Christianity and the use of Anecdotal Evidence

June 30, 2007 at 6:10 pm 39 comments

The Ghost Map I just finished reading a terrific book called “The Ghost Map,” a nonfiction account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London. The story follows a scientist and a clergyman whose investigations pinpointed the source of the outbreak that killed hundreds of people within a week. Their work saved untold thousands of lives: Due to them, London never again suffered a cholera epidemic.

Before Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead proved that cholera is a water-borne illness, there were myriad theories about how it was transmitted and cured. The patent-medicine industry spent huge amounts on advertising all sorts of quack “remedies,” writes author Steven Johnson:

“Ordinary people had long cultivated their folk remedies and home-spun diagnoses, but until newspapers came along, they didn’t have a forum beyond word of mouth to share their discoveries. At the same time, the medical division of labor that we now largely take for granted – researchers analyze diseases and potential cures, doctors prescribe those cures based on their best assessment of the research – had only reached an embryonic state in the Victorian age. … For the most part, this meant that the newspapers of the day were filled with sometimes comic, and almost always useless, promises of easy cures for diseases that proved to be far more intractable than the quacks suggested.” pg. 46

Castor OilSome of the cures advertised for cholera included castor oil, disinfectant sprays, opium, ether, laudanum, linseed oil, hot compresses, heroin, leeches, laxatives and brandy, Johnson says. What no one ever proposed is the cure that actually works: hydration.

What was going on here? Anecdotal evidence. A particular cure would be administered and – lo and behold – the patient would recover! Someone would get a patent on the treatment and hawk it as a “miracle drug.” What people didn’t realize is that anecdotal evidence is next to useless: People recover spontaneously due to circumstances that have nothing to do with the “miracle drug.” Modern science teaches that valid data must be collected through rigorously controlled methodology and in large enough numbers to discount randomness and coincidence.

I often see religious people point to anecdotal evidence to “prove” the validity of their belief system. I understand the impulse: I grew up practically worshiping personal testimonies. “Jesus rescued me from sin,” “My life was terrible until I found the Lord,” “God healed me after I prayed.” Of course these experiences are meaningful for those who tell them. But are they really valid “evidence” for others to accept a particular truth?

My thinking on this changed radically around 2002, when I realized that all religious people recount personal experiences, mystical healings and life-changing “encounters with the divine.” My church taught me that the personal spiritual experiences of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, etc. were Satanic deceptions designed to trick them into believing wrong doctrine. But as my blinders came off, I contemplated: If I considered pro-Christian anecdotal evidence persuasive, how could I discount the anecdotal evidence of other groups?

My spiritual experiences couldn’t be verified by anyone other than me, yet I expected others to take them on face value. How could I be so arrogant as to discount the spiritual experiences of people from other religious traditions? In the end, I couldn’t. That left me with two choices: Either everyone’s sincerely believed, dearly held spiritual experiences are equally valid, or none of them are. This realization was the beginning of the end of my religious belief.

Today, anecdotal evidence doesn’t persuade me of the truth, just as it didn’t persuade Snow and Whitehead when they investigated the 1854 cholera epidemic. I’m glad to be in such distinguished company.

- Karen

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This one is for the ladies Talking to Fundies: A Day at the Beach

39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Heather  |  June 30, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    I’ve noticed something about the fundamentalist mindset, andn I’m curious if those who have grown up in that atmosphere have noticed the same thing.

    We’ve seen a lot of people come here saying that they were constantly having sex, or drinking, or being immoral and whatnot, and then found freedom when they ‘found’ God. But to me, it’s like they exhanged one control factor for another. Whereas before, the person might’ve constantly been having sex, or doing drugs, now the person is constantly talking about God, constanlty reminding others of his/her sin, and just coming across as ‘addicted’ as before. And yet they proclaim how free they are. But nothing in their focus has changed, they’ve just switched behaviors.

    Does anyone else notice this?

