Monthly Archives: January 2013

Six Hoary Cliches about Religion

Jessica at Ask an Islamicist (an excellent blog covering the modern secular study of Islam and particularly broader issues in the west’s engagement with Islam), wrote a great post today:

I love talking about religions. Religions are social constructs with histories and cultures and art and stories and participants. But talking ‘about religion’ is really only fun if you’re an 18-year-old freshman philosophy major who’s just stocked up on herbal refreshment.

Otherwise, these conversations always go the same way,

Its a long post, but fun and funny, and in my experience very true!

Except that I also have fun talking about religion, without the aid of weed.


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How to Heal People

Many religions point to supernatural healing as evidence of their truth.

I’ve read books of testimonies from those healed of all kinds of diseases by the power of Jesus. I’ve spoken to neo-pagans selling healing charms with miraculous stories of their power. I’ve received an anointing with oil from Christians, healing touch from a Kabbalistic Jew, and healing crystals from a friend of the New Age. Healing is practised in religions around the world, Sufi Islam has a rich tradition of healing, Reiki was initially a religious devotion, Voudun heals through exorcism, Taoism through the manipulation of the qi.

So how? How does healing work?

As for other miraculous phenomena, it turns out that supernatural healing works on a few very natural principles.

1. Spin the stories. — Stories of someone naturally recovering from an illness are boring. We all naturally like to spice up stories, or present them in the way that most advances our goals. So a small lump becomes metastatic cancer, and its removal is a miracle cure. Joint pain becomes a crippling disability and the right pain regimen becomes an impossible healing. Someone fighting back to health over several months (under the prayers of their friends) becomes a rapid recovery that baffles the doctors.

2. Be vague. — Healing testimonies are often not very specific. A man with severe back issues was healed. A woman who’d been struggling with her neck has found relief. This builds on the previous: the specific illness may be rather unimpressive, but it can be told in a vague enough way to make it sound serious.

3. Get people at their worst. — We are most likely to seek treatment when our illness is at its worst. So, purely by force of statistics, most people seeking any kind of treatment will then improve. This is particularly powerful for variable chronic conditions. Arthritis has a good track-record of healing, so does irritable bowel syndrome, back pain, and so on.

4. Break through self-limitation. — We routinely underestimate how much we are capable of, when ill. Presumably this is adaptive, to give us time to fight off illness without physical stress. But if you can make people think they are better, they can behave a lot better, almost every time. Most people who use a wheelchair have at least some lower limb function. A large number of them can stand if they need to. Some can walk. Give someone a reason, and you might witness a miracle!

5. Act well. — Behaving as if ill can prolong some illnesses. Breaking the cycle can cause improvement. Back pain, for example, can be self-prolonging if not exercised and stretched. Or, a stomach problem can lead to bowel motility issues and lethargy, which perpetuates the bowel issue. Some mental illnesses can be treated by breaking unhelpful cycles of thought or behaviour: someone who believes they are healed may expect them to be broken and thus break them. This isn’t, of course, always the case — but it is the case for some conditions.

6. Let people fake it. — Many ill people really really want to be well. Self denial is a big factor in healing. I’ve seen a case where a woman had a mild orthopaedic issue as a result of a leg fracture. She really believed she’d been healed. She threw away her leg brace and walked around confidently. She testified to many that she’d been healed. Only years later did the chronic hip and back pain force her to admit to herself, that her healing was not quite what it seemed.

7. Exude empathy and authority. — Having someone with you, who fully acknowledges your suffering, and takes control over it, is hugely reassuring. Good healers listen, empathise, and boss the illness around. This makes it much more likely one of the previous situations will occur.

When we’re talking about a whole healing ministry, some higher level principles come in handy:

8. Count the hits. — Some people get better. Here’s an experiment. Set up an internet spiritual healing centre. Advertise to heal people of cancer (actually don’t, since it is illegal, but you’ll see the point). To each person who responds, send a mystical prayer and a video of you doing some odd chanting. Wait. After a while, you’ll get emails or letters from folks who’ve been healed. Some of the stories will be amazing. You won’t get much contact from people who weren’t healed, and the few you do, throw them away. After a couple of years, you’ll have an amazing portfolio of testimonies for your healing prowess.

