Wednesday, July 28, 2010

on miracles. What about miracles and answered prayers?

Personal answered prayer/miracle stories are usually the most frequently cited anecdotal evidence among many religious/spiritual people for the existence of a god or higher power. What's going on there?

1) Natural explanations exist for heightened/altered perceptions of reality. We know that we have chemicals in our bodies (like adrenaline and DMT) that are naturally produced and can be released in times of extreme duress. For example, the story of the mother that lifted a riding lawn mower off of her daughter. Apparently, humans have a strength that can occasionally be tapped into. Or for example, when someone is electrocuted from a large shock and flies back a large distance, that energy and violent force is actually coming from their own muscles which have been severely contracted by the strong electrical currents.

2) Answered prayers and miracles are used world-wide to support the existence of many different gods/faiths. Many times these different gods/faiths are mutually exclusive. There are lots of stories both historically and currently from people all over the world--mothers, construction workers, Muslims, witches, etc--who report similar stories as evidence for the existence of Allah or Shiva or whatever god's name they happened to cry out in the moment of danger. A supposed miracle event doesn't mean that one particular god exists. For every supposed miracle event in favor of God, there is one across the globe that is against him (by being in favor of a different god). An objective observer would have a tough time to choose.

3) Statistics on prayer don't show any marked increase in answered prayer. If you actually take into account all the number of times you've prayer and compare it to the number of times it's "worked," I think you'd find it to be a very small percentage. Also, in controlled studies where sick people were prayed for by Christians, the people who were not being prayed for did not exhibit any noticeable improved recovery times. (See "The Great Prayer Experiment") Humans also are known to commit what is called confirmation bias when analyzing the cause/effect relationship. We all do it in many facets of life and it is very important to be aware of. Because a religious person is already of a mindset that prayer works, they tend to ignore the times that nothing comes of it, and take the times that it seems to work as evidence for prayer working. With regard to miracle events, we often have a biased memory. Memory of an event is not instant playback. Memory is recreated and filtered through our biases that are already in place, which is one reason why the scientific enterprise is so important. There are incredibly interesting studies in this area of memory and sense perception.

4) The relatively small importance of most, if not all, supposedly answered prayers and miracles when compared to much more tragic situations. Many situations are certainly incredible like babies surviving plane crashes and such, but to me, it pales in comparison to a little girl praying every night for her daddy to stop beating her when she's drunk, and nothing ever happens. Or the other 200 people on the plane that were praying to live but didn't. Or that guy that was on the news not that long ago, who prayed for God to heal his leg that he didn't have money for a doctor to tend to. He was telling all his friends, praying every day, and wanting only to give the glory to God for his healing only to be sawed out of his recliner several months later by medics who brought him to the hospital where he later died. Or why does it seem that God hates amputees and paraplegics so much? I haven't seen any of them growing limbs or getting out of their chairs lately. On the flip side of that, why don't we arrest people on charges of murder when they publicly proclaim imprecatory prayers (a prayer for the death of someone)? Perhaps, because deep down, we don't really think that prayer ever has any effect.

5) Finally, if miracle experiences are one of the ways we are really to know that God exists, then is it really fair for God to give some people these types of miracle experiences and not others? Shouldn't we all have these types of experiences so that we can all know God exists? And what about people who are naturally more skeptical than others and really do need something big to convince them? Doesn't seem like something a very just god would do.

So, all that being said, I would say that all miracle and answered prayer experiences are explainable through natural means. Of course, I can't say with 100% certainty that no one has ever somehow magically defied physics. But given the considerations above, I would say that there is a 99.9999999% chance that no one ever has.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Christianity is an expression of slave psychology

I understand why Nietzsche thought that Judaism and Christianity reflected slave morality. The scriptures are written from the point of view of a slave. God is cast as a slave owner, we his slaves. He is supremely just, and we are but lowly sinners, poor and dirty (a view that displays a very uncharitable understanding of society’s underprivileged. Apparently to be sinful was to be like the poor!). Our greatest efforts to appease His anger would be naught but for his mercy through the sacrifice of his own Son. It is the language of a sycophant, of the humble slave trying to appease his master’s anger by prostrating himself.

