Thursday, March 21, 2024

From Agnosticism to Atheism

I am nearing the end of what I have to say about atheism.  I have ideas for six additional posts, but in a general sense, this post is the culmination of what I have to say about atheism and belief in God.

I had doubts about the existence of God and souls from my early teens.  As I grew older, married, and had a family, I kept my doubts to myself.  I went to church with my family, worshipped and prayed as a practicing Christian.  As the children grew older, we stopped attending church and I stopped praying.  I returned to my earlier doubts and considered myself an agnostic.

Being agnostic implies uncertainty.  As it is often used, being agnostic incorrectly suggests something of a 50 – 50 proposition – “Eh, maybe it’s so, maybe not”.  Even if evidence or lack of evidence leads you to an opinion, at the end of the day being agnostic means giving a shrug and saying, “I really don’t know.”  This post is about how I moved away from a mindset of uncertainty, to decide with reasonable certainty that there is no God.  This is the path to atheism.

About a decade ago I read a short passage in an essay which radically changed my thinking.  The essay is “A Dream of Socrates”, in the book The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.  In the essay, Socrates is speaking with the god Hermes in the style of the dialogues of Plato.  Hermes and Socrates have been discussing the virtues of Athenian society. 

“Hermes: ‘Most Athenians would indeed call those virtues.  But how many really believe it?  How many are willing to criticize a god by the standards of reason and justice?’
Socrates: [Ponders.] All who are just, I suppose.  For how can anyone be just if he follows a god of whose moral rightness he is not persuaded?  And how is it possible to be persuaded of someone’s moral rightness without first forming a view about which qualities are morally right?’”

The notion that people should judge gods (or God) was revolutionary to me.  But why shouldn’t we judge God?  We are intelligent beings and we can appraise justice and reason.  We should expect God to be reasonable and just.  Being reasonable and just should be something intrinsically part of how we define God.  If the world does not show evidence of God’s reason and justice, we can logically conclude that God doesn’t exist.  And if God is not reasonable and just, we’re talking about a demon, not God.  I will not believe in an unreasonable, unjust or capricious God.

Some people would tell me that God doesn’t want to be judged.  We are told, without proof, that we are lower beings created by God, and therefore we have no right to judge God.  But isn’t that unreasonable and unjust?  

On social media, I’m frequently told that I will suffer eternal damnation if I don’t repent and worship God.  If God demands worship under the threat of eternal pain and suffering, isn’t that extortion?  Is it reasonable?  I’ll answer for you.  No.  Is it just?  No.

Much of this blog has been an exploration in the ways in which God is apparently unreasonable and unjust.  My essay “God as Sustainer of All Things”  ( contains a list of dozens of rationalizations that religious authorities use to excuse God’s apparent injustice toward humans.  If God exists, we have to twist logic like a pretzel to justify God’s apparent indifference and cruelty towards humankind.  Occam’s Razor gives us a better resolution of the paradox.  It is simpler, and therefore logically correct, to conclude that God doesn’t exist.

Dictionaries define agnosticism as a belief that any ultimate reality, including the existence of God, is probably unknowable.  (It’s funny that agnostics are even agnostic about agnosticism.  “Is reality truly unknowable?”   “Eh, I’m not so sure.  Maybe not.”)  It’s appropriate that I am an atheist, not an agnostic, because I believe that objective truth does exist and is generally accessible to everyone.

“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Carl Sagan 1984, after others circa 1890.

A list of famous agnostics includes many smart people whom I greatly respect.  Presumably they thought about the problem, doubted the existence of God, but could not bring themselves to the point of denying that God exists.


Famous agnostics:

Thucydides, Confucius, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Charles Darwin, Erico Fermi, Alexander Von Humboldt, Mark Twain, Edwin Hubble, John Tyndall, Marie Curie, Leo Szilard, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Karl Popper, David Attenborough, Thomas Kuhn, Milton Friedman, Stephen Jay Gould, Jacob Bronowski, Neil Gaiman, Noam Chomsky, Matt Groening.

Part of the rationale for agnosticism lies in the fact that knowledge is always incomplete.  There are always unknown aspects of reality.  The progress of science has been a bit like the process of peeling an infinite onion.  After we began to understand the elements as the fundamental building blocks of matter, we learned of fundamental sub-atomic particles – the proton, neutron and electron.  Then we learned that protons and neutrons are not elementary particles, they each consist of three quarks.  Seventeen elementary particles have been recognized, including six varieties of quark.  Similarly, Newtonian ideas about gravity and mechanics were replaced by Einstein’s gravity and  others’ quantum mechanics.  Dark matter and dark energy are additional mysteries; the early evolution of the universe contains paradoxes, etc.  Each layer of reality peels away to reveal a new mystery.  Could the next scientific discovery reveal the face of God?  Agnostics believe so.  They would say that don’t know what we don’t know.

However, the notion of the “unknown unknowns” has limits of reasonable conjecture.  Edward Abbey expressed the reasonable limit of "unknown unknowns" in this aphorism:

“Is there a God?  I don’t know.
Is there an angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon?  I don’t know.”
Edward Abbey

Isaac Asimov's “The Relativity of Wrong” is a brilliant essay on incomplete knowledge.  He shows that incomplete knowledge is not the same as not knowing anything.  The discovery of general relativity does not invalidate Euclidean geometry; it simply expands the domain of geometry to include new truths about non-Euclidean space.  New subatomic particles don’t change the composition of salt from sodium and chlorine.  And uncertainty about the existence of God is something that we can address using logical principles and then reason to a logical conclusion.  

