Who Says You Can't Disprove God?

By Michael Martin

(Editor's Note: Welcome to Daylight Atheism's newest guest author! Most of you, I hope, have heard of Michael Martin, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Boston University and prominent author of books and scholarly papers defending atheism and naturalism. Some of his many published works include Atheism, Morality and Meaning (2002), The Big Domino in The Sky and Other Atheistic Tales (1996), The Case Against Christianity (1991), and Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990). His homepage can be viewed at Internet Infidels. Dr. Martin has graciously consented to offer this previously unpublished essay to Daylight Atheism.)

Recently I was astonished to learn that two modern books written from an atheistic point of view, Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell (2006) and Richard Dawkins' best seller The God Delusion (2006), maintain that it is impossible to disprove God's existence. Thus, Dennett writes:

"Philosophers have spent two millennia and more concocting and criticizing arguments for the existence of God... and arguments against the existence of God... I decided some time ago that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God's existence, and I doubt that any breakthroughs are in the offing, from either side" (p. 27).

"[T]he goal of either proving or disproving God's existence [is] a quixotic quest" (p. 246).

And Dawkins says:

"That you cannot prove God's nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the nonexistence of anything. What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn't) but whether his existence is probable" (p. 54).

"God can be neither proved nor disproved" (p. 54).

One cannot disprove the existence of God? I thought that was exactly what I had been doing in Argument Alley, a column I wrote in The Open Society (a New Zealand humanist magazine) and what I had done in chapter 12 of my book Atheism. When Ricki Monnier and I founded The Disproof Atheism Society (DAS) in 1994 - a group that met monthly to discuss disproofs of God's existence - we thought our society was correctly named. After all, since 1994 DAS has met on a monthly basis to discuss what we took to be disproofs of God. When in 2003 Monnier and I edited the anthology Impossibility of God, we believed we were reprinting disproofs of God's existence. Does this mean that I am suffering from some strange misapprehension or delusion? Or are Dennett and Dawkins misinformed?

Now, according to one dictionary, to disprove something is to show it is incorrect. According to another, to disprove something is to establish that it is false by argument or evidence. These definitions do not presume one must show something to be incorrect conclusively or with absolute certainty. Nor do they assume that to disprove something, one must establish it is false by a deductive argument. Presumably, an inductive or probabilistic reasoning would suffice. Nor do they entail that one must show that God's existence is impossible. Showing that God's existence is possible but unlikely will do.
    
Given these definitions it is hard to understand what Dawkins and Dennett mean. Dawkins presents and defends a probabilistic argument against God (see Richard Dawkins, "The Improbability of God" in Martin & Monnier (ed.), The Improbability of God). According to the dictionaries' definitions cited above, he presents and defends a disproof of God. He says: "That you cannot prove God's nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the nonexistence of anything." Dawkins' use of the phrase "absolutely prove" suggests that he is wrongly assuming a proof of God's nonexistence must be certain.

It is possible that Dawkins' certainty phobia is based on a confusion between two kinds of certainty — one hypothetical and one not. Hypothetical certainty exists:

1. If true premises entail a conclusion, then it is certain that the conclusion is true.
2. If a statement is inconsistent, then it is certain that it is false.
3. If a statement is a tautology, then it is certain that it is true.

This hypothetical certainty should not be confused with the categorical uncertainty of the premises.

1'. One cannot know with certainty if the premises are true.
2'. One cannot know with certainty if a statement is inconsistent.
3'. One cannot know with certainty if a statement is tautology.

For example, although one cannot know with certainty if the concept of God is inconsistent, one can know with certainty that if it is, then there is no God.

The Impossibility of God distinguished several ways in which the concept of God can be inconsistent. However, two straightforward ways of showing a contradiction are either by showing that one divine attribute conflicts with another, for example being all-good and all-powerful, or by showing a contradiction in one divine attribute, for example being all-knowing. There are many examples of such arguments in the philosophical literature, many of which are republished in The Impossibility of God.

The first extensive discussion of arguments based on inconsistencies in the concept of God goes back to Baron D'Holbach in The System of Nature (1770) who called the concept of God "an ocean of contradictions." Dennett and Dawkins do not seem to be aware of this long tradition of Disproof Atheism. In addition, as far as one can determined, neither Dennett nor Dawkins give any arguments for their belief that no disproof of God is possible. The closest to an argument is when Dawkins says: "That you cannot prove God's nonexistence is accepted and trivial, if only in the sense that we can never absolutely prove the nonexistence of anything." However, as we have seen, absolutely certain proof is irrelevant. Once this is understood, would Dawkins really deny that one could prove the nonexistence of a round square or a brother who is not a male sibling? One shows that a round square and a brother who is not a male sibling are inconsistent ideas.  Some atheistic arguments show the same thing, i.e., God is an inconsistent idea. Dawkins is right to suggest that atheistic arguments are often probabilistic. Indeed, Monnier and I recently published an anthology of such arguments, The Improbability of God (2006), which contains a paper of Dawkins giving a probabilistic argument for atheism. But Dawkins goes wrong in denying this is a disproof and neglecting the existence of disproofs of God based on inconsistencies in the concept of God.
    
