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.