By Michael E. Berumen 3-4-96
I think it unlikely that there is a god, if by that we mean an intelligent, directed force or personality with extraordinary and supernatural powers, e.g., a being that is able to create something from nothing and in the old-fashioned sense is the prime mover of the cosmos. This, of course, would include the various depictions of the god or gods of the religions now extant, as well as those that have passed into history. It would also include the less anthropomorphic, and more sophisticated, metaphysical being, the ineffable force of intelligent design suggested by some philosophers and theologians. Why? Because there is no evidence for such a being, and logic does not require us to believe that there is one.
All of the classical arguments are flawed. The ontological argument, which has appealed to many philosophers, essentially states that the perfect being that we can imagine must include the property of existence; they therefore conclude, the perfect conception must exist. This is simply circular, however, and it assumes that the predicate "perfection," which is implied by a definition, is true, which is to conflate logical validity, semantics, and reality in nature, leading us to suppose the predicate corresponds to a fact simply because we imagine it is necessitated by our words. Immanuel Kant, among others, exposed this fallacy.
The venerable and more ancient cosmological argument says there is something, and something does not come from nothing, therefore, a first and persisting cause, and an unmoved mover, must be non-contingent. The notion that cause and effect are inextricably linked was handily shattered by David Hume, so we need not go there. Moreover, there is no reason to assume there even was a first cause, a beginning, and every reason to assume that the universe simply is, without beginning or end. Indeed, if we can conceive of a non-contingent being, a first cause without an antecedent, we can just as easily conceive of a non-contingent, enduring universe.
The teleological argument, the argument from design, suggests that where there is a design, there must be a designer. In other words, if we find a watch, we can infer a watchmaker. This is the favorite argument of creationists and the like. The assumption, here, is that there is a design, as opposed to unplanned order in the physical universe. But we are inferring entities without evidence, assuming the arrangement of the universe and the objects we ourselves manufacture are analogous, which is a rather large assumption to make. We are creating explanations out of whole cloth. Ockham is surely rolling in his grave. Order does not imply a creator or even an architect. Order is simply a pattern; it need not result from intentional arrangement, as with flowers in a vase. What is more, the fact is that the overall direction of the universe is not towards order, but disorder, in accordance with the second law of thermodynamics. The order that we imagine is a transitory state, a snapshot of a universe heading towards increasing entropy, which, physics tells us, never decreases. Disorder, chaos, would hardly seem to be the best "design" one might expect from omnipotence.
Since logic and science provide no help, some have said that we need god in order to have an "objective" moral reference or standard, without which, we are consigned to moral relativism and an "anything goes" ethos. This is no better than the other arguments. Universal morality does not depend on our belief in god, but on impartial and rational judgments. Indeed, various renderings of god's judgments have resulted in all manner of immorality throughout the ages. And, as Plato once said, what is moral is not moral because god said it, but because it is moral and god recognizes it as being such. Morality is quite independent of a belief in god. Indeed, morality is not even primarily about what one believes, it is about what one does, and in particular, what one does in relation to others. I have shown elsewhere at great length that the objective properties of morality result from judgments being subject to logical rules and its evaluative aspect.
Another kind of argument is that we would be prudent to hedge our bet and believe in and worship god simply because we might be wrong and, as a result, could suffer eternal damnation. I find this view to be especially curious. It seems to suggest that omnipotence is unable to detect our insincere motives. My own view is that if god is good and does not intentionally promote suffering, the decent folk among us need not worry. If he is not or if he is indifferent, there is nothing we can do about it, anyway.
I myself doubt that omnipotence would be dependent upon our worship or approval, or that he could be as vain or petty as the god often depicted by the major religions that emerged from the Middle East. Moreover, it seems to me that making us depend upon faith rather than veridical evidence serves nothing but a mischievous and somewhat devious kind of purpose, a most unlikely motivation for a perfect being. And it simply defies reason, not to mention compassion, to suppose that an omnipotent and omniscient god would allow the horrors of the universe, the death, suffering, and destruction both nature and man produce. Perhaps a lesser god or a god that is not good would engage in such acts. And then we must ask, is such a god worthy of our worship? I think not.
There are those who will say we should not presume to know the mind of god, and that it is simply preposterous to suppose his benevolence is subject to our own standards or that his purposes can be remotely understood by us. This is yet another strange sort of argument, for it says we should not seek to know the mind of god while, at the same time, it presupposes certain aspects about god. To say that we cannot understand something and then to proceed to describe the something we cannot understand is specious on the face of it.
