Do You Really Believe That?

Noah's Flood

Today I'm introducing a new post series on Daylight Atheism, "Do You Really Believe That?" The purpose of this series is to highlight religious claims that are so extravagantly bizarre, so manifestly at odds with everything we know about the universe, or so just plain ridiculous that even religious believers shouldn't be able to take them seriously. I'll begin today with one of the most obviously ludicrous and implausible parts of the Bible, the story of Noah's flood. As absurd as this ancient tall tale is, it is taken literally by many believers even today. Consider the following from Answers in Genesis' Statement of Faith:

The great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect.

There are far more absurdities in this story than a single post can cover, and regarding the perennial issue of where the flood waters came from and where they went, I refer readers to the excellent Talk.Origins article Problems with a Global Flood. This article will highlight some of the problems that would have arisen within Noah's ark.

First: How in the world did Noah gather all those animals? The number of known, described species in existence has been estimated as 1.5 million, and there may be as many as ten times more that have not yet been discovered or described. The Bible is adamant that all land animals not on the Ark died in the flood (Genesis 7:21-23), so everything that survived must have been taken on board. Even if, as some creationists postulate, different species just represent variation within a smaller number of fixed "kinds" and the post-flood world underwent a period of ultra-rapid evolution to produce today's present biodiversity, it is still clear that any plausible catalog of the pre-flood world must have included tens of thousands of animals from wildly different habitats all across the globe, including many that live on islands, deserts, mountains, jungles, and other remote and inaccessible habitats. Even granting the 900-year pre-flood lifespans the Bible mentions, there is no plausible way that Noah and his family could have trekked, climbed and sailed all over the planet to find all these animals, capture a healthy breeding pair of each species, and bring them all back to the Middle East in the allotted time. A hundred lifetimes would not be enough to do this. And even if Noah somehow did manage to gather that many, how would they all fit in the Ark?

Second: How did Noah keep the animals from killing each other, or from dying in the cramped conditions? By definition, for every prey animal, the Ark carried its predators - and not just large predators like lions and wolves, but every species of infectious microbe and parasite: bacteria, viruses, lice, fleas, ticks, worms, flukes, fungi, and many others that can only survive on or in the living bodies of their prey. In the necessarily cramped and unsanitary conditions, the Ark would have been a hothouse of sickness and disease. How did the Ark's passengers not die off in droves?

But again, discounting such problems, there is the inherent hardship of the voyage itself. Few animals adjust well to captivity, even in conditions that attempt to recreate their natural environments. The Ark would have been a far worse environment: living in necessarily tiny cages, in densely crowded, dark, dirty conditions drastically unlike their natural habitat (did animals from the polar zones and from the tropics live side by side in the same temperature and humidity?), in the constant turmoil of rough seas for months on end. The stress and terror of such a voyage would certainly have killed many of these animals, and left many others so weakened and traumatized that their long-term survival would be in serious doubt.

Third: How did just eight people care for such an enormous menagerie for so long? Zoos today, which represent a far smaller fraction of the earth's biodiversity than the Ark was claimed to carry, require thousands of employees just to keep the animals healthy and happy. For example, the U.S. National Zoo has a staff of 350 full-time employees and over 1,500 part-time volunteers to care for 2,000 animals representing 400 different species. Does it make any sense at all to claim that just eight people, for an entire year, could have seen to all the needs of a far greater number of living things requiring far more diversity of treatment and care? Feeding and watering the animals, cleaning their cages, keeping them healthy and exercised, treating medical problems that surely would have arisen - eight people working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week could not possibly have done this.

Fourth: How was the world repopulated after the flood? Once the waters receded, the Earth must have been in a terrible state: a dead planet of mud, debris, rotting bodies, and decaying vegetation. The smell would have been indescribable. Even discounting the months it would take to plant and harvest new crops, most would have died in the briny, salt-soaked soil. There would have been nothing to eat for the herbivores, and no food for the carnivores but the herbivores that had just disembarked - and once they consumed all their former shipmates, they would have starved in turn.

But even assuming this problem could be somehow surmounted, there is a more serious one. Living things are not islands - they can only exist and thrive in a complex, interconnected web of relationships that cannot just spring up overnight. Releasing all these animals into the wild and expecting them to spontaneously return to their correct habitats and reconstitute their former ecosystems would be ludicrous. The certain result would be not repopulation, but chaos. The serious problem of invasive species shows what happens when living things are thrown together at random without regard for the intricate relationships among them - multiplying these scenarios by a thousand gives some idea of what the post-flood world must have been like.

The flood story teems with impossibilities, and can be rescued only by postulating a parade of miracles at every turn. Maybe the animals obediently trooped to Noah's side from all over the world, laid down side by side without harming or attacking each other, and went into hibernation for a year on the Ark without needing food, water or exercise. Maybe miracles produced all the water for the flood from nowhere, held the boat together in rough seas, and made the water drain back into nothingness at the end. Maybe more miracles cleared away the millions of rotting bodies, replenished the soil so it would give crops again, and then made those crops grow in super-sped-up time so that the Ark's passengers would have had something to eat. Maybe yet more miracles prevented the deleterious effects of inbreeding so a whole species could be repopulated from just two individuals, resorted the animals all over the world, and recreated their former ecosystems.

If continual and arbitrary violations of physical law are invoked at every turn, any chain of events, no matter how ridiculous or impossible, can be allowed. But the sheer number of miracles that would be needed gives some idea of just how implausible the flood story is. Nevertheless, there are a significant number of theists who believe this silly story really happened and want to see it adopted into the scientific canon and taught in public schools as fact. Yet most of these people, I'd wager, want this only because they have been told by their trusted religious authorities that this story is true and have never thought through its implications for themselves. To theists who fit this description, I suggest you take a closer look at the story of Noah's flood and all it entails, and then ask yourselves: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

May 7, 2007, 8:29 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink80 comments

Book/Movie Review: The Secret

Lately, The Secret - a movie and its companion book produced by Rhonda Byrne - have been burning up the bestseller lists and have attracted endorsements from influential celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey. Marketed in the self-help genre, it promises viewers the key to achieving all their life goals through the power of positive thinking. (The name is a misnomer, since The Secret's teachings are hardly a secret but have been a prominent part of New Age belief systems for decades, dating back at least to 1906 and William Walker Atkinson's book Thought Vibration or the Law of Attraction. Antecedents can also be found in the Christian "Word of Faith" movement). The only original part about any of this is the marketing, and slick marketing it is: a video with flashy computer graphics, ominous whispers in the background, and dark hints of a grand, Da Vinci Code-type conspiracy to suppress this film's supposedly explosive truth.

