Claims that Prayer Cures Disease

green blogs--bacteria under a microscopeWashington recently declared a state epidemic for pertussis (whooping cough).  Pertussis hasn’t been this bad in Washington for decades.  The number of cases (close to 2000) is already ten times the number from last year.

Before routine child vaccination in the 1940s, pertussis caused thousands of fatalities annually in the U.S.

You might imagine that this is a story about anti-vaxers, afraid of a perceived vaccine-autism link, who have refused to vaccinate their children and helped create this epidemic.  Not this time.  The anti-vaccine movement seems not to be a factor.

Instead, the interesting angle on this story is not disease prevented by vaccine but disease prevented by prayer.  Kingdom League International, an online ministry based in western Washington, says in a brief article titled “Whooping Cough Epidemic Halted in Jefferson County”:

Churches in Jefferson County [one of those hardest hit by the statewide epidemic] used our strategy to mobilize prayer and establish councils to connect in 7 spheres of society.*  On Mar 27 they met and a County Commissioner asked them to pray about the whooping cough epidemic. …  As of April 13 there has not been one case reported.  From epidemic proportions to zero.

A bold claim, but the only evidence is that of the improvement in statistics.  The elephant in the room, of course, is whether we can find natural explanations besides prayer to explain the facts.  And, of course, we can.  Epidemics peak and then diminish, particularly when there’s an effective health system in place that can administer vaccines.  There were 21 confirmed cases for this county in 2012, with no new cases since mid-April.  Is this remarkable?  Is this unexplained by the efforts of the public health system?  Looks to me like an epidemic that’s simply run its course.

Not surprisingly, I jumped into a discussion with the author in the comment section.  Aside from being asked my faith status (though I’m not sure how this affects one’s ability to evaluate evidence), I got the expected tsunami of miracle claims—a bad knee healed, a barren woman now pregnant, lung cancer cured, demons cast out, blindness healed, a stroke patient recovering, a rainstorm to break a heat wave, a cracked rib healed, and so on.

(For comparison, consider the pinnacle of medical cure sites, Lourdes.  After 150 years as a pilgrimage site and with six million visitors per year, the Catholic Church has recognized just 67 miraculous cures.)

I pointed out to my Kingdom League correspondent that natural explanations hadn’t been ruled out.  Surprisingly, there was no interest in doing so.

I tried to portray this as a missed opportunity.  If these claims are more than just anecdotal, then this group should create a dossier of x-rays, test results, photographs, or other evidence, both before and after the miracle.  Add the report of the doctor who witnessed the change and then show this to the Centers for Disease Control or an epidemiologist or some other qualified authority.  Why hide your light under a basket?  Jesus had no problem using miracles to prove his divinity (John 10:37–8).

There seems to be no shortage of these miracles (at least in their minds), so if one miracle claim isn’t convincing, then pray for some more and try again to convince the skeptics.

That this group has no interest in going beyond feel-good anecdotes makes me think that they understand that their claims wouldn’t withstand scrutiny, not because skeptics wouldn’t play fair, but because honestly evaluating the claims would show them to be little more than wishful thinking.

Pray v. To ask the laws of the universe to be annulled
on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Addendum 6/1/12: After further discussion with the author of the KLI article, he reminded me that links in the comment section give more than anecdotal information, including this article in the Southern Medical Journal.

*KLI focuses on the Dominionists’ Seven Spheres of Influence.

Photo credit: AJC1

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Christians as Star Trek Fans

fiction that undercuts Christian apologeticsChristians are modern people, no less intelligent than any other group of people, and yet they jump into a world of ancient mythology and act like it’s real.  They’re like trekkers who dress up as Vulcans or Klingons at a Star Trek convention.  Or as Imperial Storm Troopers or Wolverine at a Comicon or Dragon*con.

The difference, of course, is that faux Vulcans or Klingons know that it’s just for fun.  They might spend lots of time and money on their costumes.  They might learn to speak Vulcan or Klingon.  But at the end of the conference, they put conventional clothes back on and reenter conventional society.  They know it’s fiction.