In contrast to Agnostics, Atheists actively assert that God does not exist.  Through various processes of reasoning, atheists conclude that there is evidence of absence; i.e., that God does not exist.  Here’s a list of well-known atheists.

Famous Atheists:

Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Anton Chekov, Dave Barry, Henrik Ibsen, Franz Kafka, Jack London, Terry Pratchett, Salman Rushdie, Maurice Sendak, H.L. Menken, Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, Francis Crick, Richard Feynman, Sigmund Freud, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Kahneman, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, Andrei Sakharov, Irwin Schrodinger, Alan Turing, Charles Richter, Henri Poincare, Ayn Rand, Linus Pauling, Richard Leakey, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, James Watson, Orson Welles, Karl Marx, Oliver Sacks, Kurt Vonnegut, Kenau Reeves, Lisa Randall, Tim Berners-Lee.

The Atheism symbol is derived from a simplified
schematic of atomic structure and the letter "A".

Standards of Proof
Standards of proof depend on why we’re trying to prove something.  Let’s consider four different standards of proof commonly used in society.

  • Preponderance of Evidence: Civil suits in the United States, regarding damages due to a negligent or improper act, are decided according to a lower standard of proof than a criminal case.  A jury in a civil suit must decide their judgment on the preponderance of evidence.  If 51% of the evidence supports the plaintiff, and 49% supports the defendant, the judgment should be decided in favor of the plaintiff
  • Reasonable Certainty:  A higher standard of certainty is required in judicial criminal cases in the United States.  This standard is also called certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.  A defendant in this country is presumed innocent until proven guilty by an overwhelming weight of evidence, such that no reasonable doubt remains about the defendant’s guilt.  Reasonable certainty suggests that no reasonable doubt remains.  This standard is unquantified, but is generally understood by ordinary citizens in society.
  • Unequivocal determination:  Scientific meta-studies aggregate all of the relevant research on a topic.  Examples include the IPCC climate assessment reports and the National Climate Assessment.  After integrating the findings of many studies, the reviewing organization may issue an unequivocal determination on a finding.  This standard requires that the likelihood of the finding is significantly greater than 99%.  (A finding of >99% likelihood, but with reasonable remaining uncertainty is assigned a grade of “virtually certain”.)  When all reasonable objections to the finding have been removed by evidence, the finding is judged to be unequivocal.
  • Mathematical certainty:  A mathematical proof is an even higher standard of proof.  A mathematical proof of an assertion requires that there is no possibility of contradiction within the domain under consideration, reasonable or unreasonable.

In becoming an atheist, to make my assertion that God does not exist, I chose the standard of reasonable certainty.  On the basis of the preponderance of evidence, we would easily conclude there is no God, because there is no rigorous evidence that God exists.  On the other hand, it seems unlikely that atheism could provide mathematical certainty that God doesn’t exist.  However, we do not live our lives according to mathematical certainty.  The standard of reasonable certainty allows us to reason to a conclusion, and would rebut all reasonable (that is, evidence-based) objections.

It’s easier to prove something exists than that something doesn’t exist.  Still, there are tools we can use.  We can look for internal inconsistencies to disprove an assertion, or inconsistencies between reasonable expectations and reality.  In formal logic, the first is reductio ad absurdum, and the second is modus tollens.  In the first method, if you can reason from a proposition to a contradiction, the proposition is disproved.  In the second, if you can disprove a consequence of the proposition, the proposition is disproved.  (Given the proposition: If P, then Q.  If Q is not true, P is disproved.)  Let’s use the second method and consider the logical consequences if God exists.  

As an aside, I have added a step to modus tollens.  I first consider our expectations of God in terms of character, and then what interactions logically follow from those traits.  Logicially, if P, then Q, then R.  If R is disproved, then Q and P are also disproved.

Please take a moment to think of things that logically follow if God exists.  Find a piece of paper and make a list.  Be serious.  Begin with the assumption that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere, as is the general assertion of Abrahamic religions.  First write down characteristics of God that logically follow from being all-knowing, all-powerful and present everywhere.   Second, write down conditions or events in the world that logically follow from the characteristics that you assigned to God.  You may think of things that are in the world we know, and also things that are not.  Go ahead, take your time.  I’ll wait.

Here is my list of God’s characteristics which logically follow if God really exists.  Given that God is all-knowing, all-powerful and present everywhere, I expect that God would have developed empathy and responsibility.  God knows and understands suffering of living things, and from empathy, should care enough to develop the characteristic of responsibility and fairness for the outcomes in the living world.  From empathy, responsibility, and fairness, God should become caring, reasonable and just.  Here is my list of God's characteristics, if God exists.

  • Empathetic
  • Caring
  • Responsible
  • Reasonable
  • Fair
  • Just

If God is empathetic, responsible, caring, reasonable and just, I would expect that the following conditions would exist in the world, representing the interaction between God and humanity.

  • God would communicate to all of humanity clearly, consistently, and continuously about God’s plans, purpose, desires and instructions for humankind.
  • Revelation of God would be given equally and fairly to all societies, as soon as each society was capable of understanding God.
  • Sacred texts would be consistent across all cultures and times.  Sacred texts would also be complete from the first version, not subject to revision and without internal contradictions.
  • Clear indications of God’s divinity would be given through demonstrable miracles in modern as well as ancient times, meeting scientific standards for observation.
  • God would show reason and justice in God’s own actions or inaction.
  • Sacred literature would also exhibit clear standards of reason and justice.
  • God would mitigate the suffering of innocents.
  • God would clearly answer prayers.  (Note that “answer” does not mean “fulfill”, but instead means “respond”). 

