Do Miracles Require “Extraordinary Evidence”?

A lot more could be said on this topic (namely “what constitutes evidence?” and “how do religious people define and conceive of miracles?”) but I think that this is a good vid which helps to explain why atheists and skeptics request “extraordinary evidence” (more than just personal testimony) when they are presented with the claims of a supernatural belief system. Enjoy.


related: What is History? (longer blog post related to a term which is frequently invoked in Christian apologetics)

I believe in firewalking…and magic!

Since coming out as a “non-believer” and a skeptic I’ve read lots of books. One of my favorite discoveries in the last year has been contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett likes to tackle tricky questions related to consciousness, free-will and neurology. During some of his public lectures he likes to give an analogy to help explain his research and the current study of human consciousness.

Here’s the analogy. Dennett has a friend who was writing a book on magic. People asked this person “is your book about real magic?” and this friend would reply “No, it’s about stage tricks, mirrors, prestidigitation etc” (I’m paraphrasing Dennett’s illustration here). So you see “real magic” is the magic that you can’t do, the stuff of fantasy films, Harry Potter and the like. Real magic is impossible. But the magic that you can really do is usually considered “fake magic” even though it’s far more real than casting spells, lifting hexes, and channelling energy through arcane objects. Consciousness is the same way. We have mechanical explanations for how parts of human consciousness works. We have material descriptions of what consciousness is and we have some idea of what further research (research on physical patterns, in a lab) will probably be needed to help us unlock that mystery. But for some people, that view of consciousness will never  be “real consciousness.” No matter how good the scientific explanations become, that view of consciousness will be seen as just “a bag of tricks” (as Dennett is fond of saying). And of course a bag of tricks can’t possibly be real consciousness just as stage magic can never be real magic.

What does this all have to do with firewalking?

Firewalking is a cultural practice still performed throughout the world and also by some motivational groups here in the USA. In traditional firewalking usually a “shaman” or holy man of some sort (titles vary by religion) will walk across a bed of hot coals  which are spread out across the ground. At the end of this “test of faith” the holy man’s feet are unscathed. He has literally “walked on fire” and appears to have done so using the aid of the supernatural. At least, that’s what some would claim. Some modern practitioners might say that having a positive mental state protects your feet from the flames. The real explanation is actually quite simple: air is a poor conductor of heat and the burnt ashes on top of the coals act as an additional barrier (other materials can also work if arranged and set up properly). Just as you can retrieve a hot pan from a very hot oven using just a thin cloth barrier, all without receiving 3rd-degree burns on your palms, so too can you take a brisk walk across the ashes on top of glowing embers. Real firewalking involves good prep-work so that things don’t get out of control (too much heat and not enough barrier). And, even when the coals have cooled down a bit you aren’t likely to find any shamans willing to stand upon a bed of coals for an hour while their toes cook. So that’s it. Firewalking is something that a shaman, or anyone with enough care and experience, can accomplish. It’s less dangerous than it initially appears, though there are still risks.

I believe in firewalking, as this post title says. But, I don’t believe in supernaturally empowered, or psychically enabled firewalking. I believe in real firewalking just as much as I believe in real magic and not in horcruxes and mystical pentagrams. To me the act  which you can actually do and provide a consistent explanation for is far more real than the idea of what some people hold about that event. Some people who see a ritual performed are convinced that there must be “something more” which we modern people raised with “Western values” and a scientific approach to truth must be missing out on. To that I simply say: show me the evidence, and I’ll believe it. Demonstrate a firewalking technique which goes far beyond what can be accounted for with the known physical laws (longer duration, higher flames, more exposure etc) or conduct a carefully controlled study demonstrating that mindstate or belief in certain metaphysical principles really is the deciding factor in who gets their feet burned or not. If the data comes in proving that there is some sort of extra factor going on which cannot be explained by simple physics of burning materials and heat conductivity (or the thickness of padding on one’s feet), then this discovery would be a boon for the world and definitely something worth knowing about (of course, this challenge would require that these results could be repeated and independently verified or the possibility of a fluke or deception still remains).

For a more detailed account of the physics behind firewalking check out the video below or read this article which explains the “trick” in more detail.

PS – If physics is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of firewalking, then trying to add in another key element (something like “confidence,” “mental state” or belief) appears to be a violation of Occam’s Razor. If I have to assume a factor which is vague or untested, then I am providing additional speculation which is not required in order to make sense of firewalking (well, at least the type of firewalking which has been observed in our world). Also, none of this is meant to “bash” people who really do think that there is “something more” to all of this. It’s simply a way to explain my perspective as a skeptic and a naturalist. I would love to try firewalking some day (under proper supervision of course, with first-aid nearby).

