Here are several examples that can help you to understand how religion works in our world today.
Let's imagine that I tell you the following story:
This, of course, is the story of Santa Claus.
- There is a man who lives at the North Pole.
- He lives there with his wife and a bunch of elves.
- During the year, he and the elves build toys.
- Then, on Christmas Eve, he loads up a sack with all the toys.
- He puts the sack in his sleigh.
- He hitches up eight (or possibly nine) flying reindeer.
- He then flies from house to house, landing on the rooftops of each one.
- He gets out with his sack and climbs down the chimney.
- He leaves toys for the children of the household.
- He climbs back up the chimney, gets back in his sleigh, and flies to the next house.
- He does this all around the world in one night.
- Then he flies back to the North Pole to repeat the cycle next year.
But let's say that I am an adult, and I am your friend, and I reveal to you that I believe that this story is true. I believe it with all my heart. And I try to talk about it with you and convert you to believe it as I do.
What would you think of me? You would think that I am delusional, and rightly so.
Why do you think that I am delusional? It is because you know that Santa is imaginary. The story is a total fairy tale. No matter how much I talk to you about Santa, you are not going to believe that Santa is real. Flying reindeer, for example, are make-believe. The dictionary defines delusion as, "A false belief strongly held in spite of invalidating evidence." That definition fits perfectly.
Since you are my friend, you might try to help me realize that my belief in Santa is delusional. The way that you would try to shake me from my delusion is to ask me some questions. For example, you might say to me:
These are all quite logical questions that you have asked. I have answered all of them for you. I am wondering why you can't see what I see, and you are wondering how I can be so insane.
- "But how can the sleigh carry enough toys for everyone in the world?" I say to you that the sleigh is magical. It has the ability to do this intrinsically.
- "How does Santa get into houses and apartments that don't have chimneys?" I say that Santa can make chimneys appear, as shown to all of us in the movie The Santa Clause.
- "How does Santa get down the chimney if there's a fire in the fireplace?" I say that Santa has a special flame-resistant suit, and it cleans itself too.
- "Why doesn't the security system detect Santa?" Santa is invisible to security systems.
- "How can Santa travel fast enough to visit every child in one night?" Santa is timeless.
- "How can Santa know whether every child has been bad or good?" Santa is omniscient.
- "Why are the toys distributed so unevenly? Why does Santa deliver more toys to rich kids, even if they are bad, than he ever gives to poor kids?" There is no way for us to understand the mysteries of Santa because we are mere mortals, but Santa has his reasons. For example, perhaps poor children would be unable to handle a flood of expensive electronic toys. How would they afford the batteries? So Santa spares them this burden.
Why didn't my answers satisfy you? Why do you still know that I am delusional? It is because my answers have done nothing but confirm my delusion. My answers are ridiculous. In order to answer your questions, I invented, completely out of thin air, a magical sleigh, a magical self-cleaning suit, magical chimneys, "timelessness" and magical invisibility. You don't believe my answers because you know that I am making this stuff up. The invalidating evidence is voluminous.
Now let me show you another example...
Imagine that I tell you the following story:
Now, what would you say to me about this story? Even though I do have a book, in English, that tells the story of this lost Jewish civilization, and even though I do have the signed attestations, what do you think? This story sounds delusional, doesn't it?
- I was in my room one night.
- Suddenly, my room became exceedingly bright.
- Next thing I know there is an angel in my room.
- He tells me an amazing story.
- He says that there is a set of ancient golden plates buried in the side of a hill in New York.
- On them are the books of a lost race of Jewish people who inhabited North America.
- These plates bear inscriptions in the foreign language of these people.
- Eventually the angel leads me to the plates and lets me take them home.
- Even though the plates are in a foreign language, the angel helps me to decipher and translate them.
- Then the plates are taken up into heaven, never to be seen again.
- I have the book that I translated from the plates. It tells of amazing things -- an entire civilization of Jewish people living here in the United States 2,000 years ago.
- And the resurrected Jesus came and visited these people!
