Thursday, October 24, 2013


"Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory."
--Scott D. Weitzenhoffer

Many times when I challenge the beliefs of religious people they will accuse me of being cynical and closed-minded. The problem is not that I dismiss their beliefs out of hand, as some claim, but that the evidence which they present for their extraordinary claim is laughable upon inspection.

Most often, they are simply committing the "argument from ignorance" fallacy, and figure that if I cannot offer a more plausible explanation than "god did it" (or "aliens" or "ghosts"), then they are justified in their belief. Never mind the fact that "I don't know" is always a more tenable position than asserting unverified supernatural forces.

I will admit that on some occasions I have literally laughed out loud at a person's supernatural claims, but I do at least try to hear them out first.

A couple of months ago a childhood friend of mine posted a story on Facebook with the following comment:

"The more I read about this story the more incredible it is. . Miracles do happen!"

Intrigued, I read the article which inferred that a dead Catholic Saint (my friend is Mormon, by the way) appeared at a car accident scene, said a blessing with a woman trapped in a car, immediately following which the firefighters were finally able to open the car enough to get the woman out, and then vanished without a trace. 

Now, the facts of the claim are that a man dressed as a Catholic Priest showed up and said a prayer, and the firefighters got the woman out shortly after. These are facts confirmed by several eye-witnesses, including the firefighters and medical personnel. But a dead saint?

Other articles claimed that the man was an angel, which, depending on who you ask, isn't that far from a dead saint.

One of the reasons so many people are convinced this priest was an angel is that the road had been blocked for "quite a few miles", according to the local sheriff deputy (video below), and no one saw how he got to the scene or how he left. Intriguing to be sure, but does this imply, much less prove, supernatural powers?

Furthermore, witnesses add that no one recognized the priest from the local parish of the small nearby town.

Oh, and he had an unrecognizable accent (which raises the question, why would an angel have an accent?).

So far it seems that there are a lot of unanswered questions about this priest. But do unanswered questions and astonishing coincidences equal a miracle? Perhaps to those eager to believe.

In the days following the incident, but still before the article was published, no one had come forward as the mysterious priest, thus adding fuel to the speculative fire. Not surprisingly, the local Catholic Church said that they had no interest in conducting an investigation of the priest's identity, and neither will the local sheriff deputy (who is also convinced of a miracle).

This seems especially telling to me. These people are more interested in maintaining their comfortable belief, that an angel saved a woman's life, than determining the truth about what happened. As I have said before, once you accept a wrong answer, however comforting it may be, you stop looking for the right answer.

Well, as it turns out the mystery priest did turn himself in, er... he came forward and answered all the questions that people were using to posit this as a miraculous angel sighting. Not only is he not an angel, but he was also past the road block before police put it up, thus allowing him to slowly approach the scene until he got about 150 yards from the car where he stopped to help. Also, he was visiting the local parish because the regular priest was ill, and he was more or less subbing. And the accent? Irish or something; I couldn't quite place it (therefore, he's an angel, right?)

So, that's it. No more miracle. Everyone sees that it was a regular priest doing what regular priests do, and this is no more miraculous than any other accident with a survivor. Right?

I was hoping that my friend who had originally posted this story would post an article about the mystery priest coming forward. He did not. Even if he had been made aware of the priest of earthly origin, this would still not be a notch against god's track record for him. He is the kind of believer who holds the preservation of faith as more important than truth. Although, I doubt he sees it this way.

What about the eye-witnesses who started all the commotion in the first place? One firefighter had this to say:

"My initial reaction was kind of two-fold: One side of me was absolutely ecstatic that I'm now gonna be able to physically meet this individual that was there to provide the comfort. And the other side of me was kind of sad because I know there was a lot of people that were touched by this story that were grasping on to the thought that this mysterious priest was placed there by god in a form that they had their interpretation of. He was my angel either way and I'm gonna still stick to that."

(Note: even the priest admits that the woman was saved by expert response of professionals who have trained for this very thing. It's too bad he also asserts that they did so with god's help. But if god is going to help professionals in this way, why train in the first place?)

So, what did the priest actually do other than occupy the time and attention of police and firemen attempting to save the life of a woman trapped in a car and offer reassurances? Where is the miracle? That personel were able to pull the woman out after the priest offered a prayer? She was trapped in the car for over an hour, not to mention had barely survived a horrific accident. Where was god then? More importantly, if god really had caused the firefighters to open the car only after the priest showed up, how would you demonstrate this? It is one thing to point to the coincidences of the event; it is quite another to offer verifiable evidence of supernatural intervention.

