JR'S Free Thought Pages
Over the years I’ve written many letters to the editor of the Vancouver Sun, many of them critical of some facet of religious faith. But because criticism of religion is a topic anathema to our corporate media, or at least to their advertisers, most were consigned to the editor’s trash bin. In the past couple of weeks I have attempted to put some of the letters together into a cohesive whole.
Under the canopy of religion it appears that even within the law we can get away with very nearly anything. The polygamist Mormon community of Bountiful in south western British Columbia, a paternalistic community run by men who are most likely pedophiles, is a case in point. Even their schools, which are really nothing more than factories of indoctrination, are financed by the provincial government. Consequently, since religion is a scared cow in our culture and immunized from meaningful assessment, analysis and critique, nothing much is done about it. In addition to the gag rule on serious criticism of all things religious, a letter to the editor is limited to one or two short paragraphs. Under constraints such as these it’s difficult, if not impossible, to present a meaningful and cogent argument. I suppose the latter limitation has much to do with the attention span of most people these days which resembles a gnat on speed.
Some friends have encouraged me to write a book. Having written a 225 page graduate thesis, I’ve seriously considered it, but I have too many other interests that distract my attention – and life is painfully short. But recently I’ve been inspired by Richard Dawkins latest book.
Since reading his fascinating 1976 book The Selfish Gene, I've read all of the subsequent books by Dawkins, a distinguished evolutionary biologist from Oxford. After his brilliant polemic on religion, The God Delusion, reached #1 on the non-fiction best seller list last year I was both surprised and encouraged. For a book critical of the sacred cow religion to become a best seller is nothing short of remarkable and I encourage you all to read it. He’s a superb writer with a lucid style and scathing wit. Dawkins pulls no punches, breaking down all taboos and making great hamburger out of the proverbial sacred cow. The book should be in paperback soon. I’m not a trained writer and have no pretensions or grandiose vision of becoming the next Bertrand Russell, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. My interest in writing is merely one of the many intellectual challenges I enjoy and I suppose it’s one of several stratagems I’ve used to keep my brains cells from dying off at the same rapidity as the rest of my body. Since retiring in 1999 after 30 years of teaching mathematics to grade 11 and 12 students I’m just trying to keep the neurons firing.
I’ve always been fascinated by religion, not from any yearnings for it, but rather why it continues to persist after 400 years have transpired since the oppression and intellectual constraints of the Dark Ages of Faith. One would think that the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution would have long ago liberated us from those logical shackles. Now that we have a scientific world view and a successful mechanism that provides such exciting and powerful explanations, in addition to a humanist ethical outlook, I’m continually perplexed as to why people still need mysticism, comforting superstitions and draconian moral codes.
But God and religious faith continue to permeate every aspect of our culture from the mindless patriotism and tedium of national anthems at sporting events to political demagogues throughout the world invoking the appropriate deity at every opportunity. For our neighbours to the south it has reached the stage of national obsession and the USA under the Bush administration seems to be transmogrifying that country into a theocracy. In the United States since the 1950s God has mysteriously appeared on the currency and not a day passes without some pandering politician or born again athlete uttering a prayer or blurting out “God Bless America”.
I became a skeptic of all things early in life and had completely unloaded the superfluous baggage of religious superstition by the time I was out of junior high school. On our long walks to school my best friend and I came to the conclusion that the whole enterprise was just, well, sort of dumb. After a lifetime of intensive study, taking numerous courses in mathematics, logic and critical thinking and examining of all the philosophical arguments and evidence for and against, nothing much has changed other than a more transparent understanding of the rationales.
Notwithstanding all those cultural forces that inculcate, indoctrinate and rearrange our brain cells from birth, robbing many of their intellectual autonomy, in recent years I have arrived at the conclusion reached by Sigmund Freud eighty years ago in The Future of an Illusion: Religious belief is not only a potent form of cognitive dissonance and a breakdown of the intellect, but a failure to grow up.
Below is a draft of what I have put together so far. Any comments or criticisms are welcomed.
March 1, 2007
Is Religion “Comparable to a Childhood Neurosis?”
Thoughts on Sigmund Freud’s infamous quote
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. --1 Corinthians 13:11
There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else (parents in the case of children, God in the case of adults) has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. It is all of a piece with the infantilism of those who, the moment they twist their ankle, look around for someone to sue. Somebody else must be responsible for my well-being, and somebody else must be to blame if I am hurt. Is it a similar infantilism that really lies behind the 'need' for a God? – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006)
“There are no atheists in foxholes”, someone sanctimoniously told me when I was an impressionable kid, meaning that when the going gets tough, we all hedge our bets and turn to God. Well, having put childish things behind me as the passage from Paul in Corinthians demands[i], I’ve discovered that not only are there a few atheists in foxholes, but most decide to avoid foxholes for well considered reasons of prudence and morality.
