What follows is 10 questions aimed at theists, along with an explanation as to why the questions are meaningful. The questions are sincere, as they have been the stumbling blocks to many a conversation about religion. What is contained in the explanations that follow the questions is not meant to limit a theist’s response, and anywhere you think I may be offering a limited number of options for your answer, that is not my point; these are not meant to be produced as multiple choice questions. They are open and you are free to answer anything. Nothing is intended as a ‘gotcha’ question.
1. What do you do if you feel the morality of your religion conflicts strongly with your own morality?
We are all aware of things in religious texts to which the evaluation ‘unpalatable’ is an understatement. God requested some awful things of people in the Bible, for example, including the absolute destruction of societies and sacrifice of children. But even peaceful religions may teach peace when you feel strongly that the use of force would be for the greater good: one can imagine there were Tibetan monks who felt that way when their territory was being occupied.
How do you weigh this up: the feeling you have that is borne of a moral conscience (which you may well believe a God gave to you) conflicts with direct teachings? Do you do the thing you think heinous and have faith? Or do you do the thing you think is good?
2. Why doesn’t immorality carry natural consequences?
Inspired by this post, it is worth pointing out that ‘sin’ does not carry any natural consequences. If we look at the universe with the intention of investigating whether it makes sense to claim it was designed by a moral creator, we encounter an issue: there are such things as natural consequences, but they don’t line up with sin. I can trip, fall, touch a flame or eat something poisonous and there will be natural and inevitable consequences defined by natural laws of physics and biology. And yet, at no point in life does nature modulate our behaviour with regard to immorality. Unlike sticking your hand in a fire, the consequences of adultery are not inevitable, the consequences of extramarital sex don’t exist at all and you can blaspheme on your way to work without so much as missing a beat.
To defend the claim of a moral creator, one would expect to see the designer to have implemented as many natural and inevitable consequences to sin as have been created for safety concerns and biological function.
3. How do you define your religion?
It seems obvious that you could reduce a religion to a few key tenets and make accepting them as true the criteria for belonging to that religion, however that leads to a complex issue of understanding which tenets are key and which are not. Such a decision making process relies on some sort of externally defined method, constructed by humans. At which point, are you not just implementing Humanism?
Alternatively, you could make the whole collection of text the point. Every line of the Bible must be believed to be a Christian. Every line of the Quran and Hadith must be accepted to be a Muslim. However, that also leads to problems, not least the bigotry and science denial that literal fundamentalism leads to. There are ways of claiming to be fundamentalist, while being very selective, and this is often done by picking a favourable passage and demanding―without religious justification―that passage supersedes all unfavourable passages. How do you know Jesus’ implicit commands regarding compassion supersede the explicit commands in the Old Testament to stone people?
There is another method people often implement, which is to define a religion by behaviour. Some people define all of Christianity through living by one line from the sermon on the mount: love thy neighbour. That’s almost indistinguishable from the Muslims who define Islam by the idea that Islam is a religion of peace; in terms of behaviour, these two ideas lead to the same thing. Christians and Muslims would be the same. The actual beliefs don’t weigh into it. And this ‘good behaviour’ makes a person Muslim in the eyes of a Muslim and a Christian in the eyes of a Christian. The fact that good behaviour is evidence of you bringing compassion and humanity to the text, instead of taking it literally, makes you Humanist in the eyes of Humanists.
Given this complexity, how do you define your religion?
4. How should I know when to implement faith, and when to implement reason?
I assume, for the most part, reason and critical thinking guides you when you take yourself or your children to a practitioner to be healed of an ailment. In general, you are sceptical of homeopathy and people who claim marijuana, echinacea and white wine vinegar are the cures to all conditions. In general, you visit a doctor who you trust will implement a scientific system. The trust is not unfounded, either. You are aware of a system that keeps doctors to a standard, else you will have an opportunity for recourse. And it is good that you do this: getting this wrong could have very immediate and negative consequences.
