This is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, but I was inspired to finally do it by the American Freethought podcast. They put out a list of essential books, with the results taken from numerous important atheists/skeptics/freethinkers/whatevers. Their list is good, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I have no interest in, or I think is overrated. (On the Origin of Species is an important book historically, but there are far better books on evolution for you to read, with up-to-date science.)
Tag Archive: supernatural
Usually when someone is arguing that psychics aren’t real, they talk about cold reading, self-delusion, and the willingness to believe. In other words, they explain how a psychic is doing what they’re doing.
I’m going to try a different take. I’m going to try to show that what psychics claim to be doing is impossible, by using evolution as our guide.
It’s hard to talk to people about supernatural or paranormal claims, especially when you’re a Skeptic with a capital S. People think you’re just closed to anything that doesn’t fit into a strict naturalistic worldview, which just isn’t true. I like to say that I’ll believe in anything, literally anything, as long as it’s backed up by evidence. That doesn’t usually help though.
I think part of the problem is just in how we divide the world around us, by definition. Everybody agrees that the natural world exists (and if they don’t, run!) but people also divide things into two other categories, mentioned above, so they think that reality is split into the natural, the supernatural, and the paranormal (possibly others, but I’m going to focus on these three). The natural, of course, is everything around us that can be studied and explained by science. The supernatural is the spiritual world, the realm of religion and mysticism. The paranormal is stuff like psychic powers, aliens, cryptids, and ghosts.
However, terms like “supernatural” and “paranormal” are unnecessary. They just complicate things, don’t actually define anything, and give many claims more credence than they deserve. It’s time we stopped using them.
This is the book I wish everybody on the planet would read. Or at least my friends and family.
The best thing about this book is that it conveys the reasoning behind atheism without being even remotely condescending toward believers. It wasn’t written to convert people, or prove who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just trying to inform.
Not only does the book inform you about atheism and, being a book with a “western world” mindset, Christianity, but it also delves into many other world religions, some of which I’ve never even heard of. Harrison seems to have led a fascinating life so far, traveling the world and seeing many different types of people and cultures, and he gladly shares some of his stories and experiences while at the same time using them to illustrate the idea he’s trying to convey in a given chapter.
The format of the book is ideal for this sort of topic. Each of the titular 50 reasons is given its own chapter, and each chapter can be read on its own, without having read any of the previous chapters. The chapters are, on average, about 7 pages long. This means that each chapter covers its intended topic thoroughly without going overboard with unnecessary prose or over-elaborate explanations.
No matter what you believe, this book will give you a lot to think about.
Series: Bevans The Atheist
NOTE: I’m currently re-writing this post. I don’t think I’ve adequately explained my true feelings on this matter.
If you read my previous posts in this series, you may have noticed that I’m basically explaining my belief system backwards, because I feel like that’s the best way to explain it. Or maybe I’m saving the really good stuff for the end. The root question of religion is whether or not there is a god/gods, and that will be covered in my next post in this series. Then there’s the “what’s he like” question, which is covered by specific religions, which I’ll be addressing in this post. Then there’s the “how do we know that X religion is right” question, which I at least partially addressed in my previous post in this series. That’s kinda confusing, isn’t it? Oh well. On with the show.
This is probably going to make a lot of people very angry.
People who accept some form of Christianity believe certain things that set it apart from other religions. Some of the most important are:
- God created the universe.
- Jesus is the son of God (or he is God…or something).
- Jesus is the savior of mankind.
- Jesus died to redeem our sins.
- Jesus came back from the dead.
- Jesus is coming back someday, and he’s totally gonna fuck us up.
- The Bible is friggin’ awesome.
I’m going to save #1 for my next post, because it’s a big’un.
Let’s start with #7. Christians believe many things about the Bible, like:
- It’s literally true.
- It’s figuratively true.
- It’s a guide to leading a better life.
Those are huge simplifications, and I’m not even covering all the angles, but I want to stay brief and readable here; if this gets too long, I’ll have to distribute this post in paperback form. (That’s a joke of course – there is no limit to how much you can write in a digital format.)
Well, we know that the Bible isn’t literally true; at least not the whole thing. Genesis is obviously completely wrong. We’ve discovered things like evolution and the big bang and archaeology and stuff. This fact shouldn’t shock you. Also, there are countless contradictions and errors.
So is it figuratively true? Well, that’s an extremely vague way to put it. I guess you could say that such an indefinable idea can be applied to the Bible. There are so many different stories in the Bible that you can read that you’ll inevitably come across one that makes you say “gee, that’s kinda like _____” and it can help you in your everyday life. But the same can be said of other ancient texts, or the Iliad, or the works of Shakespeare, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the 4th season of King of Queens (if there even was a 4th season) or whatever you have sitting on your coffee table.
So, does the Bible really help you lead a better life? Again, it basically comes down to which text you choose to guide you. There’s certainly a lot of good stuff in there, like “love thy neighbor as thyself” and all that. But there’s also a lot of horrible, insane stuff in there. Even ignoring the entire Old Testament, for every inspiring passage, there’s one that makes me wonder why the book has sold as well as it has. There are far more reasonable, well-written, and helpful books out there that can help you lead a better life.
To better understand the Bible, I strongly urge you to check out the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.
Now, let’s examine the elephant in the room: Jesus.
Pretty much everything we know (or think we know) about Jesus comes from the Bible. And as we’ve established, the Bible is full of contradiction and error. Not only was the New Testament written decades after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, but it has been translated, mistranslated, reinterpreted, and rewritten numerous times over the centuries. For example, the idea that Mary was a virgin comes as a result of a mistranslation in the King James Bible. The word for “young woman” was mistaken for the word for “virgin”.
