O Fátima

Question from Jakob:
I have a question about the supposed Sun miracle at Fátima. An crowd of about 70,000 people saw it; I should note that nobody saw the same thing and thousands saw nothing at all. The Vatican said it’s worthy of belief. Now 70000 people can’t hallucinate at the same time, can they?

Answer by SmartLX:
If thousands saw nothing at all at the so-called Miracle of the Sun that gave rise to the incarnation of the Virgin Mary now known as Our Lady of Fátima, then 70000 people didn’t hallucinate at the same time. It doesn’t mean none of them did.

A multitude of people with beliefs ranging from fervent to non-existent crowded into an empty field with high expectations of something miraculous happening, but no idea what. As soon as exposure, overlong gazing at the sun, rare weather effects like a parhelion (check the Miracle link above for a picture) or pure zealotry drove someone to declare that they saw something strange in the sky, thousands more looked up instead of around them, and were far more prone to have a similar experience. Afterwards, there was much discussion among the lucky subset about what they had seen, which would have resulted in much greater consistency between accounts once they went to write it down. Once stories got out, the crowds got bigger, the expectations were higher and the chances of strange perceptions only went up, until it all peaked on 13 October 1917. The initial stories mentioned the sun, so later you had thousands of poor sods staring right at the thing far longer than they should, which would have played havoc with their eyes.

Several specific explanations have been suggested over the years, but I just look at the circumstances and I think I would have been amazed if no one had had a strange experience. It was a strange thing to do, and to be told to do by three Portuguese preteens.

Akita and the Incorruptibles (if that were a comic book I’d read it)

Question from Jacob:
Hello. Recently I stopped believing to a small degree, probably class 4 or 5 on the Dawkins scale (ATA Note: this indicates neutrality tending towards disbelief), mainly from reading the Old Testament. None of the mainstream Christian arguments are really that great like morality and so forth. But there are 2, well I would not call them arguments, more like paranormal activity. They are incorruptible bodies and the statue of Akita. They are the 2 main things that are still part of my chains of religion. My question is how do you explain them or brush them off at least? I heard atheists had high levels of intelligence.

Answer by SmartLX:
I can save myself some work here because I wrote about the so-called incorruptibles for a similar site: Ask The Atheists. I was SmartLX on that one too, just scroll down a bit. Since I’ve become acquainted with the power of Google Images in the 8+ years that followed, I’ll simply add that the examples available to us today do not exactly look natural or as fresh as a daisy.

As for “Our Lady of Akita”, much is unexplained about the events that brought it to the world’s attention but the most damning factor is the Catholic Church’s own reluctance to hail it as a miracle. See the Wikipedia article: though the local Bishop endorsed it, the Archbishop of Tokyo dismissed it completely in 1990, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who would have made the call at that level within the Church, made no call at all. If those with the most to gain from a miracle by the Virgin Mary won’t get behind it, what reason do you have? The Church all but abolished the office of “devil’s advocate” in 1983 so they don’t even actively try to debunk these things anymore, and they still didn’t give this one the rubber stamp.

A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/ telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.

Demons AFTER an exorcism?

Question from Sneroul:
Ok this is gonna be a long post so brace yourself.

I live in South Africa Western cape. The Church here is quite conservative but that’s not the point. i have been indoctrinated but it never really had an effect. Well it did give me somewhat respect for the faith but that is about it. OK to make a long story short I went from liberal Christian to atheist to agnostic then to fundamental and then back to atheist and then agnostic. But I am gonna talk about the events in the last 6 months.

It happened like this: a friend of mine was a pastor who visited me. I was slightly bored so I decided to talk to him about random stuff. It eventually came to religion and I asked him why he decided his career path. And he converted me and I became born again, the feeling is hard to explain but I can’t say if its positive or negative. But that night I felt very strange, like I committed intellectual suicide. I brushed the feeling off… then the trouble started.

