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Why Atheists and Religions are Wrong

For the Oxford Philosophical Society 2014 Review



I shall argue in this essay that without the mind’s faculty of imagination there would be no philosophy, no art, no music, no mathematics, no science, no religions, and no freedom of choice; that the attempts of religions to limit its expression to habits of identity, aided by the atheistic belief, now common in secular societies, that it must be applied only to material discovery, is the cause of their conflict and religious terrorism; that the crisis in modern education is similarly caused and may be similarly resolved; that the natural function of this faculty is to find manifold ways for minds to communicate, as is demonstrated by its manifestations, as described above; finally, that it is not limited to human minds, for the history of philosophy, which is also the history of humankind, would not be as it is if this were true.


First Part: the usual arguments

Obliging children to believe that all the claims of a religious faith are factually true severely damages their understanding of honesty; gives them a false sense of their importance as children and later as adults, and makes it virtually impossible for them to regard those outside their own faith as worthy of compassion or respect.

Current world events are demonstrating the truth of this argument.

A majority of adults in largely secular societies are likely to believe that it is the responsibility of parents and teachers is to ensure that children learn to think and express themselves honestly, to guard their self-respect, and to be equally honest and respectful to others.

I believed both arguments before becoming a teacher.

As a teacher of my chosen subject of mathematics, I was dismayed to discover how much harm I was expected to cause to the honesty, the self-respect, and the respect for others of my pupils.

Mathematics is usually highly respected because, ironically, it is the subject least imagined to be capable of doing any lasting intellectual, moral, or social harm.

It is only supposed – wrongly – to be most accurate in calibrating children’s intelligence. Since parents and their children both tend to believe that this is true, many youngsters will repeatedly perjure themselves in insisting that they understand when they do not, ultimately damaging their own sense of self-worth, and doing further irreparable harm, as they may be told in other lessons, to their eternal souls!

Harming my pupils like this was not what I wanted to achieve. Not unexpectedly, I found few other mathematics teachers ready to agree with me. Whether defensive of their professional status or their personal probity, they would insist never to have observed any of these results in their own pupils.

Unfortunate pupils. Among young adults, however, especially after school or university, I found ready agreement with my experience. “That’s exactly what happened in my year!” is the commonest response.

In short: teaching mathematics by instruction is as divisive as teaching religions catachrestically: to emphasize a religion’s ability to divide and exclude, rather than its original intention, which was, invariably, to include and unite.

It is very rarely known that mathematics had originally the latter purpose. Or, more precisely: that the original purpose of what we now call ‘mathematical argument’ – presented evidence; connection; logical conclusion – was never to persuade more Athenian Greeks that the angles of a triangle sum to two right-angles; as if any would care. Its first purpose was to provide the average man and woman with models of simple but successful argument to secure their confidence in democracy. And Athenian democracy, it may be remembered, lasted 900 years.

In most mathematics classrooms this encouragement of democracy gets lost between the instructor and the instructed. What remains is the demand that the instructed agree and conform. Those pupils who can do neither are deemed to have ‘failed’. I will argue that their teachers have failed: more than they wish to know.


Second Part: the unusual argument: (OD) proof, evidence, manifestation.

I joined the British army aged seventeen. I left when thirty-two.

This period of my life was important for me; for whatever soldiers are made to do by their government – which, quite often, is fairly stupid – the qualities that soldiers learn to value before courage are honesty, self-confidence, and integrity.

They support others and expect others to support them.

Towards the end of my army career, I succeeded in annoying the then British government so seriously that it had me inducted into a military psychiatric hospital.

Although I did not know it, until he told me some weeks later, its military medical director was ordered to begin treating me, on arrival, for schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a disastrous malaise. The usual treatment for it at that time would almost certainly have destroyed me mentally, perhaps physically. The aim was to ensure that no-one would trust me, ever again.

But, as the director subsequently related to me somewhat plaintively: “But they sent me no clinical notes!” There were, of course, no clinical notes. Someone fairly senior in government had simply decided that I must be silenced.

Still more fortunate was that the director had been convinced, without telling me until our final interview, that “some bloody fool had made a mistake”. Ignoring the order at some risk to himself, he directed his staff to subject me instead to every possible psychological test to support his judgment that I was – “and always has been” – perfectly sane.

You must appreciate the magic, however, of this power of government. Its slur lasts for ever. “But, fortunately the hospital found me perfectly sane!” “Oh, good. I’m so glad to hear that!” (But you would say that: wouldn’t yout?)

