On those who loathe God

Posted on 12/14/11 81 Comments

Frank writes: I an NOT an apatheist.  I would be very concerned about god’s existence, as I would loath him for his abominable cruelty.”

That’s right. In addition to atheists and apatheists we have antitheists. An antitheist is an individual who believes that God does not exist but also would reject God if God did exist.

Frank’s antitheism (aka Ivan’s “protest atheism” in The Brothers Karamazov) is trendy in some circles these days. Perhaps there is a sociological dynamic at work. Maybe it is the same dynamic that compels some marathon runners to participate in insanely punishing ultra marathons like the Badwater Ultramarathon that winds through Death Valley. Compare:

“You did the Boston Marathon, huh? Been there, done that. But I just got back from the … Badwater ULTRAMARATHON!”

“You’re an atheist huh? Don’t believe God exists?  Been there, done that. But I don’t just disbelieve in God … I HATE HIM IF HE DOES EXIST!”

People who run the Badwater Ultramarathon don’t impress me. I don’t know what there is in their psychology that drives them to run such a self-destructive race, but forty two urban and suburban kilometers (the length of a mere marathon) is surely enough.

Same goes for antitheism. It’s just, well, a bit ridiculous. Remember the description of God we’re talking about:

The concept of God that has been central in the West for millennia is the concept reflected in the Exodus ”I AM” and the Johannine Logos, in Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Prime Mover, in Anselm’s being than which none greater can be conceived and Aquinas’s “ipsum esse subsistens” (God’s essence is to exist). It is God as ultimate, unique, classless, origin of all and end of all.

Let’s slot Anselm’s definition into Franks’ statement because that’s the representative concept that we’re dealing with:

“If that being than which none greater would be conceived existed then I would loath him for his abominable cruelty.”

Wow. Impressive. Is it any surprise that Christopher Hitchens has been influential in propagating this self-defeating nonsense? Back in the nineties he tried to convince us that we should loathe Mother Teresa. But I guess that wasn’t enough. Now we should loathe that being than which none greater can be conceived.

Let’s think about this a bit more.

“Imagine the most wonderful, perfect, loving, great agent you can exist. Now imagine an agent even more wonderful, perfect, loving, and great than you can conceive. Got it in your mind’s eye? Good. Now guess what? I HATE HIM! Ha! Whaddaya think of that?”

Like I said, ridiculous.

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  • Crude

    I think the response here is going to be that they don’t mean Anselm’s God, but they mean the God of Christianity, aka the God of the Old Testament, aka their view of the God of the Old Testament, aka something pretty far away from the God of the Old Testament.

    And Anselm’s God would be viewed as a God whose creations would, at every moment of existence, be on opium. Or at least, if anyone ever had a bad thought or bad urge, they’d be immediately cured of it, or punished swiftly.

    • Walter

      I think the response here is going to be that they don’t mean Anselm’s God, but they mean the God of Christianity…

      Yep. I don’t think the God of religious philosophy is the same being that I read of in ancient human texts.

    • randal

      In at least some cases that is no doubt correct. It is also deeply confused (on the part of the antitheist) since Christians confess that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is that than which none greater can be conceived. At that point the so-called antitheist might better ask “How do you say the one is the other?” rather than state a ridiculous position that only breeds confusion.

      • Robert

        Randal, if there is confusion on the character of the God of the Bible, that is not our fault. He’s God. If he intends to communicate, he would. Instead, he spent at least 3,000 years intervening in the affairs of man on this small speck of dust, crafting thousands of pages for our benefit, and believers to this day are in wild disagreement on what he intended to say, or which parts he actually said. Is this God stupid? Did he seriously think that canonizing threats to eat one’s own children would go unnoticed?

        • randal

          If you want to formalize this into an objection that the God of the Bible cannot be the God of Anselm you can do so. But as you know there is a vast literature defending this equivalence.

          Anyway, let’s not lose sight of the main point: it is inept and confusing to be an antitheist when God is defined as that being than which none greater can be conceived.

          • Walter

            But as you know there is a vast literature defending this equivalence.

            Vast and quite unconvincing to many of us.

            Anyway, let’s not lose sight of the main point: it is inept and confusing to be an antitheist when God is defined as that being than which none greater can be conceived.

            Perhaps, but we both know that antitheists are really anti-religionists. It’s not the hypothetical tri-omni ground-of-all-being god that they object strenuously to, it’s the nasty anthropopathic deities found in the “revealed” religions that they object to.

            • randal

              “Perhaps, but we both know that antitheists are really anti-religionists. It’s not the hypothetical tri-omni ground-of-all-being god.”

