By Burt Flannery
According to the latest United Kingdom census, published in 2012, around 25 percent of the population no longer believes in God, an increase of eight percent in only six years. The European average is higher still. Scandinavians, for example, with their atheist majorities, have traversed much farther along the road to rejection of observant gods and extravagant ritual. Their countries are among the most advanced, prosperous, peaceful and co-operative in the world and the people have found new ways to be kind to one another without agonising over a spy in the sky, an ever-watchful and judgemental God.
The large increase in the proportion of the United Kingdom’s unbelievers cannot be appropriated entirely to disaffection with either God or religion. The other factor is simply this: as members of the older generation die, their unconditional belief is not being conserved by a sceptical younger generation. The religious baton is not being passed on as unerringly as in yesteryear. Whatever doubts there may be about the educational standards of today, the young are generally better informed than their forebears ever were. This is an age of communications the like of which has never been seen before. Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist and developer of the World Wide Web (WWW), is to be applauded for not seeking to enrich himself by surrounding his invention by a wall of patents. Instead, the WWW became publicly available and ushered in a new age of enlightenment. News, debates and opinions are available to everyone, 24 hours a day, and these encourage people, particularly the inquisitive young, to ask just one more question. This is an entirely different scenario from that pertaining to the Age of Enlightenment that took place in 18th century Europe and America. As a cultural movement with the aim of reforming society using reason, it rejected the influence of faith, revelation, superstition and tradition believing in the advancement of knowledge through science. Intellectual interchange was seen as the way forward whilst opposing intolerance and the many abuses perpetrated by both church and state. It was, however, largely a movement by intellectuals for intellectuals and, despite flourishing for over 100 years, it could not be sustained. It had not permeated the grass roots of society who remained ignorant of its ideals and noble intent. In contrast, nowadays, almost everyone is exposed to a thousand times more information than could possibly have been imparted during the Enlightenment. It is the impact of the age of communications on knowledge, opinion and evidence-based decision making that is pushing religion to the sidelines. The young are increasingly reluctant to accept traditionally held views and it is, primarily, this that is hastening the move towards secularism.
They are told that Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea and that dead people were brought back to life, that Jesus was able to walk on water and that Mohammed travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse at a speed that would embarrass a Space Shuttle. The younger generation finds these scriptural tales lacking in credibility simply because they are impossible. Whilst tales such as these may serve to aggrandise religion for their elders, they serve only to devalue it in the minds of the young. Why, they ask, despite centuries of repression, bloodshed and forced conversions is only about one half of the world’s population monotheistic? Why, if only half the world believes in him, hasn’t God ordained a unity of faith? To be told that it’s because he gave mankind free will is, to them, a particularly feeble answer.
Young people now know that the Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago which is emphatically at variance with scriptural accounts. They are aware that fossil and DNA evidence age the first single-celled organism, a prokaryote, at around 3.6 billion years and that the first creature with a complex cell structure, a eukaryote, did not appear for almost another two billion years. Such an inordinate length of time, they reason, is irreconcilable with an omnipotent, supernatural creator, namely God. They also know that the first mammal, tiny and shrew-like, appeared around 225 million years ago after a further elapse time of nearly two billion years. Surely, of all the arguments that can be arraigned against the existence of God, it is the argument from time that is the most compelling.
It is claimed by creationists that an animal as complex as a horse, for example, must have been designed which implies that there must have been a designer. It is perfectly true that, constituting billions of cells, the horse is highly complex and if it had suddenly materialised without any historical lineage deep into its primordial past, one would suspect it was the work of a supernatural deity. On the contrary, however, scientists have demonstrated that the horse is the product of millions of years of Darwinian evolution and natural selection. With greater knowledge of the natural world than was ever available to their forebears, young people know that a single design cannot take millions of years to implement. If one can speak of design at all, such a time lapse would involve countless designs and re-designs simulating evolution in the absence of a supernatural designer. An omnipotent deity would, after all, get the design right first time and would have no need of continual modification.
Recognition of the world’s imperfections also causes the young to question God’s existence. In the words of Lucretius, the ancient Roman poet and philosopher:
“Had God designed the world, it would not be
A world so frail and faulty as we see.”
Examples of poor design are illness, disease, predation, natural disasters, evil, cruelty and murder (particularly on religious grounds). If the Yersinia pestis bacterium, the cause of the Black Death of the Middle Ages, had been just a few percentage points more virulent, the whole of Europe’s population (and possibly the world’s) would have been extirpated. As it was, 100 million people died. Today, mosquitos act as a vehicle for many disease-causing viruses, transferring them to humans without themselves exhibiting any symptoms. They are estimated to transmit disease to more than 700 million people annually resulting in over two million fatalities. Young people rightly wonder how all of this can be part of a benevolent creator’s design. Was it really part of God’s plan for man to co-exist with countless micro-organisms endowed with the capacity to wipe him out? If, for some inexplicable reason, it suited God’s purpose to fill the world with harmful bacteria, wouldn’t it have made sense to equip humans with a prophylactic immune system instead of the delicate one afforded them?
