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Meditation 586
Past Speculations, Present Analysis, and Future Applications: Some Thoughts on Religion

by: Will Petillo

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Chapter 1: Where does religion come from?

I don’t really know, but having studied a bit of history, I suspect that the answer involves a complex interweave of Kings, Commoners, Poets, and Philosophers.  The first two determine the level of spirituality in a given time and place because religions need support of both kings and commoners in order to exist and flourish—the former for money and the latter for followers.  Kings want authority and will tend to support religions that bolster their position and/or will win them the support of their people.  These two desires are often in concordance but sometimes in opposition.  In discussing royal motivations, however, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Kings share in these spiritual motivations.  Some were cynical, but most were not.  The motivations for spirituality among commoners is more complicated and will be discussed later.  The second two human forces—poets and philosophers—shape the form that religion takes.  The relationship between these two groups again seems to be one of mutualism—the basis for what people believe comes largely from poets, but this material is often based on the philosophers’ interpretations of the work of previous poets.  In the Christian tradition, for example, we see the original work (the Bible) written by poets, its meaning preached by philosophers (the early and medieval Church), from the conclusions of these philosophers combined with the original source material later poets create new works (such as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy) that have a major impact on the public’s understanding of religion and tend to reflect and promote shifts in societal values, which lead to new interpretations of the original material by philosophers, and so on.  As to whether the original material in question is genuinely inspired by a divine source: I don’t know, but since a world in which it was not could be indistinguishable from our own, for the purposes of this essay I will stick to worldly explanations.[1]

The following seem to be some components of a successful religion.  This is almost certainly not a complete list, but it is all that I could come up with:

  1. Historicity.  People tend to have a certain reverence for things that are ancient.  Therefore, if someone were to create a religion today, the lack of historicity would be an impediment that they would have to overcome either by making up for this lack through other means (see #2-7) or by artificially creating historicity by claiming connections with older belief sets.
  2. Pragmatic incentives: heaven, hell, enlightenment, etc.
  3. Tells people that there is something more to the world. (A consolation for boredom)
  4. Give people a good reason for a sense of security and contentment (including consolation to the poor).  This may be what Christians refer to when they speak of “joy”.
  5. Those who adhere to the religion are somehow special.  Others can be included in this specialness by extending it to all humans or even to all life, but this (I imagine) will dilute the effect.
  6. Universalism: the religion is for everyone, not specific to a particular region or group of people (such restrictions would limit the religion’s ability to spread).
  7. It should be intellectually satisfying by having such a great depth of sophistication that even if someone finds a flaw they will have good reason to assume that they simply don’t understand the religion well enough (e.g. medieval scholasticism).  Failing this, the religion can cut its losses by encouraging people to suspend their disbelief.
  8. Relevance to society by containing a code of ethics and including stories that address the concerns of society.  Also, if the religion is sufficiently ambiguous, then it will remain relevant as the values of society change.
  9. Written documents that form a foundation.  The natural tendency of both religion and culture is to remain in flux and when things separate they tend to diverge.  Therefore, a religion that spreads over a large area but does not have anything written down to anchor it will continuously split into different religions which may become opposed to one another.  This criterion, however, is in opposition to #6 because written documents, being unchanging, will not maintain relevance to a changing society.  Ambiguous written documents are a middle-ground because they allow but limit divergence.  Religions with written documents have also had an advantage in early societies because they promoted literacy, which was beneficial to centralized government.
  10. It should be presented, as much as possible, in the form of stories, poetry, or clever phrases because these stimulate the imagination, are easier to remember, and have a more powerful effect on the human mind than expository writing.

Theory of Natural Selection: The religions that adhere to the above criteria (and any others that I have overlooked) than those around them will tend to become dominant.  Consequently, over time religions have been and will continue to increasingly adhere to the above criteria.  An alternate theory is that religions were concocted by scheming charlatans to support political interests and then continued to exist after those political entities ceased to exist, but I do not subscribe to this theory (at least not in general, there may be special cases in which it is true) because if books like the Bible were the result of intelligent design then they would probably contain far fewer inconsistencies.  Such an argument, however, does not offer as strong evidence against the theory of divine inspiration because God’s ways are generally considered beyond our understanding.

