A Deal-breaker

One compelling reason not to believe the standard-issue God exists is the conspicuous fact that no one knows anything at all about it. That’s a tacit part of the definition of God – a supernatural being that no one knows anything about. The claims that are made about God bear no resemblance to genuine knowledge. This becomes immediately apparent if you try adding details to God’s CV: God is the eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient creator of the universe, and has blue eyes. You see how it works. Eternal omnipotent benevolent omniscient are all simply ideal characteristics that a God ought to have; blue eyes, on the other hand, are particular, and if you say God has them it suddenly becomes obvious that no one knows that, and by implication that no one knows anything else either.

We don’t know God has blue eyes – we don’t know God has red hair – we don’t know God plays basketball – we don’t know God drinks coffee. We have no clue. But then, how do we “know” God is omnipotent, or eternal? We don’t. It’s just that the monotheist God is supposed to have certain attributes that make it a significant grown-up sophisticated God, better than the frivolous or greedy or quarrelsome gods like Kali or Loki or Athena. (Oddly, this does leave room for one particular: we do “know” that God is male. God is more ideal and abstract and generalized than Aphrodite and Freyja and he’s also not that particular, earthy, blue-eyed, coffee-drinking sex, he’s that other, general, abstract sex: the male.) We don’t know that God is omnipotent, we simply assume that anyone called God has to be omnipotent, because that’s part of the definition, and we know that God is called God, so therefore God must be omnipotent. That’s a fairly shaky kind of knowledge. It also provides hours of entertainment when we ask ourselves if God has the power to make a grapefruit that is too heavy for God to lift.

The knowledge is shaky, yet it’s common to hear people talking as if they do know, and can know, and have no reason to think they don’t know. A lot of people think they know things about “God” which they have no good reason to think they know, and even which seem to be contradicted by everything we see around us. It’s odd that the discrepancies don’t interfere with the knowledge.

People seem to know that God is good, that God cares about everything and is paying close attention to everything, and that God is responsible whenever anything good happens to them or whenever anything bad almost happens to them but doesn’t. Yet they apparently don’t know that God is responsible whenever anything bad happens to them, or whenever anything good almost happens to them but doesn’t. People who survive hurricanes or earthquakes or explosions say God saved them, but they don’t say God killed or mangled all the victims. Olympic athletes say God is good when they win a gold, but they don’t say God is bad when they come in fourth or twentieth, much less when other people do.

That’s the advantage of goddy epistemology, of course: it’s so extraordinarily flexible, so convenient, so personalized. The knowledge is so neatly molded to fit individual wishes. God is good when I win and blameless when I lose, good when I survive the tsunami and out of the equation when other people are swept away and drowned.

This is all very understandable from the point of view of personal fantasy – there’s not much point in having an imaginary friend who is boring and disobliging and always picking fights – but peculiar when considered as a kind of knowledge, which is generally how believers treat it. The winning sprinter doesn’t say “I think God is good,” she says God is good; the survivor doesn’t say “I believe God saved me,” he says “God saved me.” Claims about God are treated as knowledge. Hence the frequent thought – “but you don’t know that … .” If one is rude enough to make the thought public, the standard reply is that God is mysterious, ineffable, beyond our ken, hiding.

And that’s one major reason I don’t believe in the bastard, and would refuse to believe even if I did find God convincing in other ways. I’d refuse on principle; I’d say: “All right then I’ll go to hell,” like Huck Finn.

Because what business would God have hiding? What’s that about? What kind of silly game is that? God is all-powerful and benevolent but at the same time it’s hiding? Please. We wouldn’t give that the time of day in any other context. Nobody would buy the idea of ideal, loving, concerned, involved parents who permanently hide from their children, so why buy it of a loving God?

The obvious answer of course is that believers have to buy it for the inescapable reason that their God is hidden. The fact is that God doesn’t make personal appearances, or even send authenticated messages, so believers have to say something to explain that obtrusive fact. The mysterian peekaboo God is simply the easiest answer to questions like “Why is God never around?”

The answer however has the same flaw that all claims about God have: nobody knows that. Nobody knows God is hiding. Everyone knows God is not there to be found the way a living person is, but nobody knows that that’s because God is a living person who is hiding.

Nobody knows that, and it’s not the most obvious explanation of God’s non-appearance. The most obvious, simple, economical explanation of God’s non-appearance is that there is no God to do the appearing. The “God is hiding” explanation has currency only because people want to believe that there is a God, in spite of the persistent failure to turn up, so they pretend to know that hiding is what God is up to. The wish is father to the thought, which is then transformed into “knowledge.”

It’s a pretty desperate stratagem, though. The fact that we wouldn’t buy it in any other context shows that. If we go to a hotel or a restaurant and everything is dirty and falling apart and covered in broken glass, we want a word with the manager; if we’re told the manager is hiding, we decamp in short order. We don’t forgivingly hang around for the rest of our lives: we leave.

We’re told, in explanation of these puzzles, that we’re merely humans and we simply don’t understand. Very well, but then we don’t understand – we don’t know anything about all this, all we’re doing is guessing, or wishing or hoping. Yet we’re so often told things about God as if they were well-established facts. God is “mysterious” only when sceptics ask difficult questions. The rest of the time believers are cheerily confident of their knowledge. That’s a good deal too convenient.

It’s too convenient, and it produces a very repellent God. It’s odd that the believers aren’t more troubled by this. (Many are, of course. It turns out that even Mother Teresa was. We’ll find out that the Pope has doubts next.) It’s odd that the confident dogmatic believers don’t seem to notice what a teasing, torturing, unpleasant God they have on their hands. A God that is mysterious, yet demands that we believe in it (on pain of eternal torture, in some accounts), is a God that demands incompatible things, which seems like a nasty trick to play on a smaller weaker species.

It all turns on faith. God doesn’t want us to know God exists the way we know the sun exists; God wants us to have “faith.” But why? That’s perverse. It’s commonplace, because it gets rehearsed so often, but it’s perverse. That doesn’t fly in human relations, and it’s not obvious why it should fly in any other relations. A kind friend or sibling or parent or benefactor doesn’t hide from you from before your birth until after your death and still expect you to feel love and trust and gratitude. Why should God?

As a test of faith, comes the pat answer. Well God shouldn’t be testing our faith. If it wants to test something it should be testing our ability to detect frauds and cheats and liars – not our gormless credulity and docility and willingness to be conned. God should know the difference between good qualities and bad ones, and not be encouraging the latter at the expense of the former.

But then (we are told) “faith” would be too easy; in fact, it would be compelled, and that won’t do. Faith is a kind of heroic discipline, like yoga or playing the violin. Faith has to overcome resistance, or it doesn’t count. If God just comes right out and tells us, beyond possibility of doubt, that God exists, that’s an unworthy shortcut, like a sprinter taking steroids. No, we have to earn faith by our own efforts, which means by believing God exists despite all the evidence indicating it doesn’t and the complete lack of evidence indicating it does.

In other words, God wants us to veto all our best reasoning faculties and methods of inquiry, and to believe in God for no real reason. God wants us not to do what we do in all the rest of life when we really do want to find something out – where the food is, when the storm is going to hit, whether the water is safe to drink, what medication to take for our illness – and simply decide God exists, like tossing a coin.

I refuse. I refuse to consider a God “good” that expects us to ignore our own best judgment and reasoning faculties. That’s a deal-breaker. That’s nothing but a nasty trick. This God is supposed to have made us, after all, so it made us with these reasoning faculties, which, when functioning properly, can detect mistakes and obvious lies – so what business would it have expecting us to contradict all that for no good reason? As a test? None. It would have no business doing that.

A God that permanently hides, and gives us no real evidence of its existence – yet considers it a virtue to have faith that it does exist despite the lack of evidence – is a God that’s just plain cheating, and I want nothing to do with it. It has no right to blame us for not believing it exists, given the evidence and our reasoning capacities, so if it did exist and did blame us, it would be a nasty piece of work. Fortunately, I don’t worry about that much, because I don’t think it does exist.

This article appears in 50 Voices of Disbelief, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk, Wiley-Blackwell 2009, and is re-published here by permission.

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