Men Who Stare at Facts

clooney2A few nights ago I had dinner with a friend who encouraged me to reconsider my stance on faith, arguing that the Bible encourages us to “test and retest” what it says for ourselves to see if it’s true.  While I disagreed with his interpretation of the language of the particular verse he used, I agreed with him that, at least in some places, the Bible does precisely that.

The Bible’s not consistent on this, of course, because there wasn’t really one invisible mastermind behind the production of this chaotic book.  It was produced over several centuries by wildly divergent communities and in some cases even by opposing factions (see James vs. Paul on what the word “faith” even means).  And the way it gets used today is even more diverse, with one group insisting that testing the claims of the Bible is totally legit while another group says “How dare you!” and argues that encouraging us to pass judgment on the Bible puts us in the place of God, which is blasphemy.  You see how frustrating it can be to address “the Christian view” of almost anything.  Something as subjective as religion can shapeshift and reinvent itself so many times that it’s impossible to say a single thing against it without at least two groups calling “straw man” simply because what you just described doesn’t fit with their peculiar variety.

But there are in fact places where the Bible encourages us to test for ourselves what it claims.  People in the Bible frequently asked God for proof of his claims and he obliged them.  Sometimes he even offered it on his own, like when Thomas doubted the resurrection and Jesus just said, “Here…touch the wounds yourself.”  If that story were being rewritten today, more likely they would have had Jesus berate Thomas for his skepticism and tell him that if the disciples’ word wasn’t good enough for him then tough luck, that’s his problem not God’s.  “It is a wicked and perverse generation that demands a sign,” they might say (Hey, I told you it wasn’t consistent, didn’t I?).  They talk about proof this way because twenty centuries have taught the church to hone its rationalizations for why real proof never comes.  Nowadays you have to be okay with descriptions of proof that other people got many centuries ago because that’s all you’re gonna get.  And shame on you for wanting more!  How dare you use the same standard of verification for faith that you use for all other areas of life!  What a disappointment you are.

Some Christians, however, are insulted by this anti-empirical approach to their faith.  They want to believe that it’s intellectually respectable to believe in floating zoos, parting seas, and men walking on water.  They reject Paul’s embrace of “the foolishness of the cross” and insist that if you just study everything hard enough you’ll see that claims of the Christian faith are completely reasonable, perhaps even academically defensible.  I think my friend falls into that category.  His intelligence has clearly garnered him great wealth, and I suspect he makes more in a month than I make in a whole year, even with all three of my jobs combined.  His financial success in life only reinforces his belief that he’s doing it right because clearly God is blessing him, right?

His affluence is probably what led me to bring up the challenge in Malachi to test God to see if giving to him brought financial prosperity.  Both Jesus and Malachi (and disputably Paul as well) encouraged us to give in order to get back more.  Interestingly, they didn’t couch their challenge in terms that guilted us for wanting more than what we already have (more inconsistency); in fact, they positively capitalized on it.  They encouraged it.  And they claimed that if we test them on this matter we will see empirically that this claim is true.  Well, I did that.  For many years I did that and no such benefit materialized, not just in terms of material provision but in terms of every conceivable reason for prayer and faith.  And I know, I know.  Shame on me for even thinking that way, right?  Never mind the fact that I learned this way of thinking from the Bible itself.  Most self-respecting intellectuals would distance themselves from this approach because most aren’t surgeons whose idea of a “lean month” is quadruple my gross monthly salary.  It’s easy to believe that God provides materially when you make six figures (or, alternately, if you talk about your needs so much that people often give you things out of pity).  But my friend took a different approach, one which I’ve previously heard applied not only to the promise of material provision but also to all other failed claims for things like healing, miracles, church unity, or just about any other thing under the sun.  His interpretation was that I just didn’t wait long enough.  Twenty years was apparently “not long enough.”

Horoscopes, Faith, and the Death Touch

When you believe something strongly enough, no amount of contrary evidence will dissuade you from your belief.  You will overlook mountains of contrary evidence, and no validation will be too small or too weak for you to bank your entire system upon.  That’s just how faith works.  Keep in mind I don’t say that as one who has always been an outsider.  I say that as one who occupied that mental world for decades but who now sees the whole enterprise in a different light.  If you are willing and “your heart is right,” you can be persuaded by arguments so weak that one day you may very well look back and say, “Are you kidding me?  Did I really believe that? Tell me I wasn’t this deluded!”

During our long conversation, my friend claimed that the Bible presciently describes everything from the hydrologic cycle to the Big Bang to dark matter and dark energy.  Where does it do that, you ask?  Frankly, I’d rather not take the time to recount it all.  You can pick up the work of Hugh Ross or one of the “Intelligent Design” proponents to see what they have to say (I went through one of those phases once, years ago).  Let’s just say it was awfully sneaky of Yahweh to hide such wonderful nuggets of science inside Hebrew poetry.  But it would have been nice if he had also included some kind of decoder pin with the text, or perhaps if he had disclosed something more pressing, like the germ theory of disease or how to grow penicillin.  While he was at it, it would have been nice if he had made a bit more clear that people shouldn’t be considered property, and that rape and genocide are always bad.  But oh, well.

To be honest with you I showed my friend little patience as he started in on this line of argumentation.  He probably found it rude of me to cut that discussion short the way I did; but at this point in my life, I just refuse to dignify this talk with any more attention than I already have.  I explained to my friend that Muslims do the exact same thing with the Koran, anachronistically finding advanced scientific knowledge throughout the text.  If you hold your head just right, and forget how primitive the original writers of the texts really were, you just might be able to accept the idea that something magical happened there.  God was speaking in code, the sneaky prankster, and kept us in the dark about it for ages.  It’s purely a coincidence that God chose to finally reveal the hidden message of his holy book at the same moment that modern science discovered those same things through the hard labor of scientific inquiry.

Never mind the fact that these people thought the earth is stationary and at the bottom of everything.  To them, celestial bodies like the sun, the stars, and the planets revolve around us and could “fall to the earth” without utterly incinerating the whole planet.  It’s not their fault; they just didn’t know what we know.  But that’s not an acceptable view to someone who needs to believe that this book is special, immune to the limitations and imperfections of the men who wrote it.  For example, my friend wanted to believe the book of Job predicted dark energy, so that’s how he reads it.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

There’s something going on here—a psychological process that I wanted my friend to see for what it is.  I illustrated it to him by comparing a reading of the Bible to the reading of a horoscope.  For example, looking at my horoscope for today, I read:


That’s amazing, isn’t it?!  Thank you, horoscope!  I do have the talent!  And as a matter of fact, I had lunch with another new friend just today, and it was brilliant.  See?  This stuff really works!  If someone were so inclined, he could make any day’s events conform to his daily horoscope.  We’re practically geniuses when it comes to things like that.  The person writing the horoscope doesn’t even have to work very hard at it.  The reader does all the work for him.  You possess the raw data of your own day, and you will actively organize it in your mind to ensure the story comes out in a way that makes sense to you.

We are all boundlessly creative storytellers, every one of us.  If you doubt that, look no further than your own dreams every night.  What brilliant writers we all are!  I’m convinced that those whom we call “geniuses” are merely people who have access during the daytime to the subconscious creativity that the rest of us only possess while asleep.  That’s why horoscopes and religions both thrive the way they do.  As long as the faithful are willing, there will be endless ways we can make the words of our supposed authorities fit what happens in order to ensure our faith in them remains strong.

When I told my friend that the promise of provision never materialized for me in my life (I could have replaced that with any one of the other failed promises but that was the easiest criteria to measure), he told me it just hasn’t materialized yet.  Evidently twenty years wasn’t long enough to wait for the promises to come to fruition.  But I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck; I know this game.  I was taught to play it, too, and I did it for years until it finally dawned on me that I was only playing tricks on myself.  This game is illustrated perfectly by a short scene from the movie Men Who Stare at Goats.


