The Bible’s prescience?

August 6, 2015 • 12:00 pm

Yesterday I got an email from a reader in Illinois who claims that the Bible’s truth is attested by its prescience about later events. In Faith Versus Fact, I claimed that if the Bible had been uncannily accurate about things that were to happen in the distant future, that would be some evidence for an Abrahamic divinity.

But see how prescient this guy thought it was!:

How does the Big Bang/”Let there be light” not pass the uncannily priescient [sic] test you lay out for religion?  Or the placebo effect in medicine?  Or the Book of Daniel prediction that “Grecia” will be a great Middle East power, 400 years before Alexander the Great?  Or David writing “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want” 750 years before Siddhartha said that desire is the cause of suffering?  (No archaeological proof of David?  Have you read the Book of Psalms?  We have more insight into the heart of David, and more proof he had a heart, than we do into that of, say, Hillary Clinton or Ronald Reagan.)

The part about David and Psalm 23 cracks me up. As for the “placebo effect,” I have no idea what he’s talking about.

The Spectator: Christianity is the foundation of “our” civilization

April 10, 2015 • 1:17 pm

Religious rump-osculation among anglophones isn’t limited to Americans. For a prime example from the other side of the pond, see the new piece by Michael Gove, a British conservative MP, in The Spectator: “Why I’m proud to be a Christian (and Jeremy Paxman should be ashamed)“. (The subtitle is “Despite a tidal wave of prejudice and negativity, faith remains the foundation of our civilisation.”)

Gove’s article can be seen only as a defense against the waning tide of religion in Britain, or as the defensive snarl of a fatally trapped animal. He begins by excoriating Paxman (an ascerbic BBC newsman and interviewer) for making fun of Christianity:

Was it true, Jeremy inquired [of Tony Blair], that he had prayed together with his fellow Christian George W. Bush?

The question was asked in a tone of Old Malvernian hauteur which implied that spending time in religious contemplation was clearly deviant behaviour of the most disgusting kind. Jeremy seemed to be suggesting that it would probably be less scandalous if we discovered the two men had sought relief from the pressures of high office by smoking crack together.

Praying? What kind of people are you?

Well, the kind of people who built our civilisation, founded our democracies, developed our modern ideas of rights and justice, ended slavery, established universal education and who are, even as I write, in the forefront of the fight against poverty, prejudice and ignorance. In a word, Christians.

But to call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity, condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication, non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.

And yes, it sort of is. It certainly brands you as someone who is superstitious (albeit not necessarily intolerant: after all, this is the UK!), and somewhat backwards in at least what you believe to be true. And of course Christians built a lot of British civilization because everybody was a Christian for the last millennium and a half.  You can’t give Christianity any more credit for that than you can racism, for most of the people who built “our” civilization were racists, classists, and sexists.

Gove then goes on, citing Francis Spufford (see here for my critiques of that man) to defend Christianity, asserting that not all Christians believe in creationism, the afterlife, and “fairly tales.”  But a surprising number of them do, at least if you believe Julian Baggini’s two surveys of churchgoers whose results appeared in the Guardian (see here for some data). Yes, Spufford and Gove may both adhere to Sophisticated Theology™, but the data show that they’re not the rule but the exception. By and large, Christians, including British Christians, do believe in fairy tales.

He then goes on, and I’ll finish here, with the old canard that because Christianity supposedly inspires acts of charity, it is a good thing regardless of its truth, an argument that reader Sastra calls “The Little People Argument” and that Dan Dennett calls “Belief in Belief”

The contrast between the Christianity I see our culture belittle nightly, and the Christianity I see our country benefit from daily, could not be greater.

The reality of Christian mission in today’s churches is a story of thousands of quiet kindnesses. In many of our most disadvantaged communities it is the churches that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals who have fallen on the worst of times. The homeless, those in the grip of alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health problems and those overwhelmed by multiple crises are all helped — in innumerable ways — by Christians.

