The NDEs Keep Coming

Question from Halil:
Hello, I wanted to know what atheists think of this testimony, and if it scares them.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not scary if you don’t already believe. When trying to threaten kids about the boogeyman, they have to believe it exists to some extent before they buy into the fear. This does not do a good job of supporting the existence of God, Hell or an afterlife at all.

Here are some but certainly not all of the reasons why not. Folks are free to comment and chip in.

– The guy had taken a variety of hallucinogenic drugs, some of which (e.g. LSD) can have after-effects causing hallucinations years later.
– His solid Catholic upbringing had primed his brain with all the imagery he needed to subconsciously pull together an authentic Christian afterlife experience for himself.
– His cardiologist didn’t understand how he survived, but his cardiologist wasn’t there for the accident and might not have been able to understand where the electricity traveled even if he had. His survival is a mystery, not necessarily a miracle.
– His conversion came at the hands of a travelling evangelist whose day job is to give people amazing conversion experiences, and after what he’d been through he was ripe for it.
– His back pain appeared as mysteriously as it disappeared. It could have been in his head, or a temporary effect of the electric shock on his back muscles, but it’s not as if a well-known chronic condition was miraculously cured. (In a similar vein, I know of an American healer who would lay hands on people and announce that he had cured small tumours, which had never been detected beforehand and obviously didn’t show up afterwards.)
– This page asks for money at the bottom. They’ll say anything, and since the story is a personal account that no one else can contradict they’re free to say anything.

The NDE From Hell

Question from Halil:
Ok, so on YouTube there are a variety of videos on some pro-Christian channels that encompass interviews of Christians who apparently were sinners, did not go to church, drank alcohol, masturbated, etc. and they talk about how they had Near Death Experiences or visions while they were sleeping where they visited hell. Some describe hell as flames with many demons, and very loud screams, others describe it as a dark quiet place without God.

One experience kind of frightened me. It was about an elderly priest who used to be a firefighter when he was younger. He states that he took drugs often, smoked weed, drank, etc. He said he went to Sunday school for 12 years growing up, but that he never read the Bible. Then he said his parents were not happy that he drank / took drugs, so he stopped. One day, he was at work and somehow got electrocuted, and then he said he could still see clearly, suddenly, he saw utter darkness, and had a life review showing all of his sins ever committed. Then he saw demons, which mocked him, and told him “we got you now” very much like the demons in Howard Storm’s NDE story. This priest also saw fires, called out to God, and His right hand came and pulled him out of the fire. Suddenly he was back at work and people came running as they heard him screaming. Then, he went to the hospital, and decided that he knew that hell was real.

What do you think could be an explanation of this experience? Do these so called “visions” give any of you atheists chills in case it is right? I am not Christian, but do Christians believe that they would see demons in hell? Because many of these hell stories always seem to have demons that mock God and torture the people experiencing them. Also, how could a brain come up with such graphic imagery?

Answer by SmartLX:
The extreme variety with which Hell is supposedly perceived tells you for a start that most (if not all) of these people are not seeing accurate visions, even if they’re telling the truth about what they remember.

This priest’s story has him spending a long time unconscious with his body and brain in an extreme state of distress. He sees many of the most well-known elements of the Christian story of the afterlife: a review of his sins, fires and sadistic demons in Hell because he had sinned, the literal hand of God saving him. If he was brought up in a Christian family or community even without believing, he would associate all these images with death and it’s the first place his mind would go in these circumstances whether in a dream or in a hallucination. Of course no Christian dogma states that God will immediately save you from Hell once you’re already sent there; instead that’s the point at which it’s too late to avoid your fate. As a priest, he’ll have had to find a way to reconcile his own story with the doctrine of his denomination.

Finally, brains came up with all the graphic imagery you’ve ever seen in a book, painting, sculpture, movie or video game. Artists see it all in their heads before they create it, and to their great frustration sometimes the images in their heads are much grander than what they can bring into reality. The dream of a brain near death can be a wild place.

The War According To Fátima

Question from Jakob:
It’s been a while since I posted but anyway this time it is about the Fatima prophecy, to be precise, the second secret. I am writing this on a touch screen so I can’t quote it for you now but you can read it on RationalWiki if you like. It was written right after Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union and it pretty much predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse and that Russia would be converted.

