Monday, February 3, 2014

Some fruit hangs too low to ignore

I really should stop talking about Christian apologist Tom Gilson, but like a talking snake in a garden, he's holding out a fruit too sweet and too easily reached not to take a bite.

If you have been looking at Gilson's blog, maybe from seeing me put it on Twitter, then you'll already realize he posted these two gems in the last few days. First, in wanting to malign the infamous Westboro Baptists, he wrote a post titled "More Evil Than Any Atheist I've Confronted." He kind of got called out for implying that atheists are evil and back-peddled the next day with "About That Headline, 'More Evil Than Any Atheist....'"

There are about a billion comments that could be made about this rather bizarre, but telling, action on his part. Here are a couple of sore thumbs that I'm not going to linger upon, which do not even touch upon the obvious commentary that could easily be made about how he fundamentally doesn't understand what it could be like to not believe in God.
  1. We might note that Gilson has no apparatus by which he could distinguish the Westboro Baptists as "evil," say in comparison to his own take on Christianity. How can he know? (This could go right to the Euthyphro Dilemma, in fact.) It's a lovely, textbook example of the No True Scotsman as well (might it be better renamed for what it is: the No True Christian fallacy?). Gilson, of course, calls the Westboro Baptists "anti-biblical," but that would be because they take certain parts of it far more seriously than he does.
  2. We could just point at the (a) utter stupidity or (b) rank dishonesty of the comment left by his intellectual heavyweight (thus making (a) less plausible) G. Rodrigues: "...the alleged implication in Tom’s wording that atheists are evil" (emphasis mine). Obviously, if atheists were not evil by implication, Tom wouldn't have used that example (despite trying to back-peddle that too).
But then there's this beauty, right there in the middle of everything, with which we can ask a very interesting question.
There is indeed a such a thing as a clearly identifiable fake Christianity. I’ve heard skeptics and atheists deny it, but not from a base of knowledge. Westboro’s “Christianity” is consistently anti-biblical.

I repudiate what they do. To be honest, I don’t know which of these errors God would rate as more evil, but for my part hate it worse than anything I’ve seen from the atheists, because at least the atheists aren’t twisting the name of God to support their errors. (emphasis mine)
And so we get directly back to the unresolved heart of the matter. How does Gilson know--how does any Christian know--that their notion of the "name of God" isn't one being twisted? That is, how do they know they're not wrong about their Christian beliefs?

Consider the matter from the perspective of a dedicated member of the Westboro church. These folks are just as certain that Tom Gilson is twisting the name of God to his purposes as Gilson is that they are. This, of course, is endemic to Christianity. The reason for this state of affairs is plain: they do not possess a reliable method to answer these questions (relying instead upon faith in their own or particular interpretations).

The question rears again, then: How can any Christian know she is right about her beliefs? 

NB: The question applies more broadly as well, of course, to all religious believers. And how boring will it be if someone shows up in the comments and tries to pull the "atheism is a belief system like that too!" canard? Though I usually don't get so saucy with the word, dare I say infinitely?


  1. >> "That is, how do they know they're not wrong about their Christian beliefs?"

    You do realize that this question also applies to you and the many blog posts you've written about Christian beliefs? There is an answer, and I know that you know what that answer is.

  2. His post about atheists (and everyone else) being evil on Christianity or more specifically, Modified Divine Command Theory meta ethics sums up the major difference between his view and the secular view:

    On the Christian view - There's the bad news - we're all evil and all equally worthy of condemnation to eternal hellfire barring any kind of divine intervention to change that state of affairs.

    On the secular view - We're not inherently evil, but merely capable of good and evil, as judged by an ethical framework that applies equally to all human beings. In fact one could say we're predisposed towards being ethically good, especially in the right circumstances (a society that securely provides for the basic needs of its members).

  3. It's ultimately a question of authority, isn't it? Naturalistic or evidence-based claims ultimately defer to the authority of nature itself -- nature as referee, in a sense.

    Christian claims, on the other hand, ultimately devolve to the authority of human beings (who claim to speak on behalf of God). Which raises an inevitable question: Which human being (or group of human beings) speaks authoritatively, and why? Is it the authors of scripture? The authors of sectarian creeds or confessions of faith? Subjective individual experience?

    Christianity needs an objectively-accessible referee -- but that's the one thing, given its metaphysics, it can never have.

  4. Hi James - Phil here. I swung by to see what you were up to and saw this post. And decided against my better judgment to take the bait!

    I can say pretty confidently that the folks at Westboro Baptist Church aren't practicing historical or biblical Christianity for a couple of reasons:

    1. Their speech and actions aren't marked by love. Love is kind of a big thing for followers of Jesus. It's THE big thing. Loving God, loving others. That's how Jesus summarizes the ENTIRE Old Testament law. Every epistle writer hits on this - "true loving" is a mark of a Christ follower. Even when confronting someone, we are to "speak the truth in love." I don't see a whole lot of love in a Westboro protest.

    2. They've confused America with Israel. This has happened a lot in US history, ever since the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and used Old Testament imagery to describe the new land they were establishing. ("A city on a hill.") Westboro's "beef" is that America isn't following God's law, and therefore is being judged. And something about "the gays." (I think that's what we're doing wrong... not standing up against the LGBT agenda. But I'm not positive.) The problem with this thinking is that it takes language from the OT that was specifically directed at Israel, and applies it to America. The analog for Israel in the world today isn't America, it's the church. It only takes a very simple reading of the epistles to figure this out. Some Brits made this mistake at the peak of the British Empire, and then during the "American Century" some US Christians got in on the "we're the new Israel" action. Pick up any study Bible and it will point out that Paul, Peter and other epistle writers refer to the CHURCH as the new Israel. Not the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, or the US of A.

