Thursday, December 03, 2009

Bogus miracles, fake news, intellectual and moral cowardice

Okay, this is fun.

The other day we got an email from a fellow who described himself as an atheist, but who professed he was a bit taken aback by a miracle claim that had come his way, about a Florida doctor who is supposed to have prayed a man back to life. He pasted a news story into his email, and some quick Googletronic Googlefication confirmed my suspicions: that this is one of those stories making the rounds in fundagelical circles, that they email one another as a big social reinforcement exercise, but for which there are no accounts — either confirming or disconfirming — from a secular source anywhere.

I tracked the story down to one website (which probably isn't the one that originated it, but they're certainly spreading it), Australia's Catch the Fire Ministries. Here you may read the 2007 story in full. It is written in the form of a press release, but it comes from Assist News Service, one of those phony Christian "news" services that feeds press releases to the likes of the 700 Club, and probably WorldNutDaily, the AFA's One News Now, and so on. The medical "conference" at which this miracle testimony was given is — you guessed it — a "Christian doctors' conference". If it dismays you that there are people out there with at least enough going on between their ears that they can pass eight years of med school, eight years of residency, go on to become M.D.s, and who are yet gullible and nonskeptical enough to swallow bullshit about Jebus doing miracle resurrections in the ICU, it should. And really, they're everywhere.

Anyway, in response to the first comment on that page I linked to, where some dimwit tries to say that "...unbelievers will ignore the doctor’s eyewitness testimony and will cite the fact that they have never witnessed such an event," I wrote:

No, we will point out that there’s not a shred of evidence that this anecdote is true. A Christian doctor gives a testimonial in front of other Christian doctors abut praying a man back to life, and hallelujah! they believe him. Big surprise there. No religious confirmation biases at all, nosiree.

Christians have a little problem understanding that the plural of anecdote is not data.

You should not be surprised that my comment was not approved. Unlike atheist sites, many Christian sites are completely closed to comments from dissenting voices. (This is perhaps the one regard in which Ray Comfort can be said to be better than most of his ilk. But then, baiting atheists is really the only shtick Ray has.) We only turn moderation on to prevent outright spam and trolling from guys like Dennis Markuze. But we love it when guys like Seth R. in the Mormon thread, or "MrFreeThinker" drop by to mix it up.

But that isn't the most fun part. Guess what is. Catch the Fire Ministries sent me a concern-trolling evangelizing email! They wouldn't let my comment through, but they will use my email address for stuff like this. Hilarious.

May the one true living God bless you Martin, atheists and all people with His Saving Truth and Everlasting Love! (John 3:16-21)

We at Catch the Fire Ministries will keep praying for you to believe the Bible (Word of God) as the mighty Voice from Heaven that calls, “I died on the cross for you and rose from the dead to save you from eternal death, hell and destruction! Repent of your unbelief / doubt and surrender your life (past, present and future) to Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Lord before it is too late!”

Time is running out as we will soon stand before Him face to face as our Final Judge! (Revelation 20:11-15)

Say, 'Yes to Jesus, Yes to Heaven Forever!'

Say, 'No to Jesus, Yes to Hell Forever!'

Make the Right Choice, Your Eternal Future Depends On It!

I wrote back:

Hello, and thanks for writing.

So, it's the usual thing, in other words. Lacking evidence, Christianity must resort to threats to compel belief. Most atheists have heard this tiresome routine before, and it always makes us shake our heads sadly that you do not realize how much it confirms both how intellectually and morally adrift your religion is.

And anyway, I notice that in your zeal to evangelize you utterly failed to refute or even respond to my point. Where precisely is the evidence that this doctor prayed a man back to life? "Uh oh, gotta thump my Bible harder!" is not a way to deal with tough questions.

So, what else you got?


PS: I noticed you refused to approve my comment. The kind of cowardice that suppresses dissenting opinions and hard questions rather than addressing them is indicative not of righteousness, but insecurity and weakness.

(And before some creotard latches onto my PS, thinking he's found a "gotcha" quote exposing atheist hypocrisy about intelligent design, be aware the scientific community has addressed ID, comprehensively, and shown it to be vacuous and utterly nonscientific rubbish. It's kind of what the whole Dover trial was about.)

