One would expect no less than unflinching objectivity and critical thinking from Marshall Brain, the founder of HowStuffWorks.com. Still, the territory of his new book, How “God” Works, is quite different from his popular website, which answers questions like, “What’s in sweat?” and explains “How the U.S. president works.” After all, it’s a tad more challenging to analyze how God works, since “the Big Guy” is rather inscrutable and no one can see him/her/it.
Since half the people on the planet believe in some sort of god or gods and 75 percent of adults in the United States today are Christians said to believe in God and Jesus Christ (a belief that affects much of our public policy), it does seem important to figure out who/what God is and how God operates. Brain subjects Christianity to withering analysis, though he doesn’t tackle other religions to the same extent. This was comfortable for me, having been raised a Roman Catholic and being familiar with the Bible as a point of origin.
The questions Brain primarily focuses on are: Is God real or imaginary? If so many people are fans of God, what’s the evidence for their belief and what exactly is God doing about stuff on earth? What is the truth about God?
In posing such questions, Brain realizes he’s entered a touchy area. The Bible suggests that someone who asks these types of questions should be stoned to death, and the Qur’an prescribes death for infidels. Given the fact that so many people believe the Bible to be 100 percent true, it seems to me like these are legitimate questions to be asking.
Brain develops twelve characteristics of God from the Bible and other religious doctrines, including omniscience, omnipotence, perfection, all-lovingness and goodness, moral perfection, and the capability to create the universe and life on earth. On top of that, God answers prayers, wrote or inspired the Bible, incarnated himself as Jesus, enters into personal relationships with his followers, and gives people eternal souls that go to heaven or hell. That sounds about right based on my Catholic upbringing. And I think it’s fair to analyze God according to a religion’s own definition.
Brain starts by explaining how science determines if something is true or not. For example, in medicine, double-blind testing is used so that humans’ subjective proclivities are factored out. He attests to the need for an objective scientific method, because typical humans “are not very good thinkers.” Although humans are prone to irrational emotional reactions and bias, Brain says that critical thinking (defined as: “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence”) is essential if we are going to determine truth.
It turns out humans develop their beliefs in all sorts of questionable ways. The faith of many people, Brain contends, is informed by anecdotal evidence, superstition, confirmation bias, double-think, delusion, regression fallacy, groupthink, compartmentalization, and the “yes-no-wait” fallacy.
Brain uses a number of examples to demonstrate that the prevailing religious view of God as possessing the aforementioned twelve characteristics just doesn’t add up. First, the Bible says—and Jesus said too—that prayers will be answered and entreaties fulfilled. According to studies, however, there is no scientific evidence that prayers are answered. And, if prayers were answered, Brain argues, wouldn’t devout Christians be winning the lottery much more than others? If prayer worked, believers could steer hurricanes and storms away. If prayer worked, the faithful would not need doctors or even health insurance. Yet, those who aspire to faith healing have much worse infant mortality rates, for example, than the general population.
Furthermore, if God answers all prayers as promised, then wouldn’t God regularly restore amputated limbs? Couldn’t one pray to have heads come up 100 percent of the time when tossing coins?
If prayer doesn’t work, and if the Bible written by God says it does, then Brain concludes that God is a liar. If God is a liar, then he is certainly not perfect, demonstrating one of many ways in which the twelve truths about God are, well, not true.
Second, Brain points to many things God did in the Bible that are inconsistent with the postulated truths. God supposedly is all-good, all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. So, when he created people, he must have messed up big time, because he certainly wasn’t happy with humans when Noah was alive. Was that a mistake by God? How could God make mistakes? At any rate, this all-loving God murdered just about everyone on earth—men, women, even children and innocent animals—when he sent that flood. It was nice that he saved Noah and his family, and all the animals on the Ark, but Brain argues that God’s killing of children is evil and immoral. As another example, God killed all the first-born males of the Egyptians, an act that also wasn’t living up to his all-good billing. Brain concludes: “A being who set out to murder nearly every living thing on an entire planet is evil, plain and simple.”
Third, if the Bible is true and directed by the smartest dude in the universe, there would be no errors, inconsistencies, or ambiguity. If it were the perfect book, we would all be stunned by its power and truthfulness. Yet, the Bible is nothing if not filled with errors, inconsistencies, and boatloads of ambiguity, conflicting incessantly with modern knowledge and reflecting the fact that the book was actually written by men who thought the world was flat.
Ultimately, Brain contends that critical thinking proves God is imaginary and a “grand illusion powered by faulty thinking patterns, superstition, and suggestion.” He is precise and convincing in his analytical process.
How “God” Works includes many arguments against the Christian supreme being that I hadn’t really thought about. In this way, I found it very instructive. However, much of the message has been heard before, such as in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, who wrote therein that God is “a pernicious delusion,” and that he would attack “all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.”
Nonetheless, Brain does believe that we can, through education, help more people develop critical thinking. I hope he’s right. Religiously provoked beheadings and immolations have no place in the twenty-first century. “What if we decided to create heaven on Earth for every human being on the planet?” he asks. Now that is an excellent goal, which we could achieve by coming together and figuring out a better way to go about things, rather than being guided by primitive tomes.
In other words, I think a lot of people want something to believe in, rather than to simply not believe. Brain mentions meditation and self-talk as having beneficial effects for our pursuits, more so than prayer. What else can we lean on in this perpetual human quest for meaning, peace, and love?
In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow describe quantum physics as “an accurate description of nature.” They go on to write that, “There is no way to remove the observer—us—from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason.” Religion and God may not be an accurate description of nature, but if quantum physics is, I would love to read another book by Marshall Brain entitled, “How Life Works.” He would certainly be the person to write it.