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Nonconversion Stories

It’s common to hear people say that they would believe in God if only they had some proof. What constitutes proof? Well, aside from a laboratory proof, there would be the matter of an extraordinary personal experience of the sort that, in a stroke, destroys one’s disbelief.

Many people think that a personal encounter with the divine (or at least the numinous) would convert them, but I think more than a few of these people deceive themselves. If one has the will to disbelieve, one will find a way to explain away anything. (On the other hand, if one really wants to believe, one is likely to find evidence where it is implausible, but that’s another story.)

Ross Douthat wrote a good column this week about these “nonconversion stories, [1]” which he defines as “stories about secular moderns who have supernatural-seeming experiences without being propelled into any specific religious faith.” For example, Douthat writes about the case of the late A.J. Ayer, one of the most prominent positivist philosophers of the 20th century, who had a strange life-after-death experience that did not involve any aspects of traditional religious iconography or themes (e.g., he did not meet Jesus), and which did not result in Ayer abandoning his atheism. But he did emerge from it more open to the possibility that there is an aspect of ourselves that survives death of the body.

Here’s another one:

As a young man in the 1960s, the filmmaker Paul Verhoeven [2], of “RoboCop” and “Showgirls” fame, wandered into a Pentecostal church and suddenly felt “the Holy Ghost descending … as if a laser beam was cutting through my head and my heart was on fire.” He was in the midst of dealing with his then-girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy; after they procured an abortion, he had a terrifying, avenging-angel vision during a screening of “King Kong.” The combined experience actively propelled him away from anything metaphysical; the raw carnality of his most famous films, he suggested later, was an attempt to keep the numinous and destabilizing at bay.

Verhoeven’s experience strikes me as being true to human nature, or at least the nature of some humans. His anti-theism, in practice if not in theory, is the opposite of a courageous willingness to face the truth; it is rather fleeing from a truth that one doesn’t wish to accept, because doing so would require one to change one’s life. While I never had anything like Verhoeven’s unnerving experience happen to me, it’s undeniably true that in my early twenties, I worked for years to keep religious belief at a distance. Even though I accepted God’s existence – the God of the Bible, I mean — I didn’t want to commit myself to the implications of that truth, because I didn’t want to change my life. I ran like Verhoeven ran. By the grace of God, my flight did not last so long, nor, happily, did it lead me to make trashy movies. But I understand where Verhoeven is coming from – or rather, what he’s running from.

Douthat’s list of examples includes that of Exorcist film director Billy Friedkin, who wrote in a recent issue of Vanity Fair about a chilling set of events in Italy [3], surrounding his meeting earlier this year with famed exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth (who, quite elderly and weak, died later that summer). Father Amorth, with the permission of the possessed woman, allowed Friedkin to witness an exorcism – the first the director had ever seen – and to film it. Excerpt:

I showed the video of Rosa’s exorcism to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California and to a group of prominent psychiatrists in New York.

Dr. Neil Martin is chief of neurosurgery at the UCLA Medical Center. He has performed more than 5,000 brain surgeries and is regularly cited as in the top 1 percent of his specialty. On August 3, I showed him the video of Rosa’s exorcism. This is his response: “Absolutely amazing. There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it. She’s not separated from the environment. She’s not in a catatonic state. She’s responding to the priest and is aware of the context. The energy she shows is amazing. The priest on the right is struggling to control her. He’s holding her down, as are the others, and the sweat is dripping off his face at a time when she’s not sweating. This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations. She appears to be engaged in the process but resisting. You can see she has no ability to pull herself back.”

I asked Dr. Martin if this was some kind of brain disorder. “It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy,” he said. “It could be delirium, an agitated disconnection from normal behavior. But the powerful verbalization we’re hearing, that’s not what you get with delirium. With delirium you see the struggling, maybe the yelling, but this guttural voice seems like it’s coming from someplace else. I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, ruptured brain aneurysms, infections affecting the brain, and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.”

I also showed the video to Dr. Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon and clinical specialist in epilepsy surgery, seizure disorder, and the study of human memory. He is based at both UCLA and the Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. This was his conclusion: “It looks like something authentic. She is like a caged animal. I don’t think there’s a loss of consciousness or contact, because she’s in contact with the people. She appears to respond to the people who talk to her. It’s a striking change in behavior. I believe everything originates in the brain. So which part of the brain could serve this type of behavior? The limbic system, which has to do with emotional processing of stimuli, and the temporal lobe. I don’t see this as epilepsy. It’s not necessarily a lesion. It’s a physiological state. It seems to be associated with religious things. In the temporal lobe there’s something called hyper-religiosity. You probably won’t have this in somebody who has no religious background. Can I characterize it? Maybe. Can I treat it? No.”

I asked Dr. Fried if he believed in God, and he took a long pause before answering: “I do believe there is a limit to human understanding. Beyond this limit, I’m willing to recognize an entity called God.”


I strongly suggest that you read the whole thing, [3] especially to the conclusion, in which Friedkin details the “living nightmare” that he stumbled into.

And yet: Friedkin still describes himself as an “agnostic,” though one that believes in the reality of exorcism. I don’t know how he pulls that off, quite frankly. I would think that most people, having experienced the things that Friedkin has, would convert to Christianity. Yet the will to disbelieve is durable.

Then again, it’s not entirely fair to ascribe this to “the will to disbelieve.” As Douthat writes in his column:

But the implausibility of hard materialism doesn’t mean the cosmos obviously confirms a Judeo-Christian paradigm. And the supernatural experiences of the irreligious — cosmic beatitude, ghostly enigmas, unclassifiable encounters and straight-up demons — don’t point toward any single theology or world-picture.