During my early childhood when I eventually discovered that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were nothing but fanciful chimeras not unlike the characters in the many bedtime stories our loving mother read to my brother and I, the same fate was in store for the Invisible Alpha Male in the Sky. Consider this: Have you ever asked a Christian why their invisible friend doesn't talk to Abdul's invisible friend? The obvious answer seems to be that they deny the existence or identity of each other's invisible friend and dismiss each other's “experiences”, “answered prayers” and “miracles”. Just like children.
Should we respect faith?
I count religion as but a childish toy and hold there is no sin but ignorance –- Christopher Marlowe
Men rarely if ever have managed to dream up a god superior to them. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child. -- Robert A. Heinlein
I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose – Clarence Darrow (from a speech delivered in Toronto, 1930)
Faith may be defined as the holding of a belief lacking evidential support and therefore cannot be rationally justified. How can faith be intellectually virtuous or a productive approach for anyone genuinely interested in truth or understanding the real world? And surely if there is such a thing as “sin”, a distinctly religious conception entailing a violation of one of God’s commands, then is not religion itself a sin? A life stance that promotes the surrender of intellectual and moral responsibility to a celestial dictator and closed system of thought providing facile answers to all of life’s problems, vicissitudes and mysteries surely must be the greatest sin of all. If there is a God who created everything including humans then surely our most valuable asset is our brain. Or did God in his infinite wisdom prefer that we not use it and commit the sin of intellectual sloth?
In consideration of the aforementioned, one wonders why in Christianity faith has been elevated to such a lofty position since it seems to violate one of the seven cardinal sins. As the story of “Doubting Thomas” shows, Christianity prefers faith to evidence, proof and justified belief. But if one steps outside the realm of religion briefly, this notion becomes highly problematic. Does this mean for example that in matters of our health, the law or in purchasing a home or used car, we should appeal to faith?
We also know that 'trust me' is the plea most often uttered by those in positions of power who know that they should never be trusted at all. And while in common speech it is perhaps admirable to 'have faith' in someone who has proved themselves reliable or trustworthy in the past, it is just foolish to do so with strangers or those who have proved themselves to be unreliable.
The most insightful analysis of faith I have encountered in my study of religion and philosophy is Fear and Trembling by the Danish existentialist and pious Christian, Soren Kierkegaard. Why 'fear and trembling'? Kierkegaard asks us to consider the case of Abraham, usually held up as a paragon of the man of faith. He was commanded by God to kill his only son and endeavored to do just that. This might seem a reasonable thing to do. After all, if as a dutiful Christian, God tells you to do something, you are obligated to do it. But imagine for a moment you are Abraham. Was it God telling you to do that, or was it a malicious demon, or just hallucinatory voices in your head? Peter Sutcliffe, the 'Yorkshire ripper', between 1975 and 1980 mutilated and killed thirteen women, and attempted to murder a further six because he thought God had told him to do so. Could you be like him? Could it be that you are not being called by God, but you're just mentally ill or suffering from a cerebral malfunction? That would surely make more sense would it not? After all, God is loving and kind, and yet he asks you to murder a member of your own family. If you go ahead with the killing you are doing what by all standards of reason and morality is clearly demented and depraved. Yet without any rational justification for what you do, you do it anyway, because you have faith in God. Is this what Kierkegaard meant by fear and trembling? I think so. George W Bush has also claimed that it was God who instructed him to invade Iraq. It’s curious that God didn’t also inform him that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam had nothing to do with 9-11.
Abraham's case is particularly intractable. But consider the typical belief in God held by the masses. If your belief is genuinely based on faith, then it is, by definition, belief without rational justification. But many beliefs such as this lack rational justification, many that are not grounded in religion. There is the religious belief that one can be healed by prayer or by the hands of a televangelist. But there is also the belief in alien abduction, UFO’s, ghosts and self-proclaimed psychics who can communicate with dead relatives or assist in searching for missing persons. Many credulous people still believe in the validity of horoscopes and that the earth is flat. The list of unfounded beliefs seems endless.
Consider the following thought experiment:
Your brain has been extricated from all religious indoctrination that was inflicted on you since you emerged from the womb. You are an adult of normal intelligence out for a leisurely stroll and suddenly confronted by a long haired man in his thirties wearing a white robe. He claims to be the son of God, born of a virgin, sacrificed by his heavenly father for the sole purpose of expunging the “sins” of all mankind, resurrected from the dead for a short period and has now been resurrected a second time. He claims the ability to perform miracles which include healing people from terminal illnesses and has now returned to earth in order to rescue our beleaguered planet from 2000 years of human greed, stupidity and ignorance.
