(c) 2012 The Church of Freethought
It should never be our intention to give offense. And there is an emotional attachment that many people have to a belief in god(s) and that attachment is not really a bad thing as such. But the trouble with god(s) is that theology tends to spill over into other areas, as we saw with the 9/11 attacks. And there are many other examples of this.
That said, it is hard to present anything original on the subject of god(s). The issues connected with the subject have been so thoroughly picked over for so long that there is very little left to say that is original.
But it is significant that in all this time no consensus has been reached in favor of any theological proposition, let alone in favor of any particular theology. That is perhaps the greatest trouble with god(s). The other troubles have to do with the clearly mythical origins of each and every specific god, the logical inconsistencies and contradictions connected with virtually every concept of god and the lack of correlation between propositions concerning god(s) and the facts as we know them as well as the nature of our knowledge about objective reality. So let us plunge ahead in an effort to summarize some of this, as well as to suggest something new about the concept of divine perfection.
Let’s begin with Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, Hermes, and so on and the corresponding Roman pantheon of Jupiter, Juno, Sol, Minerva, Neptune, Mars, Mercury etc. Then there are Odin, Freya, Thor, and many more Norse and Germanic gods. There are Horus, Anubis, Isis, and scores more Egyptian gods, Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and many many more from India – three hundred thousand by one count. More gods still come from the East Asian lands of China, Korea, Japan, and so on, while peoples from Polynesia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas believed in hundreds of thousands if not millions more gods.
Yahweh, of course, wound up being the big winner in the Americas and in Europe from which he was imported. But Yahweh’s origin as a tribal god – one of many biblical Elohim– of the ancient Middle East is fundamentally no different than the backgrounds of all these other gods. Each of these many gods is unique, of course, but each is unique in the way that an individual snowflake or each particular grain of sand on a beach is unique.
As with snowflakes and grains of beach sand, there is no logical reason to suspect that the basic cause of any one of them is unique. On the contrary, there is every reason to suppose that the social mechanisms and cultural forces that resulted in all of these gods were similar and that god(s), consequently, are clues to human nature and human culture and not to a reality beyond that of objective experience. Legitimate theology ought to be a science like anthropology or linguistics, one that studies its chosen subject for the purpose of better understanding ourselves.
Now even the ancients, when their world grew large enough for them to see it, and at the same time that they began to appreciate and understand the predictable regularities of nature, were troubled by the enormous variety and number of gods. They attempted to make sense of these difficulties in different ways. Some sought correlations between different divine pantheons in order to collapse them into one. Another approach – taken by the Jews in exile in Babylon – was to take this process all the way to monotheism. Still others dispensed with the idea of gods altogether, substituting impersonal forces that, while they remain only a bit less mysterious today, are at least reliably and reproducibly demonstrable.
Within the Western tradition of Christianity we see something of an amalgam of these approaches: the incorporation of other god(s) as patron saints, angels, or demons, the trend towards and emphasis on the primacy of a single supernatural being whose power dwarfs all others, and an acceptance – gradual at first and accelerating after the time of Galileo – of the fact that objective reality is governed by impersonal forces that god(s) cannot or do not wish to contravene. The present state of affairs has not advanced much beyond this, although the discrediting of miracles that began with David Hume has greatly curtailed serious consideration of supernaturalism. Thus, there are those who attack evolution but people who want to be taken seriously do not attack the idea of a round earth, or heliocentrism, or the Germ Theory of Disease in favor of supernaturalistic alternatives such as can be found in holy books like the Bible.
The result is that scarcely anyone in the modern world worships or appeases or importunes god(s) as the ancient peoples whose god(s) they were once did. The names, the old stories, the festivals, the ecclesiastical structures and something of the emotional attachment remains, but none if it means what it once did. The very idea of god(s) – even that of a supposedly single, unique, all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect and unchanging God – has become an indefinite, vague, and mutable concept that changes to suit the needs of the moment.
