Comparing Religions VIII: Honest Messengers

The next questions are best considered together:

8. Did the main witnesses benefit materially from their testimony, or did they suffer for it?

9. Is there significant evidence of fraud among the originators of the religion?

Jesus preached a message of self-sacrifice, and went to the Cross.  His Apostles, although respected in the Christian church, could reasonably expect to live unpleasant lives and be killed for their testimony.  Tradition states that nearly all the Apostles were martyred, and we have pretty good historical documentation of this in the case of a few key eye-witnesses (Sts. Peter, Paul, James the Apostle, and James the brother of Jesus).

On the other hand, many cult leaders have deliberately created religions on purpose in order to get money, sex, and fame.  If the religious leader gets plenty of women, wealth and power, then one can reasonably suspect ulterior motives.  Especially if their "revelations" support their own power-seeking agenda.

Certainly, if a religious leader engaged in other sorts of fraud, confidence schemes, crimes or other immoral conduct, that should be a huge red flag!  (Especially if they did so after starting their religion; but even frauds committed beforehand serve as evidence of character, especially if they didn't show any signs of remorse.)

If you are a follower of any of the religious founders mentioned below, I ask for your patience and tolerance, as an adequate exploration of this topic is bound to touch on some sensitive issues.  But on a matter as important as this, I think it is important for me to tell the truth as I see it, even when the facts do not seem to be very flattering to the individuals concerned.

L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology)

For example, in the case of Hubbard, he is well known to have told multiple people beforehand that "the easiest way to make money would be to start a religion," prior to founding Scientology and fleecing tens of millions of dollars from gullible marks.  (The main way to advance in Scientology is to pay the "Church" tons of money for classes.)

This suggests an "Hubbard test" for diagnosing false prophets.  If they get a gazillion bucks or lots of sex from preaching their religion, then any testimony they give about the divine is tainted given the obvious incentives for them to do what they are doing.

Some other cult leaders pretty obviously fail this test:

Joseph Smith (Latter Day Saints, i.e. "Mormonism")

Prior to becoming a religious founder, Joseph Smith was already notorious for scamming people out of their money to fund "treasure hunts" using seer stones, to the extent that he eventually faced prosecution:

Smith was arrested for disturbing the peace, a charge commonly used for charlatans and tricksters, and according to the Vagrant Act of New York included those “pretending to tell fortunes, or to discover where lost goods may be found.” Referred to as “The Glass Looker” in court documents, Joseph openly admitted to indulging in magic arts and organizing hunts for buried gold. New York law provided punishment for disorderly persons, whose definition included jugglers (conjurors), diviners, and those pretending to have skill in discovering lost goods. The charge aligns with uncle Jesse Smith’s description of Joseph: “He says he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are, and that the angel of the Lord . . . has put him in possession of great wealth, gold, silver, precious stones.”

Given that no treasure ever materialized, Stowell’s nephew, Peter Bridgeman took legal action after he became sufficiently concerned over Smith’s unfulfilled promises, ever-increasing requests for money and complaints about treasure slipping away at the slightest infraction. In his complaint, he wrote: “Mr. Stowell is represented as being not a very bright man, but he had saved considerable money for those times, and Joe Smith managed to get and spend most of it.”

And after being commissioned as a "Prophet", Smith came up with a purported divine revelation in which "God" [actually Joseph Smith] tells Emma that he could break his oath to her and marry additional wives, with her consent:

61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else. (Doctrine and Covenants 132)

Oh, wait, just kidding about her permission being required: if she rejects the institution of plural marriage God will punish her and Smith will be exempted from that requirement:

64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.

65 Therefore, it shall be lawful in me, if she receive not this law, for him to receive all things whatsoever I, the Lord his God, will give unto him, because she did not believe and administer unto him according to my word; and she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.

(Obviously, any attempts of Smith to state that he only very reluctantly accepted the religious obligation to sleep with a bunch of attractive young women should be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.)

Oh, and don't read too much into the "virgin" bit either, since Joseph also liked to convince married women into sleeping with him, under the guise of offering an "eternal marriage", including some women he seduced without the knowledge or permission of his first wife Emma!  (Here is corroboration of the factual aspects by a Mormon apologetics site, along with some unconvincing attempts to argue that it isn't really adultery to have sexual relations with women who are legally married to other men.)

And finally Smith's "martyrdom" in prison doesn't really have a huge amount of evidential value regarding his sincerity, given that he was shooting his assailants at the time.  These are not the actions of a man resigned to death.

Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)

Mary Baker Eddy made some dictatorial rules for her church which include: 1) not bothering her with information she didn't want to know, 2) always calling her by her proper title, 3) the right to make any female congregant serve her as a personal maid in her home.  What a &$@!

Apparently she was also paranoid that people would "maliciously mesmerize" her, and would excommunicate people for this offense on the turn of a dime.  This is not the kind of suffering for one's faith that makes it more credible.

Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church)

The abusive antics of Sun Myung Moon (and his supposedly sinless family) are similarly well documented.  Moon's doctrine was that he could create a new perfect human family by, well abuse.  According to the link above:

While Moon’s theology had geopolitical ambitions, he saw his family as the means for realizing his vision. At the age of 40, he married his cook’s daughter, a delicate 17-year-old beauty named Hak Ja Han. Moon claimed that their union marked the beginning of the “completed testament” era, in which Moon would reverse the fall of man by making his wife pay penance for Eve’s sins. For three years, he stashed Hak Ja Han in a rented room, kept her in bitter poverty, and forbid her from seeing her family. The goal was to rid her of Eve-like defiance and cultivate “absolute obedience” so that she could bear children free of original sin. By the winter of 1960, the first of these perfect children had arrived.

It turns out that when you teach your cult that your children are literally perfect, they turn out kind of messed up:

The task of caring for the messiah’s children fell to his followers, who didn’t dare discipline them. “The Moon kids were like gods—completely and utterly exempt from the rules,” says Donna Orme-Collins, a onetime Unificationist whose father directed the British church. Moon’s eldest son, Steve, a plain, slender boy, was particularly brazen. In the late ’70s, he was expelled from an elite middle school for shooting students with a BB gun. Moon sent him to live with Bo Hi Pak, but Steve’s behavior only deteriorated. He started doing drugs and picking fights, and Pak was unable to rein him in. At one point, according to members of the Moon and Pak families, Pak even resorted to spanking his own son—a sweet, studious boy who went by the American name James Park—when Steve got out of line.

You can click on the link above for the rest of the sordid story.

[Including a connection to Hunter Biden, for you political junkies!  I wrote the first draft of this post well before the Trump scandal, so I was a bit surprised to find him there when I reread the article.]

The cult leaders above are somewhat niche figures, who preached messages which could also be rejected on more philosophical grounds.  But now I would ask you to bear with me as we apply the same test to the founder of a major world religion:

Mohammad (Islam)

While Mohammad's persistence under persecution during the early phases of his ministry is quite impressive, it would have been more impressive if the later stages of his career did not contain so much retaliation and bloodshed.

Similarly, while his moderation when it came to material possessions was admirable, it is blemished by his lack of self-restraint when it comes to sex; although other Muslim men were limited to 4 wives (plus slave women), he allowed himself 11 at once (plus slave women).  As it says in the Quran:

Prophet, We have made lawful for you the wives whose bride gift you have paid, and any slaves God has assigned to you through war, and the daughters of your uncles and aunts on your father's and mother's sides, who migrated with you.  Also any believing woman who has offered herself to the Prophet and whom the Prophet wishes to wed—this is only for you and not the rest of the believers.  We know exactly what We have made obligatory for them concerning their wives and slave-girls—so you should not be blamed: God is most forgiving, most merciful.

You may make any of [your women] wait and receive them as you wish, but you will not be at fault if you invite one whose turn you previously set aside: this way it is more likely they will be satisfied and will not be distressed and will all be content with what you have given them.  God knows what is in your hearts: God is all knowing, forbearing.  You are not permitted to take any further wives, nor to exchange the wives you have with others, even if these attract you with their beauty.  But this does not apply to your slave-girls: God is watchful over all.  (Haleem translation of Sura 33:50-52)

His immediate Companions also received significant quantities of status and booty, through military victory, as a result of their close connection to their prophet.

While many of them fought courageously and died in battle, and many doubtless sincerely believed Mohammad's prophecies, those who survived were able to profit considerably from the new religion.  This has to be taken into consideration when evaluating their testimony.

Regarding evidence of possible deception, there are a few red flags, in which divine revelations to Mohammad just so happened to come out in an extremely "convenient" way for him personally.  Here are three particularly notable incidents, each of them reported by faithful Muslims (and each partially corroborated by the Quran):

1) Visibly coveting a wife he gave to his adopted son Zayd, then later (after they divorced) making a ruling that adoption isn't legal in Islam, thus allowing Mohammad himself to marry her (otherwise it would have been considered incest according to the Arab culture of the time).  Part of this event is alluded to in Sura 33:37-40 of the Quran:

When you said to the man who had been favored by God and by you, `Keep your wife and be mindful of God', you hid in your heart what God would later reveal: you were afraid of people, but it is more fitting that you fear God.  When Zayd no longer wanted her, We gave her to you in marriage so that there might be no fault in believers marrying the wives of their adopted sons after they no longer wanted them.  God's command must be carried out: the Prophet is not at fault for what God has ordained for him.  This was God's practice with those who went before—God's command must be fulfilled—[with] those who deliver God's messages and fear only Him and no other: God's reckoning is enough.  Muhammed is not the father of any one of you men; he is God's Messenger and the seal of the prophets: God knows everything.  (Haleem)

In other words, under the guise of forbidding adoption, he changed the rules about incest in order to benefit himself personally.  Of course he said God was the one changing the rules, but we have only his word for it, and the motivations don't look good here.

[Incidentally, this is another difference with the New Testament, which talks about adoption as a metaphor for how God welcomes us as his own family.]

2) Raising the number of required eyewitnesses needed for an adultery accusation to 4, after his favorite wife Aisha was accused of misconduct, and (absurdly) mandating punishment for all those who testify, if not enough witnesses are found:

Those who accuse married women of adultery, then fail to produce four witnesses, you shall whip them eighty lashes, and do not accept any testimony from them; they are wicked.  If they repent afterwards and reform, then God is Forgiver, Merciful.  (Sura 24:4)

For all I know Aisha was in fact innocent, but that does not justify introducing permanent injustices into the legal system, to protect the interests of a single person.  It is quite obvious that simply failing to meet an enormously high burden of proof, does not automatically imply that those testifying are guilty of perjury.

Perhaps (as many Western countries now seem to believe) the best legal system should not punish adultery at all.  But what is the point of making it punishable but also virtually impossible to try to prove it without incurring serious consequences?

3) The "Satanic Verses" incident, in which Mohammad apparently revealed some verses for Sura 53 of the Quran, making concessions to Meccan polytheism.  Then he back-pedalled by saying that Satan had actually recited that verse in his voice!

