Monthly Archives: November 2010

Questions about the consequences of monotheism

A few years ago Dr. Carol Copp (retired professor of sociology, CSUF) presented an overview of a book Rodney Stark entitled One True God: The Historical Consequences of Monotheism to an audience of humanists.

Stark’s book and Dr. Copp’s lecture raise a number of questions regarding the sociological and historical effects of monotheism, which many of her secular audience tended to see in a negative light. But, of course, a definitive statement on this issue is not easy and maybe not even possible, given that most answers are posed in terms of a religious or a secular bias. Nonetheless, maybe a few things can be said which are not just partisan statements that belief in one god is good for you or the opposite.

Many of us with an interest in the role that religions have played in history often raise the question: Has monotheism resulted in more evil than good for humanity, or on the contrary, more good than evil? This is not an easy question, and reasonable arguments and evidence can be advanced for either answer: more good or more evil. Dr. Coop brought out a number of reasons for saying that belief in one true God has resulted in much evil (war, death, destruction, suffering, etc.). Certainly most secular humanists are inclined to emphasize this negative aspect of monotheism. But in religious history the move from the polytheism of tribal gods to monotheism has often been presented as moral progress, especially when the “one true God” is given moral qualities. Moreover, it is not obvious that the move from polytheism to monotheism has always been accompanied by an increase in religious war and persecution. In some cases it has; but in other cases it has not.

With regard to moral consequences of theism, knowing that a nation or tribe is monotheistic does not tell us much. We also would need to know more specifically about the character of the monotheistic belief(s) and something about the character (or tendencies) of the believers. What kind of god do they hold as their one, true god? Is he a war god, a vengeful god or a morally developed, god of wisdom? What kinds of demands or commandments do they imagine their god to impose on them? Are these people aggressive and war-like, who fashion their one, true god along these lines? Do they see their religious devotion to their god as requiring that all outsiders (all non-believers) be eliminated? Do they have the belief in exclusive salvation (referred to as “particularism” by sociologists) that implies only those who worship their god can be saved, and others are fair targets for their cleansing, military action?

On the other hand, is it possible the nation or tribe in question holds to a different form of monotheism, a benevolent, universal theism that sees all members of the human race as brothers and sisters, children of the one true God? Can we allow that sometimes a nation or tribe can consist of benevolent, progressive-minded believers who fashion a “one, true God” who commands that all people respect and benefit each other, and work to bring about justice for all his “children”? (Here think of the “good works” type of Christianity, in which working to help those in need is seen as showing devotion to God, and which the idea that “Jesus loves you” is emphasized; and the notion that you must “believe as God commands lest you suffer eternal torment in hell” is downplayed or ignored altogether.)

Historically, we would be hard pressed to find a clear case of this form of pure, benevolent monotheism. A peoples’ image of the deity generally reflects that peoples’ moral and intellectual evolution; this has always been a “mixed bag,” with malevolent, destructive tendencies dominating sometimes, and the progressive, morally enlightened tendencies becoming more apparent at other times. In short, the type of monotheism that develops reflects the type of human culture that has evolved. That monotheism will sometimes be “not too bad,” even encouraging for those who look for signs of moral progress. But as the bloody history of Europe and the Americas has shown, too often monotheism has been “bad news” for humanity.

