Rick Perry's Prayer Follies

Whether you're an atheist or not, you should be alarmed by the sight of elected officials making a big public show of praying during a crisis. It's not that prayer itself does anything one way or the other - it's that their beseeching the gods for help is a good hint, not just that they have no ideas, but that they've given up even trying and are staking their hopes on a miracle. Which is why this story, about the man who happens to be the most recent entrant in the Republican presidential field, is even more disturbing than the usual drumbeat of Christian privilege:

A few months ago, with Texas aflame from more than 8,000 wildfires brought on by extreme drought, a man who hopes to be the next president took pen in hand and went to work:
    "Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas."
    Then the governor prayed, publicly and often. Alas, a rainless spring was followed by a rainless summer. July was the
hottest month in recorded Texas history... In the four months since Perry's request for divine intervention, his state has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Nearly all of Texas is now in "extreme or exceptional" drought, as classified by federal meteorologists, the worst in Texas history.

In fact, as reported in a later article, the economic losses from Texas' severe and ongoing drought have now topped $5 billion, setting a record. What conclusion should we draw from this story? Should it be that Perry was praying to the wrong god and the real one got angry and worsened the drought? (Maybe he should try praying to other gods - bowing toward Mecca, say, or sacrificing a bull to Zeus - just to see if one of them will help out.) Or maybe Rick Perry himself is just bad at praying. Maybe he's committed some secret sin that God is punishing him for, and any state or country that he governs will be afflicted by drought and devastation. Or, of course, maybe it's just that God doesn't exist or doesn't answer prayers.

An empirically-minded voter would at least consider all these possibilities. But as a Republican, Perry has the advantage of a huge faction of constituents who think that ostentatious public displays of piety are the same thing as character and virtue, and who can be counted on to remember the prayer and forget the result. The inconvenient fact that his praying didn't help will be filed in a mental drawer and forgotten, just as they're used to forgetting all the times prayer made no difference in their own lives. On the other hand, if he had issued a prayer proclamation and the skies had opened up the day afterward, it would be a miracle remembered for decades, and Perry would probably be using it in his campaign literature right now. From a politician's standpoint, it's a win-win situation (which explains why Georgia's governor tried the same thing in 2007, with equally pathetic results).

The elephant lurking in the room is that these increasingly extreme swings of weather are likely due in part to global climate change. But rather than taking effective action, like shutting down coal-fired power plants or offering tax incentives for alternative energy, the anti-science evangelicals would prefer to squeeze their eyes tightly shut and pray for God to magically rescue them from the crisis of their own making. In fact, they're dead set on continuing to foster antiscientific ignorance.

When hurricanes strike our coasts, the religious right won't call for engineers to build seawalls or restore barrier reefs, they'll bow their heads and try to pray the next storm away. When drought and wildfire strikes, they won't call for more efficient water use, they'll just beg God to send more rain so they can continue their wasteful ways. When the economy plunges, they won't vote for government stimulus to put people back to work, they'll just kneel and implore God to fix it (how they expect this to happen, they never quite say - this one is especially mysterious).

As a growing human population presses against the limits of what our planet can sustain, nothing is more important than steering our course wisely through the next few decades if we're going to thread the needle of survival. This will be difficult enough if we rely on science, but the religious right, having amply demonstrated how relying on faith has worsened their own lives, now wants to have a faith-based civilization. This is like taking a road trip by blindfolding yourself before you get in the driver's seat, spinning the steering wheel at random, and trusting that God will see to it that you end up where you want to go. Unfortunately, we're stuck on the same planet as them, which makes it all the more urgent for those of us who don't share this suicidally irrational faith to loudly and fearlessly defend science and reason.

August 19, 2011, 7:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink47 comments
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Exclusive: See God's Actual Handwriting!

While I was in San Francisco this January, I happened to notice this pamphlet in a newspaper kiosk outside my hotel:

Intrigued, I picked up a copy and read more. It turns out that this is the newsletter of one Vassula Ryden, a Greek housewife who, for over twenty years now, has been receiving regular messages from her guardian angel, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and many more august theological personages. Naturally, she's made it her mission to tell the world - because, really, who wouldn't?

And yea, verily, great loquacity hath poured forth from the pen of the Lord. Since 1986, Ms. Ryden has received over 1,550 pages (!) of divine revelation, which are all available for download on her website in convenient PDF form. This comes out to about 645,000 words - or to put it another way, several times the length of the New Testament and about four-fifths as long as the entire King James Bible.

But possibly my very favorite part of the whole collection of messages is this part, right at the beginning:

Copyright © Vassula Rydén... If you wish to view, print or download this material for commercial purposes, you must first obtain written authorisation from the Foundation for True Life in God. You are not permitted under any circumstances to remove or amend any trademark, copyright or other proprietary notice on this material.

