Religion is wrong with positive probability

When a person says that some god wants X or rewards X and punishes Y, then how do they know? They, a limited human, claim knowledge of the mind of a god. When asked how they know, they say either that the god told them directly (using some revelation or sign perhaps) or that the god told some other person (a prophet) in the past, who passed on the message in the form of a book or an oral tradition. They certainly do not have replicable experimental evidence. If some other person was told, then recall the telephone game (children whispering in each other’s ear change the message radically) and people’s general lying, misunderstanding and misremembering. In any case, at some point a god must have told a person.
Let us look at this unavoidable transmission link between a purported god and a human. Could not an evil spirit have impersonated the god to the human (if evil spirits exist in their religion)? Or could it have been just a hallucination, dream, false memory? Psychology shows false memories are easy to induce (Brainerd and Reyna 2005 “The science of false memory”). How could a human tell the difference? Plenty of people in insane asylums claim not only to know a god’s will but also to be a god.
If there is a method for distinguishing real revelations from gods from false ones, how do you know it works? Either a god told you directly that it works or a person told you. In both cases we arrive at the previous question: how do you know it was a god and that you (or the other person) understood and remember the message correctly? If there is a method for finding and verifying good methods of distinguishing real from fake revelations, how do you know that works? And so on. Everything eventually relies on belief in the claim of a human. There is always a positive probability that the human imagined things that were not there or is deceiving self or others. Any religious claim is wrong with positive probability.
The next fallback position for advocates of religion is that even if it is wrong with positive probability, it does no harm to believe it. But how do they know? Back to the question about knowing the mind of a god. Why cannot a god reward nonbelievers and punish believers? And which religion out of the multitude in the world should one believe for maximal benefit? Some religions claim that a wrong religion is worse than none (heresy worse than paganism), some the opposite. To compare the expected benefit from believing different religions and from atheism, one needs to know the size of the rewards and punishments and also their probabilities. All this reduces to (conflicting) claims by humans about the will of a god. Which are wrong with positive probability.

2 thoughts on “Religion is wrong with positive probability

  1. Aaron Nicholas

    I think most believers of any religion would (should?) accept that they are wrong with a positive probability.

    Wouldn’t the ‘easiest’ way to understand the ” size of the rewards and punishments and also their probabilities” be to ‘join’ each religion in turn and ‘experience’ them and decide for oneself?

    Of course this in itself may suffer from the ‘path dependence’ problem since the order at which one experiences the religions may in itself affect the experience. And unfortunately Shapley can’t help us here.

    1. sanhei Post author

      In my experience, most believers in any religion or ideology do not think they are wrong with positive probability. The denial of the possibility of being wrong is called strong faith and considered a good thing among them.
      Experiencing the rewards of the religion usually requires dying, because the rewards are in the afterlife 🙂 It is difficult to die many times under different religions in order to experience their rewards. It would be interesting to do if possible, of course.


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