September 25, 2007

Pinning down the properties of god

One of the difficult points on which discussions between atheists and religious believers flounder is that while there is a fair degree of uniformity amongst atheists as to what they do and don't believe, there is a huge diversity among religious believers about what they believe. This can be disconcerting because in the middle of a discussion, a religious person will often say, "Oh, but I don't believe in that stuff. My idea of god is quite different." Understandings of god tend to be so fluid that it enables believers to slide from one to another whenever one particular formulation comes under close scrutiny and is shown to be untenable. People tend not to want to be pinned down on what they actually mean by god. This is more so in the case of more sophisticated believers. Fundamentalists are more concrete in their beliefs.

When I was debating the intelligent design movement in Kansas, I would find that the views ranged from believing in the literal truth of the Bible in every detail to people who regarded the Bible as metaphors but still believed in a personal god who could intervene in the actions of the world. If one goes outside the world of intelligent design advocates, one finds an even broader spectrum, people who are what I call 'almost atheist believers,' who call themselves 'spiritual' and whose idea of god is so vague that no empirical statement can be made about it at all. For some, god is somehow synonymous with nature, for others it is the creator of the big bang and nothing else, and so on. They are the people whom Daniel Dennett describes as people who believe in belief, who need to feel that there is something transcendent in their lives and will construct it to meet their needs.

So in order to have a useful dialogue, it may clarify things and avoid misunderstandings if each person knew where the other stood. It is useful, for example, to see if someone accepts the idea that god has the qualities of being omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnibenevolent (all good).

We know that belief in this god immediately runs into the problem of theodicy, the problem of defending god's goodness and omnipotence when bad things occur, such as the death of an infant or widespread tragedy in the recent tsunami. Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in such a god face:

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

This obvious logical contradiction has resulted in some theologians arguing against assigning all three qualities to god. But which one(s) should be jettisoned? Most people who are not theologians are reluctant to abandon any because it would seem to devalue their concept of god as someone to whom all positive superlatives should apply. Anything less than absolute perfection is seen as unworthy. Such people then have to resort to the 'mysterious ways clause' (MWC) which argues that that while god does have all those three qualities (and more), the reason that things appear to be contradictions to us is because our minds cannot understand god's plans or that he has not confided his plans to us in a manner that we can understand.

But the odd thing is that although believers, by invoking the MWC, have effectively argued that logic and reason and evidence (things they routinely value and use in other areas of their lives) cannot be used to argue against the existence of god, they still try to use evidence and reason to argue in favor of god, and resort to the MWC only when that attempt fails and they end up in a dead end from which there is no escape.

In an attempt to clarify what people mean by god, Victor J. Stenger in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007, p. 12) defines what he sees as the properties of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god as gleaned from their religious texts and official doctrine.

[The Judeo-Christian-Islamic] God is not the god of deism who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all existence. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in very cubic nanometer of the universe, from the interactions of quarks inside atomic nuclei to the evolution of stars in the most distant galaxies. What is more, God listens to every thought and participates in each action of his very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe.

Stenger spells out the basic elements that go into this model of god (p. 41):

  1. God is the creator and preserver of the universe.
  2. God is the architect of the structure of the universe and the author of the laws of nature.
  3. God steps in whenever he wishes to change the course of events, which may include violating his own laws as, for example, in response to human entreaties.
  4. God is the creator and preserver of life and humanity, where human beings are special in relation to other forms.
  5. God has endowed humans with immaterial, eternal souls that exist independent of their bodies and carry the essence of a person's character and selfhood.
  6. God is the source of morality and other human values such as freedom, justice, and democracy.
  7. God has revealed truths in scriptures and by communicating directly to select individuals throughout history.
  8. God does not deliberately hide from any human being who is open to finding evidence for his presence.

This seems like an accurate list to me, corresponding to my own understanding of what mainstream believers say. Stenger deliberately does not include the problematic trinity of omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient qualities (especially the ability to know the future) since those lead to immediate and severe logical contradictions in explaining away things like the tsunami, and makes religion too easy a target to attack. He also does not consider the views of scriptural literalists, the so-called fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims, who take their creation stories and history and images of god straight from their holy books and argue (say) for a 6,000 year old Earth. Such people have abandoned science entirely and there is little one can say to them.

Stenger's book is a detailed analysis of the more sophisticated arguments put forward for a god and he argues that none of them stand up to scrutiny. He looks at all the things that we can infer from the properties of the above god and examines the commonly stated arguments and evidence in favor, some of which have been discussed here too: the appearance of design in nature and the universe; the sense that we have a mind and soul apart from the body; claims of immortality and the afterlife; the idea that the origin of the universe needs an initiator; the 'fine-tuning' or anthropic principle argument; the answering of prayers; and the morals and values argument. He finds that none of the evidence produced in favor of these stands up in the face of close scrutiny. The conclusion is simple: In the absence of evidence in support of it, the god hypothesis is rejected. As Stenger says (p. 71): "Earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no designer God."

Stenger is careful to point out that this does not rule out all gods. The MWC enables you to define god any way you like and assign it any properties you wish and be immune from contradiction. But atheists see this exercise as a waste of time.

The problem that arises in discussions with believers is that defenders of god tend to shift around among these qualities so that when (say) feature #2 is shown to cause problems with logic and evidence, they shift to #3, and then when that is shown to be also fraught with problems, they move on to #6. And, when all else fails, there is always the fallback option of invoking the MWC (which is the same as abandoning #8) and serves as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

Perhaps the discussions with religious people would be would be more fruitful if right at the beginning they listed which of the above properties of god they agree with. That would make for a far more focused discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting short debate

Listen to this short debate between a biologist Lewis Wolpert and a Christian theologian William Craig Lane. It raises many of the issues discussed in this post. Listening to the arguments made by this sophisticated theologian you realize how weak the arguments for god are.


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A valid theory for the existence of God has to be testable, otherwise it is just superstition.

Posted by Peter Gallon on October 2, 2007 12:58 PM

you have some interesting thought. I often think that Christians should state what they will and will not accept as God's attributes, so that everyone can be on the same page

Posted by Libby Davis on February 22, 2010 01:19 AM