An atheist’s guided tour of the House of God

We live in a world where some people have everything, and many have far less. Those that have less will be born poor and probably die the same way. Religion is their pain relief, and without it they will have nothing for the pain. Why would you deny them even this?

A few days ago, myself and my partner visited York Cathedral (for US readers, that’s the original York, not the New one). Although an atheist, I enjoy exploring great buildings, and cathedrals are some of the better sort in terms of photogenic opportunities. Although I don’t believe in God, I can think of no valid reason that my lack of belief invalidates either the faith of others, or invalidates the need for things like churches.

South Transept: dates from the 13th Century
South Transept: dates from the 13th Century

In fact, there are several very good arguments I can think of that validate religion without shaking my belief that there is no god.

Cure vs. Relief

Most people believe that medicine is a good thing. It cures your illness and makes you a better person. But what about Aspirin, Paracetamol, and other pain relief. These are not medicines because they don’t actually cure anything: they can’t make us better people. In fact, they can make us ill for longer, because they fool us into acting as if we are well when we should be resting and taking it easy.

So why use painkillers at all? Because painkillers are not there to cure us and make us better people: they are to help us make do with what we have to endure now.

Crucifix, south transept
Crucifix, south transept
 

We live in a world where some people have everything, and many have far less. Those that have less will be born poor and probably die the same way. Religion is their pain relief, and without it they will have nothing for the pain. Why would you deny them even this?  In war, they say ‘You’ll never find an atheist in a foxhole’. I bet you’ll not find many in a slum either.

Meanwhile in the more affluent world, we have people going through grief and loss. Why not allow them pain relief through belief? To do otherwise would not be humane, especially when belief has more efficacy than competing ideas such as the hard truth.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that as well as making us face up to our situation, Religion has a good record for curing addictive and mental behaviour. Anyone who has been to Alcoholics Anonymous will know all about this. 

Science and psychology are very bad at curing mental conditions such that medication is no longer necessary. At best, they can only manage them until the brain choses to cure itself with time. One of the best ways for this to happen is to allow the brain to socialise with other brains. We know this because people who make good recoveries from mental illness are generally those with strong social networks.

The social aspect of organised religion seems to create exactly those social networks (name a religious event that is not social: birth, mass, marriage, death, and everything in between are all designed to be social events with God as witness), and is good at keeping us sane through social contact, a social safety net, a lack of fear of the unknown, and a sense of belonging. ‘Primitive’ tribal groups tend to be very religious/social, and also seem to lack many of the mental conditions the developed world has, despite living a much more dangerous existence.

The politics of  schism

[If any genocide or war was] religiously motivated, then you would also see forced conversion because religion would be the only point of contention (and conversion takes the contention away), but you don’t because it isn’t.

It is said that religion only works when everyone has the same one. Otherwise we get intolerance on a mass scale. Ethnic cleansing, purges, holy wars. Well, maybe, but there seems to be a lot of political force driving it all. Were the Cathers heretics or an opposing political force? Were Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland fighting for their religion or the asymmetric shareout of land, housing and wealth (caused by the British favouring one side early on), and if that asymmetry had not occurred, would the two sides have just co-existed despite their differing religions?

The Nave
The Nave
 

Looking at modern history, are Sunnis and Shias fighting for different religious beliefs or because they are ethnically, politically and economically separate groups (which in the Islamic world generally means ‘from different tribes’)? Were Jews targeted by the Nazis because they ‘killed Jesus’ or because some prominent Jews came in after World War 1, bought at rock bottom prices, and by the late ’20s were pretty well off and, through no fault of their own, already looking like a handy political target when everyone else was being burdened by war reparations and recession?  If either was only religiously motivated, then you would also see forced conversion because religion would be the only point of contention (and conversion takes the contention away), but you don’t because it isn’t.

I am in no doubt that this is a contentious argument and apologise in advance. For those of faith it is often hard to believe that it was not their faith that was causing their troubles, but that they were simply being targeted as a social or economic group, being forced to move away from their land to make way for others, or were simply being set up as a scapegoat for other harder to fix and deeper problems (economic woes being the favorite reason). Unfortunately history and hindsight shows this is what often happens.

An approximation is not wrong

Classical Newtonian Physics is wrong as soon as we consider General Relativity, [yet despite Newtonian Physics] being technically wrong, it works in the real world

In engineering and science we have different ways to say ‘not correct’. We have known error (or ‘accuracy’), and approximation as well as plain wrong. Classical Newtonian Physics is wrong as soon as we consider General Relativity and Special Relativity, yet we build aircraft and bridges based on Newtonian Physics. Why? Although Newtonian Physics is not the whole story (and is therefore technically wrong), it is quicker to use, and gives us such a small error that it is a good approximation, and our accuracy is very good. So, despite the theory being technically wrong, it works in the real world (except of course when we are near a black hole or travelling near the speed of light, neither of which occurs often for me, YMMV).

Quire roof
Quire roof

So what? Well, what if ‘god’ is not just another word for ‘conscience’ like many non believers assume. What if ‘god’ is just an approximation of everything we don’t know and can never act on in the real world: human nature and unforeseen natural events. By calling all that stuff ‘god’ and ‘acts of god’, maybe we lose our fear of it, and we get to live better, happier lives. Like Newtonian Physics, a belief in god would be technically wrong, but it leads to such a small error in how we live our lives that it is a good enough approximation in the real world, and actually makes us better at doing the right things without overcomplicating it. If approximation is ok for one of the core (and most used) theories in Physics, it must be fine for religion, right?

