Frequent Infrequencies

Here’s the link to this article.

May 12, 2018

Do anomalies prove the existence of God?

This op-ed was originally published on as part of a Big Ideas series on the question “What is the Future of Religion” in 2015.

For a quarter century I have investigated and attempted to explain anomalous events that people report experiencing, and I have written about a few of my own, such as being abducted by aliens (caused by extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation), hallucinating inside a sensory deprivation tank, and having an out-of-body experience while my temporal lobes were stimulated with electro-magnetic fields. Most people interpret such experiences as evidence for the supernatural, the afterlife, or even God, but since mine all had clear and obvious natural explanations few readers took them to be evidentiary.

In my October, 2014 column in Scientific American entitled “Infrequencies” however, I wrote about an anomalous experience for which I have no explanation. In brief, my fiancé, Jennifer Graf, moved to Southern California from Köln, Germany, bringing with her a 1978 Phillips 070 transistor radio that belonged to her late grandfather Walter, a surrogate father figure as she was raised by a single mom. She had fond memories of listening to music with him through that radio so I did my best to resurrect it, without success. With new batteries and the power switch left in the “on” position, we gave up and tossed it in a desk drawer where it lay dormant for months. During a quiet moment after our vows at a small wedding ceremony at our home, Jennifer was feeling sad being so far from home and wishing she had some connection to loved ones—most notably her mother and her grandfather—with whom to share this special occasion. We left my family to find a quiet moment alone elsewhere in the house when we heard music emanating from the bedroom, which turned out to be a love song playing on that radio in the desk drawer. It was a spine-tingling experience. The radio played for the rest of the evening but went quiescent the next day. It’s been silent ever since, despite repeated attempts to revive it.

Ever since the column appeared in Scientific American I’ve been deluged with letters. A few grumpy skeptics chided me for lowering my skeptical shields, most notably for my closing line: “And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.” I was simply trying to be a little poetic in my interpretation, which I qualified by noting “The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account.”

A few cranky believers were dismissive of my openness, one insisting “that no human being, nor any living thing, is only their body. Also, no inanimate object is only that object. The dead do not die, and the living are not free but bound and enslaved each to his or her own ignorance—a condition which you work to maintain. Shame on you, sir.” Above her signature she signed off: “With kind intentions.”

Friendlier believers sent encouraging notes, not all of which I understand, such as this sentiment from a psychologist: “The central importance of latent, neglected shared spiritual capabilities was indeed a wedding blessing, eloquently and vividly enacted, resulting in very valuable sharing for a world culture remarkably crippled in appreciation of actual multidimensional reality.” Does 3D count? A neurophysiologist imagined what the implications would be if no natural explanation were forthcoming for my anomalous event. “Should consciousness survive the death of the brain, there are exciting implications for the role of consciousness in the living brain.” Indeed there is, but a lack of causal explanation for my story does not imply this.

A geologist wrote to suggest that “There are many explanations that can be posited; I would favor solar flares or the geoparticles of Holub and Smrz [authors of a paper that some claim proves that nanoparticles between neurons may allow for quantum fields to influence other brains], but rather than seek one, this coincidental occurrence should be enjoyed in the supernatural or paranormal vein as it was meant to be…simply a blessing for a long and happy union.” I agree, but without the supernatural or paranormal vein in the rock.

Another correspondent said he would be convinced of the miraculous nature of the event if the radio played for the next 20 years with no power source. That would impress me too, and maybe Elon Musk is working on such technology for his next generation of Tesla cars.

Most of the correspondence I received, however, was from people recounting their own anomalous experiences that had deep personal meaning for them, some pages long in rich detail. One woman told me the story of her rare blue opal pendant that she wore 24/7 for 15 years, until her ex-husband swiped it out of spite during their divorce. (So I guess this would be a case of negative emotions influencing events at a distance.) She felt so bad that while on vacation in Bali she had a jeweler create a simulacrum of it, which led to a successful jewelry business. One day 15 years later, a woman named Lucy came into her store and they got to talking about the lost opal pendant, which Lucy suddenly realized that she now owned. “In 1990 her best friend was dating a guy who was going through a divorce and he had given it to her. Her friend never felt comfortable wearing it so she offered it to Lucy. Lucy accepted, and wore it the following weekend on her wedding day. Soon after, she discovered her new husband had a girlfriend, and she never wore the opal again, thinking it might be bad luck. It remained in her drawer for 15 years. When I asked why she hadn’t sold it (it was now extremely valuable), she said ‘I tried to—every time I went to get it out of the drawer to have it appraised, something happened to distract me. Phone calls, dogs fighting, package deliveries—I tried many times, but never succeeded. Now I know why—it wanted to come back to you!’” This woman’s sister, whom she characterized as a “medical intuitive and remote healer,” called this story “Epic Synchronicity.” She described it as “fantastic and statistically improbable, but it is explainable.”

I agree, but what is the explanation for this, or for any of such highly improbable events? And what do they mean? For Jennifer and me, it was the propitious timing of the radio’s revival—at the moment she was thinking about family—that made it such an emotionally salient event, enabling her to feel as if her beloved grandfather was there with us, sharing in our commitment. Is it proof of life after death? No. As I wrote (and many readers apparently chose to overlook) in Scientific American, “such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.”

The reason is that in science it isn’t enough to just compile anecdotes in support of a preferred belief. After all, who wouldn’t want to know that we survive bodily death and live for eternity elsewhere? We are all subject to the confirmation bias in which we look for and find confirming evidence and ignore disconfirming evidence. We remember one-off highly unusual coincidences that have deep meaning for us, and forget all the countless meaningless coincidences that flow past our senses every day. Then there is the law of large numbers: with seven billion people having, say, 10 experiences a day of any kind, even million-to-one odds will happen 70,000 times a day. It would be a miracle if at least a few of those events did not get remembered, recounted, reported, and recorded somewhere, leaving us with a legacy of frequent infrequencies. Add to this the hindsight bias, in which we are impressed by the improbability of an event after-the-fact, but in science we should only be impressed by events whose occurrence was predicted in advance. And don’t forget the recall bias, in which we remember things that happened differently depending on what we now believe, retrieving from memory circumstances that favor the preferred interpretation of the event in question. Then there is the matter of what didn’t happen that would have been equally spine-tingling in emotional impact on that day, or some other important day, and in my case I can’t think of any because they didn’t happen. Finally, just because I can’t explain something doesn’t mean it is inexplicable by natural means. The argument from personal incredulity doesn’t hold water on the skeptical seas.

As for plausible explanations, one correspondent suggested “that the on-off switch contacts were probably heavily oxidized and that the radio itself was turned on and then stay, as you have inserted the new batteries. By heating and cooling and vibration or small metal parts in a typical 1970s transistor suddenly corrode and make contact. The timing of this process…well, that is just simply remarkable.” A physicist and engineer from Athens, Greece, thought perhaps after my “percussive” technique of smacking the radio on a hard surface, “A critical capacitor at the flow of the current, maybe at the power stage, or at the receiving stage, or at the final amplifier’s stage may had been left in a just quasi-stable soldering state and by the aid of the ambient EM fields may had reach a charging state (leave an empty capacitor for some days out in the yard and you’ll get it almost fully charged) that by the presence of the supply voltage at the soldering spot could have bridged the possible gap of the old or disturbed soldering contact and then sustained this conduction for some hours until by a simple sock may had fully discharged.”

I’m not sure what this means, exactly, because my attempts to resuscitate the radio happened months before, but I can well imagine some electrical glitch, a particle of dust, an EM (electromagnetic) fluctuation from the batteries—something in the natural world—caused the radio to come to life. Why it would happen at that particular moment, and be perfectly tuned to a station playing love songs, and be loud enough to hear out of the desk drawer, is what made the event stand out for us. Which reminds me of an account I read of witchcraft and magic among the Azande, a traditional society in the Southern Sudan in Africa, by the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. He explained that the Zande employ natural causes when they are readily available. When an old granary collapses, for example, the Zande understand that termites are the probable cause. But when the granary crumples with people inside who are thereby injured, the Zande wonder, in Evans-Pritchard’s words, “why should these particular people have been sitting under this particular granary at the particular moment when it collapsed? That it should collapse is easily intelligible, but why should it have collapsed at the particular moment when these particular people were sitting beneath it?” That timing is explained by magic.

