Sunday, June 24, 2007

Last Refuge for the Desperate

One of the most perplexing elements of religious faith is prayer—the notion that, by pleading with God, one actually can cause changes for the better in the world. Of course, we see this strange practice in a great many of the world’s thousands of faiths, meaning multitudes of God characters all are being bombarded with requests great and small. The natural question, of course, is whether prayer actually does anything. In truth, I think most people already know the answer to that question; I make this judgment not based on what people do pray for, but based on what they do not.

There is a tremendously interesting website called “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”, which hits upon an oft-ignored, yet universal, phenomenon: People do not pray for “impossible” things, but rather only things that possibly could happen by natural means. Essentially never do you see somebody pray for an amputee’s lost limb to grow back spontaneously. It is an incredibly rare occurrence for a grieving widow to pray that her deceased husband rise from the grave to rejoin her in matrimony. It is exceedingly uncommon for parents who wanted a baby girl, but got a baby boy, to pray that the infant’s gender changes. Why are flat-out impossible things hardly ever prayed for, when most God conceptions seem not to be limited by the natural principles under which we live?

Earlier I asked if prayer actually works, and said I have a tentative hypothesis with regard to what people truly believe about this. In the conscious mind, those infected with religious fervor are fully confident that their prayers are heard, and occasionally answered. In the subconscious, people realize that prayer suffers from the ultimate limit: It is bounded by what is possible through natural means, and pure chance. Essentially automatically and unbeknownst to them, people filter out the impossible requests and amass those that might be able to reinforce the illusion of prayer’s efficacy. A man prays that he gets a job, so he can support his family. A woman prays that her father recovers from a serious illness. Parents pray that their baby is born healthy. A community prays that an approaching storm does not wreak havoc. These are good things for which to pray; nature can do the job where God does not exist.

My dwindling religious readers might object at this point: “God can do anything, and my prayers are not limited to the mundane! Nothing is impossible for God and, thus, prayer potentially is capable of delivering any desired result!” OK, although this is a metaphysical proposition, it certainly could be tested by scientific means. Gather up Robertson, Perkins, Huckabee and 200-some other fundamentalist Christofascists and put them on an airplane. At 38,000 feet, the pilot and co-pilot will dive into the sky, with only parachutes potentially to save their lives. Autopilot will not be turned on at any point. Precisely three minutes before that happens, every fundamentalist theocrat onboard the flight will begin to pray for the plane’s safe landing and every passenger’s survival. The prayer will continue until one minute after the pilots dive out. If God’s hands guide the aircraft to a safe and smooth landing, prayer’s efficacy will be proved. If the plane crashes, prayer will be disproved. I wonder if Imam Robertson’s confidence in prayer reaches that level....

My guess would be no, considering prayer already has been tested scientifically. The Harvard Medical School Office of Public Affairs issued a news release entitled "Largest Study of Third-Party Prayer Suggests Such Prayer Not Effective In Reducing Complications Following Heart Surgery" on March 31, 2006. See selected passages below:

“For those facing surgery or battling disease, the prayers of others can be a comfort. Researchers in the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), the largest study to examine the effects of intercessory prayerprayer provided by othersevaluated the impact of such prayer on patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

“The STEP team, composed of investigators at six academic medical centers, including Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts; Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Florida; Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C; and the Mind/Body Medical Institute, found that intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications. The study also found that patients who knew they were receiving intercessory prayer fared worse. The paper appears in the April issue of American Heart Journal.”


“STEP investigators enrolled 1,802 bypass surgery patients from six hospitals and randomly assigned each to one of three groups: 604 patients received intercessory prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayers (Group 1); 597 patients did not receive prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayer (Group 2); and 601 patients received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive it (Group 3).

“Caregivers and independent auditors comparing case reports to medical records were unaware of the patients' assignments throughout the study. The study enlisted members of three Christian groups, two Catholic and one Protestant, to provide prayer throughout the multi-year study.

“Some patients were told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer: complications occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer (Group 1) versus 51 percent of those who did not receive prayer (Group 2). Complications occurred in 59 percent of patients who were told they would receive prayer (Group 3) versus 52 percent, who also received prayer, but were uncertain of receiving it (Group 1). Major complications and thirty-day mortality were similar across the three groups.”

