I suspect that there is some kind of creative intelligence which accounts for the structure of the Universe and I am not against calling it “God”. Yet I also hesitate to use that word since it is loaded with connotations that come to us through Abrahamic religions that seem problematic in many ways. For this reason I tend to think of myself as an ultra-skeptical nonreligious theist, a viewpoint not too different from agnosticism.
It would be nice to imagine that the reason behind the existence of all things is a personal, just, loving and merciful God who wants the best for people. Apart from anything else, I am sure this would give me a feeling of deep inner peace and security, knowing that everything was part of an overall system that appealed to me on an emotional rather than merely explanatory level. However, I can’t believe that just because it would make me feel good since wanting to believe something doesn’t actually make it true.
For thousands of years, human beings have believed in all kinds of false religions which helped them make sense of the world and feel better about their place within it. For example, the ancient Greeks believed that it made sense for there to be a god of the sky (Zeus), a god of the sea (Poseidon) and various gods and goddesses for other important things like war (Ares) or the harvest (Demeter). Perhaps the problem was that they thought they had to be able to understand a world that cannot entirely make sense to human beings.
The ancient Greeks were not only certain that these false gods were real but they believed in them with all their hearts. This was strange considering they (presumably) did not exist and yet there’s no reason to think that their inner spiritual experiences of these gods were any less “real” to them than the religious experiences of a modern-day Christian, Muslim or Hindu. The suggestion is that human beings can be totally convinced that they are experiencing a spiritual connection with something truly divine and in some sense believe they “know” that it is real while at the same time being completely wrong about it.
The most convinced religious believers tend to think that it’s only the followers of other religions who could be wrong about what they sense they “know” through their inner experience. That is hardly surising since different religionists often hold beliefs that are totally incompatible. For example, Muslims believe there can only be one God and that Muhammad was His Messenger while Hindus believe in many deities (and reincarnation) which Muslims reject and Christians usually think of Muhammad as a false prophet as well as rejecting Hinduism.
These different claims clearly contradict one another and yet many of the most devout believers from these faiths have an equally strong sense that they are the ones who “know”. And when they say they “know”, they often mean that they really “know” and cannot be wrong since they have experienced the truth of their religion directly. It’s clear that they cannot all be right, despite sensing that they must be, and so this suggests that it’s normal for many religious people to have a totally false and imaginary sense of certainty about their beliefs and experiences.
I am personally open to being persuaded about religion but it’s hard to make sense of what all these very different believers sense they “know”. Considering they cannot all be right, it’s clear that self-delusion might play a significant role in bolstering their beliefs in many cases. It seems plausible to suggest that the more sincerely anyone prays to the god of any religion, the more they will believe it (as long as it resonates with them sufficiently), even if all they are really praying to is an increasingly well-developed figment of their own imagination.
While that will no doubt seem insulting to many believers, they would presumably accept that this is what is going on for the followers of some of the other religions. It’s a well-established fact of psychology that we are all capable of convincing ourselves of absolutely false realities, going deeper and deeper into self-persuasion through repeated focus, imagination and confirmation bias. This would provide a plausible explanation as to why so many different people follow religions that contradict each other in some ways while all believing that they “know” that their own religion is true.
It also explains why the believers of so many different faiths often think that they keep seeing “signs” or patterns which confirm their particular viewpoint. Conspiracy theorists do exactly the same thing because they are equally inclined to have their existing views confirmed by any evidence that might appear to fit. No matter which conspiracy they believe, they can always find “signs” or “evidence” that they are right.
This tells us that it’s easy to find illusory “patterns” within the chaos of reality and there have also been plenty of experiments which demonstrate that what our minds look for can actually alter our perception of reality altogether. One of the most entertaining examples of this principle was illustrated by the illusionist Derren Brown when he conducted a TV experiment in which people were placed into a very dark room and told that it “might” be haunted. With the exception of only one participant, who was a self-declared skeptic, everyone believed they could sense the presence of a ghost in that room, with some participants even genuinely thinking they could see it.
Experiments like this demonstrate how susceptible ordinary people are to having their perceptions of reality totally skewed by mere suggestion, emotion and imagination. We human beings are so gullible that as soon as we merely suspect the possibility of anything supernatural we can literally start to see it with our own eyes even though it is not there.