During their investigation, I was gently questioned as to my interests before I annoyed that man – presumably a man, a senior civil servant – in the then government.

My most serious interests, I explained – but, of course, after my military duties – were philosophy and poetry. In the first instance I had most recently become interested in the problem of how minds interpret meaning from whatever it is that others use in attempting to communicate with them.

I later discovered that this puzzled Ludwig Wittgenstein, together with many others. In the usual gnomic translation, Wittgenstein is made out to have said of it: “Whatever can be said at all can be said clearly, and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

Ugh! I think this does Wittgenstein a serious disservice.

His original statement, in his Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus of 1922, was:“Was sich überhaupt sagen lässt, lässt sich klar sagen, und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”

Let me attempt to make his meaning clearer. The most important words are ‘sagen’ and ‘reden’: simply translated as ‘said’ and ‘speak’.

But the sense of ‘reden’ for Germans is more than to ‘speak’. It is more like to ‘discuss’, and the further implication is ‘to discuss a shared experience.’

I did not know this then. To my own friendly, but still critically judgmental interlocutors, I explained that I found this problem so difficult that I had decided that the success of any attempt depended on both parties being almost equally familiar with subject of the communication: as you have just read.

Hence, of course, the difficulty that mystics have in attempting to communicated their experience. If they report it is ‘ineffable’, you are unlikely to be capable of passing judgement on it. The best you can do is to ask how it has affected the mystic’s future life.

Still more serious in my case, although I thought that this might upset them all too much, was my realization a few months earlier that I could no longer be sure that anything I thought I understood of others’ meaning was correct. Remembering the cartoons I had enjoyed as a child, it was as if the Wascally Wabbit had lured me off the edge of the cliff; and beneath me was only empty air.

In contrast, as I did explain, one attempts in poetry to convey meaning, and even precise emotions, with the least number of words and with no formal syntax, trusting instead in the imagination of the reader to supply it: which, incidentally, you are doing now, in supplying meaning to the lines of otherwise meaningless black squiggles on this page.

It may be said – and I trust that you will understand me – that unless our imagination continually fits together all the myriad reports of our senses, of William James’ ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’, to make for us the picture that we call ‘reality’, we would die. The important distinction of this kind of reality is that it can be partly shared.

But what if one could learn to still one’s imagination entirely?

The Shakya Prince Gautama Siddhärtha, the Buddha, was the first to report the result in about 500 BC. His experience was not of a new reality, but of a void.

The mind without its imagination is nothing. It is blank. No pain, no desire, empty. Rather like this:

Just a few hours after my first meeting with the hospital’s director, I had a

very different experience. Mine was not entirely dissimilar to that reported by Moses; or, after him, by Socrates; or to that which may be inferred from Jesus’ injunction: ‘Go into your closet alone to speak to the Father’; or to that of Muhammad, embraced so hard that he found it hard to breathe; or to that of many others who have contributed their reports to human history.

It also occurred when I was entirely alone, trusting no-one: and since I had been a confirmed atheist since aged about eleven, it was an absolute surprise.*

That said: as Jesus advised, I invited it.

Alone in my room, I stood wondering. I was in a very serious fix. I had no friends. I had no ideas. But it occurred to me abruptly that I had not challenged my government of my own volition, but because it was expected of me.

Expected by what? By whom?

These questions were still unformed as I knelt, as seemed proper, and declared, with some vehemence:


I need some help!”

The result was utterly astonishing. In my imagination – but only, of course, in my imagination – I was forcibly lifted out of the silent room, swept across the universe to a blank black wall, and was there violently and very physically embraced by a monstrous, and apparently delighted, but entirely invisible entity, which appeared to have emanated out of a totally black sphere, faintly glimmering – as I later reported to my friends in Cambridge – against the featureless background of deeper space.

Then I imagined being given a very short but explicit message. And then, just as abruptly, I was back in the room; saying aloud, with a mixture of surprise and delight: “That was God!”

The whole of this adventure, this physically utterly impossible adventure, had lasted less than twenty seconds. In twenty seconds light travels: not far enough.

In the week of tests that followed, and in the further weeks of ‘observation’, in which the director’s decision was being somewhat reluctantly accepted by the government, I had only to consider its implications.

Taken seriously, if indeed they are taken seriously, the implications are profound: that God worshipped by most religions as their own, exists, not in the universe, but rather more as a cosmic intelligence, able to manipulate space and time within a mind’s imagination, and communicating a care for human evolution.

