Last week I had the extremely depressing experience of learning that someone I have worked alongside at a charity for almost a year, someone I greatly admire and respect for their kind, easy going nature – and for their intelligence, believes in God. It really bothered me though, so when I got home I wrote an email to my friend. Below is a slightly adapted version (to protect identities and make it relevant for everyone) of that email.
Never have I been so distraught to learn that someone is a believer in malicious, intolerant fairy tales. You’re so kind and smart! We didn’t have time to discuss what it is that you actually believe in detail, but you did say that you think God exists, that the bible is true and implied that praying works, so I’m going to challenge some these ideas in the hope of convincing you that these statements are not compatible with the real world.
Firstly, one hopes that you do not believe, as it says in the bible, that the world is around 6,000 years old and therefore that humans once walked around with dinosaurs. This is of course as false as the assertion that I can fly – and both can be proven to be false beyond the doubt of any rational person. The fact that life on earth is 4.6 billion years old and that all life has evolved from simple cellular structures, is beyond dispute. If you don’t know this then please read a book on evolution. This certain fact means that all life on earth is related. You and I are cousins. We are both cousins to that dog we met today. The virus that was on your chest during the spring time is also your cousin (and mine, though I’m not so keen to meet that particular relative!). These are all facts that can be proven. They are unanimously accepted as true in the world of science. The debate is over because the evidence is so overwhelming.
But isn’t it a wonderful thing? What better reason is there to all be kind to one another and to be kind to animals, than the knowledge that we are all related and that we all get just one shot at this life. To understand the true wonder of nature, how everything around us came about, how precious life is, how truly lucky we are even to be born (and how unlikely it was – your own existence is as close to a miracle as you will get), is mesmerizingly beautiful. Ultimately, as everything on earth is a product of the big bang, it means that we are all quite literally made of stardust. This is amazing! How can you think that this is not enough (or feel sorry for me, as you said you did)? What more do you want!?! Looking up at the stars whilst gazing across the Grand Canyon and knowing that everything you see, including yourself, is made of the same ‘star stuff’(as Carl Sagan put it) ought to be more than enough for anyone. In any case, it’s all we have.
You said that the bible is true, but you must know, aside from there being absolutely no evidence for such a statement, that the God of the bible condones genocide, infanticide, stoning women to death simply for not being a virgin on their wedding night, slavery, torture, homophobia, misogyny, even, as I said, killing people for eating seafood. This is all true. You are free to go and look it up. The girl who overheard us, and interrupted on your behalf, said that these things were “true for then.” You seemed impressed by this, but you must surely see that this is one of my best arguments! Indeed these were people who knew nothing of the world as we understand it now. They thought the earth was flat and would have been amazed by the engineering feat of a push bike. We all tacitly accept that we’ve moved on. So move on. Biblical explanations of our world are merely the best guesses of people who didn’t understand that we live on a cooling planet with a thin crust, and so imagined volcanoes and tsunamis were the wrath of God. They didn’t understand the germ theory of disease, and so mused that illness was a punishment. It’s understandable that they thought such things. But now we know the real answers.
You said that praying had helped you through some tough times – that God is a source of consolation. The first thing you must acknowledge here is that this says nothing about the truth of his existence. This could simply be a placebo (and I concede that on the surface it appears to be so for many people). But it comes at a price. A price paid by science, medicine, technology and politics every day. If it wasn’t for religion we may have had penicillin and the microchip by the year 1600. It really amazes me how anyone imagines a lie to be the best source of consolation. Psychologists call this ‘spiritual bypassing’. Understanding the truth and the nature of reality is the best source of consolation. In this space, one can properly grieve and move on. It is psychologically unhealthy to turn to invisible friends for comfort. We must learn this truth if we want to be mentally stable.
You asked “what is truth?” It is a common trait of religious people to believe there is some deep mystery behind the word. But in reality we all understand its meaning, and (for the most part!) this is reflected in how everyone behaves. Truth is what can be demonstrated to be true. We know that two plus two equals four. We know that if we touch something hot it will burn and that if we do not eat and drink enough we will feel unwell. We trust planes to fly, our mobile phones to work. You show your belief in these laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and demonstrate your understanding of them to be true every moment of every day.
You spoke of having faith as though it is a gift that I am unfortunate not to have. But faith is merely the suspension of your critical faculties. It’s believing in the absence of evidence – or in spite of evidence to the contrary, and you do not behave in this way in any other aspect of your life. Ignoring undeniable evidence is nothing to be proud of. Again, to quote Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary explanations.” Faith just doesn’t cut it.
You should also question why you have this faith. I mean really question it, not just unthinkingly reach for the lazy answer that it is a gift from God. Ask yourself whether it is plausible that you think this way only because your parents and the society you were brought up in influenced you. When we consider that almost everyone in Iran is a Muslim, almost everyone in Italy is a Catholic and almost everyone in Israel is Jewish, is it possible that these things are merely an accident of birth? Is it possible that they are traditions simply passed down from generation to generation? Is it possible that faith is in fact more comparable to a virus than a gift?
Finally you spoke of numbers. You said that more people believe than do not. I’m not so sure of the statistical accuracy of this. Certainly in western Europe it is about 50/50 and almost all of China and Japan rejects the Abrahamic traditions at least. But there are other problems with this statement. You must observe that there was a time not so long ago when almost 100% of people believed in God in western societies. The reason this has changed should be obvious to you. We are literally educating ourselves out of a belief in superstitions. Also, even if 99% of people believed in God right now, this would still not be convincing. There was a time when everyone thought that the world was flat, but they were wrong. Facts and evidence trump all else.
I hope you know that I mean no harm. It’s just that being sceptical is such a wonderful thing that I wish to share it with you. It’s true that we don’t know everything, such as how it all got started, but that doesn’t mean God did it. There are infinite possibilities. It is far more honest and humble to say that you don’t know and that you are awaiting the evidence, than simply to credit God (which God?). The truth is that you understand my position far more than you let on. Historians have identified somewhere around 2700 Gods that mankind has invented. You know exactly how it feels to be an atheist with regards to 2699 of those Gods. Some of us just go one God further.