It’s interesting to consider how much more skewed are our perceptions likely to become if we spend years convincing ourselves that our religious beliefs are true. In the very same episode, Derren Brown successfully hypnotised the most skeptical of the participants into believing she was having a religious experience, again demonstrating that these things can be utterly convincing without having any basis in reality.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that most people only believe in their particular religion because they were raised to do so or introduced to it through their culture. It could hardly be a coincidence that the vast majority of Christians were raised Christian while the vast majority of Muslims were raised Muslim and the vast majority of Hindus were raised Hindu. This fact alone suggests that religious belief is usually nothing more than an accident of being born into a particular culture.
In other words, they only believe their religion because they happen to have been born into it. Had they been raised with one of the other religions they would have very likely believed in that one instead and with an equally strong sense of “knowing” that it was true. It’s funny to observe how many people resist this argument, claiming that even if they had been born into a different faith they would have eventually found their way back to the “true” religion and that they merely happen to have been lucky enough to be have been born into exactly the right one.
For example, a Christian or Muslim might imagine that had they been raise Hindu they would eventually have figured out that they were worshiping false idols. Rarely would it occur to them that the very idea that Hindus are committing idolatry is a concept which they only believe as a result of their particular religious upbringing in the first place.
This means that had they really been raised Hindu they just wouldn’t see it that way at all. It may be worth noting here that Hindus do not actually believe that they are worshiping those statues but rather see them as useful reminders or representations of the divine. Those representations are merely there to help them focus on particular aspects of prayer or meditation in the same way that a mosque might help a Muslim to do the same.
However, the overall point here is that people tend to resist the idea that their whole way of thinking about religion is merely a product of their particular culture or upbringing. Yet the evidence suggests that this is exactly the case, that people are most inclined to believe whichever religion they happen to have been born into, with statistically few exceptions. Realising that we only believe something because we happen to have been born into it or culturally primed for it makes it easier to accept that we may have been brainwashed.
What puzzles me the most is where the religious sense of “knowing” really comes from but I may have actually experienced something very similar while on psychedelics. I had taken ten grams of “magic mushrooms” and for a while I fell into a deep trance where I experienced a very vivid sense of every event since the Big Bang unfolding in accordance with a divine plan. At the time, it felt completely real and I also had a sense that I absolutely “knew” that it was true.
However, after the drug wore off I realised that it was probably just a product of my imagination experienced as “reality” but without actually being real. It seems that there is part of the human mind that is capable of believing whatever it wants to believe not only as an abstract truth but as a somewhat more tangible and vivid inner reality. Normally, we are able to override this part of the brain using reason and critical thinking but in certain states we cannot do this.
From what I can tell, there is a part of myself that always wanted to believe in God – and still wants to – but I sense that it’s the same naive and child-like part of myself that would have been just as happy to believe in Santa Claus at one point. It seems fair to suppose that all human beings might have an innate desire to believe in something religious or spiritual since these beliefs give us a sense of security and have been part of our evolutionary development as a species. The problem is that wanting to believe something is a bias rather than proof of anything.
Another reason for doubting my “spiritual vision” was that it seemed to be infused with some of the programming code I had recently been working on for one of my work projects. I kept hearing, seeing or somehow sensing the phrase “INNER JOIN” (an SQL database command I had been using that week) and having a weird sense of “knowing” that it had some kind of profound or even divine significance. In that state, I wasn’t able to question anything I was experiencing and simply accepted it as a fundamental “truth” of reality.
It’s hardly surprising that people come back from psychedelic experiences being convinced of all kinds of beliefs from alien visitations to the most far-fetched conspiracy theories. However, what the brain goes through in these states may merely be an exaggerated version of something we are all capable of in ordinary life, the ability to convince ourselves that something far-fetched is real just because we have an illusory and yet utterly convincing sense of experiencing the truth of it intuitively, emotionally or “spiritually”.
When we look at near-death experiences, it’s also easy to find good reasons to doubt the certainty of what people claim to “know”. For example, there have been some fundamentalist Christians who actually had negative near-death experiences of being in hell while other people reported having something closer to a Hindu or Buddhist experience of being able to recall thousands of human past life incarnations. What these different groups experienced were in contradiction to one another in terms of the core metaphysical beliefs involved and yet all the participants experienced these visions as “real”.
To me, all of this suggests that the mind can easily create a totally convincing illusion that it “knows” something with absolute certainty and we are more likely to experience that false sense of certainty in states such as dreams, psychedelic trips and near-death experiences as well as some modes of religious reverence. In such states, the mind’s analytical and critical faculties appear to be overridden by a different mode which is much more naive, child-like and unquestioningly receptive to what we might subconsciously imagine as “real”.
