Ten (bad) reasons for not believing in God, part 2

In the previous post I began responding to the list of reasons Greta Christina has given for not believing in God. We saw that the first reason, the alleged consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is flawed because on classical theism there can be no conflict in principle between religious and physical explanations, and because disputes between naturalism and theism boil down to the question of what types of agents exist in the world, and the evidence there must be judged case by case, for which the progress of science is irrelevant.

The next reason Christina gives is the inconsistency among the world's religions regarding what God or ultimate reality is like:
If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him/ her/ it/ them, why do these perceptions differ so wildly? When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we're looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree -- what other plants it's most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary scheme, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree's basic existence, and the basic facts about it. This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement about what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or doesn't act on the world, whether he's a he, whether there's one or more of him, whether he's a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful people. What's more, many smart, thoughtful people don't even think God exists. And if God existed, he'd be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don't see God in even remotely the same way? The explanation, of course, is that God does not exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren't perceiving anything that's real. We're "perceiving" something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brain that's wired to see pattern and intention, even when none exists, is inclined to see and believe.

Now the question Christina poses is a valid one. Religious diversity is a phenomenon that cries out for explanation. However, her proposed explanation-that we disagree about the nature of God because we aren't perceiving anything that's real-is put forward with most of the argument for that explanation missing. The unreality of the percept is one possible explanation for diversity of perception, but there are many others. Christina gives the example of a tree: most people regardless of background, if their perception faculties are functioning normally, can agree on the basic facts about a tree, including that it exists and is in front of us.

But there are many examples of veridical perception which involve the kinds of disagreements Christina attributes to religious experiences. To take a somewhat tongue-in-cheek example, consider the famous tagline for the Superman comics: "Look, up in the sky...It's a bird...it's a plane...no, it's Superman!!!" People looking up in the sky do perceive something that catches their attention, but because of its speed and altitude they disagree as to what exactly it is. Or take eyewitness testimony to a robbery: a traumatic event like that is likely to leave witnesses traumatized and confused as to the exact order of events, how many people there were, etc. In this case the confusion among witnesses should not be taken as evidence that people are just making things up, on the contrary it is what we should expect of an event like that.

Christina, in a somewhat petulant tone, asks why "we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don't see God in even remotely the same way?" She shows herself ignorant here of a principle of reasoning established thousands of years ago by Aristotle, who proposed that our method of investigating an object should be appropriate to the (proposed) nature of that object. A tree is the kind of mid-sized, slow-moving (indeed, stationary) object that forms the baseline for our visual perception system. Difficulties in correctly perceiving a tree would indeed imply that something is probably wrong with our visual perception. But think about the alleged nature of the God of monotheism: the immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal First Cause of the universe and everything in it. What about that description would lead anyone to think that perceiving God would be as easy and straightforward as perceiving a tree? Christina seems to think that because God is "a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree," His existence and nature would be that much more obvious. But she has it exactly backwards: a tree is just the kind of (relatively) small, compact, manageable object which our perceptual systems can readily make sense of. Imagine taking a three year-old to a nuclear power plant and trying to give him a sense of the scale and complexity of the plant, as part of an explanation of where electricity comes from. The three year-old might throw up his hands in exasperation and ask, "But where is the electricity?" He has no way yet to make sense of such a complex object, or of the rarefied electric distribution network that enables power to flow through our homes. Suppose that three year-old were to reason, "Because this 'power plant' is not the size of one of my toy cars at home, and because I can't directly take in the whole power plant within my visual field, this power plant must not exist." But that is more or less what Christina is doing when she dismisses the existence of God because He is not as easily perceivable as a tree.

So Christina's reasoning is flawed because she expects God to be as easily perceivable as a tree if He were real, when that is clearly a ridiculous expectation. But there are also two other gaps in her argument. First of all, she ignores the surprising degree of overlap found between notions of the Ultimate among philosophically sophisticated believers across widely varying religious traditions. There is of course consensus among the three great monotheistic religions that the ultimate divine reality is one, personal, immaterial, etc. But there are also traditions of personal theism among the allegedly 'impersonal', 'nondualistic' religious traditions of the East. For example, the great Indian philosopher Ramanuja, who on some accounts is responsible for the basic shape of popular Hindu piety, constructed an explicitly theistic and personal interpretation of the Vedas centered on devotion to God, or bhakti (given Christina's level of rhetoric and apparent lack of familiarity with religious studies, I would hardly expect her to have given any consideration to these traditions, even though she makes such sweeping claims on their behalf).

Second, she does not even entertain the possibility of personal factors influencing the stated beliefs of 'smart, thoughtful people'. Her statements of course are so general that it is hard to say anything specific in response. Who are these 'smart, thoughtful people', and what are their stories? How do they account for the beliefs they hold, and how do they account for people who disagree with them? Have they really given the topic the consideration and research required to come to an informed conclusion, or did they just go through the motions? And when we finally narrow the scope of our investigation to those 'smart, thoughtful people' who have actually done careful research, are acknowledged all around as informed, who still disagree about fundamental theological issues, what are the implications of that disagreement?

Again, religious diversity is a significant phenomenon that deserves careful consideration by informed believers in all camps. But it is far from obvious that the best explanation of religious diversity is that the alleged percept does not exist. In any case, Christina has not actually given any argument to that effect. She simply describes in very vague, unhelpfully general terms the phenomenon itself, whines about the disanalogy between perceiving a tree and perceiving God, and concludes that the obvious explanation is that we're all just making stuff up.


David said…
These really are horrible "arguments". As a matter of fact, there is widespread agreement about God's shape or whether He has leaves. As for colour, the number of atheists is comparable to the number of colour-blind people, so perhaps they have trouble "seeing" God because there is something a bit wrong with them?
Anonymous said…
Is color blindness a defect ? If it is, who created the defect? Is non belief also a defect ?
Anonymous said…
Your point may be valid if you just talk about a very generic deity but most believers refer to a very specific e.g. Christian. God who has clearly interfered with life on earth as per the various holy books. So defending this specific God against this argument has to be done on that basis and not by suddenly talking about theism in general. The requirements of these various God's also vary wildly and contradict each other that you can't just say that people simply have slightly. Different perception because God is so complex. That's just dishonest.

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