Very many books have been written about the various religions and more and more are being written. This is one of them. The purpose of many of the recent books about religion is to convince people that a particular view is the only one that is right, and to blame the teachings and followers of other religious views for some or all of the things that go wrong in the world. Over recent years, the debate between the Atheists, who deny the existence of any supernatural entity, and the believers in the religions has become bitter. It often misrepresents opponents’ beliefs and maligns individual people.
This book takes what I think is a dispassionate and rigorous look at the religious and atheist positions, clearly distinguishing agnosticism as a valid alternative to both, but acknowledging that either might be “correct”. It also discusses several relevant current issues of science and morality from an agnostic perspective, and in so doing considers arguments that have been put forward by religious believers and Atheists in support of their views. It includes what I believe are new ideas on many of the issues. The possible existence of a supernatural entity is considered wherever it might seem relevant to a particular issue. Cases are discussed in which I think there is reason for thinking that it might exist.
While I appreciate and also discuss why some people believe or disbelieve that some supernatural entity exists, I cannot see how it could be possible for human beings to know. I have looked closely at every piece of evidence I could find, and at every claim and rationale, but none has convinced me either way. But there may be ways of finding out that I don’t know about, or am unable to recognise, so I cannot say that it must be impossible for us to know. If I were ever to be sure one way or the other, I don’t think the answer would trouble me. And so I have no inclination to try to slant the argument either way – except, perhaps, towards the agnostic viewpoint..
But if it is virtually impossible to know, then why worry about it? Well, probably more than half the world’s population think something exists beyond the material world. Many of these people are very intelligent and deep-thinking, and have what they regard to be sound reasons for their belief. I think their reasons deserve to be carefully considered, and so should the reasons supporting atheism and agnosticism.
Another reason for considering the existence of a supernatural entity is as a possible answer to questions that seem intrinsically impossible to be answered by science. In such cases, the only property that I would attribute to such an entity would be the ability to perform the specific functions that would provide a plausible answer to the particular scientific issue. Supernatural answers are often proposed when science already has a logical answer that is supported without contradiction by observed evidence. In these cases I see no justification for accepting the supernatural explanation.
But even apparently sound scientific theory is overturned from time to time. So to illustrate how far we may accept or doubt the findings of science and logic I have discussed various ways in which they may sometimes be unreliable or be used unreliably.
The chapters of this book are drawn from essays I prepared, and continue to modify, as a way of looking for conclusions about these matters. Early versions of the essays were used as the basis for talks I delivered to the Atheist Society in Melbourne over a period of thirteen years. (The Atheist Society accepts speakers of all persuasions.) So each chapter should be able to be understood without needing any of the discussion in other parts of the book. Nevertheless, I have made reference to other relevant chapters wherever terms or arguments that have been used may be unfamiliar and not sufficiently explained in the chapter being read.
The first four chapters relate directly to attitudes to religion. They differentiate agnosticism from atheism and the religions, explain why I reject the arguments used to justify each of these other persuasions, suggest other possible justifications for belief in the existence of a supernatural entity, and speculate what such an entity might be like. The next two chapters discuss aspects of morality, which many people think is closely connected to or completely dependent on religion. The three following chapters discuss various aspects of science where some people would wish to invoke the supernatural. The remaining chapters explain my attitudes to the reliability of science and logical reasoning as justifications of belief, which are relevant to the arguments in the earlier chapters.
A couple of the chapters might seem to consist mostly of excessively long catalogues of imperfect arguments. They could be seen as unnecessary records of my unending search for the existence or non-existence of the supernatural. Or they could be seen as an attempt to forestall any claim that I have overlooked a vital argument. What I think I have been doing is putting the strongest possible case for both the supernaturalist and atheistic viewpoints, tedious as that might sometimes be. I acknowledge that some of the arguments that I have included are very weak. But I think there would be disagreement about which ones these are.
Some believers in the supernatural have produced what they claim to be scientific evidence of the existence of God. Some scientists have produced theories or evidence by which they claim to dismiss purported evidence of the existence of God. In discussing these cases I have had to go into some scientific detail. Wherever the topics have required scientific discussion I have tried to use as little jargon and abstruse argument as possible. Even so, some readers may think that I have sometimes gone into too much detail or complex argument. In such cases, little will be lost if the difficult passages are glossed over, as long as the gist of the argument is understood. Other readers may want to look at the sources of the many statements used in my arguments. But no references or bibliographies are included: an internet search on just about any of the concepts touched upon will lead to a range of discussions from the basic to the very detailed. References are required in academic writing (which this is not intended to be) and can give an aura of authenticity to books for a general readership, but most lay readers just note that they are there. Also, references are often hard to access or to understand. And there have occasionally been publications whose references did not support their author’s statements.
I think my statements of fact were all verifiable at the time of writing. It may be that, in the interval between my writing and a reader’s internet search, some of my statements or arguments relating to the physical or biological sciences will have been superseded by new discoveries or theories. But my main concern is with ideas and alternative possibilities, so unless some truly revolutionary new discovery has occurred, scientific progress will do little, if anything, to affect my general case.
Melbourne December 2012
Because this book is not on paper but is online it can be amended at any time. So I have been continually amending it to improve the way particular ideas have been expressed, to include new ideas and to correct a few errors.