Friday, November 3, 2017

The Sham of Philosophical Theism

[The following is drawn from my email exchange with Darwin Skeptic. I took thematically-related sections of my messages and assembled them into an article. So you can read my stand-alone case against philosophical theism without having to read the longer email exchange. Enjoy!]
Philosophy, the relatively independent, objective exercise of reason in response to profound questions can address theism or any other subject, but it doesn’t support theism well, by making theistic beliefs more rational than atheistic ones. Atheism is more rational than theism, as far as philosophers are typically concerned. Not everything that philosophers address is illuminated by their ruminations, because unlike science, philosophy is partly artistic and literary, which means it includes speculations and rhetorical rationalizations of cultural prejudices. At its best, though, philosophers provide arguments or illustrations that revolutionize culture or that at least separate the enlightened intellectuals from the hoi polloi. Analytic philosophers currently focus on science and rigorous analysis, minimizing speculation and rhetoric and thus the artistic side of philosophy, at the cost of making their tedious, hyper-detailed writings culturally irrelevant since they’ve had to overlook the bigger issues.  

Atheism and the Danger of Freedom of Thought

In any case, even before offering an atheistic argument or looking at any theistic proof that a religious philosopher might provide, we shouldn’t expect philosophy to establish that a personal creator of the universe exists. After all, Western philosophy grew out of a rejection of popular religion. From Thales to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosophers ridiculed the popular notions of gods. The Presocratics overthrew the Olympian pantheon, crediting various material or impersonal powers with being the foundations of all other things. They thus made nonsense of the self-serving metaphors we naively proffer to humanize that which would plainly have to be unlike anything in nature, to be the precondition of all knowable categories and particulars, including persons. Plato’s Parable of the Cave famously substitutes goodness for God. Aristotle’s divine being, the primary cause or unmoved mover, retained the personal quality of being able to think, but only because the essence of this being is to reflect on itself. Aristotle’s theology is thus deistic rather than theistic: his God doesn’t create nature but only inspires it as its final cause or purpose, as opposed to being nature’s efficient, mechanical cause. Aristotle’s deity can’t think about or perceive anything other than itself, because doing so would render it imperfect and thus it would cease to exist as the eternal, perfect being which all lower beings look up to.

Such is an example of a philosopher’s god. Of course, Aristotle was only meditating on the celestial motions of what we now know are planets, not perfect persons in any way. But the point is that philosophical reflection on the question of theism in the West has historically acted as a corrective to the intuitive, emotional, faith-based conceptions of divinity. Vulgar religion isn’t argumentative; instead, it’s tribal, the gods being mental projections that celebrate the character of the believers’ culture. To paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes, if horses or lions could believe in gods, their gods would look like horses or lions. Likewise, aggressive cultures worship angry, jealous gods that threaten to annihilate their worshippers if they don’t conquer some earthly region or other. And as Nietzsche pointed out, victimized people such as the early Christians worship a forgiving deity that prefers weakness to strength, poverty to wealth, modesty to pride. Christianity thus begins with slave morality, because popular, exoteric theism in general is a pre-reflective cultural expression quite inseparable from its religious practices. Indeed, it’s philosophy that distinguishes theistic beliefs from the religion so that the religious ideas can be scrutinized without any social commitment to the religion.