Deepak Chopra suggested something similar to us when he wrote “The radio coming on and off almost certainly has a mechanical explanation (a change in humidity, a speck of dust falling off a rusty wire, etc.). What is uncanny is the timing and emotional significance to those participating in the experience. The two of you falling in love is part of the synchronicity!” The Azande magical explanation is not too dissimilar to Deepak’s synchronicity, which he enumerated thusly: “(1) Synchronicity is a conspiracy of improbabilities (the events break the boundaries of statistical probability). (2) The improbable events conspiring to create the synchronistic event are acausally related to each other. (3) Synchronistic events are orchestrated in the non-local domain. … (9) Synchronistic events are messages from our non local self and are clues to the essential unity of our inner world of thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, desires, and intentions, and our outer world of space time events.” From this, and my many debates with Deepak, I take him to mean that consciousness exists separately from substance and can interact with it, the interactions governed by strong emotions like love, which can apparently act across space and time to cause effects meaningful to associated participants.

A psychologist named Michael Jawer would seem to agree in his explanation to me “that strong and underlying feelings are central to anomalous happenings.” His approach “doesn’t rely on barely-understood quantum woo,” he cautioned, “but assesses the way feelings work within our biology and physiology and the way emotions knit human beings together.” That certainly sounds reasonable, although how emotional energy could be transmitted from inside a body (or from the other side) into, say, a radio, is not clear. But I appreciated the close of his letter in which he quoted the late physicist John Wheeler: “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.” 

That is precisely what the eminent Caltech physicist Kip Thorne did in the blockbuster film Interstellar, for which he was the scientific consultant. In order to save humanity from imminent extinction Matthew McConaughey’s character has to find a suitable planet by passing through a wormhole to another galaxy. In order to return, however, he must slingshot around a black hole, thereby causing a massive time dilation relative to his daughter back home on Earth (one hour near the black hole equals seven years on Earth), such that by the time he returns she is much older than he. In the interim, in order to get the humans off Earth he needs to transmit information to his now adult scientist daughter on quantum fluctuations from the singularity inside of the black hole. To do so he uses an extra-dimensional “tesseract” in which time appears as a spatial dimension that includes portals into the daughter’s childhood bedroom at a moment when (earlier in the film) she thought she experienced ghosts and poltergeists, which turned out to be her father from the future reaching back in time through extra-dimensions via gravitational waves (which he uses to send the critical data via Morse code dots and dashes on the second hand of the watch he left her). It’s a farfetched plot, but according to Thorne in his companion book to the film, it’s all grounded in natural law and forces.

This is another way of saying—as I have often—that there is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is just the natural and the normal and mysteries we have yet to solve with natural and normal explanations. If it turns out, say, that Walter exists in a 5th dimensional tesseract and is using gravitational waves to turn on his old radio for his granddaughter, that would be fully explicable by physical laws and forces as we understand them. It would not be ESP or Psi or anything of the paranormal or supernatural sort; it would just be a deeper understanding of physics.

The same applies to God. As I’ve also said (in what I facetiously call Shermer’s Last Law), “any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God.” By this I mean that if we ever did encounter an ETI the chances are that they would be vastly far ahead of us on a technological time scale, given the odds against another intelligent species evolving at precisely the same rate as us on another planet. At the rate of change today we have advanced more in the past century than in all previous centuries combined. Think of the progress in computing that has been made in just the last 50 years, and then imagine where we will be in, say, 50,000 years or 50 million years, and we get some sense of just how far advanced an ETI could be. The intelligent beings who created the wormhole in Kip Thorne’s fictional universe would almost assuredly seem to us as Gods if we did not understand the science and technologies they used. Imagine an ETI millions of years more advanced than us who could engineer the creation of planets and stars by manipulating clouds of interstellar gas, or even create new universes out of collapsing black holes. If that’s not God-like I don’t know what is, but it’s just advanced science and technology and nothing more.

Until such time when science can explain even the most spectacularly unlikely events, what should we do with such stories? Enjoy them. Appreciate their emotional significance. But we do not need to fill in the explanatory gaps with gods or any such preternatural forces. We can’t explain everything, and it’s always okay to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that until a natural explanation presents itself. Until then, revel in the mystery and drink in the unknown. It is where science and wonder meet.

The Non-Magisterium of Religion

Here’s the link to this article.

Why Faith Is Not a Reliable Method for Determining Moral Values


DEC 7, 2022

In my previous Skeptic column I acknowledged the magisterium of religion, noting the power of faith in a pre-modern world lit only by fire and plagued by poverty, disease, misery, and early death. To this I would add that it was Jesus who said to help the poor, to turn the other cheek, to love thine enemies, to judge not lest ye be judged, to forgive sinners, and to give people a second chance. Many modern Christian conservatives seem to have forgotten this message.

In the name of their religion, people have helped the poor and needy in developed nations around the world, and in America they are the leading supporters of food banks for the hungry and post-disaster relief. Many Christian theologians, along with Christian churches and preachers, advocated the abolition of the slave trade, and continued to press for justice in modern times. Some civil rights leaders were motivated by their religion, most notably the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speeches were filled with passionate religious tropes and quotes. I have deeply religious friends who are highly driven to do good and, though they may have a complex variety of motives, they often act in the name of their particular religion.

So religion can and does motivate people to do good works, and we should always acknowledge any person or institution that pushes humanity further along the path of progress, expands the moral sphere, or even just makes the life of one other person a little easier. To that end we would do well to emulate the ecumenicalism of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who appealed to all religious faiths to join scientists in working to preserve the environment and to end the nuclear arms race. He did so because, he said, we are all in this together; our problems are “transnational, transgenerational and transideological. So are all conceivable solutions. To escape these traps requires a perspective that embraces the peoples of the planet and all the generations yet to come.”

That stirring rhetoric urges all of us—secularists and believers—to work together toward the common goal of making the world a better place.

But as I document in my 2015 book The Moral Arc, for too long the scales of morality have been weighed down by the religious thumb pressing on the side of the scale marked “Good”. Religion has also promoted, or justified, such catastrophic moral blunders as the Crusades (the People’s Crusade, the Northern Crusade, the Albigensian Crusade, and Crusades One through Nine); the Inquisitions (Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman); witch hunts (a product, in part, of the Inquisitions that ran from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period and executed tens of thousands of people, mostly women); Christian conquistadors who exterminated native peoples by the millions through their guns, germs, and steel; the endless European Wars of Religion (the Nine Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Eighty Years War, the French Wars of Religion, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the English Civil War, to name just a few); the American Civil War, in which Northern Christians and Southern Christians slaughtered one another over the issue of slavery and states’ rights; and the First World War, in which German Christians fought French, British, and American Christians, all of whom believed that God was on their side. And that’s just in the Western world. There are the seemingly endless religious conflicts in India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, and numerous countries in Africa, the Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, and of course Islamist terrorism has been a scourge on societal peace and security in recent decades and a day doesn’t go by without some act of violence committed in the name of Islam.

All of these events have political, economic, and social causes, but the underlying justification they share is religion.

Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time. Why? There are three reasons for the sclerotic nature of religion:

(1) The foundation of the belief in an absolute morality is the belief in an absolute religion grounded in the One True God. This inexorably leads to the conclusion that anyone who believes differently has departed from this truth and thus is unprotected by our moral obligations.

(2) Unlike science, religion has no systematic process and no empirical method to employ to determine the verisimilitude of its claims and beliefs, much less right and wrong.

(3) The morality of holy books—most notably the Bible—is not the morality any of us would wish to live by, and thus it is not possible for the religious doctrines derived from holy books to be the catalyst for moral evolution.

The Bible, in fact, is one of the most immoral works in all literature. Woven throughout begats and chronicles, laws and customs, is a narrative of accounts written by, and about, a bunch of Middle Eastern tribal warlords who constantly fight over land and women, with the victors taking dominion over both. It features a jealous and vengeful God named Yahweh who decides to punish women for all eternity with the often intolerable pain of childbirth, and further condemns them to be little more than beasts of burden and sex slaves for the victorious warlords.

