Some Notes on Theism

I’m prompted to write this post as a general account of my opinions about the existence of God in response to an exchange with Aaron on Sam’s blog: Comments. In particular I wanted to respond to this comment by Aaron: “At the very core, Christianity is nothing more than following Christ. The word itself means simply one who follows Christ’s teachings. All of the sacraments, all of the ritual, all of the dogma is man-made artifice that is at times either helpful or harmful to a given individual or even to the world at large.”

There’s nothing new in what follows; it’s just a summary of my views on the subject of theism in the above context.

I don’t find anything wrong with following the teaching of any particularly wise person, but is it really likely that all the professed teachings of Jesus were all his own work? Even if it could be shown that many of the teachings of Jesus were attributable to his followers and biographers that wouldn’t necessarily diminish the wisdom inherent in the teachings.

But anything in addition to this is where my problem with Christianity, and theism in general begins.

First, to make Jesus anything more than simply a mortal teacher requires the presupposition of God. This presupposition is at the heart of all the main monotheistic religions. Without an initial God everything else fails, theistically. Theists sometimes argue that atheists aren’t in a position to comment on some aspects of theology that they haven’t studied, but without the presupposition of God the theology is worthless.

I find no rational reason to presuppose God. I have not seen one single argument supporting theism that doesn’t presuppose this, for any of the God religions. And this brings me to the degree of my ‘agnosticism’ or ‘atheism’ as discussed with Aaron. The metaphysical idea that a God is one possible cause of everything is fine, but that’s all it is, an idea, a concept, with no more weight than any other metaphysical idea. I could equally presuppose two Gods, and infinite number of Gods, or no Gods, a single once-only universe from nothing, a cyclical single universe, multiple parallel universes, metaphysical ideas that have mathematical support and those that don’t, and even pure fantasy universes – metaphysically, anything goes. So, in response to Aaron, I am ‘agnostic’ to the extent that the God hypothesis is one of many, and I am ‘atheistic’ to the extent that I don’t find the God hypothesis a particularly convincing one. I’m so unconvinced I’m prepared to accept the label ‘atheist’.

Without presupposing God it becomes necessary to say why one would think there is a God.

All the so called proofs of the existence of God, the ontological, teleological, cosmological, and other ‘logical’ arguments are all based on some unsupportable premise, that is usually based on some human intuitive requirement that there should be some cause, that it should be intelligent, and that it should be loving. God is made in the image of the best of what we would like to be, not we in his image.

Terms such as ‘infinite’ and ‘perfect’ are often used in relation to God. These are mere concepts that are useful in describing something beyond what we can see, measure or reach. There is no reality to them, as far as we know. There’s no good reason that they are attributes of or have anything to do with God.

Discussions about the ‘probability’ of any of these possible ideas, and in this context that there might or might not be a God, are metaphysical speculations and have no mathematical basis to take them any further. In order to calculate probabilites about God’s existence we need information we just don’t have.

Some theists don’t require proof or evidence or probabilistic likelihood, since they find some ideas ‘obvious’, when considering these issues. For example, it’s ‘obvious’ there must be a ‘loving’, ‘intelligent’, ‘omnipotent’, …, creator. To such a theist I’d ask the following. How would you know that? How many universes have you witnessed being created to come to that ‘obvious’ conclusion, deductively or inductively? What experiences do you have, on the scale of universes, that make you think this or any universe requires a creator at all? And as for ‘His’ attributes, how would you know what they were? Revelation? Well, revelation presupposes there’s a God to do the revealing, as opposed to there having been a number of fallible humans through the ages that have misunderstood, willfully lied, or been deluded about revelatory events. There’s that presupposition again?

Another approach theists sometimes take is with respect to what might be called ‘ways of knowing’. When all the rational arguments have been put forward – basically saying there’s no evidence or proof that God exists and so we should act as if he doesn’t – theists have been known to question the appropriateness of these arguments, by questioning the ways in which we can know things. All I want to say for now on this is that the best and most useful ways of knowing consist of supporting our personal experiences with rational critical and sceptical thought and, when appropriate and possible, employing what is commonly know as the scientific method. I accept that when we follow this path the best we can hope for is the accumulation of common experiences that give us some grasp of how things work, and to a limited extent why they work; but I also accept that in no way does that lead us to any ultimate and absolute truth about anything; it only provides us with a degree of confidence. What about meditation and other ‘spiritual’ ways of knowing? As far as I can see, moving to what is essentially a different mind-state is no different than chewing on magic mushrooms – anything goes; and there’s no reason to suppose anything valuable or real is being revealed.

Yet another idea that theism embraces whole heartily, and which is also a necessity for some non-theists, is the requirement for purpose or meaning. I think this idea is often behind the ‘obvious’ discussed above. But there is no requirement that the universe, or any part of it (i.e. us), should have any purpose or meaning. This need that some people have for there to be purpose and meaning in the universe at all is a quirk of human nature, akin to the need to bite ones nails or pick ones nose or scratch an itch. Can I prove this? No, but the parallels are sufficient to explain it without conjuring up an agent such as God.

Now, I can accept a ‘concept’, call it God if you wish, as an aspiration, a goal to which we would like to aim; but it’s entirely a human construct – it certainly isn’t theistic in the usual sense, and not even deistic. In that respect it’s a form of Humanism. I think that this is what some versions of Christianity have come to be, though I can’t understand why there remains the insistence on the truth of, say, the resurrection, or even the continued association with Christ.

Much of this aspiration for the unreachable perfection is fine. But because we can’t actually reach it we have to settle for less. And that ‘less’ that each person settles for is subjective. I don’t have a problem with different individuals or groups of people deciding that they think they should live by certain rules, constructing their own morality – I’ve seen no evidence or good argument for objective morality. And I think it makes sense that as a society (and collections of societies) that we should agree that compromises have to be made – we can’t all have our own particular moral codes enforced just as we choose. The problem with religion in this respect is that it has aimed for the heady heights of the infinite and the perfect, and has decided there is a real God, and has then interpreted its own subjective moral codes as being determined by this fictitious character. All theistic religions, and sects within religions, and individuals within sects, all have their own take on what God is, to what extent he interacts with us, to what extent he commands us, or requires us to worship him, etc. Religion is probably the most variable and subjective of human enterprises, in terms of what is believed, and yet often its adherents claim to have access to absolute and invariant truth. This is pure nonsense.

Take any individual, whether it be Jesus, his apostles, Mohammed, the Pope, or anyone claiming to be divine or to have been in touch with some divine being, or to have received a message, a revelation; take any of them; any claim they have made can be accounted for by down to earth explanations. But, you might say, at least some of the claims could be true. Well, how would you know? How, in fact, do you distinguish between a truthful claim about the divine and any of the many consequences of simple human frailty: mistakes, dreams, delusions, lies, intuitions, group-think, etc. There is no known way of making such a distinction, and since ultimately all supposed sources of divine information result from such claims, one way or another, they must all be seriously suspect, at the very least. Add to the shear variety the fact that no matter which religion you follow, and no matter how dedicated you are and to what extent you submit yourself and obey the commands and pray, there’s not a damn bit of difference made in this world. From the most pious to the most ‘sinful’ – not a jot of difference that anyone has demonstrated.

All that pretty much takes care of my view about God. I think it’s a strong case. I’d be happy to expand on any individual points, or to consider any angles I haven’t already. I’d even believe in God if I thought there was sufficient reason.