In the West, then, philosophy has historically challenged conventional wisdom in so far as the latter was propped up by prejudices and mass confusions. For that reason Socrates was executed, and so he became the secular Christ figure, the martyr for the elite exercise of reason on behalf of truths which the mob is unwilling to accept, including the truths of naturalism and atheism. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy was reborn in Europe during the Renaissance, after what historians call the Middle Ages. Why the division rather than historical continuity? Because what passed for philosophy during the Middle Ages was dogmatic and in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church which was opposed to philosophy as such; indeed, the Church effectively demonized philosophy and science as witchcraft and the like, because free-thinking tended to depart from Church teachings. The essence of philosophy was thus a crime punishable by death. For example, the Aristotelian proposition that God can’t think about anything other than himself was banned by the Church in 1270, and between 1210 and 1277 the Church banned many other philosophical statements. But these bans proved ineffective, and despite Aquinas’s grand synthesis of Christianity and Aristotelianism, which was meant to tame the latter for the glory of the former, the act of reading the ancient texts gave some Scholastics an inkling of genuine philosophy. They turned into skeptics who denied that reason could support faith, since they believed reason couldn’t even prove that the external world exists. These skeptics countered the rationalists who adhered to the Church’s bans by confining themselves to pondering how God could act contrary to the condemned parts of Aristotle’s philosophy. All of the Scholastics’ arguments, though, were necessarily limited and often whispered rather than written, since they had to be acceptable to the Church for both the books and the authors to avoid being burned. For example, Nicholas of Autrecourt had to recant his skepticism and burn all his writings in 1347.

When more of the ancient texts became available towards the end of the Medieval Period, they sparked a full-blown humanistic revolution in Europe that set off the Age of Reason, which included the rise of modern science and the Enlightenment, the latter being the enforcing of secular philosophy to establish a culture of liberal humanism. Enlightenment philosophers were authentically philosophical because they were free to pursue ideas wherever they led. By contrast, the classic theistic proofs by Aquinas and the Scholastic philosophers were stale and strained, because their approach to reason in general was artificially narrow-minded. (Aquinas even admitted as much on his death bed, calling his life’s work so much “straw.”) Unlike Socrates, the Church’s intellectuals didn’t love knowledge more than their skins; those that did were the pagans and heretics from Hypatia to Bruno who were tortured and murdered by the orthodox Christians. In between the Ages of Faith and Reason there was a grey area populated by such figures as Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, and even Newton and Kant. Being men of their time when the church was still politically powerful, these philosophers and scientists were partly dogmatists, but they were also partly free thinkers. Most early modern intellectuals thus argued for both esoteric theism (that is, for a version of theism or deism which doesn’t sit well with popular religion, the closer you examine it, seeing through the philosopher’s obfuscations and noble lies) and liberal secular humanism, because philosophy was still once again finding its footing. That development culminated in the rabid naturalism of Nietzsche who predicted the downfall of philosophy itself in our period of hypermodern malaise. 

So the history of Western philosophy should make us skeptical of philosophical theism. The use of reason in defense of the popular conception of gods, as being flawless persons who create and miraculously intervene in nature, tends to be disingenuous. Why? Because there’s no reason to expect that logic should align with intuition and emotion, and the popular, theistic (as opposed to deistic, pantheistic, or mystical) conceptions of gods plainly flow from the latter. When intellectuals begin thinking freely (and thus philosophically) about theological matters, they inevitably discover all sorts of gross errors, incoherencies, and other absurdities in the conventional beliefs. The mob of believers isn’t interested in whether their religion is rationally justifiable: they want to believe in their gods because doing so makes them feel better about life and death, and unites their community in a way that affords its members the chance to be happy. Therefore, the mob doesn’t include philosophers, because authentic intellectuals (as opposed to dogmatists and demagogues) stand apart from the crowd, as their liberated thoughts inevitably have more or fewer subversive implications which render these intellectuals unpopular.   

As partly artistic and rhetorical as it is, compared to science itself, and thus as capable as it is of arguing for anything under the sun, philosophy is still ill-suited to establishing the rational superiority of theism to atheism. The point here is akin to the aphorism about the danger of trusting in the God of the Gaps. Some theists defend their religion by locating the work of their deity within a gap in that which is understood with the ever-expanding body of scientific knowledge, the danger being that science has tended to fill its gaps, which then falsifies the god that was supposed to be found there. The gods were once identified with the planets and indeed with all sorts of forces or powers which were eventually naturalized. Modern naturalism has thus pushed the gods not just out of our solar system but out of the whole known universe. Darwin even showed how species could naturally evolve without any intelligent designer. All that’s left for the theist, philosophically speaking, is some unknowable, transcendent, supernatural First Cause which is removed from nature, which isn’t personal, and which therefore isn’t the theist’s God at all. In line with mysticism, reason doesn’t establish this source of nature so much as faith does, since this Source is stipulated to be beyond our understanding.