The result is that people will think that what they are experiencing is genuine, even though other people going through exactly the same states can easily have totally contradictory experiences. Two different people praying can be just as convinced of contradictory religious beliefs just as two different people going through near-death experiences can be just as convinced of equally contradictory tenets of reality. And so, the sense of their experienced reality being true may be no different to someone who is dreaming or under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
Problems with traditional monotheistic explanations
One of the many reasons to doubt the Abrahamic conception of God is what the history of religion teaches us about the development of monotheism. If God’s existence really was something that human beings could directly sense through their inner experience then we might reasonably expect the phenomenon to go back as far as history itself. However, monotheism was an idea that arrived fairly late in the game rather than being something which humans could always innately sense.
As the historian Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, the evidence suggests that the first religions were all animist. A tribe of early humans might believe that a rock or tree had a spirit, for example. This suggests that humans are prone to magical thinking and ascribing personality along with other qualities to things that don’t have them is our way of coping with the world. It’s not dissimilar to a child who acts as though their doll or teddy bear has a real personality except that it’s more naive because we actually believed it.
Once humans became farmers, they gradually stopped seeing themselves as being on a par with the natural objects, plants or animals they needed to interact with and they started worshiping new beings like a goddess of fertility who could grant them a harvest. This suggests that religions developed as useful fictions which helped people cope with their practical needs. Again, it was all about us and what we needed to project into the world rather than anything to do with reality.
Animism was gradually replaced by polytheism and monotheism gradually developed out of polytheism sometime after it was decided that one god might be in charge of all the others. As Andrew Marr has pointed out in his world history, the origins of the Judeo-Christian God which was later adopted by Islam have been traced back to Hebrew tribes who believed in “El” (as in “Isra-El”). El was eventually replaced by “Yaweh” and upgraded to the status of being the only god in town but He originally had a wife called Asherah and children including the storm-god Baal who also brought fertility.
El was a lot like one of the classical Greek gods who walked the Earth and argued with their relatives and it was only much later that he was very gradually reinvented and turned into something much more transcendent. The idea of one transcendent god evolved rather slowly and its development has been traced by scholars of early Jewish writings but it was a meme that eventually spread very quickly in some cultures. However, history suggests that it was nothing more than another human invention in a series of gradually developing theological innovations.
Of course, it’s still possible that religious people are all tapping into something very mysterious and real which we might call “God”. The question is whether this can really be understood through a particular set of scriptures. It could just be a way of trying to express or explain the wonder and mystery which is “out there” in the physical Universe. Is this something we can really understand by looking to “intuitions” or experiences within ourselves?
Some religious people see God as the answer to the question of why the Universe exists. However, a deeper question is “Why does anything at all (including God) exist in the first place?” Arguing that God created Himself or always existed isn’t a very logically satisfying explanation and fails to answer that deeper question. This means that all we have arguably done by arguing that God created everything is to try to explain the inexplicable by coming up with something equally inexplicable.
Of course, some believers might respond by saying something like “The thing about God is that He doesn’t need a reason for His existence” but then the obvious question would be “Why not?” After all, if we are trying to find out why things actually exist then we cannot let God off the hook when it comes to the same question. It would appear that the most honest answer to the question “Why does God exist in the first place?” would be “Because I want Him to”.
It is clear that religious people are happy to believe in a being for which there is no good explanation and so they still can’t really make sense of why everything exists. This means that invoking God as a way of explaining the existence or structure of the Universe merely replicates the original problem of not being able to explain things. It doesn’t leave us in a better position when it comes to the more fundamental question of why anything at all exists in the first place.
Of course, I can understand the temptation to look at the world’s mountains or forests and exclaim that there “must” be a Creator behind all of these beautiful marvels but the way we normally explain where things come from clearly breaks down when talking about why anything exists in the first place. If we cannot explain why the Creator exists then we are merely pushing the need for explanations to a different level and then avoiding the explanation that would then be needed so that it all makes sense.
Of course, there is also a more particular problem with crediting the existence of the Universe to a perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful being who is concerned with human well-being, which is that this fails to explain its imperfections. If God had really created the Earth for us then He would have done a much better job at very least to ensure that there were no earthquakes to rip open the bodies of young children. And the fact that the whole Earth will eventually be swallowed or frazzled by the sun only makes the idea of design by a perfect creator look even more dubious.
