Why I am not a Believer

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Lecture date: Sun, 13th Jul, 2014
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To start with a confession, ‘Elliot George’ is my pen name. I am a retired science teacher who writes books and I don’t want my anti-religious books mixed up with my other books – it might damage sales!

In April 2014, I debated an evangelical pastor in his own church. Church people are usually good people, but I contend that being good is not a prerogative of believers. After all, there are over 2 and a quarter million convicts in American jails, 98% of whom identify themselves as Christians. I have no disagreement with moderate believers other than to disapprove of their practice of inducting their children into their faith before they are old enough to make informed decisions for themselves. As recent news shows, moderate parents may find, to their dismay, that their children can sometimes become radicalized and go off to get killed in Syria. We will never stop fundamentalism until we stop pushing youngsters into religions.

The Impossibility of Being ‘Militantly Atheist’

Some may perceive me as a ‘militant atheist’. I don’t see myself in that way; as far as I am concerned I am just doing my job – being a science teacher. I like what A C Grayling said in his recent speaking tour about that accusation; he said ‘Theism is to atheism like stamp collecting is to not stamp collecting and it’s quite hard to not collect stamps militantly!’ A belief is a sensitive thing, because the implication of criticism is that believers are fools for believing what they believe. Even if the insult is not actually voiced, people will assume that it’s intended. However much we try to be inoffensive, believers will find ways to take offence. One problem we have in the god debate is that non-believers like me make the case that no deity is worth believing in, not Horus, not Mithras, not Zeus, and not Jesus, while believers only support their particular belief. This means we are often arguing from different premises…

Individual believers only show allegiance to one faith – they are non-believers in respect to all the others. Consider this: many supporters of each faith believe that their loyalty earns them a key to the door of an afterlife. The Jews believe they have the right key, the Muslims believe it’s their key and the Christians believe it’s theirs. They each believe that the others’ keys won’t fit the lock and that their owners are condemned to burn in hell for eternity!

So believers of all faiths seem to be willing to believe that thousands of beliefs are fallacious, with the single exception of their own. Every believer is partisan and from mankind’s viewpoint that is divisive. We need to ask: Why are believers so certain that theirs is the only correct belief? Why do millions of other people practice beliefs that are wrong, according to majority opinion? And why does the, supposedly omnipotent, one true god leave the door open for thousands of fraudulent gods?

The ‘Nones’ i.e. No Religion

Naturally, with my background in science, I am an example of what is, in the USA, the fastest growing belief sector – the ‘nones’ (no, not the ladies in wimples!) I mean people who tick the box for no religion. At the debate in the church there was a nun in the audience and at the end, she came up and told me she’d pray for me! I resisted the temptation to say, “Thanks, I’ll weave a spell for you!”

In the USA, the ‘nones’ have grown by 25% in the last five years. It is particularly fast-growing amongst the young – it’s a third of 18-29 year olds. Why is this happening? I contend that it is happening because of education, particularly science education. There is plenty of evidence that, where there is access to good education, religiosity is much lower than in poorly educated parts of the world. Yes, I know there are also those who contend that there is no conflict between science and religion. I disagree. Both science and religion offer explanations for our origins. Their explanations are very different. They can’t both be correct. That is a source of disagreement, which leads to conflict.

Faiths, those bastions promising absolutism, have been fighting a rearguard action against scientific progress for centuries and have had to concede much of their old doctrine. Three hundred years after the event, Pope John Paul II conceded that the RC church had been mistaken to imprison Galileo. In 2008, the Anglican Church apologised for the way they treated Charles Darwin. Recently, Pope Benedict abandoned the idea of Limbo, saying, “It was just a theological concept anyway”. In other words, he admitted that priests had made it up! You may ask, “How much else have they made up?” It seems that the unchanging ‘word of god’ is not as unchangeable as many believers might wish. Meanwhile, scientific method has been steadily eroding ignorance and, although the job is far from finished, it has made some impressive achievements to confirm its effectiveness. There is a flag on the moon, for example!

A belief can be a powerful thing – people live for it, people die for it, people do kind things for it and people kill for it. Some believers imagine they have a right to impose their views on the science community – telling us that we shouldn’t be offering abortions, shouldn’t be using embryonic stem cells to research for cures for disease and should be teaching creationism in science lessons! Some believers deny their children life-saving blood transfusions, some recommend AIDS victims to  abandon their medication in favour of prayer, and some cut bits off their children’s genitalia. Some deny girls an education and some even shot Malala Yousafzai in the face as she bravely defied them and went to school.

