Tag Archives: miracles

Evidence Explained (or, Why Apologetics Fail)

Webster’s defines “evidence” as – : something which shows that something else exists or is true, : a visible sign of something, : material that is presented to a court of law to help find the truth about something.  To put things in more scientific terms, evidence is that which can be demonstrated, tested, verified, and falsified.

This would seem to be a pretty straight forward idea, and to most people about most things, it is.  However, a strange thing happens when people hold to ideas which can’t be demonstrated to be true with evidence.  Suddenly the definition of what constitutes “evidence” changes or broadens to encompass any arguments or claims they can muster that seem to lend credibility to their position.  This widened criteriaa, however, is only applicable to their own strongly held belief and does not extend to beliefs that other people hold that they disagree with.  More on this later.

Apologetics is defined as – reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.  Bible.org gives the simpler definition as “the defense of the Christian faith”.

When I was a Christian, I was big into apologetics, and spent many hours reading books and watching debates from such notable personalities as Lee Strobel, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and others.  After becoming more familiar with the philosophy of critical thinking, logical fallacies, and the scientific method, I soon realized that there was something strangely missing from all apologetic works, both novice and professional: evidence.  Demonstrable, verifiable, empirical evidence.  Despite the common Christian claim that there is an abundance of evidence for their beliefs, I soon realized that this evidence is strangely absent from any work of apologetics I had ever come across.  What I did see over and over where justifications being substituted and passed of as “evidence”.  That’s what I want to talk about here; common apologetic tactics which are not “evidence” and should not be taken as such.

Arguments

Several years ago I served on a  jury.  Before the trial started the judge went over the rules and guidelines for how we determine a verdict.  One of the points that he made was that the opening and closing statements could not be used in out determination of a verdict.  There’s a very good reason for this – arguments (or argumentation), no mater how compelling, well thought out, or convincing, are not evidence. 

Apologists love their arguments.  The Cosmological Argument, Argument from Morality, Argument from Design, Ontological Argument, Pascals Wager, etc.  There are some problems with this however.

First, arguments can be used to show the plausibility of almost anything.  I’ve heard very convincing arguments for the existence of Bigfoot and the Yeti.  I’ve watched documentaries on how aliens are the only explanation for the how the pyramids of Egypt were built.  Many people are convinced that Hitler escaped Berlin at the end of WWII.  Does this mean that Bigfoot is real, Hitler is alive, or that aliens are responsible for one of the great wonders of the Earth?  Of course not.  Yet this same logic applies to apologetics – just because you can come up with a convincing argument for the existence of something does not mean it is “proof” of its existence.

Second, if arguments are not evidence, then fallacious arguments are even less so.  I’ve yet to encounter an apologist give an argument that wasn’t some form of a logical fallacy.   To use the example listed above, the Cosmological Argument is a classic “God of the Gaps” fallacy as is the Argument from Morality.  The Argument from Design suffers from many fallacies, most notably the Weak Analogy fallacy.   The Ontological Argument is a form of Circular Reasoning and Pascals Wager is an example of Begging the Question.  If anyone can find me a work of apologetics that doesn’t contain logical fallacies, I’ll buy you dinner.

Anecdotes/Personal Testimony

Christians love their personal testimonies.  Whether it’s at church, on social media, at music festivals, or in personal conversations, every Christian has a story about how God answered some prayer,  worked in their lives, or performed a miracle.  For many people, these personal experiences are the main reason for their belief in God.  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a Christian claim,”I’ve experienced him working in my life” as their “evidence” of God’s existence…

Personal experiences and anecdotes are not evidence, no matter how real or convincing they may seem to people.  There are several reasons for this.

First, when people use anecdotes as evidence, they are usually committing a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (post hoc for short).  The Latin translates to “after this, therefore because of this,” and it occurs whenever an argument takes the following form:

  • X happened before Y
  • Therefore, X caused Y

The reason that post hoc arguments are invalid should be obvious: the fact that Y happened after X does not mean that X caused Y.

