The following is part of a Series called Conversation with a Deconverter.
Question Number Four
So, up to this point I’ve tried to see if we can answer this question more directly. First, I tried to be sure our question was reasonable, then I asked,
How would I know that your god is The One, True God?
The answer seems to be that we can’t really answer the question, at least not in this form. This is the answer I consistently get when I ask adherents this question. Some will begrudge the nature of the question, but usually I’ve found that those objections just end up getting us nowhere and really just begs the question, never providing an answer. So, even if an objection to the way we’ve asked it is reasonable, this is why I’m asking different questions, to try to get at a question that will answer it.
So, I’m going to use another approach that, in all material respects, results in a question that is really no different than any of the questions I’ve already asked. Here it is:
Let me begin by describing the ancient Greek explanation of the Sun’s apparent movement; that the Sun God Helios is pulling it across the sky from his fiery chariot. Of course, we know it only looks that way and the Sun is not moving across the sky, the Earth is rotating, and the Creator would have to know this.
Helios is the young Greek god of the sun. He is the son of Hyperion and Theia. By the Oceanid Perse he became the father of Aeetes, Circe, and Parsiphae. His other children are Phaethusa (“radiant”) and Lampetia (“shining”) and Phaeton. This is one of many hundreds of gods that must, in all fairness, assuming I’m starting from a clean slate, be a candidate for The One, True God, right?
So, each morning at dawn he rises from the ocean in the east and rides in his chariot; pulled by four horses – Pyrois, Eos, Aethon and Phlegon – through the sky, to descend at night in the west. Helios once allowed Phaeton to guide his chariot across the sky. The unskilled youth could not control the horses and fell towards his death.
Homer describes Helios as giving light both to gods and men: he rises in the east from Oceanus, though not from the river, but from some lake or bog (limnê) formed by Oceanus, rises up into heaven, where he reaches the highest point at noon time, and then he descends, arriving in the evening in the darkness of the west, and in Oceanus. (Il. vii. 422, Od. iii. 1, &c., 335, iv. 400, x. 191, xi. 18, xii. 380.) Later poets have marvellously embellished this simple notion: they tell of a most magnificent palace of Helios in the east, containing a throne occupied by the god, and surrounded by personifications of the different divisions of time (Ov. Met. ii. 1, &c.); and while Homer speaks only of the gates of Helios in the west, later writers assign to him a second palace in the west, and describe his horses as feeding upon herbs growing in the islands of the blessed. (Nonn. Dionys. xii. 1, &c.; Athen. vii. 296; Stat. Theb. iii. 407.) The points at which Helios rises and descends into the ocean are of course different at the different seasons of the year; and the extreme points in the north and south, between which the rising and setting take place, are the tropai êelioio. (Od. xv. 403; Hes. Op. et Dies, 449, 525.) The manner in which Helios during the night passes front the western into the eastern ocean is not mentioned either by Homer or Hesiod, but later poets make him sail in a golden boat round one-half of the earth, and thus arrive in the east at the point from which he has to rise again. This golden boat is the work of Hephaestus. (Athen. xi. 469; Apollod. ii. 5. § 10; Eustath. ad Hom. p. 1632.) Others represent him as making his nightly voyage while slumbering in a golden bed. (Athen. xi. 470.) The horses and chariot with which Helios makes his daily career are not mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey, but first occur in the Homeric hymn on Helios (9, 15; comp. in Merc. 69, in Cer. 88), and both are described minutely by later poets. (Ov. Met. ii. 106, &c.; Hygin. Fab. 183; Schol. ad Eurip. Pholen. 3 ; Pind. Ol. vii. 71.)
A similar story comes from a myth from Africa. It is a Kenyan creation story and can be found in a book called African Mythology. In it, the Sun and Moon were supposed to have the same light producing capacity but the Moon got mud on it when the Sun and Moon fought. The key in these examples is to stress that these are only clues, not proof of anything, and that what they illustrate is that we are not justified in treating this question any differently than the secular examples already provided as they are all the same in all material respects.
So, imagine a person living in that time who fully and totally believed the Helios narrative. Suppose this person believed this because their parents and all the Greeks they knew also believed it. Of course, let us assume in any case that they had the freedom to explore, read and learn of other points of view; including those of other gods that existed at the time and the views of other cultures known to the Greeks at that time. So, in this example, our Greek person holds this view of the Helios narrative very solidly and strongly. It is ingrained from birth. This particular individual, in our example, harbors no doubt whatsoever about the truth of the Helios narrative.
And we can see why.
Even so, this person could easily educate themselves on alternative views. But they don’t because study after study done on this subject shows that when a person believes something they tend to seek out confirmation of that belief, not anything that argues against it. And this preference is apparently very strong. Academics call this Confirmation Bias which I’ll describe below. So, this confirmation bias says this person might never pursue any other source material, or listen to arguments or ideas that support an alternative narrative – such as a foreign or alternative religion’s narrative – because it is human nature to seek out confirmation of a belief rather than an alternative. But let us add another wrinkle to this story. Suppose the “adherent” who believed in the Helios narrative as above also established his or her own logic to back it up; reasoning that the sun does appear to move across the sky and the background story on Helios is accepted by everyone he knows and in fact is recorded in ancient texts as being true. Ergo, Helios dragging the sun across the sky does in fact explain what he or she observes, he or she reasons.
About Confirmation Bias
Adherents will often seek out a concrete pattern to confirm a pre-existing, general belief. It is a form of failed induction. But failures of inductive reasoning can occur anytime there is a pattern in a set of specific examples in which multiple general solutions are possible. In these cases people will tend to adopt the pattern that induces their pre-existing beliefs. Since life is full of cases in which multiple general solutions exist to specific occurrences in life, this is readily exploited as well. The rate at which this occurs in a randomly selected group of people is around 73%; that is, 73% will tend to confirm a general solution that is incorrect or not verifiable by the pattern given.
I’d like to ask you a hypothetical in the form of what is called a binary comparison. I will pose it not as a question of how likely one thing is, but, rather, which of two things is more likely than the other. So, I’m going to ask if it appears more likely that the Helios narrative emerged as a result of Confirmation Bias or just because Helios is The One, True God. Note that this is the same form as the questions we’ve already asked. If those were the only two options you had, which would be more likely? It will be clear in a minute why I’m asking it this way.
Relating this question back to Question Number One
Recalling Question 1:
Suppose I live in a society in which a common story told is that when little children make straight “A”s in school a magical professor flies around the globe in a chariot going to each house where such a child resides and tosses candy down the chimney for that child as a reward for having done so well in school. Now, suppose I show you a study that clearly, and with a sound methodology and considerable replication of results, shows that children will tend to believe stories like this if they are sufficiently young and their parents and their community reinforce the tale. They call this phenom the “A” effect.
The question is:
Is it more likely that the children believe this story because of the A effect or because there is a magical professor that flies around in a chariot dropping candy down several million chimneys?
The only thing we are doing differently in my questions is in one case the magical professor is secular and in another he happens to be part of a religious tradition; that is, there is no material difference.
But, to be clear, I want to pose this question to the reader and see if anyone can agree:
So, my question now, which we can call Question Number 4, is a variant of the third one:
Is it more likely that belief in the Helios narrative is due to Confirmation Bias or is it more likely that Helios is The One, True God?
Go to Question Number Five