Why were women to be chastened this way? Why did they deserve an eternity of misery and submission? It was all for that one terrible sin, the first crime ever recorded in the history of humanity—a thought crime no less—when that audacious autodidact Eve dared to educate herself by partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Worse, she inveigled the first man—the unsuspecting Adam—to join her in choosing knowledge over ignorance. For the appalling crime of hearkening unto the voice of his wife, Yahweh condemned Adam to toil in thorn and thistle-infested fields, and further condemned him to death, to return to the dust from whence he came.

Yahweh then cast his first two delinquent children out of paradise, setting a Cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to be certain that they could never return. Then, in one of the many foul moods he was wont to fall into, Yahweh committed an epic hemoclysm of genocidal proportions by killing every sentient being on Earth—including unsuspecting adults, innocent children, and all the land animals—in a massive flood. In order to repopulate the planet after he decimated it of all life save those spared in the ark, Yahweh commanded the survivors—numerous times—to “be fruitful and multiply,” and rewarded his favorite warlords with as many wives as they desired. Thus was born the practice of polygamy and the keeping of harems, fully embraced and endorsed—along with slavery—in the so-called “good book.”

As an exercise in moral casuistry, and applying the principle of interchangeable perspectives, this question comes to mind: did anyone ask the women how they felt about this arrangement? What about the millions of people living in other parts of the world who had never heard of Yahweh? What about the animals and the innocent children who drowned in the flood? What did they do to deserve such a final solution to Yahweh’s anger problem?

Many Christians say that they get their morality from the Bible, but this cannot be true because as holy books go the Bible is possibly the most unhelpful guide ever written for determining right from wrong. It’s chockfull of bizarre stories about dysfunctional families, advice about how to beat your slaves, how to kill your headstrong kids, how to sell your virgin daughters, and other clearly outdated practices that most cultures gave up centuries ago.

Consider the morality of the biblical warlords who had no qualms about taking multiple wives, adultery, keeping concubines, and fathering countless children from their many polygamous arrangements. The anthropologist Laura Betzig has put these stories into an evolutionary context in noting that Darwin predicted that successful competition leads to successful reproduction. She analyzed the Old Testament and found no less than 41 named polygamists, not one of which was a powerless man. “In the Old Testament, powerful men—patriarchs, judges, and kings—have sex with more wives; they have more sex with other men’s women; they have sex with more concubines, servants, and slaves; and they father many children.” And not just the big names. According to Betzig’s analysis, “men with bigger herds of sheep and goats tend to have sex with more women, then to father more children.” Most of the polygynous patriarchs, judges, and kings had 2, 3, or 4 wives with a corresponding number of children, although King David had more than 8 wives and 20 children, King Abijah had 14 wives and 38 children, and King Rehoboam had 18 wives (and 60 other women) who bore him no fewer than 88 offspring. But they were all lightweights compared to King Solomon, who married at least 700 women, and for good measure added 300 concubines, which he called “man’s delight.” (What Solomon’s concubines called him was never recorded.)

Although many of these stories are fiction (there is no evidence, for example, that Moses ever existed, much less led his people for 40 years in the desert leaving behind not a single archaeological artifact), what these biblical patriarchs purportedly did to women was, in fact, how most men treated women at that time, and that’s the point. Put into context, the Bible’s moral prescriptions were for another time for another people and have little relevance for us today.

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In order to make the Bible relevant, believers must pick and choose biblical passages that suit their needs; thus the game of cherry picking from the Bible generally works to the advantage of the pickers. In the Old Testament, the believer might find guidance in Deuteronomy 5:17, which says, explicitly, “Thou shalt not kill”; or in Exodus 22:21, a verse that delivers a straightforward and indisputable prohibition: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These verses seem to set a high moral bar, but the handful of positive moral commands in the Old Testament are desultory and scattered among a sea of violent stories of murder, rape, torture, slavery, and all manner of violence, such as occurs in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, in which Yahweh instructs the Israelites on the precise etiquette of conquering another tribe:

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourselves…. But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded.

Today, as the death penalty fades into history, Yahweh offers this list of actions punishable by death:

            • Blaspheming or cursing or the Lord: “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:13-16)

            • Worshiping another god: “He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:20)

            • Witchcraft and wizardry: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18) “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:27)

            • Female loss of virginity before marriage: “If any man take a wife [and find] her not a maid … Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)

            • Homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

            • Working on the Sabbath: “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)

The book considered by over two billion people to be the greatest moral guide ever produced—inspired as it was by an all-knowing, totally benevolent deity—recommends the death penalty for saying the Lord’s name at the wrong moment or in the wrong context, for imaginary crimes like witchcraft, for commonplace sexual relations (adultery, fornication, homosexuality), and for the especially heinous crime of not resting on the Sabbath. How many of today’s two billion Christians agree with their own holy book on the application of capital punishment?

And how many would agree with this gem of moral turpitude from Deuteronomy 22:28-29: “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.” I dare say no Christian today would follow this moral directive. No one today—Jew, Christian, atheist, or otherwise—would even think of such draconian punishment for such acts. That is how far the moral arc has bent in four millennia.

The comedian Julia Sweeney, in her luminous monologue Letting Go of God, makes the point when she recalls re-reading a familiar story she learned in her Catholic childhood upbringing:

This Old Testament God makes the grizzliest tests of people’s loyalty. Like when he asks Abraham to murder his son, Isaac. As a kid, we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it? What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn’t the proper answer, “No! I will not kill my child, or any child, even if it means eternal punishment in hell!”?

Like so many other comedians who’ve struck the Bible’s rich vein of unintended comedic stories, Sweeney allows the material to write itself. Here she continues her tour through the Old Testament with its preposterous commandments:

Like if a man has sex with an animal, both the man and the animal should be killed. Which I could almost understand for the man, but the animal? Because the animal was a willing participant? Because now the animal’s had the taste of human sex and won’t be satisfied without it? Or my personal favorite law in the Bible: in Deuteronomy, it says if you’re a woman, married to a man, who gets into a fight with another man, and you try to help him out by grabbing onto the genitals of his opponent, the Bible says you immediately have to have your hand chopped off.

Richard Dawkins memorably characterized this God of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”  

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Most modern Christians, however, respond to arguments like mine and Dawkins’ by saying that the Old Testament’s cruel and fortunately outdated laws have nothing to do with how they live their lives or the moral precepts that guide them today. The angry, vengeful God Yahweh of the Old Testament, Christians claim, was displaced by the kinder, gentler New Testament God in the form of Jesus, who two millennia ago introduced a new and improved moral code. Turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, forgiving sinners, and giving to the poor is a great leap forward from the capricious commands and copious capital punishment found in the Old Testament.

That may be, but nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus revoke God’s death sentences or ludicrous laws. In fact, quite the opposite (Matthew 5:17-30 passim): “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” He doesn’t even try to edit the commandments or soften them up: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, if anything, Jesus’ morality is even more draconian than that of the Old Testament: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”

In other words, even thinking about killing someone is a capital offense. In fact, Jesus elevated thought crimes to an Orwellian new level (Matthew 9:28-29): “Ye have heard it was said by them of old time, Though shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

And if you don’t think you can control your sexual impulses Jesus has a practical solution: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”

President Bill Clinton may have physically sinned in the White House with an intern, but by Jesus’ moral code even the evangelical Christian Jimmy Carter sinned when he famously admitted in a 1976 Playboy magazine interview while running for President: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”


As for Jesus’s own family values, he never married, never had children, and he turned away his own mother time and again. For example, at a wedding feast Jesus says to her (John 2:4): “Woman, what have I to do with you?” One biblical anecdote recounts the time that Mary waited patiently off to the side for Jesus to finish speaking so that she could have a moment with him, but Jesus told his disciples, “Send her away, you are my family now,” adding (Luke 14:26): “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Charming. This is what cultists do when they separate followers from their families in order to control both their thoughts and their actions, as when Jesus calls to his flock to follow him or else (John 15:4-7): “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” But if a believer abandons his family and gives away his belongings (Mark 10:30), “he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands.” In other passages Jesus also sounds like the tribal warlords of the Old Testament:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:34-39)

Even sincere Christians cannot agree on Jesus’ morality and the moral codes in the New Testament, holding legitimate differences of opinion on a number of moral issues that remain unresolved based on biblical scripture alone. These include dietary restrictions and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine; masturbation, pre-marital sex, contraception, and abortion; marriage, divorce, and sexuality; the role of women; capital punishment and voluntary euthanasia; gambling and other vices; international and civil wars; and many other matters of contention that were nowhere in sight when the Bible was written, such as stem-cell research, gay marriage, and the like. Indeed, the fact that Christians, as a community, keep arguing over their own contemporary question “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) is evidence that the New Testament is silent on the answer.

