Are atheists zombies?

The discussion on James McGrath’s post JesusWeen led me to consider the intriguing possibility that atheists, and in fact all people who are not Christian believers, might be zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead"Now I am not here talking about the kind of flesh-eating “undead” which seem to be more and more prominent in our popular culture, and will no doubt feature prominently in this year’s Halloween festivities. There is even a Zombie Theology website, at which one of the leading contributors is my blogging friend Alan Knox. But then at that site there are some things taking a similar line to what I am taking here, such as the post When zombies go to Sunday School.

My point in this post relates to the concept of philosophical zombies. I was led to look at this by the mention of qualia in a comment by idmillington on McGrath’s post. This kind of zombie is defined as

a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human being except in that it lacks conscious experience, qualia, or sentience.

Well, they say “hypothetical”, but how can we know that there are not real zombies of this variety living among us? After all, the hypothesis is that they are indistinguishable from the rest of us. But would they really be, not just in their actions but also in their abstract thinking? If a being that lacked true consciousness were to engage in a debate about consciousness, surely its lack of first-hand knowledge would be reflected in its arguments. Would it not be more likely than a genuinely conscious human being to hold that consciousness is illusory?

Let’s turn to what the Bible has to say here. There is a consistent picture in Scripture, starting from Genesis 2:17 and traceable at least to Revelation 3:1, that people who go against God’s ways are spiritually dead, although their bodies and minds are alive. This idea is expounded most clearly by the Apostle Paul:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. … 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions …

Ephesians 2:1-2,4-5 (NIV)

Christian theologians have generally explained this in terms of the human being as tripartite: body, soul and spirit. On this basis, it is the human spirit which is dead in unbelievers, those who are not “in Christ”, even in those whose bodies and souls (i.e. minds and emotions) are alive. But when someone becomes a Christian, a major part of their “born again” experience is that their human spirit comes alive, as Paul seems to teach in the following verse, although its interpretation is disputed:

But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Romans 8:10 (NIV 1984)

Can the human spirit be identified with consciousness? That is not impossible. But Christian teaching might suggest more an identification with conscience and intuition, and also that the spirit is the part of the human being which is in contact with God. So would an intelligent being which lacks a human a philosophical zombie? Technically, probably not, but it does look as if there is some parallel between the concepts.

A better way to put this might be as foillows. According to Christian teaching, unbelievers and atheists, while not necessarily completely without conscience or intuition, lack the part of the human being which is in contact with God. This explains why they are unable to understand matters of Christian faith. As Paul wrote,

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (NIV)

So please don’t be afraid this Halloween that atheists will break into your home in the night and suck your brains out. After all, some of them have plenty of their own brains. But bear in mind that they may be somewhat lacking in the more spiritual aspects of discernment. And remember that arguing with them is pointless, as they do not have the capacity to understand spiritual matters. Instead, pray for them, that the Holy Spirit will give life and light to their human spirits and show them the truth about God.

0 thoughts on “Are atheists zombies?

  1. Pingback: Accused of being religious? | The Skilled Workman

  2. I love it, nice eisegesis. Its fun to speculate.

    The p-zombie idea is one of a family of arguments about whether the world is how it really is. From Wittgenstein’s claims that one could use language, which could be comprehensible to another person but mean something wholly different. Through to Descartes’ evil demon, and the Matrix (the world is a construct, designed to deceive you).

    “lack the part of the human being which is in contact with God”

    That’s the bit I think is refuted by the existence of former-Christians. Although I suppose one could say that such a loss of faith constitutes the death of part of the mind. The loss of consciousness, which is then followed by something taking over to appear conscious.

    The subjective experience of losing faith is somewhat like that, to be honest. In my case I became a non-believer, before admitting it, so there was a period of “faking it”, although not always consciously, and certainly not maliciously. Before finding an amazing release, and whole other world on admitting to it.

    I’ve heard folks who stuff the pews without any major motivation to build the Kingdom described as zombies before. Which, unfortunately, is a large proportion of those on church on a Sunday, I think.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thank you, ID. Yes, a lot of this is speculation. And I have not chosen to speculate about those who lose their faith. If pushed, I might tentatively suggest that their human spirits are not dead but are inactive and asleep.

    I can agree with you that many in church on Sunday behave rather like zombies, and some would gladly eat the flesh of those who don’t agree with their theology. I can understand that escaping from their clutches felt like a release to you.

  4. “I can understand that escaping from their clutches felt like a release to you.”

    It wasn’t the people. In fact I still attend a church quite regularly, and lead one of its bible studies.

  5. Peter–

    Acouple of questions:

    1) You said that atheists ‘do not have the capacity to understand spiritual matters.’ What do you consider ‘spiritual matters?’

    2) When you say ‘understand’ are you talking about gaining knowledge, or about correctly interpreting spiritual matters? Or something else?

    3) Who does have this capacity, if atheists do not? And how did they get it?


  6. Lamont, your first quotation was intended to be a restatement of what I had said previously: “According to Christian teaching, unbelievers and atheists … are unable to understand matters of Christian faith”. But by that I don’t mean intellectual theology, but rather that they cannot have the relational knowledge and spiritual discernment that comes with a personal relationship with God. Those who are true, “born again” if you like, Christians have, according to the Bible passages quoted above, been made spiritually alive and so have this kind of spiritual capacity.

  7. Peter–

    Is this your personal view of how the world works, or were you quoting Christian teaching as something different than your own personal view? Is this true for you, that ‘atheists do not have the capacity to understand spiritual matters?’


  8. Lamont, I would say that this is my current personal view but not one that is fixed in every way. Yes, I do hold that atheists do not have the capacity to fully understand spiritual matters – note the addition of “fully”.

  9. … or maybe its that believers don’t have the mental capacity to appreciate or understand the real world.

    If you’re serious about making arguments from a ‘lack of capacity’ about why someone might disagree with you, then I’m afraid you’re standing with a long line of bigots through history. Folks who argued that blacks didn’t have the capacity to be fully cultured, or Jews didn’t have the capacity to be fully moral, or women didn’t have the capacity for logical thought, or that gay folks don’t have the capacity to be committed spouses.

    Starting from the point of “I don’t understand group X” and ending up at “there fore group X are in some way deficient as people” is just plain bigotry. I read this post as goading humour first time, designed to get a rise and a conversation going.

    If you don’t understand where someone is coming from, it is normally a better idea to try to understand them, rather than decide and declare that they are lacking some vital bit of humanity.

    “Yes, I do hold that atheists do not have the capacity to fully understand spiritual matters”

    If that is true then I think you should be ashamed of yourself.

  10. ID, I wonder if you would consider that you “have the capacity to fully understand” a person that you have never met or even corresponded with, that you know only from second hand reports, in the same way that you might fully understand your spouse? My main point is that because life-long atheists have not met God, they cannot fully understand him. As I said before, the situation of those who have met God but then rejected him is different.

  11. “have the capacity to fully understand” a person that you have never met or even corresponded with,

    Yes, it is reasonable to assume we all have the capacity to understand other human beings. I might have to work at a relationship, but there’s no reason to suspect I lack the capacity to form one.

    Is that what you mean? Do you mean Atheists aren’t Christians because they don’t have the capacity for spiritual understanding. Or Atheists don’t have spiritual understanding because they aren’t Christians.

    If you are saying the latter, then I’d suggest you want to avoid the ‘capacity’ arguments, with their long and ignominious history of dehumanisation.

  12. Peter–

    How would you assess or measure someone’s (atheist or otherwise) capacity to fully understand spiritual matters? What reliable mechanism (noticeable behavior; particular responses to a written set of questions or likert ‘agree/disagree’ scales) would increase your certainty that some one did or did not have the capacity to fully unerstand spiritual matters? Would you expect yourself to pass such a test? Or other people you know?


  13. @lamont – The obvious criteria is surely if someone isn’t like you. If you know the genuine and only true spiritual reality, then anyone who disagrees with you, or expresses their spirituality in another way is, ipso facto, spiritually disabled.

