Sunday, May 2, 2021

Deism: The Argument For God

In the summer of 1993, when I was still in college and barely removed from high school, my wife went into labor with our first child. It was a marathon, from the start of contractions until delivery was something like 40 hours. She went a little faster with the next seven but it was never a rush to get to the hospital. In the blink of an eye I went from a kid who had never held a baby to being a dad being handed my child. My whole world changed and with it something else changed. As I stared at that tiny child in my hands I realized that this wasn't just a cosmic accident, a weird confluence of events. That realization started me down a long path to trying to understand the idea of God. The biggest change in me at that moment was realizing for the first time that there was a God and God was real, significant for someone who had been an atheist growing up in a secular home. 

From that moment onward has been a decades long journey, wrestling with this idea of God and what it meant and more specifically how that should inform my own life. Generally the idea of God is inextricably linked with some sort of organized religion but as I have talked very briefly about in the prior post I have come to a place where I reject virtually all organized religion as inherently flawed and in reality it is often the most significant barrier to people trying to understand God. 

So what is the reason for believing there is a God in the first place?

This is not intended to be an all-encompassing argument for the existence of God, that is something philosophers and theologians of all kinds have been engaged in for thousands of years. This is simply my personal take on the topic, why I believe in a God even as I reject all forms of organized religion. 

First a quick but powerful cartoon I remember first seeing many years ago....





One of my favorites from one of my all time favorite comics, Bloom County. At least before it got really weird. It is also a rather interesting indictment of the "IT'S SCIENCE!" types today when it comes to all sorts of things from the coronavirus to gender to climate change. 

Scientists really don't like being stumped. They deal in certainties. Water generally speaking at normal elevations boils at a 212 degrees and freezes at 32 degrees. Two hydrogen and one oxygen atom combined make a water molecule. The universe exists to be categorized and defined. There is much to yet be discovered but it can be discovered. Yet here we are in 2021 and there is so much that they not only can't explain, but that they can't explain why they can't explain it.

"Science" means different things today. Once science was about the working out of the scientific method. You have a hypothesis, you conduct experiments to see if it is valid and you examine the results. Now "science" is mostly political and the results precede the hypothesis and experiment, assuming we even have any. If you get results that don't support the predetermined outcome, then the experiment was flawed and you need to change your methodology until you get the "right" outcome.

In other words, real science is not an end in and of itself. It is simply a method to learn and discover what we are able to measure and examine. As such it is not in competition with or in opposition to the existence of supernatural beings who by definition are above and apart from the created order of the universe, a universe so vast and complex that it is laughable to think that we can grasp even a scintilla of the secrets it holds. 

The other thing that must be grasped is that arguments for the existence of God do not lead inexorably to a specific organized religious system. Religious apologists will often make extensive arguments for the existence of a divine being and then leap right to why that means their religion is the right one. As all organized religions are centered around attempts to constrain the concept of the divine into an categorized and understandable system of propositions and denials, they are necessarily incomplete and that makes them very defensive. The world's three monotheistic faiths all make exclusive claims and assert God has commanded this exclusivity but most of their best arguments simply don't support their specific systems and instead are simply arguments in favor of the existence of a generic divine being(s).

In the broadest sense, all arguments about "God" boil down to theism and atheism. You either believe in some form of divine "god" or you believe there is absolutely no god/gods at all and everything occurred naturally and by complete happenstance. The latter category is much smaller than we are led to believe.

This is not as cut-and-dried as we usually make it. There is a very lengthy spectrum of belief and a very short segment of true unbelief. Most people in the West, and I can't speak for people outside of my own personal experience in our cultures, fall somewhere on the spectrum of belief that ranges from zealotry and fundamentalism to serious devotion all the way to "I sort of believe in something". After decades on the extreme end of fundamentalism, I can say with confidence that the overwhelming majority of professed Christians in America are closer to a deistic view of God than they are a fundamentalist Christian view. Very few Christians, Protestant or Catholic, live daily as if they really believe in what they are taught at church. Likewise most professed Christians, even regular church-goers, have at best an elementary grasp of what their church teaches. Church for them is a way to express that they are in line with the prevailing cultural religious and moral expression. 

This is not restricted to Christians of course. A significant majority of Muslims in the West don't act like Muslims as we understand it. The 9/11 hijackers, according to the accepted narrative, were frequent customers of local strip clubs.

