JR'S Free Thought Pages
Who or what is this Enigma called "God"?
A Dialogue with Myself
by Johnny Reb, December 2015
I can't remember when I actually began calling myself an atheist. Certainly growing up in the stifling conservatism of the 1950s, one would never admit to it. Sunday school and church services I considered at a very early age to be extremely boring, arcane and having no relevance to anything in my life. The boring Bible readings we had to endure every day in our public schools were eventually challenged in the courts and deemed violations of constitutional rights. They were eventually terminated without explanation.
I vividly recall some teachers revelling in reading the Bible whereas other deliberately ignored the morning ritual, much to the relief of most students. One morning I had the courage to ask my grade six teacher why we were required to have the Bible readings; he became outraged and sent me to the principal's office. The principal said very little, pulled out the strap from his desk drawer and delivered the standard punishment of ten on each hand - for the crime of curiosity.
In about grade ten my best friend and I discovered Bertrand Russell's book of essays titled Why I'm Not a Christian in the school library. This cracked our craniums open, providing compelling arguments that confirmed what we disbelieved on an intuitive level. Somehow the BBBBB (Bible Believing Book Burning Brigade) had missed that wonderful edifying volume in one of their school library purges of satanic books authored by godless heathen intellectuals such as Russell.
Increasing knowledge from my own reading of history made me even more aware of the abominations inflicted on human beings in the name of religion: sectarian cruelty, unspeakably bloody confessional wars, the oppression of women and the destructive and cruel obsession that priests have with what goes into and comes out of the female pelvis, and a cynical and opportunistic alignment with authoritarian temporal powers to maintain an unjust status quo that benefitted the few at the top of the heap and kept the many at the bottom. This sort of hierarchical authoritarian mind-set is consistent all organized religion which is undemocratic to the core. Even the behaviour of those that were called "saints" seemed largely unattractive and ridiculous - even repulsive. When I finally got around to actually reading the "good book" my atheism was pretty much confirmed in the sense that the God character of the Bible came off as a total control freak psychopathic asshole.
There's much more one could say on this but many others in recent years such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens can be readily consulted if you are sufficiently curious.
A few years ago my wife and I retired to a very conservative Christian community in the "Bible Belt" of British Columbia located in the Fraser Valley. We moved here for the tranquility and beauty of the natural surroundings of countless lakes, rivers and mountains. The fact that we are atheists surrounded by acolytes of the Dutch Reformed Church, Jehovah Witnesses, Mennonites and pretty much every other fundamentalist Christian sect bothers us not one whit. They're basically good people in Chilliwack - if you can ignore the systemic political cronyism, nepotism and rampant corruption at every level from the municipal, provincial to the federal. You enter politics in this city by belonging to the correct church and if you admitted to atheism you could not be elected dog catcher. But things are changing here with increasing secularization and liberalization of the population
Within about a month we had our privacy and valued tranquility invaded by these same Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons and several other Christian sects arriving on our doorstep who were invariably smiling and polite, not unlike the Fuller Brush or Encyclopaedia salespeople from the 1950s and 60s. And yes, like any other business, they had a product to sell.
I try not to say too much to these well-meaning delusional folks because if you inform them that you are an atheist with a scientific world view - hoping they will immediately leave - think again. Their initial reaction is shock and disbelief. You are perceived as some sort of deviant mutation or amoral kook from another galaxy. Consequently, for many of these true believers, you become a challenging candidate for conversion and salvation.
I've discovered from many years of experience that initiating serious dialogue with the devout Bible believer is an exercise in futility. Faith, by definition, cannot be countered with evidence, logic or scepticism. Faith is belief without evidence or even in the face of counter-evidence, a sheer desire to believe. Consequently it is impervious to rational discourse. Their intellects and belief system are like the rock of Gibraltar - immovable and confined to a hermetically sealed system of thought.
