The subject of theism and its opposite, usually called “atheism,” has heated up in the past few years, thanks mostly to the New Atheists who have predictably inspired a counterwave of reassurances from the pro-God camp that all is still well and that age-old beliefs don’t have to be discarded just yet. The purpose of this essay is to gather a range of material and arguments wider than is usually found in the writings of New Atheists and to extend their position by claiming that, as the title says, theism should now be considered a failed understanding of the universe. I will focus on five areas:
- Polytheism vs. monotheism;
- Problems of definition;
- Divine attributes;
- Arguments based on reality, specifically geocentricity and anthropocentricity; and, last and most powerful of all,
- Arguments based on morality.
1. How Many Gods?
Here’s a question that no one can answer, unless there really is an omniscient being: How many gods are there? Or, more precisely, how many gods have there been in the long history of our species, going back at least 200,000 years? Since we have no information about the religious ideas of Homo sapiens until the advent of writing just a few thousand years ago—and then only in a very few places—we have no way of telling when and where humans first began to imagine divine beings. Given our inevitable ignorance about the remote past, it’s clear that the question cannot be answered—but if we could somehow get an exact number, it would be huge. A popular misconception in the West is that Hinduism alone has 330,000,000 gods; Japanese Shinto is said to have eight million—and that’s just two religions. In 1999, ancient historian Keith Hopkins published A World Full of Gods—and he was thinking only of the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean basin, where, as his subtitle says, Christianity achieved a “strange triumph” over the polytheisms of the Roman Empire. On a larger scale, the World Christian Encyclopedia states that there are some 10,000 distinct religions today. Most of them are probably not monotheistic, and they would all have different gods. A recent book by classicist Page duBois has a title that’s very appropriate in this context: A Million and One Gods.
Obviously, an exact number isn’t attainable—but for simplicity’s sake, let’s use that phrase a million and one gods. Surprising numbers of people will say, with a perfectly straight face, that out of that million and one, there’s only one that’s real—and it’s mine. In simple math, the odds of that must be 1,000,001-to-1. Richard Dawkins likes to say that the atheists and the monotheists are already in near-total agreement—after all, both sides reject the million, so monotheists just need to get rid of one more, and we’ll be in the same camp! And it should be noted that those who insist on monotheism are not entitled to special treatment just because they capitalize the generic word god; the idea doesn’t become more logical or more credible by a spelling convention. Imagining a god named “God” is just a desperate attempt to legitimize an unearned status.
What is a god (singular, lower-case g)? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, “a superhuman person regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes.” That’s refreshingly brief—but now, instead of one word, we have the separate words superhuman and person and the phrase superhuman-person. Turning one problem into three doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction.
“Superhuman” of course must be above the ordinary powers of our human species. In the classic 1970s movie Sudden Impact, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry more than once uses the iconic line, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” We have plenty of comic-book and fantasy heroes to show us what “superhuman” abilities would look like—but we generally agree that no human actually has them.
There is of course a more grandiose claim often made about divinities—that they’re not superhuman, they’re supernatural, that is, outside of and not part of the natural world. Theologians express this by saying that God is not part of the space-time continuum (having created it from outside). Of course, that makes one wonder where God is if not in our universe—beyond the galaxies (having no contact with our world at all) or in other dimensions?
This “supernatural” claim comes with a very significant problem. Most people would agree that things that are “natural” can’t just jump out of that realm and become “supernatural.” But no one seems to object when it’s asserted, without evidence, that something “supernatural” can enter into our natural world, make things happen, not lose its supernatural essence—and then slip back onto its home turf with no difficulties. I could counter-assert that if something is genuinely supernatural, then it can’t intrude into the natural at all—it has to stay supernatural or lose its superpowers. There’s something self-serving about defining the word supernatural to mean just what you want it to mean.
