June 29, 2009

Why people believe in god-1: The fog of theological language

As regular readers of this blog know, I am an atheist. I hope it is clear what I believe: I believe that the material world governed by natural laws is all that exists, and I reject all things supernatural, which includes the soul, ghosts and spirits, the afterlife, reincarnation, any form of spiritualism, and so on. In the process, I have argued strongly that there is absolutely no reason to believe that god exists and that to do so is irrational, driven either by childhood indoctrination, psychological need, or both.

I occasionally get some criticism that my arguments are based on a naïve view of god and that it is quite possible to have a sophisticated belief in god that is rational. The names of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine and other religious luminaries are usually dropped into the discussion with the suggestion that unless I am totally familiar with their works, I am not in a position to argue against the existence of god.

I do not find this convincing because the statements of belief of such religious luminaries are often vague, allowing for shifting around. In his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell explains why so much of political writing is vague and cloudy: "[P]olitical speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Theology is also the attempt to justify the unjustifiable and this naturally leads to convoluted language whose meaning and implications are hard to pin down. You can replace the word 'political' with 'theological' in the Orwell passage and you would get a good description of the writings of religious apologists.

The only god that is logically plausible to believe in is a god who does absolutely nothing at all. If you are a deist and believe in a god who created the entire universe and its laws at the beginning of time (say as part of the Big Bang) and then did nothing else after that, then you are in a logically unassailable position, at least until a plausible theory of the origins of the universe comes along.

But I suspect that only a very few religious intellectuals would find such a deist god (let me call this Deigod) satisfying. Most religious believers want more from their god than that, resorting to this extreme version of god only when they are debating atheists, because such a deist god is the only model of god that is free from the obligation of providing evidence for its existence. Postulating any god that is more activist than that immediately raises the problem of why such actions leave no traces.

Some seek to find ways for god to act in a few situations without being detected by trying to exploit certain features of current science, such as the uncertainty principle or chaos theory. This allows them to insert god into these breaches in classical determinism, claiming (without explaining how) that this enables god to act in any way he likes while remaining undetectable. Let me call this god the God Of the Scientific Holes (or Gosh).

Others of a more fundamentalist bent want a deeply personal god, who has thoughts and feelings and emotions, who listens to their individual prayers, and will even answer them by actually suspending the laws of nature. These people have effectively abandoned science and rationality. They want a big brother, a father figure, a protector. Let me call this version of god Supergod.

The problem with arguing with believers in god is that they rarely specify at the outset the properties they ascribe to their god. Part of the difficulty that atheists have in discussing this topic with believers is this shifting target about what their god is like. When arguing with atheists they sometimes use Deigod, at other times they invoke Gosh, but almost inevitably end up trying to sneak in a belief in the usual run-of-the-mill, miracle-working Supergod.

For example, biologist Francis Collins in his book The Language of God and mathematician John Lennox both start out by arguing for the existence of Gosh, and then flatly state, without evidence or argument, that they believe in a god who caused Jesus to rise from the dead. Biologist Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin's God also tries to use the uncertainty principle to create a loophole for god's actions that enable him to be a practicing Roman Catholic, in which church the doctrines are essentially those of a Supergod.

To their credit, both Collins and Miller write about their religious beliefs with the same clarity that characterizes their scientific writings, so it is fairly easy to determine what they believe. Unfortunately for them, this very clarity also exposes all the logical flaws in their reasoning.

Once theologians enter the conversation though, the waters get decidedly murky, as the next post will show.

POST SCRIPT: Need a god? Take you pick!

Norm Nason, the editor of that excellent website Machines Like Us, has done an exhaustive study and come up with an alphabetized list of the vast number of gods that have been invented over time.

As he says:

While today's dominant religions fixate on (and wage wars over) a few prominent deities, we would be wise to remember that billions of people from past centuries believed in—and devoted their lives—to entirely different gods. When civilizations lost their dominance, collapsed and were eventually overshadowed by others, so the gods they worshipped died out, and lost their relevance. If these deities are remembered in the present at all, they are thought only to be quaint relics of a distant, more primitive people.

This fact, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates that gods are human inventions, and live only so long as groups bound by common belief survive. Gods live solely in the minds of men and women, and are conjured up to serve very human personal and political needs.


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Great post! I look forward to the series.

My theory: there is a real Trinity at play when it comes to god and religion. Not the one-in-three/three-in-one of orthodox Christianity. The real Trinity is sociology, psychology and economics. I think these three work together to make the concept of god the projection of people's desire for peace, ultimate justice and comfort in difficult times.

God is like Capt. Tuttle from an episode of the old TV Series M*A*S*H. He was a made up person that Hawkeye used to siphon money from the army to an orphanage. Everyone suddenly became best friends with the manly, philanthropic Tuttle. They finally had to kill him off to keep the fraud from being discovered.

Hawkeye's eulogy for Tuttle, " In fact, you might say, together we all made up Tuttle ."

The same is true in religion and theology. Together we all made up god. We (or at least believers) each have our individual version of the deity in our minds that is based on a collective perception of what we wish god to be.

Together, we all made up god.


Posted by Scott Duke on June 29, 2009 10:37 AM


What a nice thought. Thanks.

Posted by superlucky20 on July 15, 2009 09:02 AM