I began hearing voices in my head. Some of them good and some bad, it’s hard to explain but there did come out one good thing: one of the voices convinced me to leave a dangerous addiction. BUT I NEVER FELT ALONE. I made a big mistake to talk to some of the clergy and they said that there were demons in me. they decided to do an exorcism which did help at first but in the long term the voices came back worse than before. I started to feel fatigue and was tired and sweaty most of the time. So what happened next? Well I started to read about skeptics and atheism and the more I read the more I feel better, most of the voices are gone and only appear when I ask them. The clergy told me the reason for this is that the demons were successful in turning me away from God. I think they’re wrong so I came here and see if you can explain it.

Answer by SmartLX:
The simplest explanation for voices in your head (regardless of the mental state that is manifesting them so vividly…we’ll get to that) is that they are all you, expressing thoughts of which you are not fully conscious at first. The rational part of you would have been screaming for attention after you declared yourself “born again” in spite of all the issues with faith and religion which you learned about when you first became an atheist. If you had a dangerous addiction, that same rational voice would have been struggling against your compulsion to indulge it. It sounds as if you have externalised part of your own mind, to serve as a separate entity that you can talk to – both to work out difficult issues, and for company.

Some branches of the Church will instead jump straight to the conclusion that you have a case of demons, and propose (or impose) an exorcism. If you come to believe along with them that demons are responsible for your mental issues, an exorcism becomes a literal placebo, and you will feel better. Unfortunately, if the true cause is anything other than demons, the symptoms will return in time, and they may be worse for lack of proper treatment.

Hearing and conversing with inner voices is a known symptom of well-defined mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Between that and your mention of a bout of long-term fatigue, I can’t dismiss the possibility that you have a significant and perhaps serious medical issue. I advise you to see a doctor when possible, for a full check-up and for a referral to a psychiatrist. You will learn more about yourself and what you’re going through than you would from any pastor.

Where Do Bad Folks Go When They Diiiiiiiiiie

Question from Becky:
I was never a big believer in the Christian God but I did read the Bible which showed me nothing but a vengeful God as oppose to one of love. I considered being a deist but hell has latched into my brain and won’t let go. Worst knowing there is fire underneath the earth seems to support hell even more since Jesus said he was going to the heart of the earth I just want to let the fear go since it was a main reason I believed. How do I let this fear go?

Answer by SmartLX:
You’re suffering from what I call faithdrawal, the continued fear of the wrath of God (including banishment to Hell) after belief in God has faded. As the link shows, I’ve discussed it a lot, because you’re not alone in dealing with it. You realise of course that it’s irrational because in a doctrine where God is responsible for the existence of Hell there can be no Hell without a God, but since when was fear rational all the time?

Let’s look more closely at the apparent piece of support you’ve found for the existence of Hell: Matthew 12:40, where Jesus spends three days “in the heart of the earth”. First of all, that might simply have meant he was physically down in his tomb for that long. If instead it is actually a claim that he was in Hell between his crucifixion and his supposed resurrection, I wouldn’t be surprised at the implication that Hell is deep underground. In the same way that it’s easy to imagine Heaven being up in the clouds, the unexplored depths seem like a perfect place for Hell, and may even have been part of the inspiration for the popular image of Hell. People living near volcanoes and elsewhere along fault lines, in Biblical times as in any other, would have seen and documented literal lakes of fire and many varieties of red-hot wrath spewing from fissures in the ground. Miners all over the world would have noticed the increase in temperature in a deep enough cave (though this might often have been caused merely by lack of ventilation). From the science of geology we now know why it happens in great detail, so the God-of-the-gaps has retreated from the subject entirely. Unlike our ancestors, we know the lava isn’t coming from Hell.