What would be your immediate response to someone such as this who makes extraordinary assertions contradicting even the most elementary principles of scientific knowledge? Would you believe and embrace him - or would your skeptical sensors induce you to call 9-11 on your cell phone?
Here are two analogies that may be helpful with this thread:
(1) If I were to tell you your spouse was having an affair, what would your reaction be? I think everyone, religious or atheist would demand considerable evidence before believing such a claim. Or if I told you that gravity had been temporarily suspended by God, and it was now safe to jump from the balcony of your fortieth floor apartment? Again, any sensible person would demand compelling evidence or a repeatable demonstration of such a violation of one of nature’s most confirmed laws. The difference between religious folk and atheists is that atheists are consistent in their demands for evidence, and religious people are not.
(2) If I tell you there are invisible purple goblins wandering the streets of downtown Vancouver you will either politely demand evidence for such a claim or more than likely dismiss the assertion outright as the delirious ravings of someone who belongs in a mental asylum. Someone else tells you that there are no such entities. We both admit we have no evidence that there are or are not purple goblins roaming Vancouver streets. Would you think it reasonable to say that we each had equally strong positions?
So why is it different with gods? The atheist case against gods is not that they couldn't possibly exist or that their existence has been disproved. Atheism literally means non-belief, not denial. An incalculable amount of intellectual effort has been expended by theologians and religiously inclined philosophers during the past 2000 years in trying to prove their existence without any success whatsoever. In addition, since the onset of the humanist enlightenment and scientific revolution our minds have been progressively liberated from the veil of ignorance of the Dark Ages where religious superstition and ignorance prevailed. On this basis, conceptual considerations notwithstanding, it is rational at the very least to reserve judgment and assume that it is highly unlikely gods exist.
More recently, the creationist (recently renamed “intelligent design”) argument for the existence of god that "the creation of the Universe is evidence of the creator" is simply a tautology. It effectively means "the existence of a thing is proof that it was created by some process." Fair enough, most will agree. I concede that there may be some force and process by which the world came to be as it is. (Another logical possibility is that the universe has always existed.) But an obvious appeal to causation is not relevant to any religious debate since if everything has a cause, then God is caused and our argument slides into the logical abyss of infinite regress. What's at stake is whether the particular Judeo-Christian or Islamic god exists and wants us to follow certain rules of conduct. Moreover, saying that some force or entity created the universe is NOT further evidence that a particular force or entity arbitrarily demands that we believe certain propositions and conduct ourselves in a certain way at our peril. Religion is infused with dubious and uncorroborated anecdotal evidence in addition to its penchant for citing the unknowable as evidence of its convictions. But it’s preposterous to think that since science cannot inform us about everything that we ought to appeal to a 2000 year old book plagued by ambiguities, inaccuracies, absurdities and contradictions for the answers. Appeals to ignorance simply won’t do. Resorting to a story that “God created the universe, therefore eating pork is wrong", is the essence of fairy tales.
Is atheism just another faith?
Faith is believing something that no one in his right mind would believe. - Archie Bunker
Many religious apologists promote the absurd notion that atheism is just another faith position. If this is the case then the devout are in no position to criticize atheists for their beliefs. If their own competing beliefs are just articles of faith, we are left with an epistemological relativism where there are no rational grounds for establishing the truth of any belief. In other words what is true is “whatever is true for you.” This is particularly odd when we consider one of the most quoted passages of Jesus from the Gospels: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6) Is this not an explicit absolutist assertion about the nature of truth? Surely Jesus did not imply that “you may come to the father in any way you choose” or “that’s my belief but you can believe whatever you want.” But consistency is not one of the hallmarks of the Bible. Consider in the same Gospel the story of Doubting Thomas where the moral of the story is implicit in the statement “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29), thus endorsing the principle that it is virtuous to believe that which you have no evidence to believe, a rather convenient maxim for a belief system for which there is a paucity of evidence.
Conceptual clarity is required at this point.
The word “atheism” comes from the Greek prefix 'a', meaning without, and 'theism', meaning having a belief in a supernatural deity. Atheism, therefore, literally means "without theistic belief". Atheism does not emphatically assert anything; rather, it is a statement of withheld belief. Atheists, therefore, do not positively assert that gods do not exist. They simply withhold belief in said gods because the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief. This is not to say that there isn't sufficient reason to believe that certain gods do not exist. There is. But to categorically deny the existence of all gods would require a leap of faith that is anathema to a sincere atheist. Atheism requires no such leap. Atheists do of course believe many things, holding to a world view called scientific naturalism.
