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Persistent Belief:
The Relative Implausibility of Certainty

The late physicist Steven Weinberg may have had it exactly right when he said that the more comprehensible the world is, the more it may seem without point. What he did not add—but certainly knew—is that when science intrudes on supernatural or religious belief to explain something that seemed a mystery before, many people still prefer the mystery.

Going above or beyond the natural world, belief in a supernatural may offer what ready natural evidence alone does not. Historically, this has been the power of religious belief. It provides explanation and consolation as reassurance against existential dread of death and other troubling, or simply random, aspects of life and living that otherwise seem to be without meaning. Whether or not God or gods exist, humans have longevolved reasons for believing they do, or for inventing them and a supernatural world if they do not.

Most of what we know as traditional religion today emerged from a pre-scientific past in which sacred texts were written or narrated to embrace spiritual yearnings of people who lived in nomadic bands or isolated settlements, where traditional belief had little or no explanatory competitors. The knowledge early religious imparters had of the natural world was probably much less than that possessed by, or at least taught to, the average grade school child today. Yet explanatory beliefs conjured in those distant historical sands are still widely embraced by vast numbers of people.

It was only much later, and then only in some parts of the world, that critical examination of beliefs and their texts was set free from censorship and suppression. Koranic criticism is still muted in much of the Muslim world, and certain modern biblical scholarship may reach conclusions troubling to many Christians and Jews. Today, classic monotheistic stories of God’s intervention in life—privileged communication with Abraham, Moses, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and other prophets, virgin birth and theistic incarnation and resurrection in Christian belief, the favoring of one group or tribe over another, control of meteorological events, prayers answered and other divine entries into individual lives— receive special scrutiny, at least in certain quarters. Yet all are still widely believed to have occurred or may yet occur.

The jewel in this crown of explanation—revealed absolute truth—contrasts sharply with the provisional truths emerging from natural, falsifiable human inquiry. In a world of many religions, sacred scriptures and narratives have produced little accord on exactly what is revealed, what God loves or hates, wants or doesn’t want, and permits or forbids.

Within religions, it is often unclear whether revealed truth is fixed and inviolable as it is for most orthodox or fundamentalist adherents, or if it can be modified through interpretation by later generations. Ultimate truth raises additional questions about who may authoritatively interpret God’s word and the role such understanding should play in the lives of others. Though most religious individuals do not claim to have personally received revealed truth, many in every age have relied on the word of religious figures, some professing to have received divinely inspired spiritual direction.

In the current scientific age, claims of revealed truth face special rational doubt and are subjected to skeptical testing. If such truth is compelling, why the absence of empirical verification? Why have so few of its prophecies come to pass? For Christians, for example, why is there no hint of a second coming? For Jews, none of a first? If the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is so compelling, why don’t Jews and Muslims believe it? Why has every religious prediction of an imminent end to the world failed? Why have so many moral tenets of revealed truth proved harmful in human affairs and set so many people marching to oppress or kill so many others? These questions are partly rhetorical, but the lack of answers that science, with its powerful metrics of probability and plausibility, might weigh and test is striking.

Modern physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, social science, and medicine all raise profound questions about the various forms of received wisdom from the past. Natural disasters, disease, injury, good and bad fortune are events or conditions most educated persons no longer ascribe to divine interest or intent. New critical perspectives in philosophy, the arts, and religion itself question traditional authority, and instead emphasize individual agency and human rights. The explanatory territory known as “God of the gaps”—the supernatural default position—has shrunk ever smaller, and what remains requires a more complex and sophisticated theology than most religions offer today.

We are now aware of the bewildering scales of time, space, and matter previously unknown or unimaginable, but consider how hard it would have been for our distant ancestors to imagine, much less sensibly comprehend, a billion years of time. Or to understand movement at 186,000 miles a second—the speed of light—which, by any earthly measure, is instantaneous? Or that the light we now see from the Andromeda galaxy left it 2.5 million years ago? The early imparters of religion did not comprehend that they lived on a minor planet circling a minor star on the edge of a galaxy of several billion stars, perhaps one of billions of galaxies in a universe that might itself be only one of many. They could not know that our small speck of home had itself produced millions of species of life or that 99 percent of those species are now extinct. They would have been unable to imagine how we evolved from earlier and simpler forms of life over thousands of millennia. Nor could they know that more than 98 percent of human history took place before writing was invented or sacred texts produced.