Then he claimed that all previous prophets had had the same issue.  This implausible self-justification can be found in Sura 24:52-55:

And We did not send before you any messenger or prophet except that when he spoke [or recited], Satan threw into it [some misunderstanding].  But Allah abolishes that which Satan throws in; then Allah makes precise His verses.  And Allah is Knowing and Wise.  [That is] so He may make what Satan throws in a trial for those within whose hearts is disease and those hard of heart.  And indeed, the wrongdoers are in extreme dissension.  And so those who were given knowledge may know that it is the truth from your Lord and [therefore] believe in it, and their hearts humbly submit to it.  And indeed is Allah the Guide of those who have believed to a straight path.  But those who disbelieve will not cease to be in doubt of it until the Hour comes upon them unexpectedly or there comes to them the punishment of a barren Day.

This incident is discussed in more detail by early Muslim traditions, which describe the details of the previously revealed verse and how Mohammad corrected it.

(Many Muslim hadith scholars do not accept as authentic any of the hadith giving the story of the previously "revealed" Satanic verse, due to various defects in the relevant chains of transmission.  However, I think some allowance must be made for the unwillingness of Muslims to propogate material so embarrassing to their Prophet.  The tradition is still credible because: a) there are multiple early sources, b) it was accepted by the earliest Muslim biographers, and c) it makes coherent sense of the verses above in the Quran.)

If there were events of this kind narrated in the New Testament, that would make it a lot harder for me to trust it.  Especially if there seemed to be a pattern of self-serving behavior.

What about their justifications for this behavior?

Of course, it is always possible for a person who claims to speak for God to make up some reason for why what they are doing is justified.  When you have the social ability to freely invent stories about why you had to abuse people for the sake of their immortal souls or whatever, and if you have a community who trusts you enough that these claims are believed, this gives you a lot of power!  So it's playing with the net down to ask whether the religious founder was justified by their own strictures, given their ability to amend those rules at any moment (although many cult leaders do not even meet this low standard).  It's better to ask:

1. To what extent did these religious leaders follow the ordinary conventional moral rules about fair play, chastity etc. that everyone in their culture already knew about?

2. To the extent they argued for changes to the rules, did they follow the same rules which they imposed on everyone else?  Are they a good example of what they are preaching?

(We can also ask if the new moral teachings are an improvement on what came before, but that is the subject of the next post in the series.)

From the perspective of a prospective follower who has to decide whether to place their trust in a claimed religious leader, one cannot simply accept at face value a prophet's claim to be a good person.

If I am supposed to accept somebody as a representative of God on the basis of their moral character, then that moral character needs to, at a minimum, be recognizably good by my own standards, even if in certain respects it goes beyond what I already know.  If I also have to take their moral goodness on faith—if they use their status to behave like a person on a power-trip would—then there is no good reason to take their claim seriously.

Jesus (Christianity)

It is generally pretty easy to tell whether a religious founder craves money and sex and ego.  Just look to see whether they in fact fleece their followers for money and pressure a bunch of girls into sleeping with them!  These kinds of religious leaders justify Jesus' statement that:

All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  They will come in and go out, and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  (John 10:7-13)

This should not be interpreted as saying that no sincere religious leaders ever existed before Jesus, since we know for a fact that Jesus regarded Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah etc. as authentic followers who served him beforehand.  Nor does it imply the nonexistence of wise (albeit sometimes misguided) sages, such as Confucius, Laozi, Plato, certain rabbis, or even Buddha.  These people never intended to put forward themselves as the object of veneration.

Christ did put himself forward as an object of veneration, but he also rejected earthly ambitions and power-games.  Instead he humbled himself to the point of voluntarily accepting death by torture.  It was in this way that he sought to save humanity, while remaining a humble suffering servant, not craving the praise of human beings.  He only cared for what his Father thought was important.

To be sure, Jesus' contemporaries definitely accused him (and his apostles) of fraud and malfeasance.  If you can take seriously the accusations that were actually made in the first century (e.g. that he did miracles by magic, or that his disciples stole his body on Easter to fake the Resurrection) then I suppose nothing I can say here is likely to make a difference to you.  But I don't see in the New Testament any smoking guns, of the sort one would expect from a con artist trying to pull the wool over people's eyes in order to turn a profit.

(The New Testament does tell people to put their faith or trust in the message, even when circumstances seem dark and discouraging, but I am not so cynical as to interpret this as an admission of fraud all by itself.  It's when you catch a religious leader pilfering from the money-box, or diddling a kid, and then they tell you that you just need more faith—that's when you should kick them to the curb.)

I do not, however, want to give the impression that Jesus was perceived as impeccable by his contemporaries.  Far from it!  His sinless perfection (if Christianity is true) consisted not in perfect conformity to human social convention, but rather the overthrowing of those standards in favor of God's new kingdom.  To be fair, I ought to therefore show the more "scandalous" side of Jesus, and we can see if it is in any way parallel to the transgressions above.

One accusation found in the Gospels is that Jesus was

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

but this related to a controversy over whether religious people ought to socialize with "bad people" who don't keep all the rules.  Jesus' self-conception, as someone sent by God to "seek and save the lost", is what sent him to these parties, more than a lack of ascetic discipline.  Many modern people, more sympathetic to the idea of universal love, will probably not find this quite as objectionable as the religious leaders of the day did.  Although I've heard that there are still a few "Pharisees" around in some Christian circles, who would object to a religious leader doing the same thing today.

(As for excessive use of food and alcohol, these are bad habits by definition, but it involves a judgement call.  We can reasonably doubt whether the critics who didn't want him going to these parties in the first place, were very attentive to the exact quantities involved.)

Let's leave aside for the moment all these controversies related to Jesus' mission and identity, his interpretation of the law and welcoming of sinners, and his vehement critique of the religious establishment.  Those kinds of topics are the subjects of other posts in this series, and are not really analogous to the kind of moral transgressions and self-serving "revelations" that we've been discussing.  We are looking for a more personal abuse of authority.

From that perspective, what is the most outrageous action of Jesus?  Perhaps it is this:

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.  She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor."  And they rebuked her harshly.

"Leave her alone," said Jesus.  "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.  But you will not always have me.  She did what she could.  She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

An unsympathetic reading of this passage would be as follows: Jesus takes advantage of his religious charisma, in order to receive inappropriate public attention from a woman he isn't married to.  And in the process he accepts a luxury item so expensive, that arguably nobody is justified in consuming it—let alone a person who strongly advised his followers to "sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Luke 12:33Matt 19:21).

It is true that Jesus did not (so far as the story indicates) command the woman to act in this way.  But instead of rebuking her for the waste, he encourages her; and even presents himself as a more worthy recipient of the gift, than the numerous poor who existed in the land.  Does this make him a hypocrite?

The disciples were scandalized, and John even hints that this was the precipitating event that motivated Judas Iscariot to plan to hand Jesus over to the religious authorities.  So we are not here dealing with an event unfavorably interpreted by outsiders, but rather an event capable of alienating a close disciple, who had given up quite a bit to follow Jesus (and was now apparently regretting that investment).

It is important not to accept a tendentious explanation, of a sort that I would find absurd if given by some random cult leader.  At the same time, we also need to think about what this action would mean, if Jesus is really who he says he is.  The question is: which hypothesis explains better Jesus's reactions to the situation?

Taken in full context, I think the disciples' objection shows itself to be superficial.  Less than a week after this event, Jesus is arrested and killed.  He sees this act of sacrifice as the culminating point of his ministry.  As a general rule, Jesus never joined with those who criticized people for their spontaneous acts of devotion to God.  But in this case, he justifies the woman's act as particularly suitable, because he is about to become a corpse.  So this event is not really about a lifestyle of sensuality, but rather Jesus acknowledging a station on the road to Golgotha.

From an aesthetic point of view, her act is fitting and beautiful, and will be remembered long after other acts of charity are forgotten.  Jesus does not forget the poor, but he affirms this woman's act precisely because of its consonance with the Gospel proclamation.

The term Christ taken literally means someone anointed with oil (as kings of Israel used to be anointed, when they began to rule).   This refers primarily to his anointing with the Holy Spirit, but it was fitting that one who wore a crown of thorns should also be literally anointed.  This was done by a woman totally outside of the usual structures of religious authority, who nevertheless recognized his glory.

Jesus recognizes her love, and elevates her act to a sacramental anointing which reveals God in operation.  Just as (at the beginning of his ministry) his submission to John's baptism transformed its meaning into an enactment of death and new birth.  If the onlookers don't understand, and view his conduct as inappropriate for a decent rabbi, that's their problem.  Like David dancing before the ark, his spiritual compass points in a different direction than his detractors.  In the light of all the acts of self-forgetting devotion which will follow from future saints, the critic's perspective seems more limited here.

In any case, the context clearly shows that Jesus was not aiming at the same thing as a typical cult leader, which is the important point for the time being.

Good Friday, 2021.

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Next: An Unfulfilled Prophecy?

Posted in History, Theological Method | 8 Comments

Need Help with Writing?

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What is the connection between this and my usual science and religion fare?  Well that's simple.  THIS content (on my blog, anyway) is always going to be free.  But if you'd like to support us, you can always go over there and pay for THAT content.

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Saving Energy Conservation

There's an interesting conversation on Energy Conservation going on under my post about how The Universe can't `Just Exist'.  I wrote a reply in that thread which I've decided to turn into a main post.

Saving Energy Conservation:
What would Physicists do if an Experiment showed that Energy Conservation is False?

Just because current experiments seem to show that energy is conserved, doesn't mean a future experiment might not violate energy conservation.

However, what this would actually look like in practice, would be a complicated dialectic involving both experiment and theory.

So suppose for example we do an experiment and it looks like under such-and-such conditions, a box of electrons seemed to get new kinetic energy seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Then I think scientists would probably go through something like the following stages (not entirely unlike the silly pop-psych notion of "Stages of Grief")

1. The first thing physicists would do is suspect that there is some sort of experimental measurment error.  In other words, reject the experimental result on the basis of well-established theory, and try to look for a reason why the mistake was made.  Either because of a measurement error, or because of leakage from some established type of energy (like thermal leakage or external electric fields or something).

[This is like the "Denial" stage of grief, but unlike when somebody dies, most of the time when a scientific experiment discovers something really weird, denial is the right first reaction!  Maybe there might be a bit of "Anger" too if the experimentalists are crackpots or making a slipshod mistake, and refuse to accept correction.]

2. If scientists conclude the effect is real, then they would try to find a new physical theory which explains the effect.  Most conservatively, by adding a new type of particle or interaction.  Importantly, we would normally try to redefine energy in such a way that it is still conserved in the new theory, even if we have to add a new term to the formula for energy.

[I guess this is the "Bargaining" stage of grief, but again if this is successful there is no need to go onto the next stages...]

3. If, after repeated efforts, it appears that there is NO reasonable or natural way to modify our physics theories (and associated definitions) in such a way that there is a conserved energy, then this would rise to the level of a crisis in physics ["Depression"], and people would start looking for more radical solutions to the problem.

