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BRLSI PHILOSOPHY GROUP
Thursday 16 September 2010
WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN
Donald Cameron, BRLSI Convenor & Trustee
The first thing we must say about religion, or the lack of it, is the need for tolerance. For as long as history is recorded, and certainly in our own time, we see people hating and killing in the name of their gods, despite the professed tenets of most religions against such behaviour. Europe has seen wars, terrorism, massacres, executions for blasphemy, and the deposition and even execution of monarchs for religious reasons. Much of the hatred has been between slightly different versions of the same religion, which would be difficult for an outsider to tell apart.
Although the hatred and violence continues to the present day, there is now a substantial community of opinion that stands against it. It is important that we accept that we do not need to agree on religion. It is not the job of the state to decide the religious opinions of its citizens. We must respect our neighbour’s right to have a different view with the right to proclaim it. We must demand an equal right in return. There is a fine line to be drawn. We must have a right to argue against beliefs that we consider false and even to mock them with humour. Yet we must not expect the right to be gratuitously offensive, nor to incite hatred of people because of their religious beliefs.
I will be saying some things this evening that some people may find shocking. Indeed at other times of my life I would have considered them shocking myself. But during this autumn programme we shall hear from several different points of view ranging from belief to scepticism. I hope, not just tonight, but for all these speakers, we will hear them with patience and courtesy, particularly when we do not agree with them. In the familiar words, let us do to others as we would be done by.
Religion is a fascinating subject. Intelligent people will declare total certainty in completely implausible beliefs for which they have not the slightest evidence. My own position, after many years of considering the available evidence, is very close indeed to total certainty that all religions are false. Bertrand Russell was once asked whether he considered himself an atheist or an agnostic. He replied that in a strict philosophical sense he must declare himself an agnostic, but for all practical purposes he was an atheist.
Russell accepted that the argument that God’s existence cannot be disproved, but gave an illustration of his thought. Let us consider the idea that, orbiting around the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, there might be a perfectly formed teapot. There is absolutely no way of disproving this, but Russell held that, in the absence of any supporting evidence, no purpose was served by thinking it likely. In a similar vein, we can observe that it is difficult to disprove the existence of unicorns or of any invisible gods.
I must perhaps apologise for the title of this paper. It is the same as that of a lecture by Russell that he gave to the National Secular Society in 1927. He presented the arguments about religion much more eloquently than I can. But here, I will attempt to give some of my own reasons why I have felt compelled to find it implausible.
My own Religious Development
My first memory of exposure to religious concepts was at the age of two and a half. My mother had died of cancer at the age of thirty-one and, as you might expect, I asked where she was. I was told that she had gone to heaven. Heaven, apparently, was a very nice place where everything was lovely.
Some time later, I have a memory of playing outside with a 5-year old girl. I thought I could get some information from this older and sophisticated person. I asked her where heaven was and she told me that it was up in the sky. I looked up at the four storey building where we lived at the time and I remember visualising that it must be somewhere above the roof top.
Although I was too young to have attended the funeral, at a later time I was taken to the cemetery to put flowers on my mother’s grave. It was a bad feeling to imagine her under the ground, but I was assured that her soul was in heaven and that this was separate from the body.
As I went through my schooldays and attended school, Sunday school and church services, I gradually built up a picture of what religion was all about. I took part in Bible classes, learning about parts of the Bible that had been selected for me. I was even awarded a certificate of Bible knowledge on one occasion. I listened to excruciatingly boring sermons, reluctantly joined in monotonously droned hymns and put money on the plate. I did not enjoy these experiences much, and I remember that the thing that cheered me up most was when the minister produced the benediction, which meant that we could now go.
But despite being bored, I did not, for most of my childhood, have the slightest doubt that what I was being told was true. No-one around me suggested any doubt about the religious story. Then I remember, when I was about ten years old, we listened to a schools radio programme with pictorial teacher’s aids (there was no television in those days). It was about pre-history and dinosaurs. After the programme, the teacher said that we might be wondering how this squared up with the creation as detailed in the Bible. Actually, although I had found the programme very interesting, it hadn’t crossed my mind to wonder about that. She explained that we did not need to worry, because, for God, a day could be a million years and the Bible story was still true, even if not literally so.