The language of Progress

the clergy are the giants that the Theory of Evolution rests upon

One of the biggest issues leveled against religion is that that religion is always anti-progress.

Science is a questioning system that increases knowledge, whereas Religion constrains it. Blind faith prevents a questioning attitude, and if we all did that, we’d still be stuck in the Middle ages.

The Organ
The Organ

History says otherwise: religion has historically played a major role in science.

Take genetics. Ever wondered why scientific notation is always Latin? ‘Oh, that’s because Latin was the language of learning during the renaissance and onwards, so learned people readily adopted it’. No. Latin is the Language of God.

If you were ill, you didn’t go to a doctor: you went to a priest. Or Shaman, or Witch doctor: people of religion, because they invented medicine. And in Europe, they wrote in Latin. The clergy were the only people with enough time to look in detail at the theory of how to breed animals, or get more honey from bees, or ferment better beer, and they wrote it all up in Latin. Go back far enough, and the clergy are the giants that the Theory of Evolution rests upon. And you don’t even have to go back that far.

Scientists, Medics and Engineers as we know them did not appear until very late in our history, and even then, all of them were typically either religious or deeply religious until as late as the mid 1900s. We forget this important fact at our peril. Religion has not prevented scientific discovery. We know of people like Galileo, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Most scientists during the first big surge of technology that led to the world we now live in (17th, 18th and 19th centuries) were generally religious as well has having a critical, scientific mind. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The Five Sisters and Organ
The Five Sisters and Organ

If we go back to the start, life was hard in the 6th century, and the  only people who could take time from just trying to say alive and start building up scientific theory was the clergy. We know this because universities came from cathedral schools and monasteries.  Put another way, how many sciences would conflict with the belief that there was an unknowable force out there that cannot be measured, cannot be seen, and does not interfere with physical processes because it is outside the material world? Almost none: probably only evolution and the centrality of humans in creation. That makes sense, because historically the church has not only set up higher education, it has also repressed almost no scientific theory (or done such a bad job of it that we were able to put a man on the moon regardless).

Christianity is not alone in this. When you are writing numbers and formulas, you are not writing in the language of pure mathematics: you are writing in the language of Allah. Numbers are Arabic, and we are implicitly using the Islamic concept that god must only be shown symbolically when we consider reality. The medieval Christian mind saw god in the natural world through purpose: creation seemed to be laid out for us. Modern scientists with a religious background generally see god through the complex ordering of simplicity within reality that points to a natural perfection (i.e. when we try to represent reality symbolically, it is actually very ordered and follows rules, hence science), and that is a very Islamic thought, carried on from the Logical Tradition but supercharged with Arabic Mathematics. This is what gives  theory the ability to predict, and without it, science just becomes an Ancient Greek theoretical talking shop.

Seating, The Nave
Seating, The Nave

Finally, there is the belief that accelerating scientific discovery is occurring because religious dogma is giving way to it. Perhaps, but more likely it is due to the increasing complexity of finance. If you had just discovered a new metal alloy in 1013AD, you would have to approach a member of the Royalty and agree to make cannons for them. In 2013AD, you just use AIM or other investment systems to raise capital. Fast track tech investment makes technology advance faster, not atheism.

Where it goes wrong

I’m not sure what things I would expect to find in the house of god, but sexual segregation is not one of them

Misogyny and anti gay sensibilities can be linked to religious belief and traditions that continue despite prominent clerics saying otherwise and even when basic religious teachings say otherwise.

Let me lay this out so there is no doubt in my atheism:

  • I’m not sure what things I would expect to find in the house of god, but sexual segregation is not one of them.
  • If God didn’t want homosexuality, there would not be quite so many of them walking around creation.
  • If your culture is forcing half your population to stay home behind closed doors, then you are half as productive as cultures that don’t do this.  Rather than blaming the other side for being godless or taking everything, consider this: equality between sexes is one of the biggest single pushes to productivity as it gives you +50% economic growth straight away. So at least a part of that ‘taking everything’ is really just 60 years of +50% compound economic growth that denies you better science, technology, standard of living, and military, leaving you and you and your misogyny far behind.
York Minster, exterior
York Minster, exterior

Nevertheless, religion is one of the best examples of Richard Dawkins’ ‘meme’: an idea that is naturally selected to remain popular (in fact, religion is perhaps one of the best examples of an evolving meme because it has lasted longer than any other big idea).

Street entertainer outside the minster
Street entertainer outside the minster

Let us hope that the major religions will evolve from these few remaining anachronisms and accept change.

Conclusion

I don’t believe in god. I don’t belittle those who do, because faith works in the real world.

Plus religion can be very photogenic.

Notes

  1. Islamic scientific thinking had a golden age of discovery between the 9th and 13th centuries. It is worth noting that Islamic thinking has distanced itself from (and suppressed) scientific thinking from the thirteenth century onwards. Some religions have suppressed critical thinking over spans of time, but it is certainly not a default feature of all religion.
  2. ‘If God didn’t want homosexuality, there would not be quite so many of them walking around creation’. If it is any consolation to the faithful, Evolution has a pretty hard time explaining homosexuality as well. As a general rule, if there are several competing theories for the same thing in science, it is because science doesn’t know the answer. As can be seen from the link, science doesn’t know the answer.
  3. All photographs shot with a Sony A77 and Tokina 11-16 f2.8 wide angle lens, except ‘Street entertainer outside the minster’ and ‘The Organ’ (Minolta 70-210,  f4, also known as ‘Minolta Beercan’).
  4. None of the photographs are HDR (the style of the photographs was achieved in post production via increases in clarity and exposure).