The word person creates its own problems—the OED definitions are too complicated to discuss here, except to point out that normal use of the word almost always refers to an individual human bound up in a specific physical body. As long as you imagine divinities in anthropomorphic fashion, it’s easy to treat gods as “persons.” The ancient Greeks had no problem depicting Zeus, Apollo, or Athena in human shape, with all the relevant body-parts. Even “theriomorphic” (animal-form) gods would probably qualify as “persons” as long as they have humanoid minds. But it’s different when people talk about a god being non-physical, immaterial, spiritual, or even “infinite,” a being not imagined as having a human-like body. Some theologians—for example, the conservative Protestant William Lane Craig—insist that such an abstract divinity is still a “person,” with human-style thoughts, emotions, intentions—and even masculinity. So I suggest that the first step in “cutting God down to size” is castration, replacing male forms of reference with “the God-thing” (Greek neuter to theion instead of grammatically masculine ho theos) and the corresponding pronominal forms “it” and “its.” God’s emotions are also a problem: Sheldon Gottlieb (“Why Does God Have to Be Worshipped?,” FI, April/May 2017) has analyzed God’s alleged need for worship as merely a projection of human demands. He could have cited the in-context-ironic line from Euripides’s Heracles (1345f.), “For a god, if there is truly a god, is in need of nothing” (ironic because Heracles himself was the product of Zeus’s “need” for a woman) and the dripping sarcasm of Hume’s remark that Christians attribute to God “one of the basest of human passions, a restless appetite for applause.”
Defining a “god” isn’t easy, and I haven’t even mentioned the primary attributes of the monotheistic deity: omniscience, omnipotence, benevolence—each of which has serious problems. I’ll spare you the elaborate arguments posed by professional philosophers; there’s a concentrated presentation in the late Michael Martin’s excellent book Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. On pages 287–315, the section titled “Divine Attributes and Incoherence” shows that each of the traditional qualities of God contains fatal self-contradictions and thus cannot be literally true.
First, omnipotence. There’s an old, slightly childish-
sounding but still non-trivial paradox: If God is omnipotent, can he make a rock so big he can’t lift it? That resembles another puzzle: If God is omnipotent, can he make a square triangle or a triangular circle? The usual answer is that if things are logically impossible or self-contradictory, then even God can’t make them happen—which seems to take a bite out of literal omni-potence. There has been serious philosophical discussion about the rock, summarized in Martin’s book at page 302, where he remarks that no coherent definition of omnipotence has been put forward. To show how convoluted these arguments can be, I quote from Martin the following attempt by Oxford professor Richard Swinburne, one of the world’s foremost theologians: “A person P [God] is omnipotent at time T if and only if P is able to bring about the existence of any logically contingent state of affairs X after T, the description of the occurrence of which does not entail that P did not bring it about at T.”
Several years ago, I quoted that sentence in an op-ed submitted to the Austin, Texas, newspaper. An editor cut it out, saying, “No one will understand it.” Which was precisely my point: that to survive critical examination, “divine omnipotence” ends up sounding pretty mousy. Martin goes on to prove that even that circumscribed phrasing doesn’t succeed.
Second, claims of omniscience are just as problematic. (Martin’s section on this topic is at pages 287–297.) He notes that there are three basic types of knowledge that God might have: propositional knowledge, procedural knowledge, and knowledge by acquaintance. Trouble arises immediately, because procedural knowledge is knowing how to do things in the natural world. If we consider (and this is an example Martin actually uses) knowing how to exercise on parallel bars, there is an inescapable contradiction between having that knowledge, which requires a physical body and all sorts of perception-based neuromuscular skills, and being, as God is by definition, disembodied.
There’s another problem that comes with the claim of omniscience, the ancient chestnut of divine foreknowledge vs. free will. Once again, Martin has a trenchant sub-chapter on the topic (pages 297–302) arguing that if humans are to be free in a meaningful way, God cannot know what we will do in the future. If someone knows now what I will be doing this time tomorrow, then I’m not free to do otherwise, even though I might wrongly think so. But then God cannot intervene responsibly in our affairs, because, if we are to be free, he could not know the consequences of his acts. That too goes against most people’s instincts, since they want both at once: to be free and responsible for what we do and to have God “know everything” in advance.
