This is document presents arguments in favor of atheism, reason, science and liberty; and against superstition and religion.
It is written for people who are open to change their views on these subjects.
I suspect there are only a few of those, as believers tend prefer unshakable faith over reason,
but to the few that are open to criticism and logic this text reaches out.
This document is not the first one written on these subjects and will not be the last one either. Others, more learned, eloquent and/or famous than myself have gone before, like Bertrand Russell, Christoper Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet. So why read this? Maybe you find Christoper Hitchens too offensive, Richard Dawkins too much rooted in biology, Daniel Dennet too intellectual to grasp. This text is relatively short and straightforward.
What is religion?
Basically, every religion is a set of beliefs about the nature of the universe and humanity. Each explains how we and the world around us came into being and sometimes even how it all will end. Many religions also have a concept of morality, both on a personal and social level. Most religions can be categorized into five main categories:
- Animism is the belief that the world is inhabited by spirits, both those rooted in nature and souls from deceased humans. Spirits, despite their ethereal nature, wield power over the material world and should be propitiated in order to have them grant boons rather than curses. This is usually done by a combination of sacrifices and rituals. Animistic religions are the oldest and most widespread. Examples of still flourishing animistic religions are Japanese Shintoism and Jamaican Voodoo.
- In polytheism smaller spirits are ruled by larger and more powerful ones: gods and goddesses. Some pantheons, like the ancient Greek one, are filled with deities that have very human characters though unhumanly large powers; in others the gods are more like impersonal forces of nature. Polytheism came along when humanity started to develop cities and its deities are often related to these; they were originally patrons of cities and city-states. Polytheistic religions are rare these days, though Indian Hinduism is still polytheistic in theory.
- In monotheism there is but one god, usually omniscient and all-powerful. These kind of religions tend to come with a strong moral system, discerning good and evil. Usually they promise happiness in an afterlife if the believer behaves properly in the actual life. The ethics usually embrace both personal conduct and rules for societies. Monotheistic religions are widespread and include large ones like Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, but also ancient ones like Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism.
- Deism states that the universe was created by a creator god, who designed everything perfectly according to his superb wisdom, but then let the thing run free. The deist god does not interfere with his creation, so praying and sacrifices are useless.
- Nontheism has all the aspects of a religion, except it does not acknowledge gods. It does share all the other attributes, like a worldview and moral system. And, more fundamentally, it is based on belief. The original Hinayana Buddhism is the prime example.
Chinese confucianism, though often labeled as a religion, is not listed as an example above. It is a moral system, but it neither calls any gods into being, nor explains the universe. Another Chinese invention, Taoism, is animistic in origin but has shifted in the direction of monotheism, so is difficult to classify.
Humans have a unique position among life on the planet Earth.
We are self-conscious and have a capability for abstract thought, i.e. we are able to think in ideas rather than concrete things.
We are also curious and inquisitive creatures, which is one of the reasons that we as a species are so successful.
Our intellect and curiosity have prompted us to ask fundamental questions like:
Who are we?
Why are we here?
What is 'here' anyway, what is the nature of existence?
If we exist, what should we do with our lives?
Animals, biologically our close cousins, do not ask such questions. They just go on eating, sleeping and creating offspring, in short: simply living. Some people live quite similar lives, albeit at a more abstract level. Their prime objectives are wealth, luxury, status, safety, fun and the pleasant company of friends and family. You could say they are little or no better than animals, as basically their aim is to get into the lead of the race for survival and then to stay there. This text is not for them. It is for people who ask the Questions of Why.
Religions claim to have the answers to those questions. By providing these, they satisfy our deepest intellectual needs that I have briefly outlined above. Religion seems to give our lives purpose and thereby justifiably be able to claim a prime position in our lives and thoughts. But about that claim not all is as well as it seems. Weighing all aspects of it, I'd rather judge religion evil than good.
Why is religion "evil"?
Religions, without exception, are conservative. Once they have established their framework, they stick with it, no matter what. The moral systems put forth by mainstream religions have their roots in ancient and medieval times and it shows. For example Muslims are forbidden to eat pig meat, probably because it rots quickly in the warm climate where Islam originated. With modern refrigeration that is not a problem anymore, but still Muslims cling to the traditional taboo. Of course the object of this example is more silly than evil. But there are other traditions, far more troubling. Let me list a few:
- For example Christianity and Islam promote the breeding of many children. This was a sensible tactic in the days of high child birth, but with current health standards it promotes overpopulation, which is the very last thing the world needs right now. Yet the priests keep on protesting against contraceptives and abortion.
