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Gods Truth

Philosophical Reflections XXVIII

Part A: In the Beginning

Philosophical Reflections has been about developing philosophy from the perspective of looking at the world for answers to the basic questions of what reality is, how we know things, how we should live, and the meaning of life.

Many of these questions have traditionally been the province of religion, yet up until now, religion has had only peripheral mention. I propose that the reason for this is simple: if you seek truth by looking at reality, you will never reach religion. However, religion is obviously a major force in human history and modern politics, so needs to be addressed explicitly.

The Edge of Reality

The essence of religion is belief in the supernatural. Religion always involves belief in something beyond this world, whether it be manlike beings on Mount Olympus with magical powers, the omniscient, omnipotent God of Christianity, or the mystical Nirvana of Buddhism. Given that the supernatural is by definition not to be found in the natural world, from whence did such beliefs arise?

Religion stems from the same needs as philosophy, and is indeed a form of philosophy. As thinking beings who choose our values and actions, we need to understand the world, ourselves, and how we should act in the world. Also, religious feelings plainly exist in our souls: the hunger for meaning in life, the desire for something great to aspire to, the need for someone or something to look up to. While some may discount such feelings with a cynical sneer at their childishness, practically everyone has felt them at some stage of their lives.

But the question is: is religion the answer? And my answer is: no.

As an explanation of the world, it is easy to see where religion came from, and where its error lies. People see the phenomena of the natural world: storms, wind, volcanoes, birth, growth, death. People have volition, and cause things to happen: and when seeking causes, the fundamental basis and error of religion has always been assigning such volition and purpose to natural phenomena. This can be seen in its most basic form in the animism and idols of primitive religions; in a more abstracted and humanised form in the meddling, capricious gods of Olympus; and in ultimate form in the omnipotent creator, omnipresent world-ruler and final moral judge of the Judaeo-Christian God.

The Slippery Slope

From such beginnings, the fate of religion is sealed.

As natural phenomena are natural and not in fact based on the volition of trees or stars, the supposed entities responsible must be supernatural. But unlike the natural world, which is open to all of us via our senses, by definition the supernatural is inaccessible to direct perception.

So how do we know about it? When we cannot see or hear them, how do we know which gods or demons are responsible for what phenomena, what they want, and how to curry their favour or avoid their anger? This problem is the origin of the second defining quality of religion: belief in mystical sources of knowledge.

As there is and can be no objective evidence for things that are beyond sensing, belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to subjectivism, the taking of internal feelings as evidence about external reality. Thus in seeking truth, religion must believe in and encourage mystical experiences. Hence the prevalence of hallucinogenic or consciousness-dissociating methods in religion, from the mescaline in peyote, to the privations of Buddhism, to the ecstasy of the saints.

As there is no objective way to judge "knowledge" that has no objective basis, and as some people are better at it – or better actors – than others, in practice this leads to what I'll call the shaman effect: the acceptance of a certain privileged caste as the link to the gods, the source of divine knowledge, and in consequence, the unquestioned and unquestionable revealers and arbiters of supernatural truth.

Crash and Burn

After that, there is no escape. Instead of reality and reason, knowledge of the most important things – how to know, and how to live – is based on the pronouncements of men, that must be accepted by faith. For if you cannot see the evidence for yourself, faith is all you have to go by.

Historically, and inevitably, this leads to a deadly linkage from which we've suffered throughout human history: the union of shaman and king, religion and government, Church and State, Faith and Force – what Ayn Rand called "Attila and the witch doctor". From the king, the shaman gains the physical power to enforce his edicts against those who'd ignore or oppose them; from the shaman, the king gains divine sanction and the unquestioning loyalty of the faithful. It is neither surprise nor accident that these two powers – the power over men's minds and the power over men's bodies – have been united throughout most of human history. To see the the success of the partnership – for the kings and shamans in this world – one only has to look at the pyramids of Egypt and St Peter's cathedral in Rome. To see who is ultimately the most powerful in this alliance, one only has to look at the fate of Akhenaten, the "heretic Pharaoh" of ancient Egypt.

