I’ve been working on this academic paper, my latest “heresy,” for awhile, and it is time I got some feedback on it. It is rather long:
UPDATE: For those who might leave comments based upon a misreading of the title without bothering to actually read the article, here is a quick overview of the admittedly long-winded argument.Summary
Ignorance of any other explanation does not make God the “necessary” answer, any more than ignorance of any other explanation makes his non-existence “necessary.” Christians who look at an otherwise inexplicable event and argue that God is the reason for it are making the same philosophical error that those who look at suffering and argue that the only explanation for it is that God does not exist. Both depend upon ignorance—a gap in knowledge—for their argument to survive. And both are making a sucker’s bet.
God is “Unnecessary”
By R.P. Nettelhorst
The Bible asks, “who is God?” and “what does he want?” But it does not ask, “is he real?” Even so, those who argue that God does not exist will point out that the burden of proof must rest with those who say he does. After all, those who insist on the reality of the Loch Ness monster are required to offer irrefutable evidence. It is not up to the rest of us to demonstrate that they are mistaken. As Carl Sagan pointed out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Skeptics therefore argue that those who believe in God carry the burden of making the case for Him.
Given that a belief in the existence of the divine, however conceived, has been a part of the human race since its beginning, and since the existence of the divine was not questioned until relatively recently, I’m not entirely certain that the burden of proof indeed rests with those who believe in God or gods.
Or put it this way: what burden exists upon those who claim for a new idea or explanation? Just because the skeptics say it belongs to the believers in the divine, does not mean that they are actually right in foisting it upon them. My question, in fact, is whether there is any need for proof at all.
Skeptics will point out that there are logical explanations for the whys and hows of many things that happen in the universe, things that our ancestors attributed to God. We do not believe any longer that lightning is being tossed down on us by an angry Zeus. So is it reasonable to believe then, that those things which still beg of explanation thereby prove God must be responsible for them? Isn’t it more likely, in fact, that we will find explanations for the remaining mysteries? In fact, why should it be necessary to invoke God at all? Can’t we say that God is, in all such cases, “unnecessary” as an explanation?
This conclusion should neither shock nor alarm those of us who continue to believe that God does, in fact, exist.
God’s existence is not postulated as an explanation
God’s existence is not postulated as an explanation for anything in the Bible by the biblical writers. His existence is simply assumed, and he is described by his actions.
Despite this, those who believe in God for many years have used God as the explanation for why things happen: for why there is a universe, for why the earth exists, for how human beings come to be, or even, more recently, for how such complex features as eyes exist. They use that which people don’t understand or can’t explain as proofs that there must be a God.
The Bible, however, never does this. Perhaps that’s an important clue.
And consider this pattern of behavior from the backside, from those who reject God: we who believe in God don’t fully understand why the righteous suffer, why sin exists, or why God doesn’t stop it. And yet, such ignorance of that which is sad is often used as proof by skeptics that there can be no God. They argue that if God existed, then surely there would be no suffering.
Is that really any more valid than using ignorance of how the universe began as proof that God is?
I don’t think so. Consider:
I’m walking along one morning and slip. I look at the floor and notice a pile of green goo. I don’t know why there is green goo on the floor. I don’t know where it came from. So of course I immediately conclude that God must have made it, thereby proving his existence.
The skeptic will wonder about how hard I must have banged my head on the floor. My conclusion is nonsense, he avers. If there was a God, then there would be no green goo at all, since the green goo is obviously bad. A good and loving God would never allow green goo to exist. Therefore, there must be no God.
Is either of us making reasonable arguments? Does either of us make sense? Does either of our conclusions follow logically from our premises?
And yet, when we theologians argue for the existence of God, or our opponents argue against him, we all use the same exact format and everyone thinks we’re being profound. But I’m starting to think that we’re in fact being silly.
Let’s look at some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence and consider them in light of my green goo analogy.
Arguments for the Existence of God
Thomas Aquinas lists several “proofs” for the existence of God. Most Christian apologetics begins with a discussion of these proofs. The two most commonly discussed of these proofs are First Cause and Design.
