I am republishing an item from the American Kennel Club on the subject.
Oliver has a very special relationship with me. Plus Jean loves him just as much. That is not to say that he isn’t very friendly with other humans that he knows but there’s something that I have trouble putting into words when it comes to the bond between me and Oliver.
It is very, very special and truly magical.
I am reminded of this bond between Oliver and me because of a post that I want to republish.
Emotional support dogs (ESAs) are pets and not service dogs.
Mental health professionals prescribe emotional support animals under the law.
Airlines are no longer required to accommodate emotional support animals.
Every dog owner knows there are many benefits to having a dog, from getting themselves out for exercise to receiving loyal companionship. However, for some people with mental or emotional conditions, the presence of a dog is critical to their ability to function normally on a daily basis. The pet provides emotional support and comfort that helps them deal with challenges that might otherwise compromise their quality of life. These pets are known as emotional support animals (ESAs).
What Is an Emotional Support Dog?
Although all dogs offer an emotional connection with their owner, to legally be considered an emotional support dog, also called an emotional support animal (ESA), the pet needs to be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional to a person with a disabling mental illness. A therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient. For example, owning a pet might ease a person’s anxiety or give them a focus in life. The dogs can be of any age and any breed.
Emotional Support Dog vs. Service Dogs
ESAs provide support through companionship and can help ease anxiety, depression, and certain phobias. However, they are not service dogs, and ESA users do not receive the same accommodations as service dog users.
A service dog, such as a guide dog or psychiatric service dog, is generally allowed anywhere the public is allowed; ESAs are not. For example, ESAs generally cannot accompany their owners into restaurants or shopping malls.
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as “dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.” The act clearly states that animals that simply provide emotional comfort do not qualify as service animals. Some state and local laws have a broader definition, so be sure to check with local government agencies to learn if ESAs qualify for public access in your area.
The key difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability. For example, service dogs are trained to alert a hearing-impaired person to an alarm or guide a visually impaired person around an obstacle or provide pressure on someone with PTSD who is suffering from a panic attack.
Behaviors such as cuddling on cue, although comforting, do not qualify. The tasks need to be specifically trained to mitigate a particular disability, not something instinctive the dog would do anyway.
Emotional Support Dogs Are Not Psychiatric Service Dogs
There are service dogs, known as psychiatric service dogs that require extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability is due to mental illness. These dogs detect the beginning of psychiatric episodes and help ease their effects. Although this sounds similar to the role of an ESA, the difference between a psychiatric service dog and an ESA is again in the tasks performed by the dog and the training received to perform these tasks.
Psychiatric service dogs (recognized by the ADA as service dogs) have been trained to do certain jobs that help the handler cope with a mental illness. For example, the dog might remind a person to take prescribed medications, keep a disoriented person in a dissociative episode from wandering into a hazardous situation such as traffic or perform room searches for a person with post-traumatic stress disorder. If it is simply the dog’s presence that helps the person cope, then the dog does not qualify as a psychiatric service dog.
Housing Accommodations for Individuals Who Use Emotional Support Dogs
Individuals who use ESAs are provided certain accommodations under federal law in the areas of housing and air travel. The Fair Housing Act includes ESAs in its definition of assistance animals. Under the act, people cannot be discriminated against due to a disability when obtaining housing. Rules such as pet bans or restrictions are waived for people who have a prescription for an ESA, and they cannot be charged a pet deposit for having their ESA live with them.
Are Emotional Support Dogs Allowed on Flights?
In December 2020, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) announced final revisions to its Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The final rule, effective in January 2021, defines a service animal as a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. This change in the DOT’s definition of “service animal” aligns closely with the definition that the Department of Justice uses under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The changes also clarify that emotional support animals (ESAs), comfort animals, companionship animals, animals being trained to be service animals, and species other than dogs are not considered to be “service animals” under the new DOT definition. Instead, airlines may recognize and accommodate emotional support animals as pets. For most airlines, the new no-fly policy for ESAs started on January 11. Some airlines now require passengers with service dogs to complete a DOT-authorized form prior to travel that confirms their training, health, and certification.
Emotional support dogs can perform an important role in the life of a person with mental or emotional conditions. When people who do not have a disability abuse the system by misrepresenting a pet as an ESA to obtain special accommodation, they undermine important accommodations for individuals with a legitimate need for this assistance.
This is a valuable article in my opinion and, I am sure, in the opinion of many others. It clarifies the legal position of dogs that are not, however loving the animal is to you, legally-defined as service dogs.
It may seem trivial for those not in the category of requiring a dog that is a service dog but I am certain that for those who definitely do require such an animal this clarification was necessary.
Meantime I will stick with our Oliver, our Brandy, our Sheena, our Cleo, and our Pedi.
Last Sunday week, the 22nd May, seems both a long time ago and yet seems as though it was yesterday. Having my son here was fabulous and he was able to take plenty of mountain bike rides and photographs of birds, in particular hummingbirds at our hummingbird feeder.
But that picture does not make a post. What does is an article written by Cara Achterberg about very special mothers and their work in rescuing dogs. It was published on the website Who Will Let the Dogs Out.
Polk County, Florida is ranked first in Florida and fourth in the nation for the number of dogs ‘euthanized’ each year. The Polk County shelter killed 5000 dogs in 2020. Which is even more remarkable considering 2020 was the year so many shelters were emptied (momentarily).
The only way a dog labeled a bully breed can leave the Polk County Shelter alive is if a rescue pulls it. They are not allowed to adopt out any bully breeds. In 2020, the county took in 16,000 dogs; they killed nearly a third of them.
This is the harsh reality that Shannon and Angie, of the Polk County Bully Project stepped into. Like so many others, they never set out to create a rescue. They met through their children, and their relationship should have revolved around play dates and pool parties, but when they learned the plight of bully breeds in Polk County, they instead bonded over saving lives.
Initially, they volunteered with the Polk County SPCA to secure rescues and transport dogs out of Polk County a handful at a time. That simply wasn’t enough for these smart, driven, passionate women and they realized that with their own rescue they could save more than a handful of dogs. The Polk County Bully Project was born. PCBP saves about 600 dogs a year – almost all bully breeds, but also dogs with medical needs and lots of heartworm positive dogs—the dogs that would otherwise be killed at the shelter.
I asked how they were able to save so many of the breed of dog that others struggle to rescue or find placement for and Shannon shrugged, “We hustle,” she said.
But it’s also that they don’t know any different. They’ve never tried to rescue any other kind of dog. They don’t know there are easier dogs to rescue. To my mind, they jumped right in the deep end of rescue with very little swimming experience. And the remarkable thing is they are succeeding in every measure.
When we visited the rescue a few months ago, the dogs we met were sweet and happy and obviously well-cared for. The shelter is small, a remodeled brick rancher in a nondescript neighborhood. The dogs are divided into separate rooms with maybe four dogs in a room. We arrived at naptime when everyone was contentedly in their kennels, listening to soft music or watching TV. The staff had already had everyone out for walks and playtime, something that happens several times a day.
PCBP is big on enrichment—something critical to these smart, active dogs who need to be challenged. At Christmas they had 25 days of enrichment and every day brought the dogs special treats (anchovies, cheeseburgers, special individual cakes baked by a volunteer) and special activities (like a bubble machine and dog art, which they’ll be auctioning off).
On rainy days, the staff keeps the dogs busy with puzzles and their doggy treadmill. In their play area, where they also have regular play groups (all the staff has been trained to run playgroups), there is AstroTurf, lots of toys, even an agility teeter.
