Should we believe what we can’t disprove?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still don’t know how she differentiates.

What Constitutes Contradiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re off…

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

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

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

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

Make up your own mind.

Wasting your life?

We received a letter from a theist who sent us the following question:

I came across [a Youtube Video] where one of the gentlemen on your show said that spending time, “in prayer or in church is a waste of your one precious life”…If atheism is correct and the end of life is oblivion of one’s consciousness, then how is anything one does during their “precious” life a waste of time? If [2+4+75+15]*0 does equal 0 and [43-58-1002-67]*0 also equals 0 then in what real way are these problems different?… whether or not one is a theist or an atheist/agnostic there are many things you can do in this lifetime to further progress or hinder future generations. But the personal end result is always the same so I can not understand how anything you do could, at the end, be viewed as wasted.

This was the kernel of the question. The writer also pointed out that some ritualistic behaviors, such as prayer, can make some people feel good, and offered that perhaps these activities may not be a “waste” from that perspective, even if the god isn’t actually there. I replied to this particular query, and was asked to post my response to the blog. So, here it is:

Most people who put any effort, time, or resources toward attaining a goal, and then find the effort did nothing to help them get any closer to that goal, would use the term “waste” to describe that expenditure of effort. It’s simply the definition of the word “waste”—inefficient, ineffective efforts.

All we have in life are time, energy and resources. So, if those are wasted, it’s not really outside the bounds of standard definitions to call that “wasted life.” If we send money to buy a product that promises to make our clothes whiter, and we use it, and it doesn’t work—then we say it was a “waste” of our money. There’s nothing semantically or philosophically tricky about it. And whether we have no end of money (an eternal afterlife) or that was all the money we had (no eternal afterlife)—in fact, especially if that was all the money we had—the transaction is fairly, honestly, and understandably (to most people), labeled “a waste of money.”

If I hired Jim to work for me for a year for $75,000, and at the end of the year Jim came by to get paid, and I had cleared out of town without a trace, Jim would be very reasonable to conclude that he wasted a year of his life on doing work for me for nothing. He worked hard in an effort he believed would help him net a desired goal of $75k—but really the effort was fruitless in getting him anywhere close to his personal goal of $75k.

If I tell Jim to cheer up, that one day he will be dead, so the year and the money don’t actually matter—Jim probably wouldn’t like that advice very much. And I have no trouble grasping that Jim would want that year back in a bad way and feel it was “wasted” and stolen from him—even if Jim didn’t believe in an afterlife (in fact, especially if Jim didn’t believe in an afterlife—and this life/time is all he gets). I suspect Jim would spend at least some time trying to hunt me down (with a blazing vengeance) to get at least some of that compensation of which I defrauded him, so that his year wouldn’t be a “total waste” in his estimation.

For someone in my position, there is an ethical obligation if I have any regard for my fellow humans, if I meet Jim, to explain to him that caution is in order, since there is no valid evidence this company has ever paid out a dime to anyone it has ever employed, and to alert him that working for the company is a waste of his life, if he sincerely believes he will receive the promised compensation for his efforts. I won’t physically try to stop Jim, but certainly issuing a warning is a fair and reasonable effort.

The question to Jim, then, is this: “Would you work for this company for a year even if they didn’t pay you at the end of the year?” If the answer is “no,” then working for the company would constitute a waste of life for Jim–based on Jim’s own assessment. If the answer is “yes,” then Jim has some other motivation beyond the $75k that he hasn’t told me about yet, that needs to be revealed before an evaluation of “waste” could be made.

I have yet to see a person who felt anything but robbed in Jim’s situation—regardless of their religious or nonreligious leanings; and a great many ex-theists who contact us express that they feel like Jim (that their time involved with religion represents wasted life of which they often describe that they feel defrauded), and for exactly the same reasons Jim would. I hope this helps to clarify the position.

This is the end of the e-mail response. But I would like to add the following thoughts:

First of all, kudos to this theist, who replied to my e-mail to say that it helped him greatly to understand the meaning of what was said, and that he appreciated my effort to explain it. I will fully admit that I was braced for some petty semantic argument—but instead I received a nice response showing that he’d read and understood. That’s a wonderful change of pace in dealing with correspondences from theists.

But his original letter actually made me think further. Anyone could easily see my $75k analogy as being related to an afterlife promise. But actually, it is only intended to represent “motive.” In the question of theism versus atheism, everything hinges on whether or not a god exists. So, the question to Jim would translate to, “If there was no god, would you still do this?”

Interestingly, the response to the question results in a Catch-22 I had never previously considered. If the theist says, “Yes, I would still pray—even if I was convinced there is no god,” that means that for this particular theist, praying serves a primarily secular function, since whatever benefit he derives from prayer would still be there—according to him—even without a belief in god.