The idea that a person, by keeping an optimistic and hopeful attitude towards life, can notice opportunities they might otherwise have missed and succeed by persevering where a pessimist might have failed - this is uncontroversially true. But that is not what The Secret is claiming. Its central claim is a far more radical one: that you can have literally anything you dream about or wish for delivered to you by supernatural power, with no effort required on your part, if only you believe strongly enough that this will happen. This is what the film calls the "Law of Attraction", or as it is summed up in the obligatory pithy slogan, "Thoughts become things". The film also states that this is an infallible natural law, as certain in its operation as gravity.

Some people have misinterpreted The Secret as saying merely that a person can achieve their goals through positive effort and hard work. Again, this is an incorrect description. The Secret is explicit in its claim that no work whatsoever is required to make your wishes come true. All it takes is a clear expression of your desire and sufficient faith in the power of the "law of attraction". The film lists three, and only three, steps to having your desires fulfilled: "ask, believe, receive". In fact, hard work is actively discouraged, as in one section of the movie where an interviewee suggests adjusting one's attitude from the negative "You have to work hard for money" to the allegedly more positive "Money comes easily and frequently". The film goes so far as to compare the universe to Aladdin's genie, who in the original version of the tale granted not just three but an unlimited number of wishes.

Most New Age philosophies make at least a token effort to urge viewers to use their superpowers for spiritual growth and moral development, but The Secret is unabashedly materialistic in its implications. It is calculated to appeal directly to its viewers' sense of greed. It goes out of its way to dazzle with stories and images of multimillion-dollar bank accounts, mansions on the beach, luxury cars and speedboats, marriage to beautiful trophy spouses, and checks arriving in the mail apparently for no reason at all. All these things can be yours, we are told, if only you believe. To no one's surprise, I'm sure, there is no evidence whatsoever presented at any point that any of this works - only scattered anecdotes.

But The Secret is not just selfish and frivolous, it is dangerous. Consider posts by Secret believers such as this one, in which the author informs readers that weight loss can be achieved magically, without any need to eat healthy food or exercise:

You's not about how you eat, exercise (none) or anything like that. It's the representation in your mind of where you actually are. If you believe the perfect you is 185 lbs and you can see yourself as that weight every day, your body has no choice but to move you closer to that state.

The logical conclusion of such transparently absurd reasoning is that it does not matter how many donuts, sodas, hamburgers, or other sources of empty calories and fat you consume. If you wish hard enough to be thin, you will be thin. This is grossly irresponsible advice and could very well endanger people's health.

But even more horrifying is this woman who proudly informed Oprah Winfrey that, based on her belief in The Secret - in particular, a scene in which another interviewee claims to have cured herself of cancer by watching funny movies - she was choosing to stop medical treatment for her own malignant breast cancer and start wishing to get better:

After watching the DVD and seeing The Oprah Show about The Secret, Kim wrote to Oprah after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three doctors told Kim she would have to have a partial radical mastectomy of the right breast and treatment. Kim writes that "after much thought, I have decided to heal myself."

..."But we do have choices, and I'm making a choice. And in six months' time, I am believing that the cancer will be gone — and if it is not, it has shrunk so much that I can have a lumpectomy not a partial radical mastectomy," Kim says. "It's about holding onto my right for choice."

Breast cancer that is caught and treated early can very often be cured. Breast cancer that is allowed to grow, while the bearer concentrates on wishing for magical healing, may not be so treatable. It is very possible that this woman's belief in The Secret will lead to her early and needless death.

The Secret's metaphysics are inconsistent and contradictory even when taken on their own terms. In one scene, we are shown a man who wanted to promote his self-help books through the National Enquirer and was then approached by a writer from that very paper who was interested in interviewing him. He bragged about how his positive desire had "attracted" her to him. But in a scene just a few minutes later, we are informed that "we cannot control other people, no matter how hard we try".

A related and obvious issue which The Secret never even touches on is this: what happens if two people desire contradictory things? What if one person wills a particular political candidate to be elected, for example, while another wills their opponent to be elected? What if one person wills there to be war and another wills peace? What if one person tries to use the "law of attraction" to get to work quickly and with no traffic, while another person using the same road tells themself, "I hope I don't get stuck in a traffic jam" and thereby unknowingly attracts that very thing?

If the answer is that whoever wills their desired outcome more strongly will get it, then The Secret's repeated claims that the "law of attraction" always works are false. You might wish for something with all your might, and still fail to get it because someone else wished that even more strongly. Or Secret advocates might claim that whoever has the more "positive" desire will get what they want; but in that case their claims about the infallibility of the "law of attraction" are still false, and this still does not answer the question of what happens when two people wish for positive but incompatible outcomes.

There is one more claim made by The Secret, the most vile and invidious of them all. The film's interviewees claim that you get whatever you think about - even a claim such as "I wish I wasn't in debt" will attract more debt. The consequence of this, and it is a consequence that the film states explicitly, is that anything bad that happens to you is your own fault for "attracting" it to yourself. Anything - poverty, cancer, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or a home, or any other disaster or misfortune - is the victim's fault.

Not only is this attitude cruel and callous in the extreme, there are many cases where it would discourage people from engaging in the hard work actually needed to improve everyone's lives. For instance, the film states that the reason for the enormous wealth gap that existed in the early 1900s was not because of entrenched societal inequalities and political corruption, but because the robber barons knew the Secret and ordinary working people did not. Similarly, we are told that "the anti-war movement creates more war" and instead people should concentrate on wishing for peace. If this attitude was widely adopted, people would soon cease participating in political action to bring about change for the better, and instead spend their time sitting at home and wishing for things to improve. Not only would this not work, it would clear the way for the selfish elite who so often are the cause of society's problems.

There is much more I could say about The Secret, such as the laughable pseudoscientific claims dispensed by the interviewees ("a positive thought is scientifically proven to be a hundred times more powerful than a negative thought"), the even more laughable and simply wrong scientific claims ("no one knows how electricity works"), the obligatory invocations of garbled quantum physics, and so on. But I will not belabor the point. Instead, I'll point out in closing that The Secret, which represents humanity's desire for magic distilled down to its essence, is a letter-perfect illustration of what I wrote about last August in the post "No Miracles":

More than anything, we desire easy answers, and all these different types of supernatural belief stem, ultimately, from that desire. When life is difficult and troubled, we want miracles that will fulfill our needs and supply our wants in a supernatural flash, without the work otherwise needed to get what we want...

The appeal of magic is that it promises easy answers, easy victories, easy achievement of our goals with little effort and toil. But this is, and always was, a childish dream. Through cooperating with each other and studying the world around us, we can learn to better control our circumstances and improve our lives, but such improvement will always take labor and work. The lure of easy answers is an illusion; there are answers, but they are difficult to obtain and always were. Yet that does not make them worth any less. On the contrary, it makes them even more precious, and should increase our appreciation for what progress we have brought about and our resolve to make further progress in the future.

