A Car Accident
Imagine two streets intersecting in the city. One street has a green light, and traffic is passing through unimpeded. The cross-street has a red light, and traffic is stopped. All of a sudden, a red four-door sedan on the cross-street enters the intersection against the light at about twenty miles per hour. It clips the rear bumper of a white pick-up truck that was passing through on a green.
Without stopping, the driver of the red car floors it and disappears down the cross-street out of view. Several witnesses pull out their cell phones and call the police to report the accident. The driver of the white pick-up pulls over, gets out, and walks to the back of his truck. He is wearing blue jeans and a white shirt with a business logo on the chest pocket. He looks at the damage—the rear bumper has come off. He picks it up from the street, throws it in the back of the truck, hops back in, and drives away.
Police arrive three minutes later to find little evidence that a car accident ever occurred. There are a few broken pieces of plastic scattered around, but they could have been from this crash, or from a fender-bender a day before, or from any number of other incidents that occur in-and-around that intersection all the time. So the responding officers begin to interview the people nearby and collect witness testimony.
Some weren’t there at the time, and therefore saw nothing. Some were nearby, but only heard a sound that might (or might not) have been related to the supposed crash. Some were nearby, but didn’t see or hear anything at all.
Some did witness the accident, but their testimony isn’t in complete agreement. One saw a gray truck get rear-ended by a red crossover. One saw a white truck get hit by a red car, but thought the red car had the right-of-way at the time. Several did report that a white truck got hit by a red car that had run a red light, but still couldn’t identify the makes and models or any details about the drivers. Only two witnesses both correctly recounted the details of the cars involved and stated with certainty who had the right-of-way at the time.
Those that could say something about the drivers didn’t all agree with each other either. A few said he was a white male wearing blue jeans and a white shirt, but others said he was Hispanic, or that he was wearing gray slacks, or that he was wearing blue coveralls. Nobody noticed or remembered the corporate logo on the man’s shirt.
There is no solid evidence of the accident. There is no ‘proof’ that it even occurred, at least in a cold, scientific sense. All we have to go on is the word of a large number of witnesses, but those witnesses disagree about many of the important details. A sort of broad ‘consensus view’ can be discerned from the witness reports, but, in the end, the investigators will never know with absolute certainty what happened.
What should go into the police report? What should we believe happened at that intersection?
I think that the witness consensus view should be accepted as the most likely explanation, barring any actual, concrete evidence that the consensus view is wrong. The report should include the most-cited versions of events from witnesses, and be clear about any remaining uncertainties. But whatever version of events we accept, I can tell you one thing: It would be irrational to conclude that no accident ever occurred.
Witness testimony is often imperfect, but it does count for something, even when there is little or no corroborating evidence. We can’t assume that multiple witnesses with stories that broadly agree with one another, despite some confusion about the details, all just made-up, imagined, or lied about the things they report just because we can’t prove their accounts are accurate.
So what should we make of the fact that billions of human beings have had religious experiences? Does their witness testimony mean anything?
The majority of human beings all throughout history have believed in a higher power of some sort. Even today, with radical secularism and relativism and atheism growing at rapid paces, most people do still believe in God (in one form or another) even if they do not profess membership in any organized religious group. Is it rational to conclude, in the absence of any concrete evidence to disprove their claims, that there is no God?
Yes, there are serious discrepancies in the reports of religious people. Christianity teaches that Jesus, a Jewish man who lived about two thousand years ago, was God incarnate. Judaism teaches that God communicates primarily through the teachings of the prophets, especially Moses, and rejects the claims of Jesus. Islam teaches that Jesus was merely a prophet, and it deviates markedly from Judaism and Christianity with regard to the use of violence to spread the faith.
Even within these three major ‘Abrahamic’ faiths, there are many variants. Christianity breaks into Catholic, Orthodox, and endless forms of Protestantism. Judaism, at least in the United States, breaks into Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform factions. Islam breaks into Sunni and Shiite factions, and then each of those breaks into various sub-factions.
And then there are the other world religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Jainism, Taoism, Druze, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, the Norse religion, and the various small ‘folk religions’ found among the tribes and communities of American Indians, aboriginal Australians, Africans, and Asians. There are thousands of religious belief structures in the world with at least a handful of adherents.
Is the proper conclusion from all of this to say that there is no God, and religion is just a scam to control the masses, or wishful thinking, or hallucination?
The Rational Conclusion
The rational conclusion would be to assume that there is indeed something to these ‘supernatural’ beliefs and experiences. These people aren’t imagining things, or at least the majority aren’t. We can begin to discern a consensus view of the truth by analyzing the various enduring belief structures and experiences and identifying the strongest commonalities between them. The lack of concrete, scientific proof cannot, in-and-of itself, discount the testimony of witnesses . . . especially when we are talking about hundreds, thousands, or millions of them.
Like the one witness of the hypothetical accident scene who saw a gray truck instead of a white truck, we can conclude that tiny minority views are probably wrong. Religions that practice human sacrifice, for example, have made up such a small percentage of believers throughout human history that it is pretty safe to assume that God doesn’t really want human sacrifices.
