Belief: Evidence Based or Mirage?

Two months ago I wrote an article called “What a UFO Taught Me About Faith”* and in that article I wrote the following statement:

…people will believe what they want to believe, they will see evidence to support what they what to believe and they will refuse to accept any contrary evidence no matter how definitive that contrary evidence may be.

Mirage Men

I have recently finished reading a book, Mirage Men by Mark Pilkington, about the way UFO related “evidence” has been used as a disinformation tool by the US Military and Security Services. Pilkington makes the point that despite the clear and recognised evidence of this happening, people choose to go on believing far stranger alternative views.

Here are some quotes from the book about this tendency of people to “believe what they want to believe”.Quote one is an epigraph, credited to Louis Pasteur, introducing chapter 11 of the book

The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe in something because one wishes it to be so

Quote 2 comes towards the end of chapter 11

The believers don’t want to know the truth, they only want to have their pre-existing beliefs confirmed and elaborated upon.

Quote 3 comes from chapter 12

Festinger found that if someone believes something to be true, and all of the evidence suggests that it isn’t true, then, rather than restarting their life with a new set of beliefs, they will often cling more fervently to the old ones, generating new explanations for the conflict in their reality.

Leon Festinger was the author of a 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, about a UFO cult that, through “extra-terrestrial messages” had been led to believe prophecies of a global deluge in December 1954. Pilkington notes that when the destruction “failed to take place, rather than leave the group, many of [the] followers became more dedicated in their beliefs”.  Compare to similar responses in the “christian” world demonstrated at the links below **.


** See the following links

What a UFO taught me about faith.

ufoA personal UFO experience helped to convince me of the unreliability of UFO witnesses.

One morning many years ago, while driving to work, I looked up and saw an extremely strange but clearly mechanical “craft” flying above my car. I felt a mix of shock and elation at finally seeing an undeniably real UFO. I looked back to the road and then back up to the “craft”, but by this time it was turning and could now be clearly seen to be a light plane.

What if that first glance had been the only view I’d been able to get?

b4305Years later I compared that experience with an encounter recorded in a book by Arthur Shuttlewood, one of the 1960s-1970s most well-known UFO writers. He was a journalist in the town of Warminster, next to Salisbury Plain in England. In the 60s that town became the centre of one of Britain’s most significant UFO “flaps” and thousands of people flocked there over the years for a guaranteed UFO sighting.

Shuttlewood wrote about seeing an approaching UFO that disguised itself a plane as it flew overhead, and then resumed its UFO form as it moved away. Very similar to my own experience, but I was willing to accept the more mundane reality of my experience. Shuttlewood chose to adopt a more fantastic explanation.

round-in-circlesAn additional piece of my personal UFO puzzle came through reading Jim Schnabel’s book Round in Circles, in which the author investigated the crop circle phenomenon by investigating the crop circle investigators. That book has to be the best I’ve ever read on any topic related to “the unknown”. It blew the credibility of the investigators’ “evidence” right out of the paddock. Prior to that I had been far too gullible, assuming that those people were reporting facts – that they actually WANTED to know and share the truth about the matter they were investigating.

It showed how people will believe what they want to believe, they will see evidence to support what they what to believe and they will refuse to accept any contrary evidence no matter how definitive that contrary evidence may be.

Not only did all of this change my perspective of UFOs and other “paranormal phenomena”, it helped me to re-address my Christian faith. It encouraged me not to take things at “face value” just because it was allegedly “Christian”. [ I’ve addressed some of this in part of this previously with articles like this one: ]

I realised that even the label “Christian” doesn’t necessarily make something trustworthy – that the label has been abused and the definition of what “Christian” means doesn’t necessarily fit in with a biblical portrayal of what it means to be Christ-like.

For too long I trusted the testimonies of Christians without question. I wanted some kind of verification of the reality of God and that the miraculous events recorded in the bible were true. I therefore lapped up any stories, any personal accounts that I could see as proof of the things I wanted confirmed. My need was so pressing that I didn’t give those accounts adequate scrutiny. After all the experiences were reported by Christians, and Christians do not lie, exaggerate or misrepresent. (Do they?)

And it is so easy to point the finger now, to look back and see the dishonesty – but was I any less guilty? While I don’t recall any outright fabrications, I know there were occasions when I “stretched” the truth just a little, or maybe withheld a pertinent fact to give the impression of something more “exciting” and “miraculous” than the strict truth would have conveyed.

Ironically, that willingness to settle for something that fell short of expectations combined with the willingness to hide the short fall through embellishment of facts was perhaps a reason why there was a short fall in the first place. How can anyone expect to benefit from God’s blessings without genuine honesty and humility?

These things played a part in helping me push through the “spiritual crisis” I experienced from the late 1980s through to the early 2000s. I wrestled with the inconsistences of the “Christian” existence I’d previously experienced. What was genuine, what was wishful thinking, what was outright fantasy/fabrication? To what extent had I fooled myself into suppressing genuine doubts and concerns because I WANTED to believe certain things? What did I believe, what should I believe, and why?

