This is not the post I promised last time. I am working on a series of posts on prejudice which is taking so time to put together. Instead, I have adopted an article I wrote several months ago called, “Reasons to Believe”. I thought it might give you something to chew on while I work on “Beyond Prejudice”. Enjoy.
As someone who does a lot of writing, I realize my readers are not in the same place as I am on the faith journey. We have traveled different paths and had different experiences. I seldom reflect that sensitivity in my writing. Mostly, I just want to make a point with as little hand-holding as possible. This results in me not including helpful markers such as biblical citations for all of the scripture I allude to. The same is true for providing corroborating sources for facts and general opinions. I assume a certain level of competence on the part of the reader to know, or look up some of these things for themselves.
I also am known to state rather abruptly that I do not believe in this or that, with little accompanying explanation. It is precisely this issue I wish to address in this writing. To the extent possible, I have been in the process of reexamining all of my presuppositional beliefs. These are the beliefs that I have taken for granted for as long as I can remember. So much of religious belief falls in this category. Most Christians couldn’t tell you why they believe in the Exodus account of the 10 plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the resurrection, or the ascension. They just believe it. It’s in the bible. It is what they have been taught since childhood. Few Christians question these things. They just accept them and pass them on to other children who, themselves, are young enough to still believe in Santa Clause.
It is my goal to believe only things that are based on reality rather than fantasy, desire, fear, or child-like ignorance. That is not to say that everything I believe is the absolute truth. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that what I believe has to have a fact-based foundation. In other words, there has to be a good reason to believe it. For the next few pages, I will lay out the case for why I believe what I believe, and why I disbelieve the things I disbelieve. This is an absolutely essential exercise for any seeker of truth.
Poor Reasons to Believe
The reason I’m starting with the negative side of the equation is because, developmentally, we did not start out in life with good reasons to believe anything. We start believing things long before we have good reasons to believe them. All we have are bad reasons. Let me put it this way; we had no good reasons to believe anything that makes up the foundation of our belief system.
Children are not told the truth about Santa Claus until upwards of age 12. I was seven when I was baptized. I understand that most children are not baptized in active in a church at such a young age. Even so, these children are taught things about God, the Bible, the church, and religion in general that will be with them for a lifetime. These lessons will affect how we think of, and treat women, do business, pursue education, and evaluate truth. These lessons are not innocent and benign. They are insidious, and last a lifetime without us even realizing their impact. We are literally indoctrinated with the same tools that we have to evaluate the truth about Santa Claus. At least, at some point, we are told that the Santa Claus story is not true. As far as our religious indoctrination goes, we are never given permission to evaluate it.
How do you determine what is true? However you do it, you are practicing alethiology: the philosophical discipline of determining what is true. We all like to believe that we believe in true things. Believing in untrue things makes us fools in our own eyes. This is likely why being deceived is called being fooled. Nobody wants to be made a fool of by accepting misinformation ass fact.
I can think of two ways of coping with the possibility of being fooled: One, a person becomes so cautious that they refuse to believe anything, or two, the person becomes so dogmatic about what he believes that his beliefs crystallize into faith statements that replace fact and reality. Both are unhealthy extremes. The simple fact is we have to believe things that we cannot scientifically prove. Sometimes, we have to use belief as a placeholder for truth until facts become available. There is nothing wrong with holding these temporary beliefs just as long as they are held loosely.
The far worse problem is accepting those placeholder beliefs as permanent, unshakable truths. Imagine if we continued to believe as adults, everything we believed as a child. This would be a devastating development in the maturation process of a human being. Yet, when it comes to religious matters, that is mostly what we do. We believe what we are taught as children with very little refinement through the years. It is past time we take a long, hard look at why we believe what we believe.
Santa Clause Reasons
To discover what most people believe in religious truth claims, one need look no further than the reason children believe in Santa Clause.
