Questions from an Atheist 1: The Granularity of the God Hypothesis

Questions from an Atheist 1: The Granularity of the God Hypothesis

Maya Bohnhoff

First, let me apologize for not blogging week before last. My daughter graduated from high school that week and threw my whole schedule (such as it is) out the window. If I may toot her horn, she graduated with honors and was awarded Top Senior honors in the English and French departments. She goes off to college next year in a state far, far away.

But my blog is not about that. It’s about the questions an acquaintance of mine—I’ll call him Maynard—posted about God on his blog and forum spot encouraging any believers hanging out there to please answer.

I did answer for myself, but I really find the questions most interesting because I suspect that most religious people don’t think about them all that much. I didn’t. Up until the time I was in my late teens, God was like air. Just there. Something I depended on being there without giving much thought to composition of it. I mean really, how many of us think about the fact that the air we breathe is a mixture of roughly 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen (give or take) with a little argon and carbon dioxide thrown in? How many of us know that argon is a noble gas? Heck, how many even know what it means to say that argon is a noble gas?

When I was about eighteen, I started seriously questioning my assumptions about things—including God. By the time Maynard asked his questions, I’d spent a significant amount of time contemplating them and researching the answers. I actually welcomed them.

Maynard asked these questions because he contended that “the God hypothesis” wasn’t granular enough. He wanted all the details filled in. I thought that was an interesting request in view of the fact that few, if any, scientific hypotheses leap fully formed from even the most advanced mind. Least of all do they leap forth proven or even with enough evidence to satisfy the scientific community.

Anybody remember back in the late last century when Walter and Louis Alvarez released their first theories about the KT boundary? Though they had enough evidence to suggest that a big asteroid or bolide had struck the Earth and caused the dino-die-off—enough that they were convinced of it—there were enough perceived gaps in the evidence that the general acceptance of their ideas was far from certain. Given the nature of the the subject matter, the evidence for an impact was circumstantial—there was no opportunity to observe an asteroid striking the Earth to check the evidence. Nor was it possible to repair to a laboratory to do controlled experiments. Volcanism would account for the iridium, many argued. Scientists demanded a smoking gun—or, in this case, a smoking crater. As I recall, the debate was rancorous, to say the least.

The Alvarez’s ideas, of course, came to be widely accepted as scientific fact. Eventually.

What this underscores is the strength of the scientific method as a means of studying reality and building a body of evidence in support of certain beliefs about it. In my own life, faith has also been about studying reality and building a body of evidence for beliefs about the spiritual world and the human psyche—where the material and spiritual meet.

I have had several clergymen suggest to me that my mind is a tool of the devil and that faith ought to be blind in order to be real faith. I would like to suggest that since God presumably gave us mind and encouraged us to use it, He would be pleased if we used it to discover Him with as much zeal as we use to discover the Universe.

Indeed, the Bahá’í scriptures insist that faith should NOT be blind because such blindness (not knowing WHY we believe something) can lead to dogmatism, schism, and worse.

Now, I could no more answer my friend’s questions for all religionists than he could answer for all atheists what an atheist means when he says he doesn’t believe in a god. As recent surveys of self-identified atheists show, the meaning of that deceptively simple phrase varies. And that’s why I think the type of questions Maynard was asking are as interesting as the possible answers.

So, without further ado, here are the questions Maynard asked the believers who frequented his blog spot:

  1. Is God a (a) material or (b) non-material entity? (i.e., is God made up of the same kind of stuff like protons, electrons, etc. with properties like mass, charge, spin, etc. that every other thing in the universe is made up of, or is he made of something that is non-material?)
  2. Does God exist everywhere in space?
  3. Is God a sentient being like us, with thoughts and feelings?
  4. Can God change the past?
  5. Does God know the future?
  6. Does God know absolutely everything that happens every moment, including every thought of every being?
  7. Can god intervene in events whenever and wherever, to violate natural laws and change their course (i.e. perform miracles)?
  8. Do you believe that you have a soul or spirit that will continue to exist in some form (perhaps reincarnated) even after you are dead?

Now, as you can see, a number of these questions deal with the concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. Without actually putting it into words, Maynard asked if God could create a rock too heavy for Him to lift. (My answer: Why would He want to?)

  • The questions draw on a number of assumptions:
  • That our concepts of omniscience and omnipotence are applicable, realistic, or even rational.
  • That God is a type of being of which physical strength or subjective knowing are attributes.
  • That our concept of something being “made” applies to God.

Everything we can perceive has been “made” in some way and it’s a human assumption that things must get to be where they are by being made. In other words, the question assumes that God is a made thing just like everything else we have experience with. Which, of course, leads to the problem of infinite regression and the question: What created God?

This is the same question Stephen Hawking is faced with when he says that the universe came into being spontaneously because of gravity.

Okay. If I put that in spiritual terms, he’s saying the universe came into being because of love (attractive force). That sounds right. But whose love and for what?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote (speaking as an Emissary for the God in question): “I loved thy creation, hence I created thee.”

Which brings us back to the first question about God: What sort of being might God be? (Or to put in more Adamsian terms: Who is this God person, anyway?)

Next time, I’d like to start turning over the questions one by one.

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4 thoughts on “Questions from an Atheist 1: The Granularity of the God Hypothesis

  1. Thanks for this excellent post, Maya. It’s important to unearth the hidden assumptions that lie behind the kinds of questions that Maynard and other atheists ask – and you have begun to do this.

    One of the best books I have read on the subject is “Is God A Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers” by Eric Reitan (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). This suggests that it is at least as rational to believe in God as not.