Although such inconsistence disproofs show that belief in God is irrational, it is unlikely that if they became well known they would convert believers to nonbelievers. Religious belief is often maintained in the light of powerful objections. But this psychological fact does not refute the claim that the concept of God is inconsistent. Second, showing that the concept of God is inconsistent is based on more subtle and more indirect arguments than showing that the concept of a round square is inconsistent. The concept of a round square is inconsistent on its face. The concept of God is shown to be inconsistent only by philosophical explication and analyses. Because of these factors, inconsistence disproofs of God are less certain and more controversial than disproofs of a round square. But this does not show that such disproofs of God are impossible and only probabilistic disproofs against God's existence are sound.

Dennett maintains the Darwinian perspective does not prove that God could not exist but only there is no good reason to suppose God does exist. Dennett seems to link disproof of God's existence with showing God's existence is impossible. True, some disproofs do show this; the inconsistence disproofs do. But many others do not. For example, the evidential argument from evil does not attempt to show that God could not exist but that it is unlikely that he does. It is also possible to show that the existence of God is unlikely by considerations based on Darwin's theory (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/evolution.html). Some of these Darwinian disproofs show that Dennett's conclusion - that one can use Darwin's theory only to show there is no good reason to believe that God exists - is incorrect.
    
Who says you can't disprove God? Of course, theists and agnostics do. But, as we have seen, some atheists do as well. They should know better.

September 4, 2008, 8:19 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink71 comments
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The Uses of Pre-Scientific Cosmology

Before the dawn of the scientific age, humankind had only its unaided senses to examine the universe. Certainly, there were awe-inspiring sights, but those alone give little insight into natural phenomena. At night we saw the stars and the planets circle overhead; each season we felt the rains fall and the wind blow; and in moments of terror, we saw lightning split the sky and the earth shake under our feet. But none of these things gave any clue to what the true nature of the heavens might be.

Uncontaminated by knowledge, the theologians of antiquity spent centuries pondering the nature of the universe in empirical isolation, speculating about what kind of cosmos God would most likely create for us to dwell in. This can be a very useful test. Now that we in the modern world have some genuine data, we can compare it against these pre-scientific cosmologies. If they show a correspondence, we may be justified in concluding that more than human understanding went into the founding of these religions.

But, among the monotheistic religions of the West, there's little correspondence to be found. The god of the Old Testament is a small god, a provincial, tribal deity; he gives no indication that he is in any way concerned with anything other than one race of people dwelling in one particular region of the Mideast. And the creation story of Genesis is laughably small-minded, treating the entire universe as if it were nothing more than a backdrop for human concerns. As I wrote in "A Much Greater God":

[T]he god of the Old Testament... was so interested in the Earth that he created it with loving care and effort during the first three days of Genesis, while the entire rest of the universe - awesome collisions and explosions, space and time twisting and warping, stars burning and dying like flares with the energy of galaxies, massive black holes, pulsars like lighthouses, vast and intricately sculpted nebulae light-years across, a cosmos of a hundred billion galaxies each containing a hundred billion stars - was created on the fourth day, as an afterthought, for no reason other than to serve as signs and portents for the residents of the aforementioned Earth.

Christianity, which arose from the blending of Jewish theism with Greek philosophy such as Plato's idea of emanation or Aristotle's cosmic Unmoved Mover, had a broader focus and thought of itself as a universal religion in a way Judaism never did. Even so, it too remained moored in those local, tribal concerns, continuing to think of the small, ancient city of Jerusalem as the axis around which all the universe revolved. Islam, too, inherited the provincial outlook that considered its own culture and tradition the apotheosis of the cosmos.

All these people thought long and hard about what kind of universe God would probably create if such a being existed, and I see no reason to disagree with them. Therefore, the fact that the universe is unlike these ideas and like what we observe is evidence against this conception of God. To many religious groups, the idea of a vast and ancient universe was a terrible surprise. Of course, after several centuries, they've regrouped and are now claiming that this is what they expected all along, but their own predecessors' writings put the lie to that.

