The subjective choices of religion

Our old friend Murk has returned with a reply to a comment on one of my older posts. Rather than let it languish in the past, I’d like to reply to it up front. Let’s start by reconstructing the thread of the conversation so far.

KEVIN: Yeah, murk. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. You see, there’s this little problem you theists have. It’s one of a plethora of choices. You claim that your choice is the correct one. OK, fine. But every single person who believes in the supernatural makes the same claim.

MURK: Let me see if i get this straight – many choice = non-existence? by analogy then since there are many counterfeit moneys there is no real one? the counterfeit is dependent on the real my friend.

DEACON DUNCAN: Not quite. The problem is not just that there are many choices, it’s that all the choices are based on subjective preference, in the absence of any objective means of demonstrating that any of them is actually true. After all, if you had objective proof that any of them were correct, you’d be walking by proof, not walking by faith.

So far so good, eh? Granted, Murk is making a bad analogy with his counterfeit money example, and I didn’t address that specifically. I wanted to focus on the weakness of the theological argument, which is the lack of a “gold standard” against which you can apply the various conflicting theological positions. We know that counterfeit money is fake precisely because there is a real-world standard to compare it to. No similar standard exists for the innumerable, conflicting versions of the story about what god(s) ought to be, and what he/she/it/they expect from us.

Turnabout’s fair play, so Murk wants to pick apart my response and see if he can find any weaknesses in it.

” it’s that all the choices are based on subjective preference,” is this an objective claim? if so by what standard?

My replies are below the fold.

Is my argument an objective claim? And if so by what standard? That’s an easy one. There’s only one standard for objective claims, and that’s objective reality itself, aka material reality. (Material reality, remember, is all that exists in and of itself, apart from our perceptions of it–it’s far more than just those things which are made of atoms.)

You might object that material reality is too broad a standard. How, specifically, do I justify my claim that religious choices are based on subjective preferences, in the absence of any objective means of demonstrating that any one of them is true? There are many ways, of course. Material reality is consistent with itself, and religious claims concerning God have so many real-world implications that we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to making objective observations more consistent with the conclusion that God is a myth.

For example, take presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism claims to provide objective proof that the Christian God is real, but in order to reach that conclusion, they have to make the assumption that a thinking, purposeful Being is responsible for the existence of order in the cosmos, including the order implicit in logic and reason itself. This is a subjective and superstitious assumption, based on confusion about what the word “being” means in the philosophical term “necessary being.”

Most unfortunately, the term “being” in English has two senses: being in the sense of existence, and being in the sense of a person. When some branches of philosophy speak of “necessary being,” the correct understanding of “being” is the first one: being in the ontological sense of the nature of existence. The logical, rational order of reality is true “necessary being,” because it is part of what it means for reality to be consistent with itself. It exists and is true because it is impossible for it to be false and/or non-existent.

Presuppositionalists, however, are superstitious. That is to say, they do not understand the world by working out the details of the material patterns of cause and effect, or of condition and precondition (though they may go through the motions of doing so). Instead, they understand the world by attributing things to the intentional whims of some invisible magical “Being,” meaning Person. Being vs “being,” you see. When a presuppositionalist reads the phrase “necessary being,” their superstition kicks in, and they immediately think, “Aha, a being is a person, and the only ‘necessary’ Person is God! God must therefore be the Necessary Being/Person required by philosophy!” It’s not reasonable or rational, it’s just the kind of conclusion that superstition likes to jump to.

We, on the other hand, can see that logical, rational order must necessarily exist by considering what reality would be like without it. Think about it: no law of identity–things are not the same as themselves. No law of non-contradiction: “x exists” and “x does not exist” become two statements neither of which is any more true than the other. Truth is no more consistent with reality than falsehood is; non-existence is no less consistent with reality than existence is. Meaning itself is not the same as meaning. Nothing exists. Apart from the necessary precondition of logical, rational order, you can’t even make a meaningful statement like “nothing exists”!

Without this fundamental order, without the underlying preconditions we call “logic” and “reason,” the very terms “true,” “false,” “real” and “non-existent” are terms which have no meaning. Logical order must be true because it cannot be false, since the meaningful distinction between true and false is part of this logical, rational order. Nor can logical, rational order be caused by any prior precondition, since logical/rational order must exist in order for cause and effect and condition and precondition to exist in any meaningful sense. Thus, logical order exists of necessity and only of necessity–it is literally and undeniably the “necessary, non-person being” of correct philosophy, the ultimate precondition for everything else that exists.

