Possible evidence for God

March 16, 2011 • 4:20 am

UPDATE:  Since P.Z. at Pharyngula has posted on this, implying that I might consider this scenario actual evidence for God, let me add that I don’t find this evidence even remotely convincing.  I’m offering it merely as a specimen of the kind of evidence believers might adduce for God.


Okay, I said I was dropping this topic for the nonce, but I feel compelled to mention that, over at his Forbes blog Progressive Download, John Farrell—inspired by all of us—discusses “What would evidence for God look like?”  I was supposed to give him my take on his scenario, but the press of work prevented me from a personal response.  At any rate, he proffers a scenario that he considers “might offer the kind of evidence, or at least data, to make a skeptic take a second look.”  Here it is:

Here is a scenario I’ve adopted from an idea that New Testament scholar Ben Witherington used in a recent novel. In terms of evidence for God it’s much less fanciful than a being accompanied by angels descending from the sky in view of hundreds of people, but:

An archeologist working in Israel, discovers an ossuary from the NT era: the inscription on the stone in Aramaic reads: “Twice dead under Pilatus; Twice born of Yeshua in sure hope of resurrection.” And the name corresponds to what in Greek would be Lazarus.

There are bones, so presumably with luck there may be some DNA that could be sequenced, but my main idea is that you have a clear physical candidate for an actual person written about in the Gospel of John. (There are some scholars who have argued that the author of the Gospel of John was Lazarus.)

Now, this isn’t evidence for “God” in his omnipotent sense, which I know is more what Jerry Coyne and PZ were debating. But, given most scholars believe the four gospels were composed no sooner than 70AD, and for that reason less likely to be reliable accounts, you now have evidence from decades before of a key character in one of the Gospels. And more: an inscription that, whatever we might think, clearly indicates whoever buried him knew of the miraculous story of his raising from the dead and believed it.

But could archeologists and geneticists go further? If this is the body of a man supposedly resurrected once before, could there be anything to look for to further ‘test’ the truth of the story? Is there a medical condition that could have fooled people of the time into thinking he was dead when he really wasn’t? And would any sign of that persist in the remains that we could find signs of?

What if the family members from the same ossuary showed a related genome (as expected for his brothers, sister, parents) except that cancer-causing mutations in all of them were…found to be missing from his genome. Or even more startling, found to be ‘corrected.’

Those of you who think that no evidence is possible, or that some evidence is possible, but Farrell’s isn’t good, have at this.  If you agree with him, say why.   I can’t resist adding that Jesus DNA wouldn’t have any sequence from the Y chromosome (no dad), and, given his origins, might even completely lack heterozygosity, since he might have been haploid (i.e., having only one set of chromosomes). The absence of cancer-causing mutations is not dispositive, since presumably they weren’t homozygous in his mother.

134 thoughts on “Possible evidence for God

  1. My first take on something like this is to wonder about the accuracy of the dating. Would it be possible to pin an inscription and a set of remains to within a specific decade twenty centuries back and be able to definitively say that it predates the gospels? (Last I read, the uncertainty factor for carbon dating over that span is ±40 years, but I’m not conversant with the current state of the technology or possibilities for more accurate alternatives – it’s not something I need to keep up on).

    1. The essential meaning of supernatural is non-existence.

      There can only be evidence for that which exists.

      There can be no evidence for the supernatural.

      1. If the ossuary was inscribed with 54 AD, then we’d know that it was a forgery, because it would have been dated (if it was) in the Jewish calendar. AD dating was devised centuries later.

  2. An archeologist working in Israel, discovers an ossuary from the NT era: the inscription on the stone in Aramaic reads: “Twice dead under Pilatus; Twice born of Yeshua in sure hope of resurrection.”

    Ocham’s razor would suggest fraud as the most likely explanation.
    No other rationale is required until this simple and elegant exegesis is nullified.

    1. Personally I would hesitate very much to apply Ocham’s razor anywhere, or to anything.
      However, the inscription itsself gives it away as fraud:
      ” in the sure hope of ….”
      Now, what s so sure about hope?
      Moreover: he died (presumebly, if at all) once at the cross and once (presumably) somewhere in France. But the 2nd time certinly not under Pilatus.

  3. Why would any of this be considered evidence for “god”? First of all, the question of what it means to speak of there being a god has to be settled. We can’t simply say, “X is evidence for God” unless we know what we mean by ‘god’. If ‘god’ simply means something like ‘what must be presupposed if there are apparently anomalous events such as those described by John Farrell”, then, if such events were empirically established, god exists. But what is it that we are saying exists? It’s not at all clear.

    The problem might be put by considering the miracles performed by Aaron in Egypt, which were countered by the priests of Pharoah. So, miracles happen. What does that prove? What is it that is said to exist when miracles (let’s take them as given) are performed? No one knows. It doesn’t clearly point to a creator of the universe, let alone of human beings or the life world.

    The problem seems to me to be to link the supposed “evidence” with the supposed “entity” the existence of which the evidence is said to confirm. And since there is no non-ambiguous definition of ‘god’ it seems unlikely that we can ever say that this evidence confirms the existence of that being. And this is especially true if what we are talking about is an apparently one-off event that happened two thousand years ago. It would remain merely anomalous until there was an increasing body of evidence that favoured a specific interpretation. But it’s the interpretive defecit that we start of with that will hamstring the idea of confirmation every time. (IMHO of course!)

    And, besides, the ossuary could be a lying one. Nothing dug up after all those many centuries could be taken as unproblematically univocal as to the facts.

    1. I suppose such findings would be more evidence to support an historical basis of one story from one of the gospels. It wouldn’t be evidence to support “god”.

      Unusual genetic variants in the remains would be evidence of, well, unusual genetic variants, not of miracles or god.

