The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
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SASHA’s “WWJD? – Ask him yourself!” event was featured in Mizzou’s student newspaper, The Maneater, this week. You can read the article here and my take on it here (with more photos). James Pflug (the SASHA member who portrayed Jesus during the event) had this to say about his experience. Even more photos are here.
On Friday, Brother Jed had his twice-annual open house and invited students on campus, religious & atheist alike. Although Jed travels throughout the country and preaches on various campuses most of the year, he and his family actually happen to live right here in Columbia, and so I’ve had the opportunity to have dinner with him and his family a few times now.
There were about 35 of us there, and after we all ate, there was some good discussion. I was only able to stay until about 7:30, but I did get to hear Jed reading out of the Bible a bit (Romans 1, more on this in a moment), and some discussion with my friend Michael Acuff, a Young Earth creationist & medical doctor who specializes in rehabilitation and spinal injuries.
Jed’s Bible reading was, as he put it, “food for thought.” He wanted to explore “why, according to the Bible…” – in his words, “Whether you believe in the Bible or not is another issue” – “… [atheists] don’t believe.” I did record a video of his reading, but since I did it with my cell phone, the audio is pretty hard to make out. You can watch it here if you’re so inclined; I got a text message around 11 minutes in and my phone automatically stopped recording, sorry about that:
Jed’s basic point, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:16-20, is that God has made it plain to us that he exists, such that all men are “without excuse.” We (atheists) “know [that God exists] because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath [shown] it unto them” – but we are willfully resisting the truth, and this makes God angry.
Let’s take a look at this critically. The argument here, according to Jed, is that even if you’ve never heard the gospel preached to you, you are without excuse for knowing that God is real, because, in Jed’s words, “he has revealed himself through his creation.”
This is an unbelievably easy argument to knock down. I’m frankly surprised that Jed thought it was worthwhile enough to lead with during the after-dinner discussion. Let’s dig in.
First problem: It’s not exclusive to any particular god. Before we continue, I want you to take a moment and look at this link. Seriously, right now, click this, glance it over, and then come back. I’ll wait.
Okay, back now? You may have noticed that there are over 100 names listed on that page. There are 111, in fact. Yahweh is among them, the third from the last, right where you’d expect to find the ol’ fella, alphabetically under “Y.”
The reason Paul’s line of reasoning fails as an argument in favor of Yahweh’s existence is that you could just as easily make this argument in favor of any creator god – any of the 111 listed on that page, or any other you might care to make up on your own, and indeed, throughout history and up to today, people do just that. You could just as easily make the case, “People are without excuse for not worshipping the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who is clearly real, because he has revealed himself through all of creation.”
Even if it were true that “creation” necessarily means a creator (it doesn’t), that doesn’t tell us WHICH creator. The teleological argument, as it has been called, only gets us to Deism, not to Theism, and certainly not allllll the way down the spectrum to Christianity specifically:
In order for a hypothesis to be credible, it has to fulfill a few minimum requirements, for example, internal consistency, external consistency, and elegance. By internal consistency, I mean that the explanation you’re offering can’t be logically impossible nor contradict itself. A hypothesis is no good if it depends upon an assumption that can’t logically work. For example, if your explanation requires an omnipotent being, we can easily show that your explanation is flawed. An omnipotent being cannot exist, and we can easily prove this using “the paradox of the stone,” employed by Aquinas and others, which dates back to at least the 12th century. The paradox of the stone asks, simply, “Can God make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it?”
If he can, than he fails at being so powerful that he can lift anything, no matter how heavy. If he can’t, than he fails at being able to make something he intends to make. Either way, he’s not all-powerful. So we can be sure than an all-powerful god does not – cannot – exist. Though the Bible doesn’t make the claim internally that God is all-powerful in the first place, Christians sometimes do, so it’s a good point to keep handy. Christianity does not depend on belief in an all-powerful god, just a very-powerful one.
