Richard C. Johnson – Religion: The Failed Narrative

October 17, 2011

Richard C. Johnson Ph.D. is a retired chemist and serves as Treasurer for Freethought Arizona.

For some 25 years, the company he founded worked with scientists and researchers in chemical analysis. Through family ties, Richard had long been a kind of participant observer of religion and learned well its social bonding functions, though always remaining suspicious of its metaphysical claims. He observed just too many contradictions in theory and practice to take the beliefs seriously. Here he saw the roots of the terrible present-day conflicts between religions as well as between particular faiths and the rest of the world.

Dr. Johnson is the author of Religion: The Failed Narrative, in which he urges readers to scrutinize religious claims with the simple rational methods of science. Listen to his interview with host Robert M. Price who trivializes the issues with gratuitous references to Uncle Fester and other absurdities.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, October 17th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grass roots. Richard C. Johnson. P.H. D is a retired chemist and serves as treasurer for Freethought, Arizona. For some 25 years. The company he founded worked with scientists and researchers in chemical analysis through family ties. Richard had long been a kind of participant observer of religion and learned well its social bonding functions. Though always remaining suspicious of its metaphysical claims, he observed just too many contradictions in theory and practice to take the beliefs seriously. Here he saw the roots of the terrible present day conflicts between religions as well as between particular faiths and the rest of the world. Dr. Johnson is the author of Religion The Failed Narrative, in which he urges readers to scrutinize religious claims with a simple, rational methods of science. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Richard Johnson. 

Good to be here, Bob, I. 

As you know, I’ve read and much enjoyed your book, Religion The Failed Narrative. And I want to give other people a chance to learn about this. How do you happen to write this book? What motivated you to do it? 

Well, I think I explained in the acknowledgments. I think how I sort of evolved into this kind of writing. I’ve had been very busy with my profession for the better part of my career. And being a business owner, I didn’t have a lot of time to do much else. But as I got free of that. And I’ve always been an observer. I’ve always been observing what’s going on around me. I can say that early on when I was just a youngster. My mother thought that I should have some kind of religious education, although she wasn’t much herself. You know, I think this happens a lot of American families, maybe all over the world that she sent me to the neighborhood church and I used to walk there on my own when I was just like five or six. And this went on all through high school and that this was a I would call it a Methodist type church. At the beginning, this was early on. And then I sort of, you know, I never bought any of it. So, you know, I was just what I was there was a social thing for me, really. I was I really thought it was sort of odd that these people were having some kind of communication with unseen folks. 

And I but I continue to go through. The church this church experience. And then later, my first wife is Catholic. 

Actually, at the time or at the time, she was sort of unaffiliated. But when when the children started coming, it seemed to be important to her to have the connection back to the Catholic Church. By and by, I became a Catholic. There again, it was kind of a solidified for the family. I didn’t really it was not something that I was invested in. 

But it gave me plenty of opportunity to watch how religion works. And then much later, I. I began writing essays about it. And finally I decided to write this book. About three years ago I started. And it’s really taken me the better part of this time to get it. Yes. In enough edited form so I could publish it. 

Ah, that’s interesting. You were kind of like an anthropologist, a participant observer. And that is pretty important sense if you just talk about religion from what you’ve heard or read. You kind of missing the inside perspective, but you’ve got both the identification and the distance from it. 

I was certainly within the home of, you know, within the family of religious folks. And, you know, I had plenty of opportunity to see how the whole thing works. 

Also, what you say about the family solidifying function and so forth. It’s so interesting to me and it just is amazing to me. 

People don’t see this, that people do need such factors in their lives and they get it from religion. But somehow they go beyond the experience part of it to think that it proves something. So you ask somebody why they believe in something like the Trinity. And I said, well, you know, that’s what they told me in church. And that’s if it’s just company policy. And that luckily that didn’t sink in. 

I’m actually company policy. That’s a that’s a great phrase, because if you are part of a company, you do learn the ropes, the rules and you speak. Finally, those phrases that everybody else is speaking. And it is sort of like a club or or a company. 

I’m convinced by having been fundamentalist and evangelical for so many years, though now more years have passed since I have been that a lot of their major beliefs and and pronouncements are mere slogans and that if you pressed the members, they wouldn’t quite know what you mean. If you said, well, I hear all this about a personal relationship with Christ. What exactly happens in this relationship? And I’m kind of thinking pretty much nothing. It’s just a shibboleth. But I mean, like, why do you consider religion a failed narrative when according to the unbelievably vast majority of people in this country, it’s anything but failed? It’s that, you know, the vital guide to their lives, it gives meaning and so on. How is it failed then? 

