My daughter and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.
We’re on to Chapter 3! The full title of this one is ‘Think Circumstantially: Examine an Important Kind of Evidence!’ (exclamation mark Wallace’s). It begins with the reader’s insert-character clearly influenced by the classes;
During the week, you find yourself thinking “big” thoughts – thoughts about God and whether He is real.
Though not ‘about Gods and whether They are real’, I notice. Logically, the possibility that multiple divine beings exist should be one we consider just as seriously as the possibility that one specific divine being exists (however seriously that is). But apologetics books will frame these questions as being solely about whether their God exists; other possibilities are left unexamined. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll continue to use the term ‘God’ throughout the rest of this post.)
You wonder if Jeffries might be able to help answer your questions,
Now, wherever did you get that idea?
but when you meet the following Tuesday, he’s more interested in the skateboard.
You’re missing your chance, Jeffries!
Anyway, the bit about the skateboard doesn’t actually move the skateboard investigation any further forward. (Of course it doesn’t; we’re only on Chapter 3 of an eight-chapter book and this skateboard investigation is obviously going to have to last us the full book. I’m guessing we’ll have a Big Reveal in the final chapter?) This particular skateboard investigation section is used to illustrate the difference between witness evidence, which is known as ‘direct evidence’, and indirect or circumstantial evidence (such as the evidence the cadets used last week to figure out the skateboard was old). Jeffries gives the example of a colleague who came in with drops of water on her hair and clothes, thus providing him with indirect evidence that it’s raining. (“She’s just had a shower. It’s sunny outside,” Katie quipped.) All this is, as usual, setting things up for the religious topic of discussion this week, which is – as you may have gathered from the chapter beginning – the does-God-exist question.
You speak up: “Can we talk a little more about the Jesus case? I was thinking about God and miracles this week. […]”
It’s a little ironic that Wallace starts this character’s query off with a request to talk about ‘the Jesus case’, because, in fact, this chapter isn’t going to mention Jesus at all; it’s going to be a general chapter about whether to believe in ‘God’. The particular God under discussion is of course the one broadly described in Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism rather than any other possible concepts of deities, but there’s no specific mention of Jesus, as as such. I don’t think Wallace could see past his own religion here to notice that theism and Christianity aren’t actually synonymous.
Jeffries is, of course, delighted to be asked this, and assures them:
“This is a perfect example for this week’s lesson. Indirect evidence can be powerful, and we do have indirect evidence for God. A lot of it, actually.”
I didn’t notice this on my read-through with Katie, but this raises a very interesting point. Is there a reason that Wallace/Jeffries feels he can’t offer direct evidence for God?
What would such evidence look like? We’ve just been told that direct evidence is the testimony of a witness, so, in this context, direct evidence would be the testimony of someone who has actually witnessed God in some way. There are, of course, plenty of people who believe that God has spoken to them, so it’s interesting that Wallace/Jeffries doesn’t offer this here as an example of direct evidence. I don’t know, of course, why Wallace made this choice; but I wonder if possibly he recognises that these claims are actually very poor quality evidence when properly examined. These supposed communications from God
- typically feel very similar to our own internal experiences and thoughts (compare this to our experience of seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing things around us; we experience those sensations as coming to us from external sources)
- are often flat-out contradictory in terms of what different people interpret as being God’s message to them.
The claims of communications received from God actually look like what we’d expect if people were very good at imagining that a divine being was communicating with them. And that’s fairly poor evidence.
There’s a point here so obvious it frequently tends to get overlooked; namely, that it is of course perfectly possible to communicate with human beings in such a way that we can clearly sense these communications as coming from external to ourselves. This describes all the communications that we, as humans, have with one another. When someone speaks to you, or you read a note that they’ve left you, or a book that they’ve written, or a comment they left on the Internet… then you’re not normally in any doubt about the fact that you’re receiving a communication from someone who actually exists. Most of the people reading this have never met me, but I’m guessing you’re not in any doubt that the words you’re reading were written by a real person.
So… suppose that a divine being actually did communicate with us in such a way that we experienced the communications as clearly coming from some external source. (This could be the traditional Voice booming out or letters of fire in the sky, but it could just as plausibly be via an extra sense other than the five we know about. All I’m hypothesising here is that we would clearly experience this communication as coming from a source external to our own minds, just as we do when someone speaks to us or we read something they’ve written.) If that were so… well, Wallace wouldn’t have needed to write this chapter in the first place, because everybody would believe in this god already.
While believers sometimes complain that atheists would just refuse to believe no matter what evidence was offered, in actual fact people generally do believe the evidence of their own senses. It’s also worth noting that there are many people who desperately wish they could get this sort of communication from God – they feel abandoned by God, or alone, or on the brink of losing their belief, or don’t believe and would very much like to – who would find it wonderfully comforting and satisfying to have such definite communications. Which means the next question needs to be why, given the benefits of communicating universally with humans in such a clear-cut way, a god would choose not to do so?
Well, there are a couple of fairly obvious possible reasons:
- A god might have some kind of limitation in ability rendering him/her unable to communicate with us that clearly.
- A god might have no interest in communicating with us. It’s a big old universe, and quite possibly even a multiverse; while we quite naturally tend to think of ourselves as the most important beings in it, it’s not hard to hypothesise that a divine being might have no interest in us whatsoever and have created the universe for completely different reasons.
So our lack of direct and clearcut communication from a god certainly doesn’t automatically equate to the non-existence of any god.
However, the problem here is that Wallace isn’t trying to argue for the existence of any god. He’s trying to argue for the existence of his God; the particular divine being described in the Bible. This God’s salient features, as described, most certainly do include a) vast abilities that do indeed include the ability to communicate with any willing individual (and arguably with unwilling ones, but I’ll keep it as willing individuals for simplicity) and b) a strong desire for every single person on earth to get to know Him.
It therefore makes no sense whatsoever that, if the God described in the Bible really exists, he would not communicate with humans in such a clearcut way. He has the ability; he has the motive. He has devoted followers who are, in at least some cases, begging him to do so; some of those followers will lose a previously strongly-held faith when they get no answer. The fact that we don’t get any such clearcut communications is, therefore, compelling evidence that the specific God described in the Bible does not exist.
Jeffries believes he has indirect evidence for the existence of (a) God. It will hopefully not be too much of a spoiler at this point if I tell you that I was not very impressed by the evidence, but that’s a subject for another post. The thing is… even if Jeffries had compelling indirect evidence for the existence of a divine being, the very fact that he can’t offer direct evidence is actually strong evidence against the existence of the particular god he wants to demonstrate.
Your post reminded me of the new religion Kurt Vonnegut described in The Sirens of Titan: The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Part of their prayers went something like, “Oh God, what could we possibly do for you that you could not do a thousand times better for yourself?”
Perhaps that’s the One True Religion, which would explain why we never hear from this supreme being.