It is important to point out here that one failure of Christian apologetics has been a penchant for postulating God as the cause for anything inexplicable. This is known as the “God-of-the-gaps” approach. We don’t know where the green goo came from, so let’s assume it came from God. That which is unknown or unexplained is God’s doing.
The inevitable result, unsurprisingly, has been a growing irreconcilability between scientists and theologians. The position of many Christians has left them with a “God-who-is-spackle” who is constantly shrinking as scientific knowledge grows and shoves the divine spackle out of the way.
One of Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God is called “the first-cause argument.” It goes something like this: every effect has a cause. The universe is an effect. Therefore the universe has a cause and that cause is God.
The problem with this argument is shown by asking a simple question: what is the cause of God? The Christian answer is that God is uncaused: he has always existed. Right away, the atheist can raise an objection: “Why must we assume that the universe has a cause? Perhaps the universe always existed.” Additionally, one can raise the question: why should this imagined God be the God of the biblical stories? Why can’t he be the god Zeus or the gods of the Babylonian creation epic? Why not the god imagined by deists? Or the Hindu pantheon?
Today, as a result of modern cosmology, a problem exists with the suggested objection that the world has always existed. All the scientific evidence points to the universe having a beginning: the Big Bang. This has been deeply disturbing to skeptics, because the question of causation now becomes very significant. In fact, the theory was only very slowly accepted by the scientific community precisely because of the uncomfortable theological implications of a beginning. And no explanation for the Big Bang has been found.
Though there have, in the last few years, been some suggestions that might just work. That explanations for the Big Bang are forming merely illustrates again the danger for Christians in the “God-of-the-gaps” approach. It is never wise to hop on an open question for which there is no firm answer and shout “Ah ha! God caused it. That proves God exists.” This is akin to arguing that the green goo, since we don’t know where it came from, proves God exists.
The next of the popular arguments raised for the existence of God is the teleological—that is, the argument from design. It goes this way: if one finds a beautiful watch, one is legitimate in assuming a designer and builder for that watch. Are you not far more intricate than the finest watch? Isn’t it reasonable to assume a designer for you? The teleological argument is an argument by analogy, and by its nature, therefore, weak. A philosopher named Keith Lehrer in his book, Philosophical Problems and Arguments: An Introduction, states that such arguments can be summarized as follows:
• These three objects have these ten properties in common.
• Two of these three objects also have this eleventh property in common. Therefore, probably
• This third object also has this eleventh property in common with the other two.
Of course, in even the best of cases, we have nothing more definite than probability. Certainty can never be arrived at by using an analogy. Note too, that all the available evidence must be considered if a statement such as that in point number 3 is to be justified in this way, since there are certain kinds of factors which decrease the probability of the conclusion. Therefore, as with any inductive argument, the requirement to use all available evidence is essential.
According to Lehrer, there are four factors which can affect the probability of any conclusion:
1. The greater the number of objects which have the ten properties in common, the more probable the conclusion becomes.
2. The greater the number of properties which all the objects have in common, the more probable the conclusion becomes.
3. The greater the number of objects that have the ten properties in common but that lack the critical eleventh property, the less probable the conclusion becomes.
4. And most important, the stronger the claim made in the conclusion, relative to the premise, the less probable that conclusion becomes.
Thus Philo, presented with the teleological argument, objected that many complex, machine-like things exist in the universe that have a demonstrably natural cause.
The analogy between the universe and machines breaks down because of the third point we just saw above. Lehrer, summarizing Philo’s argument, wrote:
We can find intricate order, design, and beauty in a flower, bush, or tree, and all of these are brought about not by an intelligent being but come from a seed in the ground which receives water and sunlight. In none of these four factors—seed, earth, water, sunlight—is there any hint of intelligence. Furthermore, consider a beautiful Persian cat, a peacock, exotic tropic fish, or even a particular human being. The ordering of parts of such organisms, the interrelating functioning of parts, the beauty of many of them are all the causal result of the fertilization of an egg in an act of animal reproduction….What grounds are there for picking one from among four quite different causes of order and design? It is no less reasonable to claim, and therefore no less probable, that the earth and the other parts of the universe have sprouted from some seed or matured from some egg fertilized eons ago, or some residual part of the instinctive production of some animal long since extinct, than to claim that it is the planned result of some unseen being with great intelligence….because intelligence is only one among many things in this world that produce order and design, there is no reason to think it is any more probable that an intelligent being produced the universe than that one of the other causes of order and design produced the universe.
