Everything I Believe about Religion, Part II: The Transcendent Faces Down the Odds


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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121 Responses

  1. Avatar Peter Moore says:

    At least for an empiricist, induction isn’t a act of faith: it is simply a working assumption that we make. One of many we make (including “I’m probably not a brain in a bottle being feed sensory data”, “My brain is capable of doing basic logical reasoning”, etc).

    If my conclusions from those assumptions start to fail, then they can be revisited. But so far, induction has served us pretty well.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      You’re validating induction inductively. I’m accepting, at least for the sake of argument, that one may not do this.Report

      • Avatar Francis says:

        This rapidly gets above my pay grade, but for sake of argument, I object to the word ‘validate’. Induction isn’t about proof; it’s about developing models that work. And ever since the Age of Reason started kicking around, that has been a remarkably successful approach.

        Put another way, I rely on induction not only because it has worked for me every day (the floor remains down / dropped things fall), but so far as I can understand it has pretty much worked for everyone, everywhere, always (except for a tiny number of arguable cases called miracles).

        I don’t see what’s circular about that. And as to the claim that induction “cannot be derived using reason”, I’m not sure what ‘reason’ means in that context. If there is no reliable report from anyone ever that a dropped pen floated to the ceiling, can’t I reason my way to the law of gravity?Report

      • Avatar Peter Moore says:

        More like I give up on any absolute validation or certainty except my own existence. And I don’t see anything interesting that I can conclude deductively from that.

        So I’m left with induction: so I don’t have any absolute facts: just things of lesser or greater uncertainty. And it works pretty well…Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Have you ever stopped to wonder what if induction did not work? It’s an interesting possibility, isn’t it?Report

  2. Avatar veronica dire says:

    Right. I consider “brain in a jar” or “Descartes demon” scenarios so far fetched to be irrelevant. They are curiosities to while away the time. Thing is, nowadays we know a fair amount about how brains work, how our senses work, how learning works — not everything of course; there is a long, torturous path between what we know and what we would like to know, and we may never travel the full distance. But we know a lot. Epistemology is today an empirical science. And “the thing in itself” is atoms and particles and complex forces, and we know that we can never perceive the full thing. Our abilities to measure are very limited. Our models are imperfect. Our theories go so far, but there must be further, some next layer of turtles we have not yet puzzled out. But to jump from this manifest ignorance to phenomenology, or worse, God, simply is not justified. Such is fanciful and nothing more.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I have what I consider a very satisfying answer to brain in a jar scenarios: Suppose they are true. Suppose all of life is simply an immersive, VR game.

      Might as well play it, right? And in that play, I strongly suspect that my reactions to stimuli would be identical to those exhibited in a real life.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      Tangent: I directed a play that had Lenin’s brain in a jar as a prop.

      Yes to some it was a holy object of reverence and to other characters it was an object of irreverence.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        So whose brain was it, really?

        A tangent off your tangent. Johanna and I went to an architectural artefacts store today, and one of the items was a pair of amazing sculptural set pieces, about 8′ feet tall columns with mermaids on them, made of papier mache, but exceptionally high quality production and in great shape–and they were from a production in Chicago of Dvorak’s Little Mermaid circa 1915. The price was $16,000. It’s not a good picture, but you can see them here.Report

  3. Avatar Murali says:

    @jason-kuznicki @veronica-dire

    This calls for a post on suspending belief about the realism of the external world.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire says:

      @murali — Do you mean suspending disbelief? Because I cannot see much value in suspending belief in the external world.

      I mean, by now it has become a banal observation, but I bet you do not suspend this belief when crossing a busy street.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:


        I mean, by now it has become a banal observation, but I bet you do not suspend this belief when crossing a busy street.

        Actually, I do. Suspending belief does not equal to disbelieving. If full belief is designated by a confidence level of 1 and full disbelief by a confidence level of 0, perfect suspension of belief or agnosticism is designated by a confidence level of 0.5.

        I will also tackle questions as to why suspending belief does not mean that you have no reason to be careful when crossing the street.Report

  4. Avatar Brian Murphy says:

    Your posts are potent refutations of fundamentalism. Many believers have faith based on personal experiences of God that don’t imply mutually exclusivity with other religious experiences. It’s like the blind men trying to describe the elephant. I believe all religious traditions are indicative of contact with the divine… Even if all dogma is harmless nonsense at best.

    Ps. Your answer to the induction issue mirrors that of Kant. For many (e.g., me, Kant), belief in God is like induction… An unproveable axiom that does not do justice to the ding-en-sich… But we nonetheless need this axiom to make sense of the world.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      I’m a confirmed, 99.999% (and I only don’t say 100% to avoid controversy) non-believer in deities but I had a similar thought wrt the inconsistency angle Jason employs (which is one that contributed to but didn’t ultimately confirm my nonbelief, I will admit).

      It seems that what Jason can prove that way is that all the religions that make claims about the the falseness of all other religions are wrong only in those claims, and, consequently, as you say, that religions are highly unlikely to tend to be exactly right in their descriptions of their deities. It could be that many of these religions are right about much of what they say about themselves, just wrong that that’s all inconsistent with most other religions.

      And much also depends on what exactly it is we (read: Jason) are saying, or want to say, that religions are exactly wrong about, and if they were wrong about those things, how much it would matter to them. I.e., how false would adherents feel their beliefs to be if the nature of all divinity were revealed, and there turned out to be a god with some rough similarity to that described in the monotheistic faiths (but Jesus was not His son, he didn’t reveal himself to Moses on Mount Sinai or to Muhammed,; he was just up there, did create the universe, stuff like that). If Jason and I were there to point out the inconsistencies to prior claims would our protestations matter to believers who had just seen the reality of God confirmed?

      I can conceive of a situation in which a deity were positively and thoroughly revealed to humanity, and, despite manifold inconsistencies with the particulars of pre-revelation faiths, there being a broad movement aong adherents of all faiths to claim (or really, herald) vindication for their faith. To the onconsistencies, I would expect them to say, “Hey, our religion was fundamentally a human attempt to understand the divine that changed over time anyway, and now, in light of this revelation, it has changed more. But we feel vindicated in our faith, and now that much more confident in its accuracy than we did before.” And who will we nonbelievers be to say that the parts of the religions that were disproven were more fundamental to those faiths than the parts of them that the adherents now feel have been vindicated? Ultimately I don’t think this approach to handling religios claims is dispositive for the rational person trying to assess the question of the divine.

      And the important thing, it seems to me, is exactly to develop one’s view of the divine generally, not religions particularly. Do deities (or a deity) of any kind exist, and what reason have we to think they do or don’t, regardless of the particulars of what people who say they do say about their nature. To hammer on that question alone using what faculties we want to dedicate to the question is I think what skeptics should be concerned with. That’s really the whole of the issue for me. The inconsistencies of world religions really don’t speak to that question very much at all for me.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        Most religions are pretty confident on the revealed truth bit.

        So yes, the religions may all be wrong in slightly different ways (the ways in which they do not align), but they all managed to fuck that one up pretty badly.

        That seems to be a pretty significant common error, no?Report

        • I think it would pale in significance even on the on the merits, and certainly in the perception of observers, to the sense in which religion would have “gotten it right” in the event of a General Revelation of a deity like in basic conception to the monotheistic conception but inconsistent in basically all of the particulars of the individual religions’ accounts thereof. I think the faithful would broadly claim vindication, and I don’t really know what I’d try to say to them, or why it would matter what I did say.Report

      • @michael-drew

        It seems that what Jason can prove that way is that all the religions that make claims about the the falseness of all other religions are wrong only in those claims, and, consequently, as you say, that religions are highly unlikely to tend to be exactly right in their descriptions of their deities. It could be that many of these religions are right about much of what they say about themselves, just wrong that that’s all inconsistent with most other religions.

        I’m inclined to push Jason largely on those lines, too.

        So yes, the religions may all be wrong in slightly different ways (the ways in which they do not align), but they all managed to fuck that one up pretty badly.

        That seems to be a pretty significant common error, no?

        Significant, yes, but also explainable. People are insular and tribal and are likely to appropriate any truth–or some truths–they encounter as their own and as peculiar to them, marking them as unique. Perhaps that’s a corruption of the general truth toward which all/most/some religions allegedly approximate, or perhaps that’s a necessary step in realizing that truth.

