Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God and Reason Session 7 - "Could There Be Just One True Religion?"

I attended session 7 of the "God and Reason" course given by Christian professors at my university on Wednesday, March 13. This session was entitled "Could there be just one true religion?" and, like session 6, was given by Prof. Wayne Brodland. It was attended by approximately 50 people.

This was easily the weakest presentation so far. Part of that was due to the weakness of the question, to which the answer is obviously, "yes", there could be. The real question seemed to be "Is Christianity the one true religion?".

As usual, my comments are in brackets. The rest of the text is my best representation of what was presented, and I hope it is accurate.

Religion, Prof. Brodland, says (quoting a dictionary), "a belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal god or gods". Most cultures embrace religion because it gives structure and meaning to life, provides moral guidance, tells us how to interact with gods, and describes an afterlife.

Quoting David Pallin, he classified aspects of religion as follows:

Is there a God?                         - Ultimacy
Does he communicate with us?            - Agency
Does he tell us how to please him?      - Personality
Can we engage him on our terms or his?  - Holiness
We assume, Prof. Brodland said, affirmative answers to these 4 questions.

A priori, there could be more than 1 true religion, or there could be just one true religion. We must look at specific claims of religions to address the question.

Prof. Brodland briefly compared Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, as follows:

Hinduism, 4000 BCE, 0.9 billion adherents
- indigenous to India, no single founder
- sometimes called a family of religions
- Vedas - holy (revealed), seldom read or understood today
- supreme oneness of Brahman, many gods or godesses [sic]
- involves yoga, meditation, etc.
- cycle of life

Islam, 622 CE, 1.6 billion adherents
- holy book is Qur'an, prophet Muhammad
- devout often memorize & recite it in Arabic
- only one God
- other important prophets
- 5 pillars:  belief, worship, charitable giving, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca
- relative weight of good and evil determine heaven or hell

Christianity, 30 CE, 2.1 billion adherents
- grew out of Judaism
- holy book, the bible
- God is 1 in three
- main focus is knowing God through Jesus
- Quote of Sam Pascoe: "Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise."
- Jesus was Messiah, Jesus' death was sacrificial, Jesus rose from the dead

- "If I just do my best..."
- "If I just do enough good..."
[It wasn't clear to me what the last part was referring to. "If I just do my best", what? I go to heaven? But if one doesn't believe in heaven, then I don't see the point.]

Some options to consider:
- all religions are true
- several are true
- only one is true
- no religion is true

All religions can't be true because their claims contradict each other:

For example, Christianity says Jesus died on the cross, but Islam says he did not.

Hinduism says many gods and godesses [sic], but Islam and Christianity say only one god.
[But Christianity can be viewed as polytheistic, as the Trinity can reasonably be thought of as three gods -- not to mention all the minor deities of Christianity, such as Satan and angels.]

Hinduism says many ways to god, but Christianity says "no one comes to the Father except through me".

These are "fundamental and irreconcilable incompatibilities". So it is not possible to assert "all religions are equally good". [But who asserts that? Certainly not me. I think there is a hierarchy of religions, with Christianity and Islam being among the worst.]

Most religions have an exclusivity assertion.

The possibility that "no religion is true" is improbable given evidences [sic] for god given previously by Prof. Mann. [Even if you accept alleged fine-tuning as evidence for a god, that just leads you to a vague form of deism, not to any particular religion. For all we know, the only true religion is one that has 23 gods on Tuesdays and 37 gods on other days of the week, and demands that we only worship the prime-numbered gods and must ignore the others. And why is it that evangelicals, almost alone among all other English speakers, use "evidence" in the plural? For almost everyone else, "evidence" is a mass noun.]

We expect a theory to explain known data and make testable predictions. How does one "test" something? You can test scientific, economic, political theories. You can test a can opener by using it for its intended purpose. Religious claims all related to God, so tests should, too. But we cannot easily test those kinds of claims, e.g., claims about the afterlife. So we use data from the world where we live.

The "theory" of Christianity claims:
- God reveals himself
- We can talk to him & he speaks to us
- God does things outside the natural realm
[Well, I have tested such claims myself. I was raised as a Christian, but the Christian god never spoke to me or revealed himself. I have never seen any sort of miracle. Furthermore, again and again, reports of claimed miracles turn out to have ordinary explanations or are the result of fraud.]

The nature of faith: God provided enough evidence that we could reasonably choose to follow him, but not so much we are forced to do so. God didn't make the case more watertight so that we could choose to follow him out of our own free will. [On the contrary, the evidence provided for a god is extremely weak, and claims like this try to take the clear lack of evidence and make it into a virtue.]

Why I [Prof. Brodland] am a Christian:

1. My observations compel me to the conclusion that there is a God:
- order
- beauty
- function
I study the embryo in my research - the complexity of building it says it didn't "just happen".

[Except that we know there is a process to create "order" and "function" through perfectly ordinary means: namely, evolutionary algorithms. "Beauty" is more intangible, but very simple processes can create complicated images, such as the Mandelbrot set, that people often find beautiful. Nobody says it "just happen[ed]"; instead, we try to figure out exactly how. Positing some supernatural being doesn't explain anything, because it explains everything. It makes no predictions and offers no help in solving scientific problems.]

2. Credibility of the bible. When I [Prof. Brodland] read a scientific paper or book, I look for
peer review
references to other work
maturity of thought
multiple authors
consistency of meaning but differences in perspective, details, and text [in other accounts]

The same things apply to the Bible. [Not really. The Bible, by its very nature, is not like a scientific paper or book; it is part history, part mythology, part narrative account, part fabrication, part injunctions about how to behave, part psychedelic ravings. It has not been "peer reviewed" in any reasonable sense.]

3. Dialogue between us and God (and his works).

4. Personal experiences:
- answers to prayer
- restoration of hearing
- other actions of God [unspecified]
[Why doesn't god heal amputees? Why does the Christian god content himself with extremely minor miracles like restoring hearing, but does not do a damn thing for the thousand of children who die each year of starvation and disease? For the millions who died in the Holocaust? Frankly, I think it is a bit self-centered to think that a god that is the creator of the universe concerns himself with our minor illnesses. And any such god that cures minor illnesses but does nothing about really serious problems is evidently a moral monster unworthy of our attention.]

5. It best fits the pieces together.
[Well, I would strongly dispute that. Christianity and its claims seem wildly at odds with the world we see. Polytheism, by contrast, seems much more reasonable, as does a single psychopathic god that delights in torment. What kind of god would create both the speedy deer and the speedy cougar to eat the speedy deer? A god that enjoys blood sport, I guess. Or maybe two different gods, the god of speedy ungulates and the god of speedy felines.]

Prof. Brodland closed with a parable: God came to earth and lived in a cabin in the woods near a highway. He would send his son Josh, who would talk to people who stopped along the highway and said, "Do you want to meet my father?" Some people said yes, but after learning there was no easy road to the cabin, would give up. Others agreed to follow Josh, but when the road became muddy, they gave up. But people who were humble got to the cabin and met God."
[I don't see what being "humble" has to do with it. It seems the very opposite of humility to think that you are important enough for the Creator of the Universe to be overly concerned with you or your sex life or your fate.
Nor does accepting the claims of the majoritarian religion of your country make you humble. Frankly, if I was approached by some guy at a rest stop who insisted that I follow him on a difficult path through the woods to meet God, I'd back away slowly and get in my car.]

That concluded the presentation. This time I was able to stick around for the question-and-answer session.

Q. Doesn't evolution account for some of the claims you made [presumably about order, function, etc.]?
A. People who study evolution recognize difficulties with that point of view, just like people who advocate creationism recognize difficulties with it. I don't want to go into that debate here.

Q. Isn't religion unfalsifiable?
A. I've seen things that are evidences [sic] of a supernatural being. As Francis Schaeffer says, we have excellent reasons for accepting Christianity, but not proof. We can accept Christianity and not be idiots. Science deals with things on an impersonal basis, so it is not the right tool.

Rob Mann, in the audience [who gave lectures 1 and 2 in the series], agreed that naturalistic claims are falsifiable and supernatural claims are not. But, he said, the lines are not so clear in the social sciences.

