The big question is, is there a god? Well, it's entirely up to you to work out the answer for yourself, so don't let anyone push you into believing anything. Look at all the evidence, and then make up your mind. If you think that there is a god, you will also have to work out which god is actually the right one, though it may not be as important as you might think - following the same god as your parents may not be a mistake, and you can always change your mind later on when you make a proper decision. What I want to do here is teach you how to question your beliefs, because some ways of believing in a god are safe, while other ways of believing in the same god can be very dangerous: you need to keep your wits about you. Let's begin though by looking at something similar to religion, just as a thinking exercise:-
The Tooth FairyDoes the Tooth Fairy exist? When one of your teeth falls out, what do you usually do with it? In many countries it is normal to put it under your pillow so that the Tooth Fairy can come along during the night when you're fast asleep and replace the tooth with money: you put the tooth under the pillow, fall asleep, and the next morning when you wake up, what happens? Well, it's simple: there is money there instead of a tooth - it really does happen. But how can we test whether the Tooth Fairy is real? How do you know if your parents are just playing a game by pretending that there is a Tooth Fairy when there isn't?
indentWell, one idea would be to do a simple experiment. If you manage not to tell your parents that your tooth has come out, you can try putting it under your pillow to see if it gets changed into money? I tried it once, and the tooth was still there in the morning, but it doesn't prove the Tooth Fairy isn't real - the Tooth Fairy simply visited the next night instead. It may also be that the magic only works if your parents are told about the tooth, because that may need to happen for the Tooth Fairy to hear about it, so the experiment doesn't disprove the Tooth Fairy at all.
indentI was never woken by the Tooth Fairy, but children occasionally are. What does the Footh Fairy look like? Well, some people report seeing a fairy, as you might expect, but others report seeing one of their parents. What would it mean if you caught one of your parents in the act? Would it mean that the Tooth Fairy wasn't real? Well, think about it carefully - some parents don't believe in the Tooth Fairy, so what are they going to do? Yes, that's right: they change the tooth for money before the poor Tooth Fairy gets a chance to do it! Isn't that awful! However, there is a theory that the Tooth Fairy has the ability to take on the appearance of one of your parents if you wake up, because it doesn't like to be seen, so only a few lucky children ever manage to see it as an actual fairy.
indentThere are many children who never get money in exchange for a tooth, particularly in very poor countries, so they won't believe in the Tooth Fairy, but that would not prove that there is no such thing as the Tooth Fairy: it may simply be that the Tooth Fairy isn't very nice and rewards some children while ignoring others for no good reason. It may also be that the ones who don't get the money are better off in some other way? Now, that's something you should maybe think about.
SantaLet's now think about another misterious character: Saint Nicholas. What is the connection between Santa Claws and Saint Nicholas? Think first about the word "saint" - you've probably heard place names such as Santa Fe and San Francisco, and if you realise that "santa" and "san" are both Spanish words for "saint", you begin to see a connection between Santa Claws and Saint Nicholas. But where does the weird bit about claws come from? Well, the name Nicholas also changes in different languages: Nicholas can turn into something that sounds more like "nick louse", and it can then be shortened by having the "ni" part removed, leading to "clouse" - that name sounds a bit strange in English, so people misheard it as "claws", and Santa Claws became the name that stuck.
indentBut is Santa real? Well, Saint Nicholas certainly was real. He lived in Turkey, though he lived there long before Turkey was called Turkey. He put gold coins into some girls stockings to help them because they were poor - they had left their stockings outside dangling from something, perhaps to dry after washing them, but we don't need to worry about the details. He saved them from a terrible fate by giving them the money they needed to escape from the difficult situation they were in. Saint Nicholas obviously died, but it is believed that he came back as a spirit to repeat the act of giving again and again: Santa Claws is the result. He generally gives presents to children, but he may give a few things to adults too. But is he real, or are parents just playing a game?
