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.  

19 comments:

Robert said...

Christians would likely respond they have supernatural confirmation for their beliefs - the Holy Spirit. I argue this doesn't improve their position.

Matt McCormick said...

Yup, that doesn't improve their position at all, for the reasons you cite and more. Furthermore, this response creates a new paradox--on this view God utterly obscured his existence by disguising the one real supernatural religion as a natural one, then he bestows special private encounters to an inexplicable few people in the midst of billions of other people who have their own false mystical experiences. One paradox gets replaced with another. Either God's a hopeless bumbler, or (easier) we just made it all up. Thanks Robert.

MM

The Atheist Missionary said...

Professor, could you please consider adding a sharing button on the bottom of your posts. This can be set up automatically - there are a variety of services available including www.addthis.com. Thank-you for maintaining this inforative site.

Matt McCormick said...

I changed the setting, AM, but the buttons don't seem to be showing up. Good idea. I'll work on it.
MM

The Atheist Missionary said...

The Atheist Missionary said...

I set it up on my site but I can't remember which site I used. It's very slick and the sharing button has been automatically to all my old posts.

soku said...

What would you say about Christians who don't accept that all or most other religions have natural sources, professor?

soku said...

So, what would you say about a Christian who doesn't accept that all or most of the other religions have natural sources, professor?

Sean said...

Summary: Just like Christians, atheist dismiss every other god man has ever known. For the same reason, we go one god further.

Matt McCormick said...

Soku, this argument is directed specifically at those Christians who would not accept that the majority of other religions have real supernatural origins. I have had many other previous posts dealing with the sort of broader theism you're talking about.

Matt McCormick said...

Sean, that's not a very good summary, although I can see why you might think so. A better summary: Why did the Christian God make the origination of his religion look just like all of the other misguided and mistaken religions in the world? He didn't--Christianity is false too.

Sean said...

I suppose my reference to Dawkins was less of a summary and more of a derivative. None the less, I like you analysis.

Dr Funkenstein said...

Isn't what Robert's post refers to basically what Plantinga's extended A/C model operates around (the regenerating power of the HS overcoming the noetic effects of sin on the truth-tracking cognitive faculties designed by God to generate true beliefs in the right environment for them etc etc)?

Obviously Plantinga's point is that if God exists then this model/something like it should be true.

Two things I've wondered about it that would presumably show it doesn't exist would be that while people and groups begin to believe in various dissimilar god(s) in an independent manner, they don;t do the same for the specific ones in specific religions. Belief in Jesus/Yahweh hasn't and doesn't pop(ped) up at random, which should be expected were this model true - i.e. there weren't people in Mexico or Australia starting to believe in Jesus independently of and prior to missionaries arriving on their shores etc.

Secondly, if this regenerating spirit is saving true believers from having or generating false beliefs (or at least reducing them - and I'm assuming this includes beliefs that have nothing to do with God, just true/false beliefs in general) that believers would be expected to consistently outperform non-Christians (and in particular atheists) in academic testing, tasks involving reasoning/other uses of cognitive faculties etc. The fact that this doesn't seem to be the case would suggest the HS (or at least Plantinga's extended model) doesn't exist in reality.

To me these objections seem rather obvious (and would seem to rather easily disprove that Plantinga's model actually exists), but it presumably can't be as simple as that to show he's wrong can it?

Matt McCormick said...

Nice points Funkenstein. I think there is a consensus, even among reformed epistemology advocates, that there are several problems in Plantinga's arguments. Yours sound like plausible ones. Although P is tenacious and hasn't relented, despite some hard objections. The big problem that many agree on now is that Plantinga's convenient way of insulating his own view from attack is available to anyone else to do the same. A Great Pumpkin believer can insist that the Great Pumpkin insures that his cognitive faculties are functioning properly and producing special metaphysical knowledge of his ultimate pumpkin-ness. And this believer can employ all the same tropes to isolate Great Pumpkinism from objections. A great deal has been written on this.

MM

mikespeir said...

The kind of Christianity I grew up with would insist that "false" religions have a Satanic/demonic origin. Or is this the same issue soku brought up?

Matt McCormick said...

Hmmm, well Soku and Mike Speir bring up a possibility that I hadn't thought of: A Christian might think (unreasonably) that all of the thousands of other religions are actually supernatural, but they fit within the Christian metaphysics by being of evil, demonic, or satanic origin. So maybe they are all put here to obscure, distract, and undermine our faith.

This doesn't really change the argument. It just pushes the paradox back a level. First, why would an all powerful and all knowing, good God tolerate his one true religion's being so interfered with? He's got the power, the knowledge, and the goodness to prevent Satan or demons from wrecking his plan, right? Second, why would God set up or create his one true religion so that it looks just like all of the evil, demonic, and satanic ones? Third, Satan? Seriously? Demons? Seriously? Stop acting like a child and get your head out of your ass. There are no such things. We don't have a single reliable, confirmable sound piece of evidence that suggests that anything like this is real. Atheists, skeptics, and non believers need to stop wasting their time taking nonsense like this seriously. Clearly, if someone thinks that the world is full of mysterious, invisible, evil demonic agents, the burden of proof is on them to show us. Until then, I don't see that I should even dignify these ideas with a response.

MM

mikespeir said...

Well, you're right that they don't have any believable evidence for, say, demons that we're obliged to accept. And if they're trying to push their religion on us, all we have to say in rebuttal is, "Prove it!"

On the other hand, because they do believe in demons, the kind of argument you've made in this post won't faze them. It depends on who's attacking and who's defending, on who's trying to convince whom.

Matt McCormick said...

Fair enough, Mike. In the end I can never prevent anyone from being flagrantly irrational. I can show them, over and over, how the views they claim to have are utterly contradictory and unintelligible. If that doesn't bother them, they've just left the domain of grown up discussion. But, contrary to your claim that they will be unfazed by my post, I explained in the last comment and in the post why retreating to the demonic religions position doesn't help the problem at all. Same for people who try to "solve" the problem of evil by blaming it on the devil. That doesn't explain why God tolerates its existence in the world, it just adds another level of questions. Thanks again.

MM

Jeffrey A. Myers said...

The same analysis is actually quite useful when discussing cosmic and biological evolution. When one assumes God's omnipotence, one has to wonder why God did not simply create the entire Universe, life and everything after all at once. And if God DID create the entire Universe all at once, why did He obscure His presence by making it appear that the Universe evolved, that life evolved, that geological and chemical and physical forces are responsible for the phenomena we encounter on a daily basis.

It is a rather convoluted process for an omnipotent being to engage in and serves no real purpose other than to confuse and obfuscate those who are supposed to believe in Him.