A parent figure said it was true
Frankly, as a child, this is one of the best reasons to believe anything. After all, if you can’t believe your parents, who can you believe? Even bad parents are the highest authority of truth for children of a certain age. Children simply do not have the tools for knowing the difference between truth and fiction. They do not understand anything about science or physics, or how the world really works. If a trusted adult tells them that certain creatures can fly a jolly, old saint around the world in one night, to give the most desirable presents to good little boys and girls, there is nothing about that story that triggers the least bit of suspicion.
Another Santa Clause reason to believe is that the believer is emotionally motivated to believe. The Santa Clause story pushes all of our emotional hot-buttons. It triggers our greed for things to magically appear that we greatly desire. It triggers the fear of being judged, ostracized, and having our secret failings discovered by an all-seeing eye. In short, we believe in Santa Clause because we want him to be real, or we fear he is real. We are emotionally entangled in the story.
One of the most powerful reasons we believe anything as a child or and adult is the fact that the majority of our peers seems to also believe it. Perhaps worse than being fooled is being isolated. It takes a great deal of courage and conviction to make a public departure from the established beliefs of one’s community. Most people never develop either the courage or conviction for such a departure. For many practical reasons, social and economical, we need the approval of our community. No one is an island. We are all interdependent. We know this even as children. If everyone in our community of peers seems to believe something, we have to have an extremely good reason to question it.
We Do Not Care to Know the Truth
I was happy to stop at the above three reason until a recent conversation with a friend on the subject. He convinced me that there was another reason to be considered. For whatever reason, we just do not care to know the truth of a given matter. Either we are afraid of facing the truth, or we do not care enough about the issue to dig for the truth. In either event, the truth is not the ultimate goal.
There are many people who avoid going to the doctor because they are afraid they may have a terminal illness. They believe they are better off if the diagnosis is officially made. They insist they are fine because they do not want to face the consequences of the truth. For many, life would become meaningless if their understanding of god was proven to be untrue. They would rather adopt blind faith than to face the possibility that the god they depend on is not what they believe.
At some point, we all fall into the category of the apathetic. We accept what experts say about the economy, science, technology, and politics because we just do not care enough about the topic to educate ourselves on the matter. The friend to which I keep referring is a computer programer. Sometimes he waxes poetic about a programing language, or some other fine point of a computer’s inner workings. I just nod and dully accept his pronouncements, not because I believe him to be infallible. It is just that I could care less about the subject, most of the time. In such a conversation, he is right by default. I will never care enough about the subject to educate myself on the subject and check his facts.
It bears mentioning that there are those situations that do not neatly fall into any of the above categories. We just find ourselves believing a thing because it never crosses our mind to doubt it. It is simply not possible or reasonable to question everything. Some things are presuppositional. Other things are non-intuitive. Still other things have been proven to the satisfaction of the experts. Life has given us no reason to question such things, and therefore we do not.
All of these reasons to believe fall in the category of Santa Clause reasons. These are the types of reasons a child believes in monsters and magic. A child can be excused for believing in such things for such reasons. After all, a child does not have the intellectual, emotional, or experiential tools to evaluate truth any better. As adults, we have no such excuse.
The time has come for us to turn our attention to better ways of evaluating truth. It is my contention that we are fully aware of the difference between good and bad reasons to believe. As well-balanced adults, we practice good truth evaluation techniques everyday in almost every aspect of our lives: every aspect except religion.
Seeing is Believing
It was once an axiomatic fact that seeing is believing. In some circles, that fact is being countered with the warning, don’t believe everything you see. When did ocular detection fall from the list of good reasons to believe? My guess is that we are only warned not to believe what we see when someone is trying to make us believe in something that is not there.
We might indulge a child’s fantasy of an imaginary friend, or monsters under the bed up to a certain age. But at some point, it is necessary for children to understand the difference between what is imaginary and what is real. One of the things we might point out is that the friend or monster is not visible, and thus, is not there. This is obvious to any parent who has had to ween a child off of the belief in such things.