4. But if it was discovered that there ARE simple ways to explain the data, by using theoretical models which DON'T have any interesting or useful concept of energy conservation; then (and only then) would we conclude that Energy Conservation is false. ["Acceptance"]

In other words, the first instinct of physicists would be to try to save the paradigm of the theory of Energy Conservation, and there are lots of different ways that this can be done—including questioning the experiment, postulating new physics, and subtle redefinitions of what we mean by "energy".  This might lead one to think that physicists have an absolute a priori commitment to energy conservation.  But I don't think that's true.  I think the paradigm of Energy Conservation is like a piece of toffee, where you can stretch it a lot, but if you stretch it too much it will break.  In other words, there exists the potential for future experiments to drive sufficiently radical changes of our theories, that the concept of energy is no longer applicable (except in whatever approximations are needed for the old paradigm to hold).

As I said before, one can certainly write down differential equations which do not satisfy a conservation law, for any quantity that resembles an energy.  (A simple example would be if the laws of Nature turn out to be explicitly time dependent. In that case Noether's proof of energy conservation would not apply, and energy could be created or destroyed!

[As I mentioned previously, to some extent energy conservation is already problematic already in general relativistic cosmology, as I've discussed before here and here.]

Posted in Scientific Method | 56 Comments

Respect for the Presidency (and Parents)

About 4 years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Respect for the President in which I argued that Christians have the moral duty to show a certain degree respect to the leader of their country.  I wrote:

The Bible passages above make it clear that we are required to give respect and not merely grudging obedience to our leaders.  Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the President's policy decisions, to sound the alarm at usurpations of power, to whistleblow crimes, to reject immorality etc.  You are not required to agree with him or her, any more than the command to "honor your father and mother" means you must always agree with their decisions.

About the specific candidates for the election, I said that:

That does not mean I am neutral when it comes to this election.  While I am not a huge fan of either candidate this season, Donald Trump is far more dangerous, irresponsible, and crude than his rival, and I may have some personal difficulty in following my own advice if he is elected.  Although it is conceivable he would keep his promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in keeping with my own views, this year the "worst case scenarios" for the Executive Branch seem way worse than for the Judicial Branch.

Well, Trump has kept his promise to appoint conservative justices, I'll give him that.

But in other respects, I don't think he's really governed as a conservative at all.  Nobody who is almost completely without respect for honor, decency, military service, civil unity, the Constitution, or due process of law, can really be called a conservative in any meaningful sense.  Unless you just mean that phrase as an arbitrary label to describe one particular political team, I think that both in temperament and policy, St. Joe Biden is much closer to being conservative than Trump is.

(For that matter, I have some qualms about calling a "conservative" anyone who doesn't believe in some form of environmental conservation—the arguments for doing so are almost exactly the same as the arguments for not making radical changes to the economy or civil society, namely that these things represent a delicate balance that has evolved over a long period of time, and that balance is easy to destroy but very hard to replace.  In other words, it's a bad idea to try to cut off the branch you are sitting on.

Except that actually it's even more foolish to ruin the ecology, as in that case we are talking about a system which God allowed to evolve over millions of years, not mere hundreds of years.  I believe that we humans have been placed on this Earth as divinely appointed stewards of the Environment.  God wants us to cultivate our planet and care for it—not pillage and destroy it for the short-term profit of shareholders.  It may be hard to replace a repressive system of government, but it is far easier than to recreate an extinct species, or to suck 1/3 of the carbon dioxide out of the air in order to return the atmosphere to the condition it was in before the Industrial Revolution.)

This is not really a political blog, and I don't think it is useful to make long lists of links to describe (1) all of the cruel or irresponsible things that the current President has done,  (2) formerly respected conservatives who have come out against him, (3) the way his politicization and minimization of the Covid Pandemic led to a far larger death toll than necessary (currently around 200,000).  There are plenty of other places on the Internet to read about this sort of thing, so I try to avoid getting mired in politics except when I have a distinctive angle.   Nor do I think I am very likely to persuade anyone of Trump's unfitness to hold office, who doesn't already acknowledge that fact.

Nor is it particularly worthwhile to recount all of the ways in which Trump, at least verbally, likes to subvert American instiutions by verbally playing around with ideas like violence towards journalists, or voting twice, or chanting "12 more years" instead of "4 more years" during the Republican Convention.  (But I'm sure he just meant 4 more years of him, and then 8 more years of some other Republican crony.  Right...)  This is the way he tests out authoritarian fantasies (things that are currently impossible in our system, but would be possible in other countries, and might eventually become possible here).

If people call him on it, his supporters just say that he was just joking.  But even if that is true, this is still not the path of wisdom:

Like a madman shooting
firebrands or deadly arrows
is a man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”

Without wood a fire goes out;
without a gossip a quarrel dies down.
As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.
(Proverbs 26:18-21)

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, not to sow discord and strife!

Even an Incompetent Administration gets some things right

It would probably be far easier to make a list of the very few things I think the Trump administration has done well, such as signing the First Step Act, negotiating a peace treaty between Israel and the UAE, and rolling back a few of the last administration's more creative interpretations of Executive authority (for example on educational policy).

The tax bill he signed made a few structural improvements (e.g. by cutting back on several popular deductions which many economists think are bad policy), and might end up becoming a balanced reform after Democrats get a chance to make some changes.  But I think it was a net negative, due to killing the individual mandate.  Despite its unpopularity and dubious constitutionality, the mandate was originally motivated as a way to minimize the risk of a future death spiral totally destroying the individual insurance market.  Removing the mandate alone, without changing anything else about how Obamacare is structured, was deeply irresponsible.

I also think his administration made a good faith effort to negotiate with North Korea, even though, unsurprisingly, very little came from it.  (However I deeply disagree with his approach to the Iran treaty.  It was as good of a deal as we were likely to get.  Since we weren't prepared to go to war, America should have tried to make it work.)

Is Respect still Warranted?

But what I want to talk about today is this.  If the leader of our nation is this selfish and irresponsible, are Christians still obliged to respect him?  In other words, was my blog post 4 years ago wrong?

First let me dispose of one rhetorical maneuver I don't think is very sensible.  Sometimes people of a liberal bent say things like "Well, Trump is not my president", or that he's an illegitimate President because of issues with the election.

But I think these types of slogans are confused about the definition of the term "legitimate".  Our system of government does not allow for the possibility of a vacancy in the Presidency for 4 years.  So it's only reasonable to say that Trump isn't really the President, if you think that somebody else is the President.  But no judge, no matter how liberal, thinks that whether or not a bill becomes law depends on whether Hillary Clinton signs or vetoes it, or that she has the power to nominate Judges to be considered by the Senate.  No, right now that President is Donald Trump.  (Although more likely than not, he won't be for much longer.)

The main supposed problem with the election was that Russia paid for fake internet accounts which persuaded too many voters to support the wrong candidate.  Now I'm not going to say that Putin trying to mess with voters is a good thing.  But in a democracy the goal is to persuade the voters.  If you think the voters were persuaded wrongly, by bad people, that doesn't make the system undemocratic.  It means that Clinton should have done a better job of persuading the voters she had their best interests at heart.  Just as a monarchy doesn't cease to be a monarchy because the King listens to flatterers who don't have the country's best interests at heart, so to a democracy doesn't cease to be a democracy when some of the people listen to fake news.  It just makes it a democracy where the sovereign is behaving in a foolish manner.  If you only accept the results of democracy when the voters do things you like, then you don't believe in democracy at all.

(As for the Electoral College, that's the system we have for picking the President unless and until it is changed, so deal with it.)

Now to answer the question, I'm going to say Yes, it's still important to show some degree of respect to civil leaders, including Donald Trump (and also the Governor of your own state who may or may not be mismanaging things, and also local authorities—this isn't just about the top position.)

The first reason I think this, is because I think that if Democrats had done a better job of respecting their civil leaders when St. George W. Bush was in charge, and if Republicans had respected St. Barack Obama when he was in charge, then I think the contrast between that respect and Trump's disrespectful demeanor would have been so great, that he could never have captured the Republican primary.  It is only because our civil society was already wounded by extreme partisan bias on both sides, that a person who specialized in trolling people was able to take charge of the political process.

So if I said people didn't have some obligation to show a some degree of respect for the current President, I would be enabling the same process that led to Trump being President in the first place.  That seems counterproductive, to say the least!

Comparison to Respect for Parents

Secondly, I think it is helpful to make an analogy to another commandment about respect, Honor your father and mother.  (This is one of the Big Ten, so we definitely aren't allowed to ignore this commandment and hope it goes away.)

Our parents gave us life, provided for us in our early years, and gave us rules and principles to live by.  For religious people, our earliest image of what God's character is like, will be a combination of the character of our father and our mother.  Hence, our (limited) respect for our parents is a natural corollary of our unlimited respect for God, who is totally authoritative, and the giver of all life.

But parents differ in their quality.  Let's consider 4 cases:

1) Some people, like me, grew up with great parents, who were loving and wise and interested in our welfare, and set a good example.  (Nobody is ever a perfect parent, of course, and in a fallen world, every parent is going to leave their kids with issues of one sort or another.)  But taken as a whole, such parents make it easy to respect them as images or symbols of what God is like.

2) Or you might have had mediocre parents who did everything necessary, but not in a super inspirational sort of way.  Perhaps they weren't very affectionate, or were overly strict, or workaholics, or got a messy divorce.  But they still definitely loved their kids and took care of them and gave them a reasonable start in life.

3) Or you might have had 1 or 2 parents who did a terrible job of parenting.  Perhaps they were unaffectionate, abusive, neglectful, just plain irresponsible.  But they still probably cared about you to some extent, and they still did some of the jobs a parent is supposed to do.  (In extreme cases, they may be sufficiently bad news that their children might even need to resort to cutting off all contact with them, for the sake of their own sanity and protection.)

4) Finally, another class of parents were just completely absent as a caretaker.  They took zero responsibility once you were born (or in the case of the father, begotten), and totally abandoned you.  The only reason you are still alive today, is because somebody else stepped up to the plate to take care of you when you were younger.

Now God says to the children of all of these people, Honor your Parents.  There is no person to whom this commandment is totally inapplicable, since none of us can survive early childhood without having received some caretaking from somebody.  But it must be conceded that this commandment is going to be a lot harder for people in the last two categories than for people in the first or the second categories.

I think everybody is capable of obeying this commandment in one way or another.  However, the way in which we do so, may reasonably depend on what kind of parent we have had.

In any of the first 3 cases, we can honor our parents by giving them credit for whatever good things they gave us (with no need to pretend that their mistakes didn't happen).  And to take care of them in their old age to the extent that this is reasonable and possible given your circumstances.  In cases of abusive parents, it may not be safely possible to interact with them, and the best you can do to fulfill your filial obligation is pray for their souls from a distance.  In a few extreme cases, the most reasonable old age pension might be in a jail cell!