9. Don’t follow up. — Many healing testimonies come from people claiming to be healed in the heat of the moment. So someone might say “I’ve had horrible pain for 10 years, but when you prayed tonight, my pain left me and I was healed!”. This is a great healing testimony. But won’t be followed up in detail. If the person finds the pain returning after a couple of days, it is better not to know. Often you read things such as “The woman had been suffering from Leukaemia, and as we prayed the fatigue left her and God totally healed her – we sent her to go see her doctor to have this miracle confirmed.” Implying the healing was confirmed, but without any need to actually confirm it.

10. Lie. — It is easy to slip additional stories of healing into the portfolio. Testimonies of healing are really difficult to confirm. Into a scrapbook full of genuine testimonies of cancer healing, gets added a resurrection or two. Sometimes the person leading the ministry can deliberately lie. Often the person is simply repeating someone else’s lies. Once someone gets into the mindset of believing that all these healings are genuine, and has convinced themselves that the things they are seeing are miracles, it is easy for them to be gullible when it comes to other people’s claims.

11. Piggy back on modern medicine. — Medicine is not perfect, but it is very good. If you can persuade people that its successes are actually yours, then your power will be all the more striking. Those healed will often be willing accomplices, stressing the role that prayer had in their recovery, but never mentioning the hours of advanced medical treatment they underwent.

Each technique can be further accentuated with theology or ritual. Emphasizing that the ill person must have unwavering faith, makes it much more likely they’ll engage in self-denial. Focussing on diseases with high fear, high mortality, but relatively complete recovery increases the power of counting the hits (more healers lead their resume with cancer healing than heart disease). Extended rituals or time consuming pilgrimages can give you more time to feel better naturally. Power-focussed, authoritative healing settings can increase the healer’s authority over the ill person’s reactions.

In my experience, when you go digging deeper under claims of healing (something I’ve done a fair bit), the miraculous tends to become rather mundane, or else becomes embedded in an increasingly elaborate story that shields it from examination. There is something so fundamentally frightening about illness, that drives people to seek supernatural power over it. And once they do, the evidence for its efficacy is very easy to assemble.

As always, please suggest other techniques if I’ve missed something obvious.


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Stories and Reality – How Religion Works

Religions tell stories.

They tell stories of a reality behind reality. Stories of a world you didn’t know existed, but one that explains the world you do.

Religious stories can be as fanciful as they like. But if they were only fanciful, they would be only fantasy. A story works when it connects with reality. A common way of making that connection is to explain why reality is the way it is.

For example: we all feel we sometimes fall short of our own moral standards. This is reality.

We can say what this experience means with a story:

Human beings have an inherent sense of morality, but have a sinful nature. The sinful nature is the result of disobedience to God, and can only be remedied by God raising us to new life with him after our earthly death.


In the core of our being we are holy and righteous beings, but clinging to our soul are hundreds of evil spiritual entities who limit us and deny our power. By auditing, we can strip ourselves of these beings and be better able to live the life we want.

Religions have also linked their stories with physical reality. They explained why storms happened, why crops fail to grow, how the world was formed, and why people get sick. But their explanations of these realities turned out to be wrong. So religion is retreating from the physical, or — as in creationism — it turns from using reality as a evidence for its story, into using its story to deny reality.

Even so, human experience remains a fertile ground for putting down roots into reality.

Here are some observations that are ripe ingredients:

  • I think it is so unfair that some people die without having received justice for their crimes, while others suffer undeservedly.
  • From time to time I get a call or text from a friend I hadn’t heard from for ages, who I was just that minute thinking about.
  • I’ve learned that you can’t trust anyone: even those closest to you can betray you.
  • Sometimes I get Deja Vu.
  • No matter how bad something is, when it is over there is always good that comes from it.
  • I cringe inside sometimes when I think of things I’ve done or said in the past.
  • I fear death.
  • Even when I’m surrounded by friends or family, I can still feel alone.
  • Somehow I feel like I was intended for something more than this. I can’t help but think, why am I here?
  • From time to time I get these feelings as if I’m one with the cosmos and all I feel is love.
  • I just feel like I have no strength left to cope on my own.
  • Sometimes everything seems a bit unreal, as if I’m playing a part in a play.
  • I hate the way that the next generation has no moral standard: anything goes.
  • I can’t imagine not existing.

I’m sure you can wrap your own stories around each one. Or find religious stories you know that reveal the reality behind these realities.

Powerful religious stories weave together many such observations. Very powerful stories can suggest experiences you’d never consciously had, but turn out to be there when you look: “have you ever noticed that …?”, “no, but now you mention it, that’s so true!”

