Review: The Case For Christ

Back in January, I agreed a book-swap with US-based Christian blogger, Clark Bunch. I suggested that he read Dan Barker’s Godless and he recommended Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ.

So I’ve read The Case For Christ, although it’s taken me quite a while as I was distracted by other books and spent some time reading up on certain points, not least from Earl Doherty’s cross-examination, “Challenging the Verdict”. Clark and I have already had some discussion of Lee Strobel’s book, but as far as I know he hasn’t yet got around to reading Godless. I’ve sent him another email reminder when I published this post, so hopefully he’ll respond.

Strobel is a journalist and accomplished writer. The Case For Christ has a narrative, rather than academic style, which no doubt adds to its accessibility. Each chapter begins with an anecdote, presumably from his journalistic coverage of criminal trials and investigations, to illustrate the point of the chapter. These introductions set the scene and certainly make the book more readable. Next follows the introduction of the interviewee, a page or two listing their qualifications, publications and academic posts, that kind of thing. All very impressive-sounding, but the author is also keen on including little details about their appearance, the photos in their office and so on, to turn these scholars into fully-rounded characters. I said it was a narrative style. Presumably this is to build the reader’s trust and establish the credibility of the interviewees. I’m sure many readers love it, but at least a third of the book is not making the case for Christ and the curious skeptic in me is yelling, “Get on with it!”.

When we get to the meat of the arguments, Strobel and his interviewees consider the various kinds of evidence for Jesus in keeping with the courtroom trial theme. I’m no expert on these matters so I can only comment on what has been included, not what has been left out. To be fair, skeptical objections and ideas from groups such as the Jesus Seminar are also considered, but never too deeply. There is always a quick and confident reassurance provided that these arguments don’t amount to much nor cast any doubt on the historicity of Jesus. However, I think this approach sometimes backfires. For example, when considering the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus who allegedly referred to Jesus in his writing, Edwin Yamauchi admits that there are phrases unlikely to have been written by a Jewish historian and that these are likely to be “interpolations” by Christian copyists [Specifically that Jesus was more than human, that Jesus "was The Christ" and that Jesus was resurrected]. The final reassurance is less than convincing,

“What’s the bottom line?”
“That the passage in Josephus was probably originally written about Jesus, although without those three points I mentioned. But even so, Josephus corroborates important information about Jesus: that he was the martyred leader of the church in Jerusalem and that he was a wise teacher who had established a wide and lasting following, despite the fact that he had been crucified under Pilate at the instigation of some of the Jewish leaders.”

Now for me this section only casts more doubt on the historicity of Jesus. At the very least the writing of Josephus has had convenient insertions by Christian copyists, presumably with the intention of bolstering the case for Christ. This shows that they were not above this kind of corruption of the evidence. It makes me wonder what else may have been tactically edited by the earliest Christian copyists. Further reading in Challenging the Verdict thoroughly reviews the issue, and shows that Josephus’s “Antiquities of the Jews” arguably reads more smoothly without the quoted paragraph mentioning Jesus. The entire thing could have inserted.

Obviously there’s little certainty here, as all the evidence is so old, but Lee Strobel’s interviewees regularly take a simple passage or ambiguous Biblical cross-reference and proclaim it as very impressive evidence. Invariably this seems to be a case of reading too much into some text with a certain agenda in mind.

The main example is the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 – which speaks of Christ being raised and appearing to people – as if it refers to a physical person. Earl Doherty points out that this assumption comes from the gospels, which were written after Corinthians. He suggests that there’s no reason to suppose Paul’s use of “raised” refers to a physical resurrection.

What does all this show? At the very least it shows that there’s more complexity and uncertainty to this issue than I have the time or patience to grapple with. However, you’d never guess it from the confidence with which Lee Strobel and his carefully-chosen scholars assert their claims.

“All of the gospels and Acts evidence – incident after incident, witness after witness, detail after detail, corroboration on top of corroboration – was extremely impressive. Although I tried, I couldn’t think of any more thoroughly attested event in ancient history.”

In fact, when compared for example to the accounts of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE, there a great deal of tampering with the evidence, uncertain dating and insertions/interpolations in Biblical history leaving much room for doubt over what Jesus did or didn’t do.

