Religious Confusion

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 23, 2010 in General Atheism

Robin Hanson wrote a nicely compact version of the Argument from Religious Disagreement at Overcoming Bias:

Imagine that the kids in a family blamed broken items discovered around the house on “Todd.”  When the parents ask more about Todd, and ask the kids separately, they get conflicting answers about Todd’s height, skin color, personality, and so on.  These facts would count as evidence against Todd:

  • The parents have never seen Todd, though they are around often.
  • The kids want everyone to believe in Todd so less blame will fall on them.
  • The kids give conflicting stories about Todd’s features.

This seems similar to disagreements about God, and addresses the question Nick raised about Hal’s comment.  The facts that religions disagree about God’s features, that they have reasons to want to believe in God even if he did not exist, and that skeptics find it hard to find independent evidence for God beyond what supporters say, all suggest that religions are independently making up this story of God.

This question is also raised in a short video from the always hilarious and insightful NonStampCollector:

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Kyle January 23, 2010 at 10:37 am

So the claim is that religious people are making it up? It’s all just a conspiracy?

Also, this discussion assumes an independent observer viewpoint, but the claim is not that religious belief has been established in this way. It is perfectly consistent to claim that some believers are in the correct epistemic circumstances to make belief in God rational, but that atheists are not.

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lukeprog January 23, 2010 at 10:43 am

The claim is that Tom is imaginary.

Your claim about “perfectly consistent” is not very strong. It is “perfectly consistent” to say that invisible robots are currently conducting a war against each other in Manhattan.

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Erika January 23, 2010 at 11:51 am

Kyle, you say “It is perfectly consistent to claim that some believers are in the correct epistemic circumstances to make belief in God rational, but that atheists are not.”

I think you are missing a key point of both the “Tom” example and the video. The claims being made by the characters are not just that “Tom exists” or “Jesus is the son of God”. Both examples have people making much more specific, and inconsistent, claims about the nature of the being that is claimed to exist. If everyone has different specifics, maybe the general point they are making is also wrong.

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Robin Hanson January 23, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Indeed hilarious! :)

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Ferguson January 23, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Jesus told me to tell you to subscribe.. lol. How can I not obey

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Dan January 23, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Kyle said <i

"So the claim is that religious people are making it up? It’s all just a conspiracy?"

Neither. That argument seems to come from the same guys who brought you, “So then if the earth wasn’t designed, then it had to have been chance!”

You don’t seem to realize other possibilities. In the case of this video, the claim is neither that religious people are making it up or that there’s a conspiracy. It’s that they all think they know god, but when person A sees other persons B and C equally as sure they know the same god, but have “wrong” views on this same being, maybe person A is also wrong.

They’re not making it up. They’re not deliberately trying to deceive. They’re just wrong.

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Bill Maher January 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm

This reminds me of “The Invention of Lying”, which is an absolute stitch.

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Kyle January 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Your claim about “perfectly consistent” is not very strong. It is “perfectly consistent” to say that invisible robots are currently conducting a war against each other in Manhattan.

There’s only so much you can say in a comment to a blog post. My point was that this shouldn’t be thought about from the parent’s point of view in the analogy, it should be thought about from the child’s point of view, because whether you are the child or parent makes a big difference to your epistemic circumstances.

It’s that they all think they know god, but when person A sees other persons B and C equally as sure they know the same god, but have “wrong” views on this same being, maybe person A is also wrong.
They’re not making it up. They’re not deliberately trying to deceive. They’re just wrong.

The epistemology of disagreement is much more complex than this. For everything you believe you will be able to find someone who disagrees with you, that doesn’t mean you should abandon all your beliefs.

I agree that lots of religious people claim to have great insight into the mind of God, and very few of them seem to agree. It seems to me that they are likely to be wrong about their level of access, and in fact humans do not have the kind of access to God that is often claimed. But why does that mean that I should regard my belief in God as suspect?

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Haukur January 23, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Theistic realism in the face of confusion can be defended in the same way as moral realism in the face of confusion or gastronomic realism in the face of confusion – Luke linked to a great paper on this somewhere.

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Justfinethanks January 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm

The argument from confusion I’ve always thought is kind of lousy. There are broad disagreements on every single subject, but that doesn’t mean that some people are more probably accurate than others.

Creationists try this line all the time. They say that “punctuated equilibrium” is incompatible with “phyletic gradualism,” therefore evolution is false. (It should be noted that not even Darwin was a phyletic gradualist, but I digress.) I even once read a theist’s blog post that argued that since atheists can’t seem to agree on what the the most accurate moral system is, nor even if morality is a real thing, that proves that atheism is morally bankrupt, when it of course proves nothing of the sort.