Criticism of this “God of the gaps” approach
Neither of these so-called proofs of God’s existence is really proof at all; nor do they convince skeptics. In fact, these “proofs” ultimately fail because, in the final analysis, they are sitting on the demonstrably false assumption of “God of the gaps”: explaining the mystery of green goo by invoking God.
Toward the end of the book of Job, God asks Job a series of questions about nature: “do you understand how such and such happens?” Job keeps shaking his head. God’s point is not to prove his existence to Job. He is not arguing that “since you don’t understand where rain comes from, that means I exist.”
Rather, God was responding to Job’s doubts about God’s character: Job could not figure out how to reconcile his suffering with his innocence and with his relationship with God. His misery was leading Job to doubt God was just or that God cared; Job never wondered if God existed. God’s response to Job was to show him that there are many things in life that Job couldn’t understand, none of which seemed to get in the way of his relationship with God. How was his inability to explain the current suffering in his life substantively different from his inability to explain how thunder happened? The question of suffering is simply, according to the argument God makes, no different than any questions Job might have regarding the functioning of the universe. Failure to know the answer does not mean that God doesn’t care, or that God is unjust, or even (to ask and answer a question the Bible itself was not concerned with) that God does not exist. All it means is that we have an unanswered question. Perhaps, if we look at the data long enough, we might figure it out, just like, over the years, we have figured out how the rain comes and thunder happens.
The issue of God’s existence throughout the pages of scripture is always assumed. No more, no less. Even in those rare passages, such as Psalm 14, where the issue of disbelieving in God is raised, God’s existence is not argued. No proofs for the existence of God are ever offered, nor, in any passage of scripture, is the argument ever made that “well, we don’t understand this, so it must mean God did it. Therefore, God really does exist.”
Miracles are used for the purpose of authenticating the prophetic status of a given individual and to authenticate that the message being given is genuinely of God, rather than simply the imagination of a messenger run rampant. The question of God’s existence itself is never at issue. The issue instead is merely: is the prophet from God or not?
Elijah? Elijah had a god contest, but the issue again was not, does God exist; rather, the issue was: which god should we worship? Which god is able to act? Which god matters? Which god is most powerful? The issue of whether a deity or deities exist was never at stake. Everyone already assumed there were gods. Now they had to decide which one was worthy of their attention. The miracle, in its final outcome, merely demonstrated that Yahweh was the better god, a god who actually paid attention to his servant. This did not stop those who worshipped Baal instead from continuing to worship him, and it did not stop them (as expressed by Jezebel) from attempting to kill Elijah, who worshipped Yahweh instead. In the Bible, miracles do not seem to be an effective means of convincing unbelievers.
What of Jesus and his miracles? In fact, this failure of miracles to convince the unbelievers is amply illustrated by the reactions to Jesus’ miracles. Those who sought to kill him—the religious establishment—were not swayed by his miracles. They did not doubt that Lazarus had been raised from the dead, they did not question that blind and deaf, ill and demon possessed had been cured by Jesus. But they still refused to accept him as the Messiah. It is reminiscent of what Abraham said to the rich man in Hell who requested that Lazarus be sent back to warn his brothers: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced by a dead man rising to life.” But the question of God’s ultimate existence was never at issue. Doubting God’s existence was akin to questioning one’s own existence, or the existence of a brother or wife.
The purpose of the prophets, the purpose of those who wrote Scripture, was to interpret the events around them as acts of God. If no prophet spoke, “thus saith the Lord,” no one would be able to tell for sure that the Exodus, or the Babylonian captivity, or any of the other events described in the Bible had anything to do with God. In fact, even with the prophet to interpret the world for them, people continued to doubt that God had actually acted.
