A brief (small-“r”) resurrection

Two months ago I posted about a short video created by a West Coast ministry depicting the alleged intervention of God in the life of a deeply troubled man, a presentation I discovered during a spin through Jared White’s site, “Finite Calls Infinite.” Jared’s observation:

Check out what this guy went through and how God intervened supernaturally to change his life. It’s amazing! I wish they’d include more of the details, but it’s nevertheless an inspiration. No matter how far you’ve gone into the realms of darkness, God’s light will still penetrate!

Given Jared’s enthusiasm, I expected to find that something remarkable had happened in Mike Leehan’s life–the “miraculous” curing of a disease, or even something as mundane as finding a winning lottery ticket in a bus terminal restroom immediately following a bout of prayer. If you watch the video, you find that what happened can fairly be summarized as: Man with clear mental issues and a history of conflicted feelings about God is visited by members of the ministry, and in their presence has a revelation in which God calls him to do His work for the rest of his life. Those are the facts.
Yesterday, Jared apparently discovered my post and left a comment in which he asked:

I have just one simple question for you: how do you know that whatever was described in this video isn’t actually true? On what basis do you accuse this man or this church of lying? Furthermore, aren’t scientists supposed to search out knowledge and meaning in spite of personal bias and follow the evidence wherever it may lead regardless of comfort level or preference? It seems to me that you’ve already decided how reality is framed, and thus anything that contradicts your predetermined conclusion you dismiss out of hand.
I fail to see how that is scientific, open-minded, or free-thinking.

I left a long reply, but it’s worth visiting what is going on here. Originally, I posted about this because Jared’s enthusiasm represents a classic example of confirmation bias. Religious folk often exemplify this interpretive flaw, which only makes sense; one who spends much of every day praying to or thinking about Jesus will naturally attribute events they perceive as remarkable in some way to divine authorship. In a world in which gods cannot be troubled to actually show themselves, this is understandable. Yet aside from the fact that private visions cannot constitute evidence for anything, the fact that non-Christians can and do have exactly the same kinds of “awakenings” as a result of a nearly infinite variety of experiences (praying to other gods; running 26 miles flat-out; dropping acid; transcendental meditation) underscores the reality–that people simply view “life-altering” experiences through the lens of their pre-existing beliefs.
Note the gross error in Jared’s thinking. He sees a skeptical viewpoint as being not only mean-spirited but unscientific. In other words, because I dismiss the likelihood of God having anything to do with an event in which there is no evidentiary reason to suspect deities playing a role, I am being close-minded. Yet I doubt that he would consider himself closed-minded if he laughed off my claim that my own “salvation” from, say, a lengthy spell of depression is undeniably attributable to blessings from aliens from Altair-6. He would, I presume, expect me to support this claim in some way before accepting it. But he makes an exception, and a grossly unjustifiable one, for himself and other Christians. It’s that simple.
I am also confident that Jared believes that he indeed arrived at his belief in the Christian deity because he was willing to “follow the evidence, wherever it may lead.” I don’t think he’s lying when he claims to have evidence for his god, as he implicitly does, but I would certainly invite him to present it. I am sure he will not–possibly with the observation that I’m a mocker who won’t change his mind anyway–and equally certain that he cannot.
The point here is not to denigrate something that made Mike Leehan feel better or mock, in a throwaway manner, something that makes Jared and millions of other people feel better. It is to point out what a huge divide exists between religious believers and others in terms of what represents “freethought” and rational inquiry. People like Jared epitomize close-mindedness when they basically try to insulate their ideas from criticism despite having no evidence to support them. If you were to give all the Jareds of the world truth serum, some of them might admit that they arrived at their religious convictions–Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian or animist–first and have spent years since then trying to come up with justifications for their beliefs when challenged. But I think there’s something deeper at work; I think Jared (clearly an intelligent man) does think he has evidence for what he believes. But naturally he cannot articulate this, because he’s wrong.
Watching people like Jared talk themselves in bumbling circles, if nothing else, provides an object lesson in how religious programming can forcefully disrupt or ruin someone’s ability to not only apply logic, but to comprehend it. To posit that something is true yet be unable to support this claim with evidence, yet label someone closed-minded for not accepting the same thing (one of countless takes on a basic delusion) at face value, is obviously loopy. But it’s part of the way millions of people approach the world every day.
Anyway, if nothing else, maybe he and other Christians can read this and understand the real basis for skeptical inquiry. I have no more of an inherent commitment to denying a divine Jesus than I do my putative aliens or any other extraordinarily unlikely construct. But refusing to start from a conclusion and work backward is not closed-mindedness, however accompanied it may be by gratuitous jocularity.

