Sunday, 2 October 2011

Harvest festival fun

One of the joys of living in a rural area of southern England is that a few of the festivals of the local church have an almost secular air.  One such event is Harvest Festival which appears to be more to be an excuse for a village party rather than an opportunity to thank god for his goodness, although if I remember correctly, that is not what the farmers were doing this spring when it was unusually dry!

You might not expect that I would go to such an event, being a confirmed non-christian as I now am.  But it was great value for money and a great chance to catch up with some of the lovely local characters who don't see me in church any more.

Perhaps a greater surprise though, is that two of the three ordained clergy who were present were on the same table, and that I (possibly the only 'out' atheist in the room) found myself sitting between the two of them.  That is not to say that there were not other atheists there.  They just keep quite and enjoy being 'social members' of the club of christians.

The current vicar has been in the parish for a couple of years and I have found him to be very interesting to talk to whenever I have met him.  (Apparently his sermons are not entirely scintillating, but then again I only ever heard one or two that were.)  His newly arrived colleague was less easy to talk to and we stuck to 'safe' topics of where he had lived before and tales about children who are at university age.

I found myself muttering darkly only once (having survived the opening prayer and saying of grace unscathed).  There was a quiz and one of the questions was about the origins of the concept of Harvest Festival.  Apparently it is a pagan festival, and it was only adopted by the Church of England in the 1800s, originally in Cornwall. Some were surprised.  My only surprise was this had been adopted so recently.  I nearly completely managed not to say anything when the answer "it was originally a pagan festival" was revealed - even though I wanted to shout out "just like Christmas and Easter!".

After the main course had been enjoyed, the vicar wanted to ask a physics question - as several people already had asked before the meal started.  Yes, you guessed it!  'The neutrinos question' - do they really break the laws of physics?  I might return to that tomorrow but the answers are everywhere on the internet and it was a great opportunity to make it clear to the non-scientists that physicists like nothing better than a really good mystery.

And then the discussion gradually moved around to a more religious topic and I was very surprised to feel that I was at the very least able to hold my own in a discussion with a 'man of god' on his own subject.  Having discussed the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the theory of evolution etc, agreeing on each of them in turn, we came eventually to the question of the reality of god.  He seemed generally surprising that someone might not have a concept of the reality of god - since I am sure he has noticed before that I am not a practising christian.  He said that he was genuinely pleased that someone had asked him what evidence he had for the existence of god.  I had already acknowledged that some people feel that they have 'encountered the living Jesus' and that although this might be evidence for them, it is not evidence for me.

Ultimately of course we came to one of the old favorite questions, and he asked what would count as evidence for me.  An interesting question!  Richard Dawkins' comments came to the rescue as the answer that (for me, at the moment) is the most winning.

If studies of the efficacy of prayer discovered that, say, Catholic prayer worked better than Protestant or Muslim prayer then that would be a thing that is worth investigating scientifically.  That might ultimately count as evidence.  At the moment, the best studies show that prayer can actually be bad for you, especially if you know that you are being prayed for.

I look forward to the next encounter with the vicar.  I actually suspect that he does too.


Anonymous said...

Aha prayer, now there's a subject we can chew a question or two first; what is your understanding of what prayer is? and what, to you, constitutes evidence that a prayer has been answered?

Derby Sceptic said...

@forbsy I will refer to my Oxford Dictionary of English for the first part which defines prayer as 'a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to god or another deity'.
So you are asking for something or some help.
If you are asking, then the prayer could be deemed answered if you get what you request and it is not something that would have happened anyway.
An example which is often tested is whether praying for other people's recovery from ill health. When tested as a true blind trial it is evident that the prayer has no effect. If people are told they are being prayed for then it appears to have some effect but this can easily be explained as a placebo effect.
If you are praying to give thanks then I would anticipate there is no expected outcome so there is no evidence.

Anonymous said...

1) It is not evident that prayer has no effect. All the research I have heard about says prayer has a very positive effect. There have been many many different research 'projects' on this.

2) I have in our conversations DS, mentioned a number of times I have experienced prayer for healing being answered.

3) The main purpose of prayer is a relationship with God and in the christian faith, with Jesus Christ. Praying has the effect of changing the person or that person hearing from the Lord about direction for that person's life. I can certainly say that is my experience.

Plasma Engineer said...

@forbsy - welcome back
1/ Evidence please? I think it is actually well established that prayer is bad for the people who are being prayed for.
2/ Nice anecdotes - but, however nice, it is not data. Only double blind tests really cut the mustard as clinical trials so why should this be different? Regression to the mean is a more rational explanation. People tend to get better on their own.
3/ Nice rendering of the old argument. As you often say, these arguments come up again and again even though they have been refuted many times. It is just that this time the refutation was by the non-theistic side of the discussion whereas you usually claim the opposite.

Anonymous said...


(actually my closest friend witnessed the above event)

Also as I was telling DS on email the other day, I have heard the Lord Jesus instruct me to pray for people for a variety of reasons, one of which was for a little boy of about 3 years old, whose mother was an atheist. I asked her if I could pray for her little boy. He had been ill for a long time and had been back and forth to the doctors and nothing was working. He had a dreadful cough and chest probs. His mother agreed, and I prayed and he began getting better straight away. She also phoned a mutual friend a few days later to tell them about how he was better.

I also prayed for a friend who had been diagnosed with a cyst, she went back to the doc and the cyst had gone! This within days...

I could go them anecdotes if you like but they were all medically verified...

However, as I think I said a while back in another comment...even if you saw these with your own eyes you would not believe if you chose/choose not will choose to believe a different explanation...

Derby Sceptic said...

@forbsy PE has answered your reply to my points well.

In our email communications however I did express my concern that the healing you witnessed had no blind trial and no control so as PE points out these could well be a natural return to health.

In the case of the cyst, there are many cases of misdiagnosis documented, often because of symptoms which are open to interpretation in multiple ways. I am not medically qualified so I do not know what the prognosis is if diagnosed with a cyst and whether it could naturally heal but it is still not evidence of a supernatural power.

Anonymous said...

So let me make sure I understand you correctly.

Referring to the link I sent you, which I am presuming you read,

Jean Neil, suffered the following;

When she was just a few years married Jean experienced a fall which was to change her whole lifestyle.

She had damaged her spine and in the twenty five years that followed would need
1)repeated surgery and
2)periods of hospitalisation. Over those years, she had
3)three heart-attacks,
4)sixteen operations,
5)a hiates hernia,
6)bronchial asthma,
7)nerve-transplants in her arms due to her spinal damage and
8)even went blind for about 6 months as a side effect of medication she was on.

However,in 1988..
"Miraculously, when he prayed for her,
1)she got out of her weelchair and
2)ran round the inside of the hall the rally was being held in.

At the front of the hall the videocamera was still running and recorded the whole incident, 3)she was wonderfully healed.

4)The healing was later verified by her own GP AND the consultant, who treated her while she was in hospital.

5)In the months that followed, she began to realise that her other medical complaints had gone as well and

6)to her surprise, her optometrist informed her after a routine eyetest that her eyesight had actually improved to the point that she needed weaker, not stronger glasses.

So correct me if I misunderstood you, but you are saying that this is an invalid testimony as it was not a 'blind trial'...

Now, have I understood you correctly! So...because she was expecting to be healed, it doesn't count as evidence in the kind of evidence that you would consider to be convincing?

Plasma Engineer said...

That's a truly remarkable story. It is so utterly remarkable that it is difficult to believe it. I know you said that your best friend witnessed the event, but that's not quite what I would count as evidence. You know how stage magicians can perform amazing tricks that totally bamboozle their audiences? Some similar people earn a living as psychics or similar professions, including perhaps faith-healing. I'm sure you are aware of the possibility that people even lie sometimes.

Given the somewhat anecdotal style of the evidence, not to mention the sheer quantity of remarkable features, and given that this lady might have been cured of at least some of her ailments I still don't feel compelled to believe in a loving god who after all put her through all that pain for years and years before curing her miraculously.

I have to ask myself what is the most likely explanation of this story and I have to answer myself that I'm not convinced that it is altogether true. Sorry.

Plasma Engineer said...

p.s. I apologise that I should have added that I think it could be a perfectly valid testimony of what someone believes to be true.

But . . .

It is not evidence in any sense that science would recognise, and I am not convinced on the basis of the current testimony that it is true.

Memory is not fixed and firm. Memories are modified every time you recall them, on the basis of your learning in the intervening period.

Anonymous said...

Well I agree it is truly remarkable, and it was a very well known event at the time, and was well attested to by her GP and her consultant and it is well worth reading the rest of the account on the link.

Now, a certain amount of questioning the integriy of this lady as to if she was/is a charlaton is understandable, but...if you delve into this, and you could even go and talk with her as she attends a church in Rugby and you could attend one of her meetings which she testifies and prays for many people...

Yes, there are folk who make things up, who deliberately deceive, and I'm not suggesting you believe this account on mine or my friends' say so, but, you could investigate...

I have enough evidence and have done my own research to believe this account to be true.

Oh and by the way...when I was 28 I wore contact lenses and if you remember from my St.A's days I was pretty short sighted. I was prayed for one evening at a meeting and when I opened my eyes I could see clearly things I'd not been able to see clearly before at a certain distance.

I went back to the opticians as two weeks previous had had an eye test and had a pair of glasses prescribed so I wouldn't need to wear my lenses all the time. So I was able to compare the new test with the old result...The optician was literally scratching his head tyring to figure out why the tests were so different. It was really quite funny. I was able to chuck away my lenses and do without lenses or glasses until around 2004 (aged 44) when I began to use the computer a great deal more for work etc and my eyes began to struggle so I now wear glasses for distance and for driving again...

...but these experiences are really quite normal for a believer...but the bigger miracle is the Grace of God changing a person's life from the inside out...and I have witnessed that many many times...

1)A drug addict totally delivered from heroin, instantly!

2) An alcoholic gave his life to the Lord and was released/delivered from the addiction.

3) An embezzler in prison for fraud, converted and changed and serving God now...

I could go on and on and on with many accounts and these are people I know and/or have known...

if you want to meet any of them, let me know... :)

Plasma Engineer said...

These 'normal experiences' for believers don't seem repeatable in scientific studies. I'm struggling to work out why you think it would help if I met your witnesses and heard their testimonies. Drug addicts do that sometimes, and embezzlers are good at claiming to have found god and are rewarded by earlier parole alarming frequently. (Meanwhile you find few atheists in prisons, and whichever way you look at this, it doesn't look good for the religious.)

Anecdotes are not evidence. Systematic studies show that prayer does not achieve healing. There is something wrong with the methodology in one of the approaches and I'm not yet convinced that yours is valid in any sense at all. (Sorry.)

I recommend praying for better eyes again. In science people tend to find that cause and effect go together if they are really linked, but not if they are coincidences. But god works in mysterious ways.

My optician made a mistake in my prescription too. At the time I asked whether it was unusual for the axis of astigmatism to change by 110 degrees and she said that it was very unusual. One year of headaches later, and after another eye test, my headaches went away. By coincidence the axis of astigmatism had gone back to where it had started (even more unusually) and my new glasses were very comfortable and fashionable.

I think it must have been caused by a god. Still struggling to work out which one it was though! It is so hard to find a really nice one.

Anonymous said...

could you explain what you mean by 'anecdotes' here please, when for example in the case of Jean Neil (and all other cases I have spoke of) have been officially medically verified.

...and does your point of view mean that were you around in the time of Jesus, that if you saw a person healed, because Jesus prayed for that person, that you would call such healing anecdotal even if verified by the GPs of those days?

Derby Sceptic said...

PE has answered a lot of the issues here with regard to the claimed healing of Jean.

You report that she needed considerable surgery and many operations. The doctors would not have carried these out unless they were of benefit and therefore would contribute to her recovery.

I have also heard of temporary blindness due to medication. Often a change of medication or reduction of dose is sufficient to reverse this.

Improvement of eyesight - well as PE points out it is possible for opticians to be wrong and also as changes in prescription are caused by caused by physical changes in the eye then these can reverse naturally as well.

The healing was NOT verified by her GP or consultant - they could only verify her improved state of health, not some alleged cause. They may well be confident that it was a result of their treatments as well as a positive attitude. We particularly see the effect of a positive attitude in the service men and women who are injured on active service - they are very driven and make a better recovery than many others who just take the doctor's word for it when he says they will never walk again. I am sure some research has or will be carried out into this.

Derby Sceptic said...

If eyes can be healed by prayer, then as PE suggests you should pray for yours again.

Perhaps you could pray for mine as well - I have a total of three different conditions and not only do my glasses cost a fortune I anticipate that at my next eye test I will be told that I will lose my JAA medical certificate as a result of one or more of these.

As that eye test is scheduled for May 2012, unless I notice a significant deterioration, there is plenty of time.

I will then be able to report back the success or otherwise of this intervention. As I have no expectation that there will be any effect that is one variable taken out of the equation.

Plasma Engineer said...


The usual definition of anecdote should be applied here.

And yes - if Jesus really existed (which I am not convinced about) and I saw a 'miracle' I think my first thought would be that it was like one of the miraculous tricks of Penn and Teller.

Plasma Engineer said...


The comments have strayed off topic again. I decided to turn them into a new post which will appear early in the morning of 8th October (GMT). Perhaps we can comment further on that page. I will try to remember to post a link here when it is live.

Thanks to all.

Anonymous said...

I think the main point D.S has been totally missed here regarding Jean Neil's healing. This woman was in a wheelchair unable to walk, and in excurciating pain. At that meeting she was gloriously healed and got our of her wheelchair and RAN around the stadium where the meeting was being held. This was no result of a number of operations which had not been successful in bringing about her healing, it was not the result of an adrenalin rush only to be back to normal the next day, as her healing was total...and her GP and Consultant DID verify that she had been healed by means that was not surgery or medication!