This, naturally, makes any non-pantheistic God a contingent being. God himself (if he existed) would not be able to exist apart from the precondition of logical, rational order as a necessary characteristic of reality itself. Imagine God to be as powerful as you like. Give him all the knowledge and wisdom you like. Make him as loving and noble and flawless as you like. If existence itself does not exist, then no god can exist. The existence of any god(s) is necessarily contingent on reality possessing the inherent qualities of logical, rational order, which means logical, rational order does not require any God for its own existence. And that completely overthrows any presuppositional claim to have proven the existence of any god.

Presuppositional assumptions are thus subjective, being superstitious (and also factually incorrect), and the same is true for other varieties of theology as well. Thus we can say, inductively, that theists suffer from the problem of subjectivism. They tell us all these tales about gods, but the tales turn out to be mere superstition–credulous believers trying to understand the world in terms of the presumed intentions of an invisible magical being/person. Finding real-world examples of this is trivial.

We can also say, objectively, that all theism suffers from this problem, due to the subjective nature of faith. It’s not just that some god beliefs are the “counterfeit money” of rational thought. They are all equally counterfeit, and are based on subjectivism rather than on verifiable, repeatable, objective observation.

Think for a moment about the difference between religious faith and scientific skepticism. Scientific skepticism means withholding belief in the absence of evidence, and changing belief when confronted with evidence that conflicts with your original conclusion. Because skepticism involves withholding and abandoning beliefs in light of the evidence, it is sometimes confused with denialism, but the two are very different. Denialism means perversely rejecting conclusions that are best supported by the available evidence, and thus denialism, like faith, is the opposite of skepticism. Skepticism may reject conclusions that are unsupported or contradicted by the best available evidence, but it nevertheless requires us to accept the conclusions that are best supported by the evidence, even if this requires changing our understanding.

Faith, by contrast, is defined in terms of loyalty to one’s initial beliefs and dogmas. The presence of religious faith is indicated by a person’s willingness to believe what they are told in the absence of objective, verifiable evidence supporting that belief. In fact, if we continue believing something even when confronted by evidence that is inconsistent with our beliefs, that’s an indication of even stronger faith. What’s more, if the evidence leads us to abandon our original beliefs, the religious term for our decision is not “learning,” but rather “apostasy,” a very negative term. We have shown disloyalty to our teachers and our dogmas, we’ve broken at least some of our relationships, and have become outsiders.

Belief, loyalty, self-identification with a particular sect or culture–these are subjective things. These are the things that religion depends on to promote and maintain theism. It is the primacy of these subjective obligations that makes all theism dependent on subjective preferences and assumptions. This is not to say that a religious person cannot put objective considerations first, or that a theist cannot decide to voluntarily limit themselves to believing only those conclusions which are verifiably and objectively consistent with material reality. The problem is, as soon as they start doing that, they are no longer practicing faith, they’re practicing skepticism–the opposite of faith!

The theist can try to practice genuine skepticism, but doing so will require them to withhold belief and abandon beliefs in a way that violates the definition of faith. Changing our beliefs requires that we first admit our original belief was wrong. That’s not a problem when our beliefs are founded on reality, because our willingness to learn in no way implies that reality is an unreliable source of information. The theist, however, has no such freedom. To admit that original Apostolic doctrine was wrong is to overthrow the whole foundation of divine revelation. The very nature of skepticism is poisonous to faith, and thus the theist must abandon it. The only compatible substitute would be a pseudo-skepticism based on letting dogma define what conclusions they’re going to reach, and then using such arguments as can be devised to try and justify that conclusion, regardless of material reality. In other words, apologetics.

But again, putting subjective beliefs ahead of skeptical conclusions is ultimately basing your conclusions on subjective preference, rather than on verifiable material evidence. The religions of the world, with all their numberless variety of gods, and even Christianity, with its endless supply of denominations and incompatible dogmas, are equally powerless to satisfy the demands of scientific skepticism–a fact for which they all blame skepticism, thus showing their hostility to the objective, reality-based approach to understanding. The only “belief system” that has consistently applied the principles of skepticism is secular science, and that’s a set of conclusions that has greatly improved our quality of life—without finding any gods outside of human superstition.