Fast Foreword: A Brief Introduction
Why are people so eager to tell me when they find God, but they never mention where he was hiding? Sorry, that's just been bugging me. Now about my essay I made it educational and concise, but I also tried to include some humor so it wouldn't read like an obituary column for any beliefs you may have had. To put it bluntly, this article's as likely to erase your faith in God as the Tanya Harding sex tape.
Okay, maybe that's a bit ambitious. Some people couldn't be convinced that God doesn't exist if God himself descended from the heavens just to announce that he doesn't exist. Even among otherwise critical thinkers, religion seems to be more or an emotional appendage than anything else. Trying to use reason to talk someone out of their religion seems as futile and incendiary as trying to logically convince someone they've married the wrong person. But I was never one to give up, so here goes
Why hasn't God suffocated to death?
You're almost certainly an atheist already, even if you don't know it yet. Before you rush to the comments section, hear me out. If scientists flew to a distant planet and found a huge bearded man on a throne who claimed to have created the universe, would you be surprised? Would you hesitate to even call that God? If I were to introduce you to my friend who is now a ghost because he died in a car wreck, and he said hello by levitating objects in the room, would you look for wires? Of course you would. This stuff is so far-fetched it wouldn't make viable Disney movie fodder, and they have furniture playing the violin. The religious establishment makes it easy for us to tell ourselves we believe by keeping these ideas intentionally vague, and so far removed from real-world experience as to have no tangible meaning at all.
For example, most people accept the idea that our God (and our souls) are immaterial beings and never question it further. (Although some parts of the bible make God seem like a giant flesh-and-blood man who sculpted us in his image.*) However, "immaterial" is a handwave designation that needs a lot more clarification to be meaningful. Is space containing a spirit (divine or otherwise) somehow different from a vacuum? If so, can it be detected in a lab? (If that sounds unthinkable to you, then perhaps deep down, you don't truly subscribe to the idea.) If not, how could it be said to exist at all?
Without specifics, we don't even know what this "God" person/thing is supposed to be. I'm not saying these questions couldn't have answers; I'm just calling attention to the religious establishment's penchant for preaching abstract and incomplete ideas, and letting us fill in the blanks with whatever makes us feel good.
* The problems with this version of God could fill an encyclopedia, but for the sake of brevity, I'll limit it to one question: If we were modeled in his image (Genesis 1:27), does he also have a nose and lungs that can be deprived of air?
They "soul doubt" on us!
Just because we don't quite know what a soul is doesn't mean we can't draw conclusions about it. One well-noted problem with believing in an immaterial soul is the question of how something immaterial (the soul) can influence something material (the body). But it turns out the issue goes much deeper than that.
Consider the common vision of life after death. (I'm starting with the assumption that in order for this to occur, some remnant or essence of the self something has to leave the body after death. I think we can agree on that.) As the body goes limp the soul naturally emerges as a ghost, like a driver getting out of a wrecked car. The ghost wanders the earth for some length of time before facing God for judgment or being reincarnated (depending on the religion). During this time, the ghost can see and hear the world around him: his audience wondering if the life squad is part of the act, his family wondering what the hell possessed him to try sword swallowing in the first place, his d-bag friend hitting on his girlfriend at the funeral, etc., but he's invisible to the living and can't interact with the world because he is no longer a physical being.
Here's where we run into a contradiction: contrary to passive intuition, the abilities to see and hear also constitute participation in the realm of the physical. Does it make sense for a slight oscillation of air molecules to impact the spirit enough to facilitate perfect hearing, and for electromagnetic radiation in the visible light frequency range to afford perfect vision, only to have that same spirit effortlessly float through solid walls? And if the ghost is influenced by the vibration of air molecules, then shouldn't it blow away in the wind as well? Furthermore, if the ghost can see, then we know those photons (light rays) are NOT passing through untouched, meaning the ghost couldn't be completely invisible. But perhaps the greatest concern here should be why one would expect a disembodied mind to see or hear at all, since the eyes and ears are still on the dead body. And if I really wanted to nitpick, I could question why the ghost continues to follow the rotation and revolution of the Earth after it's no longer subject to gravity, centripetal acceleration, or inertia. So this picture of the afterlife is not just unsubstantiated it's logically impossible.
In the face such stark invalidation, someone really wants to believe might be tempted to contrive alternate descriptions of an immaterial self. For example, one might propose that ghosts appear translucent, like double-exposed photos but then why couldn't they be seen exiting their respective bodies when they died? (And again, the floating-through-walls problem reemerges.) Also, some movies have portrayed ghosts as being able to influence their environments if they focus hard enough but why would that require effort when the soul's control over the material body seems so and natural and automatic? And wouldn't that mean they'd have to concentrate just to see and hear as well? And why has no ghost in recorded history ever become good enough at this to repeatedly demonstrate his or her existence, or to use a pen to communicate directly with their respective loved ones?
