Yesterday, today, and forever

I’m taking a certain amount of heat for declaring, as undeniable fact, that God does not show up in real life. That’s a good thing, because it promotes debate and discussion, and I’m prepared to show some easily verified reasons why I can legitimately and objectively make that claim. One of those reasons is the impact God’s absence has on Christian theology.

In his response to the post on Santa, Nessie and God, Jayman writes:

DD, I see the argument that you’re trying to make but I doubt it rings true to many Christians for two main reasons. First, your interpretation of the Bible and the motives you ascribe to God are not in line with the beliefs Christians actually hold. This means your arguments come across as attacking a straw man argument. Second, your appeal to real world truth back fires when it is made to people who believe they have experienced God in their lives. Such an appeal essentially disproves your argument in their mind.

We’ll deal with point two in a future post. Meanwhile, let’s look at the argument that Christians do not believe God ought to behave the way I say, and let’s throw in an earlier comment by cl:

Although I can’t speak for DD, from what I can glean of his writings in this series, any miracle can be relegated to ignorance – unless of course, God actually manifests and takes credit for the miracle – but even then, how do we know the being which manifests to take credit for the miracle is actually God?

These comments are related: they both have to do with the theology of what it is reasonable to expect God to be willing and able to do in real life.

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XFiles Friday: Christians and pagans

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Drs. Geisler and Turek are trying to rebut a number of atheistic/skeptical objections to the story of the Resurrection, and so far they’ve relied heavily on the divide-and-conquer approach: tackle each argument individually, and claim that unless it can single-handedly explain every detail of the Gospel stories, it is entirely untrue and unworthy of consideration. It’s a similar tactic to the technique of denying the existence of a forest by proving that each individual tree, on its own, is not a forest, and thereby eliminating each tree, one by one, from consideration. Once all the trees have been disposed of, the forest is gone, because how can you have a forest with no trees?

This week’s installment is no different. Geisler and Turek address the topics of whether the disciples’ faith led them to believe in a Resurrection, and whether pagan resurrection myths played a role in the formulation of the text of the Gospels following the crucifixion. These are some very powerful ideas, because the crucifixion of Jesus would have left the disciples in a very shattered and vulnerable state of mind, in which any suggestive notion might find fertile ground for sowing new dogmas, much as the Great Disappointment of the Millerites paved the way for a new set of doctrines in the form of Seventh Day Adventism.

Clearly, it would not do, apologetically speaking, to consider what influence such ideas might have had on a group of men and women who were desperately seeking some explanation that would make sense of their great loss, and so Geisler and Turek try to dispose of these ideas as quickly as possible.  They start by objecting to the idea that the disciples’ faith could have produced the idea of a resurrection.

This theory was brought out well during the debate [John Dominic] Crossan [of the Jesus Seminar] had with William Lane Craig over the Resurrection. Crossan offered the theory that the disciples made up the Resurrection story because they “searched the Scriptures” after his death and found that “persecution, if not execution, was almost like a job description of being God’s elect.”

The entire two-hour debate turned on Craig’s response. He said, “Right. And that came after they experienced the resurrection appearances… The faith of the disciples did not lead to the [resurrection] appearances, but it was the appearances which led to their faith; they then searched the scriptures.”

Interestingly, Lane is inadvertently contradicting the Gospel story when he pretends that the disciples’ faith gave them no reason to suspect a resurrection until after it allegedly happened. The Gospels portray Jesus as plainly predicting and foretelling both his death and his resurrection on a number of occasions; if this were true, it would pull the rug out from under Lane’s assertion that the resurrection had to happen first, before the disciples would have any doctrinal basis for expecting it.

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Cross-examining Zeitoun, continued

Picking up where we left off from yesterday’s post, we find Jayman making some assumptions about the nature of the “apparitions”:

Fascinating, isn’t it? A projected (hoaxed) image would need something like smoke or clouds to project onto, and that’s just what we have at Zeitoun!

If an image were projected into smoke wouldn’t it obviously be a fake if one were to move to a different angle? What did they use when no smoke was present?

Any decent light show can do as much, and we’ve had non-electrical light sources for a lot longer than we’ve had electricity (ever hear of limelight, or flares?).

Care to provide an example of a light show that is convincing from multiple angles? It would also be helpful if it worked from more than 15 miles away. I tried searching for some light shows but all the images and videos were not what we need for this kind of hoax.

