I’ve had a number of fascinating discussions about the possible nature of God (or gods) on Facebook over the past few weeks. It’s inspired me to summarize some of my thoughts (and those of others) in this article.
Atheists define themselves as “lacking a belief in God or gods” (a denial of any particular belief with respect to gods). Some use a slightly different version and say they “believe God or gods don’t exist” (an assertion of knowledge that there is/are no God/gods).
Whichever of these two ways one approaches atheism, the most obvious question to ask is, “Who is this God you don’t believe in? Which God or gods?” If we can actually say the sentence, “I don’t believe in God” we ought to have some idea what it is we’re talking about. Even an empirical physicalist knows we have to define a thing before we can collect objective evidence about that thing.
Without some common conception, it’s like one person saying, “I love chocolate ice cream, don’t you?” and another one answering, “No, I hate apples.” It adds information to the conversation but isn’t relevant to the question asked.
One obvious and common answer is something like, “In the history of humanity, there have been 3,500 different gods. Christians, for example, don’t believe in 3,499 of them; atheists just don’t believe in one more.”
While witty, the argument is a bit inadequate. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all argue that their God is different from all the other gods in history. The Abrahamic God is considered by believers to be the One True God, the Creator of All, the All-Knowing and All-Powerful. They challenge atheists to prove otherwise. I’ve previously taken up that challenge in a set of four earlier posts.
Many other religions have had a rich history of gods. For example, prior to the expansion of the Abrahamic religions, the Greeks also had an interesting creation myth:
“In the beginning there was only Chaos.
Chaos was, according to Greek mythology, the origin of everything, and the first thing that ever existed. It was the primordial void, the source out of which everything was created, including the universe and the gods. The first primordial deities that emerged out of Chaos were Gaea (earth), Tartarus (underworld) and Eros (love), while later Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night) also popped out. According to Hesiod, Chaos was also a place, much like Tartarus and the Heavens later, beyond which the Titans lived.
Then out of the void appeared Erebus, the unknowable place where death dwells, and Night. All else was empty, silent, endless, dark. Then, Love was born bringing along the beginning of order. From Love emerged Light, followed by Gaea, the earth.”
Note that the Chaos at the very beginning seems to have come into existence (or perhaps existed eternally) without a specific Creator, but was the source from which everything else arose beginning with the primordial deities Gaea, Tartarus, Eros, Erebus, and Nyx.
[While the opening line of the Greek creation myth is remarkably similar to the one from The Reality Thief, I swear this is just a coincidence.]
Zeus, most commonly known as the presiding deity of the Greek universe, was born from the Titans, Chronus and Rhea. In Greek mythology, Zeus was ruler of the skies and the earth, and was regarded by the Greeks as the god of all natural phenomena on the sky; the personification of the laws of nature; the ruler of the state; and finally, the father of gods and men.
Contrast this with the Creator God of the Old Testament Bible:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
There’s no mention of where this “God” may have come from, nothing came before Him and He made everything after, all on His own. Many believers will say, “God is beyond understanding” claiming that we are too intellectually ignorant to even be able to define what God might be.
Modern “spiritualists” may believe there is a transcendent something “bigger than us”, but may not identify as religious otherwise. Some will say things like, “God is energy”; “God is Love”; or “God is the Force that binds the universe together.”
While interesting, these attempts at definition hardly withstand scientific scrutiny. Energy is well understood as a property of matter (it’s something that “stuff” has, not really something that can stand alone). Given that “love” is at best an emotion, a set of human conceptual/hormonal reactions, or a vaguely-defined concept, this phrase is ultimately meaningless in defining an entity. And the force that binds the universe together is gravity.
Noted axiological atheist Damien Marie AtHope says the mere impossibility of clearly defining what is meant by “God” or “gods” proves that such deities don’t and can’t exist:
“I do reject that the god label has any meaning in reality and that any effort given to a god concept is still nothing but lies made up claiming to know or give believed qualities and it is that which I am rejecting as an atheist. But when asked if I believe an offered deity such as Allah to me I am an ignostic atheist (I reject the god label as expressing anything real, also reject the belief of any god concept connecting to anything real).”
He goes on to say of believers in “one god”:
“Do they really have any reality tangible concept to label “the god concept” because without it are not beliefs about “the god concept” reality intangible? A concept of something nonexistent labeled “GOD” is not tangible and is incapable of being perceived as something in or of reality. It is an unknowable reality intangible unfounded speculation, not a known concept.”