But these people of faith usually have some probing question to ask you (a question you've asked yourself many times) and if you answer candidly, a civilized dialogue usually ensues, if only for a few minutes. The problem with debating people who embrace closed systems of thought are initially conceptual, hen running up against implausible premises that I do not accept and finally outlandish claims that ought to insult the intellect of a nine year old. It's usually best to terminate the discussion as quickly as possible because if you attempt to question them on any of their bizarre assertions, you face an endless cycle of circuitous arguments that lead nowhere.
If you challenge them to provide a coherent explanation of what they mean by their "God" and how it differs from the hundreds of other gods such as Allah, Shiva, Zeus or Odin, most of whom are no longer with us, you are bombarded with every form of jaw dropping mystical mumbo jumbo or as one old man shaking his Bible stated, ďWho are we to question God?" deflecting from my conceptual inquiry. Many people just seem to have a need for direction and to be told what to do. Why I have no idea, since I've always abhorred anyone telling me what to do. I suppose that's why I'm attracted to anarchist ideas, the only real philosophy of freedom. But it's conceivable that freedom is not really what most people want.
I just want to know who the hell this invisible guy is, what is his address and telephone number and why he doesn't reveal himself? Is it shyness? Does he have something to hide? Why the clandestine deceit?
Not that I would likely question a Supreme Being if he, she or it were to appear and provide a demonstration of omnipotence and omniscience. Hey, I'm an evidence kind of guy. As an anti-authoritarian, anarchist and sceptic I would surely not resort to genuflecting, grovelling and worshipping like so many people I know. But I would have a few questions that might make the Big Man squirm. Iíll admit that I've poked fun at the Sky Daddy in offhand debates with friends and colleagues. After all, he's a big macho guy and surely can handle it; it's his worshippers who seem to have a problem. I've always been mystified as to why anyone would love someone or something they feared; it seems so contradictory and incompatible with what I've always understood "love" to mean. God is apparently omnipresent, watching your every move for some transgression, like the surveillance police state emerging under Stephen Harper in Canada.
Assuming for a moment that the Greatest Conceivable Mind in the Universe must at least have a sense of humour even though being omniscient he'd know the punch lines of every joke past, present and future. A laugh a day keeps the doctor at bay as another heretic Benedict Spinoza had apparently said. God must therefore be infinitely amused and have a thick skin considering the botched job he made of the universe especially and the horrific mess he created on the speck in the cosmos called planet earth. Surely he could have done a better job with the species called homo sapiens, making him/her smarter and less vulnerable to disease and debilitation? And their lives are so painfully short, ending usually in physical deterioration, horrific diseases, suffering, pain and death.
Conceptual obstacles notwithstanding, the only occasions I ever directly question God (the Christian brand - the one I'm relentlessly bombarded with by clerics, politicians and their compliant media ) is when Iím alone with myself and my thoughts, typically late at night when I canít sleep due in part to the many troubles and conundrums weighing in on me. Then I will sometimes question God and ask: so whatís all this hand wringing about you, Mr. Big Guy? I'm decidedly biased and dependent on empirical evidence when it comes to my daily existence and survival. So would it be too much to ask of you to at least make an appearance, even if for a brief moment? What do you expect from someone born with sceptical genes? Could you help me out a little bit on my intention to short the bloated stock market? Iíd really like to get more sleep. Insomnia sucks.
These are questions any inquisitive non-indoctrinated child of average intelligence would ask himself.
One thing is undeniable, given the abysmal state of the world throughout human history. If you accept the premise that there is an omnipotent, omniscient and beneficent god, he surely doesn't give a damn about his creations. I'd rename him "the deadbeat dad of the universe"; at the very least god is an underachiever or perhaps, as the Gnostics claimed, he's an evil demon. That's far more plausible than the sanguine Christian conception. It seems to me he ought to confess his sins of neglect and indifference to poverty, disease, war and other human miseries.
