Philosophical Reflections XXVIII
Part A: In the Beginning
Philosophical Reflections has been about developing philosophy from the perspective of looking at the world for answers to the basic questions of what reality is, how we know things, how we should live, and the meaning of life.
Many of these questions have traditionally been the province of religion, yet up until now, religion has had only peripheral mention. I propose that the reason for this is simple: if you seek truth by looking at reality, you will never reach religion. However, religion is obviously a major force in human history and modern politics, so needs to be addressed explicitly.
The Edge of Reality
The essence of religion is belief in the supernatural. Religion always involves belief in something beyond this world, whether it be manlike beings on Mount Olympus with magical powers, the omniscient, omnipotent God of Christianity, or the mystical Nirvana of Buddhism. Given that the supernatural is by definition not to be found in the natural world, from whence did such beliefs arise?
Religion stems from the same needs as philosophy, and is indeed a form of philosophy. As thinking beings who choose our values and actions, we need to understand the world, ourselves, and how we should act in the world. Also, religious feelings plainly exist in our souls: the hunger for meaning in life, the desire for something great to aspire to, the need for someone or something to look up to. While some may discount such feelings with a cynical sneer at their childishness, practically everyone has felt them at some stage of their lives.
But the question is: is religion the answer? And my answer is: no.
As an explanation of the world, it is easy to see where religion came from, and where its error lies. People see the phenomena of the natural world: storms, wind, volcanoes, birth, growth, death. People have volition, and cause things to happen: and when seeking causes, the fundamental basis and error of religion has always been assigning such volition and purpose to natural phenomena. This can be seen in its most basic form in the animism and idols of primitive religions; in a more abstracted and humanised form in the meddling, capricious gods of Olympus; and in ultimate form in the omnipotent creator, omnipresent world-ruler and final moral judge of the Judaeo-Christian God.
The Slippery Slope
From such beginnings, the fate of religion is sealed.
As natural phenomena are natural and not in fact based on the volition of trees or stars, the supposed entities responsible must be supernatural. But unlike the natural world, which is open to all of us via our senses, by definition the supernatural is inaccessible to direct perception.
So how do we know about it? When we cannot see or hear them, how do we know which gods or demons are responsible for what phenomena, what they want, and how to curry their favour or avoid their anger? This problem is the origin of the second defining quality of religion: belief in mystical sources of knowledge.
As there is and can be no objective evidence for things that are beyond sensing, belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to subjectivism, the taking of internal feelings as evidence about external reality. Thus in seeking truth, religion must believe in and encourage mystical experiences. Hence the prevalence of hallucinogenic or consciousness-dissociating methods in religion, from the mescaline in peyote, to the privations of Buddhism, to the ecstasy of the saints.
As there is no objective way to judge “knowledge” that has no objective basis, and as some people are better at it – or better actors – than others, in practice this leads to what I’ll call the shaman effect: the acceptance of a certain privileged caste as the link to the gods, the source of divine knowledge, and in consequence, the unquestioned and unquestionable revealers and arbiters of supernatural truth.
Crash and Burn
After that, there is no escape. Instead of reality and reason, knowledge of the most important things – how to know, and how to live – is based on the pronouncements of men, that must be accepted by faith. For if you cannot see the evidence for yourself, faith is all you have to go by.
Historically, and inevitably, this leads to a deadly linkage from which we’ve suffered throughout human history: the union of shaman and king, religion and government, Church and State, Faith and Force – what Ayn Rand called “Attila and the witch doctor”. From the king, the shaman gains the physical power to enforce his edicts against those who’d ignore or oppose them; from the shaman, the king gains divine sanction and the unquestioning loyalty of the faithful. It is neither surprise nor accident that these two powers – the power over men’s minds and the power over men’s bodies – have been united throughout most of human history. To see the the success of the partnership – for the kings and shamans in this world – one only has to look at the pyramids of Egypt and St Peter’s cathedral in Rome. To see who is ultimately the most powerful in this alliance, one only has to look at the fate of Akhenaten, the “heretic Pharaoh” of ancient Egypt.
