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[cancer|religion] Faith, science and the afterlife - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2013-11-25 06:53
Subject: [cancer|religion] Faith, science and the afterlife
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, death, health, personal, religion
I put my stick in the faith-and-reason hive yesterday again, in comments on this post, and then on my Facebook presence here.

What I said in the blog comments was:
Actually, we have perfectly good physics that refutes the existence of the afterlife. It’s called entropy. You or anyone else has an extremely high burden of proof to surmount in order to counter that with objective evidence.

As for metaphysics, that is of course another word for faith, which rarely if ever has validity outside the individual faithholder’s frame of reference.

Then:
I am curious, as you challenge my statement of basic truth as if it were ragtag belief system. What objective, repeatable evidence does exist for the survival of self beyond the death of the brain?

I’m talking testable, empirical evidence, not scripture and faith statements. Faith can be a bedrock truth in the private universe of the individual that holds it, but articles of faith very rarely translate into characteristics of the physical universe we all inhabit

I then vented on Facebook with this comment:
Claiming we don't have enough science to disprove the afterlife is like denying evolution. It's a defect in your education, not in science.

Pretty much every time I get into this topic, people seem to think I’m denying the power or value of faith. As I said downthread in that Facebook post:
I have an immense respect for faith and its power. I have a profound disrespect for confusion between the truths of faith and the truths of testable, empirical reality

As one might imagine, my interest in the experience of death and dying is much sharpened of late. However, I’ve had this basic issue on my mind for years. Science is a process, a mode of thinking. It’s not some institution with the power to bury some ideas and elevate others. If there were some testable, provable hypothesis about survival of the self beyond the clinical death of the body, the medical journals would be full of it. That is, after all, one of the central questions of human culture for as far back as we have any history of human culture to evaluate.

But the whole burden of proof of afterlife is on those who would assert that as empirical reality. Science can no more disprove the afterlife than it can disprove the existence of pink unicorns. Less so, in fact. The question is a logical null.

However, to state the simple truth that there is no evidence of life after death is profoundly offensive to many people, and profoundly discomforting to many others. Speaking as someone who’s wrestling with precisely those fears, I say tough shit to them. It’s not a disrespect to your faith to state that your faith claims have no empirical basis. The universe doesn’t care if you’re Catholic or Hindu or Voudoun or Seventh Day Adventist or an atheist or what. It functions perfectly well without the lens of faith. In fact, the universe functions precisely as well without faith as it does with faith.

But human hearts and minds do not. What to me is an obvious conflation of wishful thinking and faith narrative is to others a truth so profound as to be indistinguishable from the sunrise or the tides or the fingers of their own hand.

Which is precisely my point. Privileging one’s faith narrative so strongly that one views science as unable to answer faith questions is a failure of one’s own education and worldview, not a failure of science. The process of science can test the assertions of a faith narrative as easily as it can test assertions of chemistry and physics.

The whole purpose of a faith narrative is not empirical testability. One does both science and faith a disservice when one tries to hold faith up to the standards of science.

Think of it this way. Science works in a completely testable, repeatable manner for anyone, anywhere, with the right education, data and equipment. Faith is so profoundly individual that there are about 41,000 Christian denominations in the world, and thousands, possibly tens of thousands of other religions. Many if not most of them proclaim a monopoly on the truth, but they cannot each and all in their tens of thousands of revelations be in sole possession of the truth. To hear most religionists tell it, only one faith can be right. Theirs. In other words, faith is not testable and repeatable for anyone, anywhere; rather, it is profoundly individual.

Very nearly the opposite of what science seeks to do.

Meanwhile, I’m still dying. When I’m dead, I’ll still be dead. If 40,000 years of human history and culture haven’t managed to come up with any repeatable, empirical evidence to the contrary thus far, I don’t think the next six or nine months are going to make much difference now. Regardless of anyone’s sincerely held beliefs. Or their irritation at my pointing out the obvious.

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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2013-11-25 16:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Two men say they're Jesus -- one of 'em must be wrong." -- Dire Straits, Telegraph road.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
― Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling's, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

When I was a child, and the adults around me talked about the realities of evangelical Protestantism as if they were settled empirical fact, I thought they must be correct -- these things must be objective fact -- but I didn't understand how you could know them to be true, what proofs you could use, what process would prove them. So as a kid I perpetually worried that they were seeing something I missed, and that my inability to see this thing would condemn me to hell.

As I started to become an adult, as a teenager, I started to feel more sure of myself -- the reason I didn't see how you could prove metaphysical and spiritual realities was because you couldn't, actually. I tried being an atheist, but found I was more of a deist at heart. I simply preferred to see my relationship with the universe as two-way, and since it was my relationship, I didn't see what harm it could do.

