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The Incoherence of Theism (1998)

Andrew Moroz

 

A glance at the 1998 World Almanac reveals that over 1.1 billion people (19 percent of the world) are either atheists or nonbelievers; a stark difference with North America, where only 7 percent are atheists or nonbelievers. [1] The atheist position is perhaps founded on a principle of truth--a wish to only believe on evidence rather than on faith. As the British philosopher Bertrand Russell satirically exclaimed:

I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true.[2]

While the notions of God are countless, in this essay the focus will be on the Christian God, described in the following way by John Hick: "God is the unique infinite personal Spirit who has created out of nothing everything other than himself; he is eternal and uncreated; omnipotent and omniscient; and his attitude towards his human creatures, whom he has made for eventual fellowship with himself, is one of grace and love."[3] There has probably been more written on the subject of religion than on any other, hence not even a representative portion can be addressed here. However, several important incongruities within the concept of God will be revealed.

God-talk in general has been long in question by philosophers. David Hume, for instance, maintained that the only legitimate propositions are those of matters of fact and those of the relations of ideas; that is, what we would today call synthetic a posteriori and analytic a priori propositions. In a well-known passage in the Enquiry he declares:

If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]

Since when one talks about God one neither uses logic (as in mathematics) nor utilizes the usual senses (as in science), Hume felt that those volumes ought to be cast to the fire.

There is a more specific problem regarding God-talk--it seems that words mean different things when applied to God than when applied to anything else. When we claim that a mother loves her children, it is because she takes care of them, feeds them, plays with them, educates them, talks to them in a pleasant voice, and so on. If the same mother were to plot her children's death, poison their food, abandon them, and burn their house down, we would no longer say that she loves her children. A person who maintained that she still loves her children would be properly advised to read the dictionary more often. And yet, theists claim that God loves his creatures no matter how many people are hurt and die due to floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and the like. Perhaps the theist ought to change the attributes of God.

Many theists claim that argumentation to either prove or disprove God's existence is reproachable. The concern is formulated as follows by Paul Tillich:

[T]he question of the existence of God can be neither asked nor answered. If asked, it is a question about that which by its very nature is above existence, and therefore the answer--whether negative or affirmative--implicitly denies the nature of God. It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being-itself, not a being.[5]

So what is left for one to base faith on? Many people claim religious experience as such a light to truth. Let us test this proposition. On our world, does the use of LSD provide a window into an additional part of reality otherwise undetectable? If it did, we would immediately know because all LSD users' accounts would corroborate one another. That is, all "trips" would depict the same place. On our world, LSD is clearly not a gateway into an additional part of reality because (1) most accounts of LSD experience are incoherent, and (2) those that are tell of no remotely similar places. Religious experience could hypothetically be a gateway into a super-reality. In that case, all religious experiences would be of the same thing--the same god or gods, the same angels or lack thereof, and so on. Specifically, people of different cultures would report the same gods. After all, if a god exists in a part of reality accessible by prayer, then all people that pray will be shown him, no matter where they are located on the planet. On our world, as was mentioned before, differing concepts of god number as many as the stars, hence the reasonable conclusion denies the possibility of prayer revealing anything besides one's own ideas. Religious experience, to the rational person, is nothing more than an inward look at one's conscience.

One paradox inherent in the concept of God is brought forth by the juxtaposition of God being all good and the presence of evil. It was perhaps first stated by Epicurus (341-271 BC):

God either wishes to take away evil, and is unable, or He is able, and unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious [malicious], which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? or why does He not remove them?[6]

The common answer is that God is both willing and able, but free will was deemed more important, and, because of it, we humans freely choose to do evil. Let us examine this concept of free will. In order for a being to have free will, he must be able to choose among several choices, and act on any of those choices. If a person could not possibly do other than a certain action, we say he did the action without will--without free will. Now God, He certainly knows the future for he knows all--He is omniscient. The question can now be posed--Are not humans constrained to the specific set of actions that God knows they will perform? Do humans have any possibility of acting otherwise? The answer to both questions, according to the Christian definition of God, is no. It seems that the entire concept of free will is incompatible with an omniscient God. And if one holds that one acts freely, he is thereby denouncing the Christian concept of God.

