Why I am a Skeptic about Religious Claims

By Paul Kurtz

(From Multi-Secularism: A New Agenda, Transaction Publishers 2010)

 

Unbelievers have debated the proper way to describe their position. Some scientists and philosophers—notably Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett—have recently been sympathetic to the use of the term bright. Proponents thought it a clever idea, hoping that bright would overcome the negative connotations that other terms such as atheist have aroused in the past. Many find this to be an attractive advantage. Critics of the use of bright have commented that it is presumptuous for us to suggest that we are “bright,” i.e., intelligent, implying that those with whom we disagree are dull-witted or dumb. Clearly, many people have been turned off by the term atheism, which they perceive as too negative or dogmatic. Others may seek refuge in some form of popular “agnosticism,” which suggests that they are simply uncertain about the god question—though this may simply enable them to resort to “faith” or “fideism” as an artful dodge.

I would like to introduce another term into the equation, a description of the religious “unbeliever” that is more appropriate. One may simply say, “I am a skeptic.” This is a classical philosophical position, yet I submit that it is still relevant today, for many people are deeply skeptical about religious claims.

Skepticism is widely employed in the sciences. Skeptics doubt theories or hypotheses unless they are able to verify them on adequate evidential grounds. The same is true among skeptical inquirers into religion. The skeptic in religion is not dogmatic, nor does he or she reject religious claims a priori; here or she is simply unable to accept the case for God unless it is supported by adequate evidence.

The burden of proof lies upon theists to provide cogent reasons and evidence for their belief that God exists. Faith by itself is hardly sufficient, for faiths collide—in any case, the appeal to faith to support one’s creed is irrational in its pretentious claim based on the “will to believe.” If it were acceptable to argue in this way, then anyone would be entitled to believe whatever he or she fancied.

The skeptic thus requires evidence and reasons for a hypothesis or belief before it is accepted. Always open to inquiry, skeptical inquirers are prepared to change their beliefs in the light of new evidence or arguments. They will not accept appeals to authority or faith, custom or tradition, intuition or mysticism, reports of miracles or uncorroborated revelations. Skeptical inquirers are willing to suspend judgment about questions for which there is insufficient evidence. Skeptics are in that sense genuinely agnostic, in that they view the question as still open, though they remain unbelievers in proposals for which they think theists offer insufficient evidence and invalid arguments. Hence, they regard the existence of any god as highly improbable.

In this sense, a skeptic is a nontheist or an atheist. The better way to describe this stance, I submit, is to say that such a person is a skeptic about religious claims.

“Skepticism,” as a coherent philosophical and scientific posture, has always dealt with religious questions, and it professed to find little scientific or philosophical justification for belief in God. Philosophers in the ancient world such as Pyrrho, Cratylus, Sextus Empiricus, and Carneades questioned metaphysical and theological claims. Modern philosophers, including Descartes, Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, have drawn heavily on classical skepticism in developing their scientific outlook. Many found the “God question” unintelligible; modern science could proceed only by rejecting occult claims as vacuous, as was done by Galileo and other working scientists—and also by latter-day authors such as Freud and Marx, Russell and Dewey, Sartre and Heidegger, Popper and Hook, Crick and Watson, Bunge, and Wilson.

The expression “a skeptic about religious claims” is more appropriate in my opinion than the term atheist, for it emphasizes inquiry. The concept of inquiry contains an important constructive component, for inquiry leads to scientific wisdom—human understanding of our place in the cosmos and the ever-increasing fund of human knowledge.

In what follows, I will outline some of the evidence and reasons many scientists and philosophers are skeptical of theistic religious claims. I will focus primarily on supernatural theism and especially on monotheistic religions that emphasize command ethics, immortality of the soul, and an eschatology of heaven and hell. Given space limitations, what follows is only a thumbnail sketch of the case against God.

Succinctly, I maintain that the skeptical inquirer is dubious of the claims

1. that God exists;

2. that he is a person;

3. that our ultimate moral principles are derived from God;

4. that faith in God will provide eternal salvation; and

5. that one cannot be good without belief in God.

I reiterate that the burden of proof rests upon those who believe in God. If they are unable to make the case for belief in God, then I have every right to remain a skeptic.

Why do skeptics doubt the existence of God?

