Some Stupid Arguments FOR God

I can’t believe just how often people come out with the dimmest arguments for God. Now, actually there are some good arguments for God, but they are not cheap remarks. I frequently debate matters of God with all sorts of people. The theists do occasionally make you think. But many theists seem to think that some of the following make good arguments. I shall dispose of each of them now.

1. 76% of people believe in God

I’ve frequently encountered this whilst corresponding with right-wing American nutters. It’s not an argument. It’s a statement of fact. If it even is a fact (the quoted figure is often different and not properly referenced). As though it needed saying: just because any particular number of people believe in something doesn’t make it true. People used to think that the earth was flat. They used to think in droves that miasma transmits plague. Many used to believe in slavery. Many believed Hitler… and so on…

2. Without God everything is permitted.

This is the argument from Dostoyevsky. Except it’s not an argument. It is an assertion. In fact, hardly more than a worry. And an unsubstantiated one. You see, it all depends on what you mean permitted. I am not “permitted” to go and kill anyone; the law of the country I live in prohibits it. But of course the theist means “permitted” in the sense that the universe contains no intrinsic moral code or justice whose source is above humanity. Well, firstly that’s true. There is no evidence for such a thing. It is obvious that many of the most grotesque evil-doers don’t get punished for their crimes (think Stalin for example). So the theist moves to metaphysics: people get punished for bad deeds in the afterlife. Except there’s no evidence for an afterlife, so you have to go on faith again. Which is what the original statement above is an expression of anyway. Not an argument.

3. The world’s worst killers on the planet, Stalin and Mao, were atheists.

True. But they didn’t murder for atheism. They murdered for power and for fanaticism. Denying the idea of God doesn’t lead to genocide. On the other hand, asserting that your moral code is the one God means for humanity to abide by is exclusivist and dangerous if it is imposed by force. For a discussion of why the “which is worse, atheism or theism” debate is a complete waste of time, read my entry here: Is Religion Evil? An Interminable Debate… But even if Stalin and Mao did murder for atheism’s sake (which they didn’t) that still does not imply God exists.

4. Atheism produces bad art/music/culture

I recently read this on an orthodox Christian blog. Of course what constitutes “bad” art is a matter of opinion, not of objective fact. I, or anyone else, is equally entitled to think religious art is bad (dreary mass music, dull figures in frescos). Of course I don’t think religious art is always bad. But it is a question of opinion. So it is not objectively true that atheism produces bad art/music and culture. Though even if it did, that would still not be a reason to believe in God.

Imagine applying that reasoning the other way: I don’ t like Bach’s Mass in B minor. Religious music is bad. Bach didn’t believe in unicorns. Therefore I will believe in unicorns.

On this logic, the addition of opinion and taste to metaphysical entities results in the justified belief in anything you like! God included.

In any case, many people who say that “atheism produces bad art/music/literature” actually mean that they think secularism or humanism do, not atheism. Atheism, as the etymology of the word indicates, is “without god(s)”. It is just the position that there is no sufficient reason to believe in God. It is not a movement or an ideology. Just a conclusion based on arguments offered by theism. It is a reaction to theism, not a rival for cultural space. Humanism and secularism are different to mere atheism.

5. Morality comes from God

Now, I’ve tackled this already, but I want to look at it from a different angle.

This argument is most often offered by fanatic Christians who assert the literal truth of the Old Testament (of all things!). Though I dare say most Jews and Muslims will also believe their moral code is divinely given. And that’s half the problem! For they can’t all be right. Not to mention the inherent danger in believing you can interpret the word of God as to how everyone should behave. That’s how you get such inhumane things as Sharia law in Saudi Arabia. Believing you are in possession of the holy moral code and have God’s backing is a dangerous thing.

In any case, consider this: How did people make it to the base of Mount Sinai for Moses to receive the ten commandments without everyone killing each other before hand? Did they get there and find out that murder, infidelity and theft were all bad of all a sudden? “What do you mean we can’t do that stuff anymore?” they exclaimed horrified when they saw the tablets.

