I recently watched a documentary on Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kidnapped, drugged, and raped his daughter for 24 years; forcing her to be his sex-slave and mother to incestuous grandchildren. What more evidence is required for us to postulate the non-existence of a loving, caring god? Certainly, the systematic extermination of nearly an entire race of people was not enough; the brutality of the world throwing up destruction – whether through volcanoes or hurricanes – does not dint the happy glaze in the faithful’s eyes; and now, a woman raped by her father and kept in his dungeon for a quarter of a century, does not appear to slow faith, either.
Ideally, I would like to stop there and say: The jig is up. There is no man behind the curtain. Praying is the still-frame of an audience slow-clapping for the arrival of their beloved stage performer. Yet this performance has ended, there is no one watching out for you. We are here to look after ourselves and, by definition, each other. Leaving it up to god to catch your babies, let your favourite football team win, get you that hot date, earn your promotion, get you through this terrible ordeal, cure your son’s incurable disease, stop your wife’s neverending pain as cancer destroys her from the inside, take grandma up into heaven, forgive the wrongs of murderers and pimps and drug-lords, proclaim what’s right or wrong, is not a viable alternative to facing this stupid, bigoted, terrible world we live in. This is not a place of happiness. It is a place filled with suffering, with stupidity, with bigotry, which, after our toil and struggle, ends finally in death.
But we can’t stop there. We must ask the question more clearly: What is needed to cripple religious faith?
Faith, amidst the realities of the world, is propped up on the crutches of hopes, fears, and dreams. What’s needed for the dialogue to take flight on air-currents of debates and not, well, hot air, is to hear some believers proclaim what will make them stop believing. This hardly happens.
Ironically, this is where rational justifications for religion appear strange. What use is faith if one is trying, rationally, to prove the existence of god? What then is faith for? When rational argument fails, as it appear to do constantly when trying to prove god’s existence, defenders will slip in faith somewhere to continue their belief. Is it OK to have it both ways? What if I said, I want to make a rational argument to show the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn: I set out an argument, showing that I prayed for rain, then it did rain; I indicate the miracles of people being saved through inexplicable circumstances; I use my own personal revelations from His Hooviness to indicate his existence. You tell me none of that will prove He exists. I then tell you: “Ah, but it’s mainly faith.” As soon as that happens, rational argument becomes the victim of deception and assault.
I don’t think we can have it both ways: it’s either faith or its rational argument. Some say everything comes down to faith: faith that rationality works, that science truly is telling us what the world is doing etc. Yet, faith here means “believing despite not knowing 100%”, which makes nonsense of the term and indeed good reasons for believing. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I won’t elaborate here except to say: I’m not interested in certainty, but what is statistically more likely. Not even science is based on certainty.
We need to decide: How are we operating? Whims, fancies, hopes, dreams and the projection of our wants onto an uncaring, non-intentional universe? Or, using rational deliberation, evidence, argument and other nice-sounding terms, onto this same uncaring, non-intentional universe? This is not a false dichotomy, since – some will say,- everyone uses both. My question is which one ought we to use.
But here lies confusion. Those most likely to operate under the full guise of faith will not view the universe as uncaring and cold, but filled (somehow) with love, care and other rainbow-filled wonderments. Therefore, you could argue, they are not being close-minded or stupid when operating using faith since they do think, no matter their own imputing, hard-work, effort, obtaining of evidence, rational engagement and so on, that things will just work out; they will achieve their desired ends regardless of all those factors within the bracket of reason. This is why people keep praying and believing despite diseases, death, and destruction of innocent people around the world since we – or rather our ancestors – first started walking upright. For those of who do not think things will just work out of their own accord, but that the world requires analysis and engagement and so on, we think this the best way to achieve our ends.
To me, praying to god when someone is dying from an incurable disease is like Elisabeth Fritzl thanking her father for making her his sex slave for nearly three decades: God is responsible for everything except, conveniently, the one area which would cause him to look either (1) non-existent or, worse, (1) uncaring or evil. But let’s continue to unpack faith in an god-guided intentional world.
To reiterate. The faithful appear to operate like this.
(1) god works in mysterious ways, has a plan for all of us, loves us, and so on; and
(2) god is omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-etc.;
(C1) if things work out, it’s proof that god exists because things worked out as you wanted
(C2) if things do not work out, it means god has another plan that we are not privy to.
There is no loophole, no point in this snake-eating-itself outline where you can insert even a small measure of doubt. Yes, circular arguments are fallacious, bad arguments. But my point is not to illustrate an argument but what I perceive as some religious people’s reasoning. If the universe is filled with intention, from some cosmic sky-daddy, then faith – paradoxically – makes sense. My charge of Josef Fritzl will be a small chink in the armour of faith-mail (stronger than chainmail). To shove evidence in front of a pulpit is like throwing petals at a moving tank.
Consider my previous question. What is a better method of engagement: faith or reason? Reason is hard work, slow, systematic. It means proving yourself and others wrong. It’s challenging, upsetting. Science’s conclusions, for example, are achieved despite races, nationalities, interests, loves, hates, passions. The sky remains blue despite all the fists that are shaken at it. But we do this, we continue, because there is no other way to achieve the things we want: curing diseases, eradicating aging, helping others.* We learn how to become more efficient and in this way make progress. (By progress I mean we can do something faster, better, etc., using less resources.)