Becoming UU

Last Sunday I had the privilege of becoming a member of Blue Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Rice Lake. The ceremony itself was quite simple. I went to the front of the room along (it’s a rather modest sanctuary and I know almost everyone there now so I wasn’t too nervous) and presented myself before the congregation. I stood next to my new friend Julie who was also becoming a member that day. A book was placed on a table and after some words were read I stepped forward and signed my name in the book, adding myself to the list of active members. I am now in a covenant with that community. This means that I have committed myself to the 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism and that I agree to contribute my time, talents and money to that specific fellowship (it also meant that I agreed to the congregational by-laws and that I am in agreement with “the purpose and mission” of Blue Hills UU). Julie and I both received red roses as a token of appreciation from the fellowship. Prior to this moment I had prepared by speaking with the lay leader and with a member of the board. The “New Members’ Class” that I took a few weeks prior was rather short and provided a chance for me to interact with others who were new to Blue Hills and to ask any questions I might have about Unitarian Universalism or Blue Hills in particular.

I really appreciated the warmth with which I have been received by that fellowship and the freedom that I have to explore my beliefs there. This was touched on during the membership ceremony when one of the Board Members spoke these words:

“We hold that a basic principle of our Unitarian Universalist movement is freedom of belief. We do not require assent to any creed or statement of faith before a person can join us. We trust people’s ability to build their own faith. We believe we gain strength in our diversity.”

Still, even though there is an openness to explore, members are asked to commit to certain things. We are asked to allow ourselves to be open to growth and change, to “be restless in the pursuit of human rights” and to tolerate the differences of others within the fellowship.

These things are not asked lightly. Being in community is hard. It requires commitment. I’ve noticed that many people in my generation seem to be hesitant about this type of commitment. Being in a group means putting up with the inevitable disagreements and the messes made by other fallible human beings. It means putting yourself out there and taking the risk that others may not reciprocate your good intentions and honesty. It means making sacrifices for others, rather than thinking solely of one’s own immediate concerns.

My Journey into UU

Becoming a Unitarian Universalist was both a long and a short journey for me. I have spent far more years of my life as an active member in various Evangelical churches. I can still vividly recall my baptism at Fourth Baptist Church when I was 12 years old. I entered as a sort of “junior member” there. Later I became strongly committed to Hope Community Church in Minneapolis. Their membership process was rather lengthy and involved having a thorough understanding of Hope’s doctrinal positions (especially what they believed about the Bible, God, salvation and church government).

When I became public about my doubts I decided to leave the church that I was currently a member of. I wanted to continue developing as a person and learning about the Bible, but I did not feel that my current church (The Refuge in Chetek, WI) was the place to do it. That place was filled with good, loving people, but I recognized that we no longer were on the same page. I still wanted to seek the truth but I no longer believed in the traditional Christian gospel, which is a core part of their mission and identity. I knew that if I stuck around I would continue to feel out-of-place there (and more so as people discovered my doubts about Christianity). I left that church shortly after Easter 2013. It wasn’t until October of that year that I discovered Blue Hills. I had heard a lot of positive things about UU from other ex-Christians online so I decided to take a closer look at this strange little religious denomination. I was surprised to find that there was a small UU fellowship not far from my house. At first I simply hoped to find a place to pass the time on Sundays. I didn’t know how people would receive my “extreme skepticism.” I also wasn’t sure that my atheism would truly be accepted there, despite the friendly words on the website.

What I found far exceeded my expectations. These are the words that I spoke in front of the congregation when I joined:

“I came to this fellowship with an open mind, and you have received me with open arms. Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your community, and to grow in my understanding of what it means to be a spiritual seeker. I grew up immersed in conservative Evangelical theology. I dreamed of being a teacher of the word and saving souls from hell. About a year ago I started telling people that I had “lost my faith.” But now I realize that it wasn’t a loss; it was a gain. Thank you.”

UU Sermon: Coming Out as an Atheist

Coming Out as an Atheist

From the Rev. Neal Jones of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia.

South Carolina is sometimes called the “buckle” of America’s Bible Belt. My parents went to Bob Jones University (in Greenville, SC) and based on what I’ve heard about that environment, I can’t imagine the social pressure  on an atheist/non-believer/skeptic in that sort of environment.

forest path

The Narrow Path

Ignore that which is inconvenient to your worldview. Latch onto what is comforting. Hold fast to that which appears to support your current beliefs. Don’t dig too deeply and definitely don’t ask for evidence beyond anecdotes and rumors. Never question the motives of those who profit from telling about miraculous things which happened to them or their children.

But, you should maintain as much skepticism as possible about the findings of modern science. Always be cautious about what scientists claim when they talk about the past. Be wary of neurosurgeons, psychologists and cultural anthropologists. And whatever you do, make sure that you stay as far away as possible from any historians who aren’t true born-again believers.

If you can walk this narrow path, then you can strengthen your faith and preserve your soul against the corruptions of this world.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

- Matthew 7:13-14 (NRSV)