Jan 09 2012


One of the most common complaints that “moderate” believers have about anti-theists is that we are criticizing a version of god that nobody actually believes in. The kind of sky-dwelling patriarch that visits wrath on his own imperfect creation is a convenient target for derision, but it is a straw deity argument. Theology has developed, through careful examination of the scripture (and, presumably, guidance from the holy spirit), a much more ‘sophisticated’ and nuanced understanding of what YahwAlladdha actually is. Atheists should be criticizing this new and supremely amorphous deity, since that’s what people are praying to for a cancer cure.

There is no shortage of reasons why this argument is completely false. First of all, outside the hallowed halls of theological academies, the average person is not taught, and does not believe in, a quasi-deistic benevolent creator who is an embodiment (but not a corporeal one) of all that is good in the universe. While people are quick to jump on the bandwagon of “I don’t recognize that god” whenever an atheist criticizes belief in the bloodthirsty Canaanite war god (an act that is amusingly similar to the apostle Peter), they are oddly ignorant of the legions of neo-Calvinist churches crowing with triumph every time an earthquake or a tsunami destroys some gay heathen mecca.

The list of reasons why the “sophisticated god” argument is nonsense abounds, but what doesn’t seem to filter into the discussion at all is how self-defeating it is. It is an argument that, if followed through to its logical conclusion, proves itself to be either false or insulting to the deity it is supposedly defending.If we grant the possibility that a god exists (which I most certainly do not, but will pretend to for the sake of argument), with the characteristics of benevolence and intelligence, then we arrive at the heart of the conundrum. A benevolent god would, arguably, want to see the maximum happiness for its supposedly favoured creatures. Net universal happiness, thanks to the mathematics of infinity, can only be achieved by bringing at least 50% +1 of human beings into heaven. After all, the mathematical limit net happiness (I have been corrected on this point, see comments) in a universe in which fewer than half of humans go to heaven is zero (or less) happiness as time approaches infinity.

A god worthy of the appellation ‘intelligent’ would understand the way to make hir nature clear and manifest enough that at least 50% +1 of humankind would understand enough to worship. After all, if belief (with or without right action) is required in order to achieve heaven, then people will have to understand what is expected of them. One might argue that a benevolent god would simply have no such requirement, but that statement is specifically refuted by scripture. Also, a god with no behaviour or belief requirement is an amoral god – if there are no conditions that preclude success then life, from a theist perspective, is meaningless.

Given these conditions, we are exhorted to look at the nature of the divine through the supposedly revealed scripture. One might argue that a truly intelligent and benevolent being wouldn’t restrict itself to a handful of ancient revelations, but would instead have a website where people could ask questions and receive answers. Certainly, that’s how the author of this blog imparts the profound truths of the universe – maybe YahwAlladdha still has dial-up and doesn’t know how to work WordPress.

God’s technophobia aside, if we are to believe that the various scriptures are an attempt of the divine to communicate its wishes to its creation, the ‘sophisticated’ camp gets into deep trouble. After all, if that is the goal (as it must be for the deity to be thought of as ‘benevolent’), then the efficacy of the communication becomes a criterion upon which we must judge the deity. If the self-description is inept, then it is malevolent to fault the creation for failing to understand it, to say nothing of how manifestly stupid it is to fail to articulate your wishes to a creature that you designed yourself.

At this point, I can imagine some errant theologian stamping her foot and declaring that understanding YahwAlladdha is a lifelong process that cannot be accomplished by a cursory examination of the scriptures. A true and sophisticated knowledge of the divine requires careful study and prayer – the arrogance of claiming that we can simply read selected passages from the Bible and understand the unfathomable nature of the gods is typical of the lazy, unsophisticated theology that atheists practice. YahwAlladdha is beyond the scope of our feeble, mortal minds.

Our poor theologian, however, has just given up the argument. If lifelong study is a requirement for sufficient understanding, then YahwAlladdha has created conditions for success that ostentatiously exclude anyone born too poor to pursue an academic career in theology, or the illiterate, or anyone born in a country that is dominated by the “wrong” religious establishment, or those born before the rise of European intellectualism, or… let’s just say that according to our counterexample, YahwAlladdha cannot be understood by anyone except the elite – those with enough time and money on their hands to devote their lives to this “sophisticated” understanding.

So we arrive at the heart of the self-defeating nature of the “sophisticated” argument: either the sophistication of the argument makes sufficient comprehension impossible to the layperson, or the description of YahwAlladdha is the “simplistic” one that anti-theists take issue with. Either the gods are vindictive, elitist assholes, or they are the same bloodthirsty, xenophobic and abusive monsters that anti-theists depict them as. Or, YahwAlladdha is an incompetent, malevolent nincompoop who can’t write a book. Or he doesn’t exist, which is the most parsimonious explanation.

