Saturday, November 3, 2007

You don't Really Expect Us To Believe That, Do You?

In many cases, responding to a person’s belief by explaining the physical, psychological, historical, social, emotional, or biological causes of it misses the point if that response is somehow intended to refute or disprove the belief. The truth of the claim and the reasons given in support of it are completely independent of any of these other facts about the genesis of the belief. The genetic fallacy is making the mistake of thinking otherwise. Suppose Smith believes the Pythagorean theorem and some sneering critic points out, “Well, you just believe that because you were indoctrinated to believe it by everyone around you. Your teachers and parents and everyone else believed it and pounded it into you and now, just like a sheep, you believe it too.” Suppose Newton was driven to relentlessly organize and systematize everything he encountered by an obsessive, compulsive disorder. The fact that a psychological disorder contributed to his work wouldn’t affect whether or not g=9.8 m/sec2. The causal origin of the belief, it should be obvious, is irrelevant to its truth or its justification. So when people similarly sneer that religious believers are just obedient sheep who believe because it gives them emotional comfort and because they were indoctrinated, they are making the same mistake. The causal story about what may have happened psychologically to bring about the belief just has no bearing on whether or not it is true. Even if the description of the belief is accurate, it’s not therefore false. And even if the belief owes its origin in part to some neurological or psychological facts, the disbeliever isn’t justified in rejecting the view because of that. It would be fallacious to reject religious beliefs because of these causal accounts alone.

But there is a point of importance here. When we have good reasons to believe that there’s really nothing else supporting the belief besides the causal explanation, then we do have grounds to reject the truth of it. The Inuit Eskimos believed that the moon god, named Aningan, chased his brother, the sun, across the sky, and lives in a giant igloo in the sky. We don’t take such a claim seriously, and we know that there’s not much more to account for this belief in a particular Inuit Eskimo than that his mother and father believed it, everyone else around him believed it, they told him it was true, and it fits in well with the rest of what he believes is true about the world. Maybe the belief provides some emotional comfort. Or maybe there is a neurological disposition to believe such things. Here the psychological, social, causal explanation of the belief explains it away entirely. There are no good reasons for us to believe that the story about Aningan is true, and there are many plausible causal accounts of why the Inuits believe. That’s why you’re an atheist about Aningan.

What about Christianity? The early Christians were a small group of people embedded in an Iron Age world view. The world, as they saw it, must have been heavily populated with magical events and forces, supernatural beings, gods demanding tribute and obedience. They had been raised their entire lives to believe that a spiritual and political messiah would come and provide them with salvation. They were illiterate for the most part. Science as we know it wouldn’t be invented for another 1500 years or so. They had no general expectation that there were natural explanations for lots of the events that people often take to be of religious and supernatural significance. Religiousness and spiritual devotion to some sect or other was a normal way of life for them.

I won’t propose any particular alternative explanation for what might have happened surrounding the beginning of Christianity. I don’t think the non-believer needs to commit themselves to one natural explanation or another being true unless the evidence is really compelling. What should be obvious, even to the staunch believer, is that there are a host of possibilities that could explain why someone might have thought or said he was the son of God and why a lot of people might have believed him besides his really being the offspring of a divine entity who was the creator of the universe. People get confused, they make mistakes, they are enthusiastic, they have ulterior motives, they lie, they cheat, they manipulate, they get duped, they perpetrate cons, they have mental illness, they hear voices, they see things, or they succumb to social pressure. And then social, political, and religious movements can spread by historical accident, through social fads, by political mandate, and so on.

The firm believer must think that one of these alternatives or some combination of them give the real explanation for all the false religions that compete with Christianity. The mainstream Christian would need to conclude that Muhammad, for instance, and his prophecies and the rise of Islam can be explained away in this fashion. The Christian who thinks that the one, true, authentic path to God is through one doctrine or another, say Catholicism, or some kind of fundamentalist creed, they would have to conclude that the vast majority of religions that ever arose in human history are grounded on mistakes and some natural account like those above. There have been tens of thousands of religions in history, and thousands of those claim to be “the one, true religion,” while all the others are false. For them, the precedent is already set for many religions to based on a grand, historical mistake.