    Karen, if you’re curious, it was the personal testimonies comment that sparked this. :)

  • 2. Heather  |  June 30, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    Oh, and excellent article. Jesus makes a consistent mention of how one can determine his followers, and it’s by behavior. So shouldn’t a Muslim who pursues peace, is loving and caring fall into the same boat? The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ listed some distinctive ways of determing that fruit. If others demonstrate that fruit, how can we say that they are deceived? True deception would be a person going around killing people and saying that Jesus told him to do it, and it’s the fruit of the Spirit.

  • 3. mia kulpa  |  July 1, 2007 at 8:31 am

    An excellent post.

    I am new to WordPress, having just started my blog here yesterday. It seems a happy chance that I’ve come across your blog (on the Hot Posts list this morning) as many of the discussions going on here are about things that have been on my mind lately.

  • 4. Stephen  |  July 1, 2007 at 8:33 am

    That left me with two choices: Either everyone’s sincerely believed, dearly held spiritual experiences are equally valid, or none of them are.

    So what are your thoughts on the first possibility, that everyone’s experiences may be valid?

    You’ve described an important phenomenon: all around the world, people of different cultures testify that there is a spiritual dimension to reality. They interpret that dimension differently, to be sure. But here we have nearly universal agreement on the general phenomenon.

    For example, the existence of evil presents a well-known argument against God, as one of your fellow bloggers recently posted. On the other hand, millions of people have had the subjective experience of a loving God comforting them in their distress and upholding them spiritually through it.

    The mystery remains (Why doesn’t God just fix it?) — a mystery that theologians have always recognized and struggled with. Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence of a deity who cares is impressive for its universality.

    So what do you do with that data, aside from drawing the reasonable conclusion that fundamentalist Christians don’t have exclusive access to God?

  • 5. Tanglethis  |  July 1, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Stephen – what data?

    For example, the existence of evil presents a well-known argument against God, as one of your fellow bloggers recently posted. On the other hand, millions of people have had the subjective experience of a loving God comforting them in their distress and upholding them spiritually through it.

    Subjective is a good word for it. Since God doesn’t speak directly , the comfort and support that people receive from him is brought to them through the actions of human beings. That being might be the self – prayer and conviction in itself may comfort – or other people who bring change. But humans are meant to be creatures of free will, so whether the self or other’s behavior is self-driven or God-driven is a completely subjective interpretation, like the meaning of a poem.
    A hospital waiting room makes a good case study for this. My dad was in intensive care for many months, and I watched families come and go as their patients recovered or passed on. When families waited as long as mine did, they became very religious – so our (this included me) comfort came from an insistent belief that God would take care of us because we were special, and from the companionship of others with similar beliefs who could reinforce one another’s faith. When we thanked God, we thanked him for “minor miracles” wrought by medicine that the folks in The Ghost Map weren’t so lucky to have (were they less loved by God?), and for bringing like-minded people into our lives. You really have to already believe in God for that interpretation to have any teeth – it’s a perfect example of anecdotal evidence. We told ourselves “I prayed for a better heart rate today, and I got it. Prayer works!” when in the same room, there were non-believers or people openly angry at God who experienced no better or worse luck and comfort than we did.

  • 6. notabarbie  |  July 1, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Karen,
    Great post! Before I left Christianity, I had always wondered, why “our” testimonies were true and right and proof of the Christian God and yet all the others were lies and deceptions? I tried asking my sister, who is a Christian, this and it was as if it didn’t compute to her. She said, “Well we know that their testimonies are false, because they don’t believe in the Jesus of the Bible.” Huh? When I asked her about people whose lives had obviously been changed that had come from other religions, her response was that their supposed conversions probably won’t last and their good lives won’t get them to heaven anyway.” When I pointed out that there are “believers” that “fall away from their changed life,” and “non believers,” that don’t, she said that, “there are just some things we don’t understand.” I try to put myself back in that mind set and I can’t, thankfully.

