I responded recently to someone who asked for simpler arguments in the debate over the existence of god; arguments that did not require a degree in astrophysics, philosophy, or logic. I took the bait.
Claims about the existence of God or gods or spirits or demons or life forces or fairies ….. are only made by humans. Living as a human being around other human beings will have taught you by now that we often make or hear claims that are lies, delusions, misinterpretations, bragging, conjecture, madness, jokes, ramblings or deceit. Every day there is fraud committed exploiting the gullibility or trust by con artists, religious or otherwise.
The problem is: when it comes to supernatural claims there are in effect
no criteria to distinguish the frauds from the messenger from god.
Because what it comes down to is that someone believes to have communicated with a deity, and later manages to persuade other people that it was really so.
In other words, later believers rely trusting in oral reports and imperfect manuscripts handed down to them (sometimes over generations).
In a fair court of law we have a name for this kind of evidence: hearsay without physicial evidence or independent confirmation. For obvious reasons, such proclamations are not admissible, because they do not deserve the name evidence. Otherwise we would have little hope to see through artfully invented excuses or malicious claims.
What’s worse is that in matters of theology, our ‘court room’ spans all of history and all of the globe: we have vastly different theologies all claiming to be true and all contradicting themselves. For both logical and practical reasons they cannot all be true at the same time. While it is theoretically conceivable that one theology gets it right, there is no way to figure out which one that might be because they all, without exception, offer no evidence that rises beyond the inadmissible claim of personal revelation. It is however extremely likely that they are all false.
And false they are as demonstrated over and over and over again when concrete religious predictions are empirically tested.
Take prayer. Prayer has been scientifically investigated extensively by both neutral researchers and those eager to find positive results. Negative. No better than chance. And the happy anecdotal reports are simply explained by people’s tendency only to count the ‘hits’ and to ignore the ‘misses’.
The existence of a specific personal god who does things only a god can do and makes specific demands on people apparently can not be proven.
But there would still be a way for a god to actively prove its existence once and for all: Many religions claim their deity has supernatural powers. In other words, it would be super easy for Super Daddy to put his fist down and give all non believers irrefutable physical proof of his existence and power by creating a miracle that makes his case. Again, nothing.
This god is like the “World’s Strongest Man ” who hasn’t won a single fight. Or like a starving beggar without apparent means of subsistence claiming to be the richest person in the world. In reality he is too poor to buy food and too poor for a coffin.
This impossibility to pinpoint any particular god’s existence has led some to speculate about what I’d call a god of last resort. They inveigh that the ‘ultimate’ miracle was the coming into being of the universe and life itself: and shout: “Only a deity could have jumpstarted the universe!”
Refuting that speculation is somewhat involved and I won’t deal with it here (read Victor Stenger if physics is accessible to you) but luckily, it isn’t necessary.
It isn’t necessary because it has no implications for humanity!
Suppose there was a divine jump starter. So what!?
While creating the universe is quite a feat it provides no basis for ethics whatsoever.
None. Because nothing was communicated.
And certainly no ‘meaning’.
Moreover, this alleged ‘creation’ happened a long time ago. Unimaginably long. Let’s just say that the statute of limitations to pay royalties has expired. Please note that this cuts both ways: we are in turn prevented from suing the supposed creator deity for shoddy workmanship.
Here’s a parable: I will liken our situation to the survivors from a plane crash stranded on an island. Imagine how at first there is justifiably enourmous gratitude for the captain whose flying skills managed to avert total disaster. But suppose no help ever arrives. Suppose the survivors are stuck on this island for hundreds of generations until the memory of the flight captain completely evaporated into the mist of time. Technically, after a few hundred years, the inhabitants still owe their existence to that captain in some manner of speaking.
But in practical terms?
His skills were about flying, alas they have no plane. His skill were not about growing foods, curing disease, building shelter, or solving disputes, or delivering babies, or sharing sexual bliss, or creating forms of government, or managing resources, or listening, or creative expression, or what have you.
Actually, let me take that back: unlike any distant jump starter deity who (necessarily!) lacks human characteristics, our ancient and long deceased captain was a human being, with all that entails! He will actually have contributed to the knowledge, wisdom, practices and custom of those islanders because he brought with him a body, a mind, and cultural and practical experience. Unlike this deist god who contributed nothing human.
So there you go: for all practical purposes, we have to depend on ourselves.
We arrived without instruction manual.
The people who claim to possess one turn out to be deceived deceivers with stunning regularity, and we observe that religions and their supposedly holy books have come and gone and vanished through the ages, proven to be fake by their extinction. And as of yet: no miracles.
Instead: We created a wealth of knowledge thanks to applying the scientific method, helped by judicious use of other human qualities such as compassion, love, curiosity, yearning, and unrelenting effort (to list just the nice ones – history is also advanced by cruel assholes).
Note that in essence, the scientific method simply means this:
“Take obsessive care not to fool oneself.”
Theology, by contrast, encourages, even glorifies such self deception. Just look to any religion and it will be instantly obvious (it is easiest with religions whose tenets you don’t share).
What many hope of religion is that with its magical silver bullets of divine law, divine love, and divine guidance all our questions, the global and the personal ones, will instantly receive a correct answer. Apparently, it’s easier to be “born again” than it is to grow up! (as a bumper sticker by the White Bear Lake, MN Unitarian Universalist congregation reads).
We humans have great potential but we have to figure it out on our own.
The search for ‘ultimate meaning’ is futile.
It won’t help to solve the real puzzles, quagmires, and problems that we are facing. But that futile search has so far done a lot to sidetrack us and divert talent which could otherwise have contributed to real solutions.
Lets phase out religion.
To cold-shoulder religions won’t deprive us of experiencing and sharing love, wonder, exitement, pleasure, or the joy of discovery. No one can take our humanity from us, and creative minds will always produce properly labeled fiction and mystery in the form of literature, film, theatre and the arts.
Finally, religions has strived for so long not because their philosophical claims were so convincing but because they created communities (if often by force).
If we can develop healthier ways of providing communities and togetherness without the high cost and ill effects triggered by religions we’ll reap just the benefits. Advancing religious tolerance may be a first step in the right direction.
So is joining an undogmatic, tolerant religious community such as the modern Unitarian Universalists who, it is joked, only truly worship the coffee urn – as a symbol of human dialogue and belonging. As a hard atheist I’m a happy member of one such congregation (sample some sermons here ).
Once you realise that obtaining answers to ‘ultimate’ questions is a fool’s errand you’ll see that satisfactory answers to more proximate, more concrete questions are, by contrast, quite achievable.
We lose nothing of substance when we lose belief in a god.