Sunday, September 28, 2008

Does science make belief in God obsolete? - Conversation 2

A series of conversations among leading scientists and scholars.

Conversation 2 - William D. Phillips

Absolutely not!
Now that we have scientific explanations for the natural phenomena that mystified our ancestors, many scientists and non-scientists believe that we no longer need to appeal to a supernatural God for explanations of anything, thereby making God obsolete. As for people of faith, many of them believe that science, by offering such explanations, opposes their understanding that the universe is the loving and purposeful creation of God. Because science denies this fundamental belief, they conclude that science is mistaken. These very different points of view share a common conviction: that science and religion are irreconcilable enemies. They are not.

I am a physicist. I do mainstream research; I publish in peer-reviewed journals; I present my research at professional meetings; I train students and postdoctoral researchers; I try to learn from nature how nature works. In other words, I am an ordinary scientist. I am also a person of religious faith. I attend church; I sing in the gospel choir; I go to Sunday school; I pray regularly; I try to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God." In other words, I am an ordinary person of faith. To many people, this makes me a contradiction—a serious scientist who seriously believes in God. But to many more people, I am someone just like them. While most of the media's attention goes to the strident atheists who claim that religion is foolish superstition, and to the equally clamorous religious creationists who deny the clear evidence for cosmic and biological evolution, a majority of the people I know have no difficulty accepting scientific knowledge and holding to religious faith.

As an experimental physicist, I require hard evidence, reproducible experiments, and rigorous logic to support any scientific hypothesis. How can such a person base belief on faith? In fact there are two questions: "How can I believe in God?" and "Why do I believe in God?"

On the first question: a scientist can believe in God because such belief is not a scientific matter. Scientific statements must be "falsifiable." That is, there must be some outcome that at least in principle could show that the statement is false. I might say, "Einstein's theory of relativity correctly describes the behavior of visible objects in our solar system." So far, extremely careful measurements have failed to prove that statement false, but they could (and some people have invested careers in trying to see if they will). By contrast, religious statements are not necessarily falsifiable. I might say, "God loves us and wants us to love one another." I cannot think of anything that could prove that statement false. Some might argue that if I were more explicit about what I mean by God and the other concepts in my statement, it would become falsifiable. But such an argument misses the point. It is an attempt to turn a religious statement into a scientific one. There is no requirement that every statement be a scientific statement. Nor are non-scientific statements worthless or irrational simply because they are not scientific. "She sings beautifully." "He is a good man." "I love you." These are all non-scientific statements that can be of great value. Science is not the only useful way of looking at life.

What about the second question: why do I believe in God? As a physicist, I look at nature from a particular perspective. I see an orderly, beautiful universe in which nearly all physical phenomena can be understood from a few simple mathematical equations. I see a universe that, had it been constructed slightly differently, would never have given birth to stars and planets, let alone bacteria and people. And there is no good scientific reason for why the universe should not have been different. Many good scientists have concluded from these observations that an intelligent God must have chosen to create the universe with such beautiful, simple, and life-giving properties. Many other equally good scientists are nevertheless atheists. Both conclusions are positions of faith. Recently, the philosopher and long-time atheist Anthony Flew changed his mind and decided that, based on such evidence, he should believe in God. I find these arguments suggestive and supportive of belief in God, but not conclusive. I believe in God because I can feel God's presence in my life, because I can see the evidence of God's goodness in the world, because I believe in Love and because I believe that God is Love.

Does this belief make me a better person or a better physicist than others? Hardly. I know plenty of atheists who are both better people and better scientists than I. I do think that this belief makes me better than I would be if I did not believe. Am I free of doubts about God? Hardly. Questions about the presence of evil in the world, the suffering of innocent children, the variety of religious thought, and other imponderables often leave me wondering if I have it right, and always leave me conscious of my ignorance. Nevertheless, I do believe, more because of science than in spite of it, but ultimately just because I believe. As the author of Hebrews put it: "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

William D. Phillips, a Nobel Laureate in physics, is a fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute of the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Does science make belief in God obsolete? - Conversation 1

A series of conversations among leading scientists and scholars.

Conversation 1 - Steven Pinker

Yes, if by...
"science" we mean the entire enterprise of secular reason and knowledge (including history and philosophy), not just people with test tubes and white lab coats.

Traditionally, a belief in God was attractive because it promised to explain the deepest puzzles about origins. Where did the world come from? What is the basis of life? How can the mind arise from the body? Why should anyone be moral?

Yet over the millennia, there has been an inexorable trend: the deeper we probe these questions, and the more we learn about the world in which we live, the less reason there is to believe in God.

Start with the origin of the world. Today no honest and informed person can maintain that the universe came into being a few thousand years ago and assumed its current form in six days (to say nothing of absurdities like day and night existing before the sun was created). Nor is there a more abstract role for God to play as the ultimate first cause. This trick simply replaces the puzzle of "Where did the universe come from?" with the equivalent puzzle "Where did God come from?"

What about the fantastic diversity of life and its ubiquitous signs of design? At one time it was understandable to appeal to a divine designer to explain it all. No longer. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace showed how the complexity of life could arise from the physical process of natural selection among replicators, and then Watson and Crick showed how replication itself could be understood in physical terms. Notwithstanding creationist propaganda, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, including our DNA, the fossil record, the distribution of life on earth, and our own anatomy and physiology (such as the goose bumps that try to fluff up long-vanished fur).

For many people the human soul feels like a divine spark within us. But neuroscience has shown that our intelligence and emotions consist of intricate patterns of activity in the trillions of connections in our brain. True, scholars disagree on how to explain the existence of inner experience—some say it's a pseudo-problem, others believe it's just an open scientific problem, while still others think that it shows a limitation of human cognition (like our inability to visualize four-dimensional space-time). But even here, relabeling the problem with the word "soul" adds nothing to our understanding.

People used to think that biology could not explain why we have a conscience. But the human moral sense can be studied like any other mental faculty, such as thirst, color vision, or fear of heights. Evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are showing how our moral intuitions work, why they evolved, and how they are implemented within the brain.

This leaves morality itself—the benchmarks that allow us to criticize and improve our moral intuitions. It is true that science in the narrow sense cannot show what is right or wrong. But neither can appeals to God. It's not just that the traditional Judeo-Christian God endorsed genocide, slavery, rape, and the death penalty for trivial insults. It's that morality cannot be grounded in divine decree, not even in principle. Why did God deem some acts moral and others immoral? If he had no reason but divine whim, why should we take his commandments seriously? If he did have reasons, then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

Those reasons are not to be found in empirical science, but they are to be found in the nature of rationality as it is exercised by any intelligent social species. The essence of morality is the interchangeability of perspectives: the fact that as soon as I appeal to you to treat me in a certain way (to help me when I am in need, or not to hurt me for no reason), I have to be willing to apply the same standards to how I treat you, if I want you to take me seriously. That is the only policy that is logically consistent and leaves both of us better off. And God plays no role in it.

For all these reasons, it's no coincidence that Western democracies have experienced three sweeping trends during the past few centuries: barbaric practices (such as slavery, sadistic criminal punishment, and the mistreatment of children) have decreased significantly; scientific and scholarly understanding has increased exponentially; and belief in God has waned. Science, in the broadest sense, is making belief in God obsolete, and we are the better for it.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and most recently, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

Republished from:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good without God?

by: R. Joseph Hoffmann

Being good is not the same as being ethical ,or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life.

Let me begin with two stories. The first comes from Voltaire, who is reported to have said to his mistress, Marguerite, “Whatever you do, don’t tell the servants there is no God or they’ll steal the silver.”

Another, told by the writer Diderot in the 18th century, is about the journey of Catholic missionaries to Tahiti--a dialogue between a chief named Orou and a priest, who tries to explain the concept of sin.

Orou says that many of the things Europeans find sinful are sources of pride in his island.

He doesn’t understand the idea of adultery, since in his culture generosity and sharing are virtues. Marriage to a single man or woman is unnatural and selfish. And surely there can be nothing wrong with being naked and enjoying sexual pleasure for its own sake—otherwise, why do our bodies exist. The horrified priest delivers a long sermon on Christian beliefs, and ends by saying, “And now that I have explained the laws of our religion, you must do everything to please God and to avoid the pains of hell.”

Orou says, “You mean, when I was ignorant of these commandments, I was innocent, but now that I know them, I am a guilty sinner who might go to hell.”

“Exactly,” the priest says.

“Then why did you tell me?” says Orou.


These stories indicate a couple of things about the relationship between religion and morality—or more precisely, the belief that God is the source of morality. The first story suggests that belief in God is “dissuasive.” By that I mean, religion is seen as a way of preventing certain kinds of actions that we would do if we believed there was no God. The kind of God religious people normally think of in this case is the Old Testament God, or the God who gives rules and expects them to be obeyed.

Not all religious people believe these rules were given by God to Moses or Muhammad directly, but most would agree that it’s a good idea, in general, not to steal, commit adultery, hate your neighbor (or envy his possessions obsessively), or kill other people. For at least a thousand years busy theologians have tried to put these essentially negative rules into more positive form: for example, by saying that people should act out of love for each other, or love of God, and not out of fear. Most Christians would say this is the essential difference between the laws of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the New. But they are only partly right. Both books of the Bible and all of the Qur’an emphasize fear of God, judgment, and the rewards and punishments of the hereafter as goads to repentance, leading a better life, giving up your rotten ways. Even the books of the Bible that are tainted with Greek thought—like the Book of Proverbs--emphasize that “the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So it’s mischievous to say that fear and trembling aren’t used for moral leverage throughout the Bible.

Modern Christians, Jews, and the Muslims who focus on God’s compassion and mercy, are required to ignore a whole cartload of passages where God reminds people, like any ancient father (and not a few modern mothers), that his patience is wearing thin. Jeremiah 5:22 (NIV) “’Should you not fear me?" declares the Lord. ‘Should you not tremble in my presence?’" The answer is a deafening: “Yes.” Remember the flood? Remember the first born sons of the Egyptians? Remember the plagues and famines? Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? You love this God because you ignore his commandments at your peril. He has chosen you; you have not chosen him, and he can withdraw his favor whenever he wants. (As Jackie Mason used to say, you look at Israel and you have to wonder if “maybe the Samoans aren’t the chosen people”).