Burdened with a despairing awareness of their own mortality, our religious ancestors imparted far simpler and, as we now know, biologically false versions of creation and human development. Though these narratives may have eased their minds or have been the best explanations available at that time—possibly even saving the early sanity of humankind—they cannot make bad science good or folk ideas credible.

Unlike traditional belief, secular thought requires a troubling appreciation of randomness. That the world may be fundamentally uncertain, unpredictable, possibly even meaningless is alien to our psycho-cognitive inheritance—from the Abrahamic faiths to almost every religious idea ever paid homage. That some things may happen by chance alone seems errant, yet that is exactly the possibility suggested in the incredibly small, invisible quantum world in which the order and causality we have come to expect may, enigmatically, not be there at all.

Nor could our religious forebears have had much appreciation of probability, if for no other reason than what it tells us is often counterintuitive. Coincidence must have special meaning and might even be a “sign” of something supernatural because we “know” that unusual or remarkable things do not happen without there being reasons.

Our religious ancestors resisted the relativism suggested by religious plurality, as many religious people still do today. How could your religion be the one that’s true, if other people worship other gods and follow other religions? Either there is no one true god or the other worshipers are wrong. The latter conclusion very often led (and still does) to religious intolerance or, worse, religious murder and war. A third conclusion that all, or at least many, of the differing religions and differing gods might be true ones, requires a theistic sophistication and tolerance not widely seen in religious history, with notable exceptions being the Greeks, Romans, or Hindus, polytheists that preceded monotheism.

In his posthumously published 2006 book Varieties of Scientific Experience, the late astronomer Carl Sagan described the flood of possibility:

Worlds without gods; gods without worlds; gods that are made by preexisting gods; gods that were always here; gods that never die; gods that do die; gods that die more than once; [have] different degrees of divine intervention in human affairs; zero, one, or many prophets; zero, one, or many saviors; zero, one, or many resurrections; zero, one, or many gods.

And this is just the plurality we are aware of in religious history, which itself goes back only about 60 centuries. We may assume even greater diversity in the human eons and tens of thousands of hunter-gatherer tribes that make up our full story. In fact, religious history has been a grab bag of gods, “revealed” truths, beliefs, saviors and prophets, as well as endless specifics of sacred narrative and ritual. They can’t all be true if for no other reason than some disallow others.

Many religious persons, including some theologians, argue that the improbable events, conditions, and figures of traditional religious narrative are better understood symbolically or metaphorically than literally. Such demythologizing, offered today in some liberal churches and temples, as well as by popular authors such as Jordan Peterson, can be appealing, because it removes religious description of the natural world from conflict with science and its falsifiable propositions while preserving some of the moral or philosophic insight and psychological support religious narrative may offer. Metaphorical understanding appears to be acceptable to increasing numbers of religious persons who are not fundamentalists.

Today most believers are likely to embrace both literal and symbolic interpretations, picking and choosing among them. Such understanding does not prevent identification with a specific religious tradition, keeping of religious holidays, or observing sacred life-cycle events. Indeed, most social functions of religion—ritual, fellowship, instruction, charity—often remain untouched. Nonetheless, as many fundamentalists recognize, metaphorical interpretation is a very big step away from revealed truth and the traditional religion of our ancestors.

That the vessel of traditional belief has been leaking certainty from its literal and explanatory compartments for some time does not mean other beliefs may not be seaworthy—at least for a time. The supernatural is always lighter than water, and anxious human beings, wired for belief that may seem to offer meaning, particularly a promise of life beyond death, may build spiritual ships of new design to sail old routes. Because the supernatural is not subject to natural proof or disproof but only to measures of greater or lesser credibility, “new” religious ideas and the supernatural beliefs that sustain them may survive challenges of science and critical thinking. Yet the evolved creature fated to anticipate his or her own death is also one fated to explain it. END

About the Author

Richard Randall, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at New York University, has written widely on social and psychological aspects of freedom of thought and speech including Censorship of the Movies: The Social and Political Control of a Mass Medium, winner of the Broadcast Industry Preceptor Award for Excellence in Publication, and Freedom and Taboo: Pornography and the Politics of a Self Divided. The article above is part of a larger work in progress on issues created by the decline of traditional religious belief and practice in the modern West.

This article was published on January 21, 2023.

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