  • First, because the skeptical inquirer does not find the traditional concept of God as “transcendent,” “omnipotent,” “omnipresent,” or “omnibeneficent” to be coherent, intelligible, or meaningful. To postulate a transcendent being who is incomprehensible to the human mind (as theologians maintain) does not explain the world that we encounter. How can we say that such an indefinable being exists, if we do not know in what sense that being is said to exist? How are we to understand a God that exists outside space and time and that transcends our capacity to comprehend his essence? Theists have postulated an unknowable “X.” But if his content is unfathomable, then he is little more than an empty, speculative abstraction. Thus, the skeptic in religion presents semantic objections to God language, charging that it is unintelligible and lacks any clear referent.
  • A popular argument adduced for the existence of this unknowable entity is that he is the first cause, but we can ask of anyone who postulates this, “What is the cause of this first cause?” To say that he is uncaused only pushes our ignorance back one step. To step outside the physical universe is to assume an answer by a leap of faith.
  • Nor does the claim that the universe manifests Intelligent Design (ID) explain the facts of conflict, the struggle for survival, and the inescapable tragedy, evil, pain, and suffering that is encountered in the world of sentient beings. Regularities and chaos do not necessarily indicate design. The argument from design is reminiscent of Aristotle’s teleological argument that there are purposes or ends in nature. But we can find no evidence for purpose in nature. Even if we were to find what appears to be design in the universe, this does not imply a designer for whose existence there is insufficient evidence.
  • The evolutionary hypothesis provides a more parsimonious explanation of the origins of species. The changes in species through time are better accounted for by chance mutations, differential reproduction, natural selection, and adaptation, rather than by design. Moreover, vestigial features such as the human appendix, tailbone, and male breasts and nipples hardly suggest adequate design; the same is true for vestigial organs in other species. Thus, the doctrine of creation is hardly supported in empirical terms.
  • Another version of the Intelligent Design argument is the so-called fine-tuning argument. Its proponents maintain that there is a unique combination of “physical constants” in the universe that possess the only values capable of sustaining life, especially sentient organic systems. This they attribute to a designer God. But this, too, is inadequate. First because millions of species are extinct; the alleged “fine-tuning” did nothing to ensure their survival. Second, great numbers of human beings have been extinguished by natural causes such as diseases and disasters. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 that suddenly killed over two hundred thousand innocent men, women, and children was due to a shift in tectonic plates. This hardly indicates fine tuning—after all, this tragedy could have been avoided had a supposed fine tuner troubled to correct defects in the surface strata of the planet. A close variant of the fine-tuning argument is the so-called anthropic principle, which is simply a form of anthropomorphism; that is, it reads into nature the fondest hopes and wishes of believers, which are then imposed upon the universe. But if we are to do this, should we not also attribute the errors and mistakes encountered in nature to the designer?
  • Related to this, of course, is the classical problem of evil. If an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibeneficent God is responsible for the world as we know it, then how to explain evil? Surely, humans cannot be held responsible for a massive flood or plague, for example; we can explain such calamities only by inferring that God is malevolent, because he knew of, yet permitted, terrible destructive events to occur—or by suggesting that God is impotent to prevent evil. This would also suggest an unintelligent, deficient, or faulty designer.
  • The historic religions maintain that God has revealed himself in history and that he has manifested his presence to selected humans. These revelations are not corroborated by independent, objective observers. They are disclosed, rather, to privileged prophets or mystics, whose claims have not been adequately verified: there is insufficient circumstantial evidence to confirm their authenticity.
  • To attribute inexplicable events to miracles performed by God, as declared in the so-called sacred literature, is often a substitute for finding their true causes scientifically. Scientific inquiry is generally able to explain alleged “miracles” by discovering natural causes. 
  • The Bible, Qur’an, and other classical documents are full of contradictions and factual errors. They were written by human beings in ancient civilizations, expressing the scientific and moral speculations of their day. They do not convey the eternal word of God, but rather the yearnings of ancient tribes based on oral legends and received doctrines; as such, they are hardly relevant to all cultures and times. The Old and New Testaments are not accurate accounts of historical events. The reliability of the Old Testament is highly questionable in the events and personages it depicts; Moses, Abraham, Joseph, etc. are largely uncorroborated by historical evidence. As for the New Testament, scholarship has shown that none of its authors knew Jesus directly. The four Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses but are products of oral tradition and hearsay. There is but flimsy and contradictory evidence for the virgin birth, the healings of Jesus, and the Resurrection. Similarly, contrary to Muslim claims that that religion’s scriptures passed virtually unmediated from Allah, there have in fact been several versions of the Qur’an; it is no less a product of oral traditions than the Bible. Likewise, the provenance of the Hadith, allegedly passed down by Muhammad’s companions, has not been independently confirmed by reliable historical research.
  • Some claim to believe in God because they say that God has entered into their personal lives and has imbued them with new meaning. This is a psychological or phenomenological account of a person’s inner experience. It is hardly adequate evidence for the existence of a divine being independent of human beings’ internal soliloquies. Appeals to mystical experiences or private subjective states hardly suffice as evidential support that some external being or force caused such altered states of consciousness; skeptical inquirers have a legitimate basis for doubt, unless or until such claims of interior experience can somehow be independently corroborated. Experiences of God or gods, or angels or demons, talking to one may disturb or entrance those persons who undergo such experiences, but the question is whether these internal subjective states have external veracity. This especially applies to those individuals who claim some sort of special revelation from on high, such as the hearing of commandments.

