What I Believe, Pt. 2: What I Don’t Believe

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Have you ever noticed that arguments for God have a way of either fading away into incomprehensible philosophical gobbledygook or degenerating into the intellectual equivalent of a VeggieTales video? In the final analysis, it seems that God exists…well, because God exists. Because we really, really, really want/need him to. Or her. Or it. So we make up an exalted system of apologetics that claims to be beyond the reach of critical thinking, while at the same time embracing one that requires no critical thinking skills at all.

Here’s a passage from a book I cataloged the other day, God’s Not Dead: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty, by Rice Broocks:

If you were walking through the woods and found a turtle on top of a fence post, you could rationally conclude that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone put it there. Even if you didn’t have an explanation for who did it, you would be reasonable in assuming that time and chance wouldn’t eventually place a turtle on a fence post.

I once saw a stalk of hay that had been shoved through a telephone pole by a tornado. So, I’m fairly certain that some force besides “someone” could have gotten that poor turtle on top of that fence post. But set that aside for a moment, and look at Broocks’ argument as it stands. (An argument, I might add, from a book written with an adult audience in mind.) It’s a turtle. On a fence. Can all the three-year-olds say “Heeey!?!”

On the other side of this equation, of course, we have the infamous Anselm. In the Proslogion (c.1078), the Archbishop of Canterbury first put forward what has become known as the ontological argument for the existence of God, which I quote in part below:

Even the Fool, then, is forced to agree that something-than-which-nothing-greater-can-be-thought exists in the mind, since he understands this when he hears it, and whatever is understood is in the mind. And surely that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought cannot exist in the mind alone. For if it exists solely in the mind, it can be thought to exist in reality also, which is greater. If then that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought exists in the mind alone, this same that-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought is that-than-which-a-greater-can-be-thought. But this is obviously impossible. Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something-than-which-a-greater-cannot-be-thought [i.e., God] exists both in the mind and in reality.

Even in translation, this “proof” sets the eyeballs spinning faster than you can say “Anselm’s an idiot.” Here’s a paraphrase from Princeton professor Gideon Rosen:

(1) Suppose (with the fool) that God exists in the understanding alone.

(2) Given our definition, this means that a being than which none greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone.

(3) But this being can be conceived to exist in reality. That is, we can conceive of a circumstance in which theism is true, even if we do not believe that it actually obtains.

(4) But it is greater for a thing to exist in reality than for it to exist in the understanding alone.

(5) Hence we seem forced to conclude that a being than which none greater can be conceived can be conceived to be greater than it is.

(6) But that is absurd.

(7) So (1) must be false. God must exist in reality as well as in the understanding.

After referring to this proof, theologians and philosophers have a way of nodding sagely, gazing mystically into your eyes, and saying: Trust me. It’s not meaningless. It’s DEEP. All I can say is, if you can follow that, Rand McNally wants you.

So, the existence of God is either so simple a concept that any idiot can capture its essence in reductionist (read, childish) analogy, or it is so complex an idea that not only does the being in question defy the understanding, so do the very arguments for that being’s being. And these are the folks who insist that the theory of evolution is too full of contradiction to be true…

The conclusion, I think, is straightforward: We need to formulate a God who is beyond formulation, beyond “mortal comprehension,” so we devise explanations that are also beyond comprehension. At the same time, we need to formulate a God whose formulation doesn’t require a whole lot of thought, so we invent simplistic, cute little aphorisms that turn the Absolute into children’s lit. We need to live at these opposing extremes, because that keeps us from accidentally straying into the space between. Because that’s where the scary answers live.

Once we stop relying on people who are “smarter” than us, and patronizing the rest, we suddenly find ourselves forced to acknowledge the failure of our conclusions to fit the evidence. It becomes more difficult to remain the passive receptors of what, given the traditional view of God as omnipotent being, can only be called divine arbitrariness. The inescapable contradiction in the suffering mother’s need to “beg” a “loving Father” to stop tormenting her child becomes, like its object, inescapable. We begin to realize that God, as Broocks and Anselm conceive of him, is either responsible for the evil that happens in the world, or he isn’t in control; that he can’t at once be both guilty and innocent, saint and sociopath; and that none of this jives with the stuff we’ve been taught since that first Sunday School class convinced us we had it coming.

We need to stop defending God, and demand that the God-concept defend itself. When this happens, a whole new picture emerges that requires a reformulation of that concept, one that stops forcing the evidence to fit the conclusions and begins to draw conclusions that fit the evidence. I have been accused by some of being (and assumed by others to be) an atheist, a question I will take up again at another time. However, I will say this: insofar as the God of Anselm and Broocks is concerned, there is no question. I no longer accept the existence of such a being. The evidence, as I suggested before, just does not warrant the conclusion, illustrate the idea as you will.

In 2004, playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, better known as Vizzini of The Princess Bride, conducted an interview with philosopher Noam Chomsky (in a book soon to appear on the Big List), and I leave you with one last quote, from that interview, in which Chomsky comments on God as ethical plumb line:

…You can find things in the traditional religions that are very benign and decent and wonderful and so on, but I mean, the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon. The God of the Bible–not only did he order His chosen people to carry out literal genocide–I mean, wipe out every Amalekite to the last man, woman, child, and, you know, donkey and so on, because hundreds of years ago they got in your way when you were trying to cross the desert–not only did He do things like that, but, after all, the God of the Bible was ready to destroy every living creature on earth because some humans irritated Him. That’s the story of Noah. I mean, that’s beyond genocide–you don’t know how to describe this creature. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy every living being on earth? And then He was talked into allowing two of each species to stay alive–that’s supposed to be gentle and wonderful.

