An Atheist's 
& Agnostic's 
Guide to God

One of the most astute and important observations ever made, in my opinion, was by the Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, who said:

"Men create the gods in their own image. If cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men can do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make their bodies such as they each had themselves".

The Judaeo-Christian Bible claims that God created man in his image, but, like Xenophanes, I believe it was the other way around. If this is accepted, people with different concepts of God have a solid basis for discussion, argument and understanding. An absolute belief in one's own concept of God (as laid down in holy scripture) is a recipe for irreconcilable conflict - as attested to by history.

Is there any need for (a concept of) God at all? Certainly for me there is, since it puts a handle on and helps me relate to a far deeper sense of personal and external reality than would otherwise be possible. Just as I create images of atoms and molecules which help me to understand and deal with the physical world, so I also create for myself an image (concept) of God which helps me cope with life and the fundamental questions, problems and fears associated with it. I need (a concept of) "God" as a child needs its father, as a higher power and authority that I turn to for guidance and protection. First and foremost, I need (a concept of) God as an object (recipient) for my thanks and prayers. When I first became aware of how extremely fortunate I am, and have been all my life, I was filled with fear of losing it; I mean, absolutely terrified of being afflicted with suffering: pain, illness, grief, poverty or whatever. The best way to counter my fears, I found, was to feel thankful for my good fortune. So, I prayed for thankfulness, and to some extent, at least, my prayer was granted. I don't know who or what it was that heard and granted my prayer (or if it was anything at all, other than a psychological trick), but I feel a lot better assuming a concept of God (or Providence) that I pray and give thanks to.

To an atheist who insists that there is no God, I reply: if I imagine him to exist, then (in my imagination, at the very least) he does exist.

Exactly what the reality behind my concept of God (or atoms) is, I cannot be sure, but although I cannot grasp or know Truth and Reality, it is a great comfort to remind myself that they do (hopefully) exist.

To feel that there is far more to myself, the world I see around me, and to life and death, than simply meets the eye is a great way to feel. To feel that there is nothing but a black hole of vanity, lovelessness and meaninglessness, on the other hand, is definitely not a great way to feel. It is much, much nicer to feel inspired with a sense of meaning, purpose, love and hope.

Perhaps there is nothing more than a biochemical explanation for all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) feelings one experiences, and ultimately no meaning or purpose to anything, but I much prefer to assume there is and that what I experience is much more than just biochemistry. This, in fact, is my FAITH: the assumption that life in general and my life in particular do have meaning and purpose. It is not something that can be grasped or defined, but a feeling (hopefully more than just biochemistry). Sometimes, when I'm deeply aware of a beautiful view of nature, for example, it can be quite intense, or then I see the two dogs I'm walking playing and chasing each other.

The belief in God (or gods and spirits), it seems to me, is a consequence of man's emerging self-awareness - beautifully described in the biblical story of Adam and Eve (which then, inexplicably and tragically, goes on to portray it as a terrible sin for which God curses us - see Genesis revisited) - and serves as a means of dealing with the questions and fears that come with it.

Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes, which is true, so long as you remain unaware of it. Once you start to become aware of your ignorance, however, it is frightening. For our peace of mind, we need to know, or at least, think we know, what's what. We are scared of the dark, because we do not know what's there - what dangers could be lurking in the darkness. Turn on the light and our fears disperse. I'm scared of swimming in water when I cannot see, or see clearly, what is below me (weeds, for example). But when the water is clear and a facemask enables me to see exactly what's there, my fears recede (to the limit of vision). The initial role of the gods, I suggest, was to explain the world and its vicariousness, thus reducing people's fearfulness. Projecting human attributes onto the gods and spirits which caused the wind to blow, the rain to fall, the Sun to turn, etc. immediately presented the possibility of perhaps being able to placate them in some way, e.g. with prayers or gifts (sacrifices).

