Follow up to: Where is God, Part II
It seems that religious people can never agree on anything.
Well perhaps they all agree on the notion that some sort of God exists, but the moment this God is given a single characteristic, disagreement ensues. For instance, how many gods are there? Many Hindus would say there are a wide variety of gods, many Wiccans would say there are two Gods, and many Christians would say there are only one.
What happens after we die? Many Hindus would say that you get reincarnated, many other religions would say that you go to Heaven or Hell, depending on certain actions you have done and who you are as a person, and some Deists would even say nothing. Even among the Heaven or Hell group, there is a wide variety of disagreement on which certain actions and which certain character traits put you in which afterlife. There are even many, such as a large amount of Catholics, who say that Heaven and Hell aren’t the only possible places you could land. Some Christians and Jews say that Heaven occurs on Earth and not in some other realm.
And that’s not all. Notice that every time I mentioned a religion in the previous two paragraphs, I didn’t say “All Christians believe” or “All Hindus believe” as if the disagreement was just between religions. No, there is a wide degree of disagreement among those within a religion as well. Christianity itself is made of many different denominations with many differing opinions on an issues as important and fundamental as how to achieve salvation and how to read the Bible.
And even within the same Christian denomination, people will still disagree about whether Hell is made of actual fire, a place of some other type of anguish, just some place where people are separated from God (anguish or not), or nonexistent because people are annihilated instead. People will disagree whether they have a moral obligation to help the poor or to help themselves, or whether they have a moral obligation to prevent “the gay agenda” or be permissive toward homosexuality.
But I wouldn’t want to belabor the well-established point: the religions of the world are thoroughly confused. Perhaps we’re justified in being atheist until the theologians settle the disputes amongst themselves.
Perhaps this is what John W. Loftus meant in his essay “How to Debunk Christianity”, where he says:
And here is the problem. When it comes to Christianity I agree with the Protestant criticisms of the Catholics as well as the Catholic criticisms of the Protestants. And I also agree with the fundamentalist criticisms of the liberals as well as the liberal criticisms of the fundamentalists. And I agree with the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish criticisms of Christianity, as well as the Christian criticisms against their religions. When they criticize each other I think they’re all right! What’s left is the demise of religion and Christianity as a whole.
Does Disagreement Matter?
Now, I’m sure I can hear many cries that just because there is disagreement does not mean that the truth hasn’t been found. Just because some hold-outs think that the Earth is flat does not do anything to make us less sure in its roundness. And surely we trust in the conclusions of science, despite the fact that scientists disagree all of the time, over a wide degree of theories in a vast variety of fields.
So what gives?
Well, first, there are some key differences between religious disagreement and scientific disagreement.
In science, if there is a protracted disagreement, we can attempt to resolve it through repeated experimentation, or shelve the disagreement until a time when we are capable of figuring out an experiment to test one theory over another. This has happened many times and has resulted in tons of consensus on many issues.
The current part of science that is in disagreement is only a tiny, tiny fraction compared to what has been settled and to which more than 99% of scientists agree. Compare this to religion, where there is not a single thing to which 99% of those who believe in a god or gods agree, beyond the existence of god or gods themselves.
Better yet for science, the disagreements that do exist last several decades at most. Compare that to the numerous religious disagreements, which have gone unsettled for millennia. Even among just those professional theologians who defend Christianity, I would be willing to wager that not a single disagreement has ever been resolved.
Why Disagreement at All?
And the problem gets a bit worse because true religions are supposed to have the guidance and backing of true Gods that actually exist.
Science doesn’t get to claim access to infallible wisdom like religions do, and therefore can be expected to disagree now and then. The true religion shouldn’t have any disagreement at all, because God would be able to tell people what is true, directly. As I argue in “Where is God?”:
If these religions were true, then God’s will would have been communicated to each and every one us directly and correctly, by God himself. We would all be entitled to be Doubting Thomas, asking for just a little bit of proof so we don’t have to blindly commit our life to something that may not exist. There would be no confusion over what God’s will is just like there is no confusion over the fundamentals of chemistry, and there would be no confusion over God’s existence just like there is no confusion over the existence of gravity.
