Belief without evidence (5 of 6): A religious inventory

I have listed some basic beliefs and values that I hold, and that I think others hold too. And I have pointed out some things that are often claimed as points of humanist/atheist/skeptic dogma, but are definitely not. Now I would like to have a look at further beliefs – basic dogmas – held by religious people.

i. Existence of a god.

For many believers, this is the irrevocable core of their beliefs. They do not believe in a god because of experiences, or evidence, or reasoning. They just believe. Their belief in a god is a personal point of dogma. This is how organized religions tend to treat their gods’ existence. They do not lead their congregants through the evidence supporting the belief; they simply assert the god’s existence, and go from there.

For others however, belief in a god is a consequence of some personal experience, or of a philosophical chain of reasoning. As a non-believer, I may conclude that they have misinterpreted the evidence, or that they have reasoned poorly from the evidence to the conclusion. Even so, I should concede that at least they are putting this on the table as one that stands or falls on evidence and reason. That is, for these believers, the existence of a god is not a basic dogma but a conclusion from evidence and reasoning.

Note that, aside from a rarefied few deists, believers don’t stop at proclaiming the existence of a god, but add many specific characteristics of that being: moral traits, aesthetic preferences, emotional behaviours, creative and divinatory abilities, and so on. Each such trait is actually a separate unsupported belief – I group them here only for convenience and brevity.

ii. Historical reliability of sacred scriptures.

Christians have the Old and New Testaments; Jews have the Torah; Muslims have the Quran and Hadith; Hindus the Gita; Sikhs the Guru Granth Sahib, Buddhists their various important texts. Written or oral tales carrying the weight of incontrovertible or sacred truth seem to be present in every culture.

Individual believers vary in the extent to which they take these stories literally. For example, were Adam and Eve actual historical figures, or metaphors for humans’ early attitudes toward the divine? Either way, though, the stories told in the scripture have some sort of special significance, either as historical texts or as literary guides to life. The literalist claim is of course the strongest, and carries the greatest burden of proof; but even the moderate, metaphorical approach often sets that tradition’s sacred text above those of other religions.

iii. Inner feelings can directly reveal cosmic truths.

Many (but certainly not all) religious traditions have made inner feelings of some sort or another into an unassailable source of truth. The claim is that their god has “imprinted” knowledge on their hearts, and that because it comes from their god it should be taken as true without subjecting it to rational examination.

There seems to be no way to demonstrate this as reliable by other means (for example, deriving it from observation and reason). While some rely on religious texts to back up this claim, there are many who hold this point of dogma while trying to distance themselves from any organized religion.

There are many other claims that could be listed here, depending on the religious tradition and the individual. There are historical claims, which are either extra assumptions or fall under the reliability of scripture, making that assumption carry more weight. There are claims about morally privileged cultural practices, often but not always connected to scripture in the same way.

I include these not to argue against them as ridiculous, or even wrong. (I think most of them are wrong, but that is a discussion for another time.) I include them to point out that religious believers make at least one or two extra assumptions, on top of those made by secular humanists like me.

Next up: where does all this discussion of basic beliefs get us?


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