A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside


(Quick explanation: I’ve been in some frustrating debates with religious believers lately — one in particular — and it seems like the point-by-point squabbles have been missing the point. This piece is an attempt to step back from that, and look at the whole disagreement from a larger perspective.)

Here’s the thing, Rev. Cawley. I’m not dying to continue the point-counterpoint debate on the points you raised.

Cross_in_the_sky_2Instead, I want to step back for a moment and give you an idea of what your arguments sound like to someone who isn’t already a Christian. Not just to someone who’s a pretty convinced atheist, but to someone who doesn’t know what they think one way or another, who’s looking at different religious beliefs and deciding what to think. You seem to be at least somewhat sincere about wanting to understand non-believers, and I want to give you, and other believers, an idea of what religion — and religious apologetics — looks like to us.

*****

Biblefire_3When it comes to some Bible verses (such as the ones about hell), you say, “These shouldn’t be taken literally. You have to see them in context: the context of the times, the context of Jesus’s other teachings, etc. It’s a mistake to interpret them too literally.”

But when it comes to other verses, you say, “Look, how wonderful! The divine word of God! Isn’t it inspiring?”

Bible_book_of_isaiah_2Similarly, when there are factual things that the Bible got right, you say, “Look how accurate it is! It’s clearly a trustworthy source!” But when faced with Biblical inaccuracies and inconsistencies, again you say, “It’s a mistake to take the Bible too literally.”

Cherrybranch_2This is what non-believers call cherry-picking. And it drives us nuts.

Here’s why. You obviously can make a case for why your interpretation is the right one, why you’re correct about which verses to take literally and which not to. The problem is this: When I — and other atheists and non-believers and even just non-Christians — hear these kinds of interpretations and apologetics, you have to understand that we’ve heard dozens of them before. Possibly hundreds.

From people who are just as convinced as you are that their version is the right one, and who have equally extensive arguments to support their positions.

And all these versions are different.

In some cases, radically and wildly different, and completely in opposition to one another.

Al_sharpton_2Pope_john_paul_ii_2Every single Christian sect — arguably every single Christian — has their own different idea of how to correctly interpret the Bible; their own idea of which verses are important and which are trivial; their own idea of which verses to take literally as the divine word of God, and which verses are mis-translations or historical mis-interpretations or even flat-out mis-quotations. Some Christians believe that “Drink, for this is my blood” is meant to be taken literally; others believe it’s meant as a metaphor. Some believe that the verses about blasphemy being an unforgivable sin are trivial; others take them very seriously. Some believe that the idea of hell as eternal torment is a misunderstanding of Jesus’s message; others believe it’s one of the most central and vital messages in the book. Etc., etc., etc.

And they all have arguments for why their version is the right one.

Religious_symbolssvg_2Then, of course, you also have Muslims and Hindus and any number of other non-Christian religions and religious sects. They all have their own texts, and their own rationalizations for the errors in their texts, and their own explanations for why their faith — and their personal version of that faith — is the right one. Again, all with wildly different versions of those faiths.

Gianttwister_2And from the outside — from the point of view of a person who isn’t attached to any of these beliefs — it all looks like one big self-referential game of Twister.

Everyone is contorting themselves into pretzels to rationalize away the factual and moral problems with their sacred texts. And everyone just keeps pointing back to those texts, and to other believers, and to their own hearts, to prove their points. Nobody’s pointing at evidence out in the world to show why their understanding of God is the correct one… or if they do, as with the argument from design, they’re not doing a very good job of it.

Circle_of_two_arrows_2Essentially, people who try to prove that their version of Christianity — or any religion — is the right one keep doing the same two things. It always comes down to either Scripture or personal religious experience. People will sometimes look to the historical record to support their point; but they’re always looking at what history says about Scripture, or what it says about someone’s personal religious experience. It always circles back to those two things.

Person_reading_bible_3The problem with citing Scripture as support for your belief is that it’s circular reasoning. You’re essentially saying, “I believe in the Bible because the Bible tells me to.” The thing about the Bible is that, if you don’t already believe in its divine truth, it looks very much like any other book, with parts that are inspiring and parts that are appalling, parts that are accurate and parts that are demonstrably flat-out wrong. The only way to see the Bible as perfect is to start with the assumption that it’s perfect, and then rationalize away all the inaccuracies and inconsistencies and moral atrocities.

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3And the problem with citing personal religious experience (yours or other people’s) as support for your belief… well, that should be obvious. The human brain is extremely good at self-deception, and one person’s personal experience is not to be trusted as a piece of evidence. Especially since people’s personal experiences of God differ so wildly. If God is revealing his truth to people through personal revelation, why would everybody’s revelations be so radically different? Why isn’t God capable of making himself clearly understood to everyone he talks to?

Most importantly of all:

Contortionist_2Even if you could absolutely prove, with solid external historical evidence, that what you think Jesus meant really is what he meant… how does that prove that Jesus is the divine son of God? How does it prove anything other than that he was a person with some interesting ideas that you happen to share? The Bible isn’t a reliable source — again, it’s shot full of inaccuracies that take a mental contortionist to explain away. What evidence do you have — other than the Bible, and other than your personal experience and the personal experiences of other people — to support your theory that God exists?

*****

Now. Compare this to other ways of trying to figure out what is and isn’t true about the world.

Science, for instance.

Earth_2Scientists will certainly squabble with one another about the correct interpretation of data. But ultimately, they’re not just looking back at a pre-determined set of texts written thousands of years ago, and looking in their hearts to decide how to understand them. They’re looking out in the world. They’re gathering data, gathering evidence. They’re trying to figure out what’s true in the world by looking at the world, very carefully and very systematically, using a method that is specifically designed to screen out human bias and error as much as possible.

And when the data contradicting their opinion becomes too overwhelming, or the arguments against it become too compelling, they don’t twist their original opinion around in a series of apologetics explaining why the original opinion is still true and just needs to be interpreted correctly.

They say, “Huh. I guess I was wrong.”

Scientist_microscope_2So to someone who isn’t already attached to a religious belief, the combination of those two things — the fact that science is looking out in the world to figure the world out, and the fact that a central defining feature of science is a willingness to admit when it’s wrong — makes it look like a far more trustworthy source of information about the world than religion. Science has a built-in self-correcting mechanism; religion has the opposite, a built-in self-perpetuating mechanism that actively resists correction.

Question_mark_2Now, you can argue — you have argued — that religion, not science, is equipped to answer questions like: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

I must respectfully disagree. Partly because, as is obvious, I think religion is a mistaken idea about how the world works, and any philosophy of life based on it will therefore have a foundation of sand.

Question_mark_brain_2
But I also think science, and the information about the world and ourselves that science has gathered and continues to gather, can definitely help us answer some or all of these questions. (A few possibilities: We are here because our ancestors’ DNA successfully replicated itself… and in a larger sense, because of the laws of biology and chemistry and physics. We create our own meaning of life. We come from the molecules of the earth and the heat and light of the sun. And that’s pretty much where we’re going, leaving behind whatever work we’ve done in the world and whatever patterns and ideas we’ve created or passed along. Plus, of course, our DNA, if we’ve successfully replicated it.)

Karl_popper_2And one of the things science (or the philosophy of science, anyway) shows us about understanding life is that a theory that can’t possibly be falsified is useless. If a theory can be twisted around to explain absolutely anything that happens or that might conceivably happen, then it has no predictive power, no ability to help us understand how the world works.

Circle_of_two_arrows_3Which brings me back to my point about the circularity of religious thinking. Take another look at Ebon Musing’s observation about theists, in his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists: “Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, ‘Nothing — I have faith in my god.'”

And ask yourself the question he asks: Is there anything that would convince you that you were mistaken? Is there any possible piece of evidence that could persuade you that God does not exist?

Ouroboros_2If the answer is “No” — if your answer is, “That’s what faith means, it means believing in God without demanding evidence and no matter what happens” — then you’ve pretty much proven my point. Religious belief is a snake eating its own tail. It’s a self-referential game of Twister. And it doesn’t help us understand or explain anything at all, about ourselves or the world.

Comments

  1. Eclectic says

    Bravo! Hear, hear!
    Just because there are parts of a book that are historically accurate doesn’t mean the whole thing is. What is the relationship between a typical Hollywood movie “based on a true story” and the true story?
    The book Shōgun is heavily based on the tale of one William Adams and his Japanese patron TOKUGAWA Ieyasu, but Clavell was polite enough to change the names to show that he wasn’t claiming historical accuracy. But there are plenty of historically accurate locations and details there.
    And there’s nothing terribly wrong with taking moral lessons from a fictional tale; plenty of fiction is written to illustrate one or more.
    But “my religion’s canon is infallible because I’m too thick to recognize failure when it’s staring me in the face” isn’t a good way to attract respect.
    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” (Phillip K. Dick)

  2. Bill MacKay says

    There are many places on the Internet where one can learn more. The best I’ve found is http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com. Yes, a strange name, but one that makes sense after you think about it. You hear of medical miracles of all sorts due to the power of prayer. But why no limb regeneration? Are not the prayers of amputees as good as the prayers of tumor sufferers?

  3. Donna Gore says

    Yeah they all cherry pick. And in a way, you HAVE to cherry-pick to be a bible believer, because the bible contradicts itself every other passage. When I was reading it, I would stop and say, “Wait a minute, that part I just read said the very OPPOSITE of this.” And I would go back, read the previous passages again, and sure enough, it said A and then B. If I believed everything in the bible, that would require me to believe two completely opposing and contradictory thoughts at the same time (you’ve already reviewed numerous examples of these contradictions in your blogging). And I don’t know if the human mind is capable of that (except for the mentally ill). So I take it for granted that all believers MUST cherry-pick. AND SO which verses they tend to focus on – “God hates fags” or “Love thy neighbor” – well, that tells me what kind of person they are. They have a choice to focus on the hellfire and damnation, or to focus on the messages of love and forgiveness. Which approach a person chooses reveals a lot – it tells me what kind of person they really are, deep down inside.
    PS – regarding the amputees, that’s a great point. My aunt had no legs. I used to tell my cousins all the time, “You should take her to a faith healer.” But we’d laugh because we knew they had screeners and of course someone with a real physical disability would NEVER be allowed on the stage. . .

  4. says

    Don’t forget the motivations for belief in god and/or religion. Frankly, I think many have already reasoned the inconsistencies out… it’s their fears that cause them to act irrationaly. We need to use reason to overcome their fears.
    The big one is fear of death, and believers fervently believe they are cheating death by moving from this world to heaven, paradise, valhalla, hades or whatever… forever and ever. That’s probably the toughest one to overcome because atheism offers no satisfying replacement and fear of death could be considered as strong as any phobia. It can even explain how otherwise devout people can commit murder, while I (besides the obvious reasons) also abhor the thought because I know that life is precious, short lived and non-replaceable. Frankly, I think “hell” was a great invention because it extends religious control to allegedly “bad” people… they still get to live forever and so to a degree will toe the line and support policies and politics of their religios affiliation.
    The next one, I think, is the crutch that belief offers. Frankly, there’s a lot of people out yonder who should seek therapy, and the stress of modern day life just makes it worse. Some poeple decide to stand up on their own, to accept responsibility and or blame, while others are simply not capable of it and it is too convenient to blame “bad things” on an external entity, and it is also convenient to think that this otherwise callous seeming entity will listen to your prayers and treat you differently… for no other reason than you are you. What these folks need is a BA (Believer’s Anonymous… hmmm, isn’t that an oxymoron!).
    The last example could simply be the brainwashing, since childhood, that causes people to fear their particular god. This is out and out scare mongering which ranges from being blasted by a bolt of lightning to witholding the goodies after death. Frankly this is the most repognant aspect as is nothing more than wanton mind control and religion/sects sure love their mind control.
    BTW, I apologise for stating the obvious. :)

  5. says

    Really nice piece and I enjoyed the honest, pleasant delivery as opposed to most “angry atheist” rants.
    The cherry picking and apologetics piss me off to no end. I wrote a bit about valuing an idea and wound up thinking that it’s the ambiguity of religious texts that makes it bad. It’s one thing to cherry pick or misinterpret a part of it when it comes to something relatively meaningless like whether “drink my blood” means you’re REALLY drinking your god’s blood or if it’s a metaphor but when you read passages about how certain people shouldn’t be “suffered to live”, well, ambiguity suddenly becomes a problem. This ambiguity coupled with a belief that it’s “god’s will” makes religion more than just appear silly but in fact makes it wildly dangerous.
    btw – nice costume in your photo.

  6. says

    YO! Great blog and you make EXCELLENT points. But you are SORELY mistaken in this quote: “They say, ‘Huh. I guess I was wrong.'”
    I know that sentence isn’t the point of your entire post but it is mistaken. Scientists have been known to twist facts, suppress and sabotage colleagues and peers that hold different views, partly because of the weird prestige based on being “right” in a game of “find the truth”. Examples? Plenty. I remember a couple of tales in “The Code Book” for instance were people interpreting dead languages were actively trying to sabotage and discredit other scientists to make their own hypothesis stand unquestioned. Now, as you say, sooner or later that will fall when the proof mounts and in todays world I think that process is very fast. But I don’t think they just shrug and revel in other people being right and them being wrong. Maybe I took you to literally, I know, just wanted to point out, as have you on several occasions, that scientists aren’t saints – just humans.

  7. says

    Yes, certainly sometimes some scientists will avoid the evidence, or be too pig-headed to be convinced, or (more legitimately) cautious about believing shocking! new! evidence! that overthrows old theories.
    But a lot of the time they *do* roll with the new evidence, and, contrary to the canard about paradigms shifting when the old guard dies off, often without dying first.
    Quantum mechanics and continental drift are good examples of theories which swept the field once there was a tipping point of evidence for them. The current model of accelerating cosmic expansion wasn’t even a candidate until new evidence came in and made it the ruling interpretation in a year or two.
    So a lot of the time the evidence does convince, as it should, and this is something you don’t really see anywhere else.

  8. LisaG says

    @ tommie
    The thing to realize, and really the most telling part–is that the scientists who cannot be wrong, who cannot accept new evidence, and who hold to theories that are proven false are BAD SCIENTISTS, and are not taken seriously ever again in the field.
    they are not held up as paragons of science, they are not held up as noble folks, they are reviled and not taken seriously. If your theory cannot be falsified, if it cannot be proven false, no matter what new evidence is presented, then it is no longer science, and is, infact, religion.
    this is why we get so. damn. angry. when people tell us that we take our atheism on faith–because y’know what? if God came down, and revealed himself in all his glory and proved his existance…well, that’s some pretty compelling evidence, and you’d see a lot of atheists becoming worshippers. We only ask that our so-called beliefs (english is dumb and has no real shorthand for “things that i have some evidence of, and can test if i so choose, and have thought about at great length”) be consistant with the world we live in, and not add in anything that is…well…not there.

  9. annoDomini says

    I wonder sometimes too about this question in the post: “If God is revealing his truth to people through personal revelation, why would everybody’s revelations be so radically different?”
    OTOH, I also wonder, if it is correct that God is as described by many religions as something beyond our undertstanding, why we would expect that every person that experienced God would have same experience.
    We all experience gravity in the same way. We say that is natural. But if the very definition of God is something supernatural, isn’t that like starting from a point where we would not necessarily all experience God in the same way?

