For God so loved the world…

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son to be publicly humiliated, tortured, and killed… because God had created a strange rule that required blood sacrifices whenever people did something he didn’t like. And he thought it was getting out of control. So many goats were dying. It just wasn’t fair to the goats. But somebody still had to die, right?! “Sure, why not”, God thought, instead of just admitting the whole blood-thing was a little overboard in the first place. So, he sent his son to die as the eternal sacrifice to replace the goats. And his son died for, like, three whole days. It was terrible. But his son’s alive again and now the goats get to live as well. And they are grateful.

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On Death

When people find out that I’m an atheist, they sometimes ask… “so what do you think will happen to you after you die?” My answer is simple. I think I will cease to exist. I don’t know this for sure and I would be excited to have an opportunity for an afterlife, but I think I will cease to exist.

“Are you afraid of death?”, the question follows. And when I first lost my faith I would have answered “yes”. I answered this way, because I was raised with the belief that I would live forever. And I believed it. So when I lost my faith, I also lost my immortality.

And it was shocking… I went from thinking I would live forever, no matter what happened to me today, tomorrow, or anytime down the road, to thinking that any moment could be my last. It wasn’t an easy transition… but if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you just don’t believe, easy or not.

I went through a phase where I reflected a lot. I always reflect a lot, but I reflected more than usual. I would think to myself… this day could be my last. And it scared me. I didn’t think it was a probability, but it was possible (and of course still is).

But then something changed… the idea of mortality transitioned from being a fear to becoming a freedom. “This day could be my last” became “this day could be my last!”.

I know they’re the same words, but you can read them in two different ways. One is fear based, the next is freedom based. As in, one day my world is going to end whether it’s today or tomorrow or 80 years from now. It could happen at any time… so it’s time to make every day meaningful!

It’s up to us to make our lives meaningful – and there are plenty of different meanings to choose from. For myself, I’ve found a deeper purpose in relationships and adventures. And I’m blessed to know lots of awesome people and have way too much fun.

And while I don’t want any of this to end, I’m not afraid of the end. If it happens in 80 years, or tomorrow, or today, all I can say is that I’m happy to have been here. I can only die because I’m alive. And I’m alive.

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How Groups Impact Perception & Interpretation

In Chapter 8 of the book “Subliminal”, physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow recalls an interesting experiment by Muzafer Sherif, PhD, that demonstrates how peoples’ perceptions often conforms to that of the groups around them – so strongly that the conformity remains even when the individual is no longer surrounded by the group.

Here’s an excerpt:

“In his work, decades ahead of its time, Sherif brought subjects into a dark room and displayed a small illuminated dot on a wall. After a few moments, the dot would appear to move. But that was just an illusion. The appearance of motion was the result of tiny eye movements that caused the image on the retina to jiggle… under normal conditions the brain, detecting the simultaneous jiggling of all the objects in a scene, corrects for this jiggling, and you perceive the scene as motionless. But when a dot of light is viewed without context the brain is fooled and perceives the dot as moving in space. Moreover, since there are no other objects for reference, the magnitude of the motion is open to a wide degree of interpretation. Ask different people how far the dot has moved and you get widely different answers.

Sherif showed the dot to three people at a time and instructed them that whenever they saw the dot move, they should call out how far it had moved. An interesting phenomenon occurred: people in a given group would call out different numbers, some high and some low, but eventually their estimates would converge to within a narrow range, the ‘norm’ for that group of three. Although the norm varied widely from group to group, within each group the members came to agree upon a norm, which they arrived at without discussion or prompting. Moreover, when individual group members were invited back a week later to repeat the experiment, this time on their own, they replicated the estimates arrived at by their group. The perception of the subjects’ in-group had become their perception.”

There is something to be said for belonging to a group. We are social creatures and we strive to connect with others. We enjoy being surrounded by likeminded people, but how do we balance this with a quest for the truth? How can we protect ourselves from being so sure about our in-group’s subjective convictions so we can be more open to the subjective thoughts and views of others – as well as objective reality?

Thought to consider: If you, along with your in-group, arrived at the conclusion that the ‘dot moved two inches’ (based on the experiment above); what would be needed to change your mind? Would you be less certain after talking to people from other groups who thought the dot moved three or four inches? And what would be required for somebody to convince you that the dot actually didn’t move at all?

(I don’t mean to only pose this question to you; it’s something I ask myself as well…)

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The Magic-Underwear Apologist

After pointing out that there is no empirical evidence to support the ‘power of prayer’ – as well as arguing that it would be complete nonsense for god to intervene due to some prayers of some believers, as they claim happens, while seemingly not intervening for more desperate needs of other people (including believers) – I am often presented with a theistic position that essentially boils down to “it’s still possible”…

…It’s still possible that god allows some people to experience pain because they don’t have enough faith – or in other cases because they have plenty of faith and all that matters in the big picture is eternity. It’s still possible that god answers prayers in a manner that is consistent with the natural world so that we simply have no way of determining for sure when he is or isn’t intervening. And it’s still possible that there are hundreds or thousands of hidden factors behind god’s decisions to intervene or not – and we simply cannot effectively weigh-in on the lack of evidence since we don’t know what these factors might be.

Anything is possible…

Consider the Mormon “magic-underwear apologist”. If you pointed out that there is no empirical evidence to support the power of magic-underwear – the temple garments that Mormons believe they should wear whenever possible for spiritual and/or physical protection – the apologist would still have a handful of arguments at his disposal.

…It’s still possible that the temple garments aren’t able to work when people aren’t in the right spiritual place in their hearts – or other times they may be at the perfect place spiritually to where it is fine that their time on earth comes to an end or that they may endure struggles as an example to others on how to hold firm to god. It’s still possible that the temple garments work in a manner that is consistent with the natural world so we simply have no way of determining for sure when they are working. And it’s still possible that there are hundreds or thousands of hidden factors behind the power of the temple garments – and we simply cannot effectively weigh-in on the lack of evidence since we don’t know what these factors might be.

Anything is possible… but you still don’t have a good reason to wear magic underwear now, do you?

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Can you pray for me?

Most Christians would deny that god is somebody who tallies prayer totals before responding – but the simple act of asking other people to pray for a specific request would seem to suggest that most believe that the accumulation of prayers add up to perhaps persuade god to ‘divinely intervene’ (or at least make it more likely that he will listen).

I can only imagine god standing in heaven thinking: “Hmmm, I have a request to help Jake get well soon. I need a few more. The kid better ask his family to pray. Okay, okay… up to 15 now. I’m thinking he should ask his classmates and church congregation as well. Ahhh… there we go, 500 prayer requests – good enough for me! Time to intervene* and save the day!”

*Note: It’s a known god-code that intervention must always be done in a way that seems consistent with the natural world just in case anybody is searching for god with any hint of skepticism. God thinks mystery is way more fun.

So when asking for prayer requests, what is god’s tipping point? One prayer isn’t enough? Five prayers? A whole congregation? More?

If the prayer request is worthy of god’s response, shouldn’t it be worthy of his response regardless of how many people are praying? If so, why ask others to pray as well? And if it is truly worthy of altering ‘god’s plan’, then shouldn’t god have planned better?

I sometimes wonder if the appeal for prayers is just a Christian-way to ask for moral support, while veiling it in a religious context… not sure. Thoughts?

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There are two ways to search for truth

In the book “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior“, author Leonard Mlodinow explores the balance between the conscious and the sub-conscious – examining how our minds attempt to understand the world around us.

The following quote is an excellent reminder for what we all need to be careful of (from pages 200-201):

“As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, there are two ways to get at the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their observations, and test them. Attorneys begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t. The human mind is designed to be both a scientist and an attorney, both a conscious seeker of objective truth and an unconscious, impassioned advocate for what we want to believe. Together these approaches vie to create our worldview.

Believing in what you desire to be true and then seeking evidence to justify it doesn’t seem to be the best approach to everyday decisions. For example, if you’re at the races, it is rational to bet on the horse you believe is fastest, but it doesn’t make sense to believe a horse is fastest because you bet on it. Similarly, it makes sense to choose a job you believe is appealing, but it’s irrational to believe a job is appealing because you’ve accepted the offer. Still, even though in each case the latter approach doesn’t make rational sense, it is the irrational choice that would probably make you happier. And the mind generally seems to opt for happy. In both these instances, the research indicates, it is the latter choice that people are likely to make. The ‘causal arrow’ in human thought processes consistently tends to point from belief to evidence, not vice versa.

As it turns out, the brain is a decent scientist but an absolutely outstanding lawyer. The result is that in the struggle to fashion a coherent, convincing view of ourselves and the rest of the world, it is the impassioned advocate that usually wins over the truth seeker.”

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ABC News – The Power of Belief

In this ABC News Special – originally aired on October 6, 1998 – host John Stossel examines popular claims of therapeutic touch, psychic detectives, faith healing, voodoo curses, channelling, and the media’s lack of inquiry into pseudoscience.

