Do you listen to "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!"? I love that program. They call it the NPR New Quiz, but it's really more comical than quizzical. If "All Things Considered" were a cooking show, WWDTM would be a middle-school cafeteria food fight.
What does a quirky radio show have to do with religion? Follow me past the Noodly Appendage for more...
My favorite part of the show is called the "Bluff the Listener" game. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, in this segment, each member of the show's panel reads a synopsis of a bizarre and unlikely story, ostensibly culled from recent news, but only one of the stories is actually true. The contestant, a listener who has called in, has to decide which of the three stories is the true one. If the listener selects the correct story, he or she will win the show's only prize: veteran radio newsman Carl Kasell will record an outgoing message for that individual's home answering machine or voicemail.
Now, there's a moment after the stories have been read, and before host Peter Sagall has played a clip from the actual new story, when none of the stories can be identified as either true or false. Like Schrödinger's Cat, the stories are all simultaneously true AND false. I remember one Saturday, listening to WWDTM on my way to the grocery store, I shut off the car and went in to shop without hearing the answer, and I went around for quite awhile wondering which of the stories was the true one.
Where am I going with this? Well, imagine for a moment that, rather than a panel of snarky radio semi-celebs like Paula Poundstone and Tom Bodett, you were faced with a group of famous religious thinkers and apologists. William Lane Craig would be there, along with representatives from other faiths, like Carl E. Olsen, Khalid Yasin, David Frawley and Martin Indyk and others. Each of these eminent thinkers would take turns presenting the tenets of his or her religion, and trying to convince you to join them in the one "true" church. Now, assuming you were, like me, not affiliated with any one religious tradition, who would you believe, and why? Assume for the moment that they were all equally persuasive, knowledgeable and devout in their beliefs. I think you could also safely assume that all of their assertions would be equally logical, rational and supported by evidence--which is to say, not at all. The thing is, until you have settled on one religious "truth", all of the possibilities remain open. All religious claims are equally unverifiable, equally implausible, equally true and equally false. Once you have chosen one, the the waveform collapses, only one option becomes true and all other choices become false.
Now there are, of course, a number of important differences between a comparison of some quirky, possibly bogus news stories, and the competing claims of the major world faith traditions, the first one being relevance. It obviously does not matter in the grand scheme of things whether one or another oddball anecdote is true. On the other hand, religious faith IS the grand scheme of things. Clearly few things are more significant than identifying the underlying great Truth-with-a-capital-T of the universe, especially if that Truth determines how you must behave in this life to appease one or more all-powerful Beings.
The second difference is verifiability. Presumably, one could expend the effort, were on so inclined, to research the stories presented by the WWDTM panel and determine for oneself the truth of the claims being made. You could travel to Australia, to use an example from today's show, and find out if there really was a law proposed to prohibit children blowing out birthday candles in public schools. You could find and interview the individuals involved, and find out for yourself how true the story really was, You cannot do that with religions. You cannot determine the truth of the story of Lord Krishna and the Lapwing's Nest, or the Islamic legend of the stone in the temple. To embrace a religion is to accept its stories on faith alone.
Third is plausibility. All of the stories presented by the radio panel may be highly unlikely but they are not, technically, impossible. Implausible as they may seem, any (or indeed all) of them could physically happen. This is manifestly not true of any religious claim, pretty much by definition. For Jesus (or Horus) to have been born of a virgin is, of course, physically impossible. That's the whole point of the story. No one would notice or care if Joseph Smith had dug up some pottery shards or tools to indicate that ancient Israelites had somehow existed in North America in the distant past. Instead, the claim is that he found magical golden tablets, which no one else witnessed, naturally, and which he was able to translate by looking through a magic hat.
Finally, you have the problem of mutual exclusivity. All of the stories on WWDTM, being theoretically possible, could all theoretically be true at the same time, in the same world. We are told at the outset that only one is actually true, but there's no real reason all of them couldn't have happened in the real world. This, to me, is the biggest reason for me to be an atheist. If I were to accept, for example, the claims of William Lane Craig and embrace (Protestant) Christianity, then at that moment, all of the other claims must be deemed false. Christianity cannot be true in the same universe as Islam, or Hinduism, or Mormonism. The claims they make are mutually contradictory, full stop. All of the world's religions cannot be true; in fact, no two of them can be. As soon as you yield to the exhortations of any one of these great thinkers, then you must, in effect, tell all of the others that you believe that they are wrong. By what possible authority could you make that claim? By refusing to accept any one of them, the waveform does not collapse, and none of them must needs be deemed to be false.
This ties into the common misunderstanding about the difference between agnosticism and atheism. "Agnostic" is derived from the work "gnosis" meaning knowledge, while "atheist" derives from "theos", relating to belief. When confronted with a group of mutually contradictory, untestable assertions, it is most honest to admit one lacks the necessary knowledge to select one--to be "agnostic"--and therefore to withhold commitment to believing in any one of them--that is, to be an atheist. This is not to make a positive claim that all or any of them are false, only that one has no reason to believe any of them. I am an atheist BECAUSE I am agnostic. Give me a reason to accept one belief tradition, and I will become a believer, but remember, the evidence you present must be so overwhelmingly powerful that I will be able, with the same confidence, to tell anyone else that disagrees with that position that they are wrong.
P.S Community Spotlight, on my firstest diary ever! I am so deeply humbled...