    So the folks at Westboro are making a very basic interpretive mistake (conflating the US and Israel), and going directly against the teachings of Jesus, Paul, Peter and John at least, in failing to act in love. I believe just about any mainstream Christian tradition would agree with these readings and would agree that Westboro has wandered off the ranch.

    My two cents. Let me know if I've missed something.

    1. Hello Phil! You're always welcome here, so I'm glad you stopped by and let me know.

      Let me address some of your thoughts briefly, if you don't mind, because up until a few months ago, I definitely would have agreed with you in some measure. This is going to sound pretty zany, I think, but hear me out.

      1. Love. Well, yes, they are, or at least they can plausibly make the case that they are (and have, e.g. when Russell Brand interviewed them). If they truly believe what they believe about God and hell, to name two particulars, little or much as they may like doing it, they can very easily be seen to be acting in love--broadly and at self-sacrifice. Avoiding hell is a perfect payoff in their beliefs, and no amount of suffering at the hands of rancorous fools on earth compares to it. Great love can motivate them to act "badly" for that greater good. Similarly, if God visits calamities upon nations not in connection with their view of His law, though with smaller consequence, they can easily be acting in love by making such a ruckus. What you see as "love" in their protests might be just a matter that you don't actually believe what they believe (for what it's worth, of course, I don't either, but I think all Christianity is off, so my problem isn't quite as exquisite as yours here).

      2. This seems to cover some of the problem I mentioned above (though not the bigger one in terms of cost), but, again, how can you know that they're wrong in this assessment? Particularly, how do you know it is a wrongheaded notion for Christians to believe that God would extend His "chosen" to all of those in the nation of Israel who followed His Son to the true, redemptive belief?

      I have a bit of a problem with the assessment that almost any mainstream Christian tradition would call them out because that still doesn't establish how we can be sure that they're not wrong. They take certain aspects of the Bible far more seriously than do most Christians, and they seem to ignore or creatively interpret some other parts, but which Christian sects don't do this? How is one to pull it apart? That's the question driving this entire discussion (since I let it meander away from faith more generally).

    2. Thanks James - good points.

      I think diversity of interpretation is true for any philosophical teacher that attracts a significant following - Marx, Freud, Socrates, etc. So the fact that there is a diversity of interpretation for Jesus' teaching and Paul's writing is challenging, but not surprising considering the billions of followers over 2000 years. (It only took 50 years for the Chinese to declare Russian Marxism was "apostate" and Chinese Marxism "true." And then kill a bunch of their own people in an attempt to "purify" their version of Marxism.)

      The interpretive consensus regarding Jesus teaching, though, would clearly point to the Westboro clan (which is primarily one family) getting it wrong.

      I would compare this to someone reading Darwin's comments about the more "advanced races" eventually "exterminating" the more "primitive" ones, and then picking up a shotgun to help advance the evolutionary process. 99.9% of those who read The Descent of Man would say, "Dude - you're really reading that wrong." The same way Christians look at Westboro.

      It isn't easy, because there is much in Christian teaching that is subject to interpretation, but there is much more consensus than you might think. (For example, my DVD series that attempts to "teach the Bible" for the whole family is being used by churches all across the spectrum - from charismatics to Southern Baptists to Catholics to Anglicans in the UK. I'm focusing on the commonality, not the differences. And the areas of commonality are much greater than the areas of difference.)

    3. Likewise, Phil, good points.

      I'd like to talk about this, though, because it's a rather important point. Imagine this same church arising in the late 17th century, or the 12th century. Obviously, they'd have a harder time exploiting the media to accomplish their ends (which may actually be about generating revenue via litigation, but if so, that's the church leadership and not the believing members we're talking about).

      In 1692, as I'm sure you're aware, in Salem, Massachusetts, there was a witch trial. It didn't go well, obviously, and on the backbone of Christian teachings according to a particular (and harsh) interpretation. Famous American preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (who is considered a staple of American foundational thought) certainly would be easy to place in the general circus of the WBC. We could add the Catholics during the Inquisition as well, among several other historical examples.

      So, again, what if this same church with this same issue had cropped up in the 17th or the 12th centuries? Would we say it's so far out of line with Christian interpretation?

      Indeed, this runs deeper, doesn't it? We can even wonder why this topic didn't arise in the 17th or the 12th centuries and see that a plain and highly plausible answer is that the Christian interpretations going at the time created a culture in which the "God hates fags!" insistence didn't even need to rise to a clear yell. The prevailing culture, in the grip of Christian interpretation that were by far the leading ones in the world at the time, was so thoroughly sure that what the WBC is preaching against is the right thing to preach against that the issue couldn't even arise to be preached against!

      I know you're pointing to a general liberalization and secularization (we might even call it an enlightenment) of Christianity, but Christian thinking that the WBC is unbiblical, hateful, or morally evil is a relatively new turn if we're using mainstream consensus to determine what's going on. Of course, I'm not complaining about this development, but I am using it to point out that it makes for a hard, hard way to argue that it's a sufficient method to claim that we can know somehow that they're wrong and some other Christianity is right.