Quite simply, if there was a supernatural truth, we would be able to come to understand it just like we come to understand other truths, and we would see widespread agreement across a multitude of cultures on a wide variety of religious ideas. Instead we see the exact opposite — wide disagreement between nearly every culture on nearly every religious idea, and large amounts of disagreements on large amounts of religious ideas within each culture too.
We notice that there is not a single religion that has unanimous agreement on all of its tenets among all of its members, unless we use some sort of No True Scotsman Fallacy and make a true religion out of the tiniest handful of members.
It’s difficult to see why this conclusion does not hold; why God would allow us to be confused if not knowing what he wants or which religion is true is enough to damn us to an unfair Hell. It also makes very little sense that if there is some obvious and self-evident spiritual truth that certain people can immediately grasp why billions of people can’t access it — to the point where massive conspiracy theories are needed to shove away this inconvenient fact.
Instead, religion reduces to a massive shell game that you are forced to wager your soul on somehow sorting between hundreds of thousands of religious positions to figure out all the correct ones needed to ensure your salvation. Not even full-time theologians have that kind of time!
The Problem of No Objectivity
But now we get to the real problem with religious disagreement — it’s not that religious disagreement exists, but that religious disagreements cannot be resolved.
Unlike in science where we can appeal to scientific facts that have been established through experimentations and anticipated predictions come true, we cannot appeal to religious facts to resolve religious disagreements because there are no religious facts. There is no method to resolve disputes within religions and between religions.
How would you convince a Muslim to convert to Christianity, or vice versa? You can’t just say your Holy Book is inerrant, because they will respond that theirs is. You can’t simply point to the historical evidence for your Holy Book either, because they still can just point to theirs.
You can’t say that their holy book has contradictions and yours doesn’t, because both of you have elaborate means of resolving these contradictions (even if they do actually exist). You can’t say that personal experience tells you your religion is true because they can just appeal to their personal experience.
With no objective method, like testing to see if a prediction comes true, religions will be at a permanent impasse. But this might leave us wondering why no predictions have been made. Could it be that predictions made via religion have had a history of being false? I’d say so…
The Problem of Not Caring for the Truth
And ultimately, the lack of dispute resolution within religion has made it a laughing stock, perhaps not even worth taking seriously — many theologians who defend the Christian faith now want to take no stance on specific issues for fear of alienating fellow Christians and sowing discontent.
While this is definitely a reasonable strategy, it becomes completely ridiculous why certain theologians are afraid to take stances on issues as uncontentious as whether evolution and common descent are accurate theories of how animal life developed, or even the age of the earth!
Consider William Lane Craig’s “Question of the Week Guidelines” which specifically state “7. Questions about Young vs. Old Earth Creationism will not be addressed.” It sounds like Craig doesn’t care what the age of the Earth is, or how everything came to be, or how to correctly interpret and understand the word of God! Could it be that there is no way to decide how old the Earth is apart from appealing to the overwhelming scientific data in favor of an Old Earth?
Also consider what Craig says in response to a question on whether Hell is just:
As you say, you could always adopt annihilationism, as some evangelical Christians have done. That would seem to solve your problem.
Here, it seems like Craig is perfectly content with allowing people to adopt specific interpretations of the Bible to make them feel comfortable with Christianity without concern over whether… you know… those interpretations are accurate. Quite simply, there doesn’t seem to be any way to tell whether the Bible endorses anihilationism or not, so why not let it go whichever way is more convenient?
I’m not even asking those who are religious to come to a complete consensus on all religious ideas — I’m simply saying that in order to find a religion to be true, there must be some sort of objective method of judging between religious hypotheses, or some objective method of resolving disputes over differing interpretations of Holy Texts.
The fact that there is no such objective method is a huge problem for religions claiming to have a truth, because they ironically can’t even establish their truths!
Followed up in TheraminTrees Atheism, Part 1: Incompatibility
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