The Bible does make other claims that are logically impossible, though. John 1:1 is a good example. In the Gospel according to John, the opening line states: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Well, which is it? Was the Word with God, or was the Word actually God? This violates the logical principle called the law of non-contradiction: Something cannot logically be A and not A at the same time and in the same context (in this case, the contradiction is that Christianity is a monotheistic religion, as the 1st Commandment requires, and that Christianity is not a monotheistic religion, as Christians worship Jesus as a separate entity from God the Father). You can’t put forth the statement that Jesus was a separate person, who sits at the right hand of the Father (God) and who is the “way” to God the Father, and that Jesus is God the Father simultaneously, just as you cannot logically put forth the statement that your went for a walk with your dog, and that you are your dog, simultaneously, if you want to make sense. (For a video explanation of why this is nonsense, click here.) In several places in the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear that he is not God the Father himself, yet if Christians worship him, this violates their own “greatest commandment.” You could argue that the trinity is a paradox – an argument that appears to be self-contradictory but is in fact sound – but I would say to this, explain! In what way is this argument actually sound, aside from the Bible’s mere say-so?
Just stating, “God works in mysterious ways” is another way of saying “I haven’t the foggiest.” If you don’t know, just say so. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”! What’s not okay is saying, “I don’t know, therefore it must be God.” If you don’t know, the default is that you reserve concluding either way and err on the side of caution (that is, you refrain from believing it until you have better evidence one way or the other). To do otherwise is to think fallaciously.
Another example of internal inconsistency would be if two separate statements contradict each other (rather than one statement contradicting itself, as above). As just one example, let’s take the year of Jesus’ birth:
In Luke 2:1, the author says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, despite the fact that his parents lived in Nazareth. According to the author, Joseph and a very-pregnant Mary traveled the roughly 70 miles to Bethlehem in order to register for the census, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. When they got there, there was no more room at the inn, so Jesus was born in the stable and placed in a manger (a livestock feeding trough), where the shepherds came to pay tribute to him.
However, in Matthew 2:1, the author says that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem (they were not just visiting), and Jesus was born in their house there, while Herod was client king of Judea. According to the author of Matthew, the astrologers (“kings”) from the East, following a star, came to Jerusalem to pay tribute to him, and stopped at Herod’s first to ask for directions to Bethlehem, 5 miles away. Herod asked them to come back afterward and tell him all about it, so they he, too, could worship the newborn king (although he secretly wanted to kill the kid). But the astrologers were warned in a dream about Herod’s plan, and so they didn’t go back to Jerusalem as Herod requested. Joseph, too, was warned in a dream, and so he, Mary, and baby Jesus ran away to Egypt (the Egyptian border at the time was about 75 miles from Bethlehem). Herod, unaware of this, ordered the slaughter of all the babies 2 years and under in that town to try to get the kid anyway. According to Matthew 2:19-21, after Herod died, Joseph was told in yet another dream that the threat to Jesus’ life was abated, and so they could return to their home in Bethlehem. But when they got back into Israel (Bethlehem being a city in Judea, which is another name for the southern, mountainous part of Israel), they found out that Herod’s son, Archelaus, was now on the throne, and so they went to Nazareth instead (70 miles north of Bethlehem, in Galilee), and raised Jesus there.
Therefore, the Bible cannot be correct about where Jesus was born, because it is internally inconsistent: One writer says Joseph’s house in Bethlehem; another says in a stable in Bethlehem, because having traveled there from their home in Nazareth, there was no room at the inn.
So, what do I mean by external consistency? In this specific case, we also have an external, bigger historical problem with the reliability of these two accounts: We know from extrabiblical historical & archaeological records that Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria during the same time period that Herod was client king of Judea. In fact, Herod died in 4 BCE, and Quirinius wasn’t governor until 6 CE, about a 10-year gap. It’s not just that they didn’t rule at the same time; Quirinius was Herod’s son’s replacement, after Herod himself died and was succeeded by his son, and his son was removed from power 10 years after that. There is no mistaking this: Herod ruled from 37 BCE until he died in 4 BCE. Then, Herod’s son, Archelaus, ruled after his father’s death from 4 BCE until 6 CE. Then, Archelaus was replaced by Quirinius (the Roman government got rid of the client-king arrangement and placed the area under direct Roman rule, with Quirinius in charge).
If Matthew is correct, Jesus must have been born before 4 BCE. If Luke is correct, Jesus must have been born after 6 CE. So we can be certain that (at least) one of these two accounts of Jesus’s birth is incorrect. But we already knew that, because of the internal contradictions.
So, that’s internal consistency, and external consistency. What about elegance?
By elegance, I don’t mean that a hypothesis has to be attractively refined in its appearance, but rather, it must be precise, neat, and simple. (Easy and simple, by the way, are not interchangeable.) An elegant hypothesis leaves no glaring holes in its explanatory power, but at the same time, it is not unnecessarily complicated: It is parsimonious, meaning that it refrains from making unnecessary assumptions in reasoning: It follows Ockham’s Razor.
