If God didn’t exist… Would you want to know?
~The Humanist Codex
Let’s start with a question. It’s a simple yes or no question, but it’s a scary one; both frightening and yet breathtakingly simple. I’ve seen every kind of dodge to avoid answering it: it’s inconsequential, it won’t change anything, the premise behind it can never be known so why bother asking, even asking is a deep offence… but stick with me, because this question immediately and definitively gets to the core of your moral and existential character.
The question is this: If God didn’t exist, would you want to know?
Now think about that honestly for a minute. Don’t worry, it’s not blasphemy, I’m not suggesting He doesn’t exist. I’m simply asking you to reflect on your own values, both as a person and as a moral agent. If He didn’t, would you want to know? What would be more important to you, comfort and emotional security, or the truth?
I, for one, would very much like to believe in God. The world is filled with terrible injustices, and the idea that someday they will all be tallied and accounted for is really quite comforting. I’m also lonely, in a spiritual sense; there’s nobody quite like me on the planet, and while that uniqueness is wonderful, it’s isolating too. The existence of God would bring me joy and a sense of companionship.
But those aren’t even the best reasons. The biggest reason I want to believe is that I really want to know that I’ll see my children, and my parents, when we’ve all passed away.
Oh, I want there to be a God.
So if He brings me comfort and joy, and it’s just my personal belief, maybe the truth of it doesn’t matter. Indeed, if that was all there was to it, then it seems to me that we should leave all beliefs unbruised.
But when is a personal belief really just personal?
For the most part, you act on your beliefs (in fact, you’re really morally obligated to). If you think that homosexuality is a sin, you’ll try to steer people from it. Now that’s not unreasonable, but your beliefs certainly aren’t personal anymore, are they? Your beliefs actually affect a great many people (and the effect is cumulative. When a gay teen is bullied, beaten, murdered, or shamed into suicide, it’s not the personal belief of one person to blame, but a choir of homophobic rhetoric from ministers, politicians, and good, everyday God-fearing people).
Since your belief in a theistic god (Yahweh, Adonai, Allah, Jehovah, if we were just to stay within within the Abrahamic religions) informs how you interact in the world—how you treat people—it becomes morally imperative that you have some justification for those beliefs.
No one in the KKK thinks that they are racist (after all, it’s not racist if it’s true). But the world be a better place if they could ignore what they wanted to be true, what was gratifying to believe, and instead just examine their beliefs and how they came by them. The world would be a better place if those who had used the bible to defend slavery, or practice forced conversion, or burned witches, had all come to their senses sooner.
Now there’s been a great deal of moral progress since the dark ages, but are we done? Are we at the height of it? Every generation has thought itself the apex of morality and progress, the final product of our moral evolution. But they’ve never been right. Ever. So what are the chances that we’ve gotten all the right answers to how we should treat our fellow man? There may be more, quite a lot more, that we need to do, but which we keep outside the realm of honest examination.
Unexamined belief, even with the best of intentions, has led to some of the worst suffering in history. You can say you don’t have to examine your beliefs because you know you’re right, but that’s the defense of every klansman, slaver, and inquisitor.
The largest dogmatic organization in the world, the Catholic Church, does in fact examine its own beliefs. They have changed positions quite a lot in the last 100 years, and they appear on the precipice of a significant shift in tone towards homosexuals, and maybe women too. But if, 100 years from now, our treatment of homosexuals and of women are looked down upon with the same disgust we now have for slavery, we’re the ones responsible for not holding the church accountable. Every moral advancement has come from people challenging dogmatic beliefs, and has been opposed by those who felt we had reached the apex of morality already. That I can tell, the latter have never been right; there’s always room for improvement.
Truth is the moral bedrock of civilization. You can’t convict the guilty or set the innocent free—you can not have justice—without truth. In fact, it’s impossible for anyone unwilling to actively pursue truth (even when it conflicts with their beliefs or things they wish were true) to make any claim to morality. Simply put: if you’re going to believe in a higher power, particularly in a theistic god with specific commandments and injunctions that you’re going to impose in some way on others, you’ve a moral obligation to try to get the right one.