Although I have little to say to people who are at this moment fervently wishing for their ski lodge in Aspen or beach condo in Hawaii, I have nothing but sympathy for people in hard straits trying to use The Secret to obtain the basics that they need. Truly, I understand this drive. I'm not saying everyone does not deserve health and happiness. But this is not the way to go about it. Puerile mysticism has never brought humanity anything but disappointment and heartbreak, and the only people who will get rich thanks to The Secret are its creators, who are at this moment very handily fattening their bank accounts with the hard-won dollars of those who are ever eager for miracles.

April 10, 2007, 6:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink72 comments

Rebuking the Devil

I have written several times in the past about how religious superstition, when it is taken seriously, causes harm and suffering to real people by dissuading them from seeking the evidence-based treatments they need. But a new story from the March 31 edition of Newsday, Trying to change minds in the Congo, is one of the most horrifying illustrations of this principle I have yet seen.

The African Republic of the Congo, a country of 3.7 million people, has only one clinical psychiatrist. Dr. Alain Mouanga works against heroic odds, in desperately poor and dilapidated conditions, to treat people suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. The Congolese government provides him buildings - albeit run-down and unsanitary buildings, still damaged from a 10-year-old civil war - to work out of, and pays the salaries for him and his staff. But everything else, including medications, patient meals and even sheets for the patients' beds, must be paid for by patients' families or by funds that Dr. Mouanga raises himself from individuals or aid groups.

All this would offer a tremendous challenge for a doctor in any country, and for his tireless, dedicated efforts on behalf of his patients, Dr. Mouanga deserves to be recognized as a true humanist hero and an inspiration to everyone who works to reduce human suffering. But this is not the end of the story. There is one other major obstacle that he must face:

Mouanga knows that if patients don't believe in him, they will leave, instead seeking help from the hundreds of spiritual leaders, herbalists and other traditional healers who claim to cure the mentally ill in this poor country.

Less than a mile from Mouanga's hospital clinic is his chief local competitor - a Pentecostal church that claims to heal the mentally ill through faith in God.

...The church's treatment program is founded in the belief that mental illness is caused by evil spirits and sorcery.

"Evil spirits and demons can't be seen or interpreted by a microscope," said Galouo, head of the church's mental-illness program.

Yes, you guessed it. In this poor, predominantly Christian nation, primitive superstitions are still dominant - including the superstition that mental illness is caused by demonic possession. As the article explains, Dr. Mouanga's greatest struggle is to convince potential patients that he actually can help them. And many only come to him after "traditional" magical treatments fail:

Very few patients walk through Mouanga's gate without having visited a traditional healer first. Their treatments range from fasting to more extreme methods such as scarring and burning of the flesh.

But let's take a closer look at that Pentecostal Christian church that competes with Dr. Mouanga. How do they attempt to treat the mentally ill people who come to them seeking help?

There, patients can be seen chained to their beds nearly 24 hours a day. The men sleep under ratty plastic tarps, which offer little protection from Congo's tropical rain and sun.

If patients complain or try to leave, they are beaten. "We hit them to discipline them," said Pastor Pierre-Clotaire Galouo, head of the church's mental-illness program. "Those who menace us have lost all reason. They no longer understand anything."

...Less than a mile from Mouanga's psychiatric ward, patients are limited by the length of their chains at the Assemblées de Dieu de Pentecôte. Men and women are tethered to their beds like bicycles to a lamppost.

Some of the patients clearly chafe at the chains. One young man bore a large gauze bandage around his ankle during a visit in November. Others make them into a joke. A woman coquettishly dangled her ankle for a reporter, showing off her shackles as if they were jewelry.

...The patients stay for as little as a few weeks and as long as several years, waiting for church leaders to announce that God has healed them.

They are unlocked only to wash and to relieve themselves. They are not unlocked to pray.

You read that right, readers. The Assemblées de Dieu de Pentecôte does not rely solely on prayer and exorcism to treat their mentally ill supplicants - that would be bad enough, but no. Instead, their method involves chaining patients to their beds and beating them, doubtless to "drive the demons out". Sick people are kept in this cruel and degrading imprisonment until the church officials decide that they are permitted to leave. The article does not say if everyone at this church came voluntarily or if some were coerced or abducted by relatives or friends, but it seems very likely, if not inevitable, that some were.

There is one correction to the Newsday article I must make. The article says that Congoloese churches are "seasoned with African beliefs" about demon possession. This errs by calling demon possession an "African" addition, as if this were some superstitious add-on not present in Christianity originally. In fact, the idea of demon possession as the cause of both mental and physical illness is a prominent and obvious theme in the New Testament itself, as shown by verses like this:

"Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils."

—Mark 16:9

"Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw."

—Matthew 12:22

"And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice, saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God. And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not."

—Luke 4:33-35

"And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.... And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour."

—Matthew 17:18

"And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils."

—Mark 3:14-15

If anything, it is the African churches who are following what the text says. Meanwhile, Western denominations who recognize this for the embarrassing anachronism it is have added these passages to the vast category of Biblical verses that modern churchgoers do their best to quietly sweep under the rug and disregard.

Beliefs in demon possession are a legacy of humanity's superstitious past, when people ignorantly imagined that any phenomenon they did not understand was caused by supernatural agents. But there is no longer any excuse for holding such beliefs, now that we know so much about the natural origins of the mind. Especially, there is no excuse for using these superstitions as an excuse to degrade and abuse our fellow human beings and treat them like animals, as these despicable Pentecostals are doing. This whole sorry episode just goes to show that when we abandon reason as a means of understanding the world, evils and cruelties visited on our fellow human beings are sure to follow. That is why we as atheists should oppose faith, superstition, and irrationality of all kinds - not just because it is false, but because of the immeasurable harm it has wreaked on the lives of human beings.

April 6, 2007, 10:33 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink34 comments

Popular Delusions V: Santa Claus

I write the Popular Delusions series to critically investigate widely believed pseudosciences and superstitions. And while the topic of my latest entry in this series may seem odd, I think it fits - for after all, are there not tens of millions around the globe who are taught to believe in Santa Claus or other seasonal gift-givers? There are many pseudosciences believed by adults that do not command such a wide following.

The figure of Santa Claus is uniquely paradoxical for atheists. On the one hand, this teaching is used to accustom very young children to unquestioning supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, we do eventually disillusion children about the reality of this figure, and is this not a valuable lesson about rational skepticism and the inadvisability of putting total trust in authority figures? Is it not possible that getting children to realize the truth on their own is a more potent lesson in skepticism than if we told them the truth from the beginning?

What I find remarkable is that many of the very same arguments which apologists use to defend God's existence are also used to defend Santa Claus' existence to children, or can be used with almost no modification. In the latter case, however, there comes a point where all admit the fallacy of these arguments, while in the former case their use persists into adulthood.

For example, take the way we deal with the argument from divine hiddenness as applied to Christmas. We tell children that Santa only comes after they have fallen asleep, so they cannot see him with their own eyes, just as apologists for religion say that God works in mysterious ways not perceptible to human beings. And just as the existence of presents under the tree on Christmas morning is held up to children as evidence of Santa's existence, so the occasional instance of apparently answered prayers is proclaimed to be evidence that there is a god who cares about us.

