Sunday, October 16, 2016

Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics, Part 10: Other Religions [Draft]

So does God exist or not?

Well, hopefully, if you've been paying attention up to this point, the answer is pretty obvious. No. Don't be ridiculous. The very idea of God is already a hopelessly incoherent mess unto itself, meaning the very notion of His entire existence can be logically disproved through pure reason alone. But even if someone actually did manage to provide a logically viable conception for a word like "God," then the burden of proof would obviously lie with theists to empirically demonstrate that God's existence and not with atheists to negatively prove the contrary. Until that burden is actually met, the complete lack of evidence alone would again justify the strong assertion that there is no such thing as God.

But hey, let's be generous and just assume outright that the theists are correct anyway. God is a logically coherent thing manifest in objective reality as a powerful, sentient agent. He created the universe, He created all life as we know it, and He personally intends to judge us in the afterlife for our Earthly compliance with the doctrines of His one true religion.

Can someone please now tell me exactly which religion is that supposed to be?
  • Islam?
  • Hinduism?
  • Zoroastrianism?
  • Christianity?
  • Judaism?
  • Shintosim?
  • Sikhism?
  • Jainism?
All of these religions claim absolute certainty about the correct nature of the one true God (or Gods), and many of them even threaten us with eternal damnation for accidentally believing the wrong one. So how exactly are we supposed to tell which one of these is the correct path to salvation as opposed some soul-destroying concoction of fallible, human corruption?
Obviously, we can't. None of these religions have any epistemic advantage over the others, and it's almost entirely a matter of cultural upbringing as to which one people happen to pick. But hey, let's ignore all of that, too, and just assume anyway that the one true faith is indeed Christianity.

Now what? Which denomination of Christianity am I supposed to follow?
  • Catholic?
  • Pentecostal?
  • Baptist?
  • Mennonite?
  • Lutheran?
  • Mormon?
  • Anglican?
  • Adventist?
  • Methodist?
  • Quaker?
  • Presbyterian?
Remember now, our immortal souls are at stake, here! One bad choice could easily mean the difference between eternal, heavenly bliss or endless hellfire and damnation. Yet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of denominations for us to choose from within Christianity alone. So what compelling argument can anyone possibly hope to offer that proves the veracity of any one faith over another? At the very most, only one of these God concepts can rightfully be considered correct, while all other variations necessarily must be the product of human imagination. Yet if everyone else believes in wild, superstitious nonsense for no good reason, then what makes any religious believer so perfectly convinced in the absolute truth of their particular brand of faith?

And so we come to the ultimate philosophical failure of all Christian apologetics: The mere existence of other religions.

Notice how even if we completely grant everything that Christian apologists could ever ask for, we're still faced with an indisputably blunt fact about human nature: the vast, overwhelming majority of all people throughout history have dedicated their lives to the worship of things that are most definitely not real. We're talking about a phenomenon so ubiquitous among cultural groups that it practically qualifies as a defining feature. So it's not just atheists who are claiming that God does not exist, but the theists themselves with respect to each other. You will never find an orthodox Christian who sincerely believes that the Mormon conception of God can lead one to salvation, just like you will never find a single Mormon who accepts the salvation of Islam. If anything, the only practical distinction that separates theists from atheists is the simple fact that atheists add one extra little entry to that massive list of other God concepts that certainly aren't real.

This is not a trivial observation to make, and it speaks volumes about the intellectual integrity of religious apologetics. If religion had anything to do a real, supernatural agent communicating His will onto our species, then you'd think we would see a gradual convergence of theologies over time. False doctrines would inevitably have to be discarded as correct doctrines withstood critically objective scrutiny. But instead, we see the exact opposite, with new religious denominations seemingly popping into existence all the time, then heavily segregating themselves along very distinct cultural and geographic boundaries [1]. It's a dead giveaway that religion has nothing to do with any rational desire to understand reality, but instead is a highly subjective product of human cultural groups. So rather than debate endlessly over the existence of any particular God or Gods, perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is where do all these religions keep coming from in the first place?

It cannot be stressed enough that this is still a perfectly valid question to ask even if your own personal concept of God just so happens to be true. Yet most Christian apologists are almost deafeningly silent on this question, as if the mere virtue of acknowledging it out loud would accidentally expose the gratuitous nature of their own beliefs. Even on the rare occasions when they do try to discuss the issue in some sense, the only comment they ever seem to have on the matter is a casual assertion of Christian exclusivism—the blanket insistence that all those other religions are just plain wrong while Christianity is obviously the only correct one out of the bunch [2,3]. 

