What If History Was Wrong? Jesus, Scientology, Churchill

There are serious challenges to the Christian claims about what happened to a man they call Jesus, the one they think is Christ, son of God. The same sorts of challenges can be made about Mohammed, and many other religious prophets and deities, particularly if they happened in the distant past, where there are few if any contemporary documents or artefacts.

The claims tend to fall into two categories: the historicity of the person (Jesus, Mohammed); and the supernatural claims made about them (miracles performed, revelations revealed). I’ll refer to then as the Natural claims and the Supernatural claims.

For Jesus, we find now that we have a religion built around him: Christianity. The main sources of information come from the Bible’s Gospels, with all other sources being references to Jesus and Christianity made by non-Christians and Christians some time after the time for which the claims are made (his birth, life, death, resurrection). These claims are a mix of both Natural and Supernatural.

I am an atheist and I see no evidence to support any of the Supernatural claims about Jesus – his own claim to be the son of God, his reported miracles, and his resurrection.

Those theists that do think there is evidence of these are really saying some version of the following: “We have Natural historic evidence of Jesus, and of the Natural events that happened in his life, and we have witnesses to all that, AND to the miracles, the Supernatural events.”

This must be essentially what they are claiming, because they clearly have no direct evidence of miracles actually happening. For example, take the healing of the blind man’s sight. How do we know that happened? Is there some test we could do now, to say, “Look, there’s the evidence of that miracle!”

Well, there were no videos then, so we can’t look at those. And, of course, even if there were it could be that the blind man was faking blindness, in league with Jesus and his crew. “Ah, but other people knew he’d genuinely been blind.” Really? Which people? The people that the narrator of the story told us about? Where did that narrator get the story? Was he there? If he was, was he in league with the fraud? If he wasn’t there himself, the narrator has no evidence that any of it happened, let alone who was there to testify that it was genuine. In other words, the parable of the blind man is at best hearsay, about a story, that has no more evidence for its truth than any other myth.

And so it is will all claims about the Supernatural … AND the Natural claims about Jesus. And behind these objections to the stories about Jesus we have the obvious suspicion that those that started the religious movement early on were either inventing it completely, or elaborating on stories about one of the many ‘prophets’ that wandered the world making claims about their access to various gods. It wasn’t a new pastime even then. Do you believe all of them? If you think some were false prophets, then why not yours?

A common follow up claim made by Christians is that some other party reported on these events, someone that wasn’t committed to promoting Christianity, someone that even disapproved of Christianity, someone with no skin in the game, so they must be credible, right? For example, Tacitus and Josephus.

Tacitus and Josephus

Tacitus was a Roman historian. He referred to Christ and Christianity in his final book, Annals, written in AD 116. This is long after the death of Jesus, so clearly nothing in his account amounts to his memory of events in Palestine. He wasn’t there.

And yet, we hear that scholars consider it to be an “authentic, and of historical value as an independent Roman source.” What does that mean? Does it mean it’s an authentic record of what happened to Jesus? No it does not. It means merely that the scholars think there really was a guy called Tacitus, and that he really did report the story in his book. What it does not say is where he got the story from.

If you read the words of Tacitus it amounts to nothing more than the following: “Nero persecuted the Christians. The Christians took their name from the guy know as Christ. And, here’s what Christians say happened to Christ at the hands of his executioners.”

Tacitus is obviously no more than a report of what Christians believed. Tacitus does not, for example, refer to some other Roman document signed by Pilate, or one signed by the Captain of the guard that saw Jesus die.

So, no wonder it is similar to what was written in the Gospels, because both the Gospel authors and Tacitus got the information from what Christians claimed to be the case. This is no more than reporting hearsay.

If you claim you have half a dozen sources, and all those sources trace back to one source, then you have one source, not six. We don’t know where the current sources got their sources from. It’s a dead end. And as such amounts to a myth.

Josephus is no better. He was a Jewish historian. His references were written around 93–94 AD, 60 years after the supposed death of Jesus, so clearly he too was writing about what others were telling him. While some scholars think the texts have been changed, they think the core is ‘authentic’. Again, the authenticity in question is about whether Josephus wrote them, and that what he wrote is largely what he was told. Who told him? Christians, or someone else reporting on what Christians claimed.

While the claims by scholars to the authenticity of Tacitus and Josephus are about whether Tacitus and Josephus wrote what is in their purported works, the authenticity is NOT about the truth of what they wrote about Jesus.

An Accidental Religion

How do religions arise? One way is accidentally.

Imagine we had a world wide apocalypse, another pandemic that wiped out all but a few human groups dotted around the world. In one group, in Europe, for each Christmas after that event, parents would tell the tales of Santa Claus to their children. One Christmas, a visitor from another colony is passing through and hears the stories of Santa Claus, how he used to visit each Christmas. The stranger mistakenly takes the stories seriously, and repeats them elsewhere on his travels. Further more, he finds that the more he repeats them, the more people want to know about Santa, so he elaborates, invents miracles and all sorts of new events, the healing of blind men, for example. And some of those that heard these elaborated stories go on to expand on them themselves. All of a sudden you have a religion out of nothing more than a children’s Christmas fantasy.

Of course the stories now circulating will differ with different elaborations. They will be inconsistent. Eventually, a new emperor of Europe calls all the bishops of Santa Claus religion together.

“Look lads, this Santa Claus religion is getting out of hand. We need a consistent story if we’re going to get the less gullible on board. Everyone has to be on-message. We’re having a lock-in.”

Does that make those people appear too stupid? You think that couldn’t happen? If you think this is far fetched compared to evidence to support Christianity, think about the following.

Creating a Religion

So another way of creating a religion is with the intention of fooling people. Perhaps Joseph Smith, the man of Golden Tablets. Smith published the Book of Mormon. “By the time of his death, 14 years later, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and founded a religion that continues to the present with millions of global adherents.

Wow! That was in the 1800s, the time of developing ‘Enlightenment’.

But that was nothing.

In the 1950s, a time of radio and television, a second rate science fiction author decided he would create a religion. Obviously, nobody would be dumb enough to pay attention, right? Wrong. Scientology.

The 21st Century celebrities that follow Scientology can look online and read all about this bogus origin, and yet they still believe it. So what makes you think that it would be so difficult to start a religion back in the time purported to be around the life of Jesus? If these Christians are reporting to Tacitus on what they think happened to Jesus, who is Tacitus to say, “Sorry, never happened.” Why would he? He’s only reporting on what they themselves claim.

Of course we don’t even know that Tacitus got the report from Christians directly. It could have been his mate down the brothel, “Hey, Tacitus, that book you’re writing, Have you heard the one about a guy in Palestine seventy years ago?”

This is how poor the information is that’s presented as evidence for Jesus. Even if we have a piece of what Tacitus himself wrote, it says nothing about the truth or falsity of what he wrote about, other than to say that, “Some Christians believed blah, blah, blah.”

If a religion like Scientology can be created in the mid 20th Century, why not one in the time of Pilate in Palestine?

