One More Burning Bush

Part 1: The Incredible Shrinking Deity

According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, creation began with the events chronicled in the biblical book of Genesis. The miracles it records are without a doubt the grandest in the Bible: light appearing by divine fiat, a massive firmament dividing the primeval waters of chaos, the sun and moon hung in the sky like jewels on a necklace, and life brought forth from earth, water and dust. Even after creation was complete, Adam and Eve, the first couple, were in constant contact with God. He spoke to them directly, walked with them in the cool of the evening, and brought all the animals before them to be named. The evidence of his presence was everywhere to be seen, pervading all of Eden. And even after the first humans committed the sin that resulted in their expulsion from Paradise, God’s existence was still undeniably obvious. For the next several generations he continued to show himself to them, speak to them, and even took one (Enoch) directly to Heaven.

By the time of the Israelite Exodus, God’s presence in the world was slightly less obvious. Although he still manifested himself and spoke to the great prophets, such as Moses, the common people no longer got the benefit of such clear and direct messages. However, God did prove his existence from time to time by sending miracles, mostly in the form of punishments directed at the wicked: showers of frogs, swarms of locusts, rivers turned to blood, and so on.

As time went by, though, God’s punishments – the sacking of Jerusalem, the Babylonian captivity – became more susceptible to natural explanations, and obvious miracles became increasingly rare, as did direct communications. By the time of the New Testament, according to Christianity, God was no longer speaking out of a burning bush, a pillar of flame, or some other obviously supernatural shape, instead making his appearances in entirely human form in the person of Jesus. And while, according to the Bible, Jesus did perform miracles, they were almost always small and local in extent – healing the sick and the blind, turning water into wine, revivifying a dead man – miracles that, however impressive they were to those who witnessed them, would easily have been overlooked by people in the next town over. They in no way compare to catastrophic worldwide floods, city walls collapsing at the blast of a trumpet, or armies of tens of thousands all dying mysteriously overnight. Miracles of somewhat greater extent did happen when Jesus died, such as the sky going dark or the dead saints returning to life, but those events seem to have sunk without a ripple, considering how little attention even the Bible pays to them.

Finally, two thousand years later, we arrive at the present day. God no longer makes any appearances in the world, in any form, and obvious miracles have long since ceased. Once-mysterious phenomena that were once considered to be caused by his direct will, such as earthquakes or plagues, have now been explained as results of the regularity of natural law. Although some believers claim that this lull is only temporary before God returns in a fiery conflagration to burn up the earth and claim the faithful as his own, the events they point to as signs of the coming apocalypse are no different, either in magnitude or in kind, from the strife that has been taking place on this planet every day for thousands of years. Most of all, with the dawn of the scientific revolution, the extent of our universe has expanded enormously, and God has not grown to match. As the vast and intricate history of life on Earth and the inconceivable vastness of the cosmos have progressively become clear to us, the major holy texts continue to tell of small gods, deities who are primarily concerned with one tribe of people, one small region of the world, one city out of all those on the planet.

There is a distinct pattern here, and it can best be summed up as this: Throughout history, God has been shrinking. The time when the world was small and God was in control is always in the far distant, half-remembered past. The closer we approach to the present, the less common miracles are and the less accessible he becomes, until the present day when divine activity has dwindled until it is indistinguishable from the nonexistent. Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.

This pattern is not limited to the Judeo-Christian religions, either. Almost every belief system around the world tells a similar story: a past golden age where the gods were apparent and miracles were abundant, followed by a steady decline of such occurrences until arriving at a thoroughly ordinary, natural present. The kind of events that the Bible and other holy books describe simply do not happen in the world today; the frequency of miracle claims seems to decline almost in direct proportion to our ability to test them. What can account for such a pattern?

Part 2: Where Is God?

Where is God? It is a legitimate question, and one that an atheist is certainly entitled to ask. If such a being exists, why don’t we see him?

