My mother was having trouble opening a drawer. She pulled and pulled but it wouldn’t budge. Frustrated, she yelled “Jesus!” and it finally opened.
“Did you see that? Because I asked Jesus I was able to open it.”
This didn’t impress me.
“So what you are saying is that Jesus just now ignored every single person suffering from famine, disease and poverty just to help you open the drawer?”
An uncle of mine was once very concerned that I wasn’t going to church. He tried to make me see the light.
“Why is it that we drive on the left side of the road?”
“Because otherwise we would crash into other cars”
“But what if there were no cars, and therefore no chance of crashing?”
“Well I still wouldn’t because I wouldn’t want to break the law and risk getting caught.”
He believed he was communicating something rather profound. A logical proof that I had to go to church. I don’t think he was aware that I didn’t accept the premise – that there were omniscient police in the sky – to begin with.
Blaise Pascal once said that believing in a god is the most reasonable choice. This argument – known as Pascal’s wager – goes something like this.
If god isn’t real, the believer loses little and the unbeliever gains little. If god is real the believer will gain eternal paradise and the unbeliever will suffer eternal damnation.
This is not an argument for the existence of god as Voltaire points out.
“The interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists”
Beliefs are a representation of reality. To believe is to think something is actually the case. You can’t justify the existence of a god by talking about the supposed benefits in believing in one.
And which god exactly is this wager supposed to defend? If I were to invent a god that provided greater rewards and worse punishments than any other, Pascal’s wager would dictate you believe in it.
Some people say that when you look at the complexity and beauty of this world and its forms you have to conclude that it was created by an intelligent being. They call this the teleological argument.
They will point out the elegance of the deer and how their legs are well made – long and thin enough to run quickly, yet not spindly enough to be fragile – perfect for fleeing from predators.
Or the tiger that is fast and muscular with sharp teeth and claws, as if it had been designed for the sole purpose of hunting down its dinner.
But there is an important flaw to their line of thinking.
Why would a creator so carefully fine tune a creature like a deer to escape predation, only to also design the tiger to catch it? As William Blake puts it in his poem “The Tiger”:
“Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
Creationism fails to explain these conflicting forces found in nature, but evolution succeeds. Slower and more fragile deer were more likely to die out. Weak tigers were less likely to devour their next meal. Generation after generation only the fittest of these species would pass on their genes, resulting in specimens ever better equipped for survival.
This explanation is more elegant and powerful than “God made them that way”.
It is often said that “something cannot come from nothing”, that since the universe exists it must have been created by an all powerful being. This is a completely made up, fabricated rule yet is seen as an argument for the existence of a god.
If god created everything else, what created god?
Carl Sagan answered this succinctly.
“If you decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step and conclude that how to universe came into existence is an unanswerable question?
If you decide that god has always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed?”
We may not know how the universe came into being, but this doesn’t give us the grounds to assert the existence of a creator.
Imagine the following experiment.
We take a look at all terminally ill hospital patients and compare the death rates of those who believe in the God of Abraham, those who believe in other gods and those who don’t believe at all. If prayer worked, we should expect believers to have a measurably higher chance of survival.
If prayer did anything, its effects should leave a footprint on this world.
In fact if an omniscient being really were answering the grievances of those that believed in him, the efficacy of prayer should exceed that of even going to the hospital.
Why isn’t this the case?
And why is it that when we hear a story about a so called miracle occurring, it is always unimpressive? Cancer dies out on its own all the time, as with a slew of many other diseases.
If prayer worked, you know what we should see?
Amputees being healed. There should be recorded medical cases of people growing back entire limbs.
If an omnipotent being really were answering prayers this would be trivial for him.
I was once invited to attend a discussion about “spiritual health” with a group of members of the Bahá'í faith. Curious, I went along wondering what people would have to say. The topic turned to prayer.
One person told us about a friend of theirs going to apply for a job. Eager to help out, they formed a prayer circle for his success. He didn’t get the job.
Apparently, this wasn’t evidence that prayer may not work.
A few months later, that friend had finally landed a job.
Hallelujah, their prayers were answered! God really does work in mysterious ways.
I wonder what took that omnipotent being so long.
Many Christians live their lives more or less certain that a man that lived two thousand years ago was born of a virgin. How they have come to this conclusion is beyond me. David Hume addressed this appropriately.
Which is more likely; that the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?
An aunt of mine once pointed to the process of how a seed grows into a tree.
“There has to be a mysterious power behind it all”
Apparently she wasn’t familiar with our understanding of biology.
We know very well how trees grow, and even if we didn’t it wouldn’t be grounds to assert the existence of a god.
