I DON’T KNOW how it happened, or why it happened when it did, but in the last few years debating religion has become a thing. The trend may have begun (or have been reinvigorated, since debating religion is not new) with Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great. He took to the road as part of the book promotion, debating Catholics and evangelicals and Jews and Muslims along the way, and became semi-famous not for his books but rather for the many YouTube videos of these debates. (Side note to writers: books are a lousy way to get rich and famous!)
These days, debates about religion are typically of the evolution vs. creationism variety. How did we come to be here – is our existence the work of a conscious, supernatural maker, or do natural, materialist causes account for biological life on Earth? Assuming that a god-like being does exist, how might we know which of the many deities it is, or that it’s none of those and instead some as-yet unidentified god? In summary: the work of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that a god exists is a massive work, yet even once accomplished we’d be no closer to determining who this god is.
The enormity of the tasks accounts for the unresolved character of the debates. Ultimately, both the existence and non-existence of god-like beings, and of a specific god, are unprovable – at least in the ordinary sense of proof: establishing facts through the presentation of empirical evidence. Religion is faith-based for a reason. You’re expected to believe in the propositions – not to go out looking for buried artefacts and fingerprints and independent corroboration, like some doubting Thomas.
The good news is that I’ve come up with a way to make the debate a lot easier. The question “Is there a god?” is presented as if having profound bearing upon other questions, in particular what should we believe and how should we live our lives? Let’s just say that we’ve found irrefutable scientific evidence that there is a god. My question for the skeptics and agnostics and atheists is: would you suddenly abandon your values and aspirations and passions? Would you stop loving your children, or would you start being more kind? Would much change? Not likely, I’m guessing. You’d want to know more about this god, out of ordinary human curiosity.
Okay. Let’s take the next step then and say, for the sake of my argument, that we know which god it is. But before we go any further, note how little progress we make in the first step. Our god could be a distant, disinterested god, in which case knowing “he” is out there, somewhere, amounts to little more than a striking but useless fact. All the challenges of living our lives – economic, moral, spiritual, and political – will remain the same in a universe with a distant, uncaring god. And most of the gods of human history fall into this category.
In the next step let’s go whole-hog and say this proven god created our world and has a direct, active and ongoing interest and involvement. Let’s say it’s a god we’ve all heard and read about in sacred texts – the god of a prominent monotheism. Since near all of the debates involve this sort of god, and since this category of god makes the most, and most dramatic, claims on our attention and devotion, I’ll focus my efforts here.
Notice how admitting all the unprovables up front leaves the questions of how to live and what to believe intact. We still haven’t established as a proven fact that this god is “good,” and that it is therefore wise and ethical to admire and worship him, and to follow his laws, and to desire his attentions and rewards. The debate, in other words, has not been settled. But we can settle it, without any need of empirical evidence, because at bottom the debate over god and religion is a debate about values. And values can be assessed by means of deliberation and logic.
My thesis is that gods and religions can be repudiated on the basis of their stated goods, as readily as on the basis of any crimes or failures or superstitions that are attributable to them.
Most religions promise some sort of unending life after physical death. Try and imagine what that would be like. How enriching and interesting and fulfilling do you truly feel life could be after a billion years, or a trillion billions? And then imagine that your life after one trillion billion years would not even have begun, since there is no end to eternity. Ever.
I submit to you that the more you think about the nuts and bolts of a heavenly hereafter, the more you will see how irritating, tedious, useless, ridiculous, static, lifeless, anti-human and impossible it is. I am not arguing that it’s “impossible” in the sense that it could never happen (although I believe that too): I am saying it should be prevented by anyone who cares about the dignity and aesthetic integrity of our human existence. Life is beautiful and precious because it exists in time. It changes, and it is fleeting. When you remove the temporal and temporary and mutating character of human existence, you make a monstrosity of living.
Think about it. Think about all the things that you love and that would ruin heaven (i.e. would make it just a version of life on earth) if you tried to import them. The grace and poetry of human life are inseperable from mortality and flux and imperfection. Heaven is to human life what a museum is to the age of the dinosaurs. Also, notice that in many religious doctrines, the damned also get eternal life, from which it follows that there’s nothing inherently wonderful about living forever. Eternal life is hellish, a fact which is in no way reduced by the existence of streets paved with gold and angelic choirs. The saved will spend forever, we are told, praising their creator. How much fun will that be after 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000,000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 billion trillion years? The only credible way out of this is to assume (and I say this in seriousness) that in heaven we’re all lobotomized.