It is the language of the slave thanking his master for the gift of his own life, for it is only the master’s mercy that allows him to keep it. Undeserving and wayward as he is from his master’s forgiveness, he justly deserves to be punished eternally, where there is weeping and nashing of teeth. Only such a punishment could be just for the extreme and willful evil that the slave continually commits against his master’s mercy, in thought, word and deed. The master has given the slave his very life, for which the slave is very thankful.

All the evil that the slave practices has nothing to do with the original nature that the master created in him. Evil is entirely his own doing, a perversion of his master’s grace in giving him a completely perfect nature. Every shortcoming is entirely the slave’s own fault, him having been created perfect, but falling of his own free will. This is language that we would offer to a tyrant, a cosmic Caligula whose anger it was in one’s best interest to appease by crawling on the ground before him. Listen for people who bemoan their sin in this way. Christianity could not exist without guilt. I used to think that as long as I was feeling guilt I was not understanding the Christian mindset. I now see that I understood it perfectly well.

The master commands us to love and worship him, and our allegiance to him is so complete that even should he beat us to death like a dog in the street, yet would we serve him. It is the language of the downtrodden, the world-weary, those bemoaning their fate in this veil of tears. It is not the language or psychology of the free person. We should not be surprised that Christianity has appealed to the spiritually and economically poor in every generation. It was written by those who understood the life of poverty intimately. The Bible bears the marks of its entirely human psychology, the stamp of its lowly origin.

But where does this leave us, we humanists and secularists who recognize that there is value and dignity in forming one’s own thoughts as an expression of one’s autonomy? It leaves us with everything. It leaves us with life itself. In this short life that we’ve been blessed with, we have the supremely valuable opportunity to live the kind of life that we choose, to be free. Not to be bound by fear and enslavement. Christianity is not worthy of the belief of a free person, of one who values his dignity. A free person should see certain beliefs as beneath herself.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

on legend. God works in mysterious ways--the Gertrude Specht story.

The following conversation was started by another very kind person who forwarded a mass e-mail that was addressed to me. It began,
God works in mysterious ways!  As we were having this discussion[about Bible prophecy], [my husband] received the following email from someone that he doesn't recognize or think that he knows. It is the story of the search of a European woman with more than one Ph.D. - one in theology - who searched all her life to find out the truth about God - who did the empirical research as much as that can be done - who studied all the scripture available to her and the dead sea scrolls and on and on - who said she had been hungry for the truth all her life, then something happened that forever changed her life.  But, it is what she has to say about that which is so moving. It's in the attachment. She challenges us all to do the research - to learn all we can about our God.  She is an example to us all.
 Attached was a reading from Scott Anderson's journal. It can be found here under the heading C.1.6.2 Scott Anderson's Journal Entry. (Except the original document she sent did not mention a name.)

