“On the Improbability of God”

Dangerous thoughts of a young seminarian

Only a few items survive in the dusty archives! That is, the paper trail from my eleven years of graduate work is meagre. Boston University School of Theology was my academic home, 1964-1975. There is, of course, my 250-page doctoral dissertation (typed on my manual typewriter), but I saved few of my other papers. One that I cherish the most is a 17-page essay titled, The Secrecy Motif in Mark’s Gospel, which received an “A”—and a glowing comment from the professor: “This represents a lot of careful work and thought, and I have learned much from it. An excellent paper.” What a nice boost for 24-year old me!


However, there is one essay in my file from my BU days that is a standout: it anticipates by a few decades Sam Harris’ observation: “Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance…” I didn’t write this essay for any class, but out of my desire to get a few frankly dangerous thoughts—given where I was—down on paper. I showed it to only one person, a fellow student whom I trusted. He responded with ridicule and sarcasm, but he kept my secret. 


Here are my thoughts as a young seminarian in 1966, word for word: 


On the Improbability of God  


As mankind becomes more aware of the size of the universe and the depth of outer space, theology is going to be increasingly plagued by a credibility gap. No matter how elaborate, logical and sophisticated the arguments for a personal deity, the whole notion of God is going to fall increasingly within the realm of the “simply unbelievable.”


Christian theology posits a deity who has agonized a great deal over the world and who has acted decisively and sometimes dramatically in human history; this deity knows about and cares for every person on the face of the earth, indeed has concern for flowers and birds (Matt. 6:28, 10:29). It is belaboring the obvious to point out that such a concept of deity developed in pre-Copernican times, when the prevailing worldview permitted such an intensely concerned deity. God was radically present and concerned because God was near, merely a few miles overhead, hovering watchfully over the affairs of man. This concept has been refined considerably as the church has sought to adjust to the eroding of the ancient worldview. God is no longer “out there” or “up there,” but is assigned to a strictly non-geographical realm. God is an inner, spiritual reality. But, although the geographical aspects have been removed, the view of God as a personal loving deity, which depended so greatly upon the nearness of God which the ancient world view guaranteed, is still the basic tenet of modern theology. However, it is precisely this aspect of theology today which is most threatened by man’s increasing awareness of the universe—the full implications of the Copernican revolution are having a calamitous impact.


Theology has for a long time been threatened by the growing evidence as to the size of the universe and the relative smallness of the earth: who has not been driven to his most gnawing doubts by continual pondering of the infinity of deep space? We have realized that the formula: God created the heavens and the earth, is outrageously and absurdly out of proportion. Belief in a personal God is strained. Theology has countered by pleading for an ever larger God—your God is too small, we are told, and we are urged to believe that God is bigger and better than previous generations could have imagined. 


Christian theology finds itself trying to impute truly universalistic dimensions to a deity previously embodied in terrestrial thought forms, previously described completely 

anthropomorphically: the Christian deity bears a curious resemblance to a creature that happened to evolve at one drifting point in space.


We need to continually ponder the geography of our universe to determine whether the pre-Copernican deity can actually be convincingly inflated to the proportions that we now require. Can we have the universe as it is, and a radically personal God too? Theologians may scoff at such thoughts, and tend to feel that the problem is elementary and easily dismissible; but is the confidence which they exude really convincing?


It is enough to raise doubts merely to examine our own “neighborhood” in space. Our solar system is a millionth part of one galaxy of stars which is 100,000 light years across; or to put in another way: if one had started a cross galactic journey when the pyramids of Giza were built, and had maintained a constant speed of 186,000 miles-per-second, we would be 1/20 of the way across the galaxy at the present time. The galaxy in turn represents an incredibly small portion of known space. Our earth, of course, is invisible and undetectable even from the nearest star. Even in comparison to our sun the earth is fantastically tiny. We are perhaps all misled by diagrams in science texts which show the planets in orbit around the sun. For us to represent the solar system pictorially, one must distort its proportions drastically. If the sun were represented by a globe 27 feet high (about five times the height of a man), the earth would be a sphere about the size of an orange in orbit about 2,900 feet away. Or if the sun were represented by a sphere 5 ½ inches in diameter, the earth could be represented by a grain of sand orbiting at a distance of about 50 feet.


I point all this out not to evoke awe, not for its “gee whiz” value, but rather to achieve a balanced perspective. For from the standpoint of the earthling who treads the planet every day, it looks pretty large and solid; we naturally tend to feel that the earth must loom large in the eyes of God. But in the fuller perspective of all known space—we are indeed lost in space in the same sense that a grain of sand is lost in the Pacific Ocean, or in the sense that a particle of soil is lost in a dust storm.


Theology, however, insists that the personal deity of the entire universe knows about and cares about this planet: a truly fantastic idea. Theology even goes beyond this, however, and insists that the deity knows about and cares about every person on the planet. Such a belief is on a par with the assumption that a baker knows about and cares about every particle of flour in his dough, and about every atom in every particle.


It seems utterly unbearable for man to acknowledge that he is alone (in the sense of being radically isolated) and destined to extinction (unless by his own devices he can invent ways and means of traveling elsewhere in the universe, and thereby not be tied down to a solar system that will eventually grow cold and uninhabitable).