Now, granted, this study explicitly was limited to intercessory prayer. However, I think it is reasonable to draw a powerful overall conclusion: Prayer is nothing more than a (wildly inconsistent) form of the placebo effect. It provides some measure of comfort to the desperate...but simply cannot supersede natural scientific principles.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Mad Torturer and Me: The Lunacy of the Hell Delusion

As an atheist who debates theists frequently, I often am warned that my immortal soul is in grave jeopardy. A range of religious individuals—not just Christians—have told me that disbelief in God will result in severe punishment after corporeal death. When Christians, in particular, are involved, it is never long before Hell is invoked. For the uninitiated, the Christian conception of Hell is the place in which those isolated from God will spend eternity—being tortured, abused, burned, crushed, maimed and brutalized in perpetuity. Oftentimes, Christians ignore my actual arguments and simply try to frighten me by citing Hell—crafting example after agonizing example of what is in store for atheists such as me.

Although such a strategy might give less secure atheists pause, I never could be converted back to being a believer simply by way of blind fear. There also, of course, are several problems with the whole Hell doctrine. In this essay, I shall lay out four of the main ones: What immaterial soul? Which God must one worship? How could God invent Hell? Why worship a wrathful God?

Whenever anybody warns about the grim fate of my immaterial, eternal soul, I generally respond as such: “I cannot waste a single moment worrying about an immortal soul which, as of yet, hasn’t been substantiated through evidence.” Obviously, the doctrine of Hell depends upon an essence surviving corporeal death, but what that essence is never has been fully elucidated. Some of my previous essays have attempted to lay the primitive “soul” notion to rest, citing scientific research that reveals the brain is the place in which one’s personality, character and memory are stored. Perhaps the other insurmountable problem for the soul—particularly in relation to Hell—is its questionable ability to feel pain. How, exactly, can a soul be tortured and brutalized? Pain is a decidedly bodily phenomenon, involving nerves, tissue and the brain. If a wispy essence, divorced from the body, can feel pain, I want to know specifically how it works.

Perhaps the biggest problem for every religion is the following: There are 10,000 more vying for adherentseach equally likely as every other. Unless an enterprising Christian presents to me some heretofore undiscovered evidence that Yahweh is real, I must classify that deity alongside Zeus, Mithras, Enlil, Anu, Nintu, etc. Given the egocentrism of most gods, I doubt generalized piety would suffice. So, if Anu actually is the One and True God, Christians are pretty much screwed. If it is really Mithras after all, the world’s population does not have a whole lot to which to look forward. Then again, the legitimate deity might be Hargozinu, whose existence shall not be discovered for 2500 years.

At this point, quoting Dr. Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” might be instructive:

Here, for example, is what is written in a cuneiform inscription on a Babylonian cylinder seal from the second millennium B.C.:

“Oh, Ninlil, Lady of the Lands, in your marriage bed, in the abode of your delight, intercede for me with Enlil, your beloved.

[Signed] Mili-Shipak, Shatammu of Ninmah.”

It’s been a long time since there’s been a Shatammu in Ninmah, or even a Ninmah. Despite the fact that Enlil and Ninlil were major gods—people all over the civilized Western world had prayed to them for two thousand years—was poor Mili-Shipak in fact praying to a phantom, to a societally condoned product of his imagination? And if so, what about us? Or is this blasphemy, a forbidden question—as doubtless it was among the worshipers of Enlil?

Our third problem with Hell is a definitional one relating to God’s alleged properties. For most Christians, God is defined as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent; that is, Yahweh is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good. The question here is so obvious as to be frequently overlooked: What kind of all-good entity would invent a place such as Hell? Remember that Hell is a place in which humans are tortured and brutalized until the end of time; indeed, Yahweh’s fire pit is far worse than the torture chambers that were Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment and John Wayne Gacy’s suburban dwelling. Speaking personally, I know that I am not omnibenevolent. And yet, even so, I never would want to expose anybody to limitless agony—or any agony at all. Yahweh’s overt sadism seems to preclude simple benevolence (let alone omnibenevolence!) and thus call into question the very definition of God.

