Imagine you are a Muslim child. Everywhere you look hundreds of thousands of normal humans exhibit a passionate devotion to Allah. You know these people well. They love and care for you. You know they would never lie to you. What reason would they have for telling you something that was completely untrue? Does not the fact that millions of honest and sincere humans are exhibiting the same depth of devotion to a particular belief constitute at least some evidence for the truth of that belief? Most of us would unequivocally say “no”.
Yet, many Christians feel their own beliefs are given an evidential boost whenever they find themselves in a large group of fellowshipping Christians. There is an exciting aura and a electrifying sense of unity that somehow confirms the group’s common beliefs as true, especially when there is a large number of fellow believers. Both the Muslim child and the Christian child grow up asking “How could so many great people be wrong?” Does the vast number of believers validate the belief?
The fallacy becomes obvious when we consider large groups of believers of beliefs we do not hold. The following are just a few reasons humans tend to improperly view a large number of fellow believers as confirmation of those common beliefs:
1: A convergence of beliefs does, in fact, constitute evidence for the veracity of those beliefs in scientific contexts. In contexts in which participants are committed to objective methods of validation, a convergence of opinion among expert participants does constitute evidence as shown throughout the history of science. However, this does not hold when there is an equally large number of participants also committed to the same standards of evidence and scientific methodology who have an opposing opinion. Nor does it apply to any context in which there is no commitment to rigorous standards of evidence. Most religious ideologies have both a) equally large competing ideologies, and b) deficient standards of evidence, often encouraging a degree of belief that exceeds the degree of the actual evidence. So while we may safely believe the experts in a scientific field as a legitimate heuristic shortcut with a strong track record, believing “experts” in communities of inquiry not committed to rigorous standards of evidence and without a track record of success is not recommended.
2: It is difficult for many of us to travel very far outside the culture in which we were born. This leaves us vulnerable to the suggestion that the religious beliefs of others are not as sincere and passionate as our own. We are told by our own religious leaders that other religious cultures are fundamentally deluded at best, and at worst, essentially wicked, suppressing the truth of your own beliefs in their unrighteousness as Romans 1:18 suggests. A fine remedy for this are substantial and extended ventures outside your own Christian culture to scrutinize the sincerity of those holding differing beliefs.
3: Most gatherings of humans with common beliefs are accompanied by powerful aesthetics, including inspirational music and a visually delightful environment. These aesthetic adornments that evoke intense emotions are often wrongly thought to be a confirmation of the beliefs they adorn.
Common rigorous standards of evidence coupled with a commitment to methods of inquiry with proven track records are what has allowed the process of science to yield the many technological and medicinal advances we enjoy today. Scientists deviate from these standards of evidence and scientific methods at their own peril. Since advances in technology and medicine are dependent on advances in scientific knowledge, scientists can’t afford to use less-than-rigorous standards of evidence that might not detect weaknesses within their hypotheses. A few less-than-noble scientists have tried to fudge on these standards and normal procedures such as adequate peer-review, but they have been quickly forgotten not long after more honorable scientists have more rigorously replicated their experiments that clearly fail to replicate the findings.
Religions are less constrained by the litmus test of next year’s successful technology and medicine. Religions make claims that can never be tested in this world. They can make promises of unsubstantiated rewards and joys in an unsubstantiated afterlife, and no one can prove them wrong. And religions are not even much constrained by our present reality. They can claim their God answers prayer, and then redefine answered prayer to be identical to what we would expect from unanswered prayer (see Chapter #10). So deferring to the “experts” of a religion does not mean you are deferring to the opinions of experts devoted to rigorous standards of evidence or to a methodology with a proven track record. It only means you have blindly adopted their opinions just as they have blindly adopted the opinions of “experts” before them. If they can only effectively propagate beliefs in this way, they will have a vast community of like-minded individual who all wrongly lend some credence to the notion that the size of their community must somehow validate the beliefs of that community.