This book will not take a position on whether or not there is a God. Plenty of other people have already made passionate arguments for both sides of this question, and the only real, honest answer is that we don't know. While I cannot prove or disprove the existence of a prime mover, the evidence submitted thus far on behalf of God requires us to use words like "faith" and "belief" in order to substantiate the claims. To be religious is to believe that the creator of the universe has authored a number of books and that these books are deemed to be so profound as to completely dismiss the possibility of human authorship. One need only page through any of these texts to see the implausibility which results from that kind of claim, yet the majority of the people living on our planet find these texts to be not just worthwhile, but rather essential documents on which to base their lives upon. As I intend to demonstrate, this type of ideology is not only naive and divisive, it is dangerous.
I began the book with a quote from Albert Einstein, not just because it refutes the religious who erroneously claim Einstein for themselves, but because it's the perfect umbrella under which to present a case for the Divine Default. The idea of a divine being isn't new and the concept of God isn't necessarily the problem. It's what we do with that belief that has serious consequences. For all of the good that has been attributed to God and religion, rarely as a society do we recognize and acknowledge the associated dangers and pitfalls. For many of us, our worldviews are built upon a foundation of religion - a foundation that isn't as solid as we are led to believe. We treat ancient texts as rigid instructions on how we are to live our lives and many of our fellow neighbors fail to think critically about these claims instead treating them as infallible truths. We attempt to find meaning in the world by looking to the divine and we frequently use these "divinely-inspired" ancient texts as justification for our beliefs and actions. By virtue of their place in history, the most advanced and knowledgeable person in the first-century would be considered merely elementary by today's standards. You and every person that you have ever met have more scientific knowledge of our world than the most advanced first-century person could possibly have dreamed of. Even the average tribal elder living today in the most remote parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Egypt are more knowledgeable about our world than any of the figures from the times of Moses and Jesus and yet the words written thousands of years ago by these primitive people hold tremendous and irrational influence over contemporary society. It is an eye-opening experience to read the Bible from this perspective. The authors of Genesis for example gave us dominion over animals but clearly had no idea that this dominion wouldn't include germs - organisms that they didn't know existed and that we still don't have complete dominion over. Any assertion of historical or biological significance by the people who wrote our holy books should be open to scrutiny. Any scientific claim, whether cosmological, biological, or geological, made by a pre-scientific culture should be scrutinized. Because of its pervasive nature, the roots of religion and the resulting beliefs and actions shouldn't be glossed over or dismissed, and yet religion has and continues to be the only area of our discourse that remains systematically protected from criticism. Is this protection justified? If beliefs directly impact our actions, then it should be of utmost importance to each of us that we reduce the amount of false beliefs that we accept as fact. When a belief can influence an action, we should want to have as many true beliefs as possible. We have to be open to change in order to accomplish this.
When discussing religion, it's important to ask ourselves what it would take to change our minds. This very simple question goes right to the heart of determining how open one's mind is on this topic. Before you read another sentence, ask yourself what would it take for you to change your mind? You could be steadfast in your conviction, but do you remain open to changing your belief if the appropriate evidence warrants such a change? If you could visually see or verbally speak to God, would that cause you to believe? If science could physically prove abiogenesis, would that be enough to convince someone that divine creation stories are false? I ask these questions because it is important to know where you draw your own line. How sincere are you at finding the "truth", whatever that may be? If you are ultimately unwilling to listen or consider any side other than your own, the chances of finding the truth become no better than the odds of finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. As a former believer, I know where my line in the sand is. An omniscient god would know exactly what is needed to convince me of its existence, and being omnipotent, it could easily produce such evidence. That didn't happen while I was a believer and it hasn't happened since.
If someone wants to believe that Jesus was the son of God or that Brahman created our world, so be it. I happily support their right to believe anything they like as long as they keep their thoughts within the privacy of their own home and it doesn't hurt anyone. It's when those beliefs escape that privacy and enter the public realm that I begin to take issue. Beliefs all too easily become actions and therein lay the problem. If religions and their followers were able to keep their beliefs to themselves, this book wouldn't exist. Sadly, that is simply not the world that we live in. Many of our brothers and sisters truly believe that the creator of the universe desires us each to adopt certain beliefs and practices. Many of these beliefs require actions taken in this life that will purportedly influence the next life and we have been cowed into not criticizing either the belief or the action. We are told that these unjustified beliefs are sacred and off the table for rational discourse. As Salman Rushdie once said, "the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible." We can openly criticize and expostulate our neighbor's position on politics, history, fashion, or finances but we must somehow respect his/her beliefs about invisible realities even when those certainties of the next life are often discordant and incompatible with acceptance in this one. When someone speaks about their faith in glowing terms, they are essentially saying that they are prepared to believe in almost anything on little/no evidence. Should the most appropriate response to a statement like that be one of respect or suspect?
When parents are advocating the teaching of creationism or pushing for prayer in our public school classrooms, these actions require a response. When folks elevate Canon Law or Sharia over secular laws, these actions require a response. When religious belief influences laws preventing the scientific advancement of initiatives like stem cell research, these actions require a response. When condoms are considered morally evil, actions taken because of this belief require a response. When homosexual couples are denied the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual couples, these actions require a response. Every time religion attempts to tear down the wall separating church and state, each of those attempts requires a response. If the various religions and their billions of followers were truly capable of keeping their beliefs to themselves, folks like me would have no reason to raise our voices in response. Again, this is simply not the world that we find ourselves living in.
