[Sorry, I've been away for several days and come back with a 3,100 word exposition. Is that making up for it or being sadistic?]
In watching the discussions on a couple of forums recently, and knowing how things have gone in several of my own discussions on religion, a couple of points have made themselves clear. These were things that I suspect I have understood subconsciously for a long time, but haven’t really articulated until now.
The first is the arbitrary and selective application of standards, or “rules of evidence” if you will. This is paid homage to, very subtly, in a fairly common debate point among atheists: “I simply believe in one less god than you do.” The point is, there have been literally thousands of gods and supernatural beings throughout history, in most cultures and with a wide variety of properties, powers, and forms. Virtually none of them are taken seriously by anyone, no matter how devout, except for one (or one set): the one that the devout happens to follow. All of the rest – thor and quetzalcoatl, gaea and janus and raksasa, bast and tsetse bumba – are all considered mythology (thanks to godchecker.com for a couple of these.) But if you ever ask for the distinction between myth and god, and believe me I have, you never get a useful answer. There never seems to be any rule, standard, test, or evidence that can be made to apply, to differentiate one (the “true” god) from another.
Miracles and signs? Yep, many of them see the same thing. Can you tell an apparition of jesus from mohammed? Neither can anyone else – nobody knows what they looked like, except for the paintings and illustrations made from the imagination of the artist. The people practicing all of those other religions pray too, and some of those prayers get answered – so is this simply random occurrence for them, but proof of god for the “right” religion? How is that supposed to work? What defines the difference?
Many people say that their god “spoke” to them, though when questioned, this apparently becomes a vague feeling of awe, reverence, or euphoria. Not terribly specific to godlike behavior, when it comes down to it – I’ve felt it too, numerous times. And again, this ignores the literally thousands of people in other religions whose own god spoke to them. Now, there are a couple of conclusions that can be drawn from this. One, that everyone else has it wrong, which is what the majority of religious folk seem to support. Of course, this raises the questions of how you differentiate “true” godtalk from mistaken impressions, and how the believer knows they themselves were right; and secondly, why so few seem to get corrected in their beliefs when this happens – are we to believe that the vast majority of the religious are absolutely correct and need no guidance or refinements? And if so, how come they have such radically different approaches to their religion?
There’s also a nice debating point in there, when you think about it: if any particular religious person argues that the revelations experienced by people following other religions are false, they have admitted that such feelings can be misleading, which practically begs for a distinction between “true” and “false” revelation, and most especially, how “false” revelations occur. It’s often the very power of the emotion that is supposed to define the authenticity of the experience, but this apparently cannot be the case for the wrong religions, can it? Even within fundamental scripture such as the ten commandments, we have, “Do not have any other gods before me” [attributed to god], which seems to be rather an odd thing coming from a specifically singular being. Why is it that so many people could be mistaken about the gods they worship that it requires a special rule?
The second conclusion that can be made about personal revelations among differing religions is that god speaks to believers in the way they expect: jesus to christians, allah to muslims, krishna to hindis, and so on. This raises the same problem as above, in that whatever the believer was already doing was correct, regardless of how disparate this is from other believers, and leads to the idea that the supreme being doesn’t really seem to care what the hell the believers get up to. A very small percentage of “revelations” ever causes anyone to switch religions, meaning that a lot of godly effort is going instead towards mere “attaboys,” like some weak-minded CEO who wouldn’t know employee motivation if it bit him on the ass. What is this supposed to accomplish? Wouldn’t the selective communication from a supreme being to mortals be better utilized convincing and converting those who are not devout, rather than congratulating those that are? When we find those who have switched religions, why are they so often people who were already dissatisfied, rather than those who were firmly entrenched in the wrong religion? And if the pope suddenly converted to islam, how many catholics would consider this as much a sign from god as previous pronouncements on condoms and abortion? Would the standards of evidence change then?
Another frequent argument is how scripture corresponds with science. My experience has mostly been with genesis of the abrahamic scriptures, which applies largely the same for judaism, islam, and christianity, all of which use it within their holy books, so I’ll stick with this for now. Points are often made for the rough formation of the earth, the appearance of animals, and even the obscure single line, “With the lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Which is amusing in itself, because it doesn’t appear in genesis, and in context, it excuses god from fulfilling the prophesies of the end times. It appears in 2 Peter, which is new testament and as such, ignored by judaism and islam. In debates, it’s the line that is used to excuse the six-day creation cycle in genesis, versus the millions of years for planet formation that we get from looking at the evidence from multiple disciplines of science.