  14. ID, perhaps “capacity” was not the best word to use. I certainly didn’t intend any dehumanisation or comparison with blacks, Jews, women or gays. What I mean really is much more like “Atheists don’t have spiritual understanding because they aren’t Christians.” I would not seriously hold that atheists are atheists because they are born with some mental deficiency relative to Christians. I would say that everyone is born without the ability to have a direct relationship with God, and that true Christians are those who have chosen to allow God to give them that ability.

  15. Grand Peter, That moves the conversation on past the particularly prickly point, for me.

    “everyone is born without the ability to have a direct relationship with God, and that true Christians are those who have chosen to allow God to give them that ability”

    There’s some very particular phrasing going on there, I suspect you feel you’re walking a theological line in how you express the contingencies of faith.

    Would you, then, also claim that those who have a deep and fulfilling spiritual life in relationship to other deities, are equally zombified? In other words, is it a connection with ‘the divine’ (however understood), or does it specifically require the evangelical understanding of a relationship with Christ? Or somewhere in the middle, of course.

  16. Peter–

    You’ve not engaged my questions about assessment and measurability. Let me ask it another way: within the context of an active, viable faith community, how would you be able to tell who had the “capacity” and who did not?


  17. ID, thank you. Yes, there are some theological issues behind what I said. One of them is indeed this issue of other deities. But I wonder, in which other religions is there this kind of claim of a personal relationship with a unique God? Perhaps in some strands of Judaism and of Islam. In that case I would tentatively suggest that their relationship is mediated by Jesus Christ even if he is not named explicitly.

    Lamont, I thought I had answered your point by withdrawing the word “capacity”. But the sorts of measures I might use would be the individual’s self-reported reactions to claims of spiritual phenomena. Those who reject such claims out of hand or with mockery probably don’t have the ability to understand the claims. Those who accept the claims as possibly true would seem to have some understanding of them. I would not encourage people to accept claims uncritically, but those who do so are usually those who have personal experience of similar phenomena.

  18. “But I wonder, in which other religions is there this kind of claim of a personal relationship with a unique God?”

    That answers the question, thanks – if that is your criteria, then it is about your brand of Christianity. Other “understandings” of spiritual matters are at best mis-understandings, then.

    “a personal relationship with a unique God?”

    Even most of Christianity, through most of Christian history, hasn’t made the “personal relationship” claim. One can quote mine a couple of the fathers, but in its own terms the concept of the personal relationship is a product of the Great Awakening – i.e. a claim of American evangelicalism. Which, from a Christian pov is your milieu, judging from your profile.

    When I talked about other spiritual understandings I was thinking say a western Hindu, who perceives everything as being God, of the Brahman, the ultimate spiritual reality pervading everything: space, time, flesh, mind. A spiritual understanding which makes traditional Christian theology seem rather under-ambitious, say. Or a Shinto who sees every natural process as mediated and guided by spiritual beings. Or a pagan who connects the divinity in themselves with the divinity in the world that gives and sustains their life, and to whom that divinity communicates and can be influenced.

    Theologically I see where you’re coming from. And its fair enough.

    It just always rather surprises me that it doesn’t strike you as odd that you happen to have been born in the right period in exactly the right part of the world, to have been raised in a culture that happened to have the one correct revelation of the nature of the spiritual world. Where everyone else in the world and through history — despite being as convinced of their spirituality as you — were fundamentally wrong.

    “Those who reject such claims out of hand”

    But that’s exactly what you are doing for those who claim to know of a spiritual reality in contradiction to your theology, isn’t it? I presume you would reject the existence of fairies pretty much out of hand. Despite the fact that there is a worldwide family of pagans who’s religious practice is in communing and working with those spiritual beings to effect their magic.

    I could keep getting more extreme with the examples, fairy magic is quite tame compared to some. Sooner or later we all say “look, I don’t buy it.” We have to take claims critically at some point. I submit that you would rather that your particular claims need less justification (by yourself, even) than you would require of others’.

  19. Lamont, I don’t accept “solely”, but I need to think about this more.

    ID, you are right in general terms about where I am coming from. Yes, the language of a personal relationship is from modern American evangelicalism. But I don’t accept that the concept is unique to it. There is a long tradition of Christian, and other, mysticism and personal prayer life into which what I am talking about fits.

    But I am not quite as theologically closed as you might suppose. I accept that those other religions may offer genuine insights into the spiritual world, although I would consider such insights to be seriously lacking if they do not allow for a creator God distinct from the created world. If you remember, our conversation started on another blog when I mentioned that I believed in the existence of spiritual beings, and on that basis I can tentatively believe in fairies of some kind, although I would want to put them into one of the biblical categories of angels and demons.

  20. Yes, one can always trace stuff back: post-hoc rationalisation wise. I wouldn’t want to suggest it had no precursors, especially given that you appear to hold it less firmly than I assumed.

    As for your take on fairies, well that’s why these conversations are so cool. I didn’t expect you to say that at all!

    I’m not quite sure where to go with the conversation from here. I would defend why I think I am entitled to have a claim to a full spiritual understanding, but I note you’ve explicitly not challenged that on a couple of occasions.

  21. Actually there is something I’d appreciate unpacking. If you aren’t tied to the identity of spiritual beings or thee identity God, as crucial for spiritual understanding, why is it crucial for you to have a God separate from the cosmos? Would you be as happy with a pantheon of Gods as you are with fairies? Or is there some quality of pantheism/panentheism that you think makes those who understanding the spiritual in that way fundamentally wrong?

  22. OK, Lamont, I’ll have another go at this. You asked:

    within the context of an active, viable faith community, how would you be able to tell who had the “capacity” and who did not?

    Well, that is a context within which community members would be expected to talk about their own spiritual experiences and testify to their own faith. If in fact they did not have the ability to have genuine spiritual experiences, either they would be unable to “talk the talk”, which would soon become obvious, or they would fake it, which might or might not be obvious depending on how good they are at acting. Or of course if challenged on the issue they might leave this community context. Does that help?

  23. Peter—

    I’ve looked at your conversation with Ian, and I understand much better now what you are saying, I think. Thank you.

    Please correct me where I am mistaken. You believe that:

    God exists.
    There is a realm where you and I live, objective reality.
    There is another realm, a transcendental realm.
    God is able to exist/observe/act in both realms. You and I are limited to existing/observing/acting in objective reality only.
    When God (or any other entity that straddles the two realms: Satan, angels, saints, and possibly the souls of other humans who have died) acts in objective reality, it can do so by working within the rules of objective realty, or it can do so by working outside the rules of objective reality, or a mix of the two.
    When God acts within objective reality but outside of the objective reality rules, a ‘miracle’ happens.
    It is these miracles that you consider ‘spiritual matters.’
    Or do you consider any act by any transcendental entity, either with objective reality rules or outside them, to be a spiritual matter?)
    One can only truly understand these spiritual matters if one has a personal relationship with God; a relationship with God, then, is a perquisite for truly understanding these things.

    Are these statements accurate about your beliefs regarding spiritual matters? What have I misunderstood here?


  24. Ian, sorry that initially I missed your last two comments. This has certainly been an interesting discussion, but it is probably coming towards an end now. I suppose my main reason not to accept pantheism is that I don’t believe it is true, which to me is more important than whether it is intellectually satisfying. But I could also say that it doesn’t provide a satisfactory solution to the logical issue of the origin of the universe, which I consider to be best explained by traditional theism, a self-existent and unique creator God.

  25. Lamont, you make some good observations and ask some good questions. I think I would change your “You and I are limited to existing/observing/acting in objective reality only” to say that you, as an unbeliever, are so limited but I, as a Christian, am not. Perhaps that is a better way of putting the distinction I originally wanted to make.

    It reminds me that I have previously compared the Christian life with flying – taking my cue from Kierkegaard, no less. Just as a bird which can fly can operate in a realm which flightless birds can only gaze at from below, so, I would suggest, a Christian can operate in a spiritual realm which others might be able to observe from a limited viewpoint but cannot experience for themselves. Or perhaps more precisely, they can experience it if they metaphorically spread their wings and fly, but they are either unaware of their abilities or unwilling, perhaps from fear, to try them out.

    What I am talking about here is distinct from miracles. They are God operating in unusual ways within our realm. Spiritual life is us operating within God’s realm.

