Category Archives: Philosophy of Religion

Essays Against Religion

In Plato‘s ApologySocrates (pictured) was accused by Meletus of not believing in the gods.

I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out. Religion is based . . . mainly on fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race. ~Bertrand Russell

I have recently let some of my readers express their views on religion. I thank them for their contributions. I would also like to say that I’ve had many friends who were religious. But if anyone is interested in my views on religion they have been expressed multiple times over the years. So, rather than respond to all the specific points my readers have made, here are a few links to my own work on the topic.

Religion’s Smart-People Problem

The End of Religion: Technology and the Future

A Philosopher’s Lifelong Search for Meaning – Part 2 – Religion and Meaning

Transhumanism and the End of Religion

Should We Live as if Religious Claims are True?

Arguing with Theists

Some Interesting Biblical Prescriptions

Logic Decreases Religious Beliefs

Religion and Superintelligence

Science & Religion: A Dialogue

Should We Accept Religious Beliefs?

The head shaman of the religious community Altan Serge in Buryatia.

In my last post on outgrowing my childhood religious beliefs, I said this:

Some ideas are mostly self-evident and others just aren’t available to you…. So I believe the earth rotates around the sun…and that biological evolution is true, but I can’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead…or that Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. And it’s not like I have to try to believe the former two things and not believe the latter two.

This claim elicited the following slightly edited comment from Professor Darrell Arnold.  

This issue of trying to believe things is interesting. We have all kind of beliefs. I can look outside and see that it is raining and then believe what my eyes tell me. I can feel hungry and believe that I’m hungry. These are two examples of beliefs that are even more self-evident than those you mention. (Professor Arnold is right about this.)

Other beliefs, like the belief in atomic particles or evolutionary theory, require an education. Yet because the evidence is quite straightforward, they generate consensus once someone has learned the methods of research in these areas and how correctly examine the evidence.

Then there are the metaphysical beliefs such as those you mention (as well as beliefs about ethics or aesthetics.) When it comes to metaphysics it’s difficult to know what counts as good evidence.

But what is apparent is the degree to which people rationalize their religious beliefs. To really believe in God, the father almighty, that a man walked on water or rose from the dead or that the spirit of the universe is contained in a wafer — that takes some hard-core suspension of disbelief and (a lot of) rationalization. It’s both frightening and fascinating that we are so ready to do this for views that we have been told are sacrosanct.

As evidence for such far-fetched beliefs, people often appeal to “inner experience” as evidence. Yet there is no clear analysis of what type of inner experience would be adequate for forming a belief in miracles, the resurrection of the dead or that some god is all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing. Clearly, as Hume pointed out, there is always a more plausible account for a miracle than that the miracle actually happened. And it’s easy to argue that finite beings can’t experience the infinite. 

Yet there is no argument or evidence that would suffice, for the adamant believers, to falsify their beliefs. They believe because they want to and the evidence presented for these beliefs is disingenuous—usually, it is based on religious experience. Those who have had such experiences then accept, normally whole cloth, the group of beliefs that their particular religion are supposed to believe. The religious experience, of course, doesn’t justify those beliefs.

One of the most interesting things about religious views is the set of social conventions and institutions set up to try to guarantee their unquestioning acceptance. Another is the certainty many believers claim to have despite a clear lack of evidence for their views.

Those in religious institutions, of course, have material interests in maintaining those institutions. But much of the rationale behind the dogmatist’s effort to ensure they never doubt is the deep insecurity of the dogmatists themselves. When the reasons for belief are so poor, believers take comfort knowing that others remain convinced of the ideas.

In any case, fear and intimidation are cornerstones of religious education. In standard Christian and Muslim traditions, children are taught they will be eternally punished if they have false beliefs, and that they should never question tradition and the authority of their religious institutions. So not only must believers engage in difficult mental gymnastics to try to sound rational to themselves but those who oversee the institutions must work hard to try to ensure that believer never begin to doubt. 

To reiterate, some ideas are self-evident. We don’t have to work hard to believe that it’s raining when it’s raining or that we’re hungry when we’re hungry. Other ideas require hard work and continual suspension of disbelief.

The paradox is that the more difficult religious ideas are often held with the greatest certainty. But believing in them requires continual effort which raises questions about what existential and social functions such ideas play. Why are they thought so important that billions of people suspend rational thinking and accept them? And why do institutions work so diligently to try to ensure that believers don’t dare question them?

