Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

On the evening of Friday 16th of November, Channel 4 aired the 2nd of a 2-part programme entitled “Fear and Faith” which was hosted by one of Britain’s foremost entertainers, Derren Brown. In the first part of the programme, Derren explored the placebo effect, giving various different groups of people a very well-crafted placebo to “cure” their different complaints, though the programme predominantly focused on those who had certain fears, such a woman who was trying to make a career in theatre but who was afraid of singing in public, a man who was so afraid of heights he had difficulty walking over a bridge which safely carried road traffic across it every day and a man who was very shy, fearing new social interactions, especially conflict.

In this 2nd part, Derren looked at the idea of “God” being the ultimate placebo. Rather than recount a blow-by-blow account of the programme, I’d recommend you try and find it online to watch again or wait for a repeat. What I found most interesting was the reactions on Twitter. I was following the #FearAndFaith hashtag and making a few posts myself (apologies to anyone who follows me and thought I was spamming).

The climax of the programme, which was being built up to, was trying to give an atheist a “conversion experience”. Much of the response on Twitter echoed the idea of @evertoniandy when they wrote:

Derren Brown was brilliant. Fascinatingly interesting. Turns out God is probably imaginary. Who knew? #fearandfaith #atheism

What is particularly interesting about this is the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The programme didn’t really examine religious belief at all. It focused on the idea of an emotional experience. This is something Charles Foster looked at in his book, Wired For God. Yet the conclusions that were made by the viewers far outstretched what could reasonably be made from the evidence presented. There is an earnest desire among some atheists to disprove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own (lack of) belief.

Having spotted the sleight of hand that the programme creators were using, I posted the following message on Twitter:

#FearAndFaith Interesting to explore the emotional aspect of belief. Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?

This prompted as response from an account called Godless Spellchecker, a fairly relentless account (it averages 60 posts per day) which has around 16,000 followers.

“@TheAlethiophile #FearAndFaith Is Derren going to explore rational bases of belief too?” + They don’t make 10 second TV shows.

Because I was quoted rather than having a straight response, this prompted a flurry of other replies which I transcribe for you below:

@TheAlethiophile Taking all scientific reasons behind it.

@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile I’d have thought there wasn’t enough to put into such a tv show….

@GSpellchecker @TheAlethiophile He already has. Fear and it helped us get laid.

@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile Haha brilliant. Another brilliant put down from GS

@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile LOL

@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile 10 seconds – must include an advert break then.

@GSpellchecker @thealethiophile lol I just choked on my candy

While the Godless Spellchecker account may believe it made it a witty response, what it really did was betray an underlying problem with some modern critiques of religion. It presupposed, without evidence, that there cannot be a rational basis for faith. Indeed, the last decade or so, led by the New Atheists, has seen an increasing use of language whereby atheist is made synonymous with rationalist. Yet I have come across many atheists who could not reasonably be called rational, given their views on atheism are based very much on an emotional level, prejudiced and hateful of anything resembling what they perceive as ‘religious’. Equally, the increasingly tiresome canard of ‘science v religion’ betrays the fact that there are a great many scientists who hold “religious” beliefs and many “religious” people hold no objections to scientific ideas or the evidence or proof which uphold them.

Sticking to christianity, I know some people who believe for primarily emotional reasons, maybe based on an experience such as that which Derren attempted to recreate. Yet many I know, myself included, believe for much more rational reasons. For me, while the existence of God is vitally important, it’s not the most helpful way to approach a critical examination of christianity. Rather, the historical basis of christianity has to be the first thing examined. In other words, looking at the person of Jesus. For Islam, one would need to examine the life of Muhammad. On these subjects, there is much to be examined, evidence to be pored over and ideas to be discussed.

What is most concerning is the belief, in the teeth of the evidence opposing it, that there is no rational basis for belief. It demonstrates a very clear lack of education on matters relating to faith/belief/religion, however you want to word it. While some of this may be the result of poor religious education in the state system, I don’t think all responsibility can be taken away from the church. As christians, we have a duty to explain clearly what we believe. If people’s religious education is sourced from the naysayers then the view the public will get will be grossly skewed, a distortion of what christians believe. Hectoring the close-minded is not the answer; engaging with the open-minded is. The question then is, how to do this faithfully, rationally and with all due respect for those who hold different views from ours?

40 responses to “Derren Brown, confirmation bias and the need for religious education

  1. Unless, and until, I see a sufficient body of falsifiable evidence to support the hypothesis of the existence of God, I am emotionally incapable of accepting that such an entity exists. I have asked many believers to provide such evidence, but no such evidence has been forthcoming. I acknowledge that there are people who appear to need to believe in God even in the absence of that evidence.

    • While the desire to see falsifiable evidence is great, as that really is a ‘gold standard’ it’s not always practical. As such, like you, I have yet to be presented with any such evidence meeting that high level of epistemology. Yet that’s what it remains, a matter of epistemology, not of ontology. If we were apply that same criterion to much of what we know we know to be true then one may start to question all sorts of things which we know via other epistemologies.

      For example, it is a similar (and note, I am not making any accusation) to the school of thought that is shared by Holocaust-deniers. Eyewitness testimony is discounted because it is unfalsifiable. Yet we know it to be true.