The Case For Christ is well written and, for the most part, I am not knowledgeable enough to check out all it’s claims. However, the few places where the obvious problems are confidently swept aside reveals the unrelenting agenda to promote the authenticity of the Bible above all.

Regulation Of Herbal Medicine

sassafras170In the UK there has been a drive to add medical herbalists to the growing list of health practitioners subject to statutory regulation (SR).  In fact this is government legislation we’re talking about, so the drive has been going on for over ten years. The stated motivation is, as usual, to ensure public safety.

However, many herbalists are fuming over the recent proposals. They claim that this regulation will take herbal medicine away from ordinary people whilst doing nothing to improve safety. They’ve even organised a rally in London and an online petition.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, there is the rallying herbalists’ tendency to spell traditional with a capital T and employ the attendant fallacies of “traditional” or “natural” things being automatically better. On the other hand, some of their concerns may be valid.

Health risk mitigation

In particular, in their response to government consultation (PDF see questions 1 and 2), they question what risks there are to the public that SR would mitigate.

In fact, they are unwilling even to acknowledge any harm from traditional herbal medicine (they like to stress the traditional bit). And yes, some of the cases of harm have been outside of existing laws or regulatory advice, so presumably, by their definition, not traditional.

As far as we are aware, there is not any evidence of harm to the public. Replies received from the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] and DH [Department of Health], our combined clinical experiences and research that we have undertaken cannot point to any evidence of harm. There has possibly been the odd one or two who have broken current laws.

However, a little more digging shows there is evidence of harm to the public as a result of herbal remedies. Here’s one example from the MCA report on the safety of herbal medicinal products (PDF).

In 1996, the UK the MCA extended its ‘Yellow Card Scheme’ to include reporting of suspected adverse reactions to unlicensed herbal products. This followed a report from Guy’s Hospital Toxicology Unit on potentially serious adverse reactions associated with herbal remedies. Twenty-one cases of liver toxicity, including two deaths, were associated with the use of TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine].

Some of the more extreme and newsworthy examples of harm caused by herbal medicine from around the world are listed on the What’s The Harm website’s herbal medicine section which makes for grim reading.

So, there certainly are risks involved with herbal medicines, whether it’s the traditional use of heavy metals in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies, traditional plants with toxic constituents, allergic reactions or the interactions of herbal medicine with conventional medicine. That and the traditional risk of being ineffective (more on that later).

However, what is unclear is whether the proposed regulation would do any good.

SaveOurHerbs also state (PDF) that they are not aware of any research on whether SR lessens harm, so instead they list their perceived disadvantages with SR. Here’s a sample:

Loss of traditional philosophies and diversity of practice due to orthodox standards in education, science and CPD.

Diversity of practice? Isn’t that a bad thing? Surely if there’s a right way to do something, then everyone should be doing it that way. Are they suggesting that all methods of treatment are equally valid?

State regulation will be extremely and unnecessarily expensive to the tax payer, as are all these repetitive committees, reports and consultations.

OK, I’m sure legislation and regulation would cost the taxpayer, but even this has to be weighed against the possible benefits.

The state regulatory body will be based on a system whereby the majority of board members will be from professions who do not share the same philosophies or training and will be biased towards orthodox standards and philosophies that may be inappropriate, restrictive and damaging.

hbst200This seems to be a case of needing special rules for herbal medicine in order for it to be seen as safe and effective.  Without a recognised framework to sort the safe, effective treatments from the ineffective or dangerous, researchers are stumbling in the dark, not learning or discovering but guessing. Unfortunately guessing leads to bad decisions and lost lives.  Any treatment should be able to undergo testing for efficacy and it is irresponsible to try to circumvent this.

Statutory regulation

I can’t claim to have read all the consultation papers in detail, but I did gather that SR would mean practitioners will have to be suitably qualified and able to show certain competencies in order to maintain their regulated status. These competencies (PDF, page 44) include such good things as knowing their limits and referring patients appropriately when a case is beyond their expertise. While this all sounds nice, I’m far from convinced that it would be effective in practice.  It’s only slightly better than a code of practice that says practitioners must dress smartly and have a degree.

