Monday, February 4, 2013

Absence Of Evidence: Why Is God So Timid?

Until getting into the atheism/theism debates I did not know there were schools of theologians trying to make logical and sophisticated arguments for the existence of god. What I was more familiar with were the loudmouth fundamentalists who portray religion in its most stupid form. What the fundis actually do, is make religion seem like it's for uneducated idiots who are willing to believe anything, no matter how irrational it is. They unknowingly actually hurt their religion and its cause by making it look so unsophisticated. Since the evolution/creation debate is over, (with evolution having clearly won) I do not plan on spending any significant amount of time in the future arguing the truth of evolution. Enough information is out there for anyone who wants to see the arguments and evidence on both sides of the issue.

What I am interested in is how religions have adapted to the truth of evolution by incorporating it into their beliefs. Even the Catholic Church and a growing number of Protestant churches are embracing evolution, something which was unthinkable just a few decades ago. This growing acceptance of evolution, which is even occurring among many Muslims too, has created a kind of religion 2.0 that brands itself as the new and improved theism, and not the old fashioned faith your parents knew. While there are still plenty of holdouts clinging onto a strict fundamentalist view of their religion, the scientific community is ecstatic that large numbers of the faithful are finally embracing what scientists already knew for 150 years. This new-found enlightenment comes with more questions about the role of religion and of god however..

I'm more focused on the more sophisticated arguments for god's existence like the cosmological and moral arguments. Theologians like William Lane Craig have tried to use logic along with scientific data to make as strong a case as possible that there exists a god, and that he had a son named Jesus. And this has recently got me asking the following questions: What kind of evidence does an atheist need to make his case? How do you disprove the existence of something that is totally undetectable? William Lane Craig's website has taken on these questions on along with many others. So let's see what the response is to the absence of evidence that atheist's point out.

One traditional argument made by atheists is that the absence of evidence of god is itself evidence of absence. Theists counter that if god exists, we wouldn't necessarily expect to see the kind of evidence atheists are asking for. This is usually justified for the following reasons:

  1. Man's sinful nature can obscure his ability to see truth by temporarily hindering his cognitive faculties. 
  2. Atheists require standards that are too high when theists assert a premise used to logically deduce god's existence from it (i.e. "Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence" from the Cosmological Argument).
  3. God doesn't actually want people to merely believe he exists, he wants people to voluntarily love him.

Let's examine these reasons why god might purposely hide his existence from us. First it is helpful to remember that before the general embrace of evolution today, theists claimed that evidence for the existence of god was all around us in the form of life and nature. But since Darwin has chipped away those intuitive assumptions with his discovery of evolution, the faithful are less and less likely to use the diversity and complexity of life and its natural environment to justify god. 

1) To justify the first position, WLC's website speaks of what are called "noetic effects". They "can distort evidence of God, including the witness of the Holy Spirit ... as well as many other more mundane things in life." They quote Prof. Alvin Plantinga to further explain the effects:

Sin affects my knowledge of others in many ways. Because of hatred or distaste for some group of human beings, I may think them inferior, of less worth than I myself and my more accomplished friends. Because of hostility and resentment, I may misestimate or entirely misunderstand someone else’s attitude toward me . . . Due to that basic and aboriginal sin pride, I may unthinkingly and almost without noticing assume that I am the centre of the universe (of course if you ask me, I will deny thinking any such thing), vastly exaggerating the importance of what happens to me as opposed to what happens to others . . .

When I read this I could not help but notice how hypocritical Christianity's worldview is surround the sin of pride. Christians traditionally believed that the entire universe was created with us in mind, and that its whole purpose is for us to exist in it. This means that in order to actually hold the Christian metaphysical worldview, they actually have to commit the sin of pride itself. The atheists sees mankind as just a part of the universe, but not the purpose and object if it, and to me that is a lot less prideful. I don't think that the disbelief in god alone is anything that can hinder one's mind from seeing god. There are many atheists like me who were raised in a home where god was virtually unmentioned, and they often go on to live lives where their opinion of god is neutral or indifferent and not at all like the angry anti-theist rage that many people imagine the godless to have. I can't see how growing up indifferent to god makes one see evidence that is peer-reviewed and repeatedly tested, somehow biased towards the "truth" that god exists. Once someone understands the laws of physics and biology, there is no need to invoke any magic to explain nature's existence.

