Saturday, April 25, 2009
Jump at Your Own Risk
Ever since I became an atheist and started getting involved in discussions about the existence of God (from the antagonist’s side, naturally), I’ve often been asked, “What kind of evidence would convince you that there really is a God?” I’ve responded differently at different times, but when I think about it, I realize my answers have usually been the off-the-cuff variety, and probably inadequate. I thought I’d take a little time here to more fully explore the question, and maybe go into some of the ramifications behind the question, as well.
Before I begin, I suppose I should get some basic definitions of ‘God’ down, since the term can mean different things to different people. It seems proper that I should limit my parameters to the Christian God, since He’s the one I’m usually discussing in terms of apologetics on this blog. Of course, even ‘Christian God’ is a rather broad-based appellation considering the diversity of opinions out there, even amongst those who call themselves Christians. However, I think I can probably narrow it down to a basic set of divine attributes which believers of most stripes would generally concur with. Let’s go with the four ‘omni’characteristics, and see where we stand.
1. Omniscience- the power to know everything. There’s been some quibbling as to the extent of God’s omniscience, usually concerning His ability to know the future, since for some folks there’s an insinuation of all the future existing at once, which seems to butt up against some versions of free will. But overall, I think it’s a divine quality that most believers feel comfortable with despite a few reservations. We’ll stick with it.
2. Omnipresence- the power to be everywhere at once. I don’t think too many Christians have any qualms about this one.
3. Omnipotence- the power to do anything. This one’s a little trickier, I think. The standard challenges run along the lines of questions like ‘Can God make square circles?’ ‘Can God create a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?’ ‘Can God sin?’ Ok, so here’s what we do. Anything pertaining to these challenges and their possible variants we throw out for the sake of argument, but we leave everything else in. Sound fair?
4. Omnibenevolence- perfect...what? Kindness? Goodness? Fairness? Alright, I’ll admit I’m having trouble with this one. Questions about morality smack suspiciously of questions about aesthetics. What seems right for one might not seem right for another, y’know? I’ll acknowledge that some aspects of human morality seem ALMOST universal; but I’m not even sure if the traditional God of the Israelites lines up with all of those. Of course, it’s assumed that God is perfectly good, but the only standard we have to judge whether that’s a correct assessment is God’s own standard, since He seems to be the only one who’d have the inside scoop to make such a claim. Tell you what. Let’s pass on this one. The other three are enough for my purposes here, anyway, and I don’t want to muddy the waters.
Ok, so we’ve narrowed down the description of God to three fundamental characteristics. Since the original question was ‘what would convince you that there really is a God’, it seems fair to answer that I’d be convinced by a display of at least one of these basic deific attributes, yes? Now I want to launch into a hypothetical scenario-I’m up late watching a rerun of Seinfeld when suddenly a guy magically pops into the room and say, “Hiya, Jim! I’m God. I’ve heard you’re a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, so I’m here to try and convince you that I AM who I say I AM. The floor is now open to questions, and manifestations.” Since the bible says nobody can see God face to face, we’ll presuppose that God has assumed a humanlike countenance so as not the scare the crap out of me, or burn my eyes out with his terrifying glory. A rare opportunity indeed! Though, you know I’m worth it.
I begin my interrogation with questions pertaining to God’s supposed omniscience; His all knowing power. I say, “Ok, then; read my mind!” Immediately the visitor starts reciting everything I’m thinking, EXACTLY as I’m thinking it, word for word. Wow! Is this guy psychic, or what? But that’s just the beginning of my inquiry. Next I ask him, “What’s the word in the magazine under my bed, page 63, 4th line down, 6th word?” He immediately exclaims, somewhat flustered, that he doesn’t say those kinds of words! Now we’re both embarrassed, so I hastily change it to a particular word in the book of Basho’s haikus on the coffee table, and he answers correctly. I’m more than adequately impressed, but still, is this an exhibition of genuine omniscience? I don’t want to accuse the guy of trickery or anything, but I’ve seen Kreskin do this tons of times on TV. My questioning proceeds. Naturally I ask only questions that I can immediately verify; after all, what would be the point in asking questions the answers to which I don’t know, or couldn’t easily substantiate? And suddenly I’m struck with a dilemma! Since I don’t know everything, how in the world is it possible to competently test him, since in the end I can only verify what I already know, or have the ability to access. If I were to ask him, for instance, what’s the average number of atoms inside the core of a particular dwarf star in a galaxy far, far away, how could I ever know if he was right, or just having me on?
I decide to move on to omnipresence- the ability to be everywhere at once. he takes my hand in his, and suddenly we’re whisked away to a little coffeeshop in Paris. Cool! But, maybe this guy’s just from a technologically advanced civilization, and is transporting me ala the standard issue Star Trek transportation device. Definitely impressive, but far from proof of omnipresence. And hey! I just realized something- omnipresence isn’t just the ability to move from this to that place. In fact, it’s nothing like that at all. To be omnipresent is to be everywhere at once, and how in the world could he demonstrate THAT to me, short of making me omnipresent myself?
By this time, I’ve pretty much grokked the gist of where all this is going; however, I don’t want to go and make this obviously superior, and most likely dangerous, creature huffy, so I ask him for a demonstration of his omnipotence. He snaps his fingers, and suddenly it's high noon, where a moment before it was midnight. The sun’s out, the birds are singing, etc etc. Ok, now we’re talking! This is some high octane prestidigitation, and I am more than amply dumbfounded. But there’s this itch at the back of my head, and suddenly I realize what it is. No matter what hoops I get this guy to jump through, I could never exhaust all the possibilities, and therefore could never validate his claims to any of the three omnicharacterics. I COULD at some point become convinced, of course...but only by making a quantum jump from proof of less-than-omni, to belief in omni. Two qualitatively different things!
So the guy shakes head, and says, “Well, Jim, there’s nothing more I can do for you; but you’re really missing out! Oh, and btw, I’m gonna have to send you to a torture chamber for all eternity after you die, man. No hard feelings?” And I say, “What the f...?”, but he’s already gone.
Of course, the difference between my little imaginary scenario and the real world, is that, according to Christianity, the fate of our eternal souls rests not on the right conception of the enigmatic agency behind miraculous demonstrations- which as I’ve shown isn't enough to justify belief, anyhow- but on the stories told by men about SUPPOSED miraculous demonstrations, and what they supposedly imply. And what I hope I’VE demonstrated is that even if every miraculous claim in the bible was actually experienced, and not just mythmaking (perhaps mixed in with a little hallucinatory wish-fulfillment along the way), these experiences don’t even come close to verifying the omniclaims used to define the theistic God. Christianity is a call to the pretense of knowing the absolutely unknowable, under threat of indescribable, everlasting punishment. Nothing more, nothing less.
Once again, we’re back to this overpowering ‘need to know’, amplified to such an extent, and inappropriately infused with moral connotations to boot, that we raise generation after generation of children to be scared shitless in case they make the wrong decisions regarding certain abstract principles which are utterly incoherent, and absolutely un-testable! What the f...?
Posted by metamorphhh at 6:57 PM