Thursday, May 28, 2009

Of Delusions and Suffering fools

According to a link recently sent me by a frequenter of this blog, Pastor Mike is at it again, spreading his infernal delusions about atheists - what they want, what they're seeking, and why they sometimes shut down exchanges when the other side demonstrates an operational IQ not even at room temperature.

He complains for example (sound a lot like that fruitcake Charlotte Allen?):

"Be prepared for some mockery and ridicule. You’ll be told you’re stupid, an idiot, you're insane , demented , you need a frontal lobotomy , that you believe in mythology , and or a combination of them all , as well as a few choice descriptive adjectives . They’ve got it all figured out"

Actually, we don't have anything all figured out, not like the religious nabobs who base their day to day lives on absolute certainty. On believing every syllable in their KJV bible is engraved in stone for all time.

By contrast, the typical atheist fully embraces empirical science, and its standards of objectivity and successive approximation to truth - meaning one cannot grasp it all at once. What do we mean by successive approximations?

You have data, and accessory information which leads to some initial result which tests a particular hypothesis- call it 'x'. (Say, "solar flares' are caused by twisted magnetic fields in sunspots")

You then acquire better data (perhaps because of refined instruments, techniques - such as solar vector magnetograms which give the strength and direction of local magnetic fields ) and are led to a modified (improved) result such that: x (n+1) = x + P(x) where x(n +1) denotes an improvement via iteration, with P(x) the process (acting on x) that allows it.

In this case, the process may be the measurement of the local magnetic fields, yielding the magnetic gradient for example, e.g.: grad B = [+B_n - (-B_n)] / x

where the numerator denotes the difference in the measured normal components of the magnetic field (between opposite polarities of the active region) as measured by vector magnetograph and the denominator the scale separation between them.

If I calculate grad B = 0.1 Gauss/km then I know a flare is 96% probable within 24 hrs. - according to a bulk of empirical work by A. Severny and others. This could be interpreted as the "x(n +1)" enhancement of predictions noted above, to reinforce the hypothesis.

Later, more refined data become available (e.g. magnetograms at higher resolution), such that:

x(n + 2) = x(n + 1) + P'(x + 1)

and so on, and so on and so forth. Each x, x(n+1), x(n+2) etc. being a successive approximation to what the objective, genuine value should be.

Religions - by contrast- simply impose their truth ab initio by fiat or decree. There is no attempt whatever to incorporate any approximation. Or to even acknowledge that 'truth' can't be accessed all at once. Rather, one must set rational truth aside and succumb to ‘faith”.

This should not be surprising, because religions - like the beliefs they promulgate, are not based on anything empirically demonstrable, but on myths, legends scribbled by pre-scientific nomads thousands of years ago.

Like Ms. Allen, the Pastor is also exercised that atheists may dismiss believers as "stupid, an idiot, or demented" - but this is not a foregone conclusion. In other words, it depends largely on who the believers are and what those beliefs entail.

As an example, my religious (Christian) friend in Barbados is always read for an exchange or debate, but he brings logic and smarts to the table - not ignorance. He also possesses a catholic knowledge of religious history, as well as biblical textual analysis which puts him in good stead and renders him a worthy opponent.

Contrast this with a Christian orthodox numbskull who insists "Hell" is a real place and anyone who doesn't believe as he does is headed there. No surprise the atheist will dismiss such a person as an "idiot" or in need of certain cures or therapies. Now, IF this Christian were able to make a solid, logical and plausible case for Hell's existence (outside of his KJV) THEN the atheist might be inclined to hear him...but not otherwise.

Hence, it is a veritable strawman to argue or claim that "they can’t find God because first of all, they aren’t looking, and second they want to avoid Him" and that is why we "attack in milliseconds" on any net blog.

However, the REAL reason we attack is that Xtians of the "Pastor Mike" mold have not shown any ontology for their deity nor even necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence. If they don't even meet minimal criteria for realism, why take their claims seriously? I have been after Mike for donkey's years to give these, even one necessary or sufficient condition, but he's never provided them. Why then must I take his "God" as anything other than a psychotic embolism in his temporal lobes?