              That’s not entirely true. One brand of antitheism is directed squarely at the “tri-omni” God and the problem of evil. That was Ivan’s protest in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan protested that the tri-omni God cannot justify himself over-against the cries of one young girl tossed to the bottom of a latrine.

              • Walter

                Ivan protested that the tri-omni God cannot justify himself over-against the cries of one young girl tossed to the bottom of a latrine.

                Which reminds me of the famous quote by Epicurus:

                “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

                • randal

                  Walter surely you are well aware that philosophy of religion is no longer grappling with Epicurus’ question since the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity is logically compatible with the amount, degree and distribution of evil in the world.

                  • Walter

                    Free will theodicies seem sufficient to explain moral evil, but natural evil is a little tougher to justify. Which brings to mind a quote by David Attenborough:

                    “My response is that when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind. And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy.”

                    • randal

                      The responses to Epicurus encompass natural evil too.

                      But that is a great quote from Attenborough. Thanks for providing it. (It would be even better if I could hear him saying it since he’s the best nature narrator since Lorne Greene.)

          • Robert

            If you want to formalize this into an objection that the God of the Bible cannot be the God of Anselm you can do so.

            I estimate a non-zero chance that the moon is made out of cheese. It’s close enough to zero to be indistinguishable to all but mathematicians, but it’s still a chance.

            So my response is we don’t need to formalize an objection that the God of the Bible cannot be the God of Anselm. We just need to show that it’s unlikely. On that smaller burden, I think the Argument from Confusion is successful.

            • randal

              The argument from confusion is a family of arguments. Present the balloon that you think is successful and I’ll pull out my pins.

    • OneWhoKnows

      You know, John Loftus is posting just today that even if he were to accept the truth of Christianity he would not worship God.

      He hates Christians so bad he can taste it.

      • randal

        I’m a Christian and John doesn’t hate me.

      • Brad Haggard

        If memory serves me, that is actually a repost of something he wrote a while ago on his blogspot site. I think Randal took it as an opportunity to argue against this type of anti-theism as well. Maybe Randal could find the post.

  • The Atheist Missionary

    What we loathe is the idea of a superhuman being who would create His own personal Sims game that would predestine even one soul (let alone billions) to an eternity of hellhire. We loathe a superhuman being that demands worship. We loathe a superhuman being who would choose to wait over 100.000 years of human history before sending a saviour. We loathe a superhuman being who would choose to reveal Himself to his creation through an obscure, itinerant Jewish preacher 2000 years ago and then hide from us for the following two millenia. We don’t loathe a superhuman being who permits human originated evils. We don’t loathe Anselm’s god.

    • randal

      TAM, you write as if Anselm were the originator of his own religion rather than a medieval Christian abbot!

      • Robert

        No, TAM writes as if Anselm was wrong.

        • pete

          If you think Anselm was a dolt, go back another 1000+ years to Irenaeus of Lyons who was fighting the Gnostics on the same matter circa pre-200 AD.

          Irenaeus showed, through apostolic succession, the continuity between Yahweh and Jesus, who is defined as Anselm’s God.

          Arguing against this shows a mass ignorance for the literary testimony to this well established fact.

          But of course you could keep arguing as if you were fully knowledgeable on the historicity of the matter

          (not that I claim to be fully there… no PhD’s under my belt yet)

  • The Atheist Missionary

    I just finished Peter Rollins’ Insurrection (Howard Books, 2011). I don’t loathe his god.

    • randal

      I’m not surprised you like his God. After having a conversation with him I wasn’t sure he was a theist. However, it was clear that he was still suffering the after-effects of a severe case of Cartesian anxiety.

      • The Atheist Missionary

        If anyone would like to get stoned without having to consume drugs, just download and listen to Rollins’ An Invitation to Drift series (free on iTunes). I’m not joking.

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

    An atheist who says that God is immoral should ask himself, “If I think God is a fairy tale, why am I trying to re-write it?”

    • Walter

      When I deconverted from Christianity I did not think that God was immoral, I thought that the God of the Abrahamic faiths was immoral, but I comforted myself with the belief that the Abrahamic god is a figment of man’s imagination.

  • Brad Haggard

    I think most American atheists are directing their hate at Tim Tebow right now, just sayin’.

    • Jag Levak

      Checking Google, I mostly get listings for some football player. Is that the person you are referring to? If so, why should that make me feel hatred towards him?