    You also mention “the souls of other humans who have died” as operating within the spiritual realm. Perhaps I would say “spirits” rather than “souls” here. My point is that these spirits can start to operate within their proper spiritual realm before death. But if they do not, then maybe they will not be able to operate so after death, and so the whole person will be annihilated. But I’m not yet sure about that one.

  26. Peter–

    Your response raises new questions:

    1. your ‘flying’ analogy is about two ‘conditions’ that are observable by players in both grouned and arial realms– those on the ground see those in flight (empirical evidence) and those in flight see those on the ground. Those on the ground can observe those acting in the air, but cannot act in the air themselves. This doesn’t seem to hold true in the objective reality/transcenden realm case– those unable to ‘observe’ in the transcendent realm can’t see Christians who fly (and as well, they cannot act in the transcendent realm).

    2. You say that as a Christian, you are not bound to existing/observing/acting in objective reality. I’m assuming you are able to exist/observe/act in the transcendent realm, then, as well. Are the rules there consistant, as they are in objective reality? Would two or more Christians who ‘observe’ an event in the transcendent realm see the same thing? Can Christians collaboratively act in twos and threes in the transcentent realm?

    3. In order for spirits to operate in the transcendent realm after death, they must first begin to operate in the transcendent realm before death. Does this include obervation, or acting as well? In what ways have you (if you don’t mind my asking) observed or acted in the transcendental realm? Alone or with others?



  27. Isn’t the question of whether you find something philosophically pleasing a bit different? I thought we were discussing who you think are spiritually dead and fundamentally unable to understand spiritual things. Given that you’ve come to the point of saying that people who worship fairies have a genuine spiritual experience, worthy of taking seriously, it just seemed a bit odd that you’d then exclude panentheists on the grounds of the philosophical question origin of the universe.

    Even there, however, I don’t see why panentheism/pantheism isn’t just as able to explain the origin of the universe as a Christian theism. In both schemes God is uncased, uncreated, eternal and absolute. At least in Panentheism you don’t have to do the philosophical work of trying to say how there can be an ‘outside’ of an absolutely infinite existent. Or else, what the meta-divine realm consists of.

  28. Lamont, I’ll try to answer your questions.

    1. I don’t want to stretch the flying analogy too far. But one might say that those on the ground can observe the ones flying, but (if we assume only basic scientific understanding) cannot explain their behaviour properly, e.g. why flapping their wings helps them to stay aloft. Similarly non-Christians can observe Christians doing things which seem strange and inexplicable, but are very natural to those who can fly.

    2. I’m not quite sure on this one. Yes, I think Christians can sometimes work together in this transcendent realm. But maybe not always. If your objection is that the whole thing is subjective, I accept that that is hard to answer.

    3. Yes, I meant that the spirit must act in the transcendent realm, not just observe. I have acted in that way in prayer and in discernment of spiritual realities and communication from spiritual beings. I don’t mean hearing voices, but clear senses of the presence and guidance of these beings. I accept that I can only give subjective accounts here.

    I hope that helps.

  29. Ian, I am not saying that the spiritual experiences of pantheists are not genuine. I am suggesting that they are misinterpreted, or at least that the animistic deities they might have experience of are in fact spiritual beings created by the one God.

    I suppose I have serious issues with any idea that there is any kind of meta-divine realm, whether some kind of fate or necessity (see my old post The Maltese Cross, or the Christian one?) or a framework of time or space within which God is constrained. But maybe my position is not all that far from panentheism.

  30. Hi Peter–

    Thanks for hanging in. I think one of my points is that a transcendent realm ought to be governed by rules, just as objective reality is governed by rules (phsical principles). Somehow the appearance to one who cannot observe or operate in this realm should be explainable or learnable, toward a set of rules– that for those operating in this realm, what one observes, and how one acts in this realm out not be solely subjective. Observations across observers should show some consistency, and actions (operations) should show consistency in results, and hence be predictable in some sense.

    I know the story of the eight blind men and the elephant, and I can see that one might justify the apparent dis-continuity in the nature of the elephant as perceived by each of the blind men. But somehow, collectively, they ought to be able (even if not so inclined in the story) to pool data, as it were, and plan out ‘experiments’ to gain better knowledge about the nature of the elephant; and because the ‘elephant rules’ are consistent, this methodology will increase knowledge.

    I would expect this same sort of thing to be true for the transcendental realm– while a collection of people may arrive at different conclusions about the nature of this realm, they should be able to collaborate, explore, experiment, and arrive at an understanding that is congruent and consistent in some fashion.

    It is this inability to arrive at these sorts of understandings that make the transcendent realm an unreliable construct for those who cannot directly experience this realm. If the model and results were consistent among and between observers/actors in this realm (for instance, if prayer to heal always worked or didn’t work along transcendental rules), one could give credence to the existence of the transcendental realm.

    An atheist, like a blind man, could ‘believe’ in the existence of such a realm without direct experience. But the accounts of those who ‘fully understand’ must be consistent in such a way that the rules of the realm are knowable, and that observations and actions within the realm follow these rules.


  31. Grand, thanks Peter.

    “maybe my position is not all that far from panentheism.” 🙂 Well these terms are often as emblematic as anything. So you are not a panentheist, because you are a theist, and they are generally treated as exclusive. Which I’m very happy with, because labels are only useful in so far as they facilitate communication. These kinds of conversation help us get to the bottom of what actually is believed.

    So, then I guess to swing back around to the atheist. Since you’ve said that experience of the fairy realm is valid spiritual experience, experience of a pan(en)theist divinity likewise. Can I push you to acknowledge atheistic spirituality as also genuine?

    What I mean is this. I have been a pre-Christian atheist, a Christian, and a post-Christian atheist. In my pre-Christian phase I had almost no interest in spiritual practice. In my Christian phase I developed a series of spiritual disciplines and was able, with reasonably ease, to access the spiritual. To operate with the indwelling of the spirit, to communicate with God through Jesus, to speak in tongues, to pray, to hear God’s voice in worship and through the bible, and so on.

    All that has changed in my current phase is that I realised that none of those processes or states were actually anything to do with the supernatural. They are all accessible states that are functions of my biology and psychology.

    I can still perceive and act in the exact same ways, in the certain knowledge there is no super-natural (I realise you don’t agree with that conclusion, but as with Hindus and Fairy mages, I hope you can inhabit my p.o.v. long enough to stay with where I’m going).

    Furthermore, I have sought out other non-believers who have the same experiences. From folks who still call themselves Christians, but don’t believe in anything supernatural, through to self-declared atheists involved in movements such as the Quakers or UUs. And when discussing spiritual matters, they seem to have the same access to the same states and perceptions as I do. Again, with no illusion that there is any supernatural dimension behind it.

    There are, of course, atheists who hate the term “spiritual” and flee from it. Because it is (maybe irrevocably) associated with the supernatural and with religion generally. But I and many other folks like me see “spiritual” as a label for a bunch of natural psychology and biology, that we share with religious believers of all kinds. And see no reason to posit invisible creatures at work.

    Presumably, even under your highly theistic conception, if you believe fairies are angels in disguise, as are kami and manifestations of Shiva, then our spiritual sense is just as active. You might, I assume, say something like “you are having supernatural experiences, you’re just interpreting them wrong” in the same way you say fairy mages are interpreting angels wrongly. But is the spirituality less valid? Is it really the case that I suddenly changed in my spiritual experience. And if not, then how can it be that someone who has never been a theist can share the same experiences, and the same interpretation of them?

  32. (Incidentally, thanks for hanging in on this conversation so tenatiously, with both Lamont and I. I for one am enjoying it, and enjoying learning more about where you are coming from, which is not where I first assumed).

  33. Lamont, I agree that “a transcendent realm ought to be governed by rules”. But one would expect these rules to be transcendent and so beyond normal human understanding. Yes, we ought to expect some kind of consistency, but it may be consistency at a higher level than we are able to grasp. We certainly cannot be sure that we have a proper hold on all the variables which might explain apparent inconsistencies.

    Another factor here is that, on my understanding, we are in effect experimenting on a person, God, who is aware of our experimentation and our motives and not necessarily co-operating with us. While, for example, in certain circumstances he might regularly heal people coming to him with the right motives, he is likely to refuse to do so when he knows that the main motive for seeking healing is to perform an experiment on him, to “put him to the test” in biblical language. This would certainly complicate any experimental method.