Most of the rest of the Pastor's comments are the usual codswallop so I will only address- in light of what I just wrote, his egregious assumption that if an atheist breaks off an exchange on a blog or net forum he is "taking his marbles and going home".

Not at all. What the atheist has actually done (on breaking off debate or discussion) is measured and assessed the intellectual heft and resources of his opponent(s) and likely found them minsucule or non-existent, hence not worth the effort of making continued rebuttals when the already provided ones have sailed serenely over the believers' heads.

This is what is called using one's head and not further "tossing pearls before swine" - according to one bible quote I seem to recall.

Maybe at some distant point the goodly Pastor (like Charlotte Allen) will finally get that, and realize atheists are really in the superior intelelctual and realist position because we have doubts and aren't afraid to express them, as opposed to incessant moral certitudes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Charlotte Allen: Simpleton? Or Pastor Mike Clone?

A recent harangue against atheists by sometime columnist Charlotte Allen got the attention of most atheists. Not so much because of the insults and innundoes, which we have come to expect, but because her diatribe was full of invective against a major demographic - and would be regarded as "racist" or worse in any other venue. (Especially as it was published in many prominent papers, including The LA Times, Washington Post etc.) 

 Imagine, for example, if what she wrote was directed at Jews. You would hear a hue and cry that would be unending, as well as possible lodging of protests from abroad. But rather than belabor this any longer, let us look at her essay and take it apart. 

 She begins: "I can't stand atheists -- but it's not because they don't believe in God. It's because they're crashing bores." 

 In fact, this is blatant code that I have seen often in 35 years of debates with the theist side. Translated, it means that she can't stand atheists because they don't believe in god and are also prepared to defend that non-belief. 

In other words, she is okay or would be okay with us as long as we sit nicely at the table and keep our mouths shut, but don't dare open them! She won't tolerate our vigorous defense of atheism, and hence, to her it is a "bore". 

 She then goes on to write: "Other people, most recently the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton in his new book, "Faith, Reason, and Revolution," take to task such superstar nonbelievers as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") and political journalist Christopher Hitchens ("God Is Not Great") for indulging in a philosophically primitive opposition of faith and reason that assumes that if science can't prove something, it doesn't exist." 

Here, the irrepressible theist demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of what atheists claim, or assume. Having read Dawkins fine book ('The God Delusion') I can assure her that he doesn't assume that if "science can't prove something it doesn't exist". 

But for the simple-minded attackers like Allen, this is a more facile take to adopt than to address the actual point - which can be expressed thus: No modern physicist or other scientist is so daft or naive as to assume if science can't prove something it doesn't exist. The scientist has merely observed that the idea of any unproven, undemonstrated entity is logically unnecessary. Its incorporation, in other words, does not assist the physicist (or biologist, or chemist,) explain his respective objects of inquiry OR to make verifiable predictions. But see, this is too subtle a point, too nuanced by far, for a simpleton attacker to process and address. Far easier to use Allen's red herring, strawman version. 

 As an example, adopting the concept of a god does not help me to predict the next X-class solar flare. While there are a multitude of forecast indices, including the strength of the magnetic field and the narrowness of the magnetic gradient (near the magnetic inversion line of a spot group), god is not among them. This is easily explained by the fact the entity is unobserved. 

While I can measure or at least estimate the vertical magnetic field, or the magnetic gradient scale (grad B = [+B_n - (-B_n)] / x ) I cannot do the same for 'god'.  Nor can I invoke a deity to help me ferret out any contradictions arising from use of the gradient scale.

Hence, he, she or it is of no use to me. If something is no use we call it redundant or superfluous. It isn't that we are obligated to "disprove it" - we simply never use it or invoke it. It becomes, effectively non-existent, if not technically so. I don't expect Allen to grasp any of this, however. 

