20 September 2008



I have bad news for all those who think that religious belief is grounded in reason: there is no good argument for the existence of God (or gods).

Actually, this is no news at all, and has not been so for almost 150 years. Why? Because the last good argument for God went the way of all flesh with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Supporters and detractors of the idea that came to be known as the survival of the fittest – the combination of population pressure and variation as the key explanation for the evolution of species – almost immediately commenced battle.

Yet not everyone got the significance of Darwin’s work right away. Even Darwin himself thought evolution and religion might in some way be reconciled. But many religious figures of the day recognised it for the serious threat to their spiritual business that it surely was.

Before 1859, intelligent and educated people had at least one rational basis for belief in an all-creating spiritual entity – the teleological argument for the existence of God, or the argument from design.

This is the idea made famous by the natural theologian William Paley in the early 19th century, through his memorably comparing the complexity of the eye with the intricacy of timepieces – as the watch cannot exist without a watchmaker, so we really complicated creatures require an us-maker.

A century or more earlier – before the idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant dismantled a suite of pretty lame arguments for the existence of God – there was a plethora of choice for the intelligent and faithful.

These included two ontological arguments for God – one from the mediaeval cleric, St Anselm, the other by the rationalist philosopher Rene Descartes. Both tried in different ways to fold existence into the very concept of God: but in each case this was too tricky by half and exposed by Kant as simple question begging with his famous conclusion, existence is not a property.

There was the cosmological argument for the existence of God, too – the idea here being that the motion of the spheres (and of us and everything else that moves) requires a first cause or primum mobile.

And there was the moral argument for the existence of God – one approved by Kant (and felt strongly in Darwin’s day) – which involved the idea that moral values require an originating source or even, perhaps, a commander.

But, whether you endorse one God or more, none of these arguments stacks up; not even the moral argument. (Don’t believe me? Try reading Plato’s Socratic dialogue, The Euthephro, then come back for a chat.)

Yet, in all nations, western, eastern and elsewhere, across all races, in both sexes, and at all ages above about six, some form of spiritual belief persists in at least 80% of the population, and often more.

This strikes we atheists as a little weird.

Why, for the last century or more, have intelligent people - men and women and their parents and grandparents before them, beneficiaries (at least in the West) of the highest quality mass education in the history of humankind – persisted in believing in the existence of God? As a matter of reason it is not just weird, it is truly perplexing.

It may be tempting to see this phenomenon just as an outcome of an educational system weak in analytic philosophy or with insufficiently rigorously science. Yet, even though the proportion of analytic philosophers who profess religious adherence is very small, there are still some who cling to faith.

And, though doubtless in the minority, many of those working in the natural sciences continue to believe in some religion or other.

Like bacteria that flourish in the most hostile and caustic environments, spiritual and religious beliefs just keep hanging on.

Religion as a human universal

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that belief in the supernatural or religion is a human universal. First compiled as a list in 1989 by Donald E Brown, these are archetypes of behaviour and language observed by ethnographers in every culture and in all ethnic groups (village atheists notwithstanding).

So, what drives this near universal human belief in religion?

Perhaps it arose simply as an explanation of the unknown in the absence of compelling science. Or can it be explained as a psychosomatic response to the enduring fear of death and a want of immortality? Maybe it’s the idea that we human beings – at least some of us, anyway – are special or chosen. Or could it be the old refrain, refreshed by a century of new age philosophies, that there’s just got to be something more than us in the world…

As these responses suggest, the persistence of religious belief in homo sapiens must have little to do with knowledge and the intellect and a great deal to do with emotion and psychological need. Surely this is at the heart of the spiritual experience to which religious language gives us a clue.

For what is religious belief most commonly called, at least nowadays?


And what is faith? It is a form of belief that endures without reason or in the absence of evidence.

In fact we all know that religious beliefs generally are sustained with a swathe of strong emotions: passion; devotion; obedience; love; fear; vengeance…the list goes on and on. This is no automatic criticism, by the way. We are rightly fond of feelings – we wouldn’t be human without them.

Yet there is still a problem for Darwinians. If evolutionary theory is right, how could we have evolved with the psychological function of entertaining beliefs that are not only almost certainly false, but also appear to constrain reproductive success? Think of abstinence, sacrifice, monogamy and duty to the group rather than to the individual. How does all that spread our genes?

Evolutionary theory, by no means a completed project, divides on this key question. As David Sloan Wilson discusses in Darwin’s Cathedral, there are two major schools of thought. One group favours an adaptationist explanation for religion – either by it conferring advantages, particularly at the level of group selection, or as a cultural parasite, the view propounded by Richard Dawkins.

The other major view considers religious belief to be non-adaptationist – either because it is a past adaptation now redundant, or, as suggested by the late Stephen Jay Gould, because it is a so-called spandrel, a mere evolutionary by-product of a conscious and sophisticated cognitive apparatus.

Many of we Darwinians are agnostic on this unsettled debate. But on one point most evolutionary theorists are agreed: whatever the utility or reproductive fitness of spiritual beliefs, the truth-value of religious propositions is zero.

As with the Darwinian revelations, there is nothing new in this observation, yet it is still inclined to send a defensive frisson down the neck of homo theisticus.

