Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why Should "Knowing" God Be So Hard?

I've been debating with theists for years and the one thing I've learned is that there is never any shortage of interpretations of god and religion. For just about every position a theist takes on their religion, there is always a theist adamantly supportive of the exact opposite view within the same religion. This has led me recently to wonder why, if a god exists, and its primary goal is for us to have a relationship with it, it makes it so hard to "know" such a being exists and what its message is?

Many "sophisticated theologians" argue that the common understanding of their religions are wrong. In order to know the correct, or more probably correct versions of their religion, one has to do a tremendous amount of research into the history, culture, language, theology, philosophy and science that relates to their religion. One must know the original language that the religious texts were written in, and the historical and cultural context in which they were written in, because otherwise one is ignorant as to the true meaning of the text.

For example, the New Testament was originally written in ancient Greek, a language almost no one is familiar with today. Some words have multiple, ambiguous meanings, and translations can easily deliver the wrong message which can have huge theological implications. So in order to know what the New Testament really says, one has to know the original language and context it was written in, or at least be aware of a scholar who has done the necessary work. Another example, is the fact that Muslims claim that the Koran is only perfect in the original Arabic spoken and written in the 7th century. Any translation to another language degrades the message somewhat. Muslim apologists use this as an argument for their faith by arguing that only something divinely inspired could have been so perfect. That means that in order for me to verify this, I have to learn classical Arabic.

Then there's the science behind all the many arguments for god. Some of them rely on extremely complex physics, chemistry, and biology that the vast majority of people do not understand. Why should I have to have knowledge of things so complex, and so esoteric, in order for me to rule out or confirm god and a particular religious interpretation? In other words, why would an omni-benevolent deity, whose primary goal is that it wants us to know it exists, make its existence and message so highly dependent on complex cosmological models, chemistry, and biology? Why not make its existence and message more easily known? There is much debate in various religions on whether faith alone can guarantee salvation, or whether it is faith and works. Regardless, one has to first believe that there is a plausible religion and god out there in order to be motivated to do any works as a result of this god-belief.

We all know that finding the truth is often hard. Under naturalism, there is no expectation that finding out the fundamental nature of reality will be easy. But under theism, we'd expect that knowing the primary purpose of the universe, which is to know and have a relationship with the right god, would be easy. This is especially true if one believes that there is a hell of eternal punishment for believing in the wrong god, or wrong interpretation of a god or religion. And yet, it seems that under theism, god is deliberately making it difficult to know he exists. The vast majority of people who have ever lived have never had access to the information that we are lucky to have access to in the modern world. Most people through out history couldn't read or write and had no way of researching into whether any religious claims were true or false. The only interpretations of their religion that they had was the one their religious leaders or parents told them about. All they had was their brains and the very limited resources available to them, and that's not saying much. And unfortunately, many people have lived (and still live) in cultures that forbid the apostasy from the dominant version of religion.

Some theists will say that god does make it easy to "know" he exists by some kind of sensus divinitatis. They'll say that we all "know" in our hearts that god exists, and they might cite verses in their religious text to back this up. But we have evolutionary explanations of why we infer intentionality to non-intentional things that I think far better explains any sense of god that we have. And I find the appeal to any kind of "internal witness" to justify faith to be highly problematic, to say the least.

Some theists make a lot of fuss arguing that atheists are rejecting the wrong kind of god and the wrong versions of religions. If only we had the right exegesis we'd see that the religion in question is not as absurd, incoherent, and incompatible with science as we think. We'd see that it all makes perfect sense. But in order to know the right exegesis, we might have to spend years researching into complex theology, history, language, culture, philosophy and science. And so my question then, is, if one rejects a religion because they have the "wrong" interpretation, does that person have a valid excuse to do so before god, assuming god exists? If all I ever know is the young earth creationist view of Christianity, and I reject it because I find it to be absurd, then will god pardon me because of this? If I reject Islam because I fail to see how it "all makes sense" in the original classical Arabic, will god pardon me? I presume most theists would say no. They will not want to allow a non-believer of their faith off the hook that easy. Some, like a frequent interlocutor of mine, Luke Breurer, think that we ought to find the best interpretations of god and religion and this is kind of like an objective duty god has given us. And, we should not reject the religion just because it appears incoherent and incompatible with science. Instead, we should continue believing on faith while we diligently try to figure out plausible interpretations of it.

Of course, he reasons this way only about his religion, Christianity. But this same line of reasoning can be used by someone of any religion. If Mormonism appears absurd and incompatible with historical and scientific evidence, "so what?" reasons the Mormon Luke Breuer. We shouldn't reject Mormonism because of these apparent problems. We should continue believing it on faith while spending years to reconcile the problems it has. And so says the Muslim Luke Breuer, and the Hindu Luke Breuer, and the Scientologist Luke Breuer, and so on. At what point do the problems become so copious and so seemingly irreconcilable that it becomes justified to reject the religion altogether? According to Luke Breuer, with Christianity, the answer is probably never. I think a person is justified in rejecting a religion if it doesn't make sense, it has contradictions, and isn't compatible with science. I am under no obligation to spend years trying to make the religion make sense. I just so happen to be a person who takes his atheism seriously enough to the point where I like to pursue these matters. But an apatheist, who has no interest in religion or god, doesn't. And he is under no obligation to be otherwise.

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