Just like the “Death Touch,” the promises of God will never fail as long as his subjects remain so eager to reinterpret whatever happens to conform to those promises.  This kind of faith is a versatile thing.  It’s incredibly elastic.  Retrospectively, it allows you to shoehorn modern science into the poetic language of primitive Mesopotamians (“See?  No conflict between religion and science!”), and it allows you to reshape your own life story as it unfolds so that if you want it badly enough, you can find whatever you think is supposed to be there.  At this point in my life, I see no valid reason to pretend like this is a legitimate belief just because people engage in it so instinctively.  It makes for great comedy in a movie script.  In real life, it’s just as silly.  Time to put it away.

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30 Responses to Men Who Stare at Facts

  1. Great post. I agree that it is frustrating dealing with a person’s faith system, as it is becoming more apparent that each one is different from the next. Although I’m only a partially-outed Atheist, some of the discussions I’ve had with people of faith have been frustrating in subjective discussion. While some arguments and points may have traction with one person, they will have little or no value with another. This makes it difficult to come up with a hard and fast rule for discussing errant beliefs and individual justifications for them.

    An example is when people say the Bible is “literary and not literal.” Considering your background in theology, I wonder if you are considering tackling that particular view or any like it in the near future? I have read and enjoyed your other posts on things such as cognitive dissonance. I would be most interested in seeing a sound Atheist perspective on these particular matters as well.

  2. Tim Smith says:

    Neil, a very closely related essay:

    Basic premise: propound something impenetrable and full of obvious conflicts, and let your reader do all the work to try making sense of it. Berate them that, if they don’t get it, they’re either deficient (too stupid, or corrupt), or they just need to keep studying and following it.

    There’s a time to say enough, and to walk away.


  3. unbornagaininparadise says:

    The word “gullible” is usually a lighthearted term when used to describe that friend whose credulity and simple mindedness strikes an amusing chord, but it is an ominous term in reference to the centuries of harm to humankind by religion and to the phantasmagoria suffered by a Christian friend with whom we may be sharing a meal.

  4. Graciebaddog says:

    Regarding a bible that contains “real science” on dark matter, the big bang etc. I always cut the argument down with this observation.

    Imagine before the last supper Jesus says “As I do now thou shall wash thy hands with fresh water as your neighbor shall wash his hands with fresh water. Do this in my name and I will protect you and the bounty before you, as you honor my father.”

    Think about how many Christian lives and misery that would have saved over the centuries. By this act alone it would make early Christians a healthier population when compared to non-Christian. Wouldn’t that have been a fantastic recruiting tool?

    One would think a God inspired book would contain a little nugget like this tucked somewhere in it’s pages.

  5. Graciebaddog says:

    You must not be familiar with this passage:
    Thessalonians 4:12 Keep and protect God’s creature the cat. For it shall smite the unclean and least of all creatures.

  6. Graciebaddog says:

    To your point…. think about how different things would have been if these two things could be found in the “Good Book”. Instead we got sage advice, like not cooking a lamb in it’s mothers milk.

  7. “see James vs. Paul on what the word “faith” even means”

    I was intrigued, so I did a bit of googling. I think this is what Neil meant?

    • Like the writers of that article, I was taught to approach any internal inconsistencies in the Bible under the assumption that no real contradictions can exist in a divinely inspired book. Once you have that as your starting point, you will stretch and shape what you read however it takes to make sure it fits together.

      James and Paul had read conflict in the early church, and it let to bitter disputes between their opposing factions. Major meetings had to be held to resolve their differences, and comparing the different biblical accounts of that resolution reveals that no real agreement was ever made. I don’t have time to lay all that out in this space but I’ll just end by saying that writers like Luke clearly did a lot of glossing over of those differences in order to present the early church in the best light.

      • Kingasaurus says:

        —“Like the writers of that article, I was taught to approach any internal inconsistencies in the Bible under the assumption that no real contradictions can exist in a divinely inspired book.”—


        Paraphrasing Bob Price, the mindset is basically “Well, I know it looks on the surface like Paul and James disagree, but I’m sure if we could get them both in the same room (in my imagination, of course), we’d find out that they really don’t disagree at all.”

  8. Thought2Much says:

    “The Bible’s not consistent on this, of course, because there wasn’t really one invisible mastermind behind the production of this chaotic book. It was produced over several centuries by wildly divergent communities and in some cases even by opposing factions (see James vs. Paul on what the word “faith” even means).”

