Religious belief: a natural phenomenon
Suppose the government randomly tests for a very rare mutation – the X mutation – present in one in a million people. The test is 99% accurate. If your result is positive, does that mean you probably have the X mutation?
No. Imagine that there are 100 million people, of which 100 are X carriers and 99,999,900 are not. On average, 99% of X carriers, or 99 people, will test positive. But one percent of non-carriers, or 999,999 people, too positive test. So you know you’re in a of these groups, but not which ones. In fact, you should be around 10,000 times more confident that you belong to the non-carrier group because there are 10,000 times more people there. You need to be pretty sure the test is wrong.
It is a secular, quantitative and imaginary application of the simple and devastating critique of religion that we find in David Hume’s great 1748 essay âMiraclesâ. Hume’s main argument is that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony is such that its falsity would be more miraculous than the fact that it strives to establish” .
Its true secular applications are widespread. If a reliable journal reports an experiment that violates well-established physical laws, or if a senior politician quotes a startling statistic, or if an intelligent person of common sense testifies that homeopathy cured his gallstones – in all of these cases and in countless others, always ask yourself: what is most likely? Was (a) the experience / the politician / the person involved in an error or fraud, or (b) that the thing he is reporting is actually true? And generally (a) wins by one mile. The general lesson: If a reliable witness reports something amazing, don’t believe it.
Now let’s move on to religion. In our time, as in Hume’s, billions of people around the world derive their moral framework, attitude towards life, and conduct towards others from the belief in a supernatural entity and the miraculous achievements of its earthly agents: Moses, Muhammad or Jesus. The evidence on which they base these life changes (and in extremis, for others if not for themselves, beliefs that end life) flow entirely from (scriptural) testimony. How does this testimony really support these beliefs?
Hardly any, says Hume, because what is more likely: that the Red Sea should – as if by magic – separate just long enough for a enslaved people to escape, or only that they should preserve such a myth? That an angel visited an Arab businessman in a cave, or should only half the world be fooled into believing it? “That the whole natural order be suspended, or that a Jewish friend is lying?” (This was Christopher Hitchens’ question on the virgin birth; but I think Hume would have appreciated both his irreverence and his specific mockery of “Roman superstition.”) The questions are practically self-explanatory, and the answers undermine all the evidence that anyone in modern times has ever had for the central claims of Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Hume concludes with venomous irony that “the Christian religion Not only was first accompanied by miracles, but even to this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. ‘
But in truth, and as Hume knew, religious belief is not a miracle but a natural phenomenon with natural causes. Hume was supreme among philosophers in balancing a keen sensitivity to the demands of rationality with a lucid appreciation of the infirmities which not everyone respects them. The resulting tension is the central theme of his greatest work, Book I of the Treatise on human nature (from which he omitted “Miracles” in the face of the real dangers which then accompanied public atheism). His Natural history of religions documents the functioning, during history and prehistory, of these infirmities which, according to him, engendered modern monotheism. Driven by fear, we attribute agency to the natural processes around us – this leads to polytheism. Driven by servility, we compete to attribute extreme and flattering qualities to these fictitious agents, until (as he wrote): end to be represented as sovereign creator and modifier of the universe â. Fear and Servility: These sources of religion may have, in barbaric times, seemed, and often were, conducive to survival, but they never had much to do with the truth.
But neither are they irresistible. In 1784, Immanuel Kant wrote that âthe Enlightenment is the emergence of man from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the help of another [â¦] “Have the courage to use your own understanding” is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment. Hume’s point on miracles is a specific application of Kant’s principle: if anyone – anyone – talks about miracles, don’t just believe it. Always assess for yourself the likelihood of these things happening, versus the speaker’s tendency to error and interest in making you believe. This is important enough, but it hardly exhausts the value of Kant’s message. Skepticism of big claims and mistrust of authority remain our best guarantees, not only against superstition, but also against mass hysteria and many modern forms of social and imposed tyranny. the state.
Title image credit: Annunciation (Annunciazione), by Sandro Botticelli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.