      1. Of course you come to the question, why would an all powerful god NEED dna, cells, quarks, etc.? One would think it could create humans and other stuff out of whole cloth, without all of the complex building blocks.

        1. To keep us guessing.

          “‘For proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing,’ says God.”
          — Douglas Adams

          Has no-one suggested “a Babel fish” on these evidence threads yet?

    1. Go & sin no more! Only kidding – I am with you on this Eric. Archaeological evidence is frequently open to wide interpretation. The perception of someone of that age would hardly have been neutral or sceptical – so we start with an observer bias.

      1. I think Farrell at least tries to base his claim on more than subjective interpretations of archaeological evidence. That is why he uses the DNA mutation point. Unfortunately for him it doesn’t work for reasons that might not be apparent to a non-geneticist like himself. Cancer causing mutations that run in families are heterozygous – in other words even if both his parents had the mutation (a very rare scenario but lets presume it is the case here) then Lazarus has a 1 in 4 chance of not having the mutation (and more likely a 1 in 3 chance just considering the living children from such a pairing since the 1 in 4 who inherit both mutations usually die in utero).

          1. Not really. Lots of Egyptian remains have been analyzed in this way. Hot and dry seems to be OK for preserving DNA (in bones or mummified tissue). Hot and wet (such as the Flores hobbit remains) and not much DNA survives.

  4. I agree with the rather obvious flaw you’ve noted regarding the lack of homozygosity associated with familial cancer mutations. His scenario simply doesn’t make sense from the point of view of cancer genetics.
    To find some family members who had the mutation and then find it absent in ‘Lazarus’ would not be surprising in the least – that’s just standard family genetics.
    As for the rest of the story – well the most you can say is that it would provide some evidence that the gospels have some basis in real events rather than being entirely mythical, however it would not be evidence that the events themselves were ‘miraculous’. There have been many speculations in the past that Jesus may have been an itinerant ‘healer’ who might have ‘cured’ people the same way that modern faith healers, like Benny Hinn, cure people (i.e., not at all although some believers think he did). Even the scenario that Farrell himself mentions, that Lazarus had a disease that gave symptoms that might be mistaken for death, is a more plausible explanation than that of a supernatural resurrection with all the reversal of apoptosis, necrosis etc and suspension of the laws of thermodynamics that that entails.

      1. I think then, that what you are doing is presenting possible evidence for a historical Jesus.
        This is quite a different point to that of evidence for God. Many atheists have no problem with the idea that a historical Jesus, even a historical faith healing Jesus, could have existed.
        There is convincing evidence for a historical Mohammed and yet there is no evidence for supernaturalism associated with that figure.

        1. Many atheists have no problem with the idea that a historical Jesus, even a historical faith healing Jesus, could have existed.

          Not even close. There is no evidence that Jesus existed, even where there should be.

          1. I never said that such evidence DOES exist, New England Bob, just that if we did hypothetically find evidence for a real life Jesus it wouldn’t make that much of a difference to the question of whether he was in fact a god. I’m pretty sure that most Christians accept that Mohammed was a real person. How many of them believe he flew to Jerusalem on a winged horse?

  5. Nah – the archaelogical evidence is increasingly suggesting that much of the Bible is historical nonsense, without foundation. Exodus, for example.

    All this would show is that a grave of someone called Lazarus has been found. Like all such archaeological evidence, it needs to be taken in context.

    No such grave has been found, needless to say.

    1. All this would show is that a grave of someone called Lazarus has been found.

      No, not even that. The inscription is meaningless. What makes it authoritative? Some joker wrote some words on a coffin so the world turns on it? Nope, its more house-of-cards nonsense.

      1. Exactly. I’m confused why anyone would think the inscription was reliable. And maybe I missed it in the text excerpted in Jerry’s post, but is the author taking as a given the accurate dating of the grave within, say, 10 years?

  6. WMD, I swear there here somewhere. Hmmm maybe the Syrians took them out by truck in the night. One set of chromosomes, now that would be fascinating.

  7. This fails the requirement for extraordinary evidence. We know Pilate existed, but that doesn’t prove he even met Jesus (if Jesus existed), so why would finding “Lazarus” prove Jesus resurrected him? The claim that he was resurrected could also just be a lie – nothing more than a pretence that bits of wood came from the “true cross” or that dismembered pieces of corpses were used by Saint “x” of somewhere to pick their nose and scratch their bum.

    Seriously, if god exists and he wants to “save” us, why does he not just turn up? Why should we even entertain such weak claims when god supposedly wants a personal relationship. It truly is a theistic exercise in clutching at straws with frost bitten fingers while wearing Dachstein mitts.

    1. IT’s like finding a report on a Ben Parker who was killed in New York by a burglar. Does that prove Spider-Man is real?

  8. Without reaading all the comments above first – first I note the christian bias once again. This is not proof of god/ess, merely evidence that someone 2,000 years ago thought that a person had died & been revived, then buried. Sorry – I think this is not even evidence for Jesus as a person let alone a god.

  9. Once again, can I point out the obvious problem with the meaninglessness and irrationality of the claim. For example, what evidence would convince you that the proposition “All Swans are white?” is true? The proposition is false to begin with, and collecting evidence would not make any difference.

          1. I’ll raise you a Gibbon –
            “The silver Swan, who living had no Note,: when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat. “

  10. I appreciate all the comments. I’ve also had feedback at my Facebook page from friends, both scientists and philosophers of science. The consensus seems to be (even among the theist philosophers) there really couldn’t be any evidence in the scientific sense, short of “The Second Coming”.

    That said, I’m still inclined to agree with Jerry about keeping an open mind. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    1. I’m just wondering, in the absence of some idea of what a god is supposed to be, what having an open mind looks like. There was once a time when people believed that god actually intervenes to perform miracles, but there is no clear understanding of what a miracle is either.

