Finding God in the Waves (Part 2: Reconstruction)

This post is a continuation of my reflections on Mike McHargue’s recent book “Finding God in the Waves” (see Part 1). With Part 2 I am engaging with the second half of the book – titled ‘God in Science’ – which presents the ideas upon which Mike has reconstructed his faith (which he would assure you is an ongoing process without a known end point). Unlike Part 1, my aim here is not to explore points of contact with my own story but rather to offer my honest assessment of the ideas and data that are presented.

God in Science

The second half of the book starts with a chapter bearing the tongue in cheek heading of “Happily Ever After”, and we soon see that Mike’s religious experience didn’t undo the skepticism that was cultivated in the preceding years. It’s a laudable demonstration of his integrity that, despite such a powerful experience, he did not dismiss all of the data that had influenced and sustained his period of unbelief but rather sought to integrate it with this new data point.

So what might you expect to find in a book section titled ‘God in Science’? If you’re hoping for a recapitulation of the modern refrain of evidential apologetics surrounding cosmology, DNA, etc.., then Science Mike is going to disappoint. He instead embraces the mystery and finds God hidden in plain sight. The following is my attempt to briefly summarize the data that is presented to lay the groundwork for the foundational axioms that he develops throughout this section:

  1. The cosmological data doesn’t favor any one particular type of “cause” for the big bang, but science does reveal a universe that originates in a mysterious singularity which became a framework of forces and energy that sustain the observable universe with an unfailing regularity.
  2. The brain is adept at creating a model of God and when that model is abstract and assigns God a loving and peaceful nature, the time spent attending to that model will encourage focus, compassion, empathy and result in lower stress and blood pressure.
  3. There is no good evidence for the effect of intercessory prayer except as a therapeutic effect for the person doing the praying. Contemplative prayer can also yield effects similar to those established for meditative practices, which generally improves focus, willpower and compassion and results in lower stress and blood pressure.
  4. It is historically probable that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual figure who was crucified in response to his claims and following, and whose influence inspired a persistent God-centered movement that became the largest such movement in history.
  5. Therapy can be effective because the impression left on the brain by past events can be altered when those memories are revisited, and revisiting the past in a safe environment will reduce the negative emotional impressions associated with those events.
  6. Humans are an innately social species and are most psychologically healthy when immersed in a cooperative and loving social context. This immersion will also reinforce and motivate dedication to the beliefs associated with that social context.
  7. The Bible is a collection of texts that were written, assembled and copied by human hands and these texts reflect the beliefs and cultural contexts of their authors.

I think these summaries do a pretty good job of fairly outlining the modest claims that Mike puts forth, and I don’t see anything obviously wrong or misleading in them. This data is the basis for a set of axioms that then serve as the foundation for his reconstructed faith. No discussion of Finding God in the Waves would be complete without a review of those axioms, but I should first note that the axioms are all structured as propositions of the form “X is AT LEAST … EVEN IF this is all X is, …”. The intention is to define X in a minimal sense, based only on the empirically grounded data above, and that this minimal definition is sufficient to arrive at a reasonable justification for integrating X into one’s beliefs and practices.

Axiom #1 – Faith

Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.

The subjectivity surrounding the words “spirituality” and “meaning” make this hard to analyze. But maybe that’s part of the point – that faith is a subjectively grounded perspective, in which case I accept that this could be a viable definition if “need for” is replaced with “tendency toward”. We’re still left with a lot of ambiguity and the observation that the outworking of this tendency yields so many divergent beliefs and behaviors that it’s not obvious how to untangle the association to any benefits. Having recently read Newberg’s “How God Changes Your Brain” (one of Mike’s favorite sources) I perceived that faith was used as a synonym for a general sense of hope and optimism. This axiom might have been more concrete if it aligned better with Newberg’s definition.

Axiom #2 – God

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.

There’s certainly precedent for this conception of God and though there is no way to objectively arbitrate between definitions of the divine, this clearly does not satisfy the profile for even basic theism, which is the benchmark for most definitions of God. But Mike is again presumably OK with this since he prefers the non-theist label as an alternative to the typical theist/atheist dichotomy.

Axiom #3 – Prayer

Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.

Given the definition of ‘God’ above, it isn’t clear what is meant by saying that prayer “can connect us to God”. My best guess is that prayer can serve to reinforce the sense that the psychosocial model of God reflects reality. No argument there. I would contest, however, whether this definition of prayer is adequate to support the ‘EVEN IF’ conclusion, which assumes a particular form of prayer that isn’t clearly constrained in the definition and thus infers that anything one labels as prayer could fit into the claim. To clarify in Venn diagram form:

Incorporating these observations, I suggest that a more accurate axiom might be that “Prayer is AT LEAST an attempt to connect with God that, in a certain forms, can encourage healthy neurological development and lower stress. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits justify these forms of prayer as a religious discipline”.

Axiom #4 – Sin

Sin is AT LEAST volitional action or inaction that violates one’s own understanding of what is moral. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. EVEN IF this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.

It appears to me that this axiom is assuming that one’s own understanding of what is moral is neither destructive nor threatening to human flourishing. I don’t think there’s any doubt that people can cognitively accept moral perspectives that are destructive or threatening to human flourishing. So though I find the given definition to be a reasonable projection of the concept of sin onto a scientifically grounded view of human moral agency, the unstated assumptions underlying the conclusion are not certain, even if they often hold true. See the Moral Ontology post for a more thorough unpacking of my take on the nature of morality.

Axiom #5 – The Afterlife

The afterlife is AT LEAST the persistence of our physical matter in the ongoing life cycle on Earth, the memes we pass on to others with our lives, and the model of our unique neurological signature in the brains of those who knew us. EVEN IF this is all the afterlife is, the consequences of our actions persist beyond our death and our ethical considerations must consider a timeline beyond our death.


Axiom #6 – Salvation

Salvation is AT LEAST the means by which humanity overcomes sin to produce human flourishing. EVEN IF this is all salvation is, spiritual and religious actions and beliefs that promote salvation are good for humankind.

The issue I raised for the definition of sin – namely that a person’s notion of what it means to overcome sin is not guaranteed to produce human flourishing – spills over into this definition. That is, the pursuit of salvation is not guaranteed to produce goods for humankind. Even so, I agree that the underlying principle of practicing careful moral reflection to deliberately guide our actions is worth encouraging and generally yields outcomes which prove themselves to be preferable in the long run.

Axiom #7 – Jesus

Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

I want to start by first offering a proposed revision to this axiom: “Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to associated with God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings persona. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his the socially relevant teachings attributed to him can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

That first change is just an attempt to clarify. I don’t know if Mike intended to identify a conceptual connection or a spiritual connection, but we can’t know anything about the latter, so I assume the former. Regardless, I also see that Christianity as a whole is more centered on the identity and nature of Jesus than on the words attributed to him. With regard to those teachings, I agree that there are many facets which can promote peace, empathy and moral behavior, but that does not apply to the entirety of the red letters. It is ultimately the persona of Jesus that we embrace which dictates the personal impact of those teachings as a whole.

