On the existence of God…

08/03/2003

I’m an atheist. I have been for nearly twenty years, and before that I wasn’t really anything – I didn’t really have a position on God vs. No God. I suppose I just hadn’t thought about it properly. I can’t really understand how anyone can be anything other than an atheist, but – despite my incredulity – people do still seem to conjure for themselves other non-atheistic options from the spiritual ether.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t understand how people can even vaguely justify theism (or even agnosticism) that I find myself continually in debates about the issue. I find myself explaining my stance on religion at least once a month. At one stage – while I was at University – I went through a bit of a phase of reading other people’s books on why they didn’t believe in ‘god’ either. These books were routinely extremely boring, because fundamentally the intellectual labour involved in making a highly convincing ‘anti-god’ case is so trivial that it feels out of place in the mouths or books of scholars. Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian was one of those books. I read it to see if I could find a new way to translate the obviousness of atheism to the people I routinely found myself in argument with. But fundamentally, it was the same as every other book of its kind. Obvious. Self-explanatory. Tedious. Repetitive. And yet – despite the banality of the arguments, religious people just don’t seem to get it.

I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that the experience feels real to them and that they derive value from it, and I have to confess that as long as religious reasoning is kept completely separate from policy decisions, logic and the like (ie. as long as people’s personal beliefs have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the rest of the world), then I have no problem with it. But unfortunately that’s very seldom the case. Every so often something frustrating happens to remind you exactly how unresponsive religion is to societal development and our increasing understanding of the world around us. Case in point? There is now around a hundred years of evidence that people who are gay are not gay by choice, and that their sexuality is not infectious in any way (and hence not – in any way – a risk to ‘moral fibre’). A hundred years of evidence accumulated – leading to the conclusion (reached by sets of researchers across the world, health organisations, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, geneticists and ethologists) that someone being gay causes no one any harm. And what do you have on the other side? A couple of lines in a book written in the middle east several thousand years ago (filtered through a wide variety of cultural contexts which managed to cheerfully mutate meanings in all kinds of intriguing and implausible ways). And it’s this dubious translation of a few words of a several thousand year old work of historical fiction that prompts the Vatican to declare their profound dismay at the possibility that gay couples might come to enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexual ones – rights that fundamentally come down to being the default person that inherits when the other dies, or the right to have some kind of say in the health care of your loved-one if they happen to fall dangerously ill.

According to that document from the Vatican, I’m suffering from a ‘depravity’, I undertake ‘grave sins’, I’m ‘intrinsically disordered’. And that’s within the first screenful. Not only that, “all persons committed to promoting and defending the common good of society” should be working to stop me have sexual consenting relationships with other people. Because – of course, how foolish of me – I can obviously have no interest in the common good of society. The document talks about the need to “safeguard public morality and, above all, to avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon” as if heterosexuality were such a trivial and slight state-of-being that even the merest whiff of same-sex action could tantalise even the most apparently straight white-bread down-home farm-boy or girl. Moreover, the document states that, “Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil.” Tolerating our evil is one thing, apparently. Approving of it is something else entirely.

Frankly, it is the evil in the Vatican’s document – the fact that it will have a massively negative effect in some people’s lives and no positive effect on anyone else’s – that I don’t approve of. And increasingly I find myself no longer interested in tolerating it either. Still more even than that – I feel increasingly close to losing any tolerance of religious dispositions per se. Because while I’d like to say that it’s just Catholicism that’s seriously pissing me off, it’s not really Catholicism at all – it’s any approach to anything that would put more credence in statements (not even arguments) written thousands of years ago than in the accreted wisdom of hundreds of years that’s at our disposal now.

A few weeks ago I collided with a group of Christians proselytising their religion through song in Leicester Square. I was with Cal and Katy at the time. We’d just been to see a film. In the middle of the street, with no apparent prompting, a smart mobbish group of people started praising their Lord. I ended up explaining to one of them that Christian philosophy had sizable origins in Neo-Platonist collisions with the Semitic tradition, and that it had incredible analogues with some aspects of Dionysian Mystery cults. I pointed out that it was created in a moment of history and that its interpretation had changed dramatically over the years. I pointed out that it might very well not have existed in any plausible form any more if it hadn’t been for the Emperor Constantine using it as a binding agent for a failing Roman Empire – and that the same emperor hadn’t found their Christianity enough of a barrier to stop them murdering their own wife and son. I explained that while Christianity seemed transhistorical and transcendent – that originally it was just one of many different cult practices that exploded in a region at a certain time in history. And that none of these things made it untrue as such – but that they certainly challenged the monolithic image of Christianity as a pure beam of message from God – and that anyone who was going to seriously consider dedicating their life to a religious practice should probably do some bloody research beforehand…

But when we get right down to it, that kind of argument doesn’t really seem to help anyone any more than the debate I’ve been engaged in on Barbelith for the last couple of weeks (On Religion) or, indeed, the extremely entertaining 300 proofs for the existence of God which are derived (often) from actual philosophical positions over the centuries, and which I’ll append to the bottom of this post, because they’re so good. In fact I don’t know of anything that’s going to do any good in this situation, except a faith – not in divinity – but in humanity’s capability to tell its arse from its elbow. Unfortunately, this too is a faith I lost a number of years ago…

From 300 proofs for the existence of God:

COSMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
(1) If I say something must have a cause, it has a cause.
(2) I say the universe must have a cause.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
(4) Therefore, God exists.

ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (I)
(1) I define God to be X.
(2) Since I can conceive of X, X must exist.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT (II)
(1) I can conceive of a perfect God.
(2) One of the qualities of perfection is existence.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

ARGUMENT FROM CREATION
(1) If evolution is false, then creationism is true, and therefore God exists.
(2) Evolution can’t be true, since I lack the mental capacity to understand it; moreover, to accept its truth would cause me to be uncomfortable
(3) Therefore, God exists.

ARGUMENT FROM FEAR
(1) If there is no God then we’re all going to die.
(2) Therefore, God exists.

ARGUMENT FROM THE BIBLE
(1) [arbitrary passage from OT]
(2) [arbitrary passage from NT]
(3) Therefore, God exists

Other stuff I’ve written about religion: On American Science and Fundamentalist Christianity, God as plot device.