Imagine No Religion         Edgar Dahl       November  2009


Edgar Dahl

Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, West Germans as well as East Germans are regularly polled on their stance toward religion. When asked whether they believe in God, most East Germans simply respond by saying: “Nope, I’m perfectly normal.”

This reply must come as a shock to most Americans. After all, it implies that there is something “abnormal” about a belief in God. As if they had been brought up reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, East Germans do indeed consider religious folks to be odd, bizarre, or even insane.

Being born in East Germany myself, I can easily relate to this attitude. In contrast to what a lot of Americans seem to think, we have never been raised to be hostile toward religion. Actually, it was much worse: we have grown up to be totally and utterly indifferent toward religion.

On Sunday mornings, when American kids went to church, we went to the cinema. I still remember enjoying Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra and Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, or laughing out loud while watching Blake Edwards’ The Great Race or Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot.

One day—I must have been around ten years old—I was late for Jean Delannoy’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring the fabulous Anthony Quinn and the beautiful Gina Lollobrigida. Disappointed to have missed the screening, I went home, passing the St Paul’s Cathedral. Given that I had some extra time on my hands, I decided to sneak into the church. There were about 15 or 20 people in there, mostly in their 60s or 70s. The musty smell, the morbid paintings, and the bleeding savior nailed to a cross made me anxious.

Still, in order to see what these people were doing, I moved a bit closer. Apparently, they were celebrating the Holy Communion. Gathered around an altar, they handed around a chalice and a platter asking each other to “Eat the Body and Drink the Blood of the Lord.” I shivered! How can anyone eat the flesh and drink the blood of another person? What kind of people are these?

Running home, I asked my mom about the people in the church. She said, “They’re Christians. They believe in God and Satan, and Heaven and Hell. My own parents were religious, too. My father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic. Seeing that they were killed by the Nazis while I was only three years old, I don’t know anything about religions, though.” In order to change the seemingly uninteresting subject, she added, “Never mind, it doesn’t concern us.”

It must have been around that time when I first saw Roman Polanski’s movie Rosemary’s Baby on TV (on a West German channel, of course). Later I learned that the movie was not depicting Christians, but Satanists. Yet at that time, I could not see any difference. For me, both were weird people, believing in weird beings, and doing weird things. One may say I was simply too young to be able to tell the difference between two entirely different cults. But this is exactly my point. It only proves how unprejudiced I was! I must have looked at Christianity the same way a Hindu must look at it (or, for that matter, how Christians look at Hindus—as lost and doomed souls praying to a heaven filled with hundreds of Gods).

As strange as it may sound, I was already 12 years old when I first met a Christian in person. In grade six, the daughter of a pastor joined our class. Although she turned out to be a wonderful human being, I still recall that I was reluctant to talk to her. After all, I considered religious people as mystifying people who claim to be in contact with gods, demons, and other beings no one has ever seen.

Given my atheist upbringing it must come as a surprise that, as a student, I enrolled not only in philosophy but also in theology. It was Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov that got me interested in religion when I was about 16 years old. Besides, studying theology seemed to provide me with an excellent education in the humanities. I had to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, was taught about philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy, and enjoyed the history of arts, ideas, and politics.

Reading Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas of Aquin, or William of Ockham, however, could not change my mind. I am still an atheist questioning the existence of God. While I admit that there are quite understandable reasons for believing in a creator, none of these reasons seems to me to be persuasive, leave alone compelling.

Take for example “The Ontological Argument for the Existence of God.” According to this argument, God is “that than which none greater can be conceived.” In other words, God has every possible perfection. He is perfect in knowledge, perfect in power, and perfect in virtue. However, if a being is perfect, the argument goes, then that being must exist. For if it did not exist, it would not be perfect.

As Immanuel Kant noted, this argument is fallacious. Sure, in order for a being to be perfect it has to have certain properties, such as omniscience or omnipotence. But it does not mean that it therefore has to exist. After all, existence is not a property. The definition of God can tell us only what kind of being he must be. Whether he really exists, however, is an entirely different matter that cannot be settled by a mere definition.

