Do we live in a world with a god? It doesn’t look like it (read part 1 of this series here).
Let’s continue our survey with the next clue that we live in a godless world.
Michael Shermer observed, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
Suppose someone absorbed a false belief during childhood—a superstition, a bias, or even a worldview. As they got older, they discarded some of these beliefs that weren’t supported by good evidence, but they held on to some, particularly those beliefs integral to their self-image. And here’s the interesting part: because they’re much smarter as adults, they can put together a plausible defense for those false beliefs, even if they hold them for no better reason than that they were indoctrinated in them as a child.
This isn’t like defending a belief that you know is false—such as, just for fun, creating as compelling an argument as possible that the Earth is flat. Shermer’s Law applies to people defending a false belief for reasons that they believe. There is no self-deception going on. The alternative is to admit to themselves that they’ve believed this false belief for years or even a lifetime, but the subconscious protects one’s self-esteem and prevents this. More here.
If God existed, belief would be defended with evidence.
A palimpsest is a manuscript page with its ink scraped or washed off that was then reused. In some cases, the pen marks from the previous (older) document can still be read.
We see a metaphorical palimpsest with the Bible. Taken by itself, some passages make little sense. For example, what does it mean that the water for Noah’s flood came from “the springs of the great deep” and the “floodgates of the heavens”? We can put the pieces together if we hypothesize that the ancient mythology of Genesis was built on still-older cosmology from the Sumerians and other Mesopotamian civilizations.
Of course, seeing Yahweh worship as built on the religion of the guys down the street pretty much rules out any historical foundation, but the point here is how the biblical story has changed. For example, God evolves through the Bible. In his youth, he wasn’t distant and omni-everything, he was rather like Zeus. He walked through the Garden of Eden and spoke with Adam and Eve like an ordinary man. He visited Abraham. He spoke to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11). He also wasn’t omniscient, and he needed scouts to check out the rumors about Sodom and Gomorrah that he heard. He regretted creating man before the flood.
By the time of the New Testament, things are remembered differently. “No one has seen God at any time,” (John 1:18). It tells us that God knows everything (1 John 3:20) and doesn’t change (James 1:17).
For an omniscient, unchanging god, he sure has changed a lot.
See also: Because the Bible story keeps rebooting
The most recent change to God is his retreat in the face of science. God used to cause lightning and drought, but not anymore—science provided a better explanation that could be tested. God used to cause cancer and plagues, but science explains them better, too. How about miraculous cures, then? Sorry—labeling a surprising remission as a medical miracle is wishful thinking. Only science has evidence that it can improve health outcomes or even eliminate disease. More here.
And what is “Christianity”? That, too, is a moving target. Christianity is like bacteria in a petri dish, and new denominations are now splitting off at a rate of two per day.
Consider Christianity in the early days and the long way it’s come. There have been 21 church councils, and the conclusions of each council were declared infallible (because magic, I guess). Then there are the schisms within the Christian church. The Protestant Reformation may come to mind as the most interesting, at least from the standpoint of Christians in the United States, but there have been dozens.
Nothing objective grounds the evolution of various doctrines and the declaring of some as orthodox and some as heresy. If you lived centuries ago, doing your best to conform to Christianity as it was preached in your church, but died believing what is now considered heresy, well, I guess it sucks to be you.
Even the canon (the set of books considered authoritative scripture) has been a moving target. It took until the Council of Rome (382) to get the canon more or less defined, but that list was amended within the Roman Catholic church by the Council of Trent (1545). Different Christian denominations still have different canons today. Since they disagree about the same canon, it’s obvious that no infallible hand guided its selection. Here again, there is nothing objective to ground it. The canon was a popularity contest, and theologians would argue for whatever set of books was in vogue in their part of the world.
If we lived in God world, it would look it. God’s a smart guy, and his message would be simple and unambiguous. More here.
but still doubt it the tenth time,
and they can see religion fail nine times
but still expect it to succeed the tenth time.
Image via Retrogasm, CC license