Religion and the Idea of God




Copyright 2016 Chris Park

Shakespir Edition



Thank you for downloading this ebook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial reasons. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy, and please consider downloading the other books in the series GOD MATTERS, both free from Shakespir.com. Thank you for your support.


This ebook contains material drawn from my book God: Real or Imagined? which was first published in print format by Zaccmedia in 2013. It is part of the GOD MATTERS series, the other ebooks of which are listed in ‘Other books by this author’.




Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The nature of religion

3. God in religion

4. The origin and development of religion

5. The benefits of religion

6. The decline of organized religion


About the author

Other books by this author





1. Introduction

For many people, probably a majority of the people on Earth, nothing matters more than religion.” Daniel Dennett (2006)


Many people would argue that, like sex and politics, religion is not an appropriate topic of conversation in polite company. Robert Wright (2009) goes further, arguing that “in modern intellectual circles, speculating seriously about God’s existence isn’t a path to widespread esteem. Indeed, the first decade of the twenty-first century made god-talk an even graver breach of highbrow etiquette than it had been at the end of the twentieth.”

As a result today, particularly in the West, God is often viewed as the “elephant in the room”, something that may well be important but whose very existence is generally either not acknowledged or deliberately ignored.


Curiosity and the religious instinct

As humans we are natural curious creatures; we are hard-wired to want or need to know, to ask questions and seek answers. As far as we know, we are the only species endowed with this sense of wonder and curiosity.

This inbuilt inquisitiveness is often keenest when we are young, when “Because it is” is not a sufficiently persuasive answer. I can well remember my own childhood, when my dad took me for a walk along our street and (he tells me) I constantly pestered him with questions like “why is the sky blue?” or “why is the grass green?” Whatever answers he gave me failed to silence me, or to put my mind at rest.

As we grow up, our questions change. As life gets serious, our responsibilities grow, the years fly by, and we are confronted by multiple challenges. As adults we often ask ourselves “What is it all about?” and “Is this it, all there is to life?” We wonder “Why do bad things happen, particularly to good people?” Question after question, not all of them answerable we now know. But it doesn’t stop us wondering, thinking, searching.

This incessant curiosity about things beyond our everyday experience is one of the unique qualities of being human. It is the product of a dissatisfied mind in search of some kind of peace. Natural curiosity is deep-rooted, and it lies at the heart of the question of God. Although it is expressed in many different ways, this need to know is found in all cultures, places and times. As Kathleen Jones (2007) argues, “the religious instinct is innate.”

We can look back through history and beyond and find that most societies and cultures have some belief in one or more gods. Charles Darwin noted in [_The Descent of Man _](1871) that “a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal.” A century later Richard Carlyon (1981) suggested that “there has never been a culture that did not express an awareness of the divine, and these expressions have been as varied and colourful as the cultures themselves.”

According to anthropologists, religions in most cultures and at most times have had certain supernatural features in common, including belief in a non-physical God or gods, belief in some form of afterlife, and belief in the ability of rituals or prayers to change the course of human events.

US scientist Edward Wilson (1975) pointed out that “the predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.” Despite the apparent ubiquity of ‘the religious instinct’, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins remains stubbornly dismissive of it. In [_The God Delusion _](2006) he notes that “no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking rituals, the anti-factual, counter-productive fantasies of religion.”

So, we seem to have an inbuilt tendency to wonder if there is something above and beyond the everyday world we encounter directly through our five senses. Something pervasive yet elusive; something beyond our reach or full understanding. That something is the idea of God, or as Robert Winston (2005) calls it, the “Divine Idea”.


The aim of this book

My aim in writing this short ebook is not to try to persuade you to adopt, abandon or change whatever religion – if any – you currently belong to, or whatever religious or spiritual beliefs you hold. You have every right to believe whatever you want to, naturally. Rather, my aim is to get you thinking, perhaps for the first time, about what religion does and doesn’t offer people.

In recent years religion has had quite a bad press worldwide, with the rise and decline of New Atheism early in this new millennium, and more recently with the rise of fundamentalism, particularly in the context of militant forms of radical Islam in the Middle East, and the spreading fallout from that in terms of terrorism, atrocities and imposed cultural change.

But, rather than “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”, and instantly rejecting all religion as bad, dangerous and/or deluded, it’s important that we step back from what might turn out to be short-term controversies, and try to adopt a broader perspective and take a calmer and more rational look at religion.

This book is part of the GOD MATTERS series. Other books in the series are listed in Other books by this author at the back of this book.




Return to Table of Contents


2. The nature of religion

Whilst not all religions point to God or assume a belief in God, given the ubiquity and importance of religion it is important that we understand how God and religion are inter-related, but at the same time appreciate that they are not the same thing. The idea of God is one thing, and the practice of religion is another, although they often converge and overlap.


Religion and spirituality

It is useful to distinguish between religion and spirituality, because many people today tend to use the two terms interchangeably.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines spirituality as “The quality or condition of being spiritual; attachment to or regard for things of the spirit as opposed to material or worldly interests.” Alister Hardy (1979) describes spirituality as “a feeling that ‘Something Other’ than the self can actually be sensed; a desire to personalise this presence into a deity and to have a private I-Thou [person-to-person] relationship with it, communicating through prayer.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as “Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.”

Oxford philosopher Tim Mawson (2005) describes religion as “those systems of thought that view physicalism [the view that material things are all there is] as false, that claim then that there is something outside the physical world that accounts for it: there is something beyond the world that natural science describes and that something explains why there is a world for us to describe and why there is an us to do the describing.”

Theologian John Cornwell (2007) points out that religion “is much more than a set of ‘beliefs’, although it may at points be inseparable from them.”

Spirituality and religion overlap but they are not the same thing. They differ in several important ways, including:

p<>{color:#000;}. Personal vs communal: spirituality is based on personal belief, usually dealt with in private by the individual, whereas religion is a collective activity, usually dealt with corporately and in both the private and public domains;

p<>{color:#000;}. Intellectual vs practical: spirituality may be a largely intellectual pursuit, though it may also be pursued through rituals or practices (such as meditation, prayer and contemplation), whereas religion always involves a combination of belief, dogma, traditions and practices (such as worship);

p<>{color:#000;}. Informal vs formal: spirituality is generally loosely structured and personal to the individual, whereas religion by definition has formal expression and is organised to a greater or lesser degree; and

p<>{color:#000;}. Conscience vs accountability: spirituality usually shapes an individual’s attitudes and behaviour, but usually by following their own conscience rather than appealing to external judgment, whereas religion shapes attitudes and behaviour in ways that are accountable to religious authority (either loosely or tightly defined).