However, all such logic goes out of the window when we want our children to believe in imaginary friends and monsters. We only do this in the context of religion. We encourage our children to talk to god because he is right there with us, just like an imaginary friend. He walks along beside us. He is there during the big exam. He is with us when the bullies assault us. And even though the bully beats us up and steals our lunch money, the invisible god protects us from all harm.
The same is true of the monster we call the devil. The fact that we cannot see him does not mean that he is not there. On the contrary, one of his greatest tricks is to make you think he is not real, so we say. His invisibility almost becomes evidence for his existence in a twisted kind of way. The invisible monster is the cause of all the evil in the world. He is out to get you, and will succeed if you are not a good little girl or boy. Perhaps that is why the bullies win. God cannot protect you if you are not good enough. That is when the devil monster has his way with you. We are encouraged to pray to one invisible being to protect us from another. No wonder we have such a hard time evaluating truth.
Beyond god and the devil, there is a whole invisible world of invisible beings fighting invisible battles in invisible wars everyday all around us. We call them angels and demons. These are the invisible agents of the invisible superpowers of the invisible realm. We imagine this literal conflict between literal beings raging just inches from our heads at any given moment. No wonder the anti-anxiety medication industry is booming. Neurosis is a side effect of religion.
I will go as far as to say that every unique truth-claim of religion is wrapped in an impenetrable, invisibility cloak. The six-day creation is hidden behind the shroud of a billions year old universe. The appearance of age is but a cloak that hides the invisible truth of the young earth. Both arks, the holy grail, and every other sacred artifact is covered by the cloak of invisibility. The garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and any bone fragment that suggests humans lived as long as 900 years are likewise, invisible.
The virgin birth cannot be confirmed. History has lost any record of King Herod’s campaign of infanticide. There is no contemporary record of the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, or ascension of Jesus. There is no contemporary, written witness of his many miracles. There are no modern sightings of resurrected saints. There are no empty tombs. All such claims, historical or contemporary, are hidden by the cloak of invisibility. There is little wonder that the purveyors of religion desperately want you to doubt your senses. If seeing is believing, then there is no believing in any unique, religious truth-claim.
I posit that seeing, while not 100% reliable, is a pretty good start. I further posit that we already know this and practice it in our daily lives. If we are about to walk into a bank and see through the window, a masked man holding a gun, we will quickly alter our plans to make a deposit. Further, we will move away to a safe distance and call the authorities. Do we know for sure that an armed robbery is taking place? No. We could be seeing actors playing a roll in a movie, or a security drill by the bank, or a number of other unlikely events. Still, we act on the most likely interpretation of what we see.
This is why we teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street. We do not tell them to just cross whenever we feel the spirit of the lord upon us. No number of invisible angels keeps our children from getting hit by cars. That is why we rely on teaching vigilance based on careful observation.
We do not enter into contracts without first seeing the terms clearly spelled out in writing. We do not pay a plumber for repairing a leak when we can plainly see the faucet is still leaking. We do not pay for invisible wedding cakes, automobiles, houses, or vacations. No one will pay in advance for a tour of the Garden of Eden. In all practical matters, seeing is most definitely a reasonable step toward believing.
There are plenty of things that cannot be seen with the naked eye like ideas. How do we know if an idea is good or bad? We see or experience the results of following that idea. If the outcome repeatedly matches the prediction of the idea, then we might deem that idea to be true. I know that burning myself with fire is a bad idea because I have burned myself with fire on more than one occasion, and it has caused injury every time. I know that training my dog is a good idea because I have had many dogs. The ones I’ve trained turned out to be better companions every time.
We know that it does not make sense to continue doing things that do not work, and avoiding things that do. We know that mowing our lawn is more effective than praying over it. We know, at least in developed nations, that seeing a medical doctor is more effective than seeing a witch doctor. We understand and subscribe to this principal in every walk of life except religion.
