By David Madison
National Geographic magazine, adhering to the highest scientific standards, four years ago published a map of worldwide Virgin Mary sightings, covering 500 years of reported visions. Not surprisingly, I suppose, Mary has favored traditionally Catholic countries—especially Italy and France—but shunned Muslim countries; it would seem she’s not very missionary minded.
No doubt Catholics were over-the-moon contemplating this map. But were those outside the Catholic camp, including non-Catholic Christian theists, as thrilled—or convinced?
The belief that Mary enjoys heavenly prestige and even now hovers over the landscape—near enough to touch down—has deep roots, as explained by Richard Tarnas:
“…in the course of the late classical period and the Middle Ages, an extraordinary cult of Mary as the numinous Mother of God spontaneously arose and asserted itself as a dominant element in the popular Christian vision…when the pagan multitudes converted to Christianity in the post-Constantinian empire, they brought with them a deeply engrained tradition of the Great Mother Goddess (as well as several mythological examples of divine virgins and virgin births of divine heroes), the infusion of which into Christian piety significantly expanded the Church’s veneration of Mary.” (The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, p. 162)
And so it continues to this day. Religions specialize in keeping a tight grip on folklore and myth.
We can suspect that most of the world’s theists consider this one of Catholicism’s idiosyncrasies; indeed, not just a mistake, an embarrassment.
The belief that this superior saint has been making personal appearances is dismissed by others as misdirected fervor: this-is-your-brain-on-Mary. And the superstition goes all way to the top: Pope John-Paul II survived an assassination attempt in 1981 and credited Mary with guiding the bullet away from a crucial artery. The bullet was later inserted into the crown of Portugal’s Our Lady of Fátima’s statue. Why Mary hadn’t guided the bullet to miss the pontiff entirely remains a mystery.
There’s a crucial point to make here, an important component of Knockout Punch Number 2: Visions fall short as reliable, verifiable evidence for God.
Theists don’t trust the visions of other theists. Pious Catholics have no doubt whatever that these visions are authentic; indeed, the National Geographic reported them in all seriousness. But Protestants, Muslims, Mormons aren’t about to begin swooning over Mary. They are not convinced enough, certainly, to convert to Catholicism:
“Boy, your visions are the best!” The visions that supposedly validate Islam, Mormonism—and countless other religions—aren’t taken seriously either by outsiders: other believers are simply wrong.
Theists don’t trust each other. Why should we trust them?
So visions don’t really tell us about God. How about Prayer?
“Take it to the Lord in prayer…” is the advice of the old hymn. And indeed, when Christians want to find out what to do, how to solve this or that problem, they ask God directly. And they’re pretty sure they get answers…well, some of the time. But the devout—the very devout—obviously receive different answers.
In one of my recent articles, I mentioned Catholic women who are certain, based on their prayers and meditations, that God wants them to be priests. But the male hierarchy won’t hear of it. So some devout Catholics refuse to believe that the prayers/meditations of other devout Catholics are valid.
It cannot possibly be more obvious that people hear very different things in their “answered prayers” from God. So we can be mighty suspicious that this is a way to find out about God. Dan Barker has called attention to the foolishness:
“Believers regularly take opposing positions on such matters as capital punishment, abortion, pacifism, birth control, physician-assisted suicide, animal rights, the environment, the separation of church and state, gay rights and women’s rights. It might be concluded from this that there is either a multitude of gods handing out conflicting moral advice or a single god who is hopelessly confused.” (Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, 1992)
But there is a way to test the prayer claim, i.e., that communication is flowing to and from God when pious folks go into their quiet, meditative mode, focused on getting through to God. In an article that I published here two years ago, I proposed that the world’s theists nominate a thousand of their holiest prayer specialists to take important questions to God in prayer. These prayer specialists must include the full range of theists, e.g., Catholics (all brands), Protestants (all brands), Mormons, Muslims, Jews. We want definitive answers on a lot of things (a long list is in my 2017 article)….
• Is it okay to eat pork?
• Was Jesus the Son of God?
• Is transubstantiation a thing?
• Did God create gay people on purpose?
Theologians want us to believe that devout, fervent prayer delivers truths about God, in which case these 1,000 Prayer Champions will come back with—well, what else could it be?—unanimous results. Failing that, we would hear a long list of excuses to account for the far-far-from unanimous results—which will not include, of course, that prayer is bogus; all of these folks have been talking to themselves.
No brain waves have escaped their skulls to reach the Grand Fromage who runs the Cosmos, nor have signals been received back. This experiment—we can be 100 percent certain—would provide the most brilliant example imaginable of confirmation bias.
It’s pretty clear that theists don’t trust the prayer/meditation experiences of other theists. Why should we trust them?
But aren’t we on solid ground with scripture? God has given his Written Word
Christians claim that the Bible is a basic resource for finding out about God. In my 70-year old Revised Standard Version there are more than 1,200 pages, so that’s an astounding amount of God information. But here’s an experiment to try with your Christian friends: just out of the blue ask, “What have you learned about God from the book of Ezekiel?” “What God information have you distilled from the Letter to the Ephesians?”
