Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, April 30, 2018

Annoyed at Headlines - Star Trek Wasn't Prophetic on Brain Death

Starfleet LogoI know that science reporting ain't what it used to be. And even in the 'old days', when newspapers had decent sized science departments, headlines could be misleading. Still, the reporting on a recent study has irked me enough to become a cranky old man and call it out here on my blog.

Here are a few examples of the coverage. Pay attention to what those headlines are implying.

Here's how Vice summarized the findings of the study.

[Jans] Dreier works at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, one of Germany's leading university hospitals. In February, the 52-year-old and his colleague, Jed Hartings, published a study that details what happens to our brain at the point of death. It describes how the brain's neurons transmit electrical signals with full force one last time before they completely die off. Though this phenomenon, popularly known in the medical community as a "brain tsunami," had previously only been seen in animals, Dreier and Hartings were able to show it in humans as they died. Their work goes on to suggest that in certain circumstances, the process could be stopped entirely, theorizing that it could be done if enough oxygen is supplied to the brain before the cells are destroyed.

About 2/3 of the way through that Vice article, you find the following interview question and answer with the study author.

So how did you find out that an episode of Star Trek had predicted your findings 30 years ago?

My colleague, Jed Hartings, brought it to my attention after watching the scene and noticing how similar it is to our work. My best guess is that the creators of Star Trek must have found research at the time that detailed a similar process in animals. The first person to research these sort of brain waves was a Brazilian neurophysiologist who conducted studies on rabbits in the 1940s. All we've done is show it in humans, which has taken this long because medical research in general is an incredibly slow process.

So in reality, this is a process first studied in the 1940s. The big innovation in this study is that it was done on human subjects, rather that non-human animals, but it shouldn't be a shock at all that human brains function the same as other mammal brains. So, Star Trek's writers back in the '80s were just using an already known phenomenon in their script. You could praise the writers for getting the science right (because they didn't always), but it's not like they made some profound prediction that science is only now catching up with.

All this isn't to say that the new study isn't fascinating. Of course it's interesting to do this study on actual people instead of other animals. But it doesn't sound like it found anything that wasn't already expected.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Real Story of the Resurrection (maybe)

For Easter weekend, I'm going to recycle a relevant answer I recently wrote on Quora. The question was, If Jesus wasn't resurrected, where did his physical body go? Below is my answer, with a few edits.

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I just finished reading Bart Ehrman's book, How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, and Ehrman makes a good case for the empty tomb story being invented in the decades after Jesus's death, not one of the earliest Christian beliefs. In other words, there's no need to explain a mystery of what happened to Jesus's body, because there's no credible story of it ever going missing.

The earliest Christian writings in the New Testament are the seven authentic letters of Paul. Paul doesn't discuss an empty tomb in any of his writings, nor make any mention of Joseph of Arimathea. The empty tomb story doesn't show up until the gospel of Mark, which was written decades later.

Ehrman also points out that it would have been very unusual for the Roman authorities to allow a criminal who had been crucified to have a decent, private burial. The "exception that proves the rule" was that crucified criminals were allowed to be taken down during celebrations for the emperor. The author who documented this (I believe it was Philo) made a point to say that it was an unusual occurrence for such celebrations, implying that it was very uncommon, otherwise. And Passover was a Jewish holiday, and one associated with Jewish unrest towards Roman authorities, so it seems unlikely that Pilate would have made an exception in Jesus's case.

Ehrman thinks that the resurrection came to be believed originally because a few disciples and apostles had visions of Jesus after his crucifixion. Ehrman makes some attempts to stay neutral on whether or not the visions were true, but he also cited some studies showing that somewhere around 1 in 10 people claim to have had visions of deceased loved ones. Such visions aren't uncommon. In fact, doing some research on my own, I found an article about these "post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences" (PBHEs). Per the headline, Six in ten grieving people 'see or hear dead loved ones'*. (Just to be clear, these visions of the disciples were likely private visions by a few individuals, not the extensive interactions of the gospels.)

So, a plausible scenario is that Jesus was arrested and crucified in Jerusalem by the Roman governor, Pilate, because of Jesus's claims to be king (whether Jesus was talking literally or implying something more heavenly wouldn't have made much difference to Pilate). His corpse was likely treated like any other crucified criminal's - possibly left up for a period as an example, possibly with his final remains going into a mass grave. Jesus's closest followers, meanwhile, would have fled back to Galilee, and not been in Jerusalem to see the ultimate fate of Jesus's body. In Galilee, a few had visions of Jesus, and became convinced he had been resurrected. From there, legends grew up around Jesus, including the story of a specific grave subsequently found empty.

Of course, not all scholars agree with Ehrman, even among non-Christian scholars. Personally, I find Ehrman's arguments persuasive, but we're talking about an event 2000 years ago, that wouldn't have been particularly noteworthy to most people when it happened, and where the people for whom it was significant would have been illiterate and not making written records of what they saw (those written records wouldn't come for at least a few years later with Paul, and many years later with the gospels). I doubt we'll ever know for certain the exact details of what happened.