The theme of the oldest books of the Bible is very plain: God “loves” (more precisely, he watches out for) the ones who keep his commandments and punishes those who don’t. -- A simple message that theology has had two thousand years to massage. In fact, the New Testament belongs to the history of that massaging process. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the first spin doctors--re-writing the script, transforming Yahweh into a compassionate conservative. But let’s be clear that the hero of the story is a typical Near Eastern tyrant: powerful, vengeful, jealous by his own admission, proprietary (“His is the world and all that dwells within”), and though slow to anger, fearsome when his wrath is provoked, watchful to point of being sleep- deprived (Ps 121.4). There is no unconditional love here. God is not a model for progressive parenting; he’s not interested in the self-esteem of his people, has not read Dr Wayne Dyer, and will not break down weeping on Oprah! for being compulsive. The message of God the Father is, “Do this or else.”

A larger question posed by Voltaire’s little story is whether the motivation of fear is ever ethical. If you do something because there is a threat of pain and suffering if you don’t, or if you hold off doing something you would really like to do—for the same reason—are you being moral?

What Voltaire is really saying—as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud would later say—is that religion is useful for keeping certain kinds of people in line. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth- century European society could be neatly divided into those who knew better and those who served the ones who did. Marx went so far as to suggest that the social deference the moneyed classes paid to religion was simply intended to convince the lower classes that religion is true—in fact, that’s exactly what Voltaire is saying: Religion is a mechanism used by the knowledgeable to keep the unknowledgeable in their place. It has social advantages—Marx’s Jewish father conveniently “converted” from Judaism to the Prussian State Church in order to go on working as a lawyer. And we all know the younger Marx’s most famous verdict on the topic: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

What’s missing from this critique, of course, is the question of whether a “religious act” can ever be a “moral act.” Clearly, belief in God (or a specific kind of God) provides behavioral incentives. As a system of control based on fear, religion keeps people from “being bad,” or at least doing things considered bad by the controller. But it does this inefficiently. Clearly it offers people an explanation for why they behave in certain ways, ranging from the “Bible tells me so” to “Papa dixit”—the pope says so. As a means of consolation, it teaches people to deal with the fear and insecurity created by oppression. But it does this at the expense of self-fulfillment, wholeness. It is the security of an abusive relationship, where comfort consists in being able to predict and manipulate eruptions of violence. In fact, to look back to the sacrificial origins of religion, this was precisely its social role. Even the story of the crucifixion, which many people believe is all about love and forgiveness, is the story of a God so angry at the sinful imperfections of humanity that he transfers his violence to his only son, who becomes the redemptive victim—the buy-back price—for sins he didn’t commit.

Let’s call this religious approach to behavior “Being Good.” Being good is not the same as being ethical or virtuous, or doing good, or even leading a good life. It’s a mother wagging an imperative finger at a three year old and saying “You’d better be good.” It always involves threat and reward. Two generations ago, the image would have included threats of belts or woodsheds spankings, going to bed without dinner. I guess, unfortunately, in some places it still does. But you don’t get ethics out of this. You get obedience and submission.


What about Diderot’s story about the missionary and the tribal chief? If the story about Voltaire suggests that religion is dissuasive and coercive, Diderot’s suggests another reason why religion doesn’t sit well with ethics: Religion is prescriptive, and like politics, it’s local. In 2000 years of massaging the message, it has changed because we have changed our minds. Most of the biblical rules about property, goods and chattels, adultery and incest were typical throughout the Middle East; in fact, as Freud recognized, the taboos against murder and incest are the earliest form of laws in some tribal societies. But the books we call the basis of the “Judaeo-Christian -ethic” weren’t written by tribes—tribes don’t write. And the body of laws we call the Ten Commandments contain lots of rules that have been quietly put in trunks and sent to the attic.

For example, we all applaud the wisdom of the commandment that says, “Honor your father and your mother.” It has a nice ring, especially during school vacations. But Deuteronomy 21.20 says that disobedient sons should be stoned in front of the elders at the gates of the city. And Exodus 21.17 says that anyone who insults his mother and father shall be put to death. As for adultery, which belongs to ancient property law in the Jewish system, the punishment is stoning—normally only for the woman (Deut. 22.21). In Deut. 22.28, the penalty for raping an unbetrothed virgin is a fine of 50 shekels--plus taking her on as a wife. There are laws protecting the rights of the firstborn sons of unloved wives when a man has several wives (Deut. 21.15) and even laws about how long a Jewish warrior must wait (one month) before he can have intercourse with a woman he has captured in battle (21.10). According to Leviticus 19.23, raping another man’s female slave is punishable by making an offering to the priest, who is required to forgive him. There are laws covering how long you can keep a Hebrew male-slave—6 years—but if you sell your daughter as a slave to another man she cannot be freed, unless after the master has had sex with her he finds her “unpleasing”—in which case she can be put up for sale (ransom) (Exodus 21. 7ff.). On it goes—throughout the books of the Torah—the Law.

The sheer ferocity of the God who gives, or rather shouts these commandments to his chosen people is distant from our time. The voice is unfamiliar: Failure to do what he says results in terror: In fact, that’s the very word he uses: “I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting disease, recurring fever, plagues that will blind you….those that hate you will hound you until there is no place to run; I will multiply your calamities seven times more than your sins deserve. … I will send wild beasts among you and they will tear your children from you. … If you defy me , I will scourge you seven times over. …I will send pestilence …cut short your daily bread, until ten women can bake your bread in a single oven. … I will punish you seven times over. … Instead of meat, you shall eat your sons and your daughters.” Don’t take my word for it: read Leviticus 26. It has literary flair. The God of the Old Testament is a three dimensional figure—far bigger than Zeus and twice as malignant. (Perhaps Zeus was able to give freer rein to his sexual appetites, whereas Yahweh limits himself to one Galilean virgin?) And look though you may, you will not find these laws “repealed” in later books, at least not in the way modern laws can be amended and repealed. But it’s absolutely certain that anyone who tried to obey these laws in twentieth century Europe or America would be slapped into jail, and the defense “The Bible told me so” would not be an adequate defense. --Try posting these commandments above the blackboard in your neighborhood school.

One way of charting the so-called progress of western civilization is to trace how human values eventually triumph over the ferocity of religious law. The kind of morality that Diderot’s priest represents, like the morality of the Bible, and even the reductionist versions of biblical and Quranic teaching that modern religious denominations espouse, is not ethics. It is not ethics because ethics can’t be grounded in what I’m going to call “irrelative prescriptive dissuasion.” If you say to me, “Well: no one believes these things any more,” then I say “Good for us for not believing. Then time to stop letting the Bible be the source of moral authority when the conduct of its hero is not up to our standards of civil behavior.” If you say, “There is great wisdom and poetry in scripture,” then I say “Please then, let’s treat it like other great books that express ideas, customs, and values that have no authority over how we lead our lives.” I have no quarrel with those who want to appreciate the Bible as a product of its own time and culture—with all the conditions that attach to appreciation of that kind. My quarrel is with people who want to make it a document for our time and culture.

And I suppose my quarrel extends to people who consider themselves experts, when what they are expert in is reading around, into, or past the text. Liberal theologians are immensely gifted at reinventing the God of the Bible in the light of modern social concerns. But the project is a literary--not an ethical one. At another extreme, which is really a false opposite, are the fundamentalists who claim to defend the literal truth of the Bible while ignoring two-thirds of the text and focusing on the “literal” truth of bits and pieces.

Can the Bible make you good? If you accept the framework, beginning with Adam and Eve, and the creation of a race doomed to be perpetually three years-old and scolded into obedience, I suppose it can.

Reduced to basic form, the temptation in the Garden of Eden is a story about a cookie jar and a sly, accusing mother. But it takes more than avoiding mousetraps for a choice to be moral or an action to be ethical. A moral act is one in which you can entertain doubt freely, where a person confronts human choices and human consequences, personal and social.

To be fair: the Bible and its cousins are important records of those human choices and their social consequences, coming from an age which is no longer relevant to us. To make it a book for our time is an abuse of the book and a misunderstanding of its importance. More depressingly for some, perhaps, there will probably be no book to replace it. Not even one by a secular humanist. But there will be wisdom, and reason and choice-making, and that will make us humanly better, if not exactly good.

Republished from:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is an Islamic Reformation Possible?

Towards a Vatican II of Islam
by Ibn Warraq

1. What is a Reformation? Defined from the UDHR 1948 perspective

Since there is no Pope or even, in principle, an organized clergy in Islam, how would we ever know if an Islamic Reformation had taken place? One person’s reformation will be another person’s decadence. My perspective will be from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which many Muslims still do not accept—indeed several Muslim countries got together in 1981 and issued their own Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, where individual freedoms are denied. Muslims were particularly horrified by Article 18 of the UN Declaration which guarantees the right for anyone to change her or his religion. I think those who do accept the United Nations Declaration would agree that a de facto reformation had taken place in Islamic societies, as for example in Pakistan or Egypt, if the tenor of its major articles were respected, especially the rights of women and non-Muslims, and freedom of thought, conscience, expression, and religion, including the right to change one’s religion, and the right not to believe in any deity; if no person is subjected to cruel punishments such as mutilation of limbs for theft or stoning to death for adultery; if copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am not a Muslim are freely available.

2. If human rights are the goal, then rather than pretend that the real Islam is compatible with the UDHR, which leads to dishonest tinkering and spurious re-interpretation of the Koran, it is recommended that the whole debate about human rights be lifted out of the religious sphere altogether.