Government regulation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has not exactly got a glowing record of separating the safe, effective practices from the rest. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council CNHC (aka OffQuack) set up to “regulate” alternative therapies seem to be uncertain as to whether they are regulating or promoting CAM. As Matt Robbins of The Lay Scientist points out:

…this blatant conflict of interest is enshrined in their mission statement:

“CNHC’s mission is to support the use of complementary and natural healthcare as a uniquely positive, safe and effective experience”

Uniquely positive? Uniquely effective? How on Earth can they make such claims when they can provide nothing in the way of evidence to back it up? And why on Earth is a government sponsored regulator behaving like a bunch of lobbyists in making these claims in the first place? How can the body responsible for regulating therapists also be allowed to promote them? Again, if a pharamaceutical regulatory body behaved in this way, alternative medicine advocates would (rightly) be up in arms about it! It is utterly scandalous.

The government seems quite happy to gloss over this issue. In response to a petition demanding basic efficacy and safety requirements of all CNHC registered practitioners, they replied:

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) does not promote the efficacy of disciplines practised by its registrants.  The aim of the CNHC is protection of the public. Registration means that the practitioner has met certain entry standards (in terms of having an accredited qualification or relevant experience) and that they subscribe to a set of professional standards…

That’s not enough. I think all healthcare providers, whether registered and professional or not, have a responsibility to ensure their treatments are effective. Anecdotes and personal testimonies, for example, would not be sufficient to prove conventional medicines and they’re not sufficient for alternative therapies either.

Incidentally, many herbalists are already voluntarily regulated, the way many professions are, by an independent governing body for that purpose. In this case the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). Disappointingly, the NIMH don’t appear to be regulating in the much-needed sense either.

“The Institute promotes the benefits, the efficacy and safe use of herbal medicine.”

Interesting that – “promotes”. Not “regulates”, not “ensures”, not even the legally arse-covering, “strives to ensure”. No, what they do is promotion.

Safety and efficacy

hbengl200Safety and efficacy are not unreasonable things to insist upon. They seems to me to be the most basic requirements of a medicine. Safety is enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath – “First,  do no harm”. Safety and efficacy are intrinsically linked; if a treatment is ineffective, that puts the patient at risk. A patient taking an ineffective alternative treatment is more likely to forego conventional evidence-based medicine. Even when the alternative therapy itself doesn’t directly injure the patient, avoiding an effective treatment can be fatal. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Consider the distressing case of baby Gloria Thomas.

In the last months of her life, baby Gloria Thomas suffered such terrible eczema her skin would weep and peel, sticking to her clothing when she was changed.

Despite her bleeding, crying and malnutrition, her mother and homeopath father failed to get conventional medical help before she died a painful death, a Sydney jury has been told.

Note, I’m not trying to conflate the different practices of herbal medicine and homoeopathy, just to show that serious harm can occur indirectly even when harmless treatments such as water drop or sugar pills prescribed by homoeopaths are used. It seems any treatment which discourages the use of evidence-based medicines could have these kind of effects. Prayer is another example.

So, I think the herbalist campaigners are right to be suspicious of statutory regulation, but for the wrong reasons. I suspect deep down they are concerned that SR might one day be used to demand efficacy of their treatments. Conversely, I am unconvinced about SR because it doesn’t (yet) demand efficacy.

[BPSDB]

Evidence Yes, But Evidence For What?

shoesDuring my catch-up reading I came across an observation made some time ago by Deacon Duncan at Evangelical Realism that got me thinking.

This is the old superstition vs. science dilemma, the fellow who says shoes are made by elves in a hollow tree, and then cites the existence of shoes as evidence that elves are real.

Phrased like that it is easy to see the error in the reasoning. Yes, shoes could be evidence of elves, but there are other, less fantastic, possibilities and we should consider these first. When the example is elves, most people will be willing to look critically at the claim and see through it. Those with a sense of irony and a knowledge of rhyming slang may even describe it as “Cobblers“!

Nevertheless, this kind of fallacy appears surprisingly regularly. For example, consider the patterns sometimes found in fields, known as crop circles. Often these can only be fully appreciated from the air and seem to describe the shape of some kind of complex craft. While some crop circles are created by people making no unusual claims about them, others are claimed as evidence of alien visitors. In my view it’s far more likely to be evidence of mischievous earthlings.