To answer your final question directly, It’s not a matter of letting the fear go so much as the fear letting you go. An irrational fear, like a belief, must be reinforced artificially in the absence of evidence, by various means: acts of devotion, new personal discoveries in the source texts (like the “heart of the earth” thing) and so on. If you recognise on the face of it, and continue to actively recognise, that all support for the reality of the danger is unfounded, it won’t kill the fear but it will leave it with no reason to remain. Over time, and without emotional reinforcement, the fear will fade and leave you. Though it’s frustrating to hear, the less you worry about it the faster it will go, so engross yourself in something else for a few weeks or months.

Scripture Outpaces Science Again (Hindu this time)

Question from :
What would be your best argument against someone using the Unpanishads and Quantum Physics as a justification for their belief in God?

Answer by SmartLX:
For those like me who may never have seen the word before, The Unpanishads are the source of a lot of central Hindu concepts. The doctrines behind this particular justification concern the importance of consciousness and awareness to the universe, and the timelessness of certain entities. The argument is that these correspond to the observer effect in quantum mechanics and the general unchanging nature of the fundamental physics of the universe. Here’s an example of an article making this point.

This fits into the general category of a claim of divine foreknowledge. The appropriate category in my article on prophecies and predictions is #4: Shoehorned, because people are taking established science and fitting it to the most relevant parts of a religious text after the fact. No one read the Upanishads and realised as a result that observing individual particles of light would affect how they appeared. Nor does anyone expect to be able to scrutinise the Upanishads now and find new practical details that will advance science any further.

The major complication for someone actually using this as an argument for their particular god is the existence of a huge number of arguments along the same lines using both Christian and Muslim scripture. I’ve covered many of these separately and as a group. A Hindu (or Buddhist or Jainist, since they also use the Unpanishads to a degree) would have to explain why there’s so much similarly accurate-looking material in mutually exclusive texts, or make the effort to debunk everyone else’s claims. Christians in particular have worked to do just that.

“There is NO WAY I could have known that.”

Question from James:
I’ve been a believer since childhood but recently I’ve started to ask myself whether I truly believe in Christianity or not. I find the arguments against it very compelling, but I have seen and heard a few things that I can’t find any explanations, except the work of a God.

First, I’ve met people who supposedly had these visions about others. In those visions they could see details about someone else’s life, like their past, things that no one would have a clue about. For instance I know of a guy who just met a couple and instantly knew, by revelation, theirs names and the names of their relatives and how they got to know each other, all of that full of details so that no one would suspect it wasn’t a real revelation/vision. I know there are a lot of people faking theses things, but I truly believe these folks I know were at least honest in believing they’ve got a gift from the Lord. So I’d like to ask you guys if you can think of any explanations for what I have described. I no longer think that religion makes sense, philosophically speaking, but how can these, “supernatural” things happen? Any thoughts?

Answer by SmartLX:
Leaving aside the charlatans, a lot of people do think they’ve had genuine visions and premonitions. For most people (including me at a younger age) it’s little things, like seeing details of their car before they bought it, or talking as they play cards and drawing a number immediately after saying it, or guessing that someone’s future child will have blonde hair. Some people have more remarkable stories to tell.

Many of these can be explained through coincidences, which happen all the time because the number of possible coincidences on a given day is higher than the probability of any given coincidence is low. Many more stories are simply untrue and spring from imperfect memory, particularly memory-of-memory. If you get fuzzy on how you know something or when you learned it, you might start to remember having used (or simply thought about) that knowledge before the point when you think you acquired it.

If you have one of these stories, in the back of your mind you know people will consider three different possibilities:
1. that you had a moment of genuine clairvoyance for some indiscernible purpose,
2. that you don’t realise that you gained the knowledge some other way, or
3. that you’re just plain lying.

You might believe #1, but you know that if people think #2 or #3 it won’t reflect well on you, and that if either were actually true then you’d think less of yourself. So there’s an obvious pressure to make the story more convincing every time you tell it, and subconsciously people gradually give in to that pressure. The conviction in the voice becomes greater, little details are exaggerated or made more convenient. If the changes are small enough they’re not even remembered as changes, you literally edit your own memory and they’re just the way it always was. Give it enough time (a few months can be enough) and you end up with a profound airtight declaration that you believe absolutely, that no one can verify and that someone would have to impugn your integrity to reject. You end up daring people to doubt you.

