The 95% Textbook

I’m a big fan of consensus, at least when it comes to figuring out whether something is true or not. If your doctor tells you have, say, ALS, well, that doctor might be wrong. But if you seek a second or third opinion, and those doctors independently come to the same conclusion, then the odds are that the diagnosis was correct. If you’ve ever participated in an interest-based community, be it crocheting or motorcycle racing or The Walking Dead fans or parakeet breeding or whatever, you’ll know that enthusiasts in these communities often have heated discussions on all sorts of topics, and will hash out the issues at length. So when it gets to the point where most everyone who knows the subject agrees on the answer to some question, that answer is most likely correct.

By way of counterexample: in the series Black Adder II, episode Potato, Blackadder has chartered the ship of Captain Rum, and discovered that there’s no crew:

Blackadder: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.

Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.

Blackadder: Oh, really?

Rum: Yes. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.

So I wondered, what if we wanted to write an utterly uncontroversial textbook on some subject, to introduce elementary or High School students to the subject. Uncontroversial because we’re not interested in presenting the controversies at the cutting edge of research; just present what’s been learned about the subject so far.

This would be a book where we could take a survey of the experts in the field, and 90%, or 95%, or 99% would agree with any given statement. Why not 100%? Because nothing is absolute. In every profession, there are people with fringe ideas. You can, I’m sure, find people with degrees in astronomy who still cling to a geocentric universe, or perhaps even to a flat earth. Jonathan Wells famously got a legitimate Ph.D. in biology despite being a creationist. At best, these people are visionaries who haven’t yet managed to convince other members of their profession (like Georges LemaĆ®tre when he first proposed the Big Bang theory); at worst, they’re deluded kooks.

So what would we have in, say, an astronomy textbook, that 95% of astronomers would agree is true?

  • The Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.
  • Mars has two moons.
  • There are about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
  • Doppler shift tells us how fast an object is moving toward or away from us.
  • The universe has been expanding since the Big Bang, about 13 billion years ago.

What wouldn’t we see?

  • The earth is hollow.
  • There is life on other planets.
  • Earth is the only planet with life.
  • There are other universes beside ours.
  • String theory is correct.

Some of these statements we wouldn’t see have been utterly disproven, such as the hollow earth. Others, like whether there is life on other planets, is undecided; a cautious mainstream astronomer probably wouldn’t want to commit herself either way. Yet others concern ongoing research: ideas that may turn out to be true, but the evidence isn’t in yet.

You can easily imagine similar 95% textbooks for physics, Greek history, economics, car performance tuning, horse breeding, and so on, and so forth.

But if we turn to theology, what do we have? Oh, sure, we can have things like:

  • The Pope is the head of the Catholic church.
  • Hindus believe in reincarnation.
  • The largest denominations of Islam are Shia and Sunni.

but that’s really just a specialized branch of anthropology. We could just as easily mention a south Pacific tribe that worships a volcano; that’s not the same as agreeing with them that the volcano really is a god.

Likewise, there is scholarly consensus on how many Gospels there are in the Bible (four), whether the epic of Gigamesh is a book of the Bible (no, it isn’t), whether Thomas Aquinas specialized in the argument from first cause and so on. But again, this is just a branch of history of literature. History, literature, archeology, etc. may touch on theological topics, but they’re peripheral issues.

Let’s consider a few statements that come closer to the core of theology, in the sense of “the study of God (or gods)”:

There is one and only one god.

This wouldn’t be included in the book: according to adherents.com, the Abrahamic religions make up 54% of the world’s population. Even if we threw in 90% of the “nonreligious” (on the assumption that they believe in one (and only one) god, but just aren’t members of any organized religion) and all of the “other”s, that would still leave the 14% who are Hindu (and think there are more than one god), among other polytheists, as well as those who don’t think there are any gods.

(By the way, I’m assuming that there are theologians in every religious tradition, and that their numbers are roughly proportional to the number of adherents. That is, if 6% of people are Buddhists, then roughly 6% of theologians are Buddhists.)

Jesus is (or was) divine.

Again, no. This is a claim that will be accepted by Christians, and some of the more inclusive polytheistic religions (I’ve heard stories of how Shinto in Japan had no trouble including Jesus as yet another member of the pantheon). Depending how far you want to stretch the word “divine”, you could find, say, Jews who think Jesus was, if not the son of God, then touched by him. Still, you’re not going to get a 90% consensus on this.

The Pope is God’s representative on earth.

This claim is really only made by Catholics, who represent about half of all Christians. One sixth of humanity agrees; five sixths disagree.

There is an afterlife.

I think this may be the claim that gets closest to 90%: Christians (33%) and Muslims (21%) generally believe in heaven and hell. Jews (0.22%) believe, I’m told, in a sort of existence after this life. Hindus (14%) and others believe in reincarnation. Most of the “none”s may believe in some sort of paradise or reincarnation after death. It might be possible to get to a 90% consensus for the general idea that experience doesn’t end at death (but not, I suspect, 95% or 99%), though I don’t see consensus on anything more definitive than that.

And that seems like a pretty poor state of affairs: after several thousand years of studying the gods, we still can’t agree on how many of them there are, what their names are, or what they want?

This isn’t just a matter of there being a handful of major competing, equally-plausible, schools of thought. At one time (in the 1950s, I’m guessing), it must have been okay to think that Steady-State and Big Bang cosmology were equally plausible, given the weight of the evidence on each side. But I’m pretty sure the Steady-Staters weren’t further divided into those who thought matter was formed in the hearts of galaxies, and those who thought it was formed in intergalactic space, with both options being equally plausible (at the same time as steady-state and big bang were equally plausible).

But that’s the what we see in religion: people are divided into atheists, monothheists, and polytheists. Monotheists are divided between those who think God had a son and those who don’t. The ones who think God had a son are divided between those who think the Pope speaks for said god, and those who don’t. And so on, and so forth. Sects and schisms appear over all sorts of issues (e.g., how many fingers one should use to cross oneself), and rarely do two or more denominations reconcile their differences and unite.

I think this is pretty convincing evidence that theologians aren’t actually studying something out there in the real world. This looks more like what you’d see from people who saw shapes in the clouds and thought they were real.

Now, it’s possible—even plausible—that a lot of what’s well known and widely accepted in seminaries around the world doesn’t percolate down to ordinary believers. After all, among Americans in general, opinion is divided on topics like evolution and global warming, even though there’s no controversy among biologists or climatologists, respectively. But if there’s a similar state of affairs in religion, I have yet to hear about it.

There’s also the “blind men and the elephant” explanation: that God is so vast and complicated that of course we’re going to see what appears like contradictory evidence, and come to conflicting conclusions. But theology has been around for a long time, and we hairless apes can be pretty damn clever when we put our minds to it, and a lot of clever people have pored over these questions. And yet, we can’t even seem to come to a consensus as to how many gods there are.

How long do you persist in studying a topic before concluding that there’s no “there” there?

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