There is a particular brand of objection to Christian theism that I like to call disproving the wrong God. It’s refuting a God that no one believes in anyway. I wrote about this a long time ago under the heading, “The Wrong God Fallacy,” also known as the “straw god” error. It’s amazing how easy it is to disprove the existence of the wrong God.
I’ve just encountered one of the more sophisticated versions of this in Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro’s outstanding 2008 book Naturalism. They quote the philosopher Jan Narveson saying,
Creation stories abound in human societies, as we know. Accounts describe the creation to various mythical beings, chief gods among a sizable polytheistic committee, giant tortoises, super-mom hens, and, one is tempted to say, God-knows-what. The Judeo-Christian account does no better, and perhaps does a bit worse, in proposing a “six-day” process of creation.
It is plainly no surprise that details about just *how* all this was supposed to have happened are totally lacking when they are not, as I say, silly or simply poetic. For the fundamental idea is that some infinitely powerful mind simply willed it to be thus, and as they say, Lo!, it was so! If we aren’t ready to accept that as an explanatory description – as we should not be, since it plainly doesn’t *explain* anything, as distinct from merely asserting that it was in fact done – then where do we go from there? On all accounts, we at this point meet up with mystery. “How are we supposed to know the ways of the infinite and almighty God?” it is asked – as if that put-down made a decent substitute for an answer. But of course it doesn’t. If we are serious about “natural theology,” then we ought to be ready to supply content in our explication of theological hypotheses just as we do when we explicate the scientific hypotheses. Such explications carry the brunt of explanation. Why does water boil when heated? The scientific story supplies an analysis of matter in its liquid state, the effects of atmospheric pressure and heat, and so on until we see, in impressive detail, just how the thing works. An explanation’s right to be called “scientific” is, indeed, in considerable part earned precisely by its ability to provide such detail.
This amounts to an impressively effective refutation of a material, mechanical God: a God no one believes in.
I haven’t studied Narveson; I haven’t even read him beyond this quote. I’m bringing you this quote as representative of something I’ve seen in atheists including Steven Schafersman (see also here) and the (alas!) now-vanished commenters on this post. Because it’s representative I think it’s worth discussing. I don’t want to make the error of assuming I know what Narveson thinks beyond this short snippet of his words, however. So for this post I’ll use “N” instead of Narveson, where N represents a certain sort of non-believer with a certain kind of expectation. You’ll see what I mean as we go along.
N misses out on the “why” kind of explanation
For the kind of explanation it calls for in God’s working is the kind that belongs in the world of material, mechanical things. For one thing it wants to answer “why” questions in terms of “what efficient and material cause brought about this effect?” which fails (as Goetz and Taliaferro note) to take into account that explanations can also be given in terms of reasons. If we say “the pot is whistling because she wanted to make hot tea,” no one calls that a non-explanation.
He disproves a God whose parts could be analyzed
But Goetz and Taliaferro miss the better answer to N’s objection, in my view. N’s view requires that explanation be given in terms of steps that can be broken down, analyzed, and subsumed under general laws. He seems to doubt that any God can be found like that. I agree.
He disproves a spiritual reality that’s physical rather than spiritual
Further, this view is tantamount to ruling out spiritual explanations just because they are not physical; either that or else it insists that if there are any spiritual forces, then they must be material/mechanical forces, in order to be explanatory. Such a God obviously doesn’t exist. Again, I agree, and so does every other theist. N has ruled out a God no one believes in.
He finds God-as-explanation to be inadequate
His whole point would be trivially, even embarrassingly obvious if not for the purpose he puts it to, which is to say that theists can’t get any explanatory mileage out of the God we do believe in. For some reason it bothers him that we resort to “mystery,” as if we ought to be believers in a God we can analyze and understand. This again is the God that neither he nor we believe in.
Is there then some reason that we ought not believe in a God whose being and whose ways we cannot break down and analyze? N thinks that if we want to think of God as an explanation for reality, we can’t believe in the God we believe in, because such a God just doesn’t explain reality. Here again I’m almost back to agreeing with him. If I conceived of God only as an explanation, I would have nothing much to say about either God or the physical world.
N gets a lot right
I find myself agreeing with N on many things: ultimate reality does not consist in a mechanical/material/spiritual being whose parts can be analyzed and subsumed under general law.
Isn’t it refreshing to have non-believers helping us refute a false god?
But N misses out on the real God Christians believe in
The thing is, his refutations have nothing to do with the God Christians believe in.
Take his criticism of God-as-explanation. The thing is, that’s not the only way we have of knowing, understanding, or conceiving of God; far from it, in fact, for we do not know God or believe in him just as an explanatory force. He has given us so much more than that! We have his self-revelation, the record of his acts among men and women, the account of his character and purposes as he expressed it in history. Character and purposes explain things, too. “The pot is on the stove because she wanted to make tea for her husband,” provides us with deeper understanding than simply, “The pot is on the stove because she wanted to make tea.”
We can say that God explains things, then. The universe’s existence is explained (partly) as the expressive act of a creative God who loves beauty. Humans’ ability to think, to love, to act with moral significance is explained (partly) as the result of God’s wanting to create us with the ability to relate with him, and so that he could show his goodness and his love.
This doesn’t explain things fully; but then neither does physical causation, as Goetz and Taliaferro point out. We have no explanation for the existence of quarks. They might just be the ultimate particles, indivisible, not composed of any other stuff, whose existence simply is, for all science could ever find out. If not quarks, then some smaller, more fundamental particle must meet that description. There must be an end of science. And could science ever explain why there are physical laws, and energy, and matter?
God is accessible because he is God
But then again, are God’s character and purposes even explanatory? Are they not so far beyond us that we could never really grasp what they are in God’s mind? How could mere humans know anything of what God, the totally-other is like in himself? Not so fast. To say that humans could never understand anything whatsoever of God is to say that if there is a God, he is a God who cannot communicate anything about himself to humans. It is to say that God, who originated human communication, cannot communicate himself to humans.
Some may think that humans are woefully arrogant to suggest we might know something of God. Almost the reverse is true: to say that we cannot know anything of God is to make God so small that he cannot make himself known to us. I’m sure N would never believe in that kind of God. Neither do I, and neither does any other Christian.
At any rate, N seems to agree with Christians on many things. He seems to disbelieve in many of the same things we disbelieve in. More power to him on that!