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Ramblings on false beliefs

Religion, Superstition and Pseudoscience: Introduction

The amazing thing about religion is the gullibility that it demands. The religious person must believe things that he reads, or that he is told, without giving any consideration to whether those things are true or not. How would the remainder of our lives go if we applied the same rule?

If you belong to one of the faiths 'of the Book' – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – you would believe that God spoke to various prophets in times past, and that those prophets recorded God's words and commands, and that you must obey those commands. On what evidence do you base that belief? How can anyone ever know that God spoke to him? Even more, how can anyone ever know that God spoke to some other person?

  • Take it on trust?
  • It's in the Torah (or Bible or Koran), therefore it must be true?
  • Many people tell me it's true? (I like the Chinese proverb: "If a thousand people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing".)
In the twenty-first century we know that one of the symptoms of schizophrenia is the hearing of imaginary voices. Isn't it likely that those who believed that God spoke to them were suffering from schizophrenia?

We cannot know for sure that God has spoken to anyone. Then there is the question of, how can we know that the people who collected up the texts in the Bible did not make errors? The question of 'Who wrote the Bible?' is considered elsewhere on this page.

Which religion?

If you are religious then you are most likely to be of the same religion as your parents. If you were born into a Christian family you are probably convinced that Christianity has all the truths, while if you were born into an Islamic family you would think that Islam is the one true religion, if your family is Hindu then you are most likely Hindu. Your religion is nothing to do with a conscious decision that you made based on reason and evidence, it is an accident of birth. Yet you are probably convinced that you are right!
 
If we look at the question with an open mind we can see that there is no supportable justification for believing what is written in our 'holy' books; any reasoning person would consider them hearsay, myth and legend.

If our world can be explained by application of the scientific method and by applying logical reasoning, what need is there for religion? Either our world is susceptible to scientific investigation or it is not. Those who hold the latter must have difficulty with the success science has had explaining how the world works. One could hold that parts of the world are the realm of science and other parts are the realm of religion. In that case I suggest that the realm of religion is becoming ever smaller.

Questions that have been thought of as outside the realm of science have been such as:

  1. How should we live?
  2. How should we treat other people?
  3. Is there life after death?
  4. Is there a god or gods?
With the rise of global problems such as ozone depletion and greenhouse/climate change, which are very susceptible to scientific investigation, I believe we are beginning to see science-based answers to even these questions.
  1. We must live sustainably or suffer the consequences that science has made plain.
  2. We must treat other people as we would like them to treat us because scientific investigation has shown that we have reached the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity and we are "all in the same boat".
  3. Science has shown that the concept of the immortal soul is meaningless, therefore there is no life after death.
  4. It has generally been taken that the basis of religion is the existence of a god or gods. What meaning can any religion have if the concept of an immortal soul is unsustainable? What purpose does the concept of a god serve if everything in the Universe seems to be explainable by science and there is no life after death?
Belief in old religions, and their out-dated 'moral' teachings, distract people from the real and pressing needs of the modern world. "Why do anything about greenhouse/climate change if God is in charge and has his grand plan?"
 
Faith–the greatest enemy of reason
Reason
How very true John. It could equally well be said that faith – the holding of beliefs without supporting evidence, or even contrary to the evidence – is the greatest enemy of reason.

Irrational beliefs are common

We think of ourselves as rational beings, but at this time when science has reached enormous heights, so called 'new age' beliefs are rife. Belief in astrology and in the efficacy of many forms of medicine not supported by valid evidence is common. I will not even attempt to list the irrational beliefs that are common in the early twenty-first century, but the greatest class of irrational belief is the religion delusion.

Those who call themselves Christian Scientists take as a premise the literal truth of the Bible and pick and choose those scientific discoveries that seem to support their case, while trying to discredit any science or scientist that, they feel, opposes them or their beliefs. Those who call themselves Intelligent Creationists similarly take it as true that God created life and then look for evidence supporting their case. These people try to legitimise their beliefs by linking them to science, but at the same time they remove the basis of science – an open mind.

Anyone who bases their life on a belief for which they have no evidence can, with justification, be thought either very foolish or even mad.

