“Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse.”
- Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949 – December 15, 2011) -
Without a shadow of a doubt, two challenges we often get, coming from those making the apology of religion are: "Why do we exist?" and "What is our purpose?" To a large number of people, these are generally considered to be serious theological questions dealing with topics that are outside the grasp of scientific inquiry. Because the study of theology claims to have expertise on such subjects, whenever we get into a discussion about whether or not there is evidence of conflict between religion and science, we can almost expect to hear these given as examples. While it is true that science cannot afford to deal with such questions, it clearly has very good reasons not to.
Ambiguous topics like: "What is our purpose?" are loaded with dishonesty; and they happen to be the trademark of religion. This type of questioning is fallacious as it hopes to trick you into accepting a hidden premise that it arrogantly assumes you should accept. In fact, while most supernatural claims appeal to personal experience; knowing very well that our human senses are easily mistaken and very subject to hallucinations; whenever they don't, they rely entirely on subjective presuppositions. You can try to find some that don't; you will not be able to, I promise. If we are to question honestly, it is crucial to ensure our questions are devoid of hidden assumptions.
Being able to formulate a question does not automatically grant that it is going to be a valid one. For example, if I offered you the moon in exchange for being able to tell me why it is that most birds cannot fly, would you think of me as a person worth sharing much of your time with? Chances are that you would picture me as nothing less than a complete moron. I could ask you a slightly more subtle one like: "Do you still beat your kids every Monday afternoon?" You may or may not be able to answer this one. The question implies that you do not work on Mondays. More seriously, it also suggests that you do have kids and that you have in fact beaten them in the past.
At the end of the day (as politicians love to say), it all comes down to a very cumbersome issue with intellectual honesty. Regardless of its supposed authority and expertise, modern theology is rooted in dishonesty; it deserves to be exposed for it just as mainstream religion does. Studying it should not grant a PhD anymore than claiming expertise about extra-terrestrial ships or unicorns. Instead of asking loaded questions and proposing complex, unfalsifiable answers to them; it could state its hypotheses and shelve them if evidence is determined to be insufficient. After so much deception, religions have no other choice than to keep lying about the honesty of their assertions...
Let us suppose for a moment that you have this very motivating part time employment in which your job is to sell a certain product. No matter what it is and regardless of what its hidden flaws are, it makes perfect sense to highlight its strong points rather than focusing on the rest. A few months ago, you have been asked by your boss to attend special marketing classes. There, you are reminded of good reasons for believing in the product. You also find encouragement in the fact that hundreds of other people are attending; you work for a big company that cares for you. You are often reminded how if you do not really believe in what you are selling, you won't be successful.
You really need this because; perhaps I forgot to mention; the product you are selling is invisible. The people you are selling it to are even expected to join your company and make sure that their children do not question the existence of your product. They are encouraged to attend the same meetings and help the company grow. As salespersons, you have to believe in what you are selling; it is the key to selling lots of it. If you do not have enough faith, you will not do well. That is probably the only thing you really know about your product. In any other context than religion, this situation would be regarded as problematic. But are we being fair, comparing religion to marketing?
George Carlin said it best: As powerful as anyone may claim God to be, somehow he always needs money. He needs it to fund the building of new churches and the worldwide spread of his message, whether it be through television, DVDs or the Internet. As I write this, Islam is pursuing its ambitions of covering the Earth; most of its funding coming from Saudi Arabia; tens of billions of petrodollars. The good news is that there will not be any more oil in a few decades. The bad news is that all three abrahamic religions are anxiously waiting for the end of the world. Add nuclear weapons in the equation and it gets truly tense for those of us who care about reality and its future.
It is quite possible to ask honest, objective questions about religion but those are indubitably not going to be ones of a theological nature. There is no such thing as personal truth or subjective truth and the fact that religions shamelessly encourages such way of thinking is not helping their case. Quite a few thousands of years ago, religion may have been a required step in our evolution; a counter-productive but necessary one that involved postulating hypotheses; drawing imaginary conclusions from these and mixing them up with reality. But as Sam Harris says so well, religions today are, at best, failed sciences. Truthfulness left to conjecture; usefulness readily substitutable.