Especially when she repeats canards such as: "My problem with atheists is their tiresome -- and way old -- insistence that they are being oppressed and their fixation with the fine points of Christianity. What -- did their Sunday school teachers flog their behinds with a Bible when they were kids?" 

 In fact, this is the most scurrilous slander. Let's leave out for the time being that more than half of American atheists grew up within atheist families, so being "flogged with a bible" is irrelevant and cockamamey codswallop. The others, such as moi, while we grew up in churched or religious families, simply ceased to see anything of value or validity in the rituals, beliefs we were exposed to. It became kind of like a mental masturbation, and we grew tired of it. 

 How many times, after all, can you have "impure thoughts", go to Confession, fess up to the padre - have the same thoughts two days later, then go back to Confession next week? It gets tiresome really fast. Something like a rat working his tail off on a treadmill that never ends. It's easier just to leave, having seen the whole BS for what it is, concerted mind control. But again, this explanation is too common sensical for the likes of Allen. 

 She continues: "First off, there's atheist victimology: Boohoo, everybody hates us 'cuz we don't believe in God. Although a recent Pew Forum survey on religion found that 16% of Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, only 1.6% call themselves atheists, with another 2.4% weighing in as agnostics (a group despised as wishy-washy by atheists). You or I might attribute the low numbers to atheists' failure to win converts to their unbelief, " 

 In fact, had Allen actually read the 2006 University of Minnesota study (conducted by Penny Edghill) on Americans' perceptions of atheists, she might not be anywhere so glib as she displays with this idiotic paragraph. For those who don't know, the study, based on a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, disclosed that atheists now occupy the bottom rung of social respect for minorities in American society. 

They’re now regarded as contemptuously as communists were in the 1950s, and rated in social worth below Muslims, immigrants and homosexuals today.[1] The study noted that a significant number of respondents associated atheism with an array of moral misbehavior, including criminality and materialist emphasis. 

In addition, the findings “seemed to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good". This is nothing short of astounding given that as a nation and people, Americans are notorious for giving short shrift to the “common good” as evidenced by consistently voting for no-tax or tax cutting candidates, when they know the outcome will starve government of the resources needed to advance the needs of the vulnerable, such as the 47 million currently without any health insurance. 

 The truer fact, that Americans may not like to confront, is that the U.S. has been committed to a rugged individualism since the country’s founding. The historic confluence of free market capitalism (exalting such individualism) and evangelical Christianity probably occurred in the U.S. ca. 1885 with the publication of the Rev. Josiah Strong's book Our Country, Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, which is highlighted in Chapter 2, of Richard Hofstadter's book: Social Darwinism in American Thought, American Historical Association, 1955. 

 As Hofstadter notes, the acceptance of Social Darwinism in the U.S. coincided with the visit of Herbert Spencer in 1882, for a speaking tour. Spencer, for those unaware, was a British philosopher who sought to extend the principles of natural selection in Darwinian Evolution, to society as a whole. As Hofstadter points out, Spencer absolutely repudiated all state assistance to the poor, needy, physically feeble, or infirm. In terms of the role of natural selection in “social evolution” such aid amounted to unwanted artificial interference in nature. Not to mention, meddling in the “natural development” of a superior society. 

 The Rightist-corporate elite (including many of the ‘robber barons’)latched on to this as a kind of dogma, and then performed another “miracle” of sorts, by blending this hyper-individualism with Christian virtue (proto-Calvinism and its work ethic), and a strict, constructionist view of The Constitution. That Americans forget this basis for rejecting the common good in the national zeitgeist, while blaming atheists for it, is nothing short of amazing in terms of hypocritical mental acrobatics. Or it perhaps discloses a tragic absence of historical knowledge or perspective. (And we know how consistently low Americans score on history surveys and tests) 

 In general, the respondents believed they “shared a basic sense of moral right and wrong” with everyone but atheist fellow citizens. Difficult to comprehend when the bulk of those in prison for major felonies are members of one religion or the other! And this study emerged after more than 30 years, during which Americans have been led to believe by their media that the seeds of social tolerance had finally sprouted. The sheer scope of the revealed ignorance in the Edghill study cried out for disclaimer and rejection by Americans of good will everywhere, yet all Allen offers up is not one solid reference or acknowledgement, and nothing but bitter dregs cast at atheists themselves. 

