Fair warning to the regular readership.
Typically I like to cover intelligent design and evolution-related issues, but I trust I may be permitted a bit of a detour. There have been a couple of interesting posts recently by Sal, vjtorley and Barry about issues of a more philosophical bent. vjtorley’s OP, in particular, quoted parts of an essay from Professor Jerry Coyne. I would like today to share some thoughts on point.
With apologies to those not of the Judeo-Christian tradition, my comments will focus in part on the Bible, given that the Bible and the God of the Bible have been the brunt of many new atheist attacks recently, including Coyne’s. Similar points, no doubt, could be made with respect to other religious traditions.
In Coyne’s Atheism of the Gaps essay, he says:
There are huge gaps in believers’ understanding of God, and in those lacunae, I claim, lies strong evidence for No God. Here are some of those religious gaps:
Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer? How did the Holocaust fit into God’s scheme?
Why, if God wants us to know and accept him so much, does he hide himself from humanity?
Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant that? (In fact, no crimes do!). The official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you to an eternity of immolation in molten sulfur. And would the Christian God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?
Why is God in the Old Testament such a jerk, toying with people for his amusement, ordering genocides in which women and children are killeden masse, and allowing she-bears to kill a pack of kids just for making fun of a prophet’s baldness? How does that comport with the God worshipped today?
Why didn’t Jesus return during his followers’ lifetime, as he promised?
JWTruthInLove @23 in that thread provides a number of responses, which are worth reviewing. He is being perhaps a bit sarcastic, but several of his statements are perfectly reasonable responses to Coyne’s list.
Coyne’s thinks he finds “strong evidence for no God.” Yet his argument, when we cut through the clutter, is essentially as follows:
1. God, if He existed, would be like X.
2. Evidence shows God is not like X.
3. Therefore, God does not exist.
We can argue specific evidence under #2, and in many cases this is a useful approach because the alleged evidence is not quite what it claims to be. Yet the first foundational question for Coyne’s Atheism of the Gaps worldview should be: On what basis do you think God is like X?
What Do I Think God Should Be Like?
This exchange highlights the fact that the anti-religious zealot so often approaches the matter with a very concrete God in mind, a concept of how they think God should be (if only there were such a being). Then when the facts don’t seem to align with that superficial and hypothetical image they have created in their own minds, they proclaim that God must not exist.
In this particular case, for example, Coyne’s complaints mirror the usual grievances that have been leveled against Deity since the beginning:
Why is life hard?
Why is there suffering?
Why doesn’t God just save everybody instead of condemning some to punishment?
Why doesn’t God give me a sign instead of making me exercise faith?
Why does God make me pass through trials and tribulations in life, like having to do my own taxes, rather than doing them for me?
And on and on . . .
Coyne’s list is not novel, nor even particularly intellectually challenging. It is essentially another in the long tradition of “arguments from evil” against the existence of God. The argument from evil has been dealt with in detail by numerous capable authors in many writings, so I need not recap, but will just highlight one particular point.
It is a mystery – Coyne doesn’t specify (unless he is willing to confess to a personal revelation he received from God) – why Coyne would think that, say, the God of the Bible is primarily concerned that everyone be happy all the time, that life be a carefree paradise, that there be no suffering, that we should be beat over the head with signs instead of exercising faith, that our modern sensibilities should match up with ancient cultures, that life should even be fair, that God should be primarily interested in our temporary earthly comfort rather than in teaching us lessons and our more long-term salvation.
This isn’t to say I don’t identify with any of his complaints.
It is quite true – and to this extent I empathize with the atheist inquiry – that the Bible (the Old Testament, really) contains all manner of material that we would deem shocking, repulsive, abhorrent, outrageous, unfair, and even cruel if it were to occur today. I’ve been re-reading the Old Testament myself the past few months and on more than one occasion have had the fleeting thought: “I’m not sure if I want my kids reading this stuff!” Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether we are reading a passage from the Old Testament or the Police Blotter from yesterday’s newspaper.
Now, it is also true that much in the Old Testament can be better understood if we take time to learn about the cultures and the times, a task so many Biblical critics seem loathe to undertake. Nevertheless, based on some of the incidents as reported in the Old Testament, I can understand – indeed, even empathize with – the sentiment that “Hey, if that is what God is like, then I don’t want anything to do with it.”
But it simply doesn’t follow from that revulsion, from that rejection of that kind of God, from our desire for a gentler Being that meets with our personal expectations – it simply doesn’t follow from all of this that God doesn’t exist. So the conclusion that is reached doesn’t follow logically from the evidence – even if the evidence is taken at its absolute worst.
More importantly, for the believer, such an approach also fails to take into account all of the evidence on the other side of the coin: the many accounts in the Bible of tenderness and love and protection and guidance and divine assistance; the culture and practices of the times; evidence for the existence of a creator in the history of the cosmos and life; the “more excellent way” that was subsequently shown through Christ; the tradition of service to our fellow-beings that is taught repeatedly and forcefully in holy writ; the personal divine spiritual experiences that many people have experienced in their own lives even today.
Thus, the atheist rejection of God, based on the cruelties in the Old Testament, or the many challenges and difficulties of life generally, is, in addition to its logical flaws, a move based on a very limited survey of the evidence, a move based on a failure to consider the broader picture, a move based on a myopic blindness to many of the facts, rather than (as the atheist smugly pats himself on the back and loudly proclaims) an objective analysis of all the evidence.
Against this backdrop, one might be forgiven for considering the possibility that the vocal atheist is motivated more by a desire to grind his philosophical axe than by a desire to objectively review all the evidence at hand.
The Great Irony
All of this leads to one of the great ironies in the debate about the existence of God:
No-one seems so cock-sure of exactly what God is like, exactly what God’s characteristics are, exactly how to understand God, than the anti-religious zealot. He is convinced he knows just how God is and how God should act in particular situations . . . if, of course, such a being existed.
In ironic contrast, those who believe God actually exists take seriously the scriptural caution that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Such individuals recognize that we do not understand everything, but that there is, in the striving, a process of becoming and growing and learning. That the very essence of life eternal (a goal not yet obtained by the believing mortal, but nevertheless obtainable at some future point) is to come to truly know God (John 17:3).
As a result, the believer is ever striving to learn what God is like and to submit his will to the Divine will in particular circumstances. In contrast, the anti-religious zealot is convinced he knows exactly what God is like and what God would do – and should do – in those particular circumstances. The anti-religious zealot, in decrying God’s actions and loudly proclaiming what God should or should not do, attempts to assume the role of the omniscient and demands: “Not Thy will, but mine be done.”
And so, the great irony persists:
The committed atheist is convinced he knows the mind of God. The believer acknowledges he doesn’t, at least not fully, not yet today. The committed atheist thinks he has already arrived at the pinnacle of knowledge about God. The believer realizes he has not, but trusts that in submitting his will to the Divine he can, one day, come to truly know God.