Say what you will about the woman, but it takes serious stones for a mere human to claim copyright on God's actual words!

Now, I bet you skeptics are already scoffing, saying, "Anyone can claim to be receiving messages from God and make up some theological gibberish that sounds like the way they think God would talk. There's no proof that these 'messages' are anything other than her own imagination." But scoff at this, skeptics: Ms. Ryden isn't just receiving these messages in the privacy of her own head. No, she sets them down on paper for the whole world to see - in God's actual handwriting! Just take a look at this excerpt or the scan below, and see for yourself how the penmanship clearly changes from one line to the next:

Although I do have to say, there's a definite fifth-grader-practicing-cursive feel to this. I always kind of thought God's handwriting would be more, you know, Gothic. And have echo-reverb.

I suppose it would be unkind of me to ask if anyone has considered a basic test such as oh, I don't know, writing a message on a chalkboard in a room while Vassula isn't present, then erasing it and bringing her into the room so that God, who is all-knowing, can dictate what it said through her hand. But really, who'd bother with a boring test like that, when we have images of Jesus appearing in a tree behind Vassula, or even Vassula's own persuasive testimony of how her prayers saved the earth from a meteor impact:

This is in the prayer He gave us on the 28th November 2009! Otherwise who says that the meteor was not intended to hit the earth and cover us with ashes if it did? He had put in our mouths the words: "lash not on us Your wrath" twice, otherwise if His wrath was lashed out, "the waters will run dry and nature will wither." Yes, if that meteor hit the earth that night it would have done this sort of damage.

Unfortunately, God hasn't been speaking much to Vassula lately - he's only communicated with her six times since February 2003, and not at all since December 2009. You know how it is; blogging is such a time-consuming hobby, he was probably feeling a little burnt out. (I hear he spends more time on Twitter these days.) Or could it be that he's moved on to greener pastures? Now, if another contender turned up claiming to communicate with God and writing out messages in the exact same handwriting, that would be something to see. Any bookmakers want to offer odds on that proposition?

March 14, 2011, 6:57 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink22 comments
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The Language of God: Science Works!

The Language of God, Chapter 5

By B.J. Marshall

The tagline of this books is "A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." I've seen that the central thesis of the book is trying to harmonize religion and science, so I was surprised to find Collins spending a lot of time talking about how he mapped the genome - I could almost read the nostalgia in his voice - including the privatization issue that arose when Craig Venter (Celera) got into the genome-mapping fray. Part of how Chapter 5 begins is useful because it gives the reader a foundation to understand how heredity, mutations, and evolution work; he'll touch more on those points later. However, Collins doesn't really further his thesis with his discussion of using genomics to tackle the hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin variety of sickle-cell disease or finding the cause of cystic fibrosis in the majority of patients - the deletion of just three letters (CTT) in the protein-coding part of a gene now named CFTR.

But these two stories do bring home a really good point that his readers should not ignore. Given that I have often heard that faith is belief in the absence of or despite evidence, and that Collins' goal is to harmonize science and faith, perhaps the BioLogos Foundation should adopt this as its logo (courtesy of XKCD):

Science: It works, bitches!

I ended up appreciating Collins' difficulty in discovering the cause of cystic fibrosis and his handling of hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin. Those were clearly problems that didn't have solutions before. So it dismays me when I read about problems we previously solved that are either willfully ignored or coming back through a campaign of misinformation.

The first category involves those faithful who think God alone will heal their children. I could see how one who wants to harmonize science and faith would contend that God gave humanity these awesome minds so we could come up with cures for diseases. (Of course, then they'd have the more difficult question of why God would give us diseases in the first place, but that's a different problem.) It seems every week, I read a blog post or see a news article about families who don't give their children medical attention to save their lives. Fortunately, people have begun to take action. Courts have been sending to trial (negligent homicide) parents whose children die from impotent placations to their equally impotent gods.

For the second category, this gets to a broader notion of pseudoscience. Clearly, Creation Science / Intelligent Design falls in this camp, but there are plenty of non-faith-centric areas of pseudoscience out there: acupuncture, chiropractic (link to audio describing chiropractic's start), and probably too many to list. My biggest pet peeve among pseudoscience quackery is the antivax movement, because it has a relative large body count. (It's not the only one with a body count, mind you; people have died from chiropractic, too.) It is not my intent to spend this blog post debunking the entire antivaxxers movement; interested readers should check out the Science Based Medicine blog, the Centers for Disease Control, and other science-based sites. Brian Dunning at Skeptoid has a great podcast discussing the ingredients in vaccines.

