Another Response to the Theist’s Guide

I’ve received another response to my essay “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists“. This response, which can be viewed here, comes by way of an author calling himself Roq.

I am, at heart, a simple person, so it’ll only take one thing for me to become an atheist.

When science can create a mass hallucination in a group of fifty or more people where the generalities all line up. They get extra bonus points if they can do it without drugs.

I’d like to congratulate Roq for coming up what is, I think, the very first answer to my challenge that consists entirely of a clear, empirical, achievable standard. Bravo to him! I respect anyone who has the courage to put their beliefs on the line in this way – it’s a standard of intellectual honesty that relatively few people are able to meet.

While I’m not rejecting Roq’s proposal, I do want to discuss the assumption that apparently lies behind it: that if fifty people all agree they saw something supernatural, this is sufficient evidence that something real must have occurred, and that their vision should be trusted, at least in the basic details, in the absence of evidence otherwise. There are three points that bear on this.

First: the self-selection issue. Creating a hallucination in a group of fifty people randomly chosen from the street isn’t necessarily going to be the same as creating one in the group of fifty that launch a new religion. If susceptibility to hallucination is like other human characteristics, it runs in a spectrum from more to less susceptible. It may be that religions tend to get started by the people at the farthest end of the bell curve, the ones who are most liable to hallucinate, precisely because those people tend to seek each other out and congregate in an attempt to explain their experiences.

Second: the peer pressure issue. What really counts as a hallucination? If there’s a large group of people and only a handful have the same hallucination, but the rest convince themselves that they saw it to go along with the group, does that qualify? This is just what happened in the famous Asch experiment on social conformity, where people are easily swayed into giving an obviously wrong answer when they see others do so.

Third: the retransmission issue. Rumors tend to evolve as they spread, as people misremember and unconsciously add details that make the story more impressive in the retelling. It takes surprisingly little time for this to happen – it can even happen to eyewitnesses. In his book UFOs, Ghosts and a Rising God, Chris Hallquist quotes the Christian magician Andre Kole:

I enjoy listening to people try to describe some of my illusions. Once when I was in Madras, India, I appeared to cause my daughter to float within the framework of a large pyramid. The next day, a waitress excitedly told me what some of her customers had said about my show. According to them, I had not only levitated my daughter, but I also had caused her to float out over the audience, turn in a large circle, and do several impossible gymnastic feats.

Did Kole’s audience have a mass hallucination? Or did some people hallucinate or misremember what they saw, being more prone to it than others, and then were insistent enough to convince people who didn’t have the same experience, with the story growing and changing further in the telling? I tend to think it’s the latter – and I think a similar combination of factors is probably at work in the origin of most religions, as opposed to a singular event where a large group of people all have the same hallucination at the same time.

Still, I think Roq’s standard is basically a fair one, and I applaud him for it. What do you have to say, readers – do you know of any experiment that could give him the answer he seeks?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BJ

    Would the Hindu Milk Miracle count? What about the “Miracle of the Sun” at Fatima that is debunked over at Skeptoid? Wikipedia has a bunch of specific examples of mass hysteria that might fit the bill.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    I’d like Roq to watch Richard Wiseman’s colour-changing card trick video, and report back.

  • Gary

    I’m fairly sure that at least one of Derren Brown’s shows has met these criteria. There was one show where he used the power of suggestion to make television viewers feel that they were stuck to their seats, and by all accounts he had a reasonable success rate.

    If Roq had picked a slightly lower number of people, say 39, I might also have mentioned the Heaven’s Gate cult. Still, the fact that he mentions “extra bonus points” suggests that he is either not taking it seriously, or he is consciously leaving himself wiggle room to complain about methodology.

  • DSimon

    Still, the fact that he mentions “extra bonus points” suggests that he is either not taking it seriously, or he is consciously leaving himself wiggle room to complain about methodology.

    Gary, I disagree. Roq’s statement implies that they’d be convinced even if drugs were used, just that it would be even more convincing otherwise. The requirement as stated is nicely wiggle-free.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Real quick, allow me to tackle a very basic issue with the response:

    When science can create a mass hallucination in a group of fifty or more people where the generalities all line up. They get extra bonus points if they can do it without drugs.

    Science is a method for understanding and testing, it doesn’t do anything. So what exactly is the responder asking for here?

    Presumably, he meant when a scientist can do these things, but I also find that a rather odd thing to ask for, since scientists aren’t some special breed of people. In the spirit of the question, I feel what’s being asked is to demonstrate that someone is capable of convincing multiple people they either saw something they didn’t, incorrectly attribute an event to the wrong cause, or believe something which isn’t true (or something similar along that vein). I’d say that’s more the spirit of the question because there’s no way to confirm whether people actually had the same subjective experience. We have to trust their responses, and quite frankly, I don’t think the people in the Asch experiment actually started to see the lines as different lengths.