That’s a tall order.
There are several thousand sects of Christianity(1)The World Christian Encyclopedia lists 55,000 denominations of Christianity in 238 countries. However, while many of these are indeed separate organizations, most do not differentiate belief in any meaningful way. When including only those with salient differences in belief, the real number is far closer to 3,000. alone. Most of these (Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Prosperity, Mormon, Baptist, Evangelical, etc) are exclusive; they excommunicate the other sects (and since none of these are a majority, it means that if you’re a Christian, you believe that even most Christians are going to hell(2)Christians sanitize this fact. You are either “saved” or “not saved”. If youàre a Christian, but of the wrong denomination, you are no more saved than a Jew, Hindu, or atheist.). In fact Jews, Muslims, and Mormons can’t agree, even within themselves, which moral teachings can safely be ignored and which can’t, and that’s just the Abrahamic theologies; there are the three billion people who have never heard of Moses, Abraham, or Jesus.
Indeed, nearly every sect of every theistic religion in history has had two things in common: first, they believe that they hold the key to salvation and moral behavior to the exclusion of everyone else. Second, tenants of their faith oppress and marginalize some people, while revering others.
So how do you pick? How do you know who is right?
At this point, giving up and just choosing the one you like best seems as good a plan as any. Indeed, this is what almost everybody does. Despite the claim that religion makes you moral, you actually use your innate morality and judgement to choose a religion that makes sense to you. If that church begins to get a little radical for you, you convert to another faith(3)Indeed most religions don’t actually lead on moral issues. From anti-semitisim, slavery and forced conversion, to the protection of rapists, the burning of witches, and homosexuality, the church leads from behind, and is dragged, kicking and screaming, into more tolerant positions already claimed by civilized societies, and even then only when they are confronted with irrelevancy, obsolescence, and a dearth of parishioners. People use their own moral judgement to pick a religion. It’s much easier to say that it’s impossible to know, or to claim mystical intuition (that you “just know” the truth, that you feel it in your bones) and find a church that will re-enforce your currently held beliefs (and you can go ahead and pick any set of beliefs you want, somewhere out there is a church that agrees with you), than it is to do the unsettling work of consciously examining your beliefs and their consequences.
But if doing the right thing were easy, everybody would do it. Failure to think about these things is simply the abdication of our greatest responsibility and our greatest faculty, that which allows us to make our way through the world and make good decisions: reason.
Most theistic religions approve of reasoning when it comes to supporting their faith, reasoning out what the faith of Abraham or Job can tell us, but strongly discourage reasoning when it comes to questioning the faith or the logic of it’s tenants. They make it an a priori issue which impedes reflective thought: by definition, faith is belief in the absence of reason. As soon as you have a reason to believe something, it’s no longer faith, it’s knowledge. Faith cannot exist in the presence of reason; they are mutually exclusive. Indeed, Christians have go so far as to make knowledge quite literally “the forbidden fruit”, the acquisition of which constitutes original sin(4)Bertrand Russel famously pointed out that there isn’t a single word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence). The result: questioning your faith is a sin, and supplanting doubt with mystical certainty a virtue.
This is a recipe for disaster.
The the faith approach takes a heavy dose of denial to overcome one obvious fault: it’s phenomenally arrogant. Whatever your faith, most people alive today, with faith no less strong than your own, believe (and nearly all throughout history have believed) that you’re wrong. No matter how strong your faith, you cannot commit it to reality by a force of will. If you could, then the right religions would be the most extreme ones; I doubt anyone reading this can claim faith stronger or more certain than that of say, the People’s Temple of Jim Jones, ISIS, Heaven’s Gate, or the 9/11 hijackers.
The strength of your belief has no bearing on whether those beliefs are true. And no matter how strong your faith, how devout your practice, how righteous your conviction, mystical certainty as exercised throughout the ages, from human sacrifices to the burning of witches, has always been a bad tool for making moral judgments.
