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Arguments against religion
A response to famous humanists and their ideas

See also: a logical approach | fallacies (and answering questions) | knowledge | it's your choice


This web site contains many reasons to believe in God. But to many people, there are far more reasons to NOT believe in God. Many humanists, in particular, delight in attacking religion as logically unsustainable.

Sometimes it helps to look at the classic arguments for atheism, and see if they really make any sense. This page contains a summary of the key arguments in the "Humanist Anthology," published by the Rationalist Press Association (Rochdale, 1961). It contains humanist thought from the greatest humanist thinkers, from ancient times to the twentieth century. The cover proclaims that "it provides ample ammunition for those engaged with arguments with religionists." How can I resist such a challenge :-)

I do not wish to imply that all humanists are anti-religion, or that those who oppose religion are bad people. But the vanity of some humanists is really quite amusing. They have all the confidence of a teenager who knows everything, and has no time for the older generation.

This page represents my own understanding, not an official church position. But I believe it is both logical and in harmony with what the church teaches. If it appeared that the church was not in harmony with both logic and what I have learned for myself, then I would leave the church and become a humanist myself!

Warning: this is highly simplified

I am sure a skillful humanist could respond to each of my points and we could begin an endless argument. That is not the purpose of this page - if you want endless arguments, try Usenet. I do not want to insult the intelligence of humanists by pretending they can be so easily silenced. This page is here just to show that critics can be answered rationally.

My thesis on this web site is not that I can convert non-Mormons, but simply that the evidence FOR religion (and the church in particular) is just as good as the evidence AGAINST. (But the potential benefits are far greater in the church than out of it!)

In praise of humanists

It is not my desire to knock humanists. Knocking another's beliefs seldom does any good, and usually makes the critic look ignorant, defensive, and mean spirited. Besides, "humanism" is such a broad description that it includes almost everyone in some way or other. Many humanists say and do some very sensible and noble things. Humanists have done so much good that it seems a shame to attack particular positions. But since humanists usually enjoy a good debate, and are (in theory) not offended by someone holding a different view, I am sure that many will enjoy this kind of healthy difference of opinion. Can we remain friends?

If I had only been exposed to the kinds of religion described by humanists, I would probably be a humanist, too. In fact, when compared with some of the things taught by many religions, humanism comes as a breath of fresh air. And when they stay purely logical and rational, they are very supportive of true religion. In fact, many (perhaps most) of the ideas in the "Humanist Anthology" are clearly argued and powerfully true. But it is in the area of religion where humanists arguments are at their weakest.

One last thing - humanist literature, like any other promotional materials, tends to paint humanists as rational, ethical, considerate, and all good things. On this page I am only going to waste time shouting "we are more rational/ethical/considerate than you." I will try to focus just on the arguments.

The arguments

For the sake of space, I have tried to choose just the single most important idea from each thinker. I have tied to avoid repeating ideas, hence although Darwin spent time in the "argument from design," the basic idea had already been questioned by Hume. Sometimes when two people have made the same point, and the first person made other points as well, I have attributed the main point to a later person who did not have as much to say (e.g. Gibbon's opinion that the early church taught that the world would end in their lifetime). If you are familiar with these writers and feel I have misrepresented their ideas, please contact me and I will correct any mistakes.

