We have already noted the fact that the fossil record has not yet produced a single dinosaur church. It is a fairly safe bet that it never will. From present-day observation, it would seem that animals other than ourselves do not worship, although admittedly our inability to understand animal language makes it dangerous to state this as a given truth. Religion, then, is one area of existence that we probably do not share with other animals.

Man’s extra levels of consciousness have enabled him both to worship and to deny his designer. We have considered at some length the case against atheism, which is relatively straightforward: life and all its associated processes are too intricate to have come about by chance. We have also considered the alternative, which is far from straightforward: a designer. To recap on this: if there is such a being, it may be physical, it may be “spiritual”, it may be dead, it may be absent, it may still be present. We have considered its possible nature and its possible motivations. What we have not yet considered is the impact on human society of human speculations regarding the designer.

If we believe in a conscious creator or creators, we must face all the possible scenarios listed above, and since this is precisely the area of existence that is dealt with by religion, we can scarcely ignore the descriptions offered to us. Each religion claims to have captured the truth, which in itself makes all of them suspect, but what most of them have in common is the idea that the designer is interested in human affairs. In monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) there is also an abiding faith in the beneficence of the deity, while polytheistic religions like Hinduism at least offer the believer a variety of gods and goddesses - a pleasing equal opportunities policy here - ranging from the adorable Krishna to the terrifying Kali. (It has been claimed that Hinduism boasts over 300 million gods, although it is also claimed that every one of these merely represents particular aspects of the one Supreme Being.) As far as interest in human affairs is concerned, this seems logical (if the designer is still around), as there would be little point in its creating an ongoing saga if it was not interested. But what humans cannot bear is the thought of a malevolent or even an indifferent designer. This is the ultimate nightmare.

The Bible, however, is full of examples of God’s cruelty and injustice. Right from the start, he creates the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (which he created because he created all things) together with the serpent which, in his omniscience, he knows will tempt Eve. As a result of the fall, which he thus engineers and of which he already knows the outcome, he proceeds to condemn all of us for our "original sin", and this according to Christianity can only be overcome through baptism and loyalty to Jesus. "He that believeth on him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18). At a stroke, then, John's Christian God condemns not only the non-believers, but also the unbaptised - every Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. that ever lived, not to mention those poor unfortunate souls that have never heard of Jesus or were unlucky enough to be alive BC ("And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man" (John 3: 13)). Can any of us truly believe in, let alone condone such unfairness?

The answer is yes. Jehovah's Witnesses even assert that the number of souls saved will be limited to 144,000: "And I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps….and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth." It's not clear if the harpers harping with their harps were among the chosen few, but even if we add them to the 144,000, it still seems grossly unfair that all the good folk of the Old Testament, not to mention those of other cultures, should be condemned.

But the tone, as we have seen, was set right from the start. Consider the tale of Cain and Abel: “Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord. And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of the flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect.” Why? It would seem that the Lord was happy to see innocent, pain-sensitive lambs slaughtered in his name, but didn’t much fancy the vegetarian diet.

Noah's flood is such a sweet tale of good old Noah and the two-by-two menagerie that we conveniently forget how the Lord deliberately destroyed every man, woman, child and unborn child (not to mention the animals) on Earth. The harrowing scenes that we now see on our TV, when tsunamis and hurricanes smash cities and drown their inhabitants, would have been nothing compared to the destruction the angry Lord deliberately wreaked on Noah's contemporaries.

Of all the books in the Old Testament, that of Job comes closest to challenging the idea of God's beneficence. Even the Lord describes him as "a perfect and an upright man", and yet he deliberately destroys this good man's family, home and property. Initially, Job accepts his fate, but eventually the agony is too great, and he rails against the injustice of it all in some of the finest poetry to be found in the biblical history of human suffering:

"Thou knowest that I am not wicked…Thine hands have made me and fashioned me round about; yet thou dost destroy me. Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay; and wilt thou bring me into dust again? Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?" Eventually, after much debate with his friends, Job gets his answer from God himself, and what an answer it is: a long list of all God's achievements and mighty powers. "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" he asks. "Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? Canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee? Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go, and say unto thee, Here we are?" The Lord's basic response to Job's criticism of his divine cruelty and injustice is to boast of his powers and to belittle his suffering victim. Sadly, though not surprisingly, the perfect and upright man is cowed, and meekly gives in: "I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee…Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." And God rewards him with thousands of sheep and camels, seven sons, and three amazingly good-looking daughters.

The New Testament, as we have seen, culminates in bloody execution, with the Lord allowing his "only begotten son" to die an excruciatingly painful death in order to "redeem" mankind for the original sin that God himself had engineered at the start of the story. This redemption will be granted if we believe in Jesus, but won't if we don't, so what exactly was the point of the execution in the first place? We could profess our love of Jesus, and obey his commandments, even if he'd died of old age. No wonder he cried out in despair at God's forsaking him.

The list of the Lord’s cruelties and injustices is endless, and yet the Jewish, Christian and Islamic God is praised for his infinite goodness. So what is the truthseeker to make of all this? As someone brought up in the western tradition, I read these tales and cannot equate the God of the Bible with the God of these religions. The written "evidence" that we are urged to study provides no comforting answer to the burning questions of how evil originated or of why the designer inflicts such arbitrary pain on his creations, even when they are upright (Job) or innocent (every babe slaughtered in God's indiscriminate catastrophes). The very fact that the established religions insist on finding excuses, or on blaming us all for Eve's blunder, makes me doubt their overall claims to veracity. Even if I were to accept St Thomas Aquinas's explanation of evil as man's abuse of free will, necessary for doing good, or Leibniz's view of it as the necessary contrast to highlight the goodness of goodness in this the best of all possible worlds, it still won't separate God from the origin of evil, and it still won't excuse his cruelty, as opposed to man's. Besides, if this really is the best of all possible worlds, why should we be blamed for evil, and what does it tell us about paradise?

Let us not, however, equate religion with God. Maybe, as we discussed in the section on "origins", the tales are true and the interpretation is false. After all, the Flood is an event common to many histories and cultures: it is part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, recounted in a text from the library of Ashurbanipal of Nineveh (who reigned 668-627 BC), and even earlier is the myth of Ziusudra, the Sumerian Noah. The Chinese ruler Yü conquered the Great Flood, and the Aztecs, Incas and Maya all had their equivalent of the tale. Events are recounted, passed down from generation to generation, eventually written down by someone - generally long after the event itself - and lo and behold, we have a myth that might once have been a history. The borderline between truth and fiction becomes impossibly blurred, each telling is fashioned by the teller, and if he or she believes in God, then of course God is assigned his major role. The reader of the story must draw his own conclusions. In the case of the flood, which indiscriminately destroyed both humans and animals, one is left with the same choice as usual: accident or design? And if it was by design, then maybe the designer is indeed cruel and unjust. So why pretend otherwise?

What we have here is an extraordinary capacity to dismiss or ignore contrary evidence. It is precisely the same head-in-the-sand tactic that marks the atheist’s insistence on the inventive genius of unconscious matter. Another analogy might be the child who closes his eyes in order not to be seen. Why do we do this? Perhaps it all goes back to survival instincts, and is our means of coping with fear.

That we all have to die is the only certainty we have, and so it is amazing that we do not spend every minute of the waking day trembling with terror. But we shut death out most of the time. We get on with living. If we didn’t, we would soon become gibbering wrecks. Shutting out unpleasant truths is part of our mechanism for survival. Another of those mechanisms is to talk ourselves into believing what we want to believe. Politicians are particularly adept at this: when they have made a mistake, or have told lies, they will seize on any half-truth, any glimmer of justification that will rescue their image, not only in the eyes of others but also in their own, because very few people are able to live with the knowledge that they have been wrong or are perceived to have been wrong. Not even scientists are immune from the process of self-delusion. History is filled with cases of scientists who have falsified evidence, or have ignored and even suppressed evidence that goes against their findings.

Why would an atheist ignore the evidence for design? Perhaps for the same reason as a theologian will ignore the evidence for a less than benign god. We do not like the idea of being watched, and we do not like the idea of someone having total power over us. Worst of all is not only to be watched by and subject to someone with total power, but also to know that the someone is or may be ill-disposed towards us. Besides, even if the someone were benevolent, he would still be in authority, and he would lay down laws and make us feel obliged to obey. Freedom from such authority is an attractive proposition. Given the choice between that and serving an obscure but distinctly threatening power, most people would, I suspect, choose freedom. That freedom is guaranteed by atheism.

On the other hand, to be alone in the universe, to have no prospect of help from above, to contemplate one’s own oblivion – these are equally daunting prospects. So we embrace the concept of the deity. Especially in poorer societies, the divine creator is often integral to the hope for a better future. But hope and comfort will not be nourished by the concept of a cruel or arbitrarily partial designer, any more than they would be under the rule of a cruel or arbitrarily partial human dictator, and so we cherish the concept of the just and loving god. If the not so loving god is evoked, it is in the context of punishment – be good or else the bogeyman will get you.

For an agnostic, all things theoretically are possible, though all seem equally impossible, but fear should not come into the equation. The criterion should be truth. And since we do not have an undisputed truth, we ought to remain open-minded. Should I then have taken seriously the belief of the pre-war Japanese that their Mikado was descended directly from the sun-goddess Amaterasu Omikami and was therefore sacred and inviolable (a faith rudely shattered by their defeat in 1945)? Should I believe with the Ngoni people of East Africa that if they pour beer into a pot, pray to their rain-god, drink the rest of the beer, and then do a song and dance, the rains will come? When I watch a Western, and see the North American Indians in their war paint, leaping round their totem poles singing songs I do not understand, should I accept that their link with the designer is just as feasible as any other? The answer has to be yes. If I am expected to take seriously the Catholic claim that the Pope derives his authority directly from Jesus, and is therefore infallible, and if I am expected to take seriously the genuflecting before a statue flecked with red paint, the splashing of "holy" water on the forehead, the consumption of "consecrated" bread and wine, the counting of beads, the mumbling of verses and archaic formulae, the gaudy costumes, the miraculous narratives, then of course I must take their non- European counterparts seriously, for there is absolutely no difference between them. Either they are equally valid, or they are equally absurd, depending on whether or not there is a designer who is paying attention.

This, of course, we do not know. In its way, the very fact of our ignorance is comforting. Let us by all means continue the search – indeed it is our nature to do so – but let us ask our questions with calm acceptance of our ignorance, and with the impartiality that ought to be the hallmark of science. People spend vast amounts of time predicting the future: weather forecasts, football pools, opinion polls…but the future will come anyway, and our predictions have no value beside the actual happening. Very well, then, let us enjoy the present, and when/if the truth is revealed to us in due course, we shall know it. If it is not, we shan’t. There may be exciting times ahead, or there may be nothing, but either way, we shall be no worse off than we are now.

As far as religion itself is concerned, and its impact on human society, let us give it due credit for bringing consolation to those in need of relief, for providing moral and ethical guidance where its laws are not oppressive, for its charitable works, and for offering us a possible explanation of life's deepest mysteries. On the other hand, let us not ignore the evils committed in its name and, in many cases, by its instigation, and let us not be misled by its inconsistencies and its cover-ups. As with everything else in the accidental fabric or the deliberate design, religion is a mixture of good and bad.

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13. Art

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