In the letter to the Romans, one of the books in the bible, the Apostle Paul argues his case for god and how we should believe. Analyzing the first chapter, we can see two factual mistakes and one incorrect intuition.
His first mistake is how he subjectively slices the world into good and bad. Saying all good things are from god and what believers do; all bad things are worldly and what unbelievers do. Of course, this way god and believers come out very favorable.
“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.” (Romans 1:17)
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.” (Romans 1:28,29)
But an objective look at statistics shows this cannot be the case. For societies with similar levels of wealth, less religion predicts less crime1. That disproves Paul’s implicit prediction, that more people living with god, means fewer people doing bad things.
Bad Evidence of Creation
His second mistake is about what counts as evidence for creation. We might give Paul a pass here, in his time the knowledge to explain this well had not yet been developed, though much more accurate ideas were available2.
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
We live in a universe of mechanistic causes and effects. Dominated by what we call entropy, the tendency for things to decay, to fall apart, to stop working. Useful things, like a house, don’t just appear, they need to be created. Therefor it stands to reason that both earth and life have a creator, or so theists would argue.
But there are two things that go against the tendency of entropy, attractive forces and learning systems. At the large scale of space, gravity attracts matter. This causes endless arrays of globes with discs at various scales: galaxies; star systems; planets. At a much smaller scale, electromagnetism can cause beautifully shaped crystals like quartz.
But most special of all is chemical self-replication, because it automatically embodies a learning system. Similar in function to the algorithms by which we train computers to recognize human speech, drive cars, or recognize cats in videos. Chemical self-replication, also known as evolution, is what shaped life.
We can get a much clearer picture of the world, and see another of Paul’s mistakes, when we redefine a god as “anything bigger than us, that exerts power over us, but that we do not control”. Under that definition, a hurricane is a god, so would be a flood, or diseases. Gravity would be the god that shapes stars and planets. Chemical self-replication would be the god that shapes life-forms. All gods, but without minds.
Moreover so would market forces be a god. Tradition and culture be a god. And civilization itself be a god. One that gives peace, food, schools, doctors, economic progress, if properly honored by being a decent human being.
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:28)
If what Paul writes here were true of an actual god, he would have to be a monster, actively punishing non-belief by means of mind control.
But if it were a mindless god, a system of interactions where certain choices have certain consequences, then it all makes sense. Live by lying, stealing or worse, and you are corrupting the world around you, which in the long run is bad, even for yourself.
Everybody is free to believe what they want, or to live by what convinces them. But it is better to first be an honest, open and objective observer of the world, and then make your choices according to your preferences.
Paul goes on for 16 chapters, but after these three initial mistakes, I doubt he has any knowledge of an actual god, an actual invisible mind that somehow exerts power over us.
Many have the intuition that a believe in god leads to moral people and a better world. But why can that not be replaced with a believe in humanism? We are all invested in society and the world at large, the better it is, the better off we are, the better off our loved ones are.