When it comes to religion, we demand no proof. We require no evidence that religious claims are actually true. We have been trained to believe that it is an act of rebellion to demand evidence. “We walk by faith and not by sight”, so the good book tells us. You want something substantive? “Faith is the substance of things hoped for…” You want evidence? Faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” In the Christian worldview, it is far more virtuous to believe without seeing rather than to believe because you see. We are unworthy if we ask for a sign.
With religion, we are encouraged to nurture a particular type of cognitive dissonance. We are given to expect certain predictions based on our faith-based behavior, but are trained never to question when those predictions do not come true. Instead, when faced with counter evidence, we are expected to believe all the more. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of prayer.
We are told that we are to believe with all our heart that our prayers of entreaty will be both heard and granted. We are told that the main reason our prayers are not answered is due to the lack of faith. See James 5. The problem is that the vast majority of prayers go unfulfilled. Everyone who reads this has had at least one unfulfilled prayer. You prayed the way you were supposed to. You believed with all your heart. Yet, in the end, you did not receive the reasonable thing you asked for. Rather than conclude that prayer does not work, you were probably made to feel like you had done something wrong. So, you tried again, and again, and again. Each time, you tried a little bit harder to pray with a little more faith.
Every church of every denomination engages in some form of prayer. Yet every congregation keeps losing faithfully prayed for members to financial ruin, unemployment, injury, sickness, and death. No one has ever prayed a faithful member out of the grave. Even though we know in our hearts that prayer has no effect on the practical outcome of a situation, we still do it.
If we truly believed that prayer was efficacious, we would do as James suggests and take our sick to the church elders rather than the doctor. No Christian, no matter how faithful, sees a lump in her breast and calls the church officials. Nor does she pray that the lump goes away without making an appoint to see a specialist. Though many are uninsured in America, none pass up the opportunity to be insured because they have the protection of prayer. When an unemployed person seeks help from a church, the church officials advise that person to find a job, not an alter. People pray in addition to doing things that might get results, not in stead of them. It is reasonable to believe in things that lead to predictable, repeatable outcomes. It is asinine to believe in things that do not.
Embrace the Falsifiable
In the field of science, there is a principal called falsifiability. From Wikipedia:
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion or a theory is the logical possibility that the assertion (or the theory) can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then some observation or experiment will produce a reproducible result that is in conflict with it.
If a thing is not falsifiable, then it can never be proven false. It places the proposition beyond the reach of proof. The proposition must be accepted on the basis of something other than verifiable evidence, namely, faith.
There are no important, religious claims that are scientifically falsifiable. None! The authority of the bible is an excellent example of this point. I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to any reasonable person that the bible is not a magic book written by the direction of an otherworldly being. Even so, that proof will never be enough for the believer. For her, the bible is the unadulterated word of god, perfectly preserved and rendered. No evidence will shake that conviction because the conviction is not based on evidence. Regardless of evidence, she knows the unfalsifiable truth of her conviction.
The existence of god is not subject to proof. No serious Christian will assert that he is able to prove the existence of god. They will claim to have good reasons to believe, but never anything that rises to the level of proof. The same goes for everything else about their religious beliefs. Because these things are not based on evidence, but faith, they can never be proven wrong.
Just try to convince a child who is afraid of monsters that there are no monsters. You can’t do it. The child has an unfalsifiable answer to your every attempt at reason. The monster is invisible. The monster only comes out when no one can see it. The monster disguises itself as ordinary objects. The monster speaks in such a way that only the child can hear it. No matter what you try, you can never win that debate.
Now, try and convince a Christian that no one can hear their telepathic prayers, or that their drug addicted sister is not demon possessed, or that an angel did not save her from a car accident, or that her recently departed mother is not dancing with King David in Heaven. She will rest secure in the notion that you are totally incapable of disproving any of these things.