After reading this e-mail, I was rather in disbelief. I replied,
Well, I hardly find it mysterious that your husband (having been a Mormon for years) would randomly get an e-mail about a conversion to Mormonism in his inbox anymore than he might get an advertisement from This story lacks a lot of substance. There's literally nothing about her actual intellectual journey, and it doesn't even mention her name so that we can find out more about her or that she even existed. This story will likely only affect people who are already Mormons.
She did a little research and found out that this person did have a name and that people had in fact met her.
OK, she does have a name. My husband emailed the person back and it turned out to be a Bishop in a British congregation who sent it. [My husband] had met her at some church gatherings when he lived in Germany.
She expounded on how impressed she was with the woman in the story...
I'm not sure what you meant about "there was nothing about her intellectual journey." The fact that she has 3 Ph.D's in theology, philosophy, and European history focusing on Christianity - that doesn't tell you about her intellectual journey? She was obviously brilliant - it is so hard just to get one Ph.D. but three? I just think it is interesting that after knowing all that she knew, that she chose to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Even more importantly, after all she knew (including philosophy), she chose to be a believer, practicing Christian, a worshipper of Jesus Christ. That is so significant.
She commented on an earlier conversation. I only leave it here because I feel like it shows the mindset she is working with, which I basically see as, "It doesn't matter if the stories are true as long as they help people do good."
[This is really] about only one thing, and that is that Christianity teaches us to be good, to treat others as we would be treated, to pray to the Lord for help when life gets tough and to put our faith in Him--knowing he is there to succor us and He knows all, and he can better lead us than we can lead ourselves? The Bible is the most read book in the history of this planet, and I am sure it has changed people's behavior and caused them to do good when they might have been more inclined to do bad. What Jesus taught - to love one another and to love God - is what the Bible is all about - so it doesn't really matter if it is imperfect in some ways or if there appear to be discrepancies between Matthew and Luke or John. When we all reach the other side then we will be able to learn and understand what those discrepancies were about and how they came about. I am not at all worried about that.
And I again replied,
Well, now we know she existed. That's good. What I meant was that there was nothing about what she read, what she studied, what her theses were, etc, etc. Nothing of substance. She may have had 3 PhD's. If I find someone who's an atheist with 4 PhD's (let's say history, physics, philosophy and psychology for the sake of argument) will that convince you of anything? Of course not.
Furthermore, the very fact that the story says she has a PhD in theology is a huge detriment, because that alone tells me that she spent a very long time doing a PhD that is based on the assumption that God exists. She never started from scratch [as far as I can tell]. Her history degree focused on Christianity and probably classical philosophy. I can't see the two sides of the argument presented anywhere. It's just not that impressive from where I sit. If you still can't see why [it isn't] then try rereading it again but replace all the Christian words with Islam words and see how it affects you.
I'm going to blow past the preaching part and focus on one thing. The point of all this back and forth is not "the Bible teaches us to do good things." It's been about truth. Furthermore, humanism also teaches us to do good things, treat others well, the Golden Rule, etc, etc, and so do Scientology and Buddhism to name a few. And unfortunately, religions have also been known to severely skew people's sense of morality, especially Christianity.
By this point, she had found out the name of this Mormon legendary woman, and after some quick research, I was very excited that my skepticism had paid off this time. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
I'm so glad we have her name now! You may be very interested in reading what the Times and Seasons (an LDS [Mormon] publication) has to say about her. In summary, she only earned one Ph.D. in economics. Her dissertation was titled "Organisations- und Entwicklungsfragen in der deutschen Baumwollindustrie" which translated means "Organizational and development issues in the German cotton industry." She was a "good Catholic" all her life, but didn't find what she was looking for (her perception of truth) in Catholicism, which is likely why that story didn't include both sides of the God/not-God argument. It was about Catholic vs. Mormon.

Even if the "sensationalized" story were accurate [about her education and position], I'd still take issue with the fact that the story says she "was a professor of theology," and that the story says she read a few verses of the D&C (which has a interesting history too as I've been reading) that changed her life but then never mentions what they are. The story is nice; she was a lovely woman but not the legend that she's been made out to be.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

on religion. What would it take to make me believe?

A very kind person started complaining one day that I had convinced her that I had made up my mind and was really not interested in finding out if God is provable or not. Followed by,
"But I am not worried because I believe that God WILL make Himself known to you, when the His time comes.  And then you will acknowledge Him when you know the truth about Him.  But it won't be the way you were taught years ago."
I think the last line was in reference to her religious sect being different from the evangelical one that I was brought up in. I replied,

I am only committed to reason and evidence. I told you that you are always welcome to try to prove to me the existence of God because I am always more committed to reason and evidence than I am to any particular idea, including the idea that God does not exist. If you were to give me an actual good argument for the existence of God, I would agree with you. Up till this point, you have not. It is not my responsibility to prove that God does not exist because one can NEVER truly prove a negative. I can never even prove to you that Santa Clause does not exist. He may exist somewhere in the universe and just be really really bad at his job. No, the burden of proof rests on the person making the positive claim. If you think Santa Clause or the tooth fairy or God exist, then you must provide positive proof that they do. 

