IS THE IDEA OF GOD NECESSARY? Dane Clouston 2010 03 03

Thank you all for coming to listen to me. I am rather surprised to be here. As a child or adolescent I used to live in fear and trembling of being called to the church. How did one know? Anyway it never happened. But here I am, talking about religion.
Is the idea of god necessary? Is the question that David Paterson and I agreed I should address. Well, of course, it all depends upon what you mean.
I recognize that the idea of god does seem necessary for many people, partly because it has been put there, in their minds, at an early age and it has never left. They have never escaped.
For them, it seems to be necessary in many different ways.
For comfort?
For someone to talk to ?
For an explanation of the meaning of life?
For a basis for morality?
For thankfulness?
For encouragement for the love of our fellow human beings?
For an explanation of the oceanic feeling, that sense of oneness with all that there is?
For explanation of how and why we are here?
For a sense of purpose?
But for me the idea of god is not necessary for any of these things.
For me, the idea of god is necessary, but only so that I can say that god is not - necessary
Why am I here talking to you when that is my firm conclusion?
Because I had the pleasure of meeting David Paterson when we found ourselves on the AHS Committee organising Think Week.
Early on, in December, I emailed the members of the committee, including David, as follows:
“I think it should be made clear that the recently formed committee was for the
"organisation of a students' led Atheist, Humanist and Secularist week in Oxford" rather
than a "student's' led Humanist week in Oxford".”
(The brilliantly energetic chair of the Oxford Humanists, John White, was making a bit of a takeover bid)
”It is the fact that it is all three, with different approaches, together with Sea of Faith and Sceptics in the Pub that makes it so creatively interesting and worthwhile. THINK is a great common theme. And lets in Rationalists!
I went on “While I may be on the Committee of Oxford Humanists, I have for many more years been a member of the National Secular Society and would be pleased to join the Oxford Atheists.
For me, “Atheist is what I describe myself as, because it clearly says what I am - a non-believer in the existence of any gods other than as ideas in the minds of those who believe in such things and a believer in mortal human spirit rather than immortal human soul.
“Next comes my strong secularist criticism of, but tolerance of, god-based religions and concern that they should be separate from the state.
“After that come broader non-god-based humanist morality and need for ceremony with, ideally, churches being able to be used as moral think tanks - as Bishop Trevor Huddleston once said to me at a wedding - and places for non-god-based as well as god-based ceremonies.”
Well, David emailed back to say that what I had said was his position and that it was put better than he could put it himself.
Which, of course, I doubt, and I should have suspected a case of ‘flattery will get you everywhere’, but didn’t smell a rat until, a little later, he asked me to speak to you today, which of course I am very honoured to do,, although equally alarmed, given my firm atheist conclusion speaking to a Sea of Faith audience.
And particularly in view of all the excellent speakers we have had during Think Week. There were many interesting points and points of view, but I am particularly indebted to Samantha Stein, of Camp Quest, for pointing out that atheism is not a belief, but a conclusion.

I am just an ordinary atheist, humanist and secularist
- wondering about the world, the universe and everything.
- wishing that others did not believe in a god, because it makes them so much more
difficult to talk to about important matters,
- recognising their right to believe in a god,
- and regretting that it can affect friendships, as it has, with friends who have suddenly
found god.

