05 December 2005

How Science shows God to be nonsense.

AC Grayling - lecturer in philosphy at Birkbeck College and fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford.

"I would certainly describe myself as a robust or uncompromising atheist, and I do indeed think that religious belief has been a massively negative force in human history, causing great suffering and conflict, and standing deliberately in the way of most of mankind's efforts at progress, freedom and flourishing. I tremendously value everything good about the human spirit--by which I mean our human genius for art and thought, our enjoyment of beauty, our capacity for love, kindness and fellowship--just as I deeply deprecate our tendency to greed and cruelty. I ascribe neither of these things to supernatural agencies beyond the natural world, and see no reason to think that belief in such things as fairies, goblins, demons, gods and goddesses is in the slightest justified. But the sociological fact of religious belief is inescapable, as its awful record of causing human harm; and that is what I fight against, in hopes of encouraging people to live free of superstition, and to care about their fellow men out of respect for them, and a desire for human flourishing.

Science and religion are direct competitors over all the great questions about the origin of the universe, the question of what it contains, the question whether it has an exogenous purpose, and the question of how it functions. Everything from the various creation myths of various religions to the logical coherence of the idea of miracles is comprehended here and the most rudimentary scientific understanding shows that belief in supernatural agencies and events is nonsense. A simple test demonstrates this: ask yourself what grounds we have for believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden; consider what tests might be supposed to test the hypothesis that such things exist; ask yourself how reasonable it would be to organise your life on the supposition that such fairies exist. The evidential basis of belief in gods and other supernatural forces is no different from this."

Colin McGinn - Philosopher

"[Bertrand] Russell said; there's no more reason to believe in the Christian God than the Greek gods. No more reason to believe - in other words there's no positive evidence for it. There's no theory that you need to postulate God in to explain some natural phenomenon, which can't be explained by some other theory.

A more worrying question for many people is, they don't see that morality can have any foundation, can have any absoluteness, unless there's a god to certify it... legitimate it. That's a... you can see that point. It's a point that was discussed by Plato long ago in the Euthyphro argument. And he makes - well I think - Socrates makes a completely compelling refutation of that argument and it simply goes as follows.

The argument, you see, goes like this: Suppose you take as a moral principle, it's wrong to steal. People say, "Why is it wrong to steal?". Answer - because God says it's wrong to steal. God commanded that you should not steal. OK? The point that Socrates makes in that dialogue is to say, "How can God give this moral rule a foundation? Either the moral rule is intrinsically a sound moral rule, or it can't be given soundness and legitimacy from an external command.". Suppose we had the rule "It's right to murder.". Somebody said, "That's not right! Murder is wrong!". And somebody said in reply, "But God says it's right to murder.". That doesn't convince you that it's right to murder. If God says that something is right which isn't right, God's wrong. He can't make something right just by saying it's right. God can only... what God has to do is reflect what's right in his commandments so that's what he really does. It is wrong to steal. It's wrong to steal and wrong to murder. So God says that it's wrong and he's right to say that. Why? Because it IS wrong in the two cases! He doesn't make it wrong by saying it. He can't do that. It that were so, we'd have no reason to respect God's morality...

I think people are not as morally depraved as religious tradition says. I think most people will do what's right in normal conditions. They won't always of course, but normally they will. They don't need God. And I think people who sometimes have lived with God as their moral support, their moral whatever it is they're getting from it, when they cease to believe in God, they feel that it was not as difficult to be moral afterwards as they suspected it might be. And in fact it was better, because there's a corrupting part to that conception of God, which is the idea that you're doing something good because God will reward you and think well of you. And that's a corrupting idea. It's much better to do something good because it's good, and only because it's good, and that's your only reason for doing it. But the idea you're going to get the warm fuzzy feeling, "Oh, God's really pleased with me today. I did this.", that's not what morality ought to be about.

...to be called an atheist it's a negative view, and it suggests that one is a sort of professional atheist... you spend your life arguing against God, the way Russell did. And I think that's a rather undignified and pointless procedure. Once you've decided there isn't a god, there's not much point in inveighing against it, unless you think that huge harm is done by the belief in God. But you don't... nobody spends their time trying to prove to others that the Greek gods don't exist. You know, you just decide that they don't, and that's the end of the story for you.

So I like to distinguish atheism from antitheism. Antitheism is opposition to theism. I am an antitheist, because I believe that religion is harmful in human life. So I am an antitheist. I'm not just an atheist who... suddenly, my only values are that I don't agree with it. I'm actively opposed to it. But then I distinguish that from what I call post-theism or post-atheism, which is the healthy state of mind where you've put all that behind you. Now we can't do that yet because there's lots of religion in the world, and lots of bad results of it.

But to me, the ideal society would be one where the question of religion didn't really arise for people, or if it did, it wasn't a heavy question for them. They would say to each other, "You know, those humans used to believe, back there in 2003, some of them believed there was this God and he did this... others didn't and they did TV programs about why they didn't. What a funny debate that was!". So it would be a post-theist society, where it just wasn't an issue."

Stephen Weinberg - Nobel prize winning Physicist.

"It's the tragedy of... knowing that your life and all the wonderful things that you can do and living and the people you love, that that's all going to end. It seems to me that provides the driving force for religion much more than these philosophical wonderings about first cause.

