The Gospel of Elvis

In the book God?: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, William Lane Craig (debating Walter Sinnott-Armstrong) makes the following argument for why God chooses to remain hidden:

“Could God reveal himself more clearly?” Of course, He could: He could have inscribed the label “Made by God” on every atom or planted a neon cross in the heavens with the message “Jesus Saves.” But why would He want to do such a thing?

…[T]here is no reason at all to think that if God were to make His existence more manifest, more people would come into a saving relationship with Him.

…In the Old Testament God is described as revealing Himself to His people in manifest wonders: the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea. But did such wonders produce lasting heart-change in the people? No, Israel fell into apostasy with tiresome repetitiveness. If God were to inscribe His name on every atom or place a neon cross in the sky, people might believe that He exists, all right, but what confidence could we have that after time they would not begin to chafe under the brazen advertisements of their Creator and even come to resent such effrontery? (p.109)

This argument, like many made by Christian apologists, displays a bizarre ignorance of human psychology. If God were to clearly show his existence, it would not cause more people to worship him? Really?

If anything, human beings are too willing to worship and to follow. The great number of cults and sects that have sprung up in every era testifies to this; most of them have followed leaders who made only the flimsiest, most easily debunked pretense of having supernatural powers. (Sathya Sai Baba and Uri Geller, for example, have attracted significant followings despite performing only “miracles” that could easily be duplicated by sleight of hand.) To claim that an actual god which manifested itself and displayed real supernatural powers would not attract a vast following is to speak in total contradiction to everything that history and psychology teaches about humans’ gullibility and eagerness to be led.

Fanatically devoted followings sometimes spring up even around figures that make no explicit effort to attract them. I can give no better example than the cult of Elvis Presley, which among his most devoted fans has taken on many of the trappings of a latter-day religion. His Graceland estate is a major destination for pilgrimage to this day. Every year, his fans still hold a candlelight vigil on the anniversary of his death. The most hardcore fans, the ones who knew Elvis while he was alive, were called the “gate people” for their habit of sitting outside the gates of his mansion, every day, simply waiting for a chance to see him. The ones who met him, who saw him in person or got gifts or letters from him, treasure them to this day as if they were holy relics. (A lock of Elvis’ hair once sold at auction for over $100,000.) And, to this day, there are people who pattern their entire lives around imitating him.

In fact, during his lifetime Elvis claimed to have paranormal – even miraculous – powers:

His stepbrother and bodyguard, David Stanley, wrote a chapter ‘My Brother the Mystic’ in his book Life with Elvis, in which he alleges that Elvis could heal by touch and move clouds in the sky. When threatened with a violent thunderstorm during a car journey ‘Elvis stuck his right hand out of the sunroof and started talking to the clouds. “I order you to let us pass through”… and the amazing thing was that the clouds did exactly as he asked them to. They split right down the middle.

And, of course, to this day there’s widespread speculation that he didn’t really die. I can readily imagine that if Elvis during his lifetime had ever said, “I am the Son of God,” by now he’d have a following that would easily equal some of the established churches, and people would be busily inventing posthumous miracles to attribute to him. (Similar stories have already begun to pop up around the late Pope John Paul II.) In time, as these stories became diffused and exaggerated, Elvis worship could well blossom into a bona fide religion.

If a mere singer could attract this kind of devotion – and still does, decades after his death – then it surpasses belief to claim, as Craig does, that an actual appearance of God in the flesh would not attract a far larger following and worship. People do not become jaded and disenchanted by being able to see and touch their idols; it only inspires them to greater heights of devotion. Craig’s assertions to the contrary are in total conflict with reality.

Of course, the real reason he must maintain such risible assertions is that there are no manifestations. Thus, Craig must find a post-hoc means of rationalizing this to be consistent with his preexisting belief in God. Given those constraints, the solution he comes up with seems like the only feasible one. But it still fails to accord with well-known facts about reality and human nature.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    I for one would renounce my atheism on the spot if God manifested himself in person. So come on God! Bring the heavenly glory!