Axiom #8 – The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is AT LEAST the psychological and neurological components of God that allow God to be experienced as a personal force or agent. EVEN IF this is all the Holy Spirit is, God is more relatable and neurologically actionable when experienced this way.

Fair enough.

Axiom #9 – Church

The Church is AT LEAST the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. EVEN IF this is all the church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world – and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.

Much of what I said for Axiom #7 also applies to the definition here, with regard to the church’s relation to Jesus. I would also suggest that this axiom implies far more cohesion than actually exists, though I recognize that there is a core set of beliefs and practices in the Christian tradition which are embraced by the vast majority of the communities who claim the label. Nonetheless, this diversity also means that there are plenty of options to choose from and thus a good chance that you can find a community in which you are comfortable. This is one area where the secular world is lacking. I would not be at all surprised if, in practice, this particular aspect of the Christian tradition outweighs all others with respect to encouraging and retaining affiliation.

Axiom #10 – The Bible

The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group’s experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

This definition is OK, though I think it somewhat overstates the period of authorship and centrality of God (especially as previously defined) in the biblical corpus. More significantly, I’m having trouble reconciling the conclusion. I can see that the study of scripture would be warranted for the purpose of understanding the authors’ cultures and the way in which they perceived God, but it isn’t clear to me how well this translates to a more generalized human culture and perception of God. I would think you would need to study a wide variety of religious texts and traditions to get a handle on that. Nor is it obvious why that should be considered a worthwhile pursuit.

In the end, I don’t have overwhelming objections to these axioms and can appreciate how they would serve the role for which they are intended – to provide a reasonable grounding for justifying the adoption of some form of Christianity. But I am also left feeling like several of them are playing semantic games that manipulate our sense of religious identity by establishing associations to Christian terminology for concepts which are not clearly rooted in that tradition. Mike might even agree with that assessment. He is a self-professed expert manipulator, after all.

Any Way You Want It

I am intrigued by Mike’s experience and appreciate his perspective and approach to faith, but this book doesn’t have the gravity to nudge my trajectory. As I see it, the primary obstacle lies in the way that the reasoning presented in the second half of the book struck me as a recipe for improving your life by creating God, rather than by finding God, as suggested by the title. The realization that the god I believed in could very well be my own creation, built upon the creations of generations of humans before me and evolving right along with my shifting beliefs, was a primary influence in my deconversion. Despite recognizing the possibility of a pragmatically grounded faith, it is difficult for me to countenance how that same creative process might restore me to some sort of religious faith. Interestingly, it’s possible that Mike wouldn’t deny that this is exactly what he’s doing. The first question at the Portland stop of his Q&A tour asked whether God would continue to exist if every sentient creature ceased to exist and he said “what I identify as God would no longer exist”, but immediately followed that up with a caveat about how the mystical and irrational side of the equation leads him to hope for a different answer.

That’s a Wrap

Science Mike will remain in my podcast rotation and has inspired me to spend more time exploring the “Pragmatic Christianity” investigation that I proposed a few years back. Even though I am not compelled to embrace the scaffolding upon which Mike has built his current worldview I respect the way that he engages with the evidence and I appreciate the environment he is working to cultivate. I think that most of us would prefer a world full of people who interact with the same kind of compassion, open-mindedness and respect that this community seeks. Here’s to hoping that the future of American Christianity looks more and more like the communities we find in the wake of the waves that are being made by Science Mike and his cohorts.


Finding God in the Waves (Part 1: The Backstory)

Science Who?

Somehow, despite expecting that I was keeping current with the zeitgeist at the confluence of belief and skepticism, it turns out that I was oblivious to a relatively prominent movement in progressive Christianity over the last few years in America. The Liturgists podcast, which started in July 2014, currently reports over a quarter million subscribers. The podcast was birthed out of the faith crises of Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor (who I recall seeing open for David Crowder about 10 years ago – when we were both unquestioningly abiding in the evangelical world of our youth). It deals openly and honestly with doubt as a central component of a healthy Christian faith and tests the limits of orthodoxy while embracing controversial figures like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans and Pete Enns. Participants in this community call themselves exvangelicals and talk about going through an ongoing process of deconstruction. Mike McHargue published the first episode of Ask Science Mike six months after the first Liturgists podcast and eventually garnered a large enough following that when his book was released in September 2016 he was able to schedule a whirlwind tour hosting live Q&A events across the country. That’s when I caught wind and started to tune in.

The Ask Science Mike podcast has been a regular member of my podcast rotation for several months now. It’s where I became familiar with Mike McHargue’s story and the not-so-orthodox brand of Christianity he endorses (if “endorse” if even the right word). His website labels him a “spiritual skeptic” but in his book he says he avoids self-labeling as much as he can. That’s probably a good choice because “empiricist, progressive, skeptical, non-theist, mystic Jesus follower” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Labels aside, I have come to respect Science Mike as I have listened to him discuss his journey, his regard for a scientific epistemology and his concern with much of what we find in evangelicalism. So, despite its title, “Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science” isn’t your typical apologetics book. Scratch that – this isn’t an apologetics book at all. It’s a story of one man’s journey and his faith perspective at the time of writing, a perspective that he suggests is no more justified than the perspective of a contented unbeliever.

The book is divided into two distinct halves. This post focuses on Part I – titled ‘Lost and Found’ – which is an autobiographical recounting of Mike’s journey, from growing up in the Southern Baptist church (and as a social pariah at school), to a spiritual renewal into a more progressive form of Christianity, to an unwilling transition into a closet atheist, to making peace with his loss of faith and finally to the experience that led him to, well, whatever he is now. You may have noticed that I just glossed over a whole bunch of details that you can enjoy if you read the book for yourself. My goal here isn’t to retell Mike’s story but rather to highlight the points of contact (and dissimilarities) with my own journey to see if I can provide some context for my response to the second half of the book, where he delves into the foundations of his current faith.

The Journey Begins

Many aspects of Mike’s story have no analog in my life, but there are still elements to which I could relate. We share a “1960’s sitcom” (his words) upbringing in a stable, loving family with a commitment to a biblical Christianity. Mine came complete with family devotions based on James Dobson’s ‘Focus on the Family’ materials and church engagement that extended well beyond Sunday morning. But that’s about the extent of the similarities. I was never bullied, never went through an apathetic rock-band stage, and haven’t experienced any earth-shattering family crises. My backstory is about as boring and untraumatic as it gets.

