Religious radicalism and the cult of commitment

What is it that drives a religious believer to act in the most fanatical and obnoxious of ways? What kind of motivation drives such a person to abuse others? Why is it that some who profess belief in a God of justice and even a God of love act in ways that are hardly just and loving? Why is it that some people commit murder as an act of service to their God?

Many people argue that religion turns an otherwise good person into a raging fanatic, and the sooner the world is rid of religion the better. ‘Religion’ is blamed for conflict, terrorism and oppression, and often not without reason: the emergence of so called ‘Islamic State’ can hardly be understood solely in political and social terms. A recent presentation on the iWonder page of the BBC website asks Would the world be more peaceful without religion? A cursory search for “atheist quotes” on the internet will reveal that many famous and distinguished people would enthusiastically answer that question in the affirmative! An example is the extraordinary statement from Gwyneth Paltrow: “Religion is the cause of all the problems in the world”. Clearly the oppressed people of atheist North Korea and those who had lived in “officially atheist” Albania under Enver Hoxha or in the USSR, would find it hard to agree with such a statement!

Even though Gwyneth Paltrow’s comment can easily be debunked when exposed to the facts of human experience, it is nonetheless true that religion has been the source of much evil and suffering throughout history. No intelligent believer in God can deny this.

But why is it that a person, who professes to believe in a just, merciful and loving God, can act towards others in a way that is, at best, cynical and misanthropic, and at worst, downright abusive?

A psychological process
To answer this question we need to understand the psychological process of religious radicalisation. This process, which may be subtle or overt, takes place within a culture and atmosphere that I would like to describe as “the cult of commitment”.

I am presenting my view from the vantage point of a Christian, but it can certainly apply to other religions. Throughout my Christian life I have often heard people referred to as “committed Christians”, for example…”Oh, did you know that such and such a celebrity is not only a great actor (or musician or sportsman), but he is also a committed Christian…” or some such comment. It is as if the simple term ‘Christian’ is not good enough! There is a need to distinguish between a run-of-the-mill ‘Christian’, who is – or could be – merely ‘nominal’, on the one hand, and a ‘proper’ Christian – that is, a “committed Christian”, on the other. What is often forgotten by those who deploy this term is that it is also possible to be a nominal ‘committed’ Christian! After all, if someone can make a show of being merely a Christian, then why is it not also possible to make a show of possessing some level of Christian commitment?

Because God is perceived by many believers as primarily an authority figure, and He is also the moral judge of mankind, many religious believers regard personal sacrifice and observable commitment to be the only authentic and faithful basis to their relationship to the Supreme Being. For them such a response to God must be costly: it must involve giving up aspects of life which are perceived to be characteristic of normal daily experience. The natural life therefore has to be suppressed. The religious life has to be seen to be ‘different’ from the common life. Since love and compassion are part of daily life and relationships, then these values are reinterpreted in a more ‘muscular’ and austere direction, to the point where they are stripped of their normal meaning. The world is then divided into two camps: those who are committed to God and those who are not. The latter are then described in depersonalised categories: “the lost”, “the unregenerate”, “apostates”, “unbelievers”, “the infidel”. These descriptions then provide a subtle justification for different forms of abuse. The task of the committed religious believer is to convert such people, or, in extreme cases, to be the agent of God’s supposed judgment on them.

A competition to win accolades
We only need to observe the behaviour of certain aggressive Christian street preachers to see this dynamic in action, in which unsuspecting passers-by – people about whom the preacher knows next to nothing – are subjected to verbal abuse and unwarranted accusations delivered in a strident and completely non-compassionate tone of voice. The “sins of flesh” are emphasised – usually of a sexual nature – and the more deadly sins of pride, self-righteousness, abuse of religious authority and a lack of compassion towards the poor and needy (the greater sins denounced by Jesus Himself) are almost never mentioned.

As someone who was once a member of a Christian fellowship, which valued street evangelism above almost any other aspect of the Christian life, I can understand what most probably motivates these preachers, and I doubt it is the love of God. What drives such people is the need to be affirmed and praised within their Christian fellowship for having had the ‘courage’ to go out to “lost and fallen” humanity and do battle with the forces of evil. This is the narrative that is persistently reinforced within such fellowships. It’s a game – a competition – to win accolades within your faith community. The preachers may meet up after their ‘mission’ and exchange notes – and literal or figurative high fives – about what brave things they have done out in the devil’s backyard. This is the psychological reward within the cult of commitment. It has, of course, very little or nothing to do with genuine Christian discipleship motivated by the grace of God.

