New study suggests that theists deactivate the parts of the brain associated with rational thought when listening to prayer: read the New Scientist article
Recent additions: Arguing about evolution
‘The Desire to Believe’ and related evolutionary perspectives:
Dennis Campbell has kindly allowed me to reproduce his excellent ‘Essay on Religion from a Behavioural Viewpoint’
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Moral codes are produced by society, and reflect the society that produces them. Let us consider two examples, first early Christian society.
Early Christian society produced Christianity (religion is the product of a society, after all) and its moral and intellectual standards and preoccupations are reflected within Christianity. The understanding of 'how the world works' and ideas about 'right' and 'wrong' then current are clearly codified in Christianity, its explanatory content and tenets.
Secondly: modern western society. Consider the tension between 'conservative' and 'progressive' forces in today's society. Conservatism aims to uphold existing standards, while progressivism attempts to introduce what it considers to be 'improvements'. It seems logical that this opposition of ideals is a natural state for society, and has existed for a long time.
Ideally then, conservatism serves to uphold the 'best' aspects of an existing social order, while progressive elements effect change to outmoded or somehow 'negative' aspects. Social evolution thereby takes place by a dialectical exchange between 'safeguarding' and 'improving' forces, suggesting that both conservative and progressive forces are absolutely necessary for progress to take place. Taking the evolution of western society as an example, the benefits of this process are immediately apparent, as ideas about human rights, equality, legal protection and other issues have dramatically improved in the last thousand or so years.
Of course there have been crises and wrong turns, and it is the extremes that tend to be remembered, but these do not affect our understanding of the process in general. More interesting is the relationship between changing (evolving) social realities (effectively: life as experienced by the members of a society) and fixed codes of conduct. Both formal codes such as laws and informal ones such as social etiquette have changed considerably over the centuries, but Christianity, being a dogmatic religion, has not really evolved with it. While the changes that have taken place since, say, the Inquisition suggest a certain flexibility of interpretation, the ideas and ideals encapsulated in Christianity have become increasingly at odds with what we know to be true and believe to be 'right'. The resulting friction has forced Christians to change their perspectives on Christianity and the Bible - many points are now 'interpreted' rather than taken literally. This actively demonstrates that the ideas of Christianity are no longer relevant, including its moral codes. [Examples]
Eventually, the friction between what Christianity claims (which will still be based on a 2000 year-old society) and what we perceive to be true and just will cause the religion to be discarded. It appears that the 'breaking point' is still some way off (I will consider ‘why people believe’ in the next section), and recent developments in the USA represent a worrying backwards trend. However, Christianity will eventually become outmoded - there are many known examples of extinct religions; current religions will eventually join their ranks.
This view of morality explains why the Christian idea of 'objective morality' does not work (demonstrated by the fact that many elements of Biblical morality have been left behind). If morality is a process rather than a rigid code, its ideal might be defined as 'a striving towards the greatest good for all', arising not out of a God's definition of 'good' and 'evil' but out of the human capacity for empathy. Thus we attempt to create a society in which we and others are treated fairly. That is the moral imperative.
[see also my discussion of Kant's 'transcendental argument', below]
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There are many reasons why people ‘have faith’, and these can generally be traced back to some sort of fear or insecurity. Much faith, for instance, derives from the undeniably appealing idea that there is ‘something more’, contextualising real life (however uncertain or disagreeable it might be) within a greater, more comfortable and comforting construct; this allows people to dismiss reality in favour of an imagined ‘better world’, whether specifically the afterlife or a world governed by a benign deity more generally.
