Enough Already with this Holy Spirit Crap

…unless there’s reliable, verifiable, objective data

Sometimes I dream weird, surreal, even alarming stuff. When I wake up, I wonder how in the world my brain mixed/garbled so many different elements from my memories. I have to be fully awake before I realize I’m back in reality. My bedtime routine always includes a glass of wine, so maybe that provides some of the fuel! My brain had been busy for the hours I was asleep. But what it if wasn’t just my brain? Is it possible that I was getting input from the spiritual realm? Belief in an afterlife probably arose because people saw deceased friends and relatives in their dreams—so, wow, they weren’t dead after all. 


There have been a lot of foolish, even dangerous ideas passed along by people who claim to have heard from the spiritual realm, via dreams, visions, hallucinations. These are the currencies of religions. Commonly, a religious seer just has to describe his vision to an audience of his/her choosing, and voilà, people follow in awe of this “person of god.” Christians claim that a third of their god is indeed a holy spirit. (Holy ghost has gone out of fashion!) They insist that their spirit is the truly holy one, and that it is at the top of the hierarchy.


But the moment you accept the spiritual realm as a real thing, you’ve got competition. 


The Catholic Church claims that there are thousands of dead saints active in the spiritual realm—not dead after all—hearing and answering prayers. It would seem they’ve been assigned to handle some of the Christian god’s workload. I’ve seen women in Cathedrals grasping the frames of saint paintings as they pray, probably assuming that more saintly power will flow into their own bodies. Some of the saints—especially Mary, the Queen of Heaven—occasionally show up on earth. If Catholic theology embraces this idea, how can it deny that séances are a real thing? There are mediums who claim they communicate with those who have passed to the spiritual realm—and coax them to show up for visits in darkened rooms. How does this differ from praying to saints? Indeed, Margaret Downey doesn’t see any difference: 


“Religion, after all, is based on superstitious nonsense, and people sitting in church pews praying to a god are no different from people sitting in a circle conducting a séance.” (50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, eds. Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk)


Likewise, there are those who believe that ouija boards work for the same reason: spirits are involved in the process, offering guidance and warnings. 


We are asked to believe as well that, in opposition to all those Catholic saints, there are spiritual beings who are up to no good. In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel—the first one to be written—we read about this Jesus encounter: 


“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be quiet and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” (vv. 23-26)


The unclean spirit knew who Jesus was because they both were from the spiritual realm. In Mark chapter 5 Jesus faces a mob of demons/unclean spirits who have been tormenting a deranged man wandering among tombs for years. They too recognize Jesus and plead to be transferred into nearby pigs. Jesus obliges—presumably using a magic spell of some kind—and the agitated pigs run off the cliff into the sea. The ultimate demon, of course, is Satan, and at the opening of the Jesus story, the latter—of course, the superior spiritual being—defeats the temptations offered by Satan. 


We wonder how many Christians take such claims seriously, e.g., thousands of saints, hovering to answer prayers, unclean spirits ruining people’s lives—and a spiritual realm that can be accessed via séances. Since priests and preachers don’t encourage rigorous critical thinking about the religious ideas they push—the folks in the pews are not prodded to question everything—the percentage of those who go along is probably pretty high. Especially in those congregations that recite the traditional creeds every Sunday.  


In an article published here last week by John W. Loftus, William Lane Craig Utterly Fails In Searching for Truth Given the Human Propensity to Fool Ourselves, he highlights the astoundingly deficient approach of Craig in defending the supreme spirit. The true scandal is that someone who should know better demonstrates such shallow thinking. Craig has maintained that unschooled laypeople—that is, “A believer who is too uninformed or unequipped to refute anti-Christian arguments” should still hold on to the faith because of “the witness of the Spirit in his heart.” Such a believer, “because of the work of the Holy Spirit,” is “within his epistemic rights—nay, under epistemic obligation—to believe in God.” Loftus posted another article recently, The Fatal Flaw In William Lane Craig's Psychic Epistemology, elaborating on this delusion.


Is Craig simply daft? This claim is so common among many religions: the spirit of their god(s), “witnessed in the heart,” guarantees that they’re right. Maybe he’s not daft, just clueless. Loftus answers bluntly: “There are two major reasons to reject what Craig says. In the first place he's deceiving himself, and secondarily he's giving Christian believers permission to deceive themselves.” We know too much now

about why the human brain embraces religion, as John C. Wathey has shown so thoroughly in his book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing. This book is an important resource, with a hundred pages of footnotes and references. If you want to do serious study on the biological origins of belief in spirits, this book is basic homework.


But what can we say about the Holy Spirit’s job performance? Let’s consider a couple of issues.


