Sometimes, when we argue about or discuss religion, we get so caught up in intricate details that we fail to recognize the simplicity of the core issue. It involves questions that a 5-year old would be inclined to ask, and yet we bypass it, digging for deeper levels of logic that will support our argument or belief. It is the question of plausibility, the honest evaluation of one’s beliefs under the umbrella of common sense. It is my perception that religious people usually fail to take this approach, as their search for truth is often flavored with a strong sense of emotional influence, directing them towards the answers they desire. Here, I will make a case for the significance and appropriateness of evaluating the sheer plausibility of one’s beliefs – independent of the emotional bias that fuels the engine of faith.
Being the religion I am most familiar with, and the one that is by far the most prevalent in America, I will use Christianity as the guinea-pig of my argument. First, let’s once again establish the criteria for being a Christian: first and foremost, one must believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. This is the founding precept of the religion. Furthermore, one must believe that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, and representative of one-third of the holy trinity – the other two being the Father and the Holy Spirit. Although some liberal Christian thinkers now claim a separation between the miraculous aspect of Jesus’ life and the religion itself, I find it rather cheap to claim to be a Christian without attesting to the miracles that Jesus performed and was a part of. The claim that he was not involved in these miracles that transcended the laws of nature infers that he was not divine, which is the founding principle of the entire religion. Consequently, I find a belief in the miracle stories mandatory if one desires to call oneself a Christian.
Now that we have that settled, we can begin to make an honest evaluation of the plausibility that Christianity is true. Let’s start with one of the central claims that attempts to prove Jesus’ divinity. The incredibility of his life begins straight from the womb; Jesus is purported to have been born of a virgin. Since this claim is often brushed off without much critical thought, let’s take a moment to ponder it. His mother did not have sex. She did not go through the natural processes of bearing a baby that is required by nature. No, instead, God decided to secure the purity of his son’s mother and impregnate her through, well, we don’t know how. But since God did it, we don’t need to know. It goes without saying that this claim would be deemed absolutely absurd if not tied to the most popular religion in the world. And yet it is so widely accepted to believe this claim because, for some reason, God decided to make it happen this way. God: the lazy excuse we make for that which we cannot understand.
To truly grasp the magnitude of this absurdity, we must view it from the lens of modern-day intellectual reason. If God had happened to intervene in such a way in our current society, would it be accepted? Would people give the notion that a baby was born of a virgin a second thought if such news was circulated today? Of course not. This kind of information would be discarded immediately. Why? Because it is simply implausible, given our understanding of science. I think most of us would agree that this sort of thing simply would – could – not happen, let alone be accepted, in modern society. And the fact that these claims were made 2000 years ago does not in any way make them any more plausible than they are now.
So if such an event is clearly so implausible, what makes it so believable to millions, even billions, of people? Well, astonishing claims are given more credibility the further removed we are from the culture of the time period; the more time that has passed, the easier it is for us to believe. However, the interval of time being discussed should, if anything, only help us to dismiss these wild assertions. Think about it. The people who recorded these stories knew nothing compared to what we know now about the world today. Virtually nothing. The level to which they could be persuaded to believe, and more frighteningly, to do something, was preposterously high. And this is not surprising given their utter lack of understanding of what was around them. Since they did not possess the scientific explanations that we have the privilege of utilizing today, they were inclined to believe things that are unfathomably absurd. And they did – it is a salient characteristic of medieval times. So what makes being born of a virgin so different than any other fantastical claim that we so effortlessly disregard? Well, it is a religious claim, and as I will explain later, religion is given an unwarranted freedom to make historical and scientific claims that need no actual evidence to be accepted.
Despite the strikingly reasonable notion that such events were made up by a highly imaginative and irrational people, we continue to believe them. And the proposition that such stories were made up is so strong, in fact, that I am willing to deem it a historical fact. Here’s why: people in that time period were constantly connecting natural events to works of the divine. It was completely common for someone to claim such a miraculous occurrence and for it to be believed, because, to them, it was completely plausible; they did not know why or how the natural world worked the way it did, so their imaginative explanations for events are not shocking given the information available to them.
This brings me to my main point. We must interpret history from the perspective of someone living in the given time period being studied – that is the only way we can honestly analyze any event of the past. Consequently, when people in medieval history attest to having spectacular visions, divine dreams, etc., we try to correlate it to something that realistically could have been occurring, given their prior biases, view of the world, and lack of knowledge. For example, a vision of Zeus lighting up the sky with godly fury could, to us reasonable people, be interpreted as lightning, given our understanding of how people in that day in age thought. This is accepted protocol for analyzing and interpreting history. So the claims that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he turned water to wine should be interpreted as the fantastical claims that they are – just as we would judge a Pagan claiming to have seen visions of Zeus – not as some sort of miraculous truth.
However, such claims are impossible to reject because religion is given a free pass historically and scientifically. The miracle stories are justified as true by believers merely on the grounds that God willed it, and these beliefs are accepted in wider society on the grounds that they are religious. If we were to evaluate the miraculous Jesus stories without any religious attachments or bias, however, we could easily find reasonable explanations for why they were written and make a more free-minded judgment on if such events even occurred – in one way or another – at all. But as it is, Christians are given unmerited freedom in choosing what is true and what is myth, and in accepting this freedom, they render themselves completely dishonest from a historical and scientific perspective. But again, religion is excused from the standards of reason that every other element of society is subjected to, and this is an outstanding intellectual travesty that I believe needs to be challenged.
I hope I have made it clear that history is interpreted in different ways for different time periods, given the conditions and availability of information that people were subjected to. For this reason, it is completely appropriate for us to label the miracle stories of Jesus as either pure works of imagination or, more generously, as an honest interpretation of events for which the witnesses (if there were any, which is unclear) did not have the tools to understand. The fact that we accept these ancient myths as intrinsic truths is far more shocking than we like to think, and the only unsurprising element of it derives from the fact that so many people buy into it. However, if we have any fiber of mental independence, we must dismiss these outdated beliefs and we must come to the realization that they simply cannot stand in a world of honesty and reason; our modes of evaluating history do not allow it.
It is also important to note that, despite some people’s desire to separate religion and science, religion makes inherent, inescapable claims about the laws of science and the capacity for them to be broken, i.e. the virgin birth. Claims such as these are not just religious – they are deeply scientific, asserting a capacity for natural laws to be transcended by a higher power. For this reason, we must hold religion to the same standards as everything else, demanding proof, and above all, sheer plausibility.