indentHow can we tell? It's complicated, of course, because some parents may buy stuff for their children to add to the presents that actually come from Santa. That would certainly explain why children with rich parents tend to get a lot more presents from Santa, and much more expensive ones too. Some silly parents don't believe in Santa, so they may buy so many things for their children that when Santa turns up he decides not leave anything! Just like with the Tooth Fairy, you cannot catch Santa out - you could actually leave a camera running all night and see what looks like your parents putting all the presents there, but it could simply be that you have parents who don't believe in Santa, or it could be that you're seeing Santa and one of his reindeer after they've transformed themselves to look like your parents.
indentThere are many children who don't get presents from Santa, and this can happen for a number of reasons. You may be surprised to hear that being bad is not one actually of them - Santa gives presents to good and bad children alike. Bad children actually pay the price for being bad in other ways (and far worse ways than not getting presents). No, the children who don't get anything from Santa tend to live in poor countries, just as with the Tooth Fairy - maybe they are better off in some other way? Again that's something you might like to think about. Don't be too quick to decide that Santa and the Tooth Fairy don't exist, because it may be that the children who don't get anything are being tested in some way, or maybe it's you that's being tested? That's something else you should think about. Some children sell their presents and give the money they make from them to charities, but it would be really sad if all children felt that they should do this. I would advise you not to, but to promise yourself instead that you will give lots of money to charity when you've grown up and can make a far bigger difference. There are too many wealthy adults about who could help others, but who simply don't, and it's your job to make sure you never become like them.
GodIs God real? If you believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, then you will probably decide to believe in God too, but many people believe in God while not believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, and many others don't believe in any of them at all. I don't know if anyone believes in Santa or the Tooth Fairy while not believing in God, so if that applies to you, you are probably in a very small group of people. Again it is for you to make up your own mind whether to believe in God and which God to believe in, so with that in mind, a good way to start would be to listen to a number of different people talking about what they believe in so that you can think about what they say and use what you learn from them to help you make up your own mind. I have a feeling that an argument might be about to kick off:-
Aggie the Agnostic: I can't make up my mind if there's a god or not - I don't think it's possible to tell. You can never prove that he doesn't exist, and if he does exist he's very careful not to let us know that he does, so you simply can't tell. That's why I'm an agnostic - I simply don't know.
Carol the Christian: I found God in the Bible - it just spoke to me. I could feel God in its words and simply knew that he was real. I studied the Bible a lot, but I've also read a lot about science. It turns out that the universe we live in is extremely unlikely - if you were to change the laws of nature just a tiny amount, life would be impossible. It looks as if the laws of nature were very carefully set up by God just so that we could exist - the tiniest change to the forces between atoms or the strength of gravity could make it impossible for matter to hold together, or impossible for planets to form, or other things of that kind. The odds are so strongly against conditions being right to enable us to exist that it could only have happened if there's a god.
Mahmed the Muslim: My story is very similar - I found Allah (God) in the Qur'aan (Koran). The Qur'aan is so perfect that it could not have been written by a man - only Allah could have written such an incredible book. What marks it out for me is that it is very logical - it tells you how things are and everything just fits perfectly. The most important thing you should understand is that the Qur'aan is the final word of God - it replaces the Bible and everything else that came before it. It sets out the true rules which we should live our lives by.
Aida the Atheist: There is no god. What is God supposed to be? Supernatural? Magic? How can God be magic if he's supposed to understand everything? As soon as he understands anything magic, it instantly makes sense to him and is no longer magic, so he will know that he is not magic. What is he if he isn't magic? He's just an ordinary, natural creature like all the rest of us, even if he is a very powerful one. If he exists at all, he isn't a god, but just a natural alien creature who lives outside our universe and happens to be powerful. I'm not going to worship a cheetah for being able to run fast; I'm not going to worship an elephant for being big and strong; and I'm not going to worship a bird for being able to fly either. In the same way, I'm not going to worship a natural, powerful alien creature just because it's clever and powerful. I don't believe this ridiculous alien creature exists anyway - no one's ever seen any sign of it!
Carol the Christian: If I might just comment on that, you're just being silly! No one believes that God is magic - that isn't what being being supernatural means! Supernatural simply means "above nature". God created all of nature and he is therefore not natural himself.
Aida the Atheist: So you're saying that he isn't supernatural in the magic sense, but he still counts as being supernatural because he created everything natural and therefore cannot be counted as a natural creature?