The belief in gods and spirits was (and still is) an open invitation for exploitation (intentional or not). A clever individual might not be a dab hand with his fists, a sword or an axe, with which social advantage (power and respect) was originally in large part secured, but with a strong personality and a quick mind, he might become an interpreter or ambassador of these supernatural agents, thus gaining power even over the strongest and most dominant members of his clan.

This is my "bio-anthropological" theory of the origin of beliefs in gods, spirits and/or just one God, and of religion.

My "bio-anthropological" explanation for the academic study of this (and any other) subject is that it provides a desirable niche in the socio-economic environment (hopefully there will soon be one available for ME). How much nicer it is to spend one's time studying and discussing philosophy, theology or whatever at a university than having to work for a living, perhaps labouring monotonously for low pay and low social status in the field or factory. Although I'll take this all back, of course, if that's the precondition for a nice niche at a university for myself. This does not necessarily mean that such niches are without social value. That may or may not be the case. The point is that their importance for their occupiers in deeply rooted in their animal nature, no matter how intellectual or spiritual their pretentions may be.

We ALL depend on the socio-economic environment in which we live and have our niches (Prince Charles at one end of Britian's social spectrum, a homeless and jobless person on social benefits at the other). While some are born into privilaged niches, there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman, just those who have done well for themselves within the socio-economic environment.

The socio-economic environment, as I explain elsewhere, has effectively replaced the natural environment as the focus of our behavioural programming, creating a positive feed-back loop as we seek to retain, create and exploit ever more niches for all they are worth. So engrossed are we in looking after ourselves and our families (as we are programmed and conditioned to do), now mainly by making money in the local, national or global economy (the chief component of our artificial socio-economic environment) that we are largely ignoring (or in denial of) our ultimate dependency on the natural environment. Not that we are completely blind to what is happening, as the effects of our impact on the planet become ever more evident (e.g. climate change), but our preoccupation with the socio-economic environment and the absolute priority we therefore give to the economy, keeps us from understanding its true (very threatening) significance. And we don't like threats anyway, so if we think that we can get away with playing them down or ignoring them, that's what we do.

This is the situation we are in at the moment: engrossed in our economy and way of life and struggling to/not to face up to the fact that both are fundamentally unsustainable, causing us to plunder and spoil our finite and vulnerable planet.

The reason our economy and way of life are fundamentally unsustainable is because they are rooted in our animal nature. Not surprisingly, in view of what Darwin is supposed to have taught us about human origins, but Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones reluctant to face up to it. Not because it would undermine many people's religious beliefs, but because it would undermine many of our religiously held values, attitudes and (material) aspirations - not to mention the whole socio-economic order on which we depend . . .

If we wish our children and coming generations well (and I'm assuming that anyone reading this does), we have to create an alternative economy and ways of life that are sustainable - and, while we are about it, a lot more just and humane, as well. I say alternative, because it would be much too difficult trying to change (reform) the existing socio-economic order, with everyone, understandably, defending their own particular niche (which is what happens now, of course, and is why, in a democracy, any change towards sustainability is hopelessly slow). The advantage of creating a distict alternative is that we can keep our niches (activities and dependencies) in the existing order until we are able and ready to transfer them to the new. Neither do we have to transfer them all at once. Not that we have a lot of time, or can afford to be complacent. We certainly cannot. However, as people come out of denial and realise just what is at stake (for their children and grandchildren), they will be motivated enough, I'm sure (no need for coersion, which would be counterproductive anyway). As the alternative grows, the more attractive it will become (once aboard, we will look back at what we have left behind and wonder what made us hesitate at all).

In contrast to the existing socio-economic order, which is rooted in our animal nature, the alternative will be rooted in our more enlightened, human nature.