14836My condition at that time was very accurately described in a statement from Salman Rushdie’s book Midnight’s Children, something I recognised in myself as soon as I read it. One of the book’s characters was described as being “unable to worship a God in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve”.  Likewise, while I was struggling to worship God, I was equally unable to deny His existence. I was caught between two very uncomfortable extremes.

A little over 10 years ago the wrestling came to an end. After a brief period of vulnerability during which I faced the risk of turning back to the old ways and picking up the same bad habits and beliefs, I recognised the need to restart with a sound foundation and to be much more discerning about what was added to that foundation. Essential to this new beginning was honesty. To be honest to myself – not to push aside concerns when something didn’t seem quite right, and to take an honest approach to God and His word: not trying to change them to make them more “user-friendly”: not changing God to make Him and His ways more like I’d want them to be.

That approach hasn’t made the journey easy. Often it has meant going against the flow and disagreeing with established practices and doctrines. It annoys people. It makes them angry. And I understand that. I remember how strongly I’d try to defend the doctrines I’d learned from favoured teachers. I could duel with proof texts as well as anyone and had a strong arsenal of memorised texts to draw upon. But behind the certainty there were questions and doubts that I’d chosen to push aside. Questions and doubts that, if properly addressed, could have saved me a lot of trouble later: fifteen years of trouble.

I have been learning the importance of checking things thoroughly. The obvious reference to give would be the example of the Bereans who searched the scriptures daily to check what Paul had been telling them. Too few today emulate their practice. Too few scrutinise what they are taught but prefer to judge a teaching according to its ability to please the ear. Too many hand over responsibility for their own spiritual welfare, choosing to accept, unchallenged, the word of others who have been recognised as “church authorities”.

But the person with the potential to do most damage to our faith is our selves. WE are the ones who choose the teachers we favour. We are the ones who choose to be swayed by the words of friends and relatives. We are the ones who close our eyes to the parts of scripture that challenge favoured beliefs. We are the only ones who can make the decision for ourselves (and the only ones who determine whether we act on the decision) to seek God honestly for the truth. We are the only ones who can decide for ourselves that we won’t be satisfied with anything less than the truth.

But all of that depends on whether we DO want truth or whether we are content to believe something else, even when evidence (such as scripture) definitively contradicts it. Do we want a faith with genuine legitimacy, based on truth, or are we satisfied to believe in something just  because it seems appealing ?

Derren Brown Investigates: or does he?

 I saw an episode of Derren Brown Investigates on TV the other night, related to the “ghosthunter” Lou Gentile and his investigations into ghostly phenomena. Brown presented evidence for the reality of ghosts and demons as given to him by Gentile; and then he gave his own views of that evidence.

One specific aspect of his program that I found interesting was Brown’s reaction to video of a man undergoing “exorcism”. The man’s body was thrown into violent contortions until he was almost “levitating” above the bed (or couch) on which he was lying. Brown apparently found this disturbing at the time but his mind was eased when he found a scientist who could give a “medical” explanation.

He was shown a similar film of a woman demonstrating the same behaviour and the expert described it as a “pseudo seizure” or “psychogenic non-epileptic seizure”. These are “seizures” that are allegedly psychological in origin – in other words it seems like there is no physical/chemical evidence for the cause of the seizures, so they are attributed to being caused by aberrations in the mental state.

Sorry – but to me this merely seems like a preferred alternative diagnosis acceptable to those who disbelieve the existence of a spirit world. There is effectively little difference to the two diagnoses – apart from the belief system of the ones making the diagnosis. One sees demons – the other sees psychological disorder. The “truth” is in the mind of the beholder.

This assumption laden approach is little different to the attitude displayed by the “ghosthunter” when he presented his evidence for the existence of ghosts. Both project their prefered worldview onto what they experience to give conclusions they feel comfortable accepting.

Gentile’s evidence (both audio and photographic) seemed entirely subjective – spoken words were “heard” within the static and noise recorded on a voice activated recorder, but to me, even with a lot of imagination the claimed messages were very unlikely The same with the photos showing mists – almost anything could be projected into a photo. The “best” evidence was a photo in which (when pointed out) a very clear face could be seen in the mist. That was interesting but definitely not the conclusive evidence it was claimed to be by Lou Gentile.

The BEST conclusion that could genuinely be drawn from this show is that people will believe what they choose to believe. They will be convinced by the flimsiest of evidence when it supports what they want to see, and they will not be swayed by strong evidence when they don’t want to believe.

Rather than being a genuine investigation into the reality or otherwise of ghosts – the programme was a revelation of the power of a person’s desire to believe (or not). In this case it was Brown’s show so his conclusions were presented as being the most reasonable. But were they?

Or was the foundation of those conclusions no less shaky than the foundation of the ghosthunter’s conclusions? It depends upon who or what you want to believe most.


Possession or pseudo seizure? The video.

Move forward to around around the 5 minute mark.