Indeed, mystical certainty is perhaps the worst tool for decision making ever.
For the entirety of man’s 200,000-year history, in every civilization, in every tribe, we’ve invented gods which are said to intervene in our daily affairs. I say “invented”, because even the most devout Catholic and the most hardened atheist have one thing in common—they believe that over 99.9% of these gods, which man has believed in, put his faith in, murdered and died for, from Anunnaki and Kukulcan, to Osiris and Poseidon, must be invented–fairy tales—man made myths. The theist is actually an atheist regarding nearly all of it, only a tiny point of contention between the two: the theist withholds from the list of conjured deities a single god, or set of gods, which he or she believes is quite obviously real (and that, surprisingly enough, he or she has identified the correct one).
If the Catholic can understand why he doesn’t believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet, then that he can understand why the atheist doesn’t think Jesus was either.
Knowing in your heart that you’ve identified the correct theistic belief is intoxicating in its appeal to your ego. After all, if you found the correct religion when the vast majority of humans ever to have lived missed it, one of three things must be true:
- You are smarter than (or more spiritually in tune, or in some other way superior to) most other people .
- You’re favored by God, in His grace such that he had you born in a country where the right religion is accessible, at a time it’s accessible, and steered you to it, and has empowered you to explain to others, on his behalf, how best to live their lives.
- You got the right one by dumb luck (which, if true, makes heaven and hell nothing more than a divine lottery game, and would appear to invalidate any point to theism—it’s all a crap shoot).
That kind of appeal to ego, conscious or not, is inextricable from theistic religion, and is a strong disincentive towards honestly examining the validity of your beliefs.
It’s been my experience that when I want something to be true, I have to double check any evidence, since I tend to give far less weight to counter evidence, and extra weight to confirming evidence (I don’t mean to, and it’s taken years of reflection to see that I am as guilty of this as anyone, but I am. I bias my judgements). The appeal to ego, the comfort of companionship, the escape from a near constant fear of death, the reassurance of a just world, even if I can’t understand it right now—these are among the most powerful influences a human being can experience.
These factors make genuinely questioning your faith one of the hardest, yet most most courageous things you can do. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but it is an act of humility and integrity, an attempt to make yourself a better moral agent.
Of the thousands of gods, hundreds of thousands of sects of worship, only one of two things can be true: Either one of them is right, or they’re all wrong.
If there were no God, would you want to know?
Given that we compulsively make gods, that so many in history have been false, given the inability of any religion to make accurate claims about the natural world, given the overwhelming moral failures these theistic beliefs throughout history, and given the dynamic nature of these beliefs, inability to form any lasting consensus around them (today’s Catholic would have been heretical just 200 years ago) all suggest one thing:
We made it all up.
We’re wired to make it up. We’ve done it since before we could write.
There are unanswered questions, to be sure. But inventing a fake answer, while more satisfying, is worse than admitting we don’t know.
It is cruel and heartless not to realize that this is one of the hardest questions one can struggle with. But the only moral answer to the question “If there wasn’t a God, would you want to know” must be that you have to know. If there’s no God, moral inquiry can’t even truly begin until we know—there has never been a more divisive force than belief in God.