How many religions are there?

Religions are communal, practical, and generally formally organised activities, with a focus on God or gods, but they can take many different forms.

Even counting how many religions there are in the world today is a major challenge, because they can be situated along a spectrum that has few obvious thresholds along it. When, for example, does a spiritual interest shared by a few people become a cult? And when does a cult become a fully-fledged religion?

Daniel Dennett (2006) acknowledges that “what we usually call religions are composed of a variety of quite different phenomena, arising from different circumstances and having different implications, forming a loose family of phenomena, not a ‘natural kind’ like a chemical element or a species.”

According to the [World Christian Encyclopedia _](Barrett _et al 2001) there are 19 major world religions today, which can be sub-divided into 270 large religious groups and many smaller ones. More than 34,000 separate Christian groups have been identified.


How many religious believers are there?

It is notoriously difficult to count exactly how many people belong to particular religions because data has to be pulled together from many different sources.

Figures for 2001 show that Christians are the largest group worldwide, in the USA and in the UK. Worldwide, out of a total population of nearly 6 billion, there were 2.1 billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims and 1.1 billion non-religious people. In the USA, there were 159 million Christians, 29.4 million non-religious, and 2.8 million Jews. In the UK there were 42 million Christians, 9.1 million non-religious, and 1.6 million Muslims. Christians outnumber non-religious people roughly two-to-one globally and broadly five-to-one in the USA and the UK. At the world scale Islam gives Christianity a good run for its money and is fast catching up, but in the USA and the UK it currently lags some way behind, at least in terms of numbers of followers.

Size matters but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For many people ‘religion’ is a census category or cultural label rather than a personal belief or a way of life. People also vary greatly in the degree to which, in terms of religion, they are active (engaged and committed) or passive (nominal). Moreover, measures such as counts of church membership or even attendance are not good proxies for such things as strength of personal belief or degree to which belief shapes or determines behavior.

Surveys show that religious faith and belonging are much stronger in the USA than in Britain. Data for 2008 (Voas and Ling 2010) show that three in five (61 per cent) Americans have ‘no doubt’ that God exists, compared with fewer than one in five (1 per cent) people in Britain.

Religion is also a dynamic phenomena – it can change through time, both in terms of number of followers (which can rise or fall) and diversity of religions (which can also rise and fall). This theme is explored further in Chapter 6 and in the ebook Doubt, denial and the death of God in this GOD MATTERS series.


What do different religions have in common?

Given the diversity of religions across the world today, what do they have in common? What ties them together?

In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1915) identified five what he called “elementary forms of the religious life” which can be found in all religions. These are –

p<>{color:#000;}. the habit of seeing the world as composed of both sacred and profane (secular, with no spiritual basis) elements;

p<>{color:#000;}. belief in spirits;

p<>{color:#000;}. belief in God or gods;

p<>{color:#000;}. the practice of self-denial; and

p<>{color:#000;}. religious rites and traditions.

Historian of religion Ninian Smart (1969) deconstructs religion differently in The Religious Experience of Mankind. He sees it as made up of six particularly important ‘dimensions’:

p<>{color:#000;}. Ritual (ceremony);

p<>{color:#000;}. Myth (story, what has been said, whether true or false);

p<>{color:#000;}. Doctrine (what is stated in theology);

p<>{color:#000;}. Ethics (behaviour);

p<>{color:#000;}. Social significance; and

p<>{color:#000;}. Human experience.

John Cornwell (2007) explains how religion “is as much a product of the imagination as art, poetry, and music. Religion’s activities, its rituals, its mythologies, hymns, meditations, prayers, chants, poetry, images, parables, legends, taboos, and sacramentals (… holy objects, such as candles, incense, oils, vestments, holy water) are principally symbolic, often appealing to deep levels of folk memory. … Religious rituals and symbols, from the dawning of human history, marked and celebrated birth, growth, age, death and burial, the making of families and communities, the coming together for feasts, husbandry, hunting, journeys, the life cycles of plants and animals, and human beings, the changing seasons, the diurnal, lunar, and annual rounds, the mystery of existence. The great world religions … continue to enact and celebrate those cyclical experiences and underlying mysteries.”

This theme is explored further in the ebook The nature of belief in this GOD MATTERS series.


Variations on a theme

Many non-believers think of all religions as variations on a theme, different ways of dealing with the idea of God. From this perspective most religions look inter-changeable, allowing people to pick and choose to suit their tastes and personal preferences.

The Baha’i faith is unique in believing that all religions are pathways to God. Howard Jones (2006) spells out the Baha’i view that “as there are many fundamental contradictions between one set of religious beliefs and another, it is logically untenable that any one of these accounts should be regarded as expressing unequivocal and unilateral divine truth, as this condemns the remaining religious beliefs to falsehood. The various bodies of scriptures should therefore be regarded as presenting accounts of different paths to the divine, created for different peoples at different times and different places in different social situations.”


Religion and truth

With so many religions competing for people’s attention, it is little wonder that many of them insist that theirs is the only ‘true’ one and all the other ones are flawed. The notion of truth in religion is hotly contested, and the claim is readily seized upon by critics (including atheists) as evidence of the delusional nature of religion. Through history it has also been the cause of a great deal of inter-religious rivalry and hostility, evidenced for example in the medieval Crusades, and more recently in Islamic jihad (holy war against unbelievers).

Emile Durkheim (quoted in Cornwell 2007) insisted that “in reality there are no religions which are false. All are true in their own fashion: all answer, albeit in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence.”

Of course, this does not necessarily mean that religion is based on reality, as atheists regularly point out. Richard Dawkins (2006) sees religion as a collective form of delusion. He agreed with Robert Pirsig (1974), author of the best-selling cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who wrote “when one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”  Dawkins argues that we are “psychologically primed for religion.”

This theme is explored further in the ebook Arguments for God in this GOD MATTERS series.


Fundamentalism and literalism

All believers can be located somewhere along a spectrum between moderate (liberals) and extremist (fundamentalists), reflecting the strength of their religious conviction and the extent to which it informs and shapes behaviour. Where an individual sits along that spectrum depends to a large extent on how they read and understand religious texts (such as the Bible for Christians and the Koran for Muslims).

Fundamentalists are literalists, who accept the core texts of their religion as divinely dictated and read them literally, believing every word and expression. Liberals typically view core texts as divinely inspired, and they read meaning into them without expecting every single word to be literally true.