Furthermore, history makes clear that these were not idle speculations, ready to be altered as soon as better evidence turned up. These cosmologies were central to the various monotheisms. How else to explain stories like that of Giordano Bruno, a freethinker who believed the Earth was just one of an infinite array of worlds each with life of their own? Bruno's cosmology was not greeted as a potentially new way to understand the majesty of God's creation. Rather, he was tortured and burned at the stake by the inquisitors who plainly preferred a small god presiding over a small cosmos. Similarly, Galileo was forced to recant and confined to house arrest for the crime of studying the universe and daring to suggest that there might be aspects of it not already accounted for by theology.

These would be no more than inert facts about the past if they did not have so many parallels today. There are still millions of theists who believe in a tiny cosmos, created by God a scant few millennia ago and destined to end in the imminent future. There are still millions who believe the Earth is the only place that matters in the grand scheme of things. And there are still millions who want to make decisions that affect all of us on the basis of this medieval, hopelessly naive and arrogantly anthropocentric belief set. A deeper and more profound understanding, one that grasped the true scale of the universe and humanity's place in it, might give them a sorely needed measure of humility and a greater degree of reliance on reason.

July 25, 2008, 8:22 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments
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The Blessed Legion

"The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born."

—Mark 14:21

C.S. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters takes the form of a series of letters, exchanged between a senior and a junior devil, on the topic of how best to tempt human beings. One of the letters in this book contains an incredible admission, the only time I've ever seen such a point made by a Christian apologist:

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that [God] allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a "normal life" is the exception. Apparently He wants some — but only a very few — of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years.

Lewis has it exactly right here. The rate of spontaneous abortion (i.e., miscarriage) is difficult to measure precisely, because it often occurs so early that the woman never even realizes she was pregnant. However, by some estimates, between 50% and 75% of all conceptions end in spontaneous abortion. (Other estimates put the rate lower.) If we accept this number, then add the number of elective abortions, plus the people who die in infancy or early childhood, then it's indeed clear that what we adult humans call a "normal life" is the exception and not the rule.

By Christian theology, even a single-celled embryo possesses an immortal soul, and if the body dies before the age of accountability, that soul proceeds directly to Heaven. Thus, the bizarre implication is that the overwhelming majority of Heaven's residents will be souls who were spontaneously aborted in the womb and never had a human life at all. This blessed legion will far outnumber the relative few who were born, grew up, resisted sin, and attained salvation.

What this means is that, by Christian logic, being born is a terrible misfortune. The majority of those who are unlucky enough to be born will end up eternally damned. (This follows directly from the fact that Christianity comprises a minority of the world's population - even assuming that every self-described Christian sect is acceptable to God, an assumption which many denominations do not make. The more restrictive the requirements for salvation are, the more that pool of the saved shrinks.) By contrast, every single one of the spontaneously or artificially aborted embryos has a soul that goes directly to Heaven, with no opportunity to sin and no danger of going astray.

Granted, we could mitigate this problem by loosening up the rules. Maybe it's too strict to assume that only believing Christians can be saved; maybe God will accept anyone who lives an honest and moral life. Even so, if there is any act or belief or lifestyle that leads to damnation, the warped conclusion remains: it's still better to die in the womb and have salvation assured, rather than be born into a mortal life and run a risk, however slight, of ending up in perdition.

Given this, why wouldn't God just create a race of humans that all die in the womb and have their salvation assured? (The question of who would be the mothers of such a race need not pose a problem. An omnipotent god could, for example, create a planet full of artificial incubators that continuously bring forth new conceptuses, all of which die before completing their development.) To those who say that such a scenario would be absurd, I agree completely - it is absurd. But the absurdity is not my invention; it springs from the warped logic of the Christian salvation system, in which early death is preferable to a long and full life. Like all other heavens, belief in this one inevitably degrades this life by comparison.

It would alleviate the unfairness of this system to imagine that every soul which dies before birth (or in early childhood) must be sent back to "try again", and that only those who live a full mortal life and pass the age of accountability are eligible for judgment. But I know of no Christian or other monotheist sect which teaches this view.

March 7, 2008, 7:43 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink62 comments
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Further Thoughts on John Haught

Since the comment thread for my post "On Amateur Atheism" has sparked a lively debate, I looked around on the internet earlier today for some further explanation of John Haught's views. I found them in this Salon interview, and I'd like to offer some further comments on the theology outlined therein.

One of Haught's major points regarding modern atheists that they rely too much on scientific inquiry to learn about the world:

Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth.

The problem with this paragraph is that Haught, like the many other theologians who deny that science is the only way of knowing truth, inevitably never explains what alternative he has in mind. If you have knowledge that you did not come by scientifically, how did you come by it? What is your method for discriminating true statements from false ones? We never get an answer to this. I'm confident that it's because their actual method, if it were stated explicitly, is so transparently silly that even its backers would have to recognize the absurdity of it: they simply assume that their own personal convictions are a totally reliable guide to external reality, and cling to the faith that the particular religious beliefs they were taught, and not the millions of different religious beliefs, are the one true way.