Let us, for a moment, forget all of the suffering caused by those who believed they had a personal connection with, or understood the wishes of, God. So we’ll ignore the long and disgusting history of the use of the Bible, Torah and Koran as a means to further the practice of slavery and warrants for genocide. Drop, too, acts of terrorism and slaughter between Protestants and Catholics, Shia and Suni, Muslim and Christian, Israelis and Palestinians, and so on. We’ll ignore the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the burning of heretics and witches, and the Catholic Church’s official policy of anti-Semitism towards Jews and its direct contribution to the Holocaust. Let’s drop homophobia and misogynisim. We’ll forgive superstitions like circumcision(5)Circumcision is a medieval and brutal practice. It is mutilation, practiced without consent of the child, which, while having spurious medical justification, inarguably removes the most sensitive and pleasurable part of the penis. Its practice would certainly be illegal if it didn’t have religious warrant. and genital mutilation. The hypocrisy of the Catholic church (lining their churches with stained glass, gilding Vatican toilet handles in gold, remolding Bishops’ homes for tens of millions, and acquiring million dollar estates—including the church’s gorgeous $30 million Madison Avenue mansion) can all safely be ignored. Let’s ignore the institutionalized and active covering up the rape(6)I’m sorry, but I must insist we not sanitize this and call it abuse. It was rape. That the church won’t call it by its proper name, and instead tries to mitigate their crimes by manipulating the language and referring to rape simply as “abuse,” marginalizes their victims, and should tell you everything you need to know about their contrition in these matters of (in some cases hundreds) of young boys (and girls, too)(7)Some people seem to think that the new pope is addressing this, but I see little evidence of it. My home town’s own Cardinal Bernard Law, a man I was quite familiar with in my youth, fled Boston ahead of a warrant, and now lives a lavish life in the Vatican, from where, thanks to the wisdom of the Holy See, he is both immune to consequence and cannot be extradited. Indeed, the church continues to defy all efforts to shed light on the depth of the problem, and to shelter the perpetrators on the grounds that protecting the institution is more important than justice, another untenable moral position for which they will one day have to apologize, though not till long after their victims are buried.. The forced conversion of people to Christianity and Islam, Rwandan Christian ministers inciting genocide, American ministers contributing to legislation making homosexuality a capital crime, the hypocritical offering of indulgences—trading money for divinity…
Let’s ignore it all, pretend it didn’t happen. They’re not the real crime when it comes to theistic religion.
The real crime?
All theistic religions must, and do, oppose human progress; they attack the process of, and the people who engage in, reasoning.
The power of reason is the most powerful tool we as a species possess, it is the sole source of our success on this planet. Religion not only does not allow for this success, but actively opposes it.
While religion has been forced back, forced to cede the point that perhaps burning people at the stake for unfavorable weather or crop failure, getting confessions of heretical behavior by forcing rats to burrow into a person’s stomach, and murdering those who engage in open inquiry, aren’t good ideas, it continues its unrelenting opposition both to progress, and to the fruits of that progress (from open heart surgery, to sterilization and antibiotics, to vaccines—all opposed in the name of God). And despite the universal–I mean complete and total–failure rate of theistic books as guides to the natural world, people still rely on them, both for answers to the natural universe and for moral guidance. Anyone can easily name five or ten biblical accounts of the world which science has utterly shattered, but I’ve yet to hear a single, just one, account of the natural world where science and the bible have disagreed, and the bible was right.
For two hundred thousand years we had only the smallest of technological advancements (the discovery of fire, agriculture, and basic engineering). If you survived the first five years of life, you were most likely to die of an abscess of the teeth (when was the last time you worried a tooth was going to kill you?). The average life expectancy was 32 years old.
That all started to change about 300 years ago. With the refinement of the scientific method, our understanding of the natural world and our ability to modify it to suit our needs, predict future events, and protect ourselves from disease and extreme conditions, blossomed. We more than doubled life expectancy, while simultaneously making life easier, longer, more productive, and safer than it’s ever been, curing disease and cutting the infant mortality rate more than a hundred fold. In that short 300 years we’ve accomplished more in than in the 10,000 years before that, and today’s high school student knows more about history, medicine, physics, gravity, biology, chemistry, the atom, the galaxy, and the nature of space and time itself, than the smartest man alive 200 years ago knew about any of those subjects.
This progress didn’t come from priests, but from people who challenged dogmatic thinking, and was opposed, often violently, by religion. The discovery that disease in a medieval castle came from throwing human waste into the moat, the sole source of drinking water, flew in the face of those who claimed it was the wrath of an angry God (and who claimed to have the cure, often in the form of a few Hail Marys and some donation to God almighty, which the church would happily accept in his name).