Why so?

Because there remains a recherché clique among religious thinkers who continue to seek wiser and more intellectually satisfying grounds for religion than can be found in the depths of mystery and the heart.

They believe what they believe not just because they think it endearing or popular or useful, but also because they believe it to be true, and true in an intellectually meaningful way.


As we have seen, the seriously devoted theists believe what they believe not simply because it is culturally popular or socially useful, but because they consider it to be true.

At this point in the debate with Darwinians, the God-defenders may finesse their argument by interpreting evolutionary theory as a demonstration of intelligent system design, with God not only the first mover but also the primum vitae (or first cause of life).

Or, they might turn from defence to attack.

Are you an agnostic? The theist might ask.

No. I am an atheist.

Ah-hah! What arrogance. How do you know there is no God? How can you prove that God does not exist?

For one good reason this is a laudable attack – it takes the debate about the existence of God back to where we atheists think it should rest: in the field of reason, as a matter to be resolved by the testing interplay of analysis and argument.

But that is as good as it gets for the theist, because the answers go thus:

Well, I do not know that God does not exist, if you use ‘know’ in the full-blown sense of (roughly) justified true belief. I cannot prove that God does not exist; it is something I infer abductively – that is, as the best explanation for the complexity of the world we find ourselves in. What I do know is that there are better reasons for not believing, rather than believing, in God’s existence.

And what could those reasons be?

In short, they are: Occam’s razor and the onus of evidence.

Occam’s razor, named for the 14th century scholastic philosopher, William of Occam, is one of the key principles of analytic inquiry – the principle of ontological economy; the idea that one should not multiply explanatory entities beyond necessity.

And God no longer adds anything as an explanation of the universe or of us, not even as a supremely intelligent system designer.

But how do you think the universe got here? The believer asks.

To which we Occamists reply, how did God get here? The existence of God, as a putative explanation for all that exists, just pushes the problem back a level. Either the universe is a brute fact, admitting of no explanation in itself, or God is.

And the onus of evidence means that those postulating the theoretical entity, God, bear the responsibility of defending the argument for its existence.

With the publication of the Origin of Species, the onus shifted for the first time in the history of ideas from the atheist to the theist. This is why intelligent religionists feared it so.

Why any one religion?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Say I have convinced you that it is at least an even bet that there is no God (or gods). The proposition goes like this: either one religion is true, or no religion is true. In putting it this way I assume you accept that all religions are in some way or other mutually exclusive. That is, each contains some core metaphysical belief or origin thesis that is inconsistent with a comparable belief or thesis in all other religions.

This is perhaps an arguable claim in at least one case: the Baha’i faith, which has at its core a belief in the oneness of religion – the religion of God. Baha’i acknowledges the key tenets of all (or at least most) other religions in its own theological system.

Baha’i’s own website has this to say about the principles and laws of other religions, the so-called firmly established and mighty systems: it says they have, 'proceeded from one source and are the rays of one light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.'

While I have never met a Baha’i adherent whose personal qualities I didn’t in some way admire, philosophically I think they’re on a hiding to nothing.

Hinduism is polytheistic, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are not. Buddhism believes in the inner God and the transcendence of self through various reincarnations, the three major monotheistic religions believe in the passage of the immutable soul of the believer from one earthly life to heaven (or wherever). No getting around the fact that these are inconsistent beliefs about core tenets of varying religions.

And (save for Baha’i) the following is a core belief of all religions – that our religion is the one and only right one, thank you, and theirs is not.

To this extent, a Muslim feels just as strongly about any of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Baha’i – each is an infidel belief.

So, most religious people are right about this point – all religions are mutually exclusive regarding some or other key belief. My proposition must be sound – either one religion is true, or none is. But, if just one is the true religion, how do we pick the right one? There are hundreds, nay thousands, of them and none seems to have any obvious intellectual advantage over its competitors.

Longevity won’t help – scores of them have been around for a very, very long time. Depth and sincerity of belief, perhaps? Forget it: history has too many martyrs, apostasies and religious wars to count, and some of them all too contemporary.

What about novelty? No, novelty is the problem: how do you choose between all those new religions popping up like fast food joints for the soul? How about popularity, then? Sorry, even each of the big four – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam – individually attracts no more than a sixth of the world’s population.

So, whichever religion you happen to believe in, the overwhelming majority of humanity does not agree with you. Putting it another way, given the huge number of religious faiths that abound, and other things being equal, it is highly likely that the religion you believe in is not the true one.

This is a just a consequence of the laws of probability – I make no judgment about the particular metaphysical claims of individual religions.

Well, actually, I do make one judgment. I note in passing that the dominant religion in one major culture contains a core metaphysical belief which is so close to a logical impossibility that, as an old friend and philosophy professor of mine used to say, it will do until the real thing comes along.

Here is the belief: God is at once both one thing and three things and is whole and indivisible and one of the three things is the progeny of at least one other of the three things and is the same as that other thing.

You’ve correctly guessed the religion, haven’t you? In my view, even if there were one true religion, the likelihood of it being Christianity is vanishingly small. Smaller even than Baha’i.

With all your education, you best believe in naught.


No comments: