“You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” —The Bible, Amos 3:2 (KJV)
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” —The Bible, Romans 10:14 (KJV)
I have formalized an argument that I have seen presented on other occasions in support of the conclusion that no version of theism is true. While other atheist writers have used aspects of it, it has not, as far as I know, been given a concise name. If I may remedy this, I would like to propose that this argument, which I present below, be henceforth referred to as the Argument from Locality.
The Argument from Locality runs as follows. Every religion currently being practiced on this planet, as well as every past religion which no longer has followers, has a definite, discernible origin in time and space. Even if the exact beginnings of a religion are murky, that religion still originated in a definite area and in a definite time period.
However, I argue that any god or gods which existed and which desired to reveal themselves to humanity would not do this – they would not provide a revelation to only one culture, at one time, in one place. There are several good reasons to believe this, and if it holds, then any religion which did have only a single point of origin cannot possibly be true. In short: The fact that all religions originated in one specific culture, at one specific time and place, points strongly to their being the product of that culture, time and place – and not the product of divine revelation.
For the Argument from Locality to hold, its key proposition – that no rational deity would create a religion with a single point of origin – must be defended. I believe it can be defended, for the following reasons:
- Any deity which desired to be believed in would reveal itself to everyone, not just to a specific person, culture, race or nation. As discussed in “The One True Religion“, there can be no doubt that any religion that had it right would be universal. Modern science has taught us that all humans are the same on fundamental genetic and cognitive levels and that race is a social construct as much as it is a biological one. In light of these facts, it is not rational to insist that a god – plainly not a creature of biology, with no special ties or allegiance to any subgroup of humanity – would select any single specific people or ethnicity to be its chosen. (It can hardly be a coincidence that every religion which claims God has a chosen people was founded by those who claimed they were the chosen people.) It therefore follows that any god which founded a religion would probably provide its initial revelation to multiple peoples – preferably scattered throughout time and space, to ensure as wide a distribution of followers as possible – or, failing that, the initial revelation would be given to one group of people with instructions to spread it to others. But there are other points, detailed below, which tell against the second possibility; and while the first possibility would be virtually indisputable evidence of divine origin, it is a possibility which no known religion, present or past, embodies. It would be extraordinary for people from across the globe and throughout history who had no contact with each other to independently invent the exact same religion, without a god giving them all the same information through revelation. But again, this situation describes no religion in existence today or ever.
- If there is a reward for believing, it is fundamentally unfair that some would receive more and more reliable evidence than others. An example may best elucidate this point. In Christianity, those who believe and worship God as he instructs are rewarded with a blissful eternity in Heaven. But not everyone has an equal chance to attain this reward. According to Christianity, some people, such as Jesus’ apostles, were eyewitnesses to his life, his miracles, and his resurrection from the dead. Skeptics such as Doubting Thomas were able to assuage their doubts by examining Jesus’ empty tomb and touching his resurrected body. But modern skeptics do not have access to this evidence. No one alive today witnessed any of Jesus’ miracles, including the resurrection; even if they actually happened, the only evidence we now possess of them is a book, a copy of copies translated from an ancient language that contradicts itself in many places, that claims to contain the accounts of eyewitnesses. Even if Jesus’ life happened exactly as the Bible describes it, the Bible itself is the only witness to that fact, and our historical knowledge is so murky and the evidence so scanty that some people have argued that Jesus never existed at all. But while people currently living must muddle through this tortuous mess if they are to arrive at the correct conclusion for salvation, that same conclusion was effortless for Jesus’ contemporaries, those who were witnesses to his life and his ministry.
This cannot be considered fair. Why should God pick a small number of people and overwhelm them with so much first-hand evidence that their coming to the correct conclusion is virtually assured, while all the rest of us are forced to subsist on scraps of handed-down hearsay? Is salvation like winning the lottery – a matter of luck? How can God be a god of justice if he gives some people a much better chance than others?
The answer is: he cannot. If God’s system of salvation is to be considered fair, then it must be a level playing field, giving everyone the same chance and the same evidence on which to base a decision. Plainly, in this case it is not. It does no good to say that the apostles who had first-hand evidence balanced this by paying in much greater persecution and hardship – many more recent Christians with nothing but hearsay to go on were subjected to persecutions at least as great for their faith. While I have used Christianity as an example, an analogous argument could be applied to any religion purportedly founded or sustained by specific miraculous events at a specific place and time.