Most notably, what are we to make of the Christian moral model of sin and forgiveness? By this account, we are all sinners, born into original sin because of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. The Christian solution to this problem is to accept Jesus as your savior, as in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I once said these words, and for seven years lived the life of a born-again Christian, until, among other things, I recognized the flawed syllogistic reasoning behind this proposition:

1.     We were originally created sinless, but because God gave us free will and Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, we are all born with original sin.

2.     God could forgive the sins we never committed, but instead He sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually God himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one God (monotheism) of which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just different manifestations, as in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

3.     The only way to avoid eternal punishment for sins we never committed from this all-loving and all-powerful God is to accept his son—who is actually himself—as our savior.

So…God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.

In addition to being an exercise in twisted logic, the very idea runs contrary to centuries of Western jurisprudence, which is clear on the point that individuals cannot be blamed for something that they didn’t do. There is no such thing as a scapegoat in a court of law; pinning your crimes on an innocent person (like Jesus), and then expecting a judge (like God) to sentence the other person instead of you is what’s called redemption in the Bible, but in the real world it’s known as a miscarriage of justice. In the Western legal system, Jesus would never be allowed to bear the responsibility for anyone’s sins but his own. And blaming an innocent third party potentially leaves out the most important moral agent in the equation. If someone has been harmed by your actions, it isn’t God you should be asking for forgiveness. It is the injured party who deserves your supplications and entreaties, and only that person can forgive you and grant you absolution, assuming your apology is genuine and offered sincerely.

I could go on much more about this aspect of religion—and I do at length in Chapter 4 of The Moral Arc, but the point is made here that in addition to the acknowledged magisterium of religion documented in my previous column, faith is not the royal road to moral progress. Instead, reason, rationality, and empiricism as embodied in secular philosophy and science are the only reliable tools we have for determining the natural of reality, both physical and moral.


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The Magisterium of Religion

Here’s the link to this article.

The Köln Dom is a reminder of the power of faith in a pre-modern world lit only by fire and plagued by poverty, disease, misery, and early death


NOV 19, 2022

Every year for the past decade that my wife and I have returned to her home city of Köln, Germany, we make a point of visiting the magnificent cathedral in the city center that has defined the region for nearly eight centuries. Construction begun in 1248, this multi-generational project wasn’t officially completed until 1880 (and upgraded, repaired, and refurbished ever since)—six centuries of unfinished awe rising up from the banks of the mighty Rhine River that cuts through the heart of this ancient city whose pre-Medieval Roman ruins lie strewn about the landscape. It is nearly impossible for even the most jaded modern mind to be unimpressed by this architectural wonder whose ornamental details bring to life biblical chronicles and heroes.

Throughout three decades of countless articles and multiple books I have criticized religion, both its dependence on supernatural epistemology and its tribal divisiveness that led to centuries of wars, pogroms, purges, and witch hunts. But on this trip to the Cologne Cathedral I time-traveled back to the latter Middle Ages and into the late Medieval mind to imagine what it must have been like to experience the awe-inspiring magnificence of such a culturally-dominant edifice that literally and figuratively puts all other structures in the shade. Imagine walking into this sanctuary after a long and exhaustive journey from one’s provincial countryside and spartan abode…

And think about what it must have been like to hear the angelic voices of divine organ music with its 20 Hertz undertones of infrasound that unconsciously generates at once feelings of awe, fear, and trembling…

And picture the joy of children playing in the footsteps of the largest construction project anyone had ever seen or would ever experience…

To fully feel that world let’s go back to a time when civilization was lit only by fire, centuries ago when populations were sparse and 80 percent of everyone lived in the countryside and were engaged in food production, largely for themselves. (I reconstruct this worldview in detail in How We Believe and The Moral Arc.) Cottage industries were the only ones around in this pre-industrial and highly-stratified society, in which one-third to one-half of everyone lived at subsistence level and were chronically under-employed, underpaid, and undernourished. Food supplies were unpredictable and plagues decimated weakened populations.

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All major cities were hit hard by disease contagions. In the century spanning 1563 to 1665, for example, there were no fewer than six major epidemics that swept through London alone, each of which annihilated between a tenth and a sixth of the population. The death tolls are almost unimaginable by today’s standards: 20,000 in 1563, 15,000 in 1593, 36,000 in 1603, 41,000 in 1625, 10,000 in 1636, and 68,000 in 1665, all in one of the world’s major metropolitan cities that had only a tiny fraction of the populations of today. Childhood diseases were unforgiving, felling 60 percent of children before the age of 17. As one observer noted in 1635, “We shall find more who have died within thirty or thirty-five years of age than passed it.” The historian Charles de La Ronciére provides examples from 15th century Tuscany in which lives were routinely cut short:

Many died at home: children like Alberto (aged ten) and Orsino Lanfredini (six or seven); adolescents like Michele Verini (nineteen) and Lucrezia Lanfredini, Orsino’s sister (twelve); young women like beautiful Mea with the ivory hands (aged twenty-three, eight days after giving birth to her fourth child, who lived no longer than the other three, all of whom died before they reached the age of two); and of course adults and elderly people.

And this does not include, La Ronciére adds parenthetically, the deaths of newborns, which historians estimate could have been as high as 30 to 50 percent.

Since magical thinking is positively correlated with uncertainty and unpredictability, we should not be surprised at the level of superstition given the grim vagaries of pre-modern life. There were no banks for people to set up personal savings accounts during times of plenty to provide a cushion of comfort during times of scarcity. There were no insurance policies for risk management, and few people had much personal property to insure anyway. With homes constructed of thatched roofs and wooden chimneys in a darkness broken only by candles, fires would routinely devastate entire neighborhoods. As one chronicler noted: “He which at one o’clock was worth five thousand pounds and, as the prophet saith, drank his wine in bowls of fine silver plate, had not by two o’clock so much as a wooden dish left to eat his meat in, nor a house to cover his sorrowful head.” Alcohol and tobacco were essential anesthetics for the easing of pain and discomfort that people employed as a form of self-medication, along with the belief in magic and superstition to mitigate misfortune.

Under such conditions it’s no wonder that almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, astrology, black magic, demons, prayer, providence, and, of course, witches and witchcraft. As Bishop Hugh Latimer of Worcester explained in 1552: “A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at their hands.” Saints were worshiped and liturgical books provided rituals for blessing cattle, crops, houses, tools, ships, wells, and kilns, along with special prayers for sterile animals, the sick and infirm, and even infertile couples. In his 1621 book, Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton noted, “Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind.”


As well, in these late Medieval times 80-90 percent of people were illiterate. Those few who could read the local vernacular, could not read the Bible because it was written in Latin, guaranteeing that it would remain the exclusive intellectual property of an elite few. Almost everyone believed in some form of black magic. If a noble woman died, her servants ran around the house emptying all containers of water so her soul would not drown. Her Lord, in response to her death, faced east and formed a cross by laying prostrate on the ground, arms outstretched. If the left eye of a corpse did not close properly, the soul could spend extra time in purgatory (this belief led to the ritual closing of the eyes upon death). A man knew he was near death if he saw a shooting star or a vulture hovering over his home. If a wolf howled at night the one who heard him would disappear before dawn. Bloodletting was popular. Plagues were believed to be the result of an unfortunate conjuncture of the stars and planets. And the air was believed to be invested with such soulless spirits as unbaptized infants, ghouls who pulled out cadavers in graveyards and gnawed on their bones, water nymphs who lured knights to their deaths by drowning, drakes who drug children into their caves beneath the earth, and vampires who sucked the blood of stray children.

Was everyone in the pre-scientific world so superstitious? They were. As the historian Keith Thomas notes, “No one denied the influence of the heavens upon the weather or disputed the relevance of astrology to medicine or agriculture. Before the seventeenth century, total skepticism about astrological doctrine was highly exceptional, whether in England or elsewhere.” And it wasn’t just astrology. “Religion, astrology and magic all purported to help men with their daily problems by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account for it when it struck.” With such sweeping power over people, Thomas concludes, “If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it.”

