Studies of Life

Learning by doing.

On atheism, religion and belief in general

21 February 2013 by Jim

On YouTube there’s an interesting discussion between ‘the World’s most famous atheist (and evolutionary biologist) Richard Dawkins’ and Mehdi Hasan from Al Jazeera which opens up a few interesting questions that seem to recur all the time in the religion vs. science debate. I’ll attempt to give some of my own answers, because some of my points of view seem, to me, very evident, yet are not voiced, or at least not often, during such debates.

Can you prove God does not exist?

No, I can’t, and nobody can prove that he does exist. Why would the atheist’s position be more correct than the religious person’s belief? To start, Occam’s Razor would be a possible candidate to argue the atheist point of view. According to this scientific principle, also called lex parcimoniae in latin, among different hypotheses, the one making the fewest assumptions is the one that should be selected as true. To illustrate that, imagine you see the pavement being wet as you walk home from work. You could hypothesise that the liquid on the floor is rain, or that it is the pee left behind by an alien which briefly showed up to void his bladder before leaving again. Which of the two possibilities seems more probable? The rain, of course, and that same principle applies to the hypothesis that God exists. Every actual condition in the real world, which religious people says originates from God, can be more easily and with fewer assumption explained through rationality and science, than by the intervention of a God-like entity.

If somebody tells me that I cannot prove God exists, I can answer that he cannot prove to me that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not flying right next to his face at that very moment. Both hypothesis are, to a rational thinker, equally (in)valid. The only reason religious people think that this comparison is unjust is because they have been trained throughout their life to believe in God but not in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Unfortunately, tradition is of no value whatsoever in finding the truth. In the absence of rationality, tradition is better than nothing, but in the face of science, tradition does not hold up. If traditionally people prayed for your life when you are terminally ill with cancer, and a week later you read in a newspaper that science has found the cure for all cancers and can immediately treat you, do you rely on your tradition and ask people to merely pray for you, or do you rely on the knowledge and rational thinking of people just like yourself, who, through long trial and error, have found the solution to the disease that is threatening to kill you?

Why can’t religion and science co-exist?

This question is one that is often used to articulate the point of view of religious people who, while conceding that science is more present in our daily lives nowadays, obsess over fighting for religion to keep at least a little spot in our lives. So why can, according to people like Richard Dawkins, religion not coexist peacefully with science?

Religion is based on belief without proof and as such primes young people, when they first come into contact with religious beliefs, to accept faith as evidence without questioning the truth behind it. This makes them less likely to become critical thinkers and thus effectively slows down scientific progress of humanity as a whole. Therefore, religion is bad for our children and it is certainly a slowing factor for the evolution towards a rational society where no one kills himself and others in a suicide bombing because of some ridiculous belief that he will benefit from a martyr’s paradise upon his death.

Even if we did not teach our children our religious views, we still increase the chance of random people falling into the trap of belief, because we help to keep the religious network alive. Rationally speaking, the best thing to teach children would be to find out the answers to their questions in scientific books on their own.

Didn’t religious people do good things?

Certainly they did. Mother Teresa, reverend Martin Luther King, Gandhi and many others did wonderful things, helping people and making society advance. Is this a consequence of their religious beliefs, though? I’m not that sure. I rather think that, as a community of social animals, some of the positive values like the Golden Rule are, if not hardwired into our brains, learned intuitively as we interact with other people. Even in the absence of all religion, scientists can work for hundreds of hours to find a cure for diseases, even though they may be more well paid in another domain than the one they’re doing research in. People go to poor African countries without getting paid to help the sick and famished without the need to put on a nun’s habit. Humans have it in their heart to be good without a god telling them to be. Otherwise, highly secular societies would see huge levels of violence and social decadence. Yet, the most secular societies, which are all located in Europe, are not at all more violent or socially decadent than others. As a matter of fact, highly religious nations like the USA have to fight a lot more violence in the form of, among others, guns. If being religious made you more of a benevolent and ‘nice’ person, how is that possible?

