Archive for the 'Religion/Miracles' Category

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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Jan 17 2014

Mithras and Jesus

Published by under Religion/Miracles

The phrase, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that,” is a good starting point for many skeptical discussions. I am not sure of the origins of the phrase, but I have heard it used frequently by my colleague, Ben Goldacre. I have used some form of it myself, and as it expresses a fairly basic skeptical concept, it has likely been independently used by many.

It is therefore difficult to say who “originated” use of that specific phrase as a rhetorical device. Most works are derivative to some degree, and the law recognizes that similar works can emerge from the culture without one being plagiarism.

When very specific details overlap, however, then some sort of direct copying (rather than just a common source of inspiration) is more likely.

I have encountered from many skeptical and atheist sources the claim that the Jesus mythology is heavily borrowed from pagan mythologies that predate Christianity; the Roman Mithras cult, for example. If true, this would be a sobering fact for any Christian.

Unfortunately, on close inspection it seems that the Mithras-Jesus claim has evolved into its own mythology. The error seems to be motivated by the desire to claim that the Jesus mythology was directly copied from earlier pagan mythologies. Therefore the claim is made that the mythologies overlap in specific details.

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Jan 04 2013

Responding to Commenters on Created History

“I Woke Up This Morning, And I Realized That Somebody Had Broken Into My Apartment, Stolen All My Things And Replaced Them With Exact Duplicates.”

- Comedian Steven Wright

Yesterday I wrote about the young earth creationist argument that, even though the universe is only 6-10 thousand years old, we can see light from stars billions of light years away because God created the light already on its way to earth. I pointed out that this argument requires that God also created an entire fake history of the universe, including light from supernova that never occurred of stars that never existed. The one-liner above, delivered dead-pan in the style of Steven Wright, is funny because we intuitively realize the absurdity of the statement. How would one know, and even if it were true, what’s the difference?

The post inspired some interesting comments, and sometimes I like to respond to comments in a separate post. One of the things I enjoy about blogging as a literary form is its interactive nature. I always find it more interesting to respond to the arguments of others rather than just give a monologue or lecture. I find it more effective as a teaching tool, because you are confronting specific thought processes and resolving differences of reasoning. For convenience I will include only the section of each comment I will be responding to. You can browse through the comments to the original post if you want to see entire comments, who left them, and to respond directly to them if you wish.

So he says because a statement is nonfalsifiable it makes it untrue? There are plenty of nonfalsifiable statements that could be true or false. Evolutionists assume there can be no miraculous events, therefore no miraculous events occurred. Circular reasoning if you ask me.

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Feb 28 2012

Religious Freedom vs Consumer Protection

A Christian church in New Zealand has put up a billboard on their property that proclaims: “Jesus Heals Cancer.” This has caused a bit of a stir and prompted a discussion about the limits of religious freedom vs protecting the public from false or misleading claims.

The Pastor, Lyle Penisula, holds that the claim is true. This is actually the easiest aspect of the this issue to deal with – is there evidence that “Jesus heals cancer?” No. The Pastor himself offers, of course, anecdotes – cases of people in his church who survived cancer. He admits that they completed whatever treatment regimen they were being given by their doctors, but seemed to entirely miss the point that therefore we cannot conclude that it was Jesus who healed them. They may have simply responded to standard medical treatment.

There has been a fair bit of research into intercessory prayer. The results are essentially negative. More studies are negative than positive, and the positive ones have critical flaws (although they seem to get more media attention). If there were a clinically significant effect from intercessory prayer the existing studies would have shown a more consistent and clearly positive signal. What we have is most consistent with no effect. The evidence is incompatible with the claim that “Jesus heals cancer.”

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Feb 24 2012

Richard Dawkins – Agnostic

This is actually old news – Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist, discusses atheism vs agnosticism at length in his book, The God Delusion (you can listen to the relevant section here.) In a recent debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, Dawkins acknowledged that he is not 100% certain of God’s non-existence, and when asked if he is therefore an agnostic, he said that he was.

These statements have to be put into context, however – which Dawkins did in his book and elsewhere. In The God Delusion he outlines 7 stances toward the probability that God exists. He put himself into category 6, a strong atheist but less than 100% certain that God does not exist. He states he is less than 100% certain as a matter of principle – because a mere human cannot be 100% certain of anything. Only fanatical belief results in 100% metaphysical certitude. So he is as strong an atheist as a rational and intellectually honest person can be.

How, then, can we make sense of Dawkins acknowledging that he is also an agnostic. A report of the debate states:

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

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Oct 18 2011

Camping’s Doomsday Prophesy

Published by under Religion/Miracles

Harold Camping is now, among other things, an IgNobel Laureate. He shares the 2011 IgNobel award for mathematics: “for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.”

This Friday, October 21, Camping predicts the world will end – making him just another doomsday crank. He came by this date through a complicated and thoroughly contrived calculations involving the Bible. It’s not the first time. He predicted the world would end in 1994. It took him a while to recover from that lack of the end of the world back then.