Christianity is peddling an inferior product. Its adherents know this, and yet they cannot allow their reason to overcome their emotional investment in the fear of death and desire for a celestial daddy who'll keep them safe from the monsters under the bed. So this is why, when you ask a tough question, many times they'll just stick their fingers in their ears and sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in a loud voice until you're done, at which point they'll switch on Witnessing Mode, ignoring everything you've said. I know the answer to my last question: they got nothin', and they'll prove it by writing me back (if they do) with just more Bible quotes, more emotional appeals, more veiled threats of the dire fate that awaits me if I reject God's "love," and ad infinitum into the moral wasteland and rhetorical cul-de-sac that is evangelism.

If they do write back, I will naturally let you know.


  1. That's the difference between us and them, ultimately: we do our thinking with our intellect, they do what passes for thinking with their emotions. So, the doctor story is "true" because it feels like it should be so. And, when you point out the complete lack of evidence, their response is to answer you with anger and threats of hellfire because for them an emotional response is both more effective and better than an intellectual one... at least in their warped perspective.

  2. As if the source problem wasn't bad enough, I don't care if the source was the Associated Press and there was video footage of the event. Coincidence is a powerful thing when there are billions who pray, and by definition, any natural answer, no matter how unlikely so long as it's possible, is still more likely than a miracle.

  3. God I hate it when this shows up. I remember seeing Pat Roberston bring out his actors pretending to be gay so they can lie to our faces about being cured of aids when they stopped liking the buttsecks.

  4. If they write back, you will naturally let us know??

    Wouldn't it be far more impressive if you did that supernaturally?

  5. "No, we will point out that there’s not a shred of evidence that this anecdote is true"

    How is testimony not evidence? It might be weak, it might not compel to you believe the event occurred, but by what standard do you classify testimony not being evidence?

  6. Headshaker:

    While you will find "to support by testimony; attest" as one of the dictionary definitions of evidence, a testimonial is not the sort of evidence that science considers strong enough on its own to confirm a claim. Testimonies may sway decisions in traffic court, but not in the lab.

    Here, what this doctor is doing is making a claim — "I prayed and a man came back to life!" — that is by its very nature scientific. He is attributing a direct causal link between his actions and the alleged result: that a man (presumably legally) dead returned to the living following a desperate round of impassioned prayers to the Christian God.

    At best, a claim like this, in a scientific context, can be the thing that spurs further investigation. In other words, real scientists would use this testimony as a starting point. But what these Christian doctors are doing, and what this "news report" is also doing, is treating the testimony itself not merely as evidence but confirming proof. To the Christians, the claim is a sufficient end rather than a beginning. It's enough to convince them all on its own.

    And the reason for that is, of course, that these doctors have allowed their religious beliefs to trump their scientific rationality. They are looking for that which confirms predetermined conclusions. They did not go to this conference, as real scientists would have done had this actually been a scientific seminar, to see if their predetermined conclusions were falsifiable, could be falsified, had been falsified, or to otherwise design possible experiments that could be independently performed to determine their truth or falsehood.

  7. Lurker, it might be more impressive, but then I couldn't do it!

  8. @Martin

    "Testimonies may sway decisions in traffic court, but not in the lab."

    Indeed, and if you were attempting to discern the mechanics of how the man was resurrected I would completely agree. Where I disagree is that his claim is "by its very nature scientific". For events in history cannot be "retested". The "artifacts" of the event can be examined, in this instance there is the doctor himself, the resurrected man, the nurse mentioned in the linked article, plus possibly numerous hospital staff that were "buzzing" about this supposed event. They can be interviewed, any stored data from hospital machinery can be examined (in theory given that the linked article is dated 2007) From all that we can decide whether the event happened or not - but by your definition of evidence none of the material collected using the aforementioned methods would count.

    If as a kid your bike was stolen, and you found the criminal (the boy down the road), and you can see your bike on the front porch - is that not enough evidence for you to call the cops? Or because the event of the kid stealing your bike is not necessarily repeatable (maybe he was just in a bad mood today), and so forth you'll let him keep your bike?

    I'm not saying don't be skeptical, but by the standards you are defining for evidence, there's bound to be a lot of stuff you've accepted in the past that falls short.

  9. On a partially unrelated note, when I went to their website, my eye caught a declaration denouncing racism somewhat prominent on the page. Makes one wonder what could have caused such a public display...

    (Yes, I'm irresponsibly spreading innuendo, why should Glenn Beck have all the fun?)

