In the Beginning....
By JOSEPH McDANIEL STEWART
May 13, 2010
...there was void, or chaos, or nothing, or everything and nothing, or darkness, or a sky world, or heaven, or heaven and earth together, or heaven and water together, or six heavens and six hells, or a supreme formless Entity, or several Entities, or some combination thereof with various modifications.
In this primordial Initial State, either Allah, Jehovah, Purusha, Brahma, Manitou, Chaos, a Spirit, the "King Above the Sky," the "Holy Supreme Wind," the Dreamtime gods, a supreme formless Entity and the Archetypal Man, the Goddess, a small bearded man or some other divine, or supernatural, or superhuman, or extra-human being (or beings) or elemental essence or concept that I might have overlooked...
...either dreamed, spoke, caused, made, planted seeds, gave birth, brought forth, formed, sacrificed itself, was sacrificed by others, or some other such action or series of events that eventually resulted in the creation of the universe as we know it.
Later, in some cases, either Athena, Chimalman, Hera, Hertha, Isis, Juno, Mary, Ostara, Shin-Moo, Sochiquetzal, or some other virgin mother whose name is lost to us (or whom I may have overlooked), may, or may not have, given birth to other gods or god-men like....
...Krishna, Serapis, Mars/Ares, Buddha, Dionysus/Bacchus, Jesus, Adonis, Apollo, Heracles ("Hercules"), Bali, Hesus, Odin, Prometheus, or dozens or more others I missed, many of whom were either crucified or executed in sacrifice for mankind.
From there it gets more complicated. In fact, if I were to continue, it may become entirely incomprehensible.
What I attempted to do is combine stories from many of the various beliefs of the past and present. The point is to show how many there are (and these aren't all of them by a long shot).
They can't all be true, so how do I determine which one to believe in? I've been told my "eternal soul" might be at stake and I don't want to bet on the wrong horse, after all. Should I pick whichever one is the oldest? I don't know which one that might be because many were passed down orally for many years before they were written down. The oldest ones might have been lost by now anyway. Should I pick whichever one has the largest number of adherents? I'm not sure that would be right. There have been times in the past when more people believed something different from what they believe today. Christianity has the largest number of adherents now, but that wasn't always the case. Did the truth change at the moment the believers in Christianity exceeded the believers in whatever religion was more popular before it? At some point in the future, if Islam overtakes Christianity in the number of adherents (considering it's growing faster), would that make a difference in whether or not it's true? Also, since the majority of the world's population doesn't believe in Christianity, would that outweigh the fact that it had the largest number of adherents? And what if people stopped believing in it entirely?
Okay, I just sent my Southern Baptist brother an email. I asked him, hypothetically, if in 5,000 years (more or less) no one believed in Christianity anymore, would that mean it was wrong?
He said no.
Although this in no way constitutes a scientific survey by any stretch of the imagination, I suspect this would be the opinion of most believers. But, obviously, there have been many things in the past most people believed that turned out to be wrong, so I can't decide which religion is correct based on its number of adherents.
(I guess that rules out two of my other questions: can I dismiss all the religions no one believes in anymore simply because no one believes them? And, should I choose a religion by picking whichever one was oldest and still has adherents?)
Should I believe in whichever religion is the most recent? Since new religions keep popping up, I would expect to have to change my beliefs every so often. That doesn't seem to be very smart.
What if I picked based on what my parents' believed? Would that make sense? I guess that's no way to tell which one is true for sure. It appears that believing what your parents' believed has resulted in people coming to many different conclusions. I think Einstein was a pretty smart guy...should I choose based on what he believed? I know there have been other very intelligent people that had other beliefs, so I can't go by that. What if I picked based on what most people around me believed so that I won't be shunned or ridiculed? I don't think that would be very courageous or any more likely to result in me choosing correctly.
Should I pick based on which one I like best? Would that be the best way to decide which one is true? I know from experience that the truth about something is not always the most appealing thing I might want to believe. What if I pick one I really like and it turns out to be wrong? I might spend eternity in hell-fire or something.
Maybe I should believe the one that makes the most terrible threats against not believing in it? If I do that at least I'll know I won't suffer the worst fate among all the options... The problem with that is that there are several of them that seem equally bad. Also, what if a new one comes along that threatens nonbelievers with something worse?
What if I just come up with my own? Evidently some people have done it, why not me? But I suppose coming up with my own wouldn't necessarily make it true (no matter how fun it might be).
What if I put a list of all the gods I know down on paper, close my eyes, and ask for guidance before I put my finger down somewhere on the page without looking?
It looks like the old Korean god JoMulJu wins! Believers have always told me to ask for guidance and put my faith in something and I would get an answer. If that is true, JoMulJu is the One True God!
Hmmm...The problem with that is it seems when other people do it they get other responses. Maybe that isn't the best way to do it either.
Are there any of them that seem to have anything special about them, something to recommend them above the others? Hmmm...
Let's see... Several claim that their prophecies have been fulfilled, so I can't go by that. There are many that claim a Son of God figure, death and resurrection, healings, revelations, miracles and such things, so I can't go by that. We have already ruled out judging by whichever one is the oldest, has most adherents, is oldest that still has adherents, is most recent, is most threatening, is most appealing...
