well as contributing to the advancement of civilization, ideas can be significant obstacles on the path to positive progress. Certain bodies of belief may have a harmful influence on the quality of our lives and the course of history. Religions can sometimes call for too much faith. They have, in many cases, contributed to the kind of obstinance and bigotry which obscures a clear view of reality. Innocent victims have been exploited, enslaved, or burned as witches. As Nietzsche once said, "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." Christianity began, as all myths do, as a means to offer explanation, direction, and comfort to curious human beings. It has, however, become a little too successful at this. It has satisfied people to the extent that many have lost productive aspects of their curiosity. People who are unwilling to question their sacred beliefs are not open to objective knowledge which is beyond their own subjective limits. For them, religion has become a crutch, a cop-out. It offers a substitute explanation, excuse, and rationalization for things about which people are uninclined to wonder. In this way, religions have been interfering with development, growth, and progress. Dogmatic faith is the reason for much wasted potential. I think there is ample support for the proposition that many religious doctrines are much more destructive than they are constructive.
On the existence of God
There are many different strains of theistic religious thought, but most of them share certain common elements. They have a belief in God, a belief in life after death, and a morality which is tied to these beliefs. I am centering my attention on Christianity because, in its many forms, Christianity seems to have all of these elements and is the dominant religious influence in the western world.
Rather than simply believing things which I want or am told to believe, I am trying to learn what is there to be learned. I question any evidence for the existence of God, any reason for a belief in life after death, and any ethic which is based largely on these beliefs. I contend that each of these elements is not only irrational, unrealistic, and unnecessary; I think each is harmful. I will support each of my contentions beginning in this segment with the existence of God.
On the existence of God
Does God exist? There have been several attempts to fill in preconceived notions with logic, but there remains no proof for His existence. The four main attempts are Anselm's ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the argument from religious experience. I shall summarize each of these arguments and point out their inadequacies.
1. Anselm's ontological argument
This is an attempt to prove, on an a-priori or strictly logical level, that the greatest conceivable being must exist. It is a deductive argument which draws its conclusion only from observation of its premises and not from any empirical evidence. It states that if the greatest conceivable being can be conceived, which he can by definition, then he must , logically, exist. Existence is part of the greatest being's greatness. It is like saying that this existing person exists. By definition alone, the greatest conceivable being cannot be conceived not to exist. He must exist.
The first problem here is that "greatest conceivable being" is a meaningless phrase. I have seen many beautiful women, but it would not be possible for me to say one of them is the most beautiful of all. Some may be more or less beautiful than others. Some may have certain physical or mental imperfections which contribute to their character or personality, but too many of them share an equal status. I can imagine several perfect women, but I cannot pick one who is most perfect. In the same way, I wouldn't be able to conceive of the being who is most great.
Another way of looking at the first problem is to think of greatness in quantitative terms. I cannot conceive of the greatest number. Each time I think of a very high number, I need only add one to it and it becomes higher. I could say that this is the same with great beings. Every time I think of a great being, I can always make him greater.
Even if I accept "greatest conceivable being" as a definition for God, I do not have to concede that existence is a property of greatness. Good looks, intelligence, and athletic ability are some of the properties of my great being. His existence does not make him greater than his image. Existence is a special kind of predicate. It is true that a hundred existing dollars are greater than a hundred non-existing dollars, but an existing vile sore is not greater than a non-existing vile sore. I'd rather have the non-existing one. Wouldn't you?
I could even go so far as to admit that if there is a greatest conceivable being, then he exists but this would be a tautology, a statement in the form, "Existing beings exist.", which still does not prove that there is such a being. God cannot be defined into existence.
2. The Cosmological argument
This is the argument from cause and effect. Both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas have put forth versions of this argument.
We notice that all things have causes. God, according to this argument, is the first cause, the prime mover, the one think which got the ball rolling. Without Him, there would be nothing. He is necessary for any ultimate explanation of how everything, how anything, came to be.
If all things have causes, then it would be inconsistent to say that God is the first cause. Something would also need to have caused God. If God or anything can be said to have always been and to always be, then this could just as easily be said of the universe. There is no need to posit God.
We could also say that we do not know how the ball first got rolling. This way we would be closer to finding an objective explanation than if we obstantly claim that we already have all the answers.
