Religion’s Claim to be Non-Disprovable

The ear­liest ac­count I know of a sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ment is, iron­i­cally, the story of Eli­jah and the priests of Baal.

The peo­ple of Is­rael are wa­ver­ing be­tween Je­ho­vah and Baal, so Eli­jah an­nounces that he will con­duct an ex­per­i­ment to set­tle it—quite a novel con­cept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an al­tar, and Eli­jah will place Je­ho­vah’s bull on an al­tar, but nei­ther will be al­lowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sac­ri­fice. The priests of Baal serve as con­trol group for Eli­jah—the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests mak­ing in­vo­ca­tions, but to a false god. Then Eli­jah pours wa­ter on his al­tar—ru­in­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal sym­me­try, but this was back in the early days—to sig­nify de­liber­ate ac­cep­tance of the bur­den of proof, like need­ing a 0.05 sig­nifi­cance level. The fire comes down on Eli­jah’s al­tar, which is the ex­per­i­men­tal ob­ser­va­tion. The watch­ing peo­ple of Is­rael shout “The Lord is God!”—peer re­view.

And then the peo­ple haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats. This is stern, but nec­es­sary. You must firmly dis­card the falsified hy­poth­e­sis, and do so swiftly, be­fore it can gen­er­ate ex­cuses to pro­tect it­self. If the priests of Baal are al­lowed to sur­vive, they will start bab­bling about how re­li­gion is a sep­a­rate mag­is­terium which can be nei­ther proven nor dis­proven.

Back in the old days, peo­ple ac­tu­ally be­lieved their re­li­gions in­stead of just be­liev­ing in them. The bibli­cal ar­chae­ol­o­gists who went in search of Noah’s Ark did not think they were wast­ing their time; they an­ti­ci­pated they might be­come fa­mous. Only af­ter failing to find con­firm­ing ev­i­dence—and find­ing dis­con­firm­ing ev­i­dence in its place—did re­li­gion­ists ex­e­cute what William Bartley called the re­treat to com­mit­ment, “I be­lieve be­cause I be­lieve.”

Back in the old days, there was no con­cept of re­li­gion be­ing a sep­a­rate mag­is­terium. The Old Tes­ta­ment is a stream-of-con­scious­ness cul­ture dump: his­tory, law, moral parables, and yes, mod­els of how the uni­verse works. In not one sin­gle pas­sage of the Old Tes­ta­ment will you find any­one talk­ing about a tran­scen­dent won­der at the com­plex­ity of the uni­verse. But you will find plenty of sci­en­tific claims, like the uni­verse be­ing cre­ated in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rab­bits chew­ing their cud. (Which is a metaphor for...)

Back in the old days, say­ing the lo­cal re­li­gion “could not be proven” would have got­ten you burned at the stake. One of the core be­liefs of Ortho­dox Ju­daism is that God ap­peared at Mount Si­nai and said in a thun­der­ing voice, “Yeah, it’s all true.” From a Bayesian per­spec­tive that’s some darned un­am­bigu­ous ev­i­dence of a su­per­hu­manly pow­er­ful en­tity. (Albeit it doesn’t prove that the en­tity is God per se, or that the en­tity is benev­olent—it could be alien teenagers.) The vast ma­jor­ity of re­li­gions in hu­man his­tory—ex­cept­ing only those in­vented ex­tremely re­cently—tell sto­ries of events that would con­sti­tute com­pletely un­mis­tak­able ev­i­dence if they’d ac­tu­ally hap­pened. The or­thog­o­nal­ity of re­li­gion and fac­tual ques­tions is a re­cent and strictly Western con­cept. The peo­ple who wrote the origi­nal scrip­tures didn’t even know the differ­ence.

The Ro­man Em­pire in­her­ited philos­o­phy from the an­cient Greeks; im­posed law and or­der within its provinces; kept bu­reau­cratic records; and en­forced re­li­gious tol­er­ance. The New Tes­ta­ment, cre­ated dur­ing the time of the Ro­man Em­pire, bears some traces of moder­nity as a re­sult. You couldn’t in­vent a story about God com­pletely obliter­at­ing the city of Rome (a la Sodom and Go­mor­rah), be­cause the Ro­man his­to­ri­ans would call you on it, and you couldn’t just stone them.

In con­trast, the peo­ple who in­vented the Old Tes­ta­ment sto­ries could make up pretty much any­thing they liked. Early Egyp­tol­o­gists were gen­uinely shocked to find no trace what­so­ever of He­brew tribes hav­ing ever been in Egypt—they weren’t ex­pect­ing to find a record of the Ten Plagues, but they ex­pected to find some­thing. As it turned out, they did find some­thing. They found out that, dur­ing the sup­posed time of the Ex­o­dus, Egypt ruled much of Canaan. That’s one huge his­tor­i­cal er­ror, but if there are no libraries, no­body can call you on it.

