Taner Edis

Does God Exist? (Sample Chapter)

I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.
— Clarence Darrow, Speech at Toronto, 1930

A childhood friend in Turkey once told me there was a large stone suspended in mid-air above the Arabian desert; this miracle testified to the truth of Islam and the power of God. I never discovered the origin of the story — it does not seem to be part of any real tradition — but somehow it stuck with me. The popular gods seem to be magical beings, surfacing in that which is mysterious, unfathomable by puny human devices. Through the eyes of religion, the world often looks like a fairy tale which is nonetheless true.

Every story must have a villain, or at least a pesky skeptic; I told my friend I didn’t believe him. He was sure, however, that he had heard impeccable testimony to his suspended stone. It was not just a fairy tale. So our gods come with arguments to ward off skeptics. A businessman once told me to look around his office: everything had an owner. Everything must have an owner — including me, he said — and this owner was God. He might have had a verse from the Quran in mind: “Whosoever is in the heavens or the earth belongs to Him.”[1] But maybe he was just being a businessman. Philosophers like to think everything has an ultimate cause and this is God; maybe it came naturally to a businessman to think of an ultimate owner.

Of course, there are more interesting arguments out there than stones hanging in the air, or everything having an owner. Or at least arguments with more footnotes. After all, plenty of accomplished scholars, scientists, and philosophers are convinced there is a God. They believe we inhabit a deeply personal reality; that beneath surface appearances, we can come to see a God who touches just about everything in our lives. The idea of God holds their picture of the world together, including fact claims, moral ideals, and feelings of devotion and dependence. Their religious beliefs give them community, a dramatic story in which to set their lives, a tradition in which they can talk about what they believe and how they act.[2] And so the existence of a God becomes not just another fact, but a reality fundamental to a whole way of life.

Such a God is a very attractive idea, since it promises to make sense of so much in our lives. Maybe there is a subtle magic in the world, even though God has a way of getting tangled up in superstitions like suspended stones. Still, there are skeptics. Some of us have come to believe that even the subtle gods and demons are fictions. God used to be an obvious reality in our cultures, no more a matter of dispute than the existence of trees. A few philosophers toyed with doubt, but mostly as a prelude to a metaphysical discourse on why God must exist. Today, godless infidels are commonplace, especially among people with a philosophical or scientific background. Even as a social force, religion is no longer what it used to be. The devout believe in very different versions of God, and many people are apathetic, accepting religion as part of their social background but nothing more.

So we have an argument on our hands. And a fascinating argument it is, precisely because a spiritual reality is not supposed to be an ordinary fact. We do not argue about whether there is a God the way we debate the Loch Ness monster — God is not just a possible entity in addition to others in our world; our very picture of the world is at stake. All our knowledge comes into the argument; natural science, history, psychology, even our theories about how we learn about the world.

I join the argument as a skeptic. Being so obsessed with the idea of God as to write a book has made me appreciate religion as an expression of human hopes, even — at its best — as a work of art. Yet I remain among the godless infidels. I do not think there is any spiritual reality over and above the material universe. Our world does not look like it was created for any purpose; indeed, I believe we understand it best when we see it as an accidental world. As far as I can tell, our world is not the manifestation of any deep principle — moral, metaphysical, or theological.

It is not obvious that the world is a godless, accidental place. This idea looks crazy from the perspective of many intellectual traditions, it goes against common sense, it even denies many claims people accept as facts. So I have a long argument to make. Which is just as well; I don’t trust knock-down disproofs of God any more than proofs. And I want to build up a naturalistic picture of the world as well as criticize religious claims. This means I will lean heavily on science, though not, I hope, without being aware of the frailties of our sciences. In this, at least, I will be in good company. Infidels have usually embraced modern science, while religious thinkers have often had to make excuses for why the world looks different than what our religions let us expect. With science, we have stumbled upon an excellent way of learning about the world, and the best of our scientific knowledge consistently undermines our hope that there is a God.

