No God, But…Angels?

Question from Joanne:
I’m doing an assignment on different religious beliefs on angels and I want to know if atheists believe in angels and what are atheist perspectives on angels? Does each person’s viewpoint differ based on personal belief or is there a general perspective? Also, what arguments/proofs are there to back up the atheist viewpoint on angels?
Thank you so much.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve had an awful month moving house, Joanne, I hope this isn’t too late to help you.

Atheists usually don’t believe in supernatural beings including angels, for the same reason they don’t believe in gods: there’s no good evidence that they’re real. Like with gods their non-existence is not certain, but you need a good reason to positively believe in something so exotic.

That said, through this site I have spoken to some atheists who believe in a few such beings, such as ghosts. They come to these beliefs through personal experiences they interpret as supernatural, even though they don’t sound very convincing to the rest of us. Angels are a special case however, because as defined in the lore of any religion they are created by a god and sent to participate in the affairs of humans. An atheist by definition does not believe in any gods, and therefore would not believe in any creature that can only have been created by gods. So while atheist viewpoints on ghosts, cryptozoology (e.g. Bigfoot) or supernatural forces like karma do vary, their attitude toward angels is a very general one of denial and dismissal.

…Mother Mary Comes To Me, Speaking Words Of Wisdom: “You’re Pregnant!”

Question from Chuck:
So my mom grew up in a Greek Catholic house, she isn’t too religious, but does believe there may be a higher power like a god or something of that nature. One thing that’s kind of strange to me is this. She has 2 children, myself and my brother. She also had 2 miscarriages, where after about 6 weeks, the fetus died. She told me that it wasn’t particularly easy to conceive, and that there were times where it didn’t work. However, when she became pregnant with me (the day before she found out) she had a dream with mother Mary telling her she was going to be giving birth to a child. It happened to be true. Then, her next attempt to have a baby was a miscarriage, and while she was at one point pregnant, she did not have a religious dream. Then, she had my brother, and the day before she found out about being pregnant with him, she said Jesus came to her, lifted her up, and said she would be giving birth to another baby.

I know these could be written off as just dreams, coincidences, potentially anticipation lead the brain to expect pregnancy, but these dreams didn’t occur for the 2 miscarriages, does this potentially mean anything supernatural at work here?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well we know they were dreams, your mother said as much. Coincidences are certainly possible, but anticipation is almost certain; her mind would turn towards babies at specific times simply because she knew when she’d previously had sex in the right part of her cycle. It goes through the mind of most women, I’m sure: “If I conceived on that particular night, this is about when I’d find out.” Given the relationship between dreams and memory, she might have had the dream one or both times she eventually miscarried, or at any time in between, and simply not remembered it (or dismissed it simply because the timing was so off).

Memory changes over time, too, especially if you start telling the story of it (or even reliving it in your mind). The original dreams may not have been as specific, well-timed, relevant and accurate as they sound in your mother’s current version of the story, but any tiny exaggerations are liable to be integrated into the memory of the dream, and not regarded as exaggerations the next time.

All up, there are too many ways this can have occurred naturally and still seem like two perfectly aimed singing telegrams from Our Lady for anyone who doesn’t start off already believing to take much notice.

Just Being Around a Box Jellyfish Is a Near Death Experience Anyway

Question from Jay:
Hello, I was wondering what you thought of Ian McCormack’s NDE testimony, this is a man who claims he was swimming in the ocean in Mauritius, was stung by a box jellyfish, died, went to hell, was then given a second chance, shown heaven, etc. He claims that he has been retelling his testimony for over 30 years hundreds of times at these religious conventions, and tons of people approach him, saying they saw hell in an NDE of their own and it is exactly the way he described it. He was also apparently an atheist when this took place. When I typed down “box jellyfish sting survival rate” into google, his testimony comes up, even though I didn’t search for NDEs. It seems he beat the odds by surviving, as the sting kills most people, and he had such a vivid testimony. Do you think even though he claims thousands of people came to him and told him they saw hell in NDEs just like he did that it doesn’t prove a hell?

