How can otherwise intelligent, informed people, people who demand to know why they should take a certain treatment, choose a specific kind of investment or buy a particular car – believe in God.  Can  ninety percent of the population of the United States be gullible?  Don’t answer that!  But the whole story beggars belief, does it not?   


The world was created by God in seven days.  He later impregnated a virgin though the intercession of a flying man.  She gave birth to a son, who was his own father.  He then fed 5000 people with just five loaves and two fishes.  He made blind men see, cripples walk again, healed those afflicted with leprosy and resuscitated the dead.  He died a barbaric death, but three days later as if by magic came alive again.  And He’s still alive now though we can’t actually see Him.  But – and here’s the clincher – if we can bring ourselves to at least pay lip service to this kind of dogma and be reasonably good, maybe we can go to some parallel universe called heaven and live in bliss forever.    


I do apologise if some people find this offensive, but from any critical, scientific, rational and logical perspective, it’s errant nonsense, isn’t it?  But perhaps that really doesn’t matter. 


Jamie Whyte (The Times, September 16th , 2008)  claims that the believers don’t’ really believe because otherwise they would do something about it.  They would mount a campaign to ban abortion.  They would make sure that their life fulfilled the admission criteria for heaven. The fact is they don’t.  So, Whyte argues, they’re not really believers as such, but people who are comforted by a religious fantasy.     


But if we dismiss the idea of God as a comforting illusion, then we have to dismiss our belief in love or beauty or truth or great art or healing therapies. The point is that the existence we inhabit is not a solid tangible world of immutable facts, but is a fluid, transient, swirling nebula of feeling, meaning and belief.  What we call our identity – our spirit if you will – is but an amalgam of our beliefs.  And it is those beliefs – how we interpret the evidence or lack of it – that sustain us – or not.      


We live in an unstable world, where the security of our institutions are under threat.   The financial system is collapsing.  The democracies of the west are waging war on terror.  The climate is  changing.  There are new diseases we can’t cure.  In this cataclysmic environment, the fantasy that is religion offers a reassuring sense of certainty.  The formula is simple and compelling.  If we believe in God, everything will be allright.  If only that were true, but as many healers – complementary therapists, psychotherapists and doctors – know only too well, faith can diminish anxiety and heal illness.  It can even help us deal with death.     


Last night at the Ilkley Literature Festival,  I chaired a lecture by Dr Dorothy Rowe on the topic of her new book, What should I believe? 


‘Religions should not be regarded as statements of fact, but expressions of hope. If we didn’t have worries about dying’, she told us, ‘there would be no religions, because all religions promise to defeat death.  They tell us that although our body might die, our soul – who we are, lives on as a kind of nimbus. And this belief alters the way we live our lives.  So if we are convinced there is some kind of spiritual life after death, they we would do our utmost to be ‘good’ in this life, even if we martyred ourselves and made ourselves miserable in the process.  But if we believe that death was really the end, then surely we would try to be happy.’ 


Dorothy explained how a decision to choose religion and the fantasy of life everlasting might comfort some people but could make others very miserable.  Religions can inspire great love but they can also instil great fear and cause people to  become ill. Those who believe in a strict (pure) interpretation of Christianity or for that matter Islam, can condemn themselves to a lifetime of guilt.  Believing that you are a miserable sinner and never good enough to enter God’s Kingdom at the dreadful day of judgement is hardly good for your self confidence.  When things go wrong, what else can you do but blame yourself.  Not much hope there, then.    


But it can go the other way.  Some people believe that through worship, they become one of God’s chosen.  Their belief is a tremendous source of pride. It makes them feel  so much better, more virtuous than other people. But if they are threatened in their  convictions by what they perceive as the contagion and sin of the disbelievers, they may be persuaded to attack them and even kill them.  The effects of this and the revenge such acts encourages can be quite dreadful, as recent events have so clearly demonstrated.      


Religion also teaches people that they live in a just world.  If you’re good then good things will happen to you,  but if you’re behave badly, then you’re going to suffer.  The problem is that life is not like that.  Misfortune is just that; a matter of luck.  Terrible things can happen to the most virtuous of people, while wicked people can often seem to get away Scot free.  The injustice of this challenges religious beliefs more than anything else, inducing a deep sense of grievance.  How could God let this happen?  Shaken from their moorings by the blows of circumstance, erstwhile believers can feel cast adrift in a dark and turbulent sea.’   


What most of us in the west know as religion belief, the Judaeo-Christian and Moslem traditions – embodies a doctrine that fundamentally rules through fear and encourages separation between peoples. These religions were a political expedient to provide a sense of identity to threatened and embattled peoples.  Suspicion and hostility still exist in Northern Ireland while Bush and Blair’s War on Terror has seemed to resemble a crusade against the Moslem. 


But human beings cannot live without meaning and belief.  We are story makers and story tellers. It is inherent in our psyche.  We have to make sense of our existence. But  we require a meaningful and compassionate story that encourages people to live at peace with themselves and with others, a story that accepts uncertainty, that can encompass change and development and acknowledges that we all see things differently.  For that we could do much worse than seek our template further east.