Most of your Christian friends will be stumped. They may carry their Bibles to church and maybe proud to have several copies at their homes—maybe even an heirloom Bible. But for the most part, it is wasted God’s information. It’s a fair bet that they spend far more time watching movies and sports events than probing 1,200 pages about God.
“Well, the pastor knows the answers.” And perhaps he/she does, but the clergy also appreciate the irony that the more you study the Bible, the more problematic the Word of God becomes. I learned early on in seminary that writing a “theology of the Bible” is virtually impossible because the Bible authors voiced so many conflicting, even abhorrent, ideas about God. Theologians have to pick and choose texts carefully, to come up with reasonably respectable ideas about God—then they get on with their hype. They get on with promoting God’s ideas that they favor, which has meant endless disagreement and splintering, resulting, on the Protestant side alone, in thousands of different brands. Theists don’t trust each other on what the Bible says/means about God.
Check this out too: how many Bibles have been expanded? If God is in the habit of updating scripture, Bibles should now include the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. If God-inspired scripture is a real thing, why stop with the Bible? More than 15 million Mormons know for sure that their scripture is true; close to two billion Muslims feel the same way about the Qur’an. But of course, expanded Bibles are not about to happen, because Christians are pretty sure that the Book of Mormon is a joke, and they’re far too suspicious and scared of Islam to go anywhere near that holy book. It can’t be an update from God.
Bottom line: theists don’t trust the scriptures of other theists. Why should we trust any of their books as sources of bona fide God information? Remember: we’re on the hunt for reliable, verifiable data about God. Is that too much to ask?
“But I know God in my heart, and that’s good enough for me.”
Christians often put this on a more personal level: “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” What more proof could anyone want? This is the most intimate God-knowledge imaginable, and they commonly proclaim the truths that this cozy relationship has imparted to them…without wondering, apparently, why devout Jews, Mormons, and Muslims know things about God—based on their personal experiences—that are vastly at odds with Christian versions of God. Maybe knowing God in your heart isn’t as infallible as people think it is. If all these folks know God so well, based on this intimacy, why are there so many disagreements? The many varieties of theisms cannot even agree on how God wants to be worshipped.
So is a personal relationship with Jesus—let alone with God—a real thing? What’s going on here? What’s actually happening inside people’s heads? Is an intense relationship with God a trick of the mind? What role does brain chemistry play?
Are you up for an 11:25 minute video? Drew McCoy, aka the Genetically Modified Skeptic, in this video, titled, My Personal Experience with God (As an Atheist), devotes about six minutes to a description of his personal relationship with Jesus. He knew it was real; it was intense. He felt God in the room more than he felt other people. But then he encountered those who believed passionately in essential oils. Critical thinking skills kicked in. Only a little research showed how they shielded their minds from the evidence that falsified their cherished beliefs. This made him wonder about the implications for religious certainties. In the remainder of the video, he describes the breakdown of his faith.
He discovered that psychologists have been studying religious experiences for a long time. No surprise, there are triggers for the meditative states that he had experienced (e.g., knowing Jesus personally): music, crowds, exercise; sensory, sleep, food, and drink deprivation, etc. Moreover, he learned that people of every religion in the world experience their deities as he had experienced Jesus. It seemed highly probable that his experiences were a function of the brain; it dawned on him that this is a much more realistic explanation. Are there really lots of gods who want personal relationships with humans? He could find no reliable, verifiable data that any gods were needed to explain the phenomenon.
So, how do we find out about God? It turns out that personal experiences, personal testimonies about Jesus are highly suspect. Nope, we can’t find reliable, verifiable data in heartfelt testimonies, especially when many of them are obnoxious (“God hates fags”).
Here’s some basic homework on the psychology of religion: John C. Wathey’s book, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing. His arguments are thorough, careful, precise, and the extensive footnotes and bibliography are a portal into the vast literature available.
Surely the theologians have it figured out
It always warms my heart to the see the photo ops: the leaders of the world’s major religions lined up, smiling, sometimes even hugging and kissing, to show ecumenical spirit. They deserve awards for costume design if nothing else. But how much do they actually agree with one another about theology? Have they ever hammered out a consensus about God? Maybe it’s a good thing to pose and posture about harmony, but we know for sure that these powerful men (it’s almost always men, powerful in their own spheres) will never agree about God. They enjoy reputations for holiness—they have risen to the tops of their bureaucracies—but, in fact, they represent the utter chaos that prevails in speculations about God. No, the theologians don’t have it figured out; they sustain the mess.
Back to the big question: just how do you find out about God? It seems we’ve been asking theists to deliver on this question forever, in a variety of ways. But it boils down to this: please show us where we can find reliable, verifiable data about God. Knockout Punch Number 2 is that such data can’t be found. Theists have failed to deliver. And then they get sneaky. We’re told that God isn’t like that. God cannot be known through reliable, verifiable data; God eludes experiments, is not testable. We shouldn’t even try. God is beyond the evidence. Hence, of course, the Big Excuse: God is mysterious.
But what is the evidence for that? Of course, if you’re trying to figure out, explain, and define something that doesn’t exist, it’s gonna look mysterious. Moreover, there will be endless speculation about God’s qualities and requirements: which is precisely what we see.
We really don’t need more knockout punches, do we? But there are eight more to come.
About Author: David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.
Debunking Christianity: Ten Knockout Punches