by John Boaler
Many books have been written about when and why their authors began to question the truth of the religion they had grown up with, and how they subsequently lost their faith and became atheists. Their personal testimony is often powerful and persuasive.
My starting point is less common. I have never had a religion. I have never believed in God. I never had a faith to lose.
The title I have given this short essay is a deliberate echo of Bertrand Russell’s famous lecture from 1927 ‘Why I am Not a Christian’ (first published in 1957, and in paperback by Allen & Unwin – 1967). My references are all to Christianity – I don’t know enough about other religions to comment on them.
The origin of religious faith
Religious faith is geographical and familial. It is almost entirely determined by where you are born and how you are brought up. Most people do not choose their religion.
To me all religions are forms of superstition and any belief in supernatural phenomena is irrational and unscientific.
I therefore reject not just God, but all gods, goddesses and deities; Satan, angels, devils and demons; limbo and purgatory; all versions of heaven and hell; ideas of holiness, grace and divinity; religious vocation and the efficacy of prayer; souls, spirituality and metaphysics; saints, exorcism, visions and holy relics; reincarnation, metempsychosis; revelation, miracles and mysticism.
I reject also necromancy and occultism; witches, witchcraft, wizards, sorcery, spells, curses and the evil eye; ghosts, hauntings, wraiths, poltergeists, spectres, spooks, phantoms, zombies and revenants; gremlins, imps, sprites, goblins and laprechauns; astrology and horoscopes; mediums, second-sight, bimetallism and telepathy; auguries, oracles, portents, destiny, providence and fate; tea-leaf reading, tarot cards, palmistry – and all other forms fortune-telling; and magic.
And I reject too faith healing, homeopathy and alternative medicine; reiki, reflexology, cranio-sacral therapy and detox diets; crystal and magnetic healing and psychic medicine; dowsing and rain dances; wishbones, charms, amulets, talismans and good luck derived from the left hind feet of rabbits killed in cemeteries at midnight on Friday 13th etc, etc, etc.
In short I reject all superstitious beliefs and all behaviours and everything and anything that might be described as paranormal or is wholly unsupported by science. Critical thinking is our surest protection against credulity and gullibility.
I am a sceptic. I am loth to believe things without convincing evidence. I am not willing to outsource my reasoning to others. Christianity expects its adherents to take on trust as holy writ a collection of writings 2-3,000 year old, and let these guide and determine many aspects of their lives. The Old Testament listed 10 Commandments, but there was not room on that tablet of stone for the all important 11th Commandment – ‘Thou Shalt Not Question’.
Heaven and Hell
To me the concept of eternal life – that we could spend the rest of time, trillions upon trillions of years, in Paradise if we lead a good enough life, is ludicrous.
Our knowledge of life on Earth is that everything dies and will turn to dust. We had no life before we were born, and will have none once we dead. Can two Christians be found who agree on the nature of Heaven and how eternity would be spent? I certainly am not enticed by the prospect of worshipping God until the end of time. Why does their God need perpetual adulation? The thought of happy-clappy hymn singing and chants of ‘Praise the Lord – Alleluia’ until the end of time (for ever and ever, amen) even with the accompaniment of the most melodious harp music, played by ethereal angels, is not at all an attractive prospect. Indeed if Heaven is envisaged as some version of this, then it is itself just another representation of Hell.
I don’t suppose two Christians can be found either who agree on what Hell is like. There have been some lurid and horrifying descriptions in literature (eg. Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost’) and in numerous hellfire sermons (I think of the one in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’). Some preachers seem to take pleasure in spelling out the horrors that await all sinners for the rest of time – though most of their detail comes not from the Bible but from Biblical commentators or their own fevered imaginations.
The more you probe and interrogate notions of an after-life, ideas of salvation and damnation, and concepts of Heaven and Hell, the less plausible these all quickly become.
The Christian concept of Salvation – the selection of some for eternal life – relies more on whether one followed closely enough the precepts of a particular religion or sect than whether you led a good and blameless life on Earth. For many Christians it’s about being a signed up member of the right church – the one ‘true religion’ – for the adherents of which places are reserved in Heaven. I’m not sure any faith groups countenance admittance to Heaven for non-believers, regardless of whether these individuals have led patently good lives, and been selfless, kind, helpful, honest, trustworthy etc. There is no access to Heaven for those who didn’t believe in God.
