Why I don't believe in God
"So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would neither be created nor destroyed ... it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"
- Stephen W. Hawking
I refer here to the Christian God, as that is the culture I was brought up in and am most familar with, although a fair amount of what follows applies to all religions. In an exceedingly technical way, you could call me an agnostic, as I am theoretically willing to believe, if given sufficient evidence. But by the same token I do not have absolute proof that Santa Claus does not exist. It might be possible that God, say, started the Big Bang. However, it is also possible that a race of advanced fungi from another dimension did it, or, more likely, that nothing whatsoever other than the basic physical properties of the universe set things rolling. While on the one hand I can acknowledge that the existence of God is possible, on the other hand, based on what we know about the universe and the astonishing lack of good, reasonable evidence, it would seem extremely unlikely.
I tend to see God as a metaphor, as a word that is used to convey that which cannot be conveyed by words, and then mixed up into the concept of the mythic gods that are themselves the remnants of animism and ancestor worship. I see spiritual experiences as real, completely real, but only in the subjective sense. I see them as created in the brain. I see many of the mistakes we make in religion as coming from the reinterpretations of spiritual experience by people who have not had the experience. This essentially is the origin of religious dogma.
The Brain is Fallible
"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."
- Albert Einstein
The brain is a biochemical computer of sorts, but it is subject to errors. Gross errors. Hard-wired errors like optical illusions. And it forgets things. It learns things the wrong way. It unconsciously acquires biases. It makes mistakes, and this is a vital point, because it leads to an important and reasonable idea, checking for mistakes. We have a fancy name for that called scientific method, but it's not much more than checking your work and asking other people to check your work before passing along any conclusions. The corollary is that not checking for mistakes is asking for trouble. An important feature of religion is that it is actually against "the rules" to check for mistakes, or worse yet, to point them out.
Not checking for mistakes leads to superstitious behavior, like "I need to wear my lucky socks today" or to even more complex and dangerous superstitions like religion.
Based on the observations of some chimpanzee researchers, we may not be alone, species wise, on this kind of semi-complicated belief based superstition. There is a tribe of chimpanzees in Africa that appears to believe they can stop the rain by dancing.
The Brain is Subject to Delusion
"A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
- Saul Bellow
The ability to imagine, to create and explore new ideas in our heads, is perhaps our greatest strength as a species. However, it is simultaneously our greatest weakness, the problem being that we sometimes have trouble distinguishing our imaginings from reality.
You may say you have no problem telling fantasy from reality, but you'd be wrong. Every night, you are completely fooled by not one but several multi-sensory fantasy worlds of your own creation, or dreams, as we like to call them. Even during the day, you may find yourself taken away to some other place, some world of your own ideas, only to find yourself in the middle of a boring meeting with someone snapping you back to reality saying, "hey, where are you?"
We can induce the no longer quite so mysterious "near death experience" with the drug ketamine, or by applying an electromagnetic field to the temporal lobe, or even, as has been discovered in the case of fighter pilots, putting them in a centrifugal trainer until they black out. We have accounts going back thousands of years of people having religious experiences while taking various hallucinogens. It's just the way the brain is wired. Also, there can be serious problems with the wiring itself. We know that things like temporal lobe epilepsy and schizophrenia can lead to delusional religious beliefs.
So we find ourselves with an error prone mind subject to fantasy, which leads to some pretty amazing places. My favorite Oliver Sacks story is about a patient with a large brain tumor. The man was blind, but believed he could see. No amount of rational thought could dissuade him. He couldn't understand why he was being taken to Braille classes. An extreme example of delusion, but one we need to take to heart. As a species, we are pretty good at pulling the wool over our own eyes.
We have Deep Psychological Needs
"The other animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to convince them that there was no such place."
