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Church Visit #1 and Nice Surprises

I, along with some heathen buddies at the UChicago Secular Alliance, are taking a tour of the many religious services around the Chicago-land area. We plan on going to Christian churches, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, and more. We started our journey today at Living Hope, a small Presbyterian church that has its services at one of UChicago’s buildings.

First of all, the music was excellent. It was much more lively and eventful than the last church I’ve been to; a Jehovah’s Witness sermon literally bored me to yawning tears.

Most admirable was the community’s concern with violence and injustice in the local community. Though I don’t agree with prayer as a treatment for a serious problem, people at the church demonstrated that they were very aware of the insane amounts of shootings and criminal activities on our own streets. Inspired by this, I hope to speak to this topic and/or raise awareness at an SSA meeting.

After the sermon, the Pastor gave us a chance to have a Q/A session which was quite productive. We got to ask questions like, “how does faith impact your life?” and “Why do you pray?”

The first question I got to ask related to the service because there were quite a few instances when people prayed for people to get well in a hospital. I was wondering if people actually thought that their prayers would have an effect on the outcome. The answers I got, frankly, really surprised me.

There was a young lady who said she knew prayer worked because she or one of her friends (these things are always anecdotal, so bear with me here) had a miracle cure that was inexplicable. One day, a person didn’t need crutches anymore. The pastor also referenced a few examples in his life when people suddenly got better. I had no idea in this day and age, much less in an environment like the University of Chicago, people still subscribe to these superstitious beliefs about faith-healing. Of course, there was some discussion about scientific studies about the (non)influence of prayer, but few seemed to understand that virtually all the scientific literature pointed to the fact that prayer has no medical effect. Someone briefly mentioned this study which showed that only when patients knew that they were being prayed for was there an effect (and the effect was negative because of performance anxiety).

Anyways, the more interesting part of the discussion came when we discussed topics like morality and “finding hope as an atheist”. Nothing surprised me here, and the arguments on both sides were pretty standard. We got very very good questions from the Christians there too, like “How do you define good?” and “Where did we develop the ability to empathize?”

Of course, I’d be surprised once again. The pastor talked about how great it would be to survive one’s death and live into an afterlife. After all, we could do so much more than just try to leave a legacy here on Earth. My response was simply that, yes, although I find Hell an appalling concept, the idea of Heaven–the idea that one could survive death–is very appealing. It would be great if it were true.

The pastor then replied, “Oh. So you simply don’t see that the Resurrection shows that there is an after-life.”

“What? Did you say that the Resurrection proves that there is an after-life?” asking for clarification when I couldn’t believe my ears.

Do you see where this is going? Even if one could demonstrate positively that there was a Resurrection, there is no possible relevance to the question of whether there is an after-life.

I commented that I myself could be Resurrected, and everything I say could be nonsense. After all, there were many Resurrections in the Bible. Clearly, there was something terribly wrong with his argument.

So the pastor clarified that the Resurrection demonstrated the existence of an after-life because of who Jesus was. He was supposedly an exemplary moral figure, a man who made spectacular claims about the Universe, and performed many many miracles. He even predicted his own future. I found it quite odd that he admits that the Resurrection itself isn’t sufficient; it is only sufficient when it is couple with even more spectacular non-sequitur claims about being related to God, predicting the future, and performing miracles.

But how does that show anything? First of all, I can easily conceive of a (fictional) person who made the spectacular claims that Jesus did, did all the miracles, acted perfectly moral, and fulfilled many prophecies. Yet, he could still be the Devil’s assistant, sent here to trick men into believing an after-life.

But that’s not even the main problem with the argument. The most surprising thing is that this is a pastor advising people on what he believes based on a widely fallacious argument from authority.

Suppose Jesus said something demonstrably true like “for all right triangles, side one squared plus side two squared equals the hypotenuse squared”. It would seem like the pastor would like us to believe that the theorem is true because Jesus said it. I, and most atheists, on the other hand, think that propositions are true or false based on the properties of the thing being referred to (in this case, a right triangle). We believe therefore the only proper way to know if something is true is to study the thing itself (through geometry) and not by listening to authority.

Similarly, answers to questions like “is there an afterlife?” beg for study of the existence of the afterlife itself. We can try to study consciousness to see if it can possibly survive after death. We can refer to cognitive philosophy. We can look at studies of near-death experiences. Maybe the endeavor is futile, and we can’t know the answer.

But too many religious people say they already know, and that it is true because a figure in a desert said it was so, and because he:

i) had a mom who never had sex
ii) could turn water in wine
iii) claimed to be the Son of God
iv) was a perfect moral figure
v) etc. etc. etc.

If we imagine this list going to infinity, would that convince us? Would that convince you?

Always looking for surprises. Until next time, don’t keep the faith.


