Tag Archives: Paul

Paul’s Sacred Disease

A pastor friend and I were once having a discussion on what it would take to get me to believe in God again.  He asked me, “So, what would happen if you were to have a ‘Damascus Road’ experience?”  My response was, “Check myself into the nearest neurology unit.”

Hallucinations are much more common than people think.  Approximately 1 in 20 people in the general population has experienced at least one hallucination in their lifetime that wasn’t connected to drugs, alcohol or dreaming.  These are healthy people, with no background of psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia or manic depression.  When one starts to look at experiences of people who do have some sort of medical or neurological issues, the likelihood of having some form of  hallucinations goes up considerably.   One of the most common disorder which causes hallucinations is epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures.  The human brain is the source of human epilepsy.  Although the symptoms of a seizure may affect any part of the body, the electrical events that produce the symptoms occur in the brain.  Symptoms of seizures very (depending of the area of the brain being affected), and can be motor (twitching of certain muscles), autonomic (nausea), sensory (abnormalities or hallucinations of sight, sound, smell, etc), or psychic (sudden feelings of joy or fear without apparent cause, or sudden, often unusual, trains of thought).  The location of that event, how it spreads and how much of the brain is affected, and how long it lasts all have profound effects. These factors determine the character of a seizure and its impact on the individual.  Epilepsy commonly affects higher parts of the brain, where it may evoke very complex, multisensorial “reminiscence” or dreamlike fantasies.  Essentially, anything the brain can do, it can do in the form of a seizure.

“Ecstatic seizures shake one’s foundation of belief, one’s world picture, even if one has previously been wholly indifferent to any thought of transcendent or supernatural.” – Oliver Sacks 

Hippocrates referred to epilepsy as the “Sacred Disease”, no doubt bowing to the then-popular notion that epilepsy had divine origins (Yet, he himself dismissed such notions, claiming that epilepsy, like all other diseases had natural causes), and was long thought to be a  supernatural, demonic, or spiritual disorder.

Many of histories most prolific figures are thought to have suffered from epileptic seizures which brought about vivid hallucinations and had notable affects on their lives.

Based on transcripts from her trial, many people have concluded that Joan of Arc likely had temporal lobe epilepsy with ecstatic auras.  This would help explain how a farmer’s daughter with no formal education could have been so inspired as to gain the support and admiration of thousands of people in her attempt to drive the English from France.

Vincent van Gogh believed that all expressions should be expressed through colors.  Being the loving and creative man that he was, his epilepsy had once caused him to run after his friends with an open razor, but cut cutting his own ear lobe off instead.

Aristotle was one of the first to point out that epilepsy and genius were often closely connected. He found that the seizure disorders may have the ability to increase brain activity in specific places and maybe also enhance a persons natural abilities to a certain extent.

And, in one of the Bible’s most dramatic stories, Paul was transformed from a zealous persecutor of Christianity into one of its most powerful advocates after being struck down by a blinding light.

The Damascus Road experience is recorded in a few different sections of the Book of Acts.  The accounts differ slightly from each other, but we can form a reasonable account of the events that occurred.  The best account is found in Acts 22:6-11 (Acts 9:1-9 and Acts 26:9-20 being the others), where Paul (then Saul) gives a description of the events in his own words:

“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me.  And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me.  And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’  And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.”

Let’s note a few important points here regarding Paul’s episode.  Paul recounts that he:

  • Saw a bright light
  • Fell to the ground, no indication why
  • No loss of consciousness
  • Heard a voice
  • Was temporarily blinded

Now, let’s look at some common symptoms during an epileptic seizure:

  • Loss of vision or unable to see
  • Blurry vision
  • Flashing lights
  • Hallucinations
  • Numbness, tingling, or electric shock like feeling in body, arm or leg
  • Out of body sensations
  • Feeling detached

The commonalities are striking, to say the least.  But what about Paul’s claims of being blind for three days?  Is there a natural explanation that can account for this?  In turns out that there is.  Episodes of temporary (and even permanent) blindness have been reported among those who have occipital seizures (a type of epileptic seizure): Blindness may follow visual hallucinations and progress to other ictal epileptic symptoms but often occurs as the initial or the only ictal seizure manifestation with an abrupt onset. The duration of ictal blindness varies between less than one minute and days or can be permanent. Onset of ictal blindness in adulthood nearly always indicates symptomatic epilepsy”

This isn’t the only time we read about Paul having unique experiences.  In Acts 16:9, Paul is said to have had vision of a man standing in front of him.  The Lord appears to Paul in “a vision” in Acts 18:9, and also while Paul is “in a trance” in Acts 22:17.  In 2 Cor. 12, Paul describes having an out of body experience and seeing visions: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