The book, The Secret has sold millions of copies. In it, a supposedly ancient secret is revealed that people who have positive thoughts will receive positive events in their lives, and people who have negative thoughts will have unfortunate things happen to them. That such a transparent, and ridiculous scheme could draw in so many millions of people with modern educations, college degrees, and a vast background of scientific knowledge compared to the people in the first century shows how strong the transcendental temptation is, and how easily people are suckered by preposterous metaphysical and supernatural fantasies. If millions of Americans, who have such a vast advantage in education and background knowledge, can be seduced by this sort of scam, then how surprising is it that the people in the early centuries of Christianity’s growth bought that farfetched story hook, line and sinker?

So now, consider what that “one, true religion” must look like to those of us on the outside. Sure, it’s possible that a magical, and divine super being decided to have a son, however that happens, and to send that person to in a tiny village in the middle east in the first century. And it is possible that the magical super being did it in order to tell people to be kind, loving, and forgiving to each other. And those people who believe that all of this story is true will be rewarded in a special magical place after death that no one has ever seen, while all the ones who have doubts and don’t believe will be tortured for eternity.

But doesn’t it really strain credulity for you to really take all that to be true, and for you to expect us to take you seriously? You’ve got to admit that given all the far-fetched, crazy metaphysical schemes that religious traditions have come up with over the centuries about giant igloos in the sky, crocodile gods in the bottom of the Nile, animal spirits, and positive thinking, it’s just common sense to look at one of these stories with a healthy amount of skepticism, and to suspect that the more plausible explanation is that some people who just didn’t know better got confused, or made some mistakes, and the whole thing managed to catch on and spread through a series of interesting historical developments. All of those thousands and thousands of other religions arose from just those sorts of mistakes, so how likely is it that Christianity didn’t?


Timothy said...

So, why is it that in over 6,000 years of recorded history of human civilization has there not once been a pure atheistic civilization anywhere on the planet?

Why is it that no matter how isolated and remote from all other human culture, the worship of God always exists?

At least you're open to the possibility that Chriatianity could be true.

Best wishes...

Anonymous said...

timothy: Thanks for your argumentum ad populum. Why is it that in every civilization, no matter which religion was dominant, there have always been nonbelievers?

Central Content Publisher said...

"Why is it that no matter how isolated and remote from all other human culture, the worship of God always exists?" - Timothy

This simply isn't true. Most human civilizations have been animist, or elementalist. The concept of a single God is actually fairly isolated, and in the scope of human history, only recently popular. Even today, most of China, India, and South East Asia do not worship a single God - if they worship a god at all.

Secondly, civilizations generally develop religious systems for the same reason they start with chipping away at stones or wood rather than producing plastics. It's a primitive stage of human development.

Anonymous said...

Even if i grant you your first few premises of your argument 1)no pure atheistic civilization ever, and 2)the worship of God always exists, in no way does it follow that Christianity is or could be true. At best you could argue that its some evidence in favor of a God, but surely the shape, color and flavor of that God is not drawn from the argument.

The CSUS book store had a essay scholarship available this year, its prompt was the greatest book never written. My idea was that the Greatest Book Never Written would be a collection of detailed remembrances of milestones in history told from the perspective of the defeated. LONG STORY SHORT....... do we really know that all human cultures on the planet earth have always worshiped some god? For all we know there have been thousands of atheistic cultures wiped from the history books by God worshiping cultures.

Central Content Publisher said...

"Even if i grant you your first few premises of your argument 1)no pure atheistic civilization ever[...]" - Mattd

That reminds me. I'm not sure what a "pure atheist" is supposed to be, but it's worth saying that Animists are Atheists, as are Buddhists, and many forms of Taoism. So, there's no reason to grant that civilization without god has not existed. That clearly has not been the case historically, and isn't the case today. Of course, as Mattd has pointed out, even if it were true, it still wouldn't be evidence that supports the existence of a god.

Central Content Publisher said...

Add Confucianism to that list. Really, just between these examples, we're talking about the bulk of the ancient world.

Jon said...

I left a message for Timothy at his blog asking him if he would can make objections to your rebuttals - he has a comment filter on his blog so as to not get any posts of disagreement on his site. I am not certain that he will be up to the challenge of at least trying to answer any here however.
- More exiting times for the ill-formed species!

Unknown said...