I hope you will read Douthat’s entire column [1]. In it, there’s a link to an absorbing account of a New York journalist who believes that she communicated through a medium with the spirit of her dead husband. Hers is a story that does not fit into a Christian structure. But you know, I can’t say with confidence that I disbelieve it. Longtime readers (and those who read my Dante book) know the story of how my grandfather’s tormented soul lingered around the house of his son, my father, for a week, until an exorcist came, and it was discovered that my grandfather could not move on until my (deeply shocked) father’s forgiveness set him free. That event doesn’t fit into a Protestant paradigm (my parents and my late grandfather were Methodists), and it can only fit into a Catholic paradigm if you consider that my grandfather was in a form of Purgatory. The exorcist, now deceased, told me at the time that he had learned from his work not to try too hard to impose a frame on these experiences. For him, it was enough to trust in the liberating power of Jesus Christ. For Father Termini, it was enough to know that a soul had been bound in some sense by unresolved business, and that true forgiveness had set that soul free to go where it was supposed to go.

But where was the soul going? Father didn’t guess.

Anyway, stories like the ones Douthat brings up in his column unsettle me, in part because they make me aware of how contingent my own religious conversion was on cultural framing. I was first struck by a life-changing encounter with the numinous at the Chartres cathedral. But what if it had been in a Hindu temple? A mosque? A Tibetan Buddhist monastery? Today, as a committed Christian, if I walked into a holy place belonging to another religion, and had a knock-down-drag-out mystical experience testifying in some unmistakable sense to the truth of that religion (and denying the truth claims of Christianity), I would not trust it at all. I would frame it as a hallucination or some form of demonic deception testing my faith in Jesus Christ.

If I know that that would be my response (or at least hope that it would be), then how can I judge too harshly the skepticism or rejection of mystical experience of others?

I am interested to hear your stories of personal mystical experience. Did you accept it as valid? Why or why not? Did you change your life because of it? Why or why not? Did it fit your preconceived religious ideas? If not, how do you explain it?

UPDATE: A reader sends these opening lines of C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles:

In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that that person disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it. She says that what she saw must have been an illusion or a trick of the nerves. And obviously she may be right. Seeing is not believing.

For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.

UPDATE.2: I just remembered one of the strangest and most challenging films I’ve ever seen: a 2008 documentary called Unmistaken Child [4]. It’s about the death of a Tibetan lama, and the search for his reincarnated self, which is discovered in a young boy. You’re thinking, “Yeah, right.” And so was I. Watch the movie, though. I didn’t know what to make of it when I saw it, and I still don’t. This kind of thing is not supposed to happen, not in my belief system. But there is a lot to have to explain away. It’s a seriously unsettling film.

132 Comments (Open | Close)

132 Comments To "Nonconversion Stories"

#1 Comment By Thomas Parker On December 31, 2016 @ 2:59 am

I don’t know if this qualifies as a “mystical experience,” but it was without a doubt the oddest damn thing that has ever happened to me.

One day when my youngest son was four or so (he’s twenty two now) he and I were alone in the house together. I was sitting in the living room, trying to remember where a certain book was. (It was a book of essays by C.S. Lewis, and there was a particular piece I wanted to reread.) I couldn’t think where it was because I had just done a major reshuffling of my books, and I didn’t know which room, much less which bookcase, it was in. (At that time, I had around 4,000 books.) It could have been in the bedroom, the study, the garage, the living room, or the kitchen.

All this time that I was sitting in my chair in the living room, just thinking, my son was wandering from room to room, seemingly aimlessly; we hadn’t spoken a word to each other. Finally, he passed behind my chair, paused, fumbled at the bookcase directly behind me (one of six in the room), and, still without saying a word, came and dropped something in my lap and wandered back down the hallway.

Need I say what my son who at that time couldn’t even read yet had found?

#2 Comment By Thomas Parker On December 31, 2016 @ 3:16 am

Also, since no one else seems to have posted it, here are G.K. Chesterton’s comments on the Oujia board, from his Autobiography:

“My brother and I used to play with planchette, or what the Americans call the ouija board; but we were among the few, I imagine, who played in a mere spirit of play. Nevertheless I would not altogether rule out the suggestion of some that we were playing with fire; or even with hell-fire. In the words that were written for us there was nothing ostensibly degrading, but any amount that was deceiving.

I saw quite enough of the thing to be able to testify, with complete certainty, that something happens which is not in the ordinary
sense natural, or produced by the normal and conscious human will.

Whether it is produced by some subconscious but still human force, or by some powers, good, bad or indifferent, which are external
to humanity, I would not myself attempt to decide. The only thing I will say with complete confidence, about that mystic and invisible power, is that it tells lies. The lies may be larks or they may be lures to the imperilled soul or they may be a thousand other things; but whatever they are, they are not truths about the other world; or for that matter about this world.”

#3 Comment By KW On December 31, 2016 @ 7:43 am

This incident in the life of Charles Dickens seems appropriate to include here:

#4 Comment By Jeremy On December 31, 2016 @ 8:26 am

Rod –

I have had several mystical and quasi-mystical experiences which, as a small-o orthodox Christian have troubled me in wonderful ways. You mention twice in this article that there are things that happen or might happen that do not fit into the Protestant spiritual view, and that might even contradict Christian claims on Truth. I have wondered at these things as well, but I would ask you – do you think that humans are capable of fully understanding the Truth? What if these experiences are in reality a deeper revelation of the Truth and we, because we are human and perhaps because we have bene brought up in a culture so hostile to the non-material, simply lack the context by which to frame such experiences?

Earlier this year you wrote about a New York Times profile of a leading psychiatrist who consults with exorcists. In the comment section you linked to two articles from a National Geographic writer, I believe, who visited a very dark place in Libya and then, one year later, went on a trip to Peru to essentially be exorcised. In the latter article, the writer experienced very dark visions, some might call them hallucinations, and in the end had an encounter with a surprisingly Christ-resembling figure with an very Gospel of John-ish message of hope. Most Protestants would deny this account out of hand because all traces of the supernatural have been… ahem… exorcised from their faith. Could it be that most of Christendom is just as guilty of denying the supernatural aspects of their own religion for the very same reasons that atheists, anti-theists, and so on? What if we are all running from the same Truth for the same reasons?

