A.C. Grayling on Taking an Axe to the Root of Religious Belief

The God Argument Book Cover

Debates concerning religion and the existence of god can quickly get confusing because we often forget that we are frequently having (at least) three separate debates simultaneously, as A.C. Grayling points out in The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and For Humanism.

The first debate is metaphysical: we want to know if there are good or sufficient reasons for us to believe that god(s) or some divine agency exists. The second is social: we want to determine the influence religion should have in public debate and policy. And the third is moral: we want to establish whether morality comes from divine sanctions or else from human reflection and reason.   

What is interesting to note—as Grayling correctly points out—is that if we answer the first question in the negative, and determine that there is no good reason to believe in the existence of god, then there is little point in discussing the social or moral ramifications of religious belief (insofar as it relies on god’s existence). It would make little sense to affirm that god does not exist—or that it is irrational to believe in god’s existence—and then to suggest that religious views predicated on god’s existence should be taken seriously in the public square or that our morality comes from a non-existent entity. 

(Of course, people should have the freedom to form their own beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience—and this should be respected in the personal sphere of life granted that harm is not inflicted upon others—but this certainly doesn’t mean that irrational ideas should receive undue and privileged public respect and influence. All ideas should be subject to challenge.) 

So while there are many good reasons to fight for the separation of church and state, and many good reasons to prefer humanism over divine command theory (as Grayling masterfully covers in The God Argument), these issues are, largely, beside the point if it can be shown that there are no good reasons to believe that god exists in the first place. Therefore, by taking an axe to the root of religious belief—by demonstrating that belief in a supreme being is in fact highly irrational—we can resolve all debates simultaneously. 

Let’s see if this can be accomplished. 

Explaining mysteries with mysteries

Let’s first consider this question: What counts as a good explanation? In very general terms, a good explanation must be both (1) specific and (2) testable. For example, a good explanation for how plants grow will include the details of photosynthesis and how plants convert light energy into chemical energy to be used to fuel the plants’ activity and growth. Photosynthesis is a good explanation because of the depth and specificity of the details, which makes the theory testable and falsifiable through experiment. Photosynthesis accounts for the available evidence in a specific way and would not be valid if the details of plant biology varied even slightly.

Conversely, what counts as a bad explanation? We can say, generally, that a bad explanation is one that is (1) non-specific and, therefore, (2) not testable or falsifiable. For example, if we were to say that plants grow through magic spells cast by invisible fairies, this could, in fact, account for all instances of actual and possible plant growth, but it would be impossible to test this theory because it’s not specific enough to be evaluated (and it actually shields itself against evaluation by asserting the invisibility of the fairies). 

The key point is that the invisible fairy hypothesis would be consistent with plant growth even if plant biology were completely different. Because the hypothesis accounts for everything, in practical terms it accounts for nothing, or, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper would put it, “A theory that explains everything, explains nothing.”

The uncomfortable truth regarding the religious conceptions of god is that they are not as dissimilar from the invisible fairies as you might suppose. For example, we can ask the following question: Where did the universe and all of life come from? 

Science, of course, provides some good (albeit incomplete) answers; modern physics and evolutionary biology describe, in painstaking mathematical and empirical detail, the physical and biological processes that make up the universe and life on earth. Scientific theories are testable and falsifiable and subject to refinement, and if the universe operated in slightly different ways, we would have to abandon our scientific theories and replace them with new ones.

What about the religious explanations for the existence of the universe and life on earth? They amount to little more than the argument that invisible fairies cast magic spells to grow plants. For example, modern versions of the cosmological argument—which claim that the universe requires a first cause—explicitly state that this first cause, which they call god, “transcends time and space,” which is, essentially, another way of saying that god is invisible and casts spells. 

This is a necessary move for the theist to avoid a blatant contradiction. To see how, let’s quickly review a version of the cosmological argument known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
  2. The universe began to exist;
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause, which is God.

We can immediately see the problem here: if everything requires a cause, then why doesn’t god require a cause? The theist will then claim, as theologian William Lane Craig maintains, that god requires no cause because god exists outside of time and space, just like our invisible garden fairies!  