      This is why I advocate the use of historical analysis, another instance where Popperian philosophy falls down, to look at the best available evidence that we have in relation to life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Do similar for Muhammad, if it’s Islam you wish to investigate. Given the wide variety of beliefs that may be called ‘religions’ and in particular the many very different figures that may called ‘god’ I have found it resoundingly unhelpful to try to investigate directly the existence of god, because you have to ask: which one?

      • The question “which one” is a legitimate scientific question, and is in my opinion aligned with the Popperian viewpoint. The quality of evidence concerning the Holocaust is completely different from any of the texts associated with creation myths. Also, since resurrection is known to be a physical impossibility, it calls into grave doubt many of the other claims made in the Bible.

        • Maybe the Holocaust was a bad example to use. One that is more relevant to the time period being concerned was Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. The accounts are a few eyewitnesses and, to the best of my knowledge, no corroborating physical evidence has been found.

          You will probably not be surprised to read that I do not subscribe to the creation myth as history. The overwhelming evidence that we have for the origins of the universe and of life on earth, though not complete, far outweigh anything that might support creationism – a view I do not support and have been critical of on this blog.

          As for the resurrection, although it falls well outside our normal experience, it goes too far to say it is impossible. For a related discussion, I would refer you back to Popper. That is has not been observed any time lately and no mechanism for resurrection is known is not sufficient to rule out the (incredibly unlikely) event. See my post here on Easter. For a much more detailed review of the evidence, I would encourage you to try reading The Resurrection of the Son of God which states the case far better than I.

          One must critically evaluate each claim made in the library of books that comprise the bible. I do not subscribe to the notion of its infallibility, but nor do I think that a few errors or inconsistencies justifies discarding the whole collection.

          • Your assertion about the resurrection, while valid mathematically, does not stand up to the scrutiny of practicality. Given that the present population of earth is just short of 7,000,000,000 people, it can be reasonably taken that 3,000,000,000 have died in the last 100 years. Let us assume for the moment that the chance of any one person being resurrected is 50:50. (Yes, this is a wildly optimistic figure, but it is adequate for purpose). Given that there have been no documented cases of resurrection in the last 100 years, the chances of resurrection being possible are *about* 10^-650. To put that number into perspective, the universe is only about 4*10^17 seconds old. Quite simply, the resurrection in the Bible just did not happen.

            On the other matters that you mention, thanks for sharing them, and I agree with you in general terms.

  2. Thanks for this. It would be interesting to hear your views about what you feel Brown achieved – as well as the reaction he got on Twitter as you’ve recorded here. Do you believe he debunked something or was it a failure?

    • It was a partial success, I think. His aim was to give someone a “conversion experience” though this was purely an emotional reaction he elicited, not a new-found belief. However, I’ve always worried about christian friends who have described how they became christians in predominantly emotional terms, having followed on from similar kind of emotional experiences. So in this respect, I think he demonstrated very well that belief that is based on emotion is very shaky. But he certainly didn’t go anywhere close to disproving the existence of God. But given what he said in the preamble (see it on 4OD) for precise quote, I don’t think that’s what he set out to do, though the Twitter reaction was along the lines of “[in the politest possible way, he’s saying God doesn’t exist]”.

  3. Faith, by definition, is believing something is true in the absence of sufficient evidence indicating it is true on the balance of probabilities, That is irrational. The idea of rational faith is oxymoronic.

    By all means believe in a God but don’t try and convince anyone you have rational reasons for doing so. There isn’t a single argument that can be made for God’s existence that can’t be refuted with evidence to the contrary. Whether you choose to ignore the evidence and form your own belief is precisely what faith is. And it remains irrational.

    • The flaw here is in the premise of your opening statement. You take the irrationality of faith as axiomatic. I contend that it is yet to be demonstrated that all faith is irrational. But it is a proposition that can be falsified by a single counter example. I will expand on this point in a follow up post later.

      • The word faith isn’t axiomatic, unfortunately. There are too many example of its usage that undermine its meaning in the context of religious faith. A scientist might say he has faith in the theory of evolution being a true explanation for the origins of life. What he ought to say is that on the weight of the evidence, evolution is highly probable to be the explanation for life on earth. That is not faith, it’s a reasoned conclusion that follows logically from evaluating the evidence.

        In the context of religious belief, the word faith is as I have described it. It is belief held in the absence of evidence to support that belief. All dictionaries will carry a variation of such a definition alongside other definitions that arise out of the word’s usage, where I would contend it has been misappropriated.

        • That was my point, it’s not axiomatic. Therefore you cannot arbitrarily choose it to be synonymous with “irrational” and claim your point is proved. It is logically nonsense. While we may be able to come up with various definitions (and your one is flawed in that is flatly false, contradicted by readily available evidence), defining faith is not a substitute for trying to understand it. I saw a definition of the game of cricket earlier which was a gross simplification of the game. Trying to use that definition to make any sensible statements about the game is a futile exercise. In order to make sense of cricket, you have to observe it, get to know its laws, understand its history, etc. The same has to be done with faith.

  4. In your comment above, you have said
    ……..For example, it is a similar (and note, I am not making any accusation) to the school of thought that is shared by Holocaust-deniers. Eyewitness testimony is discounted because it is unfalsifiable. Yet we know it to be true……..

    1. Eyewitness testimony is not at all unfalsifiable. One could always find another eyewitness who disagrees with the first, thereby falsifying the evidence!