I have never understood why an all-loving God feels it necessary to inflict eternal suffering on anyone? We limit our prison sentences and believe in redemption. Seemingly God doesn’t. And while murder might deserve a life sentence, why should worshipping ‘a false idol’ or failing to ‘keep the Sabbath holy’ merit an eternal sentence?
There are apparently about 4,000 religions, faith groups and denominations across the world and if there is just one true path to salvation, then the vast majority of religious believers have got it wrong and are trapped in a downward elevator to Hell.
The dogmatic assertion that there is only one true religion, and so one right way to lead one’s life, is arrogant and risks feeding disdain and even hostility towards those who worship the same God differently, believe in a different God, or just don’t believe in God. One has only to recall the Crusades and the Inquisition to see where this led some fervent believers in past centuries. For them it was not enough to believe that they were right: they regarded those who disagreed with them as heretics and routinely and readily tortured and murdered them.
During the Reformation wars that broke out in Europe between those who believed in Consubstantiation (that the communion wine and wafer were purely symbolic of Christ’s blood and flesh) and those who believed in Transubstantiation (that the wine and wafer at the moment of communion physically changed into Christ’s blood and flesh). Such importance did the rival camps attach to their own belief that they were willing to fight to the death those who did not agree with them.
Anti-semitism ran deep in Christian Europe. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, recently wrote in the New Statesman ‘The Holocaust was made possible by the shameful legacy of centuries of Christian myth-making.’ Until the Catholic Relief Act (1829) Catholics in Britain had no civic or political rights. Christianity has a long history of violence and intolerance.
Some Christian groups believe the Earth is no more than about 8,000 years old despite sound and indisputable geological evidence that it is several thousand million years old. In denying this truth these ‘fundamentalists’ open themselves to mockery. Some of these same Christian groups also take the story of the creation of man, as related in Genesis, to be factually true. It is irrational to put your trust in science when it comes to having surgery, doing on-line banking or travelling by plane, but then reject other equally well established science that proves the Earth is thousands of millions of years old, or that life on Earth, including mankind, has evolved over hundreds of millions of years, just because a line or two in the Bible tells it differently – lines written 2-3 millennia ago when understanding of planet Earth was primitive and not scientifically-based.
Similarly the causes of thunder and lightning, droughts, floods, plagues etc were not understood in Biblical times, and these were often interpreted as punishments by God for man’s sins and faithlessness. There are many examples of this in the Old Testament. Now that we do understand the causes of these phenomena it is daft to stick with those ancient explanations.
The Bible puts the Earth is at the centre of the universe – when it is not even at the centre of our comparatively tiny solar system. Galileo was threatened by the Inquisition with torture for propounding this view, and the Catholic Church banned his writings on this for 200 years. Religion has never been on the side of scientific progress.
Darwin’s Theory of Evolution similarly was denounced by many theologians. They clung to the Biblical story of creation in the face of his detailed scientific investigations, which proved that plants and animals adapt to their environments and change over time.
Our morality does not rest on the 10 Commandments. Pre-Christian societies, such as the city state of Athens and imperial Rome outlawed and punished murder and theft. Remember that 4 of the top ten laws – no gods before me, worship no idols, not to take the Lord’s name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy – are in no way related to morality. Given that God chose just 10 Commandments to present to Moses, it is strange that these 4 took precedence over eg:
Thou shalt not bully, threaten or abuse others.
Thou shalt not lie or cheat.
Thou shalt not discriminate against people because of their race, sex or age.
Though shalt not act selfishly.
Thou shalt not do anything to excess (as the Greek oracle at Delphi said)
Unfounded belief is never a good foundation. Neither is false hope. We need to think for ourselves – and not surrender this responsibility to others. We must keep our critical faculties sharp, and always question whatever seems improbable and implausible. And if we do, we are very unlikely to be into deceived and fooled into religious faith or superstitious belief.