The dirty secret of clergy is that they spend a lot more of their time trying to keep their existing sheep from wandering off than they do attracting new sheep. It makes sense, in business one of the most reliable axioms is that it is easier to keep an existing customer than it is to go out and get a new customer. Ask an honest pastor and their work week is mostly consumed with preparing a decent sermon that won't drive away parishioners and dealing with the various personal crises in their parishioner's lives. Most spend very little time in the work of evangelism, and just as the average Christian subcontracts the work of ministry to professional clergy, the clergy in turn subcontract the work of evangelism to professional evangelists and missionaries. There is a reason missionaries are so exalted in Christian churches, they are actually doing what all Christians are supposed to be doing, although a lot of missionaries seem to be doing not much actual mission work either. 

All that to say that most religious people in America are not really all that anchored in their own faith primarily because they just don't buy into the system. If you really thought that everyone who dies without faith in Christ would spend an eternity in hell, you would be telling everyone about it. Most Christians never share their faith because at some level the idea of being a religious pest outweighs someone being burned eternally in fire.

That is a round-about way to get what I want to briefly discuss....

I think that the two strongest arguments in favor of the existence of God are the cosmological argument and the existence of humanity.

First the cosmological argument, which is cleverly captured by the Bloom County cartoon at the beginning of the post. Where did the universe come from? The very idea of the "Big Bang" theory presupposed that before the "Bang" there was the material that we know as the universe in a very dense and compact package that for some reason exploded and threw into existence the universe, galaxies consisting of stars, stars surround by planets and on one particular planet just the right distance from the star, human beings evolved. 

The glaring problem with this theory is that it seems to neglect a reasonable explanation for where all of that material that exploded in the Big Bang came from. If you try to think about it too hard it can give you a headache. How can something be essentially eternally self-existing while retaining harmony with known laws of science? It simply cannot. Scientists have tried to create theories that explain this away but none of them really can compare to the simple statement "Nothing comes from nothing". 

The counter-arguments proposed by eggheads in physics departments are amusing because they are so convoluted and, this is important, impossible to prove or disprove. How do you conduct an experiment on that scale? You can't so we are left with just "trust the science" as the evidence. 

Now, a divine eternal being of some sort, a "First Cause" that is apart from and not limited by the laws of physics? That at least makes more consistent sense. By definition a God or gods would not be limited by the laws of physics because presumably they themselves created those laws in the act of creating the universe. They/He would operate apart from the laws because they created those laws in the first place but if you assume that the law of physics are all there is, then we are left with a conundrum because those laws can't explain the existence of anything without resorting to ridiculous theories that by their nature are unprovable. 

Where did God come from? No idea. A human being with a lifespan under 100 years, part of humanity with only a few thousands of years of recorded history is completely incapable of even understanding that question, much less resolving it. Better yet, I don't really have to worry about it. 

Simply put, the existence of a universe by random chance from nothing is itself a violation of the basic laws of science as we understand them. 

My second basis for the claim that there is an eternal First Cause is centered on the existence of humanity. 

Humanity is unique in the world. While much is made of how similar genetically humans are to animals, that is entirely because of the world we live in. Our specific blend of air, 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and a handful of other gasses requires a certain biological system to survive that is necessarily genetically very narrow. That same atmosphere combined with our ecosystem means only certain plants will grow so only certain animals can survive. So yes, we are biologically very similar to most other animals because of the world we inhabit. But what makes us different makes us very different. 

There isn't another animal on earth that is in the same discussion intelligence wise. Yes some animals have innate intelligence and can be trained for very rudimentary tasks but they don't think, not in the same way we do. Even the least intelligent people groups are infinitely more intelligent and with more potential than the smartest animals. More specifically only humans are capable of conceptualizing the idea of gods. 

There is not a progression of intelligent animals that terminates in humanity. There are animals and then there are humans. A pig may be about as intelligent as a monkey or a dolphin but they are not in the same category as a human. While some animals can be trained to mimic human behaviors and we love to anthropomorphize animals by ascribing human emotions to their behavior, it isn't the same thing. My dog "loves" me because I feed him and pet him and have made him part of my family but I love my dog because of the pleasure it brings me, not because of any actual utility. My love for my dog is emotional, their love is pragmatic. 

As circular as it may sound, humans are evidence of God in part by being able to conceptualize the existence of God in the first place. Animals don't ponder these questions, that is something only humans are capable of doing. 

I don't offer any of this as "proof" of God, recognizing that there is no definitive proof of God outside of a heretofore non-existent divine manifestation, but also that the opposite is true and there is absolutely no conclusive proof that God does not exist. To me the proof such as it is works out as a question of the preponderance of evidence and on that basis, the cosmological argument and the uniqueness of humanity are very compelling evidence for the existence of God and the counter-arguments made are incredibly weak when you get past the intentionally opaque language used to try to make the argument sound more compelling. 