If your parents were totally neglectful (case #4), or if you had to be removed from them (in extreme versions of case #3), it seems appropriate to give the greater degree of honor to whoever actually raised you in their place.   Those folks, whoever they are, may have a much greater claim to be respected as your "parents".  But this does not give you the liberty to curse or hate your biological parents.  For it is written:

Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker—one clay pot among many. Does the clay ask the potter, "What are you making?" Does your work say, "He has no hands"?

Woe to him who says to his father, "What have you begotten?" or to his mother, "What have you brought forth?"
(Isaiah 45:9-10)

Even if your biological parents provided you nothing except for your genetic material and 9 months in a womb, you can still honor them for that one little thing, because by doing so you are really only respecting your own self.  Otherwise you are saying "I wish I was never born", and (unless your piety and suffering equals that of Job) that can slip very easily into despising the Lord who created you, who is your true loving Father.

I recently saw the film Capernaum, in which a Syrian boy named Zain is born in poverty to selfish parents, runs away from them after they sell his sister in marriage, and after a series of unfortunate events, ends up in jail.  There, he sues his parents for allowing him to be born.   This lawsuit is, I think, an example of something that the 5th Commandment categorically prohibits.  (And for those who have seen the movie, I do not, in fact, think that it would be better for the world if Zain hadn't existed; for one thing he spends a good portion of the movie trying to take care of a baby after its mother is deported.)

So what does this mean for you if you are an American who hates Donald Trump and thinks he's bad for the country?  Well, he doesn't seem to be like a parent in class #4, who isn't trying at all to run the federal government.  At worst he's in category #3, an irresponsible and abusive authority.

Respect doesn't mean you have to pretend he's doing a good job when he isn't.  (Although, I don't think he's the worst President ever, when you remember that this includes people whose mismanagement led to a literal Civil War, and also people who directly supported slavery, or segregation, or the genocide of Native Americans.)

At the very least, you can refrain from making juvenile permutations of his name, since that is totally unnecessary in order to make substantive criticism of his administration of office.  You can still acknowledge that he is the President of your nation.   You can grudgingly acknowledge it when he occasionally does good things.  And you can pray for him, in ways that aren't entirely about him being struck by lightening, or ignominiously losing the election.  That would be a start.

The Mirror of the Word

I also don't think that respect for Civil Authority means that we shouldn't hold up the mirror of Scripture to the President's conduct, to see how it looks from a spiritually informed perspective.

I thought this article about 10 Scriptures to pray for Donald Trump crossed the line from sermonizing to cheerleading, especially in the topic headers, for example: praying for  "Trump to do everything in his power to continue to care for those who need assistance" (as if he ever cared), or that "Trump will lead America to continue to be a light for all nations" (which misinterprets "my chosen people" in Isaiah 51:4 as though it referred to the USA, a theological blunder with serious political implications).

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great to compile a list of Scriptures which are helpful for understanding how we should think about Donald Trump as Christians.  But no such list is complete which doesn't include this obviously applicable statement:

There is no fear of God before his eyes,
for in his own eyes he flatters himself too much
to detect or hate his sin.  (Psalm 36:1-2)

Reciprocal Respect

Now let me make another hopefully obvious point.  If children have the responsibility to honor their parents, then obviously parents also have the responsibility to try to be the sort of parents that are easy to honor.  Otherwise, they (the parents) are responsible for the profanation of the Divine Name that occurs when their children reject or despise them.  Perhaps, they are even more responsible for the violation of the commandment than their children are.

The rest of this post is aimed mostly at political conservatives.  I'm sure there are also lots of liberal-minded people who read my blog, but they are unlikely to be very tempted to support Donald Trump, and so the points I am going to make are not primarily aimed at them.

If you are a political conservative; if you believe in the importance of civil society; if you think it is important for people to respect the Constitution and the laws—then obviously it is important to select leaders who model that kind of respect for something higher than themselves.  Respect works best when it is reciprocal.  Only a leader who cares about being respectable is likely to inspire respect.

Similarly, if you want people to respect the cops, then this is a lot more likely if the cops hold themselves to high standards, and strictly adhere to the law and to their constitutional limitations, without people giving them a free pass.

There are lots of ways to win politically in the short run, but the only way to win in the long run is to win hearts and minds.  Anything you do for a political position or party which doesn't work towards this goal, is in the long run counterproductive.

(For example, the last thing the pro-life movement should want, is for the face of the movement going forwards to be a man like Donald Trump.  That is like saying, yes please tie a millstone around the neck of my social movement and toss it into the sea! )

Hence, if you are a political conservative who wants to get people to respect lawful authority, your standard of goodness had better not be that anything which "triggers liberals" is therefore good.  That is the exact opposite of Winning Hearts and Minds.  As St. Paul wrote to Christians:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.  On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)

No matter how misguided you think another group of people is, defining their evil as your good is one of the quickest ways to become evil yourself.  There is no group of people so terrible, that opposing them can be a substitute for doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly before God.  To be respectable, you need to have your own moral compass, not simply borrow another person's and then turn it upside-down.

When I was a kid our one of our neighbors had a large, rowdy dog that would sometimes bark at us, through the fence.  It was rather intimidating.  One afternoon, me and my younger siblings started loudly barking back at the dog to show we weren't afraid of it.  Well my Dad didn't like that.  He said, "If you meet that dog in a dark alley someday, do you want it to lick your hand or tear you apart?"

Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes in politics, it's necessary to do the right thing even when the other side calls you Hitler.  Most politicians are cowards, and yes, it's often hard to do the right thing when a lot of people in the media take everything you do out of context.

Still, you should be trying to maximize the amount of accomplishment per unit of outrage.  Not deliberately doing cruel things which don't lead to any permanent good, just in order to spite and enrage the other side.  That will just lead to worse things down the road next time the other guys are in charge.

Considerations while Voting

Next I'm going to say something now a lot of political operatives on both sides don't want you to hear, so pay attention.  Since WWII, the White House has pretty regularly switched back and forth between Republicans and Democrats every few years.  It's unrealistic to expect either party to have a victory that will permanently shut out the other party.  If you aren't going to advocate for a dictatorship, or permanently killing or disenfranchising your enemies, or rigging elections, things are going to go back and forth.

So if you think the only way to save America is for Democrats (or Republicans) never to win another election, then I hate to break it to you, but that ain't gonna happen!

You should think of it more like this.  You should vote, because on average your vote can do a significant amount of good.  But in every election, you aren't just helping to determining whether the R's or D's win.  You are also helping to determine what kind of party the R's and D's will be going forward.  And this is even more important that deciding who wins in the short run.

If you want the future Republican party to look more like Donald Trump, and the future Democratic party to look more like Warren or Sanders, then by all means vote for Trump!  But if you would prefer a Democratic party that looks like moderates like Biden, or a Republican party which looks like somebody who cares about something other than their own ego, then you should probably vote for that outcome.

Yes, Christians should respect Civil Authorities like the President.  And if we are obliged to have respect for the Presidency, then a natural outgrowth of that is that we should try to vote for people who will treat that Office with respect.  Character matters, and people in  high office who have a bad character will tend to corrode the work of everyone they oversee below them.  As it is written:

If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.
(Proverbs 29:12)

Double Standards

By the way, I don't want to hear any replies in the comments complaining about the media's double standards, or "What about this other terrible thing that Democrats did, and liberals let them get away with it?!?"

If you are going to have a double standard at all, at least make it point in the right direction: conservatives should hold conservative politicians to a higher standard than they hold liberals to, and liberals should hold liberal politicians to a higher standard than they hold conservatives to.  Whichever "side" you agree with more, those are the people you should hold to a higher standard!  Not the other way around.

(Far more so, as a Christian, I expect the Church to uphold a higher standard than the world, and I'm okay with the world holding the Church to a higher standard as well.  We should be held to a higher standard.)

It is predictable that liberals would react with outrage to a Republican president regardless of how bad he was.  No matter how bad the President is, there are always going to be hyperbolic people who think he is 10 times worse than he actually is.  (It is not hard to find conservatives overreacting to Obama.)

Precisely because this overreaction is predictable, and happens no matter what, you cannot allow them to shatter your own sense of morality, by saying that because they overreact, you are therefore pre-emptively justified in ignoring the real problems and issues caused by the President's lack of moral character (which currently has a significant death toll, remember).  Is it really an excuse to say: the other side is going to complain no matter what, so I may as well do terrible things?  Is that what passes for moral analysis in politics-land?

I'm sick and tired of partisans on both sides of the political spectrum using the (real or imagined) terribleness of people on the other side, to excuse bad behavior on their side.

If you genuinely thought that Trump was the lesser evil in 2016, or 2020, I profoundly disagree, but I understand that people of good conscience can weigh issues differently than I do.  I will not cut you off from my friendship or disrespect you, simply because you have different political opinions from me about which priorities are most important.

(And yes, there are more abortion deaths every year (around 600,000) than Covid deaths this year.  However, as St. David French points out, the abortion rate is now lower than it was in the year Roe v. Wade was decided, suggesting that Winning Hearts and Minds, supporting mothers with crisis pregnancies, and encouraging Adoption might actually work better than direct attempts to change the issue by means of Supreme Court politics—something which would at best return the issue to the States and allow abortion to be banned mostly in Red States where it is already rare.)

The trouble is, that a lot of the people who were arguing that Trump was the lesser evil in 2016 (because of abortion or whatever), are now bending over backwards to present him as the greater good, covering up all of his flaws, and trying to purge from the Republican party anyone who criticizes him.  That's not what supporting someone as the "lesser evil" means.  That's moral corruption.

I don't think you have to endorse everything a politician does in order to vote for him, or to encourage others to do so.  But Trump, because he loves flattery, makes it pretty hard for famous people to support him, if they show any reservations at all, and aren't enthusiastic about him.  So lots of people have ended up endorsing lots of bad stuff along with the good stuff.

Corruption in the Church

This is most disturbing when the people who do so, are respected leaders in the Church.

Because, while the Church ought to submit to Civil Authority so far as it acts within its legitimate authority (for example, when your State's Governor requires you to wear a mask in large gatherings for your own safety!), Christian pastors and leaders also have a Spiritual Authority of their own, which they need to exercise to ensure that people know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Thus, a pastor who meets with the President, has the obligation to inform him of the basics of what God expects.

And yet, respected evangelical leaders like Sts. James Dobson and Franklin Graham (son of the great evangelist St. Billy Graham) chose to whitewash Donald Trump, and pretend he was a Christian, in order to reassure rank-and-file churchgoers to get them to vote for him.  (To anyone who is old enough to remember what Dobson or Franklin Graham said about the ethical character of President Bill Clinton, just 16 years earlier, the stench of hypocrisy is palpable.)

They did this, even though quite clearly, Trump is not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.  (Trump has said that he's never repented of any sins; if this is true he is definitely unsaved by according to any Evangelical Christian theology.)