Bearing the previous discussion in mind, the time finally has come to tackle the question of whether one should worship a wrathful God. Considering my Dahmer and Gacy analogies, it really does seem rather strange. Those two serial killers are rightly reviled by the public at large (indeed, our tax money went toward murdering Gacy in order to prove the point that murder should not be committed), yet mad torturer Yahweh ought to be worshipped? To continue with our serial killer motif, I will quote a previous essay of mine, in which I argue that God, if existent, booby-trapped Theodore Robert Bundy:

If God were omniscient, he knew Ted Bundy would become a serial killer. If God were omnipotent, he could have created Ted Bundy any way he wanted. If God were omnibenevolent, he would have created Ted Bundy as a decent human, since no omnibenevolent entity would damn his own creation to Hell. For, such would be analogous to a toymaker knowingly making a faulty toy and then blaming the toy for being faulty.

If we, for the sake of argument, make the completely unjustified assumption that God exists, we can draw two possible conclusions: 1. The omni-everything God definition is incorrect. [Thus, we can be certain of nothing about God’s nature, and we have no insight on how to please him.] 2. Hell does not exist, and never has existed. [Hence, even atheists’ infidelic souls are safe.]

Perhaps you have been moved by my arguments, and perhaps not. But, bear this in mind: Whether there is an afterlife or not, the earthly life is the only one that is manifestly in evidence. Enjoy it, and live it to the full.

I suspect no second chance awaits us.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Modern Man, Primitive Beliefs

If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is this: When one leaves the Western world and ventures abroad, one enters a completely new world. Primitive cultures and civilizations abound, many of which cling to incredibly strange beliefs. One wonders, how could these people actually believe in that? Surely, we should expect more from the fellow representatives of our species, even if they are behind the scientific curve when compared to the United States. The Fang people of Cameroon are as good an example as any is. The following passage comes from "Religion Explained," by Dr. Pascal Boyer.

The Fang people believe “…that witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Yes, apparently they really believe such crazy fairy tales, which rightfully are laughed off by we in the sophisticated West. In fact, Dr. Boyer makes a point of noting that, “…a prominent Cambridge theologian, turned to me and said: ‘That is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense’.”

Well, with that, I probably have given away my thesis. As I am sure almost all of you immediately discerned, all of the preceding self-aggrandizing Western world ethnocentrism was a thinly disguised ruse meant to illustrate our breathtaking hypocrisy with respect to the esteem in which we hold our fanciful delusions in contrast to the ridicule we express toward the silly superstitions of other peoples. In his wonderful book "The God Delusion," Dr. Richard Dawkins accurately articulates some fundamental beliefs associated with contemporary Christianity.

Dr. Dawkins writes:

* In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

* The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

* The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.

* Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.

* If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his “father” (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

* If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

* The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but “ascended” bodily into heaven.

* Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), “become” the body and blood of the fatherless man.

After laying out this patently irrational belief set, Dr. Dawkins asks, “What would an objective anthropologist, coming fresh to this set of beliefs while on fieldwork in Cambridge, make of them?” Suddenly, it is we who look positively tribal.

For those raised in the Christian faith, remember this: You have been conditioned to believe that the Christian belief set is not silly. You have been conditioned to believe that the Christian belief set is not weird. You have been conditioned to believe that the Christian belief set is less far-fetched than the beliefs of the Raelians, Scientologists or Fang people. But, alas, that childhood conditioning has made you blind—blind to the fact that the claims of Christianity are deeply, profoundly and shockingly inane. The Christian belief platter, as a matter of fact, is just as fantastically crazy as the Fang people’s collection of lunatic delusions.

Ever eloquent, Dr. Dawkins economically summarizes: “The findings of anthropologists seem weird to us only because they are unfamiliar. All religious beliefs seem weird to those not brought up in them.” Liberate yourself from your deep-seated childhood indoctrination and examine the claims of Christianity as though they are completely new to you. Look at them from the perspective of a sophisticated, well-educated adult, as opposed to a credulous child.

Is there room in your consciousness for such utter silliness—for such contempt of scientific knowledge and natural principles?

What is the quickest, most efficient way of abandoning your religious mythology? Overcome your deep-seated childhood indoctrination and think of those myths as if you are hearing them, just now, for the first time. You soon will realize that such lunacy ought to be confined to the lands of the primitives.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Scattered Reflections

It has been a while since I last made a post, so I figured I would collect my thoughts on two issues and compose “short takes” on them.

Dr. Richard Dawkins, one of evolution’s foremost proponents and atheism’s most ardent defenders, was at his most brilliant in articulating the following devastating observation in "A Devil’s Chaplain":

…modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the Golden Calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.