Another famous proof is “The Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God.” Everything that exists, it is said, has a cause. But if everything has a cause, the universe too must have a cause. That cause is God. Is this a compelling argument? No! If literally everything has a cause, then God too must have a cause. And if God has a cause, his cause must also have a cause, and so on ad infinitum.

When religious apologists noted that the cosmological argument is not sound, they rephrased it by claiming that everything has a cause—except for God. God himself does not have a cause. He is a causa sui, a cause “in and of itself.” But this move is even more vulnerable. For if the premise is true, the conclusion cannot be true, and if the conclusion is true, the premise cannot be true. If everything must have a cause (the premise), then God too must have a cause. If God does not have a cause (the conclusion), then it is obviously wrong that everything must have a cause.

Let us suppose for a moment, if only for the sake of argument, that we could actually make sense of the strange notion of a causa sui. If there can be a thing that does not need a cause, then this might as well be the universe as God. Thus, no matter how hard we try, the cosmological argument is simply not compelling. Moreover, even if it were compelling, it would not prove what it was supposed to prove. All the cosmological argument could possibly prove is “a first cause.” Proving the existence of a first cause, however, is still a long way from proving the existence of the caring and loving God of Christianity.

Probably the most popular proof for the existence of God is still “The Teleological Argument.” Look at the stars in the sky, the trees in the wood, and the animals in the wild. They all behave in an orderly manner. Where does this order come from? It must come from an intelligent designer. And this designer is God! As appealing as this argument may seem, it is certainly not conclusive. As David Hume has pointed out, that something appears to be designed in no way implies that it has been designed. Moreover, with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, we have an alternative explanation for the existence of order in nature. It may very well be an adaptation by natural selection.

Besides, apart from the order in the world, there is quite some disorder. Anyone who has ever visited a hospital and has seen the patients in a neonatal, oncological, or psychiatric ward will probably have some serious doubts about the benevolence of the purported heavenly designer. This brings us straight to the most powerful objection to the God of Christianity: “The Problem of Evil.”




Perhaps no one has put the problem of evil better than Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is not benevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence evil?” The traditional Christian answer to the problem of evil has been that we only get what we deserve. You and I—and even this seemingly innocent newborn baby plagued by a horrible disease such as epidermolysis bullosa – deserve to suffer because we are all sinners—“conceived in sin and born in sin.”

A proper response to this outrageous assertion requires more space than I have been allotted. Thus, let’s just focus on a problem that has already been pointed out by Darwin, namely the needless pain and suffering of innocent animals:

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of animals throughout almost endless times?

One of the most dreadful documentaries I have ever seen was a natural history program by David Attenborough. The film shows the circular migration of more than one million animals within the Serengeti. In order to reach the southern plains, these animals have to pass the Mara River that is full of crocodiles. Thus, while crossing the river, literally hundreds of gnus are killed mercilessly. A few of them escape wounded, but only to be eaten alive by lions lurking on the other side of the river. What kind of God, I asked myself, could possibly have created this “nature red in tooth and claw”?

After graduating, I decided to specialize in ethical issues arising from new biological and medical technologies. Following an invitation by Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, I joined the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. At that time, I thought I would never ever have to deal with religious issues again. Obviously, I was deeply wrong. Contraception, abortion, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, preconception sex selection, or reproductive cloning—there is literally not a single bioethical issue that the Christian Church does not comment about.

In itself, there is surely nothing wrong with this. Members of the clergy are clearly entitled to take a stance on urgent moral matters. There is, however, something peculiar about the Church’s statements. Religious statements claim to be based on a higher authority than secular statements. Remarkably, not only proponents of the Christian faith, but even opponents of the Christian faith grant religious leaders a kind of moral supremacy. They tend to believe that theologians are somehow experts on ethical issues.

Why is that? The answer is obvious. Most people still consider religion and ethics to be inseparable. Even more than that, they believe that religion is the foundation of ethics—that without theology there can be no morality.

