(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003)
[Copyright © 2003 by S. T. Joshi. Reprinted by permission.]
Either there is one god, multiple gods, or none. Either there is such a thing called the human soul or there isn't, and, if there is, it either can or cannot survive the death of the body. Either Jesus Christ, if he existed, was the son of God or he wasn't. Either Mohammed, if he existed, was God's prophet or he wasn't.
That the essential doctrines of many of the world's major religions--especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--are matters of truth or falsity is itself a fact around which no amount of sophistry or special pleading can get. Unfortunately for them, evidence has been steadily accumulating for at least the last half-millennium to suggest that these doctrines are false. What has saved religions from completely collapsing of their own absurdity is, of course, the difficulty--indeed, the impossibility--of definitively determining the truth or falsity of these doctrines; it allows the pious to maintain, as a slim and ever-decreasing hope, that the tenets of their religion might somehow still be true, or at least not clearly false. No amount of negative evidence can ever conclusively put any given religious dogma out of court (aside from those that can be shown to be self-inconsistent), because there will always remain the remote possibility that they are true. The notion that truth or falsity is somehow not involved in the analysis of religious doctrine--a view fostered not only by many modern theologians but by some recent philosophers of language who maintain that religious principles are merely "language games" that do not commit their exponents to any truth-claims--has now, I trust, been shown to be a dodge and an evasion. The great majority of the faithful would certainly be astounded and offended if someone were to tell them that, when they say "God created the universe," they are merely expressing some kind of "attitude of piety" rather than making an assertion about the nature of entity.
What the religious ignore in all this, of course, are two basic facts: (1) although no "truth" about the empirical world is other than provisional--and, in theory, falsifiable--or based upon anything but statistical probabilities, certain propositions are, nevertheless, far more likely to be "true" than others; and (2) the advance of knowledge over the past five hundred years has demonstrated with as near an approach to certainty as it may be possible to get that every single religious doctrine ever propounded is not only overwhelmingly improbable and implausible, but entirely at variance with all other "truths" that have subsequently been ascertained.
I do not have the space here to write a full-scale history of this advance of knowledge, but some notes may be in order. Since Copernicus, natural science had been making startling strides in the explication of terrestrial and cosmic phenomena; and Darwin's Origin of Species destroyed one of the last remaining intellectual props of religion--the "argument from design," or the notion that all things in the universe were benevolently designed by God for the advantage of the human race (an argument, however, that David Hume had already shattered on logical grounds a century earlier). All these discoveries meant more than merely the collecting of isolated facts; as John William Draper stressed in his pioneering and still valuable History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874), what was at stake was two differing world views, the religious and the scientific (or secular). The former maintained--on no evidence but that of the various sacred texts of the world, all of which differed in significant particulars--that all phenomena were caused, at least in an ultimate sense, by God. The latter established by the immense accumulation of evidence that the postulation of a god was unnecessary to the explanation of visible phenomena. In other words, the advance of human knowledge represented the definitive replacement of supernatural by natural causation. To be sure, the nineteenth-century scientists may have been a bit cocksure about the extent to which human knowledge could extend; but they were sound in their fundamental attitude. Even if all phenomena could not be (and perhaps never will be) explained, the presumption of a natural explanation of these phenomena ought to be paramount. The inveterate human tendency to leap to the supernatural when faced with some inexplicable occurrence should be restrained. A god or gods might still conceivably exist, but one could not be postulated to explain the existence of any object or event within the radius of human knowledge. God had become supernumerary.
But in some ways more important than the advances in natural sciences were discoveries in history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology: these sciences made it eminently clear that religious belief was an entirely natural product of primitive humanity's bewilderment in the face of natural phenomena whose causation it did not understand. Here again Hume was a pioneer, with his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), although the work was carried forward by such monumental works as Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) and Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1915). Whatever else religion may be, it was preeminently a means of explaining (and, secondarily, controlling) the natural world to a human species that could not account for it otherwise.  This religious sensibility, it was discovered, far antedated the establishment of organized religions in human history; indeed, the latter were, in their various ways, mere condensations and systematizations of the former, and it was seen that these religious were perpetuated not through the accumulation of additional evidence that validated their tenets, but through the systematic indoctrination of peoples into religious dogma from infancy onward, generation after generation. It was this natural accounting for the origin and continuance of religious belief that shattered another favorite "proof" of theism--that religion must be true because the great majority of human beings believe it to be. Long before the advent of democracy as a political system, the notion of determining truth by majority vote--what I call the democratic fallacy--was a well-established principle of religious orthodoxy.
