In this series of posts, I will attempt to state what I really believe about religion. I have been inspired to do so by a peculiar ceremony of my own sect, the Unitarian Universalists. At the UU Church of Annapolis, where I attend — and teach Sunday School — the eighth graders are asked to spend a year reflecting on what they personally believe. They then report their credo to the congregation in a short presentation of their own design.
I infer that the exercise is calculated to produce epistemic humility. In this it differs from the rituals of nearly every other western religion. The nearest analogue I can find is the Zen koan, which likewise asks the impossible — and apparently it also gets results.
I understand if you want to tune out. I will be offensive along the way. If it’s any consolation, I suspect that we all are, hereabouts.
When believers speak of their religious convictions, it almost always comes across to me as poorly argued nonsense. I don’t know if the message originated that way, or if it is that way in some objective sense, but that’s certainly how it sounds when you’re wearing my ears.
Above all, I hear it as poorly argued nonsense whenever someone says: “Ah yes, Jason, I feel just like you do about all the other religions. But let me tell you about mine. It’s different, I promise.” That too — that especially — sounds like poorly argued nonsense. To say nothing of what follows.
(See? I’m being offensive already. But at least I’m somewhat aware about it. Here’s some more self-awareness: What I give to you, instead of a religious belief, will probably strike you too as poorly argued nonsense.)
If that were all there were to religion, this wouldn’t be a series of blog posts. It probably wouldn’t even be one blog post. But here’s the complicated part: Believing a religion is probably impossible for me. Doing a religion, though, strikes me as almost always quite powerful, and sometimes it’s even a force for good. There are solid reasons to want to study religion, and I have, at least a bit. The reasons for studying religion go to the heart of what it means to be human. Likewise, there are reasons that one might want to perform religious practices. At least I think.
And yet: I wouldn’t advise anyone to be more religious than I am. I still think many religious practices are likely either wasteful or actively harmful. I understand that they all purportedly give comfort. I am (mostly) unmoved. (Offensive? You bet!)
How’d I get here? I didn’t start with David Hume, but I do think he said it best:
A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: He weighs the opposite experiments: He considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other…
When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
In matters of eyewitness testimony, either an error or a deceit are more likely to occur than, say, a resurrection of the dead. Here’s what they look like when we are not otherwise able to disentangle the three of them:
p(error) + p(deceit) > p(resurrection of the dead)
I judge that the inequality stands for either of the two left-hand terms considered alone as well.
People err a lot. People also tell lies a lot. Neither of these is at all outside the common experience. Resurrection is another matter — say what you like about its frequency, but resurrection clearly doesn’t happen thousands or millions of times a day. In this it’s quite unlike either telling giant lies or getting some really important facts wrong. Both of those certainly do happen thousands or millions of times a day.
Could it be that I’m wrong? Yes, of course. But the odds are that I’m not. There was (probably) no Resurrection. Likewise, there is probably no God, to the extent that our assessed likelihood of God’s existence depends on the truth of eyewitness testimony.
Like all empirical claims, I am happy to update this belief in the presence of new evidence, but it must be new evidence of a kind very different from that which has been advanced so far. What Christian apologists typically offer has always been subject either to error, or to deceit on the part of eyewitnesses, or to deceit on the part of those who transmitted their testimony.
Christians have sometimes made efforts at showing how unlikely each of these things are; these efforts are both well-intentioned and within the canons of reasoned argument. Yet I judge that all of them have failed at making the sum total of naturalistic explanations’ probabilities less than the probability of an actual resurrection: I still think it vastly more likely that a saint would lie than that a corpse would stand up.
Now, one may still choose to believe in the resurrection of a particular dead person, but this choice will not be made on the basis of the sort of favorable probability calculation that we otherwise make for most of our other inferences from testimony. Opting for the lesser probability here will necessarily be on the basis of something else — something I cannot even imagine.