Check it out below. And I apologize that the YouTube video below is low-quality, but it’s the best online version I could find. If you want to order it on DVD, you can get it through Amazon.com.

Note: It’s a six-video series. After each video section ends, it should automatically forward you to the next video in the series. The total runtime is 42 minutes.

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“Dear Christians” – A Letter from God

A few days ago, CNN posted an article entitled “My Take: This is where God was in Aurora“.  I’m not here to talk about the article, though, but instead share one of the comments that caught my eye (and has since been making the rounds online).

Here it is (via One Furious Llama) :

Dear Christians:

God here. I thought I would take the time to personally explain my absence in the Aurora shootings. While I was at it, I thought I would also explain my absence during every murder, massacre and crime that has ever taken place in World history, and in every war, in every famine, drought and flood.

You see, I do not exist. I never have. Did it really make sense to you that I would create an entire Universe with billions of billions of planets and wait about 13,700,000,000 years just so I could focus on a few Jews from Palestine about 2,000 years ago while ignoring the rest of the 200,000,000 people on the planet at the time? Did I make those few Jews or did those few Jews make me?

Further, do you really think I would sit back and do nothing while Nazis killed 6 million of my “chosen people,” but find it important enough to intervene and turn water into wine to stop some hosts being embarrassed at a wedding in Cana? Why did I seem to be so active in the Middle East for a brief period about 2,000 years ago, but totally absent everywhere else on the planet and for the rest of recorded history? Did I make the Jews or did the Jews make me?

So, you really think my periodic miracles prove my existence hey? Then why not something inarguable and unambiguous, like a huge crucifix in the sky, or my face on the moon? Why is it always that believers have to construct my miracles out of perfectly explicable natural events?

This happens every time there is a tragedy or near tragedy of any kind, anywhere in the world and in all cultures. Captain “Sully” Sullenberger pilots a distressed plane to land safely on the Hudson River in New York City with no deaths, and it’s a miracle from God; a young girl is found in India, totally terrorized, but alive after being abducted and raped for a week, and it’s a miracle from my competitor Rama (or Vishnu or Shiva) that she is returned to her parents; or a family in Northern Pakistan survives an errant American missile attack, and it’s a miracle from Allah.

What all these self-serving proclamations of miraculous intervention always ignore is the downside of the incidents. The fact that the passengers and crew of Flight 1549 were terrorized and the plane destroyed, that 11 innocent people are dead in Aurora, that the girl was held for seven days, raped and sodomized and will be traumatized for the rest of her life, or that a number of innocent civilians were killed by the missile.

Of course, none of these incidents really are “miracles”. When the totality of facts are taken into account, “miracles” turn out to be nothing more than believers who are desperate for some sign of my existence ignoring the downside of a set of facts, focusing solely on the upside and calling the quarantined “good” a miracle from me or one of the other sky-fairies. A CEO might as well ignore the liability side of his balance sheet and declare it a “miracle” that his company just doubled in value.

Another annoying habit my “miracles” seem to have is that they always seem to tag along, just behind medical science, like an annoying kid brother who won’t go away. Until the mid nineties, those with AIDS who prayed for a miracle were never granted one. Medical science finds a way to permanently suppress the disease, and all of a sudden I start to perform miracles with AIDS patients. No polio patient ever received a miracle until the Salk vaccine and I routinely ignored cancer patients until chemotherapy and radiation treatments were developed. Suddenly, prayers to me from cancer patients are regularly “answered”.

Why is it that I still seem deaf to the pleadings of amputees who would like their fingers, arms or legs back, to those who have physically lost eyes or ears, to the horribly burned and to all others who ail from patently visible and currently incurable maladies? Why is it that, at the very same time, I am very receptive to the prayers of those whose condition is uncertain, internal and vulnerable to miraculous claims?

Take five minutes to make two lists; one of those ailments I will miraculously cure and the other of those I will not. You will quickly find it coincides perfectly with those conditions medical science (or the human body itself) can defeat and those we cannot. Why do you think that is? It is almost as my miracles are created out of medical ambiguity isn’t it?

No, my human friends. I am afraid I do not exist. I do not read your minds (or “hear your prayers” as you like to call it) and you are not going to achieve immortality (or “eternal life” as you like to call it) no matter how many commandments from Iron Age Palestine you choose to “keep”. Move on and enjoy the few years you have. You were all dead for the last 13,700,000,000 years and it wasn’t that least bit uncomfortable now, was it?

