What follows is what I consider the most devastating and conclusive reasons for not believing in a God or following a faith based Religion. To clear up some initial confusion the arguments are addressed to a supernatural, prayer answering, universe creating God of the Bible or the Koran. Needlessly to say if a belief in Zeus or Apollo suddenly became prevalent we would have many similar arguments to hand. Beliefs in the supernatural are as old as our species itself. Belief in the supernatural is evidenced across all cultures at all times. Cargo cults, witchcraft, shamanism, voodoo, and polytheism. In the history of our species, Christianity and Islam are juvenile, relatively speaking (no pun intended). They stand atop the jittering poles of our earlier past and primitive polytheistic beliefs. It is of course an accident of both history and our psychology that the monotheisms have come to dominate our cultural and political climate. If history has taught us anything it is that everything is in a state of flux and uncertainty. The beliefs of today may not be here tomorrow.
1. The Argument from Improbability.
This argument comes courtesy of Professor Richard Dawkins and it features in his much maligned book the God Delusion. It has cross pollination from old arguments such as the one from infinite regress. Its also rests heavily on Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. In it he re-positions Fred Hoyle’s argument over a metaphorical Boeing 747. That is to say that the universe is so miraculous that for it to have arisen by chance would be equivalent to a whirlwind passing through a scrap yard and assembling a 747. This is the stock creationists argument against evolution. Dawkins is of course a tireless supporter and educator of Darwin’s theory. He believes (correctly I would add) that it gets rid of the need for a God in a designer sense. However he goes further than simply saying that the theory contradicts the biblical (or any) creation myth but rather its very principles--(that nothing complex can arise before passing through various intermediate stages.) demonstrate that the concept of a God which is capable of designing a universe or listening to prayers is highly improbable. Firstly though I will list the four ways in which Darwin’s theory undermine organised faith based Religion and belief in God.
1. It contradicts the Genesis account of creation. No honest interpretation of the bible on this issue can yield a “poetic” “metaphorical” account of creation. The commentators in this country who protest that they can coexist with belief in God and evolution are in a minority. Something like 44% of Americans are Creationists and millions in the Muslim world are such as well. Scientists like Francis Collins or Alistair McGrath have this dualism not because of a enlightened reading of scripture but as a consequence of secularism and science acting in a pincer movement nullifying religious orthodoxy.
The conclusion is sound. The stark choice of the fundamentalist is this. Either our holy books are the inerrant word of God or they are not. If the bible falls at this very first hurdle on a mistake of some magnitude-- then what if?-- What if Jesus is not the son of God? What if there is no God?
2. Natural Selection leaves God with nothing to do. As Laplace remarked “I have no need of that hypothesis”. Once life gets going natural selection is perfectly capable of explaining the complexity and diversity of life. Scientists like McGrath and Collins wish to have their cake and eat it. They support evolution yet think God has guided it. There is plenty of evidence for evolution, but no evidence for God.
3. Natural Selection explains our existence much better than any religious story. It can account for morals (good and bad) our emotions and yes even made enormous strides in helping us understand our art our music.
4. It can also help us understand Organised Religion and belief in the supernatural. This would fall into the Dennett account of Religion as a sort of Darwinian by product of human thinking. Things like the intentional stance, design stance, memes, brains built to follow what their parents tell them etc.
Dawkins ultimate conclusion is simply this. Complexity can only arise through gradual incremental steps. The process is natural selection. So the conjuring into existence of a complex supernatural deity without any explanation, neither design or evolution is the mirror opposite of the creationists straw man when they say that the universe could not have arise by chance. Dawkins coolly reasons that if God is as they claim to always have existed and is not either designed or evolved then it is statistically improbable that such an entity exists. This is so because it is either built by a higher more complex entity (thereby starting an infinite regress) or it evolved into its complexity or it always existed-- in essence its supernatural. Its statistically improbable that a hippopotamus could always have existed without any kind of explanation whether design or evolution. It is even more improbable to the point of being impossible that a God could always of existed. This works well as a argument against deism but its even more harmful against a monotheistic God. Because whatever probability we assign to a deistic God we must assign a higher rating of improbability to a Christian God or Islamic God with its obvious provincialism and idiosyncrasies
Interestingly not a single critic or commentator has ever dealt with Dawkins’s death blow to God. Theists posit that an eye or a brain, or a universe is so complex that it must be designed. So they invoke a designer or God to do the explaining. The problem is of course where did the designer or God come from. We have no direct evidence for God, at best its all inference- inference tainted by the colour of human wish thinking. However natural selection is the only explanation of life that we have. It demonstrates that both chance and creation are failures as explanations of life. God Complex as “he” is, would have to be more complex than the universe he is supposed to have created as such would need to be explained. The theists have two responses to this. It more or less amounts to the same thing, Faith.