So if Christians aren’t even going to touch the problem of religious pluralism with a ten foot pole, then perhaps this is a good opportunity to see what science has to say on the matter. After all, it’s not like all these religions just poofed into being out of nothing. Something is obviously causing this phenomenon, and the only way to figure out what is through meticulous investigation. It was therefore only a matter of time before science finally stepped up to the plate by developing a viable, pragmatic theory of religion itself.

Starting with the absolute basics, it’s important to always bear in mind that, from a purely biological perspective, human beings are essentially just another collection of evolved organisms. Everything about us is inescapably driven by a fundamental competition over scarce resources in an unending cycle of survival and reproduction. This is not a matter of any serious scientific dispute, but a brute fact of nature on which any religious theory must be grounded. Contrary to popular intuition, however, not all competition is inherently zero sum. That is to say, not all of my gains necessarily have to be a result of someone else’s loss. Life very frequently presents us with valuable opportunities to maximize fitness through simple acts of cooperation rather than pure, unrelenting antagonism. That's why so many organisms spend so much effort working together in cooperative groups. For example, wolves hunt together in packs, bees live together in colonies, and even the bacteria in your gut work with your own digestive track to break down complex nutrients.

This is a well-known phenomenon called symbiotic mutualism, or simply cooperation, wherein self-interested biological agents tend to work together for the sake of mutually beneficial outcomes. It’s a perfectly natural consequence of basic game theory when applied to common biological scenarios. The only thing that distinguishes human beings in this regard is the sheer scale on which we've exploited its benefits. It's an advanced form of mutualism commonly referred to as social interdependence, wherein none of us can reliably survive and flourish without the rest of us. The more we work together, the better off we collectively tend to be. Cohesive, cooperative societies are therefore stable and prosperous, while fractured antagonistic societies inevitably struggle to meet basic human needs.

None of this is controversial so far, but it does raise significant questions over how exactly our brains are able to manage all of this social navigation in the first place. For instance, consider this pair of objects shown here [imagine a rock and a face]. Obviously, one of these things is representative of a thinking, feeling agent, while the other is little more than a lifeless hulk of unfeeling material stuff. You may have noticed, however, that I didn’t really need to tell you any of that. If you're anything like most people, you already came to that exact conclusion long before I even began explaining it. Not only that, but you probably also have an innate sense of what this person might be feeling, or even where his attention is currently focused.

Clearly, as this simple demonstration shows, human beings appear to possess highly effective faculties for both recognizing and evaluating the presence of other agents. It's all part of an awesome cognitive process known as theory of mind—the ability to perceive other objects in one’s environment as having a distinct mental awareness that is similar to, but independent of, the self. It's an essential tool in human social dynamics that allows us to empathize with fellow group members and even predict how they might respond to various situations. But as impressive as all this may be, it's important to realize that it didn't all just happen by magic. Somewhere, somehow, deep inside of your brain, there exist complex collections of neurons dedicated solely to this process. Some of these collections have even been identified directly, like the well-known system of mirror neurons found in most social primates. Not only do mirror neurons activate when an agent performs a given action, but also when the agent merely observes another agent performing the very same act [4].

That's all well and good so far, but we need to always remember that evolution will never produce a perfectly reliable system. Mistakes are inevitably going to be made, and those mistakes necessarily must produce tangible, biological costs. To illustrate, simply imagine what might happen if you were utterly incapable of either recognizing or empathizing with other agents in your environment. That is to say, rather than perceive your fellow human beings as individuals with unique thoughts and motivations separate from your own, maybe you instead experience some lifeless, unfeeling stimulus, no different from the wind or sunshine. This is known as a Type I error, or simply a false negative—the failure to attribute agency onto an actual agent. So ask yourself, what biological costs might be associated with this kind error? How do you think people would react if you treated them as a mere stimulus rather than a fellow, sympathetic agent? Would that be good for your reproductive fitness, or bad?  

Obviously, the costs of such an error can be quite high, which is why natural selection has overwhelmingly biased our judgment as far away from this threshold as it possibly can. In so doing, however, we now fall under a much greater risk of committing the exact opposite mistake: the accidental attribution of subjective agency onto lifeless, unthinking objects. Such an error is called a Type II error, or a false positive, and again must result in tangible biological consequences.

So no matter which way our actions are biased, it seems we cannot help but periodically make mistakes in our attribution of agency to the environment. Fortunately, however, there is no reason whatsoever for the  costs of such errors to be perfectly symmetric. While a Type I error is essentially catastrophic for a socially dependent organism, the Type II error is merely inconvenient. Maybe you avoid stepping on a few bushes because you’re afraid to hurt them, or maybe you spend a little time asking the moon for advice. Maybe you perform a few rain dances to appease the clouds, or perhaps yell at the ocean for not producing enough fish. These are all perfectly affordable costs for any social creature, given the huge advantages that arise from trustworthy cooperation with other group members.  

