I am not here to convert you, hypothetical straw-man reader, to any belief system except perhaps nihilistic despair. But I would like to point out a problem with some of the memes you’ve been sharing about religion.
Specifically, I think you’re guilty of a kind of category error. But let’s look at some examples first so this argument will make more sense.
Now, I don’t know what you believe, but I bet I know something you believe. You probably think it’s wrong for the king to murder his subjects. We don’t have a king here, but you can substitute in “ruler” or “upper class person” instead. You’ve probably never thought about it before, but if your mayor ever opened fire on a crowd, I bet you’d want someone to stop him.
This sounds like an uncontroversial opinion, but many people have thought, explicitly or implicitly, that the king should be allowed to kill whoever he wants. Anaxarchus is one example, but throughout history many kings have maintained the right to kill people with impunity, with or without the formality of trial. You will not have a hard time thinking of twentieth-century dictators who also killed people at their whim. They thought they should be allowed to do it. Clearly at least some of their subjects thought they should be allowed to do it. But they are wrong and you are right.
Why do you believe the king should not be free to murder and rampage? The answer lies in another question: Do your parents believe kings should be allowed to murder and rampage? Do your friends believe kings should be allowed to murder and rampage?
If you answer yes, please note that you are an anomalous data point, messing up the graph. Almost no one who is reading this will believe, or will have been raised by people who believe, in absolute power of kings. Almost every ancient Egyptian, say, would disagree with us.
But we are right and they are wrong.
You probably see where I’m going with this, but in case it’s not clear: You were enculturated to believe leaders should have restrictions on their power. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you don’t believe it very strongly, or that you wouldn’t fight and die to prevent the overturning of these restrictions. It just means that if you were born in North Korea, you wouldn’t magically come to the same conclusions you do as an educated first world nerd (I’m making assumptions about you).
Most people have a value system they have been enculturated in (and restrictions on rulers is just one tiny part of that value system). Many people also have a religion they have been enculturated in. When you say that there are 5000 gods being worshiped (as the meme says), you should also be aware that there are many more than 5000 different value systems in the world, many of them mutually incompatible. Is only yours right?
You may know people who are communists or objectivists. You may think their belief system is silly or easily refutable. Communists and objectivists do not have a religion, of course, pretty much by definition, but they have something in common with religions. They are what Ferris Bueller would term “an ism.” They have a defined set of beliefs, written down for all to read and critique. Probably you do not. I sure don’t. Most of us have a kludge of demographic signals and emotional nonce reactions that pass as a value system. No one can debunk our beliefs because they are all over the place! But don’t worry: only your kludged-together mishmash of opinions is right.
Do you see the problem? They dared to be refutable; we refused to take that dare; and now we pretend we are better than they are.
Let’s try another one. You believe slavery is wrong. No joke; you really believe it! If you lived three thousand years ago, would you believe slavery was wrong? Would you be one of the great supergeniuses in history who came up with a great new idea and explained to everyone in the whole world that they were wrong?
There were many slave revolts in the ancient world (Spartacus’ was the most famous, if not the most successful). All of these revolts had as a goal the manumission of slaves, and none of these revolts outlawed slavery; they just changed who was a slave. Even slaves didn’t think slavery was wrong! They just though the assignments had been bungled.
The problem is that all of your beliefs are like this. No one around you believes in slavery, and you yourself do not believe in slavery. It seems obvious to you, therefore, that slavery is wrong — but if it’s so obvious, why was slavery first condemned only in the third century BC (after existing for millennia)? Why did it take so many centuries to persuade Europe to eliminate or minimize slavery, and why did Europe then forget this lesson several centuries later? Why did it take a war to persuade half of America of a truth you hold to be self-evident? What magic sight do you have they they didn’t? (Don’t try to persuade me, of course; I already agree with you.)
You may be able to think of some beliefs where you shocked and vexed your parents by allying yourself with your peer group instead of them. You probably supported gay marriage before they did. You probably put a banner on your facebook wall reading “I may lose some friends for this, but I support gay marriage. “Did you actually lose any friends over this? If you did, you tossed off a “bye, Felicia!” or “farewell, Phippe!,” depending on your fondness for archaism. Your real friends already agreed with you.
There is a narrow window of things it is permissible, in the society you grew up in, to disagree on; these are the fringes of the “Overton window,” where cluster topics like abortion or global warming. It may not be permissible within your peer group to disagree about these things, but it is permissible in society at large, and you can freely slide between peer groups to find the one you fit in best with. Along the way you may scandalize, but you will not actually outrage, the culture you grew up in.
It is possible for you to adopt some fringe beliefs that are completely beyond the pale and outside the America’s (or your society’s) Overton window. (Another way of putting this is that you may disagree with some beliefs that are at the center of the Overton window.) But you probably never will. Your rebellions fall safely within the accepted spectrum of rebellions, just as mine do. You will probably never decide that the Holocaust was justified, or that Stalin was a hero—and with good reason! Those people are crazy! I’m with you here, me and all the other sane people, arguing about whether minimum wage should be hiked and not about whether poor people should be allowed to vote, because we learned the answer to one of those in the cradle.
Perhaps you think you created your value system from first principles, using only pure reason. If you did, you are probably either Ayn Rand or Arthur Schopenhauer, because almost no one else has even attempted such a feat. The fact that Rand and Schopenhauer could come to such very different conclusions from the same method should make you worry about its viability. Euclid came up with a system of geometry that worked perfectly for over 2000 years, and still works pretty well for most needs—why have no value systems been similarly robust and persuasive? I’m not saying it’s not possible, just that I know you, and I don’t think you are the one who’s going to do it. And no one else has.
I want to make it clear that the problem is not that there is no moral truth or that your moral system is necessarily wrong. Odds are we agree on 99% of questions; odds are I think you are right! I sure think I’m right, which is far from saying there’s no such thing is right. But if you think you came to your conclusions by anything except inheriting your beliefs as dogma, you are fooling yourself. They are such successful dogma, you do not even recognize them as dogma!
A religious person, therefore, is someone who says “I believe a bunch of arbitrary things because I believe an all-powerful being told me they are true.” An irreligious person similarly says, “I believe a bunch of arbitrary things even though no all-powerful being told me they are true”; or, “My arbitrary beliefs are better than yours because they are based on different, but equally arbitrary, arbitrary beliefs.”