Fast-forward twenty or so years and I did find some familiarity in his description of the period where he began to honestly question, for the first time, the faith tradition that he had always taken for granted. For Mike this was spurred on by a conviction that the Bible was the key to reconciling his parents’ divorce. For me this was a matter of being in a position to lead small group studies and feeling an obligation to know how to “properly” guide the discussion in truth. Either way, we ended up on a similar course, discovering a whole new dimension of the Christian world and shedding the more fundamentalist aspects of our faith. I embraced the scientifically literate reconciliatory work of Biologos, the rationalism of C.S. Lewis and a view of the Bible that did not insist on inerrancy. I directed the group into a study based on Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ DVDs to share my newfound appreciation for apologetics (and because I knew that Keller was a “safe” figure in the evangelical world despite accepting the validity of theistic evolution). I distinctly remember the hesitancy and nervous deliberation before hitting send on what I considered to be a controversial email that responded to a small-group discussion by offering support for the potential legitimacy of universalism. So I feel like I can relate to this stage of Mike’s story. It’s invigorating to discover that faith and intellectual integrity can coexist. But of course, that wasn’t the end of either of our stories.

Don’t Stop Believin’

The thing about apologetics is that there are two sides to the argument. Once you dive in, its hard to miss the views that the apologetics are intended to rebut and eventually you’ll see the true depth of the argument rather than the strawmen that the apologetic often sets up. Mike entered willingly into that fray, confident that his newfound perspective could hold up to scrutiny. I’m not sure how I was drawn into a more deliberate review of the arguments from the other side; I think I just gradually stumbled into more and more encounters with the opposing views until suddenly one day I found myself with a big pile of unsatisfactory explanations for what was starting to look more and more like my own private brand of Christianity. It was time to test the quality of the truths I held. Books needed to be read.

Deconversion stories don’t always have a clear tipping point. Some people just gradually fall away from the faith while others can distinctly recall a gestalt switch moment. Mike encountered his gestalt switch while reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which led him to really question whether it made sense to impart a purpose behind the immense vastness of the universe. His prayer the next morning was simply “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real” and he was instantly struck with a sense of existential nihilism and profound grief.

My gestalt switch moment also came in response to a book. I was sitting in my truck after work and had just finished listening to the audiobook for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’. The primacy of humanity in the development of the Christian faith tradition was more apparent than ever and I found myself saying something like “Doesn’t this all* make more sense if there isn’t a God behind it?”. Like Mike, I experienced an instant reaction to that verbalization but it bore a vastly different quality. Rather than darkness and defeat I was struck by a sense of shock and wonder – shock at the fact that I had actually just assented to a reversal of a lifelong belief, and wonder at the prospect of a universe that could be understood on its own terms. As bizarre as it may sound, I distinctly remember helping my wife make the bed that evening and perceiving the billowing of the sheets as if it was this intricate dance between different forces of nature. It was as if I could finally see the world for what it really was. I was Neo and the veil over the matrix was gone.

*To be clear, when I say “this all”, the sentiment extends well beyond the Bible and includes all of the aforementioned unsatisfactory explanations. Ehrman’s book was simply the straw the broke the camel’s back.

Worlds Apart

The gestalt switch moment may be subjectively profound, but the novelty wanes and we eventually must contend with the a world that has carried on, oblivious to our revelation.

I find it difficult to express the incredible fear associated with the public disclosure of a loss of faith. In retrospect the extreme trepidation almost seems ridiculous, but the strong social dynamic and binary nature of the Christian identity combine to present a daunting hurdle for the apostate. Couple this with a family bond and the whole thing is absolutely terrifying. I guess that’s why Mike went on putting up a facade for two years; teaching classes, serving in ministries, playing worship songs and even leading his daughter through a confession of faith! I, on the other hand, wasn’t able to last more than a few months. The masquerade was more than I could bear.

Case in point – I distinctly remember the first time my newfound perspective started to leak out. It was probably only a few weeks after that moment in my truck and I was leading our small group through a study that for some reason included a reading of the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 – you know, the one where God kills Uzzah on the spot because he touched the ark to steady it after the ox had tripped. Seeing this story with fresh eyes, I found myself unable to resist asking the group whether they thought it extreme and callous for God to respond this way to a person’s instinctual reaction, to which one member of the group responded by saying that “rules are rules”. I was dumbstruck. After a brief period of uncomfortable silence, I somehow managed to make it through the rest of the night without incident and started this blog shortly thereafter.

Fast-forward a couple months and I had reached my threshold for pretending. I broke the news to my wife, shortly after Christmas, and subsequently excused myself from all roles in the church. The marital strain was almost certainly the most difficult part of the whole process. It created a distance between us that I had never felt before and have never felt since. Here I find agreement with Mike, who describes the night after revealing his unbelief to his wife:

“We went to bed, and for the first time in our marriage, an iron curtain ran down the center of the mattress. We were in bed together, but we weren’t together. A rift had opened up between us.”

As dramatic as that sounds, Mike and I had it good. Many marriages have disintegrated under these circumstances and though Mike’s wife followed up the next day with “I’m not sure we can be married anymore”, in the end it appears that we were both fortunate to have partners who were thoughtful enough to see past the marital apocalypse and believe in a relationship that could survive ideological boundaries. I sincerely echo Mike’s appreciation for a wife and family who are committed to unconditional love – it makes all the difference. But then our stories diverge again.

Open Arms

The closing chapter caps off the narrative portion of the book with a climactic event that offers the most dramatic contrast to my own journey. I’ll skimp on the details again and just say that Mike had a religious experience which involved hearing a voice and – several hours later – encountering an unexpected literal wave that was immediately followed by a metaphorical wave of transcendent, ineffable, mystical goodness. The tremendous impact this had is evident in both the retelling and the ongoing role it has played in shaping his journey since that time.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like this. Sure, I’ve had deeply emotional moments that were initiated through a religious context but, as far as I can tell from the description, they were nothing like this. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I have actually experienced circumstances similar to Mike’s but in which I failed to perceive the divine and so also failed to summon the kind of transcendent response in which it culminated. I suspect that most deconverts can relate to having questioned whether God was trying to get their attention through spontaneous thoughts, coincidences and other circumstances in which a message or purpose can be found. So I can’t help but find myself wondering whether the crescendo of the events leading up to Mike’s beach encounter, and his generally emotional disposition, set the stage for a strong and sudden flood of emotions (at 3AM, no less) that birthed an overwhelmingly ineffable experience. Maybe. Or maybe it was God. I have no way to know. And therein lies the difficulty.

Regardless, the narrative portion of the book was an engaging read that clearly isn’t trying to sell anything and appears to present an honest portrayal of his journey. I find no reason to question Science Mike’s sincerity and I respect the way he has integrated the full body of experiences into his current position – a position that I consider to be rational in spite of any differences we may have. In Part 2 I’ll move on to explore the second half of the book, where Mike expounds on the foundations of his reconstructed faith.


