The story of GaiaGaia is Mother Earth. She is the symbol of nature, motherhood, fertility, and creation. She gave rise to the Earth and the universe, and it is through her that we all exist. She is the mother who gave birth to our very existence and who accompanies us on our way through life.
The very first humans knew Gaia and they worshipped her. Nearly all known cultures worshipped Gaia — in varying forms. She was known as Hathor to the ancient Egyptians, as Pachamama to the Incas, as Toci to the Azteks, as Ninsun in Mesopotamia, as Gaia to the ancient Greeks, as Ceres to the Romans, as Anu to the Celts, as Nerthus to the Germanic people, and as Kali to the Indians. She is given distinct names and forms of appearance in many languages, but the essence of Gaia is always the same: She is the caring mother who gave rise to the universe, Earth, and everything that there is. People all over the world have made little figurines in honor of Gaia. One is pictured right . They can be found across all the continents. People began worshipping Gaia as soon as she gave them language — around 35,000 years ago. Consequently, the earliest figurines date to around 35,000 years ago.
Gaia was worshipped for thousands of years. She helped humans develop tools and master metal, and she even taught them writing. As soon as she taught humans how to write, though, around 5000 BCE, something strange happened. Humans began worshipping other gods. Egyptians worshipped lion gods, Indians invented all kinds of gods, and in the Middle East people began abandoning faith in Gaia in favor of Baal.
Gaia felt betrayed. She had accompanied humans loyally from the cave to early civilization. All her attempts to keep people with her failed. Finally, Gaia became very sad and bitter. When she saw that she could not bring her people back to the right path, she deliberated over how she might take revenge. She could have destroyed Earth with a snap of her fingers. But Gaia thought of something smarter. She knew exactly how to inflict pain on her earthlings. And she came up with a devilish plan.
She would send a spirit to some humans and empower them to become prophets. Some of these prophets could perform miracles. Others could communicate with the dead. Still others would write poetry of magical beauty. One was even be able to part the waters. There was even one to whom Gaia gave enlightenment while sitting under a tree. And each prophet would tell a different story. One would tell them to worship a single God. Another would tell them that he was the son of God. Others would say that there are no gods but spirits all around us. And Gaia knew exactly what would happen. Through their gifted abilities, the prophets would attract followers. At first only a few, but later more and more. These followers would keep their word alive after they died. And when the followers of one prophet would meet the followers of another prophet, they would insist to the followers of the other prophet that they were wrong. Or they would tell each other that each was following an ancient variant of their own true religion. Moreover, because all of these prophets were given magical powers by Gaia, none of their followers had available to them arguments that were more convincing than those available to the followers of the other prophet. Eventually, this would lead to bitter fighting. And since no one could ever prove anybody else wrong, this fighting would continue until the end of days.
And this is indeed just what we observe. The story of Gaia can in the end explain not just how the world came into existence but also why there are so many religions. It can explain how Moses could part the waters and how Buddha could be so wise. It all becomes clear now. It is time we come back to the true faith in Gaia.
Or is it?
While it is true that people all over the world did revere a female goddess, the story of how she was disappointed by humankind is made up. While the story could still happen to be true, neither atheists nor adherents of the major world religions believe that Gaia exists in reality. At the same time, her story is more plausible than many of today’s religious stories, because (1) a mother god was indeed revered across nearly all continents over tens of thousands of years and (2) the story can explain why we have so many different religions today. Thus, it can explain more things than today’s religions. But it’s still made up.
Proof strategyIn what follows, we will use the story of Gaia to show that proofs of the supernatural are wrong. Technically, a proof of the supernatural would be a true theory that predicts the existence of the supernatural. This theory would count as evidence that the supernatural exists.
We will show that these theories can equally well be used to prove the existence of Gaia. Hence, if the theories were true, we would also have to believe in the existence of Gaia. This, however, is something most people are unwilling to do. On the contrary, most people (and certainly atheists) hold that Gaia does not exist at all and that she is thus a counter-example to the theory.
If the Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe can’t convince his own creations that he exists, how are you going to do it?
Proof by claim
God existsFor a believer, there is no doubt that God exists. Hence, in a discussion about God, a believer might just put that belief on the table as a starting point: God exists.
“God exists” is, however, just a simple claim. We could just as well claim that “Gaia exists”. Or we could claim that there is a god that permeates and therefore exists in animals, plants, the Earth and the forces of nature. Or an atheist could claim that “God does not exist”. But statements do not become true by claiming them. To find out whether a claim is true, we need to seek evidence that supports it .
If you want to assert a truth, first make sure it’s not an opinion that you desperately want to be true.
Most people believe in God!The vast majority of people on this planet believe in supernatural beings. If there were no god, then 90% of the world’s population would be wrong. Is it not more reasonable to assume that they are right and that there must be a god?
Unfortunately, it is not possible to conclude that a belief is true just because it’s popular. This fallacy is known as the Argumentum ad populum . Here are some examples of false statements that millions of people have believed:
- The Sun orbits the Earth.
- Certain dances make rain.
- Some people are predestined to be slaves.
- Witches can make people fall ill.
- The goddess Gaia exists.
Apart from that, people believe in quite different gods: Single gods, multiple gods, good gods or evil gods. Some people also believe in ghosts and witches. As Charles Darwin argued: If we want to take the belief of the majority as the truth, we should all believe in evil spirits, as the belief in such spirits is much more widespread than the belief in a loving god.
Truth is not something to be decided by votes.
People have always believedReligion is a very old human phenomenon. This is taken as evidence that there must be something true about the existence of gods.
Even if people have believed something for a long time, however, this does not mean that it is true. The belief in Gaia, for example, existed for tens of thousands of years. It is much older than any of today’s religions. Still, we are not ready to conclude that Gaia exists.
It is, of course, still fascinating to see how ubiquitous the belief in higher powers is. We will later dedicate an entire chapter to this phenomenon. As we will see, many people believe in gods mainly because so many other people believe in gods. In this way, a belief is adopted mainly because it is popular — not because it would have been proved true. The belief then perpetuates itself through the generations: Children adhere to it because their parents did. The parents did it because their parents did it, and so on until we come to a person who claims to have been directly in touch with the supernatural. We will argue in the present chapter that this initial connection with the supernatural has actually never happened. In this way, following a religion because everybody else does it is like a proof by induction, where the induction hypothesis holds but the base case hangs in the air.
People go “Do you think the vast majority of the world is wrong?”
I don’t know how to say it nicely, but yes.
There is a God Gene!It has been hypothesized that a certain gene predisposes humans towards spiritual beliefs. This gene has been called the God Gene . Can this claim be used as evidence of the existence of God?
We first note that the gene can equally well be used as evidence for the existence of the goddess Gaia. We can say that this mother goddess implanted this gene in us (called the “Gaia Gene”) so that we remember and revere her. Indeed, humankind revered Gaia for tens of thousands of years (in varying forms). Still, this does not make Gaia exist. Therefore, we cannot use the God Gene argument to deduce that any particular god or goddess exists.
We could still use the god gene to argue that humans are predisposed to believe in the supernatural in general. This may be true. This does not however mean that belief in the supernatural must be correct. Humans are equally predisposed to believe that fat and sugar should be ingested without restrictions. This belief is hard-wired in human nature because early humans had to accumulate fat and sugar to cover their energy needs. Indeed, most people will devour large quantities of chocolate if given the chance. Today, however, where nutrition is readily available, this desire no longer serves its initial purpose. Indeed, if anything, there is a tendency to become obese by eating too much fat and sugar. Thus, even though the belief that eating unregulated amounts of sugar is healthy is hard-wired, it is still false. Hence, it serves as a counter-example to the theory, “If some conviction is hard-wired in the human being, it must be true”.
Religion is like a Big Mac.
Just because it tastes good and it has sold millions
doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Argument by ImaginationIt is sometimes argued that the very fact that we have an intuition of God implies that he exists. People are somehow fascinated by the concept of God. Doesn’t this imply that there must be some truth to his existence?
Having a precise imagination of something, or being fascinated by something, does not allow us to conclude that the thing exists. For example, we have a very precise imagination of all kinds of legendary creatures: dragons breathe fire, unicorns have one horn, Gaia has large hips, and fairies have wings. Some of us are even fascinated by these creatures, but we do not thereby conclude that they exist.
It is the mark of an educated mind
to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
God does not believe in atheistsThis argument goes as follows: Assume that God believes that atheists do not exist. Atheists nevertheless exist. Now let us apply the same argument to god: Atheists believe that god does not exist. God nevertheless exists.
This argument says that just because someone believes that something doesn’t exist, we cannot conclude that it really doesn’t exist. That is true, but it can also be applied the other way round: Just because someone believes that something exists, we may not conclude that the thing exists. In other words: Even if theists believe that God exists, this does not mean that he exists. The existence of a thing and the belief in the existence of that thing are logically independent claims: One can be true without the other. Human belief does not tell us anything about reality — neither about existence nor about nonexistence.
Truth is true even if no one believes it, and untrue claims are still untrue even if everyone believes them.
All religions believe the same thingsMany religions believe in a unique God. This makes it appear as if their beliefs are essentially the same and as if atheists are uniquely mistaken in their thinking.
We first note here that, even if these religions agreed on their basic beliefs, this does not make these beliefs true. A large portion of humanity agreed (unknowingly) for tens of thousands of years that Gaia exists. Still, we would not be willing to conclude that she does.
Apart from that, even the idea that the religions agree on their basic beliefs is false. To begin with, not all religions posit a unique god. There are polytheistic religions (which involve worshipping many gods), nontheistic religions (which preclude the existence of personal gods), spiritual religions (whose adherents believe in unnamed spirits rather than gods), UFO religions (whose adherents worship intelligent extraterrestrial beings), and animist religions (which hold that natural physical entities such as animals possess spiritual essences). We discuss these religions in detail in the Chapter on Religions. It turns out that around half of the world does not believe in the Abrahamic God. A large portion of humanity does not believe in personal gods at all. Around one billion people believe in multiple gods. In saying that all religions essentially believe in the same God, we are doing an injustice to these numerous religious communities.
In light of this diversity of belief, atheists no longer appear unique in their disbelief: For every religion-specific belief (the Trinity, the divine inspiration of the Quran, the existence of gods in all elements of life, reincarnation, etc.), atheists are on the side of the majority of the world population – namely on the side of those who do not believe the claim.