      Of course, we can know that, but it isn't the Christian ethic teaching it. It's a tamed, secularized, liberalized Christian ethic, one that would have been very rare until very recently, that teaches us that the WBC exemplifies a pretty clear-cut case of moral evil.

    4. I agree that some nasty stuff went down in the Middle Ages in the western church. No argument there. It's a slightly different issue, though, because in those cases (inquisitions and such), it was the state deciding to enforce religious law in the same manner they enforced civil law. Civil law and religious law were effectively mixed.

      The vast majority of "burnings at the stake," for example, were for civil crimes - treason, etc. Some states added "ecclesial" crimes to the list of capital offenses, as well as things like witchcraft. But this was state activity, not uniquely church activity. (And the churches never took over the states - it was always the states taking over the churches.)

      The mayhem of the Middle Ages came about when church leaders and thinkers were suddenly thrust into positions of state authority, beginning with Constantine and subsequent Roman emperors. Because Jesus and his early followers didn't spend much time talking about how to run an empire (it wasn't an issue on anyone's mind in the 1st century), there is very little teaching in the NT that could be directly applied to the situation church leaders found themselves in after the fall of Rome. So... much of what had worked for the Romans just continued. (Capital punishment, torture, etc.) No one had a better plan, apparently, so whereas the pre-Constantinian church father Tertullian condemned execution, torture and even imprisonment as being un-Christian, a couple hundred years later Augustine was thinking all three were probably necessary to keep the peace. More or less saying, "If it's how we've always kept the peace, we probably shouldn't mess with it."

      So the Roman state adopted the church. And then the church adopted much of the civil/penal philosophy of the Roman state. Which included imprisonment, torture and execution in the name of civil peace - and then gradually spread to imprisonment, torture and execution in the name of doctrinal peace.

      I just read a fascinating paper written by a Catholic historian on the history of execution and torture in Catholic theology. Basically asking the question, "How did we get so messed up? How did anyone ever justify this stuff?" It traces the evolution of thought from Tertullian through Augustine, all the way up to the Reformation. Interesting stuff.

      All that to say... a little group of Baptists running around yelling about homosexuals might not have stood out too much in the Middle Ages, depending on where they were and who was leading that part of the church at that point in history. So much of church history has involved politics and tribalism - us and ours against you and yours. And when almost any school of philosophy devolves into tribalism, all sorts of ugly things are going to happen.

      But there have always been voices saying, "Hey - I'm reading the teachings of Jesus, and I don't think we should be doing this!" And then whoever was in power at that time quick grabbed them and put them in prison. And it still happens today.

      So the bad behavior of the Middle Ages was justified by saying, "This isn't what Christians do. This is what the STATE does to maintain the peace and the health of society." A bunch of Baptists running around making the mothers of dead soldiers cry is VERY different than a state government applying their civil penal code to ecclesial crimes, however wrong that might have been. It ain't apples to apples.

      That's all I'm saying.

  5. Phil, I think that you are expressing a very revisionist and Christian-centric view of Western History. Your first two paragraphs sweep a load of Christian culpability for violence under the rug in a way that is disconcerting to me.

    The Church exerted enormous influence over the political realm throughout the middle ages and well into, well, today. It is an imagining of our period that the Church never aspired to, nor ever exerted, political control. Throughout the middle ages, all those who sought to acquire and retain political power constantly walked a tight rope that the church controlled. Holy Roman Emperors needed to be crowned by Pope's -- this sanctified the power. Please look up "Walk to Canossa" on wikipedia. Please study the navigation of Henry VIII in his move away from Catholic control. Please read any conventional history on the Crusades (Runciman's is an excellent read) and how religious motivations directed attacks on a non-contiguous people (ultimately leading to the plunder of Christian allies in Byzantium). Read about the European crusades against heretics and the savagery found in the battles over schism.

    Similarly, your view of the political ascendency of early Christianity is a tad idiosyncratic (actually, it's typically Christian apologetic). A conventional take on the history of Christianity is that the church is maybe the most successful organization in history, but it has flourished by being everything from ruthless to ambitious, flexible, accommodating, controlling, manipulative, hard-lined, and so much more. But it stretches beyond breaking to imply that the Christian church has not been an interested and driving political force -- both for good and bad -- in Western culture for more than 2000 years.

    I do think that you're accurate in another sense, though. I do think that every culture has had voices of moderation, and tolerance, and mercy, and progressivism, and that among those persons have certainly, over the many ages, been Christians. I would never deny that, in the same way that I wouldn't deny that Christians have also been a source of great intolerance and violence and cruelty.

    The problem, though (and this isn't really a problem, though, because you seem like a gentle person with who I mostly agree) is that the things you prize in Christianity can also be found outside Christianity. Every single one.

    And so the question I would ask is, What is really unique about Christianity? It might be possible (I'm not sure, but I doubt it) that Christianity is more likely to lead to progressivism, and tolerance, and unity, and inclusion, and mercy, etc. than all other sets of beliefs. And along that line, aren't the things that you really value available to you outside Christianity as well? And if so, aren't there even improvements that could be made in Scripture, etc. And if that's the case, huh, why do we need to pretend that the answers are found in the Bible, when the answers may be found in ourselves?