Any Miracle You Can Do, Randi Can Do Better

One of the most inspirational people of all time. He spent his life exposing all the claims of miracles and magic, and his foundation still has a one million dollar prize fund for anyone who can demonstrate the existence of supernatural phenomenon under laboratory conditions.

We need more people like James Randi because we need rationalists and skeptics dedicated to using the scientific method to analyze our fallibilities. We are pattern-seeking creatures, finding connections when none exist, thinking there is causation when there is only correlation, and resorting to theories that are unsubstantiated by the evidence. We live in a world of Moon-landing deniers, Birthers, Truthers, faith healers, mediums (and other people who think they can communicate with the divine). Our intuitions are very bad when it comes to understanding benefits and risks. We fear things that shouldn’t be feared, we group and stereotype peoples, and we selectively look for evidence to support our own beliefs.

That’s why the secular community is so important. We shouldn’t rely on religious groups to keep their own religious frauds and conspiracy theories in check. All we are going to get is a group of people saying “science and religion are compatible” and that “Jesus predicted that there would be false prophets all along.”

We need people dedicated to actively finding out the truth at all costs, people who are competent in evaluating evidence and are willing to change their minds. We need investigators, not accommodationists. And we need people brave enough to expose the quacks.

How to Get Your Prayers Answered

Buy a prayer rug?

Apparently so, according to this mailing I received. I learned that if one is selling stuff with absolutely no value (promises of medical recovery, money, land, eternal life, etc.), one might as well design it in such a way as to make the reader nauseous. Rows of rows of bolding and ostentatious underlining, combined with content that makes me want to throw up: that’s apparently more than enough to convince people of the power of answered prayers.

Silly Rabbis, Tricks are For Kids

The library of idiotic and meaningless statements uttered by self-professed holy men keeps endlessly growing. When will we stop being preached to and treated like mindless children?

The Huffington Post featured a so-called A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence by Rabbi Jacobs. One might expect another round of toned-down religious mush similar to the arguments from what I now call the New-Age Christians. Instead, we get a pseudo-argument bordering on lunacy.

One might suppose that in the six or so decades since the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick during which researchers have been investigating the origin of life they might have come up with some pretty solid leads to explain it. The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.

Rabbi Jacobs wants us to think that the discovery of something means that a complete explanation for it should come from science in about sixty years. How long did it take to fully understand the atom after we first discovered it? The truth is that we STILL don’t understand everything about atoms or their origins (although we are getting closer), and that’s okay. Science does not work on a schedule; it doesn’t promise answers to really difficult questions because some man from the Huffington Post demands it. But the hardworking men and women in the field do try very very hard nonetheless.

And that’s the point. We have made so much progress on the understanding of DNA that it’s simply amazing. Just 20 years ago, many people wouldn’t have imagined how far we’ve come in sequencing not only our DNA but those of many other species, and how much closer we are getting to understanding how early life could have developed and evolved. Rabbi Jacobs, on the other hand, makes a living out of giving answers on things that he couldn’t possibly know or understand, and he attacks others for being as ignorant as he is.

There just is no evidence for it. Not one of them has the foggiest notion about how to answer life’s most fundamental question: How did life arise on our planet? The non-believer is thus faced with two choices: to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box or to choose to believe in the vanishingly small odds that the astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance, which of course presents its own problems:

It is not an article of faith to be open to the strong possibility that science will answer questions about life’s origins. It may entirely possible that a good explanation is far away, but the evidence is that science, again and again and again, has always pushed the frontiers of our knowledge. Not only has it done that, it has pushed back the claims of the religious and put a well-deserved check on nonsense claims and superstitions.

One of those claims is intelligent design, which Rabbi Jacobs is essentially making. When Jacobs says that the “astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance,” I have no choice but to think that either he doesn’t believe in evolution (which I find unlikely) or that he has a typical but serious misconception of it (one that presupposes the driving forces of evolution are random). That’s because if we was talking about abiogenesis, he wouldn’t be referring to “intelligence” or even “complexity,” characteristics more descriptive of modern forms of life.

In short, his O’Reillian argument is this: God exists because I don’t know how shit came about.

The second trickster is Rabbi Artson, who participated in a 4-person debate with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Rabbi Wolpe.

When asked by Sam Harris about his explanation for why innocent people encounter so much random suffering in this world, Rabbi Artson gives the following response (at 35:20).

It is a Medieval mistake based on Aristotelian thought that God has to be an unmoved mover, and thereby eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. … I apologize for the way that philosophers kidnapped the tradition, but it is not in the Torah, and the concept is a nonsense concept.

[Sam Harris]: So you’re saying that God doesn’t have the power to change these things?

Yes, of course that’s what I’m saying. What God has is a different kind of power than that of the dictator. What I look to God to be is a persuasive power more comparable to a teacher, or a lover, or a parent who teaches and inspires you to be the best by seeing your potential and by giving you the potential to rise to it. But I don’t believe in a God that breaks the rules, who can intervene, and do magic.

