I do not know and do not believe anything which I have not accepted as a result of experience or reason. I am a committed believer in Occam’s Razor and it seems to me that religions are edifices of unnecessary entities which must be shaved away.
Religions were primarily social or political movements which, according to the milieu in which their founders lived, could only be successful if they claimed a basis in divine revelation or inspiration. This does not necessarily imply that the founders were deliberately deceitful. I do believe that the human brain is a wonderful and powerful instrument. It should not be underestimated. It also has a capacity to deceive itself and the founders may well have believed in the divine origin of their own thoughts. But it does a disservice to the creativity of the human brain to suppose that such and such a teaching is beyond its power and requires an external divine agency. The evidence of other forms of human creativity, with their intricate complexity and power to move the emotions, such as music; great literature and other forms of art and technology is evidence enough that a divine agency is unnecessary for the authorship of religious teachings. The progenitors of the great human works of art or science seldom, if ever, claimed divine revelation or inspiration.
The argument that ‘false’ religions created only by man are doomed through the action of divine wrath upon their authors is, of course, a spurious argument – a psychological shield devised to suppress competition. Religion has already caused immense harm to human welfare and development with cruel barbarities in its name commonplace. Religions have persisted for millennia without any check from the Almighty. What has whittled away their effectiveness for evil, in much the same way a new disease loses its virulence over time, is the slow action of the human intellect in disregarding the sillier concepts and separating out religion as a different type of mental activity from the day to day requirements of life. This is why Christianity with its extremely difficult, and frankly absurd, concepts of trinity and atonement, has given birth to the renaissance and technical and scientific advances of the west. People found, in time, that their religion was too complicated to use in practice and simply confined its influence to the rites of weddings and funerals and singing hymns on Sunday. Few Christians know their own creed or could make any sense of it if they did. It was all elevated to the status of a ‘divine mystery’ beyond the power of human understanding.
Islam is far more virulent and dangerous because its simple monotheism is easier to accept and it appears, at first glance, to justify its doctrines by argument. Its contradictions are more subtle and pernicious but its effects are all too obvious.
Faith or belief is a sort of pseudo knowledge without the basis of either evidence or reason. It is like a psychological virus that fits into receptors in our internal model of the world and triggers reactions which, being based neither on reason nor actual experience, can create tremendous social destruction and conflict with others whose viruses are of a different strain. The virus of religion so overloads the capacity of the human brain to think clearly that it is easily manipulated and controlled.
Although I have come after many years to the conclusion that religion is a human creation which results in extreme misery to the society and to the individual and which stifles intellectual; material and even spiritual development, I do not agree with Dawkins that the very concept of God itself is a delusion which needs to be rejected.
My own experience does tend towards a working hypothesis in the existence of a single intelligence at heart of the universe. I do not know whether there is actually a God, and I do not think it is necessary to create a belief or pseudo knowledge to make up for my lack of certainty: a working hypothesis is good enough.
The psychological usefulness of such an hypothesis is that it helps to make sense of the immense awe and wonder of the universe. Taking a concept of the divine as an object of gratitude does generate a feeling of inner peace which is a necessary aid in coping with the everyday vicissitudes of life. It is also a socially useful hypothesis to promote in that it induces a sense of respect and love for everything – particularly every living thing – as ‘brothers in creation’. But we should be careful in promoting it never to allow hypothesis to become belief and never to allow the structure or organisation of religion to be built upon it.
I am a little uncomfortable with the use of the phrase single intelligent origin because it has been usurped by the bizarre band of creationists in the USA who wish to indoctrinate children with an ‘alternative’ hypothesis to Darwin akin to a literal interpretation of Genesis. Needless to say, I do not associate myself with their notions.
Being grateful to a hypothetical God is a unifying and truly peaceful concept. Religion, on the other hand, is a struggle for supremacy – that this or the other creed is ‘the truth’ and those with different views are the enemy and opponents of ‘the truth’. Religions lump a whole set of ideas into one package which, because of their claimed divine origin, must either be accepted or rejected or must bud off into different sects with new ‘divinely inspired’ founders.
A divine hypothesis marvels at the immense wonder of the ‘creation’ of the human brain. In gratitude for that instrument we are under an obligation to use it – and to use it to its utmost capacity. And that implies that we must not be hemmed in by the restrictions of swallowing religious creeds wholesale.
Religions generate tremendous feelings of guilt if we are negligent in complying with their rites or if we rebel against their restrictions in our natural human relations; particularly those between the sexes. Morality in a religious context is used as a synonym for all sorts of things which have nothing to do with actual goodness. Language is misused and misapplied. These feelings of guilt enable religious leaders to control our lives and force self-censorship on our thoughts. Each religion also brings with it a huge pseudo scholarship which it is the duty of devotees to study. It gives birth to a pseudo intellectual religious elite who demand the respect and obedience of the unfortunate masses who are too busy or work out the immense complexity of dogma and doctrine. A large proportion of theological study appears to be involved in searching for justifications in the teachings of the religion for doing or thinking what we want to do or think anyway. This is probably nowhere more apparent than in the field of Sharia.