There is of course also considerable vanity in the idea that we are the creations of a perfect being (and created in his image, no less); no matter how masochistic the specific details of a religion, its view of humanity is fundamentally narcissistic. Related to both of these points is the transmission of responsibility for ones ‘fate’ onto a largely abstract other: if I assume that I was created by a deity, and my moral responsibility is defined by that deity, I am effectively ceding responsibility for my existence and what I make of it. Engaging with the implications of ‘man’ as a natural phenomenon is considerably more complicated and potentially problematic than simply ‘blaming’ everything on a more powerful and intelligent creature. The latter distinction is highly significant, acknowledging the very ‘human weakness’ that causes us to deny responsibility in the first place – we are weak and erring humans, we argue, but God is somehow responsible for us, allowing us to dismiss the implications we would otherwise have to come to terms with.
In a time characterised by much (often healthy) scepticism, access to a wide range of knowledge and capacity for abstract thought, there are plenty of reasons not to believe; and yet people continue to do so – but not because of some ‘spiritual’ instinct. Rather, it is because they are afraid of a world into which they weren't placed by a divine being, in which they need to construct their own order and morality and for which they need to take responsibility. Religion is weakness, transferring responsibility for oneself and others onto an imagined other. That is why it is so fundamentally dangerous and needs to be opposed actively.
As noted by Bertrand Russell, ‘terror of the unknown’ is also a significant factor in religious beliefs, reflecting one of the principal reasons humans invent religions in the first place (I will consider ‘why people invent religions’ in the next section). This is not, however, limited to unknowns such as the origin of the universe and what happens after death, but the many complex, unknown and perhaps unknowable workings of nature that become unexplained in the absence of religion’s convenient answers. There is thus a fear that things might not be simple and transparent, although there is also sometimes a resistance to simple logic, a prime example being the resistance to accepting that there is no afterlife.
Social factors, whether conditioning or a ‘sense of community’, are also significant, but are less fundamental in fostering a personal need to believe (which is not strictly necessary to enjoy the social benefits of religion). There may, of course, be a sense of social insecurity – a fear of being (considered) aberrant, which combines with the personal factors already mentioned. [see Social pressure and group cohesion, below]
Conditioning defines the specifics of what we believe (what god, what hell, what sin), but the desire to believe is articulated through a largely personal (psychological) mechanism – blaming social pressures for the personal need to believe misses the point and the way the mechanism works.
In a society of unified beliefs, religious doctrine is of course intellectually stifling – but in our multicultural society we disbelieve more today than ever before – why not religion? People want to believe because it is easier than taking responsibility for their existence (and that of others); religion is an expression of egocentricity.
The religious impulse can be related more generally to evolutionary processes, providing a background to the discussion above:
For a more exhaustive resource, see Psychology Today’s ‘Religion’ page
See also Dennis Campbell’s ‘Essay on Religion from a Behavioural Viewpoint’
Religions are power structures, and they have largely been formulated and promoted by men (this is certainly the case in most current religions and their immediate predecessors). A recurring feature of religious behavioural codes is the assignment of power over women to men. This reflects gender roles within patriarchal societies, and has some relation to evolutionary mechanisms. Put simply, it is advantageous for the survival of the species for all men to have a strong sexual drive, while women tend to select the most ‘desirable’ partner – i.e. a partner choice that represents the best chance of survival for offspring.
This results in a fundamental conflict of interests, leading to all sorts of psychological and socio-cultural complications. The male urge to possess and control women, and to prescribe sexual behaviour, is articulated in behavioural codes and power structures, religion and its ‘morality’ being but one example of this process. In this way religions contribute to the preservation of patriarchal societies and enforce social mores that encourage inequality. Extremes of this phenomenon can be observed in the gender inequality of Islam (see here) and the Old Testament (see here), and to this day religion encourages unfair and unhealthy attitudes towards women and sexuality.
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As I have suggested, humans create religions in an attempt to make sense of the world and encourage social stability. They base their ideas on current scientific/intellectual and moral standards, combining current ideas about the world with what they consider plausible speculation about the unknown (and it is precisely 'the unknown' that they desire to explain or have explained).
