Fifty Fifty?

One question we keep hearing a lot in relation to this discussion of religion is one along the lines of ‘Why bother?’ Why bother to argue about religion, or to analyze it, or to point out weak arguments some of its defenders use? What is the point? Religion is a need, it’s always been there, it’s probably hard-wired, people aren’t going to give it up, arguments are beside the point, you’re wasting your time. Well, one, I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Not in all places and all times, and if not there and then, then not in general either. That is, I think there may be a confusion between what is hard-wired and what is simply heavily reinforced by the surrounding culture. There have been people, cultures, areas, that were more or less secular, more or less skeptical, more or less unsupernatural. Surely if that has happened in some situations, it can happen in other situations. It may or may not be desirable, but I think whether it’s possible or not is an open question. And two, and more to the point, even if that is true, obviously it’s not universally true. Obviously some people do not feel a profound unappeasable need for a deity. Some people (I’m one) even feel an active repugnance for the idea.

That being the case – surely there must be vast grey areas in between. Between ardent believers who wouldn’t change their minds no matter what anyone said, and determined skeptics who ditto. Surely there are plenty of people who believe, but tentatively; who believe, but are open to argument; who believe, but recognize the difference between belief and certainty. And plenty more people, especially young people, who just don’t know.

It’s not as if people never do change their minds about anything, after all. They do. We do. I do it myself all the time, and I don’t think I’m so peculiar that I’m the only person on the planet who does. Often the mind-changing we do is fairly easy, because it meets no reisistance: it’s not a matter of altering engrained habits of thought or entrenched intellectual commitments, but simply a matter of learning something we didn’t know before, or learning more on a subject about which we knew little. But now and then, if presented with powerful arguments or evidence, or if we are at some kind of mental turning point, we can even change our minds about things that really matter to us.

And it is worth chivvying away at all this, I think, because bad arguments go on being made. It is worth pointing them out, in hopes that their perpetrators will at least manage to come up with better ones. There is for instance this one which a reader sent me a link to. Read that article and then wonder if the ‘scientist’ (why does the article never say what kind of ‘scientist’ the guy is? what is the point of that absurd honorific use of the word ‘scientist’ in such a totemistic way? that’s the kind of thing that puts people off the very word. And what’s with the repetition of the ‘Dr’ bit? What, he has a PhD therefore what he says can’t really be as silly as it sounds? Is that the idea? Well, I hate to tell you, but…) would have started from such a bizarre assumption if he hadn’t been setting out to find what he wanted to find in the first place.

A scientist has calculated that there is a 67% chance that God exists. Dr Stephen Unwin has used a 200-year-old formula to calculate the probability of the existence of an omnipotent being. Bayes’ Theory is usually used to work out the likelihood of events, such as nuclear power failure, by balancing the various factors that could affect a situation. The Manchester University graduate, who now works as a risk assessor in Ohio, said the theory starts from the assumption that God has a 50/50 chance of existing, and then factors in the evidence both for and against the notion of a higher being.

Oh is that the assumption it starts from. Ah. Can we use that for everything? For anything? Shall we all become Bayesians and see how it works? Let’s see. Zeus has a 50/50 chance of existing. So does Tinkerbell. So does Francis the Talking Mule, and Krishna, and Spider Man, and the crew of the Enterprise, and the dramatis personae of ‘The Tempest,’ and the characters in Middlemarch. Everything we can think of has a 50/50 chance of existing, and so does everything we can’t think of. That should cover it.

‘Assumption’ is a very interesting word. It makes a large difference which ones we start from, and why. And it goes on being worth pointing that out, I think.

Update: here is an excellent comment on the book, recommended by José.

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