      The problem with religious language is that there is no way of defining what is being believed in. Without any empirical “evidence”, it is not at all clear what it would mean to believe in a god. On the other hand, no one has produced anything that would plausibly qualify as such “evidence.” In the absence of this, what does remaining open-minded mean?

      1. Of course there isnt any definition. If there were, it d be all too easy to discard the whole thing.
        It s been kept as vague as possible on purpose.

          1. Quite possibly…

            I generally dislike using quotes without citations, but here I was reposting someone else who failed to provide that.

            If you can find a citation… ?

            1. From a very brief Googling:

              The program’s title comes from the saying, attributed to Barnard College dean Virginia Gildersleeve among others, “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” However, during the hour-long interview with Baker, Heffner credited the title to J. Robert Oppenheimer, noting that he (Heffner) regretted never having interviewed the noted physicist…

              from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Open_Mind_(TV_series)

              “Keep an open mind –
              but not so open that your brain falls out”

              This excellent piece of advice is most often attributed to physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Virginia Gildersleeve, Harold T. Stone … To name but a few.

              Here is the earliest example I have found (yet) of the quote. As it’s written, it was apparently coined even earlier.

              [Practical gentlemen] have a number of bitterly sarcastical comments on persons whose minds are so open that their brains fall out.

              Max Radin (1937)

              Here are some even older variants, but without the brain (so to speak): “Their minds are so open that nothing stays in” (1932), “a mind so ‘open’ that almost anything can blow through it without leaving a trace” (1928) or “a mind so open that it had nothing in it at all” (1908).

              I suspect that the quote (like so many others) was not coined by someone famous, but by an anonymous talent who modified an existing phrase.

              Max Radin, “On Legal Scholarship”, The Yale Law Journal May 1937
              New York Times November 13, 1932
              New York Times February 4, 1928
              Edward Clark, Selected speeches (1908), page 69

              from http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090817163414AAhu3Vw

              So–no consensus; not everything is traceable, of course. Could have been a folk-saying that developed very soon after the concept of an open mind developed…

    2. “The consensus seems to be (even among the theist philosophers) there really couldn’t be any evidence in the scientific sense, short of “The Second Coming”.”
      Not necessarily. The DNA scenario you sketched out doesn’t work as proof of miracles for purely technical reasons as detailed above rather than the standard objections to evidence for miracles that Hume proposed. The archaeology data is fraught with problems of subjectivity – even if we accept it as being real and not faked.
      I think a better scenario that would be far harder to explain would be to find evidence of religious messages in human DNA (for instance if we were to translate a gene that was unique to humans and find that the protein open reading frame spelled out the sermon on the mount).
      Not definite proof but perhaps something to make us seriously wonder if there was something behind the religious story (whether God or not is another question).

    3. The problem with the scenario you proposed is that we already know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Gospels are 100% fiction. Finding the Lazarus ossuary would be as remarkable as finding the James ossuary — or Bottom’s donkey head, for that matter.

      You see, we have copious documentation from early first century Jerusalem. We even have the original pieces of parchment, by the bucketful — not the usual copies-of-copies-of-copies. I refer, of course, to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Jesus and the gospel stories are perfectly absent.

      We also have copies-of-copies of the extensive works of Philo, the brother-in-law philosopher of King Herod Agrippa whose philosophical innovations the Christians would later adopt wholesale. He noticed nothing, either.

      And there’s Pliny the Elder, who was obsessed with the supernatural; again, no notice. And the Roman satirists whose stock in trade was the sort of humiliation Jesus visited upon Pilate and the Sanhedrin; still, no notice. And on and on and on and on.

      It’s only when we finally get to the author of the Pauline epistles, writing easily-identified religious propaganda at least a generation later, that we get our first hint that there’s a new mystery cult on the scene with a new-yet-oh-so-familiar primary deity. The Gospels themselves are several generations removed and full of the typical religious absurdities (such as the zombie scene you used for your example) — they’re no more remarkable than Homer’s account of the antics of the Olympians at Troy.

      I can’t even imagine what it would take to convince me that the Lazarus ossuary was real, but that the James ossuary is still fake, and the forrest’s worth of splinters of the cross are all fake, and the scores of foreskins are fake, and the Shroud is fake, and and and and and….

      No, I’m afraid that ship sailed long, long, long ago. It makes little enough sense arguing what would constitute evidence for as-yet-unevidenced superbeings obsessed with humanity, but arguing for evidence for Jesus isn’t even in that league. You’d have as much luck arguing for evidence for Paul Bunyan (his axe? Babe’s blue bones?) or Luke Skywalker (Vader’s mask and lightsaber in a tomb guarded by Aztec Rube Goldberg machinery and a basilisk?).



        1. Would you believe me if I wrote, “USENET”?

          At least, that’s where I first encountered a lot of these ideas — mostly because of claims from Christians that seemed too good to be true.

          And, since most of classic literature is online, it’s trivial to verify things.

          “Jesus is the best-evidenced figure from antiquity.” Oh, really? Hmm…here’s Caesar’s autobiography, with details confirmed by archaeological digs, and oh-by-the-way you can buy a coin minted during his reign with his face on it for several hundred dollars. What’s Jesus got that compares?

          “Um…Josephus! Tacitus! Suetonius!” Okay, let me look ’em up, see what they wrote. Erm…you do know that none of them were even born yet at the time, that they’re describing Christians and their wacky beliefs. And, hey…wait a minute. This passage from Josephus kinda sticks out like a sore thumb, don’t you think?

          It kinda went from there.



        2. Try Robin Lane Fox – The Unauthorized Version: Truth & Fiction in the Bible

          Also the Robert Graves book – The Hebrew Myths – Genesis treated as he treated the Greek Myths.