Is There A Divine Plan?

The front ends of two vehicles after an accident

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2018/10/05/jesus-and-car-crashes/

After a near-fatal car accident, philosophy professor Darrell Arnold penned this essay.

“Jesus And Car Wrecks”

I was recently in a car accident. It was a serious one in which I suffered a broken rib, a broken collarbone, a fractured ankle, stitches on my right wrist and right hand, and stitches from the tip of my nose to the top and along the bridge of my nose to my eyebrows. My nose was fully split open. The insurance assessor who looked at the car agreed with my initial assessment when he saw it: I was lucky to be alive.

A few days later my wife put a notice on Facebook that I was healing well and was going to be fine. I was released from hospital four days after the accident and again put a picture on Facebook showing me to look pretty good — from a distance with bad lighting — for a person who had just been run over by a Toyota Tacoma. Many condolences came in, along with well wishes. Many people thanked God that I was alive. Some assured me that God must have a special plan for me since he saved me from death in this accident.

The mythologizing of this event in our context, of course, provides an opportunity to reflect on the idea of a divine plan that people often invoke when speaking in such contexts or, as I will put it more provocatively and more specifically for the given situation, Jesus and car wrecks. Many religious systems have some idea of a divine plan. I’m going to get at Christianity’s in a somewhat roundabout way by speaking of the influence upon it by an ancient Greek school of thought, Stoicism.

The Stoics, who emerged in the third century BCE,  thought that everything that happens does so in accordance with the dictates of rationality, the logos. This rational core of reality isn’t imposed on nature by a deity outside of it. Rather it is imposed internally by nature itself, which unfolds in accordance with its own rational, divine plan. We, humans, have no freedom to influence the course of events around us. What we can do is change our attitudes towards the things that do occur. This is the key to our happiness or tranquility.

Christians, influenced by Stoics and others, developed a similar notion of Christian Providence. Everything that occurs, many Christians believed and believe, is ordained by God’s plan. Here though, for the most part, the Christian tradition has seen the plan not as imposed by nature itself but by a transcendent God on nature.

To get back to my accident: In alignment with this view, it was ordained by God’s plan, as was my healing after the accident. The fact that I’m alive now rather than not is because God, in his divine wisdom, didn’t think it was my time to go yet. God, as the giver of life, can in this view take it whenever he pleases. The giver of life is not culpable for also being the taker of life. In many cases, he appears to use reckless drivers or other irresponsible parties to achieve his plan.

While for the Stoics there was no chance of changing the divine plan, one was simply to learn to accept it, for Christians, as well as other members of Abrahamic religions, questions have arisen about whether God might change his plan depending on prayers and supplications. But that leads us to another set of questions, which I can’t explore here.

The views I am exploring here are of course hefty metaphysical ideas on their own part; and they are awash with questions: If there is a divine plan, how would we know what it is? Why should we accept that there is one? Beyond that, to accept that things like traffic accidents — that lead in some cases to death, and some cases not — are all part of God’s plan us in some logical conundrums.

Moving from this idea of God’s plan to Jesus’s plan — something I want to mention since I’ve titled this “Jesus and car wrecks” — of course, makes the argument more difficult still. It is, I guess, less cumbersome — though surely cumbersome enough — to show that an accident like mine was God’s plan than that it was Jesus’s plan since to show the latter, one would have to show the plausibility of the Trinity and other such things — no small feat.

But let me pursue for a moment the idea that this accident and my surviving it are parts of God’s plan. This involves us from the outset in a paradox of sorts. For if it was God’s plan that I was in the accident, then it appears that we must claim that the accident should have happened. This implies that it was God’s plan for the person who was driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with this phone to have been driving dangerously, sleeping at the wheel or playing with his phone, whichever of those things led him to veer into my lane and crash his Toyota Tacoma into the windshield of my Prius C. In short, if the accident was supposed to happen, and the driver’s recklessness was necessary for the accident, then the driver was supposed to be driving recklessly.

The paradox is that while this metaphysical argument implies that this recklessness should have happened, we typically also have a moral imperative that runs in the opposite direction — that this driver shouldn’t have been driving recklessly. He should have been paying attention. He failed by driving recklessly to live up not only to his moral obligations but to the basic requirements of the law. The paradox then is that — in line with such an argument  — this driver both should and should not have been driving recklessly.