In any case, the rational, science-centered, and indeed subversive aspect of philosophy ensures the shakiness of philosophical theism. This may seem to beg the question against theism, but the judgment here is based on the historical induction which I’ve outlined above. The theist’s synthesis of philosophy and religion is dubious at the outset, because the theist has the audacity to attempt to turn her opponent’s weapon, being philosophy, against the opponent. This is like saying that guns are best used in support not of war but of peace. On the contrary, guns can’t help but break the peace, because to use them is to commit acts of violence. Likewise, philosophy can’t help but undermine socially useful beliefs and practices, such as theism and religion, since to think philosophically is precisely to exercise doubt, to ask deep questions, to demolish everything that’s taken for granted and to rebuild only what passes the test of rigorous skepticism. Scientists test their hypotheses with physical experiments, while philosophers test their speculations and analyses by submitting them to the crucible of limitless debate. The historical trend of Western philosophers’ skepticism and subversion isn’t accidental. Western philosophy is defined by the ancient Greek tradition, and the love of wisdom precludes an equal love of anything else such as fame, happiness, or power. This means that philosophy is an obsession with the truth, a dangerous love that disregards its personal and social consequences. At best, the philosopher trusts that the rational search for the ultimate truth will benefit the seeker rather than, say, derange her. It was left for Sade and Nietzsche to point out that the death of God may prove socially disastrous.

So is theism likely to be rational? To count as a worthwhile explanation, it would have to increase our understanding to say that a person created the universe. But the moment of Creation would have been miraculous and thus inexplicable to us, and the notion of an entirely immaterial mind runs counter to mountains of evidence. People as we understand them have minds which depend on physical brains. Where, then, is God’s brain supposed to be? If God has none, he’s not literally a person, in which case we must shift from theism to some more esoteric conception, and we’re no longer talking about philosophical theism. If God has personal qualities, they should be just as in need of explanation as the qualities of natural persons which the positing of God is supposed to explain. Again, if God’s qualities are special in that instead of possessing them, for example, God is identical with them, in which case God wouldn’t have love but would be love, God wouldn’t be like any person on Earth. In that case, calling God “personal” would be vacuous, since God’s thoughts and feelings would have nothing to do with our kinds of mental states. A useful metaphor for X has to shed light by including more similarities to than differences from X. But the more similar God is to a human person, the less explanatory value theism has, since in that case positing God commits the fallacy of special pleading. We can’t explain how people came to be in general by saying they all come from a special person that has roughly the same characteristics as humans but that for some reason doesn’t himself require any explanation. Such a pseudo-explanation may comfort the mob, but it doesn’t increase a philosopher’s understanding. For reasons like these, theism fails as a rational explanation. But since the stories that are central to theistic religions are poetic myths, the notion that theism should be held to rational standards in the first place is wrongheaded.

Theism’s Origin in Animistic and Emotional Projections

To the extent that theism seems to make sense of otherwise perplexing facts, such as the cosmic fine-tuning of the universe to support life, our species’ high intelligence, and the consensus about morality, that’s only because theism is unfalsifiable and could be made compatible with any conceivable piece of evidence. So theism is a pseudo-explanation and the rational superiority of theism is an illusion.

Theism is the belief that a perfect person created and intervenes in the world. Theism itself is thus exoteric, meaning it’s an expression of our tendency to anthropomorphize whatever we attempt to understand at the intuitive level. That doesn’t mean theism is thereby false, since that would be the genetic fallacy. But it does mean that the theistic notion of ultimate reality or of the source of everything in nature is dubious. As a refinement of animism, theism is the result of a gradual disenchantment of the world, as populations fled the wilderness and the life of hunting and gathering and crowded into walled-off civilizations. This momentous anthropological shift pushed spirits further and further away until the talk of gods became vacuous and the gods themselves were vestiges, because we’d forgotten what they really were. Spirits, angels, demons, faeries, goblins, ghosts and gods are mental projections. They were the result of naive attempts to ward off fear of the unknown, by humanizing everything in experience.