    Sadly, in this field, as sometimes in mainstream science, things are further complicated when different groups of “researchers” with apparently different results refuse to collaborate but instead quarrel and anathematise one another.

  34. Ian, thanks also to you, and to Lamont, for hanging in here and keeping this interesting dialogue going.

    I would certainly acknowledge your atheistic experiences as genuine ones, but misinterpreted. I would wonder about your motivation in seeking them within your worldview, but I can see that you might consider them psychologically beneficial to yourself.

    As for the experiences of those who have never been theists, are you saying that they too can “speak in tongues” and “hear God’s voice in worship and through the bible”, or have an equivalent experience, just as you claim you can? I’m not saying I don’t believe that; I just want to clarify that that is what you are saying, and you have real evidence of such situations among people who have never been religious believers of any kind. I would also want to exclude the possibility that they are simply mimicking believers or former believers.

  35. OK, Peter, I think I have it now.

    –The transcendental realm can only be accessed with God as the channel.
    –It can only be accessed with an intense level of engagement with God, in intense communication with God. (and so a relationship with God is necessary.)
    –God never disengages while you are there. God never leaves you alone in the transcendent realm. Any observation or action you take is while engaged with God.
    –Because God does not disengage while you are there, it is almost impossible to explore the realm itself. It is almost impossible to gather data about the realm itself. It is impossible to experiment within this realm unless God is involved in the experiment.
    –The aspect of God one must engage with in order to access the transcendental realm is the Christ-aspect. –No other aspect of God allows transcendental access.
    –Anyone who claims access (has an experience of the transcendental realm) must be doing so through engagement with Christ.
    –Any claim to access the transcendental in a means other than engagement with Christ is mistaken, or misinterpreting the experience.

    Is this your view? Have I discerned it correctly?


  36. Yes, Lamont, that is quite close, although I wouldn’t use the word “channel” because of the way it has been abused in New Age thought. But I also have issues with the way you use “aspect of God”. I would probably say more like that only one aspect of God exists (this is not intended to be a statement about the Trinity), what you call the “Christ-aspect”, and that claims concerning other aspects have been misinterpreted.

  37. “I would wonder about your motivation in seeking them within your worldview, but I can see that you might consider them psychologically beneficial to yourself.”

    Exactly. Other than the eschatological (wanting to secure one’s eternal fate), I think the same motivation were at work in Christians: spiritual practice is edifying, at least at some level. There may be times when one perseveres through loyalty or guilt, but ultimately there are psychological benefits, and possibly physical ones too.

    It is interesting, I think, that many western forms of Buddhism now use this as the benefit promise of their practice, dropping the spiritual side (some more spiritual Buddhists often call this “Stealth Dharma”).

    “As for the experiences of those who have never been theists, are you saying that they too can “speak in tongues””

    Yes. In fact I was talking to a friend who’d been on a men’s development weekend this summer. One of the activities they took part in was Glossolalia and interpretation. Glossolalia is practised in many cultures with many and no theological framing. The actual mechanism is very similar to scat singing (and in fact displays the same syllabic frequency patterns and information content). It is often associated with a particular kind of elevated mental state, but not exclusively. This has been widely studied over the last 50 years. There is no linguistic content in tongues, interpretation is essentially equivalent to receiving “Words of Knowledge”, which is slightly separate again.

    “hear God’s voice in worship and through the bible”

    That’s a very Christian-specific interpretation, so not in those terms. But certainly finding direction and calling in music and communal acts of externalisation. And the use of words generally to sub-consciously discover inspiration is very common across both scriptures and non-scriptural texts. If you talk to some of the passionate adherents of Bloomsday, for example, you find the same kinds of experience that Christians report from biblical inspiration.

  38. Thank you, Ian.

    I think many Christians would add different reasons for spiritual practices. Some might mention a sense of duty, others a response of gratitude, others that they are doing them out of love for God. These go a bit further than loyalty and guilt, and spring from a relationship with God. But they are also tied up with an expectation of some benefit from him.

    Thank you for the explanation of purely atheistic spiritual practices. These are interesting, but I would need to study them in more detail before suggesting an interpretation. If they are understood as communication with some kind of unconscious within each person, then perhaps they are unacknowledged interaction with spiritual beings.

  39. “I would need to study them in more detail before suggesting an interpretation”

    If your interpretation of my spiritual practice is sound, then it should transfer nicely across.

    “communication with some kind of unconscious”

    Some can be. Particularly for things like Words of Knowledge. There is a huge range of stories and interpretations among the atheists (and theists) I’ve met or studied. There is a much, much smaller range of spiritual experience. It seems fairly clear to me that the spiritual experience is relatively constrained, but the interpretation is highly culturally determined.

    Which, I’d assume, you could agree with. Its just you’d say the *right* answer is the one provided by your religion. Whereas I’d say the *right* one is the one we get by empirical processes.

  40. Well, Ian, I can agree that “the interpretation is highly culturally determined”. As for “the one we get by empirical processes”, I would be somewhat sceptical that a meaningful but not reductionistic interpretation can be arrived at by such processes.

  41. “I can agree that “the interpretation is highly culturally determined””

    Do you therefore think alternative interpretations are equally valid. Or is the Christian interpretation somehow more right than others?

    “As for “the one we get by empirical processes””

    So I got to the point of actually looking for any evidence of the supernatural. And I found none. Worse, I found that every time religion had made a differentiable claim, and it had been checked, it failed. Every time. Now apologists don’t lose sleep over that, because in every case post-hoc explanations were generated to explain the failing. You wouldn’t *expect* that to be the case, they say, because X or Y or Z. You’d expect that situation to be non-differentiable.

    But while that smooths over the failures, it still means there are no successes.

    Of course, if you’d like to give an example where there is a differentiable consequence of the supernatural, please do. If we can agree that the consequences really are differentiable, then we can go check.

    I’ve noticed that increasingly sophisticated Christians are just saying “science and faith are separate and can never interact”, which is just saying that the supernatural has no effect whatsoever on the universe. Because if it did, then we could check. But when we do, it isn’t there. And its fine to demythologize, as James McGrath and many others do.

    But faced with that, I had to admit that the whole story about a resurrected Christ, angels, demons, talking to God, healing, gifts of the spirit, eternal life, and so on, was just completely redundant. If it were true, it had no effect on the world, and it was utterly indistinguishable from any other religion’s stories, in that regard.

    There is no evidence for any of it, and the alternative empirical explanation is fine. And furthermore, the empirical explanation is stronger because it can answer questions across different theologies or religious barriers. For example (since we’ve been talking about it), armed with an understanding of how speaking in tongues actually works, one can made verifiable predictions about the use of glossolalia in an obscure African tribe one has never encountered before. The same empirical tools that let us fly around the world can be used to predictively explain religious belief patterns. But only in naturalistic terms. As soon as one introduces the supernatural, that predictivity breaks down.

    After realising all this, the whole edifice crumbled very quickly. And it was an amazing experience of suddenly losing scales from the eyes and seeing the world more brilliantly and clearly than before. Maybe if you are already at the point of believing that the interpretation is culturally determined, you can also turn around from the wall of the cave and look into the light.

  42. Yes, Ian, I do think that “the Christian interpretation somehow more right than others”. And I would not say that “science and faith are separate and can never interact”. I have serious issues with the approach of people like McGrath. This is largely because I have seen evidence of the supernatural, enough to convince myself, although maybe not to convince you. So I don’t expect you to agree.

  43. “This is largely because I have seen evidence of the supernatural, enough to convince myself, although maybe not to convince you. So I don’t expect you to agree.”

    No, but that’s okay too. That’s your perogative as a believer. And your perogative to claim special understanding of the world, and to ask that that opinion be respected.

    But I think if you want to challenge others (like James) who do demythologize, then the only credible way to do so is to show why their approach is not safe. To show, in effect, some place where a purely psychological explanation of religion doesn’t work. Which is where my initial challenge to you came from.

