Friday, May 22, 2015

Why are (young) people leaving the church?

A recent Unbelievable show discussed the 'problem' of young people leaving the church. It followed the pattern of other similar discussions I have heard in the past, whereby it turned out that the 'ex-christian' made a lifestyle choice or had a sexual orientation which was seen as incompatible with the teaching of the church they attended, and so they felt alienated and had to leave. In this case, the guy was gay and believed he had to make the choice between being part of a church or having a meaningful sexual relationship with another man. His natural urges for sex and companionship won, as you might expect. So he left the church and lost his faith in God, more or less in that order. It wasn't the lack-of-faith issue that was the reason he left, it was kind of the other way about.

I've heard interviews with other ex-christians, like John Loftus for example, where the pattern was broadly similar. In Loftus's case (as I recall), he had an affair with a woman in his church, then was surprised to discover that the church rejected him rather than accepting him as the sinner he was and trying to bring him back into the fold. He left the church, somewhat disgruntled, and it was this that ultimately pushed him towards rejecting Christian belief.

This pattern of people leaving the church is broadly what the church wants to hear. People leave because of their own moral shortcomings. In other words, its not the church who is at fault, is is the unrepentant sinner. The initial sin (nothing to do with belief) is followed by other bad choices and further sins that so cloud the former believer's way of thinking that they eventually become deluded and ultimately reject the God they used to believe in.

For many Christians, this is the only deconversion sequence that really makes sense. Indeed, I once heard a minister, when he heard of someone in his congregation losing faith, whose immediate reaction was "I wonder what he's been up to...?"

I suppose, within the Christian mindset, this is the only option that makes sense. Someone who truly believes in God, and furthermore has a real personal relationship with him, cannot, simply cannot come to believe that the God they know does not exist. Well, they cannot, unless they are deceived and deluded, and that will only happen if they are a habitual and unrepentant sinner...

The thing is, there are others, who haven't 'fallen' into sin, who haven't had affairs and who haven't made lifestyle choices that are incompatible with the teachings of the church, who still lose faith. The church doesn't really know what to do with them.

If they truly seek to fix this problem, the church inevitably starts looking for the faults within the church that are the reason the people leave. Of course, the faults must be within the church, for there is no way that it could be the God concept that is flawed. The church can't really ever face the possibility that the leavers could be right and those who stay are in the wrong. As soon as they admit that possibility, the collapse is inevitable. Or at least it was in my case.

With hindsight, the greatest single factor that contributed to my eventual lack of faith was simply considering the possibility that I could have been wrong about God. As soon as I questioned God himself, things began to unravel.

Why are (young) people leaving the church? Maybe they've honestly considered the central beliefs of the church and found them lacking. Maybe they're right to leave. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Question Mark, Part 1

It is a long time since I read an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. It is even longer since I studied an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. Last time I did either of these two things, I read and studied the various books of the bible under the assumption that I was reading the Word of God. 

Over the last five years I have slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, come to the understanding that the bible is not the Word of God. The bible was written by human people with human motives, and while some of them might have felt inspired to write these words, there is no strong evidence that any divine being had any part in the composition and compilation of this book. (Note: the question of whether or not there is a divine being is an entirely separate one - the lack of divine inspiration of the bible does not entail that there is no God.)

Sloughing off the assumption of divine inspiration or authorship leaves me with a different set of assumptions when I read the text of the bible. It means I come away from reading the book with different questions and different conclusions. Its almost like reading a different book.

So I want to return to a few books of the bible and read/study them again, through different eyes. Before I would read the bible to learn something new about God or to find guidance in its pages, now when I read the bible I have a whole load of new questions to ask: Who wrote this? What was their purpose in writing it? Who were the intended audience? Did the author intend these words to be taken literally? Was the source material reliable? Is any of this true? Has anyone edited or rewritten these words since the original author wrote them? And so on. Previously the answers would always have been: God; To instruct me; Me; Yes; Yes; No; etc.

So I am returning to the Gospel of Mark, to read it through new eyes. My intention is to post my thoughts and questions here as I go along. Maybe I'll come to some conclusions along the way, maybe not. We'll see.

Why Mark? Well, because it is generally held to be the earliest of all the gospels we have, and the others are somewhat derivative of it. Some hold that Mark is actually the very first gospel. So its a good starting point. Also, it is quite short. So let's begin.