- I also showed the golden plates to a number of real people who are my eye witnesses, and I have their signed attestations that they did, in fact, see and touch the plates before the plates were taken up into heaven.
You would ask some obvious questions. For example, at the very simplest level, you might ask, "Where are the ruins and artifacts from this Jewish civilization in America?" The book transcribed from the plates talks about millions of Jewish people doing all kinds of things in America. They have horses and oxen and chariots and armor and large cities. What happened to all of this? I answer simply: it is all out there, but we have not found it yet. "Not one city? Not one chariot wheel? Not one helmet?" you ask. No, we haven't found a single bit of evidence, but it is out there somewhere. You ask me dozens of questions like this, and I have answers for them all.
Most people would assume that I am delusional if I told them this story. They would assume that there were no plates and no angel, and that I had written the book myself. Most people would ignore the attestations -- having people attest to it means nothing, really. I could have paid the attesters off, or I could have fabricated them. Most people would reject my story without question.
What's interesting is that there are millions of people who actually do believe this story of the angel and the plates and the book and the Jewish people living in North America 2,000 years ago. Those millions of people are members of the Mormon Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. The person who told this incredible story was a man named Joseph Smith, and he lived in the United States in the early 1800s. He told his story, and recorded what he "translated from the plates", in the Book of Mormon.
If you meet a Mormon and ask them about this story, they can spend hours talking to you about it. They can answer every question you have. Yet the 5.99 billion of us who are not Mormons can see with total clarity that the Mormons are delusional. It is as simple as that. You and I both know with 100% certainty that the Mormon story is no different from the story of Santa. And we are correct in our assessment. The invalidating evidence is voluminous.
Imagine that I tell you this story:
What do you make of this story? If you have never heard the story before, you may find it to be nonsensical in the same way that you feel about the stories of the golden plates and Santa. You would especially feel that way once you read the book that was supposedly transcribed from Gabriel, because much of it is opaque. The dreams, the horse, the angel, the ascension, and the appearances of the angel in the flesh -- you would dismiss them all because it is all imaginary.
- A man was sitting in a cave minding his own business.
- A very bright flash of light appeared.
- A voice spoke out one word: "Read!" The man felt like he was being squeezed to death. This happened several times.
- Then the man asked, "What should I read?"
- The voice said, "Read in the name of your Lord who created humans from a clinging [zygote]. Read for your Lord is the most generous. He taught people by the pen what they didn't know before."
- The man ran home to his wife.
- While running home, he saw the huge face of an angel in the sky. The angel told the man that he was to be the messenger of God. The angel also identified himself as Gabriel.
- At home that night, the angel appeared to the man in his dreams.
- Gabriel appeared to the man over and over again. Sometimes it was in dreams, sometimes during the day as "revelations in his heart," sometimes preceded by a painful ringing in his ears (and then the verses would flow from Gabriel right out of the man), and sometimes Gabriel would appear in the flesh and speak. Scribes wrote down everything the man said.
- Then, one night about 11 years after the first encounter with Gabriel, Gabriel appeared to the man with a magical horse. The man got on the horse, and the horse took him to Jerusalem. Then the winged horse took the man up to the seven layers of heaven. The man was able to actually see heaven and meet and talk with people there. Then Gabriel brought the man back to earth.
- The man proved that he had actually been to Jerusalem on the winged horse by accurately answering questions about buildings and landmarks there.
- The man continued receiving the revelations from Gabriel for 23 years, and then they stopped. All of the revelations were recorded by the scribes in a book which we still have today.
[Source: "Understanding Islam" by Yahiya Emerick, Alpha press, 2002]
But you need to be careful. This story is the foundation of the Muslim religion, practiced by more than a billion people around the world. The man is named Mohammed, and the book is the Koran (also spelled Qur'an or Qur'aan). This is the sacred story of the Koran's creation and the revelation of Allah to mankind.
Despite the fact that a billion Muslims profess some level of belief in this story, people outside the Muslim faith consider the story to be imaginary. No one believes this story because this story is a fairy tale. They consider the Koran to be a book written by a man and nothing more. A winged horse that flew to heaven? That is imaginary -- as imaginary as flying reindeer.
