There are plenty of logical arguments to be had about whether a god might exist, or whether we have any evidence to suggest that a god actually does exist. However, I’m constantly being reminded, most religious people don’t actually justify their faith with such arguments (and, to be fair, many people who are atheists don’t justify their atheism with them, either). Most of the time, we all rely on heuristics, rules of thumb that let us reach what we think are the likely correct answers more quickly.
I’m sure you can think of lots of examples of this kind of heuristic. “What are my emotions during religious services and rituals?” is a common one. “What do other people I trust, like my parents and other older relatives, think on the issue?” is another. One which I find personally compelling, when evaluating a belief system which claims to have unchanging, definitive answers to our questions, is, “Is this belief system telling a consistent story?” I don’t just mean in the sense of whether there are glaring internal contradictions in the story at any point in time, though that is important; what I mean is, are the truth claims and moral teachings consistent throughout time?
Over the millennia, religious people have made the same statements to identify themselves. “I am a [member of religion] and the beliefs of [religion] are based on [holy text].” Fill in the blanks as you will. Jews still say, “I am Jewish,” Christians still say, “I am Christian,” and Muslims still say, “I am Muslim.” Yes, there are different sects, different denominations — but they all claim to be basing their beliefs on the correct interpretation of their holy text and to be representing the true, best form of their religion. The various claims between sects as to what their religion “really” is are widely divergent, and even if we set aside the sectarian distinctions, the consensus understanding of “what it means to be [religious]” has changed dramatically over time.
There are more examples of this phenomenon than I could realistically cover in a single blog post. (Feel free to gripe about your personal favorites in the comments.) I’m just going to write about a few issues that I find extremely jarring.
We’ve heard a lot lately about how Islam forbids the drawing of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. Somehow, I’ve never come upon any prominent Muslim acknowledgment of the fact that drawing Muhammad was fine, and actually pretty common, up until around the 17th century and in some areas still today. Meanwhile, it seems that Christians have no problem whatsoever drawing or painting Jesus, or having statues or mosaics of Jesus, all over the place. You’d never guess that in the early centuries of Christianity, visual depictions of Jesus were frowned upon because many Christians of Jewish descent still cared about the second commandment’s prohibition against the worship of graven images. If Jesus was included in pictures, it was typically through the use of a pictogram, or by analogy through the depiction of another character. So, Islam went from drawings-okay to drawings-bad, and Christianity went from drawings-bad to drawings-okay. What happened at the transitions? Nothing, as far as I can tell.
I’ve read and seen a lot of very mixed messages from religions about who we’re supposed to hate or look down upon as inferior. Let’s just talk about Christianity for now. If you’re American (and you grew up in a state other than Texas) you probably learned in history class about how Christianity was used to justify the slave trade. I find it particularly interesting that early Christianity was actually generally abolitionist, then Christians were mostly pro-slavery for about a millennium, and today Christians tend to agree that slavery is bad. Then there’s the whole issue of homosexuality. Being gay has been frowned upon for many centuries (and being lesbian all but ignored), but now a growing number of Christians are reinterpreting the Bible passages that were once cited against gays and lesbians and declaring their sexual orientation to be perfectly fine in the eyes of God. Nothing appears to be driving these transformations other than political and social pressures. No burning bushes that talk, no new prophets writing extra books of the Bible that lay out God’s new rules. Just changing opinions.
How about animal sacrifices in Judaism? The Torah is pretty clear on the topic, with direct quotations from God laying out exactly when and how animal sacrifices should be made — in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those links go to only a couple examples. God spends a lot of time talking about animal sacrifice, despite what the author of Psalm 51 thinks. God also repeatedly says in these passages that his statutes apply forever. Yet you generally don’t see Jews today following these rules. Why not? Some will tell you it’s because Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, and the Torah says that God said to only offer sacrifices in one special place — and apparently, that special place is the Temple (where did God say that?). That doesn’t seem to have stopped all animal sacrifices, though, yet many Jews object to these because of animal rights concerns, substituting an envelope of money donated to charity. In either case, I don’t see a new book of the Tanakh written after the destruction of the temple, or whenever animal rights activism came into fashion, laying out the details for God’s new opinion on the matter.
Examples like these show that religion is ultimately little more than a Rorschach test, through which any society can pick what truths and morals it would like to teach. Religions have taught certain concepts and those concepts’ complete negation, at different points in time, with no alteration to their holy books in between. One of those extremes (at least!) has to be wrong, but we have no way of knowing which one. None of this, of course, is proof that a particular religion is wrong at any point in time. What it does mean is that, even if a particular “holy” book is really the word of God, humans are so bad at interpreting it that what’s taught to followers is not at all guaranteed to be correct. In fact, just looking at the probabilities of making a 50-50 call on so many controversial issues, any one religious doctrine is pretty likely to get a whole bunch of answers wrong.
For me, that just doesn’t gel with having a divinely-inspired, holy book that decrees God’s final answers on everything. Some people just dedicate themselves more deeply to theological study, but people have been trying that for centuries and we aren’t any closer to definitive answers. The simpler, more straightforward answer to my mind is that religion doesn’t offer any definitive answers, and is just made up.