Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, March 4, 2011

Standards of Evidence for Religion

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've often written that I could be convinced of a religion given enough evidence. I suppose it would be fair to discuss just what that evidence would be.

Basically, anything that could truly be defined as miraculous would count as evidence toward a god. The Ebon Musings website has a page titled The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists, which contains lists of evidence that that author would find convincing. Overall, I agree with the types of evidence listed. These include fulfilled prophecies, miraculous occurrences, direct manifestation of the divine, a scripture that contained knowledge that couldn't have been known at the time it was written, or a scripture that was entirely consistent and flawless.

However, there are many caveats. First, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing (as Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.") For example, consider the case of Prahlad Jani (here's another source). He's an Indian yogi who claims that he's gone 70 years without eating or drinking. A doctor has even performed some tests supposedly confirming his claims. Unfortunately, the tests didn't use the best methodology, and the doctor wouldn't let another investigator who had experience exposing frauds be involved in the study. From the best information that outsiders have been able to gather, it appears that he's just a normal person, who was eating normally up until his time in the hospital, and then began suffering from the effects of dehydration and starvation while he was there.

As another example, consider Ram Bahadur Bamjan (here's another source on this one), who some claim is the reincarnation of the Buddha, and who others claim (since according to Buddhism, the Buddha has already achieved nirvana) is a Bodhisattva. Bamjan has supposedly sat under a tree meditating for months on end, with no food or water. However, there's no good evidence to back the claims up. There was even a screen put in front of him every night. When the Discovery Channel sent a film crew to make a documentary, they couldn't detect his heat with an infrared camera the first night they tried (makes you wonder if he'd been leaving every night all along). On a second attempt, they did observe him to go without food for 96 hours. Four days of fasting is a feat, but hardly miraculous.

So, like I said, the evidence that the miracle occurred must be strong and convincing. It can't be merely hearsay.

As another caveat, the miracle really should be something that's unexplainable by natural processes. This rules out those events that fall into the realm of unlikely, but not impossible. As I've said before, my chances of winning the lottery may be a million to one, but somebody still manages to win every week. In other words, given enough opportunities, unlikely events will inevitably happen to someone. I think one of my favorite examples of such an unlikely event is a truck that nearly went over a cliff, but ended up landing on a small ledge. You can see the pictures and read about it on Snopes. Unfortunately, vehicles fall off cliffs all the time. So, as lucky as it may have been for the driver of that pickup to land where he did, it was just the odds playing out. If, say, vehicles with Jews never went over cliffs, while vehicles with non-Jews went over regularly, then there might something to God protecting his chosen people. But in reality, religious affiliation has no effect on your chances of death by precipitous plunge.

Other, stranger seeming 'miracles', can also be explained naturally. Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, appears very strange - speakers making vocalizations that they're convinced are other languages. However, as it's been studied, it's been learned that the speakers are using sounds that they're already familiar with from their own language (i.e. a native English speaker won't make the guttural vocalizations of German or French). Further, to quote that Wikipedia article, "where certain prominent glossolalists had visited, whole groups of glossolalists would speak in his style of speech." This certainly makes it appear that it's a learned behavior. I doubt that the speakers are intentionally lying, but I also doubt that they're doing anything more than making interesting noises.

Faith healing is an example that requires both above caveats. First, I'd need to see some strong evidence that a person was actually healed (and that the supposed event wasn't a fraud). But, there are many examples of people who think they've been healed. Many of these can be chalked up to self hypnosis or the placebo effect. A person gets caught up in the moment, and subjective symptoms are reduced. There are also a few cases where a person does get better after visiting the healer, but most of those are likely be coincidence. There's no guarantee that the cure came from the healer, as opposed to just occurring spontaneously (which does happen). Really, what would be needed is some type of study involving a control group, to see just how effective faith healing really is (though I doubt many researchers would be willing to deny patients real treatment for such a study).

Another consideration is that many claims for the divine cross religious borders. If a Christian and a Hindu have both claimed to have felt a god's presence, or to have received a divine message, which one of them should we trust more? Should the Christian or Hindu evidence be counted equally? Doesn't it seem more likely that it's really all in their heads? If supposed miracles occur just as often for diverse people regardless of their religion, then it doesn't argue strongly for their particular religions. This does leave open the possibility of a non-denominational god, but it seems more likely that there are more earthly causes that are being misinterpreted.

