Saturday, August 14, 2010

Reframing the Debate About God

There are many videos on Youtube attempting to prove that God does or does not exist. I find many of them interesting, just because of their pure logic and debating skills. But I think that in most cases the debate about God existing gets confused, and is not really about God at all.

One of the proofs of God, invented by Blaise Pascal, was called "Pascal's Wager".'s_Wager

"even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose."

But Pascal's Wager was not really a proof that God exists. It was simply Pascal's logical observation that, given the choice between believing in God (with no cost or pain) and suffering in everlasting hell after you die, it would be smarter to believe in God. That is actually a "Risk Analysis", not a proof of God's existence. It is more about believing in Hell than about believing in God.

In my mind, the greatest weakness of Pascal's Wager is that you base your beliefs on the religion that threatens you with the most horrible afterlife. And only a very stupid person would ever do that.

In contrast to "Pascal's Wager", I would like to present something I dreamed up called "The Snow White Defence".

Many people who attempt to prove God exists, are not really interested in a pure God, they are talking about a God who has these seven characteristics.
  1. Created hell and heaven
  2. Looks like a Man (Including hands, feet, eyes, hair, beard, clothing etc.)
  3. Performs supernatural miracles
  4. Endorses only one organized religion, and denies the rest
  5. Wrote the Bible
  6. Wants humans to adore Him.
  7. Is the one and only source of moral law.
If God is like Snow White, the seven attributes are like the seven dwarfs. The "Snow White Defence" argues that proving the existence of Snow White does not prove the existence of Sneezy, Grumpy or Dopey. (I don't remember the other names, but the same logic is true for all.)

That we disbelieve one of the preceding dwarfly characteristics of God, does not actually mean we don't believe in God, if you define God as something that started the universe. We might or might not believe in something totally outside the known universe, and call it "god" or any other name. But if God existed outside the known universe, it does not necessarily mean that God looks like a man, or wrote us a book, or sent His son to save us, or smites Haiti with earthquakes for worshipping devils, or answers prayers with miracles. Every single one of those other seven assertions are going to need to be proven separately on its own merits.

It seems to me that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have been taking the short route to proving all their assertions, by making a big deal about proving that God exists, and then saying: We proved God exists, therefore all these other things are true, end of debate. As if their view of God is the only one possible.

Proving God exists is actually only a baby step in selling the rest of that contrived religious package, it is nowhere near the be-all and end-all. It is easier to prove a basic God might exist, and harder to disprove God's existence, than it is to prove all those other weak assertions that sneak in while debating the existence of God.

First Picture: In case you were wondering. It is not God, it is Blaise Pascal. The second picture I will assume is public domain, along with the name "Snow White". I don't want to get in any trouble with Disney, because I am pretty sure they exist.


  1. Interesting take on this perennial question.

    However, I believe I'm safe in saying that the vast majority of philosophers, even religious 'believers', accept that a successful argument for God’s existence cannot be developed. And, conversely, of course, neither can an argument to disprove the existence of God.

    And the absolute legitimacy of all the dwarfly attributes falls on the inability to demonstrate the absolute legitimacy of their source.

    Frankly, I am tired of reading all the inductive, deductive, empirical and subjective arguments for the existence of God.

    As an unapologetic rationalist, I feel this issue can much more fruitfully be examined in terms of sociology, psychology and physiology. Religion, of course, has its roots in the human need to feel some (if limited) input to all the 'shit' that happens. And a not uncommon reaction was to attribute control over that shit to some 'higher' forces which could be persuaded, coerced or somehow influenced through ritual and/or prayer.

    Of course, it was not long before certain members of society realized that a 'special knowledge' of these forces offered a platform for power. Whether members of these emerging 'priesthoods' consciously rationalized their exercise of power 'for the general good' or not is a moot point.

    Religion then extended its tentacles into the modern age largely through corruption of the innocent (think parochial schools, Sunday schools, madrassas) and social pressure to conform.

    The seeds of religion continue to fall on fertile ground among those of us who, for whatever reasons, need the reassurance of the existence of those higher beings. Whether that need emerges from an overabundance of VMAT2, from early childhood experiences, from social norms, &c. is immaterial and irrelevant.

    But the insidious characteristic of most dogmatic religions (including Christianity and Islam) is that one is pressured into buying into the entire package of dwarfly attributes (hence the long history of religious schisms). There is something fundamentally comforting about 'knowing' that your religion is the 'one true' religion.

    And with that, all the dwarfly attributes specific to your particular package follow. If your priestly elite had decided that it'd be good idea that God look like a man, so be it.

    In the final analysis, we Westerners accept the general benefits of a tolerant society. Members of our society are free to believe whatever they like.

    However, a system of tolerance precludes attempts to impose the dwarfly attributes of your particular belief system on the rest of society. That is at the heart of our secular Western societies.

    I grant you the freedom to believe that fairies (or dwarfs) live at the bottom of your garden. But I begrudge you the right to pass legislation that attempts to force me to feed the fairies (or dwarfs) at the bottom of my garden.

  2. You've made a leap in logic, at least as far as the evidence you present here. You assume Pascal is referring to punishment that follows bad behavior. He did not mention a heaven or hell in the statement above, he merely said there was much to gain in acting as if there were a god. And I agree, but do not believe in hell. What else one may gain is a belief that one is part of to something much greater than what we see around us, a power than can be drawn upon in times of crisis or uncertainty. Also, the idea that I and my brothers are one and therefore, as Jesus said, I must treat them as myself as a way to peace. Works for me.

  3. Pascal did mention Heaven, if you look at the wikipedia entry I took my quote from.

    "There is an eternity of life and happiness (to gain if correct)
    There is here an infinity (length) of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain"

    I assume eternity of life and happiness refers to heaven, and it is not such a very big leap of logic to imagine an opposite eternity called hell. Whether explicitly mentioned by Pascal or not, it is part of the same wager.

  4. Nico writes, '[Pascal] did not mention a heaven or hell in the statement above, he merely said there was much to gain in acting as if there were a god.

    The context of Pascal's comments is vital to this discussion. Pascal's Wager is presented in his Pensées where he introduces concepts such as pragmatism, probability theory and voluntarism to the question of the 'existence' of God.

    Essentially, Pascal suggests a prudential ('best bet') reason for believing in God. In fact, this is one of the first expositions of 'decision theory' ... decision making under conditions of uncertainty.

    Pascal argues that we really have no way of knowing whether God exists or not, but that we must 'bet' one way or the other, and that the 'rational' bet would for the existence of God - effectively a 'hedged' bet. And Pascal does, explicitly, include the risk of 'Hell' if we bet the wrong way.

    Of course, the more interesting part of Pascal's discussion is when he deals with the question of, 'What if I can't believe?'

  5. don't leave us hanging "Madeye"...what if one can't?

  6. What if you can't believe in God?

    Well, that goes the issue of whether one can believe in reason itself. If one can 'know' nothing for certain, then one can have no 'reason' for not believing in God.

    Accordingly, one should 'pretend' to believe, and behave as if one did believe. Pascal argues that 'utility' will accrue from this approach.

    Personally, I'm incline to agree with Voltaire's comment on that line of 'reasoning' ... 'That's just plain silly.' ;-)

  7. Interesting internal study from the Church of Sweden (basically Lutheran, and until a decade ago, the 'official' state church) which indicates that only 15% of its members believe in Jesus.