Tag Archives: Islam

Can a religion which preaches hell be reasonable?

I was in a discussion with some Christians recently who assured me that their beliefs were based on reason.  A few centuries ago, such an admission would have likely earned you 10 lashes or worse by the disciples of some of Christianity’s preeminent theologians, but that was before the Enlightenment and all the goodies it produced.  Today, reason is seen a Good Thing™, and many religious strive to show how it’s in fact on their side.

I’ve previously argued in Reasonable or foolishness?, when it comes to Christianity at least, the theology denigrates reason (e.g., “man’s wisdom”), extolling faith instead, which proved itself extremely useful for defending any belief, no matter how crazy or unsubstantiated.  Here I want to broaden my argument to explain why religions that preach retribution for non-belief cannot in fact lay claim to being reasonable.

To see why, consider the following thought experiment.  Suppose I come up to you and claimed evolution is true.  Perhaps you believe me right away, or perhaps you want to make up your own mind; after all, lots of people tell you things that don’t turn out to be true.  Go ahead and do that, I tell you, but if you arrive at any other conclusion besides mine, I’m going to throw you in jail, where you’ll rot for the rest of your life.

Most people would immediately see the problem here.  Have I in fact allowed you the luxury of reason to investigate and believe my claim?  No, I haven’t, because I’ve really only one given you one choice, and that’s to simply accept the claim that evolution is true.  Even providing you with what I consider rock-solid proof of evolution doesn’t alter the calculus in any way.  When I threaten you, I automatically remove reason as an allowable means to accepting my claim.  I’ve in effect determined your choice.  If you were truly free to exercise reason, I would have to accept its outcome no matter what, even if I considered you gravely mistaken.  Punishment for arriving at a wrong conclusion turns reason into a thought-crime.

So when believers like Christians or Muslims contend their faiths are based on reason, one may simply object that this can’t be so because their god in fact doesn’t allow it.  Using reason to arrive at any other belief than the correct one will earn you an eternity in hell.  Thus, reason is in reality an evil to be avoided, as Martin Luther concluded a long time ago.  Blind, unquestioning, and unexamined belief is what the theist’s retributive god truly desires, not a belief grounded in reason.  Some theologians have essentially acknowledged this, asserting that certain theological beliefs must simply be taken for granted, or presupposed.

In my next post, I’ll show why reason is explicitly excluded in religions like Christianity.

So science confirms your holy book, eh?

You often hear believers claim that scientific discoveries are completely compatible with their religion’s scriptures, if not indeed wholly anticipated by them.  This is alleged to be proof of these scriptures’ supernatural influence.  A few examples:

clarifyingchristianity.com – The Bible is not a science book, yet it is scientifically accurate. We are not aware of any scientific evidence that contradicts the Bible.,,Many [scientific facts] were listed in the Bible hundreds or even thousands of years before being recorded elsewhere.

islam.about.com – In Islam, there is no conflict between faith in God and modern scientific knowledge.  Indeed, for many centuries during the Middle Ages, Muslims led the world in scientific inquiry and exploration.  The Qur’an itself, revealed 14 centuries ago, is filled with scientific facts and imagery that are supported by modern findings.

the-book-of-mormon.com – The truly amazing thing about most of these refutations to the critics is that the majority of these facts were not known to scientists, much less to Joseph Smith, in 1829 when the Book of Mormon was translated. Thus, many of the criticisms become, in light of recent scientific discoveries, proofs!

Of course, if there is one supreme omniscient being, then all of these claims can’t be true at the same time since the holy books indisputably contradict each other—a plain fact that each religious tradition is well-aware of.  Thus, each spends as much time, if not more, debunking the others’ claims as it does defending its own.  For instance, some of the best work demonstrating the utter fallibility of the Book of Mormon comes not from skeptical sources but from Christian ones.  The one thing every religious tradition has in common, however, is a failure to acknowledge the completely ad hoc nature of its claims.   The pattern is as predictable as it is regular.  First comes the scientific discovery, followed by obstinate rejection, then grudging acknowledgement, and finally, once the evidence is overwhelming, its reception as affirming what scripture had been saying all along.  (Needless to say, some don’t even get beyond the first step).

Naturally, skeptics such as myself say it’s all bunk, and to prove it, I’m going to issue a challenge. Believer, since you say that science merely confirms what your holy book has long already said, the inevitable corollary is that it also contains scientific knowledge which has not yet been discovered.  Therefore, believer, your task is easy: rather than claim scientific validation after the fact, tell us something new that science has not yet spoken on, and which can subsequently be validated by science. 

This has never happened, and I predict it will never happen, because in reality the believer’s method is to scour scripture for any possible reference to a scientific truth after its established, and then say – Orwell-like – it was foretold by scripture all along, while quietly shuffling disconfirming scriptures or past beliefs under the rug.  It’s a foolproof method!  For example, if the universe was found to have fixed boundaries rather than continually expanding, Christians, at least, would undoubtedly have pointed to the Bible and said “I told you so!