    2. There are tonnes of other ways in which the holocaust becomes evident. Sufficient photographs and video films captured by invading allies / Soviet soldiers for one, Nuremberg trials for another.

    3. Fact is, ‘holocaust denial’ is the primary ‘unfalsifiable’ theory, since any amount of real evidence presented is simply denied by holocaust deniers as ‘framed’!

    4. It’s completely untrue that scientists who subscribe to organized religion make up significant numbers. In fact, quite the reverse is true. Of course, one will have to discount followers / promoters of ‘creation science’ from the group which is commonly called ‘scientists’.

    5. It is absolutely false to say that being ‘wired for faith’ makes it rational to believe. Because being ‘wired for faith’ itself stands for having evolved in a way that makes religious experience an ’emotional’ one.

    6. Pointing out atheists who deny god at an emotional level is futile. It does not speak anything about atheism and therefore cannot be used to deny that rationalism is the basis of atheism. Clearly, not all atheists are rational however, no theist can be rational! For if a theist was rational, he/she would deny faith without evidence in the first place!

  5. Pingback: “Fear and Faith” and misplaced criticism « @Gspellchecker's Blog

    • Thanks for the reply. As I do most of my writing at weekends, and I am away this weekend, it will be some time before I get round to posting a full length reply where I aim to affirm some parts of your post and challenge others. However, it requires careful thought and wording, so will not necessarily be as quick as you were in posting your response.

  6. I first came across Brown about ten years ago. I was studying NLP and hypnosis techniques (for work, can you believe it) and I thought he was brilliant. I was amazed at how such a young man had so expertly mastered the ability to read people and affect their responses. I saw all his TV series and his live show.

    As time has gone by, I’ve become increasingly disillusioned by him. On the one hand he seems to be little more than a highly sophisticated TV magician, using well-worn distraction and suggestion techniques to conduct a series of stunts with the intention not of educating but of making us go, “wow, isn’t he wonderful?” On the other hand, his activity such as that described above, in which he ‘demonstrates’ that certain beliefs have no grounding beyond the empirical and (he implies) should therefore be dismissed, seems to me to belong squarely in the centre of the nose-thumbing sceptical movement, which delights in ‘exposing’ the simple-minded, all apparently with a view to saying, “gosh, aren’t these people stupid?” (with the obvious undertone of, “I’m MUCH cleverer than them”). This puts Brown’s tricks in the same bracket as the red-faced rants of the late Christopher Hitchens.

    So I’ve stopped watching his TV shows, on the grounds that making fun of people you consider stupid is hardly my idea of a good evening’s entertainment (and is, in any case, the undeclared raison d’être of shows like X Factor).

    Anyway, this doesn’t address the main point of Sipech’s post which I’ll come back to shortly. I was just glad to have an opportunity to sound off about Brown, yet another of the ‘rationalists’ to have become a (secular) living saint in the eyes of many.

  7. As for the substance of this post, I have two questions:

    1. What does Sipech feel are the rational bases for belief in God? (It would be helpful if he could have a go at outlining them, as I don’t feel the above really addresses the matter.)

    2. Why do the atheist/sceptic/rationalist commenters feel – if they do – that an irrational/emotional response is invalid, or less valid than a rational one? I think this is often taken as read without being properly justified.

    • 2. Because your argument goes like this:

      Emotional experiences of God are evidence that God exists
      I have had an emotional experience of God
      Therefore God exists

      The argument is a valid form but it isn’t sound because the first premise is not true. So you’d be better off saying “why do rationalist commenters feel that an emotional response is [an] unsound [argument for the existence of God]?”, if we were to be pedantic.

      The above is the answer to that question.

    • I’ll be following up in more depth in a later post. But I broadly agree with Ike for the reasons for 2. Emotions are, by their very nature, liable to change. History doesn’t change, only our understanding of it. So it is on this more solid grounding of understanding what the early christians believed and why they did so that leads me to critically look at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That is, in my opinion, a far more steady road to walk down than the “I have a feeling” road.

      • I think you are jumping the gun a little bit. It would be useful to first analyse whether Christ was resurrected.

  8. There is an earnest desire among some religious people to prove the existence of any kind of god, so what happens is that anything which vaguely hints in that direction is taken as a confirmation of their own belief..

    See what I did there?

    • Yes and it’s a perfectly valid point. There are many *bad* reasons for believing in the existence of God; I don’t have any disagreement with that. My contention is with the idea is that there isn’t a *good* reason for believing. The same applies equally to atheism. There are bad reasons and good reasons for being an atheist. All people are capable of falling prey to confirmation bias. Describing yourself as a rationalist, sceptic, christian, muslim, atheist, etc. does not make you any more immune to it than anyone else.

      • Just *good* reasons now? I was under the impression you were arguing for the existence of *rational* ones? Are you now changing your position?


  9. m4kersm4rk

    I’m still not sure that you’ve outlined a rational reason for believing in any God here; let alone a reason for supposing that of all the Gods that have existed Jesus is the only rational choice. Or have I missed something?

  10. SithLaird

    I read your blog but I find no rational logic for the existence of a god. If your basis for your blog is rational logic for god, then surely you should back up your claim with rational logic. In the same way if you claim there is a (christian) god then you should back that up with evidence also. You’re blog is irrelevant babble propaganda, if not simply misguided.

