funny old sketch called the Five Minute University in which comedian Don Novello acts in his character of Father Guido Sarducci.

As he says, when students study theology at his university, all they will learn are the answers to the two questions: “Where is god?” (Answer: God is everywhere) and “Why?” (Answer: Because he likes you). I am beginning to think that the answer to the first question is absolutely correct.

Take a look at this picture of a cut tree stump that is in a churchyard in Ireland. What do you see?

mary tree stump.jpg

Nothing? Just a tree stump that someone has cut in an odd way? Oh ye of little faith! To the devout this looks like the Virgin Mary and they think its appearance is (what else?) a miracle. People are making pilgrimages to pray around it. Over 2,000 have signed a petition objecting to plans to uproot the stump, and want to convert it into a permanent shrine of some sort.

The thing that strikes me is that recently Jesus and Mary seem to be showing up all over the place, in slices of toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, womb ultrasounds, Marmite jar lid, Kit Kat bar, shower curtain, cheese curl (the last one has been dubbed ‘Cheesus’), dental x-rays, mugs of hot chocolate, even on the backside of a dog and in bird droppings.

Commenter Chris sent me this compilation of a huge number of Jesus sightings that local TV news shows love to report on. There seems to be an epidemic.

The one newsperson had it right when she said, “You know, it seems like if Jesus was going to show up somewhere it wouldn’t be in ice cream.”

Such stories, apart from revealing religious people to be hopelessly credulous, also demonstrate how weak some people’s faith is, not how strong. It is only people who are really desperate for a sign to bolster their beliefs that will seize on such pathetic things as validating their faith. The woman who saw the Marmite Jesus ‘took comfort from the image’ saying, “I’m not particularly religious but I like to think it’s Jesus looking out for us.” She seems oblivious to how ridiculous it is to think that god would reveal his presence in a bread spread.

This kind of thing puts religious authorities in a quandary. On the one hand, they realize that if you have too many such sightings, religion begins to look more and more ridiculous. Even the TV reporters in that compilation clip seemed to find the whole phenomenon humorous. After all, if people start worshipping tree stumps, how can you distinguish so-called mainstream religion from more allegedly primitive religions, such as paganism. Some religions actually do involve tree-worship and the Christmas tree symbol itself likely began as one.

On the other hand, religious authorities cannot categorically debunk all of them as nonsense because their livelihood depends on people believing that god can reveal himself to people on occasion even if it is such weird and useless ways. The problem for the church is that it wants to discourage freelancers and maintain a monopoly on what qualifies as a revelation of god and what doesn’t, as this is the source of their power and money. They tried to walk that fine line on this occasion too.

Local parish priest Fr Willie Russell said on radio station Limerick Live 95FM yesterday that people should not worship the tree. “There’s nothing there . . . it’s just a tree . . . you can’t worship a tree.”

A spokesman for the Limerick diocesan office said the “church’s response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism”.

“While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition,” he said.

Fortunately for the spokesman, he was not asked what distinguishes this particular “superstition” from all the superstitions that the church expects people to believe, such as that the wafer and wine become transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus when the priest mumbles some words over it. Mary-in-a-tree-stump is nothing compared to that. He could depend on the ‘respect for religion’ nonsense to deter ‘polite’ reporters from asking such obvious questions.

That Mitchell and Webb Look reports on another miraculous sighting.

All these Jesus and Mary sightings and the comment in the above clip that the melon message blew his tomato message out of the water gave me an idea for a new reality TV series, because what the nation really needs is another reality show. This one would consist of people bringing their candidates for an authentic god appearance and making the case for it on live TV. Then a panel of theologians would give their comments, the audience votes for which artifact is the best miracle of god, and then everyone worships the ultimate winning object.

I think the perfect title for the show would be “American Idol”. I hope no one has used it already.

POST SCRIPT: You mean the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old?

Watch this statement by Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen (R).

What is amazing is that her statement that the Earth is 6,000 years old is said so casually during a discussion of environmental concerns over uranium mining, as if it was the most commonplace fact in the world and not at all something idiotic and controversial. These people live in their own bubble world.

The internet and religious taboos

One of the great strengths of the internet is that it allows broad-based actions and thus can undermine hierarchical control of messages. It has become very easy for like-minded people all over the world to quickly connect up and act in concert in support of any particular cause. Furthermore the considerable anonymity afforded by the internet means that people can defy taboos with impunity.

