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?

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About Adam Lee

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