My Alternative Gospel

Imagine, if you will, this scenario (not one I’m claiming happened, but not out of the question).

A man Jesus started making false claims about his access to God’s thoughts. Perhaps he’s a bright fellow, but a little mad. Most people make fun of him. But a few gullible people actually believe what he’s saying.

A couple of other smart guys currently out of work, let’s call then Eric and Ernie, tag along, and while they don’t entirely disbelieve Jesus, they certainly take advantage of him, hype him up, and start to tell others all about him. Maybe slip in the odd story about the occasional ‘miracle’.

Eventually they have raised a bit of a crowed and started to become a real nuisance. The priests want to get rid of Jesus, so make up even more stories about his blasphemous claims, “He actually thinks he’s the son of God!” They succeed and bump him off with the help of one of Pilate’s men, and a little bribe to smooth things over. Jesus is indeed crucified, and dies.

What happens to his followers? This is a bit inconvenient. They were going around with Jesus, being housed and fed wherever they went.

Eric, “I know, let’s tell people he’s coming back in a few days! That will sustain the religion. AND, even better, what if he vanishes … to heaven … by rising up. We can continue telling stories abut him and he’s not here to dispute them. Do you think the other followers will buy it?

Ernie, “Well they’ve been easily fooled so far. Nobody has to actually witness this resurrection. We only have to SAY that someone witnessed it, us. And, we have to go an steal the body, of course. AND, the more fake witnesses we can add, besides ourselves, the better. AND, with Jesus now resurrected out of the way, in body and ‘spirit’, there’s no way that anyone can disprove any of this junk. AND, we get to live off the tale for the rest of our lives!

And so, the resurrection story emerges.

Eric, “What if if some of the other followers go back and start asking questions. Everyone will deny witnessing the resurrection. We’ll be caught out.

Ernie, “No problem. We’ll say it’s a cover-up instigated by the priests that have warned witnesses that they’ll go the same way as Jesus if they say anything.

Eric, “Brilliant! The greater the conspiracy against OUR conspiracy, the less people will notice ours.

Welcome to Christianity – my version – which is just as well evidenced as any other … that is, there is no evidence for any of it.

“Whoa, there! It’s not as simple as that. What about the Virgin Birth?”

A Christian

Didn’t happen. Eric and Ernie made up that story too, to add a bit more mystique to the religion. Mary was actually fooling around with Joseph’s mate. Stoning adulterers was common back then, so what would people rather believe about ‘Christ’? The truth or another myth? Which myth, mine or the Christian myth?

But if Jesus is who he says, that changes everything! Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH & the life…” The number of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus’ life including things he had no control over (eg: place of birth & specific details regarding his death). That would be mind blowing!”

A Christian

No, Jesus did not say “I am the way…” Eric and Ernie made that up to. And what if he HAD said it? It was false, because he was just some ordinary mad man.

But you can’t do that! You can’t mess around with history that way. What if we did that to Churchill, or any other historical figure? Many historical stories have very little evidence.”

A Christian

Why not? How do YOU know YOUR myth is true, and not mine, or some other perfectly simple explanation as to why the religion arose out of a lie?

I didn’t meet Winston Churchill but I have no doubt he wrote his, ‘Fight them on the Beaches’ speech! There are many eyewitness accounts of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus. The apostles were willing to die for the Gospel. I don’t think they would have died for a lie.

A Christian

Well, if you’re a Christian, I assume you disbelieve in the Islamic faith. Yet, many Muslims have martyred themselves for what they believe in.

If you die for a lie, but you don’t think it’s a lie, you don’t know you’re dying for a lie, but it’s still a lie.

What About Churchill?

Let’s take seriously the possibility that Churchill’s “Fight them on the beaches” speech didn’t happen. Let’s suppose the recordings we hear today were fake, created after the war to make Churchill seem even more of a hero. What about all those people still alive today that heard the speech on the radio? Let’s pretend they have false memories, instilled in them be playing the later recordings.

I know, I’m stretching your credulity here, imagining such a famous speech was faked, that false memories implanted, that old news papers reporting it were fake too, … including the treasured notebooks, the government materials … all fake, all a WWII conspiracy.

Nevertheless, let’s suppose that somehow it was actually fake. What would that matter now? Sure, some historians would want to re-write some text books, and we would probably get a few more History Channel documentaries out of it. But what would it really change to our lives now? Would it make you give up on your studies, or convince you to quit work, to go an live in France? Would it change the Brexit deal? Would it stop the COVID pandemic?

I doubt very much would happen at all.

And the same goes for most historic events. Historians and archaeologists are learning more about he past all the time, and when something new crops up, a new piece of evidence that changes a story, what happens? Outside academia, the world carries on.

But, as our Christian friend asked, what if the story of Jesus is true, and could seriously shown to be true? Even if it was only the Natural history of Jesus that was proved to be true, that would be amazing. What if the Supernatural claims could be proved to be true? As our friend said, “That would be mind blowing!

Yes, but what if it isn’t true?

Unlike the histories of Churchill or any other historic figure, if some evidence was found that Jesus did not exist, some evidence, a scroll or two, that showed that the story of Jesus was totally made up in 30 AD, what would THAT mean for Christians, for the Roman Catholic Church, for every Evangelical preacher getting rich off the proceeds of his church? Well, that would indeed be mind blowingly interesting. Christianity would be destroyed! Wouldn’t it?

We have to be honest with ourselves. To most Christians it wouldn’t make a jot of difference. They don’t believe based on reason and evidence. When they claim to provide evidence, such as Tacitus and Josephus, that’s not for their benefit. That’s for our benefit, to shut us up. NOTHING will stop a true believer believing, no matter how great the fantasy the religion is built on. How do we know this? Because of the number of totally incompatible religions that exist.

Nobody that values reason above faith could possibly believe that their religion is the one true religion while all the others were false, given the lack of evidence for all of them. But if you hold faith above reason, you can be convinced to believe any one rubbish.

All you Christians know this, when you look at Muslims. All you Muslims know this when you look at Christians. You just can’t look at yourselves in the same light.

Faith to Faithless

Now and again, the reality of how ridiculous the stories of Jesus and Mohammed hit home. That can be quite a shock.

If it happens to you, you might find yourself in conflict with family and friends. You might be bullied into returning to the religion. You might be ostracised once they realise you are really leaving. In some cases there might be the threat of death.

If you need help, contact Faith to Faithless, and find a group of people with similar experiences that will help you deal with this dramatic change in your life, which I hope will be a good one.

Killers for Religion and Atheism?

So, an atheist kills a bunch of religious people, and the religious can now cite an example that shows that their religion isn’t that bad after all.

Not so fast.

Atheism vs Theism

Both Atheism and Theism are simply opposing philosophical positions. Any other system’s metaphysical philosophy is ‘atheistic’ if it rejects theism.

A particular theism might be vary vague – “I believe there is one, and possibly more gods, but I don’t know whether any of the religions are true …”.

Or it might be specific yet still ‘other worldly’ – “I believe that there must have been a creator god, but I have no idea what he intends for us, and I offer no moral guidance based on my belief that there is a god.”

