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Religion, Facts and Relativism

April 23, 2010

Another Wednesday, and another evening spent arguing religion. A friend and I seem to be making a habit of it. We both enjoy it, we don’t take offence at anything the other says, and we both find the other’s position strange. It’s a fun way to spend an evening! This week I encountered an interesting attitude to facts.

After spending a while chatting about the history of the Bible, I stated that it’s a fact that the it isn’t “divinely inspired”. There is a fairly well documented history of the texts that make up our modern Bible, and while it isn’t complete there is an on-going attempt to get the most accurate copy of what was originally written. We generally know who wrote what and when they wrote it. By looking at the context in which it was written it’s often possible to work out why they wrote it as well (to support a particular doctrine, to refute an argument made against Christianity, to increase the power of a particular group of people, there are a lot of possibilities).

The response was that even if this is my fact, it isn’t my friends. They believe it was divinely inspired and is the inerrant, unalterable word of god (I did ask which version is the word of god…). I’m afraid I quoted Sam Harris at this point: “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts.”

The overall point that was made is that whilst I may have my “human” fact, none of these hold in relation to things that might be related to god. I asked to what lengths this could be taken. Evolution? Creation? Mathematical “truths”? All of these are allegedly contingent on the fact that we’re considering them from a human viewpoint. Once god gets in on the act, anything goes, no matter what evidence can be produced to the contrary. This complete disregard of evidence has an interesting consequence.

I can list things that would make me believe in the existence of a god. A “miracle” that firmly contradicts known physical laws and has no naturalistic explanation or a huge guy in the sky appearing and telling me that he exists might do the trick. My friend proudly stated that there is no conceivable set of evidence that would persuade her that we live in a naturalistic universe. This is an important distinction between atheists and many believer; atheists could conceivably change their minds; many theists couldn’t. This “fact relativism” is seriously misguided. There is no evidence for the existence of a god, so ignoring evidence that is linked to the world in which we live is irrational. If I’m happy to ignore evidence as it’s only “human”, I can ignore all sorts of things that could change my opinions on important matters.

Relativism is, at it’s worst, a deeply annoying phenomenon.  It leads to all sorts of crazy statements. Take the following quote from The Freethinker (hat-tip to Nicky for a link to this site recently):

…even though I don’t believe The Book of Mormon or the Koran are divinely inspired, I would treat those books with extra respect, just because they are sacred to somebody. Rod Dreher

What? Why? Why should anyone treat these books with respect just because someone holds them sacred? Even if there was definitely a god and only these two “sacred” books existed, one or both of them would have to be completely false, and if I had complete faith in the divinity of one I would know the other was false. So why the respect in a world when it is highly likely that none of the holy books are divine? Just because someone holds something sacred doesn’t mean we have to treat that thing with respect if we believe it to be completely irrational. The same goes for the “fact relativism” above; I don’t have to treat someone’s facts with respect if they’re completely contradictory to what we know is backed up by actual evidence.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nicky permalink
    April 24, 2010 5:18 PM

    Isn’t the quote “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts” from Michael Specter? Just wondering…

    I’m glad the link was well received. I’ve read a couple of their articles & quite like the site.

    Have you seen this TED talk by James Randi:

  2. April 24, 2010 6:00 PM

    I took the quote from End of Faith, maybe he parroted it from Spector.

    I watched that Randi talk a few days ago. Hilarious. The guy is a genius.

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