    Heather,
    It always seemed t me that people who were the most out of control before they became Christians, were the most over the top after they “found God.” It’s like they believed they didn’t have the ability to control their own lives and then came upon something bigger that could do it for them, namely god, or if they had struggled with addiction, they would become addicted to god and religion, etc.

  • 7. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Heather:
    We’ve seen a lot of people come here saying that they were constantly having sex, or drinking, or being immoral and whatnot, and then found freedom when they ‘found’ God. But to me, it’s like they exhanged one control factor for another. Whereas before, the person might’ve constantly been having sex, or doing drugs, now the person is constantly talking about God, constanlty reminding others of his/her sin, and just coming across as ‘addicted’ as before. And yet they proclaim how free they are. But nothing in their focus has changed, they’ve just switched behaviors.

    Does anyone else notice this?

    Oh yeah, I find that very common. When I was involved in church in the 1990s, I was a leader in what we called “community outreach,” which was evangelizing the urban poor in the local area near the church. At that point I was also trying to stretch my fellow churchgoers into doing poverty-alleviation and education – like a food co-op I started, a tutoring program a friend started, job training another ministry started – rather than just preaching and not providing any material help to these people.

    So we would have people with drug problems, crime problems, alcoholism, etc. convert to Christianity through these outreach programs we were doing. They tended to be “manic” and addictive personalities, and I saw a lot of them trade addictions to street life and substance abuse for addictions to bible study, witnessing and emotional church services, which they would attend 4-5 times a week.

    Unfortunately, while some did stay with church and really grab hold of Christianity and make progress in their lives, I found the majority of those really addictive types didn’t stay with it. They would sooner or later stop coming around, and pretty soon we’d hear they’d been arrested again, or they’d come to a bible study and make big public confessions about their backsliding, and then disappear again.

    It’s like anything else in life – once you’ve established a pattern, it’s very tough to change it. In fact, watching that really was another thing that made me question my beliefs. We were telling these people that “supernatural” power, via the holy spirit, would help them make the change. So why did only the rare few really seem to permanently change? Where was that “magic” we promised them? Yes, there were one or two positive anecdotes we could point to as “evidence,” but In most cases it just didn’t work out.

  • 8. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    An excellent post.

    I am new to WordPress, having just started my blog here yesterday.

    Thank you! Welcome and glad you found us. :-)

  • 9. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Oh, and excellent article. Jesus makes a consistent mention of how one can determine his followers, and it’s by behavior.

    Exactly. And we can turn your question around, too, and ask this one: If we’re supposed to know true Jesus followers by their behavior, why do so few of them really demonstrate those “fruits of the spirit”? Isn’t that what Jesus promised, a measureable change in behavior that would be prompted by this supernatural entity living inside of us?

    So, where is it? And more importantly, why aren’t more Christians asking that question?

  • 10. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    So what are your thoughts on the first possibility, that everyone’s experiences may be valid?

    Wrestling with that question was the “end of the end” of my religious belief, actually, and it was the shortest and most easy part of the journey for me emotionally. I plan to write another post about that shortly, though, so stay tuned. ;-)

    You’ve described an important phenomenon: all around the world, people of different cultures testify that there is a spiritual dimension to reality. They interpret that dimension differently, to be sure. But here we have nearly universal agreement on the general phenomenon.

    Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence of a deity who cares is impressive for its universality. So what do you do with that data, aside from drawing the reasonable conclusion that fundamentalist Christians don’t have exclusive access to God?

    Good question. Daring to wonder if there was no god was frightening to me, and seemed very audacious. Every culture seems to have developed religion. How could I reject it?! Shocking! (it still shocks me occasionally ;-) )

    [As an aside: Julia Sweeney, in her wonderful "Letting Go of God" monologue, describes this exact moment in her life and how she actually stopped herself from thinking it for a while because it scared her so much. You can buy the CD of her show or download it from audible:
    http://www.juliasweeney.com/letting_go_mini/index.html
    I can't recommend it enough, it's fabulous.]

