There Is No God

(and Big Bang is unconvincing too!)

The girl hesitated. She’d been crossing the cafeteria with her lunchtime tray when she saw the young man smile. She’d passed him many times before, but he’d always seemed so intense and severe and closed off that she’d assumed he didn’t want company and she had gone somewhere else to eat.
Today, he was different. There was a sort of glow about him.
“Can I sit here?” she asked, plucking up courage and standing in front of him.
“Of course!”
The young man half rose and indicated the empty chair opposite with an open hand. “Please,” he added, smiling.
The girl sat.
“I’ve often seen you sitting alone,” she said; “but you didn’t seem to want company.”
He laughed.
“True. I’m usually working on something in my head, so prefer to be alone.”
“What’s different today?”
“My thesis has been accepted.”
“Oh, good! Well done!”
“Thank you.”
“What’s it about?”
“Strict empiricism.”
“Blimey! What’s that?”
“An approach to philosophy.”
“Goodness. Is that what you do, philosophy?”
“Lord. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it.”
“Few do. It doesn’t matter though. I’m quite normal otherwise.”
“Good! Does getting your thesis accepted mean you’ve finished?”
“Pretty much.”
“Has it taken long?”
“Yup. Three years solid.”
“Goodness. So, what’s next then?”
“Well, I’ll be granted my doctorate this summer, then it’s off to find a job, I guess.”
“Yes. But think I’ll take time off first. I’ve been at uni seven years, I need a break.”
“I’ll say. I’ve only been here three months and I could use one too!”
The pair laughed, then fell silent, looking at each other, liking what they saw.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked eventually.
“Matthew Elliot, yours?”
“Claire Smithson.”
They reached across the table and shook hands, then laughed again, almost self-consciously. Claire looked down and ate something, then glanced up.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course.”
“It’s something that’s been bothering me for a while, and you being a philosopher, well…”
“Um, do you believe in God?”
“No. Do you?”
“Yes. At least, I think so. But so many of the people I’ve met here are atheists or agnostics I’ve started wondering about it a lot. Why don’t you believe?”
“Because I’m a proponent of strict empiricism. I base knowledge on evidence. There is no evidence for God.”
“What’s empiricism?”
“It’s the view that human knowledge, to be valid, to be real knowledge, must be grounded in, or ultimately derived from, experience. That is to say, all knowledge begins with observation, by means of our senses, of the world outside ourselves. There is no empirical evidence for the existence of God, so there is no reason to believe in Him, or Her, or It.”
“I think there is evidence. Can we discuss it some more, I mean, now?”
“Of course, if you’d like to. I haven’t got anything on. It’s a weird feeling, actually. I’ve been so busy for so long, now the afternoon stretches out before me like … well … I don’t know.
Claire laughed.
“Good. I’d love to go on talking.”
“You’re not offended by my denial of God’s existence?”
“No. I don’t agree, but I’m not offended.”
“Good, because while I’d be useless as a diplomat, I never set out to offend anybody. It’s just not my style. The trouble is, when you question someone’s long-cherished beliefs, it can hurt, and they often take offense regardless how polite you try to be.”
“I promise you I won’t. But, did you ever believe in God?”
“I’m not sure, probably, vaguely, as a child. I was certainly raised as a Christian – morning prayers at school, celebrating Christmas and Easter, all that sort of thing – but my parents weren’t interested in religion, so our church attendance was patchy, more social than devotional. My father was a small town lawyer and I think he felt he had to show his face from time to time in a place most of his clients thought important. All in all, therefore, I had a pretty ‘light touch’ religious education.
“That changed when I went to university. I had intended to study history, but I took an introductory course in philosophy as an option in my first year and found it so fascinating I switched to philosophy instead.”
“I’m doing history.”
“Like it?”
“Yeah. I love old stuff. But what was it about philosophy that made you change?”
“Sort of reverse revelations, I guess. All sorts of famous stuff got torn to shreds, like Marxism. But let’s stick to God, since you asked.”
“Yeah. Let’s. Do go on.”
“Well, in the first class of that introductory course, the professor asked us to read two books, God and Philosophy by Antony Flew, and Atheism: The Case against God by George H. Smith. I did so. And they blew me away. All the stuff I’d been told as a child about God turned out to be false. So, since then, I’ve been an atheist, I know that there is no God. ”
“You know?”
“Yes, know. And, of course, that’s the clincher when talking about religion. There is no God, so Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, cannot be true.”
Claire winced slightly and looked down at the table again.
“How would you go about convincing me you’re right?” she asked after a pause.
“It’ll take a while. You up for that?”
“Alright, then, let’s start. Now, you assert that there is a God?”
“Okay, but if you assert the existence of something, it is up to you to provide the evidence. If you want me to believe there are little people living in your vegetable garden, it is up to you to show them to me. Put more formally, the burden of proof is on you. I’m adamant God does not exist, you believe He does. So, how would you prove me wrong? Can you show me concrete evidence for the existence of God?”
