Not So Different, part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Now I want to deal with a handful of loose ends and questions that have been raised by what I’ve said so far. First of all, in case you’re wondering, I don’t give a damn about Mitt Romney’s religious beliefs. As I said in chapter 2, most religious believers compartmentalize a lot, so you can’t really tell much about what a politician will be like in office based on which religion they pay lip service to.

Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats and bogeywoman of the American right, is technically a Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t tell you much about her. She’s nothing like Rick Santorum, one of the other most prominent Catholics currently in American politics. The reason I don’t support Mitt Romney is because he’s a rich guy who claims the solution our economic problems is to give big tax cuts to rich guys like himself, and he shows no interest in reversing the damage that’s been done to civil liberties and limits on presidential power by Bush Jr. and Obama.

Second of all, yes, this is one of my major reasons for not believing in God. I’ve focused on specific features of Christianity, but “God in general” isn’t really God in general, he’s the Abrahamic God. Many Christians never even think of this because they’re so used to using the word “God” to referred to their God specifically, so it’s like comparisons between their God and other gods don’t even compute.

They say, “the Greek gods (or the Mormon God, or whatever) don’t fit the definition of ‘God,’ so they’re not really gods, so we don’t have to worry about that.” But no, the word “god” refers to all those gods. That’s why we use the same word for all of them. That’s why early Christians used the same Greek and Latin words that pagans used to refer to their gods to refer to the Christian God. And there are obvious similarities between all the beings we refer to with those words.

If Christians have an argument here, it pretty much has to be that they conceive their God as being perfect, and the Greeks, for example, didn’t do that. So Christians get to go back to not even having to think about other gods. When I hear that argument, all I hear is “the reason it’s reasonable to believe in our God and not in Thor is that our God is infinity times better than Thor!” That’s an argument I’m totally incapable of taking seriously so I’m just going to stop there.

Yes, I realize deists will say that their God isn’t the Christian God, but he’s really just the Christian concept of God with the specific claims of Christian revelation stripped away. I applaud the deists for getting rid of all the nasty stuff in Christianity, but there’s still the question of why, if we don’t believe in any of the other supernatural super-beings humans have believed in, we should believe in this particular supernatural super-being?

Next, does this mean I think religion is irrational? Well, “irrational” is such a strong word. And it might encourage some people to demand a theory of rationality from me. So instead here’s a quote from Sam Harris:

This to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is gonna turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic. (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8877 Accessed 5 March 2012)

Or, William Lobdell, in his book Losing My Religion, about his time as a Christian journalist covering the religion beat and how that led to him losing his faith, talks about doing stories about Mormons and learning about what they believed and how at the time, as a Christian, their beliefs struck him as “quite nutty” (p. 124). I like that phrase. So: much in Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam) strikes me as quite nutty. And if you’re at all mystified as to what I could mean by that, just think about what a Christian could mean by saying that about Mormonism.

In saying that, I’m very deliberately short-circuiting a lot of philosophical debates. And I think being able to short-circuit philosophy in that way is a very good thing. Now I’ve got my next entire chapter devoted to philosophy, but for now, just think that we don’t normally think we need to resolve every age-old philosophical debate about the nature of rationality, and evidence, and justification before passing judgment on things like Scientology or belief in fairies. And I see no reason why religion should be any different.

One example of this is the debates about certainty among atheists. A lot of folk will complain that you atheists are so damn certain and it’s horrible for you to be so certain. And a lot of atheists go out of their way to say, well, no, we’re not 100% certain we’re just nearly 100% certain. Richard Dawkins does this in the God delusion, for example, with his 1 to 7 scale of where you fall in the atheism versus theism debate. And maybe Dawkins has the right position on that issue, but I think it’s a mistake to emphasize the issue.

It’s better to respond to believers who complain about atheists being so certain I asking them, okay, how certain are you (if you’re not a Mormon) that Joseph Smith didn’t really dig up a set of golden plates, containing the writings of a series of ancient Native American prophets, who were genuinely guided by God, and then translate them accurately into English with supernatural help? And if you’re going to claim no one can be 100% certain about anything, what percentage chance do you assign to the possibility that Joseph Smith really did all that stuff?

Now there actually are some interesting philosophical arguments as to why no one can be 100% certain about anything, but I get the feeling that most people who say that aren’t motivated by a deep understanding of the arguments. They’re just repeating something they vaguely remember from the one philosophy course I took in college. And even if you thought seriously about the issue and think those arguments are right, the most you can say is that while nothing is 100% certain, some things are just so astronomically improbable that our brains can’t even keep track of the tiny probabilities, so their chance of being true may as well be 0%. That’s my response to people who complain about atheists being so certain.

Now you could probably write an entire book of “101 silly arguments that religious believers make, but would never accept as arguments for anyone else’s religion.” And when I say “you,” I really mean you–you don’t need me to do it for you. So let’s move on to talking about philosophy.

  • jamessweet

    I think you’re being slightly too hard on deists. I can’t quite agree that their version of god is “really just the Christian concept of God with the specific claims of Christian revelation stripped away.” Deists don’t necessarily believe their creator god is perfect or benevolent or anything — just that (s)he/it created everything.

    Don’t get me wrong: I find deism superfluous at best, philosophically questionable, and, if I’m being honest, rather silly… But I can’t quite go so far as to say deists believe in a non-interventionist Abrahamic God. I think they’ve stripped it down even more than that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Um, guess it depends a bit which deists you’re talking about. But I think it’s pretty clear that most deists we know of in the western world were strongly influenced by Christian theology.

      • jamessweet

        Okay, put that way, I’ll buy it. I guess my point is that deists have stripped out more than the actively bad parts, they’ve stripped out basically everything that could possibly be falsified. But if you’re point is that, at least for the vast majority of deists, they only cling to that unfalsifiable kernel because of the influence of Abrahamic theology, I think that’s a reasonable supposition.

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  • Anonymous Atheist

    … here’s a quote from Sam Harris:

    This to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is gonna turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.
    (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8877 Accessed 5 March 2012)

    Instead of or in addition to using this link to William Lane Craig’s website, which requires registration to be able to view, I suggest this link – part of a review of the debate, which includes the same quote: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=15192
    I’d also suggest specifying that this quote is from, and the link or links are pointing to, a Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig debate from April 2011.

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