Thursday, December 6, 2007

Why Care What They Believe?

During a recent conversation with my brother (also a non-believer), he asked, what is the big deal if someone believes in God? Being able to clearly articulate why one has the opinions one does is always a good thing, so I thought about why I am as strident as I am. This essay is the result.

Belief in something called God is harmless enough if it is Spinoza’s God (this is the non-dice playing God that Einstein spoke of) that is manifest in the Natural Laws of the universe. The reason I am as strident as I am is that almost no one who says they believe in God believes in Spinoza’s God; the God they believe in is the personal, interventionist God of the Bible. This belief is, in turn, almost invariably the progenitor of a whole memeplex of subordinate propositions (proposition set #1):

· Adam and Eve were, literally, the first human beings on earth as recounted in the Book of Genesis

· The sun, quite literally, did stand still for Joshua

· Jesus really was born to a woman that never had intercourse until after Jesus was born, as described in the Gospels

· Jesus really turned water into wine (Pinot Noir?, Cabernet?, Merlot?) at Cana

· Jesus was Crucified by the provincial Roman authorities at the behest of Jewish Temple Priests, as told in the Gospels

· Jesus was actually dead for 2 or 3 days (the Gospels differ on just how long Jesus was dead)

· Jesus then actually came back to life and went on a bit of a “walkabout” and then bodily ascended to “heaven”

Religious believers accept these propositions as factually true in the same sense that most everyone (including religious believers) accepts the propositions listed below as factually true (proposition set #2):

· In 480 B.C.E., a small number of Greek warriors (approx. 5000) led by roughly 300 Spartans held a vastly larger (200,000 +) Persian army at bay for several days in a narrow pass known in antiquity as Thermopylae. This allowed Athenians to evacuate the city before it was burned by the Persian army and was the beginning of a national identity for Greeks and preserved Athenian ideas of democracy so that they survived to provide an ideal for our form of government today

· In 476 C.E., Rome fell

· In 1066, the battle of Hastings was fought in England, clinching the success of the Norman conquest of England, having a major impact on the subsequent history of England

· In 1620, Separatist Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts

· The United States fought a civil war during the period 1860-1864 over ideas of States Rights and slavery

· President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963

· On September 11th, 2001 the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers fell, killing 2,603 human beings

If one were to ask someone why they accept the items in proposition set #2 as factually true descriptions of events in human history, their reply would almost certainly entail an appeal to independently verifiable, objective evidence (i.e. archaeological, anthropological, historical, linguistic, etc.) and if they could not do so “off the cuff,” give them a set of encyclopedias and in short order they could look up the relevant information. If you were to ask a religious believer why they accept as factually true descriptions of events in human history the items proposition set #1, the reasons given will be dramatically different from the reasons given for accepting as true the items in proposition set #2.

Another difference between proposition sets 1 and 2 is that the items in set #2 are open to revision in the light of new evidence or information affecting the proposition in question. However, an essential characteristic of the items in proposition set #1 is that their content will never be subject to revision or correction based on new evidence, just ask a believer.

Somehow, despite the evidentiary shortcoming of their propositions, believers demand that we accord the same respect to their beliefs about God and Jesus that we accord to beliefs about the fall of the Roman Empire. I can’t do that. Believers seem unable to distinguish criticisms of the basis for a belief and criticisms of the person holding a belief. If questions are asked that they cannot answer, they get embarrassed and become offended.

Solving common problems in the world requires a common frame of reference, but more than that, the frame of reference must have some minimal correspondence to objective reality. The way the degree to which a proposition (or world view) matches up to reality is to test those propositions using the tools of reason, evidence, and logic.

It is a brute fact that if someone believes that the events in the life of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament are every bit as historically true and reliable as the current accounts of the life of Winston Churchill, there are some very important conversations that will not bear useful fruit.

I am in no way suggesting that laws be passed locking religious believers out of the “public square,” just as there are no laws on the books preventing astrologers from participating in public life. However, believers in astrology, those that consult their horoscopes before making a personal decision of any import, now know, by and large, that many other people consider their beliefs preposterous and it is generally counter productive to bring up one’s devotion to astrological propositions. Taking this analogy a bit further, what would society think if a devoted follower of astrology were assigned to jury duty and announced, unashamedly, that they had cast their ballot in the jury room based on the horoscope of the defendant? Think about that, then explain how it is that asking their fellow jurors to join them in “prayer,” beseeching God for “wisdom is somehow less irrational than consulting a horoscope rather than just sticking with their own faculty of reason and the evidence presented in court.

Just as those that believe in astrology realize that it would be personally embarrassing to place their beliefs on display during, say, a job interview, it is my hope that religious believers, while they ought to remain free to espouse whatever notions they wish as a matter of principle, like anyone else’s beliefs about astrology, the holocaust, or about a still-living Elvis, that their beliefs be subject to same standards of reasonableness and plausibility as any other notion or claim that people are asked to assent to.