“I don’t understand.”

“Nice people and nasty people can be right or wrong about the same things.”

Questions from Jaselynn:
If you take the subject as a sign that I am a pushover, do not be fooled. It is true that I grew up in a “Christian” home…and it is also true that the home fell apart, but not because of God. Because of my father. My father molested my sister. Horrid, I know. But despite how much I tried, I could never hate him. I hate what he did, but not him. Would you have me hate my father? I don’t. I love him. I really don’t hate anybody.

I used to be consumed by anger. You know nothing of anger unless you have felt what I have. It was like a fire burning in me at all times…just waiting for an excuse to explode. I could have killed someone once. Thank the Good Lord that I didn’t! I hated God. Everything I did was just a show. It wasn’t real. And then it changed…it was slowly…an evolution, of sorts( I mean no disrespect when I say that.)

It started with a friend. Just one person. Someone reached out to me. Of all the people in the world Christians, Athiests, Catholics, Mormans, Hindus. And I know people of each of these religions or nonreligions as the case may be. And only one friend reached out. And she was a Christian. I know that some Christians are fake. I know that some of them are the most horrid people in the world…but that is because they don’t really Know God. But Emily was different. She actually cared. She lived it.

What do you say about the Christians who do live differently? Do you believe they exist? I’ve met them. The real Christians give from thier heart, put others before themselves, give to the poor, and love no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT. Do you think that it is a different God? I just don’t understand how you can lump all Christians into one catigory. You get angry when we lump you laws, theorys, beliefs in one category, why do you do it to Christians.

Answer:
All we tend to say about Christians in general is that they are most likely wrong about one specific set of beliefs: those related to the truth claims of Christianity, like that a god exists and that Jesus rose from the dead. I guess that’s just one category, but it’s a very broad category.

That doesn’t stop Christians from being kind, loving, forgiving, generous people. As you mention, neither does it guarantee that they will be thus, as some Christians simply aren’t. Nice people and nasty people can be right or wrong about the same things. So we call Christians out when they do bad or dishonest things, just as we would anyone, but we try not to generalise their character to encompass all Christians. Few generalisations apply to two billion people at once.

Emily apparently did a great thing for you, helping you forgive your father and deal with your rage. Christianity is the tool she used to do it, though she might have used others. (For example, what would it say about human beings if the only good reason to forgive someone were because we’ve been ordered to by an authority?) The fact that it worked says little or nothing about the actual existence of the god by which her actions were inspired.

Therefore I’m glad Emily was able to help you, and I think she’s a good person, but I still think she’s probably wrong about God nonetheless. There are good Christians just are there are good Hindus, good Muslims, good atheists and good agnostics. Simply having the wrong or right religion, if any, doesn’t say much about a person’s character.

SmartLX

Bad Arguments Never Die

There seems to be no argument in favour of gods and religion, or against areas of science deemed incompatible with these, which has been entirely discarded by people of faith for its poor merit and performance.

Question I’ve been pondering:
There seems to be no argument in favour of gods and religion, or against areas of science deemed incompatible with these, which has been entirely discarded by people of faith for its poor merit and performance.

People are still proclaiming that the second law of thermodynamics prevents order and complexity from increasing at all without divine help, or that the continued existence of apes disproves the idea that we evolved from apes, or that we all ought to worship a particular god because the only alternative is that there are no gods.

Do these people not see or understand the counter-arguments? Are they preaching on auto-pilot?

Answer:
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The hypotheses I’m about to put forward don’t only apply to religious people. Advocates of any position in any area (including my own positions) may have the same issues with their thinking. It’s just that working on the sites I do, I mostly see these in the context of religious and anti-atheist arguments.

Here are three reasons which together, I think, can fully account for the persistence of invalid or unsound arguments.

1. Ignorance
It’s an unpleasant word, but it’s not necessarily an insult. Ignorance simply means there’s something a person doesn’t know. Some people really think, for example, that evolution causes entire populations of one species to change en masse into another, leaving no precursors and no diversity. Thus if there are humans, supposedly there can be no remaining apes.