The rapidly developing field of neuroscience has brought forward a major challenge to the old ways of thought. Innovative experiments and plain introspection have combined to produce an alternative view of free will, summarized in Daniel Wegner’s book The Illusion of Conscious Will. Our decisions simply appear in consciousness, and we have no idea where they come from or how they’re made. In fact, the work of Benjamin Libet, done decades ago and repeatedly confirmed by others, shows that our supposedly conscious decisions are actually made unconsciously a third of a second before we become aware of making them. A person, looking at the second hand on a clock, says the decision to press a button was made at time X, but the “action potential” that moves the finger had already started from the brain down the arm before time X. This of course has disturbing implications for our criminal justice system and for religious claims about sin and responsibility.
To base arguments on reality, we have to have common ground on what reality is. We live in a world that seems real enough—if you run full speed into a brick wall, you’ll think it’s pretty real. But our grasp of reality, which is fairly sound within the limited range of normal sensory perception, turns out to be amazingly inadequate when we dial down to the ultramicroscopic or up to the cosmological. This is where reality comes into conflict with two religious and mythological ideas that originated in the infancy of the human intellect. Those ideas are geocentricity: the “natural” belief that Earth is flat and the center of everything; and anthropocentricity: the equally “natural” belief that humans are the “crown of creation,” the only form of life that really matters.
A few ancient Greek astronomers knew Earth is a sphere; one of them, Eratosthenes, calculated its circumference pretty accurately. Carl Sagan’s original 1980s Cosmos TV program has a segment showing how he did it. That idea of course did not reach the vast majority of Eratosthenes’s fellow citizens, much less the thousands of cultures around the world. But the problem isn’t the falsehood of flat-Earth thinking; it’s the larger assumption of geocentricity, that Earth is the center of the observable cosmos and thus the only possible point of interest for any of those million and one gods. Earth used to be the anchor of “The Great Chain of Being,” a vision of life that started from our terrestrial realm and reached up to the stars and the god that supposedly lived just beyond them. Everything, it was argued, made sense when you looked at it that way.
Less than five hundred years ago, Copernicus and Galileo disproved the centricity of Earth within the solar system, arousing intense hostility from the religious establishment. Over time, it became clear that the Sun isn’t the center either, just one of 100 billion or so stars slowly revolving around the Milky Way Galaxy, about 30,000 light-years from its center. On November 6, 1923, Edwin Hubble wrote “VAR!” on a photographic plate, confirming the existence of Cepheid variables in the Andromeda Nebula, thereby proving that the “little cloud” was a separate galaxy.
Since then, the number of galaxies has grown exponentially; the New York Times (October 17, 2016) reported a claim that some two trillion galaxies exist now or existed in the past. The formerly Earth-centered universe has an observable radius of 1021 miles and a (rapidly expanding) cubic volume of 1063 cubic miles; in that context, the old question “Where is God?” seems nonsensical. The reflexive response until the twentieth century, “God is everywhere,” would violate the medieval scholastic requirement that God must be simplex et unum, not made of parts but rather one thing. I propose a bumper-sticker line: “The Universe Is Too Big for God.”
When theologians talk about the biblical god as the creator of a two-trillion galaxy Universe (“God 2.0,” we might say), it’s just a desperate attempt to “keep up with the Joneses.” And it doesn’t last long, because, after a few brave words about a “cosmogonical” deity they retreat, faster than proteins fold, back to “God 1.0,” showing no interest in what the deity might have been doing in the 13.8-billion-year gap between The Beginning and the present, or how, if it exists “outside the space-time continuum,” it was able to find Here and Now. Instead, they go on as if nothing had changed, promoting a god that is embarrassingly provincial and, to put it bluntly, shrink-wrapped around our planet. Intruding this kind of fairy-tale entity into a scientific account is like reading a sober history of World War II and finding an episode featuring the heroic exploits of Captain America.