Beyond treating so many heartworm positive dogs, the rescue takes on lots of medical cases who would otherwise not make it out of the shelter. We met Aspen, a sweet little pitmix whose scarred face, protruding teeth, and wiggly butt combine to make him adorable. He was removed from a home where he’d had a leash wrapped so tightly and permanently around his nose that it was embedded in his skin. He’s had eight reconstruction surgeries to repair his face. But now he’s ready for an adopter.
Other dogs have had amputations, orthopedic surgeries, and Agatha, a sweet senior bulldog mix, has had vaginal reconstruction and eye surgery. We watched as Pippi, one of the staff brought her out to meet us off-leash. She’s 102 pounds of sweetness. When it was time to go back inside, Pippi pointed the way and Agatha ran/ambled back inside to her kennel on her own. Agatha is 11-12 years old, but the rescue would love to find an adopter, or even a foster for her because every dog deserves to live out their lives in a home not a shelter, even one as nice as this.
Polk County is a tough county for dogs, but even tougher for pit bulls. There are no animal laws, no spay/neuter vouchers available for community animals, and backyard breeders abound. At the time of our visit (January), the rescue had 64 puppies.
Beyond that, it’s simple prejudice (my words, not theirs). The leadership in Polk County judges these dogs not adoptable and condemns them based on their appearance. The rescue hopes that with education and advocacy, they can influence the commissioners in the county to enact anti-tethering laws, require dog licenses and breeder permits, and prioritize spay/neuter resources. Any of those would help to turn the tide.
To reach the next generation (these are two moms after all), they created an Ambassador program to get kids ages 8 and up involved at the rescue. They make toys, treats, and paint rocks in honor of the dogs at the shelter, but more than that they learn about the situation and how important it is we do better for our animals.
Rescues that focus on pit bulls are few and far between, but rescues who do it so well in such numbers are even harder to find. The Polk County Bully Project is saving the dogs who are the hardest to save. As their van says, “We fight for them, so they don’t have to.”
Shannon and Angie are positive people who operate on a currency of hope—that they can change the narrative here in Polk County.
They save the dogs that need them the most through sheer determination with the resourcefulness and creativity of moms, counting on their dog-loving community to come through for them. And they have.
Spending just an hour or so with them, it was clear that these two women are game-changers, rescue warriors, and then some. I believe they will do it, but they will need even more support to fight this battle.
If you’d like to help, you can donate through the secure link on their website, or by calling Lakeland Vet and donating to their vet bills directly (863-648-4886).
We are getting ready to head out on another shelter tour in two weeks. If you’d like to support our tour or sponsor one of the shelters, find out more here.
The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them.
You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.
Amber’s Halfway Homeis our short documentary film produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for sixteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.
Who knows whether it was a smell, or a sound, or what…
This is a story from England. From a town called Tow Law, a few miles to the south-west of Newcastle. As wikipedia explains: Tow Law is a town and civil parish in County Durham, England. It is situated a few miles to the south of Consett and 5 miles to the north west of Crook.
Anyway, the story was published by The Dodo and is reproduced below.
Dog Out On A Walk Finds Someone Very Stuck In A Stone Wall
A guy and his dog were out on a walk one day through a field in Tow Law, England, when the dog suddenly became very interested in a nearby stone wall. After looking a little closer, the pair found a cat — who had somehow gotten himself completely stuck in the wall.
The RSPCA was called and Inspector Ruth Thomas-Coxon drove over to try and help. She was hoping that it would be as easy as just gently pulling the cat, later named Freddy, out of the wall, but she quickly discovered that he was much more stuck than that.
“Initially it looked as though he’d chosen to tuck himself inside the gap, but he didn’t try to run away when we got closer,” Thomas-Coxon said in a press release.
Thomas-Coxon weighed all her options and decided the best way to free Freddy would be to take apart the stone wall.
“The owner of the paddocks and wall came out and, between us, we removed some of the stones to dismantle the top part of the wall and free the cat,” Thomas-Coxon said. “He made a dash for it and jumped into another part of the wall, where we were able to catch him.”
Even though Freddy was definitely stuck and needed help, he was also not super pleased about being rescued by strangers. Once he realized he was safe, though, he calmed down, and Thomas-Coxon took him to the vet to get him checked out.
“Vets found he was in fairly good health, although he had some mats in his coat, which they removed,” Thomas-Coxon said. “He was a sweet, friendly cat, so I wondered if he was a missing pet, but he was not microchipped. I made some inquiries nearby, put up a poster where we rescued him and also put his profile on PetsLocated, but, unfortunately, he’s not yet been claimed.”
Freddy is settling into the shelter well, and if no one comes forward to claim him, he’ll be put up for adoption. From being stuck in a stone wall to a potential forever home — Freddy’s come a long way.
It’s a strange story in the sense that the cat was not claimed so who knows where he had come from. But his future is much better, thanks to the RSPCA, and if he is adopted it will be to a good, caring home.
The latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discuss changes ahead, but they also describe how existing solutions can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help people adjust to impacts of climate change that can’t be avoided.
To slow climate change and adapt to the damage already underway, the world will have to shift how it generates and uses energy, transports people and goods, designs buildings and grows food. That starts with embracing innovation and change.
Fear of change can lead to worsening change
From the industrial revolution to the rise of social media, societies have undergone fundamental changes in how people live and understand their place in the world.
Other transformations have had both good and bad effects. The industrial revolution vastly raised standards of living for many people, but it spawned inequality, social disruption and environmental destruction.
People often resist transformation because their fear of losing what they have is more powerful than knowing they might gain something better. Wanting to retain things as they are – known as status quo bias – explains all sorts of individual decisions, from sticking with incumbent politicians to not enrolling in retirement or health plans even when the alternatives may be rationally better.
The IPCC reports make clear that the future inevitably involves more and larger climate-related transformations. The question is what the mix of good and bad will be in those transformations.
If countries allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue at a high rate and communities adapt only incrementally to the resulting climate change, the transformations will be mostly forced and mostly bad.
For example, a riverside town might raise its levees as spring flooding worsens. At some point, as the scale of flooding increases, such adaptation hits its limits. The levees necessary to hold back the water may become too expensive or so intrusive that they undermine any benefit of living near the river. The community may wither away.
The riverside community could also take a more deliberate and anticipatory approach to transformation. It might shift to higher ground, turn its riverfront into parkland while developing affordable housing for people who are displaced by the project, and collaborate with upstream communities to expand landscapes that capture floodwaters. Simultaneously, the community can shift to renewable energy and electrified transportation to help slow global warming.
Optimism resides in deliberate action
The IPCC reports include numerous examples that can help steer such positive transformation.
For example, renewable energy is now generally less expensive than fossil fuels, so a shift to clean energy can often save money. Communities can also be redesigned to better survive natural hazards through steps such as maintaining natural wildfire breaks and building homes to be less susceptible to burning.
No one group can enact these changes alone. Everyone must be involved, including governments that can mandate and incentivize changes, businesses that often control decisions about greenhouse gas emissions, and citizens who can turn up the pressure on both.
Doing more to disrupt the status quo with proven solutions can help smooth these transformations and create a better future in the process.
Robert Lempert receives funding from the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Transportation and Culver City Forward. He was coordinating lead author of the IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report, Chapter 1, and is affiliated with RAND Corp.; Harvard; SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment) Independent Advisory Committee; National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Decision Science and Analysis Technical Advisory Committee (TAC); Council on Foreign Relations; Evolving Logic; and the City of Santa Monica Commission on Environmental, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice.
Elisabeth Gilmore receives funding from Minerva Research Initiative administered by the Office of Basic Research and the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. She is affiliated with Carleton University, Rutgers University, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and was a lead author on the IPCC WGII Sixth Assessment Report.
The article makes the proposition that fear gets in the way of change. I think this is true because I tend to be a person that goes around saying ‘what can be done’ or ‘it is down to governments to set the changes required’ but not taking action personally.
