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Religious belief: A natural phenomenon with natural causes

Suppose the government runs random screening for a very rare mutation – Mutation X – present in one in every million. The test is 99% accurate. If your result is positive, does this mean that you probably have Mutation X?

No. Imagine that there are 100 million people, of which 100 are X-carriers and 99,999,900 are not. On average, 99% of the X-carriers, that is 99 people, will test positive. But one percent of non-carriers, that is 999,999 people, will also test positive. So you know that you are in one of these groups, but not which. In fact, you should be about 10,000 times more confident of being in the non-carrier group, because there are 10,000 times more people in it. You should be practically certain that the test is wrong.

This is a secular, quantitative, and imaginary application of the simple and devastating critique of religion that we find in David Hume’s great 1748 essay ‘Of Miracles’. Hume’s main point is that ‘no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish’.

Its real secular applications are widespread. If a reliable journal reports an experiment that violates well-established physical laws, or if a senior politician quotes a surprising statistic, or if an intelligent person of general good sense testifies that homeopathy cured her gallstones – in all such cases and in innumerable others, always ask yourself: what is more likely? Is it (a) that the experiment/politician/person was involved in some error or fraud, or (b) that the thing it reports is actually true? And usually (a) wins by a mile. The general lesson: if a reliable witness reports something amazing – don’t believe it.

Turn now to religion. In our time, as in Hume’s, billions of people all over the world derive their moral framework, attitude towards life, and conduct towards others from belief in a supernatural entity and the miraculous achievements of its terrestrial agents: Moses, Mohammed, or Jesus. The evidence on which they base these life-changing (and in extremis, for others if not themselves, life-ending) beliefs derives entirely from (scriptural) testimony. How much support does that testimony really give those beliefs?

Statue of David Hume, Edinburgh, by TwoWings. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of David Hume, Edinburgh, by TwoWings. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Practically none, said Hume, because which is more likely: that the Red Sea should – magically – part just long enough for the escape of an enslaved people, or only that they should preserve such a myth? That an angel visited an Arab businessman in a cave, or only that half the world should be deceived into believing this? “That the whole natural order be suspended, or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?” (This was Christopher Hitchens’s question about the virgin birth; but I think Hume would have enjoyed both its irreverence and its specific mockery of the ‘Roman superstition’.) The questions practically answer themselves, and the answers undermine all of the evidence that anyone in modern times has ever had for the central claims of Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Hume concludes with venomous irony that ‘the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one.’

But in truth, and as Hume knew, religious belief is no miracle but a natural phenomenon with natural causes. Hume was supreme amongst philosophers in balancing an acute sensitivity to the demands of rationality with a clear-eyed appreciation of the infirmities that make everyone fall short of them. The consequent tension is the central theme of his greatest work, Book I of the Treatise of Human Nature (from which he omitted ‘Of Miracles’ in face of the real dangers then attending public atheism). His Natural History of Religion documents the operation, over history and prehistory, of those infirmities that in his view begot modern monotheism. Driven by fear, we impute agency to natural processes around us – this leads to polytheism. Driven by servility, we compete to attribute extreme and flattering qualities to these fictional agents, until (as he wrote): “a limited deity, who at first is supposed only the immediate author of the particular goods and ills in life, should in the end be represented as sovereign maker and modifier of the universe”. Fear and servility: these sources of religion may in barbarous times have seemed, and have often really been, conducive to survival, but they never had much to do with truth.

But neither are they irresistible. In 1784, Immanuel Kant wrote that”Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance […] ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.” Hume’s point about miracles is a specific application of Kant’s principle: if somebody – anybody – speaks of miracles, don’t just believe it. Always weigh for yourself how likely it is that these things happened, against the speaker’s tendency to error and his interest in getting you to believe. That is quite important enough, but it hardly exhausts the value of Kant’s message. Skepticism of grand claims and distrust of authority remain our best safeguards, not only against superstition, but also against mass hysteria and many modern forms of social and state-imposed tyranny.

