Friday, March 5, 2010

How Many Angels Can Dance on a Pinhead?

Christian apologist J.P. Moreland "tells a fascinating story of a woman who once went up to him in a church and told him that she had seen three angels surrounding him as he preached. He dismissed her as crazy at first, but then several months later he was going through a tough period emotionally and asked God to send those angels again so that he would know they were real. About a week after that, he received an email from a graduate student saying that in class he had seen three angels surrounding Moreland in the same positions as the woman had described. This graduate student had never seen anything like it, and had not been in contact with the women and Dr. Moreland had never told anyone else about the woman's remarks. Thus Moreland concludes that this coincidence was just too implausible to be merely that."

This quote is from a recent entry on the Christian CADRE's blog: Do angels and demons exist? posted by JD Walters.

Let's assume that J.P. Moreland is telling the truth; that is, he did in fact have two people who have never interacted with each other tell him that they saw three angels surrounding him. Is a supernatural cause the best possible explanation?

Three is a magic number in Christian theism. The number permeates the Christian story and becomes ingrained in the minds of people familiar with Christianity. We shouldn't be surprised to find Christians (or even non-Christians who interact with Christians) receive "visions" that incorporate the number three, whether these "visions" are tricks of the mind or stories invented in an attempt to impress a well-known Christian apologist. Is it a strange coincidence that two people who don't know each other had a similar "vision"? Sure, but it's not far-fetched to think that these two independent accounts of angel sightings are nothing more than a neurological glitch or a fiction, and the timing of these "visions" nothing more than coincidence. At the very least, a hearty dose of doubt concerning the cause of these visions is not only justifiable, but recommended.

JD Walters writes: "If Dr. Moreland can be taken at his word about the sequence of events and we believe that he did not fabricate the lack of collusion between the two witnesses, then this seems to be pretty serious evidence for a supernatural encounter." Up to this point I have given Moreland the benefit of the doubt and assumed that he is telling the truth; nevertheless, I still do not see his story as "pretty serious evidence for a supernatural encounter" because other possibilities have not been eliminated, or even shown to be less likely.

Whereas Walters trusts that Moreland is being honest, I cannot put that kind of faith in him. Is it possible that a popular Christian apologist is stretching the truth in an attempt to give further credence to his beliefs? I cannot say this is what Moreland is doing, but it is a possibility. Could J.P. Moreland be mistaken about the details of the events? Again, I cannot say, but it is possible. I have no more reason to believe Moreland's account than I have to believe Joseph Smith's story of the angel Moroni and the golden plates. "Pretty serious evidence"? All we have is a second hand account that cannot be verified.

Walters writes: "But this is far from the only such inter-subjective account. As I've noted elsewhere, Craig Keener has been compiling a database with thousands of such reports, which he will discuss in detail in a forthcoming book on miracles. Was falsehood and/or misperception involved in all of them? Even those reported by level-headed philosophers and their graduate students? I find that hard to believe."

Walters finds it hard to believe, yet he is a Christian, which means he believes millions of adherents of other religions have experienced visions and miracles that are merely falsehoods and/or misperceptions (or perhaps demonic influences). It shouldn't be hard to believe that a lot of people can all be wrong, especially about a subject like religion, which evokes such strong emotions in people that they become willing to accept just about anything. Emotions blur our perceptions and sway our interpretations. These accounts of angel sightings could very easily be the product of confused minds clouded by intense feelings.

Why did Moreland dismiss the first person who saw angels? Maybe he realizes that a lot of people who have such "visions" aren't mentally stable. Most people - even many who believe such things as a talking donkey and god telling Abraham to kill his son - naturally assume that people who hear god talking to them audibly or see visions must have something wrong with them. Why? The evidence we have is in favor of it. It should take hard evidence to convince a rational being that the less likely explanation is the correct one.

I spoke with a Christian friend of mine about these angel sightings, and he asked, "don't you think a supernatural cause best explains it all?"

I lost my car keys once. I searched everywhere, all the while in disbelief that I could misplace my keys. I'm always careful with them, and I always keep them in the same place. How could I have lost them? It didn't make sense. The only explanation that accounted for all the facts is that the Mystic Car Key Faeries stole my keys. Eventually I found my keys under my bed. Those mischievous faeries must have hid my keys after taking them from me.