But I found I couldn't talk about my emerging adult religious beliefs with my fellow evangelicals. They kept throwing apologetics at me, to try to "prove" that which cannot be proven. It seemed we had no framework for understanding the difference between subjective and objective truth. To them "that's true for you, not for everyone" always seemed to sound like "that isn't true at all."

I used to think evangelicals were alone in that literal-mindedness, but now I think it's just a function of the human brain being the imperfect thinking machine that it is. Most people, most of the time, muddle through okay without being able to make a hard and clear distinction between objectively true, like science, and true within the human frame of reference, like "we hold these truths to be self-evident."

That's why science had to be invented, and religion just seems to spring up out of nowhere -- religion reflects how we think, while science reflects how SOME of us think. What I don't know is how you test for that cognitive ability -- the ability to really understand what it means to be objective fact -- or what the percentages are.

I'm tempted to just assume as a rule of thumb that the percentage of people who truly cannot understand objective fact is about 27 percent, maybe with another 27 percent who are naturally strongly inclined toward scientific thinking, and everyone else sort of variably fuzzy on the concept.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2013-11-25 16:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
>> In fact, the universe functions precisely as well without faith as it does with faith.

>> But human hearts and minds do not.

Oh... human hearts and minds are not part of the universe? And this denies faith healing -- which emphatically does exist. Even if it's a variation on the placebo effect (which is not proven). That means faith changes the universe.

>> To hear most religionists tell it, only one faith can be right. Theirs. In other words, faith is not testable and repeatable for anyone, anywhere; rather, it is profoundly individual.

I'd be interested in statistics proving that "most" religionists do this. Otherwise, it's a faith statement!

>> One does both science and faith a disservice when one tries to hold faith up to the standards of science.

I think we agree on this, but it's in the nuance where the interesting conversation can take place. For instance, I would argue that faith, properly approached (in my individual faith!), does not "war" against science, but envelopes it. And has, for most of Christian history, at least.

I have a question for you. Would you agree that there are questions faith can answer, that science cannot? As I read your post, that's where the "service" and the power of faith lie. But if not, I'll demonstrate.

Also, this post is a sign from God! It's time to finish that series I started. Because my next post involves the afterlife.
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Jay Lake: signs-cemetery_recycling-center
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-11-25 16:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:signs-cemetery_recycling-center
Oh... human hearts and minds are not part of the universe?

They most surely are, as you know I know. (I assume that question was either rhetorical or Socratic, or both.) But that's the objective, internal universe of consciousness. You can grind all of Creation down to quanta and find not one iota of peace or justice or love. Those are part of the universe of the human mind. Which is itself measurable (to some degree) and describable. And has clear influences on the physical universe. What I'm really arguing against is mind-body dualism. Consciousness is so clearly an emergent property of the nervous system — something which is highly measurable and quantifiable. But individual consciousness and its projections do not exist exist for that individual absent a functioning nervous system.

That last is a much more value-neutral way of stating my whole thesis, I think.

I'd be interested in statistics proving that "most" religionists do this. Otherwise, it's a faith statement!

Anecdote, not data, I freely confess. But anecdote verifiable on almost any street corner or Web comments section or weekly religious service.

For instance, I would argue that faith, properly approached (in my individual faith!), does not "war" against science, but envelopes it.

I don't disagree with that at all. But in my experience of you, you do a perfectly good job of distinguishing the meaning of your faith from the meaning of the external world. If I may put words in your mouth, I perceive that a major tenet of your faith is that your view of the external world is highly informed by that faith. (I'm not sure how it could be otherwise, truth be told, otherwise that would be a poor faith indeed.) Your lack of confusion of the two is what I support. Your integration of the two otherwise is entirely none of my business.

Would you agree that there are questions faith can answer, that science cannot? As I read your post, that's where the "service" and the power of faith lie.

Again, I agree with that absolutely. My counterpoint is that faith questions and science questions do not exist in the same epistemological framework. Science doesn't tell us everything about love or acceptance or faith or transcendence, for all that we can study neurochemistry and perceptual psychology and whatnot. If it could, we would have no need for either faith or literature.

The source of conflict lies as much in the English language as anywhere else, where words like "belief", "proof", "truth" and "theory" have very elastic meanings which many people become confused about.