That may well be, but the rise of science diminished this near universality of magical thinking by proffering natural explanations where before there were predominately supernatural ones. The decline of magic and the rise of science was a linear ascent out of the darkness and into the light. As empiricism gained status, there arose a drive to find empirical evidence for superstitious beliefs that previously needed no propping up with facts.

This attempt to naturalize the supernatural carried on for some time and spilled over into other areas. The analysis of portents was often done meticulously and quantitatively, albeit for purposes both natural and supernatural. As one diarist privately opined on the nature and meaning of comets: “I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are frequently also the presages of imminent calamities.” Yet the propensity to portend the future through magic led to more formalized methods of ascertaining causality by connecting events in nature—the very basis of science.

In time, natural theology became wedded to natural philosophy and science arose out of magical beliefs, which it ultimately displaced. By the 18th and 19th centuries, astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry succeeded alchemy, probability theory displaced luck and fortune, insurance attenuated anxiety, banks replaced mattresses as the repository of people’s savings, city planning reduced the risks from fires, social hygiene and the germ theory dislodged disease, and the vagaries of life became less vague.

Before all this modernity came online, however, it was the magisterium of religion that soothed suffering souls, a power on poignant display in the Köln Dom.

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P.S. In my 2000 book How We Believe, I argued that one role of religion is to reinforce norms, customs, and mores of a culture—along with the moral tenets of the faith—through belief of an invisible eye in the sky. On this latest visit I noticed that on the plaza surrounding the Dom, modern eyes in the sky have been added, just in case…


Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird ThingsThe Science of Good and EvilThe Believing BrainThe Moral Arc, and Heavens on EarthHis new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.

Darwin Matters

Here’s the link.

On the 214th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, February 12, 1809, why the sage of Down still matters


“Hence both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” —Charles Darwin, Journal of Researches, 1845

Today, February 12, 2023, is International Darwin Day, the 214th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the co-discoverer (along with Alfred Russel Wallace—see my biography In Darwin’s Shadow) of evolution by natural selection, and one of the most influential scientists in history. To honor the sage of Down I have pieced together excerpts from my 2006 book Why Darwin Matters, which attempts to answer the title question (and is my only book cover featuring full frontal nudity). His influence only continues to grow as the years pile up after his death on April 19, 1882 (age 73). (Photographs within courtesy of The Complete Photographs of Darwin by John van Wyhe, part of the Darwin Online project.)

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The Myth of Darwin in the Galapagos

In June of 2004, historian of science Frank Sulloway and I began a month-long expedition to retrace Charles Darwin’s footsteps in the Galápagos Islands. The myth Frank set out to investigate years before was that Darwin became an evolutionist in the Galápagos when he discovered natural selection operating on finch beaks and tortoise carapaces, each species uniquely adapted by food type or island ecology. (Photos in this section from the author’s collection.)

The legend endures, Sulloway notes, because of its elegant fit into a Joseph Campbell-like tripartite myth of the hero who (1) leaves home on a great adventure (Darwin’s five-year voyage on the Beagle), (2) endures immeasurable hardship in the quest for noble truths (Darwin suffered seasickness and other maladies), and (3) returns to deliver a deep message (evolution). The myth is ubiquitous, appearing in everything from biology textbooks to travel brochures, the latter of which inveigle potential customers to come walk in the footsteps of Darwin. (See Sulloway’s papers: “Darwin and His Finches: The Evolution of a Legend.” Journal of the History of Biology, 15 (1982):1-53; “Darwin’s Conversion: The Beagle Voyage and Its Aftermath.” Journal of the History of Biology, 15 (1982):325-96; “The Legend of Darwin’s Finches.” Nature, 303 (1983):372; “Darwin and the Galapagos.” Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 21 (1984):29-59.)

The Darwin Galápagos legend is emblematic of a broader myth that science proceeds by select eureka discoveries followed by sudden revolutionary revelations, where old theories fall before new facts. Not quite. Paradigms power percepts. Nine months after departing the Galápagos, Sulloway discovered, Darwin made the following entry in his ornithological catalogue about his mockingbird collection:

When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties.

Similar varieties of fixed kinds, not evolution of separate species. Darwin was still a creationist! This explains why Darwin did not even bother to record the island locations of the few finches he collected (and in some cases mislabeled), and why these now-famous birds were never specifically mentioned in the Origin of Species.

Through careful analysis of Darwin’s notes and journals, Sulloway dates Darwin’s acceptance of evolution to the second week of March, 1837, after a meeting Darwin had with the eminent ornithologist John Gould, who had been studying his Galápagos bird specimens. With access to museum ornithological collections from areas of South America that Darwin had not visited, Gould corrected a number of taxonomic errors Darwin had made (such as labeling two finch species a “Wren” and “Icterus”), and pointed out to him that although the land birds in the Galápagos were endemic to the islands, they were notably South American in character.

Darwin left the meeting with Gould, Sulloway concludes, convinced “beyond a doubt that transmutation must be responsible for the presence of similar but distinct species on the different islands of the Galápagos group. The supposedly immutable ‘species barrier’ had finally been broken, at least in Darwin’s own mind.” That July, 1837, Darwin opened his first notebook on Transmutation of Species. By 1844 he was confident enough to write in a letter to his botanist friend and colleague Joseph Hooker:

I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c, & with the character of the American fossil mammifers &c &c, that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact which cd bear any way on what are species. At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced, (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable.

Like Confessing a Murder

Dramatic words for something as seemingly innocuous as a technical problem in biology: the immutability of species. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or an English naturalist—to understand why the theory on the origin of species by means of natural selection would be so controversial: if new species are created naturally—not supernaturally—what place, then, for God? No wonder Darwin waited twenty years before publishing his theory.

From the time of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece to the time of Darwin and Wallace in the nineteenth century, nearly everyone believed that a species retained a fixed and immutable “essence.” A species, in fact, was defined by its very essence—the characteristics that made it like no other species. The theory of evolution by means of natural selection, then, is the theory of how kinds can become other kinds, and that upset not only the scientific cart, but the cultural horse pulling it. The great Harvard evolutionary biologist, Ernst Mayr, stressed just how radical was Darwin’s theory (in his 1982 book Growth of Biological Thought):

The fixed, essentialistic species was the fortress to be stormed and destroyed; once this had been accomplished, evolutionary thinking rushed through the breach like a flood through a break in a dike.

The dike, however, was slow to crumble. Darwin’s close friend, the geologist Charles Lyell, withheld his support for a full nine years, and even then hinted at a providential design behind the whole scheme. The astronomer John Herschel called natural selection the “law of higgledy-piggledy.” And Adam Sedgwick, a geologist and Anglican cleric, proclaimed that natural selection was a moral outrage, and penned this ripping harangue to Darwin:

There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two cases to break it. Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.

In a review in Macmillan’s Magazine, Henry Fawcett wrote of the great divide surrounding On the Origin of Species:

No scientific work that has been published within this century has excited so much general curiosity as the treatise of Mr. Darwin. It has for a time divided the scientific world with two great contending sections. A Darwinite and an anti-Darwinite are now the badges of opposed scientific parties.

Darwinites and anti-Darwinites. Although the scientific community is now united in agreement that evolution happened, a century and a half later the cultural world is still so divided. According to a 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center: 42 percent of Americans hold strict creationist views that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” while 48 percent believe that humans “evolved over time.” More to the point of why evolution has been in the news of late, the survey also found that 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution in public schools, while 38 percent said they think evolution should be replaced by creationism in biology classrooms. (Recent polls find the acceptance of the theory of evolution in the US increasing and creationism decreasing, but a 54% acceptance rate for the theory is not exactly a mandate for science.)

1878a Three-quarter right profile, seated in a Down House chair (according to some sources), by Leonard Darwin.

Why Evolution Matters

The influence of the theory of evolution on the general culture is so pervasive it can be summed up in a single observation: we live in the age of Darwin. Arguably the most culturally jarring theory in the history of science, the Darwinian revolution changed both science and culture in ways immeasurable, as Ernst Mayr summarized (in my own wording):

1. The static creationist model of species as fixed types, replaced with a fluid evolutionary model of species as ever-changing entities.

2. The theory of top-down intelligent design through a supernatural force, replaced with the theory of bottom-up natural design through natural forces.