Atheism then, as outlined above, is nothing more than withheld belief. Non-belief is neither dogmatism nor an article of faith. If I don't believe that Elvis is still alive and his body taken over by an alien abduction or that Stephen Harper is a robot controlled by the Fraser Institute, I am not practicing an anti-Elvis faith or anti-robot Harper cult. If I withhold belief in Santa Claus, I am not a member of a Santa-less church. When an atheist says, "I don't believe in the Christian God", he is merely asserting that the evidence for belief is lacking or insufficient. It’s the same type of withheld belief that a Christian holds with regard to the Greek and Roman Gods of antiquity or the deities of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and other non-Christians. Some argue that agnosticism or suspension of judgment is the reasonable position but this middle path is generally unsustainable. The principle of defeasibility is the notion that there is always the possibility that you could be wrong about a belief because we can never be absolutely certain about anything. But who would seriously assert that we should neither believe nor disbelieve that Stephen Harper is a robot or that by drinking this glass of wine I will turn into a cockroach?
The idea promoted by many clergy that atheism is a faith position has its basis in the claim that when there is no evidence for belief in some proposition X, it is equally irrational (or rational) to "believe" it either true or false (since there is no evidence either way). But this is clearly not the case. If a proposition seems outrageous and inconsistent with our prior experience and accumulated scientific knowledge, it is more reasonable to suppose it false, even if there is no direct evidence. The fact that you can't disprove the existence of Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy or The Invisible Flying Pink Unicorn is not a reason to believe that they exist. But hey-- believe in them if you want or if it makes you feel better, just don't expect to convince anyone with neurons firing in a functioning brain. And don’t destroy the future intellectual autonomy and individuality of your defenseless malleable children by indoctrinating them with a belief system that should not survive an elementary school education.
A successful intellectual mechanism called the scientific method has been pressed into service for about four centuries now to decide on whether a multitude of entities or processes exist. Gravity, magnetism, atomic and sub-atomic particles, evolution, the ether, ghosts, paranormal experiences, fairies, goblins and trolls - they've all been subjected to in depth studies of the evidence. And, from that, scientific investigations have been extremely successful in informing us of what does and does not exist.
Aren’t we all atheists?
A cult is a religion with no political power. – E L Doctorow
When a person has a delusion it is called a psychosis; when several people share the same delusion, it is called Religion. - Owen Fauvel
In The Life of Brian, one of the many things about religion that the Monty Python team got right was the amazing speed and efficiency with which they arise. A religion can pop up almost overnight and then become incorporated into a culture, where it plays an unsettling overbearing role. The 'cargo cults' of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea provide the most famous real life examples. The proliferation and ubiquity of New Age mumbo jumbo and gurus providing quasi-religious “self-help” materials is another. The corporate world has been bombarded with business plans and idea to enhance worker productivity and profit margins that have distinctive religious overtones. And it spilled over into the schools where I can remember the empty slogans and “mission statement” that were posted in the hallways of the school where I taught mathematics for 30 years. Our school district motto could only have been thought up by an uninspired administrative drone who plunged to the depths of the boring banal, coming up with “Delta Schools District: A great place to work and learn”. Our school motto was equally mind-numbing: “South Delta Senior Secondary: Where learning matters.” Literally hundreds of precious valuable hours were spent coming up with such vacuities, in addition to a “mission statement” that everyone had to agree with. Once it was composed, everyone promptly forgot all about it within a week. Maybe this gobbledygook is a product of all the LSD pill popping and pot smoking from the Sixties generation?
In addition to the few dozens of contemporary well established major religions in the world, whose devotees number in the hundreds of thousands and even millions, there are literally thousands of less popular recognizable religions. All these religions including those in the mainstream make conflicting and mutually exclusive claims. Consequently, if one of them is true, the rest are false. A more plausible and probable conclusion is that they are all false. More astounding is the fact that two or three new religions are spawned every day with their typical lifespan being less than a decade. There is no way of knowing how many distinct religions have flourished in the distant past since religions die when there is no one left to believe in them or when they are replaced by others, often by political authority. Christianity, for example, grew from cult status to religion when the Roman Emperor Constantine, after having had a premonition after a dream, declared by fiat that Christianity will be the new state religion. Some very popular religions are less than 200 years old. One religion that was “intelligently designed” by a third rate science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard, almost in its entirety, is Scientology, but I suspect that it is a rarity. Another candidate for a purely custom designed religion is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, its enterprisingly mendacious inventor, went to the great lengths of composing a complete new holy book, the Book of Mormon, inventing from scratch a whole new bogus American history, written in bogus seventeenth-century English. Mormonism, however, has evolved since it was fabricated in the nineteenth century and has now become one of the respectable mainstream religions of America - indeed, it claims to be the fastest-growing one, and there is talk of fielding a presidential candidate.