You may have noticed that Christianity adheres to all of the above criteria.  This should not come as much of a surprise considering that I was thinking of Christianity when I wrote it.  If one were interested in testing the validity of the above list, one might look at religions other than Christianity and see if there is any correlation between how well they adhere to it and how successful they became.  It might also be interesting to see if there is any connection between the criteria of what makes a religion successful and the assumptions of Christian theodicy.  In other words, is the apparent contradiction in theodicy a result of a genuine divine paradox, religious people not thinking things through very well at the beginning and being too stubborn to admit a mistake later, or the natural result of spiritual evolution in a society where people have desires that contradict each other?  Both of these questions—whether the list I presented is accurate/how it can be improved and how (or if) such a list could be used to understand the origins of various belief systems—would require a great deal of research so for now I will just say that I don’t know and move onto discussing theodicy.

The Unstated Assumption of Theodicy:

The oldest, and possibly the most significant difficulty in Christian theology has been to overcome the problem of theodicy, the apparent paradox arising from the following assumptions:

  1. God is the all-powerful creator of the universe.
  2. God is good.
  3. Evil exists in the world.

The problem with these three assumptions, put simply, is as follows:  If God is good and all-powerful, then why did God allow evil to exist in the world?  If God was incapable of preventing evil, then God is not truly omnipotent; if God had the power to prevent evil but chose not to, then God is not truly good; and if one were to claim that evil does not exist, then such an argument would fly in the face of all human experience and would also pose some theological problems (e.g. what is the purpose of salvation in a world without evil?).

There is, however, a missing assumption in theodicy, which is that:

4.  The workings of the universe can be explained.

This last assumption is commonly unstated, but if it is removed then the first three pose no problem because they don’t have to be explained and rational theodicy becomes pointless—ultimately the answer to theodicy is “you just have to have faith”.  If one tries to maintain the fourth assumption, however, then one is faced with a real problem because to explain is to discuss in terms of causal relationships and if God is the prime cause of all other things then all explanations will necessarily trace back to God, thereby denying at least one of the first three assumptions that theodicy tries to defend.

One can obfuscate the matter endlessly by bringing in the free will defense, but that does not get around this fundamental problem.  For if one were to claim that evil exists because man chose to turn away from God, I could simply respond by asking why God created man in such a way that he would choose to fall.  It should be noted, however, that such an argument does not prove that God does not exist.  Rather, it proves that God—if such an entity exists—is either not all-good, not all-powerful, evil does not exist, the universe cannot be explained (and therefore theology is futile), or any combination of these. 

I don’t understand quantum mechanics, but the idea that the universe is inherently based on a mix of determinism and indeterminism (i.e. probability distributions where some outcomes are more likely than others but nothing is absolutely certain) does nothing to solve the problem of theodicy or prove that the fourth assumption is wrong, all it does is change the manner in which things are explained from mathematics to statistics—both of which would have to be transcended for a defense of the first three assumptions of theodicy.

So what do I mean when I talk about the possibility of a universe whose fundamental workings cannot be explained?  Quite simply, such a universe could not be explained, so there is no point in having a rational discussion about it.  One could, of course, discuss it irrationally—e.g. through metaphor, which has the danger of being taken literally—but that would be irrational, which is fine because that’s the point…if that doesn’t make any sense it is because you are thinking about it rationally.

Now, if one believes in a Supreme Being and also believes that also the fourth assumption is true, then the Supreme Being that one believes in can—at least hypothetically—be scientifically proven or disproven to exist, regardless of how complicated it may be.  My reasoning for this can also be applied to any form of supernatural entity or concept:

  1. If something can reasonably be known by all to exist, it must be in some way observable.
  2. If something is observable, it must be statistically predictable.
  3. If something is statistically predictable, it must be mathematically describable.
  4. If something is mathematically describable, it must be technologically reproducible.

Conclusion: If God’s presence can be observed in any way and the fourth assumption is true, then God is nothing more than a really clever alien that can be predicted, described, and technologically reproduced.  If one does not wish to call such an entity “God”, then God does not exist.  If the fourth assumption is not true then none of this reasoning is valid and there is no way to reasonably know whether or not God exists.  A Supreme Being that does not adhere to the fourth assumption is invulnerable to scientific testing.  Further, it would also not be disproved by the above (or any other form of) reasoning because such a Supreme Being would transcend reason.  Again, if you are wondering what that means then you have missed the point because there is no point in talking about it reasonably.