And yet, when it comes to questions of religion and defences for God’s existence, one ends up resting heavily on faith at a critical point in the argument. How do you know it is reasonable to implement faith at this point, instead of enquiring further?
5. What is your view on religious liberty?
A lot of religions are ‘non-rational memes’, to borrow a phrase from David Deutsch. This means they don’t compete fairly on an intellectual marketplace of ideas, but instead they quash contrarian and antagonistic claims to stop them from needing to compete on an intellectual marketplace. This is what claims of ‘heresy’ and ‘apostasy’ are: the denial of criticism, scrutiny and other currency on an intellectual marketplace. This is what Galileo suffered; unfair suppression of ideas antagonistic to the non-rational meme. The Bible has an explicit example of this is Isaiah 41; it outlines how one tests another God, but God himself is not to be tested. However, this narrative is apparent in many religions.
This isn’t a cultural phenomenon, but something that is actively taught in Christianity and Islam and appears in a lot of other religions (as well as other pseudo-scientific nonsense, which is why you see ‘Big Pharma’ being treated like a monster instead of treating their ideas honestly).
Given that your religion probably does present itself as a non-rational meme that actively excludes other religions, what are your views on religious freedoms? Does your religion actually teach religious tolerance? Should you convert other people? Should you tolerate other faiths?
6. How do you define a God?
This is something that stagnates a lot of conversations. The Cosmological Argument for the existence of God operates on the implicit assumption that God is the creator. But, if we could show that the universe was created by physical processes, then, by this definition, God just becomes a synonym for physics. But that seems to fall short of what religious people mean when they say God.
This is one of only a few definitions of God that actually pin what a God might be down. Other definitions are meaningless―‘God is the great I am’―and that stagnates the conversation. What does ‘the great I am’ mean? What content is there is just swapping the word “God” with “Lord” or “goodness” and assuming that has offered some sort of explanation.
Perhaps you may argue that the definition of a ‘God’ is an intelligent being with agency and a personality, who created this universe. Okay, but if we were to discover that we are in an artificially created universe, either physical or simulated, that some other species in some other universe invented, would that species be a God? I’m not saying that’s a likely discovery, I’m saying you need to engage properly with that question to see if that definition of a ‘God’ is really what you mean. What if humanity creates a simulation, like SimCity, where the characters have high-performing AI. Is humanity God, in this scenario?
7. How do you recognise design?
There is a common argument for God that relates to the complexity of biology and the “fine-tunedness” of the universe. The problem with these arguments is there are clear flaws in biology and in the ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe. Sean Carroll argues this point in attempting to explain why God is not explanatory in terms of the universe: there are all sorts of conditions of the universe we would change, if we were making a universe for the abundance of life.
And that last bit is the out for theologians, as then they can claim that Sean Carroll cannot pretend to know what the universe was being created for. That these perceived ‘imperfections’ are imperfections according to the goal and subsequent criteria established by Sean Carroll. But, as the theologian will say, God’s mind, plan and goals are unknowable.
But that is the exact problem that then faces the theologian. How can we possibly know the universe is finely tuned, if we don’t know the goal? Yes, there are all sorts of parameters of the universe that surprise physicists and the nature of the surprise seems to make the universe more habitable for us in this unremarkable neighbourhood of the solar system. But, so what? How can a theologian who claims God’s plan is unknowable then claim to know that God’s plan is to make this universe more habitable for us? John Zande’s book, The Owner of All Infernal Names: An Introductory Treatise on the Existence, Nature & Government of our Omnimalevolent Creator, argues that the universe was created by a God for the specific purpose of increasing complexity in order to, by natural processes that do not need intervention, create a world that will perpetually increase in misery and suffering. How would a theologian dismiss that view, while still claiming to know why the universe was created, and therefore that it is done perfectly by a God?
So, how can you identify design in nature without setting up criteria against which God falls short?
