Thanks for this response. I actually feel the same way about claims to knowledge. This OP was meant to be a response to some apologists who I have heard attempt to give the above response - as if it's consistent to just accept claims to the supernatural in their holy book and at the same time not accept such claim types elsewhere (as if their lack of evidence for such claims is any better than that of their competitors).
I would go a bit further and say that the project of the Abrahamic religions is in large part centered on the idea of doing their level best to make the very idea
of "competitors" for their belief system literally unthinkable.
A "competitor" is a legitimate alternative. Ford, or Toyota? Or maybe you'd rather live somewhere you can get around on a bike and mass transit and never have to bother with a car? Pick a brand you like, or be an a-automobilist, it's up to you. For all their chanting about "free will," the whole structure of the Abrahamic belief systems is set up to remove the possibility, or even the very thought, of actual choice.
The core claim of the Abrahamic religions is that there is "One True God." There are no "competitors." All those "other gods" out there are demons--i.e., the bad guys from their
religious mythology. Different versions of their own religions--you guessed it, "heresies" inspired by those selfsame demons. Atheism? "The Devil's cleverest trick was to convince people that he doesn't exist." So, for someone raised as a monotheist, it's not a matter of choosing Jesus or Yahweh or Allah over the competition; it's a question of choosing the Good Guy in their world view, or the bad guys in their world view. There Is No Other World View.
Even that's not quite on target. To acknowledge the concept of a world view is to open the door to considering that other world views might exist. "You can serve God, or you can serve Satan. So, what'll it be?"
Somehow they have this whack idea that we should just compare all of the supernatural claims and pick one account - as if somehow that gets us closer to reality or truth, never thinking that the better option is to withhold judgement on ALL of these claims until demonstrated to be actual.
I'm not sure who this "they" you're talking about are, but if they're actually saying anything along the lines of, "Hey, it's cool as long as you look through all the religions and pick a guild--just don't be one of those spoilsports that likes to harsh our groove by refusing to play!"
then they're a pretty recent modern phenomenon, the attempt to adapt to a globally-interconnected world where the existence of multiple religions and "spiritual" world views is pretty hard to ignore.
Perhaps this approach to knowledge for them (as hypocritical as it is) stands as a response to the grandly fear based Pascal's Wager. "Well, we know we have to pick one because the alternative (no god/non supernatural) is just unthinkable."
I don't think this attitude has anything to do with Pascal's Wager. PW could only have been invented and considered a game-winning argument in a monopoly religious environment. For Pascal, you could bet on the doctrines of the "one, holy, catholic (meaning: "universal") and apostolic Church,"
or nothing. If it's possible for the prospective mark to say, "Well, OK, but which threat of a nasty afterlife should I be most
scared of? If I bet Catholic and God is a Lutheran, I'm still toast, right? And what if He's a Muslim? I don't know anything about Norse theology, but meeting Odin
after a lifetime of not believing in Him just sounds like a Bad Idea. And have you seen a statue of Kali?!
Talk about a stupendous badass! I don't think I wanna be on Her bad side either..." the PW immediately turns to rubbish.
I think what you're talking about here is something else: the Nihilism Bogeymantm
The Nihilism Bogeyman is the stark, Lovecraftian terror many believers feel when confronted with the idea that Universe is not made of people--that it cannot be related to by social
means, cannot be begged, cajoled, appeased, flattered, or threatened into doing what you'd like it to; and perhaps worst of all, the prospect that there is no Sparkly Piletm
What is the Sparkly Pile, you ask? Thanks to the dualistic trend in Western philosophy from Plato through Descartes (and perhaps comparable ideas in Eastern philosophies--I'm not well-versed enough in them to point to specifics), it's common for "spiritual" people to divide Existence into two piles: the Mundane Pile, and the Sparkly Pile. "Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter" (Yoda). The "crude matter," "this world," all the crappy details of ordinary workaday reality go in the Mundane Pile. All the cool stuff--the "luminous beings," magical powers, Meaning and Purpose to life, gods, goddesses, angels, "spirit," "holiness," consciousness, love, etc., etc.--goes in the Sparkly Pile. Mundane Pile = bad/boring/ordinary/lousy/otherwise negative. Sparkly Pile = sugar and spice and everything nice. It's an emotional evaluation. Consciousness is pretty much the same thing whether it's resident in a "spirit" or a "brain"--but "spirit" just somehow sounds
cooler, doesn't it? Sparkly!