Like many theologians, Haught wants to have it both ways with regard to science. Despite his lengthy complaints in the article about "scientism" - he says that atheists like Steven Weinberg illicitly assume that "that science itself has the capacity and the power to comment on things like [God]" - he does not hesitate to draw the opposite lesson when he thinks it's warranted.

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it's something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology. From a theological point of view, that's a part of the world that we have to integrate into our religious visions. That set of discoveries is not at all suggestive of a purposeless universe. Just the opposite.

The hypocritical message of this statement is that Haught is permitted to make claims about the implications of "the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology", but atheists are not. When a theist says that science suggests the universe is continually growing toward greater complexity and this suggests a divine purpose, he's fine with that. But when atheists say that the rampant evil and diaster in nature suggests that the universe was not made with us in mind, suddenly Haught is indignant about this "abuse" of scientific reasoning to discuss areas it has no right to talk about. The double standard he's using is very obvious when you look for it.

So what is the proper place of Haught's god, if it can't be discovered through science? Apparently, according to Haught, the proper answer is to assume that God is found only in the realm of "higher" reasons - that is, what Aristotle would call final causes, rather than material causes. Science can provide explanations of how physical phenomena unfold, but according to Haught, God resides at the level of why those things happen. A corollary of this is that God does not intervene in history. As Haught puts it:

Careless Christian thinkers wanted to make a place for God within the physical system that Newton and others had elaborated. That, in effect, demoted the deity as being just one link in a chain of causes that brought the transcendent into the realm of complete secular immanence. The atheists quite rightly said this God is unnecessary.

...What intelligent design tries to do -- and the great theologians have always resisted this idea -- is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But now Haught has a large problem: Christianity absolutely does require an interventionist god. Even if one dismisses the Old Testament narratives as allegory, even if one believes that God does not provide miraculous answers to prayer, Christianity is still built on a fundamental, keystone claim - the resurrection of Jesus - which implies that, on at least one occasion, God intervened in the world to change the course of events in a way that natural law would not permit.

Haught strains mightily to get around this problem. Here is his solution, which I'll quote in full so I'm not accused of misrepresenting him:

But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it.

...We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?

In the end, it's not at all clear what this theological contortion actually means. It's a simple question of fact: Did Jesus physically rise from the dead or did he not? Did his body resume functioning? Did he get up and walk out of the tomb? Did his disciples see him in the flesh, handle him, and watch him eat and drink? These are all yes-or-no questions!

This is where Haught's contorted theology is stretched to the breaking point. Even if we grant his argument that science cannot speak to teleological claims, science most certainly can examine empirical claims, and the resurrection of Jesus absolutely is an empirical claim. Clearly, what he's trying to do is to somehow remove this empirical claim from the realm of science and place it safely within the realm of faith, where it can't be examined or disproved. The only way he can do that is by asserting that the very occurrence of the event is somehow just a matter of faith.

It's not at all clear what he means by this. If we'd had a video camera in the upper room, would it have recorded the disciples interacting with an invisible, inaudible person? Or would it have found the room itself empty, as though the disciples resided in some parallel universe where their existence was only accessible to those who believe? More importantly, if we'd trained the video camera on the dead body of Jesus, would that body have winked out of existence at some point (as it entered the "realm of faith"), or would we have seen the body remain dead, as if a totally different set of events happened for those who chose not to believe versus for those who did?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems Haught's god is so far removed from the real world that it is, literally, indistinguishable from a god that does not exist. Haught is adamant that science cannot detect God, and yet, all that science is is a way of examining claims about the physical world to determine which ones are verifiably true or false. If science cannot speak to Haught's god, then that means that Haught's god has no influence or effect on the physical world in any way whatsoever. By his own definition, then, Haught's god and Haught's theology are literally irrelevant. We should treat them as such.

March 2, 2008, 2:16 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink59 comments
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To Be As Gods

I have to admit, I cringe when I read quotes like this:

Max may be a long way from his old home, but he plans on going a lot further than America. Extropianism is a "rational transhumanism", he explains. There may not be any supernatural force in the universe, but pretty soon, suggests More, once we get our brain implants and robot bodies working, we will be as gods.

The linked article is about Max More, a philosopher who advocates transhumanism - the idea that we can use technology to transcend the present limits of human biology. Like most transhumanists, More advocates a potpourri of wildly optimistic ideas: freeze ourselves through cryogenics, make our bodies immortal, digitize and upload our minds to live in virtual worlds or robot bodies.