    However, magicians and con men are fine examples of this. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who have seen a Penn and Teller show and come away believing that they caught a bullet in their teeth, or people who have watched a Chris Angel performance and come away thinking he can actually levitate. Does that count as challenge met?

  • DSimon

    Mrnaglfar, I don’t think that counts as a hallucination, though; the audience members did actually see something very much like Chris Angel levitating, and they only misunderstood what had led them to think that.

    The people in the Asch experiment might not have seen the lines as being different lengths at the time, but there’s a good chance that now their memories say they did.

  • Tharding

    Maybe Roq could provide an unambiguous example of this in a religious context. For this to convince him, he must have an example of this as a genuine miraculous event that he is challenging scientists to duplicate.

  • Chris

    While I’m not rejecting Roq’s proposal, I do want to discuss the assumption that apparently lies behind it: that if fifty people all agree they saw something supernatural, this is sufficient evidence that something real must have occurred, and that their vision should be trusted, at least in the basic details, in the absence of evidence otherwise.

    Another counterpoint to this you didn’t mention: if a set of shared memories of some fantastic event is actually reliable evidence that the content of those common memories is real and not a hallucination, then how do you deal with the incompatibility of the world’s various religions? They *all* have evidence about this good (however good you think that is) for a wide variety of mutually inconsistent ideas. Most of them must be wrong (since they contradict each other); therefore, the evidence that “proves” them right must not be very good — even if you don’t know *for sure* that they’re *all* wrong, or which one might be right if any of them is.

    As for the challenge itself, IIRC there are certain regions of the brain that induce religious-like hallucinations when stimulated, but in order to get the details to line up, you’d have to prime the subjects, or have them discuss their experiences afterwards until they agree on their common story.

    Of course the witnesses in the religious cases *have* done that, as you point out, so their stories aren’t actually independent and can’t really be regarded as corroborating each other. It’s even worse if they saw something their culture primed them to expect to see — which they generally did. 50 hunter-gatherers in some remote village seeing an apparition that looks like a Christian angel would be *far* more impressive than 50 Christians seeing what they expect to see — but it doesn’t happen; the hunter-gatherers see what *they* expect to see, instead.

    There’s a lot more on this subject in Carl Sagan’s _The Demon-Haunted World_, which I highly recommend.

  • archimedez

    Yes, good to see an empirical test proposed by Roq.

    Roq wrote: “I am, at heart, a simple person, so it’ll only take one thing for me to become an atheist. When science can create a mass hallucination in a group of fifty or more people where the generalities all line up. They get extra bonus points if they can do it without drugs.”

    As I understand it, Roq is implying that 50 or more religious people can have a vision of some sort or have some experience of a miracle, and that their reports of what they saw, post event, will all line up in general terms of what took place. His implication is that this is all too miraculous or special to be due to natural causes; that there must be a supernatural power involved in causing the mass hallucination. But if scientists could achieve this effect by natural means, then, as Roq implies, he would have no need of god as an explanation, and thus he would accept the naturalistic (or godless, atheistic) explanation. Hence he would become an atheist.

    I question whether this is a valid test of atheism. A hallucination is not necessarily religious. So if scientists induce hallucinations that are consistent in 50 or more people, how does this demonstrate the validity of the disbelief in the existence of god or gods? Also, many people who are religious have never had hallucinations (besides dreams). In addition, some religious people have had hallucinations that may not have been religious. It is also possible that a religious person could have a hallucination involving some religious figures, spirits, deities, etc., but not necessarily believe in most or all of those entities. An atheist could have a hallucination of God, yet still not believe in the existence of God. In sum, hallucinations or visions, or whatever one wants to call them, do not necessarily bear on the question of the validity of atheism versus theism.

    A valid scientific test of whether god or gods exist would use objective measures, and would not rely entirely on “subjective” phenomena like hallucinations. It would use objective recording, not post-event subjective reporting. (Or, if there were subjective measures, there would also be objective ones run at the same time against which to check their validity).

    The reliability criterion in Roq’s proposal is that “the generalities” would all have to “line up,” presumably in the post-hallucination reports of a group of 50 or more people. But, in nature, how consistent are the reports of religious people, even within the same sect of a religion? Are there any real and authentically-documented precedents, wherein 50 or more people are known to have had visions or hallucinations of the same “thing,” and where their post-event reports were all consistent? How consistent is consistent? This is a measurement problem that would have to be addressed, were one to try to carry out Roq’s study.