Even the most devout theists, even those who believe that miracles are still abundant today, must admit that God’s existence is not obvious in the way that, for example, the existence of one’s best friend is obvious. God is not the sort of being that one can perceive with one’s eyes, hear with one’s ears, touch with one’s hands. Instead, believers claim, God’s existence is perceived not through the ordinary five senses, but through some additional sense, one that works in a completely different fashion from the other five.

This claim, however, raises some important questions. First of all, what precisely is the sense that perceives God, and how does it operate? All the other five senses operate on objects in the physical world, objects whose existence is subject to independent verification through other means. The sense of vision operates on photons of light; the sense of smell operates on molecules that diffuse through the air; the sense of touch detects the shape, temperature, and composition of material objects. What object or phenomena is the “God sense” responding to, and can its existence be detected any other way?

Aside from this lack of independent detectability of its subject, the “God sense” faces another difficulty. Aside from occasional exceptions such as colorblindness, two people using the same sense to perceive an object will ordinarily agree on its characteristics. Different people can easily reach a consensus on whether a new object is red or not, whether it tastes sweet or not, whether its surface feels smooth or not. However, this does not seem to be the case with the “God sense”. Instead, different people – all of whom insist that their perception of God is clear, unimpaired, and correct – will nevertheless often disagree dramatically on the characteristics of this being. Some believe that God is loving and forgiving, others that he is wrathful and warlike; some believe that he is personal, others that he is impersonal; some believe that he is infinite, while others believe that he is limited; and so on. Some people even disagree over whether there exists only one god or many. Clearly, these people cannot all be correct. But without a reliable means of settling this question through independent measurement, why should we believe that any of them have it right?

Given that there is no way to independently detect the object to which it purportedly refers (no way to build a “God meter”), and given that people do not by any means agree on the characteristics of this object, the most reasonable conclusion is that the God-detecting sense does not exist at all. What it seems we have instead is a broad array of people, each of which believes their own subjective beliefs to be objective truth. Such loose and shifting sands are in no way a reliable guide to the true nature of reality. Many people throughout history have believed, and many people today still believe, things that in retrospect turned out to be completely wrong. If we are ever to gain knowledge about something, we need a more reliable way of observing and measuring it than this. (For more on the argument from religious confusion, see “The Cosmic Shell Game“. For theists who may be objecting that internal sensations such as love also cannot be directly detected, see “Spiritual Fire“).

Of course, just because there is no God-detecting sense does not necessarily mean, in and of itself, that God does not exist. There may be many natural phenomena that we cannot detect. However, something that we cannot directly detect and that has no measurable effects upon other objects that we can detect is, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to something that does not exist. Even if there are completely undetectable objects, we might as well live our lives as if there were no such objects, because we can never know anything about them, not even the fact of their existence.

However, I am not suggesting that God must by definition be undetectable; quite the contrary. If there is a god such as many religions believe in, then he clearly has the ability to reveal his existence to us – not through some unreliable, subjective inner sense, but through the far more reliable outer ones. Why does God, if he exists, not reveal himself in some unambiguous way? Why does he not manifest himself in the world as something that we can see with our eyes, that we can hear with our ears, that we can touch with our hands? This would obviously be well within the power of an omnipotent being, so if there is such a being, why doesn’t it happen?

I am not suggesting that God, if he were to manifest in the world, could only appear in some dramatic, cosmic form, such as a huge Michelangelo-like figure tearing open the sky. A far more down-to-earth manifestation would be more than sufficient for most purposes, just as long as it was detectable by the ordinary senses and as long as we could communicate with it in a meaningful fashion. In other words, all I am asking is that God, if such a being exists and desires that we know him, interact with us in the same way we would expect any human being with the same desire to interact with us.