Prophecy requires special mention. Of course, these require the same standard of evidence as other miracles. Pointing to a prophecy in an old book, and then pointing to another section of the same book that says the prophecy was fulfilled, isn't very convincing without independent sources confirming the claims. But for prophecies to be convincing, they must also be specific. Nostradamus's writings are an example of how bad this can be. When every generation can interpret a prophecy to be applicable to events happening in their own time, then the prophecy probably isn't specific enough. Prophets must also have a decent accuracy. As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day. If someone throws out enough prophecies, some are bound to come true. Prophecies must also be unlikely, or something that would be very difficult to predict otherwise. It's not very profound to prophesize that the next round of presidential candidates will lie during their campaigning.

Ideally, miracles should be witnessed by more than one person. Personal revelations fall into this category, especially considering, like I wrote above, that people from diverse religions are all convinced that they've personally felt their god's presence. Another example is the case of Adele Brise. She claims to have seen and spoke to an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The thing is, there were two other women with her, neither of whom could see Adele's vision. Despite the unverifiable nature of the event, the Catholic Church has officially decreed that "these apparitions as worthy of belief". There are many reasons a person could claim to see apparitions or hear voices. The simplest, though I like to hope the least common because I like to think the best of people, is that they're simply lying - looking for attention, a way to make a buck, or even just playing a joke. But there are also people who really do have mental problems, who have hallucinations or hear voices in their heads. Just because some of them claim the voices are coming from on high doesn't mean that we shouldn't give them the appropriate treatments they need.


Assuming that a miracle did meet the appropriate standards, I can say that I still wouldn't be convinced by a single example. There are too many other possible mechanisms. For example, let's just say that a prophet came along who truly could predict the future. It's possible their insights were divine, but it's also possible that seeing into the future was an ability of humans, and that most people simply aren't very good at. I would want to see research done into where the prophet's ability came from. I wouldn't immediately jump to accepting their religion.

There are other possibilities that may seem outlandish, but no more so than Thor being a real deity. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's a big universe out there, and it's possible we're not alone. SciFi shows like Star Trek make us want to think that advanced civilizations would be noble and peaceful, but we don't know that they would. Maybe a civilization wanted to conquer our planet, but their space ship didn't have the resources to do it outright. A few magic tricks to impress the natives would go a long way. Or maybe aliens would be practical jokers, having a bit of fun at the primitive apes' expense.

An important consideration here is the timing of miracles. As far as I've seen, there haven't been any well documented miracles. But even the claims of miracles show a decrease in grandeur over time. The Bible describes Moses parting the Red Sea, while a more modern miracle I described above was a woman seeing a vision her companions couldn't. It really seems as if many supposed ancient miracles are myths, and many more are due to people not understanding how the universe really works. As we learn more and more about the universe around us, and as documentation of events becomes better and better, miracles become more and more minor. But if there truly were a god, it wouldn't have to be that way. A god could continue performing major miracles throughout the ages. Considering the dearth of miracles in the past, the source of any new 'miracles' would have to be carefully considered.


My discussion of miracles above wasn't exhaustive. There are other classes of miracles that I didn't discuss. But I think that this gives a sense for the standards I'm looking for. Miracles must be well documented, not explainable by natural means, and more than simply unlikely events. And even if a supposed miracle was well documented, we must consider other possibilities before accepting it as evidence for any particular religion.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, First Part of a Series

God or Gorilla PicMy parents bought me an interesting present for Christmas a couple years ago. It was an old book published in 1922, titled God- or Gorilla? How the Monkey Theory of Evolution Exposes Its Own Methods, Refutes Its Own Principles, Denies Its Own Inferences, Disproves Its own Case. As you can guess, the author, Alfred W. McCann, was not a big fan of universal common descent. (For those of you who may be wondering, my parents aren't creationists - they bought the book because they knew I'd find it interesting.)

After reading the book, I knew I wanted to do a review of it on this blog, but I wasn't exactly sure how. McCann's not really a household name, so I didn't feel like he had a strong influence that needed to be countered. I also do have a bit of sympathy for his position, in that the evidence for evolution wasn't quite as strong in the '20s as it is today (it was still pretty strong, though). He also spent a good deal of time debunking the Piltdown Man, which is now widely acknowledged as a hoax. However, one of the things that struck me about the book is that many of the arguments that McCann used are still being used by creationists today, so refuting those arguments is still relevant.