Even within our own Christian history there are countless stories of men and women who experience things and, more importantly, who have things done through them by the Holy Spirit, that most post-Enlightenment Christians would write off as myth and sacrilege. I am thinking particularly of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of 4th Century Egypt, but also of the Saints. Lest we forget, one requirement in the process of canonization is the verification of a miracle.

I have chased a few rabbits here, so coming back to my original question, do you think that we are capable of knowing full Truth this side of eternity, or could it be that these mystical experiences, such as the case of Unmistaken Child, could be a facet of the Truth for which we simply lack context? I know that sounds awfully close to poly-theism or some sort of Universalism, and that is not at all my point. Rather, I am suggesting that the universal, unwavering Truth of God might be more involved and complicated than our western materially-tainted minds are willing to accept.

[NFR: Excellent questions, and important ones. I think about this all the time. The short answer is that no, I don’t think it’s possible to understand all of the Truth, in the sense you mean. In the case of the National Geographic writer, everything in me says that you should not go asking South American shamans for spiritual help. Yet they helped her, and did so in a way that is hard to conform neatly to the Christian paradigm. As a Christian, I don’t believe that it is wise to dismiss this as wholly imaginary, or a demonic deception. That seems presumptious. On the other hand, I would say that we must hew to what we know to be true — that is, not deviate from the path of knowledge given to us in Scripture and the teachings of the Church, *even as we recognize that the fullness of truth about the realm of the spirit is not disclosed in them.* That is the only way to safely navigate these treacherous waters. It’s like this: if I were going to a mysterious foreign city, one filled with wonders, but also hidden dangers, I would need to rely greatly on an authoritative guidebook. There is no way that guidebook could possibly contain the entire truth about conditions in that city, but I would have to trust that it told me as much as I needed to travel safely in that city, and that to abandon the clear instructions and warnings in the guidebook could lead to my destruction. — RD]

#5 Comment By Rob G On December 31, 2016 @ 10:51 am

A big thumbs-up to RR’s 8:29 p.m. post. A certain sort of atheist demands proof of God of a sort that confuses the categories of what constitutes proof. You can’t prove your wife loves you in the same way you can prove that the chair you’re sitting on is made of wood. Yet certain atheists argue against the supernatural based on an analogous understanding of proof.

See Hart’s The Experience of God on this. Again, it is important to note that the book is not an apologetic work, neither is it written from the perspective of any one theistic tradition. What it attempts to do is to clear up misconceptions about theism such as this confusion about “proof.”

#6 Comment By Dave Dalless On December 31, 2016 @ 11:26 am

A few years ago I went into a chapel for a few minutes of silence. The chapel is connected to a cloistered community of Dominican nuns. The nuns are on the other side of a grate separating the public part of the chapel from the nuns’ cloister. A consecrated communion host is exposed for Eucharistic adoration. The nuns have at least one member of their community perpetually praying on their side before the Eucharist 24/7/365, except during Mass.

I’d been to this chapel many times when, one Saturday morning, I went in and saw that there were no other lay people. However, five or six nuns in what looked to be Dominican habits were inside. This was unusual. I figured maybe they were members of the community who wanted to see what it was like to pray from the public part of the chapel. Or maybe members of a visiting community. They were kneeling or sitting (don’t recall which) side by side in the right pew section, maybe three or four rows from the last row. I turned left, nearly bumping into one nun who was walking toward where the other nuns were praying. I excused myself quietly for the near miss. The nun gently smiled. I walked ahead a few rows and slid into a pew.

I sat, prayed and just enjoyed the silence in the physical presence of Christ (this is the essence of Eucharistic adoration), conscious of the unusual presence of nuns on the public side of the chapel. After about 10 minutes it occurred to me that the nuns, just three or so rows behind me and to my right, were making no sounds at all. There’d been no rustling, no creaking of the kneeler, no clack of rosary beads. Just utter, unbroken silence. I have very sensitive hearing and this is a small chapel. Every sound echoes. How could a group of half a dozen humans produce zero decibels in a place so silent?

Now I’m zoned in on the lack of sound from the nuns. I wait several minutes. I don’t want to be rude, but I must turn around to see how it is that these nuns can be so motionless as to be totally, perfectly silent. I turn to look.

There’s nobody there.

The doors of this chapel are large and heavy. It’s impossible to open and close them without making some sound. Plus, as I mentioned, I have very sensitive hearing. There had been no sound of shuffling as when even one person, much less a group, leaves a quiet chapel.

I didn’t know what to make of this. I’m Catholic but I’m also a skeptic. This odd occurrence was the only one like it in my life. I’ve never seen a ghost. Never heard a bump in the night that I couldn’t explain. Et cetera. I’m not a person who looks for signs of the hereafter or for anything beyond the natural realm.

Anyway, some time after the strange case of the silent, disappearing nuns, I found that this Dominican community has a website. It was then that I read of a fire in the 1950s that claimed the lives of three members of this community. You can read about it here: [6]

What, if anything, did the disappearing nuns have to do with the tragedy of the 1950s? Perhaps nothing. But you can bet I got a good case of goosebumps.

And my little story is not quite over yet. A year or two after this incident, I went for a hike on one of my favorite hiking trails. It starts with a steep vertical ascent, then ambles along until you get a breathtaking view from a series of outcroppings ( [7]). The trail’s starting point is not far from the Dominican monastery. It’s got a clearing at which several cars can park. I pulled into the parking clearing and saw that there was only one car there. Often there would be two or three or more.

The car was in bad condition. Its front bumper was attached on one side by a rope. I saw that there was a guy inside. He seemed to be reading a newspaper. It struck me that this shady spot in the woods was an odd place to pull into to read a newspaper. I got out of my car but stayed close, not yet heading for the trail. I thought maybe the man was looking at a map and was about to set out on the trail. I saw that it definitely was a newspaper, not a map. I also noted that the car wasn’t running and the windows were rolled up tight despite the warm weather.

I tried to make eye contact, but the man never looked up from his newspaper. I got back in my car and left, wary of setting out on the trail with no other hikers around and a creepy dude sitting in a beat-up old car in the woods.