All of this suggests that our agonising desire to make sense of everything cannot ultimately be satisfied and so it may be wiser to accept that there are simply limits to human understanding when it comes to answering these questions. All we can know for sure is that there is a whole system or reality that just exists and we can never really know why it exists.
Nevertheless, I still find myself being persuaded by the argument that there is some kind of creative intelligence either behind or within the Universe since that would explain its ingenious structure. While that may not make sense of everything, at least it makes more sense than believing that there is no reason at all for that structure. We might even define God in a rather vague way as “the reason why anything exists, whatever that may be”, allowing plenty of room for mystery. This would be very close to Albert Einstein’s view, which he expressed as follows:
“The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God“
The big question is whether there is any really good evidence that this creative animating force or being is “someone” we can really know or that “He” cares about us. Einstein certainly did not think so, describing such views as “naive” and declaring himself to be an “agnostic” or “religious nonbeliever”. He once wrote: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings”.
On another occasion, he made it clear that he explicitly rejected religion: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish”. As Sam Harris has pointed out, it’s certainly rather odd to imagine that God would have such a special interest in one species of primate and even more strange to imagine that He would care so much about what we do in bed, which appears to be a preoccupation of monotheistic faiths.
After all, the Earth is a mere dot located in a remote corner of a vast cosmos. The Universe is almost 14 billion years old, the Earth only arrived 9 billion years later and we only arrived 4 billion years after the Earth formed, with millions of other species existing for over 3 billion years before us, so there is no indication that any of this was set up with us in mind. In the grand scheme of things, we are like a tiny dot within a dot within a dot. Yet we are expected to believe that we have been specially created by God and that He has really important things to say to us.
Another strange feature of many religions is that we are told that God wants us to be in some kind of relationship with Him and yet He doesn’t even bother to make His existence obvious to us in the same way as everything we can easily see, hear or feel. Why does He choose to be invisible or play a game similar to “hide and seek” when He could simply descend from the skies on a regular basis to leave everyone in no doubt about His existence?
Why introduce Himself only through so-called “signs” and indirect “revelations” which do not conclusively prove anything but rather always rely on interpretation and faith? Why let us homo sapiens wait for 200,000 years before revealing His important message? And why communicate only through individual human messengers whose claims or motivations can so easily be doubted or whose pronouncements can so easily be misinterpreted?
Problems with so-called “revelation”
I’ve had well-meaning believers send me excerpts from their religious scriptures in the hope of converting me but the very premise involved in this is rather odd, as if one could simply read the Bible, Qur’an, Book of Mormon or handbooks of Scientology and declare “Of course! I This must be the word of God!” presumably based on what kind of feelings it evokes.
Making His revelations so easy to doubt seems like a suspiciously irrational choice for a supposedly divine and perfect being. And then, even more bizarrely, some religious people believe that we will be punished for not believing in Him despite the evidence being too sketchy and inconclusive to persuade anyone who isn’t willing to take a massive leap of faith.
The usual problem with revelation is that we are asked to believe a story about something which happened far too long ago to be able to verify anything at this point. Who was Jesus and did he really rise from the dead? What was Muhammad really like and where did his revelations come from? The so-called evidence is not remotely objective and so we are continually being asked to take further leaps of faith to get us to the conclusions that religionists claim to know.
This is why Sam Harris may be right to argue that faith essentially means believing things on bad evidence. If I am expected to believe that someone who lived over a thousand years ago was a real Messiah or Messenger of God then the evidence for that had better be really good because, as Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Otherwise, I am simply allowing wishful thinking to override the critical faculties I would normally use to assess fake news.
Even accepting the “evidence” which many religious people put forward relies on faith. For example, many Muslims claim that we can know that Islam is true because the Qur’an is a “perfect” and therefore divine book. Yet it contains quite a few verses that appear to be rather nasty (see verses 4:34, 4:56, 4:89, 5:33, 5:37-38, 5:51, 5:59-5:60, 8:39, 8:55, 9:29-9:30, 9:33, 22:19-21, 24:2, 40:71-72, 47:34-35 and 83:34-36) as well others which appear incredibly suspicious (see verses 2:217, 4:24, 8:32-3, 9:111, 16:101, 18:22-24, 33:50, 33:53, 48:19, 66:5 and 78:31-33).