The reasons for ignorance can often be deduced when trying to inform people and reduce ignorance, because either they welcome new information or they don’t. They could be genuinely incapable of grasping the essential concepts in their current frame of mind and merely parroting the arguments, or they could be deliberately shielding themselves from dissent to preserve their own determination (e.g. standing “firmly in Christ”), or their mentors could be the ones doing the shielding (e.g. warning against “the devil’s words“).

2. Overconfidence
I came to this realisation only a few days ago. There are some people who presume that any argument in favour of their position, no matter how old, incomprehensible or well-refuted, must be perfectly sound and is therefore worth repeating and defending. They will not concede a single aspect of a single point to their opponents, so sure are they that every person who has ever argued alongside them was correct in every way. (It seems to follow often from the idea that gods don’t lead their own soldiers astray.) As opposed to not knowing or understanding enough to find the flaws in their arguments, they just never try.

3. Sophistry
This is broadly defined as using arguments which one knows are unsound, which is a dishonest practice at its core. One might know exactly why an argument doesn’t hold water, but if one’s objective is to convince as many people as possible then one can spread the argument far and wide regardless, aiming it at those who don’t yet know its flaws. It’s a way of exploiting the ignorance of one’s opponents or the public without attempting to inform or educate anybody. It’s a very self-serving approach, and I’m pretty sure it goes on all the time.

Sadly, thanks to the above three phenomena, bad arguments can still serve misguided or unscrupulous people, so they never go away. It’s worth trying to determine which of the three is responsible in a given case, because it will inform your response or reaction.

SmartLX

Witnessing like Way of the Master

“Witness for yourself the persuasive power of passive belief, and understand why so many atheists want people to shed even this.”

Questions:
The witness asks the subject:
1. Would you consider yourself a good person?
2. Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?
3. If God judges you by the 10 Commandments on the Day of Judgment, will you be innocent or guilty?
4. Based on that, would you go to heaven or hell? Does that concern you?

Analysis:
As simple as it looks, this witnessing method often works wonders for Ray Comfort and those who learn from him, especially on subjects unfamiliar with this kind of thinking. The Way of the Master radio and TV shows have disseminated this method far and wide, such that especially if you live in the US you’re more likely to get this from an evangelist than any other approach.

Let’s look at the intended delivery and effect in detail.

1. Would you consider yourself a good person?
If yes, sets up the subject for disappointment and shock when it’s later explained that this is unimportant because the subject has sinned. If no, reveals that the subject probably has poor self-esteem and will react well to a chance at redemption.

2. Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?
The witness must obtain a no. If the subject does not volunteer any sins, the witness often invokes Matthew 5:28 – “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Therefore if you’ve got working eyes and hormones, you’ve broken the seventh Commandment. In the unlikely event that the subject is entirely innocent, the witness invokes the inescapable blemish of Original Sin.

3. If God judges you by the 10 Commandments on the Day of Judgment, will you be innocent or guilty?
Since the answer to 2 was no, the answer to this must be guilty.

4. Based on that, would you go to Heaven or Hell?
Invariably, Hell.

Does that concern you?
The answer to this is unimportant. Up to this point, the exchange has been an intellectual exercise. The suddenly personal nature and immediacy of the final question triggers an emotional response. Any latent belief the subject may have bubbles to the surface and creates fear. After that, it’s just a matter of telling the subject that there’s only one way to Heaven: to accept Jesus Christ as personal lord and saviour. It becomes the way out of the fear, and is accepted on that emotional level it needs in order to stick.

Obviously, the questions are rigged to produce the expected answers. You will also have noticed that the questions simply assume the existence of God, Jesus, the Ten Commandments (therefore Moses), sin, Heaven and Hell.

Their purpose is not to convince the subject that God exists, but to capitalise on the fact that most people already believe, even if they do not act upon that belief or have not thought about it lately. It prompts a renewed commitment without inspiring new doubt. After this commitment, doubt is even less likely. It takes moderately religious or even barely religious people, and makes them want to be saved.

The spanner in the works is the very thing the method seeks to avoid: doubt. The existence of God, sin and Hell and the basic truth of the Bible are critical premises. If the subject expresses doubt during the initial questions, a common response by the witness is to proceed hypothetically and then invoke Pascal’s Wager, e.g. “If I’m right, then you’re going to Hell unless you commit to Christ. Are you sure you want to take that chance?”

