I'm to Appear in a Full-Length Christian Documentary Film

I was interviewed on Tuesday at our house by a Christian doing a full length documentary about medical miracles. Other skeptics who have been interviewed were James Randi, Michael Shermer and Michael Ruse. I gave them the contact info for Dr. Hector Avalos, who should also be interviewed, so let's hope that happens.

On the Christian side (eh, conservative evangelical side???) William Lane Craig, JP Moreland and Craig Keener have been interviewed. This should be interesting. I think I did well. Below is what I wrote in preparation for it. It didn't exactly follow the questions proposed, as it was a conversation. I did get many of these points in, and I thank everyone on Facebook for suggesting how to answer these questions.

Christian Documentary Film

1. Why should I not believe in God?

Which one?

First, people shouldn’t believe because a god-belief lacks sufficient objective evidence for it. Alvin Plantinga: “I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.” [Warranted Christian Belief, p. 201.] John Feinberg admits, “I am not convinced that any of the traditional arguments [for God] succeeds.” [Can You Believe it’s True: Christian Apologetics in a Modern & Postmodern Era (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), p. 321.]

Second, people shouldn’t believe because of the consequences of doing so.

Atheists like me stand opposed to faith-based reasoning in preference to science-based reasoning. Faith is a vice not a virtue if we want to know anything about the nature of the universe, its workings or origins. Believers who live their lives based on insufficient objective evidence will believe a lot of other things without it.

Our very survival often literally depends on understanding reality as accurately as possible. Believers with different gods and different holy books are killing a lot of people. God beliefs are causing believers to reject the important wall of separation of church and state, the need for vaccinations and to reject climate change, which may be the single greatest threat to us. It’s provoking believers to hate gays, to reject medicine in favor of prayer, to think women are inferior to men, to allow pastors to harm them in the name of god, and so on.

2. What’s a miracle?

To the ancient people most everything was considered to be a miracle, from the rising of the sun each morning, to bountiful crops, to the birth of a baby, to a battle that was won. Their definition of a miracle seems to be the same as believers today. It’s a strange event only explainable by the intervention into the natural world by their particular supernatural deity. As science explained more, miracles took place less and less.

When asked to define a miracle I prefer concrete examples, like a snake or donkey who talked, a chariot being rode into the sky, an ax head that could float, a virgin birth of the son of god, three transfigured levitating men, or the resurrection of Jesus and the saints of old. Doing so keeps us focused. Let’s agree that a concrete miracle would take place when parents pray for their child’s amputated leg to grow back, and it does!

If I had to define a miracle it’s a claim that a naturally impossible event took place by supernatural invention of a god worthy of worship. If there’s a 5% chance someone might recover from an illness it would not be a miracle if that person recovered, since the odds are that 5 people out of 100 will recover. It would have to be a 0% chance to be a miracle.

In honor of the Marian apparitions that allegedly occurred in 1858 near Lourdes, France, 80,000 pilgrims per year have visited the site for over a century. About 200 million people. 69 miracles have been “verified” by the Catholic Church. Millions of people claim to be healed, so it’s far more likely people will die traveling to Lourdes for healing than that they would be healed. We also know that millions of believers falsely report miracles for every real one (or worse.)

What about all the others who never received a miracle?

3. What is knowledge?

Knowledge is opposed to faith. Faith is an irrational leap over the need for objective evidence. It creates a misguided and unreliable desire to search for confirming evidence, to count the hits and discount the misses, and to engage in wishful thinking, rather than following the evidence where it leads. Objective knowledge is only gained by sufficient objective evidence. If I know something I do so based on the probabilities of the strength of the objective evidence. We should think exclusively in terms of the probabilities by proportioning our conclusions on the strength of the evidence. If we do there is no room for faith.

4. Under what circumstances would it be rational to believe a healing miracle occurred? When would it not be rational?

A healing under the strictures of a clinical study would give us the strongest reasons to accept a miracle claim. Unfortunately clinical studies show that petitionary prayers are answered no better than chance.

The American Heart Journal conducted the most scientifically rigorous clinical study of whether prayer can heal. The study lasted a decade which monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals who received coronary bypass surgery. The researchers found no differences between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. [Published results in 2006].

It is not reasonable to believe a miracle took place based on extremely rare odds. Yet that is the number one criteria. See David J. Hand's book, “The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day.” Extraordinarily rare events are anything but. In fact, they’re commonplace. Not only that, we should all expect to experience a miracle roughly once every month. “No mystical or supernatural explanation is necessary to understand why someone is lucky enough to win the lottery twice, or is destined to be hit by lightning three times and still survive. All we need is to understand statistical probability of very large numbers.

5. Why should I have a bias against supernatural claims?

Because supernatural claims are a dime a dozen performed by self-proclaimed miracle-workers claiming to have a special relationship with a different god from the gods of another self-proclaimed miracle-workers. The ancient world is littered with false miracle claims, virgin births, demigods, people who lived up to a thousand years, darkness covering the land, and miraculously sent fires floods and droughts.

Who’s claiming responsibility for any given miracle? Believing in god does not increase the odds that a medical miracle took place, for it depends on which god is claiming responsibility. Getting that right is very important. Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Mormons all claim their god does miracles for them. But if a god does these miracles he is providing believers with evidence their own faiths are all correct, and thereby stoking the fires of religious hatred around the world. This god is a god of hate.

6. What are natural occurrences that people often mistake for miracles?

Almost any event with extremely low odds can be viewed by unthinking believers incorrectly as a miracle.

7. What advice would you give people in the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition?

The same advice I give to any religious believer. When you become adults you must critically examine for the first time the religious faith you were taught as if you were an outsider to it. Given the proliferation of religious faiths around the globe we know that learning one’s religious faith from our parents is a very unreliable way to come to the truth about religion. Test it by demanding hard objective evidence for everything you are asked to believe, just as you now do to the religions you reject. This is the best and only way to know which religion is true, if there is one.

The chicken or the egg problem. How do believers know there’s a god? Because of supposed miracles. Yet miracles are impossible in the natural world without a supernatural god. Therefore believers have to presuppose god to verify miracles. Presupposing a god to justify miracles in order to believe in miracles is arguing in a circle. Demand the kind of objective evidence that an outsider requires.