JR'S Free Thought Pages
God the Great Bungler
by Johnny Reb
* = footnote
God the Underachiever
For the purpose of argument let's suspend our critical faculties for a few moments and assume that the ill-defined, opaque and mysterious deity* believed in and worshipped by millions of Christians actually exists. We're told by the devotees of both Christianity and Islam that their God is all-powerful, omniscient and the perfection of virtue and benevolence. But in the first several weeks of this year we've been treated to devastating floods in Australia and earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan that have killed tens of thousands, injuring and rendering homeless many more. And in the Middle East people are rising up against their oppressive regimes, most of which were imposed and supported by the United States. As I write, Western imperial air power is bombing and strafing oil rich Libya as another ploy to re-affirm their 100 year hegemony in the area. Some are even deluded into believing the standard US propaganda that they are supporting the people's insurgency. And as the omnipotent beneficent deities of Islam and Christianity twiddle their thumbs, do I need to mention the countless number of people who die every day of gratuitous violence, imperialist exploitation, starvation, lack of clean water, cancer, heart disease, AIDS, Alzheimer's, malaria, and waterborne parasites, or the people who are perennially homeless and hungry, the wives who are physically or emotionally abused by their husbands or the children abused by their parents, the victims of racist or sexist violence, and so on.
In an essay I wrote a few years ago (posted here) I referred to the Christian God** as the Deadbeat Dad of the Universe, contending that the Sky Daddy believed in and worshipped by a third of the population of the planet has been AWOL since the beginning of time. George Carlin in one of his brilliant diatribes on religion remarked that anyone with an objective impartial, even cursory, observation of the world and its history (war, death, pestilence, greed, torture, swindlers, con artists, murderers, slavery, Wall Street plunderers and Rap Music) cannot help but conclude that God is an underachiever, in fact an incompetent merciless bungler. Perhaps the Big Guy in the Sky ought to have spent more than six days pasting together the chaotic hodgepodge called the Universe. The undeniable fact is this: if such a God does exist he's clearly immoral by any secular understanding of ethics and common decency - or simply does not have the capabilities attributed to him (her, it). Carlin went on to liken God to "an office temp with a bad attitude" and gave him a grade of "F" in design engineering. In short, his "creation" was a classic botched job. George W Bush has told us it was God (the Christian brand) that ordered him to invade Iraq. He ought to have sought a wiser and more ethical counsel.
*Of course the sceptical scientific naturalist doesn’t pretend to be able to disprove the existence of the supernatural, but lack of disproof is not proof of existence. I cannot after all disprove that Leprechauns frolic in my flower garden every morning. If lack of disproof was evidence for existence, one’s ontology would necessarily expand to include all logically conceivable entities, however scant the evidence for them, allowing for an unwieldy universe indeed. Science would be overwhelmed by ghosts, goblins, zombies and countless other highly dubious supernatural and paranormal hypotheses.
There are no persuasive arguments for the existence of gods; nor have I found any other respectable grounds for believing in them – though there do seem to be good grounds for denying them. There are also theological doctrines that reject conceptions of an existent deity: they posit entities beyond being, or as the foundation of being, or as identical with being, or as the intentional objects of language games; at any rate, entities beyond empirical or even of metaphysical disconfirmation. I think that the vast majority of religious people hold less pretentious and more personal conceptions of deity; but even these very abstract conceptions – or perhaps especially them – do not escape the gravest criticisms. The chief problem is not the absence of proof, or even probability, though that is bad enough; it concerns their lack of coherence or intelligibility: the conceptions don’t really make sense. That is partly why theologians and their adherents appeal so often to mystery and the mystical. I have no wish to deny mystery, but I am unable to see why it should warrant belief. The only thing that follows from mystery is ignorance.
As Bertrand Russell explained, "I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian God may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them. The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more often likely to be foolish than sensible."