When Sir David Attenborough, our most respected broadcaster, was asked whether his observation of the natural world had given him faith in a divine creator, he responded by making reference to the Loa loa parasitic worm, also known as the eye worm. He said:
“My response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, a worm that’s going to make him blind. And I ask them, ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball?’ Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy.”
The only ‘evidence’ for God perceived by young people is based on aberrant holy text. The more they apply logic and reason, the more they realise that the scriptures are works of fiction: fabricated, abridged and adulterated. The great Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, wrote in a letter to John Adams, his friend and predecessor:
“The whole history of these books (the gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it.”
He also wrote, in his latter years:
“Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear.”
The Book of Genesis purports that Adam was created the first man on Earth about 6,000 years ago but it has been scientifically established that modern man (Homo sapiens) first appeared almost 200,000 years earlier. These early humans were polytheistic in that they ascribed anything they could not understand to a panoply of gods whom they constantly sought to appease. It is clear that polytheistic religions have existed for many thousands of years and are widespread even today. However, according to Genesis, seminal events took place around 4,000 years ago during the life of the Hebrew, Abraham, and the advent of monotheism. It is as if, at this time, God thought to himself:
“Well, thousands of millions of years have elapsed since I created planet Earth. Polytheism’s had a good run so I think it’s high time the Earthlings knew about me. I need someone to spread the word. I don’t think I’ll choose a polymath, a scientist or philosopher; it’s an itinerant tribesman for me.”
One would, of course, have expected God to appear efficaciously before everyone at the same time, communicate his laws and ensure a unified religion but, by opting for the single tribesman route, he ensured that subsequently millions of people would be killed defending their version of the truth. Is it any wonder that young people have developed a mistrust of religion?
Moreover, it is written that Abraham entered into a covenant with God in which he was promised that his descendants would be made into a great nation. The covenant was sanctified by the rite of circumcision in accordance with God’s command but why God, after tens of thousands of years of human existence, suddenly decided it was essential that the prepuce of an eight-day old child’s genitalia should be sliced off with the aid of any proximate sharp implement remains a mystery. The young people of today, however, are not so naïve as to accept this at face value. They know perfectly well that if God really found a morsel of flesh so offensive, he would not have endowed humanity with it in the first place.
Despite this, around one-third of the world’s male population is circumcised on religious grounds, chiefly according to the directives of Judaism and Islam. Even in the United States, one of the world’s most medically advanced countries, one in 500 infants suffers acute complications owing to circumcision. One can only imagine how high the figure might be in more primitive societies and how many children must have died from infection over the course of millennia. Performing this process to ensure well-being on medical grounds is understandable but to do so because of some misguided religious rite is as preposterous as it is barbaric.
Why are we so conditioned to religion, anyway? Belief in gods would have originated primarily out of fear and, from early forms of religion, humans would have derived consolation, comfort and a sense of security. Their religion would have fostered togetherness, binding them to something much greater than their group or tribe and, furthermore, it would have satisfied their innate need for leadership. The desire for leadership has a long evolutionary history and applies to most species of the animal kingdom: hence, for example, the mammalian alpha male (or female). For their part, humans look to different kinds of leaders (meritocratic, military, political, spiritual and so on) to keep them safe or maintain a sense of well-being. Leaders, of course, have their own need for leadership, ultimately in the guise of some divine power. According to Bertrand Russell, the brilliant British philosopher and mathematician:
“Religion is based primarily upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes.”
After tens of thousands of years of propitiation to supernatural deities, it is quite possible that mankind has evolved to the extent that religion is virtually ‘hard-wired’ into the psyche. If this is the case, for many people the dependence on some form of religion would be almost impossible to dispel. To break free of this dependence requires considerable intellectual application. Bertrand Russell pointed out:
“This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.”
In reference to the scriptures, he added:
“A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.”
One can attend almost any church service and be told that “God is Love”, a statement unsubstantiated by daily events, both great and small. There was no evidence of love when Aztec priests plunged their razor-sharp obsidian blades into the breasts of sacrificial victims to remove their hearts in deluded obeisance to the god, Huitzilopochtli. Nor was there any sign of love when a mother and child were led to the gas chamber during the Holocaust. There was no evident love when, in 1099, the Crusaders recaptured Jerusalem from Muslim dominion and swept through the streets as a raging torrent of barbaric and indiscriminate slaughter. No matter, in consolation the ecclesiastical clerisy has assured us that God loved all the victims. Today’s young people question why God remains unseen and never intervenes even when he is so desperately needed.