Increased awareness of the universe threatens personalistic theology not only by suggesting that the earth is an infinitely small grain drifting unnoticed in space, but also by impressing man with the severe limits of his knowledge. Man knows so little about the universe because he has experienced so very little of it. By careful analysis of the light spectrum from distant stars we can determine their size, rate of rotation, chemical make-up, age, etc. But we have not yet contacted and communicated with other inhabitants of the universe. We have not had the valuable experience of comparing notes with any of the other civilizations or life systems which no doubt exist elsewhere in space. We don’t know what they have to say about God; we don’t know whether they take such a notion seriously or laugh at it. We are isolated and ignorant—however much we may pride ourselves on our science and technology.


It seems the height of arrogance, therefore, to claim that we know the nature of ultimate reality, or to suggest that we have unraveled the mystery of the universe. This, however, is precisely what much theology claims to have done—and this is implicitly the claim that our creeds make. But our theological systems have been formulated within the confines of one small planet. Until we have greatly widened our experience of the universe—and this might be centuries way—it would seem to be folly to make pronouncements on the nature of God. To claim that we know what God is like is somewhat similar to announcing the outcome of an election with only one of a billion precincts reporting; we unfortunately do not have the cosmic equivalent of NBC’s Electronic Vote Analysis! We just are not in a position to know very much—given the limitations of our earthly existence.


Theology has acknowledged this unfortunate situation and has formulated a solution to the impasse: the revelation claim. Of course we are an isolated speck in space, it is admitted; of course we have only earthly knowledge to go by—if we depended on merely “natural” ways of knowing God, we would be poor indeed. But God has chosen to reveal himself to us. Our anxiety is thereby lessened because we know that God has given us information about himself that is otherwise undetectable and unknowable. There are great difficulties connected with this theological solution, however: how do we know what is revelation and what isn’t? Every prayer, every verse of the Bible, every creed, every doctrine, every article of faith, is a product of that organ known as the human brain.


Now, if it is going to be insisted that some of the output of this organ has been stimulated by a deity, i.e., that it merely comes through the brain from an exterior and superior source, we must have criteria for judging what is of human origin and what is of divine origin. If we do not have these criteria (which we don’t), we are in a hopeless situation, for there is no way of determining if there is any material of divine origin at all, or whether we are merely deceiving ourselves. We run the risk that a human system expressed with eloquence and wisdom will be mistaken for the word of God.


It hardly needs to be pointed out that the sincerity or fervor of the believer—the power of his faith—does not guarantee the truth of his revelation claim. People have expressed to me their sorrow that they cannot communicate fully the significance and the reality of the relationship they have with the Christian deity. And I am sure that they are convinced of the reality and the immediacy of their relationship to their God. But this feeling has been the attribute of religious devotees committed to radically different and contradictory concepts of the divine. A Catholic may be absolutely, completely, unequivocally convinced that he feels the “Marian presence”—as Father Congar claims. Luther was likewise convinced that he stood before a terrible and vengeful deity; an ancient Greek might have felt precisely the same way in relation to Zeus; an ancient Egyptian to Isis and Osiris; a Hebrew to Yahweh. Are we conclude that all of these religious viewpoints were or are correct because of the sincerity and purity of faith of the believers? We should rather conclude because we are sure about the reality of God—sure enough to commit a life to the ministry—doesn’t make it true, doesn’t guarantee the ultimacy of our religious claim. Faith is a very powerful thing, but it is not powerful enough to call into existence that which it hopes for.


Christianity is perhaps entering a period of radical readjustment. The church once had to confess, after a long reluctance, that one could be a Christian without believing that the earth was the center of the universe; likewise the church has had finally to admit (in some quarters, at least) that one could be a Christian without believing in a seven-day creation. Are we entering upon a time when Christianity will have to concede that the concept of a personal benevolent deity is too beset with difficulties and improbabilities to be a “fundamental” of the Christian faith? To the church at the present time such a transition seems unthinkable and absurd, but it may be one of the adjustments to the modern world that the church will be forced to make—contrary though it would be to the whole history of the Christian faith.


However, increasingly people will be approaching the church who are alert to the staggering problems of our time, who are eager to devote their lives in service to others, who find the figure of Jesus winsome and compelling, but for whom theological affirmations are impossible and irrelevant. Hopefully, the church will welcome these people into the company of the committed, and, hopefully, if God (after all) is, he will look with compassion and understanding upon these citizens of the post-Christian era who feel compelled to deny him.




One line I’d written cut to the heart of the matter especially: “We run the risk that a human system expressed with eloquence and wisdom will be mistaken for the word of God.” And it evoked this comment from my colleague who trashed the essay: “We run the risk…that’s the name of the game, baby! C’est la vie!” What a contrast in approaches! My point was that we were desperately short on data—given our isolation in the Cosmos—to arrive at conclusions about God. And the revelation claim was too feeble: also no verifiable data. But my colleague’s approach was to take the chance, make the leap of faith (“that’s the name of the game”), that the superstitions of the New Testament were trustworthy. Is that the best we can do? Dorothy Fields’ lyrics from the musical Sweet Charity have come to mind over the years:


“There's gotta be something better than this,There's gotta be something better to do.
And when I find me something better to do, I'm gonna get up, I'm gonna get out
I'm gonna get up, get out and do it!”


My colleague devoted his career to the ancient Jesus mystery cult. I made the effort and moved on to a better career detached from magical thinking.





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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