Thus, these "leaders" chose to sacrifice the very sine qua non of Evangelicalism—conversion to Christ, being "born again"—for political advantage.  In doing so, they also sold the soul of Trump himself—who is desperately spiritually sick—for the sake of a mess of pottage, namely their chance at defeating their enemies in the culture wars (although, this will inevitably be a hollow victory, because of the Not Winning Hearts and Minds thing).

As God said to the prophet Ezekiel:

Now at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from My mouth, give them a warning from Me.  If I say to the wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him—you don’t speak out to warn him about his wicked way in order to save his life—that wicked person will die for his iniquity. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood.  But if you warn a wicked person and he does not turn from his wickedness or his wicked way, he will die for his iniquity, but you will have saved your life.  (Ezekiel 3:16-19)

It was the duty of Evangelical leaders to warn Trump that his towering arrogance put him out of touch with God, and to explain (however unlikely it might seem that he would accept it) the Good News that there is somebody even more important than he is, who was capable of saving him.

But they chose not to warn him.  They kissed him on the cheek, soothed his worries, and left him drowsily sliding towards Hell.  And God will hold these Evangelical leaders accountable for his blood.

[Some people might think it's not very consistent to worry about the damnation of the President at the end of a blog post where I urge people to be more respectful of the Presidency.  But respect includes taking people seriously.  And urging people—not just Donald Trump, but also Joe Biden, and all the other politicians and preachers, and all the readers of this blog post—to be reconciled with God is not only a serious matter, but the kindest and most loving thing we can do for them.]

Posted in Politics | 27 Comments

Comparing Religions VII: Natural Inexplicability

Recently in this series we have been looking at the historical documentation of supernatural claims.  For our next question, we will examine whether these events could have occurred naturally:

7. What are the odds that the purported supernatural events could have occurred for non-supernatural reasons?

From a Bayesian perspective, the probability of a religion is basically given by the prior probability times the evidence for it, and the only thing that counts as evidence for a religion is an observation which is more likely to happen if the religion is true, then if it is false.  So a religion cannot be strongly confirmed by a (seeming) miracle, unless that miracle is unlikely to happen if the religion is false.

Plausible Naturalistic Explanations

Many purported "miracles" have perfectly plausible explanations in terms of known natural processes.

For example, I'm not particularly impressed by weeping statues or milk-drinking idols, since they can be easily explained by capillary action.  These sorts of phenomena are not hard to produce by fraud and/or accident, and shouldn't count as any sort of demonstration of the supernatural.  A similar statement applies to any guru or holy man who does miracles that are similar to the sorts of things a stage magician does by slight-of-hand, e.g. causing small objects to appear in one's hand (especially if, like the supposedly divine Sathya Sai Baba, one is occasionally caught blatantly cheating...)

As far as I know I was raised in the only household in America which subscribes to both Christianity Today and the Skeptical Inquirer.  If the good folks at the Inquirer can refute your Bigfoot sighting or paranormal abilities by their critical investigations, then probably you should pay attention to that.  (However, along with their high quality empirical investigations showing how various paranormal phenomena can be faked, you also get a bunch of tendentious articles about how philosophy of science proves religious people are ignoramuses, ranging along a whole axis of philosophical sophistication.  In any given issue you usually get articles of both sorts from different people.)

Implausible Naturalistic Explanations

Other types of miracle stories involve claimed events for which there is basically no reasonable natural explanation.  In such cases, the only reasonable options are: either to postulate something supernatural, or else to deny that the claimed event actually happened as stated.  (The difficulty of the latter path obviously depends on the degree to which there is high quality historical documentation of the event.)

To be clear, you can always come up with a naturalistic explanation for any event, if you try hard enough and don't care how implausible your explanation is.  But sometimes these naturalistic explanations remind me a bit of the classic TV cartoon Scooby-Doo.  The original incarnation of the show featured some amateur detectives who investigate paranormal phenomena.  However, they invariably turn out to actually be hoaxes, contrived by the machinations of some villain.

Sometimes, the naturalistic explanation given is far more contrived and implausible than it would be for the supernatural entity to actually exist!  For example, in one episode, at first you think that a certain character Lisa has been turned into a vampire, but it turns out that all that's actually going on is that somebody hypnotized Lisa so that, whenever she answers the phone and hears a bell ringing, she puts on a false set of vampire teeth and pretends to be a vampire!

In other words, so long as an explanation belongs to the realm of Victorian sensationalized psychology, rather than the realm of Victorian Gothic thrillers, we can accept it as the final explanation for what happened—even if that explanation is completely implausible for anyone with a superficial understanding of human behavior.

(In this style of thinking, the Demarcation Problem apparently reduces to a question of genre classification.  A similar thought pattern can be seen in those who believe that the multiverse or simulation hypothesis are science fiction and therefore potentially credible, whereas angels and ghosts and miracles are fantasy and therefore not potentially credible.  But thematic flavoring is not the test of truth.  UFO cults base their mythology around science fiction tropes, but can be seen to engage in many of the same patterns of pathological reasoning that similar religious-themed cults engage in.  And while there is a certainly a nonzero amount of claimed observational evidence for angels, ghosts, and miracles, as far as I know nobody has ever claimed to have met the aliens who are simulating our universe in their computer.)

Rationalized Miracles

Sometimes, the proponents of "scientific" explanations for miracles are actually religious people, who believe they are supporting the biblical narrative rather than undermining it.  As if finding ways that the "miracles" might have happened without appealing to God would somehow allow people to find religion believable again.  But this seems quite silly to me.  If the "miracle" has a fully natural explanation, which doesn't point to anything outside of the universe, then by definition it is no longer a miracle in the religious sense of the word.

Some theists of a rationalistic bent seem to think it is somehow better if God never strictly suspends the laws of physics we moderns know and love, but only does miracles which are technically naturally possible (yet are still extremely improbable from a naturalistic perspective).  This approach would make all miracles special cases of God's providential control of ordinary natural processes.  And indeed, in quantum mechanics, a lot of things which we think of as impossible, such as an object passing through a wall, are technically possible (albeit with an exceedingly minuscule probability, in the case of macroscopic objects).

But this seems to defeat the point of having a quantum theory in the first place.  The reason why we regard QM models as predictive, is that they still allows us to make statistical predictions about what will happen.   So if you want to postulate an extreme violation of these rules of probability, it seems to me that this violates the laws of QM, and is therefore just as much a suspension of the usual laws of physics as e.g. violating electric charge conservation would be.

Also, this kind of "Religious Naturalism" (to coin a phrase) doesn't seem to fit very well with events like appearances of angels, or the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven.  Biblical events like these, if you accept them, cannot be understood merely as improbable events taking place within our own universe, but imply the existence of other worlds, containing new types of entities.  If such events really happened then I don't see how to make sense of them, except on the hypothesis that our physical universe is not a closed system!  In addition to the physical universe, there has to be some sort of spiritual realm, so to speak, where the angels and the departed saints and possibly other things dwell.  Given the limitations of human thought, we can only visualize this as a kind of  "place", even if it transcends our own spacetime.  But however we imagine it, it means that God's actions cannot be thought of as limited to merely the physics of our own universe.

This is not necessarily a problem if you believe, as I do, that our physics models are just an approximate description of a limited aspect of reality, and that a full description of reality would require discussing the actions of various supernatural agents.  But, if there are indeed forms of reality outside of our model, then why not just admit that the model is inapplicable in certain situations, where these other realities become important? 

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Case Study #1: Miracles of the Exodus

To give an obvious example of miracles for which the proposed naturalistic explanations are rather obviously futile, consider the Ten Plagues, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Manna from Heaven, and the other miracles described in the Book of Exodus.  I am not aware of anything else in ancient literature that is remotely parallel to these dramatic miracles, among texts which were intended to be taken as serious history rather than as entertainment.

It seems obviously futile to try to explain these miracles in purely natural terms.

(Of course, even on a supernaturalist interpretation of these miracles, there might still be some natural causes involved in performance of the miracle.  For example, before the Israelites crossed the Sea, Exodus 14:21 states that "the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land"; in other words, the wind was God's physical instrument for driving away the water.  But that just raises the question of how a wind powerful enough to create "walls of water on either side" came along in the first place.  The important question here is not whether physical causality was involved at any stage of the process—the entire point of doing a miracle in the physical world, is that it leads to some tangible physical consequences—but whether it is plausible that the event could have originated from only natural causes, without those natural causes being diverted from their usual course by some special supernatural exception to the usual rules governing the physical universe.)

Yet there is still a misguided intellectual parlor game which tries to explain these grand miracles using only natural causes.  The most notorious contender was the arch-crackpot Immanuel Velikovsky, who tried to explain several miracles in the Bible by proposing near misses with other planetary bodies in the solar system, but less insane versions of such conjectures keep being rolled out by naturalists of various sorts.

Most of these attempted naturalistic explanations aren't really very scientifically plausible in the first place.  But there is a deeper problem with this project.  Such naturalistic explanations utterly fail to explain the extraordinary degree of coincidental timing that is required.

For example, let's suppose for the sake of argument that we've found an explanation for why some body of water (whether or not it was the same as the traditionally understood Red Sea location) might have drained very quickly, leaving a dry path for the Israelites to walk through.  The fact that this—presumably extremely rare—event happened just as Moses was leading an escaping band of slaves from the Egyptians, and that the unusual phenomenon ended just in time to kill the Egyptian army, is one helluva coincidence!

Taking into account further coincidences, such as these Ten Plagues arising (and ceasing) in ways coordinated with Moses and Aaron's threats to Pharaoh, a plague which only targets firstborn sons (but not the Israelites who celebrated the Passover) and the description of the manna as only appearing 6 days a week (skipping the Sabbath Day so that the Israelites could rest)—it is clear that no purely naturalist explanation can serve as a plausible explanation for such phenomena.

Of course the proponents of such naturalistic theories are free to suppose that textual details such as these are later embellishments of the story.  But for the proponent of a specific naturalistic explanation for a miracle, this move is rather problematic.  A scientific explanation requires there to be some data supporting it, after all.  So this sort of skeptic tends to adopt a weirdly deferential reading of the text, hunting for clues that identify one particular natural phenomenon.  "If my scientific hypothesis is correct", they say, "It makes sense that the plagues should have occurred in this exact order, and lasted exactly this length of time, and look how well this particular Hebrew word describes this natural phenomenon!"  But to take those parts of the text hyper-literalistically and dogmatically, while at the same time proposing that all the other inconvenient bits (whatever doesn't fit your theory) are later legends, seems like special pleading.  So the methodology here isn't especially coherent.

If you wish to deny that the Exodus was supernatural, there is a much more sensible and obvious strategy, which is to simply declare that the whole event is legendary.  (Or, if there was a historical core event, that it has been buried under so many layers of legend that it is impossible for modern scholars to reconstruct what really happened.)