But how likely is such a reformation in today’s Islamic societies? Can Islam institute such reforms and stay Islam? There are some, I believe, misguided liberal Muslims who want to have their cake and eat it too. These liberals often argue that the real Islam is compatible with human rights, that the real Islam is feminist, that the real Islam is egalitarian, that the real Islam tolerates other religions and beliefs, and so on. They then proceed to some truly creative re-interpretation of the embarrassing, intolerant, bellicose and misogynist verses of the Koran. But intellectual honesty demands that we reject just such dishonest tinkering with the holy text, which, while it may be open to some re-interpretation, is not infinitely elastic. To give you an example of dishonest tinkering, take Sura IV.34: “As for those [women] from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge [or beat] them.” This translation comes from a Muslim. Another Muslim translator, Yusuf Ali, clearly disturbed by this verse, adds the word “lightly” in brackets after “beat,” even though there is no “lightly” in the original Arabic. Every Arabic dictionary or lexicon (such as, for example, the famous one by Ibn Manzur compiled in the thirteenth century) has glossed the Arabic verb daraba to mean hit, strike, or beat. Every Muslim translator until 1987 has thus translated daraba to mean hit, beat or strike. However, in 1987 Ahmed Ali translated the above verse as: “As for women you fear are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them), and go to bed with them (when they are willing).” For Ahmed Ali daraba is a euphemism for “to have sexual intercourse.”

As a tactic, this tinkering will simply not work either, because to trade verses with fundamentalists is to do battle on the fanatics’ terms, on the fanatics’ ground. For every text that the liberal Muslims produce, the mullas will adduce dozens of counter examples exegetically, philologically and historically far more legitimate. Reform cannot be achieved on these terms—whatever mental gymnastics the liberal reformists perform, they cannot escape the fact that Orthodox Islam is incompatible with human rights. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. Islam itself is a fascist ideology. There is no difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. At most there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. All the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism are derived from the Koran, the Sunna, the Hadith—Islamic fundamentalism is a totalitarian construct derived by Muslim jurists from the fundamental and defining texts of Islam.

3. The way to arrive at the implementation of the UDHR is to separate mosque and state absolutely, to establish democracy, and improve the economic situation of all citizens regardless of religion and gender.

The only solution is to bring the questions of human rights out of the religious sphere and into the sphere of the civil state—in other words, to separate religion from the state and to promote a secular state where Islam is relegated to the personal and where it would continue to provide consolation, comfort, and meaning to millions of individuals. However, I should like to remark in passing that I believe it is wrong to think that we can neatly avoid the problem of confronting Islam by separating religion and state. Certainly, a strong leader like Bourguiba or Kemal Ataturk could impose a separation from above, but sooner or later one would have to argue positively for a separation, and this would inevitably involve both explicitly and implicitly rejecting the central tenets of the Sharia, Islamic Law. Why have a separation when Islam is such a perfect religion providing answers for even the most mundane of problems? It is true that Islam does not provide answers for all the problems, but why can’t we keep Islamic Law for those areas where it does have solutions and does legislate, for instance, stoning for adultery? In other words, someone at some point will have to suggest that such punishments are barbaric and incompatible with human rights. At some stage, someone will need to argue that the demands of reason and common humanity override the dictates of revelation.

Are Islamic societies secularizable? Yes, there are many reasons for thinking so, for being optimistic. Unfortunately, there also reasons for being pessimistic.

First, the reasons for being optimistic: Since September 11, every journalist has been eager to point out that in Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. Indeed, in Classical Arabic, there is no pair of words corresponding to ‘lay’ and ‘ecclesiastical’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’, or ‘secular’ and ‘religious’. But what these same journalists fail to add is that the doctrinal lack of a separation of mosque and state does not mean that Islamic history is a chronicle of a series of relentless Muslim theocracies. On the contrary, as Carl Brown demonstrated recently, Muslim history has been marked by a de facto separation of state and religious community. Rule was mainly by decree; it was given ex post facto religious sanction by the jurists .

Many modern leaders of culturally Islamic countries were secular in their outlook and approach to the problems of modern industrializing societies, leaders such Muhmmad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, Habid Bourguiba of Tunisia, Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, Riza Shah and his son Muhammad Riza Shah, plus Muhammad Musaddiq in Iran and so on. Habib Bourguiba, for example, barely five months after Tunisian independence, pushed through a radical legal reform (August 1956) that outlawed polygamy and made judgment for divorce a prerogative of the court, withdrawing the husband’s exclusive right to divorce his wife. Although fourteen Tunisian religious scholars issued a fatwa denouncing the new law, it was received with enthusiasm by the modernists and met with practically no resistance. Bourguiba had taken on the Muslim official religious class and won. Modernization and secularization of education followed, including the downgrading of the venerable Zaytuna Mosque University which became simply a faculté of religious studies in the University of Tunis. Unfortunately, corruption, nepotism, incompetence, and pandering to the mullas, the obscurantist religious scholars, led to the rising influence of the Islamic fundamentalists, who, sensing that their time had come, demanded a proliferated introduction of Islam in public life.

Other indications that Islamic societies are secularizable come from the Islamic Republic of Iran, of all places! Iran has adopted many institutions from the Western democracies, which have nothing to do with Islam historically or doctrinally, institutions such as popular elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament, even a constitution inspired by the 1958 French Constitution.

Iran is also the theatre of very optimistic developments. Hashem Aghajari is an Islamic revolutionary-turned-history-professor. He was one of the student activists of 1979 who later fully participated in the brutal repression after Khomeini’s coming to power. He is now challenging the infallibility of the ruling mullahs and calls upon Iranians to think for themselves instead of blindly accepting whatever is preached in Friday sermons, a piece of advice for which he has been sentenced to death. But he is now supported by the students and professors at most of the country’s universities and thousands of ordinary citizens, workers, and cultural leaders.

Where Aghajari wants to reform Islam; the students want a total separation between mosque and state. He wants an Islamic Reformation, but the demonstrators are interested in the creation of a secular civil society. He is a reformer, but they are revolutionaries. Why is the press silent on these developments? More important still, why is the Bush Administration not supporting these courageous students, workers, intellectuals, even soldiers?

Yet there are still reasons for pessimism:

1.With the partial exception of Turkey, there is not a single stable democracy in the Islamic world . It is not surprising that Muslims living under repressive regimes turn to Islamists for support, both moral and economic.

2. The situation in the Middle East as described by Human Rights Watch in its report published 2003 is disheartening. The report finds that Independent civil society institutions were fragile or nonexistent in most countries. Throughout the region, political parties, human rights organizations, and other entities came under attack from the state or were hampered because laws did not permit them to exist legally. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, conservative clerical establishments remained entrenched and powerful, retarding progress and hampering the development of independent and effective national institutions

3. Free and fair elections will not necessarily lead to secular governments, as victories of the Islamists in Algeria, Pakistan and Turkey have shown.

4. On July 2, 2002, The United Nations Development Program released the Arab Human Development Report 2002, which covers not only economic matters but such issues as the lack of freedom and democracy in the Arab world, the high rate of illiteracy, and the position of women. Because it was written by Arab intellectuals and academics, it is a just cause for celebration, for it manifests one of the prerequisites of reforming Islamic society: that is, self-criticism. I shall come back to this later. Unfortunately, the contents of this report make for depressing reading, and can only aggravate the mood of pessimism. In the words of the Middle East Quarterly, “with uncommon candour and a battery of statistics, the report tells a sorry story of two decades of failed planning and developmental decline. One inescapable conclusion emerges from its sober pages of tables and charts: the Arab world is in decline, even relative to the developing world. ‘The report was written by Arabs for Arabs,’ announced a U.N. official. Arabs did read it (it was also released in Arabic), and Arab authorship made its arguments more palatable to Arab intellectuals and policy makers. A columnist in Al-Ahram Weekly urged ‘a serious deep reading’ of the report, since ‘no changes will occur without Arabs facing the facts, however unpalatable they may be. ’”

In the same Arab Human Development Report of 2002, published by the United Nations Development Programme, we learn that “the total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated in Spain in one year. Greece, with a population of fewer than 11 million, translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic.”

4. Learning from how secularization took place in the West; encourage secularisation through:

i) Koranic Criticism
ii) secular education encouraging critical thought
iii) religious pluralism by defending non-Muslims in Islamic societies
iv) secular democracies not tyrannies.
v) self-criticism

How did secularization take place in the Christian West? Some of the factors involved in the secularization of the West were: advances in knowledge in general and the sciences in particular meant that the criteria of rationality could be applied to religious dogma with devastating effect; Biblical Criticism, which led to the abandonment of a literal reading of the Bible; and religious tolerance and religious pluralism, which eventually led to tolerance and pluralism tout court. As scholar Owen Chadwick put it, “once concede equality to a distinctive group, you could not confine it to that group. You could not confine it to Protestants; nor, later, to Christians; nor, at last, to believers in God. A free market in some opinions became a free market in all opinions... Christian conscience was the force which began to make Europe ‘secular’; that is, to allow many religions or no religion in a state, and repudiate any kind of pressure upon the man who rejected the accepted and inherited axioms of society... My conscience is my own. ”

What lessons can we learn from this process of secularization of the West? First , we who live in the free West and enjoy freedom of expression and scientific inquiry should encourage a rational look at Islam, should encourage Koranic criticism. Only Koranic criticism can help Muslims to look at their Holy Scripture in a more rational and objective way, and prevent young Muslims from being fanaticized by the Koran’s less tolerant verses. It does not make sense to lament the lack of a Reformation in Islam and at the same time boycott books like, “Why I am Not A Muslim,” or cry, “Islamophobia” every time a critique of Islam is offered. Instead of which, political leaders, journalists and even scholars are bent on protecting the tender sensibilities of the Muslims. We are not doing Islam any favours by protecting it from Enlightenment values.

Second, simply by protecting non-Muslims in Islamic societies, we are encouraging religious pluralism, which in turn can lead to pluralism in general. By insisting on article 18 of the UDHR, which states, “ Everyone has the right to freedom of thought , conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief...” we are loosening the grip of fanatics, we are encouraging, in the words of Owen Chadwick, a free market in all opinions—in other words, democracy.