Contents

on this page...
Christian intolerance
Voluntary euthanasia
Religion is a superstition
Reward and punishment in religion
Religion compared to a virus
The desire for a father figure
Bible: who wrote it?
Creation science
Where is God?
Age of the earth
Paganism
Animal cruelty
References
Index

On other pages...
The Bible
Is God real?
Immortal soul
Islam's threat
Divining
Ignorance
Rationality
This page was created about September 2001; modified 2012/05/05
Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com

A question to the People of the Book (Jews, Christians, Moslems)

What sort of an omnipotent god would allow all the evil of the last thousand years while making no serious attempt to communicate truth, right, and ethics to Mankind?

(He stopped talking to the Old Testement prophets about 2500 years ago, Jesus was 2000 years ago, Mohamed died 1400 years ago.)

Flying Spaghetti Monster
The Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as valid a god as is the God of the Christians. Similarly, Bertrand Russell proposed a china teapot in solar orbit between Earth and Mars; just as impossible to prove or disprove at the time as was the existence of God.

Chinese proverb

There is a Chinese proverb, "If a thousand people say a foolish thing it is still a foolish thing".

A billion Christians say they know how to get to paradise; a billion Muslims say they have the answers and the Christians have got it wrong. They are all saying a foolish thing.

Dream world

One of the worst characteristics of religion is that its imaginary world distracts people from the real world; especially now, at a time when there are a great many problems that need to be addressed.

The Christian Right brought us George W. Bush

Statistically the strongest predictor on how US citizens vote is their religion. If there were fewer irrational Christians in the USA the world would have been spared Bush II and the Iraq war.
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Christian intolerance

 
Christianity: the religion of tolerance and love?
Repent ye sinners!
Does blogging constitute activism?
Since Martin Luther started the Lutheran Church and broke away from the Catholic Church there have been many other people and groups forming branches of the Christian religion. Why are there no break-away Christian groups, other than the Eastern Orthodox, that date back from the institutionisation of Christianity by Emperor Theodosius around 390AD to 1517 when Luther produced his 95 Theses? This is a period of over 1100 years.

There are no surviving break-away groups because the groups that did break-away were sooner or later ruthlessly forced back into the main-stream, with the authorities often using torture or execution on those who resisted. They were called heretics and were forced to believe, or at least to pretend to believe, the dogma held by the dominant group. The early Church eradicated many so-called heresies, including Docetism, Montanism, Adoptionism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and Gnosticism. Other break-away groups who have been eliminated included the Pneumatomachians and Priscilliansts of the 4th century; the Donatists, 5th cent; and the Albigensians, 12th and 13th centuries.

Some of the heresies and schisms

  • The Montanist movement broke away in the second century, flourished in the third, had almost died out (or been killed off) by the sixth century.
  • The Ebionite movement originated in the first century. Little information survives.
  • The Donatists broke with the majority church in 312. It seems that Islam had more to do with the extinction of the Donatist church in the early Middle Ages than did Christianity.
  • Docetism rejected the humanity of Christ; the Docetics have gone the way of many other 'heresies'.
  • Arianism began in the forth century and held that Christ was not truly devine but was a created being. This 'heresy' was condemned by the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and it was wiped out of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires shortly after 381. It survived among some of the Germanic tribes until the end of the seventh century.
  • The Paulicians originated in the mid-seventh century. They held that Jesus was not truly the son of Mary. Paulicianism was repressed by Constantine III, Justinian II, Michal I and the empress Theodora; in spite of this it survived at least well into the ninth century.
  • The Schism of 1054, also called the East-West Schism, in which the Eastern Christian churches broke away from the Western (Catholic) Church, was the only successful bid for independence between 390 and 1517AD. The reason it succeded is that each group was supported by strong and independent geographically-based power blocs.
  • The Cathari was a major break-away branch of Christianity that flourished in western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; they were persecuted into extinction over a period of several hundred years.
  • Peter Waldo (or Valdo) preached around 1170-76; his followers (Waldenses) were persecuted and executed to the point of near extinction by the end of the 13th century.
  • Jan Hus, a 15th century Czech religious reformer in some ways anticipated the Lutheran Reformation by a century. However, Hus was less successful than Luther, and was burned at the stake in 1415.
It seems that many of the 'heretical' groups rebelled against the corruption in the Catholic hierarchy as much as against Catholic theology. The history of the 'heresies' of the Catholic Church up to the Reformation makes fascinating reading; but is not for the fainthearted.