The conversation ended there aside from some pleasantries. I pick up a point of clarification from a conversation I had in a youtube thread on a video referred to me by a good friend, Ben Carver. The video is a 2-hour debate that is quite interesting and will no doubt spark great conversation.
youtube user: "When you say that the atheist proposes a negative claim and that it is the person making the positive claim who must provide positive proof, where does this law come from? What standards of debate are you drawing from?"
This is because one can never prove a negative. For example, I can make the claim that there is no Santa Clause, but there may actually exist a Santa Clause...There is no evidence for Santa existing though and as such, we are perfectly justified in being a-Santa-ists. It is absurd to believe in something on the grounds that there's no evidence for it. Using that criterion, we should believe in fairies, unicorns, reincarnation, and all sorts of magical or fantastical things.
TOTAL RUBBISH...Like one can't prove there is no water on the surface of the moon? Like there is no sack of potatoes growing in place of your brains? We can just cut you open.
Of course it isn't rubbish. You are working with two positive claims there (i.e. There is water on the Moon/There is a sack of potatoes...) You disprove both by providing evidence of what there is. Ex: Could you prove the statement: "There is no sack of spiritual potatoes in my head"? Of course you can't. So then by D'Souza's logic, I would be justified in believing that there are spiritual potatoes in my head simply because I can't prove they aren't there. This is ridiculous. 

Absence of evidence may not be evidence of absence, but either way, you still have no evidence. 

Furthermore, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and people who are comfortable believing in such things that they have no extraordinary evidence for should not be taken seriously.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

on religion. Armstrong's argument from design.

A conversation with a very kind person on Herbert Armstrong's essay. The excerpt we discussed can be found here under the heading "The Watchmaker."

Well, I know you didn't explicitly ask for my opinion, but here it is anyway. It's one big false analogy. He is equating the natural formation of stars--and the planets that orbit those stars with astonishing regularity according to the laws of physics--to watchmaking. Of course, no one in their right mind would say that something like a watch has not had a designer because the watch has obviously been MACHINED. 
That is the key word when talking about design. There MUST be evidence of machining. 
Quite to the contrary, we observe stars condensing out of nebulae and creating new solar systems naturally--no intelligence required. Gravitational forces and inertia naturally create orbiting systems that have a period which is defined by their properties. But alas, even this naturally occurring clock, which is "perfect" as Mr. Armstrong would have you believe, is not. The Earth's rotation slows by a little bit every day due to tidal forces from the Moon. Although none of us will notice it in our lifetimes even to a fraction of a second, over the course of billions of years the Earth has slowed considerably. This affects the length of a day. Also, the Earth slows its speed around the Sun by an even smaller amount each year due to tiny little collisions with photons. This affects the length of a year. So you see, the universe isn't quite so "perfect" after all.

The only reasons that we say that the "celestial clock" never makes a mistake is because we DEFINE it as such. The rotation of the Earth defines what a day is. The time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun DEFINES what a year is. So even though the day gets longer as the Earth slows down, it will always be perfect by definition because it will always define the day.

Most of the arguments from design suffer similar weaknesses. I suggest you look into the incredibly strong evidence for evolution.

She replied with more questions:
But I have to ask you where did "gravity and inertia" come from? Do you think they have always existed? Don't they work perfectly? How could that perfection be there without a designer to make it perfect? You said they "naturally create orbiting systems, etc." How do they do that "naturally?" Where did this "nature" come from? Was it always there or did someone make it so? I know you are well aware that if the gravity of the earth were just a very, small, minute amount greater or lesser than it is right now on the earth, we all as humans would have lots of problem existing on this earth. Why is the pull of gravity on the earth so perfect? I believe there's a hole in your argument.

Yes, where did gravity and inertia come from? Good question. Where did anything come from at all? I could say the Big Bang, but then we ask where the Big Bang came from. The answer there is simply that we don't know. We may never know. There isn't much physical evidence for things before then.

You would say, "Well, I know. God created it!" To which I would reply, "Well, God is something too. Where did he come from?" To which you will reply, "God always existed," or "I don't know."

