Sure, I’ll tell you why there is no god…

Atheism Theology

So, I’m minding my own business being an atheist and not talking to anyone about it when I get a note from my TBM sister-in-law. Here’s what it says:

I have a question for you. I have to do a presentation on “does God exist?” I have to use both sides and I can’t think of why he doesn’t. So I was wondering if you had any points that I could use. I have to have it done by sat. If you could help me great if not that’s okay to.

After I swept up the saliva that splashed all over the floor when my jaw hit it, I gladly replied. It took about an hour or so to write the reply, but I thought MSP would like it:

Here are some basic arguments any Mormon considering the existence of god should consider…

First, what do you mean by “god”? This is a definitional issue. Before you can determine whether god or a god exists, you have to know what it is that is supposed to exist. So you have to begin by defining god. Let’s think through this using a god… How about Athena, greek goddess of heroes? Since you are likely an atheist towards her (you don’t believe in her), she’ll work well to illustrate the point.

In Greek mythology, Athena is the shrewd companion of heroes and the goddess of heroic endeavour. As is the case with all of the gods of the Greek pantheon (family of gods), Athena can manifest herself to humans. However, Athena is “supernatural,” which means she is above or beyond nature – she is outside what humans can detect using our five senses (touch, taste, see, smell, hear). We can only detect Athena if she is willing to let us detect her. But, if she wants us to, we can. What else do we know about Athena? Well, according to Greek mythology, she is the offspring of Metis (a Titan), and Zeus, the head god. Zeus was told that Metis would give birth to a god that would one day be greater than he was. So, to prevent that, he ate Metis. But Metis was already pregnant with Athena, who was nurtured inside Metis until she sprang fully formed and with her armor on from Zeus’s forehead.

In most of the stories in which Athena has a part, she ends up helping heroes, but not solving problems for them. For instance, she aided Odysseus only from afar by implanting thoughts in his head during his journey home from Troy. She later shows herself to him, but only to deliver weapons. She appears in Nausicaa’s dreams to ensure that the princess rescues Odysseus and plays a role in his eventual escort to Ithaca. Athena appears in disguise to Odysseus upon his arrival, initially lying and telling him that Penelope, his wife, has remarried and that he is believed to be dead; but Odysseus lies back to her, employing skillful prevarications to protect himself. Impressed by his resolve and shrewdness, she reveals herself and tells him what he needs to know in order to win back his kingdom. She disguises him as an elderly man or beggar so that he cannot be noticed by the suitors or Penelope, and helps him to defeat the suitors. She also plays a role in ending the resultant feud against the suitors’ relatives. In the course of building a temple to her, one of the workers, the quickest and the handiest workman among them all, with a slip of his foot fell down from a great height, and lay in a miserable condition, the physicians having no hope of his recovery. When Pericles was in distress about this, Athena appeared to him at night in a dream, and ordered a course of treatment, which he applied, and in a short time and with great ease cured the man.

Asfor actual descriptions, Athena is described as “unwearying”, virgin, and the First Fighter, i. e. she who fights in front. She is also described as bright-eyed or with gleaming eyes. Athena is frequently depicted with an owl perched on her head. The olive tree is likewise sacred to her. Athena also teaches the art of shipbuilding or navigation and is the patron of craftsmen and artisans. She is also the protector of Athens and its Acropolis, but also of many other cities, including Argos, Sparta, Gortyn, Lindos, and Larisa. She is supposed to have invented the chariot. (FYI, most of the info. on Athena comes from Wikipedia; some quoted directly, just so you know I didn’t plagiarize it.)

So, based on the above, what can we say about Athena? Well, apparently she has the following powers and abilities: (1) she can implant thoughts into peoples’ heads, (2) she can appear as someone else and make others do so as well, (3) she has lots of knowledge, but is probably not all knowing as she doesn’t know how everything is going to turn out (just like her father, Zeus, didn’t), (4) she cares about some humans, but not all humans, (5) she wants to be worshipped, (6) she is a virgin, (7) she is unwearying or doesn’t get tired, and (8) we can only detect her if she wants us too, otherwise we can’t.

Based on this definition, do you think Athena exists? Well, you have to take each of the characteristics I just laid out one by one to determine whether that characteristic is plausible in a supernatural entity. Is it possible for a supernatural entity to implant thoughts in peoples’ minds? Well, we can now do this with various technological advances using magnets and electricity. So, sure; it’s possible. Is it possible for a supernatural entity to change its shape? At present, humans can’t really do this physically, but we can appear to have changed our shape using makeup and special effects, so I’d say sure. Is it possible for a supernatural entity to appear as someone else? Humans can do this, so why not? Seems possible to me. Is it possible for her to know a lot, but not everything? A lot of people know a lot of things, but no human knows everything. So, again, yes she could do this. Is it possible that she cares about some humans, but not all humans? Again, lots of humans are this way, so yes. Is it possible for her to want to be worshipped? Well, again, there are humans who want this, so a supernatural entity could certainly want this. Is it possible for her to be a virgin? Absolutely – plenty of those around. Is it possible for her to be unwearying? Well, that’s a challenging one. This is impossible for humans. So, this clearly falls into the range of supernatural. But, perhaps with future genetic modification we may make it so humans don’t need sleep and we never get tired. So, let’s say this is possible. Finally, is it possible that Athena can avoid detection by all human means (i.e., radar, sight, sounds, smell, touch, etc.) except when she wants to? Well, humans have developed an invisibility cloak that allows light to pass around it. So, you could avoid detection by sight and potentially radar. If we can do that now, with our limited technology, perhaps she can prevent people from touching her, smelling her, or hearing her all at the same time as she can prevent people from seeing her. So, again, I guess this could be possible.

The conclusion: It is possible for someone like Athena to exist.

But now we have to ask: Do you, Hillari, believe that Athena exists? My guess is that you do not. Nor do I. But why? It’s possible she does. I don’t believe she exists because: (1) no one else believes she exists and (2) she no longer manifests herself in ways that reinforce belief in her; i.e., there is no empirical evidence she exists. If it occasionally happened that Athena appeared to people and it could be independently verified (i.e., there are other people around when this happens and they get photos, video, and can detect her), then I would probably believe. I’d probably believe she was an alien, not a supernatural deity. But I would believe. Wouldn’t you?

So, what have we established at this point? That it is possible for a supernatural entity like Athena, a Greek goddess, to exist. However, neither of us believe in her because there is no evidence other than ancient myths that suggest she exists and no one else believes in her. Since there is no current evidence to suggest she does exist, we don’t believe in her. Is this an acceptable exercise to determine the existence of a god? In other words, is it morally okay to ask: (1) How do you define that god? (2) Is that definition logical and/or plausible? (3) What evidence is there to support that the god exists? Then, based on what you conclude from the three questions, you make a decision as to the existence of a god. I think this is exactly what you should do whenever someone presents the possibility of a god: Have them define it, examine the logic of that definition, ask for evidence, then make a decision as to whether that god exists.

Now, let’s turn to a god that is more relevant to you. You believe in a god (at least, I assume you do, as you are Mormon). Can we define the Mormon god? Lucky for us, someone already has. Here is the URL for the entry on god in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/EoM&CISOPTR=4391&REC=6&CISOSHOW=3731

Mormons actually believe in a lot of gods (sort of henotheists), but let’s just stick with the one main god – god the father. How is this god defined by Mormons? First, he has a body of flesh and bones (not blood). This god is also male. This god is also the creater of the universe. This god lives near a star named Kolob. God the father can communicate with humans and they can hear him with their auditory system (their ears), not just inside their head. This speaking is done from heaven. This god is distinct from Jesus and the Holy Ghost (the other members of the godhead; important criteria for distinguishing Mormons from other Christian religions). God the father is greater than Jesus. God the father won’t judge anyone; that is Jesus’s job. God the father wants people to pray to him. God the father set up a plan that involved his only begotten son dying on a cross. God the father can impregnate human women. God the father is literally the father of all the souls of people. God the father is one in purpose with Jesus. God the father is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in goodness. He is a god of truth and no respecter of persons. He personifies love. God set forth a system that requires his children to believe in him and follow him in order to return to him. That system requires specific rituals and behaviors. God can tell people things that they would not otherwise know (revelation) God speaks to living prophets today and spoke with prophets in the past. God once lived on a planet, like us, but followed a similar plan to become a god. God sits on a throne. God looks like a man. Finally, the only way to know any of this is for god the father to reveal it to each person individually. However, before he will reveal himself to someone, that person must already have faith in him.

Excellent. That’s a pretty clear definition of the Mormon god. That gives us a lot to work with, more than we had with Athena. But, let’s follow the pattern we used with Athena. Based on our limited knowledge, is it possible for a god to have all of the characteristics above? Well, let’s see…

Is it possible for god to have a body of flesh and bones? Well, I do. So, sure. Of course, this rules out god being omnipresent, but we’ll get to that later.

Is it possible for god to be male? Again, I am, so sure. This does imply male superiority, which I find repugnant, but that is a different issue. It’s possible.

