Religions are very strange. Throughout many millennia, people have believed in immaterial pantheons of Gods and other equally immaterial entities, in the reality of an immaterial soul, that continues to live after the death of the body in an immaterial world inhabited by all manner of immaterial beings and the countless souls of the dead. The Christian Bible and the Islamic Koran tell us that the behaviour of people on this physical world determines the fate of their immaterial souls during the eternity their souls will exist after death. People not only believe in these things, but believe in them so intensely, that many are even willing to die for their belief in these things. Yet when you look at these beliefs rationally, you come to a number of very definite conclusions.
In fact, believers in all religions have only faith to sustain their belief. But faith alone fades away unless it is supported by proofs supporting this belief; so there must be some sort of proof sustaining belief in religions. So where is this proof? What sustains religious belief?
Religions and near death experiences have fascinated me for many years. Many years of study finally resulted in a book on the biology of near death experiences called Mortal Minds. After finishing this book I came to realise that many of the answers to my question of why people believe in religions were partly answered by the ways many people interpret experiences such as near death experiences, out of body experiences, paranormal experiences, the functioning of the human body under certain circumstances, as well as the workings of natural laws and chance. Moreover, careful examination of the proofs of belief in religions provided in holy books such as the Torah, Bible and Koran, reveals that belief in the religions calling these books holy, is supported by apparent proofs provided by the functioning of the human body, as well as the workings of natural laws. I discussed many of these aspects of apparent "proofs" of religion in a book called The Unholy Legacy of Abraham.
When you look at these matters carefully, you realize that proofs of religious belief systems originate in:
So let us examine these apparent proofs of religious belief systems.
Let us look at an example of a criminal assault upon a religious person.
Imagine you are a devout believer in a particular God and religion. You walk through a dark and dingy alley in a bad part of your city. Suddenly a fearsome and menacing man appears before you waving a huge knife, demands your money, and threatens you with violence or rape. You pray to God, "Oh God, please save your devout believer from this man!" At that very moment a police patrol enters the alley, and your attacker runs away.
When you look at this specific case, you come to one conclusion; God has answered your prayer! To the believer this is proof of their belief, because God came to the aid of a true believer! A sceptic would say the appearance of the police patrol was just pure chance. The nature of people is such that they remember incidents such as this, but conveniently forget the many, many incidents where the police were never present to save the victims of this professional criminal. After all, people do not become professional criminals such as this man without having a lot of previous experience when they were not caught or chased away. However, a true believer could say this proves that God only aids true believers, because all other successfully assaulted victims were almost certainly unbelievers, which is how this criminal gained his professional experience. I leave it to the reader to decide which argument is true... In my opinion, this is a nice example of a particular mindset seeing proof in a belief, where actually the proof was no more than statistical chance.
Similar chance statistical combinations are rain-dancing ceremonies performed by primitive peoples to induce their gods to send rain, the sacrifice of babies to Moloch by the Philistines or Carthaginians to avert disaster, or a prayer to God for victory by the leaders of an army. These are all examples of how a chance combination of a prayer with achievement of the subject of the prayer is misinterpreted as proof of divine intervention, and accordingly proof of a religious belief. After all, most people soon forget an unanswered prayer. Accordingly, such statistical misinterpretations constitute no proof of the reality of any religious belief system.
Imagine you spin yourself around and around until you are very, very dizzy. You then lay on the ground and close your eyes. You feel the world is turning around you, or you feel you are spinning and the world is standing still.
You feel yourself spinning, or that the world is spinning around you. You believe intensely in one of these two choices, but an observer does not see you spinning, nor does an observer perceive themselves as spinning with the world around you. All an observer sees is a person lying on the ground with closed eyes. This illustrates the difference between subjective and objective experience. The subjective experience has no relation to the reality about you. It is an internally generated sensation without any relationship to the physical world in which you live. Here is an extreme example of an experience where there is a very large discrepancy between subjective and objective reality.
For example, a man believes he can fly without the aid of any machines. He jumps from a high building, and while falling, he thinks he is flying. He really does experience his fall as flight, because as he falls, he feels himself flying through the air. His sensations of flight prove the truth of his belief to him. But observers see something quite different. Observers see a man who leaps from a high building to fall to the ground below. Observers are neutral, while the man who believes he is flying really does experience his fall as flight. The belief system of this man does not correspond with physical reality, because the reality is that the man jumps and falls to the ground below, no matter how fervently he believes he is flying. His flight lasts as long as his fall. This is physical reality, and his belief system is a delusion.
