This is one of those subjects that I feel the need to revisit from time to time. It is good to take some of these perennial issues that are settled in one’s own mind, and rethink them afresh. I am suspicious of settled opinions that are never challenged, not even, and especially my own. On a number of occasions, I have examined why believers believe. Less frequently have I examined why atheists disbelieve.
For me, it is not enough to disbelieve on the basis that the presented reasons to believe are bad. Perhaps the presenters of those reasons were just really bad presenters. Maybe there are good reasons to believe. But they don’t happen to know what they are. I don’t want to disbelieve something that may be true on the basis that I got a bad messenger. If a proposition is worth actively disbelieving, it is worth examining. Only a thorough examination can uncover good reasons to believe or not to believe something. Here are a few of my positive reasons for disbelieving religious claims:
- Prayer – Believers have no evidence to support their belief. At least, they have no empirical evidence they can share with a nonbeliever. The nonbeliever does not actually need evidence to disbelieve an unproven proposition. Fortunately, the nonbeliever has even more than that on his side. While the absence of evidence is a good start where evidence is expected, the nonbeliever also has disconfirming evidence to support his skepticism. When I was a believer, I prayed as fervently and knowledgeably as anyone I knew or heard of. The one, very definitive thing I can say about prayer is that it doesn’t work the way it is described in the bible.
Prayer is one of the few areas where the bible gives us specific instructions, and practical expectations of what should follow. We have an empirical measuring stick for success or failure. We can say to laboratory standards that the biblical notion of prayer does not work.
Nonetheless, we are always hearing Christians talk about how God answered this prayer or that. Yet every answered prayer can be easily explained by natural causes. The modern Christian pray life is unimaginative and without genuine evaluation of the situation. Prayer doesn’t work. And they will never pray in such a way as to make that fact obvious to themselves. The way that Christians pray and the things they pray for is a sort of tacit admission that prayer does not work.
- Christian Sin – I did not grow up in the Holiness tradition. They believed that becoming a Christian entailed becoming holy, as in sinless. My brand of Christianity was a bit more mainstream. We taught that though Christians sinned, their status as a Christian meant that they could easily be forgiven. It was on offer for the asking.
But even mainstream Christians don’t avoid the Holiness trap completely. There is always some expectation that the in dwelling spirit of God provides you with some kind of defense against the wiles of the devil. At one point, the bible says, “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” This implies that the spirit of God which you have, is more powerful than the forces of evil. If Christians had such a spiritual advantage, they should be winning more of the battles. But they’re not.
There is no evidence that the spirit-equipped Christian is more able to put down the bottle or the crack pipe than the spiritless atheist. Christians are not winning the battle of addition, or the battle of divorce, or the battle of pre-marital chastity, or any other battle involving them overcoming their idea of sin in some tangible way. I offer the average Christian life as proof that there is nothing special acting positively on those lives.
- Failed Predictions – In science, predictions are evidence. A properly formulated prediction that comes true serves as a piece of evidence that the theory is true. However, if the prediction does not pan out, the theory is disproved. One failed, properly formulated prediction undoes the whole thing.
So it is with religion. Even the bible agrees with the principle. The bible transposes prediction to prophesy. But it is clear that prophecy includes prediction. And that a failed prediction negates both the prophetic teaching, and the one making the prediction. Here’s the passage:
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. Deut. 18:20-22
Jesus made a failed prophecy that was repeated by Paul. The prophecy was that the second coming would happen in the lifetime of his apostles. Regardless of whether that is what Jesus meant, that is clearly what he said, and how they took it. A true prophesy is indistinguishable from a false one if it is communicated so poorly that it conveys a false meaning.
This article shows how some Christians wrestle with the issue. It even points out that the beloved, C. S. Lewis acknowledged the prophesy as apparently false, and had no satisfying explanation. We can debate the Olivet Discourse and its implications all day. But that is not the only example of failed prophesy in the bible. But we only need one. When I was a believer, I ran out of excuses for the Olivet Discourse. It was clear that Jesus and Paul taught an imminent second coming. They were wrong, false, and not to be believed.