2) Atheists do often question the premises of logically deductive arguments used to make a case for god. How does the theist know for a fact that something cannot come from nothing? Well it is based on philosophy and metaphysics derived from human intuition made before we knew about the illogical nature of quantum mechanics. History is ripe with examples on how our intuition cannot fully grasp the reality of what's possible. And since we have consistently had to adjust our intuition to suit reality, the atheist is justified in raising the standard of knowledge when a theist asserts a premise.

3) This is the most interesting of the three, because it presumes to know god's intentions. As I mentioned earlier, theists used to assert the hand of god everywhere in the existence of life as proof of god's existence, but now that large numbers of theists are finally after 150 years embracing evolution, the tune they are playing is that god is purposely mysterious for justifiable reasons. Now that we have natural explanations for almost everything and the attributable handy work of god has receded, theists are saying god's mysteriousness is meant to determine who will be willing to believe in him on faith alone.

A) One part of the argument theists like WLC are making, is that if god made his existence knowable to everyone, we wouldn't sin as much because we'd know for sure god is watching us, and god would rather have us think he's watching us instead of know he's watching us.

I thought the whole point of god was to make us think we were being watched all the time so that we'd behave ourselves and not act like the savages god designed us to be. I guess I was wrong. If god's mysteriousness is done purposely so that we'd be more inclined to harm one another, then god's kind of like the sleeping security guard on duty: He might as well not exist. It seems that some Christians want to have it both ways: they want to argue for god's existence so that we'll behave according to his commandments, but then they also want to argue that god has to purposely make the world appear (using things like evolution) as if he might not exist so that we'd think we were free to act out our harmful urges on one another. Why spend so much time trying to convince everyone god exists if the latter were true?

B) Another part of this argument says that if god made his existence abundantly known, it still wouldn't convince people to engage in a personal loving relationship with god.

This I find interesting, because many theists assume that unbelievers like me are personally hardened against the idea that god exists. I can say for myself, that if I had proof god existed, I would absolutely believe in him. And if god made it clear that Christianity was the one true faith, I would absolutely reconsider my beliefs. I don't think however, that I could love the god of Christianity even with proof of his existence. Love as I've repeatedly blogged about must come natural, it cannot be forced except when lying to one's self. The questions then are, would god respect a person who pretended to love him but was only doing so to save his own ass from eternal punishment? And is god justified punishing those who cannot find it possible to love him naturally?

The idea that god is willing to punish not just those who aren't willing to believe in him, but also those who aren't willing to love him is disturbing. It's kind of like being asked to love football in order to avoid hell: some people will naturally love football and so for them avoiding punishment will be rather easy, but other people will never be able to naturally love football and will have to live their lives faking it. For them, faking it might not be enough since god apparently knows every heart's true intentions. If the punishment is just the eternal separation from god, then the theist will be on better (but not good) footing. If the punishment is an eternal torment simply for not being able to naturally love god, then this is a serious lack of compassion and I have not yet heard a thorough answer to this problem.

Furthermore, since we can't focus on just non-believers, what about the devout Muslims and Jews and other theists? They surely want to love god and most of them do sincerely. But if Christianity is true, they all go to hell with the atheists. Is it their faith that prevents them from seeing the evidence of Jesus Christ's resurrection in the form of the "noetic effects" mentioned earlier? Or does god not care for the hearts who dare love him while idolizing false prophets and neglecting the divinity of his one and only son?

I say that the tricks that theists are currently using to justify the absence of evidence for god by claiming it's perfectly compatible with god's big plan, when just a few decades ago they were all claiming that the evidence was everywhere, is a little disingenuous. The tactic of taking every naturalistic explanation that was once denied and then using it to show how it's really all part of god's plan after all and in fact shows how much more amazing god really is, is to try to make your argument unfalsifiable. (But it is no surprise to most of us that theists would result to such tactics.) And to those that say that as long as the concept of god is logical, god's free to do whatever he wants no matter how mysterious, I've argued that if you take that stance, you have to explain how a timeless being can think and design a universe before time existed, and how if god can know everything, how he can have any kind of free will since he'd be unable to ever deviate anything he didn't already know he'd do.

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