In the case of constructing an explanation for the origin of the universe and human life, and what happens after death, in the absence of relevant evidence, widespread ideas about deities and the afterlife were available as models - all major religions have basically similar explanations of how the world was created and what happens after death, only the details are different. (Deity creates heaven and earth, creates man more or less in his image, establishes cloud or feasting hall with carousing, virgins or harps where pious men can spend eternity after death.)
Adlerian psychology describes ‘guiding principles’, constructs that people create to help them make sense of the world and then assume to be true (and act accordingly, etc.). People establish these guiding principles in response to psychological and intellectual impulses and in accordance with their existing understanding of the world. Most of the guiding principles we use in everyday life tend to be fairly reasonable, being based on evidence and rational thought. In the case of Creation and the afterlife, however, these factors are necessarily absent (obviously – they don't exist).
Normally, guiding principles are adapted and discarded in light of new evidence or more advanced understanding, but this is not possible in dogmatic belief systems. The fundamental flaw of major religions has not, therefore, been their failure to provide accurate explanations, but their inflexibility: 'this is the true God, you must worship him!' In a manner similar to the friction that develops between religious (dogmatic) morality [see above] and social reality, the explanations provided by religion become increasingly at odds with scientific/intellectual standards, resulting in a decidedly negative influence on the intellectual development of both individuals and society in general. This is why religious superstition should be actively opposed – its potentially damaging effect on clear thought is a real and significant social and psychological problem.
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While there are a number of points in support of the view that ‘we cannot know for certain whether there is a God or not’ (principally the avoidance of ‘certainties’ that encourages sceptical thought), some significant problems also crop up. The first is that theists often interpret it as an admission that their beliefs could be correct.
For the record: yes, there are certainties. My consciousness exists; from that I can proceed to acknowledging that my experiences/perceptions of other things, whether I classify them as concrete or abstract, also exist. Whether they exist independently of me is not my concern. The belief that they do is a reasonable one.
(This highlights the unstable position of the theist in pursuing such an argument, as his belief and faith clearly imply a lack of certainty. Furthermore, they are not reasonable beliefs. If the theist’s standpoint was backed by reason and evidence, we would not be discussing the phenomenon of ‘religion’, we would have accepted it as fact long ago.)
Let us consider the theist’s challenge: ‘can the atheist say with certainty that God does not exist?’ There are two answers to this question, depending on the definition of ‘God’. If it is defined as, for instance, the specifically Christian/Biblical God, then we can say with complete certainty that he does not exist. The Christian/Biblical God encompasses all the facets described in the Bible, and we can say with certainty that much of the Biblical account of God and his actions is simply false. To claim the contrary would be to abandon all reason, which would, incidentally, do nothing to support the existence of any God in particular, it would just imply that anything is possible and that there is no merit in believing anything (in other words it results in complete uncertainty).
If ‘God’ is defined as ‘a higher power of uncertain character’ (in which case it is only really relevant to an explanation of the origin of the universe), then we can only say that it does not exist to all intents and purposes. If we don’t know (due to a lack of logical and evidential foundation) how such a higher power might be constituted, it serves neither the atheist nor the theist to assume that it exists. (In fact, in the absence of logical and evidential foundation we may reasonably assume it does not exist.) It is certainly not preferable to a ‘natural’ explanation, and the specific Gods of human religions (from Christianity and Islam to the Norse and Egyptian deities) are precluded for the reasons already discussed.
This is often a difficult and pointless argument to get drawn into, and should be dismissed as quickly and clearly as possible. Religions were created by ‘ignorant men’ (in Bertrand Russell’s phrase) trying to make sense of the world. Philosophical debates about the nature of certainty are of limited relevance and usefulness.
Most religious figures (say, Zeus or God) have never existed, so accounts of them are easy to dismiss. Sources on figures that did exist, or may have existed (for instance Jesus), are potentially more difficult to evaluate. Religious sources such as the Bible, however, must automatically be discounted as historical sources of information.
