The God Debate

God - people praisingOn May 20 I participated in a four person debate about the existence of God at Western Washington University. On the ‘yes’ side were Mike Raschko and Mark Markuly from the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. On the ‘no’ side were Bob Seidensticker and me. Here are my remarks:

Does God exist? Before we can even consider the question, we have to ask, which God? God can be defined in such a way as to make this question unanswerable, in practice and even in theory. Some versions of God can’t be either proven or disproven, and in that space all any of us can do is to make our own best guesses based on what seems likely or probable. On the other hand, even when we don’t know exactly what is real, some possibilities can be ruled out.

The God of the Bible

As a psychologist, I was trained to not take questions at face value but to ask, what are we really trying to get at here? I think what interests most people in the West is not whether the universe was shaped by some unknowable prime mover or is held together by some transcendent ground of all being, but how we should think about the God of the Bible.

Believers often argue for the possibility of an abstract creator who shaped the constants of the universe, when what they really want is to carve out possibility-space for something much more personal and traditional, like a God who loves us unconditionally but required the death of Jesus to save us from our sins.

The Bible God is a specific kind of deity: all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. He intervenes in human affairs in response to prayer and for a host of other reasons. People who believe in this God claim specific historical knowledge about how he has intervened in the past, based mostly on the Bible. And they claim specific promises from him. And we have ways of evaluating many of these claims.

To my mind, the likelihood that the Bible God exists depends on the answer to four questions:

  1. Do claims about this God pass the tests of not contradicting each other and not contradicting external evidence?
  2. Is the Bible’s God the best and most likely explanation for the design and function of nature?
  3. Is the Bible’s God the best and most likely explanation for the biblical record and Christian history?
  4. Is the Bible’s God the best and most likely explanation for humanity’s long and enduring quest for God or our profound experience of His presence in our lives?

I think that the answer to all four of these questions is no:

  • No because many of the claims made about God in the Bible contradict either each other or external evidence.
  • No because we have better explanations for natural phenomena.
  • No because we can explain the biblical record without recourse to God.
  • And no because we can do the same for our own experience of God.

All of these “no” answers make the existence of the Christian God highly unlikely.

In the interests of time, I’m going to touch on just the first question. And then I’m going to skip ahead and touch on the fourth question, which is about the psychology of religion, since that is what interests me most.

The Problem of Suffering

The single best logical argument against an all-powerful, perfectly good and loving, interventionist God is one that goes all the way back to the Greek Philosopher Epicurus:

If God is willing to prevent evil but he can’t, then he is not all-powerful. If he is able to prevent evil but not willing, then he is evil, himself. If He is both able and willing, then why is there still atrocity in the world? If he is neither willing nor able, then why call him God?

Philosophers and theologians have been outlining counter-arguments against Epicurus for over two thousand years now, but many of these arguments cause more problems for theists than they solve. Logically and factually, the problem of suffering is a fatal challenge to certain ideas of God:

21,000 children died today of starvation and illness. Most of them were infants and toddlers who experienced little else in their short lives. Each one died, unable to understand what was happening—knowing only pain and hunger and perhaps some vague sense of being betrayed by a mother who for some incomprehensible reason wouldn’t make it go away.

Now someone trying to defend the Bible god may say that this suffering is because of human sin. It is our fault. (At least, I used to try to excuse my loving, all powerful God in this way.)

But consider this: Somewhere in the Cascade Mountains this evening a black bear tore the leg off of a deer. And the deer is lying on the ground in intense fear and pain as the bear gnaws at her body. Like the hungry toddler, she is unable to comprehend what is happening, and will remain in that state till she dies.

And on Sinclair Island, just off the Washington coast, a parasitic wasp has laid her larvae in a wound she made in a small gray mouse—the only place she can, by design. Those larvae will hatch and grow, eating the mouse from the inside, and the mouse will feel more and more wretched until they are ready to rupture through her abdomen, having used her life to produce their own. I know this because my daughters once put a pregnant-looking mouse in a small nest of grass in a cage, and waited for babies, and then watch in horror as the wasp larvae ate their way out.

So, here is the question that I want to ask, one that I think gets overlooked too often in debates about the Bible God.

Why is our yearning to believe so powerful that no number of starving children, no amount of suffering among other sentient creatures can shut it down? Why do so many otherwise kind, decent, compassionate people put energy into defending what we might otherwise find indefensible: the idea that all of these horrors happen under the watchful eye of an all-powerful, loving God who intervenes in our lives but didn’t intervene in theirs?

The Question Beneath the Question

I said earlier that the question Does God exist? is often a proxy for a different one. Here, I think, is what we really want to know:

Does there exist a god who is relevant to our lives—whose power we can tap or favor we can curry in order to live happier or longer, to attain peace and love, and transcend life’s hardships? Is there a higher power that can help us to win the internal struggle against immediate gratifications and short-sighted selfishness that put our long term wellbeing and that of other people at risk?

Our quest to find and know God is instrumental, though it sounds odd to put it that way. It is a means to an end.

Not long ago a meme made its way around Facebook. It said, “If God can’t keep little children from being abused in his own places of worship, what good is he?”

The meme illustrates something important: We rarely ask out loud about God, What good is he, meaning not, Is he good? (as in the dilemma posed by Epicurus) but What use is he? And yet that really is what lies beneath the questions about God’s existence and nature. What good is he to us? How can we get the good things we want from him? What must we believe or confess or do to win his favor?

Our ancestors generated a whole host of ideas about who the gods are and then rules about how humans can relate to them in ways that get us what we want: health, children, enduring prosperity, protection from our enemies, bountiful crops—along with more esoteric desires like a sense of tribal superiority and individual righteousness–and perhaps most importantly the ability to delay or avoid death, or at least make it not permanent.