The last two examples are of sensations resulting from normal body function, albeit with misinterpretation of the reality. However, abnormal body function can also generate very real and powerful sensations and visions. Consider the example of the divine hallucinations generated by tumours in the temporal lobes of the brain. Here is an example of a "conversion experience" of a patient with a tumor in a temporal lobe of his brain (Dewhurst 1970)
The patient's first religious experience occurred in St. Ebba's Hospital during photic stimulation. He had a vision in which he was in the cockpit of an aeroplane flying over a mountainous region of France. The aircraft gained altitude and brought him to a different land, a land of peace. He had no cares and no burdens. He felt that the power of God was upon him and was changing him for the better. (Case 3 in Dewurst 1970)
These experiences are real, but their interpretations as religious experiences are iinterpretations made without any reference to reality. And there are countless other subjective experiences, some of which provide apparent proof of the paranormal, of a soul, of life after death, of God, and of religion. Nonetheless, regardless of the sometimes intense and profound nature of these experiences, they constitute no proof of the reality of any religion.
From ancient times, people have regarded sleep and dreaming as remarkable states. Ancient peoples even regarded sleep as a sort of death during which the soul was free to depart from the physical body, and do all manner of things. A passage in and ancient book called "De Senectute" illustrates this beautifully. And to think, this belief was already ancient when the ancient Roman writer called Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), wrote this passage more than 2000 years ago.
Again, you really see nothing resembling death so much as sleep; and yet it is when the body sleeps that the soul most clearly manifests its divine nature; for when it is unfettered and free it sees many things that are to come. Hence we know what the soul's future state will be when it has been wholly released from the shackles of the flesh. (page 93, "De Senectute"). >
More than one hundred years ago, James Frazer, wrote a book on comparative religion called The Golden Bough, in which he discussed the attitudes of several tribal peoples to dreams. These were actually the same as expressed by Cicero 2000 years earlier.
The soul of a sleeper is supposed to wander away from his body and actually to visit the places, to see the persons, and to perform the acts of which he dreams. For example, when an Indian of Brazil or Guiana wakes up from a sound sleep, he is firmly convinced that his soul has really been away hunting, fishing, felling trees, or whatever else he has dreamed of doing, while all the time his body has been lying motionless in his hammock. A whole Bororo village has been thrown into a panic and nearly deserted because somebody had dreamed that he saw enemies stealthily approaching it. A Macusi Indian in weak health, who dreamed that his employer had made him haul the canoe up a series of difficult cataracts, bitterly reproached his master next morning for his want of consideration in thus making a poor invalid go out and toil during the night. The Indians of the Gran Chaco are often heard to relate the most incredible stories as things which they have themselves seen and heard; hence strangers who do not know them intimately say in their haste that these Indians are liars. In point of fact the Indians are firmly convinced of the truth of what they relate; for these wonderful adventures are simply their dreams, which they do not distinguish from waking realities. ("The Golden Bough", chapter 18, section 2).
Dream worlds experienced during sleep are never seen when awake, or by those who are awake at the same time as someone in their vicinity is dreaming. Accordingly, many peoples consider the dream worlds as immaterial worlds inhabited by the soul of the sleeping. And if these immaterial worlds exist, then an immaterial world inhabited by the souls of the dead is not at all improbable. Combine this belief and logic with the subjective reality of out-of-body experiences, as well as near-death experiences, and you have apparent proof that individual consciousness can separate from the body to inhabit an immaterial universe populated by the souls of the dead. Here again, you have even more apparent proof of some of the tenets of religious belief. However, as I have explained in detail in the books Mortal Minds and The Unholy Legacy of Abraham, this is no more than subjective experience. True, these experiences are very vivid and profound, but they have little relation to objective reality, and therefore are not proof of the tenets of religion.
Finally, we come to the matter of paranormal phenomena. Many people consider these phenomena as indirect proof of "something more than this mere physical world". After all, the paranormal phenomena are immaterial, and cannot be detected with any physical measuring apparatus known to man. They can only be detected and used by those with special abilities and gifts. So they reason, that if such immaterial forces exist, then other paranormal, immaterial forces, or "something", then the reality of religious belief systems are also possible. After all, God and the immaterial world of the dead is also immaterial and paranormal.
I have extensively discussed the paranormal in Mortal Minds and The Unholy Legacy of Abraham. These books clearly demonstrate the paranormal to be more than an ancient socio-cultural delusion, a wonderful delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. As such, the paranormal is also no indirect proof of the reality of religious belief systems.
All direct and indirect proofs of the reality of religious belief fail to prove the reality of any and all religious beliefs in a soul, a God, and an immaterial world inhabited by the dead. The only path forward is a world without a God, a world in which humans live in full knowledge of the reality of their being, and a world in which people strive to make the best of their lives and this world.
Content of this page last modified 4 March 2005
Revised slightly 8 December 2010