“Well, everything has to have a cause, doesn’t it, Matthew?” said Claire; “things don’t just happen. Vegetables don’t pop up out of the ground, someone has to plant them. So the universe couldn’t just have happened either, it had to have a cause. And I believe that the universe was created by God. So God is the first cause, the original cause of everything.”
“Thanks. Although I’m afraid that does not constitute what I would call concrete evidence. Nonetheless, let’s consider it. Actually, what you have offered is not evidence at all, it’s an argument, and not a very good one, alas.”
“It seems good to me,” said Claire.
“You’re not alone there,” answered Matthew; “billions of people have found it entirely convincing. But tell me, who or what caused God?”
Claire laughed, as if Matthew had said something silly.
“God doesn’t need a cause, Matthew,” she said; “God is the cause.”
“But, Claire, the first premise of your argument was ‘everything requires a cause.’ Everything means every thing. So, tell me, what is the cause of God?”
“But God isn’t a thing. God is, well God. He’s the Supreme Being, all-powerful and all-knowing, who made the world, and us too.”
“I know that’s what you believe, Claire. But you can’t claim that ‘every entity which exists needs a cause’ then immediately announce ‘the entity that caused all other entities to exist does not need a cause.’ You are contradicting yourself. If your first premise is true, that everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. Sorry, but your argument doesn’t work.”
Claire stayed silent, her brows furrowed.
“You see,” Matthew went on; “the idea of God was an attempt by early thinkers to resolve a philosophical problem called ‘infinite regress.’ It’s obvious to most people that there is such a thing as causality. Events have causes. But we often find that behind something we identify as a cause there is another cause, and behind that another, and so on, endlessly. That’s infinite regress. To get around the problem, we have to find something which acts as a first cause, an originator or initiator. The idea of a powerful creator, or god, who resided outside the universe and got everything going, seemed to primitive people to fill the bill. And not just primitive people. Even Aristotle – who despite some errors was undoubtedly the greatest philosopher in history – posited what he called an Unmoved Mover, which began the chain of universal events.
“However, in their attempts to resolve infinite regress, these early thinkers had merely invented a new and bigger problem. They had no evidence whatsoever that anything did in fact exist, or indeed could exist, outside the universe. And to this day, after thousands of years of trying, nobody has been able to come up with an irrefutable proof of God’s existence. The Unmoved Mover remains a supposition, not a fact.”
“How would you resolve the problem of infinite regress?”
“Very simply. The universe itself acts as a cause. It’s chock full of matter, motions and forces acting according to natural laws which we are gradually discovering and understanding. Earthquakes, for example, once seen as ‘acts of God’ – a very brutal God, one should note, who without warning crushes thousands of people to death. Anyhow, earthquakes are now known to be due to the movement of tectonic plates in the earth’s crust. No God involved at all, just natural causes.”
Claire frowned, then nodded slowly.
“Besides the universe itself,” Matthew went on; “each one of us is a potential initiator of causes. Through the exercise of our will we can cause any number of things to happen. It wasn’t God or gravity which invented the first computer, for example, it was an English mathematician called Alan Turing. That’s an initiation if ever there was. Imagine what our lives would be like today without computers.”
“What about Big Bang?” Claire asked, excitedly, as though scoring an important point; “the evidence for that is pretty solid, isn’t it? Which means that the universe had a beginning. Something caused that. Why not God?”
“Well argued. I actually wrote an essay about Big Bang once. And one thing I found out was that the man who first put forward the idea of Big Bang was a Roman Catholic priest called Georges Lemaître. I don’t know anything more about him but, as a priest, perhaps his theory had other motivations than pure science. Anyway, in my paper, I raised a major objection to the Big Bang theory. Would you like to hear it?”
“Of course. Our physics teacher at school was always going on about it.”
“Alright, but I should begin by stressing that I’m not a scientist, so I can’t comment on the science. However, speaking as a philosopher, the Big Bang theory – and it is a theory, not a proven fact – appears to fly in the face of a fundamental philosophical principle, namely, that something cannot come out of nothing. If you like Latin, it’s ex nihilo nihil fit, or, out of nothing, nothing comes.
“It’s vitally important to realise that nothing means nothing, no thing. And where there are no things, where there is nothing, there are no materials available to make something. Thus, out of nothing, nothing comes. That is an incontrovertible absolute, an axiom, impossible to deny.
“Next, consider what the universe is. Well, ‘universe’ is our word for everything which exists: all the galaxies and everything in them, every hidden force in nature, every microscopic particle, the lot. But if you assert that everything which exists, the universe, had a beginning, you are implying that there was nothing there beforehand, which is impossible. Out of nothing, nothing comes.