I'm going to paraphrase the previous two paragraphs because they're important. We have analyzed an entity that is simultaneously subject to and not subject to certain physical constraints. This isn't just a scientific problem. Even if we reject science, we're still left with a logical contradiction, meaning the entity in question couldn't possibly exist. There's no getting around it. (Note that angels, demons, and other interactive deities couldn't exist either for some of the same reasons.)
There is one version of a "soul" that isn't eliminated outright by this logic, but you wouldn't want it. Everything up to this point has involved interaction with our world, leaving the hypothetical possibility of an afterlife completely divorced from all matter and energy in the known universe. Just imagine an eternity of aimless thoughts in a spaceless void, with no way to share those thoughts with others and no experiences to think about in the first place. (And you thought the line at the DMV was bad.) We could make up a "heaven dimension" into which we traverse after death, throwing around abstruse terms like "worm holes" and "dark matter" to make it sound halfway plausible, but we'd still be making it up. Luckily, we won't have to worry about that anyway because
What's so special about being made of nothing?
Consider the reason to suspect the existence of a personal spirit in the first place: to account for the deep and complex thoughts and feelings we experience that seem to transcend the trappings of cold biology. I say seem to because the study of neuroscience and the limbic system has revealed undeniably precise correlations between physical brain activity and subjective emotions. Correlation doesn't always equal causation, but in this case it's hard to argue that our minds come from anything other than our brains, especially taking into account the brain's conserved energy* and Ockham's razor.** Why would a bullet or this other bullet or a rod through the skull have any effect one one's mind, if the soul is one's true self? Or for that matter, mental diseases like Alzheimer's, or psychoactive drugs? Furthermore, even spiritual feelings can be explained by natural factors.
So the ginger kids aren't the only ones without souls. It stands to reason that when the brain dies, the mind stops, so your best bet is to get the most out of life on Earth. Believe me when I say that I share your pain of being set up with the outlandish expectation of heaven. But if it makes you feel any better, people like Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Bob Saget don't get to live forever, either.
* Energy conservation is arguably the greatest problem with believing in an immaterial self. If the soul were the cause of mental activity, we wouldn't expect any correlation between mind and brain activity. So to account for that, we would have to postulate (rather wishfully, I might add) that the soul is changing the levels of various neurochemicals and neural activity in corresponding parts of the brain, such that the transient state of the brain always matches the transient state of mind, therefore maintaining an illusion of a mind-brain connection. But if that were the case, we would see invisible forces pushing the chemicals and such along for no particular reason, or chemicals and electricity coming out of nowhere. It would defy mass/energy conservation on a macroscopic level, and nothing in classical or modern physics has been shown to do that (mass-energy conversions aside, which still keep the total constant), or we'd be investing in some major perpetual motion research.
** Not to be confused with the asylum of Batman villains, Ockham's razor essentially says to go with the explanation that explains the most while presuming the least. For example, you could explain David Blain's tricks by accepting that he has magical powers (beyond the unnatural ability to stand perfectly still in a block of ice while charging admission with a straight face, that is), but why would you after you see how his tricks are done?
Dog is Godmatic
Knowing that death really is death regardless, you'd be justified in not caring whether there's a God. But in case you're interested, I composed this section. Although the focus is on the God of Christianity, the general ideas can be applied to many other religions as well.
I'm not going to get into a comprehensive discussion of all the reasons not to believe in God because there are books (listed below) that do a far more thorough job of that than I care to do here. And if you don't feel like spending money to have somebody tell you you're wrong for a hundred pages, you can read Richard Dawkins' article that dispels the most common arguments for God's existence. However I do have some thoughts to add, including why there's inherently no reason to take the bible as gospel, and why you should be glad God suffocated earlier. (I guess Nietzsche was right.)