When a patient improves after having taken some previously untested treatment or medicine, is that evidence that the treatment is working or that their immune system is doing its job? In cases like these it can be hard to tell, so thorough clinical trials are needed, involving more than one patient, placebo controls, etc.

Similarly, the creationist website, allaboutcrreation.org makes this popular claim:

Where is the proof of God? If we’re willing to open our eyes, we’ll see the fingerprints of God all around us and all throughout us. Our very existence proves the existence of a Creator God.

270px-CropCircleWI’m sure most of us have seen religious people point to a beautiful flower and say, “There! That’s evidence that God exists!”. Again, this could be evidence of a great many things, including the symbiotic relationship between flowering plants and insects which are attracted by bright colours and floral scents. The fact that we as humans think that the flower is beautiful may be evidence that we are adapted to appreciate a fertile ecosystem and the fruits that it can bring.

Even the Bible has some of this kind of gargantuan jump, in reverse from what they are trying to establish – the existence of a god, to a piece of alleged evidence, as in Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

I think that verse could be rephrased to be clearer about the leap of logic it’s making. Anyone care to make a suggestion?

In all cases it seems we are in danger of leaping to a conclusion that is not necessarily the cause of the evidence we’re seeing. The solution is perhaps to imagine several possible causes and try to understand why we should prefer one over the others.

Contrasting Sikhism

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) at night..

It occurred to me recently that I am embarrassingly ignorant of Sikhism – the world’s 5th largest religion. So I’ve been doing some homework to remedy this. Although I’ve never discussed religion with them, I’ve found the few Sikhs I’ve met to be modest, friendly and helpful. Reading their underlying values, this fits with the ideal view of Sikh philosophy.

Apart from my admitted laziness, my lack of knowledge may be because Sikhs are not evangelistic. This contrasts with other religions, most of which find some form of coercion or persuasion tactics necessary to keep their numbers up. In fact Sikhism seems to contrast with its theological cousins in a variety of ways. As it was established in India between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Sikh religion may be viewed partly as a reaction to its religious neighbours. According to Ninian Smart’s book of The World’s Religions, Sikhism’s first Guru, Nanak was a bit of a smarty-pants when it came to other religions:

On Nanak’s journey to Mecca he is reported to have fallen asleep in error with his feet pointing toward Mecca, and so showing disrespect to the Muslim faith. A mullah had woken him angrily, but Nanak’s comment was devastating: “Then turn my feet in a direction where God is not.

Sikhism and other religions

Contrasting with Hinduism, Sikhs believe in a single omnipotent god. However, this differs from Christianity, as the Sikh impression of god is impersonal, seemingly pantheistic.

In contrast with some aspects of Budhism, Sikhism advocates family life, working for a living and being part of the world rather than living as a hermit.

sikh_temple_manning_drive_300Unlike Christianity, Sikhs believe to some extent in the idea of Karma – actions having consequences – both now and in later lives. Sikhism says that belief alone is not what affects a person’s destiny.

Contrasting with Judaism, Sikhs do not believe they are a chosen people of god. Anyone, they say, can reach salvation. In fact they’re quite adamant that all people, male and female, are equal, which contrasts with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and no doubt many others.

Unlike almost every modern religion and religious sect, Sikhism doesn’t have priests, mullahs, rabbis or any equivalent. Enlightenment and salvation are available to any individual with or without an authority to guide them.

Contrasting with Islam, Christianity and most others, Sihkism does not claim to be the only path to salvation. It does however claim to be the simplest. Here’s a line from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib the like of which you won’t find in many other religions,

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false.”

So I guess they’re all for comparative religion classes? Sounds good, but you can’t simultaneously believe the claims of contradictory holy books to be true. Interesting, worth reading, maybe. But they can’t actually all be true. Surely that is beyond the abilities of even the most devoutly religious mental gymnast? I’m wondering how they manage to mesh Karma and reincarnation with a pantheistic deity.

A (very) brief history of Sikhism

Sikhism began around the year 1500 in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. The beliefs evolved over the next 200 years as ten sucessive gurus guided the faithful, after which the holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, was declared the enduring guru. Sikhs suffered at the hands of both the Islamic Mughal Empire and later the British Empire. However, Sikhism is still going strong, with the main populations of Sikhs located in India, Britain and Canada.

Sikhs are expected to meditate on God, be generally decent human beings and adhere to a fairly strict dress code:

The 5 items are: kēs (uncut hair), kaṅghā (small comb), kaṛā (circular iron bracelet), kirpān (ceremonial short sword), and kacchā (special undergarment). (from Wikipedia)

In modern times the five Ks as they are called have caused several disagreements. One issue has been over the difficulty in wearing a motorcycle helmet and a turban simultaneously. There was also concern that a turban could unravel at high speeds, presumably leading to some gory Isadora Duncan-type incident. One dedicated Sikh biker proved this to be wrong by racing around a track on a motorbike with his turban firmly in place.

Asking Questions

sikhguard300Much of my research has been at Sikhism101.com, which provides extensive FAQs with some interesting ideas and quotes, all phrased in a refreshingly un-authoritative tone. It may not be completely representative of modern Sikh thinking, but it makes for interesting reading. I particularly liked how they begin their answer to the question, “If Sikhism, is the true religion. How come it was created/revealed 300 years ago, and not at the beginning of time?“:

Which religion was created at the beginning of time? ….

However, the answers to the tougher questions get disappointingly woolly. Further reading shows some typical misconceptions about atheism and a rather weak answer to the problem of evil which amounts to little more than “Evil does not exist, only the absence of good. In any case, we don’t know what’s good for us, while God does.” (I paraphrase).

All in all Sikh beliefs make for interesting reading, with an impressive moral system and a dizzyingly eclectic collection of ideas. However, I’ve yet to see any great arguments for the truth of the supernatural claims. There are plenty of claims of the importance of truth,

“Realization of Truth is higher than all else.
Higher still is Truthful Living.” (Guru Nanak, Sri Rag)

What is missing is a reliable way of determining whether Sikh beliefs are true.

Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure [...] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at apologetics.com considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

A Christian friend of mine (No, not that one, another one) recently mentioned in his Facebook status that he’d witnessed miraculous healings at a Christian gathering. Ever the sceptic, I responded by posting a video of James Randi’s investigation of faith healing. In this video, Randi exposes US televangelists Peter Popoff and WV Grant.

He responded to me by asking:

“… Ever wondered what evidence you would need…”

Which is a very sensible and reasonable question. If I couldn’t say what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong about faith healing, I could be accused of holding my sceptical position irrationally, dogmatically, “No matter what”. Adam Lee covered this idea in respect to religious belief in general and the result is his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists essay which I’d recommend to everyone.

For me it’s not enough to be able to say, “This could have been a miracle” – not getting rained on when you forgot your umbrella could have been a miracle, but it could just as easily be chance. I’m trying to find something which could only have been a miracle. Recovering from a particularly nasty cold might have involved divine intervention, but this also happens naturally, so we can’t be sure a miracle occurred in that particular case. So I’m not interested in evidence of improbable healings, but impossible healings. Impossible that is, without miraculous supernatural intervention.

The evidence has to be reliable and evaluated in a way that does not allow bias, whether intentional or not, to creep in. To start with, the patients should be carefully assessed to ensure that they genuinely suffer from the claimed illness in the first place. Then we need to be able to judge easily whether or not they have been cured.

Ailments such as back pain, migraines or depression are probably not worth investigating as it is too hard to independently assess them – you can only rely on what the patient tells you.

Ideally we should also be reasonably confident of what caused the healing. If the patient visited mystical healers of all stripes then a few weeks later finds themselves cured, we still have some unanswered questions.

So to summarise, the miraculous healing would need to be something which:

  • Could only occur due to a miraculous healing.
  • Can easily be judged a success or failure by all around.
  • Can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

A good example of this would be an amputated limb regrowing. If a group of Christians gathered around a multiple amputee and prayed for him to regrow his limbs and it they did indeed regrow then you’d have a very convincing case. I’d like to witness this myself, but also have other independent witnesses there to check I wasn’t hallucinating or missing some sleight of hand (or leg). This idea is examined in detail by the website Why Won’t God Heal Amputees, which says on the subject of healing amputees:

Notice that there is zero ambiguity in this situation. There is only one way for a limb to regenerate through prayer: God must exist and God must answer prayers.