- Animal Farm, George Orwell
We know that we die. That's a big scary thought, in some ways too big and scary to even dwell on for any length of time or with any seriousness. Death is a big problem, and not just our own death. We form deep emotional attachments with others, and their death is a great loss for us. On the familiar Holmes Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale, death of a spouse ranks as the single most stressful event in life. When you add in both the normal and abnormal difficulties of life it becomes a pretty dismal situation. Life just isn't fair and unfortunately the bad guys can win. Life can get pretty lonely sometimes, and we need the support of others. We need hope and meaning in our lives. People want to be on the winning team, and they want to be friends with the team captain.
Religion conveniently disposes of these difficulties through a process of massive denial. No, you don't die, you live forever (denial of death, that's as massive as it gets!). Your loved ones don't die, they live forever. You'll see them again. They're going to a better place. There is a reason they died. It's all part of God's plan. The bad guys will be punished (for eternity!). There is hope, there is meaning, you are not alone, you have a friend for life, he's the captain of the winning team, and you're part of the team! Religion tells the believers on the one hand exactly what they want to hear, and on the other hand tells them they are damned to eternal suffering if they do not believe. Is it any wonder that it has become such an ingrained part of society?
God reflects a Projection of the Archetype Created by our Parents
"Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis."
We all come into the world the same way - tiny, helpless, ignorant about the world and utterly dependent on our parents. What must that have been like? We literally had to look up to our parents as they towered over us like some kind of benevolent giants. We lay helpless, but it was as if they were omnipotent. They seemed to control the world around us, to produce food seemingly from thin air. They performed feats that seemed magical to us. For most of us, they showered us, at least briefly, with something approaching unconditional love. They were aware of our every deed, and they punished us when we were "bad." They protected us and comforted us.
Thus our early experiences, perhaps even extending into the "heavenly" bliss of the womb, primed us for a belief in, and a desire for, an omnipotent, omniscient caretaker. We know from psychology that our "issues" stem from important relationships formed during our early years, and we often find ourselves matched up in love relationships with people who tweak these very same issues. It's not much of a leap to see how our love for and our image of God might come from a more primal version of this same phenomenon, and how as we stumbled onto stories that resonated with this archetype, they were retained and became part of our culture.
Along the same lines, the God of the bible is not portrayed as some kind of weird alien insect or something, but as a man. Numerous bible passages clearly describe God as a man, with human frailties, bowels, farts, everything. There are instances where he is decidedly not omniscient or omnipresent. For example, Jacob wrestles with a man all night and wins, only to find out that the man was God. How can a man beat the omnipotent creator of the universe?
I see this very anthropomorphic God as evidence that man created God, not the other way around.
Religion is a Specific, Cultural Phenomenon
"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."
- Thomas Jefferson
It should be curious to believers how the religion of one's parents is a remarkably good predictor of one's own religion, almost as if God had no influence at all and it was purely a socio-cultural phenomenon. Along the same lines, it should also be curious how a religion disappears when its culture dies out. What ever became of Zeus, Ra and Thor? These were Gods, after all, worshipped earnestly by countless millions and yet now they are thought of as no more than myths. If you pick up a book on these old Gods, it will actually say they are myths right there in print. Why is that? What is so different between those Gods and our God?
Religion provided an Explanation for the World's Mysteries
"God was invented to explain mystery."
- Richard Feynman
Once upon a time, we didn't know much about the world around us. Weather, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, disease, life, and death were all big scary mysteries. There are still mysteries to life, to be sure, but we know a lot about the world. We still need to respect the power of nature, but we understand quite a bit of what is going on now. At the level that we interact with the universe, there is no longer much in the way of anomalous behavior. Bacteria, viruses, and the degradation of our natural repair mechanisms are what make people sick. Thunder is not the sound of the Gods bowling. We can measure the universe, having seen stars that may be as far apart as 28 billion light-years. We have not only split the atom, but we have split the resulting sub-atomic particles, all the way down to the limits of our current technology. We can alter the DNA of plants and animals. Ignorance is no longer an excuse.
The Christian religion is based in part on Plagiarism
"We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the church so decides."
