Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I Prefer Reality (Part 1)

Why I am overjoyed that the religious version of reality is not true

In arguments between atheists and believers, there are often two main themes to be debated. One is whether the claims made by religion are true or not: such as the existence of God, the afterlife, the creation of the world. This is debated with facts and evidence, and the application of science.  The other is whether religion is a good thing or not: whether it is a valuable moral guide or leads to great harm. This relies on anecdote and experience, and is concerned with issues such as women's rights, marriage equality, and religiously motivated warfare. But in this post, I want to look at it from a somewhat different perspective.

Often, when debating the first of the two ideas - that of the literal truth of religion - it is emphasised that no matter how much one wants something to be true, it makes no difference to the actual reality; and the number of people who believe in something is irrelevant to its existence.

This sometimes appears to tacitly acknowledge the beauty of the myths which we must reluctantly dispel; that no matter how grand and comforting a divine vision might be, we must point to evidence and reason and sadly disappoint. However, while this is certainly a sensible and tactful way to address the issue, I completely disagree with the sentiment. That is, I am truly, joyously glad that religion is not true.

Now, clearly this makes as little difference to the actual facts as the apologetics of the most devout believer; and it is always important to keep one's personal preference out of scientific arguments about real world claims.  But I want to make the point that instead of finding the version of reality espoused by religion to be an inspiration and a guide to wholesome living, mistaken though it appears to be, I see it as a horrible, dystopian, nihilistic outlook, and am so happy that the past few centuries of scientific endeavour have shown it to be almost definitely untrue.

In the following, I will focus on the Christian version of reality - mainly because that is what I am most familiar with, but also because it is the most prevalent in western popular culture; though hopefully the points I make will be applicable to other faiths too. Also, I should emphasise that this is all just my opinion, and an explanation of why I reject such beliefs - not necessarily a judgement on those who hold them.

First of all, in almost all religions, there exists a strict hierarchical structure. There are people, at various levels, and above them there is a god, or gods. This is most clearly seen in the Catholic church, with its layers of priests, cardinals, bishops, and ultimately the pope; but this division is more fundamental than any one church, and even in the most liberal and egalitarian sect of the Abrahamic religions, there is still the idea of humans at one level, and God up above.

I would strongly object to a world that worked this way. It means that no matter what we do, how much we achieve, there is still a superior being with whom we can never hope to compete. According to Christian thought, God has powers that we can never possess nor understand, and we must therefore deal with being forever inferior. This rather dampens our sense of achievement and self-worth, since no matter what we achieve, what wonders we discover, we are forever playing catch-up, groping in the dark at things beyond our ability under the gaze of the all-knowing creator.

This attack on our pride as a species is bad enough, though arguably having to face our limitations due to more tangible constraints is little better. But worse is the fact that God is not only our superior, but our supreme ruler, and will always be: he is the ultimate unelected monarch. Moreover, religions tend to emphasise strict obedience and unquestioning devotion, bowing down to every whim of this supreme being: thus God, not merely a ruler or overseer, is a dictator. This is no mere Earthly dictator with chemical weapons or hired killers: this one can know everything you do, everything you think, and has absolute power.

If our every action is meant to glorify him, to do his work, and give thanks for everything which we receive, this is no benign relationship with a superior - it is slavery.  Indeed, in much Christian imagery there is the view that we are slaves to the lord, here to do his good work. The idea that all of us live our lives under the rule of a judgemental and vengeful master (no matter how benevolent and loving he is sometimes claimed to be) is truly horrifying.

In this sad state of affairs is a great sense of powerlessness. I find the idea that we must live our lives as slaves to an all-powerful ruler abhorrent, but if this really is true, what could we even do? We are threatened with eternal torture if we do not obey; there is no way we can actually rebel, or reject God, if he has the means and willingness to punish dissenters. We are even fed the story of an angel who attempts to rise up against God and his dominion of the heavens: it does not end well. In even the most brutal and oppressive political regime, there is always the possibility of a revolution, of fighting back; that perhaps one day we, or our descendants, may be free.  In the picture of reality painted by Christianity, there is no such escape, no possibility of hope. It is terrifying to even consider this as a candidate for the real explanation of the world.

One could argue, however, that brutal as this may seem, it is only a temporary state, before being infinitely rewarded in a following life (assuming we are appropriately sycophantic). After all, this is only a preliminary testing stage, to sort out the good from the bad and allocate us our appropriate afterlife. Why worry about the apparent inequality of this brief life when we will ascend to our rightful place at its conclusion?

This too I find to be abhorrent, for a number of reasons.

First, the shocking mismatch between punishment and crime. How can it possibly be fair to win eternal reward or damnation, from a mere seventy or so years of good or bad behaviour? Compared to eternity, that is nothing. Life is messy and complicated, morality is a tricky business, and the rules we are given are ambiguous at best and nonsensical and conflicting at worst. Yet this is how we are to prove ourselves?

Second, surely the whole period of testing is pointless anyway. If God is all knowing, he would know which of us are good and which of us are bad, without needing to run the test. On the one hand, if he has a plan, and we are all destined to play our part, then what's the point? On the other, if we are indeed free to choose our fate, for what purpose, other than to prove the abilities of what God himself created? Either alternative casts us as worthless toys, existing only amuse their creator, as we plunge inevitably and ignorantly toward our final sorting. I refuse to believe our lives are merely spent as God's playthings, as pawns in some great sick game.

Furthermore, suppose that we do have free will and our fate is not sealed from the beginning; if we know what the rewards and punishments are, and how to obtain or avoid them (as the holy texts supposedly reveal), then this is really not a good test of our character or worthiness: it is merely a test of how well we can play the game. That people do good deeds in order to get into heaven does not show they are good people, it shows they are motivated by reward and acting accordingly (that doesn't mean they are selfish or bad people either, just that their actions in this setup are not a good indicator of any inherent moral quality).  The examples of financiers maximising their short term gain irrespective of consequences, or hospitals striving to meet targets rather than cure patients, illustrate how reward driven systems can fail to produce their intended goals. Of course, in this scenario, such concerns become irrelevant, and the motivations for Earthly choices make little difference, since the end - of getting into heaven - is fulfilled; and once the savage play has ended we all 'live' happily ever after... but this is exactly why it is all so horrible. It means life is inconsequential, a brief examination, a preparation for things to come. To me that seems such a terrible waste. Any philosophy which demeans the amazing lives we lead and the fabulous things we do is evil as far as I am concerned.

The knowledge that this was indeed the meaning - that all the world is merely a stage upon which we must audition, and nothing more - would really detract from the joy of being human and the magic of reality (I should make it clear that we do not know this: but religions take great pains to insist that we do).  There is no future for which it is worth striving, no incentive to better ourselves, since all we need to do is abide by the rules and claim our reward when we die. To actually be told the meaning of life... and find that it is to perform for our heavenly spectator, is surely the greatest tragedy that could befall humanity. We will all inevitably die, but if to die is our purpose, then I would say we have scarcely lived. Our desires, our passions, our loves and losses, our mighty achievements and great follies, would all be for nothing.

And so, if that is truly the nature of reality - we born, we are tested, we are judged, and we cannot escape - then it's a reality I detest. If this is all a game for God's amusement, then I don't want to play; if there's any way I can escape this vision of despair, I will; and given the opportunity to doubt and reject it, I will take it wholeheartedly. So as our increasing exploration shows that this ancient and twisted vision is less and less likely, I think you will understand why I smile on our good fortune.

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