Notice: This is the best way to operate in a universe which is not guided by an outside, external and more powerful intentional agent who can be, perhaps, swayed.
Now what happens if we do believe that the universe is under the control of an all-powerful ruler? A ruler who, for some reason, loves us?
No longer is this the best way to achieve things. In the end, all our science, all our medicine, can do little to change the powers of the Creator of the Universe. God is the tank and our science bursts into petals against him in protestation. And each petal, whether he loves you or not, does little to stop his Mysterious ways. Now we reach what I think is a paradoxical conclusion: If the universe is under the control of god, a god who can be swayed to an infinitesimal degree only by prayer and devotion (apparently), then science is no longer the best way to achieve things. God could, according to some theologians, change the laws of physics if he so chooses. Faith, in a god-guided universe, then becomes the best way to achieve what you want.
What this means, at least for me, is a number of things when trying to defend a rational, secular outlook (especially, in public policy and, more specifically, medical ethics): Firstly, I must be aware that sometimes I’m operating within the framework of a non-god universe. Using Fritzl as evidence might work, but it can be seen, too, as merely an elaboration on the conclusion that I’m operating under, not my opponent. For me, Fritzl counts as evidence against an all-loving god. This is true as an argument if that was all god amounted to. Yet, there are other properties to (the theistic) god, like his mysterious movement and ways, his desire for the good of his beloved creatures, etc., which for many believers continues to support faith. It’s as though all we’ve done is kicked one of faith’s crutches away – but it leans, however awkwardly, on this other one built up of these other properties. (See disgusting picture above.)
This leads to the second point. In order to undo these properties we need to constantly focus on the arguments, if any, on offer by the religious. The difficulty, however, is that they can constantly claim faith, since faith ‘makes sense’ if you truly believe the universe has some kind of intentional guidance. This to me undermines my own views that faith is irrational (though I think it is) and so on because it is only irrational if one does believe in a non-god universe. But if one believes in a god-guided universe, it seems fitting. What is irrational, therefore, is not faith within a god-guided universe – for example, faith that things will work out despite evidence to the contrary, faith that our loved ones will be healed, that we will be rewarded, that evil is not an argument against god – but reasons to believe in a god-guided universe at all. That is what is mainly irrational.
This is not a support for faith but a reassessment of a tactical approach to combat it. I have been wondering why seemingly obvious arguments never get through the first tier. Well the first tier is obviously guarded by, well, god who is intent on bringing about, in mysterious ways, a hopeful conclusion to all the suffering, misery and destruction on display in the world.
In conclusion then: Fritzl is a powerful argument against an all-loving god if that was all that god’s properties amounted to. However, it is not.
For some, the Argument/Problem from Evil is enough to undo faith. But for others, it is not. I am speaking only for myself when saying this but this realisation certainly clarifies concepts for me. The realisation is this: faith to believers within a god-guided universe, is more powerful than any methodology or evidence, regardless of measurable efficacy. This is so because the Creator of the Universe is himself more powerful than any of the mechanisms being measured or engaged in with, say, science or medicine.
Consider: if you knew that everytime you sacrificed a goat at Ishruk’s altar you had an amazing harvest, would a scientific explanation really matter? Sure science can explain it but you know it is only so because Ishruk allows for humans to measure it. He could change it on a whim. You notice there are those who don’t sacrifice to Ishruk anymore, instead devoting time to this “research”. Their crops die, sometimes succeed but it is never as certain as your consistent bountiful harvest. You decide you will sacrifice a goat for them just in case. You watch as their crops die then suddenly are bountiful. They claim their science is working, but you know it was your sacrifice. After all, you’ve been doing it for ages, as have your grandparents and everyone else since time immemorial. A friend of yours indicates that there have been a number of times Ishruk has not made your harvest bountiful, despite your sacrifices. You tell him Ishruk is testing your faith – after all, when you consistently kept sacrificing, a bountiful harvest would (eventually) come about! Ishruk needs to test his worshippers to see who deserves his corn-focused love. Etc.
The point is the worshipper is operating in a universe guided by Ishruk. Telling someone Ishruk is testing your faith makes sense if you truly believe Ishruk is doing this.
This is difficult for me to express let alone acknowledge. But this appears to be the case for many believers.
This realisation certainly will make me take a step back before using Fritzl and other “evil” phenomena as an all-or-nothing argument for the existence of the theistic god; let alone when automatically working under the assumption that humans are not special or have “dignity”. To undo the morass of Christian theology in many policies regarding, for example, euthanasia, ideas of a god-guided universe must be at least kept in mind if you are working within a society that is majority Christian (or at least claims to be). It would indeed be irrational if we ignored this and simply charged full-tilt toward the giants preventing our goals from being achieved. Realising that others see the universe as god-guided means there is a place for believers to have faith, a device more powerful than science or reason. As unfortunate as this is, we must realise this or we will be, like Don Quixote, tackling windmills not giants. The arguments and reasoning and poor justifications would simply keep spinning on and on – unless we learn to undermine the corner-stone of their entire belief system.