What We’re Really After

Not everybody wants the same thing from God either here on earth or in the afterlife.

At the most simple, people who preach and practice Prosperity Gospel like Joel Olsteen and his followers or Creflo Dollar, may basically want money.

But most believers in gods want something more complex, more like what one ancient writer called the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, kindness, temperance–and of course faith or hope. Worship can trigger a powerful experience of transcendence or joy or wonder or one-ness, a deep pleasure that is hard even to verbalize.

Similarly, popular images of the afterlife can be pretty crassly material—mansions and streets of gold, gemstones and crowns, eternal youth and white robes signaling no need to work. When people are desperate and powerless and poor, the symbols and trappings of wealth can be very appealing. But again, people may yearn for an afterlife that is something much simpler or more complex, something that includes submission and selflessness, maybe an eternal variation on that incredible worship experience that is such a powerful feel good.

Regardless of the specifics, when we commit our lives, our money, our energy to a god, we expect something back. Without the hope that our devotion can change our lives and afterlives for the better by winning God’s favor, then the question of whether God exists simply isn’t interesting to most people.

If we knew for sure that God was the god of Thomas Jefferson a prime mover who put the universe in motion and disengaged, or if we knew for sure that God was the god of Albert Einstein, best understood as a set of mathematical intricacies that are frankly incomprehensible to—me anyways. . . . If we knew that God’s predestined plan was going to play out no matter what we did, then people would simply get on with their lives: trying to take care of their kids and get rid of their headaches and pay their bills and maybe occasionally practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.

“Cultivating” God

What people wouldn’t do is this: They wouldn’t spend time trying to cultivate a relationship with God– whether that means prayer without ceasing or church on Sundays or offering burnt offerings. And they wouldn’t spend time trying to win converts, to get other people to cultivate the same kind of relationship with God.

You know, the word cultivate and the word cult, meaning religious practice, have the same root word, the Latin cultus, which literally meant the care and feeding of the gods. We cultivate the ground to get crops out. Salesmen cultivate clients. Nonprofits cultivate donors. Worship is a form of cultivation. Our ancestors used take care of the gods so the gods would take care of them. In our own 21st Century way, we do the same.

As humans, a huge part of our energy goes into trying to figure out the cause and effect relationships that govern our lives and wellbeing. To that end, we need a god who cares how we think and feel and behave because otherwise we have no way to influence what God does. That is what I mean when I say that our interest in God is instrumental. It is not actually about God, per se; it is about us.

Rabbit Hole Reasoning

One of the things cognitive scientists are learning about human beings is that when we want strongly to believe something, there are few limits to the kinds of “motivated reasoning” we are capable of. The ever shifting descriptions and defenses of the Bible God illustrate this perfectly.

When the first books of the Bible were written, God not only had a human psyche but also literally a human form. He came down to earth and walked among men. And he meddled constantly. The hand of God was invoked to explain everything from crop failures, to why childbearing hurts like hell, to seizures.

Today God has lost his human shape, physically at least, and the realm of supernatural explanations gets smaller by the year. We know why crops fail, and it’s not divine punishment. We know why pushing out big-brained babies hurts women, and it’s not original sin. We know what causes seizures, and it’s not demons. A few fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Ted Cruz may still think that mega-storms or droughts are better explained by gay marriage than atmospheric carbon, but serious people now restrict themselves to invoking supernatural explanations only for the mathematical structure of the universe or the relation of the physical world to consciousness, or our uncanny sense of the numinous.

So, the shape of God and the arguments for God keep changing, but to devout Bible believers the answer stays the same: God still thinks like a human. He hears your prayers, and he has a wonderful plan for your life; but to get to heaven you have to believe the right things and worship (ie. cultivate) him in the right way. And if you ever doubt, the flaws lie in you, not these ideas. When arguments and evidence keep changing but the answer is invariant, that’s a really strong indicator of motivated belief, where the evidence follows from the answer rather than the answer coming from the evidence.

Living in a world of probabilities.

Despite everything I have said, it is possible that a god exists who wants a personal relationship with each of us and who changes his behavior in response to our prayers.

As they say, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Just because we find a certain kind of god concept serves our purposes, just because we want a person god that fits our feelings and yearnings and the relational structure of the human mind . . . None of this precludes that such a god exists. Naturalistic explanations for our god-belief could be completely sufficient, and god would still be possible.

It is possible that an unseen asteroid is going to strike the earth tomorrow in which case you might as well sleep through your classes or work. It’s possible that you are in a dream right now and if you stand up and take off your clothes no one will remember in the morning. It is possible, like Big Oil’s spokesmen say, that climate change isn’t real.

It’s possible. But being mentally healthy means living in a world of probabilities, not possibilities.

So, let me come back to the question that we’re after: Does the God of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael exist?

I think we can do better.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Cognitive Science and Christianity, Musings & Rants: Christianity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to The God Debate

  1. Lowell Bushey says:

    Hi, Valerie,

    I’ve always maintained that the god of most religions, (not just Christianity) with disgusting prejudices and loony ideas, doesn’t exist. I’ve also wondered why god, if one exists, didn’t intervene to prevent the Holocaust and a host of other atrocities, although i didn’t realize that Epicurus formulated these ideas thousands of years ago!

    What I really found interesting was your assertion that people adopt a religion with the expectation (hope) of getting something in return, i.e., a trip to the “promised land”. We Economists assume that people act in their rational self-interest, although I honestly never viewed religion from this perspective!

    You’ve also provided me with a wonderful argument to use on a religious person:

    So you believe that, if I do loony and disgusting things, I’ll get to the “promised land”, and I’ll share it with similarly loony and disgusting people. Great; sign me up! :)

    Lowell Bushey

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dabe Miller says:

    Brilliant. Would make all the God believers who are not completely brainwashed or bought up reconsider their position. Unfortunately, that appears to be a small minority of those who have hitched their star to a myth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fortunately, Dabe, that minority seems to be fairly sizable… the fastest growing category in several national surveys in a row now has been “unaffiliated” or “spiritual but not religious”… and they are coming out of traditional Christianity mostly (obviously not mostly from among atheists, a relatively small group). Many others one can find readily on the Internet or elsewhere remain in one kind of church or another but no longer believe in the traditional all-powerful “God of the Bible.”


  3. educated56 says:

    I work at a cancer center, and moderate an online community – support for anyone whose life has been touched by the disease. I struggle with posts from survivors who tell those dealing with the pain of treatment and the massive disruption to the quality of their lives that they should just leave it to God; that their faith had saved them. Personal beliefs aside, I’m all for anything that helps a person get up every day and face this monster. My issue is that the advice implies that those who have lost their lives to cancer must not have prayed or believed – that somehow, it was their own fault. Additional fear and self blame are two stressors that patients do not need. And even those who do believe in God/particular religion may go through periods of anger at God or turn their back on their religion. So, it is a very delicate subject. It s not the place to discuss the existence of God nor god’s role in human suffering….but I face those questions every day as I seek words of support and comfort – regardless of the writer’s religious views.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Hank Pellissier says:

    Hi Valerie I will get this posted next week!  Your articles are great and I enjoy posting them and watching the hits and comments thanks Hank


  5. Lary9 says:

    As you said, it is prudent to ask “what are we trying to get at here?” So I ask you, what is it you mean by evil? You smoothly introduced the Epicurean question of evil and the God-evil nexus. I have read the same questions from the Scottish philosopher David Hume. I wonder if the unknotting this ontological Rubix cube isn’t confounded by the troublsome definition of evil itself. Could you respond?


    • Evil is a concept with fuzzy and contested boundaries, but Christianity has done a pretty good job of defining the core in its concept of hell: The greatest suffering the Iron Age mind could conceive and the Medieval mind could elaborate–without end and without the comfort of love and compassion.

      Liked by 1 person

      • garytribble says:

        Fabulous response, Valerie: cuts to the chase, bypassing any chance for the reader to blame human or any other evil, since according to believers in Hell, God Himself created it — AND condemns His creatures to it, all on His own Authority and by His own Power alone.


      • Lary9 says:

        “Evil is a concept with fuzzy and contested boundaries…”
        Excellent! Thanks. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Ironically, I often self-identify as a Christian atheist (the Anglican variety of that term) because although I take a more or less scientific view of violence, suffering & deprivation, I tend to filter it through the humanism of Christian values—virtue and sin, et alia. Afterall, the Greeks first codified human values in those classic terms and that’s a good enough working template for me. Thanks again.


    • Perry Bulwer says:

      I’ve always liked Philip Zimbardo’s definition of ‘evil’, summarized in this quotation:

      “Evil is intentionally behaving – or causing others to act – in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people.”

      This quotation from Noam Chomsky suggests the same:

      “Hierarchical and arbitrary power remains at the core of politics in our world and the source of all evils.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lary9 says:

        Well quoted. I always have liked Zimbardo. Chomsky works most times for me as well. Thanks again.


      • Hi Perry –

        Thanks! To me, Zimbardo’s definition captures part of it, but it seems unnecessarily limited by the term “innocent people.” What about those who aren’t innocent (like all of us?) And what about those who have only some of the qualities of personhood, like a dog or elephant?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Perry Bulwer says:

        Valerie, I agree with you about Zimbardo’s definition being limited to innocent people. Regarding the personhood of non-humans, I think that if corporations are considered under law to be non-human persons, animals should be too. I might even go as far as saying evil can be, and is being, done to all biological life, though maybe that’s a bit extreme.

        Zimbardo may agree with you too. He’s written quite a bit about evil, and may have a broader definition closer to what you suggest, I just can’t recall. I have that concise quotation on a sidebar of one of my blogs, so its just convenient for me to find and cite it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Haytanbello says:

    I’m an MK — my parents were professional proselytizers. As a kid, I started wondering at some (pretty early) point why it could be that I happened to have been born to parents who knew exactly what people needed to know in order to be saved from eternal damnation, while so many other people hadn’t been born so “fortunately” — so that they needed to be told, by my parents and their colleagues. And if no one told them, tough luck. No matter how my Bible class and Sunday school teachers rationalized this state of affairs, it seemed very unfair to me.

    Ultimately, it dawned on me that Christians cut their god a lot more slack than they ever would any fellow human being, and that I couldn’t actually believe or accept any of the rationalizations provided for this cutting of slack being necessary. I realized that if I met someone who treats people the way the Christian god does, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him. It was at that point that I lost interest in the biblical God.

    Liked by 4 people

    • It sounds like you were quicker than some of us. Meaning me. :)


      • Haytanbello says:

        My “ultimately” took a while, actually. I kept trying to give my received beliefs the benefit of the doubt into my late 20s. I didn’t want to be orphaned.


    • Lauri says:

      That sounds so much like the way I reached the conclusion that there isn’t a personal, biblical God. Why should little, human me, have more wisdom, more compassion, more caring than this so-called God?

