“None of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
At the root of many ills of our times stands the principle of dogma: Belief without supporting evidence. Some of these beliefs are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize that they can or should be questioned. Worse yet, human nature being what it is, when we are finally presented with opposing views and evidence, we dig our heels in and refuse to change our stance.
Paradoxically, the very stories that have made us who we are, the fables that have shaped our ethics as a species, are often the ones that are hardest to abandon once they’ve served their purpose. Our only weapons in the battle against these are the tools of science, logic, and skepticism.
In his brilliant book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari argues that we need to step outside our daily frames of reference in order to understand our history as a species. We have to realize that most of what surrounds us today — nations, religions, legal systems, political parties, corporations, monetary systems, stock markets — are all figments of our imagination and, as such, malleable. These ideas are entirely man-made and have no equivalents in the physical world, the one inhabited by all the other species on the planet.
If you don’t believe me, try to explain what value — what actual intrinsic value — that twenty dollar bill in your pocket has. Try giving it to a monkey in exchange for a banana and see how far you get. You’ll soon come to see it for what it really is: a piece of green paper decorated with pictures and words, its only value bestowed upon it by our collective agreements and belief systems.
Now go and try to explain the United States of America to your Martian friend and notice how quickly you run into the same problem.
“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Why do we, as a species, believe in these things? The value of money, the rules of football, the sovereignty or even the existence of countries, the laws of a given nation, the existence of imaginary beings and their power over us?
It must serve some evolutionary value. The one thing they all seem to have in common is that they help bring together and govern ever larger collections of human beings: the village, the city, the nation, the Russian empire, the European Union, the religion of Buddhism…
These fictions, these beliefs, help us bond together around a shared set of values. They serve a purpose by uniting us around a common theme — be that theme a nation, a religion, or a stock symbol. In return, they ask only that we believe in their falsehoods, that we don’t question their logic.
As long as we all believe that the twenty dollar bill in your pocket is worth something, that it’s worth the same amount as a book or a meal, all is well. As long as we all agree that there’s a line in the sand separating Tijuana from San Diego, life is good. Never mind that no such line is visible from space, that America is just a set of beliefs that didn’t even exist a few centuries ago.
“Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. ‘Us’ was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was everyone else. In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs. No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail community, no lion alpha male makes a bid for becoming the king of all lions, and at the entrance of no beehive can one find the slogan: ‘Worker bees of the world — unite!’” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
In some cases, these fictions continue to provide value and, as such, we collectively agree to uphold them. It makes sense to continue to believe in the United States or Japan as countries today just like it made sense to believe in Prussia a hundred years ago and the Roman empire a thousand years ago. It makes sense to believe in Google and Facebook as corporate entities and to invest in them. It makes sense to believe that the twenty dollar bill in your pocket is worth something. We all benefit from those beliefs.
In other cases, though, these fictions are causing more problems than they’re solving. God and religion are two such beliefs. They made sense two or three thousand years ago when we needed to control an unruly illiterate populace (“Thou shalt not kill”), when we needed to comfort the kids frightened by grandma’s death (“She’s gone to heaven”), when we didn’t understand why the crops had failed (“God is punishing us for our sins”), when we needed comfort from a debilitating disease (“I pray to God to save you”)— in short, when we didn’t know why things happened the way they did.
Some would argue that religion helps bond us together, that belief in an afterlife is good because it forces us to behave in a moral manner toward others. I have no problem with the positive lessons of any religion; they’re all surprisingly similar to one other. The problem is not the lessons but the stories, the fictions that go along with the lessons.
These stories of supernatural entities and events were clearly needed to deliver a moral message when the religions first came into existence, when the average person was illiterate and superstitious. But belief in these stories stopped being useful long ago, right about the time we started insisting in their inviolable truth and forgot that they’re fictional in nature, when we became dogmatic about them, when we became so convinced of the stories that we felt threatened by the mere thought of alternative ones.
I’d argue they’re doing more harm than good today, creating animosity and driving us apart instead of bringing us together. How else can you explain the adherents of two such fictional belief systems slaughtering each other in the name of their respective religions? Neither side would do so if they only understood that what they’re fighting over is fictional.
It’s high time we abandon some of these beliefs.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” — Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
In this day and age, I think everyone would agree, we’ve pretty much handed our lives over to science. Over the past few hundred years, science has made our lives better in almost every way imaginable. I’m not talking just about computers and the virtual online universe we’ve created that dominate most of our days. I’m talking about everything that impacts our physical lives directly and indirectly every minute of every day.