But this simple and reasonable strategy has not been carried out. Instead, the theists say, God has adopted a strategy for getting human beings’ attention that can only reasonably be described as bizarre – always remaining hidden, never clearly showing himself despite it being well within his power, but dropping coy hints from time to time. Imagine if you loved a person with all your heart, and wanted them to love you in return; but instead of approaching them, introducing yourself and explaining your feelings, you chose to remain hidden, never letting them see or hear you, but occasionally trying to get their attention through indirect means: leaving money where they might find it, or creeping into their bedroom while they were asleep and tucking the blankets around them, or sending a steady stream of representatives to knock on the person’s door and tell them that you loved them and wanted to spend your life with them – but ordering those representatives to turn down any of the person’s requests to actually see you as indicative of a hurtful lack of faith on their part. Is this how a rational person behaves? In such a situation, in fact, would you blame the other person for beginning to doubt whether you really existed at all? And yet, if we accept the claims of many theists, this method is how God chooses to relate to humanity. What could possibly be the point of this behavior?

The argument so far can be summarized as this: When we study history, we encounter stories of great miracles and appearances of God. These stories are not corroborated by any similar events in the present. There are no reliable means for humans to detect the existence of God, and although theists tell us God has the power to bridge this evidentiary gap from the other side, there are no occurrences that can reasonably be interpreted as this happening. In short, God is absent, and evidence of his activity is nowhere to be found.

If this reasoning were taken no further, it would simply be an observation, favoring no one viewpoint over any other. However, it can be made into the foundation of a potent argument for atheism commonly styled the argument from divine hiddenness. This argument builds on the fact that God’s presence is not obvious, supplementing it with the proposition that, if God existed, there would be good reasons for him to make his presence obvious – and from there concludes that the most likely explanation for the lack of divine manifestations is that there is no divine being at all. This argument will be presented more fully in the next section.

Part 3: The Argument from Divine Hiddenness

The majority of atheists, if asked why they did not believe in God, would probably respond that it is because they see no credible evidence for the existence of such a being. The argument from divine hiddenness is merely a formalized version of that stance. In brief, it states that the lack of obvious manifestations of God is better explained by assuming that God does not exist than by assuming that God does exist but chooses to remain hidden. Below is a more formal version of the same argument, stated as a disproof by contradiction:

Assumption (1): God exists.
        Assumption (1a): God desires that people be aware of his existence.
        Assumption (1b): God desires that people worship him in specific ways.
        Assumption (1c): God has the ability to make his presence obvious and explain clearly what he desires.
Premise (2): God’s presence is not obvious in the world.
Premise (3): Many people do not believe in God because of a lack of evidence.
Premise (4): Many people who do believe in God do not agree on what he desires, because of a lack of evidence.
Premise (5): For God to make his presence obvious and explain his desires would remedy both (3) and (4), without having any significant negative side effects.
Conclusion (6): If God exists, he would make his presence obvious in the world and explain what he desires. (from (1),(5))
Contradiction: But no such thing has happened. (from (2))
Conclusion (7): God does not exist. (from (6),(2))

As with the argument from evil, there are some theistic traditions that face no difficulty from the argument from divine hiddenness. For example, there are the deists, who generally hold that God desires no specific types of worship from human beings and is unconcerned with whether or not we believe in his existence. This argument will not affect this group. There are also universalist religious traditions which believe that all modes of worship are acceptable to God. These groups face a reduced, though not an eliminated, difficulty from the argument from divine hiddenness, presuming they believe that at minimum God wants us to believe in his existence – for there are still atheists, and a plain manifestation of God would eliminate many, if not all, of these.

However, most religious traditions believe that God wants us to both believe in his existence and worship him in specifically defined ways, and it is these against which the argument from divine hiddenness is most effective. For if there exists a God who desires that humanity believe in him and come to know him, why would he not take the most effective possible action to ensure that this occurs? If he were to manifest himself in an obvious way and explain clearly what he wants from us, the vast majority of nonbelievers would probably choose to convert, and the vast majority of religious confusion would probably be eliminated. Since this is the outcome that best achieves his goals, a rational and benevolent deity would desire to bring it about. The failure of such an event to occur must therefore be counted as evidence against the existence of any such being.