3. The anthropocentric view of humans as special creations above all others, replaced with the view of humans as just another animal species.

4. The view of life and the cosmos as having design, direction, and purpose from above, replaced with the view of the world as the product of bottom-up design through necessitating laws of nature and contingent events of history.

5. The view that human nature is infinitely malleable and primarily good, replaced with the view of a constraining human nature in which we are good and evil.

In the memorable observation by Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

1881 Four photographs by Elliott & Fry. This well-known sitting includes the only known photographs of Darwin standing.

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Darwin’s God and the Devil’s Chaplain

Darwin matriculated at Cambridge University in theology, but he did so only after abandoning his medical studies at the Edinburgh University because of his distaste for the barbarity of surgery. Darwin’s famous grandfather Erasmus, and his father Robert, both physicians by trade who were deeply schooled in natural history, were also confirmed freethinkers, so there was no doctrinaire pressure on the young Charles to choose theology.

In point of fact, Darwin’s selection of theology as his primary course of study allowed him to pursue his passion of natural history through the academic justification of studying “natural theology”—he was far more interested in God’s works (nature) than God’s words (the Bible). Besides, theology was one of only a handful of professions that a gentleman of the Darwin family’s high social position in the landed gentry of British society could choose. Finally, although Darwin belonged to the Church of England, membership was expected of someone in his social class. 

Still, Darwin’s religiosity was not entirely utilitarian. He began and ended his five-year voyage around the world as a creationist, and he regularly attended services on board the Beagle, and even during some land excursions in South America. It was only upon his return home that his loss of his faith came about, that that loss happened gradually—even reluctantly—over many years.

Nagging doubts about the nature and existence of the deity chipped away at his faith from his studies of the natural world, particularly the cruel nature of many predator-prey relationships. “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!” Darwin harped in an 1856 letter to his botanist mentor Joseph Hooker. In 1860 he wrote to his American colleague, the Harvard biologist Asa Gray, about a species of wasp that paralyzes its prey (but does not kill it), then lays its eggs inside the paralyzed insect so that upon birth its offspring can feed on live flesh:

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.

Pain and evil in the human world made Darwin doubt even more. “That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes,” he wrote to a correspondent. “Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement.” Which is more likely, that pain and evil are the result of an all-powerful and good God, or the product of uncaring natural forces? “The presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” The death of Darwin’s beloved ten-year-old daughter Anne put an end to whatever confidence he had in God’s benevolence, omniscience, and thus existence. According to the great Darwin scholar and biographer Janet Browne: “This death was the formal beginning of Darwin’s conscious dissociation from believing in the traditional figure of God.”

Throughout most of his professional career, however, Darwin eschewed the God question entirely, choosing to focus instead on his scientific studies. Toward the end of his life Darwin received many letters querying him on his religious attitudes. His long-silence gave way to a few revelations. In one letter penned in 1879, just three years before he died, Darwin explained: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

A year later, in 1880, Darwin clarified his reasoning to the British socialist Edward Aveling, who solicited Darwin’s endorsement of a group of radical atheists by asking his permission to dedicate a book Aveling edited entitled The Student’s Darwin, a collection of articles discussing the implications of evolutionary theory for religious thought. The book had a militant antireligious flavor that Darwin disdained and he declined the offer, elaborating his reason with his usual flare for quotable maxims:

It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.

Darwin then appended an additional hint about a personal motive: “I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.” Darwin’s wife Emma was a deeply religious woman, so out of respect for her he kept the public side of his religious skepticism in check, an admirable feat of self-discipline by a man of high moral character.

Why Darwin Matters

As pattern-seeking, storytelling primates, to most of us the pattern of life and the universe indicates design. For countless millennia we have taken these patterns and constructed stories about how life and the cosmos were designed specifically for us from above. For the past few centuries, however, science has presented us with a viable alternative in which the design comes from below through the direction of built-in self-organizing principles of emergence and complexity. Perhaps this natural process, like the other natural forces of which we are all comfortable accepting as non-threatening to religion, was God’s way of creating life. Maybe God is the laws of nature—or even nature itself—but this is a theological supposition, not a scientific one.

What science tells us is that we are but one among hundreds of millions of species that evolved over the course of three and a half billion years on one tiny planet among many orbiting an ordinary star, itself one of possibly billions of solar systems in an ordinary galaxy that contains hundreds of billions of stars, itself located in a cluster of galaxies not so different from millions of other galaxy clusters, themselves whirling away from one another in an expanding cosmic bubble universe that very possibly is only one among a near infinite number of bubble universes. Is it really possible that this entire cosmological multiverse was designed and exists for one tiny subgroup of a single species on one planet in a lone galaxy in that solitary bubble universe? It seems unlikely.

Herein lies the spiritual side of science—sciencuality, if you will pardon an awkward neologism but one that echoes the sensuality of discovery. If religion and spirituality are suppose to generate awe and humility in the face of the creator, what could be more awesome and humbling than the deep space discovered by Hubble and the cosmologists, and the deep time discovered by Darwin and the evolutionists?

Darwin matters because evolution matters; evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.


Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. All monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber.

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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird ThingsThe Science of Good and EvilThe Believing BrainThe Moral Arc, and Heavens on EarthHis new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational. This essay was based, in part, on Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

Questions for Christians and Other Religious Believers

Here’s the link to this article.

Why Oliver Cromwell was right to beseech you to think it possible you may be mistaken


Very much not in the spirit of “just asking questions,” which is so pervasive among creationists, climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 Truthers, Obama Birthers, QAnoners and many others that it has its own skeptical descriptor—JAQing off—I present here some challenging questions for Christians and other religious believers.

I realize that faith doesn’t always open itself to rational inquiry and empirical testing, otherwise it wouldn’t be faith, or “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). But in this age of science and rationality—the twin pillars of Enlightenment humanism—a great many Christians and members of other faiths contend that their claims are true, not in the mythic or metaphorical sense, but in the literal sense.

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There really is a God called Yahweh. God really created the universe and everything in it. God really vouchsafed to us humans consciousness, morality, and meaning. God really performs miracles. God really grants everlasting life after the provisional proscenium of this world. And so forth.

For over four decades—after my own seven-year stint as an evangelical Christian—I have engaged believers in countless conversations and dozens of formal debates, so I can assure readers that for a great many religious people their beliefs are literally true, in the Enlightenment sense of knowledge as justified true belief. That is, they believe that there are arguments and evidence for religious claims substantial enough to be considered “true,” which I define (in Why People Believe Weird Things) as: a claim for which the evidence is so substantial it would be reasonable to offer one’s provisional assent.

I rarely hear such sentiments as “this is my faith—I’m not claiming that it is literally true.” Or “this is just what I believe and I’m not trying to convince you that you should believe it too.” Or “this is what people of my faith believe but people in other faiths believe something different and all are equally true.” Such qualifiers are rare enough in my world that I can (and have) identified who declared them. The renowned biologist Ken Miller is one, a self-declared Catholic who nevertheless isn’t claiming the central tenets of which are scientific conclusions.

Another is Martin Gardner, one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement and a debunker of all forms of flimflam and flapdoodle, who nevertheless declared himself a philosophical theist, or sometimes a fideist—someone “who believes something on the basis of emotional reasons rather than intellectual reasons,” as he told me in an interview:

People think that if you don’t believe Uri Geller can bend spoons then you must be an atheist. But I think these are two different things. I call myself a philosophical theist in the tradition of Kant, Charles Peirce, William James, and especially Miguel Unamuno, one of my favorite philosophers. As a fideist I don’t think there are any arguments that prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul. Even more than that, I agree with Unamuno that the atheists have the better arguments. So it is a case of quixotic emotional belief that is really against the evidence and against the odds. The classic essay in defense of fideism is William James’ The Will to Believe. James’ argument, in essence, is that if you have strong emotional reasons for a metaphysical belief, and it is not strongly contradicted by science or logical reasons, then you have a right to make a leap of faith if it provides sufficient satisfaction.

It makes the atheists furious when you take this position because they can no more argue with you than they can argue over whether you like the taste of beer or not. To me it is entirely an emotional thing.