    Because, even if the “there-is-no-supernatural” position is totally wrong, unless you can show that it is distinguishable from your version of reality in some way, then I think everyone can justifiably ignore your challenge. At best we will be right that the supernatural doesn’t exist. At worst discounting the supernatural will make not a shred of difference on what is discovered.

    And, as I said previously, indications are that supernatural explanations for things are in general much less powerful, predictive and general than naturalistic ones. So the assumption that one should use exclusively naturalistic explanations in future seems the best bet.

    But one that is easily refuted, if you’re willing to systematically demonstrate why your supernatural explanation is superior.

  44. Thank you, Ian. Obviously a lot more work for me to show all this, which I would like to do. But I don’t accept that in this realm “supernatural explanations for things are in general much less powerful, predictive and general than naturalistic ones”. As I say, I have seen things which naturalistic explanations cannot account for at all. And psychological explanations are rarely predictive. More often they offer reductionistic post hoc explanations of certain effects of some underlying cause with no real explanation of how that cause came about.

  45. Peter–

    To some degree you are in the evangelism business, yes? To what degree do you feel that those you evangelize to/with need to feel that your worldview regarding spiritual matters is a) true, and b) of value?


  46. Lamont, I wouldn’t say “business”, but yes, I support evangelistic initiatives. It is certainly easier to evangelise people who don’t presuppose a materialistic worldview. But some who start as materialists become open to non-material reality when they hear stories and testimonies about it, and when they personally experience things which cannot be explained materially.

  47. Peter–

    Do most of the people in your faith community share your worldview? How do interact with those members who do not?


  48. Lamont, yes, most people in my immediate faith group more or less share my worldview. There might be some variations, but at least anyone in the community is comfortable with people talking to them about supernatural things. If they weren’t, they would have left long ago.

  49. “But I don’t accept that in this realm “supernatural explanations for things are in general much less powerful, predictive and general than naturalistic ones”. ”

    The kind of thing I’m thinking of is this. There is 50 years of research now into how people interpret predictive prophecy (to use a Christian term, though the pattern is much more general).

    We know that prophecies tend to be relatively general when delivered, but believers tend to ignore false negatives, and to make highly specific interpretations of fulfilment.

    For example, a person reads their horoscope every day, and once a month or so finds something that is so amazingly directly related to their life, that they will insist that the horoscope was dead on. Ignoring the 29/30 days it wasn’t.

    Or say, someone has a word of prophecy that there would be a great disaster and terrible famine in 2011. After the summer, this is then remembered and interpreted as successfully prophesying the East Africa famine. If the same thing had happened in 2009, it might have been the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, etc.

    So these effects are well known and supported by many studies. Studies performed with source material that is specifically designed to have a distribution of outcomes and interpretation.

    So this then gives us some predictability. We expect foretelling to be more successful in a religious culture where it is relatively common, where there is little social stigma for mistaken prophecy, and no account taken of such failures; we’d expect memories of specific fulfilment to trace back to much more general source material. These are specific predictions about how foretelling works psychologically.

    So how does this impact on determining whether a specific instance of prophecy is valid or not? Well both the supernatural and the naturalistic explanation predict there will be uncanny successes (we can replicate uncanny successes at will in controlled conditions). But the supernatural says very little else – it is a mystery, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The naturalistic explanation makes very specific predictions: that if you gather a prophetic corpus, it will score no better than chance; if you determine the actual prophetic source (almost impossible to do for oral sources, but easier now with the internet), you will the specific details of the claimed fulfilment are missing.

    “As I say, I have seen things which naturalistic explanations cannot account for at all. ”

    Cannot? I’d be surprised, but delighted if that were true. I suspect, however, you mean that there are things for which a naturalistic explanation isn’t as simple or satisfying. Still, I’d love to hear about it, because I’ve been looking, hard, for many years. And, as I have done before, I believe I would be willing to change my interpretation based on what I found.

    I get that you’re uneasy about casting your pearls before swine. But I hope you can see that this is totally foundational. Without a way to actually determine if the supernatural exists, you could be basing your whole worldview on a self-delusion. As, indeed, could I. So I’d say it it critical we honestly expose our suppositions to people who can help us find those delusions.

  50. Ian, I take your point about predictive prophecy. But that is not the kind of evidence I am looking at. Consider rather examples of healing. But I don’t want to go into details tonight.

    OK, “cannot” might have been too strong, but in some reported cases there is no naturalistic explanation possible within the bounds of current science. Consider for example water being turned into wine, by Jesus and also witnessed in modern times by someone I have met. If such phenomena were verified and shown not to be trickery, what naturalistic explanation could you offer?

  51. We could walk through the same thing with healing. A naturalistic explanation of supernatural healing is a combination of regression to the mean, ignoring negatives and the placebo effect. Each of those is a very specific effect that has characteristics that we can look for.

    We can make predictions about the kinds of condition supernatural healing is ‘good’ at addressing, for example. For those who claim to have a consistent ability to assist healing, we’d expect the majority of their successes to be in self-limiting conditions (chronic pain, asthma, arthritis, muscle weakness, sleep problems, and so on). And we’d expect those healings to be very rarely accompanied by any change in clinical or biomechanical measurements. We’d also expect to see it in variable chronic conditions like multiple sclerosis, or cystic fibrosis that are susceptible to regression to the mean.

    Based on the telephone game, and the tendency of people to make stories they pass on more dramatic and extrame, we’d expect such regression to be passed on as stories of complete healing. For something like MS, say, we’d expect claims of people cured to be, actually experiences of the relief of symptoms not associated with clinical neurological regeneration.

    In conditions with the potential for vague, exaggerated, and self-determined diagnoses, and even more so in conditions that are variable where the cure is self-determined, we’d expect to see higher rates of healing stories. So folks with one-leg-longer-than-the-other (which is going to be doubly popular because of the old carney trick of ratcheting which can make the actual healing event visible), would be common when their cure is self-declared. But such cases would disappear when x-rays are requested, despite the fact that such x-rays would be on file with the patient’s diagnosis.

    Conditions with essentially terrible but not 100% prognosis (cancer, say) we’d expect to feature prominently in reports, but not in frequency, because the psychological effect of such a healing would be great, but they are prime candidates for ignoring the misses. A condition that kills 99% of sufferers (stage 5 metastatic pancreatic cancer, say), will leave 1% alive. And that 1% will make more of their healing than the 99% will of their death. Over a whole cohort, we’d expect to see no significant divergence from the general survival rate.

    Conditions that are more dramatic, such as amputees regrowing limbs, we’d expect to hear of very rarely, and we’d expect them to be associated with minimal, if any, medical documentation. We’d expect there to be no such cases fully medically documented from a reputable hospital.

    The same patterns one would expect to see, incidentally, for general snake-oil medicine.

    Those are predictive explanations. Which, to the extent that I can find evidence, which I have consistently been seeking, is what we see.

    Now, I don’t know about the details of your theology, but based on what the bible has to say about healing and how it is accessed, I wouldn’t expect to see that pattern of evidence.

    “If such phenomena were verified and shown not to be trickery”

    If they were, then yes, it would clearly be evidence of the non-naturalistic. Since for water to suddenly gain massive amounts of complex hydrocarbons of the particular kind associated with fermenting grape protein, isn’t going to happen by chance and is too human-centered (i.e. the particular combination of hydro-carbons is only significant to human culture and human value systems) to be at all feasible for a natural process.

    So, again, one would say, if this is reported, then under the naturalistic explanation, one would expect to see trickery, slight of hand, or downright lying, and the impossibility to have any meaningful verification.

  52. OK, Ian, you have set out what you would expect to see from your naturalistic viewpoint, with a presupposition that healing is not real and there is some trickery involved – although I might have expected you to make more of the placebo effect. Here is something which can clearly be tested against actual experience. And I would expect to see something of the effects that you note, because I accept that in this area there is some trickery and some self-delusion.

    But your whole worldview is in principle vulnerable to just one verified report of something which cannot be explained medically, and also to just one set of reports of events which, while individually they could have been rare regression coincidentally following prayer, taken together go completely against your predicted pattern. I don’t have the evidence you would need for that, but I have certainly seen believable claims that would be that.