Michael Novak (2007) comments that the New Atheists “are almost as literal in their readings of the Bible as the least educated, most literal-minded fundamentalist.” However, as John Cornwell (2007) points out, they overlook the fact that modern Bible scholarship shows that “the collection of texts known as the Bible contains a variety of different literary forms, including homily, allegory, meditation, parable, chronicle, poetry, legend, folk memory, ironic aphorisms, prophecy, prayer.”

Fundamentalism emerged in most world religions during the twentieth century, as a resistance to and reaction against the modern world-view and modern notions of knowledge. In Christianity it emerged through conscious and deliberate insistence on “the Bible [read literally] as a source of divinely guaranteed factual knowledge,” as US theologian Marcus Borg (1998) puts it.

Fundamentalists have a reputation for being intolerant of the views of others. John Cornwell (2007) points out that they reject “pluralism of view points, values, creeds, religions, and indeed shades of doubt, skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism.” As Symon Hill (2010) reminds us, they are convinced “that only their religion or world-view has the truth. Other religions are regarded as false and often as evil.”

US radio presenter Krista Tippett (2007) describes a fundamentalist as “anyone who not only has the answers for himself [sic], but has them for all the rest of us too.” Cornwell adds that they are “determined, aggressive dogmatists, insisting that they, and they alone, are right: you are either with them or against them.”

In The End of Faith atheist Sam Harris (2005) characterises moderates as “fully committed to tolerance and diversity” but is critical of extremists who “would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.” Curiously, he blames the rise of fundamentalism on the tolerance of moderates, arguing that “religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s laws … the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.” Fellow atheist Richard Dawkins (2006) echoes the sentiment in his best-selling The God Delusion, where he writes that “the teachings of ‘moderate’ religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism.”

Atheists point to two particularly damaging impacts of religious fundamentalism in the world today. First they claim that it is anti-science. Dawkins insists that it “actively debauches the scientific enterprise. It teaches us not to change our minds, and not to want to know exciting things that are available to be known. It subverts science and saps the intellect.” Secondly, they claim that it fuels religious and sectarian conflict. Dawkins regards religious fundamentalism – which he dismisses as dangerous “absolutism” which “rules the minds of a great number of people in the world today” – as “a major reason for suggesting that religion can be a force for evil in the world.”

Sam Harris is particularly critical of Muslim extremists and “the degree to which they believe that modernity and secular culture are incompatible with moral and spiritual health.” In many ways the emergence of New Atheism signalled a backlash against the atrocity of the Islamic terrorist attacks on New York on the 11th of September 2001.




Return to Table of Contents

3. God in religion

Different religions look upon God in different ways, and without an appreciation of these differences we run the risk of assuming that all religions see the same God the same way. This is one of the traps that many militant atheists fall into, which diminishes the credibility of many of their arguments against religion.

One simple way of grouping religions into types is on the basis of what form of God they believe in (pantheism, polytheism and monotheism).



Pantheism is based on the belief that God and the universe are one and the same thing. The word is derived from the Greek pan (all) and theos (god) and it literally means “all is God.” From this perspective the whole universe and everything in it are seen as a manifestation of God, so that, as Wikipedia puts it, it is “the only thing deserving the deepest kind of reverence.”

Richard Dawkins (2006) points out that “pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God [in a metaphoric or poetic way] as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings.” Lundstrom (2008) elaborates a bit further, writing that “pantheistic religions believe that God consists of the whole of nature. God is within all of nature and nature is God.”

Many of the so-called ‘primitive religions’, based on worshipping spirits in the natural world, are or were pantheistic. So too is the New Age movement which some dismiss as an avant-garde ‘hippy’ movement with roots in animism and pagan religions, based on ideas borrowed from Eastern mysticism and an interest in psychic phenomena. James Sire (1997) points out that it is driven by the search for a new cosmic consciousness which denies the existence of a transcendent god and places great value on the individual person, centering on self-realisation through “a mystical experience in which time, space and morality are transcended” giving the sense of becoming one with the cosmos, sometimes with the assistance of psychedelic drugs.


[*Polytheism *]

Polytheism is based on belief in and the worship of multiple gods. The word is derived from the Greek polys (many) and theos (god), and it literally means “of many gods.” As Peter Lundstrom (2008) puts it, “polytheistic religions believe in a vast host of gods who vary widely in character, purpose and influence.” Many primitive religions were polytheistic.

Hinduism is probably the best-known polytheistic religion today. Although, as Wikipedia tells us, Hinduism “is a conglomeration of distinct intellectual or philosophical points of view, rather than a rigid common set of beliefs”, Hindus worship hundreds of different gods and goddesses, each believed to represent a particular aspect of the one supreme being or ultimate deity. There are three main deities in Hinduism – Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu/Krishna (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer) – and some followers regard Vishnu as the ultimate deity while others insist it is Shiva.


[*Monotheism *]

Monotheism is based on belief in and the worship of a single God (capital G). The word is derived from the Greek monos (single) and theos (god) and it literally means “one God.” The three monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - believe in a single God who is unique in every way. That God is also known as the ‘God of Abraham’, after the Old Testament character from whom Jesus is believed to be descended.

Each of the three monotheistic religions has its own take on the relevance of God and the purpose of life. In Judaism the core responsibility of believers is to obey Yahweh’s (God’s) commandments and live ethically; the focus is more on this life than the next. In Christianity the core belief is that the sins people commit separate them from God, to whom they can only be reconciled (‘saved’) through faith in God’s son Christ. In Islam believers are expected to submit (islam) to the will of Allah (God) in order to gain Paradise after they die.

Monotheism, and in particular Christianity, has long been the default belief system in western cultures, and it remains so today. Self-confessed agnostic Michael Shermer (2000) points out that “studies show that the vast majority of people in the Industrial West who believe in God associate themselves with some form of monotheism, in which God is understood to be all powerful, all knowing, and all good; who created out of nothing the universe and everything in it with the exception of Himself; who is uncreated and eternal, a non-corporeal spirit who created, loves, and can grant eternal life to humans.” This is the type of religion that offends Richard Dawkins so much and is the primary target of his barbed attacks in The God Delusion.

Monotheism can be sub-divided into two groups, based on beliefs about whether God is present and active in the universe he is believed to have created (theism), or absent from it and passive about it (deism).



The word deism is derived from the Latin deus (god) and it simply means belief in God.

But the term is widely used today to refer specifically to belief in the existence of a God who created the universe and the laws that govern it at the beginning of time (whenever that was) then abandoned it and left it to take care of itself. Tim Mawson (2005) describes how, in this view, God created the world “in the sense of starting it off, as someone might create a firework display by lighting the blue touch-paper and retiring.”