After Martin Luther (1483 to 1546) there were wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics for hundreds of years, each group trying to force their beliefs onto the other. Many of those who migrated to the New World did so to escape religious persecution.

Pope Pius V caused the Inquisition to eliminate Protestantism from Italy during his reign (1566-72); it is hard to imagine how much torture and killing would be involved in such a campaign. He was canonized (made a saint) in 1712 (an act similar in its injustice to the nomination of George W. Bush for the Nobel Peace Prize).

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Christians force their beliefs onto the general community by making voluntary euthanasia illegal

In the modern world most laws aim at keeping the peace and making people treat each other fairly. There are some laws, however, that are forced on all the people of various nations by Christian lobby groups and are based on Christian dogma rather than ethics.

Few people would believe it ethical to keep an animal alive if it was in great pain and suffering from an incurable disease or terribly injured. What is the point in prolonging life in that situation? It amounts to cruelty, and in many countries anybody keeping an animal alive in great pain could be prosecuted for mistreating the animal. Many people – the great majority in my country, Australia – feel that if they were in that position they should have the right to ask that their life be ended.

Few countries allow people the legal right to have their life ended rather than suffer intolerable pain or mental deterioration. There is no ethical justification for this prohibition, it is largely due to Christian and other bigots forcing their beliefs onto the remainder of the population.

Christians do, and should, have the right to die in great and prolonged pain if that is what they want, but they have no right to force it onto anyone else. John Stuart Mill argued famously in On Liberty,

"The only part of the conduct of any one, for which [a citizen] is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."
... or should be!

Some are opposed to voluntary euthanasia on the basis of the 'slippery slope' argument; that if it is allowed in cases where it is truely voluntary, euthanasia will later come to be pressed onto those whose relatives want to get them out of the way, or who the state considers to be socially undesirable. The same argument could be used to put the case that the state should never punish anyone; on the ground that a punishment such as a fine or a period of deprivation of liberty will eventually grow into locking up indefinitely all those who are considered socially undesirable.

Consider voluntary euthanasia in terms of simple ethics: what harm is done, and what good is done?

  • If a person is kept alive in great pain and against his will certainly a wrong is being committed; unnecessary suffering is being forced onto a sentient being.
  • This must be balanced against the possibility of the misuse of voluntary euthanasia: where if the laws are taken advantage of by bad people with their own agenda and all the safeguards that have been put in place are circumvented, and the medical professionals involved are complicit in the crime, a person may be killed against his will.
In the former case there is a very definite wrong, in the latter case there is a chance of a wrong being done if the system is allowed to become badly corrupted. Surely we should choose the apparently small chance of a wrong, if we do allow VE, as being much preferable to the quite definite wrong, if we continue to ban VE!

I have written on this point in its specific application to Australia elsewhere.

The prohibition of abortion in many cases is similarly due to Christians forcing their beliefs onto others.

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Religion is a superstition

The greatest of the self deceptions, religion, is so widely accepted that it is rarely classed as a superstition at all. In the past religion has served two main purposes: it provided an explanation for the way the world is, and it provided a father figure for Man.

It is in the nature of people to look for an explanation, to want to understand. In the distant past one can imagine people wondering why prey animals were easier to find one year than the next, why a usually reliable edible root plant was in short supply some years or in some areas, why rains were plentiful sometimes, scarce other times, excessive occasionally. Some things they would have been able to understand: in an excessively cold year many prey animals were found dead (it was reasonable to suppose the cold had killed them, just as it could kill a person exposed to the cold); in another year the wet season rains were sparse and wild wheat was also scarce (it was easy to see that wheat needed soil water in order to grow).

