Archive for the 'Religion/Miracles' Category

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

No.

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

Jan 08 2015

The Science of God

Recently Eric Metaxas wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which he argues that, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” (Sorry, it’s behind a paywall, but I will quote the salient parts.) Metaxas is an author and speaker, but not a scientist, and it shows in his writing.

His essay is based on two instances of the anthropic principle, which simply notes that in order for life to exist the universe must possess conditions compatible with life. He applies the anthropic principle to the Earth specifically and to the universe as a whole. Starting with the Earth he writes:

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

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105 responses so far

Dec 19 2014

Universal Medicine Uses Google To Silence Critics

An Australian based company called Universal Medicine (UM) has been criticized by various skeptical blogs and groups as being a new age alternative medicine cult. Looking through their website, this seems like a reasonable observation. (The term “cult” is fuzzy, but many of the features seem to be present.)

In response to this criticism, UM has apparently issued many complaints to Google, claiming defamation. According to the site Chilling Effect, Google has responded at least in some cases by removing the sites from Google searches, effectively censoring those websites.

Doubtful News was one of the sites censored by Google.

This type of action represents a serious threat to the skeptical mission. Part of that mission is consumer protection, and the primary method of activism is public analysis and criticism of dubious claims, products, services, and organizations. Essentially, we expose charlatans.

Charlatans, it turns out, don’t like to be exposed. They don’t like bad press.

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12 responses so far

Sep 02 2014

Witch Hunter Sues BHA

Published by under Religion/Miracles

The British Humanist Association has announced that they are being sued by notorious Nigerian “witch hunter”, Helen Ukpabio, for half a billion pounds for alleged libel. The only reasonable response to this situation, in my opinion, is to magnify the criticism of Ukpabio as much as possible.

For those who are not aware, I am also being sued for expressing my critical opinions. You can read the full details here. I have always supported my fellow skeptics in the past when they faced being silenced through legal intimidation, but now I have to disclose that I have a personal connection to this issue as well.

In any case – Ukpabio, in my opinion, represents an extreme version of the harms that result from abject superstition. She considers herself (or at least claims to) a “Lady Apostle” and makes a career out of exorcising children she believes are possessed by spirits.

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11 responses so far

May 16 2014

Preaching Against Skepticism

Published by under Religion/Miracles

I strive to have a fairly nuanced approach to religion in this blog and my other skeptical outreach. In brief, I think that faith is a personal choice that needs to be kept outside the realm of science and is not a legitimate basis for public policy in a free and pluralistic society. Further, I think that the real issue is ideology, of which faith and religion are just one type. Political and social ideology are just as pernicious to critical thinking as is religious ideology.

But I see no reason to gratuitously attack faith or religious belief itself, as long as it stays in its corner and doesn’t bother with science or other people’s freedom. At the same time, I am happy to identify as an agnostic atheist, and will strongly defend that choice on both empirical and philosophical grounds.

Not exactly a rallying cry, but that’s the price you pay for having a nuanced position.

I do also think it is important to point out when advocates of faith take an anti-critical thinking position. This is why I personally think that faith is a net negative – very few people can keep a personal choice of faith sufficiently walled off from science and reason that it does not erode the latter. Faith is inherently irrational, and while I respect the freedom of every individual to decide for themselves whether or not to have any particular faith, I think it’s important to point out the inherent intellectual risks in believing anything without evidence or logic.

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423 responses so far

Feb 17 2014

New Science and Religion Survey

A new Rice University survey of 10,000 people explores issues of science and religion. Surveys are always fascinating, giving us a “lay of the land” of what people around us believe. However, they are also very tricky. Results can vary wildly based upon how a question is asked, and what questions surround them. This study was presented at the AAAS meeting, and is not published, so I don’t have access to the actual questions.

With those caveats in mind, here are the main results:

50 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work together, compared to 38 percent of Americans.
18 percent of scientists attended weekly religious services, compared with 20 percent of the general U.S. population;
15 percent of scientists consider themselves very religious (versus 19 percent of the general U.S. population);
13.5 percent of scientists read religious texts weekly (compared with 17 percent of the U.S. population)
19 percent of scientists pray several times a day (versus 26 percent of the U.S. population).
Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict. Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

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107 responses so far

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