Monday, February 14, 2011

Testing, Testing, One, Two... Three?

Or, Even god Requires Proof to Believe     
            In this post I'm going to take some time to make a point that I don't think I have seen articulated before. Certainly, some of my readers will have grown weary of what has become on this blog a rather endless attack on the ideology of faith, both religious and political, but unfortunately, until the world moves on from this lunacy, some of us need to keep hammering the point. (And although arguing against religion and faith in general is rather like taking batting practice with an aluminum bat and golf balls, it does confer a certain satisfaction.)

            I have been reading a fair amount of skeptical writing lately; Greta Christina's excellent blog, which is linked at the top of this page, and Christopher Hitchen's god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I have enjoyed them both, because their personal perspectives are different enough from my own, but essentially, their arguments against faith and religion are the same as mine have been for well over a decade. So if you are someone who has been down the same intellectual road as myself, much of this blog is familiar territory for you as well. I hope, at the very least, that I can inject enough quality writing and humor into subject to make it worth your reading. But I hope, today, to be able to offer an insight, that, like I said, I at least have never seen before, and may be new for you as well.

            As has been said time and again, the central, and I believe irrefutable, argument against the existence of the Abrahamic god, the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is lack of proof of his existence. Various attempts have been made throughout the ages to do this, and all have failed. Going over them is a subject for another post, but the simple fact remains, if there were incontrovertible, irrefutable proof, the faithful would shove it in our faces every minute of every day. If any one religion could actually prove that they were the one true faith, most of the religious squabbling, and the accompanying violence and oppression, would fade. But no one can produce such a proof, and so they continue trying to shout or bomb everyone else into the Dark Ages.

            Now that the world has turned to experimentation, evidence and proof to answer most of its questions, and it has become more and more recognized, even among the religious faithful, that religion can produce none of these. And so they have retreated behind the nigh impenetrable walls of faith. “We don't need proof,” they say, “we have faith.” When impertinent doubters, such as myself, ask for proof, we are scolded with some version of, “You can't put god to the test. He doesn't need to prove himself to us. We just need to have faith in him.” There is a massive hole in this argument, besides the one I am going to talk about, which is this; If you do not have, nor require, any proof at all, how did you choose your particular religion over any other, or indeed, over believing that god is giant pink teddy bear in the sky? To which of course, the answer is, “Well, that just wouldn't make sense,” or “Because the Torah/ Bible/ Koran says god is...” In other words, proof and sense are required, just not when discussing it with someone who doesn't believe that any particular book has magical powers.

            But this is a digression from my main point, which follows. Over and over in the holy books of the Abrahamic religions, we see, in some of the favorite passages of the faithful, that god himself requires proof. Yes, the omniscient, omnipotent creator of all existence, repeatedly puts his creations to the test, just to be sure that they are faithful to him. This is a celebrated fact in all of these religions, and in the contemporary lives of believers. In fact, it is the one and only defense they can often come up with when presented with the Problem of Evil (why a supposedly omnipotent, loving god allows evil and suffering in the world), that it is a test, or with realities such as the fossil record, which some claim was put there, either by god or satan, to test their faith.

            But the question remains; why on earth would the creator of all existence, who purportedly knows everything about everything, from the beginning of creation to the end of time, who knows all of our most secret thoughts and desires, need to test his followers to prove their faithfulness and loyalty to him? Wouldn't he simply peer into their souls (which are just an extension of him, according to some) and discern their loyalty and fidelity? Why would he need them to prove themselves to him?

            There are two possible answers, the second much more likely than the first, though the first is the only one the faithful can lay claim to without giving up the golden egg. The first possible explanation is; Even god needs proof. Even he needs to see our resolve in actions and deeds, and without these, even our best intentions and greatest loyalty are not enough. (This hearkens back to the great divide in Christianity, between faith and good works.) The other explanation, which I believe makes a lot more sense, is that this is simply further evidence that the god of the Abrahamic religions, like the thousands of other deities which have been imagined throughout the ages, is a creation of human beings. The writers of the holy books found it impossible that anyone, anywhere, even god, would believe anything without proof. (Oh, the irony!) They could not, in their pathetic human attempts to imagine the divine, imagine a being who would not require proof, because it is so bloody obviously a precondition for any non-omniscient being to believe anything!! And so, in the construction of their myths, they used proof and evidence as the yardsticks by which the greatest heroes of the myths were measured. These men and women were set apart from those who just professed faith because they were the ones who proved to god that they were loyal. And god, in his infinite wisdom, accepted nothing less.

            The use of proof as the essential yardstick appears in nearly every noteworthy story in the Bible,  sometimes to prove loyalty, sometimes to show the absence of it. Adam and Eve proved they were not worthy of the Garden when they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Abraham proved his loyalty to god when he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Joseph proved his holiness by rejecting the Pharaoh's wife and enduring his sufferings without complaint. Job, also, proved his loyalty by enduring his sufferings without complaint. Even Jesus had to prove his loyalty to his father (himself? weird) when he was tested by satan in the desert. We could find many more, but since these are some of the most celebrated stories in the myth, this list will suffice.