Or it might be committed to the variable claims about the god or gods of a particular religion, which may have many sects.

Atheism is pretty much opposition to these sorts of theism, usually on the grounds that there is no evidence or reason to believe specific claims, or support the level of hopefulness that the ‘spiritual’ seem to be clinging onto. In this respect Atheism is a negative position: it simply rejects the claim that there are gods.

Note that Atheism does not assert that there are definitely no gods.

Some atheists might assert that there are absolutely no gods, but that isn’t much better than asserting absolutely that there are gods. You might call such an atheism a ‘faith’ based atheism. But if you take the trouble to pin atheists down they generally agree that they do not hold such a strong opinion, but merely act as if they do because that’s often easier to express.

But this acting as if there are no gods is a fair position to take. Christians act as if there are no Norse gods. They act as if there are no fairies or Santa. (Note that playing along with such fantasies for the fun they provide for children isn’t acting with true belief.)

Religions

Religions are a subset of Theism …

Atheism-Theism-Religion

[Agnostics may not deny the existence of god, but they don’t positively assert there are gods either.]

Religions take the basic philosophical position of theism, thinking there are some teleological entities that created our universe, and add many more specific claims:

  • Our god is the only god.
  • Our god cares about us.
  • Our god dictates our moral codes.
  • Our god wants us to punish people that don’t follow his codes.
  • Our god wants us to punish people that don’t believe in him.
  • Our god doesn’t want us to eat pig meat and thinks it a moral obligation that we don’t.
  • Our god wants us to punish people that have sex outside the specific type of union sanctioned by our god (monogamy for Christians, up to four wives, but one husband for Muslims)
  • Our god will not remarry divorcees – old school Catholic; god changes his mind sometimes; he’s fickle; or humans decide he changed his mind.

Most religious people are born into, indoctrinated into, their religion. And the religion may provide many social benefits if it’s a large religious community.

But there can also be great costs for those that simply cannot continue to believe. In some more fundamentalist communities, ex-believers can be ostracised, might suffer social and economic hardship if rejected by the community, and might even risk death. If the religion prescribes death for apostates, as is the case for Islam, then even if the religion isn’t the state authority, believers are easily persuaded to take it upon themselves.

The list of additional beliefs on top of basic theism, including the many moral prescriptions and proscriptions, is long. It depends on the religion, the sect within the religion, and the personal willingness of individuals to follow the rules of the religion.

This becomes a little tricky for the religious that try to divert criticism away from their religion, when opinions differ so widely within:

  • God changes his mind often, it seems, judging by how religious opinions change.
  • Individuals make up their own minds what they take from their religion … you’d think the religious would therefore appreciate how atheists make up their own minds about morality.
  • The greatest opponents to a particular religious believer’s views are … other religious people. Islamic terrorism? Many victims are other Muslims, for being the wrong type of Muslim.

The variety of religious belief is often greater than the difference between Atheism and a particular Religion. Modern Anglicans that accept secular liberal democracy, have no problem with homosexuality, even in the church, are for full gender equality, and gender identity. They have much more in common with the social and political leanings of many atheists, than with even their fundamentalist Christian brethren, let alone than with people of other faiths.

And yet, the religious stick together. It only takes the whiff of an atheist with a strong opinion for the ‘interfaith’ community to band together in offended outrage. And let anyone speak out about the Islam of the Islamic extremists and even moderate Muslims will come to Islam’s defence as much as agree with an atheist that there might be a problem with the religion.

[Update 5/12/2017] There was greater outrage that Trump retweeted a lead figure one of Britain First’s outspoken anti-Islam activists than at the content of the videos the activist posted. One was ‘fake news’, but the other two were of Muslims persecuting others. Despite the acts of the Muslims, this was actually seen as anti-Muslim bigotry. Take a moment. Here’s the upshot: every tweet condemning German neo-Nazis is anti-German bigotry; every tweet showing and condemning videos of Britain First are anti-British bigotry, and by extension, anti-Muslim bigotry, since, as  is belaboured painfully, British Muslims are British. This is the state of play in 2017, where any criticism of Islam is interpreted as ‘Islamophobia’, ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ … and yes, ‘racism’.

Political Ideologies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, …

Whenever an atheist argues with Christians or Muslims, it’s not long before we get the Hitler, Stalin, Fascism, Nazism, Communism line thrown at us. And no matter how often it’s pointed out that this isn’t a valid argument, it still keeps on coming up. Often from the same people that have had this pointed out before.

Political ideologies can of course cross boundaries of Atheism-Theism. Christians can be socialists. In the 70s it was quite common for Islamists to lean towards socialism … maybe they hadn’t realised how far right Islam really is … or maybe they had.

And, Hitler was not an atheist. He might not have favoured the established churches that opposed his thugs, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t religious. Many Nazi ideas were based on the old Teutonic ideals of religiously motivated knights.

Communism? Don’t think that political ideology stops you believing in a personal god … it just becomes less convenient and maybe a little dangerous to admit to one, but Communism does not preclude theism.

These political ideologies tell us little about the wide variety of atheists. The Atheism that some political ideologies might embrace informs the ideology with nothing other than the fact that there is no evidence for any god.

Religious Political Ideologies

Some political ideologies are religious ones.

And most religious ideologies are political – they are inherently so because they dictate the behaviours of people, and that’s a very political thing to do. And they usually have a lot to say on social issues … not all good. Homophobia, sex outside marriage, modesty, … religions can be obsessed with sex, particularly with regard to women, and if feminism isn’t a political matter I’m not sure what is.

It is possible to believe in a religion and treat it as an entirely personal belief system that determines how you live your own life, without you making any claims about what it implies for anyone else.

But this is rare. Most religions, and especially religious organisations, are very keen on telling: religious believers how they should act; non-believers that they are anything from misguided to evil; the religious what they should do to the non-believers: killing apostates, bombing abortion clinics, punishing people for blasphemy (the modern version is imprisoning people for ‘hate speech’).

Christianity, as supposedly expressed by Jesus, is a “render unto Caesar” kind of religion – a reasonable basis of separation of church and state. However, the Catholic church in Rome put a swift stop to that. Christianity, especially through many bishops and popes, made state business very much church business. The US continues this tradition by distorting the intentions of the founding fathers and making it the godly nation the founding fathers tried to avoid – they’d seen enough of that in Europe.

Islam is very specifically, inherently, by design, a political ideology. Only Muslims can hold certain offices of state. Muslims and non-Muslims are taxed differently.

Many Muslims will try to pull a fast one by telling you that Islam insists that Muslims follow the laws of the the land in which they find themselves … where Muslims are a minority that does not hold power. But Islam also requires Muslims to spread Islam … which means it would eventually become a majority. This is why many opponents of Islam also oppose too much immigration from Muslim countries.

Of course many Muslims don’t want a dominant Islam any more than non-Muslims do. Many escape the domination of Islam of their homelands, and are quite happy to live in secular democracies where they can practice their religion in peace.