Is it possible that god is the creater of the universe? Well, yes and no. Here we run into our first problem with Mormon theology. In order for god to create something, he must be outside that thing. Think about it this way: Hillari, could you create a child but be inside that child while you create it? In other words, could you create a child that surrounds you? No. You can’t. Likewise, can you create a house but be part of the house? You could actually be “inside” the house while building it, but if you are “part” of the house (say, you make yourself a support structure like a pillar holding up the celing), can you still build the house if you are now part of it? No. Here’s why: Something cannot create itself as part of something else. You may be able to create a clone of yourself as part of something else, but you literally cannot create YOU as part of something else. So, here’s where the problem comes in for the Mormon god: He (Elohim) lives in this universe, near a star named Kolob. How could he create the universe if he is in it? Doesn’t that make god part of his own creation? As we just illustrated, you cannot create yourself. God supposedly didn’t create himself, but was created by his father. Fine. But how does god create a universe that he is part of? Here’s the possible answer: Perhaps god created the universe while he was outside it. So, he was not part of the universe. Then, once it was created, he moved into the universe. Science, of course, is uncertain how such a thing could occur because there is nothing we know of outside the universe. But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that it is possible to create something as immense as the universe, which is quite impressive. Then let’s say that the entity (god) that created it decided to inhabit it. If you assume god is smaller than the universe, then this is theoretically possible (though remember this when we discuss omnipresence). God didn’t create himself. He just created an immense universe then inhabited it. He created it while outside it, then moved inside it. Okay, possible. Moving on…

Can this god speak and be heard from heaven? Well, it depends on where heaven is… If heaven just means “the heavens” as in – up in the sky, absolutely. I can hear sonic booms occasionally, so it is theoretically possible for a loud enough sound to come from the sky and be heard by mortals on the planet. I’m not sure how intelligible it would be, but it’s possible. But if heaven is either (1) near a star named Kolob or (2) outside the universe, this is substantially less likely. Unless god is able to instantly teleport himself to any part of his creation, from either inside or outside it, and then speak to humans and have them detect it with one of their five senses, god would have to have some tool to transmit his voice across the universe or into and across the universe. Such a tool is well beyond what we can accomplish scientifically. It would probably have to be a faster than light tool (or god would have to plan out his transmissions hundreds of millions of years in advance). But, let’s say god is so advanced that he has figured out how to warp the space-time continuum and travel or send messages faster than light. We can imagine this. So, let’s say it is possible. It’s highly improbable, but possible. So, let’s say god has the ability to warp space and time (since he created it, why not) to communicate instantly anywhere in the universe. So, we haven’t ruled out the existence of god yet.

Next, god is distinct from Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Distinct from Jesus, sure, why not. I’m distinct from other people with bodies. But I’m not sure I’m distinct from the Holy Ghost. I also don’t know what the Holy Ghost is, so I’m not sure how I can be distinct from it. But, let’s pretend the Holy Ghost is actually made up of some material that is finer than matter (Joseph Smith taught this), but has a finite essence. If the Holy Ghost can control that essence, then I guess I could be distinct from it and so could god. However, there is another problem here. Supposedly, through god’s spirit, which is also supposedly distinct from the Holy Ghost, god is everywhere in the universe at once. Well, now we have a real quandary. If god is distinct from Jesus and the Holy Ghost, and if both Jesus and the Holy Ghost are inside the universe, then god and Jesus and the Holy Ghost are not, truly, distinct. If god is in the universe, and Joseph Smith said he is, living on a planet near Kolob, then I’m not sure how Jesus and the Holy Ghost could be outside the universe. If they are not, then they are not distinct from god as god is everywhere. Thus, either god is not distinct from Jesus and the Holy Ghost or god’s presence is not everywhere through his spirit (a.k.a. the light of christ). So, this characteristic of god is not logically correct. Strike one against the Mormon god.

Next, is God the father greater than Jesus? Well, since he created him, the obvious answer would be yes. However, we do have to stipulate that this can only be true for a certain period of time. Why? God promises that all those who attain godhood will have all that he has. If that is true, then at some point in the future, assuming Jesus attains godhood (which Mormons believe has already happened), then Jesus will be as great as god. Thus, god the father is currently greater than Jesus. But god the father cannot always be greater than Jesus or he was lying about his children having all that he has. So, this may be true now, but cannot be true forever. We’ll call this a half-strike against the Mormon god.

Is it true that God the father won’t judge anyone; that is Jesus’s job? Well, again, this may be true at some point, but certainly cannot have been true in the past, with some possible qualifications. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jesus will judge all of those who live and die on this planet. Fine. If that is the only judgment this refers to, then god the father won’t judge anyone in the future. But if this refers to ever judging anyone, god has already done so. In the pre-existence, he cast 1/3 of his children from heaven. That included a judgment as those children are sons of perdition, doomed for eternity. That seems like a judgment to me. I guess it’s possible that Jesus made that decision. But that would imply that god the father doesn’t do anything and wasn’t really involved in the war in heaven. Possible, I guess. Additionally, didn’t god the father prejudge all of his children as being unworthy to be in his presence once they came to earth? That was the whole reason for the atonement. Did Jesus also make that determination? If so, again, god the father isn’t very involved in his creation. Possible, I guess. If all this is true, then god the father is a very, very distant god who basically just gets involved to tell others to listen to Jesus. That, of course, doesn’t mesh with what most Mormons think and also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in light of other things that have happened. For instance, when Jesus died on the cross supposedly the earth shook and there were horrible catastrophes. Did Jesus do that or did god the father? Jesus would have had to do that while he simultaneously was ministering do spirits in spirit prison, which is where he went when he died and before he was resurrected (by himself). So, it would seem god the father did that. That would also seem like something of a judgment, as lots of people died as a result. So, does god the father judge? Well, I’d say yes. There are ways to kind of weasel around this, but I don’t find them compelling. So, another half-strike against the Mormon god.

Does God the father want people to pray to him? Well, I can understand why an all-powerful (we’ll get to this issue later) god would want to know what people want – he can do something about it. But why would a god want prayers of praise? Doesn’t that sound egotistical? I guess we didn’t specify that god is humble. In fact, god says he is a jealous god. Maybe god is also a proud god that wants praise. Maybe god wants people to praise him and thank him to teach humans humility. That’s a strange way of teaching that. So, I guess this is possible. But if god the father does want people to praise him, which he says he does, he is not a god I would want to praise. I’m not a fan of arrogance. This is a possibility, but if it is true, I wouldn’t worship this god. After all, why would he need or want my praise?

Is it possible God the father set up a plan that involved his only begotten son dying on a cross? Yeah. I guess that’s possible. That’s a pretty cruel god, though. Think about it, if god is all powerful, why can’t he simply make everyone’s sins go away? If he can’t do that, he isn’t all powerful. If he can but he won’t, then he is not the personification of love. So, again, it’s possible that god did this, but if he did, he’s a cruel god. I wouldn’t worship such a god, but still possible.

Can God the father impregnate human women? Well, if he has a body of flesh and bones, I guess so. He’d either have to sleep with the woman, use artificial insemination, or be able to materialize a sperm in a woman’s fallopian tube. Let’s think about those options. If god slept with Mary but was not married to her, then god is an adulterer and he committed incest (she is his daughter). If god used artificial insemination, then god masturbated. If god made a sperm materialize in a woman’s fallopian tube, god has some remarkable technological prowess. That would entail having the technology to send a single sperm across the universe to a specific location inside a woman’s body that is about the size of a straw. That’s remarkable. Personally, I like to think god used one of the other two methods – sex with his daughter who he wasn’t married to or masturbation – it makes me laugh that the Mormon god broke his own commandments in order for his plan to work. So, is this possible? Yes. Is it probable? Not at all. Another half-strike against the Mormon god.

Is it possible that God the father is literally the father of all the souls of people? Well, considering how many souls that is, that, too, is quite a feat. It isn’t necessarily impossible, but I have to wonder how many wives he has, how often they have kids, and how a spiritual child is created. Is it similar to the mortal process? If so, and if the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that would mean that to people just this one planet, god would have to have one child with at least one of his wives every year since the beginning of the universe to populate this planet. And this is just one planet. Supposedly there are millions like this across the universe, all peopled by god. Since we don’t know how god creates his children, we can’t really rule out that this is possible. But it seems highly improbable as well. Semi-strike against the Mormon god.

Is God the father one in purpose with Jesus? If so, Jesus committed suicide. He knew he was going to be killed, could have stopped it, and didn’t. That must mean he wanted to die. If god and jesus are one in purpose, then god must advocate suicide. Since the Mormon god does not advocate suicide, I have to assume that god and Jesus are not one in purpose. Strike against the Mormon god.

Is God the father omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? This is probably the easiest one to refute. First, omnipotence. That means all-powerful. Here’s the question: Can god create a rock so big that even he cannot lift it. If he can, he is not all powerful. If he cannot, then he is not all powerful. God is not all powerful. Second, omniscient. That means all-knowing. If god is all knowing, that means he knew when he created Satan that Satan would become the devil, convince 1/3 of his kids to rebel against him, and doom them to eternal damnation. If god knew that before it happened but he did nothing to stop it, then he may be all knowing, but he certainly isn’t loving. He basically didn’t care about 1/3 of his kids. If he knew, and he is loving, but he couldn’t stop it, then he is not all powerful. So, either god is omniscient but doesn’t care about his kids, or god is omniscient, cares, but is not all powerful. Take your pick. Either way, this also makes god responsible for all evil as well. Is god omnipresent? That means present everywhere. If god is present everywhere, that means everything is god. If everything is god, then there is no way to distinguish god from anything else. My shoe is god; my toilet bowl is god; my house is god; my computer is god. If everything is god, then nothing is god, because it makes no sense to call everything something other than something. That just makes god something, but simultaneously makes god nothing in particular, as god is no different from anything else. So, if god is omnipresent, then god is nothing. So, is god omnipotent, omnisicent, and omnipresent? No. Three strikes agains the Mormon god.