- St. Ignatius Loyola
A fair number of people are aware of the pagan origins of many Christian rituals. A couple of the better known ones are a celebration around the winter solstice that involves symbols of life (evergreens in the dead of winter), and a celebration around the spring equinox that involves fertility symbols (rabbits, eggs).
So, surely, if I was talking about a God in the middle east that was born of a virgin birth on December 25th, was visited by shepherds and magi, traveled the countryside, performed miracles including casting out devils, healing the lame and restoring sight to the blind, had a group of twelve disciples, was known as the "Light of the World," of whom it was said that if you drink of his blood you will have eternal salvation, who was persecuted, had a last supper, was killed, buried in a rock tomb, rose from the dead around the spring equinox, was worshipped by the Roman Empire and whose worship spread far around the world, whose followers worshipped on Sunday, believed in baptism and were led by a pope who ruled from Vatican hill and celebrated a sacrament of bread and wine with candles, incense and holy water, I suspect you'd know who exactly who I was talking about. Yes, I'm talking about Mithra.
Mithra (or Mithras) was first worshipped as a minor God in Persia as long ago as 2000 BCE, and later as a God who lived in human form from 272 to 208 BCE. Mithra was the God of the Roman Empire for hundreds of years, and it was not until 358 CE that followers of Mithra began to be persecuted under the new state religion, Christianity. Here's another story:"In the first century of the Common Era, there appeared at the end of the Mediterranean a remarkable religious leader who taught the worship of one true God and declared that religion meant not the sacrifice of beasts but the practice of charity and piety and the shunning of hatred and enmity. He was said to have worked miracles of goodness, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead. His exemplary life led some of his followers to claim he was a son of God, though he called himself the son of a man. Accused of sedition against Rome, he was arrested. After his death, his disciples claimed he had risen from the dead, appeared to them alive, and then ascended to heaven."Again, I suspect you know who I'm talking about - that's right, Apollonius, who died around 98 CE. The quote is from Gospel Fictions by Randel Helms.
There are similarities with many other previous and concurrent Gods as well. A couple of other names that might be familiar include Dionysus, Osiris, and Krishna, but there are many more. Jesus and these other Gods often fall under a broad category author Robert Price calls a "mythic hero archetype," where "a divine hero's birth is supernaturally predicted and conceived, the infant hero escapes attempts to kill him, demonstrates his precocious wisdom already as a child, receives a divine commission, defeats demons, wins acclaim, is hailed as king, then betrayed, losing popular favor, executed, often on a hilltop, and is vindicated and taken up to heaven."
The notion of virgin birth, god incarnated into human form, heaven, hell, baptism, eucharist, eternal life, the soul, salvation, one god, worship of sun-gods on Sun-day, you name it, it's all been done before. Sorry to say, there is not much that is new or unique about Jesus. Like other successful religions, Christianity gained the authorization of a powerful state and was institutionalized.
There is no Historical Evidence for Jesus
"Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."
- attributed to Carl Sagan
Ultimately there is no solid evidence for the existence of Jesus. No one who was alive during his lifetime wrote of him. Jesus starts showing up one or two centuries later in Christian literature, as the movement builds. Even Paul, who was the main promoter of Christianity, seems curiously unaware of the miracles Jesus supposedly performed or even of the basic events of Jesus' life. As a salesman, these would have made some great selling points, but he doesn't seem to know about them. The gospels tell us that Jesus was widely known among the "multitudes" from numerous cities and that even high ranking officials like Herod and Pilate supposedly knew of him, yet somehow the historians of the day were unaware of his existence.
The gospels themselves do not seem to be eyewitness accounts. The gospel of Luke actually admits this up front. They were written in the third person (hearsay) at least 40 years after the supposed events. John may have been written as late as 90 years after the "fact." And they come to us through the hands of Christian scribes who were well known (even Christian scholars admit this) to commit fraud to further their cause.
There are a massive number of Internal Contradictions in the Bible
"There are some people that if they don't know, you can't tell 'em."
