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On The Uncontroversial Subject of Religion…

By Matthew Yglesias

"On The Uncontroversial Subject of Religion…"

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Ross Douthat tries to run an argument that’s always puzzled me — the idea that we can infer the truth of theism from the fact that theism is widely believed:

am, however, consistently puzzled by the resistance, whether it’s among my friends and neighbors or the Sam Harrises of the world, to any consideration of the notion that religious experience might be like most other widespread human experiences – which is to say, a response to something that’s actually out there. [...] As soon as homo sapiens developed consciousness, we became conscious of (what seems to be) a numinous reality interwoven with our own; it’s just possible, surely, that we started experiencing the numinous because it happens to be real.

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The trouble, I think, is that one thing just about everyone should be prepared to agree about is that most peoples’ religious beliefs are false. As you can see in the handy chart I stole from this site, there’s just too much diversity in religious belief. Whatever the right thing to believe is, most people don’t believe it. At best, you can combine the Christian and Muslim blocks (and the trivial number of Jews) to form a very slight majority in form of some form of monotheism. Even here, though, the folk practices of many Catholics (and unless I’m mistaken, Orthodox Christians and Shiite Muslims as well) has strong polytheistic elements. It’s only a kind of rhetorical overreach on the part of atheists — pitting “religion” versus “not religion” as the key disagreement — that creates the appearance of a large majority in favor of “religion.”

There’s clearly a significant human predilection for not-supported-by-science beliefs of various sorts — in the existence of a god or gods, astrology, fortune-telling, alien visits to earth, the healing power of crystals, etc. — but there’s no particular convergence of these beliefs on anything in particular. Meanwhile, on many of the particular question you might ask about religious subjects, atheists are going to be in the majority. Like most people on earth, atheists don’t believe that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins. Similarly, just like most people, atheists don’t believe that Muhammed was Allah’s greatest prophet or that the Hidden Imam will return. And, again, like most people atheists don’t believe that you’ll be reborn on earth after death in a new body.

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