In my posts of October 6 and 14, I described a recent presentation in which I argued for both sides of the proposition, Resolved: That a personal deity created the universe. “Personal deity” was defined as a God who does things persons do, such as thinking, feeling, and communicating.
I began by assuming the role of Pastor Chris (Chris is my nickname) and in last week’s blog I quoted some of the Pastor’s remarks. I responded to them in the role of the atheist, Dr. Schriner. Here’s what he said:
This morning I will show that there are no sound reasons for believing in an invisible cosmos-creator, and that there are good reasons to reject this theory. And my first argument is simple. The concept of God is superfluous. People used to explain everything they didn’t understand by saying God did it, but this gives us a “god of the gaps.” As the gaps in our knowledge keep getting smaller, there is less and less reason for the God-hypothesis.
But even beyond this obvious point, I want to make a more daring claim. We can tell that there is no personal God by looking at the behavior of those who believe in God.
Pastor Chris based a lot of his case on the testimony of those who say they talk with God. So consider the possibility that God does communicate with us. If that’s so, then presumably this communication would be helpful to those who receive it. They would become wiser and better human beings than atheists and others who do not receive God’s messages. But that’s not so.
Are Christians, for example, wiser than atheists? Christians say God has revealed hidden truths to them which they could never have discovered by themselves. But Christianity has fragmented into over 30,000 denominations, repeatedly splitting over – guess what? – disagreements about what God is telling them! Rather than hearing clear messages, theists are projecting their own fantasies and prejudices onto a great blank screen in the sky.
What’s worse, these alleged communications do not make believers better persons. Of course some religious people are saintly, but so are some atheists. And church history reveals the wickedness of religious organizations – church leaders burning heretics alive, stirring up witch-hunts, and fomenting “holy” wars. Even today religion fans the flames of inter-group conflict.
You’d think that those who give their whole lives to religion would become especially good people, but we now know that the priesthood of a prominent American denomination was for many years a haven for sexual predators. I trust that those priests were praying every day, but they kept right on abusing children.
Here’s another shocking discovery. According to psychologist of religion David Wulff, researchers have found a correlation between membership in Christian churches and “ethno-centrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, … rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and … prejudice, especially against Jews and blacks.” (Cited by William R. Murry, Reason and Reverence, p. 118.) The more traditionally religious you are, the more prejudiced you are likely to be! Stanford chaplain Scotty McLennan offers “evidence that religion is itself a root cause of conflict and violence.” In giving us a sense of identity, it divides us into in-groups and out-groups, so it intensifies people’s viciousness instead of reforming them.
If churchgoers show no evidence that their spiritual life is making them better persons, how can we believe their testimony that God is speaking to them? Suppose I tell you that I exercise every day in an invisible gymnasium in my house. Even if I managed to convince you that a gym could be invisible, wouldn’t you be skeptical of my claim if you noticed that I was getting weaker instead of stronger?
If God doesn’t communicate with us, God probably does not exist. But if people do receive divine communications, that should make them wiser and better, and it does not. Closely examining the claim that God communicates actually undermines the case for deity.
Another point: My worthy opponent thinks the laws of nature are “fine-tuned” to support the presence of intelligent life. But physicists say there may be other universes, perhaps even an infinite number of universes. Only a few of these systems might happen to be suitable homes for living creatures. If these creatures didn’t know about all the other universes, it would seem as if “the” universe was specifically designed for their benefit. “Wow, how come everything is arranged so precisely for me? I guess there must be a God!”
Furthermore, this claim that even tiny changes in the laws of nature would eliminate all life is actually controversial. Maybe natural laws could vary a lot and still support life. In his book, Seeking God in Science, Philosopher Bradley Monton reports that physicists disagree about fine-tuning. We have no idea whether most of them would agree with the fine-tuning theory or disagree.
In saying we need God, the Reverend resorted to a flippant comment about atheism having no explanation for how matter “magically rearranged itself … into dinosaurs.” Well obviously SOMETHING basic and wondrous did happen for no reason. Either matter exists for no reason, or God exists for no reason. People who say God made the universe don’t ask where God came from. They just shrug their shoulders and change the subject. As Steven Wright says, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.”
People may get tired of thinking, but science never grows weary of seeking new truth, shrinking gaps in our knowledge, whittling away at the need for the archaic God-hypothesis.
What will Pastor Chris say in response? Tune in next week. And what would you say, if you are a theist? Post a comment and let me know.
Roger Christan Schriner
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I would also refer “Pastor Chris” to Aristotle’s question about whether the morals that a god is allegedly espousing are espoused because they are inherently good or whether they are good because the god espouses them.
Congratulations on your debate. I might not agree with some of the lines of argument but I certainly applaud your efforts and willingness to share.
I also consider this issue extremely important, and I mentioned it in Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions and Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics. From the latter, p. 136:
Saying that God decides what is good and evil fits the divine command theory of ethics. God determines right and wrong. If God says humans have worth, then we do. If not, we’re worthless. If God says killing people is bad, we must prohibit murder. If God says killing is good, we must promote it. Whoever dealt the cards gets to make the rules.
Plato considered this idea thousands of years ago. In a famous dialogue he has Socrates ask, “Do the gods love good things because they are good, or are good things good because the gods love them?” But the seventeenth-century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz spotted a gaping hole in the divine command theory. If one says “that things are good not because they match up to objective standards of goodness, but only because God chose them, you will unthinkingly destroy all God’s love and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy for doing just the opposite?” [End of excerpt.]
Roger Christan Schriner
Ah yes, Plato. That’s who I meant. I have my philosophers mixed up!
Creation out of nothing poses many problems. Creation as organizing has a better fit. What words should we use for the most intelligent and loving beings and the truths they embrace?
Since our genes and memes come from all the past and we are surrounded by forms of energy, then thoughts and desires are forms of prayers good or bad for me.
The most recent research on religiosity and prejudice shows that we must distinguish between fundamentalists, religion-as-means, religion-as-ends, and a more open ended approach called “quest”. While fundamentalists are associated with right-wing authoritarianism, prejudice towards a variety of outgroups and less cognitive complexity, the others show a more complex picture, with questers being tolerant towards all outgroups. Prejudice is related to social norms: for example racism has become much less prevalent among believers as it has become more unacceptable in society, and attitudes towards homosexuality will go the same way. See Hunsberger, B. &. Jackson. L. M. (2005) Religion, Meaning, and Prejudice Journal of Social Issues, 61, 807-826 for further details. Fundamentalists do not represent the whole of a religion and are in a minority numerically. We should consider the positive relationships between religiosity and wellbeing, and voluntary work and giving to charity as indicators of the fruits of religion. Of course, it is still possible that religious people were just nicer to start with!
Thanks for these comments, which provide helpful nuances. I’ll try to work the info about “questers” and so on into a future post.