Many other observations would not come with explanations: how could a plant come from a seed? – surely there must be some great and wonderful process involved here; what caused diseases? – fellow humans sometimes caused harm to each other, could diseases be caused by humans with supernatural powers, or by some sort of humanoid spirit? Wherever they went the Sun would be there every day and disappear every night; it obviously must be very big, very far away, very powerful. What could move a thing so big and powerful, or was the Sun itself alive? The stars moved across the sky each night; what power moved them? What caused the wind to blow and storms to come? The concept of a god, or a pantheon of gods, could explain a great many otherwise unexplainable observations.

From our earliest memories we (most of us) have had authority figures to protect us, provide for us and make the hard decisions. In our infancies probably our greatest insecurities involve fear of losing our parents. It can be a shock to realise, on becoming an adult, that we have to make our own decisions. Some of us use a god to fill the role of a father figure so that we never have to take full responsibility for our own actions.

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Reward and punishment in religion

In at least the Judeo-Christian-Islamic group of religions adherents are lead to believe that God will hand out justice in the next life; we will be punished or rewarded for our behaviour in this life after we have died.

Anyone who has successfully raised a child or trained a dog will be aware of the need for feedback. The child is rewarded with a kind word when it does something we approve of and growled at when it deserves our disapproval; the dog is given a small food treat when it successfully understands and obeys a command, and is admonished when it breaks the rules.

The need for this, and its purpose, is obvious – feedback. The child or the dog is continually reminded that when it does wrong it meats with disapproval, whenever it does good that good is rewarded.

Yet in religion we must believe that God doesn't ever give us any feedback. We have to take it on faith that people like Hitler and Stalin, who caused enormous misery and death on earth, received their just rewards after their own deaths, and we have to believe, without evidence, that the good people of the past have been rewarded in Heaven. Wouldn't God's purpose be much better served if he informed us of the justice that was actually handed out to people who we knew, or knew of, in the afterlife? Wouldn't he achieve his purpose much better if he handed out reward and punishment soon after the deeds that called for judgement? It seems, if he exists, he doesn't know much about human behaviour.

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Religion compared to a virus

There are similarities between religion and a contagious disease such as those caused by viruses.
  1. A virus is forced by its genes to reproduce. If a religion is to be successful it too must reproduce (spread).
  2. People can 'catch' a religion from those around them and then pass it on to others; the similarity to a virus here is obvious. A successful religion is highly contagious. Its adherents actively try to convert others. It has a message that is appealing and often gives hope for a better life (quite probably after death). The adherents of several religions have actively forced people to convert a number of times in history.
  3. The most successful religions get a strong grip on their adherents from several angles: fear of punishment, hope for reward, and the provision of a father figure. Those who have long belonged to a religion are terrified when they begin to doubt because they are threatened with damnation (or other punishment in the afterlife or later incarnations). The most successful viruses use various means to avoid being overrun by the body's defences, they might periodically change features of their outer coating so that they are difficult to recognize, they might mutate frequently (the common cold, for example), so that immunity to one cold doesn't stop you catching the next version. Both viruses and religions have developed ways to stop people from defending themselves against infection.
  4. The most successful religions, like the most successful diseases, don't do their hosts a lot of harm. A disease that quickly kills its victims is not likely to be passed on. Similarly, a religion that required all children to be sacrificed, or universal celibacy, could not last. The most successful religions allow most of their adherents to live a pretty 'normal' life. Again, the common cold is a good example, it thrives in its numerous hosts, but kills very few.
  5. Computer viruses are not so clever as religions. There is obviously no advantage in having a virus in your computer. If someone created a virus that did come with advantages, then it would be much more likely to spread. If a virus has only disadvantages and can be recognised then we can crush it. If a religion had only disadvantages we would not adopt it.
  6. Viruses must breed to be successful. Religions often encourage their adherents to have many children and discourage abortion and family planning.
Memes are ideas, methods, or skills that we learn from each other; most of them are useful, even valuable. In a sense they are heritable, like genes, we discover them and pass them on to acquaintances and to later generations. Religion is a parasitic meme, a meme that uses the gullibility of humans to hold onto its adherents and to spread to others.
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Why is religion miserable?

 
Monkey bench
Dog bench
The photos on the right show several of the animal benches at Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple in Georgetown, Malaysia.