I pressed Martin to expand on his comment that atheists’ arguments are better than theists’ arguments:

Well, they are better in the sense that the theist has a tremendous problem of explaining the existence of evil, and to me that is the strongest argument against God. If there is a God and he is all powerful and all good, why does he allow evil into the world? Evil exists, so is God all good but not all powerful? Or is he all powerful but not all good? That is a very powerful argument and I don’t know of any good way to answer it.

What about the afterlife, I inquire?

If you believe in God at all, I think you have to believe in a personal God, in a sense. That is, you have to assign to God something analogous to human mind because that is the highest type mind we are acquainted with. If God is just another name for nature then I think it is more honest just to say we are humanists.

Indeed, this is why I call myself a humanist, or more specifically an Enlightenment humanist, but this is not what most people believe by “God”, which Gardner acknowledged:

No, and of course if you do believe in a personal God it is in an analogical sense, so I sometimes like to call myself a theological positivist because I agree completely with Carnap that metaphysical questions are meaningless—if you can’t get at it by logic or by science you really can’t say anything at all about the question.

If you ask me for details about the nature of God I would have to answer “I don’t know.” The kind of God I believe in is so completely transcendent and so wholly Other that you really can’t say anything about God’s nature. To ask, for example, whether God is inside or outside of time, I have no idea what this means or how to reply to it. I can understand arguments saying he is in time, coming from the process theologians; on the other hand I can understand the arguments that place God completely outside of time, in some sort of realm in which time has no meaning. But these are metaphysical arguments and Carnap would say they are meaningless questions, and I would agree to that.

If this is what you believe, that is, you are a philosophical theist in this pragmatic fideist tradition, then the following questions are not for you. If you are a religious believer in the more traditional sense, or if you know people who are, then these questions may prove challenging. (In appreciation and acknowledgment of my friend and colleague Michael Aisner for the inspiration for this exercise.) If you would like to provide answers to or comment on any of these questions feel free to use the Comments section below.

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Given that there dozens of major religions, hundreds of minor religions, and thousands of religious sects, that they often differ substantially in their core beliefs does this suggest one of them is the “right religion” and all the rest are “wrong” (in some epistemological sense), or could it be that they are all human constructions and none of them are right (in an ontological sense)?

If you were raised in a different religion, do you think you would now belong to that religion instead and believe it as much as you do your current religion?

If you pray and hear the voice of God in your head, how can you tell that it is God talking to you or just the normal voices in the head that we all experience?

If that voice of God commanded you to do something immoral or illegal, would you do it? That is, if the voices in your head are a form of evidence for God’s providence, how do you decide which commandments to follow and which to reject?

The bible and other holy books are chockablock full of moral prescriptions (what we should do) and proscriptions (what we shouldn’t do), but they often contradict one other (do I love my neighbor as myself or should I smite them as moral enemies) or are in conflict with modern morals and laws (slavery, torture, capital punishment), so how do you decide which ones to obey and which to ignore?

Echoing Plato’s “Euthyphro’s dilemma” (“whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?”), does God embrace moral principles naturally occurring and external to Him because they are sound (“holy”) or are these moral principles sound only because God says that they are sound or otherwise they wouldn’t be? If moral principles hold value only because we believe that God created them, then what is their value if there is no God? Do we really need God to tell us that murder, rape, slavery, torture, pedophilia, lying, and stealing are wrong?

If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, and thus he knows what is in your heart and mind, why does he require you to demonstrate your faith by worshiping him? In any case, why would such a being need to be worshipped? Isn’t worshipfulness a human desire often affiliated with dictators, demagogues, and authoritarians of all stripes?

If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, why do holy books describe him as surprised or angered by the actions of humans? Shouldn’t he have known what was going to happen?

If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then how can Jesus be his son and God at the same time? Doesn’t this violate Aristotle’s Law of Identity, or A is A, or “everything is the same as itself and different from another” (Metaphysics IV, 3)?

If God is Jesus is vice versa, then the Christian claim that one must accept Jesus as one’s savior from original sin in order to have everlasting life (and not spend an eternity in hell), doesn’t this mean that God sacrificed…himself…to himself…to save us from himself?

When did Jesus become a capitalist? Didn’t he caution his followers about the dangers of wealth and the worship of money, didn’t he admonish the money changers, and didn’t he preach that it would be easier “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23)?

If missionaries from your religion are sent to evangelize and convert people in other countries, should missionaries from other religions be sent to your country for the same reason?

When you declare a miracle, does this mean you understand everything that is possible in nature? Could it be that the said miracle is just something that happened for which you have no explanation (the argument from ignorance, or the God of the Gaps argument)?

If God answers prayers and sometimes they seem to come true—say, the healing of someone’s cancer, recovery from a horrific accident, or survival in a seemingly deadly situation—what about all the devout believers who (and whose devout families) fervently prayed for them and they nevertheless died or suffered unmercifully?

If God can heal cancers, cure deadly diseases, enable pregnancies, and perform countless signs and miracles, why can’t he grow new limbs on Christian soldiers maimed in battle? Salamanders can grow new limbs, so why can’t God do that for his faithful and worshipful followers?

Can a mass murderer, serial killer, or child abuser go to heaven if, just before death, he accepts Jesus as his savior? Wouldn’t it be more just if he burned in hell for eternity for his deeds? In other words, don’t works matter more than words?

Do the mass murdering and torturing Crusaders and Inquisitors make it into the Christian heaven if they accepted Jesus as their savior?

If aliens exist on other worlds and they have never heard of your God, what happens to them? Does Jesus visit all exo-planets that contain sentient beings? Are there the equivalent of alien Romans who torture and murder Jesus, who rises from the dead to atone for their original alien sins?

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I have many more such questions, but that should suffice for now to (hopefully) at least give Christians and other religious believers pause in their confidence in the verisimilitude of their knowledge assertions. Perhaps—and here hope springs eternal—religious believers might consider the skeptical admonitions of Oliver Cromwell in his letter to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland on August 3, 1650:

Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. All monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

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Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird ThingsThe Science of Good and EvilThe Believing BrainThe Moral Arc, and Heavens on EarthHis new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.

How To Think About the Resurrection

Here’s the link to this article.

Was Jesus really raised from the dead?


On this Easter 2023, let us reflect on what is arguably the greatest miracle ever performed—the raising from the dead the body, life, and person known as Jesus of Nazareth. This miracle is believed by over 2.6 billion people—a third of humanity—to be true. Is it? Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Like the apostle Thomas, I have my doubts.

First, let me note that what we’re talking about here is the claim of an empirical objective truth: that there was a man named Jesus who was put to death by crucifixion and resurrected from the dead three days later, after which he ascended to heaven. The claim under consideration here is not just a literary truth, as when U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a deeply religious man, in his 1896 Democratic National Convention “Cross of Gold” speech, famously pronounced “we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Nor is this claim merely a metaphorical or mythic truth, in which readers might be inspired to “bear your own cross” or admonished not to be “crucified” by your enemies, or warned not to “resurrect” bad habits, or encouraged to become “born again” through good habits, or to forgive those who sin against us as God forgives us for our sins through the death and resurrection of his only begotten son.

Nor does this have to do with the proposition that Jesus died for our sins, which is a faith-based truth claim with no purchase on valid knowledge. Such a central tenet of the Christian faith cannot be tested or falsified. It cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed. It can only be believed or disbelieved based on faith or the lack thereof. It is in the realm of religious truths, which are different from empirical truths. Such literary, mythic, and metaphorical truths play a central role in human culture and learning through the arts, literature, and religion, but that is not how most Christians think about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. They believe it is literally true. I know because I have debated a number of theologians and biblical scholars on this and related topics, and when they speak of the death and resurrection of Jesus they are not channeling Joseph Campbell’s “power of myth”. They accept the apostle Paul’s challenge (in 1 Cor. 15:13-19) that: “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”

The proposition that Jesus was crucified may be true by historical validation, inasmuch as a man named Jesus of Nazareth probably existed, the Romans routinely crucified people for even petty crimes (recall that the two other people crucified with Jesus that day were impenitent thieves), and most biblical scholars—even those who are atheists, such as the renowned University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Religious Studies professor Bart Ehrman—assent to this fact. In between these propositions is Jesus’s resurrection, which is not impossible but would be a miracle if it were true. How big a miracle would it be?