If there is a purpose to this book, it is to elevate this millennia-old discussion by putting the "common" back into common sense using simple logic and rationality instead of superstition and bad evidence. None of the concepts I put forth requires the reader to hold a Ph.D. to understand. Common sense and common knowledge are enough to highlight religious contradictions. If you are religious, my hope is that you'll become more aware of these contradictions by the end of the book. If you are not religious, it is my sincere desire and hope that you will finish this book having learned something new. I'll attempt to do this by applying commonly held religious beliefs to real-world examples. I'll try to stay away from philosophical arguments where possible, which tend to confuse those unfamiliar with the many varied methods and terminology, and instead stay with common sense and common language. I want this book to be thought provoking as well as easy to read. When quoting the Bible, I'll further that theme by primarily using the New International Version. I am aware that the translations from the Kings James Bible to the New International Version are often not perfect, but the latest translations are certainly the easiest version for most contemporary people to understand. I'll do my best to be fair and give a higher weight to the intent behind the passages.
I acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to avoid philosophical arguments when discussing religion, but I will try and limit those arguments only to where it is truly necessary and in terms that are easy to understand. It is often said that philosophy is questions that may never be answered while religion is answers that may never be questioned. The reason why a dedicated ontological chapter will not be found in this book on the potential for God is because I believe that philosophy of this sort is purely speculative and ultimately irrelevant. I will gladly concede the philosophical potential for God. This concession in no way validates the existence of a personal God. It simply leaves open the possibility. I have read and listened to many persuasive arguments for the existence of a universal "creator" from both historical minds like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas to modern-day religious minds like David Wolpe and William Lane Craig. None of these folks can provide conclusive evidence of an uncaused cause, but just as thousands have done before them, they use various methods of inductive reasoning to infer one. Conceding the potential for God is not the same as saying that revealed knowledge has been imparted to any human being.
There is a time and place for philosophical debates, however debating religion on purely philosophical grounds is like a rocking chair - it gives us something to do but it doesn't really get us anywhere. Let me give you an example. One of the most talented contemporary Christian philosophers in my opinion is William Lane Craig. During his opening remarks in a debate with the late Christopher Hitchens at Biola University, Craig discussed the cosmological argument by saying:
While the debate itself was fantastic, the last part of that statement highlights my concern and supports my position that philosophy isn't as solid a ground to stand on as evidential arguments. Craig belittles the atheistic assertion that "the universe is just eternal and uncaused" but never takes the time to realize the implications of the Christian assertion that God is equally "just eternal and uncaused". He does a fine job inferring a creator of both time and space but misses the irony of the creator in the first place. If God can be uncaused, why can't the universe? The definitive answer as to whether or not God exists (and the more specific question of which god) can never be answered on philosophical grounds alone. That kind of declaration requires an evidential argument. Make no mistake about it, we have been presented with an abundance of "evidence" on behalf of every religion and yet a sufficient, compelling evidential argument does not exist to warrant rational belief in any of them. For me, an evidential argument trumps a philosophical argument every time. We're going to be looking at some of this evidence throughout our time together.
One of the most important messages I hope to impart from our time together is this: it is certainly conceivable to believe in the possibility of the "Einsteinian" God as I referenced at the beginning of this chapter without falling victim to the dogma that this being cares about what we eat, wear, do, say, or even think. It is a tremendous leap from deist to theist. Extraordinary claims truly do require extraordinary evidence. Imagine for a moment that we were to all wake up tomorrow morning and find that our knowledge of religion was completely wiped out. How would we go about determining the validity of the religions presented to us in the various books we have? How would we determine that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is more plausible than Zeus perched upon his throne or that the sun god Ra rising in the sky is more plausible than Apollo favoring a specific side in battle or Poseidon churning the seas? We would have to evaluate each claim based upon its associated evidence even though evidence of this sort is almost universally inconceivable. This is why any leap from deist to theist is truly a Kierkegaard leap of unsubstantiated faith. After thousands of years, we have yet to find any evidential argument presented on behalf of any religion to be of sufficient quality to not only dismiss all other religions as false but also to conclusively anoint just one as true. The actual evidence is either terrible or nonexistent which is why the word "faith" exists in this context. It seems like a rather obvious point to make, but if the evidence for any religion was conclusive, we would have no further need for the word "faith". If the theme of this book is to provide an easy to read assessment of religion, favoring philosophical arguments over real, practical examples would defeat the purpose of putting pen to paper. At every opportunity, I will abandon philosophical arguments for evidential arguments where possible. Theological claims with practical, mortal implications being made by fallible men on behalf of the creator of the universe should be open to scrutiny and even ridicule where appropriate. Asking for evidential arguments instead of philosophical arguments seems to me to be the best platform from which to have these types of discussions.
You'll find that when I make specific religious references throughout the course of this book, I will usually make them about Christianity. This isn't to single out Christianity in favor of other religions, but rather due to the fact that Christianity is the religion that not only comprises the largest percentage of my fellow Americans, but is the one that most often tries crawling over our secular walls. When I make reference to God, I will generally capitalize any applicable pronoun. I do this out of respect for the religious reader - not because I respect the belief itself but rather because I conscientiously recognize that the belief is a cherished one. Be forewarned that I enjoy using a great deal of satire and at times sarcasm, particularly when analyzing the plausibility of asserted stories. I find that these literary tools can be effective in highlighting the inane and illogical. Using this technique allows me to do what millions of my brothers and sisters do on a daily basis and personalize the statements. Millions believe in a personal god and attributing things to Him often allows me to show the absurdity of the attribution.
You'll also notice that when I make references to specific passages from the Bible, I give equal weight to both the Old Testament and the New Testament. For those religious readers who believe that the New Testament fundamentally repealed the laws of the Old Testament, I would offer up the fact that when Jesus and the apostles referred to the "Scriptures", they were in almost every case referring to what Christians now call the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still considered the word of God, and just like the Abrahamic covenant, it is neither conditional, nor temporary. If God is eternal and unchanging, then there is no expiration date on His word.