To pick just one example, how anyone can believe that a true prophet would go around promising his male followers big-breasted virgins in Heaven – essentially a medieval harem of celestial sex slaves – is beyond me. It would be hard to come up with a more transparently crude, primitive and animalistic conception of the afterlife. Yet this is exactly what is described in the Qur’an and it takes a remarkable degree of stubborn self-blindness to deny it.
This tells us that the Qur’an is far from a holy book let alone anything we could think of as divine revelation. Modern-day Muslims try to get around such verses by insisting that they have been misunderstood, mistranslated or taken too literally but in doing so they are going against some of Islam’s greatest scholars. And so, it’s clear that even accepting the so-called “evidence” requires a very particular, highly subjective and often creatively dishonest way of interpreting it in the first place.
Of course, a truly all-powerful God could have communicated His message in a manner that would not even require faith. For example, imagine if a holy book had been revealed by ten different human prophets in ten different parts of the world all at the same time, allowing people from different cultures to access exactly the same message in different languages from the very beginning. There would no way to explain a phenomenon like that except to conclude that these were indeed genuinely divine revelations. Unfortunately, religions can’t offer us anything nearly as convincing when it comes to what they say “must” be the word of God.
The suspicious emotionality of religious belief
What becomes clear when talking to many devoutly religious people is that they are in love with the stories they tell themselves about their faith. When someone is in love, they don’t really want to look at anything too critically or objectively because all they care about is how it makes them feel. The rule seems to be: feeling is believing. As a result, they only see what they want to see, rarely stepping back to notice how their emotional attachment to their belief causes them to cling to it.
This deep attachment may also explain why I often sense that I am walking on eggshells when talking to religious believers. It’s as though a part of them might suddenly realise that they could be wrong after all and not be able to bear the possibility. I think that on some level they just need to believe what they do, whether it’s true or false. The more certain they are, the more their sense of certainty comes across as nothing more than emotional reasoning, a basic cognitive error according to which we believe something based only on feelings and imagination rather than anything objective.
This is why, whenever I hear religious people say things like “It has to be true”, I cannot help thinking that this is another way of saying “I need it to be true”. At that point, I often stop discussing the topic with them because I don’t want to upset them and I sense that they might not actually be able to cope with their sense of “certainty” collapsing. It’s as though the most fragile and child-like part of themselves might be torn apart by the realisation that it could just be a delusion.
It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that religion meets many of people’s deepest emotional needs: the need to survive death, the need to be reunited with loved ones who have passed away, the need for an overall sense of order or certainty and the need to be part of a community. In many cases there is also the need for a kind of divine friend or father-figure who appears to perform an emotionally vital bonding function similar to a child’s imaginary friend or personality-ascribed doll or teddybear. It’s no wonder that some people feel depressed for a few years after they stop believing. Many religious people would simply be lost without their religion and so they sometimes appear to have no choice but to believe with “certainty”.
The point about all of these needs and fears is just how deep-seated they are. Perhaps this is why religion is so emotional for people, because it really is “everything” to them: their security, their identity, their sense of meaning and their sense of hope. Take religion away and you have taken everything away, everything that helps them make sense of life and cope emotionally. No wonder it “must” be true as far as many of them are concerned because they would be devastated without it. The emotionality of religious belief appears to reveal a deeply child-like underlying emotional dependency.
This again helps helps explain why there are so many people who believe in contradictory religions. It also seems that there are certain personality types which are more likely to believe in whatever religion is offered to them through their culture. They might be people with a strong need for order or people whose emotions and imagination are more likely to subconsciously colour their perspective. Had they been born in ancient Egypt they would be worshiping Annubis, Osiris and Horus. Had they been born in ancient Greece they would believe in Zeus, Aphrodite and Apollo. But since they were born in modern times, it just so happens to be Jesus, Muhammad or Brahma.
Common denials of reality
The more devout someone is, the more committed they will be to believing their religion at almost any rational cost since they are already past the point of no return. As a result, they will sometimes be willing to accept rather unlikely, unreasonable or weak reasons why their belief must be right without really noticing that they being a bit less rational than they would normally be when talking about other subjects.
This is because they simply imagine that they “know” they are right and so the reasons won’t really matter. If one line of reasoning fails to justify their belief then they will assume that there “must” be some other line of reasoning that would succeed. This means that no matter how much they may insist on their position being rational, everything ultimately falls back on what they call “faith”.