Is god merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in goodness? Well, if he is, he sure doesn’t show it. Where was god when Hurricane Katrina hit? Where was god when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit and over 200,000 people died? Where was god during WWII when over 6 million Jews died? Why did god kill all of his children except Noah during the flood? Either god is merciful but can’t do anything about it, which means he is not all powerful, or god is not merciful. Take your pick. God cannot be merciful and omnipotent. He is either mean and vindictive and all powerful, or he is merciful and not all powerful. If he is mean and vindictive, he is not worthy of our worship. So, you best hope he is merciful but not all powerful. Is god slow to anger? Well, if he is actually the one causing all the destruction around the world, I’d say quite the opposite – he is quick to anger. Read the Old Testament – when Moses goes up the mountain to get god’s commandments, all it takes is for the children of Israel to start worshipping a golden calf for him to curse them and demand the deaths of dozens. God is not, by his own record, slow to anger. If by gracious it is meant humble, we already illustrated that is not true as we wants his children to praise him. That’s the epitome of arrogance. Is god abundant in goodness? I see no difference between that and merciful, which we already ruled out. Ergo, 4 strikes against the Mormon god.

Is he a god of truth and no respecter of persons? Well, if god is a god of truth, why are there so many different religions that claim to know his will? Either god is a mischeivious god who likes screwing around with his followers by making it hard to know his will, which means you shouldn’t worship him anyway, or god has no way of conveying his truth to his children. If that is the case, then god is not a god of truth. Additionally, why does god’s truth change? Mormon doctrine has changed over the years (look up Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine). Does that mean god’s truth changes? If so, god’s truth doesn’t mean the same thing that I think of when I think truth. Is god a respecter of persons? Well, he does seem to talk to some people more than others. Why? By Joseph Smith’s own accounts, he was a sinner, he deceived people, slept with women other than his wife (than married them to justify it), drank alcohol, etc. By the standards of the Mormon Church, I’m more worthy to receive god’s will than Joseph Smith was. Why did Joseph Smith receive it and not me? That would suggest that god is a respecter of persons. Isn’t it more likely that “prophets” like Joseph Smith are just pretending they know god’s will than that they actually do? After all, god would definitely have to show favoritism toward certain people, who were clearly sinners and less worthy to receive his will than others, for them to receive it. Thus, the Mormon god is not a god of truth and is a respecter of persons. Two strikes against him.

Does god personify love? If you define love as watching 200,000 of your children die in a preventable tsunami, then I guess god does personify love. If giving some people who absolutely shouldn’t be parents a child (Debi worked with a woman who had 6 or 7 kids, all with fetal alcohol syndrome except 1) and not others who should have a child (I had a woman in my class this last semester who is financially settled, nice, married, caring, etc. but not fertile, even with fertility treatments), is that love? Maybe god does love them and he wants to do something about it but can’t. That means he is not all powerful. Or maybe he feels like that is in the person’s best interest. For the life of me I cannot see how giving a woman who can’t take care of herself or 6 kids with fetal alcohol syndrome is in the best interest of anyone. God does not personify love, which means he is not worthy of worship. Strike against god.

Did God set forth a system that requires his children to believe in him and follow him in order to return to him? Does that system requires specific rituals and behaviors? Let’s say for the sake of argument that god did set out this system and it does require that you be Mormon. This does suggest that god is not very loving as there are millions if not billions who will never receive it. Mormons have a solution for this, though: they say that all of those who have ever lived will be revealed during the millennium so they can have their work done. Okay. Possible. But not very practical or efficient. Also not very loving. But let’s give this one to Mormons.

Can God tell people things that they would not otherwise know (revelation)? There is no evidence that this has ever happened. There is nothing in any book of scripture ever written that cannot have been known by other means. In fact, much of what is written in scripture is simply wrong. Ancient America, if that is the setting for the Book of Mormon (which many Mormon apologists now claim it is not because of these problems), did not have elephants or horses, but they are mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Either god lied or Joseph Smith got it wrong when he wrote it. If god can reveal things people wouldn’t otherwise know to people, why doesn’t he? My religious students don’t do better on tests than my non-religious students? The standard Mormon answer is because it is not in your best interest. This is circular logic: You know god’s will by determining what god does. What god does is god’s will. That’s useless. Strike against a Mormon god.

Can God speak to living prophets today and did he speak with prophets in the past? Well, if he does speak to prophets today, he is a prejudicial god, as he just told Mormon prophets to work against homosexuals, removing their rights. That would indicate god is a respecter of persons. And if god spoke with prophets in the past, he either lied to them, the transmission was faulty, or god didn’t know what he was talking about in the past. The god of the New Testament told his prophets the earth had four corners (Revelation 7:1). Oops. Strike against god.

Did God once live on a planet, like us, but followed a similar plan to become a god? Since this would have had to have happened in a different universe, there is no way of knowing this except by god telling us that it happened. However, we cannot verify it. So, it’s possible. Improbable, but possible.

Does God sit on a throne? Not sure. He could. But if he does, he is also an arrogant god that I would not want to worship. I’d rather my god be humble and walk among the people like one of them. So, possible.

Does God look like a man? Again, possible. But this also suggests another alternative: that man created god, not the other way around. Emile Durkheim basically suggested as much when he was analyzing religion over 100 years ago. He saw god as being the embodiment of man: we create god in our image, not vice versa. Which is more probable? So, while it is possible that god looks like a man, what this suggest to me is not that god looks like a man but rather than man can’t think of anything else that would be worthy of adoration except someone who looks like him. This shows a good deal of arrogance on the part of the men who created that god. This also shows patriarchy. So, is it possible? Yes. Is it more probable that a man created god? Yes. Half-strike against the Mormon god.

Finally, is it possible that the only way to know any of this is for god the father to reveal it to each person individually? And, is it true that god will only reveal himself to someone if that person already has faith in him? Well, let’s put this in simpler terms. What this says is: (1) There is no evidence for any of this. (2) The only way to find out if it is true is to believe that it is true. Well, isn’t that convenient? There is no evidence for any of the above characteristics of god. And the only people who believe this are people who believe this. That is absolutely circular logic. That’s the equivalent of a parent saying to his child: The only way for you to find out if Santa exists is to believe in Santa first. Then Santa will show himself to you. The child says she believes, then the parent takes the child to the mall and shows her a fake Santa. This reinforces the belief. Then she asks Santa for something and her parents get it for her. This reinforces the belief. All of this appears to be evidence of Santa, but, in fact, is not, as Santa does not exist. It just appears to be evidence of Santa. Then the child gets old enough to talk to her friends who don’t believe and finds out that her parents were just screwing with her – Santa doesn’t exist. So, Mormons say the only way to “know” god exists is to believe. Well, you can never know it because there is no evidence. But the only way to believe is to believe. Wow! How’s that for a compelling argument? Two strikes agains the Mormon god.

That took a while…

Now let’s return to the example of Athena. You don’t believe in her because (1) there is no evidence to support her existence, and (2) no one else does. But, (3) Athena is a conceptually plausible god – she could exist.

Let’s apply these criteria to the Mormon god. (1) There is no evidence to support the existence of this god; mormons even say so explicitly. (2) Lots of other people believe this god exists. In fact, the religion often talks about just how many members there are as though that supports the belief in this god. But what about number 3? Well, (3) many of the characteristics of this god are completely implausible. Only one characteristic being implausible should be sufficient to make someone not believe. But you do believe in this god despite the many, many completely implausible characteristics. So, rather than ask why I don’t believe, why not ask why you do believe? I don’t believe in the Mormon god because of #1 and #3. You can’t believe in the Mormon god for either #1 or #3, as neither support belief in that god. So you must believe in the Mormon god because of #2 – other people believe.

So, to answer your question: Why doesn’t god exist? First, define god. We did that for two separate gods. Second, think about that definition logically, preferrably using empirical evidence wherever possible. God doesn’t exist if: (1) there is no evidence to support his/her/its existence, depending on the definition, and/or (2) god’s characteristics are illogical. Those are the two reasons why god does not exist.

Does that help?

78 thoughts on “Sure, I’ll tell you why there is no god…

  1. Oh….my….profxm, this is…rather thorough. I think that if I had to pass such a rigorous test to be atheist, I’d still be believing.

    But your sister-in-law definitely won’t be lacking material for her slides :D.

    P.S. I don’t think I’m old enough to read the section on God and Mary…I prefer to think that Adam and Eve lacked belly buttons and Jesus was born without sperm and egg and science. just kidding

  2. Yeah, it’s a bit long-winded. Once you get me started, watch out!

    I was LMAO when I wrote the part about god and Mary. Good fun!