If you are a Christian, please take a moment right now to look back at the Mormon and Muslim stories. Why is it so easy for you to look at these stories and see that they are imaginary fairy tales? How do you know, with complete certainty, that Mormons and Muslims are delusional? You know these things for the same reason you know that Santa is imaginary. There is no evidence for any of it. The stories involve magical things like angels and winged horses, hallucinations, dreams. Horses cannot fly -- we all know that. And even if they could, where would the horse fly to? The vacuum of space? Or is the horse somehow "dematerialized" (see Chapter 27) and then "rematerialized" in heaven? If so, those processes are made up too. Every bit of it is imaginary. We all know that.
An unbiased observer can see how imaginary these three stories are. In addition, Muslims can see that Mormons are delusional, Mormons can see that Muslims are delusional, and Christians can see that both Mormons and Muslims are delusional.
One final example
Now let me tell you one final story:
This, of course, is the story of Jesus. Do you believe this story? If you are a Christian, you probably do. I could ask you questions for hours (see the prior 25 chapters...) and you will have answers for every one of them, in just the same way that I had answers for all of the Santa questions that my friend asked me in Example 1. You cannot understand how anyone could question any of it, because it is so obvious to you.
- God inseminated a virgin named Mary, in order to bring his son incarnate into our world.
- Mary and her fiancé, Joseph, had to travel to Bethlehem to register for the census. There Mary gave birth to the Son of God.
- God put a star in the sky to guide people to the baby.
- In a dream God told Joseph to take his family to Egypt. Then God stood by and watched as Herod killed thousands and thousands of babies in Israel (see Chapter 16) in an attempt to kill Jesus.
- As a man, God's son claimed that he was God incarnate: "I am the way, the truth and the life," he said (see Chapter 18).
- This man performed many miracles. He healed lots of sick people. He turned water into wine. These miracles prove that he is God.
- But he was eventually given the death sentence and killed by crucifixion.
- His body was placed in a tomb.
- But three days later, the tomb was empty.
- And the man, alive once again but still with his wounds (so anyone who doubted could see them and touch them), appeared to many people in many places.
- Then he ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the father almighty, never to be seen again.
- Today you can have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. You can pray to this man and he will answer your prayers. He will cure your diseases, rescue you from emergencies, help you make important business and family decisions, comfort you in times of worry and grief, etc.
- This man will also give you eternal life, and if you are good he has a place for you in heaven after you die.
- The reason we know all this is because, after the man died, four people named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote accounts of the man's life. Their written attestations are proof of the veracity of this story.
Here is the thing that I would like to help you understand: The four billion people who are not Christians look at the Christian story in exactly the same way that you look at the Santa story, the Mormon story and the Muslim story. In other words, there are four billion people who stand outside of the Christian bubble, and they can see reality clearly. The fact is, the Christian story is completely imaginary.
How do the four billion non-Christians know, with complete certainty, that the Christian story is imaginary? Because the Christian story is just like the Santa story, the Mormon story and the Muslim story. There is the magical insemination, the magical star, the magical dreams, the magical miracles, the magical resurrection, the magical ascension and so on. People outside the Christian faith look at the Christian story and note these facts:
In other words, the Christian story is a fairly tale, just like the other three examples we have examined.
- The miracles are supposed to "prove" that Jesus is God, but, predictably, these miracles left behind no tangible evidence for us to examine and scientifically verify today. They all involved faith healings and magic tricks - see chapter 19.
- Jesus is resurrected, but, predictably, he does not appear to anyone today - see chapter 20.
- Jesus ascended into heaven and answers our prayers, but, predictably, when we pray to him nothing happens. We can statistically analyse prayer and find that prayers are never answered - see section 1.
- The book where Matthew, Mark, Luke and John make their attestations does exist, but, predictably, it is chock full of problems and contradictions - see section 2.
- And so on.
Now, look at what is happening inside your mind at this moment. I am using solid, verifiable evidence to show you that the Christian story is imaginary. Your rational mind can see the evidence. Four billion non-Christians would be happy to confirm for you that the Christian story is imaginary.