  10. I ran across a video about Todd Bentley (read up on him, it's a hoot) and a supposed resurrection a few months ago. The only evidence provided was that the man who had been "raised from the dead" came on stage and said, "I was raised from the dead" (with no details, other than the basic story). I know I'm not supposed to look at the comments on YouTube, but I read through a few of them and noticed that skeptical remarks were suspiciously absent. One of the commenters said something like, "HAH! Where are all the atheists now? How come they have nothing to say about THIS?" The poster of the video replied smugly, "I delete them :)"

    I replied back, pointing out his cowardice and intellectual dishonesty, knowing that my comment would never be posted, but that he would see it. I stated that in my opinion that type of attitude displayed his feeling that his beliefs could not stand up to any scrutiny or dissent. But I always wondered about the reaction of the former commenter, once he found out that it was not that atheists were afraid to respond or had nothing to say, it was just that they'd been silenced.

  11. @ Headshaker

    Saying "It happened" isn't even remotely evidence.

    For example. I shat a pterodactyl.

    Why don't you list that as evidence for my ability to poop pterosaurs? It is an anecdote.

  12. I know the temptation of the atheist is to discount the deeply religious as stupid or willfully ignorant. From personal experience I can tell you this is not the case.

    Cults are full of very smart people, partly because they purposefully recruit productive individuals and partly because it takes a wicked smart mind to justify the crazier doctrines and make things "fit."

    So if it's not stupidity, why would smart people believe crazy or unsupportable things?

    The answer is "well... for lots of really good reasons." :)

    1) Indoctrination of children reinforced over time is hard to break.

    2) Cults and religions frequently use brainwashing techniques (usually without knowledge of that's what they are doing). I highly recommend a book called "Combatting Cult Mind Control" by Stephen Hassan. If you really want to understand the believer, this book will inform and scare the hell out of you.

    3) When people are emotionally vulnerable, especially after events like dealing with the loss of a loved one etc., they are very open to religious manipulation. These are the people my own church asked me to seek out while I was serving a proselyting mission for them (you know "Because they have extra need for God right now)."

    4) Our schools just don't teach most kids to think critically or recognize rhetoric and fallacy leaving them open to illogical and bad belief systems.

    5) Humans are social beings and religion fills a very specific need for social order, conformity, and belonging. The way religion appeals to and affects people is a perfect mirror for the way a strong nationalistic movement can sweep through and take over like Communism in China or the rise of Nazi Germany (I know these are very negative examples, but I just couldn't think of positive ones that were a better fit).

    So what's an atheist to do if they want the world to just think a little more clearly about what they believe? I'm open to ideas, but how about we start with getting our schools to more frequently and coherently teach critical thinking skills?

  13. "If as a kid your bike was stolen, and you found the criminal (the boy down the road), and you can see your bike on the front porch - is that not enough evidence for you to call the cops? Or because the event of the kid stealing your bike is not necessarily repeatable (maybe he was just in a bad mood today), and so forth you'll let him keep your bike?"

    Here is where your analogy breaks down. You can see the bike. The cops can come by and check out the bike and determine whether it is yours or not. They start with your story that it is your bike but they use the evidence to determine the truth exactly like Martin said. If they did like the doctors, the police would just take your word arrest the other kid and give the bike to you, without any further investigation. You have proven Martin's point.

  14. Headshaker,

    Historical events cannot be retested, but that doesn't mean that predictions related to those events can't be tested. As regards your bike theft example: if you suspected someone of stealing your bike, you could make several predictions. First, you might expect the suspect's fingerprints to be on the bike. Second, you might expect the suspect's footprints to be found leading from where you left it to where it was found. These are both predictions you could test.

    In the case of the miracle claim, predictions are harder to come by, since supernatural causation is too poorly defined. And even if you see someone recover from a dire condition with no presently determinable cause, that would not be evidence of supernatural causation: such recoveries are known to happen, and all our work is ahead of us in figuring out how bodies work. But these problems with testing miraculous claims should at least point out that a simple testimony is woefully insufficient for establishing the truth of such a claim.

  15. I know what you mean about moderation. I once saw an argument between theists on a blog. The blog owner was claiming that God is male and one commenter was saying God is genderless. They were using the Bible and their feelings as evidence. I commented that their debate read like two blind guys debating the color of an invisible unicorn. My comment was immediately deleted. Big surprise.

  16. RE: The question of what constitutes evidence.

    Personally I don't consider all data "evidence." A piece of data that has no bearing on the question at hand isn't "evidence," according to how I use the word.

