Friday, December 28, 2007

Religion is a Mind Virus

Suppose that through some series of quirks and kludgey combinations of features, evolution left the human organism with a set of cognitive flaws that some religious ideas exploit. Suppose that evolution left us with predispositions towards spiritual/supernatural explanations for phenomena where the natural cause isn’t immediately obvious. Imagine that it gave us a powerful set of tools for problem solving in many practical circumstances—gathering food, evading threats, finding and building shelter. But the limited scope of those tools makes it very hard for us to ponder very large systems of causes and effects, or think in terms of processes that endure for millions of years. Maybe that feeling that lots of people get when they try to imagine events receding back into history forever is a by-product of this aspect of the way our minds developed. It just seems so wrong, so counter-intuitive to so many people that there could be no first cause. It just doesn’t feel right that the world could be just physical matter with no higher being.

We have other neurological glitches that could give us some insight here. Claustrophobia affects a significant portion of the population. It could be part of the outcome of our evolution. Lots of people have an obsessive/compulsive disorder—no matter how many times they wash their hands, it still doesn’t feel like they are clean. Or they keep checking and rechecking all the locks on all the doors before they can leave the house. Something keeps nagging at the backs of their minds, no matter how carefully they try to reason through it.

So let’s entertain the hypothetical that part of the legacy that evolution left us with is a strong disposition towards religiousness. It feels like there’s a presence there listening to our innermost thoughts. It seems like some greater power is watching over us. No matter what the empirical evidence is right in front of us, we just can’t shake the feeling that there’s got to be a God up there.

One would expect, in general, that if an evolutionary process produces social creatures with sophisticated cognitive and communication skills, then a culture will spring up around them. And as that culture varies over time and different ideas, institutions, and concepts are explored, the aspects of culture that fit well with the creatures’ cognitive abilities and impairments will stick. Some ideas or patterns of information will get traction in the minds of those beings and spread through time and space. (Bans on birth control, evangelism, and pressure for large families are great ways for a set of religious ideas like Catholicism or Mormonism to rapidly spread across a population. For a very sharp blog entry about religious memes see: ) We might expect that something like religion would develop. No matter how we are cognitively configured, with enough time and enough variations on theme, human social institutions will probably stumble upon some ideas, themes, or patterns of information that will exploit whatever flaws or weaknesses there are in the human mind. It would not be surprising to find a secondary evolution of culture that produces institutions and ideas that have a powerful and deep hold on the hearts and minds of the creatures. Gambling seems to work kind of like this. The Gambler’s Fallacy is such a powerful and seductive idea that lots of people just can’t be talked out of it.

Now if religious ideas functioned like a mind virus, and you were fortunate enough to be in an era of history where we had begun to figure out what’s really going on with belief in God, how would you want to react? How would you want to spend your 74.5 years of life in the evolutionary saga? What relationship would you want to have to this set of parasitic ideas? Would you be happy to subjugate yourself to them as billions of other humans have done? Would you be content to let so many people around you continued to be hijacked? Even if this set of ideas were symbiotic in many ways and provided some emotional, psychological, or social benefits while being propagated to each new generation of humans, would you want to sustain them in your head, or would you want them out now that you know their origin?

Now we’re really turning the believer’s classic picture of the world on its head. We’re trying to propagate the atheism meme so its spreads through the population to supplant the religious ones. They say that you’re corrupted by sin when doubts about God creep in and threaten to destroy your faith. The priests, rabbis, preachers, and evangelical believers want you to surround yourself with believers, to only read their religious texts, and to purge all non-religious thoughts and activities from your life. That’s all necessary to optimize the growing conditions for the parasite in the Petri dish of your mind. If it’s dark, ignorant, intolerant, and fearful in there, it’ll take over and infect your children, your neighbors, and your politicians (shit, it’s too late already!) But it’s not really your corrupt nature and sin that’s keeping you from unity with God, it’s seductive religious ideas that have been selected through cultural evolution for maximal effectiveness, or rather, maximal infectiousness. The religious ideas would co-opt your ability to employ your powers of reason, they encourage you to doubt your own abilities. They have wound their way so deeply into the minds of its hosts, they can no longer even imagine life without believing. Imagine that those billions of years of evolution produced this human organism with so much potential to do so many remarkable things, but the vulnerability of their minds to religious infections derailed them and took over the whole race. The real sin would be to recognize what’s going on and to not say anything. The best thing you could do for humanity would be to try to reason them back to intellectual liberation.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A 300 Year Gap

Consider some conclusions that have been arrived at by New Testament scholars:

Among the people who believe that Jesus existed, the consensus is that he was executed around 35 CE.

Mark, the Gospel that is now identified as the earliest, is thought to have been written about 30 years later in 65 CE, by Mark the Evangelist (not the apostle, not an eyewitness), based upon reports that he heard from others. We do not know how many people and how many retellings of the story separated Mark from any eyewitnesses there might have been to the events.