I wonder what people can possibly mean when they say "we shouldnít question God" considering the vague notions people have of the idea of a supreme being and the acute design flaws and disaster of his creations. Perhaps the contrived opaque conceptions are deliberate. How can you challenge, deny or accept a notion so vague and unintelligible? As an evaluator, I'd surely give the Christian Sky Daddy an "F" in design. After all, in the literature throughout history, it is not so often the scientists and philosophers who question God, but rather the characters in the scriptures of the worldís religions. From my own personal experience I have discovered that many Christians have never read the Bible in its entirety (if at all), their knowledge of the book having been filtered and cherry picked through their religious leaders.
Consider the Old Testament character Abraham who questions God several times in Genesis 18:23- 32. The latter, you may recall, had stopped by Abrahamís home for dinner on the way to Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham seems to have doubts about what God intends to do there, namely, kill every living inhabitant, and challenges him about it. Indeed, not only does he question God, he apparently changes Godís mind. God is convinced; it would seem, by Abrahamís questioning that if there are even a few innocent people left in the city, God should not destroy them. Perhaps this is what God had planned all along since it is claimed he's omniscient, and if that's the case, he must have known Abraham would question him and change his mind. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Abraham questions God and does not seem to be persecuted or punished as is generally the norm.
Ten there is the peculiar Biblical story of Job. Job not only questions God but challenges him to come down to earth for a trial. Does Job get punished for such an act of disrespect and sacrilege? On the contrary, he is rewarded whereas friends, who had implored Job that he not question the almighty, are punished. God says clearly to them: you have not said the truth about me, as has my servant Job. (Job 42:7) God works in mysterious ways I've been told.
So, notwithstanding the seemingly intransigent conceptual obstacles and question of existence, what is behind this prohibition against questioning God? We have naturally evolved brains ("designed" by God if you insist) to think, be sceptical and hopefully question everything. Isn't this what an education is supposed to be all about?
For anyone serious about democracy and freedom of thought, all authority must be questioned. That's the liberal and scientific outlook. Appealing to hope and faith, notions invariably promoted by those in positions of power - religious or otherwise - is the quintessence of docility, gullibility and stupidity. As the 23rd Psalm informs us, "The Lord is my shepherd, what does that make me?"
But what are we to do then? I fear the retreat into faith because of what it might lead to: holy war. As Voltaire once said, "Those who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities". If you will not invoke reason and try to justify your ways to me, nor I to you, what recourse do we have, in the end, but the use of raw power? How long will it be, I wonder, until frustration with the failure of politics to transform the world as you like leads to violence, to God telling your people to kill mine, to a crusade, an inquisition? How long until Iím thrown in jail for not hearing the God who speaks to you?
How long should I wait, I wonder, before coming after you? When will it be too late? The era when religion ruled was justifiably called the "Dark Ages".
I donít want that. I hope you donít either. So letís seriously talk about this problem. Letís engage in rational dialogue. Tell me what you believe and how you know itís true. Iíll do the same. Letís put our guns away and spar with pens and words, not swords. Forget about preaching and proselytizing and we might both learn something. And maybe weíll discover that weíre not as far apart as we thought.
But shouldnít one humbly admit uncertainty, and be an agnostic rather than an atheist? My answer is No. Agnosticism assumes there's some balance of evidence either way. A quick glance at the metaphysical claims associated with the 700 or so religions on offer at the present time shows that they are in profound and often bitter conflict. But unless you have been indoctrinated from birth into a particular religion you are forced to make a seemingly random choice in the Shopping Mall of Theological Ideas. Moreover, if you are born in Calcutta or Tehran it is highly unlikely you will be Christian. But you will still understand and believe the same mathematics and science. This obvious fact ought to generate scepticism about religious claims in even the most credulous among us. If in the spirit of humility you seek what they have in common, very little of substance remains: the highest common factor between Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism and all the other theisms is miniscule, and what little remains is incoherent.