Now philosophers have long dealt with this basic conundrum — since Heraclitus at least — and their ways of dealing with the problem typically betray something of a sleight-of-hand. One typical route for the devout is to say that human morality is simply a conventional perspective, surpassed by a divine perspective — well, whenever God decides. In that case, the normal moral rules that we follow do not really hold in all circumstances. They are something like rules of thumb for us but surpassed as God wants them to be. So in our case, while the driver of the Tacoma normally should not drive recklessly, on this morning he should have since on this morning his driving recklessly was necessary to carry out God’s will — namely, an accident in which I was nearly killed.

Here paradoxically again God might work with the two parties of the accident in some subtle and mysterious ways. Perhaps the driver of the other car needs to awaken to the fact that he normally drives too recklessly. This accident might teach him a lesson. Or it will push him toward some moral reform since he is confronted with the potential shortness of someone else’s life. And who likes that? Perhaps I needed a near-death experience. Maybe the accident will awaken in me a gratitude for the preciousness of every day for the rest of my life.

Or some might think that a near-death experience should lead me to put aside any questions in God’s existence and devote the rest of my life to God’s service or some such thing. Here then the guilty driver should still feel guilty for driving recklessly even though it was meant to be. He should learn from this “mistake” that was meant to be and waken up to his normal responsibilities to drive safely. I should learn from this accident preciousness of life or to put aside any doubt of God’s existence or some such thing.

This way of addressing the question of Jesus and car wrecks (or God and car wrecks more generally) is related to the classical problem of evil. Why if God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving is there evil in the world? Or more specifically, why would such a deity allow bad things to happen to good people? An all-powerful God could have made me drive three seconds faster on September 25, 2018, so that I wasn’t in precisely the right spot to be run over by an inattentive driver in a head-on collision. He could have had the other driver finish reading the note on his phone this seconds earlier and look up from his phone, turn with the curve and avoid the accident. Or he could have had him not drop the cigarette, or not fall asleep. I’m not sure what his distraction was. Whatever it was, a perfectly loving God could have found some simple way to delay it a couple of seconds.

I have outlined a common way to try to counter the problem of evil — namely to deny that what appears evil is truly evil. Some things, in accord with this view, appear to be evil to humans but from a divine perspective (not comprehensible to humans) those things are really good.

In a typical discussion of this view, God does not create evil itself but merely allows it to occur — something necessary for a world with free will. I don’t want to explore these in more detail. But if one wants to maintain this and that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful then it seems one is forced to maintain that the human understanding of good is inadequate. Another alternative, sometimes combined with that, is to maintain that since God gives life, it is not immoral for him to take it (even according to a kind of human measure). God allows it to happen. This might provide an out — but then it would seem one would give up on saying things when such bad things occur like “It was God’s plan.” “It was meant to be.” “It all happened in accord with God’s will.”

Now one might simply say that the accident was regrettable, surely not a part of God’s will, but bad things are the price we sometimes pay for human freedom. Life thus would have pain and suffering that wasn’t necessary, that wasn’t willed by a divine being and that wasn’t a part of his plan, but that happened anyway because this God gave up some of his power to people to do things like play with their phones while driving killing machines. The bigger logical problem comes because rarely will metaphysicians follow where I have just suggested going. Rather, they will say human freedom caused it, but God willed it anyway.

I think it should be clear that these arguments are little more than rationalizations from a dogmatic starting point — one that requires that no dogma be softened and any contradictions in the argument must be explained away as apparent only. Such dogmatic metaphysics clearly exemplifies what Jean-Paul Sartre had called bad faith.

The only honest course of reasoning simply highlights the inconsistency of this metaphysical thinking and the desperation that we can recognize in what we might call such a metaphysical Hail Mary pass. From a logical point of view I think the matter is relatively simple: Either God willed the accident, in which case he willed what was necessary for it, the reckless driving, or God didn’t will the reckless driving or the accident, but both happened anyway. The accident either should or should not have happened. It was or it wasn’t meant to be. (Alternatively, we could move toward an idea of a deity that is not all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. such as one finds in process theology. But this would really involve us in some parsing that is not possible here.)

I think it is because of a desire for great consolation that people believe that everything in the world happens as it should have happened or was meant to be. This consolation is not itself a reason for believing the truth of that which consoles. And in fact, there is no reason we should need such false security for consolation. The more profound truth, I believe, is that we quite clearly live in a world where many things occur that should not. (my emphasis) If moral reflection shows us anything it is that we live in a world where we are continually faced with moral failings. Things happen that should not have happened. If there is a good God, who wants what is best, then that God would want human beings to live up to their moral obligations. The view of Abrahamic religions is that such a God gave human beings freedom and that many of the failings in the world can be explained by the fact that humans have failed to live up to their ideals. We live in an incomplete world.