The dominent question thus becomes, not why religion has not died away, but why it continues to persist in the face of monumental evidence to the contrary. To my mind, the answer can be summed up in one straightforward sentence: People are stupid.
The fundamental fact of human history is that people in the mass are irremediably ignorant. Even a cursory examination of such phenomena as network television, politicians, astrology, best-selling novels, the Weekly World News, psychic hotlines, horoscopes, alien abduction theories, professional wrestling, and fashion magazines prove the point with overwhelming emphasis. The great majority of genuinely intelligent thinkers in human history have endorsed the notion.
Consider John Stuart Mill: ". . . on any matter not self-evident there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative . . ." 
Consider H. L. Mencken: ". . . independent thought, to a good many men, is quite impossible, and to the overwhelming majority of men, extremely painful." 
Consider Bertrand Russell: ". . . nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational." 
Perhaps the most pungent, and most relevant in this context, is from George Santayana, in a letter to Bertrand Russell: "People are not intelligent. It is very unreasonable to expect them to be so, and that is a fate my philosophy reconciled me to long ago. How else could I have lived for forty years in America?" 
Lest I be accused of making exactly the kind of "appeal to authority" that, elsewhere in this book, I accuse others of making, let me state that I cite these remarks--which could be multiplied so as to fill this entire volume--only as illustrations. In our age of democratic tyranny it has become, at the very least, tactless to point out the stupidity of the common people, but the evidence does not seem to admit of any other conclusion.
It may also be objected that I am putting forth an excessively simple--even simple-minded--account of the persistence of religious belief. Stupidity is, however, a phenomenon of wondrous, ineffable complexity, and its effects and ramifications are well-nigh infinite. One of the leading scholars on this crucial subject, Walter B. Pitkin, wrote as follows in his seminal treatise, A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1932):
Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity, and in such a manner that the abilities shine before all the world while the stupid trait lurks in deep shadow and is discerned only by intimates or by prying newspaper reporters. 
Certain other clarifications are necessary. When I declare that religion is so widespread because people in the mass are stupid, I assert that they lack the information needed to make a well-informed evaluation of the truth-claims of religion. Such an evaluation requires at least a surface knowledge of physics, biology, chemistry, geology, history (particularly the history of religions), psychology, anthropology, and philosophy (or, more generally, the ability to fashion reasoned arguments or to detect fallacious arguments). It is plain that the great majority of people can claim knowledge in no more than one or two of these disciplines, and most lack knowledge of them all. Indeed, so far as I can tell, only a single individual in the entire twentieth century did possess a passing acquaintance with all these fields: Bertrand Russell, whose anti-religious views are too well known for citation.
I will go further and state that, even if the mass of people had the concrete information (in science and philosophy) required for an assessment of the truth-claims of religion, they would be unable to process it; their brains simply cannot digest this kind of information. Even those who are intelligent or accomplished in other fields--authors, artists, composers, even some scientists and philosophers--are insufficiently acquainted with the many other intellectual disciplines relevant to the issue. Some scientists who have a prodigious expertise in one field of scientific inquiry frequently lack even the rudiments of knowledge in others--which is why so many physicists, for example, have lapsed into religious mysticism when approaching the edges of their subject. Knowledge is very inequitably divided--not only in the people at large, but in any given individual. I will happily maintain that all the thinkers whom I berate so lustily in this book were or are intelligent or accomplished in various ways--C. S. Lewis as a literary critic, William F. Buckley as a political commentator, Reynolds Price as a novelist--but not one of them had the all-encompassing knowledge in fields that are vital to gauging the truth or falsity of religion.