Driven by fear
The cult of commitment operates through fear: fear of God’s displeasure, and at the root of this is the fear of hell. The leader of the group plays on this emotion and reinforces the loyalty of his flock by focusing on certain passages of the Bible, which speak of the need to be ‘wholehearted’, ‘single-minded’ and “a living sacrifice” for the Lord. The word ‘cost’ appears with great frequency in the discourse of such a fellowship. The cross of Jesus Christ is primarily interpreted in terms of an example, which we should follow. And thus we have “the martyr complex” at the heart of the cult of commitment.

Now clearly this cult is not limited to Christianity. We know the tragic effect of the martyr complex on the followers of other religions, and we have seen that there is a very small step from being willing to die the death of a martyr to being willing to end the lives of others alongside your own. This murderous understanding of religious commitment is really a fanatical extension of the more subtle forms of the cult of commitment, in which misanthropy is justified with reference to God’s judgment on those who are viewed as outsiders. Normal human emotions, which should act as a check on such radical behaviour, are ignored as the temptation of the flesh and the devil – a force seeking to weaken one’s costly devotion to the voice of God. Healthy feelings of fraternity, community and sympathy towards others are viewed with suspicion and the devotee in this cult is taught to suppress such sentiments under the weight of “God’s holy word”. When the disciple then suffers rejection as a result of his obnoxious behaviour, his commitment to his religion is reinforced, because he is now proud of the ‘persecution’ he is suffering. Such a person is, of course, a victim of brainwashing, and young adults, who naturally are seeking a challenge in life, are particularly vulnerable to this.

The true basis of commitment
The way to combat the destructive influence of the religious “cult of commitment” requires a complete rethink of the concept of discipleship. Christian discipleship is based on the love and grace of God, in which we are not required to prove our commitment at all. In fact, any Christian who tries to prove how committed he is, is disproving his commitment by that very act. True commitment involves a complete trust in God, in which we forget about our own level of devotion to Him. Anyone who says “I am wholehearted for God” has proven that he is anything but wholehearted, because a truly wholehearted believer would not be talking about himself at all in such terms.

As the Bible says…

“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Hosea chapter 6, verse 6

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah chapter 6, verses 6-8.

“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all people.” Titus chapter 3, verses 1-2.

True committed discipleship involves a wholehearted embrace of those values which describe God’s character: love, mercy, justice, humility and respect for others. Any other form of commitment is bogus, no matter how costly, no matter how much it may require courage and personal suffering.


Why atheism cannot be true (part 2)

In part one of “Why atheism cannot be true” I looked at the subject of the ultimate origin of the universe, and concluded that none of the options available to the rational human mind supports the view that an intelligent personal creator does not exist. In summary: the ideas of the universe from nothing, infinite regress and a beginning of the universe from a pre-existing impersonal state are all incoherent. On the other hand, the idea that the universe had a definite beginning which resulted from the actions of an intelligent, conscious, personal being with free will overcomes the difficulties inherent in the atheistic hypotheses.

But cosmology is not the only area in which it can be shown that the atheistic view of reality can be refuted. The most fundamental subject within human learning – an area of study that undergirds both science and mathematics – reveals the inadequacy of the view that reality can only be explained in purely naturalistic terms. This discipline is epistemology: the study of knowledge itself.

Every claim about reality stands or falls on its epistemological credentials. If epistemology judges a truth claim to be incoherent and self-refuting, then such a claim cannot conceivably be true. There is no proof more compelling than an epistemological one. Mathematics is often perceived to be the most ‘elemental’ of all subjects, but this is not the case. All mathematical proofs presuppose the objective validity of reason. If a claim about reality fails to uphold and explain reason itself, then nothing else can be proven to be true within that worldview.

Atheism and the idea of ‘evidence’
The following are frequent claims by atheists, and such assertions populate the internet as well as publications promoting the view that no God exists:

“There is no evidence for God’s existence and therefore all gods must be assumed not to exist” – anonymous atheist on the internet.

“Despite such well-financed efforts [by the ‘infamous’ Templeton Foundation], no evidence for God’s existence has yet appeared.” – Richard Dawkins

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens (with reference to claims about God).