    Using drugs, or microelectrode stimulation, or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, scientists could probably cause specific kinds of hallucinations. In theory, targeting specific areas of the brain, they could probably produce fairly specific hallucinations reliably across a large group of people. (Scientists may have already achieved something like this, though I’m not aware of a study where this was done on 50 or more people at the same time). But one can already see that, in the end, a mass induced hallucination in 50 or more people that was reported with high consistency would not demonstrate the existence or non-existence of gods. Even if–and this is getting into science fiction territory–it were possible to induce a specific hallucination involving specific religious figures and causing a belief in those religious figures, and with all 50 people agreeing exactly to what they saw, this would not bear directly on the issue of whether or not god or gods really exist. (Potentially, each side, atheists and theists, could use the exact same result to support their theories). Again, hallucinations are just the wrong sort of phenomena to use to address this type of question. To address the question of whether an entity really exists or is just an item of fiction, objective tests are needed.

  • Grimalkin

    There’s definitely a real bias in the question. If “science” can cause 50 people to witness a similar hallucination, he would consider being an atheist. However, the choice isn’t between atheist and theist, it’s between atheist, Christian (Catholic or Protestant), Muslim (Sunni or Shi’it), Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.

    So let’s put aside whether “science” can cause this kind of experience for a moment and ask the question back – what do you do with religions other than your own causing such phenomena? Why is it that so many people experience such things, but that they derive such entirely different messages?

    To me, that says that hallucinations, even the communal variety, are a part of the human experience (at least for a certain subset of us, or those of us who have been properly primed), rather than an actual metaphysical experience.

  • http://sacredriver.org Ash

    I wonder if Roq is simply looking for verification that mass hallucination is possible. If so, that phenomenon has already been established. But I don’t see how that leads to atheism..it’s entirely possible to believe in a god that doesn’t perform visible miracles in front of groups of people. Really, there are a lot more robust arguments against theism than that.

  • paradoctor

    This looks like a job for Penn and Teller!

    But wait, he wants the ‘generalities’ to line up? What are these ‘generalities’?

  • Stephen P

    I would offer the 1991 solar eclipse in Mexico as a candidate for a mass hallucination. Hundreds (thousands?) of people observed a bright UFO moving about near the sun and there were even videos made of it. However the hundreds of astronomers who were there at the time observed a perfectly normal eclipse with no strange moving lights. The videos appear to show either camera artefacts or the planet Venus.

  • other scott

    I’d say you could go to any dance club around the planet on any given saturday night and find 50 or so people sharing very similar hallucinations. I don’t care so much if they are using drugs, plenty of religions use drugs, promote fasting, meditation, etc to reach hallucinagencic states.

  • Scotlyn

    Mrnaglfar got there before I did – it sounds to me as if Roq is reifying “Science” – that he envisions this “Science” fetish stepping in to act as a God-replacement.

  • Izkata

    To the people wondering how this test can lead to atheism at all:

    If I remember correctly, according to the Bible, after Jesus rose from the grave he appeared to many people. This test would confirm that it is at least possible that the newly-risen-Jesus was just a mass hallucination that had the same generalities among many people.

    Same for any number of other miracles in the Bible, this test would make it possible for him to see that those could have all been mass hallucinations.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    While I can understand the nature and purpose of this test, I still object to it on the grounds that Roq assumes all the vast evidence of(let’s say) evolution and the total lack of evidence at all of Biblical “truth” are for all intents and purposes equal until one factors in each’s ability to explain Religious experience. Since his name is Roq, after all, let’s just look at the evidence of evolution in an Emu, the Roq’s closest living relative and fellow Ratite. Emus, aside from the wealth of evolution in their DNA and Eukaryotic cells, retain several fascinating relics from dinosaurs, such as protofeathers and scales on the legs, organs, metabolism, bone structure and others. Also, it has evolved many odd features from it’s leaving behind of flight, such as spurs on the wings, longer legs, lack of a keelbone, missing air sacs and others. Recently, it has been revealed that the ancestors of modern Ratites have evolved flightlessness no less than three times, an unprecedented and amazing feat. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

  • David Evans

    I think Roq is being disingenuous here. His clear implication is that if “science” is never able to do what he asks, this is evidence for theism. But we don’t have independent evidence that any of the events in Jesus’ life were experienced as supernatural by 50 or more people simultaneously. What we have are a few documents – the gospels and some epistles – which say as much, but without naming 50 or more witnesses. Documents, moreover, which were written years after the event, which contradict each other and describe events which would certainly have been noticed by the Roman authorities had they occurred.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    When science can create a mass hallucination in a group of fifty or more people where the generalities all line up. They get extra bonus points if they can do it without drugs.