As far as I'm concerned, most of these speculations so far outstrip the limits of what is currently possible that there's little point even thinking about them. In the very distant future, perhaps, these will be issues to seriously consider. For now, I think we should be concentrating on the many more pressing problems that can be alleviated by current technology. Once people are no longer dying from malnutrition or malaria, maybe then we can start considering how to make them immortal. In the meantime, most of this is just unconstrained fantasizing that distracts us from the things that are truly important.

However, it was something else about this article that bothered me more - the throwaway line about how "we will be as gods". Nothing could appeal to me less. Frankly, I don't want to be like the gods.

Consult just about any piece of mythology you wish, and you'll find that gods are generally not very nice creatures. They're jealous, sadistic, manipulative, capricious, petty, possessing overdeveloped egos and hair-trigger tempers, and hateful toward those who are different. They're swift to anger, slow to forgive, and perpetually obsessed with whether people are groveling enough or paying them sufficient tribute. When it comes to dealing with those who disobey, violence is typically their first, last, and only resort. In short, they exemplify all the worst traits of the humans that created them, and few if any of our best traits. Why on earth would we want to be like them?

We are human beings. No matter how much knowledge we gain, no matter how much power we gain, we will always be human beings. We should not aspire to be gods, or anything else that we are not. We should aspire, instead, to be the best human beings we possibly can be - to cultivate what is best in our nature and encourage it to flourish. For all the evil that we have done, human beings are also capable of astonishing acts of mercy and benevolence. These are traits that are conspicuously absent in most of the stories of gods we read. We do not need to be forever aping our old mythologies; we have the ability to transcend their narrow perspective, and in many ways, we already have.

January 19, 2008, 5:49 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink49 comments
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Little-Known Bible Verses VII: Iron Chariots

One of the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity is that God is omnipotent, able to do anything that is logically possible. But surprisingly, the Bible does not consistently support this idea. I've already written about the Tower of Babel, in which the Old Testament God appears to worry that humans will overmatch him if they complete the tower. And then, there's the following little-known Bible verse:

"And the Lord was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron."

—Judges 1:19

Although obscure among believers, this verse is famous among critics of scripture; it has even spawned a counter-apologetics wiki, fittingly titled Iron Chariots (and then there's this amusing modern retelling).

Why God should have a problem overcoming iron chariots is not clear. In the context of the Bible it is utterly bizarre, almost as if it was inserted from a completely different religious tradition - it brings to mind the Celtic folklore about how cold iron was an effective repellent for faeries, ghosts, witches and other supernatural creatures.

On the other hand, it may just be that this verse was written when Yahweh was regarded as a local deity, supernaturally powerful but not invincible. In this respect, the biblical authors might have conceived of him as similar to the ancient Greek gods, who according to the Iliad could be wounded by humans. Iron chariots, in the world of the the Ancient Near East, were the most technologically advanced weapon of war in existence. They seem to have played a decisive role in conflicts like the Battle of Qarqar in 850 BCE, when an alliance of smaller kingdoms (including King Ahab of Israel, whom the Bible's authors reviled) fended off an invasion by the regional superpower of Assyria.

It's possible that the Bible's original authors imagined God as not powerful enough to overcome this technology, and that the dogma of his total omnipotence was a later innovation. (By Judges chapter 4, God seems to have acquired the ability to defeat chariots.) If so, this verse might be a fossil of that earlier belief, preserved in the text like a prehistoric insect in amber. As a part of modern Judeo-Christian theology it's like a puzzle piece that doesn't fit, but if we take a more rational view of the Bible as a collection of human-written and human-compiled documents, verses like this may provide valuable clues about its origin and evolution.

Of course, the usual apologists have swooped in to try to explain away this verse within the framework of their own assumptions. The standard explanation for this verse is that the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanites' iron chariots because they were not obedient to God's desires. However, the text itself does not support this guess: it mentions no such sin, and indeed, it says "the Lord was with Judah", which one would not expect if Judah had been sinful or disobedient. Instead, it specifically identifies the presence of the iron chariots as the reason why the driving out of the Canaanites failed.

Other posts in this series:

November 4, 2007, 1:19 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink79 comments
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On God's Goodness

It has often been pointed out, by myself and by other atheists, that the traditional monotheistic religions depict God as acting in shockingly violent and cruel ways on numerous occasions. Despite the texts that say this, every week millions of believers attend church where they pray prayers and sing hymns that praise God's infinite love, benevolence, and goodness. Yet when atheists point out that religious texts and tradition attribute actions to God that seem anything but good, these same believers swiftly fall back on saying that God is infinitely above us, that his ways are not our ways, and that we human beings are in no position to stand in judgment of him because we cannot know the reasons why he does what he does.

