Christianity: Ten Knockout Punches, Number 4

The confusion and incoherence of theism

Belief in God might be sustainable if folks could just settle on a simple affirmation, such as “God is…” Perhaps an unknowable Force or Power that ignited the cosmos exists, and we can take heart that cosmologists are on the hunt to discern what actually happened. However, theologians and laity alike—from ages long ago to the present—have never been satisfied with “God is…” They have decided, without telling us how they know for sure, that God has multiple traits. “God is…” e.g., all-powerful, loving, knows everything, is slow to anger, has a plan for everyone, picked out a promised land, had a son; the list goes on forever. Unfortunately there never has been a Supreme Religious Council to say, “Stop! What a mess! All of these things can’t be true.”

And this mess is the Fourth Knockout Punch: far too much has been claimed about God. Making-things-up has gone unchecked, with the result that theism is incoherent to the point of absurdity.

Christians have forged ahead because “God is…” alone, by itself, fails to satisfy. Believers want to be able to relate to God, that is, have fellowship with him. Francis Collins, perhaps the most high-profile theistic scientist, advanced this idea explicitly.

“If God exists, and seeks to have fellowship with sentient beings like ourselves, and can handle the challenge of interacting with 6 billion of us currently on this planet and countless others who have gone before us, it is not clear why it should be beyond his abilities to interact with similar creatures on a few other planets or, for that matter, a few million other planets.” (p. 71, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief)

There you have it: God’s existence has to be supplemented with his desire to interact with billions of creatures. A god with the power to ignite the Cosmos has to be interested in us. Evolution has made humans highly sociable beings, hence it’s no surprise that we have projected this feature onto God. Collins’ speculation is a blatant demonstration that people want God to resemble humans—to have our personality traits. Sorry, Dr. Collins, this error can be forgiven when we find it in ancient mythology, but haven’t we moved on?

“…Copernicus’ radical displacement of the human being from the cosmic center was emphatically reinforced and intensified by Darwin’s relativization of the human being in the flux of evolution—no longer divinely ordained, no longer absolute and secure, no longer the crown of creation, the favored child of the universe, but rather just one more ephemeral species. Placed in the vastly expanded cosmos of modern astronomy, the human being now spins adrift, once the noble center of the cosmos, now an insignificant inhabitant of a tiny planet revolving around an undistinguished star…” (Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View, p. 418)

Personal theism began its embrace of incoherence when it projected human personality—the emotional traits of a mammalian species on one planet—onto God. If this is so, are there perhaps hundreds of other civilizations in our galaxy desperately hunting for planet Earth so that they can find out what God is like, by studying human emotions?

Of course, one of the most cherished traits is that God cares about each one of us; his eye is on the sparrow, you know, and we have much higher rank than that. This finds expression in favorite Bible texts. Psalm 23, for example, is pious nonsense, which even the most faithful should be able to detect (though piety commonly blunts critical thinking):

Many of the faithful who believe that the Lord is their shepherd are hungry and desperate, disproving “I shall not want.” How could it possibly be true that millions of Christians who have lived in war zones (think two World Wars) “fear no evil as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death”—because the Lord is with them? “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life…” is not the way the world works—for anyone, believers and non-believers alike.

Theologians write pleasant poetry to disguise reality, and thereby heighten theism’s incoherence.

Another consequence of the belief that God “seeks fellowship” with six billions humans is the belief that God acts as guide; he has a plan for each one of us. We commonly hear that “everything happens for a reason,” i.e., God must be engineering the events of our lives. Thus God’s caring and his supposed control—or at least management of affairs—collide. Far too many bad things happen to good people, those who do their best to please God.

One of those Bible texts that prompted my teenage doubt was Genesis 15:13-14:

“Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.”

There were many other gods around at the time for Abraham to choose from; why would he opt for a god who promised 400 years of slavery for his descendants? Why wasn’t that a deal-breaker?

Why isn’t such incoherence a deal-breaker for theism now? God is good, is able to call the shots, but—how shall we put it?—sits on his hands during 400 years of slavery? Or as Christopher Hitchens observed, “Heaven watched with folded arms.” Those 400 years might serve as the start of a list of examples of appalling divine insouciance: The Black Plague, Hong Xiuquan’s war (1850s) to bring Christianity to China (20-30 million casualties), The Thirty Years War, the two World Wars of the 20th century (90 million casualties), the Flu Pandemic of 1918, and the Holocaust. We hear endless theobabble about free will, but a competent, loving God in control of events—considered capable, at least, of influencing events (isn’t prayer supposed to work?)—is nowhere in sight. This theology is incoherent, and the robust apologetics industry is proof that theologians are acutely aware of the embarrassment.