      • The Atheist Missionary

        Jag, Tim Tebow is an American football player and son of Christian Evangelical missionaries. He has a somewhat irritating habit of referring to Jesus Christ as his personal saviour in virtually every public comment. While playing in college, he was known for enscribing Bible verses in the eye black he wore for games. He is a tremendously gifted athlete but, by all accounts, very limited in the passing skills required for success as an NFL quarterback. Despite these limitations, he has led his team to 7 straight victories and most of those have come in the dying minutes of games in almost “miraculous” circirmstances. Tebow draws the ire of many atheists who tire of Christians attributing their good fortune to a deity (i.e. like many players, Tebow points to the sky after scoring touchdowns) while not attributing blame for their bad fortune.

        One is left wondering what the NCAA’s reaction would have been if Tebow had enscribed “Freedom of religions means freedom from religion” under his eyes. Or, better yet, the next time Tebow visits a children’s cancer ward he should point up to the sky and shout: “My God, my God, why have you foresaken these children? What have they done to deserve chemotherapy treatments?”.

        • Brad Haggard

          You know what, TAM, I don’t think it’s just atheists who are gagging themselves. I think a lot of commentators who would consider themselves at least marginally religious are saying beating the drums the loudest.

          I think there’s an interesting conversation here about how we view our sports figures and their expected roles, but that’s for another day and another thread.

          • http://www.atheistmissionary.com/ The Atheist Missionary

            Here is Saturday Night Live’s Tim Tebow skit: http://youtu.be/ul2dhNaQgxM

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

              That Tim Tebow talks about Jesus Christ in public settings, knowing that he will be lampooned for it like this, tells me a lot about his character. No one his age wants to be on the wrong side of an SNL skit. I admire him.

              And, by the way, I think he knows more about the mind of Christ than those who wrote the script for this skit.

        • Jag Levak

          Thanks for the info. Really, I’ve got no problem with him making a fool of himself like that. I’m just wondering how his arrogance, posturing, and boastful phony humility in “confessing” that God has seen fit to shower him with these sports blessings looks to all those Christians who have ever desperately prayed, to no avail, for some way to avoid losing their home, or for the recovery or return of a loved one. Or even how it looks to Christians on the opposing teams. Rather than giving any glory to his God, I think he is more likely trivializing his God.

          • randal

            Jag,

            Don’t be too uncharitable. Tim Tebow is a football player. But he seems like a genuinely amiable, if somewhat naive, person. And I would sooner have a genuinely amiable but somehwat naive individual for a neighbor than a jerk any day of the week.

            • randal
            • Jag Levak

              “Don’t be too uncharitable. Tim Tebow is a football player. But he seems like a genuinely amiable, if somewhat naive, person.”

              Okay, so maybe he’s oblivious to how it looks like a humble boast to say he has only been able to accomplish what he’s done because God saw fit to endow him with sports greatness, and to bless and favor him over his rivals. And maybe he is trivializing his God with the very best of intentions. Doesn’t matter to me. I like the effect of his message either way.

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

                Jag Levak,

                Tebow says that “God doesn’t care about who wins football games.” Rather, Tebow views his sports fame as a platform to proclaim Christ. Rather than trivializing Christ, his message trivializes football – which is as it should be.

                He really is a refreshing kid if you can find a way to discern him through the fog of those who say foolish things – whether pro or con – about him.

                What I love most about him is that he doesn’t seem to buy into Tebowmania. Rather, his buy-in seems to be of Christ.

                • Jag Levak

                  “Tebow views his sports fame as a platform to proclaim Christ”

                  You know, one might suppose that the cosmic god who conjured a trillion galaxies into existence, wowed the crowds with the Old Testament miracles, came to our planet in person, and who has been extolled by the greatest theologians of a religion which has dominated western culture for centuries wouldn’t have to scrounge around for endorsements from sports celebrities. But maybe one would be mistaken in supposing that.

                  • randal

                    God is both transcendent over creation and immanent with it. But he doesn’t have to “scrounge around” for anything.

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

                    You would only suppose such a thing if you ignored 1) the substantial freedom and power He has granted to human beings as His moral agents in the earth, and 2) the proven reluctance of so many of them to acknowledge the truth of His glorious presence in their midst without prodding from one of their own.

                    Even so, He doesn’t scrounge. Rather, He grants the privilege of being the gentle prod to anyone who loves Him enough to pay the price of rejection that comes from those who only harden their hearts more when they’re prodded.

          • Brad Haggard

            In college he was on a rival team and I still wound up rooting for him. If God were listening to him on the football field, that wouldn’t mean God isn’t helping other people as well. But I think his success is more about his personal conviction (empowered by faith), and I kind of expect his performance to regress to the mean here soon. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to watch, though!

            • Jag Levak

              “If God were listening to him on the football field, that wouldn’t mean God isn’t helping other people as well.”