Think about the sin/redemption story of Christianity, for example. It is powerful because it sucks in a whole bunch of these human experiences around morality, around justice, and around our disappointment with ourselves. And those experiences then become usable as evidence for the story.

Even stories that explain lots of our experiences don’t explain them all. There isn’t a story about Deja Vu in Christianity (that I’m aware of) for example. But some religious beliefs in ‘The New Age Movement’ use it as evidence of our latent psychic ability.

Religious stories are complex, and serve many functions. But if they had no connection with reality, few of us would accept them. By interpreting reality, they encourage us to see reality through the interpretation, and find evidence for their truth in the undeniable aspects of our everyday life.

Some notes:

1. I don’t think this is the only way religious stories create evidence for themselves. They can also do this using supernatural phenomena. I’ve touched on how this works before, and I’ll probably come back to it.

2. This post is related to this previous post. Both are based on some writing I’m doing off this site, on how religion works. So I’m interested in observations and criticisms.


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The “Poor Ignorant Soul” Fallacy

Here’s a rhetorical fallacy for you. I’m calling it the “poor ignorant soul”. If it has been named and claimed before, let me know in a comment.

The Poor Ignorant Soul Fallacy is when one person claims that the other would agree with them, if only they knew what the claimant knows.

This is particularly keenly used with esoteric knowledge “If you only knew Jesus, you’d see I’m right.” But is also used as a kind of argument from authority “If you had spent as long studying this as I have, you’d see I’m right.”

It is a fallacy for two reasons:

a) It assumes that the claimant has more or superior knowledge: the target of the claim might be perfectly aware of everything the claimant knows, and more besides.

b) It assumes that both the claimant and the target are significantly deriving their positions from knowledge.

It is mostly used as a power grab. To avoid really discussing something, or really listening to another person’s views, you set yourself up rhetorically as their superior. Then you can smile sympathetically as they fumble to erroneous conclusions, a consequence of their unfortunate condition of ignorance.

It is attractive because, in many cases it is true: a person can hold an opinion based on ignorance. But the temptation becomes to assume ignorance because of their position.

This is a fallacy I am guilty of a lot. Just about every disagreement in the comments of this blog results in me pulling this one at some point. In this post, I did it deliberately, because I was responding to the fact that it is a hugely popular tactic for believers to pull. But perhaps the irony was actually lost on me, since I manage to display the tendency plenty without any conscious aim at satire.

Do you fall into this? If you genuinely do happen to be more knowledgeable than your interlocutor in a subject (say if I’m discussing evolution with a creationist) should you try to avoid it, if so how?


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In the comments of the last post, I was challenged to think a bit more carefully about categories, and more generally about my thinking style. This is not a response to those comments, but something motivated by me thinking about the topic.

I’m a messy thinker. I like to see masses of data, lots of overloaded axes, partial information, overlapping categories and contradiction. I like to see patterns arise out of the mess, and am less comfortable with reorganizing the mess into some form of order (though that is sometimes necessary).

Borges writes on categories (in El idioma analítico de John Wilkins, 1942)

“These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

This passage has been picked up by other writers, notably Foucault. Some who took Borges seriously on his identification of a source (a bad move, Borges is often fictive about scholarship) made rather racist points about Chinese conceptual systems. Others simply laughed at how terrible such a classification would be.

I think it sounds cool.

I think part of the gaffawing is because a lot of writers on this passage miss the implication of (h). It is not the case that each animal can appear in only one category. So this is a categorization based on a set of features that (though intended as humorous) are presumably all useful in some way.

Here are two categorizations:

I divide animals into these categories: vertebrates and invertebrates. Of the vertebrates I sub-divide them into mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. The mammals I further divide into monotremes, marsupials and placental mammals.[1]


I divide animals into these categories: those I own, those that are dangerous, those I have in a book, those that can be eaten, those my nieces would like on a lunchbox, and those that I’d like to paint.

Which is better? The latter, it seems to me. Give me Borges’s encyclopaedia any day.

How about you?

PS: There are serious implications behind this. I do make these kinds of decisions regularly in my day job. I’ve been trained to think that hierarchies of categories are better, but I’ve time and time found that for real data and real human needs, ad-hoc mixed categories (or ‘tags’, which are a version of the same thing) are superior.

[1] Apologies for the biological naivety to anyone who would have expected better things given my background. But the naivety makes a related point: the first style of classification seems systematic, but is actually just as arbitrary.