Investigating pragmatic Christianity

rearviewTwo years into this journey and I find myself at a place where I can scarcely imagine reaffirming Christianity as the best explanation of reality. Even the most “liberal” flavor of the faith looks difficult to swallow. But there is more to life than knowledge and sometimes the most rational thing we can do is eschew truth. Don’t tell me it’s a sugar pill if it is truly my best shot at feeling better. Just lie to me and give me the damn pill.

Almost two years ago I sat in a pastor’s office with my wife to discuss the revelation that I could no longer honestly call myself a Christian. At some point in the discussion I said that I knew that I could blind myself to all sources of doubt and immerse myself in the Christian world – and then wait. After enough time I would probably return to a genuine faith. I shared a similar sentiment with my wife in an email I that I sent her before that meeting, just a couple of days after revealing my loss of faith to her:

It’s like asking somebody to forget what they’ve seen. We can’t choose to forget. It may happen naturally over time, but we can’t will ourselves to forget. … I could ignore those issues, do everything I can to avoid discovering new ones and pretend that they’re meaningless. Over time, that would probably work and the issues would fade into the background. This is where the choice comes in. I could choose to do that but then I would be living a lie for 5, 10, 20 years, or however long it takes for the issues to fade away. Instead, I’m choosing to face the issues. If Christianity is true, then I think that my journey should lead me to that conclusion.

Amongst the countless hours of reflection over these last two years there have been many occasions where I could identify a practical benefit to the Christian worldview. In an earlier post I acknowledged that there is a strong psychological allure in Christianity, namely in the belief that we are not simply at the mercy of chaos and that, in the end, victory will be ours. It is easy to understand why we would want this to be true. These beliefs, however, can and do extend beyond the conceptual and impact us directly in the here and now. Some would argue that holding unsubstantiated beliefs is in some sense wrong (Clifford’s Principle) – but I disagree. I contend that if holding a belief is clearly the best way to attain a desired outcome then it is completely rational to hold it.

So this is want I want to examine. What benefits does Christianity enable us to realize in this life, and is adherence to the Christian worldview the best way to attain those benefits? In other words, does the cost-benefit analysis favor Christian belief over all other possible mechanisms for leading a fulfilling life? To start, I’ve identified a few benefits and costs to explore. This post is in large part a request for your input on these and for other practical factors that I should consider in subsequent posts.

Benefits (even if the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Stress management (achieved in several different ways)
  2. Better outcomes via the placebo effect
  3. Social fellowship with emphasis on encouragement and support
  4. Reduced death anxiety
  5. Regular reminders to self-evaluate
  6. Sense of having purpose and value which transcends our circumstances
  7. Frequent encouragement to cultivate material contentment and to invest in the lives of others
  8. Diminished sense of loss when loved ones die

Costs (assuming that the Christian worldview is false)

  1. Potentially long or indefinite period of intellectual discomfort until dissonance fades, with strong potential for reemergence later
  2. Misallocation of resources
  3. Improperly or ineffectively acting toward a goal because of a false understanding of influences
  4. Undue pressure to accept potentially disagreeable principles on the basis of authority
  5. Insufficient value placed on earthly life and “temporal things”
  6. Potential for anguish over the fate of “unsaved” loved ones

I crossed out #2 on the costs lists because it would be begging the question. If it turns out that the pragmatic benefits of Christianity outweigh the costs and they are not otherwise attainable then the allocation of resources to the Christian cause should actually be viewed as appropriate. Additionally, I need to point out that I am well aware that many of the benefits listed here are not exclusively found in Christianity. The exploration of alternative mechanisms for realizing those benefits is a crucial element to this series.

If you’re wondering why I haven’t included the afterlife in these lists, see my post on Pascal’s Wager. On the surface, this topic might seem contradictory to the perspective I offered there – namely that we shouldn’t believe something just for the benefit. However, there is a vast difference. Pascal’s Wager is based on a purely speculative outcome obtained via a purely speculative mechanism. Conversely, in this case we can draw upon our experiences, psychology and other research to understand probable outcomes in this life.

This isn’t a tidy, well-planned series. My coverage of these topics will span a long time and will be interspersed between plenty of other posts that I’ve already dreamed up. This isn’t the type of thing where the answers are just sitting out there waiting to be found. There are a lot of factors at play, a lot of psychology to sift through and the end result is enormously subjective. Hopefully your interactions will keep me grounded.

Finally, please do not misinterpret this exercise. I can imagine how this might be psychoanalyzed. I’m not in some dark place looking to reclaim the joy I had when I was a Christian. I don’t know how to compare distinctly unique stages of life, but its possible that I’ve never been happier. Ironically, the motive behind this exercise is very non-Christian: if this life is the only one I have then I should pursue the course which makes the most of it. This journey is about more than collecting facts and discerning the structure of reality. It’s also about navigating life, and I went public with this blog because I knew that my best shot at success was to incorporate a wide variety of insights from others. So please let me know your thoughts on this topic in general, and on the individual benefits and costs of a Christian worldview. Thanks in advance.


A few comments on Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

I don’t plan on commenting on every book I read but I was compelled to address what appeared to me to be some glaring omissions and one audacious claim in the argumentation found in Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism”. There were three particular assertions that caught my attention: (1) that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether it is unguided, (2) a logical proof that determinism is false, and (3) that unguided evolution cannot yield reliable beliefs (aka “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, or EAAN).

There is no reason to believe that evolution is unguided?


Ignoring the theological implications and biblical creation accounts, Plantinga says that “The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided.” I agree that it is not necessary to assert that evolution is unguided. There is no way that we can show that some supernatural agent is not overseeing the genetic changes which drive evolution. Fair enough. However, Plantinga goes on to say that “But that [the idea that evolution is unguided] isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.” What struck me is that Plantinga seemingly makes this claim without engaging with the foundational reasons why evolution is generally defined to be unguided. Instead, he chooses to review the arguments which show how complexity could arise by an unguided process. Yes, those arguments don’t prove that the process is unguided but that is beside the point. The task at hand is to find the best explanation for our observations. Is the best explanation that evolution is guided, or is the best explanation that evolution is unguided? When I survey the data, I see compelling reasons for inferring an unguided process. For example:

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Natural selection occurs by killing off creatures with the less favorable property. Competition and death are fundamental components of the evolutionary process.
  2. It is far more likely that a mutation is neutral or deleterious than beneficial.
  3. What were once beneficial adaptations can become deleterious in the face of a changing environment.
  4. Artificial selection (for example, in dogs) has produced in hundreds of generations a degree of variation that is only comparatively realized in nature over thousands of generations.

