Somewhere in the movie, God is Not Dead, the main character proclaims that the burden both theists and atheists must face is the question of how the universe was created. In this moment, I think it’s fair to suggest Wheaton speaks for the movie makers themselves; his voice is the one we are meant to believe, and in this respect I think he is also voicing the views of many Christian apologists. From this standpoint, the debate over the existence of God is essentially a debate over alternative explanations of the universe. And fair enough, I suppose, one can certainly approach the subject in this manner, but I wonder sometimes if people realize just how much baggage this leaves unpacked?
We could start with the use of deictic markers to reference one of the key points of that debate. The word ‘God’ isn’t a descriptive term, much less a scientific one. It is a label which points at someone without doing much to tell us anything about Him, thus bringing God (along with His presumed attributes) into the debate by way of presupposition rather than demonstration. Raising questions about the existence of god in this way has the effect of setting a lot of interesting questions about His nature aside. The typical manner in which we have become accustomed to talk about God thus grants a strong presupposition in his favor and in favor of a number of assumptions about who He is and what role He plays in the universe. By ‘we’ here I mean pretty much any of us who talk about the subject, including non-believers like me. We Godless bastards doubt the existence of the Lord, and yet in doing so we happily fall into a manner of speech that practically puts him in the room.
That’s a bad habit.
It would be nice if we could put this habit down to twitter-apologetics or something, but as I recall the approach was already strong in the work of Thomas Aquinas, and with him, in philosophy seminars throughout the world. But seriously, how often do we talk about alternative explanations for anything using personal pronouns for key terms? We don’t explain falling Objects with reference to Mr. Gravity. Meteorologists don’t tell us about storms by warning us that Mother Earth is in a bad mood today. And we certainly don’t expect our doctors to enter into dialogue with the causes of our aches and pains. “…the cause of your sore throat is a guy named Fred. I’ve asked him to leave, and he said he would if only you would gift him these blue pills twice a day for the next two weeks.” Anyway, the point is that this is one respect in which the very vocabulary of God-talk is damned tricky. In using it, we may start with interesting questions, but we end up discussing it in personal terms.
The point here is that folks rarely examine the implications of that transition. But they should. Some of us may have qualms about using such sloppy rhetoric to try and explain anything, much less the entire universe (which is itself an odd almost-notion that could bear a little reflection), but you have to wonder about the proprieties of the matter? It isn’t really all that nice to talk about someone as though they aren’t in the room. It has to be a little rude to sit there and tell people about God making this and god making that when folks assure us he hears the whole conversation. We non-believers can at least plead ignorance if we turn out wrong, but I have to wonder about the theists among us. What’s your excuse?
Okay, tongue in cheek remarks aside, my point is that this whole fashion of reference to God throws every explanation sideways and it makes every theoretical explanation using God just a little conky-wobble, more than a little actually. The sheer awkwardness of that transition, seemingly naturalized by countless centuries of habitus touches on an interesting question about the history of this God. When did he become an explanation? It might have been the same time that he dispensed with all his companions and decided to become the only deity in town.
Most of your deities in classic polytheism just don’t play the same kind of role in the intellectual life of their believers. Sure they create (often by accident, …ahem, Coyote!), but they do not create out of nothing. More importantly, it isn’t clear that they are really there to serve as explanations for anything. A god of lightning may seem a poor explanation for lightning in this day and age, but one shouldn’t be too quick to assume he is really there to explain lightning. It is at least as plausible that those speaking of such gods may simply want us to think of them whenever we see lightning, in effect making the physical world (or at least its storms) a reminder of the stories told about them. This isn’t the logic of scientific (or even unscientific) explanation; it is a narrative style of its own. And the God of Abraham has his early days in those conventions. One searches in vain for anything like the rigor of Thomas Aquinas in the Book of Genesis, or even the rest of the Bible.
The God of Abraham was a god of war long before he was a First Cause. He was a god of agriculture long before he was a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. And he was a god of shepherds long before he was the supreme watch-maker. He was a god of many other things too, one of the being creation, but the conventions of that creation are not those of philosophical explanation. The account of creation we find in the Old Testament is the sort of loose-ended story-telling that one finds in the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or even the stories of elders in various native communities. The moral lessons of such stories and the ethos they facilitate are simply not those of the great philosophical arguments. We may use the same name to reference Him in each of these instances, but there is little reason to believe he is really the same person.
Truth be told, I suspect this is true of much of Christianity. The God who appears in the great philosophical arguments has little to do with the God spoken of in churches every Sunday. Small wonder that it is often the believers in the room who don’t really want to discuss the arguments for God’s existence. At least that was my experience when I taught Introduction to Philosophy. Each time I seemed to find myself, the only atheist in the room, trying to convince my students that the cosmological argument was worth thinking about, that the Ontological Argument wasn’t entirely insane, and that even Pascal’s Wager had its merits. Time and again, my students would simply proclaim that you couldn’t prove that God exists, all the while clearly insisting that he does. For me at least, the exchange was always fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I can’t help but think that my students were right about one thing though, that sort of intellectual exchange had little to do with their own approach to the subject. The God of the First Cause argument wasn’t really the God of their prayers, and it bothered them to speak of Him as though He was.
It isn’t really all that clear to me that anyone has to figure out where it all came from, so to speak, and it certainly isn’t clear that we must accept Christian accounts in the absence of an alternative. More to the point of this post, it isn’t clear that belief in God or gods has always been about answering such questions.
…or even that it is so today.