Belief in the supernatural has taken various forms, such as animism, shamanism, spiritualism and theism. Monotheism emerged very recently in our history, perhaps within the last three thousand years. And it has usually been compatible with belief in other supernatural things such as souls, ghosts, devils, djinn and angels.
The super-natural is supposedly above or over nature. Our ancestors were subservient to imaginary supernatural powers, or at least lived in fear of them. To worship was to praise the superior worth of our gods. And words such as lord, majesty, king and queen had both secular and supernatural uses. Unsurprisingly, absolute divine power and the supernatural hierarchy mirrored and so endorsed secular power.
The word supernatural identifies the supernatural solely in relation to the natural. The supernatural, supposedly, is whatever nature is not. But this does not define anything. So it can mean anything we choose. And within anthropomorphic limits, our ancestors were highly creative.
They invented a vast number of supernatural agents with all-too-human concerns and, unsurprisingly, a peculiar interest in human affairs. An example is the idea of a personal god with human motives and emotions such as love, jealousy and anger – a projection made in our own image. A familiar example is the god of the Abrahamic faiths.
One way to free ourselves from the delusions of any one form of supernaturalism is to recognise the huge historical diversity of beliefs in the supernatural, along with the obviously human interests they all served and serve.
If a cult hero walked on water, it was a miracle and a sign of divinity or divine favour. If an old woman walked on water, it was magic and meant she was a witch fit for burning. Miracles were merely respectable magic, and our ancestors were accustomed to magical thinking. But though we know better now, some religions still peddle magical beliefs.
The purpose of miracle stories is to provide evidence for a supernatural intervention in nature, and therefore of a supernatural agent. And since miracles supposedly provide physical evidence for claims about the supernatural, the idea that we need faith to believe in them is self-defeating. Evidence is required, and there has been none.
A miracle claim is a factual assertion: this event occurred. To prove the claim means to test it against the evidence for the event. Eyewitness testimony that the event occurred is another factual assertion we have to test by asking how likely it is to be true. And the answer depends partly on the claim.
A miracle would overturn the laws of physics, so the claim to have witnessed one would normally indicate deception, or perceptual or mental disorder, rather than qualifying as valid evidence. This does not decisively refute an eyewitness account of a miracle, but it does mean that better physical and historical evidence is needed.
Some religious leaders acknowledge this when they claim that proximity to the remains of a dead holy person, or at least prayer to the dead person’s soul, leads to the otherwise inexplicable cure of a disease. They then declare the cure a miracle, and the dead person a saint. Independent investigation is unwelcome. Saints are good business.
There are two ways of thinking about natural events we do not understand:
1 We do not have a natural explanation yet, so keep looking.
2 We do not have a natural explanation yet, so stop looking, because there cannot be one, and it must be a miracle.
The first way leads to ever widening and deepening knowledge. The second explains nothing and keeps us trapped in superstitious ignorance.
One ingenious attempt to defend miracles is the claim that, rather than overturning the laws of physics, a god works alongside natural processes to nudge them in a certain direction. But the purpose of this sophistry is to justify evasion of the need for objective justification. To assert the supernatural, while trying to keep your self-respect, is to have to invent an explanation that will support what you already believe to be true.
Uniquely, the supposed miracle of transubstantiation requires no evidence. The claim is that the bread and wine in the ritual of the mass turn into the body and blood of Jesus. It is called a sacred mystery, yet people claim to know what happens. Irrational beliefs ensnare us in such contradictions.
The history of this invisible magic trick, and the theological contortions needed to explain and justify it, are a case study in the intellectual ingenuity required to sustain a delusion. But what it boils down to is: the substance (the reality) of the bread and wine changes into the body and blood. The species (sensible properties) remain unchanged.
So it is magic for which, by definition, there can be no evidence: the ideal miracle, on demand. And because this magic is one source of power over the credulous, the perpetrators had to accommodate the overthrow of the medieval physics that made the trick even remotely credible. About how they did this I know little and care even less.
Aware of the absurdity of miracle claims with no evidence, many intelligent believers, including theologians and religious leaders, prevaricate and temporise. Perhaps miracles have been so important in establishing and justifying religions that they cannot come clean. Sophisticated hypocrisy seems unavoidable.
A miracle story is a myth. And it has been argued that a myth can be described as an occurrence that in some sense happened once but which also happens all the time. But in what sense did Jesus come back from the dead? In what sense did a god inspire the words written in the scriptures? We have no reason to believe these miracles happened once in any sense. And to say they happen all the time is nonsense.
And in this case the consequences of intellectual dishonesty are not trivial. People are still killing, dying and persecuting each other because of the fictions they have been taught are factual truths. Their leaders and teachers either do or should know better.
The myth of the soul is easy to explain. When an animal dies, the breath of life seems to leave it, with just the material body remaining. So our ancestors thought we are made of two different things: body and soul or spirit, and that at death the soul goes somewhere. Early on, many animals were thought to have a spirit that survives death.
With the evolution of human consciousness, our understanding of past and future and our individual death, it was consoling to imagine our loved ones continuing in the spirit world or heaven, where we would see them again and be with them for ever.
The soul supposedly goes to another place, or is reborn here in another body. Either way, the idea of individual reward or punishment after death may have been a later change reflecting the need for order in settled communities – part of the emerging role of religions as means of social and political control, which they remain today.
There is no evidence that each of us has an immaterial soul; that we were ensouled in the womb at or after our conception; that we consist of two substances, a mortal body and an immortal soul; and that our soul survives our death and enters another body or exists in bliss or misery for eternity. But this fiction has caused untold personal and social harm.
That there are no devils, angels or gods has obviously never mattered. Our ancestors invented them anyway and made up what they want. These fictions justified what they were doing, or wanted to do. The beauty of fictional bosses is that they say the words we put in their mouths, and they will never turn up to blow the whistle.
But because it is personal, the myth of the soul is morally corrupting. If each of us has an immortal soul, its fate matters more than whatever happens to our own or other people’s bodies. For example, when we burn witches or torture heretics, we are doing them a favour if their souls are saved from perdition. Sadists of the world, rejoice.
The threat of the soul’s punishment after death for an inherited sinful nature, or for failure to choose correctly in the lottery of salvation offers, is morally disgusting and robs moral choice of any significance. And without a threat of some kind, the promise of reward is redundant.
Many who have otherwise freed themselves from religious superstition still talk about, and have a lingering fascination for, the soul or the spirit. And religious suicide bombers act directly in consequence of the falsehood they have been taught.
The idea of causation is fundamental to objectivity, to our scientific understanding of physical regularity in the universe, and to our everyday understanding of such things as matter, temperature and gravity. If needed, our explanations are causal.
We explain causation using the words cause and effect. Causes and effects are situations or events. By definition, every cause is the cause of an effect, and every effect is the effect of a cause. But every cause is also the effect of a previous cause, and so on in a causal chain.
For this reason, some believers have used the idea of causation as evidence for a creator god: if the universe had a beginning, the chain of physical causation had to have a non-physical (supernatural) cause, and that is the one transcendent god of monotheism. This used to be thought a convincing argument. But it is a fallacy.
For a cause to be a cause, it has to explain the effect it causes. But a cause can explain an effect only if there is evidence of the relationship between them. We have to be able to see how the cause causes the effect, or we have no reason to believe it does. And there is no evidence for the way a supposed supernatural cause has produced, or even could produce, a natural effect.
As there is no evidence for a god, there is no reason to believe the god created the universe and sustains it through a mysterious agency called the holy spirit. Supernatural causation is magic by another name.
Belief in the supernatural cannot rationally be exclusive. To believe without evidence in one supernatural thing or event is to have no grounds for denying any other supernatural thing or event. Given belief in a god, denial that there are fairies, devils, other gods, and so on, has no rational basis. The denial would be as irrational as the belief.
It is irrational to believe the supernatural claims of one religion or crackpot cult while denying those of every other. And a religion is merely a respectable cult. But then to accept all supernatural claims is to deny the exclusive truth of the supernatural claims of any one religion.
The amount of evidence for the revelations to the fictional Moses, Paul and the gospel writers, Mohammed, Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses), L Ron Hubbard (Scientology), and so on, is identical: zero. So to believe one is true and the others false is irrational. There is no way out.
Monotheists have a particular problem. If there is only one god, there are two possibilities.
Either one of the monotheistic gods – perhaps Yahweh or Allah – exists, and the others are fake. But then, there is no way to know which is which. And in practice, such belief has always been communal. The charge of idolatry means: your god is false, which we know because our god is real – absurd and irrational arrogance, often with disastrously divisive consequences.
Or the monotheistic faiths have different names for, and beliefs about, the same god. But this means the one god has allowed us to tell inconsistent stories about it, and to persecute and kill each other over different versions of its revelation. The psychopath does not exist, so we invented it to justify our wickedness.
This is one among several reasons for rejecting belief in the one god. But in defence, some monotheists claim that the various names our ancestors have given to the gods, their various attributes and personalities, and the many stories told about them – all of this diversity shows that we should understand ancient religion as symbolic and mythical. They say that to treat these myths as factual, and therefore ridiculous, is to make the same crude mistake as literalists do.
Their claim is that from our earliest times we have made up stories (myths) to help us understand the world, our place in it, and our own death – but that behind them all has been a persistent, pervasive consciousness of a mysterious reality beyond the world and after life. This supposed transcendent thing is what we have called the Dao or the Brahman or Nirvana or God or Allah (the god), or the Other, or Ultimate Reality, and so on.
This god is supposed to be the ground of all being that is not itself a being, the non-existent cause of all existence, and other such meaningless descriptions. Each tribal, national and later trans-national god or pantheon has supposedly been merely symbolic of the mysterious and unknowable god, the one god of monotheism. Again, a sacred mystery that believers both cannot understand and can affirm with complete conviction. Rationality is out of the window, which is shut.
There is the same amount of evidence for the Dao, the Brahman, Nirvana, God or Allah as there is for any of the more pungent tribal gods: none whatsoever. Transcendent monotheism is as irrational as all other supernatural beliefs.
31 January 2017