    After all, when you think about it, how much money’s been spent, how many wars have been fought, how many lives have been lost, how many “souls have been saved,” how many proclamations of belief have been uttered, how many churches, temples, mosques, etc have been built over the millennia? How could I possibly conclude that all that was for an imaginery being that humankind just … made up!?

    What I did with that audacious thought was to mull it over for several months. I researched scientific theories about how religion arose, and I looked into the history of how religion replicated itself throughout culture and throughout human psychology. I started to understand WHY religion was such a universal impulse.

    Then I looked at other anecdotal “givens” throughout history – things that ‘everybody’ believed that later turned out to be false. Like in Victorian London, “everybody” believed that disease was transmitted through what they called “miasma” – stinky, dirty air in poor, crowded slums where the lower classes lived. Science proved that theory utterly false.

    Before Copernicus and Galileo “everybody” believed the earth was the center of the universe. To imagine that the earth is spinning and orbiting a star is SO counterintuitive to those of us living our lives on its seemingly rock-solid surface. Yet science proved that theory utterly false.

    So I realized that science causes periodic revolutions that change “everybody’s” thinking about something that’s deeply engrained and often deeply intuitive. And I began to give myself permission to be “audacious” enough to even question religion. And then I got to the point where I figured I should actually require religious belief to stand up to rigorous examination. And ultimately it failed the test.

    But as I said, more about that in future.

  • 11. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 3:19 pm

    The mystery remains (Why doesn’t God just fix it?) — a mystery that theologians have always recognized and struggled with. Nonetheless, the anecdotal evidence of a deity who cares is impressive for its universality.

    So what do you do with that data, aside from drawing the reasonable conclusion that fundamentalist Christians don’t have exclusive access to God?

    Good questions, Stephen. I plan to write another post soon on the end of my religious belief. I’ll address your questions there.

  • 12. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    When we thanked God, we thanked him for “minor miracles” wrought by medicine that the folks in The Ghost Map weren’t so lucky to have (were they less loved by God?), and for bringing like-minded people into our lives. You really have to already believe in God for that interpretation to have any teeth – it’s a perfect example of anecdotal evidence. We told ourselves “I prayed for a better heart rate today, and I got it. Prayer works!” when in the same room, there were non-believers or people openly angry at God who experienced no better or worse luck and comfort than we did.

    Great example. How did you come to realize this is what you were doing? And did your family come to the same realization, or just you alone?

  • 13. karen  |  July 1, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    notabarbie:
    Great post! Before I left Christianity, I had always wondered, why “our” testimonies were true and right and proof of the Christian God and yet all the others were lies and deceptions? I tried asking my sister, who is a Christian, this and it was as if it didn’t compute to her. She said, “Well we know that their testimonies are false, because they don’t believe in the Jesus of the Bible.” Huh?

    Ah yes, circular reasoning. It’s so comforting, isn’t it? ;-)

    When I asked her about people whose lives had obviously been changed that had come from other religions, her response was that their supposed conversions probably won’t last and their good lives won’t get them to heaven anyway.” When I pointed out that there are “believers” that “fall away from their changed life,” and “non believers,” that don’t, she said that, “there are just some things we don’t understand.”

    AKA, god works in mysterious ways; god’s way are high above our own and so we shouldn’t attempt to understand them, etc. In other words: Shut up, turn your brain off, and put those blinders back on! ;-)

    I try to put myself back in that mind set and I can’t, thankfully.

    Me too. It’s like the old story of the emperor who had no clothes. It seems that once you realize that the guy is stark naked, no amount of imagination or delusion can mask that truth.

  • 14. Slapdash  |  July 1, 2007 at 10:16 pm

    These comments also remind me of what seemed to be almost a desire amongst some Christians for nonbelievers or those who had fallen away would actually fall upon bad times, so that they would ultimately turn to God.

