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Theism vs. Christian Theism

February 24th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I watched another God debate the other night, this one between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. As with the Hitchens/Craig debate, both sides made a strong case, but reason was clearly on the side of the atheist. The theist has the much harder time in any rational debate, but Lennox held up extremely well, particularly when dealing with abstracts such as the origin of the universe. His arguments were enough to reaffirm my belief that something might exist which we could justifiably call “God”. However, he also made the standard historical arguments for the truth of Christianity, and this is where I believe most theists go wrong.

Dawkins said it well in his closing remarks:

All that stuff about science and physics and the complications of physics and things…what it really comes down to is the resurrection of Jesus. There’s a fundamental incompatibility between the sort of sophisticated scientist which we hear part of the time from John Lennox and it’s impressive and we are interested in the argument about multiverses and things, and then having produced some sort of a case for a kind of deistic God perhaps, some God like the great physicist who adjusted the laws and constants of the universe—that’s all very grand and wonderful. And then suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earthbound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.

I’d like to expand on this criticism because I believe it goes to the heart of the divide today between those who believe in God and those who call themselves atheists. Most atheists are only atheists in respect to specific gods. As Dawkins points out, we’re all atheists with respect to Zeus or Ra or any of the ancient gods. All Christians are atheists with respect to the Hindu gods, just as all Hindus, Buddhists and so forth are atheists with respect to Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. But one can reject every single one of humanity’s religions and still be a theist.

People often cite scientists such as Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking who spoke of understanding the universe in terms of ‘seeing the mind of God’ to make the false claim that they are religious men. In fact, neither of them were religious at all, and if they did believe in God it was in a vastly different sense than a typical Christian, Jew, or Muslim believes. Their God is either a deistic God—a God who created the universe from the outside and then let it exist without further interference—or a pantheistic God, who is not just the creator of the universe but is the universe itself. Pantheism is the belief that God is everything, that God is basically synonymous with nature. Just as deism is a far more rational belief than religious theism, pantheism is more rational than deism, and is currently the most logically defensible kind of theism one can subscribe to.

The essential argument that Dawkins makes in The God Delusion, the focus of this particular debate, is that God may not be impossible but its existence is highly improbable. All complex things, says Dawkins, arise from less complex forms. Any being capable of creating a universe and knowing exactly which constants would be necessary to lead to intelligent life—the supposed purpose of the universe—would have to be more complex than the universe itself. But how could such a complex being arise out of nothing? Wouldn’t it have had to arise from less complex forms?

Lennox blasts this central thesis of Dawkins as the old schoolyard argument: “If God created the universe, then who created God?” The answer is as simple as it is profound: “Nobody created God. God always existed.”

Dawkins dismisses this as a cheap cop-out. Of course you can just say that something always existed, just as you can say something is true because it’s true. It’s a tautology, a truism—it doesn’t really say anything at all. But is this fair?

Certainly when dealing with your average phenomenon it’s ridiculous to insist that it exists because it exists or that it has to exist because it couldn’t not exist. For instance, one could try to make the argument that electrons exist because their existence is necessary and their non-existence is impossible, but that would be false. Of course there can be a universe in which electrons don’t exist. We still have the scientific challenge of determining why electrons exist in this universe. This applies to everything with one important exception: the universe itself. And for the pantheist, that means God.

I’ve long since learned not to trust a priori judgments as a sufficient basis for fundamental metaphysical beliefs, so I’m no longer as sure as I was when I first wrote this many years ago, but the existence of the universe (or rather, a universe) seems to be a logical necessity. Something must exist because non-existence can not exist. The very essence of non-existence is to not exist. There must be something rather than nothing because there can not be nothing.

So I don’t dismiss Lennox’s claim that God always existed, as I find it completely reasonable to assume that there must be something which always existed, which had no beginning and will have no end, and from which our universe arose. I do not, however, believe that this universe is the only one and that it must have been designed by this necessarily-existing being with a specific purpose—the arising of intelligent life—in mind. As I wrote in my last entry on God, there could be an infinite number of universes each with different cosmological constants, and at least one—ours—in which the conditions for the formation of stars, planets, and life just happened to be met perfectly.

