Saturday, April 21, 2007

Q&A: I once heard demons in my room

I am a Christian, and I have witnessed miracles with my own eyes. I have friends who have been healed by prayer and I have witnessed demon possession. How can you, as an atheist, deny that these events happen?

Despite the fact that I'm an atheist, I don't emphatically deny that these experiences happen, although I'm naturally skeptical of miracle claims as many of them are anecdotal in nature. I think I can get to a point of agreement with Christians over the existence of present day miracles and instances of demon possession. However, I will differ with Christians over the cause of these experiences.

When I was a Christian, I had two very strange experiences that could have been mistaken as supernatural occurrences. The first occurred when I travelling with a Christian drama and music team for a year after high school. One night while I was lying in bed, in the dark, I thought I heard strange, guttural voices in the room, talking in an unknown language (this happened during a week of intense 'spiritual warfare’). It was only for a few seconds, but it was quite spooky. Demons, perhaps?

A few years later, when I was at university, I woke up in the middle of the night and 'felt' a malicious presence in the room. I suddenly found that I couldn’t move, and although I couldn’t look around, I could 'sense' the presence moving around me. It was an incredibly frightening experience for me, and when I recounted the story to some of my friends the next day, they suggested that it had been a ghost or a demon.

I now know that it is highly likely that both these experiences were not supernatural, but had entirely natural causes. With regards to the voices: auditory hallucinations are normal and they happen to everyone at some time or another. In terms of my second experience: the symptoms were totally consistent with sleep paralysis, an experience that happens to some people just before they fall asleep or wake up. If I had lived in the Middle Ages, I would definitely have attributed both of these experiences to supernatural causes. In fact, witches or hags were once thought to have been the cause of sleep paralysis.

And this brings me to my point: our increased knowledge of the human body has enabled us to conclude that both auditory hallucinations and sleep paralysis are natural. And likewise with many other views of nature: humans once thought that lightening and thunder were caused by the gods – we now know that lightening is simply a movement of electrons; humans once thought that frothing at the mouth and spasms were signs of demon possession – we now understand what causes epilepsy, and how to treat it.

Humans seem to have the tendency to ascribe supernatural causes to experiences we do not fully understand. As someone once said: ‘magic’ or ‘the supernatural’ are simply synonyms for the word ‘unknown’. Present day miracle experiences that various religions describe might indeed happen, but is it premature to emphatically claim that they have a supernatural cause?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A difference of paradigms

One day at a car show . . .

Seller: Hi there. Here to buy the most technological car in the world, the Mastec Turbo 320i?
Buyer: Hi! I’m looking for a new car and I’ve heard quite a bit about this model. Obviously, I have a few questions about the car before I decide to buy.
S: No problem. You will soon see that this is the best choice for you. The Mastec Turbo 320i is the latest in motor engineering. It is the safest vehicle around, providing you with a sense of security and a great feeling of peace. Its impressive style and performance will outperform your greatest expectations.
B: Sounds good! Do you have any test results on performance and safety features? Any information on fuel consumption? The results of crash tests, perhaps? I would like to take a look at those.
S: Who needs tests? To ask for tests is quite narrow minded, don’t you think? There are other ways to determine if a car is the perfect and safest model.
B: Such as?
S: Personal experience is one way: drive the car and you will find out; just drive it once, and your eyes will be opened.
B: Okay, let’s take a test drive.
S: Sorry, but you can only drive it once you have bought it.
B: What? That doesn’t make sense. What guarantee do I have that it will actually work?
S: Prove that this car isn’t safe or mechanically sound!
B: What? But I’m the potential buyer; I don’t need to prove anything. As the seller, the onus is on you to convince me that your model is worth driving.
S: You are too skeptical, young man. Take it from me: drive this car, “it is a free gift!”
B: A free gift? I’ve realised that that is simply an advertising slogan to attract potential buyers. Even if you give me the car for free, I still have to pay in terms of time and energy washing it, servicing it, and fixing it. A car can never be free because it demands some form of commitment. I have to know exactly what I’m buying before I commit. Anyway, the small print in your pamphlet says that I will have to pay 10% of my monthly salary for the rest of my life for the vehicle. Where is the “free” in that?
S: Let’s not worry about costs. Buy it! You won’t be sorry. If you don’t, you will drive another model with terrible safety standards, and you will most certainly die a horrible death in a motor accident. Save yourself from much suffering: buy this car before it’s too late.
B: So now you use fear in an attempt win me over? Again I ask you: what guarantee do you have that it will actually work as you claim? You say a lot, but you have little to back it up.
S: [Sighs] You just have to trust what I say. You know, we can argue all we want about mechanical tests and verifiable evidence, but at the end of the day it all boils down to something called faith. All you need is faith to realise that this car is the only top class vehicle in the world! This is a matter of the heart, not the mind.
B: I’m sorry, but faith is not enough. Thanks for your time, but I’ve decided not to buy the Mastec Turbo 320i.