Carol the Christian: Correct. He isn't just some ordinary, natural alien because he's supernatural in the sense of "above nature" rather than magic. He's also different in that he was never created, but has always existed, and because he made everything, he knows everything and has complete power over everything. That cannot be described as a natural alien creature! And he isn't a "creature" either, because creatures are created - see how similar those words are? There's a reason for that! A creature is something that is created by a creator, and God wasn't made by any creator!
Aida the Atheist: Well, you've made so many mistakes there that I don't know where to begin! First of all, if creatures are created through evolution without any god being involved, they are still creatures. I suppose you can say that there is still a creator, but that creator is an evolutionary process rather than God. If there is a powerful alien at the top which made everything else, that powerful alien would still need to be created through some process like evolution, so it will be a creature too. A perfect, all powerful, all knowing being of the kind you say has always existed could only be created by magic - it is not a rational explanation just to claim that it has always existed. Maybe some things have always existed, but if so, the complexity of this alien being would still have had to develop gradually through an evolution-like process because it simply can't be so complex and function properly without being built up slowly from something simpler. Nothing can think without using a complicated system of representation - ideas are representations of things and events; words and concepts are representations of things and events. You simply can't have a complex representation system of enormous intelligence unless there is already a whole lot of stuff in existence waiting to be represented by it, and the logic required to relate all the concepts together and perform calculations with them is not simple - it's a mess of complexity which can't simply exist without being extremely carefully designed by an intelligence or by evolving slowly through a process of trial and error with a selection mechansim of some kind. I work in Artificial Intelligence, so I have a very clear picture of what would be required, and I can assure you that for such a creature just to exist ready-built without having to evolve slowly or be created by another intelligence would simply not be possible without waving an astronomically big magic wand.
indentYou don't understand what I'm talking about, do you? You think I'm just talking nonsense! This stuff goes way beyond your level of understanding, and you just can't see the problems. Well, there's nothing I can do about that without spending a very long time teaching you a whole stack of stuff you currently know nothing about, so I'll tell you what: let's just leave that idea to one side for the moment and you can study it later on if you're keen to know more. Let's turn to your idea of supernatural being "above nature". I have to tell you, it simply doesn't work. What you're doing is making an artificial divide within nature and rebranding part of it as "supernatural", or non-natural. You are dividing nature into "natural" and "non-natural"! Can you see a little problem with that?
Carol the Christian: It isn't doing anything of the kind - you're just claiming that the supernatural is natural, but it isn't! God is supernatural, and he made everything that is natural - the two things are completely separate!
Aida the Atheist: Well, you're wrong about that. Think about the word "artificial". If I create something, it's artificial, but you say that if God makes something it is natural. How can that be so? Surely anything that he makes is artificial to him, just as the things that we make are artificial to us. If a supernatural thing makes natural things, and a natural thing makes artificial things, what do you suppose a thing made by a robot would be? Sub-artificial, perhaps. Well, if a robot makes a robot that makes a robot, that's an artificial thing making a sub-artificial thing that makes a sub-sub-artificial thing... It should be obvious to you by now that all these words really just mean "artificial", no matter who or what is making who or what. If God made us, we are artificial. If a robot makes a robot, both are artificial. So, what does "artificial" actually mean then? Well, it's simply anything designed and made by an intelligence. God himself would not have been designed by an intelligence, so he would count be natural, just as we must count as natural if there is no God.
Carol the Christian: But we're natural because we were made by God - we aren't artificial!
Aida the Atheist: Your whole understanding of this is based on an incorrect framework for describing nature. You probably don't even realise that natural and artificial are not opposites - artificial things are natural in addition to being artificial, which is obvious if you think about it, because the laws of nature still apply to them. Science is the study of nature, and science is just as interested in how artificial things behave as it is in how non-artificial things behave. In addition, if a so-called supernatural creature such as God or a ghost was to chain itself to a desk in a science lab, would all the scientists just walk away and say, "We can't investigate that! It isn't natural, so science has absolutely no interest in how it works!" Of course not! Just by existing, they are automatically of interest to science - they are part of nature. Think about the way we use the word "nature" - it is in God's nature to hide out of sight so that no one can see him. Do you see how the word worked there? I didn't have to say that it is in God's supernature to hide out of sight. Here's the thing: ghosts and God, if they exist, are automatically part of nature simply by existing, so they cannot be "above nature". The whole idea of things being supernatural is a nonsense.