    One good reason why such sets of claims are not often put forward relates to medical confidentiality. Another is that healing evangelists etc don’t see the need to defend their ministries to sceptics, to the kinds of people Jesus mentioned in Luke 16:31 who “will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. They prefer to get on with healing and saving those who they can convince.

  53. “a presupposition that healing is not real”

    No presupposition there, just an alternative explanation to compare the supernatural explanation against, and to see which best matches the observed phenomenon.

    “in principle vulnerable to just one verified report of something which cannot be explained medically”

    Yes! Like the water into wine example, there are certain things that are just not going to be natural processes. Those things handily refute the naturalistic explanation.

    “relates to medical confidentiality.”

    I don’t buy that. Part of the research I’ve done here involves contacting folks who, in a book published by some Christian friends of mine, gave their testimony of healing. They share their specific details. I asked them to publicise the lower-limb x-rays the doctor had on file, and offered to pay for a followup x-ray to confirm the healing. No other information would need to be published, and they were not asked to release their medical information, just one x-ray. This would have made an amazing addition to the second edition, for example. They were, remember, quite happy to have this published (and in fact to describe personal aspects of the process in the same book). They were unwilling to do this. After some discussion I concluded that they were afraid (or maybe knew deep down) that the x-ray would show no healing had taken place.

    Although this is the most detailed case, I have approached others who claimed miracles with similar constructive approaches to adding scientific weight to their testimony. When I have done this, the claims either shrunk dramatically, or they became evasive and wouldn’t continue.

    “Another is that healing evangelists etc don’t see the need to defend their ministries to sceptics”

    That’s true, if convenient. But as you said at the start, it only needs one. Just 1! Surely you can see how terrible this appears. Not one verified healing, ever, from anywhere. And then, whenever claims have been subject to actual research, they’ve proved to be false or tendentious (and there are now hundreds of such trials).

    But that’s exactly what you’d expect from someone fleecing their flock too. You don’t see con-artists of any stripe subjecting their claims to skepticism. At best they manage a show of ‘evidence’ that they control entirely. They too want to concentrate on those people who’ll believe their claims without giving it any critical though.

    I’m not saying that all these healing evangelists are deliberate frauds (though several have been shown to be quite explicitly), but their desire to only deal with folks who already believe, is the same MO. And has the same effect: shielding their claims from any verification.

    When external agencies have investigated the claims of healing at evangelistic services (i.e. they’ve directly, and with permission, approached those who have been healed), they have been unable to verify any of the healings. Those cured of cancer have been found to have died of it. Terrible arthritis has unaccountably returned, and so on.

    You operate on a basic level of human suspicion: you don’t send your bank details to Mr Onigara of the Nigerian Bank, who promises to send you $25m in return. So I know, if you allow yourself to think about it rationally for a whole, you’ll see how odd all of this is if there were some real effect there.

    Especially since, as you said at the start, it only needs one verification. If you can do so, or point me at someone who can do so, what are we wasting words for? Let’s do it. One verification is all it needs.

  54. Perhaps rather than “with a presupposition that healing is not real” I should have said “on the hypothesis that healing is not real”. That is the hypothesis for which you were putting forward a test.

    The contacts of your friends were not surprisingly sceptical of your intentions as a professed unbeliever. Would you really have become a believer, at least in supernatural phenomena if not in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, if you had seen those X-rays?

    As for verified healings, have you considered those verified by the Roman Catholic Church in connection with their canonisation procedures? Their “devil’s advocate”, and the new procedures replacing this position, ensure that the required miracles are properly verified.

  55. “rare regression coincidentally following prayer”

    Just FYI regression to the mean is not quite the same as remission. Regression to the mean is a placebo effect common in variable conditions. If your symptoms come in phases, then you are most likely to seek treatment (of any kind) at times of worse symptoms, which is when you are most likely to experience improvement naturally.

    The point being, for many conditions, it is not coincidental that the improvement followed prayer, because prayer was sought at the point where the condition was at its worst.

    If the naturalistic explanation is right, this is highly predictive, because we would expect certain conditions to be highly responsive to healing, but such healing would be temporary, giving way to further relapses (and further healing events, possibly). One would not expect to see this pattern in Motor Neurone Disease (at least not in anything but self-limiting symptoms), but one would in Lupus, for example.

  56. “. Would you really have become a believer, at least in supernatural phenomena if not in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, if you had seen those X-rays?”

    I was a believer in Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior at the time.

    And why would you be suspicious? I can say what I like about the quality of their testimony now. Providing more evidence could be an issue how?

    “ensure that the required miracles are properly verified.”

    Yes, I’ve studied this protocol closely. Unfortunately, they don’t verify in a physical way, they do so spiritually. They do not take medical records, for example, for physical healing (in fact, when external researchers have been able to track down the appropriate medical records, they have shown no miracle). Evidence collected is in the form of witness statements. They then rely on individuals arguing the case in a legal procedure, under the guidance of a senior cleric. The arguments of such individuals are then weighed spiritually.

  57. Sorry, I meant “remission”. I was thinking of a disease recognised as fatal in 99% of cases within 5 years, say, whose symptoms suddenly disappear just after the person has been prayed for and they are still alive and well 5 years later. Coincidence? Possibly. But several cases like this would suggest not. It is also worth bearing in mind that almost everyone seriously ill will be prayed for by someone somewhere, whether they know it or not, so it is hard to have a genuine control.

    As a former Christian you will be aware of the teaching that one should not put God to the test (Gideon was not commended for his fleece) and should (unlike doubting Thomas) not believe just because we have seen.

    Thanks for more info on the Roman Catholic procedure. I thought they did better than that.

  58. “As a former Christian you will be aware of the teaching that one should not put God to the test”

    That actual quote doesn’t seem to have been intended that way originally. But that is irrelevant for this discussion, since it is used in that way to provide a theological reason to justify why those who seek evidence find none.

    So, sure, it might be that God deals with those who try to find evidence of his existence by thwarting their attempts. But think about what that really means. It means, if God heals someone of cancer, and then we go back and check their cohort, to find the fatality rate was the same as everywhere else: does that really mean God decided to kill off someone else who’d have otherwise survived, so that the other person could be healed? Or does it mean that when you pray for healing, you aren’t praying for a change in your outcome, you’re praying to be the one selected in the lottery of who’ll survive? You’re praying that it will be someone else who dies instead? Or are you saying that is only the case when people are checking (and God does increase the net effect of healing if he knows nobody will check later)?

    Seems you’re taking refuge in bizarre twists of theology now. I doubt you really take the implications of that argument seriously.

    “Coincidence? Possibly. But several cases like this…”

    Actually, you can state the criteria more explicitly here. And say exactly what the naturalistic explanation would expect.

    It says that the fact that someone survives a 99% fatal disease isn’t a miracle – we’d expect that to happen 1 time in 100, and if there are 30,000 diagnoses a year, then around 300 people will beat the disease.

    So the ‘enough cases’ isn’t quite the thing – the thing is to count the misses as well as the hits, and see if prayer makes a difference.

    There is another interesting statistical effect called parallel trials here. At any point lots of these illnesses are running in parallel among a group of people. So even if the healing rate were, say, 5% for a condition, there are so many independent conditions in one group, that we’d expect far higher incidences of healing reports. As you can imagine, it is fairly easy to show this statistically, and again predictively, show the pattern one would expect to see, if this were the mechanism.

    So there are lots of things that don’t differentiate the explanations: things that we’d expect to see in both a naturalistic and supernatural explanation. But they do have different consequences, and we can check where they do differ. And when we do, to the extent I can find, the natural explanation always wins.

    As you’ve seen in this discussion, this isn’t a matter of worldviews: there are plenty of consequences of the supernatural explanation we’ve already identified that would refute the natural explanation. The natural explanation, as you said is very fragile: it is quite easy to refute. Unlike the supernatural explanation, which always has a reason for its failure (insufficient faith, God moves in mysterious ways, don’t put God to the test, evangelists don’t want to be checked up on, healed people are suspicious of other’s motives, etc). Which is why, on reflection, I think it is by far the best.

    And why, I think, if you were honest about it, you would also see the gaping holes. I say that not lightly, but because you have repeatedly acknowledged the issues.