If that doesn’t work (for example if the subject has one of these responses to the Wager), the method is finally derailed and the witness must use other apologetic to bring the subject up to the necessary level of belief.

Without pre-existing fear of God and eternal damnation, the method has no emotional punch. If the witness is in a public place or is trying to “save” many people, he/she will probably decide at this point that the subject isn’t worth the effort, hand out a card or pamphlet and move on.

A nice thing you can say about WOTM’s method is that it takes evangelical belief to its logical conclusion. If you believe deep down that this stuff is true, it shows you the thing you need to do. However, that is one huge if.

It only works properly in an atmosphere where its premises are unchallenged, so that’s where to attack it if a friend or family member has been or is being swayed. Make use of doubt. Get people outside of the little box in which the questions force them to think.

Painful as it might be, and whether you’re against WOTM or not, try watching witnessing clips from the WOTM television show on YouTube (or even GodTube, aka Tangle). Take note of the level of belief subjects begin with, and how much they’re willing to accept without argument before the “punch” line. Witness for yourself the persuasive power of passive belief, and understand why so many atheists want people to shed even this.

SmartLX

Why Does/Doesn’t God…

“The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically.”

Sample questions:
Why does God allow/cause bad things to happen to good people? Why doesn’t God heal amputees?

Answer:
Beats me. The burden is on believers to provide answers to questions which assume the existence of their gods, even hypothetically. I brought up these questions because I think they and others like them are useless in certain situations, but they’re being used anyway.

whywontgodhealamputees.com has been around for a while now. Apologists get a lot of mileage from actually being able to answer the questions it poses, including the main one.

The answers they give stand on scriptural authority, and cannot be debunked from any other angle. If someone says God allows evil as part of free will, and/or that amputations are an effect of the wages of sin (to evangelicals, there is only pain and disease because of the Fall), there’s no way to categorically deny it. Like so many religious answers, they may not be right but the fact that answers exist can be enough to boost the faith of the already-faithful.

I worry that holding these questions aloft as unanswerable by the faithful is too similar to the apologist/creationist technique of repeatedly asking questions atheists and “Darwinists” supposedly can’t answer, e.g. “Why are there no transitional fossils?” or “If there’s no God, why is it wrong to kill?” Of course there are answers to these (if you don’t know them, ask) and atheists and others take confidence from having these answers, and the answers are actually likely to be correct, but the few seconds immediately after the questions are posed are all some believers need to get a warm, smug feeling of superiority. After that, they’re free to stop listening or reading.

I’m not saying that questions like this about gods are entirely useless. They can be devastating to an individual’s faith. I know Christians who struggle daily with the problem of evil. They’re still Christians, but on an intellectual and emotional level they just can’t reconcile the perfection of God with the tragedies they see on the nightly news. They can go and find answers, but they’re likely to find several answers to the same question coming from the same religion, which erodes its authority on the matter somewhat. In this fashion, I went from Christian to agnostic a long time ago. (Atheism took longer.)

I’m just saying that questions with answers, any answers at all, make bad rhetorical questions. In the larger debate we imagine, with all the big arguments for each religious or irreligious position fighting an ethereal battle in the air above us, questions that don’t keep the top apologists stumped are counter-productive when posed to anybody as stumpers. Just let people mull over them, arbitrary answers and all.

SmartLX

Theology

“The apparent reality is that theology-based apologetics have been completely exhausted, and have not found their target.”

Question:
Self-appointed spokespeople for atheism, from Richard Dawkins downward, are woefully ignorant of the wealth of theology handed down to us by centuries’ worth of religious scholars. How can they claim to be qualified to discuss God at all, without looking like fools to all educated theologians?

Short answer:
Those parts of theology that are not irrelevant are ineffective.

Less short answer:
The bulk of theology is concerned not with the existence of gods, but with the nature of particular gods, usually the God of Abraham. (That’s one way to denote the deity worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.) It works on the accepted premise of His existence most of the time, so that it can attempt to discern His wishes and therefore inform human behaviour.