      Liked by 2 people

    • metalnun says:

      I came to a similar realization myself at age 12 while attending a private evangelical school where we were taught that God would send starving children in Africa to hell for not believing. “But, that’s so wrong!” my best friend said, crying. The pastor replied, “Well that’s why we send missionaries over there! And that’s why everybody, including your parents, need to donate more money to the missions, so those children won’t go to hell.” He also told us rock & roll is from the devil – which is when I absolutely KNEW in my heart of hearts that it must be total b.s.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sha'Tara says:

        Well, IMHO, if anything at all is of the Devil, then certainly God can make it “rock and roll.” Most of that is beyond industrial noise and should come under some planetary ban as gross noise pollution. But then, in a disintegrating, self-serving, hedonistic society, I suppose there’s plenty of reason for people to listen to R&R: gives meaningless lives even less meaning!


      • metalnun says:

        To each their own. I personally find the music of, e.g., Iron Maiden to be beautiful and meaningful, whereas country music makes me want to lie on the floor screaming, “aaarrgh, please make it stop!” :) It’s a matter of personal preference. Since you used the word “meaningless,” however, I must assume either you’re not listening to the same rock songs that I am, and/or you can’t hear the lyrics clearly. Certainly there is a broad range of expression within the genre, some less inspiring than others.


      • Sha'Tara says:

        Sorry, but what’s an “MK”?


      • Perry Bulwer says:

        Sha’Tara says: Sorry, but what’s an “MK”?

        I’m following these interesting conversations so thought I would give you a quick reply. I’m pretty sure it refers to Missionary Kids. See this site for example:

        Missionary Kids Safety Net

        I wrote this review of a documentary that references that organization:

        And here are some related news articles I’ve archived:


      • Sha'Tara says:

        Thanks Perry, and I would have remembered what MK stood for had I realized the acronym was used in a Christian context. Interesting write up about Three Hills Bible Institute. I applied to be a student there some decades ago but changed my mind when I just felt uncomfortable during the introduction week. Something rang false and it was shortly after that I basically turned my back on all forms of organized/institutional religion, Christianity in particular. The key to approaching all these cults is to do it with an open mind and from an educated perspective. They can’t fool individuals who have learned how to think and reason for themselves. “Believe all things, believe in nothing”!


      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        we were taught that God would send starving children in Africa to hell for not believing.

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Ah, the God question. Nothing like trying to solve the nature of existence, billions of years of cosmic history, and why did the Big Bang get started, and why is it possible (to paraphrase Einstein) that mere primates came to self-aware consciousness and the ability for creativity, reason, science, aesthetics, and compassion.

    The how is often answered by cosmologists speculating about multi-verses and quantum events. Fascinating stuff. As for humanity’s sometime altruism, Richard Dawkins speculates that might have come about by a “misfiring” of evolution.

    On and on the discussion, and debates go:-) As they should. I’ve never met a speculative, philosophical, scientific question I didn’t like…

    Valerie, you did an incisive job of showing the probability that the fundamentalistic God of the 3 monotheism’s doesn’t exist. I mostly agree with your key points so won’t comment on them. Many of those very points are why I think Christianity can’t be true; too much evidence is against it.

    The question though is why then, with all of these brilliant arguments and many evidences against the concept of God, am I still a theist, or more accurately, a theistic seeker?

    I’ll give a quote from Chris Impey, an astronomer (who is an agnostic) who raises an amazing insight: “If the universe contained nothing more than forces operating on inanimate matter, it would not be very interesting. The presence of sentient life-forms like us (and perhaps unlike us) is the zest, or the special ingredient, that gives cosmic history dramatic tension. We’re made of tiny subatomic particles and are part of a vast space-time arena,
    yet we hold both extremes in our heads.”

    #2 Yes, the amazing ability of conscious primates to hold the concept of the macrocosm to the microcosm within our head, to create new things which never existed, to have a sense of ought which often thwarts what is biologically seemingly advantageous….

    I suppose naysayers would say this is me caught up in the “Gee Whiz” factor. And I suppose it is.

    But when I think about the possible reasons for existence–Chance (Jacques Monad), Necessity/Determinism (Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc.), Meaning and Creativity (Whitehead),
    the third possibility makes the most sense.

    #3 And, I’m a humanist down to the deepest part of my psyche. I highly value ethics, aesthetics, etc. Though we may eventually find there is no “Ultimate Reality” i.e. God, like Jefferson, Paine, and other Enlightenment figures and some modern scientists and philosophers think exists.

    But I still think that consciousness, reason, ethics, aesthetics are somehow inherent in existence.

    But so many atheists often jettison everything that gives value to human existence. (This is not true of some humanistic atheists who support human creativity, reject determinism, and who emphasize hope and civility. At times Stephen J. Gould, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan, for instance, show the idealistic side of non-theism.)

    However within my limited years of studying atheism and many years of experience with atheists, most God-nayers emphasize that humans are (quoting some of atheists’ most demeaning examples) “meaningless and purposeless,” “bags of chemicals” who have no choice, “wet robots,” “puppets,” and that ethics are mere relative “preferences” and cultural constructs. Or that ethics is only a word which describes the fact that if we started time over a “trillion times,” all our actions would be exactly the same!

    Maybe so, maybe not, but I don’t plan to live and treat others as if we are only “chemical robots,” “bags of chemicals,” incapable of making ethical decisions.

    I’m more of a hold over, I guess, from the one branch of the Enlightenment which emphasized that human choice, values, ethics, rights, reason, creativity, etc. are inherent in reality.