Of course this is rubbish. A society to exist must have rules by which it is structured. And that must have happened before the ten commandments were handed invented. Morality is not God-given. It is human in origins. In fact, some animals have it too. Bonobos and Chimps are easily observed to have moral codes.

6. “Intelligent Design”

Or as I like to write it, “Intelligent” Design; both parts of the phrase are wrong (the world is not designed, and much less by anything intelligent).

Creationism is the primitive’s answer to where the world came from. The “Intelligent” Design movement revamped the arguments, drawing for inspiration from William Paley’s Natural Theology. The idea is that such things as humans, the diversity of species, complex organs and so on are too complex and serve their purpose so well that they couldn’t have happened by chance.

To assert such nonsense you have to deny Evolution or Darwinism. And that means having to be quite ignorant of scientific evidence. Some “Intelligent” Designers claim that Evolution is not even a scientific theory since it can’t predict what future species will evolve (and is therefore untestable). That takes quite some ignorance of what a scientific theory is. People who are inclined to think this way should see my entry here: What To Show Someone Who Believes In “Intelligent” Design

There are even those who would say that the Earth is created some 6,000-10,000 years ago. They are completely wrong. These people have to work very hard to keep at bay reality and scientific evidence, including geology, paleontology, carbon dating, and so on. The way they get the age of the earth to be so small is they add up all the ages of all the people in the Bible, starting at the end. They work backwards to Genesis and thus figure out when the world must have been created by God. You can demonstrate that the world is older than this merely by adding up the rings in tree trunks (an extra ring is added every year to a tree).

If you need further convincing, read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_earth_creationism#Origins

Did a loving God “intelligently” create the appendix? People’s backs aren’t well enough adjusted for walking upright (which is why many people suffer from back pain in their life) – is this God’s “intelligent” dealings? If men are intelligently designed, why do they get prostate trouble in their later years? Why do so many people choke each year, when you could easily have eating and breathing orifices separate (even in mammals; whales have this)?

There’s neither a creator, nor is he intelligent, nor are the people who believe the opposite. Or at the very least they’re ignorant.

7. The Ontological and Cosmological Arguments

The ontological argument is laughable. See here: The Ontological Argument

The Cosmological argument needs an infinite regress of causes, which in turn also demands an explanation. The debate is rather circular. An interesting debate between Betrand Russell and Father Copplestone in Why I Am Not A Christian discusses this. There is a plethora of publications on this topic. But the argument has hardly convinced philosophy to adopt theism as a result.

Final remark:

Even if any of the arguments above did show that God must exist, which God would it be? The Christian God? Allah? Jahweh? Zeus? Take “Intelligent” Design: God created the eye. Ok. Let’s say that’s true. How does that get to become “Jesus died for my sins”?

It doesn’t.

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Thoughts On Circumcision

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Creation is perfect, since God is perfect, all-knowing and omnicompetent. And yet human children must be surgically augmented to please him. Did he make a mistake when he “designed” them? Obviously, Godmust be pleased at seeing the scalpel taken to the prepuce of an infant. Though what kind of mind rejoices at such an undertaking? Yet it must be some sort of a priority for God. Perhaps he relaxes safe in the knowledge that the earthly interpreters of his word are serving him well in the struggle against the foreskin and clitoris!

The moronic and dangerous conviction that religious practice, merely because it is religious, should be left outside of the field of scrutiny and criticism implies that razor-wielding child-molesters, although God-fearing ones – ought to proceed unimpeded. If you mutilate the child, that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s fine. What refined ethics!

Genital mutilation is harmful physiologically and psychologically, never mind whatever dogmatic “revelation” nonsense-merchants peddle in temples and mosques (not to mention the innumerable and utterly unsafe instances of genital mutilation that occur in Africa every day). Spare a thought for the child, bleeding, in pain, stripped of dignity and robbed of the chance later in life to fulfil her natural and human urge to enjoy her own body. All this at great risk of infection and long-lived (if not permanent) psychological trauma. It’s ok though, because as long as she bows to the God in whose name this crime is carved into her life, perhaps with so crude an instrument as a sharp stone, she will be saved.

http://www.womenatrisk.org.uk/vw3.html (US)

http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/key-issues/fgm/human-rights (UK)

I’ve little doubt the mutilation of sexual organs by the pious, without, incidentally, the consent of their victims, is fuelled by the perpetrators own repression. Religion, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have all a grotesque record of suppressing, repressing and demonising sexual practice. That revered Jewish sage Maimonides stated explicitly what it was all about:

“With regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet state as possible. It has been through that circumcision perfects what is defective congenitally… In fact this commandment has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally. The bodily pain caused to that member is teh real purpose of circumcision… The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened.”

Thus we see the baby is born in a state of moral arrears that can only be paid for with mutilation. Mutilation to subtract the natural mating instinct for later on in adulthood. For mating, of course, as all of nature testifies, is abhorrent and must be avoided, and, if it is unavoidable, it must not be enjoyed! That’s not why God made the nether regions so easy to arouse! No! It is so as to test the skill of the pious quack; every orgasm surely betrays his incompetence in extirpating that unholy sexual impulse!

The fact of it is this: we are mammals. Mammals reproduce sexually. By nature. And in our case it can be a fulfilling and healthy activity. If you don’t agree with this part of God’s immaculate work, take it up with him, not with children’s genitalia.

It is circumcision, not sex that ought to be taboo.

Thoughts on Religion and Democracy

Religious tensions in the Middle East are a palpable truth of the region’s realpolitik. Frequently, atheists or humanists (or people adhering to both views) will contend that religion is the source of much (if not all) of the unrest in the world’s political makup, and that, if only religion would be abolished, the world would be a better place. Such arguments are made on the back of claims that religion is either wholly or for the most part irrational, untestable, unverifiable, and a uniquely potent driver towards violence. In short, a mechanism by which people drive themselves to conflict with others, rather than a force for harmony. The argument is interminable and often misguided. But regardless of whether either party is right, which one that may be, or whether both are mistaken, a related problem remains.

The United States is unique in that it is the sole country on the planet (and readers may correct me) in whose constitution the separation of Church and States is enshrined as a principle by which the affairs of the nation ought to be run healthily. The violation of that is in evidence with every word a US political figure utters in public support for his religion (invariably Christianity) and with the never ending court cases relating to the Decalogue being proclaimed on court walls and the teaching of “intelligent” design in schools. So it is a far from perfect system, even by its own criteria. But at least the sentiment is there in that political scripture: state and church are not to mix.

In countries permitting rule based on religious ideology, things are seen to faulter. An obvious example is the Taliban, whose fundamentalist Islamic actions represseed women, freedom, education and so many values that sane and rational people would hold dear. In Saudi Arabia, religous expression through government leads to a totalitarian rule. Note, incidentally, the hypocrisy of the western “liberators” and democracy bringers: they side with Saudi against terrorism, neglecting to mention that Saudi is itself implicated in it. This is not a staunch defence of democracy, but a staunch defence of the west interests. One fundamentalist group may be sacrificed and another befriended.

George Bush’s religious convictions may play to the tastes of his right-wing conservative god-fearing fans, but the rest of the world is worried, not only on account of the violation of the Church and State principle the US is failing to uphold, but also on account of the unaccountability of God. Democracy’s most treasured principle relates to the accountability of leadership and representation; people are to decide and it is to people that leaders are supposed to be accountable. Yet a leader who elevates God above the electorate surely sacrifices democracy at the same altar. No longer does the popular will suffice – policy decisions are to be ratified in a dialogue with the divine.

And in this way, religion undermines political ideals. American conservatives will shout at this till they’re blue in the face, but it is a fact. A president accountable only to the Lord, puts the people he serves second.

In Britain secular tradition extends deeper, despite the lack of a constitutional divide between faith and government. Britain has never shied away from producing the likes of David Hume, Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins as intellectual luminaries. It is for this reason that it was all the more shocking to discover, part-way through Blair’s premiership, that some of his convictions had their origins in religious belief. To appeal to religion for guidance is, however wise the passages of holy texts may be, to appeal to a source whose reasons are not accountable to the public will. And therefore, it is to mimic the retrograde ideologies of the very religious extremists modern US-UK policy seems bent on destroying (it’s link to such regimes as Saudi notwithstanding), and to undermine democracy.

Religious influence over political affairs and the ideal of democracy are not compatible.

Please watch the BBC’s coverage of Tony Blair’s admission that God guided him through parts of his own decision making processes during the last 10 years. Of particular interest should be his conviction that he will be judged by “other people” at the end of his tenure (perhaps on earth). Since the end of his premiership, speculation has arisen on Blair’s intention to convert to Catholicism.

Responsibility In a Nuclear Age

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Famously, after the war he recounted his impressions of the bomb’s invention by quoting the Bhagavad Gita whilst trying to hold back tears on television.

In his book Heresies, John Gray reminds us that science is not the answer to mankind’s existential woes or spiritual shortcomings, nor an advance in its will to do good either; it merely amplifies our capacity to express these. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The video above should remind us of the responsibility mankind has in handling the fruits of scientific enterprise. The 42nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up in August.

 

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The picture above is a photograph taken of the first nuclear bomb test at The Manhattan Project. It was named Trinity by Oppenheimer.

In a 6-part series called Pandora’s Box, film-maker Adam Curtis has explored the continuing desire of mankind to fall for the illusion that scientific progress equates to progress for mankind on other levels. The theme of this unwarranted belief in science is explored in the last episode of the series, “A is for Atom”, in which Curtis examines mankind’s custody of nuclear capacity and the hope its discovery brought.

 

Why Marijuana Should Not Be Reclassified but Declassified

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The perennial debate about the classification of drugs has again turned to the status of cannabis (marijuana). The UK’s Misuse Of Drugs Act 1971 catergorised “controlled substances” into three groups in descending order of severity: A, B and C. Thus Class A contains heroin, cocaine and MDMA (ecstasy); anorectics and mild stimulants find themselves in Class B and Class C enjoys such members as cannabis and ketamine (a horse tranquiliser). The categories persist to this day, though with various bolted-on caveats. For instance, temazepam is in Class C, but upgraded to Class A if prepared for injection. Cannabis is currently Class C, having been demoted in the recent past (2004) from its lofty flight with the Bs. And so on. Needless to mention, Class A attracts the most severe legal penalties, whether for possession or supply. A rough guide to what a transgression of the law might result in is given below in summary form:

Offence Court Class A Class B Class C
Possession Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2500 fine 3 months / £500 fine
Crown 7 years / unlimited fine 5 years / unlimited fine 2 years / unlimited fine
Supply Magistrates 6 months / £5000 fine 6 months / £5000 fine 3 months / £2000 fine
Crown Life / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine 14 years / unlimited fine

Most recently, on the back of new evidence concerning the “harmful effects” of cannabis on its consumers, the UK government has proposed to move the drug back into Category B.

Evermore obviously the boundary between the government’s responsibility to protect the public as opposed to blatantly invigilate it is being erroded, and the persistent call to expend masses of energy in auditing the wisdom of shifting marijuana from one contrived legal category to another does nothing but produce hot guff at the tax-payer’s expense. Of course quite a pretty rant on the government’s approach to civil liberties as a whole might be launched from here, but I’ll spare that pleasure for another day.

Briefly, however, I do not see any legitimate reason the government or any authority could give to justify a prohibition on people from ingesting or inhaling anything. A private individual’s body and mind are not the property of the state, nor should they be.