But as I went through my teenage years some more elements of doubt appeared. Why was God so invisible? We were told that he gave us no evidence of his existence because he wanted to test our faith. But could not anything be sold on that basis, not just the belief set in which I had been brought up? Jesus died for my sins, but how did he know nearly 2000 years before my lifetime that I was going to sin? And why did God want his own son to suffer before he could forgive my sins? Couldn’t he just have decided to forgive them anyway? Then I learned about evolution which seemed to sink Genesis without trace. Astronomy showed that if there was a heaven, it was a lot further away than the rooftop of our tenement building. And evidence that the brain functioned by electrical discharges and chemical reactions of millions of nerve cells left little room for the idea of a soul.
And yet I continued to believe into my late teens. I was afraid that disbelief was a sin. It would be something that my family, teachers and friends would regard as almost criminal, placing me outside the membership of civilised society. It was difficult to get beyond this point, but I remember thinking to myself that I have been told that God is good and just. I reasoned from that, that he would not be angry if my attempt to find the truth was genuine and honest. So began a journey of exploration, a long-term interest in religion and its history, and a desire to find out whether it could really be true.
The history of Religion and Christianity in Particular
The idea of memes is by analogy with genes to the extent that they mutate, reproduce and are subject to a form of natural selection. Memes are just fragments of information that inhabit human brains. When an idea is passed on from one person to another, the meme has reproduced and, because some catch on more than others, they evolve just like living things. The history of religion shows a perfect example of this idea of memes in action.
Around the beginning of our current era, the religious scene in the Roman Empire was one of many local gods and a few more widespread belief systems that can be loosely described as pagan. It was widely believed that these gods had a kindly disposition, but that they needed sacrifices to keep them happy and that they could sometimes get angry and need to be appeased. No doubt, these belief sets were mutating and being communicated around the population as time passed. It seems likely that belief sets of this kind have existed for many, many thousands of years before the time of Christianity.
Many of these religions had multiple gods and agreement between cultures was sometimes reached by “identifying” gods with each other. The different gods became the same god, but called by a different name in each language.
At the eastern end of the Mediterranean, as we know, there was a religion that worshipped a single god who differed little from the pagan gods, but who said that he alone was true and that all the others were false. Judaism also had a large body of written material corresponding roughly to our old testament. They also had some rather strict and onerous laws.
From this Jewish environment, it seems likely that a leader called Jesus arose. Nothing is known about him from contemporary sources. He wrote nothing himself, or at least nothing that survives. We have no accounts other than the Gospels which were not written by his disciples as many suppose, but were composed by unknown persons half a century or more after his death. The lack of contemporary traces of his existence implies that he did not make a great mark at the time, yet he must have attracted some attention to himself, if it is true that the Romans decided to execute him. It may be that he was an agitator of unrest or even a rebel. We can never know from the myths that have grown up, what he was really like.
Whatever happened, the stories that people told of his death and resurrection, the equally unsubstantiated account of his miraculous birth and the idea that he was the son of God caught people’s imaginations. Of course, many of the elements were not untested novelties, because some of the ideas, such as virgin birth and living again after execution, existed in other pagan stories. Initially the followers were a cult within Judaism. The application of the Jewish law was a barrier to the promulgation of the faith – it was rather a disincentive to ask adult males to undergo circumcision. (I don’t suppose babies would be enthusiastic either if they were able to make an informed choice.) It seems likely that it was Paul and others who got rid of the burden of Jewish Law and turned Christianity into a meme that would spread with virulence.
Religions based on Jesus spread rapidly, but equally rapidly differentiated into belief systems that diverged from each other. The Ebionites were a sect within Judaism that retained the Old Testament and Jewish Law, believed in one god and thought Paul was a heretic. The Marcionites despised the Jews, greatly admired Paul and rejected the Old Testament completely. They thought that the Jewish God was bad, because he had created this imperfect world and was a cruel and wrathful god. There was a better god above him and Jesus gave us access to this better god. They were the first to have a canonical list of books which were redacted versions of those familiar to us in the New Testament.