    If only you had participated in a good theological program, which would have given you a better foundation in apologetics, and would have properly instructed you that the gospels are perfectly historical, then you wouldn’t be making these false and silly claims. We have been given all of the proof we need to accept that everything stated in the Bible happened as historical fact. I’ll be giving you a dozen recommendations for books written by Christian apologists and Christian historians shortly.

  9. Jackie says:

    I’m Gemini too and it’s been years since I looked at a horoscope! Let’s see, the one you show says this: “…you could receive an affectionate, supportive letter from someone close to you.” So here’s an email I just got from my fundie Christian brother telling me what hell will be like for me:

    “Wait until you scream until you are sure you can scream no longer, only to realize you just got started. You see, all reprobates receive a “body fit for destruction”. You will gnaw your tongue off time and again because your new body will continually regenerate it lost members so that your death and dying and torment may continue forever. You will dig your your fingers in your eyes and rip them out of their sockets a million times just to buy a moment’s distraction from the pain. In horror, you will know within the first few minutes that you cannot kill yourself, because it will only take minutes for you to try suicide multiple times over. But that won’t stop you. You will keep trying. And you will keep failing. No one will ever think of you again. But you will never forget a single thing you said or did in open, deliberate rebellion against the Most Holy. Your mother and father will dwell in eternal bliss, but you will die forever in eternal agony.”

    Nope, horoscope missed it by a mile.

    • Holy #$@&%*! Your actual brother?

      Wow. That’s horrific.

      What gets me is that sophisticated Evangelicals—the ones who won’t identify with the word “fundamentalist” and who will see themselves as far more loving and sensible in their approach to these things—believe exactly the same thing. They just never say it out loud. It’s a faux pas. They keep it tucked under their sleeve because they sense how inappropriate it would be to openly voice such blatantly terrorizing language to a loved one. That kind of relational violence would leave them feeling guilty. So instead they just go on believing what this man said is really going to happen to you and they just keep it to themselves, letting their fear and coercion surface in more passive-aggressive ways. That makes them feel better than saying this stuff out loud would.

      • Jackie says:

        Yes, my real biological brother, my childhood buddy. That’s just a small portion of the venom he’s spewed at me since he found I’d left the faith. You’re right, there are kinder, gentler Christians who believe this stuff and won’t say it, but there are actually fundamentalists who have discarded traditional hell. My parents take creation literally, and Noah’s ark and the rest, but hell is so horrific that they have formulated an apologetic to explain it away. Also the fact that two of their children have come out atheist may have driven them to it. Funny how it’s easy to send evildoers to hell until it comes that close to home.

        • Thinker1121 says:

          A couple of things struck me about this. First, how can you disregard something you consider to be real (i.e., hell) just because someone else doesn’t believe in it (i.e., your children)? Christians do this all the time and it amazes me. Whether or not hell exists has NOTHING to do with whether or not someone believes in it or not. Just like whether or not gravity exists has NOTHING to do with whether you believe in it or not. You should not form your beliefs about an afterlife based on what your friends/family think, but based on evidence and evidence alone. If the only reason your parents changed their views about hell is that you came out as an atheist, then that is bad reasoning on their part. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that they came to change their views – but they still did it for bad reasons).

          Second, I’d be all over my brother if he ever said that to me. If he genuinely believes that you’re going to hell for not believing, fine. But that means it’s his responsibility as a good brother to fight against God to save you. When he gets to heaven, he should say “I don’t want in unless you let my brother in too.” If God says no, your brother should say, “Fine, then I don’t want to be part of your kingdom either.” He shouldn’t say, “Oh well, I guess my brother is screwed. Sucks to be him.” That’s not what good brothers do.

          • Kingasaurus says:

            —-“Second, I’d be all over my brother if he ever said that to me. If he genuinely believes that you’re going to hell for not believing, fine. But that means it’s his responsibility as a good brother to fight against God to save you.”—-

            People like his/her brother just don’t think that way. In their mind, God is always more important than any other human being (including the closest family member who you claim to love) and loyalty to God is always first. I find that incredibly poisoning.