 Allen next devotes several paragraphs, again uninformatively, to atheists being unable to hold any office in the U.S. She refers to "Antique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office" - but ignores the real reason which is bound up with the misplaced and low opinion held by Americans of atheists, as exposed in the Edghill study. 

 Obviously, if we are held in less esteem than Muslims, it makes sense that Americans will elect a Muslim to local or state office before any atheist. A point brought out in the Edghill study. But this sails serenely over Allen's head. 

 She goes on: "The problem with atheists -- and what makes them such excruciating snoozes -- is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering

 Which, of course, is the basest mindrot and tripe. Virtually all serious atheist authors have made consummate arguments based on solid ontology (as well as epistemology) to show the improbability of a god's existence. Maybe it is that Allen, so buried in her disdain for us, doesn't look hard enough. 

 As an example, on the AARP religious forums some months ago, I noted a basic ontological argument: "following Russell’s lead (‘The Problems of Philosophy’) we need to specify the practical and operative laws that apply to existents and entities, under the general rubric of “being”. (Thus, to be most accurate here, when an atheist agrees to debate a Christian, he is only agreeing to the presupposition of “being”. It remains to be worked out or proven, what the exact nature of this being is.) By “existent” we mean to say that which has prior grounding in the mind, albeit not yet demonstrably shown in reality. 

 For example, the number ‘2’. If the number 2 is mental, it is essentially a mental existent. (Do you see literal two lurking in the outside world, apart from what the human mind assigns, e.g. two apples, two oranges, two beetles etc.?) Such existents are always particular. Thus, ‘2’ must be minimally an entity that has “being’ regardless of whether it has existence. 

 Now, we jump into the realm of epistemology from here, with the next proposition: Generalizing from the above precepts, ALL knowledge must be recognition, and must be of entities that are not purely mental but whose being is a PRECONDITION- and NOT a result- of being thought of. Applying this to the ontology of “non-contingent creator”, it must be shown it exists independently of being thought of. (E.g. there must be the case of an aseitic Creator independent of the existence of human brains which might get tempted to confabulate it.) 

 Here’s another way to propose it: If one demands that this entity is not susceptible to independent existence, and therefore the mere announcement or writing of the words incurs validity, then the supposed condition has nothing to do with reality. It is like averring we all live inside a 12-dimensonal flying spaghetti monster. I would be laughed into oblivion, especially as I incur no special benediction (as you do) by invoking the G-noun. In effect, if the proposed “non-contingent creator” isn’t subject to independent existence, then its alleged “truth” is separated from verification. Truth then becomes what is communicated to us by proxy (or proxy vehicle, e.g. ancient texts, preachers, rabbis etc) with the existent (abstraction “God") in the mind of the communicator who deems himself qualified to make the “truth” exist." 

 No one in the months succeeding was able to challenge the above argument at all. Not even at a semi-serious level. Atheists, then, probably don't make the ontological (or epistemological) case often enough because they know before they put pen to paper they will draw a blank. The theist side, while it brags on its "great incisive minds" - has yet to trot them out when needed. As for reconciling "omniscience" with "free will" WHY should atheists help with that? 

That is like asking us to square the circle, given - as mathematician John Paulos has shown in his book, Irreligion, they are mutually exclusive (and even contradictory) attributes. Indeed, the case can be made that it is premature to assign "omniscience" to a presumed entity for which there isn't an ounce of empirical evidence. Omniscience, as Paulos (and others before) have pointed out, may simply be the optimal-greatest attribute of which the human mind can conceive, and thereby projected onto his artifact of the mind, "God". 'Hmmmmm......IF there is a God, he'd know EVERYTHING at all times! Voila! Omnisicence!'