As always, don't take my (or anyone's) word for it - it should be up to you to conduct your own research to validate the facts and follow the conclusion the evidence points you towards. That said, I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to create their own cache of empirical evidence before reaching a conclusion. It doesn't seem very plausible for everyone to go out to conduct their own clinical double-blind trials to determine anything. But I think I have enough confidence in the bodies of evidence argued for by a general consensus among professionals in the field to warrant my conclusion in, say for example, anthropogenic global climate change.

The Internet is a great place to conduct one's own research, provided one doesn't get distracted by lolcats.

Other posts in this series:

December 19, 2010, 4:04 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink9 comments
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What Does It Mean for Prayer to be Untestable?

People who are ignorant of science sometimes speak as if the scientific method was some esoteric, arcane method of problem-solving, applicable only to a few highly specialized areas of inquiry and having no relevance to everyday life. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the scientific method is just a more sophisticated, more careful way of asking and answering questions about what is true, with extra safeguards built in to counteract the ways that human beings often fool or mislead ourselves. In principle, science can answer any question whose answer is a matter of empirical fact and not just a matter of opinion or subjective judgment.

This fact has implications for a broad range of religious claims, especially about the efficacy of prayer. Large, well-designed scientific studies have repeatedly failed to find any evidence that sick people who are being prayed for recover faster or more completely than people who aren't. In response, many apologists have retreated to claiming that prayer's effectiveness can't be tested scientifically, such as this one:

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement...

But this claim probably says more than its originator intended. When theists say that prayer is untestable, what they're really saying, whether they realize it or not, is that prayer has no measurable effect on the world. If it did have a measurable, repeatable effect, we could easily design an experiment that would show it. But since believers say that this can't be done, they must mean that prayer has no benefits that can be proven by any test. Consider some of the consequences that necessarily follow from this claim:

Sick theists who pray for healing are no more likely to recover than sick atheists. If people who were prayed for recovered more quickly or more fully than people receiving no prayer, we could easily show this with a test. That was the point of the MANTRA study I linked to above. But if prayer is untestable, then that must mean that prayer has no measurable effect on a person's recovery, regardless of how many people are offering prayers for them or how fervent those people are in their faith.

Theists who pray for success and prosperity are no more likely to receive it than atheists. Prosperity-gospel churches often teach that the more money a believer tithes, the more God will reward them. Again, a longitudinal study tracking the amount of people's donations and comparing it to their subsequent financial success could easily show this to be so. If prayer is untestable, however, this must mean that the amount of money you give to your church has no effect on the odds of your subsequently becoming rich.

More committed, more faithful believers have their prayers answered at the same rate as more casual, less committed believers. Even if you start with the assumption that God only grants prayers that agree with his will, it seems like a reasonable guess that more devoted, more committed believers would have at least a slightly greater understanding of God's will than casual, apathetic churchgoers, and hence their prayers would be more likely to come true. But if prayer is untestable, there must be no such measurable effect, which means that one's level of commitment means nothing to the effectiveness of one's prayers.

The number of people praying for some outcome makes no difference to its probability. Even if the level of one's devotion makes no difference, you might guess that the number of people praying for some outcome would be correlated with how likely that outcome is. But if prayer is untestable, then it must make no difference whether one, a hundred, or a million people pray for something - it would be just as likely, or rather unlikely, to come true.

The specific beliefs of the people praying for some outcome makes no difference to its probability. If there's one true religion, it seems likely that God would only answer the prayers of believers in that religion, or at least would answer their prayers more frequently than the prayers of heretics. But that would also be an easily testable effect. If prayer is untestable, there must be no such effect, and this means that people of all religions - Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Hare Krishna, Jain, Zoroastrian, Shinto - would see their prayers come true with roughly the same frequency.

People who pray daily are no more happier, no more virtuous, and no more trustworthy than people who rarely or never pray. Some people claim that prayer doesn't produce miraculous effects in the world, but is intended to strengthen the faith and improve the character of the believer. But even this can't be true if prayer is untestable. If people who are otherwise alike in social standing are measurably different in any positive psychological trait, depending on whether or how often they pray, this would be a testable effect. We could measure it with the same kind of epidemiological surveys that measure the beneficial health effects of diet or exercise. If this kind of test wouldn't work, then it must be the case that prayer produces no detectable change in the character of the believer.

Nations populated by people who pray frequently are no more socially healthy than irreligious nations. Building on the last point, if prayer has no measurable effect, this must apply to nations as well as people. This means that nations of fervent believers who pray frequently are no different from godless, atheist nations in every measure of social health: divorce rates, crime rates, number and severity of natural disasters, overall happiness of the populace, and so on.

August 16, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink46 comments
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Relics and Faith

Guest post by Peter Nothnagle

On June 30, someone stole a piece of the True Cross (you know the one I mean) that was enshrined in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. It had been kept in a small compartment in the base of a crucifix hanging on a wall in a chapel. Someone walked in, pried it open, and helped himself. That was a mean thing to do.

The faithful are very attached to their sacred relics. They see these bits of bone, cloth, vegetable matter, and globs of goo as links to the times, places and persons of their spiritual forebears. Many of these items are supposed to have had extraordinary powers in the past — raising the dead and so forth — although modern church leaders are much more modest in their claims.

The most famous relics have been the most studied — and study has cast serious doubt on their authenticity. Yet the faithful cling fiercely to the idea that they are authentic, as if the debunking of, say, the Shroud of Turin or the painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe would undermine their faith. As for the True Cross, according to tradition (which will have to suffice in place of history), it was discovered after torturing witnesses, some 300 years after the (alleged) Crucifixion, and then repeatedly captured by invaders, held for ransom, concealed, rediscovered, divided into tiny pieces to be distributed among visitors and dignitaries — none of which gives much confidence in the authenticity of any surviving fragments.

The Bible is the most popular relic of all. Most Christians cherish the Bible as the foundation of their faith, considering it divinely inspired, but the poor thing has been cobbled together from many traditions over the centuries, redacted, amended, translated from translations and copied from copies, and cannot be an accurate record of any one faith tradition. In the 21st century, we have powerful tools for the scientific examination of historical claims, and we know things that should shake the faith of anyone who ascribes any more than the vaguest, metaphorical "truth" to the stories in the Bible: there was no Creation, no Adam, no Eve, no Fall, no Flood, no Moses, no Exodus, and on and on. The fact that all those stories are flatly contradicted by science and history must lead any rational person to be suspicious of all the other tales of angels, miracles, prophetic utterances, and even unimportant details like genealogies and place names, unless independent evidence should corroborate them.

Eventually the penny will drop for the faithful. Everybody has experienced that the provenance of an object, or the veracity of a story, is subject to being falsified. Everybody understands that, to paraphrase biologist Jerry Coyne, you can't be confident that you're right about something unless you can tell if you're wrong. When the faithful bolster their immaterial faith with evidence, they're playing our game, and unbiased examination of the evidence has only gone one way — badly for the faithful.

There is only one true and honest way to have faith, and that is to ignore evidence — to abandon it, even to flee from it. To base one's religious faith on evidence, even something as subjective as "I just feel in my heart that it's true", is to invite rational rebuttal, which should lead a sensible person to doubt.

July 30, 2010, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments
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No Payment For Prayer: Christian Science and Health Care Reform

With the historic passage of sweeping health insurance reform, Americans have reason to rejoice this week. For the first time, and despite hysterical opposition from the party of conspiracy nuts and theocrats, our government has enshrined in law the idea that every citizen has a right to affordable health care. Even if the law is far from perfect, it's still a huge advance over the alternative of doing nothing - and history shows that most major pieces of progressive social legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, started out flawed and were improved over time. With this bill now signed into law, we have a foundation to build on.

Atheists and freethinkers have another reason to celebrate (in addition to the removal of the noxious, theocratic Stupak language on abortion). Namely, one of the worst provisions of the bill - a clause mandating that health insurance companies pay for prayer - was removed in committee and didn't make it into the final legislation. This clause was originally inserted at the urging of the Christian Science church, the cult which shuns all modern medicine in favor of faith healing delusions and would rather see children suffer agonizingly and die slowly than take them to a doctor.

Or at least, that used to be the party line. In the last few decades, Christian Scientists' numbers have been in steady decline, and there are signs that the church may be giving ground on its absolute stance, as the New York Times reports:

Though officials do not provide membership statistics, scholars estimate that the church's numbers have dropped to under 100,000 from a peak of about twice that at the turn of the 20th century.... In New York City, falling membership forced the Christian Science church on Park Avenue to lease its building part time to a catering service in 2006. Another Manhattan church remains open; a third closed in 2005.

It'd be easy to snark that the reason Christian Scientists' numbers are dwindling is that so many of them tend to die. But I don't think it's sheer attrition that's the cause. In the past few years, there have been more and more cases of parents prosecuted for letting their children die of completely treatable illnesses. I think it's the onslaught of bad publicity and the church's public intransigence that have been turning people off - not to mention the fact that, as scientific medicine gets better and better and its benefits become more and more apparent, there are increasingly few people willing to give it up.