Of course, the concept of omnipotence also poses great logical problems, that is, if we really mean to posit an all-powerful being. Such a being ought to be able to defy the laws of reason, the most fundamental logical axioms. But of course, this is inconceivable. A=A is true, here, now, yesterday, tomorrow and everywhere, and A & -A is false, here, now, yesterday, tomorrow and everywhere. I will further posit that it is equally true that 2+2=4 and lim ƒn x = ƒ means lim ƒn ═ ƒx for every X E x or lim ƒn = ƒ, notwithstanding god's desires for any of these propositions to be otherwise, whether in this or in any other reality.
That omnipotence in the most complete sense of the word, which is to say, all powerful, is able to will anything is simply an illogical construct. God could not will anything true. This is simply indisputable, though I realize many desire and believe otherwise. One must therefore settle for near omnipotence, very powerful, a god of middling power, or whatever, not unbound power.......(I myself think all of these alternatives are about as likely as the universe existing in a soap bubble). Believers can take comfort in the fact that god, no doubt, would not want to be viewed as illogical, anyway!
If it were not the case the omnipotence is shackled by the rules of logic and reason, then we would have to admit to a great many antinomies:
She could make something she could not lift.
She could make a round-square cupola.
She could make all bachelors married (while still bachelors).
She could make herself into having never been.
Religion, of course, is a different, though related matter, for it depends on a belief in a superior power, and on others believing that its hierarchy possesses some special insight into the mind of providence. As far as I am concerned, however, religion is little more than organized superstition. To be sure, it has inspired good music, art, and charity, and it has offered comfort and hope to millions. On the other hand, it has stood in the way of knowledge and progress, sanctified all kinds of suffering, intolerance, and oppression, and it has been the source of countless wars and conflict. I believe we would be better off without it.
I think the root of religion, mysticism, and the belief in god and the supernatural, generally, springs from three very human traits. First, there is the fear of the unknown, and perhaps most particularly, our fear of death. Religion gives us hope that something good lies ahead, notwithstanding our lack of understanding, which comforts us, most particularly if we are living under hardship.
Second, there is our desire to understand why things are the way they are, our need to have an explanation. No doubt our early hominid ancestors, bereft of scientific knowledge, began to ascribe natural phenomena such as the seasons and lightning to supernatural causes. This continues to this day, though often at a more sophisticated level. When early man dreamt, and then sought an explanation for it, perhaps the idea of a soul and of immateriality began to take shape, which, in turn, gave support to belief in an afterlife. Also, our penchant for explaining things is related to our need to ascribe a purpose to everything, not least of all, our own lives. Many feel that there must be some reason for our existence beyond random occurrences, a biological imperative and natural selection.
Third, there is our awe and wonder at the mystery and grandeur of the universe; our feelings of connectedness to it; and our own sense of transcendence and spirituality that contribute to our predisposition for religious belief. These feelings have all led to wonderful creativity in art, literature, and music, among other things.
Scientists have even suggested that our propensity for having religious feelings is hardwired in our brains, and that some people are particularly prone to them. It might even serve to explain why people who do not believe in the supernatural, as such, nevertheless share in a sense of awe, for example, in the seemingly transcendent beauty of mathematics and science. Indeed, it might explain why great minds who could not succumb to the superstitions of the masses looked for god in more rarefied places, as in Plato's timeless world of perfect forms. It is perhaps no coincidence that mathematicians and philosophers were especially enamored of the "logic" and seeming purity of the ontological arguments.
Of course, nothing of what I have said has shown that there is not a god or a supernatural realm. I have only shown that the arguments in favor of them are not especially compelling, and that there are even explanations for why we believe as we do, notwithstanding the lack of evidence. No doubt some might conclude from the foregoing that I am an atheist or agnostic. In fact, I am not. Atheism implies that we know there is not a deity, whereas I believe it is unlikely, not impossible. Indeed, I think atheism as it has been promoted by some, most notably, communists of the Marxist sort, has many of the same attributes as a religion, a belief in a supreme power (dialectical materialism), a sacred text (Kapital), and even messianic leaders (Marx, Lenin, Mao, etc.), not to mention a belief in paradise, the communist utopia.
Agnosticism, properly understood, suggests that we cannot know, and that we are doomed to uncertainty. I think this view also claims too much. It is not difficult at all to imagine how the deity might make himself known to independent observers and how he could become subject to evidentiary scrutiny. Many who call themselves agnostics really mean to suggest that they do not know of god's existence, which is different than saying it cannot be known. This strikes me the correct view. In any event, there are better ways to spend one's time than worrying about it. Pursuing knowledge and happiness while, at the same time, not harming others and, when we can, promoting their happiness, strike me as much more deserving of our attention. I should think a benevolent deity might agree.