In a similar way, Christians leave church and reenter conventional society.  Some know (or suspect) that the mythology isn’t real, like a trekker who’s in it for the pageantry and camaraderie, but many Christians do live the mythology.

This reminds me of the M*A*S*H television episode where Radar O’Reilly tells Sidney the psychiatrist that he has a teddy bear and wonders if he’s crazy.

“Me and my teddy bear are very close,” Radar said.  “I mean … sometimes I talk to it.”

“Does it ever talk back?” Sidney asked.

“No!”

“You know how many people write letters to Romeo and Juliet and think that ‘I Love Lucy’ is real?” Sidney said.  “Those people are living nice, safe lives, with towels and sheets.  They’re not up to their ankles in mud, blood, and death the way you are.”

Sidney predicts that Radar probably won’t need the teddy bear once he leaves Korea.  In Radar’s last episode, this prophecy is fulfilled.

You can get through life thinking that “I Love Lucy” or some other sitcom is real, or that food is produced at the grocery store, or that electricity is made somewhere on the other side of the electric plug but with no idea of how.  You can imagine that 9/11 was a conspiracy, that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax, that homeopathy works, or that we live in the end times.

Or that God exists.

During medieval times and before, people did know where food came from (and horseshoes and wagons and cathedrals and any other element of their lives) because if they didn’t participate in that industry personally, they’d at least have seen how it was done.

Though they had a thorough grasp of the simple technology of their world, they also believed lots of nutty stuff, religion included.  But, of course, they didn’t have an alternative.  They didn’t have modern science to explain away the superstition and poorly evidenced explanations.

Medieval society was harsh and unforgiving, but modern life coddles people.  It’s society with air bags.  Though they have little excuse, people can hold their unsupportable beliefs with little penalty.  They can see science and technology deliver nine times but still doubt it the tenth time, and they can see religion fail nine times but still expect it to succeed the tenth time.

Society insulates Christians from reality as if they were Klingons at a convention.  I just wish that, like the Klingons, they realized that it’s all just pretend.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • Damon Young, “Believers share their dubious apologetics with Trekkers,” The Drum Opinion, 4/13/12.

Word of the Day: Public Square

Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech assuring the public that his Catholicism would not affect his decisions as president?  While Rick Santorum was still a candidate for president, he said about Kennedy’s speech:

Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the [Kennedy] speech, and I almost threw up.  You should read the speech.

Hold on to your lunch, because we’re going to do just that.  Here’s the central theme in what JFK said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Santorum, who, like JFK, is Catholic, critiques this thinking as follows:

Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, “No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.”  Go on and read the speech.

When asked about the throwing up bit, he elaborated:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?  That makes me throw up.

Huh?  The guy is a lawyer, a two-time U.S. Representative, and a two-time U.S. Senator.  Does he really not get it?  I suppose the most charitable assumption is that he’s just playing to his electorate.

There are two meanings to “public square,” and Santorum confuses (or deliberately conflates) them here.  The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights and, with some exceptions, we can say whatever we want in the literal public square.  Hand out religious leaflets on a street corner.  Stand on a soap box and preach like they do in Hyde ParkWear a sign proclaiming the end of the world.  Everyone agrees that the right that allows people of faith to speak in the public square is important.  It is not under attack, and atheists defend Christians’ right to speak as strongly as Christians do.

The other public square is the government-supported public square—schools, courthouses, government buildings.  The rules are different here.  The First Amendment constrains government when it says, in part, “Congress [that is: government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Government must stay out of religion.  No prayers or religiously motivated science in public schools.  No Moses holding the Ten Commandments glaring down at you in a courtroom (as a collection of historic lawmakers, this is okay).  No “In God We Trust” as a motto behind the city council (yeah, I know that we have that, but it’s still unconstitutional).

And isn’t this best for the Christian as well?  No Wiccan or Satanist prayers in public schools.  No Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down from the courtroom wall.  No “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script behind the city council.

Keeping government out of the public square helps the Christian as much as it does the atheist.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Ten Commandments have no Role in Public

Apologetics and freethoughtSome Christians have no patience with a separation between church and state and want to display the Ten Commandments in the public square—the state-supported public square.

