Gary Miller on God, religion, miracles and placebos


(Continued from last week)

Doubts and headaches: Doubt is not to be feared – it’s valuable because it warns you about things not adding up. A preacher tells about some tenet he was required to preach, but which he himself strongly doubted. Every time he preached it, his head hurt. One day he promised God he won’t doubt it anymore; and lo and behold, his headaches went away. The brain circuitry can of course be tampered with in this way, but that’s rarely advisable. Zeal is no substitute for honesty.

Death: What happens to the ego, consciousness, or intellect when one dies? It must depend on what has gone before – whatever that experience is like: frightening or peaceful. When the senses are cut off and mental activity has a final burst, what is it like? It’s not unreasonable to think that false hopes will be dashed. If one was misinformed or misdirected, one is due for disappointment in the extreme. The Quran says that death is like sleep. Will it be a peaceful sleep or a fitful one? How does a criminal condemned to hang the next morning sleep? How does a man set to leave next day for a holiday-resort sleep?

Miracles: Occasionally God is thought to interfere with the natural order and work a miracle. It’s not the same kind of miracle as the miracle of a beautiful sunrise, or the miracle that a spot as small as a speck of dust can grow into a human being. This miracle, which interferes with the natural order, is a monster. By all means a Muslim is ready to believe in such remarkable things, but they are accomplished, not by a suspension of natural laws, but by an unusual application of natural laws.

And then there’s the third kind of miracle: God reaching out to those who make the most of their abilities.  The Qur’an talks about taqwa (God-consciousness). A God-conscious man has his mind on the Absolute as a reference point. His mind is not fixed on what’s relative: things that in turn depend on other things. His mind is fixed on what depends on nothing: the Absolute. And then God moves him, but not like we move a checker on a board; He moves him the way the goal at the end of the soccer field moves the soccer team. Does the goal reach out and pull them that way? No, but it’s out there; and by keeping an eye on it, that’s where they’re heading. Indirectly they are moved by that goal. When a man has really attained a constant awareness of God as a reference point, something remarkable happens: he becomes a remarkable individual: a Jesus Christ or an Albert Schweitzer.

Pascal’s Wager: The man who employs it is looking for a safe bet, essentially saying to himself: ‘Smart money goes here.’ There has to be a better reason to believe in God. Is God likely to reward such behavior anyway? Pascal was an intelligent man, and it is doubtful the wager is correctly attributed to him.

Education: The goal of education is to enable people to differentiate between truth and falsehood, not merely to make them memorise some strings of words. It can be a good idea on the part of Muslim communities in the West to strive to build Muslim schools for their kids. However, usually what they mean to do is putting their children behind big walls so that they can be protected from all the lies that people tell; which is a bad idea. For it is upon reexamination of one’s long-held ‘beliefs’, usually triggered by contact with people who don’t share those beliefs, that one can truly be said to believe in something.

Placebos: Is a patient likely to benefit from a placebo if he knows it for what it actually is? It is equally absurd to expect somebody to believe something when he knows better. Faith is not a pledge or a promise to ‘believe’ in things even if they are known to be untrue. If a creed tells a congregation what they must believe, the congregation should ask for a justification; not just sign up.

History of religion: Anthropologists have traditionally held that as civilisation progressed the religions also evolved from primitive and foolish items into more rational and sophisticated systems. These theories are no longer tenable, for many religions are known to have degenerated with time.

Approximately half the story of this degeneration is explained by people focusing on fancy stories about the messengers, and ignoring the message. By becoming fascinated by the one who did the talking (and not what he said) they finished up misguided. As one man remarked, ‘Jesus talked about the kingdom of God but everybody else who came after him talked about Jesus!’ (Christianity is by no means the only religion where this happened.) If the emphasis shifts from the message to the messenger, people start to compete in telling the nicest story, and things get exaggerated and blown up until it all becomes unbelievable. When a nation becomes more interested in the speaker than the speech, racial pride and nationalism also inevitably start to stir up. Amid all this, the message gets ignored and the religion becomes unrecognisable from what it originally was.

The other half of the story has to do with faulty interpretation of religious texts themselves. Disregarding the explicit verses (those that have just the one meaning), and building a whole theological system on con-similar verses (those that can have many meanings if not seen in the light of explicit verses) has been the other major cause of deterioration of religion.

Truth: Truth is in agreement with the facts, just like a correctly sized wall-to-wall carpet perfectly fits the room. A story is told of a man who visits a house to install one such carpet. He cuts the carpet carefully to size and tacks it down conscientiously all around the edges so that it’s completely tight like the top of a drum. When he reaches for his cigarette pack after a job well done he realises that it’s gone. He looks back and finds a bump in the middle of the room. Thinking that it would take him all day to tear up the carpet and lay it down again, he goes to business with his rubber hammer and smoothes the bump out, certain that nobody is going to find out as the carpet will be there for twenty years. When he goes to his van however, he finds his cigarettes there. Perplexed, he goes back inside the house and sees the owner-lady running around in a panic, looking for her budgie bird.

Trying to hide the truth makes the problem worse. This is the nature of falsehood.



  1. "History of religion: Anthropologists have traditionally held that as civilisation progressed the religions also evolved from primitive and foolish items into more rational and sophisticated systems. These theories are no longer tenable, for many religions are known to have degenerated with time."
    Islam may be one?

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