If the existence of the god is the point in question, the premise is unsettled and any conclusions from this kind of inquiry are moot. Thus the vast majority of theology is useless to atheists and agnostics, as long as they maintain those positions.

The remaining theology which does attempt to establish the existence of the relevant god(s) is in a category known as philosophy of religion. This is the stuff which might be useful in a discussion between a believer and a non-believer. That’s why every major argument this field has ever produced has already been thrown at atheists in the course of discussions and debates over the last few years.

Atheists cannot ignore philosophy of religion, because it’s shoved in our faces at every opportunity. It’s the source of such brain-twisters as the transcendental argument, the appeals to fear like Pascal’s Wager and the it-must-have-happened interpretations of Resurrection accounts. This is theology’s moment to shine, and all the big guns have come out.

So how’s it doing? Not great. I’m happy to assert without posting statistics that atheism is increasingly common, especially among young people. Attendance at religious services is falling, and those churches which are growing are more often than not cannibalising the congregations of other churches. The big guns of atheism, Dawkins, Dennett et al, are not given a moment’s pause by the apologetic hurled at them, and they can say exactly why in each case.

There are many religious folks who think, “If only they would read this particular book about God, they’d change their minds.” If they haven’t read the book, some eager evangelist has probably paraphrased it for them, and had a reply shot back.

The apparent reality is that theology-based apologetics have been completely exhausted, and have not found their target. The reassuring idea that atheists are only atheists because of their own ignorance disintegrates when you consider the constant, all-guns-blazing proselytism forcibly educating them from all sides.

If theology has something new to say that might actually affect this ongoing debate, it’s not just sitting in the open and being ignored. It needs to be unearthed and brought to bear. Now.

SmartLX

Same-Sex Marriage

“Since it does appear that the secular arguments presented by the anti-SSM movement have little value, the only reasons left are the Scriptural ones they are so eager to keep in the background.”

Question:
Fundamentalists of most major religions are against same-sex marriage on religious principle; they believe it is against the will of their deities. However, is there any merit to the other, non-scriptural arguments they present to outsiders?

Answer:
I felt like weighing in on this issue after seeing the campaign and site by the National Organization for Marriage in the US.

The lobbies and congregations that make up the Christian Right have realised that those who are less religious than they are (i.e. the majority) will not accept the dogmatic arguments from Scripture with which they have convinced themselves, and are using broader approaches. This is reasonable, and is the best way for religious organisations to pursue their interests in a secular society, if the replacement arguments are actually valid. If not, it’s a form of deception.

I’m about to summarise the non-Scriptural arguments against same-sex marriage (SSM) by paraphrasing the site above. I’m doing my best not to create any straw men with this approach, but if I do so anyway, tell me off.

1. Same-sex marriages deprive children of either a mother or a father.

This is true, but that mother or father is replaced with either another father or another mother. In principle, the number of adults caring for the children is the same, and the proportion of men and women raising the children depends very little on the parents themselves. Children without mothers for example can have aunts, grandmothers, big sisters, cousins, nannies, friends of the parents and so on.

In practice, no significant difference in development, social life or even sexual tendency has been found between children with same-sex parents and children with different-sex parents. Anti-SSM literature appears to focus entirely on studies of children of single parents, who are missing a mother or father for very different reasons. Such research, while important, is irrelevant to the issue of the gender of existing parents.

2. Public and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage will reduce religious freedom. Believers, churches and religious charities such as the Salvation Army will be unable to practice unless they endorse same-sex marriage.

Individual religious freedom and that of churches will be unaffected. It’s already illegal in the USA to discriminate against homosexuals, but the right of evangelical Christians and their pastors to believe, announce and advertise that homosexuality is sinful is protected by free speech and, importantly, “freedom of religion”.

What will be curtailed is individual freedom to discriminate in practical ways, as has already happened with progress in racial equality and gay rights. The central example is the staff at artificial insemination clinics and adoption agencies: some of them don’t want to be forced to give kids to gay couples. If their reasons for this are religious, their faith is about to conflict with their current jobs, but they are free to find work elsewhere in their respective industries. If instead their reason actually is reason 1 above, it’s not a good reason.