Take for example, the absurdly hysterical response of Muslims whenever someone draws an image of their prophet Mohammed. They go on riots and rampages and even threaten to kill the perpetrators. Just recently Lars Vilks, a Dutch cartoonist who drew an image of Mohammed as a dog, was attacked while lecturing on free speech. Fortunately he was not seriously hurt because police rushed to his rescue but during the assault other students chanted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”). If they thought they were bringing honor to their god and religion by this disgusting display, they were greatly mistaken. It is a truly pathetic god who needs thugs to beat up people who are merely exercising their right to speak.

In the past, there was little that anyone could do about this kind of thuggery in the service of religion because access to the media was limited and because the major media do not want to alienate their advertisers, they were likely to self-censor, the way Comedy Central did with its show South Park and the Mohammed controversy.

But things are different with the internet and it looks like Muslims have gone too far with their demand that everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) adhere to the ban on drawing images of Mohammed. There has been a backlash and this taboo has been violated on a grand scale. For example, May 20 was declared to be “Everyone draw Mohammed day”, where people around the world were encouraged to submit their entries. There were many Facebook pages such as this one.

As one can expect when amateurs enter the scene on a mass scale, some of the resulting images are far more insulting to Muslim sensibilities than the ones that triggered the initial protests.

As a result of this response, Pakistan, which is rapidly going down a theocratic road, has banned YouTube and FaceBook because of its ‘growing sacrilegious content’. But this will also fail because the internet is hard to corral and people will find ways to get around any fences that governments try to set up.

The AAF (Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers) student group at the University of Illinois decided to counter this by chalking stick pictures of Mohammed. They have been joined by other student groups at other college campuses. (This act had its own amusing unintended effect with some students, unaware of the controversy or even of who Mohammed was, saw the stick figure chalking campaign as some kind of show of support for a seemingly very popular student with that name.)

Were all these actions gratuitously provocative? Yes of course. Were they rude? Certainly. Were they even juvenile? No doubt. But this is the kind of response that people should expect in the internet age when they try to enforce their peculiar taboos on everyone. The internet allows widespread yet concerted and anonymous action and religious people should realize that they can no longer control the message and decide what everyone should consider sacred. Trying to do so only makes things worse for them, a la the Streisand Effect. They should just learn to act like adults.

No one has the right to force devout Muslims to look at such drawings. If Muslims stumble across one, they should do what we all do when we encounter a visual image we do not like, and look away. But none of us have the right to prevent other people from drawing things and viewing them and the sooner religious people realize and accept this and leave it to their god to defend his honor, the better.

POST SCRIPT: How religions began (language advisory)

Religion and evidence-7: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

(For the complete series of posts on religion and evidence, see here.)

In the previous post, I argued that under the rules of logic, existence claims placed the burden of proof on the person making the claim to provide evidence in support of it, while universal claims required the person disputing it to provide evidence. In the case of ‘god exists’, which is clearly an existence claim, the burden of proof is on the believer. Similarly the claim ‘there is no god’ is a universal claim and again the burden of proof (or disproof in this case) is on the believer.
[Read more…]

Religion and evidence-6: Is it unscientific to reject miraculous claims?

It is undoubtedly true that what may be considered a miracle at one time may not be thought so later as science advances. In fact the steady replacement of the miraculous and the inexplicable with the natural and scientific has been the recurring pattern of history. This pattern has been so influential in shaping the mindset of the scientific and medical community that the word ‘miracle’ is now seen as simply another label for a current state of ignorance. As Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009) and who has been involved in the process by which the Catholic Church certifies a medical miracle as part of the process of canonizing a saint, says:
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Religion and evidence-5: Miracles without god?

Jacalyn Duffin, author of the book Medical Miracles (2009), has an interesting professional history. A hematologist by training, she was asked in 1986 to analyze blood samples taken eight years previously from someone whose name and medical history were kept from her. Under her microscope she found all the signs of a kind of leukemia that usually results in death in at most a couple of years and so she was surprised to be later told that the patient was still alive and well. She was further surprised to discover that her analysis had been part of the process for the canonization of a would-be saint, Mere Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, founder of the order of Grey Nuns in Canada. The recovery of the leukemia patient was being credited to that potential saint as a miracle. Eventually, Duffin’s expert testimony that the recovery was scientifically inexplicable formed a crucial part of the successful canonization effort, and she was invited to Rome for the actual ceremony conducted by Pope John Paul II in 1990.
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Religion and evidence-4: Incorruptibility of the bodies of saints

The existence of bodies which allegedly do not undergo decay after death (i.e. ‘incorruptible bodies‘) was something I was made aware of only a few months ago but is apparently fairly well known in the religious community, especially among Catholics, and is taken as a miraculous sign from god. The Catholic Church used to make incorruptibility one of the possible criteria in support of claims for sainthood, and so exhumation of the bodies was once a regular part of the canonization process. But never having been a Catholic, I had been totally unaware of this until my friend drew my attention to it.
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Religion and evidence-3: Evidence-based belief