ONE: We’re assured by devout Christians that the holy spirit inspired the Bible. If that is true, why is this “good book” such a disappointment? Many of the laypeople who have managed to read the whole thing might agree with Hector Avalos’ suggestion that 95 percent of the Bible would not be missed—although they might keep this opinion to themselves. They have encountered precisely what Peter J. Brancazio has described in his analysis of a major portion of the Old Testament: 


“The reader who has proceeded in order through the books of the prophets may feel a great sense of relief upon completing this trying task. The prophetic writings are often tedious, repetitious, and undistinguished. Memorable passages are few and far between…With a few exceptions—notably, the poetry of Isaiah, the personal torment of Jeremiah, the bizarre images of Ezekiel, the fanciful tale of Jonah—the prophetic books leave no lasting positive impression.”  (p. 232, The Bible from Cover to Cover: How Modern-Day Scholars Read the Scriptures)


“…the Book of Job does not paint a very attractive picture of God; he has treated Job and his family rather shabbily. Indeed, the moral of the story seems to be that God is ultimately indifferent to the suffering of humans.” (p. 252, The Bible from Cover to Cover)


How can the Holy Spirit be given a passing grade for its depiction of the Bible god? For more detail, see Dan Barker’s God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, and Steve Wells, Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible. It won’t do for Christians to run to the New Testament; god doesn’t get much better there. For the apostle Paul, god’s default emotion is wrath, and in Jesus-script we find references to eternal fire as punishment for sin. Moreover, for all the supposedly feel-good texts about love in the New Testament, even Christians—although they flinch at this truth—flatly reject so many Jesus quotes, as I document in my book, Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught. Jesus himself endorsed the Holy Spirit crap—well, at least in Jesus-script found in Mark 3:28-29: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”




Craig is sure that the witness of the holy spirit in the hearts of Christians amounts to an epistemic obligation to believe in the god. But here again the holy spirit has made a big mess of things, as Dan Barker has pointed out:


“Believers regularly take opposing positions on such matters as capital punishment, abortion, pacifism, birth control, physician-assisted suicide, animal rights, the environment, the separation of church and state, gay and women’s rights. It might be concluded that from this that there is either a multitude of gods handing out conflicting moral advice, or a single god who is hopelessly confused.” (Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist


I published an article here almost five years ago about the huge, inexplicable division of opinion that would emerge if we asked a thousand devout prayer experts to go into their most intense meditation modes, to ask god a list of questions. The chances they all would agree on god’s answers are just about zero. There is no way this could happen if an infallible holy spirit is on duty communicating the will of an infallible god. 


This is all the more obvious when we consider the splintering of Christianity into thousands of different denominations, divisions, sects, and cults. Christians cannot agree on what god is like, how it expects people to behave, and how it wants to be worshipped. How is this possible if Christians are “witnessing the spirit in their hearts”? Catholics, it would seem, are epistemically obligated to believe in a god whose supreme representative on earth is the pope, while legions of Protestants are epistemically obligated to deny this categorically. The failure of the holy spirit to set Christians straight is a scandal. When devout folks—from the pope on down—go into their intense prayer modes, they’re not communicating with a god, Jesus or a holy spirit. They’re talking to themselves. They may feel the “witness of the holy spirit in their hearts”—which is evidence for what they’re feeling, nothing more. For it to be anything more, we need reliable, verifiable, objective data to back up the claim.


Question everything must be the approach when we read Bible tales about the holy spirit at work, e.g., people getting instructions from god though dreams, wonders displayed by spirit visitations, and Jesus confronting demons. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel reports that Joseph found out in a dream—in which he saw an angel—that Mary was pregnant by the holy spirit. Any truly curious reader must adopt the thinking of a historian: how did the gospel author, who wrote some eighty years after the birth of Jesus, find this out? Matthew copied so much from Mark’s gospel, but the latter says nothing about the birth of Jesus. It’s unremarkable that Joseph might have had dreams, but did Matthew’s author have access to Joseph’s diary, in which the latter recorded the content of his dream? Joseph was a Galilean peasant; did he even know how to write? Question everything. No, it won’t do to argue that the holy spirit inspired Matthew to report Joseph’s dream. That is a faith affirmation—explaining one fantasy element with another fantasy element—and has so place in the writing of history. 


By the way, Matthew also reports that the Wise Men—who had come “from the East” to worship Jesus—were warned in a dream to go directly home, rather than report back to Herod that they’d found Jesus in Bethlehem. Same question: who interviewed the Wise men to find this out? Moreover, there’s a major plot flaw here: the holy spirit must have been AWOL, in failing to tell the Wise Men to go straight to Bethlehem in their quest to find Jesus—instead of going to Jerusalem and telling Herod they were looking for the new king of the Jews. That would have prevented Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18).   


What do you do when you don’t have reliable, verifiable, objective data about the holy spirit? You put on a show—and ecclesiastical bureaucrats proved themselves masters of show business, i.e., worship services. You also create dramatic stories. Here’s one we find in the Book of Acts (2:1-4)


When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”


This certainly is dramatic, far from the inner witness of the Spirit: Sounds similar to violent wind filling the whole house, tongues of fire resting on each person, everyone speaking in tongues. Written decades after the supposed event, this is religious fantasy literature—unless letters, diaries, sworn affidavits taken at the time can be cited as evidence. 


Question everything: the concept of spirits hovering about and touching our hearts, and stories designed to make the spirit realm seem real. We need far more than “I feel it in my heart” to be convinced.  




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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