Answer by SmartLX:
For reference, here’s his story in the first person.

See Wikipedia: most box jellyfish encounters aren’t too serious, so the survival rate is pretty good. There are no statistics on survival rates for a full-blown sting, only a very rough number of fatalities per year in a few regions.

Hell to McCormack was darkness, disembodiment, angry voices and a sense of unease. This is a very easy dream to have if you are under stress, so I wouldn’t be surprised if many people remember something similar as they listen to him. That said, we have only his word how many people have corroborated his story, so to speak, and even that is an estimate.

Primarily, we have absolutely no evidence for the critical facts of the story itself: the severity and location (even the occurence) of the sting, the time he went untreated and unconscious, the doctor’s reaction, how long he was in hospital, whether he was an atheist beforehand, etc. And that’s before the claims of anything supernatural. A “vivid” testimony counts for nothing; think of your favourite work of fiction and consider how vivid a narrative can be without being at all true.

Dunkin’ Babies

Question from Andrei:
A colleague of mine recently attended the baptism of a baby and she told me she noticed that before the immersion in holy water the baby was very agitated and was crying a lot, but after the immersion the baby became very quiet and calm. She attributed this behavior to the supernatural (she was probably thinking about the Holy Spirit). Please tell me: Why do you think the baby changed his/her behavior during the baptism?
Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
What temperature was the water? If it was a smart priest the water was very warm, as close as possible to 37° Celsius (~98° Farenheit) which is the recommended temperature for bathing very young babies. It reminds them of the womb and calms them right down. In fact, if it’s the kind of church that baptises babies by literally immersing them, it could be dangerous for the babies if the water is any cooler than that, in case they get hypothermia.

Even not knowing all this, a church that baptises enough babies will have learned through decades or even centuries of trial and error that there’s a lot less screaming over the rites if the water is pleasant for the poor kids.

Ouija Ouija Woo Woo 2

Question from Kamil:
I would like to ask you your opinion on Ouija boards.

Originally, I would have thought they were just peoples’ imaginations, but recently, I made one with my family and we played for fun. We were asking questions and getting answers. Apparently we were talking to some guy who lived during the 1500s in Qatar named Carvel. It was all fun and we got a good laugh. However, then something interesting (kind of spooky) took place. My parents asked for fun if I would ever get married (I am very young). The answer was yes. Then we asked, what country will she be from, and the answer was Sweden. Finally, we asked the name, and got “Hilvy”. A few months passed, and I didn’t think anything of it. However, I was bored one day and googled “Hilvy”. To my surprise, it came up as a Swedish name! I asked my parents and they said they had never heard of that name before. Now I am shocked that this was able to come up with an ethnically Swedish name when we didn’t know it. I don’t know what to think of that. My parents joke if I ever really do meet a Hilvy maybe it will mean something.

I have also heard a catalog of anecdotes where people claim they were playing as kids and objects around the house went flying, garbage cans, clocks, etc. Some people say they have seen strange things, and even some murder mysteries have apparently been solved with Ouija boards. My question is, do you think these anecdotes as well as my anecdote prove that spirits are around us communicating or no? I doubt all these people lie about having strange experiences after using these boards. Do you think this proves a life after death?

Answer by SmartLX:
No, the anecdotes don’t prove anything. They’re anecdotes, without a shred of evidence or corroboration, which is significant for an activity that is necessarily done in a group. Fortunately there’s an easy way to make ouija boards look silly, which I’ll get to.

When even one person with a finger on the pointer has an idea where to go while everyone else is aimless, everyone else will go with the strongest force without knowing where it came from. If one person at your session happened to know that Hilvy is a Swedish name (and it does seem to be a common one) they could have spelled it out, and even spelled “Sweden” to set it up.

