Re: Why I am not an Atheist

Scott A. Oakman (
Wed, 10 Apr 96 18:37:28 -0500

In message <> "Sweitzer, Dennis" writes:
> Scott Oakman responded to the discussion initiated by Fred Phelps,
> >>>>This is a subject quite close to my heart as a medical student.[...]
> >For example, a woman completely
> >healed and pain free after a *documented* 7 year history of ankylosing
> >spondylitis
> >(an autoimmune arthritic condition) going back and testifying to her doctor
> >in word *and* objective measurable signs (range of motion, etc.) of that
> >healing.
> <<<<
> It is my understanding that there is evidence of psychological influence on
> the immune system. So possibly (some) autoimmune disorders could be
> affected by psychological states. If it is found that ankylosing
> spondylititis is such a case, what does that do to this example of an
> objectively documented healing? (certainly not change her healing!)

It changes it to a question of "coincidental timing" or "sufficient mental
state", I suppose. In the former case it would have happened anyway on that
night, in the latter it should happen to anyone who went through the same
steps--if the psychoneuroimmune axis weren't so bafflingly difficult to
accurately measure and predict and compare across individuals!

Nevertheless, one day she can hardly walk or stand--the next she is walking and
leaping and praising God...

Now do I care *how* it happened? Was it a snap of the fingers and divine fiat?
A reconstruction of her antigenic makeup to remove the offending
cross-reactivity? A change in some population of self-reactive leukocytes? A
divine command to tissue to repair itself? These all are largely questions of
secondary causation. I might be curious as to which occured--but it doesn't
really matter. *SOMETHING* happened to this woman on that night, coincidentally
a night that she presented herself to God for healing. My theology allows that
it was an act of the Living, Personal Triune God. Other explanations might
invoke (as Fred mentions) 1) the hidden purposes of an evil spirit (an
alternative explanation also proposed by certain opponents of Jesus...but a
definitely non-scientistic one!), 2) an erroneous initial diagnosis, or 3)
"unexplained spontaneous remission". Are there other alternative hypotheses?
I'll rule out 1) on theological grounds, as inconsistent with the revealed
character of Evil and 2) on the basis of previous medical history (i.e. a number
of independent diagnoses, a seven year history consistent with the diagnosis,
etc. That leaves 3) a scientistic "gap" explanation that is no explanation at
all, and my original hypothesis.

> I guess we have a spectrum of healing, from the subjective to the
> objective, from the mental (psychological) to the physical? Healing from
> fears/bondage is definitely mental, and healing from a heart condition would
> be definitely physical, but:
> Healing an ulcer, could be mental on the grounds that the person has been
> healed of dealing with stress in a negative manner; or could be physical, if
> caused by H. pylori (a bacteria which seems to cause many ulcers)--or if
> there is physically a hole in the stomach.

Still, if the ulcer is healed, it doesn't matter whether it was due to stress or
H.pylori or steroid medication or... The objective, documented fact of the
healing remains: 1) there was a physical lesion on the stomach, 2) God was
sought, and 3) the lesion isn't there anymore.

> Depression apparently depresses the immune system. Lifting the depression
> (mental) could lead to healing of other afflictions.

Equally a miracle, whatever your perspective on whether depression is a sickness
of brain or of spirit....

> This is not to question the value of any healing. But seeking objective
> evidence can be tricky. Ideally, one would need to match a list of patients
> on medical criteria, and from each matched pair, randomly assign only one to
> be prayed for. This should be done without the knowledge of the physician
> or patient. At the end of the study, compare the medical records for the
> two groups and see if the healing rate is any different. This will
> compensate for spontaneous cures as well (frequently, people get better
> without any intervention).
> Now, if we do a clinical trial as I've described, can we expect God to
> cooperate with our plans? He may not heal anyone in the study, or heal
> equal proportions in both groups--just to confound the researchers, and to
> hide his presence.

One problem I see with this "design" is that it nullifies the Biblical
requirement (if I can stretch what I see as a pattern to the status of
"requirement") for *faith* on the part of the one being healed (or the one
making entreaty on their behalf. And by faith, I mean a God-ward action--the
"If you will you can make me clean" request, the "if I can just touch the hem of
his garment..." attempt, the "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" cry.

This is really not the kind of objective demonstration I think is important in
these cases. The "truth" documented in a double blind/placebo controlled
clinical trial is indeed the gold standard for medical science--particularly if
one wishes to generalize to a population, but it is not the only kind of
objective evidence. There is a place in medical commentary for the documented
case study, a "testimony" if you will of what the physician has seen with
his/her own eyes, and relays to the community. The community can then respond:
either with "faith" in the new treatment, interest, doubt, or
hostility--depending on their own presuppostions (as Bill Dozier points out) or
the strength of the counter-evidence.

> Someone responded the accusation that miracles were just coincidences:
> "When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don't pray, coincidences don't
> happen." Indeed, to a large degree, answered prayer often seems
> indistinguishable from coincidence.


Bill Dozier writes:
> We view the world through the grid of our presuppositions. [...]

> FP> "Miracles" which are consistent with a scientistic explanation are not
> FP> evidence against scientism nor are they evidence against Christianity.
> They are when they are done in response to prayers by faithful Christians.
> When God answers prayer in this way, He bolsters our faith.
> FP> We cannot decide which world view is true (or even eliminate the one
> FP> which is false) if there are no violations of the laws of nature or
> FP> amazing coincidencs (answers to prayer). (At least we cannot decide
> FP> based on this line of argument.)
> Which is why salvation is by faith ("the hope of things not seen").
> Apologetics and miracles have their place, but faith is a work done in the
> heart by the Holy Spirit and not the direct result of either reasoned
> argument or astonishing wonders.
> FP> Thus miracles (as I defined them) are an awesome testimony to the
> FP> reality of God and have changed thousands or millions of lives in
> FP> dramatic fashion and I think we need to acknowledge this, starting in
> FP> the New Testament. There is a difference between Jesus walking on the
> FP> water and a man building a boat to cross the H20.
> Name a New Testament (or Old) miracle that resulted in faith by those
> hostile to faith. Maybe their was one, but I can't think of it.

I tend to agree with what Bill is saying here, the hardness of heart of the
Pharisees and of Pharaoh being good examples. OTOH, the astonishing wonder can
have a faith-building effect among those who inhabit the realm of the
"undecided", can it not?


Scott Oakman Graduate Program in Neuroscience
University of Minnesota MD/PhD Program