Many Christians contend that the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament fundamentally annulled and replaced Mosaic Laws. This argument is presented anytime a Christian says that they do not have to adhere to the Old Testament, but is this a valid position to take? The Sermon on the Mount comprises three chapters of Matthew's Gospel and is the longest recorded statement of Jesus' teachings, so it is here that I want to address this common misperception. Please keep in mind that the teachings of Jesus Christ were very different than those of the Sadducees and Pharisees. These groups were prominent Jewish sects who practiced and preached a strict adherence to the Laws of Moses. They and many others believed that Jesus was attempting to subvert the authority of God by replacing God's laws with his own teachings. Jesus clears this up early on and we find that in Matthew 5:17-19:
Jesus compares the permanence of heaven and earth to God's laws. The heaven and earth have not yet disappeared nor will everything be accomplished until the Day of Judgment. Jesus clearly had no intention of eliminating the law. He makes it pretty clear that he came to "fulfill the law". He not only validates and reaffirms the laws; he lays out the expectation that we should do so as well. The New Testament was never intended to render the Old Testament obsolete. "Fulfilling the law" simply means that Jesus came to complete the law and perfect it. "Thou shalt not kill" didn't just mean the obvious, but also that the evil and negative thoughts leading up to the physical act of murder are also against the law. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" didn't just mean the obvious, but also that the lust leading up to the physical act of adultery violates the commandment. Jesus preached that we must not only obey God's laws outwardly but also inwardly. He charged the Sadducees and Pharisees with only paying attention to the outward laws (Matthew 23:25). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus not only proclaims the permanence of God's law, he proclaims his respect for it. It would be highly problematic to suggest that Jesus' intentions were anything but refuting the wrong interpretations of the law by the religious leaders of the time.
There is also the rather obvious contradiction of the authorship of the laws. If we are to believe in the concept of the Holy Trinity, Jesus and the Father are one. In John 8:58, Jesus proclaims to be one with the Father by saying that he was around before Abraham. If Jesus and the Father are one, then the laws are from the same author. From this perspective, there simply cannot be such a fundamental conflict between the laws where one set is rendered obsolete. In fact, the underlying morality must be consistent and unchanging. God is quite explicit in Deuteronomy 13:1 when He says "Whatever I am now commanding you, you must keep and observe, adding nothing to it, taking nothing away." In Malachi 3:6, God clearly tells us "I the LORD do not change." Throughout Leviticus, God makes multiple references to a "lasting ordinance for the generations to come". Throughout the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and others reference the Old Testament in an authoritative manner. It was understood that God's laws can only be fulfilled. They cannot be dissolved. John 14:15 says "If you love me, keep my commands." The Father gave Moses His commands and the vast majority of Christians today continue to keep those commands. When we look around our world, we readily find references to the Ten Commandments and many other Old Testament topics. For these reasons, I will treat the Old Testament as authoritatively as I do the New Testament.
I've already mentioned the religious influences of historical figures like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas as well as contemporaries like William Lane Craig and David Wolpe. I have enjoyed reading and listening to the varied religious opinions from these men in addition to other contemporary apologetics like Ken Ham, Lee Strobel, Kent Hovind, and Frank Turek. While each makes a compelling case for God, the other side of the argument makes a more intellectually honest case against the proposition. I am proud to say that contemporary folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Daniel Dennett, Matt Dillahunty, and the late Christopher Hitchens are my intellectual heroes. I've devoted a great deal of time over the years to both sides of this debate, and while I may not always agree completely with any one side (particularly the pseudoscientific accounts presented by Strobel, Hovind, and Ham), I do appreciate the balanced yet contrarian views. Every word that I've listened to or read has been thought provoking and I have been influenced at one point or another by each of these men - religious and atheist alike. You will find their influences throughout this book. As Bernard of Chartres might say, I find myself merely a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants.
As you'll quickly discover throughout this book, I generally hold pseudoscientists like Lee Strobel and Ken Ham in contempt. These are the folks who try to fly under the banner of science instead of faith. Christian figures like St Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther urged people not to use the Bible as a scientific instrument or scientific proof, yet pseudoscientists are doing this every day. They have a very clear religious agenda and try to make science fit that agenda. This is perhaps my biggest gripe with them. Pseudoscientists already have an unassailable conclusion. The conclusion that they want to end up with is their starting point. They take great liberties with established scientific principles, introduce assumptions as evidence, and make critical use of the Divine Default in order to work backwards from their foregone conclusion. They tend to ignore or explain away any evidence that would lead them in a different direction because the thought that the Bible could be inaccurate is simply inconceivable to them. Because they project an air of scientific authenticity, they are able to prey upon the gullibility of a large and growing audience that is already predisposed to accepting any evidence supporting their preconceived notions while at the same time unable to critique the evidence itself. My contemptuous attitude towards these individuals is derived from their hypocritical use of scientific principles and misleading conclusions. They willfully disregard their burden of proof and their conclusions have been largely refuted time and time again by the actual scientific community, yet they are able to continue their pseudoscientific barrage with impunity while raking in millions of dollars in the process. They give an appearance of scientific credibility but lack any and all scientific responsibility. This confirmation bias held by most Christians certainly makes the inconvenient facts more easily dismissible. I want to change that.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of customers for the pseudoscientists. Sadly, far too many people around the world cling to pseudoscientific beliefs and these beliefs extend well beyond religion. Depending on the survey, anywhere from 33%1 to 88%2 of all Americans believe that astrology is a science. Frankly, I am ashamed and embarrassed that so many of my fellow Americans believe that horoscopes, tarot cards, and psychic readings are considered legitimate science. It deeply saddens me that some in our society are content to dwell in the trenches of stupidity but it no longer surprises me. Depending on the survey, between 40% and 50% of Americans believe the Earth was created sometime in the last 10,000 years3 and this view has persisted within that range for decades. Considering the scientific consensus that the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old, this is not a trivial error. When I combine this with the fact that 1 in 5 Americans still believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, I'm not surprised that Ken Ham, Kirk Cameron, and Lee Strobel have found a following. There are people, and far too many apparently, who will virtually believe almost anything on little to no evidence.
