Monday, 12 January 2009

The Religion Lottery

Pick a number, any number between 1 and infinity. If you pick the right number, then eternal glory may or may not await. Pick the wrong number and eternal torment might or might not happen to you. Ready? Did you pick 4.983427328597458490325432 * 10247? If not, you've lost the religion lottery. Whatever is truly out there will never be for you to obtain. While this may seem absurd, this is essentially what picking a belief in the afterlife without any way of knowing essentially is. The dichotomy that's often played between one religion and nothing is culturally dependant. What makes the Christian construct of god any more or any less valid than the Babylonian construct? Without proper information, how can one make any choice at all, much less an informed one?

Stabbing in the dark
3,000 years ago, a child born in Egypt would be told of the Egyptian gods. These fantastic tales of deities are now relegated to myth status, and chances are that a child born in Egypt today will be taught the oneness of Allah. Likewise a Greek of 2500 years ago would be taught of the gods and goddesses, again the deities are relegated to myth while Greek children today are most likely told of the saviour in Christ.

The point is that what gods one believes in depends on the society they are born into. At one point in time there must have been a trigger for the shift in societal traditions regarding gods, and at some point gods that were cherished were relegated to the annals of history. What happened in those societies and the beliefs of the individuals within that society that changed? It's understandable why the likes of Dawkins and Dennett talk about memes in the context of religion, the Darwinian metaphor for survival can shed a basic light on the struggle for ideas. Though in many cases the shift of a religion would have nothing to do with the religion being better, rather I'd speculate that it was incidental and has more to do with war and population shifts.

To try and get a point out of all this, here it goes. Does one religion conquering another in the minds of a population mean that the religion is more truthful? In the memetic sense, it makes it more advantageous and better adapted at surviving. But of course there's a reason that appealing to the majority is a logical fallacy. Likewise these shifts happen in different parts of the world with different religions. If Islam is now the dominant religion in many countries while Christianity is the dominant in others, does it make one idea more truthful than another? I would contend not for the same reason.

What other factors would there be? Strength of conviction in the followers? Again fanaticism is seen across religions and even in non-religious dogmatic enterprises, all those people willing to sacrifice themselves for Allah now would make a more compelling case than the Christians who aren't. Then there are all those suicide cults that have sprung up repeatedly in the last century, the Jonestown cult had hundreds members willing to commit suicide. What about the alignment of mythology with current scientific understanding? If this were a good indicator then the eastern religions would have a better case than the western religions. The story of Brahman bursting forth into the universe then living in cycles for billions of years sounds very much like the cosmological model that physicists currently embrace.

Say an alien came to earth and saw all the different religions, past and present. Now an alien capable of travelling to earth would be one that has a far superior understanding of space-time than we do at this stage. What would that alien think? If an unbiased observer with superior understanding came about, would it see any difference between the myths of Odin and Thor with the myths of Christianity? It seems religion is stabbing in the dark, and the direction to stab is the direction pointing to Mecca the direction that others are stabbing. If it were a lottery analogy, then it would be likening to choosing the number someone else chose on the hope that somewhere along the line someone had an inside tip.

Selling uncertainty
The one thing that struck me about the movie Religulous was just how strongly Bill Maher gave a message of strong agnosticism, the message of "I don't know and you don't either." I recently watched the latest Thunderf00t video on creationists, in there there was the message of VenonFangX complaining that atheists and the naturalist philosophy is limited to what is inside the box - that it's a limited worldview because it refuses to ask the question of what is outside the box. It's a false argument because many naturalists use cosmology and mathematics to try and derive what lies beyond the bubble universe we reside in, but suppose it is true that the naturalistic worldview stays grounded in this reality. Why is that?

Firstly there is so much to explore in this reality, so many unanswered questions, so many questions that haven't even been uncovered. The understanding of the universe in terms of a naturalistic approach has really only occurred in the last 500 years, and in that time the tools to understand it and the foundational theories in which it all works have changed drastically. Einstein's insight into how the universe operates gave a fundamental shift in understanding, as did Darwin, Newton and Galileo before him. The understanding of how the universe works has changed, and thus our insight to what lies beyond the universe has changed with it.

What this insight into the universe has taught is the limitation of measurement. The limit of observation seems to be the big bang, the beginning of the universe. But it hasn't stopped people from trying to work out what is beyond that point. With some mathematical calculations and a lot of theoretical physics, there have been some ideas of what lies beyond the beyond. Infinitely oscillating universe from bang to crunch, an infinite number of multiverses where every chance event plays out in a different way, or the multidimensional string theory. The possibilities are truly endless.

What lies beyond this universe cannot get much further than speculation. For theoretical physics it's informed speculation, but still speculation nevertheless. It's the uninformed speculation where the naturalists take issue. If one cannot know what is outside the scope of reality, then it's nothing more than wishful thinking to make any statement as such. And it's foolish to ascribe certainty to that unknown. What makes the notion that after you die you will be judged and based on what you believed in either spend eternity in bliss or torture any less speculative than the notion that after you die your soul will reincarnate with your new form taking on suffering from your actions in the past?

Wishful thinking can be comforting, it can be nice, but really wishful thinking without a basis for evidence will get us nowhere. The religious often talk of faith as a grounding for belief, but really if only faith plays a part then religion is a lottery where your ticket was bought for you by time and place of your birth. It can be exchanged or thrown away, but really most people stick to the ticket they've been given. It seems the entire endeavour of religion is the hope that somewhere back along the chain that someone had some insider information and happened to know the right number. It's best to just hope that the winning ticket wasn't lost in a bloody battle a few thousand years ago.


6p010536c799d2970c said...

I can see no reason to believe in any of the gods of the major religions; their inherent contradictions and limitations are clear indicators that they are entirely human inventions.

Is it possible that some other sort of deity exists? I do believe it's possible, but that doesn't mean I don't also believe it to be extremely unlikely. And, if such a being does exist, it's done its darndest to hide any evidence of it's existence; ergo, if it does exist it doesn't want to be found.

At this point I can see no reason - as you've mentioned - to favour any religion over another. They're all equally speculative; the only thing that appears to determine longevity is whether or not they happen to be adopted (and co-opted) by power-hungry people for political, social and economic gain. The only reason the Romans gave paganism away is because someone important realised Christianity would be a far better scam.

Since then the Christians have themselves split into 38,000 sects - not exactly good evidence for it being the 'one true religion'. And there'd be far more if the early church hadn't gone to such effort to wipe out any conflicting ideologies, both heretical and otherwise.

For any one religion to be true its adherents would have to be able to demonstrate its clear advantages - and I mean demonstrate, not argue; all the apologetics in the world mean nothing until there's evidence - over the other religions. None has so far; I harbour strong doubts that one ever will.

And, for me, that's the best justification for atheism.

Wowbagger said...


If you're wondering who the hell the stupid letter/number combination is, it's me - Wowbagger. Am still getting used to this typepad nonsense.

Kel said...

And, for me, that's the best justification for atheism.
Me too, given what we do know about religion and what we do know about reality, the concept that any one religion could be true is more than cancelled out by the unlikelihood of choosing the right one.

If I were personally worried about what happens in the next life (I'm not) it would seem a much safer bet to try and live up to being a good person because the faith option really is a non-option given the sheer unlikelihood of choosing the right construct to have faith in and how much location in space/time that choice depends on.

Wowbagger said...

Another common-sense barrier to the belief in gods is the idea of worship. I mean, what sort of omnimax being is so downright petty as to demand that its creations bow down to it? That's not indicative of an all-powerful, all-loving creature; rather; it's a sign of serious insecurity.

If there was a being that created the world out of love, it seems unreasonable to believe that it would act in any way contrary to that love. Which, of course, includes Jesus - for a being of love to allow any creature (himself, his son or whatever you want to call it) tortured in order to be able to forgive humanity is as unjust as it is unneccessary.

Christianity fails the test again.