Some months later, I went to the chapel for a few minutes of Eucharistic adoration, as I so often did. And guess what? The car with the roped-on bumper was parked outside. I went in. The man was in the very last row, sitting and looking straight ahead. I went to the opposite side, up near the front of the chapel. After a few minutes I very much heard the man leaving. I said a prayer for him, figuring he might be dealing with mental illness.

And that was that. Sorry if you followed this hoping for a dramatic ending.

Or was that really the end? I don’t know. Nor do I know that these two little monastery-related incidents in my life — one inexplicable, the other merely prayer-provoking — add up to anything. I relocated about an hour from that area five years ago and haven’t been back since. Maybe one Saturday next spring or summer I’ll do a double shot, a hike and an hour of Eucharistic adoration at the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace. Not to go looking for a “next chapter” in this series of wakeful dreams. Just to be there again. And to pray.

Anyhoo, today, revisiting these events thanks to the prompt provided by this thread of Rod’s, I find myself turning to a past-bedtime observation made some years back by Calvin. Not the reformer Jean – I’m talking kid Calvin, best friend of a tiger named Hobbes …

At night my mind does not much care
If what it thinks is here or there.
It tells me stories it invents
And makes up things that don’t make sense.
I don’t know why it does this stuff.
The real world seems quite weird enough.

#7 Comment By Eliavy On December 31, 2016 @ 1:38 pm

Craig S. Keeper’s two-book set
“Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts” might interest you.

When I was a kid, I was at an event with my parents. When we left, I got in the car my mom was driving. As my dad started pulling out of the parking lot, I had a sudden strong urge to ride with him so I could listen to Oldies (which I hated and still dislike to this day). I ran and flagged him down and rode home with him.

On the way home, my mom got hit by a drunk driver on the passenger side where I had been sitting. She had light injuries and the car was totaled.

Another time, my mom, sister, and I were at a mall (I think in Florida). We wandered into a New Age-type store. All three of us felt the overwhelming presence of evil and quickly left.

My family hosted missionaries from Pakistan a few times. I don’t remember many details, but they had fascinating stories about spiritual warfare, usually with witch doctors involved. I also knew a former missionary to Haiti who told spine chilling stories about his encounters with voodoo.

#8 Comment By JCM On December 31, 2016 @ 2:06 pm

Amazing post, Rod. What a beautiful gift to your readers for the new year.

Tomorrow will begin the centennial year of the Fatima apparitions, perhaps the greatest Catholic theophany of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it is one that has been the focus of sometimes feverish and apocalyptic speculation. I hope that somewhere there is a serious and respectful writer who will take the trouble to investigate what happened in Portugal 100 years ago. Did most in a crowd of, some say, 70,000 people really see the sun “dance?” Did Mary in 1918 predict the end of WWI, the start of a worse war yet , and the spreading by Russia of its errors? We are still close enough in time for meaningful second person research to be done.

As to a personal experience, mine is of the mild kind. Last October, I went to France on pilgrimage. While in Paris, I went to rue du Bac to visit the museum of the Missionaires Etranger de Paris (MEP) to venerate the relics of French religious killed in Viet-Nam in the 19th century, particularly St. Theophane Venard.

The museum had just closed when I arrived and, as second best option, I chose to visit the upstairs chapel. When I walked in I was astonished to hear the purest and most delightful music I have ever heard. I thought to myself–this place has a sound system like no other. Then I realized that it was a lone, young man kneeling facing the altar producing this sound that could not have been bettered by Pavarotti. I sat transfixed while he sang. Only he and I were there and he was unaware that there was another many rows behind him. Then, he got up and left.

I went to Paris, Mont St. Michel, Lisieux and Rouen on this trip . But he, whoever he was, was the wonder of the trip.

#9 Comment By Rob G On December 31, 2016 @ 4:25 pm

My parents were in healing and deliverance ministry and I grew up seeing and hearing some pretty strange things. But the one that has stuck with me the most was one of the more banal.

A friend of mine in junior high, a kid active in sports, developed severe intermittent lower back pain which often left him in tears, and kept him out of sports a fair amount of time. His family was Christian, and my parents offered to pray for him. He and his mother came over one evening, and my folks had him sit in a wooden dining room chair. They had him lift his legs and extend them straight out, which he did. If I remember correctly one leg may have been slightly shorter than the other, which is a fairly common thing in people with back trouble.

They started to pray and told him to move his legs however he felt. Well, he didn’t. They stayed extended straight out. For almost a half-hour. He insisted he wasn’t consciously holding them out, he showed no exertion whatsoever, and was even casually conversing with us, all the while with his legs completely extended and unmoving.

Try it — it’s hard enough to do for three minutes, let alone thirty. I knew him through high school and as far as I know he never had the back pain again. But that doesn’t impress me nearly as much as the leg thing, which has stuck with me for 40-odd years.

#10 Comment By Bob Loblaw On December 31, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

I’ll just say one more thing about this. I experimented with drugs quite a bit in my 20s, as did most of the people I socialized with (go figure!). I had a few spiritual experiences on hallucinogens that were life-changing, and also had visual hallucinations that were absolutely as real to me as if they were actually happening. Your garden variety light trails and walls breathing, but also entire scenes with people that flat out didn’t actually occur. I know a person who did speed and stayed up for 4 days straight and started seeing and talking to people who weren’t there. She says these experiences were as real to her at the time as any actual interaction with a person. And what about the mass hysteria found in some cults?

My point in this is that the mind is a powerful thing, we don’t understand it at all. We can have experiences unique to us, whether through drugs or religious fervor or heightened emotions. And some people are more susceptible to these than others. It’s entirely chemical and beyond our control. And these experiences are as real as everyday reality to the person it’s happening to. If drugs can trigger this chemical reaction, doesn’t that point towards a similar thing happening with religious epiphanies and other “supernatural” experiences. Can’t a group of people who are 100% bought in to the supernatural potential of a Ouija board enter a heightened emotional state where they start experiencing things that someone walking into the room suddenly would not see? To me, this is no different than a drug-induced hallucination. We can convince ourselves of quite a lot.