  10. says

    Love your blog, Greta.
    One qualification.
    If any theory that can’t be falsified is useless, then:
    what about the theory that “I exist”
    what about the theory that “the external world exists”
    etc.
    Falsifiability is required of most theories, but not “properly basic beliefs.”

  11. Being careful with Popper says

    Karl Popper’s idea of falsifiable claims being the only ones that are not epistemic nonsense isn’t consistent.
    Claims regarding likelihood and probabilistic claims are non-falsifiable but often not nonsense.
    Consider the claim: a fair coin has a 50% chance of being heads and a 50% chance of being tails. No test can ever falsify this claim, but we do not consider the claim to be nonsense.
    The general idea that a claim that has no implications or is self-referential should be scrutinized is nonetheless pretty important.

  12. Mnemosyne says

    Now, I do believe in God.However, I do understand the point you have about the inconsistencies and accuracies and contradictory terms. It confuses me just as much as you. I however, do admit there are things contradictory as it was written by people in different times, different situations, different problems. But I do believe in God.

  13. Radical Writer says

    Everything this person talked about can be summarized in one or two words Philosophy or man’s philosophy. Science proves there is a God and the more man delves into the atom, the molecule, the DNA the more they prove that God is real. Look how much sheer power there is in the Atom that can be employed to cause an explosion that would wipe out an entire city.
    This proves that if someone could manipulate Atoms in a way that was creative He would be looked on as a god. If he uses it to create a bomb he is very much like Satan. All this proves that sometime ago there was a creator of intelligent design that had the power to manipulate DNA in ways that caused things to be created by perhaps changing the DNA chains or some other way far beyond human intelligence.
    Everything that man tries to create always has flaws and the best creations he has are patterned after Nature. Even these are nowhere near perfect but they have use so it is good. The bible tells thousands of years ago that the Earth was a circle and yet it wasn’t until Columbus tried to go around the Earth by ship 1492 that it was realized. To sum it up there are so many things out there that we do not understand it proves God exists and has power beyond anything man has or will ever have.

  14. Seymour Brighton says

    “This is what non-believers call cherry-picking. And it drives us nuts.”
    Great line.

  15. Soois says

    “When it comes to some Bible verses (such as the ones about hell), you say, “These shouldn’t be taken literally.” Bullshit, they should be taken literally. Some Christians do not believe strongly enough to advocate the Bible fully. They want to tell about God, but are afraid of the negative things.
    “Every single Christian sect — arguably every single Christian — has their own different idea of how to correctly interpret the Bible;…” No, there are no Christian sects, only sects using Christianity to mislead the faithfull and non-believer alike. The same goes for Christianity. There are thousands of religions, but only one Christianity. Christians believe in the salvation brought by Jesus Christ, while the religious, whether Bible based or not, comes with all kinds of rules and customs.

  16. nilae says

    Where’s the like button!

    Excellent summary. I will bookmark and when folks get on my nerves, I will no longer say “Talk to the hand.” But will, instead, point them here.

    Thanks.

  17. says

    #11 Since there is a slight probability that a coin toss can land on the edge your 50/50 Claim for a fair toss theory is thus falsified and proven incorrect.
    #10 cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I exist, since if I do not exist I cannot be made to think at all. Thank Rene Descartes for that one.

  18. says

    Consider the claim: a fair coin has a 50% chance of being heads and a 50% chance of being tails. No test can ever falsify this claim, but we do not consider the claim to be nonsense.

    That doesn’t seem to me to be a very good example of something unfalsifiable… The 50/50 chance is the definition of “fair coin” and what we would be determining was if the coin behaved as a fair coin. If we tossed if 10,000 times and it only came up heads, we’d start looking rather closely to see how the scam was perpetrated. ;) If it never came up tails, ever, no matter how many times it was tossed wouldn’t you eventually agree that it was not a fair coin? (eventually we’d notice that both sides were had ‘heads’)

Leave a Reply