Friday, November 13, 2015


It seems we are natural-born dualists.  On the physical side we of course can observe our own bodies as well as those of others.  And then there’s that inner life, that internal world.  We have a powerful experience of sensations, emotions, and thoughts that together give us a compelling sense of will and of identity.  We refer to this inner world as mind or consciousness or sentience, and if we are religious we call it the soul.

Friday, November 6, 2015


I fondly recall when the original Superman series ran on TV in the 1950s, with George Reeves in the title role.  I was seven when the series began in 1952, and I loved it.  And while I realized at some level that Superman wasn’t real, I will admit to thinking early on that if I only had a cape maybe, just maybe, I too could fly.  (Yes, I was that naive.)  Thankfully, my older sisters quickly disabused me of that notion.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


I enjoy discussions about religion with my Christian friends, even though I realize that the chances that I will change anyone’s beliefs about matters of faith are close to zero.  And the older I get, the more remote the odds become.  But in discussions regarding the basis of beliefs my goals are broader than that.  Listening to what others have to say has helped me not just to understand better what I think but to refine those views and in some cases to change them.  But while I enjoy the repartee, there are some things that my Christian counterparts do and say that I find very frustrating.  Let’s call them pet peeves.  Here are a few:

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


A couple of times previously I have attempted to support my point of view that free will does not exist, that it is simply a powerful illusion.  So far, as far as I know I have succeeded in converting no one, zilch, to my position. Nevertheless, here I am making another effort at a persuasive essay in support of my view.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


When pro-choice individuals are asked the question of when in a pregnancy a human fetus requires recognition and protection, virtually all would agree that there needs to be a standard.  Without such a standard we could wind up on a slippery slope to euthanasia.  And I think most moral scholars agree that that would be a very dangerous position for society to assume. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015


We’ve all heard the old joke, “Lions 21, Christians 0,” a reference to the period presumably when the Romans persecuted Christians for sport.  Now we’re hearing cries of persecution of Christians once again.  Right now and right here in America.  Here are some examples:  
  • Banning of religious symbols—ten commandments, nativity scenes—on government property. 
  • Banning of prayers in public schools.
  • Banning of the teaching of creationism in public schools.
  • Giving women the right to abortions.
  • Granting same-sex couples the right to get married.
All are claimed to be instances of attacks on Christians and Christianity.  I don’t agree.

Saturday, June 27, 2015


Most of us are dualists.  We believe we have both bodies and minds.  We believe we peer out of our bodies by way of our minds and that the combination gives us our sense of self, our souls, if you will.  We don’t think about it much; we just accept the idea that we have an internal mental world separate from the exterior physical world.  We believe our bodies are made of the same stuff—atoms and molecules—as the rest of the material universe.  We’re not sure what our minds are made of—some sort of nonphysical stuff.  Even though we don’t know what mind is, we think that most (though not all) of our physical actions are controlled by our minds rather than the other way around.  We refer to the mind that we are aware of as consciousness.  We don’t really think about consciousness much either; it’s just there.  However, we believe we control our consciousness through our selves, and we call this “free will.”

This is what most people believe, if they think about it at all.  But it is not correct, and it is not what I believe.  There is no such thing as “mind” or “consciousness” or “self” or “soul” that is in control of our physical actions or that is independent of the physical world.  The notion of mind as separate from body is simply an illusion, albeit a powerful one.

Monday, May 25, 2015


What would the world be like if there were no religion?  I know, at this point it’s just an atheist’s dream.  Still, I think it is useful to ask whether the world would be better or worse if no one believed in a god or gods.  How would an absence of faith affect morality, violence, cultural traditions, happiness?  Volumes have been written on this question.  Here I thought I would just touch on a few of the ways in which the world might be different.

Moral Standards.

Question:  Isn’t religion (or at least the Judeo-Christian tradition) responsible for the moral code that we enjoy today?  If there were no religion in which to ground our morality, wouldn’t moral standards deteriorate, leading to the kind of dysfunctional societies described in Lord of the Flies or Mad Max?

Answer:  I’ve addressed this question in another essay on my Skeptic Reflections blog.  In brief, in my view moral standards originate not in religion but in our humanity and in the need for mutual cooperation in the social order that we have established.  In that sense religion is not the source of moral standards.  Rather, it is used to rationalize moral standards that exist for other reasons.  

While I believe there is a core set of moral standards that are based on our human condition and our interdependence on one another, I also believe that on a historical basis religious groups have modified that set of standards.  We can disagree whether those modifications have generally been for the better or the worse.  But just consider for a moment the moral standards described in the early Israelite society.  Christians often point to the Ten Commandments as the acme of moral standards.  I don’t agree with that assessment in any event, but what they tend to gloss over is that the Israelites also engaged in—and condoned—genocide, slavery, rape, and polygamy.  Or consider those periods in Christian cultures when simply expressing or even just having the “wrong” belief was declared not just immoral but a punishable offense.  

