Monday, June 27, 2005

Do you believe in miracles?

I haven't mentioned it here yet, but I've been hosting The Atheist Experience for almost a month now, and I am really enjoying it. If you haven't heard it before, I invite you to follow the link and listen to the audio archive. I have been involved with the show in many different capacities, and I thought I'd really like to see what hosting is like. I expect to stick around for about six months, at which time I'll pass the torch on to Matt Dillahunty. (Those of you who checked out based on my recent post might already be familiar with things that Matt has written.)

On the show yesterday, my sister Keryn was co-hosting, and we got into a discussion with a woman who wanted to prove that God exists based on her unusual experiences. This is an abridged transcript that I copied by listening to the show's audio.

Denise (caller): I had a couple of brain surgeries and I had to be on hydrocortisol , and my brain was on like 0.2 mg of cortisol, and the doctor gave me a year's prescription and said you're gonna need it, and if it was gonna change or there was any evidence of that we would have seen it by now, and...
Russell (me): So your doctor was wrong. He made a mistake, he was human. That doesn't prove the existence of...
Denise: No, when you need hydrocortisol you know you need it. Because you have symptoms of being low on that hormone. I went and visited my sister when I got into town that night, and... [begins telling story about how sister took her to a faith healer]
Russell (interrupting): One of the things I'd like to ask is if you've researched the condition you had to the point where you can confidently say that nobody else who has ever had that condition has ever simply stopped having it before. Even if it's like 1% that is still pretty significant.
Denise: Yeah. There is actually no percentage.
Russell: So you have been through all the medical journals and stuff.
Denise: That's right. I have.
Russell: I'm sorry, but I don't believe you.
Denise: Well when I went back, the doctor said my levels were totally normal... and they said I wouldn't be able to have any kids, and if I did they'd be abnormal... I have four healthy children, and I know for a fact that God was there. [blah blah statement of faith.]

[Skipping some good input from my sister Keryn, basically pointing out that some people survive terrible diseases and credit God, but many more people don't survive, but we don't talk about them or their faith. Picking up again later...]

Denise: I was probably born with that tumor, until I was 27 that was my whole life. I couldn't work, I couldn't do many things. I honestly thought I was going to die. And I thought if I AM gonna die, I should probably better be sure about this thing.
Russell: What it really comes down to though is, even if you are the only person who has ever survived this kind of disease, it doesn't point to the existence of a god. As Keryn said, if you ARE the only person who ever survived this, that means everyone else didn't survive. And I'd be surprised if some of them didn't have as much faith as you.
Denise: It's not they didn't survive, they survived but they have to take hydrocortisol for their whole life.
Russell: Wait, so it wasn't deadly, it just meant that you would have had to take a lot of medicine?
Denise: That's right.
Russell: As miracles go, that's pretty small potatoes.
I shouldn't have made light of her condition, I think. I understand from her description that her problem (which I, as a non-doctor, do not understand) must have been very stressful, and it was a relief to get over it. But I feel pretty confident that it wasn't a miracle.

Sometimes it seems like the worse an event is, the more likely it is that people will chalk one up for God, as long as it could have been even worse. You read a story saying "20 people died in a bus crash, but one survived. A miracle!" Wait a minute. Wouldn't the miracle have been if there was no bus crash?

The reason it's so easy to get away with this is that "miracle" is just not well defined. Responding to this story, a Christian told me that a miracle is, by definition, something so rare it as to be statistically impossible. Well in the first place, to be pedantic, there is no such thing as "so rare as to be statistically impossible". If something happens, then by definition it's not impossible. In the second place, if a miracle is just something really, really rare, then those happen all the time. The classical example is a shuffled deck of cards. The odds of the cards being in EXACTLY THE ORDER that they are in, is 1 in 10^(a lot), but they are in that order anyway.

One problem with calling something a miracle is that we are already very aware that human knowledge is not perfect, so considering something unexplainable isn't really all that unusual. Say there are 999,999 recorded cases of disease X, and no one has ever recovered from it, and they all died from it. Then that disease is guaranteed lethal, as far as we know. But now suppose one person survives it, what do we make of that? Well then the evidence has just changed. Now the chance of survival is one in a million.

Is it a miracle? I argue that you just can't tell, because there's no defined way of distinguishing a miracle from a garden variety "very unlikely event". If a person who has faith goes through something unusual, they'll call it a miracle, and their story will go out all over the internet within days. If the same person doesn't have faith, they'll just think they're lucky, and the story will quietly go away except in medical journals.

Then, of course, some people go to the other extreme. When my son was born, some of my religious in-laws said that that was a miracle. Well, it was a deeply moving event for me. But is it really proper to put that label on an event that happens all over the world, about three times every second? If something that happens all the time is a miracle, then what does the word really mean anyway?