Alternately, if the theist says, “No, I would not continue to pray if I did not believe god exists,” then it’s fair to say that if no god exists, and if I were to help him recognize that, I would be helping him avoid wasting some portion of his life—in the same way warning Jim could salvage a year of Jim’s life.

I have heard from ex-theists who have written to our list to say things like, “I still stress over some things—like coming to grips with my own mortality,” but I have yet to get the letter that says, “My life was wonderful as a theist, and you ruined everything by convincing me god does not exist.” On the contrary, I have seen countless letters come through our list from ex-theists who want to thank us and express heavy gratitude to us for helping them get their lives back and escape from the bonds of delusional thinking. Honestly, the only people who write to us to express that taking away someone’s belief in god has ruinous results, are people who believe in god and, for whatever reason, are convinced that losing that belief would be ruinous—I assume to them? But their imagined fear contradicts the real feedback from every ex-theist who has ever contacted us.

Ironically, people who write to tell us they’ve gotten their lives “back,” must have been people who were expending a great deal of their lives on their belief in god—otherwise, why write to thank us? What have we really done for them if they weren’t devoting much, or anything, to god? They write because they were devoting quite a lot to belief in god, and now they can redirect their energy, time and resources toward something that will yield actual results in reality for them and others—not just in their minds. So, taking a person who is putting a lot of energy into belief in god, and stripping him of that belief, in reality results in a profuse “thank you,” despite the theists who claim
it will result in a loveless, bleak, meaningless, doubt-filled, fear-based existence that offers a person no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The theist who offers this prophecy of doom, though, is only speaking from his own fear—the real cord that keeps him bound to his belief. And he is so strongly gripped by this fear that it’s beyond his capacity to imagine anyone else not being held sway by such terror. So, he projects those fears onto others because that’s all he is honestly capable of. He really, and sadly, has accepted the childhood indoctrination message that a life without god would be an awful and meaningless existence.

If you are a theist, and you think this way, please understand that this is a big, flashing sign that you are in the iron grip of irrational, mind-twisting fear that was drilled into your brain during indoctrination as a child. The fear you feel is real, I understand, but the basis for it is a lie your tiny child mind was pressured to accept by well-meaning, misguided adults. You’re accepting a lot of religious rubbish because you’ve been convinced that to not do so would have catastrophic results in your life. It’s hard to take that first step, when you’re gripped by the terror that one false move can doom you for all eternity. To be honest, many theists don’t have the nerve. When push comes to shove, a lot of them cave and just accept belief in god as best they can, in order to stop the pressure they think will never stop otherwise. Don’t believe the lie that the only choice is to accept god or live forever in fear and doubt. There is another option.

What you fear exists only in your mind. The religious claim that the only escape from it is to accept all these beliefs about god, is a lie. There are ex-theists who have rejected these beliefs and who have worked through these same fears and made it out, very successfully—to bright futures where their lives have been fully restored to them. Consider talking to some ex-theists. Don’t tell them that their lives without god are meaningless and terrible, ask them if their lives did, in fact, become terrible and meaningless after letting go of faith.

If you will listen and learn, it could save you from a wasted life.

A Pretty Good Resource

I’m working on some research for the psychology of childhood indoctrination, and had some trouble finding actual data on this topic. I finally found a very good article, but was actually wowed by a number of essays presented at this site:

http://www.askwhy.co.uk/truth/index.php

I wanted to share it because it deals with a variety of topics with which counter-apologists are often presented, and it handles them in a very clear, readable and reasoned fashion that I think just about anyone can appreciate, or at least comprehend. The really surprisingly helpful aspect of the several articles I perused was that they include many quotes from Christian writers and preachers to help make their points more clear by contrasting explanations with apologetics.

I won’t go long on this, but just thought it might be a helpful resource to some, and so wanted to provide the link for the record.

Allah Flummoxed by Swine Flu

I wanted to share with you the very first news item I saw on television this morning. It was a story about swine flu concerns surrounding hajj. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all Muslims who are able to make the trek. Google “hajj+’swine flu'” to find related articles.

Apparently, if adherents are required to destroy skyscrapers and execute unbelievers for jihad, the god will ensure their success. But protecting adherents from a flu bug, while they make the required hajj, is a bit too much to ask from the all-powerful creator of everything.

Thanks for not using “No True Scotsman”

I found this letter to the editor in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman interesting. It was in reference to a statement in an earlier article regarding the recent Fort Hood shootings:

Religious radical?
Re: Nov. 12 article “Suspect alarmed doctors.”

The story noted that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s doctors and colleagues “viewed him at times as belligerent, defensive and argumentative in his frequent discussions of his … faith.”

