“I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”
Imagine a person who has spent their formative years and their adult life on a deserted island. For simplicity sake, let’s assume this castaway speaks your native language. Let’s further assume this person’s life was not influenced, in any way, by external God claims or other people’s preconceived notions of religion and/or God.
What would you imagine this person’s conception of God to be?
My first thought is that this person would probably be an atheist. I don’t think they would be staunch in their presumption, but I suspect they would have been so busy worrying about surviving the island that they wouldn’t have had much opportunity to invent a religion.
But, for the sake of this post, let’s assume they did believe in God and had formulated a religion. Let’s make a few assumptions. If you find these assumptions unreasonable, feel free to skewer me in the comments. They seem reasonable to me, given my current understanding of human beings.
- Any notion of a God, either personal or impersonal, would be the work of the castaway’s imagination, and not based on actual observations of a deity
- Any claims about observed intervention by God would be unreliable, inaccurate, and a function of the castaway’s intelligence, imagination, and lack of formal strategies to discern between fact and fantasy.
- Any claims about a personal or impersonal God would probably resemble deities invented by various cultures throughout history.
- Any claims about a God would differ in paradoxical and irreconcilable ways with all modern monotheistic religions.
The alternative to any or all of the above assumptions would be that some or all of the castaway’s presumptions about his God are a function of actual communication with a God, in which case, this entire post is rendered null and void.
Suppose our castaway gets rescued from the island, and brought back to the developed world. Then suppose you get the chance to talk to him, and he tries to convince you that he has a personal communication with the God he invented, and that his deity was worth accepting as your personal lord and savior.
Would you believe him? Would you be open to accepting his “truth”? Would his conclusions and presumptions about a universal creator hold water in your mind?
I suspect most people would reject our well-meaning castaway’s claims. The reason for their rejection: skeptical analysis reveals there is no good reason to believe the castaway’s claims about a personal line of communication with God. His claims came about because he has the intellectual and creative capacity to invent a God, and an inclination to characterize his existence in abstract and supernatural terms. His capacity to propagate those claims comes from his skill and ability to communicate.
If our castaway spent enough time, he might manage to get a conversion or two, particularly if he got the opportunity to consistently proselytize to very young people, maybe every Wednesday from 9am to 10am, then again on Sunday mornings.
Propagating a religion is a sales process. Most of us have had enough experience with sales people to know that some sales people are better than others. Good sales people sell more stuff than bad sales people, and uninformed customers buy worse products more frequently than informed customers.
Here, we arrive at an implication: the number of people who believe (or buy) something is sometimes a function of how effective a person or organization was at convincing them. In other words, the popularity of a belief is not the same as the truth value of a belief; nor does truth rely on, or require, an authority to believe it.
Consider one of America’s greatest scientists: Linus Pauling. Pauling won a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1954 for “his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances”. Later in his life, Pauling became convinced that vitamins, particularly vitamin C, were essential for human health and longevity. He wrote books, appeared on tv shows, and managed to convince a decent percentage of Americans that he was right.
Turns out Linus Pauling was wrong, as were the millions of Americans who did (and still do) believe him. Popularity of a belief, or the reiteration of that belief by an authority figure, says nothing about its truth.
The limitations the castaway has in assessing the truth value of his conclusions are the same problems our bronze and Iron Age ancestors had over 100 generations ago: lack of formalized logic processes, no cultivation of skepticism, inability to verify claims, and inadequate scientific training to consider and test alternative explanations.
Any one of these things creates a blind spot in our ability to honestly assess information. The combination of all these limitations leads to widespread acceptance of wildly unrealistic and/or dishonest claims.
The moment a person accepts that their bronze age, middle-Eastern forebearers were susceptible to bad interpretation and faulty conclusions, they must consider that those conclusions are wrong.
The claims the castaway makes might clearly be recognized as bullshit to anyone listening. Our modern standard for accepting evidence is often fairly high. If it weren’t, we might succumb to the temptation of giving our bank account numbers to African princes who seek out strangers via email to deposit hefty sums they are trying to hide from their political enemies.
But for some reason, this same level of skepticism is not applied to Christianity’s claims (I don’t mean to single out Christianity too much in this scope; they’re all ridiculous in their own ways).
At some point in my life, I recognized this dichotomy: either those claims in the bible are fact-based and correct, or they are not. In either case, logical and honest investigation, absent of logical gymnastics and word salad, allows us to evaluate some of those claims.
My investigation led me to the following conclusion: It’s irrational to believe the supernatural claims made in the bible, because evidence does not support them and logic renders them absurd.
The bible is not what its supporters claims it is. It is not a good book to assess or model our morality; it is not a book to give historical insight; it is not a book that reveals a decent and loving God. In fact, it fails terrifically in all these categories.
But how could this be? Isn’t the bible the divinely inspired word of God? How could anything in it be wrong? How could it be even a little bit morally dubious? How could it be scientifically inaccurate? How could it make historical claims that are verifiably incorrect?
The universe’s creator would remember how he created the universe, and would be able to communicate that to any one of the people with whom he supposedly communicated. While he was at it, he might have shared that people could boil water to kill some of the pathogens in it, which would have saved millions of lives.
Yet, there’s not a mention of DNA, the big bang, prokaryotes, dark matter, or expanding galaxies. There is no mention of humanoid species, or genetic changes, or the symbiosis of DNA-containing mitochondria and nuclei.
Does this disqualify the bible as being a fundamental document by which we should live our lives?
If it were simply a matter of the bible containing inaccurate scientific depictions, I might not have been too worried. If the matter were simply a few moral depravities, it might be easy to let that go, and still retain faith.
For me, the problem was all of it. From the blood-thirsty, war hungry tyrant God to the ridiculous notions of creation and world-wide floods, to the faulty and horrible version of morality the bible prescribes, to the rape, infanticide, incest, and murder, to the bouts of schizophrenia that gave rise to the bible’s revelations, it became clear to me, sometime in the past 10 years, that the bible was written not by some divine deity or his human counterpart, but by a collection of humans who were simultaneously inclined to explain their existence in creative and supernatural terms, but who were ignorant of the complexity of the world that, once understood, renders supernatural explanations unnecessary.
We’re all agnostic, in a way…even our castaway friend is. But, as evidenced by our imaginary proselytizing castaway, along with so many cultures over the centuries, we know what human beings do in the absence of clear explanations. The creativity kicks in, patterns are given more significance than they deserve, accidental correlations are celebrated, and we invent ourselves some deities.
When we take a moment to apply the same skepticism to religion that we apply to everything else in our lives, it becomes easier to call the bible what it is: a collection of superstition and Bronze Age conventional wisdom.
If a person has the audacity to arrive at such a heresy, they are in the same boat as any other honest human who’s ever lived.
That’s the boat I’m in. I don’t know. But what I was told growing up, and what modern religions continue to peddle, seems dishonest, harmful, uncompassionate, racist, sexist, homophobic, and incorrect
That’s why I’m an atheist.