This, of course, is very like what others have reported in the past.

In my own judgement, after forty years of keeping silent about it – whilst being more respectful of my pupils’ intelligence because of it – the experience was entirely too complex, too unexpected, far too spectacular, for any mind to conjure up in less than twenty seconds.

It also provided what may be judge as the first scientific evidence that this cosmic intelligence exists independent of human minds. Whilst all religions hold this to be true, its proof must at once demolish the pretensions of any religion to enjoy its special favours. This is the very last thing that the majority of priests and their theologians wish for. Their careers depend on those special favours.

They cannot be expected to welcome the loss of their franchise. As Jesus might say, were he here: “Like whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones.”

Hard to beat that for lofty disregard.

In these short seconds, my envisaged something which I only began to understand years later, on hearing the eminent theoretical physicist James Archibald Wheeler declare in a BBC radio interview: “And, anyway, a ‘black hole’ isn’t a hole at all. It’s a black sphere!”

By the time that I heard this, my description of an ‘intensely black sphere faintly glimmering against the deeper black of space’ had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, lodged in the British Library.

I had this experience years before Stephen Hawking imagined the conditions which would allow a black hole to be faintly visible, by radiating the orphans of virtual photon pairs separated probabilistically at its event horizon: visible, that is, to anyone taken billions of light-years across space in order to see it.

The truth is that I did not bother to worry whether what I had experienced was real. What is ‘real’? I was physically in my prime. I was mentally alert. I had been trained to survive the unexpected, to observe accurately, to report factually.

I experienced what I experienced. I soon realized that if a cosmic intelligence takes the trouble to show its domain and power to a messenger, the message is for as many people as are ready to receive it. It may even be meant for the world.

As you may imagine, I was deeply puzzled how I was to achieve this!

Meanwhile the world continued to revolve. If I said nothing, no-one would know. It might never have happened. How much courage would speaking require?

My weeks in the hospital were recorded in my medical record as having been taken up by hearing tests. There were obviously very expensive hearing tests.

I left the army, peaceably, in 1975. Now recently married, I intended to train as a teacher. I was more or less obliged to select mathematics as my subject, since I had qualified in the army’s own university as an engineer.

In Trinity College, in Cambridge, I confided in two of the most eminent and notably sceptical theologians of that time. They agreed that my impression was correct; but they both urged me never to tell any other theologians, for “they will not like that God has confidence in you, rather than in them.”

This, very sadly, I have discovered is true. Still more surprising has been to discover, here in Oxford and in Cambridge, that a very remarkable inversion of interests has been achieve within theology. The arguments of scientific atheism have persuaded the majority of career theologians to keep their heads well beneath the existential parapet. In most Western societies they are less likely than in any period in ecclesiastical history to claim to have been convinced of the existence of God by personal experience.

Never mind what this does to Holy Scripture. No-one wants to be declared insane,


Third Part.

Still more surprising had been to discovery that many university theologians are quietly manufacturing an agreement with secular philosophers that no religion has any basis in experiential fact whatever, historic or otherwise: that religions are no cultural artefacts created to maintain social order by exploiting people’s imagination and fears, supported and sustained by powerful rulers, who may even launch occasional crusades against other faiths to deflect attention from themselves.

Whilst much of this is evidently true, this analysis is not suited to end the murderous passions now raging in several parts of the world, and now increasing in scale and in scope. It clearly satisfies many who have no respect for any experience any other imagination than their own. But it is too shallow. It is also wrong.

God exist. God does care: although not so much to prevent us from exterminating ourselves. We need to teach our children the compassion and respect for others to make their society resilient and strong.

They also need to know what God expects of them.

The advice of my Cambridge mentors was to: “find a way to incorporate your experience in your teaching”.

In teaching children mathematics? This seemed too absurd.

Within a few years I had been selected to be the first head of mathematics at the first official European School in Britain of the European Union.

In this extraordinarily privileged position, I was entirely outside the jurisdiction of the British state education machinery. My pupils, multinational and multilingual, aged from 10 to 18, had to be prepared for the Baccalaureate.

It is a very tough final exam.

By this time I had also discovered that the way that I had been trained to teach by Cambridge University’s School of Education was not, and could not, encourage the values of honesty, confidence, and respect for others that I believed children should have.

Still more serious, from their point of view: if I continued to teach them mathematics in an entirely orthodox fashion, many would never pass the mathematics exam of their ‘Bac’. Most would fail long before they were eighteen.

