2. The pursuit of happiness ! Iʼve yet to meet, read about or otherwise encounter anyone who is unhappy simply because they donʼt believe in the existence of any gods. People are unhappy for myriad reasons; some self-inflicted, some imposed upon them. There are far too many people who are unhappy, for example, because they are prevented from enjoying the same freedoms as other people, if not so much these days for the colour of their skin certainly their sexual orientation or socioeconomic circumstances. Others are unhappy because they seem to actively seek out situations in their personal relationships or social activities that self-justify their lack of self confidence or who would endlessly procrastinate over fixes they know they need to make but havenʼt the willpower to enact. But an ability to rationally assess the claims of the religious and come to ones own conclusions about them is rarely a cause for undue concern—least of all the cause of any unhappiness. Often, indeed, it is cited as an incredibly empowering and life affirming thing, to rise to the intellectual and literary challenge demanded of anyone who seeks to question religious certainties, and remain on firm factual ground, precisely because this runs contrary to the socially accepted way of conversing with those of a differing, often rather more clouded opinion. We are encouraged from a young age to give respect towards other peopleʼs beliefs, despite that their beliefs often seem to contradict themselves or actively cause harm and unhappiness to other people. Not that I should wish to cast non-religious belief in the role of merely another form of extended teenage rebelliousness—and least of all atheism as merely a way to believe in non-belief—just simply that it is in no way limiting to ones emotional capacity, when it comes to seeking love or happiness, to demand clarity on questions for which so many billions of our fellow human beings might never adopt a contrarian stance, perhaps for no other reason than a fear of being judged somewhere on a sliding scale between mildly irritating and demonically possessed. Indeed the vast majority of those who no-longer consider themselves religious, perhaps for that very reason, often describe a great sense of alleviation at finally having becoming free from something they struggled with for most of their adult life; unable to share their fears and doubts and questions with anyone else, which somewhat ironically gave them little choice but to do even more of their thinking for themselves, until the spell was eventually and mercifully broken. ! Not that non-theism is in any way exclusive to “deep thinkers” or victims of adult peer pressure. Iʼve heard my brothers and sisters in rationalism say on many occasions that, for them, the seeds of doubt as to the validity of various religious truth-claims were sown in their minds at a very young age. Iʼve come to think that I too may have experienced my first moments of incredulity whilst kneeling for the exposition of the communion host—perhaps aged no more than 9 or 10 years old. And while this could well be an inserted memory, cobbled together from numerous fading snapshots of my upbringing as a Catholic, whatʼs certainly true is that in my earliest moments of doubt I simply assumed that both conundrums as diverse as the doctrine of the triune God and the overtly Pagan symbolism of Easter and Christmas—which to their credit my grandmother and mother werenʼt too embarrassed to acknowledge—would at some point resolve themselves when I was old enough to understand more of what the priest was talking about in those parts of the mass that had me drifting off into thoughts more of my ensuing career as a groupie magnet rock star, than the underlying meaning behind the parable of the good Samaritan. Not until I was in my twenties and feverishly in pursuit of said heavy metal harlots, would it strike me that for the Samaritan to have acted so unselfishly in the first place, despite never having known Christ, requires that altruism and compassion must by definition have predated if not the birth of the Nazarene, certainly His posthumous rise to fame. That this basic fact somewhat undermined vast swathes of the Christian teaching
Iʼd come to accept as lore—not discounting that this was done in the words of no-one less than the man Himself—certainly contributed to my later arrival at full-blown a-theism— despite the lack of function their word for it carried by this point. Later still would I come to appreciate the same reasoning might be applied to unpicking the cottered threads woven by self-described mediums and clairvoyants or any group to whom the application of clarity and logic towards their supernatural beliefs are often mistaken for malice aforethought. This is not the case, but thereʼs a clue in the degree of offence which is taken as to how close to the nerve a blow of intellectual argument has landed and while I might have learned this lesson slowly I applied it swiftly once the penny dropped. If there is to be any note of regret in my present feelings towards those who absorbed my neophyteʼs exuberance, it would be that very few of them were as keen as I was to make their mistakes in public. Iʼve since observed this say-one-thing publicly and another thing privately approach to various kinds of apologetics on numerous occasions and from a wide variety of well meaning if fundamentally confused people on both sides of the fence. ! In exploring the religious questions which have come to the forefront of world politics in the last 10 or 15 years—or at least my infinitesimally small contribution to that open ended and globe spanning debate, if the reader is too kind to point out that I am but another passive observer of that media driven machine we call democracy, I hope they too will acknowledge I compete with the multinational conglomerates on quality, if not a rather more fair and balanced view. This might, Iʼll grant you, seem a rather strange concession to beg at this juncture, given that the overarching point I wish to make is that subjective certainties, be they arrogantly asserted or humbly submitted, frequently stem from a secret worry that one might appear to lack confidence in ones own argument but for the want of attending to a minor typo or misconstrued simile here or there, which might inadvertently reveal or emphasis beyond proportion a rather different tone upon the discourse than that which was intended. But Iʼm also reminded that in terms of clear thinking—or at least the process of