I mean, does the fact that Keynesian economics is starkly opposed to Austrian economics prove that money doesn’t exit?

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lukeprog January 23, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Haukur,

Yeah. See my post on the Don Loeb podcast interview.

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Lee A.P. January 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm

The conspiracy here would be that one particular belief, out of thousands and thousands, maybe millions — is THE true Christian belief and that all others are false.

It is “common sense” to observe that since Christians and other religionists differ so much between themselves, that ALL of them are WRONG rather than believing that there is a needle in the haystack of infinity that points to the one true Christianity adhered to by this one sect.

Simply, Christian religionists VAST DISAGREEMENT with one another is STRONG evidence that religion is man made phenomenon.

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Derrida January 23, 2010 at 11:59 pm

If a good and powerful god existed, you would expect him to make his message clear, or at least not expect him to stay silent as numerous religions arose.

However, if naturalism is true, numerous inconsistent religions is just what you’d expect.

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Kyle January 24, 2010 at 2:42 am

If a good and powerful god existed, you would expect him to make his message clear, or at least not expect him to stay silent as numerous religions arose.

This is an an example of where atheists also believe that they have great insight into what God would be like. Perhaps it is better to ask: what must God’s purposes be if he chooses to act in this way?

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Mike Young January 24, 2010 at 3:09 am

Bad Argument. First off, it isnt valid, it is a logical fallacy to try to get from disagreement to falsity. Second, the argument can be paraodied in the following way

1.Atheists have many different ways (no less then 20 by my count) of trying to explain conciousness in a naturalistic way
2. all these possibilities are mutually exclusive
3. if they all have such different view of the phenomemna then the explanation of phenomena does not exist
4. A naturalistic explanation of Consiousness does not exist.

I could make up a dozen or so (at least) of these kinds of arguments. Bad argument Luke, bad argument.

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drj January 24, 2010 at 7:20 am

Kyle: This is an an example of where atheists also believe that they have great insight into what God would be like. Perhaps it is better to ask: what must God’s purposes be if he chooses to act in this way?

On the contrary – its a presupposition of theism that God is rational. In so far as we are in a position to judge acts as rational or irrational, the Christian God seems to go about many things in a very irrational way.

Of course, the theist usually presumes that it must just be our own fallibility, or our own comparative ignorance, or God’s incomprehensibleness that makes it appear to us as if He does irrational things. Contorted, viciously circular theological thought castles are devised to explain how such irrationality could really be rational after all, but the most rational and obvious answer is never considered – that God really isnt there.

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Erika January 24, 2010 at 9:05 am

Mike Young and co.,

I think we have a fundamental confusion here. Religious confusion is not, and is not meant to be, a deductive argument against God. It is more of a probabilistic argument. If three people make different claims about something and none of them have any reason to be thought more reliable than the others, then they are probably wrong, not certainly wrong.

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Hermes January 24, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Drj, well said. I find the presumption of a narrowly Christian point of view to be the downfall of many of these conversations.

In rare situations, I’m able to talk with someone and get them to see that in order for their claims to make sense to me, I would have to know how they have arrived at the conclusions they have made.

Unfortunately, most of the replies to those types of requests end in the other person repeating common positions but not telling me a bit how they arrived at those positions. As if simply repeating them enough will bring back any stubborn apostate.

Well, I’m not an apostate, and credulousness is not a virtue. If it were, I should turn myself into an Electric Monk and through that believe ‘things they wouldn’t believe in Salt Lake City while believing sixteen contradictory things at the same time’. Till then, it seems that there are plenty of Electric Monks around.

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Joel Duggins January 24, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Luke,
There are two enormous problems with this video.
First, it (and, by extension, you) expects everyone who goes by the name Christian to be in agreement. Do you apply the same principle to atheists? I could just as well oppose atheism by comparing Darwin to certain pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. I would appreciate it if you would demonstrate the intellectual honesty necessary to realize that people’s beliefs can only really be critiqued if they are those people’s beliefs, not someone else’s.
Second, all three of the fictional “christian’s” from the video claim, effectively to be prophets. (I.E, God speaks directly, propositionally, to their minds, not through the Bible) This is directly opposed to the majority of historical Christianity, whether you define the term “Christianity” by public profession or whether you define it by Biblical doctrines, as think is better.

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hermes January 24, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Luke didn’t make the video. Non-Stamp Collector (YouTube channel name) did.