 At least some Christians, obviously unknown to the impetuous Ms. Allen, have seen such extent of incompatibility between "free will" and "omniscience" that they no longer retain both for their deity. A friend of mine in Barbados admitted, for example, he now believes God is the "Socinian" deity, after Socinus, who postulated he can know no more than the most advanced sentient consciousness in the universe at one time. This, of course, would allow for many mistakes to made because "God's intellect" is always playing catch-up and trying to learn on the run. But ask most Christians to drop their pie-in the-sky confections and embrace this realist version and they'd likely have mass heart attacks. 

 Allen again, veers off into her never-never land of whacked out assumptions: "Atheists seem to assume that the whole idea of God is a ridiculous absurdity, the "flying spaghetti monster" of atheists' typically lame jokes" Actually, as usual, Allen is way wrong here. Most atheists take the idea of God belief deadly seriously if for no other reason that the manner of belief and how it is mandated, practiced (by religions) can intrude into the atheist's world and life. 

For example, if the godist's deity proclaims abortion is verboten, and the atheist's sister is raped, and cannot procure an abortion - that is cause for alarm. So, it would be monumentally stupid of us to treat god belief lightly. At the same time, we regret so many of our fellow humans lack the critical grey matter to investigate the beliefs they have, at a deeper level. As for the "flying spaghetti monster", atheists did not invent it, but rather it was offered as a model of a god and discussed, investigated at an actual religious convocation and seminar. The model was useful in that it easily represented and subsumed all the attributes typically assigned to god as espoused in most religions. 

 Allen then goes off onto her next tangent: "What primarily seems to motivate atheists isn't rationalism but anger -- anger that the world isn't perfect, that someone forced them to go to church as children, that the Bible contains apparent contradictions, that human beings can be hypocrites and commit crimes in the name of faith" 

Once more, we have the odoriferous drip of a red herring. Allen, too simpleminded and glib, is unable to counter our serious rationalism and arguments - so she finds it easier to project HER anger onto us. She also has to drag in the bit about being abused as kids, this time forced to go to church, since her febrile brain can't process that individuals could actually exist who mature and question the values, beliefs, biblical claptrap they were taught- then reject them. No strings. No hidden Freudian excuses or subterfuge. 

 As for Biblical contradictions, why be angry about those? Most intelligent atheists know and recognize that the Bible isn't a book of God anyway, but written by semi-literate, pre-scientific nomads and peasants. So the contradictions will inevitably surface because the book has been mistranslated and bowdlerized so often we have lost count. A "God" wouldn't produce a contradictory and flawed book, but imperfect humans certainly would. As for crimes committed in the name of faith, we know - as per the investigations of Michael Persinger, that this is because the seriously-faith based person is likely also mentally unbalanced. See any of the earlier blog entries produced in March, for example. 

I do not condemn the evil faithers for their crimes, I only request they go to the nearest therp for lithium treatments, or maybe get a course of ECT. (Electro-convulsive therapy) 

 Lastly, Allen writes: "What atheists don't seem to realize is that even for believers, faith is never easy in this world of injustice, pain and delusion. Even for believers, God exists just beyond the scrim of the senses. So, atheists, how about losing the tired sarcasm and boring self-pity and engaging believers seriously?" 

 My response? When you decide to engage us seriously, Ms. Allen. We will be more than happy to engage you. But if you are going to indulge in childish, maudlin rants such as published in the major national press, you can forget it. [1] University of Minnesota News, March 31, 2006, “Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to new U of M Study.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

End of the world? Or Mayan Malarkey.

In a recent History Channel (two-hour) program, the "end of the world" was featured in terms of certain forecasts made by Nostradamus, and the so-called Mayan "end of the planet" prediction due to arrive on Dece. 21, 2012. All over the net, it seems, people are going bonkers worrying about what will happen, whether daylight will "disappear" and all humanity will come to perdition.

The main thrust of the program (which went on for two hours) appeared to be that there existed a concordance between certain quatrains penned by Nostrodamus, and the Mayans' own prognostications based on their astronomy. At the heart of both was that on the day of note (December 21, 2012) the Sun would dawn and its rays would be reinforced by the "dark rift" of the Milky Way galaxy.

As with astrology (see my earlier blog entry from two years ago) the error made is one of specious symbolic association. Because the Milky Way has a "dark rift" which the Sun will be aligned with on some occasions (about once every 100 million years) then it must follow if the Sun's light is aligned with the dark rift something awful must happen. Perhaps, as the introduction to the program suggested, there will be no dawn on that day and the end of sunlight as we know it!

Poppycock! This is no different from one's "birth sign" (say Leo or Cancer) having Mars in it, and facing a violent day (according to many astrologers) - merely because Mars is "blood red" in color. (Actually, Mars is not blood red in color, it is ochre or rust-colored, on account of the large amounts of ferrous oxide).

The program is clever, however, in that it really doesn't expatiate or concentrate on the "dark rift" alignment and wanders off instead to considering a whole raft of disasters that Nostradamus' quatrains might mean. Such as, accelerated global warming. Or, some disaster - like an asteroid or comet strike - which heralds a nuclear winter. (In this case, the Sun is indeed blotted out, but by the trillions of tons of dust hurled into the atmosphere following a collision with a 1-2 mile rock from space- which may last for years and result in mass starvation on accoumnt of crops dying worldwide)

In a way this is cheating, because the intro led the viewer to believe or accept a direct causal link to the Sun's alignment with the dark rift. But if global warming or an asteroid collision is responsible for our end, then clearly it has nothing to do with any alignments with a dark rift. This is simply an obfuscation. A distraction, a red herring.

Neither is tying in Nostradamus or his quatrains very helpful, since the way they were written left open a multitude of interpretations. I can think of no better examples of a kind of poetic Rohrschach blot than any of those quatrains. But dragging in Nostradamus has the beneficial effect of adding a layer of mystery.

The program also mentioned the reversal of the Earth's magnetic field, which indeed could cause a lot of consternation - given our atmosphere would now be exposed to all the Sun's radiation and energetic particles (at the midpoint of reversal when the field ceases to exist or is at a minimum).

But again, this has absolutely nothing to do with any alignment of the Milky Way's dark rift with the Sun. To suggest such a connection is to practice unwarranted extrapolation which is not based on any credible astrophysical or astronomical data.

As I have said before, there are genuine threats to humanity out there, among which the two most prominent are a large asteroid collision, and the runaway greenhouse effect. The tragedy is that by focusing on fake catastrophes like the Mayan 'end of daylight', people will cease to attend to the real threats by taking actual actions now. Say like cutting back on consumption of fossil fuels to abate or delay the onset of the worst greenhouse gas warming.

Or, by writing letters and making calls to congressional representatives to get off their duffs and re-fund the 'Project Space guard' program which had attempted to develop improved methods of monitoring asteroids, and also implement ways to deflect them if they threatened Earth.

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Vitamin G" or B - for BUNK?

In a recent report in today's Denver Post (May 4, p. 4C), the headline in the Health section blared:

'Dose of 'Vitamin G' can keep you healthy'

The article begins:

"You want to live long and look good, so you do everything the experts suggest: you eat salmon, you wear sunscreen, lift weights, and jog. You floss, eat five fruits, take your vitamin D and you pray? Pray? Yes! God is now part of a healthful lifestyle. It turns out that God can save your life as well as your soul"

Of course, this is nonsense, never mind how the zany author (Diane Cameron) goes on to assert this is validated by "the newest research on aging and health". And that the push isn't coming from "churchmen" but from doctors, especially neurologists.