Answer by SmartLX:
Here’s the whole “secret” which, for context, is claimed to have been spoken to some shepherds by an apparition of Jesus’ mother Mary in 1917:

“You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.”

“The war” refers to World War I. As RationalWiki says, it gets at least one thing wrong because World War II broke out seven months after the death of Pope Pius XI and therefore during the Pontificate of Pius XII. Catholics would be very surprised if the real “O Maria” got the wrong pontiff.

As for the rest, it gives two options: either communist Russia will continue its expansion and keep persecuting the Church or communism will fail and Russia will adopt Europe’s majority religion. Really, what else could have happened to Russia in World War II and the ensuing Cold War other than one of these two things, or one and then the other? Predicting every likely outcome is like putting a chip on every square of a roulette table; you don’t deserve much credit if one of your numbers comes up. In this case it’s as simple as just betting on both red and black.

To tie this into other material on this site, my piece on prophecies would categorise this one as #1. High Probabililty of Success.

The Beginning Ain’t the Be-All and End-All

Question from John:
Universe had a beginning, “proved” by second law of thermodynamics.
Dear Sir, I understand that an argument used by creationists, in favour of a Universe that had a beginning, is that the second law of thermodynamics requires that it will inevitably wind down. In essence, the claim is that the universe can not have been infinite into the past as it would have inevitably already run down. The fact of a purported finite amount of usable energy therefore implies that the universe MUST have had a beginning or else we would not be here now to discuss this. Is there a scientific rebuttal to this claim please?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are two principal possibilities which address the idea of an infinite universe having run down by now, both of which are centered around the concept of renewal.

1. The universe periodically contracts in a Big Crunch before a new Big Bang. This drags together not only all the matter in the universe but all the space and time as well. All the unusable energy lost to the edges of the universe is brought back to the singularity and can be useful once again.
2. The matter and energy in the hypothetical (but currently quite likely-looking) multiverse is infinite. When one universe runs down, countless others are still going and more universes spontaneously start up all the time. No laws of physics are broken by this sudden emergence if the amount of anti-matter that emerges is equal to the amount of matter, because matter and energy are conserved in an equation akin to 0 = 1 + -1.

Creationists often think, as they are told to by people like William Lane Craig, that once they establish that the universe had a beginning the argument is basically sewn up. Even if the above two possibilities are dismissed and you take it as read that the universe began, that it was begun by a god can only ever be an argument from ignorance. Without knowing how it happened, you can’t just assert it was one particular thing without eliminating all other possibilities, even the ones people haven’t thought of yet. The potential for spontaneous emergence from the “quantum foam” suggested by quantum mechanics, for one, ensures for the moment that well-formulated alternatives are out there, and you don’t even have to appeal to the un-thought-of.

From Evolution to the Empty Tomb: An Apologetic “Best-Of”

Question from Kristi:
Science supports the idea that universe starts with simple organisms to more complex organisms, so how then can science explain algae forming humans? Humans have different features, fingerprints, colors, etc. so how then could a human go from an ape to a complex individual? How do scientists explain Biblical archaeological evidence such as the empty tomb or eyewitness accounts?

Answer by SmartLX:
You answer your first two questions yourself: Science supports the idea that simple organisms can develop into more complex organisms through the mechanism of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Humans had very early ancestors which weren’t actually algae but were of a similar size and complexity, and the fact that complexity often carries benefits exerted a pressure on all life to become more complex over time, and we’re talking a LOT of time. The individual features like fingerprints developed long before humans did, because other primates have them too. We just inherited them.

There is no archaeological evidence of the empty tomb because that would imply something had been dug up since. There is only the accounts in the Gospels and a few other accounts which may simply be parroting the Gospels. As for eyewitness accounts, the story is always different about whether the writer is the one who saw something and how long afterward it was written, but a lawyer will tell you eyewitness accounts are unreliable at the best of times, and a scientist will tell you eyewitness accounts count for nothing at all. Scientists don’t really bother to explain these things because they consider there to be nothing to explain, so far at least.

