Looking around this sorry planet, it is not hard to see that there is one major cause for almost all of our wars and conflicts. Namely, religious belief.
Although it is undoubtedly the case that some individuals do good in the name of the deity in which they believe, this is vastly outweighed by the misery and bloodshed which make it imperative that we should discard the nonsensical notion of God.
Given the progress of our knowledge, belief in God was understandable until the middle of the 19th century, and it is true that we are still far from being able to explain everything. But we do not render the mysteries of existence less mysterious by conjuring up a creator for whom we have not a shred of evidence.
Those who believe that God created the universe, argue thus: since matter exists, God must have made it, and that is evidence for God’s existence.
But in that case, who made God?
Ah, the argument proceeds, God is sui generis and has always existed.
To which I would reply: if something is acknowledged to have always existed, is it not rational to assume that it is matter, which we can see, rather than God, who we can’t?
Atheists are frequently told that they are unable to prove that God doesn’t exist, but given that they are not the ones making the claim, the onus is not on them to justify their stance.
To take an equally absurd example: were I to say that I believed that flocks of winged pink elephants fly over Scousburgh Hill on alternate Fridays, would anyone feel that they should give my belief the benefit of the doubt, until they could find some way of proving that this was not the case?
Faith is often invoked to sidestep such arguments, of course, but this only means a willingness to suspend all reason and logic, and to see oneself as particularly virtuous for doing so: “I will continue to believe in my winged pink elephants, although I have no evidence for them whatsoever, and that makes me especially good.”
As a young person, ideas and considerations such as these were instrumental in making a dent in my religious belief. The first thing which led me to doubt the existence of a benign creator, however, was the way in which this supposedly loving and merciful being was reported to behave.
The nuns taught me that those who did not believe in God, however good they were, would burn in hell forever. Where was the mercy in this, I wondered? And why did it matter so much to God that everybody should believe in him? Didn’t this make our father in heaven, not loving and merciful, but cruel, unreasonable and petty?
God, I was told, could and did intervene in human affairs, and I should ask him to by means of prayer. From time to time he would even suspend the normal order of things and work a miracle.
And yet, he was apparently quite happy to witness the Holocaust and do nothing to stop it. How could this be?
Believers have various answers to the issue of human suffering, including original sin, which would have it that God is justified in standing by in the face of torment, because Adam and Eve disobeyed him.
I was once even told by a Christian schoolteacher that the Jews were to blame for the Holocaust “because they turned from the light”.
But really these are just contorted and pitiless attempts to avoid confronting the glaring reality that God does not exist.
Given how much was purportedly at stake, as I grew up I grappled long and hard with my mounting disbelief, frequently beset by fear.
It was a massive relief, therefore, when I found out about the criticism that had been applied to the Biblical texts, from the 19th century onwards, which had finally put paid to the claim that they were historically true.
Biblical criticism is a massive area, but it is still, shamefully, little known about by the majority of people. Among the key things it reveals is the fact that the gospels were not the eyewitness accounts of the apostles, but were actually written down later than the events described.
In part, the gospels derive from oral traditions which were knocking about in that area of the world millennia before they were recorded in writing. The people of the time chose to include the four gospels we find in the Bible from among many other possible texts, including other gospels.
The reason that the gospels appear to miraculously fulfil the prophecies of the Old Testament is because later scribes wrote down what they believed must have happened, not because it did, but because their earlier texts had said it would.
With its dying and rising God, Christianity is, I discovered, like every other religion, a myth.
So why do people persist in believing otherwise?
Perhaps the biggest reason for faith is the inability to accept the fact that there is no afterlife. It is also often maintained that without religious belief we would lack an ethical dimension.
But what ethical dimension does religion actually deliver? We need only look at the primitive carrot-and-stick stance of Christianity, or the crazed ruthlessness of Sharia Law, in order to see that faith is very far from being in a position to claim the moral high ground.
This is not to say that there aren’t decent people of every creed, but it is to say that we don’t need to believe in an untrue religion in order to act ethically. On the contrary. When we accept that there is no God, and nothing after death, life on earth becomes even more precious.
It is now high time that all the people of the planet reached out to one another in the name of our common humanity, and stopped shedding blood in the name of a fiction.