So this is wakeup call for me and many others to be more positive and to support those changes that are beneficial, and to undertake them ourselves if at all possible.
An elderly man was having his morning coffee outside his motorcycle shop one day when he noticed something unusual on a cliff in the distance. He quickly concluded that the tiny speck he was seeing was actually a stuck animal in need of help, so he contacted the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region (HSPPR), and they sent two animal law enforcement officers to check it out.
The officers couldn’t see the dog without a little extra help, but the man never had any doubt that she was there and desperately needed help.
“He was funny because I couldn’t see her without my binoculars, and he said he knew the ‘dot’ was an animal because he’s never seen that dot there before,” Officer Kailie Barker told The Dodo.
The dog was stuck on a small ledge about 150 feet above a creek. They weren’t sure how long she’d been there and immediately started coming up with a plan to rescue her.
“It took two and a half hours total to be able to find out exactly where she was, how we were going to get to her, obtaining the equipment and formulating an exact plan,” Barker said.
The officers were able to obtain some climbing gear, and once they were ready, Barker rappelled down to the stuck dog — who was so excited that someone had finally come to help her.
“She was obviously very scared. She had her body pressed into the dirt, she was wagging her tail quickly and was trying to crawl towards us when she very first saw us,” Barker said. “The dirt kept sliding out from under her, but she kept trying. When I was down on the cliffside with her, she tried crawling towards me again. When I finally got to her, she kept licking my hands and face.”
Once the dog had been brought to safety, they read her collar and discovered that her name was Jessie Lee. They took her back to HSPPR, where the staff was able to find her family’s contact information. It turns out she had been missing for two weeks and was found only a few blocks away from her home. Her family had searched for her every single day and was absolutely overjoyed that someone had found her.
Luckily, Jessie Lee wasn’t injured after her ordeal and was able to head home to her family shortly after being rescued. It was the perfect happy ending, all thanks to the officers who rescued her — and the man who knew that tiny speck in the distance was actually a dog.
(All photographs courtesy of the HUMANE SOCIETY OF THE PIKES PEAK REGION)
Time and time again men and women spot something that they know is a dog. Even though it is a tiny speck or a creature in the darkness.
It is this fundamental relationship that binds us humans to our dogs, whether we know them or not!
Jessie Lee was alright and, to repeat the closing sentence above: ‘It was the perfect happy ending, all thanks to the officers who rescued her — and the man who knew that tiny speck in the distance was actually a dog.‘
p.s. I was reading the draft article out to Jeannie yesterday evening and she said that I had previously published it, and not so long ago! Whoops!
The first was the closing paragraph in that guest post by Indiana Lee last Thursday. Let me quote him:
It’s already been said, but it’s worth saying again. A happy dog leads to a happy owner. That isn’t just a cute saying, either. People are literally known to live longer and have good mental health if they have a dog in their lives.
The second was a talk at our local (Grants Pass) Freethinker’s meeting, held on Saturday. Jerry had sent out an introduction a few days before and included in that were three videos that we were encouraged to watch.
One, in particular, was excellent. It is a talk by Robert Waldinger, and it is reproduced below.
What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. In this talk, he shares three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.
It is just under thirteen minutes long; please watch it!
I apologise but this is the next guest post from Indiana Lee not the one I published yesterday.
Maximizing the Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Dog Ownership
Dogs do so much for us and our health. They help us overcome depression, prompt us to move more often, and give us joy through their play and cuddles — sometimes it feels as though they’re the ones looking after us!
But, not everyone who owns a dog maximizes the health benefits that our canine companions can bring. Oftentimes, owners get lazy and fall out of a regular walking schedule, or use their dog as an excuse to stay home and avoid travel or social events.
Finding ways to take advantage of the health benefits that dogs can bring is crucial for owners. So, here are a few tips to help you get the most from your relationship with your pup.
Dogs and Mental Health
The positive impact that dogs have on our mental health is gaining recognition amongst researchers and healthcare providers. There are a few different theories as to why dogs are so good for our mental health, but the leading idea involves the chemical oxytocin.
Ann Robinson, writing for the Guardian, calls Oxytocin “the so-called ‘hug’, ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone”, and is the chemical that is present when we form deep, meaningful relationships. This chemical is present when we form relationships with our parents or children, but is also at play in the pet-owner relationship.
While the research on oxytocin and mental health is still in its infancy, we do know that dogs help us combat stressors and mental health conditions. It should come as no surprise that service dogs can help folks who suffer from PTSD or anxiety manage their conditions. But, dogs can also help anyone who is struggling with stress from day-to-day sources.
Dogs and Physical Health
Dog owners spend about 200 more minutes a week walking than folks who don’t own a dog. This has a range of welcome health benefits, such as improved cardiovascular function, more effective immune systems, and a stronger muscle-skeletal system.
But, thousands of dog owners do not take their dogs out for a walk or to a local dog-play park. This may be for perfectly valid reasons like a disability, but if you can walk your dog, yet choose not to, then both you and your dog are missing out on the incredible health benefits of being outdoors.
You don’t need to start hiking mountains to enjoy the physical health benefits of dog walking. Start slow, with a walk that lasts about 15 minutes. This will ensure that neither you nor your dog will be “over walked”, which can lead to conditions like arthritis and joint pain. Preferably, aim to walk on grass or soft surfaces as these will be easier for your pup to walk on because they won’t burn their paws.
Modifying Your Home
You might not realize it, but the design and structure of your home significantly impact the health and wellbeing of your dog. By making design choices that improve your dog’s quality of life, you can expect to have a healthier, happier dog who will reward you with plenty of affection and attention.
First and foremost, you need to make sure your home is pup-proof. This means you need to remove any hazards like hanging objects or harmful substances like human food and cleaning chemicals. Following this, you should maintain a clean home, where your dog won’t choke or fall ill by eating something you’ve left lying around.
Once you’ve taken care of the basics, you can get a little more creative about what you choose to include in your house. You can, for example, include pest repellant plants that are also safe for your pup that will keep mosquitoes and other pests away from both you and your dog. Small changes like buying a dog bed for your office can also make a big difference to your dog’s quality of life.
By taking the time to keep your home clean and dog-safe, you can live with peace of mind knowing that your dog is happy, healthy, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Travel With Dogs
Many folks mistakenly believe that they can’t take their dogs with them when they travel, or that their pet will put a wrench in their travel plans. This couldn’t be further from the truth — bringing your dog with you on your travels is a great way to stimulate them, and will only improve the connection you have with your canine pal.
The key to ensuring you have a good time on the road is all about choosing the right mode of transportation. If you’re planning to travel with your dog in the car, then you might want to consider investing in dog cages for cars and make use of factory-installed barriers which keep everyone safe in the event of an accident.
You can also take your dog with you via other methods like trains or via planes. Nowadays, many airlines allow you to keep your dog with you while you fly, rather than having to place them in the hold. Trains are much the same, as many dog owners choose to travel with their pets via a good old locomotive.
Traveling with dogs is also great in the winter, as many dogs are well suited to colder climates, and love nothing more than playing in the snow and cold weather camping. This can help you beat the winter blues, and improve your overall health and wellness. Just be sure to follow winter-safety travel considerations that are designed to keep you and your four-legged friend safe.
Maximizing the mental and physical health benefits of owning a dog is tricky. If it’s been a while since your last walk, then it can be daunting to get out on the road again. Likewise, the idea of traveling with a canine pal is overwhelming for many folks. But, by planning ahead, and creating an environment your dog will enjoy, you can be sure to get the most from the special relationship you have with your four-legged friend.
Dogs are the most amazing and wonderful animals ever. As has been said on this blog many times before dogs offer us unconditional love and that love presents itself in many ways.