          God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible by Walter Beltz – probably hard to get now. Beltz was East German & also wrote Christian Myths & Koranic Myths but they are not translated as far as I know.

          Can anyone suggest a good book on the Koran that takes it apart like this?

        3. @Sajanas: Yeah, I made a note about those. I’m gonna check them out.

          @Peter: I read that when someone here linked to it a while ago. I liked it, though it deals almost entirely with the New Testament. The two problems I had with it are: 1) There are some facts in there for which Fitzgerald doesn’t supply any source, and 2) I have no idea who David Fitzgerald is! Some credentials would be nice.

          Can you help with either of those?

          @Ben: Ah yes, I have heard about this “usenet.” I have no idea how it works, or where one even goes to use the, uh… nets.


          Anyway, I get the idea that you looked up a lot of diverse sources for yourself. I guess what I need is some Christians who are saying “look at this evidence for the Bible!”, so then I can fact-check it and learn about all the stuff that isn’t there.

          Maybe I’ll start with my Jehovah’s Witness books….

          Dominic: Thanks! I’ll check them out.

          1. I’d also suggest stuff by Israel Finkelstein, like The Bible Unearthed, if you want some Old Testament archaeology. Not that his stuff is necessarily definitive, but as a layman, it seemed a pretty good overview.

            Also, Wikipedia has a whole series of articles on The Historicity of X, which various sources you can look at.

    4. On the flip side, what would it take to make people stop believing in Jesus as a God?

      What if they discovered a Ossuary that had “Jesus, Son of Josesph, executed on the order of Pontus Pilate for claiming to be King of the Jews”. And inside was a human body that carbon dated to the right time. Even throw in two additional tombs with Joesph and Mary, and he was clearly genetically related to both of them.

      I can imagine 90% of Christians wouldn’t have their faith shaken at all by this, even if it was 100% genuine. So, who really needs to keep an open mind?

      1. “I can imagine 90% of Christians wouldn’t have their faith shaken at all by this, even if it was 100% genuine.”

        Yeah, you’d think so, but then you’d likely be wrong. Christianity, the religion, is very distant now from Jesus. The risen Christ is increasingly unimportant, as is the divinity of Christ.

        I am probably not at all alone in thinking that the existence and or divinity of Christ could be 100% disproved and it would make virtually no difference whatsoever.

        1. It wouldn’t. Faith is a virtue, apparently, and faith in the teeth of the evidence is positively saintly.

      2. …what would it take to make people stop believing in Jesus as a God?

        That question has been answered a thousand times over. See Dawkins’ “Converts Corner” for concrete examples.
        The common thread is that of Education.

        1. Good build up guys. The first line, “This is a job for..” made me smile, the 2nd made me say “ah!” and the third I actually laughed out loud to.

  11. It certainly would be interesting. But not at all convincing. Just because something is written on a tombstone doesn’t make it true. It would merely show some legends were circulating that later became part of the gospel.
    DNA in family memebers-what? How is it possible to ascertain a family relationship after thousands of years? Misattributions (particularly paternity) are not rare even among the living.
    It would be very weak evidence at best. And they don’t even have that.

    1. I disagree. If we can get a full genome from a neanderthal bone then getting a series of genotyping markers from some two thousand year old bones is going to be a lot easier. This sort of analysis is already being done to show the family relationship between the various Egyptian pharaohs.

  12. Jerry,
    If you want to sequence Jesus just use the Myers approach and hijack a consecrated host from a passing catholic. Or do a quick post-mass mouth swab. The transubstantiation should leave you with plenty of DNA and would start to address some interesting genetic issues, including, as you note, the issue of maleness in an XX or XO mammal.

      1. So Jesus is a wafer thin – wafer?

        Triticum aestivum would be his genome…!

        Explains a lot – brilliant insight SWH!

  13. I think Mr. Farrell’s scenario would be evidence for Jesus–something so far lacking–and that Jesus was contemporaneously believed to be a wonder-worker, but not evidence for any god.

    But it’s telling that such evidence is not forthcoming. In a well-formed scientific theory the evidence is cumulative; so far, for any of the god hypotheses, none of which are well-formed, we don’t even have datum #1 after thousands of years.

  14. “What if the family members .. showed a related genome .. except that cancer-causing mutations in all of them were…found to be missing from his genome. Or even more startling, found to be ‘corrected.’”

    Then .. Erich von Däniken was right?

    1. Of course, I don’t have any cancer-causing mutations in my body, either…because I don’t have cancer.

      Now, women with brca polymorphisms have a much higher risk of breast cancer than others. But, absent those specific and known situations (there may be others we don’t know about), you don’t walk about with cancer mutations in your body. You are not a ticking time bomb.

      Cancer-causing mutations are generally caused primarily by environmental factors. Diet, toxins, radiation. Ie, smoking causes lung cancer. So, they’re not in the body before the insult.

      The whole proposition is far-fetched and bespeaks a lack of knowledge of cancer genetics.

      1. I guess in that case the whole GWAS effort was really a waste of time. I know a whole bunch of molecular geneticists who will be sorry to hear that they have been wasting their time all these years.

        To say that you don’t have cancer is a pretty bold statement. The incidence of thyroid cancer (for example) in 50 year old humans approaches 100%, the incidence of prostate cancer in males rises with age, but you are unlikely to find a “normal” 50 year old prostate. Of course most of these will never become clinically significant, and in the case of prostate cancer their detection can do more harm than good. However, the incidence of opportunistic tumors occurring in immunecompromised individuals speaks to the constant surveillance needed to keep these lesions under control.

        You can’t put all of cancer down to environment, genetics plays a huge role as does luck – we live in a stochastic universe – shit happens!

        1. I think in this case the scenario involves germ cells — inheriting “perfect” cell lines.

          Yes, there are more than just brca “mutations” that create genetic predispositions to cancer. I think I said that; if I wasn’t clear, I apologize.