The traditional God of Abraham, a prime exemplar of the supernatural, is a patently unexplained explainer and thus necessarily absent from an ontology driven by the demand for explanatory transparency. Whether God is brought in to explain the creation of the universe or the design of life, in neither case can the theist provide an account of God’s nature or how he operates and why. But good explanations don’t simply posit the existence of some entity or process to fill a purported explanatory gap, in this case a creative, designing intelligence; they must supply considerable additional information to achieve explanatory adequacy. A good theistic explanation would have to supply concrete specifications for God – his motives, characteristics, powers, and modes of operation – to shed light on how and why he created certain species and not others, for instance. It would also have to show his relationship to antecedent and surrounding conditions: his historical provenance, his ontological status (mental, physical, or what?), and, not to put too fine a point on it, his current location. Further, an adequate theistic explanation would have to provide independent inter-subjective evidence for God’s existence beyond his posited role as creator-designer. To superimpose a mystery on a pre-existing one explains nothing.
Without such evidence, in principle available to any impartial observer, there are no reliable grounds to suppose any God exists. Theists are unable to meet these basic criteria of conceptual and explanatory adequacy, criteria which according to naturalists should apply to all entities in good ontological standing. This makes God an ad hoc gap filler, an evidentially and theoretically unwarranted redundancy. No wonder then that, despite the claims of creationists and proponents of intelligent design, God plays no role in scientific accounts of human and cosmic origins. Those wanting clear explanations can’t abide the spurious explanatory completeness that God supplies; such completeness is patently bought by sacrificing understanding, when after all understanding is the whole point! No, naturalists are happy to admit that in some cases – many cases actually, including the origins of existence itself – we don’t understand what’s going on. Far better an honest admission of naturalistic unknowing than a premature obscurantist claim to knowledge that invokes the supernatural. Belief in God, a cognitive cul-de-sac, is ruled out by the naturalist’s desire for explanatory transparency, a transparency exemplified by science.
Traditional theism seems to specialize in defending the prospect that our fondest dreams – for life everlasting, reunion with loved ones, a purposeful cosmos headed up by a benevolent intelligence – might be fulfilled. Far from seeking to limit the distorting effects of human hopes in picturing the world as it objectively is, religion panders to them. God and his powers, exercised on our behalf, are exactly what we deluded, fragile, all too mortal creatures would most want to exist. Theistic religions make their living by offering existential reassurance, and much modern theology, however sophisticated and cognizant of current science and philosophy, is essentially an apologetics on behalf of a desired conclusion: that God exists. Likewise, the standard justifications for belief in God – the authority of sacred texts and religious clerics, personal revelation and intuition, the various rationalistic armchair proofs – are all quite the opposite of science’s open-ended, corrigible empiricism. They are not methodologies of investigation and research, but of confirmation of ready-made conclusions. God is the vehemently defended projection of our deepest hopes onto the world.
** According to the Oxford World Christian Encyclopaedia, there are no fewer than 10,000 distinct primarily mutually exclusive religions worldwide today. If any one of them happened to be true, the others would be false. So what is the probability that Yahweh is the one true god, and Odin, Amon Ra, Aphrodite, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, Thor, Zeus, and the other hundreds of gods are false gods? As is oft-repeated in the sceptical literature, everyone is an atheist about these latter gods; some of us just go one god further. With so many Gods on the cultural scene, no wonder Yahweh was such a jealous God, as witnessed in the first three of the Ten Commandments. What about the Invisible Flying Pink Unicorn, a God I just made up; all it needs are a few bizarre attributes I could just as easily fabricate.
In fact God made such a disastrous mess of everything that he had to start all over again by flooding the earth, killing all humans save for Noah and his family. His second effort was no improvement, never explaining why he decided to commit global genocide or why he had chosen this particular man and his family as the sole human survivors. Surely he could have entertained a few other less ruthless punitive options, like a tsunami or volcanic eruption. But the God works in mysterious ways, does he not?
It's blatantly evident to any astute observer that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent - and clearly not benevolent - but just as flawed and capable of abominable acts as his creations. Moreover, since we are all descendents of Noah who, by Christianity's own internal logic, must have engaged in incestuous relationships, we're an even more flawed human race than before the Great Drowning.
