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.

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