The misery that has resulted – indirectly from the stifling of progress (a result of the suppression of independent thought and the transfer of wealth from its producers to their non-producing masters) and directly by such means as the Inquisition and the burning of “witches” – is the consequence of the replacement of reason by faith, and rights by force.
Clearly, religions differ in their details. Buddhism (in its purest forms) has no personified gods – but still has a supernatural Nirvana as its goal, and a mystical “enlightenment” as its ultimate source of knowledge. The Raellians, recently famous for their cloning hoax, have powerful aliens in the place of gods – absent aliens as powerful as gods, whose existence must be accepted on faith in the words of Rael. Christianity and Islam have an all-powerful God with a paradise waiting in the afterlife, all based on scriptures. Some religions stress personal mystical experience, others stress authority (someone else’s mystical experiences) as the source of truth. Then there are cults– religions stressing an exclusive path to truth based on slavish obedience to the supreme, arbitrary authority of their particular prophet, with close control over the lives of their adherents.
But in all of these, the belief in the supernatural and in mystical sources of knowledge, the essence of all religion, can be seen. One or other might be downplayed or accentuated in different religions, but all possess them in some form or another.
The basic error at the root of religion – the personification of the forces of nature – was understandable. Religion started as an attempt to explain nature, and as human beings became thinking beings, they had no idea of the true nature of the world, or any clear idea of the rules of valid reasoning. From their experience of themselves and their fellow people – who have volition – it was an easy step to assign such volition to other things that “act”: especially when the power of storms, lightning, famine and flood exceeded theirs.
Mystical beliefs of any kind flourish in the unknown. In navigation, which was under their control, the Polynesians had an excellent science – but when it came to weather, over which they had no control, superstition reigned supreme. Again, this is not surprising. People want and need control over their environment, as such control is how we live. But while understandable, the resulting superstitions are completely due to errors in inductive reasoning. Where no true control is possible, random associations of events assume the status of truth: “it worked once, so we dare not stop doing it.” Such pathological learning has even been shown in birds, where in a variation of the classic conditioning experiments, pigeons were “rewarded” at random. The result was superstitious pigeons, each doing a different arbitrary behaviour over and over again. And yes, from the pigeons’ perspective, it worked: if they kept doing it, the food eventually appeared again!
But an excuse in the past is not necessarily an excuse in the present, after the benefit of hundreds of years of scientific progress and a proper understanding of how the world works.
Science does not necessarily or directly address the issue of religion: being based on objective evidence, science merely restricts its purview to the natural world, without making any a prioriassertions about a supernatural one beyond its power of investigation. But what the practice of science has shown is that everything has a natural explanation. Attempts to find God in the evidence of nature have been in constant retreat since the advent of systematic science: a “god of the gaps” hiding in an ever-shrinking domain. I shall return to this point when examining the arguments for religion.
Religion has had such a monopoly on ethics that many people think you can’t have ethics without it. I have heard intelligent people say that you should teach religion to children even if you don’t believe it yourself, because there is no other way to give them a moral code. But what kind of ethics can religion produce? As we’ve seen, religion’s concern is not primarily with this world, but with another invisible one; as we’ve seen, religion’s source of knowledge is not what we can see in this world, but the words of men who claim they hear from another one.
The ethics described in Philosophical Reflections is based on observable reality – the nature of the world and the nature of human beings. It is concerned only with this world, with the life and happiness of living human beings – and reason is its tool. Thus there is a huge gulf between such an ethics and religious ethics, a gulf that cannot be bridged.
This does not mean that every precept of religious ethics is wrong or bad. In order to survive, a religion must allow human beings to fill their needs in this world to some extent. However, as its base is fundamentally the words of men taken on faith, instead of the requirements of life as determined by reason, religious ethics is fundamentally arbitrary: commandments to be accepted on faith and obeyed without question.
The choice is not between religious ethics and no ethics, but between arbitrary ethics and objective ethics.