Yes, it's a bit strange that Jewish priests should have invented a national epic that portrayed the Israelites as hapless and cowardly slaves rescued by unprecedented miracles.  Nevertheless, that's nothing like so improbable as accepting the historicity of the Torah yet denying the hand of God in the process!

Thus, while the miracles of the Exodus score very well on this particular criterion, they are unfortunately too far in the past (and insufficiently corroborated) to clearly belong to the realm of history, rather than mythology.  This does not necessarily make a Jew or Christian irrational for believing that the events occurred, but it must be in the context of a broader worldview, and not because the historical proofs for it are overwhelming, considered in themselves.

We will therefore next consider some more recent historically documented miracles, particularly focussing on two important miracle claims with particularly good source documentation: namely 1) the Splitting of the Moon, and 2) the Resurrection of Jesus.  The testimonial chains for these events were the subject of the last installment; in this post we will ask whether—assuming, as we have already argued for, that these claims do go back to the testimony of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses—it is plausible that they could have happened naturally.

In each case, I will also compare these miracles to other, arguably parallel events, in order to make sure that the events in question are truly unique.

Case Study #2: The Splitting of the Moon

As previously discussed, the "Splitting of the Moon" is seemingly briefly mentioned by the Quran, and is also reported in the Hadith, via multiple chains of transmission going back to four of the original Companions of Mohammad.  According to these reports, in order to provide a miraculous sign, God split the moon into two pieces, which temporarily moved to different sides of a mountain.

Let's look at the primary sources.  Anas bin Malik narrated:

“The people of Mecca asked Allah's Messenger to show them a miracle. So he showed them the moon split in two halves between which they saw the Hira' mountain.” (Sahih Al Bukhari)

Abdullah Ibn Masud narrated:

“During the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger, the moon was split into two parts; one part remained over the mountain, and the other part went beyond the mountain.  On that, Allah’s Messenger said, `Witness this miracle.'” (Sahih Al Bukhari)

Ibn 'Abbas narrated:

"The moon was split into two parts during the lifetime of the Prophet." (Sahih Al Bukhari)

Finally, from Jubayr ibn Mut'im we have the following:

 "The moon was split into two pieces during the time of Allah's Prophet; a part of the moon was over one mountain, and another part over another mountain.  So they said: `Muhammad has taken us by his magic'.  They then said: `If he was able to take us by magic, he will not be able to do so with all people.' "

I should pause here and say that these are not excerpts from more elaborate descriptions of the miracle.  To the best of my ability to tell from the English translations available on the Internet, what I have just quoted is the entire text (apart from the chain of narrators) of the four hadiths which form the root of the tree of testimony about this miracle.  (In some cases, when the hadith was transmitted by multiple routes, there are minor textual variants, and in such cases I have attempted to select the more elaborate version.)

(I did find a more elaborate narrative version online; but as far as I can tell, it is not a primary source, but rather a composite stitched together from many hadith, including what I think must be information from later, secondary sources.  I am therefore going to disregard this version, although I am open to correction on this point from any experts in this area.)

As far as can be told from the authentic hadith, it seems that nobody else outside Mecca noticed this event.  Two of the Companions do indicate that the pagans in Mecca also witnessed the miracle, but nobody claims that they came to believe in Islam as a result.

It is of course quite obvious that no ordinary natural power would have been capable of actually physically splitting the moon in two and then bringing it back together again.  This is indeed, the strongest aspect of the miracle, since manipulating heavenly bodies would be quite out of the reach of a human impostor.

At the same time, there is no astrophysical evidence of such a disruptive event.  Of course God could have miraculously healed the cracks and cleaned up any other inconvenient astronomical evidence of the event happening, but this is a little bit like saying he could have left dinosaur bones in the Earth to trick us into thinking evolution happened.  It seems deceptive.  If you want to say that a miracle actually affected the physical world, I think it should leave behind at least some messy physical evidence suggesting it actually happened.

(Some Muslims use misleading photographs to claim that the Rima Ariadaeus trench is evidence left over from the Splitting of the Moon, but this trench is only about 300 km long so it doesn't go nearly all the way around, and it is similar to many other trenches on the Moon.  It is also unclear why, if God was deleting nearly all of the physical evidence for this event, he would leave this one little crack behind to prove his work.)

It is true that, depending on the nature of a miracle, it might not leave enough physical evidence behind to convince skeptics.  But when the miracle is such that it ought to have left some evidence behind and didn't, then even I, who already believe in God, become skeptical.  In other words, the splitting of the Moon is actually 2 miracles, the 1st being to divide the Moon, and the 2nd being to rejoin it in such a manner as to erase all physical effects of the 1st miracle (apart from any changes in the brains of those who supposedly saw it).

Hence, it appears that the sole purpose of such a miracle would be to serve as a temporary sign to instill belief, not to actually accomplish any lasting physical purpose.  (In this respect it is quite unlike the Exodus miracles, which rescued Israel from slavery and provided for her in the wilderness; nor is it like the Resurrection of Jesus which rescued Christ from death, and points forward to humanity being likewise rescued from death.)  Splitting the Moon does indeed suggest an extreme degree of power, and perhaps a certain degree of capriciousness.  But considered in itself, the miracle is sterile and does not lead to any further consequences.

Because of this lack of physical evidence left behind, there are other ways of interpreting the miracle besides the moon literally splitting into two physical pieces and then rejoining.  For example, God might have merely miraculously caused the appearance of the moon being split in two.

To my mind, that is a more reasonable interpretation of the event.  (Similarly, I would rather not explain the biblical miracle of Joshua commanding the Sun and Moon to stand still as a miracle which affected orbits in the solar system, but rather as a local event which affected the perceptions of those in the valley of Ayalon.)

Even taken in this sense, the Splitting of the Moon is definitely one of the more impressive non-Christian miracles, assuming the reports are accurate.  A sign in the heavens would be very difficult to fake with any kind of slight-of-hand trick.

Possible Parallels: More Signs in the Heavens

On the other hand, it doesn't seem totally crazy to say that people may have witnessed some real atmospheric or visual effect, which was then misinterpreted by people eager to believe that they had seen a sign.  There are many other instances of groups of religious people temporarily seeing strange things in the sky, when primed to do so by expectation.  Or to take an example less related to traditional religions—but still conducive to fanaticism—there are lots of people who claim to have sighted UFO's in the sky.

As a general rule, I don't think such people are lying about having seen something; I would instead question their interpretation of what they saw, since merely seeing a collection of lights moving around in the sky that you can't identify, doesn't necessarily mean that it is actually an alien spacecraft.  As someone once said, I have no objection when people claim to have seen unidentified flying objects, it's only when people try to identify them with conspiracy theories about alien invaders, that skepticism is warranted.

Another possible parallel is the very heavily witnessed Roman Catholic Miracle of the Sun, supposedly seen by thousands of people—though different people saw different things, and some people saw nothing.  A large crowd had been gathered together and told that they would see a miracle if they looked at the Sun, and many of the people there saw some odd visual effects when they did so.

But as we were all warned before the recent total eclipse, it is quite dangerous to stare at the sun for any extended period of time, since doing so can damage the retina.  It is not really particularly surprising that the participants saw a variety of dazzling visual phenomena after doing this foolish thing, and then interpreted it as confirmation of the miracle they were already expecting.

(Obviously, the Moon is less likely to cause these kinds of dazzling effects, so this is not a perfect parallel to the Islamic claim, but it does illustrate the way in which crowds primed to accept a miracle can interpret any strange thing they see in the sky as a confirmation of their beliefs.)

A solar miracle of a somewhat different kind is reported in the Gospels, which state that the Sun was darkened for the final three hours that Jesus hung on the Cross.  In addition to the Gospels, this miracle appears to have been reported by two different non-Christian historians (although these works are now lost so we know about them only because of Christian commentary).  It might be possible to explain this strange Darkness by natural causes (although due to the timing of Passover it cannot have been a normal solar eclipse).  However, one should take into account the fact that, if the cause were natural, there would have been no reason for its timing to match up with the death of Jesus.

(Like the Resurrection, this miracle is at cross-purposes with the Quran which, as we have already discussed, states that Jesus was not actually crucified.)

These parallels, together with the sparseness of how the miracle was actually described, make me rather uncertain how much evidence a miracle like this really provides.  There is no question in my mind that it counts as some significant evidence for the truth Islam, but it seems to me that the evidence described in the next section will surpass it.

Case Study #3: The Resurrection of Jesus

The Gospels and Acts together record about a dozen different examples of Jesus appearing to people after he had died.  The following passage taken from the 24th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke describes three of these events:

[To 2 disciples on the Road:]  Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.  They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.  As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast.  One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.  The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.  In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.  Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther.  But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.”  So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.  They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

[To St. Peter individually:]  They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.  There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”  Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

[To the larger group of disciples:]  While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?  Look at my hands and my feet.  It is I myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?”  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Several aspects of these Resurrection appearances are worth mentioning (most of which are apparent from the passage above, but I am interpreting them within the broader context of the other New Testament accounts):

1) It involved multiple events, in which Jesus appeared to different overlapping groups of people, or sometimes to individual persons.

2) Many aspects of the experience were quite strange, and don't fit anyone's preconceptions about how bodies and spirits work.  Jesus appears and disappears instantly, and yet he is at pains to prove to his disciples that he is not a ghost.  He can be recognized, yet some people seem to have difficulty doing so at first.

3) In order to release the disciples from their doubts about whether he was really alive, Jesus allowed himself to interact with the world according to at least 4 of the 5 sense modalities:

SIGHT - Jesus was visible to all of them at the same time, and showed them his limbs (these are mentioned specifically, presumably because that is where the crucifixion wounds were).
HEARING - Jesus spoke audibly to all of them at the same time.
TOUCH - Jesus allowed them to touch him in order to feel his flesh and bones.
TASTE - Jesus shared several common meals with the disciples, including events where he ate food, and at least one event where he cooked the food himself and gave it to the disciples.

4) Each of these experiences were prolonged over a considerable time, long enough to allow for extended conversations, in which Jesus was able to give them significant instruction about how his suffering fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, and what they should do next.

and of course we mustn't forget the first event on Easter Day:

5) Jesus' tomb was found mysteriously empty, with the stone rolled away and the body missing, with the women reporting a message from angels that Jesus rose from the dead.

Assuming these events happened as stated, it is really quite hard to come up with any reasonable explanations for how such a large group of people could have been deceived in all of these ways simultaneously.  Only if we throw out half of the reported data, can explanations such as group hallucinations even be considered; even apart from the antecedent improbability of such a hallucination affecting a dozen people at the same time.

And yet, on the other hand, after the Resurrection, Jesus' body was also capable of instantly appearing and disappearing, things which aren't consistent with any of the more eccentric skeptical theories (such as Identical Twins or the Swoon Theory) in which the disciples saw an actual living person.

The only simple naturalistic explanation, which doesn't require the conjunction of multiple weird things happening separately, is that the Resurrection was a lie promulgated by the earliest disciples.  Indeed, this is the earliest known contemporary rebuttal ("the disciples stole the body", as relayed in Matt 27:64, 28:13).