They show a humour that is entirely missing in the Religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). I cannot imagine benches like these outside of a Christian church, even less a Muslim mosque.

The Religions of the Book seem obsessed with sin, punishment and fear of God. Humour has no place in them.

If one must believe religious clap-trap Buddhism is at least a happier form of delusion.

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The desire for a father (or mother) figure

When we are young most of us can go to our parents if we are unsure of something, if we need advice, or if we feel inadequate for some challenge. As we grow up we take on more responsibility for our own welfare, we become more independent; but I suspect that the desire to have a mentor or protector to whom we can go to when life is hard or complex remains in most of us for a very long time, perhaps all our lives. Similarly, we would sometimes like to avoid having to make hard decisions on our own, we would prefer to have someone in higher authority, someone who we know has our best interests at heart, make the hard decisions for us – and, importantly, accept the responsibility for those decisions. God serves these father-figure purposes for many people.

So belief in, and submission to, a god can be a way of 'passing the buck', of being able to say, "It was not my decision, I followed God's dictates". What then, if there is no god, or if your god happens to be the wrong one (only one faith, at most, can be correct)? Then the believer is trying to pass responsibility for critically important decisions onto ideas written centuries ago by people who were fundamentally in error in their main premise!

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Who wrote the Bible?

 
A related subject; Why didn't God write his own holy book?

Some claim it is "God's Word"

One need only look at the names of some of the books of the Bible to see that it doesn't even pretend to be written by God: The Gospel According to St Matthew, etc.; The Epistles of St Paul; The Song of Solomon etc. Even the word 'testament' (as in Old and New Testaments) is defined as a 'profession of belief', which requires a believer to record his belief.
There is a long history of arguments about what writings should be accepted as Christian scripture. People involved include Melito (2nd century), Origen (2nd and 3rd century), Athanasius (4th century), Jerome and Augustine (4th & 5th century). The subject seems to have gone quiet during the Dark Ages, but then re-emerged in the renaissance and reformation especially among the newly emerged Protestant faiths.

Curiously, the great majority of twentieth century Christians seem willing to accept the bible that their particular branch of the faith provides them with, as it stands, without question. It is accepted as true, or even "God's Word", because someone, they don't know whom, has passed it on to them as such. A remarkable demonstration of apathy and/or naiveté!

I think this point is worth repeating; the Bible is accepted by the great majority of Christians as coming from God because someone, or many people, have told them that it did!

"If a thousand people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." Chinese proverb

Questions that are rarely asked by Christians, and yet are fundamental, are:

  • Who decided what writings went into the Bible?
  • On what grounds were some writings accepted and others rejected?
  • When were these decisions made?
  • Should they ever be reviewed?
How can intelligent human beings accept the Bible as the Word of God – and base their lives on it – without asking, and finding adequate answers to, these questions?

The undeniable fact is that the Bible was written by people. Some Christians may well claim that these people had divine guidance, but still, the Bible was written by people. Did other people decide which writers were guided by God, and which weren't; and include or exclude writings accordingly? Did they too have divine guidance? In what form did this divine guidance come? How can we know that it was divine? Did God provide more and surer guidance in ancient times than he does now? Why?

A few modern Christians have asked probing questions. Ian Wilson discusses the evidence for the existence and 'divinity' of Jesus in an objective way in his interesting and well written book, 'Jesus: The Evidence'.

Also see Atheism Central.

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Creation science
(Intelligent design by another name)

Science is the application of the scientific method. A definition of the scientific method goes something like this:
  1. An observation, or more likely a series of observations, are made;
  2. An hypothesis is produced, that, supposing it to be true, would explain the observation(s);
  3. Experiments are devised to test the hypothesis;
  4. If the experiments fail to disprove the hypothesis then it can become a scientific theory.
Note that the theory need not be proven (usually it cannot be proven), but every test that it passes increases its standing. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is considered to be of dubious value.

Creation 'science' is different. Its adherents hold the belief that biblical creation happened. From there they look for evidence that seems to support their belief and ignore evidence that tends to contradict their dogma.

The term 'creation science' is an oxymoron. Either one believes in creation as described in the Bible, or one believes that the scientific method can be used to inform us about how the world came to be the way it is and how it works. One cannot accept, unquestioningly, Biblical creation, and believe that the world is amenable to scientific investigation.