But then we also see a lot of duplicitous language from supposedly ‘moderate’ Muslims that think homosexuality should be illegal, and make excuses for their more extreme brothers and sisters (“Nothing to do with Islam”).

In Europe the atheists and secularists have been opposing the power of the church for centuries, letting the humanistic principles take precedence. There’s still plenty of religious protectionism that goes on – a refusal to give up the reigns of power, as diminished as they are. Why the heck do Bishops get seats in the UK House of Lords – and why is there even such an unelected house still?

But I’ve seen and heard much more of the stranglehold religion has in some parts of the US, where the mark of a good plumber is whether he’s a good Christian or not. “In God We Trust” – indeed they do.

So, religions are political, and as such are as fair game for criticism and ridicule as any non-religious political ideology.

And being offended when religions are criticised is just one more political tool the religious try to pull. It may be a genuine feeling, and so they try to give it moral weight. Hence, critics of Islam are labelled haters of Muslims.

But, realising that atheists tend not to be impressed by the special pleading for the religion, that atheists aren’t taken in by the piety, the hurt feelings, what are the religious to do? Compare their religion to atheism? They can’t. They are not comparable.

Humanism

So, religious friends, you can’t really compare Atheism with your religion.

You can compare Atheism with Theism, if you’re talking only about the philosophy, reason, evidence, to support either case.

But you can’t compare Atheism as such with Christianity or Islam. Yes, I know that atheists argue against Christianity and Islam, but they do so on two quite separate grounds:

1 – A disagreement with the underlying theistic claims of your religion. If your religion relies on a claim that there is one or more gods, and there isn’t, then 2 is irrelevant. But, we humour you anyway and so …

2 – A disagreement with the moral assertions that you think your imaginary god has prescribed. It’s not like we disagree with all your moral positions, we just hold those we agree on for different reasons, for which we don’t need an imaginary god. But those Humanist atheists also find many of the moral guides of religion to be immoral, barbaric at times, and remnants of ancient codes of conduct prescribed at the time of the religion’s inception.

The thing is, Atheism prescribes no moral position whatsoever. It really is merely the rejection of your unsubstantiated claims about your god.

And this, of course, leads to another failure to understand atheism: “Atheists have no morals. They are nihilists.” Not so.

We have morals. We just don’t think some imaginary friend dictates them; and we very specifically reject many of the immoral codes that gods supposedly do dictate.

But you’re nearly right. it’s not our atheism that determines our morals, it’s something else.

Many atheists find other reasons for their morality – many simply acknowledging that harming others isn’t nice. People and animals don’t like to suffer harm, so we prefer to minimise that. It seems a very simple idea, but it’s amazing how far you can go with just that basic starting point. And it also avoids the need to punish people for daft reasons – such as for having sex outside marriage, for not being heterosexual, for drinking, for working on the Sabbath.

[In the UK the Shops Bill 1986 was defeated; the Sunday Trading Act 1994 eventually introduced limited Sunday trading … so strong was Christianity’s hold over British life. Now we’re finding we have to start again, with Islam.]

Many atheists want to live by their own moral ideals, and many collect these ideas about living a moral life into a set of codes. It’s not that these codes are necessary, but they are helpful in declaring some minimal set of behaviours we agree to abide by.

And one example of such a guide is the Humanist Manifesto. Take a look at it. You’ll find no diktats about women being lesser than men, or how to deal with the evil of homosexuality, or what the best way is to kill apostates. Humanists don’t have to look for ‘nuance’ and ‘scholarship’ to explain away inconvenient passages ‘revealed’ through some desert warlord or hippy.

So, if you want to carry out any comparisons I’d suggest you try these:
– Atheism vs Theism
– Humansim vs Christianity, Islam, …

You might find that many atheists tell you they don’t belong to any Humanist organisation, because they would rather not belong to any group that sets their ethical standards for them, as they can figure it out for themselves. They have a point. We are free to decide our own moral codes, and put them to the test in our societies.

My personal subscription to Humanism is one of convenience, and support for many of the programs of Humanists UK (formerly British Humanist Association).

Other atheists might join other groups of common interest, such as the many secular and skeptical societies around the world. Ex-Muslims have a shared experience that brings them together in various groups – often with the added benefit of providing a safe community to those ex-Muslims that are still at risk from their families.

Let that sink in, and imagine a child of Humanists being ostracised, forced into marriage, threatened with death, killed. I don’t know of any such incident. Has one ever made the news?

The next time you’re arguing with atheists on Twitter, they are unlikely to be Nazis. So when you pull the “What about Hitler, Stalin ..” it’s a Straw Man. If you want to argue for your religion, why don’t you try coming up with good reasons for it, not excusing the bad stuff by dragging in some irrelevant comparison.

And for pities sake, give up on trying to defend the indefensible. Your religious texts are full of ancient stuff that really doesn’t stand up to our moral standards today. Some religious passages are outright contraventions of the human rights that most people would want to sign up to. Stop defending that crap with ‘nuance’ and ‘scholarship’ – it makes you look like damned fools that are fooling no one but themselves.

Atheist Terrorists

And that atheist killer you want to call a terrorist because you’re sick of hearing about Islamic terrorists? Could be they are genuinely crazy, or have some motive other than their hate for religion.

And even if they carried out the heinous act because they hate religion and religious believers, there’s no Atheist Bible, and nothing in the Humanist Manifesto to suggest they should … unlike your religious books. Not even The God Delusion, Letter to a Christian Nation, or any of the New Atheist books.

If some killers that are atheists really are killing for atheism, there’s nothing in atheism, or Humanism, that can be removed that would stop them. There are no doctrines we can reject. There’s no “Believers are children of Satan” sermons going on. Pointing out the problems with religion doesn’t automatically create Atheist Killers. Sadly it does all too often create killers of atheists.

But, hey, if someone has a terrorist agenda, against believers, for atheism, then pretty much all humanist atheists will oppose them. I’ll happily denounce any such terrorists. But I won’t be able to point to any atheist texts that has incited them. I can only point to Humanist texts that are very short and very explicit in their opposition to doing harm. There is no Humanist Prophet whose example I should follow that includes his beheading of enemies.

The Humanist Manifesto is so clear in rejecting doing harm to others there’s no way you can mistakenly or otherwise derive some crazy idea that it’s a good idea to kill believers.

This cannot be said of the books of Christianity and Islam. Alongside all the lovely stuff is some seriously dark and immoral doctrine.

Look, if you want to call some atheist killer an atheist terrorist, knock yourself out. Any disagreement from atheists will be on a technicality, not for some fear of having to explain away our inconvenient texts. Let me help you out with A Guide To Terrorists For Idiots.

You Should Read The Quran – Really? Why?

I’m often told, “You Should Read The Quran.” – Really? Why? Islamic specialism seems to presume I’d be enlightened by one particular holy text, but not by others.

I’m an atheist that doesn’t see any merit in holy books that claim to be inspired by or revealed by imaginary friends. I don’t swallow the presuppositional existence of a deity that such inspiration or revelation demands. There are just too many religions, and sects within religions, to make ANY of the claims credible – and there is NEVER any evidence to back up the claims.
Continue reading “You Should Read The Quran – Really? Why?”