Joel Duggins: First, it (and, by extension, you) expects everyone who goes by the name Christian to be in agreement. Do you apply the same principle to atheists?

Why should he? The two aren’t in the same category of things.

Better examples would be “theists and atheists” or “Christians and Muslims” or (less so) “gnostics and agnostics” but not “atheists and Muslims/Christians/…”.

Can you give a better example that does not have this problem?

As for the inconsistency of Christian beliefs, that is well documented and kinda the point of the video.

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Hermes January 24, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Joel, here’s another example.

Say you were talking with someone about a big purchase you were about to make. When they asked you, you talked about buying an Audi A4, a Lexus IS, a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, or a swimming pool. The first three are in the same category; automobiles. They’re even similarly priced. They’re even the same category of automobiles; a sedan. The swimming pool isn’t.

When asked why you included a swimming pool in your list, you respond that all 4 would be things you want to own. Yet, when you do a comparison of those things, only the cars can be closely compared. The pool can’t except on wildly different criteria.

As such, you can’t even do a comparison that makes any sense to anyone except for you till you decide between either getting an automobile or a pool. Even if you don’t care about what anyone else may recommend to you, the chances you’ll be able to explain your choice to yourself beyond gut-level feelings is fairly low.

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Jeff H January 25, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Joel Duggins: First, it (and, by extension, you) expects everyone who goes by the name Christian to be in agreement.Do you apply the same principle to atheists?

While I personally wouldn’t expect all Christians to be in agreement on everything, the problem here is that many (if not most) Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is “guiding them into all truth” as the Bible indicates. This implies that one of his primary duties is to help people figure out how to correctly interpret the Bible, how to correctly apply it, etc. Given this concept, there seems to be much more variety in Christian beliefs than one would expect. I mean, after all, they apparently have the teacher sneaking them the answers, right?

Atheists, on the other hand, don’t claim to have any sort of divine revelation. No, we have to work our beliefs out the hard way, with plenty of logical reasoning and thinking. Thus, it seems reasonable to expect much greater variety between atheists than between Christians.

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SteveK January 26, 2010 at 10:18 am

The parents have never seen Todd, though they are around often.

Several other parents and kids have reported ‘seeing’ him. Maybe Todd’s parents need counciling??

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Micah Cobb January 26, 2010 at 8:18 pm

It’s true that disagreements about x can be justification for not believing in the existence of x. However, there are other scenarios where disagreement about x can be justification for the belief in the of x.

Imagine ten people locked inside a dark room. You’ve never been inside the room. When the ten people come out, nine of them describe some kind of painting. This seems to me good evidence that some kind of paintings exists.

Again: imagine that you are walking down a dark trail in the jungle. One by one, you encounter ten different people running in the opposite direction, all of whom claim to have seen some type of animal–they differ on the species and even specific features–over the next hill. They claim the animal was attacking a group of hikers less than 1000 yards ahead. Would you be justified in believing that a dangerous animal was ahead? Would you find the disagreement of the people as evidence that no dangers were ahead? I think not.

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Pilchard January 27, 2010 at 6:54 am

I’m not convinced disagreement among theists doesn’t give us any good reason to doubt theism in and of itself.

What it can do is provide a good defeater for the veracity of “personal revelation” – it seems irrational for Christian A to suppose his feelings of revelation from God are more certainly true than Christian B’s or Muslim A’s, given they all have equal certainty of their position.

Thus Christian A must posit some non-God cause to the revelation-feeling in the case of others, and hence be open to the possibility that their own feelings could likewise have a non-God cause.

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Hermes January 27, 2010 at 9:22 am

Pilchard: I’m not convinced disagreement among theists doesn’t give us any good reason to doubt theism in and of itself.

Theism in general, no. Deists and pantheists could be correct, and they have beliefs that are consistent with reality even if they offer no positive evidence for their position. Christian sects, on the other hand, don’t have even that level of consistency even before any positive evidence for their claims are brought up.

Pilchard: What it can do is provide a good defeater for the veracity of “personal revelation” – it seems irrational for Christian A to suppose his feelings of revelation from God are more certainly true than Christian B’s or Muslim A’s, given they all have equal certainty of their position.

No doubt.

It also works when a Christian creationist attempts to throw in the strange arguments against the sciences. Just asking why they disagree with other Christians that have no problem with the sciences tends to flabbergast many of them. If they press it and call the non-creationist Christians ‘not real Christians’, then I just ask why I should take one self-described Christian’s claim that another self-described Christian isn’t a ‘real Christian’.

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