Either the universe can be understood by using observation and reasoning or God is running it and it is intrinsically incapable of being explained by reason. Either there are causes and effects that we can understand by learning rules and laws, or not. It seems to me that science has explained an enormous amount of how the universe works; I see no reason to believe that the theory of evolution should be discarded in favour of 'creation science'.

'Intelligent design' is a similar belief to Creation science. It also looks for and considers only the evidence that is favourable to the preconceptions of its adherents. See also the third and equally valid alternative to science, Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.

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Where is God?

A thousand years ago people assumed that God and Heaven were somewhere up above us, hence the use of the term 'the heavens' for the realm of astronomy. They also imagined that Hell was down in 'the bowels of the Earth' somewhere.

Astronomy has shown no trace of Heaven or some home for God in the heavens – all is stars, gas, dust, galaxies, etc; and geology has shown us that there is no Hell down beneath our feet – there is the rocky crust, the denser rocky mantle, then the metallic core of the Earth.

So where is God? Where are we to believe that our souls go after we die? Some sort of fairyland?

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Age of the earth

Those who attempt to uphold a literal interpretation of the Bible would have us believe that the earth is about six thousand years old.

One need have only a very basic knowledge of geology to look at a landscape and see that it could not have become the way it is by the action of natural forces in six thousand years. It takes too long for streams to cut out valleys, for sediments to form in lakes or lagoons, for ice ages to come and go, for granites to crystallise from a magma, and for many other processes.

Similarly, astronomy shows us that the Universe is billions of years old.
 
We could have all been created ten minutes ago, together with a Universe made to look like it is billions of years old and with our memories appropriately filled with false recollections; but why would you believe that? Is it any less rational that believing the Universe is six thousand years old?

So, if God created the world six thousand years ago he must have made a conscious decision to make it look like it was much more than six thousand years old. Why would he do that? To deliberately confuse us? Yet we are to believe he is a good god?

Ever since William of Ockham stated his principle, Ockham's Razor, in the early fourteenth century, philosophers and scientists have found that, as a general rule, a simpler explanation is to be preferred to a complex one if both are equally successful in other ways. The earth could be the way it is now due to the natural processes that we can observe around us, or it could be that a God (who cannot be shown to exist) created it much as it is today six thousand years ago, and took a great deal of trouble to make it look as if it is billions of years old. The same can be said for the Universe.

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Paganism

In the twenty-first century you don't need to follow one of the long established religions, you can make up your own religion. You can select any combination from a smorgasbord of old gods and beliefs, or you can start entirely from scratch.

Do your own thing. It is no more stupid than following any other belief that has no evidentiary backing.

You won't be burned at the stake or hung as a witch; at least not until some single religion again reaches supremacy and its adherents, as religious people are wont to do if they are able, start forcing their beliefs on their neighbours.

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Animal cruelty in the name of religion

Humane societies electrically stun animals before they are killed by cutting their throats. Judaism and Islam, by Kosher and Halal food handling rules respectively, require that animals be killed by having their throats cut – without the humane stunning first.

It seems that the God of the Torah and the Koran didn't know that electrical stunning would be more humane. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, divine revelation didn't reveal anything that was of any use to anyone.

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References

Richard Dawkins
The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker

Nonie Darwish
Cruel and Usual Punishment

Christopher Hitchens
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Irshad Manji
The Trouble with Islam

Bertrand Russell
A history of Western philosophy

Peter Singer
How are we to live: Ethics in an age of self-interest
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Index

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On this page...
Age of the earth
Animal cruelty
Bible: who wrote it
Christian intolerance
Creation science
Faith-The greatest enemy of reason
Flying Spaghetti Monster
Introduction
Irrational beliefs are common
Meme
Miserable religion
Paganism
References
Religion and other false beliefs
Religion compared to a virus
Religion is a superstition
Reward and punishment in religion
The desire for a father figure
Top
Voluntary euthanasia
Where is God
Which religion

Another question concerning religion and genocide is discussed under Genocide on my page on the Bigger Picture.
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