Sophisticated Gods

How, then, do we argue about God, science, and the way to best understand the world? Our religions do not always encourage skeptical questions. Perhaps to the truly faithful, God must be a basic assumption which comes before everything else. On the other hand, religious people also speak of a God who is obvious to human reason, so that when we ask how we know there is a God, we meet with overwhelming proof. The Christian apostle Paul thought our world was clearly created and sustained by a divine power:

For all that can be known of God lies plain before their eyes; indeed God himself has disclosed it to them. Ever since the world began his invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and deity, have been visible to the eye of reason, in the things he has made.[3]

Apparently, although there may always be those perverse enough to deny God, there are plenty of signs in God’s creation to convince the honest skeptic. The Quran speaks of these signs, telling us

It is God who raised the skies without support, as you can see, then assumed His throne, and enthralled the sun and the moon (so that) each runs to a predetermined course. He disposes all affairs, distinctly explaining every sign that you may be certain of the meeting with your Lord. . . . In these are signs for those who reflect.[4]

In fact, both Paul and Muhammad seem so certain of their Gods, they declare that dissent from so obvious a truth must be a result of willful blindness or obstinate rebellion.

Our long-standing religious traditions and philosophical theologies also present God as a fact we can argue about. We should at least come to see that a God exists, that reality is ultimately spiritual, even if our merely human reasoning can never encompass the full mystery of divinity. The Catholic Catechism instructs us that reason and science never truly contradict faith, “because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”[5] God is real, something we can speak of in statements like “God is the most perfect being,” “God created the universe,” or “God brought the Israelites out of Egypt.” It is not just a metaphor expressing the Israelites’ joy at being released from slavery or the wonder we feel when gazing at the stars. A most perfect divine power is actually responsible for Jewish history and the night sky. The existence of a God is supposed to explain things.

Unfortunately, old-time religion runs into trouble here, since its God was obvious only in a world we can no longer believe in. Before we had an idea of astrophysics, we might have thought God hung the stars on the firmament, maybe even completed the whole job in just six days a few thousands of years ago. Before modern science and history, we might have trusted scriptural testimony about Noah’s flood or the plagues of Egypt. But today, conservative, magical, scripture-waving religion has become obviously false to the well-educated person.

Of course, the old-time religion is still very popular. Throw a brick in a crowd, and chances are it will hit someone who believes the stories in the Bible or Quran. Turn on a TV or radio, and it will not take long to find a preacher who not only proclaims the faith of his fathers, but says his scriptures are free of all error. Some of them will even argue that God’s Word miraculously anticipates modern knowledge. Apparently “Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer you, `I am ready’?”(Job 38:35) is an “anticipation of radio.”[6] Henry M. Morris, a leading creationist, reads the Bible as a physics textbook:

. . . Ecclesiastes 3:14: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.” This striking verse actually anticipates the great principle of energy conservation . . . The only way of accounting for the infinite reservoirs of energy in the universe is “God doeth it.”[7]

Popular Muslim apologists also like to claim the Quran exhibits knowledge far beyond what was possible in the 7th century, when it was revealed. For example, 51 Adh-Dhariyat 57, “We built the heavens by Our authority; We are the Lord of power and expanse,” supposedly speaks of the expanding universe, while the seven heavens or skies mentioned in 78 An-Naba 86 and other verses refer to parallel universes or cosmic structural hierarchies: solar systems, galaxies, and so on.[8]

Now, I don’t intend to spend time refuting such claims; they are too blatantly wrong, and God does not stand or fall depending on whether our scriptures know their physics. We have more sophisticated Gods, who are not so fragile as to fall apart when we discover an error or contradiction in a holy book. The God of most liberal religious people does not dictate inerrant scriptures; what we have are human records of encounters with divinity. This God does not make the world in a matter of days and then fashion the first human out of earth, but starts up creation with a cosmic explosion and then directs long ages of evolution to produce intelligent creatures. God is the ghost in the universe, not visible on the surface, but the source of the order, the meaning, the very reality of material existence. And we are as likely to encounter this God within, in mystical experiences, as in the glory of creation. Such versions of divinity are defended by scholars and philosophers, not televangelists. Skeptics must wrestle with these sophisticated Gods, not just the fundamentalists’ Big Boss In The Sky.

However, the old-time God is important, at least as a starting point. After all, traditional ideas of God have important strengths. If the world was as we once imagined it to be, we could not honestly be scientific naturalists. We would best understand our world as a cosmic drama with God as the leading character. In traditional religion, God is not a vague, content-free idea. God takes on concrete meaning within a network of religious fact claims telling us our world is dependent on a divine power.