If you really want to test the power of a Ouija board then get the same group back together, blindfold every participant, and have an observer capture video of the board. People might still have an idea of where “yes” and “no” are, so ask questions that require answers to be spelled out. You’ll probably find that the pointer doesn’t just spell garbage but frequently lands in the spaces between characters, giving no valid answer at all. It’s already happened on camera.

I’m not suggesting that every legible answer or even letter has been forced on the pointer by cheating participants. Ideomotor effects can drive people’s muscles to make countless tiny adjustments without them realising if they know what they expect to happen, say if the pointer looks like it’s going to narrowly miss a letter, or if half of an obvious word has been spelled out. The more people “at the wheel”, the more difficult the specific moves are to attribute.

Even if ouija boards did work with all “drivers” blindfolded, attributing the information to real ghosts would be the next near-impossible task. You’d need to treat the board the way a skeptic would treat any self-proclaimed psychic, asking specific questions about the future that can be unambiguously proved wrong, and similar questions about the past and present that not only no one in the room could know, but only a specific deceased person would know.

Incidentally, how would “Carvel” even know who you’ll marry? In whose model of the afterlife do ghosts exist and know the future, on top of their own past?

Angel On My Truck

Question from Kamil:

Some people (the people who took this image) are convinced it is a real angel, while others say it was likely just a moth on the lens of the camera. Logically, I guess we cannot conclude it is an angel, as we don’t know what it is, what the cause of the image is, etc. There are a million things it could be, and just because we don’t have an explanation doesn’t give us the right to say it is one. I am not sure if these people saw this light in real life as they took the picture, or if it just ended up in the picture later, but the moth theory would make more logical sense or something around those lines. CNN got a Priest on the news who apparently died in a car accident, came back, talked about a visit to heaven, etc and he says he believes it is an angel, but from a non biased source, the answer would likely be very different.

Answer by SmartLX:
If you can’t conclude that it’s an angel, I hope you don’t think that I can. We don’t have a definite explanation but there’s at least one potential explanation in the article (a moth) and while we can’t say for certain that was it, it makes no sense to leap to a supernatural explanation that’s never been established.

The article is explicit that no one saw the phenomenon in person; the two photos were taken automatically by a motion sensor security camera. This creates a new situation where there’s a claim of an angel sighting with no real witnesses at all. It doesn’t help its case, even compared to other claims like this.

It’s really a shame there wasn’t video as well. Then again, if there was video and it made it clear that there was a moth fluttering in front of the camera, its owners wouldn’t have sent that to the news networks.

We Finally Tackle The Sunrise/Sunset Question You’ve Seen on Posters

Question from Brianna:
How do you look at a sunset and not believe that there is something out there greater than you?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s plenty out there which is greater than me on many levels, and a lot of it comes to the fore in a sunset. The wealth of physics at work in the spectacle of a sunset does not diminish its beauty, nor obviously fail to account for it.

– The Sun itself is bigger than we can fathom even if we know the numbers, and provides nearly all the energy we’ve ever seen used.
– The atmosphere between us and the Sun is comprised of a huge amount of different chemicals (some more than others) each of which has an effect on the colours we perceive in the sky. Even scientists in the relevant field have a hell of a time explaining all the different factors, as Cliff Stoll once wrote.
– A decent-sized cloud in the sky has millions of gallons of water in it, again calculable but more than is comprehensible. Its precise effects on the sunbeams that pass through it could fill a book if you went into detail.
– Our eyes and brains not only register all this, but find subjective beauty in it. The processes that led to this being possible, not least evolution, have toiled for billions of years to get us to this level.

A good word to sum up all of this is sublime. This literally means a sense of something larger or greater than oneself, and atheists have plenty of opportunities to feel this living in the world we share with believers. The big difference is the absence of the assumption, even unconscious, that something greater than humans in any sense must have been designed or otherwise deliberately brought about by an intelligent entity, and this indeed makes all the difference.

