I have just been watching a video compilation by Dr Jonathan T. Pararajasingham, a British neurosurgeon, entitled, 30 Renowned Writers Speaking about God, posted by Professor Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True. The video features a pretty impressive array of writers – including Arthur C. Clarke, Nadine Gordimer, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Douglas Adams, Germaine Greer, Martin Amis, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Harold Pinter and (of course) the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens – who are either atheists or agnostics. These are people who craft words for a living and who know how to argue a case, so I was expecting to hear at least one really good argument for atheism. Suffice it to say that I was underwhelmed by the arguments that were presented. More on that below.
“No religion is true” does not imply that the idea of God is false
I was most amused to hear several speakers arguing that because all religions are false, the idea of God must also be false. This is a total non sequitur. What’s more, it completely ignores ardent Deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, who poured scorn on the tenets of organized religion, but argued for the rationality of belief in God, from the laws of Nature (see here and here). For all his hatred of Christianity, Tom Paine (who is, strange to say, a hero of the late Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne and many other New Atheists) was a man passionately in love with God. Want proof? Here’s what he says about God in The Age of Reason:
The Almighty Lecturer, by displaying the principles of science in the structure of the universe, has invited man to study and to imitation. It is as if He had said to the inhabitants of this globe, that we call ours, “I have made an earth for man to dwell upon, and I have rendered the starry heavens visible, to teach him science and the arts. He can now provide for his own comfort, AND LEARN FROM MY MUNIFICENCE TO ALL, TO BE KIND TO EACH OTHER.”…
Do we want to contemplate his power? We see it in the immensity of the Creation. Do we want to contemplate his wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed! Do we want to contemplate his munificence? We see it in the abundance with which he fills the earth. Do we want to contemplate his mercy? We see it in his not withholding that abundance even from the unthankful. In fine, do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the Creation…
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.
Dr. O’Hanlon’s misunderstanding of religion
But the prize for the most wrong-headed assertion will have to go to Dr. Redmond O’Hanlon FRSL, a highly acclaimed British writer and scholar. Towards the end of the video [21:06-21:54], O’Hanlon (whose picture appears on the left at the top of this post, courtesy of Wikipedia and Daan Berg) is asked, “Would you say, in a way, that what the Bible was for your father, Darwin’s Origin of Species was for you?” He responds:
Yes, except that it was absolutely based on generations of quiet science, quiet people really thinking. There was no bullshit involved at all, no wishful thinking, no absurd myth-making, no ridiculous covering up of deep fear. All of the Bible, all religions, are composed of cowardice pretending to be reality – abject cowardice. We don’t like to think that we are undoubtedly going to die. That’s what all religion is based on – fear of death.
People reading this post will be more inclined to think that Darwinism owed its triumph to a combination of poor cell biology and bad philosophy. Darwin was a very fair-minded scientist, but he knew nothing about the chemical structure of DNA, RNA and proteins. To make matters worse, information theory hadn’t been invented in his day. These two limitations led him to mistakenly claim that “Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws,” which (for Darwin) seemed to refute the notion that Nature has an Intelligent Designer. Many theists, of course, would argue that laws of any sort imply an Intelligence; however, the great contribution of Intelligent Design theory is the observation that specified complexity is the hallmark trait of intelligent agency.
The real essence of religion
When I heard Dr. O’Hanlon say that all religion is based on fear of death, my instant reaction was: “You are completely wrong.” And then I suddenly recalled that a great writer had refuted Dr. O’Hanlon’s claim much more effectively than I could ever have done, more than sixty years ago. I remembered a passage that I had read in an essay by C. S. Lewis entitled, Religion Without Dogma? which was originally read to the Oxford Socratic Club on the 20th May 1946, and later published in the Phoenix Quarterly, vol. I, No. 1 (Autumn 1946) under the title ‘A Christian Reply to Professor Price’. (Professor H. H. Price had earlier written a paper entitled, ‘The Grounds of Modern Agnosticism’, which he read to the Socratic Club on the 23rd October 1944.) In his essay, C. S. Lewis skilfully demolished Price’s claim that belief in immortality belongs to the very essence of religion. Lewis’s essay is also a splendid refutation of O’Hanlon’s claim that all religion is based on fear of death
My disagreement with Professor Price begins, I am afraid, at the threshold. I do not define the essence of religion as belief in God and immortality. Judaism in its earlier stages had no belief in immortality, and for a long time no belief which was religiously relevant. The shadowy existence of the ghost in Sheol was one of which Jehovah took no account and which took no account of Jehovah. In Sheol all things are forgotten. The religion was centered on the ritual and ethical demands of Jehovah in the present life, and also, of course, on benefits expected from Him. These benefits are often merely worldly benefits (grandchildren and peace upon Israel), but a more specifically religious note is repeatedly struck. The Jew is athirst for the living God (Psalm 42:2), he delights in His Laws as in honey or treasure (Psalm 19:10), he is conscious of himself in Jehovah’s presence as unclean of lips and heart (Isaiah 6:5). The glory or splendour of God is worshipped for its own sake. In Buddhism, on the other hand, we find that a doctrine of immortality is central, while there is nothing specifically religious. Salvation from immortality, deliverance from reincarnation, is the very core of its message. The existence of the gods is not necessarily decried, but it is of no religious significance. In Stoicism again both the religious quality and the belief in immortality are variables, but they do not vary in direct ratio. Even within Christianity itself we find a striking expression, not without influence from Stoicism, of the subordinate position of immortality. When Henry More ends a poem on the spiritual life by saying that it, after all, he should turn out to be mortal he would be
A lonesome mortall God t’ have died.