The misery that has resulted – indirectly from the stifling of progress (a result of the suppression of independent thought and the transfer of wealth from its producers to their non-producing masters) and directly by such means as the Inquisition and the burning of "witches" – is the consequence of the replacement of reason by faith, and rights by force.

Variations

Clearly, religions differ in their details. Buddhism (in its purest forms) has no personified gods – but still has a supernatural Nirvana as its goal, and a mystical "enlightenment" as its ultimate source of knowledge. The Raellians, recently famous for their cloning hoax, have powerful aliens in the place of gods – absent aliens as powerful as gods, whose existence must be accepted on faith in the words of Rael. Christianity and Islam have an all-powerful God with a paradise waiting in the afterlife, all based on scriptures. Some religions stress personal mystical experience, others stress authority (someone else's mystical experiences) as the source of truth. Then there are cults – religions stressing an exclusive path to truth based on slavish obedience to the supreme, arbitrary authority of their particular prophet, with close control over the lives of their adherents.

But in all of these, the belief in the supernatural and in mystical sources of knowledge, the essence of all religion, can be seen. One or other might be downplayed or accentuated in different religions, but all possess them in some form or another.

Superstition

The basic error at the root of religion – the personification of the forces of nature – was understandable. Religion started as an attempt to explain nature, and as human beings became thinking beings, they had no idea of the true nature of the world, or any clear idea of the rules of valid reasoning. From their experience of themselves and their fellow people – who have volition – it was an easy step to assign such volition to other things that "act": especially when the power of storms, lightning, famine and flood exceeded theirs.

Mystical beliefs of any kind flourish in the unknown. In navigation, which was under their control, the Polynesians had an excellent science – but when it came to weather, over which they had no control, superstition reigned supreme. Again, this is not surprising. People want and need control over their environment, as such control is how we live. But while understandable, the resulting superstitions are completely due to errors in inductive reasoning. Where no true control is possible, random associations of events assume the status of truth: "it worked once, so we dare not stop doing it." Such pathological learning has even been shown in birds, where in a variation of the classic conditioning experiments, pigeons were "rewarded" at random. The result was superstitious pigeons, each doing a different arbitrary behaviour over and over again. And yes, from the pigeons' perspective, it worked: if they kept doing it, the food eventually appeared again!

But an excuse in the past is not necessarily an excuse in the present, after the benefit of hundreds of years of scientific progress and a proper understanding of how the world works.

Science does not necessarily or directly address the issue of religion: being based on objective evidence, science merely restricts its purview to the natural world, without making any a priori assertions about a supernatural one beyond its power of investigation. But what the practice of science has shown is that everything has a natural explanation. Attempts to find God in the evidence of nature have been in constant retreat since the advent of systematic science: a "god of the gaps" hiding in an ever-shrinking domain. I shall return to this point when examining the arguments for religion.

Ethics

Religion has had such a monopoly on ethics that many people think you can't have ethics without it. I have heard intelligent people say that you should teach religion to children even if you don't believe it yourself, because there is no other way to give them a moral code. But what kind of ethics can religion produce? As we've seen, religion's concern is not primarily with this world, but with another invisible one; as we've seen, religion's source of knowledge is not what we can see in this world, but the words of men who claim they hear from another one.

The ethics described in Philosophical Reflections is based on observable reality – the nature of the world and the nature of human beings. It is concerned only with this world, with the life and happiness of living human beings – and reason is its tool. Thus there is a huge gulf between such an ethics and religious ethics, a gulf that cannot be bridged.

This does not mean that every precept of religious ethics is wrong or bad. In order to survive, a religion must allow human beings to fill their needs in this world to some extent. However, as its base is fundamentally the words of men taken on faith, instead of the requirements of life as determined by reason, religious ethics is fundamentally arbitrary: commandments to be accepted on faith and obeyed without question.

The choice is not between religious ethics and no ethics, but between arbitrary ethics and objective ethics.