Are Religious Teachings Fairy Tales?

If someone puts himself in the shoes of the atheist, the tenets of so many religions may seem like adult fairy tales—or maybe not even the “adult” type.

Over here, he finds the Hindus and Buddhists, telling us that after death we will undergo reincarnations dependent on our spiritual state or karma, until (for many Hindus) our soul attains a state of “enlightenment,” and is united with Brahmin/God; or (for many Buddhists) we finally attain release from all elements of selfhood (the cause of suffering) and merge with the All, in nirvana.

Those of us who have difficulty imagining our existence stripped of selfhood will find Buddhism strange and fanciful; and many will find it impossible to imagine a self taking on different bodies over and over again.  Aristotle, emphasizing the unique unification of body and soul, criticized Plato’s theory of reincarnation as absurd—imagining that any old soul could be stuffed in any old body, taken at random.

The Muslims tell us that our mission in life is to follow the instructions of the prophet Muhammad, and subordinate everyone and every religion to Islam, by force, if necessary; for which we may be rewarded in heaven with unending sensuous delights. But most of us in the Western world have trouble believing a warlord with a harem of 15 wives, involved in 27 battles and 38 raiding parties, and prone to violent retaliations, to be a “prophet” whom we could trust as speaking for God. We have been perhaps too brainwashed by the characteristics of the prophets of the Old Testament, who were models of asceticism and non-violence. Would it be rational to entrust our lives and hopes of ultimate salvation to someone like Muhammad, just because he claims he was sent by God?

The Mormons assure us that God was human like us once upon a time, and evolved into His divine state, and that the same sort of evolution awaits us. Through celestial marriages made in this life, Mormon couples who have been “sealed” in the Mormon Temple, along with their children, will be gods and goddesses ruling planets, and generating new godly offspring throughout the ages. This view certainly gives a positive spin to the idea of evolution, and may be especially attractive to those who have blissful marriages. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, who clandestinely married 48 wives after wedding his first wife, Emma, serves as a model for this storybook account of the goal of life.   But most of us (especially members of the Christian church, which has been allegedly “apostate” for two millennia) might have serious doubts about the credentials of this self-proclaimed prophet—although he certainly had a better record regarding homicide than the Prophet of Islam.

But among the various religious “theories,” in the eyes of the atheist, certainly the most outrageous is the Christian story. Namely, that there is a God who holds the whole created universe in his hand, not only caring for each sparrow that falls from the sky (Mt. 10:29) and clothing the lilies of the field (Mt. 6:28); not only numbering the hairs of the head of each living person (Lk. 12:7); but willing to share his eternal life with each one of the billions who have been born and will be born. And the Christians want us to believe that the Son of this God, the eternal wisdom whose main delight was to be with the “children of men,” impatiently waited for the right moment to be born, so that He could share human life with all its difficulties—poverty, hunger, heat and cold, fatigue, inconveniences, and incredible weakness and suffering—and put fellow humans on the road to their own share in eternal life.

The atheist, hearing this breathtaking account of goodness beyond all expectations, turns in relief to Science, congratulates himself for avoiding such fantasies, and assures anyone willing to listen that it may not be a comforting thought, but “here’s the way things really are”: Out of multiple universes, or even an infinite number of universes, the right conditions developed by chance just for us. In line with the 11 dimensions predicted by M-theory, a version of String theory, the mathematical basis for 4-dimensional spacetime and our universe arose by chance. Gravity itself, according to Stephen Hawking, spontaneously gave rise to the Big Bang. This explosive development received a little help at the right moment from a cosmological principle called “inflation,” which accelerated the expansion of the universe at the right moment. (Alan Guth, the physicist who discovered this principle, observed that it provides a “free lunch” for the universe.) Then, over about 15 billion years, galaxies, groups, clusters, “clouds,” superclusters, supercluster-complexes (“walls”) developed by chance, leading by a fortunate accident to the development of the planet Earth, with just the right position in the Milky Way galaxy to produce carbon-based life from elements cooked up in the stars, and subject to organization by laws like gravity and electromagnetism. Also fortunately, cells developed with DNA instructions leading them to further development. This further development took place through “natural selection,” which depended on favorable mutations (even though mutations are hardly ever favorable). Then, after some fantastically accelerated developments in the Cambrian era, homo sapiens arrived on the scene, who then started to speak, write, read, develop civilizations—and even religions.

