Not So Different, part 1

This post is the first part of a draft of a chapter for my upcoming book. It’s the big post I promised yesterday–except that I realized anything this long should be broken up into multiple posts. Enjoy.

This is the chapter where I explain what’s wrong with maybe 90%, if not more, of the defenses of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that had ever been made. 90% of all the particular religions. Defenses of God or religion in general, I’ll only be hitting a good chunk of those, but if I’m lucky you’ll be an atheist by the time you’re done reading this chapter. Even if you don’t take that step, you should at least finish this chapter a little bit more understanding of how many atheists see your religion.

Stephen F. Roberts said, “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” This is why I can ask  believers, even if they hold on to  their religious beliefs, to be more understanding of atheists. Because we’re really not so different.

It’s common to hear religious believers say stuff like, “I don’t have anything against atheists. So why can’t we all just get along? What I don’t like is those nasty atheists who feel the need to ridicule religion. They should be more respectful.” If you’ve ever said something like that, all I ask for is some sympathy. Even if you don’t agree that your religious beliefs are ridiculous, you almost certainly know what it’s like to find someone else’s religious beliefs ridiculous.

If you’re liberal-minded  person, you might insist that you respect everyone’s religious beliefs. There’s a chance that’s true, but I doubt it. The truth is that most people only respect the religions they’ve been familiar with for a long, long time. For many people in the United States, that means only Christianity and Judaism. For other people, it means a short list of religions that were covered in their world religions class when they were in school: typically Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Other religions, they don’t respect, if they even think of them as religions.

I’ve seen people try to speak respectfully about Scientology, but they’re in the extreme minority. For most people, if they know anything about Scientology teachings (like the Xenu myth, Google it), Scientology is just too weird. And if they know a bit more about L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, it’s obvious that Hubbard was a fraud and/or insane, and that the Church is a nasty, exploitative organization. The nicest thing you can say about individual Scientologists is that they’re mostly innocent victims of fraud, and most of them may not even know about Scientology’s crazier teachings, because the Church keeps them secret from new members.

Even with religions they’re kind of familiar with, many people will rethink the sanity of a religion once they bump into the parts they’re not so familiar with. Many people seem to be okay with Hinduism as long as they think of it as yoga and reincarnation and Eastern wisdom, but are likely to be weirded out by chants of “Hare Krishna,” funny-looking gods, and people getting “purified” in the Ganges (a river that’s actually horribly polluted).

Of course, at this point, many people will be thinking, “but my religion’s different!” This brings me to the related idea to the Stephen F. Roberts quote, an idea articulated by former fundamentalist preacher John W. Loftus, who called it the Outsider Test for Faith: “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating.” You could actually give similar advice for things other than religion—Bertrand Russell once said something like that for politics—but of course here I’ll focus on religion.

To really apply the Outsider Test, you need to apply it to any arguments you’re tempted to use in defense of your own religion. You need to ask yourself, “if I heard a member of another religion making an analogous argument in defense of that religion, what would I think?”

One very frustrating way I see this coming up again and again is in the issue of miracles. If a religious believer heard once that someone reported seeing a miracle which seemed to validate their religion, that’s all the evidence they need, and in fact it proves the atheists of the irrational ones! Never mind that if such “evidence” presented in favor of a miracle of some other religion, they’d be more likely to laugh at the gullibility of whoever was telling the story than to convert.

In fact, though this may seem counter-intuitive, this problem leads me to have more respect for the most seemingly gullible religious believers. I’m talking about the believers who seem ready to believe the craziest stories on the faintest evidence, no matter what the story is. They’re at least being consistent, rather than taking for granted the truth of their own religion’s crazy stories while dismissing everyone else’s crazy stories.

Even with those people, though, many of them still will think the miracles that fit with their religion are the work of God, and everything else is the work of demons. But how do they know it’s not the other way around? In spite of that, the super-gullible people are still an example of how belief in the supernatural isn’t purely a matter of inconsistent standards of evidence. And to look ahead a bit to a future chapter, some people also just been lied to about the “evidence” supposedly supporting their religion.

Because of the super-gullible people, and the people who’ve been lied to, this chapter will not absolutely take out all defenses of religion or belief in the supernatural. Still, I think that if you consistently tried to look at your religion from an outside perspective, you’ll be able to see why at least 90% of the defenses of your particular religion are bunk. You’ll also see what’s wrong with awful lot of defenses of belief in God, because many of those defenses of belief in God would be obviously be silly for Zeus or Thor.

Even if you refuse to ultimately judge your religion by the same standard you use to judge other religions, I think there’s something you have to admit, if you’re honest with yourself. It’s that those “nasty” atheists who you’re so uncomfortable with are perfectly reasonable to see your religion the way they do. After all, all they’re doing is viewing your religion the way you view other people’s religion.

Part 2
Part 3

Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity
God: kind of like an abusive boyfriend
From the archives: Gary Gutting on Mackie, Plantinga, and the problem of evil
Arguments for the existence of something that sounds kind of like a god

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