I'm going to begin by not assuming anything, insofar as I can. We don't know who Mark was. We don't know if he was called Mark. Mark was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, so this name could have been added to make it the gospel of everyman. The gospel according to Joe Bloggs. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark (for simplicity, I'll continue to use the traditional name) is the same as the character of John Mark who makes a brief appearance in Acts. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark was an eyewitness of the events presented, or even knew eyewitnesses. 

Another thing we don't really know is when the gospel was written. Some hold that it must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Some hold that it must have been written after that event. I've even heard some claim that the work was written in the early 2nd century, not the late 1st century. And some, who see Marcionite content in the gospel, say that it is Marcionite in origin, which forces it a decade or two into the 2nd century, at the earliest. But let's just start by saying we don't know when it was written and go from there.

We also don't really know where it was written or who it was written to, although various theories have been proposed over the years. It is written in Greek, but was it originally in Greek or is the earliest version we have a translation of an earlier version? These are all questions we will address as we go.

So let's start with something I am reasonably sure of. I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we are able to read nowadays is pretty much unchanged since the mid 2nd century, which is when the NT documents began to be duplicated on mass, and widely distributed. The transmission chain may go back much earlier than that, but we can't be totally sure what happened earlier than the mid 2nd century.

I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we now have is basically a copy of a copy of a copy (etc.) of the gospel that was 'published' and distributed in the mid 2nd century. Prof David Trobisch says Polycarp was probably responsible for the compilation, duplication and publication of the NT canon, and who am I to argue with him? I find his case compelling.

What happened before this 'publication'? Well there are various theories. If we put all the possibilities together, we get a chain of events that could be as long as this:
  1. Events occurred. 
  2. Stories about these events were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  3. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  4. Some of the stories may have been lost.
  5. Other stories were made up.
  6. The fictional stories were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  7. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  8. Someone (lets call him Mark) collected some of these stories and wrote a gospel of Jesus out of them.
  9. He may have invented some scenes in the gospel to provide a bridge/narrative framework between stories he got from his sources.
  10. He may have also invented some stories that fitted his agenda and added them to his gospel to flesh it out. We now have what some scholars refer to as "Ur-Marcus".
  11. This gospel was used by a community of people somewhere.
  12. As the needs of the community changed, stories could have been dropped, edited or added to the gospel.
  13. This could have happened several times.
  14. It may have been picked up by other communities, with different agendas to the first, who may have modified it to fit their own purposes.
  15. Eventually the gospel came into the hands of the final editor, who may have modified the gospel to make it consistent with the other books in his collection.
Some claim there may even be more steps in the chain than that.

I'm not saying that I believe all these steps happened. This is a compilation of all the theories that I've heard. I think it is highly unlikely that all these steps occurred, but probably some of them did. The most conservative evangelical view is probably that 1, 2, 8, 11 and part of 15 occurred, while 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, etc. didn't. The most radical critical view is that 1-4 did not happen and everything started with the made up stories at point 5 or 10. I expect the truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Occam's razor would have us shave away all the 'unnecessary' items on that list. So as we go through the book of Mark I'll highlight things that might suggest that some of those items are 'necessary', or at least possible, and should not therefore be discounted out of hand.

So having said all that, let's begin with Mark, chapter 1, verse 1... (in a future post)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The idiot apostles...

I'm currently reading "Let the Reader Understand" by Robert M. Fowler. Its pretty technical and theological stuff for bed-time reading, but some of it is really fascinating. Its basically an analysis of the gospel of Mark, but keeping its eyes firmly on questions like "what is the author trying to achieve here?" and "what effect does this passage have on the reader?"

The bit I've just read discusses the pairs of miracle stories in the first half of the gospel and points out something I'd never noticed, or even considered, before.

Take, for example, the "feeding of the five thousand" in Mark 6:30-44 and compare it with the "feeding of the four thousand" in Mark 8:1-10. I've heard various theories about why both stories are actually included in fairly short a gospel. The reader knows what Jesus can do after the first story, so why repeat it a couple of chapters later?

The most mundane explanation for including the story twice is because it happened twice. Possibly more than twice. Could be, but in a short gospel, where the author had to have left out some stories, why repeat this? Surely once is enough?

A more compelling explanation for the repetition of the story is that this is not to tell us something about Jesus (one telling of the story could do that), but rather it is to tell us something about the disciples. For the disciples behave in a completely incredible manner here. Or rather, they behave in a totally believable manner in the first telling of the story - stating, quite rightly, that a few small loaves and fish cannot be used to feed thousands of people - but then behave in a totally unbelievable manner the second time, because they do the same thing twice. The point is that they have learned absolutely nothing whatsoever from the first miracle and so can't comprehend the possibility the second time around.