And Rod, please provide a link to one of those YouTube possession videos you feel are authentic. I’m not asking in a smart aleck way, I’d genuinely like to see it. I could very well be wrong about this whole thing.

[NFR: Please understand that I’m not copping out on this. I’m superstitious about this stuff, and don’t want to do it. Searching should be easy, though. I’ve seen a few of them, and now don’t search them out. That said, [8] of the exorcism Friedkin caught on video, and screened for the various medical specialists. I presume he is preparing the entire episode for release. Or, perhaps there are legal issues involved. If you read the story, you saw that a couple of the people involved really, really didn’t want this thing to be seen. — RD]

#11 Comment By RR On December 31, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

quote: “Do you accept that Thor existed, or a demon named Thor? Did this demon used a hammer to create thunder in order to deceive the Norse? Do you accept that half-snake beings called Nagas literally roamed the earth? Do you accept that the faeries of Neo-Paganism live in gardens, but are actually demons?

Is NONE of this just the product of human imagination?”

I’m sure much of it is a product of human imagination, although it is possible that Thor, as well as other pagan gods, were demons as well.

quote: “Frankly, considering the God of the Bible allows slave owners to beat their slaves to death as long as they don’t die within the first two days afterward, or as long as the recover depending on your interpretation (Exodus 21:20-21), orders the rape of virgins after the murder of their families (Numbers 31:17-18), and orders genocide, including the deaths of children and babies (Samuel 15:3), I wonder why you are so sure he’s the good entity. How do you know this entity is not lying to you?”

Well, the historical context of slavery and war in the ancient world are important to understanding these events. Still, if an all knowing, all-powerful, just God exists, he has a right to judge peoples, including wiping them out however he sees fit. As for God being a good entity, concepts such as good and evil are inherently theological concepts. If God does not exist, there simply is no basis to label anything as good or evil, including genocide as good and evil themselves do not exist as coherent categories. Thus, asserting that God does not exists while questioning the goodness of the God of the Bible is a logically self-defeating exercise. It amounts to cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

quote: “I agree that their trustworthiness makes a difference in regard to whether they are being INTENTIONALLY deceptive. Their trustworthiness doesn’t affect the actual veracity of their claims, however.”

I agree with you on this. People who are generally truthful can be deceived or simply wrong. However, it doesn’t follow that all supernatural experiences are therefore delusional. If they are, and if there is no God, then I don’t see why we should trust the human mind at all, which of course throws any science based truth claims into question as well.

quote: “You’re mashing up two different processes here: one is abiogenesis (the emergence of life from non-living material), and one is evolution. Evolution is backed by a plethora of evidence. Even abiogenesis has evidence supporting it – the Miller-Urey experiments have already succeeded in creating chains amino acids in lab conditions simulating early earth. These are building blocks of DNA. Critically, this evidence can be replicated and shown to others.”

I don’t have any problem with evolution per se. The problem is that naturalistic evolution (i.e. without divine intervention) can’t account for the existence of the human mind that is generally trustworthy. Indeed, if naturalistic evolution is true, then it casts significant doubts on the trustworthiness of the human mind. Again, this is another way in which atheism is logically self-defeating. See philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s essays on this issue if you are interested in it further.

quote: “The key difference there is that I do not accept these ideas in the same sense a religious person, for example, accepts the divinity of Christ. My acceptance of those ideas proportional to the evidence supporting them. Much of that evidence must be replicable and demonstrable by anyone, to anyone. Also, my acceptance is conditional. If a better theory emerges, or the old theories are proven incorrect, I’ll immediately stop believing them.”

Perhaps I don’t understand you correctly, but it sounds as if you demand scientific standard of proof from most everything. This simply isn’t how people operate in the real world, and easily falls into scientism or logical positivism, both of which are logically self-defeating. You can’t proof or disprove the divinity of Christ with a scientific experiment that can be replicated. The idea of doing so itself is absurd.

quote: “It very frequently isn’t, and I don’t just mean we make mistakes about the supernatural. Eye witness accounts of anything are notoriously untrustworthy.”

Of course eyewitness accounts can be wrong. I’m a historian and have conducted a number of interviews as part of my research. I’ve definitely interviewed people that other evidence suggests were either lying or misremembered events. However, I’ve also spoken with people (for instance D-Day veterans) whose testimony of events that happened decades in the past can be corroborated with numerous other sources. In other words, while eyewitness testimony can be wrong, it isn’t always wrong. If so, we might as well throw the entire court system and the discipline of history out the window.

quote: “I personally find it hard to believe why Christians, for example, regard God as good, or certain actions as “inherently evil”, when God orders things such as genocide, rape or child murder. Would that not make those actions not inherently wrong, only wrong when God forbids them? How then is morality anything other than “Whatever God decides at the moment”? How do you square the idea that God is good, doesn’t change, or make mistakes, with the idea he once ordered such things? Even if you chose to read those stories as allegorical, how do allegories like that convince anyone of God’s goodness?”

You have to read the Old Testament stories you reference within their historical context. Also, you can’t presume that if God exists that he doesn’t have the right to judge humans, including taking their lives or destroying an entire people for their wickedness.

quote: “It is not wrong to “the universe”. It is unethical to kill an innocent person in human societies because it leads to suffering and harm, which we all experiences as undesirable and negative. That’s pretty self-evident.”

It is most certainly not “self-evident.” Under certain circumstances, it may well benefit some people to kill other people. If abortion is murder (and I think that it is), that is definitely the case in the United States as many people benefit and even profit from it. The same went for slavery in the past, which was hugely profitable for slave owners. Many other examples of this can be cited. The problem with the “harm” standard is someone almost always benefits when someone else is harmed. And if God doesn’t exist, there is no basis for inherent human dignity, so why not exploit others for you own gain if you can get away with it?