The Moral High Ground: Non-belief

Naturally, I don’t want to be associated with any of that. In those scenarios, nonbelief has the moral high ground, as I think you must agree. Meanwhile those who speak out against religious beliefs sometimes get called cold, hopeless, immoral, unhappy and purposeless. Those are insults. We are even called fools in the form of a quote: Psalm 14:1 states, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” That’s biblically offensive, but it’s OK for believers to insult nonbelievers apparently.

So, apart from not wanting to support those antisocial activities, why don’t I believe? Well, I don’t value belief – after all, we can change it on a whim. Mohammed Ali was baptised Cassius Clay; he converted to Islam later, which meant he had to change his name. Tony Blair converted from protestant to Catholic. Thousands of gods are already dead from the loss of belief. I could spend all day listing dead gods – even believers would agree with me about the falseness of all those dead gods.

So, at best, religious beliefs are just personal choices while, at worst, they are ideas that someone else has put into our heads – abdicated choices. There are some comedy gods: Ixcacao was a goddess of chocolate and fertility – you’ve got to like her haven’t you! Cloacina was responsible for keeping the main sewer in Rome flowing! There is a village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, where the people believe Prince Philip is a god! According to the bible, Jesus was crucified; according to the Qu’ran, he wasn’t. Which should we believe? How should we choose? How can a faith be the only true belief if you can leave it for another faith, which also claims to be the one true belief?

Some faiths regard quitting to be an offence. Men have been killed for ‘apostasy’ and, as recently as 1994, the Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, fired parish vicar Antony Freeman for ‘heresy’! In other words for ‘wrong thinking’ – how Orwellian! Don’t you wonder about the validity of belief systems that need such harsh punishments just to retain membership? We should remember that each one of us is a single person in a total population of the billions of humans that have existed. Each of us is numerically insignificant; also, our lives are very short compared to the age of the planet or the age of the universe. So each of us is insignificant both in terms of number and durability. We are ants, short-lived ants, but we are ants with delusions of grandeur. The fact that we don’t recognise this delusion after thousands of years is an indication of our boastful conceit, our egocentric vanity. We even used to believe that our world was the centre of the universe, which had been made, in its entirety, specifically for us! So, I contend that belief is a grossly overrated concept; it’s monumentally unimportant because we are unimportant, and it’s not even an indication of truth. So, if belief is unimportant, what about faith?

Believers are like Body-builders

One way to think of faith is like a belief on steroids – weapons grade belief – an attempt to persuade oneself that the unimportant has value. Another way to think about faith is like a cheap Easter egg: it’s protected in a box, there’s gold wrapping and it has a shell, but inside – nothing. If it had  evidential content, faith would not need constantly reasserting. Believers need to worship every week in the same way that a body builder has to keep going to the gym because, without regular reinforcement, muscles and beliefs simply wither away. Weekly preaching helps to keep the doubts at bay. Did you ever hear a scientist repeatedly asserting that gravity obeys the inverse square law? Of course not. Faith is only necessary in situations where there is no evidence. Scientists have facts and, therefore, no need for dogma. A scientist uses the word ‘belief’ to indicate that we’re not sure, whereas a believer uses it to mean certain knowledge! These are opposite concepts – how can they occupy the same brain at the same time? So, I contend that belief is not important because: Beliefs are just ideas inside men’s heads: Those heads belong to unimportant individuals: Beliefs are just choices that can be unchosen or forgotten: Beliefs die when the men holding the beliefs die: Thousands of gods are already dead through loss of belief: Furthermore, belief is not even synonymous with truth!

My keynote presentation (called “Creationism Debunked”) goes on to explain exactly what constitutes evidence and how valuable a commodity it is. You can read more on this subject in Godbuster – exorcises all known gods, available from Amazon and all good bookstores. Yes, I would like to see the downgrading of religious beliefs – to the level of superstition or astrology would be good, but that puts a negative slant on my intentions. I do not wish to actively restrict faiths. That has been tried and has failed in the former Soviet Union and in China. I see my role as continuing to teach science; evidence indicates that, where good science education is available, people abandon religious belief of their own volition.

Atheism & Secularism

Elliot George, the ‘docile Dawkins’, is the author of Godbuster – Exorcises all known gods. He is a retired Science teacher who can’t stop spreading the message of Scientific Realism and, recently, he accepted the challenge of an Evangelical Pastor to debate the validity of belief in the Pastor’s own church. The video…