To begin with, I am very much in agreement with Christopher Hitchens who said, "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence". No one has presented me with any convincing evidence for the existence of their gods, or especially the vague "something else", so I see no rational basis for believing as they believe. In the unlikely event someone provides me with any substantial evidence I will reconsider, but until then I will take the position of atheism.
As a philosopher I know that there is no way of disproving anything, including gods, exists, therefore technically one can only be an agnostic. I find the concept of gods and other supernatural beings is so unlikely, however, that to call myself anything other than an atheist would have believers thinking I am closer to their side of the debate than I am. It is a strange thing that an inaccurate term such as atheism expresses my reality better than the accurate one of agnosticism, but here we are.
As an atheist one would wonder why I bother writing anything on religion. Religion can't be ignored because it plays a large part in our society, whether we are unbelievers or not. Things which don't exist can be a real force in the world. They can influence our politics, our culture, the sense of meaning from which we decide how we will live. As annoying as I find it to expend mental energy on this topic when there are real problems in the world to focus on, the vast majority of people are believers; if we wish to change our world we must understand them and engage with their beliefs, or at least the underlying reasons for their beliefs.
Does God exist?
The question that seems quite pertinent to religious discussion and which I've often been asked is "Do you believe in God?".
I've already given my response to that, but regardless of our answer, the question itself reveals the cultural basis of our beliefs. Freed from a monotheistic frame of reference we might instead ask whether the gods exist, the mountains have spirits, or do dead ancestors control our lives? A person inquiring into the spiritual truths of the universe without cultural baggage might ask "Is it likely there are other intelligences in our world that exist beyond our everyday perception? If so could we possibly understand the nature of their existence and any interaction it might have with our own?". By asking whether the monotheistic "God" exists we show how far our thinking has already being steered towards an arbitrary and improbable conclusion. Our culture implanted this idea in our mind well before we were mature enough to think critically for ourselves.
This is how the society we are within can shackle us from independent thought. We choose from options presented to us rather than empirically thinking things through from first principles. Breaking those chains is an important step in self-understanding.
The cultural basis of religious belief is especially obvious in the way it has spread. The gods that choose to reveal themselves to people are invariably the unique gods their parents believed in.
Religions don't manifest themselves in different places unless there are social connections between those places. Where communication between groups of people ended, one eternal and unchanging religious truth ended and a different one began. Just like language and other stories, the faces of the gods and their commands are clearly cultural. If a particular religion was the central truth of existence we wouldn't expect it to be propagated, person to person, place to place. Instead, we'd expect it to be revealed as a trans-cultural truth, arising in different places regardless of geographical barriers around the world (or indeed the universe, the nature of which no religion ever revealed before modern science did). It is suspicious that a god that could walk on water found the sea an impassable barrier to spread his word until humans created ships capable of long sea voyages.
It would seem distance and geographical features shouldn't be such a barrier to all-powerful, omnipresent gods. This only makes clear sense if religions are stories people made up and then told each other.
Religions of peace
Historically the primary mechanism by which what we call "the great religions" have spread has been power, and more often than not the sword.
Only by the might of the Roman empire did Christianity become the religion of Europe and from there via colonialism go on to become the religion of much of Africa and the Americas. The armies of Islam swept all before them and converted the lands they conquered, where the religion they spread is practised still. The Emporer Ashoka converted to Buddhism and bade the rest of India to follow, from where it spread to surrounding countries. The re-emergence of Hinduism after Buddhism was helped along by the alignment of the Brahmin class with the ruling military elite.
Though religion has generally been found wanting as a civilizing force, it has been highly effective as a means of controlling people. The powerful have always used it as a tool to help maintain order. A state which fuses itself with religion can threaten people with punishment in this life and the next. It can not only tell people what they should do, but why they should do it.