Various differing sects of Gnostics flourished. Their beliefs are only incompletely known, although the documents found at Nag Hammadi have added greatly to the knowledge of scholars. They too believed the Jewish god was inferior. They had a hostility to the physical world and supposed that by achieving inner knowledge we could ensure that we would rise once again to our rightful place in heaven, from which we had fallen into this imperfect world. Some Gnostics espoused docetism – the belief that Jesus was pure spirit and that he only had a phantom body, which therefore could never have suffered. They held that Jesus was a revealer of knowledge, not a saviour.
For the first three centuries these different groups with quite divergent views abounded. But they all were driven out in time by what later became the mainstream. The repeated condemnation of false teachers that occurs throughout the New Testament is evidence of the struggle for dominance that was taking place. There were many different texts, many forgeries being first written long after their named authors were dead. This time was long before the invention of printing and book copies were made by transcription. Where multiple copies of documents can be found, they often have parts put in and other parts left out by scribes who sought to “improve” them.
The Old Testament, as the name suggests, is more ancient, but scholarship has revealed that it too seems to have evolved in many human hands. Some books, for example, that are ascribed to a single author, have been shown to have several. Such techniques as a count of word frequencies give an author’s “fingerprint” and can show when more than one hand was at work.
Christianity, and the version of it that eventually became orthodox, had a lucky break with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (born 272, emperor 306, died 337). Constantine dabbled in all the religions, but some successes in battle and politics after some Christian devotions, convinced him to go that way. In 324 he ordered an end to persecution of the Christians and in 325 he convened the Council of Nicaea in an attempt to get some agreement between the various factions. The exact nature of Jesus and his relationship to God the father were important points. The Arian teaching was the belief that Jesus was not a god, but the foremost creation of God-the-father. Arianism was declared a heresy and the astonishing fudge of the concept of the Trinity emerged. Despite this victory for orthodoxy, it took a further hundred years before it was generally agreed which texts belonged in the canon of the New Testament.
With the establishment of the Church of Rome and the eastern orthodox churches, heresy was suppressed, sometimes harshly, for centuries and the rate of mutation was reduced. In more recent times, with suppression less possible, mutation has increased again. First Protestantism, which subdivided into its many branches, appeared and more recently we have seen the growth of cults of all kinds which may only owe part of their ideas to their Christian heritage. The Mormons have their own sacred text, transcribed by Joseph Smith from gold plates supplied by an angel (but, most regrettably, not now available for inspection). More recently we have the growth of the frightening evangelical movement in the United States which makes its organisers very rich. Suicide cults, such as the Jonestown mass suicide group or the Heaven’s Gate who believed they were going to join a spaceship near the Hale-Bopp comet, are even more frightening, although for obvious reasons, less influential!
The lesson from this history is that religious memes mutate and diverge as time goes on; we must wonder what is the reason. There is clear evidence for fraud and forgery – even the gospels said to be written by the apostles were really written long after they were dead. Certainly there was motivation for fraud – many of those who experienced revelation made very nice careers out of it, some even achieving grandeur. There is also evidence of well intentioned “enhancement” when written works were copied and re-copied before the invention of printing.
But, of course, it is not logically impossible that the work originated from divine inspiration and revelation guiding the hand of the authors. But, if that is true, why does it always happen in private and why is the information so often contradictory?
The other easily forgotten fact about the history of Christianity is that it is so short. The age of humanity, (if we define that as from the time when hominids acquired the mental and linguistic capacities for the concepts of religion) must be hundreds of thousands of years. Why has the good news been available only to the minority of the last two thousand? Christianity was invented about 2000 years ago, Islam more recently. Humanity has existed for perhaps 2 million years. This means that, for 99.9% of the time, people lived without knowing about them. Of course, many other beliefs must have come and gone in that time.
And, of course, if religions were true, why are there so many of them? The Victorians solved this implausibly by saying that the savages were simply deluding themselves with false gods and dispatched missionaries to put the matter right. The subject is mostly neglected today to avoid dispute, while some claim that all religions say the same thing really. They certainly don't!
Of course like so many believers and unbelievers, evolution by natural selection has been a significant influence on my assessment of the problem. The accounts of our origin and nature could not be more irreconcilable. On the one hand, God created the universe and all living things in six days around six thousand years ago. On the other, life began with replicating molecules billions of years ago and developed complexity through the mechanism of natural selection without any external influence.