        I realize that what I’ve just written is something like an ad hoc argument: it kinda sorta meets one (good) objection you raise, but doesn’t really do so consistently. I also realize that “general truth” is, at best, a very loaded term, and that I hedge a bit by saying “all/most/some religions allegedly approximate” it. I’m not claiming I’m right, just trying to point out how someone might respond to the point you just made.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Your posts are potent refutations of fundamentalism.

      I don’t think my inferences are so easily limited. What I have presented is a refutation not simply of fundamentalism, but of gods with any personal, interventive qualities at all.

      There’s only one God still standing at the end, and it’s the Watchmaker. I’ll get to him later.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Gods with any personal, interventive qualities are fundamentally silly and small creatures, whether they do it out of Rage or Lust or what have you.
        (What is Lord Krishna supposed to have done? Destroyed his mother’s head again and again, I believe… — and then rewrote reality to have her back. Partially mitigated by being a child at the time.)Report

      • Avatar Brian Murphy says:

        Your post proves that inconsistent dogmas indicate dogma is likely bs. But non-dogmatic theism isn’t reducible to deism. I know you’re attempting to argue in good ‘faith’, but your posts come off a little straw-persony. Have you ever had an honest conversation with a believer who wasn’t stupid?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Many of them. Please tell me, which god narrative do you find particularly persuasive? And on what evidence?

        I can’t possibly supply personalized arguments against them all, but I am very willing to listen.Report

      • Avatar Brian Murphy says:

        As indicated on this and your previous post, I’m a non-dogmatic theist whise faith is rooted in personal experiences of God. Your posts prove dogma is stupid, as is basing faith in 2nd hand revealation. Most sophisticated theists don’t fall in either of those camps, which is what prompted me to ask if you’ve ever talked to a theist who wasn’t stupid.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        I have talked to many intelligent – but still dogmatic – theists.

        I have also talked to intelligent deists.

        I am not sure what you mean by nondogmatic theist. Which miracles do you believe God has performed? If the answer is “none,” or “just Creation, and also I can sense him,” then how are you not a deist? Deists frequently report sensing the reality of God.Report

      • Avatar Brian Murphy says:

        By “non-dogmatic theist,” i mean i’m agnostic about the nature of God(s).
        Following Hume, a miracle is a contradiction in terms. I believe God is continuously intervening in non-miraculous ways… Eg, by revealing himself to believers.Report

      • Avatar PPNL says:

        Brian Murphy,

        As indicated on this and your previous post, I’m a non-dogmatic theist whise faith is rooted in personal experiences of God.

        As a non-stupid theist surely you know Feynman’s first principle:

        “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

        Using personal experience as evidence is… contraindicated.

        The famous mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan believed that his mathematical insights were delivered by the Goddess Namagiri. This belief was rooted in intense personal experiences of the goddess. I doubt neither the fact nor the power of his experiences. I do not accept them as evidence of anything and I would not even if I experienced them myself.

        A personal experience of god is an aspect of many religions. Some of those religions require that genitalia be sliced and women wear tents. You may refer to these as non-intelligent theists but I have no reason to doubt that their experiences are as real and as powerful as yours.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


        I believe God is continuously intervening in non-miraculous ways… Eg, by revealing himself to believers.

        Which ones are true revelations? Which ones are false? How do you judge them?Report

      • Avatar Brian Murphy says:


        Why would I need to judge the religious experiences of others?
        A) I’m not interested in collecting them into some sort of syncretic dogma
        B) You proved in your 1st post that such an effort is a mug’s game.Report

      • Avatar Brian Murphy says:


        What other metric is available besides personal experience?
        My experience of God is as real as your experience of reading this post, although I draw no dogmatic conclusions beyond the validity of the experience.
        It’s cool that you don’t believe me. Jason has already ably demonstrated the silliness of giving credence to 2nd hand accounts.Report

      • Avatar PPNL says:

        Brian Murphy,

        What other metric is available besides personal experience?
        My experience of God is as real as your experience of reading this post,…

        The difference is that I can read this post at will and show it to others and we can agree on its contents. The same cannot be said about religious experience. I cannot talk to the goddess Namagiri. Even if I could it would be meaningless unless someone else could listen in. It is the difference between subjective and objective.

        …although I draw no dogmatic conclusions beyond the validity of the experience.

        But that is exactly the conclusion that you should not draw. People have subjective and unreproducible experiences that they cannot share with others. Many of them do attribute them to god or god’s. Some get math from goddesses. Some of them are abducted by UFO’s. The brain is a strange place.

        It’s cool that you don’t believe me.

        But I do believe you or at least I have no reason to doubt you. The fact of your experience and the power of your experience does not mean a god is causing it.

        Jason has already ably demonstrated the silliness of giving credence to 2nd hand accounts.

        And you keep missing the point that purely first hand accounts are the most dangerous of all. Again the easiest person in the world to fool is yourself.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        My experience of God is as real as your experience of reading this post,

        That cannot be known. We can know you have an experience you believe to be of God (although even there we cannot know directly, but must take your word for it), but we cannot know that it is actually an experience of God, rather than merely an emotional or psychological experience. In fact you yourself also cannot know it’s truly an experience of God, for the same reason.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        I’d add on the other side that we can determine whether other people have experienced this text. I mean, we can ask them! In that sense, experiencing god and experiencing (the reading of some) text are radically different things.

        Unless solipsism is true, and then we might as well be brains in a vat. In which case the argument reduces to absurdity and the issue isn’t about God anymore.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        Right. You can say things to me that can let me know with certainty that you read the text I read. Or for a text I haven’t read, I could then read it to verify the evidence you give for having read it.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:


      Yes, I do think my answer mirrors Kant. I hedged a lot because I am not completely confident that my idea of the a priori is similar enough to his.Report

  5. Avatar Patrick says:

    There’s a Vlad Taltos novel wherein Vlad is trying to figure out who is his mystery opponent. At one point he says something to the effect of, “We’ll assume it isn’t a god”, to which one of his companions says, “Why would you assume that?”

    And he replies, “Because then we’ve already lost”.

    To me, this is basically why I stick with empirical induction and a belief that the rules of the Universe aren’t malleable by Any Being’s whims.

    Because if they are, we’ve already lost.Report

    • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

      What if the whims were set out with perfect knowledge and clarity, and so never needed to be changed? Why would the unchanging rules be a problem then, if they’re completely “fair” in that they don’t need to be tampered with even if the person who doesn’t need to tamper could have the potential to do so?Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        If the system has a Designer, then the Designer has some serious ‘splainin’ to do.

        If the system has a Designer who does not interact with the system because it was designed perfectly to begin with, then this is functionally equivalent to “the system has a Designer who is not present.” Either of those is possible. But again, some ‘splainin’ to do.

        Put another way: if miracles exist, the concept of fairness has an ineffable meaning. At least, I can’t figure it out, and I’m not the dullest blade in the shop… so if I can’t figure it out, so too cannot most of the mass of humanity.

        It may be the case that God exists and God has a plan and we are unable to parse the plan, so the plan is mysterious.

        This begs the question of why (at least, in all the religious traditions I know of) there is an expectation to be good, if we can’t know what good is. That goes back to some pretty effed up relationship issues between man and God.

        I don’t mind if there is a God and God is willing to sit me down and explain it to me at some point. I just don’t see that happening.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        What is the “splainin’ to do” is already done? What if it is self evident, and people don’t like it?

        The meaning of fairness could be a standard so far apart from ours and yet similar in its general shape that we might confuse the two. So a human appealing to a standard of non-divine fairness thats not binding on some divine Designer might be like a person on the beach building molehills and declaring the molehill to be of the same nature or character as actual mountains hundreds of miles away which appear to be the same size, even if they’re fuzzy in the details.

        Why do individual people have a right to have things explained to them individually when any lack of adherence to, or willful ignorance about already provided resources, like revealed personality in natural law, built in human conscience, revealed will in written holy texts given to people, etc., would be enough to condemn a person in a “fair” court of law in all Western civilizations? If it’s fair enough for us to guide society by, (don’t murder people you count as humans for fun) is it not fair enough that Designer would use the same idea that such non-adherence and willful ignorance is each person’s own risk?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Seems to me @patrick refers to the Problem Of Evil here. If this system is perfect, why is there evil? Of course, this is hardly a new question. Epicurus put it thus:

        Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        @burt-likko But the Problem of Evil, as Epicurus put it, puts the same limitations of reasoning on God that it does on Man, but that would be a fallacy to have a divine being capable of perfection. If man was created without the same infinite resources of God, there has to be some measure of fallibility – but fallibility still allows choice, and doesn’t necessitate evil. It just allows it. Therefore, fault does not lie solely at the feet of God.

