Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse:
Consider an analogy. In freethinker and atheist circles, a version of the Xenophanes correlation is often invoked to capture the contingency of religious belief. The following is exemplary.
Freethinker: If you were born in the United States of America, you are most likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to become a Muslim. If you had been born in Norway in the viking ages, you would have believed in Thor and Odin. If you were born in Athens around 500 BC, you’d worship Zeus and Athena.
The correlation here is, roughly, that the surrounding cultural milieu determines how one conceives of the divine. We may call this the sociological theory of religion. As the dominant religion of the culture varies with time and geography, the conceptions of the divine held by individuals will also vary. So far, this is only a descriptive point, but it is often deployed as a criticism of religion. The presumption seems to be that one’s conception of the divine should not be determined by simple contingencies. And so the more one’s theology is the product of time and chance, the less confident one should be that it is correct. The determining factors are sociological and historical, not rational.
However, once we make this observation about our images of the divine, we can subject the whole of our theology to the same criticism. It’s not just conceiving god with a long beard that’s in trouble; conceiving of god as rational, loving, and good may be projections as well.
Interestingly, the question of existence never arises for Xenophanes. In fact, in other fragments, Xenophanes offers positive conceptions of the greatest of the gods. But once we see the critical trajectory of Xenophanes’ challenges, we are compelled to ask the question: Isn’t god’s existence, too, a projection, the product of mere contingency?
Obviously, the analogy is only meant to cast doubt on the monotheistic conception of one true God for all people at all time. But pace their concluding question, this sentence is what I found most interesting: “It’s not just conceiving god with a long beard that’s in trouble; conceiving of god as rational, loving, and good may be projections as well.” David Hume and other philosophical heavyweights have questioned whether there’s any reason to suppose that God must necessarily be the ne plus ultra of benevolence and rational intelligence; there’s nothing new about that.
The reasoning underlying the analogy, though, is based on the assumption that rationality is the best way to know the objective truth about things, to whatever extent we can. It’s the only way to make sure you’re not allowing your emotional reactions, limited experience and confirmation bias to color your perceptions. Is that true? You often hear religious apologists argue that there are other “truths” that science doesn’t have the vocabulary to address, but they seem to feel that those truths are still capable of being rationally understood. Do they ever offer an alternative way of knowing that doesn’t depend on rationality?
(I kid, of course. Even epistemological anarchy has been done before. Nothing new under the sun, alas!)