Consider the following points:
- Religious sources are necessarily based on a false premise (most obviously the existence of God), which will automatically influence the interpretation and presentation of ‘facts’. For example: Christian sources will construe Jesus as a prophet, or the son of God. Religious sources by their very nature propagate a worldview distinct from ‘what really happened’.
- Some information in religious sources may be accurate – I’m not suggesting it’s all made up - but the only way we could accept this information (or attempt some sort of interpretation) is if it was independently corroborated, i.e. supported by a non-religious historical document. In which case we believe the non-religious document. If there were only the religious document, we would be justified in dismissing it because, as already noted, the information it contains is at least potentially based on false premises, and may be a result of an accordingly skewed viewpoint.
Of course similar points can apply to other historical sources, given their necessarily subjective standpoints. Their basic premises tend to be more reasonable than those of religions, however. Consider, for instance, historical accounts of a King – these will be strongly influenced by the viewpoint from which they are written (by a subject; by an enemy; retrospectively, reflecting prevailing attitudes and with possible distortion). The basic premises – that the King existed and that he was a King – should however reflect reality (at least under normal circumstances). Given that ‘Jesus’ is a complex construct with a specific function, and that these are based on false premises, it is reasonable to suggest that the Biblical account bears little or no relation to actual events.
Continuing with the example of Jesus and the Bible, if we dismiss all religious sources, we know very little about the ‘real Jesus’. Although this is significant in itself, the important point is of course that the ‘real Jesus’ is both irrelevant to cultural history and of little interest in general. Heated debates about ‘real Jesus’ are thus somewhat pointless (did he exist? who cares?). More interesting is the Christian construct of Jesus and how he may have come about. While there are many theories about the Jesus story being based on previous myths and beliefs, these are impossible to corroborate. It should not come as a surprise, however, that there are similarities with other religions – all religions have basic similarities as they fulfil largely the same functions.
The point to be stressed, however, is that the details of how ‘Jesus’ came into existence and the Bible came to be written (real figure/events, or several figures and existing theories rolled into one, etc.) have no bearing on the fundamental fact that God does not exist and the Biblical account of the universe is completely false. That is why this argument is incidental to any discussion that truly addresses issues of theism and atheism. God does not exist, but people believe in him anyway – why, and with what consequences? The history of the Bible is only tangentially relevant to these questions.
The debate about whether or not evolution is ‘real’ or not is one with which atheists and theists alike will be familiar. I recently received a very well written and nicely produced pamphlet attacking ‘scientific myths’, including evolution: pointing out that there is no complete consensus on how evolution works, and that there are gaps in the evidence. Within discussions of the validity of religion, such debates are, however, something of a red herring – evolution has no relevance to considerations of the veracity of religion.
Yet by engaging atheists in debates about evolution, and evidence and arguments for and against, theists are distracting from this simple fact. More seriously, there is a danger that this debate sets up an implication of an ‘either/or’ situation, which is clearly not the case. Humans always want certainties – that is why they invent religions and argue strenuously about evolution – but the argument over the certainty of where life comes from should not distract from the certainty that really matters: there is no god.
I give credence to the theory of evolution, because it is afforded widespread scientific/academic credence, there appears to be plenty of evidence and it seems to me to make sense. However, that position could arguably also have applied to various (‘scientific’) beliefs in, say, early Christian times that are no longer taken seriously, therefore:
Can I personally say with absolute certainty (that certainty with which I can say that there is no god) that evolution, as we currently understand it, is a fact of nature? No. Does that have any bearing on the simple fact that there is no god (or does it indeed have any relevance to discussions of this matter)? No.
Perhaps we will eventually be able to produce an account of evolution in all its features and workings that is completely accurate and incontrovertible. Perhaps we will have to alter or expand our current understanding substantially to achieve this. Perhaps a more differentiated alternative will be developed. Perhaps we will never know entirely and exactly how we arrived at our present state as a species. Do these possibilities have any bearing on religion? No.