    1. Good points, Cal! I definitely am not saying the church was apolitical. It became HIGHLY political. The mixing of church and state has NEVER gone well in human history. Ever. (Which is why historically-aware Christians get uncomfortable when they hear other Christians talk about how "great" things would be if all our leaders were "Christians.")

      The church in Europe became a political institution, where doctrine was just one of the areas of concern. The fall of the Roman Empire left the church as the only trans-European institution still standing, which gave the bureaucracy of the church an immense amount of social/political/religious influence. Which corrupted the original intent of the church as followers of Christ gathering together. Once people start buying and selling positions within any institution for political gain, it's fair to say that institution has been compromised beyond recognition. Which is why true followers of the teachings of Jesus were more likely to be found in monasteries than in the formal church hierarchy for much of the Middle Ages.

      Not excusing the church for bad behavior - just saying it became a political institution, compromised by the same human frailties (tribalism, greed, envy) that compromise other human institutions. (Soviet Marxism, for example. Or Wall Street capitalism.)

      "What is really unique about Christianity?" That's a really good question. As a religion, not a great deal. (Which is why Ben Franklin built his personal moral system out of the morals he believed were common to all major faiths.)

      My real answer to this question is one I guarantee you will dislike. So I apologize in advance. What a Christian believes is really unique about the call to follow Jesus is that it isn't a religion. It's a relationship. It's the "new life" component of being a "Christ follower." It's a concept that doesn't submit well to scientific scrutiny. It's a call to discipleship - literally becoming a "disciple" of Jesus in a meaningful way. That's the idea, anyway, which can be practiced very well, or very poorly.

      Again, not expecting you to like that answer - but that's the answer. (And I don't mind you saying, "That's hogwash." That's a valid response. And yes, it COULD be some sort of psychological delusion - people who actually believe they are in relationship with Jesus. But I've become convinced that it isn't. That it's actually possible. And if I ever treat you poorly - or anyone else - I hope you say, "It doesn't look like your Jesus-delusion is working!" Because I would take that criticism VERY seriously.)

    2. Phil, I do NOT mind your answer. I find it both winningly candid and insightful.

      It seems to me that you are Christian because the mental disciplines you have adopted have proven beneficial to you and to those with whom you relate. This is a kind of testing that I very much appreciate -- it goes soooo much farther than most apologists who seem to try to justify their belief without providing anything that can be examined.

      Of course, I don't believe that your conclusion (Jesus exists) is justified by what you describe, but I appreciate your recognizing what you clearly think is a correlation -- you have found a kind of peace and happiness through mental practices (I assume that this is what you mean), and you attribute this to the existence of something outside your mind.

      In the grand landscape of religious beliefs, I find your variety to be fairly benign (although, to be clear, I am never in favor of delusion over reality, and I will always press for a closer alignment of beliefs to reality).

      My concern with your belief would boil down to this: I believe that it "works" for you. But I worry that by incorrectly attributing the source of your satisfaction to something (that could be) imaginary you will inadvertently mislead those who are more literal in how they try to experience what you describe. And, probably worse, that this (mis)attribution to the God of the Bible will drag in a whole odd and strange set of Bronze Age practices along with the good that it sounds like you've found.

      So, my question to you would be: are you willing to rigorously test (or would you be open to evidence of others who do) that if adopting your practices (attitude, contemplation, social involvement? etc.) without tying them to a specific religious belief would lead to the same outcome? Is it even possible for you to be as you are now, undergo the same kind of introspection, motivate yourself to do what you do, all without the kind of mental routine where Jesus fills a role?

      This is more sincere than it might sound. I often wonder about the importance of a proxy for our mental attention, and if imagining a proxy might be more conducive to adopting beneficial (and, I suppose, damaging) behaviors.

      Thanks for the interesting comments. I appreciate it.

    3. That's a good question, which is a bit hard to answer. A big part of my daily routine is prayer and reading the Bible - usually New Testament letters or the Gospels. (While drinking green tea and eating toast each morning. I'm a creature of habit!) These two habits (prayer and the Bible) are a huge part the practices one would need to adopt to perform this "test." But if you reject the book you're reading and don't believe in God, I'm pretty sure these activities will be meaningless. Meditation can always be beneficial, but this goes beyond that.

      It isn't just about an attitude or certain practices, it's about worldview and beliefs as well. So I wouldn't know how to "test' it, since you can't pretend to believe things you don't believe, you know? And once you believe them, you can't pretend not to.

      I have had - and have close friends who have had - very profound spiritual experiences. "Visions" during prayer that revealed healing information. Physical healing during prayer. (A good friend was praying for a man with a tumor, and had the tumor literally "melt" away during the prayer. He could feel it go with his hand. Another friend - an old pastor - was praying for a woman with a tumor when she suddenly vomited up the tumor in the middle of the prayer! My assistant had her left leg "grow" half an inch during prayer - ending a lifetime of back pain. Crazy stuff like this.)

      I've seen God move someone urgently to call a stranger they had just met and invite them to have lunch, only to find out that at the moment they called, the stranger had put a gun to his own head and was about to pull the trigger. The phone call - motivated by a strong "sense" that God was requesting it - saved a life.

      When my own life was falling apart, the wife of a friend was praying for me, and believed God gave her a "picture" to describe to me. The "picture" she described revealed things about me that she couldn't have known. About my family and my past. And brought immense healing. She didn't have a clue what she was saying - just relaying a message she felt was from God. And it opened up a huge area of healing in my life. It pointed out something I'd been doing wrong for a decade. And that has happened more than once.