What has clearly happened, in the case of many otherwise intelligent persons, is that childhood crippling of their brains and emotions in favor of some dogmatic religion has for all practical purposes made their theistic views impervious to logical analysis. It is an area they simply will not investigate objectively or impartially, because it has become so deeply fused with their entire self-image that it is beyond their psychological powers to question it. My own view is that this infantile brainwashing is one of the great crimes against humanity--and it has been practiced for countless millennia (well before the advent of organized religion) and continues to be practiced to this day. Religious leaders would no doubt react with horror at the recommendation that children actually be allowed to make up their own minds about the adoption of a given religion, or any religion at all, until they are intellectually and emotionally ready to do so, without the prejudicial influence of parents, clerics, and the society at large. (No exception need be made for communist societies, for in such societies the people are brainwashed into atheism just as vigorously--and perniciously--as peoples in other societies are brainwashed into theism.) H. P. Lovecraft laid the matter bare long ago:
We all know that any emotional bias--irrespective of truth or falsity--can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value regarding the real "is-or-isn'tness" of things. Only the exceptional individual reared in the nineteenth century or before has any chance of holding any genuine opinion of value regarding the universe--except by a slow and painful process of courageous disillusionment. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honorable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction. 
The great majority of the world's governments have found it politically advantageous to support religion as a means of keeping the populace suitably docile, so no help is likely to come from them. Indeed, the pervasiveness of religiosity in virtually every society ever known to exist is overwhelming, and difficult for all but the most intellectually and psychologically fortified to resist.
Interestingly enough, religious leaders have grudgingly acknowledged some of the views I have just outlined. Guenter Lewy, a writer who could hardly be accused of being unsympathetic to religion, has forthrightly expounded the role of education as a determinant in religious belief:
Over the last fifty years, the number of Americans who graduate from high school and go on to college has increased sharply, and this fact, too, has ramifications for the role of religion in American society. On the whole, it appears, religious commitment decreases as the educational level increases. For example, . . . those with more education consider religion to have less importance in their lives, while those with less education place more importance on religion.
There are other areas in which increased education correlates with decreased religious activity or belief:
- 40 per cent of those who did not graduate from high school read the Bible at least once a week; only 28 percent of those with education beyond high school do so.
- 45 percent of those who did not graduate from high school see the Bible as the literal word of God; only 11 percent of college graduates hold this view.
- 90 percent of those with a high-school degree or less believe that Jesus is God or the son of God; only 66 percent of college graduates hold this belief.
- 40 percent of those who did not graduate from high school describe themselves as born-again Christians; only 22 percent of college graduates so describe themselves.
After these and other data are brought forth, Lewy's contention that a correlation between intelligence and religious belief is merely a sign of "intellectual arrogance"  is not likely to disturb the atheist's equanimity.
The standard "proofs" for the existence of God--arguments that held sway throughout the medieval period and well into the nineteenth century--have all been destroyed, and are now discarded even by most theologians. Most of these "proofs" can be refuted in approximately thirty seconds. Consider the most popular of them:
The First Cause. This is the idea that, since every event is assumed to have an antecedent cause, there must have been a First Cause (i.e., God), or a cause that did not itself have an antecedent cause, to get the whole show moving. This argument is subject to numerous philosophical and scientific objections. Firstly, there is no reason to postulate a single First Cause; given the multiplicity of phenomena throughout the universe, there is no logical reason for assuming that there could not be two, three, or many First Causes. Indeed, it is logically possible that every event in the universe could have had its own First Cause. In any event, the Big Bang theory seems to be exactly what the medieval First Cause was thought to have been. It could always be asserted that God himself caused the Big Bang, but God's existence must be established independently before one can assume that he triggered the Big Bang.