Nor do I expect that my reasons will be compelling to anyone else. That is not my point. You can decide for yourself whether God exists or whether humanity is a random occurrence in the universe. 

If you come down on the side of the existence of God, what that means and how it impacts you is the deeper question. As I have said before, I think that true atheists ae extremely rare. That will be the focus of my future posts: what does the existence of God mean for us and how does it inform how we live and relate to one another?

7 comments:

  1. I think the least intelligent groups may be surpassed by some other animals. Unless we can be politically incorrect and actually go test people and animals on a large scale, (like the mirror test), it seems hard to know. I think some other humans really only have an ability to mimic us, judging by how they act when they are amongst only themselves. Just my opinion without more information.

    Sort of like Nietschze's bridge, I look back and see subhumans way too close to feel like humanity as a whole is something special. There are way too many of all types of humans who never think at all. And then again, there may have been others in the past who surpassed us. I can't come up with a reason for that to imply a God. Though perhaps gods.

    I have had many dogs, yes I loved them, but it was partly for their utility, the work they do and their ability to warn me of threats, but also I believe evolutionarily. For tens of thousands of years some races had a close bond with their dogs for those same reasons. Why couldn't that develop into some instinctive reaction to them? I can see that going both ways, them caring for us not just because we're the food-giving monkeys. I have never felt anything for any dog that I considered 'useless', so I don't think it's merely a reaction to them being warm and fuzzy.

    I can see an instinctive connection with other animals that we have worked alongside for so long, just like some animals do with each other, and how some plants work together favorably. I think it's just part of Nature, which may or may not be the same as the idea of a cosmological God. I'm a heathen, so these terms aren't really familiar to me.

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    1. There are some people groups that when discovered by Europeans were thought to not even be human. Still, they have language and some ability to conceptualize things like God so the distinction is still there.

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    2. If I recall correctly, to this day there are places that missionaries still have a problem getting across the concepts of their religion. In some places christianity is just voodoo with some guy who they call Big Boss Man or whatever. I've read a few hilarious descriptions in african pidgin, maybe I'm confusing it with those.

      I'm siding with the European explorers on this one. But I'm not sure our religious feeling is linked to language anyways, since so many Whites seem to have a hard time verbalizing non-dogmatic religious thought even amongst ourselves.

      I'm willing to admit I'm wrong about any part of this, except one thing. There are people (of all races) that use language that show zero evidence of any consciousness. So I can't consider them above base animals except perhaps in potential somewhere in their genes.

      Perhaps.

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  2. Raised ostensibly Roman Catholic in a heavily ethnic Irish and Italian neighborhood, I eventually ditched my hollow faith. But dutifully made my sacraments along the way, before marrying another "wayward Catholic" in a non-denominational ceremony that my in-laws never forgave us for. Organized religion seemed a scam to me, whether it was Christian, Jewish or "other".

    My mother-in-law was a strict Catholic who would brook no opposition to her One True Faith. She suffused my poor wife with the hell-and-damnation scare so early and often that she still will not talk about her religious upbringing, decades later. I asked her mother once if all the billions of other souls who had ever existed and did not subscribe strictly to her particular faith were hell-doomed. She answered me in all seriousness, "Yes". I then asked her, if she were born to jewish or muslim or buddhist parents instead, would she still have known, somehow, that Jesus was the way. And without hesitation, "Yes."

    That is some serious, dyed-in-the-wool brainwashing. She led a miserable, self-loathing life, and died firm in the belief that she had not been "Catholic enough", had not confessed enough, had not tithed properly, and was headed for an eternity in fiery hell as a consequence.

    Organized religion has been the source of more grief and misery than anything short of war since the dawn of mankind. I am utterly convinced of it.

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    1. My wife grew up "Catholic" and we were married in a Catholic church and of all the various flavors of Christianity that one has never had a shred of appeal for me. It epitomizes everything I dislike about religion and man's quest to rule over others.

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  3. Most atheists I know aren't atheists - they simply hate God. They have a feeling that God was not kind to them, so they hate Him. Those are the bad atheists.

    Now the good atheists I've known don't hate God, they simply don't feel the evidence supports him. They are a bit unobservant. But they can be good people.

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    1. Like I said, there aren't many real atheists around. The stark dichotomy between devout believers and atheists is mostly a fantasy, in reality the vast majority of people are somewhere in the muddled middle even if they don't realize it.

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