      I've prayed, and seen answers, over and over. (Not "give me money" or "make my problems go away" kind of answers - those are more for TV "healers" that I typically doubt as much as you would.) Deep answers about healing what's broken in us.

      There's a Christian man in India who hears God speak to him every morning at 4am (audibly), giving him instructions about what to do that day - where to go, who to talk to. The instructions often include details of places he's never been to, which turn out to be completely accurate. A friend of mine followed him around with a video camera for 3 days and was blown away by what he saw. (Stories are too long to write out here.)

      Several years ago God used my own work to prevent a father from committing suicide while his kids were at school and his wife at work.

      I could go on and on... I know a missionary who was about to be attacked and robbed on a remote trail in Africa, when an "unseen force" knocked all the would-be attackers unconscious. Boom. Out cold. In the middle of nowhere.

      I know another missionary whose Jeep broke down in the Ivory Coast out in the bush - broken clutch plate. No parts, no tools, no towns anywhere nearby. He prayed for God's help, and started walking. The first person he saw was an old, African farmer. Turns out this old farmer served with the French army in Viet Nam. His job? A Jeep mechanic. The only item he brought back with him from the army? A Jeep clutch plate.

      Lots of crazy stuff like that.

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  7. Continued...

    These aren't stories I read on the internet - they're all people I know. Any one of them could reasonably be coincidental. Maybe a tumor melts while someone is praying over it for some obscure medical reason. Maybe the first old African farmer you see in the bush just happens to have the part and the expertise needed to fix your Jeep. But all of them together... that becomes hard to believe. Something bigger is going on.

    That's why if someone says, "Why don't you try NOT believing in God?" I really can't. I've just seen too much to not believe.

    Anyway... sorry to go long. I really care for you guys - you're good guys. I don't have a lot of typical apologetic arguments for you guys to wrestle with, so I'm probably of limited use on this blog. But thanks for engaging, anyway!

  8. Okay, Phil. Agreed that you can't pretend to believe something.

    Regarding all the bizarre stuff you describe, there is a problem that I can't stop myself from pointing out: every time that we try to control for the kinds of events you're mentioning, they disappear. When we don't control for them, when we allow things like exaggeration, subjectivity, hearsay, misattribution, misidentification, etc. -- then they pop back up again.

    Sure, a "hidden God" -- one who only appears when we're not checking for him is a kind of philosophical possibility. But we also have natural explanations for the things you mention -- the foibles of the human mind. We make mistakes, at least partly because our brains our built for fast, "good enough" recognition of events and their categorization into templates. Allowed to run untethered we will invariably find reasons, purpose, agency, etc. where there is, under hard scrutiny, none.

    I think it actually requires a great deal of humility to accept this -- that our brains, our very own selves, are not the final and best arbiter of events. Scientific thinking is hard, I believe, because in order to do it we must cede that authority to something other than ourselves. And we are very, very resistant to allowing that to happen.

    I suspect that it will be very, very hard for you to allow that all of the events you mention could be explainable by the foibles of our cognitive abilities. But if you can allow for that, and work toward adopting a more skeptical stance moving forward, I am curious if you would notice that these unexplainable events start to diminish for you.

    For instance: The Christian man who claims he hears God's voice every day. Isn't it possible that the stories are merely exaggerated? If you went there and checked it, how would you know he'd never been to the place he was going to that day, or that he didn't have any other way of knowing ahead of hand what it would be like? (You can't go back and determine where he's never been, and Google maps can do wonders, among many other possibilities.) And probably most importantly, what if you tried to really test (examine) what he claims he can do? Are you aware that every time these things are tested they disappear (and very often fraud is found to be the reason)? Isn't it very plausible that this man benefits from the respect he receives from Christians for having a direct, audible line with God, and that he perpetuates this belief in his abilities in order to enjoy that respect?

    In other words, unless you're willing to allow that there could be natural explanations for everything you mention (and I see no reason why you wouldn't), and also to start to adopt skeptical practices (including ceding that your perceptions cannot be the final arbiter of reality -- that's what objectivity is really about), then it seems to me that you are making it very easy to fool yourself.

    1. Thanks, Cal. I'm willing to allow that there could be natural explanations for many of the events I've mentioned - but when I look at collections of events that ALL line up with the character and will of the biblical God, that occur WHILE people are praying to the biblical God, I find that the probability of ALL the events being naturally explained very, very low.

      You probably know the story of George Meuller - the 19th century Brit who started building orphan houses in England supplied solely through prayer. The stories from his life - like the morning they had no bread or milk for the kids, so they all prayed together for bread and milk, and in the next five minutes first a baker showed up at the front door with a large bread donation, and then a milk cart broke down in front of the orphanage and the milk man asked if they could use any milk, since it was all going to spoil.

      You can say, "Yeah - but that was 150 years ago so it's probably a legend." But the same thing happened to a friend of mine a year ago. He's a pastor in San Francisco, who works with a large soup kitchen. Something happened that left the soup kitchen completely out of meat the day before they would be feeding a large crowd. So my friend led everyone in a very specific prayer for meat so they could feed the homeless the next day. Within minutes of the prayer, the phone rang. It was the local Trader Joe's, saying, "Our power has gone out and we're going to lose all our meat. Do you need any meat?"