Precisely because people once lacked godlike physical power in nature, and were only several animal species in the same kingdom as all the other animals, as opposed to reigning over the planet like we seem to do now, our distant ancestors could only imagine that nature was tamed. And so they envisioned that the world is an enormous society: the wind and the rain, the day and the night could be negotiated with through prayer and rituals, because everything was alive and mentally active. That way, the powerful human talent for interpreting the contents of other human minds could be extended to apply to whatever the ancestors encountered. Animists thus related to the world much as all children instinctively do, since they regarded everything as imbued with magical powers and mystery. They could hardly have done otherwise, since those distant ancestors had no other advantage than their mental power, because their technology was still primitive. Other animal species had greater speed or strength, but we excelled in our ability to conceive of mental maps and to make those maps especially relevant by grounding them in our experience. Thus, our ancestors could mentally simulate possibilities and judge their worth by applying familiar criteria such as the rules for social engagement.

In short, the animists didn’t sharply distinguish between subjects and objects, and so they assumed that spirits were everywhere. That made sense to the egalitarian, hunter-gatherer societies. Monotheists and polytheists took those omnipresent spirits and packed them into fewer but denser forms, as it were. They did so in response to two developments: the vast increase in human power over nature, thanks at first to farming, and the rise of great chieftains and kings, and of the more hierarchical nature of civilized society. The more technological control we had, the less we needed to rely on compromises with fickle spirits of the wild. And the remaining spirits had to reflect the new kind of society to fulfill their function of comforting the masses and providing for the meaning of their life. Thus, the spirits became gods modeled on monarchical or aristocratic human rulers.

Again, this isn’t to commit the genetic fallacy, by saying that because theism has a dubious origin, therefore theism is false. My point in referring to animism isn’t just genealogical, since the current naïve conception of God as human-like is also more easily understood as being similar to the ancient animist’s mental projection. So I’m saying the textbook notion of God as a personal creator of the universe is more simply explained as resting on anthropomorphic projections than on a real deity. I’m not saying theism is false or dubious because of its origin; rather, I’m saying theism more likely has one sort of origin (the deflationary one) than another (the naïve, literal theistic one).

Theism’s resulting Unfalsifiability and Incoherence

Thus, mysteries such as the natural order, freewill, and the universality of moral judgments are never explained by appealing directly to God; instead, their mysteriousness can be neutralized by turning to the theistic mental projections, to the humanizing filter we lay on top of what philosophers think of more neutrally as the ultimate ground of Being. For example, suppose a theist says that the fine-tuning of the universe to allow for the emergence of intelligent life is expected if we assume theism. This would assume, in turn, that we would have the foggiest notion of what an infinite, eternal, supernatural person would want. It assumes the validity of some divine revelation so that we could (vainly) affirm that God created the universe primarily because God wanted to create us. But not every creation myth is so self-serving and myopic. There have been hundreds of creation myths, some of which treat humanity as a blip in cosmic history. Hindus say the universe is sustained by Vishnu’s dream, and when he awakens one of infinitely many cosmic cycles will end. Indeed, why wouldn’t God create many different universes, including lifeless ones, if he lives forever? Why wouldn’t God have already created all the universes of the physicist’s multiverse? What else was God doing before the Big Bang? And so why wouldn’t God’s plan be unfathomable to us? Clearly, the assumption that God created this universe because he wanted intelligent life to evolve derives from the same anthropocentrism that led the animists to socialize nature and the early theists to pack spirits into king-like rulers whose existence would thereby validate human civilizations.

So suppose a philosophical theist offers the following sort of argument:

(1) The universe is mysterious for its tendency to support intelligent life.

(2) God would want to create such life, whereas atheists have to leave that cosmic tendency unexplained.