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I'll add that Ehrman's interpretation makes Jesus's story incredibly heart breaking, which is especially poignant nearing Good Friday when the crucifixion is commemorated. At least in the orthodox version, Jesus was fulfilling his destiny and doing what he'd come to Earth to do. And in the mythical Jesus hypotheses, the whole crucifixion story may be made up, anyway. But thinking about an actual human preacher, arrested, tortured, and crucified, while his followers fled in fear back to their hometowns, is a very, very sad story.


*If you have access (I don't), here's the study that article was about:
Post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences: A critical overview of population and clinical studies.

For a good bit more detail, but still far short of reading the book, here's an article on Huffington Post:
How Jesus Became God

And here's an interview with Ehrman on NPR:
If Jesus Never Called Himself God, How Did He Become One?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Response to Email - The New Lord's Prayer

Praying HandsI recently received the type of chain email that I couldn't resist responding to. It was titled "new Lord's prayer....awesome", but it was really a play on Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, not the Lord's Prayer. At any rate, it was all about how students supposedly aren't allowed to express themselves religiously in schools any more (and for good measure it threw in some of the sinful things they are allowed to do).

Just to give a taste, here is the first stanza of the poem. The full email can be found below the fold.

Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd

This poem simply doesn't reflect the law. Here's an article from the Washington Post explaining the issues:
Can students pray in public schools? Can teachers say 'Merry Christmas'? What's allowed -- and what's forbidden.

For something more official, here's the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education:
Guidance on Constitutionally Protected Prayer in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools

In fact, here's a short excerpt from the DoE page:

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment requires public school officials to be neutral in their treatment of religion, showing neither favoritism toward nor hostility against religious expression such as prayer. Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by private individuals, and the line between government-sponsored and privately initiated religious expression is vital to a proper understanding of the First Amendment's scope. As the Court has explained in several cases, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."

In shorter terms, teachers, principals, and other government employees can't push religion while on the clock and representing the government (though they're free to do so on their own time), while students are perfectly free to exercise their religious rights, including praying or reading the Bible.

Invariably, there will be isolated incidents of schools not understanding the law and restricting students' rights, but these are usually curtailed pretty quickly. Multiple examples can be found on the ACLU's website. It's just that cases of government employees overstepping the law by improperly endorsing religion are far more common than government employees overstepping the law by restricting the free practice of religion.
ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression in Public Schools

I'd also note that events like See You at the Pole are not rare. You can go to their Facebook page to see photos of students from all across the country gathering to pray on school campuses. Here are some photos specifically from Old High here in Wichita Falls. And here's a photo from my high school Alma mater up in 'liberal' Maryland. And on a personal level, at all of the high school graduations I've been to in recent years for nieces, nephews, family friends, and my daughter, there's always been at least one student speech religious in nature or including a prayer.

Finally, here's an open letter from an evangelical Christian as food for thought (on World Net Daily of all places), Why I'm Against Pre-Game Prayers. Basically, he was in a community where Buddhism was the predominant religion, so a Buddhist prayer was recited at the Friday night high school football game. It gave him a completely different perspective on what it's like to not be part of the majority religion when prayers are offered at public school events.

Image Source: Wikimedia

Continue reading "Response to Email - The New Lord's Prayer" »

Friday, September 29, 2017

Creationists' Weird Concepts of Hyper-Evolution

Note: This entry adapted from Quora.

While some creationists may be of the sort convinced by the saying, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it," many more want to show that the their beliefs are rational and supported by evidence. In this search for rational explanations, many of the more intellectual creationists actually do accept evolution in certain forms, though they'll often refuse to say so. For example, here's an example from Answers in Genesis, Speciation, Yes; Evolution, No. The title says it all. The writer comes out and says that certain phenomena that are part of evolution actually occur, but then denies that this is 'evolution'.

It even included this figure:

AiG 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis, Click to embiggen

It looks almost like the branching pattern you see in mainstream biology textbooks, with the big difference being that they've decided to stop going back any further than the 'kinds' that were created in the Garden of Eden.

In fact, for creationists who take the Noah's Ark story seriously, and have given any thought at all to what it would take to fit representatives of all the world's animals on the ark, it becomes very obvious that there's no possible way to fit every single species. So, they focus on the word 'kind', claiming that kind is more akin to families instead of species, and that Noah only had to take representatives of the different kinds. Then, once the flood waters dried up, the descendants of those rescued animals would go on to 'adapt' (not evolve, of course) into many new species.

Here's another example from Answers in Genesis, this one from the page, Reimagining Ark Animals.

AiG - Cat 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis, Click to embiggen

Yes. Creationists are proposing that all living cats have a common ancestor.