Why do I find this “remarkable”? Well, it is remarkable because it is not true. In fact, it is so blatantly untrue that one must wonder how this belief could possibly survive the age of reason. I am not sure, but I suppose the belief that ethics is based on religion is a result of two millennia of Christian indoctrination. Almost every child is brought up thinking that moral rules derive from the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The idea that moral rules like “You shall not lie,” “You shall not steal,” or “You shall not kill” are of a religious nature is so engraved in a child’s mind that it will hardly ever question it, not even as an adult.

The clergy certainly welcomes the assumption that religion is the foundation of ethics. It even feeds this belief by raising its finger and proclaiming social disaster if we don’t return to the fold of the Church and acknowledge its moral authority. Thus, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Benedict XVI, warned us of an impending “dictatorship of relativism.” If we turn our back on God, he said, we will be unable to tell right from wrong.

The idea that religion is the cornerstone of ethics is best illustrated by the so-called “Divine Command Theory of Ethics.” According to the divine command theory, telling right from wrong is easy. Right is what God approves of; wrong is what God disapproves of. Since God approved of fidelity and disapproved of infidelity, fidelity is good and infidelity is evil.

The divine command theory is, however, deeply flawed. As the Greek philosopher Socrates noticed more than two thousand years ago, supporters of this theory are faced with an inescapable dilemma. The dilemma is raised by a simple and quite innocent question: “Is charity good because God approved of it, or did God approve of charity because it is good?”

If someone answers “Charity is good because God approved of it,” he would have to admit that if God happened to approve of cruelty rather than charity, cruelty would be good and charity would be evil. Given that he cannot conceive of God as an entirely arbitrary lawgiver, he will probably hasten to add: “True, but God would never approve of cruelty because He is good.” But this answer doesn’t get him out of trouble; it gets him even deeper into trouble. After all, what can he possibly mean by saying that God is “good”? If “good” only means to be “approved by God,” “God is good” only means that “God approved of himself”—and becomes a vacuous claim. In other words: the divine command theory renders God’s commands arbitrary and reduces the doctrine that God is good tautological.

The only way to avoid this unacceptable conclusion is to say: “Charity is not good because God approved of it. God approved of charity because it is good.” Thus, it could be argued that charity is good because it helps in relieving human suffering and reducing the amount of misery in the world—and that this is the real reason why God approved of charity. This is certainly a much more reasonable response. Moreover, on this response, the doctrine that God is good can actually be preserved.

Those using this response, however, are also faced with a dilemma. By saying that God approved of charity because charity is good, they are admitting that there is a standard of right and wrong that is entirely independent of God. It is not God’s approval or disapproval that makes some actions right and others wrong. Rather, it is their effect on human welfare that makes some actions right and others wrong. Hence, people choosing this option have virtually abandoned their theological conception of ethics and will have to concede that we do not need God in order to tell right from wrong. Instead of turning to God to decide what is good and what is evil, we may as well directly turn to the ultimate standard of right and wrong.

The implications of Socrates’ argument are evident. Contrary to what religious leaders claim, ethics is not based on religion and morality is independent of theology. Therefore, moral theologians do not have a greater claim on moral truth than moral philosophers or any other person willing to abide by rules apt to improve human welfare.

One of my main reasons for joining this book’s “voices of disbelief” is therefore of a moral nature. While it is perfectly acceptable when religious leaders remind the members of their church that, say, physician-assisted suicide is a “sin,” it is entirely unacceptable when religious leaders try to impose their Christian values on everyone else. If a dying patient suffering from unbearable pain feels the moral obligation to partake in the “Passion of Christ,” he is free to do so. But who is the Church to tell those who do not subscribe to their religious views how they ought to die? A liberal democracy based on a strict separation of church and state ought to enable all its citizens to live and die according to their own values.

This article is an excerpt from 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), edited by Udo Schuklenk and IEET Fellow Russell Blackford. Posted by permission of the author and the publishers.

Edgar Dahl is spokesman for the German Society for Reproductive Medicine. He is the editor of Giving Death a Helping Hand: Physician-Assisted Suicide and Public Policy and an anthology on the philosophy of religion.          Source: ieet.org