To pick a very simple example, "I believe in God" is not a parallel statement to "I believe in evolution", despite their structural and lexical congruence. "I believe in God" is a faith statement, where the word "belief" is a shorthand term for any of a number of specific kinds of spiritual acceptance. "I believe in evolution" is a statement of information, where the world "belief" is a shorthand term for a specifically trained manner of thought and train of verifiable, repeatable physical evidence.

Or for another simplistic example, when Christianists say, "Evolution is only a theory. The Bible proves the existence of God." They are misusing the terms "theory" and "proof". My cynical self believes this misuses is often deliberate, but even if it's innocent credulity, it's still profoundly wrong.

So yeah, go post about the afterlife. I look forward to reading it.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2013-11-25 17:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is rather disappointing. Because I agree with it from top to bottom; other than perhaps changing "most" religionists to "many" religionists. That seems like too little to sustain a conversation... (grin)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-11-25 17:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But that's the objective, internal universe of consciousness.

*Subjective*, not *objective*, darn it.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2013-11-25 17:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Does rather change the meaning, doesn't it?
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ericjamesstone
User: ericjamesstone
Date: 2013-11-26 14:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
> However, to state the simple truth that there is no evidence
> of life after death...

But it's not true that "there is no evidence of life after death." There are eyewitness accounts of people who claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus. There are numerous people who claim to have seen, heard, or felt the presence of their dead relatives.

You may consider such evidence unreliable, but that does not mean it is not evidence.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-11-26 14:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're using the word 'evidence' in a different sense than I am. I assume deliberately to make a point.

What you cite is not evidence in the empirical sense, as the those reports are not testable, repeatable or falsifiable.

As an attorney, you yourself know precisely how little value eyewitness reports hold. Especially when those reports are hearsay at two or three removes. The synoptic gospels were not written until well after the time of Christ, and their authors were not present for any of the events described.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2013-11-26 15:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Evolution is only a theory. The Bible proves the existence of God." They are misusing the terms "theory" and "proof". My cynical self believes this misuses is often deliberate, but even if it's innocent credulity, it's still profoundly wrong.

Or, in my theory, the proper use of these terms might actually be more difficult for laypeople to understand than many of us nerds realize.

This is why I'm so intrigued by theories that the real evolutionary driver of these enormous thinky brains that we humans have was larger and more complex societies -- our ability to use them for science and calculus and stuff is a hack, rather than a core feature. So the fact that underneath it all, we care more about being "right" (in a social context) than being correct in an objective way isn't all that surprising.
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russ: zen
User: goulo
Date: 2013-11-25 16:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:zen
> Would you agree that there are questions faith can answer, that science cannot?

In what sense can faith answer questions which science cannot?

A Magic 8-Ball can also answer questions which science cannot, but I don't necessarily find those answers compelling... :)

I.e. certainly many religious faiths can answer that there exists life after the death our body, or that there exists god, etc. But the meaningfulness of that answer requires you to "make the leap of faith" for which there is (by definition) no evidence. For someone who doesn't believe that particular faith, the answers provided by it are no more compelling or interesting than the answers from a Magic 8-Ball would be for you.


It also doesn't help the case for faith providing answers when different faiths provide different answers. (E.g. are there multiple gods? Is there reincarnation? Do heaven and hell exist? Is it OK to have sex with no chance of producing children? Etc etc.) ... On what basis should one decide which faith to believe for the answers to such questions?

As far as I can see, one ultimately must trust one's own intuition to decide which faith seems most likely reliable to answer the question - in which case why not cut out the middle man (faith) and simply use one's own intuition to decide what seems most the likely answer to the question which one wants answered by faith?
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2013-11-25 17:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
> In what sense can faith answer questions which science cannot?

For example, science cannot answer the question: "should I smoke?" It can name all kinds of consequences, positive and negative, attendant on ingesting psychoactive substances a hundred times a day. But it can't answer the question. I hasten to add that faith is not the only value system that can answer the question; only that science cannot.

Huston Smith's book _Why Religion Matters_ defines science this way and argues (at more length) for the consequences in terms of what science cannot do:

Huston Smith's definition of science: "Science is the body of facts about the natural world that controlled experiments require us to believe, together with logical extrapolations from those facts, and the added things that scientific experiments enable us to see with our own eyes." Anything else is science as "suggestions backed by sliding scales of reasonableness," fostering confusion (p. 192).

Six limits of science (p197ff):
1. Values (smoking: health vs. pleasure; science cannot choose)
2. Existential and global meanings
3. Final causes (the "why" of things)
4. invisibles
5. qualities (e.g. colors being "warm")
6. Our superiors (beings)

- Each of which needs more explanation, which Smith provides. And each of which can spark much argument and many words posted!