However, most humans inconveniently seem to be hardwired to believe that everything has to have a cause. Our common-sense instincts kick in unexpectedly: Something coming from nothing? By chance? And an infinity of chance developments? And a material universe arising somehow from the mathematics of String theory? And don’t we need to account for that law of gravity, which allegedly started the process “spontaneously”?

According to philosophers like Spinoza, Hume and Russell, when we are told that, in lieu of a causal explanation, “it happened by chance,” this simply translates into “we are ignorant of the cause of this thing.”

Charles Darwin himself, in proposing his theory of evolutionary “natural selection,” mentions his agreement with this general principle:

I have hitherto sometimes spoken as if the variations so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature, had been due to “chance.” This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.

Those of us who tenaciously maintain that everything, including the universe itself, has a cause, might consider the “chance and free lunch” scenarios accepted by the atheist as the most incredible and most absurd fairy tale, and find the Christian account more credible, even though it involves an uncaused Cause.

Holding on to the principle of causality, and thinking of the absurd extreme of love that the God of the Christian narrative has gone to, we might be able to agree with the paradoxical exclamation of the third century Christian theologian, Tertullian:

The Son of God was born—something not to be ashamed of, since it is so shameful.  And the Son of God died—something completely believable, since it was so unfitting.  And, having been buried, he arose—something to be certain of, since it was so impossible!

And, Tertullian might have added, to top it all off—for those who remain faithful, God prepared a final reward consisting of resurrection in a “spiritual” body no longer subject to death, in a new world enlightened not by the sun, but by God Himself.

Why would the Creator want to do this for mortals like you and me—with a special concern for thieves and public sinners and “lost sheep”? The Christian religion offers us a completely absurd extreme of love, transcending all human concepts, and is thus absolutely credible!

Howard Kainz


Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The absurdity of all these speculations only go to prove that Pascal was right, when he pointed out that Scripture teaches that “that God is a hidden God, and that, since the corruption of nature, He has left men in a darkness from which they can escape only through Jesus Christ, without whom all communion with God is cut off. “Neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him.” (Matt. 11:27)… So it tells us elsewhere: “Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself.” (Is. 45:15.) ‘Why! Do you not say yourself that the heavens and birds prove God?’ No. ‘And does your religion not say so?’ No. For although it is true in a sense for some souls to whom God gives this light, yet it is false with respect to the majority of men.”

  • Leo

    Some would say that it is really really
    really easy, to make a better world all we have to do is stop believing in the ridicules
    concept of the Christian God. Others would say that it is really, really,
    really, hard; to make a better world all we have to do is fully believe in the ridicules
    concept of the Christian God. In my experience the truth is hard.

  • Siobhán

    “This, therefore is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered truths out of religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” (Chesterton, ‘Orthodoxy’)

    No one hears about the Resurrection or the Virgin birth and automatically thinks “of course! I must get baptised!”. There is not a single element of reality that cannot be doubted, and there is no way to definitively prove anything in this life. We must accept that we even exist at all, if we think about it. In the midst of this existence we see that the Church alone provides for man to be ‘fully alive’.

    For my part, it is due to the depth of the Church’s profound understanding of what is natural about mankind, that to believe it is a supernatural institution is not at all credulous, but entirely reasonable.

    • Ford Oxaal

      “There is not a single element of reality that cannot be doubted, and
      there is no way to definitively prove anything in this life.”

      Humor me for a minute: You can’t doubt your own consciousness. You are. You can’t doubt change — you experience change. But your consciousness cannot cause your experience of change because (a) a cause must *include* its effect else part of the effect came from nothing (b) if your consciousness caused your experience of change, then the experience of the effect would be *included* together with the experience of the cause, and could not be experienced as change. So something other than your experience causes that experience. You can be certain of this. Now you have two certainties, yourself, and the external world (something other than self). It is now a few short steps to a conscious creator of all that exists as a matter of certainty.

      • Ib

        Mr. Oxdall, you must be channeling Descartes. If you want to update your knowledge base and come out of the benighted roots of modernism, read Peter A. Redpath’s book, “Cartesian Nightmare: An Introduction to Transcendental Sophistry”. Redpath has been a member of the Philosophy Department at St. John’s University (New York) since 1970. Dr. Redpath is the author/editor of 10 philosophical books and dozens of articles and book reviews; over 200 invited guest lectures nationally and internationally; co-founder of the Gilson Society (USA) and The International Etienne Gilson Society; former vice-president of the American Maritain Association.