[I then asked]
Q. We know that the claim of Christianity that prayers will be answered has been rather definitively refuted by the scientific literature on intercessory prayer, which has found either no result or very tiny effects, with some people even getting worse when they are prayed for. [One of the studies that found positive effects, by Cha-Wirth-Lobo, later turned out to be fraudulent.] Can you name a single claim of Christianity that has been verified in the scientific literature?
A. No, because Christianity's claims related to the supernatural world, not the natural world. [Well, that doesn't really answer the question. First, we don't know there is a supernatural world. Second, if the supernatural world were completely divorced from our world, it might as well not exist. The whole debate revolves around how the supposedly supernatural world interacts with our world. But if it does interact with our world, those effects can be tested. They have occasionally been tested, and they have largely failed.]

Q. How about followers of other religions? Do they go to heaven?
A. It's a hard question. For example, people who lived before Jesus were saved because Jesus' saving power works retroactively. But Jesus says, "Nobody comes to the father except through me."
[Answering such a question leads to a dilemma. Hard-core evangelical Christianity demands that the answer is "no", but this answer is not politically palatable, so often the question is met with evasion. Most people's sense of justice suggests to them that people who haven't heard of Jesus shouldn't go to hell, but the Bible makes no exceptions. The choices seem to be (a) either agreeing that the bible is mistaken, or at least not the last word or (b) taking the hard line that, yes, some innocent people are going to hell, thereby implicitly agreeing that the Christian god is a moral monster or (c) claiming that the evidence is so strong that you have no excuse not to believe, even if you haven't heard of Jesus.]


John Stockwell said...

Did anybody ask what religion the lecturer was raised in? The usual saw about "coming to faith through reason" seems to break down when we find that an individual is in a particular religion because

1) they were raised that way
2) they had a life-altering event (illness, drug/alcohol addiction)
3) they married somebody of a particular faith.

Geography, not rational argumentation, proves to be a greater prediction of a person's religion.

Phil said...

I am currently reading a book on the "great" commanders throughout history. The historians that wrote this book often talk about how they know the things they know about these people of the past giving us the reader their primary sources. The sections on Joshua and David are prefaced with the fact that what we know about them comes mainly from the bible and is often uncorroborated and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

I find this similar to the section on Cyrus the Great where we are warned that most of what we know about the Persian empire at that time comes from Greek sources (namely Herodutus) as no major Persian sources have been found. Since the Greeks being the main rivals of Persia at the time, what Herodutus says needs to be taken with a grain of salt and corroborated by other non-greek sources. Not to mention the fact that Herodutus embellished quite a bit. To quote this book, "It is the nature of great men, of course, to attract legends, and Cyrus was no exception. Herodutus' biography of his early years frequently verges upon the fantastical: from visions of urinating princesses to grotesque tales of cannibalism, most of the events described in it bear testimony to Cyrus' posthumous status as a figure less of history than of myth."

I think that is telling of a lot of major historical figures and the great trouble with parsing and trusting ancient historical sources. How do you separate the truth from the myth? The best that can be done is to corroborate one source with a second independent source.

I think my question to the Professor would have been along the lines of, "How do you justify using the bible as a historical source when it is often not corroborated, full of establishments, and likely marked with translation and copy errors? I do not see how you can say that you apply the same processes to the bible and to scientific paper. If you do then either your standing as a professor needs to be questioned or your views of the bible need to change."

IMO I do not see how he can say that. It completely throws his credibility out the window as a professor in my books. How can he tell me that he looks at the bible the same way he looks at scientific papers? This is one of the most deceptive things a professor could say. Honestly, all that is left is to play the Internets age old game of Stupid, Crazy, or Troll and determine which title is most fitting for Prof. Brodland.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I get your point, but I don't think any of your characterizations apply to my colleague. I think he is probably bright, sane, and sincere. The thing is, if one surrounds oneself with a community of people who believe exactly the same things, it is very hard to break out of a mode of belief you've held since childhood.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Needless to say, I would have been favorably impressed if the "course" had been a little bit more forthright about the weakness of the claims presented.

Phil said...

I guess I can see that. Personally, I do not compartmentalize my views and philosophies in this way. When I learn something in one area of my life I try to apply it broadly. I have trouble understanding people that can live with such contradictions in their lives. Although my system has led me down some interesting rabbit holes, namely Materialism to Historical Materialism to Communism which I now consider one of my greatest intellectual blunders.