Conversely, at the ultramicroscopic scale, there is a different reality-based problem for God. Every kind of theism presupposes divine agency—as the OED says, “power over nature and human fortunes.” But in the atomic and subatomic world, how does a being that is by definition nonmaterial make anything happen? Philosophers and theologians since Aristotle have discussed “causality” without having to explain how such purely intellectual notions match up with the modern understanding of physical effects, which ultimately take place at the level of electron shells. Since God is not “physical” in any normal way, divine intervention would require applying an infinitesimally small force to gazillions of subatomic particles with absolutely perfect picosecond simultaneity and without tearing the object apart. No wonder religionists prefer magical causation. So there’s another bumper-sticker line, in paradoxical contrast to the previous one: “The Universe Has No Room for God.”
Anthropocentricity raises similar problems. There’s a long-established belief in our absolute uniqueness and superiority over all other forms of life. Most cultural groups have a creation-of-humans myth, the biblical story of Adam and Eve being the most familiar. I have an English dictionary printed in 1797 with a chronology at the end; the first entry says, “4004 bc: The Creation of the World, and of Adam and Eve,” using the famous calculation of Bishop Ussher. Ironically, 1797 was the birth year of Charles Lyell, whose geological research would completely overthrow that myopic view. The current scientific understanding, arrived at by numerous independent lines of evidence as summarized by Brent Dalrymple, is that Earth is at least 4.4 billion years old, and that self-reproducing ultramicroscopic lifeforms first appeared at least 3.8 billion years ago.
The reality of evolution attacks anthropocentricity by its emphasis on the unbroken continuity of life, unfolding generation after generation with only minute changes. Instead of being vertical, from Earth below straight up to Heaven, the Great Chain of Being is now laid out horizontally along the timeline of history. The extremely fine gradations of that continuum make it impossible to say when the first “true” Homo sapiens appeared; rather than a grand entrance by fiat, we came on the scene quietly and imperceptibly.
There is a consequence of this new vision that is positively devastating for one central claim of Christianity, namely that every human has a God-created soul that might achieve a blissful eternity. The obvious question is: In the long run between us and Olduvai Gorge (where 3.2-million-year-old Lucy was found), who had the first soul whose parents didn’t? It should be intuitively obvious that an all-or-nothing dividing line can’t be put anywhere on that continuum without being egregiously unfair to parties on both sides. The parents can’t deserve to become dust while the children go on forever. In 1996, Pope John Paul II gave a much publicized address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which, on the one hand, he declared that the evidence shows that evolution is “more than just a hypothesis,” but on the other, he insisted that the arrival of the human soul was an ontological change that could not be registered by the instruments of science. Calling it ontological doesn’t escape the force of the question, because, measurable or not, the quantum leap from no-soul to full-soul had to occur at some very specific moment in human history. (I explored this conundrum in more detail in “The Silver Bullet Question That Kills the Immortal Soul,” FI April/May 2004.) Attempts to justify that transition take us from science and history to my final topic.
Most subsets of the “Abrahamic” religions claim that humans have souls and that every person will be subjected to a binary division in the afterlife, either the indescribable bliss of Heaven or the unimaginable agony of Hell, for the rest of eternity. But that’s a serious moral problem, given that humans surely constitute a fully populated spectrum of beliefs, personal qualities, and morally significant acts. In Judgment Day mythology, God assigns every individual to one place or the other; it’s like saying that on the Final Exam of Life, everyone scores either a 100 or a 0, with nothing in between. Even if you think there is only one criterion that matters—say, your acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior—there would still be fuzziness in the degree of faith over time. Mother Teresa’s diaries show a surprising degree of doubt in someone as publicly committed as she was. If you have two criteria, say, faith and works, and allow scores between 0 and 100, the problem spirals out of control—one person has a 73 on faith but only 35 on works; another has just 44 on faith but 89 on works. Where is the morally consistent boundary?