You'll find that I place a much higher value on evidence than I do faith. Perhaps this is why I am an agnostic. If agnosticism deals with knowledge and atheism deals with belief, I could also be described as being an agnostic atheist. I am agnostic in that I don't have any knowledge of God's existence and I am an atheist in that I don't believe in any of the gods presented by our organized religions. I am not alone. In fact, every single person on this planet is an atheist as it relates to every religion for which they don't profess belief in. Whether you are a believer or a nonbeliever, you know exactly what it feels like to be an atheist. Every Christian is an atheist as it relates to Hinduism. Every Jew is an atheist as it relates to Islam. Taking a cue from Stephen Roberts, I just take it one god further. I find that there is something highly irrational about those who make untenable claims of certainty about invisible realities and I choose not to be part of that crowd. I have devoted a great many years to the topic of religion, and as I see it, agnosticism and rationalism are the only honest and humble positions to take in this matter. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God any more than I believe that the archangel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad. The particular religion is actually irrelevant because the simple fact remains that not a single follower of Christ, Brahman, Yahweh, or Xenu has met their burden of proof. These religions are all equally bizarre and impractical with a burdensome dependency on unsubstantiated faith and their influence on our world cannot be ignored.
Any belief should be accompanied by evidence substantiating it; otherwise the belief should be subject to change. For example, I subscribe to the cosmological model known as the Big Bang theory because sufficient evidence including cosmic microwave background and redshift has been presented to justify such a belief. It is a comprehensive theory that explains a great deal about our universe while remaining consistent with a wide range of observed phenomena. While I subscribe to this theory, I will always keep my mind open to change if and when sufficient evidence is presented that contradicts it. If a religious person could provide sufficient evidence beyond mere assertions that God willed everything into existence over the course of a few days, I would be open to changing my views. The evidence needs to be superior to that of the evidence we have for the Big Bang however. Additionally, I will be the first to admit that I don't know what caused the singularity and this gap in our knowledge is the only thing tenuously holding the door open for God. It's important here to note the distinction between pre and post bang. The Big Bang Theory does not address the initial cause of the universe - only its development and expansion over time. What caused the Big Bang in the first place? I don't know and I doubt whether or not we will ever definitively know. Many theists take that opportunity to attribute the bang to a deity. Many truly believe that this deity instantly created everything exactly as it is today, while folks that I refer to as skeptical theists take a hybrid approach and attribute the Big Bang to God and then let science take over from there. Regardless of which side of the fence you happen to be on, the only true statement is that we don't conclusively know what started the universe. To say that a deity is or isn't responsible for the Big Bang is to argue from a position of ignorance. When we really think about it, the Big Bang is a tremendous concept in and of itself. It is quite burdensome to try and scientifically account for everything in our universe once fitting into a spot as tiny as the head of a pin. We have absolutely no evidence whatsoever to conclusively explain what started the expansion of the universe. Any proclamation of its source or pre-existence is foolish because insufficient evidence exists to make such a proclamation. This premise is applicable to both theists and atheists. Whether we're theorizing about multiple universes, holographic universes, or divine creation, the undeniable truth is that you do not know what (or who) created the universe any more than I do.
Agnosticism and atheism are not without their difficulties. A recent poll conducted by the University of British Columbia showed that non-believers are among the least trusted people in our society ranking just ahead of rapists. Imagine that! Is this perception of non-believers accurate or fair? Is this perception grounded in fact or mistrust? The poll was disturbing, particularly in light of a March 2009 academic article by Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in Sociology Compass that compared social behaviors among believers and non-believers in relation to the overall religiosity of their environment (i.e., religious nations to less religious nations and religious states to less religious states).4 The study found that "murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread." If we were to look at the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all of them are in "relatively non-religious countries." Even though it's a bit of a religious enigma itself, the United States showed the same trends. " Within America the states with the highest murder rates tend to be the highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be the among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon." If non-believers were truly worthy of having earned the distinction of being the least trusted people in our society, we should find a correspondingly high rate of incarceration, yet non-believers make up a disproportionately small percentage of those in prison. The trends extend well beyond just murder and can be found consistently in so many different facets of our lives. For example, violent crime tends to occur more frequently in the more religious states. Globally, the more secular nations tend to donate more money and aid per capita to poorer nations than highly religious nations. Zuckerman pointed out that during the Holocaust, "the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews." The populations of less religious nations tend to report the highest levels of happiness. The same misperceptions of non-believers can be found when discussing sex and family. Young adults who took the religiously-inspired "virginity pledges" were found to not only engage in premarital sex as frequently as their non-pledging peers but were actually more likely to engage in unprotected intercourse. A 1999 Barna study showed that non-believers in America tend to have lower divorce rates as well as a much lower rate of domestic violence than their religious peers. A 2005 study5 showed that the least religious societies on Earth tend to be the healthiest in terms of life expectancy, adult literacy, education, homicide rates, gender equality, and infant mortality. None of this should be used to declare the moral superiority of either believers or non-believers but rather to demonstrate that religiosity is perhaps not the best indicator of social morality. As such it simply isn't fair to paint non-believers as untrustworthy. We deserve much more credit than that.