            There is another way of phrasing this, which is more accurate, given the construction of the myth. That is to view all of these events as “tests” (experiments, if you will), of God's. He tested Adam and Eve by putting the forbidden fruit within easy reach. He tested Abraham by asking for the sacrifice of his son. He tested Joseph and Job through their sufferings. He tested his own son (himself? weird) by  allowing the Great Tempter, the Prince of Lies, to tempt him, test him, in the desert. 

           What does this god resemble? A scientist. He has a hypothesis: I think this person is loyal unto me, and that he will serve my purpose. He devises an experiment: I will test his loyalty by X (asking him/ her not to eat this fruit, asking for his son, asking him to suffer, asking for his life). He collected data: He went through with the experiments. He drew a conclusion: Adam and Eve were not loyal, Abraham, Joseph, Job and Jesus (I? weird) were loyal.

            What does this tell us? In all of the most crucial junctions of the Judeo/ Christian myth even the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe had to test the individuals on whom his creation and revelation was going to pivot; Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Jesus. It should be apparent now what kind of bind this puts today's faithful in. If even god requires proof before believing in someone, why don't they? If even god dares not act in the world simply on faith, even though he has every right to, how dare they?

            A little historical (well, quasi-historical) perspective will help see how they got themselves into this bind. In all of the monotheistic myths, it is precisely because god keeps proving his existence and power, over and over again, vis a vis all of the other gods available for worship in the Fertile Crescent, that people are supposed to worship him. He proves it through the flood, he proves it to Pharaoh through the plagues, he proves it through the manna and pillars of fire and smoke, he proves it when the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, he  proves it to the priests of Baal through Isaiah and the sacrifice of the bull, he  proves it through the virgin birth, through Jesus' miracles and through the resurrection. The perceived ability to perform miracles, things which humans couldn't do, was the proof, the reason, people accepted and worshiped one god over any others. The creators of the myths never envisioned a time when all of the things that were being attributed to god would be able to be laid open before human knowledge. They never imagined a time where the existence of the universe, the existence of life and intelligent creatures, of the seasons and all natural phenomena would be able to be explained without recourse to a divine power. So for the creators of these myths, of course people needed proof to believe something. This fact is so elementary that of course even god needs proof before he acts or believes.

            Now, let's be careful; I am not saying that any of the “proofs” that were included in the myths actually happened, the historical and scientific record have shown this over and over again. At best, some of these events may be exaggerations of some anecdotal evidence, or, as usually happened, they were simply borrowed from still older myths. What I am trying to show is how inexplicable it is to consider it a “virtue” to believe in anything without some kind of proof, some kind of evidence. Even god, who supposedly knows all, can't bring himself to do it. How can you?

            Of course, god's requirement of proof in the myths only demonstrates that what we are really talking about is the latter of the two options given above; that the Abrahamic god is, like thousands of other gods, a human invention. It takes only slightly more reason and imagination to see beyond the limited vision of divinity that was the norm at that time. No truly omnipotent, omniscient god would need to “test” anything. In all of his perfect knowledge, he would already know the outcome. It is precisely that he is imagined as requiring this, that is proof of his mortal origins.

            * (There is a third possibility, which involves slightly altering the usual telling of these myths. I don't think most of the faithful would come to it very quickly on their own- they still haven't come up with any good answers to refute Tom Paine more than 200 years later. Reason isn't really their thing. However, because I'm a nice guy, and because it is part of my job as a school teacher that I find hard to leave at work, I'm going to show you the one argument that could be made against what I have said above... then I'm going to knock that one down, too.

             It could be said that god doesn't need proof for himself, but only tested the characters in the myths to prove to them how strong their faith actually was. "Yes! That's it!" you say. Well, besides the fact that all the textual evidence points in the other direction, that it actually was god who wanted the proof (I don't feel like opening that silly book right now, but go look for yourself), this argument also suffers from the same fault, just removed a step. If that is the case, then god still  recognizes the necessity of proof for human beings to believe in anything, even their own faith. He might not require it, but this would be simply further proof (man, I love that word) of god's recognition that he created people who need proof to truly accept something.

            So when the faithful put their fingers in their ears and say, "My Bible says to have faith, and that's good enough for me," they are faced with yet another contradiction in their holy book. Do as I say? Or do as I do?)


  1. wow. i love how obvious this argument it and how well you thought it out. impressive.

  2. thanks. i love how obviously awesome you are. thanks for being my wife. hottie.

  3. I had a conversation with an ER Doc years ago that went something like this:
    Him: Do you go to church?
    Me: Yes
    Him: Do you believe all that stuff?
    Me: I'm not sure, that's why I go.
    Him: It would be a whole lot easier to believe if they offered up some proof every now and then.

    Love you....

  4. I worship my parents for all the reasons you worship your god. Who needs to pray to a patron saint when you have brothers? My heaven is my family, my hell would be the loss of their love. My morality did not come from a book, or the ramblings of a ghost whispering priest/prophet; it came from my creators, Mom and Dad.

  5. Not totally clear on your intent there, kneejerk, but just to be clear for all readers: although there are plenty of blogs out there for personal attacks on people of faith, this is not one of them. I obviously have very strong philosophical differences with people of faith, but that does not extend to the individuals themselves.

    I know lots of wonderful people who have a very strong faith in god; I also know plenty of people who don't who are a waste of space.

  6. No intent really, after a long discussion with a friend, this was said somwhere in our discussion. I thought I would share it here, maybe I was wrong to do so.