It’s been a while since I’ve run any excerpts from my 2012 book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. These are a bit longer than the usual post, but I think the fiction format is an interesting way to explore apologetics arguments.
A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of Rev. Samuel Hargrove, a famous pastor. Paul is doing his best to evangelize Jim, though Paul’s faith is now wavering. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, shortly after the San Francisco earthquake, and they’re in Jim’s house.
“Okay, but I’ve already told you what I think of it.” A tea kettle whistled. Jim walked into the kitchen, and returned with a tea tray and set it on the center table.
“The world has some marvelous things in it,” Paul said. “Rainbows and sunsets, laughing children, spring flowers, warm beaches, love. It’s a beautiful world.”
“True. But the world also has some terrible things in it. Earthquakes, droughts, famines, parasites. Take Guinea worm—it’s a parasite that’s common in Africa. It grows in people up to three feet long, eventually living just under the skin. When the mature worm is ready to lay eggs, it burns its way through the skin. Very painful, I hear. To extract the worm, it’s wound up on a stick, which is also a painful process. It takes days. In fact, you’ve already seen this. You know the doctor symbol, the snake twisted around a pole? That symbol came from this remedy.”
Paul grimaced and pushed himself back into his chair. “How do you get infected?”
“By drinking contaminated water. Nature has many kinds of diseases—some that kill you, and some that just make you wish you were dead. For every laughing child, I could find a child who no longer laughs, dying of dysentery or smallpox or even measles. Or an old man slowly dying of cancer. Or …” Jim inhaled noisily as if he were coming up for air. “Or a young mother dying in childbirth.”
Jim cleared his throat as he stood and walked to the wall opposite the window. At the bureau, he paused before a large framed portrait of a young woman. As Jim leafed through a drawer, Paul thought of the needlepoint pillows and framed samplers. The vacancy left by a woman was now obvious. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed before.
“How old are you?” Jim asked.
Jim returned to the sofa holding a newspaper clipping. “This is a list of major natural disasters from recent history. We can date them by your life. The earthquake in the Himalayas last year was much deadlier than the one we just had in San Francisco—20,000 people died. When you were twenty-one, a volcano in Martinique killed 29,000, and when you were two, Krakatau killed even more. A cyclone in Bengal killed 150,000 people when you were sixteen, and one in Vietnam killed twice that in the year you were born. When you were six, a flood in China killed as many as 2,000,000. And years of drought in India caused a famine that killed 10,000,000 when you were about twenty.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of some of those.”
“There’s a hell of a lot of pain and suffering in the world to go along with the good things.”
“Perhaps God has a reason.”
“To teach us to be humble? To count our blessings? To not get cocky? Those are some heavy-handed lessons. Let me propose this explanation: there is no reason at all. Our earth looks just as it would if there were no purpose, no design, and no wise designer.”
This was another Jim onslaught to which Paul had no rebuttal. “Well, let’s approach this from another angle,” Paul said. “You’re familiar with the Paley pocket watch example?”
Jim dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. “That argument has been around since Cicero. What’s amusing about Paley’s watch argument is that it defeats itself. Let’s imagine his original situation. He’s walking in a field and discovers the watch. It looks out of place, different from the plants and rocks. But if it looks different from nature because it looks designed, then nature must not look designed. You can’t argue on the one hand that the watch looks remarkable and stands out from the natural background, and on the other that the watch looks similar to nature, so both must be designed.”
“But nature does look designed. I’ve seen close-up photographs of insects like fleas. If God puts this amazing detail into insects, He must care far more for humans.”
“We marvel at God’s handiwork only after we know that he exists.” Jim leaned forward. “The design argument simply takes a childish view of the world. Does the world look designed by an omniscient and benevolent god? Go to the freak show at the circus—it’s a museum of nature’s poor design. Siamese twins, two-headed pigs, bearded ladies, the Lizard Man, hermaphrodites, dwarves, giants. Monsters like the Elephant Man and unfortunates with all manner of birth defects. Deformed babies floating in formaldehyde. Is this the best that God can do?”
“Maybe birth defects are meant to test us, to teach us to be better people.”
“That’s quite a barbaric test. Isn’t it ironic to imagine God teaching us to be kind with the cruelest test imaginable? Think of the parents every day who are told that their newborn has some hideous defect and will live a short, painful life. And why are there birth defects in animals? Do they need testing too? A natural explanation works best. ‘God is testing us’ is not where the evidence points.”
Jim poured tea from the pot into two delicate white china cups on saucers and pushed one toward Paul. “And there are examples of inept designs. One of the best examples is in a whale—I saw a few whale skeletons when I lived in Boston. Many species have small bones as remnants of their nonexistent rear legs, and their flippers have all the joints of a land animal’s hand but no reason for that flexibility—very different from a fish’s fin. If the whale had been designed, it would have been tailored to life in the ocean with no wasted bones.”Paul set his Bible on his knee and opened it to a bookmark. “When Job questions God, God replies, ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.’ Maybe it’s presumptuous of us to judge God.”