None of those things happen in reality.  They are contradicted by lived experience and all credible reported experience.  They are not true.  How does your list compare?  Does your lived experience and the experience of others confirm or disprove the existence of God?  

This is what David Deutsch means when he says that we should judge God.  Does the world we live in reflect our logical expectations of God?  To me, the logical consequences that should follow from the existence of God don’t exist.  If God existed in the form that human religions have proposed, as an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good being, creator of the universe and humankind, we would have a fundamentally different world and different human experience.

If the Abrahamic God exists, then God is empathetic, responsible, caring, reasonable and just.  God would interact with humans in ways that are reasonable and just.  But God does not communicate clearly and consistently with humanity.  God did not give his revelation to all societies fairly and equally.  Sacred texts across cultures are wildly inconsistent, and contain revisions and corrections to earlier texts (i.e., the New Testament).  There are no modern miracles meeting suitable standards of observation.  God’s actions, as recounted in the Old Testament, are cruel and unjust.  God does not mitigate the suffering of innocent victims of either human or natural misfortune.  God does not clearly respond to prayers.  

God’s interactions with humanity are not empathetic, responsible, caring, reasonable or just.  We should judge God not only on the basis of our own experience, but also the lived experience of others.  We might think about those drowned in the Titanic, victims of Nazi gas chambers and slaughters, Native Americans accepting missionaries and dying of smallpox, victims of famine and war, non-viable babies, and all the tragic events suffered by all of humanity.  We should think about prayers which were met with silence.

The lived experience of humanity contradicts the care that we should expect from an all-powerful being.  Therefore, we must logically conclude that God does not exist.

The image of a path above is from a free internet source.  It is used without permission and not for profit, and will be removed upon request if copyright is not in the public domain.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

What is Truth?

 Have you ever walked into the midst of a heated argument, and thought, “Wait; you’re both wrong!!”  I have that feeling when reading one of the iconic scenes of the Bible, the questioning of Jesus Christ by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate was the Roman prefect and governor of Judea.  Let’s review the conversation as reported in the gospel of John.  (Keep in mind that the gospel of John was probably maintained by oral tradition for at least 35 years, and did not reach final form until about 70 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The conversation may not reflect historical accuracy.)

“36 Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
37 ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.
Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’
38 ‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.’”

                            John 18:36-38, New International Version

"What is Truth?"  Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate
Image credit unknown.

Jesus brushes aside the accusation of being an earthly king, and instead asserts that his entire mission is to testify to truth.  The gospels tell us that the truth Jesus preached is the reality of God, the necessity of worshiping God, the importance of loving neighbors, even neighbors you dislike, the importance of humility and forgiveness, the importance of renouncing worldly obligations (including family obligations) to follow him, the reward in the afterlife for worshiping God, and punishment in the afterlife for rejecting God.

But what if God isn’t real?  What if it is all a lie?  This seems to be the question that Pilate is asking, when he says “What is truth?”  Pilate doesn’t stay around for an answer to his rhetorical question.  I would read into Pilate’s question a rejection of the idea of truth, or a belief in relative truth, dependent on circumstances.  Let’s deal with Pilate first.

Pontius Pilate
Religion in the Roman empire of 33 AD was complicated.  Roman was polytheistic.  Roman gods and goddesses had parallels in Greek religion (I will call these beliefs religion, rather than mythology.  People of the time regarded their gods as real as Christians regard their God today.)  Egypt had its own gods and goddess of quasi-human character, and there were a number of Levantine religions in addition to Judaism.  Further complicating the divine roster were ruler-gods.  Ancient Rome was surrounded by cultures which venerated their rulers as gods.  Egypt is the most well-known example of divine rulers, with pharaohs regarded as divine intermediaries between gods and humans.  First Greeks and then Romans adopted the practice of deifying rulers after death.  We can’t know what Pilate thought of these conflicting religious ideas, or if he was a true believer in Mars, Zeus, or the emperor Augustus as real divine gods.  The rhetorical question “What is truth?” suggests that he regarded Jesus’ god as no better and no worse than the rest.

But regardless of uncertainties, we cannot disavow truth.  Logic falls apart if we cannot say that any proposition is true.  Mathematics disintegrates if we cannot firmly assert that 2 + 2 equals 4.  There is no corner of time or space in which 2 + 2 does not equal four.  Even in relativistic physics, the resting mass of an object is constant.  Truth is absolute.

Like Goedel’s theorem in math, truth is also necessarily incomplete.  We will never know the full truth about many things.  Also, some aspects of physical reality, like quantum mechanics, are subject to probabilistic rules.  But these probabilistic rules are themselves truth over the domains where they apply.  Further research will undoubtedly produce new fundamental discoveries and overturn current knowledge, but this does not invalidate the idea that truth exists.  Do not confuse knowledge and truth.  Knowledge is necessarily incomplete and imperfect.  Truth, which we may only approach, is absolute, whatever it is.

I cannot resist a tangential mention of a brilliant essay by Isaac Asimov, The Relativity of Wrong, published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1986, and in a collection of non-fiction essays in 1988, under the same title.  While truth is absolute, there are degrees of falsehood.  The statement 2+2=5 may be false, but it is less false than 2+2 =5,492,817, which is less false than 2+2=purple.