However, if you are a practicing Christian, you can probably feel your "religious mind" overriding both your rational mind and your common sense as we speak. Why? Why were you able to use your common sense to so easily reject the Santa story, the Mormon story and the Muslim story, but when it comes to the Christian story, which is just as imaginary, you are not?
Try, just for a moment, to look at Christianity with the same amount of healthy skepticism that you used when approaching the stories of Santa, Joseph Smith and Mohammed. Use your common sense to ask some very simple questions of yourself:
No one (besides little kids) believes in Santa Claus. No one outside the Mormon church believes Joseph Smith's story. No one outside the Muslim faith believes the story of Mohammed and Gabriel and the winged horse. No one outside the Christian faith believes in Jesus' divinity, miracles, resurrection, etc.
- Is there any physical evidence that Jesus existed? - No. He left no trace. His body "ascended into heaven." He wrote nothing down. None of his "miracles" left any permanent evidence. There is, literally, nothing.
- Is there any reason to believe that Jesus actually performed these miracles, or that he rose from the dead, or that he ascended into heaven? - There is no more of a reason to believe this than there is to believe that Joseph Smith found the golden plates hidden in New York, or that Mohammed rode on a magical winged horse to heaven. Probably less of a reason, given that the record of Jesus' life is 2,000 years old, while that of Joseph Smith is less than 200 years old.
- You mean to tell me that I am supposed to believe this story of Jesus, and there is no proof or evidence to go by beyond a few attestations in the New Testament of a Bible that is provably meaningless? - Yes, you are supposed to believe it. You are supposed to take it on "faith."
Therefore, the question I would ask you to consider right now is simple: Why is it that human beings can detect fairy tales with complete certainty when those fairy tales come from other faiths, but they cannot detect the fairy tales that underpin their own faith? Why do they believe their chosen fairy tale with unrelenting passion and reject the others as nonsense? For example:
Yet, when Christians look at their own religion, they are for some reason blind. Why? And no, it has nothing to do with the fact that the Christian story is true. Your rational mind knows that with certainty, and so do four billion others. This book, if you will let it, can tell you why.
- Christians know that when the Egyptians built gigantic pyramids and mummified the bodies of their pharaohs, that it was a total waste of time -- otherwise Christians would build pyramids.
- Christians know that when the Aztecs carved the heart out of a virgin and ate it, that it accomplished nothing -- otherwise Christians would kill virgins.
- Christians know that when Muslims face Mecca to pray, that it is pointless -- otherwise Christians would face Mecca when they pray.
- Christians know that when Jews keep meat and dairy products separate, that they are wasting their time -- otherwise the cheeseburger would not be an American obsession.
A simple experiment
If you are a Christian who believes in the power of prayer, here is a very simple experiment that will show you something very interesting about your faith.
Take a coin out of your pocket. Now pray sincerely to Ra:
Dear Ra, almighty sun god, I am going to flip this ordinary coin 50 times, and I am asking you to cause it to land heads-side-up all 50 times. In Ra's name I pray, Amen.
Now flip the coin. Chances are that you won't get past the fifth or sixth flip and the coin will land tails.
What does this mean? Most people would look at this data and conclude that Ra is imaginary. We prayed to Ra, and Ra did nothing. We can prove that Ra is imaginary (at least in the sense of prayer-answering ability) by using statistical analysis. If we flip the coin thousands of times, praying to Ra each time, we will find that the coin lands heads or tails in exact correlation with the normal laws of probability. Ra has absolutely no effect on the coin no matter how much we pray. Even if we find a thousand of Ra's most faithful believers and ask them to do the praying/flipping, the results will be the same. Therefore, as rational people, we conclude that Ra is imaginary. We look at Ra in the same way that we look at Leprechauns, Mermaids, Santa and so on. We know that people who believe in Ra are delusional.
Now I want you to try the experiment again, but this time I want you to pray to Jesus Christ instead of Ra. Pray sincerely to Jesus like this:
Dear Jesus, I know that you exist and I know that you hear and answer prayers as you promise in the Bible. I am going to flip this ordinary coin 50 times, and I am asking you to cause it to land heads-side-up all 50 times. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.
