Some New Arguments Against Religion

There is no shortage of arguments against religion. Some are practical in nature, others are philosophical. Some aim to discredit theism in general, others target specific propositions of Christianity, Islam, and so on. These arguments come from a huge variety of fields, including textual criticism, historical criticism, archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, cosmology, sociology, logic, the philosophy of mind, and epistemology. Many are by themselves sufficient to render religious belief unreasonable, but together they constitute an overwhelming case against faith-based beliefs in “truths” privately revealed by supernatural agents to human prophets.

While working on a forthcoming book, a few arguments occurred to me that I either couldn’t find in the literature, or don’t think are represented the way they should be, given their strength. Two of these arguments are, as far as I can tell, new. I’d be very interested to know what readers think.

So, here goes:

(1) An essential part of the human condition, according to most Christians, is our free will – that is, the ability to choose a course of action that isn’t determined by the laws of nature plus some prior states of the universe. One way humans can exercise this free will is by choosing not to believe in God. Now, according to the Nicene Creed, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. If he was fully human, then he could have chosen not to believe in God. But since Jesus was God, he couldn't have chosen not believed in God. Therefore, Jesus couldn't have been fully human (or if he was, he couldn’t have been fully divine).

(2) The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that religious pluralism is self-defeating. Whether he's right or not, I think religious exclusivism is self-defeating: by accepting that one and only one religion is true, one undercuts the very foundation of religion. The argument goes like this:

(i) Assume that religious exclusivism is true, and that one of the world’s religions is correct.

(ii) Most religions in the world are founded on revelations that self-professed prophets reported having. This includes the major world religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Over time, thousands or maybe even millions of self-professed prophets have reported that they received “truths” directly from the supernatural. The cases of the Apostle Paul, John (of Revelation), and Muhammad are not unique.

(iii) Assume that the large majority of these prophets were sincere in their reports. That is to say, they really believed they communicated with the supernatural. Only a small percentage of self-professed prophets have been duplicitous charlatans – perhaps Joseph Smith is a likely instance of this.

(iv) It follows from (i) – (iii) that some 99% or more of all the self-professed prophets who’ve ever believed they communicated with the supernatural actually did not (communicate with God). The prophets of one’s own religion thus fall into the 1% – or perhaps even the 0.1% – of self-professed prophets who weren’t utterly deluded, and wrong.

(v) And from (iv) it follows that reports of revelation are almost always false. Such reports have, at best, a horrible track record of yielding truth. In virtually every case, they’ve failed to produce real knowledge about the universe. This is what the religious exclusivist must believe.

(vi) So, why trust revelation reports at all? If someone says: “You should believe A and B,” and you say “Okay, but first tell me know you came to believe A and B,” and they say “I acquired A and B through a process that, statistically speaking, almost always produces falsehoods,” you should not believe A and B.

(And if the person adds, “No! You should believe! A and B are in the 1% of beliefs acquired this way that are true!” you can say, “Well, that’s a truly extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Can you provide such evidence?” In my experience, no religious person has ever presented to me the sort of evidence that such a highly improbable proposition would need to be justified.)

The premises above are sufficient for dismissing revelation as a highly unreliable means for acquiring truths about the nature and purpose of the cosmos. Religious exclusivism is self-defeating: accepting it as a Christian, for example, gives one reason for thinking Christianity is probably false.

(3) Does Satan have free will? According to scripture, Satan was created as an angel of the highest order, probably named “Lucifer.” But consumed by his beauty and splendor, he became proud and his wisdom was corrupted (Ezekiel 28:17). He wanted to be God rather than serve him, and consequently he was cast out of heaven. The view accepted by most Christians is that Satan rebelled against God of his own volition, not under coercion: he freely chose to challenge God’s divine authority.

This introduces a serious problem for Christian eschatology. On the one hand, if Satan has free will, it remains an open possibility that he could decide to do something other than what the Bible says he’ll do. Although the narrative has already been written, Satan’s free will would enable him to deviate from this narrative, to trick God by, for example, advising the Antichrist not to invade Israel 3.5 years into the Tribulation (according to dispensationalism). Thus, if Satan has free will, then the Bible could be wrong about the future.

On the other hand, if the Bible is infallible and Satan can’t freely choose to do something other than what it says he’ll do, it’s unclear how Satan could be held morally responsible for his future actions. If he’s unable to act of his own volition, then the evil of his actions falls upon whoever’s responsible for them. Since the Bible was written (or “inspired”) by God – since the eschatological narratives it contains were authored by the Almighty himself – it appears that we should hold God morally responsible for Satan’s future actions. God is the devil’s puppet-master, if Satan is bound to the Bible’s narrative. Christians can’t have it both ways, yet neither option is appealing.

The exact same could be said about any future event mentioned in the Bible. This includes the actions of the Antichrist (is he really running the show if we already know what he’s going to do?), the 144,000 evangelizing Jews, the rebellion of mortals during the Millennium, and so on. The extent to which the future is already fixed is inversely related to the free will we can exercise.

The argument here is similar to a much-discussed problem in theology concerning the compatibility of omniscience and free will: if God knows what we’ll do in the future, in what sense is our will free? The examples above, though, are stronger than this, since the issue isn’t only that God already knows, but that the future actions of beings are written down for all to know (including, presumably, those beings themselves). What would it be like, I wonder, to be the Antichrist after reading the Bible? What would be going through his head as he invades Israel halfway through the Tribulation? Or initiates Armageddon as Jesus returns with an army of believers? Either he has free will and could do something unexpected, or the entire eschaton is a puppet-show with God pulling the strings.

I’ve thought of a few more, but these are a start. I’d be especially curious to know what Christians think of them.

Written by Phil Torres.

(Note: Although I repeatedly mention dispensationalism, the arguments apply just as well to any other interpretation of eschatology. Also, some sections here have been excerpted from my forthcoming book The End: What Religion and Science Tell Us About the Apocalypse, Pitchstone Publishing.)