We recognize different degrees of certainty in determining truth in different settings.  In the courtroom, the preponderance of evidence (i.e. >50%) is sufficient to determine truth in a civil case, but evidence beyond a reasonable doubt is necessary for a criminal conviction.  Similarly, in science, different levels of certainty are assigned to scientific findings, with the ultimate determination of "unequivocal" for the highest level of certainty.  In this essay, I am searching for truth beyond a reasonable doubt, or unequivocal truth.  These are criteria where objections to the finding are not based on reasonable evidence, or opposing arguments which are not in good faith.

Our discussion of Jesus begins with another iconic passage from the gospels.
“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
John 14:5-6, New International Version.

In his statement to Pilate, Jesus said that he came into the world to testify to the truth.  In his statement to Thomas, Jesus said that he embodied truth, as well as the unique and only path to God.  Remember that claim as we consider statements from a number of other religions.

Jesus taught that he was the prophesied messiah, that God was real, and that there exists a kingdom of heaven which only believers can reach.  Jesus taught that devotion to God and Jesus was necessary for salvation from sin and eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.  There were many other teachings involving empathy, equality, forgiveness, and human relationships, but Jesus’ core message was about religion and the human relationship to God.  But how do we know that Jesus’ testimony is, in fact, the truth?  There are many claims to be the one true religion on Earth.

"The Christian religion is true, because it has pleased God, who alone can be the judge in this matter, to affirm it to be the true religion· And it alone has the commission and the authority to be a missionary religion, i.e., to confront the world of religions as the one true religion, with absolute self-confidence to invite and challenge it to abandon its ways and to start on the Christian way."
                         ― Theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968).

“The Bible clearly states that repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to receive salvation. And that's how we can know that Christianity is indeed the one true religion.”
United Church of Christ Webpage

The Truth of Shintō is to be seen in the inevitability of its underlying doctrine.  This is apparent on consideration of the real significance of the great deities introduced in the oldest Yamato literature….This is the Truth of the Way of the Gods.
                        ― Kazusaku Kanzaki, Shintō Honkyoku no Kyōri ("The Doctrine of Shintō Honkyoku"), Uchü ("The Universe"), (January 1930).  [Complete quote and list of gods given below.]

“It is our firm conviction that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, as the revelations state, ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.’”

                        ― Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 1985, on the webpage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, "The Only True Church".

"30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased."
                        ― Doctrine and Covenants 1:30, 1835  (Church of Latter Day Saints).

“If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth... Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known.”
                        ― Mahatma Gandhi

There is only one God, and It is called the truth, It exists in all creation, and It has no fear, It does not hate, and It is timeless, universal and self-existent! You will come to know it through the grace of the Guru.
                        ― Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Holy Scripture of Sikhism, circa 1604.

“‘Once that has been made clear, we can easily say that Allah sent only one form of legislation for all of mankind to follow, otherwise if we were to say that there is more than one then that would entail that Allah is unjust because He left us to wander about on earth without showing us the right way to do things, and this is impossible because Allah is Just.  Therefore the only logical conclusion is that there is only one true religion, which contains guidance in all spheres of life, and that all other religions are false.”
                           ― Kamil Ahmad, current webpage.

“He who upholds Truth with all the might of his power, He who upholds Truth the utmost in his word and deed, He, indeed, is Thy most valued helper, O Mazda Ahura!”
“Truth is best (of all that is) good. As desired, what is being desired is truth for him who (represents) the best truth. (Gathas 27.14)”

                            ― Zarathustra, circa 1000 BCE

There are approximately 3000 to 4000 different religious faiths and traditions known in historical times.  Most of these claim to be the one and only true religion, and the only path to know God, receive salvation, have happiness in the afterlife, etc.  A few religious traditions, like Unitarianism, accept all faiths, but this sweeps contradictions under the rug instead of rationally working toward an understanding based on truth.  Some of the intellectuals writing about religion come very close to the correct analysis, but fail at the end. 

Zacharias Ursinus, circa 1563 AD, wrote: “doctrine which contradicts itself can neither be true, nor from God, since truth is in perfect harmony with itself, and God cannot contradict himself.” 
And yet, despite obvious contradictions in doctrine, in the Bible, in the concept of God and the injustice in the world, Ursinus fails to conclude that religious doctrine is false, and God isn’t real.  He was so close.

Sometimes an Internet meme is the simplest way to convey an idea.  The claims by many religions to be the one true faith cannot possibly all be true.  Nor do relativistic equivalencies between different churches make sense.  While there are some similarities between religions, there are also deep and fundamental differences of doctrine and belief, from polytheism/monotheism, to creation stories, to religious commandments, etc.  These differences are real and irreconcilable.

Since Jesus declared that he embodied truth, the subsequent 2000 years have not provided any convincing evidence that God exists.  There is no evidence that prophecy is true, that spirits exist separately from corporeal humans, that life does not end at death, or that an alternate world of God’s kingdom exists.  It is a lot to accept without evidence.

I will explore further proof that God doesn’t exist in my next post, “From Agnosticism to Atheism.”
The image of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ is used without permission and not for profit.  It will be removed upon a received request.