Deists believe in a creator God who – like some deus emeritus (retired God) – has stopped interacting with the universe he created, taking no active role or moral interest in human affairs. They don’t believe that miracles can actually happen and seek rational (usually scientific) explanations for apparent miracles, and think of God as effectively ‘living in exile’ out of reach and out of sight from humans on earth, or indeed anywhere else in the universe. This idea of God is thus by definition of a deity who is impersonal and unknowable.

This way of visualising God is a form of theological rationalism based only on reason, without reference to divine revelation. It became popular in the eighteenth century because it allows some accommodation between the idea of God and the material modern worldview that emerged through the Enlightenment. Karen Armstrong (2009) explains how at that time “a somewhat paradoxical theology was developing. In the supernatural realm, God remained a mysterious and loving Father, active in the lives of his worshippers. But in the natural world, God had been forced to retreat: he had created it, sustained it and established its laws, but after that the mechanism worked by itself and God made no further direct interventions.”

Deism remains popular today, although many people are effectively deists without knowing it. Some writers have argued that by excluding God from being actively involved in the world today deism represents a halfway house towards atheism. Richard Dawkins (2006) writes, somewhat cryptically, that “deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. … Deism is watered-down theism.”



The word theism is derived from the Greek theos (god), so like deism it means belief in God. But unlike the absent God of deism, theism refers to belief in the existence of a God who created the universe and remains present, continuing to run it and govern it.

As Tim Mawson (2005) points out, this is a view in which “God creates the world in the sense of keeping it in being from moment to moment … The world ultimately depends on God’s will for its existence and its character as expressed in the natural laws that govern the behaviour of its constituents.”

As well as continuing to sustain the universe, the God that theists believe in is a personal God who is actively involved in the world today. This God knows and cares about each individual human being, makes himself knowable to them (for example, through personal experience and by revelation), and makes it possible for them to not only know about him but actually know him. This theme is explored further in the ebook Personal experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series.

Like deism, theism remains popular today, although (again like deism) most people are effectively theists without knowing it and wouldn’t call themselves one. US theologian John Haught (2008) points out that this is the idea of God that most people in the West associate with the term ‘religion’, by which they mean “belief in a distinct, personal, transcendent, divine being, endowed with intelligence, will, feelings, intentions, and responsiveness.”

It is also the idea of God that atheist Richard Dawkins insists otherwise sensible people are deluded or tricked into believing. He writes (2006) of the God who “answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them).” It is the God that most atheists claim not to believe in and dismiss as a product of the human imagination.


Einstein’s God

Noble Prize-winning scientist Albert Einstein sometimes included the word God in his explanations of the nature and development of the universe, but as a confirmed atheist he was not using the idea of God in the same way that believers do. He thought and wrote of God in a metaphorical way; to him ‘God’ was the order and structure of the physical world. This is a variant on the pantheistic idea of God.

Einstein wrote (quoted in Hitchens 2007) to a correspondent “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religion then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” Richard Dawkins (2006) regretted that, by writing of God as he did, Einstein invited “misunderstanding by supernaturalists eager to misunderstand and claim so illustrious a thinker as their own.”

Similarly, Dawkins notes that “the dramatic (or was it mischievous?) ending of Stephen Hawking’s (1988) A Brief History of Time, ‘For then we should know the mind of God’, is notoriously misconstrued. It has led people to believe, mistakenly of course, that Hawking is a religious man.” He continues “I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.”


Dawkins’ God

Richard Dawkins’ views on God, summarised in The God Delusion (2006), have been widely read particularly by non-believers eager to find support for their own beliefs (or lack of them) from a heavyweight intellectual. He starts by clarifying the God he is not talking about – “I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste time on that.” He then underlines the fact that he is “attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”

Despite his target being “all gods”, Dawkins can’t resist taking a swipe at the God he misguidedly thinks Christians believe in and freely worship, the God he insists believers are so deluded about. He is clearly playing to the gallery in writing that “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

This is the God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in. He may be surprised if not disappointed to learn that most believers today don’t believe in that God any more than he does! John Haught (2008) points out that “the snapshot of God that [Dawkins] flashes in The God Delusion is a caricature that has long been offensive to theology. It seems to come almost exclusively from visiting the campsite and Web sites of creationists and ID [Intelligent Design] defenders.” Terry Eagleton (2006) asks readers to “imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Numerous critics have pointed out that Dawkins and his supporters seriously misread and distort the Old Testament narrative to form that view of God, and that they are seriously misguided in their view of the God that believers hold and the reasons they hold it. For example John Cornwell (2007) dismisses Dawkins’ image of God as resembling “nothing so much as a megalomaniac designer-scientist. A Great Big Science Professor in the Sky.” English theologian Keith Ward (2008) describes it as “a biased selection of negative texts from early in a long biblical tradition, based on a tradition which contains vitally important qualifications and supplementations of those texts.”

Scottish pastor David Robertson (2007) tries to redress the balance; he writes “When I read the Old Testament I find a wonderful God – a God of mercy, justice, beauty, holiness and love, a God who cares passionately for the poor, for his people and for his creation. And, amazingly, it is the same God in the New Testament.”

Like beauty, the most appropriate way of visualising God is clearly in the eye of the beholder!

This theme is explored further in the ebook Doubt, denial and the death of God in this GOD MATTERS series.


The God Hypothesis

Richard Dawkins (2006) constructs the arguments in [_The God Delusion _]around what he calls the God Hypothesis, which he insists is “a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analysed as skeptically as any other”.

The God Hypothesis supposes that “there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” As philosopher Nicholas Lash (2007) puts it, it is the belief that there is “above and beyond the familiar world with all its furniture, one more big and powerful thing.”

Critics have seized on the idea of a God Hypothesis as a serious weak link in Dawkins’ reasoning, claiming that it does no justice to either theological understanding of God or scientific understanding of the term ‘hypothesis’. John Haught (2008) argues that “thinking of God as a hypothesis reduces the infinite divine mystery to a finite scientific cause, and to worship anything finite is idolatrous. The notion of a God Hypothesis shrinks God down to the size of a link in a causal chain …”

Keith Ward (2008) goes further, arguing that “the God Hypothesis is neither scientific nor historical, nor does it just provide a record or prediction of my subjective experiences. It does not give rise to specific predictions, and it cannot be tested by public observation in controlled conditions.”

Rather curiously, despite his academic training and scientific credentials, Dawkins does not follow the normal scientific convention of testing a hypothesis by collecting evidence, analysing and testing it, then drawing conclusions informed by that analysis. Instead he treats the God Hypothesis very much as a straw man, and he feels free to simply advocate a view directly contrary to it. He is convinced (and clearly determined to convince his readers) that “any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion … a pernicious delusion.”

