“Oh, You Know, God. Everyone Knows Who God Is”

Misled by supposed certainties about god  

The title of this article comes from one of my favorite Carl Sagan quotes. He was often asked, when he was giving lectures, if he believed in god: 


“I frequently reply by asking what the questioner means by ‘God.’ To my surprise, this response is often considered puzzling or unexpected: ‘Oh, you now, God. Everyone knows who God is.’ Or, ‘Well, kind of a force that is stronger than we are and that exists everywhere in the universe.’ There are a number of such forces. One of them is called gravity, but it is not often identified with God. And not everyone does know what is meant by ‘God.’ The concept covers a wide range of ideas.” (pp. 281-282, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science


In fact, we are surrounded by, indeed assaulted by, god concepts continually, every day—and have been since we were toddlers. Even small towns commonly have a few Christian churches, and big cities have many. We know pretty well the god-ideas these churches promote. Not too far from my apartment there is a Catholic church at a street corner, with a statue of the virgin Mary overlooking the intersection; she usually holds a bouquet of flowers, placed there by devout parishioners. She represents a benevolent god.



In the last two or three decades, the attributes of the Christian god—i.e., all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving—have been subjected to withering analysis and criticism by secular thinkers, indeed, even by a few religious scholars. By my reckoning, since the 1990s well over 500 books have been published that make a devastating case against Christianity. That doesn’t count the many articles and blogs devoted to exposing the flaws of this major world religion.  


Believers who have ventured to check out these challenges to their faith no doubt feel the heat, feel the pressure to defend their belief systems—and they perceive that many of the devastating criticisms are impossible to answer. So there is one fallback position where they choose to stand their ground: “So how did the universe get here if god didn’t do it? Did it just come from nothing, suddenly pop out of nowhere?”  There is a case-closed! feel to this challenge. 


This response does not withstand close scrutiny.


In the minds of those who are confident there was a creator-god, we find the clutter of god-ideas they’ve learned since childhood. As Carl Sagan noted, these include a wide range of ideas: within Christendom alone, there are thousands of denominations, divisions, and sects that cannot agree on god and how he/she/it wants to be worshipped. So the confidence that there was a creator-god does not entitle believers to brag that their god ideas are valid. It’s a long, long way—in terms of theological engineering—from a creator-god to the god I learned about as a kid. Indeed, the god we learned about as kids is a long, long way from the god depicted in the Bible, whose behavior was far too nasty so much of the time. One of the jobs of Christian theologians has been to modify/clean up the Bible view of god.  


If believers want to defend what they mean by god, then they must go back to Step One—which is usually just ignored—and we keep repeating this: please tell us where we can find reliable, verifiable, objective data about god(s), with this caveat: All theists must agree, Yes, that’s where to find the data. And what a bummer for believers: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Mormons have never been able to agree on whose scriptures, revelations, visions, meditations are authentic. That is, they don’t believe each other! They commonly don’t notice there’s a problem with this.  


If we want to find out if there was a creator-god, we should pay attention to the work of cosmologists, i.e., scientists who are trying to figure out how the universe began, using the most sophisticated tools ever invented.  


This seems not to occur to most believers. Why can’t we rely on the Bible? Yes, the Bible is data, but not the kind we want/need. It shows us what ancient authors believed about the world and how it works. There were authors in the biblical era who created epics about other gods as well, which modern Christians would never take seriously. As is the case with modern believers, the Bible authors would not have been able to identify reliable, verifiable, objective data about the god they worshipped. Most of the ancient religions imagined creator-gods and invented different creation myths. And as Bible scholars will be the first to admit, determining just what the Bible authors believed is fraught with difficulties. The context of their writings has to be understood—for example, what did they borrow from other cults? There are often translation issues, and the original manuscripts of all Bible documents have been lost. 


Back to the scientists who research cosmic origins: I’ve heard no dramatic announcements that a creator-god has been detected, much less one that can be identified with the jumble of god-beliefs promoted by contemporary Christians. But what if there turns out to be a force that might qualify as a god—remember the Carl Sagan quote: “kind of a force that is stronger than we are and that exists everywhere in the universe.” That’s a long way from the Christian understanding of god. What are the data we would need to get us to that god


Let’s abbreviate reliable, verifiable objective dataRVO Data.  Here’s a list. 


Required RVO Data, One: Are there data showing that this god-force is a sentient being, that is, self-aware? Not just a force, but one that has what we would call mind, the ability to make plans and decisions. Avoid assumptions based on what you learned in Sunday School. 


Required RVO Data, Two: Are there data showing that this god-force has a human-like personality? This is crucial, because the Christian god displays the emotions we associate with human behavior, e.g., anger, wrath, jealousy, envy, love, etc. That would be quite a coincidence, right? That the force behind the Cosmos looks so much like a species that evolved on one particular planet a few billion years after creation. For millennia humans have imagined gods who feel and act so much like we do. 


