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The Argument from Simplicity

The Argument from Simplicity July 1, 2021

The Bible in English has nearly a million words. Have you ever stopped to marvel at that? Why did God need so much space?

Not only is this a surprisingly large number of words, but it’s a clue that Christianity is false. Why would a perfect god need a million words? Couldn’t he have gotten his message across at least as clearly (or more clearly) with a tenth as many words? Or even a thousandth as many?

Just a page or two of instructions would be enough to teach you how to be a vegan. That’s a lifestyle with strict rules—why would it be any more difficult for a perfect god to convey its message with the same number of words?

For comparison, the U. S. Constitution was written by humans and has defined the U. S. government since 1787. It has just 4500 words. The U. N. Declaration of Human Rights has less than 1800 words. The Humanist Manifesto, 800.

The constitution of a god

Pare away the fluff and think about what a perfect god’s constitution might convey.

  • Explain the supernatural realm: the number of gods, name(s), and relationship to each other if more than one
  • The most important non-obvious morality: slavery is good/bad, abortion is okay/forbidden, vegetarianism is mandatory/optional, and so on
  • The afterlife: what happens, if anything, when people die? If there’s a supernatural realm that we should know about, how does it fit with and interact with our own?
  • The purpose for each person. What, if anything, should we be doing to satisfy the god(s)?
  • What, if anything, we should know about the future

This addresses world religions’ primary concerns—morality, purpose, how to please the god(s), and the afterlife—though this is obviously just a guess. A real god might have a different list, but a million words from a babel of books does not seem likely.

One additional point is why you should believe in these supernatural claims. This must be somewhere, and it might be conveyed through personal appearances or demonstrations. Could the evidence be included in this constitution? Before you say that it’s impossible to put something convincing in so short a document, don’t underestimate the capabilities of a god a trillion times smarter than any person.

Regardless of how it does it, this religion must have a mechanism for convincing everyone with evidence and argument that it is correct, unlike the myriad manmade religions.

Compare to the Bible

Categorize every verse in the Bible, and then sieve out everything that wouldn’t fit into the categories above. What would be lost?

  • The history of the Israelites. And then the Jews. And then the Christians. This does nothing to help understand god’s constitution.
  • Examples of God’s actions. Requirements would be in the constitution, not gleaned from God’s actions.
  • Just so stories. For example: did you ever wonder why we hate the Moabites and Ammonites? Because they’re the result of Lot having sex with his own daughters—yuck! Or: ever wonder why this place is named this? Here’s the story behind that name.
  • Ideas borrowed from other cultures. For example: the Sumerian cosmology of water above and below the earth, a world-destroying flood, and a dying-and-rising god. Include as well those passages that give bad science.
  • Contradictions. When not guided by a perfect hand, the more you write about your religion, the more contradictions you introduce.
  • An evolving message. Changes to the message from an unchanging god can be embarrassing. For example: we used to sacrifice animals but not anymore; we used to have a works-based view of God but now it’s faith based; Jesus didn’t exist before, but now he’s mandatory.

See also: Christians’ Damning Refuge in “Difficult Verses”

The Bible is just a rambling story that goes on and on. It was written by people and looks like it. There’s no hint of any supernatural guidance.

Take the book of Revelation as an example, a psychotic, Dalí-esque horror show. There are 24 elders around the throne of God, with the four living creatures. There’s a scroll with seven seals and different events with the breaking of each. There’s the seven trumpets and different disasters with the sounding of each. There’s the seven bowls with different disasters with the pouring of each. There are four horsemen and seven spiritual figures including a dragon and the Beast. Each punishment is lovingly detailed, as the novella drones on and on.

Or look at the practice of Christianity today. Why is there a Bible Answer Man—wouldn’t God convey his message so clearly that there would be no questions to answer? The web site GotQuestions.org crows that it has answered more than 600,000 Bible questions, but why are there 600,000 Bible questions?! Why are there 45,000 denominations of Christianity today, and why were there radically different versions of Christianity such as the Marcionites and Gnostics in the early days? Why did Paul have to help create Christianity—shouldn’t Jesus have done that? Jesus wrote nothing.

The more involved the story, the more you need to explain. Did Jesus have a human body or a spirit body? Why does God do immoral things in the Old Testament? Why isn’t God’s existence obvious? Why does God only care about his Chosen People but later decides to embrace the whole world? Why doesn’t the world look like it was created by an omniscient and loving god? And what the heck is the Trinity?

The church convened 21 ecumenical councils over the centuries to try to make sense of this. Swiss theologian Karl Barth tried to make sense of it all with his Church Dogmatics. He wrote six million words in 12 volumes, and he died before he could finish. Could a god be satisfied with something this convoluted?

The discipline of systematic theology tries to tie up all the loose ends, but why would the study of a perfect god need this?

Rebuttal

One Christian rebuttal is obvious: how do you know that this is what a god would do? How do you know that a perfect god would even want us to clearly understand his plan?

This is true and irrelevant. I’m given the claim that the Christian god exists, and I must evaluate it. I can’t peek at the answer in the back of the book, and I can’t give up and be told the answer. The buck stops with me. It seems to me that a god that chose to make itself known would do so simply and unambiguously. There would be a clear statement of his plan, like my hypothesized constitution above. Contrast that with the Bible—the entire story about all the stuff God did and how he got angry and then the Israelites did something stupid and then Jesus saved the day is unnecessary. Maybe it’s inspiring and maybe it’s great literature, but the entire Israelite blog is not needed to serve a perfect god’s goal.

Let’s step back and consider this another way. I look at the convoluted, redundant, and contradictory Bible and conclude that this is the hand of Man, not God. The Christian might demand to know how I can confidently reach this conclusion.

First, I’m simply following the evidence to its best explanation, not claiming proof. And second, I wonder how the Christian can be so certain that this mess looks like God’s handiwork. I don’t think it’s me who’s making the leap of faith.

A Stand to Reason podcast (9/27/17 @6:00) reviews a lecture by cold-case detective Jim Wallace where he said that the cold case binders with all the old evidence were often long, had parts that didn’t make sense, had parts that were boring, and were out of chronological order. And yet they were still useful. Why couldn’t the Bible be like this?

Wallace’s argument nicely makes my point. Cold-case files are human books. Humans are imperfect, so of course we’ll see evidence of people being sloppy, rushed, biased, or just plain wrong. That’s what you’d expect in a human book, and, sure enough, that’s what you find in the Bible. You’d expect quite the opposite from a book from God: short, to the point, perfectly clear and unambiguous, and focused with no tangents.

Another possible response: But the core of Christianity can be distilled into a tract! If you insist on a brief version, there it is.

But this merely ignores the problems. The Bible is still there, and it being a composite of manmade books, picked from an even larger set of candidates, means that the contradictions, tangential history, and unanswered questions remain.

I’m arguing for a different genre. A perfect god would give us a simple, unambiguous constitution. We have instead a book written by and focused on the people rather than the god, which is strong evidence that there is no actual god behind it.

See also: The Bible Story Reboots: Have You Noticed?

Living forever with God is the endgame,
so what’s the point of creating this elaborate,
blink-of-an-eye, soul-filtering machine called Planet Earth,
where beings have temporary bodies made of meat?
WTF?! Just create everyone in “Heaven” to begin with,
and none of the rest of this horror-show ever has to happen.
— commenter Kingasaurus

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Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add,

but when there is nothing left to take away.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince)

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/1/16.)

Image from olivier bareau (license CC BY-SA 2.0)
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