The scientific evidence for evolution is beyond dispute. People today interpret it in three ways
1. The creationists simply deny it, ignoring the weight of evidence and clinging to any scrap of argument that can be brought against it.
2. A large number of believers do not deny the clear evidence, but manage to reconcile their faith with it. Among these is the Roman Catholic Church, possibly conscious of bad experiences of denying science in the past. Their position seems to be that humanity evolved as science believes, but the human soul created by God was installed at some point. This position has the advantage that it cannot be disproven, unlike the position of the creationists. But it does pose some questions. Were Adam and Eve the first humans with a soul, but existing in a population of soulless beings? Did they grow up with parents who had no soul? Has the soulless population died out, or are there still some of them around nowadays? I must confess, I find the whole idea rather far-fetched. No one, as far as I know, discussed this option before 1859.
3. The third position (which I think most likely) is that Genesis and the creation stories of other religions are simply legends elaborated over time by pre-scientific peoples. Genesis is complete fiction and the discovery of that must cast doubt over all other ancient scripture.
Evolution also carries inferences about the concept of the soul. If we have evolved with no outside influence, our consciousness must be no more that the electro-chemical reactions of a very complex system of nerve cells. The rapidly progressing science of the brain and nervous system is far from complete, but it confirms at every stage that the brain is a mechanism of signals passing between millions of these nerve cells. When part of this nervous apparatus is damaged, personality can be greatly altered or specific functions lost. When we die and our nerve cells putrefy, it is difficult to imagine how consciousness could continue. Many people do not like this conclusion, and I must admit I don’t like it much myself, but distaste, although often accepted as a reason for disbelief, is not a valid one.
It has been argued that our mental activity could be lifted out and put into another processor, rather like a programme which can be taken from one computer and made to run on another. Whether this would really transfer consciousness is a fine philosophical question, but the main problem is that there is no evidence for such a thing having taken place.
Astronomy was perhaps the first science to challenge religion. Our understanding of the position of the Earth in a vast universe makes the religious picture look difficult to comprehend. Why would such a large universe be necessary to create a home for humanity? Galileo was persecuted for suggesting that the Earth travelled round the Sun, because that would degrade it as the centre of the universe, which God had created for man. The Bible states in many places that it does not move. Earlier Giordano Bruno, who taught that the stars were simply other distant suns, was burned to death for heresy. Now, even the religious cannot dispute that our planet and its sun are insignificant specks near the rim of a minor galaxy.
The Bible, on the other hand, makes it quite clear that the earth is a flat disc and the heavens are a solid structure (the firmament) with various types of light for our benefit. God and the heavenly host live on top of this solid surface which is not so very high. It is possible, with a little supernatural power, to ascend to it or in other references to descend from it. It is even possible that a human-built tower might have reached it (if God had not disallowed that). The cosmos is, in fact, a three storey affair, with an underworld at another level beneath our earthly surface.
Curiously, this three disc model was my first childhood idea, before I was exposed to geography lessons.
Edward T Babinski gives an excellent review in his essay “The Cosmology of the Bible” and references very many biblical quotations and referring these back to the original Hebrew wording. The cosmology of the bible was not unique in the ancient world. It shows many similarities to the creation myths of Egypt and Mesopotamia but is not quite identical to them. These stories give the appearance of a kind of evolution as they were communicated geographically and down the generations. But in most cases, they involve a god or gods who start with waters which are divided. The Babylonian god Marduk has many similarities although when he divided the waters it was a feminine water goddess that he cut in half.
Even the biblical account is not wholly consistent within itself, but the general picture is of a flat disc. In the New Testament we read in Matthew 4:8 that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain from which he could see all the kingdoms of the world. At the time when this document was written, Greek science had already discovered that the earth was a sphere, but perhaps the knowledge had not permeated to the priests who wrote the scriptures. The disc of the earth was said to be supported on pillars and was absolutely fixed, except when God got angry and shook it causing earthquakes. I don’t know whether is stated what the pillars stand on – presumably the underworld, but that leaves us to ask what that stands on, in turn.