For its part, the priesthood has always preferred the laity to be ignorant and, consequently, compliant. The obscurantism of these servants of God hindered progress through a process of repression and fear for centuries. Nicolaus Copernicus, one of the great polymaths of the Renaissance, was a Polish astronomer and the first person to formulate a heliocentric cosmology. His book, On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres, published just before his death, is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy. He could have published much earlier but was afraid that he would be condemned to death as a heretic by a priesthood that believed unconditionally in the word of the scriptures. Had not Joshua, after all, commanded and stopped the Sun from moving around the Earth for a period of several hours to provide his army with more daylight? The cosmos, therefore, was geocentric; there could be no debate. Some years later, Giordano Bruno, the distinguished Italian mathematician and astronomer, was not so lucky. Because he held similar views to Copernicus adding that the Sun was actually a star, the holy men drove a metal spike through his tongue before burning him at the stake. Later still, Galileo, one of the world’s greatest scientists, was hauled before the priesthood and accused of heresy. Using a telescope of his own invention, he had found conclusive evidence of heliocentrism. In direct contravention of biblical text and possessing a lesser resolve than Bruno, Galileo recanted, with his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek. He feigned acceptance when the priests told him he could not have seen what he claimed to have seen, that his eyes had deceived him. He was spared Bruno’s fate and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, ordered to read seven penitential psalms once a week for three years.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, over a period of 125 years, religious wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants accounted for the loss of over 11 million lives. Even the events of the Holocaust of the 1940s (and a further 6 million deaths) have origins rooted in these times and in the exhortations and inflammatory rhetoric of Protestantism’s foremost priest, Martin Luther. In the cruelest of all ironies, all of those who died had believed in the love of the same God. Moreover, is it not baffling that benevolent revelation is invariably claimed by the least influential in society when it should be the preserve of the most powerful? How much is really being achieved when a vagrant believes he hears God’s voice and becomes a born-again Christian? As far as we can tell, God never commanded Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot to be kind to their fellow man nor did he ever appear before Martin Luther to convince him to speak well of the Jews. If God ever appeared as an apparition before despotic leaders, it served only as justification for the atrocities perpetrated in his name.
Another reason for the young to question the authenticity of holy text and God’s existence is that many people they admire have done likewise. Jonathan Edwards, for example, became the world’s greatest triple jumper and one of Britain’s most decorated athletes. The son of a vicar, he spent most of his adult life as a devout Christian. Initially, he even refused to compete on Sundays, his faith costing him a place in the 1991 World Athletics Championships. He once stated:
“My relationship with Jesus and God is fundamental to everything I do. I have made a commitment in that relationship to serve God in every area of my life.”
He was a regular presenter of the BBC Christian television show, Songs of Praise, until 2007 when he renounced his faith and his belief in God. In an interview with The Times, he stated:
“When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”
Countless prominent people agree with him. Famous atheists from the world of film and theatre include Woody Allen, James Cameron, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Paul Bettany, Emma Thompson and Daniel Radcliffe. Political atheists of recent times include Roy Hattersley, Neil Kinnock, Ken Livingstone, Michael Portillo, Alastair Campbell, Nick Clegg and the Miliband brothers, David and Ed. From literature, we have Kingsley Amis, Douglas Adams, Tariq Ali, Ken Follett, Stephen Fry and Graham Greene. Those from the scientific community include Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, Francis Crick and David Attenborough whilst well-known names from entertainment and comedy include Billy Connolly, Alan Davies, Eddie Izzard, Ben Elton, Dave Allen, Terry Wogan and Michael Parkinson. It was the late Dave Allen who famously said:
“I’m an atheist, thank God.”
Earlier unbelievers include some of history’s greatest minds such as Epicurus, Baruch Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Andrew Carnegie, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Percy Bysshe Shelley and, more recently, Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan. All were profound and erudite thinkers whose opinions are worthy of scholarship and available to everyone in our communications age.
It is, of course, possible that God exists but is not omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and merciful but, if that were the case, why would you call him ‘God’? Even though beliefs in the supernatural cannot be falsified empirically, it seems the time will come when science gains dominion over emotion and God will be consigned to mythology alongside Zeus, whilst the prophets will become regarded as unwitting imposters. By then, the ecclesiastical clerisy will have joined a long line of deluded holy men and the debate about God’s existence would simply be a philosophical one: “Can God exist if nobody believes in him?” Until then, religion’s influence is likely to decrease exponentially, the decline leading to eventual oblivion.
Extracted from the author’s book, What’s God Got To Do With It?