Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A response to "Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe" part 1 of 2

The popular YouTube clip titled, "Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe" is an attempt to show the fallacy of religion and religious belief. The video is very well done, and has a narrator with a soothing voice calmly raising several objections to religion.  There seems to be real power in this video because the objections keep coming, keep piling up, and if the unwitting believer (or unbeliever) watches, it's really easy to be either bewildered by the objections, if the believer is not ready to answer them, or to say, "Yeah, that's so true!" if you are an unbeliever.

The problem is, this clip is filled with logical fallacies and arguments that are easily shown to be false.  In this blog post, I will go through the main objections to religion raised in this video (which also happen to be commonly used by unbelievers) and show how each one of them fails.

Summary of the video

Much of the video is devoted to the question of why a religious person believes.  The implication is that believers have no good reason to believe.  In fact, you only believe because your parents told you so.  The narrator asks, since there are many religions out there, which cannot all be right, then how would a person choose one religion over any other?  The narrator then claims that this means no religions are indeed correct.

The end of the video pays homage to modern science, saying that "now we know better".  The narrator does not blame ancient peoples for turning to fantasy to comfort themselves, but in this day and age, because of the advent of modern science, we should leave those superstitions behind.  The implication is that, any reasonable and clear thinking person will cut him- or herself free from the fairy-tale of religion and realize the "truth": there is no god.

The irony is that, if you are using reason to help form your basis of belief regarding the big questions, such as, "Who am I?", "Why are we here?", and "Is there a God?", you will soon see that this video has nothing logical to say about it.  In fact, most of the objections against religion raised by this video are self-refuting, a hallmark of poor reasoning.

In this series of this posts, I will go through six objections to religion in general (and Christianity in particular) portrayed by this video.  In each case, I will state the objection as I see it being raised by the video (either implicitly or explicitly), paraphrase (not direct quoting, although I will put it in quote blocks) the relevant parts of the video, and then respond to the objection(s).

Objection 1: “You’re only a Christian because you were born in America to Christian parents.”

Is the faith you practice the dominant one within your culture?  Aren't you suspicious that most people adopt the religion of the society in which they were born? Yet remain convinced they've found the one true faith?  Did you know that most people choose it not for reasons, but because they were born into it?  Can it be just an accident of geography?  Did you know nearly all religious devotees believe what they are taught to believe by their parents?
This is the main thrust of the video: religious people around the world have no reason to believe what they believe.  I actually have no idea whether or not the assertions made by the narrator here are true.  Is it really true that most people don't choose their religion for good reasons, but because their parents told them to?  Maybe so.  But this objection to religion commits two fallacies: (1) it is self-refuting (this is the death knell of any argument), and (2) it commits the genetic fallacy.

It is self-refuting because it cannot withstand its own scrutiny.  The implication is that since religious people only believe because they were born in a culture dominated by their chosen religion, then that religion cannot be true.  But the same can be true of unbelievers of any stripe.  You are only a postmodernist because you were born in late 20th-century/early 21st century America.  Or you are only an unbeliever because you were told so by your parents. Yes, I understand that many unbelievers in America (especially young people) grew up in the church, but since there is a trend of young people leaving the faith, I could just as easily say it's a cultural thing for young people to do (and not based on reasons).  Especially if these young people leaving the faith are spouting the same self-refuting objections found in this video.

This objection also commits the genetic fallacy, which says that because a belief's origin is suspect, the belief cannot be true.  But this is incorrect: just because someone's belief in God stems from their upbringing does not necessarily mean the belief is false.  It could be false, but you would have to bring a valid argument against it to show that, not a fallacious one such as this.

Objection 2: “How do you know you have it right?  Have you checked out all the other religions of the world? And if every member of faith feels just as strongly as you do, what are the odds you’re right?”

There are 2 dozen major religions.  Furthermore, did you know there are more than 45,000 denominations of Christianity alone, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than the rest?  Each member of every faith is just as devoted and sincere and convicted as you? Did you know they also read infallible texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles, etc.?  Yet, since every religion is mutually exclusive, they cannot all be right, right?  If every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you’re right?  
In this little tight block of paraphrased-text from the video, the main common objection is that there are also other believers out there; how do you know they're not right, and you're not wrong?  The problem with this objection is clear: just because there are others out there who don't believe as I do, does not mean that what I believe is wrong.  The veracity of a religion, or of any other point of view, is not a popularity contest, in which a position must certainly be false if there are enough people who hold a different position.  This objection has three major problems with it: (1) it is self-refuting, (2) it is internally inconsistent, and (3) assumes the correct point of view is simply a popularity contest.

Before I go into those problems, I would like to commend the narrator for holding a position that is often unpopular among unbelievers, at least among the post-modernist types: that every (or nearly so) religion is mutually exclusive.  No, it is clear that not all roads lead to God.  After all, most of the time, the basic claims of a religion are in direct opposition to the basic claims of other religions.  For more, see this post by Eric Chabot in response to "Dear Believer..."

