Is religion irrelevant today? Atheism UK was invited by Bath University to debate religious societies. The motion was: “This house believes that religion has become irrelevant in today’s society.”
For: Norman Bacrac, Andrei Calvarasanu
Against: Rev. Dr. Simon Bale, Abdullah al Andalusi~
Date: 15 November 2016
Here is Norman Bacrac’s speech:
‘The strapline of Atheism UK, to which I belong, is “Challenging religious faith”, meaning challenging its factual basis. I support this Motion because I believe religious faith performs no essential function today. The main events in people’s lives: hatches, matches and dispatches, can now all be very satisfactorily conducted by specially created non-religious ceremonies.
I do concede that religious practice will continue in most of the world, although it will continue to decline in the UK. Even in the US, the number of atheists increases every year. But for atheists in Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the punishment for apostasy is death; for homosexuals in Uganda, religion is a matter of life and death. They can only long for it to become irrelevant.
The Bible was ‘the maker’s manual’, which should be attended to and whose directives must be followed. Nevertheless, most of its particular injunctions have been over-ruled, at least in England, in the last two centuries. Divorce is now possible. Contraception is now possible. Abortion is now legal. Shops now open on Sunday. Same-sex relations are no longer a crime. Blasphemy is no longer criminalised. Women can become Anglican Bishops. However, voluntary euthanasia is still contested by cowardly MPs, wary of their religious voters. It’s only a matter of time before the patient’s choice is recognised as of paramount importance.
I question how far it really helps anyone to believe in the myth of life after death. Heaven looks like a superior Butlin’s holiday camp (with choir practice for Christians over here, and glamorous women for Muslims over there); a place where you meet all your relatives again. Your alternative is Hell, a place of eternal torment, perpetual pain. Hell is now just too embarrassing for civilised religious people to confess to believe in but I dare say it’s still in use in some places to terrify children into obedience.
One can acknowledge the social benefits that may accrue to following the practices of a religion, for example, the sense of belonging to a group where everyone does the same. In spite of the scriptures’ soothing advice to ‘love your neighbour’, religion readily fosters a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. The Koran never tires of reminding us that god condemns to Hell the infidels (ie those who don’t fully assent to its doctrine). Charles Darwin abandoned his faith at the thought that his kind but unbelieving relatives would end up in hell. Alas, religious fanatics anticipate god’s intention – last week they blew up a Sufi shrine, killing 50 Muslims. History abounds with lurid examples of inter-religious squabbles.
No doubt people still pray that god would make someone well, but the majority put their trust in medical science. You can pray that it won’t rain for your country walk, but you still check the forecast. Providence, god’s intervention in the world, is quite irrelevant now. Should any dim-witted cleric venture to assert the cause of a natural disaster to be the expression of god’s wrath at the sinfulness of the locals, the scorn of the populace is only matched by the acute embarrassment of his wiser colleagues.
In the past, everyone could adduce many ‘evidences’ for god – they were all around us. For example, the very existence of animals and plants, the rainbow following rain. No longer. Today, science has accounted for all the alleged evidences as natural processes, not requiring god’s intervention. The rainbow can be seen in the spray from a hosepipe so isn’t god’s sign there will never be another flood. Animals and plants have evolved over 4000 million years by natural selection, an idea the germ of which is found in Lucretius in 50 BC, but to deny the special creation of each species was a heresy until the 19th century.
Homo sapiens has been around for a lot longer than Bishop Ussher’s Biblical chronology of 6020 years (that’s 4004 + 2016), when the first humans, Adam and Eve, rashly disobeyed god, who quite unfairly caused all their descendants, that’s all 7 billion of us, to inherit their ‘sin’. The only exceptions, by special dispensation, being Jesus and, the Vatican tells us, his mum. Our sin is not due to anything bad we may have done, but originates in the mere fact of being Adam and Eve’s descendants. Unless we are saved by accepting Jesus as god, this sin must not go unpunished by god. In no merely human law can you inherit your ancestor’s criminal record, so how relevant for us today is this example of divine justice?
The need for god’s explanatory power has now been pushed far away from daily life and ordinary human observation to alleged events 14 billion years ago, the time of the supposed origin of the universe. The physical universe, says today’s theologian, who’s become a materialist, was created to enable us to evolve. The current favourite job for god is his alleged ‘fine-tuning’, when he had to twiddle the knobs of his Mighty Wurlitzer, knobs controlling the speed of light, the strengths of gravity and electricity, to the exact values required to support life 13.7 billion years after the start. But in any half-way decent final theory of physics, all these constants will emerge automatically from its basic axioms. They’re not arbitrary additions to the theory. No tuning will be required, so no tuner will be needed.
Only cosmologists are really at home here, with their frenetic speculations on the multiverse and the aeons preceding the big bang. The jury is still out on empirical questions such as whether the universe is infinitely old.
There are two possible starting points for a first cause:
(1) The theist’s answer derives the simpler from the complex. It starts by the postulation of a non-physical mind capable of infinitely precise calculations, the creator by fiat of chronic pain in its helpless creatures;
(2) The atheist’s answer derives the complex from the simple. Mindless matter, evolving from the simplest beginnings to produce life and minds capable of appreciating their brief moments of existence…
The choice is yours.
My remaining time is finite, so I shall press on to my final point.
As there is randomness or indeterminism in the world of particles, god could not take the day off, as Genesis tells us, because he would have to supervise and over-ride the randomness at every moment of the universe’s development from the start to be sure of us getting here. The world may turn out to be deterministic, but the result is the same: we are all the necessary products of the big bang, so is every decision we make. No willed decision could be other than it is. We are all the necessary results of our heredity and environment, acting together.
Sorry god, neither you (nor we ourselves) may condemn us. No retribution would be other than simply vindictive. Hence the collapse of the whole scheme of theology, based as it is on an incoherent, impossible notion of libertarian ‘free will’, which is that we all can always make decisions independent of our state of mind, and hence independent of our brain, at the time. There is no ‘us’ independent of our brains.
Praise and blame may only be used to affect the future, accepting that no past decision could have been different. Atheists can cope with this by understanding their fellow beings and learning that it’s their duty to be compassionate. On the biggest question of all, the nature of human nature, all the religions have got it wrong and so are irrelevant today.’
So is religion irrelevant today?
Norman Bacrac said:
“Atheists were in a tiny minority – even my seconder said he was religious! All the religious societies at the university were out in force. The audience were overwhelmingly pro religion’s relevance, before and after the debate. In my allotted six minutes, I only had time to read out about half of his text – although I got a chance to say a bit more in the Q & A – not that it would have made any difference! Afterwards, several people came up to say they agreed with my points.”
There you have it. According to Bath University members at this debate – religion irrelevant? No!