Well, I talk about religion as a world view or a grand narrative, and it it is that kind of thing over history. It’s supposed to be the thing that guides your life. 

So I asked myself, well, what what really is a world narrative? A world view? And it’s really a philosophy of of of guidelines of how you’re supposed to conduct your life. Also, a world view also tells you a history about the your species. 

And and in the case of religion, it projects a future for you. So those three elements, interestingly, science is also a grand narrative because it tells us all kinds of things about the world. It certainly tells us a lot about our history. 

And the interesting thing is that that part of the history part, so contrast what with what religion tells us. And science tells us, for example, that the Earth is over four billion years old and that the Homo sapiens species is something more than three million years old. This certainly doesn’t jibe with the some 6000 years that the Bible tells us. And so we start to see that there’s not. There’s some some problem here. Why? Why don’t they agree? And then when it comes to the physical world, mostly what religion is concerned about is how you behave. It’s not telling you much about the world itself. It seems to not care about how the world behaves or that is how the world is constructed. So science tells us all pretty much all we know about the natural world. And then we get to. The future of mankind, well, religion tells us that we’re all going to live in some kind of eternal life if we are good folks. 

We’re as science so far doesn’t have any evidence for that. Science would say that when our life ends, so does everything about us, since science seems to be consistently saying these things and you can check and recheck and the story is pretty much the same. I would say that’s the narrative. That is the. The main truth about the world, whereas religion is not telling us factual things. And in that sense, it’s failed. So I decided to call my book pretty much that because it’s such a contrast with with how most people see it. 

Yeah, it may be a failed narrative even when they don’t know it. I know I’m going to step on some listeners toes, and I’m sure if I’m wrong, anyone could come up with a comparable political analogy. But as we’re on the air, there are people involved in this Occupy Wall Street demonstration for days on end and they’re all saying capitalism has to go and we need some sort of socialism and redistribution from my standpoint personally. It seems to me that’s the Marxist narrative which has failed. We’ve seen that model. And though there are plenty of people that are very enthused about it still. In my opinion, they’re all excited about a failed narrative. And if you’re proposing a hypothesis, a model to interpret the world and that just clashes, it fails no matter how many poor people believe it. And I happen to be writing a working on a book on Christian responses to evolution. And one thing that strikes me as so ironic, and I think this is really a proof of your case, is that, of course, for a long time and still in some quarters, some Christians will say, well, I don’t care what science says, I’m sticking with the six day creation and the whole thing. But there are many that say, I can’t live in the real world and say that it’s obvious the earth is billions of years old and evolution occurred. So what are you going to do? Well, let’s go back to Genesis and see if we can reinterpret it and sort of make it into what ventriloquist dummy that will seem to have anticipated modern science. 

And the irony of this to me is both sad and hilarious, because what that Dylan is is having to rewrite their story to play catch up. And so what they don’t seem to see is, as you would say, my narrative has failed. And I’m asking the opponent to rewrite it and say, I don’t know when the final moment comes. And they say, okay. I guess I’ve been barking up the wrong tree. I better forget this and go for another narrative. 

Yeah, I. I agree with all that. It seems that there is a lot of catch up, whereas, you know, there’s no catch up on the theory of gravity, for example. You know, it’s pretty pretty much how Newton stated it is pretty much the way we deal with it today. Einstein had some modifications, but basically in the real world, gravity is the same form that was written down 300 years ago. 

Yeah. One thing I love about the English theologian Don Cupitt is that he said he always figured that theology had no excuse for not doing what science does and that’s constantly revising and revisioning itself and making corrections based on our new knowledge. And of course, when you look at Kupets theology, which I have over, I’ve read many of his books over the years. He is certainly a courage. A boehland revises things, but he’s virtually revised himself out of religion. But there’s Hebb. Bishop Spong. Same thing here in the first chapter of your book. The chapter called God Emerges Consciousness Deified. You seem to be telling us about a God mechanism and a God hologram. Could you elaborate on that? That both sound fascinating? 

Well, you know, science depends on observation. I mean, we observe things and then we try to explain what we’re seeing. All science works that way. Now, if the interesting thing is that as much as we as people talk about the supernatural and talk about God, nobody, as far as I know, nobody has ever seen that this entity we’re talking about a non observable here. 

Well, of course, religious people say that you experience God by faith. 