Whenever you hear or read a believer saying something like "I can't believe that consciousness is just brain chemistry!" what they're really saying is "No! I won't let you put that in the Mundane Pile!" The "just" is the key word. For this sort of believer, we with our "critical thinking" and "rational skepticism" are a bunch of dour, heartless party poopers who always have a wet blanket on hand to snuff out anything that might be cooler than their cubicle at work. It's so deeply entrenched in our culture that we kinda buy into it too
"That UFO you thought you saw was just
swamp gas, or maybe Venus." "That 'picture of the Loch Ness Monster' is just
a bumpy log." "That 'haunted house' is just
an old building with a few drafty areas that make 'cold spots' and the usual creaks and noises of aging wood reacting to temperature changes through the day." "That 'apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary' is just
a refraction of light coming through that cracked window over there." "That spirit medium/miracle-working preacher/person with psi abilities/etc. is just
a charlatan, or at best someone who's deluded into thinking they have powers they don't really have."
Can you feel the emotional let-down? "Mysterious/Profound Paranormal Phenomenon!" ---> "just" ---> [insert prosaic "rational explanation"]In short:
For the believer, all that mid-20th Century existential despair philosophy is true:
"God is dead, there is no morality or meaning of life or purpose, life's a bitch and then you die, we're all just like B.F. Skinner's pigeons, punching at little buttons to get our consumerist treats and that's all there is
, waaaaaah, waaaaaaah, waaaaaah!" But
, if they pull the security blanket of their religious Sparkly Pile beliefs over their eyes and hold on really tight
, the Nihilist Bogeyman can't get them. The irony:
if Plato had known about cognitive neuroscience, he would have had to put "consciousness" and all of its cognates in the Mundane Pile. But if he had known about quantum mechanics--that if we could actually see "matter" at its most fundamental level, it would look exactly like magic as we usually imagine it--he would have had to turn around and scrape everything
over into the Sparkly Pile. We can write out chains of arcane symbols which--for someone initiated into the Mystery--can be used to predict the future with startling accuracy
that no astrologer or diviner could ever hope to match. We call the sorcerers who can do this, and wield this power to do things like cure diseases and launch people into outer space
"scientists," and their spells "equations."
That "magic spell" sounds so much cooler than "physics equation," and "wizard" so much more awesome than "scientist" is a marketing problem that we ought to think about. IMO it probably has a lot to do with the fact that modern science is institutional and collaborative, hence "faceless." Quick: how many of the scientists who work at the Large Hadron Collider can you name? Science lost a lot of its "cool" about the time it stopped being about unusual individuals like Nikola Tesla and Einstein, and started looking more like just another pool of corporate jobs. Also: lab coats and plastic safety goggles leave a lot to be desired as uniforms go, from a marketing perspective.
I wonder, if scientists dressed more like Merlin, or maybe their counterparts in Steampunk, would we have an easier time promoting science and rationalism?
Such thinking really just testifies to their incredulity and willingness to not only believe on bad evidence but also cognitively participate in a kind of segregated irrational reasoning. We are to believe that there exists (basically) an invisible 'person' - out-there-some-where (near/far or whatever) and yet when other extraordinary claims come around, of similar color, they have no problem rejecting such claims out of hand. Is it your view that this practice is a kind of cognitive dissonance? If not, what is it?
I think this has to do with what I was saying earlier, about how Abrahamic monotheists are conditioned. The "religions of the Book" were crafted to mash hard on the buttons of every human cognitive bias their authors could find. Everything
about them is designed to make it impossible for the believer to conceive of anything outside their reality-tunnel.