However, the result of needing to be right is that religious people often engage in denials of reality. A good example is how many monotheistic believers deny the science of evolution. Although not all believers do this, it’s fairly common because it is not easy to square the Christian or Muslim view of the human soul with the broad scientific consensus that we are merely evolved from the Great ape. Of course, it’s possible to argue that any established scientific theory is wrong. However, the only people who do this when it comes to evolution are religious believers and their only reason is that they are trying to bend reality to fit what they prefer to believe.
Just consider speciation, the process by which successive mutations in a species gradually cause it to split off and become two or more entirely separate species. This evolutionary process has now been directly observed in microorganisms and so it’s impossible to deny that life evolves through its mutations since this has already been proven under lab conditions. In larger organisms including humans, we have direct evidence of similar genetic mutations being passed on from one generation to the next and so it’s rather obvious that over millions of years such mutations would eventually add up to the point where any organism would change very significantly from one species to another.
As if that were not enough, evolution is also backed up by what we can be seen in both the fossil record and the archaeological record as well as studies of DNA so the evidence is just overwhelming at this point. It’s rather suspicious that many religious people would be willing to deny all of that scientific evidence just to maintain a magical picture of God creating Adam and Eve in His own image. It turns out that if we really were made in the image of God then for some reason He chose to look like a particular species of evolved ape.
It’s easy to find similar denials of scientific reality going all the way back over the centuries and they even include examples of early Muslim scholars insisting that the world was flat. What tends to happen is that new scholars eventually come along and change prevailing theological interpretations to suit the science once it becomes too hard to deny. However, the fact that so many religious believers are willing to hang onto denial for so long is telling because it reveals how rationality is so easily overridden by faith in a preferred magical reality.
The harsh reality of our limited existence
Our primal fear of death goes all the way back to infancy and the idea that we may one day stop existing is unthinkable to many people. Yet our future non-existence would be no different to the way things were before we were conceived in the first place and so it’s relatively easy to imagine. The thought that we could simply go back to not existing is entirely logical but far too horrifying for many people to truly consider and so they cling to the idea that they “must” have been created with an immortal soul.
The problem is that the hard evidence suggests that we cannot outlive our physical brains. After all, our whole identity relies on memories which connect our sense of who we are now to who we were a moment ago, yesterday, last year and so on. As we know, memories rely on the brain since they are lost whenever the brain is sufficiently damaged. This suggests that you would lose your whole sense of self without your brain since there would no longer be any memories of you left. For this reason, it makes more sense to believe that we cease to exist once our brains die.
The problem of pain and suffering
While the idea of a just, loving and all-powerful God makes sense to a lot of people today, I find it hard to reconcile that idea with the reality of the suffering that I see in the world. Apart from anything else, it makes a mockery of people who believe that God answers their prayers since it would mean that they “deserved” to have their prayers answered while many children who already died of leukemia somehow didn’t deserve to have their prayers answered by the same God.
Why would God choose to ignore the prayers of children going through so much pain when their only wish was to recover and stay alive? Imagining that they didn’t pray hard enough doesn’t make God come across much better than a psychopath. It’s as though He is saying “Get down on your knees and beg me to save the dying children – and even then I will choose let many of them perish”. If God really is all-powerful and has the ability to answer prayers then it clearly makes no sense that He would ignore all those deserving cases. With that in mind, it certainly seems rather irrational to believe that He is ready to answer prayers about any of our relatively trivial concerns.
The needless suffering which so many innocent children have to go through is a sure sign that God does not really love us or want the best for us. Yet I’ve met religious people who frame the issue in exactly the opposite way, telling me that it “makes sense” that God would exist precisely because of all the pain and suffering that exists. For example, I recently had a conversation with an adorable religious woman who told me that the reason why it made sense to her was that otherwise there would be no justice for people who got away with terrible crimes and atrocities during their lifetimes.
As far as I can tell, she was essentially arguing from a wishful assumption that the world (or the whole system of reality) needed to make sense to her emotionally. Of course, it would be lovely if reality did make sense to us in a way that was emotionally appealing but that doesn’t mean that we should subscribe to unverifiable “magical” beliefs just to feel better about everything. It’s a way of arguing that certainly comes across as little more than wishful thinking, as if the rule to be followed is that “if it feels good then it must be true!”