For the sake of the next argument, we can assume that free will and God are not incompatible. As they are defined, good and evil are diametrical opposites; good is construed as necessarily opposing evil. Why didn't God, since He is all-good and loving of his creatures, make the world such that all people freely chose to do good? The reply is that a free action cannot be brought about. That statement does have some sense to it. But let's look at creation. When God created the world, He did so fully consciously. That is, He did not just throw the pieces of the universe together randomly; rather He deliberately assembled it. Before the world was created, God was aware of how it would turn out; He knew that today there would be so many good and bad people inhabiting the planet, for He knows all, and today there are as many good and bad people as God knew there would be. Because God actually brought about the universe which contains certain exact free actions done by certain people as anticipated by Him, He, in some sense, brought about certain free actions.

God could have created the world such that today there would be one less bad person and one more good person, could He not? All He would need to do is (1) consider a creation plan, as He did before, but one slightly altered to the point where He would (2) anticipate, as He did before, that the altered creation plan would result in one more good person and one less bad person, and (3) create the universe. Steps one and two could be repeated until all people were made good, and if the original creation plan left us with free will, so would this one, because the steps are identical.

What are the theist's options? As the denial of free will is unthinkable since the whole of morality would subsequently crumble (after all, if a human had no control over his actions, he certainly can't be held responsible for them), the only possibility is to acknowledge that God is not all-good, or He is not omniscient, or He is not omnipotent. In any case, the Christian God is shown to not exist. A theist can, of course, pose objections. Let's consider two of them. Evil is necessary for good to exist, he may say. So what happens if one evil person is plucked off the face of the earth without a trace, and nothing else changes? Does the concept of good no longer exist? Of course not. And after another evil person is plucked, and then another, and another? Goodness still remains. This can continue until there are no evil persons left. It seems that the label, or lack thereof, of an action does not change its worth. After all, say someone rescues another from drowning. If there are no evil persons around, the action is not good? Such a notion is most absurd. The second objection, which is much more reasonable than the first, is that God does not know the future. The future, they say, has not happened yet, so God not knowing it is not only logical but also is not a threat to His omniscience, since it is only possible to know what is. While the reasoning is clear, there are many instances of God revealing the future in the Bible, so according to the Bible itself, God knowing the future is not illogical. The gnostic who still maintained that God is unaware of the future should be pressed to explain his entire disregard of, for instance, the last book of the Bible, Revelation.

Two final pleas of the religious apologetic must be considered. First, he may claim that I have been too forward in my assertions; that I cannot claim that God does not exist--only that some aspects of some definition are inconsistent. This reasoning is fallacious, however. For example, if I were to insist the presence of a triangle with four sides on the dark side of the moon, the moment I show that a triangle cannot possibly have four sides by definition (that is, the idea is shown to be self-contradictory), I will have demonstrated the impossibility of the existence of any entities that fit said description anywhere, including the dark side of the moon. Likewise, the contradictions entailed in God's description rule out the possibility of the existence of a God that fits the Christian definition. Second, he will assert that I do not know God only because I do not seek Him, and His glory would be revealed to me should I only open my heart. To these remarks I only say that it is a truly horrendous doing, a case only of devious sophistry and mischief, to try to convince someone of the presence of a truly illogical being such as Christians make God out to be. Furthermore, if at one point I did succumb to their art, and the belief brought me comfort, I shall ask myself--If I were to live in constant belief of the square triangle, and such a belief brought comfort to my life, of what value should my life be once I die? Would it truly not be a disgrace to the abilities that nature has so generously afforded humans? The ability to reason distinguishes us from other animals; we have a chance to explore the universe, to learn the wonders of nature through science and yet, some surrender willfully to the callings of their animal self to be emotive and not think.

There are those among us who turn away from philosophy, who declare the art tedious and without return. However, it seems to me that one is puerile to base final knowledge on anything except philosophy--the only human endeavor to entail no assumptions. And if through logical argument and rational debate the impossibility of a god is revealed, however much our sentiment of nostalgia calls for a divine caretaker to walk our world, the falsehood must be cast off so we may enjoy the ultimate freedom that only truth can bring. Remember, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."[7]


Notes

[1] Robert Farnighetti, ed., The World Almanac and Book of Facts: 1998 (Mahwah: K-III Reference Corporation, 1997), 654.

[2] Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays (London Routledge, 1977), 11.

[3] Paul Edwards, ed., The Existence of God, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1964), 2.

[4] David Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principle of Morals, ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 165.

[5] Quoted in The Existence of God; 2.

[6] Quoted by Michael Martin in Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 334.

[7] John 8:32.

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