Or consider the way Santa Claus is used as an inducement to good behavior. We warn children that they must behave during the year if they want to receive presents (and that they are under supernatural scrutiny all this time), and that children who misbehave or throw tantrums will get lumps of coal or some other undesirable object. In much the same way, religious preachers warn people that they must behave if they want to achieve salvation, or else they will be damned; and many people regard this teaching as a necessary inducement to morality, the only thing that will keep society in check. However, when children eventually become enlightened as to the non-existence of Santa Claus, we do not fear that they will suddenly become uncontrollable.

Third, consider the argument from desire. Many religious apologists argue that every human desire has an object that satisfies it, and that humanity's widespread belief in and worship of God is best explained by assuming that there is a deity who is the proper object of that belief. But the very same argument is applicable to Santa Claus! After all, there is a truly remarkable array of Christmas gift-giving figures, from cultures from all over the world, who bring gifts to children during the holidays. If the argument from widespread desire is convincing evidence of God's existence, it should also be convincing evidence of Santa's existence. How could so many different traditions have gotten started unless there was a real being to which they all refer?

Even the way more guileful theologians defend their religion finds parallels in Santa belief. Take the mall Santas we send our children to see so that they can tell him their Christmas wish list. Children who believe that the person they are meeting is the real Santa are usually allowed to continue in this belief. However, when slightly more skeptical children wonder how Santa could be in so many different malls, parents often explain to them that these men are not the real Santa, but just Santa's "helpers" who report back to him later. This is uncannily similar to the way in which more "sophisticated" theologians blast atheists for supposedly buying into the overly literal, anthropomorphic fundamentalist conception of God as a being. These learned men explain that the vision of Jehovah as a bearded figure in the clouds is hopelessly simplistic, and in reality, God is pure meaning, or pure love, or some other reified concept vague enough to evade clear definition that would render it susceptible to attack. (Notwithstanding this, these theologians continue to pray, to invoke God's blessing and talk about God's will, to participate in church rituals like communion, to profess belief in miracles, and otherwise act in ways that only make sense under the "overly literal" conception of God they supposedly do not believe in.)

But the strongest and clearest parallel can be found in the emotional argument for belief in Santa Claus. It is widely assumed that belief in this figure fills children's lives with a sense of magic and wonder, and that without Santa Claus, childhood would be gloomy, meaningless, and bereft of the uplifting power of faith. This viewpoint is summed up in one of the season's most famous epistles, the 1897 editorial Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

These very arguments are used later in life, to adults, to defend belief in God: without such belief, we are told, the world would be bleak, meaningless, adrift without purpose. And yet, we do not consider the inevitable disillusionment of children about Santa to shatter their world or withdraw all beauty and meaning from life. On the contrary, we expect that as children grow up, they will find more abiding sources of meaningfulness, deeper and more powerful than faith built on illusions. Yet many otherwise perfectly sensible, rational people somehow fail to grasp this lesson when it comes to God and religion. Though they concede that those illusions are childhood fancies that can safely be surrendered, they persist in believing that these ones really are necessary, and that we must cling to them or admit life is purposeless.

Other posts in this series:

December 27, 2006, 4:23 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink18 comments

Holy Water, Frail Hope

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Shivering under a tattered blanket, a young woman tries to sleep at the foot of the mist-shrouded Entoto Mountain, north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

..."I decided to come to Entoto to seek a cure from the holy water after a doctor told me that I am HIV-positive," Abebech Alemu, 35, said.

"I am a follower of the Orthodox faith. I strongly believe that I will be cured by drinking the holy water rather than drugs," she added.

—Tsegaye Tadesse, "Believers seek AIDS cure at Ethiopian springs". Reuters, 29 November 2006.

Though past killers such as tuberculosis and influenza have their place in the history of human suffering, any list of the most deadly epidemics ever to afflict our species will have to rank AIDS near the top. The World Health Organization estimates that over 40 million people are currently living with the disease, while over 25 million have died already, with several million added to that grim total every year. Africa especially has been devastated by HIV; in some sub-Saharan countries, the virus has infected up to a quarter of the population, decimating an entire generation and creating millions of AIDS orphans. Though progress has been made in battling this deadly disease, the poverty-afflicted people hardest hit by it are the very ones for whom expensive antiviral medications are furthest out of reach, and the ultimate goal of a safe, inexpensive vaccine still seems far from sight.

And that brings us to Entoto Mountain, where a spring that courses from a ravine in the shadow of the peak is reputed to have miraculous healing powers that draw desperate people from all across the Horn of Africa. This belief is actively promoted by the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, most of whom make a living by soliciting alms from pilgrims (although the Reuters article mentions "wealthier visitors").

If this were a story of desperate people turning to religion to help them when human effort could provide no solace, that would be one thing. But that is not the case. The woman quoted earlier states her awareness of a free program distributing antiviral medicine that could keep the virus in check and potentially extend her life by decades, but chose to pass it up in favor of foolish superstition. And she is not the only one:

"I know about the free distribution of HIV medicine, but I have decided not to take it. I am convinced I could be cured by the holy water," Abebech said.

...Dr. Solomon Zewdu, administrator of Johns Hopkins University HIV/AIDS Drugs Distribution Center in Addis Ababa, said he had appealed to the Orthodox Patriarch to tell HIV-positive people that they can take anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) along with the water.

"HIV drugs are life-saving. Those who are drinking the holy water can also take the drugs. I do not see any contradiction," he said, adding he had seen patients abandoning their hospital beds and the ARV regime, opting for holy water.

Although I do not believe a religious person cannot be a scientist, this story is a compelling argument against the philosophy of watered-down accommodationism that would treat faith and reason as equally valid ways of knowing. If we as a society promote such a vapid compromise, this is what we will end up with - doctors and scientists reduced to pleading with religious leaders to permit their flock to accept treatment that could save their lives, along with their daily dose of muddy spring water.

When we hold back for the sake of "respect" and treat religious faith as if it were a decision-making method equal in validity to the scientific method, which it is not, this is what we inevitably end up with - faith dominant and reason at best allowed to tag along by the wayside, at worst thrown away entirely. After all, once we grant that reason and faith are equally good ways of finding out the truth, science will inevitably lose out, because what believer in their right mind would choose the scientific findings of fallible human beings over what they believe to be the certain and perfect wisdom of God?

To grant parity to religion is to surrender the battle. Instead, we should be telling people like this, as loudly and frequently as possible, that this is a sham, that the people promoting the holy-water treatment are frauds and con men, and that if you trust in this faith-based quackery, in all likelihood you will die a painful and needless death.

Are these harsh words? Yes, but they are justifiably so, because people's lives are at stake. When a house is on fire, firefighters do not knock gently on the door and politely entreat the people inside to come out. The same applies here. There is no time for meekness and diplomacy. Instead, to save these people's lives, we must jolt them out of their complacency. Polite and self-effacing efforts at persuasion will probably only encourage them to believe the danger is not so serious.

