Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The F Word

I'm speaking at the SacFAN--Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists, and Nonbelievers--meeting tonight at 7:00 pm.  Details here:  Sacramento Freethinkers, Atheists and Nonbelievers

My topic is "The F Word:  An Atheist's Guide to Addressing Faith"

My Powerpoint slides are here:  The F Word

I'll be writing up the lecture and posting it here shortly.  Please come if you're in the area.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Paradox for Christianity: Natural and Supernatural Religions

Dedicated Christian believers will readily acknowledge that many human religions arise from natural, not supernatural sources.  That is, while the Christian may think that his religion was founded on real, supernatural events, or the actions of a genuine supernatural being (God),he will accept that many of the world’s other religions like Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism, and so, had natural origins.  Those religions came about through human enthusiasm, hallucinations, historical contingencies, mistakes, mythologies, psychiatric disorders, social movements, faulty and revised memories, evangelism, or other naturally occurring phenomena.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s call these natural religions and contrast them to a bona fide supernatural religion that really does originate through the intentions, actions, miracles, or interventions of a divine being that has power and knowledge that transcends the merely natural world. And if the followers of a natural religion hold the view that their doctrines are from a  supernatural source, they are mistaken.  That is to say that they follow a false religion.  Many Christians will be quite comfortable with calling these false religions.  Other people who are more sensitive to issues of religious tolerance will be uncomfortable calling them false.  But if we are being clear, everyone will have to acknowledge that some religions entail, require, or recommend that we accept many claims as true that are, strictly speaking, false.

How many false, natural religions are there in the world?  Even if he is a dedicated adherent to one he believes is of supernatural origin, a reasonable believer will have to acknowledge that there have been thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of them.  For most believers in a particular religious tradition, the vast majority of other religious traditions have natural origins and are therefore false.  Even if there is a God, it is obvious that human history spawns great numbers of false, natural religions.  Countless religious ideas spring from human social and mental life, then some catch on and become the start of a whole religious movement.  Thus far, even the deeply committed Christian should concur with all of my premises.  But now I’d like to explain what I take to be a devastating problem for the Christian in reconciling the view that his or her personal religious views are authentic while so many others are false.  The question that should be deeply troubling to the Christian from the inside is this:  why would the one true God who sought to establish the only real religion bury, confound, obscure, or hide it in the midst of so many other false, natural religions? 

Here’s what I mean:  Christianity has relatively inauspicious origins.  What we have today is a very small number of copies of  writings that were written decades and even centuries after Jesus is alleged to have preached, been executed, and the returned from the dead.  Two hundred years or so after the alleged events, the modern Bible was sifted from thousands of early writings that gave very different accounts of Jesus and Christian principles.  A very long and complicated  process with unreliable nodes of transmission provides us with claims of highly dubious origins.  Numerous doubts accumulate at the beginning with the alleged eye witnesses, then the stories are repeated an unknown number of times by an unknown number of people before they are written down by a small group of unknown authors.  They these stories are copied and finally the Bible we know is culled from thousands of other written works.  At each stage of transmission, we should have several worries about the fidelity of the process that accumulate and amplify by the time the Christian stories get to us.  I’ve discussed these layers of doubts and their cumulative, amplifying effect in many early posts. 

The people engaged in the creation and transmission of these early ideas would have been subject to all of the same natural phenomena that affected the foundations of all of the false religions in the world:  psychosis, bereavement hallucinations, the Asch effect, source amnesia, superstition, false supernaturalism, Iron Age ignorance, paranormalism, confirmation bias, fabrication, hedging, revised memories, poor eyewitness abilities, propaganda, spin, mythological influences, heightened paranormal expectations, suggestibility, the lack of the scientific method, gullibility, and so on.  At the very least, the Christian must acknowledge that these phenomena are real, and that they very frequently are responsible for spawning other religious movements.  Even if Christianity is truly of a supernatural origin, and none of these doubt amplifying factors affected its formation, they would have been close at hand, and their presence obscures and undermines our ready acceptance of it.  We know that these phenomena affect people and that they spawn religious movements.  And we have very little reliable information about the origins of Christianity that might convince us that they were not a factor. 

So the question for the Christian is, why did your God make your religion indistinguishable from all the natural religions in so many of these ways?  The puzzle is made worse by the facts that, by your own reckoning, your God has the power, the knowledge, the intention, and the will to make himself and real supernatural origins of the Christian religion evident to all humans.  In fact, by your own reckoning, he is going to hold every human in history morally and epistemically culpable if they do not acknowledge the real supernatural origin of Christianity by condemning them to an eternity of unimaginable torture. Yet despite having the ability, knowledge, and desire to transcend above all of the false, natural religions, he does not. 

The embedding of the one, true religion—Christianity—within human history in a fashion that makes it look like so many false religions should create deeply troubling cognitive dissonance for the believing Christian.  The simple and inescapable answer is that Christianity isn’t the one, true supernatural religion.  Your religion is a natural religion, just like all of the others.  And now you’ve been right to brink of accepting the conclusion.  You already acknowledge that the vast majority of religions in history arose by misguided, natural avenues.  And you can see that the origins of Christianity resembles those false religions in many salient ways.  You have to acknowledge that we have very little, reliable information about the origins of Christianity.  And you can see that God, if he were real, and if he had the power and character that you have imputed him, would have done it differently.  He could have and would have done it better.  All that remains is for you is to abandon the wild gyrations and rationalizations that are typically attempted to escape this dilemma to explain God’s hiddenness.  The simple and obvious solution is that Christianity is a natural religion.