Saturday, April 12, 2008

Is the very existence of apologetics a sign of weakness?

Imagine if I doubted my wife’s existence.

Imagine if I experienced sleepless nights filled with anxious uncertainty, wondering if the person lying next to me in bed was real. It would be quite strange if I did. Imagine if I one day called myself an a-Cori-ist, and wrote a book called The Cori Delusion. It is at this point that Cori would probably punch my arm and demand that I stop being such a fool.

My point is this: there are few who doubt my wife’s existence. I’ve never had to use apologetic-like arguments to convince anyone that my wife is in fact real.

Of course, someone on the other side of the world might reasonably doubt that my wife exists, because they have never seen or met her. But think of something much larger than my wife: say, the moon. Most people around the world, barring the few solipsists, would not even think twice about doubting the existence of earth's natural satellite. After all, there are no lunar apologists out there trying to convince us that there is indeed a large rock revolving around our planet. My wife’s existence is quite obvious to those who know her; the moon even more so.

Now, imagine something much larger than my wife or the moon, something so large that it exists everywhere in the universe. This thing is not simply an object, but a sentient being of immense proportions. Not only is it all-powerful, but this eternal being was the creator of the universe. This being is also intricately involved in human affairs, and its ultimate desire is to have a relationship with every single human being. Shouldn’t the existence of this being be more obvious than the existence of my wife, or the moon? One would expect so. But as it turns out, the existence of this being – called ‘God’ by the multitudes – is not that evident to many people.

I thought about this the other day: why do apologists spend so much time compiling complex arguments and printing hundreds of books that argue for the existence of God? Well, apologists make money from people’s doubt, and the very fact that they are in business is because there are many individuals out there who are uncertain about God’s existence. But why all the uncertainty? The only answer that I can think of is that God’s existence is not that obvious, a fact that seems inconsistent with the claim that God is great, omnipresent, and personal. Maybe the very existence of the field of apologetics, the branch of theology that aims to defend theistic beliefs on intellectual grounds, is an implicit admission of this weakness: that we do not observe what we would expect to observe if God – the one portrayed by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, at least – exists as generally described. Shouldn’t God’s existence be obvious? If it was, there would be no need for apologetics.

What do you think?


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Yep, that was one of the things that led to my de-conversion. I used to love Brother Lawrence's The Practice of The presence of God. One day it dawned on me that, while living like Brother Lawrence was a very effective way to keep one believing in God, I didn't need to practice the presence of broccoli. Shouldn't God be a little more noticeable than broccoli?

Cobus said...

Kevin, I think this might become a long comment, maybe I should have moved it to my blog, but I'd rather post it here and help the conversation along (hopefully).
Maybe just two questions concerning what we are talking about:
1. Why did you choose empirically observable objects as your examples? What would happen if other examples are choses?
2. What is the perception of God being assumed in using these examples?

On the first: Getting into an example war could be almost as useless as some metaphor wars I've seen, so let me start out by saying that your examples in a sense trouble me as well, and has been part of my own struggle with faith. Why can't my relationship with God be the same as my relationship with people? I've visited a fundamentalist church last night with a friend where people claim that their relationship with God is more real than their relationship with people, this got me very uncomfortable, because I usually don't experience it in this way. But there is other examples which may complicate the matter.
Myself and my flatmate are busy reading and discussing the work of Fritjof Capra, so how about an example from his work. And within the Christian-Atheïst conversation this might not be a good choice, but I'll use it nevertheless. What would happen if I compare God to evolution, rather than to Cori? I don't see evolution around me? I look at the plants, and look and look, but still they don't seem to change at all. In spite of that I believe that DNA and RNA and all those nice things change through a process we would call evolution. And I believe this primarily because I've read some arguments explaining this, and because this help me to make sense of the world.
Or how about something else. When reading Hawking's Brief History of Time (which I really struggle to understand), I must admit that I struggle to observe atoms, quarks, and all the other little things he write about. Still, because of some good argumente I've heard (since I didn't do the research myself), I think that this exist. Obviously this open up a whole new conversation, because what does my believe in there existence mean, since they are not observable, and to use the pictures some have drawn to help me understand these phenomena and think that these things look exactly like the pictures would be stupid.

A much shorted answer on my second question: Your argument should work quite well with the people we visited last night, since the picture of God they scetch is one who work similar to Cori, only much bigger (obviously if you use your argument they would have a ready reply, and if all else failes they would simply say that you don't understand or experience, because you don't believe. This is not the line of argument I would like to go into). But what if I have a much different picture of God? What I think I hear in your post is a response to people like those who I visited last night.

CyberKitten said...

I don't think that religion is 'weak' just it needs bolstering with argument - It's just that it's weak.... therefore some people feel the need to bolster it with argument.

Which in my mind defeats the whole object of having faith - belief *without* proof, right?

Of course some people don't need apologetics because they see the proof of God all around them. I guess it all depends on what you mean by 'obvious'. Some people see life in general or even the very existence of the universe as 'proof' of God. I'm guessing these people have no need of 'supporting arguments'.

