If we had a motto (which we don't) it would be "question everything".
This doesn't go down well with authoritarians who prefer: "I know best - so do as you are told - or else!".
With religion this often becomes: "do as the holy book says - or else!" - awkward when people can't agree on the meaning of holy books. Religions are "god-given" so they are intolerant of questioning by outsiders.
Why don't people dig deeper?
At the risk of upsetting religious readers our experience shows that most religious people know little about their own religion, even less about other religions and nothing about us!
To most religious people "religion" is about performing rituals and saying the right words. It is about attending temple, church, synagogue, mosque, gurdwara, praying, listening to priests/scholars and enjoying the social experience of being with other believers. At specific times of the year it includes religious festivals, which, apart from their religious significance, are also fun.
So far so good - humans are social animals - there is nothing wrong with having fun and enjoying the company of others.
The problems come when you start to dig deeper and finding out more - something very few religious people have done since school - apart from theologians and "scholars".
We have dug deeper and our considered opinion, after extensive research, is that much of religion consists of:
- making it up as you go along,
- forcing the facts to fit a pre-determined story,
- ducking and weaving to fit in with what is acceptable in society today.
Many Christians remain confused about the words of their own religion, for example, do they know the difference between "apostle" and "disciple"? Many of them think the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were written by those who followed the alleged Jesus (i.e. those amongst "the 12") - in fact we have no idea who wrote the gospels, when they were written, or even if each one was written by one person.
The alleged Jesus was conveniently illiterate, as were the 12, everything written came afterwards and was edited over time (by "early Christian fathers") to fit a story predicted in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) - the Old Testament. Even after 300 years of argument and editing, before Christianity was used in a desperate attempt to shore up the collapsing Roman Empire, the texts remained inaccurate, inconsistent and contradictory. The early Christian fathers were poor editors, even when it came to creating "fake news" while editing Josephus. Not much has changed in the 1,700 years since.
The astonishing lack of impartial third party contemporaneous evidence seems not to be considered by most Christians. One would think someone who brought people back from the dead, who cured the lame, who turned water into wine, who overthrow the money lenders in the Temple, who was crucified and who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, would have been mentioned in both Roman and Jewish texts - but he wasn't.
The one thing scholars agree on is that they can't agree on anything.
Personal note by the author
During a recent visit by Jehovah's Witnesses we discussed the historicity of Jesus (not one of their strengths) and one of them quickly brought out his smart phone to show me a picture of a lump of limestone bearing the name "Pontius Pilate".
"There," he said, "that proves that Jesus was a real person because the Bible says it was Pontius Pilate who tried him and handed him over to the Jews."
Clutching at straws becomes clutching at limestone! Yes, this provides evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate in the time of Tiberius. And? So? Duhh! I was surprised he didn't whip out a piece of "the true cross" - after all, in the last 2000 years there have been enough pieces of the true cross to build an ark!
For each question below we have provided our own short answer or comments in red. We don't expand on them here (it would take too long) but we are happy to respond to questions and to provide references for our answers.
Do our comments upset you? Do you feel cross about what we say? Do you think we are tarring all religious people with the same brush?
The best thing to do when you feel annoyed is to talk about it - talk to us, find out what we think - put us right if you feel we are wrong.
One of the problems today is that people (and countries) don't talk things through - they leap to take offence, they back themselves against a wall and the only outcome is aggression - that's how wars start, that's what causes people to strap on suicide belts or start firing missiles at one another.
Talk to us! Invite us to speak to you or your group. Question us, raise counter arguments, get it off your chest! You have nothing to be afraid of, or annoyed about, if you are confident and secure in your beliefs - just talk to us!
- Why is religion so divisive?
Many people take religion very seriously, they are passionate about it, it becomes the primary driving force in their lives, it is the frame of reference against which they judge everything, they are convinced they are right so, by definition, everyone else must be wrong. Many become evangelical, spreading the "good news" and trying to force their religion onto others, particularly children - "for their own good", "for the good of their souls".
Holy books instruct believers to be intolerant of others and, in some cases, to take action against non-believers and those who renounce their religion.
When religion becomes mixed with politics it becomes deadly. There is no example of a successful, democratic, liberal, open, free-thinking and tolerant country where religion plays a major role in politics. Religion becomes a negative force laying down laws about what people should not do - "thou shalt not!"
Pakistan is a basket case because of divisions within Islam. The government of Israel, under pressure from religion, has passed (July, 2018) a "nation law" which enables exclusive communities to be set up on the basis of religion and nationality - rather like the "No blacks" laws under apartheid in South Africa and in the USA before the passage of Civil Rights laws.
Netanyahu (with support of religious leaders in Israel and the USA) threatens to annex the West Bank against the wishes of the majority of the population - silence from "world leaders".
Putin (with support of 97% of votes in a referendum, 80% of registered voters) annexes Crimea: sanctions and lots of jumping up and down by "world leaders".
- Why is there so much inter- and intra-religious violence?
I am just "me". It is unlikely that I will start a war between me and "the rest" - I don't have any desire to do so and I certainly don't have the resources - apart from intellectual ones and I am happy to engage in discussion or debate with anyone about almost anything.
The problem starts when "me" becomes "we", when the individual identifies with a group. "Group think" sets in because groups have to justify their existence, they have to share something, usually a world view or a set of beliefs. Groups require strructure, usually a hierarchy, they require rules and funding, they become a thing far greater than the individual "me".