- If there is a punishment for not believing, it is fundamentally unfair that some would receive less evidence than others, or no evidence at all. This is the flip side of the previous point, but is different in subtle yet important ways. If a religion claims to be the exclusive way to salvation and threatens Hell for those who do not believe in it, then what happens to those who never even heard of it due to distance in time or space? What chance do they have of escaping damnation?
For example, if Christianity is the correct religion, then generation after generation – dozens of indigenous cultures, thousands of tribes, millions and millions of people – in North, Central and South America, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in Australia and Indonesia – all lived and died in total, tragic ignorance of the one true god, without ever being given a chance to know the love of Jesus or hear about the sacrifice he made. This holds true both for those people who lived before Jesus as well as those who lived during or after his time but before missionaries arrived there. They were never told about the Bible, never got to witness or benefit from any miracles, and never even had one single prophet raised up from among their number. Why did God neglect these people?
More importantly, what is the fate of those who never heard? Did they all go to Hell when they died, simply because God chose not to tell them the way to salvation? Or did they somehow get to Heaven without the redemptive powers of Jesus or even the Jewish law? And if so, if this is possible, then what was the point of sending Jesus or giving the law at all?
The Bible, supposedly God’s instruction book to humanity, nowhere addresses this crucial problem. Since the Bible is supposed to contain all relevant information regarding God’s plan of salvation, it is exceedingly strange and hard to explain, at least for those who believe in it, that it does not answer such an obviously important question. The most relevant thing it says is its dictum that no man gets to Heaven without Jesus Christ, which implies that all those millions of people who lived and died without ever hearing of him were all damned through no fault of their own, but merely because they were born in the wrong place or at the wrong time. This is horrendously unfair – an infinite atrocity from a god one of whose main characteristics is supposed to be justice.
Lacking biblical guidance, some Christian apologists have attempted to solve this problem themselves. But the answers they have come up with are extremely weak, self-evidently flawed, and give rise to more questions than they answer. A typical example can be found in Jack Chick’s book “The Soul-Winner’s Handy Guide“, which hedges on the matter by offering a variety of poor solutions. Firstly, it claims that all people are sinners and that God always judges righteously, though this does not in any way answer the problem; in fact, it is a refusal to face the problem. Secondly, it asserts of these people that “God’s laws are already written in their hearts”. If that is the case, then why was it necessary for God to give the laws to anyone? Why do Christian groups today go to all the effort of sending missionaries to other countries if they will only tell people what they already know? And even if people do have such innate knowledge, this does not change the fact that those who were born elsewhere and elsewhen still had much less evidence to go on than those who lived in a time and a place where God was regularly dispensing miracles. Surely the vague promptings of conscience cannot be as powerful an impetus toward salvation as an eyewitness experience to the power of God. Finally, Chick’s book reluctantly offers, “Perhaps God, in his foreknowledge, had already known these people would not believe even if they were presented the gospel.” This is ludicrous. Are we to believe that in all these cultures – millions of people who lived throughout thousands of years – there wasn’t one single person who would have accepted the gospel if he had heard it? Humans are not so monolithic and never have been. And when Christian missionaries did arrive to conquer and colonize these cultures, they seemed to have little enough difficulty finding converts.
Besides, throughout the New Testament, God repeatedly reveals his message to people whom he must know will reject it. (See Matthew 10:5-6, for example, where Jesus tells his disciples to go and preach to the Jews, despite his lamentation in chapter 8 that most if not all of them are going to Hell.) And this does make sense. After all, if God had decided not to reveal his message to people whom he knows will not accept it, there would be no reason for him to reveal his message to anyone at all. He could just use his omniscient foreknowledge to pick out the people who would accept it if they heard it, save them, and condemn the rest. For Christians to say that God places a high emphasis on evangelism, then turn around and say that he doesn’t bother spreading his word to everyone, is profoundly inconsistent, not to mention unjust.
Similar situations arise with many other religions. According to Judaism, God chose the Israelites as his people and gave his laws only to them. So what happens to everyone else? Do they have no chance? Is God a racist, condemning people to eternal exclusion from his kingdom based on the situation of their birth? Likewise Islam. Does the Qur’an, God’s final revelation to humankind, anywhere explicitly tell us the fate of those who lived and died without ever hearing of monotheism? Since Allah states he does not forgive idolatry, are the pagans and polytheists of ancient times damned to infinite torment for circumstances beyond their control?