The philosophical problem of the dividing line on a finely graded continuum goes back to the ancient world: A contemporary of Aristotle named Eubulides created the “Problem of the Heap” (called the Sorites Paradox because sôros is Greek for “a heap”). If you have a pile of sand and take away one grain, is it still a pile? If you keep going, when does it stop being a pile? There’s no magic grain that, when removed, converts pile into non-pile. This boundary line problem is called “vagueness,” and it’s a very hot topic in modern philosophy. The argument-form could have been directed at Christian claims by any well-read Greek philosopher in the early centuries ce—and might even have stopped them in their tracks. Instead, its first use in this context, by Rutgers philosophy professor Theodore Sider in an article appropriately titled “Hell and Vagueness,” had to wait until the beginning of the twenty-first century. His conclusion is engagingly simple: because vagueness is inescapable, God cannot make a binary division fair and just.
A standard theological response is to assert that God’s decisions are necessarily fair because God is intrinsically good; however, that leads to what may be the most difficult issue for the Abrahamic monotheisms, the “Problem of Evil.” The early Christian writer Lactantius (On Anger 13.19) cites Epicurus as asking (paraphrasing here), “If God is both good and powerful, where does evil come from?” A few years ago, two of the most eminent living philosophers, Thomas Nagel at NYU and Galen Strawson, now at the University of Texas, exchanged views in the New York Review of Books (December 6, 2012). Strawson wrote, “We can … know with certainty that the Christian God does not exist as standardly defined, a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly benevolent. The proof lies in the world, which is full of extraordinary suffering.” Nagel responded, “Galen Strawson offers what I believe to be the most powerful argument against the existence of God, the argument from evil. The theistic responses to that argument of which I am aware seem unpersuasive, and I find it hard to understand how belief in an all-good and all-powerful deity can survive in the face of it.”
Nonetheless, at about the same time, conservative Protestant theologians David Baggett at Liberty University and Jerry Walls, then a visiting scholar at Notre Dame, attempted to establish God’s perfect goodness (and thus evade his responsibility for the “Problem of Evil”). Their book seeks to refute the Euthyphro Dilemma, posed in Plato’s earliest dialogue (sections 10–11, paraphrasing drastically): “Is that-which-is-good whatever God says is it is, or does God say it’s good because it is good?” If you choose the first option, that good is whatever God says it is, then God is not bound by conventional moral values and could reverse them. Baggett and Walls’s example is torturing babies for pleasure—if God said it was good, it would be. The second option, that God merely endorses pre-existing values, renders the divinity superfluous. After much question-begging discussion, they conclude that God literally cannot issue commands that we humans would find “irremediably evil,” which seems like a potentially heretical restriction on divine omnipotence. As of this writing, they have not had a single review in a serious philosophy journal, which surely reflects the unpersuasive nature of their presentation.
There have in fact been a few Christian and Muslim theologians who did choose the first option, saying that, given omnipotence and absolute free will (libera voluntas in Church Latin), God must in fact be able to reverse moral standards. In his notorious but little-read Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict spends several paragraphs discussing that view, which he attributes to the Christian Duns Scotus and the Muslim Ibn Hazm. The Pope of course rejects the idea, but mentioning it at all acknowledges the power of the argument. Going well beyond those heterodox theologians, I suggest applying a mischievous twist to the ancient Anselmian Ontological Argument to show that God is the source of evil. If God is “that being a greater than which cannot be conceived” (quo maius cogitari non potest), then, utilizing the fatal meaninglessness of “greater,” I say a being that can be and do two things (good and evil) is greater than a being capable of only one. God is thus schizoid, a perfect Binity—50 percent good and 50 percent evil—and life is like the Forrest Gump box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. That solves the “Problem of Evil”—though it won’t please the theologians.
As bad as issues of reality are for the pro-theists, the issues of morality are far worse. Why? Psychological research has shown that most people (and even some animals) have an instinctive sense of right and wrong, which, if properly focused on the Euthyphro Dilemma, might actually lead them to the right answer. The primary obstacle is of course lifetime exposure to the unchallenged claim that “God is the ultimate moral authority.” Plato’s early dialogues show how much difficulty Socrates had trying to get Athenians to think coherently about abstract issues—he paid with his life. Today’s secularists have the same problem: we ought to avoid shrill antagonistic posturing and instead invite our fellow citizens to sit quietly and ask themselves, “If God reversed all moral polarities, would you still obey?”