The gears that power our bicycles are brought to us by science as are the engines that propel our vehicles and the wind turbines that bring us electricity. If we want to find out the temperature on Mars or in the next room, we turn to science. And that’s the same thing we do whether faced with cancer or a sore throat.
Our very health and well being is completely under the control of science: everything from vaccines to amazing surgical procedures to antibiotics to genetic engineering and more.
Science has made our lives better but, even more importantly, it has brought us the rules and principles of critical thinking through which we can interrogate and improve the world around us. The forces of dogma were in charge for thousands of years before the advent of modern science and failed to give us much to show for their time at the helm.
For centuries, we were convinced that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. We were told that all matter was made of four “elements”: earth, wind, fire, and water. We thought the human body was comprised of four “humors”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm!
We simply didn’t know what we didn’t know back then. And worse, we didn’t even try to find out the right answers. Anyone questioning dogma was a heretic and the authorities were justified in killing or imprisoning them, the Inquisition and the Salem witch hunt being two of the better known examples.
By the way, it turns out we’re not really made out of phlegm after all. Reality turns out to be much more humorous than that:
“Guanine [the G in DNA’s ACGT alphabet], for example, is named unpretentiously after guano, the bird droppings from which it was first isolated.” — Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.
The next time someone tells you you’re full of crap, you can confidently inform them that, genetically speaking, the correct percentage is only one quarter.
What kind of creator would build his own likeness out of bird poop, any way? You gotta wonder…
“Repeatedly, in many cultures, we invented reassuring fantasies about our parents — about how much they loved us, about how heroic and larger than life they were. As orphans do, we sometimes blamed ourselves for having been abandoned. It must have been our fault. We were too sinful, perhaps, or morally incorrigible. Insecure, we clung to these stories, imposing the strictest penalties on any who dared to doubt them. It was better than nothing, better than admitting our ignorance of our own origins, better than acknowledging that we had been left naked and helpless, a foundling on a doorstep.” — Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.
It was only with the advent of science, of critical thinking and the principles of skepticism, that we started questioning these beliefs and looking for alternative explanations. It was only with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century that humanity slowly awakened from its slumber and started sharing information broadly: Wait. What? You mean the earth isn’t flat? The sun doesn’t go around the earth? What?!? Next you’re going to tell me the universe wasn’t created in seven days and is more than a six thousand years old. No, wait. I know, I know. You’re going to claim God didn’t create us in his own image and instead we’re related to the apes!
Once you start questioning dogmatic beliefs, the whole story unravels pretty quickly.
Everything we do in life is governed by science… everything, that is, except for one: the question of where we came from and whether a God created us. The most important question of all is simply answered with a shrug: “You gotta believe”, “You gotta have faith”.
Even if there is not a single shred of evidence, even if every word goes against every logical tenet we accept, we have to believe it’s true. Why? In what other discussion about any topic, in what situation in any other part of your life (or our universe, for that matter) would you accept such an answer? Why do we have to continue to believe in this fiction? What value does it serve? Why do we have one set of rules for everything and a different set of rules for this one topic?!?
If I told you your cancer was caused by fairies, you would laugh at me. If I told you the sun goes around the earth or that the earth is flat, you would have me committed to an asylum. How do we know these are ridiculous claims? Because science has shown us the right answers, because we took the time to understand the forces at play and to deduce the laws of nature. Physics and Chemistry and Mathematics are nothing but languages we’ve created to explain the world around us.
So why is it that the only question we cannot answer with science, the only question we dare not approach with science, is God? As soon as the man’s name comes up, we have to throw science and logic and reason out the window, we just have to “believe” without proof.
Science hasn’t explained everything yet but it has explained a lot more than anything else we tried before it. More importantly, it’s the only tool we have that has even attempted to explain the world around us. The God of the main Abrahamic religions stopped explaining himself two thousand years ago. And what he said back then doesn’t even make a whole lot of sense.
Yet, religious dogma — there’s that word again — tells us that we just have to “believe” what the good book tells us. Even non-religious people say they like to believe there’s a creator of the universe, a life force, a force for good. I hate to break the news to you, but there is no such thing out there. Nothing in the universe is “good” or “bad”. Both of those are labels that we, as humans, add to the world. If they were logical scientific terms, there wouldn’t be so many disparate beliefs around the world of what is “good” and what is “bad”.
There is no good. There is no bad. There is only what was and what will be.
“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” — Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation.
I can hear the pushback now: But, these are our traditions. This is how we were raised and how our parents were raised and their parents before them. This is how we learned to be moral human beings.