Carol the Christian: You're just playing silly games with words: you're simply changing the meaning of the word "natural" to mean everything that exists!
Aida the Atheist: Quite the opposite: you are the one playing games with words - you are making an artificial division of nature into "supernatural" and "natural", and then you're using this fake difference to pretend that God is special so that he can be classed as a god, but it's all nonsense.
Carol the Christian: God does not reside within the universe - he made the universe and everything in it. That is why he is supernatural.
Aida the Atheist: I could play the same trick by creating a virtal world in a computer and fill it with artificial intelligent beings which would think that they are in a real universe and have no idea that they are in a virtual one instead. Would that turn me into a god? Of course not! In the same way, a natural being making a universe doesn't suddenly become God as a result. The intelligent beings in the virtual world in my computer would also call their home "nature", and they would consider me to be supernatural, if they made the same mistake as you have made, so I become a supernatural god, and God becomes a super-supernatural god! Can you see the problem with these words yet? They keep shifting about depending on different points of view. God, if he exists, is no fool - he knows that he is natural, just as we know that we are natural - being mistaken for supernatural beings does not make you supernatural, but simply means that the beings which regard you as supernatural are deluded.
Carol the Christian: You're still just playing word games!
Aida the Atheist: No, I'm telling you how things really are. Do you understand the idea of sets and subsets? Nature is the set of all the things that exist. The universe is a subset of nature, and it is possible that it was created by the creature which you have mistaken for a god. God is not in the universe, so he is not in our subset of nature, but he is still inside nature. A virtual world in my computer is just like a universe in that you can't see out of it, so it's a subset of our subset of nature - a subset within our universe. But are these subsets really so distinct? God could play tricks on us by doing things that appear to break the laws of nature as we know them, but he isn't really breaking any laws of nature - he would only be showing us that the laws of nature don't work in the way that we think they do. We can play the same tricks on the inhabitants of a virtual world, appearing to them to break the laws of nature, but we would not be breaking any laws of nature at all - they would simply have failed to work out what the real laws of nature are. The very ability of God to interact with our subset of nature shows that we are within the same natural system as God, because if we weren't, no interaction would be possible. For God to show himself, he has to reflect photons of light, and that requires an interaction - photons can only interact with him and he can only interact with them if they have a relationship of some kind to enable them to do so, and if they have a relationship they are necessarily of the same system, both being part of nature.
Carol the Christian: Does it matter if God isn't really supernatural? If people think he is, isn't that good enough?
Aida the Atheist: If God knows he isn't supernatural, he isn't supernatural. There is no such thing as supernatural, so we already know that if there is a powerful alien creature outside of the universe who created the universe, that creature is just a natural creature rather than a god.
Carol the Christian: But why can't a natural being outside of the universe still be thought of as God? If it created the universe, isn't that good enough?
Aida the Atheist: If I create a virtual world, is that good enough for me to qualify as a god? What's the name "God" worth if it's that easy to qualify as a god? We can all become gods!
Carol the Christian: But haven't you missed something really important? God is love! God is the force of good! God is going to judge us all some day, and that makes him extremely important!
Aida the Atheist: Why should God happen to exist as the feeling of love? Why not hate? Why not the feeling you get from eating chocolate or sugar? Why not pain? Why not excitement? Why not warmth? Why not the feeling you get on seeing beautiful scenery?
Carol the Christian: Well, he could be all the positive feelings - not just love.
Aida the Atheist: Why not all the negative feelings? Why should the original, perfect being be all the positive feelings and none of the negative ones?
Carol the Christian: He could be all the positive and negative feelings.
Aida the Atheist: God is hate? What does it mean then to say that God is Love? Do you know what love really is? What is so special about this primitive feeling which leads people in wealthy countries to let love get in the way when deciding who to give money to? Here's a choice - a white child with a rare disease might be cured if a million dollars can be raised, or alternatively a ten thousand black children could be cured of common diseases for the same money. If God is love, why does love make people save one child instead of saving ten thousand? Love motivates people to raise money, but the black children simply don't generate feelings of love in most wealthy white people.