God’s existence, in the minds of many, is dependent upon certain proofs or evidences remaining inexplicable by any other means. They believe that no one must know, ever, where the green goo originated. Only in continued ignorance can God’s existence to be reasonable and viable. This is the bottom line for the traditional proofs for the existence of God. If we discover some explanation for the goo, God will be vaporized. Explanation is a raygun held at the deity’s head.
In the exact same way, however, atheism has allowed itself to become just as dependent upon not understanding suffering in order to be reasonable and viable.
So, many Christians are terrified of explanations. If you can show how the blowing wind moved the water to allow the Israelites to cross the Red Sea as described in Exodus (despite the fact that the author of Exodus says the very thing), many will get mad, suggesting that faith is being undermined, or that you don’t believe in God. If an explanation for the beginning of the universe is discovered that shows how perfectly normal physical processes caused the universe to be, then the god predicated upon its eternally remaining a mystery vanishes in a puff. If complexity in biological systems can be explained by purely physical means, then the teleological argument, sometimes called the watchmaker analogy, will also dissolve like Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water.
Depending on Ignorance
Frankly, to pin one’s hopes for the existence of God on what amounts to a bet that we will remain forever ignorant about certain matters, and that we can never, ever understand them, strikes me as a bet we are guaranteed to lose, given the historical pattern of the inexplicable becoming explicable. It is, in fact, a serious structural error on the part of Christian theology: we have built our house on a beach below sea level along the Gulf coast of Louisiana and the levees have failed. On top of that, there’s a CAT 5 hurricane blowing.
While in an ultimate sense, we believe that God is the final cause, such is not actually a demonstration of God’s existence, nor was there ever in the biblical picture of things, a felt need for such an argument or demonstration. In the Bible, God’s existence was simply assumed.
It is therefore unnecessary to try to demonstrate his existence by recourse to some mystery or inexplicable occurrence. Such recourse, ultimately, is bound to be futile, because the universe, being God’s to manipulate as easily as we ourselves manipulate it, will always reveal an explanation for whatever happened, happens or will happen, that is in keeping with the laws of physics. John Derbyshire, of National Review Magazine, pointed out in an online posting in December, 2005 that “yes, material causes only are admitted in science, because science is the attempt to find material explanations for observed phenomena. Likewise, only hollow balls 2.5 inches in diameter are allowed in tennis, because tennis is a contest played with 2.5 inch diameter hollow balls. Whether other kinds of balls exist is a matter of opinion among tennis players and fans, I suppose; though if a player were to come on court and attempt to serve a basketball across the net, the rest of us would walk away in disgust.”
While the explanation of how rain came was a mystery to the author of the biblical book of Job, it is not a mystery to us. Does our ability to not only explain it, but in some cases to actually make it happen, mean that God has been disproved? Has God further hidden himself in the universe, has he made himself still more inaccessible as we come to gain a better and better understanding of him? Does he shrink as we learn more? Does he disappear among the baggage?
Or is it rather, perhaps, that the assumption which has moved Christian apologists for these last many centuries, is at its core, flawed and untenable?
There is no need for a ghost in the machine. Do we look at an engine in our car and ever consider the possibility that there is a small fairy in it who is the real source of its power? Is there really a demon lurking in our computer that makes the magic happen—or sometimes not? All joking aside, to postulate such invisible sprites is the babbling nonsense of the insane. And yet how often do we as Christians do something exactly like this with the universe by our odd arguments? Does it seem any more sane if we call the ghost in the machine of the universe God rather than an elf?
It is not that God does not exist. What does not need to exist is the assumption that his existence is dependent upon finding something that cannot be explained. God does not need to be blamed for something in order to exist. Most Christian apologetics since at least Aquinas has sprung from this same basic mistake: asking questions of the text of scripture that it was not trying to answer. We have falsely assumed that the existence of the universe in any way makes the existence of God necessary or demonstrable.
The Unnecessary Deity
God, in the final analysis, even biblically, is “unnecessary” in the sense that a superstitious notion of the functioning of reality is at odds with the biblical picture of reality. God can always be explained away.