The Ro­man Em­pire did have libraries. Thus, the New Tes­ta­ment doesn’t claim big, showy, large-scale geopoli­ti­cal mir­a­cles as the Old Tes­ta­ment rou­tinely did. In­stead the New Tes­ta­ment claims smaller mir­a­cles which nonethe­less fit into the same frame­work of ev­i­dence. A boy falls down and froths at the mouth; the cause is an un­clean spirit; an un­clean spirit could rea­son­ably be ex­pected to flee from a true prophet, but not to flee from a char­latan; Je­sus casts out the un­clean spirit; there­fore Je­sus is a true prophet and not a char­latan. This is perfectly or­di­nary Bayesian rea­son­ing, if you grant the ba­sic premise that epilepsy is caused by demons (and that the end of an epilep­tic fit proves the de­mon fled).

Not only did re­li­gion used to make claims about fac­tual and sci­en­tific mat­ters, re­li­gion used to make claims about ev­ery­thing. Reli­gion laid down a code of law—be­fore leg­is­la­tive bod­ies; re­li­gion laid down his­tory—be­fore his­to­ri­ans and ar­chae­ol­o­gists; re­li­gion laid down the sex­ual morals—be­fore Women’s Lib; re­li­gion de­scribed the forms of gov­ern­ment—be­fore con­sti­tu­tions; and re­li­gion an­swered sci­en­tific ques­tions from biolog­i­cal tax­on­omy to the for­ma­tion of stars. The Old Tes­ta­ment doesn’t talk about a sense of won­der at the com­plex­ity of the uni­verse—it was busy lay­ing down the death penalty for women who wore men’s cloth­ing, which was solid and satis­fy­ing re­li­gious con­tent of that era. The mod­ern con­cept of re­li­gion as purely eth­i­cal de­rives from ev­ery other area hav­ing been taken over by bet­ter in­sti­tu­tions. Ethics is what’s left.

Or rather, peo­ple think ethics is what’s left. Take a cul­ture dump from 2,500 years ago. Over time, hu­man­ity will progress im­mensely, and pieces of the an­cient cul­ture dump will be­come ever more glar­ingly ob­so­lete. Ethics has not been im­mune to hu­man progress—for ex­am­ple, we now frown upon such Bible-ap­proved prac­tices as keep­ing slaves. Why do peo­ple think that ethics is still fair game?

In­trin­si­cally, there’s noth­ing small about the eth­i­cal prob­lem with slaugh­ter­ing thou­sands of in­no­cent first-born male chil­dren to con­vince an un­elected Pharaoh to re­lease slaves who log­i­cally could have been tele­ported out of the coun­try. It should be more glar­ing than the com­par­a­tively triv­ial sci­en­tific er­ror of say­ing that grasshop­pers have four legs. And yet, if you say the Earth is flat, peo­ple will look at you like you’re crazy. But if you say the Bible is your source of ethics, women will not slap you. Most peo­ple’s con­cept of ra­tio­nal­ity is de­ter­mined by what they think they can get away with; they think they can get away with en­dors­ing Bible ethics; and so it only re­quires a man­age­able effort of self-de­cep­tion for them to over­look the Bible’s moral prob­lems. Every­one has agreed not to no­tice the elephant in the liv­ing room, and this state of af­fairs can sus­tain it­self for a time.

Maybe some­day, hu­man­ity will ad­vance fur­ther, and any­one who en­dorses the Bible as a source of ethics will be treated the same way as Trent Lott en­dors­ing Strom Thur­mond’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. And then it will be said that re­li­gion’s “true core” has always been ge­neal­ogy or some­thing.

The idea that re­li­gion is a sep­a­rate mag­is­terium which can­not be proven or dis­proven is a Big Lie—a lie which is re­peated over and over again, so that peo­ple will say it with­out think­ing; yet which is, on crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, sim­ply false. It is a wild dis­tor­tion of how re­li­gion hap­pened his­tor­i­cally, of how all scrip­tures pre­sent their be­liefs, of what chil­dren are told to per­suade them, and of what the ma­jor­ity of re­li­gious peo­ple on Earth still be­lieve. You have to ad­mire its sheer brazen­ness, on a par with Ocea­nia has always been at war with Eas­ta­sia. The pros­e­cu­tor whips out the bloody axe, and the defen­dant, mo­men­tar­ily shocked, thinks quickly and says: “But you can’t dis­prove my in­no­cence by mere ev­i­dence—it’s a sep­a­rate mag­is­terium!”

And if that doesn’t work, grab a piece of pa­per and scrib­ble your­self a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card.