- Though most religions preach peace, the most bitter wars are fought of religious rivalry. Examples are the Crusades, the Thirty Years' War, the split between India and Pakistan, the 9/11 attacks, etcetera. Religious wars are even fought among followers of the same faith.
- Especially monotheistic religions are exclusive, i.e. they reserve glory and happiness for their own crowd only. Both adherents of rival religions and nonbelievers are condemned to hell, just for having different opinions. Hell by the way is the most unpleasant place imaginable and tends to be everlasting too.
- Many religions come with taboos on sexuality, causing stress and grief and wrecking entire lives, while people who not confirm to the dictated norm struggle endlessly trying to fit into it.
- Women are pushed into a secondary role or completely suppressed. Honor killings are justified on dubious principles of inequality of the sexes.
- Any minority group that thinks, says or just is different from the mainstream religion, like homosexuals or supposed witches, is hated, condemned or even persecuted.
- Clergymen, who are supposed to uphold the moral values of the religion but fall to common human weaknesses and sometimes even commit crimes, are protected and given second, third, fourth and too many other chances.
The list could be extended with other evils.
But I have not mentioned the most important problem with religion yet.
The answers to Questions of Why, as formulated by Religion, are often written down in 'holy books',
which are somehow handed down from the gods to the people.
One has but to read the bible, quran and similar books to see that they are a confusing clutter of ancient mythology and very undivine human opinions, open to all kinds of different interpretations.
These writings were gathered together by a bunch of self-appointed experts who manage to contradict each other,
put verifiable untruths in it and imprint their own beliefs, desires and prejudices onto them, finally arriving at a group consensus.
But seldom does anybody inside a religion ever bother to objectively check the validity of its claims.
As a result, religions express what people would like to be true, rather than what is really true. For example, religions comfort people by assuring them of the support of spirits or gods, paradise in the afterlife, or even escape from the world, and therefore are considered "good" by many people. But proof for such benevolence is totally lacking; the only support is hearsay from priests and shamans. Yet people are easily fooled, especially by promises of nice things, so tend to fall for these assurances. But if preachers cannot make good on them then they are liars and very evil ones too for giving people false hope. Priests, shamans, holy men and prophets are liars.
When disaster strikes, believers pray to a god, rather than do something about the trouble. Religion provides comfort in times of grief and hardship, but does nothing to counter these. Actually, by remaining passive, it actually promotes the same grief and hardship on which it thrives.
The evil of these delusions are further aggravated by the claim of each religion that it holds the Absolute Truth. Religion shuts its eyes and ears to the world around it, digs its heels in the ground and refuses to move. New insights are flatly denied, proofs waved and reformers insulted, harassed and if possible even persecuted. And that while the beliefs of any religion, when subjected to close scrutiny, prove themselves sheer superstition.
Monotheism is the worst of all. Other types of religions lie, but they generally do not hate. Monotheism hates everything outside itself. In all monotheistic religions the first commandment is to believe in God and deny nonbelievers, and the capital crime is blasphemy. All other commands and opposed crimes are deemed less important. And that blindness and intolerance, together with all the other mumbo jumbo, makes religions evil.
What is science?
Science tries to explain our world; it wants to know how it works. It studies the natural world, human nature and society and everything else that veers into view. This is done by wielding the scientific method. In essence it works like this: The world around us is observed, hypotheses are formulated that explain the observations, from the hypotheses predictions are made about other yet unobserved phenomena and experiments are performed to test the validity of all three. Experimentation is a vital part of the scientific method. No hypothesis can achieve the status of accepted theory until it it passes rigorous testing. And even old and respected theories can be challenged, leading to modification or even obsolescence.
The search for scientific explanations comes from the same motivations that fueled religion:
curiosity and also a desire to control the world around us.
The latter is a very human thing that has allowed us to push other animal species aside and dominate our planet to a large degree.
The former seems to be a natural result of our intelligence, which is itself the product of ever-increasing complexity in evolution.
Science differs from religion in that it is occupied mainly with the Questions of How, rather than the Questions of Why. This has lead many religious people to claim that science is limited to the former and that the latter are the exclusive domain of religion. But that is not so: science does investigate the Questions of Why, but with infinitely more skepticism.
Why is science "good"?
Contrary to religion, there is no such thing as an absolute truth in science, only relative ones and theories about things that are not entirely certain.
If scientists today claim that the Earth is a sphere instead of a flat disc, they do so because there is overwhelming evidence for that statement.
But should at some future date somebody come along and prove that our perception is flawed, that theory will be discarded and replaced by another.
This means that scientific theories are only probably true, never certainly.
