Many moderate Christians reject intelligent design as science in favor of evolution, which I must admit is a step in the right direction. So how exactly do they justify their belief in God? Many use a priori arguments—clever feats of mental gymnastics that are designed to be immune to evidence and thus as indestructible as The Great Pyramids. But are they logically valid, or is atheist Sam Harris correct to describe them as “epistemological Ponzi schemes”?
Side note: In case you’re wondering as I initially did, a Ponzi scheme is a form of investment fraud that promises huge returns but relies on other investors and not on actual profits. You might have heard the synonymous term pyramid scheme—and about the investment pyramids that have famously collapsed under their own weight.
As an example of an a priori argument, let’s take Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal suggested that we should believe in God and accept Christianity because it’s a safe bet. After all, according to decision theory, if we’re right, then we receive an eternal reward—and if we’re wrong, we lose nothing. But if we fail to accept Christianity and we are wrong, then we are eternally punished.
In a 1992 episode of that brilliant philosophical treatise known as The Simpsons, Homer the Heretic pointed out the absurdity of Pascal’s Wager to his wife Marge:
Homer: Whats the big deal about going to some building every Sunday? I mean, isn’t God everywhere?
Bart: Amen, brother!
Homer: And don’t you think the almighty has better things to do than wonder where one guy spends one measly hour of his week?
Bart: Tell it, daddy!
Homer: And what if we’ve picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder!
Bart: (claps and waves his arms) Testify!
Outside of the obvious heresy of gambling with God, it doesn’t take long to see that Pascal’s Wager is an argumentum ad consequentiam (or appeal to consequences) fallacy. Pascal was indifferent to the truth in his religion, he only cared about its eternal risks and rewards. Obviously, Pascal’s Wager is more scheme than pyramid.
Kierkegaard’s existential leap of faith
Perhaps less seedy than Pascal’s Wager but no less absurd is Søren Kierkegaard’s existential leap of faith. Kierkegaard reasoned that because religion is a realm in which reason can’t successfully operate that we must rely on faith to make decisions about the supernatural. Many religious scientists make this claim as well. The problem for Kierkegaard and those scientists is that matters of faith aren’t true/false questions—they’re multiple choice.
Let’s run with Kierkegaard for a moment. Suppose I agree to make a leap of faith and believe in God. But which God? Yahweh? Allah? Brahma? I think Richard Dawkins said it best when he wrote:
Today, everyone takes it for granted that we are all atheists with respect to Thor and Wotan, Zeus and Poseidon, Mithras and Ammon Ra.
Although we might find it crazy now, at one point in history people had faith that these gods were real. Apparently, all of us apply truth tests of one sort or another when choosing a God to worship or not to worship, so faith is insufficient reason to believe anything, and humans have never really exempted supernatural ideas from scrutiny. Using faith as a foundation will cause your pyramid of reason to collapse.
Anselm’s ontological argument
Finally, there’s the ontological argument. It’s essentially a trick of semantics suggesting that because we can understand the idea of God that God must exist. According to St. Anselm:
Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.
This, I grant you, is heady stuff. Yet I believe the ontological argument is an argumentum ad logicam (or “argument from fallacy”) fallacy. Because St. Anselm began by equivocating actuality with possibility (a fallacy unto itself), he jumped to a conclusion that wasn’t really there. Indeed, Immanuel Kant pointed out the primary equivocation behind Anselm’s argument:
There is already a contradiction in introducing the concept of existence—no matter under what title it may be disguised—into the concept of a thing which we profess to be thinking solely in reference to its possibility.
Worse yet, I can imagine a supreme being who is morally superior to the one whom theists believe is actually pulling the strings in our universe. Surprisingly, although the ontological argument is an a priori assertion, it too fails to withstand the blows of evidence because it too is a pyramid scheme.
Why might religious people make these silly arguments? Do they believe that they are persuasive to others? Perhaps. The ontological argument certainly sounds smart. But, more likely, they believe that these arguments immunize their own from the criticisms of atheists like me. They are preaching to the choir, reassuring them that they’re smart too and that they’ve bet on the right horse. Honestly, I think religious apologists have taken a page from the world of marketing:
When consumers are involved in a brand purchase but perceive little brand differentiation or lack the ability to judge between competing brands, the advertising should reduce post-purchase dissonance through providing reassurance after the purchase.
Leslie de Chernatony and Malcolm McDonald, Creating Powerful Brands, 1998
So my advice is that we all hone our abilities to differentiate between the quality of different “brands” of religious and philosophical thought, lest we fall victim to a religious pyramid scheme ourselves. Sure, the commissions are great, but the long-term returns may be disappointing.