So now I will tell you about something called Occam's razor. Basically, it says that the best explanations are the simplest ones that still are able to account for all the evidence. So basically, it makes sense and it's simple. So which is more simple and still makes sense: To say that something innate always existed (whatever started the Big Bang perhaps), or to say that an incredibly complex, intelligent, and emotional being with phenomenal magical powers just always happened to exist? So you see, the "hole" that you've pointed out only pushes those unanswerable questions back a step and is also a much bigger "hole" in your argument. It also uses the fallacy of appeal to ignorance. Basically you said that, you don't know where things come from so that means God exists. Not true.

Now, who decides that it's "simpler" to say that the universe began with the Big Bang rather than saying that an almighty God has always existed?  Just because our puny human minds can "grasp" a Big Bang happening by itself more easily than a God existing for all Eternity?  Our human minds "crave" a beginning and an end to things.  It is VERY hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that anything has existed for eternity or has always existed.  That doesn't make it "simpler" or a more correct answer to our query.  It only makes it "small" enough for our minds to accept it.  But God says that he has things in store for us that "eye has not seen nor ear heard."  There are things that the human mind cannot understand as yet.  Just as a baby cannot understand the things of an adult.  Does a baby suffer from the fallacy of "appeal to ignorance?"  I think you know the answer.
I did not say I don't know where things come from and so that means God exists.  I said that the things on the earth and in the universe have been made with such precision, that they demand a designer or creator.  I said those things could not just "happen" and turn out to be so perfectly and (not to mention) beautifully made without a supreme builder.

OK, so just suppose for a second that the Big Bang does have to be started by something. There's nothing that says it has to be God. Maybe it was a supernatural universe creating machine that is emotionless and only creates universes. Maybe it existed back then but no longer exists now. Maybe it wasn't one all-powerful god, but a team of gods working together. Who's to say? The point is that these explanations are no better than the others. The best answer is that we don't know. We don't know anything about the laws of physics outside of a universe or what kinds of laws govern the creation of new universes. The most plausible explanation is the most simple one given what we know about the universe currently, and that tells us that we don't really need to posit a god or gods to start everything off.

Secondly, yes, you (and Mr. Armstrong) tried to make the claim that things are so absolutely perfect for us on Earth so they must be designed. The simple fact is that things are NOT perfectly designed as I tried to demonstrate. In fact, the majority of the Earth's surface is not very hospitable to human life. Our eyes are not perfectly designed. DNA replication is not perfectly designed. So many other facets of life and where we are located are far from perfect.

Now, the probability that a planet has the water content and temperature range that we have to allow for life as we know it to evolve is small, yes. Let's just say that the probability is 1 in a billion billion. That's one in 10 to the 18th power (10^18). Extremely small. Well, the number of planets in the universe is probably somewhere around 10^23, possibly more. Very large. That means that there would be about 10^5 (10,000) planets in the universe on which life could evolve. A very large number of life-friendly planets.

This is called the principle of truly large numbers. It means that even things with very small probability of occurring will occur (perhaps many many times) if given enough opportunities to occur. Just because we happen to find ourselves on one of the unlikely (and yet likely) planets doesn't mean that we were put here on purpose.

Suppose that this morning on the way to work, I saw the license plate ETF 354. There's a very very small probably that I would see that particular license plate. But suppose I come up to you and say, "How incredibly unlikely that I saw that particular license plate! Surely, that couldn't have been an accident. God must have planned for me to see it. It's soooo unlikely!"

Of course, that would be ridiculous. Equally, it is ridiculous to assume that the Earth is placed perfectly just because we happen to find ourselves here. i.e. We must not use the same data that suggested an idea to prove that idea.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

on religion. Becoming an atheist.

The following was an article that was published in the April 1st, 2009, edition of the Vermilion--my campus newspaper at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

After reading Elise’s recent articles on the Universalist movement (which I’m calling Pan-Universalist since Universalist implies a theology whereas Pan-Universalist could include secular and religious folk), I started noticing comparisons to the way I felt about the world when I first really realized that I was an atheist.