        You just might learn how facile your supposedly airtight Catesianism really is.

        • Ford Oxaal

          Truth does not contradict reason. Nor does it come with a long list of ‘credentials’. All you have to do to make your point is show me where the proof I outlined fails.

          • Ib

            Augustinus dicit, tantum dico: ‘tolle, lege’

  • franthie

    An excellent, pithy article from Professor Kainz.. It seems to me that these reincarnations in Buddhism and Hinduism are no better than a series of annihilation. How can a past life have any meaning when there’s no awareness of it in a following state of existence? The scrappy bits of memories we hear about are so unconvincing. .

    • Ib

      Yes, that’s the difficult side of Eastern religions that hold to a Karmic theory of Justice. It’s one of the aspects of Buddhism that Paul Williams critiques in his fine book “The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism”. I highly recommend it for its serious look at the two religions and why he left Buddhism for the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Tony

    I believe in Jesus because He explains everything by His very person and His mission; He is the key to all locks. Nothing else makes sense. Materialism is the biggest superstition going, because not even materialists believe it; witness their refusal to answer any question regarding the ontological status of a mathematical or physical law. Sometimes they say, with a presto change-o, that mathematical law “supervenes” upon the physical universe; but then, why should we call it “supervening” when the law governs from within? Now they say that the same law “causes” the universe. It’s all a jumble of philosophical incoherence. On Monday we are supposed to believe that we can only affirm what is falsifiable; on Tuesday we are supposed to believe in a multitude of universes, a theory which cannot possibly be falsifiable and which is simply trotted out to avert the embarrassment of their being this universe …

  • Bill Brewer

    He has the only Book out there that not only tells us future events,but the words are alive and touch those who need them,from how to live,to how to pray,to who to pray too,to me this alone is the foundation for which all should place their faith,there is nothing to even compare it too.It alone proves that they`er is a GOD.

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  • rtb

    Comparing religions is fine, keep science out of it as it a completely different thing and has little in common with religion. Religious people shouldn’t want their religion to be treated like science and vice versa because science must be testable, predictable and reproducible and by those standards, almost all religions fail. IF we were to treat religious faiths as if they were science, then the only conclusion any of us can rationally draw is that religion has been thoroughly disproved and must now be abandoned, just like the ideas of a flat Earth or an Earth centered solar system. That would put almost every major religon, especially those with a creation myth, out of business by tomorrow.

  • Joseph Islam

    My dear sir,thanks for the critique.However, the historical distortation of prophet Mohammed’s character was mostly engineered by the Vatican,to regain control after the diminishing of Christianity,and after Mohammed’s character had already been tainted, by the Persians,who created unauthentic Hadiths to motivate their soldiers.True Islamic theology holds the character of the prophet in flawless esteem, rivaled only by Jesus himself,but in a context of equality amongst all Allah’s prophets many of whom had fight for liberty,e.g,King David and Moses, or Musa in the Arabic tongue.Islam was never given injunction to kill for sport ,in the true Arabic noble koran which is the only true koran for muslims.A translation in literature is merely an artistic representation.The true Koran gives injunction to preserve life and justice,by force if neccesary as in the case in any earthly civilization,not leastly UK and US.The root of the word science is perhaps from signs which refer to signs of creation.”There shall be signs in nature and inside themselves,which of our signs shall they deny? “(Noble Koran).

  • speegster

    “Out of multiple universes, or even an infinite number of universes, the right conditions developed by chance just for us.”

    With this quote and its ensuing paragraph the writer is making a simple category error: the right conditions didn’t develop “for us”; this is a deterministic and teleological understanding with no logical basis, an anachronistic anthropocentrism admittedly not surprising from a Christian believer, right up there with the idea that the sun revolves around the Earth.

    Sure there exists plenty of hubris and inconsistency amongst non-believers, but the jump a humble non-believer will always have over someone who must posit a (in the case of religious believers) supernatural “cause” for the universe is the simple courage to affirm: “I don’t know”. More humble than any follower of Jesus, by definition, could ever be (despite self-categorzation to the contrary).

  • mordechai

    Interesting, that there is no mention of Judaism, I wonder why…