So religions are ubiquitous phenomena and a dime a dozen, virtually all of them making claims that contradict fundamental laws of physics and biology that are learned in a Junior High School science course. Confusing and opaque conceptual considerations notwithstanding, there is another important issue about religion and belief in god that leaves non-believers and skeptics perplexed: They stand in open mouthed bewilderment when people choose one deity that lacks evidence over another that lacks evidence then believe wholeheartedly in one rather than the other. We may illustrate this with the references to fairies, goblins, zombies and unicorns. If I asked you to believe one of these mystical entities, which have no more or less evidence for their existence than the multiple deities that have been believed in throughout human history, and not the others, how would you react? My conclusion: faith is intellectually bankrupt, does not deserve our respect and religion has been a sacred cow, protected from genuine criticism, for too long. I agree wholeheartedly with British philosopher A C Grayling who, in a recent essay, stated, "To believe something in the face of evidence and against reason - to believe something by faith - is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect. It is time to say so." The eminent Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has correctly pointed out that since Christians and Muslims do not believe in Thor, Baal, Aphrodite, Odin, Wotan, or Zeus and Ares and Hermes, or Shiva and Vishnu, or the divinity of the Dalai Lama or the Japanese Emperor, and so endlessly on, they too are "atheists" about all the gods ever imagined – except their own. If Christians were to apply the same standards of rationality in rejecting all the hundreds of gods of other religions throughout history and applied those very same standards to their own god, they surely must reject their own as well. The real test of the intellectual integrity of any belief is this: If you strip away all the motives and psychological reasons for wanting a belief to be true, would you still believe it?
With religion it seems anything goes. For example, consider how long it has taken for legal authorities to act upon Mormon fundamentalist tyrants such as Warren Jeffs in the United States or the community of polygamist Mormons overseen by pedophiles in the community of Bountiful in Southern British Columbia? The time is indeed long overdue that we lay to rest the meaningless assertion that we should respect people's beliefs regardless of their rationality. Religion has been given a free ride for too long. Nobody is saying, for instance, that we should respect racist, homophobic, or misogynistic beliefs; nor do we do so in practice. Instead we require good reasons and duly demand evidence for all propositions of fact or value. A failure to secure satisfactory evidence or argument in their favor should lead naturally to beliefs being marginalized or extinguished. The time has come to extend this rather obvious principle to the demonstrable dubious claims and blatant falsehoods of religion which have ravaged the finite resources of humanity for millennia.
Even more incoherent is the notion that we should somehow endeavor to respect all religious beliefs equally; never mind that they happen to lie in seamless contradiction with one another - a contradiction which all too frequently and predictably spills over into violent conflict. Ironically it is the religions themselves which have enthusiastically embraced this absurd stance, thereby willingly entering into the most unholy of alliances with all other faiths. I think we should view this new found tolerance and respect with extreme cynicism.
Many hundreds of years ago, religions were persecuting, torturing, and murdering their perceived enemies in large numbers. Scientists, inquiring skeptics and non-believers were tortured or summarily executed. A mere century or so ago, at least in jurisdictions where democratic institutions prevailed, the faiths have been for the most part prohibited from continuing to do this, although they still continued to condemn and vilify their rivals unequivocally as false religions. Because of the humanist enlightenment and scientific revolution, religions have finally been forcibly compelled to embrace the concepts of democracy, freedom, diversity and tolerance - along with sexual equality, abolition of slavery, women’s liberation and various other products of modernity - which somehow they were never quite capable of working out for themselves by so-called divine inspiration.
Why be born again when you can just grow up?
Orthodox Christians built an organization that from its inception encouraged not freedom and self-determination, but obedience and conformity. To that end, any means were justified. During the Dark Ages, civilization collapsed as the Church took control of education, science, medicine, technology and the arts. Crusaders marched into the Middle East killing and destroying in the name of the one Christian God. The Inquisition established a precedent for the systematic policing and terrorization of society, torturing and executing thousands of non-believers, atheists and heretics. The Protestant and Catholic Counter Reformation sparked wars where Christians slaughtered other Christians, each convinced that theirs was the one and only true path. And the holocausts of colonial racism, slavery and the witch hunts plumbed the depths of horror as it eradicated countless indigenous peoples and women. A chronology of the long list of atrocities would require a book at least as long as the Bible.
People today still believe in the myth that our societal norms and cultural values are built upon Christian values. Nothing could be further from the truth. Notions of freedom and democracy are anathema to monotheistic religions such as Christianity. Without the Humanist Enlightenment and Scientific revolution we would be still languishing in the oppression of the Dark Ages where religion held sway.