On the 19th July 2007 Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, revealed to the public that she smoked cannabis at university herself. She was quick to repeat just how “wrong” it was. Presumably, she means that it was illegal (legality and morality do not necessarily – and frequently don’t – correlate). Her name ranks amongst several senior government officials who have admitted to using cannabis. Should we fear the correlation becoming any stronger? One would hate to add becoming an MP to the list of ceaselessly advertised ill-effects resulting from using weed.

What ought to irk the public is the “argument from harm”. The spread of available medical studies on the topic affords no conclusive support of the thesis that cannabis is harmful in all (or possibly even most) of the suggested respects. It is true that correlations between the onset of schizophrenia or depression and cannabis have been found in smokers from particular social or ethnic groups. For example, teenagers have been found to increase their risk of future depression or anxiety if they smoke marijuana. With respect to cancer, the results are inconclusive, with some studies affirming that anti-tumour defence is impaired by its use whilst others claim that no such link is observed. Certainly in a culture exercised by scrutinising the effects of illegal substances, however, we seemingly need frequent reminders that the three biggest legal drugs are certainly no less harmful. The trio of alcohol, nicotine and tobacco all enjoy notoriety for their ability to induce dependence. Nicotine is particularly pernicious since its effects spread to those immediately in the vicinity of the smoker (an effect recent prohibition on smoking in public places rightly seeks to irradicate). Where this happens in households with small children for example it is particularly harmful and unpolicable even if it came to be recognised as abuse by law. Alcohol-related deaths in the UK number some 10,000 annually, not including fatal car accidents whose victims were not under the influence. Psychological dependence on caffeine is probably all too familiar to you or someone you know. A March 2007 study in the journal Lancet has found that both tobacco and alcohol are more harmful as drugs than is cannabis. And the point that cannabis can be enjoyed without smoking it is also frequently neglected when the debate orbits in the public’s attention.

Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology John Morgan offers the following opinion of marijuana’s dangers and what implications this should have for its legality:

Of course, no drug is taken without a concomitant risk, be it psychotropic, pharmaceutical or otherwise. But the inconsistency lies in the fact that demonstrably far more dangerous drugs than cannabis are legally available. Consider, for instance, the millions of instances of alcohol-seeded violence society is asked to suffer. To my knowledge, there exists no established connection between marijuana and becoming violent. Indeed, it has a reputation for inducing quite the opposite effect (exceptions here prove the rule – a privilege alcohol doesn’t enjoy). The argument that it leads to paranoia is quickly debunked when you consider that all psychoactive drugs rely on their responsible use, including consideration of setting. Drinking heavily in the company of people you despise has smaller than normal chances of ending on a positive note either. Taking drugs responsibly is another consideration often thrown out with the bathwater by prohibition advocates. (This is evidenced in the language surrounding drugs: it’s always drug abuse, never merely use.) Responsible use entails consideration of the set and setting in which the drug is taken.

Meanwhile, the positive effects of cannabis use (not its abuse) seldom receive mention. Cannabis is a universally acknowledged social drug of no lower standing than alcohol, and which frequently is set in a context of social etiquette and communion with fellow users. It’s ability to generate creative output in individuals also receives little mention. Instead the theory that it is a “gateway drug” leading to the use of heavier substances has neither been convincingly demonstrated (not to speak of proof) nor has it been divorced in study from socio-economic factors such as poverty, education and other cultural influences. Certainly it is true that innumerable millions use the drug without moving onto heroin or cocaine or esctasy or LSD.

It should arouse the public’s suspicion that a legal drug of alcohol’s destructive potency is legal (and rightly so), but marijuana is not. Note too that the three legal drugs mentioned above are all taxable: alcohol, nicotine and caffeine all require, to varying degrees, specialised manufacturing. On the other hand a cannabis plant can be grown by almost anyone even in the UK’s climate. That is not taxable and is not legal either.

