Excerpted from Disbelief 101: A Young Person’s Guide to Atheism, by S.C. Hitchcock
Some religious people, who are dismissive of science, think that the existence of god or a spirit world can be proved through the feelings they get when they pray. “God is love,” they will say. “I have evidence for him because I can feel him.” (I wonder what would happen if I said I “believed” in evolution because I could feel the power of the gene.)
This leads to an odd argument. “Prove to me you love your wife,” a religious person might say to me, “show me evidence for love. You can’t, because the evidence is not something that can be examined.”
Sure it can. If I were to sit here and “love” a beautiful movie starlet, that would not be love, but infatuation. Sure, I’d have a feeling, but I’d have no evidence that I love her (and vice versa), and the fact that we’ve had no contact would confirm this. Love is defined through actions, as is heroism, as is cruelty. Actions define emotions.
I can’t say, for example, that I love my wife and then, if she got cancer, walk out on her. Clearly, my action would be evidence that I didn’t love her. I can’t say that I love my son and then fail to take care of him. My wife and I show our love for our son every time we feed him, cuddle him, play with him, change him, or get up in the middle of the night with him.
Someone who acts kindly toward everyone can’t be described as cruel. Cruelty is not a thing; it is a description of action. You can’t be a hero without having done something heroic. To be a genius is to have produced a work of genius.
So I do have evidence that my wife loves me. If I didn’t have evidence of it, if we didn’t show each other love every day through action, then it would be silly for me to claim that we are in love.
Certainly I have an inner warm feeling for my wife and son, but I don’t need to think that it’s spiritual in order to enjoy it. Evolution explains these feelings easily. Indivi-duals who have strong attachments to their mates and offspring are more likely to successfully raise children to the point where their children can reproduce, thus passing on the genes for strong attachments. Of course, relationships aren’t that simple, and what kind of upbringing a child has plays a huge part in its development; but there is no reason for me to think that any of my emotions come from some spirit world.
I have no doubt that people feel something when they pray or when they go to church. It doesn’t follow, however, that that feeling verifies the existence of some loving, all-powerful, invisible god that funnels people’s souls into heaven or hell and reads billions of minds simultaneously. When people feel similar emotions at movies, sporting events, or rock concerts they don’t attribute their emotions to a divine power. Praying may make you feel better if a loved one is sick, but so might taking a jog or a soak in a hot tub—and neither prove the existence of god or the devil.
So let’s continue with this idea and stretch it a little beyond its starting point in this chapter. I hear over and over again that god is love. That he’s a loving god.
Emotions and human characteristics are defined through actions. Einstein was a genius because he did genius-type things. Hitler was evil because he did evil things. Etc., etc. We define people by their actions or non-actions, and we should define our gods in the same way.
How can god or Allah be loving if he either A. actively causes horrible things to happen to people, or B. allows horrible things to happen. This question actually predates the Christian-Islamic god. The Greek Epicurus famously put it like this:
Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?
God should be defined through his actions, shouldn’t he? Here we have a problem that religious people have never adequately resolved. If god is both good and all powerful, then why do bad things happen?
Religious people resort to all kinds of mental acrobatics to answer this question. Evil is the absence of god, some say. But how is that possible? God, being all-powerful, must have made a decision to remove himself and allow evil to happen. This brings up a real head-scratcher: How could an omnipresent god remove himself from anything? In other words, how could an omnipresent god not be omnipresent?
Evil is the creation of the devil. How does this absolve god? He created the devil, and he must have known what the devil would do.
Humanity lives in a fallen world. God created us in a perfect garden, and Adam and Eve chose to eat from “the tree of knowledge”; and all humanity is paying for their sins. What in the hell is this? There was no Garden of Eden to begin with, and even if we accept the bizarre proposition that there was, then god must have known that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which meant that he must have wanted them to fall so that he could punish humanity for all eternity. Talk about sick . . . And by the way, what kind of god would punish all women with painful childbirth because of Eve’s supposed sin? Are women who accept pain-relieving drugs in a hospital making god mad because they are relieving some of the pain caused by the curse he put on Eve and all women in Genesis 3:16?
Let’s accept, for a second, the insane idea that each individual human being is created by god. Then explain children who are born with birth defects so severe that they are unaware of their surroundings. Why does god create children with cleft palates and place them in cultures where he knows they will be shunned? Why does god allow children to be born into war zones where he must know they will be blown apart by bombs or land mines? Why does god allow some children to be born with their organs outside of their bodies so that what little life they have is spent in extreme pain?
