The world’s best defense of religion

OK . . . the title is a little over-reaching, I will admit, but I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. I have always felt a little guilty that I found no theistic arguments for belief at all compelling. Many, in fact, I find laughable and deluded. By never seeing the other side’s argument as having validity, I worried that I might be too closed off intellectually on this matter. I finally heard the best argument yet for the purpose of dogmatic faith . . . and it came from me!

Several days ago, after yet more contemplation of the positive and negative aspects of religion, I provided myself with a new (to me anyway) defense of religion. In the way of background; I am the father of a high school freshman. I have always considered the imparting a moral and ethical framework to a child to be one of the highest purposes of parenting. In my relatively recent self-identification as a non-theist, I have analyzed child-rearing from a new perspective. There are groups of theists that will, quite assuredly, say that non-belief is synonymous with amorality . . . that a moral framework cannot exist in the absence of belief. I know this to be wrong. I know this from personal experience and I know this through empirical evidence; but trying to convince some believers of this is tantamount to convincing them that up is down. There is much evidence showing non-theists to be at least as moral as theists. This should allow us to dismiss the amorality claim as naïve; still it pours forth from the pulpit that atheists have no moral center.

I hope it is obvious to all readers that the single most effective way to communicate morals and ethics to a child is through personal example, irrespective of faith. If the people that the child knows, loves, and respects practice charity, show empathy toward others and generally puts other’s need before their own, that is what the child will emulate. Hands down; a parent’s example is what defines the child.

Still . . . If parents had some sort software they could install into their child’s brain, a “Morality v1.0” if you will, that would be convenient, wouldn’t it? It is not going out on a limb to say children do not posses the intellectual acuity to interpret the nuance of a proper philosophical discussion of right and wrong. Heck, many adults appear to lack that ability! But let us leverage the innate credulity of a child and posit a story that is accessible and comprehensible to a child. To that end; tell them that there is a god that watches everything. If you do bad things (he has provided a list), you will go to hell and spend eternity in a lake of burning sulfur. Your child believes you because the immature human animal is wired to do so. Just like they believe you when you tell them about the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they believe that God is prepared to strike them down and condemn them to hell. There it is . . . simple, concise and oh-so-time-saving for the on-the-go Bronze Age parent.

And, right there, that’s the first major rub. The list was created in the Bronze Age. At the time, it was probably a nice dovetail into contemporary Bronze Age morals. Granted, most of what was laid down as commandments generally fits much of today’s generally accepted framework of ethical conduct . . . but it does show some age. For instance; rule number 10 states:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”

I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable that God decided to list the wife as a piece of property . . . and not even the first in the list! The ‘progressive’ Catholics at least broke this inventory list into two statements, ostensibly giving the wife some special status over a man’s ox and slaves . . . regular Susan B. Anthonys they are!! At least the Catholics had the good sense to apply some editing to the word of God. Wh . . Wh . . What was that?!? One of the very few times God himself hand delivers a communiqué to humanity and some feel the need to tweak it a bit?!?!? Wow!! Talk about brass ones!! Still; for the time, this was probably a no-brainer list of do’s and don’ts with no controversy to be found.

Of course the first half of the list of rules had nothing to do with “do unto others” kind of thinking. It was all about the self-protection of the story; the more that God was deserving of respect and the scarier he was, the less likely that kids would wander. To my mind, the whole thing it is the perfect parental shortcut. After all, the busy parents of the day had their day full . . . er . . . herding and . . . er . . . other stuff. I have little doubt that the biblical story, used this way, was quite effective.

The whole thing might be perfectly useful if 1) there was some universally agreed upon list of moral codes that would evolve as we gained new, real understanding of the human species and condition and 2) we let the kids in on the story once it was no longer useful (like we do with Santa Claus and other fables). Now some of you already have your pants in a bunch because of item ‘1’. “That is wishy-washy moral relativism” you might say. Relative to what? . . . our growing understanding of the human species and our growing body of empirical knowledge and philosophical understanding? Maybe you would prefer that we stick with moral absolutes that value the female spouse somewhere between your condo and your cat. Hmmmmm. Relativism doesn’t sound all that bad to me. In fact, the enlightened believers have always practiced moral relativism . . . that is why they are enlightened.

In honesty, though, I would give less than even odds that some universal list of do’s and don’ts could be created, but it would be an interesting experiment. I know the United Nations has a “universal” document but it is a) probably not universal for primitive theocracies and dictatorships and b) limited to human rights. Still . . . the effort would be interesting and actually give us important new insights into fundamental human ethics and morals.