One of the interesting things about letting people know that you are an atheist is that you learn quite a lot of new stuff from religious people who try to persuade you that there is more to this life than a material world that runs according to scientific laws that are either known or yet to be discovered. The arguments that you hear run from one extreme of highly sophisticated theology (consisting of mostly esoteric words seemingly designed to avoid saying anything concrete) to the middle ground of believing in a supernatural power because of miracles (events that seemingly defy scientific laws and explanations) to the other extreme of people claiming to hear voices in their heads, that god actually speaks to them.
[Read more…]

Religion and evidence-2: Belief in belief

In their study of people’s religious beliefs, Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway identified the seven strongest predictors in favor of belief in god:

  1. being raised in a religious manner
  2. parents’ religiosity
  3. lower levels of education
  4. being female
  5. a large family
  6. lack of conflict with parents
  7. being younger

Four of the factors that favor being religious applied in my own case. I was raised in a conventionally religious manner. My parents were religious but not overly so. We went regularly to church but not every Sunday. We never said grace before meals or had family prayers or were otherwise openly devout. Religion was seen as a private thing and we did say individual prayers. Also in favor was that I was a younger (middle) child and had no conflicts with my easy-going parents.

The three factors that should have pushed me away from religion were that I was male, we were a small family (three children), and I had a higher than average education. So in my case, it seems to have been basically a toss-up as to whether I would end up religious or not.

I think that for a lot of people, whether they believe or not is based on whether they feel the need to believe in a god-like entity and whether they want to believe for whatever reason, perhaps even just to blend in with family and society. If the answer to either question is yes, then they will look for reasons to believe and will make up something that serves their needs.

Harold Kushner, for example, is a rabbi and writer who is perhaps best known for his book Why bad things happen to good people. In this recent NPR interview he discusses the problem of suffering, the major difficulty that religious believers have to confront.

If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either god is all-powerful but not kind or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise god’s power and affirm his love. So the conclusion, the theological conclusion, I came to is that god could have been all-powerful at the beginning but he chose to designate two areas of life off-limits to his power. He would not arbitrarily interfere with laws of nature. And secondly, god would not take away our freedom to choose between good and evil.

Note that after laying out what he see as the two possible options for god that explain the existence of suffering, Kushner declares that he gets to decide which kind of god he wants to believe in and thus can bring that god into existence. God seems to have no say in what kind of qualities he can have. Kushner emphasizes that he has arrived at what he calls a theological conclusion, as if that added weight to it, though what he has done seems to be purely self-indulgent wishful thinking. Is it any wonder that theology is such a useless discipline, capable of accommodating any and all wishes of those who want to believe? Kushner, for whatever reason, only wants to believe in a certain type of god and, presto, that is the god that exists. The interviewer does not ask the obvious question of the basis for that particular choice because when one is confronted with a ‘person of faith’, especially someone who seems as nice and humane as Kushner seems to be, it is impolite to ask exactly what that faith is based on.

Actually, the alternative that Kushner rejected, that god is all-powerful but not kind, makes a lot more sense logically. If you postulate a ‘thoroughly kind and loving’ god as Kushner wants, you then have to tie yourself up in all kinds of knots to explain the existence of suffering and evil and injustice. But if you postulate the existence of an omnipotent but evil god who enjoys toying with people’s lives and making them suffer, everything makes a lot more sense and the otherwise intractable problem of why there is suffering goes away. An evil god is much more plausible than a loving god.

Kushner seems to be a fideist, a useful label that I came across while reading Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe (2000). On page 9 Shermer describes what a fideist is by recounting an interview with someone who labels himself that way:

Martin Gardner, mathematician, former columnist for Scientific American, and one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement, is a believer who admits that the existence of God cannot be proved. He calls himself a fideist, or someone who believes in God for personal or pragmatic reasons, and defended his position to me in an interview: “As a fideist, I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds.” Credo consolans, says Gardner – I believe because it is consoling.

The phenomenon of fideism seems similar to what Daniel Dennett describes as ‘belief in belief’ (Breaking the Spell, 2006), that while people deep down don’t really believe in the existence of god, they somehow see belief in god as a good thing that they want to be a part of. So they find some reasons for believing. It seems to me that Kushner, like many religious believers, is a fideist, someone who believes because he needs to, and thus searches for something that he feels comfortable believing in. Such people seize upon a “quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds.”