Among others, these are all characteristics of evolution which, to me, infer an unguided process. The first observation demonstrates how wasteful, vicious and “immoral” the process is. If you want to argue that we have no reason to believe that God wouldn’t create through such mechanisms then that’s fine, but at least admit that it is not how we expect an all-loving, all-powerful, super-intelligent being to act and is among the least attractive of the possible methods (e.g., special creation). The second observation highlights how the process seems to be driven by a small fraction of changes in a probabilistic paradigm, which is almost by definition the opposite of a guided process. The third observation demonstrates that the result of selection does not always lead to a long-term benefit. Again, this seems to contradict an intelligence behind the outcomes. Lastly, the final observation reveals how inefficiently slow the changes are accumulated in nature, whereas a known intelligent agent (humans) has succeeded in utilizing the exact same underlying mechanisms to realize dramatic changes in a short period of time.

On the flip side, one could argue that the amazing outcomes of evolution – the eye, flight, the brain – are all pointers toward a guiding intelligence. I understand this view; it is truly amazing what has been wrought. I feel the draw of the design explanation when I consider the remarkable intricacies of life, but I also recognize that this pull arises because the design hypothesis is easier to relate to our experience (i.e., our intuitions are biased toward that model). This is not the place to rely on intuitions, however, so we must turn to the evidence. In a twist of irony, Plantinga has already included arguments which explain how these wonders may result from an unguided process. So the counter to the argument for guided evolution has been presented and acknowledged. As I see it, this means that the reasons for thinking that evolution is unguided weren’t addressed at all and the reasons for thinking that evolution is guided were found to also fit the unguided paradigm. I cannot agree that this conflict is merely superficial.

Determinism is logically impossible?

Though it is a minor side-note in the book, it immediately caught my attention. What an audacious claim – a logical proof that determinism is false! This warranted a closer look. The argument is as follows:

  1. A natural law is of the form “If the universe (U) is causally closed, then P.”
  2. Also take the conjunction of all natural laws to be “If U is causally closed, then P.”
  3. If determinism is true then the conjunction of all natural laws (If U is causally closed, then P) and a specific past state of the universe (PAST) necessarily entails the future (F).
  4. Using N to mean Necessarily, the above statement is equivalent to: N [if (if U is causally closed then P) and PAST, then F].
  5. Becomes:  N [if (either U is not causally closed or P) and PAST, then F]
  6. Becomes:  N [if [(PAST and P) or (PAST and U is not causally closed)], then F].
  7. This takes the form N if (p or q) then r, which means that both p and q entail r, hence
  8. N [if (Past and P) then F] and N [if (PAST and U is not causally closed) then F].
  9. The right hand side of #8 is obviously false because there is clearly a possible world that (i) shares its past with the actual world, (ii) is not causally closed (because perhaps God acted) and (iii) does not share its future with the actual world. Therefore, determinism is false.

I will admit that it took me several reads to follow this argument. In the end, however, I think I see the slight of hand (whether or not this was intentional, I do not know). It was my attempt to translate this into software code that clearly revealed the problem for me. Here’s the code:

function CreateFuture(Universe, Past) {
  if(Universe.CausallyClosed) {
    P = Universe.NaturalLaws;
  return DoPhysics(P, Past);

My fellow software engineers will immediately recognize the bug in this function: if the universe is not causally closed then P is undefined and an attempt to use it to generate the future yields unpredictable results. This is the key to the problem with the proof. In step 5, Plantinga expands the proof to cover both branches of the conditional and infers that both branches are still bound within the definition of determinism. This then, of course, leads to the obvious result where the future created with defined natural laws may be different than the future created with undefined natural laws. Plantinga groups these outcomes together under the definition of determinism and declares that the internal inconsistency shows that determinism is false. This is completely invalid, however, because determinism is only defined to be the branch where the universe is causally closed. All other branches (or possible worlds) are something other than determinism. I am honestly a bit baffled that Plantinga chose to include this in the book.

Despite my rejection of this proof, I should note that I am not a strict determinist. I would consider myself something of a quasi-determinist. Quantum indeterminacy has shown us that we can’t (yet) predict all possible states, but the quantum effects adhere to a predictable distribution such that the macro-world, and even the molecular world, behaves according to the physical laws to the extent that we have accurately described them. In the absence of supernatural intervention the natural world is, for all practical purposes, deterministic.

Naturalism cannot yield reliable beliefs?

The central thesis of the evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is that, without a guiding force, there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary process would result in a belief forming system that yields true beliefs. As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial. Consciousness and belief formation are extensions of this rudimentary system. As such, the evolutionary processes which led to sensory response systems, and therefore also to consciousness and belief formation, are likely to produce reliable reflections of the outside world.

Finally, in chapter 10, part 5, section C he gets there. He introduces the objection with “Isn’t it just obvious that true beliefs will facilitate adaptive action?” and eventually follows-up with “Yes, certainly. This is indeed true. But it is also irrelevant.” Then comes the explanation: “We ordinarily think true belief leads to successful action because we also think that the beliefs cause actions, and do so by virtue of their content… But now suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause.” After providing several examples of how the content of beliefs result in action, he finishes with “Going back to materialism…If the belief had had the same NP properties but different content, it would have had the same effect on behavior.”

Plantinga immediately recognizes that materialism would deny that it is possible for two beliefs to have the same NP properties but different content. Then things get messy. He digresses into a brief discussion of how this isn’t the place to address how counterfactuals and counterpossibles should be used in argumentation. Then he closes the response with “ doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.” Wait a second – isn’t that where we were before this whole objection was raised?

Is it just me, or did he completely misrepresent the naturalistic ontology of belief and then dismiss the objection to that misrepresentation without offering an explanation? It seems as if he has superimposed dualism onto naturalism and then argued against this bastard child. What really confuses me is that in the pages leading up to this he clearly defined the materialistic view as one in which belief content can be reduced to NP properties. Somehow, when it came time to address the big objection, this reduction no longer applied and content was now something completely separate from the physical. How did this happen? I re-read those pages several times and I just don’t get it. Am I in over my head? Did I miss something? I can’t help but feel like I did; but, then again, I’m far from being the only one who has seen problems with this argument. This turn of events left me bewildered and I can’t give any regard to the EAAN until this is resolved.

Closing Thoughts

This was my first encounter with any of Plantinga’s books, though I was familiar with his work and was well aware of his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. The writing generally lived up to the standard; the text was lucid and, in most cases, the arguments were easy to follow. It was a worthwhile read. In the end, however, I was severely disappointed that his key claims – the “apparent conflict” between theism and evolution and the “deep conflict” between naturalism and science – ultimately omit or dismiss the most relevant objections to those claims. Perhaps even more alarming was that he chose to publish a clearly flawed proof that determinism is false. Collectively these observations have done nothing but tarnish his reputation in my eyes. I had hoped for something more.


