Why am I writing this column? I get a lot of this kind of feedback when I publish pieces on atheism. Atheists, it turns out, get attacked from all sides. Intellectuals attack the robustness of our arguments; and the religious attack the content.
Which is all fine – I am putting myself out there and the debate is worthwhile and welcomed. These are weighty matters and one shouldn’t decide one’s position lightly.
So I’m going to be upfront: my hope and goal is that the belief in God, and the religions that underpin it, are wiped from the face the earth. I think they are pernicious, facile and malevolent, and I think the world would be a better place without them. If I can make any contribution to this, no matter how small, I consider that worthwhile.
So now that my cards are on the table, I thought I’d lay out what I consider to be the best five reasons to stop believing. I don’t imagine that any fundamentalist Muslims or reborn Christians are going to be persuaded, but for those on the fence or open to the possibility of non-belief, this may tip you over the edge. I also, by the way, don’t hope to satisfy academic philosophers with the rigours of my case. You guys don’t need my help with this stuff anyway.
Most things which we accept, we accept on the basis of proof. That proof is not always rock solid (some of it is based on spurious media claims, for example) but there is a standard to which we hold most of our beliefs. Things that don’t meet that standard – the Tooth Fairy, let’s say – we discard as not impossible, but extremely unlikely.
God, however, many people accept with no proof at all. Belief in God is a product of upbringing, societal and cultural convention, a desire for comfort and intellectual laziness.
There is no evidence that God exists. You may have had some kind of personal experience – what we “anecdotal evidence” that has convinced you personally that he’s out there. But most people would concede that that kind of evidence is not evidence at all. It can’t be repeated under test conditions and there are other possible explanations for what may have happened.
Fact: no-one has ever presented one iota of persuasive evidence that there is a God.
In the absence of evidence, some people try to argue that there “must be” a God because nothing else makes sense.
This “not making sense” ranges from the naïve (“I just feel that there must be a bigger purpose to life”) to the sophisticated arguments presented by theologians, philosophers and apologists.
I cannot present and knock down every instance of these arguments here. However, I can say this: the idea that one can reason God into existence is a failed project. The best anyone has been able to do is to show that God could be an explanation for how the universe got here – and could be the “best available explanation”. I wouldn’t accept either of these, but even I did, they do not constitute a conclusive, logical position.
If you are comfortable with a “maybe”, then you are welcome to it. But the existence of God has not been logically proven by anyone, ever.
In a recent interview, the British comedian Stephen Fry delivered a vicious, scathing attack on the Judeo-Christian God when asked what he would say if it turned out, after he died, that God did in fact exist. He called this God a “maniac”, pointing to the large amount of unnecessary suffering in the world which he, by definition, created and allows.
The existence of suffering is an impossible problem for believers in an all-good, caring God to solve. Even if they use the wiggle room to argue that without some suffering there can be no charity; or that people who do wrong are punished, they cannot account for the suffering of innocent children and animals, or worse, the devout believers in their faith.
What kind of God, we may ask – and Fry does, more colourfully – has created a world in which children die in floods, starve to death, perish in agony from TB and malaria? What kind of God allows people who worship and adore him to be murdered, raped, tortured and come to countless other hideous ends?
This does not preclude the existence of any God, of course. God might be, as Fry has it, a maniac. He may be a vicious, sadistic God. Or, like the Greeks and Romans before us, he may be a pantheon of narcissistic Gods who have no interest in looking out for us.
But a God who was benevolent and loving, as we are told the Christian God is, would never create the world we live in. Believing in him requires either shuttering yourself off from the carnage all around you; or crafting frankly ridiculous excuses (God works in mysterious ways?).
This isn’t exactly an argument against the truth of God, but it is a reason to stop worrying about him. We don’t require God – he is an unnecessary addition to the universe, and it can get along perfectly well without him.
The most common two arguments for why we “need” God is as a personal saviour or caretaker, and that without him (and religion) we would not know what is morally right and wrong.
Let me start with the last first.
Human morality is not brought into existence by God or the Bible. We do not require a commandment to tell us that killing is wrong, and we do not need the threat of eternal damnation to make us do what is right.
To prove this I need only point out that most Western states operate on the basis of a constitution and the rule of law and have nothing to do with religion or the Bible. Killing someone has legal consequences, and most normal people with a conscience regard it as wrong without the need for a cosmic force to tell them.
Oh, but I hear you say, surely these laws and rights have a Biblical origin?
Do you really believe that? Do you think that pre-religious societies had no taboos in regard to the preservation of life, property and other things we hold dear? That a principle like “do unto others” would not naturally emerge from any group of sentient beings living in the same place?
This is quite apart from the fact that many of the laws in the Bible are just wicked. We have not, thankfully and for the most part, transferred most of Leviticus and Deuteronomy into modern law. Those Islamic states who have, and which enforce Sharia law, are widely regarded as zones of horror by most sensible people.
Then: do we need God as a personal saviour? Well, some people might. The idea of God might provide comfort and an explanation for the mysteries of the universe. However, it is misleading to say he is “needed”. Many people survive and thrive perfectly well without a God concept or religion – myself being one example. We do not rampage or lose our way or become outcasts. And so, whilst certain individuals may derive comfort from a belief in God – as is their right – this is neither a necessary or a sufficient condition for living a good life.
Religion is about control and limitation. Rules, laws and rituals that restrict and govern behaviour. In some cases – say the genital mutilation of infants in barbaric rites of passage practised by religions such as Judiasm – they actually persuade nice people to do awful things.
Which is to say nothing of the countless other horrors committed in the name of God and religion. Suicide bombings, torture, genocide, forced marriages, unwanted babies, war – the list is endless.
A life without religion and without God thus offers freedom from all of these miseries. It offers a person the opportunity to do what they like, in line with their own moral code, within the parameters of the society in which they live. Each decision to be taken is evaluated on its own merits, weighing up the pros and cons, and is not forced down a path by a pre-existing code of conduct dating from a time of ignorance and superstition.
Life is better without God and religion encouraging you to make poor choices, and validating them when you do.
The journey into escaping the God idea, and rejecting religion, can be a long one. For those deeply invested in these notions they may begin by being unable to imagine a meaningful life without them. However, it starts with a seed of doubt. With the sense that a fairy story is at work here – not the solid rock of reality.
Perhaps these five arguments will plant that small seed for some reading this piece. DM
Sean Bean (Ned Stark) has a deaths-in-film ratio of 0.32/film and 0.38/series episode.
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