Desperate Dan Arel the Duplicitous Man

This is the post where Desperate Dan makes his excuses and leaves the Patheos network [Update – the Patheos blog remains, but this post seems to have gone – poor Dan has had to re-invent himself a few times]:

The Danthropology blog is moving on

Yet today, I am here to announce I have decided to leave the Patheos network. This is a decision I did not come to lightly, but one I feel is the right next step for my career.

With that, I began to feel my writing didn’t fit on Patheos and I felt I was forcing myself to cover religion and atheist based issues when I didn’t wholly want to. Instead of faking my way through a blog on a network I love, I felt it was time to move on.

All so sweet and nice. Until you read his other perspective, expressed here:

When did online atheism get into bed with the neo-nazi movement?

[Another post that’s vanished]

It’s astonishing to watch the evolution of the atheist community online, mainly Twitter, move from liberal to alt-right conservatism.

Dan, this is idiocy. We’ve been here before with P Z Myers. Look what happened then.

desperatedanthestreeetfightingman

What’s going on with Dan?

The Three Stooges

We digress into a wider context in which typical bullies can dish it out but can’t take it. Here’s the clue:

How prominent atheists are telling American rape victims they have “privilege” because at least they are not being forced to marry their rapist?

Let’s summarise the significance of this …

Dan has been taking some stick for his Nazi punching ways, and he doesn’t like it.

Eiynah (Nice Mangos) has been quite nasty about a few people, has been called out on it, and doesn’t like it.

Aki Muthali has been her usual snappy self, and has been called out on it, and doesn’t like it.

And these three, in their various ways, have become highly critical of a bunch of other atheists … because these three can dish it out but can’t take it. They can criticise any atheist, big name or not, as freely as they wish, and I’ve not seen anyone of note say or imply they should not. But I have seen people disagreeing with their take on a number of issues. And what you do see is the Three Stooges going hyperbolic when they are criticised in turn.

Let’s make these things clear:

  • It’s okay to criticise prominent atheists if you disagree with them.
  • It’s okay to criticise their critics in turn if you disagrees with the criticisms.
  • If you throw your toys out of the pram and start claiming there are conspiracies against you because the ‘fan boys’ of the big names won’t let anyone criticise them, then you’re being a snowflake. Get over yourself.

This grew out of the following:

Eiynah and Yasmine had a spat. Someone else questioned Eiynah’s authenticity (heaven forbid one’s history is actually questioned), and it blew up, with Eiynah being her usual reactionary self – she can dish out the criticism but doesn’t like it when it’s aimed at her. Eiynah is a sneaky troll: she tried to use Yasmine, Faisal and Ali to discredit and disown Dave Rubin; and has tried to get Jerry Coyne to denounce and discredit Gad Saad; she didn’t like it when Michael Sherlock made conciliatory noises – Eiynah didn’t like being associated with Yasmine … so blame Sherlock for even thinking reconciliation might be possible.

Aki Muthali, who shoots from the hip at anyone who speaks out of turn, jumped in on Eiynah’s side. Could that have anything to do with her history with Lalo Dagach? These things are hard to keep up with.

Then, Sherlock began to tweet about the plight of Dina Ali (#SaveDinaAli), and while his main thrust was in support of her, he pointed out how many western feminists fail to back Muslim and ex-Muslim women – this isn’t news, it’s been mentioned before, including by the Three Stooges.

Well, that was an opportunity for Aki to take a shot at Michael. And Michael made what amounts to a mean tweet. His point was valid, but not entirely appropriate.

And in that thread Dan makes his little contribution of hate for the ‘prominent’ atheists, following his run-in with Stephen Knight and others on his Nazi punching agenda.

Déjà vu?

Does this all look familiar? You bet it does. This is basically a re-run of an old movie: P Z Myers turning on New Atheists, supposedly on their misogynist agenda, with a bit of ‘ALL Muslims’ presumption read into tweets and posts. Myers began throwing unsupported accusations around willy-nilly – and this was already after a few preliminary splits in his brand of ‘atheist activism’ because, well, they eat their own, don’t they.

While going through this it’s worth bearing in mind what’s already been said about the Myers view of the ‘atheist community’.

Atheism isn’t a singular community. Atheism really is ‘dictionary atheism’, merely not believing in gods and stuff. It’s therefore open to anyone who doesn’t believe in gods, be they far right, alt-right, liberal, far left or aliens from the other side of the galaxy. Or, indeed, Dan Arel, who, for all his claims to wish for a better sort of atheist has not been short on vitriolic hatred towards believers.

Is Myers Morally and Intellectually Bankrupt? – Is Dan? Read on.

Dan’s Perspective

It’s astonishing to watch the evolution of the atheist community online, mainly Twitter, move from liberal to alt-right conservatism.

It’s not the case that the ‘atheist community’ has moved to the right. It may well be that atheists from the right have become more open … but no, that’s not what Dan is talking about.

So much so, I have struggled to find the words to express how disgusting it has become.

How it has gone past criticizing religion and has almost fully embraced the alt-right and neo-Nazi ideologies of politicians as long as they hold anti-Muslim views?

How prominent atheists are telling American rape victims they have “privilege” because at least they are not being forced to marry their rapist?

Yet, I’m tired about writing about these racist fools. They will just demand evidence that Hitler was a racist, dogpile detractors on Twitter and then beg for Patreon donations.

Fully embraced alt-right and neo-Nazi ideologies? Where? When? This is so utterly ridiculous even Dan’s friends must be face palming when they see this crap.

As anyone with half a brain might suspect, there’s a broad spectrum across ‘the right’, from right of centre libertarianism, through shades of conservatism, religious or atheist, on to the more conservative, and into the far right … but the thing is, these are not identities that are easy to pin down.

Someone can be religiously conservative, don’t drink, don’t do sex outside monogamous marriages, oppose abortion, and still be socially liberal in not requiring everyone else to conform to their beliefs, and might even support economic and political socialism. And, someone who is socially, economically and politically conservative, might be an atheist that wants a small government, individual responsibility and no significant social programs. This is not simply Nazis v anti-Nazis, whatever the binary limits of Dan’s tiny mind might be.

Telling American rape victims they have privilege? Not for being raped, but since there’s a hierarchy of oppression Sherlock’s tweet was simply more about mocking that, than aiming any abuse at a rape victim on the matter of being raped.

An insensitive tweet by Sherlock? Sure. But racist fool? Note how these are linked by implication here, yet are deniable. This is Dan’s shtick.

Further, note the disconnect here, between the points Dan is trying to string together.

Evidence of Hitler’s racism? Yes, we would demand evidence that Hitler is a racist, if he were accused of being one. What’s wrong with that exactly? I’ll tell you what’s wrong, in Dan’s eyes – presumption of guilty worthy of a punch is how Dan deals with Nazis …. but of course that presumes the said Nazi is a Nazi. Fortunately there is ample evidence that Hitler was a Nazi, and a racist.