1. God has all ways existed. This is the same when creationists say that the world could not have come about by chance. (the faith card) but why cant the universe have just existed? Its a much more plausible, parsimonious explanation. The only thing that’s been observed that creates living complexity is natural selection.
2. God exists outside time and space, is supernatural and hence not subject to rational scientific inquiry. Once again no evidence for this belief of the supernatural. It cant be proved or disproved so its not even a scientific hypothesis. So science is moot to questions of God. This form of reasoning however is subject to the most appallingly ridiculous form of reductio ad absurdum. That is to say that once we grant the supernatural and divorce it from evidence and scientific inquiry, any kind of bullshit metaphysical enterprises can be entertained. We can say for example that belief in fairies or leprechauns is not subject to scientific verification. We can grant that a chocolate bar represents the living body of a dead God and that science cannot say nothing on this belief. Or that a belief in the resurrection of Elvis is perfectly legitimate representation of reality even though any kind of evidence is lacking. We have the perfect antidote to this thinking which has been around for some time- Russell’s teapot, Sagan’s invisible dragon etc.
2. Odds on your Wrong, Religion as Gods Multiple Choice Exam.
Sam Harris hilariously points out (though I think he refashioned it somewhat from Bertrand Russell) that statistically speaking each religious person should consign themselves to the fact that they are most likely going to hell. There are many such religions on offer and each of them make incompatible claims about reality. To start with we have the three monotheisms of which we all know. We also of course have offshoots like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness. We also have Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism even the newcomer Scientology. Even if we were to discount most of the above and stick with the main three, the religious believer has a one in three chance of being wrong. The odds are not in your favour. The religious may be tempted to say, they may all be wrong but it does not mean that one cant be right. True but consider they are all based on the absence of evidence and have plagiarized (ineptly) each others scriptures. Further what evidence is actually offered is muddled and contradictory it would be best to be somewhat “agnostic.”
This argument also address a rather glaringly obvious point. Religion like which football team you support is largely an accident of birth. (If indeed you support football at all) Although some recent polls out of America suggest there is some fluidity between believers leaving their parents church to another one. The point remains that Christians beget Christians and Jews beget Jews. This is especially apt in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan were Islam is rigidly enforced and to leave it, the individual puts their life at risk.
Although this argument is not QED that religion is not a valid, truthful enterprise. At the very least this should give enormous pause to people when they make the most egregious public pronouncements. Anyone inclined to Religion should be an agnostic of the kind that says “I don’t know if its true but I hope it is” and keeps their inherited Religion to themselves.
3. Hume’s Arguments on Miracles.
This is a extremely useful tool in assessing the claims of people in regards the supernatural or the metaphysical. It teaches us to ask what is more likely the case. That the natural order of the world has been suspended and a miracle has taken place or is it more likely that the person espousing it is under either a delusion or is lying? His superb corollary to this argument is particularly neat. In order to grant the existence of miracles the reasons supporting them would have to be so great that it would be miraculous to not believe that they had occurred. In other words it would be an act of faith to believe that Jesus was not the son of God, or that Muhammad didn’t fly up to heaven on a winged horse.
4. Ethical Viagra. Or the Moral Necessity of Atheism.
There is a number of formulations that this argument takes, two I will focus on which are distinctly different.1. Belief in God and a practicing of what a holy book says is essential to the maintenance of civil society, what Daniel Dennett humorously referred to as a kind of moral Viagra. 2. The moral commands of say Jesus are so good, so original, so ethically true that it could only have come from a supernatural source. This is similar to the C.S Lewis line that only a madman or a devil would say such things as Jesus did, unless he was the son of God. I’m less familiar with Islam but I think they bite the bullet and would state that the commands of the Koran or the Hadith are irrelevant to (secular) morality. In other words it does not matter if it promotes a better more compassionate society or a happier one. I have not seen any arguments advancing Islam as a good set of codes on which to base society on a secular level. They state that Allah commands them to follow the commands and their duty is to surrender their will and action to them. Irregardless of what they might think or feel.