 Second, is God a person? Does he take on human form? Has he communicated in discernible form, say, as the Holy Spirit, to Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, or other prophets?

  • These claims again are uncorroborated by objective eyewitnesses. They are rather promulgated by propagandists of the various faith traditions that have been inflicted on societies and enforced by entrenched ecclesiastical authorities and political powers. They are supported by customs and traditions buried for millennia by the sands of time and institutional inertia. They are simply assumed to be true without question.
  • The ancient documents alleging God’s existence are preliterate, prephilosophical, and, in any case, unconfirmed by scientific inquiry. They are often eloquent literary expressions of existential moral poetry, but they are unverified by archeological evidence or careful historical investigation. Moreover, they contradict each other in their claims for authenticity and legitimacy.
  • The ancient faith that God is a person has not been corroborated by the historical record. Such conceptions of God are anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, reading into the universe human predilections and feelings. “If lions had gods they would be lionlike in character,” said Xenophon. Thus, human Gods are an extrapolation of human hopes and aspirations, fanciful tales of imaginative fiction.

 Third, the claim that our ultimate moral values are derived from God is likewise highly suspect. The so-called sacred moral codes reflect the socio-historical cultures out of which they emerged. For example, the Old Testament commands that adulterers, blasphemers, disobedient sons, bastards, witches, and homosexuals be stoned to death. It threatens collective guilt: punishment is inflicted by Jehovah on the children’s children of unbelievers. It defends patriarchy and the dominion of men over women. It condones slavery and genocide in the name of God.

  • The New Testament consigns “unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; it demands that women be obedient to their husbands; it accepts faith healing, exorcisms, and miracles; it exalts obedience over independence, fear and trembling over courage, and piety over self-determination.
  • The Qur’an does not tolerate dissent, freedom of conscience, or the right to unbelief. It denies the rights of women. It exhorts jihad, holy war against infidels. It demands utter submission to the Word of God as revealed by Muhammad. It rejects the separation of mosque and state, thus installing the law of sharia and the theocracy of imams and mullahs.
  • From the fatherhood of God, contradictory moral commandments have been derived; theists have often lined up on opposite sides of moral issues. Believers have stood for and against war; for and against slavery; for and against capital punishment, some embracing retribution, others mercy and rehabilitation; for and against the divine right of kings, slavery, and patriarchy; for and against the emancipation of women; for and against the absolute prohibition of contraception, euthanasia, and abortion; for and against sexual and gender equality; for and against freedom of scientific research; for and against the libertarian ideals of a free society.
  • True believers have in the past often found little room for human autonomy, individual freedom, or self-reliance. They have emphasized submission to the word of God instead of self-determination, faith over reason, credulity over doubt. All too often they have had little confidence in the ability of humans to solve problems and create a better future by drawing on their own resources. In the face of tragedy, they supplicate to God through prayer instead of summoning the courage to overcome adversity and build a better future. The skeptic concludes, “No deity will save us; if we are to be saved it must be by our own efforts.”
  • The traditional religions have too often waged wars of intolerance not only against other religions or ideologies that dispute the legitimacy of their divine revelations but even against sects that are mere variants of the same religion (e.g., Catholic versus Protestant, Shiite versus Sunni). Religions claim to speak in the name of God, yet bloodshed, tyranny, and untold horrors have often been justified on behalf of holy creeds. True believers have all too often opposed human progress: the abolition of slavery, the liberation of women, the extension of equal rights to transgendered people and gays, the expansion of democracy and human rights.

