1. Childhood indoctrination
What primarily gives me pause when it comes to religion is childhood indoctrination. The vast majority of religious people tend to believe in whatever god(s) their parents believed in. For the most part, those born to Christian parents become Christian, those born to Muslim parents become Muslim, those born to Hindu parents become Hindu.
When I was a teenager in Ireland, we used to have a subject called Religious Studies at school.1 I remember in one class a fellow student asked our teacher about alternative faiths. “Sir, what about all the people in the world who weren’t born Christian? Do you think they’re wrong?”
Our teacher’s answer went like this: “If you’re born Muslim, you should try to live a good life as a Muslim. And if you’re born Hindu, you should try to live a good life as a Hindu.”
Our teacher might as well have been saying that it was pure chance he ended up Catholic. Which, of course, it was. If he had been born in a different part of the world he likely would have been indoctrinated with a different set of religious beliefs and considered them to be more true than any other.
Just think about how many religions there are in the world and how different their teachings are. If you’re Christian you don’t believe in the prophet Muhammad. If you’re Muslim you don’t believe in the virgin birth or that Jesus was the son of God. If you’re Hindu you believe in reincarnation. To devote yourself to one religion — to consider that religion as truth — is to dismiss all other religions as false. But on what grounds? Why believe one set of stories and not another? Is one more likely to be true than another?
Or could it be that they’re all equally true?
That is: not very.
2. Burden of proof
For years I considered myself agnostic, which means I neither believed nor disbelieved in God. I didn’t see any satisfactory evidence for the existence of God, but I also couldn’t disprove his existence. So I was firmly on the fence.
Until I learned about the concept of burden of proof. It goes like this: The onus is on whoever is making a claim to prove the truth of it, and not on anyone else to prove its falsehood.
The famous example to illustrate this is Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot. Imagine if I were to assert that there is, at this very moment, a teapot in orbit around the Sun between the Earth and Mars. I can’t prove this to be true, but neither can you disprove it.
But you shouldn’t have to. It’s my crazy assertion, and therefore my burden of proof.
If you were perfectly agnostic you would have to say that there is a 50/50 chance of that celestial teapot existing, because its existence can neither be proved nor disproved. But just because an assertion cannot be disproved doesn’t mean it should be given serious credibility. By that reasoning, you would have to give equal credibility to the existence/nonexistence of fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness monster. But not many people consider themselves agnostic when it comes to those things.
Why should God be any different? Because he’s more popular?
Being atheist doesn’t mean I completely reject the possibility of God. You could say I’m still a little bit agnostic, but I’ve shifted way down towards the non-believing end of the spectrum. These days I’m more like 95/5 than 50/50. And that applies to all sorts of supernatural things, from ghosts to leprechauns to an old man in the sky who loves me unconditionally but will send me to hell if I don’t believe in him.
3. God of the gaps
I see most arguments for the existence of a supreme being as “god of the gaps” arguments. This type of argument usually goes something like this: “Nobody can explain how that happens, therefore God.”
Go back 500 years and nobody could explain how the sun came up and the tides came in. Therefore, the reasoning went, God.
Go back 150 years and nobody could explain the complexity of life on Earth. Therefore, said everyone, God.
Science has since come to understand the solar system and gravity and evolution, but of course there are still many things left to be explained. And it’s alongside those things that you’ll find defenders of religious faith still beating their drums. That drum circle is getting smaller and smaller by the century. I suspect that eventually God will have nowhere left to hide.
What I like about science as opposed to religion is that science doesn’t claim to know everything. Science is humble, willing to acknowledge its ignorance, admit mistakes, and correct itself. Religion, not so much. It’s either God’s way or the hellfire.
The above is just for starters. This topic is huge and my thinking on it continues to evolve. As per usual, I welcome smart and respectful commenters to question what I’ve written and find holes in my reasoning. Thanks in advance 🙂