It would be an argument from ignorance – just because I cannot explain something, does not give you license to assert any explanation at all.
Multiple religions assert that there is a god that is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing. This simply cannot be.
How could you square the vast amount of suffering in the past and present with a perfectly benelevant god that could have prevented it?
The Greek philosopher Epicurus described this very problem.
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”
Some may think there’s a flaw here. They will say things like:
“You can’t judge god by human standards.”
Then how could you establish him as good?
A common answer to the problem of evil is that god gave us free will. The reason bad things happen, is because god gave us the freedom to do bad things.
That doesn’t explain the tsunami that comes crashing down killing in the thousands. Do the waves have free will? And when the murderer strikes, what about the free will of his victim? Were they able to choose not to die?
In any case they say god can do anything. This would mean he must transcend logic. Surely he should be able to create a world without evil and suffering and yet still preserve free will.
If he can’t do that, then it seems god isn’t all powerful after all.
A cousin of mine once told me that the proof of god’s existence lies in the fact that miracles have taken place that science cannot fathom. I asked him to give me an example, and he told me about the miracle of Lanciano.
The story goes that a certain monk had doubts as to whether the presence of Jesus Christ truly existed in the Eucharist. One day at mass when he said the words of consecration, the bread and wine used in the ceremony transformed into actual flesh and blood. It is the official stance of the Catholic Church that this was an authentic miracle.
The samples from this event have apparently been preserved up until present day.
My cousin made a few bold assertions about this event, namely:
- That the blood was analysed and found to be type AB, apparently the known blood type of Jesus Christ
- That it has remained fresh throughout the years and has never decayed
- Similar miracles have been happening all over the world throughout history
- In each of these miracles which happened in different places, samples of blood were analysed and the DNA from them all matched
- Countless scientists have verified these findings and haven’t been able to provide an explanation for them
I told him that what he was saying was intriguing and that this would be very interesting if we could:
- Date the samples to verify they are as old as the purported miracles and that they really came from events in different periods of history
- Know that the DNA from these samples coming from different places and times really were identical
Unfortunately for him, there were no reputable sources to match these claims.
In fact, even the Wikipedia page for this miracle contradicts what I was told. There was no mention of any other similar miracles, of any DNA testing done and that this sample was only verified by two scientists.
To reuse Hume’s line of thinking:
What is more likely; that the very laws of nature have been suspended or that two scientists are wrong?
The specimens found in Lanciano still exist to this day, waiting to be analysed. Very strong claims have been made about them which should be trivial to verify.
There are undoubtedly countless Christians in the world yearning for vindication. If the evidence of their beliefs is waiting in a remote corner of the world, why haven’t they jumped on it? What is stopping them from proving to the world once and for all that theirs is the one true faith?
When pointing to the lack of evidence behind a god, many believers claim that is a test of faith. This idea is very strange.
An omniscient being that everything the way it is, needs to test us.
How bizarre is this circumstance? God could simply cut the middle man of the test and send people straight to heaven or to hell – or better yet – not create people bound to sin in the first place.
Otherwise it is just as the Elizabethan poet Fulke Greville describes.
“Oh, wearisome condition of humanity, Born under one law, to another bound;
Vainly begot, and yet forbidden vanity, Created sick, commanded to be sound.”
A common critique of atheists is that they are fundamentally closed minded. Theists may be closed minded in that they are not open to the possibility that perhaps there simply isn’t a god, but atheists are just as bad if not worse because they are closed to the possibility that there is.
This is just not the case. Most atheists would not claim that they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no god yet many theists devote their lives to these invisible entities.
Atheists simply claim that there isn’t enough evidence to establish the exist of a deity, while the typical Christian claims they are in a personal relationship with one. Many even believe that those that don’t partake in the same religion as them will burn in hellfire for an eternity.
Why is it you seldom hear of them being charged with the arrogance and narrow mindedness that is attributed to the typical atheist?
The icing on the cake here, is that even if an atheist was certain in the non-existence of a creator, they are still more open than the average religious individual.
If you reject that the universe was created by a god, you are still open to any other explanation. If you are certain that the universe was created by a god according to the specifics of a particular religion you reject every other explanation.
The certain atheist has cut out one possibility - that god created the universe. The monotheist has cut out every single possibility except that their god has created the universe.
It seems that even a gnostic atheist – that is, an atheist that claims certainty – is more open than the typical theist.
If we don't believe in god where do we get our morals from?
It's strange how common a question this is. I have heard conservative commentators that confidently claim that if it weren't for their faith they would be happily get into sorts of mischief.