The world’s religions actually differ so much that most of them prohibit their adherents from marrying adherents of other faiths. Historically, most religions have also prohibited conversion to another religion under penalty of death. This shows that the religions are much less compatible among themselves than believers in the uniformity of religious beliefs recognize.
In contrast, there is no rule that would prohibit atheists from marrying followers of other worldviews. In this sense, atheism is more tolerant of religions than these religions are of other religions.
The Muslim says the Christian is wrong.
The Christian says the Muslim is wrong.
The atheist says both are right.
I can feel that God exists!Many people feel that God exists, and take the strength of that feeling as sufficient evidence for the proof of his existence.
The feeling that God exists is one of the most common arguments for the existence of God. Such feelings, however, differ considerably across individuals and across times: For tens of thousands of years, people felt that Gaia existed. Today, some Hindus feel that there exist multiple gods. They feel this just as strongly as others feel that there exists only one god. The Romans also felt that there were several gods. Monotheists would reject these beliefs. However, an argument for monotheism based on feelings is not stronger or weaker than the Romans’ argument.
Some atheists, for their part, feel that God does not exist. Some have even tried to feel the existence of the supernatural — and have failed. If feeling counts as proof, then this proves that God does not exist.
To atheists, this “feeling of something higher” is just the result of a number of psychological processes, which include subvocalization, imagination, the insight that we have much less power over our lives than we commonly assume, and the tendency to personify inanimate entities. None of these subjective tendencies, however, is proof of the existence of a god.
If fifty thousand people say a foolish thing, it’s still a foolish thing.
Atheism is blasphemy!Blasphemy is the defamation of the name of a god. In this sense, the denial of God is certainly a blasphemy. There is no god in an atheist’s world, though, so an atheist need not be afraid that the blasphemy will cause him any harm.
To make sure that my blasphemy is thoroughly expressed, I hereby state my opinion that the notion of a god is a basic superstition, that there is no evidence for the existence of any god(s), that devils, demons, angels and saints are myths, that there is no life after death, heaven nor hell, that the Pope is a dangerous, bigoted, medieval dinosaur, and that the Holy Ghost is a comic-book character worthy of laughter and derision.
Atheism leads to hell!A common way of thinking runs as follows: If we do not believe in God, then we go to hell. Therefore, we should believe in God. This is the argument that is implicitly used in many Christian denominations and explicitly in Islam.
This argument is, however, faulty: Atheists do not believe that hell exists either. For atheists, hell is just an invention that people use to scare other people. This is much like adults use Robin Goodfellow to scare children. These figures do not exist. Neither does hell.
Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?
Priest: No, not if you did not know.
Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?
Positive effects of religionThis book takes a very critical view of religion in general. Yet, there are a number of positive effects of religion. These include:
- personal strength
- a moral framework
- a community
Atheists note that, even if belief in God can have a positive effect on some people, this does not make God exist. For example, the belief in Santa Claus makes children happy, but Santa Claus does not exist. Therefore, it’s illogical to suggest that an adult should start believing in Santa Claus even if we tell them that this will make them happy. Analogously, it is not logical for atheists to start believing in the supernatural to be happy. Atheists prefer to believe things because they are true and not because they make them happy.
Apart from that, religion does not have all the positive effects that people commonly associate with it. For example, people living in religious countries are actually unhappier than people in living in secular countries. In the same vein, religion has been shown to have a number of dangerous, and sometimes disastrous, effects on society. We will discuss them later in detail in the chapter “Criticism of Religion”.
You may need religion for comfort. That doesn’t make it true. You may need a million dollars. That doesn’t mean you have them . Join the real world.
Pascal’s WagerBlaise Pascal, the French mathematician, made the following argument for belief in God: If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing. However, if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore, it is better to believe in God. This argument is known as “Pascal’s Wager”. A variant of this argument runs as follows. You should believe in God because there are only three cases: (1) God exists, and in that case you're doing the right thing; (2) God does not exist, and in that case you will just cease to live after death and cannot have feelings of regret; and (3) some other god exists, and in that case both the atheist and the believer will be sent to hell anyway.
Unfortunately, the argument has at least three flaws:
- The argument breaks apart as soon as there are several possible religions to choose from. For example, literal readings of the Bible condemn to hell those who don’t believe in Jesus [Bible: 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9], and literal readings of the Quran condemn to hell those who do (3:85). But that is not the only catch: There is not just the Abrahamic God but at least 2000 other possible gods as well, and hundreds of denominations even for the same gods. Thus the chance that one chooses the right god(s) is one in several thousand. If you worship the wrong god, you may make the true god very angry — much more angry than he would have been had you not believed at all. The Abrahamic God, for example, gets extremely angry if people worship other gods. Vice versa: If the true god is the one of the Mayan gods, then worshipping the Abrahamic God will make the Mayan god very angry. Thus, it is actually safer not to worship at all. Homer Simpson said it well when he wondered: “What if we’re worshipping the wrong god, and every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder?”
- Even if you believe in true god(s), the argument does not guarantee that the true gods appreciate your opportunistic behaviour. The gods of most religions require wholehearted devotion. The kind of belief generated by following Pascal’s Wager, however, is a very tepid faith at best. As most gods are omniscient, they would discover your false faith.
- It is not true that you don’t lose anything by adhering to a religion. Religions usually impose dietary restrictions, restrictions of sexual liberty, rituals, dogmata, and restrictions regarding who you can marry. We fill an entire chapter with these issues, the chapter “Criticism of Religion”. If you follow a religion, but belief in the supernatural turns out to be false, then you have needlessly curtailed your life — your only life. Furthermore, the dogmatic nature of religions, and their ancient moral frameworks, have actually inflicted harm on humanity. By devoting your life to a religion, you legitimize the religion and the harm it inflicts on many of your fellow humans.
By believing in an imaginary god, you have not “lost nothing”. What you have done is committed yourself to a lifetime of delusion instead of committing your life to reality.
Yes, but maybe he exists!One of the most frequent arguments for following a religion is a variant of Pascal’s Wager, which says simply: Yes, but maybe God exists!
Yes, maybe. But maybe not. For atheists, a “maybe” is just not enough to begin following a particular religion. Scott Berry explains this by telling the following story on Quora.com:
The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatsoever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.
Belief in God is convenientPascal’s Wager essentially tells us to believe what is likely to be most beneficial with the least effort.
This line of thinking, however, is rarely followed — neither by atheists nor theists. Many religions carry some inconvenience with them. Muslims, for example, have to fast once a year; Hindus have to follow all manner of rituals; Jews may not operate devices on a Saturday; all of them have laws restricting how they express or practice sexuality; and virtually all of them disallow marriage with adherents of another religion. There are, however, some more liberal religions that impose no such constraints on their followers. Take, for example, the Wicca Religion and Spiritualism. These religions offer the same postmortal comfort as the established religions, but come with much less demanding rituals. If people wanted to believe what is most convenient, then they could start believing in these newer religions. However, they don’t. They don’t, because what counts for them is not convenience but conviction.
A man convinced against his will
is of the same opinion still.
The Atheist WagerThe Atheist Wager is a reply to Pascal’s Wager. It was brought forward by Michael Martin2. The wager runs as follows:
You should live a good life and be a nice person, but leave religion alone. If God is loving and kind, he will forgive you for not believing in him and reward you in the afterlife for having been a good person. If God punishes you despite having been a good person all your life then God is unjust and you shouldn’t worship him.
Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.
God is loveThis argument runs as follows: Most atheists believe that love exists. One can argue that love itself is God and the two are equivalent. Therefore, atheists believe that God exists.
By love we mean a “strong feeling of affection” 3. This feeling, however, does not involve the supernatural. If we define God as love, then God is not supernatural. “God” is just another name for the natural feeling of affection. Thus, atheists have no problem with this definition of God and indeed believe that “God” in this form exists.
We note, though, that this view of God excludes other attributes commonly ascribed to God: He is not omniscient, he did not create the universe, and he does not stand above the laws of nature. Thus, the word “God” would no longer mean the god of the monotheistic religions. This would be confusing. Therefore, we usually use the word “God” to denote the God of the monotheistic religions and the word “love” to denote a feeling of affection. These are indeed the common meanings of these words. In these common meanings, atheists do not believe in God but they can believe in love.
The argument that “God is love” is no more sensible than the argument that God is my cat:
My pet cat is called “God”.
My cat exists.
Therefore, God exists.
God is the universeThe pantheistic argument says that God is equivalent to the universe, i.e., the set of all existing things. Atheists do of course believe in the existence of things, so atheists must thus believe in the existence of God.
Much like the case with love, if we define God as identical with all that exists, then God is not supernatural. Atheists would have no problem believing in this God. They believe in the existence of things, and if we call the things “God”, then they believe in God.
As in the case of love, however, this view of God excludes other attributes commonly ascribed to God (omniscience, creation of the universe, omnipotence, etc.). Thus, the word “God” would refer to something different from the God of the monotheistic religions. That would be confusing. Therefore, most people prefer to call God “God” and the universe “the universe”. And, like before, under these more common meanings of the words, atheists do not believe in God.
It does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravitation.
God is the universal principle of existenceSome people say that God is the universal, basic principle of our existence and of life. If atheists believe in this universal principle, then atheists believe in God.
Unfortunately, it is not very clear what this universal principle is. Let us try to make it more concrete. Would we say that the universal principle is the existence of things? Then this question is treated above as pantheism. Or is it the power that brought the world into existence? Then the “universal principle” is a different name for God. In this case atheists do not believe in this universal principle, because it amounts to something supernatural, namely the Abrahamic God.
You literally cannot describe what you’re trying to argue for. You can’t explain what it is — not because it’s subtle but because you don’t have the faintest idea what it is. And, given that you don’t know what it is, why on Earth are you pressuring me to agree that it exists? Why do you want me to echo this statement back to you, without either of us understanding what it means?
Abstract Universal Hypotheses
Sense behind everythingThe argument goes as follows: We observe that all things in life have a certain sense: Chairs are made to sit on, cars to drive and the laws of nature have the purpose of holding the material world together. The sense behind this order in nature is God.