(3) The cosmic tendency makes more sense if God created the universe than if there were no God.

(4) Therefore, philosophy supports theism better than atheism.

Similar arguments could be offered featuring other facts or alleged facts which theism might be expected to explain better than could naturalistic atheism, including consciousness, freewill, or morality. But (2) is dubious. Suppose there is a God but he didn’t create our universe; instead, our universe popped into being, as in quantum mechanics, and life evolved painstakingly and obviously by accident over billions of years. In that case, a theist might say that this lack of fine-tuning is likewise evidence of God’s handiwork, since God would want to hide his role in creating the universe so that any life forms that happened to evolve wouldn’t depend on God but would have to fend for themselves and become strong and independent creatures. The possibilities of what a deity would want are endless—not necessarily for the deity, but for us, because we perceive through a glass darkly, to borrow Saint Paul’s expression; we are in full control over how we imagine our gods to be, what scripture to write or how to interpret it, and what religion to belong to.

In speaking of divinity in the theistic manner, we are speaking only about ourselves, about our anthropomorphic projections, our societal structures and cultural preferences. Again, this has been understood in the West since Xenophanes. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized this point with his distinction between the futile metaphors we use to understand ultimate reality, and the mystical experience of God as the oneness of being. To say that God would want to create life, because this or that myth or creed says so is to get caught up with the anthropocentric screen. The source of theism’s unfalsifiability is that we control the metaphors and the interpretations, and thus we can ensure that our religion or theistic model conforms to every conceivable state of affairs. Theism in its exoteric aspect, which includes the metaphor of ultimate being’s personhood, is a fiction in that the popular theistic ideas are mental projections. And so theists can dictate their picture of God just as any human author can decide what to include in her fictional story. Christianity is a marvelous example of this subjectivity, since despite the utterly anti-American implications of the New Testament, the intrinsic amorphousness of all theistic deities permits Americans to interpret Jesus as blessing their every imperial adventure, capitalistic idolatry, and racist and sexist bigotry, just as the early Catholics had done in defense of their accidental, anti-Jesus empire.

There is no need, however, to concede premise (1), since there’s no need merely to imagine a world in which life evolved painstakingly and accidentally over billions of years. That is in fact how life evolved in this universe, which means the universe is wildly hostile to life. It’s true that if the initial parameters of the Big Bang had been only slightly different, life as we know it wouldn’t have been possible. This doesn’t mean that no unknown form of life could eventually have evolved in those vastly different universes. After all, the development of those universes would have corresponded to altogether different models and so we could only barely guess at their endpoints. We don’t even know for certain the endpoint of our universe, because of the surprises of dark matter and energy, so we certainly aren’t entitled to say that even though it seems to have taken billions of years for life accidentally to emerge here, no strange kind of life could ever emerge in any other kind of universe.

Indeed, it made some sense to speak of the source of nature as having us in mind, when we assumed the universe was no larger than our solar system and the Earth was at its center, as it seemed from the ancients’ limited vantage point. Now that we know the universe is vaster than we can fathom and is hardly full of life, and that phenotypes did evolve partly due to the random transmission of genes from one generation to the next, as selected by the different environments—not to mention the many other accidents such as the meteor impact which made Earth safe for mammals—it seems farfetched to maintain that the cause of any apparent cosmic fine-tuning was likely the human-friendly intentions of a deity. We don’t know that the emergence of life is bizarre, because we don’t know that other kinds of life couldn’t evolve under very different conditions. Moreover, this sort of theistic argument would establish at best a God of the Gaps, since the fine-tuning is only currently mysterious. Were naturalists to explain the fine-tuning, such as by further justifying the multiverse theory, this reason for theism would disappear. And as I said earlier, scientists have tended to fill their gaps.