Of course scientists work hard to arrive at theories that are very very probably true and they flock to those that have the most convincing evidence. Often this means that when a new theory invalidates an older one, it usually does not do so completely, but rather refines it. An example is Aristotle's view on mechanics, which was reduced to a mere special case by the work of Isaac Newton in the 17th century CE, but who's 'classical' mechanics where again reduced to a further special case by Albert Einstein's theories on relativity in the early 20th century. All this does not mean that every scientific theory builds upon its predecessors. Theories like Humorism have been totally abandoned in modern times; Quantum mechanics has turned the idea of total determinism upside down and biologists now know that the platypus is real animal instead of a fake.
In short, science provides relative, changing answers, not absolute, unshaken truths. This does not make them less valuable, but more, as they are grounded in skepticism and experimentation, rather than belief. Science shows the world as we understand it, rather than we would like it to be. Science, even with all its relativity and fluidity, is real.
But it's all so complicated
Science, since it took root in human knowledge, has come a long way since its beginning.
Early scientists like the ancient Greeks were generalists that applied their intellect and curiosity to almost any subject that drifted into view.
But modern science has gathered such wealth of knowledge that it is too much to grasp for anybody but the most voracious thinkers.
To solve that problem, scientists tend to specialize into a single field.
And even that can be daunting: most theoretical sciences require a few years of dedicated study before you can call yourself moderately advanced.
The front of scientific research is even harder to understand.
For example the models that describe the physical structure of the universe are so abstract that even scientists cannot picture them in their minds.
Instead, they are forced to describe them in mathematical equations that cannot be visualized in ordinary imagination.
And to further complicate things, old theories are sometimes adjusted or even disproven.
The result of this is that modern science drifts away from everyday lives. People are happy to consume the products that can be made with applied science, but the inner workings are alien to them. While most people understand and acknowledge that most science is just beyond their call, some people go one step further and deny scientific theories, even in the face of an abundance of proof. Some people deny the landings on the moon; others even denounce evolution theory. But the fact the science can be complicated is no valid reason for ignoring it, or even denying it. Science works through proof and proof can hardly be denied. Grasp what you can and listen to experts for the rest, though always with a discerning ear.
Science versus religion
Science and religion often walk separate paths, but sometimes run into each other. Below are some examples.
How the world works
When you are a child and you look around into the world, you see many things that are beyond your comprehension.
It is like the world works through magic.
Parents and teachers amend that 'problem' by stuffing you with knowledge that explains the wonders.
This knowledge has been built up during hundreds of thousands of years, though most of is of relatively recent date.
Our early ancestors did not have the wealth of knowledge that we have today.
For example, nowadays a teenage child can explain how mountain ranges are created by tectonics in the Earth's crust,
but to hunters and gathers of prehistory mountains were eternal giants
with great power and a human-like fickleness regarding melt waters that flowed down their slopes.
But 'primitive' people were just as smart as we are and asked the same questions:
What is that mountain?
Why is it so high?
What makes the waters come down from it?
Lacking scientific explanations, they came up with the best they could.
Their explanation was rather child-like and magical.
They envisioned the mountains with spirits, alive just like plants, animals and humans.
Being humans, manipulative of their environment, they were not content with explaining, but also tried to influence the mountain's behavior.
Seeing them as fellow living creatures, they tried to entice them with things all living creatures appreciate, for instance food.
From a modern geological standpoint this is clearly utter folly, but from an animistic one it is perfectly justifiable.
Do not think that in this regard 'modern' monotheistic religions are superior to 'primitive' animistic religions.
In monotheism too "wonders" abound and prayer to a god to please grant a favor is at the very heart of every religion.
Of course there is a problem with religious rituals: they don't work. You can throw as much food, song and dance, praise, threats and whatever other human appeal at a mountain, but that will not affect the flow of its rivers.
The question of existence
An important area where science and religion tend to clash is the question of existence.
The universe, life, humanity - who or what created it all?
Many people look around and say:
"Look how perfect this world is!
Such perfection surely cannot come into being just like that.
It has to be designed - by God, of course."
The problem with this reasoning is that in order to explain the universe, it supposes the existence of a being greater than the universe,
which immediately raises the question "Who created God?"
Religion's answer is to state that God is outside the concept of creation, which is not an answer at all, but evading the question.
Science is not satisfied with such an paradoxical and evasive explanation. It has sought an alternative and found one in evolution: creation from the bottom up, rather than top down. This explains how complex things can grow from very simple beginnings, just by repeated natural selection. The great flagship of this method is of course evolutionary biology, but similar mechanisms are perceived in human brains (see Dennet) and society.
Physics, describing the very core framework of the universe, still lacks an equivalent to biological evolution theory, though some theories speculate about a multiverse, in which our universe is just one of very very many.
