God is still dead.
More than a hundred years after the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put those famous words “God is dead” into the mouth of one of his characters, implying that the Christian concept of god had become untenable, this statement has become even more true, the point driven home with new evidence from science and relentless logic by the advocates of the so-called ‘new atheism’.
Much attention has been paid to the arguments made by the new atheists who have forcefully pointed out that not only are the evidentiary and intellectual foundations for the existence of god and the afterlife weak and shallow, but that religion is itself more of a force for evil than good in the world, either actively so or as an enabler. This group, whose public faces are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and Sam Harris, have managed to bring these arguments to the forefront of the public debate.
The basic issue can be identified by the answers to two fundamental questions:
Is there any credible reason to think that god exists in any form? The answer is no.
Even if god is a fiction, does the concept have a net positive utilitarian value that makes it worth preserving? The answer is no.
The next series of posts will flesh out the developments since Nietzsche’s time that have provided a more empirical basis for his conclusion.
To anticipate a common objection, it is perhaps necessary to first acknowledge that it is logically impossible to disprove the existence of a god whose properties are carefully defined so as to avoid detection, so believers can always seek refuge in the tiny loophole that logic provides them. But what has become increasingly clear is that to believe in god today is to make a willful decision to go against reason and evidence, and is clearly an irrational act.
The many powerful arguments against the existence of god and in favor of atheism have been around for a long time, going all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. (See my series of posts on the history of western atheism). So what exactly is new about the new atheism that has given it so much force that has enabled it to achieve such prominence?
To answer that question we need to look at the kinds of arguments advanced in favor of the existence of god. There are three different kinds of arguments, each one implying the existence of a different kind of god. In discussing with religious people about the existence of god, it is important to first clarify which god they arguing in favor of because otherwise, as I will discuss later, religious apologists tend to slide from one god to another, making a coherent discussion difficult.
Most of the arguments put forward by most religious people are in favor of the ‘Personal God’ theory. By pointing to admirable people who happened to be religious and arguing that they were directly influenced by god, by giving personal testimonies of experiencing the presence of god in their lives, by suggesting that singular events (alleged miracles) show god’s existence by violating natural laws, appealing to the historical validity of religious texts, arguing that without god there would be no basis for morality or no explanation for altruism, etc., such arguments advance the idea of a peripatetic god who is always active everywhere, listening to each and every person, and responding to some of their prayers. The Personal God is credited with many good things that occur and although allegedly omnipotent, is curiously and inexplicably passive about preventing the many evils that occur on a daily basis.
A subset of Christian believers in the Personal God also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that the Earth is 6,000 or so years old, that Adam and Eve were real people, that Noah’s flood was a historical event, and so on.
The existence of another kind of god (the ‘Ultimate Creator God’) depends on the argument that it seems reasonable to suppose that for every complex thing in existence, one needs an even more complex thing to design it and bring it into being. Since many aspects of the world are complex, one could extend this argument up a ladder of ever increasingly complex designers and creators to assert that one needs an ultimate grand designer and creator, which is this particular god.
The third god (the ‘God of the Gaps’) is almost identical to the Ultimate Creator God conceptually, but instead of invoking a chain of causality ending up with god as a prime designer and creator, takes a more direct route by pointing to specific things in nature (such as the human eye, the wings of birds, etc.) that seem (to these believers at least) far too complex to have come about by natural laws and processes, these believers assert that these are exceptions to natural laws and required direct creation by god. In other words, god is not simply an ultimate explanation for all things but is instead an immediate and direct cause for the existence of many things, though far more selective in intervening in worldly affairs than the Personal God. The God of the Gaps is invoked to directly explain the existence of the hitherto otherwise unexplained.
The three kinds of god suggested by these arguments imply very different properties.
The Ultimate Creator God is one who is very hands-off. After initially carefully creating the universe and its laws with the goal of bringing the present form of life into being, he (for the sake of convenience I am going to treat god as being male) is assumed to leave things strictly alone. It is assumed that the Ultimate Creator God wanted, for some reason, to have humans in their present form eventually emerge from the initial cosmic soup, and thus had to carefully fine-tune the laws and initial conditions so that billions of years later conditions would be just right so that this is exactly what would happen. This is actually quite an incredible feat of planning and reverse engineering, but this is god we are talking about so this task is presumably a piece of cake for him.
The God of the Gaps has either inferior engineering skills to the Ultimate Creator God or is one of those perennial tinkerers who is never content with the original plans and ideas and keeps changing things as they go along. Either his initial plans had glitches that failed to produce important developments like the eye or the wings of birds and he had to step in and create them fresh, or such things were not in the initial plans at all and after observing his animal creations crashing into each other, this god suddenly had the brainwave that eyes would be a good eye and retrofitted them.
The Personal God seems to be the most inept of the three, a busybody who is constantly interfering in each and every person’s life whether they want it or not. This god is the ultimate micromanager, never sticking to a plan but always stepping in to change things, violating his own rules if need be to achieve some immediate end, answering some prayers while ignoring others, preventing some bad things from happening while allowing colossal evils elsewhere, and creating such disorder and anarchy that it is hopeless to expect to find any pattern or reason in his behavior. As a result, many people just declare his intentions to be inscrutable, surrender their freedom and autonomy to him, and pray for him to tell them what to do about everything. Curiously, it is this seemingly most inept god of the three that most religious people seem to find appealing.
Next: The demise of each god
POST SCRIPT: The scandalous situation in Gaza
Juan Cole describes the inhumane sanctions imposed by Israel on the people of Gaza that is threatening over a million Palestinians with greater hunger.
The Israelis already have the Gaza Strip under military siege, carefully controlling what and who goes in and out of it. They have now cut off most fuel, and the United Nations has been forced to stop distributing food aid.
In addition, the Daily Telegraph reports that “The fuel blockade means pumps have already been turned off, causing water shortages and sewage problems, while the vaccination stocks at Gaza’s main hospital were spoiled after it had to turn off its refrigerators.”
As Cole comments, “This Israeli government action is an unvarnished war crime. It is known as collective punishment. There was already hunger and malnutrition among Palestinian children, which will now be worsened.”