  3. This is definitely thorough and VERY well-thought out. I do think, however, that it’s not terribly logical to try to reason away god – a being that’s supposed to be beyond our understanding. I get that you were trying to give her reasons for why there’s no god, but I kind of feel like trying to logically and scientifically disprove god just makes people of faith feel more justified since they can (rightly) say that you have NOT given sufficient proof that an all-powerful god exists.

    Actually, I have a lot to say about this, so maybe I’ll just save it for a post.

    One thing to add: My favorite is when people say they *know* there’s a god because of sunsets and babies. Um…yeah. I know that the earth rotates and humans procreate because of sunsets and babies.

  4. Oops – last line of first paragraph should read: “…NOT given sufficient proof that an all-powerful god DOESN’T exist”

  5. I was hoping I’d get back a detailed explanation of what my sister-in-law thought of my explanation. Instead, all I got was a thank you and a note saying it was for a philosophy class. She also didn’t say whether she used any of what I wrote. I guess I can just hope she got an A!

    Rebecca, I do look forward to your post. However, in the interregnum, I do feel obliged to point out three things, though they may not be your arguments. You may just be pointing out the futility of trying to disprove god. In which case, these are just general points for anyone to address and not just you.

    (1) Claiming we cannot understand god is, IMO, a cop-out. If we can’t understand him/her/it, why bother worshiping it? This is often what pastors, religious leaders, apologists say when you succinctly show using logic and reason that a clearly defined god is implausible.

    (2) We best be able to understand god considering we created him/her it. That does seem awfully odd to think that we might not be able to understand our own creation.

    (3) Claiming we can’t understand something, therefore it must be supernatural is an argument from ignorance, which is a logical fallacy. Just because a person doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean no one does. Also, see #2; someone created this thing; we better understand it.

    Anyway, just a couple thoughts on that idea.

  6. Realizing that this is an utterly ironic statement in this context, I still have to say, “OH MY GOD!”

    My reasons for ceasing to believe in the Mormon god were along the lines of, “He’s just too much of a vicious, violent, egomaniacal bastard for anyone with a brain, a conscience, and a sense of ethics to emulate or to want to spend all eternity with him.” I’m glad you addressed that aspect.

    My favorite bit of the other stuff:

    Can god create a rock so big that even he cannot lift it? If he can, he is not all powerful. If he cannot, then he is not all powerful. God is not all powerful.

    It’s just so succinct, and so inarguable.

    re: profxm #9 Claiming we cannot understand god is, IMO, a cop-out.

    I completely agree with you–if we talk about god as sort sort of personage who acts and emotes and lives in heaven and is planning on judging us all some day and so forth, because such a god is just one more “thing” in the universe that can be quantified and described. It’s just one more thing we created, so we can kill it, and frankly I think we should–the sooner, the better.

    But I disagree if we think of “god” as another name “the ultimate mystery of the universe, or the nature and source of consciousness”–which is one way the term has been used from time to time.

    We don’t understand consciousness or why it exists, and we can’t prove that it exists–after all, perhaps none of us is really conscious, and everything we perceive is just some unreality we only THINK we are conscious of. But it’s useful to talk about consciousness and try to understand it nonetheless–even though we’ll fail.

    in other words, in this school of thought, god is not all-powerful; god is a name for power.

    This is where I’m intrigued by the writings of Karen Armstrong. She discusses theologians who say things like, “God does not exist, but God is still the most important reality there is.”

    In other words, there are theologians who talk seriously about god and “believe” in “it” but these theologians would be considered atheists by people like your sis-in-law and my family, because to them “god” is just a familiar name for something unnameable and unknowable: the force that gives consciousness to the universe and endows life with meaning.

    It doesn’t “do” anything and it doesn’t “create” anything. But it’s worth thinking about, these theologians argue–provided doing so doesn’t distract us from the fundamental challenges we face in this life: how to treat each other with kindness and respect, and live in a way that we avoid befouling our nests, so the next generation can live well after us. If it does impede those tasks, theology and religion are not merely a waste of time but an actual evil.

    I would also point out that thinking about consciousness or “god” is not necessarily the same thing as worshiping it.

    You might say that this is again a cop-out because it rejects the idea of god dominant in the world today…. And a lot of the time I avoid using the term “god” to talk about this…something that interests me, precisely because “god” is such a loaded, loathsome term. But the fact remains that “god” has been used throughout the centuries as a term for this great mystery. The fact that a lot of people use the term as narrowly as possible doesn’t change the fact that there’s this OTHER concept covered by the term that is more complicated, more thoughtful, and beyond our comprehension and description.

    All of which is to say, that I agree that the god your sis-in-law believes in doesn’t exist, and I accept as well as I can your proofs against the existence of god, and I also agree that to say we can’t understand how god could or couldn’t create a rock “he” can’t move and still be omnipotent, is a huge cop-out. But I also think that there are ways of talking about a “god” we can’t understand that aren’t a cop-out, because there are plenty of forces in the universe we can’t understand.

  7. Profxm: Mainly I agree with what Holly says. How “god” is defined has a lot to do with it.

    I actually do want to post about this, so I don’t want to really get into it here, but I think claiming god is too incomprehensible for us to understand (at least given the understanding humans currently have of the universe and science) is completely acceptable, based on your #3: “Just because a person doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean no one does.” Or, modified: Just because we don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

  8. Your sister-in-law’s response to your impressive, learned missive: “Yeah, but then how did all this stuff get here?” Case closed. Classmates nod. Comments about poor son of perdition brother-in-law draw sympathy.

  9. Holly and Rebecca,

    I think you are both raising a very good point. Let me see if I understand it. Basically, I discussed in my post two gods: Athena and the Mormon-defined god. As I hope I illustrated in my posts, Athena is plausible, but no one believes in her and the Mormon-defined god is not, but lots do believe in him. My arguments were specific to THOSE gods.

    The issue you are raising is: What if we change the definition of god? Great question. If we do change the definition to something more akin to the god you are describing (a god that is powerful, but not all powerful; knowledgeable, but not all knowing; pervasive, but not omnipresent; in other words, a limited deity that is precisely defined by not being detectable; in other words, the god of deists), then my arguments are no longer applicable. That’s why I started out the post defining the god. I, as an atheist, can’t really argue against a deistic god except to say, “Show me the evidence.” A deistic god is entirely plausible. This is also why most atheists assert, “I don’t believe in a god, but that doesn’t mean a god is not possible.” The Mormon-defined god is not possible, but a limited deity certainly is. I still don’t believe, but it’s rational to believe in such an entity based on (1) it being a logical possibility and (2) it not being disprovable. It is not rationale to believe in the Mormon-defined god.

    Ergo, are we on the same page?

  10. Exactly, definition is the key. As soon as you show that XYZ standard belief about God is wrong, the first response is that God doesn’t need XYZ to be real and true.

    This is why I don’t claim to have a proof that God doesn’t exist: God must be well-defined, otherwise we can’t say if He/She/It exists or not.

  11. Hi profxm–

    it’s not just that your arguments are specific to Athena or the Mormon god; they could apply to any god that is an entity. But I’m not talking about “god” as an entity or object.

    in the way I think about “god,” it’s not appropriate to talk about

    a god that is powerful, but not all powerful; knowledgeable, but not all knowing; pervasive, but not omnipresent;

    any more than it’s appropriate to talk about “a gravity.” There is not “a god,” there is “god.” it’s not a thing; it’s not even a deity.

    in other words, a limited deity that is precisely defined by not being detectable; in other words, the god of deists

    No. the “god” I’m talking about is NOT the god of the deists; that god is an entity or being or thing and it created the universe.

    Nor is “god” as I’m talking about it amenable to being “precisely defined.” The whole point of it is that it’s very loosely and broadly and messily defined–it’s not definable, in fact. It’s the ultimate mystery and is therefore by definition beyond definition.

    The concept of god that interests me is a pervasive force and element of the universe–like gravity, or love.

    And if that seems a goofy pairing, well, I have read books of physics that posit the possibility that “love” and “gravity” are manifestations, albeit on very different levels, of the same sort of attraction.

    I’m not saying I believe that, but it’s interesting for me to think about.

    As I said, the “god” I am interested in (I won’t even say I “believe” in it, because I don’t know if I do) doesn’t create anything. Gravity itself doesn’t “create” things–except insofar as it brings things that already exist together and binds them, but that’s not creation nihil ex nihilo. Love, likewise, might be a generative force that is a catalyst to creation, but it itself doesn’t create anything: you don’t put some love in a room and come back in two hundred million years and find that it has made a new universe.

    So in many regards I think we’re on the same page, but we won’t be entirely if you posit, as you seem to have thus far, that people define god always as an object rather than as a force.

  12. p.s. I read back through my comment and it sounds snottier than I intended. I’m not trying to pick a fight or attack you, because I think your post was actually really smart and informative. I’m just trying to explain this other concept of god…. though I admit I’m ever so slightly miffed by the suggestion, however slight, that I believe in or even defend the god of the deists–absolutely not!

  13. I think you’re totally right in saying that it isn’t rational to believe in the Mormon-defined God. However, I do think that just because Mormons have defined it in a way that makes sense to them doesn’t necessarily mean they’re totally WRONG.

    I’ve got a rough draft of a post that will hopefully explain what I’m thinking – or it will just make me seem like a moron, which is an entirely plausible interpretation.