  11. outofabrownpaperbag

    you mention rational basis for belief but then completely ignore it/them….

  12. I’m a physicist and a Christian. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual. Faith, like everything else is only a useful model of life if it works in practice in my view.

    Evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is brilliantly explained in the book Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison who approached the situation as a lawyer investigating the witnesses and evidence. For example, taking just one piece of evidence, what happened to the dead body? Had the authorities hidden it or the guards stolen it, they would have produced it immediately the disciples began to preach the resurrection. If the disciples had stolen it, they would have been very unlikely to die for a faith they knew to be a sham, and all bar one of the original disciples was indeed martyred for their faith, many in horrible ways. If Jesus had not actually died, he would have still had major wounds and been unlikely to look like a conqueror of death. Rather he would have needed a long period of recovery. In any case the Romans were experts at killing and unlikely to mistake living for dead. This kind of evidence is compelling once you start to look at it with an open mind and I found it very rationally satisfying.

    Having said that as a scientist I wanted to experiment myself with faith so I gave myself six months to believe everything the bible said and to do everything the bible said to do, so I could find out whether it was true or not. Truth for me as a physicist means Does it work? Lots of the bible is written in this style – if you do X, then Y will follow. Pretty easy to test, if you really want to, but obviously you need to believe it completely for those six months, because that is what faith is, then you can look back and see whether it has made a difference. I kept careful lists of what I’d done and what had happened, what I had prayed for or said to God in prayer and what had happened. I found it worked, by which I mean the Y things happened. God proved Himself to me in this way. It was personal to me, but I certainly would not describe it as being an emotional process in any way, shape or form. It was rational and factual. I didn’t feel anything when I prayed, but I spoke out loud and noted it down, read the bible and noted things to do and how God would act to follow that action of mine. Then I compared the bible statement / prediction with what actually happened.

    I’d challenge any of you unbelievers out there to try it for yourself and see what conclusions you come to for yourself. I’m on Twitter if you want to keep in touch with me during your experiment.

    • Your response, although you may feel outlines a reasonable basis for belief, is nothing short of fallacious. A scientist should know this.

      Firstly, there simply is no credible evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. Conjectures based on ancient and anecdotal accounts, which also contradict the laws of nature do not qualify as “evidence”. A scientist should know this.

      Especially since similar “evidence” is presented for other mythical figures throughout history. I find it incredible you are referring to “reports” of the missing body of Jesus as a form of “evidence”. A scientist should know this.

      Secondly, it is farcical that you would advocate “prayer” as a reasonable indication of your faiths veracity. It’s even more incredible that it appears you are not advocating prayer in a mere mental well-being capacity, but on a cause and effect basis. To be clear, you offer advice to an omnipotent, supernatural deity, and they oblige?

      Can you please provide some examples of things that you prayed for that couldn’t possibly have arisen due to non-supernatural reasons? I often find the power of prayer is limited to trivial, naturally occurring events. I wonder why that may be? Did you have a null hypothesis?

      If you claim faith/prayer appears to work in practice, how do you reconcile the fact that the most horrific things can and do happen to those of faith, whose prayers and faith go ignored?

      What makes you particularly special to an omnipotent deity? To reason in this way is obscene and irresponsible. Have you prayed to all 3000+ deities, or did you just get lucky that the one true intervening God which just so happened to be the Judaeo-Christian one? It would be unscientific not to test them all, surely? A scientist would know this.

      Also, to suggest you must accept something as truth, before you may understand whether or not it is in fact truth, is an absurd way to reason. A scientist would know this. Challenging unbelievers to believe something in order to decide whether it is believable is risible, for reasons I imagine should be apparent to a scientist.

      It appears one must believe this in the first place to adhere to it, making the resulting subjective experiences nothing more than observer bias. Your explanation is nothing more than post hoc ergo propter hoc. A scientist should know this.

      I find the fact you identify yourself as a scientist to be astounding. You are clearly not thinking scientifically,

      This is not rational thought. This is faith.

  13. Hi GSpellchecker, good to meet you and thanks for taking the time to comment on my post.

    I am a physicist, with a Master’s degree from Cambridge, England. My personality type is INTJ the Scientific or Mastermind type. So I am a scientist by both nature and nurture! 😃

    My approach and what I understand to be the scientific approach is to make (or accept someone else’s) model or hypothesis. Then to calculate or list the results which would occur were that model to be true. Then to take the experiment and perform it in such a way as to generate reliable, repeatable results. Then compare these results with the predicted results given by the model. The two can be compared.

    Furthermore, the N type personality seeks for underlying patterns and this enables new models to be made. Not all of physics is purely rational – in the way in which you express that thought. Physics has advanced throughout time because physicists dreamed, imagined, patterned and tested new ideas, new models, made links using their iNtuitive abilities.

    That is how I tested faith. Investigate the rational as far as possible but also do the experiment. This particular experiment requires one to have faith, so understand what faith is and get some of one’s own with which to carry out the experiment for oneself. It’s not a difficult experiment. However it carries some risk, which is that IF God exists, then He might show up. And that is where the rational part of me (correctly) finds its limit. If God does show up, then as a person who is more than just a rational mind, I find my heart, soul and spirit engaged and challenged as well. Quite pleasant as a change from the normal physics experiments because physics experiments deal with inanimate objects but obviously faith involves the whole person.