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  1. #1 by Spin O'Za on March 4, 2009 - 3:50 am

    Looking at it in the other direction, I think it is also helpful for us skeptical, non-religious, rationalists to understand how thin the veneer of rationality is in our normal thinking and way of life.
    Very few animals have much problem solving ability beyond trial and error, and almost all the decisions we humans make are not made rationally. We mock post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning but that’s how many mammals reason, and it’s pretty effective at a first pass. Hence the classic puppy problem after peeing in a room when being left alone too long: owner comes home and sees contrite puppy so assumes puppy is thinking “I’ve peed in the room, I’ve done wrong, this is bad” whereas the puppy’s reasoning is more likely to be “room smells of pee, in the past owner is aggressive when room smells of pee, here comes owner, my doggy programs tell me to be submissive if a dominant is aggressive”.
    Most of our decisions are made using our emotional mechanisms, even if they are justified rationally. For or against the war in Iraq? Against. Why? Because blah blah blah. No, actually, against because it feels wrong, in my heart it stinks, and, oh, here’s a rational justification I can come up with based on international law, self-determination, whatever.
    Similarly, god or no-god? No god. Why? Because I feel in my bones that holy books talk rubbish. It just feels wrong. Then comes the argument to support the belief.
    We are actually being slightly two-faced when we say this atheism is a rational decision, and that we’d review it in the light of new evidence. If a supernatural miracle actually happened, we’d probably assume it was a lie or a stunt or something natural that we simply didn’t understand. So I suspect you do have “… an inherent commitment to denying a divine Jesus…” – I certainly do!
    Rational argument is our really powerful and sharp tool for understanding the world, but it’s a tool that is rarely deployed in order to elicit the truth outside laboratories and courts, and is more usually used as (1) a way of arguing with someone to support a prior decision or conclusion, or (2) a diagnostic tool to evaluate two or more options when the emotional decision-making won’t work. Despite what you say in your last paragraph, this is not the “real basis for skeptical inquiry.” The real basis is rather more: I don’t believe it, how can I prove my disbelief! And none the worse for that in my view.

  2. #2 by Spin O'Za on March 4, 2009 - 3:50 am

    Looking at it in the other direction, I think it is also helpful for us skeptical, non-religious, rationalists to understand how thin the veneer of rationality is in our normal thinking and way of life.
    Very few animals have much problem solving ability beyond trial and error, and almost all the decisions we humans make are not made rationally. We mock post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning but that’s how many mammals reason, and it’s pretty effective at a first pass. Hence the classic puppy problem after peeing in a room when being left alone too long: owner comes home and sees contrite puppy so assumes puppy is thinking “I’ve peed in the room, I’ve done wrong, this is bad” whereas the puppy’s reasoning is more likely to be “room smells of pee, in the past owner is aggressive when room smells of pee, here comes owner, my doggy programs tell me to be submissive if a dominant is aggressive”.
    Most of our decisions are made using our emotional mechanisms, even if they are justified rationally. For or against the war in Iraq? Against. Why? Because blah blah blah. No, actually, against because it feels wrong, in my heart it stinks, and, oh, here’s a rational justification I can come up with based on international law, self-determination, whatever.
    Similarly, god or no-god? No god. Why? Because I feel in my bones that holy books talk rubbish. It just feels wrong. Then comes the argument to support the belief.
    We are actually being slightly two-faced when we say this atheism is a rational decision, and that we’d review it in the light of new evidence. If a supernatural miracle actually happened, we’d probably assume it was a lie or a stunt or something natural that we simply didn’t understand. So I suspect you do have “… an inherent commitment to denying a divine Jesus…” – I certainly do!
    Rational argument is our really powerful and sharp tool for understanding the world, but it’s a tool that is rarely deployed in order to elicit the truth outside laboratories and courts, and is more usually used as (1) a way of arguing with someone to support a prior decision or conclusion, or (2) a diagnostic tool to evaluate two or more options when the emotional decision-making won’t work. Despite what you say in your last paragraph, this is not the “real basis for skeptical inquiry.” The real basis is rather more: I don’t believe it, how can I prove my disbelief! And none the worse for that in my view.