This objection is self-refuting again because it cannot stand up to its own scrutiny.  Atheism is also a set of beliefs that not everyone holds.  There are many out there whose religious beliefs are just as sincere and convicted as the beliefs held by the atheist. And certainly atheism contradicts most if not all religions.  They can't both (atheism and a given religion) be right, right?  So by this argument, atheism is itself subject to this popularity contest, and if that is the case, hands-down it will lose.  No, in order to advance atheism as a "better" choice than a given religion, you actually have to marshal evidence for it, not just say that there are too many religions out there to pick one for certain.

It is also internally inconsistent.  If we are to take the narrator at his word (and I think this is highly suspect), we note that he makes claims such as, "they all have infallible texts, air-tight apologetics, and have experienced miracles".  First, it is certainly untrue that multiple conflicting religions have air-tight apologetics.  Only one at best can have "air-tight" apologetics.  Furthermore, regarding the infallible texts and miracles, if that is true, that argues far more in favor of at least one religion being correct, or at least that the atheistic worldview is incorrect.  After all, on atheism, there are no infallible texts nor miracles experienced.  What the narrator is doing here is, in a backhanded way, saying that all religions claim to have these things, but they really do not.  If that is true, then yes, let's abandon religion.  But this is a bald assertion that needs to be supported by well-reasoned arguments. No such arguments are put forth here.  Instead, I would argue that Christianity in particular does have air-tight apologetics, making it the clear choice over all other religions, including atheism.  And if Christianity does indeed have air-tight apologetics, where does that leave this argument?  It leaves it lacking any apologetic reasoning of its own.

Finally, it is clear that the correct point of view is not the winner of a popularity contest.  Like I mentioned above, if that were true, then Christianity would be the winner.  On this view, the atheist should "reasonably" abandon his faith in atheism and turn towards the God of the bible.  In fact, this objection is at direct odds with his first objection in the video.  If "truth" is voted in, then Christianity would always be the winner, since people (according to the narrator) choose their faith based on what their parents (or some other meme) told them.  How then would a majority-dominant religion (and thereby the "correct" religion by the narrator's point of view implicit in this objection) ever be overturned?  It's correct because it's popular, and then it's passed on to the next generation as the majority religion by meme.  The final irony with this is that the narrator clearly does not believe that the best belief set is chosen by popularity.  If you watch the whole video, he espouses using reason, testing, and logical thinking to test which worldview is correct.  So, in the end, he answers his own question: "How do you know you have it right?"  The answer is: because of logic, reason, and testing the spirits.

Objection 3: “You're an atheist too, just for one less god than I am.”

I've been told my unbelief is guarantee of missing heaven and going to hell, but whose heaven/hell? Should I, just to be safe, accept God? But whose God?  Given so many options, what are the chances?  Might I be better off wagering on no God rather than the wrong God? What if you’re wrong?  What if not Jehovah, but Allah?  Or Wu-tan?  Or some other god on the other side of the planet you've never even heard of? 
Truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist for all gods but your own.  The way you view them (other people) is the same way they view you.  Every devout Hindu, for example, has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you've embraced yours. Yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night wondering whether you’ll wake up in his hell.  Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?
I am often amazed at this line of reasoning, which I have heard several times before.  It seems so inane to me, I am surprised that people still use it.  It's so baseless, yet frequent, that I often wonder whether there is some subtle point here that I am missing.  If so, I would like to have someone explain it to me more fully.  For now, I will simply critique it as it appears in the video.  This objection fails because the definition of atheism is belief in no god, not belief in one to the exclusion of other (possible) gods.  It also fails because there are actually very good reasons to believe in at least some general deity, which of course rules out atheism.

So, how could one who believes in at least one god (a "religious" person) at the same time not believe in any god (an atheist)?  The entire premise of this objection is absurd in the strictest sense of the word.  It is, by definition, contradictory.  However, I think it might be best to give the benefit of the doubt and simply assume the narrator was using a turn-of-phrase to really call into question how a believer knows that he has the "right" god.

In that case, the narrator is trying to argue that all religions have the same evidential basis: zero.  If that is the case, then he is right starting from Objection 1: we have no reason for choosing our own set of beliefs except that they have been thrust on us.  So then, how can we possibly look down on others in the world that also believe for no reason?

However, this objection falls flat on its face because it only holds water if there are no good reasons for belief in a particular god.  But it actually gets worse for the atheist: not only are there good reasons to believe in the God of the bible in particular, but there are also good reasons to believe in at least some personal, transcendent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient god in general, including the cosmological, moral, teleological and arguments, as well as the argument from reason.  These would clearly rule out atheism as a foundation for belief, but not the major monotheistic religions of the world.