God part one

So in the final instalment of my trilogy on different perspectives, it’s the turn of religion. So it should perhaps be the third element of the trinity of history, politics and religion. And this one is also a book review (or half of one – I decided I needed two to cover such a big topic).

The other trinity we might associate with religion is that of Dawkins, Hitchens and Grayling. They have each published books on their thoughts on religion, and it would be fair to say none are complimentary. Some of the titles might indicate this. The God Delusion, God is not Great, and The God Argument.

In my experience of religion, there can be a tendency to discourage, often strongly, reading anything which presents a view contrary to that of the religion (or branch of the religion, or the twig to which we belong). I should say at this point that this was not the way I was brought up, but this viewpoint was one which I could sense when I strayed too far from home (literally and figuratively). So for many people who subscribe to strong religious beliefs, and find value and meaning in those beliefs, the suggestion that Richard Dawkins might have some valid points in The God Delusion might not be a welcome one. My argument against an inhibition to explore arguments against religion is that, if it is true, a religion should be able to – and willing to – stand up to scrutiny. If a religion claims divine leadership in some form, that super-human perspective should be capable of dealing with the logical reasoning of humans.


The book I am going to comment on today is, however, not by Dawkins, but by Anthony (A C) Grayling, whose trade is philosophy and can be relied on to provide a good dose of logic to an argument. The reason I would recommend his book in preference to the other two is simply that he provides not only a case against religion, but also for an alternative (humanism) and I prefer the more positive approach behind that, whether or not you or I end up subscribing to any of what Grayling puts forward, both in his ‘against’ and ‘for’ sections.

This week, I will cover some of his ‘against’ religion arguments, then turn next week to the positive worldview he is suggesting could (and, in his view, should) replace it.

Before tackling the question of what/who ‘God’ is, let me give you a few lines from the introduction to the book:

There are people of sincere piety for whom the religious life is a source of deep and powerful meaning. For them and for others, a spiritual response to the beauty of the world, the vastness of the universe, and the love that can bind one human heart to another, feels as natural and necessary as breathing.

I wanted to include those comments for two reasons. The first is personal. I know a lot of people to whom those sentiments could apply, and my comments in this blog are not intended to diminish the value of the form and practice of religion in their lives. The second is because I also know people who subscribe to the same sets of beliefs, and yet whose practices, including those in the name of that same religion, I find utterly repugnant on any moral basis. And it strikes me that this is at the heart of the debate about religion. The same sets of beliefs can, have, and do, inspire acts of immense kindness and generosity, and of unbelievable cruelty and hatred. How can this be when religion is meant to be inspired by a divine being who has our best interests at heart? Well, I suppose that is the question. Is that the case?

The older I get, the more I realise how much I have got wrong. And the only way I have any chance of doing one or two things better the next time is to challenge myself. Most of our actions come from what we believe whether consciously or subconsciously. But that’s a different topic for a different day. For now, my starting point is what I have been thinking about for a long time – the value in being prepared to change our perspective. And for me, that usually involves either reading something different or hearing something different, and being open enough to consider what is being presented to me. After all, I used to believe in the tooth fairy, but at some point, the evidence no longer supported that particular dental perspective.

So, back to the question of ‘God.’ (all quotations from Grayling unless otherwise indicated)

For religious people, the word is typically invoked to denote the all-encompassing and unanswerable source of authority governing what people can think, say, eat and wear, in what circumstances and with whom they can have sexual relations, how they must behave on specified days or weeks of the year, and so comprehensively on. The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically conditioned, but religious people think that this insight only applies to other people’s religions, not their own.

One of the reasons this matters is because this ‘god’ is asserted to have created everything. The logical problem with this is that it explains nothing.

Imagine someone asking, “How did the universe come into existence?” and being answered, “It was created by Fred” or “It was created by the supreme egg.” Obviously, such a response explains nothing because it means nothing. There is no greater explanatory power or meaning if one puts “god”, “God” or “the supreme being” in place of “Fred” or “the supreme egg”.

But can we know either way? Is it not a 50/50 bet as to whether ‘god’ (of any of the variants) exists? It’s either a yes or a no answer, with equal probability, isn’t it?

The initial probability of there being a deity is not 50 per cent, as some try to argue. There is a hidden assumption of agnosticism, which premises the thought that there is insufficient evidence to settle the matter either way. One can see this by asking what initial probability should be attached to the existence of (say) dryads or unicorns, or anything else whose presence in myth, fable, legend and religion derives from what our remote ancestors handed down among their stories about the world. […] The mistake made by many is to think that because a particular tradition has been institutionalised in society, it increases the probability that the things it talks about actually exist.

Of course, the question of religion and science has to be addressed.

The views and practices that emerge from common sense, practicality and science form a general picture of a law-like natural realm in which we know what it is rational to believe and do, and what it is not. For example: we know that it is rational to expect that we can heat and light our houses by installing the right kinds of appliances and connecting them to a power source, and simultaneously we know that it is irrational to believe that we can light and heat our houses by prayer or by sacrificing an ox. […]

The deliverances of science […] are based on evidence gathered and vastly confirmed by experience, whereas the beliefs of the various religions are untestable, inconsistent with each other, internally contradictory, and in conflict with the deliverances of common sense and science.

One last comment in the ‘against’ camp. One argument for religious belief is that it the basis of morality.

Here we have an issue with cherry-picking. We are to take the various (depending on your particular affiliation) books of scripture as a guide to what our personal morality should be. But anyone with anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of the main stories of the dominant religion of their part of the world, knows that those stories have been selected from a much larger number, and they will probably have been given some form of guidance as to the meaning or interpretation of the story.