God is not Mr. Nice Guy
If everything happens according to God’s will, God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape - Bertrand Russell
As George Carlin never tired of pointing out in his witty polemics, God not only behaves like "an office temp with a bad attitude" but a whole lot worse - in fact more like a mafia don or sadistic tyrant. Yet about a third of the world's population not only ignore his disgraceful vile personality traits and abhorrent vindictive behaviour, but even choose to "worship" him. We despise dictators and despots yet we are asked by the god-fearing to prostrate ourselves before a capricious ghost who commits genocide and beg forgiveness for our own moral indiscretions. We are told by the pious that prayer works. How? Surely an omnipotent deity can see, know and sense what we think and really believe anyway. Why bother wasting your time getting carbuncles on your knees? We have all manner of gibberish pounded into our craniums by the religious establishment that we are all tainted at birth by "original sin" and thus all of us damned by the actions of other another mythological characters – the sins of non-existent ancestors who committed the crime of curiosity. Then we're told that God's son was born specifically to be sacrificed so these sins can be exonerated - for the entire human race. We've been led us down the longest garden path and con game in history. They have taken us down an intellectual cul-de-sac of thought and brought us to a complete and utter dead end in morality and ethics. We really have been sold a cosmic lemon. The banks and Wall Street crooks who sold sub-prime mortgages and other toxic waste investments, thereby demolishing the global economy while lining their pockets could never have concocted such a swindle as religion. There's a credulous unthinking sucker born every minute.
There are logical difficulties in the notion of Sin. We are told that Sin consists in acting contrary to God's commands, but we are also told that God is omnipotent. If He is, nothing contrary to His will can occur; therefore when the sinner disobeys His commands, He must have intended this to happen... If everything happens in accordance with God's will; God must have wanted Nero to murder his mother; therefore, since God is good, the murder must have been a good thing. From this argument there is no escape. - Bertrand Russell.
Let's face it, as the Russell quote implies, religious morality is nothing more than authoritarian diktat from on high. Obedience to God's commands are right, disobedience wrong. As Bertrand Russell rightly described it, religion has been built upon the basic fear of life, autonomous thought and, most importantly, death or rather what happens after death. The reasonable person who forms his beliefs according to evidence, claims there is no afterlife (why should there be?)* while the theist says that not only is there life after death it has two levels – a heaven (believe in the Big Guy in the Sky) and a hell (disbelieve). Believe or Burn! Why would one restrict the limitless options of a "life after death" (an oxymoron) to dichotomous abstract fantasy worlds that defy reality, logic and reason. They exist as part of an immoral intricate system of control through reward or punishment. Excuse me Mr. Big Guy, but morality reduced to prudence won't cut it. However, instilling fear in individuals, especially pliable children by bribing, frightening and robbing them of their intellectual autonomy, is profoundly immoral.
* The idea of an afterlife, like most religious propositions, seems too ridiculous to take seriously. In the first place, life after death is a self-contradiction and there's not a morsel of evidence for it. Second, if we are supposed to migrate to some place in the cosmos in either a physical, ethereal or metaphorical sense, where would we all go? Not one religion that proposes such a place describes in any detailed meaningful way what it entails. And what would we do all day? And anyway, why? Can I play tennis, have a sex life and a glass of wine? And why doesn't the benevolent deity give us an infinite earthly life rather than the meagre 70-80 years (if we're lucky). Even the life span of a turtle would be welcomed. And why do our bodies and minds have to steadily deteriorate until we die? I suppose I can understand the comfort that people of faith might get from the belief that they will live forever as a non-physical entity in some vague undefined place and that they will be reunited with their loved ones, but to translate personal longings into the huge monolith that is religion seems to me peculiar and particularly pretentious. It's comparable to the sort of pipe dream and wishful thinking of people who regularly purchase lottery tickets.
A Brief Comment on an Intellectual Vice
One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity. . .The aim of education should be to cure people of the habit of believing propositions for which there is no evidence. - Bertrand Russell
When backed into a corner the theist will generally produce what he imagines to be his ace in the hole. That ace in the hole is "‘faith". By invoking "faith", the theist is actually conceding to the atheist. "You’re right, there is no evidence that proves my god exists." Faith is the last desperate refuge of someone lacking a rational response, the final assumed intellectual barricade to hide behind. Since there is no evidence for God, the atheist is told, often in patronising tones, we must accept the vacuous idea of faith, which is nothing more than wishful thinking. Faith is delusional desire, a vain hope that something might turn out to be true against all contrary evidence. Faith replaces honest inquiry and scholarly toil with intellectual sloth, by positing an non-testable and implausible assumption. The inescapable demand of any claim to objectivity is that we do our utmost to separate how we wish things to be from how they actually are.