    For example, you use an emotive non-scientific word at one point-risible. Encouraging laughter is not scientific reasoning, but suggests you have emotional issues around that point. I wonder why you move outside the rational here. You use your whole person to argue your point. And so will I.

    No story of mine will convince you, but perhaps in the spirit of Derren Brown where we started, I will pray that an unexpected occurrence happens in your life this week and that you know that this is God, my God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit speaking to you through events – just as He did with me.

    Secondly, I will tell you what I have heard from God as I prayed about you – that God is your Father, that He has told me that you have a broken or missing relationship with your own human father that you long to have healed and that God’s Father heart understands your pain and longs to heal your hurt. You do not need to be ashamed as this was not your fault. This is why you have a problem with accepting a God of love, because you have never known the true love of a father properly.

    Your seeking heart is precious and God will let you know Himself in such a way that you will know that it could only have been Him. You will be blessed. Try to be kind, since kindness is something you value in others.

    To keep your rational mind busy in the meantime, why not see whether you can answer the question of what you think happened to Jesus’ body? 😃

    Good to chat with you,
    Ambling Saint

    • “I’m a physicist and a Christian. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual”

      I think you are, if you have any worthwhile insight into your physics…

      Sagan, Feynman, Bohr, Dirac, the list goes on. Oh and Einstein too (yes he was, his religious quotes are metaphorical)

      Jesus was a man. If the events described in the bible have any relation to reality then a likely explanation, in my opinion, is the Jesus wasn’t dead when he came down off the cross (he was apparently taken down much earlier than would normally happen). His injuries, although horrific were not life threatening in themselves, piercings to his hands and feet, lacerations from being whipped, perhaps a shallow stab wound if that happened. He could quite feasibly have been nursed over the subsequent 3 days to a point where he was perfectly able to walk around and talk. He would have looked like a “conqueror of death” as you put it, simply by not being dead when he was expected to be.

      I believe there are gospels and documents which describe the life of Jesus after the resurrection but of course these would have been suppressed by the Catholic church for obvious reasons.

      Or he was the Son of God and came back to life and nipped up to Heaven before too many people saw him. After all, if he’d shown that he’d beaten death to lots of people, hung around for a bit demonstrating what was possible through him we would have a lot more evidence for it, and then we wouldn’t need faith would we? Clearly God hates evidence and rationality, faith is far more of a virtue to be rewarded isn’t it? Ambiguity and belief rather than evidence and proof is literally what keeps God alive.

    • Thank you for your response. I will now try to respond as tersely as possible.

      I see my questions have gone completely unanswered, so I invite you to have another run at it, or I will presume you cannot answer.

      The point about my father was a bizarre swing and a miss. I can only assume your inference comes from popular and lazy notions of atheists being “angry at God (sky daddy)” due to unresolved conflict with their actual father.

      My father has always been there for me and continues to do so (he’s actually helping me move house on wed, thankfully), and is an affectionate and caring person, of which, I would like to think, has influenced my own affectionate nature.

      I’m not sure what you felt broaching this subject would achieve, or whether you were simply projecting, but it does read as slightly sinister and unbalanced. I am increasingly concerned that you feel a supernatural force is communicating with you in this manner.

      Lastly, I have no idea what happened to Jesus’ body. The question itself is begging the question.

      For the sake of argument I will grant you a historical Jesus existed, and he was crucified. You still have all your work to do to prove he was the son of a God, born of a virgin and survived his own death. It is not rational however to assume a missing body is best explained by way of resurrection.
      Regardless of your scientific credentials, you are certainly not engaging with these ideas scientifically.


  14. Right. So you think his disciples wouldn’t have noticed that he was half dead? Who moved the stone to nurse him? I myself would be able to tell the difference between a man who should be in hospital and a victorious resurrected body. Why assume people back then would be any less able to do so?

    To take just one detail, the ‘shallow stab wound’ you mention was not particularly shallow. in order to draw both blood and watery liquid I understand that it would have had to pierce to the lining of the lungs. Hardly shallow. Certainly not described as shallow by the many eyewitnesses whose evidence you overlook completely.

    Please link any evidence for.’gospels and documents which describe the life of Jesus after the resurrection’ since without evidence you yourself are only offering a belief.

    Your logic is poorly stated on the subject of belief. If God were clearly demonstrable then we would become meaningless robots with no choice to believe in Him or to disbelieve. Everyone would believe and everyone would therefore obey without any free choice. Maybe that is what you would like from the universe but it removes personal responsibility at a single stroke. It is not a true reflection of the world we see around us.

    However, let’s say in suffering God is with the one who suffers, which is certainly a message of the Cross – why then love which you must allow is from free choice not robotic obedience (who loves anyone under duress to do so?) comes into its own and we can serve one another in love, surely a better way to actually live life than in endless arguments which is what rationality leads to.

    Life is not just about rational arguments. Neither is physics. Children and disabled people who cannot follow arguments like yours can love, can be loved and can throw stones aiming for a target. If you destroy a person’s trust and faith in ultimate goodness at the heart of all things then you damage their personhood but not their physics. Being a person is more than rationality. Faith in someone is a powerful motivator at any level.