This is exactly why so many religious people flock to unfalsifiable beliefs. It provides them with a false security blanket. They never have to question their worldview because they are shielded from debate. No one can ever prove anything they believe to be wrong. What they do not know is that the very thing that makes their position unassailable, is also what makes it not worth believing. When we feel we must shield our beliefs from proof: that relentless predator that eventually devours all bad ideas, then we are most definitely on the wrong track.
There are many types of witnesses. I will touch on three: eyewitnesses, second-hand, contemporary witnesses, and expert, historical witnesses. Here is an example of how these witnesses operate:
If I want to know who played and won Superbowl XX, I have to find witnesses, as I do not recall the details, despite the fact that I watched it. I might ask someone else who also watched it, but has a better memory than I do. That would be an eyewitness. Such witnesses for the Superbowl are easy to find. There are also those who many not have watched the game for whatever reason, but talked and wrote about it at the time. They heard the details from eyewitnesses. These are second-hand, contemporary witnesses. Finally, a sports historian who neither saw the game or spoke to eyewitnesses may have done exhaustive research on the subject and discovered discarded ticket stubs, programs, and retail items attesting to the game. This is an expert, historical witness. Any one of them is a strong witness. All of them together, in large numbers, are virtually unassailable.
There is another point to consider. Not every witness is reliable. In courts of law, eyewitnesses are dismissed all the time for unreliability. Perhaps it can be proven that their eyesight is poor, or they have a racial bias against the suspect, or they have an emotional investment in the outcome that makes their testimony or observations suspect. Contemporary witnesses may have received faulty, second-hand information, or heard it wrong, or wrote it down poorly. Historical witnesses may hove misread the evidence and come to the wrong conclusions. They may not be very good at their trade. This is why the quality of witness must be taken into account.
This is never more true than when evaluating religious truth claims. How well-attested is the claim? Are there many sources, good or otherwise, or just one or two? What type of witnesses attested to the event? Were they eyewitnesses, second-hand, contemporary witnesses, or expert, historical witnesses? What was their involvement with the event? Were they stakeholders in the event, or disinterested observers? What was their track-record? Were they accurate and literal with their details, or were they prone to exaggeration, contradictions, inaccuracies, and flights of fancy? All of these things must be taken into account when evaluating the reliability of biblical witnesses.
Consider the virgin birth. Who are the witnesses? The only person that can fully attest to the veracity of the story is Mary, and she never wrote anything down. She most likely was illiterate. The fact that the only person who could have attested to the event is unavailable to us in history puts this story on a very shaky foundation from the start.
Now, we are left to depend, solely, on second-hand, contemporary witnesses. These would include the people in whom Mary confided at the time. Unfortunately, such information is also unavailable to us. There are no contemporary accounts of the virgin birth reported by anyone. If such accounts ever existed, they are also lost to us.
Finally, we must look to expert, historical witnesses. That is the best category fit for the two written witnesses we have in the bible: Matthew and Luke. Neither of these writers were eyewitnesses to the event, nor were they there at the time to pick up on the local buzz. In fact, they wrote their accounts of the events decades after the time it was supposed to have happened. There is no evidence that Mary was even still alive at the time of their writing. We are never told how they came by this information, so it is difficult to evaluate their methodology.
The challenges do not stop there. Only two historical witnesses attest to this extraordinary event. This would be hard enough to accept without the added complication that these were not the most likely candidates to report on the event. Paul: the most prolific and first of the biblical writers, didn’t seem to know anything about the virgin birth as he never mentioned it. Mark: the first gospel writer, also seemed oblivious of the immaculate conception. John: the last of the gospel and biblical writers, was closest to Mary, yet never mentioned the event. There is no reason to believe that the one who did mention it had any inside information unavailable to the others.
Since Matthew is the first to write about it, one might wonder where he got it from. In all likelihood, he got it from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “young woman”. Matthew told his Jesus story through the lens of Jewish liturgy. He very consciously made the Jesus of his story fit Jewish imagery of the time. If he thought a virgin birth of a messiah was predicted, that is how he wrote his story. There is little effort to tell a historically accurate account of events.