“Modern cosmologists, such as Stephen Hawking, maintain that the universe once had ‘zero size,’ it was infinitely small and infinitely dense. If that means anything at all, it means that there was nothing. Then, all of a sudden, they say, the universe, and all the vast amount of matter it contains, was inconceivably large. Well, as I said, I’m not a scientist, but when I read stuff like that my immediate reaction is to borrow from humorist Ian Hislop and exclaim: ‘if that’s science, I’m a banana!’”
Claire laughed.
“Recently,” Mathew continued when she had quieted down; “Hawking actually referred to Big Bang as spontaneous creation from nothing and maintained that it was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics. Well, hang on a minute. The laws of physics operate in, and on, a physical universe of matter and energy. Where there is no matter and energy there can be no laws of physics. If there was once nothing, i.e., no matter or energy, there would have been no laws of physics either. Hence, on Hawking’s argument, there could be no Big Bang. I’m afraid the great cosmologist has contradicted himself rather royally.”
“Gosh,” said Claire; “I thought he was supposed to be one of the greatest minds ever.”
“Even great minds make mistakes,” Matthew smiled at her. “Going on, let’s look at another objection to Big bang. It’s a commonplace of modern cosmology that nothing in the universe can exceed the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second. Yet we are asked to believe that moments after Big Bang, the universe was millions of light years across. But, surely, if the cosmic speed limit is correct, one second after Big Bang the maximum possible size for the universe would be a sphere with a diameter of 372,000 miles. One year later, it could only be two light years across, not millions of them. An objection along those lines was made by a famous philosopher of science, Karl Popper.
“To attempt to overcome the light speed problem by saying it is space itself which is expanding, and that space is not restricted to light speed, would come across as entirely self-serving, magical even, because the matter contained in space would be travelling outward at the same speed.
“A third objection in my paper was that Big Bang theorists seem to be placing an incredible amount of weight on a rather slim body of evidence. There is no question that the Doppler effect – the shift of light to the red end of the spectrum when it moves away from us – and universal background radiation, are profoundly intriguing observations. But while Big Bang theory – the expanding universe – accords with these and other bits of evidence, it doesn’t seem to exhaust the possibilities. Hawking himself implied as much in his famous book A Brief History of Time when he wrote ‘according to laws we believed in at the time.’ Well, might not other explanations of these phenomena occur to future thinkers? Perhaps they are created by the rotation of our galaxy and, far away in the future, a different generation of scientists will be puzzling over a blue shift!
“Interestingly, the concept of an expanding universe has started to be questioned by some physicists. Professor Christof Wetterich of Heidelberg University in Germany, for example, has pointed out that particles themselves also undergo colour shifts, to the blue end of the spectrum if their mass increases, to the red if it decreases. This provides an alternative interpretation of the red shift observed orginally by Edwin Hubble – who began the whole expanding universe business back in the 1920s – and, after some further complicated explanations, implies that the universe may not be expanding at all.”
Claire’s eyes roved round the room as she considered the possibility.
“Anyhow,”Matthew went on; “to me, at present, Big Bang theorists appear to be employing a fallacy – hasty generalisation – which means jumping to conclusions.”
“You’re a fearsome critic, Matthew,” said Claire, her eyes wide.
“I’m not boring you I hope.”
“Not at all, it’s fascinating.”
“Good. To continue, proponents of Big Bang may be making a fourth mistake. They acknowledge that time is within the universe. Hawking said imagining a time before Big Bang is like trying to walk north of the North Pole. Good analogy.”
Matthew stopped for a few seconds to give Claire time to digest Hawking’s bon mot.
“Anyhow, human beings discovered, or invented, time. In its usual sense, it’s a system of measurement based on the daily rotation of the Earth and its annual orbit around the Sun. Plainly therefore, like the durations and motions it measures, time is inside the universe. But to say the universe had a beginning, pace Hawking, is surely to place the universe in time; a ‘before’ is clearly implied. In other words, it is to place time outside the universe, which is impossible.”
“What about the Einsteinian concept of space-time?” asked Claire; “that was something else we did in physics.”
“What about it?”
“Well, isn’t time seen now as the fourth dimension of a space-time continuum?”
“Yes. Confusingly, in my opinion. It would have been better to refer to the fourth dimension as temporality, or duration, or something else; because, whenever they feel like it, physicists and astronomers step back from the concept of space-time and use time as a system of measurement, as when they define the speed of light, describe distances between galaxies in light years, or measure sub-atomic speeds in nanoseconds.
“In so doing, they seem to ignore certain peculiarities which they attribute to space-time: that it speeds up and slows down, warps, curves, differs for each person, and so on. They use time as an absolute standard to measure a time dimension they tell us is relative, variable or subjective. To a layman like myself, that makes little sense.
“It also seems odd to estimate the ‘age’ of the universe using the solar year. Our planetary system was apparently formed 4.5 billion years ago, whereas Big Bang is claimed to have occurred ten or so billion years earlier, long before there was such a thing as a solar year.