God is a weak, powerless entity who just inspires people and can’t perform any miracles? That’s the God of Judaism and Christianity?

Of course, Christopher Hitchens wasn’t going to let this one slide (40:00)

One of the reasons why I like debating with the religious is that you never know what they are going to say next. Sam and I don’t mind being called predictable. We know what we think. We say straight up where we think we know, where we think it is not possible to know, why we don’t think there’s the supernatural, and so on. But this evening already we’ve had your suggestion that God is only really a guru, a friend when you’re in need. I mean he wouldn’t do anything like bugger around with Job to prove a point…


If I now tell you that must mean the book wasn’t really the word of God, you would say, “who ever believed that that ever was the word of God?” Let me just tell you something. For hundreds and thousands of years, this kind of discussion would have been in most places impossible to have, or Sam and I would have been having it at the risk of our lives. Religion now comes to us in this smiling face ingratiating way because it has had to give so much ground and because we know so much more. Don’t forget the way it behaved when it was strong and when it really believed that it had God on its side.

Afterwards, Rabbi Artson remarked that he really didn’t like participating in this debate. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean, but the audience really deserved a good debate, and I don’t think they got it. Hitchens and Harris clearly laid out their claims and arguments, while the other side served mush and kept talking about what they didn’t believe, all while changing the story to avoid difficult questions.

The last trickster is Rabbi Schmuley, whose debating style is as bad as his lack of substance. After all, if you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, why not just yell?

Inspiration of the Day: Watch the whole Hitchens, Harris, Rabbi debate. Hitchens makes a Star Wars reference somewhere in there.

Reflections on the Supernatural

“If we can observe it, it is by definition natural.”

On a pragmatic level, there is nothing wrong with the above statement. Let’s say you see an apple fly up into the air and out of your sight. This very observation seems to fly against (literally and figuratively) what we know about gravity and how fruits normally behave, for the simple reason that under normal circumstances, there is usually not a force that propels an apple into the air. Thus, in keeping with the theory of gravity, we start to find plausible reasons for why the apple flew into the air.

Was it shot out of a cannon that we didn’t see? Was there a thin string attached to the apple and pulled on the other side by an airplane? Or perhaps more importantly, could our observation be a figment of the imagination? If so, were there other people who saw this apple?

My answer to this question of whether the mysterious flying apple is always natural phenomenon is complicated on two levels. The actual motion of the apple flying into the air (if proven beyond a doubt that I was not imagining it) is undoubtedly a natural event, for the simple reason that it happened in our universe.

Yet, I believe there is something more when we say a phenomenon is natural; a natural phenomenon not only occurs in the natural, observable world, but is wholly contained by it—in all causes and relations. To understand my point, let me point you to another hypothetical situation.

Let’s pretend we all hear a voice. I’m not talking about the kind of mysterious, unverifiable voice that is supposed to be interpreted metaphorically through vague, general signs—the kind that religious people claim is “God answering prayers.” No, I mean an audible voice (preferably in English, but Cantonese is fine too) that we can all hear with our ears.

By all means, the mysterious audible sound—constituted physically by the molecules that vibrate along with the undulating sound waves in the air—is entirely a natural phenomenon. Yet, to call the voice natural by definition is to avoid the possibility that the cause (and the event’s relations to other things) of this voice is natural, for which I point out that it could possibly not be. Scientists may try to understand the presence of this voice by hypothesizing that it comes from natural causes like alien technology or the KGB, but one could also say that the spirits of the Underworld are talking to us. The ability to observe an event does not automatically exclude the possibility of supernaturalism in that event’s causes and relations.

Don’t get me wrong. To acknowledge the possibility of supernaturalism as a part of the theoretical/paradigmatic framework for events is not to suggest that supernatural explanations are equally valid. As it stands, there is absolutely no evidence for the supernatural, or for any need to think that supernatural explanations are needed to explain anything. So much for the Intelligent Design proponents, who have been thoroughly and completely discredited in the court room and in the scientific community. And how unfortunate it is for religious people in general, whose prophets and gods happen to only talk to them in private, making revelations only by whispering to select people in illiterate and backwards places thousands of years ago, and performing great miracles only to cease whenever science starts to flourish.

No, I don’t think I’m detracting from science at all. In fact, by acknowledging the possibility of supernaturalism, I believe we can better appreciate and understand the natural explanations that we have already, thanks to the immense progress of science. I suggest therefore, that instead of laughing at the person who claims to know for sure that the mysterious flying apple was caused by Yoda harnessing the power of the Force, perhaps we could do our own investigation and work to find a natural explanation that is supported by the evidence, strong in predictive power, and logically consistent. The same goes for any similarly disputed events.

I’ll close with words from PZ Myers: “If you’ve got a religious belief that withers in the face of observations of the natural world, you ought to rethink your beliefs — rethinking the world isn’t an option.”