We can encourage rationality by education, secular education. This will mean the closing of religious madrasas where young children from poor families learn only the Koran by heart, learn the doctrine of Jihad, learn, in short, to be fanatics. The failure of the central government in Pakistan, for example, to provide free schools and economic prosperity for all its citizens has led to the rise of madrasas where poor children are given some schooling and food that their poor parents cannot provide. In Pakistan, it is clear that many of these religious schools are funded by Saudi Arabia. The West must do its utmost to reduce the ideological and financial influence of the Saudis, and instead encourage Pakistan to provide free secular education for all children, boys and girls. The West can give aid with strings attached to this end.

What kind of education? My priority would be the wholesale rewriting of school texts, which at present preach intolerance of non-Muslims, particularly Jews. One hopes that education will encourage critical thinking and rationality. Again, to encourage pluralism, I should like to see the glories of pre-Islamic history to be taught to all children. The banning of all religious education in state schools, as is the case in France where there is a clear constitutional separation of state and religion, is not realistic for the moment in Islamic countries. The best we can hope for is the teaching of comparative religion, which we hope will eventually lead to a lessening of fanatical fevers as Islam is seen as another set of beliefs amongst a host of others. It may surprise some of you to learn that the Islamic fundamentalists fear the humanities, especially history and sociology, more than the exact sciences. Many of the leaders of the various Islamist groups are by training engineers. They do not fear physics; in fact, most of them are convinced that all the modern discoveries of modern nuclear physics are predicted in the Koran. They are wary of history, for it seems this discipline has a tendency to relativise human knowledge. Certainly, a course in the methodology of history and historical research should teach methodological skepticism; as R.G.Collingwood said, the fundamental attribute of the critical historian is skepticism regarding testimony about the past. This skepticism can of course be extended to the early history of Islam.

But education alone cannot solve the problems. Several million young educated people enter the job market only to learn that their education has not opened the doors to economic prosperity they had dreamed of. Education without economic opportunities at the end leads to social frustrations which can only help the fundamentalists.

5. Self-criticism

Islamic countries will never make any progress if they continue to blame all their ills on the West. Whining about US Imperialism will not lead Islamic countries out of the morass of their own making. Such whining is self-pity, and while self-pity is never an attractive quality, it is particularly inappropriate in Islamic societies. Muslim intellectuals who spew forth hatred of the West and indulge in such self-pity are not leading their people to assume responsibility for their own acts. Will Muslims grow up and become men or women capable of taking their destiny in their own hands, or will they continue to wallow in self-pity, dribbling and mumbling about US Imperialism? Islamic countries need charismatic leaders, capable of self-criticism, who can say to their people that “the fault is not in [the] stars [and stripes], but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” nor does the fault lie with some putative Imperialist-Zionist conspiracy, leaders who can lead their people to democracy, who can institute a civil state and a uniform code of civil laws separate from and independent of religious institutions, allowing free choice of religious belief and practice, who can pass legislation to enshrine the rights of all its citizens—men and women , Muslim and non-Muslim—as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various UN Conventions, leaders who institute free secular education for all. The West must review its continuing and unconditional support for Saudi Arabia which is responsible for the spread of radical Islam. Will the West encourage secularism in the Islamic world when two of its leaders, Tony Blair and George W. Bush, have done more than any other leaders in the West since 1945 to introduce more and more religion into the public sphere? May I remind them of the words of James Madison, “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to intermeddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.”

Ibn Warraq is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry Transnational and a member of the CFI Collegium.

Republished from:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Moses Saw God Because He Was Stoned

The Bible (and Quran) tells us that when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they had a 40-year trip through the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Now a leading Israeli academic has a new theory about exactly what kind of trip it was.

In the philosophy journal Time and Mind, Benny Shanon states that key events of the Old Testament are actually records of visions by ancient Israelites high on hallucinogens. Shanon is a professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, where he used to head the psychology department.

The psychedelic substance is a drink called Ayahuasca. It is extracted from plants that grow in the Holy Land and in the Sinai peninsula and is still used today by Amazonians in Brazil for their religious rituals. Shanon came up with his theory when reading the Bible. The events described reminded him of the visions he had after trying this drink 15 years ago. So, when Moses first encountered God, he was high. "Encountering the divine is one of the most powerful experiences associated with high-level Ayahuasca inebriation," claims Shanon.

At the Burning Bush, covered in flames but mysteriously not consumed, there was no miracle, just a drug-induced "radical alteration in the state of
consciousness of the beholder - that is, Moses". The account of the Children of Israel hearing God while camped at Mount Sinai is about a mass drug-taking event - giving a whole new explanation for the reported "cloud of smoke" that settled on the mountain. And when Moses climbed Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the Bible, he was tripping.

Hardly an incident in the Bible is spared Shanon's drug-focused reading. Acacia trees, used by Noah to build the ark, were revered because some varieties contain the psychedelic substance dimethyltryptamine (DMT). In Shanon's opinion, the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden offered something far more tempting than an apple.

Rabbis in Israel and the UK are largely ignoring Shanon's theories, and those who have spoken out have been dismissive. "The Bible is trying to convey a very profound event. We have to fear not for the fate of the biblical Moses, but for the fate of science," Rabbi Yuval Sherlow told Israel Radio. Israeli internet chatrooms, though, are buzzing with condemnations of "heresy", endorsements, and charges that Shanon, not Moses, must have taken drugs. One poster writes: "Maybe it is true - then religion really is the opiate of the people."

Republished from:

Monday, September 22, 2008

Multi-secularism: The New Agenda

by Paul Kurtz

The battle for secularism has leaped to center stage worldwide; we find it being contested or defended everywhere. Of the world's fifty-seven Islamic countries, virtually all except Turkey and Tunisia attempt to safeguard or enact Islamic law (sharia) as embodied in the Qur'an. Radical Islamists wage jihad against the secular society. Pope Benedict XVI rails against secularism, portraying it as the major challenge to Roman Catholicism. There have been attempts in Eastern Europe to reestablish the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the United States, the religious Right and its spokespersons—among them Pat Buchanan, Bill O'Reilly, George Weigel, and Newt Gingrich—vociferously castigate secularism. Mitt Romney claims that freedom requires religion (since when?). He says nothing about the rights of unbelievers in America and accuses them of wishing to establish "the religion of secularism." Regrettably, leading Democratic candidates have thus far remained silent rather than defend the secular society for fear of antagonizing religious supporters. Nevertheless, secularism is growing; it is essential for flourishing vibrant, pluralistic, democratic societies and especially important in today's developing countries.

However, secularism needs to be adapted to diverse cultural conditions if it is to gain ground. I submit that we cannot legislate secularism uberhaupt without recognizing the cultural traditions in which it emerges. Accordingly, multi-secularism seems to be the best strategy to pursue: that is, adapting secular ideas and values to the societies in which they arise.

The question that I wish to raise is: What is secularism and/or the secular society? I will focus on three main characteristics.


First, secularism refers to the separation of church and state. In the United States, this means the First Amendment's provision that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This vital principle implies that the state should be neutral about religion, allowing freedom of conscience and diversity of opinion, including the right to believe or not believe. All citizens are to be treated equally no matter what their religious convictions or lack of them. The state does not officially sanction any religion nor give preferential treatment to its adherents. We are very fortunate that the U.S. Constitution was written under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, and that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers wished to avoid the establishment of the church as it existed in England. Indeed, the United States was the first nation to be based on the separation principle.

I should point out that some ninety-five nation-states have since enacted similar constitutional procedures providing for the separation of church (or temple or mosque) and state. These include France, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, China, South Africa, India, and Australia. Separation is realized in various ways in each of these countries, and there are constant battles to defend separation and keep it from eroding.

Many challenges to the separation principle come from fundamentalist religions including Islam, conservative Hinduism, Orthodox Judaism, evangelical Protestantism, and conservative Roman Catholicism. To our dismay, the Bush administration has often affirmed such opposition—for example, by funding faith-based charities and opposing stem-cell research on moral-theological grounds. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has sought to reestablish the Russian Orthodox Church; in Poland, the Roman Catholic Church seeks to resume its earlier, powerful position. Thus, the idea of the separation of church and state is always under threat. In France, the Libre Penseurs are always on the barricades defending secularism against incursions from the Roman Catholic Church or Islam. In Turkey, the army is ever ready to resist efforts to restrict Kemal Atatürk's secular constitution.

A key point to recognize is that one does not have to be an atheist or agnostic in order to defend the separation principle. In the United States, most Protestant denominations defend separation, as do secular Jews, liberal Roman Catholics, Unitarians, and members of other denominations. Secular humanists have many allies in this great battle. Indeed, both liberals and conservatives, believers and unbelievers, have stood firmly in support of the First Amendment.


Second, when we talk about secularism we may also refer to societies that cultivate secular values; since the Renaissance, secularity in the ethical domain has been growing in influence. Secularists do not look to salvation and confirmation of the afterlife as their overriding goal, but rather focus on temporal humanist values in the here and now—happiness, self-realization, joyful exuberance, creative endeavors and excellence, the actualization of the good life—not only for the individual but for the greater community. The common moral decencies, goodwill, and altruism are widely accepted, as are the civic virtues of democracy, the right of privacy, the belief that every individual has equal dignity and value, human rights, equality, tolerance, the principles of fairness and justice, the peaceful negotiation of differences, and the willingness to compromise.

The modern age is basically secular. Quite independently of religious beliefs, the world's economies seek to achieve growth and increase social wealth, thus providing consumers with goods and services that everyone can enjoy. (I note that Pat Robertson and some other religious Right ministers have not eschewed fancy cars and splendid homes.) It would be ludicrous to inject religiosity (save as a perfunctory formality) into the modern corporation. Here the tests are efficiency, productivity, quality products and services, and the bottom line. We are appalled that Islamists in the Middle East oppose charging interest because it is forbidden by the Qur'an, yet use every rationalization to circumvent that prohibition to tap the power of finance. The point is well recognized that no modern society can function if it does not train skilled practitioners in diverse specialties. No nation can survive unless it can master the practical arts and sciences. If I have a toothache, I want a dentist, not a priest; and if I wish to construct a building I had better be damned sure that I have competent architects to draw the plans and that the engineering is solid.