This simple thought experiment represents the biological foundation for a very important phenomenon called hyperactive agent detection—the overwhelming tendency for human beings to over-attribute agency onto their environment rather than under-attribute. It's a ubiquitous aspect of all human psychology that can even be measured empirically under laboratory conditions. For example, pareidolia is the tendency to see things like human faces in otherwise random, natural features [5]. Spontaneous social attribution is a potent effect wherein animated geometric shapes are imbued with apparent personalities, relationships, genders, and back stories [6,7]. Promiscuous teleology is the tendency to perceive natural objects or random events as having been specially designed with intention [8]. Personification is a literary device wherein nonhuman objects, or even abstract objects, are endowed with distinctly human features and emotions [9]. Even autism spectrum disorder has been theorized as a kind of breakdown in these agent detection mechanisms, wherein victims characteristically struggle with basic social skills [10].

So by default, without any need for outside priming or stimulation, the immediate human tendency is to perceive practically everything as if it were endowed with a distinct capacity for motivated agency. That's why, with all other factors being held equal, the spiritual beliefs of all primitive hunter-gatherer cultures have universally been animistic in nature. These so-called primal religions are strikingly similar in that mundane, lifeless objects, including rocks, trees, mountains and clouds, are all seen as having a distinctly spiritual essence that moves them and governs their behavior. It’s a perfectly natural manifestation under the constraints of early human cognition, but it’s a still completely wrong. The weather does not respond to human promptings and the ocean isn’t going to produce any more fish no matter how much you yell at it. Any effort spent placating the spirits is therefore inherently wasteful and must exert some tangible cost in terms of biological fitness.

Notice how this puts early humans in a curious evolutionary position. While the benefits of social cooperation are comparatively enormous, the effort spent reacting to fictitious agents is still inherently costly. Natural selection therefore cannot help but operate on primal religious traditions by creating as many productive variations as it can. The immediate implication is thus a kind of cultural descent with modification, wherein religious practices slowly develop in sophistication and diversification over many successive generations. It's as if religion itself literally takes on a life of its own by competing for adherents against other religions in a kind of cultural-psychological ecosystem. Traditions that are more successful at generating converts and preserving their well-being will eventually come to dominate the cultural landscape, while less successful traditions are driven to ever greater obscurity, or even possible extinction.

This is how animism gradually gave rise to a religious practice known as polytheism—the institutional worship of many gods and goddesses who serve as anthropomorphic representations for the various forces of nature. There's really no fundamental difference between the two systems, except for perhaps a relative degree of sophistication within the practicing cultures. For example, consider the famous gods and goddess of classical Greek and Roman mythology. What exactly is Poseidon, if not a glorified spirit of the sea and waves? What is Aphrodite, if not the spirit of love and fertility? Where did Zeus come from, if not the ever-watchful spirit of the sky and thunder? Even the various priests and oracles who worked at the great temples were little more than glorified shamans, taking on the distinct role of spiritual authority within local communities.

Now consider what happens when the complexity of some polytheistic pantheon grows too large. That is to say, do we really have to appease all of the gods to produce favored outcomes? Or just some of the more important ones? Should I build a shrine to Zeus and Artemis? Or just Artemis alone? Do both gods even respond equally well to appeals? Or is one more sympathetic to human needs than the other?

Clearly, ancient polytheists could not possibly be expected to worship all gods with equal fervor. Instead, practical limitations dictate that they eventually had to pick and choose among their favorites. It was a common religious practice known as henotheism, wherein many gods are openly acknowledged as both existing and exerting influence, but only a select few (or even just one) are ever granted any serious worship. For example, you don’t exactly see a whole lot of ancient Greek temples devoted to Atë, the goddess of mischief, but you do see a hell of a lot of time and energy spent on more prominent deities like Artemis, Zeus, and Athena [11]. Often times, this would manifest through a distinct system of local patronage wherein individual city-states tended to adopt a preferred deity for serious devotion. For example, Athens worshiped Athena, Olympia emphasized Zeus, and Corinth chose Poseidon.

In some cases, the devotion towards one particular deity might grow so intense that all other deities would find themselves being excluded outright. It's a practice commonly known as monolatrism (or monolatry) wherein many gods are still openly acknowledged as existing, but only a single one is ever worshiped openly across some cultural region. For example, it's a well-known fact that the early Israelite nation believed in a whole slew of gods and goddesses, including such famous names as El, Ba'al, and Asherah [12]. The main difference, however, is that Yahweh, and only Yahweh, was ever granted any serious devotion. In fact, most Biblical scholars even agree that the Old Testament itself preserves many vestiges of that tradition in numerous passages. Take, for instance, the first of the Ten Commandments given to Moses: “thou shalt have no other gods before me” [13]. Notice that Yahweh doesn’t actually reject the existence of any other gods per se, but simply instructs Moses to never give any of them priority in worship. Many other passages further confirm this perspective, like in Exodus 15 which asks, "Who among the gods is like you, oh Lord?" [14]. What other gods could we possibly be talking about, if not the gods of some greater, established pantheon?