    Hmm.

    Obviously I’m not worth saving. Thanks a lot, God.

    *continues with life*

    And, no, I’m not convinced by the fact that buns sometimes look like Mother Teresa. That’s not a manifestation of anything more than creative baking.

  • mike

    There’s also the distinction to be made between believing in god and worshiping one. If god regularly showed up in the real world like the christian god did in the old testament, you would be silly to not believe he existed. But I don’t think I’d trust, let alone sincerely worship, the old testament god.

  • NoAstronomer

    I rather suspect that the reason that “Israel fell into apostasy with tiresome repetitiveness” is that god was in actual fact every bit as visible then as he/she/it is now. Which is to say not at all.

    So what about the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea? Fabrications, conflated and made up generations after the actual events. I mean could you imagine any human of any race, religion or time walking through the divided waters of the Red Sea, as depicted in ‘The Bible’,and *not* becoming a devout Jew on the spot?

  • David D.G.

    Nicely put!

    The only thing I would add is that the most likely reason that the Old Testament has the Jews “[falling] into apostasy with tiresome repetitiveness” is that the writers of the Old Testament were either (a) writing mythic tales in the conventions of their day (including repetition, a technique that shows up in myths and folklore from just about everywhere), or (b) just not that good at writing more sensible and convincing fiction, period. No matter how you slice it, the tales certainly are about as historically credible as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and it is absurd that any adult treats them otherwise.

    ~David D.G.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Once again, if God really existed and wanted worshippers, the solution is obvious- give benefits to worshippers. Admittadly handing out divine power willy nilly might lead to some interesting results, but a God that gives people the power to heal wounds instantly or shoot fire out of the palms of their hands or some other power if a God to be respected.

  • goyo

    …In the Old Testament God is described as revealing Himself to His people in manifest wonders: the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea. But did such wonders produce lasting heart-change in the people? No, Israel fell into apostasy with tiresome repetitiveness. If God were to inscribe His name on every atom or place a neon cross in the sky, people might believe that He exists, all right, but what confidence could we have that after time they would not begin to chafe under the brazen advertisements of their Creator and even come to resent such effrontery? (p.109)

    It begs the question: What will happen when you’re in heaven?
    You’ll be in the presence of god and jesus. Will you have second thoughts then, or does the place have anything to do with your belief and obedience?
    Can you have a heart-change in heaven?

  • OMGF

    Another reason for writers to talk about Israel falling into apostasy well after the fact is that it keeps the myth of the caring god figure alive. If the Israelites had behaved themselves, then god would have taken care of them and they would not have had hardships. Since they had hardships, something must not have gone right. Instead of doubting god, they simply placed all the blame for their condition on themselves not pleasing god, so obviously the earlier Israelis must have fallen into apostasy. This is one of the outcomes of logically fallacious thinking, namely assuming one’s conclusions.

    I’m not at all surprised that Craig would use this argument, since it’s as shoddy as most of the arguments he uses, especially his arguments for the existence and divinity of Jesus. And, this is the guy that claims that he’s never lost a debate. Sheesh.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommy

    I once had an idea for writing a story set in the future in which there was a religion based on Elvis worship. The priests would wear blue suede shoes. If you were a non-believer, they would say “You ain’t nothin but a hound dog.” Worshippers would prostrate themselves before statues of Elvis on which the label “Love me tender. Love me true.” was affixed.

    Interestingly, the character of Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica has become for some of the Colonials a religious type figure who can perform miracles. I can’t wait to see where the show’s writers are going with this one.

  • 2-D Man

    [A] God that gives people the power to heal wounds instantly or shoot fire out of the palms of their hands or some other power [is] a God to be respected.

    Samuel Skinner, some Christians already claim to have Cure Light Wounds or Identify. Frankly, no one is impressed by these level-one spells, so Burning Hands just wouldn’t cut it for me. We’d need to see something impressive, like Black Blade of Disaster (lv. 9) or Stone-to-Flesh (lv. 6). Heck, I’d even settle for Stoneskin (lv. 4).