It's not easy being a skeptic, doubter, nonbeliever, atheist, agnostic, or whatever label society places upon us. Religion is absolutely everywhere. To demonstrate just how pervasive religion is in our society, I conducted an informal experiment over the course of one normal week. I simply counted the number of occurrences where I was being exposed to some type of religious message and tallied them up. On average, I was exposed to 78 religious messages each day. Whether it was a billboard along the highway, articles in the local newspaper, online postings from friends and family, or television and radio shows/commercials, we are inundated by religious propaganda so often that it has literally become ubiquitous. It is simply amazing how inescapable religion has become and yet you won't find atheists blowing themselves up over it. A cartoon depicting atheists in a negative fashion will hardly warrant a yawn let alone mass demonstrations and the burning of embassies. You won't find the kind of backlash from the nonbeliever community that we regularly see from the believers whenever their cherished beliefs are put in check. Using just the Ten Commandments as an example, we have seen disagreement elevated to death threats when the secular public objects to the Ten Commandments being placed on government property. We saw tempers flare when former Alabama Justice Roy Moore was ordered to remove a giant granite replica of the Ten Commandments from his courthouse. In a complaint filed against the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Pittsburgh in September 2012, a mother received multiple threats after challenging the legality of a Ten Commandments monument at the local Valley High School. In response, U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry declared that this mother's "decision to be identified has resulted in threats and harassment. A number of the threats referenced in her affidavit have extended beyond ad hominem rhetoric, although they certainly appear, to include threats of violence and ostracism." He continued saying "there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a constitutional violation, a pure legal issue." In each of these cases, the response from the religious community was not what we should ever hope for and certainly not something that any of us should be proud of. The secular community is offended daily and yet you will be hard-pressed to find scathing threats of violence aimed at the religious majority by the non-religious minority. Do we not get any credit for our peaceful and dignified response to religious bombardment? I have 78 opportunities every day to be offended by the religious and yet it doesn't provoke anything more than a rare word here or there. I recognize the rights of individuals to speak freely, spread their ideas, and share those beliefs as long as there is a clear delineation between faith and government sponsorship of that faith. The rules are clear and have been well known for more than two hundred years. There are certain lines that mustn't be crossed, and when those lines are crossed, the last thing we should see are the religious surprised and up in arms.
Besides being frowned upon by a religiously dominated society, atheism and agnosticism require effort. I'm speaking from experience when I say that it would be so much easier to simply chalk everything up to God. The Divine Default has been a wonderful excuse for so many people throughout the history of mankind because it allows religious people to take the path of least resistance in searching for that elusive concept of "truth". Frankly, religious faith is the easy way out. As I'll show in this book, the path of least resistance allows things as arbitrary as geographic location to overwhelmingly influence what religion one believes to be "true". While I believe in the possibility of a "creator" and I fully understand the consequences of this position (ie, who created the creator), that doesn't mean that a creator has anything to do with us personally. Religion introduces this concept to us. Religion gives us names for our gods. Organized religion is a man-made facade with a legacy of undeserved power and influence.
For centuries, religion was the authoritative voice about everything in our world. As Bob Dylan once said, "the times they are a-changin'." We no longer need God to explain how or why many things happen. There are so many things that have been attributed to God over the course of thousands of years that science has systematically snatched out of the hands of religion and rightfully laid claim to. Science allows us to gain a greater understanding of our world, but even with all of our advancements, I will readily admit that it's not perfect. Unlike religion though, science doesn't claim to have all the answers and I believe this is both a defining characteristic and an admirable quality. A scientist is not afraid to say "I don't know". A scientist may read hundreds of books throughout the course of his/her life and still be left with the knowledge that there is more to be learned. Most religious people will never fully read their one book and yet they will think they know it all.
The scientific method has been the most consistently reliable way of determining fact from fiction. Science may not currently have all the answers about things like dark matter, dark energy, black holes, string theory, or quantum mechanics, but no other method, including religious revelation, has been as useful or accurate in helping us learn the many truths about our world and universe. Physics, for example, has helped us uncover a tremendous amount of knowledge into how the universe behaves, but there's still more to learn. Even with that acknowledgement, there is nothing in physics that would lead us to believe in a god who not only built everything as we see it, but who has taken a personal interest in what we think, what we eat, who we sleep with, and what we say. Using nothing but the known laws of physics, we can show that the cosmos can and does function without the precept of God.
Religion often accuses science of only being able to deal with the "how" and not the "why", which I have always found to be misleading even when I was a believer. The problem here lies with the definitions. "How" generally refers to the process by which something happens. "Why" is often used as a personalizing reference to an intent by a creator. Things can be created without intent by a designer. Many of the mountain ranges we find on Earth were created by tectonic plates. An apple falls to the ground because gravity is pulling on it. In these cases, the "how" and "why" are often the same because we don't feel the need to personalize those explanations. Science deals with the "how" because it is the only area that can be feasibly studied. Religious people feel the need to personalize the events that brought us into existence, thus the explanation for "why" has to be different than the one for "how". Why are there mountains? We could give a geological answer as to how mountains are created, but that's not what religious people want to know when they ask "why". They want to know its purpose and the idea that there may not be a purpose for mountains or even humans is abhorrent to them.