8. When your religion was written down, did it contain novel or revolutionary knowledge or ethics that had been previously inaccessible to the society?
If a religious text really were written down by a person who have special access to knowledge, it would have been a great opportunity to write down revolutionary ethics or life-saving knowledge. The knowledge of invisibly tiny parasites that exist everywhere, but which can be washed off by clean water and friction, would have been a clear and meaningful message that saved lives. It would have done away with ideas about disease being related to smell and increased hygiene to all people who received the knowledge.
Thou shalt not own other people or thou shalt make all reasonable attempts to resolve disagreements by reason and diplomacy would both have been pretty great.
However, I do not know of a religious text where, even the best bits of it, contain revolutionary knowledge that the society didn’t already figure out for themselves. This does raise the question of why a God didn’t take this opportunity to make such revelations.
9. Why does God remain invisible to the methods of knowledge that are known to work?
You may have come to know God through some sort of a revelation in times of trouble, or simply believe in God for cultural or familial reasons. It may even be that you were struck with awe at something about nature that compelled you to offer it reverence. Whatever your method of having come to know God is, I hope you are able to recognise that it doesn’t line up with scientific methods, even using science in its broadest sense. Science expels attempts at ‘It couldn’t be anything else, therefore it must be this’ reasoning. It’s more commonly known as an ‘argument from ignorance’ or ‘God of the gaps’ reasoning, but more formally known as loose abductive reasoning. Science operates in finding evidence in favour of a claim, not just tearing down other options and seeing what parts of a wishful fantasy or unbounded imagination are left standing.
That method, of wanting evidence in favour of a claim, not just a negation of alternatives, is the most reliable way to knowledge that we have. And God is entirely invisible to it (save for the select few It reveals Itself to). And yet it is supposed that God wants us to know of It. How is this supposed to work?
You could argue that it’s a matter of preserving our freewill. But I’m not convinced that makes sense. People are free to discard evidence. That’s why we have Flat-Earthers, homeopaths and anti-vaxxers. But we do not have, as far as I know, gravity-deniers. So, which is it? Is evidence a violation of our freewill and thus has already been trespassed upon by gravity, or is evidence not a violation of freewill, thus giving God no excuse?
You may argue that God has provided evidence, but that wasn’t the question. The question was why that evidence doesn’t fit into known reliable methods of knowledge.
10. If there is an apparent contradiction in your religious text, how do you resolve it?
This has the potential to be a very different question depending on what religion you actually are. There are non-religious ways of doing it, of course. These might include picking the passage and interpretation that helps you do the thing that you want to do, or it might mean making certain theological assumptions about God making you with humanity and compassion and so you can trust your own instincts to resolve the problem in your context. But the problem then is, if you trust your own instincts, why do you need the religion at all?
The Quran is quite explicit about this: if you see a contradiction, the bit that arises later in the Quran succeeds the former passage. But this enters into problems as the Quran, like a Quentin Tarantino movie, becomes more violent as it progresses, to the point that most of the peaceful passages early in the Quran are overruled.
Doing this Biblically is even harder, still. Many people assume that Jesus overthrew the Old Testament, so any contradiction between the Old and New Testament is simply a case of taking from the New Testament. But this has the complete opposite problem of the Quran: there is nothing explicit in the Bible that says the Old Testament has been superseded, and there are passages that explicitly claim the old laws stand.
There are other methods, like understanding to whom the laws were given and what their application was. Perhaps a command only applies to the Israelites, or is only a ceremonial law. What’s the problem here? You need a method of understanding the dominion of these laws and who they are given to. You would need to be able to articulate a reason a law doesn’t apply now, or to you, or in this situation. So far as I have ever read or seen, this has been guesswork coming back to the idea that we can trust ourselves to solve the problems. We are, according to this method, the arbiters of what is right and wrong. And if that’s to be the bottom line, anyway, why not abandon the religion and embrace Humanism?