Believers, I accept your gratitude in advance for coming up with a way for you to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt the divine origin of your theology not only to fools..er, atheists like myself, but to the misguided believers of every other religion. 🙂

Religulous

I finally watched Bill Maher’s film Religulous the other night, which came out in early October of last year.  What took me so long?  I was uncomfortable with Maher’s admitted deception in obtaining the interviews for his film, which was akin to Ben Stein’s practice in producing Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.  But while Stein presented his film as a sober documentary investigation, Maher’s work took itself far less seriously, a sort of mockumentary, along the lines of Sasha Cohen’s Borat, though underlying Religulous is a fundamental point about religion.  Nonetheless, the film should be imbibed with a grain of salt.  I got the sense that clever film editing created the many “stupefied reactions” so common among the film’s pious believers.

Maher’s aim is to expose the ridiculous beliefs underlying today’s religions (thus the film title).  He doesn’t focus on any single religion, a tactic that won’t necessarily broaden the film’s appeal, but it does strengthen his case tenfold.  Sure, everyone knows that the notion of a man flying up to heaven on a winged stallion is laughable on its face, but a man born of the union between a virgin woman and a deity really happened? Ok, right… You gotta hand it to Maher for studiously maintaining an easy joviality with his interviewees, upon whom it probably eventually dawns that Maher is not exactly friendly to their cause.  I myself would stand flabbergasted at some of the stuff coming out these theists’ mouths, but Maher rolls with it in a completely disarming way, by supposing, it seemed, at least a little incredulity within his companion.

Two observations about the faithful from the film are readily apparent.  The first is the shallowness of their beliefs.  Many know the basic theological tenets, but it’s obvious they haven’t reasoned them out very well, a fact Maher exploits to their detriment (and the audience’s amusement).  The second is how far believers go in rationalizing obvious contradictions between their faith and reality.  The Muslims, for example, all unfailingly ascribe Islamic violence to “politics,” somewhat akin to how many Christians blame Christian hatred and violence on “deviations” from Jesus’s teachings (as if Christ never said “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live,” for example).

While for most of the film I bounced between laughing and crying, there were a couple moments that offered hope.  One involved a retired Catholic priest who cheerfully dismissed fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the existence of hell.  This reminded me of one of my biggest complaints about theists, the fact that few of them entertain virtually no doubt about their beliefs.  This is the scourge of dogma, which is certainly not peculiar to religion, but which undoubtedly provided its main historical impetus.

 At both the film’s start and end, Maher describes his animating concern, one shared by Sam Harris in The End of Faith.  That is, in an age when humanity’s capabilities for destroying the planet grow practically by the day, faith-based, dogmatic belief is rapidly becoming a dangerous liability.  Fatalism underlies too much of today’s religion, sapping our collective need to act, and increasing our proclivity for conflict.  Watch Religulous for good entertainment, but keep in mind that the subject is ultimately no laughing matter.

Update: Valerie Tarico at Debunking Christianity just posted an illuminating article on knowing and certainty that segueways nicely with my objection to dogmatic religious belief.  The money quote: “As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken.”

Surreal

There’s a feeling that frequently overcomes me as I read religious scripture.  It’s difficult to express, but if there’s one word that sums the feeling up, it’s “surreal.”

Its source is knowing that there are millions and millions of fellow humans who fervently believe that what I’m reading is some divine truth, as factual as their jobs or families, while to me it’s just as plain that it’s pure fantasy.  I wonder, how is it possible that our perceptions of the same stories and words can be so fundamentally opposed.  As irreconcilable as oil and water.  It’s like I watched The Lord of the Rings and everyone came out of the theater saying what a great documentary it was.  Something. is. not. quite. right.  What prevents me from understanding their scriptures as reality in the same way these other millions do?

The designers of religion have recognized this conundrum, and have crafted ingenious rationales why their “truth” appears like a bunch of hokum to outsiders.  Consider the words of Christianity’s Apostle Paul:

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. (1 Cor. 2:14-15)

Or Islam’s Prophet Muhammad:

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. (Sura 2:2)

Even Scientology has its “endgrams” – residual mental image pictures – of which we must rid ourselves in order understand our true nature.

In each case, there is some element, or lack of it, that obscures the underlying true reality, that biases our understanding.  And until we adopt the particular religion’s paradigm, we cannot fully understand and appreciate the alleged truth that it says is essential to our happiness, immortality, or what have you.  If this seems circular, that’s because it is.  The truth will be revealed to you only once you accept what they say as truth.

Many believers recognize the question-begging nature of their faiths, and a few honest ones realize other religions do the very same thing.  So that’s why they offer up other standards.  For example, a Christian might say that fulfilled prophecy demonstrates the truth of their religion.  Muslims claim the Qu’ran contains scientific knowledge of things unheard of at the time it was written, which proves a divine influence.  Mormons assert that the Holy Ghost witnesses to the truth of the Book of Mormon via a “burning bosom“.  All claimed reformed lives as evidence, too.  Why we should accept the superiority of one standard over any other is never quite explained.  They’re quick to point out the motes in each others’ religions (or even rival sects), but are blind to the beams in their own.

Sorry, if your religion requires me to swallow its tenets before I can comprehend its “truth,” then it is not for me.  Threats of eternal torture repel me even further.  Can any religion pass a basic smell test?