Dog-piling? But what has Hitler got to do with dog-piling of detractors of the prominent atheists? And why does this dog-piling take place – if indeed it does? Could it be for the way the Three Stooges and others have been stalking these atheists, making entirely hyperbolic claims about them, misrepresenting them, … lying.

And the begging for Patreon accounts? Who’d do such a thing?

Dan Arel … Patreon account:

Eiynah … Patreon:

The hypocrisy is astonishing to behold.

That’s what the online atheist community is now. It’s a neo-nazi cesspool of money hungry bigots with mediocre podcasts, half-assed blogs, and a Twitter following they think makes them famous.

This is nothing more than an acrid smelly brain fart. Dan’s just trumpeting vile insults. He’s got nothing else. This is what he is reduced to.

But if you want a bigot? Dan. Money hungry? Dan. Mediocre half-assed blog? Look no further than Dan. Tell me, did he leave Patheos of his own free will, without the slightest nudge? “Just askin’?” (tribute to Cenk Uygur’s deniable ‘just askin’ and ‘just sayin’ questioning smear tactic).

Rape!

… the accused rapist Michael Shermer …

Whoa there cowboy Dan! Don’t get so desperate in a hurry, Dan. Look back at Myers. Read Nugent on that whole sorry claim by Myers. That little business about evidence? You’re going to need to back this up.

Oh, hang on, … “accused”. Ah, the get-out-of-libel ploy. So, who’s doing the accusing, Dan? You? I guess not. But if not, then is someone guilty merely by being accused? As you’ve been accusing people of being Nazis? Or perhaps, like Myers, you’re prepared to accept accusations of guilt as guilt. Warning! This is what happened when Myers tried that.

PZMyers-ToxicStar

Seriously, Dan is a class-A fucking idiot. Has he learned nothing?

… out there blaming people of color for racism because they dare identity as a color that isn’t white …

Dan. These atheists you are targeting aren’t calling any POC a racist because that POC doesn’t identify as white. Some POC are being called racist for their racist views. It’s that simple.

This is because these atheists are more religious than the religions they fight against. Dawkins, Harris, Rubin, Maher, and Shermer are untouchable gods. Infallible.

This is right out of the Greenwald, Werleman, Uygur, Myers play book. I have NEVER seen any supporter of these atheists claim they are infallible. The supporters of these atheists do in fact disagree with them some times, but agree with a lot of what they say. What you do see are responses to BS from Dan and the other stooges that call THEM out on THEIR BS … and of course Dan and co don’t like it, have nothing left in their game but name calling.

My friends are running a campaign to #NormalizeAtheism and it’s a valiant effort and I fear it’s doomed to fail unless they can normalize non-racist voices quicker than these assholes are rising.

“My friends”? Which friends? Have you got any friends left? Have you seen the #NormalizeAtheism hashtag on Twitter? … surprise, there all about atheism and don’t make, support or even mention racism, because that’s a separate issue. Of course some atheists can be racists – atheism and racism are not co-dependent variables in human life – but not the named atheists Dan targets.

Here are some #NormalizeAtheism I don’t think Dan would approve of:

https://twitter.com/danarel/status/837465799656787969

Yes, Dan, you are an asshole on Twitter. Confirmed.

I love being openly atheist. … At the same time, as I see atheists follow a path towards right wing lunacy (online at least), makes me understand those who refuse to use the label openly. It’s being destroyed by the likes of Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, and their cronies who will defend them at all costs.

If Dan cared to look before becoming so desperate he’d see that many people that oppose Dan and defend Harris, Rubin and others do also disagree with them sometimes.

These are the same people who continue to deny that Richard Spencer is a Nazi and argue against any attempt to silence his spread of a genocidal ideology.
Who would want to be associated with that mess?

They do this only in the context of Dan labelling every man and his dog a Nazi. They are in no way supporting or defending Spencer’s racist separatist ideology, and many expressly say so … and any idiot other than Dan would know this. I suspect Dan knows this too … he just doesn’t seem to know that he knows it. Danialism! We are not mind readers, so we rely on what people say and do. So far Spencer has not given any support to genocide as far as I can tell, and the atheists targeted by Dan would oppose that too if he did.

This is a major reason I left the atheist/nonreligious channel at Patheos and broke out on my own.

All alone. Nobody listens to his Nazi punching incitement any more. It must be tough being Dan, a loon, … sorry, ‘alone’, I meant ‘alone’.

I didn’t lose my mind, as many of these nazi apologist want to claim, …

So YOU claim. Many others seem to see it differently. I’m not taking bets on when Dan claims he’s the second coming of Jesus … an atheist Jesus of course.

I instead was pushed to be more vocal as they continued to amplify voices that promote racism, hate, and bigotry.

I didn’t move away from movement atheism, movement atheism moved away from me.

What we have seen is people opposing the street violence that Dan subscribes to. And we’ve also seen Rubin actually talking to people of a wide political spectrum. And we’ve seen Sherlock criticising liberal regressive feminists for their support for the hijab toting Linda Sarsour while they ignore the plight of women forced to wear the hijab. And we’ve seen some personal spats as the Three Stooges throw tantrums.

Nowhere have I seen any of these targeted atheists support fascism, Nazism, racism, misogyny.

Dan has totally lost the plot. Some people are glass half full people. Dan is a dig the hole deeper person. Don’t be Desperate Dan.

DanArel-DesperateDan

Types of Atheism

In arguments with theists and in the books of theologians the theists often proclaim we atheists don’t udnerstand God. Well, it’s a fair comment since theists don’t understand god either – they are inconsistent about it, and often provide really poor explanations of what they mean by ‘god’.

The funny thing  is that while making such a claim about they are not understood, they also go on to tell us what atheism is. They are very often dead wrong.

This is a short and simple explanation, for theists.

Kinds of Atheist

It is worth remembering that the only meaning to ‘atheism’ that makes sense is what is often termed the pejoratively ‘Dictionary Atheism’.

Social Justice Warriors of the PZ Myers school of unthinking have been trying to create a Social Justice Atheism for some time. Myers first went with New Atheism, then flee out with New Atheists. He tried Atheism+ or A+ (any distinction isn’t worth discussing). Who knows what he’s on for now.

The trouble is that ‘atheism’ really is simply ‘a-theism’, as a-symmetric is non-symmetry. Of course you can have symmetry in one direction and not in another. In a similar way you can be atheist in the direction of one religion while atheistic towards all others. Total a-theism is like total a-symmetry – none of it.

Unfortunately ‘atheism’ doesn’t give us the slightest clue about what else one thinks. Here are some some systems and modes of living that are atheistic:

– Humanist – (capital H). Of course the religious can be ‘humanistic’ (small h), but Humanism is a system of principles that relies on evidence and reason and sees neither that convinces us there are any gods. That’s the reason Humanism is atheistic. If it ever turns out there is a god remotely like the gods we are told about by most religions then Humanists will probably oppose such a god’s oppressive and cruel nature.

– Marxist Communist – Since this system included a perspective on religion that wasn’t particularly favourable it is atheistic in nature. Of course you could be a Communist and religious, if you take the socialist political ideology and marry it with a belief in god. Many Christian Democrats seem to manage this quite well – up to a point.