Churches provide debt counselling, marriage guidance, childcare, English language lessons, after-school clubs, food banks, emergency accommodation and, sometimes most importantly of all, someone to listen. The lives of most clergy and the thoughts of most churchgoers are not occupied with agonising over sexual morality but with helping others in practical ways — in proving their commitment to Christ through service to others.

That may be so, but right over the North Sea, the countries of Scandinavia and northern Europe have all that, and more. Those countries benefit not from Christianity, but from socialism and secular morality. In other words, you can have the good stuff without the fairy tales? To the West, Ireland, still ridden with Catholicism, prohibits most abortions, still has anti-blasphemy laws on the books, and terrifies its children with threats of hell. Oh, and up North the Catholics and Protestants used to kill each other, but of course that’s all in the past.

The question is this: does Gove believe that the truth claims of Christianity—the existence of Jesus as savior and his resurrection—are true? Does he even care? Or does he think it doesn’t matter so long as a faulty foundation supports a useful superstructure? Apparently so:

Relativism is the orthodoxy of our age. Asserting that any one set of beliefs is more deserving of respect than any other is a sin against the Holy Spirit of Non–Judgmentalism. And proclaiming your adherence to the faith which generations of dead white males used to cow and coerce others is particularly problematic. You stand in the tradition of the Inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits who made South America safe for colonisation, the missionaries who accompanied the imperial exploiters into Africa, the Christian Brothers who presided over forced adoption and the televangelists who keep America safe for capitalism.

But genuine Christian faith — far from making any individual more invincibly convinced of their own righteousness — makes us realise just how flawed and fallible we all are. I am selfish, lazy, greedy, hypocritical, confused, self-deceiving, impatient and weak. And that’s just on a good day. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…And there is no health in us.’ [JAC: As Hitchens used to say, “Christianity tells us we are born sick and commanded to be well.”]

Christianity helps us recognise and confront those weaknesses with a resolution — albeit imperfect and fragile — to do better. But more importantly, it encourages us to feel a sense of empathy rather than superiority towards others because we recognise that we are as guilty of selfishness and open to temptation as anyone.

Well, first let’s see Gove’s evidence that Christians really do perform more good acts in Britain than do non-Christians or secularists. What he presents in his piece is simply a string of assertions without evidential support. Absent that data, I’m not prepared to accept Gove’s argument. And even if it were true, the other countries of Europe show that one can have societies healthier than that of the UK, all without the superstition.

And of course Gove conspicuously leaves the U.S. out of his argument.

An angry reader gets unwanted religious literature in an Amazon order

February 25, 2015 • 12:45 pm
Reader Laurie Sindoni, who is half the staff of Theo, the Espresso-Drinking Cat, sent me the email given below. She ordered some athletic clothing from a company in Germany (!) that, it seems, is the German equivalent of Chik fil A (“Hate on a Bun”). Laurie was affronted with what she received, and here is what she said:
I must share this with you because I am so angry, and if ever ANYONE needed a copy of WEIT and body parts through the post, and Theo’s coffee thrown in their faces, it’s these people!  And because I know you will empathise with me.
I ordered a pair of Nike shorts from Amazon [UK] to wear over leggings for training.  Quite straightforward; right?  My order was delivered and the shorts were fine; however, they included THIS with my order!

What the fluff?  It’s not like I ordered a bible. Or identified myself as a member of “Weight Lifters for Jesus.” I launched myself onto Amazon and sent feedback to the seller.

“Shame on you.  I ordered shorts to be worn over leggings for training and these are fine. What was NOT fine was the ‘complimentary’ literature: Christian Creationist proselytising!!! Why on earth, when I ordered training clothes, did you feel the need to ram your superstitions down the throat of a complete stranger?  I hope Amazon will, in future, prevent sellers from arbitrarily including unrelated, unsolicited and offensive material with orders.”