Bruce Gleason: The Hazards of Living in a Religious World

By Bruce Gleason, director of Freethought Alliance

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like if man never invented religion nor needed a god to believe in. Some think that the world societies would simply fall apart with no religion to guide them, As it looks from my point of view, religion divides much more than it unites. It might unite small communities in times of trouble or despair, but a look at the larger picture shows that it divides entire cultures – which is much more dangerous than dividing small communities.
By examining countries in which religion has little consequence to individuals, we can compare societies in which religion hardly exists. Those nations are Japan, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and several other European nations. Study after study show that these societies have more prosperity, less violence and happier individuals than religious countries. Adversely, countries that have much more belief are more violent and poor.
Even if we look at ourselves in the Unites States, we see more poverty, more violence, more divorces and – yes- even more abortions and out-of-wedlock births in the southern ‘Bible belt’ states, which directly contradicts the tenets of the Christian faith.
Although we shouldn’t correlate countries attributes to religion, there must be an underlining cause why religious countries seem to have less well-being than non-religion ones. There are so many issues that seem to correlate that one would be hard-pressed to say there is no correlation.
Religious politics causes direct harm to our citizens. When politicians make blanket statements in direct adherence to bronze-age texts, people suffer. The most harmful decisions politicians make are those which affect our future generations by eliminating scientific research because of supernatural beliefs. Stem-cell research is another good example. If there were no restrictions on this type of research, just think of where it could lead? I’m thinking of what our great-grandchildren will be thinking of us, knowing that we could have successfully cured or treated dozens of debilitating diseases decades earlier except for these barbaric restrictions based on whether a soul is created at conception or not. Does the 900 years of the Dark Ages ring a bell here? From 400CE when Christianity took hold of the political system in Alexandria till the 1300’s, there were few advancements in science, except where religion had no or little influence. Religion is harmful and it shows clearly thorough history.
US Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, quoted at a public hearing from Genesis18 that God decides when the “earth will end” and we don’t have to worry about global warming….. He knows with 100% certainty that humans can’t cause devastating sea level rise because God said in the Bible he would “never again” devastate humans with a flood again. This is dangerous stuff folks! And this man is in part making our laws.
Yes – living in a religious society is dangerous, but let’s explore where it really hurts: Parents denying their children medical treatment so a deity can heal them. Faith healers taking money from already disadvantaged (physically and financially)individuals – and when no healing takes place, the guilt and anguish which those people feel because they weren’t ‘good enough’ to be healed. The simple psychological guilt which all children feel every time their superior says they might be going to hell. Honor killings in the Muslim world – and yes this happens in the US. The ‘cleansing’ of young girls by genital mutilation, not to mention the millions of unneeded circumcisions. The abhorrent child abuse proliferated by the Catholic church and supported by the top-rank clergy. Not to mention the inquisition, the crusades, the burning of the Alexandria library, Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh at Waco, Texas, Jim Jones, and the uncountable wars lead by religious leaders whom the masses followed.
II still wonder how the world would look like without religion. To me, if there was no God to believe in, it would be a wonderful world.

Philosophers’ Confusion: Why something rather than nothing?

They muddy the water to make it appear deep — Friedrich Nietzsche

Why is there something rather than nothing?” the confused philosopher asked. The scientist smiled, ignored the question, and went about his business.

I shall argue that the scientist is right to ignore the philosopher on the alleged “Deep Question.” But first I shall relate two scenarios to help set the stage.

First story: Suppose that you’re driving a mountain road with a friend as passenger and you come to a turn in the road where a large boulder blocks the road. You’re blocked and unable to get to your destination. Your friend wonders why this has happened. You point out that recent rain storms have saturated the hill alongside the road, undermined the base on which the stone sat and caused the stone to roll down the hillside and onto the road, blocking the way. Your friend is not satisfied and asks, “But why did it have to happen now?” You’re bewildered and cannot imagine what kind of response could satisfy your friend. You explained how the rock happened to block the way. To ask why it happened is just to express frustration or to betray a basic confusion.

Second story: Suppose you’re a parent of a son in his teens and have forbidden him to attend a Saturday night rave. At a very late hour that Saturday night a friendly policewoman knocks on your door with your underage teenager in tow. He had been found at the rave with a small amount of marijuana. You thank the policewoman for retrieving the errant teen and then ask him what was he doing there. He replies by telling how he got there: he sneaked out of the house and an older friend drove them to the rave. But you were not interesting in how he got there, but why he chose to disobey you and attend the rave. Obviously, your son wants to avoid the why response.