The logical contradiction between these positions never seems to occur to them; for what is saying "God is good" if not an ethical evaluation of God? How could we possibly call him good unless we've judged the morality of his actions and decided that they are in accord with what we call goodness? But if we have the ability to do that, then we necessarily also have the ability to judge his actions as evil. On the other hand, if God is not within our ability to judge, then we have no right to say either that he is good or that he is evil. After all, we're not in a position to judge! In such a case, we could only say that God is morally ambiguous, or amoral, or that we don't know whether he is good or not. One cannot have this both ways.

If we cannot grasp God's reasoning, if we cannot see the end toward which his actions are leading, then how do we know that that end is a good one and not an evil one? In such a scenario, we might hope that God is good, or wish that he is good, but to say that he actually is good requires knowledge which these believers have already claimed that no person has. Making the determination that someone is good requires at least some understanding of a person's reasons, some comprehension of why a person does what they do. By their own argument, they have no such understanding.

The usual resolution to this dilemma is for the believer to claim that we have no right to judge God, but rather that he has told us that he is good and we must simply believe this by faith. But even so, the notion of "goodness" as applied to God seems to be a very different pattern of behavior than that same word as applied to humans.

The human actions usually labeled "good" include things such as showing compassion, being merciful, expressing love, easing the suffering of others, and so on. On the other hand, the actions attributed to God which believers call "good" can include: creating infectious diseases that spread indiscriminately and inflict vast amounts of pain on their victims; causing or allowing natural disasters which kill thousands of people at a stroke; standing by when people are suffering and in need without assisting, even though he could do so at no cost to himself; and sending people to an afterlife of unimaginably horrific eternal torment. When atheists point out that no human being who did any of these things would ever be called good, the usual response is simply a blanket denial that such analogies can be relevant. For instance, here's a comment that a believer once made to me in e-mail:

I agree that for a human being to drop 'coy hints' of his love for another without ever actually revealing himself, would be 'irrational.' But that's a human being... God is not a human being. He's God.

According to theists like this one, the moral universe can be divided into two sets labeled "good". One of these sets contains God, and the other set contains everything else. What's more, the two kinds of goodness embodied by each set are completely different and incomparable. What would be good for a member of one set to do would not be good for a member of the other. Yet religious believers carelessly use the word "good" to refer to both sets in the same way, creating a misleading impression of equivalence.

October 17, 2007, 10:00 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments
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Why Does God Let Satan Roam Free?

"Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."

—1 Peter 5:8

"Only-begotten Son, seest thou what rage
Transports our Adversary? whom no bounds
Prescribed, no bars of Hell, nor all the chains
Heaped on him there, nor yet the main Abyss
Wide interrupt, can hold..."

—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III

One of the aspects of Christian theology that has always made the least sense to me is why God, having defeated Satan, now permits him to roam freely across the Earth tempting people to do evil. Why wouldn't an all-powerful creator have imprisoned the Devil and all his demons permanently so that they could not exert any influence on human beings or earthly affairs? Surely, his doing so would have saved the souls of at least some people who, in the current scheme, fell prey to temptation and ended up eternally damned. Christianity says that eternal damnation is Satan's sentence anyway, so why would God delay that sentence and permit him to roam free so that he could drag as many people as possible down with him?

The first possible explanation is that Satan escaped because God was not powerful enough to restrain him. John Milton gives this explanation in the verse above, yet even he must have recognized the illogic of it. According to Christianity, God is omnipotent and Satan is not. In Milton's own story, the only reason Satan was able to escape Hell is because God, quite literally, gave the keys to one of the prisoners.

A second possibility: God lets Satan roam free merely as a way of twisting the knife further on his own punishment. A different chapter of Paradise Lost proposes this explanation:

So stretched out huge in length the Arch-Fiend lay,
Chained on the burning lake; nor ever thence
Had risen, or heaved his head, but that the will
And high permission of all-ruling Heaven
Left him at large to his own dark designs,
That with reiterated crimes he might
Heap on himself damnation, while he sought
Evil to others, and enraged might see
How all his malice served but to bring forth
Infinite goodness, grace, and mercy, shewn
On Man by him seduced, but on himself
Treble confusion, wrath, and vengeance poured.

This, too, cannot be correct. Satan's malice did not only produce grace and mercy for humankind, as Milton claims. Instead, according to Christianity's own theology, it will result in a huge majority of human beings suffering the wrath of God and being cast down into the fiery abyss along with him. This explanation does not accord with even basic Christian beliefs, so it must be thrown out.