And speaking of prayer, John C. Wathey has described the “great paradox of prayer,” i.e., “…its universal popularity among believers, despite its empirically demonstrable inefficacy and its logical irrelevance in light of God’s omnipotence…” (The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing, p. 257). In other words, prayer may feel good, but it is incoherent in terms of Christian theology itself. That is, God is omniscient, to the point of wanting to know each human being:

• Francis Collins: God seeks fellowship with all of us.
• The apostle Paul: God is even inside our heads, “…God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all…” (Romans 2:16)
• Jesus: God judges our lust as surely as our adulteries—yes, he’s inside our heads (Matthew 5:28)

Yet, inexplicitly, Christians feel compelled to tell God what’s going on, what needs to be fixed, who needs to be healed, etc. We can add that there is a certain level of effrontery as well: who are we to advise, recommend or coax God?

And, of course, there’s that old dilemma: what if you’re praying to the wrong god? “Through Jesus Christ Our Lord” wouldn’t go over well addressing Allah, and Protestants are loath to concede that Catholic saints hear prayers.

We can appreciate George Carlin’s willingness to experiment:

“You know who I pray to? Joe Pesci. Two reasons: First of all, I think he's a good actor, okay? To me, that counts. Second, he looks like a guy who can get things done. Joe Pesci doesn't fuck around. In fact, Joe Pesci came through on a couple of things that God was having trouble with.”

Carlin is worth quoting because of his spot-on theological sensibilities. Carlin also mentioned his success rates; whether praying to God or Pecsi it was about the same: 50-50. I doubt many Christians keep excel sheets to track prayer results, and it’s human nature to count hits and ignore misses. Confirmation bias, what’s that? Confidence that prayer works is a faith-based assumption, and Christians are spurred on by popular sentiment, e.g., “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” The Man Upstairs, the Cosmic Buddy, is always available for a chat. But there is little grasp of the great paradox of prayer that Wathey mentioned. By the standards of Christian theology itself, prayer in an incoherent practice. But those who do it aren’t bothered by the incoherence.

Francis Collins is generous—and from the perspective of the Bible, na├»ve—in his belief that God wants fellowship with six billion humans. God once drowned all the people on earth—except for one family—and Jesus predicted that, upon the arrival of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, there would be more suffering than at the time of Noah.

Maybe, back then, God wasn’t in the mood for fellowship.

Moreover, Christianity has always insisted that access to God is restricted, most of the six billion people be damned—literally. In 1993 the Southern Baptists found themselves in a major dustup (even attracting the attention of the New York Times) when they announced that 46.1 percent of the residents of Alabama were going to hell. How could that be? Almost half the population of that Bible Belt state? The Southern Baptists claimed to have a secret formula for arriving at that exact figure, namely, the head count of those who claimed to be born again.

That code, born again, is based on some translations of John 3:7, and John 3:16, of course, provides the major exclusion clause, “whoever believes in Jesus” wins eternal life. The apostle Paul expresses the code as a magic spell, in Romans 10:9, “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Paul also lists those excluded from the fellowship (I Corinthians 6:9-11):

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

To be fair, in a way, Francis Collins tries to eliminate the incoherence—the bad theology—that we find in John 3:16. “God so loved the world” sounds wonderful, but then there’s the qualifier: only those who believe in Jesus get the reward. Yes, it would be nice if God wants fellowship with all six billion humans, regardless of religious loyalties. The incoherence of the Bible, the New Testament especially, has forced theologians to continually rework Christian theology to make it more palatable, less severe, e.g., slavery is not okay.

And, I suspect, many of the good folks who “want to take it to the Lord in prayer,” also welcome the sentiment that “God loves everybody.” In other words, folks who rank high on the empathy scale are willing to override the incoherence that apologists struggle so mightily to overcome.

Nature abhors a vacuum, as does theology. Hence the tendency to define, over-define God; fertile human imagination has supplied so many details, a riot of color. Almost everybody’s guesses about God have been added to the mix (which is why Christians fight so damn much), and so many of them have been codified—and defended fiercely by apologists of all brands. Alas, there has been no Supreme Religious Council to adjudicate, to clean up the mess, to reduce the incoherence.

There are six more Knockout Punches to come, but do we really need any more?

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 reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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