To be a sincere agnostic you would have to be able to entertain the notion of a God who is infinite but has specific characteristics; unbounded, but distinct in some sense from His creation; who is a Being that has not been brought into being; who is omniscient, omnipotent and perfect in his goodness and yet so constrained as to be unable or unwilling to create a world without evil, gratuitous suffering, an all-too-brief life and death; who is intelligent and yet has little in common with intelligent beings as we understand them.
The conceptual problem of God alone is sufficient to stifle any sort of intelligent discourse on theism. Do Christians believe in Allah, Vishnu or The Invisible Flying Pink Unicorn? No one seems to ask about the logical problems of "perfection", "omnipotence", "omniscience", omnipresence"- or even what God was doing before he decided to create the universe. How could a perfect being create such an imperfect horrifically flawed world? A simple answer would be to plead ignorance or conclude that such a being cannot and does not exist. The only response it would seem is to accept the fideism of the Carthaginian theologian Tertullian (160 CE Ė 225 CE) expressed in his famous redo quia absurdum, translated from the Latin as "I believe because it is absurd." Does not such an assertion render the idea of "faith" ludicrous?
In addition to the incoherence of an all-perfect deity, another conundrum that never fails to baffle me about Christians and other monotheists is their belief (many call it "worship") in an invisible Orwellian Big Boss Man in the sky who watches you, knows exactly what you are doing every second and who's keeping a list and checking it twice (his dossier on every human past, present and future). Can you imagine anything more horrific than this sort of blind deference to authority? It makes Orwell's Big Brother in his novel 1984 seem like a loving grandparent. But this is the sort of world Stephen Harper fanaticizes about with his Gestapo Bill C-51 and other surveillance police state legislation he has introduced in the past several years, like a demonic Santa Claus, "keeping a list and checking it twice".
Final Thoughts and Philosophical Considerations:
Bertrand Russell's erudite arguments against religious superstition and his explanations for why it exists - and continues to exist in the face of science - continue to be timeless and compelling. Russell's contention is that religion is an antidote and palliative against fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown (and the known) and fear of life itself. The fear of life is the fear of the intellect, of having to think for oneself, of having to decide what to do in life and create one's own projects and significance. The human propensity toward denial of not only death, but most other unpleasant realities is pervasive and largely accounts for the attraction of delusionary world views such as Christianity and Islam. Many people clearly prefer to be told what to do and perhaps this explains why genuine democracy has never anywhere in the world. Thinking is difficult but Russell considered it inconceivable that people would prefer some arbitrary supernatural alpha male authority to tell them how to think and what to do - or that they could possibly be bored with their lives. Isn't life too painfully short? And don't you want our brief hiatus on this tiny speck in the cosmos to be lived on your own terms as much as possible? Meaning in life can only be genuine when it comes from within ourselves, not from some enigmatic external authority. It was Russell's contention that:
The world needs open hearts and open minds and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new that these can be derived. What people need is not dogma but an attitude of scientific inquiry combined with the belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin, Hitler or a Deity. Many religious leaders have shown great personal courage, but what they invariably lacked was the intellectual courage to face the world without the security of comfortable myths. For, in the final analysis, it is personal responsibility that is significant in human affairs.
Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth - more than death. Men would rather die than think - in fact they do! Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless to the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid ... Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.
But if thought is to become the possession of the many, and not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back - fear that their cherished belief should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves prove less worthy to the respect then they have supposed themselves to be.
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. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.
Russell, one of the finest mathematicians and philosophers of the late 19th and 20th centuries, was mystified by the fact that even though there not a morsel of evidence nor a single cogent argument for the existence of any of the thousands of gods people have believed in for centuries, that it did not seem to bother people of faith. 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 ďeducation. 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 ďfaithĒ as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. When there is evidence, no one speaks of ďfaithĒ. We do not speak of faith that two plus two is four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.
