Monday, September 28, 2015

Help for Those who Struggle with Faith

Are you "struggling with faith"? Trying to figure out how it is that Christianity seems to make sense to so many people?  The miracles and supernatural just doesn't ever happen in reality, and you can't help but notice that ancient cultures weren't the best at interpreting the things they saw happening around them.

I have great news. You don't have to struggle with it any more! There's an easy way to be done with the struggle for good.  What's more, by never struggling with your faith again, you can live a life that's even more free and fulfilling you ever imagined. You'll never wonder why bad things happen to good people or why God created cancer and malaria.

First, we need to carefully understand the problem itself.  "Struggling with faith" is negative language. It makes people feel shame and guilt over your reasonable doubts. A more neutral phrase might be "doubting your deeply held beliefs."   Put this way, it's not so negative, is it?

Doubts are a natural reaction when we're asked to believe something incredible without supporting evidence. There's nothing wrong with your doubts. In fact, they're very healthy. You would insist on reasonable evidence for any other belief in your life.  In fact, it would be unfair or dishonest to give your religious beliefs a free-pass.

Most people learn their religion as a young child.  They accepted stories as truthful before they had the critical thinking skills to fairly evaluate the claims. This isn't just true for Christianity. It's broadly true for all religious beliefs. Now that you're an adult and you've learned to evaluate things rationally, you're entitled to reevaluate.

So what will you find when you rethink things? What conclusions are you willing to accept? Can you give yourself permission to reach the scary conclusion? It's okay if you discover you were wrong all this time.  You're not bound to your religion by some kind of curse. You can change your mind and keep all the values that are important to you. You work ethic, love, and honesty aren't your religion's values. They're your values. You can keep them.

So how do you put an end to your struggles with faith? It's pretty simple. Stop struggling. Let go of the obligation to believe what your parents taught you. You have the right, even the obligation to figure out what's true for yourself. And it's okay if you reach a different conclusion.

So congratulations for your new-found doubt. Congratulations for bravely questioning the things you've always just assumed.  And congratulations for giving yourself permission to reach whatever conclusion is rational.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Response to Ohio TRAP laws to limit Abortion access

Here's the letter I've written to my Ohio Senator and Representative regarding the state refusal to license local abortion providers.

Mr. X, 

I'm writing to express my sincere concern about how the state of Ohio is limiting my family's access to healthcare. If my wife were to have an ectopic pregnancy or any other condition where the ethical choice is to terminate the pregnancy, our access to abortion care is being severely limited by irresponsible and invasive Big Government decisions intended to limit access to abortion services. The legislation driving these changes is reckless, irresponsible, and unethical. Please understand that this situation needs to be rectified immediately.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Towards an Objective Assessment of Scriptural Prophecy

I want this neon sign!

I've poked at prophecy in the past. I assert that it's better explained as post-hoc favorable interpretation than as legitimate future-telling. A Christian asked me to expand on how we can apply Bayes' Theorem to prophecy.  On the surface, this seems like a trivial task, but it turns out to become pretty murky since the likelihoods of the various events are very hard to quantify. Nevertheless, I think it's instructive to consider.


Bayes' Theorem is a theorem in probability and statistics which computes the likelihood of related events given some assumptions.  In its simplest form, it states:

$ P(A|B) = \frac{P(B|A) P(A)}{ P(B) }  $

Where P(x) is the probability of x being true, and P(x|y) is the probability of x being true, assuming that y is true.  x and y being events or observations.


For starters, let's consider what I think is the meat of prophecies: That they support the claim of divine and infallible nature of a holy book. Let us ask Bayes, "What is the probability that a holy book is divine ($div$) given that a prophecy it contains is true ($pro$)." That is to say:

$ P(div|pro) = \frac{P(pro|div) P(div)}{ P(pro) }  $

I'm not sure if we'll be able to get very far, but let's dive in, shall we? 

Divinity Yields Accurate Prophecy?

What is the chance that a prophecy will be true in a divine book?  That depends on who you ask and what you assume for the nature of the divinity which inspired the book.  That being said, be careful what you apply to this probability.  Too low and the $ P(div|pro) $ approaches zero.  Too high and a failed prophecy will prove the Bible isn't divine.

Likelihood of Divinity

What is the chance that a particular holy book is divine without any other assumptions?  Again, this depends dramatically on the incoming assumptions about the holy book in question. 
  • Many presuppositionalists enter the discussion with $ P(div)  = 1 $. 
  • If you assume that one book is divine among all titles ever written, your value for $ P(div) $ is very close to 0.  
  • If you assume that of the four holy books (Torah, Bible, Quran, and Book of Mormon), one and only one is divine, you get $ P(div) = 0.25 $ 
To be honest, I'm not satisfied with any of these answers.  All of them are pretty arbitrary given that we have no way of knowing if or how often books are divine.  