              Do you think that would be of much consolation to those in crisis who felt their heartfelt prayers went unanswered (or worse, were answered with a “no”)? For such people, I suspect that would not void the message that granting a sports figure’s desire for glory in a mere game was a higher priority for God than helping them in their hour of need.

      • Brad Haggard

        Pure snarkiness, Jag, don’t read into too much :)

    • pete

      Bronco’s suck!

  • Jag Levak

    “The concept of God that has been central in the West for millennia is the concept reflected…in Anselm’s being than which none greater can be conceived”

    I never had that concept of God, and it certainly was not how God was described in my church. If by “central” you mean held by a core of theologians, that may be so, but if you asked a thousand randomly selected Christians to describe the God they believe in, in their own words, how many of them do you think would reproduce Anselm’s definition? Most? A simple majority? A third? I think I’d be surprised if it was even 1%.

    Do I loathe Anselm’s God? I don’t know that God. By Anselm’s definition, only God can can conceive of that God. I have no conception of how such a being, infinitely different from myself, would conceive of itself. My adjectives, as I understand them, simply wouldn’t apply.

    • randal

      Jag,

      Yes, this is a minimal definition dominant in the history of Christian theological reflection. It may not be the first definition an unreflective Christian will provide. However, in teaching at a seminary for 9 years I discuss this definition with my students every year, and I have never found a single student who takes issue with it once it is explained to them. In fact, Anselm’s definition is an articulation of what most people do mean when they invoke the concept of God, and that’s part of its genius. It helps people analyze the concept they use regularly.

      Now your attempt to avoid conceding the failure of antitheism is that you cannot conceive of God. Far be it from me to tell you what you can, and cannot conceive. However, the basic idea is quite simple and readily conceivable by a human person of average intellect. God is that being which exemplifies the maximal set of compossible great-making attributes.

      What is a great making attribute? One that, all things being equal, it is better to possess than not. For instance, it is better to be an agent than not, to be powerful than not, to be good than not, and so on. So a perfect being will exemplify all those attributes to the maximal degree (i.e. perfectly). That’s basically what the concept means. Of course we cannot fully understand all that that means, but so what? There are all sorts of things we are able to conceive imperfectly.

      • Walter

        The lesson is not that Anselm’s argument is unsound so much as that it presupposes knowledge (i.e. of God’s essence) that we cannot have. Moreover, the idea that reason points us to the existence of that than which there can be nothing greater is something Aquinas himself endorses as long as it is developed in an a posteriori fashion, as it is in Aquinas’s Fourth Way.

        The quoted section above is an excerpt from a critique of Anselm’s ontological argument from the perspective of a Catholic Thomist, and I think it is saying something similar to what Jag is saying: we can’t truly conceive of God, so we can’t prove his existence a priori.

        Taken from here:
        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/11/anselms-ontological-argument.html

      • Jag Levak

        “the basic idea is quite simple and readily conceivable by a human person of average intellect. God is that being which exemplifies the maximal set of compossible great-making attributes.”

        If I tell you I am thinking of something that is warm, quiet, and massive, that tells you something about it, but is that enough information for you to say you actually have a conception of it? To say God is something infinitely beyond what we can conceive is basically to say God is something we cannot conceive. That is more a conception about a conception of a thing than it is the conception itself of that thing.

        “What is a great making attribute? One that, all things being equal, it is better to possess than not. For instance, it is better to be an agent than not, to be powerful than not, to be good than not, and so on.”

        For me, it started going fuzzy back at “maximal set”. Does that mean the largest number of great making attributes? Are all great-making attributes scored at identical greatness values, or are some great-making attributes greater than others? Has it been established that an infinite being is necessarily going to have a limited set of great making attributes? Because otherwise, “maximal set” would be as meaningless as “largest number”. But would it not be greater to have an unlimited number of great making attributes than to have a limited number? If some great making attributes are greater than others, how are those scored? Did God merely define his own attributes to be maximally great, or did he consider maximal greatness, and then find that he matched the attributes of that set perfectly? Is being an agent compossible with atemporal existence? Is it greater to have destructive power, or to lack destructive power? Is it greater to be a free agent who always chooses to be good, or to be a being who has no choice whatsoever but to be good? Is it greater to be invisible, or apparent? Is any human idea of what seems great to us always going to agree with what seems great to God? Because it seems to me we humans have a lot of different ideas of what makes something great. But if it is possible that a given human could be mistaken about the greatness of a given attribute, how could we determine to what degree we might be mistaken about what would seem great to a being infinitely different from us?

  • clamat

    What is a great making attribute? One that, all things being equal, it is better to possess than not.

    Can you expand a little on what you mean by “all things being equal”? The subsequent examples seem to show that all things are not equal: “All things being equal, good and evil are not equal.” What are the “things” that must be equal if one is to consider one trait “better” than another?