Also, why do we even need a first cause? We have a number line in which we cannot find the greatest number or the most negative integer. There does not need to be a lowest integer for other integers to exist. In the same way, there does not need to be a prime mover to bring existing things into existence.
3. The Teleological argument
This is the argument from design. When we see the intricate patterns in our technology; when we see internal combustion engines, electrical circuits in our televisions and radios, and sophisticated construction of impressive buildings and bridges; we can safely assume that there is intelligence behind these things. Advanced technology is a product of the application of intelligence. However, there is also much structure and precision in natural things and in the way the universe appears. These patterns are much more complex and impressive than anything put together by the intelligence of man. There must be a super intelligence which is God.
This argument is very much like the argument from cause and effect. It assumes that all things must be caused or put together by something, but it does not account for what caused or put together God. The Teleological argument has all the same problems as does the Cosmological argument.
Also, the Teleological argument runs into a very interesting counter argument. There may be several impressive things in the universe, but terrible things do happen. It wouldn't be too hard for most of us to imagine a better world. The design could have been one that would eliminate any need for earthquakes, volcanoes, storms, or evil in human beings. God, even if He does exist, is either not intelligent or not benevolent enough to prevent evil. An all good and all powerful God cannot, logically, exist.
4. The argument from religious experience
In this category, I include several rationales:
A. Some people say that God is purely subjective. If we want Him to exist, then He does exist. We must first, however, believe. By believing, we make it true.
The problem with this is that reality is not simply subjective. I don't need to want my car to exist. Even if I don't believe that car exists, it won't go away. There is an objective reality in which we cannot yet prove that God exists. If God is subjective, it means that we created Him from our own imaginations, and we can just as easily uncreate Him.
B. Many religious people say that we all have an innate knowledge of God or, at least, a need to worship some sacred deity or object. We are fighting the impulse, they say, when we claim to reject a belief in God. We could be in a state of self-deception, transferring our religious faith to something else.
The problem is that I can simply turn all this around and say the opposite. I could say that we all have an innate need to be rational, and we are fighting the impulse when we claim to believe in God. If we believe in God, then we are in a state of self-deception. We are healthy and normal only when we have faith in ourselves.
C. Some people say that they have had, perhaps in a moment of crisis, a special insight or revelation which has proven, to them, that God exists. This is similar to reports of miracles or strange happenings which can only be explained by the existence of God.
The problem with this that it is much more plausible that people experience illusions and hallucinations, or they exaggerate strange happenings. Illusions and hallucinations can sometimes be the mind's escape from trauma, and exaggerated stories can be a form of entertainment, an escape from a perceived dull reality.
It is also possible that strange things do happen. We may not always have satisfactory answers, but this does not mean that satisfactory answers do not exist. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that God exists, perhaps we should wonder.
D. One last argument for the existence of God is really not an argument at all but an assertion that God exists based on feelings from the heart, not thoughts in the head. Rousseau said, in effect, that he doesn't care what reason and philosophy tells him about a belief in God. He wants to believe in God privately, and that's all there is to it.
I agree with Bertrand Russell's way of answering such sentiment, and no one can express it better than Russell, himself:
"For my part, I prefer the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the rest of the old stock-in-trade, to the sentimentality illogicality that has sprung from Rousseau. The old arguments at least were honest: if valid, they proved their point; if invalid, it was open to any critic to prove them so. But the new theology of the heart dispenses with argument; it cannot be refuted, because it does not profess to prove its points. At bottom, the only reason offered for its acceptance is that it allows us to indulge in pleasant dreams. This is an unworthy reason, and if I had to choose between Thomas Aquinas and Rousseau, I should unhesitatingly choose the Saint."
( Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, 1975, p. 694.)
On life after death
Now we can move on to the next question. Is there life after death? Yes, say the mystics. There would be no point to life, they say, if it only ended in death. Plato and several other philosophers have come up with some interesting support, and contemporary researchers are recording much confirming evidence, statements from those who have had near death experiences or have been clinically dead but revived. If there is not life after death, believers say, there is much which needs to be explained.
I see things differently. I think there would be little point to life if it did not end in death, and there is some refutation for the arguments in support of post-humous life. I also think that there is much to be explained if there is life after death.
In informal conversations, religious proponents take particular delight in recounting tails about how so-called non-believers suddenly become converted when faced with death. When the conversation becomes somewhat more serious, advocates of immortality assert, with great emotion, that there simply must be something more than this temporary, earthly life. It is too depressing, they say, to think that life ends in death.