That’s. No, I don’t agree that with that. If you can’t observe it, then we’re not talking about anything here. But but then why is it that 85 percent of the. Population do talk about the supernatural and talk about God or in some form or other. I ask myself, well, why is that? The observable the observable thing is what what is going on here? The observation is that the talk. What what’s why is this talk going on? 

Well, I know it has to be some kind of brain mechanism. That’s the only thing I can come up with as a hypothesis. And if we if we just look at consciousness itself, we take consciousness for granted. We’re human beings are conscious. We don’t immediately upon birth become conscious to sort of sort of comes into focus after a couple of years. And then after it comes into focus, we tend to take it for granted. But in my in my first chapter, I suggest to people that they explore consciousness a bit. Look in the mirror. Well, you know, that can be sort of daunting. You look in the mirror and you see this face and you say, that’s me. But then you you can ask further, well. Well, that’s my body. But where where is this me. Exactly. And this can get you into all kinds of, you know, reflections on where where one is. But those are really the rhetorical questions of consciousness that you can’t answer them. 


Consciousness is. And an event in evolutionary. History of human beings. 

This is not this is not something that is like separate from the body. 

Sometime over. 

Three million years that the Homo sapiens species has been in existence some place and there there there were some modifications of neural pathways, it must have happened slowly over a period of time. But finally, there there was a time when one of our ancestors sort of said, well, I’m aware of myself and I don’t think it happened on any particular day, but it’s sort of a gradual process of being self aware. And if you think of consciousness in that vein, you can get away from the notion that there is a soul. 

And that our consciousness actually splits off when our body dies, the idea, the soul. 

I think just comes from intuition. Consciousness is doesn’t wear like tires. You know, it doesn’t wear out is as long as you’re alive. You wake up every morning and you experience the fact that you’re self aware. And this goes on until finally the light goes out. 

But, you know, intuitively, because consciousness seems to be the same ongoing. 

There’s been this notion that. The light doesn’t go out. The light continues. Our body just goes out. But that’s just not. Not really according to what we know about evolution and about neural processes. 

So I, I sort of jump here. 

I say that when we’re looking in the mirror at ourselves and we get tired of the idea of trying to figure out who exactly we are. We tried to come to terms with ourselves. And I use the metaphore hologram because a hologram is sort of a hollow. 

Image of something. 

It’s actually an invention of physics that uses scattered light. But when we see a hologram of, say, a person, they say look like they’re not there. Oh, you see it through like an outline of their of their body. Well, my claim is that when when we think of ourselves as a conscious person. We we have it we have to compromise between the image that we see in the mirror and what we don’t, what we can’t figure out the part that where am I in my demise? Someplace in my brain. 

Oh, actually done has shown that there’s no like Cartesian Center for Consciousness and the brain is not a place in the brain that where you can point to and say that’s where consciousness is, is some kind of global aspect of the brain. But it is sort of like a light from a bulb. The the body of the bulb provides the mechanism to provide light. And when you have electricity going through the bulb, there is light. But if you don’t have the bulb, you don’t have the light. And I think this is the same as with consciousness when when the body dies. So does consciousness. But but religion relies on the idea that it doesn’t die. And I think that is the fallacy. That is the origin of most religion is the idea that consciousness keeps going on. And I just don’t think that is provable. And I don’t think it I don’t think is actually the case. 

Yeah. We just can’t picture for obvious reasons. Any world or any reality without our consciousness to picture it. So we sort of infer wrongly that it’s always going to be there. And I like the lack of a light bulb analogy. It reminds me of something ridiculous. But then I was leever. Ridiculous stuff on the old Addams Family TV show. Uncle Fester would stick a light bulb in his mouth and it would glow. Well, religions kind of say and yeah, the light comes from a bulb, but you don’t really have to screw it into a machine. If you give your stake and in God’s mouth, your consciousness will light up. And that’s good enough. And that’s it. Is it them? Sheriff, I believe in God or Uncle Fester on an on which is more unlikely. But yeah, you’re going to have music without the fiddle. Sheesh. 

I guess it could be, but you put a lot of emphasis on interfaith dialog rather than necessity for that, because once again, we’ve got people shooting at each other, bomb on each other because of faith issues and causes. You know, you can never resolve these things for the reason you mention that there’s no verifiable evidence. Do you think there’s ever any real chance there’s going to be a rational dialog, say, between Christians and Muslims that’ll settle anything? Because you start out with huge chips on their shoulders. What is there to compromise? If you think, well, of course, I get all my beliefs from a direct and fallible revelation from God. And you say you do, but can’t be because I get mine that way. Is. Is there any way you’re ever going to have any dialog between such people? 