For example, some suggest that God is equivalent to the forces of nature. But what purpose does this actually serve? How does it make any more sense than to say that God is the Periodic Table or the prime numbers? Likewise, it is said that “God is love.” But in what way is God the same as what we mean when we love something or someone? These “God is” claims are impostures aimed at blurring the distinction between our everyday experience of the natural world or of our own subjective experience and the alleged realm of the supernatural. For when we talk about the forces of nature or about love, we are talking about experiences that we associate with these terms, and no additional terms or concepts connected with an alleged world beyond objective reality are needed to help us make sense of them.
If you disagree with this assessment, then I have a question for you. Can you take as a serious possibility, if not probability, that leprechauns are the forces of nature? Are you prepared to thoughtfully consider that love is a result of Eros shooting metaphysical arrows into our hearts?
It might be objected that these are outrageous trivializations of profound questions. But on what basis are they either outrageous or trivializations? Is it because “everyone knows” that leprechauns and Eros are mythical beings? Is it because so many people take seriously the idea of the existence and importance of very similar beings called god(s)? Yet if we must consider that Yahweh or Jesus or Allah are actually existing, supernatural entities, then how can we possibly dismiss leprechauns and Eros and millions of other such beings as the fictional products of myth?
More “sophisticated” versions of theism retreat into more abstract concepts. This is where Deism came from, which is an altogether different lecture. But what we see today in theism is basically Deism plus whatever additional claims or biblical authority can be included depending on the target audience. So from this point on, when I use the term “God,” I am referring to this U.S. government-approved Judeo-Christian-compatible deity that is basically the Deists’ god plus such familiar attributes as omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and who may or may not hear and answer prayers and who may or may not, to a small degree or a large degree, be the deity of the Christian Bible.
This is clearly rather vague and indefinite. Taken together with its internal contradictions it makes the concept of God basically incoherent. This is a really inexcusable state of affairs for serious discussion, let alone philosophy. Were it any other concept it would simply not be tolerated. But that, again, is part of the trouble with god(s).
Let us be clear about what some of the problems are:
There remain three other arguments for God that deserve attention:
The Argument From Design takes a variety of forms ranging from challenges of “Well, then where did all this – existence as we know it – come from?” to assertions that “Everything must have a cause and God is the First Cause or Uncaused Cause.” We know that these arguments have been employed for a very long time to fend off critics who recognized the trouble with god(s). Even in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of John, we see the identification of God or Jesus with the Greek philosophical idea of the Logos, which by that time had been related to Jewish Wisdom theology by Philo.
The Argument From Design had problems from the first. But it did seem effective for a long time. In large part this was because the Christian Church suppressed or executed those who objected to it. But even after this became difficult or impossible, and even after David Hume’s decisive refutation of the argument in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, it was easier for many to accept an invalid proposition – especially a socially acceptable and politically popular one – than to accept an appalling ignorance of so many things about the everyday experience of objective reality.
After all, no one had seen bacteria until Leeuwenhoek described them in the late 17thCentury. It would be almost another 100 years before Pasteur connected these microorganisms with disease. Even a phenomenon as “simple” as lightning was not identified with static electricity until Benjamin Franklin’s historic experiments. And for a long time after that there was no understanding of what separated the world of inanimate, inorganic things from the world of organic life or how the latter thrived in such enormous and dizzying variety. Many people today, perhaps even most, still do not understand Darwin’s principle of evolution by natural selection, and only 50 years ago this last April was Watson and Crick’s seminal paper on the structure of DNA published, finally explicating a physical basis for the replication of life and heredity. So it easy to see that up until very recently, there was plenty of room for a “God of the Gaps” to fill huge and important deficits in human understanding of everyday objective reality.