That pretty much describes every member of the religious right that I’ve ever encountered.

Rev. Bill Young

How often have I, and others, said that liberal Christians need to be more vocal in their condemnation of their more extreme brethren–instead of falling back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy? In fact, it’s their silence and solidarity as much as their support of irrationality that lends credibility to the extremists in their ranks. So, this statement undermines at least one of the pillars supporting fundamentalism in Western Christendom. I hope other Christians will follow suit.

When I first read the content, I thought, “No Christian will hear anything an anti-religious person submits in this vein.” Then I saw the signature and was happy. It’s like reading about a lawsuit to bring down a religious statue on public property and finding the plaintiff is theist. It’s sort of a relief to know we aren’t going to be accused of bias and targeted for criticism or ugly insults—at least not this time. That’s not a bad feeling now and again.

Thanks Bill.

The Bible Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.submission.org/quran/biblecode.html

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

http://www.submission.org/miracle/

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

http://www.dailystaregypt.com/printerfriendly.aspx?ArticleID=7314

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

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

http://www.submission.org/miracle/moon.html

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

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

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

http://www.cs.umd.edu/~mvz/pub/biblecode.pdf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.wikihow.com/Assess-Statistical-Significance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.nmsr.org/neg-code.htm

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

AIR
ARE
EAR
IRE
OAR
OR
ORE

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

AIRS
EARS
OARS
ORES
OR IS
OR AS
ARISE
RISE
ROSE
RAISE

And so on.

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

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

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

http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/1999-June/003362.html

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

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

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

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

http://www.loriswebs.com/lorispoetry/articles.html

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

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

What’s So Good About Being Wrong?

If you’re like me, you couldn’t wait to see that six-mile plume of debris kicked up on the pole of the moon recently when the NASA rovers dove into the surface of our most famous natural satellite.

And, if you’re like me, you were totally disappointed by what you saw on NASA channel, or, I’m told, through your telescopes at home—even with a clear sky.

A brilliant explosion of dust and ice was predicted. It didn’t happen.

Again, if you’re like me, you immediately thought something along the lines of “What happened?! What went wrong?!”

NASA, however, announced it was a great success. Data began streaming immediately. And they expect to be analyzing it for weeks to come. Maybe it wasn’t a glorious sight, but certainly we’ll learn something from the voyage. In fact, the failure of our prediction has already taught us something: It taught us that some prediction and some part of the model that NASA attempted and anticipated was wrong. Observably wrong.

When we make a prediction about reality, and our prediction clearly fails, we would do well to go back and rethink our assumptions. I’m sure NASA will be doing just that. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if one of the most burning questions they’re asking is why they didn’t get that plume they expected (and even computer generated). The truth is, when life goes on as predicted, we learn very little. When life throws us for a loop—if we’re so inclined, we have an opportunity to learn a bit more about ourselves, our assumptions, and, most importantly, about the reality around us.

Can you imagine a NASA engineer watching the plume fail to rise, who insists his assumptions cannot be flawed? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt that even in the sciences, there can be such fools. But generally speaking, most average people, and most scientists as well, understand that when assumptions fail, we have an opportunity to learn something. And we ignore such opportunities, generally, at our peril.

And yet, I can recall time after time in my former fundamentalist life, when I insisted it was simply a mystery when my beliefs, or what I read in the Bible, failed to correspond to reality. Why does the Bible say this if it doesn’t make sense? Well, it does make sense, I was taught to insist—it’s just that I can’t understand it with my human mind. And if you think you can—well, you’re just arrogant.

I know that wine doesn’t turn to water. I knew it then. I know a man can’t survive for days in the belly of a fish. I knew it then. I had never seen such a thing. I had never heard of any such things having ever been verified. And yet, the fact that these stories failed to correspond to reality hindered me not at all from accepting they were true and that reality was not to be trusted in these cases. What I observed in reality didn’t matter. This was “different.” This was “god”—residing in a compartment in my brain that reality could never taint.

Recently I heard of something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth—which is just a fancy way to say that if I believe I can run through a concrete wall, and I try, and I bust my head and fall on my ass instead, I would do well to question my assumptions, rather than the wall.

All of us use this method of getting by in life all the time. When you sit in a chair, you believe it will hold you. If it does, your belief has been verified. If it doesn’t, your belief has been demonstrated to have been wrong. When you fall to the floor, it is nothing more than folly to insist the chair really did hold you, exactly as you said it would. The children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a cautionary tale about Correspondence Theory, in fact, that any child can comprehend: A person who can be separated from reality and reason, is an easy mark.