It's true that the idea of God can be viewed as a sort of fairy-tale for the believer. The thought of being granted an eternity of perfection and happiness simply for adhering to a specific moral code seems simple enough. However, this trend of basic belief follows through ALL belief systems. If you act right, good things will happen.
I think the mistake you are making is confusing "religion" with "god". Any person who reads the spiritual word would soon discover that they all are talking about the same entity, just under a different name. Its the interpretaion and the people who form the actual religions that complicate matters. God put his lessons out there for all of us to share and learn from, and I don't think He ever gave it a name beside faith or belief. This Christian, Protestant stuff is simply a political faction that formed over the times based on some sort of external dispute.
Granted, none of this proves the existence of God, but I think that as long as you have a human race that feels the need to believe in something bigger than themselves, and relinquish their individual power over to a higher being, the existence of religions will never dissipate. I believe this to be a trait of every civilization at some point and it manifests its way differently, but the trait is there nonetheless. This argument can explain "The Secret" phenomenon. People want to believe that there is something more powerful than them that can dictate how wonderful (or not) their life is. No one wants to take responsibility for themselves. Lets thank God or blame Him depending on the outcome of the situation.
In response to the percentage of athiests within different cultures, I'm sure there are some. However, I believe the majority are believers in whatever that culture believes. Unfortunately, the Christian missionaries were the only ones who traveled and told the isolated groups that their particular belief was incorrect and showed them the light perse. If things went differently, the majority of the faith population could be believing in the crocodile god and no one would be the wiser.

The example of the Asian belief system that one person mentioned have gods that they pray to. Traditional Taoists are polytheistic. Buddhism, is where they follow the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama. How is this any different from Christians following the teachings of Christ? It all goes by a different name.

I don't believe that the foundation of a belief system is nothing more than a story that has been twisted for centuries. The question presented pins down the formation of different religions speaking against the existence of God. Isn't possible that God simply put himself in terms that appealed to the diversity of the cultures? Every culture has some variation of who/what God is, and its the PEOPLE who created the incorrect concept of "One true religion" when in fact, its all the same guy?

Central Content Publisher said...

"Any person who reads the spiritual word would soon discover that they all are talking about the same entity, just under a different name." - Jacquelynn

There's nothing to indicate that all religions are talking about the same entity, but plenty of evidence that they aren't. One need not seek out obscure references. People who believe in an indifferent god are not talking about the same entity as people who believe in an active god. One is indifferent, and the other is actively involved. This makes them different. To many, there is no single all-powerful entity, much less one that is the same as entities in other religions.

"Traditional Taoists are polytheistic" - Jacquelynn

Gods are not a part of Taoism except that many Taoists also worship gods. Traditional Taoism is arguably not a religion at all, but a philosophy, much like its predecessor Confucianism.

"Buddhism, is where they follow the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama. How is this any different from Christians following the teachings of Christ?" - Jacquelynn

One is the son of God and has absolute authority on matters of morality. The other is a normal man with good advice. They differ in countless other ways as well. The only thing they have in common is that followers model their lives after them. The same can be said of Charles Manson. Are Charles Manson and Jesus the same thing under a different name?

"Isn't possible that God simply put himself in terms that appealed to the diversity of the cultures?" - Jacquelynn

Not if one hopes to present a coherent description of God. Besides, you seem to be implying that culture predated god. This directly contradicts how god presented itself to a number of cultures. Is god a liar? Maybe.

You're close though. All religions are attempts to describe reality - not attempts to describe god. Unless, of course, one considers god a synonym for all of reality.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, the truth of the claim and the cause of the belief are two completely different things.

However, since the claim is insane and easily refuted, then we can move on to explanations such as madness and cultural programming -- so we can learn how to fix all the madmen and women on the planet.

If the madman makes a claim, do we seriously consider it, or do we start poking around in their skull?

We poke.

Clearly not ALL claims are reasonable, and so why should the madman's claim that he is Jesus be any different from a believer's claim that he or she believes in Jesus?

Atheists should give up trying to logically argue insanity and move on to working for legislation to move religion OUT of the culture.

We should be working for a more secular society, not wasting our time with valid proofs for schizophrenics.

Anonymous said...

All this assumes that most people who profess Christianity actually do believe and practice the faith.

Actually, on the basis of things like the quantity of hate mail they can generate (or even death threats) a lot of people just claim Christianity because American culture accepts it as a cover for anti-intellectualism or homophobia, or whatever.

If you look at Dover, for instance, how many of the defendants seem to have done anything else in their lives that matched the righteous rhetoric?

If you want to be a conscientious objector to war, you have to demonstrate that you've lived in such a way as to demonstrate some convictions about it, and that it doesn't just happen to be a convenient expedient. I wonder why the standard is lower for people who 'just' try to force their ideas on the rest of society?

Dwight said...

The prejudice against the old runs rampant in this post, but I'm not sure how that works in philosophy which has had so many of it's fundamental questions shaped by the ancient Greeks and Romans?