Why have I reached my firm conclusion? Well, there are many reasons. I will just touch on one, the astonishing scale of things in time and space, as discovered by open minded scientific enquiry.
On a scale of one mile to one light year, the orbit of the earth around the sun is a circle two inches in diameter, with the sun a fine pencil dot in the middle.
On the same scale - of one mile to one light year - the nearest star is another fine pencil dot four and a half miles away
And all the other one hundred thousand million other stars in our galaxy are equally fine pencil dots in a spiral disc which on that scale is about one hundred thousand miles across, - actually a hundred thousand light years across.
And that is just our Milky Way galaxy, in addition to which there are another hundred thousand million galaxies, each with a comparable numbers of stars.
How can we possibly imagine that there is a creator god of all that concerned with our collective and individual lives on this cosmic nanodot of a planet?
To me, but clearly not to others, it is obviously nothing but natural human wishful thinking.
Incidentally, I was very pleased to have this view of the universe published in a letter to the Times on January 9th last year, in response to a letter from Michael Reiss. He had said, in an article headed
“Darwinian thinking clarifies and deepens religious faith”
Above all, Darwin decentres humanity. In this he completes the work that Copernicus began. We are not the centre of the Universe. The Universe existed long before we came on the scene.
The first, amusing, response in The Times, on 5th January, was from Ken Binmore,of Bristol University Philosophy Department:
Sir, The religious mind is a source of infinite fascination. Michael Reiss (“Darwinian thinking clarifies and deepens religious faith”, Commentary, Jan 3) agrees that Darwin decentres humanity, thereby completing the work that Copernicus and Galileo began. However, “this decentring does not, of course, mean that we matter any the less”.
I wonder what would make him change his mind about the importance of the human race in the universe.
Then came my letter:
Sir, Martin Reiss [sic – regrettably should have been Michael Reiss, but no one complained and I did not notice the error until I looked up the letter for this talk!] points to Darwin decentring humanity in relation to other earthly forms of life and to other scientists decentring the earth itself. Indeed!
On a scale of one mile to one light year, the orbit of the Earth round the Sun is a circle 2 in in diameter; the sun (800,000 miles across) is a very fine pencil dot in the centre; the nearest star is another fine pencil dot 4.5 miles away; the approximately 100,000,000,000 other stars in our galaxy are also fine pencil dots contained in a disc, on that scale, 100,000 miles across. And then there are all the other approximately 100,000,000,000 other galaxies in our universe, each containing similarly vast numbers of stars, not to mention planets.
Martin [sorry! Michael] Reiss nevertheless claims that “Darwinian thinking clarifies and deepens religious faith”. As an example, he asks the “old but vital question as to why God allows suffering”. His answer is to see God as giving creation the ability to evolve itself, including the capacity to feel pain and pleasure. What God? Which God?

Wouldn’t it be simpler just to realise that there are no gods? Other than as wishful thinking dogmatic unscientific institutionalised ideas in the minds of human beings that cause untold and unnecessary division and discord instead of harmony on our vitally important but cosmically insignificant microdot of a planet?
You can imagine that I was very pleased to have this published a letter to The Times!
I see the earth with its religious buildings all over it as a sea urchin in this vast and largely empty space, with all the minarets and church spires as spines pointing outwards to heaven in all directions, particularly now that our son and his wife have moved to Sydney rather than in London. Thank goodness, and thank science, for Skype!
So how do we atheists manage without all the reasons for which some people find the idea of god necessary ? Very easily, and with a great sense of relief.
It is the same world that we all look at but through different spectacles – some faith tinted and some not.
Atheists, humanists and secularists are neither morally better nor worse than anyone else because we do not believe in a god.
Nor are atheists unspiritual. We are moved by spiritual feelings, by great beauty.
David was kind enough to say that I am not a bad poet.
To which my early morning response the other day, while trying to decide what to say this afternoon, was that
I’m really not a poet
But sometimes nevertheless
I turn to rhyme and rhythm
When under emotional stress!
Anyway, I am now going take the liberty of reading to you a longer poem, or jingle of mine, that is in two halves. One half is perhaps poetic, under the influence of what might be called the oceanic feeling, which we atheists experience as well as those who view the world through a religious framework, and the other half is more political than poetic, with a political viewpoint that arises out of my non religious philosophical viewpoint.
It was written during and after watching a magnificent and memorable sunset, of the kind that suddenly changes the clouds and sky into a seascape with coastline, promontories, islands and distant horizon, from the edge of the Chilterns above Watlington. I called it:


From the edge of the Chilterns

There is no immortality!
There's only life and death.
We have to keep on climbing
Until we lose our breath.

A sunset-switch to magic sea
Can fill a heart so high
It feels it's seen the best in life
And happily could die.

As even more so if it hoped
For immortality,
Which churches in our world still teach,
As did they you and me.

Such hopes give comfort at the cost
Of honesty of mind.
Our cosmos is too prodigal
For us to be so blind.

Eternal life is 'guaranteed'
By fortunes and religion.
But here and now is all to me;
I have another vision –

A vision of a world where all
Will be content to share
Not income, but the fortunes left
In ways that are not fair.

If we can lose the burden of
Our dream of immortality,
We just might concentrate upon
Each new child's opportunity.

The obstacle to changing views
Of ‘heritance and tax
Is people’s wish to be immune
From dread of mortal facts.

But neither money nor the church
Will keep us here for ever.
So let us dream a new world view,
Accepting life and death

A world in which all climb the hill
So long as they have health
And every child receives in life
Inheritance of wealth.

I will say no more of that other than to mention my Campaign for Universal Inheritance which you can look up on Google (www.universal-inheritance.org) . Unfortunately the website has recently become even more of a mess than it was, for reasons that are mostly my fault, not helped by it being hacked into some time ago by, I think, one of the Ayn Rand objectivist people in the States, with whom I was having an argument about it.
David asked each of the members of the panel in the first meeting of think week what they thought was the big moral question of the day. For me one of the big moral questions of the day is how to bring about, in this our only life, genuinely greater equality of opportunity in education, health and the inheritance of wealth.
Now, I want to become more controversial in relation to the Sea of Faith. After I had been invited to speak to you ,I came along to your last meeting to listen to Don Cupitt. I left both interested and puzzled and with a strong awareness of a kind of religious nostalgia, which I very much understand but react to myself in a different way.
As CP Snow expounded, there are two cultures, the literary and the scientific. Like so many classifications they are not black and white, but a spectrum of colours and shades.
At the literary end of the spectrum, the literary mind likes a story, a metaphor, a tale, and will enjoy it, sometimes without being bothered too much whether is it true, but more concerned as to whether it is relevant and valid for human behaviour, experience and morality.
At the scientific end of the spectrum, the scientifically inclined mind looks for truth about facts, as established beyond reasonable doubt by empirical experiment, and particularly for truths that can be disproved, but have not yet been disproved, in the way that Karl Popper, one of my heroes, identified.
So I am now going to launch my spaceship into the Popperian outer third world of ideas, focusing upon the ideas and what I think of them.