Many believers, clearly ignorant of fundamental logical principles, will trot out the silly claim that "one cannot prove that god does not exist". As any study of logic informs, universal negatives can be extremely hard to prove. Universal negatives can be proved only under certain epistemic conditions. A negative can be proven if we can show that it is contrary to the laws of logic or mathematics. We can extend this to well-established physical laws; I do not need to explore remote valleys and mountains to demonstrate that there can be no living creature with the body of an elephant and the legs of a mosquito; surely physiological principles prove it could not exist. And a negative proposition can be empirically proven if it is confined within its own scientific limitations: "There is no person in this room with three headsĒ.
Where does that leave us with God(s)? Thousands of gods have existed throughout history, most having disappeared with the death of their cultures. Definitions and conceptions of God are abundant, mostly being incoherent, opaque and inconsistent with empirical fact. It would not be difficult to argue that many of the common characteristics attributed to Gods are self-contradictory or empirical impossibilities. Is an omnipotent being a contradiction in terms? Philosophers long ago inquired, "Can God make a stone so heavy and large he cannot lift it?í The same applies to omniscience. Does God know the formula for the largest prime number at the same time as knowing that no such formula exists? And if God is omnipresent, surveying our every move, spying on our every behaviour and keeping a dossier on all of us, is it reasonable for me to state that there is no trace of the omnipresent God in my bedroom? But then the theologians conveniently cover this contingency by their usual sleight of hand by adding invisibility to Godís attributes. In fact, theists constantly move the goalposts by redefining God so that proving a negative becomes impossible. As Bertrand Russell explains:
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.
So where does this leave us? Let us examine the question of leprechauns. With apologies to my Irish Canadian neighbour and friend Jimmy, we certainly cannot with certainty assert that leprechauns do not exist. Now would my intelligent sceptical neighbour Jimmy describe himself as an agnostic with respect to leprechauns? Does he secure his home and garden against them, or elicit favour, faith and worship with regard to them in order to avoid being the victim of their practical jokes. Like the infamous argument of Pascal's Wager, Jimmy may want to protect himself, just in case they exist. I think not. I suspect the question of leprechauns does not cross Jimmy's mind from one year to the next.
My position with regard to God is not unlike that of the leprechaun. For all practical purposes I live my life on the basis of the assumption that God does not exist. And if such a celestial dictator did exist, I concur with the great 19th century Russian anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin, that "it would be necessary to abolish him". My position is not binding on anyone else; people can choose to believe whatever pie in the sky they like. I prefer to keep my beliefs to a minimum, having a predilection for verification and truth. Like most atheists, I have no desire to proselytise; I don't venture out on Saturday mornings door to door promoting science and atheistic humanism.
There is however another problem with theists. It is those people who, with a greater or lesser degree of zeal, confidently believe that everything that happens is the upshot of "god's will"- and that they positively know Godís will. Throughout history believers in God have historically asserted that it is Godís will that women should be denied the right to vote or to have an abortion, that certain classes of people such as blacks should be enslaved and that heretics, unbelievers and homosexuals should be persecuted, tortured or executed. Such people are surely a threat to any semblance of a democratic society because it is impossible to debate rationally with them, as they claim access to a superior infallible authority. On the other hand, one might ask what is the point of believing in God if one doesnít know what he/she/it wants us to do? One might ask why so many of the devout pray to their god for favours such as winning a lottery, dating the beautiful woman at the office and countless other frantic supplications of what they ought to do with their lives? To quote Russell once more:
If everything happens according to Godís 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.
Since god has his divine plan, he's clearly a busy guy. Why would he waste his days concerning himself with the petty pleas of his flock?
The existence of a deity is logical possibility. But so is the sighting of a resurrected Elvis recklessly piloting an alien space craft into the Loch Ness Monster. This is bedtime fairy tale fare, but I do feel quite confident of one thing. If God actually does exist, surely, she would be considerably more intelligent, beneficent and broad-minded than the vile versions presented by various monotheistic and polytheistic religions. Simply examine the world of preventable gratuitous evil, violence and suffering on any given day. If the all-powerful Deadbeat Dad of the Universe does exist, he's surely not an object of veneration. Why did he not save that one month old child dying of cancer?