The desire to believe in God or divine Justice doesn’t actually make it true at all. We might hope that it’s true. Like the ancient Geeks, we might even “feel”, “sense” or believe we “know” that what we believe is true but none of that makes it true. We can place our complete faith in such inner experiences, feelings and intuitions, believing them to be nothing less than a spiritual connection with the divine, but how can we actually “know” that any of it is real?
The deeper we look into the issue of suffering, the easier it gets to see that the idea of an all-powerful and merciful God who created a world full of so much pain doesn’t make much sense at all. The irony here is that if you push religious people on this point they will often eventually turn around and say something like “Well, the thing about God is that He moves in very mysterious ways and so we cannot hope to fully understand him anyway”. In other words, He doesn’t have to “make sense” to us after all.
A good example might be the problem of suffering that we see in the animal kingdom. An all-powerful God would presumably have the ability to design nature however He saw fit. Yet we are expected to believe that He created a system in which animals are forced to eat each other just to stay alive.
It takes a certain willful blindness not to notice how evil that system of nature is. When you hear a tiny animal screaming in pain as it is ripped from limb to limb by a hungry predator, this is no acting performance. The suffering involved there is both terrible and utterly senseless. Since animals are merely following their own nature, it would appear that God, the being who created the whole system, is the real perpetrator in these cases. A truly merciful Creator would not allow anything so sickeningly cruel to happen even once.
I’ve never heard a good counter-argument to this example. A typical response from a monotheist might be to blame it all on “the Devil” but why would a loving God allow a devil to exist and to wreak such terrible havoc in the first place? Since He is meant to be all-powerful, why could God not just destroy the Devil or at least stop the Devil from being able to cause all that pain? He is either unwilling to do that (in which case He is not truly loving and merciful) or He is unable to do that (in which case He is not truly all-powerful).
Another response might be to blame it all the sins of mankind. For example, Christians will often argue that it was the “original sin” of Adam and Eve that caused the world to fall into its current state of disarray. Yet this doesn’t really explain how it could be fair for all these tiny innocent creatures to go through all that agony. How could it possibly be fair for them to be punished for someone else’s crimes? And as Betrand Russell once put it:
“If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man. The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and is therefore a good thing… This argument is, of course, only a rationalization of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children’s ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes“
Even when it comes to punishing human beings for committing atrocities, the issue is further complicated by the growing psychological evidence that many of the perpetrators involved are psychopaths who are literally incapable of empathy anyway. It turns out that some human beings are no different to many of the predators that cause pain to poor defenseless animals. Committing these horrifying acts is simply in their nature and it’s unrealistic to imagine that they can override it when they have no empathy to motivate them to behave any differently in the first place. At some point, the buck has to stop with the all-powerful Creator of the world since one would assume He is responsible for His own Creation.
Whenever we delve into these issues honestly, we are always going to reach a point where it becomes clear that a truly merciful and all-powerful God could never have created the world as we know it. It would be hard to excuse Him since He deliberately set things up in a way that He knew would cause what is often terrible and pointless suffering.
That is when religious people tend to shrug their shoulders and say something like “Well, it’s a mystery, we’re only human and so we just can’t understand”. In other words, it doesn’t have to “make sense” to us after all. However, the same people will typically later forget that they ever said that and once again insist that an all-powerful and merciful God “makes sense” of all the suffering we see around us.
None of this means that anyone’s religion cannot be true and perhaps the answer is that it simply cannot entirely make sense to us mere mortals. However, the idea of a God who is both loving and all-powerful certainly appears to contradict rather than really “make sense” of much of the suffering we see in the world.
Ultimately, if God was truly all-powerful then He could have set up the whole world very differently to ensure human thriving and happiness. For example, He could have ensured that all human beings were so full of empathy that nobody ever had any desire to cause harm. This would have been a far better design of human nature and it’s not as though it would significantly limit us in any serious way.
Some people would argue that we would not be truly free if we couldn’t commit acts of evil. However, human freedom is already limited in all kinds of ways. For example we cannot fly or breathe underwater. And so, it’s rather silly to insist that the desire to do evil would somehow be an essential aspect of our freedom. We would still get to make lots of interesting choices and nothing would be worse as a result of nobody being tempted to do terrible things to others.