        Also, if it was Epicurus who only limited their choices to 2 things, and somewhat lazily didn’t consider a third which Hume did that maybe God is allowing evil for some purpose other than to make humans happy, or some things that we deem to be evil aren’t actually to God, or perhaps there’s a reason why the evil is there in the first place. Here’s a quote:

        “His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?”
        from David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,Part 10

        Other people have written much on this subject, and shown Epicurus to be a bit soft in his logical muscles. The rhetorical language is strong, but the logical foundation is flimsy.

        Heard of Aquinas? He discusses it also. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article3Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        I just found the best, most concise explanation for the Problem of Evil, its various arguments for it and it’s refutation, and it’s philosophical consequences. I really recommend it. Best half hour I spent all week. Mentions Hume, Aquinas, and Epicurus in the same contexts discussed above but expands on them in great detail.


      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        It’s a bit late at night so forgive me if I don’t jump right on your link, @the-father-mapple I will read it in due course, I promise.

        Short rejoinder: If God’s reasoning is other than man’s reasoning and therefore unavailable to man to use as an intellectual resource, then how is man to distinguish divine reason from divine caprice or mere chance? The answer, if it exists, must necessarily involve reliance on something non-rational, mustn’t it?Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        I have two replies awaiting moderation, apparently, due to my linking of other blogs and such discussing the various refutations of the supposed problem of evil. I hope you see them eventually and peruse them. I was quite happily entertained for over an hour reading the material, and once went “That’s clever!” out loud whilst the child and wife were sleeping in adjoining rooms!

        All have a good night.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        What if it is self evident, and people don’t like it?

        If there are people that don’t find it self-evident, is this necessarily because they’re deluding themselves? This seems to be a rather convenient circular definition of self-evident. “Oh, you don’t believe it? That must be because you’re deluded, or you just don’t like the consequences of the belief. Because otherwise you would find it self-evident”.

        The meaning of fairness could be a standard so far apart from ours and yet similar in its general shape that we might confuse the two. So a human appealing to a standard of non-divine fairness thats not binding on some divine Designer might be like a person on the beach building molehills and declaring the molehill to be of the same nature or character as actual mountains hundreds of miles away which appear to be the same size, even if they’re fuzzy in the details.

        I’m afraid I have a little difficulty accepting this characterization directly after a sentence discussing self-evident beliefs.

        Why do individual people have a right to have things explained to them individually when any lack of adherence to, or willful ignorance about already provided resources, like revealed personality in natural law, built in human conscience, revealed will in written holy texts given to people, etc., would be enough to condemn a person in a “fair” court of law in all Western civilizations?

        This rather presupposes that your interlocutor is either ignorant of the materials to which you refer, or lives their lives orthogonally to them out of spite, or both. It is, you know, quite possible to be familiar with the extant literature and find it unconvincing.

        If it’s fair enough for us to guide society by, (don’t murder peobple you count as humans for fun) is it not fair enough that Designer would use the same idea that such non-adherence and willful ignorance is each person’s own risk?

        I’m afraid I don’t follow.

        I don’t find the law inexplicable. I may not agree with certain bits of the law, but I understand where it comes from. To the extent I find it unjust, I understand how to go about changing that.

        I don’t have to agree with all of your normative principles in order for the two of us to come to some level of agreement about how the law should work, and accept some compromises.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I had a read of the William Lane Craig essay @the-father-mapple linked to and lauded.

        Seems to me that Lane, and Plantigna to whom he refers, tries a little cheat: God’s omnipotence is not real omnipotence; God is still bounded by logic and cannot create a universe that is internally inconsistent.

        I can intellectually buy into the idea that a being exists that compared to us is hugely powerful and may even be our creator, but still subordinate to logic. That’s not the same thing as an omnipotent being though; such a being is still subordinate to something else. Such a being could not cause miracles to occur: for instance, we know that matter is neither created nor destroyed, hence where came all those fish and loaves?

        I’m not sure if the “omnibenevolence is not what you think it is” argument is of a similar quality — there is some intuitive satisfaction with the idea that a good steward permits and even solicits some stresses in a ward to realize a greater good (the parent permitting the child to touch a hot stove as a teachable moment) and I can see the idea of God permitting evil to teach autonomous humans to make morally good choices. But here I find another logical problem: heaven.

        Heaven is a place (or a state of being) described by most flavors of Christianity as being without suffering, without evil, and in perfect union with God. It would seem that no one in heaven commits a sin. They always choose to behave morally, assuming that they possess free will. (More about that in a moment.) they do not endure suffering, but instead live in paradise. If heaven exists, then it is logically possible for God to have created heaven. This means that it is logically possible forgot to have created a world in which there is no suffering or evil. It is logically possible for God to have created a world whose inhabitants always behave morally.

        We do not live in such a world.

        Craig also days into the issue of free will, and touches on but does not actually explicate that “free will” may not mean what we think it does. The important point he wants to make is that a world without evil is logically inconsistent with humans who possess autonomy and free will. (That’s probably correct.) this exposes problems with both the quasi-omnipotence and the quasi-omnibenevolence Plantagia ratchets God down to — given that heaven exists, and omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would put us directly in heaven, and not in a preceding world filled with evil.

        Moreover, if God’s abilities are bounded by logic, then the kind of reasoning that man would use to understand God is knowable by man. God’s reasoning is mans reasoning, because logic is universal and superior to both. This means that the apologist cannot hide behind the idea that God uses different logic or reason than us, because God is subordinate to logic.

        If the proposal is that there is a hugely powerful entity, one that acts perhaps in very subtle ways, that point perhaps cannot be logically refuted. It is also probably intellectually useless. At best, that gets you to a divine watchmaker. But the watchmaker does not participate in the universe, he nearly observes it. Maybe he did the best he could in making that watch. Maybe he had the best of intentions in making that watch. Such a being is not the God of Christianity. Nor is such a being the God of any significant world religion, ever. (Actually, Mormonism seems to get closest to this! Maybe the Mormons are right after all!) such a being is not a God in the sense that that word is understood.

        So maybe Craig, and by extension Plantigna, will go one more cheat: what you think of as “God” is not really God. Having defined away the terms of omnipotence and benevolence, why not go that last step and define away the term of God? This way the apologist has taken away all of the definitions of all of the components of the epicurean argument. What a handy rhetorical maneuver! And, what a hollow response to the epicurean argument: something that sort of resembles God possesses both the attributes of something that sort of resembles omnipotence and something that sort of resembles benevolence, and that something that sort of resembles God is both subject to logic, yet somehow not subject to logic.

        The result is that the apologist can claim victory, and perhaps even use a big word like epistemology in pointing out the purported failures of the skeptic. But the apologist has not really answered the question at all.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:


        The “cheat” you allege in the article is the same cheat you are using to begin and end the discussion, instead of discussing purple unicorns who use bungee sticks to eat their ice cream – as in, for any kind of discussion to exist, there must be a logic inherent in the communication, ability to receive the communication, or to express something. Therefore, if things were inconsistent, then there is no way of measuring or interacting with things dependably, and as discussed above, then even induction fails and we’re left crying (or celebrating) within the prison of our own minds. Probably.

        A desire to follow the rules one sets out for himself or his creation doesn’t mean there is a lack of ability to interfere or create new things, only that it is not needed. The fishes and loaves could be a manifestation of that inconsistency you think the truly omnipotent should have, but you holding something supposedly omnipotent to the persistence of the current matter/energy balance is as much of a logical fallacy – you have a created world without the required energy/matter of the creation is more binding on the creator that might have set that system up. We are rather convinced that matter is neither created nor destroyed, but the inconsistency you haven’t seen in the system could as easily be the same inconsistency of whether matter is being created/destroyed. This problem is practically anecdotal and gets more into the nature of science/miracles rather than a logical proof of god.

        You’re heaven scenario assumes it would be most benevolent to put people straight into heaven, and that some greater good is not accomplished by doing otherwise. It doesn’t argue within the confines of the rules you’re trying to argue against. That moral judgment inherent in your implication is still predicated on a supposed total knowledge of good and evil, based on the severely limited faculties of mankind, which doesn’t seem to be relevant even if we were talking about Plantagia’s “quasi-omnipotence”. See the molehill and mountain comparison I used earlier – the basic physical underpinnings of the construction are the same, but the magnitude of forces at work is too much for finite individuals such as humans to understand within a single lifetime – why cant the moral consequences of those decisions to put people in heaven be a similar principle and be so large that they can’t be understood, despite being built on the same basic moral and logical principles? You might not LIKE that argument, but that is logically consistent and more than possible.