  • Alan Slipp

    Craig does a disservice to God by assuming that He could not make Himself manifest in such a way that would both convince people of His existence AND create “saving relationships” near to 100% of the time while still allowing for free will. This *is* God we’re talking about, right? Who says God’s manifestations have to be “brazen advertisements” and “effrontery”?

    Besides which, if the question is “Does God exist?”, talking about saving relationships seems to be a bit irrelevant.

  • konrad_arflane

    Samuel Skinner, some Christians already claim to have Cure Light Wounds or Identify. Frankly, no one is impressed by these level-one spells, so Burning Hands just wouldn’t cut it for me. We’d need to see something impressive, like Black Blade of Disaster (lv. 9) or Stone-to-Flesh (lv. 6). Heck, I’d even settle for Stoneskin (lv. 4).

    Admittedly, some of them have also acquired second-level spells. Specifically, Tasha’s Uncontrollable Hideous Laughter.

  • http://thereligiousatheist.com plonkee @ the religious atheist

    You know, it gets clearer and clearer to me, that humans will worship absolutely anything. It’s like there’s a proportion of the population that feel they need to worship something, and the more ridiculous, the better.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Ah, but fire from palms is a sorceror spell. A God that can do both divine and arcane power is versitile and impressive. It would be an out of the box thinker kind of God- or a pyro God. Hey, everyone has their flaws.

  • http://lostaddress.org Ray

    I once had an idea for writing a story set in the future in which there was a religion based on Elvis worship. The priests would wear blue suede shoes. If you were a non-believer, they would say “You ain’t nothin but a hound dog.” Worshippers would prostrate themselves before statues of Elvis on which the label “Love me tender. Love me true.” was affixed.

    You want the book by Robert Rankin: “Armageddon The Musical 2: They Came and Ate Us” – in which Elvis Presley (accompanied by Barry the time traveling sprout) go back in time to prevent the birth of the Anti-Christ and ends up creating a world in his own image – with lines like “And Elvis did say unto Eve, put down the apple and back away from the tree”. In fact, read all of Rankin’s books, they are delightfully silly, wonderfully funny and poke fun at organised religion, government and anything else that tries to control us – real or imagined.

    If God were to appear now, we’d have a bunch of religious people ecstatically happy, a bunch of religious people unhappy that the wrong sort of God came down, a bunch of religious people who refuse to believe it, atheists happy to be proved wrong, atheists unhappy to be proved wrong and a load of people who will decide that it doesn’t apply to them. So not really any different to today.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    I think “divine hiddenness” is just about the biggest problem that religion has to answer for. It was one of the first things that bugged me when I was a young kid reading Bible stories and beginning to suspect that they were bullshit (I was raised agnostic, but had fundie relatives who tried to convert me). I remember thinking, “why does God appear to people in the bible, and walk and talk with them, but you never hear about that happening now?” (I also wondered how all those people lived to be 800 years old, but that’s another question.)

    If there really was a God who is anything like what believers describe, there would be no debate and no atheists. It would be OBVIOUS.

    And hey, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (the atheist who debates Craig) was my philosophy professor in college and he rocked. I have to get this book now, at least to read HIS parts!

  • More Spells for Megachurch

    Samuel Skinner, some Christians already claim to have Cure Light Wounds or Identify. Frankly, no one is impressed by these level-one spells, so Burning Hands just wouldn’t cut it for me. We’d need to see something impressive, like Black Blade of Disaster (lv. 9) or Stone-to-Flesh (lv. 6). Heck, I’d even settle for Stoneskin (lv. 4).

    Pat Robertson and the megachurch gang can do Mass Suggestion and Greater command , eh… NOT ENOUGH?!?!

  • mikespeir

    Another example of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose apologetics. If God were obvious, of course that would be evidence for God. But God is anything but obvious; so that’s…well, proof of God.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yup.