Whilst Dawkins’ notion of delusion leads to a catchy book title, Keith Ward (2008) cautions the need to keep the delusion idea in perspective, insisting that “he is setting out to defend a very recent, highly contentious, minority philosophical world-view.” This theme is explored further in the ebook Science and the challenge to God in this GOD MATTERS series.




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4. The origin and development of religion

It is not the intention here to trace the entire history of the idea of God, which would take a separate very large book. Karen Armstrong offers detailed histories in The Case for God (2009) and The History of God (1993), and other useful sources include Ninian Smart’s The Religious Experience of Mankind (1969), Robert Winston’s The Story of God (2005), and Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God (2009). 

Our purpose here is to briefly sketch out how, when and why the idea of God emerged. Daniel Dennett (2066) points out that “when people write books about ‘the history of God’ … they are actually writing about the history of the concept of God, of course, tracing the fashions and controversies about God as intentional object through the centuries.” Karen Armstrong (1993) notes that “the idea of God is remarkably close to ideas in religions that developed quite independently.”

Archaeology and anthropology have produced abundant evidence that forms of religion can be traced back to the earliest humans. The evidence also shows that whilst the detailed expressions of primitive religions (including those that persist in many remote parts of the world today) varied a great deal between cultures, places and times, they shared and continue to share some important characteristics.

Historian of religion Ninian Smart (1969) identifies five characteristics that are common to many religions;

p<>{color:#000;}. The idea of a High God (a supreme spirit or god which rules over lesser ones);

p<>{color:#000;}. The practice of totemism (use of a natural object as the emblem of a group);

p<>{color:#000;}. Ancestor worship (veneration of the dead);

p<>{color:#000;}. Shamans (a person who acts as an intermediary between the spirit world and the physical world); and

p<>{color:#000;}. The use of myths and legends as ways of interpreting the world around us (for example through creation stories) and ourselves (such as stories which explain features of daily ritual).

A simple history of the idea of God would recognise three distinct phases, evidence of which can still be found in different expressions of religion around the world today.


Projection and the notion of the soul

The first phase, defined by belief in spirits, is typical of primitive religions.

Ninian Smart (1969) emphasises the importance in this phase of both animism (belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects) and ancestor worship. These, he argued, helped primitive man to form his notion of the soul “from his own experience of dreams, where persons appear in a mysterious and immaterial fashion; from his experience of death, where seemingly the life-force departs from the body; from visions and ecstasy, where one is temporarily transported (so it seems) out of one’s body.”

Archaeological evidence shows that over 100,000 years ago, before the emergence of the human species proper (Homo sapiens), Neanderthal people practiced the ritual burial of the dead, suggesting a belief in an ‘invisible world’ and some sort of afterlife, in which the soul survives beyond the physical body.

Through time it is likely that the idea of a soul distinct from the body evolved further, with primitive people projecting the idea of the soul onto the animals and objects they encountered around them. The development of ancestor worship also suggests a belief that departed spirits could exist permanently in the absence of a body, and could even take possession of living people if they chose to.


Polytheism and the explanation of natural events and phenomena

The second phase sees projection replaced by explanation. As Ninian Smart (1969) points out, belief in departed spirits gives way to “belief in spirits whose activities explained natural events and phenomena – gods who ruled the rain, the sky, fire, and so on.” Thus the first gods were born.

This probably began during the Neolithic period (starting about 10,000 years ago), when the first stable societies emerged as farming replaced hunting, towns and cities were built, trading began, centralised administrations and political structures evolved, and temple cults and an organised priesthood developed.

Karen Armstrong (2009) notes how “there was … no belief in a single supreme being in the ancient world. Any such creature could only be a being – bigger and better than anything else, perhaps, but still a finite, incomplete reality. People felt it natural to imagine a race of spiritual beings of a higher nature than themselves that they called ‘gods’.”

This was the golden age of polytheism, in which there were gods for all seasons and all reasons. In Guide to the Gods Richard Carlyon (1981) gives details of more than 1,000 such gods. Some – such as Aphrodite (Greek Goddess of love and beauty), Neptune (Roman god of the sea), and Odin (Nordic god of battles) – are well known. Most have only local or regional importance and are barely known outside the time and place of their origin. Examples include Thunder Bird (the Native American god of thunder), Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec God of war), Inari (the Japanese god of rice), Ganga (the Indian goddess of purification of the River Ganges), Hapi (the Egyptian god of the Nile), and Pele (the Hawaiian goddess of volcanic fire).


Monotheism and the personal god

Phase three sees belief in multiple gods replaced by belief in one god, a single personal God.

This phase, which UK theologian Don Cupitt (1997) in calls “the coming of God”, began around 4,000 ago. This is the age of monotheism, the one we are living in today. It is marked by the emergence and development of the three major monotheistic traditions – the so-called Abrahamic religions – of Judaism (founded by Abraham in 2085 BC), Christianity (founded by Jesus Christ) and Islam (founded by Mohammed in 610 AD).


Breakthrough or progression?

This very simple three-phase typology masks much of the rich detail about exactly how religion has evolved, which scholars have devoted a great deal of academic research to.

For example, in The Sociology of Religion German social scientist Max Weber (1966) traced the evolution of religion in terms of “breakthroughs”, particularly through what he calls “the process of rationalisation” (the ways in which ideas are clarified, defined and ordered), as well as the processes by which cultures define their religious situation (particularly through the writing of sacred texts) and the development of religious community.

Daniel Dennett (2006), commenting on the historic processes by which polytheism turned into monotheism, argues that “belief in God joined forces with the belief in belief in God to motivate the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions … away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalised concepts.” Dennett refers to this as “the intentional stance”, by which he means “the initial cause for belief in a deity is an inherited tendency to attribute agency to other people and to inanimate objects.”

Some historians of religion suggest that the idea of God evolved gradually and progressively, but Christian theologian Alister McGrath (2007) insists that “the history of religion obliges us to speak about the ‘diversification’, not the ‘progression’ of religion. The evidence simply isn’t there to allow us to speak about any kind of ‘natural progression’ from polytheism to monotheism – and thence to atheism.”


The importance of myth

Myth has played important roles in the development of religion since time immemorial.

We humans are story-telling animals and we have long used myth as a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. Myths are not the same as fairy tales and legends; fairy tales are “mostly wish-fulfillment stories about individual human dilemmas and situations” and legends are “stories that accumulate around well-known characters”, as Kathleen Jones (2007) puts it.