Anytime someone claims that God answered a prayer, they are committing a post hoc fallacy.  When someone gives an emotional testimony about how they were an addict, criminal, all around shitty person, and then God miraculously changed their lives, they make the mistake of assuming that since they got better after accepting Jesus into their lives, that it was Jesus who changed them around.

Second, if one is going to admit anecdotes as evidence, then you have to admit all personal stories as equally credible.  That means that the personal stories of Muslims is proof of Allah, anecdotes by Scientologists are proof that their religion is true, and thousands of accounts of alien encounters are proof of aliens.  It is not hard to find very convincing stories by very credible witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens.  These people are so convinced of this that they are able to pass polygraph tests when questioned about their encounters.  Is this hard evidence that aliens are visiting earth and kidnapping people?  Most theists would say no, yet they would like to claim that their own stories are “evidence” of God’s existence.  This double standard is known as special pleading –  applying standards, principles, and/or rules to other people or circumstances, while making oneself or certain circumstances exempt from the same critical criteria, without providing adequate justification.  You can’t attempt to argue that your experiences constitute as evidence and then try to discredit the experiences of other believers who disagree with you.

Lastly, anecdotes that affirm a position often ignore anecdotal evidence that contradicts the same position.  Theists can claim that prayer works only by ignoring all the times that it didn’t work.  You can claim that God got you out of addiction, but what about all the people who also reached out to God and are still addicts?  This is confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out information that conforms to their pre-existing view points, and subsequently ignore information that goes against them, both positive and negative.

Luciano Gonzalez over at Patheos sums it up nicely:

“Your experiences are AT BEST reasons for you to believe. They are not (or at least they shouldn’t be) compelling evidence for other people that you want to convince you are right. If you are arguing that your experiences are compelling evidence, I want to know what separates your experiences from the experiences of others that somehow their experiences are not as convincing as yours, or are somehow inferior to yours in such a way that you know your experiences are true while knowing or believing that theirs are not (in cases when you share your experiences with people who disagree with you).”

*(For a more in-depth look at why anecdotes aren’t evidence, check out this article over at The Logic of Science blog)

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The Supernatural/Miracles

In a recent debate between Matt Dillahunty and Blake Giunta on the topic of the Resurrection of Jesus, Guinta made the argument that the most plausible explanation for the testimonies found in the Bible, and other sources of people encountering Jesus after his death, was that he had miraculously risen from the dead after three days.  He claims that the actual, physical resurrection is the only plausible explanation for how so many people could have had such similar and lucid encounters.  Remember how we talked earlier about alien abductions?

Miracles, by definition, are a violation or suspension of the laws of nature, thus making them supernatural.  David Hume characterized them as “a transgression of the law of nature” and were thereforethe least likely event possible“.  Yet, miracles abound in apologetics.  In fact, much of the foundation of the Christian faith, such as the Resurrection, prayer, and the divine inspiration of scripture, depend on the supernatural being a very real and active agent in this world.  Contrary to what many apologists think, science can test supernatural claims, and since the scientific revolution four centuries ago, we have learned that there is no supernatural realm.  Natural explanations have been found for that which was previously thought to have supernatural origins in every case that it has been studied.

Occam’s Razor states that when there exist two explanations for an occurrence, the simpler one is usually better.  Another way of saying it is; the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.  When it comes to the “evidence” produced by apologists for the existence of God, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always going to be more likely than a supernatural one.  Back to the debate mentioned earlier, when it comes to an explanation for all the witnesses who claim to have seen Jesus after he arose, there are many natural explanations – mass hallucinations, shared psychotic disorder, groupthink, legendary accretion, mistaken identity, false memories, etc.  No matter how implausible some of these explanations may be, they are far more plausible than the supernatural explanation of a bodily resurrection.  You cannot claim that the most likely explanation is the least likely event possible; a miracle.