And this is as he wished it, both because to assume otherwise lessens him and makes him then just a wonder-worker if God of the gaps theology is right, and also because of the need for human freedom.
To find God’s hidden cameras watching us would get in the way of what God intends for us to be: free. Just as one is nervous and oppressed when the boss is watching (or a highway patrol car is right behind you on the freeway), or even when dad is watching us play baseball for the first time, so it would be if God were visibly present.
Ask yourself this simple question. Would you rather live in a free country like the United States, or in Nazi Germany being watched by the Gestapo? We believe freedom is a positive good, while totalitarian control is a bad thing. We chafe even when those controlling us are doing it for our benefit, let alone when their motives are questionable. We might all agree that giving money to the Salvation Army Santas at Christmas is a good thing. But do we really want to be forced to do that good thing? Would it be okay to force us to empty our pockets into their buckets whenever we exit a store on threat of incarceration?
Chafing at being told what to do is not a consequence of the Fall, it is not sin, despite some who would like to argue otherwise. It is because God likes freedom and we have that inside us; because freedom is what maximizes, ultimately, God’s control. Totalitarianism is what is actively counter to God’s will and purpose; not freedom. God gave Adam and Eve a choice; God thought it best that they have that choice and that they be free to make the wrong choice. In fact, he thought that their wrong choice and everything that has flowed from that—all of human history—was worth it. He would rather that we be free than that we be good. Freedom was more important than morality, more important than goodness, more important than the life of his Son.
And I think all of this has something to say about the nature of God’s sovereignty versus free will. His sovereignty is free will. The Soviet experiment with controlled economies failed; and yet a free economy does everything that the Soviets would have wished to see happen in their attempts at control. A paradox, in a way, perhaps, but a failure to reckon with what God himself said about control: Jesus said that the “gentiles” try to lord it over those under them. But among believers, it must not be so: he who would be greatest must be servant of all. Submission is mutual, according to Ephesians 5:21. Somehow this all works together. The invisible hand of the free market (to use Adam Smith’s phrase), as it were, perhaps serves as an analogy for how God’s “sovereignty” actually functions in the universe.
And again, to posit God as a conspiracy or control in the sense that some nut jobs posit conspiracies to explain the workings of the world is probably just as loony as those who believe in the Illuminati.
The argument is made that in order for something as complex as a watch to exist, there must be someone who designed it and built it. On the face of it, that seems a reasonable argument, especially when one remembers that watches indeed have designers and builders.
On the other hand, is a central controller, a firm hand, always necessary in order to get a complex design? Chaos theory points out that randomness, oddly enough, results in very beautiful and elaborate designs or patterns.
One of the best illustrations of how randomness results in order is the modern, free-market economy, which boasts elaborate means of production, distribution and communication systems, all lacking utterly any central control. In fact, those nations who have attempted to centrally control even a portion of their economies have suffered horrid disasters as a result (think of cars such as the Yugo or the East German Trabant, both the product of a socialist, centrally planned systems: badly made, unreliable, and hard to get; people in East Germany would wait years to get a Trabant).
But consider this. In the United States, as an example, if you walk into almost any supermarket, you’ll find your favorite candy bar. You’ll discover your brand of ice cream. When you visit a car dealer, you have not just one, but hundreds of cars that you can buy, both new and used, with seemingly infinite varieties of colors and features. And if, for some odd reason, a given store lacks what you seek, chances are that another store just down the street will have precisely what you’re looking for. In every city in America, you’ll be able to find clothing that will fit you, and whose style you’ll like. Worst case scenario: go online and then wait for UPS to deliver it.
And not only does this system work remarkably well for you personally (so well, in fact, that if you go to McDonalds and order a strawberry shake and they have run out, you’re justifiably furious)—it also works for industry as a whole. Somehow there will be enough nuts and bolts and computer chips in just the right places in all the factories all over the country. The infrastructure of the nation is also a marvel of complexity that somehow all works together. The trucks roll, the trains move, the gasoline and oil and natural gas are mostly where and when they need to be. Your email magically appears in your inbox, no matter where in the world it was sent from.