And here are a few photos people took at The Creation Museum:

AiG Horse 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: RationalityNow.com, Click to embiggen

Image Source: RationalityNow.com - Creation Museum Part 5

AiG Dog 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: GasFoodNoLodging.com, Click to embiggen

These particular creationists are proposing some rather large 'adaptations' over the generations.

Granted, it does get a little hard to explain creationist rationale since it's not always fully coherent. For example, in that first article I linked to (Speciation, Yes; Evolution, No), the writer says that this type of adaptation is possible thanks to a large gene pools with already existing variation. In fact, I'll include one last figure to show the claim:

AiG 'Adaptation', not 'Evolution'
Image Source: Answers in Genesis

And creationists are very fond of saying that no new information can be created through genetic mutation. But look at the types of adaptation Answers in Genesis was proposing for all those animals after the flood. Even with clean animals that had 7 pairs instead of just 1 pair, there's no way their genomes would have had all the variation necessary to produce the varied offspring Answers in Genesis is claiming. And the time scales they're proposing (remember - the flood was only a few thousand years ago) are far more rapid than anything from actual science. It's almost funny that the creationists who deny 'evolution' so vehemently, go on to propose this type of hyper evolution.

But even with this hyper evolution, creationists claim that adaptation can only go so far, and that animals of a certain kind will only ever go on to have descendants of the same kind, as if there's some kind of magic stop sign in the genome.

Anyway, many creationists don't actually deny certain evolutionary principles. In fact, many creationists amp those principles up to 11 to deal with other inconvenient facets of creationism. But, they'll steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that it's 'evolution'. I mean, one breeding pair of cats evolving into lions, tigers, ocelots, bobcats, jaguars, and all the other cats in a mere 6000 years is perfectly reasonable. But a common ancestor between cats and dogs would just be silly.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Parable of Puppies and God

PuppyImagine that you have a puppy that you know likes to chew on garden hoses (yes, that's personal experience). You've tried training him, and maybe he's even been getting better, but you know he's still not perfect. Well, you've been using the hose for a day's worth of chores in the back yard. And when you're all finished up with the chores, you see the hose laying out, and it crosses your mind that if you leave the puppy unattended in the backyard, there's a good chance he's going to chew on the hose and ruin it. But you're tired and don't really feel like rolling up the hose, so you take your chances. You go inside to relax in the a/c and have a beer or two, while you leave the puppy playing outside. Well, later that night, you go out to find the hose destroyed because the puppy chewed on it. Is the puppy really entirely to blame for the situation? Sure, what he did was wrong, and he was disobedient to the way you'd been training him. But you knew that was one of the puppy's shortcomings, and you left the hose out there, anyway. The whole situation could have been avoided if you'd just put the hose away and not tempted the puppy.

The Bible tells the story of an all knowing and all powerful god, who created a garden of paradise with everything every creature would ever need. And he created humans, knowing their faults even better than you knew the puppy's (faults that he must have created on purpose, since he is, after all, all knowing and all powerful). And then, this god put the one thing that could wreck the entire situation right in the middle of the garden - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then, he just tells these innocents not to eat from it. Hell, he hadn't even given his newly created humans any sense of good and evil, because they could only get that by eating from the tree. He didn't even put a fence around it! Oh, and he also created a serpent that he must have had a good idea would try to tempt his humans.

So, the 'unexpected' (cough, cough) happened, and the humans were tempted into eating the fruit of this tree. And God found out. Now, if you found a ruined hose that your puppy had chewed, you might be tempted to scold him or yell at him. But you sure as hell wouldn't physically injure the dog. But what did God do? He cursed ALL women, not just the one who ate the fruit, to have painful childbirth, and to be ruled over by their husbands. And he cursed ALL men to endless days of toil. And, he kicked humanity out of the garden. And according to certain fundamentalist religions, the Fall precipitated all manner of other negative consequences on the whole universe. And remember, this was supposed to be an all knowing God. So, unless he was completely incompetent, it seems like he was setting Adam and Eve up for failure on purpose.

And it doesn't get any better. Throughout the rest of the Bible, there are all types of other examples of this character acting cruelly - the massacre of Noah's flood, the plagues of Egypt (remember, God himself hardened Pharaoh's heart on several occasions to prolong this suffering just so that God could show off - and he punished all Egyptians, even their slaves), Job, the genocides when the Israelites conquered the promised land, and worst of all, Hell to punish souls for eternity for finite sins.

In the Bible, God is always the source of the worst suffering and atrocities in the stories. Sure, the stories are told from the point of view of people afraid of that god and groveling lest they suffer even more, but it's pretty clear who the Big Bad is. From a reality viewpoint, I'm not mad at God, because God's not real. But in the framework of the fictional stories written about him, God's the villain, and you would like to see him get his comeuppance (which, thanks to another fictional story, His Dark Materials, we do finally get to see).

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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This entry was adapted from a Quora answer, How mad are atheists at God, on a scale of 1 to 10?

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