Heaven is variously described as a dome of beaten, polished metal and this is supported above the earth by other pillars or by great mountains at the ends of the earth. Above heaven, there are further oceans which were separated from the earthly seas at the time of creation. There is confusion about light. It seems that God created light on the first day, but only got round to the sun, moon and stars about the fourth. It is probable that the ancients believed that the light of the sky was distinct from the light of the sun. This was confirmed by the fact that there was some light after the sun had set and for a time before it rises. The heavenly bodies were thought to pass along under the heavenly dome and above a stationary earth. Ecclesiastes 1:5 tells us that the sun hurries back each night to pass over the earth again. And somewhere up there, are chambers in which God, the angels and redeemed souls dwell.
I have not heard that the Flat Earth Society is trying to get conventional geography suppressed in American high schools, but if it were true, it would not surprise me. After all, the spherical earth is only a theory!
Now Have I got the story right?
Sometimes, I think that even practising Christians forget the story that their religion is based upon. When we consider it in its whole, I find it difficult to understand why I ever believed it. Let us consider the main points.
God made the universe in six days. What a trick, when you work out that, it takes years, at the speed of light, to travel from one star to another! He made a garden on a small planet, created the first pair of human beings and put them in it. He planted a tree with fruit, which he forbade them to touch. Then the Devil (when was he created and by whom?) disguised as a snake, talked them into eating it. God was so angry that he condemned them and their posterity, for about 4000 years, to go to Hell. In between times, he got cross again and committed genocide by drowning everybody except Noah and his wife. For a second time the human race, and all the animals, must have bred from incestuous siblings: it must have caused some problems with the gene pools. But he kept on sending people to Hell anyway, because he was still mad about the fruit incident. Then God had a dalliance with a girl already betrothed to a carpenter and Jesus was born. Jesus fell foul of the Roman authorities and was executed. Luckily, this was just what was needed to redeem us! For some reason, Jesus’ dying unpleasantly was just what God required, before he could see his way clear to forgive us about those apples. This nasty death also seemed to wash away the sins of future generations who had not actually committed the sins yet! Now, no more need be condemned to hell fire... oh, except those who disbelieve. Then there is a third spooky character hanging around, whom we don't hear much about, to make the Trinity. All three of these characters are really only one god or “godhead” (don’t ask – there is no answer). Nowadays, God has retired from direct appearances, but still retains a quite extraordinary appetite for praise.
The thing that is hardest to believe about all this is that intelligent people have believed it!
Sometimes it is said that without religion, there would be no morality, but there are many difficulties with this. For example, we might suppose that God is good, but what does that mean? If God defines what is good, then whatever he does must be good. If, on the other hand, he is good to some standard external to himself, then where did that standard come from?
But God’s claim to morality has always been a puzzle, even to the devout. He seems to permit, or even to perpetrate, the most dreadful suffering. If scriptures are to be believed, he has carried out genocide by flooding (Gen 6:7); instructed victorious armies to kill women, children and even dogs; he has condemned mothers to pain in childbirth for Eve’s sins; condemned everyone for the sins of Adam (Gen 3:16-18); punishes even the great grandchildren of those who worship another god (Ex20:3-5); he sent bears to tear apart 42 children for calling a prophet a “baldhead” (2Kings 2:23-24). He repeatedly punishes individuals for the sins of others. Slavery is approved of in many texts and these were used at one time to justify it in the southern USA. Christ in the scriptures has many attractive maxims, but is constantly talking about eternal punishment in hell fire – rather an unforgiving approach. And sometimes he is vindictive. On one occasion (Matt 21:18) he comes upon a fig tree out of the fig season. Being hungry, he curses it for having no figs and it withers. There is much other material showing rather wicked behaviour.
Of course, we cannot rely on the accuracy of the scriptures, but for his sins of omission, we have direct evidence. When tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters occur, which he could easily prevent, what does he do? He sits on his almighty backside and does nothing. If he really is all-seeing, all-wise and all-powerful then he cannot be all-good. His behaviour is so bad, in fact, that it would require non-existence to excuse it. If he does exist, the noblest thing a decent person might do is to defy him for whatever time is possible, however short. Certainly, it is hard to see any reason to offer praise.