“But whichever way you look at it, time is still inside the universe. How could anything be outside the universe? The universe is the sum total of everything which exists, including any ‘parallel’ universes and all other such imaginings. Saying or implying ‘outside the universe’ is a contradiction: it asserts or suggests that the universe is not the sum total of everything which exists. But going outside the universe is precisely what is implied by asserting that the universe had a beginning. The universe cannot have begun, because there was and is nowhere for it to have come from. Ex nihilo, nihil fit.”
“What about the second law of thermodynamics? That was something else we did in physics once. Isn’t that a big problem? I didn’t understand a word of it but I do remember our teacher getting all excited about it.”
“Yes. If true, it is a big issue. If the stock of energy in the universe is indeed finite it can’t have been drawn on for ever.”
“You said ‘if’. You’re not doubting the laws of physics are you?”
“No, just being cautious. It’s something I learned from Karl Popper. He pointed out that for hundreds of years people regarded Newtonian physics as an absolute certainty, then along came Einstein and pulled the plug on it. That turned Popper into a sceptic. It didn’t me. I think Popper went way too far with what he called ‘fallibilism’, which in essence denies certain knowledge of anything. But the Einsteinian revolution does mean we have to be careful about what we take to be true, and always on the alert for new information which may change our ways of thinking.
“Another significant issue is the possibilities raised by the fluctuations discussed in quantum mechanics, but they are so hard to understand that even leading scientists get flummoxed by them.”
“I don’t mean to be rude,” interrupted Claire; “but couldn’t your ignorance of science be tripping you up in all this stuff?”
“Maybe so,” Matthew grinned; “But it’s a blissful ignorance. You see, when it comes to entropy and suchlike – the universe running out of energy – I don’t terribly care if I’m right or wrong because the time scales are so vast. Entropy can’t ever effect you and me, nor even our great grandchildren. However, I do know something about logic and my bottom line is always ‘out of nothing, nothing comes’. Scientists talk blithely about ‘nothing’ but seem to treat it as another kind of something. It isn’t. It’s nothing: no matter, no energy, no space, no time, no laws, nothing. And out of nothing, nothing comes.
“Hold on,” interjected Claire; “what about those electron-positron pairs they told us about in physics, which form spontaneously in a vacuum? That’s something out of nothing.”
“I think rather that physicists haven’t yet discovered what forces are at work. Nothing means nothing. Something out of nothing is a flat-out contradiction, and contradictions – things simultaneously being and not being – cannot exist. That was one of Aristotle’s great insights, his Law of Non-Contradiction. He called it the most certain principle of all, about which it is impossible to be mistaken. In his words, ‘the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect.’ Or, more succinctly, ‘it is impossible for any one to believe the same thing to be and not to be.’”
Matthew paused again to give Claire time to absorb the principle.
“Did you get that?”
“Yes. It makes perfect sense.”
“Good. Moving on, no doubt there are problems with the idea of a static universe too. I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. Nonetheless, the only rational philosophical conclusion seems to me to be that the universe – whatever form it takes, and whether it’s expanding, or contracting, or running down into entropy, or balancing on the back of a turtle – is, necessarily, eternal. It cannot have been created, whether by God or anything else, because you can’t make something out of nothing. Which leads me to a final conclusion that the universe simply is. It has always existed and always will.”
Matthew drew a deep breath.
“Sorry, that took us rather a long way off topic. Let’s leave it. Now, a little while back, you said that God was all-powerful and all-knowing. Yes?”
“Yes,” said Claire.
“Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disillusion you about that too. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if God is all-knowing, he must know everything that is going to happen, yes?”
“And if he is all-powerful he can change anything and everything?”
“But if God knows what is going to happen, how can he change it?”
“Because he is all-powerful.”
“But if God can change something, how can he know it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“If your God knows in advance everything that is going to happen, he cannot change anything. If he knows it is going to happen, how can he possibly change it? Knowing means knowing. For example, it is a simple fact that two eggs plus two eggs equals four eggs. No matter how all-powerful you might be, you cannot possibly change a fact once it is known to be a fact. Two plus two can never make five.
“Or to take another example, an all-knowing God would presumably have known a billion years ago that young Claire Smithson would be sitting talking to me today. Well, if he knew that, how could he change it? The same is true of the past. You were born eighteen-odd years ago. If God knows that, how can he change it? Wipe you out of existence? Eradicate all my memories of you?
“You see,” Matthew went on; “you can’t have it both ways. If your God is all-powerful he cannot be all-knowing, and if he is all-knowing he cannot be all-powerful. And if God lacks either omniscience or omnipotence, he doesn’t exactly measure up as an almighty deity, now does he?”
Claire frowned.
“I see what you mean. But it’s a bit hard absorbing all this stuff at once.”