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on The Enemies of Reason

Part 1:

(Part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

Religion and evidence-1: Why people believe

The main reason that atheists deny that god exists is because there is no credible evidence for him/her/it. In trying to meet this challenge, religious people tend to split two ways, those who accept the need for evidence and those who think evidence is unnecessary for belief.

Ordinary religious believers tend to say that yes, they do so have evidence. When asked to specify what this evidence consists of, they tend to talk of personal experience of the presence of god, miracles, and things they consider to be deep and insoluble mysteries (like the origin of life or the universe). The problem is that what they mean by evidence is not anything that meets the normal standard of evidence in science or a court of law. It is not hard to show that these types of evidence are really weak. After all, personal ‘experiences’ of god’s presence are indistinguishable from hallucinations, delusions, or plain wishful thinking. Close scrutiny of miraculous events usually result in them turning out to have plausible material explanations. And the origins of life and the universe are no longer deep mysteries but merely scientific puzzles that are being systematically investigated.

Deep down, religious people must know that these kinds of evidence are not convincing and this is why there are desperate attempts to find evidence that is more concrete, such as conducting studies on the efficacy of prayer or the claim that the Shroud of Turin is genuine, or the search for the remnants of Noah’s Ark (the latest claim of success occurring on April 27, 2010), and other attempts to find things that corroborate claims in their religious texts.

Hovering over all these attempts is an unspoken paradox. If god did want to reveal his existence to us, why does he choose such oblique and unconvincing ways to do so? Why not simply show himself openly? And if he does not want to reveal himself, why leave any clues around at all, like an inept criminal?

The more sophisticated theologians and philosophers realize that the kinds of evidence that are produced in favor of god can be easily shot down by skeptics and so now they don’t even try. They tend to make the best of a bad situation by finding ways to pooh-pooh the whole notion of evidence, saying that we atheists are wrong to be tied to such mundane matters as material evidence or even raise the question of the actual existence of a god, and must open our eyes to appreciate the deep and sublime truths about the nature of god that evidence cannot touch.

This strikes me as total hogwash, the kind of pseudo-reasoning that only an intellectual can come up with. At least ordinary religious people realize the need for evidence, even if they cannot produce any credible evidence.

In Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe (2000, p. 249) he quotes the results of a 1998 survey that he collaborated on with Frank Sulloway which explored the reasons that religious people give for belief. When people were asked why they themselves personally believed in god, the responses broke down as follows:

  1. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe (28.6%)
  2. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us (20.6%)
  3. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3%)
  4. The Bible says so (9.8%)
  5. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something (8.2%)
  6. Raised to believe in God (7.2%)
  7. God answers prayers (6.4%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (4.0%)
  9. God has a plan for the world, history, destiny, and us (3.8%)
  10. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.0%)

Responses 1, 2, and 7 can be grouped together as evidence-based reasons (at least they are considered to be evidence in the eyes of believers) and make up 55.8% of the responses. Responses 3, 5, 8, 9, and 10 can be grouped as emotional and wishful thinking reasons and make up 27.3%, while the remaining two reasons 4 and 6 (about 17%) are based on habit or deference to authority figures.

But when the same people are asked why they think other people believe in god, the results are as follows:

  1. It is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life. (26.3%)
  2. Raised to believe in God. (22.4%)
  3. Experience of God in everyday life/a feeling that God is in us. (16.2%)
  4. Just because/faith/or the need to believe in something. (13.0%)
  5. People believe because they fear death and the unknown. (9.1%)
  6. Good design/natural beauty/perfection/complexity of the world or universe. (6.0%)
  7. The Bible says so (5.0%)
  8. Without God there would be no morality (3.5%)
  9. To account for good and avenge evil in the world (1.5%)
  10. God answers prayers (1.0%)

Emotions and wishful thinking (1, 4, 5, 8, 9) now rise to the top (53.4%), habit and authority (2, 7) comes second at 27.4%, while evidence (3, 6, 10) comes in last at 23.2%.

What is interesting about these results is that believers tend to think that while they themselves have rational reasons to believe in god, they think other people do so for emotional or irrational reasons. What that indicates to me is that even though religious believers value evidence, they either don’t think that their evidence for god is convincing and/or they do not have much respect for the rationality of fellow-believers.

