In my last post I went over some basic epistemology, beginning with the basic assumption that all claims, in order to be convincing, must be justified—that is, they must be shown to be the most reasonable claim among all the alternatives.
One insightful reader, writing under the name “Philonius,” pointed out in the comments that the great majority of “every-day” beliefs go completely unjustified. For example, I believe that I was born on November 14th, 1994, but I have not justified that belief. I could, in principle, ask my parents to prove to me that I was born on that date, or check the hospital records, but practically speaking, it would be absurd to say that in order to put forward the claim that I was born on that date, I must first justify it in this way.
The same goes for claims in other realms of knowledge in which we are unable to justify claims directly including, for example, nearly everything we read in school textbooks. To claim that dinosaurs existed, we need not have dug up the fossils ourselves; to claim that George Washington was the first United States president, we need not have investigated the historical evidence as the history-writers did. We believe these claims, as well as our birthdates, the existence of places we’ve never been to, and many, many other basic claims purely based on the testimony of secondary sources.
Obviously this kind of justification, which we might call a practical trust in certain kinds of testimony, is not only rational but necessary. Not to take certain claims basic beliefs about ourselves and the world for granted would make it impossible to function normally in conversation and in society. (That said, this blog is meant to encourage critical thinking, a significant part of which involves determining which claims we can take for granted and which we should not.) But what about religion and the existence of God? Are these claims that we can take on the basis of testimony alone? There are a number of reasons why I think they are not, and two of them are worth mentioning explicitly at this point:
1) The stakes are infinitely high… and I’m not using the word “infinitely” hyperbolically. Belief in God and religion usually come with some belief about the afterlife—our permanent, eternal fate. If there is an afterlife that involves, as most major religions claim, the possibility of eternal suffering or eternal happiness; and if there is any possibility whatsoever that we could increase our chances of attaining the latter by believing in and acting upon the true religion; then we would have to be either insane or tragically ignorant not to do everything in our power to figure out which one, if any, is true and act according to it.
I find it incredible and perplexing how few people seem to contemplate this reality. I can’t resist a quick thought experiment to try to make the concept of eternity a bit more “real”: imagine that your fate, either your perfect happiness or perfect suffering, for the next 100,000 years—a length of time that already pushes the limits of our imagination—depends upon how many pushups you can do over the next 24 hours. How does that change the way you approach the next 24 hours? Would you not suddenly become the most enthusiastic push-up machine the world has ever seen? I certainly would.
Now, replace the 24 hours with your short lifetime, replace doing pushups with whatever the true religion says is required to attain happiness after death, and multiply the 100,000 years by infinity—not by 300 billion, or 10 to the power of 500 octillion, but infinity… The point here is not to capture the nature of eternity (which is non-temporal), but to communicate the infinite significance of what we are doing now, in the short life that we have, in terms of how it affects our eternal fate. Should we not be doing everything possible to ensure that we and everyone we care about make it to heaven (or its equivalent)? Is it not likely that determining which religion, if any, is the correct one will help towards that end?
2) There are many religions; only one of them can be true (or none of them). If there were only one religion that claimed to know the truth, the believers of that religion could more confidently assume that if the atheist is wrong, their religion can be taken for granted. But this is not the case. Theists should recognize that the majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs that compete with their own, and that most of these “others” are honest, intelligent believers who are as certain about their own religion as anyone else is about theirs.
Theists should ask themselves, “What is it about my particular religion that makes it the right one, and all the others the wrong ones?” This question demands a powerful answer: as I mentioned in my last post, it’s not enough to vindicate a claim by showing it to be reasonable; it must be shown to be the most reasonable among alternatives. The amount of competition, and the significant influence on religious belief by factors having nothing to do with the truth of the religions themselves (the subject of an up-coming post), raise the bar for justification of any particular religion extremely high.
We may all believe in contradictory accounts of JFK’s assassination, or whether GMO’s are healthy; but compared to the claims of religion, these issues are infinitely trivial. Given what we realize is at stake, the presence of so many competing religions and the difficulty of justifying any one of them against all the rest should awaken in every intellectually comfortable theist a sense of urgent skepticism and curiosity.
Looking back on these two reasons, I think they do more than show why religious belief should not be taken for granted; they give us good reason to actively scrutinize them. Do you agree?