Originally published on LinkedIn
I am bound to irritate, shock, appall, upset and amuse some people. I feel compelled to point out the obvious as aplenty do not. Given there are over 3000 ‘gods’ that have been conjured up by mankind in over 1000 religious denominations, this subject is worth exploring. I will probably be castigated by some. However, I also welcome a well-reasoned debate supported by logic and evidence.
With Easter, an honoured tradition among Christians – the largest of the world religions – I thought I look at this thorny subject. However, by all means, my commentary is NOT restricted to this particular faith. In my opinion, I find them all irrational. No fan mail necessary. After all, some will say that religion is a taboo subject, or isn’t it? Followers proclaim it is ‘just‘ their personal belief and why should anyone care, after all, it does not affect others. Does it?
In this article, I beg to differ and look at some common guiding principles and practices of religions or cults and the pursuit of god or gods the world over. Of course, do not expect me to cover all religions (just the most infamous, concentrating on Abrahamic beliefs), nor all issues of concern. Before we start let’s consider what is belief: it is defined as true justified knowledge. So belief is a subset of knowledge. Some things we know, others we really, really truly know and call them beliefs. We can justify these, i.e. explain our position and reasoning using logic, evidence, and experience.
Reality is what we experience in life. It is how we perceive the world through our senses. We have also developed machines such as microscopes, telescopes, compound analyzers, microphones, spectrum analyzers and a plethora of other devices allowing us to understand even more – beyond our senses – about the reality we live in. However, we cannot avoid the issue of hard solipsism. We could all be a brain in a vat linked up to some 25th-century computer or simply a figment of some entity’s dream. For all intent and purposes, however, we all experience a shared reality.
Next, religion can be defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman or supernatural controlling power, especially a personal god or gods. Thus religion positions itself within the supernatural, outside the realm of science. Furthermore, religious dogma often makes claims that are incongruent with science and reality. Lastly, faith is the belief in something – especially dogma – without evidence. In this respect, faith is not a pathway to the truth as it is explicitly the suspense of scientific evidence-based truth.
With a clearer understanding of the terms, here are some brief comments on ten important issues to consider:
1. Existence of god
There is factually no scientific evidence for any transcendental being as described by the world’s major religions. Given the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent powers usually associated with god(s), it is rather unusual that there is no such evidence. Why don’t god(s) just reveal themselves? For those who wish to point to trees, mountains and even humans and the like are reminded that those are not evidence for god(s) as they have no demonstration for their casual relationship (with the burden of proof resting on those making such claims). Instead, we have perfectly good scientific explanations as to how these have come about. Others like to point to gravity and other ‘unseen‘ forces we are aware of. One can demonstrate gravity by simply dropping a pencil. Can the theist demonstrate their god? Furthermore, why is there death (in the Muslim tradition) for apostates given the lack of compelling evidence for a god? Surely such a powerful all knowing god knows exactly what it would take to convince each one of us?
2. Holy book
Claims by the major holy books such as the Bible, Quran, Torah or Vedas largely remain problematic. Firstly, it is often stated these are the words of god although the evidence shows that section of the books were written, rewritten, translated and modified over several centuries by mere mortals. Furthermore, if the content is to be literally believed, god seems to make some very questionable or poor decisions and command several atrocities. Followers respond with different conflicting nuanced interpretations of various passages, variably seeing some as teachings, allegories, metaphors, parables or at times subject to literal interpretations. How does one know in each instance what the correct interpretation ought to be? Even more importantly, let’s take the Bible, read and believed to be inerrant by billions, which contains fundamental scientific flaws and contradictions (e.g: light before the sun) and hundreds of historical and geographical inaccuracies or errors. The holy book is more of a piece of fiction than fact!
This tends to be religion’s claim to fame, although many passages in the holy texts are questionable, to say the least. After all, how can we have objective moral values without a moral law giver (god), the numinous claim. However, if we consider morality as the rules for well-being, then it becomes clear that morality is subjective and man-made. We can start with some basics, such as generally life is preferable to death, health better than sickness and slowly build up the rules from there. Rules constructed in this manner lend themselves to change over time as society needs change, and as science provides answers and a better understanding of the implications of our action. For example, there may be instances where cannibalism is reasonable, just as when flight 571 went down in the Andes back in 1972. Another example is euthanasia in the case where someone is suffering unbearably. I would ask a Bible believer what is the moral justification for slavery: the owning of another being as property. Morality in simple terms is our understanding of what is our best response or conduct as individuals within a broader society.
4. Divine powers/miracles
This is rather a simple one. Again, where is the actual evidence for this, other than what is purported in holy books? One would think there would be corroboration through other historical accounts. The fact is that there is none. For example, relating to the Christian faith, some question the existence of Jesus as the son of God. But even if granted there was a Jewish Jesus, there is no third party or consistent evidence that he was divine or had divine powers: i.e. was able to raise from the dead or perform all those ‘miracles‘ that have been attributed to him.
