Our Culture Is Littered with Unverifiable Claims About God

Are we any better off because of it? 

When I was growing up in a small town (pop. 1,600) in rural Indiana in the 1940-1950s, there were four churches: three Protestant and one Roman Catholic. It would have been unthinkable for Protestants ever to attend Sunday worship at the Catholic church. We knew that the Catholic version of the faith was just plain wrong—and the Catholics felt exactly the same way about us. In fact, one of their favorite taunts was that we’d all go to hell because we weren’t Catholic. Yet the profound disagreements didn’t touch the one basic truth we held dear: God was real.

And the government helped bolster this belief: in the 1950s, the words “In God We Trust” were added to paper currency. In 1954, the words “Under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, primarily as a way to disassociate ourselves from those godless communists during the Cold War. In a sense, the Christian god is everywhere. In every city and town in the US, there are churches—by one estimate, there are 380,000 church buildings in this country. 
So we are raised in a context, and atmosphere, saturated with the affirmation that god exists. Carl Sagan has described a common occurrence during Q&A after he’d given a talk. He was sometimes asked, “Do you believe in God?”    
“Because the word ‘God’ means many things to many people, I frequently reply by asking what the questioner means by ‘God.’ To my surprise, this response is often considered puzzling or unexpected. ‘Oh, you know, God. Everyone knows who God is.’ Or, ‘Well, kind of a force that is stronger than we are and exists everywhere in the universe.’ There are a number of such forces. One of them is called gravity, but it is not often identified with God. And not everyone does know what is meant by ‘God.’ The concept covers a wide range of ideas.” (pp. 281-282, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science)
This statement is found in a ten-page chapter titled, A Sunday Sermon, in which Sagan reflects on the tension between religion and science. He notes, “The last posture a bureaucratic religion wishes to find itself in is vulnerability to disproof, where an experiment can be performed on which the religion stands or falls.” (p. 282) “…religions are tough. Either they make no contentions which are subject to disproof or they quickly redesign doctrine after disproof…near the core of religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.” (p. 284) 
The bureaucratic religions work so hard to embed religious certainties in young brains. The standard terms for this endeavor are Sunday School and Catechism. This is indoctrination, but more honestly it can be labeled brain washing. And the clergy dearly hope that it will hold for life. They have trained their parishioners not to ask, “Well, reverend, what exactly is the evidence for what you’ve just proclaimed from the pulpit?” They have their standard answers, e.g., “Well, it comes from the Bible,” or “One of our ancient saints received it in a vision.” Case closed, and naturally, many of their followers ask no more questions. Indeed, they are remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.
But why not ask for evidence—without settling for the standard excuses? We Protestants in rural Indiana knew for sure that the Catholic version of Christianity was wrong. It’s not hard to figure out, however, that they had been convinced by their clergy that they were right—and we had been convinced by our clergy that we were right. It should be the most natural thing in the world to be suspicious, and ask for evidence. But taking it on faith is the gold standard! All the religions we knew were wrong operate this way. 
Christian clergy, however, have the best possible example for operating this way, namely Jesus himself—at least Jesus-script we find in the gospels. The classic story to justify taking-it-on-faith was invented by the master of cult propaganda, the author of John’s gospel. In chapter 20:24-29 we find the Doubting Thomas episode. Thomas had missed seeing the resurrected Jesus when he appeared to the other disciples. Jesus showed up again later when Thomas was present, and invited him to feel and see his wounds. Then Thomas was convinced, but he got a scolding: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (v.29) That is, don’t look for evidence, just take it on faith. I call this story invented, by the way, because it’s not found in the other gospels. Failing to name any sources, we are entirely justified in suspecting that the story emerged from John’s theological imagination. His agenda was to get people to believe without evidence. 
We have to remain in awe that religions the world over continue to get by, to thrive, using this gimmick. They get away with it, because their followers have been taught to accept it as legitimate. For a thorough examination of this approach, read the article that John Loftus posted on this blog a few days ago, 19 February 2024: Faith and Reason are Mutually Exclusive Opposites. The level of hypocrisy involved is astounding, as Loftus notes: 

Christians reject the faiths of other religions precisely because they are faith-based. They just do not understand that their own religion or sect within it shares that same foundation.” 

Since it is impossible to hustle up reliable, verifiable, objective evidence—let alone proof—that (1) their god needed a human sacrifice to enable forgiveness of sins, and (2) that their dying-rising savior was a stand-alone success, Christian clergy and theologians have their backs against the wall. Taking it on faith has to be their strategy. But the evidence that they are wrong is massive, as Richard Carrier has demonstrated in his 2018 essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan Guys. Get Over It (in which he describes eleven other dying-rising gods worshipped in the ancient world). And Loftus, in his 19 February article here, quotes many secular thinkers on the total inadequacy of faith as a path to knowledge about the real world. 

But there’s a dark underside to take-it-on-faith, don’t-ask-for-evidence. The church has a long history of condemning and persecuting those who follow their curiosity, who are eager to discover how the world works. Sagan mentioned this grim reality:

“The aged Galileo was threatened by the Catholic hierarchy with torture because he proclaimed the Earth to move. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish hierarchy, and there is hardly an organized religion with a firm body of doctrine which has not at one time or another persecuted people for the crime of open inquiry.” (p. 284)

And Sagan offered a warning:

“The idea of religion as a body of belief, immune to criticism, fixed forever by some founder is, I think, a prescription for the long-term decay of religion… religions unwilling to accommodate to change, both scientific and social, are, I believe, doomed.  A body of belief cannot be alive and relevant, vibrant and growing, unless it is responsive to the most serious criticism that can be mustered against it.” (p. 288)

But Sagan also saw precisely the problem:

“Proponents of doctrinal religions—ones in which a particular body of belief is prized and infidels scorned—will be threatened by the courageous pursuit of knowledge. We hear from such people that it may be dangerous to probe too deeply. Many people have inherited their religion like their eye color: they consider it not a thing to think very deeply about…” (p. 290)

Over the years, I have asked devout Christian friends to review and critique portions of the books I’ve written that are critical of their religion. With very few exceptions, they’ve all refused, and they’ve been candid: they don’t want to read/study anything that might damage their beliefs. Which makes me suspect they have doubts just below the surface they prefer to ignore. After all, it’s pretty hard to live and survive in the modern world—and still take seriously the many weird ideas pushed by the clergy, the many farfetched stories found in the Bible.  

Let me return to that statistic I mentioned earlier: 380,000 church building in the US alone. Part of the reason that this has happened: Christianity has splintered endlessly. In my small hometown in Indiana there were four different Christian brands, and the divisions in this major world religion have grown and intensified. Because their theologies are based on faith, not evidence—hence, endless disagreements, endless unverifiable claims about god. And of course we can ask the question: are we better off as a nation because so much time and treasure has been spent building 380,000 churches? The huge church bureaucracies are obsessed with promoting ancient superstitions about a human sacrifice and a dying-rising holy hero—because the eternal life gimmick still works!   

However, the churches are in trouble. According to recent surveys, there are now more “nones” than there are Catholics, more “nones” than there are evangelicals. Despite the push by Christian Nationalists to seize control of the government, there may be enough resistance to prevent it from happening. The millions of citizens outside the churches—and fed up with so many unverifiable claims about god—may be able to prevail.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 
His YouTube channel is here. At the invitation of John Loftus, he has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here