There is no contradiction between the multiverse hypothesis and pantheism. When you bring the multiverse idea into it, you simply go from saying “God is the universe” to “God is all universes”.

So here we are with a perfectly rational, defensible argument for a kind of theism—a way of believing in God without any scientific or logical contradictions. The only problem is that for most theists, the pantheistic God is simply not enough. God can’t just be everything. They want God to be a specific thing. A person. A person who cares about you and everything you think, say, and do. A person who brings justice to the world by rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. A person who loves you enough to give you the opportunity to ‘live forever’—to maintain your current human ego for all eternity.

And so we go from the lofty, awesome heights of the fundamental nature of Existence and the origins of the universe, fast forward about twelve billion years and zero in on one tiny speck of dust and one little patch of sand on that speck where supposedly, just two thousand years ago, the eternally existing being from which this and all universes sprang somehow confined itself within one biological organism called Jesus, walked around for a few years performing cheap miracles such as turning water into wine and casting out demons, then had himself crucified so that he could rise from the dead and promise every other biological organism on the planet (with intelligence) that this gave them an opportunity to exist eternally as well.

Sorry, but I’m having a hard time making that leap, Dr. Lennox. You and every other Christian theist commit the same indefensible logical leap from the existence of God to the truth of Scripture. The Bible was written over hundreds of years by hundreds of different people with different ideas about the nature of the world and about morality. It’s as flawed a historical document as you can find, wrought with contradiction after contradiction and littered with stories of the most base and immoral activities one can imagine, sometimes condemned by God but often endorsed or even ordered by Him. I need not waste any time pointing out what a bloodthirsty maniacal tyrant of a character Yahweh is, nor how outrageous and outlandish some of the claims made by Jesus are. Both of these figures are mere characters in a work of fiction. Perhaps Jesus is based on a real person, but his words in the Bible are no more his own words than the words Socrates speaks in Plato’s dialogs. The Bible is a book with human authors, and nothing more.

I’ll hear you out if you want to argue for the existence of a necessary being from which the universe sprang. But to then go and say that this being wrote a book and wants us all to live by what that book teaches is utterly preposterous. It’s beyond ludicrous. The creative force behind this incomprehensibly old, incomprehensively vast cosmos and possibly infinitely more cosmos beyond this one actually concerned itself with writing a book for the benefit of a few biological organisms on one speck of dust within its creation. Not only that, but that it chose to represent itself in this book through the characters of Yahweh and Jesus, two characters who could not be farther away from one another in terms of disposition and moral teaching. Why did the creator of the universe choose to write such stories in which He orders people to slaughter women and children, to stone each other to death for working during a particular portion of a seven-day cycle, to hate homosexuals and all those different from His one Chosen group? Why did he then write a story about how He walked the earth for a few years performing magic tricks and teaching the opposite of what He taught in the first half of the book?

I suppose these are just the ‘Great Mysteries’ that theologians are always working on. Well, I’ve got a message for you theologians: stop. You’re wasting your time and your precious intellectual abilities which could be put to much better use. Stop trying to make sense of what is inherently nonsensical. If the premise that the creator of the universe wrote this book is the source of so much logical difficulty, then drop the premise. God may very well exist, but it didn’t write a book, and certainly not a book as ridiculous as the Bible.

If you want to believe in God, that’s great. Go right ahead. You have every rational reason to do so. But you have no rational reason to believe in the truth of Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, Shintoism or any other ism there is. The fact that there are so many different religions with so many incompatible beliefs should be enough for any rational person to doubt the truth of any particular one, especially the one that they happened to be brought up with by accident of birth. How could you really think you’re that lucky that out of every religion your parents could have possibly had, that theirs is the the right one? That their book is the one God actually wrote?

God might exist, and you can certainly believe it does. But you’ll learn far more about God through silent meditation and far more about the universe through scientific inquiry than you’ll learn about such things from Holy Scripture. It’s belief in the truth of Scripture that leads to all the evils associated with religion in the first place. Belief in an unknowable God is harmless.

Reason and Theism are not mutually exclusive, but Reason and Scripture are. Either you accept Reason or you accept Scripture, but you can’t claim loyalty to both. You can still believe in God either way, so forget Scripture. You’ll be much better off if you do, and we will all be much better off if we all do.

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