The death of God? My debate with Fr Tony Flannery

This week I debated Father Tony Flannery at the NUI Galway Literary and Debating Society. Tony is a priest who has been silenced by the Vatican for speaking out on theological matters. Here is video of my opening contribution.

Here is video of all of my and Tony’s speeches. I will add video of the audience contributions when they are online.

And here is the text of my opening contribution:

This house would welcome the death of God.

On one reading, the wording of this motion seems to require an atheist to assume that a God exists, and a theist to assume that their God can die. Religions typically get out of such dilemmas by saying that the wording is metaphorical. I’m happy to go along with that.

By welcoming the death of God, I mean welcoming the death of the idea of a God, because the idea of a God corrupts our search for the truth, and because societies are healthier where there is less belief in gods.

Let’s start with how the idea of Gods corrupts our search for truth.

It does this by requiring us to use faith when trying to identify what is true about reality and morality. By faith I mean believing something is true, disproportionately to the best currently available evidence, often because someone else tells you it is true.

Faith is the least reliable way of identifying what is true. Because faith results in different people coming to different beliefs about the same reality.

Applying reason to evidence is the most reliable way. Because it can more reliably result in different people coming to the same beliefs about the same reality.

When we apply reason to evidence, we notice three things about the idea of a God.
The idea of a God encourages us to believe implausible answers to big questions, and it corrupts our understanding of reality and our understanding of morality. So let’s look at those three effects.

Firstly, the idea of a God encourages us to believe implausible answers

Well, we know that the literalist idea of a God seems implausible, because it involves three Gods in one impregnating a human virgin to give birth to themselves, Mohammad flying on a winged horse and splitting the moon, and Joseph Smith talking through his hat and getting magic underpants. As I understand it, even Tony believes that that type of God does not exist.

So let’s look at the supposedly more sophisticated idea of a God. This typically involves an even more mysterious God, that is a pure mind without a body, perfect and changeless, beyond time and space, all knowing, all powerful and all good.

But a pure mind without a body is an invented convenience, because we have no evidence that a mind can exist without a body or a brain or a source of energy. And we have a lot of evidence to suggest that it can’t.

Even if we explore this invented convenience, a pure mind without a body might be aware of the existence of matter, but it could not interact with that matter, because there would be no mechanism for it to do so.

If this God is perfect, then it would not create anything, because, being perfect, it would have no need or desire to do anything.

If this God is changeless, then it cannot create anything, because it would have to change in order to do so.

If this God is beyond time and space, then it cannot cause anything to happen, because cause and effect (if they exist) involve time and space.

If this God is all powerful and all good, then it would have created a perfect universe. At a minimum, a perfect universe would not contain suffering or evil.

Secondly, the idea of a God corrupts our understanding of reality

Theists believe this God created the universe with a purpose. But we do not see the universe moving towards any purpose. Instead, we mostly see impersonal forces pulling and pushing particles around, and mostly moving towards a state of increasing disorder.

Theists believe this God has a special relationship with human beings on planet Earth. But instead we see a universe that would be incredibly wasteful for such an imagined purpose. If it existed, this God would have wasted almost all of 14 billion years of time, and 100 billion galaxies of space, in its human focused plan.

Theists believe this God created human life as more special than other life. But we know that we are just one evolved species among many. There have been 5 billion species on Earth. 99% of them are extinct. Humans are just one of the remaining 50 million species, and our survival is as precarious as any other.

We have, however, evolved a capacity to apply reason to evidence. This enables us to understand more about how the universe operates naturally, and to move ever closer to the death of the idea of a God, that astoundingly self-important belief that we, alone on our planet, alone in our solar system, alone in our galaxy, and alone in the universe, are the only living beings with God-given immortal souls.

Thirdly, the idea of a God corrupts our understanding of morality

Firstly, what do I mean by morality? An outcome is objectively bad if it harms a sentient being. An action is objectively wrong if the agent unjustly harms a sentient being.

If there was an all-knowing, all perfect, all good God that is the source of morality and cares about human beings on planet Earth, then at a minimum, we would expect it to be able to give us all the same moral message. But this not what we see.

If there is no God, then what we would expect to see is that different sets of people at different times and different places in the world would be evolving different ideas and codes of morality. And this is indeed what we do see.

In parallel to applying reason to the evidence of reality, in order to try to understand what is objectively true about reality, we can also apply reason to the evidence of our behaviour, in order to try to understand what is objectively true about morality.

It is simply false to suggest that we need a God to assist us in doing this. There are many approaches to moral philosophy that do not invoke Gods.

I subscribe to a variation of John Rawls social contract theory of morality. Essentially, that is: How would a perfectly rational set of people design principles of justice for a society, if we don’t know in advance what position we would hold in that society? That is, we don’t know if we will be rich or poor, male or female, healthy or sick. This veil of ignorance would enable us to be impartial, and to develop universally just principles.

In any given circumstance, it is already hard enough to understand and figure out the best balance between the evolutionary requirements of empathy, compassion, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness and justice.

But belief in a God corrupts this already-difficult process by adding in imagined supposedly supernatural commands that are unrelated to compassion, cooperation or justice. Not only is belief in a God not needed for objective morality, but belief in a God can corrupt our rational search for that objective morality.

All of this is supported by the fact that societies are healthier where there is less belief in gods

The World Values Survey shows the testable relationship between religion and human values. When individuals are focused on survival values, society is more likely to have traditional religious values. When people move along scale towards self-expression values, societies move towards secular rational values. The trigger for these changes is investment in health, education, communications technology, and greater democracy.

Other studies show that secular and atheist people are likely to be less dogmatic, less authoritarian, less racist, less sexist, less homophobic. Secular societies have lower rates of murder, abortion, teenage pregnancies, and a range of other social outcomes. Whichever way the cause and effect goes, this is a welcome correlation.

To conclude, we should welcome the death of the idea of a God, because the idea of a God corrupts our search for the truth, by requiring us to use faith in answering big questions. That corrupts our understanding of both reality and morality. And societies are healthier where there is less belief in gods.

For these reasons, I am happy to propose this motion.

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