ETA: After writing this, I composed an elaborate response to the most prevalent and persuasive theological arguments. The Best Case for God: Refuted
We were all told as children that God's judgment is perfect, but who told us this: (flawed) humans, or God himself? If it's the latter, why should any being be allowed to assert its own infallibility unchallenged? Let me put it a different way. According to the bible, God is omniscient, but since the bible is (supposedly) God's word, that really means "according to God's judgment, God's judgment is perfect." That's circular logic. Even if I were to concede that the bible is the word of God (which it isn't), there would still be no reason to expect his way of thinking to be sound. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt it, and now that questioning the bible is fair game, I'll proceed to show exactly that
- Jesus died for our sins. Rather than mechanically point out all the ways this doesn't make sense, I'll just ask you this: If you were to enter a courtroom offering to accept the death penalty to atone for the future crimes of strangers who don't even exist yet, how do you think the judge and jury would react? What if instead you offered the life of your first born? Women bear children in pain as punishment for Eve eating the forbidden fruit. This exhibits displaced retribution comparable to that of the previous point. If our court system worked like Christianity, you'd be tortured mercilessly every time somebody who looked like you committed a crime. God sent a pestilence to kill 70,000 of David's people because David destroyed Israel and Judah. (Judges 11:29-40) To clarify, David's people had nothing to do with his mass murder (which God himself ordered in the first place, by the way). Do you notice a pattern here? Free will. Generally speaking, free will is great, but consider this: There have been about 400 serial killers in America in the last century, some of whom were alarmingly prolific before they were finally brought to justice. They used their free will to choose evil, but what about their victims? Didn't their untimely deaths infringe on their free will? God told Lot's wife not to look back at Sodom and Gomorrah as they burned, and when she did, he turned her into a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:26) Remember the previous point about the serial killers? His attitude is completely laissez faire as they slaughter one victim after another, but when somebody looks at something they aren't supposed to, that's when he puts his foot down. God is perfect, although he created imperfect beings. Many people have gone into great detail on this already, but I want to take a moment to offer my own analogy. If a carpenter built a table that wobbles, would you call him a perfect carpenter? What if he built billions of tables, and none of them were quite right? With God, all things are possible. (Even the things that contradict the other things.) Contrary to popular belief, the bible is a tale of a limited God. One can only presume this is because the concept of a perfect entity creating and overseeing an imperfect world is so absurd, the bible's authors couldn't even imagine such a state of affairs to write stories about it. The story of Noah's Ark alone shows God: * being unable to predict the world becoming unacceptably corrupt (otherwise he would have made it differently, or not at all) * being unable to produce the Ark himself (or unwilling, for some strange reason) * telling Noah to gather two of each of the "clean" animals but forgetting to specify which animals were which until Leviticus (after the fact) * being unable to target only the people he didn't like (and not, for example, the sinless children or the "clean" animals (other than two of each on the Ark and possibly a few others, depending on which passage you read)), and * requiring 40 or 150 days to destroy the world and doing so by the roundabout means of a flood. The time to destroy the Earth was curiously much longer than the six days he took to create it; maybe he slowed down in his old age. Although he did have to rest for a day after creation (on the seventh day), so apparently he got tired then too. In any case, a truly unlimited God should be able to create a universe in an instant, and blink whatever he doesn't like out of existence with similar efficiency (or just not create it at all). In this respect the big bang is more like God than God.
And if you want more examples, Skeptics have diligently annotated the entire bible (and the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon), highlighting literally hundreds of contradictions, wanton injustices and more. As those links will show you, the bible meanders with the discontinuity of story whose authors took turns writing each sentence. Don't get me wrong; I can see how you could believe in some sort of God and an afterlife if that's what you've been taught your whole life and you never gave it much thought, but I don't think anybody would give credence to the bible once they've read it with a truly open mind.
The temptation is to merely dismiss the matter with a glib remark about how the bible is a tale of two devils, one of whom is more creative than the other (which might explain one contradiction*), but there's an important question that needs to be asked. If we were created in God's image, why are our ideas of morality so different from his?
* "And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: All power is given to me in heaven and in earth." (Matthew 28:18)
"The whole world is under control of the evil one." (1 John 5:19)
Let he who is without zen
Spiritual morality is unreliable because it varies arbitrarily from one culture to the next. Let's take the issue of marital fidelity, for example. There are monogamist cultures, polygamist cultures, cultures in which everyone goes naked (or nearly naked) and partners interchange capriciously with no pretense of commitment, cultures in which women must be covered from head to toe and the punishment for infidelity is incredibly barbaric and harsh (by most standards) the list goes on and on.
So is there a different "God" making the rules in every community in every country? If a polygamist travels to a monogamist society, does he go from "okay guy" to "sinner" just by virtue of his location? What about the days before civilization, when everybody was having sex with everybody, like monkeys at the zoo? The Gods weren't paying attention back then?
Alternatively, it could be that when people first congregated into civilizations, each community gradually developed its own cultural norms which were passed down from one generation to the next, which would account for these varying standards. Which seems more likely? Either way, there couldn't be an absolute code of ethics from a supernatural authority because religious/social standards are too fickle.
Rational morality is clearly the more consistent and absolute solution. To paraphrase Albert Einstein's viewpoint, morality can be derived rationally by considering how one's actions will affect others and conducting oneself accordingly. And for the self-centered who aren't interested in virtue for its own sake, a fair and organized justice system is a much more sensible solution than the intangible, distant, and highly questionable threat of hell. No mythical big brother is needed.
Expect the Unaccepted
Like everybody else who wasn't raised by wolves, I was subject to society's religious brainwashing from the time I was young enough to think somebody could steal your house (yes, the whole house) if you left it unlocked. I made it a goal to undo this social conditioning, training my mind (somewhat ironically) to view the world like a child, so I could think of the obvious questions we've been so painstakingly trained not to ask. I think that's what Einstein had in mind when he uttered one of my favorite quotes: "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself."
I'm confident that if you consider what I've written, you'll reach the most plausible conclusions. You could say I have faith in you.