Undermining our reliance on how reality corresponds to our mental models divorces us from the most basic means we have of testing our beliefs against reality as a means to differentiate true beliefs from false beliefs. It is just one way religion can damage a person’s reasoning ability. Getting an adherent to doubt a method of validation he must use day-in and day-out as the basis for how he learns and survives with any modicum of success in this life, is a monumental accomplishment. Shameful—but monumental. The fact that religion accomplishes this on such a grand scale should cause everyone to take notice.

If you’ve never suffered indoctrination, it probably seems ridiculous to you. How could I ever, for example, get you to believe reality is not what is clearly demonstrated before you? How could I convince you, through unverified claims alone, that I knew a guy who flat-lined for three days, and has recently been brought back to life? How could I convince you that moral knowledge is gained by eating magical fruit? How could I convince you that angels can make donkeys speak? That the planet is 10,000 years old? How could I convince you mass infanticide can be a good thing sometimes?

I understand how easy it is to think Christians are merely stupid. When judged from the perspective of a person who has never suffered the indignity of having his own reasoning skills utterly gutted and discredited as a child, it will probably only ever be understood as “stupid.” Honestly, I really can’t defend otherwise. I was stupid. But today, at least, I know why.

Some of you will never understand the sick depths of indoctrination and what it can do to the mind of a child. I am sincerely happy for those of you who never knew, and will never know, what it’s like to have come to recognize that a group of people, including those you loved and trusted most, convinced you for many years to doubt your own ability to think and reason, and to doubt the most basic, objective reality that surrounds you.

Reintegrating into reality can be a chore, a process that can take, literally, years. I cringe each time I see a letter on our list from someone going through this who writes to ask “When will I stop being afraid? Does it ever go away?” or “When will I stop feeling like I’m so stupid? Will I ever learn to trust myself?”

And where am I going with this? I guess on the one hand, if you’re not familiar with anything like this, try to empathize, even if you can’t actually sympathize. Consider mercy sometimes when you feel like being sarcastic or cruel. These are abused people. The fact some of them don’t yet realize it doesn’t alter that fact.

And if you know exactly what I’m describing, know that you’re not alone. Know that you will get better. Know that what was done to you was abusive and wrong—even if it was done by misguided people who thought they were doing the right thing. Forgive them for your own peace of mind. And work on getting past this and finding some way to reintegrate with your humanity and to celebrate the fact that imperfection isn’t something for which you need to continually denigrate yourself.

Remember that being wrong, and recognizing we’re wrong, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s OK to be wrong. It’s an opportunity. It’s how we learn and grow as human beings.

10/14/09: Addendum
Today we received a letter on the AE TV list. It was from a Christian, imploring us to reconsider our atheism. I wanted to share this quote as a demonstration of the harm caused by childhood indoctrination. It was just such a sterling example of my point:

“So, you are going to live in fear and doubt until you deal with the question of whether Christianity is true or not.”

When I was an adolescent, I prayed long and hard for something to help me to believe. The idea that a vengeful god existed and that he required a belief I might fail to provide was terrifying. At the time, I don’t think I would have recognized I was in terror, because I was so used to that level of fear
. Today I know that there is nothing to be gained by “fearing” ignorance. And the cure for ignorance isn’t prayer–it’s investigation. While I’m not immune from fear in my life, I can honestly say I no longer fear in the sense that I “doubt” my choices about god and religion. I don’t lose any sleep over the thought “what if god exists and I don’t believe?” I recall the day I realized that if I researched as much as I could, and honestly concluded there was no god there, god would be an absolute ass to torment me for an honest, heartfelt effort, which his what I gave. And if god is such an ass, I don’t want to worship and obey him anyway–even if it means eternity in Hell, in the same way I wouldn’t want to follow orders from Hitler, even if it meant firing squad.

Can You Spot the Strawman in this Picture?

Who didn’t love Highlights as a kid? It was probably the only positive thing about visiting the dentist that I can recall. Everybody’s favorite thing was the Hidden Pictures—but only if the images weren’t already circled.

Well, today, I’m giving you an adult atheist version of Highlights Hidden Pictures. In this morning’s Austin American-Statesman was a ridiculous opinion piece by Texas Attorney General hopeful Ted Cruz about the cross monument on federal property that has been in the news recently.

Today’s assignment: Be the person who spots the most fallacies, errors, omissions or deceptions.

The winner gets full braggin’ rights.

The only hint I offer is that whenever a person misrepresents an opponent’s stance, the point is to try and wobble them off-base a bit by getting them upset or angry. I find humor, and mocking such a person, has the effect of not giving them what they want, in addition to showing you’re above their childish and obvious attempts at manipulation. Should anyone choose to reply to the Statesman directly, I encourage them to bear that in mind.

Basava Premanand (1930-2009)

On October 4 of this year Basava Premanand died.

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

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