Bertrand Russell who had nothing but contempt for "faith", informs us:
Christians hold that their faith does good, but other faiths do harm . . . What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm.We may define ‘faith’ as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of ‘faith’. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.
There is something feeble and contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comfortable.
Something quite peculiar as well as revealing happens when a priest or pastor lectures his congregation about the importance of faith. Since evidence for his claims are nowhere to be found, he's compelled to fall back on a tortuous and convoluted argument in which faith is promoted as a virtue It’s an admission that he has no answers to the sceptic. Faith is no better than a magician’s shell game, a sleight of hand used to confuse and befuddle. It replaces argument, evidence and intellectual effort (the tools of the scientist and genuine inquirer) with self-deception. For those believers who admit that their beliefs have no rational foundation, neither metaphysical nor epistemological, but still insist on taking a "leap of faith", is called fideism. This is at least being honest. Magicians such as the renown sceptic and professional debunker James Randi always informs his audience that his performances depend on mind tricks, sleight of hand and deceptive psychological ploys. Randi has a standing 1 million dollar reward (running several decades now) for anyone who can prove religious or paranormal claims under rigorous scientific criteria. Several years ago Randi, a contributor to the Sketpical Inquirer, exposed the faith healing televangelist Peter Popoff as a conniving fraud. But after a year or two on the sidelines, he was back in business defrauding the credulous Christian population with another scam, while pumping up his bank account. Under the rubric of religion you can get away with most anything. If only the religious and the church proselytizers were as honest as James Randi. If this were the case, religion would likely fade away into the dustbin of intellectual rubbish within a generation. .
When a man who, say, is supposed to have killed his wife is brought before a court, the jury demand evidence for the charge – even if the is jury is composed entirely of theists. No one would accept the accusation of murder if the prosecution said they had no evidence to back it up but they did have faith that he was the murderer. Nothing else, just faith. No court on earth today would find the alleged murderer guilty. But this is what actually did happen during the Dark Ages of the Inquisition and the witch trials where faith held sway. Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist wrote that whenever he had a probing question,
The only proposed answer was faith, and I gradually grew to dislike the smell of that word. I finally realized that faith is a cop-out, a defeat – an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only non-demonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith. I just lost faith in faith. Biblical contradictions became more and more discrepant, apologist arguments more and more absurd and, when I finally discarded faith, things became more and more clear.
Faith is invariably brought into service as a motivator for war by our conservative elite masters, many of whom claim to be Christians. Have faith in us because we know what is right and good for you all. They are the same folks who rant and rave that abortion as tantamount to murder. It's ironic that the religious leaders are the first to join in waving the flag when war is declared. Billy Graham was notorious in doing this. This was clearly evident in the events (deceptions and outright lies) leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. President George W Bush spoke frequently about his faith in Jesus, invoking God as most US presidents regularly do, in promoting the war, along with the compliant sycophantic corporate media. The semi-literate bumbling Bush even referred to the immoral and illegal war as a "crusade." Hundreds of thousands of innocent dead Iraqis later, the US is still mired in the futile war. Stirring up the national psyche on the basis of faith is both idiotic and lethal, but it has worked well throughout history. Adolf Hitler, a devout Catholic, and his fellow fascist Benito Mussolini were brilliant using this ploy. “The crowd doesn’t have to know”, Mussolini often said. “It must believe…If only we can give them faith that mountains can be moved, then they will accept the illusion that mountains are moveable, and thus an illusion may become reality.” Always, he said, be “electric and explosive.” Belief over knowledge. Emotion over thought. One of the characteristics of propaganda is that, wherever possible, music and images replace thought.
Bertrand Russell again:
If you think your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather than by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education.
It's important to remember that faith is promoted not just by religious leaders, but by all those others who have power over us and who will do anything to maintain that power. What people need is not faith, but scepticism and critical thinking. After priests and pastors, politicians and business leaders are the most notorious advocates of faith and docility.