God

 

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Dead people can’t talk…

Living people can share stories of ‘God’s protection’ on their lives; how he saved them from that horrible accident, how their cancer went into remission, and so forth. But dead people can’t talk; they can’t share their tragic stories of lives that ended too early, and often too painfully.

Some religious folks say it’s okay, because the dead are going to paradise! No more pain and no more suffering, only unfathomable perfection. Paradise sounds amazing! But I’m left wondering, then, why they’re so happy that God has protected their earthly lives rather than allowing them to escape to eternal bliss.

Some say that god doesn’t intervene in difficult situations because he respects our freedom of choice, but that’s not consistent with a god who supposedly does intervene in difficult situations to protect his followers. You can’t have it both ways. If god intervenes to save some, then he could also intervene to save others. The rules either exist or they don’t.

So when people thank god for protecting their lives, I think they should remember that dead people can’t talk. I won’t guess what the dead would say, but I doubt it would be ‘thank god’.

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Is a “magical resurrection” really the best explanation for the known facts?

When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, Christian historians such as Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, N.T. Wright, Lee Strobel, and others will typically conclude that “Jesus’ resurrection [is] the best explanation of the known facts” (Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Chapter 4).

So what are the known facts? For the sake of brevity, since this is a massive topic with books upon books written on both sides of the debate, here is an ultra-brief summary of the known facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus:

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died somewhere between 30-33 A.D.
  2. The tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty.
  3. Jesus’ disciples genuinely believed that they saw Jesus risen from the dead.
  4. Saul of Tarsus (later known as the apostle Paul) was an enemy of the church but became one of its biggest promoters after seeing what he believed was the risen Jesus.
  5. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was a skeptic during Jesus’ 3 years of ministry but became a leader in the Jerusalem church.
  6. The disciples went from fearful for their lives to boldly proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection even under pang of death.

Now, it must be stated that these facts are not all granted by all historians, and that several mythicist arguments demonstrate that it is difficult to consider anything to do with Jesus’ life as a fact. However, for the sake of this article, we will grant the above list as facts.

When considering the list of facts, it seems at face value that there is only one true explanation: Jesus must have been supernaturally resurrected! How else do you explain it? He died, his tomb was later found empty, people believed they saw him after he died, and people boldly proclaimed their belief in his resurrection. So what other explanation could there possibly be?

Instead of getting into the arguments against the resurrection (here’s a link with some, if you’re interested), I’m going to create an analogy and hope you follow along.

Time for a magic trick…

Imagine a magician came up to you and a crowd of others and offered to perform magic that would blow your mind. You accept. As the magician performs, there are several facts established along the way:

  1. The magician cuts and shuffles a deck of cards a couple times. You and other audience members catch glimpses of different cards.
  2. You are asked to remove a card from the deck, memorize it, and place it back (wherever you wish) into the deck of cards.
  3. After you return the card, you are asked to name the card you had removed. “Queen of hearts!”, you proclaim.
  4. The magician puts the deck of cards into his mouth. He bites down, groans, wiggles, and acts like the card is moving down his body into his leg and continuing downward. After quite a struggle, the magician asks you to pull off his right shoe and look inside.
  5. You remove his right shoe, and within it you find the queen of hearts.
  6. Unprompted by the magician, you grab the deck of cards, examine it, and find that it is missing the queen of hearts.

How do you explain this event?

Do you immediately proclaim to the rest of the world that the magician swallowed your card and somehow made it appear in his own shoe? How else could you possibly explain such a thing? You were right there, you held the card, you placed it in the deck, you watched the magician as he seemed to swallow it, you removed the shoe, you found the card, and you later examined the deck to find that the queen of hearts was missing.

Would you reach a conclusion that is similar to that of the Christian apologists and submit that  ”the magician’s magical powers are the best explanation of the known facts”? Or would you still be unconvinced?

A rational person would not conclude that supernatural magic was the best explanation for the card trick. Magic may be the most obvious explanation, the simplest explanation, and the cleanest way to resolve all the facts, but this doesn’t mean it is the best explanation!

You will likely agree that the true and natural explanation for the magic trick is far more difficult to find. You may have dozens of different reasons as to why you don’t think it was actual, supernatural magic – and yet you may still not be able to create a narrative that fully resolves the known facts.

Perhaps you will never be able to explain the magic trick completely, but you should still stubbornly submit that “there’s not enough evidence to conclude that it was magic”, because you recognize that the more reasonable explanation is that you were missing some very important details.