That an obvious appearance of God would convert many nonbelievers should be beyond dispute. As I write in “The Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists“, I would certainly begin to believe in God if I were to witness an unambiguous manifestation of the divine, and the vast majority of atheists probably would as well. Why would any nonbeliever do otherwise, when faced with the incontrovertible evidence that they were wrong? In any case, atheists, by definition, already do not believe in God. What further harm could it possibly do for him to appear and attempt to convince them otherwise?

Similarly, there should be no argument with the claim that an obvious manifestation of God would all but end the religious confusion so prevalent among humanity. Given the current lack of clear divine communication and guidance that we are told was once so frequent (see part 1), it is no surprise that humanity has splintered into so many different religions and sects, each of which holds differing and incompatible views regarding the wishes of God. An opportunity to contact God directly and ascertain what his wishes actually are would doubtless settle these disputes once and for all. Not only would this achieve God’s goal of having people worship him as he directs, it would also do an enormous amount of incidental good in ending the religious strife and violence so pervasive among humanity. Again, the people to whom God would be appearing already believe in his existence and have already expressed willingness to follow his commands. How could it possibly do any harm for them to have that belief confirmed?

If this line of argument is accepted, it follows that God clearly manifesting himself would have significant positive effects, with no significant negative effects. It therefore follows that, if God exists, we would expect him to clearly manifest himself in such a way. But no such manifestation has occurred. Therefore, the most likely conclusion is that God, or at least the type of god defined in assumption (1) above, does not exist, and thus we are justified in being atheists. That is the argument from divine hiddenness in a nutshell.

Granted, this argument does not claim to offer certainty, only probability. The more confidence we have in its premises, the more confidence we can place in its conclusion; but these premises, like all our knowledge, cannot be absolutely proven. However, I believe there are strong reasons, given above, for considering each of them to be very likely to be true. In any case, absolute certainty is not required to be an atheist – merely a sincere belief that atheism is more likely to be correct than any of the other available options.

Of course, any argument is only as good as its premises, and apologists for various religious traditions have attacked every premise of the argument from divine hiddenness. However, there are good reasons to consider their counterarguments inadequate and the argument from divine hiddenness to be undaunted. The next section will discuss these attacks and the atheist’s response to each of them.

Part 4: Apologetics Answered

In response to various presentations of the argument from divine hiddenness, apologists have offered a variety of defenses intended to explain why God does not make his presence more obvious. This section will consider several of the more common defenses and demonstrate their inadequacy.

Response 1: God’s existence is obvious. Those who deny this do so out of stubbornness or selfish personal reasons.

Some apologists attempt to sidestep the argument from divine hiddenness by claiming that God’s presence actually is obvious in the world, and only prejudice or bias prevents atheists from acknowledging this. The most famous example of this argument comes from the Christian Bible, verse 1:20 of the Book of Romans:

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (NIV translation).

The atheist’s response to this argument is that it is simply not true. There is nothing about the mere existence of the world that requires an inference to a supernatural maker. This is just the classic form of the cosmological argument, refuted in “Unmoved Mover“: postulating a god that created the universe explains nothing that is not explained equally well by postulating that the universe itself has always existed and gives rise to all other cause and effect by the operation of natural law.

This also does not address the second prong of the argument from divine hiddennness, namely that God’s revealing himself would abolish the widespread disagreement among believers regarding his nature and what he desires from humanity. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that this world was created by a supernatural power, there is nothing to indicate that this power was perfect or eternal. It might have been a malevolent demiurge, a pantheon of squabbling deities, or a single powerful but fallible and imperfect being. Various groups of people throughout history have believed all of these possibilities, further refuting the claim that the qualities of a perfect monotheistic deity are “clearly seen” in nature. If these qualities are so obvious, why can people not agree on what they actually are?