  14. Hi Holly,

    No worries. I’m actually just trying to understand what it is you’re getting at. After your last post it sounds like your “god” is an undefinable force. It is, of course, different from gravity or the weak or strong nuclear forces or electromagnetism (i.e., the fundamental forces), all of which can be defined, we just don’t really know what causes them. Because they are definable, we can study them and better understand them.

    It sounds like your “force/god” is not definable. Ergo, can it be studied, known, and/or understood? My sense is that it could not be. This certainly doesn’t suggest that it can’t exist or doesn’t exist. It leaves me with just one question: Why believe in it at all?

    FYI, I’m not picking a fight either; I’m sincerely interested in understanding your position (I’m a sociologist after all; this is what I do). So, let me think this through: You believe in an undefinable, unknownable, un-understandable (is that a word?) force that influences something (it must influence something, else why call it a force?). This force is logically plausible and, while difficult to disprove, probably has no empirical support. What is the benefit in believing in this force? There certainly doesn’t have to be one, but I have to wonder why you would believe if there is no benefit. So, why believe in an unknowable force? What does it do for you?

    Rebecca, I look forward to your post. Here’s to hoping it blows our minds and you don’t look like a “moron.”

  15. Hi Profxm:

    re: your question “why believe in some ‘god’ that can’t be studied, known and/or understood?”

    First of all, I was careful to stipulate that I’m not sure I believe in it.

    Secondly, define “studied, known, and understood.”

    From what I can tell, your sense of “knowledge” refers only to a highly rational empirical knowledge.

    It is true that the god I am interested in is neither rational nor amenable to being known and understood through empirical study.

    But there are other forms of knowledge and understanding besides the empirical and the rational. I have found myself suddenly possessed of knowledge that did not come to me through any rational or empirical process–and not just ideas, either, but knowledge so complete that it was experienced as a certainty–and sure enough, when I sought to verify it in some way, it was accurate.

    I value very highly intuitive and visceral knowledge. Understanding of this force I call god is intuitive and visceral, and it is valuable and meaningful in the same way that experiencing love and grief are valuable and meaningful: they make you a more complete person. These things are not always pleasant, but they are a source of very important knowledge about what it means to be human.

    I don’t know if I’m helping at all. Part of the disconnect between us might be one of temperament as well as discipline: when I started my writing career, I worked primarily as a poet, and whether or not I did it well, I tried to grapple with questions of transcendent meaning. My PhD is in English, and for many years one of the things I studied was the sublime, which is by necessity hard to define. When I moved on from that, it was to the abject, which is also really hard to define. I like things that are hard to define–I like the messiness, because life has often seemed to me extremely messy.

    I also like the way these concepts test the boundaries and capacities of language. While I no longer write much poetry, I retain a poet’s love of language–its richness, its music, its ability to communicate things that really MATTER. Nonetheless, I recognize that language fails fundamentally to express or convey some of the deepest, most important things I know.

  16. Profxm – I’m working on it, but rest assured that your mind will be fully intact after reading my post. Honestly, the best I’m hoping for is that you can’t completely tear me a new one with your rebuttal. I will plead the last point in Holly’s comment: “Nonetheless, I recognize that language fails fundamentally to express or convey some of the deepest, most important things I know.”

  17. “tear me a new one with your rebuttal.”

    So, is that why it’s called rebutting? Because it involves tearing someone a new one?

    snicker, snort

    OK, I’ll stop thinking like a eight-year-old now, and only add that one more reason I love language is its capacity for whimsy and play.

  18. A lot of this back-and-forth reminds me of my father (I only skimmed the comments, so if I completely got it wrong, sorry).

    My father admittedly has a lot of tinsel on his beliefs, but at the core, he believes that the universe runs on some kind of force…that’s possibly a law. So, much like we have gravity and it’s only come over time that we’ve realized and described gravity with theories and a law, there are other laws that we may or may not have come up with hypotheses about.

    So my father would say that whatever it is that is the priesthood…it is an aspect of some force that pervades through the universe. My father wouldn’t say, though, that the priesthood is exclusive to the church (or to Christianity). He would look at the diverse pattern of mystics and religious people throughout history and throughout all religions (or even outside of religion) and see that certain individuals share certain traits and as a result seem to be able to access this power.

    So, for my dad, this power…whatever it is…is evidential. It’s just that scientific empiricism may not be able to describe it.

    -_- Unfortunately, this leads my father to come to a conclusion that’s something like, “Atheists are people who are just spiritually lazy, and are afraid of pioneering to find this spiritual power.”

    As for myself, I’m wary of my father’s ideas. As I mentioned before, he has a lot of tinsel and baggage on these beliefs, so they sound worse than the simple stuff I’ve presented. I think he’s being optimistic at best (or maybe I’m just being pessimistic at worst?)

    But even I must admit in the end that I can only argue the case of, “Well, I see no reason to believe in that.” I can only, at best, argue for a weak atheism of lack of belief. But saying, “Why should we believe in such a god” is vastly different from saying that god does not exist. It could be that the most unfortunate, implausible, seemingly vile things that we would have no reason to believe in actually do exist. All I’m saying is, even if such a thing were to exist, I don’t have a reason to believe in it — especially when it seems to not be making any difference to my life whatsoever either way.

    That’s kinda what I have to respond to a “force”-type description of god. Gravity affects us whether we know about it or don’t…whether we believe in it or not. It seems to me that God doesn’t necessarily affect me in any instance…whether I believe in it/him/her/them/one/whatever or not, my life is unaffected.

  19. Andrew — I think you’re making this more complicated than it is.

    Let’s consider this supposed force. What discernible effects do you claim that it has? Once you’ve made your claims about what this force does, then we can investigate those claims.

    If it has no discernible effect on anything, then what does it mean to say it exists?

    If your claim is that there’s no way to predict or objectively measure anything about God (or the force or whatever) but that a given warm feeling or wonderful coincidence might have been caused by the supposed God/force, I’ll tell you that such things have knowable explanations, hence don’t require the existence of an unknowable force to explain them.

    If your only claim is that there exists aspects of the universe (natural laws, perhaps) that we don’t understand, I’d say that’s undoubtedly true. However I have absolutely no reason to call a supposed unknown force “supernatural” or “God” (with all the connotations of magic and sentience/intelligence that those names imply), nor do I have any reason to believe it acts through religion (and/or the priesthood) unless you can provide some compelling argument or evidence that it does.

  20. chanson, I’m not making this more complicated than it is. I openly acknowledge that I recognize my father is incomprehensible and I don’t believe in…whatever…it is.

    But, getting to a more theoretical idea, “If it has no discernible effect on anything” assumes that we have the tools to see all “discernible effects” reliably…when we may necessarily not, and some things that do have discernible effect could be ultimately discarded because of some bias that we have (whether it be religious or irreligious: if we follow empiricism, which has certain demands, then we disqualify many things that could have “discernible effects”).

    And really, this first half of the question, if we don’t have full knowledge of the discernible effects of a thing, makes the second part of the question, “then what does it mean to say it exists” futile. Ultraviolet light exists regardless of if we know the discernible effects of it or not. If we don’t know the discernible effect of UV like people in past eras, that doesn’t mean it somehow doesn’t exist until we start seeing people getting skin cancer and whatnot. This existence may be ultimately useless to certain people (e.g., premodern people), but this just means we are justified in saying “I don’t believe it exists”…instead of “I believe it doesn’t exist.”

    but yeah, my father’s claim would be the second: that there exist aspects of the universe that we don’t understand. However, his claim would also be to explain that while it can be tested throughout principles of various mysticisms (he would probably want to take you up on the “provide some compelling argument that it does” — this is about the time when I start assuming he’s just using a lot of wishful thinking and confirmation bias though, so I can’t help) and is repeatedly evidenced, it requires a mindset (faith) that isn’t necessarily scientific. So the scientific community, unless it rewrote the demands of the scientific method, would be unable to recognize what he says is very clear in the world.

  21. Speaking of which, my father actually *did* say that there’s no intrinsic reason to call the force he speaks of “God” because I did raise such a point — if it’s completely natural, why describe it in terms that are so supernatural?

    He claims it’s from a sense of familiarity. He rejects the idea of coming up with a brand new tablet of words to describe something that doesn’t really need a brand new tablet of words.

  22. OK, then, don’t think of this “god” as a force like gravity; think of it as a force and/or quality like beauty.

    Beauty doesn’t feed or house you. It can become irrelevant at times when you are suffering. But it can also provide great meaning and comfort when you are suffering–as well as when you’re not.

    Attempts to define this force and/or quality, beauty, are always inadequate–though there are certainly plenty of them. But it can’t be exactly quantified or pinned down, and things that should be beautiful according to aesthetic rules sometimes aren’t, and things that shouldn’t be beautiful sometimes are.

    I don’t for a moment believe that god, if it exists, is supernatural. It’s entirely natural–like beauty. It’s also available to anyone who is interested in it, which is one of many reasons I don’t imagine it has much to do with the Mormon priesthood.

    I wouldn’t say that “atheists are spiritually lazy” any more than I would say that I am physically lazy because I hate organized sports and actively reject the label “athlete.” I hate to run, throw or catch balls, engage in activities where I can be knocked down by someone bigger or meaner than I am, or keep score. However, I like dance and yoga and seeing what my body can do.