Don Cupitt spoke of us being made by utterance of language.
To me that is unintelligible if those words are to be used with their normal meanings.
From the point of view of a self-description it may be that we are made – but only as a description – by utterance of language.
However, we exist, and so are made, as are apes, chimpanzees, shrews and bacteria, independently of the classifications and descriptions of our human minds.
If chimpanzees, apes, shrews and bacteria had not existed or been made, as they were, in the absence of human linguistic descriptions, we would not be here, since we are descended from common ancestors of theirs and ours.
The fact that it has taken language to find that out does not mean that we are made by utterance of language.
In the beginning was not the word, but more likely along the way, animal and bird calls, apelike grunts, and silence!
Don Cupitt spoke of religions making law, but to me it was the development of food production that required settled societies and the law that they then developed for the preservation of land cultivation, ownership and annual surpluses.
Religion accompanied all that, because religion was the answer to the questions to which no one knew the answers.
Don Cupitt said that religion enabled progress. To me it seems that religion accompanied progress.
I don’t suppose that religion was possible without language. So in a way you can say that language created religion, but not that language created us.
Language certainly did not create apes, although it has created our way of classifying and describing them.
Don Cupitt said that he is an anti-realist. I am afraid that I am an anti anti-realist. I am a realist. I love finding out where we are and how we got here, with all the wonderful evidence of biological, particle, evolutionary and cosmological branches of science – albeit as an amateur.
I understand his nostalgia for religion, and would not deny that god exists as a named idea in a language in the minds of those who believe that it does.
But personally I distinguish between a god and the idea of a god
- between a god independent of our minds, to whom it is worth praying and giving credit for the creation of the universe, and the idea of such a god in the minds of human beings who believe in the existence of such a god.
Having relatively recently read Sebastian Faulkes’ book Human Traces I am inclined to think that some degree of schizophrenia is the cause of personal experiences of a god, when one half of the mind cannot distinguish between messages from the other half of the brain and messages from outside it.
In early tribal life it may have been important for a leader to be so convinced that a message came from outside his mind that he was able to convince others of a set of moral precepts and rules for a stable society.
We have always needed explanations. God did it, is another way of saying that we do not know the answer.
I fully understand nostalgia for religion, with candles in a familiar village church at Christmas, but I fear that nostalgic apologists for religion help to support those who believe in the institutionalized versions of religion and so help to support the fundamentalists and so the terrorists.
For it is a great struggle for those of us indoctrinated at an early age in a religion to escape from it. And after I had escaped, I resented that indoctrination, as I resent the indoctrication I see children being subjected to in many religions around the world.
I strongly recommend escape from religion. It is a vast relief.
No more trying to work out the contradictions between natural disasters and acts of an all powerful all good god.
It upsets me now to see how churches muscle in on so-called Acts of God, describing as miracles the survival of some and totally ignoring the unanswered prayers of those who spend hours and days in agony before they die or in continuing suffering afterwards.
Then there is immediately a church service of self-congratulation for those who have survived as well as of remembrance of those who have not, who must presumably have upset their god in some way.
Whereas we know that it is all just good luck and bad luck – hazard, as John Fowles described it.
Also without a belief in god, one can be uncomplicatedly thankful for the good fortune of being alive.
Driving along on a sunny Spring day, with the leaves and blossom bursting out under a blue sky, one does not have to be thankful to an imaginary god but just to our parents, grand parents, great grandparents and then a whole line of our human and other ancestors including the little shrew-like mammal which managed not to become extinct 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs copped it, and the bacteria 4000 million years whose DNA is closer to ours than it is to the DNA of another kind of bacteria. I got this from my reading of Richard Dawkins The Ancestor’s Tale, which I strongly recommend, as indeed I do The Greatest Show on Earth. People are sometimes very ratty about him but I believe he is a courageous and great man who has achieved an enormous amount towards helping us all to escape the tyranny of institutionalized religion. As clearly have Peter Atkins, Stephen Laws, Maryam Namazie, Samantha Stein and all the other speakers who were good enough to speak to or come to Think Week (www.thinkweek.co.uk) . And I particularly praise Maryam Namazie for her courage as founder of the society of ex Muslims. I think it would be good to found an organization [that could perhaps be called ESCAPE] - a society of all ex-religious people - so that we can all come together and enjoy the freedom of being able to talk freely to so many others across the barriers of former creeds and varied cultures.
Of course, we atheists may all be mistaken, in which case no doubt we will burn and rot in hell for eternity, or possibly, as a result of some death bed conversion, float around in heaven for all time. Personally I am not bothered by the logical possibility, however much evangelical Christians on the streets of Oxford try to alarm me, as one did the other day while we were manning a stall and handing out leaflets to advertise Think week!
To share atheism with anyone is a great bond in a global world, enabling instant open conversation and exchange of ideas. We love life, not death, unlike religiously misguided suicide bombers who tell us that they love death, not life. It is good that there is a new fatwa against suicide bombing from a Muslim authority, telling people that such action will lead to hell instead of to the 70 virgins. How much better, however, if people were not brainwashed and indoctrinated into believing such nonsense in the first place!