Intellectually, belief in
the supernatural. Socially, institutions and practices based on belief in the supernatural.
Here I use "supernatural" in the obvious sense of: beyond or
outside natural reality, that is, unlike
divinities and angels, represented in
ordinary human experience, and in principle accessible to all, and the
foundation of all experiments and tests to check theories.
1.1. There are and have been very
many religions, and it is difficult to identify what is common to them,
but all seem agreed in the assumption that there is more than natural reality, and that the knowledge about this
supernatural reality is somehow delivered by prophets, priests, holy men etc.
Some variants of Buddhism, for example,
do not assume there is a god, but then they do assume there is a
Nirvana and that one's unenlightened experiences are all illusion.
The writer of this dictionary rejects all
claims to supernatural knowledge; does not believe in any god;
and disbelieves the vast majority of all religious teachings
and ideas he has been in contact with. (He also never had any religious
faith, and was not raised in one.)
This does not at all mean that he
believes there is not very much that human beings do not know, and quite possibly also that there is
much that human beings cannot know, but it does mean that he believes
such knowledge can not be
found in Holy Books (excepting some teaching about ethics, which has nothing to do with the
existence or non-existence of supernatural entities),
and that he does believe that scientific
realism is the best approach to real knowledge.
1.2. Five simple reasons for this firm
belief in science as the method
to reach knowledge are:
1. All religions I know of are
full of provable falsities and
provable nonsense, and have done much harm, which may have been also
mixed with some good.
2. No God or angel
ever appeared to me (other than in the delusive
shape of attractive
3. No presumed Holy Book whatsoever, in spite of
its usual claims to contain the true teachings of the Maker of
Universe, Infinite in Power, Knowledge and Benevolence, contains as
much as a millionth part of the scientific knowledge
found the last four centuries, since the firm foundation of the scientific method by
Galileo and Newton.
4. Real science produces real technology that
really works whether or not you believe it or can explain it, whereas
real religions produced no technology other than new ways of deceiving the stupid and the ignorant, and no religion produced any
technology that really works without faith
in the religion.
5. All or nearly all of the faithful of all
religions fondly believe the same about all religions other
than their own: They disbelieve all of them (except perhaps on a
dishonest and confused verbal level). I merely extend this from
all-but-my-own to all.
1.3. Religion seems to be the
price thinking apes have had to pay for becoming intelligent enough to
formulate language and find the symbolical
tools of abstract thought. It is not odd to make supernatural
hypotheses if one has hardly any knowledge about nature, and has much
to fear in it, and has the capacity to formulate infinitely many
hypotheses to explain one's
experiences. What is somewhat odd - supposing these thinking apes to be
rational, as many of them believe they are - is that what is evidently
mostly superstition, make-belief, wishful
thinking, or inspired by fear, has been adopted and believed by so
many. And what is rather frightening, besides showing something about
the animal or beastly nature that is also part of human nature and
showing somehing about the foundation of human societies and human groups, is that so
many human beings have been murdered or persecuted because they had
adopted the wrong superstition in the superstituous eyes of others.
2.1. Any human society (beyond minimal complexity) is
based on shared beliefs, shared desires and a shared language. The
beliefs involve what the world and human beings are like; the desires
involve what the world and human beings should be (made) like; and the
language makes it possible to share and discuss beliefs and desires,
and come to agreements, and help cooperation and communication.
The beliefs and desires (or ends) that
serve as a shared basis of agreements about what is the case and should
be the case are conveniently and conventionally called an ideology, and any religion, like
most more or less worked out political ideas and values, is in this
sense an ideology.
2.2. It is not amazing that a
group of thinking apes, that find themselves in a world they understand
little of and have much to fear of, adopts some set of supernatural
beliefs. Indeed, there are three kinds of fairly strong sets of reasons
for doing so: First, the whole idea of a society is based on the idea
of shared desires; second, wishful
thinking works in the sense that it unerringly arrives at such
beliefs as one desires (that often have much to do also with what one
fears); and third because such supernatural things and forces as have
been assumed tend to be based on easily comprehensible features of
humans and human societies: Gods and angels tend to be much like
humans, but more powerful.
simple reasons given above against religion as a method to reach
knowledge and in favor of science seem to me quite strong against any
specific religion, but there are four general arguments concerning all
religions that also need to be listed and considered seriously,
especially by religious believers, followed by a practical, practicable
and moral conclusion about all religions and all religious believers.
3.1. Ockham's Razor says
in Latin 'Entia non sunt multiplicandur sine necessitatem' which
freely translates as: One should not assume
more than is necessary to explain
what one wants to explain.
This principle - that seems not to have
been found literally in Ockham's texts, but anyway is as old as the
14th Century at the latest - can be argued in several ways.