The popular meaning of the word myth today is a story that is not true, but Symon Hill (2010) points out that a myth is “a narrative which conveys an understanding of truth without necessarily being factual. … myths may or may not contain literal and factual truth, but this is not the point to them.” J.R.R. Tolkien (quoted in Pearce 1998), author of Lord of the Rings, argued that myths are “symbolic stories intended to express truth” and “far from being lies, [myths] were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible.”

Anthropologists view myth as an important tool for transmitting group experiences, and some myths recur through many cultures. Michael Shermer (2000) asks “Why is there an eternal return of certain mythic themes in religion, such as messiah myths, flood myths, creation myths, destruction myths, redemption myths, and end of the world myths?” Shermer emphasises the role of myth in the development of religion, which evolved from pattern-seeking through storytelling and myth-making to morality, then on to religion and ultimately to God.

This line of reasoning reflects the writings of Paul Tillich, who proposed that myths provide stepping-stones towards religion. Tillich (1958) argued in Dynamics of Faith that “myths are always present in every act of faith, because the language of faith is the symbol” and “the symbols of faith do not appear in isolation. They are united in ‘stories of the gods’ which is the meaning of the Greek word mythos’– myth.”

Marcus Borg (1998) unpacks these ideas further, noting that “religious myths or sacred myths are stories about the relationship between the two worlds – the sacred and the world of our ordinary experience. In short, a myth is a story about God and us. As such, myths can be both true and powerful, even though they are symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports. Though not literally true, they can be really true; though not factually true, they can be actually true.”




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5. The benefits of religion

Whilst religion is usually defined on the basis of belief in God or gods, even many non-believers recognise that it has a pervasive and wide-ranging influence on society, even in increasingly secular western societies.

Although English philosopher Alain de Botton (2012) is not a believer, he sings the praises of religion without God in his book Religion for Atheists, arguing that although “the supernatural claims of religion are totally false … religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world.” These include building a sense of community, making relationships last, overcoming feelings of envy and inadequacy, and getting more out of art, architecture and music.

Even confirmed atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) acknowledges that “according to surveys, most of the people in the world say that religion is very important in their lives. … Many of these people would say that without their religion their lives would be meaningless.”

Whether or not it is ‘true’, religion enhances life for people in a number of ways. Keith Ward (2008) argues that “religions exist largely to increase wisdom, compassion and joy, and to liberate humans from self-obsessive desire.”

Religion is also a powerful force for and source of social cohesion, because it binds people together through shared beliefs, customs, traditions and values, and plays an important role in shaping human identity. Daniel Dennett identifies one purpose of religion as “to encourage group cooperation in the face of trials and enemies,” and Richard Dawkins notes that it “fosters togetherness in groups.”


Search for meaning

Even the most dedicated of atheists believes that life has some meaning, even if that is simply the challenge of coping with life and getting through it.

Don Cupitt (1997) contends that “people reckon themselves to be entirely capable of knowing and fully entitled to know what it’s all about. … they think that there is a big Answer, and that they are entitled to expect it to be made known to them.” Religion is the route along which most people expect that knowledge to come to them.

Richard Dawkins (2006) is critical about most things to do with religion and the idea of God, but even he acknowledges that religion “satisfies our yearning to understand why we exist … [and] our curiosity about the universe and our place in it.” Fellow New Atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) suggests that the purpose of religion is “to explain things we can’t otherwise explain.” More bluntly, Krista Tippett (2007) insists that religion “meets the raw human urge to give meaning to our days.”

American neuroscientist Andrew Newberg (2001) argues that religion gives us the “ability to alleviate existential gloom and connect us with powerful spiritual forces.” More specifically, he points out that “faith in a higher power offers believers the assurance that their lives have meaning and purpose, that they are not alone in the struggle for survival, that powerful, benevolent forces are at work in the world, and that despite the terrors and uncertainties of existence, they should not be afraid.”

Religion offers us comfort as well as meaning. Again, even Daniel Dennett (2006) sees that a primary purpose of religion is “to comfort us in our suffering and allay our fear of death”, and Richard Dawkins (2006) recognises that religion “gives consolation and comfort”, despite the fact that he sees it as misguided, delusional and without foundation.


Sense of mystery

A sense of mystery is perhaps almost as important as the search for meaning. Krista Tippett (2007) notes that religion “harnesses the common human experience of mystery – our ancient and abiding intuition of meaning beyond the substance of our days.”

William James (1902) suggests that there exists “in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’, more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses’.”

In their pursuit of answers to this deep-rooted and enduring mystery, Karen Armstrong (2009) insists that some people are able “to ’step outside’ the prism of ego and experience the divine.” German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1989) called this transcendent experience “the sense of absolute dependence.” German historian of religion Rudolf Otto (1959) called it ‘the numinous’ (from the Latin numina meaning ‘spirits’) sense of mystery, awe and love, by which he meant “the presence of the mysterious force inherent in every aspect of life”. Jewish scholar Martin Buber (1958) spoke of an ‘I-Thou’ encounter in his book of the same name. This theme is explored further in the ebook Personal experience of God in this GOD MATTERS series.

Karen Armstrong (2009) suggests that “the desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”


Source of morality

Many people view religion as a source of morality and ethics, a guide to proper behaviour. Even agnostic Michael Shermer (2000) concedes that one of the primary purposes of religion is “the production of moral systems to provide social cohesion for the most social of all the social primates.”

Believers insist that religion provides absolute standards of morality for distinguishing between good and bad, between goodness and evil. English Christian church leader and writer David Watson (1984) wrote quite simply that if there is no God “the universe is nothing more than random choices, and meaningless events. There is no fairness, no vindication of right over wrong, no ultimate purposes, no abstract values.” If God does not exist, “isn’t everything permitted?” asks John Haught (2008).

This is one of the most contentious areas within the God debate, and Richard Dawkins (2006) observes that “many religious people find it hard to imagine how, without religion, one can be good, or would even want to be good.” Atheists direct much of their anger about the idea of God towards claims about religion as the foundation for moral judgments since, in Christopher Hitchens’ (2007) words, “religion poisons everything.”

Dawkins (2006) dismisses as “hypothetical” the “religious claim that, without God, morals are relative and arbitrary.” John Haught (2008) concedes that there is no point “in denying that people can be very moral without believing in God. Nor is there any point in denying that religions have been invoked in support of some of the most abysmal kinds of immorality.” This is why – as Michael Poole (2009) points out – the New Atheists insist that “religion is evil because many bad deeds have been done by religious people.”

This raises two important questions about possible links between religion and morality. The first is – Do religious people have stronger morals than non-religious people? Daniel Dennett (2006) insists that he has found “no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others – including those with no religious affiliation – represented about as they are in the general population.”