The oldest existing copies of Mark that we possess today are from 320 CE and 370 CE.

So between the time of the alleged events surrounding Jesus’ death and the actual copies of reports of those events that we possess, 300 years passed.

We do not know how many people, or how many tellings and retellings, writings or rewritings of the story occurred between the events in the 30s and the copies from 320 CE and 370 CE. There could have been hundreds of people and hundreds of iterations of the story that transpired in that period.

Now consider some important questions that rarely get asked:

Were the people surrounding Jesus impartial, objective observers?

Were they well-equipped with the tools and cognitive abilities to detect fraud or identify self-deception?

Did they understand the value of having careful investigations into paranormal claims?

Did they understand how frequently people giving eyewitness testimony, particularly about matters that they are passionately and personally involved in, unconsciously distort evidence, sift for confirmation, and ignore counter-evidence?

Would they have been prepared to admit it if they had come to think that they were mistaken? (Would you?)

Suppose that the Jesus stories were known to be false by someone who had figured out what was really going on. Would that evidence of their falsity have survived centuries of active culling, adjusting, and protecting of the Jesus stories by faithful adherents?

Do we have reasons to think that every single person involved in the telling and retelling of the story on its path from the events in 35 CE to their eventual recording in the manuscripts from 320 and 370 CE had the goal of preserving all the important details about those events, even the ones that, had they been present, would have suggested that the miracles were not authentic?

Would the dedicated Christians who transmitted the stories about Jesus down through the centuries have the goal of preserving all of the information about him, including evidence that would have undermined the authenticity of Christianity?

Pretty clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. And if that is right, then these questions show that it is unreasonable to believe that Jesus was a supernatural, divine being because our evidence concerning him is too weak or corrupted.

The Hidden Costs of Religious Belief

The prospects for successfully arguing that religious belief is worse for us on the whole than not believing are dim. We just won’t be able to get any clear, total picture of the positives and negatives associated with it, and even if we could, the question of associated benefit and harm is separate from the question of truth.

But our general affection for religion and the powerful, irrational urge we have to be religious often make it hard to us to see some really obvious downsides. Consider all the personal pain and ruined personal relationships that disagreements over religion have caused.

How much strife has there been between parents and children, friends, and family over differences of religious opinion? The amount is staggering. How many times has a father or a grandmother disapproved of a son or a granddaughter’s lack of religious piety? How many times have a son’s parents disapproved of his choice in a girlfriend because she is not of the right religion? How many love relationships have been ruined by the tension? How many marriages have been ruined by religious differences? How many children have suffered by being torn between parents bickering over whether or not to go to church, or which church to go to, or what they think about God? How many times has a son or daughter been heartbroken, lonely, or rejected because mom or dad disapproves of them on some religious grounds?

I suspect that there is hardly a single family in the United States where there have not been fights or emotional strain to some degree over religion. In lots of cases, family members get estranged and don’t speak for the rest of their lives. Relationships that are vital for human flourishing get completely destroyed over petty, pointless disagreements that are based on complete fictions. A person ends up being cut off and even despised by the people that they need and love the most over ideas that have no basis in reality.

Over the course of centuries, the amount of this kind of absurd suffering adds up to unimaginable levels. But since these sorts of harms are not the kind that will end up on the news, or get talked about openly, they remain hidden from view. The obvious question in all of these cases is, which is more important in the big picture—your relationship with your son, daughter, mother, or father? Or your adherence to a religious idea? Your marriage? Or a religious principle? The person you love? Or a religious impulse? The extended family relationships that a human needs to be happy? Or a religious idea?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

4 Important Modern Atheists Discuss Their Work

In recent years, no authors have given more influential arguments for nonbelief than Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris. A recent meeting of the four great minds was recorded and will be available soon on

The discussion can be watched online here:

Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris Discuss Nonbelief and Reactions to their Work

Here are some choice quotes from the discussion:

"Religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude. They play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity and you are faced with the choice of articulating the criticism or buttoning your lip.” Daniel Dennett

"If you play the faith card and say that you’re a Christian and you therefore have to believe, at that point we must say, then you have to excuse yourself from the discussion because you have declared yourself incompetent to proceed with an open mind. If you really can’t defend your view [with reasons] then you can’t put it forward. You can’t defend what your holy book says as true, you can’t do it by acknowledging that all you have is faith. Daniel Dennett

"A creative intelligence who is sufficiently intelligent to create all of the finely tuned constants of the universe to give rise to us has got to be a lot more fine tuned itself. And some explanation would need to be given of it." Richard Dawkins

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Begging the Question: Miracles and Nature

There are a great many people who want to give God credit for the order, beauty, and balance of nature. Recent versions of the design argument and so-called fine tuning arguments, for instance, present the claim that were it not for the actions of God, we would not find a universe full of matter that abides by a set of physical laws. And if it were not for God, we would not expect to find the universe so finely tuned to be hospitable to life. But we do find a lawful universe that is hospitable to life, so there must be a God.

