–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Remarks on Religion

by | Oct 15, 2023

By now, most readers know that I am an atheist, as I do not believe in the existence of God or anything supernatural. Readers also likely know that I am Jewish by lineage and culturally and that I think God is useless both as an explanation and as a moral exemplar.

Because I can see neither reasons nor uses for God, I am interested in the fact that so many people do. And as the things I have written about this are scattered all over the place, I thought I’d gather together my current thoughts on the subject in a single piece. Initially, I thought I might do a longer essay, even perhaps a short book on the subject, but the rationales for God are meager and poor and admit of little by way of rigorous philosophical treatment, the large quantity of material purporting to do this notwithstanding. As one of a number of widespread and long standing irrational human forms of life, then, religion’s detailed study is best left to psychologists, anthropologists, and historians, philosophical theology being nothing but the proprietary logic and hermeneutics of what is essentially a subgenre of fiction.

As Christians in the West are by far the most actively and aggressively engaged in religious apologetics and proselytization, a number of my remarks will be specific to Christianity, but the things I have to say will apply to any religion that invokes supernatural gods or other such entities (kami; djinni; angels; souls; etc.).

[1] Every thought and action that we ascribe to God is metaphorical. Thinking and acting require embodiment, and God is not embodied. Indeed, a number of his alleged attributes, like transcendence and omnipresence, entail that he cannot be embodied. So, until someone explains what it means for a disembodied being to command things, make it rain for forty days and nights, send people places, think things to himself, etc., such attributions and the narratives into which they figure are devoid of any factual content. 

Several Christian interlocutors on social media (where I once threw out this question) have tried to reject my “presumption” that thinking and acting require embodiment, but I presume no such thing. Mine is an empirically based view, and as far as we know – as all the sciences engaged with these subjects have observed – thinking requires a nervous system and acting, in the sense of walking, running, swimming, flying, orally or manually talking, etc., requires a physiology. God has neither. Can have neither, given his alleged attributes. That’s all there is, and it’s all I need.

[2] Given [1], appeals to God cannot explain anything about the natural world. I will often hear Christian apologists claim that without God, we cannot explain where the universe came from. Whether because there must be a “first cause” or the universe is “fine-tuned” or what have you, an appeal to God allegedly is necessary if any scientific explanation is to get off the ground. The trouble of course is that in order to cause or fine-tune something, one has to be – you guessed it – embodied. We know what it means to say that “A caused B,” when A and B are physical events, and we know what it means to say, “So-and-so tuned the guitar,” where so-and-so and the guitar are both physical things. We have no idea what these mean when either A or B is a non-physical event or thing or when both are. Indeed, we don’t even know what it would mean for something to be an event and also be non-physical.    

[3] Because of [2], every instance of “natural theology” is at best fallacious and at worst, incoherent. Anything observed in nature is either a physical thing or event and cannot be explained by appeal to non-physical things or events. Indeed all inferences to the best explanation offered by theists should be rejected on the grounds that not only are they not the best explanation, they are no explanation at all.

[4] If you understand (a) Cartesian Dualism and (b) the problems with it, you should understand [1]-[3]. The same difficulties also apply to Platonism. Talk of physical things “partaking,” “copying,” “sharing in,” etc., Platonic Forms is nothing more than metaphorical talk and explains nothing about the characteristics of those things, until the metaphors are cashed out.

[5] Anything that would be evidence that Yahweh or Allah or whoever “made X” would be evidence that super powerful aliens made it. 

[6] Most religious people adhere to the religion of their family and place. Geography predicts religious affiliation more strongly than anything else, which means that the most committed, evangelical Christian, if born in India, would most likely be a Hindu and perhaps, even, as committed a Hindu as he currently is a Christian. I trust it is unnecessary to explain why this should give people pause as to the truth of their religious beliefs.

[7] Given the number of religions on the earth, it is unlikely that yours happens to be the correct one, and everyone is as convinced of the truth of theirs as you are of yours. When I lived in the Bible Belt, I was consistently surprised by the level of confidence people had in their particular brand of evangelical or Pentecostal religion (some of them brands I’d never even heard of until that point) and would think that the best thing for them would be to live in a Lubavitch or Satmar community for a few weeks, where it would become quickly evident that there were others far more religiously committed – and more rigorous in their religious lifestyles – than they are. (Indeed, for all their professions and proclamations of extraordinary and intense religious faith, your typical evangelical or Pentecostal seems to behave pretty much like everyone else, for good or for bad.)

[8] Once you move past the initial Abrahamic religion – i.e., Judaism – I don’t see how you select among its appropriators. What makes the “New Testament” scripture but not The Koran? Or the Book of Mormon? Or whatever the hell the Jehovah’s Witnesses use? There’s an old Jewish joke, “Mormons exist so that Christians will know how Jews feel,” and it’s really apt.

[9] That a bunch of Iron Age texts, written by who knows whom, reveal the ultimate truth of reality and the universe is unlikely to say the least.

[10] Believing in supernatural beings and events on the basis of nothing but millennia-old writings and the traditions that grew out of them requires a level of credulity that if made general would be dangerous. Religious belief is a model of the bad sort of compartmentalization. 

[11] As people from religious traditions all over the world claim personal experiences of deities, angels, demons, etc., claiming such experiences oneself provides no rationale for thinking one’s religion true as opposed to theirs. 

[12] A common claim that apologists make is that without God, there can be no morality; that God provides the epistemic and metaphysical “grounds” for our judgments of value and obligation. Now, aside from the question of whether such “grounds” are required – I have argued on any number of occasions that they are not – the various gods that are invoked could never provide them. The behavior of these deities, whether Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, etc., as recounted in their respective religions’ sacred texts, is miles away from what anyone normally would think of as even minimally decent, let alone exemplary. Genocide (which is what a worldwide flood effects), mass rape, enslavement, eternal damnation for minor offences (according to some of these religions, a mere lack of belief is sufficient for the latter), do not constitute the behavior of a moral being, let alone one who is supposed to serve as morality’s “ground.”

The typical strategy when confronted with the barbarous behavior of Iron Age deities is to allegorize all the narratives containing it, the idea being that to mere mortals like us with such a highly limited vision and perspective, God’s intentions and behaviors are inscrutable. (Susan Sontag talks about this in “Against Interpretation,” and claims that this allegorizing impulse represents the beginning of hermeneutics, generally.) But while this may address the problem of God’s barbarism, vis a vis morality, it simply creates a new one: namely, that the attitudes and behaviors of an inscrutable being can provide no guidance whatsoever, with respect to human values and morals. 

[13] When one examines the great religious traditions, all of which stem from antiquity, what one is confronted with are obviously, demonstrably archaic, primitive conceptions of the universe, values, notions of obligation, the respective roles of the sexes, economics, politics, and the like. One encounters shamanistic rituals, “lock-and-key” type metaphysical formulas of the “chant these words over there on the first Tuesday of every third month, and X will happen” variety, and hierarchies of deities and angels that look remarkably like ancient monarchic and Imperial hierarchies. All of which makes perfect sense in an Iron Age context. But it seems to me that it would take a good amount of self-deception – or at least, a sort of psychic indolence – to look at all of this and say, “Nope, these aren’t fascinating and often lurid snapshots from the messy, often ugly history of human development, but rather, eternal truths about the nature and operation of the universe and everything and everyone in it. Oh, and just my religion, not those other people’s.”