Like most churches in decline, Christian Scientists have turned to the state to prop them up. The healthcare reform bill was a perfect example, where church lobbyists pleaded with the government to force insurers to pay them for praying. Christian Science practitioners charge $25 to $50 per session, but since their "treatment" of the sick consists of nothing more than babbling superstitious gibberish, anything other than zero is far too high a price to pay. And if every sect or cult under the sun could demand payment in exchange for carrying out their own magic rituals, where would it end? Why should the rest of us have to subsidize, through higher insurance premiums, the religious nonsense of modern-day witch doctors?

The American Academy of Pediatrics deserves commendation for their strong stand against treating prayer as the equivalent of medicine:

"Given the complete lack of scientific evidence of the efficacy of prayer in treating any illness or disorder in children," academy officials wrote Senate leaders in October, "mandating coverage for these services runs counter to the principles of evidence-based medicine."

But, as I said, there are signs that the Christian Scientists have started to relax their absolutist stance - the pronouncements of their lunatic founder, Mary Baker Eddy, notwithstanding. Though Eddy demanded that believers forsake medicine under all circumstances, some modern members are taking a more tolerant stance and starting to push prayer as an alternative, rather than a replacement, for conventional, evidence-based treatment.

The faith's guiding textbook forbids mixing medical care with Christian Science healing, which is a form of transcendental prayer intended to realign a patient's soul with God.... Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879 in Boston, wrote in the church's textbook, "Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures," that anyone inviting a doctor to his sickbed "invites defeat."

But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church's reputation... Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary.

..."In the last year, I can't tell you how many times I've been called to pray at a patient's bedside in a hospital," said Philip Davis, 59, the church's national spokesman, who has been tending to the sick for three decades as a Christian Science practitioner.

This may end up being one of the very rare cases where a religion is forced to change by the sheer weight of the evidence against it. The Christian Science church is still going through a process of smoothing out the rough edges, and as the benefits of modern medicine become increasingly obvious, their leaders may no longer be able to persuade the rest to forsake it. We may wind up with a situation like modern Roman Catholicism, where the bishops and the Pope continue to preach against contraception, but the official teaching is almost universally ignored among educated followers. And the happy fact that payment for prayer was removed from the health care law - a rare triumph of rationality in Washington - can only speed that outcome.

March 29, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink43 comments
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William Dembski on Faith Healers

Most of you have probably heard the name of William Dembski, one of the prominent advocates of intelligent-design creationism. Like all ID advocates, Dembski claims vehemently that his work is scientific and not in any way motivated by his religious beliefs, which is why he's currently a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

But never mind that; today, somewhat surprisingly, I come to praise Dembski rather than bury him. That's because I've come across this very interesting essay of his about his family's experience visiting a faith healer.

You may not have known that Dembski has a severely autistic son - as he describes it, "largely nonverbal, still not fully toilet trained, serious developmental delays" - who was 7 years old at the time he wrote this essay. This, of course, is not a fate I would wish on anyone, regardless of their political or religious views. And while most cases of autism can be treated to an extent with intensive therapy, the paucity of good options and the daily struggles would be enough to drive any parent to despair and frustration. Thus, it's probably not surprising that Dembski felt he had little to lose when his fellow evangelical Christians recommended he attend an "impartation service" held in July 2008 by the faith healer Todd Bentley.

As Dembski tells it, the hyping and manipulation started early. Though the service began at 7 PM (in a basketball arena north of Dallas), the organizers urged them to arrive by 3 PM to be sure of getting a seat, citing expected overflow crowds:

At 6:30, after sitting for two hours, the arena was about three-quarters full. One of the organizers then announced that traffic was backed up for miles around Denton and that several thousand were trying to get into the meeting, most of whom would have to be turned away. This was sheer hype. A significant block of seats (at least 20 percent) were cordoned off and never used throughout the whole night. We could have arrived anytime and still gotten seats.

The service began at 7 with two hours (!) of "music ministry" (terrible, repetitive music, according to Dembski). Bentley himself finally took the stage at 9 PM, and spent most of the time talking about the astonishing miracles he claims to have performed. Dembski shows a welcome measure of skepticism toward these extraordinary claims in a passage that made me laugh:

Bentley told stories of remarkable healings. In fact, he claims that in his ministry 30 people have now been raised from the dead. Are these stories credible? A common pattern in his accounts of healing was an absence of specificity. Bentley claims that one man, unembalmed, had been dead for 48 hours and was in a coffin. When the family gathered around at a funeral home, the man knocked from inside the coffin to be let out.

But what are the specifics? Who was this man? What's his name? Where's the death certificate? And why not parade the man at Bentley's meetings? If I am ever raised from the dead through anyone's ministry, you can be sure I'll put in a guest appearance.