A Common Question Done Quick

Question from James:
Quick question. How can you say something is bad without some sense of morals? Where did said morals come from?

Answer by SmartLX:
The quickest answer is that we’ve answered this a lot. This link searches the site for articles on the same subject, and finds four pages’ worth of titles. Read a few and see if you get the idea.

A quick actual answer is that the definition of “bad” and “moral” in general can be constructed in objective and practical terms using different things as the “object”. For example a simplistic approach might be that something is “bad” if it hurts people unnecessarily, but on that alone you get a long way towards doing what most people would consider “good” by preventing “bad” actions.

Claiming an absolute basis for your morality is all well and good, but if your basis is a god that might not even exist you’re on shaky ground. That’s just a way of concentrating all the uncertainty into one point so you can defend that massively uncertain point like a bulldog and keep things simple for yourself.

Near Death Experiences – does Christianity “win”?

Question from Kustav:
I was wondering something with regards to Near Death Experiences.

Why is it that I can find numerous NDEs where the experience entails Jesus, but I cannot find any NDEs where a Muslim for example meets Muhammad, or a Hindu meets Krishna. I have however, read stories of Atheists, Jews, Muslims, and even Hindus meeting Jesus. I was wondering, even hypothetically, if it was true that no NDEs of Muhammad exist within the Muslim world, with all the NDEs documented with Jesus, does this give Christianity more merit or truth value? What is your opinion?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hindu NDE claims are actually quite common, as researchers in India have found and documented here. In contrast, see number 8 on this list for the Muslim perspective on NDEs. In short, Muslims have scriptural reasons to think they wouldn’t be conscious of any NDE they had, they also have scriptural reasons not to talk about any NDEs they do have, and yet a few Muslims still claim to have had them.

So your main question is indeed a hypothetical one, but I’m fine with that so here we go. For NDEs to be any support at all for the existence of a particular deity the veracity of the NDEs themselves would have to be established, and this has never been done. Past that hurdle, for the majority of NDEs being of one type to support the existence of that afterlife and that god, one would have to eliminate other possible reasons for the disparity, and that’s rather difficult. Islam has reasons built in for being light on NDEs as I mentioned, but the main issue is that NDEs are a cultural meme which is reinforced as it becomes more common. If a Christian has an NDE it fits very well with the theology and there’s an army of people ready to believe it without ever asking for evidence, which only encourages more claims. (Do you have any idea how much money Heaven Is for Real made?) Christianity may simply be ahead of the social curve on the topic.

Genesis, Flourishing and Other Course Questions

Question from Jordan:
How might an Atheist answer these questions regarding human nature, purpose and flourishing…what does it mean for humans to flourish, how do they achieve spiritual, emotional and mental well-being? What are the consequences of the Fall of human nature (Gen 3)? What is revealed of human nature (from Gen 1-2)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I answered the first part in a comment because someone asked the same question from the same Christian Worldview course, but I’ll cover it again. My other piece has a lot of material you might also find useful.

To flourish is to grow or develop in a healthy way. Physically, mentally and emotionally that means having the resources you need along with something which provides a challenge. Food, exercise, study, work, art, interpersonal relationships, meditation/reflection…it all has a role to play. To a Christian the essential resource is God, and without a relationship with Him a human cannot flourish properly. I think there is no God and yet lots of people happily flourish in all kinds of ways, so what they need in order to flourish would seem to be other things.

Genesis 3 is where Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge, their eyes are opened (figuratively, as they aren’t actually blind before that point), and God curses the living daylights out of them both. The message is that humans would have been better off knowing only what God chose to tell them, not because the other knowledge is inherently harmful but because God is incredibly tough on disobedience. Human nature didn’t change after they ate because it wasn’t perfect before they ate – Eve wanted the fruit before she ate it. They just suddenly knew more, and their circumstances changed because of the curses they received and life got harder in lots of little ways (e.g. labour pains, arbitrary enmity between people, farming difficulties).

