Monday, February 18, 2013

Are odd coincides necessarily miraculous? My friend and a squirrel met by accident in the parking lot today, his birthday, both carrying Bojangles boxes. What are the odds? Makes me wonder if it was the squirrel's birthday too.

Today a friend of mine, Ryan Lazar, drove to work at the campus library and it was his birthday, so he brought us all some snacks for break, including two boxes of sweet biscuits from BoJangles. As he pulled his car into the parking lot next to the library he noticed a squirrel nearby that was carrying a small box, labeled, guess what, "BoJangles." After Ryan got out of the car with his two boxes from Bojangles he said hi to the squirrel that scooted away carrying their own little Bojangles box (could have been a Bojangles fries container). [Image below is from the web, not what Ryan saw.]  Ryan has never brought Bojangles to break before that I can recall, and the nearest Bojangles is several miles off campus so the squirrel would have had to have been picking through the trash, but neither of us ever recall having seen or heard of a squirrel on campus carrying round a Bojangles box and I've worked here nearly 25 years and Ryan's worked here over a decade too, though others may certainly have seen such a thing. And there is no lack of squirrels on campus. In fact once was a squirrel in the campus Rose Garden that got a yogurt cup stuck on its head and was filmed running around which became a viral video, click here). But still, it's an odd coincidence, as odd a juxtaposition of items as some religious people might consider significant. Though one cannot see an obvious connection between this event and any particular religion. To me it's significant that odd coincidences do happen. So how can anyone be certain that an odd coincidence is necessarily miraculous?

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Miracles from all religions (including amazing coincidences that seem to just happen and are not related to a religion), when viewed together, provide a crazy mixed bag of "evidence." So how can "God or WhateverIsOutThere" expect us to know what to make of them?

I do not have to claim that everyone's religious experiences are false in order to ask, How can God expect us to know what to make of the diversity of religious beliefs and miracle stories? We are presented with a mixed bag of evidence.

Let's look at some personal experiences below to illustrate what I mean.

1) Amazing healings. (Craig S. Keener's book on Miracles is top heavy with tales of Protestants and Pentecostals who say they have been miraculously healed, though it appears light on stories from Catholics [Marian and saints' miracles], Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, New Agers, Wiccans, Scientologists, Tribalists or Aborigines. It also does not discuss cases of spontaneous remission from terminal cancers that happen on a statistical basis, see here. Or, terminal cancer cured via an herbal tea, see (here, which might demonstrate the amazing power of the mind rather than the tea. Yes people tell stories that involve amazing healings. One such tale comes out of Cambodia concerning a three-year-old healer whom multitudes are flocking to see. But what does this demonstrate concerning the truth of any one religion? And why are there no cases of a limb being regrown in Keener's book though he has scoured the literature worldwide? So what does God expect us to believe?

2) Amazing, astonishing coincidences. Do they point in the direction of one religion being true? See herehereherehereherehere, and lastly see, This Is My Lucky Day, a video featuring jaw-dropping scenes in the lives of people walking or driving who are very nearly killed, and in the final scene some bank robbers in their escape vehicle are literally surrounded when several police vehicles arrive, but the police don't realize they have surrounded the robbers, so the police all leave their cars simultaneously and rush into the bank together, leaving the police cars empty, so the robbers simply drive off!) Yes, there are amazing coincidences. Certainly I'd except Christians to have them too, not just bank robbers. And see the other cases above! The trouble is interpreting the full width and breath of such data. Or as someone once said, the basis of all superstition is recalling all the hits that affected you (or your beliefs) the most, and forgetting all the misses and near hits everyone is subject to in real life each day.

3) And what to make of UFO sightings, including first person tales of abductions or contacts with aliens? A college professor and his son had a long experience they wrote about in detailed form. There's annual conferences concerning the latest UFO evidence and contact stories. There's generals who have made pro-UFO statements. There's video footage and first-person testimonies of sightings from around the world. What about tales of ghostly apparitions that range from minor to major sightings, and benign to frightening stories? What about stories people recount of seeing beings of light, angels, demons, deities other than the Christian variety, or even those who say they saw the sun come down out of the sky and dance beside them (I know a Catholic couple who told me first hand that they experienced this along with other Catholic travelers on a Marian pilgrimage). What does "God" expect us to make of such stories?

4) Near Death Experiences (NDEs) and/or Out of Body Experiences (OBEs), see here. NDEs have been experienced by people of all religions or none. Atheists experience NDEs as often as other groups, percentage-wise, see here. (Though people of all groups whose heart are restarted usually say that they recall nothing, just as in dreamless sleep. What is one to make of that? Is God squandering a possible opportunity to reach more people?)