A Possible Parallel: "Seeing the Rebbe"

In order to check whether there are parallel events to this event, it is instructive to consider the case of a much more recent Jewish rabbi who inspired a Messianic movement.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was an extremely pious Jew with a reputation for great seriousness and holiness, and under his leadership he developed the nearly extinct Chabad (or Lubavitch) movement into a worldwide Jewish revival movement (here is a balanced discussion of his ideals).  As a result, there was much speculation that he would be the Messiah, despite the fact that (unlike Jesus) he seemingly never made this claim himself, nor approved of it being explicitly said in his presence.

However, the most relevant aspect to the present discussion, is the reports from people who say they saw him after his death.  There is in fact an entire website, Seeing the Rebbe, dedicated to collecting these claims.

The parallels to (certain aspects of) the early Jesus movement are striking.  But, when it comes to evaluating the strength of an evidential case, the details matter.  A closer inspection of these claims shows that there are also some pretty key dissimilarities to the Gospels, which make it much easier to explain the Lubuvitch rabbi's "appearances" without recourse to the supernatural.

The first story on the website is quite different from the others.  In this case alone, a photograph is shown in which, it is claimed, the rebbe has mysteriously appeared in the photograph of a child, taken with a disposable camera.  There is a very sharply defined man with a Jewish hat in the photo.  The image is not at all like the ghostly apparitions which normally appear in claims of spirit photography; rather it is very clearly the image of an actual physical person.  But the back of the man is turned.  Apart from his clothing, only his neck and ears (and what might be a small portion of his beard) are visible.  From the picture, he could easily be almost any Orthodox man (although the lightish color of the hair suggests someone elderly).  This is hardly sufficient information to make a definitive identification.  To explain this event naturally, the only mistake required is that the child didn't recall the man being there when the picture was taken.  Since the photograph was developed days later, after the child returned from his trip, this memory lapse is hardly surprising.

In all the rest of the eleven accounts, the rebbe is perceived by a human, not in a photograph.  The rebbe is suddenly visible, during a religious ritual, or while visiting a place associated with him.  Each appearance is quite brief, lasting just a few seconds, or half a minute at most.  Usually, only a single person sees the rebbe in any given story, while the others in the room don't notice him at all; however, in two of the stories another person confirms seeing him (among a larger group of people that don't).  Some of the stories provide minor circumstantial coincidinces that seem to confirm the experience, but none of it is extraordinarily implausible.  One of the persons was skeptical beforehand, but was still present at a ritual intended to "to greet the Rebbe with song and melody".

These experiences were almost exclusively visual, although in a single case the rabbe also speaks a brief sentence: “Don’t worry, the financial situation of your parents will be okay.”  (This was part of a vision a yeshiva student had immediately upon waking up from sleep, a time when dream-like hallucinations are particuarly common.)

Nobody claims he shared a Shabbat luncheon with them, or that he got into an extended argument about the Talmud.

Given this data, it does not seem improbable to me to claim that all of these experiences (except the one involving the camera) were hallcuinations of one sort or another.

(By the way, this would not automatically prove that the experiences have no spiritual value, or even a supernatural cause.  Nothing I believe is inconsistent with the claim that a holy Jewish leader might be allowed by the Almighty to appear to members of his religious movement, in visions after his death, in order to encourage them.  Although the Lubavitch idiom that they "merited to see him" bothers me from a Christian spiritual framework, in which God reaches out to us by grace, not because we somehow earned it.)

Contrary to popular belief, minor hallucinations are not at all uncommon, even among people who are perfectly sane.  For example, around half of widowed individuals have "bereavement hallucinations" of their loved ones, while they are grieving their deaths.

These experiences are not very difficult to explain from a neurological point of view.  Our brains store information about a large number of concepts, which we use to interpet our sensory data.  If you have known a person for a long time, then your brain develops an intricate concept of them, which is associated with many other concepts.  In some cases, your idea of a person may be triggered so strongly that it overrides your normal sensory interpretation.  In that case, you may see or hear the person in a situation where they aren't there.  Similarly, a strong religious expectation may also cause a sensory override.

Or, to take a more mundane example, just the other day I was walking along the street and I thought I saw a dog moving out of the corner of my eye.  When I looked at it more closely, it was just a normal construction cone sitting there.  Apparently, my "dog" neurons had been triggered by some feature of the situation, and had fired inappropriately.

In such cases reality usually re-asserts itself pretty quickly.  Such neural misfires do not usually lead to a long term disassociation with reality; since as time passes, additional sense data quickly convinces the brain that its initial classification of stimuli was wrong.

Back to Jesus

So could the Resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels be explained by such "sensory overrides"?

I think there are serious problems with that theory.  One of the problems, obviously, is that Jesus was seen by larger groups, for example by more than a dozen men simultaneously.  For a neurological misfire to affect many people at once, in the same fashion, would be a stunning coincidence.  Two at once, perhaps, but never a dozen.

A second problem, is that if the accounts are at all accurate, Jesus remained present during his meetings long enough to have theological conversations involving multiple scriptural passages, and to interact with them in other ways.  This would require a sustained, contagious distortion of reality, much more intense than anything needed to explain the Seeing the Rebbe website.

But I think there is an even more fundamental difference between the two types of appearances.  Those who saw Rabbi Schneerson always immediately perceived it as being him.  No doubt is ever expressed regarding his identification (despite the fact that many of these individuals never saw him during his life); in general the only doubt expressed is whether the experience was veridical or just a hallucination.  This is exactly what we should expect in the case of a "sensory override" where the persons' concept of "the Rebbe" was being imposed on the sensory data.  In such cases, the vision is immediately recognized as fitting the mental concept, because it really is just the person's mental concept triggering.

(A partial exception: in one case the rebbe looked older than the person was expecting.  However, old age is a stereotypically rabbinic quality; and it is always possible that the person had seen other pictures of him, which she was not consciously remembering.)

On the other hand, those who saw Rabbi Yeshua after his death, sometimes failed to recognize immediately it was him (cf. John 20:11-18), despite the fact that they had seen him before he died.  Perhaps this was because, knowing intellectually that he had died, there was a mental block in accepting that he could be alive.  Or perhaps, there was something about his post-Resurrection appearance that was confusingly different from the way he had looked on earth.

Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is the gardener at first; while Cleopas and his companion have an extended theological discussion with him, thinking he is just a mundane (but slightly clueless) stranger.  Not until later in these encounters, is there an "aha!" moment and they realize they are looking at Jesus.  None of this would be possible if their "Jesus" neurons had been misfiring, causing them to experience Jesus' presence even though nobody was there.

In other words, the disciples experienced Jesus' body as objectively clearly present, even though it was subjectively confusing (who and what is this person?).  This is in many ways the exact opposite of a hallucination, which is subjectively experienced as some definite entity, but is confusing in its relation to objectivity (I knew it was the rebbe, but maybe it was a hallucination?).

The disciples who express doubts about the Resurrection, nearly* always do so either because they were not present during a previous appearance (e.g. the male disciples doubting the women, or Thomas doubting the other male disciples in John 20), or because they are trying to figure out how to fit the event into their belief system (e.g. thinking maybe Jesus was a ghost).  Although the disciples express both doubt and wonder, we are never told of anyone who doubts because they were unable to see Jesus, even though other people in the same room did see him.  All of this speaks to something objectively present.

[*The one possible exception is Matt 28:17, in which we are not told which disciples doubted or what the source of their doubt was.  Since we are not told, this loose end could easily be given either a favorable or unfavorable interpretation.]

Of course, the fact that Jesus' tomb was found empty, while the other rabbi's tomb is presumably still occupied, is another difference suggesting a greater objectivity in what happened to Jesus.

Another Claimed Parallel: The Golden Plates

Some skeptics bring up as another possible parallel to the Resurrection Appearances, the invisible golden plates I briefly mentioned before, which Joseph Smith supposedly translated the Book of Mormon from.

Although Smith normally kept these "plates" hidden from sight, in order to bolster his claims he did attempt to collect a set of Twelve Witnesses (counting Smith himself) to swear to having seen the plates (presumably in an attempt to construct a deliberate parallel to the 12 Apostles.  These witnesses were all taken from among his family, close friends, and financial backers.

Now let me be clear on one point: the accumulated evidence for Smith being a charlatan is so compelling that I don't think there is any way that this testimony could overcome that hurdle.  The only reason I am spending words on this, is to discuss whether it is a sufficiently close parallel to the Apostolic testimony to undermine the evidence for Christianity.

One notable lack of parallelism is that, oddly, almost every member of these 11 witnesses eventually broke away from following Joseph Smith (except for two members of the Whitmer family who died a few years after signing the declaration), although one was eventually reconciled.  Obviously, this vision did not have the same spiritual power to transform these witnesses into fearless leaders, the way that the Resurrection transformed the Apostles.  (However, some of the witnesses continued to assert quite strongly that they had seen the plates.)

A more important point here is that the behavior of at least the first 3 witnesses makes it pretty clear that there wasn't really an object there to see in the first place.  Let's look at this more closely.  Wikipedia summarizes the event like this:

On Sunday, June 28, 1829, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris went into the woods near the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. and prayed to receive a vision of the golden plates.  After some time, Harris left the other three men, believing his presence had prevented the vision from occurring.  The remaining three again knelt and said they soon saw a light in the air overhead and an angel holding the golden plates.  Smith retrieved Harris, and after praying at some length with him, Harris too said he saw the vision.

In other words, we are clearly not dealing here with some object that reflects light normally, and can be seen without the use of faith.  We are dealing with an object which cannot be seen at all without first engaging in intense prayer.  Indeed the fact that the most skeptical individual had to leave the area in order for the other witnesses to see the plates, and that, after Harris returned, Smith had to pray with him "at some length" suggests to me that quite a bit of psychological pressure had to be applied by Smith, in order to get the witnesses to agree that they saw something.

And after his testimony, Harris admitted on multiple occasions that he had only seen the plates "with the eyes of faith" or "spiritual eyes", not his "natural eyes".  (Although later in his life he tried to backtrack on this point.)

Of course, there is no doubt that Jesus also had a lot of charismatic pull over his disciples. But if Christianity were false, then Jesus would still have been dead, and thus not in a very good position to do the necessary browbeating and cajoling of reluctant witnesses.  To tell a convincing story, one would have to cast some of the disciples into this role, say St. Peter and St. Mary Magdalene.  But if that is what really happened, one might expect the accounts to reflect this guiding role, just as the Mormon texts reflect the role of Smith.

If the New Testament texts seemed to point towards this sort of "sort of there, sort of not" experience one might expect from a manufactured vision, then I would not consider that kind of evidence to be remotely sufficient for purposes of founding a new religion.  But they don't.

Of course, it is always possible to imagine that the texts are not accurately reporting the disciples' actual historical experiences.  Maybe, a skeptic might say, if we had interviewed the Twelve disciples just a few weeks after the event, we would have found lots of tell-tale signs of falsehood, only they've all been cleaned up from the accounts that ended up in the New Testament.

