By Roland Watson

I ended the last article by describing how religions tell us that life is a test, and for which we need their help to guarantee that we pass. They further use a specific and premeditated argument to make this point, to ensure that we believe them.

Religions, in their beneficence, are willing to make us a special offer, an offer that it is almost impossible to refuse. If you follow what they say, they will assuage your greatest fear: of death. They will grant you immortality.

We all want to live forever. It is our common aspiration. In a sense, we even feel that it is our due.

As George Orwell wrote in his book Animal Farm: "Their lives, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?"

Indeed, there must be immortality. Otherwise, the good people who suffer greatly during their lives will never receive their reward.

The keys

It is natural, although not reasonable, to believe in the supernatural, because it gives us hope of a better life. Religions, and this is the foundation of their form, prey on us by saying that they have the keys to the afterlife. They - at least in the Western tradition - have been in direct contact with god, who has told them what we must do, and if we follow their guidance we will achieve immortality.

In this way, religions provide answers to both of the fundamental conditions, and hence questions, of existence. What is the universe, and what happens when we die?

The universe exists as an example of, and to further, god's greater glory, and - again, for the Western tradition - we must submit to the rule of god, as revealed to the prophets of religion, or else when we die we will be subjected to an eternity of torment.

This is the practical source of religious power. For instance, in the Middle Ages kings in Europe basically did as they pleased. They engaged in conquest, pillage, murder and rape. And, the Catholic Church, a collection of unarmed priests, was opposed to this. Yet over time, the priests won. They converted and reformed the kings, because the kings believed that they - the priests - had the power to deny them eternal life.

Flaws in the argument

However, if you look closely at the teachings and practices of religion, doubts about immortality begin to creep in. For example, the Eastern belief in reincarnation is itself a form of immortality, and one to be avoided! We just do not remember our prior lives.

One might ask, if spiritual transformations from life to death to life to death occur, why are there no memories of them? Why is there no residue at all from such a past existence? Is not the belief in reincarnation simply a false nostalgia for immortality?

In addition, and as the author Jorge Luis Borges noted in his story The Immortal: "Israelites, Christians and Moslems profess immortality, but the veneration they render this world proves they believe only in it, since they destine all other worlds, in infinite number, to be its reward or punishment."

The worst thing I could imagine would be to be immortal, and still not possess total understanding: to be doomed to an eternal ignorance of the mysteries of the universe.

The need for faith

The form of religion begins with faith. It is the basic tool or method of religious conditioning. You are told that while there may appear to be no answers, if you have faith, the answers will be revealed to you.

But, the means of the revelation varies. For instance, for Christianity and for Catholics, it is through the Church. For Protestants, it is through the Bible and yourself.

There is a deeper question, though. Why does god require faith? Why not simply reveal him, her or itself?

Douglas Adams, in his book The HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy, said: "The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'"

I don't know. It seems a weak argument.

One might look for guidance to my analogy about the ant-farm. In a world without absolute knowledge, there can only be belief. But some beliefs are more consistent with reason and the apparent order of the universe than others.

Beliefs that are inconsistent require faith, often a great amount of faith, such as the statements: "I have faith that objects fall up, not down, contrary to the perception of my senses," or "I have faith that Jesus raised the dead and was the Son of God."

Since you cannot know anything - have absolute knowledge about the purpose of the universe and of life - this enables you to believe anything that you want, including anything you are told, no matter how outlandish it might be.

Indeed, this also raises the question, if faith is the abandonment of reason, shouldn't we abandon reason for everything?

I have no problem with this. People are entitled to believe whatever they want. If they cannot be content with our ignorance, in the face of the scale and complexity of the universe, then they can believe anything at all, however unlikely it might be.

My personal belief is that an omnipotent being - if "god" truly is omnipotent - would not need, or want, faith. Perhaps a better explanation is that the real purpose of the need for faith is to limit the allowable views of the religious adherent. It is an ideal mechanism to ensure obedience. If you believe in X, meaning our god, you cannot - you are not allowed to - believe in Y, meaning theirs.

The nature of god

This brings us to god. The logic stream of existence, according to the Western religious tradition, is as follows. There is a god, and one god only, and it is aware of us in this universe, on this planet, and as a species.

Furthermore, it is aware of us as individuals, and it is also interested in our behavior. It wants to see us behave in a particular way, and it is so concerned about this that it will punish us if we do not.

But, the Ten Commandments notwithstanding, it will not tell us directly how to behave. Instead, it sends us guides, in the form of saviors and prophets. And, if we misbehave, it will not punish us directly, in our terrestrial existence, because it wants us to have faith in its existence. But, it will not provide proof of this. We have to have faith that it exists, and that it will punish us after we die.

This is preposterous. I did not ask to be born, so why should I be punished? If I have a mind, shouldn't I use it? Wouldn't it be a sin not to? An eternity in hell for a few sins is cruel and unusual punishment. If this is what happens, god is a tyrant.

Views about god

Of course, throughout history people have had many different views on god. These include:

- There are many gods, some superior and others inferior, or there is one.

- The gods, their attributes, are knowable, or they are not.

- They care about us, or they do not.

- We are made in their image, or we are not.

- And, they are good, or not. For instance, the gods of Olympus had human failings. Also, and as I have mentioned, some people have even viewed the gods as evil, because of the "evil" that exists in their creation: in the world.

On the other hand, god is seen as an ideal, an ideal that we can never attain, but through which is nonetheless offered the hope for a better world, including an afterlife.

In this way, god is viewed as permanent, or existing outside of time, and perfect, and wise.

There have also been variations in our response to god. Normally, the response is one of fear and supplication, as expressed through devotion, worship and sacrifice. But, this has not always been the case. Humans have not always been so servile.

In some cultures, people have humiliated the images of their gods, if the gods failed to deliver. And, of course, many groups, following their defeat in war, redirected their worship to the gods of their conquerors. Such gods were viewed as better, more powerful, and hence more worthy of devotion.

Finally, and in conclusion, "God" is also a term in many ways similar to "human nature." We use it when we do not know what to say; when there is nothing left to say.

"God" is a perfect example of the mind's, and language's, ability to express ideas about things that do not - or may not - exist, things that are mere fantasy.

In the next article, I will present the religious argument.

© Roland Watson 2014