For that matter, why doesn’t god intervene when earthquakes bring the walls of buildings down onto children? Why do tornadoes crush people in the middle of the night? Why doesn’t god step in on the occasions when a little girl is abducted, tortured, and murdered?
To the religious, there are only two answers to these questions. The first is “god works in mysterious ways.” What this really means is that the religious person uttering this cliché has no good explanation and will not even attempt to provide one. The second answer is outright sickening: “god is testing our faith.” This answer shows the self-centeredness of the religious person. Everything that happens in the world revolves around the believer and his or her faith. Everything is a test or a lesson from god. (As Nietzsche put it in The Anti-Christ: “‘Salvation of the soul’—in plain words, ‘the world revolves around me.’”)
If this is true, if god allows evil in the world only to test people’s faith, then the almighty is not a loving god but a sociopath. What is he doing, anyway? Is he sitting up in heaven allowing children to be killed, sold into prostitution, wither away from AIDS, or be gutted with machetes just to play some sick game? Is he saying, “Will you love me now? Will you still believe in me after this?” Or, “What if I let the devil do this? Will you still have faith in me?”
This is why prayer for a sick loved one, far from being a harmless act, is actually repulsive. Why grovel before the very entity that is torturing (or standing idly by despite having the power to help) the person you care about? What does that say about the person doing the praying?
And, again, don’t tell me that god’s ways are mysterious and beyond our understanding. That’s garbage and a non-argument. I wouldn’t back out of a debate on evolution by saying that evolutionary theory works in mysterious ways.
If this is your god, then his actions or lack of action describe a petty tyrant, a sick bastard who shovels souls into bodies without regard for fairness, love, or happiness. He’s a god who must enjoy all of the suffering in the world—otherwise it would not be here.
It’s a good thing he doesn’t exist.
* * *
Let’s get back to the idea that fuzzy, warm feelings (when praying, etc.) are evidence for god’s existence. The fact of the matter is that evolutionary theory easily explains emotions. Take the strong love that parents feel for their children. How can this be explained? Well, it’s simple. In animals whose offspring have quite a bit of growing up to do outside of the mother’s womb, like elephants, humans, apes, birds, and cats, there is always evidence of parental love. In animals where the offspring come out of the womb “ready to go,” as in fish or snakes, the evidence of parental love is absent.
I watched a nature show a few years ago where a baboon grabbed hold of a baby gazelle and was planning to run off with the baby gazelle and eat her. Fortunately for the baby, the gazelle’s mother was having none of it. She used her horns to ram the confused-looking baboon until he dropped the gazelle’s baby and ran off. (It was hard not to root for the gazelle.
However, I learned the folly of this while watching another nature show where I was rooting for a group of sea lions as they swam through shark-infested waters. It was only a few minutes later that I realized by pulling for the sea lions to escape the Great Whites I was actually rooting against the penguins that the sea lions, having survived the sharks, so gleefully gobbled up. By rooting for the gazelle/mother I was actually rooting against the baboon’s probably equally cuddly babies.)
Anyway, the mother’s impulse to protect her offspring is at first surprising. Why would she risk herself to save her baby? Well, try to imagine what would have happened to the baby if the mother had no protective impulse. The baby gazelle would have been eaten, and the uncaring genes that his mother would have passed on to him would have been gone. In fact, the mother who loved her baby protected him, and those genes that caused her protective instincts survived (in the form of her baby).
The same is true in humans. Imagine what would have happen to a Stone Age infant if her parents didn’t love her. Those parents would simply have her on the ground and their uncaring genes would have died with her. In fact, the genes for creating parental love had to have been present at every stage of pre-human and human development. Love, in fact, is observed among all of our monkey and ape cousins. No wonder the feeling is so powerful.
But it’s not mysterious. Sometimes I actually hear religious believers say, “I can’t explain my belief. It’s like trying to tell your parents why you’ve fallen in love with someone who is all wrong for you. Logic doesn’t apply.” Sorry, but no; believing in god is not like falling in love with someone with whom you’re mismatched. The person with whom you’ve fallen in love, flawed as he or she may be, actually exists. See what happens if you tell mom that you’ve fallen in love with the archangel Gabriel and that you plan to marry.
Please don’t think that it degrades our emotions to explain them naturally. It doesn’t. I love my son and wife fiercely, and that love is not in the least lessened because I realize the emotion has a biological and naturally ex-plained basis. It is entirely possible, even likely, that parental love is the most powerful feeling in the universe and probably one of the most important things we would have in common with complex alien life forms (if we could contact them). That’s a beautiful thing. As for me, I’m just glad to be here, and not to be a fish.