“Of course. Would you like me to stop?”
“No. Go on. It’s really interesting.”
“Good. You see, there are problems with the idea of God wherever you look. The official guide to Anglicanism, for example, states that God is without passions. But it is commonplace for Christian divines to say things like ‘God loves you,’ or to refer to ‘the wrath of God.’ Well, one has to ask, how can God love, or be wrathful, if he is without passions?
“Similarly, God is held to be incorporeal, not to have a body. Yet He is also held to experience love, possess wisdom, feel anger and show mercy. But these are human characteristics, dependant for their existence on a body with a brain. How can one acquire wisdom without a brain, or experience emotions without a body? More to the point perhaps, how could a being with no body get the Virgin Mary in the famly way?”
“But that was a miracle,” objected Claire, looking somewhat shocked.
“Well, you should read Section Ten of David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ‘On Miracles,’ which very thoroughly questions the truth of reports about miracles.
“As to the notion of virgin births, many claims for their occurrence have been made over the years, but since the truth of such events would depend on suspension of the laws of nature, I think we can safely assume their falsity.
“Let me tell you an anecdote to illustrate the matter. My grandmother on my father’s side told me she once knew an upper-class girl who got pregnant as a teenager back in the 1930s when such things were really shocking. Her family promptly shipped her off to Australia. In due course, she reappeared, with a different surname, posing as a widow with an orphaned child. Her marriage and deceased husband were fictitious, but who was to know? And who cared enough to find out? So-called virgin births are similar fictions – ways out of social predicaments – and I’m sure the story of the Virgin Mary originated in just such a circumstance.
“But be all that as it may, claims of miracles – even at sanctuaries such as Fatima or Lourdes, with their thousands of abandoned crutches – are invariably found to be frauds, fantasies, exaggerations, inventions or lies, accepted as true for the simple reason that miracles are what believers want to believe.”
“But,” Claire objected; “wouldn’t a priest or minister say that theology has moved on a bit over the centuries and that things like the wrath of God or the virgin birth of Jesus are now seen as allegorical or metaphorical, used to teach, not literally true. I remember being told in our comparative religion class that there are much more sophisticated conceptions of God nowadays, for example, that He is pure consciousness.…”
“How can you have consciousness without a physical being which is conscious?” Matthew interrupted.
“You need to look at how human beings form concepts. Where did we get the idea of consciousness from?”
“Well, from seeing things that are conscious, I suppose. You know, animals, other people, ourselves.”
“Exactly. And what do those things have in common?”
“Er, bodies?”
“Exactly. But what do you infer from the idea of ‘pure’ consciousness?”
“That there is no body involved?”
“Exactly. Do you remember the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland? How the cat fades away till nothing is left but its grin, and Alice says she’s often seen cats without grins but never a grin without a cat.”
Claire nodded, smiling.
“Well, in truth, the notion of ‘pure consciousness’ makes no more sense than a grin without a face. Grins depend on faces for their existence. In an identical way, the idea of consciousness depends on living things which are conscious. Therefore the notion of consciousness without a conscious being is meaningless.”
“What about the soul, Matthew? Isn’t that where consciousness is? When we die, we are no longer conscious. That is because our soul has departed. Consciousness is the same thing as the soul, and the soul is immortal.”
“Sorry, Claire. I’m not buying. Give me some solid evidence that souls exist.”
“I just said. The soul is our conscious part, put there by God when we’re conceived.”
“What happens with identical twins? Does God split the soul in two?”
“I don’t know how to answer that,” said Claire, bewildered.
“Well, twins, triplets, and so on, occur when a fertilised ovum splits into two or more embryos. The phenomenon occurs after the original ovum has been fertilised, which would seem to cast doubt on your timing. Not long ago, for example, in California, octuplets were successfully carried to full term. At which point, do you suppose, were the seven extra souls created?”
“I can’t tell, but I still say that because we’re conscious, we have souls.”
“Is the soul the same thing as life?”
“Yes, it’s what gives life to our bodies.”
“Amoebas are alive. They consist of a single cell. Do they have souls?”
“I suppose so. I don’t know.”
“They reproduce by splitting in two. Would each half have a soul, and each quarter next time round?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are they conscious?”
“No, obviously not, they don’t have brains.”
“But you just said being alive, being conscious and having a soul were all the same thing.”
Matthew looked kindly into the girl’s eyes, she was obviously disturbed.
“Look, Claire, I’m not trying to be mean, or to bully you. But, you see, there are no such things as souls. What you call a soul is in fact the phenomenon of life, and life only exists in living creatures. While a creature is alive, it has life. When it is dead, though its chemical ingredients remain, its life goes out of existence. Just as there can be no consciousness without a conscious being there can be no life apart from living creatures.
“‘Life’ is our word for the functioning of a living creature while it is alive. When, through disease, or deprivation of the means of survival, or reaching the end of its allotted span, the organism can no longer survive, its life ends. Finito, over and out.