I was also raised in a household without religion. I specifically remember having to make a diorama of the birth of Jesus one year in grade 3 and being the only kid in the class that didn't know who Jesus was.

When attempting to get a feel for how people in religious groups feel, I often think back to my times in leftist groups when I was a student. The whole indoctrination via philosophy. The cult of personality around Marx, Lenin, et al. The peer pressure around standing up for social justice and the underprivileged. All this, to me, seems analogous to religion.

Looking back on my days in these groups I see time wasted and frankly, see myself as a naive idiot. I suppose I hold others to a similar standard.

I hope I did not offend with my reactionary final statement in my last post. I am sure your assessment of the Prof. is accurate. Just when I attempt to understand his thought process I can only relate what he is saying to my experiences which leaves me with little relate to.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

Phil, religious belief should be interpreted more broadly than belief in the supernatural. Believing, for example, that the State, or a big brother, will take care of everything, is a religious belief.

James A. Brown said...

Most people choose their religion with the same thought and care that they use to choose their primary language.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

That's excellent, James. I like it very much. Is it original with you?

Reginald Selkirk said...

The nature of faith: God provided enough evidence that we could reasonably choose to follow him, but not so much we are forced to do so.

Note that Brodland and other apologists claim there is plentiful evidence, but this is an excuse for why there is not sufficient evidence.

God didn't make the case more watertight so that we could choose to follow him out of our own free will.

Free will is so vitally important that God is willing to let multitudes of people suffer for eternity for it, and yet the phrase "free will" appears nowhere in the Bible.

[The Bible... has not been "peer reviewed" in any reasonable sense.]

I suppose if you were being generous, you could consider the rejection of the gnostic gospels by mainstream Christianity, and the apocrypha by Protestants, to be a form of 'peer review.' The Texas sharpshooter fallacy seems a more apt description though.

[One of the studies (of intercessory prayer) that found positive effects, by Cha-Wirth-Lobo, later turned out to be fraudulent.]

As did the study by Elisabeth Targ.

Phil: ... what we know about them comes mainly from the bible and is often uncorroborated and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

Or even a pillar of salt.

Phil: The cult of personality around Marx, Lenin, et al. The peer pressure around standing up for social justice and the underprivileged. All this, to me, seems analogous to religion.

Bertrand Russel also compared Soviet communism to religion. God and Religion

Cruel persecutions have been commoner in Christendom than anywhere else. What appears to justify persecution is dogmatic belief. Kindliness and tolerance only prevail in proportion as dogmatic belief decays. In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. The persecuting character of present-day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries..."

Curt Cameron said...

"Evidences" is a shibboleth, to use a term from their book. Anytime you hear it, you know where that person is coming from.

SLC said...

Re Takis Konstantopoulos

As Martin Gardner pointed out, dialectical materialism is a form of religion as, like religion, it is a belief based on no evidence

Steve Finnell said...


Can you accept the Mormon position about God and be a Christian?

1. Mormons say Adam is their God.

"When our father Adam came into the Garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body and brought Eve, one of his celestial wives.....He is our father and our God and the only God with whom we have to do" (Brigham Young, in The Journal of Discourses, Volume I, page 50)

Can you believe Adam is God and still be a Christian?

Adam was created by God. Adam was not God. (Genesis 2:1-25 Genesis 3:1-24)

2. "In the beginning the head of the Gods called a council of theGods and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it" (The Journal of Discourses, Volume VI, Sermon by Joesph Smith).

Can you believe in more than one God and still be a Christian?

1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God....

Ephesians 4:6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

James 2:19 You believe that God is one. You do well ; the demons also believe, and shudder.

(Even demons believe in one God)

1 Corinthians 8:6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord , Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.

Mark 12:29-32 Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'Hear, O Israel"The Lord our God is one Lord;....... 32 The scribe said to Him, "Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is one, and there is on one else besides Him; (The scribe agreed with Jesus that there is but one God)


(Scripture quotes from: (NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE)


Jeffrey Shallit said...

Can you believe in more than one God and still be a Christian?

Evidently, yes, since Christians believe that the "Father", "Son", and "Holy Ghost" are all gods. The usual dodge that they are just "aspects" of the same god is, of course, ridiculous.