    • randal

      For example, the intuition is that generally speaking it is greater to have power than not. But that doesn’t mean it is greater to have power to engage in evil acts than not. So the “all things being equal” allows us to work with the general concept while recognizing that it may be circumscribed in certain respects.

  • Frank

    Hey… a post dedicated to a statement I made… and I didn’t see it ’til now!

    I am thoroughly confused. I have read the post twice through and really don’t get it. Clearly my lack of philosophical training, but let’s humour me for a moment.

    Is this part of the old bromide that because someone can picture the existence of a perfect being, therefore it must exist and this mere conception of an idea proves it? Never got that one. Besides, that just accounts for a first mover. Nothing to loathe or love about that entity, necessarily, until it gets more attributes.

    Or is it that a very specific god who grants us the chance of an eternal existence in his glorious presence can therefore inflict us with horrific pain and suffering, because the ends justify the means?

    I cannot both deny god and loathe him: that would be absurd. But I am not content to accept that god’s ways are mysterious and I should just put up and shut up. The god of the old testament was bad enough, smiting left and right and ordering parents to sacrifice their children. But at least he left you alone after death, and didn’t promise eternal damnation for failing to obsequiously bow down before him, as the new testament makes explicit.

    If I appear before god someday, and get my question, it will be, why did you cause so much harm to babies and children and the helpless and the starving; natural calamities that have nothing to do with the exercise of free will? (If I am not zapped out of existence for my insolence, a second question might be, why did you permit Gigli to have been filmed?)

    Believe what you will, but to call it ridiculous to gave a pass to a god, for the same acts that we would castigate anyone else for? Pascal can brown-nose; I won’t do it.

    Further, there’s a man who passed away yesterday, a man whose entire life stance and integrity defeats Pascal’s wager utterly. In comparison to this, I suggest we not weigh Teresa’s contributions to the public welfare. At least not today.

    • randal

      Frank, I’m not sure I can be clearer than I already have been. As I said, the argument is not concerned with establishing the truth of theism but the incoherence of antitheism.

      I’ll say a bit more in the blog.

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  • Patrick

    But surely the antitheist is viewing “greatest being which can be conceived” not as a definitional trait, but rather as a description?

    Like if I say I have an Uncle Ted, and add that Uncle Ted is the greatest uncle which can be conceived, you might respond: “Ted? I’ve heard you talk about him before. He’s a dick!”

    When you call him a dick, you’re not saying that the greatest uncle which can be conceived is a dick. You’re saying that Ted, the guy who I’ve described in the past, is a dick. You’re disagreeing with me on my moral evaluation of Ted’s character. You’re saying, “that guy who you claim is the greatest uncle who can be conceived? I can conceive of LOADS of greater uncles.”

    There’s nothing incoherent about that.

    • randal

      “When you call him a dick, you’re not saying that the greatest uncle which can be conceived is a dick.”

      Correct. I’m saying that he’s not the greatest conceivable uncle. It is rational to dislike an uncle who is a jerk. But it is not rational to dislike an uncle who is morally perfect (as the greatest conceivable uncle surely would be). Still less is it rational to hate such an uncle.

      • Patrick

        …so if you intend that answer works as a defense of Christianity against antitheism, you’re saying that given the choice between God as the God of Christ and the Bible on one hand, and God as “the greatest conceivable being” on the other, you’ll ditch Christ and the Bible and go with the greatest conceivable being?

        Good, I guess. But why continue to call that religious perspective Christianity?

        • randal

          I’m not arguing for Christianity here. I’m arguing against antitheism. By analogy, if I argue against the Camaro that doesn’t necessarily amount to an argument for the Mustang, though it may be consistent with purchasing a Mustang. An argument that antitheism is not an argument for Christian theism, though it is consistent with Christian theism.

          • Patrick

            You’re using a “not my theology” answer to the antitheist position. But that’s not a relevant answer unless its true. If the antitheist is just attacking a portion of a theology you hold, you’ll need a more sophisticated response.

            Good logic:

            Tim: Cthulhu is the greatest possible being.

            Rob: I hate Cthulhu because he’s a hideous undersea monstrosity that feasts on the madness and souls of mankind.

            Tim: No, Cthulhu is the greatest possible being, so he must not do those things.

            Rob: Your statement is empirically questionable, but your reasoning is sound.

            Also good reasoning:

            Tim: Cthulhu is the greatest possible being.

            Rob: I hate Cthulhu because he’s a hideous undersea monstrosity that feasts on the madness and souls of mankind.

            Tim: No, the Cthulhu I am talking about is the greatest possible being, so you must be thinking of a different Cthulhu.