Evolution adapted our behaviour to serve the family group, because only in groups do we realise our potential. As individuals we are weak and not up to much, but in groups we are more than a match for any other animal. The better the group functioned the greater its advantage in the struggle for survival, which, as populations expanded, increasingly included the struggle against other groups of humans. This, I suggest,is what drove the rapid evolution of the human brain and the development of language. However, behaviour which evolved over millions of years to serve individuals and family groups in the natural environment  has had little or no time to adapt to the much larger social units of human civilisations (which only arose in the past few thousand years), added to which (and this is of fundamental, but barely recognised, importance for sustainability and human survival), in the modern world, this behaviour no longer focuses on the natural environment, but on our artificial, socio-economic environment.

Humans are trained (by society at large and its dominant members), much as dogs can be, to behave in certain ways through a regime of rewards, threats and punishments. Organised religion, I suggest, developed as a means of controlling individuals’ behaviour if you were good (believed and did what was expected of you), you would be praised (there's a good boy!), and go to heaven (also allaying fears of death); if you were bad you would be disapproved of (bad boy!) and go to hell. So you'd better believe and do what society and authority demands of you! Things have improved a litte, but not nearly as much as we tend to assume. We are still very suceptable and very much subject to such manipulation, although we hate to admit it (i.e. are largely in denial of it). What is a knighthood, for example, other than authority giving you a big pat on the head and telling everyone what a "good boy" you are?

In the past, the people had little or no choice regarding what group or society they belonged to. If you were born an Englishman in the Middle Ages you were expected and required (under pain of death) to give allegiance to your Lord, your King and to the Church. If the King wanted you to fight a war in France that is what you had to do. And you believed what the Church told you to believe, or woe betide you.

Again, taking a bio-anthropological view, as individuals, we humans are not up to much. It is only when we operate in groups that we start to realise our potential and become more than a match for any other animal. The development of language and culture has facilitated the development of human knowledge and skills over many generations, so that the abilities of the current generation rests on the achievments of past generations.

each with its own ideas about how society should and shouldn't be and on how to achieve global sustainability. If one individual is loath to be part of a society in which abortion is freely available, for example, he or she can join a society where it isn't, and visa versa. Obviously, such societies are not going to be defined by national borders, although, for the time being, at least, they will have to abid by national laws. We don't want chaos or any unnecessary conflict.

There are a few things, however, that we all have to agree on:

- To put ecology (the household of our planet) before economy (the household of man)

-  Non-violence (any individual, group or society that uses or threatens to use force must be opposed (with force, if necessary) by the other individuals, groups or societies.

-  Freedom of expression and association (not least in the with the religious society of one's choice, although it has to be mutual).

-  Freedom to join

I envisage "religious societies" as the basis (the building blocks) of a sustainable global socio-economic order.

"Religion" is derived from . A "religious society is a number of individuals (from half a dozen to half a billion) with a shared identity. bound together  "It is in this sense, which apart from accepted religions, would also include political parties, that I use the word. On their own human we need religion. A "sustainable religious society will comprise individuals and groups of individuals (households, residential communities, work communities (cooperatives, companies, etc.), political communities (parties), educational communites, etc), bound together by values, morals (rules of right behaviour), attitudes and aspirations on which an alternative, more enlightened - above all, sustainable - socio-economic order can be based. The most suitable generic name that I can think of for such a religion is "Society of Friends of the Earth ". "Generic" because it needs to comprise a multitude of diverse sects and societies, i.e. people bound together (re ligare) by more particular, morals and attitudes, as well as perhaps shared beliefs, location, history, race, etc. We need religions (religious societies) to suit everyone. Those who cannot find what they are looking for among those already in existence should be free (indeed, encouraged) to create their own.

As family groups grew and merged to form societies, new groupings (classes) naturally arose, dominant families forming an aristocracy, which while often fighting amongst themselves, took common cause in exerting its dominance over the rest of society in order to exploit it.

sustainable religious societies " as necessary to meet everyone's (or at least, most people's) essential demands of the kind of sustainable socio-economic order they want to belong to.

I do not mean "religious" in the conventional sense, but in the sense of any group of people bound together by a shared identity (the word derives from Latin, re ligare, meaning "to tie or bind together").