          But the majority of cancers appear to not be inherited but are instead due to mutations in somatic cells — primarily due to environmental insult (and/or age, as you correctly point out).

          See: Lichtenstein P, Holm NV, Verkasalo PK, Iliadou A, Kaprio J, Koskenvuo M,
          Pukkala E, Skytthe A, Hemminki K. Environmental and heritable factors in the
          causation of cancer–analyses of cohorts of twins from Sweden, Denmark, and
          Finland. N Engl J Med. 2000 Jul 13;343(2):78-85.

  15. A repost from elsewhere, but might be useful:

    When considering the issue of whether the ‘god hypothesis’ is testable (even in principle) one needs to be careful to define that hypothesis. RD did this quite explicitly in TGD. I get the impression Jerry is considering a similar hypothesis. PZ, AG, etc. seem to be working with a different hypothesis in mind – hence the disagreement.

    If your stated hypothesis is internally inconsistent then the test is a bit silly – but in some cases still can be useful. As George Box said ‘all models are wrong, but some models are useful’. Sometimes it’s worth working with a model even when you know it cannot be fully realized (due to its incoherence) because it may capture aspects of the data not captured by the other (more coherent) models you have (currently) available.

    However, if you don’t state your hypothesis (and assumptions) properly then you can’t conduct a good test. There’s nothing to stop you changing the hypothesis when the data don’t fit (see ‘no true Scotsman’). This seems to be a popular trick for theists.

    In the worst case the hypothesis is so vague that nothing can be said about it. This is the vaguest kind of diesm. But as, as Simon Blackburn points out, one can then apply Wittgenstein’s argument “a nothing will do just as well as a something, of which nothing can be said”. You’re back to ‘de facto atheism’.

    So when we try to answer the question ‘is the G hypothesis testable?’ we all need to be quite specific about what ‘G’ it is we’re talking about. I think that should help clear up a lot of this cross-talk.

    1. Of course, that’s the issue, isn’t it?

      Theists — especially William Lame Craig style apologists — try to prove a general god concept and then use a little magic sleight-of-hand to turn it into their specific and very different god.

      It’s intellectual dishonesty of the first order. And they KNOW it is because they’ve been called on it countless times.

    2. PZ, AG, etc. seem to be working with a different hypothesis in mind – hence the disagreement.

      I think the point is, they claim that there is no one, clearly-defined hypothesis for them to have in mind! Hence, it become absurd to posit evidence.

    3. But the fuzzy undefined God is in fact the God most people mean by “God.” That God is reliably fuzzy. It has to be, so that when people ask difficult questions, the reply “it’s a mystery” makes sense.

      So in that sense it really is impossible to imagine evidence for “God” because there is no specific hypothesis to test.

  16. Jesus DNA wouldn’t have any sequence from the Y chromosome

    The Babylonian Talmud takes it for granted that Jesus was a mamzer, a bastard son of a Roman soldier:

    Yeshua’s [Jesus’s] mother was Miriam [Mary] … This is as they say about her in the Pumbeditha: This one strayed from [was unfaithful to] her husband. … He is guilty as a beguiler who says, “I will worship (other gods),” … In the case of any one who is liable to death penalties enjoined in the Law, it is not proper to lie in wait for him except he be a beguiler … [as] they did to Ben Stada [Jesus] whom they hanged on the eve of the Passover. … The husband of his [Jesus’] mother was called Stada [Joseph ben Stada], and her seducer Pandera [a Roman name]. —The Talmud, Mishnah 27:15

    1. Besides, we’re talking about magic here. YHWH could just as easily fabricate a genome for his Jesus incarnation as he could clone Mary’s but fiddle with pre-natal hormones to produce an anatomical male body.

      Or, for all we know, Jesus could have been a pod person, or a robot, or a hologram, or a hit of acid…

      …or he could have been exactly what he appears to be: a syncretic pagan god from the Osiris / Dionysus mold grafted on to the Jewish pantheon.



    2. The early centuries actually changed the Gospels a fair bit, because initially there was a lot of reference to “Jesus’s father and mother”, which were changed to “Joesph and Jesus’s mother”.

      I’d be interested to see the dating on the Babylonian Talmud. Was Jesus made a half God first, and then there were accusations of illegitimacy, or vice versa.

  17. If anything in the new testament was actually supported with evidence, then that would be a miracle. Ergo god.

  18. Well, don’t quite a lot of urban legend-type stories contain a kernel or two of truth? If archaeological evidence turned up that appears to corroborate some mundane fact in one of the Gospels (like “ooh, ooh, the person buried here was called Lazarus!”) I’d give it a big, fat “so what?”

    1. And let’s not forget that lots of mundane facts in the Gospels are true. For example, the Gospels mention King Herod Agrippa, and we know he was real because his brother-in-law, Philo, was a prolific author.

      Of course, said brother-in-law never mentioned Jesus or the events of the Gospels, but never mind that….



  19. Ah. I saw this over at Pharyngula and thought that someone had actual possession of such an ossuary. No, it seems the entire thing is a fiction. OK then.

    But assuming that such evidence could be presented, and authenticated to the satisfaction of an atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu scientist-theologian…

    1. It’s evidence of bones, not god.
    2. The inscription is evidence of first century superstition, not god.
    3. Evidence of magical anti-cancer DNA would only be interesting if one could test the DNA by bombarding it with cancer-causing agents and have it not mutate or instantly revert to normal. And would then only be interested if these Lazarenes were perfectly healthy and immensely old. Why prevent cancer if they die of heart disease in their 40s? Or die at all? Shouldn’t they be functionally immortal?
    4. And along those same lines, why would the Lazarus of the bible be dead? One resurrection isn’t enough? Shouldn’t that have been a permanent fix?