Groups are gangs and "our gang is better than your gang. Our world view is right, your world view is wrong."
Every religion has ended up like this, every religion has killed its fellow religionists because of differences in world view or interpretation of holy rule books.
Of course, it becomes worse when the conflict is between religions - the word "tolerance" rears its ugly head. The strong, powerful and dominant "tolerate" the less powerful, though they may force them to obey certain rules and to pay certain taxes for the privilege of being tolerated. As soon as the dominant religion feels threatened then tolerance goes out of the window and blood begins to flow.
Far healthier to stick to "me" - though that requires a level of personal self confidence and security that many people lack - hence their turning to religion where they feel more secure in a group of like-minded people.
- Why did you choose to become a Hindu/Muslim/Judaist/Christian/etc?
We get two main types of answers:
- I accepted the religion of my parents/family/community/ethnic group/school.
- I examined the alternatives and decided it was the one for me.
Number 2 is very rare. We follow up with: "what specific aspect of Zoroastrianism led you to reject it?"
- Do you think young people should be allowed to make a free and informed choice about what to believe?
Many (most?) people say "yes". We follow up by asking what they think "free" and "informed" mean.
- A free choice means one without undue external pressure.
- An informed choice requires understanding a wide range of beliefs: religious and non-religious.
Some people say "no" - young people should accept the religion they are taught "for their own good" or "for the good of their souls" or because "it would cause trouble in the family/community if they didn't".
We consider this to be a form of intellectual and emotional abuse - it denies young people the knowledge of alternatives, it denies freedom of choice and it applies unfair emotional pressure on them.
- Who first came up with the god idea and why?
We have no idea though we picture two cave dwellers sitting at the mouth of their cave trying to explain why the sun rose each morning, why the year had seasons, why lightning was followed by thunder etc.
- What exactly is god?
This can be a difficult question for many religious people so we offer: "a supernatural and unprovable entity invented to explain the unexplained".
- Why are there so many gods and so many religions?
This puzzles us since god is supposed to be all-powerful. Why is she so vague about everything?
- Why do the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) refer to god as "he"?
God was created in the image of man because men wrote the holy books which were (are) used to justify the patriarchy. It might help undo 2,000 years of the oppression of women by religion if god was referred to as "she".
- Do we have any examples of things having a beginning, i.e. popping into existence out of nothing?
No - everything is a rearrangement of things (mass and/or energy) that already exist. We recommend a little more study if you answer "Higgs Boson" or "Big Bang".
- If everything has a beginning, how did god begin?
The normal response is: "god is everlasting" - which means that everything does not have a beginning.
- If god created everything, what created god?
The normal response is: "god is everlasting and needed no creation" - which means that everything does not require creation.
- If god is good, why do bad things happen and why do the innocent suffer?
The get out is "free will" - which does not explain how a good god could conceive of bad things.
- If god is the great designer why do men have nipples?
There are a million and one examples about why god is a very poor designer
- Why do some people need god and religion while others don't?
Freud is quite good on this and much has been written on the psychology and psychopathology of religion.
Christianity hinges on the existence of an alleged person called "Jesus" as described in the New Testament but, like all religions, Christianity rarely questions its own roots.
We say "alleged" because we would like to raise some questions which we never heard when we were at school and which are never heard in Sunday services.
Some (few) Christians are happy to concede all the problems created by our questions. However, they believe in the ideals of Christianity (the "sermon on the mount" etc.) rather than its historicity.
- Was Jesus a real historical character? No.
- What was Jesus? A mythical exemplar for a break-away proselytising religion based on Judaism.
- Had there been "Jesus-like" characters before Jesus? Many - virgin birth, son of god, miracles, execution, etc.
- As "the son of god" why was Jesus illiterate?
Most central characters in religions, including Jesus and Muhammad, were illiterate. This makes it impossible to tie down exactly what they said and leaves things open to hearsay and interpretation. It keeps things nicely vague.
- Did Jesus' twelve disciples write anything about him? No. They were conveniently illiterate.
- Was anything written about Jesus during his lifetime? No.
- Jesus is alleged to have worked spectacular miracles - were they recorded at the time? No.
- Do we have Roman records written at the time that name and describe Jesus? No.
- Do we have Rabbinical records written at the time that name and describe Jesus? No.
- Who wrote the four Gospels? No one knows.
- Were the Gospels written by people who met Jesus? No.
- When were the Gospels written? We don't know. Possibly 30 to 80 years after his alleged death.
- How many Gospels were written? A lot more than four.
- Who decided which Gospels were included in the New Testament? "Early Christian fathers".
- When was this decision made? We don't know for sure, possibly as late as 325 AD.
- Was there a settlement in Nazareth at the time of Jesus? No.
- Who was Josephus? A Jewish historian who allied with Rome after the Jewish rebellion of AD 70.
- Who edited Josephus (18:3:3) to make it appear that he had heard of Jesus? "Early Christian fathers".
- Was Paul a real historical character? Possibly.
- Did Paul meet Jesus? No.
- Why did Constantine adopt Christianity? To unite a crumbling empire.
- Why was it necessary to call the Council of Nicea? Constantine needed a clearly defined religion.
- At the time of Nicea did Christians agree about Jesus - who he was, what he was?
No - Christians were killing one another over the nature of the alleged Jesus.
- Do Christians agree now about Jesus - who he was, what he was? No.
- Why do Christians remain so fragmented in their beliefs?
We have no idea - but all religions have the same problem. God appears to be illiterate and vague.