Child sex abuse by clergy or church workers has taken place in every Roman Catholic congregation in Belgium, according to an independent commission investigating paedophilia allegations.

There is exactly one sensible response to the September 11th 2001 attack on the World Trade Center towers: Find the people who did it, and kill them. We don’t need to “commemorate” the event. Who’s going to forget it? And we don’t need to regard the site as “holy”. That’s the kind of perverted thinking that got the towers destroyed.

We need to find the people who did it. The creeps who flew the planes are dead. But the super-creepy men who (from a safe hideaway) demanded that it be done, and planned it all out, are still alive. I think they should be killed. But no one even talks about them anymore. Instead we get parades and speeches and hymns. In other words, no one is trying to solve the problem! Instead, they are trying to turn the situation to their own advantage. It makes me sick.

It would be great to live in a world where women could wear exactly what they want to wear, without the slightest pressure. But this is not the world we live in. —Luis Granados, “Saving Aqsa Parvez”, The Humanist, September-October 2010, p. 21

Put aside, for a moment, the idea of religion. Forget, for just a second, that the word ‘religion’ means anything. And now ask, is it OK for a man to force a woman to spend her whole life in a black cloth bag?

How could that ever be OK?

The burqa question is not about a woman’s right to wear the burqa, but about her right not to wear it. No one in their right mind would don such a “garment” more than once. You wear the burqa because if you don’t, your husband will beat you. It’s as simple as that. The purpose of legislation “banning the burqa” is to protect women from this kind of abuse.

The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burqa … are often described as seeking to impose a “ban.” To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and—no less important—equal in the face of one another. —Christopher Hitchens

A friend once told me, “Jesus is absolutely real to me.”

I can’t meet this half-way. It’s wrong. It is a misuse of words. Jesus is not real to you. That is simply not true.

Once a woman was getting onto an elevator with me and she said, “It’s so hot out there I was literally melting.” She misused the word ‘literally’. To say “Jesus is real to me” is to misuse the word ‘real’. Jesus is not real. He is a thought, an image, a feeling. He is not a person. This is so obvious that I feel goofy pointing it out. You could get away with saying, “It’s as if I can touch him,” but not with “I can touch him.” That is simply not true. You can’t see him, touch him, hear him, or smell him. He’s not there.

Jesus is not a person. That’s why you can’t have a personal relationship with him. Even if he exists as some sort of immortal spirit, that’s not the same thing as being a person. Jesus the person died 2,000 years ago (if he ever existed). And you can’t have a personal relationship with an old pile of bones.

“Jesus seems real to me” could be taken seriously (as a report of a feeling) – but “Jesus is absolutely real to me” is absolutely wrong. To combine the relative expression ‘to me’ with the absolute word ‘real’ – plus the word ‘absolute’! – is perfectly incoherent. This is a sentence that cannot possibly mean anything.

Maybe what you are trying to convey is that Jesus is a topic that, for you, is charged with emotion. You feel something when you read or think or talk about Jesus. But feelings don’t prove anything. If feelings made things true, then everyone on Earth would have a steady romantic partner (except for those few people who don’t want one). Your having strong feelings about Jesus doesn’t prove that Jesus exists. It’s that simple.

As we showed earlier, your strong feelings don’t even prove that you believe that Jesus exists. Feelings are not beliefs.

To sum up: I do not accept your statement that Jesus is “absolutely real” to you. I don’t believe that it can be true.

Men in Afghanistan can’t see or touch women. So they rape boys instead.

To review. The verb ‘to believe’ refers to something one does with an intelligible proposition.

Compare with the verb ‘to read’. Reading is something you do with a text. If you say, “Let me read you something,” and you talk to us, but you’re not referring to a text, then you used the wrong word. Whatever you’re doing, it isn’t reading.

Similarly, if you say “I believe that Jesus loves me,” you used the wrong word. “Jesus loves me” is not a proposition, only a pseudo-proposition – so your relationship to it is one of pseudo-belief.

To this thesis, some people reply along these lines. “I used to be a Christian, so I know what it’s like. I really believed all that stuff. It is presumptuous and absurd for you to tell me otherwise. I really believed that Jesus loved me. I felt it in my heart. It was a good feeling! And I really believed that if I did the wrong thing I would burn in Hell – which genuinely terrified me, especially when I was little. How can you possibly say I didn’t believe? Are you claiming to know more about the inner workings of my brain than I do?”

Notice that the emphasis in this report is on how the propositions you “believed” made you feel. You’re remembering emotions you had, and offering those emotions as evidence for the idea that you “really believed.” I see a few problems here.