I then contacted Amazon and apprised them of the situation.  I was furious; but, I told them that under no circumstances do I blame Amazon for this offensive communication.  I insisted that they contact the seller regarding the impropriety of the order content.  I expressed disquiet that in having ordered from these people, I may have become an unwitting donor to a BS and fantasist organisation.  I also pointed out that there is no difference between this and receiving unsolicited jihadist material through the post.  Furthermore, the fact that I am an atheist is irrelevant because I may have been a Sikh, a Jew, a Jain, etc.  The point is that there was no guarantee their customer was a Creationist Christian living in a world of make believe.

This morning, I received an email from the seller.  Hold onto your potatoes!

“You’ll Jesus face. As a judge or as a saviour that you can choose now. It is well meant by me.  Thank you.” Oh, and [sic, sic, sic!]!

So, before heading to my back garden to dig up body parts to send, I launched myself back at Amazon. I know when the Customer Service Agent, reading through the communication, got to that reply, because he audibly gasped. I am now demanding a full refund because I am concerned about having been donating to some organisation that promotes fantasy as well as a written apology, for what I consider harassment.

Here is what Amazon said in response:

“We’ve been contacted by one of our mutual customers regarding an order placed with you.  This customer placed an order with yourselves. Upon receiving the goods the customer advises that they were also given an amount of religious literature. This is not acceptable.  Further to this the response that was given by yourselves was wholly inappropriate.  Due to this very poor experience the customer would like an apology and to be refunded for this order.  Please advise the customer as to how this can be done.  I hope you understand that the customer feels that this is harassment and from Amazon point of view, this is very much unacceptable. We hope you’re able to work this out with this customer.”

To me, it is utterly fantastic that commercial transactions can be so easily infused with religious nonsense.  And even more so that there are large segments of the population that will consider this to be ordinary behaviour.  And even acceptable. Some may go so far as to say I have overreacted in having taken offense and action. [JAC: Not I!]

OK; my rant is over.  At least until I receive another inappropriate communiqué in response to the Amazon email.

Laurie added that the company did respond:
They got back.  They said the following, “hello.  Thanks for your message.
Here are the links that Laurie sent; the company you want to avoid if you hate this proselytizing is Hoppe Schuhe in Dainrode, Germany.

Boy who wrote bestseller on visiting heaven retracts his claims

January 16, 2015 • 10:43 am

In 2010, a ten-year-old boy, Alex Malarkey (note the name), wrote a book along with his father that described how Alex had gone to heaven after a car accident four years earlier and then came back. The book, originally published by Lifeway and shown below, became a New York Times bestseller along with other “heaven tourism” books like Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo (another young boy) and Proof of Heaven, by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander.  People’s desire to be assured that there really is a wonderful afterlife ensures that these books will earn a lot of dough.

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Here’s the Amazon description, which has not been changed in light of the news that the book is, in fact, a made-up fantasy by Alex:

In 2004, Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, suffered an horrific car accident. The impact from the crash paralyzed Alex—and medically speaking, it was unlikely that he could survive. “I think that Alex has gone to be with Jesus,” a friend told the stricken dad. But two months later, Alex awoke from a coma with an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious. Of the angels who took him through the gates of heaven itself. Of the unearthly music that sounded just terrible to a six-year-old. And most amazing of all . . . of meeting and talking to Jesus. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is the New York Times bestselling true story of an ordinary boy’s most extraordinary journey. As you see heaven and earth through Alex’s eyes, you’ll come away with new insights on miracles, life beyond this world, and the power of a father’s love.

As many readers hastened to inform me, it’s just been reported by the Washington Post, which drew on the Christian site Pulpit and Pen, that young Alex, paralyzed from his accident, has owned up to the story’s being (forgive the pun) complete malarkey. Alex published this retraction in Pulpit and Pen:

“An Open Letter to Lifeway and Other Sellers, Buyers, and Marketers of Heaven Tourism, by the Boy Who Did Not Come Back From Heaven.”

Please forgive the brevity, but because of my limitations I have to keep this short.

I did not die. I did not go to Heaven.

I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.

It is only through repentance of your sins and a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins (even though he committed none of his own) so that you can be forgiven may you learn of Heaven outside of what is written in the Bible…not by reading a work of man. I want the whole world to know that the Bible is sufficient. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.

