Ralph: Randal, thanks for taking the time to respond and for being gracious in allowing me the final post; I appreciate it. This is a rather long reply, I warn you in advance.
One stumbling block here has been, as your commenters acknowledge, that we have been talking slightly at cross purposes as regards our respective definitions of ‘God’. From the outset I thought it crucial to dispute the existence of the type of God imagined by the religious and in scripture (caring, intervening, omniscient). Not to do so would have been bizarre given, as I have said, that yours is a Christian website. The atheist always needs an image of God whose existence he rejects, and it is frustrating when the goalposts constantly shift. Scriptural contradictions are in my view a very direct and simple way of demonstrating that grandiose religious claims are largely ridiculous. You say “Remember I defined God minimally as the necessary agent cause of contingent reality”; no, Randal, you didn’t. You never said that in this discussion, and that isn’t the image of God an atheist is expected to disprove. That’s simply a first cause. That would be a very different discussion to one in which the existence of a perfect, caring deity is proposed, as it is by billions of people across the world; you absolutely cannot deny that this is the image of God to which you subscribe, and you therefore shouldn’t run away from having to defend it. All I was ever asked to do was “provide some reasons why you think that God does not exist”. Nowhere did you yourself define the type of God you were imagining, and God isn’t supposed to be simply a first cause, as you well know.
I ought briefly to tackle the objection I raised as regards your description of my list as ‘long’. Not much to say here, really. All I meant was that you oughtn’t have used the word ‘long’ to criticise my list of reasons, you ought just to have said ‘scattered’. In including ‘long’, if anything you inadvertently did me a service because, if my objections are valid (and I have been given no reason to think otherwise), theism has a vast amount to respond to, not just one objection. I was clearly not implying that your only objection to my list was its length, as I went on to address your other criticisms.
Your objection to my definition of ‘religion’ is pedantic but incorrect anyway; I didn’t say that the religion had to involve a personal deity, I made use of a definition that said that religion tends (but does not need) to involve a personal God or gods. When I use the word ‘religion’, yes, largely I have in mind their monotheistic manifestations representing billions of people; it is very clear that these – Christianity and Islam, for example – are those retarding the world most severely. So what function has been performed in making this distinction? Monotheistic religions are my primary concern, but I see similar problems inherent in all religions. If I had wanted to imply that my problem was just minority religions (e.g. Scientology) I would have made this clear, but no-one was under that impression.
I’ll explain what you do in debate and why atheists like myself find it exasperating trying to pin theologians down in order to establish actual points and prevent the whole exchange becoming an exercise in futility. I have seen many theists in debate use the same tactics in order to dodge awkward problems. Personally I like to write clearly and avoid ambiguity; theologians revel in making matters seem unnecessarily cloudy and unclear, and showing off somewhat by believing points to have been scored through the use of dense but virtually incomprehensible rhetoric.
You make strange comparisons like your hospital one – in other words, you say that yes, religious people are often psychopathic lunatics, but hospitals occasionally make people iller – and then you seem to wander off, believing yourself to have proven a point. The comparison here is obviously invalid (excuse the pun) because no-one claims that hospitals are divine or in any way the products of a perfect being. They are totally human constructs and have all the attributes and flaws thereof. In other words, while it is of course advisable that one should visit a hospital if ill, the presence of others’ bacteria and germs is never disputed, and thus the action becomes a risk but one that is probably worth taking. But in the case of religion one is told that, for example, the Pope is the ‘vicar of Christ on Earth’ and that he is infallible because he has in some sense been elected by God. Then of course he demonstrates that he is perfectly capable of disgustingly immoral preachments and acts. Now, why would he have a tendency to do so if the proposition were true – that he is in some sense divinely commanded? This is not at all a non sequitur, Randal. One must use Occam’s razor here and look at the likeliest explanation: none of these people – not Jesus, not Joseph Ratzinger, not Mohammed – is divine, because the ‘divine’ is a human invention. They may be theologians but they have no relationship with the divine. They may be do nice things but they have no relationship with the divine. As well as your comparison being invalid you don’t even deny my contention – that religion corrupts people. You just use the phraseology “Even if it were true”. So, once again, you haven’t levelled a coherent objection here, you’ve just tried to dismiss a point that, if followed to its logical conclusion, bolsters my 16 other arguments in support of there being no God: if there were a God, at the very least one would expect his spokespersons to be noticeably more moral; if there were not, one would expect them to succumb to the same (and possibly more serious) pitfalls as the rest of us. As I have already made clear, I intended not for any of these points to stand alone as a knock-out argument against God’s existence, but rather (given that you asked me for reasons in the plural form) that they would inform one another and all contribute to a stronger whole. I am fully aware that religion corrupting doesn’t directly prove that God doesn’t exist; but if religion did nothing but purify and improve, the atheist would have one fewer piece of ammunition. In a similar sense I watched with dismay the reactions to Derren Brown’s recent programme on religion, in which he managed through the power of suggestion to create a sustained sense of religiosity in a participant who was staunchly atheist prior to the show. Christians wrote things like “That doesn’t prove that religion is false!”; no, obviously not, but what does it prove? It proves that we are always able – and surprisingly willing – to be tricked into believing comforting falsities. And of course it is my contention (as well as Brown’s) that religion can be demonstrated to be one of these falsities. This is very important when placing such incredible trust in the authors of scripture, for example; all humans are exactly that: human. They are therefore deeply fallible and are no less so when pretending to have divine warrant. This is absolutely crucial when we are trying to answer questions about miracles, for example – should we place more trust in the natural world, or the word of fellow humans? Not difficult.