I see life as an intrinsic value. It is the only fundamental alternative I know. It is a precious thing which, because of its vulnerability, is subject to that which is good and that which is bad. It is only because of this unique characteristic of life that anything can be for it or against it. If life continues after death, then it can no longer be precious. If life goes on forever, then it can no longer be a standard for morality. If life has no end, then nothing can be worth anything. (Unless, of course, we make up a whole lot of other hypothetical conditions to rescue morality, heaven and hell, something Occam's razor will not permit.)
I'll have more to say about this when I discuss morality. My present point is that I do not give up on life simply because it ends in death. Rather, life is much more meaningful and important because of its perishable nature. I only have one life to live, and I want to make the most of it.
Probably the most sophisticated and worthy argument for immortality comes from the writings of Plato. The dialogues from which the argument comes are Meno, Phaedo, and the Republic. (Although Plato used Socrates as the main character in all of these works, the ideas expressed in Meno and Phaedo are generally attributed to Socrates while the Allegory of the cave, in the Republic, is considered to be Plato's own.)
When Meno asks Socrates about the nature of learning, Socrates demonstrates on a young attendant boy. Socrates asks the boy a series of questions which lead the boy first into certain conviction in the wrong answer, then into confusion and doubt, and finally into certainty about the correct knowledge. Simply by responding to the questions put to him by Socrates, the boy was able to solve a complicated geometrical problem of which he had no previous knowledge. Socrates posited that because he did not actually tell the boy anything, the boy must have had previous knowledge of the correct answer and only remembered when he heard the right questions. Meno testified that no other person had told the boy about this knowledge, so the implication is that the boy possessed this knowledge before his earthly existence. Thus, immortality of the soul is indicated.
Phaedo is the dialogue which tells us how Socrates attempts to console his friends after he has been convicted by the state and sentenced to death. He refers back to his conversation with Meno and reemphasizes that which supports immortality. He points out that any evidence for life prior to earthly existence is also evidence for life after death.
The Allegory of the Cave, in the Republic, seems to enhance and compliment Socrate's ideas. This is the construction in which Plato theorizes that the light of reason shines on eternal ideas or forms and casts the shadows which are the appearances and approximations of our imperfect, unreal world. Nobody has ever seen, in this life, a perfectly straight line. When magnified enough, every line has some imperfections in it. Yet we would not know that we are seeing imperfections if we did not have the idea of what perfection is. This is true of every table, chair, or form. We have never seen a perfect form, yet we still know what a perfect form is. How did we get this knowledge?
I almost regret saying anything against this line of reasoning. Socrates's and Plato's elucidations are poetic and much more respectable than the religious variations which they inspired. Unfortunately, Socrates' and Plato's statements are not conclusive. The leading questions which Socrates asked the attendant boy would not be allowed by any judge. At most, Socrates demonstrated that some knowledge can be acquired through inference and then applied to a new situation. Certain kinds of initial observation type knowledge, however, cannot be arrived at through the Socratic method. The discovery of the spread of diseases by bacteria, for example, could not have been elicited from an ignorant person by means of question and answer. Also, Plato's theory of forms cannot be applied to the ideal woman, the ideal mountain, the ideal tree, or the greatest conceivable being. It is true that we do seem to have some knowledge of lines and mathematical concepts which we could not have experienced, but this could be tied to our unique language or reasoning ability. This does not need to be something from a previous existence. It could be part of our human nature as it is part of the nature of certain birds that they can fly. Finally, even if we conceded that some knowledge comes from a former existence, we would need to tie that knowledge to another former life and so on into infinity. Alas, there are too many problems in the construction of Socrates and Plato. We have to cut it off with Occam's razor.
There is a last category of arguments which is similar to arguments from experience. Strange things do seem to happen. People have reported seeing aberrations of lost friends or relatives. People have reported hearing distinct voices and experiencing other occurrences which seem only to be explained by the actuality of life after death. Authors such as Raymond A. Moody have published reports by people who have experienced close encounters with death. Many of the stories are similar. Some of the common elements are a sensation of moving along a dark passage, the perception of a bright light, and the experience of being outside the body. Does any of this constitute proof for life after death?