What of Luke? Apparently, Luke picked up most of his information from Mark and Matthew. When carefully examining the information provided in the Luke/Acts cycle, one can only conclude the Luke is unreliable. In almost every occasion where Luke’s account is repeated or mirrored in another: the writings of Paul is a good example, there are irreconcilable discrepancies. When Luke contradicts Paul about the life of Paul, we must conclude that Luke is hopelessly unreliable.
Neither Matthew or Luke are disinterested parties. Both are leaders in their respective communities and have a personal stake in the acceptance of the Jesus story as told by them. Neither has credentials as a historian. Neither play straight with the facts of an event. If not for these two witnesses, the world would know nothing of a virgin birth. Neither of these writers can be considered reliable witnesses outside of the context of magical thinking. With such a faith-based reality, these men are reliable because god somehow, magically channeled his message through them. This, of course, brings us right back to the unfalsifiable conundrum. If it turns out that any biblical claim is true, it is not because of reliable witnesses, but despite the lack of them.
Before closing, it is important for me to acknowledge that no one, including myself, has a completely reasonable system of beliefs. We all have a few beliefs that are based on Santa Clause reasons. We all started believing things long before we had the mental, emotional, and academic tools to form reasonable beliefs. One can never completely clean out that closet full of old and musty beliefs, nor do I think it is necessary to do so.
What is necessary is that we hold all beliefs loosely, always prepared to toss aside, those that do not prove to be reasonable when tested. Religious people tend not to do this. They hold to their beliefs more tightly. Faith, in religious circles, is not just an option, but a virtue, a necessity. “Without faith, it is impossible to please god.” Religion does not lend itself to proof. It is not a fact-based endeavor. If you actually had good, solid, fact-based reasons to believe, then it wouldn’t be acceptable as faith.
Faith is what religious people cling to when reason makes a better case. Faith is what we get when beliefs are tightly compressed in the desperate grip of dogma. Faith is the shortcut through education which, when taken, makes even the unlettered person an expert on the unknowable. I am not a man of faith; I am a man of truth and knowledge. I must know the truth about things that matter even if it unmakes me, and it has on a number of occasions.
When I was religious, I had no reasons to believe anything. I had rationalizations. We do not start with a set of reasons, then find answers accordingly. We start with things we believe, then find excuses and rationalizations for believing them. When a Christian is faced with a clear contradiction in the bible, they do not say, “This is a clear contradiction. It must not be true!” No! They say, “This seems like a contradiction. I must figure out a way to understand this so that it is not.” We set aside reason which serves us well in all other life endeavors, and put on the shield of faith for religious inquiries.
The shield of faith protects us against, what? Doubt? Uncertainty? I do not trust a person who has no doubt or uncertainty. I believe nothing so strongly that I cannot let it go in light of better information. Everything I know is falsifiable, and I grow as a person when I learn something that I didn’t know before, or have corrected, something that I thought I knew.
When I say that I do not believe something, it is only because I have not been presented with any compelling reasons to believe it. In religious circles, I was expected to believe things just because someone told me I was supposed to. There were too many things that I could not question and apply reason. I cannot live in a world where reason is not allowed. I cannot bend my mind into the pretzel of faith-based reality. Lord knows I’ve tried. If one wished to engage me in discussion on religious matters, they must be willing to do so on the basis reason and fact-based reality.
There are very few places in the religious world for such as me. Most people like me have simply walked away. Perhaps they are the wise ones. I cannot help but wonder what religion might look like without the mental gymnastics, magical thinking, and faith-based dogma. I believe that when you strip that all away, you will still have a viable platform for what James called, “true religion”. “To care for the widows and orphans at the time of their need, and to stay unsoiled by unworthy things.” I took some liberties with the passage from James 1, but you get the idea. Can there be religion based on reason? I can’t wait to find out.