developing critical thinking skills—there is nothing incumbent to a love for learning with a skill for teaching. One being the pursuit of academia for the sake of academia, the other being the art of creative contextual output indented for a mixed audience. This often leads to a bottlenecking of ideas and opinions, competing for space with axes to grind and egos in need of a polish. What endless comment threads have we drearily scrolled through in search of true wisdom, whilst finding merely opinion that chimes with our own. ! Yet in that search for the needle of insight in the haystack of rehearsed prejudices, and as sharply distinct from the background radiation left over from the big bang as an encoded signal from another planet, sometime not too long after the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, I became aware of the writer and neuroscientist Sam Harris. Here was a man reclaiming words like spiritual without appearing to serve an agenda—at least not one so crass as to mask his passion for describing why we have come to tolerate so much non-thinking towards concepts both religious in nature but in whose avoidance of intellectual honesty the religious falsely claim the exclusive right to laud over everyone else. Iʼve enjoyed too few moments of true clarity in my life, but I knew from the opening paragraphs of The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation I was dealing with a new set of ideas on how we might challenge the religious assumption of moral superiority, which were as undeserving of the label new-atheism as were the glut of far less sophisticated post 9/11 polemicists, deserving of being mentioned in the same breath as Harris—an observation on his bestselling books which, refreshingly, didnʼt go unnoticed by the mainstream media. ! But as if uncluttered thinking wasnʼt sufficiently anathema to the modus-operandi of the advertising & marketing clique who devised the new-atheism pigeonhole to begin with, perhaps through a fear that simply calling it non-fiction would invoke the wrath of the same evangelical conservatives who boycotted Disneyʼs A Sharkʼs Tale, because it “promoted
homosexual relationships”, the ensuing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq saw a whole slew of the same know-nothing, douche-nozzles, at Americaʼs illustrious 24 hour cable news channels, sent scrambling for anyone who would go on camera to say anything quasi-patriotic about Americaʼs heightened mistrust of all things Islamic. Fox News led the charge others followed and began feverishly trying to stuff Sam Harris into the same suit tailored for Bill Maher and other agitator-by-numbers shock jocks, only given airtime in the first place because lazy liberalism makes even cheeper television than the cerebral and thought-provoking Jersey Shore—while serving the 10 second soundbite agenda, squeezed from the same pustulated sphincter as the box-office sensation Beverly Hills Chihuahua, for an emotionally stillborn audience ill prepared to handle talk-show punditry that actually makes sense. The general illiteracy of the target audience notwithstanding, a critique of their habitual shortsightedness coming from someone armed to the teeth with a knowledge of world religion far outweighing that of his fellow panelists, didnʼt sit well with those also invited to speak on the prima-facie understanding they would field softball questions on a subject they had, previous to meeting Harris, considered themselves something of an authority. Fever pitched and highly partisan opinion formers, whose job it is to create a conflict where none would otherwise exist, the current affairs based rightwing entertainment channel Fox News, owned by Rupert Murdochʼs News International, barely had chance to prepare a new set of on-screen heightened state of alert terrorism warning graphics, before their staunchly conservative audience were reminded by Harris that alongside Al Jazeera, Fox News also almost uniquely specialises in giving voice to extreme religious fundamentalism, differing only in the choice of ancient parchment mounted in the teleprompter. ! In those early days of my most prolific blogging, you could almost set your watch by the time it took for the Bill OʼReilly show to finish and the arrival of the first angry retort to an article or opinion piece posted hours earlier. Given my intense disliking of stereotypes, it was with no lesser sense of irony that this most active phase in my passion for citizen journalism enabled me to identify two distinct types of apologist—or three if you count those who would describe themselves as scholarly or theologically learned without any embarrassment at their inability to use a spell checker, much less form an intelligible abstract. At this end of the scale reside the young-earth creationists and anti-everything brigade, who united in their fear of themselves, lack the education to escape the circular reasoning which lives in denial of the scientific method, while seeing no irony in spreading their message via modern fibre-optic data networks, that function upon the very same deductive logic they claim to have falsified. ! At the opposite end of the scale are those who, by virtue of the fact that they have an interest in the sciences, grimly hang on to such an especially thin definition of God, it begs the question why they continue to describe themselves as Christian at all—especially given that they find themselves having so little in common with those in the remainder. Iʼve since come to suspect that this group is considerably larger in number than the disproportionate emphasis placed in the media upon the empty vessels who rattle the loudest—who whilst ostensibly in the middle ideologically, in practise tend to hold a rather more varied mix of occasionally somewhat radical views on certain issues, such as stemcell research and abortion, while being just as fervently in favour of a separation of church and state as any secular humanist. Not that the air of respectability this mix and match cover story provides for the extremists is to be downplayed, but I underline my earlier assertion that it is the practical agnostics who make up the vast majority and who therefore hold the key to persuading the minority that, far from lacking faith simply because they no longer hold court to supernaturalism, in their understanding of the natural processes at play inside every atom under the sun, they posses something far more profound and coherent than anything conjured in the fear theology of long dead kingships.