Even the most fervent of believers must admit that God’s presence in the world is not obvious in the way it could conceivably be. If there is a deity, it could make its presence apparent in a way that requires no “inference” whatsoever. Why would God, if such a being exists, not reveal himself in a way that demonstrates intentionality and miraculous power and allows for actual communication? It is one thing to claim that the existence of pattern and regularity in the world implies a hidden intelligence behind it all; it is quite another for that intelligence to actually speak to us directly. While the former claim is uncertain and disputable at best, surely not even the staunchest atheist could deny a god that simply shows up and talks to us in the way that any close friend would. This defense to the argument from divine hiddenness cannot explain why God would not choose to do this, and therefore it cannot be considered a success.

Response 2: For God to clearly reveal himself would violate our free will because humans would then have no choice but to love and follow him.

Probably the most common defense against the argument from divine hiddenness, this argument holds that God desires not just our worship, but our freely chosen worship. Though he could easily manifest himself and bludgeon us into obedience with displays of irresistible divine power, many theists hold, this would be coercion and he does not desire that; he desires, instead, that we make that choice out of our own free will.

The most obvious counter to this argument is to point out that the traditions of most religions refute it themselves. For example, in the Abrahamic tradition that encompasses Judaism, Christianity and Islam, both the rebel angel Satan and the first humans Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, despite being constantly in his presence and presumably having no doubts about his existence. The Old Testament scriptures likewise tell of the Egyptian Pharaoh who refused to release the Israelites from their captivity despite overwhelming displays of God’s power; the Israelites themselves repeatedly stumbled into idolatry throughout their history despite painful familiarity with the divine wrath that inevitably followed. The Christian scriptures tell of the Pharisees who denied Jesus’ divinity regardless of the miracles he performed in their midst, and the traitor Judas who betrayed him despite first-hand knowledge of his true identity. The list goes on and on. If it would be coercion for God to manifest himself, display miraculous power and demand our worship, as some theists hold, why is it that, according to those theists’ sacred books, he did exactly that on many occasions in the past? Why was God not concerned about coercion then? And why is it not coercion when God’s followers wrote down accounts of those miracles and presented them to others as truth?

This apologetic does not make sense. Why would direct evidence of God’s existence force us to worship him? Mere knowledge that he exists would not compel us to obey him, any more than we are forced to obey anyone else whose existence we are certain about. Even if we knew for certain that God existed, we would still be perfectly free to disregard his commands or reject him as a tyrant unworthy of our worship. It does not infringe on a person’s free will to make them aware of a fact. Does taking a course in gun safety make it impossible for someone to commit a crime with their weapon? If a scientist holds a certain position, does it interfere with their free will to point out evidence proving that position is wrong? Of course not.

In addition, this defense, yet again, fails to deal with the second prong of the argument from divine hiddenness. Even if God is withholding his presence so as not to coerce nonbelievers, why does he not appear to believers who have already made up their minds that he exists, to tell them what he really wants and end all the confusion and discord? Would that accomplish nothing?

Response 3: God does not clearly reveal himself because he knows that doing so would do no good; those who disbelieve and rebel would continue to disbelieve and rebel.

Contradicting those who hold to the previous option, some theists believe that God does not manifest himself because it would be useless in drawing people to him; those who are determined not to believe would rationalize the appearance away as a hallucination or a trick, and no one would be persuaded.

However, this option is even less satisfactory than the last. Firstly, to say that no miracle could win over a stubborn nonbeliever is to deny God’s omnipotence. How could an infinite being be powerless to affect the comparatively infinitesimal mind of a single human? Are theists claiming that exposure to God’s transcendent glory would not so much as budge an atheist?

Flattered though I am by claims that I possess such an overwhelming strength of will, I must decline the compliment. The fact is that I am an atheist, as many others are, precisely because of the lack of credible evidence for the existence of any supernatural being. If this evidence was provided, I would believe, as would many others; imaginary personal motives have nothing to do with it. Indeed, as “Terror of the Truth” explains, if I really did know of good evidence for the existence of a benevolent god, I would have no reason not to believe. But there is no such evidence, and that is why I am an atheist. If God exists and wants me to believe in him, there is no reason why he should not provide it.