I can understand why people are so eager to retreat into the warm embrace of a “sophisticated” god – the one that exists in the pages of scripture is profoundly evil. In order to reconcile the belief in a good god with the obvious maleficence of the scripture account, it is necessary to invoke ‘mystery’ as a way of sweeping all the contradictions under a rhetorical rug. It must be supremely discomfiting when anti-theists lift the rug and point out all the crappy arguments that have been accumulating there over the years. The answer is not to chide us for exposing your poor housekeeping – it’s to finally take out the trash.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


Skip to comment form

  1. 1

    In an online discussion I once referred to “your invisible man in the sky” and was answered with “Do you atheists buy your canards in bulk? No one believes in an invisible man in the sky.”

    I asked him “Is God male? Can you see Him? Is he everywhere, and thus in the sky?” He didn’t answer for some reason.

    I wonder how much effort we’re supposed to put into understanding God. I invested a four-year college degree, a pastoral internship, years of church attendance, lots of “prayer” and participation, and huge amounts of personal study. Apparently it wasn’t enough.

  2. 2
    Guillaume Muller

    Personally, I have switched tactics: I say all religion is harmful because it promotes Faith © as a positive value (Faith being defined as believing something despite lack of external evidence and in spite of contradictory evidence). As long as Faith is regarded as a positive thing in itself, it empowers the more radicals/fundamentalists/crazy people, who see their more repulsive belief validated because it derives from Faith, and see the moderates as simply lacking in Faith. I find this way of arguing much more practical because with it you can attack simultaneously every single religion without entering the specific of the complex doctrines, and can even include many form of fascist ideology and dissociate yourself from them (as in sure, Stalin was an atheist, but he was a man of Faith and fostered Faith in communism rather than a god). From experience, that sort of argument makes believers squirm, and robs them of most of their counter-arguments.

  3. 3
    consciousness razor

    Either the gods are vindictive, elitist assholes, or they are the same bloodthirsty, xenophobic and abusive monsters that anti-theists depict themselves as.

    Uh, I don’t think you meant that “anti-theists depict themselves” as bloodthirsty, xenophobic and abusive monsters. (Not usually, in any case.) Instead it should probably read “depict them as,” so it’s clear them refers to “the gods.” Or you (also) meant to say the scriptures (as the alleged words of the gods) are what the gods depict themselves as [bloodthirsty...monsters] and that this depiction is what anti-theists are arguing is not a benevolent god in any meaningful sense.

  4. 4

    Thanks, fixed.

  5. 5

    I think you’re supposed to invest just enough effort to be able to smile wanly and spout truisms about what your god is like, all the while skating over valid criticisms with a smug “you have to have faith to understand”. So if you start off as a condescending and self-uncritical dick, you’re miles ahead of the game. Unlucky you – you actually cared if your beliefs are true or not. That’s a rookie move.

  6. 6

    Doh! ;-)

  7. 7

    …I was with you until you said ‘Maximum happiness, thanks to the mathematics of infinity, can only be achieved by bringing at least 50% +1 of human beings into heaven. After all, the mathematical limit a universe in which fewer than half of humans go to heaven is zero happiness as time approaches infinity.’

    Sorry, that’s wrong. Let X = the number of humans who will have ever lived by the end of the Universe (and thus the number of ‘souls’ up for grabs in a Heaven/Hell gameshow). You here posit that, if a beneficent god exists, the number of souls entering Heaven must be *at least* X/2 + 1, with the claim that *any lower value* will be insufficient. Explicitly you claim that the “mathematical limit” of any value lower than X/2 is zero.

    That is simply incorrect. First off, time isn’t a variable here, the *number of humans* is. Secondly, and more importantly, as X goes to infinity, X/2 + K gets closer and closer to X/2 for any fixed K (whether K is positive or negative).

    The article has potential, Ian, but this pseudo-mathematical gibberish is just as insulting to mathematicians as it would be to you if I said “Thanks to confidence intervals we can prove that atheists are smarter than theists; therefore no god.” Mathematics depends on clarity of thought and precision of language, and thus it is ill-suited as a rhetorical device unless you *really* know what you’re doing, and your audience does, too.

  8. 8

    Let H represent human happiness in the universe, U is a utility function, t represents time, X represents the total number of human beings to ever exist, X(hv) being the number in heaven, X(hl) being the number in hell. When someone is in heaven, U = 1, and when they are in hell U = -1. H(as t approaches infinity) = X(hv)*N(hv)*t + X(hl)*N(hl)*t. It is only the case that H > 1 when X(hv) > X(hl), which happens when the number of people in heaven is at least 1 greater than the number in hell.

    Put another way, if eternal bliss is the inverse utility of eternal torment, the total amount of happiness on an infinite timescale cannot be positive unless there is at least one more person eternally blissful than tormented eternally. Having put it in numbers, you are correct that the function approaches K rather than zero (in the 50%+1 example it would approach 1). My apologies for the mistake. The lower acceptable limit is 50%+1, not the lower mathematical limit.

  9. 9

    Much better! Solid A-. You don’t explicitly use the U (which is really a Kronecker delta in disguise) in the actual equation. A comment on N(hv) being the complement of X(hv) with respect to X wouldn’t have been too superfluous, either. And your assumptions of “eternal bliss” and “eternal torment” need a little work, in case it turns out that, say, one person getting tortured forever experiences more material suffering than one person in paradise forever experiences pleasure.

    Good job!

    (Yes, I’ll stop now. Thanks for indulging me.)