I have a lot of problems with this approach to atheism. Two hundred years ago, our ancestor had no concept for “transistor” nor “computer” yet both are clearly “reality tangible” (i.e. real things you can touch) in the present world. Humans have no trouble defining even abstract concepts like directed graphs, real numbers, and semantic networks. Why should we have trouble defining the idea of God?
Indeed, we don’t. Not really. The next time someone says, “God is beyond knowing” tell them “Okay. So God is the sad, lonely rock in the far corner of the parking lot across the street.” I guarantee you, any believer will quickly come up with dozens of reasons why that isn’t so. It will rapidly become apparent that believers and non-believers alike have pretty good ideas of what they mean when they say “God.” Simply refusing to acknowledge the very idea isn’t going to make it go away.
But this doesn’t argue that God is real or exists, just that the concept is a definable one. Indeed, atheists should demand that believers clearly and precisely define what they mean when they say the word. Only then can we demonstrate the absurdity of the concept and show that no being could fulfill the proposed set of properties (or, as I show below, that any such being is nothing more than an advanced scientist, worthy of respect but not of worship).
Are we really all that limited in our concepts anyway?
Is it really so difficult to define some criteria that any claim to godhood would need to fulfill, by definition? If a being dropped out of the sky on a light beam tomorrow and started performing “miracles” that we didn’t understand (e.g. water to wine, raising the dead, etc.), would we immediately conclude that God had returned to Earth? What if they were able to round up one hundred million worshippers who were absolutely convinced the being was, indeed, God? Would that do it for you?
I, for one, would be skeptical. Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” How could we be sure that the “miracles” being performed for us weren’t simply the application of adequately advanced technology?
What “proof of God” would you require to be convinced that this being really was the God?
Would they need to know everything you know? What if they had sophisticated technology that could actually detect and interpret neural thought activity? What if they had spread surveillance nanotechnology all over the world years before they arrived and had been secretly observing us? We might not know how they knew everything about us, but there are conceivable, undetectable technological routes for them to watch us.
What “miracles” would convince you?
What if they could manipulate the laws of nature? Turn rock into gold. Would that be enough? I’ve seen chemistry lab demonstrators pour one clear liquid into another and the resultant solution cycle through various colors (see video below). Why isn’t that the same level of magic? What would people of two thousand years ago have thought of this “magical” color-changing liquid?
To me, most “God” claims (that is, descriptions of the things a God or gods is supposed to be capable of) are really just claims of advanced technology. While I might not know exactly how a technologically-advanced being could do something, I can often see that it is scientifically conceivable. Rising up to Heaven on a magic chariot seems fairly obvious to us these days, with the development of airplane and rocket technology.
Return from the dead? Well, thanks to CPR and modern medicine, I’ve actually done that myself about a year ago. Two hundred years ago, massive heart attacks like the one I experienced in 2016 were lethal. They’re still not trivial, but they can be survived. My own current health is proof of that.
So what would it take for me to believe?
There’s only one thing I can think of. Any being claiming to be a God has to be able to create a universe with a distinct set of natural laws. If you can make a universe (or alter the natural laws of an existing one), you can substantiate the “God claim.” To me, that’s the only way.
But we also have to ask ourselves, “Does God understand what He does?” Is the creation of universes and manipulation of natural laws something that is intellectually comprehensible? If not, then God has abilities He doesn’t understand; almost like He got them from somewhere or someone else. Why would we accept even His “God claim?”
If God understands what He does, then we have to ask whether it’s possible for any other being to achieve sufficient intelligence that God could teach them what He knows about creating universes and manipulating the laws of nature (even if God has to intervene directly to create/develop such an intelligence). If so, then what is the essential difference between that and science?
So the issue is that it’s likely that even the creation of universes and manipulation of natural laws is also a technology. If God exists, then He’s like the chief scientist for this (or any conceivable) universe and we’re all just trying to learn more to become god-like ourselves.
If God doesn’t exist, then we’re all just trying to learn more to become god-like ourselves. Either way, the path forward is through science. This is a major theme of The Reality Thief and the remainder of the Deplosion series.
What criteria have I missed? Can we actually conceptualize the properties of a God? Or are the believers right, and God is beyond knowledge? As always, I look forward to your comments.
Until next time – Paul