And while secularism has made it harder for religions to impose death on those who challenge them, churches still fiercely oppose progress to the suffering of millions, if not billions, of people: Global Warming is real and its man-made, but like virtually every other scientific discovery in human history, these facts have been deliberately opposed by many theists (most of whom of whom won’t trouble themselves to try to understand how we know this), impeding our response to what may well be one of the greatest challenges mankind has ever faced. They challenge evolution as “Just a theory”(8)You have to be willfully ignorant of science to not know that a “Theory,” like the theory of gravity, is stronger than a “law”, and considered the highest form of knowledge. That this level of ignorance exists is a direct result of assaults on science by theists opposed to its findings.), and waste public time and money trying to force a dark age methodology of natural inquiry into classrooms, to roll back progress and square their texts with reality. We know for a fact that condoms are the best protection against AIDS, overpopulation, and poverty(9)Contraception is one of the most underrated scientific accomplishments of all time. By decoupling procreation from sex, women can wait until they are emotionally and financially ready before having a child, and can limit the size of that family. It is the most powerful tool we have in combating poverty and famine. The Catholic Church, a wasteland of failed moral policy behind it, equivocates on this point, saying it’s okay to prevent births by using math, but not by using chemistry or physics, once again claiming special knowledge of God’s wishes, but this simple tool is barred by the Catholic Church in favor of “abstinence only” programs, conclusively proven to increase transmission of disease and poverty, highlights a staggering hypocrisy: the Catholic Church, which, to be blunt, can’t seem to restrain its own priests—men with vows of celibacy and committed to the service of god—from raping little boys in their parishes, but expects that a married man with AIDS will never have sex with his wife. There are people, men of power, hoping for war in the middle east, so that biblical prophecy can be fulfilled, and the end times (which have been just around the corner for the last 2,000 years or so) can commence. And Matthew 6:34, which commands that you “Take no thought for the morrow,” has been used to defend ignoring environmental concerns of any kind (if Jesus is coming back tomorrow, what does it matter?); children need education, workers need retirement programs, and diseases need to be arrested; “Take no thought for the morrow” is inherently immoral when taken to nearly any degree (and while he may disagree, I hope that the pope himself can see that I’m not kidding when I say that I don’t feel safer with nuclear launch codes in the hands of anyone who believes any of this).
Theism is our first attempt at understanding the world, but as astrology gave way to astronomy and alchemy to chemistry, religion must give way to science. Under no set of circumstances is faith a substitute for reason.
I was raised Protestant (loosely), but was always agnostic (which is a mild form of atheism—agnostics don’t practice theistic beliefs or religious teachings)—so I held firm to a just afterlife, even if 2,000-year-old tales of Jesus did not impress me. But I’d always had doubts, and after years of thought and debate, reached the conclusion that it was wish thinking. The truth is that nobody knows what happens when you die, nobody. If there is something, I suspect it’s nothing we’re even capable of comprehending; imagine the difference between how the ant views the world and a human. If there’s an afterlife it’s likely to be whole orders of magnitude more different than that… I can’t fathom my concerns about justice would remain intact.
Perhaps it’s a good thing. I have to kiss my children extra, connect with them emotionally, tell my wife I love her, and be courteous to people on the street—this is my only shot, I had better make it count.
I have no issue with theism, save in the cases where it emboldens reckless and irrational behavior, turns suffering into virtue, denies science and progress, enables rape, murder, and torture, all in the name metaphysical dogma which we all agree must be and has historically been dead wrong at least 99% of the time.
That theism still enjoys such popularity in the face of all of this is actually quite breathtaking.
But not only is there no evidence for theistic claims, not only have they had a staggering failure rate, but they are in fact immoral, commanding us to use clearly fallible faith over our far superior faculties of reason. As weapons of mass destruction get smaller and easier to make, we get closer and closer to death on a massive scale at the hands of people with only one defense for their actions: faith.
