One of the most common complaints that “moderate” believers have about anti-theists is that we are criticizing a version of god that nobody actually believes in. The kind of sky-dwelling patriarch that visits wrath on his own imperfect creation is a convenient target for derision, but it is a straw deity argument. Theology has developed, through careful examination of the scripture (and, presumably, guidance from the holy spirit), a much more ‘sophisticated’ and nuanced understanding of what YahwAlladdha actually is. Atheists should be criticizing this new and supremely amorphous deity, since that’s what people are praying to for a cancer cure.
There is no shortage of reasons why this argument is completely false. First of all, outside the hallowed halls of theological academies, the average person is not taught, and does not believe in, a quasi-deistic benevolent creator who is an embodiment (but not a corporeal one) of all that is good in the universe. While people are quick to jump on the bandwagon of “I don’t recognize that god” whenever an atheist criticizes belief in the bloodthirsty Canaanite war god (an act that is amusingly similar to the apostle Peter), they are oddly ignorant of the legions of neo-Calvinist churches crowing with triumph every time an earthquake or a tsunami destroys some gay heathen mecca.
The list of reasons why the “sophisticated god” argument is nonsense abounds, but what doesn’t seem to filter into the discussion at all is how self-defeating it is. It is an argument that, if followed through to its logical conclusion, proves itself to be either false or insulting to the deity it is supposedly defending.If we grant the possibility that a god exists (which I most certainly do not, but will pretend to for the sake of argument), with the characteristics of benevolence and intelligence, then we arrive at the heart of the conundrum. A benevolent god would, arguably, want to see the maximum happiness for its supposedly favoured creatures. Net universal happiness, thanks to the mathematics of infinity, can only be achieved by bringing at least 50% +1 of human beings into heaven. After all, the
mathematical limit net happiness (I have been corrected on this point, see comments) in a universe in which fewer than half of humans go to heaven is zero (or less) happiness as time approaches infinity.
A god worthy of the appellation ‘intelligent’ would understand the way to make hir nature clear and manifest enough that at least 50% +1 of humankind would understand enough to worship. After all, if belief (with or without right action) is required in order to achieve heaven, then people will have to understand what is expected of them. One might argue that a benevolent god would simply have no such requirement, but that statement is specifically refuted by scripture. Also, a god with no behaviour or belief requirement is an amoral god – if there are no conditions that preclude success then life, from a theist perspective, is meaningless.
Given these conditions, we are exhorted to look at the nature of the divine through the supposedly revealed scripture. One might argue that a truly intelligent and benevolent being wouldn’t restrict itself to a handful of ancient revelations, but would instead have a website where people could ask questions and receive answers. Certainly, that’s how the author of this blog imparts the profound truths of the universe – maybe YahwAlladdha still has dial-up and doesn’t know how to work WordPress.
God’s technophobia aside, if we are to believe that the various scriptures are an attempt of the divine to communicate its wishes to its creation, the ‘sophisticated’ camp gets into deep trouble. After all, if that is the goal (as it must be for the deity to be thought of as ‘benevolent’), then the efficacy of the communication becomes a criterion upon which we must judge the deity. If the self-description is inept, then it is malevolent to fault the creation for failing to understand it, to say nothing of how manifestly stupid it is to fail to articulate your wishes to a creature that you designed yourself.
At this point, I can imagine some errant theologian stamping her foot and declaring that understanding YahwAlladdha is a lifelong process that cannot be accomplished by a cursory examination of the scriptures. A true and sophisticated knowledge of the divine requires careful study and prayer – the arrogance of claiming that we can simply read selected passages from the Bible and understand the unfathomable nature of the gods is typical of the lazy, unsophisticated theology that atheists practice. YahwAlladdha is beyond the scope of our feeble, mortal minds.
Our poor theologian, however, has just given up the argument. If lifelong study is a requirement for sufficient understanding, then YahwAlladdha has created conditions for success that ostentatiously exclude anyone born too poor to pursue an academic career in theology, or the illiterate, or anyone born in a country that is dominated by the “wrong” religious establishment, or those born before the rise of European intellectualism, or… let’s just say that according to our counterexample, YahwAlladdha cannot be understood by anyone except the elite – those with enough time and money on their hands to devote their lives to this “sophisticated” understanding.
So we arrive at the heart of the self-defeating nature of the “sophisticated” argument: either the sophistication of the argument makes sufficient comprehension impossible to the layperson, or the description of YahwAlladdha is the “simplistic” one that anti-theists take issue with. Either the gods are vindictive, elitist assholes, or they are the same bloodthirsty, xenophobic and abusive monsters that anti-theists depict them as. Or, YahwAlladdha is an incompetent, malevolent nincompoop who can’t write a book. Or he doesn’t exist, which is the most parsimonious explanation.
I can understand why people are so eager to retreat into the warm embrace of a “sophisticated” god – the one that exists in the pages of scripture is profoundly evil. In order to reconcile the belief in a good god with the obvious maleficence of the scripture account, it is necessary to invoke ‘mystery’ as a way of sweeping all the contradictions under a rhetorical rug. It must be supremely discomfiting when anti-theists lift the rug and point out all the crappy arguments that have been accumulating there over the years. The answer is not to chide us for exposing your poor housekeeping – it’s to finally take out the trash.
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