Well, maybe.  But note that this is all speculation about evidence we don't have.  The point of this blog series is to compare different religions with respect to the evidence that we do have, to see how they measure up to each other.  I don't expect anything in this post to convince the sort of skeptic who has a strong commitment to Naturalism to give up their deeply held belief that all religions are false.  But, I do think that a fair-minded person should agree that not all religions have the same degree and types of evidence.

(By the way, I don't consider the minor discrepancies between the Gospel accounts to be a sign of falsehood; rather this is a normal feature of witness testimony.  I would consider it to be far more suspicious if discrepancies weren't there, since it would be a sign that this "cleaning up" process had happened.  Indeed, I don't think that the things that I, as a 21st century person would regard as tell-tale signs of fakeness, are necessarily the same things as the things a 1st century person would notice as potential problems.)

Case Study #4: Miracles of the Buddha

This section is going to be very short, because (as discussed in previous posts in this series) none of the miracles of Gautama Buddha are sufficiently established by nonlegendary, provably early texts to be worth considering in this regard.  If our historical evidence is consistent with a story being written centuries after Buddha's death, and if it reads like a folk tale with an obvious moral, then I'm going to discount it.

Of these legendary miracles, the one that some traditions identify as the greatest sign of a true Buddha is the "Twin Miracle", the earliest versions of which are discussed here.  In which the Buddha simultaneously shoots fire and water out of every pore and limb of his body (while walking in the air).  While this is admittedly impressive—and yes, quite inexplicable on Naturalism—let's be honest: it's also ludicrously, preposterously silly.

Fortunately for Gautama's reputation, it's not very hard to believe that it never happened.

*            *            *

Alternative Supernatural Explanations

So far in this installment, we've been operating under the unstated assumption that if a religion is false, then any claims it makes to supernatural power are also false.  In other words, I am assuming that a Christian would try to explain e.g. a putative Muslim or pagan miracle using the same types of explanations (fakes, mistakes, legends) that a naturalistic skeptic would resort to.  However, a religious worldview also opens up the possibility of supernatural explanations of what is going on with other religion.  Such arguments must be considered as well.

For example, someone might try to explain miracles in other religions by saying that they actually have an origin in a non-divine supernatural power (e.g. demons, or psychic powers, or something).

As a Christian, I do believe in the existence of supernatural fallen angels.  These demons are, unlike God, created beings with limited power and wisdom, who have chosen to abuse their free will by trying to resist God's kingdom.  Even in the contemporary world, Christian missionaries who evangelize foreign tribes occasionally report encounters with "witch doctors" who appear to have actual supernatural powers to levitate objects or curse people—even if said manifestations subside when the Christian missionaries pray to the greater power of Jesus.

Just because a paranormal event is genuine in the sense of being caused by an actual paranormal being, does not necessarily mean that the paranormal being is not itself a liar trying to deceive people.  In a Christian worldview, any such "miracles" caused by demons would be just as fraudulent as the miracles caused by human slight-of-hand.  The fact that the fraud might involve some physical powers that a materialist would have trouble believing in, would not really change the spiritual reality of what is going on in such situations.  (Including, perhaps, that the demon's power is quite limited, and that it relies largely on terror and suggestion to trick human beings into accepting bondage voluntarily.)

However, if a non-Christian miracle can be given an obvious natural explanations—and most of them can be—then resorting to this more complicated hypothesis is completely unnecessary.  And such accounts do involve making the significant concession that something is really "going on" in the other religion.  In such cases, judging between the two religions would then require consideration of some other factor (e.g. the degree of goodness or power displayed by the competing miracles).

For example, the Gospels report that after Jesus did a certain healing miracle, some of his enemies accused him of "driving out demons with the help of Beelzebul, the prince of demons" (Matthew 12:24).  In other words, Jesus' religious opponents did not deny that he performed supernatural feats, but proposed that he had made some sort of Faustian bargain with the Devil.  (A similar accusation is perpetuated in the Talmud, which claims that Jesus was executed for "sorcery" among other offenses.)

In his reply, Jesus pointed out that it doesn't make that much sense for the Devil to be going around undoing his own work: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (12:25).  And if a person is capable of seeing with their own eyes, a miraculously blind and mute person being healed, and not seeing it as an obvious sign of goodness, then it's hard to imagine any possible set of experiences which could convert such a person.

(An even more extreme version of "a house divided" would be if God deliberately creates such false miracles in order to fool or trick people, or to test their faith.  I already rejected one such claim of divine deception in a previous post.)

Modern Supernatural Healings

But do such dramatic healings still happen today?  I think they sometimes do.

I've previously mentioned St. Craig Keener's book on modern-day miracles.  In addition to consulting secondary sources, he personally interviewed hundreds of individuals reporting miracles (including several individuals he knows well enough to vouch for their honesty).  Keener discusses many miracles (mostly healings) some of which are extremely difficult to explain naturalistically.

He describes (with so many examples that it becomes quite tedious) many cases of instant or rapid healing of blindness, deafness, tumors, various disabilities, and even raising the dead, usually in response to prayer in the name of Jesus.  In many cases the conditions clearly had organic causes (hence were not psychosomatic) and the healings were confirmed by before & after medical scans (including cases where the doctors had difficulty believing it was the same person, since the prognosis was so dire).  He does not presume a supernatural explanation, but carefully considers alternative explanations.  All in all, I found this book an extremely convincing refutation of Naturalism.

What Keener's book is not, is an exercise in comparative religion.  Except for a brief chapter—which honestly felt like it was in the wrong book—discussing possible ancient parallels (e.g. temples to Asclepius, the god of healing), he confines his attention to Christian miracles.  So far as one can tell from this book, it is at least possible that there are equally impressive healings in completely separate religions (although if so I am not aware of them).

Another possible foil might be the claims of Christian Science, which has "Christian" in its name, but is an extremely heretical interpretation of Christianity which denies the existence of evil, encourages its members to seek spiritual healing instead of getting medical treatment, and basically ignores anything in the Bible which doesn't contribute in some way to these ideas.

There are excellent reasons (one of them will be described in the next post) for not taking this movement seriously, but they might well serve as a "control group" for how often one would expect seeming healings to happen naturally by chance.  (It's a delicate thing theologically though, because it is certainly not a doctrine of Christianity that God never heals anyone unless their beliefs about him are completely correct.)  In any case, this topic would require doing further research on another blog post entirely, which I don't have much time for at the moment.

Genuine Non-Christian miracles?

In light of Jesus' arguments, I am unwilling to use demonic influence as an excuse to explain away any miraculous event which is both obviously good (e.g. a physical healing) and obviously real (i.e. the person was actually healed, and we aren't just talking about fakery, or coincidence, or people ignoring their cancer symptoms, or something like that).

In my worldview, any such supernatural grace (even if it were to occur in the context of a non-Christian religion) must always be attributed to the one true God.  This is so even if the individual who receives the miracle has superstitious or unreasonable ideas about how the miracle came about.

Such a miracle might well provide some significant evidence for the basic validity of the religious tradition in question (at least to the extent of sometimes putting its worshippers in touch with the real God) but there is no reason I know of to think that God would be so stingy as to never do a miracle for anybody who was theologically misguided in any respect.  (Though obviously, a Christian can't accept as valid any miracles that are specifically designed to authenticate a false prophet's religion.)

This is why I have no problem recognizing that there may be genuine religious miracles received by some people whose theological ideas I may not agree with in other respects (e.g. Roman Catholics, Pentecostals who subscribe to aspects of prosperity gospel thinking).  And for all I know, God might also grant such miracles to some Muslims, modern Jews, pagans, etc.

As St. Keener says:

One of Hume's arguments against miracles is that incompatible religions claim miracles, and thus, on his view, their claims cancel each other....

He probably drew this argument from the deists, who in turn had used similar arguments of Protestants and Catholics polemicizing against each other's miracles.  Hume advances this observation to argue that miracle claims as a whole are therefore suspect (part of a universally or at least widely tendentious religious rhetoric).  But using this observed incompatibility as an objection to miracles fails to reckon with multiple potential philosophic alternatives to the objection.  For example, such miracles could be understood as supreme power's "goodwill" toward people of different faiths "without necessarily endorsing" particular beliefs; the related idea that most miracles in response to prayers do not explicitly specify a particular religious system; the systems could be less incompatible than their adherents suppose; or one could argue that there are multiple supernatural or at least superhuman powers, a view held by traditional religion and even by most traditional forms of monotheism.  (Miracles, p. 193, 195-196)

St. Brandon Watson, a historian of philosophy, makes a similar point:

Hume is turning popular anti-Catholic tropes and arguments, as used by Protestants, against Protestants as well.  Protestant arguments about the gullibility of Catholics with regard to the miracles of the saints become Humean arguments about the gullibility of religious people generally with regard to miracles generally; Protestant arguments that we cannot rationally believe that transubstantiation occurs against the evidence of our senses find parallels in Hume's arguments against believing in religious miracles; and so forth.  What is more, this seems not to have been lost on Hume's early critics; George Campbell, for instance, sees quite clearly what Hume is doing in (for instance) his long note on the Jansenist miracles, and, obviously, refuses to play the game, insisting that the parallels are artificial and based on false assumptions.  In any case, these tropes were not typically in-principle arguments; they were based on claims about the mendacity of priests, the gullibility of poorly educated Catholics, and so forth.

In other words, the most famous example of a skeptical "Argument from Other Religions" is an adaptation of inter-religious Christian disputes, back when what was most often meant by a "false religion" was a rival interpretation of Christianity.

This raises the interesting question of whether this particular skeptical attack on religion would have had the same rhetorical appeal, if the Church had remained united—at least by the bonds of love, if not identical belief—rather then splintering into warring religious factions in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Could it be that the "Argument from Other Religions" really inspired by the long shadow of the religious wars of the Early Modern era?

Even if that thesis is too extreme, I think it is easy for people in the Western world to make arguments from comparative religion, without realizing that they are really projecting features of Christian doctrine onto other religions, which—when understood from a sympathetic view—don't even really pretend to base themselves on the same kinds of concrete historical miracle claims that support Judaeo-Christian doctrines.

In other words, many skeptics are too lazy to actually do any research about what a totally non-Christian religion looks like.  Instead of doing research, it's easier to just compare Christianity to an imagined clone of itself, and find that on the whole Christianity comes out looking rather unoriginal.

So long as the skeptic confines himself to religions that actually are explicitly attempts to copy and surpass Christianity (e.g. Islam, Mormonism...) these expectations won't be totally misleading.  But it is a mistake to think that a random Eastern religion with no connection to Christianity will appeal to the same kinds of evidential support that Christianity does.  Such an approach would, ironically, project Christian values onto an essentially foreign milieu, and thus fails to see what is really going on in Eastern religions.

Next: Honest Messengers

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