  10. 10
    Pope Bandar bin Turtle

    If the self-description is inept, then it is malevolent to fault the creation for failing to understand it, to say nothing of how manifestly stupid it is to fail to articulate your wishes to a creature that you designed yourself.

    One of the analogies that I use is that if god as a father explains something to a child, & the child doesn’t understand it, it isn’t the child’s problem because the father didn’t/couldn’t communicate it more clearly & in age/conceptual-appropriate language.

    The other side of the argument, presented in response by a large percentage of believers (anecdotally), is that it’s not possible to understand it because god’s ways are so much above us mehums (mere humans).

    So, two corollaries/conclusions: (1) god is not omnipotent, because he can’t create a communication that his creation can understand; or (2) the fact that one can’t understand it proves that the communication comes from god. Of course, the latter only applies to the god of the bible. By inference, the mathematics of calculus could appear to be a message from god to someone who only knows algebra.

    And so, Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote: Any sufficiently advanced technology blah, blah, blah black, black, black.

    Hail Eris! All hail Discordia! Kallisti!

    Also. Too. FNORD!!

  11. 11

    Hahaha, well I’ll take the A- and the criticism, and avoid using math jargon in the future. Upon re-reading, it made perfect sense at the time I was writing and makes much less now.

  12. 12

    @2 Guillaume: that’s a good idea, but I wonder how I’d use it in dutch, because both belief and faith in dutch are ‘geloof’.

  13. 13

    Awesome post… Gotta use this argument on the next person who wants to argue over my counter.

    Also, just wanted to say, wandered over here after reading your comments on Greta’s blog (you’re so far under the fold, and there’s soooooo much to read! My OCD makes it really hard to skip down without reading everything…), so I feel the need to say,

    A: Damn hilarious!,

    and B: There’s something incredibly satisfying about the comment sections of the different blogs also incorporating conversations between the site’s other bloggers. It might be the best part of this site.

  14. 14

    Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed my clowning :P I usually try to stay out of other people’s fights, but this one spoke to me. So I decided to speak back.

    We (FTB bloggers) have our own newsfeed thread where we talk about stuff (usually conferences, or development of new posts, or other blog-related stuff) but usually it is chock-full of nutty jokes and whimsical observations. It’s definitely my favourite part of being an FTB contributor. Well, that and knowing the launch codes.

    I’ve… said too much…

  15. 15

    I’ve largely given up in trying to make sense of the infinite shape-shifter.

    My position has simply become, with respect to theists I meet or who knock on my door, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I ask them to tell me what the thing is that word “God” refers to and I insist on hearing what it is, not what they think it did. After they’ve gotten themselves all tangled up with vagueness and nonsense that even they are usually embarrassed about, I conclude by saying that I still don’t know what they’re talking about and now I don’t think they know either. Works fairly well and doesn’t take too long.

  16. 16


    *loves this* There have been so very many gods created by people, and every theist is so sure the one they selected is absolutely the right one, the only one.

    Found you via the DJ Grothe thread at Pharyngula. Good reading. You might want to consider placing a link to your blog in your nym.

  17. 17

    “oh, but my faith has evidence; I’ve been moved by the holy spirit and if you would open your soul to the possibility you would have evidence too, so it isn’t faith like you defined faith.” That’s the reply I get when attempt this tact, followed by the “you just don’t want to understand…” argument. This is how god is accessible to both the sophisticated and the layperson. Barf.

  18. 18

    Any time I start a discussion with a theist I employ a similar strategy. They really don’t like the question “which god?” The usual response is “the one true god” and then I say “okay, fine. WHICH one true god? There are several.” Once they eventually say “the god of the Bible” then I pat their hand and tell them they’ve already lost, they just don’t know it yet. The clever few seek to define their own, which is much more fun to debate.

  19. 19

    I ask them how they know their particular holy spirit is guiding them in the correct direction, considering the number of others making the identical claim and reaching divergent conclusions. You could, conceivably, tell them that you’re open, you’re just more worried about the possibility of picking the wrong god than they are. “You seem not to care that much if it’s true – I don’t want to end up in hell for worshipping incorrectly.”

  20. 20

    Personally I think the best example of Sophisticated Theology in debate, is the Jerry Coyne vs John Haught video. Coyne is just brilliant.

    Oh Crommunist, you might want to check end of the first line of Paragraph four.

    I always though “Crom” was the god that was worshiped by Conan the Barbarian?

  21. 21

    Yes, you’re not the first person to make the Conan reference. I have never called myself “Crom”, it is an appellation that is used exclusively by people commenting here on the blog. I will tolerate “Crommie”, but I am decidedly hostile to “Crom”.

    If your objection is to my use of ‘hir’, I use that word as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun (instead of the grammatically correct but unwieldy “she/he” or the grammatically incorrect but simple “they”). That’s good looking out though.

  22. 22

    I like your pronoun, now that I know it wasn’t a typo. Also, since gender wise a hypothetical deity could be she, he, or it, I tend to use S/h/it when the occasion needs a deity pronoun.

    I too, thought I would check you out after viewing your sane remarks in the misogynist row over at Greta’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>