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Religion? Atheist.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him Voltaire
Religion is the opium of the masses Marx

New (since March 2008) stuff is under development below: see Religion and science - getting a bit disjointed now, because I keep inserting new stuff and then discover that some of it is already further down in the text. Apologies for this, but I’d still appreciate feedback via the Contact me button.

I’ve recently (November 2009) been pondering some of the more difficult concepts about the Universe, and have decided to record my latest thoughts on a separate page.

And - early 2010 - I’ve formulated a reasonably coherent theory about why man found it necessary to invent gods and a spirit world, based on stuff I researched for an extended essay on the biological basis of art while I was training to teach from 1969 to 1971. That’s in the latest edit of Religion and science, now tranferred from this page to The Diary of a Wandering Mind.

I went to a very churchy grammar school, Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, London, which had a Chaplain (’Monty’ Cann), a choir gallery with an excellent small pipe organ in the Hall and a Head of Music, Cliff Harman, who was a brilliant organist and shared his skills with a number of my piano-playing schoolmates. This made morning assemblies truly impressive and moving, and I was completely seduced by high-church ritual.

However, I have for many years been a deeply committed atheist. I am as much a believer as any subscriber to a conventional religion, in the sense that I have an overpowering need to believe that my understanding of the origins and nature of the Universe I live in makes more sense than any competing account - as important to me as the need that drives others to believe in God the creator. But I have found my truth in the scientific explanations rather than in the invented mythologies of conventional religions.

In a nutshell, my beliefs are based on the fact that, in half a millennium, modern Western science has put together a pretty coherent explanation of the nature and origin of the Universe. For all the gaps in its understanding and the disagreements among scientists on matters of detail, this accounts very well for the occurrence and evolution of life - up to and including the flawed marvels of human intelligence and creativity. And, while many phenomena have been reported which, as yet, defy scientific explanation, nobody has come up with a single piece of empirical evidence for the existence of a spiritual dimension, let alone of any deity - and even less of the complex structure of God, Heaven, Hell, angels and the rest of which Christians, Jews and Muslims believe they can give such detailed and authoritative accounts. While the scientific evidence doesn’t prove the non-existence of God (how do you prove a negative?) it has established sufficient evidence to make the existence of a sentient creator both highly improbable and totally redundant – improbable because of the total lack of evidence versus the huge body of evidence for the scientific view, and redundant because – once a huge stockpile of just a few fundamental particles was available – everything else could happen without divine (or any other kind of) assistance. ‘But where did the fundamental particles come from?’ the determined theists would no-doubt ask? I don’t know, and nor does anyone else – yet. And that doesn’t bother me. It certainly doesn’t bother me enough to make me believe in an ‘intelligent designer’, because that just leads to the question ‘Where did the designer come from?’

Nevertheless, something in me seems to regret my own inability to believe in a spiritual or supernatural dimension. I still enjoy religious rituals, though my taste is for the more theatrical ones - plenty of incense, Latin, ornate regalia and moving music. And a lot of the stuff in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings makes my spine tingle and can even reduce me to tears. I’d love there to be more to life that what we can explain by science - wonderful as all that is - but I just can’t believe that there is.

But I empathise with the profound need for secure beliefs which I believe is an essential part of the emotional makeup of any thinking human being - no agnosticism for me. (I explore the basis of this need and its relationship with science in Religion and science, now tranferred from this page toThe Diary of a Wandering Mind.)

It follows that I support the freedom of everyone to believe whatever they choose to believe and to practice whatever rituals they choose to practice, and I have no desire to convert anyone to my own beliefs. (This was not true in my twenties, and I apologise unreservedly to all the people I must have upset over countless dinner-party tables with my aggressive, dogmatic arguments.)

This respect does not, however, extend to people who wish to impose their beliefs on others, so these days Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and other door-to-door pedlars of fringe (and mostly commercial) religions get a pretty thorny reception on my doorstep: ‘I’m an atheist, but I don’t feel the need to come peddling my beliefs on your doorstep. So kindly get off mine.’ Even less does it extend to tolerating inter-religious hatreds and the vile deeds carried out in their pursuit. Many of the world’s greatest tragedies are traceable to old tribal and territorial hostilities that seem to be inextricably bound up with some of the world’s greatest religions - Catholic/Protestant, Muslim/Jew, Christian/Jew, Hindu/Muslim and Muslim/Christian, to name just a few. The irony is that the closer two religious groups are in terms of their origins and beliefs (Muslims and Jews, for instance), the more they seem to hate each other – who was it who said ’the Devil is in the detail’?

Religion and the Dreadful Doctor Dawkins

Just as good Christians derive much gratification from reading the Bible and listening to sermons, I get huge satisfaction from reading good popular science books and watching nature documentaries on TV. Just as one reinforces religious faith, the other reinforces faith in science.