    The Christian argument is that it’s when we’re down and out that our prideful defenses come down and we can finally hear God calling our name.

    But another interpretation is that the downtrodden are vulnerable, and likely to grab hold of whatever can offer some hope to them in the moment. So if an evangelist stumbles upon someone who is down on her luck, and she responds to the gospel message, hallelujah!

    I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that God speaks to us best when we’re in our worst, most painful, moments.

  • 15. Slapdash  |  July 1, 2007 at 10:17 pm

    Oops, my grammar sucked in the first para above. I decided to change tenses mid-stream! Sorry. Hopefully you get what I meant. :)

  • 16. Stephen  |  July 1, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Tanglethis:
    Since God doesn’t speak directly , the comfort and support that people receive from him is brought to them through the actions of human beings.

    No, I’m talking about a direct, inner experience, which is interpreted as, “God is near and compassionate toward me.”. It is common to millions of people, often in their most intense moments of distress.

    The experience must be interpreted, and of course people interpret it in accordance with their prior beliefs. So a Christian will explain it in different categories than, say, a Hindu would.

    But the experience itself is separate from and prior to the interpretation. That’s the data I have in mind.

  • 17. Tanglethis  |  July 2, 2007 at 8:54 am

    Karen: It’s unclear, since my family doesn’t speak of personal relationships with religion. But at the time I was a teenager and the beliefs we had made perfect sense; it wasn’t until year later, re-reading old journals, that I had the distance to analyze what was going on then.

    Stephen: You haven’t got data, you’ve got anecdotes. You have no idea how many people in the world experience what you describe, or in what way. The best one could approach “data” on that experience is to collect written and spoken instances of it across cultures, and compile them into a gigantic book. . . but it would still be collection of personal, subjective stories that can neither be proven or denied.
    Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that – after all, faith is not supposed to be driven by data. But call a spade a spade.

  • 18. Thinking Ape  |  July 2, 2007 at 12:06 pm

    “The best one could approach “data” on that experience is to collect written and spoken instances of it across cultures, and compile them into a gigantic book. . .”

    Ewww… that would be fun. I’m down.

  • 19. karen  |  July 2, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Slapdash:
    These comments also remind me of what seemed to be almost a desire amongst some Christians for nonbelievers or those who had fallen away would actually fall upon bad times, so that they would ultimately turn to God.

    The Christian argument is that it’s when we’re down and out that our prideful defenses come down and we can finally hear God calling our name.

    I’m sure I’ve said this here before, but the one thing I’m really ashamed of in all my Christian years is what you bring up above.

    We actually would sometimes pray for bad things to happen to people so that they’d “hit rock bottom” and turn to god. This would typically be in the context of praying for a stubbornly entrenched secular relative or friend who had been resistant to the gospel for years. And – yes – we thought we would be doing them a favor and “getting them saved.”

    But when I think that I honestly wished HARM on good, well-meaning people – it makes me very sad and really almost sick. How indoctrinated I was! How could I have done that? Of course now I don’t believe prayer has any power to really do ill to anyone (and indeed I don’t remember any “bad” prayers ever coming to pass), but I hate that I would even think that or wish that on anyone. :-(

  • 20. karen  |  July 2, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Stephen:
    No, I’m talking about a direct, inner experience, which is interpreted as, “God is near and compassionate toward me.”. It is common to millions of people, often in their most intense moments of distress.

    Yes, there is anecdotal evidence that many people report where they feel some spiritual transcendance or communication with god.

    There is also a mountain of anecdotal evidence where people report they have had encounters with aliens, spirits of departed relatives, spirits of pantheistic gods who send them signs or talk to them, and other supernatural phenomena.

    I think all those anecdotes really tell us is: a) what faith tradition a particular person believes in (the encounters with the Virgin Mary only seem to happen to Catholics, for instance); b) human religions have taught very effectively that there is a supernatural presence that interacts with people; c) the human brain is highly suggestible – so when people are taught that they will have supernatural experiences – they do. Or, they think they do.

