The Language of God: A Doubtful Belief

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Collins starts off this chapter noting that, if we’ve followed him this far, we’ve no doubt begun to form numerous objections. That’s an understatement to be sure! He gives us some of his own: Isn’t belief in God just a case of wishful thinking? Hasn’t a great deal of harm been done in the name of religion? How could a loving God permit suffering? How can a serious scientist accept the possibility of miracles? We’ll upack those questions in a few posts. But for now we’ll focus on doubt.

Collins kicks off this chapter by stating that doubt is an unavoidable part of belief. He supports this with a quote from Paul Tillich: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith” (p.33). I doubt the existence of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So would Tillich (and Collins) say then that my doubt is an element of faith in these beings? Collins tries to argue in favor of doubt by stating that an airtight faith would be a bad thing because “then the world would be full of confident practitioners of a single faith. But imagine such a world where the opportunity to make a free choice about belief was taken away by the certainty of the evidence. How interesting would that be?” (p.34). First, assuming there should be any religion at all, wouldn’t having just one religion be a good thing? No more religious persecution, holy wars, or religious terrorism. No more cults leading to the Jonestown massacre, the Branch Davidians, or Heaven’s Gate. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation would have never happened since there would be nothing to reform. According the the World Christian Encyclopedia, there were over 33,000 Christian denominations alone in 2001. If each denomination was represented by one Christian, that would be enough to almost fill Fenway Park! In the meantime, if you need help figuring out which religion you should follow, then this handy flowchart can help.

Secondly, an abundance of evidence (which many would claim gets us as close to certainty as we can get) does not prevent people from believing all kinds of crazy stuff.

  • The confluence of evidential lines from geology, paleontology, biologic, genomics, and archeology still don’t stop some people from believing that the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old.
  • Despite numerous studies and articles in peer-reviewed journals refuting the point, people still think vaccines cause autism.
  • Despite no credible evidence supporting them, and despite lots of credible studies in peer-review journals refuting them, people still believe homeopathy and acupuncture work. (This one is a little more contentious, so I link to a place that refutes pseudoscience nicely.)
  • A large number of people still refute the general consensus among scientists that human activity is causing global warming.

I suppose I could also make the case that just because certainty takes away my freedom to choose something does not necessarily limit how interesting life is. I’ve come to realize that gravity will always pull me back down to Earth. I jump, I come back down; I fall off the bed during the night, I crash into the endstand and break a lamp. These things happen, and I have no choice in having gravity not work on me. And my life is pretty damned interesting, thank you very much.

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