I'd just add that "intuition" isn't at all what faith is about. If you want to treat faith sociologically, it's an accumulation of evidence (historical, not scientific) -- evidence concerning what works as a way of life, and what doesn't. And it's a structure, a paradigm, a worldview, a way of thinking that informs intuition and includes other things as well (like "thinking," for instance).
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makoiyi
User: makoiyi
Date: 2013-11-25 18:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I find this discussion fascinating. I would not say I am an atheist more than spiritual, which has so many definitions and thought processes, you could also argue what being spiritual means. Basically though, and I don't have your plethora of big words, you are searching for an answer to the 'afterlife'. Is there one and is there any possibility of proving it one way or the other. If neither science or faith has a true answer, and I say true in one couched in unarguable facts, then we are all questing in the dark.
Since the death of my 25 year old son two years ago, I have searched for that answer, too. The trouble is you don't call pictures leaping off walls at opportune moments, objects left around the house, or weird visitations 'facts'. The enquiring mind immediately disassembles such things into concrete 'reasons'. Oh, the hook was loose. Oh, I must have forgotten that or it fell out of my pocket, or oh, that was just the sunlight blinding me. Or that someone after a severe car crash saw his image. The human mind says, no, it isn't a fact, it is coincidence or wishful thinking. Then 'someone' says, oh you have to give yourself up to belief and it will come. Which leaves me going - whaaaah.
Faith is an amazing thing, as amazing as what the mind can do.
Why should there be any sort of conspiracy about the afterlife? The only reasonable answer (to me) is that if it really was so wonderful then we wouldn't strive here on Earth because, what would be the point if we could all go somewhere so much better. And I don't mean in the suffering sense but simple everyday struggles. The thing is, we all want an answer to this one and when there isn't an answer we can quantify (if that's even the right word) that is when we walk down those other avenues.
I personally believe there is more than 'death', but what that more is I don't understand, yet. Is it merely an echo of the memories we so strongly leave behind that those remembering create the images we see/feel/hear and experience? Neither really have anything to do with religion, faith or science but imagination or the power of the human brain, which we don't fully understand yet. Which leads to the word 'spirit' and how or even if we give that credence. Spirit and soul are often mixed up, but if a spirit were memory does that mean that person is 'dead'?
I don't think there is an answer we can define in an exact sense or place labels on it. It is as individual as we are.
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daveraines
User: daveraines
Date: 2013-11-25 18:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm sorry about your son. I have an almost-24-year-old son, and wow, I can't imagine the pain.

The short answer to the question of the afterlife, for me, is "the resurrection of Jesus Christ." It's a faith statement, and not subject to science, since it's a unique and unrepeatable event (so far).

The long answer is that I'm working on a post about the afterlife, as I mentioned above.

Another answer is: entertaining the question may be more important that having all the answers.
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makoiyi
User: makoiyi
Date: 2013-11-25 20:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I will look forward to your post. I put my own thoughts on my blog. I think you are right, too. It is worth discussing from whatever view point we might take. It is similar to grief, which obviously I have experienced deeply. There is no book on that either because we all experience things so differently. You may recognise what another person is going through but it is very individual. As individual as our thoughts on this subject.
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russ: zen
User: goulo
Date: 2013-11-25 22:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:zen
> For example, science cannot answer the question: "should I smoke?"

I agree that science per se doesn't directly answer such 'should' questions. But it certainly gives me more useful information for answering them than traditional religious faiths which I have explored, which seems to often answer 'should' questions based on whatever some 2000-year old document says, sometimes inspired by since-disproven superstitions or ideas about sanitation or whatever ("don't eat pork", "don't wear clothes with mixed fabrics", and so on...) For bigger picture ethical questions, I find a sort of Kantian imperative to be a more directly useful guide (e.g. the world would clearly be a nicer place if people were nicer to each other, so I shall try to be nice to people, because if I'm not nice to people, then I'm not contributing to making the world be how I'd like it to be) without all the additional baggage of religious faith which (to me) has no obvious value or meaning.

In any case, it doesn't take a lot of complex reasoning to know that I'd prefer not to damage my health and get cancer (this is pretty obvious for most of us regardless of our religion or lack thereof), and science gives information about the effects of smoking on health, which leads to pretty obvious decisions about whether I should smoke.

> If you want to treat faith sociologically, it's an accumulation of evidence (historical, not scientific) -- evidence concerning what works as a way of life, and what doesn't.

But if you had been raised, e.g., in a Jewish milieu, then your faith would probably be Jewish, and if you had been raised in a Muslim milieu, then your faith would probable be Muslim, etc (I assume you'd agree - ... or not? If not... really? Why not?)