Another problem is with (3), which is that theism isn’t a good explanation of anything. For example, theists are guilty of special pleading on behalf of their deity. There’s no increase of understanding in saying that intelligent life was allowed to emerge, because the universe was created by an intelligent life form. Theism doesn’t thereby explain the existence of intelligent life at all, but only presupposes the existence of intelligence, using our interpretation of it, as I said, as a magic top hat to hide a rabbit or anything else we’d need to feel better about some situation in which we find ourselves. If God were plainly the cause of the universe so that we could read the signs embedded in the effects that indicate the nature of their divine cause, then indeed the universe would testify to God’s existence, as theists imagine. And indeed, if we were talking about nature as the animists conceived of it with their anthropomorphic projections, then sure: a personal source of a living universe would make sense. But this isn’t the universe that scientists found. It makes more sense to explain life and intelligence as emergent phenomena than as metaphysically primary, because the vast majority of the universe is lifeless and mindless.

Saying that a person created nature makes no sense, because our concept of personhood has implications that wouldn’t apply to a monotheist’s God. A person requires not just a brain but a society. When a person grows up in the wild with no parents, he or she becomes feral and loses the quality of being a person, because that creature would have no language or culture. If God is timeless and doesn’t develop or learn, God is no kind of person that we understand at all. In fact, calling both God and a human “persons” would require equivocation: the theist would be illicitly assuming two definitions of “person,” because of the obvious differences between our and God’s intelligence, intentions, and will. Theism is incoherent for lots of reasons, one of which is that the philosophical theist’s conception of God as an intelligent designer must take seriously the anthropocentric metaphor of the personal nature of ultimate reality, and this conception conflicts with the philosophical doubts about naïve, exoteric religion, which imply the mystic’s conception of God as transcendent and entirely beyond our comprehension (our metaphors being futile and ultimately misleading). That is, the more rational a theist attempts to make her belief in God, the more that god becomes an idol, which makes her theism incoherent because she’ll need to go back and forth between the intuitive picture of God as a personal designer who’s like us, and the transcendent, esoterically-rational picture of an entity that’s unlike anything in the universe.

Rational Standards for Theistic Explanations

Theism doesn’t have to be scientific to be true. However, to be philosophical and not just dogmatic, theism must be rational as opposed to purely faith-based. Therefore, philosophical theism must adhere to the principles of critical thinking as these apply to arguments and explanations. This applies, then, to any argument for philosophical theism claiming that theism makes sense of various phenomena, whereas the naturalist is supposed to struggle with them. According to this sort of argument, theism tells us the cause (God’s intelligent design) of certain facts (cosmic fine-tuning, existence of consciousness and morality, and so on). The point would be that theism increases the probability of these facts, whereas atheism makes them unlikely. Specifically, theism would make for a valid inference to the best explanation of those facts. Therefore, this argument for theism must include a valid case of abductive reasoning—not according to strict scientific standards, but according to general rational ones.

One such standard is that an explanation must add to our understanding, instead of piling one mystery on top of another; that is, a rational explanation mustn’t be itself mystifying. Moreover, the explanation must be a form of reasoning in the first place, not purely a work of fictional art. That is, we must be dealing with intelligible propositions whose contents aren’t entirely poetic, subjective, or vacuous. Also, a rational explanation mustn’t be circular, meaning it must explain Y in terms of X, where X and Y aren’t the same in relevant respects. So for philosophical theism to provide the cause of cosmic fine-tuning and all the rest, it must first be a valid form of causal reasoning. I’ve argued that it’s not and I’ve even explained why it’s not and why we shouldn’t expect that it would be, because of how religion evolved from anthropocentric mental projections in the animistic phase of hunter-gatherers, and how its propositions function as poetic myths. Theism doesn’t rationally explain anything; therefore, it doesn’t explain various facts or alleged facts a theist might raise.