    I compared god to gravity because it is a big force that pervades the universe, but I also compared it to love. Everyone seems to have seized primarily on the gravity comparison, in part, I suspect, because it gravity is something that can be approached through empirical study, and love can’t. But part of what I want to stress is that this thing can’t be appreciated through empirical study, any more than love can. You have to feel it. And doing so provides you with a greater sense of what life ultimately means.

    I’m not claiming everyone should “believe” in this vague, indefinable “god” I’m discussing–as I have said repeatedly, I’m not sure I believe in it. I am, however, interested in it. But I am not even saying everyone else should be interested in it. If you aren’t interested in this, there’s no reason why you should pursue it. I’m sure there are ways in which playing competitive team sports provides people with a greater sense of what life means, and I’m choosing to skip out on that.

    There are a great many experiences I’m missing out on, both by my own design and by the vagaries of fate. I will live without the meaning and wisdom I would learn from engaging in them, and I get snippy if someone suggests that I am essentially pitiable and impoverished by virtue of the fact that I have never given birth or gone scuba diving or performed open heart surgery. I would expect atheists to have the same reaction to the idea that they need to believe in god because failing to do so reveals them as lazy and underdeveloped.

    But I am saying that our current mode of discussing this god is unlikely to yield significant understanding because we are reading statements about this “god” for the “facts” they contain. I do accept all the evidence Karen Armstrong marshals in her many books that “Sacred texts cannot be perused like a holy encyclopedia, for clear information about the divine” because most discussions of the divine–at least before the age of enlightenment, when the western world turned religion in a pseudo-science–rely on metaphor and other figures of speech to communicate the truths they contain.

    Like the words of a poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths that are elusive, that resist words and conceptualization. If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque. If you bring your own personal agenda to bear upon it, the poem will close upon itself like a clam, because you have denied its unique and separate identity, its own inviolable holiness.

    that kind of study and discovery appeals to you, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you live without it and find other things to interest and occupy and enrich you. If it does, you can find great meaning in it.

    But the experience and endeavor of pursuing it is not particularly comparable to the experience and endeavor of learning about God the Father in Mormon Sunday school and so forth. And the arguments profxm marshaled to show why that sort of study is pointless do not apply to study and exploration of this concept of god.

  23. Hi Andrew S–

    Your comments went up while I was writing mine. I don’t want to agree with much of what you’ve said about your father’s ideas, but I will agree with his assertion that science doesn’t particularly help with this. I’m OK with that, because science doesn’t help with a lot of the things that matter most to me–like understanding poetry.

    I also like your distinction between “I don’t believe it exists” and “I believe it doesn’t exist.” I can’t say for certainty that I believe this god I am talking about exists. But I have read enough stuff by thinkers I respect who do believe it exists that I am intrigued in it. I am unwilling to say I believe it does not exist.

    Perhaps this statement from dead French guy Philippe Lejeune about autobiography will help, because it also expresses a suspension of disbelief:

    It’s best to get on with the confessions: yes, I have been fooled. I believe that we can promise to tell the truth; I believe in the transparency of language, and in the existence of a complete subject who expresses himself through it; I believe that my proper name guarantees my autonomy and my singularity;… I believe that when I say “I,” it is I who am speaking: I believe in the Holy Ghost of the first person. And who doesn’t believe in it? But of course it also happens that I believe the contrary. Whence the fascination that Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes has held for me; it seems to be the anti-Pact par excellence and proposes a dizzying game of lucidity around all the presuppositions of autobiographical discourse–so dizzying that it ends up giving the reader the illusion that it is not doing what it is nevertheless doing. “In the field of the subject, there is no referent.” To a lesser degree, and more candidly, many autobiographers have outlined analogous strategies. We indeed know all this; we are not so dumb, but, once this precaution has been taken, we go on as if we did not know it. Telling the truth about the self, constituting the self as complete subject–it is a fantasy. In spite of the fact that autobiography is impossible, this in no way prevents it from existing.

    In other words–and here I’m not addressing you, Andrew, as much as the general conversation and explaining my stake in it–I am very used to people telling me that the things I am most interested in are A) impossible and B) indistinguishable from other more important things, except by virtue of slight, impossible attributes that don’t matter, and C) my vocabulary sucks. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that there is no such thing as nonfiction, that all writing is fiction. Nonfiction may indeed be impossible, and people who don’t read it might not be missing out on much. Nonetheless, I find something profoundly rewarding in works written by people who claim the first person and strive to offer an authentic account of the events and challenges in their lives, and I would hate to live without it.

  24. Okay, the thing is this:

    The word “supernatural” has certain connotations. It implies something that sometimes has visible outcomes (eg. this was water but now it’s miraculously wine!) but that the precise mechanism is — by definition — something that humans can never observe, measure, or comprehend.

    The word “God” also has connotations. It implies some degree of intelligence and/or purpose in addition to supernatural powers, including some sort of (possibly supernatural) means to observe and communicate with humans.

    If you redefine the word “God” to be some sort of quality like beauty, then I won’t claim to disprove its existence, but I will say you’re playing “bait ‘n switch” — taking a word that has a meaning, and redefining it to mean something other than what people understand by the word in order to misrepresent what you’ve actually shown.

  25. If you redefine the word “God” to be some sort of quality like beauty, then I won’t claim to disprove its existence, but I will say you’re playing “bait ‘n switch” — taking a word that has a meaning, and redefining it to mean something other than what people understand by the word in order to misrepresent what you’ve actually shown.

    Many words have multiple meanings–some of them occasionally contradictory, as in the word “cleave,” which means both to split and to join with. I am aware that people have very specific ideas about what “God” means, and I’ve tried to show my awareness of that by putting it in quotes and so forth.

    The word “god” is an English word referring to a great many concepts. And there is a tradition far older than Christianity in which words commonly translated as “god” are used as terms for the universe’s great unknowable mystery.

    So the fact that I am using the term “god” to mean something other than what you mean when you use it, does not mean I am guilty of “bait ‘n’ switch.” It means that I am trying to be attentive to traditions and schools of thought besides the one in which “god” is a powerful entity endowed with volition who created the universe.

    The fact that these schools of thought may or may not be important or relevant or familiar to you does not change the fact that they are an important part of theology.

  26. p.s. As I said in my very first comment

    You might say that this is again a cop-out because it rejects the idea of god dominant in the world today. And a lot of the time I avoid using the term “god” to talk about this…something that interests me, precisely because “god” is such a loaded, loathsome term. But the fact remains that “god” has been used throughout the centuries as a term for this great mystery. The fact that a lot of people use the term as narrowly as possible doesn’t change the fact that there’s this OTHER concept covered by the term that is more complicated, more thoughtful, and beyond our comprehension and description.

    Don’t share my use of the term if you don’t want to. I recognize that to many people, this is illegitimate. But some of the thinkers I respect most deliberately employ the term “god” when discussing this for a variety of reasons. And as I have seen in this discussion, labeling it something else–a force, an attribute–don’t produce particularly successful results, either.

    Don’t pay attention to it if you don’t want to. Don’t take it seriously. But just as I refuse to say that atheists are spiritually lazy because they aren’t interested in this, don’t accuse me of intellectual dishonesty in the form of “bait ‘n switch” because I am interested in understanding what I can of what some great thinkers have said of this other concept that they call “god.”

  27. So, to clarify, which items are you saying your definition of God does or does not include?

    1. “Supernatural” powers, meaning powers where a measurable result is produced by a mechanism that can never possibly be measured and studied through the scientific method.

    2. A purpose or plan

    3. intelligence, sentience

    4. the ability (+ inclination) to observe and communicate with humans, possibly through supernatural means.

  28. So, to clarify, which items are you saying your definition of God does or does not include?

    1. “Supernatural” powers, meaning powers where a measurable result is produced by a mechanism that can never possibly be measured and studied through the scientific method.

    2. A purpose or plan

    3. intelligence, sentience

    4. the ability (+ inclination) to observe and communicate with humans, possibly through supernatural means.

    OK, fine, I’ll play. All these questions these are based on the assumption that this “god” is some sort of entity, which I’ve said repeatedly it isn’t. I’ve also said repeatedly that taking am empirical approach and defining this definitively doesn’t work, but what the hell: if you won’t think in metaphor, I’ll do my best to abandon it too.

    So. #1: “supernatural” powers: I don’t know if it possess powers that it owns. It has power in the way a poem or fictional character has power: they move and intrigue and inspire people. But these consequences are not the result of volition.

    #2: a purpose or a plan: what I am referring to by “god” does not have a purpose or a plan, any more than beauty or love or consciousness have plans.

    #3: intelligence, sentience: I don’t think it HAS intelligence or sentience so much as it IS intelligence or sentience. Some theologians say it IS intelligence. I don’t know.

    #4: the ability (+ inclination) to observe and communicate with humans, possibly through supernatural means: it doesn’t communicate “with” humans; it communicates something “to” humans–just as beauty and love communicate something to human beings.

    I hope that helps.

  29. just to change directions for a moment:

    what sort of masochist gives the assignment to do a presentation on “does god exist?” I used to die inside whenever students wanted to write papers on huge topics like this, particularly since they often SUCK at one key component, which is anticipating and refuting counter arguments–witness the sis-in-law’s statement that she “can’t think of why [God] doesn’t exist.” What a failure of the imagination. And what a burden to have evaluate the assignments. Fifty footnoted discussions of the debate over steroids in sports, or stem cell research, or medical marijuana? Fine, I’ll read those if it’s my job. Fifty discussions of the existence or non-existence of god? I’d rather dig a ditch and lie down in it.