            Rob: Your statement is empirically questionable, but your reasoning is sound.

            Not good reasoning:

            Tim: Cthulhu is the greatest possible being.

            Rob: I hate Cthulhu because he’s a hideous undersea monstrosity that feasts on the madness and souls of mankind.

            Tim: Yeah, Cthulhu does that, but I’ve defined him as the greatest possible being so its not logical for you to object to the whole soul-eating thing.

            See the problem? In the final example, Tim didn’t show a logical contradiction in Rob’s position. He instead CREATED a logical contradiction (based on Rob’s moral views, of course) in his OWN interpretation of the nature of Cthulhu. Rob isn’t going to think that Tim is making a good point in the final example. He’s going to think that Tim’s Cthulhu theology is contradictory because it claims a soul eating monstrosity from beyond reality is actually the greatest possible being.

            TLDR: You can’t say “you’re not attacking my theology” unless its true. Is it?

            • randal

              Patrick, I don’t understand what you’re going on about here. The question is whether it is coherent to hope that no maximally perfect being exists. No, that isn’t coherent. Anti-theism loses and we all go out for buffalo wings to celebrate.

              • Patrick

                I don’t understand why you don’t understand. I’m pointing out that even if anti-theism is, defined very strictly against a very strict definition of God, incoherent….

                1. That incoherence arises because of a perceived (by the anti-theist) incoherence in the use of the word “God” by religious people, and

                2. Anti-theism still communicates meaningfully, and

                3. Whether the alleged incoherence of anti-theism is usefully applied to featureless theism is a separate question from whether it is usefully applied to your actual beliefs, and

                4. If anti-theism is usefully applied to your actual beliefs, then it isn’t incoherent for people to use it, and

                5. If anti-theism is NOT usefully applied to your actual beliefs, I’d be really interested in knowing why.

                So I gave a number of examples of people having a conversation where the alleged incoherence of anti-theism arose, and showed the different ways those conversations could be resolved.

                • randal

                  Let’s stop at your first point: “1. That incoherence arises because of a perceived (by the anti-theist) incoherence in the use of the word “God” by religious people”

                  The word “religious” is enormously contested and people mean many different things when they say “God”. The crucial issue is this: would you prefer that a maximally perfect being exist or not?

                  • Patrick

                    “The word “religious” is enormously contested and people mean many different things when they say “God”.”

                    “The crucial issue is this: would you prefer that a maximally perfect being exist or not?”

                    The first quote explains why I don’t agree that the second accurately reflects “the crucial issue.”

                    • randal

                      Patrick, your reasoning is a fine example of a non sequitur since what people mean by “religious” or “God” is of no consequence to whether we should prefer that a perfect being exist or not.

                      However, let me add: I’ve taught in a seminary for a decade now. Over that time I introduce the concept of most perfect being to about thirty seminarians every year. Never in a decade have I had one of approximately 250-300 students take exception to the definition as applied to God. And I suspect few if any Christians who had the concept explained to them would deny that God is the most perfect being there could be. (They may disagree on what constitutes perfection and thus what God is like, but they’d all agree that God is objectively perfect.)

                      Regardless, what Christians or other people believe or ought to believe about God is irrelevant to the issue of whether we ought to hope that God, defined as the most perfect being there could be, exists.

                    • Patrick

                      You have made two arguments. One is that anti theism is incoherent under the “maximally perfect being” definition of God. Another is that anti theism is “ridiculous.”

                      The former does not prove the latter, because maximally perfect being is not the sole trait attributed to God by most religious persons or traditions.

                      That’s why I’ve been conceding the incoherence under the maximally perfect being definition, and then giving you examples of ways that the anti theist position communicates meaningfully and effectively during conversations about religion.

                      If you’re going to take such a strong stand on a philosophical analysis of the coherence of an argument, you need to do a better job keeping track of other people’s positions. Live by the quibble, and die by it.

                    • randal

                      “The former does not prove the latter, because maximally perfect being is not the sole trait attributed to God by most religious persons or traditions.”

                      Your non sequitur restated.

                    • randal

                      Let’s say a person attributes properly x to the most perfect being. You believe that property x is inconsistent with the existence of a most perfect being. Then when you hope that a most perfect being exists, you obviously will not be hoping (or believing) that a most perfect being exemplifies x.

  • mandas

    This is so simple I am confused how you can keep getting this wrong.

    You cannot hate something that does not exist.

    • Robert

      Sure you can. Hate is a property that describes your own mind, not a property of the thing you hate.

      • Robert

        In other words, if the universe came with little XML tags, [hate target="God"/] would be attached to the hater, not to God.