In the above passage, and several others, we read of Paul hinting about his ‘physical ailment‘, by which he perhaps means a chronic illness. In the above passage from Corinthians, he states: ‘But to keep me from being puffed up with pride… I was given a painful physical ailment, which acts as Satan’s messenger to beat me and keep me from being proud.‘ (2 Corinthians, 12,7). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul again describes his physical weakness: ‘You remember why I preached the gospel to you the first time; it was because I was ill. But even though my physical condition was a great trial to you, you did not despise or reject me.‘ (Galatians 4, 13-14) In ancient times people used to spit at ‘epileptics’, either out of disgust or in order to ward off what they thought to be the ‘contagious matter’ (epilepsy as ‘morbus insputatus’: the illness at which one spits).  Paul also hints at having some sort of eye disease in his letter to the Galatians (4:15, 6:11).

The descriptions of Paul’s visions and experiences have led many  to believe that Paul himself suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.  To put things in another light – Paul’s miraculous transformation from Jewish Zealot to one of the founders of the Christian religion was not the result of some supernatural intervention, but a classic case of hallucination brought on by epilepsy.  Of course, there is no way of knowing for certain whether or not Paul, in fact, had epilepsy.  This is admittedly just an educated guess.  However, it is a far more probably explanation than the supernatural account portrayed in the Bible and believed by countless Christians throughout the centuries.  

One has to wonder what other Biblical figures suffered from then unknown mental disorders which led to their dramatic visions.  Take for example, John of Patmos, the author of the apocalyptic Book of Revelations, which features obscure and extravagant imagery.  The accounts of John’s visions are reminiscent of another well documented church figure.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1180), a nun and mystic of exceptional intellectual and literary power, who experienced countless “visions” throughout her life, and left detailed accounts of figures of these.  Modern neurologists have concluded, based on these accounts, that Hildegard almost certainly suffered from severe migraines, which resulted in her vivid hallucinations.

An example (seen above) of one of her visions is a figure of stars falling and being quenched in the ocean, signifies for the “The Falling of Angels”:

I saw a great star most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling stars which with the star followed southward… And suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into black coals… and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more. 

This account sounds strikingly similar to John’s visions in Revelations.  Could John have also suffered from migraines, which led to his wild visions?  It’s certainly possible, and far more probable than John being literally taken up into heaven by supernatural forces and given a glimpse of the future.

The Bible contains multiple accounts of very vivid, other-worldly, visions.  While some of these are certainly just the creative imaginations of it’s authors, it’s likely that some are also the very real experiences of the people who had them – as the result of the some then-unknown neurological disorder.  When talking about Paul,  John of Patmos, or even Jesus, one should never overlook the possibility that they suffered from mental illness which led to their behaviors, beliefs, and claims.  Remember, when it comes to extraordinary claims, a natural explanation (no matter how unlikely) is always more likely than a supernatural one. 

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Deconversion De-constructed

 

I’ve had a few people ask me for a more thorough explanation for why I deconverted from organized religion and no longer believe in God.  I touched on it a bit in my “coming out” post that I wrote earlier this year.  I also talked about the reasons why I didn’t lose my faith in a previous post.

I’ve been hesitant to write about this for a couple of reasons.  For one, it felt like an overwhelming task.  It’s difficult to take two years worth of research and condense it into a tidy, concise, and relativity short post.  Second, by attempting to simplify my reasons and possibly not provide sufficient information, it leaves the door wide open for unwanted criticism.

However, I’ve decided it was time that I attempt explain things a little better, as some people seem genuinely curious.  For the sake of simplifying things, I’ve decided to leave out all the issues I have with Christianity itself and instead focus on why I don’t believe the truth-claims made by Christianity.  I devote a good amount of words to what I dislike about Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism, but those are not the reasons that I lost my faith.  I had most of these same complaints even when I was a Christian.  I could have just as easily found a different church or denomination and been writing from a progressive christian standpoint. (In fact, that was my original intention when I started this blog)

But, the more I learned, the more I studied history, science, psychology, and critical thinking, the more my faith fell apart.  Like peeling an onion, the layers kept getting stripped away, one by one.  I tried to fight against the tide- I really did.  I didn’t want to become an atheist, but I had to follow the evidence where it took me.  If I was to be honest with myself, if I was to be critically and scientifically minded, I had to let the facts speak for themselves.

So, strap in folks – this is going to be a long, bumpy ride.  Here is a “Cliff Notes” version of  the reasons that I deconverted from Christianity:

The Bible

The foundation of the Christian faith is the Bible.  Everything Christians believe and live by is somehow tied to this one book.  It is held up as the literal “Word of God” and many consider it to be without error.  As such, it is considered authoritative and binding to all functions of the Church, both institutionally and privately.

