The Smallest Prayer in the Cosmos

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Put yourself in his shoes. He’s small. There’s electric pain in the elbow that hit the wall you went into. Recognise how hard it is to separate out the physical sensation from how you feel. You hurt.

Every Sunday you go to church with your mum and dad. He’s well liked, they say she’s shy and “you must take after your mummy”. Everyone sings songs and two little girls in dresses shove each other at the back of the room. We all bow our heads to pray. You close your eyes tight because it doesn’t work if your looking. All the children go out. In Sunday school there’s a story about Jonah and a whale and God was angry because Jonah tried to run away. You like Sunday school, you like the stories and God helps people. On the wall there’s a poster with footprints and another one that says “faith can move mountains”.

It’s Tuesday, P.E. day and you’re running out of excuses. You say you don’t feel well, your tummy hurts. Your teacher looks at you funny and sends you to the office. You can’t do P.E. If anyone asks about the bruises again he’ll get angry. Your mum will get in front of you like last time…your eyes water and you try to think of something else while waiting quietly for lunch time.

You like Lego and you’re sat in the living room building an aeroplane. You want to make a machine that will shrink you like on T.V. so you can fly to Disneyland. The plane has boosters so you can go fast and you’ll probably have a dog too. “I’ll fix the damn thing myself”. Your train of thought is derailed. The washing machine’s broken and you recognise that tone of voice. You go cold, you want to leave but you don’t want to move. The phone rings, he answers it, it’s okay.

At bedtime you say your prayers with your mum and when she’s gone you say the real ones. “Dear Jesus…”. You don’t want mountains to move or water to turn into wine. What you want is for him to stop hitting her and maybe if you believe hard enough, if you close your eyes tight enough and press your hands together, God will do this for you. But he doesn’t. It doesn’t stop. Maybe God answers other people’s prayers but not yours. Not when you need it.

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This story is fictional, although it is probably less so for some than others. It was inspired by a discussion I had a few months ago where I was struck by just how inadequately phrases like “abusive environment” convey their meaning.

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Embarrassed about God

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While eating my lunch the other day I was gingerly approached by a guy in his late teens who, standing next to me, with his head turned down and feet shuffling, said in a tone of voice designed not to travel: “My church are praying for people in the area. Do you know anyone who needs praying for?” His embarrassment was palpable. It was the sort of embarrassment that any degree of empathy makes contagious. After politely telling him that I’m an atheist, he walked away looking visibly relieved. The incident recalled to my mind how I felt when school friends learned I went to church or the embarrassment I used to feel on behalf of members of the congregation who would start speaking in tongues. I felt that way automatically. I had no control over it. I was embarrassed on behalf of others because I sensed that social norms had been broken. I was embarrassed for myself because I felt my school friends would consider me stupid. Why stupid? Because I couldn’t give a good enough account of my beliefs. I knew there was a lot about Christianity that didn’t add up but dealt with it by not dealing with it.

I’ve encountered arguments suggesting atheists are smarter than the religious. I’ve also seen the contrary, that only the most intelligent scholars can understand holy texts. I’m not convinced much is achieved by arguing about IQ. In my experience those who hold religious beliefs do not do so as a result of extensive study into multiple explanations of existence, where the most robust is selected. Some may arrive at their beliefs this way but I suspect that many religious people know comparatively little about other religions or choose not to see how similarly justified they are. I imagine fewer still attempt to engage critically with their own religious ideas. Whether there are compelling rationales for holding religious beliefs or not, as a church-going school kid I had difficulty accounting for my beliefs because they were based on emotion not on reason. My inability to explain my beliefs and the consequent embarrassment were because I believed teachings that appealed to emotion but I didn’t possess the oratory artistry to communicate them. I had no answers to questions about the logistics of the story of Noah’s ark, why the plagues of Egypt weren’t in the history books or why the Bible should be considered any more true than the holy books of other religions. I had school friends effortlessly poking holes in what was supposed to be the word of God. That was embarrassing.