Similarly, design arguments for the existence of god take the same stance. Theists maintain that the complexity of the world requires a designer, but when asked if the designer, who must be at least as complex as the universe it created, also requires a designer, they will claim that god is not actually complex. So god exists outside of time and space and has no complex parts or properties to explain, yet somehow created the universe and continues to interact with it. This is sounding uncomfortably close to our plant-growing fairies.

The problem with the arguments for god’s existence should by now be readily apparent. Theists are attempting to explain the mysteries of the universe with another mystery, without noticing that the substitute mystery (god) requires the exact same explanations as the original mysteries it is supposedly explaining (the origin and complexity of the universe). Further, the arguments for god’s existence only work if god is defined in such a way as to be completely inaccessible to investigation or evaluation. 

God, defined in this way, can account for everything, and even if the universe were completely different, the cosmological and design arguments would still apply. But we should take pains to always remind ourselves of Popper’s crucial point: namely, that theories that explain everything explain nothing. 

Sagan’s dragon and Russell’s teapot

Carl Sagan famously made a similar point in his book The Demon-Haunted World. In the chapter titled “The Dragon in My Garage,” Sagan wrote:

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”

Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

We can reframe Sagan’s question as follows: What’s the difference between an atemporal, nonspatial, incorporeal, invisible god and no god at all? Theists, in their attempts to define god in such a way as to make their arguments coherent, end up stripping away all of god’s properties until there’s nothing left.

Bertrand Russell, writing in 1952, expressed the same point in a different way. In an analogy referred to as Russell’s Teapot, Russell wrote:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

Notice that within Russell’s teapot analogy is an argument against agnosticism. If someone were to ask you to describe your beliefs regarding the existence of the china teapot, would you describe yourself as an a-teapotist or as a teapot agnostic? The teapot almost certainly doesn’t exist, and just because someone asserts its existence without evidence doesn’t make it more likely to exist, and therefore we have no reason to believe in it, or to even label ourselves as undecided. 

Whether we are talking about invisible fairies, Sagan’s invisible dragon, Russell’s invisible floating teapot, or incorporeal, nonspatial gods, the point is always the same: the philosophical burden of proof always falls on those making the claims (since a virtually infinite number of claims can be made), rather than shifting the burden of disproof onto others. Further, mysteries cannot be solved by introducing other mysteries, and, without the weight of tradition, irrational explanations would not be persuasive on their own. 

Ask yourself how many people would be persuaded by something like the cosmological argument if they didn’t already believe in god? The likely answer is very few. The weight of tradition gives credibility to worldviews that, on their own, are nothing short of absurd. The absurdity, however, is masked by the number of followers and the emotional appeal of the beliefs. But we must never sacrifice our intellectual integrity in service to consolation, wishful thinking, or tradition alone. Faith, or belief in the face of little to no evidence, or even contradictory evidence, is no virtue.  

A Better Alternative

Once the mind has been liberated from belief in god and has been disabused of the idea that life’s meaning must be imposed from an external source, the individual is truly free to develop a richer conception of life as the pursuit of one’s own meaning, goals, relationships, and pleasures. Love, friendship, hobbies, community involvement, helping others, and many other pleasurable and worthwhile endeavors lose nothing from the fact that an invisible entity is not perpetually watching you from above. 

So, what then, is the good life? The best answer seems to be that there is no single, one-size-fits all answer, and that at least part of the answer lies in the pursuit of ethical knowledge itself. Living the good life is not about finding a single author, tradition, or text to simply obey. Rather, living the good life is more about taking full advantage of your intellectual freedom and rational capacity to explore the great traditions of the past and to choose what best suits your own life and personality. 

Crafting one’s own meaning and purpose based on the exploration of humanity’s collective wisdom as expressed in the great literature of the past and present (the subject of this blog) seems infinitely more fulfilling than blind obedience to a single ancient text and viewpoint that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. As Grayling wrote:

“The message is clarion clear: to think for oneself is essential to the good life because what flows from doing so is one’s own. If others do the thinking for one, or if orthodoxies or traditions do it, one’s life is not one’s own. The good and well-lived life is not a servitude, but a service to one’s own chosen values. So the train of thought goes: freedom is what makes it possible to create meaning in one’s life, and the creation of meaning in one’s life is the good life itself.”

Further reading

Here is a recommended reading list for a secular-humanist-based ethics (in addition, of course, to the humanist classics from Epicurus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell, and many others. The humanist tradition is well-stocked):

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