But today the gaps have shrunk very small. In the case of cosmology, the “God of the Gaps” has to fit into the singularity from which the Big Bang is posited to have come. And while biological systems remain frustratingly complex, they look like nothing so much as enormous Rube Goldberg machines. What were once puzzling functional problems are more and more becoming, on the molecular level, problems of anatomy. Those who point to what they call “irreducible complexity” are not talking about a scientific concept, much less a barrier to understanding. The “central dogma” of biology, that DNA makes RNA makes protein, for example, appears to have arisen from an “RNA world” in which this nucleic acid originally served both genetic and catalytic functions. Likewise, the blood clotting cascade is a clear case of duplication within a simpler system, as is body segmentation that can be seen from earthworms to humans.
Although there are many gaps in our knowledge, living things, as we continue to discover them in what were once thought unlikely places, appear to be the natural, if not the inevitable result of carbon chemistry. Given almost any conditions in which carbon chemistry can take place, it appears that life can arise and develop. Exactly how and which organic precursors form what kind of proto-living systems are details yet to be elucidated. But these are hardly everyday concerns. And if long odds seem impressive, we can easily work them out for events that no one considers extraordinary. For example, assuming that there are 100 million – 106 – spermatazoa in a human ejaculate and 100 eggs produced by a woman over her reproductive years, the odds are 100 million to one against any one of us having been born. If we extend the same reasoning back over only 100 generations, the odds against any one of us existing becomes 10800to one. This number far exceeds the number of protons in the known universe as well as the lifetime of the universe measured even in a short interval such as a second. But, clearly, these staggering odds do not mean that we do not exist.
Now suppose that someone were to argue that circumstances concerning which we have no idea of how to apply probabilities prove the existence of an “Intelligent Designer.” Presumptuous? Silly? Yes, but this is exactly what is claimed by proponents of a form of the Argument From Design that appeals to “Cosmological” or “Fine Tuning” or “Anthropic” considerations.
This argument begins with the observation that the universe, including carbon-based life forms such as ourselves, could not exist as we know them were it not for the fact that several dozen physical parameters or constants happen to have the precise (or nearly precise) values that we observe. These things include the fine structure constant, the ratio of protons to electrons and the ratio of their masses, the decay rate of 8Be, the abundances of dwarf binaries, the distance of Earth from the Sun and the inclination of the Earth’s axis and so on. Therefore, it is said, the universe is “fine-tuned” for human beings and the best, if not the only explanation for this is that an “intelligent designer” – “an ID” God – intended it that way.
But here are some of the many troubles with this revamped Argument From Design that purports to be based on the newest discoveries of modern physics and astronomy:
What about the most general case of the Argument From Design, the claim that everything has to have a cause and God is the uncaused cause? The argument fails in the general case for the same reason that it has repeatedly failed its particular applications. For if everything needs a cause, then God needs a cause and if God needs no cause then why would existence need one? The real question then becomes why there is something rather than nothing and on what possible basis we can “explain” the something that we can observe by means of guessing at what we cannot observe – such as God – a concept which is itself logically incoherent.
It is sometimes said, regardless of the arguments advanced to support or prove the existence of god(s), that not to believe in god(s) is equally unsupported, unproved, or unprovable. This approach betrays a complete lack of understanding of what knowledge is. Knowledge about the world outside of our own heads is simply the sense that we make out of what we can all see, hear, smell, taste, touch, or what we can build machines to record for us. When Rutherford proposed that atoms had small, positively charged nuclei, he did so as a way of making sense of his experiments involving streams of alpha particles directed at thin films of gold. There was no need, before his experiments, for him to justify his not believing that atoms had small positively-charged nuclei.
Human understanding depends critically on this distinction: that we do not need reasons to rely on the null hypothesis. Our everyday lives would be impossible if we did. How do we know that we are not now, for example, being bombarded by deadly radiation from either an innocent or malevolent source? How do we know that the SARS virus is not being pumped into the air ducts of the building that we are now inside? How do you know whether, on your way home tonight or some other night, you might be abducted by aliens, or accidentally run over your best friend? Anyone with a fairly decent imagination could engage in such speculation endlessly.