      Seriously. This stuff happens more than you think. The answer to the prayer was in line with the will of God as revealed in the Bible, and they were praying to the God of the Bible. And within minutes they had more meat than they knew what to do with. If you allow for the possibility that the God of the Bible could actually exist, his existence becomes the most plausible explanation for all these events.

      Regarding your question about putting these things to the test...

      I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "controlling for these events" and them disappearing. Are you referring to things like the double blind prayer study done a few years ago?

      The issue with those kinds of studies is that they treat prayer like it's a natural process - like a button you push that produces a biscuit from a slot. But prayer is a conversation with a personality. A personality that can't be controlled or forced to jump through hoops. In other words, God isn't a lab rat, and prayer isn't like gravity or cell mitosis. Relationships can't be studied like natural processes can be studied. If I try to put my wife through a double blind study to determine her behavioral patterns, there's a pretty good chance she just isn't going to cooperate. She's going to look at me like I'm stupid and walk out of the room.

      So the idea of "controlling for these events" doesn't resonate with me as something that even makes sense in the realm of relationship. (Because personal agency is profoundly different than natural process.)

      Does that make any sense? Feel free to poke holes.

    2. Phil, it's true that I don't have much patience for indulging this line of thinking: "Crazy stuff happens, or I hear stories about crazy stuff happening, therefore the God of the Bible."

      Do you know the term "Texas Sharpshooter fallacy?" If not you should look it up -- I think that the story of George Meuller is a classic example (actually, I think it's worse than that, because this is something that you are taking someone else's word about -- believing stories told by people is never a reliable way to overturn how we experience reality actually works.)

      But even if George Mueller's experience happened to you exactly as described, this doesn't really overcome all the other times other George Meuller's faced the same problem and nothing happened. In fact, that's so common that we refer to those events as mundane -- and we remember George's only because it is so unusual. There's some Roman statesmen (I forget which one) who was told about the wondrous story of how one boat out of a fleet survived because members on board prayed to the Gods. He famously asked, "What about all the other boats that perished whose members were praying to the same Gods?"

      The problem is maybe best pointed out with the question of, "Why doesn't God heal amputees?" In other words, why is it that all the supposed miracles that people report are the same as ones that can be explained by subjective experience (my pain went away), or that occur naturally (sometimes cancer just goes into remission), or that are merely highly unusual (someone is, by definition, always going to be an extreme example). These things would happen without a God -- what does a God do in the explanation that makes these events, which happen all the time, any more or less likely?

      To be perfectly honest with you, your credulity and explanation for your belief does offend me. That's because I immediately think of all those who die of starvation and worse, for those who pray earnestly and fervently and are ignored (and loathe themselves, and are loathed by others, because it is assumed that there is something wrong with them that a God does not answer their prayers). I think of parents whose child is dying from cancer, who wonder what is wrong with them and their child that they do not experience the same things you describe happen to you and your friends. I think the set of beliefs you describe does great harm -- it impugns those who are merely unlucky, who suffer from afflictions that cannot be healed (amputations, etc.), and in some cases it postpones or prevents real help that could actually lessen suffering.

      So, to be honest, not only do I think you're being gullible, or at least not willing to test your beliefs, but I think that your beliefs do actually cause a great deal of harm as well. In other words, I think that if you cared for people, and wanted to help others exactly as much as you do now, but that no supernatural agent would come to your aid, I think you would do more good (and less harm) in this world than you presently do. (Which is not to demean the good you do now, nor how good you are as a person -- I simply mean that if you wanted to maximize how much you could help people, I think you would do more without superstitious beliefs than with.)

      So, probably harsher than I would like to come across as, but that is the truth about how I assess your position.

    3. Thanks Cal - you aren't being harsh. And I understand that my view of reality is exasperating to you. I won't keep the conversation going forever, but I'll just add a few points.

      The Texas Sharpshooter fallacy is probably pertinent, and I'm probably guilty of it at least a little. There are, though, events that can't be explained purely naturalistically. (Including some, but not all, healings; some, but not all, near-death experiences; some, but not all, reports of demonic activity, visions, etc.) Saying that ALL these incidents have been examined and shown to be natural obviously isn't true, so that leaves us with examining a tiny sampling, discovering some naturalistic explanations in some of those, and then projecting those results very broadly across all reported incidents. (This may be philosophically defensible, but it certainly isn't scientifically conclusive.)

      Regarding prayer in general... I gave these examples simply to show that I've been exposed to many incidents that defy easy naturalistic explanation, not to define the theology of prayer. Prayer is conversation with God, not a magic wand for getting what you want. I don't teach kids that prayer will solve all their problems or prevent all their suffering, because that wouldn't be a biblical view of prayer. I don't even teach kids that "divine intervention" in their lives is a sign of God's love for them - because it isn't. Jesus promised we would suffer. Paul prayed for healing and didn't get it. Peter and James were arrested at the same time - their followers prayed for both. Peter was saved by an angel from prison (according to Luke's account), but James was killed (also according to Luke's account).

      So there is no promise in NT writing that God will save us from all suffering, here and now. (And Jesus actually explicitly promised the opposite.) "Miracles" aren't called "miracles" in the Bible - they're called "signs." Signs of what? The kingdom of God. (That's the "good news" that Jesus was preaching. "The kingdom of God is here!") So healings and other forms of divine rescue or provision (fish to feed 5000, bread and milk for orphans, Trader Joe's meat for the homeless) are glimmers of the world God has intended for us. I spend about five minutes in one of my videos explaining this to kids (and their parents, who typically are themselves hanging onto grossly weak theology).