    And for some reason, I feel the uncontrollable compulsion to point out the obvious: Basing your argument on the historical infallibility of the Bible is a fool’s errand. If his entire argument is, “Why should God reveal himself clearly? He did so in the Old Testament days, and lots of people still didn’t believe him!”, the obvious reply is, “According to who?”

    According to the Bible? Yeah, that’s an objective source. And an accurate one, too. Sheesh.

  • exrelayman

    Tommy: Elvis “covered” Blue Suede Shoes, which was a Carl Perkins song. He also covered Polk Salad Annie by Tony Joe White. I loved Elvis before they drafted him, but after that he declined quite a bit (this is just one opinion – opinions are like noses).

    A few points more pertinent to the idea of the cited debate. If only prayers by believers on behalf of the sick were consistently effective (as scripturally promised), people would go to churches instead of doctors. This witness, though no one could see the hidden God, would certainly suffice to change my skepticism, and I venture to say, the skepticism of many others. If there be a God, why does He make this scriptural promise and not fulfill it?

    You say God doesn’t want robots, and being less hidden would interfere with the oh so precious free will? The (according to the fairy tale) free wills of Satan and Adam were not impaired by being in God’s presence that they became robots unable to sin. So why would our free wills be impaired? Also, notably, God didn’t care much about Pharaoh’s (notice, no specific Pharaoh) free will when He wanted to kill all the firstborn to redound to His gory glory.

  • terrence

    Not only that, but Jesus must have utterly dissed Thomas’s “free will”

  • Valhar2000

    Greta Christina wrote:

    According to the Bible? Yeah, that’s an objective source. And an accurate one, too. Sheesh.

    Indeed, it is amazing how steadfastly beleivers refuse to understand this point. In pretty much every occasion I have seen it being brought up, the beleiver questined simply ignored it after a short declaration that the Bible just is true, and then gave a long diatribe to sidetrack the discussion.

    So, get it into your head, Christians! The Bible is only evidence of anything if you start by assuming it is true! If you read it without making this assumption you can see that it is obviously untrue and written by ancient, ignorant people.

  • 2-D Man

    Not only that, but Jesus must have utterly dissed Thomas’s “free will”

    Ha ha ha.

    Ah, but fire from palms is a sorceror spell. A God that can do both divine and arcane power is versitile and impressive. It would be an out of the box thinker kind of God- or a pyro God. Hey, everyone has their flaws.

    I’m sure a clever cleric could make Sunscorch look like Burning Hands.

    Actually on the topic of God’s (lack of) presence then and now, Netwriter has a video on YouTube called, “Is God a liar?”

  • Stephen

    If God were to appear now, we’d have a bunch of religious people ecstatically happy, a bunch of religious people unhappy that the wrong sort of God came down, a bunch of religious people who refuse to believe it …

    No, actually I think we’d have a whole bunch of people from wildly different religious backgrounds all claiming that this was of course the god they’d always believed in and how could anyone doubt it.

    I do wonder what they’d say if Loki, Bacchus and Aphrodite showed up, though.

  • goyo

    The pre-tribulation dispensationalist theory says that after the “rapture”, jesus will physically return to earth and rule as a king for a thousand years. Then, there will be unbelievers that he will judge, in a second judgement.
    Unbelievers who have lived with jesus physically?
    This is a crazy theory, but one that goes right along with the above. How could you deny or rebel against a physical manifestation of god on earth? Apparently, god isn’t that powerful or influential.

  • 2-D Man

    [J]esus will physically return to earth and rule as a king for a thousand years.

    Weren’t the dark ages a thousand years, roughly? I’m not saying that this is solid evidence, but it’s something to look into.

  • Valhar2000

    Goyo: fundies think that God is real, Jesus is real, and everybody knows this, as though that knowledge were built into the laws of the universe. Therefore, atheists and other infidels are merely denying this knowledge for deleterious reasons of their won. Thus, the presence of Jesus in the real world would do nothing to change their minds (except maybe scare them a little).

    They really do beleive this. Have you never heard a fundie saying that atheists are angry at god and that no amount of evidence of god could convince us? The mean it!


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