That is the immense paradox of religion and why religion is actually against a true appreciation and love of the Divine. The best thing we have is our own brain. The best way we can be grateful to our Maker is to use it. Religion prevents and restricts its use. It is therefore against God. The most backward, stupid, most downtrodden and manipulated areas of the world are those where religion has a major role.
Another paradox is the creation of impressive architectural structures where congregational worship is to take place. The immense arrogance of the religionists is to call these structures ‘The House of God’ whereas the House of God, if any, is the entire universe. The awe of the night sky, the lofty arch of a tree or even the wonder of the wing of a fly is far greater than any dome or steeple. These human structures are built to the greater glory of the architect and not, as claimed, to that of God.
Now although religion per se is irrefutably a harmful thing for society and for the human intellect, that does not mean that many of the social and political concepts introduced and promoted in the various religious teachings are themselves harmful. They were undoubtedly put there by the founders for the benefit of their communities. It is instructive that most religious founders were rebels against the excesses and enormities of the religious organisations of their day.
Islam has probably the most detailed set of concepts and social regulation of extant religions. It cannot be denied that it has much in it that is wise and sound. We would be foolish to reject sound ideas on the basis of its other concepts which have proved outdated and contradictory. For example, the Islamic prohibitions on the recreational use of psycho-active drugs, of interest and of gambling would, if applied generally, do much to counter some of the greatest evils in the world. The philosophy of strict monotheism is entirely consistent with the concept of a single intelligent origin and the ‘brotherhood of all creation’. It is, or should be, a unifying concept.
The main problem with Islam is the contradiction between the injunction against associating partners with Allah and the de facto endless glorification of the person of Muhammad. It is the second part of the Islamic creed, or Kalima, asserting the messenger-ship of Muhammad that is the most difficult to swallow. Both parts of the kalima require the adherent to assert that they ‘bear witness’ to the doctrine. It is logically impossible to bear witness to something which is a pure matter of faith, not of objective experience. This is an outstanding example of the ‘virus effect’ of belief falsely triggering the receptors of knowledge based on experience or reason. The unifying concept of monotheism is not part of Islam in practice. It separates out as enemies ‘unbelievers.’ What is wrong with unbelief? What is wrong with doubt? Much of human progress has resulted from doubt about accepted ideas. We should never believe anything unless we are completely satisfied with it on the basis of our own reason and experience.
Another useful working hypothesis is the efficacy of prayer. It is a strange thing, but it often seems to work. It doesn’t appear to matter who is saying the prayer or to whom it is addressed.
Prayer is another case of the frequent misuse of language by religionists. It is hard to see how the mindless repetition of a fixed set of words, often in a foreign tongue, can have any effect other than to induce a sort of trance-like state of suggestibility. Religions require their adherents to say a lot – both fixed words of praise and freer words to beg a list of wants. Time spent actually contemplating the works of nature and allowing ones heart to soar in gratitude to what you see, smell and hear are given no priority. Worship takes place in man-made structures where the objects of contemplation are either images or calligraphy – often collectively and to a fixed schedule. These are hardly conducive to ‘communion with the infinite’. The actual effect is boredom and fatigue with the added guilt that the rites ought to produce a transcendental experience if only we were to try harder.
But there are times when the heart does go out for help or in gratitude, spontaneously and selflessly – and such occasions can sometimes bring surprising results. I do not know, and I do not think it matters, whether there is actually a divine ear listening to those passionate thoughts or whether the mechanism is more akin to telepathy or telekinesis or a drawing on the spiritual wellspring of everyone and everything. It seems to work under certain circumstances, it is not a waste of time and it does have both psychological and, at times, physical benefits. These moments tend to occur not in human structures but while walking beside a river or under trees or quietly contemplating the dome of the stars – or in an everyday situation where we are faced with no alternative but to ask for help.
I do not know, and I do not think it is worth worrying about, whether there is a continuation of consciousness after death. We will find out soon enough. Thoughts of what might lie on the other side have been a means by which the masters of religious thought control have commanded the perpetration of the most horrible deeds in the hope of glory in the hereafter and have conversely denied the natural joys of this life by guilt and fear of post-mortem punishment and damnation.
Certainly there is heaven and hell in this very life on earth. There is the heaven of the wonder of everything good and natural that is in this precious earth we inhabit. There is heaven in friendship and love. There is hell in injustice and hatred and in the imposition of one person’s will against the other. There is the hell of noise and urban stress, of conflict and of exploitation. There is the hell of the slavery to debt and of the subjugation to addiction and extravagance. We owe a duty here and now to foster and protect that heaven on earth and to struggle against the hell. A great deal of the fuel for the hell on earth is generated by religion. Religion is full of noise and stress and conflict. It imposes limits on friendship and love and imbues them with guilt.
But a sort of life after death should be sought – by each of us trying our best to leave something lasting of good behind us. Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven live on. That is a real form of eternity – to leave behind paradise for others to enjoy rather than dreaming of it selfishly for ourselves.