The Probability of Theology

This is the script to my video, The Probability of Theology:

As always, it was written (by me) for me to read aloud, but it should be pretty readable.

Today I’m going to be answering a question I got from the nephew of a friend of mine from the local Chesterton society. He’s a bright young man who was (I believe) raised without any religion, and has been introduced by his aunt to some real, adult, theology, and has the intellectual integrity to seriously consider it until he can see how it’s either true or definitely wrong. Here’s his question:

I am an atheist, mostly due to a few primary objections I have with religion in general, the most prominent of which is that since there are infinite possible theologies, all with the same likelihood of being true, the probability of one single man-made theology such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam being true is approximately zero. My aunt … is quite convinced that you can prove this idea false [and] we are both hoping that you could make a … video about this on your channel, if possible. We will be eagerly awaiting your response.

This is an excellent example of how it’s possible to ask in a few words a question which takes many pages to answer. I will attempt to be brief, but there’s a lot to unpack here, so buckle up, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

The first thing I think we need to look at is the idea of a man-made theology. And in fact there are two very distinct ideas in this, which we need to address separately. First is the concept of knowledge, which as I’ve alluded to in previous videos was hacked into an almost unrecognizable form in the Enlightenment. Originally, knowledge meant the conformity of the mind to reality, and though in no small part mediated by the senses, none the less, knowledge was understood to be a relatively direct thing. In knowledge, the mind genuinely came in contact with the world. All this changed in the aftermath of Modern Philosophy. It would take too long to give a history of it so the short version is: blame Descartes and Kant. But the upshot is that the modern conception of knowledge is at best indirect and at worst nothing at all; knowledge—to the degree it’s even thought possible—is supposed to consist of creating mental models with one’s imagination and trying to find out whether they correlate with reality and if so, to what degree. Thus there is, in the modern concept of “knowledge”—the scare quotes are essential—a complete disconnect between the mind and the world. The mind is trapped inside of the skull and cannot get out; it can only look through some dirty windows and make guesses.

This approach of making guesses and attempting (where practical) to verify them has worked well in the physical sciences, though both the degree to which it has worked and the degree to which this is even how physical science is typically carried on, is somewhat exaggerated. But outside of the physical sciences it has largely proved a failure. One need only look at the “soft sciences” to see that this is often just story-telling that borrows authority by dressing up like physicists. It is an unmitigated disaster if it’s ever applied to ordinary life; to friends and family, to listening to music and telling jokes.

There have been a few theologies which have been man-made in this modern sense; that is, created out of someone’s imagination then compared against reality—the deism that conceives of God as winding a clock and letting it go comes to mind—but this is quite atypical, and really only exists as a degeneration of a previous theology. Most theologies describe reality in the older sense; descriptively, not creatively. It is true that many of them use stories which are not literally true in order to convey important but difficult truths narratively. This is because anyone who wants to be understood—by more than a few gifted philosophers—communicates important truths as narratives. Comparatively speaking, it doesn’t matter at all whether George Washington admitted to cutting down a cherry tree because he could not tell a lie; the story conveys the idea that telling the truth is a better thing than avoiding the consequences of one’s actions, and that lesson is very true. It may well be that there was never a boy who cried “wolf!” for fun until people didn’t believe him; it’s quite possible no one was ever eaten by a wolf because he had sounded too many false alarms to be believed when he sounded a real one. But none of that matters, because it is very true that it is a terrible idea to sound false alarms, and that sounding false alarms makes true alarms less likely to be believed. None of these are theories someone made up then tested; they are knowledge of real life which is communicated through stories which are made up for the sake of clarity. And so it is with the mythology of religions. Even where they are not literally true, they are describing something true which people have encountered. I am not, of course, saying that this is what all religion is, but all religions do have this as an element, because all religions attempt to make deep truths known to simple people. So when considering anything from any religion, the first and most important question to ask about it is: what do the adherents mean by it. This is where fundamentalists of all stripes—theistic and atheistic alike—go wrong. They only ever ask what they themselves mean by what the adherents of a religion say.

So this is the first thing we must get clear: theologies are not man-made in the sense of having been created out of a man’s imagination. They are not all equally correct, of course; some theologies have far more truth in them than others, but all have some truth, and the real question about any religion is: what are the truths that it is trying to describe? Christianity describes far more truth than buddhism does, but buddhism is popular precisely because it does describe some truths: the world is not simply what it appears at first glance; the more we try to live according the world the more entangled in it we get and the worse off we are; and by learning to be detached from the world we can improve our lot. It is not the case—as many buddhisms hold—that we must reject the world outright; we need a proper relationship to it, which Saint Francis captured in his Canticle of the Sun. The world is our sibling, neither our master nor our slave. And so it goes with all religions: they are all right about at least something, because the only reason any of them existed at all was because somebody discovered something profoundly true about the world. (Pastafarianism being the exception which proves the rule; the flying spaghetti monster is a joke precisely because it was simply made up and does not embody anything true about the world. Even the Invisible Pink Unicorn falls short of this; it embodies the truth that some people don’t understand what mysteries actually are.)

The second thing we must address in the man-made part of “man-made theologies” is that—at least according to them—not all theologies are made by man, even in the more ancient sense of originating in human knowledge. The theology of Christianity originated with God, not with man. Christian theology is primarily the self-revelation of God to man. And we have every reason to believe that God would be entirely correct about Himself.

Now of course I can hear a throng of atheists screaming as one, “but how do you know that’s true?!? You didn’t hear God say it, all you’ve heard is people repeating what they say God said.” Actually, these days, they’re more likely to say, “where’s your evidence”, or accuse me of committing logical fallacies that I can’t be committing, and that they can’t even correctly define, but for the sake of time let’s pretend that only top-tier atheists watch my videos.

Oh what a nice world that would be.

Anyway, this gets to a mistake I’ve seen a lot of atheists make: evaluating religious claims on the assumption that they’re false. There’s a related example which is a bit clearer, so I’m going to give that example, then come back and show how the same thing applies here. There are people who question the validity of scripture on the basis of copying errors. “In two thousand years the texts were copied and recopied so many times we have no way of knowing what the originals said,” sums it up enough for the moment. This objection assumes that the rate of copying errors in the gospels is the same as for all other ancient documents. Actually, it also exaggerates the rate of copying errors on ancient documents, but that’s beside the point. It is reasonable enough to assume that the rate of copying errors in Christian scriptures does not greatly differ from that of other documents, if Christianity is false. Well, actually, even that is iffy since a document people hold in special reverence may get special care even if that reverence is mistaken, but forget about that for now. If Christianity is true, the gospels are not an ordinary document. They are an important part of God’s plan of salvation for us, which he entrusted to a church he personally founded and has carefully looked over throughout time, guarding it from error. In that circumstance, it would be absurd to suppose that copying errors would distort the meaning of the text despite the power of God preventing that from happening. Thus it is clear that the rate of copying errors is not a question which is independent of the truth of Christianity, and therefore a presumed rate of copying errors cannot be used as an argument against the truth of Christianity precisely because whatever rate is presumed will contain in it an assumption of the truth or falsehood of Christianity. (I should point out that what we would expect—and what the Church claims—is that God would safeguard the meaningful truth of revelation, not the insignificant details. That is, we would expect that if Christianity was true God would keep significant errors from predominating, not that he would turn scribes into photocopying machines—within Christianity God places a great deal of emphasis on free will and human cooperation. And as it happens, we have some very old copies of the gospels and while there have been the occasional copying errors, none of them have amounted to a doctrinally significant difference. Make of that what you will.)

So bringing this example back to the original point, whether Christian theology is man-made is not a question which is independent of the question of whether Christianity is true. If Christianity is false, then its theology is man-made. But if Christianity is true, then its theology is not man-made, but revealed. And as I said, while men often make mistakes, we can trust God to accurately describe himself.

So, to recap: theology is descriptive, not constructive, and in historically-based religions like Christianity, theology is revealed, not man-made. So now we can move onto the question of probabilities.

First, there is the issue that probability says nothing about one-offs. I covered this in my video The Problem with Probability, so I won’t go into that here, but since I’ve heard the objection that I only discussed the frequentist interpretation of probability, I will mention that if you want to go with a bayesian interpretation of probability, all you’re saying by assigning a probability of zero to an event is that it’s not part of your model. Now in the question we’re addressing, it’s not a probability of zero that’s being assigned but rather “approximately zero”. But the thing about the Bayesian interpretation is that probability is at least as much a description of the statistician as it is of the real world. It is, essentially, a way to quantify how little you know. Now, sometimes you have to make decisions and take actions with whatever knowledge you have at the moment, but often the correct thing to do is: learn. There is no interpretation of statistics which turns ignorance into knowledge, or in bayesian terms, the way to get better priors is outside of the scope of bayesian statistics.

But more importantly, this atomization of theologies is very misleading. Among all of the possible theologies, many of them have a great deal in common. They do not have everything important in common, obviously. There are some very substantial differences between, say, Greek Orthodoxy and say, Theravada Buddhism. But for all their differences, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Baha’i, Sikhism, and several others have quite a lot in common. They all worship the uncreated creator of all that is. That’s actually a pretty big thing, which is to say that it’s very important. An uncreated creator who transcends time and space has all sorts of implications on the coherency of contingent beings within time (such as ourselves), the existence of a transcendent meaning to life, and lots of other things. This is in contrast to things that don’t matter much, like whether there is an Angel who has a scroll with all of the names of the blessed written on it. Whether there is one or isn’t doesn’t really matter very much. Grouping those two distinctions together as if they were of equal importance is highly misleading. Now, granted, there are all too many people who take a tribalistic, all-or-nothing approach to religion where the key thing is to pick the right group to formally pledge allegiance to. But one of the things which follows from belief in an uncreated creator is that this primitive, tribalistic approach is a human invention which is not an accurate description of reality. An uncreated creator cannot need us nor benefit from us, so he must have created us for our own sake, and so our salvation must be primarily not about something superficial like a formal pledge of allegiance, but about truth and goodness. And by goodness I mean conformity of action to the fullness of truth. For more on this, I’ll link my video debunking Believe-or-Burn, but for the moment, suffice it to say that being fairly correct, theologically, must be of some greater-than-zero value under any coherent theology with an uncreated creator behind all that exists. The correct approach is not to give up if you can’t be be completely correct. It’s to try to be as correct as possible.

And in any event there is no default position. Atheism is as much a philosophical position as any theology is. Well, that’s not strictly true. There is a default position, which is that there is Nothing. But that’s clearly wrong, there is something, so the default position is out. And while in a dictionary sense atheism is nothing but the disbelief in God—or for the moment it doesn’t even matter if you’re too intellectually weak for that and want to define atheism as the mere lack of a belief in God—western atheists tend to believe in the existence of matter, at least, as well as immaterial things like forces and laws of nature. So each atheist has a belief system, even if some refuse to admit it. The only way to not have a belief system is to give yourself a lobotomy. But until you do, since you have a belief system, it is as capable of being wrong as any theology is. And does it seem plausible that, if Christianity is true, if the version of Christianity you’ve encountered is a little inaccurate, you’ll be better off as an atheist?

I think that nearly answers the question, but there is a final topic which I think may answer an implicit part of the question: while there are infinitely many theologies which are theoretically possible, in practice there haven’t actually been all that many. This is something I’m going to cover more in my upcoming video series which surveys the world’s religions, but while there certainly are more than just one religion in the world, there aren’t nearly as many as many modern western people seem to think that there are. Usually large numbers are arrived at by counting every pagan pantheon as being a different religion, but this is not in fact how the pagans themselves thought of things. I don’t have the time to go into it—I addressed this somewhat in my video on fundamentalists, and will address it more in the future—but actual pagans thought of themselves as sharing a religion; just having some different gods and some different names for the same gods, just like French and American zoos don’t have all the same animals, and don’t use the same names for the animals they do have in common. But they will certainly recognize the other as zoos. American zookeepers do not disbelieve in French “python réticulé”.

And so it goes with other differences; those who worship nature worship the same nature. All sun worshippers worship the same sun. Those who believe in an uncreated creator recognize that others who believe in an uncreated creator are talking about the same thing, and generally hold that he can be known to some degree through examination of his creation, so they will tend to understand others who believe in an uncreated creator as having stumbled into the same basic knowledge.

And this explains why minor religions tend to die out as small groups make contact with larger groups. Those religions which are more thoroughly developed—which present more truth in an intelligible way—will appeal to those who on their own only developed a very rudimentary recognition and expression of those truths. There has been conversion by the sword in history, though it is actually most associated with Islam and often exaggerated in other faiths, but it is not generally necessary. When people come into contact with a religion which has a fuller expression of truth than the one they grew up with, they usually want to convert, because people naturally want the truth, and are attracted to intelligible expressions of it. And the key point is that the expressions of truth in better developed religions are intelligible precisely because they are fuller expressions of truths already found in one’s native religion. And this is so because religions are founded for a reason. I know there’s a myth common that religion was invented as bad science, usually something to the effect that people invented gods of nature in order to make nature seem intelligible. The fact that this is exactly backwards from what personifying inanimate objects does should be a sufficient clue that this is not the origin of religion. Think about the objects in your own life that people personify: “the printer is touchy”, “the traffic light hates me”, “don’t let the plant hear that I said it’s doing well because it will die on me out of spite”. Mostly this is just giving voice to our bewilderment at how these things work, but if this affects how mysterious the things are in any way, it makes them more mysterious, not less. If you think the printer is picky about what it prints, you’ll wonder at great length what it is about your documents it disapproves of. If you think of it as a mere machine, you turn it off, take it apart, put it back together again, and turn it on. Or you call a repairman. But if you personify it, you’ll wrap your life up in the mystery of its preferences. And anyone with any great experience of human beings has seen this. Especially if you’ve ever been the repairman to whom the printer is just a machine.

It’s also, incidentally, why many atheists have developed a shadowy, mysterious thing called “religion” which desires to subjugate humanity.

People personify what they don’t understand to communicate that it is mysterious, not to make it less mysterious. And they do this because people—having free will—are inherently and irreducibly mysterious.

So if you look past the mere surface differences, you will find that religions have generally originated for very similar reasons. So much so that more than a few people who haven’t studied the world’s religions enough are tempted to claim that there is only one universal religion to all of mankind with all differences being mere surface appearance. That’s not true either, but that this mistake is possible at all, is significant. Religions are founded for a reason, and that’s why there aren’t infinitely many of them.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

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