Why God Won’t Die. An Atheist’s Take


Remember geocentrism? If not, you have science to thank. Geo (Earth) centrism was the ancient conceit, once believed by the entirety of Western Civilization (save for a few pre-scientific contrarians who could only guess it was wrong), that Earth stands at the center of everything, the heavens wheeling around it with their train of bejeweled courtiers performing for the VIPs in the universe’s catbird seat (in other words, us). No sooner had science been established (in its nascent form) than it made short work of laying this species-coddling delusion to waste.

Setting aside the question of whether it does us good having our sacred illusions shattered (does the truth really set us free?), when it’s come to dispelling the equally self-aggrandizing assertion that humans are the special creation and pet project of the Designer of the universe (in whose image we’re supposedly made), science hasn’t moved with anything like the same dispatch.

In 2022 God is still very much a thing while geocentrism is not. As a scientific atheist, if I had to choose one reason for this discontinuity, it would be God’s unfalsifiability. The statement, Earth stands at the center of the universe, is a falsifiable claim, that’s to say it’s a scientifically testable claim. Conversely, the statement, God exists, is an unfalsifiable claim; in other words, it’s a scientifically untestable assertion (at least in practice).

The earliest serious challenger of the proposition, Earth stands at the center of the universe, was Galileo, who, in 1610 with the help of a telescope and Jupiter’s largest moons, demonstrated that not all heavenly bodies orbit Earth; there are “centers” other than Earth. This was an important early step in what 20th Century astronomer Carl Sagan refers to as “the great demotions,” the discovery-led decentralization of mankind’s cosmological self-concept. Today, Earth is recognized as just one of what are certain to be trillions of planets (each their own “centers” and simultaneously orbiters of other “centers”) scattered among billions of galaxies throughout a universe that, for the past 13.72 billion years, has been expanding faster than the speed of light (yes, that’s right, from our perspective, anyway). In 2022, it’s no longer meaningful to talk of the “center of the universe” at all. Thanks to science, Western Civilization has been disabused of a myth that not only had the force of ancient institutions behind it but also seemed to be confirmed by our common sense. The scales have fallen from our eyes.

Now onto God. Ask a believer where God resides, and she’ll most likely answer, “Heaven,” which is apparently somewhere above or beyond Earth, somewhere from which God can get a view of his creation and direct angels to “descend” as needed. “If I ascend to heaven, You are there,” says Psalm 139: 8. Evidently this is not the same place as, “the heavens,” an obsolescent but still recognizable term for the inconceivably vast region beyond Earth’s atmosphere, an expanse in which humans see stars and planets by way of emitted and reflected light. To nobody’s surprise, God has never been observed (at least never reliably and by a second observer) in any of the swaths of space compassed by our telescopes. Still less surprising, God’s nonexistence has never been observed through a telescope. As nonsensical as that sounds, that’s the kind of thing that’s being asked of sceptics of religion who bite on the common, “Prove that God doesn’t exist!” taunt.

In informal religious debate, the prove that God doesn’t exist challenge is usually delivered with the gotcha voice, as if it were a rhetorical knockout punch landed by the believer. Except that it isn’t. In truth, it’s nothing more than a stage punch. Still, audiences fall for it all the time; even the unbelieving interlocuter sometimes teeters and stumbles to his corner, stupefied by the illusion. It is, as I’ve indicated elsewhere, the main reason why, contrary to Nietzsche’s having administered the last rites, God won’t die. The problem is that in most barroom bouts (and anywhere else the existence of God is hotly debated by amateurs) there’s no slow-motion replay to reveal the empty swipe. In other words, there’s nobody on hand to explain why compelling a doubter to admit that he can’t disprove God is not proof that God does exist.

Using the same logic, nobody concludes that unicorns and Pegasi exist because no human can prove they don’t. Plug these obvious whimsies into the same line of reasoning and we at once see it for the non sequitur (Latin for it does not follow) it is. The difference is that reasoning adults understand that unicorns and Pegasi are imaginative playthings with no apparent utility; they are entities we obviously made up for entertainment, and we are all the time getting along just fine without an infinity of other such chimeras we might just as easily have invented.

On the other hand, God’s utility (that is to say, the usefulness of the concept of God) is such that, to quote Voltaire, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Apologies to Mary, but necessity is the most likely candidate for Mother of God. Furthermore, enough gravely serious adult personages have strenuously advanced God that the ponderous weight of a millennium and a half of authority is insistently behind Him. We’re born into a culture so habituated to the God concept as to consider God’s existence a matter of common sense, the same common sense we once used to “confirm” the dead-wrong idea of geocentrism. Together, these factors create a kind of psychosocial pressure that drives God into every epistemological gap that has room for Him. The doubter’s admission that he can’t prove that God doesn’t exist puts before the believer a vacuum (the thing that nature, on Aristotle’s authority, abhors) into which, for him, the God hypothesis forcefully rushes, producing a theatrical thunderclap to compliment the stage punch. It turns out there is a God shaped hole. It’s the one in our knowledge.