The arguments for atheism
Who said it What was said Does it make sense?
Confucius (Various principles of ethics, each beginning, "the Master said.") It is amusing to read 'A Humanist Anthology' and find it begins with quotations from Confucius. Humanism is apparently about thinking for yourself, and not accepting ideas on authority. Yet we start with a list of ethics, to be accepted because "the Master said" so. It may be that many people agree with particular ethical principles. But is popularity enough to establish their truth, especially if there are sometimes pressing reasons to think differently? We need more than a system of ethics. We need reasons..
Thucydides Thucydides extols the greatness and honor of Athens. Of course he says that - he is speaking at a funeral of Athenian soldiers! But why was Athens great? Because it abandoned religion for a purely rational scheme? No. Its greatness was based on the laws of Solon (c.639-c.559 BC). Before Solon, Athens had a serious economic crisis. Many Athenians were in debt, many were sold into slavery. An inefficient aristocracy ran the city. All these things (payment of debts, leadership by those whose families have the experience of leading) are entirely rational. Centuries later, when Athens declined, it was again due to rational approach to accumulating wealth. But Solon as different. His reforms enshrined the need for religion - temple ceremonies, consulting the oracle, etc. So it is plainly false to imply that the Athenian state shows the triumph of rationalism over religion. (For details, see the Grollier encyclopedia, "Solon" by Plutarch, and Timon of Athens - which was based on a true story - and Aristophanes' Plutus.)
Epicurus We feel nothing at death, therefore it is the end. This does not follow. We often feel nothing during sleep, and that is not the end. Besides, according to many near death experiences, we often do feel something in death. (The source of those feelings is not the issue - the fact is that we sometimes feel.)
Mencius Men are naturally good, but events and circumstances come along and smother these instincts. Hence the need for religion! Religion provides a clear example of how we can be good again, as well as strategies for overcoming the distractions.
Cicero Cicero (like many other classical authors) praises ethics. Fair enough, but religion goes beyond simply ethical teaching. It offers much more.
Lucretius It is crazy to think that an immortal spirit would act together with a mortal body. It is just as crazy to think that a living body would pair up with unliving clothing, or that electromagnetic radiation would pair up with a TV set, yet it happens all the time.
Seneca Death is the end of any existence, and holds no fears because we did not live before we were born either. No evidence is provided for either claim.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Antininus also praises ethics, and he encourages good deeds. Fair enough.But why should anyone follow? It is perhaps possible to work out a logically sound and complete system of ethics separate from religion, but nobody has ever done it. Or at least, not in a way that the common man has heard of. So all the ethical advice carries little force. Religion, on the other hand, is very successful at providing reasons for ethics.
Celsus Some Christians prefer blind faith to knowledge. And some prefer knowledge, and have it. The same is true for humanists - some prefer to attack all religions regardless of the facts, while others are more cautious with their conclusions.
Montaigne Eternity must be entirely different from this present physical world, so all physical promises are foolish. Why? I think Montaigne has been reading too much Plato.
Spinoza It is wrong to be miserable now in the hope of release at death. I agree!
Jean Meslier There is evidence that the scriptures were tampered with by copyists, and there is no firm basis for the present canon as opposed to some other choice of books. That is true! That is one reason why Jesus said we need living prophets.
Voltaire The Christian councils (e.g. Nicea) produced a lot of nonsense. I agree! The church by that time was not led by prophets and apostles. It was in a state of deep apostasy from what Jesus taught.
David Hume The argument from design - that the earth is beautiful and therefore must have been designed - is not a very strong argument. It is true that there are much stronger arguments than this. However, the critics' theories are not intrinsically better and have the weakness of being based on ignorance (see the discussion of randomness in the page on science and the spirit world). It should also be noted that this argument is often confused with the more powerful argument from scale (see the page on logic).