By way of example, natural selection is an elegant explanation of evolution because it is simple, precise, and neat. (Natural selection and evolution, also, are not interchangeable.) Natural selection is pretty easy to sum up: Over multiple generations, random mutations in genetic code occasionally give rise to fitness advantages, which, under conditions of scarcity, naturally lead to non-random, increased competitive proliferation of the better-equipped specimens. That’s it. There are no glaring holes in this hypothesis – we know random mutations occur, we know conditions of scarcity and competition are present, and we can easily see how these fit together to explain what we observe (i.e. changes in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next). It’s elegant; it’s internally consistent (non-contradictory), and it’s externally consistent (it fits the evidence without leaving any glaring holes).
God, in contrast, is not an elegant hypothesis. To say, as Jed does, that we know God exists because he is revealed “through” his creation, is basically arguing that the universe exists, and someone “must” have created it: Ergo, God. If you’re going to argue that everything that exists must have had a creator, than we’re left with the “glaring hole”: Who created God?
Some theists, Jed among them, attempt to get out of this one, by arguing that God does not “need” a creator; it’s not simply “everything that exists must have had a creator,” but rather “everything that was created must have had a creator,” and God, by the way, wasn’t created. If faced with this argument, I simply argue that the universe, too, wasn’t created. Ask also, how do you know God wasn’t created? Is that just an assertion? Well, then I assert that the universe does not “need” a creator, either.
When asked who created god, a theist might argue that he either always existed, is beyond our ability to explain at present (“supernatural,” “metaphysical,” or simply “mysterious”), or that we cannot know where he came from (beyond our comprehension).
If you are presented with this argument, just turn it right around, substituting “the universe” for “God”: Does it not make equal sense to argue that either the universe has always existed, or is beyond our ability to explain (so far at least), or that we may never be able to explain where it came from? Or if a theist wants to argue that God created himself, just say, “I argue that the universe created itself” (which, by the way, is what Stephen Hawking argues in The Grand Design).
Either way, this argument falls apart rather rapidly as any sort of proof for a god’s existence. At best, God is an unnecessarily middle-man when it comes to the existence of the universe, and barring other evidence, we should strike the God hypothesis on grounds of parsimony.
I must pause here to stress that yes, God is a scientific hypothesis in this context. Some people – particularly theists but also fans of the agnostic Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria – might be tempted to say that God exists outside the natural realm and therefore cannot be explored or understood with the tools of science, which can, by definition, only examine the natural realm.
That’s fine with me, so long as you understand that this line of reasoning makes you a deist, and you understand that your assertion that “God exists outside the natural realm” is by definition unsupported by evidence, and, therefore, not rational due to its departure from parsimony. Allow me to explain.
If you want to argue that we can’t see beyond the natural realm with the tools we have, whether scientific or cognitive, that’s fine – but then you are effectively barring yourself from making any further claims about what’s out there, as well. If you are arguing that the metaphysical realm is not available to us for natural inquiry, then the most we can say about what’s beyond the natural universe – by that I mean, metaphysical ideas like God(s) – is that we can’t say anything about them. By definition they are outside of our realm. So much for what God wants, heaven, hell, souls, prayer, etc!
If you want to argue that something outside of our realm exists in the first place, I think the only way you could possibly do it is by committing the fallacy of attempting to shift the burden of proof.
Jed likes to argue that we can’t explain the metaphysical using the physical. He argues that God is a metaphysical being, and therefore off-limits when it comes to physical (natural) examination, explanation, or criticism. I say, if you want to postulate the existence of something metaphysical at all, two things:
1) You understand that such a postulation is not parsimonious
2) The moment you try to argue that God has ever interacted with the physical universe (including the initial creation!), you are no longer arguing that God is purely metaphysical. A purely metaphysical entity cannot interact with the physical because in so doing he/she/it/they would no longer exist purely in the metaphysical realm (if such a realm even exists).
In the very instant that a purely metaphysical God crossed over into our (natural) realm to interact with it – to answer prayers, to work miracles, or to come here himself… pretty much anything credited to “the holy spirit” – he would once again be on the table for natural, critical examination. This line of reasoning, by definition, excludes belief in Christianity, since a purely metaphysical god cannot, by definition, perform miracles, and this would knock belief in the resurrection off the table.