Well, I think the only thing about interfaith dialog that’s useful is the dialog. But unfortunately, nobody ever gets down to the basic issues, which is the what I call immiscible doctrines. 

Really? Muslims and Christians won’t put their basic beliefs on the table. They won’t say, well, does it really make sense to believe in the Trinity? Does it really make sense to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Those are basic tenets of Christianity. Would a Muslim ever say, well, let me just really think about whether Mohammed really did write down the word of God. And that became the Koran. Is there really any evidence for this? But, you know, we we never get down to those kind of basic analysis of things. I like to think of doctrine in terms of a mathematical analogy. Is it? I mean, we just don’t have any mathematicians that have a system that’s based on two plus two equals five. 

And we don’t have any mathematics that’s based on two plus two equals seven. But those are both your rational. Kinds of math. They don’t compute. I would say that Christianity, with its mandated doctrine, is like a two plus two equals five based math. And Islam is like a two plus two equals seven based math. Now, if you if you if it was possible to have mathematicians with those kinds of bases for their their math, if they got together, would they be able to do any kind of mathematics together? 

Absolutely not, because they’re both based on irrational premises. The only way mathematicians can have anything to say is if they both agree that two plus two equals four and then everything flows from that agreement in a way. So and I don’t see how I think if you actually had mathematicians that had these bases, you know, they got together, they wouldn’t automatically see that the that there was a problem with their own mathematics. They might say, well, you know, your mathematics is wrong, not mine. 


So and and and of course, we get back to the same old problem. We don’t ever talk about the real issue. So I have a chapter in my book called The Powerball Wager. 

Yeah, I’ll ask you about that. 

And, you know, it illustrates the difficulty in having this conversation, which I think we need to have if we’re going to get back. If we’re gonna get past the conflict that we have between these great religions in the Powerball wager, I. I have a person come forward with half a billion dollars in cash and he puts it on the table and he says, I want to settle some questions here. And if they can be settled for me by somebody, I will give them the five hundred billion five hundred million dollars. I want to know if there’s any claim by religion. That’s true. And does God truly exist? Well, a religious person will say, well, I know he exists from my faith now. And now the half billion dollars doesn’t go to that kind of person or we want to establish this scientifically, prove it. Prove that anything, any claim by religion is true and and prove that God truly exists. 

Well, at first, people are just they’re prone to go there, the ways that they’ve always gone, they say, well, look, I’m just going to say stand by by my faith issue. But but the benefactor says, I’m sorry, but the money’s still here. You haven’t proved anything. Now, this whole thing is televised. So we have people involved in this now. And you know how any quiz show is American. Would you want to be a millionaire? It’s like people actually want that money to go to somebody and equip. Chris, we have all these believers and they’ll say, well, you know, there must be something about God that you can prove forefoot for five hundred million dollars. And I let the quandary just sort of build in the chapter because the money is the thing. 

You know, it’s like winners, money involved. People are going to work like crazy to get whatever. 

I like to see a religion actually come to the table and say, well, look who one of us is gonna win this five hundred million dollars. So let’s really start talking. 

That’s really interesting. That’s really Pascale’s wager with with teeth. 

I make the point that the important thing is that we have some honest discussion and unless we have honest discussion, it just is going to be the same thing all over again every year. And we just we just don’t get any worse because we don’t get down to talking about the irrationality of religion. 

Well, one thing that would become clear rapidly in such a televised event is that there’s a deadlock precisely because nobody has any evidence and they’re all believing simply because they believe. And I think that would really open people’s eyes to what’s going on here. Is that all there is still it? Because they otherwise they just sort of take for granted what they were told because they’re used to it. And the other guy’s religion sounds odd. So how can they believe it? And only sounds odd to me because I was raised on another one and this might bring that home to some people. Hope somebody else will take you up on that. 

Well, you know, I think the religious experience is it’s similar to falling in love. I mean, there’s some kind of intense emotional experience that people want to keep current and. And, you know, falling in love is wonderful. But I would want to do it again right away because it’s actually painful. But actually, the the emotional high. I think that you get from fundamentalists, fundamentalist religion is is the talking point that you can’t that you can’t get past. You want to get people off their emotions so they can talk about real stuff. What’s the basis that you’re claiming here that God, for example, inserts a a soul into a fertilized egg at that point? Well, do you really want to talk about that? I mean, you’re basing lots of women’s rights issues on that point. Now, it would seem that we need to get that on the table and and look at it unemotionally. These are just that’s just one example of the kind of problem that religion creates because it insists that God exists and God has certain priorities and and so forth. 