From my own point of view, the example of Judaism and Buddhism is of immense importance. The system which is meaningless without a doctrine of immortality, regards immortality as a nightmare, not as a prize. The religion which, of all ancient religions, is most specifically religious, that is, at once most ethical and most numinous, is hardly interested in the question. Believing, as I do, that Jehovah is a real being, indeed the ens realissimum, I cannot sufficiently admire the divine tact of thus training the chosen race for centuries in religion before even hinting the shining secret of eternal life. He behaves like the rich lover in a romance who woos the maiden on his own merits, disguised as a poor man, and only when he has won her reveals that he has a throne and palace to offer. For I cannot help thinking that any religion which begins with a thirst for immortality is damned, as a religion, from the outset. Until a certain spiritual level has been reached, the promise of immortality will always operate as a bribe which vitiates the whole religion and infinitely inflames those very self-regards which religion must cut down and uproot. for the essence of religion, in my view, is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the finite self’s desire for, and acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favour of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it. That the self-rejection will turn out to be also a self-finding, that bread cast upon the waters will be found after many days, that to die is to live — these are sacred paradoxes of which the human race must not be told too soon.
(The quote from More is from his poem, ‘Resolution’, in The Complete Poems of Dr Henry More, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, Edinburgh, 1878, line 117, p. 176.)
At this point, I’d like to add my own perspective, which echoes what C. S. Lewis wrote. Many people criticize religion for being too other-worldly, and of causing people to be unhealthily preoccupied with eternity, at the expense of the things that really matter in this world. The charge is not wholly groundless; there are some forms of religious belief which do just that. But for me, the great thing about religion – in the truest sense of the word – is that it takes you out of yourself, by opening your eyes to the fact that the ultimate Reality is Someone Who is much greater than you can possibly imagine. It is this awareness of an all-embracing perspective belonging to Someone outside of yourself that enables you to step outside of the framework of your own ego, put your worries aside, and just live for the moment, which means living for others. In other words, you stop worrying about death if you choose to live your life from a God’s-eye perspective, let go of your ego, and cease making yourself the center of your personal universe. Thus the benefit of true religion is that it makes people whole, restores their sanity and sets them free. Religion, properly lived, is the only thing that is guaranteed to cure people’s never-ending preoccupation with themselves and their wants. True religion, then, is not personal wish-fulfilment but self-abandonment. Another name for that attitude is trust. Without that trust, the doctrine of personal immortality will avail you naught, spiritually speaking.
Christopher Hitchens’ argument against God: Love cannot be coerced
This, by the way, answers the one argument of substance that I heard on the entire video: an argument by Christopher Hitchens (the last speaker on the video), that it is impossible for us to genuinely love God if we are obligated to love him, under pain of eternal damnation in Hell. While making this argument, Hitchens is not letting go of himself. What he is saying, in effect, is: “Now, let me imagine that there is a God, and let me imagine what that would entail for me. If there is such a Personal Being, then presumably He would want to be loved by me, since I am capable of knowing Him – and He might well feel miffed at the fact that I didn’t love Him. Being omniscient, He would know if I didn’t love Him, of course. Being all-powerful, He might even get nasty and exact vengeance on me – perhaps even eternal vengeance. But if God could really do that, then I couldn’t possibly choose to love Him freely – in which case I couldn’t really love Him at all, in which case it would be wrong of Him to punish me for not loving Him. So since the concept of God implies the possibility of His doing something wrong, which means that He isn’t God (since God is supposed to be essentially benevolent), then there must be something deeply flawed about the whole concept of God.”