Embarrassment is of course a socially conscious emotion. It has to do with social conventions and our perceptions of how we will be judged by others. Where a religion gets to determine social norms in a particular context, there will probably be less embarrassment when openly discussing and practising that religion. The following clip showing a child named Bethany “receiving the holy ghost” strikes me as profoundly odd. Watching it makes me feel awkward, embarrassed, honestly a little angry but also hopeful. There’s a moment at 1:26 where Bethany’s sister walks into the frame, looks at the camera and shyly rejects an invitation to join in. A hand can be seen guiding her back towards her sister. She waves to the camera and backs out of the scene, clearly embarrassed by the circumstances. I grew up in a fairly secular society and attended a school where the kids had quite a mix of backgrounds. It was against this backdrop that I really began to reflect on how ridiculous some of my beliefs seemed and how odd some of the rituals were.

The experience of embarrassment feels bad so we tend to want to avoid it. This social mechanism keeps us consistent with the group. In extreme circumstances this can have an homogenising and isolating effect but where an influx of new group members is permitted and where there exists a plurality of ideas, embarrassment can serve a useful purpose, showing us when we are out of step with our peers. It has nothing directly to do with truth since majority beliefs and values are not true by virtue of their popularity but it can be understood as a kind of collective-aware course correction. It can also help highlight beliefs and behaviours that are worth reflecting on. Thinking about our embarrassment can help reveal assumptions and values that are so normal that they are only rendered visible through their transgression. If you feel embarrassed, why? Do you feel defiant of embarrassment and what does that mean? Where something might be odd or cause embarrassment in a one context, why is that not the case in another? Have you ever felt embarrassed about God?

Demon Possession

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Demon possession isn’t a topic that comes up often in conversation but when it does I’m still a little shocked that it’s something people believe. It’s an idea that’s found in many religions and feels like it that belongs to the Iron Age, to a time when it was our best guess at understanding illness. Surely the notion of possession has been consigned to the ever-growing “historical context” that’s excused when examining our holy books. But it isn’t. I recall an acquaintance who insisted that we are all possessed with demons. He is now a minister. An otherwise bright woman I know believes, after attending a lecture by a Catholic exorcist, that the internet is a conduit for demon possession that targets children. Several other people I know have suggested that “messing with the occult” (which can include reading Harry Potter) or celebrating Halloween invites the Devil in. Even members of my family expressed concerns about my investigating witchcraft and Spiritualism while studying social anthropology. The people in these examples were Christians and in the UK Christianity and Islam provide much of the narrative framework for demon possession. The belief system through which possession is realised is interesting because the possessed often recognise its authority.

I’m a big fan of the Exorcist, both the book and the film. It’s a well told story with iconic cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack. When we think of demon possession and exorcism we imagine neck-twisting, spider-walking, levitation and projectile vomiting. Many actual exorcisms have been captured on film. Those who are thought to be possessed exhibit behaviours ranging from blasphemy and vocal intonations, to screaming, thrashing and flailing. Some instances of possession and exorcism are similar to faith healing. A person stands before the congregation defies the power of the religion and priest, gets exorcised and is welcomed back into the flock.

The woman in this clip was part of a Christian community who believed she was possessed because she used to tell fortunes using tarot cards. The exorcist (Bob Larson) guided the woman through a sort of confession that ends in invocations, screaming and freedom from her burden. This is fairly typical of possessions and exorcisms caught on camera. It doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the horror movie representation. In order to find this credible you need to believe that the body and mind are separate, that there is a realm of the immaterial and that the immaterial can impact in the material. You would have to accept that aspects of the immaterial world are hostile to people and control them. You need to believe the proposition without questioning the mechanics. Conversely, you might reach the conclusion that the woman felt guilty (was made to feel?) and as though she didn’t belong, she wanted to belong , found a mechanism to do it and did it.

Leaving aside the assumptions one has to accept to be swayed by the idea of demon possession, let’s spend a moment thinking through what a demon achieves by possession. The idea is that a demon seizes control of a person who has neglected their religious observation. In some religions a person can be possessed regardless of their religiosity. What do demons do with this control? It seems that they replicate the symptoms of mental illness in people. One of the difficulties of believing that demon possession is real and that exorcism might be a good way to deal with it is that it can offer a bad explanation and solution for the behaviours of already vulnerable people. Where a person is in distress it might not be appropriate to respond by trying to cast out demons. Perhaps what they need is a safe space and professional help. Another consequence is the temptation for believers to demonize those who are different to them or hold views they don’t subscribe to. A good example is provided by the street preacher Jesse Morrell in a video showing the angry reaction to his preaching at Gay Pride in Houston. Morrell spreads his view that homosexuality is immoral and characterises a man who argues with him as hateful and possessed. There is something extremely sinister and potentially dangerous about the kind of mindset that literally demonizes. It’s a mechanism by which one can dehumanise and disassociate. It’s the removal of the demonized from the same mental category as the demonizer.

Of course I’m not suggesting that everyone who believes that demons are real or that people can be possessed are bigoted but I do think it’s an idea that is routed in a fear of unknowing. For a person who believes in spirits and demons, the night really is fully of terrors. Magic, witchcraft, astrology and fortune-telling are viewed as efficacious and powerful antecedents of possession. Demon possession looms in their imagination in the neck-twisting and levitating representation rather than the variety recorded by Bob Larson. The irony is that while fearing control from the murky unknown, those who credit demons and possession as real are arguably allowing their view of the world to be shaped by ancient superstitions.

On the Writing of Deepak Chopra

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I had intended to write generally on the topic of pseudo-profundity and bullshit. The subject was discussed last year by Pennycook et al. in their article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit“. Put briefly they argue that pseudo-profound bullshit involves using buzzwords to make statements that are syntactically plausible and give the impression of imparting profound knowledge, while actually communicating little or no meaning. They suggest that bullshitters are motivated by a wish to impress and bullshittees are inclined towards uncritical belief. A name that inevitably arose in connection with pseudo-profound bullshit was Dr. Deepak Chopra. The mini-bio that accompanies Chopra’s writing includes the claim that he is a “world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation” and states that “The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Dr. Chopra #40 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine”. Just allow that to sink in. He currently has about 2.8 million Twitter followers. A significant number of people take him seriously and the marketing of his ideas has made him very wealthy. So instead of writing generally about pseudo-profundity I would like to take a look at Chopra’s current work.

Diving straight into his most recent post entitled “How the Universe Solved the Hard Problem by Intent” we’re immediately told that consciousness is a secret, that there is a reason for this that can’t be explained and that consciousness is responsible for its own secrecy:

“For some inexplicable reason the most common element in every possible experience–consciousness–has kept itself a secret.”

It turns out that the Wikipedia entry for consciousness is over 10,000 words and has 162 references, so even in plain terms it isn’t as mysterious as it’s made out to be. Suggesting that consciousness can engineer its own secrecy implies that consciousness has consciousness. It’s treating consciousness as an entity rather than a property of an entity. He goes on to suggest:

“If we were unconscious, the world would literally disappear in a puff of smoke. This obvious fact implies something that isn’t so obvious: Maybe consciousness and the world appeared at the same time.”

This unsupported “fact” simply isn’t true. People are unconscious from time to time and world continues just fine. We can be fairly confident from geology and archaeology that the world pre-dates people. What Chopra is getting at here is his view that reality is a kind of collective mental projection. He proposes that:

“A cosmos devoid of consciousness isn’t conceivable, and yet the reason for this exists completely out of sight.”

If it feels like it’s hard to get at the meaning of the sentence quoted above it’s because it is hard. Most writers seek to communicate their ideas as clearly as possible but the literary style Chopra uses frustrates quick comprehension. You can restructure the sentence to make it easier to read: We aren’t able to see the reason why we can’t imagine a cosmos without consciousness. We can see from the restructured sentence that although a bunch of words are used, not much meaning is communicated.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to let you know that Chopra is a licensed physician and former chief of staff at a hospital in the United States. He isn’t shy about using his title M.D. when promoting his ideas. Keep this in mind while reading the following quote from the same blog post:

“The difference between being blind and being able to see lies in the mechanics of how the brain processes sunlight—that much is clear. Yet the step in the process that matters the most, converting sunlight into vision, is totally mysterious.”