This is the plain explanation here. Mark deliberately sets out to make the disciples look like idiots here. Well, either that, or the disciples really were idiots and this really happened, exactly as described. The problem is that nobody is actually that stupid. If the disciples really had seen Jesus miraculously duplicating food for 5000 people on one occasion, on a second very similar occasion, not long afterwards, it is literally inconceivable that none of them would have said something to Jesus along the lines of "we have a small amount of food, can you do that miracle again and turn it into lots of food?"

The only option we are left with is that the author of this gospel intended to make the disciples look like idiots. That is the only agenda in the repeated story. By itself, this is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this gospel contains fiction.

But the thing that Robert Fowler points out in his book, which I had never noticed before, is that the two stories have been carefully constructed to emphasise the stupidity of the disciples.

Story 1 (Mark 6:30-44) goes like this:
...many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
The story is told from the point of view of the disciples. And the disciples are shown here as sensible and practical people; they suggest the people need to go home and find food, and they calculate how much it would cost to feed the multitude, when Jesus instructs them to do something unexpected (get the people to sit down), they go along with this.

So the disciples come out of the first story quite well. However, when we turn to story number 2 (Mark 8:1-10) it goes like this:
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied.
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
Note that this story is told from the point of view of Jesus. We get his feelings towards these people in a direct quote from him, not in third person as in the previous story. Here, before the disciples have even suggested that the people be sent away, as in the previous story, Jesus explains why this would be a bad idea. And then the idiot disciples demonstrate that they have no recollection whatsoever of the earlier incident.

This change of point of view is mirrored in other pairs of stories in Mark. Each time showing the disciples favourably the first time, from their own point of view, and as idiots the second time, from the point of view of Jesus.

I'm convinced. Not only is the author of this gospel a much cleverer writer than I had previously thought, he really wants to convey to us that the disciples were idiots.

Were the disciples really idiots? Probably not. If there was a real Jesus, and if he recruited real disciples, and if he actually discipled them, then they must have learned from the master. That is what 'disciples' do. A real disciple cannot be a real idiot. So what we have here is not history but polemic. And not polemic against people outside the church, but polemic against the supposed founding fathers!

The characters in the story are idiots, not real disciples. The real disciples of Jesus (as far as this author is concerned) are the author himself and the implied reader of the text. This work is clearly written by someone from some rival faction of the early church - a faction opposed to the faction which claimed the disciples as its founders.

You certainly don't get taught that in Sunday school!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Omnipresence and relationship with God?

Just reflecting on the garden of Eden story. Here's a chunk of it:
Genesis 2:18-20
"The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals. But for the man no suitable helper was found."
Why was the man alone? Wasn't he in the (omni)presence of God all the time? There was no sin blocking him from God. In current evangelical thinking, he should never have known what it was to be alone, he should have been basking in the presence of God and shouldn't have needed anything else.

The man should have had an intimate and personal relationship with God, which should have been fully satisfying. So why was the woman necessary? 

I guess Genesis wasn't written by an evangelical...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Family completeness in heaven...?

I've just been listening to a recent Unbelievable show on the question of "Why does God allow suffering?" featuring a discussion between Vince Vitale (Christian) and Julian Baggini (Atheist). Most of it was the same old stuff and not much worthy of comment. But one comment made by Vince Vitale made me pause for thought.

I can't remember the exact wording now, but he was talking about a Christian family who had experienced the pain and suffering of a late-term miscarriage. The gist of his comment was that the family who lost the baby gained comfort through the knowledge that their child would not be lost to them forever, and that their family would be complete in heaven. In other words, the miscarried child would go on to eternal life, and would be part of their family in the world to come.

Its a great thought, and one that I'm sure would give some comfort to a grieving family, but only makes sense if you don't think it through. If you stop and think about this, there is no reason why this should only apply to late-term miscarriages. It would have to apply to early miscarriages too. Including those that occur before the couple even know they are pregnant. Indeed, there's not really any reason why this shouldn't happen in the case of a fertilised egg that doesn't implant.

Statistically speaking, about three out of four conceptions do not lead to babies. The majority of these do not implant or 'miscarry' before there are any signs of pregnancy. But put this in the eternal context imagined by the Christian family above. This would mean that for every child you actually have, in heaven you will have an extra three, on average. That is to say, that only a quarter of the human population of heaven will actually have had a life in this world.