Required RVO Data, Three: Are there data showing that this god-force is aware of events happening below the level of galaxies and stars? Since Edwin Hubble’s monumental discoveries in the 1920s, there’s no going back in terms of our understanding of the Cosmos. The Hubble Space Telescope, and now the James Webb Space Telescope, are enabling us to glimpse, as never before, the vastness of the universe, i.e., hundreds of billions of galaxies, and who knows how many trillions of planets. Does a sentient-being creator god keep track of all this space junk, and I say junk because so many planets that we know of seem to serve no purpose whatever. Mars, for example, is a vast wasteland. Does a creator-god pay attention to this scattering of countless trillions of planets that orbit stars?  


Required RVO Data, Four: Is the god-force aware of—does it care about—life that has evolved on planets? There may be millions of planets in which life exists in microbial form only. After all, that’s the way it was for a very long time on our planet. Years ago, I recall hearing a scientist who worked for SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) admit that finding pond scum on another planet would be exciting, of course, but also disappointing. The real excitement would come from discovering life forms with whom we could communicate—or at least try to. Does a god-force monitor life-forms on all of the planets under management, and only start to pay close attention when intelligent beings have evolved? We’d love to see the data for that.


Required RVO Data, Five: Does a creator-god—busy as he must be with billions of galaxies— know everything about every single intelligent being that has come into existence on every planet everywhere? Ancient Christians—for whom there was only one planet—knew their god was paying very close attention, i.e., there are Bible texts claiming that even the hairs on our head are numbered, that god keeps track of every word we utter, and knows our secret thoughts as well. These texts gave rise to one of the fundamentals of Christian doctrine: that god is omniscient, knows everything. In the ancient world that idea wasn’t a stretch: god’s realm was just overhead—maybe extending as far as the moon—and holy men could get closer to his presence by going to mountaintops. For example, Moses receiving a set of laws, and Jesus being transfigured—so the stories go. But that concept of god is now quaint and naïve; it is no longer sustainable. RVO data required!


Required RVO Data, Six: Does the creator-god closely track human sins, and is he offended by them? So much so that he came up with the idea of a human sacrifice to enable him to forgive sins? And has creator-god set up the same scheme on all planets? Victor Stenger rightly ridiculed this idea: “Jesus must be continually dying on the cross, every nanosecond or so, on some planet in our universe, in order to save from eternal damnation every form of life that evolved

sufficient intelligence to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” (p. 117, Christianity in the Light of Science, John Loftus editor) The ancient Christians also borrowed the idea of a dying-and-rising savior god to enhance the stature of Jesus. The apostle Paul was given to magical thinking, insisting that anyone who believes that Jesus was resurrected is saved (Romans 10:9). Contemporary Christians are under obligation here especially: we need to see the Required RVO Data! 


Required RVO Data, Seven: Are devout folks actually able to communicate with the creator-god? This is commonly assumed to be the case: go into prayer mode, close your eyes and think hard about what you want god to know, how you want him to change his mind, take some kind of action. We would need to know by what mechanism human thoughts escape our sculls and reach a god whom many theologians suggest resides outside time and space. “Oh, it’s a spiritual thing” falls far, far short of being Required RVO Data. For millennia people have believed they’ve communicated with many different deities because it’s a spiritual thing. That should make us suspicious. How many devout people are themselves disappointed by their prayer experiences? Sometimes prayers seem to work—you got what you prayed for—but many times the prayers bring no relief or resolution at all. Believers themselves should wonder and doubt: does the Cosmos really work this way?


Required RVO Data, Eight: Christian theology is massively incoherent, which laypeople themselves sometimes suspect. Just one example is horrendous human and animal suffering allowed/tolerated by their god who watches everything.Something is wrong with this setup. How did the Holocaust happen? How do priests/ministers get away with raping children? Theologians write lengthy treatises, called theodicies, employing professional shoptalk, which are read by other theologians. But the clergy hope that parishioners will be satisfied with banalities, “God moves in mysterious ways,” “God has a bigger plan that we don’t understand.” Here, above all, we want to see the Required RVO Data. Otherwise, these excuses are nothing but theobabble. Assuring the devout that God moves in mysterious ways encourages people to shrug off horrible realities, to suspend thought, curiosity, skepticism, doubt.    


There is no relief whatever for terrified Christians who notice that far too much of their theology doesn’t make sense. They cling to “Oh, our god was the creator,” which is totally unevidenced; it doesn’t rescue the faith from so much bad theology.   


In dealing with our world on a day-to-day basis, our brains prompt us to see patterns and look for causes. Hence looking at the starry sky or amazing natural wonders, humans have always assumed that gods were responsible. The apostle Paul encouraged this in the early Christian sect: “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20) But he would not have been able to identify the Required RVO Data for this claim—any more than followers of other gods. 


In the absence of data, theology has always been fueled by imagination, guesswork, wishful thinking, and speculation—though revelation is usually cited as the source. Today clergy and theologians alike encourage the belief that what you “feel in your heart” is a valid source of god information. These intense feelings have been stoked by Sunday School lessons, sermons, ritual, worship—which vary so widely in the confusion of Christian brands. 


None of the deeply felt beliefs in this incoherent confusion are in any way guaranteed by insisting that a creator-god must have spoken the Cosmos into existence. This is another example of magical thinking, and if we want to understand how the world works, we’ve got to do much better than that.  





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). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here

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