According to the RNBI age related macular degeneration is by far the biggest cause of blindness in adults in the UK. The WHO cites glaucoma then macular degeneration as the biggest causes of blindness in the world. These are conditions of the eye not “mechanics of the brain”. Chopra is just plain wrong about blindness and sight but arguably worse is the fact that the assertion is coming from someone identifying himself as a medical doctor.

I could go sentence by sentence, assertion by assertion through the whole post but the point is that Deepak Chopra puts across vague points using vague language in a pattern that can appear to some to be profound but in fact carries little meaning. When encountering a statement that looks complex but profound, the actual profundity of a statement can be assessed by breaking it down and looking at its parts. If Chopra just wants people to be impressed by him and people want something impressive-sounding to believe, what’s the harm? Okay, well we might object to the idea that the money that finds its way into Chopra’s pockets could be better used to solve concrete issues. Maybe we feel that as a medically trained professional Chopra could be making a tangible, beneficial difference. We could take issue with the notion that the sorts of ideas he circulates are used as a basis for alternative “healing“. In fact Chopra is sponsoring the Consciousness Field Project that is investigating the potential for transmitted intention statements to enhance peoples’ lives.

“The intention statement is imbued by the team during deep meditation into a crystalline electronic device and broadcast thousands of times each day to participants.”

The project is also partly funded by participants who will each contribute $33 a month (a total of $600). I think this is the first study I’ve seen that charges people to participate. If anyone feels that they need some pseudo-profundity in their life, the satirical wisdom of Chopra website can generate some for you for free.

We Are All Born Atheist

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That’s right, even the zealous, the pious and the most committed of religious characters were born without any beliefs in gods. As Richard Dawkins points out in “The God Delusion”, children don’t have religions their parents do. We are born without knowledge of our culture, without an understanding of social stratification and without superstition. Children don’t inherit characteristics of social division, they are labelled with them. We ascribe them to them. They have to be learned and are invariably taught. In fact a quick search for “Christian preschool” will return a host of results for places children from 2 to 5 years old can learn about Christianity  while learning to grip a pencil, identify colours and count to 20. Hazel’s Christian Preschool  takes the view that…

“Through creative exploration and “hands on” approach, each child is supported emotionally,cognitively, physically, social growth and foundational opportunities to know God as our loving creator and friend.”

Which apparently works since one happy mother wrote:

“This is the absolute best Christian Preschool! I moved my 4 year old daughter from another Christian preschool because I didn’t feel like her faith was growing. On her very first day she started praying on her own!”

4 years old?! Also, I’m not the sort to judge grammar and spelling too harshly. I’m sure I make mistakes and typos all of the time, but then I’m not an educational institution or teacher. The Hazel’s (Hazels? hazel’s? Hazel’s?) Christian Preschool  site is filled with glaring language errors that should warrant more concern than the growth of a 4 year old’s faith.

This Religionising of children’s education is not particular to Christianity of course, but common to many religions. This quote from littlecaliphs.com makes the point for me:

“We strongly believe that early learning exposure of Islam in children will leave a long lasting impact in their life towards realizing and accepting that Allah is their Lord and Sustainer, Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) is their teacher and role model and Islam is the way of life.”

They’re right of course. If you teach children from a young age that magic and gods are real, if you reinforce the idea that specific holy books are indisputably factual, then those children are more likely to grow up believing whichever religion they have been taught.

A parent’s concern with their young child’s religious education comes, I believe, from a good place. If you think eternal torment is in store for non-believers and rich rewards for believers, then you want to make sure that your nearest and dearest are on the path to a happy ending. There’s a difficult (and upsetting) question religious parents no doubt ask themselves about what would happen to their child in the afterlife if they were to pass away. According to Islam, all children of Muslim parents who pass away before reaching puberty go to paradise. The question of what happens to children of non-believers has many answers in Islam but judgement on the matter is usually reserved. Back to the Bible, a Christian website, tackles this difficult question by suggesting that all children go to the Christian heaven by default until they are able to understand right and wrong (legally 10 years old in the UK). After the age of 10 they had better be committed Christians though. There seems to be some appreciation that young children aren’t intellectually mature enough to be judged on religious beliefs but in what sense are children who have just hit double digits free or able to make an informed decision? If they have been taught religion as fact since they were toddlers then the extent to which they are “informed” is disputable.