Finally, religious charities and other organisations have nothing additional to worry about. They’re already in trouble if they discriminate against gays. I don’t see why they would discriminate against children of gay couples, because
a. the kids’ upbringing isn’t the kids’ fault, and
b. if they really think same-sex parents are worse, they would conclude that the kids need more help.

3. If we change the definition of marriage, what’s to stop us from changing it further to allow polygamy, marriage to animals, underage marriages, etcetera? (Paraphrased from a point on the site’s .pdf handout, Why Marriage Matters. To be fair, these guys only mentioned polygamy.)

There is indeed an extremely small minority which would like marriage to be further expanded in these ways. Some, like those in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, go ahead and practice polygamy without looking for endorsement. Many others have less formal “open marriages”.

The difference is in the practical benefits of each change. Once same-sex marriage is allowed, every adult will be allowed to marry a consenting adult of their choice, with whom they can have a happy intimate relationship, and raise a family in accordance with their common human desires. This gives everyone an ability that was once only available to some, and so negates a now-arbitrary piece of discrimination.

Other changes to marriage do not confer similar benefits, and carry additional drawbacks. Polygamy does not extend the chance for marriage and a family to anyone who doesn’t already have it. Underage marriage and marriage to animals are cruel to the partner who is unable to consent.

This is why it most benefits humanity to extend marriage so far and no further, and why no one need be afraid that the floodgates will open, so to speak.

Since it does appear that the secular arguments presented by the anti-SSM movement have little value, the only reasons left are the Scriptural ones they are so eager to keep in the background. Once those are the remaining line of defense, they have no place in the political sphere, at least in a country which has declared church and state separate. For the rest of the world, though, it’s a bit muckier.

SmartLX

Atheism and Agnosticism

“I consider myself an agnostic atheist.”

Question from Pat:
Can someone be both an atheist and an agnostic?

Answer:
Yes. I consider myself an agnostic atheist.

An agnostic lacks gnosis, or knowledge of the divine (if any). He or she does not know whether there are any gods. Some agnostics go one step further and think it is impossible to know this.

An atheist lacks belief in any gods. An agnostic, who does not know, may not believe either and therefore be an atheist too. That’s my current position.

On the other hand an agnostic may believe in spite of not knowing, and therefore be an agnostic theist. Most religious folks who don’t claim personal experiences of their gods are in this category.

The only atheists who aren’t agnostics are those who think they know that there are no gods. This is a step further than “strong atheists”, who positively believe there are no gods but don’t claim to know for sure.

Most of the time, however, atheism co-exists with agnosticism.

SmartLX

Testing for Design

IDEA has one answer. I have other ideas.

Question by the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (the IDEA Center):
Does intelligent design make predictions? Is it testable?

Answer according to the IDEA Center:
Yes.

“Intelligent design theory predicts:
1) that we will find specified complexity in biology. One special easily detectable form of specified complexity is irreducible complexity. We can test design by trying to reverse engineer biological structures to determine if there is an “irreducible core.” Intelligent design also makes other predictions, such as
2) rapid appearance of complexity in the fossil record,
3) re-usage of similar parts in different organisms, and
4) function for biological structures.
Each of these predictions may be tested–and have been confirmed through testing!”

ATA Answer:
Yes and no, but the no is bigger.

The IDEA Center is a student-targeted initiative co-founded by Casey Luskin, now of the Discovery Institute. It encourages high school and tertiary students to set up their own IDEA clubs and talk about intelligent design. I use the present tense because it’s never officially folded, but there has been no visible activity by IDEA since a screening of The Privileged Planet in 2007.

I’m not simply flogging a dead horse (with regard to IDEA and intelligent design itself) because the question applies to the now more openly advocated hypothesis of divine design. It concerns a major aspect of claims by any creationist group that their version qualifies as science: is it falsifiable? What does it tell us that we don’t already know? What would disprove it?

I’ll work through the points in IDEA’s answer.

1) Two kinds of “specified complexity” crop up in creationist arguments: irreducible complexity, and “complex specified information” such as that found in DNA.

