Suppose supernatural truths exist, but we could only dimly perceive them. What would this look like? How could we tell that we lived in such a world?
We might see a Babel of religions because of our imperfect understanding, but we’d also see convergence. As the disparate religious groups compared notes, common supernatural truths would become apparent. We’d see positive feedback as we matched our tentative consensus against that rudimentary understanding of the Divine. And if that supernatural Divine wanted us to understand, it would nudge us in the right direction so Humanity would gradually cobble together an accurate understanding.
Of course, in the Christian example where God is eager for each of us to have a relationship with him, we should see not a nudge or a vague hint of the celestial truth but overwhelming and unmistakable evidence that he exists.
Follow the evidence
What we see is neither overwhelming evidence nor even dimly perceived evidence. Humanity sees no common truth that pushes religions toward a single consensus view—there isn’t even any agreement on the number of gods or their names, let alone what it takes to please him/them. Religion’s fragmentation is bad and getting worse. For example, Christianity has 45,000 denominations now, and that is expected to grow to 70,000 by 2050.
Important new denominations within Christianity including Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarian Universalist Church, Salvation Army, Assemblies of God, Messianic Judaism, Shakers, Mormonism, and Pentecostalism. Outside of Christianity we find new religions such as Rastafari, Church of Satan, Cargo cults, Theosophical Society, Transcendental Meditation movement, Wicca, Neopaganism, and UFO cults such as Raëlism, Heaven’s Gate, Nation of Islam, and Scientology. Dozens of new religious movements spring up each year just in the United States.
If there is a supernatural truth out there and if beliefs are steered by reality (instead of wishful thinking, say), you’d think that religious claims would be tested and either kept or dropped based on how well they matched reality. With this view, we’d see humankind gradually converge on a single religious story. And yet we see the opposite because the assumption that beliefs are measured against the evidence is wrong. Evidence doesn’t drive the search for religious truth.
What then explains the popular Christian apologists who weave elaborate intellectual arguments for the strength of the Christian position? They’re simply supporting conclusions already made, and they get their support from Christians who want a pat on the head and assurance that there’s scholarly backing for beliefs they hold for no more substantial reason than that they were part of their environment growing up.
(Yes, adults do switch religions, but this is rare. Believers adopt a religion, not because it is the truth, but because it’s the religion of their culture. Only one percent of believers switch in as adults.)
The Christian response is often to emphasize Christianity’s unique aspects. “Okay, maybe Christianity wasn’t the first to celebrate a virgin birth or have a dying-and-rising god,” they admit, “but look at its unique features!” Sure, Christianity is unique. Every religion is unique. But the problem remains: if your correct religion looks like yet another manmade religion, why would we think it’s correct? Why pick it over the rest? Since it looks like nothing more than a manmade religion, it should be rejected just like the rest.
Another popular response is to argue that the one true God could have his reasons for not making clear the correct path. We simply don’t understand them. Yes, this is possible, but this is the “Aha—you haven’t proven me wrong!” gambit, which again is no justification for belief. You don’t hold beliefs because they haven’t been proven wrong; you hold them because there’s evidence that they’re right. We follow the evidence, and it doesn’t point to Christianity.
Where does this leave Christianity?
Christians agree that people invent religions. That’s how they explain all those other religions. But in explaining away these other religions, they’ve explained away their own. Christianity looks like just one more manmade religion.
Religion is controlled by human imagination and emotions, evolving as conditions change with no immutable truth to constrain it. There is no loving god desiring a relationship who would make his existence known to us, and Christians must celebrate faith to paper over this embarrassing fact. There’s not even a cosmic truth “seen through a glass, darkly” (that is, seen in a mirror, dimly). The glass isn’t dark; it’s black. There is no external truth nudging us in the right direction.
Christians, drop the pretense that this is an intellectual project. Admit, at least to yourselves, that your belief is cultural and built on nothing more solid than tradition.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
— Upton Sinclair
Photo credit: Mike Mozart, flickr, CC