Carol the Christian: I care about black children just as much as white ones!
Aida the Atheist: We all like to think we do, but the facts of who gets help don't fit with that. The truth of it is that love is just one of many feelings used in a primitive control system to control our behaviour - it's reason that actually tells us what we should do, so God should really be reason rather than love.
Carol the Christian: God loves us, and we should love him - it has nothing to do with how different groups of people love or don't love each other.
Aida the Atheist: Well, an alien outside the universe loves us and we should love it in return? Fine - if it exists and loves us, if we ever find that out I'll be very happy to love it in return, but that doesn't make it God. All you have is a powerful alien who happens to be powerful by luck - If I had been in that position instead of him, I would be the powerful alien that created the universe, but I wouldn't be stupid enough to call myself a god. He wouldn't be that stupid either!
Carol the Christian: He is the force of goodness, while you are not - that is the difference!
Aida the Atheist: Why should he happen to be the force of goodness rather than the force of evil? Wouldn't it just be luck that he happened to be good rather than evil? He can be no such thing anyway as there are no forces of good or evil. That whole idea is based on a complete misunderstanding of what morality is, and it's also based on the idea that we have free will, but there is no such thing as free will - everything we do is actually out of our control.
Carol the Christian: You're joking! What rubbish you talk!
Aida the Atheist: How is it rubbish? Judging by your face, I expect you like bananas. Why do you choose to eat bananas? It's because you like them. Why do you like them? It's because you happen to be set up in such a way that when you eat bananas, you feel pleasant sensations. Did you set yourself up to get pleasant feelings when you eat bananas or were you already like that? Can you give me a single example of how your free will manifests itself?
Carol the Christian: Er...
Aida the Atheist: No. You can't! No one has ever managed to! Free will doesn't exist. If you do something bad, you are not to blame for that, and if you are always good, it isn't really to your credit that you are good - you just happen to be the way you are and you behave accordingly.
Carol the Christian: So what are you saying? Should we just open all the prisons and let everyone out? If someone deliberately killed your child, would you just say to them, "Oh, it wasn't your fault because you couldn't help it." Would you!
Aida the Atheist: I'd want to kill them, but that's because my primitive nature would make me want to kill them. Looking at it rationally, the right thing to do is lock the killer up for the rest of his or her life to protect other children, but there's no need to make the killer's life unpleasant in addition to the loss of freedom. It's the same with a vicious dog that kills a child - the vicious dog can't help being vicious, but we have to make sure people are protected from it, and we don't torture it to death, but put it to sleep humanely. The rational purpose of punishing people is to try to make them behave better, and also to discourage other people from doing bad things at the same time, but it only really makes sense to punish people if the purpose is to make them less likely to do bad things again in the future.
Carol the Christian: Well, you haven't proved anything at all - I know that God exists because I can feel him in my heart, and nothing you say will ever make any difference because I know he is real!
Aida the Atheist: And I know that you are simply deluded. There is no God!
Carol the Christian: Oh yes there is!
Aida the Atheist: Oh no there isn't!
Carol the Christian: Oh yes there is!
Aida the Atheist: Oh no there isn't!
Carol the Christian: Oh yes there is!
Me: Well, make of that what you will! Different people will come to different conclusions about which arguments they find the most convincing, and many intelligent people will get it wrong. Lots of people believe that Aida's argument has indeed shown God to be logically impossible, but others disagree, and one philosopher has responded to it with this powerful argument: every previous attempt at finding a way to prove that there is no god has turned out to be wrong, therefore this one will turn out to be wrong too. You can make up your own mind what to believe, but don't allow yourself to be bullied by other people who want you to believe what they believe - you have your own mind and it is your job to use it.