Positing God as a cause doesn’t increase our understanding, because God would be the biggest mystery and miracle of them all. If a theist wishes to counter this point by leaning on the anthropomorphic metaphors, according to which God is rather like a human person, she’ll only push the mystification back a step. This is because the literal conception of a personal deity quickly becomes incoherent and thus, once again, empty of explanatory content. For example, God’s mind would have no brain and his thoughts and feelings would have to be sequential and temporally bound, whereas God is supposed to be eternal; moreover, God would have to be perfect, whereas there’s no such thing as a perfect human person, by definition, since the meaning of person’s life is to struggle to overcome obstacles such as those that arise from her internally divided nature (the older and newer evolutionary layers of her brain). In other words, by our lights, a person is essentially flawed and mortal, and so the notion of an immortal, perfect person makes no sense.  Notice, for example, how the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus’ alleged perfection works by skipping over his adolescence so the reader doesn’t have to wonder how Jesus overcame the awkward years of puberty and acting-out, and how those formative years would have shaped his adulthood—as happens in the case of every genuine person as opposed to a cardboard-cutout, fictional character.

Theistic language is properly poetic and subjective, which allows Christians, for example, to interpret their scripture in all sorts of contrary ways. Is a scriptural passage meant to be taken literally or is it metaphorical? Is it meant to be prophetic and to speak to everyone, even millennia after it was written? Is it inerrant or did God only inspire the human authors so that parts of the Bible are fallible, reflecting their historical context? There are no objective criteria for settling such disputes for theists, so they end up appealing to a Holy Spirit which supposedly guides their interpretations, but this is a fancy way of admitting that biblical truth is entirely subjective. In any case, poetic, subjective statements are devoid of explanatory power, which is what I meant by calling theism unfalsifiable. The point isn’t that theism is unscientific, but that it’s rationally empty as a kind of talk about causal relations. The theist can interpret God as the cause of anything, because God’s mind acts as a magic top hat out of which the theist can pull a rabbit or a dove or whatever else she happens to want. For example, the theist can say God intervenes in our life sometimes but not all the time, and since God works in mysterious ways and it’s sinful to put God to the test, there’s no way to predict when or how God will act. Sometimes, according to conventional theistic wisdom, God answers our prayers by saying “No,” but it would be futile for us to attempt to understand why God acts or doesn’t act. That’s the whole point of the Book of Job.

By welding together the wildly-incompatible Old and New Testaments, Christians ensured that their theism, in particular, would be untestable, which is why their religion has been able to last for centuries. The more foolhardy prophets who stood by their clear-cut declarations were swiftly refuted by facts, and so their cults fell by the wayside. Only a creed with primarily subjective content can be flexible enough to appeal to anyone at any time, and thus only such a creed can serve a long-lasting global religion. Similarly, so-called psychics like John Edward can claim to read anyone’s mind on TV, by playing a sophisticated game of twenty questions with the audience member (as explained hilariously in a South Park episode). The audience member does all the work, so the psychic merely has to speak vaguely enough at first, narrowing his statements as the member inadvertently reveals more and more by her answers. It’s also how fortune cookies function: the reader does all the work of applying the text to her life, because the text is treated as poetry rather than as an objective statement of testable fact. Subjective truth and emotional appeal have their advantages, of course; alas, one such advantage isn’t that a work of art that functions in those ways can serve as a rational explanation.

Finally, theism is obviously circular as an explanation of anything to do with reason, meaning, design, or value, since God, the purported cause of these phenomena, would himself have such properties, so it would be like explaining the existence of trees by saying they all come from a big tree. It’s actually a case of equivocation, since only most members of a kind would thereby be explained by appealing to a special member of the same kind. If we proceed to deny that that special member itself requires an explanation, we’ve likely committed the fallacy of special pleading, as I’ve said above. The theist can say God doesn’t have his properties but somehow equals them, but that doesn’t work, as I’ve explained: again, it makes the concept of God bewildering, and it equivocates on God’s personhood since God would thus be quite unlike any human person.