In contrast, almost all world religions condemn murder. Maybe that means something. Indeed, even the religions that practiced human sacrifice also condemned murder, they just conveniently (and erroneously) redefined human sacrifice as not being murder at all. Many of today’s relativists do the same thing . . . you know, it really isn’t murder if the person you kill hasn’t yet reached the third trimester, or the birth canal.
Science cannot prove the existence of God any more than it can prove that a car accident occurred in our hypothetical situation, but it would be the height of hubris and irrationality to presume that a lack of evidence is evidence of lack. In other words, the fact that there is no scientific proof of God does not constitute scientific proof that there is no God.
And when we consider the sheer number of people who have had personal experiences of God, in one form or another, and can speak of those experiences with the same certitude as somebody who witnessed a car accident, it is proper and scientific and rational to presume that God does indeed exist.
About Those Inconsistencies
Many non-believers point to the inconsistencies between the world’s religions as evidence that they are all contrived and wrong, but in truth there are more similarities than differences between these faiths.
All religions, at least to some degree, are informed by universal natural law—an inherent truth that all human beings are aware of and interact with. This law includes a knowledge of God’s existence, a knowledge of basic moral norms against killing and stealing, a recognition of the special status of marriage (traditionally understood as being a union of male and female oriented toward reproduction and family), and so on. We only deviate from these laws through our own prideful failings, or, increasingly, by being taught from youth to ignore or fundamentally misunderstand them.
Many non-believers, especially those who subscribe to the angry polemics of the ‘new atheism,’ will pepper their online comments on every article about religion with insults and hatred, saying that believers are brainwashed, ignorant, stupid, or crazy. You know, we’re all just talking to our invisible friends and seeing things that aren’t there, and we can’t even agree among ourselves about what’s right and wrong. Some of these are fair criticisms, though callously expressed.
But these non-believers are side-stepping some very important questions. Why do so many people believe? How do millions of people report having been touched by, or having interacted with, God, angels, and saints? How are we to explain those well-documented miracles where hundreds or thousands of people witness the sun ‘dancing in the sky,’ or a statue weeping blood, or a consecrated host (bread) becoming human flesh?
Are We All Liars?
Are all of these, and religious belief in general, just examples of mass hysteria, hallucination, or fabrication?
I suppose it is possible. Large numbers of people can be convinced to believe something that is not true, especially when those beliefs are supported by ‘expert testimony’ from seemingly trustworthy authorities. Many people still believe that the world is threatened by overpopulation and food shortages, even though food production continues to out-pace population growth. Many people still believe that human carbon dioxide (CO2) production will somehow destroy the climate, even though CO2 still accounts for only four-hundredths of one percent of the content of the atmosphere. And of course, every despotic dictator and cult leader of the last century has somehow managed to get people on-board.
So we know that human beings can be duped into trusting experts who aren’t actually very expert at all. But in each of these cases, we have been duped by our inclination to trust others, not by our own senses, memories, and experiences.
Yes, some believers only believe because they trust their parents, religious leaders, friends, and experts. But even if we accept for the sake of argument that millions really have been duped, what about the millions more who personally witnessed miracles, experienced interaction with God, angels, or saints, or witnessed other supernatural and religious events in their lives?
The Alternate Explanation
If this is all fabrication, how would somebody even begin to orchestrate a fraud on such a scale, and why would so many people go along with it? If this is hallucination or mass hysteria, how do we account for the similarities between disparate religious accounts, and the even more consistent witness reports of thousands who saw a miracle (like the Miracle of the Sun) together?
Human perception is fallible, as I demonstrated in my car accident example. A hundred people viewing the same event, or similar events, will often have very different accounts. But, taken together, we can discern a mostly-accurate and trustworthy account. And when a million people all have religious experiences, they also differ in the details. Many will misunderstand what they have seen, or remember it inaccurately. Some will get it completely wrong. But taken together, these accounts must be taken seriously, and we can discern a good, accurate report by analyzing their commonalities.
The only alternate explanation is that our perception is so deeply flawed that no human testimony, no matter how well-supported by the testimony of others, can be trusted unless confirmed by scientific experimentation.
In this view, human beings are so deeply susceptible to suggestion, hallucination, or false memories that nothing we say can be taken at face value. Nobody should trust anything that anybody tells them, and, more perniciously, we should not trust our own perceptions either. After all, we are human too. If we take this view, we must also recognize that we are not immune to the suggestions and hallucinations and false memories that we claim countless others are suffering from.
What to Believe
This is a dim view of the human condition, and one that renders all of our thoughts and beliefs and memories—believer or not—meaningless. If no human testimony has any weight, then that assertion in-and-of itself has no weight. Nothing can be known, nothing can be trusted, nothing can be believed, and nothing can be learned, because we will never be able to know what is true and what is not.
But in truth, although human testimony is rarely perfect, it cannot be discounted entirely. Most people will remember things as they were, and most people will describe those memories accurately when asked to do so. And so, when millions upon millions of human beings, past and present, tell me that they have seen and experienced God, and when I see and experience him myself, I am inclined to believe.