- Louis Armstrong
Indeed, there are so many contradictions, both factual (i.e. historical, archaelogical, etc.) and ideological, that entire books have been written to catalog them, for example Ken's Guide to the Bible or the Born Again Skeptic's Guide to the Bible, and many others. A couple of online sources are The Thinking Atheist and The Skeptics Annotated Bible.
My single favorite ideological contradiction comes from Second Kings, chapters 9 and 10, the story of Jehu. There is much in the way of shooting people in the back, tricking them, ambushing them, widespread murder in general, all condoned by God, however the worst of it is the cutting off the heads of 70 children. After all this God says "because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes ... your sons ... shall sit on the throne of Israel." In other words, good work, Jehu. And that fits in with "thou shall not kill" exactly how? There are many contradictions that can be waved away by believers with a clever interpretation. I simply don't see how you explain away a particularly brutal mass slaughter of innocent children.
I'm also fond of one particular contradiction contained in the ten commandments. The 6th commandment says thou shall not kill. The very next commandment says thou shall not commit adultery. The rub is that the bible consistently lists death as the punishment for adultery. Oopsy. By the way, check out the old movie classic Zorba the Greek for a modern example of this punishment for adultery. Shocked the hell out of me. Chilling.
The Bible Contradicts Science
"Your Highness, I have no need of this hypothesis."
- Pierre Laplace, to Napoleon, on why his works on celestial mechanics make no mention of God
The bible doesn't come right out and state its position (that would be too easy), but it strongly implies (exactly as you might expect, given what humans knew about the earth at that time) things like a flat earth, the earth as the center of the universe (finally recanted by the Vatican in 1835), and life just popping into existence fully formed. These are all things that we know aren't true. We know the earth is spheroid, that the earth revolves around the sun, that our entire solar system is nothing more than a tiny speck off to one side of an unimaginably vast universe, and that reasonable evidence suggests that over a period of a few billion years we descended from single celled organisms that themselves are comprised not of some sort of magical substance, but of the simple elements and proteins we find everywhere. The way I look at it, by definition God would have to have known these things. It would have been so very, very easy for God to clue us in on these things, and then as we progressed in science, we would have found that God's word predicted our own discoveries. Oh well, maybe next time.
Religion Evolved from more Primitive Beliefs
"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."
- Rene Descartes, Principles of Philosophy
Beliefs are like seeds - if they fall on fertile ground, they thrive and spread. They mutate. The most successful beliefs live, the less successful die off, just like urban legends today. Through this process the religion meme developed into what it is today. Starting with primitive animism and ancestor worship, it told people what they wanted to hear, it solved intractable problems, and it was passed on from one generation to the next.
Pack your bags - we're going on a Guilt Trip
"By Nature created, created with very keen tastes, with very strong passions; placed on this earth for the sole purpose of yielding to them and satisfying them ... thereof do I repent: I only plucked an occasional flower when I might have gathered an ample harvest of fruit ... "
- Marquis de Sade
Guilt is one of the prices that believers pay for their massive denial. Just like Santa Claus, God is going to find out who's been naughty or nice, except that getting coal and switches doesn't really compare to the eternal torment that God has in store for his own creations.
Plenty of average, good hearted people feel guilt because of their failure to meet the idealistic standards that religion sets up for them. There is nothing wrong with universal standards like trying to be respectful in our dealings with other people, but religion goes way beyond this, for example, in the area of sex, which is a completely natural and normal desire. People feel guilty about "sinful" thoughts or actions, they are ashamed of their own bodies, they stay in abusive relationships because divorce is "wrong." People feel guilty when they doubt their faith; they end up fearing their own thoughts.