A couple of Richard Dawkins’ books helped my understanding of evolution tremendously. I recall The Blind Watchmaker and particularly The Selfish Gene with great pleasure. The latter, particularly, was a total revelation, and when I rediscovered my copy during a monster clear-up I put it aside to be re-read. It blows away the confusion about species looking after their own interests and tells us that it is genes that fight to survive and multiply. It isn’t an easy concept, but if you read the book it makes perfect sense.

So I’m saddened by Dawkins’s recent career path. From being an eminent biologist with a gift for really original thought and even greater gift for communicating his knowledge and thoughts to non-scientists, he seems to have fallen into the trap of his own conceit. The best people to promote the public understanding of science are those who practise it and can, like Dawkins, explain it in relatively simple terms. Because they are still researching, they radiate enthusiasm.

To me, the very idea of creating a university chair - in his case that of the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science - was a bad one. And so it has proved: the TV series he Root of All Evil? (even with the question-mark) revealed a supercilious, arrogant man with no empathy - or even insight into how real people tick - who is deluded enough to think that he can take on, single-handed, hundreds of thousands of years of religion. He should have stuck to being a small cog in the machine of real science and been grateful that his talents as a communicator made him, perhaps, a slightly bigger cog in our understanding of science.

I wrote more about Dawkins, and some of his more modest contemporaries, a while ago. This appears in Religion and science, now tranferred from this page toThe Diary of a Wandering Mind. There is more further down this page. Suffice to say that I finally read The God Delusion once that it was being sold cheaply as a paperback - I didn’t feel like lining Dawkins’s pockets by buying the hardback! I found it unsurprisingly self-indulgent and surprisingly disorganised.

Religion and politics

Call it arrogance, but I do find it hard to trust anyone who believes literally in conventional religious teaching with any serious responsibility for running the lives of others. Politics requires rational, fair-minded, evidence-based judgments about moral issues, so it scares the hell out of me to see the likes of Tony Blair and George W Bush claiming the moral high ground on the basis of their religious beliefs, and convinces me that they are intellectually unfit to lead governments.

Blair, though he professed to be an Anglican, was flexible enough to marry a Catholic - but was it more opportunism than respect for his wife’s beliefs that led him to send his kids to a Catholic secondary school on the other side of London rather than to his local community comprehensive? Since I first drafted this page, he has actually converted to Catholicism. If this wass really what he wanted, why didn’t he have the courage to do it while still Prime Minister?

Bush was (and it gives me great comfort to change this from ’is’ to ’was’ now he’s back where he belongs) seriously scary. I didn’t need to know that he belonged to a pretty fundamentalist fringe Southern Methodist sect to recognise him as an intellectual and moral pygmy - two minutes of TV exposure was enough for that. But the fact that he did, yet allowed himself to be guided by a predominantly Zionist élite into an unacceptable level of support for the Israeli right, convinced me that this man was totally unfit to hold high office. The fact that he was apparently ’born again’ in the course of ’recovering’ from alcoholism (from which there is only respite, not recovery) only strengthened that conviction. As the father of an alcoholic son who turned to drugs to avoid killing himself with vodka and tragically died of what was probably an accidental overdose, I know that you can never rely on a drunk - so all credit to Charles Kennedy.

There are two major and classic flaws in the thinking of Bush and Blair - errors that we were all taught as children to avoid:

  • The end justifies the means
  • Two wrongs make a right

Richard Dawkins

The writings of Richard Dawkins, among many other evolutionary biologists such as Steven Pinker, have fulfilled the role of religious texts for me, giving me a better understanding of what is becoming known - dangerously, I think, because it suggests a philosophical/religious view rather than a scientific one - as ’Darwinism’. However, I have become increasing critical of Dawkins’ evangelical atheism, which seems to me to put him on the same level as religious evangelists. The Channel Four series The Root of All Evil? (the question-mark turned out to be deeply hypocritical), first broadcast in January 2006, disappointed me, because he seemed solely concerned with debunking religious belief - not with proposing any actions that might help to counter the damage some religious beliefs have done, are doing and threaten to do. I fear the good professor was more interested in strutting his intellectual stuff than actually getting to grips with practicalities. He struck me as a very arrogant man - disappointing, as his writings have been very important to me. More to the point, he seemed to have no grasp of why religion has been so necessary to so many for so long. See Religion and science, now tranferred from this page toThe Diary of a Wandering Mind.

Perhaps if the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science had spent a little less time in academic ivory towers and a little more in contact with ordinary people (or even with colleagues who have more understanding of how ’real people’ tick), he would see that, for many people even in a highly-developed society like ours, scientifically-based atheism is just too difficult - and the simple ’truths’ offered by conventional religions are too easy to swallow.