    In short, as fiction it’s just another Dan Brown wanna-be. As a potential path to proving god, it’s … well … inadequate.

  20. So, a bit of a digression, but does anyone know of a discussion of the evidence for the historicity of the Buddha? I was doing some reading about it via Wikipedia and some other things I found online, and its remarkable how poorly they are able to date him… ranging from 800 BC to 400, and it makes me wonder.

    It seems like a lot of times people are willing to credit an originator to an ideology, even when their is no evidence for that person’s existence, like Jesus, Buddha, and to a certain extent even Mohammad (though I’m really only going off of Ibn Warraq here, so I need more sources). But it does make me wonder if a Robin Hood or a King Arthur can really be made up in only a single generation.

    1. But it does make me wonder if a Robin Hood or a King Arthur can really be made up in only a single generation.

      Why on Earth not?

      Xenu was made up in only a single generation. So was the Moronic Angel. And Harry Potter, and Paul Bunyan, and Luke Skywalker, and Sherlock Holmes, too.

      Heroes being fabricated in only a single generation is the norm, not the exception. Santa Claus has had a much more drawn-out evolution…but, even still, the Coca-Cola version with Rudolph and all pretty much sprang up in only a single generation.

      Of course, the other thing to observe is that these mythic heroes always have a lot in common, including biographically. Joseph Campbell had a lot of insights on why.

      That’s actually one particularly unambiguous way that we know that the Jesus story is purely mythical: all the major biographical and character elements have unambiguous origins in well-established religious fiction. Justin Martyr even went to great lengths to catalog them in the early second century…though, granted, his conclusion was that evil time-travelling demons planted the earlier stories in an attempt to discredit Jesus when he finally did arrive.



    2. One simply needs to interview the thousands of supposed UFO abductees to realise that rock-solid delusions as profound as those of dogmatic revelation are being manufactured to this very day.

  21. The absence of cancer mutations might be interesting (ignoring for now that we don’t yet have an exhaustive list of those). But based on what reasoning would you expect to find no cancer genes in Lazarus’ dna? Would finding cancer genes be a reason to think it wasn’t Lazarus after all?

    1. I’m not sure Farrell had thought this one out very well. The term ‘cancer gene’ simply means a normal gene that has a mutation that results in an increase in the potential of the cell to become malignant. These can either be somatic, which will be specific for each tumor, or familial, in which case every cell in the body will have the mutation, as will every cell of the parent that passed down that allele. However this mutated familial cancer allele would be heterozygous in both Lazarus and Lazarus’ cancer mutated parent. Half the children of that parent, on average would carry the mutation so there is a 50:50 chance that Lazarus would NOT have the mutation. Therefore finding a parent WITH the mutation and Lazarus WITHOUT is nothing unusual and is no sign whatsoever of a ‘cure’.

      1. Yes, but that’s only for one gene. I think Farell’s point is: what if he has no cancerous allele for any of his genes? I’m inclined to agree that would be very unlikely.

        But then again, why would you expect this to be the case for Lazarus? And what if you didn’t find it to be the case, would that count as evidence against god?

  22. I spent twenty-years as a CPA. One of the things I did was litigation support which includes being a ‘expert witness.’ In any trial, you answer the question asked. If you don’t understand, you ask for clarification, but (ultimately) all you do is answer the fucking question. Not the question as you imagine it. Not the question as would ask it. Not the question you wish it would be. Not the question you think makes you look good.

    Just the fucking question. The question asked was about ‘could there be evidence you would accept as evidence for the existence of God.’

    Not was it LIKELY. Not was it ever shown. Not that there were good, evidence-lacking, arguments. Not that there were reasons to accept one, or more, of the thousands of debunked, phony or unconvincing evidential claims made to date.

    So, I’ve shown what I would accept as actual evidence for commonly-understood version of what a God is/would be and what I would require, as proper evidence. Which would be an event that could not otherwise happen without a complete, transient (or even permanent) alteration of the laws the universe to make what was impossible, possible. And with the caveat that it would include we, as race, had a perfect and complete understanding of the relevant laws of nature that were violated.

    I was very clear that I made the bar impossible to achieve by any non-God-like, but highly advanced creature, who would be (like humans) constrained by the laws of nature. I was clear that I never, in my entire life, or the life of the universe, thought this was achievable because I don’t believe in God/gods/fairies/etc. and there is non-likelihood of any such evidence ever being found. Ever.

    But the question is not had and I don’t think the imagining of such an event is difficult to do. Anyone with even a shred of creativity can come up with similar pieces of ‘acceptable’ evidence.

    But what I find amazing is that all these so-called ‘clear thinkers’ in this laughable ‘debate’ is that they’re not addressing the actual question but their imagined question. And then running off into the weeds about ‘what is the nature of God, blah, blah, blah…’

    1. I don’t think the question is: “can you imagine any old crazy shit?” Isn’t the question rather: “what would convince you that a supernatural deity existed?”

      All the debate going on has to do with the second question.

    2. we, as race, had a perfect and complete understanding of the relevant laws of nature that were violated

      We can never know we have perfect and complete understanding of the laws of nature. There is in principle no way for us to know our model of the universe is complete, except by observing all the phenomena it can produce over its entire existence. Science is not a purely abstract endeavour — the models created have to match observations, and the only way to be sure that a model is complete is to make all possible observations, which itself is not possible. Our understanding of the laws of nature will always be provisional, and never perfect and complete.

      The whole issue is whether the event you describe would be an actual violation of the laws of nature, or merely our understanding of them. I’d argue that we simply would not be able to rule out a naturalistic explanation involving some hitherto non-recognized but natural principle(s).

    3. Just the fucking question. The question asked was about ‘could there be evidence you would accept as evidence for the existence of God.’