You do the math…

I Would Like to Thank the Academy…

I was pleased to discover, around 11:00 one night, that my blog had been nominated for the Liebster Award by one of my favorite fellow writers. It is nice to know that there really are folks out there who are interested in what–if anything–I have to say.

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And now…to the protocol!

Move the First: Thank the Liebster-winner who nominated you.

Thanks, Muggle! I have enjoyed reading your thoughts and look forward to reading more. I’m happy to hear you have enjoyed reading mine, as well. (Visit Muggle’s blog. No, really, visit it! Now!)

Move the Second: Post eleven facts about yourself.

  1. I collect turtles. Figurines, not real ones. Although I do have a red-eared slider named Turtimus Maximus (which is what happens when you watch Gladiator right before naming a pet).
  2. If it involves bacon, I love it. One of my favorite restaurants is even named Bacon. Guess what they serve…
  3. While working as a stagehand for Stages-St. Louis, in St. Louis, Missouri, I accidentally set a prop player piano on fire when I crossed the wires on the car battery that ran it. It was an accident. I swear!
  4. My absolute favorite place in this world is Holy Island, off the northeast coast of England.
  5. My second favorite place in this world is the Durst family farm, outside of Butler, Missouri.
  6. I love the BBC more than life itself. My favorite BBC show is ALL OF THEM.
  7. I am genetically incapable of producing adequate facial hair, but refuse to accept the fact, so I tend to look like an overgrown adolescent. When I do shave, I just look like an adolescent…
  8. I believe searching is more important than finding.
  9. I lived in Argentina from my 11th to my 18th birthday.
  10. I love being an uncle, and I have no desire to be a parent.
  11. I am at heart an introspective romantic, and I hide it behind a mask of sarcastic jackassery.

Move the Third: Answer the questions posed by the nominating blogger.

1. What book/show do you think everyone should read/watch?

  • Book: Here’s a few–Death of a Hero, by Richard Aldington; The Glory and the Dream, by William Manchester; for your kids, the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary. Show: Anything by Joss Whedon (my personal favorite is Angel–it’s a much deeper show than people give it credit for) or Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing inspired me into grad school).

2. Is there anything you would change about your life? If so, what?

  • I would live overseas again. Preferably in the UK, and there, probably in Scotland. I think the Highlands are one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

3. What is your favorite food/drink?

  • It’s a toss-up between bacon and Doritos (the good old nacho cheese variety, not those wannabe follow-up flavors…).

4. Are you religious?

  • No, in that I do not subscribe to any particular religion (at the moment); yes, in that I understand religion as the impulse toward meaning and the unknown, regardless of the finer print, and the ongoing search for enlightenment and a deeper understanding of life and my reason for being, a search in which I’m heavily invested. In the latter respect, I think we’re all just a little religious, whether we identify as such or not.

5. If you could only choose one vacation spot for the rest of your life, where would it be?

  • The UK. No question. I have been many places, and I’ve never enjoyed myself more.

6. If you could go into space, would you?

  • “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, its continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Does this answer your question…?

7. If you were reincarnated after you die, would you want to retain your memories of this life?

  • I’d never really thought about it, but I think No. Life is an adventure that I think must be lived from scratch. I like the idea of the tabula rasa, of becoming all over again.

8. Do you consider yourself a writer?

  • As they would say in Argentina, I consider myself proyecto de, an ongoing project, if you will. But I want desperately to be one, and it colors my approach to all the other things I do in life. I’ve published several times, in academic journals and one actual book. Does that make me a writer? Not sure. Does living make me a human? Hmmm….

9. Do you believe in ghosts?

  • I would say, with Fox Mulder, “I want to believe.” I have done my time sitting in a darkened car on rural roads outside ruined old family cemeteries, hoping to see something surprising. Hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still watching…

10. I love quotes. What is one of your favorites?

  • My favorite quote of all time, and the one that means the most to me, is the one found on the header of my blog, from the Crane poem “Think As I Think” : “I will, then, be a toad.” I first read that poem in the 11th grade, and it has been my governing philosophy in life ever since.

11. Do you have any comments about my blog you would like to make?

  • It is one of my favorites, and I always look forward to new entries. You explore topics that lots of people shy away from, and it encourages me to say what’s really on my mind. I would not, I think, be able to talk so freely about the things I believe, if I didn’t know you and others like you were out there, listening…

Move the Fourth: Ask eleven questions of your own.

  1. What was your favorite vacation/trip?
  2. What is the one event you live for and never miss?
  3. What is your biggest pet peeve?
  4. Life: Is it journey or destination?
  5. What is a food you hated as a kid, but really, really enjoy now?
  6. How do you define “progress”?
  7. What makes work satisfying for you?
  8. If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
  9. Aliens: Are they out there?
  10. Who was your favorite teacher?
  11. When you vacation, do you fly or drive, and why?

Move the Fifth: Nominate 11 blogs (doesn’t have to be eleven) that you feel deserve recognition. These blogs should have less than 200 followers to the best of your knowledge.

These are some of the folks I think more of us should hear more from. Each one of them inspires me in their own way: some make me think, some make me scowl, and then think, and some just make me laugh so hard I cry…

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Backwards with Time

Corinna Keefe

On Being a Dad

faithfully doubting

Educate for Texas

Shadows of Our Feelings

tehsocialgeek

Verbalizations & Such

The Perks of Being Young and Inquisitive

What Would Nadia Do?

Move the Sixth: Display award badge on blog.

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