Professionally this would not have mattered much. It is well known that many, if not most, children ‘fail’ mathematics. It is even a matter of pride for many adults to claim: “Oh, I was never any good at math!”

Worse, from my point of view, was my realization that I was rapidly dividing my classes into a knowingly clever fraction, soon to become selfish; a bewildered majority, learning to appear to succeed only by being successfully dishonest; and a final fraction already despised by the others as lazy or stupid, who hated them in turn, and who were beginning to fear me.

Having been alienated from each other by their experience in school, and most of all in the mathematics lessons, these divisions are perfectly visible in adult societies, by which time there are virtually impossible to change.

The same clever minority will continue to regard themselves as unfailingly superior, intellectually, morally and socially, to everyone else. A majority will still be terrified of admitting responsibility for their mistakes and will be ready to depend on dishonesty, whenever necessary, in order to ‘succeed’. A final minority – sometimes frighteningly large – remains bitterly resentful of the system that has discarded them, and hates everyone it appears to have preferred.

How instead I learnt to teach children mathematics – as actually I believe the real living Jesus might have taught children: for he was, after all, an early engineer, a carpenter – is described in my ‘Educating Messiahs. An earlier book ‘473959’ describes my recognizing, during a lecture tour in the United States, that people, as adults, also have an identity to be saved.

Some of you reading this may be parents, or grandparents. You may have been persuaded that you would like your youngsters to learn mathematics as I taught it.

Alas! No teachers in big schools are likely to be allowed to apply this approach to their pupils. A major problem has finally been recognized in the United States: that most teachers are terrified of being accused of being wrong, and refuse to depart from the ‘lesson plans’ they have been using for years.

There must, however, be many small rural schools – certainly in the United States, as well as in other countries – whose teachers are determined that their pupils retain the honesty, their self-respect, and integrity.

You parents may have to move to the backwoods. Or educate at home!


Fourth Part.

There is another alternative. In my earlier book, ‘473959’, I describe a painful moment after one of my lectures in Macon, Georgia, in finding a little black lady waiting for me at the edge of the stage.

“Mistuh Hannaford,” she told me, quavering, “Jes’ ALL of my classes are Division Three. What am I goin’ to tell them?”

I felt a flash of anger that this little lady, having the courage to tell me this, had also daily to have far more courage to deal with the carelessness of a system that has this effect on its young people.

I could think of nothing better than: “Go to school tomorrow and tell them what has happened. And tell them: ‘It’s not your fault. But now we have to get out of this together.’

And I should have added, but didn’t: And the hell with the consequences.

This, I suggest, is how to address the message I was given to the children of the world. You may be wrong, as an atheist, that God does not exist. I may be wrong that the God I have described exist for you too.

What we should rather tell them it’s not their fault that the world is in such a mess. There is a way out. The path is marked this way: “Be honest!”

We have all to get out of this mess together.

Fifth Part


You may still wish to know how I managed to annoy my government so seriously that they wanted me, effectively, dead.

I had been a staff officer in the army headquarters in Northern Ireland for three tours. I knew as well as any general or politician what was going on. Catholics and Protestant Irish were killing each other, and our soldiers. The then British government insisted that this had nothing to do with religious difference. It was no more than ‘criminal activity’ by ‘men of violence’ and they would never talk with these criminals.

There was indeed a fair amount of criminality, but I had spoken directly with one of the then leaders of the Catholic faction and he had made perfectly clear what he and his gang wanted: “t’ git the’ Prods oot!”

Expecting to be publicly court-martialled, I wrote and circulated as widely as I could a paper in which I argued that the violence must be understood fundamentally to be about religious differences, and the best way to achieve a resolution would be to hold a public conference to require both sides to declare their aims.

What I did not know, and of course no-one outside a very limited circle could be allowed to know, was that the government was doing exactly this: in secret. I had to be silenced. If the result had been to destroy me, I would have been just another casualty of war.

Tant pis! As, I think, the French would say.

The Anglo-Saxon is shorter.


Sixth Part:


And the other ‘imaginary’ message which have deflected, and directed, human history? Buddha: do not worship passions. Moses: do not worship men. Jesus: do not worship ritual. Muhammad: do not worship images.

All these have been distorted by generations of priests, rabbis, popes, and imams. We should rather look for their direction, which is to keep the mind open: and this is Science.


Colin Hannaford,

Oxford, September 2014.


*It is described more completely in the chapter ‘Source’ of my book ‘Educating Messiahs (2013)’.


Published here with permission by the author.

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