Additional claims of religious truth:
“The expression "one true church" refers to an ecclesiological position asserting that Jesus gave his authority in the Great Commission solely to a particular visible Christian institutional church—what is commonly called a denomination. This view is maintained by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox communion, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the Churches of Christ, and the Lutheran Churches,[1] as well as certain Baptists.[2] Each of them maintains that their own specific institutional church (denomination) exclusively represents the one and only original church.”
― Wikipedia, The One True Church

“It is not possible that that religion should be true and divine….it is only the doctrine of the church that is true and divine….Now, as the doctrine of the church is the only system of religious truth that has ever discovered and proclaimed a way of deliverance from the evils of sin and death, which alone affords real and substantial comfort to the conscience, it must be true and divine.”
― Zacharias Ursinus, circa 1563, 14 Reasons Christianity is the True Religion, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

The Truth of Shintō is to be seen in the inevitability of its underlying doctrine.  This is apparent on consideration of the real significance of the great deities introduced in the oldest Yamato literature.
Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Kami (‘‘The Deity Who is Lord of the Center of Heaven’’), the first god named in the Kojiki is correctly understood as the central existence of the universe, the primary source of all things, both animate and inert. All the phenomena presented to human senses are the manifestations in time of this absolute god. The Absolute functions in time in the form of the two-fold creation kami, Taka-Mimusubi-no-Kami and Kami-Musubi-no-Kami. These two beings represent activities of opposite kinds, from which the phenomenal world has had its rise. This positive-negative, or male-female, potency appears in Japanese history as the great father and mother of the race, Izanagi and Izanami, from whom is born the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-Ōmikami, who in turn is the progenetrix of the Imperial Family and the Japanese people. Amaterasu-Ōmikami, in her position among the historical personages of Japan, is like the sun in heaven about which the planetary bodies revolve. The aptness of this solar metaphor accounts for the sun imagery of the early mythology. The statements just made point to undeniable facts in Japanese history. This is not a matter of mere chance or coincidence, but is so by inner necessity. This is the Truth of the Way of the Gods.

Kazusaku Kanzaki, Shintō Honkyoku no Kyōri ("The Doctrine of Shintō Honkyoku"), Uchü ("The Universe"), (January 1930), quoted in D. C. Holtom, The National Faith of Japan: A Study in Modern Shinto (1938).

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Is Religion Benign? Part II

I have a former classmate who is an aggressive atheist.  Her worldview is largely built around an idea, frequently and obsessively repeated on social media, “Religion is never benign.”  Her framing is that absolutely no good ever comes from religion.  In this two-post series, I’m considering a milder form of that framing.  I freely acknowledge that religion brings good into many lives and societies, but also harm.  As Mark Twain noted in “The Dervish and the Offensive Stranger”, there is both good and harm in every deed.  There are no good deeds without bad consequences, and no bad deeds without incidental good.  My question, then, is whether religion is a net benefit or a net harm to society.  

My previous post considered the historical record of religion – unjust sacred texts, religious wars and persecutions, absolutism, abusive cults, abusive clergy and misdirected social resources.  Weighing against those are unquantifiable benefits of kindness and community, which sometimes (but not always) accompany religion.  This post will address the principal harm from religion, which is that religion does not have a foundation in truth.  The problem with religion is that it simply isn’t true.  

Is Religion True or False?  How We Know What is True

"Inuring us to lies lays the groundwork for many other evils."
                        -- Thomas Paine, quoted by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World

We know religion isn’t true for several reasons.  First, there is an utter lack of reliable evidence for the existence of God or unseen sentient spirits.  Second, there is a complete lack of agreement among the world’s cultures regarding the nature and history of these unseen beings.  Third, there is a lack of reason and justice in acts attributed to God, and in sacred literature.  Finally, there are irreconcilable logical inconsistencies regarding God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness, compared to what we observe in the world.  Occam’s razor forces the conclusion that God isn’t real, and religion is false.

People are responsible for discerning what is true and what is false.  It is essential for personal safety, for citizenship, and for social order.  Without a common agreement on what is true, a society cannot have a fair football game, fair marathons, fair elections, ethical marketplaces, prices and advertising, trustworthy science and medicine, etc.  Civilization falls apart without widespread integrity and commonly accepted truth.  

I have a friend who maintains from a philosophical perspective that there is no such thing as absolute truth.  I strenuously disagree.  The concept of absolute truth is necessary for science, for justice, for government, for business and for society.  We cannot deal in relative truth when submitting annual reports to investors, writing a scientific publication or deciding on the guilt of an accused person.  I believe that absolute truth exists, and is generally accessible to everyone.  (This is one of the few statements in which I will say “I believe”, as an assertion that cannot be proven.)  In a scientific sense, truth will always be incomplete, like the mathematics of Goedel’s theorem.  For example, complete truth about historical matters may never be known.  We will never know the music that was played on a 40,000 year-old bone flute.  In physics, we may never know the true nature of dark matter or energy.  But we can put firm bounds on what is known to be true, and reach whatever conclusions are possible from these bounded uncertainties.

The Triumph of Conscience over False Prophets
(Also called the Triumph of Truth over Falsehood)
Johann Sadeler, Circa 1580

Does It Matter If People Believe In False Gods and Spirits?

“When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer.  Superstition ain't the way.”

                                                            -- Stevie Wonder, Superstition

One person’s religion is another person’s superstition.  It’s kind of astonishing how missionaries (including my ancestors) traveled the world, met indigenous people, told them their timeless beliefs were false, and replaced those beliefs with other false beliefs.  We tend to look with derision upon ancient Greek oracles, and the notion of gods dwelling and squabbling on the top of a mountain, but those were very real articles of faith for those people.  Socrates died for “impiety and corrupting youth” by questioning those beliefs.  A few plots of Star Trek imagined encountering cultures that worshipped a rock, or an ancient visitation by space travelers.  What would star-faring visitors to Earth think of our religions?  

As atheists, is religion something we can safely ignore, or should it be challenged in public discourse?  Another college classmate wrote this rhetorical question to me:

“All major religions exhort followers to be good, ethical, moral...if that helps you live well, what difference does it make if there is heaven or hell at the end?”
College classmate #2

Does it matter whether religion is true?  Yes, it matters.  Faithful people rarely consider the possibility that all of religion is a lie.  As a consequence, there is great harm done by what follows from believing in things that are not true.

