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The embedded assumptions of belief

I recently had an old acquaintance of mine contact me over Facebook for a status update. I had opined that homeopaths deserve to burn in a “non-existent hell” for stoking hysteria over the Japanese nuclear crisis to sell their snake oil. My friend (who I will hereafter refer to as “Janice”) felt that it was of the utmost importance to contact me and assure me that hell is indeed a real place, and that the earthquake was part of a currently-unfolding Biblical prophecy.

Janice and I haven’t spoken in a number of years, and so it’s not surprising to me that she was unaware of my atheism. It was surprising to me that she didn’t just ignore my heathenism, instead preferring to blindly assert to me that she had special insight into the mind of the Creator of the Universe. In the interest of avoiding a completely unnecessary fight, I thanked Janice for her concern, and suggested that she probably didn’t want to have ‘the religion talk’ with me. After all, I spend a good number of hours every week exploring the bankruptcies of religious arguments, whereas she in all likelihood has never really crossed swords with a Gnu Atheist before.

Janice, not willing to pass up an opportunity to educate me about how great her god is, kept pressing me. She told me that she believed in the 100% truth of the Bible, and that if I only believed as she did, I would also be able to foresee the end of the world by volcanic cataclysm and world war. I won’t go through the entire back-and-forth between us – it was overflowing with the usual atheist responses to tired theist clichés – but suffice it to say I was unconvinced.

The way I left it with Janice (and, assuming I have succeeded in dissuading her from bringing this topic up with me again, the way this conversation has completely left off) was to list some of the several reasons why her assertions about the Biblical forecast of impending armageddon would never be even in the least bit convincing to me.

First Assumption: the universe was created by a conscious, intentional force of some kind.

Despite creationist and other theist protestations to the contrary, the universe shows very little sign of intentional creation. Aside from the fact that the physical laws of the universe permit stability and predictability (a fact that is not as complicated to explain as has been repeatedly claimed), there is nothing at all in the universe that suggests intentionality. There are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, with another 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Only arrogance or ignorance (or some combination thereof) could lead someone to believe that this fact points to Earth as being a unique product of specific creation, or to achieve some specific purpose in which human beings play any part.

This assumption has insufficient evidence to demonstrate its truth, and doesn’t even have the appearance of being likely.

Second Assumption: the conscious, intentional force involves itself in human affairs.

Even if we simply grant the above assumption for the sake of argument, there is a second embedded assumption. Not being content with simply creating the universe and then remaining absent and abstract, this creative force (who I will for the sake of clarity call ‘Phil’) has chosen one specific species on one specific planet in one specific galaxy to reveal itself to. Phil is intimately concerned with the behaviours, actions and thoughts of this one species – so much so that it has created an eternal destination of paradise, and another of unimaginable horror specifically for this species to experience forever.

Looking around at the pattern of belief (and public expressions thereof), there does not appear to be any reason to accept this assumption. Prayers to Phil don’t seem to grant any favours or special treatment – Phil seems almost entirely indifferent to the successes or failures of his special creation. It doesn’t even seem that Phil is particularly interested in convincing us of its existence. There is, once again, no real reason to suspect that this assumption is merited.

Third Assumption: Phil has contacted humans and revealed its plan

Again granting the above assumptions, we have to again assume that Phil has expressed its wishes to humankind. Not only does Phil have a plan for humans, but it has told specific individuals this plan at various points throughout history. Phil has interacted with specific people, rather than the entire species, to convey its wishes. Phil does this communication in ways that are largely indistinguishable from mental illness or some other kind of psychological frailty, common in the species.

It is trivially easy to imagine a method of communication that is far superior to the way in which Phil has supposedly chosen. In fact, humans have developed a multitude of methods for mass communication of ideas. Phil has used none of these. There’s no real reason to suspect that this assumption is worth granting either.

Fourth Assumption: of the multitude of groups that have claimed special communication from Phil, the claim by the Israelites is genuine

There are literally thousands of groups that, throughout history, have claimed to have a special insight from Phil. Each of them claims that their insight is real, whereas those others that conflict are incorrect. There is no real reason to suspect that this one particular group, from this particular time period, in this particular area of the world, has the genuine article while all others are simply worshiping “false gods”. Even if it was genuine, it is highly suspicious that there have been no further communications from Phil (at least any that concur with the Israelites’ initial claim), especially in a time when mass communication of information is trivially simple to achieve.

Fifth Assumption: the Israelites, a non-literate group of nomads, were able to accurately transcribe the original communications of Phil into one book

Once again granting the above assumptions for the sake of argument, the contents of the Bible pre-date a time when Israelite scholars were able to write down the stories that had been spread by word of mouth. Having read a smattering of mythology that comes from oral retelling (the works of Homer, other Greek myths, Roman and Norse mythology, African and Caribbean creation storytelling, First Nations mythology), I immediately recognize the stamp of oral transcription whenever I read the old testament. The new testament has a very well-documented history of human origin, with various councils assembled to decide (by popular vote) which passages and books are the work of Phil and which are apocryphal.

Reality is not decided by vote, and as a direct result I cannot accept the fifth assumption as having any merit.

Sixth Assumption: Janice’s particular interpretation of the words of Phil is the correct one

Janice has asked me to just grant the first 5 assumptions, each without any convincing evidence, not just for the sake of argument, but to accept them as truth. She then goes on to demand that I also accept this final assumption with the justification that she has the Holy Spirit™. Now far be it from me to question Janice’s sincerity or her honesty – she is a great person who I hold in high personal esteem. However, there have been millions of contradictory interpretations of the bible, all from people who claim the same divine inspiration. Even if I were to grant the several particular assumptions (separate from the above 5) that would be required for me to accept the existence of such a spirit, I could not be less persuaded by Janice’s claim to have exclusive access to it.

While I was content to debate with Janice having granted the truth of the first 5 assumptions, I was not really interested in prolonging the discussion. Janice’s beliefs are strong, and completely irrational. She is not a random denizen of the internet, but a personal friend who I do not wish to alienate. However, it is incumbent upon me to be honest and open with her in my objections to being harangued for not believing in her version of the biblical account. I’d rather preempt a long and potentially fractious argument by laying out the many reasons why a discussion that is based on the truth of the bible is basically a waste of time for both of us.

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