If you decide that you think there is a god, there is one other argument which you need to hear. There are lots of different religions which all claim that their God is the true one and that the rest are false. How can this be? How could God allow false religions to fool millions of people into following the wrong path in life? This is an important question because most religions have rules which disagree with the rules of other religions. Well, the answer may actually be that God created all religions and that none of them are completely right. If this is the case, then the only people who will be allowed into heaven are the ones who use reason to judge which bits of their religion to follow and which bits they should reject - they should not blindly follow all the rules of their religion because some of those rules are evil and have been put there specifically to catch out bad people. If everyone thought about their religion in this way, all religions would effectively become the same and it wouldn't matter which one you decided to follow - all you have to do is make sure you don't fall for any of the rules which are designed to be a one-way ticket to hell for the evil people who act on them. This attempt to make all religions rational would lead to a system of rational laws which non-religious people would be happy to follow too, so all the world's people could be united under a single system of law which makes sense to everyone. That is the task for today's children when they take over the running of the world: all the laws in all the world's religions need to be sorted into three categories: false laws designed to test people to see if they are evil enough to want to follow them; true laws which should be applied to everyone because they make complete logical sense; and optional laws (such as not eating particular foods) which individuals may apply to themselves if they wish to do so, perhaps earning some extra points in God's good books when he adds up the scores.
Where to now?If you are keen to know a little about some of the world's biggest religions, read on. Otherwise, there is nothing about any of them that anyone should be required to know - all that matters is that you respect the rights of other people to follow their own religion and that you don't try to impose the rules of yours on them, unless they are fully rational and therefore universal. The best way to study a religion further is to get hold of its holy book(s) in a language which you fully understand and to read it for yourself without allowing anyone else to interpret it for you, because the world is full of people who are keen to distort the message of a religion so that you will end up believing what they want you to think it means, and that may be the exact opposite of what it actually says. Trust no one but yourself, and read the book(s) with your mind fully swicthed on. Some of them are written in rhythmic verses designed to hypnotise you into switching off your reasoning capabilities, so make sure you keep your wits about you.
(In alphabetical order):-
Baha'i Faith: an interesting religion which claims that all other religions are contained within it. It does this not by rejecting any of the incompatible ideas within different religions, but simply by insisting that its followers should never follow religious rules fanatically.
Buddhism: this religion is unusual in that it has no god, though it does have deities (don't ask me how that works) and it involves an enormous amount of praying. Its main concern is with the elimination of suffering, and so its followers try not to allow themselves to become attached to things because it will only upset them in the end when they are separated from them. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, meaning that they expect to live a succession of lives as different people, their aim being to live a sufficiently moral life that they can escape from this cycle of repeated reincarnations and move on to some higher level. Buddhists go in for meditation, often chanting empty words over and over again until they enter a trance in which they feel as if they are in touch with every atom in the universe.
Christianity: it is not easy to work out what this religion actually is because most of the Bible (New Testament) is actually about a man called Paul who spread this religion while distorting its real message. The best thing to do is just concentrate on the first four books (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) which tell you all you really need to know, concentrating on the story of Jesus. While Jesus never claimed to be God, many Christians have decided that he actually was God, and many of them also believe that he died on the cross so that people's sins would be forgiven.
Hinduism: a religion of many gods. Like Buddhists, Hindus believe in reincarnation and they seek to escape to a higher level by living moral lives. Hindus also believe that they can have their sins forgiven by taking off all their clothes and jumping into holy rivers, so it's great fun!
Islam: a religion which focuses primarily on the choice people have between going to heaven or hell. The Qur'aan (or Koran - Islam's holy book) was written and revealed to the public in stages, and it claims to be the final revelation from God, meaning that no other religion will ever replace it. The Qur'aan attempts to use reasoning to explain why it must be true, but it isn't up to the standards of logic as used in mathematics and science. Even so, it is probably the most serious of religions in its attempt to be a complete, rational system for people to try to live their lives by.
Judaism: a religion reserved for people who are Jews, though its Bible is also incorporated into Christianity as the Old Testament and it contains lots of well known stories such as the ones about Adam and Eve (in the Garden of Eden) and Noah's Ark (a story which tries to explain why rainbows exist). Jews try to lead good lives so that they will go to heaven, and they don't have access to any mechanism for forgiving their own sins, so theoretically they have to behave themselves.
There are also agnosticism and atheism to consider, though these don't qualify as religions: agnostics are simply people who do not believe in god, but who haven't gone so far as to rule out the possibility that god exists, whereas atheists believe absolutely that there is no god.