Getting back to rare events. I'm not saying that natural explanations are all that I'll ever accept, but I will say I think that pretty heroic measures should be taken to rule out all natural causes before jumping to call something a miracle. That should be common sense even if you really believe in miracles. If miracles are supposed to be incredibly rare, then why make the miracle explanation the FIRST thing you turn to? You might belittle the true miracles of other people, or if you're Catholic, maybe even canonize someone who didn't deserve it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Why you should care about Terri Schiavo

So Terri Schiavo's autopsy was released. Not only was she in a persistent vegetative state, not only was her brain half the size of a normal brain, not only were there no signs of the "abuse" that her husband supposedly subjected her to, but SHE WAS BLIND.

Which is just fascinating, considering how everybody insisted that she could follow a balloon around with her eyes and everything.

Now, many people might say that this is a subject best left for the cable news talking heads to screech about, and normally I'd agree wholeheartedly. Back when the Schiavo case was considered real news, I managed to totally ignore it until it was almost over. Same way I mostly ignored the Michael Jackson trial, the OJ Simpson trial, the Peterson case, and all the other stuff that passes for news nowadays. Because really, who gives a damn about so much irrelevant pulp?

But the religious right MADE it real news by virtue of their interference. Those bastards saw the opportunity to use the Schiavo case as a launching point to rant about the "culture of death" and "activist judges" and Uncle Jeb decided it would be a swell move to conradict everything the doctors and the courts said by "saving" a life that had already been gone for many years. And they were willing to tell any number of lies about her husband. According to them, Michael was an immoral prick for living with another woman, and he was scheming to kill his perfectly healthy wife who could talk and sing and plead for her life, and any minute she was liable to leap out of her hospital bed and dance a jig.

I don't belong to a culture of death. I belong to a culture of evidence.

What sickens me about the news these days is this pervasive attitude that if one side says one thing, and the other side says something else, why then they're both opinions and who's to say what is true? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. So let's let the doctors who examined her have their say, and let's let this nice nurse offer her own personal testimony that Terri is in perfect health while Michael is a monster, and then we've done our jobs by presenting both sides.

Sometimes the truth lies with the preponderance of evidence. It's a crazy idea, I know. Sometimes "faith" just ain't good enough to contradict reality. Sometimes when two sides say opposite things, one side is telling the truth based on the best information they could acquire, and the other side is just making crap up because it sounds good.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Godless America

Many people contacted me to let me know that there was an outstanding episode of "This American Life" this weekend. The subject was "Godless America". In the first half, they debunked the myth of American as a Christian nation. In the second half, they played a segment of Julia Sweeney reading from her play, Letting Go of God.

It was fantastic. If you have not heard it yet, do yourself a favor and follow this link to hear the archived show for free.

I sent this message to Ms. Sweeney:

Dear Julia,

I want to thank you so much for sharing your story on "This American Life" last weekend. I have not read your books or seen your shows, but "God Said Ha" has been on my Amazon wish list for quite a while now, and I greatly enjoyed your appearance on "Politically Incorrect" several years ago when you beat up on poor Victoria Jackson.

Stories like yours have always been very interesting to me. You see, I was raised an atheist, by two atheist parents. I'm a fourth generation atheist on my father's side, and my three year old son will probably be the fifth generation. I never had to go through the uncertainty and soul searching of wondering "What if there is no God?" -- although I did once wrestle with the question of "What if there is?"

I thought it was interesting that your first question after you decided there is no God was, "You mean Hitler just DIED? He didn't go to hell?" I have always approached this question a little differently, since I wasn't brought up a Catholic. According to many Protestants, everyone is equally a sinner, and we are saved only through faith. I like to ask them, "What if Hitler accepted Jesus before he died? Isn't it possible that he's in heaven now, while many of his Jewish victims are in hell?"

I am an active member of the Atheist Community of Austin, where we have a weekly TV show ( and internet radio show ( If you're ever in Austin and don't mind doing a little charity appearance, we'd love to have you drop by.

Russell Glasser

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Continuing discussion with Skip

In the continuing theist/atheist discussion, the latest post by Mr. "Skip Toomaloo" is here, and my response is here.

Also, my friend Matt Dillahunty wrote another response to him.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Atheists, God love em (or not)

Some guy posted a an article about atheists couple of days ago at the aptly named The site appears to be a soapbox for anybody who wants to write in.

They also posted my reply, which you can see here. I'm sure they'll enjoy the publicity.

Funny picture

"Hydra", a fan of the Non-Prophets did a Photoshop image for us. I think it's pretty hilarious.