Laughing Boy has posted a clever response to this post here

Friday, April 13, 2007

Too serious . . .

I was reading through recent posts of mine on this blog and I suddenly realised how serious things are here! The topics that I choose to write on are serious; titles to the posts are serious; discussions in the comment sections are serious; I mean, look at my profile photo on the top right: I’ve got serious written all over my face (“Hello, Mr Grumpy!”).

So here is something to lighten things up a bit. Thanks to Dar who originally posted this piece here.


Phil Osopher and Larry Logic went camping. After they got their tent all set up, both men fell sound asleep.

Some hours later, Logic wakes Phil and says, "Look toward the sky, my friend. What do you see?"

Phil replies, "I see millions of stars."

"What does that tell you?" asked Logic.

Phil Osopher ponders for a minute then says, "Astronomically speaking, it tells me there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three in the morning. Theologically, the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What's it tell you, friend?"

"Someone stole our tent."

Friday, April 06, 2007

Q&A: Why don't you believe in the Resurrection?

Why don’t you believe in the Resurrection?

In a previous blog article of mine, Consistency of thought, I wrote that one of the main reasons why I left Christianity was because, as a Christian, I was using double standards when deciding what to believe. When I was a Christian, I would laugh at someone who might claim that they heard a dog speaking English. Why? Well, the idea of a talking dog is inconsistent with daily experience and our current knowledge of canine anatomy. But, as a Christian, I was more than willing to believe a four thousand year old story that a donkey once spoke.

Incredible claims require very good evidence, so as a Christian I would not believe the talking dog story if very good evidence was not presented. But, at the same time I fully accepted the Bible’s account of a talking donkey without any evidence at all. Can you see the inconsistency here? On leaving Christianity, I was free to use the same set of standards to evaluate various claims. As a result, I no longer believe the talking donkey account described in Numbers 22:28-30, just as I would not believe the hypothetical claim of a talking canine.

I approach the claim of Jesus’ Resurrection in the same way. The idea of a person bodily rising from the dead after three days is so alien to our daily experience of death and so counter to what we currently know about the human body, it’s only rational to be skeptical of such a claim unless very, very good evidence were presented. Is there good evidence? Consider the following: (1) we have no independent, non-Christian records of the Resurrection from the time of the event; (2) the accounts were written in an age of wonder and superstition, when stories of resurrected ‘god men’ were quite common, (3) when you work through gospels in the order in which they were written, the accounts of the Resurrection become more incredible and fabulous – indicating legendary development; and (4) there is evidence that the gospels were tampered with years after they were written (consider the late insertion of Mark 16:9-20).

In his article on the Resurrection, the historian Richard Carrier presents the following scenario:

“Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof?”

Imagine if such a movement existed. If you are a Christian, and you ask me why I don’t believe in the Resurrection, I would turn the question around and ask if you believe the claim that the World War Two soldier rose from the grave? If you think you would answer no, think about why you wouldn’t believe that claim, and you will then understand why I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Additional reading
1) Jeff Lowder provides a good overview of both sides of the Resurrection debate.
2) Apologist William Lane Craig argues that the Resurrection is a historical fact.
3) Historian Richard Carrier argues why he doesn't buy the Resurrection story.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The shame of atheism

My wife, Cori, who is a Christian, has written an interesting article on her blog about the shame of atheism.

Check it out and feel free to comment.