It is certainly true that most human-made things (such as chairs and cars) have a certain “sense”. Here, “sense” has the meaning of “purpose” and ultimately refers to the maker’s intention. Now let’s look at things in nature: volcanic eruptions, lightning, waterfalls... The argument supposes that there is “a sense” behind these things. That is, the argument supposes that there is a maker who pursues an intention with these things. This, however, was what the argument aims to prove in the first place. Therefore, the argument presupposes what it aims to prove.
The argument is an example of what we will call a “universal abstract hypothesis”: a theory about the world that is so general and abstract that it cannot be used to make any concrete predictions. . We will define this concept more fully a bit later in this chapter .
- Just believe everything I tell you, and it will all be very, very simple.
- Ah, well, I'm not sure I believe that.
Everything runs in cyclesMany things in life repeat themselves. For example, the tide comes and goes, and the seasons repeat. This recurrence of natural phenomena is seen as proof of a supernatural order.
Natural recurrence certainly applies to the seasons and the tides. Nevertheless, not everything runs in cycles. For example, if a pencil is used up, it never comes back. If you encounter a chance in life, that chance may never be there again. The second law of thermodynamics even says that the entropy of the universe will steadily increase without any chance of ever being reversed . Thus, not everything repeats itself. The theory is just false.
Furthermore, even if everything repeated itself, this would not mean there is a supernatural order. The rule “Everything repeats itself, therefore the supernatural exists” is invalid . Rather, the rule is an example of an abstract universal hypothesis.
Argument from DualismThis argument is based on an intense and very old philosophical discussion. It runs as follows: We observe that any thought is always embedded in a physical system. For example, human thoughts cannot exist without a human body. Seen in this way,
The first problem is that this argument can be continued: If God (the thought) gave rise to this world (the matter), then it follows by (1) that there must be matter that gave rise to God. This is usually denied.
Therefore, people typically deny (1) and postulate only (2): All matter has risen from thought. Now let us see if there is a counter-example to that rule. What about volcanoes, illnesses, cockroaches, or rocks? What visible thought precedes them? None, apparently. Hence, for the theory to stand, we have to say that the “thought” is something invisible and undetectable. Then, even rocks and cockroaches are no longer counter-examples. In fact, there cannot be any counter-examples at all. Everything has just arisen from thought, no matter whether we see the thought or not. This, however, means that the theory is unfalsifiable. If we assume that there is a thought, but that it is undetectable, then we are just as wise as before. The theory is therefore meaningless.
The theory (and in fact the whole idea of the dualism between thought and matter) is an example of an abstract universal hypothesis: It offers a simple all-embracing schema for our world, but it is so weakly defined and it has been generalized from so little evidence that it is of no use.
Everything in life is oneAdvaita or Nonduality is a philosophy that asserts that the fundamental property of the things in life is their one-ness. As an Advaita Website 4 explains: Your fingers are all different from each other, but are they separate? They all arise from the same hand. Similarly, the objects, animals, plants and people in the world are all definitely distinct in their appearance and functioning. But they are all connected at their source — they come from the same source. This one Being that is behind all life manifests in an infinite number of expressions that we experience as distinct objects. To continue with the hand analogy, your fingers are all made of the same substance. They are made of similar tissues, cells, atoms, and, at the deepest level, the same subatomic particles. Similarly, when your experience of reality becomes more subtle, you discover that everything is just a specific expression of one field of nondual Being. This one Being can be called God.
It is certainly true that many things have something in common. All fingers of a given hand are on the same hand. Yet, to impart one-ness to the fingers of the left hand and the fingers of the right hand, we have to generalize to “they are on the same body”. If we want to impart one-ness to the fingers of several people, we have to generalize to “they have the same shape”. To generalize to fingers and hooves, we have to say that they are made of the same cells; to generalize to fingers and my watch, we have to say they are made of atoms. To generalize to fingers and an abstract concept such as a square root, we have to say that they both exist. To generalize to fingers and unicorns, we have to say that they both exist in my mind. Thus, the theory is basically “If we speak about something, then it exists in the mind”. This theory is true, but it carries no practical value. In particular, it cannot be used to establish the existence of God.
To assume nonduality in this sense is to propose an abstract universal hypothesis — essentially an all-embracing yet unfalsifiable hypothesis. Since the hypothesis is unfalsifiable, the opposite of the hypothesis is equally likely to be true. Let us give that a try: “Your fingers look all similar, but are they the same? If you look closely, you will find that each one of them is a little different from the other. Similarly, the objects, animals, plants and people in the world are all different in their appearance and functioning. Even if two things look similar to us, each one is slightly different from all the others. Just as every fingerprint is unique, and every snowflake is unique, so is every being unique. When your experience of reality becomes more subtle, you will discover that everything is in its own way unique, differentiating it from everything else that might look similar.” This discourse is as true as the previous discourse that asserts the oneness of everything. If the opposite of a theory is as true as the theory itself, then the theory is nonsense.
Conscious beingsThis argument runs as follows: In our everyday lives, we make a natural distinction between living (conscious) and non-living (non-conscious) things. For example, a stone is a non-conscious thing while a boy is conscious. When the boy throws the stone, we notice that the source of the flying stone is a conscious entity. Now, we observe that the wind blows. Should we not assume the work of a conscious entity behind the wind, just as we assume the work of a conscious entity behind the flying stone? If so, then these conscious entities are gods.
To refute this argument, we first note that all events in (macroscopic) nature can be predicted by the laws of nature. The event-gods would obey these laws without exception. For example, the sun god has to make the sun set every day exactly according to our calculations. He cannot decide to make the sun set an hour earlier. This means that the sun god cannot actually take decisions on his own, in the sense of actions that we cannot predict. Thus, he is lacking a crucial component of what we commonly call consciousness. Furthermore, the gods can even be yoked by humans to move the electrons in a light bulb, to turn the axle in a diesel engine, and to heat the food in a microwave. Thus, the gods would in fact be inferior to humans.
But what if the gods just consciously follow what we humans predict and enforce? In that case, we cannot prove that there is no conscious being. There could be a conscious being in everything, and these conscious beings could simply choose to behave exactly as if they were mere physical entities. This means, though, that they are no different from physical entities. If something always behaves exactly like a physical entity, then it is a physical entity. In other words, the hypothesis that there are conscious beings behind everything who behave as if they did not exist is unfalsifiable. This entails that we are not any wiser about this world if we assume the existence of these entities. The hypothesis is literally meaningless.
The idea that everything has some consciousness behind it seems to be driven in part by the human instinct to suspect the presence of human-ness in the phenomena of nature. It is an abstract universal hypothesis.
I am a polyatheist.
There are hundreds of gods that I do not believe in.
Abstract universal hypothesesQuite a number of arguments for the existence of God make an all-embracing assumption about the phenomena of life: One argument assumes that there is a sense behind everything, which is ultimately God. The argument based on dualism says that matter always arises from thought. Non-dualism says that one-ness is a fundamental property of everything. Another argument runs that everything in life comes and goes in cycles. Yet another argument says that everything is driven by conscious beings.
- AUHs overgeneralize
- AUHs promise us a universal principle behind the phenomena of life. This satisfies our thirst for understanding this world. Yet AUHs do not apply to everything. For example, not everything in life is “one”, not everything has a sense behind it, and not every volume of matter has arisen from thought. AUHs simply postulate such principles based on a few handy instances. This, however, ignores cases where the hypothesis does not hold.
- AUHs are not falsifiable
- People who insist on the truth of an AUH tend to interpret them so vaguely that they do apply to everything. Then, however, the AUH becomes, by definition, unfalsifiable. This means that nothing in life can prove it wrong. This means, in turn, that the AUH does not have any predictive or explicative value — we are no wiser than we were before postulating them. They are therefore unnecessary.
- The opposite of an AUH is equally true
- The unfalsifiability entails that we can equally well claim the opposite of any AUH. For example, instead of claiming that “Everything in life is one”, we can equally well claim that “Everything in life is dual”. This is in fact what some Eastern religions say — with equally many examples. If the opposite of a statement is as true as the original statement, then the statement makes no sense.
There are many more ways to do something wrong than there are to do something right.
Near Death ExperiencesA near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience that is typically associated with impending death, encompassing multiple sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. Does this not prove the existence of something that extends beyond our lives?
Interestingly, there is a drug called ketamine that produces all of the elements of an NDE when it is injected into normal, non-dying people. In other words, an NDE is a natural, chemically induced state that the human brain enters. The trigger for an NDE is lack of oxygen flow to the brain and body 5. Thus, the sensations that cause an individual to claim he or she has had an NDE can be induced by a chemical reaction. They hence provide no proof of the supernatural.
We know of only one documented case where someone decided to study life after death in a self-administered experiment. Thomas Lynn Bradford designated a woman who was to receive supernatural communication from his spirit after his death. Bradford then committed suicide. As of the time of this writing, however, no communication has been received from him .
Spiritual encountersSome people have the sensation of an encounter with God. For example, there is the story of an unbeliever, who, one day, was struck so violently by the presence of God that he ran immediately to a church and had himself baptized on the spot. Are such powerful experiences not proof that God exists?
Interestingly, people have spiritual experiences exclusively with the deities they know. Rarely has a Hindu encountered Allah, a Muslim encountered Khonvoum, or a Christian encountered Vishnu. Everybody meets exactly the deity they have learned about. Therefore, such encounters are more likely to be the product of education than proof that a particular deity is real.
Such encounters could however be used to argue for the existence of “something” that is supernatural. And yet, it is very hard to judge the degree to which we can rely on personal accounts of the supernatural. For example, in Jerusalem dozens of tourists every year succumb to the so-called Jerusalem syndrome — developing religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences. These people start saying that they have met God, that they will perform miracles, or that they are the next prophet. Nobody (except the person concerned) takes these experiences seriously. Rather, these people are considered mentally ill.
Thus, we generally reject the theory according to which, “if someone says they have a spiritual encounter, that person encountered the supernatural”. On the contrary, there are quite a number of natural causes for such encounters. We discuss them in the chapter “The Founding of Religions”.
Table-turningTable-turning is a social activity, wherein several people sit around a table and place their fingers on it. The participants ask questions and the table will tip towards one edge if the answer is “yes” and towards another one when the answer is “no”. In more advanced settings, the participants agree on a code that maps table movements to letters, so that the table can spell out words. A related technique uses a Ouija board — a board with letters written on it. People place their hands on a small piece of felted wood that glides over the board, thus spelling out sequences of letters. Such movements are seen as evidence of supernatural spirits, most notably in Spiritism.