Legalising marijuana would have the following beneficial effects:

1) The production, sale and distribution of marijuana is a lucrative criminal activity. It could be undermined by legalisation since the provision of legal marijuana would be made more securely and reliably available commercially. Police resources would not be unnecessarily expended on processing petty distributors and anyone found in possession. How on earth policing of marijuana possession is supposed to be realistic anyway is beyond comprehension. According to the Office of National Statistics, a third of all young men use the drug:

Prevalence of drug misuse by 16 to 24 year olds in the previous year, 2004/05, England and Wales

Prevalence of drug misuse by 16 to 24 year olds in the previous year, 2004/05, England and Wales. (Click on the graph for the full article) Note, incidentally that the source article is called “Drug misuse”, which is already to suggest impropriety. How do we know young people aren’t just using, as opposed to abusing?

According to Home Office statistics for 2000, when cannabis was a Class B drug, police seizures in the UK numbered 91,000 – that’s 95% of the entire category. See here for data.

2) The production of marijuana, in becoming a legal business activity, would flourish to provide a market specialising in variety and quality, as well as providing tax revenue which could be used to help healthcare funding. The point is that legalising cannabis could be used to actually improve health, not diminish it. The tax revenue and savings on policing could be used to make improvements to quality of life.

3) Marijuana could be sold only to people over a particular age, if required.

4) The principle that repression leads eventually to indulgence would loosen its grip. That is to say, legal cannabis would lose its appeal at least partially for underaged consumers. This is a notable effect in Holland, where interest in drugs is lower than in the UK amongst school children.

In summary, the government have a bad case for keeping marijuana illegal: it is certainly less harmful than either tobacco or alcohol and less addictive than those or caffeine – all of which are legal. It costs a fortune to police. Instead it could be legalised and the savings and resulting tax revenues could be put into healthcare and education about drugs in general. Unlike alcohol, cannabis does not fuel droves of street thugs to commit violent crime. It’s legalisation could open the door to standardised, tested and regulated quality products, just as is the case for the legal drugs. It could create jobs, not put people in prison. Finally, the evident hypocrisy of government officials is laughable: their enjoyment of the drug is now “wrong” but without justification. There is no obvious inherent moral deficit in using cannabis itself. It’s effect on the mental state of the user should not be the subject of prohibition; the government ought to have no stake in our consciousnesses.

Is Religion Evil? An interminable debate…

(This article was featured on http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com)

Few of the currently active public atheists have failed to adopt this conviction: religion is “the root of all evil”.[i] Most have, however, utterly failed to define religion. Not for the want of trying, of course. Despite, for instance, Daniel Dennett’s bold attempts, he has been embarrassingly exposed here by the intelligent retorts of the gadfly theologian Alister McGrath:

“Professor Dennett tells us that “a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone”. Now if I were leading a sixth-form discussion about how to define religion, this would be the first definition to be considered – and the first to be rejected, precisely because it is so inadequate. What about nontheistic religions? Vertebrates by definition have backbones. The concept of religion simply does not entail God.”[ii]

The convenience of conflating religion and belief in God in such a way are relatively self-evident when you consider the approach taken by so many of the atheists. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens all deplore beliefs lacking the support of evidence. The physicist Victor Stenger’s book makes the sentiment clear in its title: God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. And wouldn’t it be convenient to equate God with religion? Dismissal of one would spell the other’s end.

That aside, let us turn to the old chestnut of moral indictments. “Just look at the harm religion has done,” cries the atheist. “The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-burning, the wars around the world…” To which, almost inevitably, the believer replies: “The most brutal century of all, the 20th, gains that status on the back of the efforts of three atheists: Hitler, Stalin and Mao – history’s most prolific mass-murderers.

These are, of course, merely the opening salvos. Attention turns to the 20th century; that much is granted to the theist – it is, after all, a bloodbath of proportions hard to ignore. “Hitler,” the atheist explains, “was not a disbeliever. And all three tyrants (and some others to boot) were drunk on fanatical and morally warped ideologies. They may not have worshipped God (read “been religious”), but it was not for their atheism that they massacred so many.