When you believe in a god, you see amazing things and automatically connect them to the god; when you don’t, that doesn’t really happen and everything does not look like a self-evident monument to any god. It’s largely a difference in perception based on preconceptions; in short, non-believers don’t see the world the way believers do precisely because of their lack of belief. So (and here’s your takeaway, Brianna) to convert someone you need to instill some belief before pointing out the sunset.

I Asked For Questions, And I Received

Question from Rachel:
1. What is it like to be an atheist? How does it feel?
2. What is it like to celebrate holidays like Easter?
3. What is your favorite color?

Answer by SmartLX:
1. Atheism provokes a few different feelings at different times. Remembering my former Catholicism, it’s a relief to no longer worry about Hell, or else a god working against my aims in life. In a group of mostly (nominally) religious people, which is most groups, it can feel isolating, especially given the possibility that being open about your atheism will immediately turn some people against you. Considering the population at large, I feel a great concern that not only are the majority very likely to be wrong about their gods, but that some of their efforts to please those gods are wasted – or actively harming people.

2. Widely observed, traditionally religious holidays like Easter usually have secular components that anyone can enjoy. Easter has the bunny and the chocolate, Christmas has Santa and the general urge towards parties and togetherness, Halloween has the whole spooky angle and so forth. I make the most of these aspects, and of course the vacation time if applicable, and don’t begrudge the religious their observances.

3. Green, with deep blue a close second. I try not to read into it.

The Turin Tests

Question from Bubsy (submitted in 3 parts):
William Guy gave an outstanding presentation, and while he gave many decent points for proof of the shroud, these six were the best (in my opinion)

1) Joseph Kohlberg, a geologist, actually studied some of the remnants of the shroud and found limestone. Later, it was found that this limestone was common in Israeli tombs, but not just any Israeli tombs, Jerusalem tombs. Therefore, if it was not real, how could the shroud have some remnants from Jerusalem tombs?

2) Guy researched crucifixion history, and found that while the Persians invented it, the Romans perfected it. It can be seen in the shroud itself that there were thorns in this individual’s head, which was never used before in Roman or Persian killings, therefore, it strongly hints it was actually Jesus

3) The shroud accurately depicts the nails going through the wrists of the individual for crucifixion. In many middle aged drawings, Jesus is depicted as having the nails go through hands, and this is scientifically impossible. Therefore, it couldn’t have been a forgery

4) the shroud was measured in cubic units, something they didn’t do in the middle ages, but did in ancient Palestine or Israel

5) plants and pollen examined on it were found to also be native to Palestine/Israel

6) the blood examined on the shroud had some chemical compounds in it that a person’s blood would have under extreme stress, which is what Jesus would have gone through, and a forgery would not have had that.

therefore, it has to be Jesus, how can it not be? The thorns, the Jerusalem limestones, the blood, the plants/pollen

How does it feel to know it is true lads?

…hello again,
did some further research on the Shroud of Turin, and William Guy made an outstanding documentary about the it. He gives proofs for its authenticity, or at least that it wasn’t a forgery including:

he said that crucifiction was invented by persians and perfected by romans. He said at that time, no one wore those thorns on their heads other than Jesus, therefore it proves it was him, and that it couldn’t have been a forgery as real blood was used which had some chemical balance demonstrating the person was suffering. He said a forger wouldn’t have put blood into the shroud, and he said pollen was found there that is native to ancient palestine. The most recent carbon dating seemed to suggest it was from a time period from about 1000 years BC to 1000 years after, so the timeframe could be right.

He also said that one geologist actually studied the shroud and found remnants of tomb stone on it. He tested it, and found that it matched with Jerusalem lime stone in tombs, not even limestone in other parts of Israel.

These seems really hard to refute.

…Did more research and found a link between the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Shroud.