! For the most part, the ever loosening fingernail grip on some kind of belief in some kind of God, which the majority hold onto, swings on a modern re-imagining of Pascal's wager—a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal—that since Godʼs existence cannot be determined, it is better to assume there is a God than be proven wrong when itʼs already too late to change your mind. The problems with this are multifaceted. Not to mention the embarrassment you might face when finding yourself standing at the proverbial pearly gates, before a different god than the one you were expecting to find, the wager also fails to resolve the problem of what to do with everyone still alive back on earth, who are busily worshipping the wrong god while you helplessly look on. What kind of paradise would it be, to know youʼre powerless to save those who are still in the land of the living from making the same mistake you did? ! For fear we get bogged down in the facile egomania which surrounds the question of who is and who isnʼt entitled to a second bite of the cherry, it might be argued that there is only one capitalised ʻGʼ God, who regardless of an individualʼs particular religion is collectively worshiped by everyone in their own way—a sort of all roads lead to Rome bargaining—that the indefinable something we call God, but which is in-fact merely the unknown, doesnʼt really care one way or the other what we call Him / She / It so long as we believe He / She / It is out there, keeping us in-check like an intergalactic CCTV camera in the sky. Of course, no matter the tautology, this doesnʼt actually fix anything, since the theology which defines exactly how the God of Christianity wants His individual adherents to behave and what they are to believe in, not only varies greatly within just that one faith, but it flat-out contradicts the demands placed upon followers of another faith and all while each religion claims—often on pain of death to all who question it—to hold the one uniquely true definition of God over and above the assertions made by everyone else. ! Outlining this problem, in the past, has led to some of the most disingenuous and muddy responses I have yet to receive on any other subject—and yet it is of fundamental importance as to the reliability of everything which follows. If you cannot demonstrate the basic existence of your particular God, especially while denying the existence of any other gods, no amount of appealing to the holy texts specific to your religion of choice changes the fact that the whole purpose of those texts, i.e., the reason they were written at all, was in an attempt to corroborate the factual claim of Yahwehʼs existence against the nonexistence of any other gods—which as Pascal conceded cannot be empirically validated in any case—least of all by borrowing from one set of assumptions and pronouncements in order to defend multifaceted branches of further apologetics, which stem from specific proclamations, such as thou shalt not place any other gods before me—which is as clear an indicator one could wish to find that quandaries of this sort have plagued monotheism from the very beginning. ! Regardless of this, respondents willing to answer the charge, invariably do so by insisting it is either the wrong sort of question to ask and based upon flawed thinking, or choose to completely ignore it in any case by appealing to a reverse in the burden of proof which insists it is the non-believer who must demonstrate that gods do not exist, when by virtue of Occamʼs razor the inverse is in-fact the case. Further they often bury this logical fallacy under reams of received opinion about the personal habits of liberals as a whole— as if we would all hang out together in gay bars and binge drink ourselves to death on the blood of sacrificial goats were it not for those pesky Christians. Not that I am innocent on all counts of occasionally erecting a straw man argument from time to time, in order to provoke a reaction. But on an email-by-email, blog-by-blog level, I would be playing a very long game of chess indeed if I had turned a blind eye to successive correspondents, presented with the various arguments herein, who will recoil in often sublime arrogance by having it pointed out to them that their attempts to move a pawn on the board which has already been taken do not constitute a legitimate tactic, regardless of their insistence to the contrary. Indeed a general failure on the part of respondents to acknowledge much
less play their own endgame, is by far and away the single most frustrating aspect to debating religion—essentially because it appeals to the better reasoning of someone who is set in exact opposition to making concessions on the most basic unreliability of their own argument. Indeed some of the most entertaining jousts I have entered into have led me to conclude, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for this particular kind of armchair apologist to admit Yahweh Elohim may be just as mythological as Allah or Zeus or Mithras. ! Notwithstanding the inherent atheism of all Christians towards the non-existence of every other god than their own, having it pointed out in this way often provokes an even more visceral reaction than illustrating the many and varied attributes of the Jesus story which are shared by countless hero warrior gods throughout ancient folklore. And while it would be wrong to suggest low numbers among those who are willing on some level to concede it possible to refute certain parts of the bible which stretch credibility—and of those who are wiling to accept this there are many as capable of arguing from other theistic positions as any from the non-theist benches—talking snakes and magic wine aside there are very few who would then go further and accept the evidence that huge swaths of the New Testament