I'd originally intended to quote just a few passages to give the flavor of the book, with a little commentary and links to the relevant entries in the Index to Creationist Claims where appropriate. However, once I started skimming through the book and pulling out interesting quotes, I ended up with 40 pages worth of excerpts! So, I decided to turn this into a series. I'll try to post a new installment to the series every Friday.

McCann's writing style was a bit, shall we say, flamboyant. In fact, it is eerily similar to the kook style you see on Internet forums today. I can only imagine what the book would have looked like if the publisher had allowed multiple fonts, or had the ability to do color printing. I've tried to quote the book faithfully throughout this review. Any italics, bold, or other forms of emphasis, unless specifically noted, were done by McCann himself. On a similar note, McCann was very fond of using '(sic)' in the quotes in his book. To avoid confusion, I'll use '[sic, jrl]' whenever I use the term.

This book is available online through The Internet Archive and Google Books, though without the musty smell and incoherent scribbles in the margins that you get from the real deal. Actually, that's not quite true - the Google copy does have a few scribbles, but not nearly as many as my copy. The Internet Archive edition appears to match the edition I read, while the Google edition lacks the appendices.

Obviously, I'm going to criticize creationism quite a bit in this series of entries, so, let me make the necessary disclaimer right up front. I realize that around half the people in this country are creationists. For most of them, I think it's simply ignorance. I don't mean that as an insult - it's a failure of our country's education system. So, if you're a creationist who's never been exposed to a good discussion of evolution, don't take offense to my comments here. My frustration is directed mainly at people like McCann and his modern day counterparts like Ken Ham or Ray Comfort, who despite being so ignorant of evolution, are actively spreading their misinformation to others. (For a fuller version of this disclaimer, read my entry, Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists.)

To make sure that I didn't stall out mid-book, I actually completed most of the review before I started posting entries. So, I have the advantage of seeing how the entire review turned out, which you readers won't know for a few months. I do think it's interesting, and I hope you enjoy it, but looking back, I'm not sure it was worth the effort I put into it. Had I put the same effort into writing something a little more organized, I probably could have created a better resource for learning about evolution. So, I doubt I'll ever do another review of this depth (I'm no Slacktivist). If you do enjoy this review, savor it.

As one last introductory note, I'll be using this entry as a table of contents for the series. I will make updates here with links to all of the subsequent entries in this review.

Added 2013-01-22 I've slightly reorganized this site, putting all of these entries into their own section. So, if you want to just browse through them all, you can read them at:
God - Or Gorilla? Archive


Proceed to Introduction & Chapter 1

Friday, February 18, 2011

First Female Wrestlers in Iowa State Tournament

WrestlingI wrestled back in middle school and high school. I was never great, but I wrestled varsity many of those years and won more matches than I lost*. My senior year, two girls decided to join the team. This was the first time it had ever happened at my high school. Before the season started, the rest of the team talked about it a bit. We wondered if it was appropriate to wrestle a girl, and whether or not they should be on the team. Well, as soon as practices started up, it just kind of fell into place. They were just two more wrestlers, and were treated just about like everybody else on the team (with the exception of using a different locker room and getting weighed in separately). It turned out to not be a big deal at all. One of the girls was pretty good for her first year. Obviously, they were wrestling JV, but this girl won a lot of her matches, and even pinned a couple of her opponents. This was all about 15 years ago.

Fast forward to the present day, and two girls share the honor of being the first female wrestlers to make it to the Iowa state tournament, Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black, both in the 112 lb weight class. Making it to the state tournament is a big accomplishment anywhere, but especially in Iowa where wrestling is so popular.

Unfortunately, not everyone is happy about girls wrestling. Sophomore, Joel Northrup, Herkelman's opponent in the first round, refused to wrestle her. Afterwards, he had the following to say.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However, wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa.

So, some kid's citing his religion to refuse to wrestle his opponent, and then playing the victim card to try to gain sympathy.