Rather than catching unbelievers in a logical steel trap, the leveraging of unfalsifiable claims merely takes advantage of our practical limitations as finite beings. God exists is the perfect example of an unfalsifiable claim. It’s the sort of proposition of which theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli once quipped, “That’s not right. It’s not even wrong.” In truth, the God exists proposition could be right. But, much more importantly (and to Pauli’s point), it can’t be wrong. It can’t be proven wrong, anyway.

Sure, we sceptics can dream up tests that might convince us that God doesn’t exist. We could, for instance, scour every inch of the universe with every scientific instrument and by every scientifically recognized means at our disposal, discovering neither God nor any convincing evidence of His interventions. Unfortunately, such tests can never be conducted. The fact that the universe is expanding faster than the speed at which we could search it is the least of the problems with such tests. If God doesn’t want to be discovered by science (and He might not for reasons we can think of and those we can’t) we may be sure He won’t be. He could hide anywhere inside or outside the universe, in its expanding wavefront, in the multiverse beyond this universe (if that proves to be a thing), or in the ontological “undiscovered country” that, beyond the resolution of any electron microscope, separates gross human neuroanatomy (i.e., the gray matter of the brain) from the emergence of human consciousness (i.e., the mind or the “soul”) in all its richness and variety. (I am here referring to the so-called hard problem of consciousness recognized by cognitive psychologists such as David Chalmers.) The point is that God’s believers can hide Him wherever they like, for as long as they like.

For God’s believers, the only thing better than finding Him might be not finding Him. Pinning God down would restrict possibility spaces being exploited by humans with little “information” about Him (what little there is having been derived from the dogmatizer’s silly putty that is Biblical scripture). If God isn’t located, He can continue to be put to every imaginable human use, including but not limited to explanation, warrant, comfort, and social control. God is a wild card in humanity’s hand. In the words of the band that declared itself more popular than God, “Got to be a joker, he just do what he please.” What we please, is more like it. Find God, and He may insist on calling the shots Himself; He may call His puppeteers, profiteers and handlers to account; He may expose those taking cover behind Him; or He may be observed acting in ways that would tarnish His “perfect” record. “Got to be good looking, cuz he’s so hard to see.”

Say we were to pick up the prove that God doesn’t exist gauntlet and go off in search of God. If we find Him, the believer wins. And if we don’t find Him, the believer wins again. How? Not finding God is always due to some failure on the searcher’s part. He hasn’t looked long or far enough. He hasn’t looked in the right way. He hasn’t searched with an “open heart” (whatever that means). Or the time isn’t right for God to reveal Himself. Never has a null result been the progenitor of so much possibility, all of it stacked in one direction. Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig pull no punches when it comes to deriding the notion, advanced in such scientific popularizations as theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing, that a universe can come from, as Krauss claims, nothing (as opposed to Divine Fiat). On cue, filmed Christian audiences laugh loudly and condescendingly at straw-man paraphrases of the hypothesis, which they’re primed to take for a failed scientific Hail Mary pass. Yet when a search for God turns up empty, it’s from that very nothingness that God springs eternal. Touchdown! The fix is clearly in.

“There is more in heaven and Earth than in all of your philosophy.” This oft-quoted Shakespearean gem succinctly frames the problem of using science to search for God. Despite the tawdry predictions of scientism (which looks on science as a kind of human-saving religion), human knowledge must always remain inexact and incomplete; it can never be as big, as deep, or as granular as the universe it seeks to describe. Science answers existing questions at roughly the same rate it forms new questions, its instruments and methods routinely unveiling previously unmapped scales of reality and levels of complexity. Until these new questions are answered (if they ever are), they exist as we-don’t-knows. The human mind, evolved for survival on the African Veldt rather than the search for ultimate truth, is not naturally a scientific mind (it’s more of a heuristic mind), and thus is uncomfortable with (one could even say violently allergic to) we-don’t-knows. Follow scientific popularizers like Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer and astrophysicist/author Neil de Grasse Tyson for long and we’re treated to an extended version of we-don’t-knows: “We don’t know, and that’s ok.” The added, “that’s ok,” is a corrective that acknowledges a culture-wide (species-wide?) stigma associated with not knowing a thing (or at least to admitting to not knowing a thing).

We-don’t-knows represent fresh ontological niches and new possibility spaces. Such niches are tempting targets for exploitation by paranormalists, pseudoscientists, religionists, and poorly disciplined scientists, and for all the emotional and “professional” reasons we can think of. Consider for example the “quantum mysteries” revealed by the work of 20th Century quantum physicists, which have provided a happy hunting ground for eager champions of psychic phenomena such as telepathy and psychokinesis (observe, for instance, how a Deepak Chopra talk typically salts the word salad on offer with quantum physics terms and scientist name-drops). Scientifically trained minds tend to do better with we-don’t knows, but even they too often plaster them over with pet theories and untestable conjecture (and thus must be quality checked by other scientists and by philosophers of science). On the other hand, when religionists convert we-don’t-knows into God-only-knows, they’re simply doing their jobs.