So science does not yet have a strong answer to the question of existence. But the few weak theories that it has in this area are already stronger than the mystical supposition of an imagined god.
The vast majority of scientists are atheists.
That is because the fundamental cornerstones of these two are mutually exclusive.
Religion states that there is an absolute truth; science only believes what it can verify and because perception is limited, ends up with relative truths.
A small group of people, when confronted with the perception that religious beliefs cannot be proven but scientific truths are not absolute either, become agnostics. They state that, as long as there is no solid proof, either set of explanations could be true.
That is a pretty weak standpoint. It is similar to supposing that there are gardens that are maintained at night by statuettes of garden gnomes, who come alive after dark and are petrified again at dawn. This cannot be completely disproven and so may be true. Science will point out that they only testimonials of such nocturnal gnomish activity are fairytales and hearsay and that not a single such phenomenon has ever verifiably been observed. Examples of gardens being maintained by human gardeners however, are ubiquitous. Therefore, the gnomish theory is very very likely untrue and the human theory is very very like true and that you should view them as such until (verifiable!) evidence of the contrary turns up. Under close inspection, religious beliefs all fall in the same category as the gnomish fairytales.
Religion often claims that it provides moral values, while science does not and that it is therefore superior.
Indeed science provides no morality.
Science is like a hammer: you can use it to build a house, but also whack someone's head with it.
In a human moral sense, science is neither good nor bad.
That does not mean that scientists are amoral people. Scientists are human beings and members of society just like religious people and they too have opinions about what is good and what is bad. Morality is not the exclusive domain of religion, despite its claims.
Meanwhile science does something better than transfix morals: it calls them into question. Morality is part of humanity and because some fields of science study aspects of humanity, morality is studied too. Moral values as put forth by religion are scrutinized and challenged. Is it evil to portray human beings in drawings, paintings and sculptures or not? Is stealing bad and if so, why do people persist in doing it? Is abortion a crime against an unborn child, or does it prevent a life of misery for children and parents?
To these and many other questions science does not provide absolute answers, but it does provide reasons why something could be good or bad, so that everyone can make his or her own judgment. It also analyzes which answers are acceptable to societies instead of individuals, how these change through time and place and why. In short, it provides relative answers, supported by proof instead of conviction.
In this text religion and science are presented as opposites. Of course the full reality is more complicated and nuanced. Yet looking at the simple worldviews that many people practice, I think that the format is a proper one. A simple dualistic model can be useful to highlight important matters and create a basic understanding, which can later be refined into more refined insight. Of course I am hoping that anyone who reads this text will do exactly that: examine the arguments, weigh and test them and form a personal but unbiased opinion. But chances are that after reading this, you are either unconvinced by the arguments presented, or I just confirmed your standpoint. As someone once said: "Religious people don't want to explain how God came on stage. They are mystics, reveling in mystery and want to keep it that way. Scientists on the other hand revel in understanding and try to unravel the universe." Yet, one can but try.
Appendix A: References
This document is quite brief and can only present the core of the matter. If you want more information, explanation, examples, quotations and other material, then the following are good starting points:
- Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and outspoken advocate of atheism. Read his book The God Delusion or check out his website: https://www.richarddawkins.net/.
- Daniel Dennett is a cognitive scientist who has proposed an evolutionary view of the human brain. Read for example Darwin' Dangerous Idea or visit his homepage: https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/index.html.
- Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and critic of religion, though his view does not reject eastern Asian religions outright. Read for example his book The End of Faith. Homepage: http://www.samharris.org/.
- Christopher Hitchens was an outspoken critic of religion, fierce and witty. His best known work is God is not Great. On YouTube or another video website, you can also look up a video of the Munk Debate, where he slices up Tony Blair.
- Bertrand Russel was a well-known scientist, famous for his work on logic. He was also non-religious. Read his essay Why I Am Not A Christian.
Appendix B: Quotes
If you find this short text too long to drive the point home, here is a listed of sharp quotes that deliver the same message in even briefer format:
- "Pray", verb: "To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy." - Ambrose Bierce
- "Admittedly, people of a theological bent are often chronically incapable of distinguishing what is true of what they'd like to be true." - Richard Dawkins
- "There is in every village a torch - the teacher; and an extinguisher - the clergyman." - Victor Hugo
- "An opinion can be argued with; a conviction is best shot." - T.E. Lawrence
- "When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called religion." - Robert Pirsig
- "A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled." - Plutarchus
- "So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence." - Bertrand Russell
- "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." - Bernard Shaw
- "Men create the gods in their own image." - Xenophanes