As for living in a society full of harm and suffering, if there is no God, then why should I care about society one way or the other? Why shouldn’t the only thing that matters to me is the well-being of myself and those that I love? Sure, I wouldn’t want to live in anarchy. But in a general, why care about others? Isn’t life too short, so eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

#12 Comment By a commenter On December 31, 2016 @ 8:07 pm

” use the term supernatural to describe things that exist outside of nature.”

If something exists outside of nature, how do you detect it? Like, if an angel appears to someone, does the angel have to have a body made of organic materials, and be wearing, say, a white cloak, made of cotton, or perhaps linen? What does a supernatural event look like, to a mass spectrometer?

#13 Comment By RR On December 31, 2016 @ 8:17 pm

P.S. If I am correct that good and evil don’t exist as meaningful concepts in a world without God, then moralistic atheists and secular humanists could be said to adhere to a quasi-religious, and certainly superstitious, set of ideas. Nietzsche’s withering critique of said atheists is spot on.

#14 Comment By RR On December 31, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

P.P.S. If one doubts all supernatural claims based on the fact that some are wrong, then why not doubt science as well? After all, one can cite numerous cases when science was badly wrong. Racism was thought to be scientifically sound in the late nineteenth century, as was social Darwinism. Eugenics was all the rage in biology from the 1920s through the 1950s, and some nations and states in the United States had forced sterilization programs. The Nazis also were genuinely convinced their ideas were scientific and that exterminating the Jews was the right thing to do. The Tuskegee experiments were also done in the name of science. My point is that there are plenty of examples in which scientists (who are fallible and sometimes immoral human beings) were wrong with horrible real-life consequences, e.g. “harm” to real people. If we applied your skeptical approach to all supernatural claims consistently, as well as your questioning of the God of the Bible as a good entity, then shouldn’t science also face similar skepticism? Why give science a free pass?

#15 Comment By a commenter On December 31, 2016 @ 9:10 pm

“ut what if every Tuesday at 11:46 the cathedral unmoored from its foundation and took off into the air, flew around the countryside for an hour or so, then came back and reattached itself to the ground. And on Saturday it feateured a choir of talking cats.

That’s ridiculous, I know. But don’t you think a demonstration like that would have an impact on more people than a near death experience?”

And it would probably cause more than a few to fall down dead in terror, including me. A prayer: Thank you, dear Lord, for not allowing cathedrals to fly around the countryside. Please continue not allowing the cathedrals to take wing. Amen.

#16 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 31, 2016 @ 10:14 pm

The problem is that naturalistic evolution (i.e. without divine intervention) can’t account for the existence of the human mind that is generally trustworthy.

Evolution + Genesis 2:7 pretty well covers it. The former took some three billion years. The latter may have occurred around 50,000 years ago, given the sudden profusion of art, language, etc. around that time.

#17 Comment By Hound of Ulster On January 1, 2017 @ 11:07 am

Just as some people may be more inclined to believe, some people may be more sensitive to the unseen forces of this world. I don’t doubt for a second that there are unseen forces at work, for both good and ill, and I also don’t think that the human mind can comprehend those forces fully.

#18 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 1, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

@RR, science doesn’t make claims of metaphysical truth. It makes claims of knowledge and provisional theoretical explanations that can and should be tested. For example quantum mechanics makes predictions that are testable, and we should only accept it as long as it passes those tests.

As far as trusting the human brain. It is an evolved structure and can be fooled. Optical illusions are one example, and cognitive bias are another. Scientists use the scientific method to try and correct for our bias, and engineers build instruments to work around the unreliability of our perceptions.

However we can have some confidence in quantum mechanics because it makes predictions about the physical world that we use to build semiconductors and in turn computers.

Tl;Dr you are reading this, so science mostly works.

#19 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On January 1, 2017 @ 12:49 pm


Honest question: When you were searching, and found the Gospel, did you ever thought of reading the Q’ram, or the Dialogs of Buddha, for instance, with the same reverence? If yes, why did you found them lacking? If no, Why would that not be part of your logical search for faith?


I was raised Catholic but, as many Catholics, I didn’t have a clear sense of the Gospel, apart from Church readings. Which, by the way, as a kid I didn’t bother very much to listen.
The Bible wasn’t an important presence in our home as it is in protestant homes. We had one just because one had to, but it mostly lied forgotten in the bookshelf. As the family bookworm, I was the only one who read it from time to time. But, to be honest, I dwelled much more in the Old Testament, as it enticed my literary lust, while the New Testament didn’t.
In general, I was always curious about religious writing. I read the Qu’ran at 16, in a French translation I had bought at the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris. I really don’t want to enter into details of why the Qu’ran is not comparable to the Gospel. In the Qu’ran, God is the infinitely separate from man. Because of this infinite separation, man can’t but be the subject of an inflexible rule. But God is both the extremely far and the extremely close.
My knowledge of Buddhism is less precise and more indirect. I have read some of the Dialogues over different time and places, plus several philosophical commenarirs. I can’t really find much which is objectionable in Buddha’s teaching, and it is apparent that his preaching comes from sincere love and compassion for the human condition. But, at the end of the day, Buddhism understands life and the existence as evil and I can’t shake off the feeling that a desperate nihilism looms over Buddhism.
So, I came late, in my twenties, to the Gospel. And where Islam is the religion of obedience, hinduism is the religion of purification, Buddhism is the non-religion, or the religion of knowlege, Christ shows the way of Love. Is there a glimpse of truth in the other ones? Yes, because obedience, purification, knowledge are all part of Love.
And who can deny that Love, L’Amor che move ‘l sole e l’altre stelle is the principle of Being itself?

#20 Comment By RR On January 1, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

quote: “@RR, science doesn’t make claims of metaphysical truth.”

True. But try telling that to atheists who justify their own atheism, which is also a methaphysical truth claim, based on science! I agree you that science (or really engineering in the case of technology and machines) mostly works in a practical sense. However, there are plenty of historical examples of science going badly wrong as well. If you questioned eugenics in say the 1920s and 1930s, you would be going against the consensus of biologists, who in fact believed their assertions were testable. In addition to racism, Social Darwinism, eugenics and Nazism, one that I failed to mention earlier was Marxism and Communism. Communists were convinced their ideology was based on sound science. At any rate, if one doubts all supernatural experiences on simply because some of them are delusional, lies, etc., then why not apply such skepticism to science as well? It seems rather inconsistent to me. Radical epistemological skepticism on all knowledge would seem the more consistent position.