The "Consensus of Mankind." The fact that the overwhelming majority of individuals throughout human history, in widely different cultures, have believed in God was once thought to be a decisive argument in favor of theism. The argument is much weaker now, given the widespread prevalence of atheism and agnosticism among the intelligent classes of many societies. Piety is still strong in the United States, with polls showing anywhere between 92% to 97% of the public attesting belief in God; but that still leaves 3% to 8% who do not believe (or anywhere from 8 million to 22 million unbelievers); and it would be begging the question--or, at any rate, extremely implausible--to assert that all these individuals are either depraved or insane, as religious thinkers used to maintain when faced with the existence of infidelity. In any event, as I have suggested, psychology and anthropology have demonstrated that religious belief is chiefly fostered by fear (fear of the unknown, fear of death), hope (the flip side of fear--hope that God will somehow iron out the massive inequities of human life, usually in the next world where disproof is impossible), and the systematic indoctrination of children into a given religious dogma at a time before they have the intelligence and strength of character to resist the commands of parents or other authority figures. And comparative religion has shown that conceptions of godhead differ so widely from culture to culture--even from individual to individual within a given culture--that it becomes preposterous to assume that all these people are believing in the same or even an approximately similar god.
The Argument from Design. This argument remained popular much longer than the others, because the scientific evidence overturning it did not emerge until a relatively late date. This argument contends that the earth (there is little thought given to the rest of the universe), and everything in it, is so well designed for the continuance of life--hands designed for grasping objects, eyes designed for seeing, noses designed for smelling, etc.--that it must have been the conscious work of a god. Even if this argument is not extended to the absurdity of assuming that all things on the earth are specifically designed for the benefit of human beings, it is very weak. The very notion of "design" may be a purely human conception, and probably any kind of "design" exhibited by phenomena would have been sufficient to convince the pious of a beneficent deity. Moreover, there is the plain fact that many things do not seem well designed: if the divine purpose of existence is the fostering of life, then the exact function of diseases, earthquakes, typhoons, and other such embarrassments is, to put it mildly, problematical. But the theory of evolution definitively shattered this argument.
The Argument from Feelings. This argument also remained popular long after the others had fallen by the wayside, as the work of William James attests. This assumes that the profound feelings that many people have of some divine force or entity in the universe constitute evidence that there actually is such a force or entity. This argument is also very poor. Once again it can be demonstrated that, in the great majority of cases, these "feelings" are the result of prior religious indoctrination. The assumption that those who do not have such feelings are corrupt or insensible to perceptions of deity is, like the assumptions in regard to infidelity in the "consensus of mankind" argument, both question-begging and insulting. The fact that certain people are entirely convinced, from their "feelings," that they are Napoleon or Julius Caesar is sufficient to refute this argument; to assume that these individuals are simply "insane" whereas the pious are sane is again to beg the question.
The Moral Argument. This assumes that religious belief is necessary to good morals (i.e., to socially acceptable behavior), and that people will "run amok" if they are not restrained by belief in a powerful deity who will punish moral derelictions. This argument is probably the weakest of all, for it does not even seek to prove that a god exists, but merely that it is socially beneficial for the people to believe in a god--and specifically the kind of god who will punish malefactors. The argument is simply refuted by elementary observations of history, which establish (1) that non-religious people have behaved in a moral way (thereby destroying the belief that religion is necessary to good morals), (2) that religious people have frequently behaved in non-moral ways (thereby establishing--as many social scientists have demonstrated in study after study--that religion has a minimal role in moral behavior), and (3) that many of the moral precepts actually propounded by most religions, being largely the products of barbarism, are unsuited for a civilized society (e.g., condoning of slavery, denigration of women, killing of heretics and witches, severe punishments for violations of religious ritual, absurd restrictions on sexual behavior, unquestioning acceptance of "divine" political authority, etc.).
A vague notion has developed that it is bad form to criticize someone's religion, and by extension religion in general. To be sure, those well-informed in history can only look with bemused horror at how the devotees of one religion, for hundreds or thousands of years, persecuted the devotees of other religions, or even "heretics" within their own religion; and it certainly does seem absurd nowadays to engage in this kind of disputation, especially given that one religion is no more likely to be true than another. We are in an age of "toleration" and ecumenicalism--a somewhat paradoxical development, at least in the West, given that the scriptures of each of the major religions of Europe and the Middle East (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) clearly and unequivocally declares that it and it alone possesses the truth about God and the universe. But surely it is still a valid procedure to assess the truth-claims of any given religion or all religions, and to determine whether their scriptures do or do not provide accurate information about human beings, human society, or the universe at large. Religions themselves have craftily put forth this hands-off principle precisely in order to shield themselves from scrutiny by pestiferous critics. Listen again to H. L. Mencken:
. . . even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. . . .