    It is important not to let atheists’ claims that they and they alone are rational stop believers in their tracks.

  2. There are two considerations to make about the nature of God. The first are those related to the Creator. The second are those that relate to our capacity, which must therefore be a created capacity, to know God, seek for God, act as God (not in the derogatory sense sometimes used against people who are forcing things against the will of others).
    We must firstly recognize that we have no capacity for original concept. The thing we refer as God, is, then, related to our capacity to stretch what we know of all concepts, to project an idea of a Creator. This is done within language, thus the value of particular language called, The Word of God, that has just the purpose of creating a filter for the way the world occurs to us. However, this does not mean God is made up, just that we are made up or that we have the capacity to make up a view of life and ourselves and anything we want in it, and that many of our questions (language), may fall into error because they are based in a certain way the world occurs as writ in a language of premises that do not reflect reality.
    So, this means that any notion of Creator is false, except that language indicators can say something indirect about God eg omniscience, or bigness. It isn’t too difficult to realize that bigness relates to something related to us, not a description for an unknowable thing. Omniscience therefore tells us that the Creator is (. ) which all knowledge we humans will ever unearth, and perhaps much more we will never unearth, but may exist and be found by others in this or some other universe or dimensions, even other dimensions than space and time. Which really means that the word omniscience really just gets our own cognitive juices flowing.
    The creator, then, is nowhere, doing nothing. And that is a real state, relative to the human. The creation is also nowhere. The universe is a particular created, constrained (space) for the presence of place and action. Within that (space) or opening or opportunity, language is established. Language defined awareness. Into the space of awareness through language came extraordinary talents who guided human action by language, until we have entered or present day. For Baha’is, Baha’u’llah is that Talent. His language, He claims, is paramount for the future of humanity, it is the creator of the space that humans will be developing for the next millennium or more. All other language is subservient, superfluous or cumbersome. So Baha’u’llah, in defining God in language that stretches the capacity of humans to it’s linguistic breaking point at this moment, is God.

  3. Here are some suggested answers for Maynard’s questions.

    (1) God is non-material but this does not preclude His presence e.g. effects, in the material world. The Baha’i Writings say that “No thing have I perceived, except that I perceived God within it, God before it, or God after it.” ( Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 178). This is panentheism. God transcends the material world, but His presence is noted in cosmic order, e.g. the pre-conditions for the existence of physical laws for example.

    (2) God is present everywhere in space, but He does not exist in space in the same manner as scientific objects or energies.

    (3) God is sentient, etc but not in the same manner as we are, or, as Aquinas puts, it, God is sentient in a “super-eminent” fashion.

    (4) & (5). God is not in time and that ‘past’ and ‘future’ are terms that only apply from the human point of view. They have no meaning vis-a-vis God. The paradoxes that come from trying to answer these questions are artefacts of the human viewpoint, and say nothing about God, i.e. they miss the point.

    RE ‘Can God lift a rock heavier than Himself?’ This is one of those old medieval philosophy questions that the ‘new’ atheists have picked up.(1) First of all, the phrase ‘heavier then Himself’ has no meaning in regards to God since God is not a physical object and none of the attributes of a physical object apply to Him.

    (2) SEcond, we can also say that since God is infinite in all respects, no such rock can exist.

    (3) Third, even if we grant the illogical question for the sake of argument, we can say that although God is Omnipotent, as revealed in His creation, He freely chooses to act rationally (hence the possibility of science) and therefore, would not choose to do so since such an act would entail the illogicalties of answers (10 and (2).

    (6) Yes, God is omniscient (“the All-Knowing” ) but in a super-eminent manner. Human imaginations about what omniscience is like have no validity vis-a-vis God, since we can only think in a manner befitting our nature. God does not think like a computer either so Dawkin’s whole argument about the infinite complexity falls flat.

    (7) Can God intervene in natural processes? Of course (“the Omnipotent”) but He does not need to break natural laws to do so; He may act through them – as the Medievals already described in their concept of “secondary causes.” The idea that miracles necessarily require breaking natural laws was already dealt with by the 14th C! Hume, Hawking etc are lagging behind the Medievals in their thinking!

    (8) Yes, I believe that I am essentially a spiritual being, i.e. ‘have’ a soul i.e. a non-material reality, which is not subject to the laws of material reality. If you want an example of a common non-material reality, there is the meaning of a book. No amount of physical, scientific analysis can determine that meaning, yet we all know such meanings can be powerful. The neuroscientific suggestions about the brain make no sense – since the brain itself is a physical object with no inherent ‘meanings’ – and thus we start on an infinite regress.

  4. 1. God isn’t composed of anything, yet composes things.
    2. God is omnipresent, yet doesn’t exist in space, rather it is space that exists in God.
    3. We are sentient beings like God, but God is not sentient like us.
    4/5. God is atemporal, the past and the future exist within it.
    6. God is omniscient.
    7. God is omnipotent, transcending the limited boundaries of local laws while independently maintaing the self-consistency of the whole of global law.
    8. The soul is eternal.

    9. Regarding the rock question, this inconsistent possibility is precluded by the stratification of existence, rocks exist on the level of creation. It’s sort of like asking can a painter become its painting, and then as the painting can it paint its original face?

    “It is said that Nature in its own essence is in the grasp of the power of God, Who is the Eternal Almighty One: He holds Nature within accurate regulations and laws, and rules over it.”

    “The real One can be compared to the sun. The rays of the sun emanate from it and shine upon all created things, but the sun remains in the heights of its loftiness; it does not descend or resolve itself into the forms of the rays, nor does it appear in the identity of things through specification and individualization.”

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