    So, for example, if I'm trying to figure out if a cake with white frosting has chocolate or vanilla cake inside, telling me it was baked at 350-degrees for an hour doesn't constitute "evidence" for the question of "what flavor is this cake?"

    As Sagan points out in his "Dragon in my Garage" essay:

    "An alternative explanation presents itself. On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such "evidence" -- no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it -- is far from compelling."

    In addition to not being compelling, the ambiguous nature of this data means it can't be used to help us determine if the claim is true. When a person shows a burned finger, and claims it was burned by dragon fire, it's utterly irrelevant, since people burn fingers all the time--and dragon fire is not needed as a cause to produce such an effect. So, the data is not helpful as it really provides us nothing that aids us in deciding whether or not dragons exist. In order for the data to be considered "evidence"--in my mind--it would have to have some relevant bearing on the issue we're trying to resolve. The only way such testimony would be helpful would be if there was some demonstrable, material evidence to support it.

    In other words, if I accuse someone of murder, but can't produce a body or any evidence they've killed anyone, my testimony along is just odd data--but not really evidence that a murder occurred. Who knows what I saw that I might have confused? If I'm being honest? If I'm wacko? Without some reason to think my claim is supported by reality, it's just an odd claim with no real bearing on reality. "Tracie thinks X murdered someone," is all it really demonstrates. But unless I can cough up some reason "why" I believe my own claim, my claim on its own evidences nothing.

  17. >If as a kid your bike was stolen, and you found the criminal (the boy down the road), and you can see your bike on the front porch - is that not enough evidence for you to call the cops?

    Yes, because I see what I believe to be my property on someone else's property.

    But what if, instead, someone comes to me and says, "Hey, your bike is on Joe's front porch!" But I don't own a bike? Or what if I go tell the cops this person told me this, and they say, "So, you're bike was taken?" And I say, "Well, I don't know. I haven't gone home to check if it's there or not. Jim just told me he saw it on Joe's porch." I mean, shouldn't I confirm _MY_ bike has actually be stolen before I report it stolen based on my friend's word that bike is on Joe's porch?

    If a claim is contradicted with reality; or if it fails to correlate to reality, then it's useless as "evidence."

    Also, with the prayer claim, we have the added headache of demonstrating causation rather than correlation.

    For example: I have a rooster that crows each morning before sunrise. Should I conclude my rooster's crow makes the sunrise?

    If I see a person die, another person pray, and the dead person pop back up, it would be very tempting to want to attribute the reanimation to the prayer--but it would be a logical error to do so (post hoc ergo proctor hoc).

    So, even if I felt the claim was honest, it does zero to address the question "What caused the reanimation?" For all we know the prayer was an irrelevancy in the event, that the reporter subjectively, but incorrectly, felt was somehow related.

  18. Headshaker,

    Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence. There's big difference in accepting my child's claim that his/her bicycle was stolen, whether I can see it in another child's yard or not, and accepting claims of resurrection based on hearsay/testimonials.

    If you told me you had waffles for breakfast,the fact that you told me you ate them would be enough for me to believe your claim. Now if you told me you ate waffles for breakfast this morning but ate them only after returning from a trip to the future, well lets just say I'd be a little more skeptical than I would had you simply claimed you ate waffles at your kitchen table.

    Futhermore I'd ask you to not simply assert that what you say is true but demonstrate it as well. If the claim is not demonstrable and there is no evidence for your trip to the future why would you expect anyone in their right mind accept your claim of time travel?

    For the vast majority of Theists, hearsay and testimonials from others who share their faith are enough to convince them that claims of divine intervention are true but those things are not considered evidence or "proof" of anything in the scientific world.

    Just because one person, or even many people claim something is true doesn't mean it is nor should anyone accept personal testimonials and hearsay as evidence that the claim is true.

  19. Your skeptical of Christ now but one day when you find a corn flake that has the image of Christ on it you will realize that Christ is among us!

  20. Again all we have in terms of evidence if evidence that a claim was made.

  21. There has yet to be a convincingly documented case of anyone being resurrected. There have been numerous cases of people prematurely pronounced dead when they were not. I would need more evidence that this was a true resurrection than just testimony. Without extraordinary evidence which would require me to reject everything I know about biology, I am inclined to suspect a misdiagnosis of death.

  22. If prayers work so well to cure or even bring back to life, why do people, believers like unbelievers, go to the hospital and not to church when they don't feel well?