People make irrational decisions based on faith, ignoring the obvious consequences if that faith is misplaced.  Plains Indians warriors believed that Ghost Shirts would protect them from bullets (didn’t work).  The mother of a childhood friend, as a practicing Christian Scientist, did not take my friend to a doctor or dentist, believing that God would protect him.   Many people refuse vaccines, believing that God will protect them.  Others refuse life-saving medical care for themselves or their children, instead trusting to “God’s will.”  In recent memory, many Christians believed that religious gatherings would be protected from COVID.  In a cruel inversion of that belief, fundamentalist Christians sometimes ostracize members of their congregation who fall ill to cancer or other diseases, inferring that it signifies sin on the part of the member who falls ill.  

Apart from irrational decisions about health and wellness, religious faith leads people into other irrational behaviors regarding diet, dress, social hierarchy (particularly regarding women) and sexual orientation.  These result in personal guilt, a loss of personal realization, oppression of others, psychological distress, and misdirected time, energy and financial resources.   Other people have taken random events as signs from God about pathways or decisions that may have been far from the best choices.  What could humanity have achieved if we had not spent our fortunes and energy in building pyramids and cathedrals?  Some people have piloted Kamikaze planes or strapped explosives on their bodies, trusting that they will receive eternal reward in the afterlife.  Some people have spent their lives in devotion to God, through prayer, worship and contemplation.  What could they have achieved, if they had applied their intelligence and energy to science, education, or public service? 

Truth and Untruth, Anastasia Tyutyunnik


“In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts.  But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous.  The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, but that it should become credulous.”

                -W.K. Clifford, in Bronowski, Science and Human Values, published 1956

You cannot reliably reach good conclusions from false assumptions.  False assumptions will inevitably lead to a loss of reason, a loss of rational judgment.  No matter how well-intentioned, any system of false belief will ultimately result in irrational and damaging decisions and behaviors.  

When people learn to accept their deepest beliefs without proof and without question, it erodes their ability to discern what is true.  When holding one unfounded belief, it becomes easier to accept other unfounded beliefs.  Judging by comments on social media by religious people, it also becomes easier to reject truths that are established through rigorous processes of proof.  The alignment of conservative religious beliefs and conservative social and political beliefs is a major social phenomenon of our time.  It’s a movement that crosses national and continental boundaries.  In the United States, someone who is deeply faithful to Christianity is likely to accept false claims of faith healing, election fraud (when Republicans lose), conspiracy theories about the political opposition (ranging into the absurd), etc., and to doubt well-established truths, such as the safety of vaccines, human-caused climate change, the reality of the moon landing.  

In recent history, religious belief has been politicized.  Religious belief seems to predispose believers to believing political falsehoods, influencing their votes.  Our current presidential race features former President Donald Trump, an inveterate liar.  The Republican party has doubled down one his false claims,  regarding the integrity of Joe Biden’s electoral victory in 2020, the dangers of immigration, the state of the economy, the war in Ukraine, etc.  There’s a good correspondence between people with strong religious beliefs and those who strongly disbelieve facts from science, medicine, journalism and politics.  The Venn diagram approaches a circle.

False beliefs lead to irrational and harmful actions.  Someone who believes that God will protect them from COVID at a family Thanksgiving dinner may transmit the disease to me at the grocery store.  Someone who believes that their God is the right and true God may blow up a bus, or start a war that will kill, maim, and make homeless thousands of innocent people, including many of their own sect.  Yet 90% or more Americans believe in God, or spirits or the afterlife, and every day are making irrational decisions that affect me and society.  I live in the Middle Ages, a time of superstition, ignorance, plague, war and feudal hierarchies and other than writing this blog, I am powerless to correct the problem.

I conclude that my classmate is essentially correct.  Religion is not benign, and causes more harm than good, because fundamentally, the precepts of religion and spiritualism are false.  Religion and spiritualism inevitably lead to harmful decisions and behaviors affecting all of society.

Allegory of Truth and Falsehood, Fortunato Duranti, circa 1835

Irrational Beliefs

Donald Trump’s Lies

Images in this post are used without permission, but not for profit, and will be removed upon request.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Is Religion Benign? Part I

“Religion is never benign”
            -- College  classmate

One of my college classmates is an aggressive atheist, and has a mantra, “Religion is never benign.”  She uses the phrase frequently to accompany anti-religious memes on Facebook.  She is unkind toward expressions of faith and publicly disparages religious posts by other classmates.  In her view, religion is entirely harmful, and should be opposed in every venue.  

I disagree with my classmate in the straightforward meaning of her mantra.  Clearly, there are many times that religion has prompted people to act kindly toward others.  Sacred texts from most faiths have some expression of the Golden Rule, urging believers to treat other people as well as they hope to be treated themselves.  It’s a foundational concept of justice.  Christianity charges its faithful to serve the poor, to uplift those who are suffering, to forgive offenses, not to lie or cheat, and generally behave as a decent human being.  Islam requires its faithful to do the same, and to never turn away someone who is hungry.  Judaism has the expression “tikkun olam” – to heal the world, that is considered by many Jews to be the core of their faith.  Eastern religions have their own precepts on making the world better.  

But looking at history and current events, harm from religion is also evident.  We should ask whether religion does more harm than good.  Are the apparent good deeds done in the name of religions outweighed by the negative impacts on society?  Let’s consider some of the negatives associated with religion.