Judge Roy Moore is an example. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore installed a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Supreme Court building showing two tablets holding the Ten Commandments in 2001. He said, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” A lawsuit was filed, Moore lost, he was ordered to remove the monument, he refused, and he was removed from office.

And now he is the leading candidate for getting his old job back. We live in interesting times.

A 2007 poll compared Americans’ knowledge of the Ten Commandments with the seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger. More people remembered “two all-beef patties” from the TV commercial than remembered “thou shalt not kill” from Sunday school. Even among churchgoers, 30% didn’t remember “thou shalt not kill,” and 31% didn’t remember “thou shalt not steal.”

One atheist wit observed that the Big Mac had an unfair advantage—it had a jingle. Solution: set the Ten Commandments to music. “Only God, no idols, watch your mouth, special day, call your mom … on a sesame seed bun.”

How big a deal is this? Does poor recall of the Ten Commandments correlate to poor morals? I say no, and I think Americans’ poor memory in this case isn’t a shocking oversight; instead, it reflects the irrelevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life. We don’t need the Commandments to remind us that killing is wrong, and they’re not an especially complete or relevant list for secular America. “Don’t enslave,” “don’t rape,” and “no genocide” are glaringly absent, and “have no other gods before me” has no place in the state-supported public square.

(Sorry, pro-lifers—abortion was obviously not top of mind for God when he dictated the Commandments, since he included “don’t covet” but omitted “no abortion.”)

To wiggle out of uncomfortable baggage, some Christians try to play the “Get out of the Old Testament free” card. They do this when they want to talk about slavery and genocide being a product of that foreign culture. Okay, but then haven’t you shed the Ten Commandments as well, since that’s also in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is relevant today or it isn’t—it can’t be both ways.

As ancient legal codes go, the Mosaic law isn’t all that groundbreaking. It is predated by not only the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi but Mesopotamian law and Egyptian law. In fact, the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which many history revisionists claim holds the Ten Commandments, is actually a frieze of Moses along with two other ancient lawmakers, Solon (Athens) and Confucius (China). This artwork is shown in the photo above. And no, Moses isn’t holding the Ten Commandments but rather blank tablets. Moses is also depicted on a frieze inside the courtroom, but he is simply in a procession of 18 great lawmakers.

What if all people followed the basic conventions that society agrees are its moral foundation? That would be great, but if this happened, why give the credit to Christianity? That is, why point to morality and say, “Aha! That’s the good ol’ Ten Commandments they’re following!” No, morality comes from society. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of some of the best traits from society, not the other way around.

What if we discarded the religious baggage—important within Christianity but irrelevant to the secular, all-inclusive society—and distilled down social wisdom into a secular Ten Commandments? Here’s a version from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible.

1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous

At least, sincerely try.

NYC Atheists has an excellent version here (search for “Atheist Freedoms” on page 4). And here is Christopher Hitchens’ version (skip in the video to 6:30)

The Ten Commandments is nothing more than a fragment of an interesting historical document. An example from Georgia shows the problems with treating it as if it’s more than this. Poverty in that state has recently increased so that it is now the third-poorest state. What is its legislature spending time on? Getting the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools.

I guess it’s easier than actually solving problems.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully
as when they do it from religious conviction.
— Pascal

Photo credit: djv2130

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  • “National Capitol,” Snopes.

Conference Notes

Why imagine that there is a god?I recently returned from the Orange County Freethought Alliance conference.  Though a local conference, it had an impressive lineup.  Of course, they had an advantage with some well-known Los Angeles-area speakers: Michael Shermer (Skeptic magazine), Phil Zuckerman, Jim Underdown, Brian Dunning, Mr. Deity (Brian Dalton), Eddie Tabash, and Heina Dadabhoy (Muslim blogger at Skepchick.org).  But they also had some great out-of-towners: Robert Price, Aron Ra, Richard Carrier, Barbara Forrest (expert witness in Kitzmiller v. Dover), David Silverman, and Dan Barker (FFRF).

I’ll give some (probably disjointed) highlights.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said that the next Reason Rally is scheduled for 2016 (location unknown).  He also said that Fox News has reported that they will become more centrist.