Can I judge based on the effects various religions have on adherents? Maybe that is the something special I could look for? Buddhism might be the least violent, but then there are the Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses. Christians might have the most material wealth overall, but that seems like it might be contrary to their own scriptures. Jews seem to have survived as a people for a long time despite facing some really harsh attacks over the years. Islam seems to be more dynamic lately. It seems there are unique things about each one, but how do I pick which unique thing is more important (or relevant)? And is being unique in some way any more likely to make something true?
Can I eliminate some religions based on how silly or absurd they seem? Some of them seem pretty strange: a god vomiting the sun, a god being impregnated by an obsidian knife, a god placing land on the back of a golden frog, a god making a woman out of a bear, a god making a man out of clay, a god making a woman out of a man's rib. You can find everything from winged horses and virgin births to "stopping" the sun and parting the seas. Actually, most of them are filled with hard-to-believe, miraculous or supernatural claims.
I guess if I had to pick one that seemed the least absurd, Buddhism might come out on top (or maybe some of the ones I didn't cover, like Jainism or the Baha'i Faith). But some may make the argument of fideism: credo quia absurdum, or I believe it because it is absurd. So I might not be able to rule out something just because it seems absurd.
Can I judge by their holy books? I've read most all of the holy books of the major religions. They all seem to have internal problems for which their adherents have to do tortured and convoluted back-flips to explain. Another problem is that if I pick any one of them, I will find their adherents interpreting the same holy book differently, which leads to different sects within each of the various beliefs.
That compounds my dilemma. Even if I pick one religion out of so many, I'll then need to pick among the different sects. To use just one example, there might be just enough difference between the Baptists' and the Catholics' requirements for salvation that it would significantly affect my fate. And then there are all the different Baptists, and the different individual interpretations even within the same congregation... But I'll not worry about that right now.
Some people claim to have had personal revelations from their god, but you can find people claiming personal revelations in every religion that has adherents. I've had my own epiphany moments, but I've never had some supernatural being bestowing revelations upon me even when I was open to receiving them. The only person I found I was talking to when I prayed as a kid was myself. Even if I did have some god come down and talk to me, how could I distinguish it from some mental delusion (or some powerful posing demon, leading me astray)?
So how do I pick? If I want to bet that one of these is correct, if I want to bet that there is some absurd or supernatural explanation (rather than a natural one that we don't yet understand), how do I decide?
See, it isn't a 50/50 chance here. It isn't like I can just bet there is a God rather than bet there isn't in order to cover my ass (Pascal's Wager); I've got to decide which supernatural explanation of the various religions is the correct one, and I've got to consider the possibility that there is a correct supernatural explanation that no one has conceived of yet--or that there could be some correct supernatural explanations that might never be conceived.
I know there will be some believers that read this and think they have some convincing reason for their belief that I didn't cover. I've been studying this most of my life and I haven't seen or heard a convincing one yet. There is nothing they can say about which I haven't heard something similar regarding another religion. If there is something they think is unique about their religion, then believers of other religions have some other unique thing they can say about their religion as well.
"True" believers of any of these religions should try to talk to the "true" believers of some of the other religions. If they spend some time listening to the other believer's argument, I'm sure they will find things that will seem absurd to them, things that don't make sense, and things that appear outrageous. That is how they all sound to me. If they can understand why it is they don't buy what a "true" believer of another religion is saying, they will begin to understand why I'm not buying what they are saying.
I'm sitting here in a kind of default position, not actively believing in any of these religions--just like a newborn baby. I've been told I should take a "leap of faith" in one direction or another into belief, but how do I decide which way to leap? It seems to me that leaping in the wrong direction might be worse than not leaping at all.
I don't actively have to do anything not to believe something, I don't have to believe one thing to not to have a belief in something else, and I don't even have to know with absolute metaphysical certainty if something is true (or not true) not to believe it.
What would cause me to take such a leap into belief?
I would have to be provided some compelling reason, and, as Carl Sagan supposedly said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Until and unless someone or something provides me with that evidence, I see no reason to move from my default position.
I don't have to prove that all these beliefs (and the gods that go with them) aren't true. If people ask me why I don't believe in God, I have a right to ask them which one they are talking about. Since some people have a different idea about what they mean by "God" (eg: Nature, a "force" as opposed to a being, "All That Is," etc.), I think I have a right to ask them to define what they mean so I will know what they are asking me. If they don't want to define what they mean, then how can I know what they are talking about? I don't possess any mind-reading abilities.
If they can describe what they mean, then I might be able to answer them. If they can't, then the best answer I can give is that I've not seen any compelling reason or evidence that would motivate me to take that "leap of faith" into belief in any one of these many supernatural options.
On the most basic level, theism is "a belief in a god or gods;" a-theism is "without a belief in a god or gods."
I guess that makes me an atheist.
Joseph McDaniel Stewart is the vice president of FreeThoughtAction and manages the website for UnitedCor. He also serves on the American Humanist Association's media committee.