We first note that not everyone is given the same answers to the same question. Also, in the words of the founder of Spiritism, “Spirit-orthography, it must be confessed, is not always irreproachable” 6. At best the activities are seen as evidence not for a single omniscient god but for several, individual, unrelated spirits with varying degrees of knowledge. This has prompted the Catholic Church to warn their faithful against the practice.
Natural ExplanationsIt is not surprising that a table can be made to move if people place their hands on it. After all, we always move things with our hands. The astonishing part is only that the participants say that they do not consciously move the table. The following factors can contribute to this phenomenon.
- Ideomotor movements
People can move their hands subconsciously while being convinced that they are not moving them. In other words, honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations. In one experiment, participants were asked to place their hands on a Ouija plate and think of a particular direction (say, towards the door leading out of the room). The plate began moving in that direction, even though the participants were told not to move it 7. As soon as there is some movement by some hands, the other hands unconsciously move similarly, thus amplifying the movement.
The same phenomenon occurs with table-turning. For example, the physicist Michael Faraday placed sheets of cardboard on a table and had the participants place their hands on that cardboard. When the spirits “talked”, the cardboard, not the table, moved — thus proving that the participants caused the movement and not the spirits. When the participants became aware of this, table-turning no longer worked .
- In a large number of cases, such purported interactions with spirits have proved to be fraudulent. For example, the Fox sisters, whose reported interactions with the supernatural marked the beginning of Spiritualism, later admitted that they used tricks to make the spirits “speak” . With regard to table-turning, common tricks include simply pushing the table in the desired direction, waiting until the opposite player pushes the table down and then placing a foot under the table so that one can move it at will, moving the table with the knee, using a ring on one’s finger that hooks into a protuberance under the table, or using devices that attach to the participants' arms (as in the video screenshot above).
- False memories
- People tend to idealize their memories. They can come to believe something happened that in fact did not. In one experiment, participants were made to believe that the table was rising in the air, simply because someone was saying repeatedly “The table rises! Spirits, raise the table higher!” Two weeks after the experiment, one-third of the participants wrongly remembered that the table rose8. When such memories are shared with others, people often amplify them. Just as in the case of miracles, people tend to make stories more miraculous as they tell them. The effects of the “telephone game” apply accordingly.
Proofs that it does not workThere is actually counter-evidence to the theory that table-turning communicates with the supernatural.
- If participants in a Ouija game are blindfolded so that they cannot see the letters, then the game does not work. The spirits just make nonsense sequences of letters 9. This shows that there cannot be spirits at work.
- No advantage
- If these activities really worked, then their participants should be able to know things that other people do not know. Thus, they should be more successful than the average person at making life choices, at betting, or at least at resolving murders (by contacting the spirits of the victims). And yet that does not happen. Participants know just as much – or as little – as everybody else. The spiritualists have not, based on the advantage they enjoy from supernatural communication, risen to become the dominating class in politics, business, or science.
Is it more probable that nature should go out of her course or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course. But we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time. It is therefore at least millions to one that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie.
MiraclesA miracle is commonly understood as an event that defies natural laws — in particular the basic Newtonian laws of physics. Some people believe that God performs such miracles. Are these miracles then not proof of his existence?
Who did it?We first note that a miracle does not prove the existence of a specific god. Most major religions have claimed miracles: Buddhism tells the story of a prophet who darkened the sky, Christianity claims the miracles of Jesus, Islam claims that God parted the waters, Jews speak of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, the Bahais cite a miracle performed by their founder, and to this day many Hindus assert that miracles occur . Thus, if a miracle occurs, it could favor any of these religions and their god or gods.
Additionally , religions can (and do) claim that miracles attributed to figures in other religions are fakes or are perpetrated by their own demons. For example, The Old Testament tells Jews and Christians that, if a prophet from another religion performs a miracle, then it was brought about only by the Abrahamic God to test his followers [Bible: Deuteronomy 13:1-5]. The New Testament urges Christians not to take miracles by non-Christian prophets as proof of the existence of other gods [Bible: Revelations 19:20, Matthew 24]. In Islam, the Jinns are spirits that can perform miracles, and therefore any miracle can be seen as the act of a Jinn intended to mislead humans..
Thus, the existence of miracles cannot prove the existence of one particular god. They can do no more than imply the existence of some unspecified god.
Miracles don’t happenThe positive atheist position on miracles is clear: Miracles do not happen. If something seems to be a miracle, it is not. This is a falsifiable and validated theory. There is not a single case of a scientifically verified miracle. Despite the ubiquitousness of cameras, we are not inundated with videos of miracles. Several organizations have promised awards to the first person who offers verifiable proof of a supernatural intervention. In total, there are 29 prizes waiting to be claimed totaling several thousands of dollars. So far, no prize has been claimed (Wikipedia maintains a list10).
And the reason why no miracle has been proved is that miracles do not happen. For the positive atheist, miracles are either
- Tricks done by magicians
- Consequences of scientific theories that the general public is unaware of
- Lies propagated by those who take an interest in a miracle
- Stories that have been mystified and enhanced as they have been passed along
In some cases, people take a venal interest in propagating (false) stories to lend credibility to a putative miracle. Take the case of weeping statues . All weeping statues studied so far have been shown to be frauds. Such stories are, however, also propagated by people who stand to benefit from these miracles — for example by attracting tourists and pilgrims. Indeed such sites generation millions from the pilgrims . People are happy to pass on such stories, and each time the story is passed on, it becomes a little bit more miraculous .
For scientifically minded people, all miracles are of this type: They are stories that people tell each other, but they are not factual accounts of reality.
You also don’t believe in miraclesLet us consider the miracles performed by the Abrahamic prophets. Whenever Moses, Jesus, or Mohammed performed a miracle (or reported a revelation), there were those who doubted them [Quran: 5:110, 16:101, 26:186, 25:4, 25:5, 25:8, 26:185, 81:22-25][Bible: John 20:24-29, Matthew 14:28]. That is surprising. If someone walked on the water, why would people not immediately believe it? And if someone speaks verses of divine beauty in a seemingly miraculous way, why would people doubt? In other words, why did many people not believe in the face of the evidence?
People generally do not believe that miracles happen, because they don’t. Take for example the picture on the right. It shows a man in a costume who hovers in the air. The man is a real person in a costume, and you can actually go and talk to him. And he really hovers in the air; you can put your hand under him. This is amazing! Still, not for a second do you consider this to be miraculous. You see a man flying before your eyes and yet still you are 100% convinced that there must be a trick. You would probably brood over the trick, discuss it with friends, search the internet for an explanation, or even ask the person to figure out how he does it. But you will not believe that this person is supernaturally magical.
We only ever believe in miracles if they are told to us and never when they are shown to us. Again, this is because we fully well know that miracles do not happen.
When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other and according to the superiority which I discover, I pronounce my decision. Always I reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates, then and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
PrayerPeople pray for many things. They pray for recovery from illness, for luck, or for success. Sometimes, these wishes become true. This is seen as a proof of the existence of God.
Where prayer worksPrayer can have a very positive psychological impact on the person who prays. People who pray feel less anxiety and they manage stress more effectively. Prayer can even help cure an illness if that illness is mainly psychosomatic. We discuss this in detail in the chapter on the Benefits of Religion. However, these effects are always exclusively psychological. They are based on a number of psychological phenomena, which include the placebo effect and the power of positive thinking. While these effects are undisputed, they are not linked to a god, but work even with worldly means (such as sugar pills). Therefore, they cannot be used to prove the existence of a god.
Hence we turn in the following to the non-psychological effects of prayer.
Where prayer does not workFor a positive atheist, the position is clear: Apart from psychological effects, prayers have no influence whatsoever on the physical world. Formulated as a theory: If you pray for something, this is not going to influence the probability that that thing will come about. This is a falsifiable and validated theory.
You can try it out on your own: Pray for anything that cannot happen by coincidence , i.e., that goes against the laws of nature. Then watch as your prayer gets ignored. For example, pray for your laptop to fly. Pray for all people who suffer from disease to be healed by tomorrow evening. None of this is going to happen. God never answers prayers in cases where what is prayed for could not occur coincidentally 11. Examples are 12:
- God never answers the prayers of amputees. If he did, we would see amputated limbs spontaneously regenerating every day.
- God never answers prayers that ask for a physical impossibility to occur (like sprouting wings and flying). If he did, people would be flying through the air like superman on a regular basis.
- When two people pray for the opposite outcomes for one another, obviously someone’s prayer will go unanswered. If a million people pray for the same thing but only one can have it (e.g., winning the lottery), then by definition 999,999 people will have their prayers unanswered.
- God doesn’t answer medical prayers — otherwise the U.S. would not need to spend $2 trillion a year on health care.
- God doesn’t answer prayers to avert natural disasters — if he did, hurricanes would not hit the U.S.
- People who pray do not experience better weather than people who don’t 13.
To go beyond individual prayers, consider the developing nations, where many live in misery. These places happen to be among the most religious places on Earth. Every day millions of these people pray to God. And yet, these places suffer the most serious consequences of natural disasters, famines, and wars. A concrete instance of this phenomenon is the Pater Noster prayer, the main Christian prayer. Among other things, it asks God to “give us our daily bread”. It is recited daily by millions of believers. Yet, every year, thousands of Christians perish from malnutrition.
Thus, we cannot validate the theory that prayer is effective. On the contrary, we can cite a huge number of counter-examples to the theory. Thus, we can safely conclude that prayers can never cause what would not be possible anyway by coincidence.
Prayer does not even increase probabilityNow we might still hope that prayer at least increases the chances that some hoped-for coincidence occurs. Yet, this is not the case. Consider, e.g., the royal family in the United Kingdom. In the Sunday mass, faithful Britons pray in the thousands for the health of the British queen and her family. Yet, as the Victorian scientist Francis Galton remarked, the royal family gets ill as often as everybody else 14.
There are several studies on this matter. The majority show no effect of prayer. The largest such study, titled “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)”, was conducted by the Templeton Foundation, a religious think tank. It was published by American Heart Journal in April 2006. The researchers asked hundreds of people to pray for the health of hospital patients and then compared their health to the health of patients who received no prayers. The study showed that prayer had no effect. Worse, people who knew that someone else was praying for them turned out to be less likely to recover from surgery, suggesting that they saw the prayers as proof that their situations were dire 15.
