I received a multitude of scathing replies to my recent post on the difference between believing and knowing. There was virtually no effort made to intelligently respond to my assertions, but there was much emphasis placed on holy books, and the Bible in particular. The general premise of my critics’ counter-argument was that the Bible, and all other holy books by definition, offer all of the evidence one needs in determining if God exists and how we relate to him. These books are the guidelines, the instruction, and the proof that supports the faith in which people use as life’s navigation system.
I’m not going to spend much time on the paradoxical nature of these books. There is ample scholarship on the subject, and any honest reader that devotes his or herself to a deconstructed and impartial reading of the text, will find the messages ambiguous, the characters derived, and the history and science to be vague and implausible.
These problems aside, the distinction between what we know and what we believe, endures. Particularly if our only supposed link to “knowing” anything about God are the ancient stories presented in these books, disseminated by illiterate “prophets” who had conveniently received the “Word” while in isolation. Indeed very few narrators in the Bible agree on the order of things, nor do they seem to ascertain what the messenger was attempting to convey. There are numerous places where the narrators contradict one another, or offer sclerotic variations of one another’s depictions. Why exactly, should we trust this text? There is no evidence to support the conclusion that these books are the word of an ineffable being. (We don’t even know what is meant by the term God?) And if there were, the only rational conclusion would be that he/she/it suffers from bi-polar disorder and possibly even amnesia.
A few questions:
Monotheism seems certain that God is male. Why? How can we know that God has a sex? Because we’re told? Because a book says so?
God, we are told, is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-good, but yet evil abounds? Let’s assume that God does exist. Why should we believe he/she/it is good? History proves otherwise. Unless of course you believe that vast swaths of people are punished for being whatever religion you aren’t, or for being part of a population that you are not also a part of. Or that evil exists as a counterbalance to God’s goodness. All of these excuses are moronic, not to mention racist and vial.
Morality you say? A preemptive response to the moral argument, which typically states that without God, and religion as His conduit, there would be no morality. Or put another way, without God, there would be not only no personal sense of morality, but also no moral incentive, because without an afterlife there would be no reward for adhering to God’s code. Without going into the relativity of morality, and how I believe our human sense of right and wrong has developed slowly with our evolution as a species; and without going into detail about how we have learned, over hundreds of thousands of years, that substituting certain predatory and selfish instincts for broader social good and altruistic inclinations, is where our morality originates, there is a far simpler question that puts it to those who claim monotheistic superiority on the moral question: If the Christian God introduces morality and goodness, explain then, the obvious goodness and morality of those that preceded His arrival? The Greek and Roman philosophers are obvious examples of this moral sense, many of whom predate Christianity by many centuries. To gloss over the simple fact that there were virtuous humans prior to Christianity, is to manipulate the argument rather ignorantly, in favor of historical revisionism. In short, this approach is barren and fatuous.
Even if God does exist, which again we have no way of knowing, what evidence do we have that would support religion’s depiction of he/she/it? Religion, after all, is a man-made concept and institution, and is certainly not an intrinsic facet of human life. It is subject to man’s fallibility, his avarice and thirst for power, and his innate sense of self-importance. It is, by definition, ego-centric. Those that have created religion, are as intellectually limited as the rest of us in terms of knowing anything about God, the afterlife, or any other element involving supernatural occurrences and deities. It’s mere speculation.
We’ve created theology in an effort to try and understand who we are, where we come from, and what our purpose is. These are noble endeavors- no matter how futile they might be- but the problem is that religion strives to do the heavy lifting for us, by teaching us what to think instead of how to think. Rather than promoting existential questions that arise from reason and evidence- or the lack thereof- we’re taught to have faith in an ancient text, and what authority figures tell us about it. This is belief, by way of faith. (A faith that is arguably a manufactured one.) It is not knowledge. There is no reason to trust a human interpretation of what God is and what It wants for us. This is precisely what religion is. A human interpretation of an unknowable idea.
Which brings me to another point: If the religious amongst us believe that the Bible is the literal “Word of God”, then they must own that claim by accepting and taking responsibility for, the entire breadth of the Bible, and not just the conveniently poetic. There is much ugliness and ambiguity in the Bible- as is the case in all holy books- mostly because of the time in which they were written, and the cultures they were written for. (This is a historical indictment of the moral relativism of that era, and certainly not meant to be taken as racial or cultural bigotry.) But this only matters if you don’t believe God dictated the texts. People who are detached from religious belief can examine these books historically, placing them in their proper social and political context, whereas believers have to reconcile the mythological and the parochial, by interpreting them in a way that fits with modernity. As I’ve said before, if you are choosing what is modernly relevant in the Bible, then you are interpreting it to fit your belief, which means that you do not believe that the Bible is wholly relevant in the present age. This means that you either do not believe that God is real; or that you don’t believe the Bible is the literal word of God; or that you know better than God and have taken the liberty to translate his ideas in a way that fits nicely with your own prejudice. All of this is of course, happening on a subconscious level and can vary in their meaning.
What all of these scenarios have in common, is that they are assumptions at best. To be dexterous enough to say one believes in loving thy neighbor, while ignoring the passages where God advocates genocide, takes a deftly selective conscience, not to mention an astounding level of denial. (As does the ability to ignore the relevancy, at different points in history, of religions that preceded monotheism, which are now largely extinct or referred to in our modern parlance as myth. But what validates the monotheistic worldview? A cursory comparison from one to the other shows- to say it mildly- at least a strong influence, if not absolute plagiarism, of the older pagan religions. What makes the younger faiths true, and their ancestors false?)
Why can’t we be satisfied by the fact that God’s existence (and what God is) will always remain a mystery to us? I can only assume that we hang on to this false understanding out of a fear of death, which is nothing more than a physical manifestation of our deeper fear of the unknown. We cling to this because we possess an inherent sense of hope. It’s depressing to feel that life as we know it, ceases one day. The idea of having consciousness one day, and having none the next, is one that we cannot fathom, let alone adequately cope with. And so religion preys on our hope. It counts on it. It needs it. It manipulates our need to feel that there is a purpose to our lives and that there is something waiting for us in the great beyond. Admittedly I’d love for this to be true. It’s a pleasant fiction. But immersing oneself in this fantasy is a manner of believing, not knowing. And a childish one at that.
Why should we assume God? If nature makes sense without having to introduce an unsatisfactory human construct that cannot be universally defined, and that there is no evidence to support, why invent one? It’s an unnecessary step meant to evoke the idea of eternal life, but has no basis in reality. We can’t know it, and nature has proven that it doesn’t need it. Until he/she/it descends from the heavens and proves its existence (something that most people value in all other arenas) there is no reason (especially not a literary one) to nurture this superstition. It is a superfluous idea.