The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us. 
In some senses it appears that religious belief is now regarded as somehow equivalent to racial identity, so that it becomes a kind of "religious racism" for anyone outside of a given religion to criticize it. The history of actual race prejudice is certainly such that one would do almost anything to avoid repeating its errors and injustices. But even the most cursory examination of this analogy of religion to race shows it to be fatally flawed. Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that there are such things as clear and distinct races--a highly problematical assertion in itself--one can surely not plausibly maintain that one is "born" with a specific religious outlook as one is presumably born into a given racial or ethnic group. There are not many today who will follow Jung in believing that the human race has some sort of inborn predisposition to seek a higher power; religion--and, a fortiori, any given religious dogma--is so clearly inbred by socialization that the analogy breaks down at once. One cannot change one's race, but many people have changed their religion, or gone from being religious to being irreligious or from being irreligious to being religious. There is no intellectual factor involved in one's race (that is, one does not choose to belong to a given race by a conscious intellectual decision), whereas there are numerous intellectual factors involved in the choice of one's religion.
Still less plausible is it to assert that religion is a kind of preference--a matter of taste for which there are no grounds for disputation. Indeed, even if such an analogy were true, it would be far more harmful to religion than otherwise. One can surely not dispute over genuine matters of taste--say, my preference for chocolate ice cream over your preference for vanilla ice cream--but it is plainly evident that religion is not one of these matters. If it were, the depth and bitterness of the arguments that have gone on over the centuries would be incomprehensible. Even more importantly, the notion that one's religion is merely a preference would shatter the truth-claims that every religion seeks to make. Surely it cannot be declared that my preference for chocolate ice cream is "truer" than your preference for vanilla ice cream: truth--in the sense of an accurate conception of the nature of the universe--does not enter into this matter. But every religion wishes to claim (although, because of the "toleration" specified above, it now does so in a rather muted way) that it is indeed "truer" than every other religion, and certainly truer than irreligion. This notion of religion as a preference is merely another way in which religions seek to protect themselves from intellectual examination of their doctrines and dogmas.
[For the rest of the introduction, please consult the published volume.]
1. "Religion as such . . . is primarily a recognition of a sacred order of reality which transcends the ordinary and commonplace and is responsive to human needs. To enable man to gain some measure of control over the unpredictable and inexplicable elements in his everyday experience, a technique has been devised with which certain beliefs have become associated, to establish an efficacious relationship with the sacred." E. O. James, Comparative Religion (London: Methuen, 1938, rev. 1961), p. 39. "Recognition" is a bit problematical here, since it begs the question by assuming that there is a "sacred order of reality," which is the very point at issue; but no doubt Professor of James (D.Litt., Ph.D., F.S.A., Hon.D.D., Professor Emeritus of the History and Philosophy of Religion at the University of London) was a pious fellow. A remark by James's contemporary, the religious scholar E. O. Kellett, seems to me more pertinent: ". . . while not every philosophy is a religion, every religion is a philosophy. Religion, to be worth anything, must cast out fears, allay bewilderment, solve perplexities: and this cannot be done without the formation of theories, that is, without philosophizing." E. O. Kellett, A Short History of Religions (1933; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 12.
2. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 79.
3. H. L. Mencken, "The Genealogy of Etiquette," Smart Set 47, No. 1 (September 1915): 309.
4. Bertrand Russell, "Is There a God?" (1952), in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (London: Routledge, 1997), Vol. 11, p. 548.
5. George Santayana, letter to Bertrand Russell (c. December 1917), The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), Vol. 1, p. 57.
6. Walter B. Pitkin, A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1932), p. 6.
7. H. P. Lovecraft, Letter to Maurice W. Moe (August 3, 1931), Selected Letters 1929-1931, ed. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1971), pp. 390-91.
8. Guenter Lewy, Why America Needs Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 77-78, 82.
9. H. L. Mencken, "Aftermath," Baltimore Evening Sun (September 14, 1925): 1.