As regards Hell, what you actually did in our chat on Unbelievable was confirm that the majority of Christians support the disgusting notion of a Hell in which conscious and eternal torment takes place. So again, I need to ask you: to exactly what must I object, in order to satisfy your rubric? In Christianity’s case, surely it must be either the Bible or the belief held by the majority of Christians today. If an atheist attacks something in the Bible as proof of the ridiculous nature of supposedly holy texts, a Christian will generally wave the objection away and say that Christians these days don’t hold to a literalist interpretation of scripture. Fine. So when I critique the proposition made by, in your own admission, the majority of contemporary Christians, I’m told that “Christians hold various different views on the nature of Hell”; yes, of course they do, because they’re making stuff up as they go along. But this is the goalposts problem to which I referred earlier: you cannot deny that the existence and nature of Hell are central to a mainstream Christian faith and thereby class them as out of bounds for discussion. I also don’t think you can run away from my argument that the positing of a punishment for non-belief indicates weakness in the veracity of the belief. Because, unlike a Vitamin C analogy I have seen you make, there is absolutely no proof that believing in God (= consuming Vitamin C) is requisite for eternal life (= a healthier body); the proposition is taken on faith and faith alone. The logical conclusion is that, if you want people to believe something too fanciful to be true, it’s advisable to 1) fabricate a punishment that awaits them if they don’t; 2) claim that faith is just as, if not more, important than evidence.
The view that there will be “a posthumous period of reformational suffering followed by universal reconciliation” is, as you imply, less evil than the doctrine of Hell, but in essence it’s equally ridiculous and so of course I can object to it. From where someone who thinks this believes they have obtained this detailed information I absolutely cannot fathom. “A period of reformational suffering”? What does this mean? Do they think, in other words, that as an atheist I will die, endure a period of suffering (at the hands of their all-loving God, presumably), and then be ‘reconciled’ with him afterwards? If he’s inflicted suffering on me I’m going to say, “I don’t want to be reconciled with you, thanks. You’re a nasty bully. Please put the knife down. Where’s the door?” And by definition this position has to mean that someone like Adolf Hitler will go through a bit of reformational suffering and then hang out with everyone with God afterwards; is he still going to be as he was in this life, or will he have miraculously adopted a different personality? One really must underline how fatuous this position is. The existence of Hell wouldn’t, you’re correct, mean that God couldn’t exist, but it would mean that any God that existed couldn’t be loving, which is one of the qualities he is supposed to possess. We return here to what type of God I’m supposed to be objecting to; my contention here is that none of the loving Gods imagined by the religious could possibly exist if Hell existed. Annihilationism, your own stance, is equally unfalsifiable but implausible. It is, however, the least objectionable of the options.
Yes, you do of course raise a pertinent and difficult question as regards Hitchens, North Korea, and anti-theism. (I am of the opinion that, however much Hitchens despised religion, he occasionally made his descriptions more theatrical for audiences.) Of course, the anti-theist is backed into a slight corner because the more he objects to religion, the more ammunition his theist opponents think they can use. (The corollary is, however, equally true of the theist.) I don’t know that my desire for there not to be God is less powerful than the theist’s desire that there be one; I have simply pointed out the discrepancies between the two. It seems self-evident to me that the wish that there be a loving father figure who cures all ills and wipes dry all tears is going to be significantly stronger than the simple desire to disappear after death. One is a proposition made on evidence that cannot be known by mortals; the other is a conclusion reached upon evidence readily available to everyone. We don’t know enough to say that the possibility of an afterlife is impossible but we do know enough to say that a spectacular level of ambition and dishonesty is being demonstrated by those who claim to know. One has to remember two things here: a) the atheist doesn’t believe that as a result of his disbelief there will be no Heaven, Hell, God, etc; and b) the theist believes that believing in a certain God will increase their chances of reaching Heaven etc. These are two very distinct mindsets: one is the contention that variations in one’s neurological functions alter one’s fate and relationship with the entire cosmos both here and in the afterlife; and the other is the modest contention that these variations do not. I know which to me sounds the more mature and devoid of any real sense of wishful thinking. Remember again that in believing there to be no afterlife the atheist acknowledges that ultimate punishment will not be dealt to upon those who have committed great evil but died before justice being done – this is in no sense wishful thinking, Randal, it simply lumps everyone into the same boat. A serial murderer, for example, is not going to suffer punishment in the afterlife if he doesn’t get caught in this life – I see no evidence of wishful thinking in a belief system that applies consistency so honestly. Unwelcome life’s realisations may be, but one has a duty to accept them like adults.