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan (as with the Hitchens’ quote, this is also with reference to claims about God)

All these comments have one thing in common: they tacitly claim some level of competence in the field of epistemology. All these authors assume that their naturalistic (therefore atheistic) view of reality is epistemologically sound and rationally valid, and therefore any other view of reality is to be rejected.

I will now investigate this implied claim, to discover whether it really is sound and coherent.

The anonymous internet atheist and the three well-known atheists quoted above all make comments which presuppose a certain definition of the concept of ‘evidence’. All four comments state, in different ways, that “there is no evidence for the existence of God” – or there is “no ordinary evidence” (therefore the only evidence that could be adduced for God has to be ‘extraordinary’, whatever that means!).

Because the claim that “there is no evidence for God” is often not explained, we are left to guess what kind of evidence the atheist would accept. If we define ‘God’ as “the intelligent, personal – and therefore conscious – all-powerful creator and sustainer of the universe”, then it is not unreasonable to infer His existence from at least certain aspects of reality (for example, high levels of order and complexity within nature, the validity of reason, free will, the moral sense, consciousness). Even if some people do not accept that we could ‘prove’ that God exists on the basis of these inferences, they cannot logically dismiss the validity of such an approach. It is not irrational to infer intelligent causation of intelligent and intelligible effects. If that were the case, then we would require proof that only a non-intelligent cause can produce an intelligent and / or intelligible effect, which is clearly absurd.

So obviously the atheist who claims that “there is no evidence for God” cannot include inference in his definition of the idea of ‘evidence’. If that is the case, then what are we left with? There are a couple of famous atheist analogies that can help us to answer this question…

Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy:

Someone claims that “a fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”. This (apparently female) dragon is also invisible and floats in the air, so cannot leave footprints, if we try to capture images of them by spreading flour on the garage floor. The dragon’s fire also possesses no heat, so cannot be detected by an infrared sensor. The dragon is also incorporeal, so spray painting will not reveal her existence. Every physical test of her existence is countered with a “special explanation” of why it won’t work.

Sagan then asks: “What’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?”

The other well-known atheist analogy is John Wisdom’s “Parable of the Invisible Gardener” which was later developed by Anthony Flew:

“Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot’. The other disagrees, ‘There is no gardener’. So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘But what remains of our original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’”

Now both these analogies have something in common: they both assume that the evidence for the existence of something – or someone – must involve some element of direct observation or sense perception. Both are examples of “strong empiricism”, which claims that “all knowledge comes via sense perception” – i.e. we can only know what we can observe or perceive with our senses.

Of course, we assume that there is no “invisible dragon” in the garage or “invisible gardener” tending a plot in a clearing in the jungle. But these are not valid analogies of God, because these ideas are trivial, whereas the idea of God is non-trivial. Thus both analogies commit the fallacy of a category error. A trivial idea has no – or little – effect on reality, whereas a non-trivial idea has strong explanatory force. Therefore to lump Russell’s teapot, Sagan’s dragon, Wisdom and Flew’s gardener, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, invisible fairies down the bottom of the garden etc etc, in the same category as the intelligent, personal creator of the universe, is rationally inadmissible. The concept of a supreme, intelligent, personal creator implies something about the nature of reality, whereas these other ideas cannot imply anything at all.

If certain effects were observed, which could only reasonably be caused by an invisible dragon in a garage or by an invisible gardener in a jungle clearing, then we would be justified in stating that “there is evidence for the existence of these beings”, even if they were imperceptible to our senses. We would be constructing this theory on the basis of inference.

Science uses inference all the time. In fact, the scientific method is impossible without it. We could not infer the Big Bang, dark matter, most of the process of evolution or even draw conclusions about most of the functioning of the universe without inference. The only way we can draw any conclusion from any scientific experiment is to bridge the gap between that particular experiment and the general functioning of the universe by assuming – thus inferring – that the laws of physics and chemistry hold true throughout the whole of nature. If, for example, we observe matter functioning in a certain way in London, we infer that it would function in the same way in Paris or New York. Do we really need to repeat the experiment in every place, before we could draw a conclusion? We infer that matter is essentially the same in Paris and New York as it is in London.