The real problem arises when one tries to explain or predict scientific findings consistently – in other words, seeing if scripture can tell someone how the earth formed, rather than (as usually applied) relying on science to tell us how the earth formed and finding lines from scripture that kinda, sorta, in a left-handed way, apply. For every one line that can be made to fit using the latter method, there are three or more that do not. Typically, these are explained away using metaphors or allegory, but they appear mixed throughout with the supposed statements of accuracy, with no way to differentiate. It begs the question of why a creator, passing information on to mortals, would switch randomly back and forth between factual content and poetic license. It is further compounded by the ugly fact that no one throughout history ever divined (heh!) the intent and usage. We believed in six actual, distinct days, and a specific order of creation, until careful scrutiny of the natural world gave countless indications, mutually corroborative, that this was wrong. Then, and only then, did we start suggesting that scripture wasn’t necessarily literal.
Now, answer me this: if we figured out how things are despite scripture, even though scripture can be said to get a few details right (I’m being generous here,) what actual use is it? We only know what it got right by using another method entirely. Isn’t this a bit like finding out the solution to a murder mystery and having your friend say, “I knew it” afterward? So what? I certainly wouldn’t feel inclined to give them any credit at all for this – but that’s exactly the argument, and exactly the expectations, of many religious people. Sorry, I’ll save my time and stay with the method that provides the most effective and consistent answers in the first place.
I have the same view on the selectivity of most religious people of the morals they garner from scripture. The bible, the qur’an, and the torah are all pretty violent books, and there’s an amazing amount of really grotesque behavior in all three. Here in largely christian American we view the “72 virgins” idea from islam with derision, but manage to ignore the child-beating and wife-as-chattel parts of the bible, much less the raping, village torching, and baby smashing parts – they are, most distinctly, in there. Are we appalled that they’re stoning women in Pakistan? How can we judge, when we’re fighting against gay rights and allowing parents to let their children die through faith (un)healing? When we elect politicians on blatantly pandering religious views, rather than their ability to actually perform the functions of the office, and fret about whether “In god we trust” should be on our money or not? Who gets to call what stupid?
The answer is simple: rational thought does. Stoning women? Bad. Denying any form of human rights? Bad. Can anyone say that portions of any scripture are horrifying? Yes, of course they can. How? Because they have a fucking brain, and are not afraid to use it. And if anyone can select the messages from scripture that might be useful, and the ones that most assuredly aren’t, what the hell do we need scripture for? If space aliens came down to Earth with the message, “Be kind to one another, it works better,” I’m not going to fall to my knees in awe of such wondrous intellect. I’m probably going to say, “Yeah, thanks for the hot tip, Captain Obvious. Next, can you tell me if water is wet?”
So, while I’m on the subject of morals, how do you feel about honesty? Is it a good thing? There’s a pretty good chance you’re hedging against my leading questions right now and thinking something along the lines of, “In most cases, yes, but it depends on the circumstances.” Fair enough. How about when representing the word of god?
The reason I ask is, one of the key events that got me involved in critical thinking came through a baptist summer camp. I remember the preacher telling a large group of adolescents (including me) information that really wasn’t in the bible, and realizing afterward that he had the exact same source of info that I had, so how did he know this? The simple answer is, he didn’t – he was lying. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but let’s deal with the truth – after all, isn’t that what most religious people seek? That’s what I’ve been told numerous times, anyway. And the truth is, lying is behavior I see constantly from the “devout.” And no, I’m not talking about calling in sick to work, I mean when they’re actually discussing their religion – on many forums, the term for it is “lying for jesus.”
I encountered it several times from that same baptist indoctrination camp I mentioned above, in the form of “inspirational” stories, supposedly true accounts of what being religious would do for you (or more often, what being irreligious would do to you.) There is a remarkable stack of them collected at Snopes.com, the urban legends research site, mostly found here and here, with two good examples here and here (the reference to goatse.cx is priceless.) Another example, one that I found particularly offensive for some reason, can be found at a similar site here.
It’s easy to say that anyone forwarding these isn’t actively lying, which might be true, but actually cannot be established either way. The originators of these various examples, however, knew precisely what they were doing, and such examples are rampant. The stories are outright and deliberate fabrications, and are not told as fables or proverbs, but given as real life examples of religious grace. The attitude seems to be (and was even confirmed by several people I’ve debated concerning such practices) that the ends justify the means, and violating one of the ten commandments is okay as long as it’s for good purposes. Surprisingly enough, such an argument doesn’t seem to hold water when it comes to abortion. Once again, we seem to be into this strange set of standards that change to allow the religious to do whatever the fuck they want, and claim it’s supported by the creator.