Now consider the wide array of arguments that would have us believe in the existence of God on the basis of miracles. In the past, there occurred events that were bona fide violations of the laws of nature: Jesus walked on water, Jesus was resurrected from the dead, the sick were healed, the hungry were fed. And it is on the basis of reports of these events that millions if not billions of people have come to believe that Jesus was really the son of God and that God exists. After all, only God could have been responsible for such acts.

But there’s a real problem here with these two approaches to believing in God. You can’t have it both ways. It is a manifest incompatibility to argue for God’s existence based on the orderliness, lawfulness, and regularity of matter on the one hand, and also argue that God’s existence is proven by miracles. In design and fine tuning arguments, God gets credit for all the daily non-miraculous occurrences in nature. The fact that there are regular laws of nature that perfectly predict the behavior of matter is taken to show that God exerts his power against the intrinsic lawlessness of the world (see if you can make sense of that notion on its own). The uniformity of physics is contrasted to the way that things could be or would be on their own: unlawful. But when miracles are employed to prove the existence of God, then an unlawful event is taken to show God’s existence in contrast to the way that things would have otherwise been without God’s intervention: lawful.

So it would appear that no matter what happens, miracle or not, God will be credited. But this kind of double-dealing makes a sham of the pretense at proving God’s existence from any independent grounds. The circularity of this brand of theism is painfully clear. It would seem that God’s existence is indefeasible. You can’t only allow the evidence to support your conclusion without allowing for the possibility that the evidence could disprove it. Otherwise, we can’t make any sense of what it is for evidence to support. The conclusion—God exists—is inescapable because it’s already been decided before the evidence was ever consulted. When all possible evidence is claimed in its favor, then the evidence isn’t really playing any role in the argument. When nature is orderly, that can only be because of God’s power. And when nature is violated, that can also only be because of God’s power. But if no possible states of affairs can fail to support the conclusion, then they weren’t really giving us independent grounds at all. Ordinarily, if we think that the evidence supports a conclusion, then we think that if that evidence had not been the case, then the conclusion wouldn’t have followed. If the defendant hadn’t been recorded by the security camera shooting the clerk in the gas station, and if he hadn’t been seen by a dozen witnesses who identified him leaving the scene, then we wouldn’t have as strong a case for his guilt.

So the believer is cheating when they maintains that a) the orderliness of nature couldn’t have come about by chance, only God could have done it, and b) there really have been miracles, therefore God exists. Both of these arguments are only a pretense at being reasonable when in fact there are no occurrences that they wouldn’t take to prove God. That’s not proving anything, that’s just finding the conclusion that you planted there in the first place. The evidence never mattered to them at all.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Top Ten Suggestions For Performing Better Miracles:

If God was interested in proving something with miracles here are 10 things he needs to do better:

1) The claim that a violation of the laws of nature has occurred should not be evaluated or investigated by committed, zealous believers. Humans have an uncanny knack for finding what they are looking for. The virtue of double blind testing procedures in science is that they help us prevent undue influence by wishful thinking, conflicts of interest, hedging, confirmation bias, and sloppy thinking. Many people claim that there are miracles happening on a regular basis now. It would be a relatively easy matter to have an independent panel of objective evaluators, doctors in the case of a healing miracle, examine just the evidence before and after an alleged healing without any leading or suggestive information about what they are looking for. Just show them the X rays, or the diagnoses, or the CAT scans before and after someone is alleged to have been healed of a brain tumor, for example.

2) In general, small samples of information are less trustworthy. The more evidence that can be gathered the better. If a miracle were to occur, all other things being equal, we would have better evidence if there are more people who attest to it. A few emotional believers with a great deal of investment in the cause of the miracle claim are not as reliable (or not reliable at all) as a large group of diverse, autonomous people. If God has the goal of proving his existence through miracles, he’d need to make them evident to a great many, well-educated, skeptical minded people who do not already believe.

3) The larger scale a miracle is, the greater the possibility that it can be corroborated, confirmed, cross-checked, and witnessed. A small miracle—a spiritual leader making a golden ring appear in his palm (which is an old magician’s trick)—is going to be more difficult to confirm, more likely to be faked, and less indicative of some real violation of the laws of nature than a large one. With small miracles, the rest of us are morely likely to get hearsay, anecdotal evidence, conflicting stories, and poor transmission of the information. A miracle that appears to everyone could be vastly more effective. And surely an omnipotent God, or even just a very powerful God would be up to the bigger task.