“Immortality is a fantasy, Claire. No aspect of life survives death. Any notion of an afterlife, whether in Heaven or Hell or Nirvana, is pure myth. The idea of an immortal soul was invented by priests as a means of obtaining obedience. They terrify their flocks with threats of Hell in order to keep them coming to church for forgiveness – or to stock up credit in Heaven – and, more importantly, to keep putting money in the plate to keep the priest in business.”
“Matthew, if that’s all true, if we don’t have souls and if there’s no afterlife, then religion is a pack of lies.”
“No. A lie is the conscious and willing assertion of something the speaker knows to be false. Christian priests or ministers, Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams, and all other religious teachers, believe what they say to be true, the honest ones that is. They are not liars. What we are examining is whether the words they utter are accurate. Philosophy does not accuse people of lying. It merely checks out the logic and reality of what is asserted.
“Let me give you another illustration of the topsy-turvy nature of religious reasoning. There’s an idea which has been doing the rounds in religious circles in North America for the last couple of decades. It’s called Intelligent Design. It’s actually just a rehash of the ‘natural religion’ argument for the existence of God which was debunked by David Hume two hundred and fifty years ago.
“Basically, what Intelligent Design asserts is that features of the universe and of life are better explained by an intelligent cause, rather than by a scientific explanation such as Darwinian evolution.
“But if you think about the matter, you soon realise that our idea of intelligence is derived from studying human beings, who all possess it in varying degree; and animals, who possess something similar, though not identical, again in varying degree. So those who claim that life or the universe were created by an outside intelligence are claiming that intelligence existed before humans, which is completely back to front. Intelligence, a natural phenomenon, did not come into being until humanity had evolved from earlier life forms. To use an analogy, proponents of Intelligent Design are claiming that candlelight can occur before candles are lit.
“Fans of Intelligent Design maintain, for example, that DNA – deoxyribonucleic acid, the blueprint for life – is far too complicated to be an accident, so must be the result of intelligent design. What they are overlooking is the fact that the emergence of DNA preceded the emergence of intelligence by billions of years. They are putting the cart before the horse. The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has made this point.
“For centuries too, religionists have claimed that the human eye is far too complicated to be the result of chance, it reveals a designer. But such folk are ignoring clear evidence that the eye evolved in stages. Millions of tiny increments over hundreds of millions of years created the eye: it didn’t just pop fully formed from the brow of Zeus.”
“But if you saw a beautiful necklace in a shop,” Claire objected; “you’d know someone made it. So why can’t we assume the world had a maker too?”
“Well, that’s the famous ‘natural religion,’ or ‘teleological argument’ I referred to a minute ago. Hume tore it to shreds in the 18th century in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The argument employs a false analogy. A jeweller made the necklace. You can’t assume from the fact that a necklace requires a jeweller to make it that the world had to have a maker as well. You’ve made a giant leap from human manufacturing to a totally different category. In logic, that’s called a non sequitur, meaning it does not follow.
“Look, if I suggested to you, seriously, that because tops, children’s toys, require someone to spin them, there has to be an invisible angel sitting out there somewhere in space whose job it is to give the world a twist every now and then to keep it spinning, you’d rightly think I’d gone off my trolley. But I’m afraid your necklace argument is no better than that.
“You see, Claire, even if the design argument were valid, there’d only be a limited amount of information you could derive from it. As Hume wittily pointed out, there’d be no way of telling whether the earth wasn’t, I quote, ‘the first rude essay of some infant deity who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance,’ or the botched effort of an inferior deity, ‘the object of derision to his superiors.’
“You can’t possibly deduce from the existence of Earth that it had an all-knowing, all-powerful maker. Most of the things we know about this world of ours function entirely automatically; things like its daily rotation, tectonic plates, ocean currents, the weather, photosynthesis, or carrots growing from seed. Far from an intelligent maker being implied, one could argue with just as much force that the world was the work of a giant carrot.”
Claire laughed, Matthew smiled back at her.
“Further, given the prevalence of dangerous or nasty things on our planet – from earthquakes, to volcanoes, to deadly poisonous jellyfish; not to speak of war, pestilence and famine – far from being the good, wise, just, compassionate and merciful God whom priests and imams would have us believe in, a much more accurate assumption about the putative Creator of the world would be that He is immensely cruel and unspeakably malicious.”
Matthew stopped talking to draw a deep breath, which he then expelled in a long sigh.
“There’s another argument for the existence of God,” Matthew continued; “called the Ontological Argument. It was cooked up in the Middle Ages by a monk called Anselm. It’s actually quite clever. It states that God is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ It then argues that to exist has to be an attribute of the greatest conceivable being, because if it didn’t exist it couldn’t be the greatest. Therefore God exists. Can you see a problem?”
