Yesterday while driving back home from helping my now-ex-roommate move out, I was listening to a recent episode of Atheists Talk radio (produced by Minnesota Atheists) in which the guest was Dan Barker, former Christian minister and now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. A few very good questions were raised which have rarely come up when I've discussed religion in the past.
The first question I'd like to ask is why believe in any god or gods?
With religion as with any other claim, the standard procedure of science is to start with the null hypothesis. A claim about the existence of a god is treated the same as a claim about the effectiveness of a medical treatment and the burden of proof is placed on those making the claim. In the case of religion, this means that any claim based solely on so called "holy texts" is immediately discarded as their "truth" is entirely dependent on someone already subscribing to that belief. The claims must be independently verifiable by anyone, not just believers. Attempts to claim truth based on something that requires one to already be a believer will invoke the wrath of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The second question is why YOUR god(s)?
I consider this to be the best counter when a believer tries the Pascal's Wager argument. The three most well known and popular religions in the United States are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, collectively referred to along with a handful of other smaller religions as Abrahamic religions after an important character in the texts of the group. Within all three of these major religions, there are a number of denominations which then branch further in to a variety of sects. Now without even looking beyond the top three major monotheisms we're looking at literally hundreds of possible groups, all of which will tell you that the others are doing something wrong and deserving of some kind of divine retribution. Beyond this we have the various polytheistic beliefs, the Indian religions, the Far Eastern religions, an uncountable number of tribal religions, and modern religions such as Scientology, as well as the ever-popular and vague "spirituality". I'd be willing to wager that very few of those reading this have ever seriously looked in to any religions beyond the major denomination they were born in to and further than that I'd bet that absolutely zero have made a major change in their religious belief other than leaving religion altogether. It would be a number of lifetimes to even understand the Abrahamic religions to the level where one could make an informed decision. With that in mind I believe the answer to the question posed by Mr. Pascal centuries ago would be nonbelief, as if it were to turn out that there was a god and it was one of the many jealous gods of the world's religions (in the words of the Christian god from both the Exodus and Deuteronomy variants of the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me...Thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God,") one would logically be better off having not believed in any god rather than the wrong one.
Now at this point some will certainly be ready to pull the faith card, and I can't refute that one. Pure faith is by definition without evidence, so attempting to mount a logical opposition to faith is silly and a waste of time.
My third question in response to that would simply be what good does it do?
There are a number of examples readily available for evil in the world which is caused by religion. The vast majority of wars throughout history were fought over religion. The current situation in the Middle East is because of religion. The 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks and in fact almost every terrorist attack ever to occur in all of time were at least partially religiously motivated. Assaults and killings of homosexuals, Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, etc. It is much much harder to get someone to seriously injure or kill another person and almost impossible to convince them to die in the process without the belief that they're satisfying the desires of a higher power. I'll gladly concede that the same ability to organize around beliefs does allow religious organizations to bring in volunteers and donations for charity work more readily than a secular organization, but until you show me someone blowing him or herself up in a crowded market for science I personally see it as a worthwhile trade-off to have to work harder for charitable goals.
The last question I have for the believers out there is what would it take for you to change your beliefs?
Often in debates the religious side will accuse nonbelievers of being closed-minded and/or biased against the supernatural, when from our position it is the believer who is closed-minded and biased. Going back to the earlier point about faith, to be truly faithful one is arguably required to be closed minded. The number of contradictions within entire religious texts and occasionally even within the same chapter or even paragraph of said texts requires a level of closed-minded mental acrobatics to accept the whole as still being a reliable source of "truth". As for bias, the believer who runs in to a gap in their knowledge or in the knowledge of society as a whole (for example the origin of life) will often just say "God did it" where the nonbeliever would hit that same point and say "I don't know", then start looking for answers if the question is sufficiently interesting.
I'm sure I speak for many nonbelievers when I say we'd love to see convincing evidence for any set of religious beliefs. I wouldn't be particularly happy in some cases depending on which one turned out to be true in that scenario, as many belief systems would label me as very high on the sin scale (I've violated as many of the Ten Commandments as is possible for a nonbeliever to do aside from the one about killing, and committed every single one of the Seven Deadly Sins a number of times, often simultaneously. I'm less familiar with the equivalents in other religions, but I'm sure many are similar), but I'd still find it interesting to know and would be more than willing to start living by the ideals of whichever religion it was if there was reason to believe it would mean anything. In that way I believe I and most other nonbelievers are very open-minded about religion, again we simply do not see the evidence offered as being convincing.
Can any of you believers honestly say that if evidence was presented to you tomorrow of your religious text being nothing but a work of fiction that you would accept it? Of course this is practically impossible with most of the older religions as the simple lack of a large quantity of historical information makes if very hard for specifics to be verified about anything, much less to the level one would need to make claims about disproving one of the world's large religions, but it certainly could happen with more modern religions such as Mormonism or Scientology. Both of those were founded in the United States (by treasure hunter Joseph Smith and science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, respectively) within the last two hundred years and their public history is very well documented. It would be very possible for documentation to arise showing either of these to have been entirely bogus. Note that I am not making that accusation specifically at those targets, obviously I believe all religions to be equally fabricated, but the younger a religion is the more reliable of a history we have of its founding and thus more questions can be answered rather than being left open.
I may come up with more questions, but I'll save those for a follow-up post later. For now, I await any responses and would like to take the opportunity to remind any who read this that as long as you're not a Phelps clan member or Scientologist I'm not here to flame you, I'm just asking legitimate questions and would like reasonable responses. Crazies quoting scripture and the like will be laughed at, flamed, and torn apart in the spirit of PZ's wonderful "I get email" blog posts.