I’m saying that these stories should not be taken at face value, no matter how much you trust those who tell them. Everything I’ve described above is part of the reason why anecdotal evidence, the proper term for such stories, is not legally (and especially not scientifically) regarded as similarly reliable to other forms of evidence. People test it if they can, and if they can’t there’s always a cloud over it.

With that point made, let’s suppose your guy’s story is actually 100% accurate and he really learned about the couple by supernatural means. That would tell us nothing beyond the fact that there is a “supernatural” of some kind. It doesn’t support the existence of any god because the world might simply have some inherent psychic energy which your guy momentarily harnessed. It doesn’t speak to any kind of purpose unless something significant occurred as a result of your guy rattling off this bewildered couple’s details to them like a stalker – and any significant result could still be coincidence. And it gives us no insight on how to reproduce the circumstances and actually be psychic instead of just winning some pointless lottery and getting nothing more than a chance to show off.

The View from Outside (your body)

Question from Violeta:
I am currently an agnostic, and I do believe in evolution, the Big Bang, I am a big fan of Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, Hawking, just to name a few atheists. I think that for the most part, science does its job when explaining the universe, and the world in general. However, the concept of Near Death Experiences and Out of Body Experiences causes me to scratch my head. Recently, Dr. Jeffrey Long published a book where he analyzed 1600 cases of NDEs and he claimed that they were all strikingly similar, regardless of cultural differences. For example, many people reported seeing a bright light, feeling a lot of love, meeting deceased relatives, having a life review. I am wondering if you have ever read the Dr. Jeffrey Long book Evidence of the Afterlife? In his book, he even debunks the ideas of the brain hallucinating, and the idea of chemicals being released in the brain to cause these experiences. About 95% of participants thought that these experiences felt more real than real life, and hallucinations cannot feel that real. Also, many claim to see A god, but without a particular title. If 1600 experiences are very similar, would you say that it could mean that these are in fact snapshots of an afterlife? I just don’t know how they can be so consistent, and how they can be so life changing if they are not real.
So, what is your opinion on Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences in general?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve had very long discussions about NDEs in particular (here’s one of the tamer ones) and I remain entirely unconvinced of their authenticity. I haven’t read Jeffrey Long’s work though I’ve read a little about it, but I’ll respond to what you’ve put forward with a set of discrete points rather than mash it all together.

– The specific experiences that commonly form part of a supposed NDE are likely to be images, actions and sensations that the human brain falls back on in times of great mental and physical stress on itself. A light in the distance is a simple image to conjure, the feeling of love may be caused by a flood of adrenaline, endorphins or other hormones released as a coping mechanism, the ancestors may be a result of being preoccupied with thoughts of mortality before losing consciousness.

– The timing of the experiences is impossible to determine after the fact. There may be a period of near-total inactivity during which the brain is unable to render anything like a dream, but there are periods before and after that state (assuming the person eventually comes to) when the brain is unable to be conscious but still active. This is important to remember when reading arguments about what chemicals were present at any given time.

– That the experiences feel real is nothing out of the ordinary for a dream; who hasn’t been surprised at least once when waking up from one? As for more real than real life, this is dubious given that it can only be claimed in retrospect about an experience that the person cannot easily or safely reproduce. That may simply be what a dream or hallucination feels like in that state. One’s memory of the event can also be very clouded, but unfortunately this can cause a person to reconstruct the event in more detail than they remembered at the start, and assimilate certain additions as true memories.