I'm no stranger to religion having been raised Catholic. Some of my earliest religious memories from childhood involved the church services where in one moment we're being told how terrible we sinners are and the next moment we're shaking the hands of those around us uttering "Peace be with you". I've been to services where we've been told that we're loved and saved, but 5 minutes later we're reminded about the risk of eternal damnation. I've stood. I've kneeled. I've prayed. I've read. I've sang. My friends and family will confirm that I do not have a particularly good singing voice; however that didn't stop me from attending service each week and singing in the choir at Fort Jackson during my Army Basic and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) days. As a child, I wasn't presented with religious options. There was no religious buffet where I could sample the various flavors with the final choice left up to me. My religion was chosen for me. We didn't have any Jews, Muslims, or Hindus living among us so it would be many years later before I even knew that there were alternatives to my god. As an adult, I started to question some of the "facts" about my chosen religion. A large number of those "facts" seemed out of touch with reality and the more I began questioning religious assertions, the more I realized just how delicate of a balance this house of cards was built upon. The cards really began to crumble the day that 19 pious Muslims hijacked airplanes on September 11th, 2001 and used them as missiles to show our pious nation the value of religious certainty. The events of that day brought religious fanaticism into our living rooms in a way that past events had not and this spurred my interest in learning more about their faith. Had these events happened a decade earlier, my ability to find a wide range of opposing viewpoints about Islam would have been negligible.
The world is a very different place than it was even a few decades ago. Just like the printing press proved extremely beneficial to the Protestant Reformation, we too have an even more powerful medium to share information. The rise of the Internet makes information sharing ubiquitous. The only items required to research anything today are a computer and an Internet connection. Compare this situation to when many of us grew up. If we wanted to know more about any topic, it usually involved a trip to the library where we were limited to what the library physically had. For those of us who had experience with the Dewey Decimal System, it's readily apparent that no library today could ever possibly hold the breadth and depth of information that exists on the Internet. The barrier to the world's information has been forever lowered. Anything that we want to know can now be retrieved in a fraction of a second. This open access to the collective knowledge of the world has forever altered our view of the world. The news of the world is literally at our fingertips as is its history. I can research the tenets of Islam just as easily as I can research the tenets of Christianity. The world's religions are also just a click away and this allows people of all faiths to share information, debate, and discuss their differences. Unlike my situation as a child, the barrier to exposure from other faiths has forever been lowered as well. In this age of information, ignorance truly becomes a choice and not an excuse.
This fundamental change in how we share information is a threat to the information gatekeepers of old. Not unlike the trial of Galileo Galilei, who disputed the Aristotelian view of the universe during the 1600's in favor of Copernican astronomy, religion has had to continually cede ground that was once its sole domain. That pace of yielding ground continues to intensify, and many religious leaders openly say that there's very little room left to give. What they fail to understand is that progress will not be stopped. The truth will always find a way to break through. Consider Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, one of the most respected Catholic theologians of his time, who urged caution on adoption of heliocentrism. He was appalled at the very notion that our sun was the true center of our solar system and that our planet revolved around it. He wrote to Paolo Foscarini, who publicly supported Galileo's theory that the earth was not the center of the universe, and said
"And if Your Reverence would read not only the Fathers but also the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Josue, you would find that all agree in explaining literally (ad litteram) that the sun is in the heavens and moves swiftly around the earth, and that the earth is far from the heavens and stands immobile in the center of the universe...It would be just as heretical to deny that Abraham had two sons and Jacob twelve, as it would be to deny the virgin birth of Christ...But with regard to the sun and the earth, no wise man is needed to correct the error, since he clearly experiences that the earth stands still and that his eye is not deceived when it judges that the moon and stars move."
Let's not forget that most religious men at this time truly believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. To be fair, this view was consistent with our general observations at the time as well as in line with what the Bible asserted; however Cardinal Bellarmine felt that any concession would render "the Holy Scriptures false". He pleaded to Foscarini to reconsider a cosmology that was Biblically supported. He proclaimed this with such conviction fueled by a confidence instilled into him by the seemingly undeniable authoritativeness of the Bible. If the Bible indicates that the Earth is immovable (Psalms 92, 95, and 103), then any suggestion to the contrary is as unbelievable and incorrect as denying the virgin birth of Christ. To Bellarmine, and indeed the overwhelming majority of the Church's leadership, the mere thought that the Bible would be incorrect was tantamount to heresy and Galileo was thus labeled a heretic. If God could command the sun and moon to stand still in the sky for 24 hours (Joshua 10:12-13), the Earth simply had to be the center of the universe. This is one of many examples in which science has disproved long-held religious beliefs. It would take 200 years before the Church finally treated a heliocentric view of our world as physical fact7. It would take more than 350 years after Galileo's trial for the Church to finally vindicate Galileo8 and it wasn't until the year 2000 that the Church would formally apologize for their mistakes. While it may take centuries, scientific truths will eventually win out. When they do, it makes believing in religious assertions about our world that much harder.
A recent and extensive survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life9 shows that 16% of Americans now claim no affiliation with any particular faith. Among adults ages 18-29, that number increases to 1 in every 4 who do not affiliate with any specific religion. It's important to note that the 16% is more than double the number of people who did not have a religious affiliation as a child. This is a trend that will likely continue. These folks do not want the dogma of organized religion. The values espoused by religion are often in direct conflict with the values of subsequent generations. Religion emphasizes conformity while younger generations tend to value individuality. Religion values tradition and superstition while younger generations tend to value creativity and reasoning. Religion values exclusivity and authority while younger generations tend to value diversity and personal freedom. Combined with the now ubiquitous nature and availability of information, it shouldn't come as a surprise to see nearly 25% of adults under the age of 30 rejecting the dogma of organized religion. On a global basis, Pew has identified those with no religious affiliation (including atheists and agnostics) as the 3rd largest "religious group" after Christians and Muslims. The stigma of unbelief is quickly losing its potency.