And again, what about the religious confusion so abundant in the world today? Are we to believe that people who have devoted their lives to following God would suddenly no longer be willing to obey him if he actually showed up and told them that certain of their beliefs about him were incorrect? To say that an unmistakable direct manifestation of God would not convince anyone to change their mind is to show a complete ignorance of human psychology. History teems with reports of vast numbers of seemingly otherwise rational people who willingly abandoned their families, their possessions and sometimes their lives to follow self-proclaimed religious leaders on the flimsiest of evidence. If anything, we as a species are too eager to follow authority. The claim that an obvious manifestation, not just of a human guru or prophet but of God himself, would not inspire people to follow is utterly unbelievable.

In addition, even if a divine appearance did not convince everyone, at least those who still chose not to believe would know from that point on exactly what they were doing. No one would be condemned for making an honest mistake. This consideration is further addressed in part 5.

Response 4: God does not clearly reveal himself because he desires worship rather than mere acknowledgment of his existence.

A common, though strange, reply to the argument from divine hiddenness, this response holds neither that God’s appearance would coerce people into believing nor that it would push them deeper into rebellion. Instead, it maintains that although God could easily convince people that he exists, he does not desire this; rather, he desires a personal relationship of worship and love, and mere intellectual acknowledgment of his existence will not produce such a relationship.

Although commonly encountered in apologetic literature, this argument patently begs the question. It is like saying there is no point in filling my car with gas because that alone won’t get me to my destination. True, belief in God’s existence is not a sufficient condition for producing such a relationship, but it is certainly a necessary one. A person cannot love or worship what they do not believe to exist. Even granting for the sake of argument that an obvious manifestation of God would not produce mass worship (although in actuality it almost certainly would), it would lay the essential foundation on which such a response could be developed. Once a manifestation of the divine had made untenable the proposition that God does not exist, proselytizers could cease their efforts to overcome this objection and instead concentrate on providing reasons why God should be worshipped and obeyed. Surely this would be a much easier task!

In addition, this defense yet again fails to address the second major prong of divine hiddenness. Why does God not appear to his faithful, who already have a relationship with him, and explain where they are misinterpreting his wishes in order to end religious schism and division? Just as above, in order to willingly obey God’s commands, believers must first know what those commands actually are.

Response 5: God does not clearly reveal himself because worship based on miracles rather than faith would not be lasting.

The final objection that will be considered here states that God does not reveal himself because people’s belief in him would then become dependent on continued miraculous appearances and would no longer be the sort of genuine and enduring faith he desires, the kind that needs no external evidence to sustain it.

However, any proposed solution to the problem of divine hiddenness must accommodate not just the fact that miracles do not occur today, but also the fact that they were once claimed to be abundant (see part 1). In this respect, this explanation cannot be considered a success. For if God’s performing miracles would only invite subsequent generations to demand to see more just as good as the ones their forefathers witnessed, then it seems he has already given the game away: the Bible and other holy books contain many accounts of dramatic, earth-shaking miracles. If not fostering people’s dependence on him is God’s paramount concern, then why did he perform them so often in the past?

True enough, if God only appeared once per generation, put on a special-effects show and then disappeared again, people might become jaded. But I am not suggesting this. (It is curious how apologists seeking to explain the negative effects that would ensue if God revealed himself more clearly can only conceive of scenarios that imply a clumsy or incompetent God.) I am suggesting, instead, that God could reveal himself to us and interact with us in the same way human beings interact with each other – not in blazing displays of cosmic power, but in the simple, everyday ways that convey the message that the other party is there, that they are who they say they are, and that they are willing to communicate. These things are the basic and essential components of a relationship. Does it ruin your relationship with your best friend for you to be able to see them and talk to them every day? If not, then what justification can there be for applying a different standard to God?

