Seekers of truth face an ultimate question that overrides all others. The answer dictates your entire approach to life.
Is there a supernatural god who may burn you forever in fire after you die? If the answer is yes, it’s the most crucial fact of human life. But if no such god exists, religions have committed millennia of fraud and deception.
British historian Paul Johnson put it this way:
The existence or nonexistence of God is the most important question we humans are ever asked to answer. If God does exist, and if in consequence we are called to another life when this one ends, a momentous set of consequences follows, which should affect every day, every moment almost, of our earthly existence. Our life then becomes a mere preparation for eternity and must be conducted throughout with our future in view.
Television host and performer Steve Allen wrote in Reflections:
I do not understand those who take little or no interest in the subject of religion. If religion embodies a truth, it is certainly the most important truth of human existence. If it is largely error, then it is one of monumentally tragic proportions — and should be vigorously opposed.
Philosophy asks: Is there a purpose to life? Religious believers don’t need philosophy, because their priests tell them the answer: Yes, the purpose of life is to prepare for heaven, and God created the universe and put people here to be tested according to his divine plan.
Skeptics like me cannot swallow that answer. It’s dishonest because it claims to know supernatural things that nobody can know.
So, does God exist? My answer is yes, yes and no, depending on definitions.
First, if God is defined as the driving force of the universe — the stupendous power of gravity that whirls billions of galaxies and solar systems, the awesome energy inside the atomic nucleus that makes stars and hydrogen bombs, the amazing replication ability of DNA that creates all living things — the answer is yes. Those powers exist. Their immensity can be seen in the fact that only as much matter as a dime turned into energy with devastating power at Hiroshima.
Of course, you can’t worship physics or pray to E=MC2, so a pantheistic god is more science than religion.
Second, if God is defined as the compassion and caring found in people (and a few higher mammals), the answer again is yes. The better angels of our nature are a genuine part of humanity — just like the worse angels.
Of course, you can’t worship psychology or pray to human kindness, so the “God is love” approach is mostly a topic for brain research.
Third, if God is defined as the father-creator portrayed by religions and the bible, forget it. No evidence supports a personal deity who cares about people and manipulates worldly events. He’s just a concoction of the imagination, as far as honest thinkers can tell.
Beliefs are baffling. Nobody knows what causes some people to want to believe supernatural claims — or causes heathens like me to doubt them. Our personalities are formed by subtle factors still not fully understood.
But this much is clear: If the answer to the God question — the deepest human question — is no, then religions have been lying since before written history began.
This column is adapted from a piece originally published on July 15, 2019, at Daylight Atheism/Patheos.