    I think you need to,look more closely at the events surrounding the resurrection. The theory you offer doesn’t fit with the known facts or personalities of those Involved. Would the scared disciples who had run away then nurse him back to health and then die for a belief that a man they knew had never died had been resurrected?

    I believe you can do better than that, Ike.
    Ambling Saint

    • It amazes me that you take what is described in the bible as fact and then work from that as a starting point. How can you be sure Jesus was ever placed in a tomb with a stone across it? How can you be sure he was stabbed on the Cross? That only appears in the Gospel of John.

      Look here as an example:

      Imagine the gospels being used in an inquiry to establish what happened during the resurrection. There is so much inconsistency between them that none can be said to be a true account of events. Yet grown adults take it as truth and use it as justification for a belief in angels, miracles and God.

      There is no real “evidence” of the life of Jesus after the resurrection, just interpretations of biblical Apocrypha such as the Acts of Thomas and the gospels of Barnabas and Judas among others. There is much speculation about Jesus travelling to India which you can find on the internet if you care.

      I hold these interpretations in much the same regard as I do the canonical gospels in terms of their veracity but they serve to demonstrate the inconsistencies in the story of Jesus, the unreliability of the evidence and the Church’s manipulation of the narrative to create the myth it required. It baffles me that so many people just believe what they read (or more likely, have never read).

      You, supposedly a scientist, say “The theory you offer doesn’t fit with the known facts”. What known facts are they then?

      You then go on to talk about the necessity of God in order for there to be love or personal responsibility. Your problem is you talk about ultimate goodness. There is no ultimate goodness. Morality has evolved like everything else. If there was ultimate goodness then everything would have derived from perfection but look at the morality in the Old Testament compared to the morality in the New Testament. You see any improvements there? DO you not think if ultimate goodness had started with a God then the Old Testament and even the New would be a little more… divine? Why is the Old Testament so ridiculously out of kilter with our present mores?

      We started off as animals, we started off sacrificing and eating humans, the Old Testament sanctions genocide, paedophilia, rape, incest and every behaviour we now view as despicable. Gradually our morality evolves and we become better people. We used to have people tear each other apart for sport, we used to burn people at the stake, we used to hang people for their colour. We are evolving, our intelligence and awareness and sophistication is evolving. We are refining and building our morality all the time. It is not and never has been absolute and the idea that it ever could be just demonstrates a naivety and childlike understanding of the world, which is all the more alarming if you really are a physicist but consistent with believing what you read or are told I suppose.

  15. Hi GS

    Since you are an atheist, why would you be concerned that I was dealing with a supernatural force? You don’t believe in such, therefore it cannot affect you at all. Unless, as I claim, you are more than the sum of your atoms; you have a supernatural element in yourself.

    Great to hear you allow a historical Jesus, you can do this from Josephus the Roman historian. What evidence do you have that he was crucified? I expect this is from the gospels and similar writings of the time. The evidence for crucifixion is in parallel to that for resurrection, or do you allow these for the crucifixion and not for resurrection?

    Christianity hangs on the resurrection, not the virgin birth or any other detail. Christians can disagree on the rest. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead. End of.

    Also, how would you atheists offer any comfort to anyone bereaved or suffering?

    Good to chat.
    Ambling Saint

    • “Since you are an atheist, why would you be concerned that I was dealing with a supernatural force?”

      As long as that belief is not used to prohibit others from living how they choose, I don’t. But since you posted these beliefs on an open forum , which exists solely to foster discussion, to challenge non-believers I felt asking questions about it would not be unreasonable. Your defensive response and subsequent change of subject tells me you do not wish to answer questions. This of course, is your choice.

      “Great to hear you allow a historical Jesus, you can do this from Josephus the Roman historian. What evidence do you have that he was crucified? I expect this is from the gospels and similar writings of the time. The evidence for crucifixion is in parallel to that for resurrection, or do you allow these for the crucifixion and not for resurrection?”

      I said I would accept a historical Jesus “for the sake of argument”, as it matters not to the validity of Christianity whether it can be proven that Jesus was in fact a man, who was crucified. So, to infer I am cherry picking the “evidence” is to misunderstand my point. To be clear, I know of no concrete evidence to establish Christ even existed, but I’m happy to grant he did. It does nothing to further your argument for the resurrection.
      The pertinent question is: What evidence do you have that Jesus resurrected? This is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Do you have some?

      “Christianity hangs on the resurrection, not the virgin birth or any other detail. Christians can disagree on the rest. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead. End of”

      This sounds a lot like faith. I’ve no problem with calling it as much. We’re discussing a rational basis for this belief though remember? Which so far, you have failed to argue for.

      “Also, how would you atheists offer any comfort to anyone bereaved or suffering?”

      This is a bizarre question, but funnily enough feeds right back in to the topic of this entire discussion of belief in God existing to serve an emotional need. Truth has no obligation to make you feel better, or comfort you. I see it my responsibility as an adult to acknowledge the reality of this. If this makes you uncomfortable, it says more about you as an individual, than it does about atheism. My experiences, emotional or otherwise are not diminished due to the lack of a supernatural hand.
      Also, can you give me a reason why you feel invoking the supernatural is the only worthy method of comforting the suffering or bereaved?


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  17. Hi there again and thanks for your comments.

    I am not a historian but I suggest the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is huge and convincing.

