My post on religion seemed to interest a fair number of people, so I thought it would be worth doing another one, summing up my view of the situation.
I think it is unlikely that any particular one of the standard religions is correct in the form in which most believers hold it—a form which includes belief in the falsity of all of the competing religions. In that form, at most one religion can be true—I'm oversimplifying a bit, since there are probably some religions which aren't inconsistent with each other, but most are—so the odds that any particular religion is true are low.
There are then at least three interesting possibilities:
1. All religions are pretty much entirely wrong; there are no gods. This is my view, as it happens, but in this post I want to argue that there are alternative positions that reasonable people might hold.
2. One of the existing religions is correct, or very close to correct, in the form in which most believers hold it. There is supposed to be a tradition of Mohamed saying that, at the day of judgment, his followers would be divided into a thousand sects of which only one would have the truth; I see no logical reason why that couldn't be the case. If it is, the odds of getting the right religion are low. On the other hand, some versions of some religions hold that it is sufficient to get close, which would improve your odds a bit.
3. There is a true religious belief and some, perhaps many, perhaps even all, religions imperfectly reflect it. This makes sense if the reality in question is sufficiently hard for humans to understand that a completely correct account of it would be incomprehensible to them. It corresponds to Haldane's speculation about the physical world, which I mentioned in my earlier post. To me, this alternative is the most interesting and plausible of the versions in which religions are not simply all wrong.
Some critics might object that if my third alternative is correct then almost all religious believers are wrong, and if they are all wrong, what reason do we have to believe there is anything to religion at all? The obvious response is to try to apply the same standard to our understanding of physical reality. In my previous post I offered the example of light. Its behavior can be understood as either a wave or a particle, two explanations which appear inconsistent to our intuition.
In that case, we now know enough to write the equations for an explanation consistent with all of the evidence. But from the standpoint of someone living before the discovery of quantum mechanics, or someone living now who, whether or not he knows quantum mechanics, doesn't intuit it, the situation is very much what I have described for religion. There is a reality out there, we have two inconsistent pictures of it, and both are in part true.
The same holds in lots of other areas. Consider economics. Writing as an economist, I frequently treat economics as if it were the full description of human behavior, but obviously it isn't; indeed, I have one article
which tries to use evolutionary psychology to explain patterns of behavior inconsistent with economics. Human beings routinely deal with complicated realities through models that have enough truth to be useful and are simple enough to be usable. There is no particular reason why, if there is a "religious reality" out there—if, for instance, there is something reasonably describable as a god (or gods)—it shouldn't fit the same pattern.
We are left with the problem of how to decide between my first and third alternatives. At one time I thought I had an answer to that, a proof that the existence of God was less likely than the non-existence of God. The argument, which I created when I was about nine, depended on Occam's razor, the idea that simpler hypotheses are to be preferred to more complicated hypotheses. A universe with God includes, as a subset, the universe minus God. Hence the theist picture has to be more complicated than the atheist picture, hence it is less likely.
There are two problems with this purported proof, as I eventually realized. The first is that the "universe minus God" might not be an internally consistent picture; some features of the universe might depend on the existence of God to work. The second is that there is no good reason, at least none I can see, to think that Occam's razor applies to the nature of the universe. It's true that simpler hypotheses are, ceteris paribus
, easier to work with—but the question here is not which picture is easier to understand but which is true. And it seems plausible that simple things are more likely to come into existence than more complicated things, again ceteris paribus
. But it is hard to see how that is relevant to the universe, with or without a God.
All of which leaves me with the point I made in my previous post. Humans have very good pattern recognition software and routinely use it to solve problems that we could not solve by anything describable as logical deduction—most obviously, the problem of deducing from the data coming from our retinas the contents of our visual field. Our eyes don't see objects, they see patterns of colored light. By the time that information reaches our consciousness, it has already been heavily processed.
Humans use their pattern recognition software to make sense of the world around them, and different people get different results. Since we don't have enough data to uniquely determine the pattern, the best guess someone accepts often depends, in large part, on what he is told by the people around him. That is quite obviously true with regard to our beliefs about the nature of the physical world; none of us has enough first hand data to recreate most of what we believe about it, so we are dependent both on second hand data and on the results of other people's analysis. It isn't surprising if, for those people who believe that there is a religious reality out there, the particular version they accept depends in large part on the beliefs of the people around them.
What about the larger question--alternative 1 vs alternative 3? Once one sees the alternatives as "some version of the atheist world view is true" vs "some version of the theist world view is true," the arguments for atheism become less compelling, since most of those arguments are attacks on particular versions of the theist world view. One is left with the question of which picture one finds more convincing. I observe that different people, even different intelligent and apparently rational people, reach different conclusions.
One further point. In the comment thread to my previous post, I suggested that the quote from Sam Harris on witchcraft that a commenter had offered reflected a pop history view of the subject—witchcraft persecutions driven by the Catholic church's religious beliefs—and that that view was inconsistent with the historical evidence
. The commenter responded that the argument Harris was making didn't depend on the historical accuracy of his historical example, which was true.
On the other hand, the reliability of Harris's view of the world as a whole—or mine—does depend in part on the accuracy of the data on which it is based. If his world view includes a history in which religions have been consistently hostile to reason, that makes him more likely to construct a pattern in which religion is simply superstitious, irrational nonsense. If that history is false, as I think it is, that is a reason to distrust the pattern he has built. If the actual historical story shows religions and religious people sometimes sensible, sometimes not, sometimes attacking reason, sometimes supporting it—behaving, in other words, not all that differently from non-religious people and institutions—that weakens the grounds on which his conclusion is based.
My own conclusion, as before, is that I do not think God exists. But neither do I think that conclusion so obviously true that all reasonable people ought to accept it.