Likelihood of Prophecy being True

$ P(pro) $ 
What is the likelihood of the prophecy coming true without any assumptions about the divinity of the book in question? In evaluating this likelihood, it's important to consider:
  1. If people believing the book is divine will make the prophecy more or less likely to come true
  2. The likelihood that the event would happen anyways
In other words, to determine if the prophecy is true, we must consider it in the context of the events we know to be true

$P(pro|evt) = \frac{P(evt|pro) P(pro)}{ P(evt) }  $

$P(evt)$ in the denominator means that if the event would be likely to happen anyways ("There will be wars and famine and disease!!!") then the prophecy isn't likely to be true.

$P(pro)$ in the numerator means you have to guess at the likelihood of the specific prophecy being true. I'm not sure how to estimate this value. Perhaps this could be done by comparing it to other prophecies in the book?

$ P(evt|pro) $ is the probability of the specific events, given that the prophecy is true. Again, this is very subjective, but it means you must clearly define what your "event" is and assess its likelihood given the prophecy being true.  If there are other ways of fulfilling the prophecy, they reduce this likelihood.


I'm not going to drag you all the way through a specific example.  My intention in this post is to communicate the various terms that need to be considered when assessing the likelihood of a book's divinity given that a prophecy is true. Hope this helps.

Extra Credit

Suppose we believed that $P(div) = 1$ and $P(pro|div) = 1$. Show that $P(pro)$ must be equal to unity and that therefore ANY prophecy which can be shown to be false proves the assumptions are wrong -- either the Bible is not divine or the divine agent produces false prophecies.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Speaking for God

I've spent over year now debating theology with Christians and Muslims. One thing that's constant is that they'll make a claim about God without an ability to back it up. Then they get upset when I tell them the claim is baseless. Yet they cannot point to an objective fact or means to validate their claims.

In a nutshell, this is one of the foundational problems with religion: In religion, the church is created to represent an absentee God for the believer. Since nobody can communicate with God, your church, synagogue, or mosque tells you what he is like and what he wants from you.

At this point, some religious believers might be thinking "that's not true! The [Name of holy book] is the word of God!" But of course, that holy book simply supports or is supported by the aforementioned religious organization. Regardless of the religion, there are many different interpretations of the holy book which quibble over details ranging from acceptance of gays to the divinity of Jesus or Mohammed. Of course none of the beliefs are based in objective evidence, so it's impossible to resolve these disagreements. The disagreeing groups simply aren't equipped with (or aren't willing to use) the critical thinking skills necessary to resolve their disagreement. They seem unable to even see the foundational epistemological failures that explain why their groups cannot agree.

The process by which churches make these claims about the nature and desires of God is gradual and subtle. It's done through sermons, songs, and discussions with other church members who also accept the dogma. Through this process, religion is helping to define the believer's expectations for what God is like. When the believer then communicate with God through "prayer," their mind forms plausible responses from this shared vision of God. Humans are VERY good at imagining conversations. The imagined interlocutor is convincing enough that people believe their imagined God might be real.  Of course they're prepared for this delusion by being taught they need to "listen carefully" and "God will speak to them." This handy guide provides a nice template for how the delusion is cultivated.

First, Christians should build relationships with other Christians
The belief spreads best if you're surrounded by people who support your belief.  Since there's no objective evidence, developing a social group is the best way to convince yourself.
A Christ follower should spend daily time reading the Bible, mulling over the messa and praying for ways to make scripture’s lessons into a lifestyle. 
Repetition and meditation helps solidify a common belief
By adding prayer for others and himself to this daily quiet time, the Christian will find it easier to turn away from their own self-focused desires, and advance God’s priorities to first place. 
Believing they're helping other people helps believers feel like this repetitive action isn't as selfish as it really is,
 Christians should actively seek opportunities to tell others about what they are learning from and about God.
The best way to follow through with a commitment is to publicly affirm it.  This makes the believer be more committed to the beliefs. Turning away from the commitment after publicly affirming it is socially awkward.  To avoid this embarrassment, a believer will tend to shun any self-doubt. or at the very least conceal this doubt from fellow believers. The end-result is a community which can more strongly reinforce the religious dogma of the sect.

It is through this mechanism that these God beliefs flourish. Each believer thinks theirs seems rational because they're surrounded by people with nearly identical beliefs. The belief which cannot be supported by any rational or objective means is supported by the echo chamber of the social group instead. When confronted with a differing belief or a different religion, there's no way to resolve the different subject of gods each group has independently created.  

So what happens? Christian theologians review Muslim work and find all the logical and factual flaws in their religion and say, "Ha ha Islam is false!" But of course, Muslim scholars do the same for Christianity. The leaders of each religion are capable of critical thought and logical evaluation of other beliefs. But for their own favorite belief, they're unable or unwilling to apply the same standards. This is the part that I don't understand.  

How can intelligent people be oblivious to their own double-standard? I suppose it takes effort to evaluate one's own deeply held beliefs, but that's an essential part of being an honest person.