Logically speaking, Hitchens’ argument doesn’t work, because it assumes that God’s omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipotence are equally fundamental attributes of God. But if God’s omnipotence is grounded in His omniscience and omnibenevolence, then God cannot will what is ultimately bad for anyone. Only we can do that – which is why C. S. Lewis insisted in The Problem of Pain that “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside.”
But on a psychological level, Hitchens’ argument is profoundly wrong, too. What is missing from it is the notion of trust. Instead of worrying about what an omnipotent God might do to Him, what Hitchens should have asked himself is: if rational argumentation leads me to believe that there is a Mind Who created the cosmos, keeps it in being, and therefore keeps me in being, what is my response to such a Being? The only sensible response to such a Being is one of trust. Any other response is self-defeating. Trust in turn means letting go, and not letting thought experiments about hypothetical consequences interfere with one’s impulse to love God. Hitchens’ hero, Thomas Paine, was able to let go and love His Maker, as we saw in the quote from him above.
Notive that I wrote: “If rational argumentation leads me to believe that there is a Mind Who created the cosmos…” in the paragraph above. “That’s a pretty big ‘if'”, I hear you say. But I would argue that the combination of recent scientific evidence indicating that not just our universe, but the entire multiverse must have had a beginning (evidence which I discussed in this post), coupled with the arguments from the fine-tuning of the cosmos (scroll down to the end of this post for a list of good posts) and the startling evidence that the first living thing was designed (see this excellent video by Professor John Walton, Fellow of the Royal Society for Chemistry), does make it rational to believe that there is indeed a Mind Who created the cosmos and the first living organism.
Miscellaneous arguments against God by Thirty Leading Writers
Here are some other highlights that I saw on the video, 30 Renowned Writers Speaking about God:
Arthur C. Clarke relating the story of Laplace’s statement to Napoleon that he had no need for the hypothesis of God (a reply which avoids the obvious questions of where the laws of Nature originally came from, why they hold at all, and what they are);
Arthur Miller asserting that God is a projection (a claim I find difficult to square with the Parable of the Last Judgement, which tells us that even “respectable” religious people who claim to be followers of Jesus will be damned in Hell for all eternity if they did not feed the hungry, care for the sick and clothe the naked, during their lives on Earth);
Gore Vidal whinging about the way in which God designed the human spine (fine; let’s see his improved model, and the genetic coding for it);
Douglas Adams misconstruing the fine-tuning argument as being like a puddle of water wondering why it exactly fits the hole in the ground that it’s in (never mind the fact that the puddle would still exist if the hole had a different shape, whereas we would cease to exist if the laws of Nature were even slightly different from what they are now);
Germaine Greer defining good as whatever results in the greater good of the greater number (which entails the truly monstrous ethical conclusion that you are morally obliged to inflict torture, rape and even burning at the stake on an innocent person, if you have good grounds for believing that doing so will result in a greater benefit for society as a whole – see here for a scenario where this could happen);
Jose Saramago arguing that the story of Abraham by itself constitutes a sufficient refutation of belief in God (surely, at most, it only refutes the notion of a capricious and egomaniacal God, but not one Who is essentially good);
Terry Pratchett telling us that he found it harder and harder to believe in people, let alone God (poor guy);
Ian McEwan claiming that religion cuts off a source of wonder at the beauty of the world (funny, that was what happened to me as an 11-year-old, when I read science books galore written by pontificating atheists, asserting that the Sun was a rather ordinary G-type star that was doomed to fizzle out in a few billion years, and that the Universe would one day end in a whimper);
Salman Rushdie asserting that when religion is in charge of the ethical question, you get Inquisitions (try telling that to a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Taoist);
Norman MacCraig telling viewers that the reaon why he was convinced that atheism is true was that he cannot believe Christian dogma (now there’s a logical argument for you!);
Matt Ridley exuberantly exclaiming that we’re going to generate more mystery, the more we discover (I do hope he’s right, but what if the laws of physics turn out to be finite and fairly easily comprehensible, and some scientist discovers a Grand Unified Theory of Everything tomorrow?);
Howard Brenton passionately advocating the separation of Church and State (no argument from me on this point, but what does that prove about God?);
Tariq Ali arguing for putting the Pope on trial (relevance to theism?);
Roddy Doyle humorously lamenting the fact that when he became an atheist, he couldn’t blame God for his misfortunes (ha!);
Diana Athill arguing that dying is no big deal, because it’s just like going to sleep and never waking up (which is not in the least reassuring if you’re still awake); and
Christopher Hitchens arguing with his characteristic passion against the doctrine of Vicarious Atonement (which I find puzzling, as there are many Christians who believe in the doctrine of the Atonement, but don’t construe it in the way described by Hitchens – see these articles by Robin Collins, for instance).