Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why Your Religious Beliefs Are (Probably) Wrong

All right, now I know there are certainly exceptions, but in general I think it can be said that most religious faiths believe that their beliefs are "correct" and that every one else's beliefs are either just plain wrong or at the very least incomplete. At the extreme end are those religions that believe you have to be a member of their faith in order to go to heaven and that everybody else is going to hell. To a lesser extreme is simply how one interprets the fundamental nature of God and his commandments (if any). Whether the religion is Catholic, Methodist, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, or whatever, a fundamental tenant is bound to be "we're right and everybody else is wrong."

Now, at the same time, I think it is fair to say that most people who profess a particular faith do so because that is what they were raised to believe. In other words, most people's religious convictions (including the conviction that their faith is the "correct" one) is nothing more than an accident of birth. Again, there are certainly exceptions (those who convert from one faith to another or discover religion after being raised as an atheist), but I think those exceptions are extremely small in number when compared to the religious world as a whole.

So, if most religions believe that they are the only correct religion, and if most people believe in their particular religion solely because of how they were raised, it stands to reason that most people are not in the correct religion (or, in other words, most people's interpretation of God, what he wants from us, and what we need to do to return to him, is wrong). I mean, the odds of being born into the one religion that has it all right are pretty small, given all the many, many possible religions out there.

Now, methinks it might be different if everybody in the world selected their religion after much study, prayer, contemplation, etc., since then you could at least argue that the religion chosen by the most people has the greatest chance of being the correct one. Instead, however, you have people all over the world utterly convinced that THEY (and ONLY they) know "the truth" about God based solely on where they were born and how they were raised.

In short, assuming there actually is a God of some sort, and assuming that your belief in him is based on how you were raised, the odds are that your particular God is the wrong one.

Now, I suppose we could discuss what it would mean for a God, who supposedly loves and care for each and every one of his children equally, to set up a system where it is almost guaranteed that the vast majority of his children would not be able to find out the truth (and would presumably be punished eternally as a result), but I guess it all comes down to the fact that the people who invented all the various notions of god in the first place really did think they were better than their neighbors.  It doesn't matter if everybody else burns for all eternity -- what matters is that we are the ones who have got it right and will be saved, so there (neener, neener)!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Dishonest Arguments

People in the skeptical community (and elsewhere) often discuss the various "dirty" debate tactics used by people who argue on behalf of religion (or any other topic, for that matter).  Most of these tactics involve one form of logical fallacy or another, such as a straw man argument (misrepresenting your opponent's argument so you can score points by attacking it), an appeal to authority (a famous historical figure or Internet blogger said it, so it must be true), confirmation bias (focusing only on evidence that supports your argument and ignoring the evidence that doesn't), etc.

One tactic I have seen more and more often lately, however, which doesn't seem to get mentioned much, is when people just flat out lie in a debate.  This tactic is very hard to defend against, partially because it's often very hard to catch somebody in a lie or prove that they are lying, and partially because we tend to accept that people making an argument are sincere in their beliefs and probably aren't even aware that they are using "dirty" tactics in the first place.

Where I tend to see this most often is when people lie about their background, the research they have done and/or the things they have personally experienced in order to lend credence to their argument.  For example, when discussing the various barbarous acts described and promoted in the Old Testament (slavery, murder of children, rape, etc.), it's not enough for these people to simply state their belief that these things had a different meaning back then than they do now and/or point to a Christian apologist web site that argues the same point.  Instead, they have to justify their argument by claiming to have spent many, many years researching the issue, traveling all over the world, learning different languages, etc., despite the fact that they actually have no formal training whatsoever and have reached conclusions not shared by people who do actually have formal training in the subject.  Not surprisingly, all their many years of esoteric research has led them to form beliefs exactly mirrored on Christian apologist web sites and nowhere else.

Similarly, when discussing the Theory of Evolution, it's not enough to simply state that you have trouble accepting the evidence and/or refer to a Creationist web site that supports your point of view.  No, instead, these people have to claim that they have studied the topic in great detail for many years and have come to understand it far better than any of the so-called "experts" in the field (despite the fact that they themselves have no education or training whatsoever in any relevant field of study) and are therefore justified in the claims they are making.  And, once again, it's always interesting how their arguments somehow manage to end up consisting of quotes lifted directly from various Creationist websites.

It's not limited to religious discussions, of course.  When discussing topics such as anthropogenic ("man-made") climate change, some people can't simply state their belief that it's all a hoax or point to a particular web site that claims to debunk the theory, lest somebody with more knowledge respond with actual facts.  Instead, they have to lie about all the many years of independent, non-biased research they have themselves performed (despite not having any actual education or training in the field) to let them confidently state that they know more than any of the so-called "experts" out there.  And yet, once again, their arguments somehow manage to quote almost verbatim from the same discredited web sites that every other climate change denier references.

This also spills over to political discussions, of course (and perhaps it's not a coincidence that the people who use these techniques to argue in favor of religion and against science also use them to argue for conservative causes as well).  Here in the U.S.A., the Fox News channel is the primary (if unofficial) mouthpiece for the Republican Party and spends endless cycles obsessing over one so-called "scandal"after another that might make President Obama and/or his administration look bad, even after the scandals have been completely debunked by every other reputable news organizations and even after exhaustive investigations have shown that the scandals had no basis in fact whatsoever.  Whether it be the so-called "IRS Scandal" or the so-called "Benghazi Scandal," Fox news will continue to talk about it long after everybody else has either dismissed it or forgotten all about it.  Everybody, that is, except for this certain breed of arguers that I am discussing today.  And, since they are who they are, it's not enough for them to simply quote Fox News and state their agreement.  No, instead they have to blather on and on about how they have done the research and looked into the facts and gone beyond "simply clicking on the first link that comes up with a Google search," etc., before coming to a conclusion that (a) ignores the actual facts and (b) just so happens to agree verbatim with whatever nonsense is currently being promoted on Fox News.  Funny how that works.

Now, I am not a psychologist and have no idea whether these people even consciously know they're lying or whether they have somehow deluded themselves into thinking they are experts on the subject.  Or perhaps they are consciously lying, but feel that it is OK to lie since deep down they truly believe in what they are arguing and think it's vitally important to convince others of their beliefs using any means necessary (hence the phrase "Lying for Christ").  Or perhaps they are just dishonest trolls who purposely lie because they revel in sowing confusion and doubt.  Whatever the case, however, it is important to recognize that not everybody who you debate with has pure motives and it's quite possible that some people will flat out lie in order to win the argument.