Eventually, the practice of monolatry would grow so extreme for ancient Hebrews that they finally developed into full-on classical monotheism—the outright rejection of any existence whatsoever to all other gods but one. We again see evidence of this transition in later books of the Old Testament, which often go out of their way to remind the reader that there are no other gods but Yahweh [15]. Why would this be so important to emphasize if not to discredit a widely-held belief?

It’s easy to see how the adoption of monotheism might lead to all kinds of distinct cultural advantages. After all, if there's only one God, and only one correct way to worship that God, then it becomes much easier to build a unified sense of cultural identity around that God. Doing so might have huge benefits for group cohesion on a national scale as well as the effectiveness of leadership authority. Maybe it provides greater resistance against hostile neighbors, or maybe better stability in national government. Who knows? But there obviously has to be some tangible benefit to this practice because the overwhelming majority of religious adherents today are most definitely monotheistic [16].

Notice that we've just established a clear line of descent with modification that perfectly accounts for the historical development of all Western religion. Starting with early hunter-gatherer cultures, we know that hyperactive agent detection has full capacity to spontaneously develop into animism. Natural selection then acted those traditions over many generations to produce ever more complex and diverse variations. Some of those variants tended to anthropomorphize the numerous forces of nature, thereby giving rise to the familiar concept of gods and goddess. Practical necessity would then force those groups to prioritize worship among their favorite gods in particular, with some of those even going so far as to grant full devotion to only one, singular deity. At least one of those groups then came to reject the existence of all other spirit-gods entirely, such that one, and only one, god was finally given full authority over everything in the cosmos.

Viola! Animism develops into polytheism, which turns into henotheism, which then grows into monolatrism, until finally culminating into monotheism. It perfectly explains the documented historical development of all known ancient religions. Not only that, but it even predicts the branching tree-of-life pattern one would expect from a long chain of inherited descent with modification [17]. So pray tell, my dear Christians, but what exactly do you think is going on here? Remember that your own faith requires you to be exclusive in terms of who can achieve salvation and who can't. That means every “wrong” branch in this tree, including those within Christianity itself, is necessarily doomed for all eternity.  Yet each and every one of these groups is equally convinced as you in the absolute truth of their faith. What makes you so god-damn confident that your particular branch any better?

Bear in mind now that, despite this huge wealth of anthropological data, there are still countless open questions that have yet to be resolved. For example, why do religions universally have such strong obsessions over human sexuality and death? Why do they consistently generate so many odd-ball stories about cosmology and human origins? What sort of forces tend to accelerate or stabilize the emergence of new religious traditions over time? What does it take to overcome these traditions and convince people to view the world through an objective, skeptical lens? These are all fantastic questions, and there’s a virtual army of psychologists, neurologists, historians, and anthropologists all collectively investigating them as we speak. Heck, maybe even some of you watching this right now will be instrumental in answering those questions within our lifetimes. Whatever the answers may be, they can only be found through the careful application of science and the scientific method. Only by understanding the cognitive forces that govern religious development can we ever hope to cure  humanity of the superstitions that have plagued our minds since the dawn of civilization.


  1. Leading Church Bodies, 2000
  2. See, for example, Politically Incorrect Salvation, by William Lane Craig
  3. See also Jones, M. S., The Problem of Religious Pluralism
  4. See Mirror Neurons
  6. Heider and Simmel, "An experimental study of apparent behavior," The American Journal of Psychology, Vol 57, No 2, pp. 243-259 (1944)
  7. Heider and Simmel Video: (link)
  8. ..
  9. ...
  10. Hamilton, A. F., "Reflecting on the mirror neuron system in autism: a systemic review of current theories," Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol. 3, pp 91-105, 2013
  11. See the List of Ancient Greek Temples for an indication of which gods were more important over others.
  12. Smith, M. S., The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities of Ancient Israel,
  13. Exodus 20:3
  14. Exodus 15:11
  15. See Isaiah 45:5, Deuteronomy 4:35, Deuteronomy 32:39, 2 Samuel 7:22, 1 Kings 8:60, and many others
  16. See the world religion breakdown. Ignoring the non-religious, we find that almost two-thirds of the remainder are monotheists.
  17. See the World Religions Tree Infographic. Or for a more simplified graphic, see The Evolutionary Tree of Religion