Many followers of the major religions profess that they are religions of peace but this is almost to deny the history of humanity. During all the wars and conflict of human history, states conducting these wars were religious, with a few exceptions in more modern times. Whether religion caused all these wars or failed to stop them is a matter for discussion, but people massacring or oppressing others have always found solace and justification in their religious texts. Religion and nationalism have been used separately or together to goad people to kill and be killed, to mark out the "other" as an appropriate target for violence.
Religion may not be inherently violent, but it is extraordinarily useful for those in power who wish to commit violence. It offers a meaningful death and the comforting illusion of an eternal paradise for those who die with its words on their lips and in their minds.
When we look at many religious texts of the most popular religions, violence is fundamental to them. Peaceful people who have been captured by a religion try to deny this or explain it away, but the words are there for all to read. Even the religious pick and choose what they want to believe about their religions. Atheists do the same, but we give no special preference to one or the other religious texts, they must stand on their own merits as philosophy and moral guidance.
God of the gaps
You can have your gods or rationality, but you can't have both. Anyone who has used the term "faith" to justify their belief is openly acknowledging that fact.
"Science doesn't know everything" is a regular refrain from the religious. They believe our inability to understand the full complexity of the universe is evidence for the existence of their specific higher power. For example, science openly acknowledges that it can't explain everything, such as exactly how life began. This then means that science cannot disprove religious mythologies about how life began. Whilst this much is true, a rather large false logical step is then taken, that this inability to disprove religious conceptions of how life began is somehow evidence for those conceptions. This twists the logic. To repeat the truism that science can never know everything, doesn't mean we can conjecture anything into that unknown space beyond science and claim it has some reality. If that were the case then we would have to allow that any version of how life began could potentially be true. With the thousands of religions with their own theories, contradictory and hostile as they often are to each other, this simply isn't possible. Even if there weren't so many religions and theories of the creation of life, even if only one religion existed and had one theory, it would still be irrational to believe it without evidence other than that the religion says it.
Saying that Gods exist because we don't know something has been called the god of the gaps theory. As science narrows the gaps in its knowledge, religion recedes in its relevance to our lives.
People who didn't understand the solar system used to believe that the sun was a god and even today many believers in scientifically advanced countries hold that the gods live in the clouds somewhere, a clear hangover of primitive sky god beliefs. Most people used to believe that thunder and lightning were signs of the presence of gods, and whilst we may think of this as almost childish it takes only a natural phenomenon like an earthquake today for leaders of major religious sects to claim it was punishment of the gods for some human infraction of their teachings. All-knowing religions which somehow never seemed to know about tectonic plates until scientists discovered them.
At their base, these sorts of beliefs are attempts to explain the phenomena of the universe around. Religion gave us answers to our fears and questions, they were false answers, but their stories comforted our questioning minds and were all we had. Science openly admits to not knowing everything, which is in many ways its great central truth and strength. Unfortunately, people want to feel a certain way more than they want to think correctly, as Bertrand Russell put it, what people want is not knowledge, but certainty. Our lack of understanding should make us cautious and humble about committing to grand explanations like unprovable gods, rather than lead us in a reversal of all logic to accept such explanations. It is telling that the level of religious belief generally corresponds inversely to the level of education in a society, gods seem shy around the knowledgeable.
Omnipotence and human frailty
The modern gods look like they evolved as the end result of a sort of game of one-upmanship; something like the childhood game of competing to name higher and higher numbers, which often ended in infinities of infinities. Each successive generation of believers claimed their god was more powerful and more knowledgable than the last until finally, you get to the logical end game of omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. The all-powerful god poses all sorts of logical problems, as has been questioned since ancient times.
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
The proliferation of religions around the world shows there is a deep need for a certain sort of understanding in the human psyche, that religions fulfil. The reason for the propagation of religions is probably evolutionary like much that passes through our culture unquestioned. Evolution can be a blunt instrument, for instance, a child need not know all the reasons behind its parent's aversion to a certain poisonous plant, as the parents themselves may not, it just needs to avoid it or death could be the penalty for inquisitiveness. So it may go with religion. The vast majority of people hold to core beliefs of their parents and don't question them, so on down through the ages.