I'm guessing that only the wavering believers need that - as I doubt if any argument could convince an unbeliever (like me). I certainly haven't heard a convincing argument yet - I wonder if one actually exists.

Paul Lim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
fighting illini said...

Yep I've been thinking along similar lines. More specifically, if God wants us to have personal relationships with Him, would it not be to His advantage to make Himself more obvious to us?

If life were a computer game and beating it was going to heaven, then people like Moses had it on easy mode.

Or used hacks.

Anonymous said...

You ask the question "Shouldn't God's existence be obvious?

It is! Open your eyes, look around you. Look at your wife, look at a South African sunset, look at a baby being born, look at the stars! It takes MUCH more faith, in my oppinion, to believe that there is NO God! It seems to me that atheists jump through hoops to try and convince themselves that there is NO God.

CyberKitten said...

But Anon... *None* of those things prove (or even indicate) the existence of God. He's going to have to be a bit more obvious that that!

Stephen said...

I must admit the concept of faith has always bothered me. Why is it necessary? Surely if god is omnipotent and the creator of the universe he could just create the world so that not believing in him was impossible. Very much like your moon analogy. It would be impossible to not believe in the moon, why is it so easy to not believe in god.

Max said...

Reminds of a comment by Bertrand Russel, when asked what he would say if he was wrong and had to testify at the pearly gates. He answered, "God, you gave us insufficient evidence."

Explanations for apologetics run from snake-oil to Doubting Thomas.

But they play on a shifting landscape, and are difficult to argue with. See a previous comment - I often hear people arguing that "traditional evidence" is the wrong way to judge.

Take solace in the fact that we practice what we preach, and live in a reality-based world. I place no "faith" in airplanes - I have strong evidence base to believe it will stay in the air.

Just found your blog, and I'm glad I did!

Carole said...

So what you're saying is that the need to rationally defend a belief is proof that the belief is not true?

Are you not rationally defending your skepticism through this very post?

Logical deduction:

1. Rational defense of a belief proves it's not true.

2. You rationally defend your belief that God does not exist.

3. Therefore, your belief is not true.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Why would I defend my belief that something doesn't exist?

I may disagree with someone else's reasons for believing something, but I don't need to create a whole field of study to disprove something, especially if it hasn't been proven.

Kevin Parry said...

Cobus wrote
What would happen if I compare God to evolution, rather than to Cori?

You have raised an excellent point and hopefully I will do it justice in my response. Using atoms, quarks and evolution are good examples to use as an analogy to God’s existence. However, I think this analogy only works when considering a deist kind of God: one who originally created the universe and then sat back, totally disinterested in humankind. Such a God would be difficult to detect, and we would then have to resort to empirical methods and philosophy, and do all the work ourselves, in order to come to some conclusion of its existence. You see, evolution, quarks and protons are not trying to catch our attention; they have no desire to be ‘discovered’, so to speak. However, the God of the Bible does not come across as a disinterested creator, but a God who is actively involved in human affairs, and whose desire is to have a relationship with every single human being. One would then expect that such a God would make its existence obvious. So I agree with your argument, but I think it would only apply to a deist creator, not to the God of the Bible.

Hope I’m making sense

I’m busy writing up responses to other comments here, and will post them up as soon as I’m done.

All the best

Kevin Parry said...

Carol wrote
So what you're saying is that the need to rationally defend a belief is proof that the belief is not true?

Very good! Yes, this is sort of what I am arguing, but my argument would be fallacious if I were talking about other beliefs and subjects. However, I think in the case of the Christian God, my argument stands. If Christians claimed that their God was quiet, uninterested and uninvolved in human affairs, then my argument would also be pretty weak as apologetics would have a genuine place in defending the idea of such a quiet God. But what I’m trying to say is that the existence of apologetics seems to be inconsistent with claims that the creator of the universe is almightily, omnipresent and involved in human history and human affairs. One would expect the existence of such a God to speak for itself, and one would expect that such a God would need little or no rational defence.

I’m also not claiming that this proves that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it places some doubt on Christianity’s interpretation of God, especially in terms of his goals for humankind and the characteristics of his being. It is also possible that the Christian God does exist as described in the Bible, but he purposely hides himself from us (i.e., he has disguised himself as a deist kind of God). But one then has to question the apparent lack of logic in such a choice: that God hides himself from us, but at the same time expects us to have a relationship with him.

But a truly excellent point – got me thinking!

All the best

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin and all,

The "hiddenness" of God is a widely discussed subject in the philosophy of religion, and the common defense of God's hiddenness is his desire for us to love and pursue Him. Life would be pretty boring if everything was right in front of our face with nothing to discover. Marriage would be pretty boring if I knew everything there was to know about my wife on day one. Science would be boring (and would not even exist) if we knew every formula and every quark and so on. God wants to be loved, and love involves pursuit, or drawing toward. The Christian conception of eternity is an always growing relationship with God and each other. If God forced Himself upon everyone and said, "Believe in Me!", the results would not be what God wants. God does not just want to believed in, He wants to loved with everyone we have.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that last sentence should say, "He wants to be loved with everything we have."