– Stories of accurate observations of the world around the unconscious patient are plentiful but so far impossible to confirm. Most commonly the details of what was happening are not available separately from the subject’s description, or the subject describes something obvious (like doctors talking or parents praying), or it simply turns out to be wrong upon examination. James Randi, the famous skeptic, talks here about an apparent out of body experience which he might very well have believed he had, had certain facts not come to light. If you’d like to comment with a particular case, we can discuss it in detail.

– In Evidence of the Afterlife, more than one featured subject was 3 to 5 years old at the time of the supposed NDE. At this age memories are difficult to describe and all too easy to influence. As with Colton Burpo, the Heaven is for Real kid, if they are asked leading questions by the first people they tell what they saw (often parents, friends or even clergy before the researcher gets there) they will actually shape their experience around them in retrospect. In fiction this is referred to as retcon, but it’s disturbingly easy to apply to real life.

Sex Isn’t Gender Anymore

Question from Claire:
I am a college student taking a Philosophy of Gender class and need to interview people of different religions, including an atheist, on their opinions on sex and gender, and I realized I don’t know any atheists. I was wondering if you would be willing to give your answer to the following questions for me (and allow me to use them in a paper).

1. Please define what you think “biological sex” means. For example, when someone says that “Paul is biologically male” or “Jennifer biologically female,” what do you think that means?

2. What does “gender” mean? Is it different than biological sex or the same? If the same, why do you believe this? If different, how are they different?

3. What would you say is the basis for your answers? For example, science, religion, tradition/upbringing, etc.? Why do you trust that basis?

I realize this is a lot to answer but if you had the time I would really appreciate it and if not I understand. Thank you,

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s not so much to answer. You may use my responses in your paper. So, let’s get to it.

1. “Biological sex” is the sex of your body’s anatomy, including hormones and chromosomes as well as genitals and other obvious features. If someone is biologically male, either he lives as a man and their body suits the role or she feels she’s a woman and may need to explore the possibility of transitioning.

2. Gender is imposed by culture and society. It’s what a man or a woman should be, do, and want. “Biological gender” is sometimes used to mean the same as “biological sex” above, but only because “sex” and “gender” are so often treated as interchangeable when people aren’t thinking about gender issues. “Gender” is not the same as “sex” or “biological sex” because, and this is what blows people’s minds, it has nothing to do with the state of one’s body. This is why people with one sex essentially belong in the other gender, or somewhere in between.

3. As trans people and others in related situations (e.g. intersex, bigender) are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories and be open about their circumstances (including a good friend of mine), it’s becoming increasingly clear that traditional and most or all religious positions on these issues apply very poorly to reality. in these worldviews a person should not grow up as an unhappy man and suddenly begin to flourish as a woman or vice versa because sex is equivalent to gender, but it happens and it gets sillier and sillier to deny it. So I try to keep up with the biological science but I mostly go by academic positions based on large-scale survey data. These are based on what people say about their own situations and what their doctors say about them, but they have sufficient sample sizes and statistical analysis to go beyond the anecdotal. It’s the best kind of source to tell you what’s really going on.

Nothing, Something, Everything

Question from Niki:
Hi, it’s me again, with my ORIGIN OF MATTER IN EMPTY SPACE question. Or not so empty, even before the big-bang.

I tried again googling the question with some other words, like what caused the big-bang, why then and not sooner or later, and how did the matter in whatever is called singularity, or is it the event of big-bang that is called so, or both, how did the material got there and where it came from.

So, having read this time what Stephen Hawking says on the issue, as well as many other relevant articles, I got to realize that science has no idea where that matter, that later big-banged, came from and how it got there. So much for the answer about the origin of matter, cos big-bang only explains what happened to the matter in singularity, after it had been there for no one knows how long, but not the origin of that matter there.

But, here I have another question. It has to do with the notion that if THAT matter came out of nowhere and that in the moment of singularity time was created, it’s totally unfathomable for my earthen brain, dumb or smart, relevantly educated or not, then what is the difference from that with the divine creation. So, the matter we now see and know is out there, and we ourselves are part of it, came from nothing, say the scientists and it satisfies the scientists who say so, however it does not satisfy the lay people who believe in divine creation of matter. And now I wonder, what is the difference between the origin of matter being from nothing, scientifically, and from a divine entity, again from nothing.

