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There are many ways for an argument in favor of theism to go wrong. The most common problem, though one that frequently goes unrecognized, has to do with the ambiguity of the term ‘God.’ To demonstrate this problem consider the following: Suppose that scientists, after years of trying to discover a mechanism that explains the origins of life on Earth, finally throw up their hands and conclude that we are never going to find a naturalistic explanation. We can even suppose, though it may be difficult to imagine what such evidence would look like, that they have positive evidence that life cannot have originated on Earth via the known chemical and physical processes.

Would this conclusion be reason to believe that God must have had something to do with life’s origins? Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘God.’ If ‘God’ simply refers to that process that gave rise to life on Earth, then the answer is yes. But, of course, this is not what anyone means by ‘God.’ The conclusion of the above imagined scenario is, properly stated, that we shouldn’t expect a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. But this negative conclusion tells us next to nothing about the actual explanation (assuming there is one). It does not tell us that that which gave rise to life is a being, a conscious being, a loving being, an all-loving being, an all-powerful being, an all-knowing being, inspired the Bible, created the universe, created the planet Earth, spoke the universe into existence, cares about human life, or has any of the other myriad features that those who believe in God believe that he possesses. All that this imagined scenario would license us to conclude is that that which gave rise to life is of an unknown and probably non-natural process. And even if (a very big if) we had evidence that there was a conscious entity involved in the creation of life, this still would not be evidence that God exists, because, for all that we would know, this conscious entity could be less than all-powerful, not the creator of the universe, not all-loving (may not even be loving at all), less than all-knowing, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible or any other religious text. So, to put it mildly, it would be a huge leap from the conclusion of the above imagined (and not very plausible) scenario to the further conclusion that God exists.

At the Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs has posted an article, “A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence” that contains a version of the teleological argument and which he thinks establishes that belief in God is more reasonable than disbelief. He argues that since there is currently no viable naturalistic explanation for how life originated on Earth, and since there is reason to doubt that we are anywhere close to finding such an explanation, we ought to conclude that life is the result of the intervention of some non-natural conscious intelligence. Jacobs sums up:

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

This argument suffers from the exact flaw I mentioned above. Notice, first, an interesting move: Jacobs says that some of us call the super-intelligent being who created life on Earth God. Fair enough. But I would venture to say that if it turned out that the super-intelligent creator was also uncaring, not omniscient, not omni-benevolent, not the inspiration for the Bible or any other religious text, and not even very interested in humanity, that very few would continue to call this being God. That some of us call the supernatural intelligence responsible for creating life “God” is really quite irrelevant to the question of whether Jacob’s argument proves that God exists. What we choose to call that force(s) through which life originated on this planet is neither here nor there with respect to the question of whether there is a all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful creator.

On the traditional monotheistic understanding, God is a being that is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • loving (perhaps even omni-benevolent)

We could add to this list, but let’s leave it at that. By way of contrast we’ll compare this notion to a related one of my own invention, that of a being who I have previously called Asura:

Asura is

  • transcendent (this would include being non-physical and non-natural)
  • the creator of everything (except Himself)
  • all-powerful
  • all-knowing
  • concerned with human life (i.e., takes an active interest in human affairs)
  • evil, nearly omni-malevolent (that is he despises almost everyone)

What Rabbi Jacobs’ does is take the first two characteristics of this list and argues that there is something that satisfies certain aspects of these characteristics. Jacobs’ argues, in effect, that there is a non-natural creator of life. But being non-natural is not the same as being transcendent and being the creator of life is not the same as being the creator of everything. So, his conclusion, if it were true, would not even establish that there is a being that satisfies the first two items of the list of God’s characteristics. Despite this, Jacobs takes this to be an argument for the existence of God. This is completely unwarranted. If it were warranted, then, since Asura is just as capable as God of creating life, it would also be an argument for the existence of Asura, and I doubt that he would be willing to grant that.

We can put this in the form of a dilemma. Either Jacob’s argument makes belief in God reasonable or else it does not. If it does make belief in God reasonable, then it also makes belief in Asura (an evil deity) reasonable. And, since belief in Asura entails the belief that God does not exist, Jacobs’ argument would also make disbelief in God reasonable. If it does not make belief in God reasonable, then it is not relevant to arguments concerning the rationality of belief in God.

There are other problems with his argument. I am sure that there are scientists who would strongly disagree with Jacobs’ assessment of the prospects of discovering a naturalistic explanation for the origins of life. However, I am not an expert and will not offer an opinion on this matter. But I would like to point out one more philosophical flaw with the argument. To simplify, we can boil  Jacobs’ argument down to the following: There is no naturalistic explanation for life’s origins. Thus, the only viable explanation is that God is responsible.

This argument suffers from a pernicious double standard. Scientists have been at work trying to explain how life originated but, says Jacobs, “the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.” Again, I’m not an expert so I am not qualified to determine whether this is an accurate depiction of the state of the scientific investigation. However, I would like to note that theologians have not really offered much of an explanation of their own. Rabbi Jacobs explanation seems to be little more the claim that God did it. But perplexing phenomena are not made less perplexing merely through the supposition that God did it.

The theological explanation offered by Jacobs is nowhere near as rigorous as he expects the naturalistic explanation to be. And there are at least as many gaping holes in his explanation as any naturalistic one. For example, How, exactly, did God create life? What did He do? When did He do it? Was there a process involved? If so, what was it?