- A religion which strongly reflects the beliefs of its time is more likely to be a product of its time than of revelation. If a given religion was purely the invention of human beings, we would expect that that religion would bear similarities to its culture of origin. On the other hand, a transcendent or all-knowing deity, or even one that was merely far wiser than human beings, would not be limited by what was known or believed at the time he dispensed a revelation, but could provide new information of which people were not previously aware and which did not correspond to any concepts in their experience. However, when we examine religions, we find that the former and not the latter situation invariably applies.
Christianity, again, is a perfect example of this. The theology of this religion blends apocalyptic fears, Jewish monotheistic ideals, Greek ethical philosophy, and the worship practices and beliefs of the mystery cults at precisely the time when those things were mixing at a cosmopolitan crossroads of the Roman Empire. Granted, God could decide to reveal his wisdom to humanity at a time and place when it would exactly resemble a syncretistic fusion of the prevailing theologies of the day. However, all else being equal, the principle of Occam’s Razor should lead us to conclude that it is nothing more than that. Positing a deity is an extra assumption that is not necessary and gives no additional explanatory power to any attempt to explain the origins of the Christian religion.
Another way in which this aspect of the Argument from Locality applies is in regard to those religious tenets which state beliefs and approve practices that were widely agreed upon at the time, but that today are recognized to be false or morally wrong. One particularly glaring example is the way the Christian and Jewish scriptures both implicitly and explicitly approve of the practices of human slavery and the institutional inequality of women. Likewise, these writings show no special insight into the workings of the universe other than what was widely known to the people of their time, and make many mistakes common to those who lived in that era – for example, the belief that mental illness and physical disability were caused by demon possession. Again, under the Argument from Locality this is exactly what we should expect: these religions, being the product of those time periods, cannot be expected to show knowledge advanced beyond what the people of those periods possessed.
In closing, consider what would refute the Argument from Locality. We could have found ourselves living in a world with only one religion, spread throughout the globe, with prophets from among every people. We could have found that, when we first contacted isolated native tribes, their religion was identical to one that already existed rather than being entirely their own. We could have found religions that bore no resemblance to the culture of their time and place of origin, in possession of advanced scientific knowledge or advanced ethical principles totally unlike what was commonly believed at the time. These are reasonable things to expect if there really was a god genuinely interested in revealing itself to humanity and being worshipped.
But in reality, we find none of these things. What we find are numerous contradictory and conflicting religions, some with specific “chosen” races or ethnicities, and the further separated they are in time and space, the more their beliefs clash. When we encounter previously isolated tribes, their religions are always new and unique. When we examine the ethical codes and scientific knowledge of religions, they always bear strong resemblances to the times and places where those religions originated. Under the assumption of atheism, this is precisely what we should expect.
One could, of course, argue that this does not prove anything, that God deliberately intended things to be this way. Maybe he has reasons of his own, unknowable to us, for sending his messengers to only one people. Maybe he decided not to disclose advanced knowledge to primitive people. Maybe he allows evil spirits to delude people into creating false religions. Maybe, maybe, maybe – but that is precisely the point. When one believes in supernatural beings that can violate the laws of nature at will and that have motivations inscrutable to humans, all grounds for believing one proposition over another vanish, all knowledge disappears. There is no longer any reason to expect any state of affairs rather than any other. Such a doctrine is impossible to falsify and leads to nothing but epistemic chaos. In explaining anything, theism turns out to explain nothing.
But atheism does not have the luxury of infinitely imaginative explanations unconstrained by fact. Given a few first principles – physical laws and observations whose existence no one disputes – atheism requires that the world can only be one way, and that is the way we in fact find it to be. Believers may argue why God set up the world in just the one way we would expect it to be if he did not exist, but for a freethinker, the conclusion is obvious.
• The Unchosen People: After reading this article’s statement that “it can hardly be a coincidence that every religion which claims God has a chosen people was founded by those who claimed they were the chosen people”, contributor Ian Gallimore offered this amusing short piece on what the likely results would be if God revealed his will in these matters to people other than his chosen.