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Chapter Four: Why people believe

Section 8: The power and the glory

Belief in God offers power and promises glory, but at the end of the day, it is all illusion.

God is almighty. God is glorious. Enter any cathedral or large mosque, look up and around you and you will see humanity's attempt to reveal God's glory to you.

What of those who preach God's word and worship him? Do they also share the power and the glory?

4.8a Mine is the power

We have seen that belief can be rooted in many elements: a sense of community, peer pressure, fear of death, a sense of justice, or the idea that life has a meaning.

Another element is power.

Some religious leaders experience a profound sense of humility towards their God. Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, is one example - is an individual who appears almost bewildered by his faith.

Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, seems to have a stronger sense of faith and leadership but to have been uncorrupted by power.

Other religious leaders, in all three major faiths, are keenly aware of their power over their followers, but use it relatively sparingly. Like his predecessors, the current pope (pictured above) lays down edicts that allow no room for debate or contradiction.

And at the fringes of every religion can be found leaders who not only revel in the power they hold over their congregations but who seek to be obeyed by all believers and unbelievers.

Most US and African televangelists fall into this last group. A typical example is Ted Haggard who, until he was disgraced by association with drugs and a male sex worker, was the pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Before his fall, Haggard referred to his congregation as "his

The deep roots of belief

Despite reason and evidence indicating that God does not and cannot exist, billions of people across the world continue to worship him in one of his many forms.

Belief in God draws its strength from a wide range of sources and provides a sense of security and wellbeing for many. Transforming that belief into an understanding and respect for rationality takes time and much effort.

4.1: The origins of religion
Where did faith come from?

4.2: In the genes?
Are we programmed to believe?

4.3: Community and identity
Defining ourselves through faith

4.4: Peer pressure
Faith as fashion

4.5: Death and despair
There must be a better world

4.6: A sense of justice
Evildoers must be punished

4.7: God and meaning
Religion gives us a purpose

4.8: The power and the glory
They reflect on us too

4.9: Against the tide
Converts and natural-born rebels

4.10: Nature calling
A glimpse of God?

4.11: Pick 'n' mix
What are your reasons?

4.12: Summary

Finished this chapter? Move on to

Chapter 5
Faith in action

People create God in their own image. What happens when they not only believe in God but put their faith into action?

The results are predictable: good people do good things in the name of religion and bad people do bad things. They act in God's name but God is irrelevant.

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children" - a patronising statement typical of power-seekers - and blazed with anger at those who threatened his hold over them.

That side of Haggard's personality was revealed in a television documentary hosted by Richard Dawkins a few years ago. In the same programme, Yousef Al-Khattab, an American-Jew-to-Palestinian-Muslim convert railed against the Western world's failure to impose his sexual, moral and dress standards.

The term Al-Khattab used was "your women." That possessive, controlling attitude towards women, commonly heard from extremist Muslims, is similar to Haggard's view of his followers. It expresses the desire to have and wield power in God's name.

Again and again over the centuries this sense of religion as power - and the willingness of gullible followers to submit to it - has led to religious violence. Once it was priests and popes who sent Christians to the slaughter of the crusades. Today it is imams and teachers in madrassas and on the internet who turn Muslims into terrorists and suicide bombers.

It is no surprise that this dominant group are all men. In pop psychology, they are alpha males, driven to the top of their chosen profession, driven to dominate others, driven to see outsiders as competitors and threats.

They do not consciously believe in order to gain power, but their faith provides a fitting outlet for their lust for power. Their faith is intense, reflecting their their own personality. Their God is strong and unforgiving, because they are strong and unforgiving. They fiercely condemn sin, but the sin they fear most in themselves - Haggard's lust for men, Khattab's lust for women, the fundamentalist's fear that his faith is meaningless.

4.8b Thine is the glory

While some find power through faith, others find faith through humility.

Some men and women lead quiet lives as devoted members of a congregation. They often have few friends or outside interests. They believe fervently, utterly, either keeping their faith to themselves or having no other subject of conversation. They are convinced either that they are sinless or that their lives are full of sin but such is their devotion to God that he will redeem them after death. If Christian, they are Rapture-Ready, convinced the Armageddon is at hand and one day soon the Lord will sweep them, The Elect, into Heaven.

They have only one ambition. Only one thing gives their life meaning. The promise - in their minds, the certainty - that after death, they will sit at God's right hand, forever basking in his glory. Who needs fleeting power over men and women today when you will stand by God's side forever through eternity?

4.8c Neither power nor glory

Power and glory are not enough in themselves to inspire faith, but they can be a strong stimulant. As the years pass they can become the reason for faith itself.

Men start by believing in God and find that God offers them power; they end by clinging to power and calling it God. By all accounts, Haggard's loss of his ministry has diminished him, but he is unable to accept that his faith was based on his desire for power. Al-Khattab's presence on the web - at least in English - does not reflect his onscreen rant, but in several pictures he stands proudly beside a woman imprisoned in her veil and burqa. Countless others measure their faith according to their real, or imagined, influence over others.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum the "Rapture Ready" wait smugly for their ascension to Heaven. It will never happen, although, in less generous moments I sometimes wish that God existed, if only to see the faces of those left behind who were convinced that God had chosen them...

Belief in God offers power and promises glory, but at the end of the day, it is all illusion - the power comes from the willingness of others to submit to our demands and the glory extends no further than our imaginations

Chapter Four: Section 9 Against the tide

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

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