Part B: God Created?
In Part A we discussed the origin and nature of religion. Now we shall examine the evidence proposed to support it.
Consider the Evidence
The Church and other religious authorities are big on telling people what is and isn’t God’s word and God’s will. But when you look at the actual facts of reality behind it, all they are telling us is what they or someone before them claimed was God’s word. By the rules of inductive reasoning, the only proper response is to paraphrase Jesus: “That’s what you say.” Anybody can claim they speak for God. But before you set your values and run your life on their say-so, reason demands better reasons than “somebody told me so.”
I do not intend entering into a detailed refutation of the arguments for religion. Whatever flaws their philosophies might have, skeptical and atheist philosophers such as David Hume, J.M. Robertson, Joseph McCabe, H.L. Mencken, T.H. Huxley, Thomas Paine and Bertrand Russell have done a good job over the centuries demolishing such arguments, and I refer you to them (a good reference point is the web site atheism.about.com). However, I will briefly touch upon the basic arguments.
There are two basic types of evidence claimed on religion’s behalf: the objective and the subjective. The former looks at the facts of external reality, present or historical; the latter looks at personal feelings and experience.
The Grand Plan
Probably the most persistent objective argument for religion is the argument from design.
The argument from design is basically that life and/or the universe is so marvellous, complex, etc., that it is unimaginable that it came here “by chance”, and must have been designed by an intelligent creator.
Unfortunately for this argument, science has shown that quite a small number of fundamental laws is sufficient to explain all the complexity of the universe, from the origin of galaxies, stars and planets, to the origin of chemical elements, to the evolution of life. It is not that the world is designed to fit us, but that we have evolved to fit the world! Note that contrary to the assumptions of the usual arguments from design, these natural processes are not random. The charge of randomness is especially made against the evolution of living things, but evolution is in fact based on the selection from random changes of those which enhance organisms’ life and reproduction: analogous to how a self-winding watch uses a ratchet mechanism to select a directional “wind-up” from random movements. A full defence of evolution is beyond the scope of this article and I refer interested readers to the extensive published literature on the matter, especially the various books by Richard Dawkins.
I am not saying that science knows everything. But in order for the argument from design to be convincing, it is not science which must prove there is no need for a designer, but those who argue design who must prove that natural forces are insufficient (this is a consequence of Occam’s Razor, that the simplest explanation, requiring the fewest assumptions, is best unless proved insufficient). For example, one thing science doesn’t yet know is exactly how life arose from non-life. But not knowing exactly how it happened is a long way from proof that it didn’t or couldn’t happen. There is certainly enough evidence – from the abundance of organic chemicals in space, to laboratory experiments on the natural synthesis of complex organic polymers – to suggest that it can and did.
A more subtle form of the argument from design is to grant that natural laws are enough to account for what we see, but then ask why these particular laws exist: why is the universe such that human life is possible in the first place? One can certainly imagine laws of physics in which life, let alone intelligence, is impossible. There are obvious problems with this argument. Clearly, we can only be here to ask such questions if the universe can support life! Perhaps this is only one cosmos of many, each with different physical laws, and life can only exist to wonder about itself in some of them. Or perhaps the laws we have are the only ones there are or can be.
In any event, the fundamental flaw in this argument is this: it claims that the universe couldn’t exist unless created by a god, yet doesn’t apply the same reasoning to god himself. If a natural universe based on matter, energy and natural laws requires a cause and explanation: why doesn’t a much more complicated intelligent, self-aware, omnipotent creator require the same? Basically, you can’t have an infinite regression of causes: you have to stop somewhere. In logic, to hypothesise a god accomplishes nothing: if you have to stop somewhere, why not stop with the visible and known (the physical universe)? What is gained by proposing a greater invisible and unknown?
Even if we grant all that, and conclude that there must have been a creator, what have we proved? The final nail in the coffin of the argument from design is that it is useless as a defence of any particular religion. Those who propose it are generally using it to bolster their religion. But there is nothing in the argument from design which can support anything more than the past existence of some impersonal, distant being who knows and cares nothing about the fate of us people here on earth.