Thus, these studies invalidate the theory that prayer can influence physical events. This is, by the way, how science works. The mathematical formula that computes the distribution of lottery numbers does not include the variable “unless John prays to God, in which case the probability that this number wins is greater”. This is because prayer has no influence whatsoever on physical things — and we know it.
Thus, prayer cannot be used to demonstrate the existence of God. On the contrary , the ineffectiveness of prayer shows that the God who grants prayers does not exist. This, however, is a conclusion that believers are somehow unable to draw.
Prayer doesn’t even work “sometimes”It is commonly pointed out that God cannot be forced to grant a wish expressed in a prayer. God himself decides whether or not to fulfill a prayer request. This decision is beyond the prayer’s control, i.e. a prayer may be heard or may not be heard. We cannot tell upfront whether the prayer will be heard.
It follows that praying to God is no different from praying to a water kettle. If we pray to the water kettle, the prayer may also (seem to) work sometimes, but sometimes it does not. Indeed, a prayer to a water kettle will actually work at exactly the same probability as when we pray to God. For example, pray to God that no lethal car accident occurs in the US tomorrow. Tomorrow, pray to the water kettle that there is no lethal car accident in the US the next day. You will see that both prayers have the same effect: none. The reason is simple: Both the prayer to God and the prayer to the water kettle are just you talking to yourself in your head. It has no influence on reality whatsoever.
Why we think prayer worksWe can read in newspapers how survivors of earthquakes or plane crashes testify that their prayers saved them. Yet, no one talks about the hundreds of people who also prayed and were killed nevertheless. Suppose that 100 Christians are diagnosed with a form of cancer that is associated with a survival rate of only 5%. If 100 Christians then pray fervently, only five of them survive in the end. What you read in the press focuses only on those five cases where the prayer “worked” 13. This is because “Person prays, then dies” is not a great headline 16. Thus, prayer appears to work simply because we are counting the hits and not the misses. That is, we tend to remember only the cases where prayer seemed to worked. This predisposition is then used by religious figures to claim powers that do not exist.
Those who pray may themselves also have an interest in claiming that their prayers work: If you don’t have a story of a successful prayer to tell, it appears that you have lost favor with God. Therefore, you may be willing to exaggerate a little, or even make something up, to avoid losing face with your peer group. 17
James 5:16: The prayer of a righteous person is effective.
In other words, God doesn’t listen to the prayers of assholes. Why should he? I guess if you’re finding that your prayers are neither powerful nor effective, that can only mean one thing.
Faith HealingFaith healing is the attempt to cure human physical illness through prayer, rituals, or a visit to a shrine. Spiritual healing is the attempt to cure by appeal to the supernatural, without linking the effort to a specific religion. If these techniques worked, they could provide evidence of the supernatural.
Unfortunately, they don’t. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that faith healing does not increase the chances that one heals over the chances that one can be cured by a placebo. According to the American Cancer Society, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments” 18. Reported effects of faith healing can all be attributed to one of the following:
- Spontaneous remission
- This is “the unexpected improvement or cure from a disease that appears to be progressing in its severity”. Some ailments like cancer and multiple sclerosis abate by themselves for reasons that have not yet been fully understood. However, these effects occur independently of any faith healing. Some instances of faith healing have entailed spontaneous regression, others have not. Hence, we may not conclude that faith healing cures a disease or condition . John Edensor Littlewood observed, to the contrary, that even if there is only a one-in-a-million chance that a given event occurs, the average person will observe such an event on average once a month.
- Quite a number of physical ailments are caused by psychological factors. For example, conversion disorder is a somatic symptom disorder involving the actual loss of bodily function such as blindness, paralysis, and numbness caused by excessive anxiety. Pain disorders are subjective experiences of pain with psychological causes. Such ailments are real, measurable physical sufferings, but they have a psychological basis. Therefore, it is in some cases possible to heal them with psychological methods. Faith healing is undoubtedly one of these methods, but the actual healing that takes place is a purely natural process. It does not pop a god into existence.
- Many faith healers, like those who promote miracles, have a venal interest in making the public believe that their methods work. Several have been found to deceive their patients or followers. One of the most notorious cases was that of Peter Popoff, who would put able people into wheelchairs and then “heal” them . It is easy to fake the inability to walk, the inability to see, or pain. It is equally easy to act as though these ills have suddenly disappeared. Stories of successful healings are also eagerly promoted and disseminated by believers — either sincerely or in an attempt to boost the legitimacy of their religions.
- Placebo effect
- It is well established that if a patient believes that a cure will have an effect, the cure will indeed have an effect, even though the cure is useless in itself . Because faith healing patients believe that faith healing works, they are susceptible to being “cured”. This practice works, however, with any technique that a patient believes in, whether it involves supernatural beings or not.
- Some claims of faith healing are outright false. People claim to have been healed of cancer only to succumb to the disease later.
- Unproven illness
- In some cases, an illness is “healed” that was never a confirmed illness in the first place. For example, a televangelist might claim that “There is a woman in Cincinnati with cancer of the lymph nodes. I don’t know whether it’s been diagnosed yet but you haven’t been feeling well, and the Lord is dissolving that cancer right now!” So if there are any women in Cincinnati who don’t feel well, they might be led to believe they have cancer and will then feel miraculously healed — of a cancer that was never a cancer in the first place.
- In some TV shows, a faith healer announces the curing of a condition from which an unnamed individual suffers. For example, he might say “There is a woman in Kansas city who has sinusitis. The Lord is drying that up right now. Thank you, Jesus!” Either no such healing takes place, in which case no one would complain, or healing takes place spontaneously and then the woman would call into the show and report her miraculous healing. She would then be brought forward as proof that faith healing works.
- If faith healing does not work, the standard reasoning is that the patient did not have enough faith in it. Using such an ad hoc excuse, it is always possible to explain why the healing did not work. Of course, we can never predict upfront whether faith healing will work in any particular case . This means that we can never prove that faith healing doesn’t work. Hence, the statement that faith healing works is unfalsifiable and thus nonsensical.
You don’t see faith healers work in hospitals
for the same reason that you don’t see fortune tellers win the lottery.
The Prophets heard God!Atheists in general are sceptical of claims that people have heard God’s voice.
However, believers are also skeptical of such claims. For example, Joseph Smith of the Mormons (the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints) , also claimed that God spoke to him. However, for some reason, other Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists do not flock around him in awe.
Perhaps this is because many people have said that God spoke to them. Statistically, around 1 in every 10 people believes that God talks to them 19. Many video testimonies to this phenomenon can be found online. In one case, God told a woman to vote for George Bush — which she did 20. Such cases are typically dismissed as harmless self-talk. These people just subvocalize their own thoughts. In some cases, though, this self-talk can have serious consequences. For example, in 2004, a woman in Texas heard God’s voice. He told her to kill her children, just as, in the Bible, Abraham was asked by God to kill his son. She obeyed and killed her two sons 21. This woman was jailed as insane.
In all of these cases, we typically assume that people hear their own thoughts. In extreme cases, mental or neurological disorders such as epilepsy, hallucinations, or schizophrenia can amplify such experiences. Temporal lobe epilepsy, in particular, is associated with hyper-religiosity and with the desire to express oneself in many words. With all this in mind, atheists do not believe people who say that God spoke to them. After all, they are the only witnesses of their revelations.
The only evidence that the prophets brought for the existence of God were the voices in their own head.
I talk to God!A person’s personal relationship with God is often presented as evidence of the existence of God. If God did not exist, then believers would basically imagine this relationship and talk to themselves when they pray. So, do atheists claim that people who pray talk to themselves?
Yes. To an atheist, people who pray talk to themselves. They subvocalize their thoughts. This is nothing unnatural or rare. Most people talk to themselves, often constantly. This is known as “intra-personal communication”, “internal monologue”, or “private speech”. Self-talk helps us order our thoughts, memorize things, concentrate, de-stress, and learn. It fulfills essential functions for psychological comfort. Both theists and atheists talk to themselves. Some people imagine that they talk to their deceased spouses or grandparents. Others conduct imaginary dialogues with their friends to help them formulate their thoughts and wishes. Some people call that friend Jesus (“What would Jesus do?”). The reader is invited to try it out. It suffices to imagine talking to a person under the hypothesis of complete confidence and say something you always wanted to tell that person. This is a very helpful technique. Yet, it remains self-talk.
When people pray, God does not answer. He answers neither physically nor verbally. What happens when people say God talks to them is that they become aware of their own thoughts. While this undoubtedly can play a positive role in one’s life, it is no proof of the supernatural. On the contrary: If there really were a god, then it would be sufficient to talk to this god to sort out religious conflicts. People could just ask Jesus whether he is the son of God, how many gods there are, or whether a particular prophet was sent by him. Clarifying this once and for all would perhaps resolve some of the world’s deadliest conflicts. And yet, God seems to say different things to different people. To be precise, he always tells people what they believe anyway. And the reason is that God is imaginary. He exists only in the believer’s head. Hence, he tells the believer always what their conscience or social background would tell them anyway.
To see this, let’s say that the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe was going to transmit personal messages to believers. Wouldn’t we expect those receiving these messages to blow the rest of us away in every intellectual endeavor? God could, for example, tell the believer how to build a nuclear fusion reactor that will completely solve the world’s energy problems! What believers typically “hear” from God is something more like, “Also search for your keys behind the couch”. That message, of course, is the believer’s own reasoning. Never has God said anything that a believer could not think of for himself or herself anyway. This shows that talking with God is just talking to oneself 22 If God really talked to people, church services would look very different: Everyone would just sit quietly and let God speak to all of them together. When the service was finished, those attending could all compare notes and they would have all heard the exact same thing from God. The fact that this doesn’t happen tells us that God is not speaking to people. The fact that we need pastors, priests, and preachers shows us that God himself is not speaking 13.
The president of the United States has claimed, on more than one occasion, to be in dialogue with God. If he said that he was talking to God through his hairdryer, this would precipitate a national emergency. I fail to see how the addition of a hairdryer makes the claim more ridiculous or offensive.