Why Theists should be Pragmatists or Existentialists

The problem I’ve raised is that once you attempt to philosophize your way to theism, you begin to ask subversive questions about the vulgar conceptions of God, which leads you to a mystical idea of God’s transcendence, and that idea is virtually equivalent to atheism, since it defines away God’s personhood as a naïve or vain anthropocentric projection. The mystical “theist” can no longer appeal to that transcendent God by way of offering a rational explanation for anything, because that God is unknowable and no such explanation would add to our understanding. But if the philosopher persists in rationalizing her preference for a personal God, she can turn her religion into a pseudoscience, as in the case of Christian Creationism which treats Genesis as though it were a science textbook. Philosophy should push us towards atheism, and philosophical theism can’t help but objectify God, because reason is our main tool for controlling things by understanding them, by carving them up into conceptual boxes and analyzing the information for advantages and weaknesses.

What philosophical theism gains in a plausible concession that God would have to be beyond our paltry metaphors—meaning that the metaphors would misrepresent rather than provide partial truth (the partial truth would be an idol, which is the main point of Judaism and perhaps Islam, which Christianity contradicts)—it loses in the implication that philosophical theism becomes equivalent to atheism: God, mystically defined, becomes impersonal, an absolute emptiness (as in Buddhism) which is beyond all objects and limited conceptions, and thus beyond the comparison with any sort of mere person. Such a deity can’t be used in any rational explanation, because it’s useless to explain something more understandable in terms of something far less so.

The failure of philosophical theism leaves me with the question of why we should trust our cognitive powers when it comes to the ultimate questions, especially if we end up flattering ourselves with theistic answers. I agree with mystics who say that exoteric theism stems from an ethical flaw. It’s unimaginative or vain for us to think of ultimate reality as being anything like us! Even if it turns out that God does exist and did create the universe, I suspect God would reward atheists more highly than theists, because anthropocentrism would be a sin, stemming from fear or vanity, whereas reflective atheists are more likely to be humble. Atheists who appreciate the existential absurdity of our situation, who believe that whatever strangeness is at the bottom of nature doesn’t at all favour humans and that the emergence of life is a tragic accident should have no cosmic reason to boast. By contrast, theists have more of a reason for being complacent, because they can claim to be in accord with primary reality. Atheistic naturalism entails that absurdity—not a perfect plan—is fundamental to our situation, and so we’re permanently homeless, despite our restlessness in replacing the scary wilderness with an artificial world in which we’re much more comfortable. We’re lost in the universe, because our intelligence enables us to see that we’re alienated from nature, which is why we must struggle to survive and why our domination has the unintended consequence of corrupting and thus dooming us.

Reason is a burden to bear, since philosophy thrusts this subversive viewpoint on us, which is why I think philosophical theism misses the mark. The problem with atheism or naturalism isn’t that the exoteric idea of God should be taken seriously. On the contrary, we should pay more attention to the mystical, cosmicist suspicion that fundamental reality is bound to be indifferent towards us—which is humiliating. Any other kind of cosmology or metaphysics sets up an idol that flatters or otherwise corrupts us. So say Judaism and elements of Islam. This means that new atheists and secular humanists can be as wrongheaded as naïve theists, from my perspective. Neither is nearly humble enough; neither has wrestled with the Nietzschean or Lovecraftian implications of naturalism.

If I were a theist, I’d press the pragmatic or existentialist line of argument. For example, Richard Dawkins is fond of saying that just because a belief is comforting doesn’t mean it’s true, which is correct. But Dawkins doesn’t go on to consider whether it’s possible or wise to ensure that all our beliefs are true. From Dawkins’ biological perspective, we’re all animals with a highly irrational side, so why should we expect that we’re fundamentally concerned with factual truth? Of course, we’re internally conflicted since we do have the scientific capacity for objectivity, but that means we must reconcile the nonrational and rational sides of ourselves. Dawkins does this only weakly by admiring the alleged beauty and wonder of nature. Meanwhile, he’s a secularist, and for centuries secular society has been endeavoring, as I said, to bury nature beneath the artificial cities we seem to prefer. If all worldviews have mythical, intuitive, and artistic underpinnings, the difference between theism and atheistic worldviews must be more aesthetic or ethical than empirical. The fundamental philosophical issue needn’t be truth. In fact, truth-as-correspondence may be in the same category as natural law: both notions may derive from an outmoded theistic worldview. 

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