Similarly, it is widely recognized that broad-based education—cultural, historical, intellectual, scientific, and artistic—is the right of every child and that every adult must have the opportunity to expand his or her dimensions of experience and knowledge.

Not the least among secular values of course is free inquiry and freedom of scientific research, the very basis of science and technology. Religious censorship or limitation—such as that intelligent-design advocates seek to impose on scientific theories of evolution—is unacceptable. The free mind is vital for the open society. If one wants to pursue scientific inquiry, then one needs to abide by methodological naturalism: objective standards of evidence, rational coherence, and experimental testing are quite independent of the Bible or Qur'an. Actually, secular considerations are vital in virtually all human interests, from sports and the arts to pharmacology, psychiatry, and meteorology. In these and other areas, religious doctrines are largely irrelevant.

Among the secular values that emerge today is the compelling need to develop a new Planetary Ethics. Because we must share the Earth, no entity can any longer be allowed to attempt to impose an exclusive, doctrinaire religious creed on every man and woman. We live in a multicultural world in which multi-secularism needs to be developed— in which different forms of secularism need to be adapted to the diverse cultural traditions and contexts of specific societies. Thus, we need secularized Christianity, secularized Judaism, secularized Hinduism, and even secularized Islam; all are requisite for societies to be able to cope with their problems. And here the question is, Can we develop a set of shared values and principles that can provide common ground for global civilization? High on the agenda, of course, should be our first responsibilities: to preserve the environment of our common planetary abode, to eliminate poverty and disease, to reach peaceful adjudication of conflicts, and to achieve prosperity for as many people as possible. These are practical problems that demand realistic, secular solutions.


There is a third sense of secularism. Some recalcitrant foes of secularism insist that it is synonymous with atheism; some militant atheists agree with them. But I think that this is a mistaken view. Far from being secular, some militant atheists have sought to protect their "faith" by abusing the power of the state. Indeed, some totalitarian regimes that embraced atheism as part of their ideology, such as those in the Soviet Union and Cambodia, have persecuted—even exterminated—their religious opposition.

One thing that distinguishes those who share a secular outlook from those committed to the rule of dogma, whether it is religious or atheistic dogma, is the acceptance of freedom of conscience. Bitter experience has taught many of the religious that a secular state works best for them. Many religious denominations have suffered at the hands of other devout believers: Roman Catholics have persecuted Protestants (as with the suppression of the Huguenots in France), while Protestant states have likewise waged war against Catholics (as in Elizabethan England). Hence, there has been "a war of all against all," to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes. After centuries of sectarian violence in these places, a truce between contending factions was hard won, and the secular state was the result. Demands for secularity also reflect the experience of religious minorities. Jews have been hounded out of country after country by devout Christians; Sunnis and Shiites have slaughtered each other with impunity; Hindus and Muslims have engaged in bloody communal riots, as have militant Buddhists in some countries. Thus, the separation principle has been agreed to by many sects—even devout Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists in the United States. All have experienced persecution and have welcomed a modus vivendi. Thus, one does not have to be a nonbeliever to accept the separation principle.

The Enlightenment sought to liberate men and women from the stranglehold of religious morality inflicted on them by overzealous "virtue policemen" (we might call them "theo-thugs"). This long process of emancipation began with the defense of free thought in response to the persecutions of Bruno, Galileo, and Spinoza. This same impulse was intrinsic to the American Revolution, which appealed to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and to the French Revolution, which proclaimed "liberty, equality, fraternity" and "the Rights of Man." Later, biology struggled to overcome intemperate attacks on Darwinism; in medical science, such advances as autopsy and anesthesia required defense against religious intransigence. Today stem-cell research and evolutionary theory are attacked on religious grounds. Such advances as the abolition of slavery, the recognition of women's rights, and the acceptance of sexual freedom (contraception, abortion, divorce, gay rights, etc.) were achieved only after protracted struggles. Traditional moral beliefs, enshrined in practice and sanctified by religious doctrine, had to be modified or overcome. Modern democratic societies have known long battles to allow diversity of taste and lifestyle.

These secularizing forces grew out of the democratic-humanistic revolutions of the modern world, which recognized that all citizens have equal dignity and value and that the rule of law should apply to poor persons as well as rich ones. Hence, intrinsic to modern democratic-capitalist and socialist societies is an acceptance of the civic virtues of democracy. Again, one does not have to be an atheist to accept libertarian values or the democratization of society.
Now, I grant that it may be difficult for a very devout person to fully accept secularity in ethics. For some believers, the quest for God and/or salvation may trump the pursuit of happiness or the battle for social justice. By the same token, unbelievers may have an easier time fully achieving the fullness of life and the realization of their talents and proclivities, including the satisfaction of sexual desires.

In the war waged on behalf of democratic institutions, there is an ongoing need to defend pluralistic societies that permit individuals "to do their own thing"—even as we hope this might be modified by responsible self-control. If we were to insist that, in the last analysis, secularism is equivalent to atheism, we may do a great disservice to secularism's importance in the battles for individual autonomy and the right of privacy.

The degree to which religiosity declines brightens the prospects for secularization of values. Many who embrace such values are formally religious, but only nominally affiliated with churches, synagogues, and temples; they are more likely to be receptive to secular attitudes and humanist values and to be tolerant of personal diversity. This is especially the case if they are broadminded, reflective, and perhaps members of their denominations only because of an accident of birth or family pressures.

That is why a negative atheism that seeks simply to destroy religion, without providing a positive agenda, will not in my judgment get very far. The wider platform for human progress as part of a New Enlightenment needs, I submit, to advocate secularism in the above three senses: (1) the separation of religion from the state; (2) the humanization of values that satisfy the deeper interests and needs of human beings; and (3) the decline of religious practice, entailing the growth of the Human City in place of the City of God.

I am not suggesting that we should not critically examine religious claims, especially where they are patently false, injurious, and destructive. The secular world constantly needs to be defended against those who would undermine it, and we need to responsibly examine the transcendental and moral claims of supernaturalism and criticize its pretensions—especially when they impinge on personal freedoms. This latter form of secularism is akin to neo-humanism, a broader, more welcoming expression of the humanist outlook.

Accordingly, the secularization of society needs a more inclusive agenda to enlist like-minded nominal religionists to share in defending—and expanding—humanist values. But this must be applied to actual socio-cultural contexts. Longstanding preexisting customs will vary from culture to culture; deeply ingrained ethnicities should be taken into account, including the richness of diverse languages, culinary tastes, and differences in fashion, manners, and other normative conduct. We cannot simply repeal religion and/or hope to wipe it off the map; its tentacles are deeply rooted, and some religions profoundly define the identity of each adherent—even nominal ones. Our approach should be multisecular, adapted to existing institutions and mores.

Christians and Jews, Mormons and Sunnis, Protestants and Buddhists, Hindus and Shiites carry culturally conditioned bundles of attitudes and values; it is a long process to reform behavior and move people's thinking onto another plane.

One of the basic ingredients of a reformation is to get a clan, sect, or denomination to transact with people of other faiths and convictions, hard as that often is. This involves dialogues and discussion, interaction and intermingling, appreciation and understanding of other points of view, as well as responsible criticism. One of the major dangers of any isolated religious system is that separation and exclusivity tend to solidify its dogmas.


High on the agenda of secularization of course is education. We need to insist that all children have the right to appreciate and understand a wider range of cultural experiences—including the study of the sciences, the development of critical thinking, and exposure to world history, the arts, philosophy, comparative study of religions, and alternative political and economic systems. This entails recognizing the rights of children as human beings. Parents cannot starve, beat, or cruelly punish their children. Similarly, they should not prohibit them from receiving a full education. Indoctrination is an assault on the rights of children as persons.

The liberation of women from domination by men is also high on the secularizing agenda; women must be free to work and travel and to pursue independent careers, not be confined only to housework and menial jobs. Women have a right to an education and to pursue the roles they choose in their society's economic, political, and cultural life. They have equal dignity and value and should have equal status. This is today widely accepted in advanced democratic societies. It is rejected in most Muslim societies, and this is the Achilles heel of those societies that so badly needs to be pierced.

It follows, of course, that individuals should be permitted to marry or partner with whomever they wish, even if that means going outside their faith. Women should be accorded the same freedoms and responsibilities as men.

The secularization process is proceeding rapidly in today's world: Protestants and Catholics now intermarry in spite of earlier prohibitions; so do Jews and Christians, Asians and Anglos, blacks and whites. How encouraging that Ireland and Spain, formerly bastions of Catholic authoritarianism, have rapidly secularized and adopted humanistic values. Secular Jews likewise eschew Orthodoxy. Although they may retain some degree of ethnic loyalty, large percentages of contemporary Jews have sought mates outside their religion. They look to Spinoza and Mendelssohn, Einstein and Salk—modern Jews who heralded science and the arts—rather than to the ancient prophets of the Hebrew Bible. There is a beginning effort on the part of secularized Muslims, especially in Western democracies, to adopt the democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity and to become more tolerant of the multiplicity of faiths as they begin to study the sciences and enter secular professions.

There are perhaps one and a half billion people on the planet today who are nonreligious, and their numbers are growing. These include agnostics and atheists but also people who are simply indifferent to existing religions. As I pointed out, there are also significant numbers of nominal members of religious bodies who are skeptical and need to break the stranglehold of the so-called sacred texts. We should point out that although we may appreciate the historical, literary, and moral values that traditional religions have bequeathed to us, nonetheless we wish to focus on other sources of inspiration that are more relevant to life today: modern science and philosophy, the vast reservoir of the secular arts and literature, and the ever- expansive richness of cultural diversity. The Sermon on the Mount is beautiful, as is much in Buddhism, but neither should yoke us to the past.

