Saturday, March 31, 2007

Reasons (not) to believe

I received a very thoughtful comment on my post, Calculating God, from a Christian who wanted to explain the specific reasons that he believed. Since he raised some reasons that I thought deserved more prominent address, I'm replying in a new post here rather than burying it in a comment.

His first argument was frankly one that I hadn't heard before (though this doesn't translate to it being convincing), that since the Bible was written in a "historical nature":

Some parts of the Bible are reported with a historical nature in the same manner as wars are reported. The wars in our history books are from recorded history that we accept because we have little reason to believe the alternative that people recorded a bunch of lies just to fool future readers of their documents.

Have you ever read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillioin? If not, I highly recommend you save yourself the pain. The book's written in a dull, historical manner that puts most history books to shame. But it was clearly intended as a piece of fiction. Tone doesn't necessarily imply genre.

Plus, there's another issue with the Bible: It was translated. Tone is very hard to preserve in translations, and what may have been an epic poem can easily be transformed into dull prose (as did indeed happen in many places in the Bible). When you add on this layer of complication, trying to draw any inference from tone is a hopeless endeavor.

So, with what intent was the Bible written then? The early parts were likely just people writing down mythology that had previously been passed down by oral tradition. As for the New Testament, Romans and Corinthians were compilations of letters written by Paul, and the gospels were most likely fables based on the character (or possible person) of Jesus mentioned by Paul. (I say "character" because to me, the evidence seems to indicate that Jesus never actually existed.)

At this point you might say, why believe something that seems obviously more likely to be false than true? Believing in this provides eternal heaven if you are right, and being kind of stupid if you are wrong. Rejecting this provides a little satisfaction from laughing at the dumb people and not "wasting" your time on a falsehood if you are right, but you have no idea what happens if you are wrong.

Ah, Pascal's Wager, long time no see! How's it hanging? Ooh, that's not so good. Yeow, that's even worse.

There are a few big problems with Pascal's Wager. The big one I always think of is that it assumes that belief is simply a matter of choice. Sure, I could go out and pay lip service to Christianity, but an omnipotent god were easily see through that. I believe things because I have reason to think they're true, and I don't have sufficient reasons to think that Christianity is true. And no, Pascal's Wager doesn't give me a reason to think it's true; it's just intellectual blackmail.

Another problem with Pascal's Wager is that there are multiple religions out there who all say that if you don't believe in them, you're screwed. It's not a simple choice between one religion and no religion, you have a choice between a myriad of religions. And if you apply the tools used by Pascal's Wager to this expanded view, your expected level of screwedness is infinite no matter what you choose.

Various psychological studies have shown positive correlations between religiousness and good health.

The effects of belief in something don't make a whit of difference as to whether or not it's true. It's possible for truth to hurt and for lies to heal, but they remain truth and lies respectively.

However, in this case, I'd argue that religion still does more harm than good (otherwise I wouldn't bother to speak out against it). With the suppression of science done by religious fanatics, the inquisitions, the witch trials, the attempts to limit the civil rights of others, the harms of religion clearly outweight the benefits in my mind.

By attacking a problem with personal research, knocking out the Flying Spaghetti Monsters and Islams of the religious spectrum...

No rebuttal here, just pointing out that FSMism is apparently now on par with Islam when it comes to religion.

Anyways, I've only covered here the parts of John's post I disagreed with. There's actually a lot in there that I do agree with (proof that not all theists are foaming-at-the-mouth insane), so go read it if you have a chance.


Suikoden rocks! (Sorry, I couldn't hold it back any longer. This is post #108 after all.)

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