        Saying the reasoning man would use to understand God is knowable by man” is not necessarily a corollary to your next statement, because if your faculties are limited, then you can’t make the same judgments as a thing without the limits. Even if God is “subordinate” to logic, if god completely understands all the implications of a locigal decision, then that scale can be so far off as to be unidentifiable to a limited person.

        Your need to tighten up the language in your watchmaker paragraph, because it lost me – if he acts in subtle ways (or so grandiose we can’t see them as I suggest) how does that get us to a being who only observes and doesn’t interact? Those assertions contradict and I would request some clarification. I agree that the watchmaker is not the God of Christianity, but I don’t think anyone proposed a watchmaker in the article you mentioned.

        The main problem you’re having is making God subject to logic, but why can’t God use logic in that it is only acting in accordance with his character? Saying I possess a temper and am subject to my temper doesn’t mean the same thing. I can possess a temper and control it, use it constructively, or get rid of it. Same with some more inherent quality, like eyesight, or reasoning. Logic could be the same for God – it could be part of who he is, he acts according to it, but it’s not outside his realm of control – but if he has no reason to act contrary to it, why would he? To satisfy our desire for a God that meets our own expectations?

        I look forward to your response.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        God’s omnipotence is not real omnipotence; God is still bounded by logic and cannot create a universe that is internally inconsistent.

        To be fair, this is a pretty common conception of God in Christian theology and , going back quite a ways, and even having its roots in Greek thought. It’s what you find in Leibniz, for example. It may not be intuitive, but a strictly intuitive theology would probably be a pretty bad theology, and there’s a bunch of research showing that even for theologians, their everyday, intuitive conceptions of God differ pretty sharply from more formal theological conceptions.

        The basic idea is that the rules are, in essence, God’s nature, that they are perfect, and it is through them that God orders the world. That God can not violate them is in essence a restatement of the fact that they are God.

        Whether this gets you a satisfying theodicy is a separate but related question. It seems strange to me that Reason with a capital-R would required evil things to happen in order for the world to function in such a way that life and freedom and such are possible, but I’m well aware of the limits of my own knowledge and reason, so as is so often the case with these sorts of philosophical problems related to the nature of God and Reason, I don’t feel comfortable saying that something seeming strange to me is at all relevant. This is why all of the arguments and counterarguments related to the existence of God end up feeling like a wash to me.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        You’re heaven scenario assumes it would be most benevolent to put people straight into heaven, and that some greater good is not accomplished by doing otherwise.

        Perhaps. That’s not a proper counterargument, however.

        If you challenge that assumption, follow that thread down the rabbit hole. Let us assume it is more benevolent to put people somewhere before they get to heaven; that there is some purpose. Now explain what the greater good is, otherwise (without running into reincarnation.)

        It’s possible that this could be an iterative game. Maybe the Hindus and the Christians are both partially correct; you get N (perhaps uncountable N) shots at becoming a decent human being, and when you succeed you get the door prize.

        But if it’s not an iterative game, then again… some ‘splainin’ to do. Many, many people die without the opportunity to learn anything (heck, if you believe that life begins at conception, half the folks don’t even get a chance to have their spirit be embodied in an organism with a functional sensory apparatus, as they spontaneously abort before they get to the point that there’s a brain to think with).

        The two possibilities there are: they get another shot, or they are tools of some other purpose related to the rest of humanity. The first gets you reincarnation. The second gets you a God who is a chess player using people as pieces, not exactly a benevolent one.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:


        The only definition of self evident I know of is defined as well as anywhere else from Google: not needing to be demonstrated or explained; obvious.” So something can be self evident only if people actually look for it, or don’t delude themselves, and it not be circular. The rules of morality can be obvious or don’t need to be demonstrated or explained – but if someone doesn’t encounter a scenario where that rule comes into play, the rule could still be self-evident without being revealed. Such as, if I had all my food provided for me and didn’t know where it came from, I might never know if came from living animals or plants, and so I never grapple with farming techniques, or humane treatment of animals. Once you tell me you fish by tricking a water creature and inserting a hook or barbed net into it, the morality might be self-evident, but I never encountered it before. Or, I could be so hungry, and know that pain or death is worse, so eating this fish gained by trickery could be less bad than my own death, so I rationalize eating the fish, and delude myself for future sustenance.

        I’ll be honest – many of my metaphors really suck. Sorry. They’re spur of the moment ideas, not carefully planned out. Pick at them if you wish! Lol

        My (hopefully) better explanation between the molehill and mountain is that both constructions of dirt use the same principles to keep themselves up – surface tension, molecular bonding, strength, gravity in keeping their shape, erosion, etc.. But the endeavor required for the mountain is way beyond human accomplishment, and the implications of the mountain on the surrounding geography could very well be unknowable because of the scale – but the implications of the mole hill are quite subdued and able to be explored with a cup of water, a strong breath, stamping around it, etc.. Therefore, God could be working on the mountain scale for morality and logic, and we are working on the mole hill scale – same underlying principles that are self-evident and obvious, but the implications and consequences are vastly disproportionate to the mole hill.

        If you are familiar with the literature, and find it unconvincing, isn’t that living in spite of it, or contrary to it? I guess I don’t get the point you’re making – it seems to be your second sentence about the extant literature IS living orthogonally to the writings out of spite. Could you try explaining it a different way for my benefit?

        I’m also afraid I didn’t explain my last few paragraphs well – I wasn’t discussing where the law came from, but rather that if there is some kind of supreme moral/logical law that is set in place, ignorance of it, whether one agrees with it or not, wouldn’t be an excuse for not following it. I get that you are saying that specific principle might be a normative rule for people to follow to make the administration of the laws easier, but I’m trying to discuss more specifically the possibility of an overarching logic/morality that transcends the varying likes/dislikes of people.

        You assume compromise is possible – what if it is not? Is there logic or morality outside of that ability to compromise? What do you think happens next?Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        @patrick – to your 2nd reply
        If life is not iterative in the Christian sense, it still doesn’t require some explaining other than what is already given. Even Apostle Paul mentions this very argument in the book of Romans – if the “good” that is required of God is revealing more of God, you could reveal more of God with some people being punished and celebrating God’s justice, and some people being saved, showing God’s mercy, and both showing God’s sovereignty. So if the goal of any “good” is to show God, then people “succeeding” by going to Heaven and some not could still be showing that God is in control and this is how he set it up. That might shock your conscience, but if God is benevolent and he set it up that way, then that is truly what is good.

        The Christian theology also makes the distinction between willful sin and sin nature – what is inherited from Adam and what a person does in their own heart. Your issue of people who don’t get a chance to be born, or the people who don’t get to hear, are then also taken care of. Personal willful sin is taken care of, in Christian theology, by their indwelling conscience, and their natural death is a result of the sin nature – separate from willful sin, which causes ineligibility for Heaven. Also, therefore, the benevolence of God would require some way to get to Heaven apart from “being perfectly willful” which is the purpose that God provides a way into Heaven without having to do any good deeds and regardless of the amount of willful sins.

        In other words, if people are inevitably infallible in their freewill, and God is benevolent, there must be a way into Heaven apart from simple obedience in action/spirit or else no one would ever get to Heaven, so having God supply the method of getting to Heaven (Jesus, as in, God taking the requirement of absolving or erasing it from the requirement), which then continues to show his sovereignty without detracting from his required justice, logic, etc.

        The problems you are expressing about the Christian faith have been explained hundreds of years ago, if not thousands. But they are still quite commonly raised, and don’t require God to be accountable to humans, but humans to God.

        That rabbit hole has been explored, in other words.Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:

        If you are familiar with the literature, and find it unconvincing, isn’t that living in spite of it, or contrary to it?

        Um, not necessarily?

        I find lots of laws to be unjustifiable. I don’t necessarily violate them, however.

        If faith is required in order to be living morally, and the teachings that have (so far) been revealed to humanity are insufficient to convince me that I ought to have faith in your particular religious tradition, is that necessarily (a) my fault, (b) the teachings’ fault, or (c) God’s?

        If it’s my fault, well, that kinda sucks for me, sure. But you also have to ask yourself, as a question of your faith: why are there so many people who do not believe? The majority of humanity does not believe. Did God truly intend for the majority of humanity to be the sorts of cat who don’t grok the message? Was Melchior Hoffman right, only 144,000 folks get the E ticket?