Oddly though, while Abrahamic religions tend to believe in such failings in the world as I’ve described, they also tend to believe in divine providence. Yet it is not possible to square the fact that there are so many failings in the world with the view that all that occurs happens in accord with God’s will or providence — that it all should happen. Holding the two views at the same time is simply logically contradictory. We can understand the various psychological reasons people have for doing so — sort of. But that doesn’t make it any less disingenuous.

Why not accept instead the more mature belief that we live in a world full of contingencies, where much happens that never should have? We live in fact in a frayed, tattered world where perhaps all of what is should never have been just as it is — since it only came together out of an entire history of failings and missed opportunities. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and surprising, disappointing and delightful. This requires the abandonment both of the traditional Stoic determinism and of Christian metaphysics that wants to maintain both the freedom of individuals and preordination — and that is often expressed in statements that accidents like mine were all part of God’s plan.

This short reflection leaves aside the general question of God’s existence. (I can say that such an accident does not provide me more reason for believing in God or Jesus, or divine rationality of the world order than I had before.) But what I mean to point out here is that there is an unresolvable tension between some points of theological dogma accepted by many that lead people to say things like this was all part of God’s plan, or God willed my accident or more horrific things still that occur to other people every day.

We can rest assured that those with the belief in God will lean on that belief when they have accidents that never should have happened to work through those and make meaning out of them. But might they do so without some false sense of security that the wrecks were meant to be?

For the non-religious or the less conventionally religious, a contemporary form of Stoicism provides another option. Modern-day Stoics will not argue that everything that occurs in the world is part of some rational plan, as the original Stoics did. Yet we might benefit from accepting a kernel Stoic teaching — that we should not try to change the things that we cannot change but only those things that we can. Other things, acts of “fate” if we want to call them that, which we cannot change, can be learned from. We might even learn moral lessons from them — like to cherish each day as special and beautiful, knowing one day that the last of our days will come.

To know those things one needn’t believe that Jesus wants terrible car wrecks or that God the Father plans them. Indeed, I think there are strong reasons for dismissing such views, since the belief in these things inherently contradicts other ideas that there are compelling reasons to believe — such as the view that we should not drive recklessly, that mistakes happen, that life doesn’t live up to our ideals.

One doesn’t need a thick metaphysics to learn from tragedy that despite its flaws, life can be very beautiful nonetheless — if one is lucky enough to live another day with a body and mind intact, healed or healing.

Critics of “Religion’s Smart-People Problem”

A few months ago I published a piece in the online journal Salon entitled “Religion’s Smart-People Problem.” It generated over 2,500 comments on the site and had over 66,000 facebook shares. I thought my readers might be interested in hearing from some of my most vociferous critics. And while I don’t have time to respond to them, let me say this.

First, critics often focus on what you don’t say as much as what you do say. So critics of the short piece in Salon criticize it for not responding to the theology of Tillich or Kierkegaard, or the latest ruminations from Mormon elders, Catholic bishops, or their other favorite gurus. Heck, it was a piece for a popular magazine, not a dissertation. I’m reminded of one of the readers of my master’s thesis which was about the moral philosophy of David Gauthier. (All three chapter were later published in peer-reviewed journals.)  The reader’s criticism—I should have talked more about Thomas Hobbes! Yes, really.

Second, I have lived too long to think you are going to change people’s minds. Even if your arguments are air-tight, those who have devoted their lives to some cause or whose being is wrapped up in religion or some other ideology won’t change their minds. But despite what all the critics say, religion does have a smart-people problem—the relationship between more education, particularly scientific education, and a decrease in religious belief is well established. Moreover, religion has a young people problem, a people-in- countries-with-strong-social-safety-nets problem, and it definitively has a future technology problem. When science and technology defeat death, and we have become posthuman, the old promises of immortality will have no influence. Posthumans won’t go to church; superintelligences won’t find their answers in Jesus or Mohammed.

All these believers are like Neanderthals sitting around the campfire fighting over which of their creation myths is best while not noticing that the invading Homo Sapiens will soon replace them. Science and technology will eventually put an end to religious superstition. I so wish that all the mental acumen of theologians was employed in advancing science and technology rather than in defending old myths or creating obscurantist metaphysics.