It is all well and good to say that most believers are more rational and will not fall into such lethal self-deception. But the truth of the matter is that a believer is irrational to the precise degree in which they believe their religion and take its claims seriously. After all, the Bible clearly does record many instances of miraculous healings in the past, and it clearly does promise that all the believer's prayers will be answered if only they have faith. Why, therefore, would a serious, knowledgeable Christian not trust in holy water to cure AIDS? There is one and only one reason: because they know that there are no miracles and that supernatural treatments do not work. And that realization did not originate from religion, oh no. Much the contrary, it was knowledge that humanity arrived at after long and painstaking empirical study of the world, almost always in the teeth of fierce opposition from the advocates of dogmatic faith.

I have written before about the folly of trusting in superstition over science when life and health are at stake. But I would like to go further, and assert that reason and faith cannot exist side-by-side in the same society as equivalent means of forming beliefs. The latter inevitably undermines the former, and we end up with clashes like this, or creationism, or apocalypticism, or any of the other pernicious human beliefs rooted in religiosity. The only solution to our troubles is reason, and we must insist on that strongly. The self-destructive effects of faith-based decision-making are intolerable to any enlightened civilization and should not be tolerated.

December 10, 2006, 12:16 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink47 comments

Popular Delusions III: Faith Healing

A frequent point of contention in debates over religion is whether God's existence is a topic that can be addressed by science. Interestingly, this is one of the few issues where various people on both sides take both stances. Some scientists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould and his principle of "nonoverlapping magisteria", hold that religion is in a separate realm from science and addresses different questions, and never the twain shall meet. Other scientists hold that God's existence is a topic that can be scientifically investigated, though they go on to draw different conclusions from that premise; some, such as the indefatigable Richard Dawkins hold that theism has been tried and found wanting. Other groups insist that God's existence can be proven by scientific study, most notably creationists, though they engage in precious little science themselves.

The best way to cut through the confusion is this: Science can address specific claims of religion, but not the general claim. It is true that the bare question of whether God exists or has any effect on the world is not a question that can be definitively answered in the negative by science; one can always postulate a deity sufficiently subtle that its influence can never be ruled out. (This, of course, leaves unanswered the question of what reason one could have to believe in such a deity.) However, there are many specific religious claims which can be used to derive concrete predictions about what we should see in the world if those religious beliefs are true, and these predictions can be put to the test. One such is the phenomenon of faith healing.

Faith healing takes two major forms: the carnival-like revival shows staged by famous preachers who promise dramatic and miraculous healings before the audience's eyes (I have written about one such before), and the less spectacular phenomenon of intercessory prayer, in which the prayers of relatives or strangers are claimed to speed the recovery of the wounded and the sick. This post will address both.

First, consider the phenomenon of intercessory prayer. One of the most basic, and eminently testable, religious claims is that prayer has a measurable effect on the workings of the world, and many researchers - often theists seeking support for their own beliefs - have embarked on studies of this claim. The evidence is in, and the verdict is clear: intercessory prayer does not work. Large, well-controlled studies invariably find no measurable improvement in the recovery rates of patients who are prayed for. Studies that claim otherwise always turn out to have some methodological or statistical defect such as poor controls or cherry-picked data (as usual, Skeptico has the goods on these malfeasants).

As an example of the former category, take the 2003 MANTRA study, run by Duke University. 750 participants undergoing angioplasty were split into two groups, one receiving prayer from Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims, one receiving no prayer. There was no statistically significant difference in outcomes between the two groups. A follow-up study published in July 2005, MANTRA II, replicated this result by finding no benefit to randomized intercessory prayer.

Similarly, an even larger study published in March 2006 in the American Heart Journal found no difference in outcomes among 1,800 coronary bypass patients who either did or did not receive prayer from three Christian congregations. No difference, that is, save for one: patients who knew they were being prayed for experienced a higher rate of complications. This is very probably due to a sort of performance anxiety among prayer recipients who felt that they were under pressure to do better.

Examples such as the above notwithstanding, what some studies have found is that people who are being prayed for and know it do sometimes do better. This is no surprise: it is another example of the placebo effect, where positive thinking and expectation can stimulate physical changes in the body that speed healing. But this effect can be explained without invoking God or miracles, and is therefore no proof of either. What would constitute evidence of the miraculous would be if intercessory prayer had a statistically significant effect in a randomized, double-blind trial, where participants do not know if they are being prayed for or not. This should not present a problem for God, if he exists, but it does prevent the placebo effect from biasing the results. Again, no such study has ever shown a reproducible, significant curative effect. As far as the evidence shows, intercessory prayer does not work.

Naturally, this result has provoked bitter complaints from many believers who assert that God should not be put to the test. In response to the MANTRA study, an English bishop said, "Prayer is not a penny in the slot machine. You can't just put in a coin and get out a chocolate bar." Similarly, in a New York Times article on prayer studies from October 10, 2004, Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr. of New York-Presbyterian Hospital is quoted as saying, "There's no way to put God to the test, and that's exactly what you're doing when you design a study to see if God answers your prayers. This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer."

While I share the reverend's opinion regarding the plausibility of miraculous suspensions of natural law in response to prayer (how could prayer convince an omniscient deity to do something he was not already going to do anyway?), I think these complaints are less than sincere. Had any of these studies produced significant positive results, I do not think that theists would dismiss them as unimportant. Quite the contrary, I have no doubt whatsoever that these theists and many others, in such a scenario, would trumpet this proof of God's existence to the high heavens. When a preliminary study in 2001 (later refuted by the larger and better-designed MANTRA study) seemingly found some benefit to prayer, we saw just that. Similarly, churches such as the Anglican church have declared the evidence of prayer's efficacy to be "overwhelming". Yet when well-designed studies find no evidence that prayer works, these very same believers quickly retreat to excuses about how one must not test God. Tests are acceptable to these believers, it would seem, only if they produce the results that were desired in advance.

Despite their failures, at least these studies do no real harm: the participants always receive competent medical attention along with their ineffective dose of prayer, and no one is convinced to forsake their doctor's care. The same is not true of faith-healing revivals, where evangelists deceive supplicants into believing their ailments have been cured, often encouraging attendees to abandon traditional medical care in the process and causing them to suffer terribly or even die as a result. One particularly horrifying case:

Helen Sullivan could walk only with a back brace, due to the cancer that had weakened the bones of her spinal cord. But when faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman told her that her cancer was cured, Sullivan threw off her back brace and ran across the stage several times as the audience applauded and Kuhlman praised the Lord. For the rest of the evening, Sullivan felt no pain, but by early morning, the pain had returned, only more intense than before. Without the support of her brace, one of her vertebrae had collapsed. Two months later, Sullivan was dead of the cancer that Kuhlman had "cured" her of.

Another example, from the powerful 2001 documentary "A Question of Miracles" by Anthony Thomas:

And one woman who we were very close to, suffering from lung cancer, so wanted to believe that she was cured that she never saw her oncologist again. He heard about her death through us.

A common trick used by religious con artists is to encourage people who do not really need them to use wheelchairs or crutches, so that they can dramatically rise at the appropriate moment and throw their paraphernalia away, to the amazement of the audience. Even when such blatant scams are not used, the intense emotional atmosphere of these circus-like events induces a kind of euphoria from the release of natural opiates - a placebo effect on steroids - often causing people with painful but non-crippling conditions such as arthritis to feel temporarily better. Of course, since faith healers invariably do not keep follow-up records, the fact that most of these people begin to feel worse again after the revival is never reported. Faith healers will sometimes claim that they have "healed" a completely internal ailment, such as cancer, so that there can be no evidence disproving their claim until the revival has ended and there is no chance to demonstrate its falsity. Some will even announce healings without even naming a specific individual ("Someone is being healed of cancer in this section!"), thus making their claim impossible to disprove and removing altogether the need for them to present any evidence. And in the rare circumstance that a healing can be shown not to have taken place, the evangelist can always blame it on the recipient's lack of faith.

Their lack of medical effectiveness notwithstanding, these events often turn out to be very effective indeed at swelling the bank accounts of their wealthy evangelist organizers. Faith-healing rallies by famous preachers such as Benny Hinn or Reinhard Bonnke often draw thousands of attendees desperate for miracle cures, who are willing to hand over huge amounts of money in exchange for even the smallest bit of hope, and do. Again from Thomas' documentary:

Preaching in Portland, Ore., Benny Hinn performs 76 'miracles' on stage before an adoring, ecstatic crowd. In order to make an independent assessment of the results, the filmmakers ask for the names of the healed. Thirteen weeks later, the ministry produces five. None of these turn out have experienced lasting healing. Among the devotees who sought a miracle from Hinn that evening was 10 year old immigrant Ashnil Prakash, afflicted with two brain tumors. Although his impoverished parents pledge thousands of dollars to Hinn, Prakash dies seven weeks after the Portland event.

An interview with Prakash's mother and father following his death shows the parents continued an undeterred allegiance to the faith healer. As the couple discuss their child's succumbing to the tumors, no allusion of any measure is expressed of Hinn being culpable of perpetuating false hope. The couple sees themselves, not Hinn, as a possible cause that their son did not receive a healing. The father suggests his son's death may be a result of generational curses or sin of either himself or his father. When the HBO interviewer asked where he arrived at such a notion, the father responded, "Pastor Benny."

To people such as this, questions of theology and evidence are irrelevant. These people are desperate for hope; they want a miracle, and will go to any lengths to try to obtain one. It is heartbreaking to see these lost souls, many of whom are poor and needy, willingly hand over their money - millions and millions of dollars in total - to powerless charlatans who offer nothing in return but false hope and empty promises, when they could have given that money to the scientists and doctors who might actually be able to use it to find a cure for their afflictions. How many dread diseases could we have cured - how much human suffering could we have ended - if all the resources that have been wasted on faith healers and other popular delusions had instead been given to fund scientific research?

Other posts in this series:

September 26, 2006, 10:48 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink36 comments

A Call for Truth in Advertising Laws

I was in New York City the other week, near Penn Station, when I was accosted by a well-dressed man in a business suit attempting to hand out fliers to passers-by. I did not take one, but inside the train station, I noticed one cast aside and lying on the ground. Out of curiosity, this time I picked it up and read it. It turned out to be promoting a revival meeting to be held in Madison Square Garden that weekend by the Korean evangelist Jaerock Lee, sponsored by a host of local churches. Below is a scan of the front and back sides of the flier:

The flier promised rather ominously that this event was "the last opportunity for New York", but did not elaborate on what this meant - the last opportunity for New York to see Lee in action, or perhaps the last opportunity for New York to repent before the city was razed by heavenly fire? These preachers really ought to be more precise.

However, that phrase was not the one that provoked my ire the most. Rather, as readers can see for themselves, the front side of the flier makes the following claim:

Come and experience the wonders and miracles of God through the ministry of Dr. Jaerock Lee. Come and be healed from skin diseases, mental illness and all types of diseases. The mute come to speak, the deaf hear, the blind see, the cripple [sic] walk and those at the edge of death due to accidents and injuries are revived.

and, not to be outdone, the back side elaborated on these promises at greater length:

  • The blind can see and the deaf can hear!
  • The handicapped are healed and restored!
  • The dead are raised!
  • Miracle healings from AIDS, Cancers, and other terminal Diseases!

Call me a skeptic if you must, but I highly doubt that anyone was raised from the dead, at this revival meeting or any other. A photo of people getting up off the ground looking woozy does not establish otherwise. Make no mistake, if Jaerock Lee really can cure AIDS, regenerate severed spinal cords, or heal retinas destroyed by glaucoma or macular degeneration, I would welcome him to demonstrate his powers under the oversight of qualified, independent physicians - but I do not think he can do any of those things. I will, in fact, go further and assert that no Christian evangelist in history has ever done any of the things Lee's flier claims he can do. The evidence for such an extraordinary claim simply does not exist. (Interestingly, Lee's "miracles" have been endorsed by none other than notorious creationist William Dembski.)

Why are truth in advertising laws not being applied here? If some pharmaceutical company or herbal supplement manufacturer put out an ad falsely claiming that its products could cure blindness, AIDS and terminal cancer, the FDA and other government agencies would come down on them like a ton of bricks. Why, then, are religious evangelists allowed to get away with making exactly the same claims without offering a shred of evidence? The right to free speech does not extend to allowing a business selling a product to make extravagant unproven claims about the efficacy of that product.

In the end, it boils down to a public-relations issue: government regulatory agencies sue businesses making false claims because they are confident of prevailing in the court of public opinion, but they fear to touch religious hucksters because of the backlash that would inevitably ensue. Make no mistake, Christian evangelists have raised the skill of depicting themselves as the poor, unjustly persecuted minority to an art form, and no doubt an angry horde of true believers would storm the offices of any agency that had the courage to call Lee's fabricated claims what they are. We badly need a truly secular government, one that does not give a pass to false claims just because they are made in the name of religion; but more importantly, we need an educated populace that will not credulously accept ridiculous claims just because they come tagged with the word God.

Interestingly, it seems Jaerock Lee is a controversial figure even among his fellow Christians. Sites such as this one document assertions made by him that, to put it mildly, betray an exaggerated sense of self-worth. To put it less mildly, these claims would be considered delusional if not for our society's tendency to consider any belief emanating from religion as above reproach. It seems likely that Lee's wild and grandiose stories about healing terminal illnesses, raising the dead and so on stem from the same psychological condition that makes him think of himself as virtually equal with God. Regrettably, the fact that millions of people hold very similar beliefs causes them to hail him as a prophet and visionary, rather than encouraging him to seek the psychological help he plainly needs.

August 25, 2006, 7:28 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink51 comments

No Miracles

The previous essays in this series have explored various ways in which human beings appeal to the supernatural to solve our problems. We seek out oracles to tell us the truth without doing the hard work of seeking it out through study and experiment; we dream up heavens to provide us with a perfect world to live in without the sweat and toil of creating it ourselves; we invent commandments to show us morality without the intellectual labor and uncertainty of reasoning it out; we look to the skies for messiahs to lead us without the falterings of democracy and the tedious effort of consensus-building and compromise.

But all of these are symptoms of a more general condition: humanity is suffused with magical thinking. More than anything, we desire easy answers, and all these different types of supernatural belief stem, ultimately, from that desire. When life is difficult and troubled, we want miracles that will fulfill our needs and supply our wants in a supernatural flash, without the work otherwise needed to get what we want; and when life is truly disastrous and our sorrow and suffering seem too great to bear, we want miracles to reverse the irreversible and make possible the impossible.

The longing for miracles extends throughout every religion ancient and modern, as people throughout history have sought to fulfill their wants and control the world through magic. The list is extensive: Native American rain dances and shamanic healing rituals; modern Wiccans who think they can use spells to attract love, luck, or good fortune; ancient Jews and Greeks who thought that sacrificing animals would placate the gods and bring peace and prosperity; faith healers who think all disease can be prayed away and all mental illness is caused by demons; witch doctors who brew potions that they claim will make the imbiber invisible or immune to bullets; Pentecostals who handle snakes and babble in tongues, Catholics with a predilection for saints that in practice is little more than polytheism under another name, and Christians of all stripes who appeal to guardian angels and think to make God obey their will by repeating their prayers constantly, much like the various magicians and sorcerers through history who attempt to invoke and control the supernatural through the use of the right magic words. For example, here is a quote from a group of fundamentalist Catholics who evidently believe they can control the world with magic:

With all of the Rosaries, Masses, and sacrifices offered to God, why is the number of abortions not decreasing?

Magical thinking leaks into our lives in a wide variety of ways not directly associated with religion as well. There are the great numbers of people who carry supposedly lucky charms - horseshoes, rabbits' feet, or whatever else. There are numerous household superstitions about breaking a mirror, spilling salt, stepping on sidewalk cracks, or letting a black cat cross one's path. There are gamblers who erroneously believe that the cards or the dice can be "due" to turn up a certain way, actors who fear to wish each other good luck before the performance, and sports players with an endless array of superstitions about, for example, not shaving or washing one's clothes before the big game, lest one wash one's luck away. There are even hospitals whose 13th floor is instead labeled with some other number. How ironic it is that such superstition turns up in the very places that should be the strongest testaments to the value of evidence-based thinking!

Like other examples of magical thinking, these are all based on spurious perceptions of correlation between unrelated events. The human brain is very good indeed at perceiving causality - so good that it often perceives it even where it does not exist. But to a mind not trained in critical thinking, it is all but impossible to separate the legitimate perceptions from the faulty ones. When a prayer is ineffective, the "natural" thing to do is to say it again, just in case God was perhaps not listening the first time; and if it still does not come true, why, it surely cannot hurt to say it yet again. By this means, people are unconsciously led to repeat their prayers over and over until, by chance, the thing they desired may happen - at which point they frequently decide that the exact number of repetitions they used must be the most effective, and transmit this knowledge to their fellow believers.

Similarly, a person who happens to be holding some item touted as a lucky charm, or who has recently practiced some supposedly magic ritual, who then experiences a streak of good fortune, will almost certainly conclude that magic was responsible for their success. People who obtain the charm or repeat the ritual and do not experience similar success are apt to overlook the failure, or blame it on themselves in some way - until their luck changes in even some small way, as it inevitably does, which they conclude to be true and undeniable evidence in favor of their particular brand of magic.

In reality, when such fallacies are disregarded, there is no evidence that such superstitious practices are or ever have been effective in any way. In our world, magic does not work. Our problems cannot be solved by the wave of a magic wand; misfortune cannot be repelled by crossing one's fingers, drawing mystic circles or chanting in the moonlight; and no amount of prayer, be it ever so heartfelt, will move an inconveniently placed mountain by so much as an inch. Appealing to the supernatural is effective only insofar as it increases the confidence of the practitioner and improves their chance to achieve their goals by their own, non-supernatural effort and ability.

The appeal of magic is that it promises easy answers, easy victories, easy achievement of our goals with little effort and toil. But this is, and always was, a childish dream. Through cooperating with each other and studying the world around us, we can learn to better control our circumstances and improve our lives, but such improvement will always take labor and work. The lure of easy answers is an illusion; there are answers, but they are difficult to obtain and always were. Yet that does not make them worth any less. On the contrary, it makes them even more precious, and should increase our appreciation for what progress we have brought about and our resolve to make further progress in the future. The childish things we cling to have held us back and distracted us from this difficult, but worthy goal for too long. As our species comes of age, it is time to put them away once and for all and have the courage to view the world in the light of reality. Though this worldview promises us less, it ultimately offers us far much more.

Other posts in this series:

August 22, 2006, 9:48 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink54 comments

The Power of Christ Compels You

Earlier tonight I received a highly amusing e-mail whose author seemed confident that I would cease to be an atheist if I performed a magical ritual of their devising. I do not normally post feedback e-mail in full, but since this one was sent to me anonymously, I have no qualms in doing so:

From: Anonymous <>
Date: Sat, 10 Jun 2006 20:23:12 -0400
Subject: Want To Prove that You are a Real Atheist? TAKE THIS TEST!!!!!!!

Want to prove that you are a real atheist?
Say this out loud

If you are a real a real atheist, say this prayer out loud three times
right now:
If there is no God, then these prayers will have no effect on you, but if
there is a God, they will. Remember, you have to say these out loud 3x each,
in a row.

I bet you you will change once you says these prayers. Say them by
yourself, you don't have to do it in front of anyone. If you are reading this when
there is someone around, you can close it and print it out and say it then.

Say this out loud 3x:


Then say this out loud 3x:





Since the sender of this e-mail chose to remain anonymous, I was unable to write a letter in reply. I will respond here, instead.

First of all, I have neither the desire nor the need to "prove that I am a real atheist". I am an atheist, and I will say so to anyone who wants to know. If someone chooses not to believe me, that is their problem, not mine. I do not believe in any gods, and that is the only requirement to be an atheist; I do not have to do anything else to make my atheism "real", nor am I obligated to jump through hoops at another's bidding to prove it. I know the state of my own mind, and that is good enough for me. I assume the writer of this letter was trying to goad me into acting as they desire, but it did not work.