Lawyer Eddie Tabash emphasized that the next president will almost surely pick a Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Ginsberg (now 79 years old) at least.  He spoke about being at the recent $15 million Obama fundraiser hosted by George Clooney.  When he got his two minutes with Obama, Tabash quipped, “I am the first atheist in history to be in the presence of his savior.”

To emphasize the judicial predicament that thoughtful Americans are in, he gave this fun quote:

Disfavoring practicing homosexuals in custody matters promotes the general welfare of the people of our State. … The State carries the power of the sword, that is, the power to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution.  It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle…  Homosexual behavior is a ground for divorce, an act of sexual misconduct punishable as a crime in Alabama, a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it.

That’s Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore referring to a 2002 custody case involving a lesbian mother.  He was later removed from office after refusing to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse.  (Perhaps that humiliation is a selling point to some voters since he’s the favorite to regain his former job this November.)

In June 2005, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that

The [First Amendment’s] Establishment Clause … permits the disregard of devout atheists.

And Clarence Thomas has said that the Establishment Clause limits only the federal government, not state governments.  That is, in his mind state governments aren’t bound by the constraint to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Sounds more like April Fool’s Day than that these are the considered opinions of state and federal Supreme Court justices.

On a lighter note, Brian Dunning (Skeptoid podcast) gave a puzzle.  The full moon is the same size as what held at arm’s length?  Is it a ball bearing, a pea, a dime, a nickel, a quarter, a silver dollar, a plum, or a baseball?  (The answer is below.)  This was an especially apt puzzle since we had a spectacular partial (80%) solar eclipse at the end of the conference.

Dunning gave himself as an example of how tenacious false beliefs can be.  After he concluded that vitamin C had no effect on colds, it took a year to wean himself off of it.  This is like Greta Christina’s gradual acceptance of the lack of evidence for glucosamine as joint medicine or Sam Harris’s Fireplace Delusion.  It helps to understand our own blind spots when we try to understand those of other people.

Richard Carrier, newly famous because of his online argument with Bart Ehrman about the Jesus Myth theory, talked about the fine-tuning argument.  It was a good talk and especially helpful because I’d read Vic Stenger’s The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning and hadn’t gotten the concise summary that I was hoping for.  I’ll leave a more detailed summary of this talk for later.

Michael Shermer talked about “The Moral Arc of Reason.”  He noted that asking, “Why should we be good without God?” is like asking “Why should we be hungry (or jealous or happy or any other human feeling) without God?”  These are all natural feelings with plausible natural causes.

He used graphs and statistics to argue that things are getting better within society (wars, income, and other social metrics), much like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  But why is this not simply an aberration?  Why imagine that this is a legitimate trend within society and not cherry picking of the data?  Shermer argued for a moral equivalent of the Flynn Effect, the startling effect that has caused an increase in average IQ scores of about three points per decade, perhaps for as long as a century.  The Flynn Effect has been (tentatively) explained with the hypothesis that modern society has trained us to be better in abstract reasoning (mentally moving 3D shapes, for example).  Perhaps there is a moral equivalent at work as well, that modern society has given us a new appreciation for peace and harmony.

I have long been fascinated with the work of Phil Zuckerman, who (along with Gregory Paul) has shown the far better social metrics of less-religious countries compared to the religious U.S.  Zuckerman talked about the new Secular Studies major he developed at Pitzer.

Barbara Forrest of SE Louisiana University, an expert witness in the Dover trial, says that “critical analysis of evolution” and “academic freedom” are some of the new creationist code words.

Jim Underdown is a paranormal investigator who will be on Dr. Phil debunking psychics this week (“Inside the Other Side,” 5/25/12).  He noted that the Bible’s miracle claims are similar to today’s paranormal claims, which have been tested and debunked.  The one million dollar JREF prize for a successful paranormal demonstration remains unclaimed, for example.

The answer to Brian Dunning’s puzzle: the full moon is the same size as a pea held at arm’s length.  My guess was a dime, so I need to try this myself to verify it.

Played at the conference, here’s Jesus singing “I will survive” (a must-see if you haven’t watched this before).


Photo credit: Mirror