    All anecdotes are is anecdotes. They’re useful to point to a particular phenomenon happening that can be further investigated, but they don’t nail down causes like solid, scientific evidence would do.

  • 21. The de-Convert  |  July 2, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    We actually would sometimes pray for bad things to happen to people so that they’d “hit rock bottom” and turn to god.

    This is probably based on this scripture:

    1 Corinthians 5:4-5
    When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

    Never understood how someone can hand another person over to Satan. This is a passage that just never fit.

    Paul

  • 22. karen  |  July 2, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    ThinkingApe:
    “The best one could approach “data” on that experience is to collect written and spoken instances of it across cultures, and compile them into a gigantic book. . .”

    Once when I made this argument about spiritual experiences not being valid to determine the truth or falsity of Christianity, someone responded that only Christians report a “personal relationship” with Jesus, and so that somehow made Christian spiritual experiences unique and more valid than other religious experiences.

    My response was first, how do we really know what spiritual experiences other religious people have? They could very well have “personal encounters” with Mohammad, or Buddha or Krishna as far as I know. I haven’t studied those religions in depth from an objective perspective.

    And second, what is a “personal relationship” with a 2,000-year-old dead person anyway? How does that really even happen?

    And finally, why is a “personal relationship” encounter inherently superior to another kind of spiritual encounter? Again, it seems very arrogant to assume that evangelical Christian terminology or descriptions are better than those of other religions. And even Christians didn’t use the “personal relationship” terminology until the 20th century, so that seems even less important overall.

    I didn’t get very satisfactory answers, however. If I remember, the person I was communicating with just kept asserting that a relationship with Jesus was the be-all and end-all of religious experience.

    Ewww… that would be fun. I’m down.

    There has to be something out there like this. I’m thinking William James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience,” from 1902. I tried reading it but it was SOoooo dense and I have little patience for philosophy. Anybody ever get through it?

  • 23. Thinking Ape  |  July 2, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Yes, I have read Jame’s convoluted masterpiece, but that is meant to be a psychological investigation rather than data collection.

    The issue of personal spiritual experience is a problem for any scholar, or for any outside interpretor. In everyday language it is a conversation stopper. In scholarship, it is data. Just as in the study of psychology or sociology, the religious studies scholar uses these experiences as data in as many forms as it comes: testimony, brain patters, linguistics, etc.

    When it comes to theological argumentation, it goes back to the conversation stopper. I “know” because I “feel” it. I “experience” it. This has so many problem it is incredible, some of which you, Karen, described.

    It is interesting that when you push a Christian about what the “relationship” means, you end up getting a bunch of synonyms to “relationship.” I have been surrounded by evangelical Christians my entire life and I have yet to see any “results” of their “Christness.”

    I remember when I was a kid I loved DC Talk. At the start of “What If I Stumble?” they wrote,
    “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world
    today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with
    their lips, then walk out the door,
    and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an
    unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

    Its true – and it voids any observable reality of longterm religious experience.

  • 24. Heather  |  July 2, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    **“The greatest single cause of atheism in the world
    today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with
    their lips, then walk out the door,
    and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an
    unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”**

    I think it goes a bit deeper than this, though. Yes, watching someone be judgemental and cruel while claiming to follow Jesus would be a cause. But another reason for me is that I do not like how heaven is the only thing that comes across as mattering. You could be beaten, starved, raped, whatever — and all of that isn’t “important” compared to having the right belief structure. It just seems so … callous.

  • 25. Thinking Ape  |  July 2, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Heather, I completely agree. I was merely trying to emphasize my point that “I have yet to see any “results” of their “Christness.” And I mean *any*. I can certainly excuse the humanity of Christians. Yet in my entire Christian life I have always heard that when you commit your life to Jesus, it changes you – just ask President Bush the 2nd. I would expect then, if one has had this “experience” or a “relationship” I would see an overall difference between Christians and non-Christians. All of our data tells us that any difference is minuscule and not in the favour of the Christ followers (even in distinguishing “moderates” from “evangelicals”.

