Archive for the 'Religion/Miracles' Category

Aug 07 2017

Token Skepticism about Exorcism

I was interviewed a few months ago by a journalist, John Blake, doing a piece on exorcism. That article has now been published, and I’m afraid it’s disappointing in all the predictable ways.

The article is mostly about Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale-trained psychiatrist who believes in demonic possession. Gallagher is like catnip to a journalist – someone with credentials who has a fantastical story to tell. Is demonic possession real? This Yale psychiatrist says, “Yes.”

I have already deconstructed Gallagher’s claims, and the CNN article provides nothing new. Gallagher’s evidence that some people are actually possessed is predictably thin and proves only his lack of critical thinking. He cites the claim that possessed people display hidden knowledge, but his examples are far more easily explained as cold reading. He cites displays of extraordinary strength, which is not unusual for ordinary people under the influence of adrenaline.

He also cites hearsay – other people have told him they saw levitation, although he never witnessed it himself.

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41 responses so far

May 12 2017

Rational Arguments for God?

BuddhismI honestly don’t care what people choose to believe about unknowable speculations outside the realm of science and human knowledge. As long as they don’t use such belief as justification for public policy or to infringe on the rights of others, believe whatever you want.

However, once someone claims that they have scientific evidence for a supernatural belief, or can prove such a belief logically, then they have stepped into the arena of logic and science and their claims can be examined.

One such claim is that the existence of God can be proven through various logical arguments. I have never seen such an argument that I found even slightly compelling. They all have gaping holes in their logic. The latest incarnation comes from Robert Nelson, who appears to be promoting his 2015 book, “God? Very Probably.”  He claims to have five rational arguments that lead to the conclusion that God very probably exists. Let’s take a look. Continue Reading »

281 responses so far

Apr 27 2017

Jesus Mythicism Revisited

Published by under Religion/Miracles

I recently wrote about the historical question of whether or not a person names Jesus existed and is the same person referenced in the New Testament. My bottom line conclusion was that the historical evidence is thin.

This post sparked an interesting conversation that brought out a lot of nuance, and also, I think, exposed some weaknesses in how I framed the original discussion. The comments are still very active, indicating there is a lot of interest in this question, so I wanted to reframe the discussion a bit and hopefully clarify my position.

Part of what I think happened, which happens frequently in my experience, is that people tend to assume your position falls within a preexisting camp.  In the historicity of Jesus question there are two main camps, the mainstream position and the mythicist position. Therefore anyone saying anything to question the mainstream position is immediately accused of being a mythicist. Likewise, endorsing the mainstream position can be mischaracterized as endorsing Christianity.

Let me state my position up front and then go into more detail. First, I am not endorsing any of the mythicist positions. I do not think that any mythicist makes a strong positive case for their alternate hypothesis of how the Jesus story emerged.

Second, I understand the reasons that mainstream historians use to argue that it is more likely than not that Jesus existed. I simply think they are overstating their confidence and neglecting reasons to argue that we simply don’t know.  Continue Reading »

587 responses so far

Apr 24 2017

The Evidence for the History of Jesus

Published by under Religion/Miracles

Papyrus-Bodmer-VIIIDid a man named Jesus from Nazareth exist in Judea around 2000 years ago proclaiming to be some kind of prophet? Of course this is a controversial question because of the massive implications for one of the world’s major religions.

I do find it interesting to explore a basic factual question that is embedded in an intense ideological issue. It is a good way to explore what I think are the more interesting questions – the power of motivated reasoning, and how do we know anything historical.

I will also state that, even though this is not an atheist blog, I make no secret of the fact that I am an agnostic/atheist. I don’t think the historicity question has significant implications for atheism because it is entirely possible that the person Jesus existed but that Christian mythology is still just that, mythology. There were many prophets walking around the Middle East at that time. That one of them spawned a following that survives to this day is not surprising.

Two recent popular articles take opposite sides in this debate. The first is written by Dr Simon Gathercole in The Guardian, arguing that there is compelling evidence for Jesus. The second is written by Valerie Tarico in Raw Story and takes the position that the evidence for Jesus is weak. There has obviously been a lot written about this topic by many people, but these recent articles are decent summaries.

Which side has the stronger case?

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194 responses so far

Apr 03 2017

Transcendental Meditation Pseudoscience

Transcendental-meditationIt’s fun to run into such a wonderful example of pure pseudoscience. Let’s deconstruct this one: Field Effects of Consciousness and Reduction in U.S. Urban Murder Rates: Evaluation of a Prospective Quasi-Experiment. This study comes from the Maharishi University of Management.

The idea here (which, let’s be clear, is a tenet of religious faith, not a scientific theory) is that consciousness is a field, and that there is a universal field of consciousness of which we are all a part. When individuals engage in transcendental meditation (TM) they are not only affecting their own consciousness, they are affecting the entire field.

The point of this and other similar TM studies is to confirm the belief (they are not testing the belief) that if enough people put good vibrations into the universal field of consciousness, society in general will benefit. How many is enough? Well apparently they have an answer for that. It is the square root of 1% of the population. Why? Because math.

That is such an excellent example of pseudoscience, having the trappings of science without the real essence of science. Look, they use numbers and everything. Apparently there isn’t a dose-response effect, there is a threshold effect, and once you get over the magic threshold the effect kicks in. That threshold has a simple mathematical formula, the square root of 1%. There is no established theoretical reason for this, but it sounds nice, having more in common with a magic ritual than a scientific process.