As for the human mind and naturalistic evolution, philosopher Alvin Plantinga discusses how naturalistic evolution makes it impossible to trust the human mind here:


#21 Comment By Jonathan M Scinto On January 1, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

I don’t believe in any specific god/metaphysics for the simple reason that none of them are persuasive to me. What Irenist and Giuseppe see as a cogent argument, I see as fundamentally flawed.

The universe is a strange place. There might be more than the material. I don’t know. If there really is a god who is concerned with how I behave, I trust that he could figure out a foolproof to way to make it clear to me that he was real and what he wanted. If he can’t accomplish that, then he’s not much of a god.

Honestly, I had to pick a transcendent to believe in, I would say this universe seems like some higher intelligence’s science experiment. Maybe we’re all just rats in the cage.

#22 Comment By Oakinhou On January 1, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

Giuseppe Scalias

Many thanks for your explanation. Is one of the clearest and best thought analysis I’ve seen

Thanks again

#23 Comment By Bob Loblaw On January 1, 2017 @ 6:18 pm

Rod – “Please understand that I’m not copping out on this. I’m superstitious about this stuff, and don’t want to do it. Searching should be easy, though. I’ve seen a few of them, and now don’t search them out.”

OK, I checked out a few. Firstly, all of the subjects are women. I don’t have to tell you about the history of misdiagnosing women over the centuries, everything from hysteria to witchcraft to horrible “treatments” of reproductive system medical issues. Seriously dude, not one of the videos I found had a male subject. What does that tell you? I’d be VERY interested to hear these women’s backgrounds. I can almost guarantee that most of them are abuse victims.

As for the behavior in the videos, none of it is any different than a completely common psychotic episode. Lots of screaming and writhing. Some of these women are being restrained, which of course only makes a person in the middle of an episode resist even more strongly. Ever been pinned down by an older brother or bigger person? You fight like hell to get out. Imagine a mentally ill person with a history of physical abuse in the middle of a psychotic episode being restrained by a couple of men, and their fears being stoked by this effin’ priest intoning about Satan. I mean geez.

Man, the more one looks into stuff like this, the more it seems like complete BS. Why let yourself get distracted by this witch doctor junk?

#24 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 1, 2017 @ 8:54 pm

The Nazis also were genuinely convinced their ideas were scientific and that exterminating the Jews was the right thing to do.

The Nazis did indeed convince themselves that “science” backed their racial theories, but the theories did not begin from scientific observation. Rather, they were concocted for sociological convenience, and then “scientific” basis claimed without proof or evidence ex post facto. Bizarre “experiments” were performed in the concentration camps, but provided no evidence whatsoever.

The Tuskegee experiments were also done in the name of science.

The Tuskegee experiments were scientifically valid, and developed a good deal of useful data on the course of syphillis. The more dimension is that live human beings who could easily have been cured suffered the full course of the disease, up to and including a painful death. Further, the subjects were not well educated, did not get a full explanation of what was at stake, were paid a rather small pittance, and just happened to be people with a skin color that was legally disfavored at the time.

If you questioned eugenics in say the 1920s and 1930s, you would be going against the consensus of biologists, who in fact believed their assertions were testable.

Some facts which are conducive to some sort of eugenics are in fact testable. For instance, if every person carrying a debilitating genetic disease, such as ALS, possibly some forms of schizophrenia or bi-polar condition, and certainly those with Downs Syndrome and similar diseases,* were routinely sterilized, there would be a net improvement in the medical status and quality of life of future generations.

There are significant moral questions to be face, and there are a range of options from voluntary sterilization, backed by considerable social pressure and attitudes, to mandatory sterilization shortly after birth, but these are testable. What is not testable, and the Nazis certainly tried, with horrific results for the individual concerns, are insane racial theories and other phantasmagoria such as phrenology, which were for the most part not rigorously tested, but facilely accepted as too well known and accept to need testing.

*Before the peanut gallery goes ballistic about the fact that Downs Syndrome generally develops after conception, and is not initially inherited from two health parents… That is true, but there is a non-negligible number of people with Downs Syndrome who assert a “right to reproduce,” or have busybody advocates assert one for them, and THAT can pass the deformity along to future generations.

I can’t really find much which is objectionable in Buddha’s teaching, and it is apparent that his preaching comes from sincere love and compassion for the human condition.

An Orthodox Talmudic scholar once told me that Gautama and his associates had identified many of the transcendent features or our universe correctly (from an Orthodox Jewish perspective), adding, “its too bad they didn’t consider the existence of a transcendent Creator.”

#25 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 1, 2017 @ 9:26 pm

@RR, well those atheists own that, and not the enterprise of science. I will also grant you that there are examples of science and scientists running off the rails, but things tends to right themselves because ultimately science has to deliver verifiable results.

Also science isn’t a monolithic enterprise. For example the fields of mathematics, electrical engineering, chemistry, computer science, materials science, and physics tend to be pragmatic and avoid these contraversies. So if eugenics causes problems that doesn’t change the reality that your GPS works. So doubting one because of the other would be irrational.

But the problem with the supernatural is that there are many different supernatural claims, and while it is possible that one of them is correct, there doesn’t seem to be a way to determine which.

For example you view supernatural claims outside of Christianity as possibly demonic, but a Hindu would disagree with you. So who’s right? But you can both agree that computers and GPS work.

#26 Comment By JonF On January 1, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

Re: If you questioned eugenics in say the 1920s and 1930s, you would be going against the consensus of biologists, who in fact believed their assertions were testable.

Eugenics was NOT a science, but a political movement. Ditto “Social Darwinism”, which Darwin himself disowned.
Science does make mistakes (phlogiston; aether theory) but these are ultimately corrected when sufficient evidence accumulates.