Jayman is assuming that the image in and of itself was convincing, and that any projector would have to be at least 15 miles away, neither of which is necessarily true. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to be convinced by what you think you are seeing, even when it does not correspond to what you’re actually looking at. People were convinced, but that is no guarantee, in and of itself, that their conviction was the result of an unimpeachable phenomenon. We need to look at whatever evidence we can obtain, to verify (or disconfirm) their conclusions.

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Cross-examining Zeitoun

I’ve managed to catch up to the comments on my post about the “apparitions” at Zeitoun, finally. Jayman, naturally enough, would like to rebut my observations, but I think the facts are against him, as noted below.

Oddly, though the Wikipedia entry claims that these apparitions were seen by skeptical observers (including President Nasser), I have not been able to find any first hand reports from these sources.

I don’t think you will be able to do a full-blown investigation of this apparition by merely using the internet. Plus, many primary sources are in Arabic.

If the facts are not available, then they’re not available. Certain facts are available, however. That means there’s some selective reporting going on. And the information that is available is being published by an organization which is receiving a multi-million dollar revenue stream from people believing the apparitions are real. There’s certainly a conflict of interest there, as far as unbiased reporting of the facts is concerned. But let’s see what we can glean from the facts we do have.

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Breaking the law(s)

Jayman continues to press his case:

Your confidence in natural explanations seems strange in two ways:

(A) You have confidence that events that severely contradict the currently understood laws of nature will one day have natural explanations. This confidence is apparently based on faith in science. Yet the findings of modern science would have to be heavily modified in order to explain such events adequately. Some balance between confidence and lack of confidence in modern science seems necessary for you. Ironically, a believer in miracles could have more faith than you do in modern science and see events that contradict the currently understood laws of nature as clearly not having natural causes.

(B) You have confidence that events that have remained inexplicable for all of human history will be found to have natural causes. One could just as confidently assert that a natural explanation for these types of events will never be found.

Let’s look at (B) first. Jayman is correct to say that one could just as well expect that the causes for some phenomena will never be found as to assert that they will be found to be  natural causes. We’ll probably never know, for instance, what killed the last pterosaur, since it was a death that occurred millions of years before there were any humans to investigate it. Notice, however, that neither assertion obliges us to infer any kind of supernatural intervention. We don’t know how the last pterosaur died, but that doesn’t mean we’re justified in assuming it was pitchforked to death by a demon. Humans are not omniscient, and therefore it is only to be expected that there will be things we never know. Mere ignorance does not give us a valid basis for asserting the existence of supernatural causes.

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The Department of Experimental and Applied Theology

Commenter cl brings up an interesting point:

I was rereading through the thread here, and this caught my attention:

“The Inescapable Consequence is that we have no basis for our conclusions regarding God, other than to put our trust in the words, speculations, and feelings of men. This is a serious consequence, because it means so-called faith in God is really just trust in fallible men (who happen to contradict themselves, each other, and observable reality).”

I disagree and feel you’ve presented an either/or fallacy. Reasonable believers engage in a form of testing that is systematic and analogous to empiricism. When I was a kid, I performed such experiments, for example here. Mind you, this particular experiment yielded negative results. Point is, your statement claims that epistemologically, the only thing believers can do is trust the words of fallible men (and women) when at least one other option clearly exists. Such is incorrect.

I stand by my original claim, but now that cl has brought this up, I can see that I need to clarify it somewhat. I’m not saying you can’t try to obtain information about God using methods that lend some sort of empirical verifiability to the results. I’m just pointing out that such attempts will not be successful in God’s absence, and will end up reverting to whatever significance well-intentioned men inadvertently project onto them.

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Seven points to ponder

From Jayman, seven points to ponder, and my response to each:

(1) I think it’s self-evident that calculating the number of miracles per year in the U.S. based solely on the percentage of Americans claiming to have witnessed a miracle is poor methodology.