Whichever way you slice it, this idea makes no sense in the light of salvation theology. Did Christ only die for a quarter of humanity and the rest get a pass to heaven? Indeed, if we follow the reasoning that children who die very young (and in the womb?) get a free pass into heaven, then the implications are inevitably that the souls of all miscarried children will outnumber the souls of people who lived on earth and got saved many, many times over. As only a fraction of the quarter who make it to term will be saved.

Stop and think about it for a moment. It just makes no sense.

But now, stop and think again. What sense is there in putting a dividing line in at the moment of birth? If a baby has a soul after birth, they must have had one just before as well? And a month before that? And before that? There is no dividing line that actually makes sense. The reality of miscarriage actually makes the claims of heaven and salvation sound nonsensical. Doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The first quest of the Historical Jesus... and Christian models of Jesus

I've been slowly working my way through the audio version of Albert Schweitzer's "The Quest of the Historical Jesus" (1906), which you can get for free from Librivox.org. I'm nearly at the end of it. Its quite long winded, but comprehensive, thorough and fascinating. It is basically an exhaustive (but not exhausting) critical survey of pretty much everything published in the 19th century on the question of the Historical Jesus. In audio form it comes in at over 21 hours of listening, which is about three weeks' worth of commuting for me.

As I've said before (see this post and other posts tagged with 'Historical Jesus'), the quest for the Historical Jesus is an attempt to strip away the layers of faith from the gospel stories to uncover the real, historical character who was the basis of the Christian religion. The quest is based on the somewhat shaky assumption that some of the gospel material is truth and some of it is fiction.

As I've said before, ad nauseum, on this blog, there is no reliable method for testing any passage in the bible to determine whether or not it is true. If there was, this question (and many others) would have been solved long ago. 

What is clear from Schweitzer's survey is that the quest for the Historical Jesus is really all about starting with the assumption that the bits you can't believe in the bible are, necessarily, false, and the rest is probably true. From that, you whittle away at the passages until a figure emerges, who looks and sounds a bit like a possible historical figure, but actually generally represents the best aspirations of the quester himself. In other words, people go looking for Jesus and are surprised to find their own reflection there.

On the basis of this survey, 19th century Christianity was fixated on a few questions that don't seem to be debated in the church these days. These include: (i) Synoptic gospels vs. John - most of the questers seemed to believe that either John or the Synoptics was 'true', but not both equally, so they would pick the one they preferred and interpret the other through this. (ii) Miracles vs. Naturalism - many Christian questers in the 19th century appeared to have issues with the idea of miracles, OK, for some of them the resurrection was probably true, but the other stuff couldn't be. If anything, the 19th century church sounds a lot more 'rational' than the church is today. I can't help but think that 19th century Christianity in general, and the theologians in it in particular, were a much more mixed bag than current Christianity and current theologians. Christians today probably assume that the church in years gone by was either much as it is today (worship styles aside), or was more 'orthodox' in years gone by, whereas there is an assumed liberalisation of the church today. On the basis of this survey through the church a couple of hundred years ago, the opposite would seem to be the case. People seeking Jesus have always been finding a Jesus who mirrors some aspect of their own culture.

While thinking this over, I realised that this is - essentially - what all Christians do, whether or not they are seeking the 'historical' Jesus. Everyone who believes anything about Jesus, consciously or not, prioritises some bible passages over others (I've said this before too). For most believers its not a question of whittling away the false to reveal the true, but it is more a question of emphasising some aspects and diminishing the others, in order to form a 'working model' of Jesus in their minds. This process of diminishing some aspects and emphasising others is necessary to iron out the inconsistencies, conflicts and contradictions that are actually in the bible. It is impossible to create a 'working model' of Jesus taking all statements about him as being equally valid, but if you can emphasise some and diminish others, then a plausible model of Jesus can emerge. Someone you can really believe in. Someone you can persuade yourself originates in the bible and walked the roads of 1st century Palestine. Someone you can ask WWJD? about. 