Bentley claimed that he would "soon go public with the evidence" of these dramatic healings. This, presumably, is the same sense of "soon" used by Christian evangelicals who claim that Jesus' 2000-year-overdue second coming is sure to happen any day now.

When the "healings" finally began, I'm sure it will surprise no one to hear that Bentley's focus was mainly on milking the gullible and the desperate for as much money as possible.

After preaching, Bentley took the offering. During the offering he asked "How much anointing do you want to receive?" Thus he linked the blessing we should receive with the amount of money we gave.

After a "general prayer for mass healing", Bentley then indicated that people who needed the most help should come forward to receive special prayer. Dembski's wife attempted to take their autistic son down to the altar, but was repeatedly prevented by the ushers:

Over an hour later my son with autism was still not able to get to the main floor for prayer. Ushers twice prevented that from happening. They noted that he was not in a wheelchair. Wheelchair cases clearly had priority — presumably they provided better opportunities for the cameras, which filmed everything.

...Our son was refused prayer twice because he didn't look the part, and he was told to wait still longer for a prayer that would never have been offered. And even those who looked the part seemed to look no better after Bentley's prayer — the exodus from the arena of people bound in wheelchairs was poignant.

My son's situation was not unique — a man with bone cancer and his wife traveled a long distance, were likewise refused prayer, and left in tears.

After waiting for over an hour, the Dembski family gave up and left. He describes the experience as "an education... about how easily religion can be abused, in this case to exploit our family" - a welcome conclusion from a person who's spent so much of his career encouraging belief in superstition and religious pseudoscience.

Todd Bentley isn't the only faith-healing charlatan out there. There are plenty of others working this highly profitable circuit - I recall my brush in 2006 with Jaerock Lee, a Korean evangelist whose fliers made similarly grandiose, but detail-free, claims about curing blindness, cancer, paralysis and even raising the dead. Interestingly, as I noted in my post at the time, William Dembski endorsed that con man. One wonders if this experience has done anything to disillusion him about faith healers in general.

January 7, 2010, 6:55 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink24 comments
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When Prayer Fails

Dave Schmeltzer's book Not the Religious Type has many examples of what he calls "napkin stories" (i.e., short enough to write on a napkin), brief anecdotes from people who claim to have experienced miraculous events in their lives when they trusted in God. Here's a typical one:

I found out that my aunt and uncle's marriage was unraveling due to an affair. I fasted and prayed for them. After thirty-eight days, I was contacted by my uncle. He was about to sign a lease on an apartment to move in with his lover. Before he could sign, he felt an almost audible voice in his head say "stop." He went back to my aunt and started to see how their marriage could be saved. She found a way to forgive him.

I've observed in the past that evangelical religious belief is sustained by a kind of natural selection among ideas. Stories and personal testimonies that fit neatly into Christian narrative prototypes - stories that resonate with what Christians already believe - stir interest and excitement among believers who hear them, are repeated and passed on from person to person, and soon become common in the apologetic literature. But stories that can't be fitted into these templates don't draw interest or excitement from believers, are not repeated or passed on, and tend to be forgotten. Because of this tendency to count the hits and forget the misses, Christians uneducated in critical thinking tend to believe that answers to prayer are common.

But if you look at all the evidence, a different picture emerges. We hear stories about faithful Christians who are stricken ill, pray for healing, and then recover; we hear stories about evangelists who founded a ministry and saw it flourish and grow; we hear stories about nonbelievers who pray for God to reveal himself and then mysteriously receive aid from a helpful Christian stranger at just the right time. However, unless you're looking for them specifically, you probably don't hear stories about Christians who are stricken ill, pray for healing, and then die. You don't hear stories about churches and ministries that fail to attract members and fall apart, despite the hard work of their founders. You don't hear stories about nonbelievers who pray to God to reveal himself and then nothing out of the ordinary happens. It's not that these stories never get written - they do, and I'll give some examples - it's just that they don't take root and spread through the Christian community like the other kind.