Is fear of hell and a desire to live in heaven really what you need to simply be kind to your fellow human?
Wouldn't it be better if we did right by one another because we actually cared for each other's well-being?
People often talk about Christianity as spreading a message of hope, while non-believers supposedly lack. Under closer inspection it seems like it's the opposite. Christians often say that we need religious faith, beliefs in a heaven and a hell for us to do good.
They believe we need omniscient police in the sky.
Underlying the hopeful archetype of the typical Christian is the idea that people cannot be kind to one another on their own. That the only way we can do so is if we live in perpetual fear of an all powerful god. Isn't this the ultimate in cynicism?
Is it really easier to believe that the entire universe was created for us to have a relationship with its creator, than to simply believe that people can be good to one another?
So where do we get our morals from? Where we always have. From a concern for our fellow beings. This is the basis for the philosophy known as humanism.
- A rationalist outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.
Humanism is the goal of maximising our flourishing — whatever that may entail. There's simply no need for any beliefs in a deity to get started on this project. Generally if multiple people work towards a common goal, they will achieve more than if everyone works only towards their own benefit.
We don't need to be pushed and pulled by carrots and sticks. It is already in our interests to live in a society were we treat each other well.
As the excellent Steven Pinker puts it:
"A humanistic morality rests on the universal bedrock of reason and human interests: it's an inescapable feature of the human condition that we're all better of if we help each other and refrain from hurting each other."
Humanism offers a much more positive way of living together, grounded in our reason and sympathy rather than our fears and superstitions.
Yet, I think I want a little more. Enter sentientism.
Sentientism is exactly like humanism except for one crucial difference. It is concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings, not just humans. That in fact we should act in the concerns and interest of all beings that have the capacity for happiness and suffering, not just those that look like us.
This is a much better basis for morality than most of our ancient scriptures.
Why have I written all this?
There are billions in this world that seem to really believe that we are living under the rule of an imaginary god.
Yet no matter how hard we look for evidence for such an entity, we don't seem to find it.
A person's religious beliefs often determine what they are willing to live and even die for. How perverse would it be if it all amounted to mind games that people played with each other and themselves? Who is there to pray to?
Many non-believers don't give much thought to their religious breathren and often fail to connect with how divorced their brothers and sisters can be from reality. They often imagine that people are somehow capable of separating their most important beliefs from the rest of their lives as if they were an afterthought.
Could you imagine living in a world in which most people proudly proclaimed to believe in the gods of the ancient Greeks?
"In Zeus we trust"
I'm not sure printing this on banknotes should instill confidence in the stability of one's economy.
Is it really okay that many of our political, economic and business leaders claim to believe in what should be unbelievable?
What bothers me as much though, is that in this day and age it that many otherwise intelligent people seem to insist that these beliefs should be free from critique.
If we demand that our leaders believe the entire universe was created just for us, should we be surprised when they boldly declare that climate change is a chinese hoax?
If a world leader was on record for believing that the moon was made from cheese, would you feel comfortable having them managing a nation's resources? Is it even tempting to imagine this won't affect their decision making process? Why even take such a risk?
Have you considered that the belief in life after death has enabled us to treat human lives with disregard when sending them to war? It must be reassuring to know that all the fallen soldiers now dwell in paradise.
What if the idea of an eternal paradise beyond this world, has led us to be less concerned with what is happening to ours? So what if our planet grows warmer by the year? After all, this is just a pit stop.
An aunt of mine once commented that there was no need to refrain from eating meat since we have souls and animals do not. I wonder if this belief — shared by many of the religious in the world — has enabled us to let farm animals to live in conditions comparable to the Christian hell?
Do you really think that the level of discrimination we still have in society has nothing to do with the private religious convictions of our neighbours?
I have made the case once before that beliefs affect behaviour. How strange would it be if people's most cherished beliefs failed to move them in any way?
The Roman Emperor Caligula was as driven as anyone by his view of the world. It is believed grew ambitious enough to challenge Neptune – the god of the ocean – himself. He apparently ordered his legion of troops to enter the ocean and wage war with the sea itself.
I wonder if the way we run this world is more like Caligula's campaign than we would care to admit.
- Many of us seem to believe in a god that created everything
- The reasons people give for this belief cannot withstand scrutiny
- These beliefs influence how they behave in the world and ultimately impact themselves, those around them and the rest of society
Can you see the problem?
Expect an article on him here in the future. ↩︎
No one I know of claims to be a gnostic atheist. I like to call them straw atheists. ↩︎
What are heaven and hell but the ultimate carrot and stick? ↩︎