Denis Diderot Eternal punishment is unjust, since the person involved only sinned for a limited time. If he had studied further, he would have seen that "fire and brimstone" is only figurative, and even the worst kingdom in the next life is physically better than mortality. Our torment is in our own minds, when when we realise the glories and opportunities that we have rejected.
Baron D'Holbach The fact that all societies believe in religion of some kind, is not admissible as evidence. It is powerful evidence from an evolutionary point of view. There must be some very powerful advantage in religion for EVERY society to adopt it.
Adam Smith David Hume was a great man. Friends often feel that way. What does it prove?
Edward Gibbon The three hours of darkness (at the crucifixion) was not mentioned by astronomers. Then it was probably caused by unusual storm clouds. This is not a very good reason to reject religion!
Thomas Paine God told Moses to destroy a whole nation, including women and children. By Bentham's ethical law (see below), this was an act of kindness. If he had not, then a greater number of injustices would have resulted. The tiny nation of Amalekites, for example, practiced child sacrifice. Also, war was the norm at the time, and vengeance can continue for many generations. And so on.
Condorcet The question is asked, "will mankind progress?" This is a good question. How can it, without a goal, an example, and a common set of standards? The twentieth century has seen more atheism than ever, yet has also seen more wars, environmental degradation, starvation, etc.
Ninteenth Century Humanism
Jeremy Bentham The law of utility: We should do what causes most happiness and least pain. Sounds good, but this is very hard to measure, even in a simple closed system. It is thus open to a great deal of self delusion. Everyone who ever stole something said "this does not hurt anyone." In contrast, religion provides an external se of standards, and thus provides less opportunity for self-delusion.
William Godwin The whole of creation is full of suffering - how could God allow this? Godwin exaggerates the amount of suffering compared with the amount of pleasure - though how any of us an claim to know for certain is not explained. For suffering in general, see Mark Twain, below.
Arthur Schopenhauer Religion gets hold of children, who then cannot question it. Schopenhauer obviously did not know the children I know! They question all the time, and come their teenage years they are quite ready to leave if they do not like it.
Percy Bysshe Shelley During the dark ages, the church committed various crimes. The church was in apostasy, as foretold in the Bible.
Heinrich Heine Catholic priests have various faults. So what? We do not need to defend them
Auguste Comte Religions cannot cope with new challenges that were not there in the beginning (e.g. when the Bible as written). The LDS church can That is the great genius of having an open canon.
Ludwig Feuerbach Awareness of God is just awareness of self (he quotes Augustine), and is so personal as to be self-fulfilling and meaningless. Only in a dead religion (such as Augustine's). In revealed religion, God is always separate and distinct, even when close. The church provides an external check, allowing us to see him as an objective standard.
John Stuart Mill A religion that is based on "it makes us better people" is not strong, as other things makes us better too. Partly true. Revealed religion is based on truths, not on effects. It is able to make us better people than anything else because the truths are so helpful and also motivational. As for "other things make us better." that is a subjective judgement. If it is admissible as evidence, it should be noted that religion can make us even better still.
Charles Darwin (1) The Tower of Babel story (for example) is manifestly false. The evidence shows otherwise. Such structures have since been discovered in the right time and place. The "all the world" part was accurate from their point of view. The same goes for the record of Noah's Ark.
Charles Darwin (2) God is portrayed as a vengeful tyrant. Some have suggested that the Great Flood was an example of such cruelty. But was it? This was a wicked world - full of abuse, murder, and cruelty. If God did nothing, millions would be born into suffering, and this would continue for generations. Instead, he chose a quick, clean break. Everyone is going to die sometime anyway, so better to start again and re-fill the earth with families that could give their babies some help. God chose the option that provided the least suffering of innocents.