    What if a natural explanation is found for an event which was once considered supernatural?

    Also, we’d need to measure how much variation is acceptable. From a Christian point of view (for someone who accepts the Bible as true) the differences between the Gospels are not enough to cause doubt about the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. Likewise, for Muslims, differences in various parts of the Qur’an are not enough to cast doubt on the idea that the entire book was revealed by Allah to Mohammad. How much difference is too much?

    I do agree that he actually gave an answer instead of just saying that nothing would convince him, which is better than usual.

  • jack

    Piece o’ cake!

    I can make a group of almost any 50 people with normal vision hallucinate that an outcropping of solid rock is moving upwards. All I need is a nearby waterfall.

    And if a more elaborate cognitive illusion is needed, that’s fairly easy too, at least in the form of false memories.

    The brain uses many algorithmic “shortcuts” that can be exploited to produce illusions and various other errors in perception or memory. I suspect that many religious phenomena can be explained along these lines.

  • Neil

    You’re right David Evans: the ’50′ sounds like it’s lifted from the bible – a group of people who supposedly saw Jesus post-mortem. Roq is saying in effect that Christianity must be true, and therefore belief in God justified, because of the folks who are reported to have seen the risen Jesus. He’s claiming something like, ‘they couldn’t all have been hallucinating… you can’t induce a mass hallucination as consistently as this’. The problem is, of course, we’ve only got the bible’s word for it that these nebulous groups saw JC – and we know how thoroughly unreliable the bible is.

  • Dick Alstein

    Hasn’t L. Ron Hubbard done this trick? Not only did he create the mass illusion, he started a whole religion around it. Alledgedly by conscious decision.

    There are other examples of religious movements that started in recent history, that did not branch off existing religions, e.g. cargo cults or Rastafari.

  • colluvial

    For Roq to pose this challenge would indicate that he believes that mass hallucination is somehow proof of the supernatural, even though many religious hallucinations are experienced by followers of religions other than his and, in some cases, religions that contradict his. Or is he simply saying he’s into religion for its ability to produce delusional mental states, regardless of the supposed deities involved?

  • frankjg

    How about the story of ” The Emperor’s New Clothes “? This is not a religious experience or by drugs. The whole kingdom hallucinated ! Does the test imply that the hallucination be permanent?

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    Members of a religion, especially during the early cult phase have a vested interest in towing the line on these things. They want and need to believe the same as everyone else so will be likely to confabulate to the extent they believe their own story whether they really shared an “experience” or not.
    The problem science would have (and I take Mrnaglfar’s point too)is finding 50 similarly motivated individuals, and inducing a relevant hallucination without actally creating a realistic illusion.

  • Ritchie

    Izkata:

    To the people wondering how this test can lead to atheism at all:

    If I remember correctly, according to the Bible, after Jesus rose from the grave he appeared to many people. This test would confirm that it is at least possible that the newly-risen-Jesus was just a mass hallucination that had the same generalities among many people.

    Same for any number of other miracles in the Bible, this test would make it possible for him to see that those could have all been mass hallucinations.

    And therein lies a new issue. Roq is apparently assuming that the only alternative to people seeing a newly-risen Jesus being correct is that such a vision was a mass hallucination. Therefore, atheism hinges on the probability of mass hallucinations.

    Such logic is obviously erroneous since there are other alternatives to people seeing a newly-risen Jesus being correct. One is a group of fifty or so people lying. How improbable is that? Or how about the idea that these fifty witnesses never actually existed – they were just part of a fictional account which was written long after the event?

  • Scotlyn

    Well, my friend’s cousin’s father-in-law’s brother really did lose his dead granny’s body off the roof rack of his car on a road trip to France!

    Some stories are just too good not to be told.

  • http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com drdave

    Mixing and matching some observations above, would it qualify to round up 100 inducible, suggestive people who don’t know each other, and salt the population with wringers who are all going to tell the same hallucination when the event is over. Then, run some gee-whiz-bang illusion with sound, lights and action. At the end, the wringers start talking to the people around them, telling them the story and seeking confirmation. As the wringers collect the new believers, they herd them off to the left side of the venue, encouraging an excited, exuberant re-telling of the vision. The uncooperatives are herded to the right side, and eventually off the stage. See if we end up with 50 believers. If so, does that qualify as satisfying roq’s wager?