– Psychopath – Given the lack of empathy, and siince excess empathy and a shut down of the analytical brain is required for religious belief it seems likely that psychopaths will on the whole be atheists. Again that would apply mostly if they had the autonomy of not being indoctrinated. And indoctrinated psychopath might simply think of himself as an evil sinner or as possessed by demons.

The problem for SJW Atheism is that atheism is ONLY about a-theism, and any type of non-believer, even really awful ones, can have an atheistic perspective.

Measures of Atheism

There are measures of atheistic claims that range from bad to good.

1 – “I know there is no god. I can just tell. I have a sense for it. I KNOW!” – Such claims to certain knowledge based on no evidence or reason are really inadequate, and such people are best ignored, unless you want to help them overcome their certainty. The same applies for the religious that claim ‘sensus divinitatis’ – i.e. Alvin Plantinga. I would pass him off as the flake and atrociously poor ‘philosopher’ he is, but for the fact that so many people think of him as a philosopher and not just a flaky theologian. Who knows what delusions convince people of his high status.

2 – “I see no evidence of God, so I know there can’t be one. I have faith that there isn’t one.” – Faith is a really poor reason for believing anything, and that applies to atheists too. Of course, they do base that faith on there being no evidence for god, while believers use faith in spite of there being no evidence of a god; so at least they are not that bad.

3 – “I can prove there is no god.” – I doubt it. It’s hard to say whether this is better or worse than faith based atheism. Probably worse in an intelligent person because you know they don’t have a good grasp on reality; slightly less a indictment of a poorly educated person duped into thinking you can prove such things – at least there’s hope they might learn.

4 – “There is no evidence or reason for god – and that’s the only way we know there isn’t one. On that basis I claim there really isn’t one.” – This isn’t that bad. It’s quite pragmatic. It’s only flaw is a technical one: in matters of philosophy and metaphysics you shouldn’t really make solid claims based on the lack of evidence or reason so far. You might be prepared to bet your shirt on there being no god. See next.

5 – “There is no evidence or reason for god – and that’s why it’s reasonable to act ‘as if’ there isn’t a god. It’s reasonable to NOT pretend that religious claims there is one should give credence to the supposed moralistic demands of this unevidence god. … [and so on].” – This is the only strictly logical position to take, though it’s still pragmatically reasonable to take the previous position.

Arguing With Atheists

For the theist making statements like this:

These atheist fundies act exactly like traditional religious fundies in every way, and yet they deny their religion

they really need to come to terms with the fact that they are likely to be arguing with atheists in 4 or 5.

Atheism really isn’t like a religion – unless you stumble upon the rare 1, 2 or 3, but then if there’s a discussion going on rather than a shouting match you’re probably not interacting with one of those.

Some more points a theist my want to consider when engaging with some atheists: My Atheism.

Those Spiteful Atheists

Some stupidity like this is doing the rounds:


1) Being an atheist is okay. Being an atheist and shaming religions and spirituality as silly and not real is not okay

2) Being a Christian is okay. Being homophobic, misogynistic, racist or otherwise hateful person in the name of Christianity is not okay

3) Being a reindeer is okay. Bullying and excluding another reindeer because it has a shiny red nose is not okay


Continue reading “Those Spiteful Atheists”

Is Myers Morally and Intellectually Bankrupt?

So, in response to the Oregon shootings, this was Myers: Is atheism bankrupt?

He references Ashley Millers post, which I cover here: Ashley Miller Invites Our Atheist Self Flagellation.

We had another mass murder in America this week, and there’s no way around it: it was by a “none”, someone who hated organized religion, and who described himself as Not Religious, Not Religious, but Spiritual. If he were participating in a survey, we’d embrace him as one of us, part of our growing majority.

Well, that’s right, we might, with regard to his rejection of organised religion. He would be a contribution to the statistics of the increase in irreligion (as all we atheists are). Continue reading “Is Myers Morally and Intellectually Bankrupt?”

Justin Welby Likes To Torture Sick People?

And here we go with another religious justification for torturing people, from Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Of course he doesn’t like to torture sick people, or to use his religious belief to justify such torture. I thought, well, if he’s prepared to use ridiculous rhetoric to make his case, I might too. But then I thought again, Continue reading “Justin Welby Likes To Torture Sick People?”

Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Have A Cunning Plan

Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis reveal their cunning plan to bring those dreaded Muslims on side and blame everything on the atheists: In the secular age, it is crucial for people of faith to stick together. Good luck with that.

This is such a brazen plea for anti-secularism, and a worry about Islam, disguised as the reaching out of the hand of friendship. Many Muslims will see right through it, as atheists see right through the machinations of all religions. Continue reading “Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis Have A Cunning Plan”

My Atheism – It’s not Agnosticism

In a comment on the matter of atheists needing faith, Edward Silha gives one of the better responses with the following points:

There is no need to use the terms “faith” or “belief” when discussing the existence or nonexistence of a god or gods. As a scientist, I draw conclusions based on evidence and logic. That leads me to the following conclusions.

1. I cannot prove there are no gods; therefore I am not an atheist.
2. I cannot prove there is a god; therefore I am not a theist.
3. Therefore, I am an agnostic.

The trouble is that the three points are really logical, not evidential points. And this is part of the problem when discussing atheism and agnosticism: Continue reading “My Atheism – It’s not Agnosticism”

#PseudoLiberals Go After New Atheists

I’d describe #PseudoLiberals as liberals that have something of the Post Modern Relativism about them. They are individuals that form a loose collective that think they are being particularly good lefty liberals by giving unbounded respect to those playing the offence game in the face of criticism – common with regard to the offended religious. Continue reading “#PseudoLiberals Go After New Atheists”

Cal Colgan Blames New Atheists for Chapel Hill Shooting

Here’s an idiotic tweet from @calcolgan, ironically calling out his imagined idiocy of others:

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/565909458736672768
4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this http://nyti.ms/1FyYOqN

Continue reading “Cal Colgan Blames New Atheists for Chapel Hill Shooting”

New Atheism

New Atheism is being subjected to attacks, and it’s clear from those attacks, from what the critics say, that many really don’t understand New Atheism, and in many cases haven’t read what New Atheists actually say, but rather rely on what other opponents say New Atheists say. There are descriptions of New Atheism around the internet, but many of them don’t really explain what is being missed. So, here’s my take. Continue reading “New Atheism”

Yes Mehdi Hasan, I Condem Those Atheists Texts Calling for Lashes, Stoning, Death

Mehdi Hasan is up to his usual rhetorical tricks.

On his Facebook page he links to the Richard Dawkins comments in the Huffington Post piece: Atheist Richard Dawkins Condemns Chapel Hill Shootings Of Three Muslim Students.

His comment accompanying the post:

Will we now see lots of pieces calling for ‘reform’ of New Atheism and a search for ‘moderate’ New Atheists? ‪#‎justasking‬

So, Mehdi, if you think New Atheism is in need of reform, can you point to the New Atheist scriptures that Craig Hicks might have followed in order to justify the killing?