The root of unbelief

The Incredulity of Saint ThomasI’m going to break from the normal recipe here and discuss something I’ve encountered recently which has left me feeling a bit disappointed. It is not uncommon to find Christian commentary where a lack of belief in God is said to be rooted in some underlying emotional response, usually either disdain for the moral implications of Christianity or a stubborn insistence on wanting to be in control of one’s life (aka pride). The same is often said of unbelief’s more palatable cousin, doubt. I know this is nothing new and I have seen it many times before but these recent encounters compelled me to comment.

The most recent exposure came in listening to the Unbelievable podcast where Christian philosopher Jeff Cook argued that unbelief (and belief, for that matter) is a product of desire. The direction of the podcast often wandered and I never felt like the point was adequately explained so when I went to look for a better explanation I found that his thesis looked to be at least in part inspired by a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is” (Pensees 12).

A couple additional recent encounters came from reading Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith. In chapter 8 he quotes Lynn Anderson as saying “I personally think all unbelief ultimately has some other underlying reason. Sometimes a person may honestly believe their problem is intellectual, but actually they haven’t sufficiently gotten in touch with themselves to explore other possibilities”. Strobel then introduces the next chapter, the conclusion, with a quote from Ravi Zacharias, “A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God”.

I also had a vague recollection of related statements in some of William Lane Craig’s podcasts or debates, so I went looking and found a Reasonable Faith Q&A article littered with similar sentiments.

In the Case for Christ, Strobel himself also repeatedly infers that this was the primary roadblock for him. On multiple occasions he openly admitted that he did not want to believe Christianity primarily because he did not want to give up his immoral lifestyle. These statements stood out to me because they felt hollow. So let me explain.

What about me?

I’m not opposed to the idea of God. I generally agree with most of the moral principles encouraged by the Christian church. I would prefer that there be an afterlife. I see great value in living a “Christian life” – giving, serving, loving, forgiving, communing, hoping. I’m not a control freak, maybe even a bit of a pacifist. I’m currently inclined to believe in a form of determinism, which one could argue is perhaps more humbling than a Christian view of libertarian free will and surrender to God.

I think I could probably go on for a while, but I hope you get the point. In my introductory post I said that I started this journey because “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to accept ignorance as my position on so many matters”. The only emotional component there is the discomfort I feel when I deliberately look past evidence that challenges my beliefs. I am not motivated by a desire to be free from the shackles of a god who imposes himself on my life. I have never viewed Christianity that way and could probably give you a good theological argument to back it up. Psychoanalyze all you want, but I feel like I’m being as honest as I possibly can. The only desire that I am motivated by is the desire for truth.

Mr. Cook is correct to say that much of the “new athiest” propaganda contains emotional appeals to the undesirable aspects of religion and the god of the old testament but, in my experience, that is not a fair representation of people’s primary reasons for unbelief. Even if we take the undesirables into account, I would argue that the weight of those claims lies not in the emotional response but in the fact that they are contradictory to the more broadly accepted character of God; and contradiction is evidence that something is amiss.

It’s probably true that those who claim that unbelief is grounded in an emotional desire would concede that it does not apply to everybody. I can appreciate that, but here’s the thing: I don’t think that I am the exception. For those who imply that most unbelievers have emotional reasons for their unbelief, where is the evidence to back that up? When I peruse the seemingly infinite forums and discussions where the God debate rages on, it appears to me that unbelievers typically explain their position as arising from an intellectual argument. Why not take that at face value? Certainly there are unbelievers for whom their worldview is primarily driven by emotion, but I’m deeply skeptical that they are even close to the majority.

Turning the Tables

I think that this claim is often made in Christian circles because it offers an explanation for why somebody does not accept what is so readily apparent to the believer. In essence, the claimant is saying “The evidence for God is overwhelming – you must have some ulterior motive for not believing.” The implication here is that the unbeliever is deliberately turning a blind eye to the evidence because they don’t like where it leads. I would like to suggest, however, that perhaps this is exactly what the claimant is doing.

Could it be that the Christians who makes this claim are, at the core, primarily interested in reassuring themselves that they’re right? Could it be that they are seeking to reaffirm their position by asserting that the evidence is so strong that nobody could rationally reject it? Could it be that the possibility of a poorly evinced faith is so uncomfortable that it stirs them to claim that it is the opposing view, not they themselves, who are emotionally driven? Could it be that the claimant is simply unwilling to admit that they are doing the very thing that they accuse the unbeliever of – believing more on the strength of emotion than on the strength of the evidence?

Of course, all the same questions could be asked of the unbeliever but that just serves to point out the futility of the claim. I am on this journey because I do not see that the evidence for Christianity is overwhelming. I did not arrive at this point by following some gut reaction – I have given substantial consideration to countless arguments and data and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. So, yes, it bothers me when somebody implies that there’s something subversive behind it all. If that’s what you think is going on then I would like to suggest that you take a moment to go look in the mirror.


Efficacy of prayer: A demographic analysis of prayer for healing

Praying handsFirst, a clarification. I am not evaluating healing that results from an interaction with an individual that claims to have the gift of healing. To this end, when I say “prayer for healing” I intend it to mean prayer that is offered up by everyday people that requests divine intervention to heal a physical ailment. This does not include the laying on of hands, slapping people in the forehead, etc… Consideration for the gift of healing will be addressed elsewhere.

If you do some research to find evidence of the efficacy of prayer for healing you will undoubtedly encounter the numerous attempts to test this through scientific studies, which yield widely varying results that are selectively praised and dismissed by both sides. You’ll also encounter several objections to those studies:

  1. God wants people who are compelled to true love, which is grounded in faith, not scientific evidence. As such, God may withhold interceding in the context of a scientific study.
  2. The compulsory prayers offered up in a study are not as genuine as unsolicited prayer.
  3. The patients typically have friends and family that are praying separate from the study, which invalidates the control arm of the study.
  4. Patients who are aware that they are receiving prayer may alter their behavior or attitude accordingly, which affects their outcome.

Given these objections and the controversy that surrounds those studies, I’m electing to not rehash that content but rather to look for alternative input into this topic. In particular, I’m suggesting that one way we can look for evidence of healing is to compare mortality rates for a relatively indiscriminate ailment in populations that are distinctly divergent in their faith but with similar physiology and treatment options. In this way we can avoid most of the issues associated with the conduct of a particular study. To do this analysis, we look at one of the most indiscriminate of ailments, cancer. To further avoid physiological bias, we will look only at colorectal cancer, which has the lowest variance between racial groups. I will also look at female breast cancer, which is one of the only cancers that affects whites more than blacks.