    “almost everyone seriously ill will be prayed for by someone somewhere”

    Which is a nod back to the argument that there is no differentiable effect of the supernatural. I’ve heard this – people claiming that the reason there is no evidence for healing is that all healing is God given, and prayer is so ubiquitous that all who are healed have been prayed for.

    Well fine, but again there are theological issues I think. Such as, if every healing is an answer to prayer, then God answers more prayer where there is modern medicine. God clearly doesn’t think much of the prayers of people without access to doctors. And if the two explanations can’t be differentiated, then again, the supernatural is entirely superfluous.

    Maybe that’s true: maybe the supernatural has no discernible impact on either healing, or (as per previously) foretelling. Okay, but you said you believed it did have an effect somewhere, you don’t like James McGrath’s approach – so again, where do we go next to look for it? I hope you see the pattern forming here…

  59. Well, Ian, what you call “bizarre twists of theology” sounds to me rather like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I’m not suggesting that precisely that principle applies here. But in its light you can’t insist that any claim that observation affects the results of an experiment is scientifically ridiculous. It is of course also obvious that the results of a social science type experiment are likely to be affected by whether the participants know they are being observed. That is perhaps more relevant here. I also note that Jesus couldn’t do great miracles in his home town because of the people’s sceptical attitude and lack of faith (Mark 6:1-6), which would certainly suggest that healing doesn’t work under experimental conditions.

    The natural explanation, as you said is very fragile: it is quite easy to refute.

    Well, in principle I agree, but you seem to find ways to reject even every hypothetical refutation I put forward, e.g. by using statistics of coincidence. Would you still call a set of healings coincidental if their combined probability was less than one in a billion? Your approach looks to me like the same strategy that you accuse your opponents of using, of piling up different ad hoc explanations. But our position is easier to defend than yours, because we are not claiming that every reported case is genuinely supernatural, as we recognise that there is trickery and there is natural remission, whereas you are claiming that every case has a purely natural explanation.

    I am not claiming that every remission of a disease is a miraculous response to someone’s prayer, so your last argument cannot touch me. I am only saying that it is almost impossible to find a genuine control case who has provably not been prayed for at all. It would also be unethical not to allow a patient to be prayed for. So it is impossible to devise a rigorous experiment on how much prayer affects remission rates.

    So basically I conclude that, for theological, scientific, ethical and practical reasons, measuring the effects of prayer for healing is fraught with difficulties and any claimed results are unlikely to be secure. This is not the way to decide whether you or I are right.

  60. Really? Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests we can’t measure supernatural healing? Come on, Peter, you’re smarter than that. I assume from your qualifications you actually known some QM. Enough to know *why* the UP connects events with measurement, and enough to know that the same connection does not hold at macro-scale.

    We’re not talking about not being able to heal skeptics, we’re talking about going back after an occassion where everyone concerned agreed there was healing, and finding that there was none. I *know* you’re smart enough to know what the UP has no bearing on that.

    “Well, in principle I agree, but you seem to find ways to reject even every hypothetical refutation I put forward, e.g. by using statistics of coincidence. ”

    No, no, no. Come on, your math is better than that.

    I’m saying, that if you have 30,000 trials of something that tends to come up 1 in 100 times, it doesn’t prove anything if you get 300 hits and 29,700 misses.

    It doesn’t need one in a billion or anything like it. With 7billion trials (say the number of people in the world), you’d expect a one-in-a-billion to come up 7 times. That’s just basic multiplication.

    The normal criteria is a 95% confidence – i.e. less than 1/20 probability the results could occur by chance. Though given we’re talking about God here, surely that can’t be unreasonable? God can surely do stuff that is more unlikely to happen on its own than a roll of a 20-sided die!

    If you want to talk about recovery from diseases that people do recover from, then if you have something that is 1 in 100, then you have a cohort where that increases to 5 in 100, you have evidence.

    If you’re talking about recovery from stuff that people don’t ever recover from, then you need 1 example for evidence.

    The more likely the event is to occur naturally, the more likely that any particular example of it is natural, so the bigger sample you need to take to check if something else is happening.

    If I say, hey I can supernaturally affect the result of a coin flip. Then you give me a coin and I call then flip heads, would you be convinced? I hope not. I hope you’d get me to flip it a few dozen times. If I get heads 75% of the time, then something is happening here! If I get it 50% of the time and say: hey yes but the times I did get heads, it was because of my amazing power. Then you know I’m deluded. [in this example, if I flip 24 times and get 18 heads, then we’re just under the 99% confidence interval – we’d have a very strong indication something was happening].

    If you have a BSc in physics from Cambridge, you are plenty good enough at math to understand how basic statistics like this work.

    Remember that the point here is not to prove anything, but to show that the naturalistic explanation is inferior to the supernatural one. For that, you only need to show that what you’d expect to see under the naturalistic explanation, you don’t in fact see.

    ” So it is impossible to devise a rigorous experiment on how much prayer affects remission rates.”

    You don’t need a rigorous experiment. You just need something where the two explanations have different consequences. If you’re saying it is impossible to find some situation where the two explanations have differing consequences, then I’d agree with you. Which is the point all along: the supernatural explanation is totally superfluous. If you’re saying that there are differences, what are they?

    We’ve identified a few.

    Significantly beating the statistical outcomes of a disease in a cohort of healing recipients.

    The change of water into wine.

    Before and after evidence of a physical transformation that has no possible natural mechanism, such as a limb regrowing, or neural damage disappearing on an MRI.

    Some other simple ideas: healing from genetic disease (trivial to test for, even if God left the genetics the same and just prevented the patient expressing the faulty gene), someone with brain-stem death rising from the dead.

    “This is not the way to decide whether you or I are right.”

    Yes, good, I’m glad to see we agree that there is no measurable effect of the supernatural on healing. From the previous concession that prophecy is similarly out, the question has to come back to the same: is there *any* demonstrable effect that the supernatural has on the world?

  61. You said: “I’m not suggesting that precisely that principle applies here.”

    I said: “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests we can’t measure supernatural healing?”

    Gah, I’m a prize idiot sometimes. I take those first two paragraph backs entirely!

    I should ask “in what way does this get around the theological issues? Is the fact that God won’t heal when a skeptic is looking (or if anybody ever comes back to look later) a natural process like the UP? Or is part of your theology of God of God? And if so, how do you explain those folks who have been skeptical but come to knowledge of God because of some spiritual experience?”

  62. Thank you for taking back your comments on the Uncertainty Principle. It was only an analogy. But it CAN have large scale effects e.g. Schrodinger’s cat. In principle one could argue that a person is in a quantum superposition of healed and not healed states until their healing is observed. But I wouldn’t make make a serious argument of that one.

    I understand the basics of the statistics here. All I was arguing for was “Significantly beating the statistical outcomes of a disease in a cohort of healing recipients”, as you put it so clearly. It would be difficult, but not I think impossible, to design a suitable means of testing this. But my concern is that people wouldn’t accept any statistical results. Certainly 95% is not sufficient confidence to change one’s worldview. But even if on properly designed statistics the probability of nothing supernatural is one in a million or one in a billion, would people accept it?

    No, I do not “agree that there is no measurable effect of the supernatural on healing”. Nor do I concede any point about prophecy. My point was that for practical reasons, in either case, it is difficult to make the kinds of formal measurements which might convince sceptics.

  63. The UP is a red herring, but I can’t resist: “CAN have large scale effects e.g. Schrodinger’s cat.” You know Schrodinger’s cat was an argument about why the UP *can’t* have large scale effects, don’t you?

    “one could argue that a person is in a quantum superposition” Quantum superposition doesn’t work like that.

    “But my concern is that people wouldn’t accept any statistical results. Certainly 95% is not sufficient confidence to change one’s worldview.”

    One incident rarely convinces anyone of anything in any field.

    The point is that there are thousands or millions of such implications that can be checked. And every time we check, the supernatural explanation looses.

    If we had one sample that came up with 95% confidence, would it prove to the world that the supernatural is real? No, of course not. But this isn’t binary: it isn’t a yes/no, thing. It is always probabilistic. From the results we have so far we can say that they are totally consistent with there being no effect, and at best, they show a vanishingly small chance of any non-natural effect.