I have written before about our Oliver.
Oliver’s eyes are to die for! His ability to read the smallest indications of an emotion on our human face is incredible.
Then there is Brandy. What a love!
Then we have Cleo who came as a puppy to be with Pharaoh.
Again the eyes! We still miss him.
We are now down to five dogs: Pedi, Sheena, Oliver, Cleo and Brandy.
However all the dogs that we have had the greatest pleasure to love are still in our hearts.
This is a cogent discussion article that was published back in July, 2013. Waiving Entropy is a blog that ranges across many aspects of life. As their About page states:
Waiving Entropy is a blog with humble aims. What began in 2011 as a gesture toward self-improvement evolved into a vitalizing outlet for creative expression. To write is to live more fully, and it has now become something I can scarcely imagine life without — a kind of formless, free-floating impulse that hovers about like a pregnant cloud. Fortunately, blogging is a kind of catharsis for the restless. Nothing eases an active mind like seeing your ideas materialize in a meaningful way in front of you, which is to say I write for myself first and foremost. This blog acts as both heat sink and hard drive, helping me offload scattered collections of thoughts and organize them into a coherent whole.
First, let me (with the help of WikiPedia) explain the difference between atheism and non-theism. It is in the form of a diagram:
As an atheist and former theist I am on occasion asked what it would take to change my mind on this central metaphysical question. What met conditions or circumstances would reincorporate into my worldview the conviction that God exists and, more specifically, that Christianity offers the best explanation for the world we observe?
However we may currently identify, and however strong our convictions in any one area, we must take these questions seriously. If we possess well considered reasons justifying our beliefs, then we should also consider possibilities that could weaken or undermine those beliefs. A worldview which can never be moved around, reconfigured into different shapes, is a worldview better characterized by creed and dogma than by epistemic openness and intellectual integrity. If we are to be responsible in our commitment to truth, our positions must ultimately be defeasible — open to revision in light of new information — lest we fall victim to playing tennis without the net.
With this in mind, my overriding approach is that a belief should be demonstrable on the weight of evidence and argument. If new information is forthcoming, if the evidence (or interpretation of that evidence) changes, or if arguments with greater explanatory scope and internal consistency are offered, it is our epistemic duty to honestly assess these new inputs and what it entails for our existing orientation. This is a basic feature used to build conclusions in philosophy and science and can be broadly exported to other areas of our discourse.
Before we dive in, it will be useful to clarify an oft-omitted distinction that tends to bog down discussions on this topic. The distinction is that between a “direct participant” deity — the god of theism — who intervenes in space and time and cares about how the drama of life plays out, and the noninterventionist, “absentee landlord” variety of deism. The latter is irrelevantbecause its existence and nonexistence are logically identical (from our perspective) and thus is not the focus of this essay. Rather, I will deal here with the former, a transcendent being that has a hand in the natural order and is in some sense involved in the affairs of humans. This is the territory of theism, the regime with the most relevance to our daily lives and metaphysical luggage.
The “God Hypothesis”
Contrary to some atheists, I don’t subscribe to the notion that there is, in principle or otherwise, a falsifiable “God hypothesis.” Refuting God is not like refuting the proposition All swans are white by finding a gaggle of black-plumaged swans in Scandinavia, thereby bringing us closer to the truth about the nature of swans. While I do think certain religious beliefs have been rendered untenable by the lights of modern science and historical inquiry, I don’t think we can definitively adjudge an entity’s nonexistence in the case of theism.
What we can do, however, is point out the lack of evidence where evidence ought to be — in other words, build an evidential case for nonexistence. And this is where popular conceptions of theism tend to break apart, because a god that intervenes in space and time is a god that is accessible to scientific study. In a world where Christians and other monotheists profess belief in a meddler god who influenced ancient texts, answers prayers, appoints semi-sane politicians to run for office, and worked all manner of miracles throughout history, the utter vacuum of evidence for such assertions begins to speak volumes. If demons and angels and spirits and souls were part of the furniture of reality, then their effects in the world should have been clearly documented by now. Given all that is attributed to these ethereal entities, this paradox should at the very least strike a person as strange.
Accordingly, though we may not be able to conclusively rule out the God of theism and his confederacy of celestial beings — à la Russell’s teapot — we can be reasonably confident that no such entities exist, in short, because things that don’t exist leave no evidence behind. They can’t, after all, because they don’t exist.
If we want to be more careful in our language here, rather than claim outright that God does not exist we can simply say that we see no good evidence for God, and therefore (recalling John Dewey) a verdict cannot be reached on the question unless and until good reasons to warrant the belief are found. It’s an important distinction, in the same way that a jury for a criminal trial either finds sufficient evidence to convict, or not. A ‘not guilty’ verdict does not mean the defendant is innocent, only that there is insufficient evidence to establish guilt.
The purpose here is to offer 20 examples that would move a jury, namely me, beyond reasonable doubt. In so doing, we will look at a number of expectations that could be considered consistent with the claim that God exists and then see how those expectations correspond to the world we actually observe. As noted above, most of the following will interface with the generic god of theism and in the process make direct contact with Christianity in particular. My personal view is that a wider appreciation of reality reveals a universe that does not appear the way we would expect if theism were true, leaving nonbelief as a supremely rational position to hold.
1. If evolution were false. That is to say, if our scientific understanding of the diversity of life were irreparably refuted. The theological challenge presented by common descent has less to do with any putative conflict between science and fundamentalist religion than the larger dissonance it poses for teleological value systems. Those who flippantly maintain that evolution and faith are compatible rarely come to terms with what the great Book of Nature really tells us: We are an evolutionary accident, an infinitesimal, stochastically produced whimper in a four billion-year chain of existence that when compressed to a single year has man emerging within the final fifteen minutes of the calendar. If we truly are God’s chosen — the foreordained purpose of all that is and ever will be — why so much time spent with “unensouled” microbes?
This can be a tough pill to swallow precisely because it taps into something more profound than clumsy interpretations of ancient texts. Not only do evolution and deep time blunt our cosmic significance, but its ends are achieved through the instrument of death. Within the context of natural selection, death is not an unnatural state but is in fact integral to the process: it is the mechanism by which less fit individuals are removed from the gene pool, allowing those left standing to carry on. The corrosive influence of this most foundational of scientific formalisms was perhaps best expressed in a letter to the editor popularized by the late Stephen Jay Gould:
“Pope John Paul II’s acceptance of evolution touches the doubt in my heart. The problem of pain and suffering in a world created by a God who is all love and light is hard enough to bear, even if one is a creationist. But at least a creationist can say that the original creation, coming from the hand of God was good, harmonious, innocent and gentle. What can one say about evolution, even a spiritual theory of evolution? Pain and suffering, mindless cruelty and terror are its means of creation. Evolution’s engine is the grinding of predatory teeth upon the screaming, living flesh and bones of prey…If evolution be true, my faith has rougher seas to sail.”
Those who prefer a “God-guided” evolutionary model, moreover, must contend with the abundance of suboptimal design and overt inefficiencies with which nature is replete. Classic examples like the recurrent laryngeal nerve and the crossing of the air and food passages in vertebrates seem far removed from the realized premeditated vision of a competent architect. And if we owe our presence here to the illimitable wisdom of a Master Engineer who populated the planet in special acts of creation — as alleged by literalist readers of Genesis — we would not expect the rampant dysteleology evident in nature any more than we would expect the indisputable genetic, embryological, paleontological, and biogeographic evidence pointing to common descent.
Far from suggesting humanity occupies the climax of any cosmic production, the available evidence suggests we are an accidental scene in an otherwise haphazardly produced drama. The privileged plank on which so many religions place humanity is permanently deposed through the lens of evolution. To believe that there is some discarnate, phantasmic agency out there that harbors deep concern for our species is perhaps the most delusional, nay, conceited notion one can countenance.