There Is No Sign of Supernatural Goodness
God is supposed to be goodness personified. As near as I can tell, there are no signs of this god’s presence. His fingerprint of goodness is not stamped on this universe. All of the traditional matter in the universe is due to the cataclysmic destruction of stars over billions of years. Nothing was literally brought to life by the gentle word of a loving god. We are the product of death, destruction, and more death.
millions of species have gone extinct to make way for the present group. By nature, animals eat other animals in this brutish fight for survival. There is no hint of supernatural goodness in the cosmos, or in the animal kingdom much closer to home. But what about those who are supposedly made in the image of god?
If you take the Genesis story literally, the first character with a speaking role who wasn’t god turned out to be as mean as a snake. In fact, it was a snake. It was described as a creature made, and placed in the garden by god. It performed the first overt act of evil. It had no good in it. The woman chose to believe the snake over god. The man chose to believe the woman. If goodness is defined by ones adherence to god’s will, they were all rotten from the start.
Their kids were no better. Out of two boys, one of them was a fratricidal maniac. By the time the world had enough people to be considered populated, there were none good save one. Besides that one and his family, all had to be utterly destroyed for their wickedness. My point is that even in the most generous reading of the bible, there were never any people who demonstrated the supernatural goodness of god. From the beginning, it was always just humans doing the best they could to make it through the day.
Even today, there are no sects of Christians who’s lives indicate the presence of supernatural goodness. Never mind the fact that they commit all the same sins for which everyone else are condemned. At their best, they are no better than a secular humanist. Besides overt, religious expressions, the lives of the best Christians and the best secularists are indistinguishable.
We Are Required to Take it on Faith
I cannot believe by gunpoint. Even in the bible, a feature of false religion was that it was forced upon people by threat of death. You would be thrown into the lion’s den, or persecuted by Jewish enforcers like Saul. As it turns out, Christianity is no better. The message from Jesus is believe or burn in hell. It is easy to see how the crusades grew out of such a religion.
Faith is never a thing that can be commanded. It must be earned by persuasion, overwhelming evidence, or personal experience. It cannot be coerced. If faith is to mean something other than blind acceptance of facts not in evidence, then it is oxymoronic to command it of someone. But Christianity is filled with oxymorons and paradoxes. A similar command is to love God and love one another, as if love can be commanded.
Just as love by coercion is not love, faith by coercion is not faith. Wanting to believe is not the same as believing. I wanted to believe. Lots of people wanted to believe. We simply could not no matter how hard we tried. When the spark of doubt is introduced by multiple disconfirmations that fan the flames, belief becomes impossible. I want to believe that I won the lottery. But the disconfirmations of my lottery numbers not matching the winning numbers puts a damper on my ability to believe.
The threat of hell if I don’t believe does not help. If I bought into the threat, all it would do is make me want to believe at all costs. I would ignore disconfirmations, twist logic, abandon reason, and do whatever it took to deceive myself into thinking that things I don’t believe are actually true. That is the position I would be forced into. Indeed, that is the position I was in. Any religion that encourages people to abandon intellectual integrity is evil on that basis alone. Christianity demands faith. Christianity is evil.
The Story Does Not Hold Together
Every fan of science fiction knows that the moment supernatural elements are introduced into the storyline, major plot holes are soon to follow. We tolerate this in our fiction because we suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying a good story. But in many cases, the plot holes are so big, they take us out of the story, making it impossible for us to suspend disbelief any longer.
The reason we generally do not believe alien abduction stories isn’t for the lack of first-hand testimony. We’ve got plenty of that. The problem is that the stories simply do not hold together. They leave too many plot holes. Aliens advanced enough to traverse space to get here, for some reason, need to do exploratory surgery to figure out basic information about the lifeforms on this planet. They were able to see us from countless lightyears away. They have presumably learned our languages, and know all the lyrics to our favorite songs. With all that power and information, they just tinker with a few of us and go off on their merry way? The story isn’t believable. And that’s the main reason we don’t believe it.
The plot holes in the Christian story are as big as any in a Michael Bay film. Here is a brief sample of what I mean:
- God was perfectly content within his own perfection, yet created inferior beings who would cause him no end of grief. In question form, why did god create anything? We create things to fulfill needs. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Sometimes that need is just to relieve boredom. But it is always driven by some kind of need. God’s creation has caused him to repent and cry. Why would he do such a thing? What need did he who has no needs, have to fulfill by creating?