    As I said before, the weight one gives to the evidence would depend on the quality. It would take a good wide cohort to determine if people with back-ache were being healed by supernatural means. It would be fairly easy to verify it with someone who was raised from the dead after a month. The fact that God chooses to heal people in rough proportion to the way they’d recover naturally is rather a good indication, isn’t it?

    There’s a common excuse among conspiracy theorists when asked for evidence. They say things like “If I gave you the evidence, you wouldn’t believe me anyway”… well okay, that might be the case. But the fact that you can’t produce any evidence means that any reasonable person *shouldn’t* believe you.

    And certainly, as we came in on James’s blog, your at-best-vanishingly-improbable explanations shouldn’t be given weight in scholarly research.

    If you want the supernatural explanation to be taken seriously, you need to demonstrate it isn’t just self-delusion.

    “But even if on properly designed statistics the probability of nothing supernatural is one in a million or one in a billion, would people accept it?”

    Yes, if you can show something supernatural at work with a 99.9999999% confidence (1 in a billion), that would be amazing, and epic, and revolutionary. It would be a major news story world-wide (heck, when very low confidence results on prayer for improval in heart-patients were first published, it was all across the news — failing to include the fact that the trial also showed prayer killed patients with the same confidence). There’d be some who still wouldn’t believe, I’m sure. But I wouldn’t be one of them. Nine 9s confidence is *plenty*.

    And regardless of the skeptics, you’d better believe it would be the biggest news in Christendom this century. And would be a major linchpin in many evangelistic efforts. If vague stories of healing receive such prominence, how much more would a verified nine 9s result? Imagine the Glory God would receive for that!

  64. Ian, as I understand it the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox is still unresolved, and one possible resolution is that the cat really is in a quantum superposition of two different states. For another example of large scale quantum effects, see this video of quantum levitation.

    I don’t think God wants us to have the kind of proof of healing which “would be a major news story world-wide”. As you will remember from the story of Thomas, he wants people to believe without seeing proof. So maybe that is why in his providence he makes it difficult to find the kind of proof you are looking for.

  65. Okay, so God doesn’t want there to be evidence of the supernatural, because that would make belief too easy. Fair enough. You’re painting a picture of a very odd God. One who supposedly puts evidence in all creation, leaves a book of his message to human beings, walked around doing loads of healings and raising people from the dead, but who won’t let anyone find any evidence that any healings are anything more than delusion because he doesn’t want people to have reason to believe in him.

    Can’t you see what a wrangle this evasion is making of your theology?

    You’ve gone through a steady stream of justification for why there is no evidence: we’ve had that healing recipients don’t like skeptics, that God changes the healing outcome of people when someone checks to see if it was genuine, that God hides healing from people because he doesn’t want to give them reason to believe. At some point, surely you have to stop and say: erm, I seem to be justifying failure a lot here. Maybe I ought to actually ask whether it is possible that there is no evidence because, there is no effect.

    Anyway we’re back now at where we started. There is no evidence that the supernatural exists (because God doesn’t want there to be). So the supernatural is, again, superfluous to any discussion of anything. It is at best irrelevant (for it it weren’t, again, tell me where it is relevant!), at worst it is wrong. And James McGrath and everyone else is justified in ignoring the supernatural completely.

    Because, if there was a case where the supernatural made any difference, then God would remove the effect anyway, so that people didn’t have evidence of his existence.

  66. Ian, the fallacy in your reasoning is that because something cannot be explained scientifically and proved true it is not worthy of consideration. There is a lot in this world which is worthy of consideration despite not having this kind of logical unassailabilty. Think of almost anything in the humanities or the social sciences. Why, you probably can’t even prove that I exist and am not just an advanced computer simulation, at least unless I cooperate with your attempted proof, but that hasn’t stopped you spending a lot of time interacting with me!

  67. I’m sorry, Peter, but that response is just pathetic. I’ve said nothing about things being “explained scientifically”, much less “proved”, in fact quite the opposite. I’ve been consistently asking you to show me where the supernatural has some effect that *isn’t* better explained by natural processes!

    “Why, you probably can’t even prove that I exist and am not just an advanced computer simulation”

    Where did this rubbish come from? This is straight from creationist play-book. Things to say to scientists: “hey, you can’t even prove we’re having this conversation, fnar, fnar”

    Its particularly galling because it has no connection to what I’ve been saying at any point, nor any epistemic claims I would ever want to make. I’ve said this to creationists on many occasion: there is *no such thing* as scientific proof.

    The point I’m making is the opposite. That to take the supernatural hypothesis seriously, we’d need to find some effect it has on the world. If it has no effect, it might be true – like your virtual reality existence, it might be true. Its just completely irrelevant!

    There is no way to “prove” we’re not in virtual reality. There is no way to “prove” the world isn’t run by angels and demons, or fairies and Bogarts. There is no way to “prove” that the universe wasn’t created by Thor 2 minutes ago, and people created with prior memories. If you have a particular story you want, that’s fine. You can choose to believe that we’re in a virtual reality, or surrounded by supernatural beings. That’s your perogative.

    But that is about as irrelevant to this discussion as it is possible to be.

    I think I’m done. I think you’re much smarter than this, and I don’t think you really believe a lot of this rubbish about virtual reality or quantum superposition. I think you’re thrashing for any argument that distracts from the actual point: does the supernatural have any effect on the observable world. And now you’re delving into creationist talking-points. Rather than actually having a conversation about what you believe and have witnessed.

    If you’re not willing to actually talk abut the issues, say so, we can finish this conversation. You can go away believing that I was demanding this or that, or you can assign arguments or motivations into me if you like, or just retreat back to Ken Ham’s apologetics and feel smug that the zombie atheist couldn’t undermine your faith. If it helps you avoid actually facing up to what I am saying.

    But if you aren’t willing to actually engage, then next time you feel slighted that scholars aren’t taking the possibility of the supernatural seriously, remember that this is why. Look back on this conversation and count the number of excuses you’ve used for why the supernatural cannot be detected, why natural explanations so thoroughly fit the data, and why God wants it that way. There is no proof your excuses aren’t true – they may be – there may be a God who works that way. But the excuses are exactly why nobody needs to take that possibility into account.

  68. Ian, I have been consistently telling you that there are plenty of effects out there which can be observed, and you have been consistently saying that you will accept these effects as genuine only if they can be proved by scientific methods. I am agreeing with you that there is no such thing as scientific proof in these matters, but there is plenty of evidence which might be called anecdotal. I have never said that the supernatural cannot be detected. It is you who have insisted on solid proof or at least overwhelming statistics.

    As far as I am concerned, if someone I know is seriously ill, they receive prayer, and their symptoms promptly go away and don’t come back at least for a long time, that is evidence that healing is real. And I have seen numerous examples of this happening. Sceptics might claim this is the placebo effect, self-delusion or coincidence. Well, let them do so. I will continue to believe that God is doing something.

  69. The issue isn’t how you interpret why something happened. It is whether there are things that would be different if they were supernatural or natural. As I’ve said over and over and over.

    You can interpret any event as a sign of anything you like.

    I can say my kettle boils because the invisible goblin inside gets angry when I flick the switch and wake him up. That’s fine. Its my prerogative to believe that. Skeptics may say there is no goblin, that it is all happening because of electricity and heating elements. Well let them do so, I shall continue to believe that the grumpy goblin is at work.

    But if I try to tell the people making my kettle that such an interpretation should be taken into account – I shouldn’t be surprised if they ignore me. At least until I can show some situation in which the goblin has some observable effect on the world that the non-goblin hypothesis doesn’t account for.

    As long as nobody is capable of showing any situation where the supernatural makes a difference to what we’d actually expect to *see* — to something detectable, rather than just an interpretation — historians, scientists, medics, and anyone else is justified in excluding it from rational discourse. And that is as true of historians of the first century as historians of the holocaust.

    As far as I can tell you’ve wanted to say that there *are* situations where the supernatural is not ignorable. But so far every time we’ve looked for one, you’ve ended up with excuses for why it is. Or attacking the idea of even trying.

  70. Okay, sorry if you think I’ve been verging on the name calling. But its fine to end the conversation: I don’t think we’re going to get to anything useful. Thanks for your time.

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