Historian Richard Carrier nicely illustrates the magnitude of the Christian claim by showing its place in a series of exponentially increasing claims. I’ll summarize my interpretation here, but for his version see Why I Am Not a Christian (35–9).
It’s one thing to have each step in a series exceed its predecessor simply in degree. For example, “I have a yellow car” is a narrower (and more surprising) claim than “I have a car.” It is different in degree simply because there are fewer yellow cars than cars of any color. Let’s call this a linear progression.
More interesting are steps that are different in kind, an exponential progression of steps. This is admittedly a sloppy use of “exponential” and “linear,” but I think it suggests the magnitude of difference between changes in degree and the more dramatic changes in kind.
Here are five steps in an exponential progression. Claims at each step become increasingly unlikely.
1. Claims that are common such as, “I own a car.” In parts of the world where car ownership is common, this is not a surprising claim.
2. Claims that are uncommon such as, “I own a third-century Christian manuscript.” This is very uncommon—there might be just dozens of individuals who can make this claim rather than the hundreds of millions who could claim car ownership—but it’s plausible.
3. Claims that are unprecedented such as, “I own a 400-foot-long nuclear-powered submarine.” Such submarines do exist and no new science would be needed for this to be a true statement. Nevertheless, the facts that (1) there is no record of a person owning such a thing, (2) they are very difficult to steal, and (3) they are enormously expensive to build makes this claim very implausible.
4. Claims that are inconceivable today (but perhaps reasonable tomorrow) such as, “I own a time machine.” These machines do not exist today. New science and technology would be needed to build one, if it could be built at all. On the optimistic side, humanity continues to uncover new science and invent new technology, so a claim in this category might become possible in the future.
Big submarines do exist, so someone might own one someday. Technology does exist, so time machines might be built in the future, and then someone might own one. But science recognizes no supernatural claims, and there’s no reason to imagine that they will become more plausible in the future. No future developments in science or technology will help God make himself more available.
We can imagine a man building a time machine (Wells’ The Time Machine, 1895 or Back to the Future, 1985), and we can imagine God revealing himself to an ordinary man (The Shack, 2007 or Genesis, first millennium BCE). These imaginings are desirable, but they are fiction.
Of course, billions of people today believe in some variation of this supernatural claim, but because these many claims are mutually contradictory they do more to argue that humans invent religions than that god(s) exist. The Christian who eagerly points to the billions who believe in a supernatural something will also be quick to undercut this popularity by rejecting an all-roads-lead-to-God attitude.
Christian apologists advance “God did it!” in response to a scientific impasse such as “How did life originate?” or “What came before the Big Bang?” but they ignore how far-fetched the supernatural claim is. They confuse familiarity with plausibility, and on this exponential scale, God isn’t remotely plausible.
When deciding between two competing theories,
— Emo Philips
Photo credit: J. Gabás Esteban