First, allow me to tell my story. I always considered myself a Christian growing up, at one point vehemently so—church-going, speaking in tongues, reading the entire Bible, etc. I was raised evangelical and as a result was very critical of other faiths (Christian or not), mostly echoing the views of my parents. As I grew older and experienced the world, I met many people who had different viewpoints, and I started asking some of the tougher questions that Christianity didn’t seem to have answers for. Starting my education at ULL was a big shift since I’d been homeschooled or in Christian private schools for all my life.

Contrary to popular belief, no professor ever directly influenced my religious belief; I was mostly in science or music classes. What affected me was simply meeting such a diverse group of people, but realizing that we are all very similar even across religious boundaries. I began to consider myself more of an agnostic though still called myself Christian, since I considered that I lived by Biblical moral principles (Christ’s teachings). I was very accepting across the board of different faiths as long as they had a good moral code to live by.

A second big shift came for me when I started studying biomathematics and population dynamics, which interestingly enough marked a change in thinking for Charles Darwin as well. Typically, animal populations grow until they reach equilibrium, where the death rate equals the birth rate. But what causes equilibrium? Why don’t we just grow exponentially like bacteria? In a word—resources. As the population grows, resources become scarcer, and competition becomes fiercer, which means a higher death rate. All animals are subject to this, even humans.

Humans, however, have the advantage of agriculture that allows us to grow our population beyond its natural limits. Keeping our population checked are generally war, disease, and birth control. The lyrics “one of these things is not like the other” comes to mind. Condoms and preemptive or morning-after birth control pills are painless, no-risk ways of maintaining a population at equilibrium, yet church groups seem to fight these tooth and nail.

The thought came to mind, “The Bible wasn’t really written for the 21st century.”

How could it have been? I guess I’d always thought that God knew the future so he would have put stuff in his book for the people of the future, but it didn’t seem to fit. Our perceptions of God and morality have changed by leaps and bounds since the Bible was written. But then I couldn’t help but think, “If the Bible was just written by people trying to do the right thing, then they probably didn’t have it completely right,” and that means that it’s up to us to figure out the next step—the right thing to do.

I read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, on the recommendation of a friend, and the book applied everything I was thinking to our modern society. I was blown away. (The sequel My Ishmael is equally amazing.)

At this point, I knew I really didn’t believe in God at all anymore, but I wasn’t comfortable saying it. A friend gave me Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, to read, and I even felt naughty accepting it and then reading the first few pages (no doubt a triggered emotional response left-over from childhood indoctrination). As I read, I not only realized some of the major problems with religions and some of the philosophical problems with the conceptions of God but also the unnecessary evils that religion can do. As the great Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion."

The end result of reading Dawkins’ book was that I no longer felt like I needed to stay in the closet about what I’d discovered. But what I’d discovered wasn’t just atheism—it was a connection. I discovered that I felt really and truly connected to the Earth and to every other creature. I’m made up of the same stuff that makes up a gorilla or a tarantula. I felt so incredibly lucky to be in the human species, in the country I was born, at a time when I can actually really know and appreciate all the complexity of life and the immenseness of the universe. I get to live and breathe, talk to my friends, and to understand that none of us is particularly special but that all of us working together is an incredible thing.

Perhaps it is us that made God in our image and not the other way around. All of the characteristics we put in God can in some way be found in our society. The massive amount of scientific and medical knowledge is so large and well-documented that it borders on omniscience. The power that we have as a society to heal the sick, comfort people, feed people, and just do good is amazing. Putting all one’s faith in a god makes you focus on the supernatural instead of what’s really there. But when we put our faith in our fellow man, the world suddenly becomes an amazing place, not stricken by a curse, but flourishing with possibility. Goodness doesn’t come from a god; goodness is realized by us, and it’s our responsibility if it isn’t.

Humanism, ethics, and moral philosophy help us to discover the moral laws. Biblical authors took a stab at it, but we can and are doing better. It’s time that we break from the human tradition of the past 10,000+ years and stop looking to the sky, supposed sacred texts, or pieces of toast for guidance and meaning. It’s time we started really seeing each other, hearing the countless untold stories and understanding the mutual respect it brings. We should live to awaken possibility in others, and be less quick to judge others for race, religion, or orientation because we realize that we’re all in this together. So for one man, the movement begins.