2. If God appeared to me or made its presence known to me. The canonical gospels of the Christian New Testament are filled with post-mortem appearances. Jesus is said to have appeared to Cephas (Saint Peter) and the apostles, and to more than 500 others. In the Hebrew Bible Yahweh appears to Moses so often the two are on a first-name basis. A god concerned about the affairs of its creation, about what we believe and our eventual destination, could appear to every one of us, convincing us instantly of its existence and preeminence — yet we are left only with silence. Indeed, a direct manifestation would very likely convince me posthaste, though I would of course first ensure that I had not been in a chemically induced or comatose state at the time.
3. If we were not made of “star stuff.” Imagine the human race were composed of material utterly foreign to the rest of the cosmos. Suppose that baked into our biology were elements or unique forms of matter or energy not found in any other species, or anywhere else in the universe. Such radical discontinuity would at the very least be tantalizing enough to wax poetic about our “specialness.” Drawing a straight line from here to Jesus would be rather naïve, as scientific inquiry could lead us to other, more mundane reasons for our sui generiscomposition. But this would be a good launching pad for theism.
As the science shows, however, there are universal inheritance patterns linking up the diversity of all life on Earth. The DNA and RNA found in all living things — from microbes and archaea to plants and mammals — are altered over time in response to changing circumstances, with more closely related kin sharing more features (and DNA) in common than more remote kin. Our bodies are littered with echoes of Homo sapiens’ evolutionary ancestry — from retroviral DNA, pseudogenes, and vestigial structures to the assortment of point mutations we share with our chimpanzee cousins. We all come from common clay, an inspiring and beautiful fact in its own right.
4. If a natural disaster were stopped in its tracks. There would be no explaining away a major cataclysm being miraculously averted, say, the tsunami which thumped the island of Sumatra in December 2004, laying waste to a quarter million people, 40% of which were children. A hurricane that mysteriously changed direction or an approaching asteroid that was inexplicably deflected away from Earth, trouncing the known laws of physics: divine involvement of this magnitude would likely blow the lid off my ideological center. By contrast, the biblical Yahweh saw fit to intervene on behalf of the fleeing Israelites by parting the Red Sea, and on behalf of Elisha by issuing flesh-hungry bears to maul his antagonizers. Alas, the God of the Bible has apparently grown lax over the years.
The problem of justice in a world created by a personal force remains unsolved, though certainly not unchallenged. The moral position on matters of avertable harms declares the bystander to be guilty, and as the eternal Bystander, God, should he exist, must be indicted as the worst offender of all.
5. If the efficacy of prayer could be conclusively demonstrated as superior to modern medical remedies. To date there have been several well-controlled, double-blind studies on the efficacy of prayer. In each of these studies, the null hypothesis was confirmed (i.e., prayer was shown to have no effect on patient condition). One of the largest and most significant of these studies was funded by the Templeton Foundation, who of course was trying to prove the opposite. Templeton solicited Christian petitioners across America and provided them with the first name and last initial of 1,802 patients to pray for. The whole unctuous affair lasted for months, and the results were published in the American Heart Journal in April 2006. No relationship observed.1
6. If we were to observe a true medical miracle. Qualifying phenomena include an amputee regrowing a limb — a capacity granted to starfish and many reptiles but not to us — or some other marvel outside the confines of our genetic toolkit. Or perhaps one of the millions of children who die every year being resurrected after declared death. Were the saints in Matthew more precious than these children, year after year?
7. If miracles like the ones crowding the Bible had occurred since the arrival of video cameras and modern methods of recording and preservation. Contrasting the Yahweh who intervened spectacularly in ancient times — taking up residence in a burning bush, raining fire down from the sky to establish Baal’s inferiority — or the Jesus who walked on water and transformed it into wine, with the utter absence of such enchanting productions following the arrival of video capture would seem to clinch the case against Judeo-Christianity almost singlehandedly. A falloff in miracle claims at precisely the moment our technology is capable of documenting them is not what we would expect were God as active in the world as many believers proclaim.
8. If we found two cultures who had independently received an identical revelation. As secular author David McAfee has noted, “If one religion were ‘true’, we would expect to see, even if only once in all of recorded history, a religious missionary that had stumbled upon a culture that shared the same revelations — brought forth by the same deity.”
Were we to discover that two uncontacted peoples inhabiting opposite ends of the planet worshipped the same god, lionized the same verbatim scriptures, and were bestowed duplicate revelations, this would strongly suggest divine origin or supernatural agency. Even more convincing would be the arrival of an extraterrestrial civilization that was found to have had an identical revelation to one here on Earth.
Instead, what we have found is that geography and birthparents are the leading predictors for religious affiliation. Which god one believes in and which values one adheres to are predominantly determined by the culture in which one happens to be born. This is not what we should expect if a single revelation had a more tactile connection to the truth. We find, moreover, that none of the major world religions sync up with one another; many are mutually contradictory, and even members of the same religion often disagree as much among themselves as they do with those of other faiths. Within the framework of personal revelation, we should expect more consensus in the realm of religious experience, with internal agreement and conversion rates tipped in favor of those claims with something real behind them.
Religious demographics are better explained anthropologically, in which cultural traditions, beliefs, and norms are largely rooted in that culture’s heritage and social environment. And this is as true now as it was in the ancient world. The biblical writers, like those of the Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu scriptures, drew from and adapted existing ideas to speak to their particular historical perspective.
9. If divine messages were embedded within our mathematical or physical laws.Were we to find some hidden intelligible code in our numeral systems or field equations escaping all plausible coincidence, this might suggest a message from above. An example could be a discernible pattern located in pi‘s unending chain of decimals that only makes sense in the context of Hindu or Christian scriptures. Suppose the pattern could be cross-walked perfectly to our oldest biblical manuscripts in their original Hebrew or Greek to the extent that we could read the scriptures strictly from the decimals. Or perhaps a string of prime numbers that could not possibly have arisen by sheer chance and carried unmistakable signs of intelligence.2
This one is abstract, and astute sci-fi fans will recognize traces of these ideas from Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact.
The Problem of Senseless Suffering
10. If there were not 10,000 different genetic disorders, and counting. The wrong DNA in the wrong place can prove fatal to those with lackluster genetic heritage. Maladies big and small, especially those occurring throughout one’s life, can usually be traced to irregularities in one or a combination of genes. Some gene-based diseases threaten our quality of life and beleaguer us daily, while others kill us outright with devastating effectiveness. Such malfunctions of our biological makeup account for more than 150,000 babies per year in the U.S. alone who die from birth defects during or shortly after birth. That’s 411 every single day that an all-powerful God must choose not to rescue.
Granted, these tragic circumstances are simply the result of evolution in action paired with imperfect cell repair mechanisms. Unless we were to short-circuit the very processes which keep us humming along, genetic mistakes will continue to be a part of life for the foreseeable future. But surely that doesn’t prevent God from tidying up some of the delinquent DNA we’ve accumulated across evolutionary time. Could a God who fashioned cellular superstructures not rid our species of this “natural evil” that nudges us toward mortality through no fault of our own?
11. If the infant mortality rate (IMR) dropped faster than could be accounted for by scientific advances.IMR is the total number of newborn babies who die under one year of age divided by the total number of births per year. Two hundred years ago, there was a 50 percent chance of your child not surviving past its first year. By 1850, IMR for babies born in America was 217 per 1,000 for whites and 340 for African Americans. By 1950, global IMR was down to 152 per 1,000 babies born (15.2 percent).
It is thanks to advancements in medicine and biomedical science that these numbers have been reduced to 4.3 percent today and continue to fall. Were this rate to experience a sudden sharp drop on a global scale that could not be explained by improvements in healthcare, it might just indicate that God is looking out for us and cares what happens down here.
