God and Wonderdad: A final discussion of antitheism

Posted on 12/17/11 34 Comments

I thought I’d be done with antitheism by now but some people insist on  holding on to bad ideas. So I’m going to close off this discussion with an illustration which gets to the irrational, emotional heart of antitheism.

Ollie is a ten year old orphan living in an orphanage in London. He was found as a two year old (or thereabouts) wandering the muddy streets of the city, crying and holding a worn blue blanket. For the last eight years Ollie has lived in the orphanage and it has been, by any stretch of the imagination, a hard life. He sleeps on a straw mattress infested with bugs. Rats and mice are his nocturnal companions. In the day time he suffers beatings from the larger boys and the headmaster. His meals throughout the year are all the same: a pasty, tasteless gruel which is made (or so the other boys say) from pig slop turned bad. His only joy is a single candy cane that he receives from a group of nuns every December.

Late one night Ollie is sitting on his straw mattress in the chilly darkness listening to the rats scurrying and the horses and carriages rolling by on the streets below when Johnny calls out to him in the darkness.

“Pssst, Ollie!”

“What is it Johnny?”

“Imagine that you have a wonderful dad out there somewhere, a wonderdad! He’s the best dad in the world and he loves you very much. For some reason you can’t understand you were separated from him eight years ago. But he’s going to come for you and make everything right. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Johnny says dreamily.

Ollie can respond one of two ways. He could say “Yes, I hope there is a wonderdad out there like you say” or he can say “No, I don’t want there to be a wonderdad.” I can understand that after eight years of pain and disappointment Ollie might say he hopes there is no wonderdad. But how could we explain that response? There are two possibilities. The first possibility is that Ollie didn’t take Johnny’s question seriously. When Johnny says “Imagine that you have a wonderful dad” Ollie actually imagines that he has a deadbeat dad and then understandably says “No thanks.” The second possibilty is that Ollie did imagine that he had a wonderdad and still rejected the idea. But why? In that case it must be that his rejection of wonderdad is spoken not out of reason but rather irrational emotional pain and bitterness. Perhaps that is psychologically understandable as a gut reaction, since wonderdad’s existence immediately creates a target for all his disappointments. But if the dad really is a wonderdad and not a deadbeat dad, then all that anger is ultimately misplaced. And it surely is self-destructive. Ollie cannot let that bitterness be the final word.

But could it be the final word? Could Ollie be that embittered that he would reject the embrace of his wonderdad upon his arrival at the orphanage? Would he really turn his back upon the smiling countenance and open arms and, clutching the threadbare blue blanket, march back up the stairs and to his cold room and straw mattress?

Perhaps it is possible that Ollie could act in such a wholly irrational and self-destructive way. But if so, the lesson to us is this: don’t be Ollie. We are all in the orphanage now. Some of us believe there is a wonderdad for every child in that place. Others of us do not. But all of us ought to hope there is.

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  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    Extremely well said.

  • pete

    I second that. Analogy of the year!

  • Frank
  • Frank
  • MGT2

    Am I supposed to post a link to share in this discussion?

  • Frank
  • Frank

    Randal, your wiki links are made up and lead to contentless pages. There is an analogy joke to be had here, but I am not feeling mean-spirited today; it is after all Sunday. :)

    • randal

      “Randal, your wiki links are made up and lead to contentless pages.”

      I hope you didn’t have to click them to figure that out.

      Anyway, link or no link, I await your defense of the false analogy charge.

  • Frank

    “Pssst, Ollie!”

    “What is it Johnny?”

    “Imagine that you have a wonderful dad out there somewhere, a wonderdad! He’s the best dad in the world and he loves you very much. For some reason you can’t understand you were separated from him eight years ago. But he’s going to come for you and make everything right. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Johnny says dreamily.

    Ollie, after having his hopes dashed time and again by a cruel life, often asking what kind of a god would permit such suffering and hardship, asks Johnny what he has to do to get to his superdad.

    “Why, Ollie, all you have to do is dedicate every waking moment to him. You must sacrifice all for him, and worship him, and be his slave. You must follow his every whim, but don’t worry, he knows what’s best for you. As I said earlier, you can’t understand why he left you (you are too feeble-minded to be told). And you will never ever see proof of him until you are dead. But if you follow the wrong path in life and don’t accept him, you will never get to him. Remember, he knows your thoughts too, so even acting in the right way won’t be enough. You must be his, forever.”

    “Oh. Ok.”, says Ollie, downtrodden and staring at the ground. “I think I’ll pass…”

    Does that answer you?

    I must say that the analogies you provide are often inaccurate (to be fair, be definition analogies are never completely on point as they are used for illustrative purposes), but this one takes the cake. Your cheerleaders may have a less-than-critical eye for your anecdotes, but please… the all-knowing all-powerful judgmental mind-reading overseer is what I find objectionable about god. The very attributes you give to Ollie’s dad are those missing in the Christian god. The very cruelty of Ollie’s life are those that a god should be held accountable for.

    Actually, I suggest that you cannot, in any meaningful way, analogize god, and that’s in fact because of your own definition that god is ineffable and eternal and infinite (and therefore incomparable). Christians hold that god is unknowable, and yet this whole discussion pretends that if you talk about the emperor’s new clothes enough then everyone will be able to see them. Even worse, I am not permitted to fervently hope that no such creature exists, or be deemed “wholly irrational and self-destructive” for so doing. Why should I want or care for a deity who goes out of his way to make the universe appear identical to one in which he doesn’t exist?

    There. Did I play the “What if there was a god?” game right? Can we go back to the vastly more interesting and relevant game, “Where’s the Beef?”

    • randal

      “Does that answer you?”