The discovery of irreducible complexity in a lifeform might go a long way toward proving design, though this hasn’t happened so far. Every purported example of irreducible complexity has been hypothetically reduced, in other words a possible evolutionary pathway to its current state has been found. On the other hand, the absence of real examples doesn’t mean nothing is designed. Irreducible complexity is only useful to this issue at all if it’s actually found.

The term “complex specified information” subtly begs the question, implying that someone specified it. While there’s certainly complex information in DNA, this is predicted and indeed required by evolutionary theory as well. The instructions for building body parts, the essential products of mutation and natural selection, have to be stored somewhere.

There’s a larger example of begging the question here. Of course the design hypothesis will predict the very thing it was created to explain: the complexity of life, including its means of reproduction and information storage. The important predictions we get from science are those with new, as yet unknown information – those we have to go out and test, not just refer to the same information that spawned the hypothesis.

For instance, we have one less chromosome pair than our closest ape relatives. Losing a pair outright is catastrophic, so the only way our species could have arisen from apes with one less chromosome pair is if two pairs fused. Therefore the end-markers for chromosomes should appear in the middle of just one of our pairs. On investigation, they showed up in pair #2. If they hadn’t, or had appeared in more than one pair, evolutionary theory as it exists now would have been falsified.

2) Again, the rapid appearance of complexity is a non-unique and retrospective prediction by the design hypothesis. Evolutionary theory allows for it as well, for a given value of “rapid”.

The most famous example is the “Cambrian explosion”, which took not less than two million of the fifteen million years now known as the Cambrian period. That’s as long as homo habilis took to evolve through homo erectus into us, homo sapiens. Given that it’s also roughly the point where the animal kingdom itself began, one would expect tremendous diversification.

A prediction certain design proponents might make which is not shared by evolutionary theory is not the rapid appearance but the literally instantaneous appearance of complexity. Like irreducible complexity, this would be earthshaking if found, but until then its apparent absence tells us nothing.

3) Similar features in creatures which are not at all closely related is another thing evolutionary theory also predicts in unremarkable hindsight, via convergent evolution. For example, across the animal kingdom we see eyes at all stages of development because eyes are undeniably useful. Any creature which begins to develop sight has an immediate advantage over the blind.

4) “Function for biological structures” mostly refers to DNA, and the idea that it’s all useful. The existence of “junk DNA”, that which has no effect on the creature which carries it, does not obviously indicate a design purpose, so the prediction of design is that practical effects will eventually be traced to most or all of it.

Given that we don’t know the purpose of a lot of DNA, new purposes will surely be found for some of it, but what’s the failure standard here? What percentage of DNA, if confirmed to be absolutely useless, would disprove design? There’s no sensible answer. Design isn’t falsifiable this way either.

In the broad view, we have 1. a bunch of different ways evolution could at any moment be debunked or disproved (and, notably, hasn’t been) and 2. no good way divine design could ever have potentially been disproved. It makes obvious predictions, all right, but it can’t truly be tested. Hopefully I’ve managed to demonstrate the difference a little more for you.

SmartLX

Scientific Evolution: the art show

10% of the proceeds from the show will go towards stem cell research, which is a great thing, but they’re pretty sure it’s hurt their publicity campaign.

We got a request to publicise a month-long exhibition in California named, and themed, Scientific Evolution.

10% of the proceeds from the show will go towards stem cell research, which is a great thing, but they’re pretty sure it’s hurt their publicity campaign.

I’ve done as they asked for two reasons. One, any publicity for evolution itself is good when the principal weapon against its acceptance is ignorance. Two, it’s very probable that the negative publicity for this art stems directly from conservative religious groups, and (imagine Marvin the Martian’s voice) this makes me very angry.

If you’re in California, see whether the exhibition would interest you. If not, have a look round for any protestation against it. I wonder if we can identify particular antagonists?

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #5: Prophecies

“…false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time.”

Question:
The basic form of this argument is that the Bible or some other holy text predicted some event or phenomenon its author(s) could not possibly have known about without divine inspiration. Examples: Jesus’ life and death fulfilled hundreds of prophecies made about him in the Old Testament, every detail of the 9/11 World Trade Centre attack was laid out in Revelations, the Bible or Quran describes scientific facts only discovered later by scientists themselves.

Answer:
Claimed predictions by the Bible (from which my examples will be drawn, since they’re what I’ve mostly received) and other old texts are presented along with a false dilemma: either the authors took wild guesses and were correct multiple times purely by chance, or they were divinely inspired and therefore granted knowledge the rest of humanity didn’t have at the time. There are a number of other possibilities for each supposed prophecy or prediction, which are generally more likely than either. The names below aren’t universal, they’re my own.

1. High Probability of Success: the event predicted was likely almost to the point of certainty, especially given unlimited time in which to occur.

In Jeremiah 49:16, the fall of the city of Edom was prophesied. Edom had many enemies, including Israel, and was regularly at war. Which was more likely, that it would triumph forever or that at some stage it would be destroyed?

2. Still Unknown: the fact given by the text is in dispute even today.

Christians credit the Bible with foreknowledge of cosmology for saying that the universe had a beginning. Even if this is correct, it had a one in two chance which is hardly imposing odds. Importantly, though, the Big Bang might be the very beginning or it may have been caused by some precursor. There’s still the possibility of an eternally old universe or multiverse. Claiming credit for predicting a beginning at this point is like trying to collect your winnings from a horse race before it’s ended.

3. Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: the very existence of the prophecy assists in its fulfilment.

There were prophecies, at least as told in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that the captive Jews would return to their homeland of Israel. Assuming for now that the non-supernatural parts of the stories are true to begin with, the Jews themselves knew of this prophecy. They believed God had stated directly that they would return. To do so was to obey His will. No wonder they did everything they could to get back.

In a more general sense, the Bible lays out a complete future history of Israel and Jerusalem. The Jews there do everything in their power to follow the instructions as far as rebuilding and protecting it, and largely use the actions of the Muslims to fill in the bits about invasion, destruction and exile.

4. Shoehorned: the text only applies to reality or to the present day through an unwarranted act of lateral interpretation.

Isaiah 40:22 says, “It is He that sits upon the circle of the earth.” Some take this as a signal that the author knew ahead of everyone else that the Earth is a sphere, when the word “circle” seems more likely to refer to the apparent disc one sees when one looks out from atop a mountain. The now-all-but-defunct Flat Earth Society, which believed the statement as much as any other Christian group, maintained their position of a flat Earth because they interpreted it as I do.

5. Made to Order: accounts of a subsequent event were in fact tailored to fit the prophecy.

This possibility is most often applicable to the story of Jesus. The authors of the Gospels had access to the writings of Isaiah et al, and had every opportunity to make sure their own accounts lined up with the old prophecies. Jesus, after all, would have been just one of an army of self-proclaimed Messiahs at the time. He needed everything possible to make him stand out, and that meant fitting the bill to the letter.

This list is not a direct accusation that any of the above is in fact the case for any given prediction in an ancient text (extending beyond religion, to writers like Nostradamus). However, any given prediction in texts I’ve read can be explained by one or several of the above. These extra possibilities must therefore be considered in addition to the false dilemma of chance or God. In this company, divine inspiration is less of a sure thing to say the least.

So what kind of a prediction would bypass all of the above and appear truly, plainly supernatural in its accuracy? Simple: one that we are able to test ourselves, without any prior knowledge. An obvious example is the Rapture: if it happens, those of us who are left will know that prediction was right. You can’t engineer the Rapture, or interpret the bodily disapparation of every Christian (of only one denomination, you would assume) any other way.

For a less extreme example, say that instead of interpreting dates gone by to match counts of days in the Bible, someone uses Revelations to predict the day of a future earthquake in Los Angeles, far in advance of seismologists. It could still be coincidence, but it couldn’t be Shoehorned or Made to Order. Further, the chances are low, the outcome is known and the prophet couldn’t fulfil it him/herself without a nuclear weapon.

That, therefore, is what believers in Biblical prophecy need to do in order to score credibility: use the old texts to make new and accurate predictions, instead of cultivating awe for those gone by. Many do try this, of course, and so there’s a growing list of dates for the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Second Coming and lesser events like the collapse of the United States. So far, all of these dates have passed by uneventfully.

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