      But if I don’t know what the fucking question means, how can it be so easy for me to answer it? What is “blah blah blah” about saying I don’t know what the fucking question means?

      By that I don’t of course mean “I take the question to be gibberish.” I mean “I don’t know what the question means because there are so many different versions of God.” How the hell can you answer the question “could there be evidence you would accept as evidence for the existence of X” if you don’t know what X is?!

      1. Exactly, Ophelia.

        Tell us, if you would, just exactly when you stopped beating your underaged prostitutes, and were you or were you not naked and wearing a latex bodysuit at the time?

        Just answer the fucking question!



    4. “Which would be an event that could not otherwise happen without a complete, transient (or even permanent) alteration of the laws the universe to make what was impossible, possible.” – so saith moseszd

      I don’t get how this would be evidence of an intentional being. It would be evidence that the laws of the universe had been suspended, but would not explain why those laws were suspended. It would be a leap to say that it was caused by a being who intended for it to happen. Just because the impossible was suddenly possible does not mean that this was an act performed by some agent who willed (or whatever) the formerly impossible into existence. It commits the same fallacy as the watchmaker argument – it assumes that because something exists, or in the scenario you sketch, something happens, it must have been made, or done by some entity, whether we choose to call it god or goobleflop.

      Something happened =/= some *one* did it.

    5. I’ll answer the fucking question. My answer is “No.” And not due to any lack of imagination. In fact, I find your hypothetical worthy evidence rather dull, not to mention logically impossible because of the “perfect understanding” caveat.

      If a being appeared and committed a massive violation of physical law, all it would prove is that the creature had unprecedented power. It would demonstrate nothing about basic claims about God most theists make; i.e., being the creator of the universe, gatekeeper of the afterlife, source of morality, etc. In fact, if this being doesn’t fit existing templates, I think most theists would believe it to be the devil.

      Which just goes to show the core problem of the question itself: There’s no good definition for “God”. So while in practical terms I answer “no,” in the strictest philosophical terms perhaps the correct answer is “mu.”

      Even if this creature gave evidence for those various specific claims – say, by opening the afterlife to investigation or taking people back in time to see how the universe was made – how many would you need before they added up to infinity? And with the massively skewed power dynamic, how could we ever be sure that it wasn’t just using its physics-defying abilities to create elaborate deceptions?

      Maybe that’s enough for you; maybe “god” for you just means “a being whose power is mightier than the physical laws of our universe,” a much more limited definition than any commonly-understood theology would give. But then aren’t you committing the error of answering “the question as you imagine it”?

  23. This is a good illustration of why the whole “evidence for god” question does not deserve to be taken seriously.

    They haven’t defined their god for a start, and they certainly have a strange idea of evidence.

    Ossuaries and “Jesus” DNA are evidence of dead Mesopotamians, not the Son of God.

    This is like playing spot that logical fallacy.

  24. Silly, really, all this scratching around for a few old bones from the distant past to try to prove the existence of the eternal creator of the universe. If god existed, either we would all know it now, or we will never know it.

    1. And relevant to henkm’s reply to No 2 above:

      Titus 3.6
      if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.

      Philemon 6.11
      And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end:

      Philemon 6.19
      Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil;

      Philemon 11.1
      Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

      So Paul doesn’t know, either.

        1. Thank you, Ray. I must have jumped a page or two in my text. However, they’re Paul’s words by tradition, and presumably Christians still accept them as gospel.

      1. That’s right, Hebrews. The 11.1 quote given is the most succinct definition of ‘faith’ ever penned. ‘The substance of things hoped for’ indicates that it has no substance, and ‘the evidence of things not seen’ means that there is no evidence at all. One of my residents once quoted another Hebrews verse, this one was 13.8. in the progress notes of a patient in a vegetative state. That verse reads: ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.’

    2. “If god existed, either we would all know it now, or we will never know it.”

      Which is why asking what evidence one would accept as evidence for God is so ultimately tiresome and irrelevant. Why, after all this time and with all this thinking about it, are we still making this so hard?

      1. Yes. First we have Adam and Eve, who just know god, because he made them and occasionally took a turn around their cabbage patch. Which, being interpreted, presumably means that we ought to just know god, because the signature of the creator is in us as a part of our being – as, in fact, our whole being. But along comes sin, so we lose touch with the almighty and need proof. Then comes what is supposed to be the revelation in Jesus Christ. And that, presumably, must be it. Yet we’re still asking these questions. Even the Christians have only got hope and faith, and seem to spend a lot of time clutching at straws. Waste of time.

  25. Coyne, don’t apologize for this, most of us got it, even if Meyer’s didn’t. In all fairness to him, he may have not read it completely; the preceeding post of yours.

    In any event, both of you guys should keep this up, it is incredibly entertaining for we lumps who strive to understand, on a daily basis, what you two are talking about.

  26. Here’s a case to consider. I’m a neolithic farmer. I have come to believe (beer and interesting mushrooms were involved) in a fertility god, Fergal, who’s responsible for the growth of my crops and the increase of my flocks. Every so often I slaughter an animal and I scatter the blood and the flesh and the bones over my fields, as an offering to Fergal.

    My fields are definitely more fertile than the fields of other farmers who aren’t making offerings to Fergal.

    Therefore Fergal exists.

    Here we have the problem with supposed evidences for gods. Crop growth is evidence for fertiliser, not Fergal. Even healing through prayer would only be evidence for healing, not for gods.

  27. This wouldn’t do it for me. It would show that Jesus was a virgin birth, not that he had special powers, made magic fish sandwiches etc.

    For me the only important questions are

    1: Was the universe created intelligently.
    2: Is there a valid religion

    What I would take as evidence is a message in the very fabric of existence, one which could only have been placed there during the process which caused the universe to exist.

    For example. If we looked at the cosmic background radiation and within it saw the following message written in 5 different languages “I created the universe on purpose” then I would have no option but to accept it.