These fictions that we tell ourselves — God, religions, nations, laws, corporations, races, cultures — are just that: fiction. We should use them as long as they are helping us and making us better people. But we must also recognize that they are figments of our imagination. The problem shows up when we dogmatically believe they’re true: dogmatically, as in without proof.
I have nothing against the moral lessons of religion; they are almost universally benign in nature and overlap significantly across faiths. What I object to, instead, are the stories of supernatural beings and the dogmatic belief in their absolute truth. It’s these stories that get in the way and cause friction, not the moral lessons.
Here’s a simple example to prove my point. When Islam first showed up on the scene, its teachings were seen as so similar to Christianity that it wasn’t clear it should even be considered a different religion!
“So close, in fact, did Islam seem that some Christian scholars thought its teachings were not so much those of a new faith as a divergent interpretation of Christianity.” — Peter Frankopan. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.
Yet, fourteen centuries later, adherents of the two religions believe them to be diametrically opposed to each other. The written words haven’t changed, neither have the moral lessons. Meanwhile, dogmatic belief in the backstories has resulted in much suffering and mayhem.
“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?’ Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” — Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
Islam is not the problem. Neither is Christianity. Dogma is the problem. We must let go of these fictions once they’ve served their purpose. I would argue that God and religion, in this day and age, are doing more harm than good. It’s time to let go of them. You may argue that organized religion is the real problem, not belief in a deity. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of humans, the two are inextricably intertwined.
As for tradition… Just because your parents told you something doesn’t mean it’s true. Question their beliefs. If they can’t defend them, perhaps it’s because they never thought about it either. They learned it from their parents who learned it from their parents. Go back a few generations and you’ll find nothing but ignorance and superstition wrapped in anecdote and hearsay.
If a given religion is “the true word of God”, why would those beliefs be different based almost entirely on where you were born? Why would you believe Islam is the only path to heaven just because you were born in Cairo or that Catholicism is the only “true” religion just because your grandparents were born in Rome? The laws of science are universal, why isn’t the same true of the words of our creator?
“There are almost five thousand Gods actively being worshipped by humanity. But don’t worry. Yours is the real one.” — Anonymous.
Let’s say, just for a moment, that God really does exist. He’s just been busy dealing with a revolt over at Alpha Centauri for the past millennium or two. Let’s say he shows up tomorrow and wants to know what we’ve been up to.
Which band would you rather be in? The one that says: “Here’s what we learned from the books you left us and here’s how we improved upon them as we became smarter and learned more, while you were busy with our cousins over there.”
Or the one that says: “Well, we spent our time praying five times a day facing in that direction and killed all these guys over here because they liked your second novel better than your third one.”
And how do you think the creator of the universe will explain why he chose to speak to us through the various religions? “Yeah, those books. What did you expect? What else could I have said to those people the last time I was here? If I had mentioned quantum mechanics or evolutionary theory, they wouldn’t have understood a word I was saying. They were illiterate, for God’s sake! I had to dumb it down and sugar coat the moral lessons because that’s all they could understand at the time. Good job figuring out all this stuff by yourselves. Here are five things you haven’t figured out yet. I’ll be back in a thousand years. Keep up the good work!”
Or do you think he would say: “How dare you not prostrate yourself to my magnificence five times a day? How dare you deny that wine can turn into blood? How dare you deny that I created the world in six days? Nope, those things I told Jesus and Muhammad were the absolute truth. And if you don’t accept them, I’ll turn you into a pillar of salt!”
Perhaps he’ll tell us that only one of the faiths is the right one: “Jesus (or Muhammad or Moses or L. Ron Hubbard) is the only true messiah. The rest were all impostors and will burn in hell for eternity. As the creator of the universe, I think it’s important for me to send a message to my subjects that if they’re not obedient to the right set of stories, they’ll pay for their transgressions — for ever. So, 62% — or 97% — of you are doomed to eternal damnation.”
It doesn’t make sense to believe in science for everything we do every day, from the delivery of our tweets to the delivery of cancer treatment, from the transfer of funds to the transfer of property, from the existence of neutrinos and quarks to the evolution of species. It doesn’t make sense to believe in all these things — and then also say we believe the “true word of God, our creator. Just follow rules 12, 37, and specially rule 58 three times a day.”
“Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.” — Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Atheists don’t even say god doesn’t exist. We just say we haven’t seen any evidence to support that statement. And we’re looking as hard as we can. As scientists, we’re obliged to immediately abandon this thesis if and when compelling evidence is presented to the contrary. I’m waiting. As are all other atheists. Show me.
If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also want to check out some of my other writings on this topic: