Chapter 1: Can We Even Discuss This?
Is the existence of God a subject for speculation? Can it be logically discussed? By these questions, I am not referring to the fact that this is an emotional subject. We all know that an emotionally held belief does not easily lend itself to logical argumentation. But I am setting aside the subject of emotions for the moment. What I am asking is, emotions aside, can we meaningfully discuss the existence of God? The quandary occurs due to the nature of the subject. "God" means different things to different people. In order to think about this subject at all we need to come to terms: we need to define what we mean by "God". For instance, if all we mean by "God" is "something super-human which cannot be seen", then we cannot talk about God's existence. Such a definition is too vague (it could equally define electricity, for instance). In order to think about God meaningfully we will need a much more specific definition.
Let me further establish the need for a specific definition of God before we proceed. Let's say that I come to you and say, "I believe in Widget, and I want you to believe in Widget because if you don't, you'll be punished in the afterlife rather than being rewarded with a blissful existence." "Fine," you say, "Tell me more about Widget." But in reply, all I can say is "Widget is super-human, and cannot be seen." Naturally your next question will be, "If you can't see Widget how do you know it exists?" It would be up to me to provide some evidence before you could place any belief in Widget, no matter how much you might want to believe. At the same time, with such a definition, there would be no way for you to argue that Widget does not exist. You could say that you only believe in what you can see, but this is not true (you believe in oxygen, for instance, don't you?). I would have to come up with a more specific definition of Widget before we could discuss whether or not it was reasonable to believe in Widget.
In order to discuss the existence of something, we must be able to say under what circumstances it would be true to say "it does not exist". As long as you have something which cannot be disproved no matter what the circumstances, then discussion is pointless.
So, we must reach a specific definition of "God", and we must determine under what circumstances the statement "God does not exist" could possibly be true. For instance, if I were to say, "Widget does whatever I ask, and I asked Widget to make it rain at precisely 3:00 tomorrow in Phoenix, Arizona". Then, if Phoenix is dry all day tomorrow, it would be a true statement (based on the definition given) that "Widget does not exist".
In our culture, God has usually been defined as follows: God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and beneficent. Or, to say the same thing in more common English: God is all powerful, all knowing, all present ("God is everywhere"), and all good (or "all loving").
Though "Almighty" has been the most common title given to the Christian God in the past, some Christians today would tone this down somewhat, saying that God is not all-powerful, and cannot (or chooses not to) control everything that happens. We will examine this toned-down definition later. For now we will go with our first definition, given above.
At first, the definition might still appear too vague to discuss. Although not stated explicitly, the definition implies that God is invisible to all five senses (how else could one be "everywhere" without our seeing it?) How can we come up with anything which would make the statement "God does not exist" true, when God cannot be perceived?
We can say that something cannot exist if its definition is self-contradictory. Let's look at another analogy. I come back to you with a smile on my face and announce that I have found out some specifics about Widget: "Widget is an invisible square circle!" You can rightfully conclude from this that Widget does not exist by definition. If words mean anything, a square circle cannot exist; the definition of a circle and the definition of a square are mutually incompatible. Nothing could possibly be both a square and a circle at the same time. Therefore, Widget, by definition, cannot exist. It's not a matter of "just having faith", you cannot believe in Widget even if you want to! (I continue to believe in Widget because I was brought up believing in Widget and am unwilling to let logic interfere with a cherished belief!)
With the same conviction with which we maintain "Widget does not exist", we can say that "God (as defined above) does not exist" if we can determine that the definition of God contains attributes which are as mutually incompatible as a square and a circle. For instance, if we determine that something cannot be all-powerful and all-good, then, just as we can say with certainty that Widget does not exist because something cannot be both a square and a circle, we can say that God does not exist because something cannot be both all-powerful and all-good.
First, we must define what we mean by "all-powerful" and what we mean by "all-good". In earlier times it was held that "all-powerful" meant that God could do "anything". Unfortunately this in itself contains an impossible contradiction. If God can do "anything", can he create an object so heavy that he cannot lift it? If we answer this question Yes it means God cannot do everything (he cannot lift a particular object). If we answer this question No, it also means that God cannot do everything (he cannot create such an object). Either way, it is immediately apparent that "all-powerful" cannot mean that God can do "anything"; it is self-contradictory. Also, most believers hold that God cannot die and cannot lie. These indicate limitations to being "all-powerful".
Since "all-powerful" cannot mean that God can do anything, we need to determine what it does mean. One way to determine what people in our culture believe that God can do is to examine their prayers. Logically, they would only ask God to do things they believed he had the power to do.
One of the most common prayers is for good health (particularly when one is currently not in good health). So, apparently, the belief is that God has the power to cure or prevent illness and disease.
"Pray for peace" is a plea one often hears. The people making this request must believe that God can stop or prevent war.
So, as a start, let us say that being "all-powerful" means that God can cure sickness and stop or prevent war.
Now let's define "all-good". This seems to be the most fundamental attribute believers would assign to God. No modern Christians have yielded any ground on their insistence on the absolute goodness of God. This close tie between God and goodness poses a potential danger, however, which threatens to shut down our discussion. Some would hold that the definition of "good" is "whatever God does". The problem with such a definition is that it doesn't tell us anything. It is as if "good" were synonymous with "God", making the statement "God is good" equivalent to "God is God" which conveys no information. (If I explain Widget to you by saying, "Widget is Widget", you have every right to walk away, regarding further discussion as pointless.) Also, with this definition of "good", how can any of us know when we are "being good"? It becomes something that is only in the realm of God. No, we must have a separate definition of good apart from God, so that when we say "God is good" we are making as meaningful a statement as when we say "God is all-knowing".