I think that an illustration might help make this point more clear. Consider the following:
Say that we live in the “natural” realm, which for sake of this example is two-dimensional. We’ll call this place “Flatland.” We can only see, interact with, measure, and know about objects that have width and/or length. We have no concept of, nor process or technology of measuring, height (read: metaphysical beings). The third dimension, height, is simply not visible to us and it is outside our comprehension, much like Jed purports the metaphysical realm and metaphysical beings like God to be.
Here is what Flatland looks like:
Notice that there are no mountains, hills, or even buildings in Flatland. There cannot be any, since Flatland exists only in 2 dimensions.
Now, imagine that a sphere, which exists in 3 dimensions, visits Flatland. It comes down to Flatland from above, but citizens of Flatland can’t see it, because they can only perceive things which exist in two dimensions. Since they can’t “look up,” they have no way of even knowing that it’s there so long as it remains in the sky and not touching the ground.
If God exists in the metaphysical realm, the sphere is like God. It may, in fact, be there, but we would have no way of knowing this. Since we don’t have the ability to “look up,” we can’t see him, measure him, or interact with him. Until, that is, he interacts with us.
Imagine now that the sphere “touches down” in Flatland. Since the citizens of Flatland live in two dimensions, they don’t see a sphere; they can only see a dot, which grows and grows into a big circle (a cross section) as the sphere travels deeper into the ground, and then once it passes its widest point, the circle gets smaller and smaller, until it turns back into a dot, then “disappears” altogether. To the citizens of Flatland, it appears as though this thing just came out of nowhere. They can’t explain where it came from or where it went without postulating another dimension or some kind of other realm:
So, back to our analogy: It is possible that there exists another realm, beyond ours (meta-physical), and that’s where God exists or existed. It is possible that we are unable to see or measure that realm using the tools we have, since those tools only seem to work in our realm. But it is incorrect to say that we cannot apply science, which only measures “the natural,” to God, who is supernatural, so long as you also want to make the claim that God has ever interacted with the natural world (as Christianity necessarily does).
The reason for this is clear in our analogy: While the sphere is floating above the 2-dimensional plane, it’s true that we can’t see or measure it, or even tell if it exists. But the instant it “touches down,” we can! We have that little dot where it’s touching our realm. And we can see and measure that dot as it grows into a big circle, and as that circle shrinks, and as it turns back into a dot. This sort of measurement is within our realm and is possible using the tools of science. I have no problem (except for Ockham’s Razor) with postulating a purely metaphysical God, but that necessarily excludes belief in miracles, including the resurrection.
If Christians want to argue that Jesus resurrected, simply saying he was able to do this supernaturally is not an explanation. We still want to know how, and since Jesus’s body existed in this realm, this is a question that medical science can explore. If Jed wants to argue that we survive our deaths (via souls), simply postulating the existence of souls in another realm is not an explanation. We still want to know how our personalities are transferred across that threshold, and because that transfer occurs (at least halfway) in our realm, medical science can ask – and answer – these questions. The fact that there is absolutely no evidence that this happens on our side is evidence that we, indeed, likely do not “survive” our bodily deaths. Further, we can examine exactly what does happen to the energy and matter in our bodies at the moments of and after our deaths, and we can see that nothing unexplained is going on: The activity stops, and the energy that made up our bodies goes on to do other things. Our bodies get cold when we die, because the heat dissipates into the surrounding air, for example.
The point here is that we can understand the supernatural, because all the supernatural has ever been is simply “stuff we haven’t been able to explain yet.” This is otherwise known as the god of the gaps argument. Lightning is scary! A god must be doing it! Therefore, Zeus. The sun moves across the sky! A god must be doing it! Therefore, Apollo. People get diseases! A god must be doing it! Therefore, demons. There are a bunch of different kinds of animals! A god must be doing it! Therefore, Yahweh.
The fact of the matter is, we have excellent scientific explanations for lightning, sunrise/sunset, and why we see diversity in the animal kingdom. These were once mysteries, but so far, it has never been the right answer to say that a god was doing it. Why start now?
Lacking a time machine, we may never be able to fully answer where our universe came from, but in the immortal words of Tim Minchin, “Throughout history, every mystery, ever solved, has turned out to be not magic.”
I think we’re on the right track.
Until next time!
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin. Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!