“Once again, that assumes God, the very thing we’re trying to establish. Maybe I’ll avoid judging God once I know that he exists. Let’s approach it this way: if you were God, would you design the earth with volcanoes and hurricanes, plagues and famines?”
“Maybe those are necessary features of the earth,” Paul said. “Maybe hurricanes distribute rain or heat; maybe volcanoes relieve pressure underground. We just don’t know.”
Jim reached for his tea cup. “You’re God, infinitely smarter than the smartest human, and that’s the best you can do? ‘Sorry about the volcano—I had to relieve some pressure.’ You can’t argue strong evidence for design at one moment, but plead ignorance at another when it suits you. Take your pick: does the earth look designed or not? It could indeed have been designed, but it’s not designed in a way that any human designer would have used. A loving and omniscient human designer wouldn’t have created earthquakes, plagues, legs for whales, and Guinea worm. Therefore, the design metaphor, which says the earth looks as it would if designed by a human with the ability, fails.”
“Well, maybe ‘designer’ isn’t the best metaphor,” Paul said. “Maybe God is best thought of as an artist, and we see his artistic license. This acknowledges that our human knowledge is insufficient to judge God.”
“Call him an artist then, not a designer.”
“Maybe God didn’t want a perfect design,” Paul said. “Genesis says that Creation was perfect, but it is now imperfect because of the Fall—the sin of the apple.”
“If we live in a fallen world, then don’t argue that it looks perfectly designed. You can’t argue for an imperfect fallen world and a perfectly designed world at the same time.”
Paul took stock of his position. His argument was eroding, but this didn’t feel like earlier conversations. It wasn’t really his argument, and he could view its strengths and weaknesses dispassionately. This objectivity was the new piece to the puzzle that he was trying out. “I’m trying to be open minded about this, but I still think that the earth and life on it look designed. Think of the complexity. Don’t you see that, too?”
“Many undesigned things have interesting properties. Snowflakes are complex, crystals have order, rainbows are beautiful. By contrast, many things that we know were designed don’t have these properties.”
“But a snowflake is hardly as complex as, say, a flea. When you get to a human, the complexity is overwhelming.”
“Complexity is weak evidence for design. A clumsy sock puppet or a childish clay sculpture are designed, and an intricate crystal or snowflake with trillions of precisely placed atoms is not. Which one is more complex? Mere complexity is deceiving. Atoms obey simple rules as they lock into place, one by one. From simple natural rules can come complexity.”
Jim drank from his teacup. “But the Design Argument forces you to come at this from the other direction since designers are always more complex than what they design. If a complex world must have been created by an even-more-complex God, then what created God?”
“Yes, I see that, but I think the argument makes an exception for God.”
“So ‘simple things must come from complex things … except for God’ is your argument.”
“Well, it’s not necessarily my argument.”
“Ah—good to see that distinction.”
And that distinction was quite plain to Paul, too. Samuel’s arguments had been a part of him like a suit of clothes, and critiquing them was like judging his appearance without a mirror. For the first time he could see this argument separate from himself, as if displayed on a mannequin. Looking at it objectively, he had lost faith that its strengths outweighed its weaknesses.
“You know of things that might look designed but aren’t,” Jim said. “The English language, for example. It’s very complex, but it wasn’t designed—it just happened. Or Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ that controls the marketplace.”
Jim set his cup on the table with a clack. “Even if I found the Design Argument compelling, this mysterious Designer is unidentified. Is it the God of Christianity? Or is it Allah or Osiris or Zeus or some other god? And it doesn’t explain anything. ‘God did it’ simply replaces a mystery with another mystery. Who is this God? Where did he come from, how did he do his designing, and what natural laws did he break? A true scientific explanation is quite different—it adds to our knowledge. No scientist, deciphering some puzzling aspect of nature, would ever say, ‘God did it, you say? Well then, nothing left for me to do here—I’ll just go home.’ ”
Paul had never been a tea drinker. Without sugar the tea was harsh, but it had a kind of intriguing charm. “I’m beginning to see your point, but science doesn’t answer everything,” he said.
“True. I don’t suppose it ever will. But adding God to the explanation doesn’t help, it just complicates. Believers tie themselves in knots trying to rationalize why God allows bad things to happen and why he doesn’t provide the relief himself. The convoluted rationalization vanishes when you simply realize that you have no need of the God hypothesis.”
“You use the word ‘rationalize’ as if it’s a bad thing.”
“Not all rationalization is bad. If you knew for a fact that God existed, then you would want to rationalize or justify any apparent contradiction with that fact—to reinterpret new clues to fit the known facts. But God’s existence is exactly what we’re trying to establish. Rationalization parries an attack, nothing more. It is very different from giving evidence to support a position.”
That made sense to Paul. “Giving evidence strengthens your position, and rationalizing avoids the weakening of your position,” Paul said. “They’re almost opposites.”
“Exactly. Rationalization starts with God’s existence: given Christianity, how can I square it with the facts? Reason starts with the facts and follows them where they lead.”
Related post: Argument from Design Busted!