Reasoning is frowned upon in theism because faith cannot withstand the scrutiny of reason. Nearly all theistic “proofs” for God (or gods) are reducible to two central arguments—the God of the Gaps argument, and a Prime Mover argument. These arguments are actually two sides of the same coin, they beget each other (Prime Mover is actually a disguised Gaps argument, and Gaps relies on the same fallacious premises as Prime Mover). The destruction of the Gaps argument is actually quite easy—it’s literally the most employed argument in the history of human discourse, and it’s never been right. Ever. Not once. With the fall of Gaps, 90% of arguments (including Prime Mover) for the existence of any god of any kind are irrecoverable. Most theists, in order to prove god, rely on deistic arguments (you can’t prove that Jesus was the son of God because, well, something had to start the universe rolling)—a proper understanding of the difference between Theistic and Deistic arguments renders a second lethal blow to Gaps and Mover (at least where theism is concerned) and to the vast majority of the remaining arguments. What’s left is a reliance on faith (which can’t be employed in a rational discussion) or syllogistic fallacies (like insisting that failure to prove God does not exist means that He does).
Rather than restrict people to a linear argument as one might find in an essay or book, this codex allows you to browse and explore arguments at your leisure and in an order that makes sense to you. I hope that you can find something useful to you in these pages.
The Humanist Codex
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The World Christian Encyclopedia lists 55,000 denominations of Christianity in 238 countries. However, while many of these are indeed separate organizations, most do not differentiate belief in any meaningful way. When including only those with salient differences in belief, the real number is far closer to 3,000.|
|2.||↑||Christians sanitize this fact. You are either “saved” or “not saved”. If youàre a Christian, but of the wrong denomination, you are no more saved than a Jew, Hindu, or atheist.|
|3.||↑||Indeed most religions don’t actually lead on moral issues. From anti-semitisim, slavery and forced conversion, to the protection of rapists, the burning of witches, and homosexuality, the church leads from behind, and is dragged, kicking and screaming, into more tolerant positions already claimed by civilized societies, and even then only when they are confronted with irrelevancy, obsolescence, and a dearth of parishioners|
|4.||↑||Bertrand Russel famously pointed out that there isn’t a single word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence|
|5.||↑||Circumcision is a medieval and brutal practice. It is mutilation, practiced without consent of the child, which, while having spurious medical justification, inarguably removes the most sensitive and pleasurable part of the penis. Its practice would certainly be illegal if it didn’t have religious warrant.|
|6.||↑||I’m sorry, but I must insist we not sanitize this and call it abuse. It was rape. That the church won’t call it by its proper name, and instead tries to mitigate their crimes by manipulating the language and referring to rape simply as “abuse,” marginalizes their victims, and should tell you everything you need to know about their contrition in these matters|
|7.||↑||Some people seem to think that the new pope is addressing this, but I see little evidence of it. My home town’s own Cardinal Bernard Law, a man I was quite familiar with in my youth, fled Boston ahead of a warrant, and now lives a lavish life in the Vatican, from where, thanks to the wisdom of the Holy See, he is both immune to consequence and cannot be extradited. Indeed, the church continues to defy all efforts to shed light on the depth of the problem, and to shelter the perpetrators on the grounds that protecting the institution is more important than justice, another untenable moral position for which they will one day have to apologize, though not till long after their victims are buried.|
|8.||↑||You have to be willfully ignorant of science to not know that a “Theory,” like the theory of gravity, is stronger than a “law”, and considered the highest form of knowledge. That this level of ignorance exists is a direct result of assaults on science by theists opposed to its findings.|
|9.||↑||Contraception is one of the most underrated scientific accomplishments of all time. By decoupling procreation from sex, women can wait until they are emotionally and financially ready before having a child, and can limit the size of that family. It is the most powerful tool we have in combating poverty and famine. The Catholic Church, a wasteland of failed moral policy behind it, equivocates on this point, saying it’s okay to prevent births by using math, but not by using chemistry or physics, once again claiming special knowledge of God’s wishes|