Second, I'm curious about the author's insistence that I must say this prayer three times for it to be effective. I cannot help wondering why they thought that was necessary. Shouldn't once be enough for a deity that hears and knows all? Does God usually ignore the first two repetitions of a prayer, so that a third is necessary to get his attention? Though the writer of this e-mail seems to be a Christian, apparently I know the Bible better than they do: "But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking" (Matthew 6:7).

And finally, to the author, whoever you are: No, I am not going to perform this superstitious ritual you have devised. If that makes you crow in triumph, so be it. I know from experience that if I announced I had said the prayer and was still an atheist, you would say that I had not done it sincerely enough, or that I have to do it in a church, or in the presence of another Christian, or that I have to attend six months of Bible study first, or otherwise come up with some excuse that involves retroactively tacking new conditions onto the original challenge. I know this because I have said versions of the "sinner's prayer" before, at the request of other Christians, and when it did absolutely nothing, those are the excuses they inevitably provide. As James Randi has said, those who are determined to be irrational are like "unsinkable rubber ducks": push them down and they pop right back up, always with some new contrived explanation for why their particular brand of magic does not work.

I say magic because what this misguided believer proposes I do is magic, no different than any other superstitious ceremony that entails speaking the proper incantation to produce the desired effect. All varieties of magical thinking are fundamentally alike in their belief that words and symbols control reality, if arranged properly, and Christian-themed magical thinking is just like every other kind in that respect. To whoever it is that bravely chose to remain anonymous, I have a counter-challenge for you: stop hiding behind anonymous proxies, step out and reveal your identity, and I will debate the truth of Christianity with you in an open forum of your choice. (If you want to prove that you're a real Christian, you'll do it. See how that feels?) If Christianity is true, then the facts will inevitably bear that out, and if it is not true, all the vain repetitions in the world will not make it otherwise. Will you show yourself, or will you remain hidden and persist in the foolish and futile delusion that your magic words can control reality?

June 10, 2006, 11:55 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink206 comments

Physician, Heal Thyself

I mentioned in an earlier post that I recently came across Freethought Radio, the Freedom from Religion Foundation's new weekly radio show, which I highly recommend.

The very first episode, which I was listening to the other day, made me aware of a shocking violation of the separation of church and state. This latest outrage, not surprisingly, arises from George W. Bush's constitutionally repugnant "faith-based initiatives" plan, a political euphemism for forced taxation in support of religion. (The FFRF has won five major court victories against various aspects of the faith-based initiative program in the past several years, and has filed a new lawsuit against this one.)

This new violation is the fault of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, of all groups. Apparently, the VA has begun to integrate religion into the medical treatment of injured or disabled veterans - religion not as an optional service available to those who request it, but as a built-in part of all treatment whether a veteran requests it or not. It seems that every patient admitted into the VA system is given a "spiritual/faith assessment", containing questions about how often the person prays or attends church, how often they read scripture or listen to religious TV programs, or how often they "experience the presence of the divine". Readers are invited to wonder how this could possibly be relevant to any patient's care. Some assessments go so far as to include leading questions such as, "How often do you worry about your doubts or disbelief in God?"

Based on the patient's answers, the attending chaplain determines whether there is - wait for it - "spiritual injury". If so, the chaplain prescribes attendance at a "spiritual injury support group". All of this is based on the premise that good health care is incomplete without attending to the patient's spiritual needs, apparently regardless of whether the patient themself feels any need to do so. (The FFRF press release has further information.)

There is no constitutional problem with providing chaplains to address patients' needs. But this should come only at the patient's request, to protect their free exercise rights. The VA crosses the line when it seeks to make this involvement a part of every patient's care, regardless of whether they desire it or not, and in so doing breaks the law by attempting to promote religion using government resources. Should I ever be admitted to any federally funded hospital, I will encourage the doctors to treat my body only, thank you very much, and not concern themselves with the state of my soul. Were I in this situation, I would refuse to fill out any ridiculous questionnaires about my "spiritual health", and I would certainly decline the invitations of any bullying chaplain to take part in his rituals of superstition. I hope many nonreligious veterans are similarly refusing to comply.

On another note, my local newspaper recently ran the following gushing story about how a Catholic woman's prayers to the "Divine Child" saved her daughter's life by getting her the kidney transplant she needed:

Rosa's 14-year-old daughter, Yesenia, needed a kidney transplant. The girl had been subjected to a year's worth of three-hour-long dialysis treatments three times a week. This was her second child to go through this. Rosa's first daughter suffered kidney failure but was able to quickly find a donor in her brother. Coincidence? Rosa firmly believes that a solution was because of intervention on behalf of the Divine Child through Rosa's frequent prayers.

I sent a letter to the author of this article, which is reproduced below. Should I receive any response, I will provide an update.


This letter is in reference to your article 'Saving Yesenia' that appeared in the May 13 edition of the Times Herald-Record, which I read with some interest. I am an atheist, and no one is happier than I that Yesenia received the transplant she needed and is now doing well. I wish her and her family all the best. However, I must comment on this story's credulous acceptance of Ms. Solis' belief that her prayer to the 'Divine Child' was what resulted in her daughter receiving a transplant, as opposed to the diligent efforts of the many hundreds of human beings throughout history who have worked to make such life-saving interventions possible through study and medical research.

This claim is an instance of a very common mistake in thinking called confirmation bias, also known as 'counting the hits and forgetting the misses'. There are tens of thousands of people waiting on lists to receive organ transplants, and the vast number of them doubtless have friends and relatives praying that they receive one. People who do receive one, of course, view it as a miracle and the answer to their prayers - but that is only because they overlook the thousands of others who are praying the exact same thing and receive no answer, and of course those stories receive little or no newspaper coverage. According to, about 18 people die in America every single day while waiting for organ transplants they never receive.

Although Ms. Solis doubtless did not mean to cause any offense, her belief that her daughter's transplant was due solely to her prayers could be viewed as highly insulting to those others. What would she tell the mother of some other young girl who died waiting for a transplant? Did God see fit to grant one mother's prayers but leave someone else's daughter to die? Does Ms. Solis mean to imply that her daughter was more deserving of life than those others? This view makes God an evil and capricious being who saves some and abandons others to die on a whim, a view that is unworthy of being held by any human being with a conscience.

In addition, this view thoughtlessly neglects the contributions of the hard-working, dedicated doctors who actually located a donor and performed the surgery, by making it seem as if Yesenia's recovery was a matter of prayer alone. In reality, it was a human effort, carried out not by miracles or angels but by human beings who care for each other, using techniques that have been honed through decades of patient study and scientific research. At no point did any gods intervene in this process, and it is demeaning to imply that Yesinia's recovery was a miracle from heaven that simply dropped into the family's lap. Though that outcome might be described as a miracle, it is the only kind of miracle that exists: the kind that we work together to bring about for ourselves.

I hope you will exercise due skepticism in the future before running any more stories of this type."

May 15, 2006, 10:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink6 comments

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