People ask a lot of questions about heaven, like “Will my dog be there” or “Will there be scotch?” (Well they should ask that.) I only have one question, and it’s the most important of all: Can you get out when you’ve had enough?
A Heavenly Father
Monotheistic religions promise us that there is an all-seeing and all-powerful being who has known us even before our conception and who will judge and reward us after our death. (Remember: I’m focusing on the supposedly positive aspects of religion, so I’m not interested in damnation and hell.) God in the beginning of time made everything for us, with us in mind. He is an all-mighty heavenly father who hears our every prayer and who notices even the fallen sparrow.
I think this is in many ways a revolting idea. There’s nothing consoling at all about an omnipresent, omnipotent dad-in-the-sky who knows even our thoughts and dreams. It’s a creepy, Orwellian nightmare, even if it happens that this heavenly father loves us. Freedom and human moral choices are debased and disfigured if our lives transpire in a monotheistic police state, where considerations of judgement and reward are forever dangled before us. There’s also something distasteful and arrogant about the notion that god hears our every prayer and that the universe was made with you and I, individually, in mind. (I am glad this is not true.)
Why should every prayer be heard? Many of them, probably millions each day, will be trivial and selfish and stupid. This doctrine of a doting heavenly father encourages self-absorption and self-importance, as much as the religious like to emphasize their humility before god. Filth and degradation overtake a country, and an NFL quarterback thanks god for a game won. This belief in prayer is immoral, and it’s also one of the cardinal virtues of pious living. The god responsible for this is not good. He should ignore prayers, and he should pay less attention to ridiculous human beings if he means to be taken seriously.
Forgiveness for Sins
Most monotheisms teach that we human beings were born in filth and that we are irredeemably wicked. God therefore can not abide with us until an atonement has been made. Every primitive society developed a way to supplicate the gods. Usually this involved a sacrifice of innocent life. Killing an animal or a human being to obtain release from your sins is not morally admirable, but it is the central event of at least one world religion. Imagine killing your neighbour to get off the hook for something you’d done. Nothing can be more transparently the work of ignorant, superstitious and fearful men, and yet we’re meant to believe that human sacrifice is the gift of a mighty god.
Monotheism makes a bad joke out of morality. It teaches that you were judged guilty before you were born, and that the sins you never had an opportunity even to contemplate were washed away in a blood drama that took place long before you existed. You had no voice at the court, and having been sentenced in absentia, your pardon arrived in a manner you had no opportunity either to petition or protest. And yet the hasty crucifixion of a Nazarene carpenter, to appease an irrational and barbaric rabble, would have been objectionable to any person of ordinary moral character – just as all blood sacrifice is, to the developed mind, an indication of primitive impulses.
The preceding assumes that we are indeed sinners in need of salvation, a dubious idea upon which the ostentatious munificence of god depends. But just as religion casts human beings in the worst of light, so too it makes of god a blood-thirsty, bronze age blusterer who can think of no better way to help us than by murdering innocents. Not for me, thanks.
Life is difficult, and often painful and tedious and dull, but with faith in god and his promises come emotional comforts. The most compelling gifts of religion are hope and sanctuary. According to religion, the suffering of the faithful will one day yield to joy. Life is meaningful and ends not with death but with a glorious hereafter. As I’ve already suggested, this hereafter is matter of unpleasantness, but it’s true that many derive courage and strength in this life from the belief that a loving and caring god watches over them.
The problem is that it’s impossible to have this benevolent god without also allowing the jealous invigilating god that we are enjoined to fear. The god who perks you up at a rough patch is a mere convenience. His services can be acquired in a host of other ways – I recommend the arts, friendship, and good whisky – without any of the immoral or degrading baggage. There are many things that make life meaningful and pleasant, or at the least bearable, given a sense of irony, but which do not compel you to swallow the idea of an eternal abusive boyfriend or a heavenly Big Brother.
Religious doctrine encourages faith and even certainty. Yes, doubt is allowed and even celebrated in some theological traditions. Yet the promises of religion are not to be questioned, except to encourage a deeper, more enduring faith. To the degree they are entrenched, the doctrines of the faithful impede the essential work of skepticism and rational inquiry. What use is comfort if it is gained at the expense of those things which most enrich our humanity: struggle, doubt, irony, irreverence, and a restless asking of difficult and discomforting questions?