    So call me a theistic seeker, (on my better days:-), or (on worse, more hopeless ones), call me a Camus-sort of ‘oughter.’ Even if there is no ultimate meaning, no ethics, there ought to be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Larry says:

      Golly, Mr. Wilcox, what kind of atheists have you been hanging around with? ‘… [W]ithin my limited years of studying atheism and many years of experience with atheists, most God-nayers emphasize that humans are (quoting some of atheists’ most demeaning examples) “meaningless and purposeless,” “bags of chemicals” who have no choice, “wet robots,” “puppets,”….’ Yikes! I’ve been an atheist for at least 40 years and have known a great many of like mind, and have only ever known one who would say or believe such things — and he would have been a jerk regardless of his religious convictions or lack thereof.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, Larry, I’m glad to hear you haven’t experienced the ones I’ve read, dialogued with, heard speak, etc.

        Sounds like the atheists in your mind of the woods are more the type of atheists I would like to know.

        As for the quotes–“meaningless and purposeless” too many to cite;
        — “bags of chemicals” comes from the atheist and plant biologist Anthony Cashmore. Cashmore also said humans have no more choice “than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”
        –“wet robots” comes from biologist Jerry Coyne. Coyne is a brilliant scientist and wrote an excellent short, lucid book on evolution, Why Evolution Is True.
        But, strangely, he is a hard determinist, thinking no one is morally responsible, not even rapists and murderers, that we humans can’t make any choices whatsoever, not even what to have for lunch.

        So the Holocaust had to happen?! I heard this for years when I was a Christian because so many Christians now are determinists of the Reformed and Augustinian version.
        No thank you.

        (In my opinion, the atheist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould has a better understanding of existence. Gould wrote a whole book against biological determinism. Plus, Gould stated that chance is such a factor in reality that if time were replayed, we homo sapiens might not even show up.)

        –“puppets” comes from Sam Harris.
        I really enjoyed–and partially agreed–with his first two books. But since publishing his attack on human choice, Free Will, Harris has become more and more extreme. Not only does he say, that our sense of “I” is an illusion, Harris claims that all humans have no more choice than the infamous Texas mass murderer who had a brain tumor. Harris calls this total inability–“tumors all the way down.” He claims that if time were replayed a “trillion” times, everything would happen exactly the same.

        Sheesh. I may be a lowly literature teacher, but I think “I” exist:-) I’m not an “illusion,” or “tumors all the way down.” In fact, I know I exist as much as I know anything exists. As empiricists point out, the only things we humans can “know” have to come through us to even be known. I suppose all of us could be hooked up to a matrix…But I think the real world exists out there, and I take in sense impressions, experiences, etc. into “I” who exists in here, until I die.

        Also, having worked in the mental health field and studied psychology, I know that we are limited by various factors including our background, our temperament, our past choices, etc., but within those defining circumstances, we humans since we are conscious, aware, sometimes rational, capable of learning, being creative, etc. do have the ability to make alternative and creative choices. (Of course, I realize I am biased. I did earn my BA in Creative Writing.

        I would like to know more of the atheists you know. They sound more balanced, friendlier, and more open.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I thought, therefore I was.

        From the omniscient perspective, there can be no choice. Obviously, that perspective is permanently off the table, so is of only academic interest.

        From the human perspective (the only one possible for us), there are all kinds of choices.

        I like to use chess as an analogy. A “mating net” is a position in a game where one knows every possible combination of moves an opponent can make and can checkmate him no matter what he does. There’s no room for luck in this (omniscient) situation.

        However, there are far more possible moves in a chess game than there are subatomic particles in the universe, so it’s impossible to calculate the results of every move. All moves are made without total knowledge, so any position short of a mating net is subject to chance.

        After over a hundred tournament games, I once beat a drastically stronger player. He tried an attack that 99 times out of 100 would have worked, but through sheer luck, I blundered into the perfect refutation.

        A fairly strong master was reviewing the game. He was interested because it was such a remarkable upset. In the middle game, he looked puzzled and said “I don’t see the problem.” A few moves later, he suddenly gasped “whoa! I didn’t see that coming!”

        Neither I, nor my opponent, had seen that coming. The master quickly understood why what I’d done had worked and I could see he was filing it away for future reference.

        In other words, Sam Harris is correct that choice is impossible and you are correct that choice is possible — just in two (mutually exclusive) contexts.


      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Gould stated that chance is such a factor in reality that if time were replayed, we homo sapiens might not even show up.” – I’ve read that there was a time when our not-too-distant ancestors had actually dwindled to roughly 2000 members, scattered along the east and southern coasts of Africa. That’s barely enough to sustain a species. The blue whale, I understand, is down to 1000 members as we speak; extinction for that beautiful behemoth is highly likely, but then whooping cranes were down to 17 pairs, and they’re back, so who knows?


      • Larry says:

        Daniel, it sounds like the atheists you know are the ones who write books. And my observation is that folks who write books about religion (pro- or con-) are inclined toward hyperbole. I reckon it sells. The atheists I know and have known in my private life are simply atheists; they don’t seem to take surprising or offputting stands about the nature of free will or morality (except for that one guy).


      • Thanks Larry. Sounds like a more positive group:-)


      • Daniel, have you seen Chris Johnson’s book, A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without God. It’s profound and beautiful, and I recommend it (despite the fact that I’m one of the 100 :)). Also, he just released a documentary movie with some of the same content.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Dave Roscoe says:

        Why on Earth would saying or believing such things make one a jerk? Why ‘ought’ there to be an ultimate meaning? Reality is whatever it is, no matter how we might feel about it. We want answers but the only answers we get seem to be negative. Theory A turned out to be completely wrong, theory B turned out to be not quite right, theory C still looks good but that could change tomorrow.