Perhaps it is meaningless to ask such questions of a non-naturalistic explanation. But, if so, then how does it qualify as an explanation? Explanations are supposed to shed light on some heretofore inexplicable phenomena. But “God did it” sheds no more light on the origins of life than the claim that is was magic.


My concern with Theism is not so much that it is false. It is false, but so is the belief in Bigfoot. The problem with Theism is that it distorts our perception of reality, it blinds us to deeply important aspects of our world and ourselves.

In this post I’ll explore an example of what I am getting at. And while it is true that not all theists fall victim to the distortion that I will describe, the example is illustrative nonetheless.

The example concerns theistic ethics, in particular the epistemological problem with the divine command theory. Briefly, the problem is that if the divine command theory is true, then given some plausible assumptions, we can never (or very rarely) have knowledge of what is right and wrong. If what is right is constituted by what God commands, then we cannot know what we ought to do unless we know what God has commanded. But how can we know this? We don’t hear a voice from the heavens saying, “don’t hurt one another” and even if we did, how would we know that it is God’s voice? Perhaps the guidelines written in some religious text are indicative of God’s commands. But it is equally (actually more) likely that these texts are culturally conditioned. Whether or not we believe that it is reasonable to believe that God inspired the Bible, it is at least as reasonable to doubt that He did. And if we can’t be sure, then we can’t be sure what God expects of us.

So this is the first distorting effect: Instead of proceeding rationally into an inquiry concerning morality, the divine command theory says that we need to consult an unseen supernatural deity. Now, without the divine commander, how can we proceed? Without God we can only rely on our own intuition, our reason, and the insights and arguments of thoughtful and insightful people from across the ages. But this actually gets us pretty far. Whatever you may think of his account of morality, Kant’s investigation into the concept of absolute duty is extremely insightful. An appreciation of the works of people from such diverse philosophical perspective as Buddhism, Utilitarianism, Judaism, Kantianism, (too name just a few) agree that morality is specifically concerned with how we treat others. The Buddha, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Mill, Confucius, and many more all agreed that morality requires that we treat the interests of others as in some sense equal to our own.

So we can gain important insight into the requirements of morality without worrying about God. Or so it would be if the divine command theory is false. Because the divine command theory tells us that we cannot know anything about what is morally required until we know what God has commanded. It is this idea that involves the distortion of reality I am talking about.

The truth is that we don’t need to know what God commands to know, for example, that hurting others just for fun is wrong. Indeed, out natural moral commitments are so strong that if any one of us (even a divine command theorist) found himself in the position of believing that God has commanded him to kill someone who does not deserve it, the only reasonable response would be to doubt that God had really issued this command.

Abraham, for example, should have told God (or, rather, the being who claimed to be God) that since God is a just being and since it is wrong to kill a young boy who does not deserve it, the fact that He has commanded him to kill Isaac is actually evidence that He is not God.

Philip Quinn disagrees with this conclusion. In a paper called “God and Morality,” Quinn argues that

It is therefore within God’s power to give Abraham a sign that would make him certain that he has been commanded to kill his son. Suppose, for example, that one night, in the twinkling of an eye, the stars in the sky are rearranged to spell out the sentence “ABRAHAM, SACRIFICE ISAAC!” Abraham observes this transformation of the heavens. Observers all over the world, some of whom do not even know English, testify that they now see this patter in the night sky, and Abraham learns of this testimony and uses it to rule out the possibility that he is hallucinating. . . In such circumstances, it seems to me, Abraham would be crazy not to believe that he had been divinely commanded to kill his son.

This argument suffers what I have previously called a stunning failure of imagination. Surely Quinn must admit the possibility that other very powerful beings exist that might want to get us to commit horrible acts. It would be reasonable for Abraham to believe that someone (someone very powerful) wants him to kill his son, but there is no way for Abraham to know that God has so commanded him. Consider the following four explanations for Abraham’s experience:

Explanation (G): God wants me to kill Isaac so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son. –From God”

Explanation (S): Satan wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.

Explanation (E): Some other sadistic supernatural and very powerful entity wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.

Explanation (A): An omnipotent evil deity (who I have previously called Asura) wants me to kill my son and so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son.—From God.”

There is no means to adjudicate between explanations G, S, E, or A. Given the evidence, all four are equally likely. So it is just false that if Abraham saw the stars rearrange and spell out, “Abraham, kill your son.—God” that he would be foolish not to conclude that God wants him to kill Isaac. It would be just as reasonable to conclude that Satan or some very powerful deity is trying to fool him. So how is Abraham to decide? He can just decide to believe, on faith that none of S, E, A or any other alternative to G is true, and that he has been commanded by God to kill his son. But this will be a leap over his natural moral inclinations. Alternatively, he could decide the issue in just the way that a non-theist would: he could conclude that he is so committed to the notion that it would be wrong to kill Isaac that the being who is commanding him to do so is not worth worshipping or obeying. But this would be to acknowledge the failure of the divine command theory to guide our actions.

And this is the key point: A non-theist can rest on his/her own experience of reality (including moral reality) and insist that it could not possible be morally acceptable to kill a young boy who does not deserve it. But a theist who accepts the divine command theory cannot give this kind of priority to his/her own experience. Such a person must be willing to subvert her own deeply held moral commitments to the will of God (in whatever way the will of that being reveals itself).

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com
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