NumerologySeveral arguments for the supernatural are based on numerology, i.e., on supernatural interpretations of letters and numbers. Examples are:
- The Quran code is the discovery that the number 19 occurs in various forms in the Quran. The Quran’s first verse, e.g., consists of 19 letters. Each of its words occurs in the Quran in multiples of 19: The first word “Ism” (Name) occurs 19 times. The second word, “Allah” (God) occurs 2698 times (19×142). The third word “Al-Rahman” (Most Gracious) 57 times, 19×3, and so forth. .
- In Judaic numerology, 36 is the number of people who could potentially be the Jewish Messiah. In gematria (a form of Jewish numerology), the number 18 stands for “life”, because the Hebrew letters that spell the word “chai” (living) add up to 18. Since 36 = 2×18, the number 36 represents “two lives”.
- The biblical code is the assumption that, by taking every n-th letter of the Bible, secret messages can be revealed. For example, by taking every 50th letter of the Book of Genesis, we find the word “torah”. This method has been used to post-dict the appearance of Osama Bin Laden.
All of these discoveries are seen as proof of the divinity of the respective sources. The problem with these calculations is that the parameter space is so large that we can find anything in it. Let us take the Bible code as an example. The idea is to arrange the Bible text in a square, and to find vertical sequences of letters that yield words. Inasmuch as we may choose the width of the square to be anywhere between 2 and 1000 characters, and because we may start our vertical sequence anywhere we like, there are millions of possible combinations. If one of them coincides with a word or phrase, that is just to be expected. Indeed, the Skeptical Inquirer was able to find such secret codes in a 1987 United States Supreme Court judicial opinion 23. In a similar vein, Cornelis de Jager has found that a bicycle can accurately predict the physical constants of our universe (“cyclosophy”). Let ｐ be the diameter of the pedal of the bicycle, ｌ be the lamp diameter, and ｂ be the bell diameter. Then ｐ×ｐ×ｌ½×ｂ is exactly the proportion of the mass of the proton to the mass of the electron. In a similar way, de Jager can reconstruct the gravity constant, the distance to the sun, and many other constants 24. This phenomenon is known as the look-elsewhere effect, or the problem of multiple comparisons: the more variables we analyze, the more likely it is that one of them will show the desired behavior simply by chance.
It is the same with the Quran code: Any correlation of numbers would have been accepted as miraculous. For example, if the number of suras was a multiple of the number of words in the first sura, and if this factor was the same as the number of letters in the first word of every 10th sura — that would have done the trick. As there are arbitrarily many such constellations, one of was poised to work.
In general, such mysterious correlations are only ever found after the fact. No Bible researcher could have predicted that Bin Laden would become the head of a terrorist organization. Otherwise, they could have warned the United States not to support him financially when he was still an ally. Only when Bin Laden turned against the United States did the researchers find the message in the Bible. This is because such numerical correlations are always found after the fact involved has been known anyway. Hence, they are no proof of the supernatural.
Picking the results you want, and ignoring the ones you don’t is a great way to reinforce whatever it is that you want to believe. It’s just not a great way to arrive at truth.
PredictionsMany religions have sacred scriptures. Some of them contain very accurate descriptions of things that science discovered only centuries later.
Predictions from scriptureExamples of predictions made by holy scripture can be found in:
- Hindu Scripts
- The Hindu short script “Hanuman Chalisa” says: “Yug sahastra yojan per Bhanu ”. This means “The sun is at a distance of yug shastra yojan”. Now, 1 Yug = 12,000 years, 1 Sahastra = 1,000, 1 Yojan = 8 Miles. Multiplying these numbers yields 153 million kilometers — which is nearly exactly the distance between the earth and sun as we know it today.
- The Quran predicts that “their skins will bear witness against them as to what they have been doing” [Quran/41:21]. This accurately describes the fact that fingerprints will be used one day to identify criminals.
- The Bible contains a large number of prophesies. Among other things, it says that, in Israel, God will “turn the desert into pools of water, and the parched ground into springs [...] so that people may see and know that the hand of the Lord has done this, that the Holy One of Israel has created it”. This predicts the creation of Israel as a wealthy state in the desert — something which indeed happened.
SkepticismWe first note that people only ever accept predictions they find in their own holy books. No Muslim will accept the miraculous predictions made in the Hindu scripts. No Hindu will accept the predictions made in the Bible, and no Christian will accept the predictions made in the Quran. That should make us suspicious. Why is that? There are several reasons:
- Counting the hits and not the misses
- The holy books make thousands of predictions. If they make thousands of predictions, then it is quite natural that some of them will be correct. However, many of them will be false. The Quran, for example, predicts that “of every thing [God has] created pairs” [Quran/51:49]. This was widely hailed as a prediction about the two genders in animals and plants. And yet, there are animals that have only one gender. Hence, the Quran was just wrong. As long as we do not have a comprehensive account of the predictions made by the holy books, we cannot judge whether they are generally correct or not.
- No proof of divinity
- Even if a book makes a correct prediction, this does not mean that the book is divine. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus predicted that matter would be composed of atoms. He correctly stated that atoms were physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between atoms there lies empty space; that atoms are indestructible; have always been, and always will be, in motion; that there are an infinite number of atoms, and kinds of atoms, which differ in shape, and size . This is a remarkably accurate description 2000 years before science discovered the atom. Does that make Democritus divine? Surely not. He just happened to say something that turned out to be correct. Or consider Nostradamus. The medieval sage predicted hundreds of things that turned out to be true in modern times, including world wars. And yet, does that make Nostradamus divine? Surely not.
- Contradictions with science
- If we grant science the authority to judge that a religious theory is correct, then we must also grant science the authority to judge that a religious theory is wrong. So if a religion says that evolution is false, and science says that evolution is true, then we have to abandon the religious theory. This conclusion, however, is never drawn. People are happy to use science as a proof of the validity of their religions, but they dismiss it as soon as it contradicts their religious beliefs. This is inconsistent: Either science does have authority or it doesn’t. If it does, then abandon the religion where it contradicts science. If it does not, then do not use it to confirm religion.
Scripture makes only post-dictionsThe main argument, however, that the “predictions” of the holy books are not convincing is that they are actually “post-dictions”: All their predictions are made after the fact. To see this, assume that your favorite holy book really has predictive power. Now, please tell us what will be the next scientific breakthrough. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that you can tell us the next scientific breakthrough. You can find that breakthrough in your holy book only once the discovery has been made. Then, however, the book is not actually making a prediction. It is making a post-diction. The easiest way to prove this is that adherents could simply place a bet on tomorrow’s next big scientific discovery. They could also invest in stocks in that market segment, or just give a hint to a researcher who is working in that area. Once the discovery materializes, the adherent will become rich. This does not happen.
In fact, no tangible advantage has ever emerged from the predictive power of the holy books. If the Quran really contained scientific wisdom, the Muslim countries should be the most scientifically advanced places in the world. Yet, they are actually the most disadvantaged places. The Christian world, in contrast, is in many aspects scientifically advanced. Yet, this does not reflects its Bible researchers. When was the last time a Bible researcher made a big discovery in medicine, a breakthrough in physics, or a technological advance in computer science?
This does not happen because the holy verses are usually so vague that nothing can be deduced from them. Only after the fact do we find that they can be interpreted in the right way. Then, however, they do not make predictions. They make post-dictions.
Remove the battery from an analog wrist watch. I guarantee that tomorrow it will accurately show the time twice — on the second! The problem is that to know the moment when it shows the right hour, you need another watch to tell you the right hour.
Something GoodSometimes, really terrible things happen in our lives: We lose a loved one, our marriage breaks up, or we get fired. And yet, it seems that whenever something bad happens something good comes out of it. For example, if you’re fired, you may afterwards find the job of your life. If you had not been fired, you would never have gotten that job. Doesn’t that show that there is somehow a deeper pattern in life — that life is more than just a series of coincidences? And couldn’t this deeper pattern be the work of the divine?
The belief that everything bad turns into something good is very popular in the Western world. However, this belief makes sense only in a country that generally works well, one that offers a public welfare safety net, an effective healthcare system, and a stable society. It makes much less sense to believe that everything bad turns into something good if you happen to live in a war-torn zone in an underdeveloped country. Every week, hundreds of people are killed in the most brutal ways in war. Thousands of children die of hunger. Hundreds of women are raped. Millions of people suffer from crippling, painful, and ultimately degenerating diseases. Take the case of a woman, who was raped, gave birth, and then saw her child die of hunger. Would you tell her that this will somehow turn into something good? And then, what if, a few months later, she is ravaged by a malaria infection. What good came out of this for her? Or take victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Do you think that, the day before their deaths, they said to each other, “Don’t worry, this will somehow turn into something good”? Well, if they did, they were wrong. Millions of people perished. This shows that the theory that everything bad turns into something good is, unfortunately, false.
We tend to believe in this theory mainly because we are in the habit of counting the hits and ignoring the misses. Those whose lives did not turn into something good, and who perished from a mishap, have no opportunity to tell us about it.
Luck is statistics taken personally.
KarmaSome people believe that a bad deed entails future suffering. For example, if you steal something, then something will be stolen from you in the future. This is the idea of Karma, a concept that is prevalent in the Indian religions and in particular in Buddhism. Now, if this is true, does this not prove the existence of an underlying system of world justice?
There are two variants of Karma: Some people believe that you will pay for your sins in your next life. In that case, we are assuming that the supernatural takes care of your Karma. This is an assumption of the supernatural, not a proof .
In the other variant of Karma, you pay for your sins in this life. This variant typically however leaves open how exactly you will pay for your sins. It just says that “something bad will happen to you”. For example, the bad thing may just be that you miss the bus. Now, bad things happen all the time. In particular, people who have done no harm also occasionally miss the bus. Hence, the theory is no better than chance in predicting what will happen.
Now let us make the theory of Karma more concrete. Let’s say: “If you commit a serious crime, then you will suffer consequences that are as severe as the punishment that the secular law provides for them.” This theory is still quite vague, but it is concrete enough to show that it is false. Out of the world’s 100 most brutal dictators, 50% ruled until their deaths by natural causes 25, 11% enjoyed peaceful retirement, and 8% died peacefully in exile. Only 9% were put on trial and executed, 8% were assassinated, 4% were imprisoned, and 4% committed suicide [ibid]. As an example, take the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong: He was responsible for the torture and killing of more than 30 million people (equivalent to half the population of France). And yet, Mao died peacefully while still in office, at the age of 82.
So, unfortunately, the theory of Karma is false... Thus, it cannot be used to prove the existence of the supernatural.
That a particular specified event or coincidence will occur is very unlikely. That some astonishing unspecified events will occur is certain. That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight.
The two parentsThe argument of the two parents runs as follows: There was once a young girl who wanted to become a singer. She sang at various events, always hoping to be “discovered” and brought to fame. Her mother believed in her and supported her. Her father, in contrast, told her that she had no chance whatsoever to become famous and that she should instead focus on school and finding a job. One day, she was invited to participate in a talent-discovery TV show. She did — and won the contest. With flying colors, she proved her father wrong. Her father realized that, during all these years, he had actually hindered her success. He acknowledged his error and apologized. In her thank-you speech, however, the girl did not talk about the father. She thanked her mother, who had always believed in her.
This story shows that there is no value in acknowledging something that is obvious (that the girl won the contest). There is value only in believing something that is not obvious (that she would succeed eventually). And, the argument goes, it is the same with God: The existence of God cannot be proved. If it could be proved, then there would be nothing to believe — there would only be acknowledging his existence. Such an acknowledgment, however, does not have any value. What has value is believing in him even though his existence has not yet been proved.
While belief without proof has its value, it is also a dangerous endeavor: It can be used to justify belief in just about anything. Imagine that the girl had wanted to become an alchemist. Her dream was to convert sand into gold. Her mother believed in her, and her father discouraged her. She began mixing chemicals in the basement. She spent months with her passion and even dropped out of school. For years, she mixed a wide range of materials, igniting them and re-mixing them — without success. Her father told her that nobody has ever succeeded in making gold out of sand and that it is a futile endeavor. He told her that she should go back to school and then enroll in university to study chemistry. Only her mother kept believing. But that was of no use: The girl never produced a single grain of gold and died impoverished.
This parable illustrates that believing in something does not make that something true. But nobody talks about the alchemists who failed to convert sand to gold. Nobody talks about the people who wanted to cure cancer by spiritual means but didn’t. Nobody talks about thousands of people who aspired to be actors but worked as waiters 26.
If I toss a coin repeatedly in front of two people, and one of them always guesses that the coin will land on heads while the other guesses it will land on tails, one of them will always be right. But that does not tell us which one is right.
Ontological argumentThe ontological argument runs as follows: By definition, God is perfect. If he did not exist, he would not be perfect. Hence he exists. This argument defines God in such a way that he must exist. One version of it was first put forward by Anselm of Canterbury.
Immanuel Kant attacked this argument as follows: He argued that existence is not an attribute like the others. It does not make sense, Kant argued, to talk of “existence” as if it were an attribute such as “beauty” or “perfection”. Even if we do not follow this view, and see existence just as another attribute, we can reject the ontological argument, as follows. We can use it to prove the existence of unicorns: A unicorn is a horse with one horn. If unicorns did not exist, they would not have horns. Hence they must exist. Nevertheless, we are not ready to accept that conclusion. Therefore, the ontological argument is false. More generally, a definition cannot pop something into existence. For example, Bertrand Russell’s famous set of all things that do not contain themselves can be defined but it cannot exist.
In fact, we can use the ontological argument to prove the existence of nearly everything. A French monk, Gaunilon, wrote a reply to the argument entitled “On Behalf of the Fool”. In it he argued the following: Suppose that beyond the boundary of man’s known world (this was in the eleventh century) there is an island. Suppose that this island is perfect and greater than all islands: an island than which none greater could be conceived. To use Anselm’s logic, if this island exists only in the imagination it would be less great than that which exists in reality. Hence the “island than which none greater can be conceived” must exist in reality. Insofar as the argument can be used to prove anything, no matter whether it exists or not, the argument cannot be valid.
Strawberry cake with whipped cream —
the only proof of God that I can accept.
It is impossible to prove inexistenceIt is easy to prove that something exists. We can simply show it to people and then people will see that it exists. In contrast, it is much harder to prove that something does not exist. Since positive atheism holds that God does not exist, atheism can never be proven right.
We can adopt either of two stances here: One is to hold that God is a being who interacts with the world – through prayer, miracles, or divine interventions. When God interacts with the world, his actions can become the subject of scientific analysis. For example, the Bible tells us that God will answer any prayer, saying in particular that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up”[Bible: James 5:15-17]. This is a testable hypothesis, which we can subject to scientific scrutiny. As this chapter argues, the hypothesis turns out to be false. We can then conclude that a god with these particular attributes does not exist.
Another stance is to say that God is an abstract being. He does not interact with the world, he does not succumb to the laws of nature, and he is not bound by what people think or write about him. In such a setting, theism can indeed not be proven false. There is nothing that can prove that God, as an abstract being that does not interact with the world, does not exist. As the attentive reader will immediately notice, however, this means that theism is not falsifiable. This entails that theism is meaningless. Theism does not make any predictions about the world. It is just a hypothesis without any consequences.
Atheism, in contrast, can be proven false: As soon as a god appears, atheism is proven false. Until that day, it makes concrete predictions such as “Prayer does not work”. This makes atheism meaningful.
To argue with a man who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead, or, for that matter, endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.
The Burden of ProofMany people think that if we want to discuss the existence or nonexistence of gods, then the burden of proof lies with atheists, because theism is the normal state.
Atheists believe that the burden of proof lies with theists. This is because it is very easy to claim something that can only be disproved with an immense amount of effort. Bertrand Russell has illustrated this idea with his analogy of a flying teapot. He wrote: “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion — provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.” . The burden of proof thus lies with the person who makes a claim that is hard to prove and hard to disprove.
There are people who do not agree with this conclusion. Let us therefore postulate additional entities: There are also three-headed flying snakes on Jupiter. Since this belief cannot be proven wrong, it is as valid as theism. Some people argue that orbiting teapots and flying snakes are different from gods, because gods are non-material or grander. However, we can easily ascribe any of these properties also to our teapots and snakes. The flying snakes are not material, and they are omnipotent and grand. This claim is still completely absurd. We would require proof in favor of it rather than proof against it.
Atheists apply the same logic to gods: There is no evidence of the three-headed flying snakes, as there is no evidence of Russell’s teapot, or, in the atheist view, the Abrahamic God. If there is no evidence in favor, then there is no need to find evidence against it either. The hypothesis is just a baseless invention. As Christopher Hitchens put it: “What can be claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Sam Harris points out that believers commonly understand this: Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yoghurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accepts its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever 27.
It annoys me that [you claim that] the burden of proof is on us. It should be “You came up with the idea. Why do you believe it?”
I could tell you I’ve got superpowers. But I can’t go up to people saying “Prove I can’t fly”.
They’d go: “What do you mean, prove you can’t fly? Prove you can!”
All beliefs are equally validWe may argue that all beliefs deserve equal respect until proven false. This seems a democratic and tolerant solution to the conundrum of gods.
People are usually happy to subscribe to the principle of “equal validity” as long as it is applied only to their own beliefs. If we adopt equal validity, however, then the principle will apply to all beliefs. It is a mistake (in fact, the principal fault of many religions) to assume that there would be only one god. There are hundreds of religions, positing thousands of gods. If all beliefs are equally valid, then all of these gods should be treated as if they exist in the same way “our” gods exist. We should start believing in Allah as well as in Vishnu, in Brahma, in the Horned God of the Wicca religion, and in all the other gods. We would not even know how many gods we would have to believe in. But few people would consider this worldview plausible.
Worse, such beliefs would be contradictory. Almost every supernatural system posits one or more powerful gods, which are assumed to dominate over the others. This position cannot be upheld if all beliefs are true. Particular instances of this phenomenon include the monotheistic religions, which all claim that their god is the only one. One cannot believe in this god and in other gods. Insidiously, this problem will also apply to a polytheistic believer who wishes to uphold the principle of equal validity. As soon as this person starts believing in a monotheistic god (as they must on this principle), they have to believe that this god is the only god, and thereby catapult all the other gods into non-existence. This, in turn, contradicts the principle that all supernatural beliefs are equally valid.
Worse, each god usually comes with his or her own ideas of how people should behave. Some gods require us to follow certain dietary restrictions, others want us to pray to them, and still others want us to perform certain rituals. Most gods want all of this. Even the Abrahamic God requires a variety things according to a variety religious beliefs all of which purport to involve the same god. In the Muslim belief, e.g., Allah requires fasting during the month of Ramadan, while in the conservative Jewish belief God prohibits pressing elevator buttons on Saturdays. If all beliefs are equally valid, then we should follow all of these constraints. But these constraints would contradict each other: In the monotheistic religions, injunctions to pray are framed as injunctions to pray only to one god and not to the others.
In addition, all other supernatural beliefs will also claim equal validity. Beliefs in unicorns, ghosts, fairies, and good and evil spirits will all be equally true. If our children believe in the tooth fairy, so should we. Superstitions will deserve the same validity. Some people pray to God, others don’t walk under ladders to avoid bad luck. All of these beliefs would be equally true.
Furthermore, if this position was correct, then unprovable fictional entities invented by atheists would also deserve the same degree of respect. Bertrand Russell has proposed a teapot that orbits the sun between the Earth and Mars. Bobby Henderson postulates the existence of the flying spaghetti monster . An entire religion has been built on an “Invisible Pink Unicorn”. Theists usually oppose these beliefs as heretical and ridiculing sincere believers. Yet, under the principle of equal validity, they would have to believe in all of the entities that atheists postulate.
It quickly becomes clear that such a worldview cannot be upheld. Not all beliefs are valid. On the contrary, it is dangerous to accord all beliefs validity, as we discuss in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion.
If two people disagree, this does not mean that they are equally right.
It may mean that one is wrong, or the other, or both.
We believe so many thingsIn our daily lives, we believe many things without proof: We do not verify whether a medicine really has the desired effect, whether Barack Obama really garnered more votes than his opponent, or whether a signature on a contract really stems from the person who supposedly wrote it. We just believe these things. So then the question arises why we should not just believe in God in the same way.
When we believe without proof, we incur the risk that the belief will turn out to be false. We may be taking a harmful medicine; we may follow a president who was never duly elected; or we may do injustice to the person who supposedly signed the contract but never did. The same goes for the case of God: If God does not exist, our life choices, such as who we trust, how we educate our children, which value system we follow, and who we marry would all be based on a false assumption.
Now, in all of the worldly cases, we would eventually find out if we were wrong. If a medicine consistently does not deliver results, we would become suspicious. If election results grossly differ from the exit polls, we demand a recount. If the person did not really sign the contract, they will for sure tell us when we ask them. In the case of God, however, none of this will happen. We can never find out if we are wrong in believing. This is because the belief in God as an abstract being is unfalsifiable .
Thus, the belief in God places restrictions on our lives but is impossible to verify or falsify. This is, in the eyes of an atheist, folly.
“Happy are those who have not seen yet still believe.”
If you think about this statement, what you realize is that it creates the perfect cover for a scam.
Logical proofs are inadequateSome people argue that logical proofs are not the right way to argue about God. God’s existence falls outside and above our human way of reasoning and cannot be understood. Therefore, all discussion about his existence is misled from the beginning.
Logical proofs and scientific proofs are so popular because they can predict the truth. For example, if it has been shown by the laws of science and logic that a stone dropped from a tower will fall downward, then you can confidently predict that the stone will indeed fall downward. This predictive power makes science and logic highly useful. If you have an alternative technique that can predict facts with verifiable certainty, you are invited to propose it.
If you have no alternative technique of predicting unknown things with verifiable certainty, then your arguments will not convince people — simply because the arguments may not lead to true conclusions .
The very act of considering the validity of reason already presupposes the validity of reason.
God is outside the realm of science!The "Non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) is a view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould. It holds that science and religion each have their domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap . In practice, this means mostly that religion is responsible for the meaning of life, the beginning of the universe, and questions of ethics, while science is responsible for all natural phenomena on Earth and in the Universe. In the NOMA view, these domains are disjoint and science should not address questions about the divine while religion should not address questions about the physical universe.
In this view, we should not (and cannot) prove or disprove the existence of gods with scientific means. The NOMA protects religious statements from scientific intervention, because it states that the realm of science and the realm of faith are strictly separated.
Yet few people actually believe in the NOMA. The following assumptions go against the NOMA:
- Asking gods for something in a prayer assumes that the gods are able to exert influence on Earth. Praying assumes a divine ability to make certain things happen, to influence people’s thoughts, or to prevent certain things from happening . All of these belong to the realm of science. People who pray do so because they believe that their god will increase the probability that something happens. This is a scientifically verifiable hypothesis. Thus, people who pray for something to happen do not believe in the NOMA.
- Divine design of humanity and animals
- Some religions teach that gods designed the animal kingdom, including humans. The animal kingdom, however, as well as human anatomy, mental life, and social behavior, fall into the domain of biology, psychology, and the social sciences. Thus, people who believe in divine creation do not believe in the NOMA.
- Divine creation of the World
- Many people believe that God created the world. The creation and shaping of the world is a physical act, which falls within the domain of science. Even the assumption that God only initiated the cosmos is (also) a scientific theory, because it assumes that the cosmos has a definite starting point. It may be that science finds that the universe oscillates, is part of a larger universe, or alters time. Thus, people who believe that the world was created by a supernatural being reject the NOMA.
- Some believe that God or gods perform miracles. Miracles intervene in the physical world in a way that can be measured by science. Thus, people who believe in divine miracles believe in interaction between the divine and the physical and thus not in the NOMA. This point applies independently of whether the miracles happened in the past or present, because science can extend to the past through carbon dating, archeology, and an ever-growing array of other techniques.
- Divine gap fillers
- Science has its limits. There are many phenomena that it cannot yet explain and may never be able to explain. When people hear that science has encountered a problem (be it an unexplained phenomenon or an apparent contradiction), they are quick to point out that only God can be the explanation. Yet, by attempting to solve a scientific problem by reference to God, these people reject the NOMA.
- Rituals with a purpose
- Some religions specify rituals that must be observed to win the grace of God or gods. In fact, many people perform rituals of one kind or another to avoid bad luck. As soon as a ritual is assumed to have an effect on the world, it falls into the domain of science. Thus, people who are superstitious, or who perform religious rituals in the hope or belief of changing their fate, do not believe in the NOMA.
- Some religious books contain prophecies. They make statements about what will happen on Earth, or how certain things work, even though these were supposedly unknown at the time of the writing. For example, the Quran explains the development of the human embryo in the womb, while that development was supposedly unknown at the time the text was revealed. The Bible predicts the end of the world. These are statements about the physical world that fall within the domain of science. It does not help that it is usually claimed that the holy books are not books of science. As soon as they contain a prophecy about the physical world, they defy the NOMA.
- Exceptions from birth and death
- Christianity teaches that Jesus was killed and then came back to life. It also teaches that Jesus had no human father and that Mary was a virgin before and after his birth. Catholicism teaches that Mary (the mother of Jesus) physically rose to heaven. Many other religions include birth myths about their founders. All of these assumptions contradict science. Any claim about the birth or death of a person is a physical claim and falls into the realm of science. However, such claims are the bedrock of some religions.
The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it.
Deistic viewDeism is a philosophy that holds that God created the universe but then retired. Related to this view are metaphysical philosophies that hold that “God” is just a different name for a metaphysical phenomenon, as well as the position of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), which says that god does not interact with the universe . In this view, God does not have any particular properties. He is mainly the abstract cause of existence and nothing more.
This point of view has two consequences: First, we cannot deduce anything from this hypothesis. If the assumption is that a god exists but is disconnected from the physical world, then nothing about the physical world can be deduced from it. Thus, we will know nothing more about this world than people who do not believe in God.
The second consequence is that there can be arbitrarily many contradictory and equally abstract beliefs. For example, there could be no god, but rather a “universal principle of justice” — like the Tao in Taoism. Or there could be several abstract gods — one that is the principle of justice, one that is the reason for our existence, one that is the principle of one-ness in this world. Why not? Since none of these beliefs can be proved true or false, any belief about a god or gods is as valid as any other belief about a god or gods.
These are the problems that come with beliefs that do not concern the physical world: (1) they cannot generate any predictions about the world and (2) there can be arbitrarily many contradictory beliefs. These problems are so fundamental that this book proposes that such beliefs cannot be called “true” at all. They cannot even be called “false”. They are just meaningless. Thus, what the hypothesis of the inactive god really entails when it is taken seriously is meaninglessness.
A nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing can be said.
God is subjective truth.This argument asserts that there is objective truth and subjective truth. Objective truth is everything that can be verified or that concerns other people. Subjective truth is everything that is in a person’s mind. In a believers’ subjective truth, gods exist. In an atheist’s subjective truth, they don’t. This does away with the problems and disputes that arise between the two world views.
It’s impossible to have a discussion about God!Many people dislike conversing about God and religion in general. Both Islam and Christianity are, however, proselytising religions in their current mainstream interpretations. This means that adherents of these religions have the duty to bring their faith to other people. Scripture tells us:
- Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.[Bible: 1 Peter 3:15]
- You shall invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kind enlightenment, and debate with them in the best possible manner. Your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path, and He knows best who are the guided ones. [Quran: 16:125]
It’s impossible to converse about faith!It is often argued that it is not possible to discuss something as deeply personal as faith.
People generally apply this view exclusively to their own faiths, however, claiming that it would be impossible to discuss faith simply to avoid having their own faith questioned. Yet most people are happy to discuss why people are wrong to put their faith in tribal religions, sects, superstition, mysticism, or Scientology. This shows that a discussion about faith is not only possible but also quite common. Even if one person or the other does not converse about faith at all, the fact that most others do shows that it cannot be impossible. In general, atheists do discuss both faith and gods, thus proving that it cannot be impossible.
God’s existence needs no proofIt is a common claim that there is no need to prove God’s existence. Whether or not this is the case depends on what goal we pursue.
Does a man of sense run after every silly tale of hobgoblins or fairies, and canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries.
Believing without discussionSome believers prefer simply not to discuss their faith. Nobody can be forced to discuss religion. While that is true in general, there are a number of exceptions to this rule:
- It may be that our religion requires us to discuss our faith. This is the case in the current mainstream interpretations of Christianity and Islam.
- If we wish to convert an atheist to our religion, we will likewise have to discuss our faith.
- If we wish to implement religious measures in our society or impact other people in other ways by reason of our faith, then we will also have to discuss our religion.
Great minds discuss ideas.
Average minds discuss events.
Small minds discuss people.
I believe in God and you don’t, so where is the problem?There is no problem. We assume that you are reading this book not because there is a problem, but because you would like to know more about atheism. If you do not, then you are welcome to stop reading this book at any time.
I take comfort in the thought that, in controversies as in mineral baths,
the real effect comes afterwards.
- Armin Navabi: Why there is no god, 2014
- Michael Martin: Atheism - A Philosophical Justification, 1990
- Oxford Dictionary: “Love”, 2015
- Endless-Satsang.com : “Oneness”, 2017
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Near death experiences”, 2016
- Allan Kardec: The Spirits’ Book, 1857
- The Guardian: “The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances”, 2013-10-20
- Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening: “Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room”, in British journal of psychology, 2003
- National Geographic: “Do You Believe?”, 2015-02-05
- Wikipedia: List of prizes for evidence of the paranormal
- WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com: “Chapter 5 - Why won’t God heal amputees?”, 2006
- WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com: “Chapter 11 - Reviewing the evidence about prayer”, 2006
- Marshall Brain: How God works, 2015
- Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, 2006
- New York Times: “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer”, 2006-03-31
- WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com: “Chapter 6 - Why do you need health insurance?”, 2006
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Proof #40 - Understand Christian motivations”, 2017
- American Cancer Society: “Faith Healing”, 2013
- CNN / My Take: “If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy”, 2012-12-29
- New York Times: “Is that God talking?”, 2013-05-02
- CNN: “Attorney: Woman thought God told her to kill sons”, 2004-03-30
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Proof #42 - Listen when God talks”, 2006
- Dave Thomas: “Hidden Messages and The Bible Code”, in Skeptical Inquirer, 1997-11-01
- Cornelis de Jager: “Adventures in Science and Cyclosophy”, in Skeptical Inquirer, 1992
- Matthew White: The great big book of horrible things, 2011
- Los Angeles Magazine: “Actor-Waiter”, 2009
- Sam Harris: The End of Faith - Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, 2004