In his famous lecture of 1896, The Will to Believe, the great American philosopher William James dissected the human penchant for believing a thing first (on emotional grounds), and, quite after the fact, spinning a clever sounding argument to support what the spinner himself was already intuitively convinced of. This he does, James tells us, to, “find a few arguments that will do to recite in case [his] credulity is criticized by someone else.” Puerile attempts to demonstrate God’s existence by a doubter’s inability to locate His nonexistence are surely quick-and-dirty arguments unholstered for just such exigencies. Depressingly, they often work. “Human passions…are stronger than technical rules,” James warns.

But why this pressure to hold and defend unsubstantiable claims against perfectly warranted (some might say, logically necessary) we-don’t-knows?

The common fascination with solving jigsaw puzzles, a pastime that playfully engages the brain’s obsession with filling gaps, is likely a downstream effect of the same neurological “hardwiring” that defaults to God as an ontological placeholder in stretches where the march of human intellect has established no foothold. The dissectologist (a person who enjoys jigsaw puzzle assembly) who finds herself one missing piece short of completing a 500-piece puzzle is acquainted with the pathology that comes to rest on the lost piece, its 1-in-500-parts absence taking on greater significance than the 499-in-500-parts presence of the very nearly finished puzzle. What could this mean? Play, in the wide range of species in which it’s observed, is a recognized means of exercising skills that, pressed into more serious service to their possessors, confer an advantage in the struggle for survival. We might view play as simulations to prepare for real life. Games that trigger the gap-closing tic may both sharpen and give vent to one of the most atavistic and autonomic of human behaviors.

It stands to reason that brains that navigate by contiguous maps of “reality” have the advantage of brains that attempt to navigate by discontiguous maps. Gaps produce hesitation; “He who hesitates is lost,” as the saying has it. “It might therefore be safer to substitute a potent myth for incomplete knowledge,” suggests philosopher, cognitive scientist, and author of Breaking The Spell, Daniel C. Dennett, discussing the practicability of folk religious practices. Our brains are contiguous map makers, and we often don’t know what they’re up to. Consider the universal example of the blind spot in our field of vision that only specific demonstrations (they can be found with a Google search) reveal and that our brains seamlessly infill while we go about our daily business. Did geocentrism represent the collective infilling of a blind spot to which science eventually drew our attention? And is God, especially in His Holy Spirit manifestation (a malleable ontological coverall), no more than the mental projection of an all-too-human perfectionism that brooks no gaps?

Close observers of the history of thought haven’t failed to notice an autonomic tendency to construct systems, especially cosmologies, whose cardinal virtue is “elegance,” in other words, a pleasing aesthetic comprehensiveness. Theoretical physicist Brian Greene’s 1999 work, The Elegant Universe, tracks the course of some of science’s most exotic overreaches (string theory and superstring theory among them) in the monomaniacal pursuit of a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) or Theory of Everything (ToE). Have we been too quick to dismiss such extravagances as hubris (if not the larcenous winning of research grant money), when they really represent an unconscious infilling tendency at work in all we humans experience and think? James drew attention to the pervasiveness of this proclivity when he observed that, “A system [of thought] to be a system at all, must be a closed [James’s italics] system.”

Unfettered by human rubric (“An infinite circle whose center is everywhere, and circumference is nowhere”), God is the ultimate closer, obviously of religious systems, but also (in an off-the-record way) of philosophical and scientific systems that because they are proceeding by intellectually honest efforts are unable to complete themselves. “With man this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Mathew 19:26). Perhaps the everyman’s “Grand Unified Theory” is an ideological hodgepodge built of disunified scientific fact, philosophical conjectures and religious desiderata, each covering the other’s perceived shortcomings.

Viewed in this holistic light, the “self-contradictory” individual who chairs a prestigious university science program while regularly attending Sunday church services may not be as confused as our silo-conscious culture would have us believe (and such double-lifers are far from hypothetical). While there can be no hint of his religion contaminating his science (and this is as firm a dictum as can be imagined), this is a requirement to which the professional man must hew. Where the whole man is concerned (in how he orders his private thoughts), he is free to draw from whatever combination of “information” systems he finds useful in solving for x, where x is the physical and social environment in which he struggles for survival. Deny him God and he may find that the amalgamation of scientific and philosophical systems fails to supply him with a workable overall solution to the puzzle of his existence. Or he may simply prefer the cleaner outside lines of an all-encompassing religious system within which his science and philosophy sit comfortably and perform their limited functions over their circumscribed jurisdictions.

Given our apparent obsession with gap filling, and the unparalleled ability of the God concept to satisfy it, there can be little mystery as to why God enjoys an unextractable purchase on the collective human psyche. Nevertheless, is the atheist wrong to insist that God, like everything else, ought to require an explanation for His presence? Why should any thinking person accept a Prime Mover or Ground of all Being that arbitrarily breaks the repeating pattern of causation found throughout the universe, introducing instead a wildcard capable of causing Himself (when nothing else in the universe exhibits this ability)? Again, the time-weathered “sacredness” of the God concept enshrouds it in an underserved self-evident air. For my part, I prefer an honest we-don’t-know as the cause of, say, the Big Bang, to an obvious Deus ex machina (God) enlisted to rescue the human narrative from unsightly ellipses, an interpolation that results in a papered over, saccharine plot that, after all that work, still ends in an ellipsis.

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