Is there a good reason that different religious believers disagree so much about God? Could it just be that God is very large and complex and difficult to perceive, so naturally different people don’t all perceive him the same way?
You’ve probably heard this fable before. There are different versions, but the basics are these: Six blind men are standing around an elephant, touching it to figure out what an elephant is. The one touching the trunk decides that an elephant is a big snake; the one touching its leg decides an elephant is a tree; the one touching its tail decides an elephant is a rope; etc. It’s supposed to show the limitations of individual perception, and the importance of not being narrow-minded, and how people with different beliefs can all be right. Or all be wrong. You get the gist.
It was recently suggested in this blog that this fable makes a good metaphor for religion. God is too large (it was suggested), too complex, too multi-faceted, for any one person to perceive correctly. Therefore, Reason #2 in my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God — the inconsistency of world religions — isn’t a fair critique. The fact that Muslims see God one way and Catholics another, and Hindus yet another, and Jews, and Neo-Pagans, and Taoists, and Rastafarians, and Episcopalians, and so on — in ways that are radically different, even contradictory — it’s just different people perceiving different parts of the elephant.
But I don’t actually think this fable makes a good metaphor for religion.
It does, however, make an excellent metaphor for science.
Or rather, it could.
Here’s the thing. In some versions of the elephant fable, the blind men groping the elephant just fall to hopeless arguing with no resolution. In other versions, a wise man explains to them what’s really going on. And that does make it a good metaphor for religion. Either people trust what someone else tells them is true, or they squabble endlessly and even fall to blows, with no means of resolving their disagreements.
But here’s the interesting thing:
I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is. I have never seen a version where the blind men say, “Hey, come over here! Follow my voice, and check this out — this is why I think it’s a snake!” (Or a tree trunk, or a rope, or whatever.)
And yet, that’s exactly how science works.
Yes, of course, if God existed, he would be immense and complex and difficult to perceive and understand.
And what — the physical universe isn’t?
The physical universe is both far, far larger and far, far weirder than we had any conception of 500 years ago, or indeed 100. Billions upon billions of galaxies all rushing apart from each other at blinding speed; everything made up of atoms that are mostly empty space; space that curves; continents that drift… I could go on and on. It’s way too big, way too complex, way too multi-faceted, for any one person to accurately comprehend.
And yet, the blind men are coming to a fair understanding of what an elephant is.
Every century, every decade, every year, the blind men are getting a better and better picture of an elephant.
And here’s how.
For hundreds of years now, thousands even, the blind men have been saying to each other, “Over here! Check this out! This is why I think it’s a snake!” And the other blind men come over and check out the snake, and one of them says, “I agree, this part has a lot in common with a snake, but it also has these differences… and interestingly, the surface feels very much like the tree trunk I was feeling yesterday.” And they each form departments to study the different parts of the elephant… and they compare notes and rigorously critique one another’s findings about the different elephant parts… and they come up with theories to explain what an elephant is, some of which make better or worse predictions about what they’ll find in between the snake-like thing and the tree-like thing… and then they embark on their Top Of The Elephant exploration program, and send probes and explorers and the Voyager Ladder to the top of the elephant and discover these amazing Ear things that they’d never imagined…
… and as each year and decade and century passes, we get a clearer picture of what an elephant is. It’s not perfect — there are big holes in the picture, and almost certainly mistakes as well. But we have theories about elephant-ness that make astonishingly accurate predictions about how the elephant will act and what we’ll find next on our continuing elephant explorations. And we have better and better forms of elephant perception all the time: both better techniques for exploring the elephant, and better methods for testing that our theories and data about the elephant are good. Our understanding of an elephant is better now than it was a century ago, and in another century it’ll be better still.
Why does this work?
Because the elephant is really there.
Because there is actually something out there that we can compare notes on. Because when two blind men feel an elephant’s trunk, they’re feeling the same real thing.
As I said in The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God (and about 63 other places on this blog):
Compare, please, to religion.
In religion, we have no such consensus. The Snakians and the Treeists and the Ropafarians are still squabbling, still dividing up into sects, still coming up with no better argument for their beliefs than “Other people say it” and “I feel it in my heart” and “You can’t prove it didn’t happen.” And they’re still coming up with no clearer picture of the elephant: no better ability to predict what the elephant will do, no better skill at guiding the elephant in the direction that they want, than they had a year ago, or a hundred, or a thousand.
It’s all just stuff people made up. Consciously or un-. People can’t show each other the evidence for the Snake, or the Tree, or the Rope, and convince each other on the basis of the evidence… because there is no evidence. There is no snake, no tree, no rope. There’s nothing there. There’s just the conviction that the snake has to be there, because everyone else says there’s a snake, and our mother and father and all our teachers and authorities say there’s a snake, and we Snakians have believed in the snake for generations, and we’ve known about the snake since childhood, and besides we just feel the snake in our hearts.
The reason that there’s no increased consensus about religion? The reason that different religions today are as different, as inconsistent, as mutually contradictory, as they always have been, for thousands of years? The reason that prayer and prophecy haven’t gotten any more effective over the years?
The reason isn’t that God is a huge, complex, multi-faceted elephant that no one person can completely and accurately perceive.
The reason is that there is no elephant.