As was the case with Christianity until recently, religious beliefs concerning the role of the sexes within society have kept women enslaved throughout much of the Islamic world today. But the Pope's archaic beliefs regarding sexuality and in particular the tacit wickedness of a small rubber sheath continue to fuel poverty, overpopulation and disease throughout much of the developing world. The beliefs of Jews and Muslims concerning who possesses the divine real-estate rights to certain tracts of land in the Middle East provoke a constant source of conflict and bloodshed. In what sense may we reasonably say that these are beliefs which anyone is "free" to hold? They are nothing short of lethal and we should endeavor to attack and obliterate them as if they were the deadly mind viruses to which Richard Dawkins has likened them.
The idea that religion should be a purely private matter sounds perfectly conceivable, but in practice it has been demonstrated that it doesn’t work. Religion has never been content to restrict itself to a private sphere of influence. Why would it? Religions purport to hold the key to life’s ultimate meaning; the stakes could scarcely be higher. There is a failure in our discourse to appreciate the zeal with which some religionists truly believe and act upon the canons of their faith. Moreover, childhood indoctrination is inherent to religion, without which it would likely not survive beyond a generation or two. It would appear that the right to freedom of religious expression is synonymous with the right to burden the next generation with ignorance, superstition and patent falsehood.
So I bluntly reject the notion that we should simply respect all beliefs to which so many subscribe regardless of their irrationality. We should not seek to compartmentalize thoughts, words, actions, and inactions; they are all part of a set in my view. Instead, we should go on the offensive, developing a deep and lasting intolerance towards all strains of unreason, herd mentalities and closed systems of thought. I’m not proposing a Humanist Inquisition of my own here; it’s a battle of words and ideas - a "conversational intolerance" as Sam Harris has termed it. I suspect however that some Christians must surely have grave doubts about their beliefs. Consider the notion of heaven. Christians believe that the most wonderful thing that can happen to them is to go to Heaven and be with God and Jesus for eternity, but very few of them seems to be in a hurry to make the trip.
The primary objection to religion (I have many ancillary ones such as the ubiquity of religious moralizing, persecution and hypocrisy) is that it is grounded in superstition and appeals to the miraculous. Miracles such as this: Jesus was born to a virgin, crucified for the collective “sins” of mankind, resurrected from death, walked on water, healed the sick with magic words, fed thousands with a few loaves and fish and after rising from the dead ascended into heaven took a seat at the right hand of the Lord in a magical place called Heaven. Or this: Mohammed talked to an angel representing Allah (a spokesperson in divine PR, presumably) who dictated unto him the latest rules and regulations for blessedness, uttered by Allah at a recent company seminar. Or this: Moses, who accepted the testimony of a burning bush that it was in fact Yahweh, went up to a mountain alone and came back some time later with a pair of engraved tablets that he apparently had nothing to do with; this same Moses, this extravagant prevaricator, is considered to be a reliable witness of his god. I am expected to believe that amongst the thousands of charlatans who have professed and continue to profess to have a monopoly on the truth that your religion's favorite huckster is, unlike all others, telling the truth.
G K Chesterton once said that “if you believe in God, you’ll believe anything” - an odd utterance from a devout Catholic. The phenomenal growth of both the Mormon and the Jehovah Witness Church’s demonstrates that people will in fact believe virtually anything, no matter how bizarre. The same conclusions can be drawn about the prevalence of belief in Scientology, astrology, psychics, creationism, quack medicine and other paranormal, pseudo-scientific and New Age nonsense. And yes, people I know have actually admitted to having purchased the Q-ring bracelet which claims to cure everything from a glitch in your golf swing to carpel tunnel syndrome and hemorrhoids. Chesterton also said that "there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don't know it." He is wrong; there are three kinds of people: these two, and those who know a dogma when it barks, when it bites, and when it should be put down.
Hijacking spirituality and morality
Beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven. – Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. - Albert Einstein
Religion is essentially an intellectual dead end – a conversation stopper. I can't speak for the religious, but I cannot imagine anyone feeling a greater sense of the spiritual than I do when I look up at a starry sky on a cloudless night. There is more awe and wonder in one chapter of an introductory astronomy book than in any dozens of Bibles or Korans. In the newspaper this morning a UBC astronomer witnessed stars a billion light years away, meaning that the light he saw took a billion years to get to him. Carl Sagan referred to this notion of wonderment, insatiable curiosity, scientific inquiry and reverence for the unknown as the “awe factor”. No one, though, as far as I am aware other than Sagan and the Nobel Prize physicist Richard Feynman, has ever so adequately demonstrated in the mainstream that it is possible to live a spiritual existence without a belief in the supernatural.