Now where does this leave agnostics?  Since the assumptions that one chooses to accept or reject is entirely arbitrary[2], where any person stands regarding theodicy is an act of faith, not the necessary result of reason.  This is what the agnostic realizes when choosing to suspend judgment altogether.  Of course, agnosticism is not the only possible conclusion one can reasonably come to, for it is entirely possible for one to realize that one’s beliefs are based on arbitrary judgment and still believe them anyways—this is why I said in an earlier post that it is possible to be 0% or 100% certain of God’s existence and still adhere to the three Apathetic Agnostic Articles of Faith.[3]  I must admit, however, it seems to be considerably more difficult to believe in something while maintaining the understanding of how arbitrary one’s beliefs are, which may be part of the reason why agnostics tend to have more of an affinity with atheists than with religious people.  Regardless of what religious views one chooses to adopt, however, I believe that one should not pretend to be more certain of something than one really is—but that’s just what I believe.

So far I have been speaking of knowledge of the divine in terms of scientific testing, but what about personal religious experiences?  Some people say that they have personal experiences of the supernatural, while atheists claim these to be delusions.  If I were to have a personal experience of the supernatural (haven’t had one yet, but I still have plenty of time), I might want to make sure that my brain wasn’t playing tricks on me first, not so much to see if I had really experienced something supernatural, but because if I had a vision and it turned out to be a warning sign of some mental disorder then that would be something worth knowing about.  As to whether I would believe that I had experienced the supernatural, I think I would because I believe most things that I experience and I see no reason why I should set higher standards on something that I kind of want to believe in anyways.  My having an experience of the supernatural, however, would not be a good reason for you (or anyone else) to believe in it because you would not have had that experience.  For something to be believed by all people, not just those who have had a personal experience of it, that something should be testable.  In other words:

  1. If something can be repeated in a test then it is reasonable for anyone to know that it is true and does not require an act of faith for anyone else to believe it is true.  
  2. If something happens a limited number of times and cannot be repeated then it is reasonable for the people who experienced it to know that it is true but requires an act of faith for anyone else to believe it is true. 
  3. If something never happens then it is not reasonable for anyone to know that it is true and requires an act of faith for anyone to believe it is true.

Why reading this has not been a (total) waste of your time:

This article has turned out to be rather lengthy and has caused me to ask myself, “why on earth did I bother with this?”  And you, having just read it, might be asking yourself a similar question.  This point in addressed in the explanation of Article III of the Apathetic Agnostic Articles of Faith.  Although the reasoning is sound, I don’t think it is as clear as it could be, even with statements like ‘this does not imply that we are apathetic to promoting our beliefs’—which is really just an assertion, not an explanation.  I believe that any idea can and should be expressed clearly—obfuscation is a fault of the writer—and therefore here is my interpretation of Article III, which is intended to be identical in content but clearer in form:

 We are Apathetic to the answer, but not necessarily the question, regarding the existence or nonexistence of a Supreme Being


“Question” = discussing one’s beliefs with others and the search for understanding.

“Answer” = whether or not a Supreme Being actually exists.

“Not necessarily” = for all Apathetic Agnostics who are apathetic to both the question and the answer (don’t know, don’t care, and don’t want to talk about it).

But why should one bother with the question if the answer does not matter?  First of all, there are a lot of dangerous ideas in the world—such as the idea that anyone who does not believe in a particular doctrine will suffer damnation—and so finding ways to weaken their influence is a worthy cause.[4]  Second of all, the lessons one learns in agnosticism can be applied to everyday life—though they certainly don’t have to since just because one is agnostic about the existence of God does not mean that one must be agnostic about anything else.  One key lesson that one can learn from a agnosticism is to avoid claiming to be more certain of something than one really is.  I doubt that any irrational prejudice could exist if people followed this rule.  Another key lesson one can (but doesn’t have to) learn from Agnosticism is to seek understanding when judgment is not necessary.  For while Theism and Atheism pander to the temptation to take a side and try to “win the argument”, agnosticism promotes the search for understanding by keeping one’s mind open to all possibilities.  Third of all, discussing Religion is a very effective way of improving one’s capacity for abstract thought.  Nearly everyone is familiar with religion and has opinions about it, a very large proportion of people seem to be interested in it (at least at some points in their life), it affects one’s way of looking at the world on a fundamental level, and the level of complexity varies from the elementary to the dizzyingly complicated so anyone can join the discussion on whatever level they are capable of and build endlessly from there.


  1. See the second Apathetic Agnostic Article of Faith and, for some humor, The Collected Works of Yaffin Bocca (A Miscellany 105)
  2. Even Ockam’s Razor gives one no more advice other than to avoid having more assumptions than necessary because assumptions beyond the necessary are unnecessary and can lead to complication and contradiction.
  3. Enough With Frivolous Probabilities! 2nd Discussion to Meditation 558, Agnosticism or Atheism.
  4. For further reasons to reject versions of religion that believe in a jealous deity, see any article relating to Pascal’s Wager.