In Christ,

Alex Malarkey.”

Well, that’s very brave of Alex. But there were in fact warning signs a while back that the book was bogus. In April of last year, Alex’s mom, Beth, wrote a post on her blog Life’s a Journey saying that the book was a fake and her son’s name was being coopted against his will. (I can’t corroborate that.) In fact, as Pulpit and Pen wrote in an update, Thom Raniel, President of Lifeway, almost certainly knew of the scam but did nothing. There was too much money to be earned.

In light of Alex’s letter, the book has been withdrawn from publication (though it’s still on Amazon). As the Post reports:

This evening, Todd Starowitz, public relations director of Tyndale House, told The Washington Post: “Tyndale has decided to take the book and related ancillary products out of print.”

Since Eben Alexander’s book has also been exposed as a likely fraud, that means that two out of the three Heaven Tourism Books have been shown to be fictions. Any bets that Heaven is for Real is for real?

In a burst of Christian honesty, Pulpit and Pen notes, with unintendended irony:

. . . we are publishing this story because Christian publishers and retailers should have known better. They should have had the spiritual discernment, wisdom, compassion, and intestinal fortitude to not sell a book which contains, along with all books like it, deep theological problems. It also doesn’t help that in what is purported to be a “TRUE STORY”  that there are vivid descriptions like which test the limits of how far we are willing to go outside the realm of scripture and accept as having been from God.“The devil’s mouth is funny looking, with only a few moldy teeth. And I’ve never noticed any ears. His body has a human form, with two bony arms and two bony legs. He has no flesh on his body, only some moldy stuff. His robes are torn and dirty. I don’t know about the color of the skin or robes—it’s all just too scary to concentrate on these things!” 

And then closes its piece this way:

The Bible is enough.

The Bible is sufficient.

Christ is enough.

Christ is sufficient.

We don’t need Christian bookstores to sell us books and resources  that tell us otherwise. We pray that Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, other Lifeway executives and all Christian book retailers will take notice of this courageous and Gospel-centered 16 year-old young man, and that everyone reading this will lift him up to the Lord.

Ironic, isn’t it, that that site found the Malarkeys’ book to be dubious but has no problems with the credibility of the Bible itself? For, after all, any rational person reading the Bible might echo Pulpit and Pen by saying, “They should have had the spiritual discernment, wisdom, compassion, and intestinal fortitude to not tout a book which contains, along with all books like it, deep theological problems. It also doesn’t help that in what is purported to be a ‘TRUE STORY’  that there are vivid descriptions like which test the limits of how far we are willing to go . . . ”

Although Alex duped people, he was young and most likely exploited. Now, still a teenager, he has the courage to admit he’s wrong, even though he says he was convinced to do so by scripture. He’s the only one that comes out of this affair looking good—certainly far better than his father and his publishers, who used the boy to make a gazillion dollars.

A Jehovah’s Witness criticizes me for criticizing their policy on blood transfusions

September 1, 2014 • 9:52 am

In my talk on the incompatibility of science and religion, I gave a “worst-case” scenarios of the harm inflicted by choosing religion over science. I’ve written about this before, so won’t belabor it here, but it involves the denial of medical care to sick or injured children on religious grounds.  In most (48/50) U.S., states, parents get a legal break (even exculpation) if their children are harmed or die because medical care is withheld on religious grounds. Christian Scientists and Pentecostal Christians are the biggest offenders, and if you want to read all about this, read When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law by Shawn Francis Peters or  God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church by Caroline Fraser (the former is more legally oriented, the latter a history of the Christian Science Church which is a great book and a real eye-opener.

But Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are also guilty, for their religion, based on two Bible verses prohibiting “eating blood,” does not allow blood transfusions. While some blood fractions are permitted, like hemoglobin itself or clotting factors, the transfusion of whole blood, plasma, red or white cells, and platelets are all prohibited. Also prohibited is the transfusion of “self-donated” blood, whereby you give blood in advance of an operation, giving you time to make new blood, and then you have a reserve should you need it. But you can’t do that—Bible says no.