Yet nothing like this has been observed. New life is still shuttered at staggering rates across the third world from malnutrition, infectious diseases, and a miscellany of genetic factors. One can only imagine how high these numbers have climbed historically, prior to when these types of records were kept. Salvation of these newborns has clearly been delivered by the hands of science, not by any god or goddess.
12. If the people of one religion experienced dramatically less suffering relative to all others. Consider that in 1990 around 12.6 million children died who were under the age of five. In 2011 the under-five toll was 7 million, and this figure is lower by about two-thirds compared with just a couple of centuries prior. One of the leading causes is malnourishment and starvation, which currently affects 800 million people — 11 percent of the world population — many of whom will not survive to the end of the year. Hunger alone accounts for more than a third of child mortality.
To put these figures in perspective, consider that every 4.5 seconds some under-five child will have died somewhere around the world. By the time you have finished reading this essay, and while men and women of faith are thanking God for parking spots and promotions, some several dozen children will have perished in misery, most likely from overwhelmingly Christian countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Yahweh is portrayed in the Bible as the Ultimate Provider, showering manna from the sky to nourish the Israelites in time of need. Once again, we see this deity has apparently grown more callous with time.
If a single faith group were special enough to reap God’s favor, we might expect different outcomes among the world’s religions. Against the harsh realities outlined above, we might see longer life expectancies, lower infant, child, and maternal mortality, fewer epidemics, and an overall higher quality of life for Jain-majority communities, say. Yet religion doesn’t seem to play a role in any of these factors, each of which are better predicted by geography, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare. If anything it is non-religious societies which predominantly meet these conditions. Indeed, as Greg Gaffin writes in Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God:
“By every objective measure, open, liberal, secular societies are healthier than closed, bigoted, superstitious ones. Countries with a high percentage of nonbelievers are among the freest, most stable, best educated, and healthiest nations on earth. When nations are ranked according to a Human Development Index, which measures such factors as life expectancy, literacy rates, and educational attainment, the five highest-ranked countries — Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands — all have high degrees of nonbelief. Of the fifty countries at the bottom of the index, all are intensely religious.”
13. If we did not have such a somber record of mass extinctions. Our excavation of the past has revealed that the glamour and diversity of life on Earth was punctuated by great loss and collapse. Depending on how you count species, anywhere from 30 billion to 4,000 billion (that’s 4 trillion) have met their demise, which means that 99.99 percent of everything that has ever lived is no longer with us.
The most recent event was the Chicxulub impact marking the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary. This 10-mile wide asteroid not only laid the dinosaurs to rest but wiped out 75 percent of all extant species. Yet even this is eclipsed by the Permian-Triassic (P-Tr) extinction, the most ruinous event on record. Swings in climate and geologic activity around 252 mya saw 96 percent of all marine life and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrates blink out of existence. In taxonomic terms, some 57 percent of all families and 83 percent of all genera along the tree of life went extinct, as did over 90 percent of all species sea, land, and air.
What is the most reasonable inference one can draw from these facts? I submit that an omniamorous creator god is about the last thing one would deduce from such information.
14. If our own species had not been jerked to the precipice of extinction multiple times in our relatively brief time on this planet. Consider man’s evolutionary past. Anatomically modern humans first arose around 200,000 years ago. For our ancestors, life was less a gift than a burdensome, calamitous, and affliction-laden existence. The absence of anything we would call medicine or quality of life meant death was a hurried and unrelenting affair, with average life expectancy hovering below age thirty.
Disasters such as the supervolcanoes of Yellowstone and Lake Toba, genetic diseases, epidemics, and virus outbreaks variously culled our population numbers to the low thousands in a series of bottlenecks that very nearly signaled the death knell for our species. At our nadir, we were but a few thousand casualties short of joining the 99.99 percent of other species in annihilation. And if events had proceeded a bit differently, we might not be here at all.
It was Ambrose Bierce who wrote: “Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises.” Our universe is no idyll. Nature’s a serial killer, the boldest and most successful that’s ever lived. It’s clever, it’s ruthless, and it’s highly efficient. Indeed, it seems as if the universe was engineered for the express purpose of snuffing out life forms with unmetered brutality. Is such a universe consistent with a benevolent God?3
Christianity’s House of Cards
15. If the Bible were non-discrepant, free of error, and internally consistent. A central feature of revealed religion is that God authors books. He doesn’t code software. He doesn’t produce feature films or compose plays. Rather, within the narrative of Judeo-Christianity, God is said to have inspired a diverse collection of writings sometime between the years 1000 BCE and 135 CE. What might we expect of a corpus inspired by the Creator of the universe? Maybe not one riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Given the claims made on its behalf, we would expect to find a level of perfection which transcends that of ordinary, man-made works, and such excellence would be positive evidence in favor of those claims. We do not find this.
No religious texts pass this test.
16. If the Bible, or any purported holy text, contained prescient moral and scientific truths. What about matters of ethics and morality and insights about the physical world? Here again, given the extraordinary claims made on its behalf, the Bible should exhibit an ethical blueprint that transcends the rate of cultural evolution observed across history. Yet on issues such as slavery, the status of women, penalties for various innocuous (and imaginary) crimes, and the treatment of unbelievers, the biblical texts are found to be par for the Bronze Age course.
Consider the issue of slavery. In the time of St. Paul and the other New Testament writers, enslavement was a common and completely accepted social institution, as ubiquitous in Judea, Galilee, and the Roman Empire writ large as stock trading is to our own. What better opportunity to condemn in clear and certain terms and bring an early end to a practice that would haunt and oppress the underprivileged for the better part of the next two thousand years? Yet neither Paul nor any other biblical figure is recorded as saying anything in opposition. Not even Jesus, supposed moral exemplar to the stars, utters a word against slaveholding.4
Likewise, the Bible is bereft of insights about the universe: no scientific precocity, nothing that has stood the test of time. As Sam Harris has noted, there isn’t a single sentence in the Bible that could not be uttered by someone today or that could not have been uttered “by someone for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.” If within the pages of the Bible or other (prescientific) text we were to find passages on DNA, electricity, principles of infectious disease, astronomical and cosmological truths, references to common descent and DNA, quarks, Higgs or other subatomic particles, then one could easily advance a sensible case for divine inspiration.
As it stands, the Bible, like other primitive works, is a product of its time. Its authors betray a manifest ignorance on matters pertaining to nature and ethical judgment, just as we would expect of a work sprung from the ancient world. The confluence of these problems casts considerable doubt on the very idea that the Judeo-Christian texts are of heavenly origin. If truly these were instructional messages vouchsafed to humanity by an all-knowledgeable, all-loving agency, we should expect to see the apotheosis of ethical counsel, the consummation of moral enlightenment, and the cutting edge in cosmic literacy. We do not find this.
17. If the biblical texts were purely preserved. Most Christians assume their nicely printed and bound book, conveniently translated into modern English idiom, contains the pure, unvarnished words passed down from their time of origin. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, we have not one of the autographs (originals) for any text in either the Old or New Testaments. As with any document from antiquity, the originals were lost or destroyed a long time ago. What survives are copies of the originals several centuries removed from their point of provenance.
When we compare the later manuscripts to our earliest witnesses, we find hundreds of thousands of variants, some material in nature (the alternate endings for Mark’s gospel, the Johanine Comma, the silencing and disesteeming of women in Paul’s epistles), some less so (innocent copy errors and the like). The evidence of our manuscript traditions confirms that these texts have been edited, revised, and redacted down through the centuries, often by way of mistake but also for theological and political motives, and the further back we go in the catalog the more errors that appear. If God deemed it prudent to deliver us a textbook of instruction, then why was the same care not taken in preserving it for us?