When I discuss organized religion, it will quickly become evident (if it hasn't already) that I don't place religion on an untouchable pedestal like the faithful do. To question its legitimacy on the truth is something that I wish more people did. I think we've made great progress historically. At various points throughout history, it would have been unthinkable to question religion. A book like the one you're holding would have meant a death sentence for both you and me, and in some parts of the world it still does. The church has had an arrogant monopoly on the "truth" for centuries, often with disastrous consequences. Every religion has a holy book that is considered infallible and inerrant. Religious people consider it a virtue that their holy book doesn't change. I think that's naive, detrimental, and, by the purest definition of the word: stupid. Perhaps this is a defining characteristic between the religious and nonreligious. To a religious person, the original story is all that's needed. Conversely, if I believe something, but I'm presented with new facts, I retain the right to change my mind based upon new evidence. We can illustrate this point by looking at the Native American ritual of rainmaking. This ceremonial dance was intended to bring out rain to places that needed it. There is nothing to suggest that dancing in particular fashions while chanting and wearing large, ornate headdresses will cause rain clouds to appear any faster than not dancing at all. That doesn't mean that people didn't believe in it though. Through time and research, we now know how to more reliably cultivate crops under those types of conditions and it can be done without a shaman. We changed our minds based upon new evidence and rainmaking is now a more ceremonial ritual with no real expectations for an outcome. Being open to changing our beliefs because new evidence warrants such a change is a virtue that gets lost in the religious discussion. I would challenge anyone to name me any other area of human discourse where we actively deny incremental improvements in favor of keeping the status quo. For example, if we treated medicine like we do religion, we'd still be employing bloodletting, amulets, and animal dung.
Faith allows a religious person's standard of proof to be exceptionally low. In the previous rain dancing example, proof of its effectiveness would be shown the next time it rained - regardless of whether it was a day, a week, or a month later. The proof is arbitrary which begs the question what kind of all-powerful deity is incapable of producing direct, verifiable evidence of its existence or influence? What kind of god would instead force us to try and interpret normal events to ascertain "clues" or "proof" of divine intervention? In the event that we can't read the tea leaves or we find evidence to the contrary, we are told that we must simply believe the original proposition or risk eternal damnation. In this risk/reward scenario, religion is fundamentally no different than our holiday tradition of telling young children that they won't receive any gifts if they don't believe in Santa Claus. The difference here is that children eventually grow out of Santa Claus.
In every discussion I've ever had with religious people, it can be determined rather quickly that I do not possess the "correct" understanding of the Bible or the Qur'an. As is the case every time, I'm fortunate enough that the person I'm speaking with usually does possess that critical ability to render the correct interpretation even though the correct interpretation can and does vary by believer. For example, some folks choose to interpret the Genesis story of creation literally while others will say that it wasn't ever meant to be taken in that fashion. If I read the Bible as it is written, the creation story reads like a literal telling of how the universe, our planet, and life itself began. Because of the knowledge that we have gained over the past millennia, this account would be much more plausible in the year 200 than in the year 2000. When the plausibility of a literal interpretation finally fades into absurdity, we are told that these stories were actually meant to be parables or metaphors. Let's try and put some of this into perspective. How believable would the story of Jesus be if it occurred in a 21st-century United States instead of a 1st-century Roman Empire? How believable would the story of Muhammad be if it occurred today instead of the 7th century? What kind of evidence do you think our society would require today to warrant belief in these stories? What rational person would believe that a man put to death three days ago was able to rise from the grave this morning while the graves in the city opened and the dead freely walked about town? If a man reported that he flew to heaven on a Buraq (a winged horse), what kind of evidence would you ask for? Try and imagine these kinds of stories being reported on CNN and what kind of reaction they might provoke. How serious would we take these stories if the CNN reporter asked for evidence and the eyewitnesses responded that instead of evidence, we should simply take them on their word? It's as if we're saying that the stories from the Bible or the Qur'an are somehow more credible because they occurred in pre-scientific times.
The sad fact is that while I think a scientifically-literate society would question some of these assertions, the truth is that not everyone in our society today is scientifically-literate or apt to think critically. We have far too many "Honey Boo Boos" among us. I would like to say that few if any would actually believe those stories today but the reality is that there will always be those who are gullible enough to do so. I make that claim using the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba as evidence of mankind's ability to believe in almost anything. In similar fashion to Jesus Christ, Sai Baba was allegedly born of a virgin and performed many miracles throughout his life. He sang in Sangskrit (a language he apparently knew nothing of) after being stung by a scorpion. He made Prasad and flowers magically appear for various family members which prompted his father to think his son was possessed. Sai Baba performed many miracles in front of many eyewitnesses, some of whom claim him to be a living god. His picture graces millions of homes and his ashrams (religious retreats) once dotted nearly 126 countries yet few in the United States or the rest of the world have ever heard of him. Does the simple fact that his followers made claims about miraculous healings, appearances in multiple locations at the same time, and the conduction of other acts of omnipotence make any of those claims true? If we are to take the claims of early Christians, Muslims, and Jews as true using faith as our litmus test, who are we to say that the claims of Sai Baba's eyewitnesses are false? Who are we to say that someone in the 20th century is more or less apt to attribute sleight of hand or simple conjuring tricks to divine actions any more than someone from the first century? If any of Sai Baba's claims were real, how many scientific laws do you think they would violate? If any of Jesus' or Muhammad's claims were real, how many scientific laws do you think those would violate? I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law which says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. David Copperfield and Lance Burton would be living gods if born in the first century. When someone gives legitimacy to a miracle, regardless of whether it was conducted by Sai Baba, Jesus, or Muhammad, they are essentially saying that these people were able to violate the laws of physics. If we were to look up at the sky tonight and the stars suddenly arranged themselves into English words, that event would be a miracle. It would be a suspension of the laws of physics. That would be an unbiased phenomenon that we could document and study. To date, no documented experience has ever violated the laws of physics therefore there is no reason to believe in any of those "miracles". It is not only permissible to question any assertions of miracles, it is imperative that we do.