    • randal

      Let’s say that you come home and find your house has been burnt down. The fire investigator tells you there is a 10% chance that it was arson. Given the probabilities you would believe it is likely that nobody intentionally burnt your house down. But it is perfectly consistent with that to say that if somebody did burn your house down that you will hate that person. This is a very simple psychological state. I’m surprised you find it confusing.

  • piero

    Anselm’s God? Are we seriously considering, in the 21st century, that Anselm’s God is a coherent concept? Consider “the smallest conceivable distance”. What is it? For any answer you offer, I can halve it. So the smallest conceivable distance is not something we can actually conceive, and hence the definition contains its own refutation.

    Similarly, “the greatest conceivable being” is not a well-formed concept. Conceivable by whom? By me? By the greatest mind in existence? By Deep Thought? What would it mean to conceive of the greatest conceivable being?

    Suppose we agreed to accept Anselm’s definition anyway. How could I possibly ascertain that my concept coincides with anyone else’s? There are no criteria for comparison, because nothing has really been said about the being in question. “The greatest conceivable being” is but a syntactic trick devoid of content. It is equivalent to “the hardest imaginable art history exam question”; what is it? Who knows it? Has anyone been able to imagine it and to prove that indeed no other question could be harder?

    It is impossible to hate an incoherent concept. It is also impossible to hate a coherent but silly concept such as the God of the Bible or Allah. How could I hate a being with an infinitesimal probability of existing? For the same reason, I don’t hate diamond-eating lizards.

    But let’s, for the sake of argument, accept the existence of the God of the Bible. Our predicament would be analogous to that of a virtual being in a computer simulation with respect to the programmer. If the virtual being has to endure unnecessary and pointless suffering in its simulated world, would it not be justified in hating the programmer, should it ever be established beyond doubt that such a being exists?

    That’s my postion as an anti-theist: I do not hate a currently improbable entity, but should I be proven wrong, I’d surely hate it.

    • randal
      • piero

        There used to be a large body of literature on alchemy, and on the Bermuda triangle.

        The concept of perfection is itself incoherent, unless you are a Platonist, in which case you have plenty of work ahead of you: for a start, you’d need to provide some evidence that a realm of ideas actually exists outside our brains, Good luck with that.

        What is a “perfect” hamburger? If we cannot answer that pedestrian question, is it not rational to interpret “perfection” as meaning simply “as good as I have ever come across”?

        Hence, before I start delving into “perfect being theology” (which I’m sure would be an incredibly tedious chore), I need an answer to a simple question: what is a “perfect” hamburger? If you cannot answer that, I’m afraid all the perfect being theology in the universe is but a colossal waste of time.

        • randal

          “The concept of perfection is itself incoherent, unless you are a Platonist, in which case you have plenty of work ahead of you: for a start, you’d need to provide some evidence that a realm of ideas actually exists outside our brains, Good luck with that.”

          This is an interesting response. You begin with a blushing concession: the concept of perfection is only “incoherent” if you accept a particular metaphysic. That’s quite a retreat on your part. It is also false. You don’t have to be a platonist to say that 20/20 is perfect human vision.

          Your “perfect hamburger” is a canard equivalent to someone objecting to the concept of gender by saying “what is a “male” rock? If you cannot answer that, I’m afraid all the talk of gender is but a colossal waste of time.”

      • piero

        OK, I’ve had a look at your posts on the concept of a most perfect being, and I regret to say I’m not impressed. No explanation of the concept of a perfect hamburger was ever provided. I’d be happy to accept an explanation of the concept of a perfect Yugo in its stead.

        • randal

          Apparently you didn’t read the articles with very much care. Perhaps your preoccupation with hamburgers has clouded your vision. In the article “God is maximally great, God is perfectly good” I explained that “The most perfect being is the being with the maximal number of compossible great-making attributes.” I then unpacked the definition:

          This first premise is merely defining what the concept of a most perfect being is. As I have already noted, the notion of a great-making attribute is objective. All things being equal it really is better to be an agent than a non-agent, to have knowledge rather than to lack it, to have power rather than to lack it, to have goodness rather than to lack it. Based on this kind of intuitive reflection we can build step-wise toward the concept of a most perfect being.

          Keep in mind as well the term compossibility. For example, it is better to have free will than not. But whatever freedom the most perfect being will have must be compossible with its other great-making attributes. If omnibenevolence and necessary existence are considered among the being’s great-making attributes, then free will cannot be understood to include the ability to do evil actions or to existingush oneself.