5. Beliefs by location
consider this: most Indians are Hindu, most Chinese are Buddhist, most Swedish are atheist (non-religious) and most Italians are Catholics. Ever wonder why? We are all largely born into and influenced by the community we were brought up in. Our religious choices are normally indoctrinated into us from a young age. We may not know about other choices until we research and investigate these later on in life. Put simply, we are a product of our environment. Note all religions denounce the others. Now could all these religions be true? No – but they could all be false!
6. Benevolent god
there is a suggestion in most scriptures that god is good. Yet we all see and experience much evil in this world. Who created evil? Most devotees will say god created everything, thus creating good and bad. Why was there a need to create bad things, such as diseases like HIV which kills many children in Africa, or natural disasters like Tsunamis in Japan or Tornados in USA which killed many more. To this day many atrocities have occurred in the name of god (think the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, attack on World Trade Center). How about thought crime which is seen as a sin in the Christian tradition. What about the Jewish circumcision of infant boys. How about the abuse of Muslim women among the Islamic faith. If these are induced by god, then he is a thug by most man-made standards and would want nothing to do with him. Would you?
7. Fairies, witches, and Santa
Many of us were brought up believing in these. They served an educational purpose. As we grew up we learned they were simply fiction aimed at teaching us something about life. The old bronze aged roman empire used similar techniques to exercise control over the masses and oppress their citizens who did not know better. The pious (deeply religious) who believe in miracles, faith healing, walking on water and feeding the masses are choosing to ignore the perfectly good scientific explanations for these. Those mature in their knowledge of science and how the world really operates understand this. These are not miracles but rather acts of magic.
8. Dogmatic claims/miracles
several, for the most part, are not supported by our scientific knowledge. For example, Moses parting the waters, the virgin birth, and life before light in the Christian tradition. Another is the inerrant never changing nature of the Bible or the perfection of the Muslim texts despite pre-existing contrary sources. How to reconcile the thousands of inconsistencies found in these holy texts? Surely our rules of engagement should grow as our knowledge of this world improves? How can any one book be the be all and end all of answers? Could, in fact, they all be incorrect?
under the omniscient do we have free will? Some believe their god will provide and we are destined/helpless (god’s way, come what may) and therefore have no right, responsibility nor obligation or ability to ‘interfere‘ with this natural order. We are destined and their god has 100% foresight in this regard. If so then there would be no free will. However, most religious doctrines suggest that we are born in sin and need to make wise choices in order to free ourselves from it. Thus we do have free will and an omniscient god would know exactly what is required to convince us of this, yet seems to not do so. Why not? Maybe he is not that powerful, maybe he does not care to make it known or perhaps he does not exist! Having free will is in direct contradiction to the former position. So which is it?
10. Separation of church and state
this is probably the most important. Many political, constitutional and legislative decisions are informed by people’s beliefs, and unfortunately, that includes religion. In some countries, such as the USA, it is impossible to even hold a political office unless you are religious. A related argument is why are churches and many so claimed religious groups free from taxes? There are plenty of secular welfare groups doing much social good who do not hold your sandwich at ransom pending attending their “Life with Christ” seminar. Additionally, there are a number of churches who arguably have caused harm, for example, Scientology (dividing families), Catholic Church (pedophile priest) and the Islamic Church (abusing women).
Something for the numinous deist and pantheist: if a god exists, and has no real intervention in our reality as we know it, then I have no use for such god(s). On the other hand, if you want to re-label mountains, trees and rivers as ‘God’, I also have no interest in such mental gymnastics. Pick a label and stick to it. Lastly, since every religion proclaims they have the one true ‘God’ then clearly they cannot all be true. But they could all be false!
The good news is that about a quarter of the world’s population is non-religious or atheist (although perhaps not using this label). This includes agnostics who do not believe one can know if any god(s) exist. In some ways, depending on definitions, Buddhist may also be classified as atheist as they believe in self-enlightenment and not some form of a supreme being.
By now my hope is that you can see that religion, especially fundamentalism poisons the mind (think of juvenile suicide bombers awaiting their 72 virgins in paradise). Furthermore, it divides relationships and in the words of the famous neurologist and atheist Sam Harris, “religion allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own“.
On the knowledge spectrum, science can be found at one end and religion at the other, where know-how is a zero-sum proposition; and thus religion is a forever regressing knowledge base. In the past religion may have well served the emperors in managing the masses. Believing in the god of thunder, the Greek emperors could ‘command‘ lightening upon the masses should they fail to obey. There was a time when people believed that by sacrificing their first-born would ensure good weather and fertile crops.
Thankfully, we have moved beyond that and now- thanks to science – understand how the weather and much of the rest of the world works with canny precision. Thus there is no purpose to religion and find religion unscientific (and their praised god guilty of not existing). Ultimately, it is always quite strange to me that in discovering the truth, people apply logic and reasoning in all aspects of their daily life, yet when it comes to understanding the truth about their own existence – perhaps the ultimate meaning of life – they literally leave logic and reasoning at the altar.
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