I realize that liberal religionists generally have rejected the absolutist creeds of fundamentalism. Fortunately, they have been influenced by modern democratic and humanistic values, which mitigate fundamentalism’s inherent intolerance. Nevertheless, even many liberal believers embrace a key article of faith in the three major Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: the promise of eternal salvation.

Fourth, we are driven to ask: will those who believe in God actually achieve immortality of the soul and eternal salvation as promised?

  • The first objection of the skeptic to this claim is that the forms of salvation being offered are highly sectarian. The Hebrew Bible promises salvation for the chosen people; the New Testament, the Rapture to those who have faith in Jesus Christ; the Qur’an, heaven to those who accept the will of Allah as transmitted by Muhammad.

In general, these promises are not universal but apply only to those who acquiesce to a specific creed, as interpreted by priests, ministers, rabbis, or mullahs. Bloody wars have been waged to establish the legitimacy of the papacy (between Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy), the priority of Muhammad and the Qur’an, or the authenticity of the Old Testament.

  • A second objection is that there is insufficient scientific evidence for the claim that the “soul” can exist separate from the body and that it can survive death as a “discarnate” being, and much less for the claim that it can persist throughout eternity. Science points to the fact that the “mind” or “consciousness” is a function of the brain and nervous system and that with the physical death of the body, the “self” or “person” disappears. Thus, the claim that a person’s soul can endure forever is supported by no evidence whatever, only by pious hope.

Along the same line, believers have never succeeded in demonstrating the existence of the disembodied souls of any of the billions who went before us. All efforts to communicate with such discarnate entities have been fruitless. Sightings of alleged ghosts have not been corroborated by reliable eyewitness testimony.

  • The appeal to near-death experiences simply reports the phenomenological experiences of persons who undergo part of the dying process but ultimately do not die. Of course, we never hear from anyone who has truly died by any clinical standard, gone to “the other side” and returned. In any case, these subjective experiences can be explained in terms of natural, psychological, and physiological causes.

 Fifth, theists maintain that one cannot be good unless one believes in God.

  • Skepticism about God’s existence and divine plan does not imply pessimism, nihilism, the collapse of all values, or the implication that “anything goes.” It has been demonstrated time and again, by countless human beings, that it is possible to be morally concerned with the needs of others, to be a good citizen, and to lead a life of nobility and excellence—all without religion. Thus, anyone can be righteous and altruistic, compassionate and benevolent, without belief in a deity. A person can develop the common moral virtues and express a good will toward others without devotion to God. It is possible to be empathetic toward others and at the same time be concerned with one’s own well-being. Secular ethical principles and values thus can be supported by evidence and reason, the cultivation of moral growth and development, the finding of common ground that brings people together. Our principles and values can be vindicated as we examine the consequences of our choices and modify them in light of experience. Skeptics who are humanists focus on the good life here and now. They exhort us to live creatively, seeking a life full of happiness, even joyful exuberance. They urge us to face life’s tragedies with equanimity, to marshal the courage and stoic forbearance to live meaningfully in spite of adversity, and to take satisfaction in our achievements. Life can be relished and is intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake, without any need for external support.
  • Though ethical values and principles are relative to human interests and needs, that does not suggest that they are necessarily subjective. Instead, they are amenable to objective, critical evaluation and modification in the light of reason. A new paradigm has emerged that integrates skepticism with secular humanism, a paradigm based on scientific wisdom, eupraxsophy, and a naturalistic conception of nature. Thus, the skeptic in religion, who is also a humanist in ethics, can be affirmative and positive about the potentialities for achieving the good life. Such a person can not only live fully but can also be morally concerned about the needs of others.

 In summary, the skeptical inquirer finds inconclusive evidence—and thus, insufficient reason to believe—that God exists, that God is a person, that all ethical principles must be derived from God, that faith in divinity will enable the soul to achieve eternal salvation, and that ethical conduct is impossible without belief in God.

On the contrary, skepticism based on scientific inquiry leaves room for a naturalistic account of the universe. It can also recommend alternative secular and humanist forms of moral conduct. Accordingly, one can simply affirm, when asked if he or she believes in God, “No, I do not; I am a skeptic,” and one may add, “I believe in doing good!”

 


 

 

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