Signs & Wonders
A miracle is something that could not occur by natural means, and thus is claimed as evidence of the existence of a greater power.
Some philosophers dispute the possibility of miracles because they violate natural laws. However miracles do not necessarily require such violations: everything from parting the Red Sea to raising the dead could be done by the precisely directed use of sufficient power within natural laws. So we need to look beyond “prohibition by definition”.
The first problem with miracles as evidence is proving that they actually occurred. When you look at Christianity for example, the further back you go into the past and the further from being able to verify them, the bigger and better the miracles get. But the only evidence for them is the unverified word of authors of unverifiable character. If modern evangelists could generate miracles of the calibre of those reported in the Bible, there might be something worth discussing – but they cannot.
I have quoted Hume’s maxim before (in Philosophical Reflections 27A):
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.
And that is the critical problem with “reported evidence” for miracles. They purport to be evidence for an amazing supernatural power, but there are perfectly reasonable natural alternatives such as errors or fraud on the part of the reporters.
The second problem with miracles is that there is no necessary link between the purported miracle and the claims of the miracle worker. Even the Bible warns against miracles done by “false prophets”:
A prophet – may promise a miracle or a wonder, in order to lead you to worship and serve gods that you have not worshipped before. Even if what he promises comes true, do not pay any attention to him. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
For false Messiahs and false prophets will appear; they will perform great miracles and wonders in order to deceive even God’s chosen people, if possible. (Matthew 24:24)
Not everyone who calls me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only those who do what my Father in heaven wants them to do. When Judgement Day comes, many will say to me, “Lord, Lord! In your name we spoke God’s message, by your name we drove out many demons and performed many miracles!” Then I will say to them, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you wicked people!” (Matthew 7:21-23)
That last quote puts the finger on the fundamental problem. We must ignore false prophets and do what God wants us to do – when the only way we know what God wants us to do is through prophets! But which is the liar and which is genuine?
Another strand of objective evidence is historical evidence. Obviously, proof that some prophet actually lived or some mundane historical events really happened wouldn’t be enough: the evidence has to be for the actual occurrence of supernatural events, such as fulfilled prophecies and eyewitness accounts of miracles.
For example, this is an historical argument for the fundamental tenet of Christianity:
The reports of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible were written by eyewitnesses. Therefore, they knew whether their claims were true or false. They were willing to die for that testimony, but nobody would be willing to die for testimony they know is false. Therefore Jesus was in fact resurrected from the dead.
Unfortunately, such evidence is just a subset of the evidence from miracles, and suffers from the same fatal flaws. Even ignoring the unreliability of human testimony and people’s capacity for self-delusion, the twin criteria of Hume’s Maxim (quoted above) and the unprovable source of the miracle demolish it.
By the first criterion, which is more likely: that a miracle occurred, or that those reporting it made it up, misinterpreted and/or embellished a natural event, or based their claims on yet other unreliable sources, maybe decades or centuries after the event? We see human fraud, folly and error all the time. So what is more likely: that an astounding miracle happened, or that all we have is yet another example of that? And by the second criterion, even if the event did occur, who can say what being performed it and for what purpose, good or ill?
Subjective arguments for the existence of god are all variants of “I feel it is true, therefore it is true.”
However there is no valid induction from feelings to facts of external reality. Feelings are not tools of cognition and are never valid arguments for such facts.
Yes, feelings can be powerful. Yes, conversion experiences can seem real. Yes, people may achieve a feeling of peace, joy etc. from religious experiences and assign these to the workings of God in their lives.
But again, there are multiple flaws with such arguments. Firstly, the same subjective experiences are felt by people in all religions and cults, including cults so bizarre that few people in “mainstream” religions would not agree that those cults are wrong and/or evil – and all cults, being cults, will claim that the experiences of everyone else are wrong! Indeed, it is cultists who seem to experience these things the most intensely, as witnessed by their willingness to devote their lives to their cult and to sacrifice everything for it, even their children and their own lives.