Regarding the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit there are no easy answers. On the one hand it seems reasonable to teach your kids about your religion if you’re a parent who whole-heartedly believes that it’s in your child’s best interest to learn about your beliefs. On the other hand, where that belief manifests in narrowly restricting a child’s social interaction, instilling intolerance and depriving educational opportunities, the implications start to look less harmless. The fact is parents aren’t formally trained in the craft of parenting and the home lives of children vary. It may be that a child’s home life is dominated  by religion but school should be a space where they genuinely can acquire the intellectual tools to make informed decisions. Nowhere should a school be teaching religion as fact or presenting one religion as superior to others. If after learning about religions as part of a broad curriculum that is centred around language, maths and science, a child grows to decide (when they are mature enough to do so) that they believe and wish to follow a particular religion, then they have made a meaningful choice. Conversely, choosing to believe the only choice you’ve been given is no choice at all.

 

Narrative and Identity

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“Once upon a time…”, the familiar phrase introduced to us in childhood lets us prepare ourselves bodily and dispositionally for an anticipated tale. It’s a deeply embedded cue to listen attentively and engage your imagination. Narrative and imagination go hand-in-hand. We visualise places we’ve never been and form emotional ties to characters that don’t exist anywhere but the page. We root for a protagonist and empathise with their suffering. When they encounter a problem we feel that we are right there with them. When they overcome what seemed like impossible odds we feel joy and exhilaration. When we finish reading, listening or watching a well told tale, the story leaves its mark on us. The seeming ubiquity of storytelling as a method of enculturation hints at narrative being one of those demarcating features of humankind even if the cultural content varies.

Whether we intend it or not, stories are a means by which children acquire an understanding of the cultural norms in their society and build up a picture of how the world works. Except good doesn’t always triumph over bad, big romantic gestures don’t magically fix relationships and wishing on a star can’t make a person from a puppet. It turns out that narratives are not a great source of accurate, dispassionate fact. We ought to learn when stories bump up against contrary experiences that they often fail to reflect reality, yet the influence of some stories is difficult to shake. When I was a student for example my class discussed the “one true love” notion of romance that figures quite prominently in fiction. Despite virtually everyone recognising the fallacy of this idea both from experiential and logical perspectives, many were unable to resist its emotional appeal.

Narratives are not just mechanisms for distributing culture. Stories help us to make sense of our place in the world. This happens in the telling, reflecting on and retelling of many short stories about ourselves. The tone of the tale shifts depending of who you’re telling and how you feel. In the case of introspection the audience is yourself. The role of narrative in the construction and affirmation of identity is nowhere more clear than where there is a shift in identity. Take for example a religious transformation in a person. When an individual has undergone a religious change an historicising of the self often occurs. A person reflects upon their past and evidence is identified that affirms the transition that has taken place. These artefacts of their history are narrativised and become some of the many anchoring points in their changing identity. This is not to imply that there’s something synthesised or fake about about their identity. These are real events in a person’s life as interpreted by the person. What this sheds light on is that identity is not the sum of one’s experiences but is deeply connected to key points in one’s life. In other words, identity doesn’t necessarily relate the facts of a person’s experiences but the stories they tell communicate something about who they are at a point in time.

A good example of the role of narrative in religious identity can be found in a video interview of Richard Dawkins by Howard Conder for Revelation TV*. In the interview (29:25-41:43) Conder describes some key moments in his religious life that for him lend weight to his beliefs. As with any collective, religions have in-group narratives. Where a person aligns with and/or wishes to be accepted by a collective, they’ll deploy narratives that are consistent with the group. Conder’s anecdote includes themes around initial scepticsm, submitting to the will of God, experiencing physical manifestations of the spiritual, others witnessing immaterial phenomena and a miracle of someone rising from the dead. These are all themes that are consistent with his religion’s in-group narratives and hold credibility in that context. I’m not suggesting that Conder was lying about his experiences but rather that he had experiences in a religious context, that were interpreted through his understanding of his in-group’s religious narratives and he consequently attached special significance to these. In the same sense that alien abduction stories, ghost sightings or accounts of spirit channelling tell us something about the teller rather than something about the world, Conder’s story is about his beliefs.

