Wednesday, 25 July 2012

This House Believes that God is a Delusion

Across Hemel event site, Gadebridge Park, Hemel Hempstead

ACross Hemel (an association of Churches in the Hemel Hempstead area) has organised a summer family event in Gadebridge Park. This included an evening debate, held yesterday, with the challenging title “This House Believes that God is a Delusion”, to be proposed by Richard Norman, a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, with the case against being put by Justin Thacker, chair of Across Hemel.

As this blog is exploring issues related to the evolution of the human mind I am interested in why many people believe in gods and the afterlife. I thought it would be useful to attend and enjoyed the experience.

Justin Thacker
Justin started by introducing a pretty standard “God of the Gaps in science” style argument by pointing out that the cosmological constants, such as gravity, were such that if they were a little bit different we would not be here, because the universe would have been unsuitable for life as we know it. Therefore, he claimed, God must be the answer. He ignored the fact that 99.99...99% percent of the universe is currently unsuitable for life as we know it – when surely if God wanted life he could have made a universe much more suitable for it . He also did not draw attention to the fact that we are not independent observers – as if things were different we would not be here to have the debate.

Richard Norman
Richard answered many of the points Justin had made, and made a good case for the humanist point of view on issues such as morals However the course of the debate was pretty predictable, as such debates are, and I didn't bother to take notes of the individual cut and thrusts.

Questions from the floor were made be people writing notes and sending them up, and the chair, John Francis, selected a well chosen selection. In fact the debate was well conducted and good humoured, and I was interested to see that in a debate in an event organised by Christians living locally that perhaps a third of those voting actually supported the motion.
Debating "This House Believes that God is a Delusion"

During the Debate I was concerned that, because of the nature of the event, it might be assumed that “God” must be the Christian God – so I asked a question about how the fact that worldwide people fervently believe in a number of different apparently incompatible Gods, affected the debate. Afterwards I got into a long discussion on this topic with a convinced Christian who couldn't see the point of the question – because he believed the only God was the Christian God – and he knew he must be right. As a result I have decided to discuss an extended version of the question:

I am an atheist because I can see no logical reason for there being a God. I am also a scientist who trying to show how evolution explains how our brain works, including why religious ideas are attractive to many, and why we are all trapped by the ideas we learnt during out childhood. I consider that people who have religious ideas have minds which are “trapped by the box” but as a scientist I realise that the science also predicts that I will also have ideas which have no rational explanation. So as a scientist I must be a sceptic and consider “Who is correct?” 

So in theory I could talk to proponents of all religions, and read their sacred tests, and through the wonders of writing also collect similar information on earlier religions.

Wherever I look I would find zealots who would claim that theirs was the true religion, and that their sacred texts were inspired (or actually written) by their god(s). In many cases (except perhaps the very smallest and short-lived religions) there are rifts within the religion where, as an example, the sacred texts are interpreted differently. While some religions (and religious subgroups) are tolerant of some other religions/groups, other passionately claim that they are the only truth, and that their god punishes those who failed to pay him homage (which makes me think their god behaves just like any earthly insecure tinpot dictator).

So the key question is:

Why should I believe any of them?

As a scientist, as a human being, and as someone who has had a lot to do with the mentally ill, I am well aware that the brain is easily deluded, and that most people who have genuinely believed in one on the many thousands of religions/sects find them helpful. But just because someone believes in something and finds it personally comforting does not mean that what they believe in is true. This is proved by the fact that any overview of religions clearly shows that there is so much which is mutually exclusive that nothing substantial is left to consider. If all the zealots of all the religions are incapable of agreeing on a single believable answer, (presumably because their arguments are insufficiently convincing) surely the scientific idea that the human brain is easily deluded is the most obvious answer.

Late News

A video of the debate is now available at 

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