  3. #3 by Spin O'Za on March 4, 2009 - 3:50 am

    Looking at it in the other direction, I think it is also helpful for us skeptical, non-religious, rationalists to understand how thin the veneer of rationality is in our normal thinking and way of life.
    Very few animals have much problem solving ability beyond trial and error, and almost all the decisions we humans make are not made rationally. We mock post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning but that’s how many mammals reason, and it’s pretty effective at a first pass. Hence the classic puppy problem after peeing in a room when being left alone too long: owner comes home and sees contrite puppy so assumes puppy is thinking “I’ve peed in the room, I’ve done wrong, this is bad” whereas the puppy’s reasoning is more likely to be “room smells of pee, in the past owner is aggressive when room smells of pee, here comes owner, my doggy programs tell me to be submissive if a dominant is aggressive”.
    Most of our decisions are made using our emotional mechanisms, even if they are justified rationally. For or against the war in Iraq? Against. Why? Because blah blah blah. No, actually, against because it feels wrong, in my heart it stinks, and, oh, here’s a rational justification I can come up with based on international law, self-determination, whatever.
    Similarly, god or no-god? No god. Why? Because I feel in my bones that holy books talk rubbish. It just feels wrong. Then comes the argument to support the belief.
    We are actually being slightly two-faced when we say this atheism is a rational decision, and that we’d review it in the light of new evidence. If a supernatural miracle actually happened, we’d probably assume it was a lie or a stunt or something natural that we simply didn’t understand. So I suspect you do have “… an inherent commitment to denying a divine Jesus…” – I certainly do!
    Rational argument is our really powerful and sharp tool for understanding the world, but it’s a tool that is rarely deployed in order to elicit the truth outside laboratories and courts, and is more usually used as (1) a way of arguing with someone to support a prior decision or conclusion, or (2) a diagnostic tool to evaluate two or more options when the emotional decision-making won’t work. Despite what you say in your last paragraph, this is not the “real basis for skeptical inquiry.” The real basis is rather more: I don’t believe it, how can I prove my disbelief! And none the worse for that in my view.

  4. #4 by Zeno on March 4, 2009 - 8:54 am

    The denizens of Altair-6 will decline to shower their blessings upon you if you continue to use them as an example of the ridiculous. Beware!

  5. #5 by Kevin Beck on March 4, 2009 - 11:35 am

    Spin O’Za,
    Well, you’re right about this:
    “We are actually being slightly two-faced when we say this atheism is a rational decision, and that we’d review it in the light of new evidence. If a supernatural miracle actually happened, we’d probably assume it was a lie or a stunt or something natural that we simply didn’t understand.”
    It would take something truly extraordinary to convince me at this point that it originated in a deity of any sort. I guess a more accurate assessment would be, “I didn’t start with any sort of bias against the idea of gods.” I’ve effectively written this idea of now owing to observations I have amassed, but the notion that anyone would build from a conclusion that gods must not exist (which is different from simply not believing in them because no one has yet served up evidence for them) makes little sense to me.
    I also can’t pretend that my various conclusions about the world aren’t steeped in various brands of wishful thinking and personal bias–not in religious matters, but in numerous others. This can be a very difficult thing to confront; it’s easy to see how “nagging voices” got their name.

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