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Discussion 1 to Meditation 542
The Faithful Straw Man and Linguistic Confusion

by: Will Petillo

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Will has made a small correction to his comments here in his response to Meditation 558.

“I asked myself, and my interlocutor, what reasons any god would hold for sanctioning such strange commands upon its people.  The answer is: it wouldn’t.”

No, the answer is: maybe.  If one is uncertain about the nature or existence of a supreme deity then it makes no sense for one to speak with certainty about what rules that supreme deity wants people to obey.  To be fair, I think the real contention here is not that the divine dress-code is an impossibility, but rather that it is an absurdity.  Such commands, however, may not be so strange as they seem.  Wearing a turban for God seems analogous to wearing a tie for work.  Really, it is a silly requirement when one thinks about it, but below the superficiality, it is a sign of respect—as opposed to showing up in a Hawaiian T-shirt, which might make one look like a loose cannon.  Now, many would argue (myself included) that the clothes do not make the person, but look at it this way: if a requirement—no matter how silly—is made clear and a person whom this requirement applies to does not obey it, then that person, whether motivated by indifference or open hostility, is flaunting authority.  And it does not take much imagination to see how an authoritarian religion would be less than pleased about this.

I am reminded of a similar straw-man argument that I have seen appear on this site many times: Why would God write so many differing religious texts?  This one is actually rather easy to answer.  Christianity, for example, would simply negate the question.  Religious people understand the possibility of a religious text being made up; they simply believe that their version is an exception.  Thus, there is no internal contradiction in saying that a particular religious text (e.g. the Bible) is inspired by God while every other religious text (e.g. Koran, Talmud, etc.) are mere mythologies.  And considering such religions believe themselves to be special anyways, it is not much of a surprise that they consider the basis for their beliefs to be different in kind from any other.  By the way, this is also the standard response of religions as to why there are so many religions and so much disagreement on the subject of what is right and wrong.

While we are on the subject consistency in theology, I would like to bring up another point: it is reasonable to assume that a given well-established religion (e.g. Catholicism) is consistent in its doctrine, no matter how many contradictions there appear to be.  Given the thousand+ years of theological development, I would expect that they have managed to come up with answers to every question that has been asked as well as a set of beliefs that is internally consistent.  This is what medieval intellectuals did with their time and they were damn good at it.  Internal consistency, however, does not imply external consistency.  In other words, what they say could be true, but that does not mean that it must be true.  Also, when attacking the beliefs of a religion, remember that they have the ultimate trump card—the nature of the divine transcends the bounds of rationality.  This, by the way, is essentially the reason that the existence of a supreme being is unknown and unknowable.

“Whichever way you conceptualise it, it wasn’t the almighty creator who wrote any of the words which are contained within the religious texts of Earth; it was a collection of blokes with etching equipment and time on their hands.”

Yes and no.  Now, I cannot speak for all religions, but Catholicism (as I understand it) maintains that these blokes were divinely inspired in their writings—and so was the Church when it selected which books and translations should be included.  I will not expound on this further because I am no expert on theology, but I imagine that if one accepts that God exists and the nature of God transcends human understanding and rationality itself, then it is not an unreasonable leap of faith to believe that a sacred text comes directly from God.[1]           

As for the certainty of atheists (as well as religious people), I agree with Jasmine, but for slightly different reasons.  No one can be absolutely certain about anything—anyone with any background in statistics can tell you this.  In terms of knowledge, one can only know beyond a reasonable doubt.  Thus, one can act as though they are certain and have good reason to avoid cumbersome discussions of probability without actually being certain.  My guess is that Jasmine’s boyfriend knows this but does not admit it, so here is a trick that may get him to recognize his uncertainty: drop a penny on the floor and say, “Are you absolutely, 100% certain that the penny fell to the ground.”  If he says no, reply with arguments along the lines of, “How do you know your senses are not lying to you?” When you get him to admit that he is only sure beyond a reasonable doubt, ask, “How is your knowledge that God does not exist any different from your knowledge that the penny fell?”  This inherent uncertainty in all things, however, does not imply that everyone is technically agnostic.  For if it did then everyone would be agnostic whether they knew it or not and the term would be meaningless.  The following is a critical point about agnosticism, at least as I understand it:

Agnosticism is about not about a lack of certainty in one’s knowledge; it is about a lack of certainty in one’s beliefs

Allow me to give an example of how not understanding this point can cause a great deal of confusion:  I once had a theological discussion with a devout (but surprisingly tolerant and open-minded) Christian.  She admitted very early in the discussion that belief in God ultimately requires faith, but later on said that she knew for certain that God exists.  I asked her to explain how she could be certain about something that requires faith and the answer was something to the effect of the following:

My knowledge is composed of two parts.  I have some evidence for God’s existence, which provides a percentage of my knowledge—I won’t assign a number to that percentage because that would be arbitrary—and that is supplemented by faith, which brings my level of knowledge of God’s existence to 100%.

After a good deal of discussion, I realized that the source of confusion between us was purely linguistic—she was using two different definitions of the word “knowledge”.  The following is the above statement revised in a way that should make the meaning much more clear:

My belief is composed of two parts.  I have some evidence for God’s existence, which provides the knowledge that makes up a percentage of my belief—I won’t assign a number to the percentage of my belief that is knowledge because that would be arbitrary—and that is supplemented by faith, which brings my level of belief of God’s existence to 100%.

In other words: Faith + Knowledge = Belief.  Knowledge cannot be 100%, but belief can.


  1. Is “unreasonable leap of faith” redundant, an oxymoron, neither, or both?