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Views on Mythicism

This week has seen James McGrath setting up a “TalkHistoricity” project, to respond to Mythicist arguments (the idea that there is no historical figure behind Jesus)[1]. And a flurry of posts and counter-posts among the usual suspects on the topic.

I’ve discussed Mythicism online with a lot of people, and I’ve been thinking that I ought to do a category post on it for a while. Perhaps 90% of the discussions I have involve people misunderstanding what the other is saying. This is particularly acute in comments or forums when a group of people with different opinions argue against a common ‘enemy’. Actually making progress, or even identifying the actual argument being made, is like nailing jelly to a wall.

So as for my previous posts in this genre, I offer this caveat. These categories are not clearly delineated, the terms I use to describe them are my own, and anyone can occupy more than one at a time, or move between them as the mood takes them. I describe these categories with positive statements, but don’t read them as me making these claims. I’ll declare my view at the end.


Conclusions on whether Jesus was a historical figure.

Historical Minimalism — The Christ myth coalesced around a historical figure, who’s biography can only be minimally recovered. We can say only that Jesus was a preacher, healer and exorcist from second-temple era Galilee, who was baptised by John and executed during the governorship of Pilate (some minimalists may have less or a little more in their ‘core’, but you get the idea).

Pure Agnostic — (h/t Vinny) — The historical evidence is too patchy, too minimal and too ideologically tainted to be able to make any conclusions at all about Jesus. Saying anything about the existence of Jesus is going beyond what the evidence allows. The best we can say is “we don’t know”.

Agnostic Mythicism — We should not assume things to exist unless we have enough evidence to conclude so. So — building on the Pure Agnostic position — in the absence of sufficient evidence, we should assume there was no historical Jesus.

Positive Mythicism — Jesus was initially conceived of as a celestial being, and only later accumulated an invented biography. There may have been historical figures used as the inspiration for the historicisation (when you come to make your demi-God into an apocalyptic preacher, you use the apocalyptic preachers you know of as inspiration), but the evidence shows the process went from divine to human, from myth to man.


Attitudes towards the Jesus evidence that lead to Mythicist conclusions (where the conclusion could be any of the above categories, for some of these).

Evolutionary Mythicism — (h/t Neil) — The Jesus story coalesced among various religious groups from a range of pre-existing spiritual or heavenly figures, the tradition of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, metaphors, cultural fragments. A distinct historical source for the story is not required by the evidence.

Analogical Mythicism — Features of the story of Jesus are seen in other mythological stories. At one end of this category is the observation that elements of the Christ myth are typical. At the other end is the claim that pre-existing myths were recombined to make the myth of Christ (which is a particularly focussed form of the Evolutionary approach, above).

Methodological Mythicism — Historical Jesus scholarship is based on an ideologically compromised methodology. Scholars project their view of Jesus onto history, while pretending they are discovering something. Their methods are not used by historians outside the field, and other figures with similar evidence are uncontroversially acknowledged as mythical.

Moral Mythicism — Christians take “there probably was a historical Jesus” and hear “Jesus Christ is true”. Historicism gives legitimacy to religious immorality. By denying it, we might encourage thinking Christians to reconsider their beliefs. Which in turn might lead to a more secular, and more moral society.

As usual with these posts, I don’t think I will have covered the whole range, so please contribute other useful categories and I’ll update. Also in common with previous categorizations, I’m aware I will unconsciously weaken the descriptions of positions I disagree with, so if you hold one of these positions and feel I’ve whiffed it, then please suggest how I can strengthen the description.

Which just leaves me to say that, in this categorization, I am thoroughly a historical minimalist. I am convinced the best fit for the data is of a historical figure mythologised, rather than a mythological figure historicised.

So where are you? And do you recognize these kind of nuances in Mythicists?

[1] I’m rather torn about this project. To some extent, having good information around on historical topics is fine. But I’ve not found much benefit from Talk Origins in my discussions with creationists. Because all it does is encourage the other side to write rebuttals of the rebuttals, ad infinitum. So ultimately the resource is only useful if you first decide to trust it. Which is rather the point of the disagreement, in my experience.

[Edit: 2013-1-6 — Added Pure Agnosticism on Vinny’s suggestion – thanks.]
[Edit: 2013-1-6 — Edits for clarity and brevity based on Sabio’s comments.]
[Edit: 2013-1-7 — Added headers for more clarity based on Sabio and Paul’s comments.]
[Edit: 2013-1-7 — Added Evolutionary Mythicism on Neil’s suggestion – thanks.]


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