“For most people, the Bible is a non-problematic book. What people don’t realize is that they’re reading translations of texts, and we don’t have the originals. Given the circumstance that God didn’t preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable to me that he hadn’t gone to the trouble of inspiring them.” —Bart Ehrman
18. If we had a more reliable historical record of the life and deeds of Jesus. As far as we know, Jesus didn’t leave any writings of his own behind, and neither did any of his disciples (who were most likely illiterate; see here and here) or anyone who knew him. Christians are often surprised to learn that we don’t actually know who wrote the gospels; the titles we see at the top today were added centuries later. The gospel accounts were written anonymously by Greek-speaking persons (read: not Aramaic) several decades after Jesus’ death.
To be fair, Jesus is hardly alone on this score. Our surviving sources for most historical figures are non-autographic, non-eyewitness, and in many cases irreconcilably contradictory. This does not mean historical reconstruction is impossible, but it does complicate the task. Where Jesus differs relative to most figures from the ancient world is, firstly, that accounts of him have come down to us in the form of the gospels, which are largely theological in nature. Particularly compared to other contemporary works by the Roman-era Josephus, Tacitus, Plutarch, or Suetonius, we are not reading rote history when we read the canonical material.
Second, many of the miracles attributed to him we would expect to be externally attested if they did in fact occur. Mark tells of a darkness which covered the earth upon Jesus’ last breath and is strangely specific as to its duration (from noon to three in the afternoon). Matthew describes a rock-splitting earthquake accompanied by a parade of corpses leaving empty tombs behind. Paul informs us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at once. Surely these goings-on made it into other writings of the day? Except nowhere outside the Bible do we find mention of any of these miraculous events. Not even the other New Testament writers mention them.
In fact, the only legitimate references we have to Jesus outside the New Testament canon are from the Jewish historian Josephus, writing around 93 CE, and the Roman senator-cum-historian Tacitus, writing in the second century. And neither make any mention of the miracle wonders front and center in the gospel narratives. Taken together, the scattered and contradictory nature of the historical sources calls into question any confidence surrounding the details of his life, leaving the truth about what he said and did largely inaccessible and uncertain.
It’s important to note here that such silence and contradiction are not evidence against the very existence of Jesus as a historical figure. The reality is that Jesus simply did not make that big a splash in his day. That the source material is so scant is only surprising or problematic if one subscribes to Jesus the miracle-worker as opposed to Jesus the obscure, illiterate, penniless Jew whose life was posthumously embellished by his most devoted followers. Thus the fact that we have no extra-canonical sources for Jesus’ miracles merely serves as evidence against the historicity of those miracles, not against the historicity of Jesus himself.5
19. If Christianity were not so divided and had not repeatedly found itself on the wrong side of history, all the while citing divine revelation. Christians claim their God embodies absolute morality, yet they are in absolute disagreement over what those morals are. One would expect a group with a direct landline to the Creator to agree upon moral matters. They do not. And they have not. With no modicum of irony, those with no religion tend to experience much greater unity on ethical matters than do religionists.
In the same way, Christians claim their faith is uniquely characterized by a relationship with God, yet they are in consummate disagreement over God’s nature and God’s will and basic Christian doctrine, testified by the 41,000+ denominations and splinter sects. When it would take the better part of a lifetime or two to sift through all of these non-negotiable disagreements and sub-disagreements, clearly we have missed the revelation. Is God not available for an air-clearing Q&A to set the record straight?
20. In a certain sense, the foregoing is ultimately beside the point. It stands to reason that an infinitely wise god that made entrance to heaven dependent on proper belief would know exactly what criteria each of us would require. An all-knowing god that craves certain convictions on the part of bipedal mammals and longs for our attention in the form of a personal relationship would doubtless find this essay of marginal utility. An infinitely capable god that cares sincerely about the safe haven of our souls would spare no expense, and leave no measure untaken, in ensuring our demands for evidence had been met.
That the god theists insist is real and present in our world has altogether failed to do so may point to the thin foundation on which these belief systems rest. A god that has made itself impossible to detect — that, indeed, has ostensibly crafted a universe using processes indistinguishable from nature itself — and neglected to act on our behalf when and where such intercession was most desperately needed, undercuts our expectations of a cosmos governed by a benevolent watchman.
“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.”
—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787
I challenge my Christian friends to compile a similar list. If practicing theists were genuinely concerned with the truth of their beliefs, they should be able to replicate this exercise. What array of facts, happenings, or circumstances might it take to convince a theist of the truth of atheism?
Interestingly, in the single blind study (where the patients were aware they were being prayed for), the patient’s condition actually worsened. It is thought that anxiety crept in because the patients assumed they should be recovering since they were being prayed for, and when they didn’t, this stressed them out even more than the illness itself.[↩]
That the world contains too much suffering for it to be the creation of a good God is an idea dating back to the days of Epicurus. Often when the argument from evil is raised, the theist will respond by calling attention to all of the goodness and beauty in the world. Consider Van Gogh and Picasso, Roethke and Rachmaninov, Mozart and Chopin and Bach and Miles Davis, or Caravaggio and Rothko, they may intone. But can this not be turned around? To whom, then, should we be grateful for the likes of Elizabeth Bathory, Talat Pasha, Josef Mengele, Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, Kim Il Sung, Nero, Caligula, Ivan the Terrible, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or Vlad the Impaler?If you would count the former ensemble as evidence for God, in the interest of consistency is it not only fair you should count the latter cast as evidence against God? This thought experiment has been posed by a number of philosophers, including most recently Stephen Law in the form of the “Evil God Challenge” (YouTube animation here; foreword to a new book by John Zande here). The argument contends the following: If goodness is sufficient evidence to rule out the existence of a supremely evil being, then why isn’t evil sufficient evidence to rule out a supremely good being? Try though they might, theists cannot have their cake and eat it too.[↩]
As historian Morton Smith has argued: “There were innumerable slaves of the emperor and of the Roman State; the Jerusalem Temple owned slaves; the High Priest owned slaves (one of them lost an ear in Jesus’ arrest); all of the rich and almost all of the middle class owned slaves. So far as we are told, Jesus never attacked this practice. He took the state of affairs for granted and shaped his parables accordingly. As Jesus presents things, the main problem for the slaves is not to get free, but to win their master’s praise. There seem to have been slave revolts in Palestine and Jordan in Jesus’ youth (Josephus, Bellum, 2:55-65); a miracle-working leader of such a revolt would have attracted a large following. If Jesus had denounced slavery or promised liberation, we should almost certainly have heard of his doing it. We hear nothing, so the most likely supposition is that he said nothing.”[↩]
Myth and legend often, but not always, point to some historical kernel. Just because we have no good reasons to accept the fantastical claims attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, for example — on whose body it is said miraculously appeared stigmata impressed by a seraph with six wings — does not ipso facto give us reason to doubt the very existence of the figure behind them. Mythological accretion over time is common to sacred narratives, however historically rooted those narratives may originally have been. What I have found is that those who are quick to reject the consensus of scholarship (on any question, not just the historical Jesus question) do so because it is ideologically convenient for them to do so.From my perspective, the question “Did Jesus exist?” is an uninteresting one, and I would go so far as to say an irrelevant one, at least for the naturalist, because the question of historicity is subordinate to the much larger questions about supernaturalism, whether gods exist, and so forth. If we have good reasons for thinking the miracles and other supernatural contents of the gospels amount to fiction and fabrication, then should it matter that an itinerant, parabolic sermonizer was perambulating around Galilee two thousand years ago? If the figure to which the gospels point was exclusively human, endowed with no different attributes from you and I, then the question of historicity should strike the naturalist as trivial. If Jesus existed, he was simply another self-styled prophet about whom legendary stories developed. And if Jesus was merely an historicized amalgam of antecedent mythology, the naturalist position is no more or less secure.Of course, the Christian faith is pinned entirely on whether the gospel accounts are historically true as regards the nature of Jesus. So the better question is, “What kind of Jesus existed?” An answer to this question in line with Christian orthodoxy is very difficult to defend. Given how much of the gospel accounts is considered historically dubious — such as the fabrications surrounding Jesus’ birth, in which the Septuagint’s mistranslation of the Hebrew rendering for “young woman” in Isaiah was used by the author of Matthew to render ‘parthenos‘ (‘virgin’); the likely fictitious trial before Pontius Pilate; the three-hour darkness that apparently no contemporary observer noticed; the rock-splitting earthquake that history apparently felt apt to omit; the parades of corpses thronging the streets of Jerusalem for which there exists no extra-canonical account — what confidence do we have in the central tenets of Christian faith that have coalesced around the figure of Jesus, namely that he performed miracles in violation of physical law and physical causality culminating in that pinnacle of contra-physics known as the resurrection? Unfortunately, it doesn’t give us much confidence at all.In short, sure, a rabbi touting himself as the Messiah likely existed with some threadbare connection to the narratives in the gospels, along with the scores of other Messianic figures around that time period who and for whom were claimed many of the same things. But this isn’t what all the hubbub was ever about.
Well if you have read to the end then you are to be congratulated.
I think it is the best argument that I have seen for the truth. I greatly admire the many people in the world that believe in some form of religion, especially in the USA, but as that quote above from Robert De Niro says: “If there is a God then he has a lot to answer for!”
Chris Impey writes about his specialty in observational cosmology.
This has nothing to do with life, nothing that we are dealing with in our daily affairs, and has nothing to do with our dear dogs. BUT! This is incredibly interesting! Incredibly and beautifully interesting!
The most powerful space telescope ever built will look back in time to the Dark Ages of the universe
I’m an astronomer with a specialty in observational cosmology – I’ve been studying distant galaxies for 30 years. Some of the biggest unanswered questions about the universe relate to its early years just after the Big Bang. When did the first stars and galaxies form? Which came first, and why? I am incredibly excited that astronomers may soon uncover the story of how galaxies started because James Webb was built specifically to answer these very questions.
The ‘Dark Ages’ of the universe
Excellent evidence shows that the universe started with an event called the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, which left it in an ultra-hot, ultra-dense state. The universe immediately began expanding after the Big Bang, cooling as it did so. One second after the Big Bang, the universe was a hundred trillion miles across with an average temperature of an incredible 18 billion F (10 billion C). Around 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was 10 million light years across and the temperature had cooled to 5,500 F (3,000 C). If anyone had been there to see it at this point, the universe would have been glowing dull red like a giant heat lamp.
Throughout this time, space was filled with a smooth soup of high energy particles, radiation, hydrogen and helium. There was no structure. As the expanding universe became bigger and colder, the soup thinned out and everything faded to black. This was the start of what astronomers call the Dark Ages of the universe.
The soup of the Dark Ages was not perfectly uniform and due to gravity, tiny areas of gas began to clump together and become more dense. The smooth universe became lumpy and these small clumps of denser gas were seeds for the eventual formation of stars, galaxies and everything else in the universe.
Although there was nothing to see, the Dark Ages were an important phase in the evolution of the universe.
Looking for the first light
The Dark Ages ended when gravity formed the first stars and galaxies that eventually began to emit the first light. Although astronomers don’t know when first light happened, the best guess is that it was several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers also don’t know whether stars or galaxies formed first.
Current theories based on how gravity forms structure in a universe dominated by dark matter suggest that small objects – like stars and star clusters – likely formed first and then later grew into dwarf galaxies and then larger galaxies like the Milky Way. These first stars in the universe were extreme objects compared to stars of today. They were a million times brighter but they lived very short lives. They burned hot and bright and when they died, they left behind black holes up to a hundred times the Sun’s mass, which might have acted as the seeds for galaxy formation.
Astronomers would love to study this fascinating and important era of the universe, but detecting first light is incredibly challenging. Compared to massive, bright galaxies of today, the first objects were very small and due to the constant expansion of the universe, they’re now tens of billions of light years away from Earth. Also, the earliest stars were surrounded by gas left over from their formation and this gas acted like fog that absorbed most of the light. It took several hundred million years for radiation to blast away the fog. This early light is very faint by the time it gets to Earth.
But this is not the only challenge.
As the universe expands, it continuously stretches the wavelength of light traveling through it. This is called redshift because it shifts light of shorter wavelengths – like blue or white light – to longer wavelengths like red or infrared light. Though not a perfect analogy, it is similar to how when a car drives past you, the pitch of any sounds it is making drops noticeably. Similar to how a pitch of a sound drops if the source is moving away from you, the wavelength of light stretches due to the expansion of the universe.
By the time light emitted by an early star or galaxy 13 billion years ago reaches any telescope on Earth, it has been stretched by a factor of 10 by the expansion of the universe. It arrives as infrared light, meaning it has a wavelength longer than that of red light. To see first light, you have to be looking for infrared light.
Telescope as a time machine
Enter the James Webb Space Telescope.
Telescopes are like time machines. If an object is 10,000 light-years away, that means the light takes 10,000 years to reach Earth. So the further out in space astronomers look, the further back in time we are looking.
James Webb is the most technically difficult mission NASA has ever attempted. But I think the scientific questions it may help answer will be worth every ounce of effort. I and other astronomers are waiting excitedly for the data to start coming back sometime in 2022.
I heard yesterday from Erik Hoffner who is responsible for the Mongabay website that Bill McKibben is stepping up to the mark in wanting to take action regarding climate change.
I very quickly signed up and received the following email:
Many thanks for signing up to be a part—and we hope a big part—of Third Act.
My name is Bill McKibben, and I’m one of the volunteers helping to launch this effort for Americans 60 and older who want to build a fairer and more sustainable nation and planet.
We’re very much in the early days of this, and we need your help—especially if you’re good at the behind-the-scenes tasks like administration, development, and project management. If you’ve got some time to donate right now, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And we will be back in touch as autumn rolls on, with some early campaigns focused on climate action and on ending voter suppression. As you can tell, we’re making this up as we go along. So it should be interesting, and also a little bumpy!
If you can assemble a sizable group of people, I’ll do my best to join you for a virtual talk to explain more about this idea. (And when the pandemic ends, we’ll try to do it in person!).
And if you can donate some small sum of money to help with the launch, here’s the place.
Thank you. This is our time to make some powerful change—we’ve got the skills, the resources, and the desire. So let’s try.
We’re over 60—the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation. We have skills, we have resources, we have time—and many of us have kids and grandkids. We also have a history. In our early years we saw remarkable shifts in politics and society; now, in our latter years, we want to see those changes made real and lasting.
We were there for the first Earth Day, and we’ve been glad to see cleaner air and water—but now we know that the climate crisis presents an unparalleled threat. The heat is on and we must act quickly to turn it down.
We watched or participated in the civil rights movement—and now we know that its gains were not enough, and that gaps in wealth have only widened in our lifetimes. We’ve got to repair divisions instead of making them worse. We saw democracy expand—and now we’re seeing it contract, as voter suppression and gerrymandering threaten the core of the American experiment. We know that real change can only come if we all get to participate.
You are the key to this work. Maybe you’ve asked yourself: how can I give back on a scale that matters? The answer is, by working with others to build movements strong enough to matter. That’s why we hope you’ll join us.
Clearly I have signed up and I hope an enormous number of other people will do as well.
Because the time left is not very long and even me at the age of 76 fear for the near future if nothing is done urgently.