Now flip the coin. Once again, after the fifth or sixth flip, the coin will land tails.
If we flip the coin thousands of times, praying to Jesus each time, we will find that the coin lands heads or tails in exact correlation with the normal laws of probability. It is not like there are two laws of probability -- one for Christians who pray and the other for non-Christians. There is only one law of probability because prayers have zero effect. Jesus has no effect on our planet no matter how much we pray. We can prove that conclusively using statitical analysis.
If you are a Christian, watch what is happening inside your mind right now. The data is absolutely identical in both experiments. With Ra you looked at the data rationally and concluded that Ra is imaginary. But with Jesus... something else will happen. In your mind, you are already coming up with a thousand rationalizations to explain why Jesus did not answer your prayers:
It is not like there are two laws of probability -- one for Christians who pray and the other for non-Christians. There is only one law of probability because prayers have zero effect. Jesus has no effect on our planet no matter how much we pray.
One rationalization that you may find yourself developing is particularly interesting. You may say to yourself: “Well, of course Jesus doesn’t answer me when I pray about a coin toss, because it is too trivial." Where did this rationalization come from? If you read what Jesus says about prayer in the Bible (see Chapter 5), Jesus does not ever say, "don't pray to me about coin tosses." Jesus clearly says he will answer your prayers, and he puts no boundaries on what you may pray for. You invented this rationalization out of thin air.
- It is not his will
- He doesn't have time
- I didn't pray the right way
- I am not worthy
- I do not have enough faith
- I cannot test the Lord like this
- It is not part of Jesus' plan for me
- And on and on and on...
If you are a Christian who is offended by the notion of praying about a coin toss, then let's try this instead. Get down on your knees right now and pray as follows:
"Dear Jesus, son of God, the almighty, all-powerful, all-loving creator of the universe, we pray to you to cure every case of cancer on this planet tonight. Please hear our heartfelt, unselfish, non-materialistic prayer and fulfill your promises in Matthew 7:7, Matthew 17:20, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:24, John 14:12-14, Matthew 18:19, Mark 9:23, Luke 1:37, James 5:15-16 and many other places. We pray knowing that when you answer this prayer, it will glorify God and help millions of people in remarkable ways. In your name we pray, Amen."
Will every case of cancer be gone tomorrow? Of course not. If you are a believer, you can create dozens of rationalizations for this unanswered prayer. But that does not change the reality of the situation.
You are an expert at creating rationalizations for Jesus. The reason you are an expert is because Jesus does not answer any of your prayers (see section 1). The reason why Jesus does not answer any of your prayers is because Jesus is imaginary. We can find dozens of pieces of evidence to demonstrate that the Christian story is imaginary. Start with Chapter 1 to see them all.
What this simple experiment shows us is fascinating. When we pray to Ra and nothing happens over thousands of trials, we look at the data rationally and we conclude that Ra is imaginary. But when you pray to Jesus and nothing happens, you do not reach the same conclusion. Instead, you try to rationalize all the reasons why Jesus did not answer your prayers. Ask yourself this simple question: why the difference? Why do you, as a "believer", behave in a completely irrational way?
This book will help you to see where the difference is coming from. It will let you see what is happening inside your brain. To begin expanding your understanding, begin with the home page or any of these starting points:
- This page is an excerpt from Chapter 26. If you would like to read Chapter 26 from the beginning, click here.
- If you would like to start at the beginning of the book with a gentle introduction, click here.
- If you would like to explore the central question of this book - Why won't God heal amputees? - start here.
- Did God really inspire the Bible, or is the Bible a collection of fictional stories written by primitive men? Start here.
- Was Jesus God, or just a man? Start here.
- Is Christianity a delusion, or not? Start here.
- What is God's plan? Start here.
- Are you a religious leader? Take the Challenge.
- If you would like to browse the table of contents, start here.
New York Times Coverage
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Recommendation by Sam Harris
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Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
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