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

800px-Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_Adam

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…

10 thoughts on “What I Believe, Pt. 2: What I Don’t Believe

  1. It’s possible that my reply went to your spam file due to multiple links. You might want to check your spam, listed on your dashboard. If it’s there, click ‘not spam’. If not, let me know and I’ll gather the data again and re-post.

  2. “We need to stop defending God”

    fMRI scans show that a part of the brain disengages when someone loves another deeply, i.e., lover, child, pet, and even a god. This region of the brain has to do with critical social assessment and trust. Such disengagement can hinder one from seeing faults in another or may justify them.

    Add to the mix a soup of feelgood neurochemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin, plus death anxiety, and believers have little incentive to stop defending their god. This helps explain some of the reasons why people worship god’s with psychopathic personalities.

    “Love is blind.”

    1. Thanks so much for your response. This is quite a comprehensive topic, to say the least. As far as recommending any books, none comes to mind, as I tend to read peer-reviewed studies.

      http://kyb.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/files/publications/attachments/Bartels2004_maternalLove_%5B0%5D.pdf

      Then there are neurological disorders where people become hyper-religious. Neuropharmacological studies indicate dopaminergic activation as the leading neurochemical feature associated with religious activity. With certain neurological disorders like temporal lobe epilepsy, mania, schizophrenia, studies show the ventromedial dopaminergic systems were highly activated.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16439158

      That’s another fascinating area that gets little attention. When you can find the time, I recommend watching the BBC documentary “God On the Brain” http://welcome.pokrov.com/en/video/viwvieo/1088/fimy-imultfimy/bbc-horion-god-on-the-brai-2003

      Here are two short clips with Dr. Ramachandran, who’s done extensive research in the area of belief and he’s also featured in the BBC doc.

      “God and the Temporal Lobes”
      http://youtu.be/qIiIsDIkDtg (part 1)
      http://youtu.be/5z4B5BYbjf8 (part 2)

      On my blog, I’ve posted excerpts of an interesting academic analysis about dominance, acknowledgement, and dopamine. The full analysis can be found on the link at the end titled “Religion Is Dopaminergic”
      http://neuroresearchproject.com/2012/06/26/the-three-rs-religion-recognition-reward/

      Behavioral neuroscientists, Michael Persinger and Todd Murphy, have also done some fascinating studies on temporal lobe lability and the influence of geophysics on behavior. Dr. Persinger’s published, peer-reviewed papers and lectures can be found on my blog in the right column “Sites of Interests”.

      Just scratching the surface. 🙂

      1. Since you brought up genocide in the Bible, I thought it was worth noting that in part 2 of the Youtube clip, minute marker 3:25, note why some very religious people have justified ethnic cleansing.

        I also meant to leave you with this link on the “Sensed Presence Effect”

        http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-sensed-presence-effect

        It notes the book “The Third Man Factor (Penguin, 2009), by John Geiger, which you might find an interesting read.

  3. Interesting points on defending God. On Anselm, I find this necessary being a weak argument. The telogical argument still impresses me.

    1. I agree that the teleological argument is, by and large, the better of the two, if only in that it’s actually intelligible. However, I take issue with the idea of “good design,” for reasons which I will discuss in a forthcoming post. Also, even if the universe had a designer, the leap from that fact to “divine” agency is a long one. My clothes presumably had a designer, who (I think, at least) did a fairly good job, but I cannot from that infer that Karl Lagerfeld or Andrew Hercovitch did it…

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