Dead silence. Matthew laughed at Claire’s deep frown.
“I’d be surprised if you did, you’d need to know some quite technical logic. Anyhow, the fault with Anselm’s argument is that it assumes what it sets out to prove. The first premise says ‘God is …’. The unwary listener is thus conned into accepting God’s existence in advance. The tactic is called ‘begging the question’ or ‘circular reasoning.’ But it proves nothing. It’s just a clever trick. And, because it employs a fallacy, the Ontological Argument is philosophically valueless. As are, for a variety of reasons, all the arguments for the existence of God. I think Anthony Flew counted a total of ten, all equally fallacious.”
“Doesn’t that tell us something, though, Matthew? I mean, all these arguments for God’s existence. Alright, so they’re invalid. But, surely there being so many suggests that people recognise God is out there somewhere even if they can’t prove it?”
“Well, as Antony Flew wrote so incisively, you’re hoping that while one leaky bucket won’t hold water, ten leaky buckets will.”
Claire grinned ruefully. Shortly, she brightened.
“Wouldn’t a priest or minister accuse you of missing the point, though? Everything you’ve said has been based on reason and rational argument. But we were told in class that Martin Luther had said that reason was ‘God’s worst enemy,’ and that it should be ‘blinded and destroyed?’ Luther would say faith was what religion was all about, and that in depending on reason and ignoring faith you’re just, well, letting off fireworks, being noisy, not persuasive.”
“Yes indeed, faith, religion’s last line of defence. Luther did say something like that, or so I’ve read. And I must say, it has always struck me as curious that God should create us with this wonderful faculty of reason and then expect us to believe in Him without recourse to it. We simply can’t survive without reason. You can’t get to a church without using reason. You can’t read and understand Luther’s Small Catechism without employing reason. I mean, isn’t it simply daft to give human beings the marvellous gift of reason then deny them the use of it in the one place where it should most count?”
Claire stared at Matthew fixedly, he could almost see her brain churning.
“You see, Claire, faith is one of those words which are used almost daily but seldom if ever put under the microscope. What exactly is faith? Well, in essence, faith is a feeling. It’s an unreasoned or irrational belief supported solely by the feelings of the person who experiences it. Feelings are quite distinct from knowledge. I’m sure you understand the difference. A mathematician knows that the numerical value of pi is 3.14159. An inveterate gambler feels today is his lucky day. People who have faith in God do not know the truth of what they believe, they feel it.
“Usually, faith is implanted in children at a very early age, before they have learned to distinguish between feelings and knowledge. The Jesuits used to say, ‘give us a child till he’s seven and we’ll give you a Catholic for life.’ Islam similarly urges or imposes learning the Koran from early childhood, for an identical reason.
“Education of this type is more properly described as brainwashing. The unsuspecting child is placed in the hands of someone they are taught to respect or revere and told that they are going to learn the truth. Mostly, the learning is by rote. Children are not taught to think about what they learn, just to memorize it. So vital parts of their minds, the ability to criticise and to evaluate, overloaded by memory work, are atrophied before they can develop.
“The unfortunate kids in this situation are taught not to question, but to obey. Catholics are taught to obey their priests. Lutherans are taught they have a duty to obey pastors and submit to their authority. Muslims are taught to obey Allah and submit to sharia, the law of the Koran: the word Islam actually means ‘submission’ in Arabic.
“The end result is that religious faith is embedded so deeply in the young person’s psyche that only those with exceptionally strong minds ever come to question it or break free from it.
“Anyhow, the truth is that faith is the opposite of reason. To say ‘I have faith’ is identical to saying ‘I do not think.’ Faith in God belongs in the same category as belief in leprechauns; or in the effectiveness of witches’ spells; or trusting mediums to bring messages from the dead; or believing the truth of horoscopes derived from reading tea leaves.
“‘I have faith’ is also an admission of ignorance. ‘I have faith’ means, simultaneously, ‘I do not know’ and ‘I cannot know.’ As philosopher Antony Flew pointed out, faith is in fact agnosticism, which means acknowledging that one does not know.”
“Wouldn’t a priest retort that you have faith just as much as he does, Matthew. Except his faith is in God, yours is in reason.”
“He might, but he wouldn’t have been listening. I just told you, Claire, that faith is the opposite of reason. To say someone ‘has faith in reason’ is a blatant contradiction. The definition of faith is belief devoid of thought. To say, ‘you have faith in reason’ is to say, ‘you believe without thought that you possess a faculty which enables you to think.’ Or to put it more succinctly, ‘you have faith in reason’ asserts that, ‘you are not thinking when you think.’ I hope you can see that that is patent rubbish.
“Rational people don’t believe, they know, from their own immediate experience, that they possess a faculty, reason, which identifies and integrates the raw data provided by their senses. The possession of reason enables them to arrive at knowledge after a process of thinking based on evidence and logic. The existence of reason is an objective fact. It’s a human faculty, known by observation. Faith simply doesn’t come into it.