A top expert cited is Dr. Andrew Newberg who is claimed to be "a top spokesman in the new field of neuro-theology". This is claimed to be apparent in Newberg's book, 'How God Changes Your Brain'.

Neuro-theology? This is an oxymoron. One cannot have a science - a REAL science, wed to theology! Theology is poppyock, bunkum and gibberish. No serious scientists - I don't care if he's an astronomer or neurologist, marries his science to theology unless he prefers a one way pass to being marginalized.

Science, consisting chiefly of inductively formulated laws and postulates can stand in no meaningful relation to theology, since theology possesses no genuine knowledge about anything.

Knowledge presupposes open inquiry to obtain it in the first place. Theology’s multitude of dogmas and doctrines – not open to critical evaluation, forever forecloses such inquiry, and by doing so abdicates any claim to being called ‘knowledge’. As Sir A.J. Ayer has noted (‘Language, Truth and Logic’, p. 158):

“The fact that people have religious experiences is interesting from a psychological point of view, but it does not in any way imply that there is such a thing as religious knowledge.”

In the place of reason’s doubt and uncertainty, belief offers a pap in the guise of absolute certitude. A delusion purchased at the cost of intellectual gangrene. A gangrene rendered more ubiquitous now because bunkum and pseudo-science are now widespread, given that certain panderers (from the realm of science) have discovered they can get more books sold if they incorporate some religious subtext.

At least if I am told that electrons can sometimes behave like waves, there is experimental evidence, namely electron diffraction patterns, which I can find for support. If I’m told that such electrons can exhibit instantaneous connections, I need go no further than Alain Aspect’s 1982 experiment – and other more recent ones, which disclose this.

If I am informed, from Einstein’s special relativity, that the time for a moving object slows, I need look no further than the well-documented data for muons to find the empirical support.

If I am told there are solar explosions (flares) that can engulf twenty Earths, I need only go to my local Observatory telescope, put on a special H-alpha filter and view such flares with a superimposed graticule fashioned with the scales of Earth –sized objects, for support.

In other words, most physical concepts have a wealth of consistent and coherent data which, together with deductively formulated mathematical arguments, lend support to their existence. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for theological ‘doctrines’.

While Newberg is not pushing theological doctrines, he is perilously close to pushing pseudo-science not much different from that already circulating compliments of physicist Frank Tipler in his 'Physics of Christianity' and 'Physics of Immortality' - both of which have been throroughly skewered in Amazon book reviews. Along with their flawed scientific assumptions and generalizations exposed.

Newberg, for example, never verifies a genuine, bona fide "God presence" in any of his subjects.
This means he's simply measuring the way the human brain creates its own subjective reality--basically, how we make stuff up. (An aspect that has actually been clearly and carefully exposed in truly serious work, such as Michael Persinger's 'The Neuro-psychological Bases of God Belief')

In Persinger's genuinely empirical research, electrodes were applied to the temporal lobes of the brain and inevitably triggered religious and "God ideation" by incepting temporal lobe transients (TLTs) - a kind of mini-seizure. Persinger placed TLT experience along a hypothetical continuum. Extreme symptoms included: circumstantiality, a sense of the personal (e.g. egocentric references (e.g. I am the one with whom God communes!) , divine guidance in one's life), perseveration (I can triumph through all) , hypergraphia (writing reams of one's experiences - beliefs to convert or convince others - like perhaps Newberg himself!) , altered affect, and most importantly an overwhelming sense of religiosity....fueling MORE faith. In other words, the faith achieved and the firm "happy" beliefs was little different from what one finds in a drunk who's imbibed too much Sterno or Ripple.

Even before Persinger there was Julian Jaynes in his landmark 1976 book: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, argued that the brain activity of ancient people - those living roughly 3,500 years ago, prior to early evidence of consciousness such as logic, reason, and ethics - would have resembled that of modern schizophrenics. Jaynes maintained that, like schizophrenics they believed they were beneficiaries of exceptional "divine" care, communications and "love". They were also able to directly communicate using "prayer" and actually had prayers answered.