One final note, the use of the supernatural by apologetics is another good example of special pleading.  If you are going to accept that the supernatural is real then you must also accept the supernatural claims made by other religions.

Awe and Wonder

“The evidence for God is all around us.  Just go outside and look around!”  Sadly, his kind of thinking abounds within Christianity –   people believing that the natural world is somehow evidence for their particular god-claims.  The Bible claims that God reveals himself through nature (Rom 1:20) and many take that to heart.  When asked for evidence of God, some have claimed that He  is “self-evident” in nature and that is all the “proof” they need.

This is similar to what we discussed above about anecdotes.  Personal experiences, including awe and wonder, are not evidence.  They are nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain that give some of us a pleasurable sensation when enjoying nature.  I say “some” because this is not universal.  Not everyone has the same feelings or experiences when being outdoors.

Also, the thing about nature is that it is natural and we have natural explanations for why it’s there, where it came from, etc.  No supernatural explanation needed.  A neighbor said to me the other day, “How can people look up at the stars and not believe in a God?”  My answer was, “Study cosmology”.  This isn’t to say that there can’t be mystery in the universe, but you don’t get to fill in your ignorance of the natural world with “God” and then credit that as evidence.

A common logical fallacy that falls under this category is an appeal to emotions – the use emotion in place of reason in order to attempt to win the argument.  This happens when someone attempts to manipulates peoples’ emotions in order to get them to accept a claim as being true.  This one is easy to spot; anytime someone makes of “feeling God in their heart”, or knowing that “the Holy Spirit is at work”, or feeling some sort of positive emotion and correlating them to a deity.

Absence of Evidence

This one presents itself in a couple of ways.  The most obvious is the classic argument from ignorance – when a proposition is considered true from the fact that it is not known to be false.  It’s common for people to argue that since you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, then he likely exists.  This line of reasoning could be used to support almost any claim: aliens, vampires, fairies, other gods, or a teapot orbiting the sun.  Ignorance about something says nothing about its existence or non-existence.

Another common argument is that, “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.  The basic idea being that we can’t be sure something doesn’t exist just because we haven’t seen it yet.  First of all; this isn’t entirely correct.  But more importantly, most situations which make very specific claims can test for evidence.  In these cases, a lack of evidence is evidence of absence.  Put simply – the absence of evidence, when evidence should be present, is evidence of absence.

Apologists often claim the “historical reliability of the Bible” as evidence for their God.  Yet, we’ve seen over and over that when evidence for very specific events, such as the Exodus and Israels’ forty years of wandering are investigated, no historical or archaeological can be found.  It is therefore more likely that these events never took place.  Many apologists would like to claim that just because evidence hasn’t been found, that these events could still have taken place, and we just haven’t found the evidence yet.  This is not rational thinking.  As Matt Dillahunty is fond of saying, “The time to believe in something is after evidence presents itself, not before.”  This goes for aliens, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, and deities.  It’s completely reasonable to lack a belief in something as extraordinary as a deity if you know of no evidence to support such a claim being reflective of reality.  It is unreasonable to lack extraordinary evidence and still have an extraordinary belief.

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People will go to great lengths to justify unsubstantiated beliefs.  When these beliefs are challenged, things like “evidence” and “proof” suddenly take on a different meaning than they would in a normal, day-to-day, situation.  A good rule of thumb when debating an apologist is this – would this kind of reasoning hold up in a court of law or a science lab?  If not, then they are likely trying to substitute something else for real evidence, and have no solid case.  And as Hitchens famously said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”  

Hope this was helpful.  Thanks for reading.

Mythbusters: The Uniqueness of Jesus

In the first century CE, there was a man born in a remote part of the Roman empire, who’s life would later be described by his followers as “miraculous”.

Before he was born, his mother had a visitor from heaven tell her that her son would be no mere mortal, but in fact divine.  His birth was accompanied by unusual sign in the heavens.

