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Atheism shall make you free

Thanks to Russell Blackford for the link.

Reposted from:,20867,21828394-7583,00.html

"ALL of the things all the religions teach us may be nonsense, yet some kind of god might still exist. If we can't prove God doesn't exist, shouldn't we be calling ourselves agnostics rather than atheists?" a member of a Melbourne audience asked French philosopher Michel Onfray this week (writes Pamela Bone).

"Non", replied the author of The Atheist Manifesto (Melbourne University Press). "We do not have to prove that God doesn't exist. It is people who affirm that God does exist who must prove it."

In any case, he added, philosophers have proved God doesn't exist.

Well, that's a relief (I should declare the questioner was me). Nevertheless, I insist on my point. Anyone prepared to give it serious thought must suspect that the God of the Bible or the Koran, whose words contradict each other all over the place, here teaching kindness and mercy, there preaching cruelty and vengeance, is man-made.

Just consider how would someone be greeted today who stood up on a box in the street and said God had authorised him to tell men they could have four wives, or as many slave-girls as they might own.

But this does not prove no God exists. Perhaps all the religions have got him wrong? I am unable to believe that the physical body of Jesus rose up into the spiritual place of heaven. Yet I know that millions of people more intelligent than I am do believe this. And that a virgin gave birth; and that the body and blood of Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. Faith has little to do with IQ. What has it to do with then? Studies of identical twins adopted at birth by different parents provide useful clues as to what is inherited and what is learned.

The studies - of which there are now many - indicate that a tendency to religiosity is genetically determined; if one twin is very religious the other nearly always is too, no matter how they were brought up. For believers, such studies should raise a confronting question: why would an all-loving God create some of his people without the capacity for believing in him, and then, according to scriptures, send them to eternal hellfire for not believing in him?

Yet genetics do not explain why about 70 per cent of Swedes and 48 per cent of French are unbelievers, but only 25 per cent of Australians, 15 per cent of Spaniards and 4 per cent of Irish. Or what makes religious belief surge and wane across populations and over time. Or even fully explain what makes some people react to an event such as September 11 by becoming more religious and some to conclude that religion is just too dangerous to be tolerated.

These are questions people are thinking about. Onfray, who is also a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival, spoke to a capacity crowd in Melbourne. The Atheist Manifesto is an international bestseller. So is Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion; and Sam Harris's The End of Faith; and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, a piercingly brave denunciation of Islam's treatment of women. And so is Christopher Hitchens's engaging and reasoned God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Dawkins's two-part series on ABC-TV's Compass program provided some of the most thought-provoking television seen in years.

But while people are buying the books and watching the television and flocking to live audiences, the reaction of most Australian reviewers and commentators has been critical or dismissive. The God Delusion has scarcely received one positive review in this country. Even the hip panellists of ABC-TV's Tuesday Book Club canned it. Reviews of The Atheist Manifesto have been similarly scornful.

Some commentators have gone so far as to label the current crop of atheist books as "dangerous", which seems to me in itself to be a somewhat dangerous attempt to stifle debate. A book promoting atheism could only be dangerous if atheists were calling for religious believers to be put to death, or even discriminated against; and no atheist is calling for that.

Part of the reason may be the curious habit books editors have of giving a book opposing religion to a religious person to review. Do they really expect someone whose world view is being challenged to praise it?

Or it may be the great reluctance that still exists, even in a secular society, to criticise religious beliefs.

One wonders what there is about belief in a supernatural being that sets it apart from, for example, political beliefs. Why is a firm conviction held without proof seen as a sign of virtue?

Surprisingly, American reviewers have been much more positive. Apparently, in that home of religious certainty it is more permissible to have a conversation about unbelief than it is here.

It is a conversation the human race needs to have with itself. The uses to which religion is being put around the world dictate this. Intelligence may have little to do with faith, but culture does. I don't think it is an accident that Sweden, The Netherlands and France, the least religious of Western countries, are also the healthiest, wealthiest, freest and most educated.

Religion is not going to die out soon no matter how educated people become, or how many books explaining it away are written.

Billions of people derive comfort from religious belief, and they should not be denied this. Millions of people also are motivated by their religion to do good works (others find it odd that some people think they need religion in order to be good).

Learned philosophers might disagree, but agnosticism seems to me a sensible enough position. If the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved, it follows that it is no more moral to believe than not to believe, and there is no reason why religious schools and religious organisations should be preferred over others, or given special status or tax exemptions.

If more of us could simply admit that we don't know - which is not at all the same as saying we should stop asking the questions - this world, the only one we can know for certain exists, might just be a little safer and happier for all.

Pamela Bone is a Melbourne writer.



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