What I’ve tried to convey very briefly is that narrative plays a significant role in distributing culture and constituting identity but is not a particularly accurate way of describing or explaining the world. Narratives have patterns and structures that are not necessarily a good match with the way things happen or work and are susceptible to nuance and emphasis. Even when we can see that a message conveyed through a narrative poorly reflects our experience we can be coerced by our feelings or our sense of belonging. Is it any wonder why some people feel under attack when religious claims are challenged if their identity is wrapped up with beliefs that underpin those claims? The more a person’s identity is anchored to experiences that are narrativised to give religious significance, the more the integrity of their personhood depends on the defence of their religion.

 

 

*I was hoping to link to the original video but was unfortunately unable to find it on the Revelation TV YouTube channel.

The Immortal Soul

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The idea that the essence of a person is non-physical and survives the death of the body is a truly ancient one. Early conceptualisations of the soul included the idea that bodies contained a “breath of life”. Some viewed the soul as a force that enlivens and drives a body. What’s interesting about the problem of the soul in history is not so much that people have recognised this thing named “soul” and sought to describe it but rather have sought explanations for how human beings work and labelled various descriptions as “the soul.” It may be that questions about self-awareness, conscious thought and imagination have been answered with recourse to supernatural explanations in the absence of better accounts. The soul has become quite an influential idea. It’s a convenient means by which everything that makes you who you are can escape death. With the idea of an immortal soul we can envision life or lives after death and begin to construct a picture of where we go, what it’s like and what we need to do in life in order to get there.

If we take our definition of the soul to be “an immaterial part of a person that contains the essence of who they are and survives the death of the body”, what evidence is there to support a belief in it? Well, some people make bold claims on behalf of science, saying that there is evidence for the existence of the soul but these claims should probably be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. The fact is that if there was solid scientific evidence for the soul we would all know about it, it would be enormous news and the real world implications would be huge. The problem here is that we are looking at the soul as if it’s a thing with features like personality, memory and feelings rather than as an explanation for these things as they occur in human beings. Is your personality immaterial? Are your memories immortal? Can your feelings persist beyond death? Some people will claim yes to all of these, providing pretty dodgy evidence if any. Yet we know that chemical changes in the body can alter mood, personality and the ability to access and create memories. Anyone who has known a loved one suffering dementia will be aware of how damage to the brain can fundamentally alter personality and recollection. Unfortunates who have suffered acquired brain injuries have permanently lost aspects of who they were. The immortal soul is simply not a very good explanation. Who we are is very much physical and far from immortal.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that what we believe matters because our beliefs have real world implications. In the case of the soul the consequence can be a devaluing of the body and a devaluing of life. Some people might be less inclined to sacrifice themselves for religious or political reasons if it were not for their belief in an immortal soul. It makes it easier to stomach human suffering and profound inequality without taking direct tangible action if you can believe it’s just a temporary part of an immortal existence. Some find solace in the idea that they will be reunited with loved ones when they die or at least that their loved ones persist. In a sense it feels like a harmless idea that because it brings comfort shouldn’t be contradicted. I’m not convinced that it is harmless though. It slots in with other unfounded beliefs and explanations of the world and can act as a cornerstone that props these beliefs up. For example I’ve known several people who genuinely believed that humans can be possessed by spirits or demons. Others I’ve known believed that the soul can become detached from their body and lost. For some the soul is a means by which people can carry their culpability beyond death. It’s a belief that can give people a feeling that justice cannot be escaped. It’s also a means by which our behaviour and expectations can be influenced. If you happen to believe that your essence will escape death then you might want some assurances about how you’ll be spending eternity and there are plenty who are willing to provide conditional assurances.

We need to recognise that the concept of an immortal soul is an outdated attempt to understand and describe difficult human features like personality, imagination and memory. The soul is a wrong answer where much better answers are available. Accepting that we are all physical, fragile and vulnerable should broaden our compassion. Proceeding on the basis that we probably don’t persist beyond death should cause us to value life. Rather than believing that wrongs will be righted in the here-after, let’s take responsibility for righting them in the here and now.