Spirituality is a rather nebulous concept and promoting the spiritual appeal of atheism in a predominantly evangelical Christian country like the United States may seem to be, at first glance, the worst type of self-delusional folly. Depending on how the question is worded, anywhere from 90 to 95% of Americans claim to believe in “God”. During the 2000 presidential campaign, when Al Gore nominated Joseph Lieberman, and Orthodox Jew, as his running mate, Americans were asked if they would vote for a qualified Jewish president. Over 90% of respondents said “Yes.” In the same poll, only 49% claimed they would support an atheist for president. While Jews can take heart in these numbers, atheists and humanists can only shake their heads in astonishment. When half of unthinking Americans still equate godlessness with immorality, there is clearly a massive amount of work to be done.
Whatever mode a spiritual defense of naturalism takes, one basic criterion is to be confidently passionate about science and its methods of inquiry. With this must come a critical skepticism of all things supernatural and a complete rejection of the vacuity of faith. Let’s be honest: faith is the last recourse of the intellectually defeated. When you invoke faith, you are admitting that your belief is completely without merit, for if the evidence compelled you to believe, faith would be superfluous. The faith that allows you to believe in a personal, all-merciful God allows your next-door neighbor to believe that an invisible munchkin is living in his basement, or the religious fanatic on the bus next to you to believe that a martyr’s death will send him straight to heaven and into the waiting arms of 72 sex-starved virgins. Either way, you’ve entered the dark realm of irrationality and, in many cases I’m afraid to say, serious mental dysfunction. Faith and reason (and, by extension, religion and science) are as incompatible as trust and jealousy or joy and sadness, and it’s high time people of intellect stopped according them equal respect.
Atheism entails a serious threat to a fear based authoritarian social hierarchy and religion has so thoroughly hijacked morality that to many atheism connotes personal depravity and an abstinence from morality, rather than a secular worldview. But is it not the atheist who must make his or her ethics directly applicable to the world? On this view we are our own masters and must answer to a ruthless authority that knows all of our actions, motivations and unspoken thoughts: our own consciences. This is an extremely independent, individualistic and self-empowering view, and it's no coincidence that individualist, rational and implicitly atheist societies are among the most compassionate and caring ones. So what about the claim by the pious that in the 20th Century secular societies have been the primary purveyors of much of the human misery? Let’s examine the facts. In any event, any authoritarian based system of morality implying a lawgiver is “moral” only in the sense that their laws conform to a moral standard which is independent of the lawgiver. This dilemma is adequately articulated and well argued by Plato in the Euthypyro, so I will not pursue this obvious point any further.
Studies have shown that people who embrace authoritarian based religious moral systems do not behave any better than atheists and agnostics. Not only have psychological studies failed to find a significant correlation between frequency of religious worship and moral conduct, but convicted criminals, when compared with the general population, are much more likely to be theists than atheists. Six of the seven states in the USA with the highest divorce and crime rates are in the Bible Belt and there are surprisingly few non-believers in prison. In study a few years ago of 85,000 convicts, only 150 were avowed atheists – less than 2%. In a more recent study it was found that 50% of those in prison are Catholics compared with 25% in the general population and atheists comprised only .2% - that's one-fifth of one percent compared with 10% in the general population. Although one cannot draw any compelling inferences from these studies, they are nevertheless revealing statistics. In many European countries religion plays a much smaller role in people's lives than it does in countries like the United States where levels of violence and social dysfunction are significantly higher. Were a lack of religion any sort of cause of violence, then we would find higher amounts of violence in countries like Sweden and Denmark rather than Ireland and the United States, where both religion and violence are ubiquitous in daily life.
I personally find the notion of an omniscient celestial dictator who grants rewards and punishments for certain types of behavior to be not only morally bankrupt, but facile, self-indulgent and infantile. It bears a striking resemblance to the protagonist in the Christmas song “Santa Claus is coming to Town.” He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake”. Paradoxically, if you were “good for goodness sake” the all knowing Santa would be irrelevant, would it not? That was Plato’s main message in the Euthypyro.
Finally, have Christians who hold up the Bible as a moral guide ever actually read the book or thought seriously about it’s moral implications? The following offences merit the death penalty: cursing your parents; committing adultery; making love to your stepmother or your daughter-in-law; homosexuality; marrying a woman and her daughter; bestiality (and, to add injury to insult, the unfortunate beast is to be killed too). You are executed, of course, for working on the Sabbath: the point is made again and again throughout the Old Testament. In one story, the children of Israel found a man in the wilderness gathering sticks on the forbidden day. They arrested him and then asked God what to do with him. As it turned out, God was in no mood for half measures that day. 'And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall surely be put to death: the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died.' Did this harmless gatherer of firewood have a wife and children to grieve for him? Did he whimper with fear as the first stones flew, and scream with pain as the fusillade crashed into his head?
What shocks me today about such stories is not that they really happened. They probably didn't. What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as the egotistical tyrant Yahweh - and, even worse, that they should fervently try to force the same vindictive ogre on the rest of us. This might explain the retributive actions of the holier-than-thou Bush Administration in their response to 9-11. Consider these two analogous scenarios:
Crime and Punishment
These two cases are remarkably similar in at least one sense, don’t you think?