The failure of the whole premise was that point ‘2’ (letting the kids in on the story) was not incorporated into the program. As an individual (hopefully) matures intellectually, they are able to better understand and reflect on the nuances of what is right and wrong. This nuanced understanding is far better than some terse list written down by moral leaders of ancient times.

So there you have it . . . the best defense of religious fables that I have yet to hear (or concoct). To my mind, this could even put an aspect of religion into the ‘defensible’ category . . . wrong and false, but defensible. Sometimes I impress myself . . but I am easily impressed.

I Hold This Truth to be Self-Evident

Some of my essays have elicited comments that would characterize me as ‘militant’, ‘evangelical’, ‘religious’, or ‘intolerant’. It does not surprise me. Given religion’s historic immunity from criticism; it is not unusual that even casual questioning of religious doctrine is often interpreted as being aggressive. Still . . . I wish to make clear my position on how I feel about belief and believers. The bigger, subtler points of most of my missives are often never stated directly . . . so I will state them here.

On the tolerance side:

  • I feel religion is a natural phenomenon and will always exist.
  • There are people of high intelligence (and less so) on both sides of the theistic fence.
  • I am ultimately tolerant of an individual’s right to believe whatever they care to believe.
  • I will vigorously defend an individual’s right to believe whatever they want.
  • It is not my intent to deny no one the emotional comfort of their faith.

On the intolerant side:
  • I am NOT tolerant of public policy being driven by religious doctrine.
  • I am NOT tolerant of statements that give religion credit where none is due (i.e. religion is the sole source of morality)
  • I am NOT tolerant of social divides created by religious differences
  • I am NOT tolerant of societal ills promoted and enforced by religion
  • I am NOT tolerant of the denigration of non-theists (as a whole) when it can be shown that non-theists are every bit as (or more) tolerant and ethical than theists.
  • I am NOT tolerant of public funds (taxes) going to religious organizations that proselytize.

Most of my writings stem from my vocalizing the points from the ‘intolerant’ list. I feel that ALL decisions, big and small, should be based on facts and the best knowledge available. The truth of the following statement should be self-evident to believers and non-believers alike:

    It is ALWAYS better to make decisions based on real knowledge rather than mythology or superstition.

Often, the unstated message of my writings challenges the faithful to demonstrate that religion is, indeed, something more than mythology. I have yet to see anyone do that in a rigorous or intellectually sound way. In my research, I have not found one scintilla of compelling evidence to support the validity of any supernatural belief. I have, however, found vast amounts of empirical evidence that conflicts with much religious dogmatic teaching. I have had the faithful throw this, that, and the other ‘fact’ at me in support of their faith, but they were trivially easy to refute. You can get a taste of some of this in one of my other essays [here].

As soon as it clearly demonstrated that their religion is more than mythology, I (along with many vocal non-theists) will likely become a believer.

    Who Can Properly Defend Faith - Feedback

    Below are several published letters in response to my essay "Who Shall Properly Defend Faith". My response follows, but but has yet to be published. You can read the original essay [here].

    Misuses of religion does not render faith invalid
    I would like to share my thoughts on the recent letter to the editor titled “Who can properly defend faith?”The author asks whether extremists (many of whom are said to be the cause
    of major world conflicts) and moderates in a given religion are not distinguishable from each other since their sources are the same. I think this question raises another: Are faith, religion and the actions some people take in the name of their religion one and the same? I would answer no.

    Faith, by one definition is individual and personal. By another definition, “a faith” is similar to “a religion” which is more widely scoped and organized. What people do in the name of their religion is up to the individual’s free will. Sadly, as the author mentioned, much evil has been done in the world in the name of religion, including the unrest in the Middle East, the long-standing conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, and even the crucifixion of Jesus.

    The next question: Do these misuses of religions render religion invalid and evil for society? My
    answer is no — it only points out more emphatically how vitally significant religion is to humans and how important it is to understand its concepts. The Islamic religion is based on submission to God’s will, and a cohesive existence. The Judeo-Christian religion (to over-simplify it) is based on love and service to God and fellow humans. In the Gospels, Jesus used the Pharasees and Scribes (who were authorities of the Jewish religion at the time) as examples of misuse and hypocrisy. His regard for them was an example of honoring your faith, but not letting those who misuse it define it for you.