    4. continued...

      There is no looking up at those who receive healing or looking down on those who do not. Divine healing, in fact, isn't considered a common experience most Christian traditions. Protestant missionaries brought penicillin to the corners of the world, in addition to prayer. The Catholic church covered the world with hospitals, in addition to prayer. (By the year 1915, the Catholic church alone had built 20+ hospitals just in the city of Chicago. And then there were the hospitals built by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc. Secular hospitals are a fairly recent invention.)

      People die of starvation and of cancer because it is a broken world. Occasional unexplainable healings are signs to show us what God INTENDS for the world, when the "kingdom of God" is in "full bloom," so to speak. It gives us hope. I teach parents that if we understand the Christian narrative, we realize that we're the Red Cross. We're the ones who should show up first to bandage, to feed, to heal. (And, not surprisingly, the Red Cross was founded by a man who considered himself a lifelong "disciple of Jesus.") Just last week the Dalai Lama commented that wherever he goes in the world - in the very worst places - he finds Christians feeding, healing, and tending to the needs of the poor. (Not to be harsh myself, but the selective portrayal of Christian historical contribution as reported by recent popular atheist authors is shockingly inaccurate - due either to ignorance, or willful misrepresentation. I'll charitably assume ignorance.)

      So I may have communicated an erroneous view of prayer and miracles by listing so many events. The Christian view is not that this is how normal life works - you get sick, you pray, you're BETTER! That isn't Christianity. Divine healing is the exception. Building hospitals and clinics around the world is the norm.

      Hope that helps.

  9. Phil: "There are, though, events that can't be explained purely naturalistically. (Including some, but not all, healings; some, but not all, near-death experiences; some, but not all, reports of demonic activity, visions, etc.)"

    I think you would need to demonstrate this, because I don't agree.

    Phil: "Saying that ALL these incidents have been examined and shown to be natural obviously isn't true, so that leaves us with examining a tiny sampling, discovering some naturalistic explanations in some of those, and then projecting those results very broadly across all reported incidents. (This may be philosophically defensible, but it certainly isn't scientifically conclusive.)"

    What I meant is that never - not once - has a supernatural explanation been found to be correct. What I meant is that for every explanation for an event for which supernatural and natural explanations have been considered, the natural explanation has won. Every one. Please let that sink in.

    We have things that were previously unexplained, but now are. Every single one of those explanations is a natural one. We have things that are currently unexplained, and you would like to suggest that we may eventually determine that the explanation is supernatural. But we would be very, very foolish, knowing what we know about the history of explanations, to think that a supernatural explanation will eventually be found for one of these things for which there is currently no explanation. Because supernatural explanations, for all prior events, have never been found to be correct -- all explanations are natural.

    So, I disagree with your conclusion above; I think we could say that it's possible that a supernatural explanation (whatever that would mean) will someday be found, but if we want to talk about probabilities we would have to conclude that a supernatural explanation being found to be correct is extraordinarily low -- of the many, many millions to one kind, and growing worse every day.

    Phil: "People die of starvation and of cancer because it is a broken world."

    Well, not to be too pedantic here, but we know that people die of starvation because they don't get enough food, and we know that cancer is caused by damage to genes, and we are getting better every day at identifying those factors that lead to an increased chance for cancer. None of these has been found to be "God."

    Phil: "Occasional unexplainable healings are signs to show us what God INTENDS for the world, when the "kingdom of God" is in "full bloom," so to speak."

    Well, that's your explanation. The problems with your explanation are many -- including the fact that it offers none of the things we expect from good explanations -- but I think it's also unavoidable that we acknowledge that "God did it" is an extraordinarily foolish wager to make.

    Phil: "Building hospitals and clinics around the world is the norm."

    I hope that is true. I wonder how much of Christianity's "budget" goes to practical, secular endeavors like hospitals, and how much goes to religious practices (building churches, time spent proselytizing, etc.). I sincerely don't know, and wonder if much research has been conducted regarding that.

    1. Cal: "I think you would need to demonstrate this, because I don't agree."

      For example, near-death experiences and/or visions/dreams that leave someone with new and accurate information they couldn't otherwise possess. In near-death experiences, this would be the category where the person comes back with knowledge of activity in the room or nearby rooms that took place while they had zero brain activity. In one case, a woman found herself floating above the hospital and gave details of objects on the roof that turned out to be 100% accurate.

      In visions and dreams... I'll give you one actual example: Two Christian relief workers driving in the mountains in the mideast with a trunk full of Bibles about 10 years ago. (In a country where distributing Bibles was illegal.) The steering wheel locks up, so they have to stop. As they get out of the car, they see a local man coming down a hill toward them. He says, "Are you the men with the Bibles?" They say yes. He says, "In a dream last night a man appeared to me and told me to come here today at this time - that two men would come along this road and give me a Bible." They opened the trunk and gave him a Bible. He turned and walked back up the hill. They got in their car and the steering wheel was no longer locked up.

      That sort of thing happens much more often than you think. You can say, "That didn't happen. Those two men are lying." But you have nothing to base that claim on, other than your own incredulity and commitment to complete naturalism. You can use the David Hume defense, and say, "It is easier for me to believe that account is wrong than to believe the event happened." But that is a bizarrely subjective defense, where we all rule out any possibility that is outside our own cultural experience.

      You say, "I reject those accounts because they are beyond my experience." I say, "I accept those accounts because A) I know and trust the sources, and B) because they are within my experience." Cal - it is possible that these accounts are, in fact, accurate, and that your view of reality may be excessively narrow and reductionistic. It's also possible that my view of reality is too expansive. But I have found my view of reality to be accurate in many areas of life, so I see no reason to reject it at this time. (And I won't hold it against you for saying the exact same thing about YOUR view.)

      Cal: "What I meant is that never - not once - has a supernatural explanation been found to be correct. What I meant is that for every explanation for an event for which supernatural and natural explanations have been considered, the natural explanation has won. Every one. Please let that sink in."

      I think I'm following you, but I'm not positive. All these "supernatural/natural" options that have been shown to be 100% natural all the time... are you talking about things like, "I trapped a fairy in my closet!" "Oh wait - it's a squirrel." Or are you talking about alternative natural explanations like, "The sun is Apollo's chariot, pulled across the sky." "Oh wait - it's a ball of gas."

      I could be mistaken, but I don't believe that anywhere in Jewish or Christian canonical literature (aka the OT and NT) is there the sort of obviously false supernatural explanation of natural phenomenon like we see in Greek/Roman mythology or other primitive myths.

      So which type of natural/supernatural conflicts are you referring to that have been resolved in favor of the naturalistic explanation 100% of the time? I'm trying to follow your reasoning here.

  10. Phil: "That sort of thing happens much more often than you think. You can say, "That didn't happen. Those two men are lying." But you have nothing to base that claim on, other than your own incredulity and commitment to complete naturalism."

    Let's not get carried away here. I have plenty to base my skepticism on regarding tall tales -- and that is the fact that the claims of tall tales that can be examined alway dissolve on examination. Every. Single. One.

    Phil: "You can use the David Hume defense, and say, "It is easier for me to believe that account is wrong than to believe the event happened." But that is a bizarrely subjective defense, where we all rule out any possibility that is outside our own cultural experience."

    You are confused about the term subjective. I do not refer to my internal experience when I reject outlandish claims that clash with reality; I refer to reality. Outlandish (extraordinary) claims are dismissed because the clash with my internal experience, but because they clash with reality -- the reality that is objective, verifiable, and reliable.

    Phil: "So which type of natural/supernatural conflicts are you referring to that have been resolved in favor of the naturalistic explanation 100% of the time?"

    All of them. Seriously. What supernatural/superstitious claim do we now accept in the same way that we accept every natural explanations? What supernatural explanation is more than an ad hoc speculation after an event? Compare those ad hoc supernatural / superstitious speculations with natural explanations for events we understand now. Natural events. Disease. Vitalism. Souls

    Phil, I will continue to be honest with you -- your way of thinking seems to value a process of knowledge that we know to be seriously flawed and even dangerous -- it raises up hearsay and tall tales and ad hoc rationalizations, all of which are known to be deeply flawed when it comes to achieving an accurate representation of reality. I think that if we lived 500 years ago your view would approximate the best we could achieve, but to hold to your beliefs in the light of all that we know now seems almost barbaric to me.

    1. I'm sorry you feel that way, Cal. Unless I'm misinformed, the phenomenon of near-death experiences is still under investigation, and the area of "revealed information" has by and large defied explanation. Earlier this year the first explanation of common "into the light" phenomenon was proposed (based on a recently observed burst of brain activity detected just before death), and some cases of "revealed information" may be explained by accidentally suggested information - particularly in parents of young children who have died (like the Todd Burpo case). But many other well-documented cases still defy explanation. (Cases of people describing procedures that took place while they were brain dead, describing events that happened in other rooms in the hospital, etc.) These cases are documented, and currently unexplained.

      I think your confidence that naturalistic explanations have been found for ALL phenomena is a bit overstated. But there probably isn't much benefit in arguing the point further. I hope we can agree to seek the common good as best we can, based on our individual beliefs. I'll happily buy you a beer if we ever meet.

  11. Phil, regarding any well-document and unexplained out-of-body experiences, I would categorize any of these as unexplained accounts of out-of-body experiences. Is it possible that we can fly out of our minds when we are near death in a way that's consistent with what we typically call dualism? Sure. Is it likely given everything we now know about how the brain works No, it's wildly implausible.

    It's an old-fashioned fallacy to assign whatever remains unexplained about reports of out-of-body experiences to the supernatural, given that this is an argument from ignorance (we don't know, therefore supernatural!) and the fact that no supernatural explanation has ever replaced a natural one. Ever. So, you are free to believe whatever you like, but I will remain adamant that the kinds of beliefs you are extolling are built on the shakiest grounds I can imagine. That is the most polite I can be on that subject.

    Thanks for engaging. I have some fundamentalist (reject-evolution-type) Christian relatives and friends, and we can enjoy one another's company and share a coffee and even sometimes a beer, but we both know enough about each other to not press each other on these topics as you and I have. At some point, it just becomes too difficult to remain cordial when our approaches to how we build our beliefs remain so different. Which is a shame, but it is also one of the reasons why the Internet is so much fun -- it lets us speak more bluntly and less politely on topics that we care about, without fear of damaging those relationships built before these differences became apparent.