There is also the pesky matter of the testimonies of other religions. Hume, once again:
[I]n matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary; and that it is impossible the religions of ancient Rome, of Turkey, of Siam, and of China should, all of them, be established on any solid foundation. Every miracle, therefore, pretended to have been wrought in any of these religions (and all of them abound in miracles), as its direct scope is to establish the particular system to which it is attributed; so has it the same force, though more indirectly, to overthrow every other system. In destroying a rival system, it likewise destroys the credit of those miracles, on which that system was established; so that all the prodigies of different religions are to be regarded as contrary facts, and the evidences of these prodigies, whether weak or strong, as opposite to each other.
Other religions had miracles too. When we assign any credence at all to them, no matter how low, we take away some probability that the Christian God is up there doing miracles for his faithful. Repeat as necessary, and the whole enterprise begins to look decidedly shady.
I do wish David Hume had lived to see Mormonism. I think he would have found it a fascinating example of the power of testimony, and of its shortcomings: If a non-Mormon American Christian believes based on the ancient testimony of the Apostles and the Evangelists, why does he not immediately come to Mormonism? The religion of the Latter-Day Saints rests on multiple eyewitness testimony that is (a) much more recent (b) given by Americans, in directly accessible English (c) reasonably harmonious with Christianity and (d) offered by the very founders of the sect, rather than propagandists from decades later.
If testimonial evidence really drove matters of religion, Mormonism should be where it’s at. But for nearly everyone, it isn’t. Hume would not have been swayed by Mormonism, of course, and neither am I, but it would certainly stand for him as a rebuke to those who claim to believe on the basis of testimony: They clearly do no such thing.
Hume’s arguments on miracles, which contain within them the germ of Bayesian probability, are incredibly useful in all sorts of situations. And yet miracles — and stories about miracles — are fun. Says Hume:
The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived. And this goes so far, that even those who cannot enjoy this pleasure immediately, nor can believe those miraculous events, of which they are informed, yet love to partake of the satisfaction at second-hand or by rebound, and place a pride and delight in exciting the admiration of others.
Fun is epistemologically dangerous. It tempts, but it doesn’t inform. In my next posts, I’ll talk about why this is so, and why fun — or, what I’m calling fun, at least — is nonetheless worth studying. And worth incorporating into life. Carefully.
 Yes, I teach Sunday School. (“Religious exploration,” as we call it.) I teach the Neighboring Faiths curriculum, in which I get to put to use my degree in European intellectual history, discussing post-Reformation Christianity and Judaism, their beliefs and practices. The fact that I am an atheist who is permitted and even encouraged to teach Sunday School is just one of the many, many reasons why I love my church.
 Does a religious belief have to be well argued, as well as well believed, in order to be salvific? I’m obviously talking about a particular subset of Christianity here, and not of religion as a whole. But imagine the plight of a Christian who believed that belief was important for salvation, and who believed based on, say, an argument that affirmed the consequent? How should God grade that person? (If we say that we ought not to judge, or ought not to presume to stand in God’s place — that just settles the argument in favor of the logically fallacious side. If the believer-based-on-fallacy could be made aware of his error, it wouldn’t be much comfort!)
One might be tempted to say that God is merciful, and more than likely He is merciful when it comes to a logical fallacy that most people can’t even define correctly, let alone recognize in the wild. But this presents the intelligent believer with a dilemma: Arguments that affirm the consequent are very often persuasive, particularly in the history of religion. (“If it looks like it had a designer, then it must have had a designer…”) What if spreading these arguments — knowingly — is the most effective way to bring people to God, who will after all be merciful about the ways and means of belief? The intelligent believer must then either knowingly spread bad arguments for the sake of his faith, or refrain from giving others the gift of salvation. Both seem morally atrocious.
How smart does one have to be, in order to be saved? What if being smart, and recognizing bad arguments, makes getting saved much harder? Can that possibly be? I mean, I may be considered smart, but I can’t possibly get behind that kind of self-dealing.
 I am an atheist, hard or soft, with respect to most definitions of God, including — probably — whichever one you are thinking of right now. I am an agnostic about certain highly abstract notions of God, around which no religion ever seems to have coalesced, and which are not terribly promising in that direction. (More on that in a future post, I suppose.) I can’t rule out the possibility that even the more plausible notions of God are tricks of the language, or of the mind, rather than accounts of a Supreme Being. And, despite all the foregoing, I repeat that I find considerable value to some aspects of religion as it is actually practiced.