A third explanation holds that God permits freedom for the Devil so as to give human beings the ability to choose freely between right and wrong, and to teach them that disaster always results when they turn away from God's commands:

God allowed Satan, the epitome of evil, to enter the Garden of Eden and discuss his view of life with Adam and Eve. They then had to make a choice. They chose to follow Satan rather than God. Satan's tragic delusion of mankind has been the result.

This is the first explanation that is even vaguely plausible. If Satan's role were merely to act as a devil's advocate, so to speak, it might even work. But the problem with it is that, by Christian teaching, Satan is the "great deceiver". He does not present his position honestly, but instead tries to trick humanity into sin through lies and treachery. A choice made in ignorance, because the chooser was deceived about the likely result, is not free at all. Thus, God's permitting Satan to roam free does not further his goal of giving humans a free choice between good and evil - instead, it actually decreases their freedom, by making it possible for them to fall through misstep or mistake rather than as a conscious, willed choice.

Surely, we do not need the temptation of Satan in order to be free. If we have free will, then a person still has the ability to choose evil, regardless of whether there is outside temptation urging them that way. (In the last of the Left Behind books, set in Christ's millennial kingdom, vast numbers of people still turn to evil even though Satan is locked away from the world at that point.) And, presumably, God does not want us to choose evil, even if he does leave that option open. Why, then, would he not remove as many enticements to evil as possible, to ensure that the greatest number of people make the right choice? God's decision to let Satan roam free, in the Christian worldview, can only be seen as an act of incompetence or malice. It ensures that more people end up damned than otherwise would have been. If there was any evidence that any of this was true, such a plan of action would cast serious doubt on the goodness of the planner, and raise the question of whether a deity who unleashed a being as evil as Satan on the world would be truly deserving of our devotion or our worship.

August 7, 2007, 8:38 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink133 comments
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Know-Nothings

"We have heard talk enough. We have listened to all the drowsy, idealess, vapid sermons that we wish to hear. We have read your Bible and the works of your best minds. We have heard your prayers, your solemn groans and your reverential amens. All these amount to less than nothing. We want one fact. We beg at the doors of your churches for just one little fact. We pass our hats along your pews and under your pulpits and implore you for just one fact. We know all about your moldy wonders and your stale miracles. We want a 'this year's fact'. We ask only one. Give us one fact for charity."

—Robert Green Ingersoll, "The Gods"

In the mid-1800s, an anti-immigrant political movement arose in America in response to waves of Irish Catholic immigrants whom, it was feared, were plotting to overthrow democracy and make the country a vassal of the Vatican. The official name of this movement was the American Party, but its popular name was the Know-Nothing party - so named because, supposedly, when members were asked about their affiliation, they would say "I know nothing."

Today, the ugly remnants of racism and nativism command far less power than they once did; we have even had a Roman Catholic president since, and he turned out to be a staunch and proud supporter of the separation of church and state. However, the advocates of know-nothingism still exist in a different form.

Every week, priests, rabbis, ministers, imams and other clergy members the world over stand before their flocks and claim, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they know the standards and the rules of an unseen supernatural world that surrounds us. They claim to know of the existence of a blissful hereafter, and what we must do to reach it. They claim to know of the existence of a dreadful underworld, and what we must do to avoid it. They claim to know that there is a god (or gods), they claim to know, at least to some extent, the will and desires of that being, and they claim to know what we must do to win its favor. (By pure coincidence, I'm sure, the required acts almost always involve our continued obedience and financial support of the clergy telling us this.) Often, they also claim that they can perform magical acts that the rest of us cannot, which will draw the deity's blessing and persuade him to forgive us our sins.

The entire vast edifice of organized religion is built on this conceit - that there are some people who know the spiritual world better than the rest of us, who are more able to interpret the will of the gods and intercede with them on our behalf. From this specious claim has grown a multibillion-dollar industry, organized and managed by a hierarchy of clergy members whose salaries are paid by the tithes of their parishioners.

These claims are false. The clergy do not know what they claim to know. They have no knowledge of a spiritual world, no knowledge of the existence of a god, no knowledge of angels or demons, no knowledge of an afterlife, no ability to perform supernatural rituals, no special ability to peer into our souls or our hearts, and no more insight into what constitutes moral behavior than any other human being. When it comes to the supernatural, they are know-nothings in the truest sense of the word.

Knowledge, after all, requires more than mere belief. Knowledge can be defined as justified true belief, and for a belief to be justified, it must be supported by evidence - by facts. The clergy do not have these facts. What they have, instead, are guesses, faith, pious assumptions, and naive trust in the collected writings and oral traditions of past theologians who have no more knowledge of a supernatural world than today's theologians do. Like castles built on insubstantial air, they buttress the assumptions of past generations with new assumptions, each one trusting that there is a solid foundation of fact at the base of it all. But in all the long years of ecclesiastical history, none of them have yet presented any reason to think so.

If the clergy claim they know, what is the basis for that knowledge? Have any of them been to the afterlife themselves, or seen supernatural beings with their own eyes, or heard God's voice with their own ears? If they claim so, what evidence can they offer to prove that the experience did not originate from within their own heads? If they have better insight into human nature than the rest of us, any ability to do something that ordinary people cannot do, can they demonstrate this ability in objective tests whose results are open to verification by all?

If they cannot offer such evidence, then the rational conclusion must be that the clergy are raking in rewards in exchange for empty words, guarantees they cannot substantiate, promises they cannot keep. In exchange for a weekly dose of soothing sentences and pious platitudes, we have given them money, heaped power and influence at their feet, turned over practically everything of value we have. And for what? Their sermons are like fairy gold, evaporating into mist in the morning, leaving behind nothing of value. We have been swindled, and it's about time we stopped rewarding the swindlers. Even the ones who are sincere are draining us of attention and resources we could more profitably use elsewhere, and offering nothing in return except continued dependency.

But perhaps I've cast my net too sweepingly. Perhaps it's unfair to say that clergy do no good at all. They might assert that they do offer a service to their followers: providing a focal point of community, teaching principles of moral behavior and good citizenship, offering a source of guidance and counseling. Fine. If that is what they offer, let them say so - and let them make it clear that they provide these services only in their capacity as human beings, and that they have no more knowledge of or connection to the supernatural than anyone else. Let them tell the truth about that, and then let the people decide if they wish to continue supporting them.

July 9, 2007, 7:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink12 comments
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My Ways Are Not Your Ways

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

—Isaiah 55:8-9

One of the apologist replies frequently raised against atheist arguments such as the argument from evil, the argument from divine hiddenness, or the argument from incompetence, is that God is so much higher and more intelligent than human beings that it would be the height of arrogance for us to presume to judge him. Bolstered by verses such as the above, this argument holds that what we imagine to be evidence of God's nonexistence, incompetence or malevolence is actually the wise plan of a powerful creator, and that the decisions religion says God makes only seem poor to us because we lack the intellect to appreciate the reasons behind them.

However, this argument has a major hole in it. Namely, if it is true that God's thoughts are so much higher than ours that we cannot hope to understand them, then how can anyone know what he is really like or what he does or does not want? Ironically, the very same people who claim that human beings cannot understand God's ways almost inevitably go on to add, either implicitly or explicitly, "But I know what God wants us to do!"

Why, after all, would a person go to certain churches and not others, read certain holy books, chant certain creeds, pray in certain ways, and participate in certain religious rituals - unless that person believed that they had at least a pretty accurate idea of what God thinks and desires? By their behavior, the religious apologists who make this argument show that they do not believe it themselves. Even if God exists, if his ways are truly beyond our comprehension, we would have no basis for ever being certain about his wants and expectations.

How do we know, for example, that God is not actually the Islamic deity Allah, creating deceptive evidence of Christianity to hasten doubters to their eternal condemnation (as the Qur'an says he will)? How does the apologist know that God has not sent him a strong delusion and forced him to believe a lie about who God is and what he wants (as the Bible says he does)? A believer could not even call this behavior morally wrong, since they would have to admit that God's ways are not comprehensible by us, and that he might be performing such seemingly malevolent actions to bring about some greater good which they cannot perceive. In reality, of course, few are willing to entertain such radical skepticism about their own beliefs.

Granted, to use the apologists' inconsistent behavior as a reason to dismiss their argument as false would be a fallacious use of tu quoque. The fact that apologists do not act in accordance with their own arguments does not show that those arguments are untrue. Rather, the point is that this argument buys the religious apologist nothing, because it undermines their arguments just as effectively as it undermines any atheist's argument. It is a universal defeater, like the idea that we might all be deceived by a powerful Cartesian demon feeding us illusionary experiences of the world; possible in a strictly logical sense, but in practice a useless idea to contemplate. The apologists suppose that this argument is damaging to the atheist position but not damaging to their own, but this could not be farther from the truth.

It is always possible to claim that some plan, however bumbling or flawed it appears, is actually a secret and wise design. But what is missing is independent evidence of this fact, evidence not dependent upon the preconceptions of faith. And without such preconceptions, it is hard not to notice that what religious folk allege to be the plan of an omnipotent and benevolent super-being actually looks just like a set of post hoc rationalizations invented by fallible and self-justifying humans, interpreting the events of history in the way that paints them in the best possible light. If there is a God who wants us to believe in his secret plan, we have every right to expect evidence of that; and until such time, we are more than justified in maintaining a stance of skeptical doubt.

December 12, 2006, 7:08 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink64 comments
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