Either it’s an unknown, or it’s implausible
There are two choices, it sees to me. Either ‘God’ is the god of religion, of churches and mosques, that gives rules and answers prayers – in which case it’s part of nature and history; or it’s something else, which we can’t comprehend.
Either it’s the first, which is like a giant cop, or a combination cop and nurse, or it’s the second, which is [ ? ]. The first is not reasonable to believe in, because a god like that would (or should) provide unmistakable evidence of its existence and its wishes (because what in hell is the point of keeping it a secret?). The second is perfectly reasonable to believe in – but is it reasonable to call that ‘God’?
The combination of the two makes no sense at all. An unknown that tells us what to do, a mystery that we’re supposed to worship in specific terms, a question mark that loves us – it’s an incoherent jumble. Yet it’s the usual idea of ‘God’ – half parental half concealed; half judge half Cloud of Unknowing. It might as well be half Bactrian camel half peanut butter.
If it’s simply (or complicatedly) what we don’t know, or causes that we don’t know about, and the like, who would object? Who would disbelieve in the existence of such things or concepts, or think it not reasonable to believe in them? But why on earth call that ‘God’? Is it because its fans are desperate to retain a person god? But that’s not reasonable either; not for theological reasons, but for biological ones. We know now what humans are, and how we got to be what we are. Do we really think ‘God’ (or Betsy, as we might as well call it) is like that? But if human nature and human abilities are a product of natural selection, how could Betsy’s nature and abilities be similar? So the ‘person’ thing seems pretty untenable, no matter what you do.
Before 1859, it must have been different. It must have been (seemed) self-evident that humans were mysteriously special and strange and interesting, unlike other animals and very unlike trees and rocks. All explanations were unsatisfactory, and a person-like god making us as miniatures of itself could have been the least unsatisfactory. That’s not unreasonable. But once the peculiarity of humans no longer seems so peculiar, a person-like god becomes less necessary and less explanatory. In fact it raises questions rather than explaining. (Does it have an appendix? Does it have a small intestine? Why?) A person-like god now seems not like a spiritual version of ourselves but like an inexplicable giant ape. Why would there be a god like that? Okay it has no body (but then we’re getting into unknowable territory, which is the other choice, but never mind for now), but it has a person-like mind of some sort. But – our minds are human minds. They’re not Pure Minds, they’re not examples of What Mind Should Be; they’re human minds. A person-like god seems like a not very reasonable belief – it has to be person-like and yet completely different in every way that matters. Well then we’re just back to Incomprehensible again, in which case we’re back to Nobody Knows again, which means we’re back to Why call it God again.
One of the ironies in all this is that theists are so seldom expected to define their god – just invoking the name is supposed to be adequate – it’s supposed to be self-evident who and what it is. Theists and some agnostics claim that atheists have too much certainty, but belief in a shifting inscrutable but bossy demanding god is – at the very least dangerous. Believers don’t always use their god to bully and oppress, but the risk is always there – it’s well adapted for such a purpose. I would argue that atheists are not wrong to be pretty certain that, at a minimum, it is dangerous to believe in elusive mysterious inscrutable gods who impose strong laws and punishments on human beings.
Because there is no appeal. No accountability, no chance to revise, discuss, re-think. There are no defense lawyers, no appellate courts. And in fact no present god, either, but only human intermediaries. Why should we – and how can we? – be so sure they have it right?
Mark Vernon adds this in a comment on Stephen’s post on the mystery move:
Both the atheist and the theist will do away with false gods, and false theories, as they ponder the mystery. But whereas the atheist will conclude there is no god, and the universe is pure, if delightful, chance. The theist will conclude that the universe is pure gift – as articulated by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. The difference between believing the universe is chance and gift strikes me as a very great one.
Yes, it’s a big difference, but on the other hand ‘chance’ might not be quite the right word (brute fact might be better); and as Stephen points out, ‘gift’ has some problems too. And in any case, it always makes a big difference how one thinks of things, but that fact doesn’t change reality. It makes a difference whether we think various natural forces caused it to rain today, or that our dearest friend made it rain today; but that doesn’t determine what caused it to rain today, so pointing out the difference between the two ideas is beside the point if the dispute is over whether or not ‘god’ exists, or whether it’s reasonable to think so.