On 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:
- Do claims about this God pass the tests of not contradicting each other and not contradicting external evidence?
- Is the Bible’s God the best and most likely explanation for the design and function of nature?
- Is the Bible’s God the best and most likely explanation for the biblical record and Christian history?
- 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.
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 www.WisdomCommons.org. 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 ValerieTarico.com.