The age-old battle between atheism and organised religion has recently reached fever pitch, with both sides screaming their lungs out. But, which is right, atheism or religion? Answer: Neither.
Adherents of a creed religion like Christianity or Islam, which are based on a fixed set of beliefs, are convinced that their religion alone holds the key to truth and "salvation". This attitude breeds intolerance of all other religions - and even of other denominations, sects or groupings within their own religion - which in turn can result in persecution, forced conversion and sometimes even in burnings at the stake and beheadings. Yet, belief in the "truth" of a religion is totally unprovable and dependent solely on a leap of faith.
The birth of a myth
In the case of Christianity, its claim to exclusive truth stands four-square on belief in a number of supposed facts, most of which are not only unproven but demonstrably false, including:
• The virgin birth - a mistranslation of the Hebrew of the prophet Isaiah, covering up Jesus' illegitimacy.
• The claim that Jesus was the Christ, or the Jewish Messiah. This depends on tracing Jesus' descent from King David, which was done in two Gospels, those of Matthew and Luke, but with completely different genealogies, and both showing Jesus as the son of Joseph - who, according to Christian belief, was not Jesus' father anyway!
• Jesus' Bethlehem birth - based on a false story about a Roman census and motivated by Christianity's desire to claim that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, who had to come from Bethlehem, the city of David.
Creed religions must be contrasted with communal religions, which were the norm in the ancient world and which are today represented chiefly by Judaism, Hinduism and Japanese Shinto. Membership of a communal religion depends not on acceptance of any specific set of beliefs but rather on membership of a particular community or society. Communal religions tend to have only vague beliefs, if any, and usually do not even have a distinctive name. "Judaism", for example, is a modern coinage based on the kingdom of Judah, which in turn took its name from the tribe of Judah. As they do not claim a monopoly of "truth", communal religions do not seek converts and tend to be more tolerant than creed religions. For a Jew to become a Hindu, for example, he would have to become Indian in culture, language and national identity.
Starting out as a traditional communal religion, orthodox Judaism is today a hybrid between a communal religion and a creed religion - with the worst features of both. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is on record as writing: "Reform Jews are Jews, but Reform Judaism is not Judaism." Sacks has also perpetuated an ugly 50-year-old schism with the masorti (conservative) wing of Judaism (which actually differs little from Sacks' own orthodox brand), refusing to recognise masorti conversions - which resulted in a messy court-case that reached the House of Lords in 2009. In a book titled The Great Partnership, Sacks opined that there was "the most profound difference" between Christian "left-brain" thinking and Jewish "right-brain" thinking, a fallacious conclusion precariously balanced on two erroneous premises based on a three-word verse in the Hebrew Bible.
"Darwinian theory is correct in the small, but not in the large"
Sacks was no match for Dawkins in a highly publicised 2012 television debate. But Dawkins' own arguments are also far from persuasive. Dawkins and his "new atheists" have taken ownership of the theory of evolution by natural selection, going so far as to claim that his book The Blind Watchmaker explained "Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design". In fact, there are at least three main stages in the development of the universe to what it is today. Is Dawkins here lumping all three together? The three stages are:
• The coming into existence of the universe;
• The origin of life on earth; and
• Evolution of different life forms.
It is only the last of these stages that can be explained by natural selection - and then only with some question-marks. In the words of the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle: "The Darwinian theory is correct in the small, but not in the large. Rabbits come from other slightly different rabbits, not from either soup or potatoes. Where they come from in the first place is a problem yet to be solved, like much else of a cosmic scale." Evolution obviously can't explain the first two stages, because life is needed before evolution can kick in. No life, no evolution!
God without religion
The gyrations of Dawkins and his disciples to explain the first two stages are less than impressive. The alternative is to accept that there is some sort of designer behind the development of the universe, and especially of the first two stages. Even Darwin himself seems to have believed something like this, as did Einstein and a roll-call of great minds. Is this belief in a God? If so, it is an impersonal God, who, unlike the personal God of religion, does not get involved in the day-to-day affairs of the world. And this belief beats all others in the tolerance stakes.