    If this message also said “The King James version of the Bible contains the truth” then I would have no option other than to accept that too.

    It wouldn’t be proof of “super natural” but it would answer the ONLY important questions which I outlined above.

  28. Crap, I always forget that comments with URLs here get held up (for moderation?). So here’s a re-post without links. Sorry if it gets doubled. You can find Mano’s blog easily on Google.

    (Also cross-posted on Pharyngula, because it’s relevant)

    THE PROBLEM — which I suspect Myers and Grayling understand (but perhaps have not explained clearly enough to Coyne) — is that Christians effectively believe in 3 conflicting types of deity, and switch between them freely. And no, I don’t mean that “trinity” baloney.

    Mano Singham (physicist, former minister, hardline gnu atheist, and overall thoughtful guy) explained this in his blog series, “The End of God”. The three deities he identifies are:

    The Ultimate Creator God – made the universe and then never touched it again. The shelter of deists and cornered apologists.

    The God of the Gaps – takes a dynamic but fleeting role in whatever mysteries are available. Embraced to varying degrees by everyone from Francis Collins to ID-ers.

    The Personal God – directly answers your prayers and breaks the laws of physics on a whim. Favored by evangelicals, but avoided by theologians.

    If you pick any one of these and stick to it, it’s pretty simple to dissect. Most skeptics have done it dozens of times for the latter two. Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking have made some compelling arguments against the Creator God IMO.

    But Christians (and other religious apologists to some degree) love to flit between these philosophically conflicting concepts. That’s what PZ means by Calvinball.

    Stop letting them do it. It’s goalpost-shifting.

    Apologies to Dr. Singham for the parapghrasing; go read his lengthy series for much more depth.

  29. At Passover a child asks “Why is this night different than all others?” but the answer he or she receives isn’t the explanation of the ceremony. It’s part of the ceremony. Similarly, the “evidences” educed by believers aren’t really evidence at all in a secular sense.

    I guess a fan of the supernatural could turn that around. You want evidence of gods, saints, and demons? There’s a limitless supply of those. I visit Santa Fe, New Mexico where many people will personally attest to all sorts of amazing things, ghosts, astral visitations, even the transmutation of lead into gold. In a social setting where miracles are supposed to occur, they occur by the dozens. Does anybody think that the requisite miracles aren’t going to turn up to support the canonization of John Paul II? The church follows the slogan of Commander Perry, “We shall find a way or make one.”

  30. Apparently our friend Lazarus already has several tombs scattered across Europe and the Near East. One more won’t hurt.

    1. Which is only evidence that Jesus was not god.

      What, one resurrection isn’t enough?

      If I were a god and I resurrected someone, that person would darn well STAY resurrected!

      No death for Lazarus. Not even a little one.

  31. If I remember my Bart Ehrman reading correctly . . . in early years AD, the church would send out requests to find the “missing letters of Paul”. Lo and behold, each time the request was made, letters would be found, and money would be paid (a miracle!). Historians are therefore convinced many of the letters now in the Bible are therefore fraudulent. I am going to make a guess that after this posting has gone up that exactly the kind of relic, with exactly the kind of inscription, is going to be miraculously found!

  32. I see no proof in this; the so called authors made many inscriptions. We don’t know who or when this one was “written” and what are they going to match the DNA with if they find some?

  33. @29: why are you assuming that the cosmic writing jokesters are telling you the truth? Just because something is written down doesn’t make it true! IOW, a message written in the sky that the KJV is true is not evidence that the KJV actually is true.

  34. Jerry, the last part made me laugh. You basicaly said that Jesus had 45 X (Turner Syndrome)…What a way to start my day:)


    1. Indeed, which means that he had feminized genitalia and a webbed neck. I always thought that the “H.” in Jesus H. Christ stood for “haploid.”

  35. “I’m offering it merely as a specimen of the kind of evidence believers might adduce for God.” But that’s not what it is — it’s Farrell offering something that he thinks *skeptics* might accept as evidence for God. Which makes Farrell and fool and this posting foolish.

  36. What surprises me everytime, and that includes the Richard Dawkins site, Bright.org, here:
    We (atheists, more or less, anyway), seem to find it compelling to defend our view.
    Anybody, even those using only 10% of their brain, know that god(s) do not exist. Period. I must assume that those here are using even more than 10%, am sure.
    We can, at any given chance, attack the traditional views. Attack the, usual, utter stupidity of creationists, ID people. But that will not help much.
    What to do then?
    Foremost we have to prevent that complete nonsense to reach the schools. We see in several US states ‘them’ trying to sneak this shit into the backdoor, even though it is against the law.
    Now, with the upcoming teaparty-idiots (sorry, have no other word for them) it is only to be expected in getting worse. (I feel so sorry for the average US citizen). Anyway … if it can be banned permanently, there might be a chance of children/students to develop a common-sense type of thinking.
    Not just the US, mind. Anywhere.
    And that,I feel, is human kind’s only hope.

    1. While it is indeed important to keep the nonsense out of schools, I’d be very skeptical of that alone changing much of anything. As someone who’s watched her two kids go through US K-12 education in both public and private schools, it was my experience that most of the teachers were pretty careful to be “nonpartisan” regarding matters of religion. (With some glaring exceptions, of course.) But by far the most ubiquitous, unrelenting religious exposure comes from home life and churches. Churches have specialized programs for every age from cradle to grave, are quick to grab up kids during winter, spring, and summer vacations for church “camps,” etc., etc. The next most overwhelming influence in kids’ lives is the media and their peer groups. No matter how great the schools are, they run a far distant third in terms of influence. And when it comes to something like evolution, remember that that’s usually only a 2-week section of a grade-7 bio course, and only slightly more of one year of HS bio. A mere drop in the ocean.

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