To my claim that you didn’t have a belief about Jesus, you reply that you had a feeling. But I did not say there were no feelings. I said there was no belief.

Are you saying that the intensity of your feelings is a kind of proof that you really believed? That would be false, because an image in your mind can have profound effects on your feelings without it being a belief.

When someone tells me about the horrors of Hell, I am horrified. This is an emotional reaction. The same thing happens when I watch a scary movie. My thoughts, feelings, breathing, heartbeat and skin conductance may all be affected; but none of these responses is properly called belief. I don’t believe the images in the movie. They are not propositions.

Religious teachings put images and slogans and feelings in your mind. And those things are routinely called beliefs, but this is a misuse of the term. An image is not a belief; a slogan is not a belief; nor is a feeling. Belief is something else.

This is not to say that no one can have beliefs! One can have beliefs. There are, for example, comforting notions like “There is someone who loves me,” and “I’m not alone,” and “Some day soon, I’ll be happy.” Such ideas are not incoherent – but neither are they religious. The Credo does not say, “Everything will be OK.” That is not a specifically Christian idea. Christianity says incoherent things like “Jesus loves you” – that is: a living person, who is not living, and not a person, has feelings for you, which are not feelings, and not for you. That’s the kind of thing that the church says you should believe. But no one can do that. It’s impossible. People do have ideas about something they call Jesus, but they don’t have that idea, because it’s not even an idea!

And everyone’s idea is different. Your image of Jesus can’t be canonical, so it’s personal. The comforting picture in your mind is different from everyone else’s comforting picture. One person’s Jesus looks kind of like her dad. Another’s looks like a soft blue cloud. But no one’s picture can be said to be more accurate than anyone else’s, because there is nothing “out there” to compare them with. The ideas we think of as being about Jesus are not about anything at all.

So when people say, “Christians believe X,” it’s not true. There is nothing that fits that description. What the church says you should believe, no one does. There is no Christian belief, only Christian slogans; and myriads of personal, individual beliefs. And all these have in common is the special words used to describe them – a Christian vocabulary of meaningless terms. Everyone uses the word ‘Jesus’, the word ‘God’, the word ‘salvation’; which fosters the appearance that everyone agrees about certain things. But no one knows what the words mean! So they haven’t agreed on anything.

You might be wondering: Why do people say such things, if they don’t believe them? Well, that’s how it all ends up making sense.

Look at it socially instead of semantically. To pronounce a phrase such as “I believe that Jesus loves me” is a social gesture. It’s almost completely independent of what the words mean. “Jesus loves me” is empty of sense, and therefore, “I believe that Jesus loves me” is strictly false. But the saying of those words is meaningful on different level, as a gesture between people – like a wink, or a badge, or a special handshake. People don’t generally go around making theological claims. What they do is to exchange tokens of affiliation, sorting out who belongs to which crowd. The words don’t mean anything as words. That’s not what they’re for. They are a prop to use in public performances.

Someone drops his shopping list in the street. A bird picks it up. The bird does not notice the words on the paper. The bird does not know what writing is, or what paper is. It just seems like useful stuff. It becomes part of her nest. The next day, it is dissolved by rain.

Richard Dawkins claims in The God Delusion (p. 137) that “there almost certainly is no God”. This is false and misleading. We can deny the existence of the God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity with one hundred percent confidence.

“How can you say that? You don’t know everything!”

What a strange thing to say. I have never claimed to know everything. I’m not sure the idea even makes any sense.

“The point is, you could be wrong about how the world works.”

I’m sure I am. Sooner or later something I observe will force me to adjust one or more of my ideas about how the world works. It could happen today. It could happen many times today. But what I observe will certainly not be the God of Abraham.

I know this first of all because the Christian God is unobservable. At least, that’s what everyone answers, when we ask why it’s never observed.

But there is a more important reason that God can’t pop up and let all of us know that we were wrong: the definition of God is incoherent. This means that God cannot exist, by definition.

Richard Swinburne, a highly respected theologian, writes (The Coherence of Theism, 1993, page 1) that a theist is

a man who believes that there is a God. By a ‘God’ he understands something like a ‘person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe’. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all in the above sense theists.

Swinburne follows millennia of mainstream monotheism in saying that God is omnipotent and perfectly good. But the Euthyphro argument and the problem of evil show that this does not make sense. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are mutually exclusive. (In fact, each one is probably incoherent all by itself.) Therefore, his definition is logically incoherent. It follows with logical certainty that his God, the God of mainstream Judaism, Islam and Christianity, cannot exist. There is no almost.