  • 26. Stephen  |  July 2, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Tanglethis:
    OK, now I understand why you were questioning my use of the term “data”. No, I can’t quantify it. If you prefer to call it “anecdotal”, that’s fine by me. I was, in fact, responding to Karen’s idea that Christians rely on anecdotal evidence. The point is, sometimes anecdotal evidence has merit, even if it has no merit in other instances.

    The anecdote of an isolated individual is worth very little. Many people who testify to a similar experience, across cultural and linguistic boundaries, across the span of time, speaking from different religious backgrounds — anecdotal evidence of that sort carries significantly more weight. That’s my argument.

    Karen:
    I grant your point about UFO anecdotes. That’s a case where Tanglethis’s point about quantifying the data would be helpful. How many make this claim? How widespread are such claims, in terms of universality across cultural, linguistic, and temporal boundaries? That’s an important consideration in sifting worthless anecdotal evidence from worthwhile anecdotal evidence.

    On your other point: Yes, Roman Catholics tend to use Mary as an explanation of their experiences where Protestants do not. I’ve already spoken to that issue in my earlier comment to Tanglethis. There is (a) an experience and (b) an interpretation. Interpretations follow people’s religious presuppositions. But that doesn’t invalidate the experience itself, which is not limited to Roman Catholics or Christians.

    Positivists make the mistake of supposing that they begin from a neutral starting point. It isn’t so: no one’s starting point is neutral. If you begin by regarding all experiences of the supernatural as bogus, you’ve predetermined your conclusion. Don’t turn to me then and say, “There is no transcendent realm; I know because all the evidence for it is bogus.”

  • 27. Heather  |  July 2, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Thinking Ape,

    ** I would expect then, if one has had this “experience” or a “relationship” I would see an overall difference between Christians and non-Christians. ** I completely understand where you’re coming from in this. It all comes down to the fruit of the Spirit — I can find someone having love, joy, peace and whatnot without ever being Christian.

  • 28. karen  |  July 2, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    ThinkingApe:
    The issue of personal spiritual experience is a problem for any scholar, or for any outside interpretor. In everyday language it is a conversation stopper.

    Boy, that’s for sure. What do you say when someone tells you, very sincerely, about their encounter the night before with their long-dead grandfather? Or the “bright light” that entered the room and gave them a feeling of peace? Or the time Jesus audibly answered their prayer?

    In my case, I choose to respect the idea that they are sincerely relating what they experienced. Whether they were actually just dreaming about grandpa, or misinterpreting as supernatural some car headlights, or listening to a voice in their head and believing it to be audible – who knows? All those kinds of misinterpretation are clearly documented and possible, but again it seems arrogant to suggest that.

    So without having been there myself, I reserve judgment on their particular experience, while I remain skeptical about the empirical validity of such experiences in general as being useful “proof” of anything supernatural.

    That’s the only respectful way I have come up with to deal with them. If anybody else has a better suggestion, I’m open to hearing it.

    Yet in my entire Christian life I have always heard that when you commit your life to Jesus, it changes you – just ask President Bush the 2nd. I would expect then, if one has had this “experience” or a “relationship” I would see an overall difference between Christians and non-Christians. All of our data tells us that any difference is minuscule and not in the favour of the Christ followers (even in distinguishing “moderates” from “evangelicals”.

    Yup, exactly. This is another post I’ve been mulling over. A friend of mine once suggested that there should be SOME measurable difference between HSF (holy spirit filled) Christians and non-Christians, if the bible promises are true.

    You know how statisticians can filter out all the other variables and still find measurable economic and social advantages for people who graduated college vs those who didn’t? It seems like there should be something like that available.