  30. OK, so you’re not talking about the same thing as people who believe that God is an entity that they can pray to, which can understand and answer their prayers and has a plan for them.

    The next step is to explain precisely what are the defining charactersitics of God, so that if I were to encounter some phenomenon I could determine whether or not is is “God.” Once we’ve settled on that, we can begin to discuss whether it makes sense to say that your (possibly theoretical) God exists or not.

  31. The next step is to explain precisely what are the defining charactersitics of God, so that if I were to encounter some phenomenon I could determine whether or not is is “God.”

    I’ll say this one more time:

    the god I am interested in is neither rational nor amenable to being known and understood through empirical study.

    But there are other forms of knowledge and understanding besides the empirical and the rational.

    Furthermore, this “god” is impossible to explain precisely, precisely because it eludes language. That might frustrate you, but the fact remains that, as many people recognize,

    language fails fundamentally to express or convey some of the deepest, most important things [human beings] know.

    So you aren’t going to get what you want. If that makes it easier for you to dismiss, congratulations.

    But I will also say that a little more curiosity and open-mindedness about things that aren’t easily explored through rational, empirical study might be profoundly useful in the long run. Because really, that’s all I’m asking for–even from myself. I’m not saying definitively that this “god” exists or doesn’t exist. I’m just saying I’m interested in and curious about it, because from what little I’ve discovered about it, elusive as it is, FICTIONAL AND CONSTRUCTED AS IT MIGHT BE (yes, I acknowledge that it might be a construct), it DOES seem to give life greater meaning.

    If that’s boring or irrelevant to you, bully for you. You don’t have to waste your time on it. If, however, you are at all curious about it, there are things you can read and practices you can cultivate to help you encounter it.

    You also write:

    Once we’ve settled on that, we can begin to discuss whether it makes sense to say that your (possibly theoretical) God exists or not.

    so I’ll say this again:

    This is where I’m intrigued by the writings of Karen Armstrong. She discusses theologians who say things like, “God does not exist, but God is still the most important reality there is.”

    I already acknowledge that it doesn’t “make sense” to say that “my” “(possibly theoretical) God exists.”

    So if you are unwilling to think either in metaphor OR any sort of reasoning but the empirical, and if you reject paradox as well, and are likewise unwilling to factor in what I’ve already said, I don’t know that there’s much more to discuss. Whether it’s due to intellectual rigor or laziness, you obviously won’t even attempt a mindset that would let you have any real curiosity about what I’m positing.

  32. I don’t have anything to add to this discussion, although I find it fascinating. I will say Holly from #35 – for a intro to post-modernism course we had to do a project on “What is post modernism”. Believe it or not, the assignment fit within the course….

  33. OK, so you grant that we are not talking about a “personal God,” that kind that can hear, understand, and answer prayers, perform miracles for people, etc., right?

    Do you agree that it is reasonable to conclude that a God that satisfies criteria 1 – 4 above does not exist?

  34. OK, so you grant that we are not talking about a “personal God,” that kind that can hear, understand, and answer prayers, perform miracles for people, etc., right?

    Do you agree that it is reasonable to conclude that a God that satisfies criteria 1 – 4 above does not exist?

    You have GOT to be sh*tting me.

    What on earth would suggest to you that I WAS talking about a “personal god”? Can you point to one single thing that would suggest that I was affirming the existence of a personal god? Since you’ve asked for precise explanations, please offer me a precise explanation of exactly what about my saying that “this god is not an entity” and “it has no volition” and “it doesn’t ‘do’ anything and it doesn’t ‘create’ anything” would suggest to you that I’m talking about an entity “that can hear, understand, and answer prayers, perform miracles for people”?

    What about my saying

    My reasons for ceasing to believe in the Mormon god were along the lines of, “He’s just too much of a vicious, violent, egomaniacal bastard for anyone with a brain, a conscience, and a sense of ethics to emulate or to want to spend all eternity with him.”

    or

    I agree that the god your sis-in-law believes in doesn’t exist, and I accept as well as I can your proofs against the existence of god

    or

    I completely agree with you–if we talk about god as sort sort of personage who acts and emotes and lives in heaven and is planning on judging us all some day and so forth, because such a god is just one more “thing” in the universe that can be quantified and described. It’s just one more thing we created, so we can kill it, and frankly I think we should–the sooner, the better.

    would EVER lead you to suspect that I might think it is ANYTHING BUT “reasonable to conclude that a God that satisfies criteria 1 – 4 above does not exist?”

  35. *grabs more popcorn*

    I can kinda see what Holly and chanson are saying.

    Holly has a formulation of god (that, once again, she hasn’t even stated that she necessarily “believes” in in the same way people “believe” in other gods) that is radically different than the formulation that most people raise up. So the objections that chanson and others raise to it miss the entire point, because they are aiming at a comfortable set of ideas about God.

    And I think a greater message is that sometimes, it might be helpful to look outside of this box of comfortable ideas about these things (whether one is a believer or one is not — because this entire discussion highlights how disastrous things can be if we’re not even on the same paradigm). I can relate to things like “beauty” or “love” or things like that, but then I have a cynical answer to that (that I don’t necessarily want to get into…)

    On the other hand, the one thing I’m not sure about is that Holly’s argument relies on something that she’s tried to stress in most of her comments:

    But I disagree if we think of “god” as another name “the ultimate mystery of the universe, or the nature and source of consciousness”–which is one way the term has been used from time to time.

    And this is where I think chanson has…dare I say it…gotten hung up. What chanson is trying to say is that if we don’t make some assumptions about the nature of god, then we really ought not use the word at all (because it evokes other connotative baggage.)

    It sounds like chanson is playing a broken record (no offense c!) because she keeps on trying to drag the conversation back to a certain paradigm about what god is, but no one (other than profxm’s sister-in-law) in this topic is raising that particular paradigm of what god is.

    So, the deeper question is…is language so flexible? Can we go back to a previous usage of “god” and other god-language that would accommodate Holly’s idea, or are things as chanson says, and does modern use of the language necessitate that when we talk about god, we’re talking about a relatively stable concept (e.g., personal, purposeful, intelligent, supernatural)?

    I’m kinda torn, because if I take either position, I already see places in my life where I have to make concessions about semantics.

  36. So, the deeper question is…is language so flexible?

    Without question.

    There is a difference between flexibility and carelessness. I am trying not to be careless.

    But language IS inherently flexible. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as irony. If you said, on a snowy, crappy day, “Wow, isn’t the weather lovely,” you have to mean that the weather was indeed lovely, were it not for the incredible flexibility of language.

    Nor would there be hyperbole. Saying “I’m gonna kill you!” would be grounds for arrest, because it would be a death threat.

    Nor would there be linguistic innovation.

    Can we go back to a previous usage of “god” and other god-language that would accommodate Holly’s idea, or are things as chanson says, and does modern use of the language necessitate that when we talk about god, we’re talking about a relatively stable concept (e.g., personal, purposeful, intelligent, supernatural)?

    1. It’s not a “previous” usage of god. It’s a current, longstanding, albeit less common usage.

    2. Modern use of language allows us to mean a great many things when we use the word “god”–including Athena, Jehovah, the statues that represent deities, parts of modern life we venerate and idolize (such as money), and someone who is really good at something or beautiful. If you say, “That guy is a god,” few people would really imagine that you think the person in question possesses supernatural powers.

    3. The concept of god is not really all that stable, either in terms of historical development or current concepts. A History of God by Armstrong makes this point fairly well.

  37. profxm, it took me a while to discover who you were. Great post. I loved it. I’d like to hear what she thought, or said to you.

  38. Holly, I understand about a certain flexibility of language, but too much flexibility allows something worse: this leads to words being stolen away from you as well.

    If language is so flexible, then I believe that helps chanson’s argument (fortunately for her but unfortunately for you)

    Even if I admit that your use of the term “god” is a currently used one, you also admit that it is a “less common usage.” So, really, it can easily be hijacked by the more common and vulgar usage of the term even if you don’t accept that usage — which means that chanson’s fixation on the “Four Qualities of Godness” could have more merit. (as she elaborated in 30 — “god” and “supernatural” indubitably raise certain connotations)

    These connotations would give chanson the upper hand by the simple, yet sad phenomenon that whenever you say “god,” the first thing that will come to most people’s mind is probably closer to chanson’s definition than yours.

  39. *grabs a handful of Andrew’s popcorn*

    🙂

    On a related note, I’m familiar with Karen Armstrong’s work, though I haven’t read her book. She does illustrate the evolution of god, a point I love to make in my sociology classes. I didn’t know, however, that she advocates this “otherness” that Holly is loosely calling “god.” Intriguing. That does actually help make more sense of the movie “The History of God” that I have my sociology of religion students watch. In the movie she seems to be both an atheist and “something else” at the same time, advocating some sort of belief in something. Strangely, I think that’s about as close as we can get to defining it.