        Even Apostle Paul mentions this very argument in the book of Romans – if the “good” that is required of God is revealing more of God, you could reveal more of God with some people being punished and celebrating God’s justice, and some people being saved, showing God’s mercy, and both showing God’s sovereignty.

        Disclosure: a very close reading of Paul is why I’m a lapsed Catholic. 16 years of Catholic education, 8 of ’em by the Jesuits, means I’ve read an awful lot of Paul.

        If he is correct in this argument, then God clearly does not believe that all humans are created equal, or God clearly does not believe that life is incommensurable, or that God is willing to choose martyrs without their acquiescence.

        So either (a) Cthulhu flagan; or (b) living morally is not required for God’s plan; or (c) John Calvin was right. I find the consequence of all three of those conditions to be that God is a monster by any human definition of morality, at least any human definition of morality as taught by the folks who claim that Paul was onto something.

        So either they misunderstand Paul, or Paul was wrong, or the human definition of morality is necessarily disjoined from Morality in the absolute sense. In other words, we’re not commanded to be Moral in the way God is Moral. Morality doesn’t have anything to do with us.

        We are commanded to follow some rules, which themselves are grounded in principles which don’t apply to the Big Fella; objective Morality does not exist, there is only God’s Will.

        Which, okay, being the Big Fella, he can do that, I suppose (and plenty of Christian doctrines elide the problem of ineffability and just fall back on “God’s Will”, so if that’s your stance, at least it is consistent).

        But I don’t particularly find that to be a God worthy of veneration, myself. The game is rigged, there is only one lesson to be learned: obey. We are essentially being asked – nay, told, on penalty of eternal damnation in some traditions – to abdicate free will and thought and color inside the lines (lines which are drawn or interpreted by men, no less, which is problematic in the extreme, historically speaking).

        It follows from that line of thought that we cannot understand morality at all, the attempt to do so is hubris (the Index included, you know, basically every philosopher of note in the entire Western tradition other than Aquinas, so there’s tradition, there, at least).Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Seems to me like you’re trying to have it both ways, @the-father-mapple . (Or, rather, Plantigna is.) God is subject to logic when he exercises his powers, except when he isn’t. God doesn’t exercise his powers to interfere in the universe, except when he does. God is so benevolent and wise that he can create a world free from sin and suffering, except when he creates the world we actually experience, because that’s even more benevolent and wise yet.

        We’re all familiar with the watchmaker metaphor here — the creator who withdraws from further participation in his creation once the genesis is complete. I don’t think that does need further clarification. A god who acts in very subtle ways, or ways too grandiose to be detected by humans, is for human purposes functionally the same as a watchmaker god because we will never see that god acting.

        That’s not the Christian God. The God of Christianity performs miracles. He appears as a column of flame and smoke in the desert, he sends hordes of frogs upon the Egyptians, he takes human form and walks on water, he transforms bread into flesh and wine into blood and water into wine, he resurrects from death, he causes men to speak in tongues they have never learned, he cures incurable diseases instantly and without use of medicine. In other words, he accomplishes logical and physical impossibilities. And it’s not because he’s just plain smarter than us and has better technology at his disposal — it’s because he’s a different kind of entity than us, an omnipotent entity beyond our ability to comprehend, apprehend, or fully appreciate.

        And that kind of gets back to the core point I’ve tried to reach several times — in order to get to a world view inclusive of God one needs rely on something non-rational. You could call it “supra-rational” or “transcendent to rationalism” or whatever other fancy word you want to call it. And please note that I’m already on record as not only conceding but proposing that “non-rational” doesn’t mean “bad” or even “wrong.” It’s useless to even try to apply reason to an omnipotent entity beyond our ability to comprehend, apprehend, or fully appreciate — and applying reason to an omnipotent entity beyond our ability to comprehend, apprehend, or fully appreciate is necessarily going to exceed the limits of rationality. Rationality will necessarily break down.

        The Problem of Evil raises a particular way in which this breaks down, particular to a specific kind of God, but not with theism generally. The Problem of Evil resolves very cleanly if God is not necessarily always benevolent, or if God is not omnipotent: evil exists because of a shortcoming in God. But the kind of God Plantigna proposes as a “defense” to the Problem of Evil simply is not the omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God described in the Christian Bible. The Problem of Evil is a problem for those who propose that sort of God.

        In order to get to the place where all of this makes sense, you have to take a leap of faith. One need not be an atheist to realize this. Martin Luther reached that same conclusion in his privy about a half a millennium ago, and thereafter preached a vision of a Christianity glorying in the act of faith, as did a number of his contemporaries like Zwingli and Calvin. It’s been a while since I read my Aquinas, no hater of reason he, but unless I’m mistaken he too noted that logic becomes exhausted and faith takes over at some point.

        What I’m looking for is an admission that we’ve got to depart from reason to get to God, to get to theism. Belief is not rational. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means it doesn’t, won’t, and can’t make sense to someone who doesn’t also have that non-rational experience. That, in turn, is the point in the OP about the multiplicity of religions — unless you already do believe in Vishnu for non-rational reasons, it doesn’t make the remotest bit of sense to believe in Vishnu. The Christian apologist and the atheist skeptic agree that it doesn’t make any rational sense to believe in Vishnu. To the Vishnu worshipper, it does make sense, but not for any reason that she can articulate in rational terms to either the Christian or the atheist.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        “The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits.”Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        @burt-likko @patrick

        You both raise some great points. I am loving this conversation very much. Permit me some time to compose a response. I’ve had to get some work done today and take care of some family.

        Glad you both seem to be more than passingly familiar with Christian teachings, which means I might not have to cachet everything as I go along on that vein, but I don’t think just the Christian concept of God is necessary for the continued discussion.

        Hope you both have a good day, and I shall reply later tonight.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I’ll look forward to it, @the-father-mapple .Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        But the Problem of Evil, as Epicurus put it, puts the same limitations of reasoning on God that it does on Man, but that would be a fallacy to have a divine being capable of perfection.

        Man do I love that response. Hypothesize a perfect being, attribute to that being a type of rationality inaccessible to human beings (who are supposed to rationally believe in this being), attribute to that being a status devoid of any empirical observation or test or confirmation, then conclude that such a being is impervious to criticism! Based on mere possibility!Report

      • Avatar Patrick says:


        Feel free to submit a guest post. Arguing deism is always good for keeping the wits sharp 🙂Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        I concur with @patrick wholeheartedly. I’d enjoy a guest post from you, Father Mapple; you’ve got game. I hope you stick around our community for discussion on other subjects, too.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        It took me a while to write these. I look forward to your responses.

        Faith is not required to live morally – Paul says in Romans 1 that many people live morally guided by their conscience, and that is a kind of moral law attributed to them separate from their knowledge of Mosaic Law. But you are placing the burden of the proving by evidence upon the God still in that first full paragraph of yours. Again, I assert, if God is perfect, and benevolent, and he’s provided methods to get to heaven and a revealed will, then the fault only lies with the people receiving it.

        Again, within the faith, there is a necessity of freewill for there to be a just condemnation, (or there is no such thing as a faith in any sense, due to not being able to make a choice), but can at the same time only be glory/mercy on the part of God for the salvation of people. So, theoretically, if I went full bore Calvinism and said God not only set up the system of people

        You’re assuming people are worth saving… and according to God of the Christian Bible, they are. But you’re then additionally assuming it’s a bad thing if some people are not saved, which according to the Biblical measure of “good” (which is, is God glorified or revealed), there doesn’t have to be the salvation of more than a single person for God to be glorified. It is not a bad thing if some people don’t get saved since the system set up by God continues to work as he intended it to.

        Again, trust me, those are horrible truths to hear. According to Paul, Peter, and all the prophets, hearing the news that people are incapable or subject to divine rule by God is SUPPOSED to make humans upset. But according to the Christian precepts, it must be heard or else if sin/wrong/non-divine nature isn’t acknowledged, there is nothing to be saved from, and the need for God vanishes – the ultimate heresy, if you will.

