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.
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.
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.