About this time last year, a Google Chrome extension was released on the Google store that automatically replaced the term “pro-life” with “anti-choice”. As with everything else in the abortion debate, both sides were quickly up in arms. The anonymous creator of the extension explained that he/she created it in an attempt to clarify the debate. It has been pointed out before that the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are flawed because they naturally demonize the opposing party. The implied opposite of being “pro-life” is to be “pro-death” or “anti-life” and no pro-choice advocate would ever claim such a position. Likewise, to say that you’re not “pro-choice” is to say that you’re pro-coercion or, as the extension claims, “anti-choice” which has never been the position of those fighting against abortion. However, flawed as the terms may be, the extension itself exposed a more fundamental problem. In an effort to clarify the debate by removing what the creator deemed as misleading language, all it managed to do was further confuse it. As a column on pro-life website LifeActionNews.com stated:
Smart people have a habit of asking good questions and nowhere is this truer than 17th Century mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who asked what is simultaneously a very simple but very profound question:
Why is there something, rather than nothing?
In fact, Leibniz believed that this was “the first question that should rightly be asked” and with a little reflection it’s easy to see why he believed that. Many of us in asking the deep questions of life will come to a series of regression that leads us from the simple and mundane (“What am I going to do today?”) to the fundamental and profound (“What am I doing with my life?”, “What am I here for?”). Answering those deeper personal questions depends on an understanding of the purpose of life and the cosmos in general, which in turn requires an understanding of where those things came from and why. This chain seems to present a problem of infinite regress, with each step of the chain requiring its own explanation. The most common analogy for this problem is the infamous “Chicken and the Egg” scenario. Eggs come from chickens and chickens grow out of eggs, so which one came first?
We’ve been looking at the criteria we should use when surveying faith systems and deciding which to adhere to or evaluating the system we already claim. I’ve laid out seven principles that, I think, can help keep us on track to truth and not get bogged down in the inconsequential. To recap:
I don’t think that any of these principles are unreasonable. In fact, I think they are somewhat intuitive and uncontroversial – at least when we’re detached or disciplined enough to remain objective about the process. If you ask the average person who deconverted from any particular religion, you’re going to find that their reasons for doing so, correctly or incorrectly, have to do with one of these principles.
Evaluating your own faith and opening yourself to the possibility that you may be wrong is, in a word, frightening. In many religions, the adherence to the faith system is the glue that holds families and communities together and can often be deeply intertwined with ethnic or national identity. In such situations, leaving the faith system is to intentionally ostracize yourself from your friends, family and the only life you’ve ever known. In some cases, the penalty for apostasy is death. If nothing else, even in a society such as our own where people change faith systems like underwear without consequence, it is unpleasant at best and terrifying at worst to consider the fact that you may have built your life and worldview upon a lie. However, though it may be difficult, if we are to be honest seekers of truth we must follow the evidence where it leads regardless of the consequences. We must do this because truth matters, because eternity matters, and because choosing incorrectly can have devastating consequences.
I recently had a discussion with someone in the YouTube comments section. Despite being one of the worst possible places to hold a conversation about controversial topics like religion – not only because of the format but also because of the constant badgering and interruptions from trolls – I felt like the outcome was generally quite positive.
The person I was speaking to introduced himself as an atheist who was considering converting to either Islam or Christianity but was having trouble deciding between them. I tried to help as best I could, but the interesting part was that he seemed unusually preoccupied with miracles. His first example was a section of the Quran where Muhammad supposedly predicted the coming of airplanes and air travel (Surah 51:7), but when I explained that this was just an oath and to take it as a prophecy was a stretch, he wanted to know about Christianity's miracles. The conversation went on for some time until I offered him my email address to continue in a better format. He accepted – though I never actually heard from him again – by telling me that he would love for me to tell him all about Christian miracles.
In hindsight, the conversation makes sense though I found it unusual at the time. As an atheist, it would seem reasonable to him that the religion which can actually provide proof of supernatural activity is the one that must be true, but I hesitate to go along with that line of thought. Not only do I have very little "solid evidence" for the sort of contemporary miracles that this man was looking for (it's out there, but since this has never been an area of real study for me, all I have is hearsay and stories which aren't all that convincing if you're not predisposed to believe them at face value), but I do not believe that this is a good reason to accept or reject any particular faith. We simply cannot evaluate the truth value of a religion based on its claims to miracles or other sorts of religious or spiritual experiences. This may seem an odd thing to say as a Christian, but I believe I have good reasons for doing so.
In philosophy, there is a tactic to undermining your opponent’s argument that relies on accepting the premises and the conclusion, and then taking the point and running with it. It’s called argumentum ad absurdum or sometimes reductio ad absurdum. The idea is to show that a person’s position, if taken to its logical conclusion, results in situations or concepts that are absurd or, in some cases, just plain silly.