It’s not that I delight in debunking the comforting illusions of others, but I would very much prefer to live in a world where people actually utilize that three pounds of grey matter between their ears; where rationality is cherished above euphemistic platitudes; where reality in all of its beauty and revulsion is accepted, because only then can progress toward a knowing, intelligent, cooperative and peaceful world be made. Insofar as humans have made intellectual progress , it has been the result of a long and difficult struggle to see things "as they are" or at the very least what is the most intelligible and most universally understandable way, and not as projections of our own emotions, misguided optimism and wishful thinking. We no longer believe in witchcraft, that the earth is flat, that tsunamis are Gods tantrums and that disease divine punishment. For that we can thank the Scientific Revolution and so much else - and the Humanist Enlightenment for any moral progress toward freedom, democracy and the elimination of oppressive institutions such as the monarchy and church.
In my view the claims of religion are childish and just plain silly, ridiculous to the point of embarrassment. I had these thoughts even as a junior high school student and my lifelong intellectual pursuits have only confirmed them. As Bertrand Russell once said, " There is something feeble and contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths." Why can't Muslims and Christians behave as mature adults; choose truth over comfort and abide by one of the few morsels of wisdom in their sacred book and "put away childish things?" I'd like to see the next generation embark upon life with critical, vigilant and sceptical minds, not hapless and credulous victims subject to the vicissitudes of surrounding cultural dogmas, whether religious or secular. Education is supposed to be an experience whereby everything is challenged, where we learn not only discernment but how to think clearly, rationally and with criticism. When you are subjected to the seemingly endless pseudoscientific nonsense and religious gibberish on television and elsewhere it seems like the Enlightenment and Scientific revolution never occurred. I want a government that bases decisions on reason; where medical treatments are not denied because somebody’s pre-scientific antiquarian Bronze Age belief system forbids it; where God is no longer invoked as the god of war. What some perceive as negativity is rooted not in hate, but in real positive humanistic action to reform a dysfunctional irrational world of religious tribal fanaticisms. It's the only route to a brighter future for our descendants. It's the only way we can avoid the annihilation of millions more than have already lost their lives over allegiance to differing fairy tales. Hope that they may live in a world guided by the knowledge that we are all human beings, in this together, and no pie in the sky will save us from the devastation that we have wrought upon the planet.
A much needed notion closely related to scepticism and disbelief is “dissent”; since the extremely productive revolutionary decades of 17th and 18th century England and France, the idea of keeping one’s distance from the “established church” and ossified cultural precepts has developed into a general term for radical thinking keeping its distance from established opinion and hegemonic power. In this perspective, I prefer to think, dissenting voices seem to be in a somewhat more hopeful situation than “dissidents,” who – in other places than England – have historically been locked into a situation of – sometimes merely tolerated, all too often excluded and persecuted – “outsiders” within societies structured by a repressive and regressive conservatism and conformism. Voices of dissent still have a real possibility of being heard in the public spaces of the societies they live in, whereas “dissident voices” are thoroughly excluded from them, fenced into the relatively minute spaces of “counter-cultures.” Scepticism, taking contrarian positions and dissent against the prevailing culture is extremely difficult. Some people will just think you're crazy. It's a difficult stance to assume since acquiescence to the status quo up to a point is necessary to function and make your way in the world, even the ability to a get a formal education and earn a living.
One of the most harmful obstacles to global moral progress have been the conflation of religiosity with morality, the vacuous arguments swirling around free will and original sin designed to stoke uncertainty, to force people beleaguered by the ever-growing complexities and demands of day-to-day living into taking refuge in the ready-made sheltering tent of a religion. It is very tempting to give up ethical and intellectual responsibility by simply following orders. It is equally tempting to believe that an invisible tyrannical parent-like entity watches over each person. For many people, even the Yahweh of the Old Testament is preferable to being alone inside one’s head and to the irrevocable limitations dictated by the specific circumstances of our evolution. The abusive bully advocated by the three monotheisms, is the antithesis and negation of what we ought to be striving for as human beings and citizens of the world; in short, a responsible human trying to sincerely understand how the world works, to be fully integrated, fully aware, fully mature and to work for a better world without the dogmas of religion.
In the world today religion is still the single greatest source of obscurantism, prejudice, superstition, intolerance and oppression. Its doctrinaire authoritarianism has caused misery to billions of people worldwide for millennia, and continues to do so in most parts of the world. Although the end of religion would not remedy all the world’s ills, it would bring greater freedom and justice to more than two-thirds of the planet’s inhabitants who remain, to varying degrees, enslaved by its dogmas.