The United States is an anomaly among advanced nations because of its widespread public piety. Europe is basically postreligious; only a negligible minority still practices the old-time religion. Similar phenomena prevail in Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, and elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, the number of secularists is growing. A rapidly increasing segment of the public is the unchurched, untempled, and unmosqued. Religion has little impact on their lives. According to a recent Barna poll, the unchurched comprise 43 percent of the population. These people belong to no church and very rarely worship or attend services. They are secular too; saying that a person is secular does not necessarily mean that he or she is an atheist or even antireligious. I submit that secularism can provide affirmative alternatives for nonreligious men and women of every kind. Hence, we should focus on the nonreligious as our constituency. Indeed, a large number of ordinary folks, a majority of scientists in the United States, Nobel Prize winners, and people affiliated with our research universities and colleges, artists, and poets—people from every walk of life or occupation—express a secular outlook and exemplify ethical beliefs that are thoroughly secular and humanistic in appeal. The defining characteristic of secularists is simply that they are nonreligious.

In the spirit of cooperation and goodwill, we need to convince our neighbors that we can lead the good life and be good citizens and devoted parents without the trappings of religion, God, or clergy.

We need to demonstrate this by practicing good works. And, indeed, we do!

Republished from:

Sunday, September 21, 2008

34 Unconvincing Arguments for God

by August Berkshire

Introduction - Atheism – the lack of belief in gods – is based upon a lack of evidence for gods, lack of a reason to believe in gods, and difficulties and contradictions that some god ideas lead to.

Nevertheless, atheism is a tentative state, subject to change if compelling theistic arguments are presented.

Following are some of the arguments that atheists have considered, along with some of the reasons these arguments have been rejected.

(1) God-of-the-Gaps (God as a “free lunch”) - Almost every “proof” for the existence of gods relies, at least in part, on a god-of-the gaps argument. This argument says that if we don’t know the answer to something, then “God did it.” “God” gets to win by default, without any positive evidence. But is saying “God did it” really an answer?

Intelligent design, god-advocate William Dembski has authored a book entitled No Free Lunch. However, “God” is the ultimate “free lunch.” Consider the following:

We don’t know what gods are composed of.

We don’t know what gods’ attributes are.

We don’t know how many gods there are.

We don’t know where gods are.

We don’t know where gods come from or, alternately, how it is possible for them to always exist.

We don’t know what mechanisms gods use to create or change anything.

We don’t know what the “supernatural” is, nor how it is capable of interacting with the natural world.

In other words, we know absolutely nothing about gods – yet at least one god is often given credit for many things. Thus, to say “God did it” is to answer a question with a question. It provides no information and only makes the original question more complex.

The god-of-the-gaps argument says that not only do we not have a naturalistic answer today, but we will never discover a naturalistic answer in the future because no naturalistic answer is possible. Thus, to rebut a god-of-the-gaps argument, we only have to show that a naturalistic answer is possible.

For example: We open the door to a room and observe a cat sleeping in a corner. We close the door, then open it again five minutes later. We observe that the cat is now sleeping in another corner. One person says “God did it by levitating the sleeping cat” (without offering any proof). Another person says “It’s quite possible that the cat woke up, wandered over to the other corner, and fell asleep again.” Thus, although no one saw what actually happened, the god-of-the-gaps argument has been rendered implausible by a possible naturalistic explanation.

(2) Leaps of Faith - The fact is, no one even knows if it’s possible for gods to exist. Just because we can imagine something doesn’t mean it’s possible. For example, we can all imagine ourselves walking through a solid wall, but that doesn’t mean it’s possible. So, just because we can imagine a god, doesn’t mean its existence is actually possible.

Because there is no direct proof for the existence of any gods, a typical believer must make at least nine leaps of faith to arrive at the god they believe in. These are separate leaps of faith because one leap does not imply the next leap.

The first leap of faith is that a supernatural realm even exists.

Second, that beings of some sort exist in this realm.

Third, that these beings have consciousness.

Fourth, that at least one of these beings is eternal.

Fifth, that this being is capable of creating something from nothing.

Sixth, that this being is capable of interfering with the universe after it is created (i.e. miracles).

Seventh, eighth, and ninth, that this being is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.

If people want to believe in a god more specific to a particular religion, then some additional leaps of faith are necessary.

So, when we speak about gods, we have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about (see unconvincing argument #1), and we have to make at least nine leaps of faith to get to the god most people believe in.

(3) Holy Books - Just because something is written down does not make it true. This goes for the Bible, the Qur’an, and any other holy book. It is circular reasoning to try to prove the god of a holy book exists by using the holy book itself as “evidence.”
People who believe the holy book of one religion usually disbelieve the holy books of other religions.

(4) The Argument from Historical Settings - This argument states that because historical people and places are mentioned in ancient stories, that everything else about those stories, including descriptions of supernatural events, must be true. By this argument, everything written in the Iliad, including the intervention of the ancient Greek gods, must be true.

(5) “Revelations” of Others - All religions claim to be revealed, usually through people called “prophets.” But how can we know that a “revelation” is actually a “message from a god” and not a hallucination?

A revelation is a personal experience. Even if a revelation really did come from a god, there is no way we could prove it.

People of one religion usually disbelieve the revelations of other religions. These revelations often contradict each other, so what basis do we have for deciding which are the “true revelations”?

(6) “Revelations” of One’s Own (Personal Testimony, Feelings, “Open Heart”) - This is when you are personally having the revelation or feeling that a god exists. Though you may be sincere, and even if a god really does exist, a feeling is not proof, either for you or for someone else.

It will do no good to ask atheists to “open our hearts and accept Jesus” (or any other deity). If we were to set aside our skepticism, we might indeed have an inspirational experience. But this would be an emotional experience and we’d have no way to verify if a god was really speaking to us or if we were just hallucinating.

Many atheists have stories of how wonderful it felt to lose their belief in gods. As with religion, this is not proof that atheism is true.

(7) Most People Believe in God - It’s true that throughout history, most people have believed in at least one god. But mere popularity doesn’t make something true. (Most people used to mistakenly believe that the Earth was the center of the universe.)

The number of atheists in the world is currently increasing. We can imagine a day when most people are atheists. (In fact, most of the top scientists in the U.S. already are atheists.) However, as with religion, the popularity of atheism will not be able to be used as proof of its truth.

Even today, it is probable that in England and France atheists outnumber theists. Does this mean that God exists everywhere except in those two countries?

(8) Evolution Would Not Favor a False Belief - Would evolution reward a species incapable of perceiving reality? Would evolution reward a species that hallucinated? If not, then a god must exist, according to this argument.

However, evolution does not reward what is true. Evolution rewards that which is useful.

No one can doubt that religion and god-belief have sometimes been useful. “God” can be employed like Santa Claus, to keep people behaving well in order to earn a reward. “God” can also be used to justify horrible behavior that benefits your group, such as Islamic suicide bombings or the Christian Crusades. “God” can reduce your fear of death.

Nevertheless, in an age of nuclear weapons, the dangers of god belief far outweigh its usefulness.

(9) The “God Part” of the Brain - Some religious people argue that a god must exist, or why else would we have a part of our brain that can “recognize” a god? What use would that part of our brain be otherwise?

However, imagination is important for us to be able to predict the future, and thus aids in our survival. We can imagine all kinds of things that aren’t true. It is a byproduct of being able to imagine things that might be true.

As a matter of fact, scientists have begun to study why some people have religious beliefs and others don’t, from a biological perspective. They have identified certain naturally occurring chemicals in our brains that can give us religious experiences. For example, the brain chemical dopamine increases the likelihood that we will “see” patterns where there are none.

In studies of religion and the brain, a new field called neurotheology, they have identified the temporal lobe as a place in the brain that can generate religious experiences.

Another part of the brain, which regulates a person’s sense of “self,” can be consciously shut down during meditation, giving the meditator (who loses his or her sense of personal boundaries) a feeling of “oneness” with the universe.

(10) Ancient “Miracles” & Resurrection Stories - Many religions have miracle stories. And, just as people who believe in one religion are usually skeptical towards miracle stories of other religions, atheists are skeptical toward all miracle stories.

Extraordinary events can become exaggerated and grow into miraculous legends. Good magicians can perform acts that seem like miracles. Things can be mismeasured and misinterpreted. Many things that seemed like “miracles” in the ancient world can be explained with modern knowledge.

Regarding resurrections, atheists will not find a story of someone resurrecting from the dead to be convincing. There are many such legends in ancient literature and, again, most religious people reject the resurrection stories of other religions.

Many religions reports that their god(s) performed obvious, spectacular miracles thousands of years ago. Why have these miracles stopped? Is it because the gods have become shy? Or is it because science started?

(11) Modern Medical “Miracles” & Resurrection Stories - Modern medical “miracles” are a good example of “god-of-the-gaps.” A person experiences a cure for a disease that science can’t explain. Therefore, “God did it.” God never has to prove himself in these arguments. It is always assumed that he gets to win by default.

But this argument assumes we know everything about the human body, so that a natural explanation is impossible. But the fact is, we don’t have complete medical knowledge. Why don’t we ever see something that would be a true miracle, like an amputated arm instantaneously regenerating?

Several studies of prayer, where the patients didn’t know whether or not they were being prayed for, including a study by the Mayo Clinic, have shown prayer to have no effect on healing.

(This raises the question of why we would have to beg an all-powerful, all-loving god to be healed in the first place. It seems ironic, to say the least, to pray to a loving god to be cured from diseases and the effects of natural disasters that he himself created. It also raises the Problem of Evil: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does evil exist in the first place?)

Modern resurrection stories always seem to occur in Third World countries under unscientific conditions. However, there have been thousands of people in modern hospitals hooked up to machines that verified their deaths when they died. Why didn’t any of them ever resurrect?

(12) “Heaven” (Fear of Death) - Atheists don’t like the fact that we’re all going to die any more than religious people do. However, this fear does not prove there is an afterlife – only that we wish there was an afterlife. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

There is no evidence for a god, no evidence that he created any place for us to go after we die, no explanation as to exactly what that place is composed of, nor where it is, nor how a god created it from nothing.