Ironically, it was reading and studying the Bible in earnest that led to my deconversion*.   The process went something like this:

I took a year to read the Bible from cover-to-cover.  I read it in chronological order, and as such, was sometimes reading the same story, from different sources.  What I found was shocking – far from being inerrant, the Bible is littered with contradictions, errors, and discrepancies.  It also become pretty apparent that the authors of the Bible were a product of their time – pre-science, Bronze Age, primitive times, steeped in supernaturalism and mythology .  Left scratching my head, I decided to look into the history of the Bible itself, as a book.

The Council of Nicea was intended to bring some sort of unity to Christianity, and with it, determine which of the hundreds of sacred texts in circulation at the time would be canonized.  History books revealed that the decisions as to what books would be canonized had more to do with politics than with religion.   There are countless stories of corruption, bribery, and violence that made up proceedings at the Council of Nicea.  And even after the Council, it would be another two centuries before a unified version of the Bible began to take shape.

Within Christian circles, you will often hear people arguing about which translation of the Bible are most accurate in regard to the “original Greek and Hebrew”.  The problem is that there is no original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  In fact, there are no original copies of any of the books of the Bible.  What we have is copies of copies of copies.  We have no idea that the original authors said.  Some would like to believe that those copying the texts would take great pains to make sure the copies were exact, however, that is far from true.  There are thousands of copies of ancient Bible texts in existence, but there are virtually no two that are the same; there are tens of thousands of discrepancies between them all.  While most of the errors are small grammatical ones, many are huge, with whole sections being added and/or taken away.  It was not uncommon for scholars to add their own insight into a text when copying it, and this went on for centuries. 

Looking into the individual books themselves, I found many glaring problems that I never heard talked about in Church.

Like the fact that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but was written centuries after Moses died, is comprised of at least four separate texts, and is largely folklore, mythology, and propaganda – not literal history (more on this later).

Also, the fact that the Gospels were not written by Jesus’s disciples, and are not eye-witness accounts.  Rather, they were written decades after Jesus had died by anonymous, Greek-speaking scholars, who never knew Jesus personally and wrote based on the oral traditions that had been passed down.  This speaks volumes as to the credibility (or lack thereof) of the stories, especially when you consider the many discrepancies between the accounts.

There was also the problem of Paul, who though credited as being the one most responsible for spreading the word about Jesus, never know Jesus personally, never had access to any of the Gospels (they were written after his ministry), and doesn’t seem to know anything about Jesus’s ministry on earth.  There is no mention of the virgin birth, nothing of Jesus’s miracles, none of Jesus’s teachings, nothing about the Easter story, and nothing about Jesus being God in any of Paul’s writings.  There is also a great deal of debate as to the authenticity of the books credited to Paul.  Some, including Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus, are believed by many scholars to be forgeries, and 2 Thessalonians is widely accepted as being a psuedepigrapha.

Going back to the Old Testament, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have discovered that most of the stories told regarding Israel’s history are nothing more then folklore and mythology.  There was no captivity in Egypt, no Ten Plagues, no Exodus, no wandering in the desert for 40 years, no Battle of Jericho, no Kingdom of Solomon, etc.  There is simply no corroborating scientific or historical evidence outside of the Bible to support any of these events as being historical.

The same holds true in the case of Jesus and his life.  There is no non-Biblical sources from the first-century that corroborate any of the extraordinary claims (virgin birth, miracles, divinity, resurrection, etc)  made of Jesus.  In fact, there is no mention of Jesus at all, in any of the manuscripts from that period.         

After this thorough investigation into the Bible, I came away with this conclusion – The Bible is a wonderful and inspiring work of literature that gives us a look into the culture and history of the Jewish people and the earliest Christians.  Yet, it is purely the work of human hands and is not the “Word of God”, nor is it divinely inspired, and it is certainly not inerrant.  As such, it can not be, nor should be, authoritative in any way. 

The Man-Made God

I want to offer up a quick story by Carl Sagan, called “The Dragon in My Garage”, as an introduction to this section:

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, and see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heat-less.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heat-less fire; and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, and assertions immune to disproof are worthless in determining veridicality, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerges, you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative– merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

This story perfectly illustrates my thoughts on the subject of God – there is currently no empirical evidence to support the existence of a theistic God**, in fact the evidence is strongly against it, but if new information ever were to emerge, I would be prepared to examine it and go from there.  

Whenever a claim is made, the burden of proof is always on the one making the claim.  And as Carl Sagan would say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

When I’m talking about evidence, I’m talking about what can be tested, replicated, and independently verified using the scientific method.  (It is important to note that good arguments are not evidence, nor are personal experiences, or unanswered questions.)  Modern science has looked outward, and has measured the size of the universe, determined how fast it is expanding, has detected and measured previously unknown substances like dark matter and dark energy, and has determined with reasonable certainly how everything came into existence.  Science has also looked inward, breaking things down the subatomic level, and studying the quantum physics that make the whole system work.  In all that research, scientists have never found any evidence of a divine being, entity, or gods, either in the present nor the past.