Still, I’m willing to let my critics have their say. Here then are some of the intellectual online critiques of my work from various Christian apologists.

The Skeptic’s Smart-Person Problem

Socrates Warned Against the Likes of John Messerly

Atheists Are Smarter Than Believers, Says An Atheist

When We Know Better Than You

Does Morality Depend on Religion?


The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso in 2007

Why should I be moral? One answer is that if we are moral, the gods will reward us; and if not, the gods will punish us. This is called “the divine-command theory.” (DCT) According to DCT, things are right or wrong simply because the gods command or forbid them, there is no other reason. (This is like a parent’s who says to a child: it’s right because I said so!)

To answer the question of whether morality can be based on a god we would have to know things like: 1) if there are gods; 2) if the god we believe in is good; 3) if the gods issue commands; 4) how to know the gods’ commands; 5) if we found the commands—say in a book—how would we know the commands are good ones; 6) if they were good commands how would we understand or interpret them; 7) if the came from a book which translation of the book; 8) how could you know if the translation is accurate; 9) can any translation be accurate; and 10) even if the translation was accurate how would you interpret the words you read. This is just a partial list of the problems you encounter trying to base ethics on a god or religion.

Difficulties also arise if we hear voices commanding us, or we accept an institutions’ authority. Why trust the voices or authorities? And which institution? Which revelation? Obviously, there are enormous philosophical difficulties with basing ethics on religion.

But let’s say that there are gods, that you have found the right one, that the right one issued commands, that the commands are good, that you have access to the right commands (because you found the right book, church, or had the right vision), that you understand the commands, that you interpret the commands correctly even though they came from a book that has been translated from one language to another over thousands of years? (Anyone who has ever translated knows that you can’t translate word for word between languages.) But let’s just say that somehow you are right about everything. Can you then base ethics on religion?

More than 2,000 years ago Plato answered this question in the negative. In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates asked a famous question: “Are things right because the gods command them, or do they command them because they are right?” If things are right simply because the gods command them, then their commands are arbitrary—without reason. There are no good reasons for their commands. The gods then are like petty tyrants who just command things because they have the power.

On the other hand, if the gods command things because they are right, then there are reasons for their commands. The gods command things because they see or recognize that certain commands are really good for us. But if that is the case, then there is some standard or norm or criteria by which good or bad is to be measured. And this standard is independent of the gods.

So either the god’s command are without reason, and therefore arbitrary, or they are with reason, and thus are commanded according to some standard. This standard—say that we would all be better off—is thus the reason we should be moral. And that reason, not a god’s authority—is what makes something right or wrong. And the same is true for an authoritative book. Something is not wrong simply because the book says so. There must be a reason for this and if there is not, then the book is simply wrong.

Of course one could argue that even if the gods are petty tyrants who command us without reason—except for say their own amusement—we should still follow the commands so as not to suffer—since the gods are possibly powerful and mean enough to do so. If they can inflict eternal torture—if they are the ultimate sadists—then we do have a reason to follow their commands—to avoid torture!

The response to this is that we don’t know that the gods will reward us for following their non-rational commands. Maybe the gods reward people who use their reason and don’t accept such commands and punish those who are so frightened as to accept non-rational commands. This seems to make some sense if the gods are petty, tyrannical bullies, they might like it if you stood up to them. Who knows?

The foregoing discussion should suffice to show how difficult it is to base ethics on religion. Again, even if one could overcome all the practical difficulties involved in philosophically justifying religion, it seems that either a) the god’s commands are arbitrary and there is thus no reason to follow them; or b) the god’s commands are not arbitrary and there are reasons for them. But if the latter is the case, then we are doing philosophical, not theological, ethics. We are looking for the reasons why things are moral or immoral.

Finally, you might object that the gods have reasons for their commands, and we just can’t know them. But if this is the case, if we really can’t know anything about the gods’ reasons, if the ways of the gods “are mysterious to humans,” then what’s the point of religion? If you can’t know anything why the gods command things, then why follow their commands, why have religion at all, why listen to the preacher? If it’s all a mystery, then no person or book or church has anything coherent to say about God, ethics, or anything else. and in that case, you should just be a skeptic.

If we want to rationally justify morality, then we will have to do it in a moral theory independent of hypothetical gods. We will have to engage in philosophical ethics.