Take the story of Abraham being told by his God to sacrifice (that means kill in normal vocabulary) his son Isaac. Abraham is praised for his obedience. That’s the lesson we are to learn from this story. I remember discussing this story in a little bible-reading group in Tübingen many years ago. One of the group had a completely different take on it, and I confess it had never even occurred to me before then. He thought that Abraham had failed the test his god had given him. He was supposed to say, ‘No, from everything you have told me, I know this is the wrong thing to do. No matter who tells me to do it, even you, it is wrong.’ I might suggest that this interpretation of the story would be more conducive to us living together as a society than being prepared to kill someone on the basis of what we claim a divine being told us to do.

Grayling cites a number of examples of highly questionable morality ascribed by the writers of various books of the bible to their God. One he does not mention is the one I have not been able to shake from my mind. It is also insanely obscure as Biblical stories go.

The Ark of the Covenant was a huge symbol to the ancient Israelites. It was a reminder that they were God’s chosen people (yes, another issue there, not for now), and that he was in their midst. There was a rule – don’t touch the ark. The penalty was death. Seems a bit extreme. Here’s a little episode in the middle of 2 Samuel (told you it was obscure), just two verses:

‘Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.’

Let’s just stop for a second. The ark was going to fall off the cart. Uzzah saw the problem and probably acted instinctively to stop it falling. After all, something held to be so sacred probably should not be allowed to fall and be damaged. If he did think about it, his act was surely protective of the ark. God, however, saw this rather differently.

‘The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.’

Yes, you read that correctly. God was so angry that he killed Uzzah on the spot.

And this is the part of the basis of the morality we should be following? But no, you might say, that was a different time, the people had to learn different lessons, they should have been carrying the ark properly, we shouldn’t take it literally. In which case, which parts am I supposed to take as a guide? King David was angry with God because of what he did to Uzzah. So he is maybe the good guy in this story. Except that he had just come back from murdering thousands of Philistines – on God’s instructions (God was pretty consistent back then – as a rule, kill all the men, women and children of anyone you defeat in battle – but of course, he spared Rahab from the genocide at Jericho, because she helped the spies the Israelites sent to the city, so that was all right, then, and we make little models of Rahab letting the spies out of the city, not of the murder of everyone else – see what I mean about cherry-picking?). So I guess I have to ignore the rape, genocide, xenophobia, and random acts of extreme, disproportionate violence ascribed to God (the Flood, anyone?) which litter the Old Testament. The serious problem here is how anyone is supposed to know which parts to take as relevant to us and which to write-off (conveniently, because they do not correspond to our view of morality, even though they are from the same book as the parts we do adopt for our lives)?

‘Scholars of theological history point out that these are early views of the deity, who by the New Testament has become perfectly good, benign and merciful – except that it is just too, which introduces a second new tension alongside the natural evil dilemma:  between justice and mercy. The victims of the Holocaust might wish to see their god extend justice rather than mercy to those who gassed their children in Auschwitz, however fine a thing forgiveness is. Are there not unforgivable things? Even the New Testament says there is one: namely, blasphemy. Some would think the murder of millions less forgivable than abusing the holy name.’

I would add to this that second issue with the view that the less savoury stories are part of an earlier view of god is whether the stories are true, as in whether they happened as recorded. If they are, it is not a matter of the people’s understanding of their god, it is what that god did. If the stories are just that, rather than actual events, at what point did any of what is recorded actually happen? Where between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (clearly a myth) and Jesus (we know he existed) did ‘real’ things start to happen?

This brings us squarely to the reliability of the accounts in the various volumes of scripture, even before we get to the question of whether they are all divinely inspired (and saying different things) or whether only ‘our’ scriptures are inspired, the rest being in some way false. I can’t help but think that mankind’s problems started when instead of listening to the creation myths of the people we encountered (there are some beautiful stories out there) and recognising them as an attempt to explain something the people at the time had vastly insufficient knowledge to begin to comprehend, we decided that our story was true and the other person’s was false, and that this mattered, in some cases enough to kill the other person to silence their heresy.

Grayling is more succinct and gives the whole ‘morality based on religion’ question short shrift:

The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count among themselves the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognise the duty to examine their views, choices and actions, and how they should behave towards them.

These are only a very few extracts from a well-argued and comprehensive analysis of the arguments for religion. Grayling also covers the origins of religion in ancient, pre-science superstition, what the various faiths actually believe versus what they discuss and emphasise, and how that emphasis has shifted significantly over time, including creating some doctrines and practices and discarding others which were once claimed to be necessary for salvation. He also includes the ‘God of the gaps’ problem, for the intellectuals a chapter on very technical definitional arguments for religion (I got a bit lost in the logic) and creationism and ‘intelligent design.’ It’s all in here, and I found this one of the more accessible of Grayling’s books.

So, next week, the positive second half of his book.

But for now, I’m going to give the last word on the approach of avoiding anything which might challenge our beliefs to W K Clifford, because I think it can apply to our current perspective on any matter, whether historical, political or religious. It’s also why I think having religious belief is no reason not to read a book like Grayling’s, however uncomfortable it might be. I did, and I’m still here.

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

2 Commentsto God part one

  1. CM Clanton says:

    Jon, it sounds like you have moved forward in your search for your beliefs,. If you can not seek other opinions then one is “one long sin against mankind”.

    • Jonathan says:

      If as adults we have not been able to challenge what we grew up thinking or believing, I am not sure we will have led a particularly thoughtful life. It does not by any means we will or should reject everything just because it originated in our childhood when we were most impressionable, but I think it is worthy of critical examination before arriving at a conclusion. Which we might then change a day, a month or a decade later as new information comes to light or we gain a different perspective from the operation of time on our lives. The moment we stop learning is a sad one.

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