    The author challenges readers to defend their holy books in an intellectually sound way. Here’s one defense of the Holy Bible: Jesus referred to scriptures repeatedly during his ministry, thereby validating them. How do we know Jesus was the son of God? Because, besides his teachings, which were profound and radical for his time, he left us a legacy of his actual flesh and blood, miracles, apparitions by his mother, and the saints as modern day witnesses, among other things. A saint is only declared so upon proof of a miracle performed in his name or having been party to one himself while alive. The miracle has to be proven as an occurrence which defies natural law.

    Also many saints’ bodies have been found to be pure; not subject to decay after death (another miracle). So we are given many validations of this religion, if we want to find them. Another
    proof is the effect prayer and truly living according to one’s faith has on their lives, and that of their loved ones. An organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries can give numerous examples of this.

    What about the hundreds of societies in the world who use their religion as their code of living and they have peaceful, harmonious, and productive lives? We don’t see them in the news, but they make up a big part of our world.

    Rita S******

    Send letter-writer to Iraq for peace

    After reading Mike Burns’ letter “Who can properly defend faith?” it is obvious that his wisdom can be used for the cause of peace. Since there are very few car bombings of Methodists by Episcopalians in the U.S., his talents are wasted in this country.

    I am asking [this newspaper] to send him to Iraq, where he can show the Sunnis and Shiites the error of their ways. He can supply the paper with a series of articles about his efforts. While we American Christians may not appreciate him, I’m sure he would be recognized as a great teacher by the factions in Iraq. If he succeeds, I’d be the first to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

    Thomas Z******
    St. Charles

    What follows is my response to the letter writers above, but it has yet to be published.

    Ms. S******, Mr. Z****** and Faith

    While I do not feel this “letters” forum is the place to conduct an ongoing debate, I feel compelled to respond to critiques of my letter “Who can properly defend faith?”. Ms. Scobey maintains the validity of scripture because Jesus himself referred to them repeatedly. Were it established as fact that, indeed, Jesus was the divine son of God, her argument might carry some weight. If it is not obvious, my position is that there is no compelling evidence for divinity anywhere in history.

    As far as her proofs of his divinity (miracles, apparitions, and saints corpses) . . . I must say I am profoundly under-whelmed. In fact I am surprised that these can be tendered as arguments not thinking that they could be challenged. I have been doing research on the documentation and validation of miracles and, to be honest, I find rigor and independence to be laughably absent. I can honestly say that, should I see real, verifiable evidence of something that defies the laws of nature (restoring a lost limb, parting a sea), I would be among the first to acknowledge a failure of my hypothesis. Unfortunately, it would seem that many believers are not so open-minded to evidence.

    Apparitions are similarly unconvincing. Seeing vaguely feminine human features in an office window or in a cheese sandwich is hardly evidence. We see random craters and geological lunar features as the man in the moon. It does not take much to make the human animal see faces . . . we are hard-wired to do just that. When a weeping statue or some other such phenomena is subjected to real scrutiny; none hold up. Even a small group of like-minded people seeing the same thing has plausible psychosocial explanations.

    In regards to the “pure” bodies of deceased saints not decomposing; please let me know where they are. I would like to see them. If I can, I will bring a couple universities in tow. Assuming that these bodies did not have some other form of preservation, this would be very important. Unfortunately, the only examples that I am aware of have been found to have preservation techniques applied to them.

    Finally, Ms. Scobey offers the proven healing power of prayer. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that prayer has been shown to be effective in a number of regards. It has also been shown that placebos are similarly effective. A very large, rigorous, double-blind university study on the effectiveness of prayer demonstrates clearly that prayer is only as effective as placebo. I do not wish to deny anyone the comfort of prayer, but facts are facts.

    I was amused at Mr. Zeiser’s letter lauding me as a great teacher of peace to be sent off to Iraq to be beheaded. He says that “we American Christians” may not appreciate my commentary. He is absolutely right; many believers do not appreciate criticism . . . ever. He further (and accurately) assessed that there are not warring factions of Christian faiths here in the states. We can thank our secular government for that stability. Unfortunately, as comparatively tame as things are here, we still have faith demonizing segments of the population, subjugating women, stifling medical research, trying to drive public policy and change the secular “holy grail” that we Americans have in our U.S. Constitution. All this because of an (arguably) indefensible holy book.

    I do not challenge Christianity. I challenge mythology, superstition, and the supernatural. In the end, I do not care what anyone believes as long as it doesn’t affect me or my neighbors.

    Mike Burns