If we don’t keep the virtues of the traditional God in mind, our new and improved version will risk becoming nonsense. This has happened before. When Judaism entered the Greek intellectual world, its beliefs often looked philosophically dubious. Sophisticated Jews retooled their ancestral religion the same way Greeks allegorized their myths. If Zeus’s rape of Ganymede was really a metaphor for how the soul was enraptured by its encounter with divine power, then also “Adam was revealed to stand for Reason and Eve for the labile part of the soul and sensory component of the mind which, if distracted by lower things (the snake), will pull even Reason down with her.”[9] Many Christian and Muslim philosophers would eventually do the same; God became the remote incomprehensible One of the Neoplatonists, emanating lesser divine entities like Existence, Reason, and Soul, producing the “intelligible” realm of which our “sensible” world was a mere echo. This prevented a lot of embarrassment; if scripture talked about a human-like God sitting on a throne, well, this was merely an allegory to be explored for its Platonic meaning. But within the metaphysical song-and-dance, the reality of God tended to fade away. I am inclined to think that adopting Platonism turned an honest mistake into something worse. Conservative theologians rightly want to make real claims, not produce infinitely flexible verbiage.

So a religion with a sophisticated God must still set forth a picture of the world, and show how its God is central to it all. Creation does not have to take place in six days, and prophets can record their religious experiences without acquiring immunity from error. But God still must somehow help explain our world. Perhaps a creative spirit pervades all physical existence, or there is a purposive pattern in human history. Perhaps paranormal and mystical experiences let us see into a fundamentally personal reality, and our moral behavior originates in a God. We can argue about claims like these, and if they succeed, discover that our world is, underneath its material surface, dependent on a supernatural personality.

But this also means we cannot defend God by denying that modern knowledge is relevant to religious questions. Among believers of all stripes, it is a commonplace that science is unable to answer ultimate questions about human origins, meaning, and destiny. This is at best an overly narrow view of science. In fact, I shall argue we can say quite a few things about such questions without the benefit of religion. We come from accidents, not design. Our lives have no cosmic meaning. And our destiny is dust, not immortality. Many of us find such answers profoundly unappealing. Nevertheless, I believe they are most likely correct.

A Road Map

In a long argument, the fun is in the details. But since I am trying to draw a broad picture of what the world is like, I should offer a road map to where my argument will be going.

First of all, I will not follow the usual style of philosophical debate. Philosophical theists have a way of trying to establish the reality of God with only minimal reference to the world as we see it. For example, they may observe that there is some order in our world, or simply that something exists, and then say a God is the best explanation for these facts. They talk about necessary beings, basic beliefs, and Very Very Important Deep Questions. Atheist philosophers join the fray by saying the theists’ proofs are actually very bad arguments, and go on to argue there cannot be a God, again based on some very minimal, obvious facts. Their old favorite is the problem of evil: how can a benevolent deity who is presumably not afflicted with a warped sense of humor create a universe as nasty as ours?

Now, I think the atheists do a good job of discovering the flaws in philosophical arguments for God. But if God should be a concept fundamental to the way we understand the world, it seems strange that so much of the debate has so little to do with what we have learned about our world. Plus I must admit to a prejudice; immersing myself in the philosophy of religion has convinced me there is something very wrong with traditional philosophy. The God of an ordinary believer is, I think, a mistake, but I have come to suspect the God of a philosopher is sheer confusion. So while I have much to say about traditionally philosophical issues and arguments made by philosophers, I try not to give philosophy center stage.

In chapter 1, I start out by looking at philosophical arguments about God. I pay special attention to the classical theistic attempts at rational proof, since while these do not succeed, they still are important for our concept of God. I also argue that philosophical arguments against God only refute overly ambitious theologies. Traditional philosophical analysis does not take us very far. I then try to outline how we can make sense of God by drawing a picture of the world in which God is the central actor. This, of course, will shift the debate away from philosophy and towards science.

Chapter 2 is about Darwinian evolution, in biology and beyond. The complexities of life do not require intelligent design; accidents and blind mechanisms do the trick. Not only old-fashioned creationism but also more liberal attempts to find a progressive guiding hand in biology get nowhere. In fact, even the most sophisticated arguments for the compatibility of Darwinian processes with divine action fail since random, uncaused variation and selection is basic to all creativity in nature, including that of the human brain.