The percentage of religious people who follow the approximate beliefs of their parents is almost total. Mohammed, the Buddha, Jesus, almost all of the many thousands of so-called prophets and saviours only modified versions of the religions in the society around them, showing their cultural inheritance. Avoiding the need for potential converts to accept totally new concepts no doubt played a large part in the success of their religious ideas. Cult leaders have been using this trick, drawing on the religions around them but claiming they have some special relationship or understanding of the deity in question. Somehow this invariably ends up with the gods wanting the younger and more attractive members of the religious community to copulate with the cult leader.
The philosopher Pascal wagered that one must choose in this life whether or not to accept the existence of God, and that if one chose unbelief when a judgemental god indeed existed the consequence would be an eternity of suffering, whereas the price of belief in the afterlife if there is no such god is nothing, so, therefore, a rational person would choose belief. Again the cultural basis of belief comes in, as Pascal's Christianity is not the only faith in the world or no doubt even his country, so the wager was never as simple as he believed. Assuming there is only one true god and one way they want to be worshipped among the countless faiths and variations between them, statistically speaking, Pascal's faith was very likely to be a false one. He sees two choices when in fact there are many, many thousands, perhaps one of the religions now extinct got it right after all. The first of the commandments of the god Pascal accepted was "Thou shalt have no other gods before me". If the other gods mentioned here were similarly jealous how might the wrong choice play out in the after-life? Maybe the sensible position is to lead a good life as your conscience directs you, rather than spending your life following the imagined dictates of a highly unlikely god or gods.
Other than the fact that all religion is unprovable and almost certainly untrue, one of the greatest arguments against following any specific religion is that the evidence supporting any particular religion is no better than that of any other religion. For every person healed, every miracle performed, every person who claims to have a personal relationship with the gods, there are any number of similar examples of divinity from other fundamentally different and contradictory faiths. Over time there have been thousands of religions with vastly different and directly opposed commandments and rules. To choose one religion, one must generally deny the truth of all others. Each disagrees with the other and often believe that your choice of a different religion consigns you to their version of hell. Some of the worst religious conflict is between branches of religions scarcely distinguishable from one another to an outsider. Therefore if such subtleties can consign one to eternal suffering and damnation, considering the consequences one would do well to have unquestionable evidence for denying every other religion but one. As it has been pointed out many times, atheists see through the untruth of religions, believers do as well, except for their one, usually the one of the culture they were brought up in.
The fact that many religions specifically deny that one should use reason for believing in them means one is not expected to have any sort of rational basis for the choice. Like national lottery numbers one just seems to have to pick and have faith that your choice was right, though with religion the probabilities seem far less in your favour. If you consider yourself a rational person, then other than having some supernatural experience that could not possibly otherwise be explained, it is difficult how one could intelligently believe with absolute certainty in one of the worlds millions of gods, many thousands of religions, and more specifically one of the many sects of each individual religion, to the exclusion of all others. An irrational person can simply choose and ignore inconvenient facts, but this is not a path open to us who would have truth and reason as the governing forces in our lives.
Fantastical claims require fantastic evidence. The most fantastical claim of all, the existence of an all-powerful god who created and controls everything, has no evidence. There is no basis for a rational person to believe.
In the Old Testament, it says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Actually, it seems to be the end. Most religions deny the use of intelligence other than to follow their particular commands.
You can tick the major religions off one by one and they will talk about the hubris of people to think they know anything of importance under the shadow of omnipotent gods. The gods know everything worth knowing, so you should not think for yourself but just follow all that they say. This is once again convenient for the powerful because independent thought has always being a threat to the church and state. This should be unsettling to anyone who understands what effects blind adherence to power can have on the world. Voltaire said it best "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".