It seems to me that after analysing my Epicurus objection you’re left with the belief that something probably caused the universe but that this something isn’t omnipotent or omnibenevolent; I genuinely don’t see how that something could be awarded the official stamp of God, but that’s your problem, not mine. It’s enough for me to have demonstrated that God isn’t omnipotent and omnibenevolent, which you did perfectly well on my behalf.
Yes, debating theologians is exactly as Anthony Flew’s garden analogy illustrates. It’s very sweet to compare the theory of evolution, constantly reinforced and constantly supported, to the faith-based claim that God exists, but it just doesn’t wash. The belief that God exists has already reached the critical point you describe, at which it can be “effectively abandoned”. This point was reached more than a century ago. (Indeed, it isn’t even necessary to believe in God while being a priest these days; rather, the importance of religion is what is stressed, as opposed to its objective truth.) The central tenets of religion are simply being gradually eroded by education and the ridding of superstition. You yourself have already acknowledged that it isn’t important even to believe that God is omnipotent; that’s not a minor modification to a theory, Randal, that’s an absolutely devastating blow to it. As I have already made clear, the theistic argument survives so desperately on the desire for humans to be unable to explain the most mysterious of problems: that of how our universe came to be. But not knowing absolutely does not mean that the answer is God. You – and indeed theists generally – don’t recognise the non sequitur staring you in the face. As we learn more and more about the cosmos, theism becomes increasingly obviously a faith-based position.
You go on to bring in objective moral values as an objection to my objection. I have never considered the objective morality problem solved by theism or any appeal to the supernatural, in part because I don’t accept the premise of the dilemma. There is no real problem. I don’t see any evidence suggesting that objective morality exists; morality evolves over time and no-one, let alone the religious, has any ‘source’ of objective morals; if they did, why are the vast majority of prison inmates religious? Why would God not make this objective morality more easily obtainable for those who serve him? We have evolved a relatively sophisticated sense of morality due to the development of our cranial capacities, our societal obligations, and our selfish genes; generally we find certain actions reprehensible because in evolutionary terms they would be a threat to our survival. Claiming that God in some strange sense grants access to objective moral values answers nothing; morality is always contextual and subjective, and religion is in fact a perfect exemplar of this because we have evolved to consider immoral so many of the actions granted divine warrant in religion’s supposedly God-inspired texts. There’s no argument here. Yours is an unfalsifiable stance; if the religious said that something was immoral in the 18th century but moral in the 21st (as is so often the case), the theist doesn’t see this as evidence of the weakness of his point, he merely asserts with no proof that somehow God provides a ‘basis’ for objective morality. Well, how would one hypothetically gain access to this basis? Subjectively. How could one ever determine that this objective basis existed, if the contention is that by definition this standard is governed by the supernatural? There is absolutely no reason to think that if God were the gatekeeper to morality, he wouldn’t have created us all with the innate inability to be immoral; this is of course not the case because we have no such guardian and are always evolving in imperfect bodies in an imperfect world. Theistic attempts to square ‘free will’ with a God that nonetheless apparently provides humans with a basis for ‘objective morality’ are by definition incoherent. Easier and more logical to assume that there is no celestial law-giver, hence our inability to arrive at solid moral conclusions.
We constantly struggle and suffer with morality, it is absolutely not something about which we can feel or obtain certainty. It is also a quality that other animals demonstrate; how can this be reconciled with the existence of God? I’d also like to point out that the dilemma over why humans would want themselves and others to survive, is not only not answered but seriously damaged by religion’s message because religion posits an afterlife in which everything will be perfect. What need therefore is there to do anything on this planet? Why not just say that one loves God and receive the reward immediately? An additional problem is that Christians, for example, will cite the Bible as an authority on morality one moment and then, the next, as being totally separate to an argument about morality. I have never seen anything remotely impressive about the paper-thin argument of objective morality put forward by the religious. It certainly doesn’t come close to addressing my objection to God’s existence on the basis of the presence of evil; it’s akin to my saying that homosexuality is harmless and you replying “Yes but how you know what ‘harmless’ MEANS?” It is in my opinion evidence of a weak argument. And as for the pointing to the irrationality of human morality, this is as futile as pointing to the irrationality of language: one could say that it is deeply irrational of us to suppose that pressing labelled keys on a keyboard actually imparts any meaning into them, but the fact of the mater is that it does because we have deemed that it does. Morality is analogous to language in this sense: initially primitive, but constantly refined as time goes on. One doesn’t need a God to explain morality any more than one needs a God to explain language.