        I would encourage you to go back to Paul, specifically Romans, and work through it again. Forget what the Jesuits said (even though I normally attribute inordinate intelligence to anyone with those order initials in their names…)

        That next paragraph, “If he is correct” and the following inconsistently assumes several things (but good Lovecraft reference). 1. According to Scripture, God did not create humans all equal in worth or ability, but at the same time, he can still desire to save them all (possible ways he shows they are not worth the same: he values human services differently than how we attribute worth, has no regard for many of the things we do, did create some with different abilities, rewards some differently in life and death [treasures stored up in heaven], Paul mentions the jar of clay made to be shattered and another for holding water, etc). That human beings are not made equally or with equal worth before the eyes of God doesn’t mean God can’t still desire to have them all choose salvation.
        2. human life is not incommensurable (meant mathematically, I suppose, as in “can’t be valued”), but that doesn’t make human life immeasurably valuable compared to other things, just as the glory of God could be immeasurable compared to a human life, or human life is immeasurable compared to animals. The Noetic covenant has god place a value of human life above animals, but animal life is accounted for versus the lives of plants, in the parable with Abraham and Lazarus, Lazarus believes his siblings to be very important but doesn’t feel upset or unjustly done by while being sentenced to Hades, David being a Man after God’s Own Heart, but others who didn’t commit such “grievous” sins as murder and adultery were still not regarded the same, etc.
        3. God is often “willing to choose martyrs without their acquiescence” (which is a wonderful phrase! I love those words put together, quite a lot), such a Jonah, who wished to be martyred to end his tribulations but God didn’t allow it, or Peter/Paul who had resigned themselves to jails but only left them when God provided otherwise, etc.

        Living morally is very specifically not required for God’s plan. Paul sets himself up for that very assertion by giving his testimony, which is flawless according to Jewish standards, and saying that all his deeds were worthless since he wasn’t promoting the actual glory or knowledge of God that had come. But Paul had considered himself righteous before his conversion, which is that objection you have – “God is a monster by any human definition of morality” – the very laws and behaviors that God told people to keep were NOT meant to save them – just reveal how much they needed the forgiveness.

        A person can be commanded to be moral in the way that God is moral, but with the system set up as described above, our obedience is then not necessary for it to work. Morality provides benefits in this lifetime – in that most often it makes things better for us if everyone acts morally, but James and Paul both speak quite specifically about how there can be good things coming out of when people make bad moral decisions that can result in some change for good later (remembering that good is defined as revealing God’s glory or character).

        Therefore, those rules, all outlined to reveal the Big Fella and also have objective morality exist – just as people can have choices, and the “good” and “bad” choices exist whether we choose them or not, or learn of their consequences, or whether we’re aware of them. Paul anticipates that some people won’t know all of God’s character – and that’s ok.

        The lesson to learn is not to “just” obey, but be thankful. I can just “obey” my parents and have that be the take away from the first 18 years of my life, but I could also take the attitude that “These people are trying to provide me a good basis to enjoy the rest of my life because of their motivation and lessons they already posses.” And then following rules becomes a free-ing from misery or bad experiences since I am wiser for the lessons and don’t have to suffer additional bad consequences. But that doesn’t mean my work can’t be as a freelance artist, blogger, scientist, or librarian – all those could be very edifying to the community and the creation of God, so I retain my free will, but understand there are limits for my own good.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        In reply to: @stillwater – Does your comment change if I fix my original statement? I goofed when typing. It SHOULD read “But the Problem of Evil, as Epicurus put it, puts the same limitations of reasoning on God that it does on Man, but that would be a LOGICAL fallacy to have a divine being INcapable of perfection.” And by divine being, I guess I mean omnipotent/omniscient, not, say, an Angel or such “different’ being from humans.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        In reply to : @burt-likko :
        I am trying to have two non-mutually exclusive things happen – a normal person can subject themselves to some kind of limitations, but a divine being could release themselves from those limitations as well. That is more closely to where I see God exercising himself in your first paragraph: God can exercise his powers sometimes within logic or our perception, but it doesn’t stop him from doing so otherwise as well. The Christian God you describe at first is accurate.

        Something rational to a child, like calling both the right and left foot in a group “foots” makes sense according to all the rules and logic the child has learned up to a point. They have to be told there are different rules for some words, or some phrases – and like you said, they don’t have to be “bad” even if they’re not rational to the child.

        And I mean no negative connotation to any of us by mentioning a child/parent metaphor with God, since I am lumping myself in the child-like state.

        But this flaw in the “logic” of language doesn’t mean it is a shortcoming of the English teacher, or the system of creating plurals – it is just different from what the child expects. I can speak in another language if I want to, which makes a lot more sense in conjugations (like German), but that doesn’t change the nature of the speaker/teacher or the child.

        Now we all know a particular language like English and German aren’t inborn in people – or kids would be born talking actual languages. it must be revealed and taught to them. The fact that one language or another adheres to different rules doesn’t mean the speaker/parent/teacher is a different being – it is just using a different kind of language to communicate to the child at hand.

        This turns into God and people, if it’s not already evident and I haven’t been too incredibly heavy handed already, in that God can use the logic of his creation, personal revelation through non-sensical images (like dreams to Joseph, future prophecy to John and Isaiah), written words (handwriting on the wall, if you will), and other methods, and still be consistent with his character – he is just using different means that different groups of people might not always understand. That is where we misunderstand the morality/logic of God – he is still who he is, but we, being limited and following only the revealed logic of the languages known to us, don’t quite get it and have to work with what we have – with results being “foots” every once in a while. But meaningful discourse between the two groups still happens occasionally, even if the more limited group doesn’t understand the more capable being/teacher all the time.

        That’s not having it both ways, and that’s not having the rationalism break down necessarily – it’s a breakdown on the understanding possible by humans at a certain portion of the scale, but not logically inconsistent, contrary to the different beings’ natures, or irrational.

        The christian apologist and the atheist skeptic agree that the limited deity of Vishnu doesn’t make internally consistent logic or sense within the belief system of Vishnu worship, and so to believe in Vishnu doesn’t make sense. I propose there is a theism that is logically required in the current day, even more so than in millenia past, when atheism had the benefit of saying that the creation was unknowable. Back then, (2000 years ago) there was no way to explain the creation of the world and only philosophical principles that “Physical things probably happen for some kind of reason or with some system.” Nowadays, we know so much about how galaxies are born, the molecule interacts with things, the energy needed to make fire, etc., etc., that the existence of things can’t hold up under the same principles that maintain the existence of things. There must be a Prime Mover. And when you start to explore the qualities a Prime Mover must have, I believe you come up with the Christian God.

        I am pretty sure an assertion like that won’t go unnoticed, but I will instead wait and let comments fall on the things I’ve already said and try to take this discussion in more piecemeal.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Does your comment change if I fix my original statement?

        No. Given the elaboration following the referred to sentence it was obvious to me that you made a typo.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        Why do you think the advance of science argues in favor of the necessary existence of a prime mover, @the-father-mapple ? And how do you get from a prime mover to Jehovah specifically? I see the argument for atheism getting stronger, and there being less and less need of a supernatural reason for things, as science explains more and more about how the universe works. At minimum, whatever strength a rational argument for theism has or lacks is unaffected by scientific advancement and the accumulation of human knowledge?

        Your example of a child learning a more sophisticated vocabulary as she advances in age and intellectual sophistication is interesting: so too with morality, as we accumulate collective experience and intellectual understanding of the universe, so too should our moral calculus improve. I think religion has a role to play in this process, although I also think the rational case for The existence of the supernatural is doomed to never increase with time.

        I understand the proposition that God accesses reason and logic and morality in a way different than humanity. You’ve suggested that this both appears to be God ignoring those rules when he wishes to but really isn’t, and also that God can in fact transcend these rules when he wishes to. How am I to tell the difference between the existence of a superior pattern of intellect and morality that appears to be violated at whim! and which is in fact violable at whim and the absence of any such pattern at all?

        If I make an irrational leap of faith and trust that this is so, that answers my question.

        I go back there because you’ve still not addressed my point so far as I can tell. Can we arrive at faith in God — Jehovah, Vishnu, any God — through rational means alone? The Hindu sees zero internal rational dissonance in her faith, just as you see zero rational dissonance in your faith and I see zero rational dissonance in my atheism. It appears to me that adopting a world view of an entity that meets this description is profoundly irrational. (Again, irrational is not necessarily either bad or incorrect.) you suggest that it is rational, but seem to stop just short of making that claim explicit.

        Please tell me why I’m wrong that belief in such an entity cannot be reached through reason alone.Report

  6. Avatar The Father Mapple says:

    “We believe in the beautiful. We believe in the arresting or fantastic. None of these lead to uniformity.” Why not? Does the opposite hold true, in that there is a building of unity in what is ugly or distasteful? Can there be a uniformity of the distasteful, like personal pain, risk of death, fear of meaninglessness, the universal natural law, such as “murder of a person I think is a person for fun is bad?” etc.,? You could have an objective bad thing, and distance away from the bad thing would be “better” in that it’s an absence of the bad thing, but our ability to perceive could also be orientated in the search of beauty but be limited by our ability to perceive it.

    The same could be very true of a perfect divine entity. There could be one ideal of beauty/good (whatever you want to call your ideal) and all other things are subjective interpretations of that objective experience or the LACK of perfect information regarding that objective experience due to some limitation. Similar to how an eyewitness testimony differs in a red light car crash situation – something actually happened whether the different reports match up, one person being color blind, one being deaf, one looking after the accident occurred, one looking away as it happened, etc.. Obviously all might be responding to the one stimulus, but there is going to be a difference in the quality or objectiveness of the accounts.

    Therefore, “What are the odds that one group’s personal experiences of a deity are real, and it’s simply that all others’ personal experiences are illusions?” I would say something close to 1 in 1. Wouldn’t this include the possible lack of a prime mover as well? So God existing would mean there is a situation like the traffic light above – there is an objective reason for the subjective accounts of what happened, and the further away from the cause of those accounts you get more variation, but in reality there is no anti-god, no objective ugliness to counter the objective beautiful – just the absence of one ideal good that creates the subjective revulsion due to the lack of the objective good.

    Of course, neither the author’s ideas nor mine don’t pass the Greek test – as in, there’s nothing new under the sun philosophically wise that wasn’t held by one Greek or another in 300BC or sooner. It’s just which one might actually be right is what is important.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      as in, there’s nothing new under the sun philosophically wise that wasn’t held by one Greek or another in 300BC or sooner

      Talking about the larger field of philosophy, this isn’t true. There lots of philosophical positions that are currently held that the ancient greeks didn’t hold. I don’t remember a single ancient greek advocating the principle of toleration, or for that matter, any of the versions of liberalism, or egalitarianism. With regards to philosophy of time, there are pretty much some positions esp. with regards to 4-dimensionalism that would only have made sense after special relativity.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:

        The author and I seemed to be talking epistemology, correct? I might not have been clear.

        The article or my comment were not discussing a political science philosophy of toleration, liberalism, or egalitarianism? And, despite me not being a scientist, the revelations of special relativity for philosophy don’t change the observational nature of how we interact in a relational way with supposedly divine beings within our own conventional understanding of the existence/perception of time, correct?

        If so, and we are talking epistemology, was your point only to make sure we are confining the discussion to that area?Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Even in epistemology, there is stuff about the epistemology of disagreement which as far as I am aware of pretty recent, as is reliabilism and partial belief and challenges to the JTB account of knowledge, I think. At best, if you confine yourself to some epistemological questions regarding the existence of God, then there is nothing that hasn’t been said by the ancient Greeks (or for that matter the ancient Indians). Regarding the current debate, since neither of this stuff is mentioned by either Jason or you, that’s all fine and I was just being irritatingly pedantic. But I get irritated by the sort of excessive veneration of the ancients that supposes that they had already asked all the big questions and little philosophical progress has been made since then.Report

      • Avatar The Father Mapple says:


        I appreciate the clarification. I don’t necessarily venerate the ancients, but I do think that people haven’t gotten measurably smarter in the past 3000 years, and it is a common fallacy to think people didn’t ask the same questions we do about life, meaning, God, etc. as they did back then.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Some questions remain the same. For example, questions of ethics. Some others are different. Very few contemporary philosophers are concerned with “the meaning of life” or other questions of teleology. Very few ancient philosophers natter on about definite descriptions and rigid designators.

        Progress in philosophy is slow, but it has happened and it is not because we are any smarter now, (though we do have better childhood nutrition) but because at least some of the questions the ancients asked have correct answers or if they do not, it has come to light that they don’t.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Now is the point when I must object. When referring to a morally awful doctrine associated with atheism, to wit communism, you imply that atheism leads people to adopt Communism. Very obviously, there are millions of atheists who are not Communists. There is nothing about the mental state of lacking belief in the supernatural that logically or inductively impel one to be favorably inclined towards Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism, or any other gruesome flavor within the family of this starry-eyed ideological pastiche upon what in truth were unapologetically bloody military dictatorships. I would argue, even further than this, that the thoughtful atheist would identify the extreme political ideology of most brands of communism as a form of secular religion, founded upon fundamentally irrational propositions, which ultimately lack substantial evidentiary support.Report

    • Avatar James K says:


      Indeed, the most the evils of communism prove is that religion isn’t a necessary condition for evil.Report

      • @james-k

        I halfway agree. Some communists seem to treat their ideology in a way very similar to how I see supposedly religious people treat their religion. In that sense, it’s possible that a communist’s creed can be so like a religion as to be indistinguishable. (And I’m not given to baiting religion as the cause of all evils.)Report

      • Avatar James K says:


        I had a thought some years ago that the key feature that connects communism (at least in its institutional form) and the more morally dangerous religions is that they all teach that the core of morality is to obey an authority, be it a book, a guru, a party or a priest. Once you convince people that they have an obligation to stop thinking about morality and do what they’re told you have an ideal environment for breeding atrocities.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Of course there are millions of atheists who are not communists. I’m not trying in the quoted paragraph to make any strong judgments about atheism or Christianity by assessing their practical effects. I’m actually trying to caution against these types of judgments, because I certainly find good and bad actors in both groups.Report

  8. Avatar Murali says:

    The more I look at that picture, the hungrier I get…Report

    • Avatar North says:

      I believe in french toast! Of that I am quite certain.Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        I thought it was a grilled cheese sandwichReport

      • Avatar North says:

        I am drafting a fatwah against you vile GCS believer, it is most obviously French Toast!Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Emo Philips:

        Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

        I said, “Don’t do it!”
        He said, “Nobody loves me.”
        I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
        He said, “Yes.”
        I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
        He said, “A Christian.”
        I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
        He said, “Protestant.”
        I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”
        He said, “Baptist.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
        He said, “Northern Baptist.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
        I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
        He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

        So I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.


    • Avatar Chris says:

      I just keep wondering how they got Michelle Pfeiffer’s face onto a piece of toast.Report

  9. Jason,

    You failed once again. This post didn’t offend me at all. I appreciate your willingness to confront an issue on which I probably see things very differently from you, but in a way that takes the type of objections I offer very seriously. I wish I could write so well.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      I don’t know how Jason does it. He tries to be offensive and fails spectacularly, but the rest of us seem to be able to offend others without even trying.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      Speaking out against religious faith isn’t shocking. You’d have to be pretty sheltered to have never seen it before on the internet. I got more offended responses on the last thread by defending Christian faith than Jason got by questioning it. Religious faith is challenging. It’s offensive to some.

      I don’t have much response to the rest of this Part. I’m persuaded by the probability stuff that Jason discussed last time, not by the feeling of connectedness that he’s discussing here. He does go back to odds at the end, where he says, “What are the odds that one group’s personal experiences of a deity are real, and it’s simply that all others’ personal experiences are illusions?”. He sort of passes the parsimony bar, but is that enough?Report

  10. Avatar zic says:

    A relationship presupposes the existence of the Person to whom we relate. My failure to perceive the relationship says nothing at all to the person who has experienced it: The existence of a billion godless people needn’t sway a single believer, but the existence of even a single believer ought to make a billion godless question, at least for a moment.

    To me, this is the heart of the conundrum, and she wears many costumes. Perhaps it’s training that begins before we’re born, or after, the cry for warmth and sustenance met by mother. The mind reaches out with the body, and is answered. We are, we learn (if we’re to survive), not alone, there is other there to answer. There is a relationship.

    As adults, we have an ongoing dialogue in our mind; we call out for help in moments of distress, we focus our thoughts on others in need, all as if there is this other. I think we dress that other, that relationship inside ourselves, as god. I also think it’s rooted in the helplessness of infancy. But that relationship is the first thing we have validated, our earliest positive reinforcement. It does not surprise me that setting it aside often takes considerable effort, that those who do set it aside still reach out in those moments of distress, and that most people opt to cloth it in something greater, formalize it into a set of social controls and standards we call religion.

    (It also doesn’t surprise me that after infancy, when the mother is no longer essential, that there’s room for the other we call out to to become male, and so God is generally man.)Report

    • Avatar Road Scholar says:

      It also doesn’t surprise me that after infancy, when the mother is no longer essential, that there’s room for the other we call out to to become male, and so God is generally man.

      Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Dad, get me out of this!Report

  11. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    Have you read the Varieties of Religious Experience bu William James? If yes, what do you make of it?

    I am largely on your side. The existence of multiple religions throughout history including some which we only know from study and are no longer really practiced or practiced by a good number of people* means that all religion is correct or all religion is incorrect.

    I think of myself as a cultural, ethnic, and philosophical Jew. I treat Jewish writings like philosophy. There are good lessons and things the ancient writers and thinkers were correct about and things that they were very wrong about. I seek to follow and give credit to the relevant and universal and merely ignore what is no longer irrelevant and/or is incorrect. Hillel’s “What is painful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary.” is relevant and useful. The persnickety laws of Leviticus are largely if not completely incorrect and wrong.**

    My brother mentioned why Judaism developed more of an ethnic/cultural identity than other religions though in your last post.

    *I knew one woman who said she worshiped the Ancient Greek Gods in college. She got upset when I called Ares a drama queen (he was!!). I still don’t believe she was really that upset.

    **There is plenty of evidence that the ancient Jews did not fully practice Levitcus either because the requirements for receiving the death penalty in the Talmud were virtually impossible to meet. Of course, right-wing fundamentalists completely ignore the Talmud.Report

  12. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    My problem with this is this part:
    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

    The response of “so what?” is an interesting one, I think. So let’s say that God is not omnipotent. So what?

    Your earthly bestie is not omnipotent. Nor do you need her (or him) to be. If God is not omnipotent… so what?

    When it comes to omnibenevolence… if God is not omnibenevolent… so what?

    How much of this is an expectations problem? We create an imaginary entity with imaginary traits, define these traits as being the only “godlike” ones, then declare victory when it turns out that the only entities with these godlike traits don’t actually exist. How many actual entities are we ignoring as we play this definitions/expectations game? If the answer is “more than zero”, we’re overlooking something important, I reckon.Report

    • Avatar Brooke says:

      I think it proves to be problematic when the claims made by the monotheistic religions don’t stand up to a basic set of questions. What value is there in having a god if one receives no boons from it?

      American Christianity seems to have bred a large number of people who consider Jesus their “bestie.” While some people can manage a perceived personal relationship with a deity that has a personality and actions ascribed to him, others see it as an excuse to advance a petty, pernicious style of divine favoritism. They’re successful because Jesus wanted them to be, but hey, Jesus couldn’t be bothered to help out people with more pressing problems elsewhere.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        If all we’re doing is measuring value, I’m pretty sure that I can find some value for belief in a deity for some folks (and, oddly enough, negative value for those same beliefs for others).

        The amount of value one gets from belief could be used as an argument against the existence. “Of course he believes. HE GETS ENDORPHINS FROM BELIEVING!”Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        A friend of mine is capable of doing a lot of … psychic/somatic stuff. (Adrenal jumping, slowing heartbeat). I once asked him, “How would the Monks feel if they knew you were doing this?” he responded: “They’d know I was in good with god, because I must be doing something right.”Report

      • Avatar Brooke says:


        I’m not challenging the idea that participating in belief can have a positive impact on some believers, but that is true of a lot of pursuits apart from religion. Yet religion is accorded a special status because it is assumed to mean more than a mere hobby, civic group, or career.

        There are presumably rewards that should come from outside of oneself too. Attention, favor, or blessings from a deity, participation or reward in the afterlife, forgiveness of sins, possession of certain lands or wealth, or the continuity of one’s lineage. All of these are things religions promise to believers or illustrate as rewards for following their teachings. As much as these things are present in stories, I don’t see much evidence of them in real life, and with it, much reason to assume believers are rewarded.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        There’s a small strain of that.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        Sorry, that was ambiguous. There’s a small strain of “an excuse to advance a petty, pernicious style of divine favoritism” et cetera, but I’d contend that it is small.Report

    • Avatar Matty says:

      How are you defining gods? I understand there are plenty of gods without the characteristics ascribed to the Christian one (the Aesir who will die in battle are obviously not omnipotent) but if the word is to mean anything we need some way to tell if a proposed entity is a god or not.Report

  13. Avatar Brooke says:

    In my reading and in my experience, the focus on faith is a self-imposed limitation that arises from being in a society where perceptions of religious practice are patterned after familiar strains of Christianity. Many of the world’s religions don’t place a high value on whether or not community members intellectually assent to the claims of their tradition.

    A good illustration of this is God is Not One by Stephen Prothero. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has a lot of valuable insights into the structures of eight major world religions. His view is that each “faith” has evolved to answer a different problem of importance to the people who created the religion.

    In an attempt to create a more tolerant and progressive world, we’ve also subscribed to the belief that “all religions are really the same” at their core. Prothero makes a strong argument that they’re not. His writing isn’t a value judgment about the worth of the belief systems he examines, but a tour that reintroduces the important differences in major religious traditions.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      I’m always meaning to read that book. I think a lot of what’s been said in this series and threads so far suffers from a bit of “all religions are the same”.Report

  14. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    At some point I’m hoping this series deals with religion in a way that skirts the issues of miracles.

    I’ve known may very religious people in my life, including priests, pastors, and rabbis. (Sadly, no imans, at least to date.) When trying to discuss what their faith means to them, why they believe, what the think faith has for me that I can’t see, etc., I’ve never heard one of them discuss miracles. In fact, I think I’ve only met two people (both evangelicals) who I’ve ever heard say they believe God performs water-into-wine type miracles. Everyone else uses words like allegory or symbolism.

    I’m enjoying the miracle take-downs, but it seems to me the more challenging exploration is that more common faith which is based on things entirely ineffable.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      Hey, Tod. It’s a pleasure to be part of your life. Let’s talk miracles. As I said on the Part One thread, Christianity is unique in the emphasis it puts on the miracles of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. (Someone corrected me that Judaism also shares the same emphasis on G-d’s intervention in history. He also said Islam, but I think there’s a difference.) There is no claim to Christianity without miracles. Some people aren’t comfortable talking about them, and some people don’t think to categorize the events of the New Testament as “miracles”, thinking of the term rather as referring to present-day events. Some people may not feel comfortable trying to persuade a non-believer on the subject of miracles. But miracles are in our blood. If Jesus didn’t rise, we are the most pitiable of men.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        “There is no claim to Christianity without miracles.”

        I think this is where you lose me. I get that you believe this, but there are clearly whole swaths of individual Christians and Christian sects which don’t agree. Now if you believe those people aren’t “real” Christians, then that’s fine, but since they do I feel like I have to acknowledge them.

        Not being a believer myself, I don’t really have the experience, expertise or interest to have a debate on who the “real” Christians are.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        The Resurrection is integral to people being Christians (without it, I think you recategorize them).

        One can easily be Jewish (Maimonides certainly was) while believing that the entirety of the Torah is basically “What Moses could Understand” rather than “What really happened”. The world was not created in 7 days, etc, etc.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        I think Kim’s got it, Tod.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      How many bars did they walk into?Report

  15. Avatar Brooke says:

    For me, one of the greatest questions about religion is whether or not its claims are true. In most facets of modern life, we apply our intellect to trying to discern what is factual and to applying that knowledge to the way we live our lives. Many religions make claims that seem pretty easy to dismiss when examined. There is little or no support for core stories in their canon.

    So, I think it becomes important to ask, why do we see value in accepting falsehoods as truth? People are able to appreciate fiction, parable, and drama as having instructive value even though the events they portray may not have actually happened. Is it impossible to see religion this way too, appreciate it more as mythology and less as “truth?”Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      I think a person can find value in the lessons from fiction or mythology without believing them as literally true. But I wouldn’t go around discussing how people are “accepting falsehoods as truth”. Anyway, there are two parts of this idea: do people gain benefit from fictional things they regard as true? and do people gain benefit from fictional things they regard as fictional?Report

    • Avatar Matty says:

      why do we see value in accepting falsehoods as truth?

      I’m not sure anyone does. There are three approaches to religious stories.

      -Those who see them as factually true. These people do not believe they are accepting falsehood as truth or want anyone else to believe what they themselves hold to be false.
      -Those who see them as instructive fiction. These people do not believe they are accepting falsehoods as true because they are recognizing the fictional elements.
      -Those who see them as fiction pure and simple. They may or may not like the stories but they certainly do’t see them as any kind of truth.Report

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