There is no evidence for a soul, no description of what a soul is composed of, and no explanation of how a non-material soul evolved in a material body, or, alternately, no explanation of how or when a god zaps a soul into a body.

If a fertilized human egg has a soul, what happens if that egg splits in two to form identical twins? Does each twin have half a soul? Or did the original fertilized egg have two souls?

What about when the opposite happens, when two fertilized eggs fuse to form one human being, creating what is known as a chimera? Does that person have two souls? Or did each original fertilized egg have only half a soul?

If a one-week-old baby dies, what kind of thoughts will it have in an afterlife? The thoughts of a one-week-old, which are zero? The thoughts of an adult? If so, how will that happen? Where will those thoughts come from and what will they be?

There is no reason to believe our consciousness survives the death of our brains. The mind is not something separate from the body.

For example, we know the chemicals responsible for the feeling of love. Drugs can alter our mood, and thus change our thoughts. Physical damage to our brains can change our personalities, and our thoughts. And learning a new skill, which involves thinking, can physically change the structure of our brains.
Some people get Alzheimer’s disease at the end of their lives. The irreversible damage to their brains can be detected by brain scans. These people lose their ability to think, yet they are still alive. How, one second after these people die, does their thinking return (in a “soul”)?

If people had to choose between a god and an afterlife, most people would choose the afterlife and forget about God. They only choose god belief because it’s the only way they know of to fulfill their desire for an afterlife.

(13) Fear of Hell - The idea of hell strikes atheists as a scam – an attempt to get people to believe through fear what they cannot believe through reason and evidence.

The only way to approach this “logically” is to find the religion that punishes you the worst for disbelief, and then believe that religion. Okay, you will have saved yourself from the worst punishment that exists – if that religion is the “true” religion.

But if that religion (with its punishment) is not the true religion – if the religion that has the second or third worst punishment for disbelief is the true religion – then you have saved yourself nothing.

So, which religion’s hell is the true hell? Without evidence, we can never know.

Even within Christianity there are three different versions of hell. There is the traditional version, where your “soul” burns forever. A second version says that eternal punishment is too cruel for a loving god, so your “soul” is burnt out of existence.

And a third version says that hell is not a physical place but the condition of being forever separated from God. But atheists are already separated from God and are having a good time, so they fail to see how this is a punishment. And, how can a person be separated from God when God is supposedly everywhere?

(14) “Pascal’s Wager” / Faith - In short, Pascal’s Wager states that we have everything to gain (an eternity in heaven) and nothing to lose by believing in a god. On the other hand, disbelief can lead to a loss of heaven (i.e. hell).

We’ve already noted that heaven is wishful thinking and that hell is a scam, so let’s address the issue of faith.

Pascal’s Wager assumes a person can will himself or herself into having faith. This is simply not the case, at least not for an atheist. So atheists would have to pretend to believe. But according to most definitions of God, wouldn’t God know we were lying to hedge our bets? Would a god reward this?

Part of Pascal’s Wager states that you “lose nothing” by believing. But an atheist would disagree. By believing under these conditions, you’re acknowledging that you’re willing to accept some things on faith. In other words, you’re saying you’re willing to abandon evidence as your standard for judging reality. Faith doesn’t sound so appealing when it’s phrased that way, does it?

(15) Blaming the Victim - Many religions punish people for disbelief. However, belief requires faith, and some people, such as atheists, are incapable of faith. Their minds are only receptive to evidence. Therefore, are atheists to be blamed for not believing when “God” provides insufficient evidence?

(16) The End of the World - Like the concept of hell, this strikes atheists as a scare tactic to get people to believe through fear what they can’t believe through reason and evidence. There have been predictions that the world was going to end for centuries now. The question you might want to ask yourselves, if you’re basing your religious beliefs on this, is how long you’re willing to wait – what amount of time will convince you that the world is not going to end?

(17) Difficulties of Religion - It has sometimes been argued that because certain religious practices are difficult to follow, nobody would do them if a god didn’t exist. However, it is the belief in the existence of a god that is motivating people. A god doesn’t really have to exist for this to happen.

Difficulties can serve as an initiation rite of passage into being counted one of the “select few.” After all, if just anybody could be “saved,” there might be no point in having a religion.

Finally, the reward for obedience promised by most religions – a heaven – far outweighs any difficulties religion imposes.

(18) The Argument from Martyrdom - It has been argued that no one would die for a lie. This overlooks the fact that people can be intentionally or unintentionally fooled into believing a religion is true.

Most religious groups that promote martyrdom promise a great reward in “heaven,” so followers don’t perceive the loss of their lives as a great sacrifice.

Does the fact that the 9/11 bombers were willing to die for their faith make Islam true? What about cults like Heaven’s Gate, where followers committed suicide in 1997 believing their “souls” were going to a space ship carrying Jesus on the far side of a comet?

(19) The Argument from Embarrassment - Some religious people argue that because their holy book contains passages that are embarrassing to their faith, that those passages – and the accompanying descriptions of supernatural events – must be true or they wouldn’t have been included in the book.

A classic example of this argument is the Biblical description of the disciples’ cowardice after Jesus’ arrest. Yet in this case, as in others, embarrassing moments can be included in a fictional story to heighten dramatic tension and make the eventual triumph of the hero of the story that much greater.

(20) False Dichotomies - This is being presented with a false “either/or” proposition, where you’re only given two alternatives when, in fact, there are more possibilities.

Here’s one that many Christians are familiar with: “Either Jesus was insane or he was god. Since Jesus said some wise things, he wasn’t insane. Therefore, he must be God, like he said he was.” But those are not the only two possibilities.

A third option is that, yes, it is possible to say some wise things and be deluded that you are a god.

A fourth possibility is that Jesus didn’t say everything that is attributed to him in the Bible. Maybe he didn’t actually say all those wise things, but the writers of the Bible said he did. Or maybe he never claimed to be God, but the writers turned him into a god after he died.

A fifth possibility is that Jesus is a fictional character and so everything was invented by the authors.

(21) Meaning in Life - This is the idea that, without belief in a god, life would be meaningless. Even if this were true, it would only prove we wanted a god to exist to give meaning to our lives, not that a god actually does exist. But the very fact that atheists can find meaning in their lives without a belief in a god shows that god belief is not necessary.

(22) “God is Intangible, Like Love” - Love is not intangible. We can define love both as a type of feeling and as demonstrated by certain types of actions.

Unlike “God,” love is a physical thing. We know the chemicals responsible for the feeling of love.
Also, love depends upon brain structure. A person with a lobotomy or other type of brain damage may lose the ability to feel love.

Furthermore, if love were not physical, it would not be confined to our physical brains. We would expect to be able to detect an entity or force called “love” floating around in the air.

(23) Morality/Ethics - This is the idea that without a god we’d have no basis for morality. However, a secular moral code existed before the Bible: the Code of Hammurabi.

In Plato’s dialogue called Euthyphro, Socrates asks a man named Euthyphro whether something is good because God says it is, or does God announce something to be good because it has intrinsic goodness?

If something is good because God says it is, then God might change his mind about what is good. Thus, there would be no absolute morality.

If God merely announces something to be good because it has intrinsic goodness, then we might be able to discover this intrinsic goodness ourselves, without the need for god belief.

Most religious people ignore the bad ethics in their holy books and concentrate on the good advice. In other words, theists pick and choose their ethics just like atheists do.

Other animals exhibit kindness toward one another and a sense of justice. We have found the part of our brains responsible for feelings of sympathy and empathy – “mirror neurons” – which serve as the foundation for much of our ethics.

Morality is something that evolved from us being social animals. It’s based on the selfish advantage we get from cooperation, and on consequences. Helping one another is a selfish act that has evolutionary rewards. (See also Argument 25, against the existence of altruism.)

We also judge actions by their consequences, through trial and error. The best formula we have come up with is to allow the maximum amount of freedom that does not harm another person or impinge on that person’s freedom. This creates the greatest amount of happiness and prosperity in society, which benefits the greatest amount of people (the greatest good for the greatest number). This view includes the protection of minority rights, since in some way we are each a minority.

Since there is no evidence for any gods, it follows that any moral belief can be attributed to a god. So, rather than being a certain guide, religion can be used to justify any behavior. One simply has to say “God told me to do it.” The best way to refute this reasoning is to discard the idea of gods altogether.

Even if a god doesn’t exist, some people think that a belief in a god is useful to get people to behave – kind of like an invisible policeman. Do we really want to make this the basis for our ethics?

Any decent ethical system does not need the supernatural to justify it. However, belief in the supernatural has been used to justify many unethical acts, such as the Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, gay-bashing, and 9/11.

(24) The Argument from Goodness/Beauty - Some religious people argue that without a god there would be no goodness and/or beauty in the world. However, goodness and beauty are defined in human terms.

If the Earth’s environment had been so nasty that it was impossible for life to evolve, then we wouldn’t be here to ponder this question. So, obviously, at least some things about the Earth’s environment are life-affirming, and we are naturally drawn to these things – our survival depends upon it.

As for the beauty of art: we are naturally drawn to life-affirming images, shapes, and colors. However, there are many examples of art, such as the paintings of the Cubists and the Surrealists, that are loved by some people and hated by others.

(25) Altruism - People sometimes say that without a god there would be no altruism, that evolution only rewards selfish behavior.

However, it can be argued that there is no such thing as altruism, that people always do what they want to do. If they are only faced with bad choices, then people choose the thing they hate the least.

Our choices are based on what gives us (our genes) the best advantage for survival, including raising our reputation in society.

“Altruism” towards family members benefits people who share our genes. “Altruism” towards friends benefits people who may someday return the favor.

Even “altruism” towards strangers has a basis in evolution. This behavior first evolved in small tribes, where everyone knew each other and a good reputation enhanced one’s survival. It is now hard-wired in our brains as a general mode of conduct. [Thanks to Richard Dawkins for this point.]

(26) Free Will - Some people argue that without a god there would be no free will, that we would live in a deterministic universe of cause and effect and that we would be mere “robots.”