Here’s an example. In the video below, Christian apologist Sam Shamoun performs this maneuver on Muslim apologist Zakir Naik. Dr. Naik is making the claim that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is mentioned by name in the Song of Solomon, thus showing that he is a true prophet of God:
It’s not at all controversial to suggest that, if you’re going to create something, it should achieve the purpose for which it is intended when you set out to create it. This holds true whether you’re talking about airplanes, software, bowling balls or chairs. A chair needs to hold your weight, or else it isn’t worth sitting on. If software doesn’t provide the functionality you’re looking for, it gets uninstalled. No one is going to buy a ticket to get on a plane that doesn’t fly. The principle also holds true for faith systems. A true faith system should work in a way that significantly outshines all of the other options because it is true; it reflects and coincides with reality in a way that none of the alternatives do. It should do everything it claims to do. It should answer the important questions in a satisfactory manner. It should provide what it claims to provide. If it doesn’t do that, then it should be thrown out like a square bowling ball.
So what then does a faith system need to do? What answers does it need to provide?
Certain phrases and slogans have become increasingly popular in our culture in recent years. People thrown them around with a general idea of what they mean, but rarely are they examined in any depth. For example, and I just heard this one today, “You shouldn’t impose your beliefs on others”. On the surface something like this sounds good. Naturally, in a pluralistic culture where tolerance is considered a virtue and in a country where freedom of religion is a fundamental right, the sentiment such a phrase is trying to convey – that everyone has a right to believe what seems correct to them without coercion or threat – is a noble one. However, the statement itself is self-refuting. To tell someone “you shouldn’t” do something is in fact an example of imposing your beliefs on that person, so “you shouldn’t impose your beliefs on others” becomes an example of the exact action that the phrase is intended to repudiate. The statement becomes cannibalistic, devouring itself.
A faith system is intended to answer certain questions. These may be questions about the temporal life and the human condition, or they may be about things pertaining to the non-physical, the afterlife or alternate realities. As we’ve discussed before, each of these systems vary wildly and blatantly contradict each other in what they teach about the afterlife, not only in the rewards they promise, but even the essential nature of such an afterlife and the way we get there. So how do we know which is true?
If we are simply to examine the mystical claims of a faith system, there is much that we just can’t know. It’s not as if we can find Heaven with a telescope (despite what silly tabloids tell you) or test for a God residue when someone claims to have a near-death experience. The world beyond – at least for the time being – is precisely that: beyond. It is beyond the reach of our eyes and ears, our microscopes and simulations.
However, faith systems don’t just make claims about the spiritual or the ethereal. Very often they will also make claims about the physical world we live in. This is not too surprising. Humans have been inventing deities or explanations to the questions we have about how weather works, how the stars move or what makes for a good harvest since the dawn of the human race. Since faith systems typically require that you take them in an all-or-nothing format, then we have to weigh these claims about the physical world in tandem with the claims about the supernatural world. This is particularly true in religions that claim divine revelation such as Mormonism or the great Abrahamic faiths. Given that, it seems accurate to say that, if a faith system can’t get the world around it right then we have good reason to reject what it says about the world beyond. I suppose an analogy might be: If we can’t trust you to do basic math, you sure aren’t going to be doing my taxes.
First, I want to apologize for the inactivity here. It was always my goal to post something no less than once a week. After finishing up the look at pluralism, why it's false and why it matters, it seemed to me that the obvious next step would be the criteria we should use when deciding which faith to follow. Unfortunately, it was as I began to lay down my thoughts on this issue that I realized I was creating a double standard – at least as far as I was currently articulating those thoughts – and I needed to rethink them. Life happened and it took me a few days longer than I had anticipated.
So then, let's get started.
Imagine for a moment that you are someone who has never really looked into any particular religion. You consider yourself open to the idea of God, but you're not sure which direction to go when choosing. After all, with so many options, where do you start?
Or perhaps you're someone who has always been a faithful adherent to a certain religion, but you've realized that you never really "chose" that religion. It was just something you were taught when you were growing up and have since started to have some doubts. How do you know if what you've always believed is actually true?
When looking at the reasons for why we should critically examine our faith and that of others, there are several good, practical reasons that have a great deal of impact on the lives we live now, but I don’t believe that these are the most important reasons. The most important reason, I believe, is that every religion, omitting Atheism, claims that the belief system we cling to in this life has lasting consequences in the life beyond the grave. Atheism is largely alone in this because it denies the existence of an afterlife and, as a result, all you have is this life. However, all the other major world religions teach that the soul continues after death to a fate primarily determined by the life you lived. Even the smaller faiths, such as Mormonism, or the historical practices going back to ancient Greece or Egypt all understood and taught that death was not the end of the road.
I’ve previously touched on the contradictory concepts of the afterlife in various religions, but at the time I focused on the rewards that one expects or hopes to receive. In addition to those rewards, each religion teaches that there is an opposite destination reserved for those who do not measure up. In Buddhism and Hinduism, that destination is another life and death in the cycle of reincarnation and the social standing you receive is a direct result of what sort of life you lived the time before. As a side note, don’t let westernized and romanticized versions of reincarnation fool you. In the Hindu or Buddhist framework, you’re not even guaranteed to be human in the next life. You could be a sea slug or a dung beetle if you really screwed up.
Writer, artist, lay theologian, student of comparative religion.