He became more widely known for his recent prediction of the rapture on May 21 of this year. This was frequently misrepresented as a prediction for the end of the world, but Camping only predicted that the world would be wracked with earthquakes – that there would be obvious signs of God’s wrath and the faithful would be raptured and spared. The earth would then suffer God’s wrath for five months until the final destruction of the world  – which brings us to this Friday, October 21.

The first phase of his two-phase prediction did not work out very well. May 21 came and went without anything unusual happening. At first Camping and his followers were perplexed – how could the careful mathematical calculations have led them astray (never mind the dubious underlying assumptions).

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Feb 22 2011

Atheism and Morality – Jon Topping Responds

In response to my earlier post today, the target of my post, Jon Topping, wrote a response in the comments. I thank Jon for stopping by and participating in the conversation. One of the reasons I chose to respond to his YouTube video is because he is trying to frame the argument in terms of logic. Here is his response, with my responses:

Great write up, enjoyed it very much.
Atheism requires a naturalistic cause. Evolution is the only natural cause we know of. I would say evolution is not sufficient for atheism, but it is necessary.

To be clear, atheism is simply the absence of belief in a deity. Most (but certainly not all) atheists are also naturalists, meaning that they believe the universe follows natural laws of cause and effect and that it is not valid to introduce supernatural causes as an explanation for what we observe in the natural world. Certainly for a naturalist, evolution is the only game in town in terms of the origin of species. It actually does not deal with the origin of life, or the origin of the universe, although these are often conflated.

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Feb 22 2011

Does Atheism Lead to Immorality?

This is an argument that will just not go away – that atheism leads to the absence of morality. I was recently pointed to this YouTube video once again making this point. Yes – this is just some random guy (Jon Topping) on the internet, but he is trying to put forward a logical argument and he is making the standard argument  – the same one I have heard from many religious sources, so it’s fair game.

His argument is fundamentally a false dichotomy – objective morality comes from belief in God (or some supernatural thingy) and if you are an atheist then morality has no objective basis and your morality must ultimately be subjective, which he argues logically leads to amorality. He dismisses many straw-man alternatives but never addresses the true alternative to his simple dichotomy, something again I find common.

First, let’s address his premises. He equates atheism with belief in evolution. This is not valid, but I will give him that most atheists accept evolution, because they have no reason to dismiss the overwhelming scientific consensus. Where he gets into trouble is in equating evolution with doing everything you can to survive and pass on your genes, even if it means stealing and killing. This is a simplistic and outdated view of evolution – of nature “red in tooth and claw.”

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Apr 05 2010

Skepticism and Religion – Again

The topic of skepticism and religion comes up on a regular basis within skeptical circles, and I find I have to define my position on a regular basis. Because I host a skeptical podcast and contribute to several skeptical blogs, it cannot be avoided. This week’s episode of the SGU featured Eugenie Scott as a guest rogue, and the question of skepticism and religion came up. And, as predictably as the dawn follows the night, the old debate sparked up again.

Genie takes a position very similar to my own – that science is agnostic toward untestable claims. Science follows methodological naturalism, and anything outside this realm is by necessity outside the realm of science. It’s not a choice so much as a philosophical/logical position. (I will call this the “agnostic” position for simplicity.)

However, I think many people are confused when we discuss this topic, especially since we often refer to “religion,” which can create the false impression that we think science cannot address any claims that fall under “religion” – it may, depending on what those claims are.

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Nov 05 2009

Paying for Prayer in Health Care

As the health care debate rages in Washington, one of the fears is that the behemoth bills that are being passed around might contain hidden provisions that can cause great mischief. While there is a sense of urgency about passing a bill (any bill) there is something to be said for taking the time to pick over the details of such important policy.

Case in point – Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has slipped in a provision to the bill that would require reimbursement for prayer services. Although not mentioned by name, it is thought that the provision is aimed at Christian Science prayer. Christian Scientists, based upon the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, do not believe in medicine – because they do not believe in illness – because they do not believe in reality. We are purely spiritual beings, they believe, and physical reality is all an illusion, and therefore all illness is as well and is really just a crisis of faith. Therefore prayer and faith is all that is needed. Seeking medical attention is actually a failure of faith and will lead to illness or death (one wonders why any Christian Scientist needs to wear glasses, then). This philosophy worked very well for Eddy, right up until the point where she died.

Christian Scientists have been tireless in promoting their spiritual prayer as legitimate medical interventions for years. They have pressured some private insurance companies to reimburse for their prayers, although this trend has reversed recently with managed care. They have also lobbied for state laws to protect their practitioners from being prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. Worst of all, they successfully lobbied the Federal government to cover Christian Science prayer for military personnel.  Now they are at work trying to exploit health care reform to further their agenda. The LA Times reports:

The spiritual healing provision was introduced in the House by Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), whose district includes a Christian Science school, Principia College.

The measure is also supported by Senator John Kerry and the late Edward Kennedy – both senators from Massachusetts, home of the headquarters of the church.

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