There is a collection of common arguments against science and evolution, that is then supposed to allow for supernatural creation by default (the fact that this doesn’t follow and is illogical is lost on virtually all that use it.) The amount of times I’ve seen these same arguments is staggering, and it became clear that they’re being repeated by various churches and religious organizations, one of them being Answers In Genesis. None of the arguments are supportable in the slightest, and many involve either misunderstanding or deliberate misrepresentation of the science – things like, “if man evolved from monkeys, why do we still have monkeys?” and, “the Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t allow for life to develop.” To think that these have not been adequately answered thousands of times in the past century beggars belief – they are simply being repeated to the flocks as factual, deliberately ignoring the fact that they’re incorrect. Lying, in other words. Not only is this rather bad behavior for people who claim to be the arbiter of morals, I find it actually insulting to those who they profess to be guiding. Is it just me, or is it a bit condescending to intentionally mislead your followers, hoping that they never actually recognize your disregard of ethics (or forgive it if they detect it)?
I am sure that some, perhaps most, people who engage in the above examples of special rules for religion never realize they’re playing a bias. They simply haven’t ever thought that, for it to be useful, the same rules must apply regardless of circumstance, particular religion, or any arbitrary demarcation. But doesn’t it seem obvious that, in order for a rule or law to be applicable, and to support your argument, it has to be free of special circumstance? Can it even be considered valid if it only applies to the viewpoint it’s being used to support?
But even this argument of innocence, of accepting a bias simply because one never knew it existed, falls apart when you see what happens after broaching the subject. The number of cases of calm consideration are few and far between, in my experience. In fact, JT Eberhard at AtheismResource.com got so tired of playing games with religious folk who couldn’t handle discussion that he created some ground rules for it, to save the time of dealing with mindless assertions, denial, and remaining intentionally oblivious of logical arguments. The bias isn’t so innocent after all, but actively fostered.
Science itself specifically avoids such special pleading and privileged arguments. In order for something to be considered a natural law, it must hold throughout any circumstance or condition that exists. Radioactive decay does not operate differently between geology and biology, much less between France and Japan. Newton’s laws of gravity, while exceptionally useful for centuries, were abandoned once they were determined to be inaccurate, replaced with relativistic space/time. It’s not really a matter of what someone might prefer, or even vote for; to be useful, it must apply accurately to all situations. Otherwise it simply isn’t science.
Would it be asking too much for this to apply to creation and religion as well? Does it seem especially odd that they can only be supported with arbitrary rules that cannot be applied universally? Shouldn’t something as all-encompassing as the beginning of existence, and the creation of this world and the life thereon, demonstrate some specific traits that really cannot be called into question? Isn’t it exceptionally curious that, in order for religion to even exist, it has to rely on faith, the very concept that you cannot have evidence in support of it?
Even socially, the concept becomes questionable when examined. Imagine a fellow student in your class who had special rules during exams that applied only to her, allowing her to dictate what answers she had correct. Suppose people drove on the roads according to their own laws of proper conduct. Think about if they purchased merchandise at prices they claimed applied only to them. Does that work? It does, I suppose, if you’re the one who benefits from such rules. But it would be insipid to consider yourself honest, forthright, or ethical in such a case.
The greatest percentage of our body of knowledge right now was garnered through a simple understanding, a rule if you will: that whatever it is that we’re concluding, works or applies universally. Regardless of race or culture, bias or preference, it remains exactly the same. If you think about it, that’s really the only way we can have any confidence in it. It’s not a matter that these are the rules of the game, or the standards of a particular culture. It’s simply that we only know how strong something is, how unaffected by bias, because it holds true in whatever circumstances it is found. It’s not a matter of whether we want to accept it or not – we don’t have a choice. It either works or it doesn’t. There are very few direct, black-or-white choices in life, but this is one of them.
Even people that cannot articulate this know it anyway, almost instinctively. It’s the reason why there is such a fuss currently over whether science and religion are compatible; it’s also why religious artifacts have been pursued and revered for centuries. We still want the evidence. Even those who rail against the “materialist” approach to knowledge, the reliance on physically testable and demonstrable properties rather than, for instance, the philosophical or theological, know that physical evidence counts for more than anything else – they’ll use it when it suits them. Often enough, they’ll only argue against it when it’s failing to support their beliefs. A fantastic example is the shroud of Turin, which still undergoes heated debate over which forms of scientific evidence are considered accurate or admissible, and which should be questioned or dismissed. Even if you’ve never witnessed such discussions, you can probably imagine exactly how the evidence is judged by the believers.
Real knowledge isn’t acquired by picking and choosing, however. Selective rules, standards, or tests don’t mean anything – we can choose whatever select tests give us the results we want, but in doing so, we have not gained knowledge. We have only admitted to bias, and in fact, played a childish game. It’s self-deception at its worst, and a broad indictment of our ability to accept reality. We can really only trust that which eliminates bias and special handling, and stands up to rules that can be applied universally. No excuses.