Thursday, 12 July 2012


I've changed my mind about religion and the supernatural. I doubt this post contains anything novel, but the point is important so I'd better say something. (Dont get your hopes up. I'm still an atheist.)
I need to talk about religion for a bit and examples are helpful. Normally I'd use Jesus of Nazareth. I'd use him because I'm British and so expect my audience to know a lot about him. Also because I was raised Christian and was a nerd, so I have the advantage of knowing far more about him than my audience. 

I've decided this is a mistake. Not because I annoy people by constantly going after the Christians. Most of the religious people in the west are Christian, so if I have a political problem with a religion then odds are it's Christianity. But it does have one annoying feature. It frames the debate wrong. It sets up Christianity v atheism, which is just not the right way to think about things. This post hopes to pick up why.

So I'll use Śri Sathya Sai Baba. He's awesome. He died last year aged 84 and already has tens of millions of followers. If some estimates are believed he has more followers than there are Jewish people. He is a fairly typical Indian guru, more charismatic than most, but not better at magic.

Let us consider his miracles. He was born of a virgin, turned water into petrol, was seen in South Africa and India simultaneously, healed the sick, multiplied food, produced small objects on demand, controlled the weather and brought a man back from the dead.

Do you believe a single one of those claims? No of course not. Have you looked at the evidence? No, why would you need to? Normally when someone comes up to you and makes such an absurd claim you dismiss it out of hand.

But now lets put in unreasonable effort and consider the evidence. These claims are backed up by eyewitness testimony by contemporary Indians. In fact Sai Baba is most popular with the wealthy middle class who have the most exposure to western ideas. His observers live in a post-enlightenment scientific culture. They are not dumb.

Now do you believe their eyewitness testimony? No, of course not, dont be absurd. If he in fact can do these things then physics and chemistry need to be largely thrown out. These acts violate just about every big hitting well tested law of science you can name.

And yet, there's something special about these claims. Because we dont say that they're laughable falsehoods. We say they are miracles. We may well claim we ourselves dont believe the the stories. But we think it's respectable that others do.

This is the crux of my change of mind. Previously I had set things up in my mind as "these people claim XYZ, this is clearly preposterous, I'll present them with evidence and then fix their broken beliefs." You'll notice this leads to a lot of really frustrating conversations where people just dont change their minds.

But why should this be? When I talk to communist about economics or to a renewable energy fan about climate change I dont expect changing their mind to be easy, but I expect to be able to have a fruitful conversation. I expect us to fundamentally be playing the same game.

Not so with claims of the supernatural. When I talk to a religious person more often then not I have no realistic expectation that we will in fact be able to understand eachother. I try all the same, but I'm not going in with the expectation that a single idea will actually pass from one brain to another and be understood.

I'd like to suggest there's a more fundamental layer of conversation to be had first. And that without that religious discourse is like two blind people discussing colour, they can use words, but neither party can really expect to learn anything from them.

First we must fix a lot of misunderstandings about truth.

The big confusion is the idea of religious specialness. This isn't helped by the key doctrine of modern secularism. This makes the claim that there is the secular sphere and it should be handled by human powers acting according to human laws based on human arguments and no divine concepts should be permissible in this sphere. This is a good claim and an important one. The problem is it automatically sets up an opposite claim. That claim is that there is a religious sphere in which religious arguments should hold sway and where no scientific analysis is valid. Some utterly insane people like Steven Jay Gould think this sphere should contain all of ethics.

So there's this notion that religious ideas are special and that religious claims need to be analysed in a different way. This is even crystallised in notions like "the supernatural", "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy", "science doesn't know everything", "there are some effects that western science cant detect", "there are powers that go beyond science". All these want to suggest an extra category of miraculous events.

Except the supernatural is a flat contradiction in terms. It's not that the supernatural doesn't exist, it's that the very concept is impossible. A "supernatural event" is "an event that happened which contradicts the laws of nature", the laws of nature are "those laws that determine how all events occur". If Sai Baba can actually turn water into petrol then the laws of physics and chemistry that says he cant do this are wrong. So he's not defied the laws of physics, so it's not supernatural. This is not a novel argument, it's in Hume, but people dont seem to have paid attention to it. I say again the supernatural is a confused idea, think clearly and you cannot believe it.

Also significant is the duality of atheism v religion of choice. This is an annoying error. Suppose we find some argument that makes us want to doubt atheism (suppose we're scared by fine-tuning or something daft like that). Now the religious person will claim that we should thus accept their religion. Or suppose we find some evidence that makes us endorse one religious claim. It is very easy to forget that all other religions can make largely the same claims. This is part of why I'm going to try and avoid using Jesus of Nazareth as an example. Sai Baba did almost all the same magic tricks and his witnesses are vastly more intelligent and more reliable. If you find the bible and the handful of other sources that document the Jesus story convincing then Sai Baba should be a near-certainty for you.

The last and possibly most significant problem is not unique to religion. It is shared by politics, sports analysis and any other field where people are inclined to say that they are a tribe based on their answer. If I say to a man whose fathers back 5 generations were northern miners that voting Labour is a terrible idea it's unlikely that we'll talk much about their manifesto. It's more likely we'll talk about identity. Phrases like "well you would say that you southern snob" or "what Thatcher did to us" from a person not alive during the reign of Mrs Thatcher suggest that all that is being expressed here is team loyalty. When I say to someone that Sai Baba was a charlatan I say that his team is bad. This gets members of that team angry. It's this kind of primitive clan-loyalty thinking that people need to be cured of before they can have fruitful conversations about anything along these lines. This is a big part of why the discourse on politics/religion/sport is so poor.

And finally, offence. Yes, I'm going to say it that bluntly: People are religious because they make errors of reasoning. They are tricked by bad reasoning and if they thought more deeply they would stop being religious. This comes with the added bonus of being really arrogant, "I however have seen through these errors". The same is true for Marxists by the way. If someone convinced by Das Kapital thought better and more clearly they would not be convinced any more. But this personal insult about people's abilities to think rather cuts off conversation. "Oh those arrogant atheists think they know better than us, they think we've been fooled", well yes we do, but being offended isn't the right way to respond to this.

A proper respect for just how easy it is for concepts to fool you is needed before you can discuss religion or Marxism properly. It's no insult to someone's intelligence to say they've been fooled, even to say that their logical error was really obvious. The smartest people who have ever lived were conned by ridiculously simple ideas. Plato was confused by three people of three different heights, Newton was big on calculating the end-times, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by faeries. It's astonishingly rare to *not* be taken in by stupid ideas. It's no offence to say that many people all over the world have been taken in by Sai Baba and people of his ilk.

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