And as long as an opinion is held or policy is settled on the basis of dogmatic revelation, you’re sort of bragging about there being no evidence to appeal to the virtue lies in simply believing it because some God ostensibly said it’s true. That’s a tough one to chip away at. With any reasoning. Yes. You mention Mormon is if you got a chapter on that, why is. Do you think. Because I think it do. But why do you think that? It’s important, especially now, to look at Mormonism. 

You know, it’s it’s interesting because the latest free inquiry has got a lot about and you have an article in there about. Hmm, yeah. 

Joseph Smith, liar and lunatic on board. 

Exactly. And I enjoyed reading that article. But, you know, Mormonism is sort of like the birth of a star for an astronomer. As an astronomer, you know me. I prophesies how a star is born, but then it’s so helpful to actually see the event happen. Well, here we have an example of what seems to be a a Christian. I mean, Mormonism is part of Christianity, but it’s sort of separate from it at the same time. But we have Christianity and Islam, huge religions that happened, that were started. Fourteen hundred and two thousand years ago. So far, our goal so long ago that there’s not any kind of footprints that you can look at, but that here just less than 200 years ago, Mormonism starts. 

In Upstate New York. And I think it’s just like watching a star being for. 

Yes, that’s that’s a very good analogy. That’s right. 

There are certain basic ingredients to organized religion. Usually there’s some kind of miraculous event in Christianity. It’s the rising of Jesus from the dead. And in this case, it’s a visitation by an angel who is telling Joseph Smith the look in his back acres for some gold tablets. Now, that’s a pretty miraculous event. And and Joseph Smith claims that he actually does this and he digs up these gold tablets. It is reminiscent of Moses five hundred years before Christ. And it’s the same kind of idea. And then another ingredient of organized religion is some kind of holy text or holy book. Well, Joseph Smith provides this from the gold tab of tablets by a translation process. And in around 1830, he produces the Book of Mormon. And it’s sort of like the Mormon Bible. And then, of course, you proclaim that this religion, this new religion is the one true religion. Joseph Smith himself seems like a prophet guiding all of these things. It’s the perfect Sue and I don’t know if it attracts people. And at this point, there are 12 million Mormons and more and more. 

Yeah, they’re really a world religion in their own right, even if you consider them separate from Christianity. 

That’s right. And the thing is, of course, later archeologists show that that the claim, for example, that this is a key claim by Joseph Smith that the people who were here, Native Americans, were descended from Hebrews witch who came across the Atlantic and boats after Babylon was had invaded Israel. 

I mean, we now know that. These ancestors actually came from. 

China and at that direction, they’re not choose. They’re Chinese. Bye bye bye, origin. That make any difference? No, because that is the nature of religion. Once these principles are established, people don’t think anymore. They just go ahead and practice their religion as though it really had a foundation. Which it doesn’t. 

Yeah, only in their sanctified imaginations, sadly. Yeah. This is one case where they really had laid it on the table and provided what turned out to be a testable claim, and it’s simply failed the test miserably. There they are. Geneticists have interviewed thousands of American Indians all over the place and and the shirt off. No distinctive Semitic, whatever you want to call it. 

DNA. And so what did they do? And now. Well, they say. 

I guess the the Israelites were among the antecedents of American Indians. That’s already a compromise. But there’s no basis even for that. So it’s like the Shroud of Turin. That was debunked by, though. Let’s see if we can question the validity of carbon dating, et cetera, et cetera. It’s just obvious that people are committed to company policy. 

They really just don’t care about the truth. That’s what a sad spectacle. That’s right. Well, one truth I got to get out there to folks is the truth of how they can get a copy of religion. The failed narrative. How would they go about that quest for the truth? 

Oh, well, it’s available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You just when you go on the Web site for Amazon, just type in religion, the failed narrative, and it pops right up or put it in my name, Richard C. Johnson. 

Yeah, I recommended it’s quite fascinating, I. And so is the interview. I really appreciate your being with us, Richard. I hope to add John again. 

Well, thank you so much for your time. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show. Join me online discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed force by Emmy Award winner Michael Playlet. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Robert Crumps. 

Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.