Let us say that someone is "good" who does "good" actions. Let us define "good actions" as those actions which prevent or lessen the suffering of others.
If we say that God is all-powerful and all-good, it follows that God would cure all sickness and stop or prevent all war (not just the ones prayed for; being all-knowing, [s]he would already know about every sickness and war without our calling them to his or her attention). Since people are sick and wars are waging as I write this, it follows that God, by our first definition, cannot exist.
To get around this problem, theologians have come up with remarkable theories which attempt to reconcile the suffering in the world with the existence of an all-powerful all-good God. We will examine these in detail in a later chapter. Suffice it to say for now, that all such theories must prove that all past and present suffering can be justified by a greater future good (in other words: 'the ends justifies the means'). This type of reasoning has long been discredited as unethical.
Buddha (whom misguided followers later made into a god) was more honest than these theologians, he stated: "If God is good he cannot be all powerful, and if he is all-powerful, he cannot be good".
Recognizing this inherent contradiction between goodness and power is what has caused some modern Christians to abandon the "all-powerful" part of their definition of God. We will examine the full implications of this abandonment in a later chapter. For now, I would simply ask, 'of what use is an impotent god'?
Another problem with this definition of God involves the idea of free-will. The problem stems from God's attribute of being "all-knowing". Most believers in our culture would agree that "God knows everything", and the majority would also hold that this knowledge includes knowledge about the future (the Bible is replete with incidents of God predicting the future via his prophets, and certainly anything the "Psychic Hotline" can do, God can do better). The problem is this: if you make the future a knowable thing, then it must be that we will act in the future the way God foresees us acting (otherwise God would have made a mistake), and consequently we have no free will. We cannot choose to act differently than God foresees us acting in the future: our actions then, are predestined. With a lack of free-will, there is no sense to our striving to "be good"; we will act as has been predestined. This leads to a fatalistic view of life.
The contradiction between an all-knowing God and free-will has another major implication. Free-will is often used by theologians as the solution to the contradiction between an all-powerful, all-loving God and the existence of evil in the world. They say that "God has permitted evil to exist because he has given us free-will to choose, and we have chosen evil," (though I, personally, don't recall making this choice -- do you?) But, since God's attribute of being all-knowing contradicts the idea of free-will, we cannot say that an all-powerful, all-loving God is also all-knowing. Even If the idea of free-will could somehow rescue our definition of God as being all-powerful and all-loving, it would force us to dump the all-knowing attribute.
To summarize the argument so far: God's all-powerful attribute contradicts his all-good attribute due to the existence of evil. God's all-knowing attribute contradicts the idea of free-will due to God's knowledge of the future (we will act, not out of free-will, but as God foresaw us act). If we use the idea of free-will to resolve the first contradiction (between being all-good and all-powerful), then we will have to discard the all-knowing attribute in order to retain the idea of free-will. In a word: it's impossible to keep all the attributes in our definition of God.
Since I feel the above argument is so important, I will state it once again in the form of related syllogisms:
The believer has three possible responses to this:
Responses one and two are weak. If God is not all-powerful (or at least powerful enough to cure sickness and stop war), then why waste time praying for him or her to do things [s]he evidently cannot do? If [s]he is not all-good, then why worship him or her? Since these questions are extremely unpalatable, the most common response is number 3: God has his or her reasons.
The most common reason given for God's permission of suffering in the world is that God has given us free will. As I have shown, though, this leads to a contradiction with his or her other trait of being all-knowing:
If God is all-knowing, we have no free-will. if we have no free-will we have no rationale for God's permitting suffering to exist. If we have no rationale for God's permitting suffering to exist, we must conclude that God is either not all-powerful or not all-good.
It should be clear from all of this that if we want to retain God's all-powerful and all-good attributes, we will either have to drop his all-knowing attribute, or agree that the future is not knowable. If we say that the future is not knowable, we will have to call into question all of the places in the Bible where God issues prophecies, and we will have to give up any and all arguments which seek to prove the Bible's divine inspiration by means of fulfilled prophecies. We will have to rip out the major and minor "prophets" from the Old Testament, and the book of Revelations from the New Testament, as well as every place where Jesus made predictions about the "last days".
As we have seen, our definition of God is as inherently contradictory as Widget, our square-circle. It cannot stand as written, we must modify it if we are to save it.
Our modified definition of God follows:
A being invisible to all our five senses, who is more powerful than a human being, is all-good, all-present, and knows all that is knowable (the future is not knowable).
This watered-down definition is the most we could logically attribute to God without being self-contradictory. But we now have a definition of something impossible to disprove! Unlike Widget, we cannot say "God will make it rain tomorrow at 3:00 in Phoenix, Arizona". Our new definition of God only makes him or her as reliable as our TV weather man. We also cannot ask, "If God exists, why is there suffering?" Our new God is not all-powerful, so [s]he cannot be expected to cure all suffering. There is no point in arguing about the existence of such a being since there is no circumstance which could possibly disprove its existence. But then, there's no real point in praying to or worshipping such an impotent being either.
Rather than settling for our watered-down definition of God, theologians have attempted to retain their definition of an all-powerful all-loving God. In the following chapters we will examine these arguments, but please bear in mind that the burden is on their shoulders to convince us that such a being exists. We have already demonstrated the contradictions inherent in their definition, and it is now up to them to devise creative ways of resolving these contradictions. We shall declare the universe innocent of harboring such a being as "God" until it is proven guilty.
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