The principle here is clear. When the same subjective feelings arise from contradictory beliefs, they cannot be evidence for the truth of any belief. All they prove is that religious feelings exist, which has no bearing on why they exist. Indeed, recent scientific studies have found that religious feelings can be generated simply by stimulating the appropriate part of the brain.
Secondly, if you insist that your feelings are caused by a supernatural power, we have the age-old question: how do you know whether your experience is God working in you, or the devil deceiving you?
Part C: Heaven and Earth
In Part A we looked at the nature of religion and in Part B we discussed the evidence proposed for it. Now we will look at a deeper analysis of that, and where it leaves us.
The Fatal Flaw
We can see that all arguments for religion suffer from the same fundamental flaws. And this is inherent in the whole origin of religions: religious beliefs are based not on objective induction from the facts of reality, but on the words of other people.
People do not come to religion by looking at reality through open eyes and discovering God. In general, religious people are Jews in Jewish families, Christian in Christian societies, Islamic in Islamic states, and Hindus in Hindu lands. The obvious conclusion is that religious beliefs are in general merely inherited, believed because parents or society believe in them: and the arguments for each religion are merely rationalisations to justify existing beliefs, whose true origin is just children’s faith in the words of adults.
Of course, some people are converted into “foreign” religions: but again, that is never because they found that God independently by looking at reality, but because they accepted the words of some evangelist or prophet whose words struck some chord in the person’s mind.
This absence of objective evidence is a fatal flaw for two reasons. Firstly, it is the primary epistemological reason why none of the arguments stand up to analysis. Secondly, it is the reason why even if you grant those arguments, you still don’t know whether you’re worshipping a true god, a false god or Satan himself. None of the arguments for religion can give any guidance as to whom you are worshipping, because none provide any objective means for distinguishing among the alternative possibilities. And as our analysis of false prophets showed, without objective evidence we have nothing.
The consequence of this fact is brought into stark relief by Pascal’s Wager, which basically argues for worshipping God along these lines:
If you believe in God and are right, you’ll spend eternity in paradise, while if you’re wrong, you’ll be no more dead than you’ll be anyway.
If you don’t believe in God and are right, you’ll be no better off than the believer, but if you’re wrong, you’re doomed to eternity in hell.
Therefore the only wise course is to believe.
By side-stepping all attempts at evidence, this argument spotlights the fundamental problem: when analysed, all arguments for religions fail, which means that religious claims are in fact arbitrary claims.
Indeed, increasing theological sophistication over the centuries has admitted this implicitly, while not realising its true import. Thus the gods have been moved progressively from among us, to the sky, to another dimension: getting both grander and more invisible as they went. This is both an admission of lack of evidence – and an attempt to remove God from the possibility of disproof. Hence the stress on faith as a primary virtue worth more than your own eyes and mind.
We have discussed the nature of arbitrary claims before. Not only are they cognitively meaningless, but for every arbitrary claim one can make up any number of contradictory arbitrary claims, making them useless for any decision on what to do.
Even if we allow the primary conclusion of arguments for God, there are no objective criteria involved in deciding what that means, so the arguments lead nowhere. Someone claims a miracle? We have just as much and as little cause to believe it is the work of Satan, elves or mischievous aliens, as the work of God. Someone has strong religious feelings? There is no way to know whether are they God’s blessing or demonic deceptions. Pascal’s Wager? It assumes what it purports to prove. One could equally argue that as our creator, God insists we live according to our nature as thinking beings: so the hottest part of hell is reserved for those who believe without evidence – only atheists will enter paradise! (To bring life to this idea of the futility of arbitrary claims, see my blog entry on The One True God).
Like a deer caught in headlights, we are left incapable of motion when faced by these conflicting and equally “possible” arbitrary claims. By their nature, arbitrary claims cannot guide you in what to do. The only actual way to decide anything is to look at objective evidence: to see reality for what it is, and act accordingly. And that is precisely what religion has given up. By evading the need for objective evidence by moving God into the realm of the supernatural, it merely succeeds in removing God from the realm of reality.