Actually, there is far less free will than most people think there is. Our conditioning (our biological desire to survive and prosper, combined with our experiences) makes certain “choices” far more likely than others. How else can we explain our ability, in many cases, to predict human behavior?

Experiments have shown that our brain makes a “decision” to take action before we become conscious of it!

Some believe that the only free will we have is to exercise a conscious veto over actions suggested by our thoughts.

Most atheists have no problem admitting that free will may be an illusion.

This issue also brings up a conundrum: If a god who created us knows the future, how can we have free will?

In the end, if we are enjoying our lives, does it matter if free will is real or an illusion? Isn’t it only our ego – our healthy self-esteem that is beneficial for survival – that has been conditioned to believe that real free will is somehow better than imaginary free will?

(27) A Perfect Being Must Necessarily Exist - This is known as the ontological argument for God, first developed almost 1,000 years ago by Anselm.

We are asked to imagine the greatest or most perfect being possible. For most people, this is their conception of a god. Then it is pointed out that it is greater or more perfect for something to exist rather than not to exist. Therefore, this being (God) must necessarily exist.

But this argument does not address the question of whether it is possible for a perfect being to exist. It also means that our imagination can will things into existence. Not everything we can imagine is possible.

Let’s apply this logic to a different subject. Imagine a perfect skyscraper. It would remain undamaged if terrorists flew planes into it. Yet no skyscraper can withstand such an assault without at least some damage. But that violates our premise that the skyscraper must be perfect. Therefore, such an indestructible skyscraper must exist.

(28) Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? - This argument assumes that, without a god, we wouldn’t expect anything to exist. However, we have no idea of the statistical probability of Something existing rather than Nothing.

According to physics and astronomy professor Victor Stenger, symmetrical systems tend to be unstable. They tend to decay into less symmetrical systems. Now, Nothing – the lack of anything – is perfectly symmetrical, and thus highly unstable. Therefore, Something is more stable than Nothing. Thus we would expect there to be Something rather than Nothing.

We might just as reasonably ask: “Why is there a god rather than no god?” and “Who created this god?”

(29) The Argument from First Cause - This argument states that we live in a universe of cause-and-effect. However, the argument goes, it is logically impossible to have an infinite regression of causes. At some point the regression has to stop. At that point you need a First Cause that is not the result of any cause itself. That First Uncaused Cause, it is claimed, is God.

The universe we live in now “began” about 13.7 billion years ago. Whether the universe existed in some other form before that – whether there was energy/matter/gravity/etc. (a natural world) before that – is unknown.

We don’t know if the natural world had a beginning or whether it always existed in some form. If it had a beginning, we don’t know that a god is the only possible creative source. We don’t know that a god can be an uncaused cause. What caused God?

Virtual particles pop into and out of existence all the time. Quantum physics demonstrates that there can indeed be uncaused events.

(30) The “Laws” of the Universe - Where did the “laws” of the universe come from? Any physical “law” is merely an observed regularity. It’s not something handed down by a celestial tribunal.

According to physics and astronomy professor Victor Stenger: “It is commonly believed that the “laws of physics” lie outside physics. They are thought to be either imposed from outside the universe or built into its logical structure. Recent physics disputes this. The basic “laws” of physics are mathematical statements that have the form they do in an attempt to describe reality in an objective way. The laws of physics are just what they would be expected to be if they came from nothing.”

(31) The “Fine-tuning” of the Universe - Some religious people argue that the six physical constants of the universe (which control such things as the strength of gravity) can only exist within a very narrow range to produce a universe capable of sustaining life. Therefore, since this couldn’t have happened “by accident,” a god must have done it.

Again, this is a god-of-the-gaps argument. But beyond that, this argument assumes that we know everything about astrophysics – a field in which new discoveries are made on almost a daily basis. We may discover that our universe is not so “fine tuned” after all.

Another possibility is that there may exist multiple universes – either separately or as “bubble universes” within a single universe. Each of these universes could have its own set of constants. Given enough universes, by chance it is likely that at least one will produce and sustain life.

We know it is possible for at least one universe to exist – we are in it. If one can exist, why not many? On the other hand, we have no evidence that it is possible for even one god to exist.

Now let’s take a look at most people’s definition of a god: eternal, omni-present, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. Can God be any other way than exactly the way he is?

Although there is some small margin for variance in the “fine-tuning” of the constants of the universe, there is traditionally no margin for variance in the constants of God. Therefore, our universe with a traditional god is logically more implausible than our universe without one.

And, of course, we must ask: Who or what fine-tuned God?

If the universe was created specifically with humans in mind, then the enormous size of the universe (most of it hostile to life) and the billions of years that passed before humans showed up are ridiculous and wasteful – not what we would expect from a god.

(32) The “Fine-tuning” of the Earth - Some religious people argue that the Earth is positioned “just right” in the solar system (not too hot, not too cold, etc.) for life to exist. Furthermore, the elements on Earth (carbon, oxygen, etc.) are also “just right.” These people claim that this couldn’t have happened “by accident,” so a god must exist to have done the positioning and chemistry.

We should be able to recognize a god-of-the-gaps argument here. But an even better rebuttal exists. If Earth was the only planet in the universe, then it would indeed be remarkable that our conditions turned out to be “just right.”

But most religious people acknowledge that there are probably thousands, if not millions, of other planets in the universe. (Our own solar system has eight planets.) Therefore, by chance, at least one of those planets will have conditions that will produce some kind of life.

We can imagine religious purple creatures with four eyes and breathing carbon dioxide on another planet also falsely believing that their planet is “fine-tuned” and that a creator god exists in their image.

(33) Creationism / “Intelligent Design” - This is the idea that if we can’t currently explain something about life, then “God did it” (god-of-the-gaps).

However, if Genesis, or any similar religious creation myth, is true, then virtually every field of science is wrong. Not only is biology wrong, but so too are chemistry, physics, archeology, and astronomy, as well as their many subdisciplines such as embryology and genetics. In fact, we might as well throw out the entire scientific method.

Creationists often make a distinction between “micro” evolution and “macro” evolution – that is, change within a species, which they accept, and change from one species to another, which they do not accept.

But what are the mechanisms for “micro” evolution? They are: mutation, natural selection, and inheritance. And what are the mechanisms for “macro” evolution? Exactly the same: mutation, natural selection, and inheritance. The only difference is the amount of time required. Do some genes say to themselves: “Gee, I better not change too much or it will upset some religious people?”

Evolution is the best explanation, and the only explanation for which we have any evidence, for the age of fossils, for the progression of fossils, for genetic similarities, for structural similarities, and for transitional fossils.

Yes, there are transitional fossils. For example, we have a good fossil trail of species going from land mammal to whale, including basilosaurus, a primitive whale that still retained useless, small hind legs. Even today, whales retain their hip bones.
(Some creationists argue that those tiny hind legs would have been useful for mating, thus basilosaurus was a separately created species and not a transition. But if those hind legs were so useful, why did they evolve completely away?)

In fact, snakes, too, still have hip bones, and once in a great while we see a snake born with vestiges of hind legs, demonstrating their evolution from reptile ancestors that had hind legs.

In China we have found many half-reptile/half-bird fossils, demonstrating that transition.

There is the recently discovered fossil tiktaalik, which helped filled a gap between fish and amphibians. It was discovered in Canada, exactly where, and in the age of rock, that evolution predicted.

On the other hand, if a perfect god created life we would expect him to do a better job. We wouldn’t expect that 99% of all species that have ever existed would have gone extinct.

As the Christian evolutionary biologist Kenneth R. Miller stated: “if God purposely designed 30 horse species that later disappeared, then God’s primary attribute is incompetence. He can’t make it right the first time.”

As the evangelical Christian Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, stated: “ID [Intelligent Design] portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life.”

If a perfect god created life we would not expect birth defects. If a perfect god created life we would not expect “unintelligent design” such as a prostate gland that swells and shuts down the urinary tract, when the urinary tract could have just as easily have been routed around the prostate gland. Is “God” an incompetent or sloppy designer?

If a god created all life within a week then, even with an alleged worldwide flood, we would expect to find a thoroughly mixed geologic column of fossils. We don’t find this.

We also have the contradiction that people claim that God is “pro-life,” yet he allows for spontaneous abortion. One third to one half of fertilized human eggs get spontaneously aborted, often before the woman is even aware that she’s pregnant. If a god designed the human system of reproduction, this make God the world’s biggest abortionist.

Thus, scientific evolution provides answers, whereas religious creationism and “intelligent design” only introduce more questions.

(34) The universe and/or life violate the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) - The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) states that in a closed system, things tend toward greater disorder. Some religious people argue that because the universe and life are so orderly, that a god must be required who could violate this law.

Again, I thank physics and astronomy professor Victor Stenger for the secular explanation:

The universe does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. The universe started with the maximum amount of disorder possible for its size. Then, as the universe expanded, this allowed for more disorder to occur, and, in fact, it is occurring.

Despite the fact that the overall disorder is increasing in the system called the universe, increasing order is allowed in subsystems, such as galaxies, solar systems, and life – so long as the net effect to the entire universe is increased disorder.

If a god created the universe, we would have expected it to start in an orderly fashion, not in disorder. The fact that the universe started with maximum disorder means that a god could not have created it, because a purposeful creation would have had at least some order to it.

It also turns out that the negative gravitational energy in the universe exactly cancels the positive energy represented by matter, so that the total net energy of the universe is zero, which is what you would expect if the universe came from Nothing by natural means. However, if a god was involved, you would have expected him to have introduced energy into the universe. There is no evidence of this.

It’s interesting how theists will cling to the second law of thermodynamics to try to prove the existence of their god, while totally ignoring the first law of thermodynamics – that matter/energy can be neither created nor destroyed – which would thoroughly disprove the existence of their god as a being who can create something from nothing.

Conclusion - Religious people have a tough, if not impossible task to try to prove a god exists, let alone that their particular religion is true. If any religion had objective standards, wouldn’t everyone be flocking to the same “true” religion? Instead we find that people tend to believe, to varying degrees, the religion in which they were indoctrinated. Or they are atheists.

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