I recently received an email from someone who wanted to know the numbers in ‘Einstein’s constant’. Apart from the fact that there is no such thing as ‘Einstein’s constant’ other than his cosmological constant term in general relativity which is not a numerical constant in the way that (say) pi is, the wording was a little strange. She was not asking for the constant but the numbers in it. When I queried her what she wanted it became clear that she wanted to explore the work of Ivan Panin, who converted to Christianity and spent his life looking for hidden messages in the Bible using numerical patterns. While one might wonder what kind of god would put secret coded messages in the Bible, the point is that my correspondent (and Panin) were looking for evidence in support of their beliefs. The very fact that they try so hard and have to look in such obscure places is a measure of how weak they themselves think the evidence for god is.

This also explains why there is so much pushback to the arguments of the new atheists that there is no reason or evidence to believe in god. Although religious believers say that faith in spite of contradictory evidence is central to belief, they really like to think that that only applies to other people, and that they themselves are rational people who do use evidence. It also explains why so many religious people and accommodationists keep telling us that we should not cast doubt on beliefs that other people find consoling.

I must say that I found the result that people tend to value reason and evidence as important bases for beliefs to be a good sign, a measure of success for the widespread adoption of Enlightenment values, even if the evidence they produce is so unconvincing.

POST SCRIPT: God’s plan

What does the Bible say about suicide?

Given that many religious people think that the life they will have after death will be so much better than the life they have now, this raises the problem of why they don’t simply commit suicide or why they seek medical treatment for illnesses instead of seeing life-threatening diseases as signs that god want them to join him in heaven. To explain this paradox, religious people have sought to find moral prohibitions against death wishes and suicide.

Interestingly enough, the Bible does not directly condemn suicide. This poses a bit of a theological problem because it does seem a little odd that a god who seems to care about the minutest and trivial details, going so far as to warn people not to wear garments made up of both wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11) or to plant two different kinds of seeds in the same field (Deuteronomy 22:9) and even demand that a person be stoned to death for collecting wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), couldn’t be bothered to come right out and say that offing oneself was not kosher. So assuming that what is not prohibited is permitted, it would seem that suicide is compatible with at least Judaism and Christianity.

But this idea that suicide may be permissible or even desirable goes against the grain of sophisticated religious believers so, as is usually the case, theologians concoct reasons as to why although god is silent on what would seem to be an important question, we really should not commit suicide.

Some Christians claim to find indirect biblical support for not taking one’s own life. Augustine argued that the sixth commandment against murder covers killing oneself. But that won’t wash as it is clear that all the other prohibitions in the ten commandments (lying, adultery, stealing, coveting) only apply to acts done to other people and there is no reason to think that the sixth commandment is any different. Other apologists find other reasons:

Some people believe that all who commit suicide go immediately to Hell. However, the Bible never says if this is the case. The Bible is silent on this issue. God probably did not address it in black in white for a good reason. If we knew that we would still go to Heaven if we killed ourselves, there would probably be a lot more suicides taking place than there already are. However, if we knew that all who killed themselves were automatically banished to Hell, no matter what their situation, it may be too much for the grief-stricken family and friends to bear. (bold emphasis in original, italics are mine)

I am always amused by how religious people think they can psychoanalyze god and determine his desires so precisely. And the results of their analysis always turn out to be exactly in agreement with what they want it to be. To his credit, the author of the above passage is refreshingly frank about the obvious fact that religious people should have a greater desire to commit suicide than the non-religious.

Islam does not seem to be so wishy-washy. Going by recent events, killing oneself in the service of god seems to be considered noble in that religion. The suicide bombers who murder innocent people and generally commit mayhem in the service of their god are convinced that they will reap rich rewards in heaven after they die and they look forward to it, as do those fanatics in all religions who kill others because they think they are doing god’s will. They commit their abominable acts knowing that they will either die in the process or likely be executed for their crimes, and they don’t care because they are deluded that their god will reward them.

Oddly enough Islam, the religion that has become identified with suicide bombers, has clearer prohibitions against suicide than the other two Abrahamic religions. But of course theology is so malleable that some Islamic scholars have found a martyrdom loophole to the prohibition against suicide and this is used to mislead people into thinking they are doing something noble when they are being murderous.

It is likely that depression and despair, the usual causes of suicide, strike people indiscriminately and takes no account of whether people are religious or not. But religion can persuade people to take their own lives in the service of what they perceive as a greater good or a better life. It is after all religious cults that can persuade their followers to indulge in mass suicides, such as led to the Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown tragedies. I cannot imagine what one could say to persuade a group of atheists to take their own lives. Actually a strong case can be made that atheists place a greater value on life than religious people because they know that this is the only life they have.

There is always something to look forward to, from the trivial to the major. In fact, the reasons to live are so numerous as to beyond the ability to list them.

POST SCRIPT: Exercising free speech rights

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