My answer, and I believe all scientists who claim it came out of nothing, but not from divine entity, is that the difference is really MAJOR, that in case of origin of matter from the universe, or its state before the big-bang occurred, there was no intelligent and intentional agency that created matter out of nothing, whilst in case of so called ‘god’, this entity is intelligent and intentionally created matter, no one of them can tell us the reason, motif for ‘god’ doing so, again out of thin air, as is the case of what scientists claim. No intelligent or any other intention. Just an accident, for scientists, and intelligence and intention for the believers. Or, the universe, let’s call it so, before the big bang, was such a place, that it had in it the ‘pre-matter’, and it once happened to get into this little spot (or was forever in the past, before, in it), and then blew up. Why, what is the cause of it in both solutions, according to the law of causality, or we are asked to believe Einstein who told us time began then, so there is no sense in asking what happened before, thou there is very much the question of the origin of the matter in the little ball, what caused the scientific explanation, and divine one too, it is interesting to know, but even more interesting, in my humble opinion, cos my knowledge of physics is from the secondary grammar school…well, I was listening to the teacher and reading my physics text book. But, still, very modest knowledge. However, I now have ample time and internet, together with great curiosity and kinda master English, so I think, think, think. And, what I finally realized is that even Stephen Hawking does not know, so I am OK with not knowing the first question of the thinking brain: the origin of matter. So, what is YOUR take of it?

I, of course, don’t ask about the purpose of humanity or whatever happens and is felt and thought of, decided by our brains, our consciousness, cos I firmly believe in the causality law, that says everything is a consequence of previous causes, a chain of them, and going backwards in time I came to the beginning of the universe, where the first question was awaiting me and every thinking human, well not everybody, cos MOZART thought of better things than I do, how to move my feelings. And believed in ‘god’ firmly, my darling Wolfgang… So, no purpose in anything, and thus not even in humanity. But, since life is kinda nice, then we want to live it, thou we will die one day, just as we go to a holiday knowing it will be over soon. Well, holidays will repeat themselves, but there are nice things we do, thou knowing they will be over once and forever, just as is human life. But while we are here, why not enjoy the journey?! And, as for unhappy, sad lives, people normally don’t end them themselves, evolution took care of that, for good or for bad in their cases…

Answer by SmartLX:
You’ve certainly given this a lot of thought Niki. My thoughts on these matters are similar in many ways.

The scientific hypothesis that the universe came from nothing uses a nuanced definition of “nothing”, because it can refer to the “quantum foam” or some other ground state. The simplest explanation I’ve read is that it counted as nothing because its total energy was zero. It was unstable, so from the zeroed-out state emerged a positive quantity and a negative quantity at the same time: matter and antimatter, which then acted out the Big Bang and everything that followed. When you added it all up it was still zero, so rather than something from nothing it was technically a case of nothing from nothing. The entire universe may be a zero sum game, and one of many at that, since there’s no indication that the quantum foam went anywhere.

The theistic alternative to this is that a god existed before the universe, made the universe, and still influences it to this day. It’s impossible to prove that this didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean there’s any good evidence that it did, or particularly that there’s good reason to believe that it did. There are reasons mind you, and Christians will happily tell you theirs, but it must be asked whether those reasons are good ones.

One point I haven’t seen many people raise is that we’ve never seen anything come out of absolutely nothing. New objects, new lifeforms and even new thoughts consist of the matter and energy that came before. When the Kalam Cosmological Argument claims as a premise that everything that began to exist has a cause, it has no basis to extend it to something that may have come from nothing, except for an assertion about the universe that pre-empts the conclusion of the argument. We don’t know what it takes for something to emerge from nothing in a void without time or space, if anything is required at all.