When God Is Nowhere to Be Found

Apologists bluff, evade, and pretend
Waffling is an art form among the academic crowd committed to defending the Christian faith at all costs. When presented with an unanswerable question, they pretend it’s the wrong question, and wander down a trail of pathetic excuses.

This is the Put-Up-or-Shut Up challenge that apologists run away from:

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.”

In no way can this be considered unfair, unreasonable or disrespectful. For millennia theologians have claimed to know about gods, often in great detail—and what a surprise!—they don’t agree. Hence, trying to get to the bottom of things, skeptics issue the challenge: tell us where can we find the data that anyone can access (for obvious reasons, “I know it in my heart” doesn’t qualify).

One of the apologists who stalks the Debunking Christianity Blog, no doubt prodded by his god, declines to tell us where anyone can find the data (hint: of course he doesn’t, because the data don't exist).

Instead, he disparages the concept:

“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.”

Is he out of his mind?

There are two tiresome bluffs here:

• The challenge has nothing whatever to do with knowing about people. It’s about discovering how our world and the Cosmos work. The fact that it’s hard to get to know people is irrelevant—totally. This is a diversionary tactic: bluff and evade.

• But he continues: “Most of the important stuff we know in life isn’t based on data like that.” This is not bluff and evasion: it’s just a lie, or perhaps more generously, it’s a feeble ploy to help theology escape accountability.

Read again what he wrote: “Knowledge based on reliable, verifiable data is epistemically atypical.” No, it’s not. The most important stuff in life is based on “data like that,” i.e., reliable, verifiable data.

Just consider a few of the things we have become accustomed to in our modern world.

• A jumbo-jet weighs more than 750,000 pounds. Countless engineering hours have gone into the gathering of reliable, verifiable data to enable these things to fly. That knowledge is not ‘epistemically atypical.’ I doubt that Christian apologists want to get on planes that have not been built using reliable, verifiable data.

• There are more than 100,000 commercial flights in the world every day. The air traffic controllers want reliable, verifiable data about this congestion in the skies.

• How about open-heart surgery? George Carlin once observed that the world’s worst doctor is out there somewhere—and today someone is making an appointment with him. Does our Christian apologist want to be operated on by this shoddy doctor—maybe he took a few correspondence courses—or by the surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists who have devoted their careers to mastering the reliable, verifiable data about how bodies react during invasive surgery?

Look, Up the Sky!

• Once upon a time, looking up was the best people could do to predict/guess the weather. Now there are satellites that analyze storms from above. Meteorologists want data; that quest is not “epistemically atypical.”

• There were 17 Apollo flights whose mission was to get humans to the moon. Each flight collected reliable, verifiable data about what worked, to make improvements for the next flight.

• Theology has its answer about creation: God did it. But serious thinkers are suspicious of simplistic answers based on magical thinking, and cosmologists were motivated to create the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. This satellite operated during the first decade of this century, and its purpose was a collect reliable, verifiable data about the early Cosmos. In 2018: "WMAP wins the Fundamental Physics Award for detailed maps of the early universe that greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies."

The World’s Second Oldest Profession Claims an Exemption

Still wandering on his tangent about how we know people, our desperate apologist again disparaged “the mechanical collection and weighing of evidence. That's the sort of thing computers do.” No, the collection of evidence is what curious professionals do, in thousands of fields and pursuits. They are fascinated by reality and are committed to enhancing our understanding of how the world works. And they are utterly baffled by any belittling of the quest for knowledge.

And, yes, golly, computers do come in handy. In the 1920s, Edwin Hubble determined the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy by sitting at the Mount Wilson telescope for hours on end—collecting light on photographic plates. Today such work is done by computers.

But the apologists draw the line when it comes to God. In this domain we are not permitted to expect—much less search for—reliable, verifiable data about God. Yet we are assured that God is the most powerful, pervasive force in the Cosmos, one that monitors everything, including the thoughts of every human on the planet. But, sorry, this deity cannot be detected in the ordinary ways we search for knowledge. Theology is exempt from providing evidence for its claims. God dwells in mystery and cannot be tested. How convenient is that!

Of course we are assured that there are sources of God-knowledge, e.g., revelations, visions, prayer, scripture. Why aren’t these guys embarrassed to make this claim? Compare the revelations, visions, prayers, and scripture of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims. The super devout, the true insiders of all of these faiths—and indeed their thousands of subdivisions—do not, and cannot, agree on the nature of God, his rules and expectations, and how he expects to be worshipped. It’s a free-for-all for religious imaginations!

This is perhaps the most tiresome aspect of religion, and this is why skeptics—so weary of speculation and guesswork from the religious camp—issue the challenge: 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.” Unless the deity experts can do that, they’re just blowing smoke. They’ve been out to fool the world and build colossal bureaucracies, and have been far too successful for far too long.

And the determined apologists are willing to say anything to dissuade people from hoping for real knowledge to emerge from the fog of divine mystery.

Just as I urge people to read the Bible, I also encourage folks to read theology that comes out of academia (as opposed to the drivel turned out by the Joel Osteens of this world), but with this crucial piece of advice: be on the lookout for the author’s explanation for how he knows what he claims to know. I have dozens of theology books on my shelves, and I’ve written in the margins, all over the place, “How does he know this?” and “How do theologians learn to talk like this?”

Be aware that theologians write for other theologians. You won’t learn about God when you read these books; you’ll find out what theologians think about God. And they manage to say so much, without data to go on! Without which, the entire endeavor is ‘much ado about nothing.’ Hence, in my collection of quotes that I’ve been building for a couple of years—which I call the Cure-for-Christianity Knockout Quotes (the count is now up to 466)—I began with Sam Harris’s observation, which is true precisely because the God speculators trade in no real data at all: “Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings.”

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.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.