    Try Who moved the stone? by Frank Morison or Questions of Life by Nicky Gumbel. Or if you prefer Internet then Wintery Knight posts good links to debates and lectures so try for example this one:

    As I said, I think it is possible to test the truth for yourself, just as you would test out gravity by credibility enough to try the experiment. Neither @Ike nor @Gspellchecker have commented on this approach at all. I am suggesting that for example you take an instruction such as Proverbs 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. And next time you come across wrath, try speaking gently and see whether the anger is turned away or not. Much of the bible is written in if…then…wording and it is quite easy to test in this way. I thought I had made this plain already but perhaps not. Doing this does not involve any more belief than testing gravity with a stone and the intention to drop it off a high place would need. It is the same kind of intention, the same kind of belief that I would use as a physicist testing quantum tunnelling theories.

    I would suggest that you have ignored or avoided the thrust of my reply at this point. Perhaps you are afraid of the personal implications? But here you would find plenty of extraordinary evidence for yourself. If you read the gospels you will discover their ability to read you! Can you give me a reason not to try this? If there is no God, as you claim, then there is no threat to yourself in this approach. Better, you could cross one off your list of possible gods to try! I assume you have worked or are working through that list of 3000 possible gods that @Gspellchecker mentioned in order to be completely convinced that no god exists (which always seems to me to be a huge act of faith, compared to my belief on this single ONE! What if you have missed the real one who happens to be the Guatemalan one! 😉). @Gspellchecker you appear to believe in good spelling, so what gives you the ultimate authority to tell us how to spell? It is the same kind of question, about the ultimate ground of reality, as asking about God. Spelling is a human agreement. On what ground do you agree it with me if we have nothing in common, as you claim? Every atheist has their own individual idol, it seems to me. I claim you and I live before the same Creator and have been made of the same original stuff, having in us the ability to relate to each other through the transcendence of that stuff, which points beyond ourselves through its own transcendent nature…

    Seriously, though, yes, I think I was lucky to find the Jesus truth first. Having compared other faiths I remain convinced, not least because you can travel to visit the actual of other founders of faiths. In Jerusalem the garden tomb site has a simple notice on the door: He is not here. Spooky.

    @Ike I am inclined to agree that goodness has grown over time as you describe, although I question whether the bible sanctions paedophiles, rape, incest or genocide. These behaviours still happen today so it isn’t entirely true that we have become better people. It could equally be argued that evil has also grown with automatic reloading guns, nuclear weapons, global warming and other evils not dreamt of in the past. Happily for myself I believe good overcomes evil supremely in Jesus and I also have the power (not from myself, it is from that personal relationship with God I was mentioning) to live a holy life in the face of evil.

    @Ike @Gspellchecker Moral choices (nuclear power or nuclear weapon?) are not the domain of physics. Presumably as atheists you essentially start from scratch and have a relative morality? How then do you keep from selfishness in your personal morality? How do atheists agree on moral standards? How do they agree on issues such as abortion or gay rights or gun control? Presumably each of you decides for yourself appealing to the deepest and most honest ground of your own being? I am only guessing but I am curious about this. Isn’t that deepest reality within your deepest self synonymous with the search after Ultimate Reality which is the search for a god?

    Why would an atheist ever be able to say good is better than evil? If life is only physics then you are only your atoms and you have no life beyond that. Surely that is foolishness because it denies or makes shallow the human virtues such as love, dignity, self sacrifice…and mentioning those best human virtues reminds me of …guess who?

    Christianity doesn’t emotionally comfort me, so much as challenge me. Maybe you would like to test it out before you comment further? It’s like discussing a loaf of bread…I am saying “Here is your mouth, go on, eat it, it’s good” and you asking and asking for more and more chemical analyses! I can only suggest that you have a pride in running your own life your own way (a pride common to mankind, nothing special) and you are unwilling to face the loss of such pride that finding there is a God who loves you would bring. My God, Jesus would bring you so many challenges and brokenness and such joy with Him! You truly have no idea what you are saying ‘No’ to!

    The final rational argument is this: if a simple belief in God offers you eternal life after death, and simple disbelief offers separation from God after death, why would any rational being even consider rejecting this minimal offer?

    G K Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”

    It’s not my challenge to you, it’s God’s.

  18. You think you need to have read the Bible to know the difference between good and bad behaviour. I’ve never read Proverbs 15:1 yet I know that dealing with anger in a calm manner is much more productive than reacting in the same fashion This doesn’t come from the bible it comes from experience and experience brings wisdom. Can you not do this? Are you so incapable of thinking for yourself that you can’t work out how to interact with other people to produce healthy, positive, reciprocal and sometimes loving relationships?

    Perhaps that is the crux of it. Perhaps some people really can’t. If you could you wouldn’t ask such ridiculous questions as “Why would an atheist ever be able to say good is better than evil?” and “How then do you keep from selfishness in your personal morality?”.

    A couple of minor points:

    — “I question whether the bible sanctions paedophiles, rape, incest or genocide”

    See here:

    Bear in mind these are contained in a book which you can pick up in just about any school and which some encourage children to read. What a joke.
    Also, I think if God really was omniscient he might have thought to mention something about rape in his commandments, unless he was OK with that?

    — “These behaviours still happen today so it isn’t entirely true that we have become better people.”