There will almost certainly always be things that we can’t explain, and humans evidently feel the need to formulate answers to questions that preoccupy them, to the best of their (often feeble) abilities.
I’m not arguing against scientific endeavour (on the contrary), just keep in mind that you don’t have to ‘prove’ evolution to disprove god. Put simply: there is no need for a definite alternative to disprove god – it’s not an either/or situation: however the universe began, and however life developed, god does not exist.
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Almost all theist arguments and reasoning that purport to 'prove' the existence of God begin with the assumption that God exists. I will consider some specific examples in the next section, but let's consider the general implications first. The fundamental assumption that God exists can be a significant hurdle in debates, where 'prove that God doesn't exist' is still a recurring line of argument.
The question may simply be deflected: 'current scientific evidence proves very clearly that the Bible is often wrong, so I don't have to prove God doesn't exist - there is no evidence that he does – you have to prove conclusively, with concrete evidence, that God does exist.'
The validity of the question may of course be questioned more generally: asking someone to prove that something-for-which-there-is-no-evidence (e.g. God) does not exist makes no sense. It is just an awkward way of asking ‘is there a God?’ Similarly, assuming that something-for-which-there-is-no-evidence exists is an unnatural starting position (I don't just assume that there is a cave full of diamonds and fairies in my wardrobe until I am proven wrong), and is unlikely to yield useful insights.
Many theists attempt to use 'evidence' or logic to demonstrate the existence of God. The Bible and the 'fact' that Jesus really existed are popular options. This is easy to dismiss: 'other religions, like Islam and Judaism, base their beliefs on historical documents like the Qur'an and Talmud, and historical figures like Mohammed and Moses, but you don't believe those. If you want to base your beliefs on historical evidence why don't you trust science, which clearly demonstrates that the Bible is inaccurate and that there is no evidence that God created humanity or the universe.'
As suggested above, 'logical' arguments for the existence of God are almost invariably based on circular logic that presuppose the existence of God - in other words they only work if God exists (this is curiously reflected in the Bible, when Jesus speaks in parables, suggesting that only those who already believe in God will 'understand') – as well as failing to specify God any further than 'a higher force', which is a considerable weakness. The 'ontological' argument, for instance, argues that if God is the 'greatest thing I can imagine', he must exist, as it is greater to really exist than to exist only in the mind. A simple counter-argument is that 'God' is only a name – we could easily substitute 'Allah' or 'Odin', and the same would apply. The logical fallacy is that the 'concept God' cannot be equated with 'real God' – what the argument proves is the real actual existence of 'the concept of God as the greatest thing I can imagine'. That DOES exist, I can easily contemplate it – but 'real God' exists neither in my mind nor in reality.
Similar arguments can be used against the First Cause ('cosmological') argument, that a 'higher force' must have originally created the universe, as physics cannot confidently determine its origin. Once again the 'higher force' is not specified – it could just as easily be Allah or Krishna. Furthermore, the First Cause problem is not solved by the cosmological argument, it is just 'pushed back' – where did God come from? His origin is still unexplained. To define God as 'that which can create itself and the universe' makes no sense, as it is not preferable to a 'natural' (i.e. scientific, non-theist) explanation, but is simply an arbitrary name, 'God', for a physical process.
Kant's 'transcendental' argument suggests (as one principal point) that without an omnibenevolent God, we can have no objective standards of morality to measure our own standards against (and therefore, since morality exists, God must also exist – the same applies to knowledge). Obviously, naming the omnibenevolent (or omniscient) being 'God' is once again arbitrary and presupposes the existence of a specific deity. Kant's argument further falls down by the simple recognition that there is indeed no absolute moral standard – this is amply demonstrated by changes (evolution) in moral norms since early Christian times. The benchmarks of moral standards are prevalent social attitudes, and at best the moral ideal might be defined as 'a striving towards the greatest societal good', not an arbitrary god's ideas about what is right or wrong. That the Bible is 'morally outdated' is clear from its many elements that would be considered unacceptable now (equality, basic human rights, etc.) – its moral and intellectual standards reflect an ancient society.