Headline image credit: Annunciation (Annunciazione), by Sandro Botticelli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Tyler S

    *The world population wasn’t yet even one single billion while Hume was alive:

    “In our time, as in Hume’s, billions* of people all over the world derive their moral framework, attitude towards life, and conduct towards others from belief in a supernatural entity…”

  2. Joe

    “The evidence on which they base these life-changing (and in extremis, for others if not themselves, life-ending) beliefs derives entirely from (scriptural) testimony. ”

    Well, *that’s* not true. I agree that Hume has a devastating critique here, but it would be nice to see the broad sources of evidence mentioned and dealt with. Hume himself knew very well that in his day the argument from Natural Theology (the design argument) was a powerful source of subjective evidence for many. So whatever this argument is, it doesn’t sweep away all sources of religious belief.

  3. Jabr Alnoaimi

    This post is interesting albeit misguided. Measuring a religion in terms of truth or of whether it’s claimed stories had happened or not is like trying to observe soft biological tissues using x-rays and concluding there is nothing to observe! A religion, even though it extensively uses the word truth in its lexicon for its own purposes, is measured by the ethical values it holds in high regards and by its ability to mobilise large numbers of people to believe in themselves to uphold and sustain those values. It will be indeed a barren world if stories were not told to children unless they were true and fictions were rejected by publishers because they did not happen or could not have happened. In fact social life would be non-existent if we have decided to do away with the tentative existence of the self; isn’t the concept of self a myth after all but we hold to it either out of ignorance to its fictitious nature or out of convention by which man can conduct his life in society?

    May be in this time of the supremacy of science and demand for evidence for events and phenomena happening we need new ways of creating religious stories to fulfil the same function of myths in the past, namely of mobilising large masses of people to uphold high ethical values and see hope despite all circumstances; but stories we need!

    Let me narrate a personal story to illustrate the role of myths in creating effective alternate realities. Almost fifty years back when I was in year 7 at school which happened to be the year we started to learn Algebra (called Al Jabr in Arabic, the Al prefix only means ‘the’.) Now my first name is Jabr and until year 7 I was a mediocre pupil with little prospect of making anything of himself. I still remember the first day our new Algebra teacher came to class and asked everyone for his first name. I was the only one in class who had the name Jabr, and as I told him my name he offhandedly said; “Oh, you are Jabr! Then I am sure you will do very well in Al Jabr.” And I believed him! I thought then that somehow Algebra must form an integral part of my constitution because we had the same name! My concentration in class and hard study at home for Algebra was a love affair; I believed that no one in class could know me (Algebra) better than myself. At the end of the first term I remember the Algebra teacher placing the corrected test papers on his desk and asking the class to guess who got the highest mark in the test. There were silence and blank eyes staring at him. He then declared; “Jabr of course!” I could not believe my ears as I had never been the top of the class in any subject before. This did away with my belief that I was just an average pupil. I began to believe in myself and in my ability to do very well in other subjects if I concentrated and worked hard at them which I did and eventually finished the first in my small country with a BSc from Imperial College and a PhD in physics from Manchester University. And now, even though I have retired from academia, I have founded and still run a very successful business because I continue to believe in myself.

    I want to ask you Professor Ahmed; if I were your son then and I came to you to tell you what my Algebra teacher told me, would you stick to your truth-measuring criteria and tell me not to be silly and just to study hard in all subjects??

    Can you now imagine the power that it had on mere slaves the story of the mighty ruler of the universe splitting the sea so that a miserable people could escape and be saved from an army that was intent on killing them?? And can you imagine what it meant for a few Arabs living in the middle of nowhere to believe that God’s Archangel descended to one of them to convey God’s words of trust in him to uphold justice and high moral values on earth?? Didn’t it mean unlimited belief in the message to the point of even challenging and eventually defeating the two great empires of Persia and Byzantine that have ruled them for centuries and considered them no more than desert rats?? And you can imagine what might not have happened in Palestine then if that man believed that he was no more than a bastard (the son of a minx as you said) and not the son of the mightiest being in the universe?? Those stories sir are not looked at in terms of truth or falsity but in terms of how transformative they can be! However, I agree that modern life requires a completely new restructuring of stories to live and thrive by.

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