I don’t intend to address other traditional arguments for God; instead, I invoke a far better authority, someone who deserves consideration as an unsung hero of the secularist movement: Sir Anthony Kenny. Raised a “cradle Catholic,” he was ordained as a priest in Rome in the early 1950s, writing a thesis on Aquinas. But reading mid-century philosophers convinced him, as he shows in The Five Ways and A Path from Rome, that Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence are inadequate. Kenny left the priesthood, got married (which meant automatic excommunication), and then became one of Oxford’s most prominent philosophers. He was elected President of the British Academy and knighted by the Queen. He has consistently maintained that agnosticism is the only justified response to questions about God, but I say that if someone who knows the issues “from the inside” finds all pro-God arguments inadequate, then the weight of that negative judgment should be added to the anti-God side of the scales. At the very least, it should be clear that the burden of proof rests entirely on those who still claim that God notions have some credibility.
The better choice is not mere a-theism but anti-theism; considering the enormous harm that god-beliefs have caused for thousands of years, we should feel ourselves obligated to oppose, firmly and openly, ideas that have neither persuasive evidence nor plausible arguments. To use a mathematical expression, the set of all gods is a null set (one with no members); there are no invisible magical mystery beings, here or anywhere in the universe, and it is high time to say so publicly, not allowing believers to treat their doctrines as if they were entitled to some special privileged status. One could be even more provocative, asserting that it’s not possible to have an honestly acquired belief in God, because you can’t honestly acquire a demonstrably false belief.
“The Death of God” has been proclaimed many times, most famously by Nietzsche. But the process, which began with questions posed by skeptics such as Epicurus, was powerfully advanced by the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. Laplace’s remark to Napoleon that he had “no need of that hypothesis” showed growing confidence in scientific methods, which expanded their reach with the emergence of Darwinian evolutionary theory, dethroning human uniqueness. Edwin Hubble’s proof of the multiplicity of galaxies further undermined the old notions of reality, and just a few decades later Elie Wiesel, the famous concentration-camp survivor, declared, on purely moral grounds, “God died in Auschwitz”—though not all Jews would agree. In the post-war period, there was a “God is dead” movement among theologians, leading to the most controversial cover-story in the history of Time magazine (April 8, 1966): “Is God Dead?” The answer is worse than they imagined: God was never alive, because God never was.
Theism in all its myriad forms should now be regarded as a failed enterprise, a childlike vision that refuses to give up its fixation on geocentricity and anthropocentricity. Its essential claims have no predictive power that would allow proper scientific testing and no explanatory power, because believers are forced to engage in desperate after-the-fact rationalizing of whatever has happened. I conclude with a line that may deserve to be more widely known; it was originally printed at the end of a Letter to the Editor in the Austin American-Statesman on December 28, 1996. A Google search (April 4, 2017) finds no predecessors—and only one citation, in an Austin-based blog by an ex-Mormon named David Kent; however, I think it sums up the situation very effectively: “Theology is the baby-talk of adults.”
- Baggett, David, and Jerry Walls. Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Barrett, David B., ed. World Christian Encyclopedia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- duBois, Page. A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.
- Hopkins, Keith. A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity. New York: Free Press, 1999.
- Kenny, Anthony. The Five Ways: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Proofs of God’s Existence. New York: Schocken, 1969.
- ———. A Path from Rome. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.
- Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
- Pope Benedict XVI. “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.”Lecture, University of Regensburg, September 12, 2006.
- Pope John Paul II. “Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution,” Origins 25, no. 26 (December 5, 1996): 415–416.
- Sider, Theodore. “Hell and Vagueness,”Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002): 58–68.
- Strawson, Galen, and Thomas Nagel. “What We Can Know about God,” New York Review of Books (December 6, 2012).
- Wegner, Daniel. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.