By the way, ‘logically incoherent’ does not mean ‘disputable on semantic terms if you have a degree in philosophy’. It means, ‘doesn’t make sense’.

Imagine that someone tells you of an object that is “perfectly round and perfectly square.” If you accept the claim that the object is ‘perfectly round’, it becomes impossible to understand the claim that it’s ‘perfectly square’; and vice versa. An object can’t be both those things. Why? Because of what the words ’round’ and ‘square’ mean! It’s that simple, and that certain.

Dawkins’s “almost” is much too weak. We know for a fact that the traditional God of monotheism cannot possibly exist. We have merely to look unflinchingly at the concepts included in its definition. ‘Perfectly good’ and ‘perfectly capable’ contradict each other, as surely (though not as obviously) as ’round’ and ‘square’. Therefore, the definition of God fails to make sense. The atheist has no need to disprove it, because the existence of God has never even been coherently proposed.

Starting around 2:16 in this excerpt from The Atheism Tapes, Jonathan Miller and Daniel Dennett are talking about people who profess to believe in an “immaterial soul” that goes on after the death of the “physical body”.

Jonathan Miller says:

I find it very hard to see how they can actually formulate or conceive the notion of an immaterial continuity of an unembodied self – of how it would know that it was in fact the thing that had once been the embodied person, with a particular name, with particular projects. It’s always seemed to me that the notion of projects, and trajectories, and hopes and plans and so forth, are all tied up with being embodied.

Daniel Dennett says:

Yes, and I think that everybody cheats when they think about this. I mean in the way that scientists cheat too, when they imagine hard-to-imagine things. So people, when they imagine an immaterial soul – they don’t! They imagine a sort of ghosty sort of semi-transparent material object that’s got arms and legs and a particular physical location, but just isn’t quite physical. It’s sort of like a hologram. And they know that that’s not right. They know that a soul isn’t really like that. And they know they can’t really imagine an immaterial, disembodied soul. But that’s all right, these things are hard to imagine! “Physicists can’t imagine quantum mechanics, and we can’t imagine an immaterial soul. But, you know, we can try, and it doesn’t hurt to think about, you know, people playing harps sitting on clouds.”

I often ask my students, when they were children and reading comic books or watching on television, did it ever bother them that Casper, the friendly ghost, could both fly through a wall, and catch a ball? I mean, why doesn’t the ball just go right through his hand? And almost all of them say, Oh yes, they had noticed this mildly discomfiting inconsistency, but everybody goes along with the gag. But everybody notices that this is not really consistent.

There’s a big difference between a scientist trying to visualize quantum mechanics and a person trying to imagine an immaterial soul, which is really an immaterial person, which is a contradiction in terms. Dennett reminds us that a truly immaterial thing would not even have “a particular physical location,” to say nothing of arms and legs.

Physicists try to visualize the inner workings of atoms because atoms almost certainly exist. Quantum effects are hard to visualize because they seem to require contradictory predicates: very small entities are, famously, sort of “like waves,” and also sort of “like particles.” But this is an apparent contradiction, caused by limited understanding and limited vocabulary. One can imagine a future in which we can speak with perfect clarity about the inner workings of atoms. But in the idea of an unphysical person there is an inherent, a priori contradiction.

Thunder Valley Casino is in the Sacramento area. This is a screen shot from their website. Of course some people have won a lot of money “playing” there. But to put this in the proper context, Thunder Valley needs to tell us how much money, before their big win, and after, those lucky winners lost.

Pollsters … have reported repeatedly that they can find little measurable difference between the moral behavior of churchgoers and the rest of American society. Barna has found that born-again Christians are more likely to divorce (an act strongly condemned by Jesus) than atheists and agnostics, and are more likely to be racist than other Americans. And while evangelical adolescents overwhelmingly say they believe in abstaining from premarital sex, they are more likely to be sexually active — and at an earlier age — than peers who are mainline Protestants, Mormons or Jews … .

How to explain the Grand Canyon-sized gap between principles outlined in the Gospels and the behavior of believers? Christians … respond that shortcomings of the followers of Jesus are simply evidence of man’s inherent sinfulness. But if one adheres to the principle of Occam’s razor — that the simplest explanation is the most likely — there is another, more unsettling conclusion: that many people who call themselves Christian don’t really believe, deep down, in the tenets of their faith.

William Lobdell in the L.A. Times