In this post, I'll try to counteract that tendency by presenting some stories of when prayer fails. The first two examples are from Philip Yancey's book The Jesus I Never Knew:

One terrible week two people called me on successive days to talk about one of my books. The first, a youth pastor in Colorado, had just learned his wife and baby daughter were dying of AIDS. "How can I possibly talk to my youth group about a loving God after what has happened to me?" he asked. The next day I heard from a blind man who, several months before, had invited a recovering drug addict into his home as an act of mercy. Recently he had discovered that the recovering addict was carrying on an affair with his wife, under his own roof. "Why is God punishing me for trying to serve him?" he asked. Just then he ran out of quarters, the phone went dead, and I never heard from the man again. [p.159-160]

Even the "answers to prayer" confused me. Sometimes, after all, parking places did not open up and fountain pens stayed lost. Sometimes church people lost their jobs. Sometimes they died. A great shadow darkened my own life: my father had died of polio just after my first birthday, despite a round-the-clock prayer vigil involving hundreds of dedicated Christians. Where was God then? [p.165]

Or this tragic story of a young mother dying of cancer, who prayed with a hospital chaplain that God would give her the time to finish a needlepoint project she was making for her children:

I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

Or Paul Barnes, former pastor of a 2,000-member evangelical megachurch, who resigned after admitting that he was homosexual:

"I have struggled with homosexuality since I was a 5-year-old boy... I can't tell you the number of nights I have cried myself to sleep, begging God to take this away."

Or this sad story of an injured man, unable to afford a doctor, who waited months on end for a miracle until he died:

"He read his Bible daily, he spent his full focus on God," said Webb. "And he was literally waiting and praying for a Job miracle. If anybody knows the Bible and knows Job, he really and fully believed that God was going to heal him just like he did Job, because he said he couldn't think of a better testimony to go out and to tell people."

And Dave Schmeltzer himself, though he repeatedly claims to be happy and blessed, admits that his life too has times of depression and darkness:

"...it's not as though my life is consistently such a powerful case for connection with this super-duper God. For someone who talks as much as I do about joy... why is it that a few times over the years I've mentioned to my wife that I feel as if my life has been squeezed out of me like water from a sponge, like I relate to Woody Allen's working title for Annie Hall (Anhedonia - the clinical inability to feel joy)."

This quote highlights an important point that shows how miracle stories get started. Every life, regardless of which religion you belong to or whether you believe in God, has its high points and low points. Every person experiences both favorable and unfavorable coincidences. Evangelicals are doing nothing more clever than giving God the credit for the good times, while ignoring or downplaying the bad ones - save for the rare glimpses of honesty like the ones cited above.

But whatever theological embellishments that evangelicals put on them, these ups and downs happen to everyone. Atheists, too, experience them; the only difference is that we recognize them for what they are, the inevitable working of chance, and don't claim them as evidence of some supernatural creature's favor or disfavor. And atheists, too, experience the same kind of favorable coincidences that Christians unhesitatingly ascribe to miracles; again, the difference is that we recognize that occasional striking coincidences are bound to happen in the course of any normal life.

December 26, 2009, 11:59 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink75 comments
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Cargo Cult Science

During World War II, American forces fighting in the Pacific set up bases on remote islands whose people had had very little prior contact with other civilizations. These people, with technology at a Stone Age level, were amazed by the strange visitors and the almost miraculous cargo they brought with them - chocolate, cigarettes, radio, steel tools. When the war ended and the soldiers left, some tribes went to desperate measures to summon them back, forming religions - cargo cults - which tried to induce the soldiers to return through sympathetic magic. Some of them went so far as to make mock military uniforms, cut "runways" in the jungle, or build "control towers" out of bamboo. The most famous surviving cargo cult is the following of John Frum, which I've written about before.

I mention all this because a friend sent me this bizarre article from a group calling itself the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, "How does prayer work? A spiritual perspective". It's an excellent example of what (to borrow a phrase from Richard Feynman) we might call "cargo cult science".

This article is clearly intended to mimic the form of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It has an abstract, a section discussing the "mechanism" of prayer, plenty of colorful graphics and charts, and plenty of technical-sounding talk about which postures increase the efficacy of one's prayers by what percentage:

But for all its glitzy graphics and pseudotechnical jargon, this article is no more science than a cargo cult's bamboo control tower will attract real airplanes. It imitates the form while completely misunderstanding the essence of what it's trying to recreate.

The essence of science lies in answering two questions: how do you know that? and how can I test it? Both these answers are missing from the SSRF's prayer article, which spews forth assertion after ludicrous assertion without making the slightest effort to explain how its author came by any of this knowledge. Just take a few examples:

A person at the 50% spiritual level will more often than not pray for his spiritual progress... a person who prays for the death of another person will be helped by a negative subtle entity from the 4th Region of Hell... The subtlest frequencies are generated when one pays gratitude along with the prayer... Prayer increases the particles of the subtle basic sattva component in the vital body sheath... In our life, 65% of events happen as per destiny... Prayers of people who are below the 30% spiritual level lack potency... By touching the wrists to the chest, the Anaahat chakra is activated and it helps in absorbing more sattva frequencies... In some cases people hold hands and pray. This is also a spiritually incorrect practice... All other things being equal, using the recommended mudraa (posture) for prayer helps to improve the chances of one’s prayer being answered by 20%.