Charles Darwin (3) Miracles are incredible. That is the whole point of miracles!
Charles Darwin (4) Ancient man was amazingly ignorant and credulous. No evidence is provided for this. It sounds like modern arrogance.
Charles Darwin (5) The gospels differ on some details. This is easily explained by accidents in transmission - the earliest copies had to be kept and hand-copied in secret, and translated, by largely uneducated people.
Charles Darwin (6) Feelings are not proof of God. They are proof if they are part of a logical structure.
George Eliot Many Christians prefer vagueness to precision. I agree! This kind of woolly thinking leads to all kinds of false ideas and lack of commitment.
Herbert Spencer Two doctrines that are unfair and unjust: (1) "original sin," (2) the damnation of all those who die without ever hearing about Christ. I agree! Herbert Spencer will get a pleasant surprise when he is taught the real gospel in the Spirit World.
Ernest Renan The Jews considered everyone to be a son of God. There is no evidence in the earlier gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) that Jesus was any more special than that. Jesus had good reason for keeping some things quiet (persecution). But see Matthew 3:17 (and Mark 9:7, Luke 9:35) - a voice from heaven saying "this is my beloved son." Also, Matthew 4:3 - this meaning of "son of God" implies the ability to do any miracle, just like God himself. Or Matthew 28:9 - we baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Jesus was not just any son!
Thomas Henry Huxley We must have logical evidence for belief. I agree! You have my logical evidence. Where is the logical evidence for atheism?
Sir Leslie Stephen The old ideas about religion are bad, even though the newer interpretations are nicer. This is based on interpretations from the Dark Ages, when the church had fallen into apostasy. The even earlier ideas were better.
Andrew Dickson White Christian and Jewish ideas are similar to Baylonian and Sumerian ideas, so one is based on the other. This is not logical. If A is similar to B, it does not follow that A is based on B. It could be coincidence. It could be that B is based on A (most records from this time period are lost). They could both be based on some third element, C. Either way, the evidence is consistent with the position that Christianity was the original, and all others are corruptions of it.
Moncure Conway Unselfishness and a desire for service come from meditation and thought. Quite possibly, but most people do not meditate. Religion is more efficient at changing human nature because it provides more direct evidence.
Charles Bradlaugh Christians have encouraged bad things, and non-Christians have ended them - e.g. slavery. The opposite is often true - the key movers in ending slavery called themselves Christians. For more on slavery, click here.
Robert Green Ingersoll (a) God fills the world with lower forms of life, so is wasteful. (b) God fills the earth with deadly dangers, and so is evil. (a) Animals and plants each have their own purpose and potential for development, and thus none of it is wasteful. (b) Without challenges, how are we to learn and grow?
Mark Twain God does not relieve suffering, so therefore he is evil. This is not logical. It does not always follow. For example, if I assist a struggling butterfly to escape from its cocoon (which causes suffering), I will kill it. If I prevent children from experiencing any of the pain caused by their own mistakes, I store up worse trouble for the future. There is a lot more to suffering than this, but this is enough to show that Twain's logic is false.
Samuel Butler Butler finds non-religious people more amiable than religious people. Of course. Because Butler was non-religious. It is always easier to get on with and understand (and hence trust) people who share the same views as yourself.
W. E. H. Lecky The traditional church persecuted any who thought differently. When it gained supreme power, it did the worst evil. The Protestant churches did the same (though they had less power). Exactly! More evidence that, as the apostles were rejected and died, the Christian church fell into apostasy and evil. The Protestant reformation was not enough. (NB - all of Lecky's examples are from when the apostles were not in control.)