- Why does he so desperately want a relationship with inferior beings? Imagine a human on a deserted island fixated on cultivating loving relationships with earthworms. There is nothing about that scenario that is not disgusting. What if he is a mad scientist who gives the worms a rudimentary ability to communicate, but is constantly punishing them for not rising above their earthworm natures? God wanting a loving relationship with humans is downright creepy.
- Why are we here and not there? If what god wants from us is a loving relationship where we live with him in a heavenly place which he has prepared, why aren’t we there right now? Why did he create this whole other universe for us to live, only to spend the rest of his time trying to rescue us from it? If he had wanted us in heaven from the beginning, why is this universe even here at all?
- If god wants all men to be saved, why aren’t all men saved? If your kid is suffering from delusions, and finds herself drowning in the middle of the ocean, would you save her whether or not she recognized you or her condition? She’s sick. She has no idea what’s going on. If you drop a lifeline from a helicopter, she probably won’t take it as she wouldn’t know what to make of it. Would you just fly away content that you tried? Of course not. If necessary, you would use nets to fish her out. God has that power. If he wants everyone to be saved, why doesn’t he just save them? Why the drama?
- How do we get evil from free will? If god has free will but no possibility of evil, why should our free will be some kind of gateway to evil? Why did he not just give us the kind of free will that is immune to evil like he has?
- In a perfect, heavenly existence, why would even the devil revolt? Conceptually, god is perfect, and everything he makes is perfect. Yet imperfection is the result of everything he makes. Adam and Eve can be given the benefit of the doubt because they had a few traps that pushed them toward the dark side. But what of Lucifer? Did he have a talking snake to tempt him, or a forbidden tree? If Heaven had no such evil distractions, why would he, or anyone else conceive of rebelling? But things were apparently so bad, a third of the angels thought rebellion to be the more reasonable course of action.
- Why should we believe Heaven will be a paradise for us? As plot holes go, this one is very hard to ignore. Like Midas, everything god touches turns to garbage. Before humans, he created rebellious angels, and oversaw a war in heaven. He creates an entirely new universe that was instantly infected with more evil from his faulty creation. Somewhere in the other-dimensional cosmos, there is still a war raging on.
Paul says humans will judge the angels. That seems to imply that the angels are still doing things that need to be judged. At no point has god demonstrated the ability to create a peaceful paradise for anyone. So why should anyone believe that when humans get to war-torn Heaven, things will be different? If he is to remake the human heart for suitability in paradise, why not just do it now?
Another good reason to disbelieve is the prevalence of atheism. A god that wants to be known could be known by all. People who have heard of me know that I exist. They may not care one way or the other. But there are no David Johnson disbelievers. If I wanted people to know of my existence, I have many convincing methods at my disposal. We know that the Queen of England exists. We know Tom Brady exists. We know my neighbor exists. If you would like proof, I can easily provide it for you. Yet large swaths of the population do not know that god exists. That’s a problem.
The only way god could be unknown to some is if he wanted to be unknown. God could easily make himself known to atheists. That wouldn’t change all atheists. Like the demons, they will acknowledge his existence. But they would likely not be inclined to worship him. So there is no benefit in leaving some to be honest atheists who simply do not believe he exists. Why not let the debate be about whether we should worship him rather than about whether he even exists? I believe that the fact that he does not make himself universally known is a good indication that he doesn’t exist.
The Origin Story Does Not Explain Our Origins
Every legend has an origin story. The purpose of origin stories is to ground the myth in reality, thereby making it believable. This device is usually reserved for fiction. true events do no need origin stories. When the story is true, we just call it history. But almost nothing in the bible can be considered history. While many of the stories are placed in historical settings, the stories read like fiction. That goes double for the origin stories.
At minimum, origin stories should explain why some things are the way they are. But the biblical origin stories don’t explain anything. The Genesis story does not tell us how humans evolved, and how the world was formed over billions of years. If that is the story the biblical writers wanted to tell, they could have done so in unambiguous language. That is not the origin story they told.