When people ask how we could achieve morality without God, I tend to think that the task will be much easier. Crusades, jihads and other wars were, and continue to be, justified by religion. Religious hatred is still all too common today from Belfast to Baghdad. We have seen Christians being violent to other Christians because they are the wrong sort of Christians and Moslems being violent to other Moslems because they are the wrong sort of Moslems. But have you ever heard of atheists being violent to other atheists because they are the wrong sort of atheists?
Unbelievable cruelty has been carried out in the name of religion. Many were burned at the stake (sometimes for less than the content of this paper) women were killed as witches and the Inquisition plied its evil trade. Apostates from Islam are still executed in some countries today and even children are executed in Iran for religious crimes under Sharia law. But before we consider ourselves superior to other societies, we must remember that the death penalty for atheism was used in Edinburgh as late as 1697 and the belief in witchcraft was only beginning to decline at that time.
In the light of modern knowledge, there is little doubt that our instincts towards morality come from our evolution as social animals. A naïve approach to the question gives the idea that natural selection would produce a nature that is “red in tooth and claw”, but it takes only a moment’s reflection to see that this cannot be true. Most of our evolution has occurred in small communities in which everyone knows each other. A person who is immoral and violent would not leave more offspring than person with a moral sense.
We have deep moral instincts, but these are a mixture of an ethical and a selfish nature. We are moral, but we are not perfect selfless saints. In fact, our morality, with all its complex mechanisms of kin altruism, cooperation and reputation building, is pretty much what we would have expected from an evolved being with enough brain power. It has converged on this mixture of sinner and saint, because that strategy was the optimum for maximising the transmission of our genes, at least in the ancestral environment. Religion has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and we should expect people to have evolved to subscribe to its moral principles in public, while behaving according to this evolutionary optimum mixture of altruistic and selfish behaviour just like anyone else. Indeed this is exactly what we find – we observe that the religious are no better, and usually no worse, than the unbelievers.
It has been said that “there are no atheist soup kitchens”. But, in fact, there is no evidence that atheists are less charitable than others. Some of the greatest philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates have been atheists. The only difference is that atheists giving to charity (or even serving in soup kitchens) do not do it in the name of atheism.
There is a line of thought, attributed to Blaise Pascal, but which has probably independently occurred to many of us. It runs as follows: I admit that the bulk of the evidence points to the conclusion that God does not exist, but there remains a small possibility that he might. If he does and I have denied his existence, then he might be so angry that I will be punished with hell-fire after I die. On the other hand, if he does not exist and I have believed in him, I have lost nothing. So it is prudent to believe. This is Pascal’s wager.
Of course, Pascal’s reasoning may not be the only possibility. It assumes that God is vindictive. Richard Dawkins has suggested that God, if he were to exist, might reward intellectual honesty more than a dishonest profession of faith motivated by a desire to save one’s own skin. Where would Pascal be then?
Since Pascal’s day (he died in 1662), science has moved a long way and the evidence has come down massively against the truth of religion. Evolution, astronomy, neuroscience and biblical scholarship have all undermined belief. I wonder what Pascal would think today?
It is for each individual to decide where they stand in relation to Pascal’s wager, but it must be pointed out that the decision to believe is not completely without cost. If this is the only life we have, we should regret the loss of time spent in religious devotion and the loss of friendship with those of other views. Donations to the church are a financial loss, but most of all there is the loss of dignity. How much more noble it is to understand and believe what is true rather than taking comfort in implausible myths?
Why is God invisible?
In all religions the gods are invisible. We are told that he wants us to believe in him so much that we will suffer the direst punishments, if we don’t, and be rewarded with eternal life in paradise, if we do. But why this extreme incentive structure when all he needs to do is to tell us? Does this not sound more like the invention of priests?
There is no scrap of tangible evidence for any god that is not man-made and, indeed, we would have to believe that the mass of natural evidence against them, such as the fossil record, has been specially created to mislead us. It is incongruous that God must have taken such extreme precautions to conceal his own existence, yet he does not seem to mind priests (who contradict each other in so many particulars) proclaiming it to all. Because we are brought up from childhood with the idea of an invisible god, we forget the simplest explanation: maybe we cannot detect him because he is not really there!