John Morley We should teach children plainly and unselfconsciously. We should tell them what we really believe about scriptures, and not just what we think they ought to believe. I agree - when we are vague, or teach children things we do not believe, we do not help them. Let us be clear and honest. Let us decide where we stand, one way or the other!
William James We should not condemn spiritual feelings and beliefs as just biological, but should judge them on their merits. I agree!
Friedrich Nietzsche If there were gods, I would understand them, want to be one, and become one. The flaw in this argument is whether you would understand them. If your intelligence is limited, it is unlikely that you would understand them except through humility, patience, and obedience. Nietzsche is extremely weak in those areas.
W. K. Clifford Without any priests, natural human goodness will naturally arise. Certainly if a priest teaches falsehood, he will make our natural behavior worse. But if he teaches truth, he will make our natural behavior better.
G. W. Foote History shows that all gods are fake. Foote falls for the common fallacy that 'many' means 'all.' Yes, there are many false gods. Just as there are many false ideas of logic. But among all the false ideas there is also a true idea of logic, just as there is a true god. If Foote has not found the true God, he has obviously not tried them all.
Twentieth Century Humanism
Sigmund Freud Religious experience cannot be tested. Yes it can be tested. Much religious experience is in the form of "do this and you will be blessed," or "in the future this will happen." Such messages can be tested, and are tested every day.
John Dewey The idea that a mystical experience is proof of God, is based on unproven prior assumptions. Prior assumptions? Yes. Unproven? No. The whole process can be entirely rational: I deduce logically that there must be a God. If there is a God he must answer prayers. I pray. he answers. This is all very rational.
J. B. Bury Unlimited freedom of speech is essential to progress. Does this mean freedom without responsibility for the consequences? Is that just? And if we have to accept the consequences, can speech be so free? For example, unlimited freedom means freedom to shout all day at school, to abuse your privacy, to promote hate on TV, to publish lies and make people think they came from someone they trust... Unless these things are quickly suppressed, society breaks down.
G. Lowes Dickinson Greek religion was not based on morality, but on balance and temperance. That kind of religion is too vague to be helpful. Who decides what concepts are to be in balance? Who decides where the balance lies?
Gilbert Murray Religion has to accept the original message of God having a physical form, or it descends into unbelief. I agree! There is really not much difference between the popular Christian idea that 'God is everywhere' and the atheist position that 'God is nowhere.'
Chapman Cohen A vague code of ethics (e.g. "the laborer is worthy of his hire") is too general to be useful. This sounds like an argument for a clear church structure, including living prophets! Cohen then goes on to list many points where traditional Christianity has come to very poor decisions - looking on marriage as inferior to celibacy, not opposing slavery, etc. All these problems of course are solved when we see the scriptures in the light of modern revelation.
Bertrand Russell (1) Religion is based on coping with a fear of the unknown, and "all fear is bad." Wrong on both counts. Religion is based on revelation. Fear of the unknown is a healthy survival mechanism, as any evolutionist should know.
Bertrand Russell (2) The sun is a minor star, and therefore the whole of life is not important. This does not follow. If there are many populated worlds, and each individual has the ability to become like God, each individual is still infinitely important.
Bertrand Russell (3) The mind is intimately connected with the brain - e.g. it is affected by inherited genes, by drugs, etc. It does not follow that this precludes a spirit. Consider the analogy of communicating by computer. My abilities depend on what the computer can do. How I experience life (whether it is pleasurable or disturbing) depends on how the computer works (a virus infested DOS is like being a manic depressive, the latest multimedia powerhouse is like being high on drugs). If the computer has the feature, I have the feature. If the computer is damaged, what I can do is then damaged. Nobody can experience me except through this, and I can only experience others through this. Does that mean that I do not exist, independent of the computer?