Not so!” The believer shouts. And here we witness some variety:

  1. Atheism informs Marxism; it is a central tenet. Chesterton tells us, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.” That is how the tyrant becomes drunk on power and is led to committing terrible evils.
  2. Massacres have taken place for and in the name of atheism. Two examples: Mao’s destruction of Tibetan monasteries, as well as the anti-religious campaign in China; and, Enver Hoxha, the Albanian leader who razed mosques, churches, monasteries, and forbid parents from giving their children religious names. Believers were imprisoned, tortured or executed (or all three). All in the name of declaring “the world’s first atheist state””.

Now, the more savvy atheist shifts down a gear: “What about the false consolation of belief? What about the corrupt Church? What about the dogmatic opposition to contraception in Africa? The AIDS pandemic? What about the subjugation of women, the repression of sex and sexuality, what about circumcision – the mutilation of children? And how about Jihad and international terrorism?

No institution is morally perfected,” the believer replies. “And The Church is not the religion. Look at all the good deeds religious people have done, how many charities exist inspired by Jesus, for example. Islamic fundamentalism is a minority position, exacerbated by the way, by the incessant and inhumane military interventionism in the Middle East. You can’t just ignore politics and blame everything on God, you know. And what about slavery? It was a religiously-inspired Wilberforce whose efforts resulted in a commendable leap forward.

We don’t need the fear of your invigilator-God to be good people. Any human goodness is innate, not read off stone tablets. And surely the existence of evil in the first place undermines your faith. If evil exits, God cannot be both benevolent and omnipotent. If he were, he would not allow for evil to exist. This is the traditional theist inconsistency.

Now the believer moves the goal-posts:

There are many different answers to this. But quite apart from anything else, who says God must be omnipotent? You can still believe in a non-omnipotent God. As for the academic question of theodicy, there are many proposed answers. It is an intellectual discourse. Lots of matters of belief aren’t settled beyond all criticism. For example, is euthanasia ever right? Such things are not problems of logic alone. This does not mean that engaging with the issue at hand is not a valuable in and of itself.

It’s a waste of time,” the atheist concludes. “You can live a good life without all these superstitions.

Maybe, but you haven’t shown they’re evil either.

Innevitably, some atheists would respond negatively to this imaginary dialogue. A predictable criticism would be that such a reasoned discussion rarely takes place with a religious believer. But that, of course, is no problem for religion per se. That is the atheist’s problem. Obviously, intelligent and collected believers exist ‘out there’; their minority is no evidence for how unviable what they believe is. And the argument from “evil” is far more prickly than atheists would admit to. The debate between atheists and believers is far from over on the moral plane, at the very least. In fact, it is irresolvable for the very simple reason that both sides have an almost inexhaustible list of examples in support of their case. What is more, the frequently touted “indictment” against religion that the consolation it may offer is no witness to truth (a criticism Richard Dawkins is particularly fond of mentioning) cuts both ways; even if religion was the “root of all evil”, that does not mean it is not true. What really harms the debate about the morality of religion isn’t the possibility of an interminable exchange between prosecution and defence, but rather that the poverty of atheist arguments stems mainly from the reluctance of intelligent believers to come out and challenge their weaknesses. How many academic theologians engage in debate publicly with the popular atheists? Why are they hiding? It’s not that they would win if they didn’t. But without an intellectual challenge to atheism in the public sphere, the “free”-thinkers have a free ride.

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[i] Richard Dawkins himself presented a two-part “documentary” on religion with this very title, The Root of All Evil. He denies it was his decision. The phrase is, of course, lifted from the Bible: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6: 9-10).

[ii] This remark comes from a public debate between McGrath and Dennett held in 2006. It can be found on page 4 of the following document: http://cis.org.uk/resources/articles/article_archive/mcgrath_rsa_lecture.pdf

Audio from the debate can be found here: http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com/2007/06/17/alister-mcgrath-vs-daniel-dennet/

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