Things are better today, at least in Western culture, but not because of the influence of religion.  Slavery, rape, genocide, and polygamy are condemned, but we are still dealing with morally questionable attitudes toward reproductive rights and toward the LGBT community.  And there is still an attitude among many Christian groups that their religious beliefs should be promoted by the government over competing beliefs regarding religion. And then there is the issue of radical Islam and the violence against those of other beliefs.  
In sum, religion has been detrimental rather than beneficial to the quality of moral standards.  The loss of religion would actually result in an improvement in those standards.

War and Group Violence.

Question:  While moral standards generally refer to individual behavior, there is also the related issue of group violence.  Would the incidence of war increase in the absence of religion?  

Answer:  This is another case where there have been accusations on both sides.  A friend of mine believed that most of the casualties of World War II were the result of atheist aggression.  He argued that both Stalin and Hitler were atheists (Hitler apparently was in the “closet”) and that they were waging a war on behalf of atheism.  On the other hand, it could be argued that historically a large percentage of the wars have been fought over religious differences.

My sense is that, while cultural differences, including differences in religious belief, have been a factor in formal aggression, the fundamental causes have usually been largely unrelated to religious differences.  More often the underlying conflicts have involved economics or autonomy.  Consider again the quasi-historical example of the Israelites.  Their history was often the recounting of one bloody battle after another against neighboring tribes.  And while one might argue that their (er, their god’s) goal was to convert their rival tribes to the worship of the Israelite god, rather than the other tribes’ “false gods,” a more realistic view of that history is that the Israelites’ goal was to gain freedom of action and favorable land.  As a second example, consider the genocide of Armenians by the Turks in 1915.  While the Turks were Muslim and the Armenians Christian, that religious difference was only one of several cultural and economic differences between the groups.

In short, human nature being what it is, groups have always found themselves in conflict with their neighbors.  In most cases the conflicts leading to aggression have centered on competition for resources or a desire for autonomy.  I don’t believe the absence of religion would have much effect either way on the incidence of that aggression.


Question:  Christian charitable organizations are a major force in American culture.  Most Christian denominations encourage their members to participate in charitable activities, both formal and informal.  There are a lot fewer atheist organizations that are engaged in such activities.  Wouldn’t there be an enormous loss of good deeds in the absence of religion?

Answer:  There’s no question that most Christian organizations sponsor and encourage their members to engage in charitable activities.  I consider such activities to be perhaps the most positive aspect of the Christian faith.  And it’s true that atheist organizations don’t have nearly the presence in, say, the social welfare arena as do Christian organizations.  (Atheist organizations more often see their mission as one of education.)  On the other hand, there are many more Christians (currently) than atheists.  And I would also point out that there are a great many secular organizations engaged in charitable activity—the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Goodwill Industries, and Doctors Without Borders, to name a few. 

One way to measure this is to compare charitable giving by Christians with charitable giving by nonbelievers.  While on average Christians may make higher charitable contributions than do nonbelievers, this is deceptive because a substantial portion of the donations of Christians to religious charities is for the promotion of religion, either through evangelical and missionary efforts or simply to maintain the religious organization—the administrative costs of the local church or broader denomination.  For an interesting discussion regarding this topic, see the following essay on Patheos.

I believe that built into any larger society’s moral code is a recognition of the need to help those less fortunate.  Here again religion has taken credit for this universal moral standard, but the disappearance of religion would not have any significant impact on this activity.

Cultural Heritage.

Question:  A great portion of our cultural treasures have been created in the name of religion.  These include great works of art, of music, of literature, of architecture.  Wouldn’t there be a terrible loss to our cultural heritage in the absence of religion?

Answer:  I don’t think so.  

Admittedly, one aspect of religion that I miss has been the powerful and often emotional music that I grew up listening to and participating in during religious services.  Moreover, among the favorite subjects for my photography hobby have been the interiors of religious venues.  And it’s certainly true that many of our cultural treasures were inspired by religion or at least sponsored by religious organizations.  However, until the Age of Enlightenment, religious organizations occupied an unrivaled position of power and influence:  Great music was primarily religious music; great art, religious art; and great architecture, religious architecture.  That’s where the money was.

But contemporary artistic creations are nearly all secular.  For the last few hundred years most art has involved secular themes rather than religious ones; great architecture has involved commercial buildings and secular public spaces such as museums, libraries, and arenas; and music . . . well, we’re certainly aware of the secular themes of most modern music.

In sum, although religious themes have historically inspired a great amount of cultural activity, without religion that genius would be—and is being—channeled into equally creative and powerful secular themes.

Scientific Knowledge.

Question:  What impact would the absence of religion have on the advancement of scientific knowledge?

Answer:  Now we are getting somewhere.  To say that religion has been an obstacle to the advancement of scientific knowledge would be a gross understatement.  And that is true by reason of the great differences between the nature of religious faith and the nature of scientific reasoning.  