Consider the case of someone who is cured of a lifelong mental disability, such as the man whose drugs for epilepsy were retarding him mentally, until twenty years later the mistake was discovered. Such people report that they knew what they wanted to do, but felt a fog or lacked the tools with which to do it. Hence this chemical-brain argument is not logical, as the brain can still be a tool of something else. See the page on evidence for the spirit world.

G. E. Moore The purpose of life is to appreciate what is good. At last, something else to agree on! But Mormons were teaching this long before Moore was born. As it states in 2 Nephi 2:25: "Men are, that they might have joy."
Albert Einstein The idea of immortality is based on "absurd egoism." And so is the idea of human consciousness. But that is not a rational reason to reject either.
(Note: although Einstein had some bad experiences with traditional religion, it would be wrong to say he rejected religion outright. As he wrote in his book "Out of My Later Years," "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.")
E. M. Forster It is wrong to believe in something because someone says so. This is only partly true. We do need an independent testimony from our own experience - a second hand testimony has many dangers. However, some facts are not easily tested, so we rely on trustworthy people. That is how science works. At university, we test the basic ideas, and such things as are convenient to test, and we trust the professors on the rest.
H. L. Mencken The early Christians (in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts) taught that Christ would return in their lifetime. This is based on pulling three passages out of context:
(1) John was promised that he would not taste death (not the same as not dying) but instead would stay til the second coming - however long that was. See John 21:22-23, Matthew 16:28. The word for "some" in Matthew is elsewhere translated "one".
(2) Matthew 13:30 refers to "this generation" (or "the same generation") - e.g. the generation in question, the one being discussed. The one being discussed was not the first century generation, but the one alive when the signs are fulfilled. The same chapter indicated that the gospel had to go to the whole world - and the context is global (Matthew 24:29-31,35), so it did not mean just the Roman empire. That of course could not be achieved in one generation.
(3) Matthew 10:7 says "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." But this was fulfilled by the church - see Luke 11:20, Luke 17:20-22.
It may have been helpful to encourage a sense of urgency in the church, but the scriptures did not demand an early second coming. (See also Matthew 24 and also "the last days")
Julian Huxley Evolution caused everything. This is the fallacy of reification. "Evolution" is just a description of observed processes of change. For example, fashions evolve, houses evolve, hairstyles evolve. In each case it is foolish to ignore intelligent input.
M. N. Roy Humanists strive for equality There is not evidence for this generalization. Indeed, if all people are different and there is no greater truth out there, this would seem to be irrational.
Barbara Wooton In faith, doubt is sin Only if the doubt is over something where the evidence is clear. The same is true of science. Hence "creation scientists" openly doubt the evidence for an ancient earth, yet strangely, other scientists do not applaud and encourage their doubt!
Gora All kinds of goodness is attributed to humanists (humanists are rational, brave, energetic, etc.) This is all wishful thinking. No evidence is presented.
Sydney Hook Humanists are defined in a certain way. The definition is based on the shifting sands of fashion. Hence if a humanist (such as Stalin, Salazar or Franco) does something considered "bad", the definition is re-written to exclude him.
H. J. Blackham Humanists put reason before emotion and will. The evidence for this is not conclusive. Even if it was, it ignores two facts:
(1) Reason is severely limited, due to limitations in knowledge, experience, intelligence, and admissible evidence. (This is a problem the police often face - they have enough experience to be fairly sure of a fact, but it is not in a form that he courts will accept.)
(2) The term "emotion" includes gut reactions based on accumulated experience.
Hence an emotion can be based on more evidence than a reasoned thought.
Margaret Knight There are bad religions that are hypocritical and ignore evidence. So what? I am not defending bad religions. I am promoting a good religion - one that encourages consistency and welcomes evidence.
Jean Paul Sartre We create ourselves (through our ideas and desires). Thus God does not create us. (1) This pre-supposes a physical world. Who maintains the physical laws? (2) If ideas have meaning, then that implies progression. What is our ultimate goal? Hence this argument needs God.
A. J. Ayer Morality cannot be based on authority. It is not. Morality is based on knowledge - e.g. that our actions have consequences. Authority just makes morality simpler to understand.
Peter Medawar Religion causes passion, which causes wars. Karl Marx studied history and believed it showed the precise opposite - religion is "the opium of the people," which prevents passion and prevents revolution. (In his "Toward the Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right.")
Alex Comfort Scientific ideas have made man morally better There is no evidence for this. Indeed, scientific ideas are usually applied in context of prevailing religious assumptions (e.g. that life is sacred).
Anthony Flew Without evidence of God, we must be atheist or agnostic. Half right. Lack of evidence implies agnosticism ("a-gnostic" means "no knowledge"). But the statement is still misleading. Atheism is almost impossible to provide evidence for - it requires us to search the whole universe to show there is no god-like being anywhere. In contrast, the evidence FOR a supreme being is already here.
Paul Kurtz Bureaucracy stifles growth; individualism creates freedom. This appears to be an argument against organization or rules, since both imply bureaucracy. Yet rules can increase freedom. Try driving a car without traffic rules!
Richard Dawkins Religion is a mind virus The evidence does not support this. However, by the strict definition, atheism is the true virus. For example, it kills its host. (No atheist society has ever survived more than a couple of generations.)
Jacob Bronowski The concept of "absolute truth" is a source of evil. So is the concept of relative truth. And both can also be the source of good, depending on their use.
David Attenborough Man is temporary on this earth, and therefore has no special position. This does not follow. It is possible to be a temporary visitor and also special in all kinds of unique and important ways.

The bottom line:

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."
- G.K. Chesterton , in "What's Wrong with the World."


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