In the last issue of The Record (22nd October 2008) there were two rebuttals to my article “Religion the World’s Biggest Argument” (29th of October 2008) while I was happy to see that my article provoked a response I was disappointed with the quality of the argument.
First, I am going to deal with Matthew Berkeley’s letter in which he says “Robert Donohue’s article smacks of a vomitworthy sadistic glee… (sic)”. Leaving behind for a moment the substantive points of his argument, I will say that while my article was tongue-in-cheek it was neither vomitworthy nor sadistic it was however, a satire on the theists’ concept of life after death. If your beliefs cannot cope with a very gentle criticism without being offended then they aren’t very strong beliefs at all. I do not take the view that religious beliefs are beyond critical discourse simply because they are religious beliefs; they are open to attack like any other opinion.
Mr. Berkeley says that I showed an “utter ignorance of [my] subject matter” he makes this claim but, doesn’t attack specifically any of the arguments that I put forward. He moves on then to claim that I don’t have any formal training in the subject and therefore can’t form an opinion on the subject; which seems strange because Mr. Berkeley applies a double standard insofar as he goes on to give his opinion on the matter.
Mr. Berkeley claims that science and religion are separate entities but, a lot of the claims that religion makes are scientifically testable. The virgin birth is a biological claim and water to wine is a physical claim; it is the belief in things like these—miracles and magic— that confuses me the most—even if you were to personally witness water turning into wine in front of your eyes you would have to ask yourself which was more likely, that water turned into wine or that you were mistaken? As for saying that you believe it because you read it in a book that was written over two thousand years ago, translated and transcribed hundreds of times within inconsistencies between all the versions and without any original copy then I am afraid that you advertise your willingness to believe in anything.
In case people think that I am avoiding the existential issue and focusing on some of the weird claims made by religion I am not, I propose to deal with them in the following paragraphs.
The second response to my article came from Darren Mac Ceallaig in his article “Atheism the true fanaticism” (22nd October 2008) he tries to make a case for god’s existence.
In his response Mr. Mac Ceallaig tries to undermine what he calls the ‘”unicorn” view” i.e. that god is like a unicorn or Loch Ness monster—we have no evidence to prove that they exist or not but, we live our lives as if they don’t because there is no reason to think that they do exist. Bertrand Russell makes a very good point on this topic—he asks us to imagine that there is a teapot orbiting mars—it is so small that we can’t see it therefore we can’t prove it doesn’t exist but, we live our lives on the assumption that it doesn’t. Some will try to argue that this is not the same as belief in god because they say that god exists outside of our realm and is therefore not the same as a unicorn or teapot. This is missing the point of the argument; the unicorn argument demonstrates that we all need some kind of evidence to accept something as true— we are not prone to accepting no evidence for our belief in anything else in our lives so why does religion get a free pass? I was not suggesting that this argument can prove that god doesn’t exist.
On the argument that god exists outside of this realm and is therefore not subject to the rules of our universe I am willing to accept that may be true. This is the sort of claim made by a deist—that is someone who believes that there may be something outside of our universe—Einstein, Jefferson and Paine were deists— whereas theists believe in a god that intervenes in human affairs, answers prayers and so on. I accept that there may be a super being or other cause to the universe (that is not to say that there definitely is) that exists outside of our universe but, it cannot be proven conclusively. However, shouldn’t the onus of proof be on the person making the claim to provide the evidence? I can admit that I cannot be 100% certain that god does not exist but, in the absence of proof I live my life as if he doesn’t whereas Mr. Mac Ceallaig et al not only say that they know god exists but, they know what he wants and who his son is!
In Mr. Mac Ceallaig’s second point he says that faith in god is like saying “I love you” or “democracy is better than tyranny” he says that these things cannot be scientifically proven yet we still hold them to be true. Helen Fisher has made some very interesting studies into the nature of love and how it is a product of our biology and how she can identify people in love by looking at parts of their brain. The brain is at a rudimentary level conducting experiments and determining if you love someone and your certainty that your love exists is based upon the kinds of feedback created in your brain—you can be as certain of a feeling of love as you can be about any other feeling. They are manifestations of interactions in your brain. However, even if we were to accept that you are just certain that god exists based on the fact that you just know it I would have to say that this really isn’t convincing.
There are people that are convinced of an infinite number of things just because they ‘know’ them—there are people that know that Elvis is still alive despite the fact that he died within a lifetime, there are photos of him dead and there are people that knew him that have said that they are sure he is dead yet there are still those that ‘know’ he is alive. What this goes to show is that the human mind is capable of convincing itself of all sorts of things regardless of evidence. If we are to accept your reasoning of personal revelation we have to admit that we open ourselves to believing in absolutely anything.
Finally, dealing with point that religion is not necessarily irrational I would argue that a lot of the arguments that claim to be rational proofs of god are in fact sophistry. They may be clever or interesting but, they are not rational. How rational is it to say that you know god exists and provide no evidence then spend an entire article trying to argue why you don’t need to give any evidence.