4) The power of suggestion, social pressure, and peer expectation can be very influential in getting people to believe that something special or extraordinary has happened. Countless psychological studies have shown that it takes very little prompting and only slight suggestions to get people to fabricate stories, deny what they have seen with their own eyes, and come to genuinely believe something a mistake. Any miracle claim is going to be up against this psychological background that will create challenges to its authenticity.

5) Stage magicians have devised ways, through entirely natural means of trickery, to perform feats that are stunning for what they appear to be. They make large objects like cars disappear and reappear. They make people disappear and reappear. They appear to be able to levitate, walk on water, and transport from one location to another instantly. The ability of con artists and performers to do these tricks casts substantial doubts on any alleged miracle that resembles them. Wouldn’t it be perverse of God to bring about a real miracle, but it was the sort of thing that is easily duplicated by a teenager with a magic kit or a magic how-to book, and thereby completely obscure its significance and occurrence?

6) For the miracles we have been confronted with in religious history, having all power and all knowledge might be sufficient conditions for performing them, but they are not necessary. That is, for alleged miracles like healings, levitations, resurrections, making objects appear and reappear, and so on, it would appear that an all-powerful and an all-knowing being could be capable of doing them. But having those properties are not necessary. All that would be necessary to resurrect someone from the dead, for instance, would be just enough power to perform that act (provided it wasn’t faked or mistaken altogether). The occurrence of a miracle by itself, therefore, isn’t evidence for an all-powerful, all-knowing being. It would merely be consistent with such a being’s existence. You wouldn’t want to convict a murder suspect on the grounds that he was in town the night of the murder, would you, since that evidence is consistent with his committing the murder. You were in town that night too. So God’s got a big challenge trying to convince anyone of his existence with miracles. It looks like miracles simply aren’t up to the task.

7) Events that are merely fortuitous for the person considering them, like having a baby, or surviving a car wreck (while many babies are still born, and many other people die in car wrecks), even if they really are the result of God’s violating the laws of nature, just aren’t going to be convincing to anyone who thinks about it very much. These sorts of events don’t look special at all when viewed from a distance. In fact, they appear to be completely predictable and ordinary—every day there will be some people who will survive car wrecks, especially with seatbelts and airbags, and every day there are babies born, especially when people have unprotected sex. Couldn’t I throw a ball up into the air and just as well claim that its coming down is a result of my divine powers and is evidence of my miraculous powers? If it was going to happen anyway, can’t everyone equally claim credit for it, and doesn’t that show that no one gets credit for it as a miracle?

8) Powerful feelings of awe, religious significance, excitement, and enthusiasm themselves are not indicators that something special has happened in the world. We have too many examples of cases where people got very worked up over things that turned out to be mistakes, deceptions, or just insignificant events. Recall that eclipses have been treated in history as indicators of profound supernatural significance. Presumably, God would have the ability to do something more than induce such feelings in people, and he’d know how much those feelings cloud the truth.

9) As the people living in the Iron Age saw it, the world was infused with magical and supernatural events. Their minds and lives must have been overrun with spooks, spirits, supernatural forces, mysteries, and frightening possibilities. Virtually none of the facts about nature that you take for granted were a part of their knowledge base. They didn’t know that such a thing as oxygen exists, they didn’t know that infections are caused by viruses, they didn’t know that it gets dark at night because the earth is turning, they didn’t know what made water boil, and they didn’t know that there are no evil demons. The vast majority of them did not know how to read or write. The average life expectancy was 20-30 years because of their staggering ignorance of medical science and basic hygiene and public sanitation.

If you were God and you were going to pick an audience with the intention of proving your existence and communicating your desires, you almost could not find a more gullible, easily impressed, and more ignorant group. It would take surprisingly little to completely stun them—a toaster would appear to be a wondrous, and miraculous artifact from heaven.

10) The placebo effect is well-documented in human beings. When they have the expectation that they are getting treated for a medical problem, the expectation itself has a substantial effect on their state and their reporting of their state. A minimum requirement for even the most modest over-the-counter cold medicine is that it must demonstrate effectiveness significantly beyond the placebo effect level. If it does not, the FDA will not allow manufacturers to claim any real capacity to treat illness. The effects felt in many putative spiritual cures, alternative medical therapies, faith healings, and alleged miracles are undoubtedly the placebo effect. If you’re God and you’re performing miracles, you need to do better than that. And presumably, you’d have the power, the knowledge, and the will to do so.

Conclusion: As far as I know, not a single religious miracle in all of recorded human history satisfies even a single one of these modest, reasonable, and obvious suggestions. Yet they are the sort of requirements that even 14 year-old high school science student understands and learns how to investigate empirically. How can it be that the most powerful, most knowing, and morally perfect supernatural being in the universe can’t seem to do any better? Answer: there isn’t one.