Thus the atheist view of ‘evidence’ is far too restricted and unworkable even within science. The claim that “there is no evidence for God” has to be translated as “there is no direct observational evidence of the being of God according to the tenets of strong empiricism”. And I would agree. God is not a physical being floating around somewhere in the air. Indeed if He were, He would not be God, who transcends space and time.

The impossibility of the atheist theory of knowledge
It is not simply the case that atheists have a defective and limited understanding of the concept of ‘evidence’, but that their theory of knowledge on which their view of evidence is based, is logically impossible.

The quotes and analogies cited above all presuppose the epistemological theory of “strong empiricism”, which I will henceforth simply refer to as ‘empiricism’ (I say ‘strong’ empiricism to distinguish it from the ‘weak’ empiricism which is mixed with rationalism. Of course, some knowledge comes via sense perception – no sane person doubts that! But “weak empiricism” is really little different from “weak rationalism”, and is irrelevant to this debate.). Some atheists may dispute this point, and state that “of course, there are innate ideas which do not come to us via sense perception”. Fine. But then they have no grounds for asserting the philosophy of naturalism (aka materialism, physicalism), which requires a belief in strong empiricism, given that our only epistemic relationship with nature is through the senses. If they then argue that innate ideas have their origin in nature, they would be guilty of special pleading or question begging – assuming naturalism to be true as the means of concluding that it is true. That is, of course, dishonest.

The theory of empiricism is an idea, and is not derived from sense perception. There is no observation or scientific experiment that tells us that “all knowledge comes to us by means of sense perception”. The concept is not some physical thing floating around in the universe or discernible at the subatomic level. It is an a priori idea, and therefore it precedes sense perception. Therefore the idea of empiricism itself breaks its own fundamental rule: we cannot know empiricism to be true if we believe it is true. In fact, if we believe it is true, then we are breaking its own method of verification. It is the ultimate leap of faith.

Atheists often accuse theists of “taking a leap of faith” into the dark, or into irrationality. They often claim that faith involves ignoring evidence or is even exercised in spite of the evidence. Whether some believers do this or not, it is certainly true that an atheist, who subscribes to the philosophy of naturalism, makes just such a leap of faith. He insists on subscribing to a view of knowledge which is self-refuting, and therefore logically impossible. It defies all logic to hold to a view that “evidence can only be defined and verified empirically” when that very idea cannot be verified empirically.

But it gets worse…
But in the light of this, the atheist could still say, “well, OK, there are innate ideas, and we accept that not all knowledge comes to us by means of sense perception, but we still think that the philosophy of naturalism is most probably true, even if we cannot absolutely prove it, whereas the God theory is implausible.”

This is the position of “atheistically inclined agnosticism”. Firstly, such a position logically disqualifies any atheist from declaring a believer in God to be irrational, which should put an end to the vitriol of much debate on the subject of the existence of God. Secondly, the atheist is saying that a theory, which is logically dependent on a self-refuting theory of knowledge, may be true. Well, “may be true” implies the assertion “it is logically possible that this theory is true”. How can this be the case, when we have already established that the basis of the theory is logically impossible! Modal logic thus disqualifies atheistically inclined agnosticism.

The fundamental problem with atheism, is that this worldview cannot explain reason itself. We are being asked to believe that ‘reason’ derived entirely from the human ‘mind’, which itself derived from the physical human brain, and this evolved without any purpose other than mere survival. Thus, according to this view, reason emerged merely as a survival mechanism. If this is the case, then all ideas (beyond the most immediate perception – and perhaps even these) are equally valid. The “idea of God” is no more invalid than the “idea of naturalism”. According to the philosophy of naturalism both ideas emerged merely as aids to survival. Thus we are told that religious people believe in God, because it helps them cope with reality, but according to this logic atheists do not believe in God for precisely the same reason! Objective truth has nothing to do with it.

Clearly we can see that the philosophy of naturalism is entirely self-refuting. If all ideas (especially metaphysical ideas) are merely aids to survival, then we could never know whether the philosophy of naturalism itself were true (this philosophy being, of course, a metaphysical idea, given that it makes a claim about reality as a whole).

So the philosophy of naturalism is impossible. Of course, there are some atheists who claim to hold to some form of supernaturalism (which is the only alternative to naturalism). This kind of impersonal supernaturalism may really only be an extension of naturalism, but even if it is not, such atheists have no rational grounds for criticising anyone with a religious belief.