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Let’s begin our analysis with the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, and Section XII of his book Philosophical Essays Concerning the Human Understanding, titled “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy.” Here Hume distinguishes between “antecedent skepticism”, such as Descartes’s method of doubting everything, that has no “antecedent” infallible criterion for belief, which means we can’t really know anything; and “consequent skepticism,” the method Hume employed that recognizes the “consequences” of our fallible senses but corrects them through reason so that we can have confidence that we can know some things with confidence. As he advised: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Let’s call this the principle of proportionality, better known as the ECREE principle—extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Carl Sagan made famous the principle, but he was quoting the lesser-known sociologist of science Marcello Truzzi (thereby confirming the observation that pithy and oft-quoted statements migrate up to the most famous person who said them). Let’s see how this principle cashes out for a miracle like the resurrection and whether or not we should believe it.

How extraordinary a claim is the resurrection? Let’s put some numbers on it. Demographers estimate that throughout all of human history approximately 100 billion people have lived before the 8 billion people alive today. Not one of those 100 billion people has died and returned from the dead, except maybe one—Jesus of Nazareth. So the claim that one person out of those 100 billion people who died came back from the dead would be extraordinary indeed. How extraordinary? 100 billion to 1. That is about as extraordinary a claim as one will ever find. Is the evidence proportional to the conviction? No. Not even close.

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison philosopher Larry Shapiro in his 2016 book The Miracle Myth, “evidence for the resurrection is nowhere near as complete or convincing as the evidence on which historians rely to justify belief in other historical events such as the destruction of Pompeii.” Because miracles are far less probable than ordinary historical occurrences like volcanic eruptions, “the evidence necessary to justify beliefs about them must be many times better than that which would justify our beliefs in run-of-the-mill historical events.” But, says Shapiro, it isn’t. In fact, it’s not even as good as ordinary historical events.

What about the eyewitnesses? Maybe, Shapiro suggests, they “were superstitious or credulous” and saw what they wanted to see. “Maybe they reported only feeling Jesus ‘in spirit,’ and over the decades their testimony was altered to suggest that they saw Jesus in the flesh. Maybe accounts of the resurrection never appeared in the original gospels and were added in later centuries. Any of these explanations for the gospel descriptions of Jesus’s resurrection are far more likely than the possibility that Jesus actually returned to life after being dead for three days.”

The principle of proportionally also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over the less, which these alternatives surely are. And this is a splendid example of Bayesian reasoning, in which the priors of non-Christians is low for their credence that the resurrection really happened, and to date no new evidence has come forth to change those priors, and so our credence in the verisimilitude of the resurrection remains low. Here’s a model example of Bayesian reasoning from the aforementioned biblical scholar and historian Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus, Interrupted:

Our very first reference to Jesus’ tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard it was empty. How would he know? Anyhow, suppose that it was empty. How did it get that way? Suppose…that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in Joseph’s own family tomb, and then a couple of Jesus’ followers, not among the twelve, decided that night to move the body somewhere more appropriate. … But a couple of Roman legionnaires are passing by, and catch these followers carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets. They suspect foul play and confront the followers, who pull their swords as the disciples did in Gethsemane. The soldiers, expert in swordplay, kill them on the spot. They now have three bodies, and no idea where the first one came from. Not knowing what to do with them, they commandeer a cart and take the corpses out to Gehenna, outside town, and dump them. Within three or four days the bodies have deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus’ original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why.

Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one.

The number of gospel inconsistencies and incompatibilities doesn’t help the credence of the resurrection. For example, the gospels do not agree on: how many women came to the tomb (1, 2, or 3 plus “others”); when they came (“while it was still dark” or “just after sunrise”); why they came (“to look at the tomb” or “to anoint the body with spices”); who they saw (one angel, two angels, a man dressed in white, or Jesus himself); what was said, who said what, who else came (Peter, or both Peter and John); who saw the resurrected Jesus first (Peter or Mary Magdalene); or what they did as they left the tomb (“they said nothing to anyone” or “they ran to tell his disciples”).

Matthew seems to imply the stone was rolled away in the presence of the women who came to the tomb, while Mark, Luke, and John say the women arrived to discover the stone had already been rolled away. Matthew and Mark have the resurrected Jesus on his way to Galilee by the time the women arrive at the tomb, while Luke and John have the risen Messiah in Jerusalem on the night of first Easter Sunday. The Q document, thought to be the source for Matthew, does not even mention the resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas, discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in December 1945 and dated to the early 2nd century CE, also fails to mention the resurrection. The earliest reliable written testimony of the resurrection of Jesus is by Paul and the anonymous author of Mark’s Gospel. It is important to note, in the context of the propensity of human memory to forget, conflate, confabulate, edit, redact, and falsify events that happened in the past, that the earliest Gospel of Mark was circa 66-70 CE, many decades after the events in question, with the rest of the gospels written even later.

So the extraordinary resurrection miracle claim hangs on just two early testimonies, from two ancient authors, neither of whom actually saw Jesus rise up from the dead, and neither of whom touched him, or sat down with him for a face to face conversation. We have nothing written by the Romans—or the Jews for that matter!—about Jesus, the content of his preaching, why he was killed, or what they thought about claims that he had been resurrected. You would think some Roman would have exclaimed “Et tu Again, Jesus?” or some Jew would have snapped “Oy Vey!” And the accounts from Josephus, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus that Christians cite in evidentiary support, were from the 2nd century, and they reference Christ the Messiah, not Jesus, and they too don’t mention the resurrection.

What’s more, in his book The Case Against Miracles, the biblical scholar John W. Loftus notes that “we have no independent corroboration of the Star of Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus, or that the veil of the temple was torn in two at Jesus’ death (Mark 15:38), nor that darkness came ‘over the whole land’ from noon until three in the afternoon (Mark 15:33), or that ‘the sun stopped shining’ (Luke 23:45), nor that there was an earthquake at his death (Matt. 27:51, 54), or another ‘violent’ one the day he arose from the grave (Matt. 28:2).” Could such notable events as these really have occurred without any corroborating evidence? Surely some Roman scribe would have made a note about a three-hour midday eclipse of the sun, not to mention the other miracles. No such extra-biblical evidence exists. Here, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

What about the 500 people the apostle Paul says saw the risen Jesus? People often interrupt this to mean that there were 500 independent eyewitness accounts of seeing Jesus after the crucifixion. Not so. We have one account saying there were 500 witnesses, by an evangelist who was highly motivated to write a history in support of his new-found religion—recall that Paul was previously Saul, who converted to Christianity from Judaism after his vision on the road to Damascus.

To that end, a challenge to the resurrection miracle that I often employ is that Jews do not accept it as real, neither in Jesus’ time nor in ours. Think about that: Jews believe in the same God as Christians. They accept the Old Testament of the Bible like Christians do. They even believe in the Messiah. They just don’t think Jesus of Nazareth was him. Jewish rabbis, scholars, philosophers, and historians all know the arguments for the resurrection as well as Christian apologists and theologians making the arguments, and still they reject them. Why? If the arguments and evidence for the resurrection is so solid, in time the community most expert in that field would reach a consensus about it. They haven’t. Christians believe it. Jews don’t. Ben Shapiro explains why here, in our conversation on his Sunday Special show.

Finally, it is important to put the resurrection into historical context, which Bart Ehrman does when he notes that in an ancient view of the divine realm “gods could sometimes be or become humans, and humans could sometimes be or become gods.” Ehrman outlines three models of “divine men” that were common in the ancient world:

  1. Sometimes it was understood that gods could and would come down to earth in human form to make a temporary visit for purposes of their own.
  2. Sometimes it was understood that a person was born from the sexual union of a god and a mortal; thus, that the person was, in some sense, part divine and part human.
  3. Sometimes it was understood that a human was elevated by the gods to their realm, usually after death, and at that point divinized, made into a god.

As Ehrman documents, there are many stories in ancient myths about gods temporarily assuming human form to meet, speak, and interact with humans, and that these stories in many ways are similar to later Christian beliefs about Christ being a preexistent divine being who came to earth as a human, only later to return to the heavenly realm.

Perhaps this is why Jesus was silent when Pilate asked him (John 18:38) “What is truth?”

Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. All monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.Subscribe

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the host of The Michael Shermer Show, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His many books include Why People Believe Weird ThingsThe Science of Good and EvilThe Believing BrainThe Moral Arc, and Heavens on EarthHis new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.