Humans don’t show up until the end of Genesis 1, and Genesis 2 doesn’t say anything about Adam’s nature except that God decides he needs an Eve. From the above, even Genesis 3 says far more about God’s nature than human nature. But now’s as good a time as any to say that by the nature of evolution, geology, physics, etc. there’s no way the story of Adam and Eve was real and I’m interpreting a work of fiction here. That said, a parable can say a great deal about human nature, I just don’t think this one does.

Speak Truth To Power

Question from Danielle:
I am about to partake a debate for our school. Right now, I am currently doing bunch of research but I feel like there’s more to know especially that I still have a lot of questions and even though I’ve already asked some people, I still couldn’t get it because most answers are just too surfaced and somehow shallow or biased.
Anyways, our debate is all about the current events in our country, Philippines. Right now we are facing issues about our government and how our new president is somehow violating human rights to the eyes of others especially to some religious groups headed by bishops and priests. Right now, both teams are on the verge of disrespecting both parties.

*CONSIDER THESE, our president’s administration; WAR ON DRUGS is actually doing great; its actually making a difference and sense, and somehow making the country better. If the WAR ON DRUGS is stopped, there are theories that everything will be back to what it was before, in a state of corruption and manipulation.

*WAR ON DRUGS- Operation capture drug syndicates, pushers, users.

Are the church’s criticism and warnings against our president beneficial for all? Should religion stay out of it?
And can you explain, religion and politics? Or what makes them different from each other that these two must not interfere.

Faith vs Politics/Science/Reason

Your response would be greatly appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
I was in Manila last year for work, and I do know how much weight the voice of a high-up Catholic carries among the population. From the perspective of an irreligious person like me, just because an opinion is given by a religious person or organisation doesn’t make it wrong. Furthermore, in a country with freedom of speech religious figures should have the freedom to give their opinions on current events just like anyone else. In this case, if the Philippines’ war on drugs is leading the government to work outside the law, to the extent of assassinations and essentially murders, I hope that Catholic authority figures are not the only ones speaking out. Indeed it seems that the opposition to the violence has some numbers to it.

More generally, the issue between religion and politics is that when religions gain political power (either directly in a theocratic sense or through the election of zealous representatives) they almost invariably legislate in their own favour, at the expense of anyone who is not an adherent to the specific dogma of those in power. This was for instance demonstrated in the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, where an Islamic Republic was established and a strict form of law based on sharia was imposed on the entire population.

This is why many countries maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state. Laws cannot be made favouring one religion over another or religion in general over lack of religion. Relevant to your upcoming debate, religious organisations cannot endorse political candidates and still maintain their religious tax-exempt status. So while religious figures speaking out against the war on drugs is acceptable, if the same people were to call for Duterte himself to be ousted it would be a step too far in terms of church-state separation. Apparently calls like this have happened in the Philippines before, so I applaud the restraint of the Church after the departure of Marcos and Estrada.

Miracles for the Masses

Question from Daniel:
Hi. I wanted to know if there is any mass revelation/miracle in The Vedas (i.e Miracles that were performed in front of many people)?

Answer by SmartLX:
I was a Christian once but I was never a Hindu, and never discussed religion with my few Hindu friends in school. Right off the bat I invite any Hindus reading this to comment right away and set us straight.

From what I can gather after some brief research is that the Vedas are not written as a history or a narrative like most books of the Bible are. The four Vedas mostly consist of hymns to the various gods (most intended to be heard in song rather than read), descriptions of rituals, and discussion of philosophy. There are bits of history woven into it all concerning the people from whom the texts emerged, but if they were ever intended to be taken as literal accounts of major events, Hindus tend not to take that view nowadays.

Your question is often used to advance an argument for the truth of Judaism, sometimes known as the Sinai argument, which claims that the supposedly uniquely mass-spectated nature of the miracles in the Torah supports their veracity. Christians sometimes argue along the same lines based on the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to five hundred people.

I’ll leave it to followers of other religions to make their own claims of mass revelations, but the basic problem with all of these stories is the same: accounts of witnesses are not witnesses. Each of these stories is still just one account, with only one source to believe or disbelieve regarding the number of people present. Contrast it with a big event happening in the middle of a city today; tweets and Facebook posts from hundreds of sources or more can flood the web, arguing over details but collectively leaving no doubt that something major went down. An account is an account even if it contains emojis.