As an adult he left home to begin his preaching ministry.  He went from village to town, telling all who would listen that the should not be concerned about their earthly lives and their material goods; they should live for what was spiritual and eternal.  He preached to both the common peasants and the elite.

He gathered a number of followers around him who became convinced that he was no ordinary human, but was the Son of God.  He did many miracles that confirmed their beliefs: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising people from the dead.

All was not well however, as he aroused opposition from the ruling class of Rome and was eventually put on trial.  He was accused of receiving the worship that is due only to God.  He was sentenced to death.

They may have killed his earthly body, but they could not kill his soul!  He ascended into heaven where he lives to this day.  But to prove that he lived, he appeared to one of his followers doubting followers.  This followers later wrote books about him which we can still read today.

The man’s name was Apollonius.

He was a polytheist and a renowned philosopher who came from the town of Tyana.  His followers thought that he was divine and immortal and worshiped him long after his death.  What is know about him comes from the works of his devotee Philostratus.  Philostratus’s book was written in eight volumes in the third century.  He had done considerable research for his book, and his stories were largely based on the accounts of eyewitnesses and companions of Appollonius himself.*

If this all sounds strikingly similar to the account of Jesus, there’s a very good reason for that.

Myths are stories that are based on tradition.  Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional.  But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures.  A myth taps into a universal cultural narrative, the collective wisdom of man.  An excellent illustration of the universality of these themes is that so many peoples who have had no contact with each other create myths that are remarkably similar.  So, for example, cultures worldwide, from the Middle East to the distant mountains of South America have myths about great floods, virgin births, creation, paradise, the underworld, the afterlife, etc.  These commonalities are known as archetypes – universally symbolic patterns.  True to their universal nature, archetypal characters and stories appear again and again in myths across many diverse cultures.

The account of Jesus as described in the Gospels is one such story.   As we’ll see , the myth of Jesus follows a very old and familiar literary pattern familiar to nearly all hero legends. “We should not think of Jesus as unique”, states New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, “if by that term we mean that he was the only one ‘like that’ – that is, a human who was far above and very different from the rest of us mere mortals, a man who was also in some sense divine.  There were numerous divine humans in antiquity.”

The similarities between Jesus and Apollonius are striking, but they are far from unique; there were many stories that followed this archetype in the ancient world.  This is because they both follow what is often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey”– the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.  Also referred to as monomyth, examples of this can be found throughout the history of literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  

A more specific version of hero’s archetypes is the Rank-Raglan mythotype which are narrative patterns that lists different cross-cultural traits often found in the accounts of heroes, including mythical heroes.  Raglan developed a 22-point myth-ritualist Hero archetype to account for common patterns across Indo-European cultures for Hero traditions.  These points are:

  1. Mother is a royal virgin
  2. Father is a king
  3. Father often a near relative to mother
  4. Unusual conception
  5. Hero reputed to be son of god
  6. Attempt to kill hero as an infant, often by father or maternal grandfather
  7. Hero spirited away as a child
  8. Reared by foster parents in a far country
  9. No details of childhood
  10. Returns or goes to future kingdom
  11. Is victor over king, giant, dragon or wild beast
  12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
  13. Becomes king
  14. For a time he reigns uneventfully
  15. He prescribes laws
  16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects
  17. Driven from throne and city
  18. Meets with mysterious death
  19. Often at the top of a hill
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him
  21. His body is not buried
  22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs

A Hero’s tradition is considered more mythical the more of these traits they hold.  Popular characters who make the cut include Romulus, Heracles, Dionysos, Apollo, Zeus, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Alexander the Great.  How many points does Jesus get?

One can clearly see that the story of Jesus follows the Hero’s tradition.  Is this merely a coincidence?  The number of points the Jesus story gets and the close resemblance to other deities makes it a tough point to argue.