Magic trees and talking snakes do not explain the human condition, or why snakes crawl rather than walk, or why childbirth is painful, or why farming is hard. Worse, it tries to explain things that are not real, like why women are inferior to men. Humans do not die because we were barred from eating from the Tree of Life. Humans never lived to be hundreds of years old. Animals never spoke in the tongues of men. Giants are not the product of angels mating with humans. Everything about the origin story is wrong. If the origin story is that wrong, why would any rational person believe any of the rest of it?
The Holy Book Is Anything But
The origin stories may be the beginning, but are far from the end of the problems with the holy book. Not only is it factually inaccurate about how the world works, it is reprehensibly immoral with regard to the actions and pronouncements of god. The moral intuition demonstrated in the bible is not divine, but all too human, and the worst of humanity at that. The bible has its god and his generals committing war crimes that would shame the most ambitious despot.
Beyond the morality problems, the teachings are atrocious. Almost every unique teaching of Jesus is universally ignored by Christians because they simply do not speak to what anyone considers right thinking. No one in their right mind sells all their possessions and gives the proceeds to the poor. Even philanthropists don’t do that. And yes, Jesus said that to a general audience, not just to one individual on one isolated occasion.
No one who doesn’t want to be bullied turns the other cheek when the other is struck. No one should quietly submit to bullying and abuse, ever. Don’t follow that evil advice. If you turn the other cheek, it had better be a part of a roundhouse kick. Under no circumstances should you gouge out your lustful eye or cut off your sinful hand so that you can enter Heaven named, rather than enter hell in tact. Even if you try to argue that he didn’t mean these things literally, they are still stupid things for a moral teacher to say.
Beyond the specific teachings, the book is overly confusing. If the sincerest, most educated academics can’t agree on what is being said in any given passage, the average person doesn’t stand a chance. With tens of thousands of Christian denominations in the US alone, it is abundantly clear that no one really understands it. In no way is the Jewish and Christian holy book, holy.
The Blind Are Still Blind
When the Imprisoned preacher named John wanted to know if Jesus was the real deal, Jesus sent this message as a reply:
the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.
I have the same question as John. But the answer does not work for me because I am not in prison, and have access to the outside world. With my own poor vision, I can see that the blind use white canes, the lame are in wheelchairs, lepers beg doctors for medicine, the deaf read lips, and thankfully, the dead are still very much dead. Lies to the contrary are being preached to the poor. But what they really need is a hot meal and a dry place to sleep.
I live downtown. There are three hospitals within a mile of my place. One of them is a church sponsored hospital. None of them have ever heard of this Jesus that cures disease and heals injury. The Christian hospital seems to be the biggest of the three. It’s full all the time. It is not known for better care or faster healing. It does medicine just like the others. Nowhere in the world are faith healers taking jobs from doctors. Medical researchers are fighting the same diseases that were around in the first century. If miraculous healing power is the sign that Jesus is real, then I can only conclude that he was nothing more than a fraud.
Conclusion: We’re Still Here
I will conclude with the same point I have made in other writings. We’re still here. The Christian message of hope comes down to, ”The check’s in the mail”. They are told to give a lifetime of worship and tithes for a reward they can only receive after they die. Sure, this life is going to be filled with persecution and hard knocks. Consider it a joy to suffer for the cause of Christ. Don’t worry, you will get your reward when you’re dead. Really! The check is in the mail.
Christians have been checking their mailboxes for the last 2,000 years.
Despite waiting for the world to end in fire and blood, and a cloudy rescue for the faithful, we’re still here. You still have a crappy job. You can barely afford your house payment. Your health is in decline. Your kids are in constant danger from the predator who just moved in down the street. And through it all, we’re still here.
The horn has not sounded. The horsemen have not mounted. The lion is not lying peacefully with the gazelle. Swords have not been beaten into plowshares. And we’re still here. At the end of the day, all the Christian can say is, “One day, just you wait!” And they do. In the mean time, we’re still here, and have been far longer than the biblical writers anticipated. But they have all cashed out, and don’t have to live with the embarrassment of the fact that WE’RE STILL HERE!
Jesus tells his disciples that god is preparing a place for them in his house of many rooms. Talk about a story not holding together. How is it that god was just then preparing a place? Wasn’t it already prepared before time began? Is he still working on it? Why on earth are we still here and not there? These are just a few of the positive reasons I offer for disbelief.