You know, I’m having a really hard time putting my thoughts into words here. I’ve read, watched, and listened to a lot of fascinating info on the origins of the Bible and the story of Jesus for my entire adult life, and there’s a whole lot of very compelling reasons to doubt it all, but putting dozens of sources together into cohesive sentences here is…daunting.
Well, to pull myself out of the corner that I’ve written myself into here, I’ll instead focus on what I DO believe about who Jesus was.
I don’t have a problem with assuming that he did exist. But his story has been so distorted over the years – adapted to fit the prophecies, merged with other savior stories, and so on – that it’s probably impossible to know who he really was. My guess is that he was just one of many charismatic philosophers of the time, and he happened to draw a bigger crowd than the others. He had a lot of good things to say, and a lot of people liked him. He upset the status quo, and was executed as a result. No miracles, no magic, no resurrection, no coming apocalypse (except that which we create for ourselves). To me, he’s a historical figure like Shakespeare or Homer (why do I keep going back to those two?) in that there are doubts about whether they even existed.
Maybe he believed that he was really the son of God. If so, he was unfortunately deluded, because (as I’ll explain in my next post in this series) there’s no such thing. All in all, he seems like he was a good guy, so I hate to have to take him down a few pegs like this. My ingrained Christian indoctrination is making this topic very uncomfortable.
If, right now, you’re thinking “that was all crap!”, I pretty much agree with you. In this post, I tried to succinctly explain my true feelings about Christianity, and I failed miserably. But I’ve laid down a framework, and I’ll be coming back to this post to revise and add to it as I am able. Really, there’s so much to talk about on this subject that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get everything written out definitively.
I also wanted to point out why I’m not providing any links to my sources for what I’m saying here. For one, I don’t feel like it. I’d wind up spending way too much time tracking down my sources and linking them here. And really, would it matter if I did? I’m not trying to convince anyone here; I’m trying to say why I’ve come to the conclusions that I have.
This is a pretty interesting concept.
As the story goes, a doctor named Duncan MacDougall proved that the soul exists because he found that people weigh less (about 21 grams) after they die than they did just before death. These results were reported in the New York Times numerous times after the study was performed…in 1907.
I guess science reporting was as crappy 100 years ago as it is now. But, rather than just dismiss this out of hand as we probably should, let’s analyze it a bit.
First, it’s pretty lazy logical thinking to assume that, even if there IS a difference in weight, that it automatically means that it’s the result of the soul leaving the body. It’s only 21 grams (or 3/4 of an ounce), so we’re not talking about a whole lot of weight. I’m no doctor, but I can think of a few ways that this could be attributed to something besides a phenomenon that has never been proven to exist.
- Breath leaving the body. Contrary to popular belief, air DOES have weight, though it’s very low. When a person dies, their lungs deflate, and a lot of air is expelled from the body. I wouldn’t even bring this up, except for the fact that the missing weight is only 21 grams. It also goes hand-in-hand with my next idea:
- Moisture leaving the body. Your breath has moisture in it, after all. Just breathe on a piece of glass and it’ll fog up. When the breath leaves the body, it takes some moisture with it. I’m guessing that the moisture is probably heavier than the actual air.
- Snopes has what I think is the most reasonable explanation, from the American Medicine journal:
“…MacDougall…failed to take into account the sudden rise in body temperature at death when the blood stops being air-cooled via its circulation through the lungs….[The] sweating and moisture evaporation caused by this rise in body temperature would account both for the drop in the men’s weight and the dogs’ failure to register one.”
More on the dogs later.
(I feel like a real reporter or something. I just used a quote from a medical journal.)
- Were such large scales in 1907 even able to measure with such accuracy? Maybe I’m underestimating the technology of the time. MacDougall says in his paper that his “scales were sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce”. That doesn’t seem accurate enough to me, especially considering how difficult it must be to balance a body on what must be a pretty large scale.
Anyway, we’re still talking about 21 grams here.
Let’s examine the study itself now. Was the study well done? What was the sample size?
Six. He weighed six people before and after they died. This is nowhere near a sufficient sample size for any scientific or medical study. Except that two of the six subjects weren’t able to be weighed, so really it’s just four people in this study. Only one of the 4 actually lost 3/4 of an ounce, and the others were far less exact. This study is quite a mess.
Ok, I think I’ve beaten this into the ground. However, MacDougall still may have stumbled upon something here. Maybe somebody has duplicated his results over the years. Well, I did do some limited searching for similar studies, and I didn’t find any evidence that supports MacDougall’s claims, although that doesn’t mean that the evidence isn’t out there. In fact, I did find one study that showed that the body actually increased in weight after death, but it was a pretty lousy study too, and they were weighing sheep.
You know, these days it would be very easy to perform our own scientific study of this “phenomenon”. Some modern hospital beds have built-in scales and automatic monitoring that could easily detect this weight loss, if it’s happening. It should be fairly easy to look at the weight logs of a few thousand people who died in a hospital equipped with these beds and figure out if they’re losing any weight when they die.
Of course, even if you established that they do, you still need to establish that it’s linked to the soul leaving the body, and to do that you would first need to prove that the soul actually exists. Good luck with that, and remember Occam’s Razor.
On a related note, I just sent this subject in to Skeptoid as a suggestion for a future episode. I’d love to hear Dunning’s take on it, but I’m sure he’s got much more important stories to tackle.