One popular internet meme would have us believe that Christianity is superior because of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

Those who share this meme should spend a little more time studying the history of religion and ancient mythology.  Gods rising from the dead was commonplace in ancient cultures and examples are plentiful:

Attis –  born of a virgin by unusual means, gruesome death, death involved a tree, resurrected/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Adonis – born of royal blood, unusual conception and birth, gruesome death, resurrected/ascended to heaven/eternal life, celebrated annually in spring season

Osiris – son of royalty, became king, taught his people a new way of living, traveled to teach others, was murdered by someone close to him, resurrected, became a god

Dionysus – born from a union between a god (Zeus) and a human (Semele), traveled to spread his message, had disciples, brought people back from the dead, gruesome death (dismemberment), brought back to life, celebrated in spring

Tammuz – parents were divine, had power over nature, foreshadowing of death, descended into the other world but was brought back to life, celebrated in the spring

All of these example proceeded the life of Jesus, some by thousands of years.  You’ll notice some other similarities that I included as well, again, examples of the hero mythology archetype.

Speaking of rising from the dead, some have tried to argue that Jesus’s resurrection is proof of his divinity.  Yet, according to the Bible people being brought back to life, while considered a miracle, was not unusual.  Elijah and Elisha both raised people from the dead.  In fact, Elisha’s powers continued after death as someone was even resurrected simply by touching his bones.  Jesus raised Lazarus, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow on Nain.  Peter raised Dorcus and Eutychus was raised from the dead by Paul.  In a scene straight out of a zombie movie, we hear of whole cemeteries opening up and saints wandering the streets after the crucifixion (Matt. 27:50-53).  Are we to consider all of these people divine as well?


Interesting similarities can also be found between Jesus and Buddha, who pre-dates Jesus by 400-500 years.  Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was:

  • Born to a royal family
  • Birth foretold in dream
  • Visited by “wise men” shortly after birth
  • Prolonged fasting before starting ministry
  • Renounced worldly riches and required his disciples to do so also
  • Taught that true riches are not material
  • Extensive traveling to spread his message
  • Had disciples who traveled with him
  • Performed miracles, such as curing blindness and walking on water
  • Dispatched disciples, shortly before his death, to spread his message

Some have claimed that what set Jesus apart were his teachings, yet while Jesus’s message was certainly counter-cultural, it was nothing original.  As with Apollonius, Buddha taught many of the same principles that we find in the Gospels.  Here are a few examples:

The Golden Rule

Buddha
Jesus
“Consider others as yourself.” (Dhammapada 10:1)
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Love others

Buddha
Jesus
Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.” (Sutta Nipata 149-150)
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Love your enemies

Buddha
Jesus
Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth. (Dhammapada 1.5 &17.3)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6.27-30)

Turn the other cheek

Buddha
Jesus
“If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words.” (Majjhima Nikaya 21:6)
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:29

Help others

Buddha
Jesus
“If you do not tend to one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” (Vinaya, Mahavagga 8:26.3)
“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 25:45)

Do not judge others

Buddha
Jesus
“The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbour’s faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides.” (Dhammapada 252.)
“Judge not, that you be not judged… And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1–5)

Disdain wealth

Buddha
Jesus
“Let us live most happily, possessing nothing.” (Dhammapada 15:4)
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

Do not kill

Buddha
Jesus
“Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword.” Digha Nikaya 1:1.8)
“Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Spread the word

Buddha
Jesus
“Teach the dharma which is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely at the end. Explain with the spirit and the letter in the fashion of Brahma. In this way you will be completely fulfilled and wholly pure.” (Vinaya Mahavagga 1:11.1)
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Does mean that the writers of the Gospels simply copied the story of Buddha?  Trade routes between India and Middle East were well established at that time and goods, as well as ideas, certainly traveled back and forth between them.  While it is certainly possible that the Gospel writers knew of Buddhism, it’s doubtful they simply retold the Buddha myth to match that of Jesus.  I bring up the similarities to once again illustrate how common the Hero archetype was and how influential it was on religious mythology of the time.