What do we know?

The tables below present the mortality per incidence (MPI) for colorectal cancer and mortality per incidence for female breast cancer, partitioned by the five most and least prayerful states in the US.

Data for the five most prayerful states
State Prays Daily Colorectal Cancer MPI Breast Cancer MPI
Percent Rank (46) Percent Rank (50) Percent Rank (50)
Mississippi 77% 1st 38.8% 15th 20.8% 4th
Louisiana 76% 2nd 37.7% 20th 20.5% 7th
Alabama 73% 3rd 37.4% 21st 18.3% 24th
South Carolina 72% 4th 40.8% 5th 18.6% 20th
Kentucky 70% 5th 36.0% 33rd 19.3% 13th
Data for the five least prayerful states
State Prays Daily Colorectal Cancer MPI Breast Cancer MPI
Percent Rank (46) Percent Rank (50) Percent Rank (50)
Maine 40% 46th 32.1% 47th 17.5% 32th
Massachusetts 41% 45th 37.2% 26th 17.0% 34th
Alaska 41% 44th 31.0% 48th 23.2% 1st
New Hampshire & Vermont* 43% 43rd 32.9% 47th 13.8% 49th
Connecticut & Rhode Island* 47% 42nd 31.7% 48th 15.5% 43rd

* These states were combined in the prayer study. The cancer statistics use a weighted average based on population size to derive the mortality per incidence, which is then translated into a ranking.

I did not know what to expect before I looked at the numbers but I will admit that this was a bit unexpected. Not only is there not a link between population prayerfulness and lower mortality per incidence, but the relationship is actually reversed. These numbers clearly show that the mortality per incidence rate is almost always lower in the less prayerful states. This warrants some further discussion, which I’ll cover in the interpretations.

A couple additional points about this data:

  1. The better statistic would be something like the 5-year survival rate, or even better, a remission rate. I was unable to locate data which provided those statistics within geographic partitions. If anybody out there can summon that data, I’ll gladly accept the contribution. Regardless, the statistic I use here, mortality per incidence, looks at the death rate (cancer deaths per 100,000) over the incidence rate (cancer diagnoses per 100,000). I content that, assuming there are not dramatic changes in the cancer statistics from one year to the next, this provides a reasonable estimate of the percentage of cancer patients who end up dying as a result.
  2. The prayerfulness study is likely not reflective of the percentage of people who would pray for somebody that they know has cancer. That would certainly be skewed to much higher levels in all populations. However, the relative differences are substantial enough (78% higher in the prayerful states) that it should still give a good indicator of the relative likelihood that any particular cancer patient is being prayed for. That is, patients in the most prayerful states are almost certainly more likely to be prayed for than the patients in the least prayerful states.
  3. Hey, Alaska – it looks like you might want to investigate why you suck at treating breast cancer but are good at treating other cancers.

What is the Christian interpretation of the information?

The mortality per incidence analysis appears to be a poor result for one who believes in the power of prayer for healing. However, I also foresee a couple ways that the result could be interpreted to more closely fit the Christian worldview:

  1. In Christianity, death is the transition from being trapped in an imperfect, temporary body to being joined with God for eternity. In that sense, death is not a bad thing. In fact, this view could even be used to suppose an expectation that mortality rates could be higher in the more religious states, as was found to be the case. God would be rescuing these individuals from the pain that was being inflicted by their imperfect body.
  2. The apparent lack of effectiveness of prayer was also put in a positive light in a Christianity Today article which focused on the results of the STEP study. In short, the article suggests that Christians should be glad that God is not withholding his aid to those who are not receiving prayer. That is, God is being fair because He loves everybody equally and this is consistent with his nature.

Within the context of a Christian worldview, I would not consider either of these responses to be invalid, though they’re not very satisfactory. They also raise a significant question – if either of these are the proper interpretation then why pray for healing? This led me to look into why this is an accepted practice in Christianity. In short, the biblical case for healing through prayer looks to me to be weaker than one might expect. In fact, I was only able to locate one verse that specifically links prayer with healing, James 5:14-15

“5:14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 5:15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

This is a pretty clear statement, but it is also carries hints of what we might call “the gift of healing” rather than the more common prayer for healing that I’m interested in here. Also, some would interpret this verse to speak to spiritual healing (focusing on the forgiveness part – see one, two, three). There is a strong indication throughout the rest of the New Testament, and in particular in Jesus’ ministry, that physical healing is primarily a means to spiritual healing. The theme is that God is really only concerned with our soul, and so physical healing is only valuable if it serves a spiritual purpose – that is, toward securing somebody’s salvation. A sampling of the indicators for this is below:

  • Jesus used physical healing as confirmation of his authority to forgive sin (Mark 2:5-12)
  • Jesus stated that some afflictions existed so that he could use physical healing to demonstrate God’s power (John 9:1-7, 11:4)
  • The gospels often record Jesus’ affirmation of somebody’s faith as part of the act of physical healing (John 4:47-53, Matt 8:13, 9:22, 9:29, 15:28, Luke 17:19, 18:42)
  • Jesus suggested that self-mutilation (anti-healing, if you will) would be preferable to losing one’s soul (Matt 5:29-30)

This leads me to suggest a third interpretation of the apparent lack of efficacy of prayer for healing:

  1. God’s primary, and perhaps only, purpose for physical healing is to bring spiritual healing. In that case we would expect healing to be relatively more frequent in the less religious areas (as was found in the analysis). This also points toward a form of indifference toward the need for physical healing when salvation is not at stake, which would tend to make it a somewhat infrequent occurrence.

This appears to me to be the most biblical and consistent Christian interpretation of the apparent lack of efficacy of prayer for healing in the prior analysis.

What is the naturalistic interpretation of the information?

A naturalist should also be a bit surprised by the analysis. In the absence of other factors, a naturalist would expect a lack of correlation between prayerfulness and mortality per incidence. A negative correlation is troubling, though perhaps not as much as a positive correlation. As such, a naturalist would seek out other explanations for the reverse relationship.

Hypothesis #1: Poverty rates

One can’t help but notice that, at a glance, the most prayerful states would seem to map to some of the poorer states and the least prayerful states would seem to map to some of the richer states. If this is the case, then that could reasonably contribute to the observed discrepancy due to the fact that the poorer population is less likely to obtain supplemental care beyond that which is covered by insurance, and are also more likely to have no insurance at all, or lower quality insurance. It’s also reasonable to expect that the health care facilities in more affluent areas have more resources that enable better care. Any or all of these would impact the care that patients receive. The ranks for the median household income of the most prayerful states are Mississippi (50th), Louisiana (41st), Alabama (46th), South Carolina (40th) and Kentucky (47th). The ranks for the median household income of the least prayerful states are Maine (36th), Massachusetts (6th), Alaska (4th), New Hampshire/Vermont (7th/20th) and Connecticut/Rhode Island (3rd/18th). This supports the notion that the states which are most prayerful are also definitively less wealthy and demonstrates feasibility for the hypothesis that the higher mortality per incidence may be at least partially explained as a function of wealth.