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

In my 20 plus years as a Christian I can honestly say I somehow missed this argument for the "hiddenness" of God. I've heard it quite a bit since my deconversion, yet I see zero support for it in Scripture. Certainly the god of the Bible wants his children to pursue him, but the Bible actually goes on and on about how obvious God is. Everything in his creation declares his majesty, the fool says in his heart there is no God, yada, yada, yada.

I think if I had heard this argument while I was still a Christian it would have hastened my deconversion.

As an ex-Christian this argument drives me further from agnosticism and closer to full blown atheism.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Yes you are right that many Scriptures point out the evidence in nature of God's existence and His majesty (e.g. Romans 1, Psalm 19), but there are also many Scriptures that talk about His incomprehensible "beyond-ness". For example, when Moses asked to see God's glory, God said that Moses couldn't handle it, but God decided to let Him see a small glimpse of His glory. What Moses actually saw I have no idea. Other Scriptures to consider are Job 38-41, Romans 11:33-36, and 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. So God does reveal Himself, but He keeps a lot of Himself reserved for later.

God reveals enough for us to pursue Him, but alas as you are familiar with the Bible, the real issue is whether or not we want to pursue God. He has given us room to reject Him. If He didn't give us any room, would God get the kind of relationship that He wants with us?

Other than the Scriptural issue, why else do you consider this hiddenness argument weak? What do you think about the marriage and science comparisons?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

You may have alluded to the other part of this argument that bothers me or I may be misinterpreting your meaning.

"If God forced Himself upon everyone and said, "Believe in Me!", the results would not be what God wants."

I've heard it argued multiple times that God directly revealing himself would violate our free will. If that were true then he violated free will hundreds if not thousands of times in the Bible.

The marriage and science scenarios are appropriately analogous to the "hiddenness" argument or theory, and are true, but your wife is not invisible and intangible to you, so I think science is the better analogy. Much of science is hidden to the naked eye, and some of it is purely theoretical. Until we die, God is purely theoretical. There were many things in my life that I passionately attributed to God, but all of those things could easily be coincidences as well. I actively pursued him for over 20 years and then one day it began to dawn on me that as much as I prayed, and that was quite a lot, that aside from all the possible coincidences, he never spoke to me directly. Yes, bits of scripture jumped out at me, and I suddenly knew the right thing to say during Bible study, or a song or story moved me in some way, but the most powerful being in the universe was less real to me than you are, and I don't even know your name. ;)

Anonymous said...

"It seems to me that atheists jump through hoops to try and convince themselves that there is NO God."

I don't think so. The whole discussion seems to be about how little (basically nothing) there is to indicate that God exists. You seem to be indicating that "the universe exists, ergo God exists." I don't think any of us are arguing that the universe doesn't exist. In fact, I'd be willing to bet my next paycheck that it does. But the fact that the universe exists doesn't in any way imply that God exists.

Trey said...

Following on in support of Mike's position:

The "God wants us to actively persue him" argument, the "God's direct revelation takes away our free will" argument, and others of that kind, while interesting, tend to fall flat when considering the "generic" or "impersonal" way the relationship between God and man actually experientially plays out (in my opinion).

For example, my wife wants me to "actively persue her" rather than just take her for granted. Similarly, one could argue that the direct presence of my wife takes away my free will to believe in her or not, my life has been fundamentally changed by her presence, etc. So far, so good...I make myself known to my wife, I persue her, I spend time with her, as one would allegedly would want to do with God.

However (and unlike God), my wife is physically, emotionally, and spiritually present to me...there is, if you will, a direct response and immediate relationship there. I don't have to "pray" to my wife for her to hear me, I don't have to search the stars, sunsets, nature, etc. to hear her voice. When she writes a letter, it is written specifically to me, not to a group or organization in generic, good-way-to-live-your-life terms, between 2000 to 6000 years ago (and I don't deny the wisdom of some of those ancient sayings).

Am I harmed by this direct relationship? Do I wonder in anguish whether or not she's actually there? Has my free will been so abolished that I now no longer have any sense of who I am? If so, shouldn't I get out of the relationship ASAP?

To sum up: Why can't God and I hang out in a coffee shop and chat about life? Jesus and I could crack a beer and talk about how things ought to be, and maybe how he and I could partner up to do some good in the world. Why does this simple exchange run so counter to the way God allegedly want to make himself know to us? After coffee and/or a beer, don't I still have to have faith that God is not leading me astray, that I can trust him, that He is there for different than my wife? Doesn't this exchange enhance the relationship in a non-obtuse fashion? Unfortunatley, I am apparantly denied that same kind of relationship, one that I value so much with my wife, friends, and family in varying degrees.

Nothing is stopping me from having coffee or cracking the beer like I just described...but, it ultimately feels like a one-way conversation and is not very satisfying in the final analysis.

Then enters the Christian apologist, with the arguments for why I should feel differently, in spite of my experience...I suppose I should be envious of the relationship that that individual allegedly enjoys in its fullness.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I'd love to have coffee, and or a beer with Jesus. :-)