          • Thinker1121 says:

            I think you’re right, Kingasaurus. But the implication of this is that it is not possible for a Christian to unconditionally love a human being. A Christian will always be willing to throw any human being under the bus if God asks them to.

          • Sam Daniels says:

            “Whether or not hell exists has NOTHING to do with whether or not someone believes in it or not. Just like whether or not gravity exists has NOTHING to do with whether you believe in it or not.”

            Actually, one is empirically verifiable while the other is not. If you chose not to “believe” in gravity, you may well think it fine to jump out a ten-story window, but life experience will tell you that it will cause you to plunge to your death. You will understand that in advance through observation. It will never be possible, on the other hand, to know for certain what happens (if anything) after we die, until we actually do.

            This is why Jackie’s brother’s claims are so bogus. They are based and set on THIS type of being — the four-dimensional reality here. They are aimed straight at our fears and emotions about the unknown. They are fabricated and made-up, and this is why religion is based only on the drama and events of this life and existence. No one can possibly even imagine some other existence without absolute speculation.

      • “Belief” is a weird thing…Sometimes i wonder if many evangelicals believe in Hell only in a doctrinally correct theoretical way…because, they somehow still laugh together, have birthday parties, play with their dog, and go to work each day without apparent internal agony “knowing” their mother or daughter or son is at that moment being dismembered and then reassembled to be dismembered again in a place of eternal torture. In reality, If their son or daughter had been kidnapped and was held somewhere awaiting ransom, would they really still go and have a nice Christmas party? I doubt it. So for average evangelical , is a “belief in Hell” really ACTIVE belief or is it simply embracing correct doctrine without thought of it’s implications?

        • richardzanesmith, I like your “Belief” comparison. Having recently emerged from faith myself, I am trying to process and analyze the psychological and social factors/influences that brought me to a Christian profession at the age of 16 and that perpetuated a world view and philosophy based on an inerrant perspective of scripture (for 44 years!).
          BTW, I am experiencing a delightful purging of religious nonsense from my system: Last month I visited with a friend who is coming to grips with the negative and harmful realities of the organized church, but continues to cling to personal faith in the Bible god. In the course of the conversation he mentioned that he prays every morning to Jesus. Having no intention whatsoever of being facetious, I inquired if he really “believed” that Jesus heard him? He smiled and said yes. I burst out in uncontrollable laughter (I did not want to do this, for my relationship and tete-a-tete with this friend was totally warm and nonconfrontational); but he laughed with me!

    • Sam Daniels says:

      You have my sympathies, Jackie. Logic and therefore reason may not work with your brother, but were he mine I would point out that (among other things) he would first be required to drop all references in his rant to “minutes” and “moments”, as well as “times”. These concepts would be unknown and therefore irrational in a non-time dependent state — AKA “eternity”. By definition there would be only the eternal Now, and as such no action, either good or bad, could occur. Both pleasure and torture are completely time-dependent, and logically impossible outside of four dimensional space-time.

      The other thing I notice here is the open hostility and hyperbole in his message. Surely less colorful metaphors should suffice, especially when addressing one’s own sibling. I would want to know why he believes that the ferocity of the message confers upon it a somehow special or greater validity or merit. I mean, really.

  10. cjoint says:

    I’m watching the documentary “Amercian Jesus” while I read your latest. Spooky.

  11. Southern Skeptic says:

    Another great post. How do you find time to write with 3 jobs!?

  12. Matt says:

    I know some people who are in the “if you look hard enough it will all make logical sense” camp. They haven’t done it themselves of course. They just think, “it has to make sense if you know enough”, and tell me that I should talk to more pastors, since those guys have “studied the bible their whole life”.

  13. write3chairs says:

    Jackie, what a stunning display of… something. What is it, ignorance? Meanness? Some twisted combination of both? I agree with godless-in-dixie about how some version of this is really what many people believe, they’re just too “polite” to say it. All of this reinforces my atheism tenfold. :)

  14. The relation with the death touch and faith had me rolling. Thanks for supplying some insight and comedy for the week. Its amazing that it never worked….oh hang on thats right you were not a “ture christian”. What your friend seems to be telling you is that, yet I am sure at times in the past hetook advice from you as you were a true christian then.

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