We won’t do anything effective about the real threats posed by religious extremism of all kinds by ridiculing religious belief - or even by trying, however rationally and sympathetically, to argue people out of a lifetime of such belief. We have to accept that a godless universe holds little attraction for the vast majority of human beings. The task is not to stamp out religion but to prevent it from doing great harm. It isn’t going to go away - we have to live with it and hope that, within a generation or two, far more people will understand and believe the scientific account of the origins of the Universe, life and mankind and that religion will gradually wither away. (As I write, though, it seems to be staging a come-back - short-term, I sincerely hope, but as far as the United States is concerned I have my doubts.)

That is what a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science should be concentrating on, rather than slagging off religions and the religious. However, I suspect that the egotist in Dawkins will not allow him to pursue such humble objectives - but surely even he can’t be so conceited as to believe that, single-handed, he can argue into oblivion religions that have held sway over millions of people for thousands of years...

For the rest of us, the gradual dissemination of convincing scientific theory is a long-term business. In the meantime, for the survival of us all, we need to find political strategies to cope with the serious problems that face the world as a result of widespread and conflicting religious beliefs and the ancient hatreds they support.

(Meanwhile, on the 16 February 2006, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time discussion programme on BBC Radio 4 featured three scientists discussing Human evolution - from early hominids to Homo Sapiens. They were Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics in the Galton Laboratory at University College, London; Fred Spoor, Professor of Evolutionary Anatomy at University College, London; and Margaret Clegg, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Biological Anthropology at University College, London. The discussion was riveting, and served to confirm my view that Steve Jones is a far better populariser of this important area of science than Dawkins. You can find his home page, with a list of his books, on the Univeristy site.)

Intelligent Design

This seems to be the new weapon in the armoury of creationists whom science has on the run. Its proponents apparently now concede that the theory of evolution - and it still is a theory, if a pretty convincing one - makes a lot of sense but fails to explain how every single organism could have developed. There is a tiny marine creature with a kind of tail that revolves like a propeller, and the ID brigade claim that because scientists can’t come up with a sequence of developmental steps to account for this (arguing that any intermediate steps that did not produce the propeller would have had no value in promoting the survival of the fittest) it must have been ’designed’ by some intelligence.

First, we need to accept that science does not produce absolute truths. At any time, what science gives us is its best shot at explaining something. That’s a theory, and research and experiment are then needed to back that theory up. The theory of evolution, since Darwin’s extraordinary leap of intellect, has been backed up by a huge body of discoveries, but scientists are still happy to call it ’a theory’.

So we have an as-yet incomplete account of the development of plants and animals, but one that makes sense in almost every case. But because of that ’almost’, the closet creationists postulate an alternative that has not a scrap of science to back it up - the existence of the Intelligent Designer. God. Of course, they are comfortable with this because they always knew God existed, and to Hell with evidence. The question they cannot answer is, of course, ’Who designed the designer?’

Towards a secular state

The USA and France both have constitutions that set out to separate Church and State. The religious right in the USA clearly has no respect for this aspect of the nation’s elegantly written philosophy, President Chirac’s ban on the wearing of religious symbols by children in state schools totally missed the point - and Sarkozy?s even more aggressive determination to take the burka off French streets looks like a flirtation with fascism. The only respectabl;e stance has to be that the state supports no religion but respects the religious beliefs of all citizens.

It needs to be quite clear in every nation’s constitution that religious belief and practice is a private matter for individuals and families, and that the task of the state is to facilitate complete freedom in both - up to the limit of one group’s practice requiring the persecution of others.

The multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faith nature of today’s population makes this separation absolutely essential.

For the United Kingdom, with its huge spectrum of religions, to have an established church at the beginning of the 21st Century is not just an absurdity - it’s an obscenity. It must be difficult enough for Roman Catholics to feel like equal partners in a society dominated by a Protestant church. Surely it is harder still for Jews, and even more difficult for almost two million British Muslims, who must also have had big problems with the Blair/Bush love affair, given the dominance of the Christian Right and the Zionist lobby in the US Government.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all spring from common roots, and this seems to be a guaranteed recipe for hostility. At many points in the long history of the Sons of Abraham, different groups diverged and went their separate ways in a series of highly acrimonious divorces. Much later, Protestants cut loose from the Catholic church and then, having gained the ascendancy, started persecuting them; the hatreds stemming from that schism are still with us, bubbling away - mostly below the surface in recent years, thankfully - in Northern Ireland, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool... It is horrifying to think that Catholics were only given basic civil rights (such as the vote) in Northern Ireland around 30 years ago. I don’t know the history of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, but there seems to be a parallel there: the more closely related the movements, and the more recent the schism, the greater the hostility.

