‘We may never fully understand the reasons’

I’m reading Decoding the Language of God: Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer? by George Cunningham, a retired geneticist. It’s an extended response to Francis Collins’s The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. It’s good stuff.

Cunningham asks some telling questions on page 65:

Collins finally gives up any claim of being a reasonable scientist when he says, “we may never fully understand the reasons” for suffering as part of God’s plan. What kind of God expects us to live according to a plan that makes no sense to us and is beyond our comprehension? What kind of God would give us a brain that can reason and follow logic then expect us to believe in and worship an irrational, unintelligible, or evil God?

Quite – that’s just about exactly what I said in my essay for 50 Voices of Disbelief. I said it at more length, because I think it’s absolutely crucial, and central.

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.

The tone is somewhat jokey, and I do think the whole idea is funny, but I’m also dead serious. That is exactly what I think and I also think it’s a killer objection – in the sense that a decent God just can’t be rescued from that observation. The whole set-up really is a cheat, and it can’t be seen as anything else. We do have faculties that work, and it is beneficial for us that they work, yet when it comes to God we are supposed to do the opposite of what we do the rest of the time. We are supposed to veto our own cognitive abilities and just believe things for no good reason. That’s backward. A decent God shouldn’t expect that kind of reversal. It’s a cheat and it’s also an insult – which is probably why we argumentative atheists get so riled at people like Collins. He’s a scientist himself, yet he endorses this reversal – this cheat and insult.

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