As these little scenarios show, asking how something happened is clearly different from asking why something happened in cases where someone brought the happening about. There are appropriate circumstances in which one or the other question is appropriate. In some situations, both questions might be applicable; and in some, the why question is clearly not applicable at all.

This distinction gives us a quick way of defusing the notorious question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and exposing the unsound reasoning behind it. But first let’s consider a few more preliminaries.

When does it make sense to ask: “Why A rather than B?” Surely it is when the question refers to the action of an intelligent agent who may have reasons, motives, or purposes in acting as he did.

Consider a few cases of such why questions:

Either I say something or remain silent. I decide to speak up. Why did I speak rather than remain silent?
Either we do something or do nothing. Suppose we opt to do something. Why something rather than nothing?
Either the administration decides to invade Iraq. It decided to invade. Why did it invade instead of not invading?

Here the why question makes sense. We can imagine what would be relevant responses (in terms of reasons, motives, purposes, etc.,) and what would not be relevant.

But suppose I ask

why (requesting a motive, reason, or purpose of an intelligent agent) a deadly hurricane hit the Louisiana coast?
Or why a landslide buried the village killing hundreds of people?
Or why a drought happened and ruined the summer crop?

The “why” has no place here, unless you believe that an intelligent agent (a god?) causes these things to happen. By contrast, the how question, which asks for the natural, material processes that led to these events, makes sense. This would be the question which scientists ask and attempt to answer.

Many times the how question (question requesting the natural processes and conditions that explain a happening) is stated as a question with the work why when reasons and purposes are not assumed. For examples, consider the following set of questions, all stated as “Why did A happen instead of B?”

Either the continents are permanently fixed in place or they float on tectonic plates. That is, Either the continents have moved or they have not moved (permanently fixed in position). Scientists have evidence that the continent have moved.
Someone could raise the question:
Why has there been continental movement rather than no movement?
Or as another set of questions:
Why is there an island X in the Pacific Ocean rather than nothing?
Why is there a moon orbiting the Earth instead of no moon at all?
Why did the solar system come to be rather than nothing?

All of these questions are how questions disguised as why questions. Understood as questions about natural processes and conditions, which are the subjects for scientific investigation and theory, these are really questions that ask “How did A happen, and not B?”

Now consider the famous philosophers’ question: Why is there something rather than nothing? The question has been restated in modern times as “Why is there a universe rather than nothing?”

Let’s call this question (Why is there a universe instead of nothing?) the “Deep Question” of metaphysics and theology. As I noted, sometimes this is posed as: Why is there something instead of nothing?

The famous ‘Deep Question’ — insofar as it is a question for philosophers and theologians — is a why question; it implies that one can find cosmic reasons and purpose to explain the origin of the universe. Reasons and purposes imply an intelligent mind (creator) who can provide those reasons and purposes. It also presupposes (invalidly) that the existence of the something (e.g., the primordial universe) requires explanation; whereas, a state of nothing would be natural and does not require explanation. As a number of scientific critics (e.g. Adolph Grünbaum, Victor Stenger) have noted, this presupposition is an invalid one.

Many people assume that when scientific cosmologists and theoretical physicists investigate the primordial conditions of the universe and advance theories purporting to explain how the universe may have originated, they are dealing with the philosophers’ Deep Question. But they are not. They are not investigating the why of the universe (as if they could find reasons, motives, or purposes behind the primordial conditions leading to the Big Bang). Instead, they investigating and advancing theories of how the universe may have originated. They are not dealing with the philosophers’ “Deep Question” at all.

Someone who thinks that the philosophers’ Deep Question is validated by the work of scientific cosmologists is being as evasive as the teenager who explained how he traveled to the rave. And the person who thinks that scientific cosmologists are dealing with the philosophers’ deep question is as confused as the friend who requested to know why the stone blocked the road.