were simply cobbled together from traditions going back to the Babylonians—which, to say the least, offers a compelling challenge to specific historical events in the bible having taken place at all. If there are any who do engage on this level, I have yet to hear any concession of a kind which is not phrased by way of a juxtaposition with this fact against the axiomatic nature of logic itself—as if to merely question specific aspects of one narrow type of methodology automatically cancels out the wide ranging and multi-structural weaknesses of the other. The argument goes something like this: ! If it is not possible to categorically define every single aspect of the natural world and the universe beyond, it must therefore remain true, however unlikely, that at some point in the future a discovery will be made that questions the fundamental validity of all physics and the arithmetic logic upon which scientific knowledge is based. Therefore science faces the same fundamental problem as religion because it cannot deny its own lack of absolute certainty without calling into question the validity of the many theories and hypotheses which hang upon its theorems—which themselves vary from one deductive system to another. This sort of appeal led palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen J. Gould, to conclude that science and religion are “nonoverlapping magisteria”—that one is incapable of saying anything coherent about the other in areas where “science and religion do not glower at each other [but] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering at every fractal scale of self-similarity." 1 ! At which point one might be tempted to resolve that while such definitions might not trip off the tongue in everyday conversation, at least theyʼre not purposefully crafted to dodge the issue while appearing to address it, such as is the staple of pseudo-science and science fiction writers of the kind which no-one could accuse Gould of being. But the problem with this kind of half-way-house agreement to disagree, is that it appears to afford equal weight to theology as is given over to logic—as if the two balance each other out or are just as likely to be true as when viewed a certain way—which unfortunately lands us right back where we started when trying to define God without an appeal to the same selfinterested chess piece legitimately taken in a earlier move. Further, it papers over the fact that axiomatic theorems are not randomly susceptible to being proven either true or false, but rather that they hold true within well established margins of error not found or even sought out within the black and white confines of theology—where a scholarly conclusion that some set of edicts are true, is interchangeable with an indefectible pronouncement from high authority that they are unquestionably true, depending on the purpose it serves 1
in sidestepping various grades of evidence which challenge the given truth-claim—and all, of course, under the auspices of protecting the individual from arbitrarily assigned divine punishments, to be meted out after death, for the sin of being created in His image. ! One might be tempted to say that without theological authority, specific aspects of which weʼre told on pain of eternal damnation to place beyond any doubt, God simply vanishes. But where the natural world continues completely unconcerned with our capacity or wish to describe it in every complete way, very few Christians would miss the opportunity to insist the same is true of their personal God, with whom they have a relationship as real to them as it is to billions of their brothers and sisters around the world, quite independent from the parts of scripture they choose to either observe or discount. The fairest I can be about that, is to accept that Christians often seek solace in their beliefs with scriptural reference points which they have simply never thought to account for, or consider how these texts pertain exactly to the nature of their personal experiences— whilst also being somewhat forced to insist that it is faith which gives them meaning and focus, not evidence based reality. And since faith is unavailable to those who do not believe in any gods, theyʼre disentitlement to play with invisible chess pieces is not for anyone else to determine—least of all some godless heathen who by definition does not pretend to understand the nature of the soul and indeed goes further in their denial that there is any evidence of a supernatural aspect. Whatever one can say about this hermetically sealed belief in belief, it certainly isnʼt lacking the vocabulary to talk its way out of trouble—or at least satisfy itself that it has, when in reality it hasnʼt. Not that this would be half the problem I assert it is, if believers in a personal God of this kind actually practised what they preach and kept it to themselves rather than impose it upon other people. But it is all too sadly the case, that there are those who threaten the very fabric of our society—and in a way which seeks to force or cajole highly divisive policies on health, education and social welfare upon the whole electorate, whose religious beliefs are directly informed by their political and social activism. From interventions in the affairs of governments abroad to the provision of social welfare and sex education at home, the religious lobby in American politics has proudly claimed victory in ventures as diverse as the wholesale destruction of the environment to the revoking of birth control for victims of incestuous rape, and the carte blanche handing over of hundreds of billions of tax dollars to private security contractors staffed by murderous, unaccountable mercenaries in Iraq. And yet the myth persists that God is the ultimate arbiter of moral reasoning. I disrespectfully beg to differ.
Work in progress