For reasons noted in previous Philosophical Reflections, arbitrary claims are not true, false or even possible – they are meaningless and unworthy of any consideration. Consequently, an objective philosophy based on reality and reason is atheistic: not as its primary focus, as its primary focus is reality, but as a footnote, a consequence of the nature of objectivity.
The Moral High Ground
The above arguments apply to religion in general. As we live in a nominally Christian society, some comments on Christianity in particular are in order.
Christianity suffers certain problems that have been argued by atheistic philosophers in the past, such as errors and contradictions in the Bible, and the problem of evil (if God is omnipotent and good, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?). These are valid criticisms. However my main objection to Christianity per se is moral.
In earlier Philosophical Reflections (e.g. numbers 9–12) I have shown why the objective basis of ethics is human life, the basis of human virtues is rationality, and consequently we possess individual rights – the right to be free from the initiation of physical force.
Yet the God portrayed in the Bible demands sacrifice in this life, faith as the primary virtue, and force and threats of eternal damnation as his answer why. That is, by the criteria of objective ethics the God of the Bible is anti-life in this world and dedicated to the violation of individual rights – except for those few who purchase a ticket to salvation at the price of their reason. In the light of the objective ethics I have described, such a God is deeply immoral, not the essence of goodness.
But does a man have the right to judge God – or more accurately, human claims about God? I don’t think we have any choice about it. Socrates once asked, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” As Anthony Gottlieb wrote (Socrates, in The Great Philosophers), following this line of reasoning leads to the conclusion:
Either goodness cannot be explained simply by reference to what the gods want, or else it is an empty tautology to say that the gods are good – in which case the praise of the gods would simply be a matter of power-worship. As Leibniz put it – :
Those who believe that God has established good and evil by an arbitrary decree – deprive God of the designation good: for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?
Thus, this brings us back to our earlier question of how we evaluate whether a prophet and his wonders are true or false: and Christianity fails the test by portraying a God who seeks to destroy the objective values and virtues required for human life and its enjoyment here on earth – which is the only place any of us have ever lived.
It is ironic then that so many professional “ethics experts” base their pronouncements on Christian ethics. But it is not surprising that their version of ethics so frequently demands the violation of individual rights, such as the banning by law of abortion, cloning, and any number of victimless “moral crimes” that they disapprove of.
Ethics, like everything else, has to be based on the objective – on reality, reason, and life – if it is to truly serve life. For life is in the objective world and has actual requirements for its existence.
If religion has no place in objective ethics, are we to join those who cynically reject religious feelings altogether? No – religious feelings exist and serve a very human need. What is needed is not their dismissal but the identification of their proper object – just as what is needed in medicine is not its dismissal, because so much of it used to be based on superstition, but the identification of its proper nature. In the introduction to her novel The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand wrote:
[The concepts of exaltation, worship, reverence and sacred] do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists; and these emotions are experienced as uplifting or ennobling, without the self-abasement required by religious definitions. What then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal – It is this highest level of man’s emotions that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism and redirected at its proper object: man.
– The man-worshippers, in my sense of the term, are those who see man’s highest potential and strive to actualize it – those dedicated to the exaltation of man’s self-esteem and the sacredness of his happiness on earth.
– This view of man – is a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity, and that great things lie ahead – whatever their future, at the dawn of their lives, men seek a noble vision of man’s nature and of life’s potential.
That is, it is not an imaginary realm or invisible God that is the validation and proper object of feelings of reverence and exaltation. It is the life and potential of Man himself – and of your self. Then it serves reality and fuels your life: for no person can achieve their highest potential without the realisation that the potential is there to be achieved, or without reverence for the irreplaceable life it serves.
Douglas Adams, in an interview with American Atheists (reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt), expressed a similar sentiment when describing his reaction to realising the explanatory power of evolutionary biology:
It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life. The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.