Is this what Newberg and his ilk wish to take us back to? 3,500 years ago, to primitive-brained ancestors that were only able to think metaphorically? One is correct to ask this, if his subjects believe they are "in the presence of God or some other infinite power" - which may indeed dramatically affect the structures and functions of their brains- but Newberg does nothing to inform us whether these (subjective) apperceptions truly exist in the world outside those brains.

It evidently has escaped Newberg that scanning a brain for reactions to stimuli induced within the brain (meditation - whether on verbal or visual input) is unrelated to anything outside the brain. Hence, the problem is the sloppy way Newberg thinks about what he is allegedly researching. This also highlights the inherent flaw in his original hypothesis: which was to accept the validity of religious belief a priori.

Persinger, instead, adopted the more rational (skeptical hypothesis) that religious belief may not be healthy, may not be intrinsically valid, and may well be the result of a kind of pathology. It was via this more neutral stance, not accepting the positive outcome, that enabled him to expose the reality of TLTs and show precisely that God exists solely in the brain, as Jaynes earlier found.

Newberg's prescription, based on his hypothesis, is: "If it makes you feel good, about yourself, believe in it and it will change your brain and make you live longer, be happier".

Of course, then one can retain belief in Santa for the same reason, or the Easter Bunny, or even Saskwatch! Hey, if the belief gets you through the day and alters your brain!

This is why Michael Persinger's approach is the more truly scientific and open. Indeed, he makes his motivation clear in his book:

“As a human being, I am concerned about the illusionary explanations for human consciousness and the future of human existence. Consequently after writing the Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs (1987), I began the systematic application of complex electromagnetic fields to discern the patterns that will induce experiences (sensed presence) that are attributed to the myriad of ego-alien intrusions which range from gods to aliens. The research is not to demean anyone's religious/mystical experience but instead to determine which portions of the brain or its electromagnetic patterns generate the experience.

The research has been encouraged by the historical fact that most wars and group degradations are coupled implicitly to god beliefs and to the presumption that those who do not believe the same as the experient are somehow less human and hence expendable. Although these egocentric propensities may have had adaptive significance, their utility for the species' future may be questionable. "

This says it all, and also carries the keynote of skepticism, which one would do well to apply to Newberg. For glaringly missing (as it was in the earlier 'prayer' research that purported to show those who were sick in hospital fared better if prayed for) is the use of proper double-blind tests and discriminatory qualification and quantification.

What do I mean by this? I mean that in Newberg's book 'How God Changes the Brain', he fails to go on to discriminate the extent and degrees of how DIFFERENT God beliefs affect brains- quality of life, etc.. For example, is the Hindu God, Brahman, able to engender more healthy changes than the Christian exhibits with his God? And if in the Christian case, which version of Christian deity operates and bestows the most brain (and longevity) benefits? Does the Trinity trump all? Or is is Jehovah, or Jesus himself and exclusively? What about the Christian 'Science of Mind' claim of "Universal Mind"? Does that work even better for its adherents? What about Muslims and Allah? Does Allah vouchsafe greater longevity and brain-health benefits than any version of Christian deity?

Newberg deals with none of these aspects, which is logical, given he isn't interested in whether a real existent confers the benefits. If all he obsesses over is subjects' responses, and the validity of the external agent(s) is never substantiated or formalized, then it really doesn't matter what they are. Any artifact will suffice, including belief in elves, Santa, Easter Bunnies and leprechauns.

We don't need any "neuro-theology" any more than we need any other form of novel pseudo-science. If researchers in whatever field find that all their research "holes" have already been drilled and there is nothing new on offer, then I suggest the optimum response is to do, or write or propose nothing! For nothing is certainly preferable to most of the silly codswallop currently making the rounds, and passed off as "science". (On the other hand, as I have pointed out before, if the assorted authors wish to refer to their speculations or conjectures- that is acceptable.)

How startling is that?