    And yet it doesn’t seem to be there. And like I said in another thread, why aren’t more Christians demanding to know why it’s not?

  • 29. karen  |  July 2, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    Stephen:
    It isn’t so: no one’s starting point is neutral. If you begin by regarding all experiences of the supernatural as bogus, you’ve predetermined your conclusion. Don’t turn to me then and say, “There is no transcendent realm; I know because all the evidence for it is bogus.”

    Well, except in my case I started out believing that supernatural experiences were valid – but just the kind that proved MY special brand of conservative evangelicalism. I didn’t start out disregarding all of them, just some of them.

    After that, I tried to look at the sum total of anecdotal experience in as objective a manner as possible and evaluate them neutrally.

  • 30. Am I missing the god gene? « de-conversion  |  May 24, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    [...] line in The Ghost Map (a wonderful nonfiction book I’ve written about here before) sticks in my head. The book [...]

  • 31. Mike  |  July 25, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    still cant understand how atheist have so much faith against the church I guess they have faith to believe they are right over the tons of church fathers teaching the opposite

  • 32. cag  |  July 26, 2010 at 12:49 am

    Mike #31 – Lying is not teaching. Basing your life on a book of fiction is not laudable, it’s pathetic. Your bible states that the Earth was created before any other object in the Universe. All but the religion addled know this to be just the first in a series of lies in your useless user manual. We don’t have faith, we have the search for knowledge that has provided real answers and will continue to provide answers for the questions that remain unanswered. Religion answers nothing but who is gullible enough to believe in its lies.

  • 33. Sarah  |  July 27, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Speaking of data collection, my husband is currently reading a book called “Fingerprints of God, the search for the science of spirituality” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
    She isn’t trying to prove or disprove God with science but to bring back to the discussion all of the “woo” that some scientists ignore or try to explain away as trivial or that some religious adherants use as proof for God.
    In one meta-analysis (I think, this is second hand info- it may have been another type of study) she found the most common factor in a religious conversion was some type of “brokeness”.
    Has anyone else read that book?

  • 34. thin ice  |  July 31, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    @Mike: feel free to use punctuation. It costs nothing extra. I’m sure that you are more intelligent than your comment reflects.

    @Sarah: Haven’t read the book. But I would agree that “brokeness”, or some sort of emotional crisis, is at the core of most religious conversions. Even if it’s a relatively spontaneous emotional crisis brought on by a very skillful Altar Call.
    Conversely, I think that most deconversions – including my own – involve a careful, lengthy rational examination of the evidence. I can’t think of a single person I know whose conversion to christianity involved weighing of the evidence from both sides, but rather involved responding to one’s “heart”.

  • 35. Sarah  |  August 3, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Didn’t C.S. Lewis call himself the reluctant convert? I was under the impression that he studied a lot before becoming a Christian. Of course, I’m relying on second-hand information.

  • 36. ACN  |  August 3, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    “She isn’t trying to prove or disprove God with science but to bring back to the discussion all of the “woo” that some scientists ignore or try to explain away as trivial or that some religious adherants use as proof for God.”

    What exactly do you/she mean by all of the woo?

  • 37. Ubi Dubium  |  August 4, 2010 at 9:31 am

    ACN, are you looking for a definition of “woo” or are you asking about what specific instances of “woo” appear in that book?

  • 38. ACN  |  August 5, 2010 at 12:17 am

    The latter, I am very familiar with “woo” in general :)

  • 39. prairie nymph/sarah  |  August 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    She talks about things like: answered prayers, coincindences, mystical experiences such as being filled with light, feelings of connectedness, near death experiences, life changing experiences, etc.

    She mentions things like a study on regressive prayer. They had people pray for random hospital patients from the past and then compared their results with others.

    A study by Gail Ionson showed that patients turning to God instead of rejecting God seemed to stave off HIV almost 5 times as effectively.

    That kind of thing.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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