(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In response to the powerful new evidence and arguments against the existence of god brought forward by the new atheists, the defenders of religion have had to regroup and respond. The next series of posts will look at some of these developments on the pro-religion side.
Today I will look at the popular arguments in favor of god, those advanced by regular people who are not professional theologians or academics. These people are simply trying to figure out for themselves why it is reasonable to still believe in god while living in a world that seems to be functioning as if there is no god at all.
Such people must yearn to return to the days when god would routinely demonstrate his existence and power by burning bushes without them being reduced to ashes, turning water into wine, stopping the sun in its tracks, raising people from the dead, and so on. Alas, those days seem to be permanently gone. The only miracles that seem to occur these days are the occasional reports of a crying statue or an image of Jesus on a piece of burnt toast, hardly the kinds of things to fire the imagination of the devotee. God even passed up the chance to provide evidence for his existence by winning a NASCAR race.
At one extreme of the popular arguments are the religious fundamentalists. Their approach is illustrated by what happened to me after I debated the intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates in Kansas in 2002. A very earnest woman came to talk to me after the session. She was clearly disturbed by my challenge to the IDC members on the panel to provide the kind of predictions that scientists expect of any theory, and my conclusion that since they had failed to do so, IDC did not belong in science. She wanted very badly to have god as part of science, so she had carefully written out on a piece of paper what she felt was a definition of science that would not contradict the existence of god. Her definition said that everything that had ever occurred and would occur in the future was directly due to god and so everything in the world was due to god’s actions and thus science could never refute god’s existence.
She had made god’s actions synonymous with everything that happens. And she was absolutely right that science cannot provide evidence against such a definition of god. How could it?
But more sophisticated people shy away from such an extreme, and one might even say childish, view of god as it seems to deny the existence of any form of human agency. According to that model of god, we are all just puppets following a rigid script written long ago by an authoritarian puppeteer. The idea of good and evil and free will are casualties of such a model and it is not very flattering to the human self-image as thinking persons.
In order to preserve the concept of morality and that we are agents who can choose how we act, other religious believers replace the model of god-as-authoritarian-puppeteer with that of a god who has given us free will to choose how we act. People also like to think of their god as a loving god who is also all-powerful.
The catch is that with this new model, you immediately run up against the problem of theodicy: why a loving and all-powerful god allows awful things to happen.
When I was growing up as a Christian and struggling with this particularly difficult question, the answer that was offered and that satisfied me at that time (and coincidentally was repeated just this week in a private communication from a reader of this blog) was that while god wants us to do good, he has given us free will and allows us to exercise it to choose whether we do good or evil and some people pick the latter. The lesson we learn from our bad decisions is that we must do better in future.
This model of god is that of a parent who can if he wishes dictate to his child what to do but does not do so because that would be stifling to the child’s growth to adulthood. Instead god lets people learn for themselves from their own actions and mistakes, even if the short-term consequences are appalling. In such a model, the evil acts caused by humans (like the genocides of Native Americans, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans, etc.) are not the will of god but due to people making bad choices.
In other words, gods don’t kill people, people kill people.
The model of god-as-loving-parent is not without its own serious problems. It assumes that while god has the power to stop this kind of slaughter at any time, he allows massive acts of evil to occur because he views them as learning experiences. Is this argument really credible to anyone except those who want to believe at any cost? If a parent let his child slaughter the neighborhood children in a playground with a machine gun, we would hardly accept his explanation that he was allowing his child to exercise his free will so that he could grow and learn from his mistakes that guns are dangerous and that it is wrong to kill, and thus become a better person in the future.
An interesting feature of this model of god is how such religious apologists are quite confident that they know what god’s intentions are, and they seem sure that he is loving, cares for each one of us personally, that he wants us to use our free will wisely and in good ways, and that it pains him when we stray and do bad things. This is quite an extraordinary level of knowledge of the mind of an omnipotent deity. Of course, they have no evidence for any of these assertions. All the awful events named above can be explained as well (or even better) by saying that god is a vindictive and cruel entity who enjoys pitting one group against another, and seeing the suffering that ensues.
Next: Explaining away natural disasters
POST SCRIPT: Einstein’s views on religion
Given his well-deserved reputation as a deep thinker and thoughtful and humane person, Einstein’s views on religion have always been a source of great interest and his varying statements have been interpreted as being both supportive and dismissive of a belief in god.
In a little known letter written in 1954, he seems quite unequivocal in his contempt for religion:
In the letter, he states: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”
Einstein, who was Jewish and who declined an offer to be the state of Israel’s second president, also rejected the idea that the Jews are God’s favoured people.
“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”