Thursday, October 27, 2005

Would You Believe It?

Just about every time that I have talked to somebody about my deconversion, the place that I start is with the observation that no matter what is true, most people deeply believe things that are false. Whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or whatever, the choices are pretty much mutually exclusive. They cannot all be true. Even under the umbrella of Christianity are a variety of theologies and doctrines that are incompatible. Perhaps if there were no consequences to a belief, these differences would not matter. But if there were no consequences, there would be little point in holding to any belief at all. What are the consequences of the religious beliefs that we choose to hold? The ultimate consequences will depend on which (if any) are right. In particular, if Christianity is true, the ultimate consequence of belief is eternity in heaven, and the consequence of disbelief is eternity in hell. With so much (supposedly) riding on our beliefs, we ought to do all that we can to figure out what is true.

But how will we decide? What can we do to determine if a belief (system) is worth holding? How can we “know” anything? I am sure philosophers have gone over this ground far more completely than I have, but all I can give you is my answers.

First, a set of beliefs should be internally consistent. It should not contradict itself. It simply makes no sense to believe contradictory statements. Of course, sometimes what appear to be contradictions may not be, so we should not be too quick to abandon our beliefs when apparent contradictions surface. But neither should we continue to hold them long after the contradictions are firmly established.

Second, a set of beliefs should be relatively consistent with what we are able to observe with our senses, either directly or indirectly. We do need to be aware of our own imperfect ability to observe accurately, but we cannot abandon observation either. Pure logic is insufficient to discover the truth.

Third, our commitment to beliefs ought to be consistent with the evidence supporting those beliefs. When evidence and reason is insufficient, we should delay commitment. When supporting evidence is found, strengthen commitment. When contrary evidence is found, commitment must weaken. When commitment to belief exists apart from evidence and reason, we cease to be rational, and we will very likely end up believing falsehood. (In support of this I offer as evidence the aforementioned multitude of incompatible beliefs.)

The idea of internal consistency has a consequence that needs to be explored more fully. A belief system may be evaluated based on the interrelationship of its component beliefs without necessarily establishing the truth of any individual beliefs. We can accept the beliefs for the sake of argument and search for contradictions. If we find contradictions among the beliefs then the entire belief system (taken as a whole) cannot be valid, even if we don’t know which of the component beliefs is false. We can remove beliefs from the belief system until the contradiction disappears, but the mere presence of a contradiction does not tell us what beliefs to remove. There will always be at least two ways to remove the contradiction, and quite possibly more.

Christianity (and especially fundamentalist or conservative Christianity) makes some pretty strong claims. This is fortunate for someone searching for inconsistency. It seems clear that stronger claims should be easier to disprove than weaker ones. If we can find an inconsistency in the stronger claims, we must remove some claims, thereby weakening the system as a whole.

So what kind of claims or beliefs does Christianity make or entail? One of the most important has already been mentioned: that one’s belief has consequences of the most extreme nature. Eternal torture waits for those that do not choose correctly. This is not just annihilation, not an end to existence, but rather perpetual existence in a state of pain and anguish, with "wailing and gnashing of teeth." Indeed, this consequence is made necessary, we are told, by the perfectly just nature of God, who cannot abide any kind of imperfection, and who cannot be satisfied by the mere destruction of that which is imperfect, but who must rather torment it forever.

I hope that you will consider how such an arrangement could be considered “just”. Personally, I do not believe that any beliefs held or actions undertaken by finite, mortal men can justify eternal torture. But at the very least, for such a consequence to be considered just, the standard of evidence to which this system of beliefs should be held will be very high. In other words, if there is reasonable doubt as to the veracity of Christianity, God would not be justified in imposing such stringent consequences for disbelief.

So, if we examine what Christianity claims, particularly by examining what is written in the Bible, what do we find? Clear evidence of divine authorship? Lack of internal contradiction? Harmony with observable features of the world? Or do we find evidence of imperfect human authorship and contradictions both internally and with the world?

Stay tuned.

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