Evidence-based Faith part 2

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In my last post (Evidence-based Faith part 1) I started exploring holy books as a kind of evidence that can underpin religious faith. I thought about some of the questions I might ask if I wanted to know if I could put my trust and confidence in scriptures. It seemed to me that the written word isn’t a good way to precisely communicate the will, intent and values of a supernatural entity, but it occurred to me that perhaps that isn’t really what holy books are about. Maybe they serve as a record of religious experiences, from which the general framework of a religion emerges. I have found that when I ask religious people why they believe they often tell me about an experience in which they found evidence supporting their beliefs.

It isn’t very difficult to find examples of religious experiences online and I would like to paraphrase a few of them here. Before I do though I ought to point out that what these experiences mean to those who had them and the exact detail of the experiences themselves would have been very difficult to capture accurately in writing. Something is often lost (or added) in the articulation of the experience and in paraphrasing I am again blunting the description. Additionally, the English speaking web from which I sourced these recounts has some fairly pronounced cultural biases. Lastly, those who choose to share their experience online may be more inclined towards particular beliefs or experiences.

In 2006 a middle-age Christian woman was involved in a head-on collision during her commute to work. She suffered serious injuries and had to be cut from her car by emergency services. She was airlifted to hospital where she spent the first couple of weeks in and out of consciousness and heavily medicated. During this time she saw her mother, with angels standing behind her.

“The most amazing thing was, I died. I bled out during the initial surgery (and I’ve had thirty-six). I was given over 100 units of blood and had two trauma surgeons working on me. When my heart would stop, they would revive me.”

Shortly after arriving in hospital, her church pastor and other members of her church came. When her husband arrived, he prayed with the pastor and…

“…something hit him. Out loud, he proclaimed that I was not going to die in a hospital. God was going to perform a miracle. And He did.”

At some point during this time her heart stopped again and she saw Jesus, who told her to go back (to her living body). She survived the accident and shared her experience 8 years later.

In 2009 a person who had lost their mother to cancer 5 years earlier and had been suffering from depression, admitted themselves to hospital. They felt as though they had lost everything except their faith in God and they cried and prayed and pleaded with God for relief. The person sat on a bed and played a song on the guitar they had played for their mother when she was ill. They began to feel an energy and hear “heavenly music”.

“I got to the part of the song where it says “and a man shall leave his mother” and the Heavenly music and very strong energy left my body at an incredible rate. I knew right then and there that I had released my mother into Heaven.”

In this recount of the experience the person explains that it happened at the same date and time that their mother had passed away 5 years earlier and that their watch stopped on that time (09:18).

This last experience happened to a recently and unhappily married 22 year old woman. She and her husband were fighting and their argument became physical when her husband choked her until she lost consciousness. She described an almost crippling fear and heartbreak but decided to forgive him. During a subsequent argument her husband again choked her unconscious…

“…As I was gaining conscience I could feel the most indescribable feeling of warmth and safety not only was that feeling running threw me but around me. It seemed I was in a vary big room that was well lit not to bright, not to dark… I couldn’t see the walls or nothing but it was kind of hard to take my eyes of the four figures that were with me, couldn’t see many details just remember the feeling of love and safety, oh and what ever was with me was really really tall.”

When she regained consciousness she described what she had experienced. She wasn’t sure what to make of the experience but wrote that she has some theories.

If you’re curious I’d encourage you to search online and read a few more. Something that strikes me about the three I’ve described here is how emotional they are. Struggling to survive an horrific car crash, trying to cope with depression and loss and finding feelings of love and safety in an extremely abusive relationship. Powerful emotional experiences can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives. They can also serve to reaffirm our deeply held convictions. I’m sensitive to the fact that religious experiences mean a lot to those who experience them and I don’t believe that questioning a religious experience need in any way devalue the experience. My task here is to consider what questions could be asked about a religious experience to assess its suitability for underpinning a person’s religious faith:

  • Do similar religious experiences indicate similar conclusions? For example, if the woman from the first story had been a Hindu, would she have still concluded a miracle had been performed by the Christian god? Or if she had been an atheist, would she have said she was saved solely by the hard work of the emergency services?
  • Does the conclusion that is reached follow logically from the experience? For example, in the second story is there anything about the experience of playing a song, hearing music and feeling a powerful sensation on the 5th anniversary of their mother’s passing that suggests she was released to heaven through that experience (or that heaven exists)?
  • Are there natural explanations for an experience? In the case of the third story for example, a combination of emotional and physical trauma, with a lack of oxygen and consciousness could explain the cause of the experience.