Clearly most people do not consciously explore the thousands of world religions and evaluate them to pick their faith. Otherwise (e.g.) Poland wouldn't be 95% Catholic while Middle Eastern countries are 95% Muslim, etc.

So for most people it seems clearly a coincidental accident of where they were born and to which parents in which culture; there's no objective way to prove or know that "the resurrection of Jesus Christ" is real or true (or even has the meaning which Christianity traditionally assigns it, assuming it was a real event - maybe people get resurrected occasionally for totally other reasons than that attributed to the resurrection of Jesus Christ).

And each religious person believes their own faith, while knowing that people of other religions also believe their own faith, and that they're all mutually contradictory. (Was Jesus resurrected or not? Does reincarnation happen or not? Etc.)


In contrast, regardless of where you were born or what religion you were raised with, you could (e.g.) learn to do mathematics the same as anyone else in the world, perform experiments to verify gravitational equations the same as anyone else in the world, and other such scientific activities.

So for me, I can't really grok why I would assign any particular special meaning to one unverifiable religious faith (e.g. Christianity) instead of another. If one person tells me that rocks fall upward while another person tells me that rocks fall downward, I can independently check, unlike for matters of religious faith.

For me, it's analogous to how depending on the random circumstances of one's background, some people enjoy classical music, some people enjoy rock music, some people enjoy rap music, etc - some types of music may have more personal meaning and joy for me personally, but I can't imagine expecting such a subjective and coincidental thing as the type of music which resonates for me to give any serious objective answers to questions in my life.


Which makes me realize I'm not sure if you're considering the answers which religious faith provides to be objectively true in some sense, or simply personally practical...? (E.g. I have read how Alan Moore started following a type of "magickal" faith despite not believing in it because he found it be a great creativity stimulator for him and his writing; so in a practical sense his life was improved even though he didn't really believe in the ancient snake god or whatever which he purported to worship.)
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martianmooncrab
User: martianmooncrab
Date: 2013-11-25 20:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
only one faith can be right

which is my complaint about organized religion.. which makes everyone and everything wrong.

Monoculture/crops/thinking.. whatever, is what gets us in trouble, like lemmings jogging towards their biological imperative. We need diversity, we need the opposite, we need everything inbetween. Kinda what makes us human.
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Sean P. Fodera
User: delkytlar
Date: 2013-11-26 19:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Science works in a completely testable, repeatable manner for anyone, anywhere, with the right education, data and equipment."

On this statement, I completely agree. However, it's inaccurate and misleading to say that God/etc. doesn't exist just because we are unable to prove it today with the education, data and equipment we have at hand.

The existence of an-almighty-power-by-whatever-name is currently no more improbable than the ideas that germs spread disease, or that memory is a network of electrical impulses, or that man actually can reach the moon, were before the scientific era (whenever you date that back to). For the millions of years that there have been humanoid lifeforms on this planet, most of the scientific things we can now prove were either completely unknown or were looked on as magic for most of that time. Pluto, Neptune and atoms didn't spring into being when humans had the correct equipment to view them. They always had been there.

This is where I part ways with atheism. Atheism demands proof RIGHT NOW, or the concept of God is rejected for all time, and then relies on throwing around loaded terms like "mythology". It doesn't allow for the fact that there have always been things in the world (never mind the universe) that humans at any particular time of history were incapable of proving or understanding. The existence of God and the afterlife are simply two such concepts at the current time. Will they some day be prove by science? I think so. I just don't have the hubris to think humans are so advanced that it will happen in my lifetime.

None of which is to say that I disrespect your long-held opinions, Jay, or the way in which your views and those of your friends and fans who are people of faith, might clash and disturb you during your battle with cancer. I'm not trying to preach or convert. I just think that, generally, agnosticism is more "reality based" than atheism.

Though I'm not online as much as I used to be, you remain in my prayers, both that you'll find a cure or a palliative that buys you time, and that you and your family will have peace in your time together, and your family thereafter. You may not believe you have a soul, or that you will survive beyond death, but your "spirit" (for lack of a scientific term) will remain with those who love you, and I have no doubt, that will be to their benefit.

Best,
Sean
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LiveJournal: pingback_bot
User: livejournal
Date: 2013-11-27 14:13 (UTC)
Subject: How I Thank God.
Keyword:pingback_bot
User theferrett referenced to your post from How I Thank God. saying: [...] disrespect for confusion between the truths of faith and the truths of testable, empirical reality [...]
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