So Step One for us must be the disestablishment of the Church of England (and its Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts, if they are established churches). This might go some way towards convincing some of our angrier Muslim citizens that they are not a religious underclass in a Christian country. It follows logically that CofE bishops have no place in the House of Lords - unless, of course, rabbis, imams and the clerics of all other major faiths are given the same status in what is, after all, an important arm of our legislature (roll on the next round of Lords reform!). This would probably be impossible, because it seems that Islam, at least, has no recognised hierarchy even within Britain - let alone across the world.

It would also follow that the coronation of the next Monarch, if we ever crown one, should be a totally secular ceremony, and that any religious observance by members of the Royal Family must be in a strictly private context. (While we’re at it, the Monarchy needs to be demilitarised - members of the Royal Family should be free to pursue military careers but should derive no position in the armed forces - Colonel-in-Chief, etc - by virtue of their Royal status.)

What else? BBC Radio 4 must stop broadcasting its daily Act of Worship (even if it is buried on long wave) and BBC1 TV must stop showing Songs of Praise, unless, of course, both programmes are shared fairly with all the major faiths represented in this country - and that would be difficult, if not impossible. Similarly, Thought for the Day needs to be fully balanced between the major religions represented in this country - and the views of those with no religion. There can be no role in the promotion of any one religion for a public-service broadcaster which is funded by taxation (which is what the TV Licence is).

State school assemblies must lose their element of religious - and specifically Christian - observance. It is not the job of the state education service to inculcate or encourage any religious belief in our children. So Religious Education must be a compulsory element in the National Curriculum at all four Key Stages, and must be taught strictly to a nationally agreed syllabus which gives equal respect to all faiths in a balanced historical account of their origins and development and of the good and evil that have been done in their names. This must be written by a multi-faith group whose members have wide approval among all the major faiths, along with atheists. All teachers delivering RE must have specialist training to do so - and, paradoxically, would probably have to be atheists or agnostics in order to avoid unconscious bias. Whatever, it will be a tall order.

School uniform rules must make due allowance for the genuine requirements of pupils’ faiths to wear specific clothing, perhaps on the basis that a significant percentage of adherents wear that clothing, provided no safety, hygiene or discipline issues arise. As an example, this would probably allow Muslim girls to wear long skirts and headscarves but not veils that make it difficult to identify them or spot them talking in class. Pupils whose families can show that they could not adhere to uniform regulations without compromising their beliefs might be granted state funding to attend appropriate faith schools (provided the requirements in the next paragraph are met).

No state funding must go to any faith school (except, perhaps, for the individual students for the reason suggested in the previous paragraph), and no private school with a faith bias must be given charitable status which would result in taxpayers’ money promoting the teaching of one belief system - unless the school engages is non-exclusive activities that would qualify as charitable for any other instituion. Faith groups should be free to set up their own schools but these must be privately funded and must be inspected to ensure that the entire National Curriculum is taught to the required standards, especially Religious Education, even if this requires the use of state- or LEA-employed peripatetic RE teachers. If the demands of the core curriculum impairs their ability to teach their parent faith in core time, this must be done out-of-hours.

Legislation to deal with religious prejudice and discrimination needs to be thought through very carefully. I don’t believe we should have any law forbidding sacrilege as seen by any religious group. However, I do believe that behaviour which appears to be intended to stir up religious hatred needs dealing with vigorously. It’s a delicate balance.

The recent mess surrounding the publication of ’satirical’ cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad (Mohammed/Mahomet?) should be warning enough. A great deal of criticism has fallen on those Muslims who reacted very strongly to this, but I can’t help wondering how Catholics in, say, Glasgow or Liverpool (let alone Belfast) would have reacted if similar cartoons of the Virgin Mary had been published at the height of the IRA’s bombing campaigns...

And a secular world?

It follows from what I’ve already said that the existence of any state governed by the tenets of a religion must be of serious concern. ’The Jewish State’ and ’The Islamic Republic’ have no place in the modern world. There should be an agreed international code on which all states’ constitutions should, ideally, be built - agreed universal values shared by all nations and enshrined in their laws.

Fat chance? Of course - but I believe that the so-called ’liberal democracies’ (which I understood to include the USA, until the Bush era) need to agree a set of core values and set an example by writing them into their own constitutions (which is not necessarily a guarantee of conformity, as The Bush Brigade showed in their rather loose interpretation of the American Constitution). This needs to be recognised by the United Nations, which should then put whatever pressure is practicable on other nations to follow suit.

The problem here is that, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any states that are governed on the basis of religious ’law’ (Israel is actually pretty liberal) other than Islamic ones, so any such initiative is going to look like The Rest of The World ganging up on Islam. But Turkey has shown that an overwhelmigly Muslim country can have a secular constitution, so in spite of that nation’s still-wobbly human-rights record maybe there’s hope...

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.