  • Scotlyn

    Hey Dr Dave, don’t know if that would satisfy Roq, but it sounds like so much fun…can I be a wringer – pleeease!

  • DSimon

    Dr. Dave, I certainly think that that should satisfy Roq; he doesn’t require that all people are vulnerable to the technique (and shouldn’t, since not all people are religious beliefs), just that a sufficient number of people can be misled.

    However, we’d have to do it in such a way that the whiz-bang illusion *doesn’t* contain the necessary details or “generalities” in and of itself; the idea is to get people to think they saw something they didn’t see, not to get them to see something and come up with the wrong explanation for it (which is what magic shows do).

  • Dan L.

    The imagery of out-of-body and near-death experiences seems to be largely consistent from person to person, but nonetheless these experiences would seem to be illusions. Migraine halos often take the form of visual hallucinations, and reports of those are largely consistent. The illusion of a ringing sound in one’s ear is a common experience. Reports of hallucinations caused by psychedelic substances are largely consistent — inability to fix the relative positions of points in a pattern seems to be the big one, causing patterned and textured surface to seem to buckle, bend, wave, etc.

    So-called “optical illusions” are usually actually cognitive illusions — misrepresentations of the world around us generated by the brain. One example is the apparent differential size between the moon on the horizon and the moon overhead. The moon, of course, is a constant size and its distance from the earth doesn’t change significantly; yet it’s a common experience to see it as “bigger” on the horizon. I once commented on this effect to my father who replied “I don’t understand why people say that. It’s always the same size, isn’t it?” He’s blind in one eye, and since the illusion is induced by binocular vision, he’s immune to it — he’s never had the experience of the moon appearing bigger on the horizon than overhead. But the overwhelming majority of the human race probably are subject to this experience, which makes it quite a consistent hallucination indeed.

    The point being that there are several ways in which the mind consistently misrepresents the nature of the world around us. Given that, I don’t see how you can rule out the possibility that feelings of transcendence or whatever are just one more way in which our minds can mislead as to the nature of the world.

  • DiscoveredJoys

    Ummm…

    If you had 50 atheists and 50 machines to provide transcranial magnetic stimulation of the ‘God Spot’ they would each report that they had felt something spiritual or sacred. I guess the laboratory setting and equipment might de-deify the experience somewhat…

  • James Rowland

    “Your personal experience (of God) doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means” is often one of the first things I say to theists who come to my door trying to convert me. It usually doesn’t help, but maybe it will help Roq.

    I do agree Roq’s proposal has great merit in that it’s actually testable; he’s to be commended for his courage. Within the framework of theist presupposition he is perhaps not being sceptical enough – a successful demonstration does not rule out existence of the divine – but I’ll let that slide for now. It would undermine this particular kind of phenomenon as evidence for the divine.

    His demand that “science” must do this does indeed seem like a misuse of terminology, but rather than being pedantic let’s just assume he means employing the natural forces and mechanisms that science can explain.

    The biggest problem I anticipate is that of providing equivalent experimental conditions. For example: Can we condition the test subjects from childhood? Can we raise them in a culture that venerates acceptance of such experiences? Can our 50 subjects be selected from a larger population for their high susceptibility?

    In spite of these difficulties, successful demonstrations may already exist. For example, I was present at one of Derren Brown’s early hypnotism shows in Bristol. At one point, the entire audience was made to firmly clasp their hands together as though against their will. One guy – who happened to be right behind me – needed Derren’s personal attention before he could let go.

    In this instance, quite a few more than fifty people were made to experience a mass hallucination – namely that their bodies were being controlled remotely – by simple, natural suggestion. I’d say that was successful.

    Roq, will you be deconverting? If not, why not?

  • Steve Austin

    As an atheist, one is often challenged by the theists to prove there is no God.

    It’s a question cleverly designed to elicit the only possible response, which is “No, I can’t”.

    All intelligent people realise that you cannot disprove a negative. There is no known way for me to disprove that fairies or unicorns don’t exist either.

    However, the now famous “flying spaghetti monster” argument, is too easily dismissed by the theists who desperately cling to the “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” line.

    So, I thought about the problem another way.

    Theists are clearly choosing to believe in a God, and not flying spaghetti monsters (in the main). This implies that they’ve made some sort of discriminating decision in favour of their silent and invisible God.

    They have in fact decided it is necessary for their God to exist and be a part of their lives.

    So rather than try and argue whether God does or doesn’t exist, I have decided to attempt to prove that a decision to have a God in your life is simply of no benefit, and hence completely unnecessary. As unnecessary as believing in a flying spaghetti monster or fairies.

    You can read my complete argument here:

    Why God isn’t necessary


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