That may seem very stringent and a very narrow way to define faith healing, but I think it’s warranted. It’s the only kind of faith healing we could really be sure about. Furthermore, I’m just an ordinary person and I could easily be fooled. I’ve seen enough stage magicians do tricks I couldn’t explain, heard (and believed) enough tall tales and been swayed by enough anecdotal evidence to know that I’m as gullible as the next guy.

So I think it’s reasonable – prudent even – to ask that these standards of evidence are met. Incidentally, these ideas are by no means exclusive, I’m sure there are other tests which could potentially provide excellent evidence of faith healing. I’m keen to hear other people’s suggestions. If we could agree on a reasonable experiment that could discern real faith healing from false faith healing, I’d be happy to try it out and post the results here.

[BPSDB]

Preaching the gospel to animals

A post on Clark Bunch’s blog recently included Biblical quote indicating that the gospel is to be preached to “every creature“. Naturally, this conjured some amusing images of Christians talking to rabbits, so I could hardly resist commenting.

lonelypilgrim replied to me, explaining that the interpretation was not reasonable, because early Christians apparently did not preach to animals.

Of course this isn’t the only strange or ambiguous passage in the Bible. For a few examples, see Ebonmuse’s article on Biblical absurdities, in which it becomes apparent that God is also “against pillows”. I’m sure that many Christians are aware of some of these oddities, but it doesn’t seem to bother them. In cases where more than one Biblical interpretation is possible, they simply assume the one which fits with their opinions must be correct. They don’t all agree, either; for instance, some Christians think there is a literal hell, others don’t.  In cases where one interpretation would be completely impractical, nonsensical or doesn’t fit with the way they see their religion, they simply ignore that interpretation.

To be fair to lonelypilgrim, he’s done a bit more than that. He’s also considering the actions of early Christians. Because there is apparently no evidence of early Christians preaching to animals, he argues that the author must’ve meant something different. On the face of it, this might be a reasonable way to understand an ancient text. The earliest readers of scripture would probably have read something closer to the original author’s words, with fewer hops, skips and jumps in the form of copying and translation. So their understanding might well be better than ours. This still leaves a few problems, however.

Firstly, can we be sure of what early Christians understood about the Bible – if some of them did believe they should preach to animals would we necessarily know about it now? Accounts of their lives must have been translated and copied with at least as much chance of error as the translation and copying of the Bible.

Secondly, if modern Christians must rely on historical evidence to interpret the Bible, that makes the Bible no better than any other historical text. In any case, most people reading the Bible don’t consider the opinions of early Christians – except when asked facetious-sounding questions on the Internet.

Thirdly – although I haven’t researched this thoroughly – let’s assume that early Christians didn’t preach the gospel to animals – even if it is a great image. I don’t think that would solve the problem entirely for Christians. As I responded to lonelypilgrim,

“…If we do have evidence that “creatures” meant “only humans”, then presumably the fact that we ended up with this English wording is the result of naive translation – by people not aware of this evidence. In this case, as you pointed out, it’s fairly obvious which interpretation makes most sense, so the error introduced at some point has no effect (at least I doubt anyone has tried to preach to animals as a result of this). But if errors or misunderstandings like this can creep into the text through the copying or translation process it casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the text. In other areas such changes might not be so obvious…”

It seems that they’re working from the assumption that the Bible makes sense and contains sensible advice relevant to modern readers. This could be seen as an appeal to consequences. If something in the Bible is nonsensical, that would make Christian beliefs seem flawed and Christians would no doubt consider that a bad thing. Therefore the whole Bible must make sense.

On the other hand it could be a form of the argument from incredulity. Christians find it impossible to imagine that any part of the Bible might be nonsense. The word of God, the holy book of the one true religion contains things which sound completely ridiculous? Unbelievable. There must be some other explanation.

They’re not just putting their faith in the Bible being accurate, but that their interpretations of the Bible are the right ones. I think the assumption that the Bible makes sense is unwarranted.