Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Left Behind again

If I were quicker, I'd be ahead of the curve. I had been planning to mention this poll about religious belief from pollingreport.com, which had been forwarded to me by a friend, but hadn't gotten around to it; now somehow everyone is all over it. (See comments from Ed Brayton, Kieran Healy, and Eugene Volokh.)

The interesting thing is, the numbers that are making people jump are those concerned with literal interpretations of the Bible: Sixty percent of American adults believe in the literal truth of the Flood, sixty-four percent in the parting of the red sea, and sixty-one percent that the world was created in six days. These are indeed alarming, as is the fact that seventy percent of adult Americans believe in Hell and the Devil. The number that is most scary to me is the biggest one: Ninety percent believe in God. To me, the belief in God is no more intellectually respectable than belief in Hell or in the Flood, or in the six-day creation. After all, the Bible is supposed to be the inspired word of God, and why would He lie? (Although even the authors of the Left Behind series agree that the part in Revelation about the sword coming out of Jesus' mouth is supposed to be symbolic.)

The amount of observational evidence for God is precisely equal to that for the Devil, the Flood, astrology, or the Easter Bunny: zero. There are plenty of a priori arguments floating around, but anyone who isn't already convinced can see that they're pretty silly. It shouldn't be any more respectable to believe in God than it is to accept the more extravagant consequences that follow from such a belief. I hate to admit it, but religious liberals who cling to a wishy-washy notion of divinity that is shaped to conform to their pre-existing beliefs seem to be less intellectually honest than the Biblical literalists. For the same reason, I find myself sympathizing with the bishops who refuse communion to openly gay couples -- of course they are wrong, but at least they are being consistent, as officers of a church that condemns homosexuality. Religious belief is a strong and meaningful stance to take on how the universe really works; one that is wildly at odds with all of our experience, but not one that lends itself to arbitrarily picking and choosing among its tenets.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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