The more I think about this, the more I see that this is what most Christians I know actually do. This is why there are so many different denominations of Christianity - each one emphasises different aspects from the others, and diminishes different other aspects. This is why the Jesus of Pentecostal Christianity is vastly different to the Jesus of liberal Anglicanism. Each denomination creates a working model of Jesus that emerges from its own preconceived ideas. None of these is actually the 'real' Jesus, the 'biblical' Jesus or the 'historical' Jesus. They are all, at best, flawed models of Jesus. And none of them can accurately show us what the 'real' Jesus, if there ever was one, was or is actually like. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Juvenile Bible (1804)

Wow. Just came across this blog post. This is amazing. A book for kids that summarises the entire bible in verse; alphabetically! One line of poetry per chapter in the bible, for the entire bible. You can read it all on Google books. Here is the gospel of Mark to give you a taste:
  1. A gospel Mark writes: Christ's baptised
  2. Declares he's sabbath's Lord
  3. Heals wither'd hand, doth devils command
  4. The sower sows the word

  5. Brings dead to life; casts legion out
  6. Five loaves five thousand feed
  7. He makes the ear that's deaf to hear
  8. Sev'n loaves their wants exceed

  9. Casteth a deaf-dumb spirit out
  10. Check's Zebedee's sons desire
  11. Casts changers out who sold and bought
  12. The vineyard let to hire

  13. Downfall of temple, and the world
  14. By Judas he is sold
  15. He's thrice deny'd and crucify'd
  16. Then rises as foretold
You'll note that everything is presented in four line verses, with each verse within a book beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. The author cheats a bit when books don't have multiples of four chapter chunks by simply extending the final chapter or two out to the end of the verse, using as many lines as needed. Thus Philemon, II John, III John and Jude, despite only having one chapter each, all have a four line verse.

And it includes the 10 commandments too:



Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why did Jesus preach?

Why did Jesus preach? 


No, seriously, I mean it, why did he preach?

The gospel stories of Jesus show us many things, but if you read between the lines the following trends appear:
  • Jesus was popular among the people because he healed people and told entertaining stories.
  • Jesus primarily taught in parables which were generally not understood by his audience (and often not understood by his closest disciples).
  • Indeed, Jesus did not want his audience to understand! (Luke 8:10 "He said, 'The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you [disciples], but to others I speak in parables, so that, "though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand."')
  • At the merest hint of trouble most of his audience disappeared - they had no loyalty to him, he was only a passing entertainment.
  • Very few people had their lives transformed by meeting Jesus, and nobody is recorded as being transformed through hearing his preaching.
  • Jesus recruited his disciples by command ("Come, follow me") not through his preaching.
So what was the point? The end result of Jesus's ministry appears to be a handful of committed followers. They started the church after Jesus was gone, the church was not started by Jesus through his ministry.

Its not even as though Jesus 'planted the seeds' that would ultimately be 'harvested' by the disciples in their later ministry. If Acts is to be believed, the church grew primarily in gentile and diaspora-Jew communities. There is no record of mass conversions among the Galileans. 

The sole purpose of Jesus's teaching, therefore, appears to be the edification of later generations of Christians, who would get to read his words many years later after the gospels were composed, duplicated and distributed. [Note to self: Remember to read "Let the reader understand" by Robert M. Fowler sometime]. In other words, the primary audience for the teaching of Jesus wouldn't be born for at least a century or two after the preaching was done. This doesn't seem to be a very effective way of doing things. If the later readers were really the intended audience, it would have been far, far better if Jesus had written letters or books himself.

I don't think I'm going too far by saying that, as far as the stories presented in the gospels go, Jesus preaching ministry was a complete waste of time. Nobody came to faith, no-one was saved, people were entertained, but then they moved on to the next thing and Jesus was forgotten. It doesn't really read like a divine master-plan.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The Unbelievers

Just watched "The Unbelievers" a 2013 film documentary following Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss about at various speaking events (its on Netflix). It had a few interesting moments but was largely pointless. It would have been better to have watched or listened to just one of the Dawkins/Krauss discussions in full than to have watched this series of clips. Indeed, given that I did listen to one of those shows in its entirety, it was more interesting than the film.

But this film has lots of short snippets of other celebrity atheists (Woody Allen, Cameron Diaz, Ricky Gervais, etc.) at the beginning and end, so maybe that makes all the difference.

Does this film make a compelling case for non-belief? No.

Does it even give a coherent scientific message? No.

The entire point of this film is to say "look, there are lots of atheists out there and some of them are very clever and very popular" to the intended audience, which I guess is mostly American atheists. I guess the film makers hope that some believers (of whatever flavour) will watch it too.

Not sure that was 80 minutes well spent though. If I was you I wouldn't bother. Watch a full debate between a theist and an atheist on YouTube, you'll probably learn more.



Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Near death experiences and evidence in support of the theory of life after death

A recent edition of the Unbelievable radio show (on 6th December 2014) looked at near death experiences and out of body experiences. Unusually, for the Unbelievable show, there was no Christian guest on the show. This made the discussion and debate somewhat different from usual, in that there was no defence of the Christian viewpoint in the show. And there was no anti-apologetic either.