One is simply that any extra assumption
is an extra possibility of being mistaken, and of introducing a piece
of fiction to account for some fact or facts. Another is by way of basic probability theory, in which it is a
theorem that pr(P&Q) <= pr(P): Any conjunction of statements
(including assumptions) cannot be more probable, and normally is less
probable than any of the statements in the conjunction.
This accordingly also holds for the
hypothesis of a god or gods to account for nature
or natural things: That there is both a god
and nature, is less probable, if god's existence is not provably
logically or physically necessary, than that there merely is nature,
even if we may not know enough about nature to explain everything or
indeed much in it.
Besides, in the case of assuming
divinities one does not just add another small possibility in which one
may be conceivably mistaken: One adds a whole layer of
complexity presumably at least as complex as all of
nature (since god is normally supposed to have made nature) to nature,
and thus very much complicates one's hypotheses.
Now, none of this is a refutation of the
thesis that there is a god or may be a god, but it is a good argument
to the effect that one should avoid the hypothesis of a god or gods if
3.2. The argument from the
previous section is strengthened by the fact that there seem to be at
least 3500 conflicting religions, of which at most one
can be true, whereas most religions seem to insist that the god or gods
of their faith are fundamentally mysterious.
Now here are two relevant points about mysteries. First, there is much that is
mysterious, with or without gods, whatever one believes, since there is
very much that human beings do not know.
Second, a mystery is a lack of knowledge, and a lack of knowledge
cannot explain anything but that lack of knowledge: To claim that there
is a God and His ways are mysterious is to invoke a possible
explanation and withdraw it in the next breath. It is good rhetorics,
but bad logic and no explanation whatsoever: What one does not know,
one does not know and that is the end of that. And besides, it does not
seem quite fair or honest, this hiding behind God's mysterious nature:
If you do believe, then why not stick out your neck, and say positively
what it is that you believe, so that you run the honest risk of being
found to be mistaken?
3.3. A final argument here that
should be considered by believers concerns the fact that some very
intelligent men, such as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin,
were theists: They believed that there is some sort of maker of the universe, but also
that extra-ordinarily little is known about this maker of all, except
that he (or she or it or they) is not as ordinary religions
dogmatically claim (because ordinary religions are just incredible and
contradictory), and it is also not likely that he (or she or it or
they) is much or at all concerned with human beings.
This line of argument probably gives
comfort only to intelligent men who were raised religiously, and who
have rejected ordinary religions for good reasons, yet still want
to hold on to some sort of divinity, e.g. because they believe that
there is something to the design
argument or because it makes them feel better if there would be a
god or because they believe it would uphold human morals if there were.
The reason to list it here for your
consideration is that, while I have not much of a taste for it, since I
had no religious upbringing that disposes me to think or feel
positively about god or about gods, and I do not believe that the design argument makes sense, it does seem to me to be about the only form of
faith in divinities that may have some minimal credibility, basically
because it is a minimalistic faith that does assume far less than the
Even so: The previous arguments do hold
against it, and personally I find it far more plausible to believe
there is only natural
reality as we know it - billions
upon billions of stars and planets and systems of these, conceivably
all holding complexities as large or larger than we know to exist on
the comparitively almost infinitesimally small earth - about which we
know far less than we would like to know, but far more
than has been delivered by any known system of human religion, and that
for all that we know may have been existing in some form forever, and
may exist forever.
3.4. In any case, it seems to me
that every honest and intelligent religious believer should admit that
he cannot prove his faith or the existence of his god or gods,
and believes in his faith basically because of wishful thinking and the peace
of mind, well-being, or emotionally important apparent certainties this
brings - and not because he has carefully sifted through all the evidence, or indeed considered all
religions, or can derive his faith from natural science or indeed
consistently combine it with what he knows from natural science, since
most religions, and certainly all major ones, are at odds with some of
the theses of natural science as developed since Galileo.
And it seems to me that those religious
believers who do not admit this, are either unintelligent or uninformed
or fanatic - or else insincere. It often is difficult, in the case of
many religious believers of many religions, to say which of these
alternatives holds for them, while often some or most of these
alternatives hold in various degrees, but it should also be admitted
that clearly many leaders of religions
have been shown to be insincere, and to have professed religion
falsely, because of the power it gave
them over sincere but possibly less intelligent or less informed true
3.5. Hence in conclusion, it
seems to me that all intelligent and sincere and moral human
beings should not impose their religious faith on others;
should not claim their faith is the true one; should not
persecute non-believers in their faith; and should wait till they
have died to find out what is the real truth about religion, if
there is anything to find out then - as the faithful of all faiths have
claimed, but have neither proved nor made plausible to the vast
majority of non-believers in their particular faith.
In this life, all human
beings live as part of nature; the
supernatural should only be a serious subject if one has died, and
found that, miraculously, one is still there. Until that moment has
arrived, religion is most probably vain and false wishful thinking, that may help
one to make sense of one's confusions and fears, but not in a rational
way, for there is no rational religion for the same reason as there is
no rational nonsense: These are oxymorons.