Sunday 27 May 2007

My problem with God

Since my rejection of the God Hypothesis -- at age 14 or 15 -- I had, and still have, one major problem with the whole business of religion (and Christianity in particular, but that's probably because I was brought up Anglican).

My mother wanted me to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England. I had in previous years shown signs of a religious turn of mind, though I don't think her insistence that I went to Sunday School had much to do with that. Mum has herself been a Sunday School teacher, and so I was sent to the Sunday School at our local Methodist church, which took place after the church service. We were an Anglican family, but my parents didn't like the local Anglican church as it was too 'high'. It was also farther away.

I don't think Sunday School had any effect on me whatever. I can remember only three things about it. The first, and most lasting, is that there was an older boy in the group whose presence there seemed quite incongruous, as he was an obnoxious bully.

The second thing I remember was a temporary teacher we had one Sunday who, after the 'lesson' (of which, naturally, I remember not a thing) he attempted to be 'matey' with us by asking if we'd been watching anything good on 'telly' -- a slang word for TV that my parents abhorred. I remember being quite shocked (yes, I was that prissy back then).

The third memory is of an actual lesson. Maybe because it was in the form of allegory the lesson has stuck with me. It was a story about some crabs, who went to special classes every Sunday to learn how to walk forwards instead of sideways. With practice these crabs became quite good at walking forwards. But their teacher discovered that during the rest of each week they continued to walk sideways, only walking forwards during their Sunday lessons, and she admonished them for not taking their new expertise into their everyday lives.

And that's it. With some suitable prodding I could perhaps remember something else about my Sunday School classes (which seemed to go on for years and years), but for now that's all I can recall. Eventually I stopped going. I don't remember what prompted the end of my attendance.

It was much later that my mother suggested I be confirmed, which caused me to voice the doubts that had surfaced gradually since I stopped going to Sunday School. Nevertheless I agreed to attend 'catechism class' one-on-one with our local vicar.

It became fairly clear to me during my confirmation classes that my doubts about the existence of an all-powerful, all-seeing, invisible supreme being who could hear my thoughts were not going to be refuted by anything the vicar was likely to say to me. The clincher was his woolly-minded agreement to confirm me even after I told him that nothing he had said to me or given me to read had lessened my doubts. I politely declined his offer.

But I wanted to believe. The vicar's inability to provide a sound reason (such as, for instance, evidence) for belief in God left me with the conviction that clerics were not best placed to provide rational arguments and I should look to philosophy. So I read Descartes. He seemed to be promising a reasoned proof of the existence of God, and I was quite impressed by his methodology. His argument, however, stank. And so I moved on. But every 'proof' I encountered from then on was no such thing, only making me surer than ever that the whole God-thing was a man-made artefact conjured out of an understandable fear of the unknown.

I'd thought about the question a great deal. I'd done some research. I considered that I'd given the God Hypothesis a fair hearing, and it had failed to deliver. That, I thought, was the end of it.

But it wasn't. There remained this one problem. I don't pretend to be a great philosophical thinker. My research wasn't exhaustive. So I don't consider that I've covered every aspect of whether or not God exists. But I do consider that I investigated the question sufficiently enough to come to a conclusion, a conclusion with sufficient probability of being correct -- of being true.

The problem that remains is this. With moderate thinking and rudimentary research I came to a conclusion that I think anyone would come to if they had done the same. Yet millions continue to believe (or at least say they believe) in the existence of God. Not only that, but they also subscribe to some very specific and often idiotic notions about this supposed deity. Just look at scripture and you'll find some very weird things. Which scripture you look at doesn't really matter, but that brings me to the next absurdity. Which particular set of idiotic notions do you subscribe to if you're of a religious bent? They can't all be right, because they patently contradict each other.

It's not just the millions of believers that cause me concern, it's also the smaller number among my family, acquaintances and colleagues. They appear to hold beliefs about the nature of existence, the nature of the universe, the nature of physical reality, that are fundamental to how one conducts oneself in life. How can you expect to have a rational conversation -- about anything -- with someone who believes things that are so obviously irrational?

I do wonder how many professed Anglicans actually believe in the personal God of the Bible. I even wonder if Archbishop Rowan Williams believes in the personal God of the Bible. As the established church, the Church of England seems to me such a watered-down version of faith -- as if those who write 'C of E' on their census forms have less conviction than those who write 'Jedi Knight'.

There's not much chance of finding out, either. 'Faith' in England is seen as a personal matter, not to be discussed in polite society (except maybe on Sunday, at church, and then only on special dispensation, with a kind of hesitant apology). And yet the established church pervades UK society, nonetheless. Tune in to the BBC's Today Programme on Radio 4 every weekday and you'll hear Thought For The Day, which more often than not is an irrelevant collection of platitudes laced with the arrant nonsense of some kind of professed faith.

I'm glad we're at last seeing some attempt to expose the irrational aspects of faith. The publication of Richard Dawkins' bestseller The God Delusion has brought media attention to those who do not believe in God, and it has given discussion of atheism much-needed perceived legitimacy. Such discussion in the UK has generally been fairly mild, in comparison to some truly awful TV discussions in the US that you can find on YouTube -- especially those broadcast on Fox. Cringe-making for other reasons is this brief interview of Richard Dawkins by Bill O'Reilly of Fox News:

Direct link to YouTube video:

Professor Dawkins does well not to grab his interviewer warmly by the throat in an attempt to throttle some sense into him.

(One of the things I find particularly annoying about debates between atheists and theists -- especially the evangelical Christian kind of theists -- is the evangelists' fall-back position. After unsuccessfully attempting to debate atheists using various invalid arguments, such as the Argument from Personal Experience, or the Argument from Design, the evangelist will say something like this: "All you need to do is accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Saviour -- then you will be given all the proof you need." It's a sort of trap. Accept something without evidence. Believe it. Then you will be given proof. But of course at that stage you're already a believer. What need have you of proof? That is the very definition of faith. It's also a delusion.)


  1. "How can you expect to have a rational conversation -- about anything -- with someone who believes things that are so obviously irrational?

    Hey Paul,

    I agree with you on this point. How can you possibly have a rational conversation with an atheist who believes all manner of absurd things and generally seems unaware of why these things are absurd or at least deeply problematic.

    Dawkins is a paradigm example of this behavior as was PZ when I talked to him.