          • piero

            I disagree, and I have several objections:

            First, you cannot conceive of the greatest conceivable being by successive addition of characteristics in a finite time. By your argument, God would be limited to what we can think of in a lifetime, even if we did nothing else (and then our lifespan would be reduced to a few days, in any case). In short, “the greatest conceivable being” is an incoherent concept. It exists a a mere string of letters, and has no referent either in external reality or within our minds. If you disagree, I would be very pleased if you could describe, in a finite time and within a finite writing space, precisely what properties does the greatest conceivable being possess.

            Second, the criteria for greatness that you gave as examples are obviously of human origin. Why should a creator be bound by the properties that its creatures think constitute greatness? A child could believe that the greatest parents are those that buy their kids the most presents.

            Take, for example, knowledge. Is it greater to know everything or to know nothing? Obviously, you would reply that it is better to know everything. But nobody has ever known everything, and nobody with a working brain has ever known nothing, so we have no communicable experience of what knowing everything or knowing nothing would be like. We certainly value adding new knowledge to the one we possess, but we value that for pragmatic reasons (to increase our chances of survival) or to stroke our egos. The greatest conceivable being would either have infinite knowledge, which we know nothing about, and could hence be a nightmare for poor God; or it could have just the right amount of knowledge required to be the greatest conceivable being, and we know nothing about that either. In short, “the greatest conceivable being” is, unfortunately for Anselm, in fact inconceivable. Only the greatest conceivable being could conceive of the greatest conceivable being, and I’m sure you wouldn’t like to go down that self-referential, question begging, paradox-ridden path.

            Third, the ontological argument is but a convoluted way of stating the following simple (and silly) argument:

            -GOD IS THE GREATEST CONCEIVABLE BEING.

            -The concept of the greatest conceivable being exists as a construct.

            -A construct IS NOT GREAT ENOUGH FOR GOD, because GOD IS THE GREATEST CONCEIVABLE BEING, and so it must be something more dignified than a mere idea.

            -Hence, God exists.

            You can see that the parts in capital letters either assume the existence of God or the intelligibility of “the greatest conceivable being”.

            As Raymond Smullyan put it, the ontological argument boils down to:

            An existing God exists.

            Well, of course an existing God exists: we all agree that a green house is green, don’t we? The problem is showing an existing God. If you can do that, then you can use the ontological argument (but at that point, why bother? You would already have shown an existing God!)

            • randal

              “First, you cannot conceive of the greatest conceivable being by successive addition of characteristics in a finite time.”

              I don’t even know what you’re saying here. The most pefect being is that being that exemplifies the maximal set of compossible great-making attributes. That’s it. I don’t need a lot of time to define that. It only takes around 8 seconds.

              “Second, the criteria for greatness that you gave as examples are obviously of human origin.”

              You’re assuming an anti-realism about our concepts without argument. But Piero you actually do need to defend anti-realism, i.e. give a reason to adopt a general skepticism about our greatness and modal intuitions.

              “Third, the ontological argument is but a convoluted way of stating the following simple (and silly) argument….”

              No, that’s a strawman of your own invention. But if you want to be stupid, go ahead. If, on the other hand, you decide you want to be informed and not stupid, I recommend you start with Robert Maydole’s essay “The Ontological Argument” in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

  • Robert

    Randal, do you think “perfect” is an objective or subjective state of being?

    A perfect circle is one that exactly conforms to a mathematical equation. What exactly does God conform to? Himself?

    I’m not seeking an argument over definitions of the word “perfect”. I’m just wondering what the theist thinks “perfect” means for God if God has no standard external to himself. If God’s perfection is simply whatever God happens to be, then we can drop the tautology and just say that God is. There’s no use in using the word “perfect” as if “perfect” would add something meaningful to his description.

    • randal

      At its core the concept of perfection requires that a particular entity exemplify a property of excellence. To say that God is the most perfect being (i.e. greatest being) is simply to say that he exemplifies the maximal set of compossible properties of excellence (i.e. great-making properties).

      • piero

        Randal, you keep chasing your own tail. Perfection, maximal excellence, great-making properties: what have you achieved with such pointless circular definitions? You might as well try to define time.

        As I said in a previous post, the ontological argument is but a philosophical joke. It has been rebutted even during Anselm’s lifetime.

        It should be obvious that a purely formal argument can never prove the existence of anything, save for a conceptual object: can you prove the existence of cannibals in Pluto? Of course not: existence of an actual entity outside our minds requires empirical evidence.

        Even if the ontological argument were valid, the God it purports to prove is akin to the greatest common divisor of two integers. I.e., a concept that exists only within our minds. Imagine a universe composed entirely of stars an planets, with no life and no minds. Obviously, in such a universe the greatest common divisor of two integers would not exist: how can a conceptual object exist with no minds to support it?