Look. Girls who go into wrestling understand the risks just like boys do. They've made the decision that they accept those risks. And girls such as Herkelman and Black have obviously put in a lot of effort. You don't make it to the state tournament just by signing up. You have to practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more, not to mention all the conditioning. Herkelman and Black are legitimate opponents. And don't forget that wrestling is done by weight class. It's not as if 112 pound girls are wrestling 200 pound boys. Everybody wrestles opponents similar to their own weight. Northrup's refusal to wrestle Herkelman simply because she's female is more than a little patronizing.

I don't think it's unfortunate at all that Northrup was put in the position he was. Actually, I take that back. I think it's unfortunate that he was raised the way he was to think he had to react the way he did. If he had been raised to see women as equals, instead of inferior specimens in need of protection, he wouldn't have had a problem wrestling Herkelman. So yes, it is a shame that the circumstances in this boy's life have led to this situation. But it's not unfortunate at all that girls are now being successful enough to qualify for the state tournament.

If you want to read more about this, you can read the articles from Fox Sports or Yahoo. The Fox Sports article even had a poll on whether boys should wrestle girls. Around 3/4 of the respondents don't think they should. I wouldn't recommend reading the comments from the articles, though. It's not good for the blood pressure.

So, congratulations to Cassy Herkelman, Megan Black, and all the other wrestlers who have made the tournament. Good luck, and may the best wrestlers win.


* To brag just a little, I wrestled varsity my last year of middle school, once or twice my freshman year of high school when the older boy in my weight class got injured, and then my sophomore, junior, and senior years, lettering those last three years, and placing 3rd place in the county tournament my junior year (plus a few 3rd and 4th place finishes in other tournaments throughout my 'career'). I got injured towards the end of my senior year, so I didn't finish out that season, and didn't get to wrestle in the county tournament that year. So, I was a little better than average, but not near good enough to go on to wrestle in college. All of the wrestlers mentioned in this entry are far better than I ever was.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Double Blind Gaze

Skeptic Society UFOI've gotten permission from The Skeptics Society to post one of their old articles on this site. The article is:

The Double-Blind Gaze: How the Double-Blind Experimental Protocol Changed Science.

If you've never read this article before, I highly recommend that you do so now. It focuses mainly on medicine, but also shows how it can be difficult to determine the truth of reality, and why the scientific method is so important.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reliance on Bible Translations

ScribeI'm currently in the process of reading Hector Avalos's book, The End of Biblical Studies. One of the things I was struck by reading the first chapter is just how dependent most of us are on translators when reading the Bible. After all, the good book wasn't written in English, and most us can't speak ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, so we really do put a lot of trust in translators to deliver a text that accurately reflects what the original writers intended.

Sometimes, however, there's reason to question that accuracy. Avalos discussed the passage in Genesis 2:18-19. Here are three popular translations of that passage. Pay close attention to the timing of the events described.

From the New International Version (NIV):

18 The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.


From the King James Version (KJV):

18 And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.

19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.


From the New Living Translation (NLT):

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed from the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and the man chose a name for each one.


From the NIV translation, using the tense 'had formed' in verse 19, makes the timing a bit ambiguous. It's not clear whether God created the animals before or after he created Adam. The KJV definitely seems to imply that the creation of the animals came after Adam. And according to the the NLT, it's quite obvious that Adam came first. Of course, if the NLT is accurate, it would be a contradiction with the creation story presented in the first chapter of Genesis, where animals and birds were created before humans. Something as seemingly minor as verb tense can have major implications for the varying interpretations of the Bible.

Discussing the NIV translation, after making the same points I did above, here's what Avalos had to say.

However, when speaking of the origin of the human male in verse 7, the NIV translates as a simple past tense (formed) the same Hebrew form of the verb (yatzar; [Hebrew characters]) found in verse 19. Since the Hebrew shows no difference in the form of the verb, the inconsistency in the NIV's translation seems solely motivated by an attempt at nullifying the contradiction.


So, if we're to trust Avalos, it looks like the NIV has translated the same word in two different ways, for no apparent reason other than trying to hide a contradiction. At the very least, we can say that separate teams of translators have come up with different interpretations of the same passage.


Avalos discussed other examples besides the creation stories. It really emphasized for me how much of an impact translators can have on the meaning of passages. It certainly showed me how naive I was in simply accepting that modern day translators had faithfully reconstructed the meaning of the ancient texts.

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