A believes in the Norse God Odin, B believes in the Invisible Flying Pink Unicorn and C is an atheist.
A, B, C and anyone else who commits crimes such as these are condemned to hell to be tortured and burned for eternity.
Nineteen religious kooks fly airplanes into two buildings in New York, thus destroying the buildings and killing approximately 3000 people.
Totally demolish two countries that have nothing to do with the terrorists thus killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and creating a hell on earth for those that remain.
Secular “religions” – Invoking the religious template
Religion is “the first refuge of the desperate; a convenient means of avoiding such unpleasantries as independent thought and reality; a means of feeling superior to others; a cult which has achieved sufficient longevity, membership, and economic clout to merit social acceptance. – Robert Tefton
The rapid growth of fascism in Europe during the 1930s is stark evidence of what happens when religious belief is mixed with political ideology. Adolph Hitler was raised a Catholic and quasi-religious ideas were central to the foundations of The Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler, also brought up Catholic, stated that “some higher Being is behind nature…I insist that members of the SS must believe in God.”
It can be argued that Communism as interpreted and practiced by both Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung was a comprehensive, all-embracing teleological closed system; that is, a religion and not simply a political party, political system or secular philosophy. This fact is illustrated by the numerous ways in which Communism embraced and attempted to promulgate peculiar quasi-religious (and often clearly anti-scientific) beliefs which had nothing all to do with politics or government. Although Communism typically touted itself as anti-religious and pro-science, it was, in fact, deeply anti-scientific with deep seated religious overtones. One of Communism's hallmarks in the Soviet Union and China was its aggressive and violent suppression of other religions or ideologies. Communism was "anti-religious" only in the sense that it forcibly suppressed all religions and systems of thought other than itself.
Joseph Stalin was the product of a theological seminary where he aspired to the priesthood and learned well its lessons of manipulation and thought control. He knew that the best way to stifle dissent and to break the will of the people was to deprive them of that which they value the most. Religion, being so important to the lives of the Russian people, was the perfect target. By depriving the people of the crutch of religion, he knew he could crush their spirit and replace it with something else. Clearly, Stalin's tyranny was based on the totalitarian premises that he learned from religion: Unquestioning obedience, reverence for a deity-figure (in human form) as well as a pie-in-the-sky utopian vision. Like religions, his government never tolerated freedom of thought.
Every time a country has based its government on fundamentalist Christian principles, that country has been a dictatorship. Such governments have never tolerated dissent or opposing viewpoints and have never hesitated to use violence to enforce their wills. This attitude can be traced back to the earliest history of the church and to the Bible itself. Biblical doctrines that despots have found to be invaluable include obedience to authority, the undermining of human reason, the view of humanity as being inherently evil, and the view that this life is of secondary importance to an imaginary next life. Doctrines such as this tend to weaken resistance and to render people more susceptible to political influence. This should be kept in mind when listening to the views of today's religious and political leaders. To be sure, they often speak of morality, love and compassion, but the fact remains that Christian love has historically always been a conditional love, applicable only toward fellow Christians; the unconverted were subjected to Crusades, Inquisitions, burnings, torture and death. In more enlightened times, thanks to the influence of humanistic principles from the Enlightenment, these have largely been eliminated, but social ostracism remains a powerful weapon against dissent.
The horrors wrought by
Christianity cannot be dismissed as irrelevant ancient history. In the twentieth
century, it was the Vatican that first supported and recognized fascism, viewing
it as a powerful weapon against "atheistic" communism. The Vatican supported the
various fledgling fascist governments in the period between the two world wars,
giving diplomatic recognition to Mussolini in 1929 and playing an instrumental
role in the formation of France's Vichy government, Franco's Spain, and the
Ustashe government in Croatia.
Sigmund Freud, in his two short essays on religion called The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents, referred to religious belief as paranoid wish fulfillment, a mass delusion and “childhood neurosis”. "The whole thing is so patently infantile”, says Freud, “so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life".
Television personality Bill Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," says Christians and others who are religious suffer from a neurological disorder that "stops people from thinking." "When you look at beliefs in such things as, do you go to heaven, is there a devil, we have more in common with Turkey and Iran and Syria than we do with European nations and Canada and nations that, yes, I would consider more enlightened than us."
[i] The Bible is a book plagued by ambiguities and contradictions. Consider the following passages from Matthew that conflict with the one cited from Corinthians:
Matthew 18:3 And said, Verily I say unto
you, Except ye be converted, and
Matthew 18:4 Whosoever therefore shall
humble himself as this little child,
So which is it?