Religious belief is based on the notion of revealed truth.  A statement is to be accepted as true by reason of its source, whether scripture or a religious leader or possibly the deity himself or his chosen messenger.  Moreover, because of the nature of their source, religious beliefs are deemed irrefutable.  Who is going to question god’s word?  This is virtually the polar opposite of beliefs based on scientific discovery.  Scientific facts are by their very nature based not on authority but on the observation of objective evidence and controlled experimentation.  All scientific knowledge is considered tentative and may be refuted by subsequent observation and experimentation.

Historically, religion has stood and continues to stand in the way of scientific advancement.  But, whether the question has been the cause of disease, the structure of the solar system, the age of the earth, or the evolution of life, science has won essentially every one-on-one confrontation.   

Not only has science advanced knowledge where religion has not, but these advances have benefited the human condition.  As an illustration, consider that through the late 1950s the long-term success rate for religion (aka prayer) in curing acute childhood leukemia had been 5%.   (That should read 0%, but I’m being generous here.)  In the last 50 years science has raised that success rate to 95%.  Consider, too, the role of science in the reduction in infant mortality, the eradication of smallpox, and the advances in prosthesis technology.  (By the way, religion still has not solved the problem of limb regeneration through prayer.)  

Just think of all the intellectual capital that has been devoted to religious thought and consider how much more understanding of the world we would have gained if that same effort had been spent on furthering our understanding through scientific reasoning and experimentation and technological development.


Question:  Many devout Christians, especially evangelicals, point to how their faith has provided them with a joy and a comfort that would be lost in the absence of religious faith.  They can also point to the fellowship and support that religion provides to them and their loved ones.  Regardless of whether religious belief can be sustained on a rational basis, wouldn’t its elimination reduce human happiness?  Moreover, without religion and the hope of salvation after this life, wouldn’t life itself be without any ultimate purpose, leading to despair?  Why not just let Christians continue to enjoy their beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are rational?

Answer:  I have addressed these questions in two previous posts, here and here, to my Skeptic Reflections blog.  While it certainly could be frightening for Christians to contemplate life without a god who cares and without the promise of eternal life, that is because they have placed a big bet on the salvation story.  Without that belief, they would be in the same position as all of their atheist colleagues, that is to say, focused on the one life that we are fortunate to experience and enjoy and determined to make the very best of that opportunity.

As a practical matter, it may not be possible for most Christians to abandon their beliefs, not just because of the intellectual hurdles it would require but because of the emotional ones. 

Bottom Line.

I have great confidence that a world without religion would be a better place in which to live and that that will ultimately be the reality.  You could call that my “I Have a Dream” statement.  And it’s the younger generations that present the opportunity to achieve that goal.  Ultimately, the question is when and how to get there.

© 2015 John M. Phillips

Friday, March 20, 2015


I’ve said this before:  I am concerned less with what individuals believe than with how they acquired their beliefs and why they maintain them.  And in the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian community nothing illustrates this better than belief that scripture is the Word of God.  

The terms “dogma” and “dogmatism” have a serious image problem, though it wasn’t always that way, at least in a religious context.  Dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.  Thus Christians came to be expected to accept the Nicene Creed without question.  It was just the way things were.  Nowadays using the term “dogmatic” in reference to someone or his or her ideas is clearly viewed as a negative.  But I think the term describes well the position of those who believe steadfastly in scripture as the inspired word of God.

Saturday, February 7, 2015


I received an interesting comment from a Facebook friend to my recent essay on Sparring with Christians.  She complained that for me “everything has to be rational” but that for her “not everything is rational and in fact the most important things in life aren’t nor can be explained in rational human thought,” including religious faith.  I thought her comment raised an interesting point, and I decided that I would expand here on the response I made to her comment.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


I have a confession to make.  I secretly enjoy sparring with my Christian friends over matters of religious belief.  At the same time I often find such discussions frustrating.  And I will also admit that I cannot think of a time when I convinced any of my “sparring partners” to change their beliefs.  So why do I have this love-hate relationship with these discussions?

Monday, January 5, 2015


By the time I was five—well before I learned to read—I understood that my mother’s Bible had special powers.  For one thing it was different from all the other books in our house.  Bound in soft black leather that was well worn but well cared for, its pages were of thin high quality paper that was wavy rather than flat. Moreover, my mother treated her Bible in a way that was totally different from how she treated any of our other books.  She always laid it out in its own special place on a living room table, never on a bookshelf with our other books.  She spent a great deal of time reading from it and always took it with her to church so she could look up any of the verses that the pastor quoted during his sermon. 

It was a King James Version, and that added to its power.  The words were English, but they often were so different from the contemporary vernacular that I heard every day that I assumed that the characters in the Bible actually spoke in “thee”s and “thou”s.  And I have the sense that everyone else in my family thought the same.