If the priest had not come forward and clarified the issue, would anyone still be justified in believing he was an angel or that it was a miracle from god? How would such an answer really answer anything? Wouldn't it simply confound the issue with more unanswered questions?

A comfortable delusion is still a delusion.


"News" segment on the mysterious priest:

Sheriff's deputy describes mysterious priest:

The priest comes forward:

Sunday, October 6, 2013


"It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true."
--Dallin H. Oaks (Mormon Apostle)

"Some things which are true are not very useful."
--Boyd K. Packer (Mormon Apostle)

So, this weekend is the General Conference of the Mormon Church. A talk was given this morning by a Mormon Apostle, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, which caused many faithful Mormons to go straight to their Facebook accounts (or blogs) and post comments and quotes from the talk, such as:

"Can't love Elder Uchtdorf's compassionate and nonjudgemental talk enough."

“Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question of whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly that it was restored by a young man that had questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”

"If you seek truth, meaning, and a way to transform faith into action, if you are looking for a place of belonging, come, join with us. If you have left the faith you once embraced, come back again. Join with us. If you are tempted to give up, stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here."

To those who are currently struggling with doubts about the Church, this admonition may very well seem positive and encouraging. This may even help some come back to the Church. But I have a few problems with what Mr Uchtdorf said (surprise!).

But first, if he really is so concerned about those with doubts, shouldn't he provide reliable, credible sources for people to investigate and resolve their concerns? All he does, really, is acknowledge that legitimate concerns exist. In no way does he even attempt to address these concerns or provide a way for doubters to address their concerns on their own.

Next, he followed the above quote with this bit of "logic":

"Sometimes questions arise because we simply don't have all the information, and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn't make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction."

In other words, "We may not know how it all fits together now, but the Church is true, therefore there must be a reasonable, rational explanation. We just shouldn't jump to the conclusion that the Church isn't true before we get that explanation which resolves everything."

Not only have I addressed this type of reasoning in other posts, but it is rather ironic that he should be suggesting such a skeptical and moderate view with regards to doubts when he represents an organization which tells people to accept as true things for which they do not have evidence, simply because they pray and have faith that they are true.

It is interesting that he does not admonish doubters to use this same method of seeking truth and knowledge concerning issues of Church History, Joseph Smith's translation capabilities outside of the Book of Mormon, Jewish DNA in Native Americans, the utter lack of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon, or anything else Mormon apologists have been wrestling with for decades. It seems that in matters of fact and evidence, it is best not to pester god with prayer. He's probably busy watching 5 million children under the age of 5 die of starvation this year...

Next up, this little nugget of "wisdom":

"Doubt your doubt before you doubt your faith."

This was a popular phrase passed around by some of my Mormon friends on Facebook. It carries the sound of poignancy and wit, without actually possessing either. As philosopher Daniel Dennett would describe it, it is a "deepity", meaning it sounds deep and meaningful on the surface, but lacks any real substance upon close inspection.

What Mr Uchtdorf would have you, the doubter, do is to continue believing despite your doubts. Again, he offers no way to legitimately resolve your concerns, and seems to suggest that your faith should be enough to override any concerns you may have. Meaning, "The Church is true, therefore your questions are invalid or in error." This is as absurd as it is dishonest.

And what about those, such as myself, whose primary doubt is the very nature, reliability and veracity of faith? How is faith a path to knowledge? Isn't believing something to be true without evidence to support it intellectually lazy? How is faith a virtue?

Personally, I am less concerned with the historical problems of Mormonism. When I was a believer, I was much like Mr Uchtdorf in that I had unresolved questions, but I told myself that an explanation must exist because the Church is true. I was more or less fine with the fact that I didn't know how everything worked out because I had faith that everything must and would work out once god endowed us with the proper understanding. This never happened for me, and I have yet to hear of it ever happening to anyone else.

Once I left the Church, based primarily on the idea that faith is not a path to knowledge, I was finally able to relish all of the anachronisms and historical issues of Mormonism.


Here is Mr Uchtdorf's full talk:

YouTuber Flackerman addresses "following the Prophet":

Flackerman also addresses the current method of resolving concerns about Mormonism (repost):

And one of my personal favorites "Top 10 Mormon Problems Explained":