The question then arises, a question that economists through the years have asked. Who designed this marvel of complexity? Who decreed how many boxes of Rice-a-Roni would be on your local grocer’s shelves?
The answer, of course, is that there is no one person in charge of it all. It grew by itself. It is an example of how chaos gives rise to order. No one would ever think to argue that all the components of the Rice-a-Roni distribution system—from rice farmers to little cardboard box makers, the printers that printed Rice-A-Roni on the boxes, the manufacturers of printing presses, the orderers of the various colored inks, the makers of those inks, and the people who designed the look of the packaging—had to be in place at once in order for the San Francisco treat to appear in every grocery store.
Aside from Marxists, whose theories are demonstrably unworkable, John Allen Paulos, professor of mathematics at Temple University, points out that all other economists believe that “simple economic exchanges that are beneficial to people become entrenched and then gradually modified as they become part of larger systems of exchange, while those that are not beneficial die out. They accept that Adam Smith’s invisible hand brings about the spontaneous order of the modern economy.”
And yet, Paulos wonders why it is then that so many people are reluctant to accept that natural selection and “blind processes” can lead to similar biological order arising spontaneously? Although, he acknowledges that there are significant differences between biological systems and economic systems, he believes we cannot ignore the obvious comparison. Given this reality of economics, Paulos raises a pair of very intriguing questions:
What would you think of someone who studied economic entities and their interactions in a modern free market economy and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed economic law-giver? You might deem such a person a conspiracy theorist.
And what would you think of someone who studied biological processes and organisms and insisted that they were, despite a perfectly reasonable and empirically supported Darwinian account of their development, the consequence of some all-powerful, detail-obsessed biological law-giver? (ABC News Internet Ventures, 2005)
While this might lead many to decide that there is no God, if we maintain the analogy, or push it just a little, God does not need to vanish in a puff of smoke, with Christians and other monotheists reduced to mad conspiracy theorists on par with those who mutter about the Illuminati. But it does, perhaps, have an impact on our understanding of God and his nature, and his relationship with the world.
The key phrase in Paulos’s second question is “detail-obsessed” if we take it to mean “micro-managing.” Certainly the biblical revelation indicates that God is interested in the details—otherwise why would we want to suggest he pays attention to individual human beings, who are rather minor details in the overall mass of humanity, numbering at present well over 6 billion?
One of the puzzles for theologians of a monotheistic bent has been the question of God’s sovereignty versus human freedom. From this also comes the question of the issue of human suffering, expressed by the question, “if God is good and all powerful, then why is there sin—why do bad things happen to good people?”
Adam Smith argued for the “invisible hand” of the free market. Of course, this is a metaphor, describing the outcome of the free market. What if the very nature of freedom, of the random, is how God is sovereign? What if God gets the Rice-a-Roni he wants by setting up a free market economy? In fact, is there any better way for God to get what he wants? Freedom, paradoxically, maximizes God’s control: may indeed be the means of his control.
God exists. But to point to the unknown and argue, “since I can’t explain it, God must have done it” is never, in the long run, going to work and really is as silly a statement as pointing to that green goo and saying, “I don’t know where it came from so it must be from God.” (and think of how silly you sound if you try to say, “well, although it really came from my sick cat’s gut, ultimately God is responsible.” Um, sure. I’m feeling more enlightened already.)
God’s existence cannot be based on ignorance, anymore than his nonexistence may be based on it. The atheist is no more arguing in a reasonable fashion when he points to mystery and says, “there, you can’t answer that, so that means there is no God.” To not know is simply to not know. It proves nothing. In fact, to argue that the absence of an answer proves something is to be guilty of the old logical falacy of argumentum ad ignorantum, a favorite of conspiracy theorists and crackpots everywhere.
Do you need to prove that your wife, mother, father exists? Do you even think about that sort of question? Well, the authors of the Bible never thought about it either when it came to God. The question was never, does God exist, but rather, far more profoundly: who is he—and what does he want of me?