I once posed a query that I termed The Unanswerable Question for Christians. It read: “If Christianity is the one true faith, and God wants everybody to go to Heaven by accepting it, then why did it take our species (which is about 195,000 years old) approximately 190,000 years to discover it (while in the meantime worshipping all manner of 'false' Gods and following scores of 'fake' religions)?” This, essentially, is the same point Dr. Dawkins raises. Looking back through history, we see myriad gods and goddesses (about whom we all are now atheistic), exhibiting diverse natures, preferences and degrees of anthropomorphism. Highly regarded deities, such as Enlil, now have literally no followers.

Does this give modern-day theists pause?

I have no doubt that Sumerians were supremely confident in Enlil’s existence, just as were other ancient civilizations in their own respective deities. Today, equal confidence is in abundance. Tom Cruise is convinced of Scientology’s veracity. The 9/11 hijackers seemed quite sure that they were destined for eternal paradise in Allah’s warm presence. Various cults throughout the years—Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple comes to mind—have demonstrated their confidence with their actions. And, from personal experience, I can attest to the certainty Christians have about their faith. But isn’t betting on your pet superstition rather like playing the lottery one time and hoping to hit the jackpot? After all, the various God characters (and their inerrant, perfect, Holy texts) are mutually exclusive (i.e., Yahweh is not interchangeable with Zeus is not interchangeable with Enlil). What are the odds that every single God conception throughout the history of time was wrong—save your own? In fact, theists’ odds are far worse than playing the lottery one time. A real possibility exists that there is no God at all; thus, the religionist is betting on one character—of an infinitely large set—and hoping not just that his number will come up, but also that a drawing will take place!

I often make the following request of Christians: Present extraordinary evidence that Yahweh exists, to the exclusion of other God characters.

I have yet to see any convincing evidence for any individual deity. Indeed, the former Christian in me fears that, sometime in a future, Yahweh will be looked upon exactly as Mithras is at present—a quaint storybook character of antiquity.

Shifting gears now, I quite often make the point that Christianity has more than its share of ludicrous, impossible claims. I often cite Jesus’ alleged asexual birth, his alleged bodily resurrection (not unlike George A. Romero’s famous zombies) and Bible characters allegedly living to be nearly 1000 years old, to name a few. However, there is one ludicrous claim that, to this point, I have not addressed. This is ironic, given that I used to be a Catholic. Reading Dr. Daniel Dennett’s wonderful new book, "Breaking the Spell," has gotten me interested in the truly laughable idea of transubstantiation.

In an essay, Dr. Dawkins writes, “It is easy and non-mysterious to believe that in some symbolic or metaphorical sense the eucharistic wine turns into the blood of Christ. The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, however, claims far more. The ‘whole substance’ of the wine is converted into the blood of Christ; the appearance of wine that remains is ‘merely accidental’, ‘inhering in no substance’. Transubstantiation is colloquially taught as meaning that the wine ‘literally’ turns into the blood of Christ.”

Bearing that backgrounder in mind, consider Dr. Dennett’s observations:

But what could you do to show that you really believe that the wine in the chalice has been transformed into the blood of Christ? You could bet a large sum of money on it and then send the wine to the biology lab to see if there was hemoglobin in it (and recover the genome of Jesus from the DNA in the bargain!)—except that the creed has been cleverly shielded from just such concrete tests. It would be sacrilege to remove the wine from the ceremony, and, besides, taking the wine out of the holy context would surely untransubstantiate it, turning it back into ordinary wine. There is really only one action you can take to demonstrate this belief; you can say that you believe it, over and over, as fervently as the occasion demands.

Indeed, Dr. Dennett often makes the point that well-adapted religions have been designed so deviously as to eliminate the possibility of real, objective testing. As such, faith is encouraged and empiricism rejected.

Consider the following:

  • Christians admit that there is no way to confirm Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception.
  • Christians admit that there is no way to confirm the ages at which Adam and Noah (if they even existed) died.
  • Christians admit that there is no way to confirm that Jesus, after suffering the ravages of brain death, spontaneously came back to life, suffering none of death’s nasty symptoms.
  • Finally, we see that Roman Catholics also are unable to confirm that the wine in the chalice has become a dead man’s blood.

I suppose, at last, this is the question: Should manifestly extraordinary claims, such as talking nonhuman animals and asexual human reproduction, be accepted by faith or biblical revelation?

The answer is clear: No.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. When religions' devious designs effectively preclude empirical study, faiths betray the flimsy foundation upon which their assertions rest.