While some have argued that Jesus was not an actual historical figure, the majority of scholars and historians would believe that he was.  However, while these scholars would agree that a religious leader named Jesus likely existed, the stories surrounding him are most certainly the product legend and mythology; a story retold over time to fit the hero’s narrative. 

This poses a problem for Christianity, as it depends on the mythology of Jesus.  Without the immaculate conception, miracles, death and resurrection, Jesus is just another ancient religious figure.  As Bob Seidensticker explains: “Strip away any supernatural claims from the story of Alexander the Great, and you’ve still got cities throughout Asia named Alexandria and coins with Alexander’s likeness. Strip away any supernatural claims from the Caesar Augustus story, and you’re still left with the Caesar Augustus from history (and a month in our calendar named after him). But strip away the supernatural claims from the Jesus story, and you’re left with a fairly ordinary rabbi. The Jesus story is nothing but the supernatural elements.”  This is why it is not hard to find apologist desperately attempting to explain away evidence like what I have presented and insisting the Jesus was more than just a teacher/philosopher, but in fact was God, and has to be God.

So, where does all of this leave us?  For me, understanding the true nature of the Jesus story, it’s origins, and how similar it was to other narratives, was part of what led to my de-conversion.  It is yet further evidence that Christianity is a man-made religion, following a similar pattern of mythology, allegory, and legend-making that can be found in all religions.  Christianity is not unique, it is not special, and it certainly isn’t the one true religion as most of its followers would like to believe.

I do, however, admire the central teachings of Jesus and wish more people, specifically his devotes, would actually follow them as it would make the world a much better place.  The practice of treating others as equals, helping others, being slow to anger and judgment, and avoiding materialism, are principles which everyone should embrace.  Whether these principles are coming from Jesus, Buddha, Gandi, MLK, or a host of others; they are universal in nature and lead to a more civil, progressive, and humane society.  It’s when these principles are replaced by religious dogma that we see social progress slow down or even move backwards.  It’s time that the myth of Jesus be put in it’s rightful place so that we, as a society, can move forward.

Thanks for reading.

 

*The story of Appolonius was taken from Bert Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”

**Some apologists have argued that the claims regarding ancient figures such as Adonis and Dionysus can’t be proven to be historically accurate.  It can’t be proven that Jesus was born on Dec 25th either, yet his followers universally celebrate that date.  The same holds true for the gods the preceded Jesus – little may be known about their actual existence (if they had one), but we can make certain claims regarding what their followers believed and how they worshiped.  

 

 

 

 

 

False Hope on the Streets

Coming back from the Farmer’s Market this past weekend, I drove through downtown Sioux Falls and noticed something unusual going on outside the brewery I work at.  There were people setting up chairs and a PA system on the sidewalk.  The chairs were set up facing the street and spaced about three feet apart, as if they were intended for someone watching a parade.  Later that day, when I went into work, I found out what the chairs were for:

This is a group known as Healing On The Streets (HOTS).  You can read about HOTS on their website, but the main thing you need to know is that they believe they can heal people through prayer and put on events like this one on a regular bases.  From the local chapter’s website:

“It’s simple really.  We invite people to sit on chairs so we can pray for them.  We believe God LOVES YOU and CAN HEAL you… from back or neck pain, arthritis, depression, chronic pain, sleeping problems, allergies, headaches, smoking, addictions, walking difficulties, lung problems, anxiety, digestive problems, chest pain, or any other physical or emotional condition.”

HOTS is an international group, with franchises mostly in the US and in Europe.  The franchises are formed from members of various local churches.  They pick a time and a date for their event and advertise for it.  On the selected date they meet in the morning for training and then hit the streets and start praying.

So here’s my issue – HOTS is offering false hope to people who may likely have serious medical issues.  They are making claims regarding medical issues that they are not qualified to address.  They are offering a one-size-fits-all cure for a myriad of medical conditions that require a specific, medical treatment.  HOTS is nothing more then the modern-day version of a snake-oil salesman.

