Friday, April 8, 2011

Deciding what to believe

How do you decide what to believe? Do you use different standards of plausibility depending on the topic? Are your beliefs informed by evidence or by preference? Do you think that where you live has influenced what you find believable?

If you were born and raised in the United States, odds are that you were raised Christian. Depending on how religious your family was, you might have been taught that the bible was the infallible world of God. You were probably taught that Jesus really lived and performed miracles. However, your views on these things were almost certainly influenced by accident of birth. For example if you had been born in India instead, odds are that you would have been raised Hindu and believe in many gods.

Knowing that more than one religion exists and that the doctrines of these religions are not only in disagreement, but are often mutually exclusive, one is presumed to have chosen among them. But that isn't really the case is it? People tend to believe what they were raised to believe, with exceptions of course, but there is no mass exodus of American Christians becoming Hindus or vice versa. So why is that?

I submit to you that the primary reason is that people apply very different standards of proof and evidence when it comes accepting religious claims that they want to believe. The key here is in what they want to believe, since adherents to a given faith are perfectly able to apply critical thinking about the claims of other religions. Hence Christians are willing to dismiss the religious claims of Hindus as unsupported by evidence and Hindus are willing to return the favor.

Perhaps this line of thought is uncomfortable, so let me provide a working example that is completely fictitious.

I have a strong personal conviction that there are unicorns in my fields. No, I cannot produce one of these unicorns to be studied or provide any incontrovertible proof of their presence in my fields. Perhaps they don't want to be studied. They must have supernatural powers that allow them to hide very effectively from skeptics and leave no testable trace of their existence. One must have faith as I have faith in them. Besides, no one can prove that there aren't unicorns in my fields. Do you believe me?

If I had claimed that there were dirt clods in my fields, that would be consistent with past experience and it would be no strain on credulity to accept my claim as true at least provisionally. Instead, my claim was about a mythological creature of which no verifiable evidence has ever been found. Most reasonable people would not be so gullible as to believe me. They would understand that it is not up to them to disprove my unicorns. Instead it would be up to me to provide proof given how outlandish my claim was.

To an outsider, religious claims are of that outlandish sort. Even the religious see it that way about other religions. And yet when asked to provide proof of their own religion's claims, the response is more often than not to be offended at the rudeness of such a request.

"That which can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." 
-Christopher Hitchens

"When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." 
-Stephen F Roberts

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