God’s Defenders Can’t Get Their Act Together

More Evasion, Bluffing, and Pretending
Here we go again…trying to get believers to level with us. In my article published here on 4 May 2018, When God Is Nowhere to Be Found, I restated the Put-Up-or-Shut-Up Challenge for those who insist that God is real:

“Please tell us where we can find reliable, verifiable data about God, and all devout theists must agree: ‘Yes, this is where the reliable, verifiable data can be found.’”

We’re not asking them to prove anything. We’re not even asking them to show us the data. Just tell us where we can find it. How can that be unreasonable, if God is present everywhere? Apologists can be a sneaky bunch, and one who frequently drops in on the Debunking Christianity blog, offered this insult to our intelligence:

“Knowledge based on reliable, verifiable data is epistemically atypical. Most of the important stuff we know in life—particularly, what we know about people—isn’t based on data like that.”

In my article I explained that this is a bluff, and I offered several examples of how life in the modern world depends of reliable, verifiable data; that it is not “epistemically atypical” at all.

Backup Arrives

Ah, but then another of the lurking apologists felt compelled to dive in with more bluff and evasion. He too is puzzled by the Put-Up-or-Shut Up Challenge.

I wonder if he understands the motivation for the challenge. For thousands of years, theologians have claimed to be privy to information about gods, but it turns out that their sources are highly unreliable; there is no way at all to verify the “information” that comes through prayer, visions, revelation, and scripture.

Theists themselves disagree adamantly about whose prayers, visions, revelation and scripture are authentic. Just within Christianity itself the divisions and differences are beyond counting. Devout folks disagree about so much. Why should anyone outside the faith in-groups trust their claims? Hence our challenge to show us where we can find reliable, verifiable data about God. Isn’t it about time to end the big bluff, for them to quit trying to fool some or all of the people…all of the time?

Our second apologist inhaled deeply, then blew more smoke, essentially saying, “Why hunt for data…look how many people believe what I do!” This is what he wrote:

• “Virtually all the major religions describe God as non-material. How would you verify such an entity?”
• “Virtually all the major religions describe God as personal. How would you verify an entity that is fundamentally a person?”
• “Virtually all the major religions describe God as a mind with will and ability to create, in other words the ability to cause effects in the material world. How would you verify such an entity?”

Why didn’t I think of the ‘virtually all’ solution! We can determine how the Cosmos works by majority sentiment. Never mind that most the faithful who carry on ‘the major religions’ have been coaxed, cajoled and threatened into belief since childhood. Never mind that billions of believers have worshipped thousands of gods that are no longer taken seriously at all. And never mind that a lot of goofiness is accepted by billions of people, astrology being just one example.

All of which tells us exactly nothing about how the cosmos works. It tells us what people believe.

Protecting God

Notice as well how the apologist works hard to make sure God is unfalsifiable. “How would you verify such an entity?” Well, if you put God out of reach, in exactly the way he prefers, then he has set the rules to keep his beliefs untouchable. Yet these God-fans claim that the deity is the most powerful, pervasive force in the cosmos, who monitors everything, even the thoughts of every person on the planet.

But don’t be so foolish as to suggest that this God can be detected! Why would a good, caring God, who wants people to follow him in good conscience, even want to play the game this way? It doesn’t make sense to those who are not under the spell of religious.

His first assertion, moreover, can get him into trouble: “Virtually all the major religions describe God as non-material.” Jaco Gericke has pointed out that the OT God was indeed thought to have a body (in his essay “Can God Exist if Yahweh Doesn’t?” in John Loftus’ 2011 anthology, The End of Christianity). So at least a couple of major religions didn’t begin with a non-material God; a bit of deity refitting has been required.

But with the assertion of a non-material God, he’s in danger of a head-on collision with Catholic theology, which depends very much on God having physical properties: At every Mass, bread and wine are turned into the real body of Jesus. Seems like, every day, boosted by a little ritual, God crosses the line back into the real world!

Please note, by the way, that transubstantiation, the ‘miracle of the Mass,’ is falsifiable. Chemical analysis of the bread and wine after the supposed miracle—so I’ve been told—reveals that no change whatever has taken place. It’s hocus pocus invented by priests. And wouldn’t you think that devout Catholics who eat the real Jesus year after year would enjoy better health than their less devout neighbors, especially the scornful Protestants? According to John 6:53-57, you get eternal life if you ingest Jesus, but shouldn’t there be residual benefits in this life? [Note, this comment can be filed under Ridiculous Beliefs Deserve Ridicule.]

What Is the God Category?

In my article I listed weather forecasting and the building of jumbo jets as examples of our reliance on reliable, verifiable data—to counter the apologetic dodge that we can’t expect such data about God since it’s not commonly used in other areas of life. Our second apologist came to the rescue:

“It seems to me that [the first apologist] is suggesting that God is in a different category than, say, weather and jumbo jets. So wouldn't it be appropriate to determine what category of things God is and then determine how an entity in that category might be verified?”

This is pretty much what the Put-Up or Shut-Up Challenge is all about: “…determine what category of things God is…” All skeptics and curious folks want apologists to show us where we can find out this kind of information, bypassing the tried and untrue “information” derived from prayers, visions, revelation and scripture.

If you say too often, “How would you verify such an entity?” it will begin to sink in that no hard data can be found, anywhere. Skeptics are entitled to ask, “What is the difference between a being for which no data can be rounded up…and—wait for it—an imaginary being? “No reliable, verifiable data is available” looks mighty suspicious, and is not sustainable.

In Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World (1997) he tells the parable of the fire breathing dragon in the garage (p. 171). The dragon’s owner tries to counter his neighbor’s skepticism:

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.” You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.” Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.” You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work. Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?

But for those who are quite comfy with prayer results, visions of their favorite saints, revelations by trusted prophets, and treasured revealed scriptures, all these epistemological problems are just tiresome nit picking. “We’re happy to believe, thank you very much.” Christianity survives because this laziness, this failure of curiosity, prevails so widely.

This second apologist began his response with: “Reliable? Who decides? Verifiable? By whom?” If apologists can move beyond their obviously unreliable and unverifiable sources of God knowledge—if they can show us where to find the data that should exist for a genuine all-powerful and pervasive deity—then serious thinkers who are disinclined to trust theists (who have never been able to agree on “spiritual truth” anyway) can evaluate the data.

Geoff Benson, responding to the apologist’s post, also sees through the well-practiced evasion:

“You claim god speaks to you, tells you things you couldn’t otherwise know, he performs miracles, answers prayers, and generally interferes with the world on a whim. However, when we enquire as to what evidence he might leave behind, all bets are off; you say there isn’t any.”

So, believers, get your act together. The Put-Up or Shut-Up Challenge still stands. We’re waiting. Though not as patiently as once upon a time.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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