Now, I don’t believe the people who volunteer for HOTS are being intentionally deceptive or trying to con anyone.  They state in their advertisements that the events are free, make no guarantees, and I’m sure they genuinely believe that what they are doing is making a difference.  But the sincerity of a belief does not have any bearing on the validity of that belief.

There is no empirical evidence that prayer or “faith healing” actually works.  People have been studying the effects of intercessory prayer since the 1800’s.  To date, these studies have shown that prayer has no profound effect on the people being prayed for. In some cases, prayer has been shown to actually have a negative effect when people know they are being prayed for.

Beside not asking for money, I’m not seeing how HOTS programs are any less deceptive then the “faith healers” movement; a movement that has been thoroughly exposed as fraudulent, yet still continues to this day.  In fact, a little digging shows HOTS founder Mark Marx using one of the oldest tricks in the book for faith healers:

At the 4:30 mark in this video, illusionist Darren Brown demonstrates how this “miracle” is performed and shows that it is nothing more then a common side-show trick:

I’m not the first one to notice Marx’s deceptive tactics.  A fellow blogger has pointed out the inconsistencies (here and here) in these “miracles”.  Unlike the noted blogger, however, I make no reservations about calling Marx a fraud who is attempting to capitalize on people’s desperation and gullibility to make a lucrative business.   

Concerns have also been raised regarding HOTS in Europe.  In 2012, the group was banned from claiming it can heal people in the UK, after concerns were expressed that their claims could give scores of terminally-ill people false hope.  NHS Tayside, a healthcare provider in Scotland, warned the public about HOTS when they hit the streets in 2013, urging people with medical conditions to go directly to their GP for diagnosis and treatment.

So what’s the harm, you say?  What’s the harm in people coming out and being prayed over with the expectation that it will cure what ails them?  What’s wrong with a little hope?  The harm is that despite HOTS warnings*, many people do ignore medical treatment in favor of prayer, often with disastrous consequences.  Like the case of Zachery Swezey; a 17 year-old high school student who got appendicitis, but his parents believed in the power of prayer over the wisdom of medical experts. So, instead of going to the hospital, his parents stood over and watched him die.  Or the case of Alex Jacobsen; a mentally-ill man who attempted suicide after a faith-based treatment center replaced his medication with prayers and Bible study.  Or the case of Mariah Walton, a 20-year-old who suffers from pulmonary hypertension, a condition that doctors could have prevented if her parents had chosen to take her to a doctor.  Instead they chose to pray over her and rub olive oil over her body.  Walton is now mostly bedridden and has to carry an oxygen tank everywhere she goes.  Cases like this are unfortunately all too frequent, with examples popping up almost weekly.

So what is one to make, then, of the stories you hear of people being miraculously cured by prayer?  Simple.  It’s known as the placebo effect – a fake treatment that can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.  There’s nothing mysterious or supernatural going on here; the placebo effect is a well-documented natural occurrence, and has even been well documented in cases of “faith healing”.  This can become problematic, because while a placebo effect may give temporary relief to certain symptoms of a medical condition (such as relieving pain), there’s no strong evidence that it can cure the underlying issue.  If the issues go untreated, it can lead to severe problems, as the examples above demonstrate.

I realize that prayer is one of the foundations of most religions and is not going away anytime soon.  However, I wish people would quit allowing themselves to be duped by frauds offering snake-oil cures for serious conditions.  I wish people would quit believing prayer is a reasonable solution to real problems.  And I really wish these well meaning, but delusional folks would stop giving false hope to those who have already suffered enough.  Thanks for reading.

 

*At the bottom of the cards that HOTS hands out, there is a warning in small print which reads, “We encourage everyone so seek treatment for conditions for which medical advice should be sought.  If you are on any medications, STAY on it.  Under NO circumstances should you stop doing anything a medical professional or counselor has advised.”  I can’t say whether this same warning is verbalized during gatherings.