The gods define morality. If a follower believes the gods want some action to be performed, it can't be immoral by definition. When these are mythical beings, the belief in which is used for the purposes of control by humans seeking power, the consequences have far too often been unthinkable.
Even beyond this, as an atheist, it is not only up to me to do the hard work of figuring out what is true and right in the world, but also to bring it into being. Religious people ultimately believe they are powerless to affect the world which the gods control or have preordained. As atheists, we believe in an amoral universe and thus if we want it to be a better place, we must act to make it so, rather than light candles or incense and pray for change.
As for figuring out what is true or right, religious people generally pick and choose what to believe in their holy books. Angry people choose an angry version of their faith, hateful people choose a hateful version, peaceful people choose a peaceful version. As Shakespeare wrote the devil himself can quote the bible to his own ends. Atheists are free to find what wisdom they see in a religious text, or a philosophical text, or anywhere for that matter, but we aren't bound to shackle ourselves to a raft of beliefs and actions we find odious or repellent. We don't need to spend our time justifying things which seem to any unbiased reader hateful, outdated, or immoral, we just discard those things. When religious people pick and choose from their books, what they are really doing is picking and choosing their own version of the gods, of the nature of the universe. Science minded people try to understand the universe, we don't pretend we can choose it.
Of course in my experience, a lot of religious believers haven't even read the books they claim were written by people who met gods manifestation on earth, which is impossible to understand. It says much about the conformity and social structure at the basis of faith that people basically believe their God wrote a book, and they've got better things to do than read it.
Reason and knowledge
People often don't have particularly good reasons for their religious beliefs. The vague "belief in something greater than us" is given as the basis for many peoples belief in their particular religion. This is not a rational basis for following any specific religion but added to cultural influences it incorrectly becomes one for many. A vague feeling might be a reason for being interested in the possibility of some sort of higher powers existence, but it is not a valid reason for moulding your life around an arbitrary way of living. It is a simple logical error, that the belief that gods exist, by however many people, is in any way evidence that they do exist. As Gandhi would have agreed, a statement does not become true by repetition, though he may have agreed with little else that I have said here.
It would seem one of the bases for the prevalence of religion in our world is the inability to tell the difference between one's beliefs and one's knowledge. A vague feeling is not knowledge. In my experience no-one really knows whether the gods exist or not, they only have the belief they do. Those who can't tell the difference between belief and knowledge, a simple logical error, are fertile ground for religion, superstition, and as history has shown, far worse.
People often follow a religion because they like certain aspects of it, which might conform to their beliefs. Whether one likes a religion, agrees with it, thinks it would create a better world etc, is irrelevant. Ultimate truth is not the product of our likes and dislikes, truth can only be discovered by rational enquiry, by empiricism, it is not bought into being by the superstitions or whims of humanity.
One cannot simply choose an all-encompassing belief and therefore ultimate truth.
We should be very suspicious of being told to follow gods who seem to delight in endless obsequious rambling about how great and magnificent they are.
The brutality displayed by people claiming to follow one religion or another reflects the potential for brutality within existence generally. If one looks at the amorality of the universe, at the very least, it certainly doesn't seem like a benevolent god created it, governs it, or even exists.
For a person to convince me to follow a god, they would not only have to prove its existence but explain why, in a world with so much unjust suffering, even if they did exist what makes them worthy of worship. Fear, power or selfish reward? Indeed looking at much of the current world, it would seem more logical to set oneself against any existing gods, as in the case of those who claim omnipotence, the happiness of sentient beings is of little concern to them. Luckily the reliable evidence that gods exist is non-existent, therefore our opposition in changing the world is neither omniscient nor omnipotent.
Studies seem to show some psychological benefits from holding a belief in one religion or another, different religions seek to answer the difficult questions of consciousness by placing them in the hands of unseen powers. Whilst religion may be a placebo for the difficulties of higher consciousness, it bodes ill for the intellectual progression of our culture if we seek refuge in delusions. A truth based on empiricism, our shared experience of reality, as science at its best pushes forward, is the only real shared grounding of understanding which has a hope of uniting, rather than dividing, our increasingly complex and globalised world.