In a sense, then, objective morality can be constructed in the terms described above, as this imperative ('the greatest societal good') stays constant even when society's priorities change. The difference is that this establishes a moral ideal based on morality as a societal process, not an absolute code of right or wrong.
[see also 'On Social and Moral Evolution', ]
The 'teleological' argument is differentiated from the arguments above by the fact that it is not primarily logical and theoretical (in fact, it’s not an argument at all). It rather interprets nature as evidence for the existence of a creator. Apart from the usual problem that the creator is not specified, it is worth pointing out (again) that nature points to a creator only if a creator is presupposed. Nature also points to evolution, and since there is concrete and convincing evidence in nature that evolution is a real and active process (while there is no independent evidence of the existence of God), accepting evolution is rational while believing in God is not. As usual, it boils down to choosing to believe something unfounded rather than accepting that there must be a logical explanation.
The final resort in debates about the existence of God (and probably the most important, as it is this that makes people really believe) is usually that the believer feels s/he is right – s/he has an innate knowledge of God and feels connected to him – in this way s/he knows God exists. For the theist, this is much stronger than the previous arguments, as it affects her/him personally and hence provides (personal/subjective) 'evidence'.
Firstly, it is (again) arbitrary – the same applies to the Muslim or Hindu, and applied to the ancient Norse or Greek praying to Thor or Zeus. A useful approach is to highlight similarities with theists of other beliefs: all religions are basically similar and fulfil the same functions. (Remember Stephen Roberts’ point: ‘I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.’)
Secondly: the religious urge, and hence its benefits, are primarily psychological (see The Desire to Believe, above). Religion forms an important part of theists’ lives and connects them with other theists. Again, comparisons with other religions can be useful – the processes are the same, but it is easier to recognise the irrationality of less familiar beliefs.
This is a very difficult line of argument, and likely to be fruitless. The aim in any debate should be to plant the tiniest seed of doubt - or interest. There is nothing like interest and enthusiasm to inspire someone to change and develop their views. It's a matter of making someone want to investigate and think logically. We're all capable of it in theory – the tricky part is getting people to do it.
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These are the cornerstones of the 'transcendental argument', as already discussed briefly above, providing an absolute definition of knowledge and morality. Aside from the usual logical disproofs centred on logical incompatibilities of omniscience and omnipotence, there are a number of inconsistencies.
The matter of omniscience and implications for determinism (i.e. God's knowledge of the future) has been discussed at length, and I want to consider only one small point: a full understanding of the consequences of his actions suggests that God deliberately set up the 'original sin' (through placement of the apple, Adam and Eve, and the snake – these were his creations, he knew how they would behave); this is troubling for various reasons, principally that the responsibility for all sin must reside with God. In that case, his status as omnibenevolent must also be questioned – if he instigated human sin, his 'objective morality' becomes somewhat pointless.
Normally I'm not interested in these types of minor inconsistencies (I strongly believe atheists should attempt to fry bigger fish – logic is not relevant to theism, so engaging with it logically is a waste of time), but it does provide some perspective to the so-called 'problem of evil' or 'argument from evil'. This is strangely popular, and suggests an incompatibility of omnipotence and omnibenevolence due to the existence of evil, or a human propensity towards it. This is, however, not logically convincing, and seems to misunderstand omnibenevolence (absolute goodness), which provides a moral absolute only - it does not oblige God to ensure maximum benevolence in all spheres. To question why God allows human evil to exist is to question his motives less convincingly than the 'original sin' issue raised above. The fundamental point, however, is that once it has been recognised that God does not exist, it should also be recognised that this argument is irrelevant – God allowing evil to exist ceases to be interesting in the absence of God…