The true explanation is far more difficult to find…

The actual explanation for the trick may seem horribly unbelievable if you are only willing to grant the six fully-supported known facts, as it might combine rare and unlikely explanations together… and require adding additional details to the picture that were otherwise unavailable to you from your initial vantage point. Meaning, in order to reach the actual best explanation for the magic trick, you will necessarily need to go beyond the known facts.

However, even if you never find out the true explanation for the magic trick – and cannot on your own (or with input from others) formulate a natural theory that addresses all of the known facts – you should still not agree that ‘magic’ is the best explanation. Quite simply, to suggest it was magic would be to assert an extraordinary claim without having an extraordinary amount of evidence to support the claim.

Do you want the real explanation for the magic trick?

I have performed this trick multiple times – and nobody has ever come close to guessing the actual explanation. But… here it is. The actual explanation requires these additional facts:

  • The magician was using a special deck of cards with 18 queen of hearts cards, 18 ace of spades cards, and 18 two of diamonds cards.
  • The magician had pre-planted a queen of hearts in his right shoe, an ace of spades in his left shoe, and a two of diamonds in his wallet – so that no matter which card you selected from the deck, it could ‘magically’ appear in either a shoe or the wallet.
  • The magician switched decks while you were pulling the card out of the shoe, so that if you ever desired to examine the deck after the trick, your card would be missing (along with the two other hidden cards).

(Side Note: Here’s a great link where Teller, of Penn & Teller, explains why this sort of trick is so effective.)

But that’s not good enough for a magic-apologist!

While an observer might be able to come up with these possibilities in order to explain what happened without appealing to the supernatural, a staunch magic-apologist would argue against considering any of them as valid. For one, none of the real-life witnesses (audience members) were able to corroborate any of these details. And you certainly can’t prove that it was a special deck, that the magician had pre-planted cards on himself, or that he switched decks.

Not only is there zero evidence to support any of these ‘additional facts’ – but each of them are so far-fetched and unreasonable that they should be washed away as meaningless speculation.

The magic-apologist would conclude that if we were to examine and value the actual evidence, rather than speculate with unsubstantiated guesses, that magic remains the best explanation. And yet… you and I know otherwise. We know that magic is not the best explanation for the known facts. We know that the more difficult, disjointed, and convoluted explanation is better; and even if we never knew the actual explanation, we would not believe that the magic trick was supernatural. So why should we treat the resurrection any different?

If it truly was magic, the truth should be able to set itself free!

If you did believe that magic was the most reasonable explanation, you would expect that this belief would be confirmed time and time again in the future, without relying on confirmation bias. As in, if the magic was real you would expect that it would be able to pass the tests of both believers and skeptics! If you believed the magician could perform supernatural magic, then you would think that he would be able to provide extraordinary evidence to support this extraordinary claim.

It wouldn’t be enough to allow the magician to choose his tricks and perform them whenever or however he wishes. In order to prove his supernatural abilities, the magician would need to prove his abilities in a monitored environment – such as being examined to make sure he doesn’t have trick cards or pre-planted cards on his body, being given a normal deck of cards and only being able to use it during the trick, and so forth. Actual magic should be able to prove itself throughout all sorts of tests and inquiry!

(Note: magicians, psychics, faith healers, mediums, fortune tellers, and so forth all fail to prove their abilities according to this sort of test… and nobody has ever passed James Randi’s One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.)

And once again, there’s a parallel here to the story of Jesus. If the resurrection story is true, and Jesus is in fact still alive and well today and personally involved in our world, then we should expect to find evidence that supports his existence. And I’m not talking about the sort of evidence that passes the test for current believers such as ‘feeling his power’ or interpreting positive events as being caused by him. Rather, I’m talking about evidence that would be able to withstand the scrutiny of skeptics. And yet… it just isn’t there.

The evidence for a personal God that is interacting with our world is unrecognizable, at best. God is either non-existent or impossible to measure. Terminally ill people who pray to Jesus for healing do not have a statistically significant better chance of recovering from their illnesses than non-believers who don’t pray, or to people of other religions who pray to other gods. Quite simply, the studies on intercessory prayer fail to produce any significant findings. And it extends beyond prayer as well. There is simply no empirical evidence to demonstrate that there is a personal God, which is why believers of all religions must necessarily rely on faith.

So should we believe in a magical explanation simply because it does the best job of accounting for all of the known facts? Or should we instead question a response that appeals to the supernatural – and require such an extraordinary claim to have an extraordinary amount of evidence to support it before we accept it as true?

When it comes to a card trick, it seems obvious that magic isn’t the best explanation. So why should magic be considered the best explanation for the resurrection story? I don’t think it should…

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