It’s poor methodology only because we know, from real life experiences, that genuine miracles do not happen often enough to justify the conclusion that the odds of your having seen a miracle are within 2 percentage points of being a simple coin flip. That was why I immediately called a reality check on that statistic. We know that at least the overwhelming majority of those reported sightings are people applying the designation “miracle” to things that are merely amazing. Since, however, these reported instances of miracles are generally uniform (i.e. there is no one miracle that stands so far above the rest as to make it obvious that the others are fake), it would not be the least bit surprising if all of these cases turned out to be consistent with what we find in the overwhelming majority of cases. Because most of these purported miracles are not genuine, we have a reasonable basis for inferring that the rest are also not genuine, especially given the uniformity of the reports. No feature distinguishes a subset of genuine miracles from the larger pool of false miracles, giving us a further reasonable basis for inferring that no such subset exists. Whenever we take a random sample of specific cases of alleged miracles, we find (a) that they do not involve God actually showing up and (b) that they are not actually miraculous, but merely amazing in some way. Every time we do this, with every random sample or with samples selected by believers as exceptionally good, and find that the miracle once again is not genuine, it reinforces the reasonable conclusion that there are no genuine miracles to discover. The uniformly consistent nature of the documented findings is highly suggestive of the self-consistency of the truth itself, and therefore it is reasonable and advisable to draw the conclusion that these are not genuine miracles. And in any case, we have no good reason not to draw the skeptical conclusion. The reasonable conclusion should therefore stand, at least pending verifiable evidence to the contrary.

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XFiles: The skeptical Geisler and Turek

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Today we’re in for a special treat. Up to now, Geisler and Turek have been hammering away at the thesis that skeptics are ignoring the facts and appealing to unsupported faith in order to contradict what God allegedly has done. But the tables are turned in this week’s installment, because one of the arguments against the resurrection comes from another group of theists: the Muslims.

The Qur’an claims of Jesus,

They killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise (Sura 4:157-158).

So according to the Qur’an, it only appeared that Jesus was crucified, and Allah took him directly to heaven.

Let’s see how Geisler and Turek approach this claim of supernatural intervention. Will they take the same skeptical stand that some of the rest of us take towards the Gospel stories, or will they end up declaring that they “Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be NON-MUSLIMS”?

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116 million case studies

Just a few more points from cl:

You said, “Airor, Jayman was quoting a statistic from Newsweek stating that 48% of the population claim to have seen a miracle. That’s 116 million sightings more or less, which is plenty of data for science to work with whether it’s one event with a huge impact or a huge number of events with a less perceptible impact.”

I disagree. The actual data surrounding Miracle X does not change whether 3 or 3 million people saw it. “Sightings” and anecdotes aren’t evidence.

You said, “The problem is that this huge body of data turns out to uniformly confirm the conclusion that the events themselves are not verified/verifiable miracles, but merely combinations of ignorance, superstition, exaggeration, misperception, and so on.” (bold mine)

Whatever data exists turns out to uniformly confirm the negative conclusion to you, and in this sentence, you are doing exactly what you denied doing earlier and accused Jayman of doing. You’re saying, “The data shows this was ignorance and superstition, not a verifiable miracle.”

How is that not treating the absence of knowledge as the presence of knowledge? If we truly don’t know, the answer is NULL, not negative.

Regarding whether or not statistics are evidence, I must say I’m a bit surprised at cl’s objection. If these 116 million case studies were actually instances of independent observers witnessing genuine miracles, why would they not constitute evidence that miracles are real?

Either way, my main point still stands: God does not show up in real life, and that’s why there is no evidence of genuine miracles.

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Which god?

Commenter cl again:

Then you say, “The Undeniable Fact is that God does not show up in real life…”

I reject that entire paragraph. Don’t you equally scoff when Fundies treat their pet opinions as fact? You are not omniscient and you cannot make this claim in an intellectually honest manner, IMO.

Omniscience is not required for claims like this. I doubt that many people would scoff if I were to say, “The undeniable fact is that Santa does not show up in real life.” It’s not intellectually dishonest to make such a claim. And yet, if the Christian God were such that He actually existed and showed up in real life, He would have a much more significant impact on reality than Santa Claus. If I can know that Santa does not show up in real life when his impact on the world is so much less than God’s, why can I not do the same for the case where the impact would be so much greater, and is so clearly absent?

Truth is consistent with itself, so if God were willing and able to show up in real life, we ought to see the consequences that would be consistent with that desire and ability. Conversely, if God does not show up in real life, and is just a superstitious myth that people talk themselves into believing, then we ought to see the consequences of that as well, e.g. we ought to see the evidence for God being limited to coincidences, subjective feelings, and superstitious attributions in the absence of any genuine, objective, visible, audible, tangible manifestation of God Himself showing up in person. And when we look at the real world, it’s the latter set of consequences that we observe, not the former.

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