Religion Devalues Human Life
"Religion is the most inflammatory enemy-labelling device in history"
- Richard Dawkins
Religion puts the emphasis on the afterlife, thus devaluing life itself, the only life that we really know about. All manner of sacrifice can be made, because eternal paradise awaits. Poor old widows scrimp and save so that they can send five dollars that they really can't afford to a TV evangelist. Suicide bombers complete missions that no rational person would engage in, because of the promise of 72 virgins in heaven. Religion culturally divides masses of people and pits them against one another. The life or death, all or nothing aspect of religion escalates conflicts to the ultimate level. Although the doctrine of forgiveness is a noble idea, it allows some people to think they can get away with anything, just as long as they die as believers. Non-believers do not feel this same luxury.
"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."
- George Bernard Shaw
My observation is that most people simply don't question their religion, and most somehow manage not to take it too seriously, despite the rather important fact that they face an eternity of punishment if they screw up. It is a part of their culture. They were brought up as believers and remained that way. They may have even done some lightweight doubting under the watchful eye of a Sunday school teacher at some point, but they were fully satisfied by the stock answers. For many, it is more a suspension of disbelief than a strong positive belief. In some ways I can't blame them, particularly for the moderate believers who don't feel the need to go to church every Sunday and yet retain the benefits of having something to fall back on in hard times. After all, at some level, this stuff does work - spirituality in the dogmatic religious sense is essentially a set of mental strategies that allows people to reinterpret their perception of the world around them. Done (ahem) correctly, this can be a useful thing. But ...
"Whenever religion is involved, terrorists kill more people."- Dr. Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University, Scotland
The danger comes from those who believe strongly. In fact, closely held, unexamined beliefs, whether religious or not, are the causes of many of mankind's greatest problems. Religion-wise, even today, the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have problems. The trouble in Kosovo could plausibly be boiled down to Christians versus Muslims. The world trade center disaster can be traced directly to Muslim fanatics. And we can go back in time and look at the Inquisition or the Crusades. These are very, very dangerous things. Many millions of people have been repressed, controlled, tortured or killed.
Because of the nature of the human brain and the psychological benefits, I don't think religious beliefs are going away anytime soon. The New Age movement provides a model - there is no shortage of new prophets and gurus, and as soon as one guru is debunked, another one pops up to take their place. With regards to Christianity, people have managed to create in their minds a "good" bible that conveniently skips over the atrocities and contradictions and makes their God out to be loving and good. That makes for a fairly benign philosophy, but there will always be problems with fanatics.
In my view, the only way out is for society to universally recognize that we just can't be sure about religion. The entire world needs to understand at a very deep level that we simply don't know for sure if anything magical happens after we die. What we do know for sure is that something very, very final happens and that our bodies rot and turn to dust.
We can't stop people from believing, but if they can just acknowledge that it's not a sure thing, that it's not worth imposing death on someone else because of this thing, that it's not worth forcing any of this stuff on other people, and that it's okay if people don't believe in this stuff, the world will be a much, much better place.
"There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed."
– Bertrand Russell
- Why I Don't Believe in God, Part Deux - The Problems With Belief
- Why I Don't Believe in God, Part Three - Believing What You Want vs. Rational, Reasonable Evidence - In a biased world, how should we look at information?
- Parable of the Op-Ed Column and how it relates to Creationism vs. Science, about bias and selective truth.
- Why I Don't Believe in The Story of Noah's Ark
And some related sites:
- Rational Wiki, great overall information source.
- The Thinking Atheist, great site.
- Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist
- The Jesus Puzzle
- Biblical Contradictions
- The God Who Wasn't There
- Religious Tolerance is a pretty balanced site, but you'll have to drill down pretty deep to get to stuff like: Did Jesus of Nazareth exist? or Was Jesus' life copied from other Saviors/God-men/Heroes?
- The Bible and Christianity - The Historical Origins
- Einstein on God
- Famous Atheists
- Kissing Hank's Ass
- James Randi Educational Foundation
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
Some interesting stats:
- Religious belief negatively correlated with intelligence
- Religion does not benefit Health #1
- Religion does not benefit Health #2
- Atheists under-represented in Prison Populations