So where did this idea of a divine being come from?

Cognitive science science shows that humans are biologically designed towards a pre-disposition of trying to make sense of what we don’t understand.  Ancient humans were surrounded by an aw-inspiring, yet scary and dangerous world.  They did not have the luxury of science to explain things like thunder storms, earthquakes, or diseases.  In an attempt to explain these natural occurrences, they turned to the supernatural, and gods were born.  The earliest gods came from various forms of animism, or giving a spiritual essence to plants, animals, and inanimate objects.

As societies grew and more people were living in communities, these early beliefs were co-opted by the governing powers as a way of unifying and controlling the masses, hence; the earliest forms of religion were born.  Religion is a natural phenomenon, and has evolved and been reshaped by cultures throughout the centuries. Polytheism, pantheism, monotheism, panentheism, deism, and many other philosophies sprang up as people tried to understand the world around them.

When one reads about early Judaism in the Old Testament and compares it to the prevailing religions of the time and those that came before, it’s easy to see that Judaism and  monotheism were simply another rung on the evolutionary ladder of religion.  The same can be found when one looks at the history of Christianity.

All of this lead me to conclude that all religions, including Judaism and Christianity, are man-made.  So too, are the god(s) that they believe in and worship.  

Head Games

The next question I needed to address was this – If god(s) are a human construct, why do people claim to have had experiences with God?  How do you explain conversion experiences and other similar religious experiences?

To find the answers I turned to psychology and neuroscience.  I learned that all humans have a “hard-wired” tendency to believe in the supernatural.  This phenomenon is also described in psychology as part of our childhood development of maturity, the one James Fowler labeled the Intuitive-Projective in his Stages of Faith.   This is why children will often have imaginary friends and why a large percentage of the population believes in UFOs and angels.  I also explains why so many people, especially those taught at a young age, believe in god(s).

I learned about such things as Theory of Mind,  Agent Detection, Apophenia, and Rituals, and how these provide a perfectly natural explanation to people’s religious or spiritual experiences.  The latest research has shown that religious ideas are simply the extraordinary use of everyday cognition.  And like music or reading & writing, are the product of cognitive mechanics designed for other purposes.  This leads me to believe that peoples’ religious experiences are the product of our minds natural tendencies, and not divine intervention.

I then focused on the concepts of willful blindnessconfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and cognitive dissonance to understand why people would hold on to their beliefs despite contradictory evidence.  To avoid these pitfalls, the single most important skill I have found is that of critical thinking.  “No one always acts purely objectively and rationally.  We connive for selfish interests.  It is ‘only human’ to wish to validate our prior knowledge, to vindicate our prior decisions, or to sustain our earlier beliefs.”  Because of these pre-disposed prejudices, one must apply critical thinking skills to every subject, including the subject of god(s).  The scientific method is crucial to this, as is the understanding of logical fallacies.  I found that having learned the common logical fallacies and how they were used, it became easy to spot them in any debate in which tangible evidence could not be provided.  This includes nearly every argument that has been made by apologists concerning God/The Bible.

That’s about the long and short of it.  There’s a lot more that I could have gone into – the contradictions of God’s character throughout the Bible, the myth of Jesus’s divinity, heaven & hell, the Devil, etc.  This post is already a bit wordy for me, however, so I just focused on the main points.  I’m sure for some, I’ve invited as many questions as I’ve answered***.  Perhaps in future posts I’ll explore some of my points in greater detail.  I’m sure some will take issue with a lot of what I have to say – and that’s fine.  As I’ve said many times on this blog, this is my journey and my experience based on what I’ve come to know and understand.  I’m not looking to “evangelize” or convert anyone.  But, I know there might be some out there who are having doubts about their faith, and hopefully this discussion can be helpful.

* – I’m not alone in this; a good majority of former believers would also sight the Bible as the main thing that lead to their deconversion. 

** – I emphasize the term “theistic” here, as it refers to God as a conscious supernatural being (a God who listens to and answers prayers, cares about humanity, intervenes on its behalf, etc).  This is different than what some traditions and philosophies would regard as the “God of essence” (“The Ground of All Being”, non-anthropomorphic, abstract, spiritual, etc.)

***- I didn’t add a lot of links to the information I presented, as is usually habit for me, for a couple of reasons.  First, much of the information I have received has come from books, not online sources.  Second, it would have taken considerable time to try and find links for everything.  I can assure you that the facts presented are not merely my own conjuring or opinion, but were gathered from reliable, well-accepted, academic sources, There are a number of authors and works I can recommen to those of you looking for more information.