This was the title of a meeting organised by the Bristol University Atheist Agnostic and Secular Society on 1st November. The meeting wasn’t recorded, but here is (more or less) what I said.
I’m not quite sure why I’m here, because the fantasies of religion seem to me much like the fantasies of quack medicine, not only morally offensive, but also simply boring. Fruitless speculations about the existence of gods is about as useful a way to spend time as fruitless speculations about whether there really are fairies at the bottom of your garden.
Of course people are free to believe in any daft thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people. I suppose it’s my job to point out that neither religion nor philosophy are likely to allow you to understand the world, whereas science has, at least, got a chance of doing so. It has made a small start already.
What I like about science is that it is undogmatic. When the facts change you are forced to change your mind. If the facts contradict your theory, then your theory is wrong.
Very often, you have simply to say “I don’t know”. In contrast, religious people virtually never change their minds and very rarely say they “don’t know”. They invent pseudo-explanations, like “god did it”, for just about anything, and justify it with quotations from holy books. The holy books are so inconsistent, often downright weird, that you can pick a citation that justifies whatever your opinion was in the first place. You might as well cite a book of magic spells.
I’d maintain that philosophers of science have contributed very little of substance to the conduct of science, but I’ll miss that bit out because I wrote about it last week,.
Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold).
I disagree, for two reasons.
Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident. Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one. It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.
The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect. There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science. Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine. I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors. Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed. The only thing that has worked was public derision. A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”. Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like
“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true
are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked. Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.
Religion is often immoral
When a pair of besuited Mormons knock on the front door, there are two reactions. Most people hide under the kitchen table. I don’t. I invite them in. It usually goes something like this. “why don’t you believe in god?”. To which I respond, “I don’t believe in god on moral grounds. All religions that I have encountered teach immorality”
This response is greeted with incredulity and indignation. You may think, is a bit strong, so let’s have some examples. The bible says (amongst many contradictory things)
Deuteronomy , chapters 7 & 20. and Joshua, chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, etc.: After wandering in the desert for four decades, God ordered the Hebrews to invade the "promised land" and totally exterminate "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites"leaving "alive nothing that breathes." They were to fight and kill the soldiers of these groups, and then murder the defenseless elderly, women, youths, children, infants, and newborns. The book of Joshua records the progress of the genocide, city by city:
20. And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.
and the Koran says
“The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication—flog each of them with hundred stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the last day.”[Quran 24:2] “
If these aren’t deeply immoral, I don’t know what is. This gratuitous cruelty isn’t just Old Testament either. This is what persuaded me that religion is bad.
When I was about 15 I went to a summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick. Quite revolting.
Once, after walking in the Dolomites, I wrote to the Italian Tourist Authority to complain that my holiday was spoiled because every time I got to the top of a mountain, I was greeted with a scene of graphic torture (a crucifix). It is very offensive to any normal human.
Of course, since then, it’s turned out that a large number of priests were not just enjoying the torture in their heads, but had been acting out their nasty fantasies through rape of real children. And that the Church (including the present pope) had gone to great lengths to conceal their activities from m the public and from the police.
The constant emphasis on guilt is horrible for adults. But telling happy young children that they are guilty sinners is obnoxious. It is a form of child abuse. And catholic schools that decorate classrooms with scenes of torture corrupt young minds. Indoctrinating children in one particular sect of one religion are not part of a civilized society. It promotes misunderstanding and prejudice between one child and another. This sort of divisive brainwashing is ghastly.
Ludicrously, when you pass 18, the law reverses itself. Up to the age of 18 you are encouraged by moral politicians (you know, like Blair and Gove) to promote religious segregation but once you pass 18, that sort of behaviour would, very properly, be illegal. The Universities Tests Act (1871) made it illegal for a university discriminate on grounds of religion, as governments actively encourage schools to do. (The Act was passed, of course, to bring Oxford and Cambridge up to the standards set by UCL in 1826.)
Then, of course, there is the church’s contribution to the spread of AIDS, by telling direct lies about condoms. The list goes on and on.
And these people want to tell us about morals? You must be joking.
When Napoleon mentioned to the great mathematician, Laplace, that God is not mentioned in the Me’chanique ce’leste, Laplace replied, " Sire, I did not need that hypothesis." When Napoleon later reported this reply to Lagrange, the latter remarked, "Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things."
History doesn’t relate whether Lagrange’s comment was deeply ironical, but I like to think it was. It hits the nub of the problem. Religion explains nothing whatsoever, just muddles the ideas, and replaces one unknown with another.
At the time of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More was fond of burning heretics at the stake (merely possessing a bible in English was enough to get you tortured to death). .The protestants were no better, of course: they eventually decapitated More. But it won’t do to say that these things happened in the 16th century. In the 20th Century the pope declared the heretic-burner to be saint (one of the curious bits of make-believe that catholics seem to enjoy). Worse still, in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Thomas More to be the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians” (whatever that means).
And of course it still goes on. Catholics and protestants kill each other. Sunnis and Shias kill each other. It’s characteristic of organisations whose beliefs are based on myths to be deeply aggrieved by people whose myths differ in some trivial detail. It happens in alternative medicine too. It’s all summed up in the "religious joke of the year".
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don’t do it."
"Why shouldn’t I?" he asked.
"Well, there’s so much to live for!"
"Are you religious?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"
He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."
I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.
In a nutshell, my objection to religion is that, with occasional honourable exceptions, it spreads immorality and violence.
Of course non-religious people can be just as immoral and violent, but, in the words of Stephen Weinberg:
"for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."
Is there hope for something better?
It’s pretty clear that as education spreads, religion dies. The process is well-advanced in the west, in every country apart from the USA, but in the USA religion is just another business, devoted to extracting money, mostly from the poor, and supporting the extreme right wing parties and military adventurism.
We shouldn’t be too smug about Islam either. Admittedly I was slightly taken aback when a second year undergraduate, on duty at an Islamic exhibition at UCL, told me that "when Islam came to power in the UK I would be executed" (and then asked for my name). But it’s little more than 100 years since we stopped whipping people and people were still being hanged in my lifetime. My guess is that in another few hundred years, Islam will catch up. It will become gradually less cruel and women will, bit by bit, come to be treated as human beings. But once that happens, Islam will start to die out altogether, just as Christianity has (almost) done in the West.
So, in the words of the atheist bus campaign.
"There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
In the questions after the talk, I was spurred into saying
Religion is what we had before the enlightenment