Physics seems more fundamental, and so perhaps closer to God than biology. Modern physics features often in today’s arguments that science reveals a God. Chapter 3 is where I criticize claims that cosmology shows the universe has been designed for us, that the big bang was an event of divine creation, and that quantum physics proves consciousness is central to physical existence. I also point out how we can understand the laws of physics not as expressions of a divine will, but as frameworks for accidents. Physics fixes us more firmly in a purely natural world.

We usually believe not in a generic God that might emerge from natural science, but in the God of Abraham revealed by history, scripture, and prophets. In chapter 4, I explore Jewish and Muslim history, and argue that our religions are very human creations, reflecting particular historical accidents. The authors of our holy books gave us stories shaped by theology, not reliable accounts of our past. Historical knowledge is continuous with natural science, giving us no more support for supernatural revelation.

Christianity’s turn comes in chapter 5. Jesus is still central to liberal Christian theology, but the little we know about the historical Jesus does not help God. We discover hints of an apocalyptic prophet, a teacher who started social experiments, even a magician or spirit-possessed healer — but no Risen Lord, not necessarily even someone who was uniquely close to a God. In the end, all we get out of history is that some people have religious experiences and that religions are in part built on supernatural interpretations of these experiences.

Miracles and paranormal events could be the kind of religious experience which would establish a supernatural realm. Chapter 6 is where I look at strange phenomena and hints of mind over matter which suggest the existence of a soul. But psychical research gives us nothing but dubious anecdotes and very small and uncertain effects coaxed into sight by statistics. The evidence supports an unmagical world, where our minds are a product of nothing but our brains, and there is no such thing as a spirit or soul.

Mystics often say their experiences, indescribable and beyond all concepts, directly acquaint them with a divine power. Some tie their visions to elaborate Platonic philosophies. In chapter 7, I argue that modern psychology and artificial intelligence research helps us explain mystical experience without supernatural realities beyond our brains. Spiritual interpretations of mysticism and philosophies like mathematical Platonism are all most likely mistaken. We do not learn about the world by direct contact with an ultimate reality.

If I do a good job, we will have come a long way towards exorcizing God from our explanations of the world. But I rely on a scientific style of argument, and postmodern philosophy thinks science is overrated. Perhaps I arbitrarily choose presuppositions that lead me to trust science, and a religious person can take God on faith the same way. So chapter 8 is here to defend science against postmodern philosophizing. We do not have transcendental assurances behind our ability to reason, and science is very much a social activity. But it still is our best way of learning about the world. God cannot be pulled out of a philosopher’s hat.

Postmodern worries, however, expose the social weaknesses of skepticism. And since the natural world contains no binding moral principles, if there are such things, they may require a God. In chapter 9, I deny there is any moral reality beyond our interests and the social enterprises we are a part of. Morality is rooted in our biology, not a transcendent realm. However, we are still not quite sure how to sustain morally engaged communities without supernatural guarantees. So religions have practical advantages even in secularized societies.

My concluding musings follow. Though I think we have excellent intellectual reasons to disbelieve in God, I am also fascinated by the stories our religions tell. They may be fictions, but fiction can tell us a lot about ourselves. God does not belong in our explanations; but in the end, I still think we have a lot to learn from religion.


[1] 21 Al-Anbiya 19. I use the translation by Ahmed Ali, 1984. Ali interprets the Quran according to modern scientific and moral sensibilities, so I err on the side of giving the Quran the benefit of the doubt.
[2] I am, of course, using a substantive definition of religion, requiring belief in some sort of divinity. This is almost always true, even beyond the Abrahamic religions which are my defining examples; see Stewart Elliott Guthrie, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 19-20. In some contexts, it may be legitimate to call certain non-supernatural attitudes religious — for example, if someone identifies with Judaism as a tradition and culture without accepting God — but I will not do so in this book.
[3] Romans 1:19-20. I use the Revised English Bible, 1989, for the New Testament.
[4] 13 Ar-Rad 2-3. See also 30 Ar-Rum 20-27.
[5] Catechism of The Catholic Church (English translation, Montana: Liguori, 1994), #159.
[6] Harold L. Fickett Jr., A Layman’s Guide to Baptist Beliefs (Michigan: Zondervan, 1965), p. 16. For the Tanakh or Old Testament, I use the Jewish Publication Society translation, 1985.
[7] Henry M. Morris, Biblical Creationism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 108.
[8] The best English-language example of this sort of apologetics is Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, The Qur’an and Science (Paris: Seghers, 1982).
[9] Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 15.

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