Often for those who would change the irrational religious beliefs of mankind, the proposition that religion is a delusion is not expected to be replaced by anything. Many would take an entire belief system away from people, and leave them intellectually undefended against the incomprehensibility of existence. As Karl Marx said, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions". We need a more comprehensive perceived answer to religion than nihilism.
The fact that the belief in a religion can be shown to have positive psychological benefits shows the need for people to have something to believe in, to feel they belong in a community that wants them, to know that are part of a greater scheme.
Whilst consumerism has become the hierarchical basis and spiritual refuge for many people, it does little to satisfy those who are unconsciously running from the perceived inherent meaninglessness and pointlessness in the universe. Predictably surrounding ourselves with inanimate objects does not fulfil us. Whilst people get temporary relief in consuming, as the rising rates of depression in many capitalist societies show, it is not lasting. This fleeting nature strengthens consumerism in the short term, people obsessively return to it for its promise of contentment, but it is an elusive, empty promise. Studies show that above that necessary for a relatively comfortable existence wealth does little for our happiness.
Similarly, with nationalism and other "ism's" that people try to sell as a meaning for our lives, they are mechanisms of control just as religion is. Nationalism like racism tries to tell us we are set apart from and above others just because of the random chance of our birth, thereby trying to offer us happiness by grounding our self-esteem in superiority over others. Nationalism is a modern version of religion, used for control, used to define us and them, to goad powerless people into a passion for war and competition. We saw the self-destruction of many of these movements in the twentieth century, because whilst they offer the intoxication of short term mindless devotion, their negative basis inevitably leads to hatred and anger that destroys them from within.
So what would offer us the happiness that we seek, that has a positive base in the reality of our lives?
Short term happiness should be replaced by healthy lifestyles; positive thinking, nourishing, enjoyable food, dependable, close relationships, caring, positive sexuality, a compassionate society, humour, the appreciation of beauty, the sublime features of the natural world, exercise, gratitude etc. Our society should be based on increasing the number of healthy, beautiful experiences in our lives, understanding that our happiness is best and perhaps only assured as a by-product of the healthiness of our society.
Longer-term, lasting happiness has its base in a positive, healthy lifestyle, but it also needs to provide a rational basis for our place in the cosmos, and for our lives, deaths and suffering to have meaning. For this understanding, I believe in many ways we need to follow what we seek to replace, religion, but replace its ancient crafted delusions with modern thought. Meaning should be both based on and contribute to the positive ways in which we treat the world and each other.
If there is no higher consciousness to tell us what meaning is, it doesn't mean that reality is a meaningless void. If there are no gods, if in their place we are the highest consciousness in the universe, then it is up to us to define a meaning for ourselves. If we seek to live in a more just, humane world, as the highest creative power in the universe, we should take on the responsibility for the morality of the creator we pretended to have. Some would say this makes meaning an opinion, however, the basis on which we should construct meaning are things that are evolutionary and shared, pain, pleasure, freedom, beauty, ugliness, happiness and other realities which transcend the potentially arbitrary and selfish nature of opinion. I think there is a depth to the statement of Keats, which we are yet to fully explore "Truth is beauty, beauty is truth".
There may be no inherent morality in evolutionary logic, but morality has come into being within ourselves. In our actions, we have the ability to make individual choices, and we can use those choices to create pieces of existence that are compassionate and just. Each moment a sentient being experiences has many possibilities, and we can intercede to give the best chance of a beautiful and kinder reality for them. We can be the gods we would wish to have. All is not within our control, we cannot change the laws of the universe, we can not necessarily control everything that happens to us, but we can change the part of existence which our own actions touch. With our conscious will we can make a small part of time and space more compassionate, just and beautiful.
Ultimately the universe is not a moral void, unkind and unfair, if we are not.