The acceptable, orthodox beliefs they hold are "the Truth." Everything else is Satan. The walls of their reality-tunnels don't permit them to see or acknowledge the existence of anything that is actually outside
of their belief system.Morality Over Accuracy:
For example, one of the major memetic tricks of the Abrahamic monotheisms is to substitute morality
in the place of accuracy
. The atheist or the believer in some other religion or sect is not merely mistaken
, believing in something that isn't true; they're evil
, holding beliefs that are morally wrong
. God, or Satan: what'll it be? So, you don't really believe in God (notice how the use of the capital-G subliminally eliminates all other gods and goddesses from consideration) in order to be accurate, but because it is the right and good thing to do. Anyone who does not believe as you do rightfully and legitimately deserves to be punished for eternity
, in the most brutal and sadistic imaginable way, such is the enormity of their moral crime. You don't want to be that
wicked, do you?Faith:
Notice how the Abrahamic monotheisms have conflated "believing things in the absence of evidence" with "trust," "loyalty," "reliability" and the like by using the same word for both. We speak of a "faithful" spouse, an agreement made "in good faith," "the faith and credit of the United States Government," i.e., "faith" as the quality of honesty and trustworthiness in relationships, the glue of community. Notice that "faith" in this sense has nothing to do with believing things in the absence of evidence. The "faithful" spouse is someone who has demonstrated their fidelity (Latin: faithfulness) through their actions. The person who is married to them can thus have "faith" in them, and be "faithful" in return, based on rational confidence and reciprocation.
The Abrahamic religions take this quality and then redefine it as "believing what our clerics tell you to, no matter what." Thus, a person who does not believe that Christ is present in the Eucharist or that Earth was created 6,000 years ago or whatever is not to be trusted as a member of the community
. They are "faithless," an "infidel." Believing ridiculous things (the more ridiculous the better) becomes a way to signal that you are a loyal, honest, trustworthy member of the community who can be counted on not to betray. All those people with different beliefs are Scary, Untrustworthy Others, servants of Satan, hardly even human! It's not really a surprise then, that until fairly recently, atheists could not testify in court. Or for that matter, that we poll in the neighborhood of Al Qaeda in "who do you hate most/trust least/least likely to vote for for President" surveys.
Clever trick, no?The "Free Will" Shell Game
Notice how "belief in 'God'" is automatically assumed to be equivalent to "worshiping 'God.'" The common question 'Do you believe in God?' not only automatically erases all non-Abrahamic religions, it assumes that acknowledging the deity's existence is indistinguishable from being a member of the "right" religion. "Belief," like "faith," is another double-edged sword: "Do you believe in gun control?" means "do you agree
with gun control?" not "do you think gun control exists?" Likewise, for the Abrahamic religion du jour.
Whenever we atheists point to all of the evidence against/lack of evidence for a theist's claims, we're told that their god pretends not to exist
so that we can have "free will" to choose to "believe in" him or not. Should we allow ourselves to be talked into agreeing that he exists or even acknowledging the possibility [insert Pascal's Wager in the latter case], worshiping him and joining the religious community is supposed to follow automatically, thanks to the doctrine of Hell. Since 'God' is said to be perfectly good, holy, just, etc. by definition, by His unchangeable nature
, all evaluation
of him, his moral worth, the virtue of joining his religion etc. is immediately short-circuited. Thus, we are presented with a "choice" regarding what we don't actually have a choice about (either 'God' exists, or he doesn't, whether we like it or not), and stripped of choice where we would otherwise have it (to join, or not to join). And of course, per the "morality vs. accuracy" and "faith" tricks, we should "obviously" make the moral
choice--to believe, with our obedience as an automatic corollary.
The short version: reality is optional (but there's really only one good
choice you can make); the optional (what community values we should align with, who--if anyone--we should choose to obey, etc.), isn't.
Right--this post is long enough.