But, as David Hume put it:
“If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits. It is only experience, which teaches us the nature and bounds of cause and effect, and enables us to infer the existence of one object from that of another.” [An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding(1748)]
William of Ockham is credited with the formulation of “Ockham’s Razor,” also known as the Parsimony Principle or the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) Principle:
“`Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” or “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”
But this basic idea appears even in antiquity and has been recognized ever since by scientists as critical to their work. Einstein put it this way:
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
The hidden qualifier in all this has to do with what is “necessary” or “possible.” This criterion does not have to do with what is emotionally appealing to us. It has to do with what the proposition or idea explains or predicts. In the case of god(s), there are no phenomena that god(s) explain better than any other explanation in the sense of accounting for more facts or making predictions that are different from other explanations. But since god(s) obviously raise more questions than they answer, regardless of what the question is, god(s) clearly unnecessarily complicate our efforts to explain objective reality.
Those who wish to believe in god(s) are probably on the firmest ground - which is to say no firm ground at all - when they satisfy themselves with the justification of faith based on their own internal, subjective perceptions. But this is not because, as they suppose, “we all have faith” in ordinary things such as that when we sit in a chair it will support our weight and so on. For the ordinary kind of “faith” is a faith in facts and reason whereas the faith that justifies belief in god(s) as beings existing outside of people’s imaginations is one which lays aside or at least in this one respect rejects facts and reason.
You’ll notice, perhaps, the qualifier that leaves open the possibility of belief in god(s) as imaginary beings. Let it be emhasized that this is not an unacceptable way to believe in god(s), even for those who call themselves believers. What is wrong with imagination, after all? Isn’t imagination one of the most important of human faculties, one that not only makes the entertainment industry a lot of money, but which we all find extremely enjoyable as well as helpful in our everyday lives? Don’t we engage in planning and actions that are largely motivated by our imaginative ideas about where we want to go and what we want to be? “WWJD?,” for those who are so inclined to rely on it, is not a less useful way of considering how to make the most kind and compassionate choices if Jesus is a fictional character.
The vain effort of trying to show that this or that physical phenomena or human ignorance about many things “proves” the existence of their god(s) can be seen as a kind of stumbling block to believers. Would believers not be more capable of seeing the value in many of their own ideas if they would focus on their practical value instead of insisting on their truth value as statements about the world that science has been so effective at exploring? As the gaps get smaller and more removed from everyday experience, one has to wonder how small and how irrelevant the “God of the Gaps” can be made.
Meanwhile, science and technology has actually succeeded at solving many of the problems that people once prayed to god(s) for relief from. The need for and value of religion is no longer primarily in reducing collective human fears about threats and calamities beyond their control. On the contrary, it is needed for the “smaller” and more personal difficulties that must be surmounted in everyday living. If, more and more, people turn to a nanny government and the consumer culture of immediate gratification instead of looking within themselves and to timeless moral principles of good behavior and personal happiness, it will not be the fault of atheists. It will be the fault of theists who wrongly prefer that God be a tiny bit of irrational irrelevance shoehorned into arcane speculations of physics rather than an imaginative human ideal that people can look to for better understanding of their own personal fears, hopes and highest aspirations.
Let us conclude with a proof against the existence of god(s), one that is original. It is at least a proof against the possibility that we can know of the existence of a Perfect God. For what does perfection mean if it does not mean incomparability? This is often how God is described, in fact: complete in himself, in want of nothing, eternal and immutable. But such a deity would then have no motivations to act or doanything, because actions are necessarily taken in order to effect some change and satisfy some kind of need or want. A Perfect God would be a static God who could not affect or be affected by anything.
So, it is a good thing that we are “only human” and not as perfect as we can imagine mathematical objects or god(s) to be. It is good that we don’t know everything, that we still have and will, for the foreseeable future, always have many questions. If this were not so, we would be deprived of many of life’s most welcome rewards. It would certainly not be eternal bliss not to be able to learn or discover anything. This is also why there is no need for us to wedge god(s) into every gap in our knowledge so that we can pretend to know more than we do at the price of creating impenetrable problems and colossal ignorance that can never, even in principle, be overcome.