Can you point to New Atheist scripture that demands lashes for sex outside marriage, or stoning of adulterers? Can you point to any New Atheist scriptures that denounce atheists for apostasy, for those converting to Islam or Christianity? Continue reading “Yes Mehdi Hasan, I Condem Those Atheists Texts Calling for Lashes, Stoning, Death”

Dawkins v Myers: The Slurs Continue

Rape is bad. In similar circumstances the a similar event might be worse for some victims than others. And depending on how it affects the victim what looks superficially like a worse rape, such as by a stranger at knife point, than another rape, such as by a friend on a date, may in fact not be what we expect. One victim might find the date rape far more traumatic than the attack by a stranger, because perhaps the failure of trust between them and the trusted friend might completely fuck up the victim’s capacity to trust and interact with people generally. The victim of a stranger rape might be able to put that into a box, a dreadful box not to be opened again, so that they can get on with their lives. Continue reading “Dawkins v Myers: The Slurs Continue”

What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.

I had a conversation with an atheist friend recently and I think we surprised each other.

Though an atheist she still felt she needed to believe in ‘something’, though she didn’t quite know in what; and to some extent she envied religious believers in that they had something to turn to, some belief. This surprised me, because though I know of some atheists who feel this way this was my first opportunity to hear it first hand. What surprised me more was her surprise at the nature my atheism. Continue reading “What do I believe ‘in’? Nothing.”

What’s Up Doc? Heaven, Apparently

In this piece, Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife, Neurosurgeon Eban Alexander gives his account of a brain event that made him see the light. (h/t @SkepticViews)

This is the dumbest piece of God promotion I’ve seen for some time. I wouldn’t have this neuroscientist anywhere near my brain. He says how much he wants to believe, has a specific brain experience that matches reports of experiences by other people, and that’s it – job done, God exists.

1) Auditory hallucinations can be auto-generated in the brain without sound input through the ears, so it’s possible for someone with a brain to ‘hear voices’; and some people who ‘hear voices’ attribute them to God or Jesus. He should know this. Humans hallucinate.

2) The brain perceptions experienced (bright light, vast space, God, etc.), and the reality of the things supposedly conceived (heaven, God), are quite distinct. The experience of the perceptions is no guide to the reality of the thing perceived. That’s why we call them hallucinations. Near-death is a rare experience for a human brain (except for those with a one way ticket, but then they don’t come back to report), so it is difficult to say what we would expect to experience. Novel brain experiences are not a sufficient guide to reality.

3) People will have similar experiences because, duh, they have brains too. We should expect that experiences of near death will be similar, so the similarity of the reports should not be taken as mounting evidence for the thing claimed of the experience.

4) As others have pointed out in the article’s comment stream, similar experiences can be achieved by using drugs. And by stimulation of the brain in the lab or operating theatre. There is no reason to suppose that the perceptions contained during these experiences represent a reality, and plenty of evidence that they don’t.

5) On what grounds does Alexander suppose that his perceived experiences occurred in real-time while he was unconscious? He has no way of knowing, because he was unconscious! Only later, when his consciousness returns, is he able to report on his experiences. For all he knows his brain might be constructing a completely false memory, as if it had occurred, as part of the process of recovering consciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like when a brain is ‘turned on’ again. Being a neuroscientist he should know of this and many other rational possibilities.

There’s a problem here that theologians, many philosophers, and it appears some scientists, have with the nature of the brain and its relation to our inner thoughts and experiences. Lurking behind views expressed by those like Alexander is a presupposition that the mind is distinct from the brain and that what we experience in the mind has some distinct reality. I call this the primacy of thought problem, where we suppose that the mind and our thoughts, through our Rationalism, is the primary source of knowledge. To some extent this is understandable, since as physical animals we have to wait until our brains achieve a certain degree of complexity and experience before they become self-aware enough to do any reasoned thinking. It’s then as if our ‘mind’ has been switched on, and then is perceived to exist as if it is something independent of the brain. Contributing to this feeling is the fact that our self-awareness, our introspection, can only go so deep. We cannot, for example, perceive the individual neurons firing away as we think. We only perceive the thoughts, not the cause of the thoughts. We have no physical sensation in the brain, like touch or pain, that tells us what is actually going on inside our heads as we think. So, we feel detached, as free-floating consciousness.

In the context of this post Alexander is in no position to say what caused his experience. All he ends up with is a perception of an experience – a brain experience.

What a dumb-ass. He was lost to religion before he started on his unconscious journey; he wanted it; he says as much. Confirmation bias?

Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma…

Is this guy really a neuroscientist? It’s difficult to say to what extent a brain is ‘inactive’ during a coma, or other states where external appearances imply unconsciousness. It’s not even fully understood to what extent there is a real barrier between consciousness and un-conscious activity.

What happened to me demands explanation.

There are plenty answers to choose from. You can go with the simple functioning of a brain under stress and bad health that is capable of inducing perceptual experiences that are not associated with any reality; or you can go for your God explanation, because you want to.

Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also-I now know-defined by love.

Of course this statement tells us more about Alexander’s understanding of ‘knowing’, his views on epistemology and what it is for an animal brain to ‘know’ something, his commitment to Rationalism, than it does about any actuality.

The universe as I experienced it in my coma is – I have come to see with both shock and joy – the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.

It’s hard for this statement to be wrong, because of course it is a fatuous profundity – a deepity, as Dennett would say. Quite meaningless in that it could be taken to mean anything. A straight forward physical interpretations is that yes, the physical brain has physical behaviours that under some conditions give the impression of a spiritual experience while at the same time the very same brain is governed entirely by the natural laws of science as we discover them.

But that belief, that theory [of the brain], now lies broken at our feet.

No, just at his feet, as he perceives it to be broken; as perceived by his broken brain that has had a perceptual experience that has left him with the impression that the imagined content of that experience is real.

When the castle of an old scientific theory begins to show fault lines…

The fault lines are as imagined as the content of his dreams.

… no one wants to pay attention at first … The looks of polite disbelief, especially among my medical friends, soon made me realize what a task I would have getting people to understand the enormity of what I had seen …

Oh dear. The plight of the unbelieved prophet. Everyone else is blind. Why can’t they see?

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.

No fucking kidding!

I’m still a doctor, and still a man of science every bit as much as I was before I had my experience.

Well, I’d say not. Unless we take this to mean that he was already lost to science in his desire to believe.

I only hope he doesn’t turn into one of these evangelical doctors that you get from time to time. My mother is a believer in God of sorts, but she decided that enough was enough when at her local GP practice (an evangelical husband and wife team) her doctor suggested at the end of a consultation that they should hold hands and pray together for her recovery and well being. Preying on the sick by praying for them. But you can see this coming with Alexander.


Update: Sam Harris has chipped in:  This Must Be Heaven covers more detail, including comment by Mark Cohen. As well as going to town on Alexander, he also dishes it out to Newsweek. Harris is as eloquent as usual, so it really is worth a read. Pleas do.