The second question is this – Would morality collapse if religion declines or disappears? Even Richard Dawkins (2006) dismisses the idea that, “should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness.”

Dawkins attempts to explain morality as a purely natural phenomenon, “the product of impersonal evolutionary invention rather than a free human response to an eternal goodness”, as John Haught (2008) puts it. Dawkins (2006) believes that “our sense of right and wrong can be derived from our Darwinian past.” His argument is based on the proposition that acting morally, particularly acting in unselfish ways, brings evolutionary advantages. In Haught’s words, according to this way of looking at things “biology indicates that we are moral because being good has contributed to human gene survival. Thus, no need for theological accounts exists. … [and moral virtues exist because of] unintended, accidental genetic occurrences that programmed some of our ancestors to be more cooperative and altruistic than others.”

Haught points out, however, that Dawkins’ evolutionary line of explanation is incomplete and self-contradictory, because “after all, a blind, indifferent, and amoral natural process, which is how Dawkins has always characterised evolution, can hardly explain why justice, love, and the pursuit of truth are now unconditionally binding virtues.”

David Robertson (2007) rubs salt in the wound by pointing out that Dawkins’ “absolute Darwinian philosophy cannot logically and consistently argue for morality because, to put it bluntly, there is no good or evil. … the atheist basis of morality [is] no justice, no rhyme nor reason, no purpose, no evil, no God, just blind pitiless indifference.”

Atheist writers argue that religion causes many social and political problems and speculate that the end of religion would lead to an end to such things as violence, social tension and discrimination? Alister McGrath (2007) dismisses that proposition as a “simplistic belief … [that is] sociologically naïve. It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings.”


Health and well-being

Does religion make us healthier, live longer, or both?

Richard Dawkins (2006) acknowledges, doubtless through gritted teeth, that there is reliable evidence that “religious belief protects people from stress-related diseases” and prolongs life.

In recent decades scientific studies have established a variety of positive relationships between people’s health and their religious beliefs and practices. For example, studies in the USA (Newberg et al 2001) have shown that “men and women who practice any mainstream faith live longer, have fewer strokes, less heart disease, better immune system function, and lower blood pressure than the population at large.”

It is not just physical well-being that benefits from religious engagement. Research also shows that religious individuals have lower than average rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, divorce, anxiety, depression, and suicide.

These relationships between religion and well-being are likely to be indirect, working via the attitudes and behaviours that religion fosters which tend to be inherently more healthy than the alternatives. These include more healthy approaches than in the general population to such things as promiscuous sex, drugs, and alcohol use, along with lifestyles of moderation and domestic stability.




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6. The decline of organized religion

The word ‘secular’ means “worldly rather than spiritual” and since the 1960s sociologists in Europe and the United States have welcomed the process of secularisation and the spread of secularism, the decline in religious belief or observance.

As Carolyn Ogden (2000) points out, the term secularism “is often used to describe the decline in overt religious observance, such as church attendance, or in adherence to a traditional, established religion, often a result of today’s greater freedom from convention. It need not necessarily be assumed that religion or a sense of the divine is in decline.”

Harvard sociologist Harvey Cox (1966) argued in The Secular City that “secularisation simply bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things … The gods of traditional religions live on as fetishes for the patrons of congenial groups, but they play no significant role in the public life of the secular metropolis.”

Religious observance in Europe started to decline dramatically during the 1960s, as increasing numbers of people stopped going to church. Organised religion was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant, and it struggled to compete with science in offering rational explanations of how people and planet came into being, how they operate, and what the future has in store for them.

This was an era of sweeping social and cultural change in which, as Karen Armstrong (2009) reminds us, “many of the institutional structures of modernity were pulled down: censorship was relaxed; abortion and homosexuality were legalised; divorce became easier; the women’s movement campaigned for gender equality; and the young railed against the modern ethos of their parents.”

English philosopher Vernon Pratt (1970) argued that secularisation in industrial Western societies was in part a response to the gradual upgrading of education and diffusion of science. Whilst surveys have shown that within particular countries the most educated people are often the least religious, David Martin (2008) insists that “there is no consistent relation between the degree of scientific advance in a country or culture and a reduced profile of religious influence, belief and practice.”

Christian sociologists Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton (1984) argue that secularism saw traditional forms of religion replaced by what they call “the gods of our age”:

p<>{color:#000;}. Scientism: the belief that all truth is scientific truth and science is our best way of knowing how things really are;

p<>{color:#000;}. Technicism: the technical mastery of nature, which “translates scientific discovery into human power”; and

p<>{color:#000;}. Economism: which “regards economics as the main factor in society” and assumes that all economic choices are driven simply by the pursuit of material prosperity.

Religion was also under attack from the emergence of alternative ways of ‘explaining’ reality and uncovering ultimate meaning, particularly in popular culture.

Numbers and trends are quite clear. For example, UK historian Callum Brown (2009) describes how, “in unprecedented numbers, the British people since the 1960s have stopped going to church, have allowed their church membership to lapse, have stopped marrying in church and have neglected to baptise their children. … Since then a formerly religious people have entirely forsaken organised Christianity in a sudden plunge into a truly secular condition.” Over the last 25 years in Britain the number of people describing themselves as Christian has fallen from 66 per cent to 50 per cent (Voas and Ling 2010).

What the numbers actually mean is rather less clear. Sociologists are divided over whether the statistics point to a wholesale abandonment of religion (marked by declining attendance, observance, membership, and baptism) as Brian Wilson (1966) argued, for example or to a move towards more privatised forms of religion (in which people continue to watch [Songs of Praise _]on tv and listen to [_Thought for the Day _]on the radio, but stop attending church services) – as David Martin (1967) concluded in _A Sociology of English Religion.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger preferred the expression “the transition to godlessness … the state of indecision about God and the gods” (as Wikipedia puts it) to the term secularisation. This seems a better way of describing what is more a general drift of people away from organised religion than an organised walk-out or revolution.

Few who drift away become militant atheists; most of the loss of people in church can probably be accounted for by indifference rather than hostility. The default assumption appears to be that ‘religion is OK so long as it’s not compulsory, or does not interfere with the lives of ordinary folks going about their business. Let the religious ones get on with their lives, and let me get on with mine.’

Put simply, an increasing number of people regard the idea of God as irrelevant, either as a general proposition or as having any meaningful impact on the day-to-day reality of their lives. This theme is explored further in the ebook Doubt, denial and the death of God in this GOD MATTERS series.