The majority of NDEs (and of course, OBEs) involve leaving one's body, hovering for a while then returning again. NDEs in which people go to another realm and actually meet a Being of light, are rarer, and the Being of light is most often interpreted as another human who had gone on before, or a deceased loving relative, rather than a specific religious figure. Also, NDEs most often lessen a person's fear of death.

The rarest NDEs involve long memorable excursions in other realms. Sometimes Evangelical Christians claim to have experienced such an NDE, and they write a Scripture-packed bestseller about their visits to heaven and/or hell and believe their conservative religious interpretations have been vindicated.

Other Evangelical Christians after their NDE have grown convinced that God will include more people in heaven rather than fewer. For instance, see in the case of Mary C. Neal, here. She became convinced that everyone is given a "choice" what to believe not only in this life but also after they have died and seen for themselves the next life.

Sadhu Sundar Singh was raised a member of the Sikh religion in India but converted to Christianity in his teens after hating it at first, but then had a vision of Jesus and became a missionary to Tibet where he suffered persecution and imprisonment, but continued to return there to preach. Reading about him reminds one of the conversion story of Paul in the New Testament. Sundar's fame grew in India and he toured Europe as well, but on the way to Tibet for one last missionary trip he was never seen again. He wrote a few small books featuring simple lessons and stories of his journeys. He used to fast for tens of days at a time, during which he experienced OBEs and says he visited heaven and hell, and he wrote about such visits in Visions of the Spiritual World (London: Macmillan, 1926). But he was also a universalist who believed even those in hell would one day be saved, see here.

Howard Storm thought little of religion prior to his experience (which was perhaps an OBE--since no one can verify that his heart stopped that night he was in hospital for a severely bleeding ulcer), but it was such an overpowering experience that he afterwards quit his well paid job as Chair of an Art Dept., attended a seminary and became a Christian minister. His experience began when a trip to a hellish place, then he prayed the only prayer he could remember, "Jesus loves me," and a Being of light appeared overhead and lifted Howard out of that place. Then he met with other Beings of Light and asked them questions, including "Is there life elsewhere in the cosmos?" (He was shown both humanoid and non-humanoid forms of intelligent life.) And, "What's the best religion?" (They replied, "Whichever one brings you closest to God.") I heard two different testimonies he taped concerning his experience, that were recorded over a decade earlier that his book, and perhaps before all of his seminary education had been completed. At that time he made it sound like people raised in other religions might also draw near to God via which ever religion they were most familiar with and that brought them closest, like the view of C.S. Lewis' lifelong friend, Don Bede Griffiths, who ran a Christian-Hindu ashram in India for decades. Howard even said at that time that he believed God would make the transition comfortable for each person, altering what they first saw depending on their previous lives and religious beliefs. But after years of preaching, Rev. Howard Storm now seem more enamored with conservative Evangelicalism.

Betty Eadie, whose story happened to become a bestseller, is one of many who felt great love during their journey to the other side, and she does not fear death, her religious beliefs were also transformed in the process.

Dannion Brinkley, another whose story happened to become a bestseller, experienced a lengthy afterlife excursion that convinced him to become spiritual but not religious. Afterwards he spent time comforting people who were dying from terminal illnesses, and he's worked with Dr. Raymond Moody (the bestselling author of, Life after Life) at Moody's institute.

As already mentioned, NDEs are experienced by people of other religions. Mormons experience as high a number as others, but there is no rush by such people to leave Mormonism and convert to Evangelical Protestantism. One Buddhist in Thailand says he met a talking turtle that was divine. Another fellow was revived from a major heart attack by an Evangelical Christian cardiologist who gave the paddles once last time after praying, but while on the other side he didn't meet angels or Jesus or God, but met "Bob" who comforted him. One famous atheist philosopher, A. J. Ayers, had an NDE in which he says, here, that he met "two creatures who had been put in charge of space. These ministers periodically inspected space and had recently carried out such an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with the result that space, like a badly fitting jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint. A further consequence was that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should.” Pretty odd! Dannion Brinkley, previously mentioned, says he spoke with some Beings of light who admitted they had failed in their mission. Apparently World War 1 was a plan concocted by heaven to end all wars, but, they admitted sorrowfully, the plan failed (I'm recalling that last bit from memory.)

During an NDE some have seen and heard crazy looking beings and other things that do not harmonize well with any particular religion, see here. See also this paper that raises questions concerning NDEs from a non-supernatural perspective. And this paper as well, by Neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

My point is that religions, denominations, holy books and their rival interpretations are just as diverse and confusing as the array of weird and amazing tales people tell about their first hand experiences. So if one were to take into account the sum total of evidence one might have to conclude that God mumbles, or that God chooses to mumble for some "reason" that is just as incoherent to us as a genuine mumble might be.

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