In cases of aberrations and strange happings, it is much easier to believe that people have illusions or hallucinations than it is to believe that they witness supernatural phenomena. Nothing of such a nature has ever been documented in a laboratory.
In reports of near-death experiences, even the authors who publish these statements admit that the evidence is not yet conclusive. Physiological explanations can account for many of the common sensations and perceptions which extreme conditions produce. There may also be psychological reasons. People have been conditioned to associate death with darkness and God with brightness. It is also not difficult to imagine being, as we have seen depicted in movies and stories since childhood, outside the body.
It would be quite something else, however, to imagine being outside any body. We usually think of the body as a frame of reference. Without any body at all, we could not have any bodily sensations. We could not see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. This would eliminate several things about which we think. Would we still be able to contemplate certain abstract mathematical concepts, or are all concepts abstracted from a reality with which we must have empirical contact? Even if we can have a-priori thoughts, the cognitivists say that all thinking is tied to electrical and chemical processes in the brain. Without a body, what would hold the flow of our thoughts on course? If thinking is an ability of the body, this ability must die when the body dies. It is inconceivable that an ability can exist independent of the thing of which it is an ability. If thinking is something else; if it is a thing, then can it be measured? Does it have location? If it has no substance; if it is like a concept, then how can it interact with the body? It would need to defy all known laws of physics. If there is life after death, then these are some of the many questions which must be answered.
I think I have supported the contentions that God and life after life are untenable beliefs. In my final segment, I will show that a morality based on such beliefs is also untenable and a threat to wisdom.
On Christian morality
If the contentions stand that God and life after life are untenable beliefs, then this is also prima facie support for the instability of a morality which is tied to these beliefs. When foundations crumble, the entire structure is lost. There are, however, other reasons why a mystic morality is unstable and dangerous.
As I stated previously, I see life as an intrinsic value. This makes it a standard for morality. That which promotes and protects life is good, and that which threatens and destroys life is evil. A never-ending life destroys all value and leaves nothing to determine that which is and is not moral. Religionists, however, have an ingenious substitute standard for morality. If we are going to live forever, why do we need to be concerned about what we do in this life? Religious people answer that we must be concerned about our position in the after-life. If we are moral, then we are rewarded in heaven, they say; and if we are immoral, then we are punished in hell.
I see two problems, at least, with this explanation. First, it requires too much faith. Life after death is already a resolution of belief, and heaven and hell is a lot more construction within that proposition. If life after death is uncertain, then the idea of heaven and hell is even less certain. Second, if this construction is offered to us as an ultimatum; if we must be good in order to go to heaven, if hell is our alternative or even a remote threat, then the idea of free-will is somewhat damaged. When someone holds a gun to my head and tells me to give him all my money, I have very little freedom. I may be thankful to have any choice at all, but I would think that the terms of my freedom are cruelly narrow. "Heaven" and "hell" may also be cruel terms.
How do we know what cruel is? If we accept the idea of heaven and hell as a reason why we should be concerned about what we do, the next question has to do with how we can know what we should and should not do. What is the standard for morality? How can we determine good and bad? How can we know what choices will be rewarded in heaven and what will be punished in hell?
The answer, according to the people who believe in all this, is that God tells us. Directly or indirectly, God communicates with us. Our responsibility seems to be to suspend our own selfish judgment and put our faith in God. We must, they say, consider ourselves inadequate and subjugate ourselves to something which is beyond our inferior ability to comprehend. Even in this, we will not be successful. We can only try to be good.
In the Christian tradition, this reasoning is implied within the concept of original sin. Everybody must do penance for either the literal or symbolic sin of Adam. We are evil, they say. It is because of this that Christ died for our sins, and it is because of this that we must subjugate ourselves to God. Without the concept of original sin, there would be no need for this kind of morality. Religions depend on this judgment of the nature of man.
I think the best reply to this is a quote from one of my favorite philosophers through her character, John Galt:
"Damnation is the start of your morality. Destruction is its purpose, means, and end. Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not.
The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin.
"A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it, if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as man's sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold man's nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Yet that is the root of your code."
(Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957.)
This is my indictment of Christian dogmas. They are anti-human. Within a Christian's own teachings is the implication that the only good Christian is a dead Christian. It is a sin to think, to feel, to live. Yet this is what is being taught to children under the title of love.
Clarence Darrow said, "The fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom." I agree.
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