As regards suffering, I find this ‘greater good’ waffle very insulting to the people concerned, actually – it’s a cop-out and a refusal to address the problem properly, because the explanation of God suffices in no sense whatsoever. This defence has always been dying an agonising death and the ‘greater good’ argument is its final whimper. The theist is reduced to the desperate hope that there must be some ‘greater good’ served by horrific suffering, not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of blind faith. The argument looks to an atheist exactly like this: “Praise the Lord, what a wonderful world we live in. Oh no, I just stepped in some shit. Ah yes – that’s probably God’s way of telling me I ought to polish my shoes more often. Praise the Lord!” What it means in practice is that one is perfectly at liberty to attribute extraordinary events in our universe – its fine-tuning, its beauty, etc. – to a perfect God, but then to claim that the bad things aren’t in fact bad because something good is bound to come of them. Do you make the same claims about the various useless physical properties that animals possess – e.g. nipples on male animals? These also need to be the intended product of a perfect deity, do they not? As was the case with your other stance, the contention here is unfalsifiable – and unfalsifiability is the property of a weak argument. To suggest to someone that their worsening Alzheimer’s, for example, is the intended product of a mysterious but benevolent deity is spectacularly offensive.
Now onto the “necessary cause of contingent reality”. I have never seen a convincing argument positing that ‘God’ would have to be this cause, nor an argument that managed to wiggle successfully out of the question: if God is simply allowed to be eternal, why not assume that the universe is eternal? There is no escaping an infinite regress, in other words. The argument is a delight for people who need to have simple, concrete answers to intensely difficult questions. Here’s Bertrand Russell:
“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. … There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.”
There is no evidence for the idea that God didn’t begin to exist but, and this is the angle at which I like to examine the points being made, positing not just a first cause but a ‘God’ is simply declaring one to have reached a conclusion that cannot possibly be reached yet – it is pretending to have an answer before knowing all of the facts. (I consider it highly significant that theistic physicists are in a tiny minority.) Needless to say, even if one imagines that there was some type of ‘first’ or ‘necessary’ ’cause’, one need not attribute any properties to this ’cause’ because there is absolutely no evidence in support of the claims really being made of this God: that he is bothered about our lives; that he is all-powerful, perfect, etc (let alone that he would go through the ridiculous rigmarole of ‘sacrificing’ his son for the people in the world he created). I actually believe that if there were a kind of super-being responsible for creating the universe, he would be all-powerful and he would be omniscient etc; the fact that the second claim is so obviously false leads one to realise the improbability of the first.
A first cause argument wouldn’t prove anything – it wouldn’t prove that this imagined God was alone in creating the universe; that he wasn’t evil; nor that he is still lingering around listening tirelessly to our boring complaints. Attributing a sort of personal agency to the universe is an understandable but silly mistake to make; at the very most our position ought to be agnostic as we have no reason to believe that the universe is ‘designed’ any more than living creatures are. For more on this, Laurence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing and much of Stephen Hawking’s work are well worth reading, as is Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. To quote the latter:
“The universe visible to us contains a hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars. But by far the greatest portion of the universe that expanded exponentially from the original chaos, at least fifty orders of magnitude more, lies far beyond our horizon. The universe we see with our most powerful telescopes is but a grain of sand in the Sahara. Yet we are supposed to think that a supreme being exists who follows the path of every particle, while listening to every human thought and guiding his favorite football teams to victory. Science has not only made belief in God obsolete. It has made it incoherent.”
In claiming there to be a mind behind all of creation, one also has to address the problem of our Earth’s impending destruction: why ‘plan’ that? Why create a planet on which you place your most precious creation, and then damn it to a fiery fate you could easily have avoided? There are no answers to these questions because they don’t even need asking – Occam’s razor once again. Do I think it’s a coincidence that the world’s foremost physicists believe that the world can operate and have begun without any recourse to the supernatural? No, I do not. The arguments are coherent and their proponents extraordinarily intelligent. I am an atheist because religion asks one to make phenomenal leaps of faith and assume astronomically significant things on the basis of extremely weak evidence. It is more intelligent, and a great deal more mature, to admit that we cannot make such ludicrous assumptions and that only through science and rational human endeavour will we reach a proper understanding of the incredible world in which we live.
Thank-you once again, Randal, for continuing our conversation. Needless to say, you have given me no reason whatsoever to think there to be any truth in the extraordinary claims you make, but I hope we’ve entertained a few people.