In the same way that you do not need to be an out and out royalist to keep the myth of the acceptability of inherited social status and privilege alive, you do not need to be devoutly religious to keep the myth of a transcendent origin and reference point for human morality alive. Even tacit support for the monarchy and God keeps these two myths breathing and influencing our social relations. Unless they are both laid to rest once and for all they will continue to influence, even at the level of the unconscious, who we think we are, our role in society, and how we behave towards each other. And in doing so they will act as severe restraints on our ability to creatively respond to the problems we encounter. In my previous blog I focussed on the former of these, now I present my case against God.
A few weeks ago I attended a debate organised by Dorset Humanists on belief in the existence of God. The debate was between a humanist and an evangelical Christian. The humanist presented what he considered to be the six main areas of argument, and why he though that such belief was unfounded. The Christian responded by focussing on just three of these areas in explaining why he thought it was. In the spirit of fairness, I will attempt a brief summary of the three contested areas, and add my tuppence worth.
In the beginning…was the cosmological argument, the idea that every event has a cause, and that even the ‘big bang’ which brought the universe into being had to have had a cause. For the Christian, that cause was God (though to be fair he did say that this was the weakest of his three arguments), whilst the humanist offered two potential causes, a personal creator or a cause that derived from contemporary scientific thinking – a ‘multi-verse’, the idea that the ‘big-bang’ was simply the emergence of this universe from any number of possible previous universes. If I sound like I actually understand this last bit, you are very much mistaken. But in a way that is my response to both of these arguments.
They both assume that because our logic tells us that there had to be a cause, there was one. But, as far as I can understand, at the moment of the ‘big-bang’, matter as we experience it, did not exist – this emerged later. All that existed probably did so at the quantum level, which is a very strange place indeed, certainly a place in which cause and effect, as we know it, did not / does not happen. Our whole conception of cause and effect is premised on our experiences of the physical world, and is totally unsuited to comprehend the interaction of energy outside of this physical world. For me, any argument from first cause falls at this hurdle.
The second argument concerns morality. From the Christian perspective, our conscience requires us to have objective moral values, some transcendent reference point against which we can measure goodness – and that reference point is, of course, God. The humanist response, which I fully endorse, is that, quite simply, there are no objective moral values, and no transcendent reference point. Our morality is the result of the evolution of social norms, the evolution of a loose set of ethical responses that have been found, through practical experience, to be advantageous to our continued survival. These are neither objective (have total universal application) nor subjective (are totally relative to the individual), they are inter-subjective – they are the result of our social interaction with each other. Many have close to universal application, but none totally so.
And the third argument concerned the existence and ‘experiencing of’ Jesus Christ. For the evangelic Christian this was the most important argument for the existence of God. He firmly believed that Christ was God incarnate, that there is good historical evidence to support this, and, for him, this belief is confirmed by his own religious experiences. For the humanist, there is no historical evidence to support this. From my perspective, the so called ‘evidence’ has two irreconcilable problems: it was first written many years after the events it claims to record happening (therefore allowing a huge degree of mental rewriting, interpretation and story telling), and has undergone many translations (all of which would, almost of necessity, require further ‘interpretation’). Additionally, both of the above, together with any attempt to understand our personal experiences, are subject to what psychologists term ‘confirmation bias’. We interpret the evidence to confirm what we already believe.
Religion, and the concept of a transcendent being, were simply stories constructed by our distant ancestors to make sense of the world that they were experiencing; an attempt to impart meaning and purpose to their experiences such that they could better deal with what life threw at them. They served a purpose, a purpose that is now better served by science and the scientific method of requiring experimental evidence before we provisionally accept something as ‘true’. Continued belief in religion, even tacitly, prevents us responding creatively, and in a more informed way, to the events of life. It attempts to anchor our thinking, either consciously or unconsciously, to myths that hold back our social, moral and cognitive evolution. We need to accept that the concept of God is dead. If only Nietzsche had done a better job!