        Our ability to interpret and understand what our research and observations reveal is limited. That’s the way it is and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it except continue to improve our methods for separating the apparently true from the demonstrably false. The notion that anything ought to be the way we want it to be seems pretty silly to me. You want meaning and purpose but there is no evidence that such concepts exist outside of your own mind. You don’t like that? Too bad! What’s ‘like’ got to do with it? As Sagan said: “If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?”

        Liked by 1 person

      • You said, “Why on Earth would saying or believing such things make one a jerk?”

        I didn’t say anyone was a jerk. Was your post meant for someone else?

        Besides, I agree with Sagan completely when he wrote: “If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?” (I finished a fascinating long biography on his life not long ago, and have some of his books staring down at me from my science book shelf.

        What I was talking about in my original post is my opposition to thinkers who deny “moral responsibility” for humans, who claim that we have no choice, who categorize human beings with dehumanizing terms…


      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says; he is always convinced that it says what he means.”
        -– George Bernard Shaw —

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lary9 says:



    • Lowell Bushey says:

      Hi, David,

      I think that you’re missing the point here. You’re assuming one cannot understand something in scientific terms, yet still appreciate its beauty. Understanding the mechanics of flight does not keep one from being awestruck should an eagle fly overhead! While scientists do seek a greater understanding of the world around them, by no means does that imply that they cannot appreciate its beauty.

      I’m an Economist; my field admittedly involves a lot of cold mathematical equations and cold statistics. I can only speak for me, but I’ll tell you unequivocally I never lose sight of the fact that e.g. the unemployment rate involves real people seeking work that cannot find it, or that the poverty rate involves real people who can’t afford basic necessities!

      I also think that you’re mistaken about determinism a la B.F. Skinner. Skinner certainly has some company, but I doubt that it’s a large proportion. (Valerie is a psychologist, so perhaps I should let her elaborate. :))

      As to having a meaningful existence, we have almost complete control over it. Our individual actions are what matters; we determine how meaningful our life turns out to be by our choices!

      IMO, religion persists because:

      1. We don’t like to think that, after we die, we become food for the earthworms, and, ultimately, part of an oil field. That would explain why so many religions incorporate the concept of an afterlife.

      2. We don’t like to think that much of what happens in our lives is the result of random events. For example, one’s car could break down, or one could be stuck in traffic due to road construction. While we don’t exert absolute control over random events, if we use our powers of logical reasoning, we can ensure that we’ll be right most of the time. That certainly beats hoping for “divine intervention” from a (possibly idiosyncratic and whimsical) god!

      Lowell Bushey


      • Lowell, was this post meant for me, Daniel?

        You said, “You’re assuming one cannot understand something in scientific terms, yet still appreciate its beauty.”

        No, that’s not my view. I love science.

        Besides, Einstein is the classic example of a brilliant scientist who understood “in scientific terms, yet still appreciate its beauty.”
        I recently finished two of his biographies.


      • Lowell Bushey says:

        Hi, Daniel,

        There was no reply icon for your post, so I’ll reply to mine. :)

        I was referring mainly to this passage:

        “However within my limited years of studying atheism and many years of experience with atheists, most God-nayers emphasize that humans are (quoting some of atheists’ most demeaning examples) “meaningless and purposeless,” “bags of chemicals” who have no choice, “wet robots,” “puppets,” and that ethics are mere relative “preferences” and cultural constructs. Or that ethics is only a word which describes the fact that if we started time over a “trillion times,” all our actions would be exactly the same!”

        The quotes you provide (assuming that they are not taken out of context) may be the opinion of some atheists, but I seriously doubt if all atheists, or even a majority, would agree, as you suggest.

        I didn’t address ethics before, so I’ll do it now. I view ethics in a much more pragmatic fashion. Would you want to live in a world where everyone was e.g. a robber or a murderer? The answer to that question should determine your ethics! (I’ll leave the “gray areas” to be argued in Philosophy class. :))

        I view religion as irrelevant, and often antithetical, to ethical behavior. Example: Hitler and the Holocaust were totally supported by the church. The Catholic church even helped Nazi war criminals to escape to South America! The U.S. is not immune either. One of the major reasons for the Native American genocide was that Europeans viewed Native Americans as “heathens”. Slavery in the South was justified by quoting the Bible.

        My comments on living a meaningful life were based on the following:

        “But when I think about the possible reasons for existence–Chance (Jacques Monad), Necessity/Determinism (Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, etc.), Meaning and Creativity (Whitehead),
        the third possibility makes the most sense.”

        You’re implying that each of the above options is mutually exclusive, i.e., if one is true, the others must be false. I disagree.

        We most certainly got here by chance. Had the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs missed the Earth, or had Australopithicus become extinct, instead of reduced in number to 2000, the Earth would be quite different today!

        However, excepting chance events, either positive (e.g. winning the lottery) or negative (e.g. an earthquake), whether we live a meaningful life is almost totally the result of our own actions. I made that comment previously, and I stand on it!

        Lowell Bushey

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hey Lowell, Thanks for the reply.
        #1 You said, “may be the opinion of some atheists…” I don’t know what percentage either, in fact was shocked when I encountered the hard determinism of atheist leaders such as Harris, Coyne, Cashmore, etc, and from many in online discussions.
        (I figured when I gave up Christianity because of its determinism, I would be journeying into humanism, choice, creativity, etc. amongst the non-religious group. It’s been a devastating experience to find many atheists who are also hard determinists.

        I hope you are correct that the majority of atheists do think humans have choice, are morally able to choose between right and wrong, aren’t “wet robots,” “puppets,” etc.

        #2 As for statements about religion being the cause of slavery, genocide, Nazism, etc. I AGREE!
        History is filled with gross horrors which religion caused.

        Then you said, “You’re implying that each of the above options is mutually exclusive.

        No, not me. I think existence is a combination of regularities, chance, creativity, choice, reason, etc.

        But Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, and other such hard determinists claim that everything is determined–no choice whatsoever on our part what we eat for lunch and absolutely no choice on whether to rape or murder or help. Over and over again they emphasize we have no ability to make choices at all.

        Then you say “we most certainly got here by chance.”

        Not according to Jerry Coyne. He said that astreroid HAD to hit the earth when it did, and the dinosaurs HAD to become extinct, etc. It’s all been determined, no chance, no luck…

        Sounds like you and I agree on quite a bit.:-) Glad you don’t think I am a puppet or robot.

        Thanks for the conversation.


  8. Pingback: Since it’s Sunday, let’s talk about “God.” | Exopermaculture

  9. gwpj says:

    Very well done Valerie. I also like the responses, including the one by Daniel Wilcox, which fits where I am at with the whole discussion.


  10. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Liked by 2 people

  11. tiffany267 says:

    Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    Valerie grants a generous level of possibility to the existence of a god, pondering several levels of questions as to how the Christian god would explain certain facts of life, and still manages to find it highly improbable that the Christian god exists. What answers do you other atheists provide when asked how you know there is no such thing as god?


    • If we think of an atheist as someone who is not convinced God exists (rather than the more restricted position of being convinced God does not exist), then we don’t need to provide this answer. It’s up to the person who asserts God exists to provide evidence. If they provide no evidence, or I don’t find it persuasive, my position of non-belief remains unchanged.


      • tiffany267 says:

        Hi Mark, thanks for your reply. However the question was directed to my readers, actually, since I’m reblogging there. Sorry for any confusion.


      • Wow, thanks for the cool details about chess. (Years ago, I used to play the game every day.)

        I need clarification on you statement “From the omniscient perspective, there can be no choice.”

        Do you mean that the moment the Big Bang happened it (or the “laws of physics, the cosmos, etc.)necessitated deterministically the Holocaust, every rape, murder, and slaughter, every molestation, and every chess move? So that over 15 billion years ago, it was deterministically determined that you would move your bishop at 15 seconds after he moved his pawn?


      • It’s not just the “Big Bang;” it’s the infinite number of parallel universes, each of which had its own Big Bang, but that’s beside the point. By definition, an omniscient being knows everything that will happen, below the subatomic level in every universe, down to the precise behavior of strings.

        From that perspective, how is free will possible? Free will means to freely select among alternatives, yet there can be no alternatives to what an omniscient being knows will happen.

        I once had a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door, insisting “God gave us” free will. When I pointed out the obvious contradiction, the senior of the two said, apparently sincerely, that God did know everything, but chose to hide some knowledge from Himself, therefore free will did exist.

        I’m afraid I rolled my eyes so hard they cramped. It really hurt.

        Regarding chess, for $29 per year, one can become a member of and get quite a bit of instruction online. That includes 25 tactical chess problems per day (only three per day with the free version).


      • I don’t agree that awareness, even if omniscient, means cause.
        Furthermore, I’m not convinced that ultimate reality (God) is omniscient.

        But, besides that endless (eternal?:-) discussion, how is your view different than Augustinians, Reformed, Islamic, Hindu, or Jerry Coyne/Sam Harris’?


      • Free will is impossible if there are no options and clearly options don’t exist if someone knows the only possible outcome. If “God” is defined as not omniscient (contrary to the way every Christian I’ve discussed this with defines it), then that contradiction comes off the table and within that context, free will is possible.

        Whatever is “cause” in the matter is irrelevant. An omniscient observer could come along after the fact, having caused nothing, and, by definition, would still know the only possible outcome.

        Omniscience is the Achilles Heel of theism. It’s not just that it contradicts free will, but also the concept of evil, and the concept of omnipotence. I understood this at age ten (although my parents made me go to terminally boring church for another four years).

        I’m not sufficiently familiar with the people/movements you mentioned to have much of an opinion. My position is there are two perspectives. From the omniscient (theoretical) perspective, choice (even for a deity) is impossible. From our (real world) perspective, choice is not only possible, it’s inevitable.


      • Thanks for the dialog.


  12. “It’s possible that you are in a dream right now and if you stand up and take off your clothes no one will remember in the morning.”

    Note to self: Find an excuse to hang out with Valerie sometime.

    Regarding “motivated reasoning,” I realized long ago that being smart doesn’t guarantee clear thinking. Intelligence can either be used to search for a good position or prop up a bad one.

    Everyone seems vulnerable to this except you and me — and I’m even a little concerned about you.


  13. supdep says:

    Reblogged this on the suppository depository and commented:
    I think the psychological considerations about the existence of God have considerable merit.


  14. Ron Taska says:

    Excellent summary. It reminds me of Ehrman’s book entitled “God’s Problem.”

    What is the “product” marketed by “God”?

    Is there a way to hear or read the rest of the debate?

    The Biblical God makes no sense to me, but the universe coming from nothing makes no sense either.

    Isn’t the Biblical God mainly a “wish” for a personal God?


    • archaeopteryx1 says:

      I find it difficult to understand why so many of us can’t simply accept, “I don’t know,” as a conclusion, and feel a compulsion to opt for the security of an implausible answer, rather than none at all.

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Lauri says:

    I love this post. And I loved reading the comments. So many minds at work. I liberated myself from a “biblical God” many years ago. I’m happy to let the Universe unfold as it will, since no amount of fussing on my part will change what really is.

    It’s an amazing world/universe, with a lot of horror thrown in, and I am happy to go with the flow.

    As some have said before, if there is a biblical God, and I am going to “Hell” because I am not a believer, well, I still prefer to have nothing to do with his petty, human ways.


  16. Pingback: The God Debate | Freethought

  17. juliew810 says:

    super interesting – you are SO SMART

    Date: Sun, 24 May 2015 15:57:41 +0000 To:


  18. Valerie, you asked, “Have you seen Chris Johnson’s book, A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World without God?”

    No, but thanks for the recommendation. I did recently finish another fine book by atheists, the best I’ve read, called 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Some of the short chapters were incredibly good. If I were to become an atheist, that’s the kind of view I would subscribe to in life.
    I’ve recommended Voices to our thinkers’ book club.

    Now I’ve got another one to read, A Better Life:-) So many books so little time.


  19. Wow… I’m only a day “late” to this and see 41 comments… read the article (cuz they are always good… thanks) but no time for the comments right now.

    Basically, I agree! You’re pointing out important dynamics of our “faith” (whether it takes religious, scientific or other forms). A further interesting point is that only in any person’s eyes is there a “God of the Bible”. The Bible actually (as you know, this is coming from a person who’s studied it extensively and still does) presents widely differing concepts of God… tho this is unrecognized by most Christians… an “inconvenient truth”.

    Not surprisingly, the most “enlightened” view (or implied description) of God comes from Jesus. However, even here one has to read “critically”, as Gospel writers clearly put a lot into his mouth. So we can only be general and “approximate” as to his actual teachings and actions. But the “wisdom of the crowd” has, I believe, rightly identified the core as compassion, care and support for the marginalized, living “in the moment” while also countering injustice (nonviolently), etc. Jesus reveals a nonviolent God… a very important concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Lighten Up says:

    I think the key to my backing away from religion began when I started to wonder why God didn’t communicate clearly with all people. What sort of omnipotent etc. God would say one thing to one special person, a different thing to another special person, and nothing at all to most of us. If God wanted us to know something, just say it clearly in thousands of different languages to all of us. Just seemed bogus to me. And so it went from there.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. MB says:

    You made some very good points, Valerie. But one problem with all these debates about God is that they’re almost always conducted by white, affluent males. And of course, they always call God a “he”. You were the only woman in that debate and yet, everyone you quoted was a white male. Many brilliant woman have made pithy comments about the existence of God (or lack thereof). You could have quoted them.

    These debates are necessary but let’s admit it: They’re a luxury of white, affluent males who have the time and resources to ponder these “transcendental” questions while the rest of us are just trying to survive (or stay middle class).

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Lary9 says:

    Valerie’s blog is becoming one deliciously challenging comments stream. Bravo!


  23. richardzanesmith says:

    really enjoyed the Cultivating God part. too many Christian prayer meetings are like “giving God his instructions for the day”


  24. Pingback: Churches Get Creepy Facial Recognition Software to Track Members - Waking Times : Waking Times

  25. There is a difference between evil being compatible with the existence of God and man saying it is. Only God has the right to say it and believe it. It is too serious of a matter for man to speak on God’s behalf and condone God’s role in evil or for man to invent reasons why God might allow evil to happen. It is evil for man then to condone God’s role or alleged role in evil even if God exists and is right to let evil happen. And man needs solid evidence for God’s existence for nobody has the right to lightly say any entity is ultimately responsible for evil even if its role is justified. Would you like it if somebody said you stole a loaf to feed your child in abject poverty if you never took the loaf? They are still saying you did evil even if it was justified. That is what will upset you. You are still being slandered. If you say God lets evil happen you have to know why this would be justified. Resorting to saying evil is a mystery is a cop-out and is disgusting. Nobody has the right to use an excuse for God when a baby suffers and dies. What is needed is the reason.

    To say men give you God’s message is to say that God trusted them to give it. It is about trust in the men.

    Hearing a voice does not mean it is God’s and only God can know if he is really speaking. Even the person who hears cannot be sure but can only guess. If anyone claims to be hearing the voice of God and giving his message to others he is a liar. To think that you don’t know where the voice comes from means it is not from you is arrogant. It is, “I don’t know where this inspiration comes from so it comes from God.” It makes no sense. By spreading your message you inspire a worse arrogance in others. X has a voice in his heart or head and doesn’t know where it comes from therefore it is from God. The more your faith in a prophet is based on hearsay the worse the problem gets.

    Religious leaders can be corrupt. People say, “I follow this religion because its from God – I don’t do it for those leaders.” In actual fact if there is no God to follow they are still following something so it must be the leaders.

    Even if there is a God, you judge him worthy of worship. You worship your perception of God. Two people with contradictory of ideas of God can both be convinced that they are right. So idolatry is inevitable. People declare the God they have in their heads to be the one thing that matters. Selfless service of a God in your head is really selfishness that you manage to feel good about for it so easily passes for sacrifice. Both the peaceful believer and the murderous religious fanatic are guilty of expecting people to suffer and die and give all their love to a collective of ideas. Both are cruel only the cruelty is more obvious in the case of the violent believer. Nobody considers it virtuous to enable or encourage somebody in loving a being who does not exist except in their heads.

    Even if God is not the problem where evil is concerned man speaking about God is the problem. The problem of evil needs to focus more on what it indicates about believers.


  26. metalnun says:

    Another fabulous article! I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog, Valerie. And love all the thoughtful comments. The quality, politeness and intellectual depth of the conversations on your blog is impressive compared to other sites I have visited.

    A book that you folks might enjoy is Frank Schaeffer’s “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God.” Yes, it sounds totally contradictory but Frank did that on purpose. I have reviewed it here in my blog post “Letting God Out of the Box.”


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