    I don't want to plug a book again, but anybody read Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers? There is a miraculous recovery in the novel, but it leads to sinister consequences, as the child saved by a Catholic priest (who will become pope) grows up to become a cult leader and a mass murderer.

  23. Well if you have emotional pleads why bother with evidence or rational thought. From their view point (It used to be mine as while), religion isn't something that can be taught through debate. God tells the prophets what is right or wrong. The minister tells the the audience what God wants. There rarely never debate, and you don't question. I went to a creationist museum once, where I was told by other people in the tour group, "Don't ask question, we are trying to learn."

    When you view the other side as being in league with the devil, then why give them an opportunity to speak? From their view point nothing good can come from it.

  24. Catch the Fire Ministries is an awful organisation. Their leader claimed that the Victoria bushfires earlier his year (which claimed the lives of over 200 people} were the result of the 'relaxed' abortion laws. Then he and his cronies came to my town of Canberra and did an excorcism over a supposed black mass in order to stop bad spirits from influencing parliament. He and his minstry are a bunch of absolute nutters.

  25. I have the impression that all that Bible-quoting and witnessing that is the inevitable response to cases when reality stops agreeing with faith is grounded in a superstition itself. I've read that early evangelical preachers (Spurgeon?) espoused the notion that Bible verses planted a seed in the unbeliever that God then would use, of course at an unpredictable but sure-to-come point whenever, to asplode the atheist's brain in a conversion experience.
    They actually do believe that Bible verses have magical powers. Of course they would deny that these beliefs are another plagiarism from pre-Christian religions, and of course refuse to associate the word 'magic' with the practice of assuming a causal connection between physically unrelated events, such as saying words and natural disasters, or saying words and transforming food, or saying words and generating income.
    Wait, I concede that the last point is pretty much what keeps religion going. Ok, I'll be more exact and say that all magic except that of bullshitting is bullshit.

  26. A christian claiming christian prayer brought back someone to life with the help of christ.

    Well whoop-dee-fucking-doo. Call me when a muslim claims a christian prayed to Jesus Christ and resurrected a dead muslim...or vice versa

    Oh and while we are at it. Why do people only claim to have witnessed resurrections of people that "died" from something that is not necessarily always 100% lethal?

    You never hear someone claim they saw a resurrection of someone who got his head blown off, or who was ripped into pieces by an explosion.
    Those never come back from the dead do they?

  27. These Catch the Fire loonies are the closest thing Australia has to the Phelps clan. I had a great time counter-protesting them when they to came to cleanse Canberra of witchcraft.

  28. The US shouldn't disregard fundies imported from Australia. As they have legally won on almost every issue here and it isn't a constitutional thing Australia also has an establishment clause.

    Prayer in school: Tax money is used to fund Church run schools, ofter in multiples of funding to equivalent public secular schools.

    No religion test for office: Public Schools are assigned a Chaplain to "guide the moral fabric of schools" whatever that means. These Chaplains are interviewed as with any job on their fitness, i.e. religious beliefs, for the position. Australian law even dictates that a religion must be "supernatural", so if you worship the Sun because it lights up the day you don't qualify.

    Seperation of church and state: Narrow High Court ruling means the Government is only prohibited from establishing a church, but if an existing church is given favoritism then so be it. The Religion was already there and it's not the governments fault it was established.

    Evolution vs Creationism: While the official policy is teach a secular curriculum, the investigations in recommenations for enforcement of the distinction between science and religion within schools has been delegated to the "Christian Schools Australia" organisation, that's the same "Christian" that has an interest in pushing creationism as science. Unsurprisingly there has never been a report that has found against any schools, even when the head of the school has stated publicly that creation is equal in science and evolution is just a theory.

    Free speech: Ridiculing religion is outlawed under the Race And Religious Tolerance Act 2001, and equivalent laws for each state. So far the only successful conviction (or ruling as it is really a civil case) is a complaint by the Islamic Council, who were "offended" by ridicule that Islam promotes domestic violence against woman. The decision was upheld on appeal.


PLEASE NOTE: The Atheist Experience has moved to a new location, and this blog is now closed to comments. To participate in future discussions, please visit

This blog encourages believers who disagree with us to comment. However, anonymous comments are disallowed to weed out cowardly flamers who hide behind anonymity. Commenters will only be banned when they've demonstrated they're nothing more than trolls whose behavior is intentionally offensive to the blog's readership.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.