      No. It is completely irrelevant to the argument. Once again, the argument I presented is directed against antitheism, not for the likelihood of God’s existence. Thus whether or not Ollie “passes” because he thinks the existence of his superdad (or God) unlikely is utterly irrelevant to the force of the argument.

      “I suggest that you cannot, in any meaningful way, analogize god, and that’s in fact because of your own definition that god is ineffable”

      I never said God is ineffable. But anyway, all sorts of things are ineffable. Try describing the color blue to a person born blind.

      “Christians hold that god is unknowable”

      No they don’t. You’ve confused Christianity with 18th century deism.

      • Frank

        “No. It is completely irrelevant to the argument. Once again, the argument I presented is directed against antitheism, not for the likelihood of God’s existence. Thus whether or not Ollie “passes” because he thinks the existence of his superdad (or God) unlikely is utterly irrelevant to the force of the argument.”

        Read again please. Ollie passed mainly because god is a self-righteous mind-reading tyrant who inflicts suffering on mankind. Proof of his existence would cause me and Ollie sheer terror, not elation.

        • randal

          As I said, that isn’t God by the very definition of the argument. Frank, you can’t simply ignore what people say and invent your own strawmen.

          • Frank

            Your definition isn’t of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-merciful god? Then why call him god at all?

            Also, how do you separate god from theodicy? You can ask me if I want to believe in a god other than the one that matches reality, but that gets us nowhere.

            Sure, maybe I want to believe in Middle-Earth and Schlaraffenland/Cockaigne, but wishing doesn’t make it so.

            • randal

              “Your definition isn’t of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-merciful god?”

              Frank, are you aiming for a Face-in-palme award?

              The attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence do not entail ineffability. Heck, they couldn’t! Don’t you know what ineffability means? Those are all examples of what theologians call the communicable attributes which are, by definition, effable.

              • Frank

                God is effable. Couldn’t agree more.

                Which leaves me still not loving your hypothetical god.

      • Frank

        Blue is a colour, the perception of which is evoked by light having a spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nm.

        • randal

          Read Frank Jackson’s “What Mary Didn’t Know” thought experiment and Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What is it like to be a bat”.

          • Frank

            “Quale of qualia, all is qualia!”

            • randal

              You inspired me to write a brief poem:

              “Quail Qualia”

              I was waiting in the bushes, a shot to take
              When the quail emerged and made me shake
              Quail qualia my senses did make
              So I released the trigger amidst the white snow flakes

              The kickback made my shoulder ache
              The flurry of feathers confirmed my stake
              Quail qualia of blood by the lake
              Staining the white snow flakes

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/loftus John W. Loftus

    Randal said: We are all in the orphanage now. Some of us believe there is a wonderdad for every child in that place. Others of us do not. But all of us ought to hope there is.

    The more that life beats us down then the greater the need to believe in a wonderdad, whereas the better life is for us then the less need there is to believe in a wonderdad.

    Thus our status in life is inversely proportional to the benefits of believing in a wonderdad. As life gets better for people then there is less need for believing in such a wonderdad.

    For people like Ollie a delusional hope is better than no hope at all and I would suppose most of us would believe if we didn’t know better. I know better. The problem is that ignorance is bliss.

    What you’re describing is existentialism. This conception of a wonderdad must have sufficient evidence for it though, and that’s the bottom line, even if it can help ignorant downtrodden people through life.

    • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

      John,

      I’m sure Randal will have his own answer, but I just wanted to note that your diagnosis is remarkably similar, if not identical, to the New Testament’s. That is, Jesus said it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom, “Blessed are the poor,” Paul said “There are not many mighty among you,” and James said “Did God not choose the poor to be rich in faith?”

      The question this raises is, “Does the absence of perceived need mean the absence of actual need?”

    • randal

      “This conception of a wonderdad must have sufficient evidence for it though….”

      Ack!!!! How can intelligent people keep missing the point of this simple argument?! In the illustration the probability that Ollie has a loving father out there who will one day come to save him is simply not relevant. Even if the odds are a million to one against the likelihood of Ollie having a wonderdad, he still ought to hope that he does.

      Perhaps your problem is this: you’re tying the idea of hope to an assessment of probabilities. That’s your mistake. So long as it is, for all we know, possible that there be a wonderdad, Ollie ought to hope that there is one, no matter how improbable it seems. And so long as it is, for all we know, possible that God exists (where God is defined as most perfect being) we ought to hope that God exists.

      That’s it. That’s the argument. The argument has nothing to do with the probability of God’s existence or the likelihood that people will believe in God if their lives are difficult. Those are irrelevant issues.

      • Tim

        I must have missed the part that explains why “So long as it is, for all we know, possible that there be a wonderdad, Ollie ought to hope that there is one, no matter how improbable it seems. And so long as it is, for all we know, possible that God exists (where God is defined as most perfect being) we ought to hope that God exists.”

        Frank raised the issue, but I’ll repeat the question, since I didn’t see an answer. Why ought we hope for the existence of a God who seems absent, uninterested, and uncaring about day-to-day suffering in the world? If this is all part of the plan, I have no interest in jumping on the bandwagon.

        • randal

          Tim, it is called the division of labor. All I was doing in this article was critiquing antheism. If I were critiquing atheism by addressing the problem of divine hiddenness that you mention, I would have written a completely different article.

          • Tim

            Fair enough, but isn’t that splitting hairs? “Sure, the god everyone is espousing isn’t one that you would support, but shouldn’t you hope there is a better, more perfect god, free of all the flaws you perceive?” Does that capture it?

            I guess I must be missing a critical point, so take it as that. I agree that there’s no point in actively hoping there isn’t a god, but I think there is equally no point in hoping there is. Does it have to be one or the other? Could you not also argue against antitheism with a plea for indifference?

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