Ultimately, the cause of a person’s religious experience can be explained by natural phenomena but the “meaning” or “reason” thought to be inherent therein is generally open to interpretation. People strive to make sense or their experiences, particularly those that are personally uncommon and powerfully emotional. In my view, religious experiences are too easily interpreted to fit with any set of beliefs for them to be considered a solid basis for faith. Those who believe in spirits will take their religious experiences to be evidence for spirits and the same is true of those who believe in gods, angels or other supernatural entities. The difficulty with religious experiences is that they are so subjective. However, where religious faith has a direct impact on the natural world, as it does with faith healing for example, the claim can be assessed. So perhaps the place to look for strong evidence for religious faith is not in the experiences but in the miracles.

Evidence-based Faith part 1

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What is faith, in the religious sense of the word? Although what faith means may be varied and nuanced between different religions, denominations and individual believers, faith can be broadly defined as: trusting and having confidence in religious authority, which might include religious leaders, holy books and supernatural entities. Faith is seen by some to be an important component of religion. It’s often considered virtuous to place your trust in religious authorities. Faith is also frequently talked about as though it’s the opposite of evidence. “Blind faith” as a way of describing beliefs held without evidence is in my view nothing more than rhetoric. The idea that someone puts their trust in and has confidence in religious authority without evidence strikes me as false. The faithful must have some ideas about their god for example and perhaps its character, values or its will. These ideas are unlikely to have arisen independently in people and so it seems to me that the faithful must base their faith in evidence. This evidence is constitutive of their beliefs. Perhaps they were told about their religion by parents. Maybe they were read passages from a holy book by a religious leader. Some may not consider this evidence to be strong or convincing, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I don’t currently have any religious faith but this notion of evidence-based faith has got me thinking. What sorts of questions could I ask to find out if I could or should have the kind of faith defined above?

Many religions are based on holy books from which the faithful draw their religious knowledge. These books are generally sacred texts, which are held by some to be accurate and true. But is a holy book a reliable source of information? After all, language doesn’t withstand the passage of time very well. It has a tendency to change and meanings shift quite rapidly. This was even more the case before languages became standardised for printing. Meaning is easily (unavoidably?) lost or corrupted in the translation process and holy texts have a tendency to be compiled and recompiled from multiple sources whose authorship can be geographically diverse and separated by hundreds of years. Writing is a product of its time, carrying the assumptions inherent in the world view of its author. If the author lived in a culture that considered women to be property then the writing may well contain that view. If the author didn’t know for example what stars are or the motion of the earth around the sun, that ignorance may well be exposed in the writing.

Our perception of the authority of the written word has changed radically over time as well. Historically the word has had an almost magical quality. In fact in some cases the very act of making marks representing ideas was a method of spell casting. Before the invention of the printing press (enabling mass production) the sheer rarity of books endowed them with authority. They were expensive to make and were owned by the very wealthy. Even if books were available, levels of literacy in the past were very low. Our view of books is much more pragmatic now. We are less likely to believe the content of a book simply because it is in a book. The availability of books and levels of literacy are far higher now, although not evenly distributed. People now have greater opportunity to engage critically with books and fact-check using the internet.

If assessing a holy book to decide if I could have trust and confidence in it I might ask:

  • What is the history of this book and how was its content assembled?
  • Is the author identifiable and how credible are/were they?
  • What is it offering me and what does it want from me?
  • Are its claims consistent with our constantly improving understanding of how things work?
  • Are its claims verified or supported by independent records?
  • Is it logical and consistent?
  • And how does it compare with other holy books?

I’m not convinced that a book is a good way to ensure that an essential religious message travels unaltered over hundreds or thousands of years to reach the maximum number of people. Perhaps holy books are not so much the perfect transmission of the values, will and intent of supernatural, creator entities. Perhaps they are more to do with normal people expressing and recording their (and others’) religious experiences.