    I can certainly see where chanson is coming from as a strict, skeptical, empiricist myself. I have a really hard time with things that cannot be defined. What Holly is describing apparently defies definition. Ce la vie. She has also basically given me an easy way out of this debate: she said that if this “other” isn’t of interest to use we can ignore it, which is what I’m keen to do, and why I just stepped out of the conversation (that and I had to clean the garage today). What I think may be interesting to see is for Holly to write up her own post describing (as best as possible) this other idea, preferably with good quotes and references to all of the people she is drawing on. I’d like to get a clear sense of what is being suggested (note I’m trying to be careful not to say “defined” or “advocated,” as Holly has made it clear she doesn’t know if she believes in it). Anyway, my two bits: Holly, teach us, in a carefully worded post of your own.

    FaithNoMo – didn’t know you frequented these parts. In her follow-up email she didn’t tell me what she did with my carefully worded response. I’m guessing RP was about right – she probably said something like, “Since I couldn’t think of a reason why god doesn’t exist, I asked my atheist brother-in-law, who is a college professor. He said [select carefully chosen quote, like god masturbating or something like, that makes me look mean and offensive]. I don’t think that is a good argument, but I have no reason why. I just feel bad for my brother because god is beautiful and makes me happy. The end. Now give me an A for actually talking to an atheist.” 🙂

    She did mention that it was for a philosophy class and that she wasn’t mad at me for responding to her email. But she didn’t seem to have thought through what I said very carefully (I could be wrong on that point), as she said, “You have your beliefs, I have mine.” So, that’s it. Maybe I should email her and ask for what she turned in. Now that might be interesting.

  40. re: profxm #45:

    What I think may be interesting to see is for Holly to write up her own post describing (as best as possible) this other idea, preferably with good quotes and references to all of the people she is drawing on.

    profxm, here’s something already on my blog from a paper I delivered on Armstrong.

    And, in the future, please address me directly rather than talking about me to someone else. It’s a gesture of courtesy I would very much appreciate.

    Re Andrew #44:

    I understand about a certain flexibility of language, but too much flexibility allows something worse: this leads to words being stolen away from you as well.

    You mean the way my father is still indignant about the fact that gay no longer means primarily “happy, carefree” but instead usually means “homosexual”?

    Yeah. That happens. You deal with it.

    I’m not advocating a sort of reckless, highly idiosyncratic approach to language like that described by Humpty Dumpty, who claims “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    Nor am I new to the debate about the flexibility of language. I did my coursework for my PhD during the 1990s, the heyday of literary theory, and I can refer you to arguments on semiotics and so forth if you want.

    by the term “god,” you don’t have to mean what I mean. But the fact remains that whether you use it the same way or not, I have legitimate precedence for the way I deploy it.

    In most of the classes I took in grad school, “modernism” meant something very specific: the literary and artistic movement that occurred in reaction to World War I and ended with World War II. But I took a few classes in communications, and in those courses, “modernism” referred to developments in intellectual thought since the Renaissance. Yeah, it was jarring to become accustomed to this other usage, and I often had to remind myself, deliberately, that “modernism” didn’t mean what I was used to. Nonetheless I recognized that it was entirely legitimate usage, and that no one had a claim to the term that excluded other usages.

    you write,

    Even if I admit that your use of the term “god” is a currently used one, you also admit that it is a “less common usage.” So, really, it can easily be hijacked by the more common and vulgar usage of the term

    The term need not be “hijacked” to refer to an anthropomorphic entity who answers prayers and so forth: that is a perfectly legitimate use of the term. However, it is not the use that interests me most.

    Why is that so hard for you to allow? If we were talking about the color blue, and we agreed that by blue, most people mean, say, a pale sky blue, would I be wrong if I referred to something that was navy blue or midnight blue as “blue”? After all, there are shades and gradations of blue.

    There are shades and gradations of god–unless one is rigidly insistent on defining it a single way, because doing so supports one’s agenda.

    I am comfortable with the fact that when people use the term “god,” they mean something other than what I mean. But I annoyed, indignant and frankly surprised at the proprietary assertion here that I cannot use the term in a way supported by an entire intellectual tradition, for the primary reason that you are not familiar or comfortable with it.

    THAT is spiritual and intellectual laziness.

  41. If Holly and I are coming from the same place, I share this interest in the mystery of the world. It awes me. I often experience wonder at the beauty, strangeness, vastness, tragedy, irony, and briefness of life, of being. Where you and I seem to part company, Holly, is that I avoid calling this God because it is such a loaded word. This saves me a lot of trouble when in discussion and clarifies my thoughts so that I don’t get caught up in religious nonsense.

  42. Here’s the thing:

    I was every bit as repressed, chaste and sexually freaked out as a teenager as the curriculum of the church is designed to make adolescents. I had no particular interest in doing much of anything, but I accepted that there were plenty of other people who were–that’s what made all those standards nights necessary.

    But at some point I and my friends discovered that my extreme repression made me easy to talk to and not very judgmental about sex, because it was ALL weird to me. Homosexuality didn’t seem any weirder than heterosexuality. Anal sex didn’t seem any weirder than oral sex, and neither seemed all that much weirder than vanilla vaginal sex.

    I could also keep a secret.

    So people would tell me all sorts of things about their sex lives, and even though I was this inexperienced virgin, I’d go, “Huh. That’s interesting. That doesn’t really appeal to me, and that’s probably not going to be part of my experience–at least not any time soon–but it’s really interesting to hear about. Thanks for telling me. Huh.”

    I still try to be that way. I am more set in certain attitudes about sex–I actively fight homophobia and defend homosexuality in ways I didn’t when I was 16, and I object to the objectification of women in ways I previously couldn’t, because I didn’t understand or recognize it. But when someone tells me about the way they conduct their personal life, even if it involves things I wouldn’t do, like swinging, or orgies, or even very risky behavior likely to cause illness or injury, or whatever, I go, “Huh. That’s interesting. Thanks for telling me. Huh.”

    And I don’t see why it’s so hard for people to grant me an analogous gesture of respect. So my way of talking about “god” is outside your experience and interest. It is, nonetheless, not an idiosyncratic, weird way I made up; it is part of a tradition I am intentionally referencing. So it’s weird to you. So what. Is it really so f*cking hard to say, “Huh. That’s new. That’s weird. That’s something I’m not particularly familiar with, and don’t especially want to pursue. But thanks for telling me. Huh.”

    After all, I am not asking you to use the term in any way you don’t want to. I’m merely asking that people recognize MY RIGHT to use it in a particular way.

    And as I say, I just don’t see why that is so freakin’ hard, this intellectual stretch that people are simply unable to make.

    Re Jonathan #47:

    If Holly and I are coming from the same place, I share this interest in the mystery of the world. It awes me. I often experience wonder at the beauty, strangeness, vastness, tragedy, irony, and briefness of life, of being. Where you and I seem to part company, Holly, is that I avoid calling this God because it is such a loaded word. This saves me a lot of trouble when in discussion and clarifies my thoughts so that I don’t get caught up in religious nonsense.

    To be honest, I don’t talk about it much, Jonathan, in any terms, because most people don’t care. And the only reason I talked about it here was because the arguments against God that started the whole thing only addressed a certain type of deity, and it seemed appropriate to acknowledge this other way of using the term. But given that 38 comments later I am not merely trying to explain the term “god” but arguing for my right to use it at all, I have to agree with you, that it’s better to avoid the term, despite its relevance to a great many discussions.

  43. Like the example of the different usage of “modernism” i mentioned in comment #46, I thought of another peculiarly used word:

    elder.

    In most contexts, “elder” means someone who is older, of either gender, as in “elderly.” In religious contexts, it usually means an old dude who is in charge of some church. Only to a relatively small percentage of people does “elder” mean “a 19- or 20-year-old guy who is a missionary.”

    the fact that Mormons have this unique usage for the term “elder” and that when almost anyone else speaking in English says “elder” they mean something different doesn’t mean the world can’t get used to the strange, misleading, technically inaccurate meaning the term has for Mormons. Truth be told, it is easy for the world at large–both Mormons and everyone else–to deal with the fact that multiple meanings of the term “elder” exist. As I know from writing about my mission, people are a little nonplussed to learn that “elders” in Mormondom are often 19-years-old, but they quickly adapt. It was particularly strange in Taiwan, where the Chinese term for “elder” has additional connotations that are inappropriate to adolescent boys, especially given the respect Chinese culture has for the aged. But that was the term the church insisted on using, and everyone just dealt with it.

    thus, Andrew, as I said in a more round about way in #46, your position in comment #44 is not intellectually viable.

    If you really want to prove how well you understand language and its flexibility, you’ll adapt to the fact that multiple and even contradictory meanings for the word “god” exist, just as everyone else adapts to the fact that the word “elder” also means contradictory things, depending on the context.

  44. would EVER lead you to suspect that I might think it is ANYTHING BUT “reasonable to conclude that a God that satisfies criteria 1 – 4 above does not exist?”

    OK, so then we’re essentially in agreement.

    Look, I’m not trying to piss you off, I’m just trying to understand what you mean.

    When I say I’m an atheist, I mean that I think that type of God that most religions teach — the one it might make sense to pray to — does not exist. If you’re talking about something else, some force for which you can’t give me any specific criterion I could use to distinguish it from some other force which isn’t God, then I’ll grant you’re right, I can’t tell you whether it’s probable that it exists or not.

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