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Armstrong, K. (1993) A History of God. London: Heinemann

Armstrong, K. (2009) The Case for God. What religion really means. London: The Bodley Head

Barrett, D. et al (2001) World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions – AD 30 to 2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Borg, M.J. (1998) The God We Never Knew: Beyond dogmatic religion to a more authentic contemporary faith. New York: HarperCollins

Brown, C.G. (2009) The Death of Christian Britain: understanding secularisation, 1800-2000. London: Routledge

Buber, M. (1958) I and Thou. Translated by R.G. Smith. Edinburgh: T & T Clark

Carlyon, R. (1981) A Guide to the Gods. London: Heinemann

Cornwell, J. (2007) Darwin’s Angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion. London: Profile Books

Cox, H. (1966) The Secular City. New York: Macmillan

Cupitt, D. (1998) After God: the future of religion. London: Phoenix

Darwin, C. (1871) The Descent of Man. London: John Murray

Dawkins, R. (2006) The God Delusion. London: Houghton Mifflin

De Botton, A. (2012) Religion for Atheists. London: Hamish Hamilton

Dennett, D.C. (2006) Breaking the Spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. London: Penguin Books

Durkheim, E. (1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press

Eagleton, T. (2009) Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press

Hardy, A. (1979) The Spiritual Nature of Man. A Study of Contemporary Religious Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Harris, S. (2005) The End of Faith. Religion, terror, and the future of reason. London: The Free Press

Haught, J.F. (2008) God and the New Atheism: a critical response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press

Hawking, S. (1988) A Brief History of Time. London: Bantam

Hill, S. (2010) The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion. Oxford: New Internationalist Publications

Hitchens, C. (2007) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner Twelve

James, W. (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green and Co. [quotes from 1982 Penguin edition, edited by Martin E. Marty]

Jones, H. (2006) The Thoughtful Guide to God. Winchester: O Books

Jones, K. (2007) Challenging Richard Dawkins. Norwich: Canterbury Press

Lash, N. (2007) Where does The God Delusion come from? New Blackfriars 88 (1017): 507-521

Lundstrom, P. (2008) God: The Short Version. Oxford: Lion Books

Martin, D. (1967) A Sociology of English Religion. London: SCM Press

Martin, D. (2008) Does the advance of science mean secularisation? Scottish Journal of Theology 61 (1): 1-51

Mawson, T. (2005) Belief in God. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press

McGrath, A. (2007) Dawkins’ God: Genes, memes, and the meaning of life. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Newberg, A., D’Aquili, E. and Rause, V. (2001) Why God won’t go away. New York: Ballantine Books

Novak, M. (2007) Lonely atheists of the global village. National Review 19 March: 43-54

Ogden, C. (2000) God: a Beginner’s Guide. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Otto, R. (1923) The Idea of the Holy. [Quotations from the 1958 edition, translated by J. Harvey] London: Oxford University Press

Pearce, J. (1998) Tolkien: Man and Myth. London: HarperCollins

Pirsig, R.M. (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values. London: Corgi

Poole, M. (2009) The ‘New’ Atheism: ten arguments that don’t hold water. Oxford: Lion Books

Pratt, V. (1970) Religion and Secularisation. London: MacMillan

Robertson, D. (2007) The Dawkins Letters: challenging atheist myths. Fearn: Christian Focus Publications

Schleiermacher, F. (1989) The Christian Faith. Translated by H.R. MacKintosh and J.S. Stewart. Edinburgh: T & T Clark

Shermer, M (2000) How We Believe. The search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman

Sire, J.W. (1997) The Universe Next Door: a basic world-view catalog. 3rd edition. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press

Smart, N. (1969) The Religious Experience of Mankind. Glasgow: Collins

Tillich, P. (1958) Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row

Tippett, K. (2007) Speaking of Faith. New York: Viking

Voas, D. and Ling, R. (2010) Religion in Britain and the United States. In Park, A., Curtice, J., Thomson, K., Phillips, M., Clery, E. and Butt, S. (editors) British Social Attitudes 2010. London: Sage

Walsh, B.J. and Middleton, J.R. (1984) The Transforming Vision: shaping a Christian world view. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press

Ward, K. (2008) Why there almost certainly is a God: doubting Dawkins. Oxford: Lion Books

Watson, D. (1984) Fear No Evil: one man deals with terminal illness. London: Hodder & Stoughton

Weber, M. (1966) The Sociology of Religion. (First published in Germany in 1922). London: Methuen

Wilson, B.R. (1966) Religion in a Secular Society. London: Penguin

Wilson, E.O. (1975) Sociobiology: the new synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Winston, R. (2005) The Story of God: a personal journey into the world of science and religion. London: Bantam

Wright, R. (2009) The Evolution of God. New York: Little, Brown and Company




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About the Author

Chris Park is a proud Yorkshireman, living in exile on the wrong side of the Pennines in Lancaster, England. After a career as an academic, specializing in the environment, he retired early to enjoy time to read, write, walk and travel, his four great passions after family. He has written numerous books, for academic and general readers, on both environmental and Christian topics. You can find details of them on his website (details below).


His website – www.chris-park.com

His Amazon author page – http://tinyurl.com/park-amazon-books


See Chris Park on the promo video for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?https://vimeo.com/74477523




Other books by this author

The GOD MATTERS Series – all available to download in different ebook formats, free of charge, from Shakespir.com

Religion and the idea of God

Doubt, denial and the death of God

Science and the challenge to God

Arguments for God

Personal experience of God

The nature of belief


Other free ebooks available from Shakespir.com

Enigma: St Francis of Assisi (2012)

Earthcare: Towards an environmental theology (2012)


Print books

Check his website at www.chris-park.com

His Amazon author page – http://tinyurl.com/park-amazon-books


Publisher’s page for GOD: REAL OR IMAGINED?http://zaccmedia.com/bookstore/product/god-real-or-imagined/


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Religion and the Idea of God

In recent years religion has had bad press worldwide, with the rise and decline of New Atheism, continued secularisation, and the rise of religious fundamentalism, particularly in the context of militant forms of radical Islam. But, before rejecting all religion as bad, dangerous or deluded, we should step back from what might turn out to be short-term controversies, try to adopt a broader perspective, and take a calmer and more rational look at religion. With this in mind, this ebook explores the nature of religion and the place and role of God in religion. It then looks at the origin and development of religion, and offers an overview of the benefits of religion. It closes with a consideration of the decline of organised religion.

  • ISBN: 9781310492129
  • Author: Chris Park
  • Published: 2016-03-19 17:20:08
  • Words: 10986
Religion and the Idea of God Religion and the Idea of God