It would seem to me that even the most die hard Christian fundamentalist at least attempts to throw secular reasons (even if they are an after thought) to their moral commands. For example they would argue that Homosexuality is not a healthy expression of sexuality because you have the risk of contracting HIV. Or that the equal rights given to homosexuals undermine the family. This is progress of sorts but it reveals two telling things. Christianity has to “stoop” to the secular level in making its ethical claims. This informs us that no one except the religious right accepts “Because God says so”. Secondly their claims are empirical in nature and our open to scrutiny. Secular ethics are based on happiness and suffering and marry their views to reality and to evidence. Islam on the other hand is in the kind of political and self righteousness ascendancy that characterised Christendom before undergoing the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
So the idea that “belief in God and a practicing of what a holy book says is essential to the maintenance of civil society” is an empirical question. We should expect to find that Atheists are completely immoral or at least show more correlations with things like murder, rape, theft etc.
We should be able to look at people who are religious and who are not and see if are differences. I’ll mention two studies. Firstly a study by Gregory S Paul in the journal of Religion and society found a forceful correlation in strong theistic beliefs, a creator god with higher rates of homicide, early adult mortality, abortion and STD. The county that has rates of theistic belief concordant with second and third world rates of belief is the USA. Countries that are more secular as in Europe come out much better, interestingly the north west in America-the less religious part approach European numbers. (http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html)
Secondly from the 2005 UN reports show that countries that are less theistic or more atheist are healthier and progressive on areas such as life expectancy, higher levels of education, equality and homicide rates. Secular Norway which has topped the UN human development poll numerous times, along with other secular nations coming in the top 10. At the very least this tell us that health and wellbeing is not predicated on a nation being religious.
I would argue that we could place these findings on the shelf along with the vileness of the Koran or the Bible as well as the historical degradations and ongoing malaise that Religion causes. We need only ask ourselves could any biblical command on ethical behaviour could not have come about except by divine revelation? Or that there is no good secular reasons for not killing or stealing say. I and everyone else could offer up numerous reasons why we should not murder, not once would I feel the need to mention God. Many times in many cultures men like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius or the Buddha have uncovered ethical truths in more depth and with less cant or supernatural nonsense than Jesus. This necessarily entails that we reject the dogma “because God says so” our acceptance of ethical teachings is decided by our own intuitive 21st century morality. Even fundamentalist Christians cherry pick the Bible when it comes to morality. Islam though it seems to me as I have already said operates on a different level.
In other words any reasons for behaving ethically should be open to anyone at any time. They should be discoverable by everyone including Atheists.. This comes close to Christopher Hitchens’s wager “name me an ethical statement or an action that could only have been performed by a religious person” his final remark though sets the scene for his “Moral necessity of Atheism” “give me a immoral statement or action that could only have been performed by a person of faith”
5. The Foundational Texts are Contradictory, Inauthentic and Incoherent.
The Koran as Ibn Warraq points out is a plagiarism of the Bible and Torah. That it was composed long after the death of Muhammad. Written on a host of diverse material such as stone, leather, bone and scattered across parts of Arabia. These diverse and contradictory accounts were brought together and pulped into a single“authoritative” text and the others were considered heretical. The Bible is host to one long howler of historical, scientific and mathematical errors. The apostles cant seem to display a coherent account of the life and death of Jesus. The findings of Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Judas cast further doubt on the historicity of the Jesus narrative.
The final point I would also add is that when evaluating the claims of biblical writers or eyewitness. Hume’s caution applies of course to this. What personal investment or ulterior motive could they have in attempting to propagate miracle stories? How reliable can the eyewitness be? How much personal testimony is there and how much of it collaborates or contradicts itself? The force of testimony diminishes when the testimony becomes second, third, forth, five handed ad nauseam.
The New Testament writers cant even get the details of the Crucifixion right. In Matthew we are lead to imagine the bizarre spectacle of the dead of Jerusalem raising from their graves and going into the holy city and “appeared unto many” like something of the Michael Jackson thriller video. None of the other accounts Mark, Luke or John have this event. You wont of course find this event in any history book.
Best and be Well