The article goes on and on, throwing out these statistics as if they were well-established facts, never attempting to explain how any of this knowledge was acquired. Nor does it make any effort to explain how an interested person might test any of this to confirm for themselves that it's true.

What seems clear is that groups like this (and others) are envious of science - of its precision, of its demonstrated success, of the esteem it enjoys from the public. They want to claim some of that authority for themselves, which is why they ape the form and language of a scientific paper, hoping that the credulous will be deceived by the resemblance into thinking that their beliefs are scientifically verified as well. Yet despite its pretense of scientific language, this article is essentially no different from any other religious book, making bald assertions which the believer is required to take on faith.

October 21, 2009, 6:59 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink36 comments
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Book Review: UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

If you've been around the atheist blogosphere, you probably know the name Christopher Hallquist, author of the blog The Uncredible Hallq (I've always wondered, does he get more skeptical when he gets angry?).

Well, it seems he's come into his own, because last month in the mail I got a copy of his new book, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, which was published earlier this year by Reasonable Press. Here follows a short summary of the book and my review.

The book begins with a brief history of skepticism, from the Roman con-artist Alexander and his nemesis the satirist Lucian, to Franz Mesmer and the spiritualism craze of the 18th century, complete with mediums who could levitate, summon ghosts on command, or communicate using psychic powers. Since most of us rightly consider these claims to be dubious, Hallquist argues, we should apply David Hume's criteria for judging miracle tales and conclude that the Christian resurrection story, which is much longer ago and even less well documented, is even less likely to be true.

There are some great nuggets of information in here, particularly Hallquist's account of an e-mail conversation with Craig Blomberg, one of the experts interviewed in Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ. Blomberg complains that Strobel's book "heavily paraphrased" [p.50] and oversimplified their actual conversation, and that he ultimately gave up on trying to correct all the inaccuracies that Strobel introduced. There follow discussions of textual evolution in the New Testament, of the way legends tend to grow and mutate in the retelling, and the general lack of skepticism or a tradition of critical inquiry in the ancient world. Another bit I particularly liked: to drive the point home, Hallquist quotes a Christian magician, Andre Kole, who defends the historicity of Jesus' miracles even while complaining that people tend to misremember his shows and believe he performed far more impressive tricks than he actually did! [p.75]

Building on this argument, Hallquist argues that Jesus may have been similar to a modern faith healer, performing "miracles" that relied mainly on the placebo effect and his devotees' faith in him. These stories then grew in the telling, becoming far more impressive than they originally were.

As for the alleged resurrection and post-death experiences, Hallquist notes that even the Gospels portray the risen Jesus as a strangely ethereal phenomenon, appearing and disappearing without warning depending on who seems to be looking, and often describes his glorified body in mystical, visionary terms. He discusses the modern parallel of UFO abductions, pointing out their similar dreamlike and hallucinatory qualities, and brings up the nice point that stress - such as at the death of a loved one - can make such visions more likely to occur. The closing chapters ably dismantle some common apologist arguments relating to biblical prophecy, the Shroud of Turin, and religious attitudes toward skepticism and doubt.

Having finished the book, I have just two complaints, one small, one large. First, the minor: There were a lot of typos in this book - grammatical missteps, missing letters, missing words or incorrect punctuation. On average, I counted one such every few pages at least. It obviously doesn't detract from the soundness of the arguments, but it was distracting. I imagine Reasonable Press, a fairly small printing house by the look of it, doesn't have a great deal of money to invest in proofreading, but still.

Second: The one hypothesis that this book doesn't consider, and that I found conspicuous by its absence, was that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure who was gradually "historicized" into a real human being. All the arguments Hallquist presents about legendary development, exaggeration of rumors and the like would apply equally well, maybe even better, to this hypothesis. This is an alternative that I think deserves serious consideration, and if there's a future edition, perhaps it will address it.

With those caveats, this is a short, smart book, one that's worth your while to pick up and read. Most of the skeptical material on Jesus' resurrection was not new to me, but if you haven't read extensively on the topic, it's a useful and fairly comprehensive primer on how an atheist can best respond to these apologetic claims. What I personally found most illuminating was actually the background material - the mediums and spiritualists of past eras who claimed supernatural powers, and the skeptics, like Harry Houdini, who took them on. This is material that I think will be new to most readers, and there are some powerful lessons to draw on here. Hallquist cleverly points out that plenty of spiritualist "miracles", like the alleged levitation of one D.D. Home (which was supported by three signed eyewitness testimonies) are backed by evidence as good as or better than the evidence for anything in the Bible.

October 5, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink11 comments
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