Faced with the difficulty of producing evidence for religion or God’s existence, it is often said that evidence is not necessary or even desirable. We must believe by faith and God is testing us by this means. The problem with this idea is that faith has no specific target. It could be directed at any belief and the only thing that would lead us to one rather than another would be whichever we were introduced to first. Many different faiths exist in the world, many mutually contradictory, and the usual basis of choice is the belief presented to each person in childhood.
Although a great deal of praying is still done, there is no evidence that it produces any effect. People claim that their prayers have been answered, but the results are difficult to distinguish from chance. Those who survive a disaster think their prayers have been answered, but those who don’t survive remain silent about what happened to their prayers. Douglas S. Winnail of The Living Church of God says “Another dramatic proof of God is that He fulfills His promises of answered prayer” and that “Scripture abounds with examples of answered prayers”. Of course, unverifiable scriptural stories can hardly be regarded as evidence.
But can we really find any evidence that prayer works? It is easy to show that it does not always work, but it would be good evidence if we could show that it worked sometimes to give a better-than-random outcome. A recent experiment was carried out in which a group of hospital patients were prayed for, at the same time as another control group were not. The results seemed to show some very slight effect in favour of prayer, but critics have attributed this to biases in the experiment, flaws in making the trial truly double-blind and a lack of statistical significance. Like any other preliminary scientific result, it would need further work before we could regard it as established. But if such an important question has no more than such weak evidence after centuries of intense interest, that itself is evidence of the weakness of the case.
Prophesies and Miracles
Fulfilled prophecies would be evidence demanding an explanation, if they could be verified. It is often pointed out that scripture gives evidence of many prophesies. For example, Ezekiel gives a prophecy of the disappearance of the city of Tyre which has, we are told, happened. Prophecies about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ are also often quoted. The difficulty for these as proofs is the uncertainty of date and authorship of much of the Bible. Can we prove that the prophecy was committed to writing before the event? For the life of Christ, the unverifiability of the events in the gospels leaves us a long way short of proof that the event itself actually happened, let alone that it was successfully predicted. We do know that the Gospels were written well after the lifetimes of any eye-witnesses and that they incorporated elements from other religions of the period. They might have incorporated the prophecies because the writers ‘knew’ they must have been true.
Miracles have a similar weakness. David Hume in 1748 wrote:
“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”.
The gospels were written generations after the events they describe, presumably from oral traditions. It is certainly not miraculous to suppose that stories might have been “improved” in that time.
The Cost of Loss of Faith
In this paper, I have not treated religion very kindly. I have dwelt on its lack of factual truth and also on some of the horrible cruelties that have been carried out in its name, but there is another side to the story. Undoubtedly, despite the harm that religion has caused, there is also a great deal of benefit and many of its practitioners are sincere. Whatever the truth of its supernatural claims, perhaps it is does some good.
In general, it is best to believe in truth rather than falsehood. If we are taking a decision to achieve something, we are likely to get a better outcome when it is based on a true view of the world. That is true in general, but there could be exceptions.
If I visit a friend in hospital who is dying, but he tells me that he has no fear because of his profound religious faith, it would not be helpful to point out that he is probably mistaken. Equally, if a two-and-a-half-year-old child has a mother who has died, what is it best to say?
Humans are the only animals that can recognise their own deaths from a long time ahead. When we first evolved this level of intellect, it must have been debilitating. Possibly supernatural belief and the capacity for denial evolved so that we could live our lives without collapsing in fear.
For me, the loss of faith is not something to celebrate. I would very much prefer that religion were true, especially the beliefs that all wrongs will eventually be righted and that our personal existence could be eternal. Although I am saddened, I think I prefer to know the truth, however painful it may be.
What I am sure is that we all need tolerance. We do not need to agree about religion to be friends – how many lives could have been saved, had this principle been generally adopted?
But the evidence against religion is so overwhelming and clear that no rational person, who really wishes to know the truth, need be in any doubt. There simply is no invisible boss-man up in the sky. Why so many people continue to believe otherwise... God only knows!
But having stolen my title from Bertrand Russell, I would like to end with one of my favourite quotes from him. He wrote on one occasion:
“I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.”