“Rational thinkers know, for example, that the concept ‘faith’ wouldn’t even exist without the prior concept of reason. The term ‘faith’ designates a mental state in which people believe things like miracles to be true without any proper evidence to support them. The whole purpose of the term ‘faith’ is to contrast this irrational condition with the rational position of thinkers who only accept things to be true when they are shown by observation or logical reasoning to be real facts.”
“You’re awfully good at arguing, Matthew.”
“And you’re pretty good yourself, Claire. I’ve been really impressed.”
“I went to a very good school, and I had some really good teachers.”
“It shows,” Matthew grinned.
“But let’s wrap this up,” he went on, slapping his hands down on the table; “I’ve remembered something I need to do. You see, Claire, atheism is not just one choice among several, it is the only option open to a rational person. The non-existence of God is a certainty. Why? Because there are not and never have been any observations, valid arguments, reasonable inferences or any other evidence of any sort to suggest or imply or show or prove that such a totally unreasonable notion might be true. Knowledge begins with observation. Where there has been no observation there can be no knowledge.”
“What about revelations?” asked Claire. “Weren’t prophets like Jesus and Muhammad put on earth to bring us the word of God?”
“Well, I’m sorry, there’s no hard evidence that Muhammad actually lived; nor is there is any positive, clear or convincing evidence that there ever was any such person as Jesus. All we have are reports, hearsay, written down by self-interested apologists decades after the events they purported to describe. The earliest Gospel is reckoned to be that of Mark, and the most likely period for it to have been written is some time after 65 AD, over thirty years later than the reported Crucifixion. Ask yourself, how reliable are thirty-year-old recollections?
“More tellingly, there is no mention of the life or miracles of Jesus in the early Epistles of St Paul – which predate Mark’s gospel – and Paul would have been a fool not to have used the stories if he could. The Gospels, the life of Jesus – a byword for truth, ‘Gospel true’ people say – are actually fiction, cobbled together from pre-existing Jewish, Roman and Middle-Eastern myths and legends because it was thought the new Christian cult would be more credible if it had a founder.
“Even if Jesus was a real person, he could only have been a man, and everything he said would have been the words of a man. You really ought to read Hume, you know; he discusses in detail the human love of novelty and how reports of wondrous events become the more outlandish the further they are removed from us in distance and in time.”
“How do you explain all the great religions then?” Claire asked; “Egyptians, Aztecs, Mayas, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Hindus, Arabs, Vikings, Modern Europeans and Americans: all civilizations have religions. How do they come about if there is no God?”
“I explain them through con tricks and coercion mostly,” answered Matthew; “flim-flam, brute force and terror. I can’t speak about all the ones you mentioned, I don’t know enough about them. But two of the biggest world religions, Christianity and Islam, got big solely by allying themselves with civil governments and using secular power to gain religious ends. Christianity didn’t grow through persuasion, but by imperial decree. It was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 315 AD. Thereafter, it was maintained by brainwashing, propaganda, terror, torture and burnings at the stake – though in recent centuries, under the influence of science and rational philosophy, it has mellowed considerably.
“In exactly the same way, Islam didn’t earn its huge geographical extent on merit, it was attained purely by military conquest and maintained thereafter by force. The people conquered by Muslim armies were given three choices: submit, that is, become a Muslim; or, pay to stay alive; or, be put to the sword. ‘Islam, tribute, or the sword’ was the formula, not the truth of the Koran. And it still is, see what’s going on in Iraq, even as we speak.
“In my opinion, the resort to force is sufficient to demonstrate the falsity of any creed. The Koran says, correctly, ‘there can be no compulsion in religion’ but that is one commandment Muslims have never obeyed.
“To take another instance, communism – which was and is a form of secular religion – was everywhere imposed by force, never by persuasion. It had to be imposed, of course, because as any rational person soon sees, its founding philosophy, Marxism, is a load of codswallop from beginning to end; a mishmash of contradictions, historical inaccuracies, false predictions, general economic ignorance and outright demagoguery.”
Matthew stretched and made as if to rise.
“I’ll give you one more idea to mull over. There are certain things that most religions have in common. One is to attack reason and substitute faith. Another is to castigate self-interest and promote altruism. A third is to disparage sex. Yet reason, self-interest and sex are the most valuable and enjoyable aspects of life. Why should religion enjoin us to reject them? I’ll tell you why. Religious leaders want us to feel ashamed of the things which are normal and natural to us so that when we do them, as inevitably we must, they can rule us through guilt.”
“Gosh!” exclaimed Claire.
“Gosh indeed!” laughed Matthew.
He was quiet for a minute then looked at Claire speculatively, hopefully.
“Are you doing anything tonight?”
“No,” Claire smiled.
Her smile widened.
“I’d love to.”