Hypothesis #2: Those with faith are less likely to fight against death

As noted in the Christian interpretation, a Christian sees death as a transition and, though they may fear death, their belief in an afterlife is likely to dampen that fear relative to a non-believer. Fear is an incredible motivator and if somebody is more fearful of death, they will likely put more effort into avoiding it. This may offer additional insight into why the mortality per incidence rates are lower for the least prayerful states, though I’m not sure how to provide evidence for this. Even so, it is not an unrealistic hypothesis to help explain the observed discrepancy.

Which interpretation seems more probable?

If it were theologically evident that Christians should expect God to intercede in response to prayers for healing then I would identify the naturalistic view as being far more probable. However, it seems likely to me that the popularized view of prayer for healing may not be in line with biblical theology and that a prayer which is not focused on spiritual matters is not well aligned to God’s will. Despite this, it seems that Christians are extremely reluctant to espouse views that might in any way indicate that we shouldn’t pray for physical healing. I get the sense that this is for fear of positing a God that is either incapable of healing or a God who is not moved with compassion at our physical suffering (either of which would clearly contradict Jesus’ ministry). Similarly, I see the athiest position as one which misrepresents the Christian view by over-emphasizing the expectation of healing as a result of prayer. What we get then is that the most common views of prayer for healing come from either the traditional Christian view, which errors on the side of not undermining God’s power, or from the athiest view, which exaggerates a God who is dutifully obligated to respond to all prayers. I think that both of these may have missed the mark.

I should also point out that if the Christian view I presented above is true, where healing only occurs to bring about faith then, to be blunt, the majority of prayers for healing can be considered to be pointless and misguided. This would also underscore the division and differences within the church as to the proper application of prayer. This conflict in views and lack of agreement counts against the acceptance of the Christian interpretations I provided.

In the end, I find that both worldviews can present reasonable interpretations of the data but the naturalistic explanation is more easily supported and does not carry with it the kinds of conflicts that are present in the Christian interpretation. This leads me to assign the probabilities as follows:


Lastly, as this is my first topical post, I also need to point out that I do not intend these posts to be static. As discussions arise and new information is gathered I fully expect to update the posts and even change the probabilities I have assigned.



Let me explain what I’m trying to do. First, you need some context.

Why am I here?

That question is not a segue into a profound discussion on existence. I am an engineer; and it seems to me that I’m wired that way. I was also raised in the Christian faith. Over the years, I’ve continued to feed my hunger for an understanding of the way things work and have, as a result, reshaped my faith to fit what I’ve learned and observed. Over time, this led me to a more liberal system of beliefs, though still clearly within the bounds of Christianity. I also came to accept that I simply cannot explain some of the difficulties associated with the Christian faith. I adopted a philosophy of focusing on the important stuff and learning to be content with saying “I don’t know” when it came to questions that don’t affect the doctrine of salvation. However, as I began to take this position more and more, I eventually realized that the questions were starting to outweigh the answers. This is where I am now. I have decided that I cannot, in good conscience, continue to accept ignorance as my position on so many matters. In fact, you may even recognize that defaulting to ignorance is not biblical. 1 Peter 3:15 says to “… always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.” In hindsight I’m embarrassed to admit that I have allowed myself to be engaged in intellectual dishonesty by looking past these issues despite that fact that I was aware of, and in many cases quite familiar, with them. Now that I have decided that I am no longer content with ignorance, the doubts are coming at me like a storm and I am faced with a faith that is far weaker than at any time in my past.

So, I’ve started a blog. If you know me, you know how out of character this is. Like many engineers, I naturally shy away from social interaction and sharing my thoughts. I am a perennial wallflower. However, this journey has been going on for a while in my head and I realize that if I have something valuable in my head then I need to document it for future reference. I’ve forgotten enough to know that if I don’t record my findings then my memory will fail me. This blog is the record of my journey, a point of reference for myself and those who wish to know how I arrived at my worldview, whatever that may be.

At the time of this posting I haven’t yet revealed the magnitude of my doubt to anybody. I know that there’s no shame in doubting but I need some time to process these things before I bring relationships into the mix. If I tried to explain my thoughts to somebody right now it would be an incomprehensible jumble as all the different questions collided on their way out. My journey needs an organized backstory before I ask anybody else to participate in it. In fact, if you’re reading this now it may very well be because I’ve taken that step and pointed you here to understand where I’m coming from. Even so, this is also a publicly accessible blog. While I’m not yet ready to mix my doubts with my relationships, I recognize the value of “peer review”. I don’t know if anybody is even going to stumble upon this and offer any critiques of my ramblings, but I welcome the possibility. To quote Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so a person sharpens his friend.” I would be foolish to reject the insights and thoughts of others…I’m just not ready yet to do that with friends and family.

What am I doing?

I’m going to start facing these doubts and questions head on. I will not brush aside the difficult aspects of faith, or use “God’s ways are not our ways” to justify a comfortable ignorance. I’ve titled this blog “A Measure of Faith” as a play on the text of Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith.” First, I couldn’t agree more with the encouragement to “think with sober discernment”. That is exactly what I intend to do. Second, I am intrigued by the notion of faith as something quantifiable. Along those lines, I’ve decided to put a number on it – a measurement, if you will. Here’s the plan:

As I decide to tackle each topic, I will put together a post that reflects my attempt to describe and interpret it from at least two viewpoints: the Christian view and the naturalist view. I am defining these as:

  1. Christianity: Posits a supernatural power that has provided a revelation to humanity through the Christian bible.
  2. Naturalism: Does not assume a supernatural power and presumes that everything can be explained by natural means.

I realize that there are many more worldviews, but these two are my primary concerns and most other views are closely related to one of these. That is, most religious views will share many common points with Christianity and most non-theistic views will share many common points with naturalism. At the end of the post, I will assign a probability to each view that I present. This probability is a representation of my opinion on the validity of each particular view in light of my evaluation. I’m not under any illusion that this will be an objective measurement, nor do I intend it to be. Obviously, despite my best attempts, my inherent biases will play a large role in the evaluation and the resulting probabilities. There’s not much I can do about that. Ultimately, I am simply trying to quantify the validity of each view with respect to my interpretation of the available information. To me, a view is more valid if it does a better job of explaining the data while raising fewer additional questions. I don’t know how much I’ll actually stick to this recipe but that’s the general theme.

That is where I am and what I plan to do about it. Where I will be once this is through, I do not know, but I am quite certain that I will not be the same.