There have been connections with the two including: both have same blood types, both have the same plant and pollen remnants, if you do a face overlay, both faces are equivalent. Blood is found in the same places. Therefore, it seems it was used on the same individual. I just think this proves Jesus existed, and if he didn’t rise from the dead, how could all of these people have reported seeing him? It seems like this may prove Christianity.

Answer by SmartLX:
Sorry for the delay Bubsy, I’ve been sick among other things.

First set of points first, assuming for the sake of argument that the analyses by two theologians (one of which happened to be a geologist) were carried out scientifically:

1) Even if the limestone residue is really proven to be unique to Jerusalem, the shroud can be from Jerusalem and yet not genuine if it was made as a fake in Jerusalem, as were a great many false relics. (For instance there are about 30 “holy” cross nails floating around, so at least 27 must be fake.)

2) Thorns in the head would be an essential element of a fraudulent Jesus shroud. If you had the real shroud of a crucifixion victim to begin with, that’s exactly the detail you’d add to make it look like Jesus.

3) Sadly, there were plenty of people in the Middle Ages who knew exactly what happens when you drive nails through people’s hands. Even if not, that would leave it as a possible forgery from the age when crucifixion still occurred.

4) If the shroud is a round number of cubic units (do you mean cubits?) long, that doesn’t mean it was measured in those units. It may have been longer until it frayed or shrank, or another measurement type may sync up at that length. It’s not like there are marks on it like a ruler.

5) Again, if it was forged in Jerusalem with the other relics, no problem.

6) There’s a long way between the Shroud belonging to a real execution victim and the Shroud belonging to Jesus Christ. A real shroud from a random victim, as I’ve been implying, is the perfect base material for a Jesus shroud.

The documentary covers much of the same material. The farthest all of it gets you is that it may well be the genuine shroud of a man who died horribly in Iron Age Israel, and quite possibly the same man the Sudarium was used on.

Even if it’s Jesus, though, this is no evidence for the resurrection or even his supposed disappearance from the tomb. I think you realise this, because right at the end you switch to an argument about witnesses of the risen Jesus. As I’ve written before, the number of Biblical first-hand accounts of Jesus between the crucifixion and ascension is very small, and the bulk of the supposed many who saw him is accounted for in one line of 1 Corinthians regarding an appearance to 500 people. Accounts of witnesses are not accounts by witnesses.

A Pentalogy of Past Lives

Question from Jaak:
I found this interesting video on youtube, with children recalling supposed past lives. They seem genuine, do you think this demonstrates that reincarnation exists?

Answer by SmartLX:
If everything in these stories were true, it would be a choice between the reality of reincarnation (at least in a few cases) or extreme coincidences between deceased people’s lives and the imaginations of children. That “if” is a huge one, and it’s the main barrier to these stories being credible evidence for reincarnation.

The meat of each of these stories is things a child has casually said to the parents, which seem unexplainable at first but then are found to match details of someone’s old life. These initial statements are never recorded, because why would parents record every word their kids say? Equally important is that the interrogation that immediately follows is never recorded, so if the parents asked leading questions that essentially fed the kid the necessary information (deliberately or not), no one can prove it. Once the parents start writing and speaking publicly about the child’s “recollections”, the child is caught in a feedback loop where repeated tellings of the story shape and reinforce the memory itself, until any fabricated parts of it seem as real as the rest. Any authors, paranormal researchers, religious figures, etc. who latch onto the story only amplify this cycle of reinforcement. Short of someone in the family admitting a total hoax, these stories never really get smaller, and not a shred of evidence is needed; only a bit of research into the life of a dead person.

Ultimately, if a kid apparently identifies as a former person then jumping to an actual reincarnation as the reason would require a pre-existing belief in reincarnation, psychologically speaking. If that’s not already there, it’s a huge shift in one’s worldview just to explain some unexplained stories that have no bearing on one’s own life. All other possibilities would have to be completely ruled out, and it’s hard to eliminate coincidence, pure or partial fabrication, and the child being led by the nose or otherwise fed details.