Ancient Texts, Practices, Beliefs and Values
In Christianity, there is a lot of baggage in the Old Testament which contradicts the love expressed in the New Testament.  Christianity does not repudiate the Old Testament, with its agenda of genocide, tribalism, misogyny, intolerance and authoritarianism.  Rather, modern American Christianity has doubled down on the repressive laws of the Old Testament, and used those to justify modern bigotry, just as slave owners before the Civil War used the Bible (both testaments) to justify slavery.  Conservative Christians use the briefest mention of homosexuality to justify their bigotry, but ignore nearly adjacent verses advocating religious violence.  If Christians are to strictly enforce Deuteronomy 22:5, prohibiting cross-dressing, will they someday enforce Deuteronomy 13, 12-17, commanding genocide against those who worship other gods?   I discussed problematic Bible verses at length in previous posts, so I won’t repeat myself.  I will just say that the Bible contains directives that are deeply unjust according to modern values.

Violent History
The second problem is the history of religion.  I will discuss Christianity, because I know it best, but religious wars and persecution occurred across all cultures.  The process by which Christianity spread across Scandinavia and Eastern Europe was horrific.  After a few key leaders adopted Christianity, those who opposed conversion were tortured and killed.  One of the most significant leaders was Olaf Tryggvason of Norway.  Olaf sent missionaries to Greenland and Iceland, but within his own country used forced conversion through means such as exile, hostage taking, mutilation, torture, and death for those who refused as well as destroying pagan temples” (Wiikipedia).  The godson of Olaf Tryggvason, King Olaf II Haraldsson, was canonized as Saint Olaf, but by contemporary accounts was a brutal and violent ruler.


I recall seeing an item of ancient religious art in a convent in Russia, showing a saint overseeing the conversion of a population, while one who opposed the conversion was shown impaled on a spike.  The forced conversion of American Natives by conquistadors was in the same vein.  The idea that Christianity was about kindness was not part of the deal during the spread of Christianity around the world.

Religious wars are an inseparable part of religious history.  Biblical wars, the Crusades, Islamic wars of conquest, Papal wars, the 16th century French wars of religion, and eastern wars were driven by the question of what religion would be observed in the land.  There were sometimes ethnic or nationalistic aspects to the conflicts, but religion was a key component.

Religious persecution is also part of religious history.  The torments of the Catholic inquisitions defined an entire period of European history, and stifled the development of science in renaissance Catholic Europe after Galileo.  European and American witch trials were another horror of religious history.  The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 led to huge massacres of and torture of innocent people.  Estimates of the number of people who departed their homes, but never arrived in their new country range from 2.2 million to 3.2 million people.  Today, on a smaller scale, religious and ethnic genocide continues in Armenia, Gaza, Myanmar, Xinjiang China, Somalia and recently Rwanda.  In Russia, the Orthodox church requires priests to pray for military victory and the subjugation of Ukraine.  

What can we conclude about the long history of religious conflict and repression?  Somehow the kindness in the sacred texts doesn’t diminish the violence.  In fact, religion often seems to justify  the violence.  Common soldiers are promised benefits in the afterlife, whether they are Russian infantrymen, Japanese kamikaze pilots, Islamic suicide bombers, etc.  

Historian (and deeply religious author) Thomas Cahill claims that human sacrifice was a feature of every culture prior to the arrival of Christianity.  Human sacrifices, for religious or spiritual purposes, do seem to be ubiquitous in early cultures.  Several cultures of Meso-Americans ritually murdered prisoners,  bronze-age Europeans ritually murdered select individuals in northern Europe and Spain, Vikings sacrificed people to protect new ships, and in cultures as widely separated as Japan and the Balkans, maidens were buried alive in the foundations of new buildings.  Scythians, Mongols, Egyptians and Meso-Americans murdered and buried wives and servants of leaders, to serve the deceased leader in the afterlife.  Celts and other cultures murdered victims for divination of the future.  Middle Eastern cultures sacrificed infants to the gods.  All of this violence was based on false beliefs about spirits, gods, and the afterlife.  Where would humanity be today, if not for false beliefs?

Religions, especially monotheistic religions, generally claim to be absolute truth.  There’s no discussion, reasoning, argument or rebuttal with the sacred texts, the church, or the clergy.  To question sacred documents, their interpretation, or the leaders of the church is to question God himself.  The aura of infallibility is considered to be transferred from God to the representatives of the church.  To oppose those officials is to commit the crime of heresy.

Many Christians are taught that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  A religious injunction carries absolute authority for the faithful.  No personal judgment is allowed.  There’s no Nuremburg example of orders that should be disobeyed.  Faithful Christians set aside their own rational moral judgment to accept the precepts of the Bible – the commandments of God.  And they become absolutely unreasoning in civil discourse about various human rights.  An absolutism takes hold, and it cannot be reasoned with and cannot be changed.  Why?  Because it is founded in a belief that God exists, and that the sacred texts of religion are his will.  The result is a loss of reasoned consideration of social issues, a loss of tolerance for difference and ability to compromise with those of differing ideas and beliefs.

The consequence in American society is bigotry toward gays, transgender people, immigrants, women and atheists.  Other religions have their own immutable laws and biases.  At the core, the problem is the notion that religion is an absolute truth.  When religious leaders represent that they are the channel of the absolute truth of God, it opens the door to sexual and financial abuse of their followers.

Cults, Evangelical Leaders and Sexual Misconduct

“Any priest or shaman must be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”
    -- Robert Heinlein, as Lazarus Long, in Time Enough For Love.  

Sexual and financial misconduct is strangely prevalent among religious leaders.  It seems more common among religious leaders than business leaders or others (although politicians are not far behind).  Perhaps it is because of power; or perhaps it is because religious leaders know they are already lying.  In any event, an entire blog could be written about misconduct by religious leaders.  To research the topic it seems you could fall into a bottomless rabbit hole.

Closely associated with the problem of absolutism is the problem of cults.  Cults often center on a single charismatic leader, who assumes the infallibility of God as God’s representative to the cult.  Why is the cult leader seen as the representative of God?  Because he said so.  Cult leaders gain enormous power over their followers, power that is usually ultimately abused.  If you find a cult led by a charismatic leader, you often find that the leader has enjoyed sexual relations with numerous members of his flock, while psychologically manipulating them to accept abuse without complaint.  Jim Jones, David Koresh, Warren Jeffs, Shoko Ashara, Joshua Duggar, Tony Alamo and others exemplify the hazard of religious authority assumed by a charismatic leader.

Rulon Jeffs and his son Warren Jeffs were leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a cult-offshoot of the Mormon religion.  At the time of the elder Jeffs’ death, he was reported to have between 60 and 65 wives, and a similar number of children.  Among his wives were girls as young as 14.  Warren Jeffs married most of his father’s surviving wives, and more of his own, for a total of 78 wives.  Again, some were as young as 14.  The younger Jeffs is now serving a term of life in prison for statutory rape of children.

Some of the wives of Warren Jeffs
Rulon Jeffs with some of his sons.  
Boys were often expelled from the polygamous society, while girls were given to older men as wives.

Cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones similarly engaged in sexual coercion, requiring that wives of cult members and other women and girls perform sexual favors for the leader.  Both Koresh and Jones ultimately led their followers into horrific self-inflicted massacres.

Cult Leader Jim Jones
In 1978, Jones ordered the murder of an investigating Congressman and four others who wished to leave the cult.  Jones then ordered a mass murder-suicide that killed 909 of his followers.

Christian leaders and clergy are no exception to the generality about sexual misconduct by religious cultists.  In fact, sexual misconduct seems to be the norm rather than the exception, involving some of the most successful televangelists, including Jimmy Swaggert. Ted Haggard, Carl Lentz, Jim Bakker, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell Jr., Bob Coy, Doug Phillips, Earl Paulk, Coy Privette, Joe Barron and many others.  Investigations have revealed credible accusations of sexual abuse by over 6000 American Catholic clergy, and hundreds of cases by Baptist clergy.  Often the victims of the sexual abuse are children.   The hypocrisy is stunning.  Misconduct is often in of a form regarded by the church as morally worse than consensual affairs, including adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, pedophilia and group sex.  Financial misconduct or excess is often part of the package.  The psychological, financial and physical damage to religious believers is substantial, in any accounting.

Cult leaders such as Jeffs, Koresh and Jones are outliers in the spectrum of religious leaders.  But there are thousands of known Catholic pedophile priests, and hundreds of known abusers in even a single protestant sect.

Evangelical Leaders, Financial Excess and Misconduct
Houston mega-church pastor Joel Osteen has a net worth reported between $50 million and $180 million, lives in a 17,000 sq. ft. mansion, owns a $338,000 Italian sports car and a private jet.  Other televangelists with excessive wealth include Kenneth Copeland ($300 M to $760 M, source: MSN), David Oyedepo ($150 M), Ayodele Oritsejjafor ($120 M), Pat Robertson ($100 M), Benny Hinn ($60 M), Uebert Angel, ($60 M), Chris Oyakhilome ($50 M) , Creflo Dollar ($39 M), EA Adeboye ($35 M to $130 M), Rick Warren ($28 M), Ray McCauley ($28 M), Tshifhiwa Irene ($35 M), T.D. Jakes ($20 M).  Certainly, there are business leaders who have accumulated far greater wealth, so one might ask why is the enrichment of clergy a greater harm?  It is because the product clergy are selling is a fraud.  Prominent clergy convicted or disciplined because of financial fraud include Peter Poppoff, Richard Roberts, Mike Warnke, Robert Tilton, Kent Hovind, and Mike Guglielmucci.

There is no basis for the offer of eternal life or earthly blessings in exchange for donations to the church.  Huge sums from donations are diverted to line the pockets of the clergy, rather than for good works in the world.  There is also the hypocrisy of Christian faith leaders, considering the words of Christ: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”  (Matthew 19:24).

The history of religion is deeply unjust, from our earliest understanding of Neolithic cultures to the present.  Ancient sacred texts reflect beliefs, practices and values which have no place in the modern world.  Murder, slavery, misogyny, tribalism, xenophobia and classism were part of the ancient world, and feature prominently in sacred texts.  The history of religion is saturated with violence and cruelty.  Religion brings absolutism and dogma, choking independent human thought.  And from absolutism, religious leaders assume power and commit sexual and financial crimes against their followers.

This post began with the question of whether religion is a net benefit or a net harm to humankind.  I’ve focused only on negative issues, which are substantial.  There is really no way to tally the cumulative harm from religion, and no way to tally the cumulative benefit from religion.  The issues that I’ve raised in this post are mostly in the past, although problems of fraud, absolutism and bigotry remain today.  In my next post, I’ll consider the primary issue going forward, in my opinion.  That issue is the issue of credulity, and the harm from believing things that are not true.
References on Scandals Involving Clergy
Richest Pastors in the World vs. an Average Pastor’s Salary
Highest-Paid Pastors in the World (MSN)
Sexual and Financial Scandals
Lists of Religious Scandals in Wikipedia