How did we ever manage before some bright spark invented the phrase “there is an elephant in the room”?
It says it so neatly. There is a big thing here that we are not talking about.
When it comes to the God question, there is a mahassive elephant in the room. And that elephant is called faith.
The funny thing is that faith causes problems for both sides of the argument. That might be why it has become an elephant.
But first, let’s have a bible story. Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments. He is gone for forty days and forty nights. That seems to be the usual length of time for most things to happen in the Bible.
And while he is gone, his followers get a bit restless. They presumably don’t know that he will come back on the morning of the forty first day. They always do.
So the people ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make them some gods. As you do.
And in a plot twist worthy of Hollywood, Aaron gathers up all their gold jewellery and makes them a golden calf to worship.
God and Moses, perhaps understandably, are a bit miffed by this. So much so that the very first commandment is “Thou shalt have no other gods”.
And that’s the problem. Christianity does need a commandment telling people not to have other gods, because history is chock full of other gods.
Just about every civilization that has ever existed on this Earth has had a religion of some sort. Sometimes several religions.
You name it, and we have probably worshipped it at some point in our history. Cats and dogs, cows – heck even elephants. We have worshipped father figures, mother figures, whole families. We’ve imagined our gods walking amongst us, living in the stars, under the earth and on top of mountains.
Sometimes we even imagine that the randier of our gods turn themselves into bulls so that they can come to Earth and impregnate virgins. I have never quite understood how that one works and I am too afraid to Google it.
We have dreamt up many versions of the afterlife and different ways of getting there – cremated, buried, mummified. In coffins, pyramids, burial mounds, scattered over the hallowed turf of Wembley or in a pretty little china urn on the mantelpiece.
I have a particular fondness for the Romans. They simply took the Greek gods and gave them new names. I suppose it is the ultimate form of recycling.
The Vikings imagined that heaven was one massive party in Valhalla where they would be permanently drunk. That’s probably where Star Trek got the idea for the Klingons.
Right now there are an estimated 4,200 active religions in the world.
The challenge for atheism is quite simple. If there is no God, how can we explain our need to believe in gods? If there is nothing there, how come just about every civilization has believed in gods? That’s an awful lot of believing to dismiss as a delusion.
The challenge for religion is also simple. How come all these gods are so different from each other? If just one of them is right and all the others wrong, why hasn’t that religion risen to the top by now?
This is the £64,000 question. Any credible theory for the existence or non-existence of God has to explain the faith elephant.
After all, it is one of the few things that we know for certain. We know that different cultures worshipped a wide variety of gods because they have helpfully told us so. They have put up statues, painted pictures, written stories, built pyramids.
There is no getting away from this one. Humans have lots of gods. We always have and probably always will.
The next interesting question is why. I can see three possible explanations:
- They are all wrong. There is no god. Fools!
- My religion is the only correct one. All the others are wrong.
- They are all sort of right. Ish. Approximately. More or less.
Option 2 is particularly intriguing. My religion is right and all the others are wrong. The problem with this argument is … how can you know that?
In large part, your religion is determined by a postcode lottery. Most people assume the religion of their parents and their home country. It’s what you know. What you are taught. It feels right, in the same way that your mother tongue and local customs feel right.
But how can that make it any more right than the faith of another country? You would have a very different faith if you were born in in India, or China, or an Amish community, or Israel, or Syria, or …
You get the idea.
Ah, but then you will argue that you know that God exists because you can feel him. You have faith. He speaks to you. You don’t have to explain it or justify it. Your faith comes from within you.
Unfortunately, the believers in all the other world religions can say exactly the same thing. And all the followers of the religions which have died out. They also have (or had) exactly the same feelings of deep faith. They also believed in miracles. Their gods spoke to them too.
There is another implication of the “my faith is right, yours is wrong” argument. If that is true, then all other faiths apart from yours must be false. Few religions believe in competing gods. It’s an all or nothing deal. My God exists – yours does not.
That line of argument can mean only one thing – that mankind invents gods. More than that, it means that the vast majority of gods must have been invented. After all, Moses and God complained about the worship of false gods – gods that did not exist.
And, if that is true, how can so many people believe so fervently in something that evidently does not exist?
And that is a question which ought to trouble both atheism and religion.
Now that’s what I call an elephant.