As a result, many, many Jehovah’s Witnesses have died from refusing blood. Not only that, but they brainwash their children into refusing blood, too. Below is a cover and a picture taken from a 1994 issue of Awake! magazine: an official publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every child shown died from refusing blood.

How are they characterized?  As “Youths Who Put God First”! When I showed this picture during my talk, there was an audible shudder in the audience.  The children are seen as martyrs for their faith’s delusions.

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But don’t forget that even those parents who refused blood were once children, too, and most of them were probably brainwashed as well, so to say that they had the “choice” to take a transfusion ignores their own upbringing.

I won’t go into Christian Science, but read Carolyn Fraser’s book if you want to see the children killed in the name of Christian Science. What is curious in these stories—and I’ve read many—is the lack of affect the parents show after having killed their children by refusing medical care (often simple procedures like insulin injections or antibiotics).  It is as if they see their kids in the hands of God, and it’s His decision, not theirs. Most maintain that they were good parents, even though their neglect killed their children. And virtually all of those parents get off legally, or are given a slap on the wrist. (In contrast, if you neglect medical care on nonreligious grounds, there is no protection: you are guilty of child abuse or even manslaughter. This is one of the unconscionable privileges that religion gets in our country.)

At any rate, a Jehovah’s Witness came up to me at the meeting (I am curious why they want to attend an atheist/humanist meeting!) and tried to argue with me. Fortunately, I had another appointment, and couldn’t talk. But later that day I got an email from a JW, which I reproduce here without divulging names or identifying information. Note that techniques of “bloodless surgery” have been developed by doctors who deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people who don’t want blood transfusions, though it’s always better to have the option of full transfusion. At any rate, here’s what I received. I have no idea how this person knew I talked about the JWs and blood transfusion (my emphasis below):

I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who takes exception to your opinion regarding blood transfusions.  On [date redacted], our [age redacted] year old daughter was pronounced DOA after a car accident in which  she sustained an aortic tear.  Long story short, she is alive today because she did not receive a blood transfusion. The physician who operated on her is convinced she survived because she did not receive blood. According to  [name redacted] the loss of blood served to lower her blood pressure and  other bodily functions compensating for the loss of blood. It gave him the opportunity to repair the damaged aorta and she survived an operation with an 85% death rate-W/O blood!  Her hemoglobin count at one point while in an induced coma was 2.9.  She survived the very same accident from which Princess Diana died two weeks prior.  Princess Diana according to published reports was transfused right in the ambulance.  Is it possible that the added pressure on the aortic tear made the opening larger and put her body under even more stress?  As a result of this surgery, Dr. [name redacted] was asked to a Bloodless Convention to explain his findings in our daughters case. I don’t consider myself a religious fanatic nor am I easily persuaded.  I like to do objective research and am convinced that the Bible is inspired of God. His mandate re. the taking of blood is due to his knowledge of his creation.  Many doctors and scientist are revisiting their position on bloodless surgery. I would like to suggest you look at our website JW.ORG, if you are not to biased against us on general principle.

Well, even if you believe a transfusion would have killed the daughter, and I am not sure I believe it, there are many more kids who died because they didn’t get transfusions. They are the Children Who Put God First.  All doctors would like to have the option of transfusion, but they can’t use if if the patient (even a child) refuses.

The bit in bold shows the true irrationality of this stand, one that is not a simple academic dispute between science and religion, but costs people their lives. And yet this writer claims that he/she is not a religious fanatic, and makes decisions based on “objective research.” This person is wrong on both counts.

I wish there were some way to eliminate religious exemptions from medical care for children. Yet those exemptions were put in place by our own lawmakers—not because they are JWs or Christian Scientists or faith-healing Pentecostal Christians, but because they give the usual unwarranted American deference to religion. They are our laws, and we must be held to account for them. It’s time to change them. Every child should have the chance to live, and that includes getting medical care based on science rather than ambiguous passages in a fictional Iron Age document.