#27 Comment By Joan On January 1, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

When I was 19, my mother took us all on a package tour of Europe. We got to Rome after about a week. I remember seeing a marble Pietá sculpture in a church and feeling some kind of energy coming off it, which the marble sculptures we’d seen in museums did not have. Later experience with energy-charged objects has suggested that the Pietá sculpture, having been an object of religious veneration since the Renaissance, had picked up a charge. If I’d been raised Catholic, I might have interpreted what I felt there as an actual Divine Presence, but my Protestant upbringing had never suggested any such possibility.

Many years later, I was attending a church most Sundays despite the fact that I was not Christian. There was a new pastor, a friend of mine, and I had some notion that I was being supportive of her by occupying a pew every week. Well, one Sunday during her sermon, she said “If you want a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, stand up.” I was one of a very few, out of a crowd of maybe a hundred, who did not stand up. As I sat there, one of the female deacons of the church, an old woman who’d been a member since its founding, came over to me and put her hands on my shoulders and whammied me. That is to say, she put some energy directly from her body into mine. If I hadn’t been whammied before, I’d have been very impressed, maybe enough to convert, but I’d been on the receiving end of enough whammies in various Neopagan contexts to recognize it. It did have one effect: it made me face the fact that I was behaving hypocritically and I needed to stop it.

Finally, I want to add the story of how my mother knocked the props out from under my adolescent Ouija board experimentation. This was the kind of cheap board that had a pendulum on a length of ball chain rather than a planchette.The instructions said to hold the pendulum above the center of the semicircle of letters and other symbols while asking the question and then watch what symbols it indicated by the direction of its swing. Mom took a quart cottage cheese container and cut away most of the sides so that, when it was turned upside down, it was just four plastic legs holding up a little round platform (the bottom). Then she cut a slit in the bottom so that the ball chain could be slid into the center, where it would hold the pendulum in the correct position without human intervention, while leaving a few inches of ball chain at the top, so that a person could hold the end of the chain without actually supporting the weight of the pendulum. Her reasoning was that, if the pendulum still gave answers, that would be evidence that some noncorporeal entity really was communicating through the board, but if it just hung there, that would be evidence that the “messages from the Ouija board” had really been coming from our own subconscious minds, via slight movements of our hands as we held the pendulum. Well, it just hung there. I moved on to Tarot cards and I’ve never regretted it.

#28 Comment By Dun Briste On January 1, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

Sam M’s cathedral unmoored from its foundations reminded me of Dun Briste sea stack, a sight I would love to see in the flesh. I’ve always believed it looked on the move. 🙂

#29 Comment By Mr B On January 1, 2017 @ 10:54 pm

I have had several what might be termed ‘numinous’ or ‘mystical’ experiences.
One of these experiences occurred in a Buddhist temple in South-East Asia, while browsing in the gift shop. A recording of monks chanting was playing over the intercom.
Unbidden, I became one with the music, which flowed through me, and I through it.
The experience was accompanied by a conviction that existence, with all its imperfections, was just as it should be, and I with it.
At no time have I attached any traditional religious or theological significance to this or similar experiences. Nor have I felt any need for religious or theological explanations. The experiences have occurred at stress or peak times of my life, and that explanation is sufficient for me.
The other interesting thing about these experiences is that they have not involved encounters with beings, rather existence itself.

#30 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 2, 2017 @ 8:03 am

Back in the 80’s there was interest in using [10] to test for ESP. So a friend and I made a set, tracked our results, and found that we were no better than chance.

Our conclusion was neither of us had telepathy or clairvoyance. Experiments with dice also showed a lack of telekinesis.

Tl;Dr Failure with Zener cards, stuck with Zener diodes.

#31 Comment By TR On January 2, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

The question of scientists and eugenics is complex. By the twenties and thirties enough was known about eugenics to know that it couldn’t be true. But it continued to be “popular science” well into the fifties or sixties. That is, outside of scientific specialists, it continued to attract supporters. The strongest opponent of forced sterilization, by the way, was the Catholic Church, which didn’t give a hoot about the science.

The Catholics kept England from adopting the practice, and I find it interesting that some of the worst offending states in the US were those like Virginia with very few Catholics. (On the other hand, I believe California was gung-ho for it too.)

I can’t documented it now, but I distinctly remember seeing a textbook collection of essays on psychology which contained an essay by a distinguished paychologiat in England maintaining that there must be a middle-class gene. The essay could not have been written before the fifties. The claim is a eugenic one and absurd, but the author of it would swear he was a scientist. So science’s connection to this “false science” went on for a long time.

#32 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 3, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

By the twenties and thirties enough was known about eugenics to know that it couldn’t be true.

That’s a sloppy statement. Eugenics is neither a fact, nor a set of facts, its a proposed method. Whether it can produce the proffered results, whether it is EFFECTIVE, is one legitimate question, and in that sense might be considered “true” or “false,” and even if it can, there is a legitimate moral question whether it is GOOD to implement the method. There are various ways to act on eugenic theory, many more voluntary than many others.

It is true that certain harmful conditions have genetic causes. It is true that if persons carrying those genes were barred from procreating, it would diminish, perhaps even eliminated, those conditions from future generations.

It is not true that Jews as either adherents of a religion or a traceable set of bloodlines, or persons of African descent, or any number of other social scapegoats, are the cause of major catastrophes. But the “final solution” was only one way to apply the method of eugenics.

Eugenics was NOT a science, but a political movement. Ditto “Social Darwinism”, which Darwin himself disowned.

There were people in relevant scientific fields who took applied eugenics seriously. There were even psychiatrists and biologists of African descent who examined eugenics as a method to “improve the race.” And there are scientifically valid ways to do eugenics, if, that is, it is deemed to be a beneficial thing to attempt. Social Darwinism was a misapplication of a valid scientific theory, explaining developments over hundreds of millions of years, through the Fallacy of Analogy, to social and economic events in a much more compressed period of time. The application was scientifically invalid.