The show featured Eben Alexander, a former non-believing neurosurgeon who had a "near death experience" (NDE) while in a coma and has written a couple of books about it. The experience has convinced him that consciousness does not require a functioning brain to exist in, that is, that the conscious mind will exist after the brain ceases to function. In other words, the experience has led him to believe in life after death. But he isn't a Christian. 

Also on the show was sceptical psychologist Jane Aspell, who thinks that Alexander's experience was purely a creation of the mind, and not evidence of consciousness outside the brain. Aspell contends that Alexander's 'journey' was, essentially, a creation of his subconscious mind as he was coming out of coma, not an experience he had during the time he had "no brain function".

Apparently (according to Eben), the visions he had must have coincided with the time he had "no brain function" because the vision included six people who were there when he was in the coma, and who weren't there at a later stage. Well, actually, only five of the six were there during his coma, the sixth wasn't there, but is apparently relevant, for some reason not explained in the show. I'm afraid this sounds a bit like special pleading. A vision of six people which supposedly corresponds to a visit of five of them doesn't sound like great evidence. Maybe it is, but Eben's response to questioning on this issue was "buy my book, I've discussed all the evidence there", which doesn't make for great debate.

So the discussion was inconclusive. Alexander had a vision, but didn't manage to persuade the audience that it had to have been during his "no brain function" period, so the jury has to be still out on that one. Meanwhile Aspell's explanation for the whole thing sounds compelling and really quite reasonable.

Also on the show was Graham Nicholls, an out of body experience (OBE) researcher who claims to have been having out of body experiences all his life. He is also not a Christian. He gave some hand waving examples of 'real' out of body experiences he has had, but came across as quite a credulous chap. Basically, willing to believe almost any story of 'evidence' that is presented to him.

What he (and Alexander) seem to think is that evidence which is consistent with a hypothesis necessarily lends support to that hypothesis. For example, Nicholls' remote viewing of a cathedral in Tallinn (I think that's where it was) was taken by him as 'proof' that OBEs are real.

The issue is that this is only half of the rigorous scientific method. In order to count as 'evidence' for any given hypothesis, an event or observation must also count as evidence against any and all rival hypotheses. If an observation is equally consistent with all possible hypotheses, then it lends no weight to any of them. This is the essence of Bayes's Theorem, which I've blogged about before.

In other words, if someone claims to have had an OBE, the story of their experience only counts as evidence if it contains elements which are inexplicable by 'natural' explanations. In Nicholls's story of the OBE involving Tallinn cathedral, the 'observation' of the scaffolding on the hidden side of the cathedral could only count as evidence in favour of OBE if there was no physical way that Nicholls could have seen the scaffolding before, and no way that anyone could have mentioned it, and no way he could have seen something about it on TV or the internet, etc. Given that it is almost impossible to prove that one doesn't know something, or didn't know about it before a given point in time, this hardly counts as evidence.

The possibilities in this case are (a) that Nicholls had a genuine OBE, and therefore OBEs are real, or (b) that Nicholls hallucinated the whole thing, possibly based on things that he 'knew' prior to the hallucination (perhaps he only knew these subconsciously), or (c) that Nicholls is an intentional fraudster. Note that neither (b) nor (c) entails that OBEs are either true or false.

The 'evidence' of the story as presented in the Unbelievable show is entirely consistent with all three hypotheses, so really counts as evidence in favour of none of them. Given that we have quite a lot of other evidence for people being fraudsters or deluded, but limited evidence in favour of OBEs, our reasonable conclusion cannot be in favour of the existence of OBEs based on this. Maybe other evidence will present itself, but certainly nothing presented in this radio show was strong enough to give support to the OBE hypothesis.

No evidence is not proof against any theory. No evidence is simply no evidence.

Finally, I have to comment about the flawed reasoning behind the premise of the show. It seemed to be taken as read that evidence of out of body experiences, or brain activity during the "no brain function" period, or other 'near death' experiences would in some way count as evidence for the possibility of life after death. Why should this be? The thing is that NDEs are always recounted by people who return to conscious life after the experience, similarly with OBEs, the people telling the stories are always back in their own bodies and clearly not dead. The conscious mind is always tied to the body which it inhabited before the experience. We know nothing, precisely nothing, about what happens once the link between conscious mind and living body is actually severed. Maybe the conscious mind can continue (somehow) after this, maybe not, but as far as I know, we have no way of investigating this. Well, not by talking to the living anyway...