...much of the early basis for religious belief was dissolved by science.

I have one friend, a very distinguished astrophysicist, who told me that he is an orthodox, observant Jew - which is a lot of trouble, that's not easy - and doesn't believe in God. Because, for him, the religion is a framework for life that he inherited from his parents. He grew up with it. He wants to stay in it. But he doesn't think there's anything behind it. I think probably a fair number of people in the Church of England feel that way.

I think enormous harm is done by religion - not just in the name of religion, but actually by religion

You know, I know many people who say they're religious and go to church every Sunday and belong to church organisations, and then when you talk to them and you ask them, "Do you really think that after death this is going to happen?" they say, "I've no idea, I don't know, it's all a mystery, but I think it's good to be religious. This is the faith I grew up with.". As a physicist, you have to decide what you think is true and you get in the habit of that kind of intellectual activity because if you work on the wrong theory and it isn't true you have wasted your professional time, and you keep having to make judgements of truth or falsity, and or truth becomes very important to you. For most people truth is not as important as good behaviour, or loyalty to your ethnic group, or loyalty to your family traditions, and truth is something that you don't worry about very much.

Many people do simply awful things out of sincere religious belief, not using religion as a cover the way that Saddam Hussein may have done, but really because they believe that this is what God wants them to do, going all the way back to Abraham being willing to sacrifice Issac because God told him to do that. Putting God ahead of humanity is a terrible thing.

I have a friend - or had a friend, now dead - Abdul Salam, a very devout Muslim, who was trying to bring science into the universities in the Gulf states and he told me that he had a terrible time because, although they were very receptive to technology, they felt that science would be a corrosive to religious belief, and they were worried about it... and damn it, I think they were right. It is corrosive of religious belief, and it's a good thing too.

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." (Washington, D.C., April 1999)


  1. Hello again Neil,

    thank you for this most recent offering, which I assume is your attempt to insult the intelligence, beliefs and humanity of the readers brought to your blog by those who criticise you in the comments pages.

    I have a lot of respect for Colin McGinn, after all, I once organised a conference in his honour (and indeed briefly messed up the poor man's accommodation arrangements), but I am not going to go so far as to concur with his morality-centric view of religion as expressed here in a quotation from 2003. Weinberg mentions that social framework role played in the life of his friend the observant Orthodox Jewish atheist, and that's obviously important too, but I think it's the comforting effect of providing some source of reassurance about metaphysics ("don't worry, you're more than just a bunch of carbon atoms, you're possessed of an immortal soul (Plato) with a resurrectible body (C of England) which will have hot sex with virgins in the afterlife (Islam)") which means that religion plays such an important role in the majority of people's lives.

    Once again, there is never any quotation, reference, article or citation that you proffer but you feel yourself to have found therein some justification for the view you advance, and accord it conclusive proof of your contention. And once again, you are found to have misrepresented your sources. Your title is: "How Science shows God to be nonsense", but the three quotations don't advance that view at all, do they, Neil? McGinn is talking about the authority for particular moral injunctions, and how he thinks that God is the outcome rather than the source thereof. Weinberg says science undermines religious faith, not that it shows anything. Grayling barely touches on the subject.

    These people aren't saying what you're saying they're saying. Why do you keep doing it?

    Sure there are claims about the material universe which religion makes which can be disproved, like the creation myth of Judaeo-Christian tradition. But those are the slum dwellers of religious tenets. Most of the claims of religion aren't about the material world, they're about moral and metaphysical questions which can't be determined empirically.

    Please, please, before you insult anyone else, read David Stove's "What is wrong with our thoughts?". Stove had as aversive and allergic a reaction to religion as you do (or indeed, as you do to the middle class, inequality, conservatism, war memorials, etc), but he reserved his sharpest scorn for the intellectuals and hypocrites who were pushing certain doctrines, not the people who used religion as a way of coping with the intolerable world around them (the way others use alcohol or drugs). Stove's essay is a superb read, and manages to be offensive to practically everyone who's ever lived, but leaves one feeling much better.

  2. "Grayling barely touches on the subject."

    "the most rudimentary scientific understanding shows that belief in supernatural agencies and events is nonsense. A simple test demonstrates this: ask yourself what grounds we have for believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden; consider what tests might be supposed to test the hypothesis that such things exist; ask yourself how reasonable it would be to organise your life on the supposition that such fairies exist. The evidential basis of belief in gods and other supernatural forces is no different from this."

  3. "Stove had as aversive and allergic a reaction to religion as you do (or indeed, as you do to the middle class, inequality, conservatism, war memorials, etc)"

    I can't remember ever slagging off war memorials.

    I consider myself middle class (maybe), so when I criticise the middle class I am just pointing out the unfair control they have over the levers of power, it is not a criticism with any real malice.

    As for criticising inequality and the forces of conservatism and religion that perpetuate it, I don't see what's wrong in criticising these anti-progressive things.

  4. Martin beat me to it, but I'd just add - it's strange that an atheist socialist feels such a need to justify his position by appeals to authority.

    (Again, Grayling's point rests on a caricature of religion; it's not worth the effort.)

  5. No, please Blimpish, make the effort. I'm not appealing to authority, just quoting reasoned arguments. Explain how Grayling's point is a caricature?

  6. (the war memorials thing was a joke)