    You’ve misunderstood. Mores aren’t about whether these things actually happen, bad things always will. It’s about how people, societies in general, feel about them and that has and is changing all the time, for the better, the further we move away from the dogma of religion. Women and gay people are especially benefiting from more people being able to work out what is right for themselves rather than sticking to a prescribed morality created by men who lived a long time ago in a very different world.

    — “How do atheists agree on moral standards?”

    We don’t always. They’re relative. IT would be a lot easier though if the argument was purely based on experience and reasoned argument and didn’t include an element of “but it says in this book that you mustn’t…”.

    Being a physicist, Quantum mechanics must really blow your absolutist mind.

    — “It’s like discussing a loaf of bread…I am saying, Here is your mouth, go on, eat it, it’s good” and you asking and asking for more and more chemical analyses!”

    We’re not asking for any chemical analyses. We are saying, “no thanks, I can see clearly that your bread is old and stale, I have a much tastier loaf over here I made myself thanks. Maybe you’d like to try making your own too instead of buying it from that bakers shop you keep recommending to me? ”

    Finally, Pascal’s wager? Really? Come on.

  19. When you say ‘absolutist’ mind, do you mean that I’m not a relativist? But if YOU by contrast are a relativist then how can you want to insist that your views are right and mine are not? Pressing your world view onto another is surely against your worldview.

    I think you explain well what you mean when you talk about the dogma of religion – I am inclined to agree with you. However true Christianity is a far cry from an outward obedience to the Jewish codes of the Old Testament. I wonder exactly how you would define the Christianity you reject?

    Regarding the Old Testament, indeed you link to a long quote of many passages. Each has its own place in the story of the Old Testament and indeed we can draw teaching from these stories, but they are not the be all and end all of Christian faith which is rooted in Jesus.

    I used the example from Proverbs because it was simple to use and examine. In the New Testament there are of course far more complicated ideas to get your head around and put into practice to see whether they really work in real life with real people. I just picked an easy one to show the principle. My challenge remains – take every instruction and follow it. You will find out whether it works in practice. Instructions cover very aspect of life from anger to murder to love to divorce to sexual immorality and lying, stealing, etc etc. You see my point?

    Now you and I could agree that these mores are a good set, so referring to the Bible now becomes for you and I a shorthand set for good behaviour and we can agree to build our society on them.

    But what is this? A crime. Forgiveness? Upset and anger? Where do these things come into physics? They just don’t, because people react in such different ways from the same situations. Now the life of Christ becomes relevant and you and I seek to know Him together and pray the Lord’s Prayer together, asking forgiveness of each other. Isn’t this a better way to live? There is not a place in your absolute relativism for mistakes and forgiveness, is there? How can there be, when I am free to believe I can behave as I like without considering others as I hurry to make money, and you believe (say) that your ambition entitles you to treat others as less important than yourself?

    No, the values we truly need in society are those found in the ideal of Jesus’ life and death and in His teaching. Plus the power to live His way available through the Holy Spirit to all who believe.

    I disagree with your idealist idea that all issues can be discussed and decided through reasoned argument and experience. Everyone’s experience is different and secondly everyone has emotions and strong personal agendas. As a relativist, you cannot see through these to the underlying truth because you deny that there is a common underlying truth. Worse, having agreed with a small group what you think, you then try to argue the rest of the world into agreement with you, exactly contradicting the personal freedom to believe whatever you like which you claim to value so highly.

    Even worse than that, if ultimate truth is relative, not only is it illogical to assume that it can be discovered, but you cannot even say that Hitler was evil and Mother Teresa too, since each was purely acting according to their own beliefs.

    Indeed, what you have of truth in your own loaf is part of what I claim as my ultimate truth and as I have just explained you have taken most of your reasoning from some assumptions taken from the Real Truth. If you follow your own logic to its logical subjective conclusions you end up with some horrible scenarios.

    A pleasure to debate with you. Your reasoned courtesy as always does you credit.

    Ambling Saint

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  21. Hi there!
    I’m not very well educated and many of the “fancy” wordings in this debate goes way over my head. But I think that actually puts me on par with most belivers and non-belivers, which makes me a representative of the group.

    So here’s my predicament, and I’m sorry if it strays away from the original entry but the word “rational” stuck in my mind:
    I can certainly understand the ‘need’ to belive in a higher power. I’ve felt it myself and still do.
    What I find irrational is that the teachings and belief of the ‘Christan God’ differs so much from man to man, parish to parish, country to country etc. When I read teachings, debates and articles about God many Christians refer to The Holy Bible but very often they claim that the Bible isn’t to be taken literally, only SOME parts. Who’s to say what parts is to be taken literally or not?
    If the “modern Christian” finds 10% (just an arbitrary number) of the Bibles teachings probable and plausable and refer to these parts, Christians 1000 years ago probably thought alot more was both “true” and “fact”, and probably had a totally different view of God, and Christians 1000 years before that another view of Him. Which God is the true God?

    These are just a few reasons I find it irrational to belive in a God and to be a part of any religion (maybe Buddhism is the exception), but probably the biggest reason I lost my belief in “my” god (the Christian one) aswell as every other god and diety in the world many years ago. It just got too arbitrary to me.
    I was about to add “sadly”, which it actually is in one way, but “liberating” is another word that I could use.

    Maybe you’ll find my reasoning too uneducated but I ask here as I found this blog to have a solid debate in a calm and serious manner which is rare concidering the topic.