I hope my point is well-taken: any magical explanation will account for the facts perfectly. Magical explanations, whether they be angel sightings, Jesus' face on a sandwich, or purported miracles don't prove god's existence. The problem with such phenomena is that, if we witnessed such a thing, we'd have a difficult time knowing for certain how it happened, or "who's to blame" for it. If Superman were real, he could quite easily tell the people of earth that his powers are "miracles from god" and start the biggest cult in history.

Given that a magical explanation will always fit the facts perfectly, we simply need better evidence. The seemingly miraculous does not prove god; on the contrary, sufficient evidence for both god's existence and god's nature must be provided in order for us to determine that the miraculous is, in fact, from this god.

I remember what my Christian friend Tin Church said: "I may be able to prove that God exists, but that could only happen if the Lord called me to be a vehicle of evidence... I am assuming that you, as well as many others, would be fairly convinced of my Lord's sovereignty if I could pray to my God and call fire down from the sky, or raise someone from the dead, or turn stones into bread, or heal a crippled, fried out homeless person in front of you, etc."

He more or less said that, if he could perform miracles, then I and most other people would be convinced that his is the true religion. All I said in reply was, "Such things would make me take notice." And they would, to be sure. I would be most intrigued if I saw someone pray to his god or chant some mystic mantra that was followed by some spectacular miraculous-looking event. But would such an occurrence provide proof for that person's religion?


Those miraculous events wouldn't be sufficient to prove that the religion is true because there are so many possible explanations for the occurrence of the miracles. Maybe our senses are being fooled. After all, if someone can "call fire down from the sky," couldn't he also distort our perceptions? Maybe the miracle worker is an alien - perhaps like Superman - with powers beyond that of regular humans. In that case, our Superman would be lying to us about how these "miraculous events" occurred. Perhaps that which we would consider to be "miraculous" is nothing more than new unexplained natural phenomena. Perhaps the miracle-worker himself is confused, and is attributing to his god "miracles" which could be in reality the unlocked potential of his mind.

According to the Bible, Jesus walked on water, controlled the weather and healed people. Maybe he can do that because he's the only begotten son of god. Maybe he can do that because he's the last son of Krypton. Maybe he can do that because he's a mutant - the next stage of human evolution. Resurrection = mutant healing factor? A "Nazarene Wolverine" perhaps?

"That's just silly," some might say. But keep in mind what we're talking about here: the fact that people actually believe that Jesus did all those supernatural acts. If those things actually happened, then speculation about aliens or super powers isn't crazy at all. If a man can transform the molecules of H2O into that of fermented grape juice with just a thought, then anything is possible.

I hear the words of Tertullian echoing in my mind: "Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy."

Heresy indeed.


godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

The stubborn insistence that the unexplained must be supernatural is such an intellectual dead end. I realize it's part of the insatiable curiosity humans are born with, but the urgent impatience of the demand that all things be assigned an explanation -- right now -- is one of the most detrimental aspects of our nature. Science takes patience, and the willingness to be less than 100% certain, but it gives such better answers in the end.

I have a hard time understanding why people are willing to accept an explanation with exactly 0% certainty rather than work to find a rational explanation with a far, far greater chance of being accurate.

(Hi, I found you through the atheist blogroll. Nice to meet you :)

Bud said...

Well said, godlizard.

Nice to meet you too!

Ken Pulliam, Ph.D. said...

At the 2009 Apologetics Conference in New Orleans, I heard Moreland speak. He said that God had spoken to him directly and internally (on more than one occasion). He related an incident in Korea where God revealed to him that a certain man named "Mike"needed to call his Pastor. He had no idea who "Mike" was but he mentioned it during his lecture and, sure enough, a man named Mike came up afterwards and asked Moreland how he knew there was an issue between him and his Pastor. Moreland said that God told him.

I was surprised to hear this because the seminary where he teaches, Talbot School of Theology, has historically held that the miraculous gifts ceased when the canon was completed. Apparently, Moreland has adopted more of a Vineyard type of theology in which miracles, communications from God and angels is to be expected today. I guess that is okay with Talbot these days.

Bud said...

That's interesting, Ken. Thank you for sharing that. Now I'm left wondering why Moreland's first thought about the woman was that she was crazy. What is his criteria for determining whether the visions or voices one hears are "the real deal"?

My guess is that it's the same answer I heard from fellow ministers when I was in the ministry: "these things must be discerned through prayer."