Part 5: Conclusion / One More Burning Bush

This essay has argued that God, if he existed, would have strong reason to reveal himself to humanity in a meaningful and obvious way, and no strong reason to refrain from doing so. But no such thing has happened. It is therefore more reasonable to believe that God does not exist than to believe that God does exist but chooses to remain hidden, and it is therefore reasonable to be an atheist. This is the conclusion to which the argument from divine hiddenness leads.

But this argument has an emotional side as well as an intellectual one. If God is loving and compassionate, why would he hide himself away? Why would he let people stumble in the dark when he could so easily enlighten them? There are many people who struggle with their faith, who are plagued by doubt, and who put themselves through mental anguish trying to make themselves believe; many of them ultimately become atheists. There are others who are all too willing to inflict the most horrendous suffering on their fellow human beings because of their beliefs. Why does God not put a stop to this? Just a few simple words from him could calm the doubts and fears of so many, put a stop to the religious violence that has spilled so much innocent blood, and give humanity a new shared purpose and an invincible source of hope. His absence, by contrast, allows crises of faith and religious warfare and bloodshed to continue unabated.

But divine hiddenness potentially has even more serious consequences than this. According to many religious traditions, the fate of those who die without believing in God, or believing incorrect things about God, is an eternity of torment and suffering in Hell. As any theist would agree, this is a horrible fate; and presumably God, if he is good and not evil, does not desire that anyone be condemned to undergo it. Why, then, does he not take all available measures to warn people? Does he consider it more valuable that people believe without good evidence than that they be saved from the fire by whatever means possible?

This is yet another example of how religion, in order to perpetuate itself, relies on the willingness of believers to set aside ordinary standards of rationality and substitute a new standard, one where “anything goes”, when it comes to evaluating God’s actions. To illustrate this, consider this analogy: Imagine that you were a loving and devoted parent with a house near a busy highway, and you told your young child not to go out into the road because he could be hit by a car and seriously hurt or even killed. But one day, several weeks after you gave this warning, you happened to glance out the window and saw your child running toward the street and its oncoming traffic. What would you do? Would you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, I warned him about the danger, it’s his choice”? Of course not! You would run out and snatch him back, away from the danger – any parent would. Are we then to believe that God, who is infinitely more loving than any human parent, in an equivalent situation chooses to do nothing? Such an interpretation casts serious doubt on the claim of his goodness, to say the least. Yet theists do not object to this behavior; few even seem to recognize that there is any incongruity.

In reality, however, it is implausible to believe that any god worthy of worship would stand by and do nothing while a vast number of human beings marched toward damnation – or worse, that this god would then condemn them himself for making an honest mistake. It is implausible to believe that a loving creator would hide himself away and do nothing while his children wrestle with doubt and fear. Far more plausible, far more rational, is the conclusion that God’s existence is not apparent because there is no such being in the first place, and never was. It follows as a consequence that the miracle-filled accounts of ancient history are not a reflection of reality, but an artifact of human credulity and ignorance – the farther back in time we go, the more willing people were to accept fantastic stories at face value, and the more difficult it was to test such claims even if anyone had wanted to. It also follows that the experiences of the divine people have today are not accurate perceptions of some deeper reality, but the result of wishful thinking and cultural indoctrination. But if I am wrong about this, I am willing to be corrected. As I write these words, I, along with many others, am standing on the edge of the highway. All it would take to persuade me to turn back would be one more burning bush…

Subsidiary Articles
The Parable of the Loan: As an atheist once memorably said, asking why God should prove his existence to nonbelievers is like asking why a banker should need to see identification before loaning a customer money. This essay further explores that concept.

Flight 777: A Parable: Guest contributor Matt Hollinger pens an allegory on God as an airplane pilot that shows the insufficiency of faith as a reason to believe.