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38 responses so far

Jan 06 2017

Another Child Dies of Medical Neglect

seth-johnsonLast year 7-year-old Seth Johnson died of pancreatitis. His parents, Timothy and Sarah, are now on trial for one count of child neglect.

These are always heartbreaking stories, especially for a parent. Strong and conflicting emotions are stirred – on the one hand I feel anger and resentment toward the parents, who allowed their child to needlessly suffer and die. At the same time I also feel sorry for the parents. There is nothing worse than the death of a child, except feeling responsible for that death yourself. The state can add little to the emotional punishment they must be  already experiencing (although they should try damn hard).

Seeing such parents as victims is not a popular position. It is much easier to see them as villains, even demons. I always strive to see reality in all its complexity, and as a result I often conclude that such parents are some combination of villain and victim. My thoughts also come with the huge caveat that I am getting all my information from the media, and do not have direct access to the medical information or the parent’s story.

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145 responses so far

Dec 22 2016

Mental Illness and Demonic Possession

A recent article by Emily Korstanje details the story of Nadia, an 18 year old girl from Saudi Arabia who suffered from depression. Her religious parents took her to a faith healer who, through dubious methods involving choking her until she passed out, concluded that her symptoms were the result of demonic possession.

Fortunately Nadia was able to break away from that healer and defy her parents, but she still faces a more difficult challenge – her society.

“They need to separate religion from psychology, especially for us women, who suffer from depression because of our shitty circumstances, or we cannot—and will not—get help,” Nadia sad. “Society also needs to be rid of this of shame toward mental illness and stop saying that people are weak or not perfect believers, or possessed! Spirituality is important but it doesn’t mean that you deny what is really going on because it will only get worse.”

In the past, before science helped us understand things like psychology and neuroscience, it is understandable that prescientific cultures would reach for superstition to explain mental illness and neurological disorders. They had no way of understanding what a seizure was, let alone schizophrenia. So they used what explanations they had at hand and decided that such individuals were possessed by evil spirits, or cursed, or were being punished by god or the gods.

It amazes me, however, that in the 21st century this still occurs. Now, with all the knowledge of modern neuroscience, there is no excuse for confusing a brain disorder with spiritual possession. Further, we do not need to look to third world countries to find example – this is still happening in modern industrialized nations.

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78 responses so far

Oct 01 2015

Yogic Farming in India

If I had to choose the one thing that has most transformed human civilization it is science. Prior to this remarkable invention history was characterized by conflicting ideologies, philosophies, superstitions, and religions.

Some practical knowledge managed to move forward, including various technologies and even enlightenment philosophy, but our attempts to understand and manipulate the world were burdened with magical thinking. Science set us on a new track, and in the last few centuries we have systematically replaced our old traditional thinking about the world with scientific thinking.

A thousand years ago European physicians attempted to understand and treat illness by manipulating the four humors while their eastern counterparts were faring no better with an astrology-based system of blood letting. If we wanted to anticipate future events, an astrologer would consult fanciful charts that have no actual influence on reality.  If we wanted to make our lives better, ensure a good harvest, or survive a plague we would pray to imaginary powerful beings.

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74 responses so far

Aug 13 2015

Does Science Prove God?

Published by under Religion/Miracles


I could just stop there, but I’ll elaborate. Earlier this year Prager University posted a Youtube video hosted by Eric Metaxas in which he argues that science is the best argument for the existence of god. (The text is the same as his 2014 WSJ article.) It was nothing surprising – he simply trots out the old fine-tuning of the universe argument. (I wrote about this here, but it’s making the rounds again so I’ll take another swipe.)

He starts, however, by quoting Carl Sagan from a 1966 Time article. Sagan said that there were only two criteria for life to exist, the right kind of star and a planet the proper distance from that star. he wrote:

Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.

This of course was a rough order of magnitude estimate based upon what information we had at the time, prior to any exoplanets being discovered. Metaxas then goes on to argue that since Sagan science has discovered that there are more than 200 factors, and the number of potential planets therefore has shrunk to “thousands.”

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92 responses so far

Apr 03 2015

There is No Problem with Atheism

CNN published an opinion piece yesterday: Deepak Chopra: The problem with atheism. I could not help but to read it, just as you have to slow down to look at the results of a serious car crash. Go ahead, Dr. Chopra, inform me about my own belief system, which you have demonstrated over the years you clearly do not understand.

He starts off reasonable enough. In fact, if I didn’t know the article was written by Chopra it could be confused for a reasonable position:

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of belief and unbelief. Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me, this is a positive development. If belief in God can’t stand up to proof, it won’t sustain a person through difficult times.

It’s always good to recognize a false dichotomy. Endorsing a demand for truth – also good. I take issue with his conclusion, however. I think supernatural beliefs can serve their emotional purpose whether or not they stand up to skeptical scrutiny. “Proof” is, by definition, irrelevant to faith, which is belief without proof.

The statement gets to the core of what I think is (at least one of) the problem with Chopra. He wants to be able to prove, or at least logically demonstrate, that his particular faith is truth. This is a common state, but ultimately it is folly. Either you follow logic, reason, and evidence to whatever conclusion it reaches, or you don’t. Faith begins with the conclusion. This is not a false dichotomy but a genuine stark difference in approach.

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69 responses so far

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