An interesting related question to ask religious people is whether people in Heaven are free to cause harm to others. One would assume that the answer is no and that they are simply blissful since they are in a state of closeness to God. Yet if that is the perfect state which humans can attain then why bother creating Earth in the first place? Why not just create Heaven and populate it with blissful souls who are already endowed with infinite natural kindness and innate wisdom? An all-powerful God could easily have done that if He was indeed loving, kind and merciful.
Even if creating the Earth was somehow “necessary”, we might at very least expect a truly merciful God to act as a kind protector and set everything up in a way which would ensure that suffering was never pointless or extremely cruel. Yet He is clearly nothing of the sort and watches with apparent indifference as millions of creatures needlessly suffer on a daily basis. This means He is either powerless to help, and therefore not really all-powerful, or He simply doesn’t care. Either way, believing in God does not really make sense of suffering.
The problem of hell
I don’t believe that the idea of hell can really belong to any true religion of peace and love because it reflects a rather barbaric way of dealing with wrongdoing. It is the kind of thing that people in more primitive times would have considered “normal” and that is no coincidence because they came up with it.
However, it does not reflect the more modern, developed and sophisticated understanding of justice that emphasises rehabilitation over retribution. A sociologist or criminologist will happily explain that human evil has more to do with factors such as biology, brainwashing, unconscious ignorance and emotional stunting than anything we can easily blame on the individual and this makes the idea of people being sent to hell for crimes as trivial as believing in the wrong gods embarrassingly simplistic. Hell is clearly something that humans came up with to control people.
Unfortunately, the concept is essential to both Christianity and Islam. For example, the New Testament tells us that “They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). And the Qur’an says “Indeed, those who disbelieve in Our verses – We will drive them into a Fire. Every time their skins are roasted through We will replace them with other skins so they may taste the punishment” (Quran 4:56). These are the words of a vengeful rather than truly enlightened God.
What makes matters worse is that hell was traditionally understood to be eternal within both of these religions, which is morally indefensible since it means that the cruelty involved would rather senselessly last forever. It was only in modern times that some Christians and many Muslims dropped the idea of hell being eternal but this was a theological U-turn which went against fairly clear scriptural evidence. Even if we go along with such revisionism, the very idea of hell is already disgusting and simplistic rather than anything we can think of as truly divine.
I have called these ramblings an interesting article about religion but my main aim was just to try to figure out what I think as I go along. I am still not too sure and I clearly have my doubts about established religions but at the same time I do think it makes sense that there is some kind of creative intelligence which explains the structure of the Universe. If the religious God does indeed exist then it’s hard to understand how He could allow so much suffering but I fully accept that this could be an issue that simply lies beyond all human understanding.
There may be some evidence that human beings have something resembling a soul and I am particularly fascinated by phenomena like out-of-body experiences and cases of “terminal lucidity” which appear to suggest this possibility. Examples of out-of-body experiences include cases where medical doctors discover that patients have detailed knowledge of things that were happening while they were completely unconscious or reports by a young girl having an experience of suddenly leaving her body during a situation of abuse and being able to observe herself from a safer distance.
Terminal lucidity describes situations where patients with conditions such as severe Alzheimer’s are suddenly able to think and speak clearly to people around them for a few hours before they die, despite having not been coherent for years. It’s certainly tempting to conclude that out-of-body experiences and cases of terminal lucidity prove that we have a soul that can function outside of the body.
However, it’s also worth remembering that research into these cases is far from conclusive. Neither the brain nor consciousness is something we truly understand and there’s a danger of filling the gaps in our knowledge with magical explanations just to satisfy our wishful thinking.
Even I really turned out to have a “soul”, what else should I then believe? Am I immortal? Have I been placed here on Earth by an all-powerful Creator? Is reincarnation real? Are we all part of the divine force and not really separate beings? In all honesty, I have no idea what the answers to any of these questions are, since the experiences of religious people tend to be so contradictory, but I remain ever-curious about what I could learn about the true nature of reality.
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Penguin Random House, 2011
Andrew Marr, A History of the World. Pan Macmillan, 2012
Bertrand Russell, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? 1930
G. S. Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (Macauley, New York, 1930), p. 372-373.
Calaprice, Alice (2000). The Expanded Quotable Einstein. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 218.
The Independent, Albert Einstein letter in which physicist explicitly rejected religion to be auctioned, 4 October 2018
YouTube: DebatesOnline, The Future of God Debate Sam Harris and Michael Shermer vs Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston, Nov 25, 2012
Science Daily, Biologists watch speciation in a laboratory flask. November 29, 2016