During the course of writing this book, I have been plagued with the recurring thought about the kind of reception that it might receive, particularly among Christians. To some, the Bible is the literal word of God and to challenge this would be considered obscene. I have personally been "advised" by several people to get a bodyguard because I choose to challenge religious assertions - and this is from people I know and trust! I would think that unfathomable, yet we see this type of response frequently whenever the Establishment Clause is challenged. Lisa Herdahl received death threats for challenging prayer in her children's school. Tyler Deveny, an eighteen year old student, was beaten by eight other students when he challenged the legality of the invocation at his high school's graduation ceremony. When Vashti McCollum challenged the practice of allowing public school students to attend religious classes held in the public school, her house was vandalized and her sons were assaulted. High school student Jessica Ahlquist was so bullied and threatened for objecting to a "School Prayer" banner posted in the auditorium that she required police escorts to and from class. When Joann Bell and Lucille McCord asked the courts to prohibit the distribution of Gideon Bibles in their children's school, harassment quickly followed. "More than once a caller said he was going to break in the house, tie up the children, rape their mother in front of them, and then 'bring her to Jesus'." This harassment escalated all the way to Joann's house being burned to the ground. Against this backdrop, I find the stench of hypocrisy overwhelming when a Christian, a believer in a "faith of peace", suggests that bodily harm may come to me for my contrarian views. If faith can move mountains, certainly it should be able to withstand a little criticism. I take solace in the fact that I am part of a growing trend of people who value rationality over superstition. Additional solace can be found in the fact that the vast majority of the religiously faithful blatantly ignore the parts of the Bible that they don't agree with. To them, the Bible is treated no differently than a modern-day software license. Nobody ever reads the whole thing, but that doesn't prevent us from scrolling to the bottom and clicking "I Agree". I'm confident that most of the people who would find my questioning of Christianity obscene would never consider forcing a girl who was raped to marry her attacker, stoning someone to death for breaking the Sabbath, or condoning slavery even though the very Bible I'm questioning clearly makes provisions for these actions. They tend to discard "those parts of the Bible", but at the same time, they will cherry pick the part of the Bible that calls homosexuality an abomination because they don't approve of the gay and lesbian lifestyle. Either the Bible is the infallible word of God or it isn't. If it is, shouldn't the whole thing be followed? It certainly was at one point in Christian history, and it is still followed to the letter by fundamentalists today.
"Fundamentalist" is an interesting word. Have you ever tried to determine what characteristics cause us to label someone a "fundamentalist" or an "extremist"? What characteristics cause us to label someone a "moderate" Christian or a "moderate" Muslim"? By all accounts, the difference in the labels is directly proportional to the amount of the holy book that gets willfully ignored. The more of the book someone ignores, the more moderate they become. The religion is still the same however. This is what I would like religious believers to understand. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy that exists when it comes to religion in modern society. Someone might find it virtuous to say "Yes, Lord. I will do whatever you want" in one breath, but never ask themselves in the next breath if they would be willing to sacrifice their child as Abraham was willing to do. I have spent a great deal of time witnessing the differences between what a Christian says versus what a Christian will actually do and reconciling that to what the Bible says. I devote an entire chapter of this book to that hypocrisy.
I devote several chapters to demonstrating and systematically debunking the myths about religion that have been perpetuated for millennia using nothing more than the power of common, real-life examples. We have been led to believe that faith is an essential component to our continued existence. Without it, we would be helpless in determining right from wrong. Our moral compass would somehow be lost without faith in a higher being. Every preacher since the dawn of time has ingrained into us the belief that there are so many positive things to be derived from religion that cannot be obtained or fulfilled elsewhere. I will demonstrate how these claims are simply fallacious and casuistic. We have also been led to believe that the terrible things done in the name of religion are actually due to the fallibility of human beings and not the result of religious belief. The ultimate in credulity arrives when we're told that religion is not only inculpable but is actually the only antidote! Religion has been very creative in dismissing the criticism leveled against it. This is a smoke screen that desperately needs to be cleared.
Historically speaking, science and time have killed more gods than any single book could ever do. I'm under no illusion that this book will change every reader's mind as that is a lot to expect. My goal is simply to apply religious assertions, beliefs, and actions to modern day examples and allow you, the reader, to ascertain whether or not the religious positions hold up. Whether you are a religious moderate, fundamentalist, or non-believer, your end of the bargain is simple. If you don't like my opinions or conclusions, it is my sincere hope that you dislike them because I have omitted glaring and overwhelmingly incontrovertible facts, not simply because you don't like the opinion stated, the conclusion drawn, or the question asked in the first place. I seek the truth - the ultimate truth - and rarely does that materialize without asking tough questions. As a former believer, I asked tough questions and have devoted years to searching for those answers. While the simple fact is that there exists so much information on the topic of religion that it is nearly impossible to have read or absorbed everything on every facet, it is my intention to lay my cards on the table and let the chips fall where they may. Please do not misinterpret any of my comments as personally insulting. Other than the pseudoscientists, none of my comments are meant to be taken in an offensive manner. If you believe in talking snakes, I may question (sarcastically at times) your belief, but there is no malicious intent to disparage you personally. Many of my family and friends are religious and they are some of the most genuine, kind, and caring people I know. Even those who are "born again" were just as genuine, kind, and caring before they found Jesus. It's inevitable that someone will be offended by what I've written. This is the risk that I'm taking, but hopefully by the time they reach the end of the book, they'll understand why.