To get back to Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King or Gandhi, they certainly viewed their religion as important. In their cases, their respective religion is a label they glue onto their values because their personal values and these religious values are well aligned. They personally believe what these religions say, but they would probably also have been good people without their religion. In the case of the two gentlemen, it is clear that their work also included a very important demagogic aspect. They were leaders of their people, and as such, they had to find an efficient way to rally supporters and unite them under a common theme. Now what is easier: making up your own personal value system and spending 2 days explaining it to every one of your supporters to convince them of the rationality of your belief, or simply saying that you belong to a certain religion which your supporters already know well and which appeals to them? This adaptation of the religious content to the target audience is very important. If it weren’t and these religious people could have done their good deeds without relying on a particular religion, we could have seen an external religion send a great leader to a country and change many things for the better. Yet in India, Gandhi was Hindu, and in the USA, Martin Luther King was a Christian. Neither would have had the same response if they had represented external religions. Conclusively, any one religion is not better than another, but it needs to be a locally dominant religion in order for a believer to become a historic leader. Even with all the good intentions in the World, Martin Luther King could not have become who he is if he had been a Christian reverend in India during colonialism. If religion had an inherent and just reason to exist, it shouldn’t matter what religion you belong to. In the case of these famous people, however, it does.

But non-religious people can also be bad! Think of Hitler, Stalin, etc.!

Hitler and Stalin were ‘bad’ in the simplistic machiavellian view of today because they killed many people. It is true that neither of them had a specific religion. Stalin even opposed religion in all its forms because marxism dictates that it is the ‘opium of the people’, a decidedly negative influence on a society. Yet neither stalinism nor hitlerism are really unreligious. If you define religion as an unproven, irrational belief, then both ideological systems were most definitely a religion! Believing that jews were worse than other ‘races’ is a belief that was decidedly not un-religious in Nazi Germany. It was not rational, a scientifically proven idea. It was not even logical. It was just a brilliant speaker telling people what to believe in. Even though Stalin himself may have thought about marxism as a rational idea (which I am historically speaking not sure about) the masses in the Soviet Union nevertheless were not all socialist philosophers. They were a population of mostly simple-minded people following a belief system for which they had neither proof nor understanding. They didn’t read Marx, only very few of them did (and still do!), so they couldn’t resist Stalin having people killed, because how would they have known that killing these people was not marxism / socialism? They hadn’t studied it!

All these dictatorships are, even though they’re not labeled as religions, decidedly religious belief systems. If all the people in Germany at the end of the first World War had been intellectuals and scientists taught to think critically, maybe the Führer’s discourse would not have had such a huge resonance in the population. That is why pluralism in current European societies is something so important. There are many political parties and constant discussions about everything. That is what makes sure a dictatorship cannot arise anymore, as long as the population can resist. If, however, the population is used to religiously believe anything you tell it, then being a dictator claiming to have all the solutions is easy to do.

Who, if not religion, gives us our moral values and answer difficult questions?

As I outlined earlier, moral values are not something you need religion for. They are built-in to humans, because we simply need them to live good lives in our society without killing each other. Animals like chimpanzees who live in groups help each other. They run to a friend who’s hurt and try to make him forget his pain, not because they are members of some obscure unknown chimpanzee religion whose god tells them that being nice to each other is the way to go in order for them not to burn in hell, but because they have intuitively learned that being friendly makes others be friendly towards them as well.

Did you ever give thought to the idea why babies are so cute? It’s not because God has made children innocent and beautiful before they become sinners. It’s because nature sought a way to protect children, and it did so by making their faces look cute to all kinds of animals in order for them not not be eaten by other animals. This is scientifically proven.

If moral values really did come out of religion, how come so many different religions like christianity and hinduism or buddhism have many of the same values? The only logical explanation is that they’re all created by humans, and humans inherently view the same values as positive even before these religions existed, simply because it makes sense for an animal living in groups not to be hostile towards others of its kind.

As for the difficult questions like ‘How did we get here?’ and ‘What is the meaning of life?’ the most sound approach is to simply acknowledge that we cannot know the answers to these questions, ever. If some people cannot live with unanswered questions, that just means they are not ready to live with complexity in their lives. They want easy answers even if there are none. While that may be the case for many people, it will never bring us closer to the truth. Accepting that we can’t have closure for everything in our lives is a necessary part of growing up, I think. Of course we’d feel better and we’d rest easier if somebody told us Anders Breivik or Adolf Hitler was an alien sent from outer space and not one of us, but the truth is they were humans just like you and me, and how they could end up doing what they did is a mystery we’ll never get a satisfying answer to. People other than Hitler are rejected from art school without becoming mass murderers. So why did he? We will never know for sure, but that is not a good enough reason for us to simply make up a solution for the problem by saying: ‘He had a brain tumour.’ or ‘He was an alien.’ Truth isn’t about getting comfortable answers.

If we get rid of all the religions, where is all the culture and beauty in our lives going?

Not if you open your eyes and look at the beauty of nature. There are plenty of things to marvel at.

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