Everything I Believe about Religion, Part II: The Transcendent Faces Down the Odds
This is part two of an ongoing series. Part one can be found here.
I’ve been accused of failure: I haven’t offended. For which I’m sorry, I guess. I’ll try to do better here.
My first post outlined the foundations of my religious skepticism. Which explanation is more probable, I asked: That witnesses and chroniclers would lie and/or be deceived? Or that a miracle would happen?
Given that error and deceit are very common, and miracles are — at best — exceptionally rare, a rational person favors a mundane explanation. Unmentioned, but also important, are coincidence and ignorance, which likely account for nearly all modern-day medical miracles. It’s remarkable that as our ignorance has retreated to the far corners of biology, God’s miracles have trotted along after it. The king’s touch used to cure scrofula; Henry IV of France reportedly cured 1500 sufferers. If only Obama could do the same! But we no longer need him to, in part because our doctors are so good at it. (But could Obama do it… for free?
Also unmentioned: I don’t place my trust in martyrdom. If you are a Christian, then even by your own terms you know of martyrs to completely false religions. Even by your own (Christian) terms, you know that martyrdom is not a reliable marker of authority. Given that nearly all religions have martyrs, we have to look elsewhere in our patient search for the truth.
But, say some commenters, that’s not what religion is about. Religion is a blinding flash of insight, not a patient search for truth. Take this comment by Dan:
In this entire post about the foundation of religious belief, you don’t even mention “faith.” Religious people don’t start from the empirical evidence of, say, the Gospel and reason from there (OK, a few do, but only in misguided attempts to convert the faithless). They start from a belief in, say, the Christian God, and use the evidence available (the Bible, church doctrine) to discover more about God’s nature and will.
You say that you “cannot even imagine” the reason to opt for what you call the “lesser probability.” Believers don’t think that they are choosing the statement with lesser probability of being true — they think that God’s existence has a higher probability than his non-existence. You seem to be really denying that you can comprehend faith — believing something without empirical evidence.
But you can! I think you have to take some propositions on faith, and you do so in this very argument. The portion of Hume you quote relies on the principle of induction (the belief that the future will be like the past). But earlier in the Enquiry, Hume writes a damning explanation showing that this principle cannot be derived using reason. Why do you believe that the future will be like the past? Only because in the past, the future has been like the past, so you expect that to continue. But that’s a circular argument.
First, on induction: I disagree that I accept the utility of induction by means of faith. This inference seems to rest on a false dilemma, namely that we accept all propositions either by induction or by faith.
Other means exist besides these two. In the case of induction, I simply find that rejecting it leads to a sort of mental paralysis, one in which I can permit myself no thoughts at all about the external world. Worse, whenever I try to think this way, I always fail. Following Kant — I think — the inductive aspect of our reasoning may well be a priori. We’re stuck with it, whether we want it or not.
As such, we might as well make the best of it. I take this to mean putting my inductive inferences into the least contradictory order that I can. It’s that or I go back to paralysis.
Now, about faith: I didn’t mention faith in my first post. But I need to do so here. I also need to be scrupulously fair to it.
“The odds are against you,” I say to the believers. They are unfazed. Religion isn’t about the odds, as Dan said above. Or consider this passage from OT blogger Kyle Cupp’s book Living By Faith, Dwelling in Doubt:
God the Father filled my deep emptiness and healed the burns in my soul. Reading the word of God became… about a relationship with a distant being, a closeness I could perhaps find through prayer, fasting, and worship. Even when I kneeled before the Eucharist, my thoughts passed through the figure of the Son and to the unseen God I wanted to approach metaphorically as my father.
When I needed a father, I found the fatherhood of God. I discovered a person disclosed by the Scriptures I studied and the sacraments I received. I chose to embrace this person as my truest father. I recall the moment I formally made this choice. I was alone on our driveway, shooting hoops poorly, contemplating my God intently. And then I knew who my father was and what I had to do.
No proto-Bayesian reasoning for him, not because he rejects it, but because it is unnecessary: A relationship presupposes the existence of the Person to whom we relate. My failure to perceive the relationship says nothing at all to the person who has experienced it: The existence of a billion godless people needn’t sway a single believer, but the existence of even a single believer ought to make a billion godless question, at least for a moment.
Besides, religion seems to have good effects on many people, and we would be foolish to deny it. Burt Likko suggests that the benign sort of faith may even be a permissible irrationality:
[W]hy not acknowledge the experience of religious belief also as within the realm of acceptable irrationalities? So long as it does not lead one to make decisions that cause harm to oneself or others, an irrationality may be a perfectly acceptable facet of one’s personality.
This is mostly true, I think. Often religions do appear to be beneficial. Yes, sometimes they offer hurtful and even disastrous moral injunctions. But then, atheism sometimes comes with disastrous moral injunctions too.
Why not just look the other way at people’s irrationalities, as long as they aren’t actively hurting you? Living as a gay man in the early 21st century, with a state and a federal government that mostly treats me okay, I suppose I can do that. Not everyone in all eras — or in all places right now — can do likewise. But I can do that.
I can do that with a caveat, and here’s where I get offensive: Folks have, or claim to have, personal relationships with all kinds of supernatural entities: Jesus Christ. Lord Shiva. The Buddha. The gods of neopaganism. The revered ancestors. Space aliens conducting us to a higher level of consciousness. And on and on and on.
The problem with our personal relations to a higher power is that they can’t possibly all be right. Viewed impartially, they’re a circular firing squad, in which the credence of any one destroys credence of all the others.
Don’t object that space aliens or neopaganism don’t belong on the list, either. Every religion was young once, and goofy in its time. And Lord Shiva’s followers are not in any case to be trifled with as to their credibility. All that is said of Christ may be said of Him.
People feel relationships with deities. It’s an incredibly common human experience. I almost feel less than human for never experiencing it. (And yes, I’ve tried.)
Yet the fact pattern that purportedly comes from this experience is incomplete if we imagine that it is free from contradiction. There is an overwhelming propensity to believe in a relationship, but not to believe in a relationship with any one object in particular. We commonly believe in the ones we are urged often enough to believe. We believe in the beautiful. We believe in the arresting or fantastic. None of these lead to uniformity.
Ask yourself: What are the odds that one group’s personal experiences of a deity are real, and it’s simply that all others’ personal experiences are illusions? It should be clear that the most parsimonious explanation of the entire phenomenon involves one cause for all of it, not two, of which one is unlike all of the rest of the cosmos.
This is not to say that the experience should be rejected, but rather that it is telling us something very different from what the world’s religions are generally acknowledged to be saying. I will cover this subject in my next post.
 My prior on this runs in nearly the opposite direction: Suicidal impulses and the willingness to run extreme risks are vastly more common among the mentally ill. When I learn that someone is a martyr, I do not update in favor of his belief; I update in favor of his having been mentally imbalanced, either temporarily or through a permanent condition. Empirical research on suicide bombers appears to support this prior. A few martyrs are paragons of mental and moral clarity, but the vast majority are nuts.
 Bracketing of course the question of whether inductive inferences count as thoughts about the external world, or whether they are merely about the phenomenal world, leaving the thing-in-itself forever unaccessed.